This story is set in the Metamor Keep universe, in which the continuing residual effects of military spellcasting have transformed a number of people, but not truly altered their spirits. Unfortunately, some spirits could use a little altering...

Go here for more information on the setting.

[tsat home] [#32] [stories]

The Starchild Prophecy, Part III
In the Absence of Martyrs
by Raven Blackmane

©2004 Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved

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."



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.


September 21

Consciousness returned to Raven slowly, in small snatches of awareness: A soft bed beneath her. A cool autumn breeze from a nearby window. The scent of fallen leaves, mixed with that of some kind of scented oil. Finally she gathered herself enough to open her eyes, and looked on the small bedroom where she found herself.

It was quite nice for a farmer's house, clean and adequately furnished. Various articles of wooden and wicker furniture took up most of the space in the room, and on the wall opposite the bed hung a tapestry, the threads woven into elaborate, swirling patterns of color in a simplified imitation of the Kelewair style. In the center of the work was a large triquetra, the pattern of three interlocking semicircular arcs that was the Followers' symbol for their triune Deity. Raven could make out several crosses hidden in various parts of the tapestry, as well, leaving no doubt as to what sort of house she was in.

Slowly, Raven sat up in bed, pulling back the sheets to get a better look at herself. Her armor and outer garments had been removed -- and, she now noticed, were sitting neatly folded in the far corner of the room. Her twin-cross, the symbol of her office as a Lightbringer priestess, was hanging exposed around her neck; apparently someone had pulled it out from beneath her undergarments to examine it. Other than that, she looked... surprisingly normal, for her. Considering the beating she had taken, she had expected to see herself covered with bandages and poultices, but there were no such signs of a healer's work. If she was surprised at this, she was even more surprised when she realized that she had no bruises or broken bones at all. She knew she had felt at least one of her ribs snap...

Straightening up quickly to get a closer look at herself and confirm this, she felt a deep, aching pain in her lower back. Well, not everything was healed, after all -- her left kidney, she realized, was still badly hurt. She would have to have Raenadan perform the Light Healing on her when she got back to Anthaly.

At that thought, it suddenly struck her how terribly fortunate she had been. By all rights, she should not have been worrying about returning to Anthaly, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter. If that girl had not recognized her howl as a cry for help, the farmers and herdsmen might have all rushed out to guard their pens from wolves, leaving her at the mercy of those mysterious assassins. Even if they had not killed her -- and she realized, based on their choice of weapons, that such was probably not their goal -- she would now be securely in their hands, rather than lying in a warm bed in the midst of a small, quiet village.

A soft knock sounded at the door.

"Come," she said.

The door opened and a man walked in. He was in his middle years, built like a farmer, with thick, meaty hands and strong features. His scent was that peculiar, not-unpleasant musk that country men developed, a product of going months or years without a proper bath. His grey eyes smiled at her as he entered.

"Good morrow," he said, his voice strong but gentle. Unlike Maxon and Kerala, he spoke with none of the rustic flavor typical of the Angle. "Feeling better?"

"Aye," Raven said, nodding. "Thank you, Master..?"

"Aaron," the man replied, extending a hand. Raven took it and clasped it a moment, then propped herself back against the headboard of the bed again.

"Thank you, Master Aaron. I am in your debt," she said, letting her face reflect her honest gratitude.

"Don't worry about it," Aaron said, coming to stand by her bedside. He looked at her a long moment, frowned, and closed his eyes. After a few seconds he opened them again. "You are still hurt somewhere," he said.

Raven gave him a curious look. "Aye, that's right," she said, wondering whether the man had some sort of intuitive aura sight.

"Could you show me where?" he asked, stepping closer to the bed. "We're no doctors, I'm afraid. I don't know much about the insides of a man's body -- and even less about a wolf's. No offense, milady."

"None taken," Raven assured him. " 'Tis back here, in the kidney." She pointed to the spot. "Methinks one of them struck it with his mace."

Aaron got down on one knee next to the bed, peering closely at the spot Raven had indicated. Thanks to whatever healing arts they had already used, there was no outward indication of the injury, but the farmer continued to study it intently. He stretched out a hand towards it, then hesitated, looking up at Raven.

"May I?" he asked.

Raven nodded. Satisfied, the man put his hand on her back, running his fingers over the close-lying fur. Then he gazed at it intently, and spoke -- softly, evenly, but with great authority.

"In Yashua's name, be well," he said.

Raven felt a strange warmth suddenly flow from the man's hand into her back. Then, as she watched with her own aura sight, the injured kidney knitted itself back together, seemingly of its own volition. In seconds, there was not a hint that it had ever been injured.

The priestess looked up at the villager, eyes wide. "How?" she asked.

Aaron shrugged, giving her a small smile. "By His Spirit," he said. "As for 'Why', which I suspect is your next question: Because He told me to."

Raven leaned back against the headboard again, nodding distractedly, her eyes staring through Aaron to the wall behind. Because Eli told him to, she thought. Very well. Accepting that as true, for the moment at least -- why would Eli want him to heal me like this, especially when it was something my people could have healed themselves? Even assuming He has some interest in my life -- perhaps because of my efforts to bring peace between our peoples -- 'tis not as if I was in immediate danger from it. So why? What does He have to gain from it..? These and other, similar thoughts swirled around her head in wondering circles, but at the moment there were no answers for any of them. Reluctantly, she focused her mind back on the present.

"...those men?"

She frowned, pricking her ears forward. "Pardon?"

Aaron grinned for a moment, but she wasn't sure whether it was at her inattentiveness or the motion of her ears. "Those men who attacked you. Do you know them?"

The wolf-woman sighed and shook her head. "Alas, no," she said. "Though I have seen their kind before, once. They killed over a dozen of our Order's acolytes last spring in an attack on one of our temples." She lowered her gaze, staring at her folded hands. "I regret to say that they did so while trying to kill me and my apprentice."

Aaron winced. "That's a hard thing," he said soberly. "I'm sorry to hear that." He was silent for a time, lost in thought. "Do you have any idea why they tried to kill you?"

"A few possibilities have crossed my mind," she admitted. "I've made a rather large number of enemies in the past year by trying to negotiate a formal peace with the Patriarch of the Ecclesia." She grimaced. "Sadly, he made a number of enemies, as well."

"So we heard," the farmer said, his voice grim. "It pains me to say it, but there are a lot of folks in the Ecclesia who believe much more in 'Vengeance is mine' than in 'Love your neighbor'." He cast his eyes downward. "That's a large part of why we left, actually."

Raven looked up at him quizzically. "You left the Ecclesia?" she asked. "But then, how..."

Aaron chuckled, shaking his head. "There's a difference between leaving the Ecclesia and leaving the Body," he said. "We don't follow Yesulam's decrees anymore, but we still worship the same Abba and the same Yashua as every other Follower. We just feel like Yesulam has... well, strayed off the point of late."

"The point being what?"

The farmer smiled. "Yashua," he said simply. "Everything comes down to us and our walk with Him, you know. Yesulam worries about many things, but like the Master said, only one thing is needed. We left so that we could spend more time on the one thing and less on the many things, if you take my meaning."

"I think so," Raven said, nodding. The man's creed was simple, even rudimentary, but she couldn't deny the power that was working through it. Mayhap that's the reason for the healing, she thought. To show me that he is a true Follower, breach with the Ecclesia notwithstanding.

Just about then Raven felt a sudden urge to yawn. As she did so Aaron rose to his feet again, clasping his hands. "You're still weary," he said. "Forgive my intrusion -- you should be resting. Feel free to sleep as long as you wish. If I'm not here when you get up, my wife Sarah will be glad to provide whatever you may need."

"Thank you," Raven said, laying back against her pillow. He was right: she was still very tired, though her curiosity had kept her from noticing it much until now. Her wounds may have been healed, but her body had been through a draining ordeal nonetheless. As she settled in among the blankets and closed her eyes, she heard Aaron quietly leave and shut the door behind him. A few moments later she fell back into slumber.


Raven had no idea how long she lay there, drifting on the edge of consciousness, before she at last awakened fully and felt able to rise from her bed. Sticking her head out the window, she found that the light outside was dim, but she was unable to tell whether the sun was rising or setting. Stretching and sighing, she picked out her clothes from the pile in the corner and began getting dressed.

There was a knock at the door just as she finished putting on her leggings. "Who is it?" she asked, her hand straying to the hilt of her sword.

" 'Tis I, Sarah," a voice replied. "Aaron's wife."

Raven relaxed, removing her hand from the weapon. "Come," she said.

The door opened and a middle-aged woman with long, braided auburn hair poked her head inside. Her expression was kind but concerned.

"I heard you stirring and wondered whether there was anything I could do for you," she said.

Raven looked at the other woman a moment, eyebrows slightly arched. She thought it odd that neither Aaron nor his wife had shown any reaction to her wolfish appearance. Shrugging the thought aside, she smiled as her stomach belatedly informed her of a rather pressing desire. "In truth, I am famished," she admitted. "If it is not too much of an imposition..."

Sarah returned the smile broadly. "Not an imposition at all. Aaron's just coming back from the fields, and we are about to sit down to dinner. Feel free to join us as soon as you're ready."

"Thank you. I shall be there anon."

Sarah nodded once and slipped out of sight again, shutting the door behind her. Raven quickly finished dressing and followed after.

The house was small by Metamor standards, so it was only a moment's work to find the dining room -- a room that also functioned as living room, entry hall and kitchen. A round table near the center of the room was circled by five chairs, three of which were occupied as Raven entered.

"Good evening," Aaron said, nodding to Raven as she approached. "Feeling better?"

"Much, thank you," Raven replied, clasping her hands in front of her. She turned a curious gaze on the two children sitting at the table along with Aaron, noting that their own eyes were wide with curiosity as well.

"These are our children, Rachel and Benjamin," Aaron said, his expression full of a father's pride. "Rachel, Benjamin, this is the Lady Raven."

"Hello, milady," the children said. Rachel had a serious but pleasant expression on her face, while Benjamin grinned broadly.

Raven chuckled. "Hello, Rachel, Benjamin," she said, rolling the strange names around in her head as she spoke them. She cast a sidelong glance at Aaron. "I'm not truly nobility, you know," she told him quietly.

"I know," he said, gesturing for her to sit down. "But it is a term of respect, and we believe you are deserving of it."

"I thank you for your kind words, as well as your hospitality," Raven said, taking a seat next to Rachel.

Sarah, who had been working in the far corner of the kitchen, came over to the table with a basket of broad, flat loaves of bread that had been sliced lengthwise for use as trenchers. "Here we are," she said, taking her seat. "If you would, Aaron?"

The four Followers closed their eyes and folded their hands in prayer. Raven bowed her head and clasped her hands in her lap as Aaron spoke a simple blessing over the food. Then Sarah distributed the trenchers and the meal began in earnest.

It was hearty, simple fare: roast mutton -- a real luxury in the Angle, usually reserved only for special occasions -- accompanied by boiled potatoes and a few assorted vegetables from the family garden. The bread that doubled as each person's plate was coarse and heavy, and deeply satisfying to Raven's rather insistent stomach. It felt strange to be eating the trencher at a meal -- in formal dinners among the nobility, that bread would be saved for distribution to the desperately poor -- but Raven realized that table manners in a country village were somewhat different from those in a ducal palace. Besides, it awakened a bit of the impish child within her, who felt almost as if she were getting away with something.

While they ate, the family questioned Raven about a wide variety of topics: the Keep, Nasoj, the Curse, relations between Lothanasi and Patildor at Metamor, and the Patriarch's tragic visit to the Keep the previous year.

"Are you really a Patriarch for the Lightbringers?" Rachel asked. Her eyes were unusually solemn for a girl her age, seeming to peer deep inside the priestess. They reminded Raven of Tessa's eyes.

"Aye, after a fashion," Raven replied, nodding. "Sadly, though, I only have authority over the Lightbringers living north of Giftum." She sighed. "If it were otherwise, I might have been able to put a stop to the endless fighting between our peoples."

"Honestly, milady, I doubt that you could do any more to stop the excesses of your people than Akabaieth could to stop his own," Aaron said. "Unfortunately, hatred is a difficult thing to stamp out."

"Too true," Raven admitted, gazing into her cup of water as she swirled it around thoughtfully. "It tore my heart in pieces when I heard that the Patriarch had died," she added, her voice little more than a whisper. "After our meeting, I had thought we might finally have a chance for peace. If anyone could have taught us all to lay down our arms, it would have been he."

There was a thoughtful silence. "He was a good man," Aaron said at last, his eyes distant and sorrowful. "A man after Eli's heart. Though none of us here in Bethany are members of the Ecclesia, we all wept when we heard what had happened. Not for his sake, mind you, but for the world he left behind."

Raven nodded soberly. "I wonder what he might have done if he were faced with a maverick priest such as this one. I take it you have all heard the news."

"Aye," Sarah said grimly. "We know all about Malkus and his so-called 'crusade'. A messenger came from Brockhill with the news when he arrived there several days ago. The whole town has been praying about it ever since."

"But he has had no direct contact with anyone here?"

"No," Aaron said, shaking his head. "We no longer have any ties to the Ecclesia, as I said before. A man like Malkus would be more likely to condemn us as heretics than to seek our help in a witch hunt."

Raven frowned. Apparently Raenadan had been misinformed about Bethany's Followers -- not that that surprised her. "Do you have any idea where he is now?" she asked. "I need to find him before he can put any more of my people to death."

"I'm afraid not," Aaron said apologetically. "We --"

"Wait," Sarah broke in suddenly, putting her hand on Aaron's shoulder.

Raven looked at her curiously. The woman's eyes had gone distant, focused on some spot beyond the far wall. Then she blinked, stirred, and looked at her husband, a surprised look in her eyes.

"Markford," she said softly. "He's gone to Markford."

Raven's ears pricked forward. "How do you know?"

Sarah turned to look at the priestess, as if suddenly noticing her presence. "The Spirit spoke to me, just now as you were talking," she said.

"The Spirit of Eli? Are you certain?"

"Aye," Sarah said, nodding. "His voice was clear, very clear."

"And you'll have to hurry," Rachel added.

Raven looked wonderingly at the girl, who sat gazing at her with those profoundly serious eyes. She couldn't have been more than eight years old, and yet...

Suddenly something clicked in Raven's memory. "You're the one who called the people to help me last night," she said.

Rachel nodded.

"How did you know?"

"The same way she knows that time is short," Aaron said gravely. "Eli can speak to the young as well as the old, milady."

"Apparently so," Raven said, impressed... and yet shaken in a way that defied easy explanation. Pushing her chair away from the table, she rose to her feet. "Well, then. If what you say is true, I had best be on my way. Thank you again for everything. I am deeply in your debt. If ever you need anything that it is in my power to provide, simply send word and I shall do it."

"It was our joy," Aaron replied, as he and the others stood likewise. "And while we are grateful for your offer, don't let yourself be troubled if you never have the opportunity to repay that debt. It was a blessing to have you here, milady, no matter how short the time."

Raven smiled. "You're too kind. Farewell, then, to all of you. If I have occasion to when my mission is completed, I should like to come back and speak with you further about this faith of yours. I've not seen the like of it elsewhere."

"It would be our pleasure," Sarah said, smiling in return.

After gathering her remaining possessions from the bedroom, Raven said good-bye once more and made her way out of the house and down the street. As she had suspected, it was the same house where she had heard a girl -- Rachel -- praying for her grandmother the night before.

She hadn't gone far when she heard the door of the house open and shut again behind her.

"Milady!" a voice called.

Raven turned to see Aaron and Sarah's son, Benjamin, come running up to her.

"Aye, Benjamin?"

The boy looked slightly puzzled, but his eyes were as serious as his sister's had been a few minutes before. "I think Abba wants me to tell you something," he said.

Raven shook her head slightly in amazement. She'd fallen in with an entire family of prophets! Smiling, she lowered herself to one knee before the child. "Very well. What is it?"

The boy's lip twitched, his face showing a twinge of sadness. "He says that a lot of bad things are going to happen, but you shouldn't blame yourself," he said. "It has to be this way. In the absence of martyrs there's a presence of thieves."

Raven cocked her head and frowned at the boy. Beyond the language itself, which was rather complex for such a young child, the message sounded like a riddle -- and an ominous one at that. "I've not heard that saying before, Benjamin," she said. "What does it mean?"

"I'm not totally sure," Benjamin admitted. "I think I know, but I'm not supposed to say. Abba said you'd find out for yourself what it means."

The Lightbringer stared at the Follower child for a long moment, then nodded. "Very well," she said gravely, rising again to her feet. "Thank you, Benjamin. I shall keep that in mind."

Benjamin nodded. "Be careful, milady." With that he turned and ran back to his house. Raven watched him go, then turned and began the walk back to Anthaly.


Raven saw no one on her walk back to Anthaly -- the sun was just setting, and the farmers of both towns had gone indoors for the night. The priestess chose a discreet path through town to The Flute and Dagger, avoiding open windows and doors. Most of the town was still unaware of her presence, and she intended to keep it that way. Kerala opened the back door for her, and when she saw Raven standing there her eyes went wide.

"Raven!" she exclaimed. "What in earth or heaven happened to you, child? We've been worried sick!"

"Shh," Raven hissed, putting a finger to her lips. "Not so loudly. Let me in and I shall explain."

Kerala did so, stepping aside to let Raven enter. Apart from the two women the kitchen was deserted.

"Where's Raenadan?" Raven asked.

"Up in his room, and not alone," Kerala answered, her features creased with worry and suspicion. "A bunch of soldiers rode into town today, dressed in white and armed to the teeth. They've been up there ever since. Ill business, I'll warrant, or you can take me for a nymph."

Raven's eyes narrowed. "Get Uncle Max and meet me at my room in twenty minutes, and I shall explain everything," she said, touching her hand briefly to the other woman's shoulder before turning to head up the stairs.

The door to the priest's room was shut and locked. Raven pounded twice on the heavy timbers.

"What is it?" Raenadan's voice called, sounding miffed. "I thought I had made it clear we were not to be disturbed."

"Raenadan, you will open this door immediately or I shall take it down myself!" Raven growled, magically amplifying her voice until it resonated loudly in the room beyond.

There was a sound of scrambling feet. The door flew open in seconds, and the bookish priest stared wide-eyed at Raven.

"Lothanasa!" he exclaimed. "P-praise the gods, we thought you were dead! I --"

"Get out of my way," Raven snapped, pushing roughly past the spindly little man into the room beyond. Seven tall, muscular warriors wearing white tunics emblazoned with the twin cross were sitting on the floor around a map of the Angle. The men quickly rose to their feet and stood at attention when they saw Raven enter the room.

The priestess cast an icy gaze over the men, coming up to each one in turn to take in his appearance and scent for later reference. At last she turned back to Raenadan, arms crossed.

"Inquisitors," she spat distastefully. "What in all the hells were you thinking?"

Raenadan cleared his throat and stood up a bit straighter. "A rescue, perhaps?" he offered. "Lothanasa, when you failed to return from your... excursion into Bethany last night, I assumed that the Phergeld must have captured you."

"A moment ago you said you thought I was dead," Raven reminded him. "And you will not use that epithet in my presence."

Raven turned to the Inquisitor captain, easily distinguished by the golden insignia on his tunic. "When did Raenadan summon you, Captain? Answer truly."

The man glanced over at Raenadan, his expression unreadable.

"I am over here, Captain," Raven said pointedly.

With seeming reluctance, the man's eyes shifted to Raven. Despite the fact that he was bigger and stronger than she, Raven could smell his fear. "We were summoned from Kelewair on the nineteenth, Mistress."

The wolf-woman nodded once, curtly. "There are nine men in an Inquisitor circle, Captain. Where are your other two comrades?"

"Bed-ridden with consumption, Mistress."

"I see." Raven turned and strode back over to Raenadan. "My room. Now."

Once they were behind closed doors, Raven turned on the priest.

"I dislike being lied to, Raenadan," she growled. "When I arrived here, you told me that Bethany was allied to the Ecclesia and so threatening that your scouts would not set foot in the town. In fact, they are a village full of Rebuilder pacifists with greater wisdom, perception and common compassion than I have seen in a thousand Lightbringers. You told me that you believed me dead, and yet when I questioned the presence of your bedamned Kelewair attack dogs you claimed that you had intended to rescue me. Now I find that these same Inquisitors have been on the road by your summons for three days." She jabbed one clawed finger into the man's chest, watching him wince in pain. "You shall be honest and open with me from this point forward. It is not your province to judge whether or not I shall like the news. Deceive me again and I will make you beg for the Sixth Hell. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly, Lothanasa," Raenadan said quietly, his eyes lowered.

Raven held him there a moment longer, then turned and stalked over to the window, gazing out at the darkness with arms crossed. "Why did you summon the Inquisitors?" she asked.

"A simple precaution, under orders given me by Lothanas Herelath. He said they might be necessary to... detain Malkus, should less stringent methods fail."

"Why did Herelath not leave that to my discretion?"

"He said that you would not request them under any circumstances, even though they might be needed."

"Quite right. Did he give you any other secret orders I should be aware of?"

"Nay, Lothanasa."

Raven frowned. The man's aura was so wracked with nervousness that it impossible to tell if he was lying. She could use a Truthsayer spell, or project herself into his mind and compel him to speak, but Lightbringers knew how to resist such techniques. Besides, such an act would likely be a political disaster for any later dealings with Herelath and his chapter.

"For the duration of this mission you shall take orders from no one but me," Raven told him. "If Herelath dislikes it, I shall address his grievance personally when this matter is behind us."

"As you say, Lothanasa."

"Very well." She turned around to face him again. "I was attacked last night, but not by the people of Bethany. Who it was, I know not, but this is not the first time they have tried to capture me. It was the men of Bethany who came to my aid and healed my injuries from the attack."

Raenadan looked puzzled. "Healed you? How? They are only Patildor."

"I'm not sure. It matters not, in any event. While they had no ties to Malkus or his crusade, they were able to direct me to his next target. The priest is in Markford, and by all accounts I must make my way there quickly if I hope to prevent any further bloodshed."

The priest nodded. "Very well. I shall order the captain to make ready --"

"You shall do nothing of the sort," Raven cut him off harshly. "I will go to Markford, with men of Anthaly whom I know I can trust, and we shall entreat the mayor to aid our cause. Malkus will be brought back to Anthaly -- peacefully, if possible -- and thence handed over to his own people for judgment. I shall contact Father Hough at Metamor tonight and ask him where the priest should be delivered."

Raenadan looked unhappy but nodded, once. "Very well. What shall I do, Lothanasa?"

"Wait here and keep a firm leash on your Inquisitors. I will set out for Markford tomorrow at first light. If we have not returned in two days' time, then send your warriors to look for us. If we are dead or missing, contact Herelath and ask him what to do."

The man nodded again. "It shall be as you say, Lothanasa."

"See that it is," she said firmly. "Dismissed."


Maxon and Kerala arrived at Raven's door only a few minutes after Raenadan had left. The Lightbringer ushered them inside without preamble and quickly explained all that had happened to her in the last day, as well as her plans to deal with Malkus.

Raven's uncle sighed and shook his head sadly. "Well, Raven, that's dark business you've brought to Anthaly, an' no mistake," he said. "Not that I blame you, you understand. But it's a long way from here to the Giantdowns, and folk like us aren't used to fightin'."

"Unfortunately, Uncle Max, I fear that we shall all be forced to do things we are unused to before this business is finished," Raven said, her lip twisting ruefully. "Whom can I trust to take with me, that would be skilled enough if it came to a fight?"

Maxon and Kerala exchanged a look. "Your Uncle Taden, for starters," Kerala said. "He's still the sheriff's deputy in these parts, and he can hold his own in a fight. Your cousins Joss and Evin are with the militia, and they're two dependable lads."

"I'll call in Bensin from Bethany," Maxon offered. "He's the captain of the militia for both towns, and not so much of a pacifist as a lot of those folks. A good man, and he owes me a favor. Besides, it will look better if you've got a Follower with you when you take this rabble-rouser in."

"Agreed," Raven said, nodding. "If my experience with Aaron and his family is any indication, I doubt I have to worry about his reaction to my appearance."

"Naw, I don't think he'd say anything," Maxon agreed, waving a hand dismissively. "All of 'em are liable to think it odd, though. We'd do best to get to your relatives tonight, break it to 'em early. I'll send for 'em right away, if ye like."

"Please do. I'd like to meet with them as soon as possible to explain the situation." Raven paused, sighing. "I doubt we can afford more than five of us. Any more and the people of Anthaly are likely to notice." She rose to her feet, and the others did the same. "Thank you for your help," she said. "While you're contacting Uncle Taden and my cousins, I have another matter to address."

"We'll leave ye to yer work, then," Maxon said. "Be back soon."


"Father Hough..."

Francis Hough, Ecclesia Priest of Metamor, sat up straight in his bed, looking around in confusion at what had suddenly become a foreign environment. He still felt what seemed to be his mattress beneath him, but the walls, the floor, the furnishings -- even the bed itself -- had been replaced by a featureless field of black. Only his own childlike body and the nightclothes he wore were apparently unaffected.

With the growing fright of a child, Hough began praying under his breath. "Hear me, Abba, in the hour of my need..."

"Relax, Father. You are safe here."

Hough turned in the direction of the voice, which now seemed to be right at his elbow. There, dressed in the gear of a common scout, was a weary-looking female wolf with a very familiar pair of ice-blue eyes.

"Lightbringer?" Hough asked, puzzled. "Where am I? What is this place?"

" 'Tis a difficult thing to explain," Raven said with a small, dismissive gesture. "You could, perhaps, call this a dream, but rest assured that I am truly here and this is no figment of your boyish imagination. I shall not disturb your sleep for long, but I have an important question for you."

"Very well," the priest replied, folding his hands in his lap. He still did not at all like the looks of this place -- or the lack thereof -- but if Raven said it was important then he would put his other concerns aside for the moment. "What is it?"

"I am preparing to arrange for the arrest of a renegade priest of the Ecclesia," she explained, tail twitching as she paced slowly back and forth across his field of vision. "This man stands accused of the murders of dozens of Lightbringers. However, given the present tension between the two faiths, I dare not try him under Lightbringer law. I wish to remit him into the custody of the Ecclesia, somewhere where he may be judged fairly and punished justly for his crimes. Is there any chapter of the Ecclesia where you can assure me that he will face justice, where his crimes will not be ignored because of politics?"

Hough thought a moment, taking in what the priestess had said. "The diocese at Ellcaran," he said at last, looking up at her. "I served there myself for years, as you well know. Father Lothar will ensure that justice is done. You will need at least two witnesses to the crimes who will testify, of course."

"Of course." Raven nodded once. "Thank you, Father. I shall let you return to your rest now."

"Thank you," Hough said, lying back down to rest his head against the pillow he could feel but could not see. "Good night."

There was a sound like a soft rustling of wind, and Hough abruptly found himself back in his bedroom. Giving one last, nervous glance at the walls, as though afraid they would disappear again when he turned his back, the priest rolled over and went back to sleep.


September 22

It was nearing ten o'clock when Raven and her entourage came to the edge of the ridge that looked down on the town of Markford. Seated on the banks of the broad Southbourne River, the modest-sized town was the gateway between the villages of the Angle and the Kelewair-dominated fiefdoms to the east. From her vantage point here at the edge of the highlands Raven could see the old dirt road snaking down the hillside and through the town, ending at the wood-and-stone bridge that carried traffic across the river. Though still too far away to make out any details, she could already tell that the square in the center of town was full of people.

"How d'ya reckon we should handle this, Raven?" her Uncle Taden murmured, pulling his horse up alongside her own. The grey-haired man's bushy eyebrows were drawn low and close together in a thoughtful frown.

"Our first priority is to reach the mayor's office without being noticed," she said, after a moment's thought. "We have no authority to take Malkus on our own, but if we can convince the mayor to side with us..."

"Then maybe nobody else has to get killed," Taden finished grimly. "Come on, then. I've been to see the mayor once or twice, an' I can prob'ly get us there without too many folk seein' us."

"Lead on, then," Raven said, pulling up her riding cloak over her head. It wouldn't shield her face entirely from view, but it might keep a casual observer from noticing anything unusual about her. Between the cloak, which also concealed her tail, and her riding gloves, which disguised her clawed hands from view, she could pass for a normal human traveler, at least at first glance.

Taden gestured to the other men in the group and then headed down the hillside, Raven following close behind. They reached the edges of town in only a few minutes, and the deputy carefully chose a path through several alleys and little-used side streets, stopping to look and listen at each intersection before moving on. Raven saw no curious faces peek from the windows, no bystanders in the streets. Anyone who wasn't working was probably at the town square, she thought.

A few minutes later -- after Raven had come to the conclusion that Markford was a bit bigger than it had looked from a distance -- they came to a stop in front of a large wooden building with a thatched roof. The door had a sign overhead saying TOWN HALL, but was otherwise unadorned -- a subtle reminder that Markford was a far cry from Kelewair or Metamor.

Taden led the group up to the door, Raven hanging back so that she would not be immediately seen for what she was. The deputy knocked twice and waited. A few seconds later the door opened to reveal a young peasant woman with a sober, businesslike look on her face.

"Your name, sir?" she asked.

"Taden hin'Beldorn, sheriff's deputy for the village of Anthaly," Taden replied, showing her his badge of office.


"We're here t'see Mayor Hamon, Miss. There's a representative from the Lightbringers who'd like to have a few words with 'im." He hooked his thumb at Raven, who stood with her head turned away from the girl so that the hood blocked her view. Deliberately, she fingered the large twin cross around her neck that served as her badge of office.

The servant girl gave the hooded priestess a speculative look, then turned back to Taden. "Just a moment, sir," she said, disappearing behind the door again.

After half a minute or so she returned, opening the door wide. "The mayor will see you," she said. "Please be sure that all your weapons are peace-bonded before you enter."

Obligingly, Raven and the others tied shut the straps on their scabbards, then made their way into the house single-file. Raven heard the girl breathe in sharply when she passed, and suspected the servant had gotten a glimpse of what was hidden under that hood. To her credit the girl did not let out a panicked scream, but merely ran over and murmured something to two of the guards on the far side of the room. The soldiers fell silently into step behind Raven and her bodyguards as they made their way into the mayor's office.

The man inside was dressed after the fashion of the Kelewair merchant class, better than the average commoner but not as richly as one of the nobility. His coarse black hair was cut short, with a close-trimmed goatee to accompany it. The mayor sat behind a wide oaken desk, gazing thoughtfully at the five figures entering his office. Raven stayed back behind Taden, out of the mayor's direct line of sight.

"Good morrow, deputy," the mayor said, his tone genial.

"Good morrow, Mayor Hamon, sir," Taden replied respectfully.

"Dina tells me that you have a Lightbringer here to see me?" Hamon prompted. He leaned a little to one side in his seat, trying to peer around Taden to see the figure standing behind him. "Who is it, if I might ask?"

"Someone you have probably heard of, I imagine," Raven said, at last stepping into view and pulling back her hood. "Raven hin'Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor." She smiled thinly. "A pleasure, Mayor Hamon."

The mayor looked as though his eyes were about to push free of their sockets. Pressing back into his chair, clutching its armrests in both hands, it was several seconds before he managed to speak.

"How... how do I know you're not a werewolf?" he asked, his voice unnaturally high with barely restrained terror.

Raven let out a deep sigh. "Good gods," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "If I may be permitted to withdraw my sword from its sheath, so as to verify my identity?"

The mayor looked at her a moment longer, then gestured to one of the guards still standing in the doorway. The tall, armored man came up right behind her, and Raven felt the tip of his pike brush lightly against the small of her back.

"Take it out slowly," he ordered.

Carefully, deliberately, Raven reached down and untied the peace-bond on her scabbard. Then, slowly, she drew Elemacil from the sheath, holding it in both her hands with the tip pointed down. Awkwardly, she lay the kryss-bladed sword atop the mayor's desk.

"Elemacil, the Holy Sword of Metamor," she said, gesturing down at the weapon. "There is no blade like it in all the West." Placing one hand lightly atop the handle and the other atop the end of the blade, Raven spoke a quiet command: "Kala."

Immediately the sword lit up with a bright yellow glow, the Elvish script along its length shining with brilliant red fire. Raven let it remain thus for a few seconds, then banished the light with a gesture.

Removing her hands, she allowed Hamon to lean forward and examine the blade more closely. He reached out a tentative hand toward the blade, brushed his fingers against the hilt --

Then jerked back reflexively at the mild shock the sword channeled into him. Once again the script on the blade glowed an angry red, as if in warning.

"Ashes!" he cursed, shaking his singed hand.

"Elemacil dislikes being handled by strangers," Raven said. "In the present age, it may only be wielded by the Lightbringers of Metamor."

"You might have warned me," the mayor said, glowering up at her.

Raven gave him another thin smile. "I thought it better to let you see for yourself, that your own hand might aid in persuading you," she said dryly. "I take it that you are convinced?"

Massaging his hand, the mayor nodded irritably. "Quite. Now, Lothanasa, if you would be so kind as to remove that thing from my desk..."

Still smiling, Raven returned Elemacil to its sheath. The guard behind her backed away to resume his place at the door.

Seeming to have regained his composure, Hamon leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands before him. "My apologies for the cold reception, Mistress Lightbringer," he said. "Surely you understand our need for caution. After all, it isn't often that one of your stature travels to Markford, particularly outside your own area of jurisdiction."

"Quite true, Mayor," Raven said, all amusement gone from her face and voice. "And I would not be here now, were it not for my personal stake in what is transpiring here in the Angle. You may not be aware of it, but my mother was born in Anthaly -- and thus, the Lightbringers of this region hold a special place in my heart."

"Understandable, Mistress," Hamon said, nodding once. His eyes indicated that he already didn't like where the conversation was heading.

"I hoped as much," the wolf-woman replied smoothly. "And in light of your understanding, I ask you to support me in stopping this mad priest, Malkus."

Wincing, Mayor Hamon lowered his head and sighed. "I wish I could, Mistress," he said, sounding frustrated. "I hate the fact that he and his lackeys have come to my city. But that murdering whoreson has half the townsfolk on his side. My men would be slaughtered by the mob. Unless you've brought an army with you..." He shook his head wearily.

Raven placed her hands on the desk and leaned forward. "The crowds that follow men such as he are no indication of his true support," she said quietly. "By and large, people are sheep, and they will follow any strong shepherd who shows himself to them. They go along with him and his message because they are afraid -- partly afraid of him, but mostly afraid of each other." She quirked her lip in a rueful expression. "Every man in that crowd fears that the others will turn on him if he speaks out against what is happening. That is the power of a demagogue: to craft a position of his own devising and persuade those around him that it is the majority view. Most people are so afraid to think for themselves that they never question it -- unless another shepherd presents a more persuasive message."

The mayor looked up at that, eyes questioning. Raven nodded once. "I know a number of Followers, Mayor, including an Ecclesia priest. This brand of hatred is no more widely accepted among their people than it is among ours; in truth, it goes against the entire spirit of their faith. If you take a firm stand for justice, most of Malkus' crowd will desert him. I am certain of it."

Hamon's eyes went distant, deep in thought.

"Will you help me stop Malkus from killing my people?" Raven asked quietly.

There was a long pause. Then, at last, Hamon turned his gaze back upon the priestess.

"I'll summon the guard," he said.


The town square of Markford was packed with people, standing with rapt attention around a broad wooden platform. Atop that platform were five knights wearing surcoats emblazoned with red crosses, their polished mail gleaming in the midday sun. They stood rigidly at attention, one at each corner of the platform and the fifth at the back, their expressions grim and determined. In the middle of the stage, strutting back and forth like a cock searching for a challenger, was the priest Malkus.

He was dressed in the traditional white robes of his office, with a large red cross embroidered over the left breast and a large gold crucifix hanging from his neck. He wielded an ornamented scepter like a club, gesturing fiercely at the crowd as he spoke out in a loud, clear voice.

"Brethren, listen to me!" he shouted. "The very soul of this city is in mortal jeopardy. All around you, like wolves among the flock, there are enemies of Eli lying in wait to destroy you! They claim to be servants of light, but do not be deceived, for they have made a compact with demons! They seek to trip you with friendly lies, draw you into their nets with seeming miracles, so that they can drag your souls down to the blackest depths of hell. Do not believe them! Even the Adversary himself dresses as an angel of light! Be aware, for you are in grave danger!"

There were some murmurs of assent from the crowd. A few rabble-rousers scattered here and there shouted loud words of agreement.

"I have traveled across this land for weeks, brethren," Malkus continued. "In every town I have visited, these foul vipers have shown themselves! We must act swiftly to crush the serpent's head, or he will surely destroy all we hold dear. We must remove the witches, the warlocks and the demon-worshippers from among us! It is the only way we can save our towns, our children, e'en our very souls!"

Another ripple of agreement ran through the crowd. Turning, Malkus gestured to the knight standing behind him. The man swiftly disappeared into a nearby house.

"I do not mean to drive you to unnecessary panic, my brethren," Malkus said, "but even here in Markford my paladins and I have already found one of the vile servants of the Adversary among you. Behold the wolf in your own fold!"

The knight came back out of the house, dragging an old woman along with him. She was a peasant, and poorer than most -- dressed in little more than rags and dirty, tattered garments. Her hands were bound, and a gag was tied firmly in her mouth. Two young men walked behind her, dressed in peasants' clothes that were little better than her own.

"You, my brothers!" Malkus said, beckoning to the men. "Come forward, and tell your brethren what this foul agent of darkness has done to you!"

The two men stepped forward to the edge of the platform, their eyes dark with anger. "We had a sister who fell ill under a pox," the taller of them declared. "This crone claimed to be a healer, saying she would cure our sister! But no sooner had the witch begun to 'treat' her, than our sister suddenly worsened and died! Not two days had passed under that woman's hands before our sister was carried off to an early grave!"

There were angry and indignant shouts from the crowd. Malkus stormed over to the woman and tore off her gag.

"What do you have to say for yourself, woman?! How will you answer your accusers?"

The woman coughed and sputtered as the gag was removed. "It -- it was nae my fault!" she gasped, tears running down her face. "Poor lass reacted bad to one o' the herbs in her medicine! I -- I could nae a'known..."

"Liar!" Malkus thundered. "Perhaps you would care to explain why this was found in your home!" He held aloft an iron pendant shaped like a pentagram, eliciting a gasp of horror from the crowd.

"No!" she sobbed. "That ain't mine! I've nae seen it before in me life! By all the gods, I swear it!"

" 'By all the gods', eh, witch?!" Malkus shouted, gripping her chin harshly in one hand. "You have shown your true face, servant of demons! There is no god but Eli! No true healer would swear an oath on the false gods of the earth!"

There was a roar of agreement from some parts of the crowd. Many were now crying, "Burn her! Burn the witch!"

Malkus strode back to the front and center, raising his hands before the audience. "You have seen the truth for yourselves!" he declared. "The Adversary's agents walk among you! There is only one solution, my brethren. The evil must be purged, in cleansing fire!"


A quiet murmur ran through the crowd as people turned and saw where the shout had come from. At the edge of the square, opposite the priest's platform, a troop of two score mounted guards had appeared, accompanied by Mayor Hamon on a white stallion.

"Make way!" the captain of the guard shouted. "Make way for the king's man!"

The peasants and townsfolk stepped aside as the horses pushed their way through the crowd, eyes wide as they beheld the riders advancing with their pikes held high. The guards made a corridor through the sea of people, and the mayor rode down the center of it, stopping directly in front of the priest.

"Father Malkus, your stay in Markford is over," Hamon said sternly, speaking loudly enough so that all the crowd could hear. "Time for you to take your hatred somewhere else. We don't want it here."

For a long moment the priest remained motionless. Then, his face contorted into a mask of unvarnished rage.

"Heathen!" he spat. "You would condemn this entire town to the depths of hell! You --"

"Enough!" Hamon shouted. To everyone's surprise, including his own, the priest fell silent.

"Listen to me, people of Markford!" the mayor cried, turning to look at his subjects. "This man has come to you with a mountain of angry words and a molehill of evidence. These accusations against your fellow townspeople are as thin and without substance as the fog that rolls in off the Southbourne each morning! These are your neighbors he is trying to throw you into arms against -- men and women with whom you have grown up and worked and made merry, whose children play in the fields with your own. Would you throw away that friendship, that brotherhood, on the word of a stranger?

"We have no idea where this man comes from!" Hamon shouted, gesturing at the priest. "He rides into town one day with his soldiers and claims to be on a holy crusade! If his cause is just, where are his papers that would prove that Yesulam supports it? Why does he have only a handful of knights to fight an evil he claims is so widespread? Think on it, my friends!"

The villagers were murmuring amongst themselves, confused and indecisive. They hadn't been expecting this. Yet as Hamon spoke, the assent to his words gradually began to grow.

"The law is clear," the mayor said. "If anyone has been wronged, let him take his case to a proper court. Anyone proven a criminal in a fair trial shall be duly punished. But let us put aside talk of burning at the stake! There is no room in Markford for that sort of vigilante justice!"

"'E's right!" someone shouted. "Th' priest 'ere played us for fools!" There was a loud, and angry, clamor of agreement.

Malkus was beginning to panic. "Do not listen to these fork-tongued serpents, my brothers!" he cried, his voice desperate. "Rise up now! Be strong! To my side, those who would stand for righteousness!"

The priest's paladins closed ranks around him, but the townsfolk shrank back from the platform. There were some who looked as though they might rush to join him, but when they saw the mood of their neighbors they thought better of it. The few who did try to break for the platform were grabbed by those around them and dragged to the ground.

"Get outta here, ya stupid git!" someone shouted, as a small rock flew out of the crowd in the direction of the priest. "Take yer burnings elsewhere!"

With a loud cry, many of the other people in the crowd followed that example, picking up stones from the square and pelting the stage.

"Captain!" Mayor Hamon called. "Please escort Father Malkus and his men to the town limits."

Malkus didn't give the captain a chance. "Fly!" he cried, turning and running into the alley behind the platform. His five knights ran ahead and alongside of him, forming a wedge formation intended to keep anyone from assaulting the priest.

In the alley they swiftly mounted their horses, which had been tied outside the house where they had kept the old woman before her 'trial'. As the captain and his men tried to maneuver their horses through the crowd of people, Malkus and his knights quickly took off running for the edge of town.

As they raced through the empty streets, Malkus looked back. The guards were only just coming into view. He and his men would easily outrun them and make their escape. The mayor had spoken of escorting him to the border, but he knew the end result would have been far more serious had he let himself be taken. With his actions in the preceding towns of the region, he would soon have found himself on his way to Ellcaran or Kelewair for trial and execution.

As it was, with this admittedly undignified dash out of town, he faced a minor setback at worst. People were always looking for someone to blame their problems on, a scapegoat whose presence would excuse them from taking responsibility for their own failures. There would be plenty of other opportunities to rid the land of pagans.

Malkus and his men turned down one last side street, the one that would take them west to freedom. As they raced around the corner, he looked up --

And cried out as a blinding flash of light filled his vision.

The men covered their eyes, crying in pain. Their horses bucked and neighed in panic, throwing their riders to the ground as blindness struck them. The men were tossed to the paving stones like rag dolls, but they could do nothing but clutch at their eyes and moan.

"Now!" Raven ordered.

Swiftly the four men of her entourage raced forward, slapping irons around the hands of the helpless men. Raven herself strode up and bound Malkus, pressing her knee firmly into the small of his back as she clamped the chains shut around his wrists.

"Father Malkus," she growled, "you are under arrest for the murder of the king's subjects..."


"...there. That should do it," Evin said, nodding in satisfaction. He gave a tug on the chain that linked the prisoners together, grinning as the hands of all five moved in unison. Two of the men tried to curse at the boy around the gags in their mouths, but the words came out as little more than inarticulate mumbling. "I don't think they'll be givin' us any trouble on the way, Raven," Evin added.

"Good to hear, coz," Raven said, patting her cousin on the shoulder. Walking past him, she turned to face Mayor Hamon, who stood with some of the members of his guard at the edge of the town commons.

"We shall make sure that they are delivered to Ellcaran for trial," she said. "I need at least two witnesses who will testify against him for the murders."

"Based on what I've heard, you won't have any shortage of volunteers," Hamon said grimly. "He just finished his business in Brocktree before he came here, and I'd reckon that there are plenty of people there who would like to see him pay for his crimes."

"I'll head out to Brocktree an' find ye a few folks t' testify, coz," Joss offered.

"Go on," she said, nodding. "And bring them as swiftly as you may to Ellcaran!"

"Don't worry, I shall," the young man assured her. He gazed at her for a moment longer, then broke into a lopsided grin.

"What is it?" Raven asked.

"Nothin'. I was just thinkin' how well that form suits you, is all. After all, coz, you always were a bit of a --"

"Get on, you brigand!" Raven laughed, giving him a playful slap upside the head.

"Aye, Mistress! By your command!" With that Joss ran and mounted his horse and swiftly rode off to the south, grinning like a fool all the way.

Raven shook her head and sighed. "It doesn't matter what your title says," she muttered to herself. "To your kin, you're still just family."

Taden caught her gaze and winked. "I wonder if the Patriarch had this problem."

The priestess smirked. "I wonder."

Bensin rode up and nodded to them. "We're ready," he said.

"Very well." Raven turned back and bowed to Mayor Hamon. "Thank you again, mayor, for your help."

Hamon smirked, bowing in return. "Thank you for giving me the courage to do it. I don't think we'll be seeing his kind around here again."

"One can hope. Farewell, Mayor."

"And you, Mistress Lightbringer."

Mounting their horses, Raven and her three remaining escorts rode off into the west, a line of five prisoners shuffling in their wake.


The journey back to Anthaly proved to be rather slower than the trip to Markford had been, due in no small part to the chain of reluctant guests Evin was dragging behind him. Malkus was proving particularly slow, and Evin soon grew tired of jerking the chain in a fruitless effort to make him go faster. It was three o'clock before they had even gone two-thirds of the way.

"At this rate, we'll be lucky t'get them back in time for supper," Evin grumbled. "Ol' Lardgut back there is takin' his dear sweet time. Y' don't suppose ya could cast a hasten spell on 'em, eh, Raven?"

Raven smiled ruefully. "I fear that would be a waste of Dokorath's magic, coz," she said. "Besides, I can only c-"

She broke off suddenly, the fur on the back of her neck bristling. Was she imagining things, or..?

"What's the matter, coz?" Evin asked, frowning.

Raven held up one finger in a staying gesture, calling for silence. Lifting her nose, she scented the wind, carefully. There, coming out of the northwest...

"Smoke," she murmured.

"Smoke? Where?" Taden asked, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.

Raven nodded in the direction of the road ahead. "That way," she said. "Evin, you think you can handle these ruffians alone?"

Evin gave a tug on the chain, causing the shackled men to trip over each other. "I think I've got it handled," he quipped. The mirth, however, did not reach his eyes.

"Good. Taden, Bensin, follow me!" With that Raven spurred her horse into a quick trot, following her nose down the path ahead. The two men followed close behind.

At their quicker pace, it was only a few minutes before the long ridge that marked the edge of the highlands loomed in their vision. Beyond that ridge in the river valley was the village of Bethany, and there above the ridge...

"Look!" Bensin cried, pointing at the column of smoke rising into the sky.

"I see it," Raven said, her voice tense. "On now, quickly!"

They sped their horses from a trot into a gallop, racing down the road toward the ridge. As they grew closer and the road began to curve off to the west, seeking the gentle slope where one of its branches would flow down into the valley near Anthaly, a pack of mounted horses broke through the treeline and dashed off down the road to the west. It only took an instant for Raven to recognize the black, hooded forms of the riders.

"After them!" she shouted, racing around the bend in the road. There, about thirty yards ahead, the group of seven horses was headed straight down the road in front of her. They were strung out a fair bit along the road, but still...

Holding her own mount steady with her left hand, Raven stretched out her right toward the fleeing assassins.

"Artela, forgive me," she murmured. Then, in a loud commanding voice, "Yajiit! A nasa curte anarallo!"

For a few seconds a ball of light coalesced around Raven's outstretched hand. Then the light burst into brilliant fire, an angry ball of flame at the wolf-woman's fingertips. Judging the distance carefully, she 'threw' the fireball forward, then quickly brought her own horse to a halt. The shimmering globe arced through the air, landed in the midst of the fleeing horses --

And exploded with a sound like thunder.

Raven covered her eyes with one hand while keeping a firm grip on her horse with the other, as the mount beneath her bucked and started at the brilliant flash. An expanding sphere of fire roared out from the point of impact, eliciting torturous screams from the creatures unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. After the initial flash, Raven urged her mount forward and surveyed the damage. Two of the riders, those furthest in the lead, had escaped, apparently unharmed. Three had been incinerated along with their mounts, leaving behind a horrible stench of burned flesh and hair in the process. One was alive but so badly burned that he was unlikely to last long; he and his horse lay on the ground, helpless and unmoving. Raven would have to put the horse out of its misery quickly. One rider, however, the one in the rear, seemed largely unharmed; he had been thrown from his horse and, as it happened, injured his leg in the fall. His horse ran off into the woods, neighing frantically.

By now Taden and Bensin were right behind her, and Raven gestured toward the man who was feebly trying to limp away from the scene. "Get him!" she shouted.

While the two men ran down the surviving assassin and bound him, Raven drew Elemacil and decapitated the dying horse. Turning her attention to the burned man, she quickly verified that there was nothing she could do for him -- he was already unconscious, and death would soon follow. Sheathing her sword, she turned her attentions back to their newly acquired prisoner.

Taden forced the man to his knees before Raven, his arms securely tied behind his back. Raven felt a snarl growing on her lips as she approached.

"All rather different when you're the prey, isn't it?" she growled, unleashing a stinging backhand across the man's masked face. The assassin's eyes narrowed with malice but he remained silent.

"I don't know who hired you to come after me, Southlander, but you were a fool to agree to the task," Raven said coldly. Reaching down, she contemptuously tore off the man's mask --

And dropped it in shock as she saw his face.

"You?!" she hissed. "What in the Ninth Hell do you think you're doing?!"

The baleful face of the Inquisitor glared up at her with venom in his eyes. "Ridding this land of a pox," he spat viciously. "This will teach the pagans a lesson! They'll see their kind aren't welcome in our lands!"

Raven turned and raced toward the ridge, desperately looking for a vantage point. A gnawing, sickening fear crept through her gut as she ran. She barely noticed Taden and Bensin dragging the disguised Inquisitor along, just yards behind her. Crashing through the underbrush, she fought her way through the trees and out onto the flat, open space at the top of the rocky ridge, gazing down at the village below.

Bethany was in flames. Every house had been torn to pieces, the thatch from the dozens of roofs now serving as tinder for the fire. And there, rising up amidst the rubble, built from the beams of the destroyed houses...

Crosses. Dozens and dozens of crosses.

"They wanted so much to be like their god," the Inquisitor sneered. "It only seemed fair to let them die as he did!"

But Raven said nothing. Eyes wide, she sank to her knees and wept.


The mood in Anthaly was one of bitter sadness that night, as the mourning cast a pall over the victory Raven had thought she'd won in capturing Malkus. Someone had cast a spell -- or something -- over the whole village that day, leaving them blind to the massacre going on just two miles away in their sister town. They had awakened from their daze to find Raenadan and his Inquisitors gone, and Bethany ablaze in the distance.

The next day Raven and her escort set out for Ellcaran, traveling by barge down the Marchbourne to Giftum with their prisoners in tow. Upon arriving in the port city it was only three days' ride to Ellcaran, and this time they made sure that they had a wagon with them to carry Malkus and his men. The Inquisitor was turned over to the Lightbringer temple in Giftum, whose priest assured Raven that he would be extradited to Kelewair for judgment.

Malkus was turned over to Father Lothar quietly and without ceremony, so as not to attract the attention of Lothanas Dagnir. The last thing Raven needed was for the High Priest of Ellcaran to come demanding explanations for why she had been operating in his territory. Lothar promised that Malkus and the 'paladins' with him would face a fair trial and be judged accordingly, as soon as the promised witnesses arrived from Brocktree. Raven had little doubt that the maverick priest would be executed for his deeds -- or, at the very least, be locked away in a dungeon for the rest of his days.

Before leaving, Raven told Lothar of the fate that had befallen Bethany, a tale that left both of them weeping.

"It sounds as though Malkus got his final vengeance, of a sort," Lothar said bitterly, when at last they had dried their tears.

Raven frowned. "What do you mean?"

The Ecclesia priest sighed heavily. "This is not the first time Malkus has promoted the cause of hatred," he explained. "Over the past few decades several factions have broken away from the Ecclesia, citing what they saw as error and corruption in the church. They called themselves the Rebuilders."

"Aye, so I've heard," Raven said. "I know a few Rebuilders. Bethany itself was an entire town of them. But what does that have to do with Malkus?"

"Lightbringers aren't the only ones Malkus has railed against," Lothar said sadly. "His first attacks were against the Rebuilders, especially the group to which the people of Bethany belonged. I think it's safe to say he hated them even more than he hated the Lightbringers."

"I seem to remember Aaron saying something along those lines," Raven said thoughtfully. "Were such feelings widespread in the Ecclesia?"

Lothar shrugged. " 'Tis difficult for me to say," he said. "Somehow, though, I doubt that there will be much clamor in the church for vengeance for Bethany."

Raven narrowed her eyes. "Which raises the question: who was truly behind the attack?"

Again, the Ecclesia priest shrugged. "That, we may never know."


October 4

" short, Malkus is detained. From what I hear, he won't live to see the coming of the new year."

"Excellent work." The tall figure crossed his arms in satisfaction. "You've saved the lives of countless Lightbringers in the Angle, Raven. Thank you for your assistance."

"Do not expect it regularly, Alarun," Raven said sharply. She turned her eyes on Herelath, who stood skulking on the edges of the circle of light. "And I would like a full explanation of what in all the hells happened with Raenadan and those Inquisitors."

"I'm afraid there's been some mistake, my child," the elderly high priest said, pulling back his hood to reveal a concerned face. "Raenadan was waylaid by bandits on the way to meet you. He never got further than two miles from Kelewair. And as for Inquisitors, well... I don't know who those men were, or who they were working for, but I didn't send them."

"If they were Inquisitors, rest assured that they will be punished severely for taking part in an unauthorized operation," Alarun said. "Assuming they are found and caught, of course."

"Of course," Raven agreed, narrowing her eyes. "What of the one I sent to you?"

Herelath looked regretful. "Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen off the boat on his trip back up the Marchbourne," he said. "With his hands and feet tied, he drowned before anyone could fish him out."

"I see," Raven said.

"If we discover anything else, you will be the first to know," Alarun offered.

"Aye," Raven said, as she turned and disappeared into the darkness. "Aye, I'm sure I will."


The lamps in the temple hall were lit, casting the room in a warm yellow glow. Two priestesses sat on the hard stone floor, watching as the incense from the evening sacrifice rose and floated through the room.

"No survivors?"

"Not save Bensin, no."



"One thing I don't understand," Merai said at last. "If the Rebuilders were so anointed -- if they were so close to their god -- why did He let them all die so easily?"

Raven watched the curls of smoke rise up from the altar. "'In the absence of martyrs, there's a presence of thieves'," she murmured.


"Something Benjamin said to me, the last time I saw him."

Merai wrapped her tail around in front of her, clasping it gently in both hands. "Do you know what it means?"

Raven nodded. "I think so," she said slowly. "I think it means that when there is no price to be paid for one's faith -- when there are no martyrs -- it is easy for that faith to be corrupted by those with darker agendas. When you don't understand how much your faith is worth, guarding its purity seems less important." She looked up at the ceiling, watching the patterns of shadow dancing over its surface. "Perhaps Eli allowed those children of His to die in order to spur other Followers on to greater faithfulness."

Merai looked at her thoughtfully. "You think that the Rebuilders knew they would die for their faith?"

Raven nodded.

"So why tell you? I mean, you're not Patildor."

The wolf-woman shrugged. "Maybe to take the burden off my conscience," she said. "But somehow, I think he meant it as something more than that." She looked over at Merai, eyes haunted. "I think that it was a warning."

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