sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
This is still in the works, but I've split up what I've got and am posting for the internet's reading pleasure. This is better proofed than your first viewing of the NaNo, but feel free to point out any bad grammar/inconsistencies/things you think are plot holes. Provided their hearts are suitably blessed, of course.

Last updated 12/10/11


Previous

Part 4: The Motion of the Heavens

They arrived at the guardhouse at the entrance to the Khorevail temple compound.  Wards had been put in place to keep outsiders from teleporting further inside the grounds, and Odette put one hand to her head, obviously pained from bouncing off of them. Petra was surprised they managed to land inside the compound at all. The Jadens were usually very security-conscious.

“Intruders!” The shout from within the small building was muffled by the stone, but Petra could still hear the murmurs of surprise as they took quick peeks out of the windows.  “Murderers!”  There was a noisier flurry of activity inside.

“That didn’t take them long to notice,” Carmen said ruefully.  The bodies of the three sun-knights lay in the center of the small circle they stood in. Tae had done her best to wipe them clean of dust, but there had been no free-standing water for them to try any sort of ablutions.

Snow whined softly, moving away from Athena to butt his head unhappily on Carmen’s knee.  Athena gave the wolf a hollow-eyed stare.

“Just stay still and try to look innocent,” Tae said.  “They are not going to attack us.”

“At least not immediately,” Petra added helpfully.

Eight men in half-plate stomped out with pikes and circled around the women to cut them off should they try to escape.  

“’Tis just as well we look like we’ve crawled from the grave,” Carmen added, motioning to the rock dust she was still covered in. There were streak marks across her forehead where she had wiped at her sweaty brow. Athena had attempted to wipe them away, but had only succeeded in spreading out the gray.

None of them looked in particularly good condition, even discounting the dirt and ash they were covered in. Tae’s back had been hurt in the temple’s collapse and only her armor was keeping her standing up straight. Athena was still ashen, her magic gone. She had been very quiet since Odette’s revival.  Snow grumbled at Carmen’s side.  Petra wasn’t certain what was wrong with him.  If he were a familiar instead of a bondmate, she would have thought the link between the wolf and the wood-speaker had been torn. Odette didn’t look hurt per se, merely pint-sized and glassy-eyed from exhaustion. The fey didn't sleep, and Petra's nightly meditation ritual didn't seem to align with pixie rest requirements.  She herself had a cut across her forehead and bandages poking out from under her shirtsleeves where Tae had bound the scrapes she had received when the ceiling collapsed.  One arm was also splinted to set a fracture. It itched.

Petra shoved her hands into her pockets, ignoring the jolt of pain, and looked around the compound.  They stood in a vast garden courtyard.  To their left was the guard gate built into the over-sized stone wall that surrounded the grounds.  The compound was actually a city within a city, covering nearly twenty hectares.  It had started as a separate entity from Khorevail, but the city had grown over the centuries, finally surrounding and incorporating the former fortress into its territory.  Still, its residents were very insular and rarely left the grounds for anything but Jaden business.

Further inwards, the view was dominated by the soaring spires and golden dome of the house of worship.  Beyond the ornate temple stood the far older donjon, the tower’s tall bulky shape at odds with the curves of its elegant neighbor.  The temple was a recent addition to the compound, built only a few centuries before when the Jaden clergy realized the Khoresbar temple was too small to hold all the personnel they required for running their exponentially expanding religion.  They had torn down the original castle that had stood here and spent several decades replacing it with the beautiful new temple.  The outlying buildings still remained, converted into offices and dormitories for the heart of Caldonia’s entire Jaden religion. Running underneath most of the compound were its vast catacombs, several levels deep. Primarily for storage of unusual artifacts, she knew one of the levels also served as a secondary prison for the city guard.

But for all its beauty and size, the temple in Khorevail did not have the same presence that the one in Khoresbar had had.  Part of it, Petra felt, was because Khoresbar’s temple mount had stood above the city, overseeing it. Building upwards gave the construction a more imposing presence than building outwards.  The rest of it was age.  The Jaden clergy had been in the new temple only a few centuries, while the temple in Sundabar had stood for well over two thousand years.  It had a maturity that Khorevail’s had not gained yet.  In a few decades or so, though, the majority of those who had seen Khoresbar’s temple before it had fallen would be gone, and Khorevail’s temple would stand as the height of Jadus’ followers’ work to all but historians.

Really, they had done the Jadens a favor, knocking that temple down.  Especially considering whom they had stolen it from.

She wondered if Tae had connected the dots.  The spiral design around the altar in the small, millennia-old temple they had just left and the huge spiral that had been covered up in the central chamber of the temple in Khoresbar.  Odette had not seen the one in the ancient temple; Petra doubted she had seen anything of what had been hidden under the illusion before she died.  And neither Carmen nor Athena was the type to pay close attention to architecture, nor had they seen the spiral in Khoresbar.

Sometime during the reign of the Allekhor Empire, Jadus’ followers had built the mount in Khoresbar around a temple devoted to the Eater of Worlds.  For what purpose, she did not know. And it likely was not the only one.

“Petra, that makes you look like you are looking the place over in preparation for a robbery.  Stop that.”

She scuffed her feet on the ground and looked wide-eyed at Tae.  “But I always look like this.”

Tae narrowed her eyes. Petra fought to keep a grin off her face.

The argument was headed off by the arrival of a tall man in full plate with a navy blue cloak clasped at his neck.  It looked identical to the one draped across Yseult.  A crusader, then.  That would make him the commander of the guardsmen currently circling them, or at least someone much higher up in rank.  “Identify yourselves.”

“What?” Carmen asked, confusion coloring her voice.  The crusader frowned at her.

“Odette’s translation spell,” Tae said quickly.  Petra knew what had happened.  The sorceress’ spells all would have been negated with her death, including the one that allowed the woodswomen and Tae to be understood. The others had had no difficulty speaking with the sun-knights right after it happened, though. The spell must have finished collapsing when Mantha was sacrificed to bring Odette back. He had been an extension of the sorceress and was capable of storing her excess energy away. “It must have dispelled with her- disappearance.  We do not have the time to renew it right now.  Odette?”  Petra would have felt slighted by the request, but Odette always acted as spokeswoman. She had better manners.

Odette gave him a short curtsy and spoke in Allekheirn. There was nothing like a continent-spanning empire to force everyone to speak the same language. The original dialect of the country that had started it all was long forgotten, but roots of it reached everywhere in the current tongue. “I am the sorceress Odette. Our services were requested by Crusader Yseult to help repair the wards at a temple being used as a jail for an avatar of the Chained God.  While the mission itself was successful, Yseult and her compatriots were felled by the structure collapsing.  We felt it only right to return them here, rather than leave them buried in that terrible place.”

One of the surrounding guardsmen barked a loud laugh of disbelief.  The knight held up a hand, silencing the other faint chuckles that started up.

“Crusader Yseult did indeed have such a task,” he told the men, his piercing gaze never leaving Odette’s.  “You women will come with me to discuss these matters further.  Borrick, Gavin, with me.  The rest of you, bring those bodies to the clinic for Healer Maire to take a look at.”

Petra translated quickly while the men moved to carry out their orders, far quicker than they had assembled.  The crusader did not look pleased about it.  Two moved to flank the women as they moved out of the way of the six men carefully picking up the dead bodies. Carmen glared, obviously understanding they would not be leaving any time soon.

Petra would have preferred they left the bodies in Telubra and to blazes with the Jadens, but Tae and Odette had vetoed that idea. They were really too nice for their own good. They didn’t really understand the mindset the faith was falling into. Paranoia kept her on her toes, though, and she knew what this latest encounter with the Jadens would lead to. Death and destruction, just like every other one.

She could feel her skin crawling at the presence of all the Jadens. She wasn’t certain how long she could keep her grip on herself, not when there was a piece of the Chained God inside her lunging like an angry dog on a leash to destroy everything of Jadus’ it could see.

She should have argued more about not coming back here.

Snow growled as a guard moved too close to him, lips tightening and peeling back to show sharp teeth.  They were considerably larger than a dog’s would be, and the guardsmen dropped into more defensive positions.  The one who had bothered him skittered out of range, worried that the snarling wolf would lunge at him.

“That’s a wolf!”

“One of ‘em must be woodsfolk.”

“He don’t look tame to me.”

Athena reached a hand down to the angry wolf’s muzzle.  She did not touch him, Petra noticed.  Merely held her hand such that he could sniff at it.  He snorted in displeasure and circled away from her and the men who had stopped in their work.  He stopped on the other side of Carmen.

“Is there a problem here?” The crusader asked icily.

The guardsmen not ordered to stay with the crusader hurriedly left.  Athena placed one hand to her chest, staring at the wolf.

“The teleport spell,” she said.  “It was enough of a shock to finish breaking our bond.”

“He won’t follow us inside then,” Carmen said, eyeing the armored man warily.  “You had a hard enough time coaxing him into that house in Khoresbar.  Do you have enough of a link to ask him to wait somewhere for you?”

Athena shook her head.  “He sees me as an intruder.  ‘Tis why he keeps so close to you.  He’s still a bondmate, but I cannot repair my half of the link until my magic returns.  You practice some nature magic, you have enough of a gift to make a bond, so he seeks you out to fix his.”

“I’ve only bonded with foxes, he shouldn’t-”

“What is the problem?” The crusader asked Odette, frowning at the interchange.

“The woodswoman’s bond with her wolf was broken at the temple,” Petra explained. Odette didn’t like talking in circles. Petra couldn’t wait until the new-made pixie discovered she couldn’t tell lies anymore. The fey had a different set of rules built into them by the ley energies that created them. Maybe she should make her some notes to study.  “Her magic is too weakened right now to rebuild it, and the other woodswoman is hopefully going to attempt to forge a temporary bond with him to keep him from panicking about being around civilization.”

“It can stay in the kennels while you stay,” he said.

Petra gave a short bark of harsh laughter and translated for the others’ benefit.  Athena attempted a glower, but it was Carmen who rounded on him.

“He’ll not be caged,” Carmen snapped at the man, uncaring that he could not understand her words.  “He’s not some tame animal you can place behind bars.  He’d go mad trying to get out.”

While they did not share a language, the crusader seemed to have no problems reading her body language and vocal tones.

“It’s a wild animal,” he said, enunciating each word slowly.  And loudly.

“She’s not stupid,” Petra scolded.  “Talking slower isn’t going to solve the problem of her speaking a tongue from past the eastern ocean.”

“I had forgotten my translation spell lapsed,” Odette said before Petra could continue.  “It will take some time to replace.  If you could be patient for a bit-”

“I’ll not have it running loose on the grounds.”

Petra wasn’t certain if he was worried Snow would attack someone or whether someone would attack Snow.  The latter seemed more likely.  And should it happen, there would be no leaving the temple grounds without bloodshed.  Civilized though Khorevail was, they still knew a bondmate was no common beast.  And they knew that to attack one was to attack his bondswoman as well.  Even should that happen accidentally, both woodswomen would demand the offender’s life.  Nature had its own rules. Killing an animal in self-defense or for food was permissible. Anything else was murder.

Compromise was necessary.

She inched closer to Carmen and tugged at her wrist to get her attention.  The brunette looked down at her.  “Can you communicate well enough with Snow to get him off the grounds?  That’s really his problem, having a wild animal in here.”

“And how would we find him again?” Carmen hadn’t taken a bondmate in quite some time and seemed to have forgotten the link between them would act as a compass should they be separated.

“He’s not going to go far, not in a strange city filled with unfamiliar scents.  I remember there being a park nearby.”

Carmen frowned, looking over to the wolf.  His head was down, his back hunched.  He was very unhappy.

“I can try,” she said dubiously.

“Better he wait someplace with fewer guardsmen, yes?  The citizenry is less likely to spot him than the temple guardsmen, and less likely to be carrying weaponry to try to get rid of him.”

Carmen balled her fist and nodded in acquiescence.  She knelt, showing the wolf her hands palms up.  He nudged his muzzle into the side of them.  Carmen’s brow furrowed in concentration.  Petra could see her clumsily using the small magic she had to reach out to the angry scared wolf.  The tension eased out of him slowly as she cupped his muzzle.  He growled softly, his hackles rising, and tugged his head away from her.

“Does he understand?” Odette asked.

“I think so,” Carmen replied.  “If the crusader can wait a bit longer, I would like to walk him past the gate. I’d rather any guardsmen still in the gatehouse not get jumpy.”

Odette translated for the crusader.

He nodded sharply.  “So long as she does not try to leave.”

She hoped it was enough to keep the wolf out of trouble.  There was no telling how long they would be here.  Yseult’s mission had been very important to the Jadens, and she herself had to have been an important personage to have risen so high in the male-dominated Jaden ranks.  There were probably only a handful of women in the entire clergy of Jadus.  It could be days before they gave the Jadens enough information to allow their release.

She wasn’t certain her sanity could last that long. Not here, in the heart of the Jaden faith. Not with the knowledge of what their ancestors had done to rise this far.

---

The room they had been firmly led to was austere in its decor.  A large rectangular table took up most of the room, with a row of benches to sit at on two opposing sides.  A golden statue of Jadus stood against one wall.  The toga was not especially attractive on the bearded man, but then, Carmen didn’t claim to understand religious art.  Opposite the statue was a large circular mirror set in an ornate silver frame.  She had seen similar mirrors in Isador temples and thought it had to do with their goddess-granted visions.

None of them moved to sit on the benches, though Petra had hopped up to sit on the table next to Carmen, dangling her feet over the edge.

“My apologies for not realizing the spell had broken,” Odette said as they waited.

The Jadens were almost certainly going to take their time before deciding to speak with them, letting the women stew in nervous anticipation to better the chances of dropping their guard. It wasn’t going to work.

“We all forgot about it,” Tae appeased her.  “And how were we to notice, with no one from here to speak to?”

“I will have to cast it on you again.”

Tae nodded and looked over to Athena, then to Carmen, and finally back to Odette.  “Would it clear up the Telubrin accent as well? Understanding the citizens of Heron’s Rest was occasionally a hardship.”

She shook her head.  “Their language has shifted more from the common background of the ancient Allekhor tongue.  This seems rather unusual, since the tongue in Sundabar has more similarities with that spoken in the Free Coast.”

“Not surprising,” Petra said.  “The northern mountain range makes Telubra basically landlocked, while Sundabar has hundreds of kilometers of coastline.  Trade between Sundabar and the Free Coast is more common than between the Coast and Telubra, what with the Berungan Confederacy separating them.  The sailors pick up the different accents of their ports of call and create their own from them.  Telubra’s language is probably purer from the lack of exchange.”

“’Tis fascinating, for cert,” Carmen drawled, her tone in direct opposition to her words.  “Mayhap we might get back to the part where I cannot understand a word these people say.”

Petra stuck her tongue out at her.

“Setting up for the spell should be a simple matter,” Odette said, motioning for Carmen to go around to the other side of the table to be nearer to Tae and Athena.

“You think you can use your knowledge of the language for the transfer?  I don’t think I can separate it out,” Petra asked. Never one to sit still, her fingers were drumming on the table’s edge as she stared at the ugly statue of Jadus. She seemed twitchier than usual.

“Separate?” Odette repeated, and then a look of comprehension crossed her face.  Her new form was more expressive than the sorceress had originally been, but Carmen was having trouble deciphering what the expressions meant.  Odette looked a little annoyed with Petra’s comment, and the sorceress was such a calm person it didn’t feel like Carmen was reading her correctly.

“To be expected, I suppose,” Odette said after a moment.  “It should not be a problem.  While my grasp of the language is not as intuitive as yours, I speak it well enough for this purpose.  If you could go over to the other side of the room to keep out of the way, that would be helpful.”

“I don’t take up that much space,” the redhead said as she followed Odette’s orders. It moved her out of a good line of sight to the statue. She looked relieved about it. Carmen frowned as she looked at it, trying to see what there was about it that was setting Petra off.

“Hush, you,” Odette scolded as she started tracing invisible letters into the air in front of her.  “This was easier when I had to focus to see arcane energies.  I do not understand how you do not collapse under the excess of metaphysical information hanging around.”

“Am I supposed to reply to that?  Because you just told me to be quiet.”

“It was rhetorical.”

“It could be why the fey are notorious for their short attention spans,” Tae said, watching Odette work.  

If Carmen squinted, she could see vague lines where the sorceress was working. She remembered from last time that this was Odette’s way of setting the modifiers to the spell.  It had taken days for Petra and Odette to work out the variables of changing Odette’s translation spell to work omnidirectionally for the trio, but the actual casting had not taken long at all.

“If you could all place a bare hand on mine,” Odette said, holding her left hand out to where they stood.

Carmen slipped off one leather glove and set her hand down upon Athena’s.  Tae made a noise of annoyance before she finally managed to tug a gauntlet off.

Odette murmured a soft incantation, slicing her right hand through the space she had been working in and setting it down atop their joined hands.  There was an unfamiliar itch at the base of Carmen’s skull and she suppressed the urge to free her hand to rub at it.

“Did it work?” Petra asked from her corner.

“How would I know?” Carmen replied.

Petra grinned at her.  “By me speaking their language, obviously.”

Odette removed her hands, rolling her eyes at Petra’s remarks.  “That should be set for a decent amount of time.  I used less magic this time, for I do not have the reservoirs I did when first I cast it.”

“Is that why my head does not hurt this time?” Tae asked as she sat down.  “I was seeing stars for hours the other time.”  Athena sat down quickly beside her, tucking herself in as closely to her cousin as she could without hitting Tae’s heavy armor.  Carmen worried about the blonde.  She had almost completely withdrawn into herself.  She hadn’t completely understood the consequences of her actions, or perhaps underestimated them.  She and Snow had been partners for years and the wolf’s alienation hurt her deeply.

“My apologies.  Enchantment is not my strong suit.”

“You’ll find you’re better at it now,” Petra said, moving away from the door.  “The fey are well known for their ability to manipulate others’ minds.”

“You will have to make me a list of things to expect.”

“Of what I know, anyways. It’s not much, elves are only borderline-”

A rap on the door cut off whatever else she had to say.

“Why would they knock?” Tae asked as the door swung open.

A dark-haired priestess in the soft gray robes of Isis ducked into the room.  Carmen recognized her as the one who had originally hired them weeks ago as couriers.

“We were not expecting to see you again, Selene Ailith,” Odette said.  The strict tone was hindered by the high voice she had yet to get complete control of.  Carmen thought it was cute, but hadn’t mentioned it to the sorceress for fear of getting frowned at.  Odette took herself very seriously and expected others to do the same, but her new form hindered matters.  Unless she managed to learn an illusion spell to give her height, they were going to have to start making Tae their spokeswoman.  It was something to mention after these matters were settled, though.
   
“I was hoping not to see you back,” the priestess replied primly as she slid into one of the benches. The others followed suit. No need to tower imposingly over the diviner, after all.  “Isis' visions have been nigh indecipherable these past few months, but when you left, I knew there was a chance you would return with troubles.”

“Why did you tell Petra to stay silent about the events at Folken Abbey?” Odette asked, leaning forward across the table.

Ailith traced her fingers along the table.  “To bring into question one holy man's faith is to give all cause to doubt theirs.  As things stand now, doubt leaves one vulnerable to outside influence. Influence that could give rise to similar problems as happened at the abbey.”

“And ye didn't worry about the fact it might already a problem be?  And that more people could die because o’ it?” Carmen asked, leaning back and folding her arms across her chest.

“We've been keeping an eye on it.” The priestess' eyes were cool, unconcerned by the questions put to her.  “Just because the senior clergy here thinks the sisters are useless for anything except pool-gazing doesn't mean we do not have other duties.  Folken slipped by us because it was a Jaden retreat.  Even at the best of times, they did not welcome outsiders, especially followers of Isis.  If Lightbringer Roland hadn't been in contact with Abbot Aldwin, we never would have noticed in time to keep it from repeating in Khoresbar.”

Carmen frowned.  They had thought the corruption to be caused by the correspondence.  Ailith seemed to be implying something else.  And what was that about keeping it from repeating in Khoresbar?  What could the sisterhood have done? She couldn’t mean- “It was your earthquake that opened the lower levels to the underground,” she accused.

“That's a bit much,” Ailith replied.  “I don't know what caused the earthquake.  We simply took advantage of it.  And we had nothing to do with the trolls.”

Her frown deepened.  Just because a low-ranked priestess didn’t know what caused the earthquake didn’t mean someone higher up the ranks hadn’t been the instigator.

“Just the beast that was released to harry them,” Odette said in a calculating tone.  “Khoresbar is an old enough city it had plenty of entrances to the underground that were sealed up as the city rose.  And even where we are from, we know of the Hekatonkheires locked away by the mages of ancient Allekhor.  The religion of Jadus is old enough to have preserved records of where they were imprisoned.  Khoresbar was its capital; it stands to reason there would be one held captive near there.”

The priestess paled at Odette's words.  Carmen wondered what the Hekatonkheires were.  Glancing over, she could see Athena was paying no attention to the conversation, but Tae had a frown on her face.  She obviously recognized the word but couldn't remember from where.  The healer frequently had that problem.  As a peregrine, she did not have to bury herself in text the way many clergy members did.  Nor did wandering from town to town healing the sick or injured and helping to resolve problems make study easy. Her patron god was one who preferred action to words, so perhaps it was not something even his temple clergy were required to do either.

She looked over at Petra.  The elven girl was sketching on paper, seemingly disinterested in the discussion.  It was a bad angle to see what precisely she was making.  Carmen couldn't tell what her thoughts were, but as well-read and nosy as the girl was, she wouldn’t put it past her to be the one who mentioned the idea to Odette.

“You are better read than I thought,” Ailith said, finally breaking her gaze with Odette to look past her at the mirror on the wall behind where they sat.

“It is a relatively safe hobby,” Odette said dryly.  “You did not answer my question.”

Ailith returned her gaze.  “I didn't hear one.”

“It was implied.  Did someone release one of the Hekatonkheires to harry the trolls skywards?”

“I do not know.”

“Then why do you look so worried?”

Ailith glanced back to the mirror.  “Time's up.”  Carmen turned to peer at the mirror.  There was nothing but a reflection of the room.  She turned back around at the scrape of the bench as Ailith stood up.  “I had hoped for a better exchange of information-” Petra interrupted with a loud snort of disbelief.  “But I think I found the answers I needed.  I hope you can find yours.”  She looked worriedly in Petra's direction, and then skittered out of the room.

Carmen frowned.  The priestess was obviously up to something. She looked at Petra.  The redhead blinked innocently back at her and shrugged.

“I don't think they know she came in here,” Athena said as the door closed behind the priestess.  It was the first time she had spoken since they had parted with Snow.

“Obviously,” Odette said.  “They would not send a priestess of Isis in to discuss the deaths of three Jaden sun-knights in our company.”

“They will send one of Crusader Yseult’s superiors,” Tae added.  “But why would Selene Ailith wish to speak with us?  She was not interested in the particulars concerning their deaths.”

“Because she didn’t know what was released in Khoresbar,” Petra said.  “She was surprised to hear Odette mention it.”

“I thought she was just surprised Odette knew it.”

“What are they?” Carmen asked.

“Not to be discussed here, is what they are,” Petra said, shooting her a look.  “I doubt there’s more than a handful of clergy- of either Isis or Jadus- who know what was released, and it’s better the rest of them not know the distance some of their fellows will go to keep the poison from spreading. If they weren’t so at odds with themselves-”

“That is a bit much,” Tae scolded. “Releasing that monster was not something done to attack a brother temple-“

“The Jadens thought we were the ones at fault for Folken. Why would someone release something like that upon the temple at Khoresbar in relation to-”

“They are divine spirits, only a cleric could command them and the only-”

“Unless they have an artifact, they do hoard-”

“In which case it need not have been a Jaden at all, the Isadors might have access as well-”

“It could still have been a cleric of a different god-”

“Enough!” Carmen said over the quick patter of voices. Tae and Odette shot shamefaced looks her way. Petra still looked hot. “Whoever or whatever or whichever god was behind the tonker trying to attack Khoresbar or whatever the cursed thing is called, it does not matter.”

“Yes it does,” Petra muttered.

“Doesna matter,” Carmen repeated over Petra as she tried to continue to talk. “I dinna care if ‘twere the Green Man hisself come ta smite civilization back ta the days o’ stone an’ fur.” She stopped as she realized she was shouting.

“The Jadens have been attacking the power bases of the other gods for centuries. I’m pretty certain it matters who summoned the monster to attack one of theirs,” Petra snapped back. “We’ve been shoved right in the middle of this mess; I’d like to know all the major players of the game.”

“That seems a bit exaggerated,” Odette said in a soft voice.

Petra scoffed.  “Have you seen any temples dedicated to anyone but Isis or Jadus the entire time we’ve been in Sundabar? They’re practically monotheistic and two coups away from a totally theocratic government.  And they’re pushing past the borders too, or did you forget the only priest in Heron’s Rest was one of Jadus’ as well?  In Valencia, there were temples to a dozen gods and goddesses in every city, and even the smaller towns had temples for at least two and altars for the rest.”

“That does not mean the Jaden clergy are expelling the other gods',” Tae argued.  “And the creature could have been released by someone already corrupted by the evils the temple in Telubra was releasing.”

“It's a systemic destruction-” Petra stopped and cocked her head, eyes looking towards the door.  “I don’t see why we’re here,” she said, non sequitor. The hot anger in her voice disappeared in favor of a cool unemotional tone. It was still rather loud.  “The temple collapsing is what killed those sun-knights and we did the decent thing in returning them here when we could have just left them there.  We’ve been pretty beat up these past few weeks and hauling three bodies around is tough work at the best of times.”

The door swung open, letting two people inside.  The taller one was a bulky sun-knight wearing a light chain shirt and a navy blue cloak.  They had passed two others wearing the cloak on their way here and both had been greeted as crusaders. It seemed to be a symbol of their station.  There was a mass of scar tissue on his neck partially hidden by the clasp.

The woman, not much shorter than her companion, was dressed in a white gown with a long blue stole draped around her neck, the ends running parallel down her entire front.  The stole was trimmed with gold and had a large golden sun embroidered onto each end.  Her long platinum blond hair was gray at her temples, and she had the smooth wrinkle-free face of one who did not laugh enough.

She also had a striking resemblance to Yseult.

Carmen had the distinct feeling they were in the presence of someone ranked highly within the Jaden religion and that she would be only too happy to have them locked up and forgotten about.

“So which one of you is the carrot and which one the stick?” Petra asked brightly.  “That’s the traditional form of informal interrogation, right?”

Neither of them looked pleased at her cheek.  Nor did they seem interested in making introductions.  “There will be no treats, trickster, vegetable or otherwise,” the woman said sternly.  “You will explain the circumstances that led you to return to us three dead sun-knights.”

“What, no thank you?” Petra asked.  Tae poked two fingers into her side and the redhead settled back into her seat, staring at the two Jadens intently.

“The temple that Crusader Yseult asked Odette to teleport her to collapsed on us when the warding was completed,” Tae said before either could respond to Petra’s remark.

“Then why are you ladies still alive?” the man asked in a raspy voice.  “Their armor should have left them better protected than you.”

“We were outside,” Carmen said, motioning to herself, Athena, and Odette.  “And Tae barely managed to get half a shield up over herself and Petra before the ceiling came down.”

“Then why did she not shield my sun-knights as well?”

“Because they were on the other side of the naos,” Tae snapped.  “They were doing the ward work and I did not want to get in their way.”

“Did you see what caused the collapse?” the priestess asked.

“A trap.  The building was filled with triggers to set them off,” Petra said with a scowl.  “Or did you miss the fact Odette is now a pixie?”

“I doubt anything found in such a place would cause that,” the priestess said coolly.

“No, it destroyed her body and Athena had to make something for her spirit to take possession of,” Carmen said.

“And what would have caused that destruction?”

Odette placed a hand on Petra’s arm when the redhead opened her mouth to reply.  “Would you like to see the last thing I saw before I died, Helia?”  She didn’t wait for a reply, cupping her hand over the table and drawing it upwards.  Under her hand, a delicate illusion spun into existence.  It was a scale model of the face-etched pillar Odette had been standing beside right before disappearing in a cloud of dust.  They had probably been ashes, Carmen realized.  She glanced away from it, disturbed.

The man leaned forward, poking one finger into the illusion.  “I have seen this before,” he said softly in his raspy voice.  “See the detail in the faces, Helia? Each one unique.  It is a soul-trap.”  He looked up from the illusion to the sorceress.  “How did you escape?”

Odette shrugged.  “I saw that pillar and then woke up under Athena’s care.  I could not tell you what happened between those times.”

“Divine intervention,” Petra said curtly as the man opened his mouth to ask another question.  “And I owe my patron a great deal for the matter.”

The priestess nodded her head in understanding.  “You follow the Court, of course.  That explains how she came to become fey.  But not what caused her death.  Soul-traps, though rare, are very conspicuous, especially to one able to see magic.”

“Not when the entire temple is covered in an illusion,” Tae said.  “Not when the soul-trap was keyed to snap when someone cast a dispeller.”

“I should have known better,” Odette said ruefully.  “Places such as that are notorious about what happens to the unwary inside them.”

“You, at least, are lucky enough to have the chance to learn from your mistake,” the priestess said.  “As Crusader Yseult is no longer with us to give a report, you will explain the events that occurred, starting with your first meeting.”

Carmen sank back in her seat.  There went the rest of the day.

---

Tae carefully unhooked her spiked chain from the loops at her waist and set it down on the bed.  There was no telling how long they would be waiting here and she did not want to worry about bumping into her companions with it in these close quarters.

“Do you get the feeling they don’t want us to leave?” Athena asked, sitting down on the bed.  The room they had been escorted to was furnished as a bedroom, with a simply decorated set of bed, desk, and wardrobe.  The sun-priests did not seem interested in making their guest quarters feel comfortable. She also wondered how they were going to manage their sleeping arrangements. Odette's insomnia meant she would not need the bed, but it was far too small for three to share.

“This was only day one,” Petra said, her fingers flying as she wrote something at the desk where she stood.  “Now that they’ve got the basics, they’re going to want to go over it again in complete detail to try and find where we’re lying.”

“We’re lying?” Athena repeated, scrunching up her nose.

“Obviously,” Odette replied, dragging the chair at the desk around to straddle it.  Tae smiled at the sight.  The sorceress’ new wings were making things difficult in some respects.  “No one tells the truth anymore, after all.”

“That crusader who came in with her didn’t mention anything because we didn’t actually lie,” Petra said.  “Just left out unimportant details.  I’m surprised they aren’t making more of a fuss about the fact it was a temple of the Eater of Worlds.  They couldn’t have known, not when the temple was hidden from remote viewing.”

“They may not believe that,” Tae said.  “It would have been better if Odette could have made more illusions to show them what it looked like, but, well.”  She trailed off.  

Odette had not seen anything of the true interior beyond the pillar before she died.  And the temple had collapsed when she had first revived.  They had not been impressed by Petra’s sketches, claiming that there was no way the elf could have remembered so much of it in such detail.  It did not strike Tae as a particularly strong argument, especially seeing as how they had confiscated the sketches.  The man had looked particularly intrigued with the sketch of the altar.  Something about it had seemed off to Tae, but she had not been able to tell what before it had been taken away from her.

She knew why the girl remembered the temple so well.  Her passenger had yet to truly make its presence known, but it was only a matter of time.  She had to find some way of fixing the problem, without letting the Jadens know.  The reason why the Isadors were being so circumspect about the contamination within the Jaden ranks was because of their purification regulations concerning people.  The Jadens had a scorched earth policy.  Was someone possessed by a demon?  If the exorcism failed, the host would be killed to get rid of the demon.  The sun was harsh that way.  She did not want them knowing something from that evil temple had come back with Petra.

She also could not think of a good solution to the problem.

“This could take days,” Petra complained.  “We should have gone to Reeds.  No one there would have the authority to detain us.”

“No one does here, either,” Carmen pointed out.

“Reeds’ worship chamber could hold three hundred people.  The temple here is in a compound that used to be a fortress and is almost fully occupied.  Avoiding the twenty people in Reeds would have been easier.  Unless you don’t mind fighting your way out of here, in which case, I know this-”

“Going along with their requests is all we can do for now,” Odette interrupted. “They have been reasonable so far and it is not as if we are on a schedule.”

“And should something unusual happen, this place is defensible and well-stocked with defenders,” Athena said.  Her weakened cousin would be worried about that.  Tae had not yet asked her about her connection to the magic of their shared elven heritage, but she knew her cousin could not tap into her nature magic.  But Athena had known going in that she would have to sacrifice something to bring Odette back.  Nature magic did not like being used in such unnatural ways.  The connection would grow back, because that was the way of wood-speakers and the magical energies they manipulated, but until then, Athena would worry about her inability to use it.  “I would rather be outside, myself, but there are worse places we could be twiddling our thumbs.”

“They do have a lovely set of catacombs,” Petra said.  “I wonder if they hold prisoners there.”  She tapped at Odette’s shoulder, handing the woman the papers she had written.

“Be likely that’s why they didn’t knock down that big tower when they built the temple,” Carmen said.  “It’s far older than everything but the walls and the Jadens are big on appearance.  The only reason they wouldn’t get rid of something that ugly is if it served some purpose.”

There was a knock on the door.  Carmen pushed off the wall she was leaning against and pulled the door open wide.  Ailith stood in the doorway.  The simple gray cotton gown she had worn earlier had been traded out for a white sheer robe that covered everything but her hands and head while hiding nothing.  Over it, for decency’s sake, she wore a knee-length shimmery silver sleeveless shift with open sides.  A multitude of tiny silver bells hung silent along its bottom hemline.  A rich blue rope belt cinched around her waist kept the light outfit from revealing too much.

Judging by the change in attire, the priestess was here in some official capacity.

“Is there something you require, Selene Ailith?” Odette asked from where she sat, resting her chin in one hand.

“Peregrine Tae-Lana’s presence has been requested,” the priestess said in a formal voice.

Athena cocked her head to one side, blond curls falling loosely down her shoulder.  “Just Tae?”

The dark-haired woman nodded.  “She is the only one of you who follows the sun.”  Tae noticed movement out of the corner of her eye.  Petra’s head had snapped up at the priestess’ words.  Had the woman misspoken somehow?  “It is not something to be discussed with outsiders.”  Her voice was calm, but her dark eyes flickered nervously.

Something was obviously up.  But could they trust the woman?  Tae looked over to Odette.  The sorceress caught her look and winked quickly.  Carmen’s presence in the doorway blocked Ailith from seeing the exchange.

“It would not be a problem,” Tae said, approaching Carmen.

“Dear one, do you think this wise?”

She looked at the waiting priestess.  “Do you know how long this will be?”

The woman shrugged, the light fabrics she wore rustling softly under the quiet chime of the bells.  “Perhaps a few hours?  I could not say for certain.”

“You have two hours,” Odette said, glancing down at the papers she held.  “And then we start looking.”

The priestess’ eyes narrowed.  “I will do my best to return her by then.” She stepped to the side, motioning for Tae to precede her.

“Take this with you,” Carmen said as Tae moved to pass her, unbuckling one of her baldrics and passing the belt and the attached bastard sword over to Tae.  “The knights here all carry swords.  You will stand out more with your chain.”

Tae took the weapon and awkwardly buckled the baldric across her shoulder.  “Thank you.  I hope I will not need to use this.”

---

Carmen shut the door as the two priestesses walked away.

“Care to explain what that was about?” she asked Odette.

“Ailith is a priestess of Isis,” Odette said, looking up at Petra.  The redhead nodded.  “It was not the most subtle of requests, but whoever is keeping an eye on her will likely not notice it.  They seem to have forgotten Isis is an independent goddess and not part of Jadus’ retinue.”

“Why would someone be keeping an eye on her?” Carmen asked.

“Because she’s the one who brought us to the attention of the Jaden priests.  And they’re keeping an eye on us.  Or trying to, at any rate,” Petra explained.  “I warded the room as best I could, but I had to leave the door alone.  My warding spell won’t let sound in.”

“Is that what that little exchange was about?” Athena asked. “I thought it might have something to do with those notes.”

“The papers are something else entirely,” Odette said.  “But yes, that is what I was looking at her for.  I wanted to make certain she had finished the wards.”

“Sounds a bit paranoid,” Carmen said.  “Good.  We can’t tell who here has been touched by the madness and what they can do.”

“The moon,” Athena said.  They stared at her in bewilderment.  “Isis is the goddess of the moon,” she clarified.  “She would not be part of a sun ritual.  But where are they going, then?”

“Likely Tae was the only one of us she could take with her without causing too much suspicion,” Odette said.  “They will be back within my time limit.  She cannot afford us running around asking questions.”

“That didn’t answer my question,” Athena said with a frown.

“I could not guess. Either somewhere she needs help or has information for us.”

A thought struck Carmen.  She glanced around the room.  “Where did Petra go?”

“You did not think Tae would go with Ailith without one of us, did you?  After the fuss made about the last job?” Odette said with a knowing smile.

“She usually has the good manners to let us know when she’ll be disappearing.”

“She is troubled, I think,” the sorceress said.  “Her mind is on other matters, and her courtesy is poor even at the best of times.”

“So it’s not just me seeing it, then?” Carmen asked.  “The thing with that temple has all of us jumping in odd directions and I wasn’t certain if it was just her usual oddities compounded by nerves.” She looked pointedly at Athena, who was stroking her fingers on the inside of her wrist, staring forlornly out the window.

They might not have a schedule, but there was an urgent matter they couldn’t attend to if they were locked in here.

Odette followed her gaze.  “We cannot linger here.”

“We may not have a choice,” Athena said.  “They will want us to stay until they have the answers they want.”

“None of us understand what happened in that temple.  They are going to have to accept being disappointed,” Carmen said.

“You don’t think Tae-”

“I think she had other things on her mind than minding what the crusader and her men were doing. ‘Tis what they want to know.”

“A better question is what Petra saw,” Odette murmured, looking down at the papers Petra had given her.  “Neither of them has said much about the soul-trap, but Tae had to risk an invocation to free me.  That does not bode well for what else the trap had captured.  And Petra was the one who had to traverse it.”

“You think she saw something in there the Jadens were actually after?” Carmen asked.

“Not so much saw and more, perhaps, acquired,” Odette clarified.  “Since waking, I have been able to see magic much more easily.  And her personal energies have undergone a very strange transformation.”

“Transformation,” Carmen repeated in a flat voice.  “Transformation as in she picked up some extra power from it or transformation as in she’s going to be performing dark rituals to collect power for the return of the prophet Rægenhere?”

“The corruption of the priesthood here is through their connection with their god.  It does not show up in their personal energies,” Odette explained.  “So no, she will not be trying to summon dead prophets or test liquid fire recipes on trolls.”

“Not when she can set them on fire, already,” the woodswoman said dourly.  “So what do you think happened?”

“I could not even begin to guess.  But she brought something else besides me back from there.  And it would seem to be tied to Tae’s invocation of the Protector.  Invoking a god is no small matter, and for Petra’s energies to be warped so much even when it was her patron to have answered-”

“’Twas no minor underling of the Chained God bound there,” Athena said softly.  “’But we could tell that already.”

“You think even with the intercession of the Trickster that the Chained God has still found a way to slip his leash.”

Odette shook her head.  “Not him.  Not yet.  But the changes in her profile are in keeping with what we know of him.  I think a bargain was struck to release both me and a piece of the avatar.”

“The Trickster’s pranks can often be cruel, but he also is as much a part of this world as any other god.  He would not want the Eater of Worlds released any more than anyone else would,” Athena disagreed.

“He also does not have to deal in short lengths of time like we do,” Odette replied.  “It may be it does not hurt anything in the long run, but for now, we shall have to keep an eye on Petra.”

“Both eyes,” Carmen said.  “She’s always required one on her.”

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