sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
Final section. (No, I don't have any more story, why do you ask? Carmen certainly didn't help me prod the 'set six months later than this' story into some semblance of order last time I visited. You are being paranoid.)
Updated 12/10/11


Previous

The temple was in ruins, crushed in on itself just like the one at the top of the mount in Khoresbar.  It wasn’t just from Odette's spell- as destructive as it had been, the noise had started earlier.  Carmen was already scrambling about the rubble, trying to find the others.

Athena wished she had the energy to move to help her.  Tae was in there.  But all she could do was lean her weight against Snow's broad bulk.  The wolf whined softly, setting his ears back against his head.

“You're right,” she murmured into his fur as she watched Carmen heaving cut stone blocks like they were hollow and filled with air.  “You could probably sniff them out better than she can.”

She eased her legs out from underneath her, leaning heavily on the wolf to keep from overbalancing.  That done, she leaned forward, resting her chin on her knees and locking her hands around her ankles to keep balanced.  “Go find Tae, dearest.”  Her weight removed, the wolf shot off towards Carmen, paws sending rubble clattering everywhere.

She was so tired.  

Her eyes drifted back down to Odette's still form.  She had only performed this working once before, as a test by her teacher to prove she could do it.  She didn't remember the man acting the same way Odette had- snapping up like she'd been frightened from a nightmare and choking the air with excess energy.  But that had been a fellow woodsworker, not even a Wood-speaker, and he hadn’t the same access to magic that Odette did, so perhaps that reaction was normal for sorceresses.

That also didn't explain the extra energy that had come out of the temple.  She had recognized the presence of a member of the Court and she worried about what Tae had had to promise to rescue Odette in such a manner.  One couldn't get something for nothing, especially from a god.  He had warped her spell too- whatever form Odette was originally to take had mutated at the touch of the fey god, making the body fey as well.  Athena was fairly certain those had been dragonfly wings sprouting out of the woman's back.  Odette was such a stable personality that there had been a good chance she would have simply retained human form.  The addition of power from her fey escort had turned her into a pixie.

Odette groaning and raising her hand to her head interrupted Athena's thoughts.

“Easy,” she murmured, her voice soft like she was coaxing a skittish animal out of cover.  “It takes time to settle into a new body.  Do you remember what happened?”

The sorceress slowly sat up.  She was right- those had been iridescent dragonfly wings growing from Odette's back.  She wasn't certain what magic had allowed her gown's fabric to part to let them out.  How would she take the dress off?

“Petra said there was an illusion covering the temple.  I remember casting a dispel, and,” the brunette paused, closing her eyes to focus.  “Everything went a bit fuzzy, and then I woke up here.”  She opened her eyes, still looking in Athena's direction.

Memory was attached to the physical realm, then, not the soul. Not completely, at least.  Tae would like to know that, Athena thought.  At that, she remembered what else was happening.  “You died,” she told other woman.  She knew her face was filled with pain and worry. With that much destruction, was there any chance Tae could crawl out of there, or Carmen dig her out before it crushed the people trapped inside?  But Odette would think it was for her.  “You triggered some sort of defensive spell someone had put in place, Petra said.  You just- disappeared. And the crusader didn't care, because she had gotten what she wanted from you and we couldn't just leave your spirit there, not in that awful place.”  Her eyes cut to the rubble.  Carmen and Snow had zeroed in on some location and were busy pulling cracked blocks out.

Odette followed her gaze.  “What happened?”

“I don't know.  ‘Twas this noise inside, and then you woke up with far too much energy and shot it all into the temple and then it just collapsed.”  Athena thought she sounded a little hysterical.

“I meant more along the lines of, if I died, how did I end up here, but thank you for explaining what happened to the temple.”

She giggled.  That was probably a little hysterical sounding too.  She couldn't seem to stop giggling either.

“Athena.”  Soft small hands touched her hands, tracing up her arms in a calming motion.  How odd.  Shouldn't she be calming the woman she had just brought back from the dead?  Had she not noticed the wings? They were hard to miss.  “Athena.”

The hands moved away from her arms and a sharp jolt of pain in her face snapped her to proper awareness.

“Sorry, sorry,” she murmured.  “I'm just so tired and Carmen's over there trying to find Tae and Petra and I can't help because I can't even move and you can't help because you probably only weigh half as much as Petra and Carmen can lift her with one hand-”

Firm fingers grasped her chin, making her look into Odette's eyes.  “You need to calm down,” the brunette said seriously.  “Your pulse is racing and that is burning your reserves up even quicker.  Deep breaths.  Once you calm down, you know you can reach Snow to ask what he has found.”

She could, couldn't she?  She had been so busy tying herself up in knots she had forgotten the gray wolf.  She closed her eyes, breathing slowly in and out.  She could feel her connection with Snow, the energy he was letting her borrow to stay conscious and the worried love he felt for her, feeling her fear and exhaustion but also knowing she had given him an order he was to obey.  Find Tae.  But the connection felt weak.  It was fading.  She had spent too much energy in the working, and now the only thing keeping the bond in place was the magic of her fey heritage.  But that wouldn’t last.  She was only half-elf, the fey blood too weak to keep the bond in place permanently.  There was no way to tell what trauma would snap it entirely.

“I am the one who should be panicking,” Odette said.  “I used to be bigger than you.  Also, I can see the ley lines here.  That is supposed to take me a few minutes of meditation.”

“Fey are closer to magic,” Athena said.  The rapid flutter of thought had evened out to calmer levels.  But she could feel the hysteria still bubbling under the surface.  “I can see them out of the corner of my eyes and it just takes a moment's concentration to bring them into focus.  Petra has to concentrate to shut it out.”

Tae was alive, Snow knew.  He was confused about Petra- her scent had changed; the three sun-knights were dead.  The smell of death made them easier for him to find and, once she understood the information he was trying to relay, Carmen had simply marked the spot to concentrate on finding the survivors first.

“They're here!” Carmen shouted.

Odette clambered up to her feet.  Athena stretched a hand out in front of her, gauging her chances of repeating the move without stumbling over herself and collapsing.  Judging by the shaky droop of her hand, the odds were good she wouldn't even make it to her feet.  Odette staggered off like a newborn foal trying its legs out for the first time.  Which was true.  Odette hadn't ever used that set of legs before.  Her wings fluttered behind her, stirring up dust.

Carmen had already hoisted Tae up in a fireman's carry.  Athena could see her cousin waving her arms, pointing downwards.  Carmen disappeared out of sight, popping back up with Petra tucked under her free arm.  The elf was kicking a bit, obviously wanting to be put down, and Athena watched Tae reach a hand down to smack the small girl's head.  She could see Carmen straining under the load- obviously from Tae and her armor, but Petra's wriggling couldn't be helping.

Carmen lurched some ways away from the hole she had dug before setting Petra down on a stable block.  She eased Tae off of her shoulders to watch Odette clumsily climb up to where they were.  Carmen pulled the tiny sorceress up into a bear hug, slapping her shoulders.  Curiously, Petra flinched away from the reunion.  Tae set one hand on Odette's arm, as if she couldn't trust her eyes the woman was really there.

It was really sweet, she thought vaguely.  Her vision grew blurry, and her grip on her ankles weakened.  She was just
so
tired.

----

Carmen gently set Odette back down.  “Sorry about the manhandling,” the woodswoman said, clasping the sorceress' arms, grinning widely. She opened her mouth to speak, when a yelp from Snow interrupted her.  The wolf went trotting tiredly down the rubble and Carmen looked up.  “Hells,” she said, racing past the wolf.  

Tae's eyes followed the path of their route.  Athena was lying slumped over on what looked to be a bedroll.  Exhaustion, no doubt.  She had warned her cousin that there would be dire consequences.  She turned her eyes back to the hole in the rubble Carmen had dug.  There was something she needed to see before going to her cousin's side.

“This has not been a good day,” Petra said from where she sat, eyes on the unconscious half-elf.  “Not for any of us.”

“I am a bit surprised it took her that long to fall,” Odette said as she took a seat on the temple's former roof, panting quietly.  She needed the break before she climbed back down.  It would take weeks before she grew used to her new limbs.  Or so Tae's experience had been.  Reattaching limbs was not really the same thing, but the man had complained about his new arm's responses being different than they used to be.  “She was hysterical when I awoke.  Two greater workings back-to-back is never a good idea.  I cannot believe you allowed her do that, Tae.”

Tae shrugged.  “She would not be persuaded away from the ritual.  And I was not certain she was wrong.”

“What happened to the temple?  Athena mentioned something about me casting a spell at it, but that it was already making noises before I sat up.”

“I had a bad reaction to the-” Petra paused, searching for a word.  Tae was not certain how to describe the work either.  “I don't know that it was a proper working or invocation.”  She shrugged.  “Tae said I blew up the altar.  You've got more magic than me, so you took out the rest of the temple.  Probably just a weird reaction to where your soul had been trapped.”

“Trapped?” Odette repeated, both eyebrows arching.  

Tae limped over to the great slab of stone Carmen had pulled off of them.  It was a monstrous feat of strength.  The woman had unfathomable depths when it came to instinctive adrenaline-fueled reactions.  She doubted that Carmen could lift it now, but all that mattered was that she was able to lift it then.

“The trap you set off destroyed your body, but the prisoner here had enough control free of the wards to route you into his own personal stock of soul energy to feast on,” Petra explained. “Otherwise you would already be re-entering the wheel for a new shot at life.”

There was an impact crater where Petra's forearms had connected with it, sending cracks down much of its length, twisting the slab up into a slight v-shape.  Tae kicked her foot into it.  The hollow was just big enough to allow two people to keep from being crushed under its bulk, though it had not been enough to keep the rubble that collapsed on top of it from pressing down onto them.  Her back throbbed painfully, but she did not have the energy to heal it.  Nature would have to take its course. At least for now.

“Is it still trapped here?” Odette asked.

“I think the knights finished their work before the roof collapsed on them.  It isn't giving off the same creepy feeling that it was when we arrived.”

There was no telling how long they would have to stay here in this mountain valley.  Odette would not be able to use the orb of teleportation for at least a day- not unless she wanted to end up collapsing like Athena had.  And there were still the sun-knights to dig up, to return to their temple.  Temples.  Yseult was not from the same chapterhouse as the two men.  And with the crusader dead, they would have to plead their case to her superior.  Or else just turn all three bodies in at Reeds and head out for the Lothar Heights.  But that would be irresponsible.

“You realize I can see the warping in your personal energies, right?” Odette said flatly.  Tae looked up.  “I think that shadow qualifies as 'creepy.'”

“I told you I had a bad reaction,” Petra said with a studied air of nonchalance.  She was leaning back across the block on one elbow, legs crossed, looking at where Carmen had sat Athena back up.  Snow was lying on the bedroll, head tucked into his paws.  Tae had never seen the wolf look so depressed.  “It should fade away, provided I stay away from spellcasting while it's still there.”

“I doubt it will be that simple to clear up.”

“Not like there's anything else I can do about it.” Petra's glare told Tae she was not as unaffected by the discussion as the elf would like to be.

“You realize I will be keeping an eye on you all the same, yes?”

“I would expect nothing less,” Petra said with a sunny grin.

Tae clambered away from the broken roof she had been inspecting to return to the other two women.

“You know about this, Tae?” Odette asked as she helped her to stand up.

It was rather terrifying how light the sorceress was.  Petra complained about being frequently mistaken for a child, but Odette was now the size of a six-year-old.  With Carmen's almost masculine build, people were going to assume they were a family unit, not merely travelers.  It was a problem to bring up later.  

“I was there for it,” Tae replied.  “Elisar Ibryiil showed up for my invocation.  He must have thought messing around with the imprisoned sleeper was funny.”

“Did you choose him for a patron because you wanted to grow up to be just like him or would nobody else in the Court have you?” Odette asked Petra in fond exasperation.

“He's the one who felt right for me.”  Petra hopped up off the block and started the climb down.  Odette laid a hand on Tae’s arm to keep her from following directly.

“Was there something else?”

“Where is Mantha?  I cannot feel his presence any longer.”  The sorceress looked extremely tired as she spoke.  Tae knew the other woman had to know the answer.  She was just hoping that Tae could give her another answer.  A better one than what had happened.

“He was your sacrifice,” she said gently, covering Odette’s hands with her own.  “I thought you understood that.  You do not cheat death without paying some price.”  She did not look towards her cousin, though it was a narrow thing.  The other blonde would not be performing any natural magic any time soon.  And Snow's body language said something else was going on as well.

“I know,” Odette said softly.  “I had just hoped that it was otherwise.”

“I’m sorry,” Tae said.  The burrowing owl had been Odette’s constant companion since before she had met the woman four years prior.  The bond between sorceress and familiar was an even closer one than the ones woodsworkers, or even the far more magically-inclined wood-speakers, formed with the beasts they worked with.  Snow was very much independent of Athena and was free at any time to say he would no longer work with her.  Mantha had practically been an extension of Odette’s will, with a bit of a snooty personality left over from his time as a free bird.  It was a bond only death could break.  And it had.

Odette gave her a weak smile.  “I should not have expected otherwise.  My death killed him.”

“No,” Tae shook her head.  “He stuck around long enough to help us find you.”

“We should probably catch up with Petra,” Odette said, her eyes skating away from Tae’s.

They did not speak as they made their way down from the temple.  Petra had stopped halfway down, haphazardly juggling in one hand some broken tiles she had found. It was slow going down to where she stood.  Odette was new to her small size and kept overestimating the distances between things to jump between.  She needed to climb up and over things she had once merely hopped over.  Tae, her maneuverability already impeded by her armor, was further held back by the twinges in her back.  She thought it possible she had torn something.  She should have tried to heal it before attempting this descent.

Petra did not say anything as they reached her, merely cocked her head and gave Odette a piercing look.  Tae recalled Petra saying she used to have a familiar, years ago.  She probably understood better than Tae what was going on in Odette’s head.

“This is not a fun climb,” Petra said, tossing the tiles back into the rubble.  They were the purple ones Tae had seen earlier, with the swirly spirals.  It was not a particularly foreboding design and she wondered who had decided on it, the god or the avatar who had overseen the building here.

“As you said, it has not been a good day,” Odette replied, pausing in her descent for breath.

“Have you tried flying yet?  You’ve got wings and for all that common sense says they won’t hold your weight, they should work.  I’ve seen pixies darting about like they were five-year-olds powered by maple candy.”

“I thought that experimentation could wait until we had softer surroundings for me to crash on,” the sorceress said archly.

Petra shrugged and started the climb down again.  Tae watched for a moment, worried.  She was less nimble than her usual self.  These climbs usually had her clambering over everything, down and up again, bothering her slower fellow climbers.  Her outrageous acrobatics had been traded in for energy-conserving movements.  Tae did not think it was her legs, not with Petra flinching back every time she knocked an arm into something.  She made a mental note to have the elf roll up her undershirt's long sleeves.  She had obviously stretched the truth a bit when she said she was okay.  Especially considering the way she had curled one arm in to her chest to protect it.

“We still need to recover the sun-knights' bodies,” Tae said as they arrived at the base of the shattered temple.

“It's going to have a wait a few hours,” Petra said with a wheezing breath.  “I don't think anyone's up to climbing back up there and digging through that mess of stone for a while.”

“You're just lazy,” Carmen shouted from where she knelt with Athena.  Tae could see even from this distance that her cousin was so pale she was gray.

Odette choked out a bark of laughter.  “I think you are the only one with any energy to speak of, Carmen.”

“Guess you should have joined me in my bladework exercises these past few days then,” the woodswoman said with a smile.  “Then maybe your stamina levels would be better.”

“I did,” Athena said so faintly Tae almost didn't hear her.

“Yes, but you always do,” Carmen said as she patted her on the shoulder. “'Tis those lazy layabouts I was talking to.  Imagine how bad you'd feel if I hadn't had you train with me.”

They finished walking over to the two woodswomen.  Snow woofed a quiet greeting.  His tail remained curled under him, his ears drooping with lethargic disinterest.

“Once we get them dug up, what then?” Petra asked, collapsing down onto bedroll.

“That is a little uncouth, even for you,” Odette said, easing down next to the elf.

“They're already dead.  What does it matter my verb use?”  Petra rolled her eyes.

“We need to decide where we are going,” Tae said, trying to head off the irrelevant discussion.  She did not try to sit down, instead leaning against a nearby tree.  Her back was killing her, but her synapses were still fried by the divine invocation she had performed and she couldn't cast a healing spell to fix it.  “Barrett and Gethin were from Reeds.  Yseult was from the western coastline.  And she probably wanted to report to the other crusaders in Khorevail.”

“But if she was sent about the false report at Folken Abbey, do we really want to go anywhere near there now?” Carmen asked.

“They're not part of the Sund judiciary, they can't actually arrest us,” Petra said.  “Not that I really want to go back there again.  They're well on their way to a theocracy, and then the crusaders really can make arrests instead of this blackmail thing Yseult was trying to pull on us.”

“Not even to get paid for this work?” Tae asked.

“Returning there with three dead sun-knights and just our word that the temple is safely under wraps again?  Even with a crusader's ability to sense the truth, they're not going to just accept our word on that matter.”

“If the temple's wards even were really fixed,” Athena said in her quiet voice.  “I know something has changed, but how can we tell if the leak has completely stopped?”

“It has,” Tae said with certainty.  “Even with all my concentration focused on the incantation, I could feel the moment the sun-knights fixed the wards.  They were almost completely unraveled when we arrived-”

“You could tell that just from the fact I could feel it,” Petra said.  “I'm not the most sensitive to divine energies and it still had my skin crawling.”

“We return the bodies to Khorevail,” Odette said.  “Yseult was senior, and all sun-knights go there to the main temple for their promotions.  They will have records of Barrett and Gethin, as new as they were.”

“And what about the letters between Lightbringer Roland and the head abbot at Folken?” Tae asked.

“The Jaden clergy imploding is not our problem,” Petra said flatly.  “We should keep out of it.  That includes bringing the matter to their attention at all.”

“That isn't right,” Carmen said.  “How many people died at that abbey, do you know?  If someone knew the brothers had gone insane, they should have told someone with the power to do something about it.”

“Considering they currently think we're the ones who did it and not the brothers, I really don't think they're going to believe us when we say otherwise.  And bringing up Lightbringer Roland would be just plain stupid.  He was the fourth-most senior Lightbringer in Sundabar and probably the most humanitarian.  Attacking his legacy with outlandish stories is good cause for the sun-knights to lock us up, Sund judiciary system or no.  Without the letters, there is no proof.  The investigator has no doubt squirreled them away somewhere, if he didn't burn them.  And even with the letters, they could accuse us of forgery.”

“We cannot simply do nothing,” Odette said.  “Half of Caldonia accepts Jadus as their primary god.  There is no telling what would happen if we do not let someone know of the transformation the priesthood has undergone.”

Tae frowned at the temple ruins.  “Yseult did not know how long the leak had been here,” she said non sequitor.

“What?”

“Do you think the evil leaking out from here is directly connected to the events at the abbey?” Odette asked, catching on faster than Petra.

“It was Jaden priests who originally performed the binding here,” Tae said slowly, trying to give herself time to think.  It seemed so clear in her head, but she did not know if she could explain it clearly.  “The Eater of Worlds goes by a different name where we are from-”

“The Chained God,” Athena interrupted.  She was finally beginning to show some color.  “That castle we first met Petra in, there was a private chapel dedicated to him.”

“The holy symbols are different too.  That is what confused me,” she told Petra, reminding her of the ancient scroll they had seen in Heron’s Rest’s records.  “It should be an open eye inside a pyramid.  The inversion of the design and the addition of tiers threw me off.”

“What does that have to do with what is happening here?” Carmen asked.

“Not anything directly, I just wanted to point out that this is not some regional god we are discussing,” Tae replied.  “Back to the matter at hand, though.  Jadus is the god who led the fight to imprison him.   Let us say you were locked away for millennia and one of your avatars managed to slip its noose,” she said to Petra.  “What would you do?”

“Me personally?”  The redhead gave her a feral grin, sharp and full of teeth.  Tae was not reassured.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold.  I’d be less interested in charging in headlong to kill them all and instead start at the bottom and work my way up until every single person related to the matter was gone.  Preferably in tiny bits.  And I might rub the fact of the matter in with the higher ups.  The little people wouldn’t really matter for that, so I wouldn’t bother explaining it to them before I killed them.   And then I’d get around to releasing the boss and letting him do the same thing on the outer planes to the gods who are still around from back then.”

There was a lengthy awkward silence as they all stared at her.

“What?” she asked suspiciously.  “You asked what I would do.  What do you think I’m going to do once we get hold of the people who took Crunch from us?”

“Everyone else in favor of never letting Petra make plans again?” Carmen asked.

Petra glowered at her, not amused in the slightest.  “Just because the rest of you are lily-livered when it comes to a little bloodshed-”

“Petra, it is a matter of us being better people than them.  There will be no slaughtering anybody related to Crunch’s disappearance,” Tae said firmly.  She could not actually be certain if that was Petra speaking or her passenger.  She had never been one for the most humanitarian of solutions to begin with.

“Unless they start it,” Carmen modified.  “Or if they be committing the same barbarities the monks were at Folken.  Then you can cut them into tiny pieces.”

“At least someone understands me,” Petra sniffed haughtily.

“You worry me, you really do,” Athena said.

“Now that we have all been sufficiently traumatized, back to my point,” Tae said, pointedly not looking in Petra’s direction.  “For some reason, the wards here weakened to such a great extent that the prisoner was slowly leaking evil energies out.  The jailers were followers of Jadus.  It stands to reason that the prisoner has subtly been attacking the Jaden clergy.  The wards do not have to be completely down for someone of this power to find ways to warp mere mortals away from their holy teachings.”

“If the wards have been fixed, does that mean the priests have been as well?” Athena asked.

Odette shook her head.  “It would only mean no one else would fall under its sway.  The people already affected would not change.”

“So what needs be done?”

“One of the main rituals in solar religions is purification.  The symbolism in light driving out the dark is very powerful,” Petra said.  “If you really want to go through with this, Khorevail is going to need to test everyone they have, then send out peregrines to the other major cities and trickle down from there.”

Carmen whistled loudly.  “That would be a serious undertaking.  What would they do with anyone who fails?”

“That is not how a ritual of purification works,” Tae said.  “You do not ‘fail’ one.”

“You merely get locked up in a vault for someone else to try purifying again later,” Petra said with a snicker.

“That is not particularly funny,” Odette scolded.

“It’s the truth.  Don’t you remember those hall signs when we were there?  To records, to exultation chamber, to dormitory, to catacombs-”

“We get the picture,” Carmen interrupted.  “You didn’t mention vaults in there, so what are you getting at?”

“Well, this involves a little bit of nosiness on my part-”

“Obviously,” the sorceress said dryly.  “That is an understood in every story you tell.  Do skip the flavor text.”

Petra stuck her tongue out at her.  “They’ve got catacombs underneath the temple that they use to store artifacts the priests and sun-knights pick up on their crusades. The upper levels are for the things that can get loaned out- that’s why I saw it.  One of the crusaders was returning some holy sword.  It’s probably where Yseult got the orb of teleportation.”

“And the lower levels?”  Tae asked.

Petra scratched behind one ear.  “I couldn’t actually get in that far, they’ve got wards layered in there that could put the ones slapped up here to shame.”

“I sense a ‘but’ in there,” Odette said.

“Let’s just say there was a serious creepiness factor down there.  Not like here,” she added, “where it was basically aware of us and hated us.”

“Dormant,” Tae said.  “They must ward the evil artifacts they cannot cleanse and store them in the catacombs.”

“What be the odds something in there was to blame for this temple waking up?” Carmen asked.

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