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Complete prologue of NaNoWriMo. Now with the actual cast showing up.
Updated 05/17/12


Sundered Faith
Prologue

The catacombs underneath the main temple of Jadus in Khorevail were cool, damp, and lifeless. Once a week, one luckless squire was sent to inventory the dark vaults. Once a month, one of the elder priests wandered through to ensure nothing had broken free. There were no bodies held there; worshipers of the sun god started their final voyage on a funerary pyre.

Instead, the ancient catacombs held the spoils of centuries of battles against dark forces. Possessed swords, dark altars steeped in sacrifice, cursed dice. What the priests could not cleanse upon arrival, they cataloged and stored away for later purification. Some items were later brought up out of the dark vaults for one of the questing knights to use, but only in the direst of circumstances. Only the darkest magic could withstand the power of the sun god’s priests’ cleansing spells. No one wanted to chance one of the cursed items waking out of the stasis the priests had managed to place them in.

Tonight it was not one of the young squires making his way through the maze-like structure. Instead, it was two scruffy men in ill-fitting clothes meant for a higher class than theirs. They walked with the soft careful steps of men used to walking on more unstable surfaces than the smooth stone underfoot.

“Two more hallways on the left,” said the one man, “and then it’s the next opening on right.”

“We ain’t getting paid enough to anger the Jadens,” said the other. “And if'n we're going to be, I says once we nab the trinket the broad wants, we helps ourselves to a tip on the Jadens’ tab. Nothing flashy-like though.”

“They don’t keep money in the cats, Jakes, you dim-wit. Jadens got a proper treasury for that. They keep the bad magic down here. And the less we touch, the better. What’s say you ask her for a raise once we’ve returned to her with her bauble?”

“We’ve passed up some shiny swag, Martin,” Jakes complained. “And I hate creepin’ about in cats. Give me an honest roof job any time.”

“Not so honest,” said the taller Martin with a harsh laugh, taking a right. Jakes laughed with him.

The vault they had arrived at was mostly bare. A necklace made of interlocking gold discs lay on a shelf next to a jewel-encrusted helm. The helm still had bloodstain splatters on it; giving one the impression the previous owner had lost his head over the matter. On the shelf below it was an ornate wooden box with the sigil of the goddess Khory carved into it. Heavy metal bars kept the lid sealed tightly down, and the box pulsed slightly as whatever was inside it breathed. A small black blood-encrusted altar sat almost in the center of the room, its narrow base barely visible beneath its wide flat top. Embedded in it was a long, wicked-looking kris. On another wall sat a low shelf littered with potion vials and two large tomes leaning towards each other for balance. A cat’s skull glared blindly towards them from its resting place between the tomes.

“One gold disc necklace, right where she said it would be,” said Martin smugly. “You still got the fake she gave you?”

The other man pulled a similar necklace out of one of his pockets. “Reckon I’ve got to place it right where t’other one is?”

“As close as possible, Jakes. Don’t want nothing to look out of place, and they walk by everything regular-like. Someone might remember the necklace not hanging off the side of the shelf the last time they went by.”

Jakes carefully replaced the necklace. “Weight’s a mite off,” he said.

“Can’t be helped. No one’s touched the thing in decades, and nobody's so dull as to write a paper saying its proper heft. The Jadens don’t fondle the goods, anyhow. Just eyeball it and run a spell-sweeper. That’s the important part. And the lady says she’s a soft-hand at copying the look of the spells the original has. Could be years afore anyone notices the swap.”

“And then it’ll be her problem, not ours,” agreed Jakes, pausing next to the altar. “I say we gets out of here double-quick. No telling when her magic wears off and people start noticin’ us again.”

Martin exited the vault and began retracing his route. “Keep up, Jakes. You’re right about not wanting to be near Jadens when the spell drops. They might recognize our faces from the sheets the guards pass around.”

Jakes quickly followed him, stashing the necklace in a pocket and slipping a long wavy-bladed knife into a belt loop.

Inside the vault, the empty blood-stained altar’s narrow base started sinking into the ground with a low rumbling groan.

----

It was a small dark room, the dim light coming in from the gap between the door and floor only highlighting the deep shadows in it. The walls in the closet had closed in around him days ago and he was too tired to keep up the panic he had fallen into at first. There was only hunger and the question of when they would come to kill him.

It was his own fault really. He had gotten lazy in his research, assuming the truth in the story of the duel between the two men. He knew that even tracing it to first-hand accounts wouldn't always give him all the information. Both parties involved were thought to have died in the duel. He had assumed Elias' identity, claiming to have been left near death, which was why it had taken so long to return to the abbey. He should have investigated the site of the battle. Then he would have discovered that Drust had survived, though he had been as soundly beaten as he had claimed Elias to be.

As it was, Drust had finally managed to drag himself back to the abbey, only to discover a man he knew to have died at his very hands was there. That had resulted in a nasty fistfight, and ended with him in a closet-cum-prison and the monks outside discussing what to do with the interloper. Not directly outside the door, of course. Better suspense through silence. But he knew they were discussing it. They couldn't afford to keep him- not when they had no idea who he really was or why he had come. But killing him had its own problems- what if he had been hired by someone who was expecting him back? What if they sent more people looking?

He hoped someone else would come to check out the reports of missing children in the area. The monks hadn't been particularly subtle in their choices- poor beggar children were only thought of when they were present, never in their absence. But visitors might note the complete lack of homeless in the area and track it back to the abbey like he had done. Of course, if one of the missing boys hadn't been the seven-year-old runaway son of a local noble family, he would not have had much reason to investigate. Countess Celestina was very vocal about her missing son, and very free with her money for someone to find proof of what had happened to him.

Too bad the boy hadn't lived two days after arriving in the abbey, or he could have just been in and out, rather than arriving to discover the boy already dead and strange workings afoot. Then it stopped being a quick job for a bit of spending money and became a proper job he would have to send a report in about when he managed to find a way to stop things. The Crusaders would be displeased by the madness that had fallen upon their clergymen, but if he straightened up the problem here, they wouldn’t take the bad news out on him. The sun worshippers were a cranky hidebound lot, but their jobs paid well and were rarely boring.

It was eerily dark and silent in the little storage closet, with only a mop and bucket for company. And the deep shadows, of course. Those were constant companions, the little leftover bits of the monks' awful sacrifices left to wander the dark abbey halls, hiding from the monks, scared to lose what little was left to their existence. They liked him, if only because the only demand he made of them was to hide from the brothers. It was a terrible way to eke out an afterlife, but he didn’t know how to return them to the Wheel for their respite between lives. He didn’t even know if there was enough of a self left to the things for the Wheel to accept them back.

They were not actually a danger, the shadows, but they made for unsettling company. Yesterday- or so he could only assume, time passed so slowly in the dark, it might have only been hours ago- one had rested on his foot. They were formless and the only reason he had known it was there was because the light should have been hitting his boot. They barely registered as present, but now there were so many crowded into the dusty storeroom that the air felt heavy. He wondered what the monks were doing that would drive the little things to cower in his tiny cell.

He got his reply in soft voices. Not the murmured whispers of the monks, but smooth feminine voices of those who knew a whisper was louder than undertones. The door creaked open and he heard a young, musical voice saying, "Just because it's a linen closet, Carmen, doesn't mean someone hasn't hidden a nice toy from the others in it. This is the office of somebody important, after all. Not to mention the lock."

A small dusky-skinned redhead in a heavy blue cape stood silhouetted in the doorway as he squinted up into the brightness from where he sat. Her face was turned back as she spoke to her companion, and he could see a sharp ear tip sticking out from the muss of her tangled chin-length hair. A short slender line of metal stuck out from one of her boot tops, and a light rapier hung from her kit belt. He watched her tuck something small and shiny into one of the belt's many pockets.

"Oh hello," drawled another voice as a much taller woman appeared behind her. For a moment her sharp features reminded him of someone, but as her face tilted back into the light, the feeling faded. "What've we here? They store the janitor away in the closet as well?"

He gave a short bark of tired laughter as the elf's head whipped around. "I'm not the janitor, duck, but I'll happily clean the floors if you give me something to eat."

The tall woman gave him a cursory look and quickly tossed him something from her belt. As he was mulling it over- was anyone ever really hungry enough to eat trail rations? - she sent the small elf to get someone. "He be too weak to stand," she said as the little redhead frowned at her. "I'll not come to any harm, and the others be nearby."

"Just because they locked him up doesn't necessarily mean they were wrong to," the elf warned before flouncing away.

The woman leaned against the doorframe and looked him over intently. The shadows that had taken cover with him pooled around her feet, crawling up and around them as they investigated the intruder. She shifted her weight and they fled back into the dark recesses of the closet.

He considered her quietly as he ate. Not terribly tall, he thought, just given the illusion of it by her much smaller companion. She was dressed in protective leathers that looked comfortably worn in, and had two sword hilts popping out behind her head, attached to the plain leather baldrics that crisscrossed her chest. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a long braid and he momentarily wondered if it ever got tangled up in her sheaths. A long hunting knife hung at her hip. Her skin tone was the same burnished gold so common in nearby Valencia, but her accent said otherwise. Sailors spoke that odd multilingual cant, not locals. She made no move to conversation, but silently passed him a half-empty water skin when he finished eating.

The elf returned with three others- two pretty blonde half-elven women who looked related and a tall lovely brunette in a gray gown slit for ease in walking. He pegged the woman in the gown as either a wizard or a sorceress- the ley energies in the room parted quickly for her, and her walking staff could double as a spell focus. The thoughtful gaze spoke of wizardry's study, but there was a liveliness in her eyes more often found in the few users of the spontaneous magic of sorcery. Either way, she was a rare sight in superstitious Sundabar. One of the half-elves was in similar leathers to the woman who had kept him company and had the same unsettled look. Woodswomen, he thought. Those who preferred the wilds always had the same distrustful look when out of view of the sky. He couldn't really blame them; he wasn't one for small spaces either.

The other half-elf stomped in plate mail, a heavy spiked chain hooked across her belt and occasionally clanging into the side of her legs. He winced at the sight, but the young woman didn't seem to notice the problem. She had a round cheery face that was at odds with the looming presence her heavy armor gave her. The armor was etched with subtle warding designs and familiar sun symbols. The silver sun medallion around her neck told him she was a holy woman, but the unpracticed way she walked with her weapon said she was more priestess than knight. It also wasn't the standard sun symbol for the Caldonian pantheon. Combined with the foreign accent the woodswoman had spoken in, he knew they were terribly far from home. Elves were merely uncommon, but the only place on all Caldonia to find a peregrine cleric of their Court was far to the east, in the Free Coast. They had to have arrived at one of the ports there and traveled this way.

"You must be the intruder they were discussing," said the woman in the gown with an accent similar to that of the other brunette. “The man with a dead man’s face.”

One blonde took up a post with her fellow woodswoman at the room’s entrance, while the other scrunched herself into the closet with him to run knowledgeable fingers across his bruises, taking account of his injuries. It was getting more than a little crowded in this small area. The redhead gave her a scowl, obviously still worried about the threat he could turn into, and he kept himself very still. The knife in her boot looked to be for throwing, and he didn't need any more cuts.

"They were hoping you had starved to death while they dithered over how to get rid of you,” said the half-elf who had joined him. “It left them quite frightened of us when we arrived. They thought we had been sent to check in with you."

"And what wonders could Folken Abbey hold for such lovely ladies as yourselves? I know what brought me here." He couldn't keep from flinching as the woman cleaned the cuts on his face.

"Countess Celestina's son brought you here, I would imagine," the tall woman said, leaning against the door frame to watch the healer work. "I am afraid it was mere curiosity that brought us here. Why did Redbrook become a ghost town after dark? Where were all the poor folk? Why did a tracing spell on the creature that attacked us last night lead here?"

Waylaying travelers was a tried and true profession for brigands, but the monks clearly didn't have the same instincts or sense of self-preservation, attacking as large and well-armed a group as these women appeared to be.

“And were the answers to your liking, my lady? I can’t say they were to mine.”

“They left a few things unanswered,” she said, shooting a look at the other brunette. And wasn’t that a story there? The woodswoman must not have liked what she found out and dispensed the less cultured, though perhaps more honest, justice of the wilds. Murderers were killed when found standing over their victims, not brought to the authorities. But dead bodies were difficult to question.

No matter how unskilled the monks had been, they still would have outnumbered the five women. And none of them looked worn by the battle they had to have been in. What could have brought such skilled fighters to as quiet a place as Redbrook? For that matter, what had brought them to Caldonia?

The healer had finished cleaning his wounds and was moving her hand slowly through the dark closet. “What is this?” she asked. One of the deep shadows had taken up residence on her hand.

He rose slowly to his feet and helped her to hers. The weight of her armor left him wishing he hadn’t. “Leftovers,” he replied. “Whatever grimoire they found, it didn’t have the most efficient blood magic in it. These are the unused pieces of their unfortunate victims’ souls.”

There was silence. He eased past the woman in the doorway. Her gaze was locked on the dark unnatural shadows in the closet. He couldn’t blame the women their shock. The first time he had caught one of the monks making use of one of the little things, he’d had to find someplace private to throw up his dinner. And then had set up a small charm in his chambers to attract the little things and keep them out of the way of the others. He could think of nothing else to do with the things- his kind didn’t have souls and had no rituals a layman might use to bless them to allow them to move on.

“I should’ve killed them slower,” the woodswoman spoke in a harsh voice. “The blood rite we interrupted was bad enough, but to not even grant what remains a chance to return to the Wheel-“

“I doubt the monks cared very much what happened to their victims, duck,” he interrupted. “And the excess could be used for other things, if they could find them. I took to binding them to my quarters. Nobody notices the shadow under a bed being darker than normal.”

“Is there anything we can do for them?” the healer asked, still where he had left her in the closet, her hands cupped to hold the original visitor. Her feet, he noticed, were completely shadowed and the darkness was creeping slowly up her legs. They were drawn, no doubt, to the soft healing energies she worked with.

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like them before, and I flatter myself that I’m knowledgeable in the darker arts.”

“And why would that be?” the redhead asked from the desk she had staked out. She had pulled out the head abbot’s papers from one of the previously-locked drawers and was quickly flipping through them. Her frown deepened as she paused on one page. “Trying to find a better way to summon the Old Ones?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m a researcher,” he scolded. Now all the women had mistrustful looks. Barring the healer, he noticed, who was humming softly to the growing shadows around her. It was rather troubling, the way they flocked to her. Perhaps the clean light of her faith eased them. Priests were in charge of funereal rites and there might be enough awareness left to recognize her as one who could help them. But thinking about that had to come after getting on the women’s good side. Or at least off of the bad one. “I just happen to prefer getting my information first-hand. You might have read my treatise on the cyclical nature of dragon cults?”

Flying in Circles; or how to spot if dragon worshipers have set up an altar next door? By one Lorist Teilomere?” the brunette asked dryly, one fine eyebrow arched. He had guessed right, then, a sorceress with an education, not a wizard. Wizards were too buried in old grimoires trying to recreate lost spells to read a text concerning dragon cults. The rare practitioners of sorcery were widely assumed to have dragon blood somewhere far back in their ancestry that allowed them their unique way of practicing magic and could not help but read everything about them they came across. “You generalized the cultist mindset too much, and you assume the dragon in question is always young. Some of the older ones use them as well.”

“The majority of the cultists do fall into a certain mindset,” he replied with a shrug. “And while there are wyrms who allow cults to build around them, they’re also far too strong for driving out. And the treatise was meant to be used getting the cultists out before they rooted themselves too deeply into the community. Information on elder dragons would just make readers assume they could banish wyrms as well. And that would just get people killed. So, now that you know who I am, perhaps you ladies could introduce yourselves.”

“I am Odette,” the sorceress said. He wondered if she was the leader of the party, or merely spokeswoman by default. “Your lockpicker is Petra,” she nodded towards the redhead engrossed in one of the papers she had found. “Carmen is the one with all the weaponry and Athena is the pretty blonde.” The half-elf woodswoman wiggled her fingers at him with a bright smile. “Her cousin Tae-Lana is the one who patched you up.” Her eyes finally broke contact to look at the woman still in the closet. “Tae?”

The half-elf had disappeared completely underneath the shadows.

“They are frightened,” Tae said, exiting the closet. The shadows covered her from foot to neck. She had the appearance of a head rising through mist. Her amulet was free of the darkness and glowing a brilliant purple that did not reflect off the shadows surrounding it. She didn't appear to be worried by the strange attraction the shadows had to her. “They do not want to live like this, but they do not want to die either.”

“Want me to smoke those off you?” Petra asked from the desk, barely glancing up from the paperwork. “Because no one wants to die and it’s going to happen anyway.”

“Petra,” Carmen hissed. Athena had moved towards her cousin, only stopping when Tae raised a hand.

“They either die right away or fade until there’s nothing left. They’ve already lost most of their sense of self,” the redhead continued, unmoved. “Survival instincts are the most basic level of existence. They’re no more intelligent than that poor beast we put down last night. They went to Tae because she’s a healer, but there’s no physical hurts there. The only healing she could do would be banishment. Unless she wants to chance an invocation.”

He looked at the redhead in surprise. Lock picking wasn’t the only thing the elf was good at. Her fingertips were sanded for tumbler work, to be certain, but the ease with which her eyes flickered across the head abbot’s papers- papers he knew to be written in an arcane tongue- said her training was in much more than thieves’ skills. And he should have known that, elves had deeper ties than humans to the magical ley lines that wound their intangible way through most everything. Unlike the sorceress, whose movements had left waves in the ley energies, the elven girl barely left ripples. Until she actually cast a spell, her arcane abilities would not be apparent.

“Just because their bodies are gone, doesn’t mean-” Athena started.

“No, she is right,” Odette interrupted. “They are ghosts. Echoes that know they are dead, but too hurt by their deaths and what has happened to them afterwards to want to chance the unknown. Tae,” she turned back to the other blonde. “You must get them off you. They will drain your energies trying to fix themselves, but there is not enough left of them to be remade.”

The healer looked sadly at the shadows swirling tightly around one of her hands, then slowly raised it to grip onto her glowing medallion. The shadows crept off her hand. “You are sure about this?” She looked at Petra, not Odette. He wondered at that- the little elf was a juvenile, while both healer and sorceress were adults. Why would the healer turn to her for advice in this matter? Perhaps she had been educated in a temple.

The elf raised her head to return Tae’s gaze. “It is the only way to heal what has happened to them.”

Tae closed her eyes and began mouthing a prayer. Concentrating, he could read her lips. She was speaking in Kelathyl, one of the rarer elven tongues, reciting an unfamiliar prayer for the dead. The shadows faded away from her, disappearing as silently as they had existed.

Athena approached her on soft footsteps, placing a steadying hand on the other woman as she swayed slightly. “Are you well, cousin?”

Tae opened her eyes and let her arm drop back to her side. She gave her cousin a small smile, her eyes shining bright with unshed tears. “They were scared and lost here. Now they are free. But, Lorist-”

“Teilomere,” he corrected. “Lorist is my title. Not important though- what did you need?”

She was leaning heavily on her cousin. “They wanted me to thank you for them. For keeping them away from the monks. They did not know what happened to those others, but it must have been a more painful and drawn-out death than their original ones.”

“Closure is nice,” he said. “My thanks for helping them. There was naught I could do for them save hide them.”

“Would you like us to accompany you back to Redbrook?” Odette asked. “And on the way, you can explain to us how you came to wear a dead man’s face.” Her tone was light, but her narrowed eyes were serious. He watched Carmen unfold from her casual lean against the door to stand straight up, hands loose at her side.

“No need for the threat, ladies, I’ll answer all your questions,” he said with a friendly smile. “Good research means having excellent sources, after all. Or at least reliable ones. The short story, though, would be the fact I’m a shapeshifter. The longer story of why I'm specifically wearing Brother Elias' face will have to wait for the walk back to Redbrook so I can inform Countess Celestina about her unfortunate son's demise. I doubt she will be pleased, I know I was looking forward to the bonus of bringing her son back alive.”

“Not just research then, Lorist Teilomere?” Odette questioned archly.

“One has to eat. And for someone such as I in as magic-unfriendly a place as Sundabar, every chance for bonus pay counts.”

“We had not noticed any difficulties,” Tae said with a frown.

“Well of course not, priestess. Your armor carries the symbol of the sun. Your sorceress is considered-” he paused, trying to find the right word for the absolute trust the locals had for their clergyfolk without insulting the sorceress by suggesting she was leashed.

“Tamed?” The little redhead suggested, her head cocked to one side as she studied him.

“Under control,” he finished.

“Lovely,” the sorceress complained.

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