Rennick, Galleren, Sturgard, Lott
Celeste, Talitha, Vyladie
|In memory of Dr. James Orton Wheeler, urban geographer, prolific writer as well as loving husband and father.|
Grand Master of Shadows and Nardak
Rennick, Galleren, Sturgard, Lott
Celeste, Talitha, Vyladie
The oracle had set the appointed time so that Uzmalrom could prepare his heart. He was to return to the higher world and speak to her--Wind of Haven, Sara--face to face.
Sturmgard did not have to wait long for Vyladie outside the stone gate of the First House of Healing. Dusk was settling over the city state during the rush hour of rickshaws, carriages, and heavy foot traffic. Denizens headed out for dancing or gambling. Farmers returned home from the open market, patrols of the Empress's guard changed shifts, and craftspeople closed or opened for business.
He had to admit that he enjoyed being sent into the city, and he was well suited to assignments to the smoking dens and wine clubs or--as this one was--to the mead hall. Although as a Raptor, his training was in scouting and infiltration rather than the cloak and dagger of the Dancers, he naturally mixed well with any situation involving partying and wild talking. He had been recruited right out of the private so-called Sage Academy where heavy drinking and crazy ideas abounded. Invited by Galleren who knew him from playing on the same ragball team years earlier in public school, Sturmgard thought his physical skills must have qualified him for recruitment. He found out later that his physical ability barely qualified and that his extensive reading was more interesting to the leaders.
Probably his knowledge of lore and his way with words were the very reason Rennick had assigned him to interview a possible team member. Sturmgard had been commissioned to probe a little more deeply into the beliefs of the barbarian who was supposedly of the reformed Derrek faction. He wondered, briefly and rightly, why he was sent with a healer rather than Galleren or another Guardsman closer to the inner circles. When she came through the gate with strawberry blond hair and shimmering evening clothes, though, Sturgard had to admit she might be pleasant company.
Shadow Dancers (Chapter 3)
“Dancers” was not a formal name—of course never heard in public—but had been used so widely and for so long that members of the Order of Shadows used it as easily as the name of a street or a town. The original Shadow had been an actual dancer, whose talent had allowed her access to trade deals, government meetings, and private guild halls. Her manner of ingratiating herself and gathering information so openly and innocently had become a model for apprentices, who also became called “dancers.” The Shadow Dancers ultimately became one branch of the Order of Shadows, along with the more martial Shadow Raptors. Finally, the secret order became large enough to need a public face so as to hide in plain sight. The first Matriarch developed the Golden Conclave, a palatial complex hosting guilds and groups of sages. The Golden Conclave became known for some of the best consultation and training in culture, folklore, sports, theater, and other arts—a bright light, that naturally cast some shadows.
Talitha might have been groomed to succeed the current Martriach or replace Isa, the current Dancer Master—such was her mastery of her craft and even of the human heart—if her true love had not been for her work in the field. She was now a high master who could teach and train apprentices, but this was the furthest she could rise without being called in to manage communication and strategy with other leaders at the base.
Talitha had come to the orphanage at the Golden Conclave before she could walk. Like all members of the order, she had chosen her own path at every step: to study with the private sages rather than attend the public school, to join the Shadows rather than another guild, to train as a Dancer, and to become a master as well as a high master. Like all of the students at the Golden Conclave, Talitha was encouraged to join in city life—whether sports or guilds or clubs—but her community had increasingly become the inner circle of the Order of Shadows. Her ability to mix with all walks of life came more from her training than from vast experience in the community. Yet she could play every social situation like an instrument and was adept at the arts of deception. Somehow she could tune her personality to sooth the most savage, fan into flame the most timid, to fade into the scenery, or to fill a room with her presence. She had a classic beauty, slender with long brown hair and deep brown eyes. Her life force somehow augmented and overshadowed her physically small stature.
Early one fall morning, Talitha loaded her trunk into the tented wagon through the flap at the back of the A-frame canvas. She would travel with clothes of a variety of style and social class with other accessories and props. She carried only concealed throwing knives and already had a set of throwing knives hidden under the seat above the water barrel on the back of the wagon.
Some days before, Rennick had briefed her team on what was most needed from her team’s mission into the Crystal Kingdom. As Raptor Master, Rennick was in charge of operations, although for this team, he brought the objectives from Isa the Dancer Master: battle plans, troop movements, and the location of the rumored spirit artifact. In utmost secrecy, Rennick had told them of an omen sent from the Wind of Haven by the hand of Nardak, a vision of a spirit transport flying into the Crystal Mountains of old. The mission was open as the Shadows did not even know what they did not know, and all information could be helpful. Soon, Rennick and his men would also be setting out to some surrounding cities as well as to Batana, also gathering information for the full initiative in the spring. They all planned to be back by the new year and the Spring Festival.
Miko and Jeth two young Raptors, not yet Masters, arrived next, making sure the two horses were combed, fed, and watered. They were twins, the younger brothers of Galleren, also orphaned to the Golden Conclave, also with bright red hair. They carefully secured one spirit-revealed device, a fire powder gun, beneath the driver’s seat. They hung their swords and bows behind the seat, and filled the feed bin inside the tent. The Raptors had been commissioned to serve primarily as coachmen because, though they already had adequate fight training, they would probably have more protection from the Dancers than the Dancers would have from them.
Celeste, full-born Shadow monk, recently been decorated as a Shadow Master, arrived at the wagon next, bringing two packs and—aside from concealed throwing knives—loading a staff, short sword, bow, and several quivers. Finally, Vyladie arrived, radiant with excitement in the cool, autumn air. She tossed several large bags aboard, and immediately changed out of her ceremonial garments, which she would have worn on a usual trip as a healer.
Talitha reviewd their cover identities as traveling performers, taking them to a nearby stock room to pick out a few gaudy costumes. Talitha found a few extra items for impossible illusions with juggling and conjuring. Celeste, who planned to do acrobatics and other stunts, picked out a few special torches for fire eating and a few special swords for swallowing. Vyladie needed little more than her own Mandolin to accompany her singing and storytelling. They hung two banners with the words “Golden Players” in gold letters on the wooden sides of the wagon True their training, the cover identity was not far from the truth. Because healers often worked with traveling groups, Vyladie had a kind of double cover by working this way with the Golden Conclave.
“As always, our mission is without marching orders or an official leader,” said Talitha when everything was ready.
“By speaking those words you show great leadership, Tal,” Celeste laughed, swinging aboard the wagon as it rolled into motion. By the time Ra had risen enough to give full morning light, the team was across the bridge of seven arches that spanned the Great River and was clopping down the tightly placed pavement stones of the Royal Road.
At nightfall, the tented wagon reached the first Royal Station, a caravansary with feeding troughs and stalls for horses set into the hexagon of stone wall that encircled the open courtyard. Celeste leapt from the wagon as they pulled into the one wide entrance, heading up the stairs to walk the wall, scanning the balconies and guard posts above the groups of animals and travelers in the yard below.
Celeste joined the other Dancers as the young Raptors tended the horses. Like the other stations along the Royal Road, this one offered fodder, water, bread, and peace from brigands. Some of the groups used the open fire pits for cooking and even warmth as the evening weather was cool in fall.
As the group of five ate the bread provided and rested around their a fire of their own, Vyladie took out her Mandolin and suggested a game, hoping it might attract other travelers and encourage conversations, especially those coming from the mountains or west lands. Picking the strings gently, she challenged the others to recall stories from the other world, ones not commonly known among the Golden Conclave. The others were more than agreeable, and other travelers did indeed slow their pace or turn to listen as she played upon the Mandolin.
“I’ll start with a story from the Sage Guild,” spoke Vyladie, gently but loudly. “It is scribed and sealed, but I think not often copied or told. It is the story of a bird called the ‘night-singer.’ The story took place in a far-away land where the Emperor lived in a beautiful palace that stood within a beautiful garden so big even the emperor did not know where it ended.
“Far in the deep of the garden as flowers gave way to trees and trees to seas, the night-singer sang such a beautiful song that travelers came from every realm to listen. Folios and scrolls were written in every realm and the best poets and sages praised the song of the night-singer.
“When the news reached the emperor, he exclaimed, ‘Why have I not heard about this bird? Imagine my having to learn this from a book! Bring this bird to me!’ When the king’s men had found the night-singer, they heard a sound more beautiful than crystal bells but saw only a little grey bird upon the branches of a tree. The bird did not want to leave the forest where its music sounded best but finally agreed when it heard that the Emperor wished it.
“When the bird sang in the court, every heart was touched and the emperor’s eyes filled with tears. The night-singer refused the jewelry the emperor offered to hang around its neck, saying, ‘The tears in the eyes of my emperor are my richest reward.’
“One day a large package from a distant kingdom came for the emperor; the label said ‘Night-singer.’ Inside was an artificial bird just like the living one, but instead of being common and grey, it was studded with diamonds and rubies and sapphires.”
At this point in the story, Talitha interrupted, “Is it a spirit artifact or just a work of human art?”
Vyladie smiled, still plucking her strings, and continued, “When the bird was wound up, it could sing one of the songs of the real night-singer, for inside was clockwork. The people never tired of the song because it was so complex, with a rich range of notes. This bird was even more popular than the real one, for it glittered with jewels and gold. When the real bird was forgotten, it flew back to its happy home in the forest.
“The artificial bird had a silken cushion next to the emperor’s bed with presents it had received scattered all around. But over the years, the clockwork began to wear out and they hardly dared to play the song even once a year.
“Many years later, the emperor’s heart was filled with grief for he was alone and close to death, and when the real night-singer heard of the emperor’s need, he flew to his side to comfort him. The song brought healing and the emperor arose with all evil visions charmed away from him. “
“’How can I ever repay you?’ asked the emperor.
“’You rewarded me,’ said the night-singer, ‘when I first brought tears to your eyes, for these are the jewels that make a singer’s heart glad. I will come to you and always bring you healing, but you must promise me one thing.’
“’Everything,’ said the emperor.
“’Let me keep my nest in the forest and tell no one you have a common, grey bird who brings you healing and life.’” Vyladie gave a final strum on her mandolin as she finished her story.
The next day, they continued their trip down the Royal Road. That time of year, the leaves of trees were turning gray and black, many falling like ashes to the ground. The Great River flowed to the north, on their right, as to the left, they passed farmlands ready for fall harvest, haystacks ready for winter feeding, and—the farther from Lak they traveled—villages preparing for their own folk festivals. They came again to a Royal Station at nightfall, and this time Celeste took a turn at storytelling.
“This is a tale of the other world from Batana,” she said after returning from her customary walking of the caravansary wall as they gathered around the fire. “I was assured by a member of the Order of the Path that the story came from a trusted scroll.
“Close to the beginning of the other world, all the humans gathered together and had everything in common with no discord. They came from the east and settled in a land called Shinar. They worked together and made bricks and baked them. They used the bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said to one another, “Let us build a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens. We will call ourselves by one fearsome name so that we will not be scattered over the face of the world.
Then God came down to see the city and the tower that the humans had built. And God said, “Behold, they are one people and have everything in common, and this is just the beginning. Nothing will be impossible to them. Come, let us go down and confuse them so that they cannot understand one another.
So God scattered them across the face of the world, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because God confused the language of all the people. They could not understand each other or agree about anything and were scattered across the face of the world.”
On the third night, Talitha told a story she had heard at the Temple of the Eternal. She stood dramatically, her manner invoked a stage presence with the two Raptors and two Dancers sitting by the fire at her feet. A group of listeners formed surprisingly quickly.
“I do not know if this tale comes from the oracle, but I hear it told at the Temple of the Eternal.
“Once there was an enchanted kingdom ruled by a wizard with great magic. The people could move mountains and travel as fast as light. The people depended on magic to being them food and bring them news. They did not even wash their own hands or clean their own teeth without the aid of magic. They no longer painted their own paintings and no longer made their own music.
“Some of the people did not want to be ruled by magic. Although they used the magic to teach their children and to heal their sicknesses, they did not want a life where they did not have to leave their beds or lift a finger. They wanted to plant their own food and create their own art. So they lived together and became a tribe.
Their tribe lived happily for a time, for all the people of the kingdom claimed to be free, but disagreement led to arguments, and arguments led to fighting, and fighting led to war. The tribe knew that it could not win a war against magic, so they made a plan. They would surrender and move throughout the land, and they would gather all the magic they would need. They gathered magic swords that could cut through iron and magic ships that could travel through stone; they gathered magic books that could hold a thousand pages and magic shields that could protect from fire and hail.
When they were ready, they did not fight a war but left on ships to travel to a distant land. They left at different times and from different places in a secret exodus. When they gathered again on a distant shore, they made a new life, growing their own food and building their own homes and making their own stories. They lived happily ever after.
Talitha raised her hands in a gentle applause cue, and there was a pattering of clapping from the gathered travelers.
The Dancers kept up the game whenever they stopped at Royal Stations and even built relationships with travelers who joined then at their fireside story time. Vyladie told the story of a great flood that covered the world and another of a proud god who flew too close to Ra. Celeste told of an army that hid inside a wooden horse that was gifted to an enemy. Talitha told of a god, killed by his brother, scattered in pieces across the land, regathered by his wife and sister, and resurrected by the gods. They told stories of heroes, talking animals, and magic. Their trip was uneventful, other than pre-empting the games of the odd pickpocket or sneak thief.
The Shadow dancers were at a caravansary three day’s journey from Batana when they happened upon a happy fact that would improve their cover identities, providing better purpose and potential for engagement upon reaching the Crystal kingdom. One of the fellow travelers, a merchant in fine cloth from the southern isles, who had been drawn in to their evening storytelling, revealed that he had recently been with the troops of the Gold Delving, capitol of the kingdom and home of the Crystal King. Knowing that any accurate detail could prove useful, the Shadow Dancer showered the traveler with laughter and appreciation.
“You must know the latest trends in the capitol. What can we prepare to best entertain the people there?” Talitha asked.
“The show people seem like those found everywhere,” said the merchant. “There are bards, acrobats, actors, and fools. But the troops and some of the officers were hiring gypsies from Batana who cast stones for divination. The interest is so high that the king has made an edict forbidding the stones for use in battle strategy. The soldiers are not allowed to use the stones as fortune telling to choose marching directions or timing of attacks. Lately, they seem to enjoy the casting of the stones as much as gambling and drinking.”
As soon as the dancers were alone, Talitha expressed her excitement about this news from the kingdom: “Casting the stones might be a way into the inner circle.”
Celeste asked, “Vy, you know the way of the cards and the coins. You know the way of the stones, too, don’t you?”
Vyladie nodded slowly, not sure at first whether she wanted to concede to anything.
“We couldn’t have hoped for a better ruse,” said Talitha. Best of all, the change in Vyladie’s cover would only require a short stop and a few easy purchases in Batana.
When they reached the citadel, they dropped off Vyladie and one of the young raptors at the ferry crossing and parked the wagon just upriver where builders were working on a bridge of cut stones. Water flowed between two completed arches that ended abrupbtly like a cliff in the midst of the Great River.
Upon entering the citadel, they hired a double rickshaw to carry them north of the night market, away from the popular sanctuaries, to the Batana House of Healing, a walled courtyard housing a stone building with a spire, a smaller version of her own home in Lak. Miko, the young Raptor waited outside with the rickshaw, without asking questions, as Vyladie passed through the gateway to see the inner walls covered in green vines and the courtyard full of shrubs of red and yellow blossoms.
Finding the high healer, a tall, white-haired, white-bearded man in the white robes of the order, she expressed the urgency of her visit, “I seek knowledge of an ancient spirit transport, a black sphere.” The High Healer knew and trusted Vyladie deeply. He took her back through the small library to an even smaller inner chamber that very few healers had ever seen. Bolting the door, he took out a folio titled Ancient Sacraments and Sacrifices.
“I seem to remember such an image.” The high healer said, turning through the pages of scribed words and drawings of altars, temples, and spirit devices.
“Is this folio scribed and sealed?” asked Vyladie. The most trusted spirit sources were said to have been accessed directly from spirit artifacts and carefully transcribed and sealed by sages of good reputation.
“Perhaps. But some of the knowledge here,” he said, indicating the chamber, “is older than can be definitively validated and some could be construed as heretical to the ways of the Most High. However, the people of Batana sometimes need strange consolations and remedies.” He turned to a drawing of a round, dark sanctuary with an open portal. “Yes. Here it is. The passage here describes a sacred space where oracles are given and where spoken prayers are immediately effective in bringing knowledge, healing, music, light, heat, and maybe some kind of visions or art. Some of the effects mentioned are not recognizable but seem to indicate movement across land or moving the ground itself.” Vyladie looked over the page before closing the folio, expressing profuse thanks, and taking her leave.
Waving to the pillar of whiteness, which was the high healer, and rejoining the young red-haired escort, she hurried back through the night market for her express purpose of purchasing the needed rune stones. She also picked out some colorful traveling clothes worthy of a Batanan gypsy, before passing back out through the seven staggered gates of Batana.
The Shadow Dancers came to the end of the Royal Road just south of the Haunted Forrest. Here the caravansaries, pavement, and royal patrols ceased although the dirt road was wide and tightly packed. Finally, they reached the Crystal Mountains with the Great Falls and the Haunted Forrest to the north. The watch station at the opening of the mountain pass at the base of the mountains, sometimes occupied by soldiers of the Crystal Kingdom, was deserted this evening, and the team camped with Vyladie taking the first watch, followed by the red-haired Raptors Miko and Jeth, who in turn awakened Celeste and Talitha for the early watch.
It was in the dim light between night and day, with Talitha on the front seat and Celeste, at her station on the back-facing seat, heard the sound of a falling rock. Although the single sound of rock striking rock could have been caused by wind or bird or badger, something in Celeste’s intuition alerted her, and she moved quietly to find Talitha listening intently, leaning into the slowly dawning day.
There was only the sound of the wind and nothing more.
Breaking camp meant little more than removing the wheel wedge and harnessing the horses. The pass was twenty meters across at the narrowest points and sometimes as wide as sixty, packed from the years of use, and the tented wagon rolled easily through the curves of rock face. Trees grew on some of the ridges they passed by, and the highest peaks were white with snow and ice. They had traveled for almost an hour when Mika whistled from the driver’s seat and nodded forward. Jeth was notching an arrow. In the road ahead, a woman lay motionless, curly black hair and tattered clothes in the dust.
“Keep moving,” Talitha said to Mika as she guided Jeth under the canvas tent and quickly groped through Vyladie’s bag to find her white robe. Touching Jeth’s bow, she pointed to Vyladie. Handing Vyladie her robe, she pointed to the woman in the road. She touched Celeste, pointing to the south side of the pass, and she touched herself, pointing to the north side. The Dancers disappeared into the rocks on each side of the wagon as it continued rolling.
Dark Mission (Chapter 2)
Astor—accompanied by Rennick and his two men, Galleren and Lott, rode the ferry across the Great River. They drew nearer to the Citadel of Batana with both reserve and relief. After a month following up Astor’s sage contacts closer to the City of Lak, they had journeyed down the Royal Road. Traveling as civilians meant facing all manner of petty inquiry and common swindles. Different cover would have helped. The journey would have been swifter riding war horses and wearing the insignia of the Empress's Guard. Even traveling under the colors of the Golden Conclave of would have reduced interference greatly. But this was a dark reconnaissance mission--dark both in the sense that they went incognito and in the sense they had no specific target. The men needed to mix well with all walks of life because any information on the Crystal King might prove helpful.
As water lapped against the hull of the ferry, they waited beside their horses watching the further shore.
The ferry was wide and could carry eight horses abreast. Two river men guided the ferry with poles from behind as horses drew it across the river by rope. Haven's two smallest moons were visible tonight in the clear evening sky: one was reddish and dull, and the other was twice as bright as the sky's brightest star.
Rennick had pushed them fairly hard for such an open-ended mission, not that they expected to pick up much intelligence along the Royal Road. From the first day, he seemed even more driven than usual. One evening he expressed his bitterness as they rested at a caravansary, where the horses fed at stalls around the open courtyard. He explained that the high priest Nardak had somehow initiated new imperial directives, of which this mission was a part.
"I don't trust that charlatan," Rennick had said. "The lives of two Dancers were lost for one of his pipe dreams. At his word, we sailed to Lyndarr to secure what turned out to be nothing more than a map we have several copies of already."
"He should send his own followers on his useless missions." Galleren's face turned almost the color of his fiery red hair. Galleren was perhaps the best strategist and tactician among them, almost always captain of the winning team during his days of training. Like Rennick, he had been recruited by the Shadows as an orphan, trained during his days in public school, and chosen to join the Raptor clan rather than the Dancer clan. Unlike Astor of the Sage Guild, he had earned the title Lord through service in the Empress’s Guard. Galleren had a quick temper that always just as quickly returned to its genial and thoughtful base line.
During the ferry ride as during the trip, the men mingled among the travelers, bringing up the Crystal Kingdom in small talk and innocuous questions. So far they had had no luck stirring up any new stories or rumors. Finally, the ferry reached the shore and the men disembarked and mounted their horses for the short ride to the citadel visible about a kilometer north of them. To the east, difficult to see with Luna in her dark first phase, the Great River entered the Haunted Forest
Batana was alive at night, torches burning outside and inside the city. The citadel consisted of seven interlocking walls of stone with staggered gates. Generally, horses and livestock were quartered in the outer rings, servants and soldiers in the inner rings. The protective barriers were a sign of the care and defense King Kataba provided his people, who along with more ordinary city dwellers, consisted of mystics and outcasts of every kind. Taxes were high for the many guilds of artists and performers who made a good profit from this refuge, but many others also shared the favor of the king and enjoyed Batana’s peace and protection.
Rennick and his three Shadow Raptors left their horses in the outermost ring, passing easily through the seven gates. Though they wore bows and swords, the men looked very much like tourists or common adventurers, and they walked in pairs to maintain the casual impression. Soldiers on the walls watched for large groups, weapons of war, or the tell-tale long hair and staves of barbarians. Travelers with wagons or obvious products for market were diverted to a special gate in the seventh wall. As they passed through the final gate, the men saw a line of carts and rickshaws that were waiting to take visitors to legitimate accommodations. In front of this line, hustlers prowled in the hopes of leading ignorant newcomers to their substandard and overpriced hovels.
“My friends, allow me to carry you to the Batana’s finest Inn,” said a heavy-set, dusty man in a cloak covered with patches. “I can arrange the best price in the city and free drinks for your first night!”
Rennick stared him down with his piercing blue eyes. “You must mean the Raven’s Nest. We are heading there now.” The hustler bowed several times and did his best to fade into the evening. Galleren rolled his eyes and restrained himself from helping the hustler on his way.
“Listen,” Rennick said, drawing his men in close. “You all know this city stays up all night and sleeps half the day. There’s no need to waste the evening. Galleren and Sturm, check out the night market. Lott, you’re with me. We’ll debrief later at the inn.” He guided Lott by the elbow for the first few steps, and then the pair was moving off quickly to the west.
Galleren and Astor set off at a more leisurely pace, heading north toward the central market district. There were signs with esoteric symbols—stars and moons, strange letters and runes—indicating sanctuaries on almost every corner, the windows alight with lamp stands, but upon looking in, Astor thought that most looked more like eateries, drinkeries, or smoking dens than places of devotion. As the night grew darker, the streets brightened with more torch light. Street performers accepted coins as they juggled, danced, or played flutes.
“I don’t suppose we can interpret Rennick’s orders to mean getting a drink.” Astor said dryly.
Galleren raised a finger with a look of mock joy on his face before feigning disappointment, “We’ll never get away with it if we come back empty handed.”
Before long, they reached the night market. In the center, venders congregated in clusters of similar goods, including cloth, paper, spices, and precious metals. Further out, haphazard pathways meandered among the tables and tents, where vendors displayed wares of all kinds: soaps, perfumes, baskets, toys, and puzzles. Lines were hung with carpets of every color and tapestries of every design. There were wagons offering tea, grilled meat on sticks, fruit, and steamed buns, filling the air with tantalizing smells. Covered booths lined the buildings along the outer perimeter. Astor was drawn to a table of folios with other worldly titles such as Ancient Geology or World Literature. At the academy, Astor had seen folios reputed to be copies of information from the other world. He picked up one or two of these, shaking his head. They were bad productions, all very thin, without scribal seals—and some without even an author’s name.
“Trash?” asked Galleren. Astor nodded in disgust.
Many of the booths claimed to have relics, made from folk practices passed down from the other world or made with instructions from spirit words. There were hoops with webs of colorful cords that a seller claimed would catch nightmares while letting good dreams drop into feathers hanging below. One booth sold stones with spirit letters that could be cast on a cloth to divine the future. There were prayer beads, incense, meditation mats, and every kind of mystical symbol. After his serious studies of folklore and folk practices, Astor was always taken aback by the wanton exploitation in Batana.
Continuing their unhurried walk, passing through a dark corner of the market, the sage signaled the Shadow Raptor at a dim booth with several spirit artifacts, not merely folk craft and lore from the other world: various crystals and metal items of odd shapes. Amidst the small collection was a palm-sized half orb, a type of relic Astor had read about at the academy. He inspected a few other items first. When he finally took the half orb from the shelf, he quickly saw it was made from glass as some of the bottom circumference was chipped. The base was painted black and was completely smooth with no openings for keystones, which were said to empower spirit artifacts.
“These fine relics were recovered from the dark mines of the Crystal Mountains,” said the old peddler, recognizing Astor from where he sat in a chair among the shelves. He had wild white hair that seemed float around his head.
“We are very interested in news from the Crystal Mountains,” said Astor, replacing the half orb.
“Yes,” Galleren added taking out a blue gemstone that could have paid a soldier’s wages for a month. “Real news would be valuable.”
“I no longer travel the dusty roads,” said the old peddler. “My brave associates bring me my treasures.”
Galleren placed the gem back inside his tunic, and the peddler raised one white eyebrow, saying, “However, I see that you richly reward those who bring assistance. Might I trust your pledge of confidence were I to make a fruitful introduction?”
Seeing Galleren was about to respond bruskly, Strumgard said, “Of course, sir. You can trust our good faith.”
“Please follow your humble servant,” said the old peddler standing and leading the way through a curtained doorway at the back of the booth, seeming unconcerned that the valuable relics were left unattended. Astor was quite sure there were cases full of these supposedly rare items stashed someplace close by.
“Tribald,” called the white-haired peddler a few paces inside the hall, “We have illustrious guests!” Galleren and Astor followed him through another curtained doorway into a candlelit room where a figure sat at a crafting table covered with tools, blocks of wood, scraps of gold, silver, and bronze. He appeared to be cutting stones for setting.
“Did my esteemed father claim to sell authentic relics again?” said the son standing up, a younger version of the peddler. “His many years sometimes confuse him. We merely make authentic replicas. I offer deep apologies for any undue anxiety.”
“You have some good looking reproductions,” said Astor, “but we are interested in news from the west lands. We seek to confirm reports and gather facts.”
“They offer handsome payment for interesting news!” said the peddler.
The artisan shrugged, “It’s true I spend my hot summers on the very borders of the distinguished Crystal Kingdom. I have seen the ancient relics whose authentic replicas you now observe. But I don’t know what illumination I can offer such knowledgeable gentlemen.”
“We seek first-hand reports of the recent battles of the Crystal King.”
“Yes, yes. It’s true that many wagging tongues tell that the rich monarch rides to battles and wins great victories by powers of the spirit. More I do not know.”
The raptors turned to go.
“I do know a hidden one who wanders the wild border of the kingdom, who knows the secret ways of the spirit and who uses the awesome relics that my poor craft here replicates,” the artisan spread his hands. “I loath to speak crass words disclosing the hard-earned privacy of such a sacred one.”
Galleren placed the blue gem on the crafting table, alongside a pile of similarly-shaped pieces of colored glass.
“But for discerning gentlemen such as yourselves, I can tell you to search near the bright headwaters of the Great River. One we call the cold man protects the strange grounds where exotic trees grow green. He will help you, but you must take great care, for the bold barbarians have routine patrols and tirelessly seek the cold man.”
Galleren was unsatisfied, reaching to take back the bribe, but the artisan continued quickly, “His honored name is Salem, and few know his name. He is most friendly to those who call him by name.”
The look on Astor’s face assured him that this was indeed a solid lead. As they walked to the Raven’s Nest Inn, Astor grew increasingly excited and his energy was contagious. They reported to Rennick upon his return and were asleep before the midnight bell rang in the citadel.
The next morning Rennick was up, washed and outfitted before the men had opened their eyes. His short sword was already on his side, composite bow and quiver on his back. The three Shadow Raptors followed suit and were out before the first morning bell. The streets were empty and most doors closed and windows boarded.
The previous night, Rennick and Lott and had investigated a few of the less commercial sanctuaries and questioned a few esoteric contacts, but the only real lead was the cold man, as the artisan had called him. Rennick had decided to hire a scout familiar with the Haunted Forrest and to follow up the lead immediately. The Explorer’s Guild could probably provide a reliable escort.
As soon as the men were ready, they headed to the Explorer’s Post, a barn-like wooden structure amidst a series of barracks near the inner wall. Entering the swinging double door, the Raptors saw a few scouts comparing maps and drinking tea at the dozen tables spread throughout the cavernous main room. Sawdust covered the floor, and a serving man stood behind the bar along the far right side. Stairways at each corner led to balcony along the back wall, where a sentry sat sleeping, crossbow loaded in his lap.
“Good morning,” Rennick said approaching the closest table. “We seek an escort through the Haunted Forest, one familiar with the ways of the barbarians.” The three scouts studied the Raptors cooly, after which one nodded, exited through a door behind a stairwell, and returned sometime later with a tall, strong man. The scout carried a long staff on his back and had the long hair of a barbarian.
“I think I meet your requirements,” said the scout. His classic, strong features—that could have belonged to a bard or popular storyteller—broke into a friendly smile.
A pretty boy, Rennick thought, but he, too, smiled, saying, “You might be too much the barbarian for us. We may be seeking spirit artifacts or at least knowledge of the spirit.”
“I think you will find the Herron people—the barbarians as you call them—have no fondness for my kind. I am of the Derrek. We, too, live natural lives, but we do not object to spirit devices when used for good purposes.”
“I have read some writings of this group,” spoke Astor. “You also reject knowledge from the other world.”
“Haw, not me exactly,” said the scout, still smiling. “I am an outcast among outcasts. But the Derrek do hold to the barbaric ideal of human invention. They believe dependence on the other world is a kind of enslavement. I, on the other hand, am a man of more practical taste and work for practical payment. My name is Arn.” He held out two hands.
“Greetings, Arn.” Rennick said, grasping his hands. “We are ready to set out. Galleren, pay the man. Half.”
On their way through the seven staggered gates of the citadel, the men checked their horses and exchanged their bags for trail packs from the saddle bags. Arn did not seem to pay any attention to the mounts or equipment, which by design were civilian and nondescript Leaving the citadel, Arn remained animated, joking about the Batanians who seemed to be on a constant holiday. Seeing the seriousness and intensity of Lott, he said, “I don’t think he likes me, boys.”
“You are smarter than I thought,” responded Lott with his inscrutable smile, making it hard to tell, as always, if he was serious or not. The hard smile and narrowed eyes were known to wilt the false confidence of young recruits. “You are a regular philosopher.”
After the first several kilometers Arn became more professional and presented a plan. He suggested they take the well-traveled footpath far into the forest before diverging to a more secluded way necessary to their search. True to the culture of the citadel, the morning travelers to and from the city were few and the men enjoyed a quiet journey.
Ra was at its zenith when the men reached the shade of the forest. The leaves of most trees had turned the seasonal grey and black, and many had fallen to litter the forest floor. The day was at its warmest when the footpath began to bend north and where a slightly overgrown trail continued along the river. Arn checked the fork carefully but saw no evidence of recent traffic. Some hours later, when only starlight showed through the dark fall leaves of grey and black, Arn carefully observed a patch of woods and suggested they stop for the night: “This is a good place to approach the falls away from Herron trails. If we spend the night close to here, we can be sure no one has seen us leave the common path.” Rennick nodded, and the men bedded down a stone’s throw from the path. The wind through the trees, the chirps of insects, and the occasional hoots of night birds were much more agreeable to the men than the sounds of the city. They breathed in deeply, enjoying the fresh smell of the forest. The Shadow Raptors usually kept informal watches through the night, with Astor and Galleren on late, with Rennick and Lott on early; however, Astor had the feeling Rennick and Arn were both awake through the night.
In the morning as the rays of Ra broke through the branches above, the men lay still taking inventory of the surroundings. Although they were not on high alert, both the artisan and Arn had warned of barbarians in the area. Not carrying spirit artifacts, the men were not concerned for themselves as much as for spoiling an encounter with those who did and who might provide them with desired information. The men quietly ate, packed, and set out single file with Arn in front and Galleren in back.
The way was not rough but it was obscured by bramble and stone, bush and log. Arn was familiar with the irregular terrain and led the Shadow Raptors through a surprisingly fast route as Galleren replaced branches and wiped out evidence of their passage. The elevation sloped ever downward toward the river, and by midmorning they reached a visible fog that must have been rising from the distant water but already beginning to burn off.
They had covered a surprising amount of ground when they met with a fence of thistles that curved south and west as far as they could see. Arn signaled the men to wait and followed the line of brush first southward until he was long out of sight and then westward. Returning, he explained that he had found signs of Herron along the brush line. Arn cast his rope over a tree branch so they could swing over, on by one, and the men moved on at a slower but steady pace.
Continuing their way, they saw the landscape began to change strangely. The light, smooth skin of the forest trees was replaced by a dark, rough exterior. The trunks of the trees became much thicker than usual, the branches growing closer to the ground, and the leaves showing off gold, brown, orange, and red. They heard strange bird calls of several kinds. They passed by trees with drooping branches and thin green leaves and saw a grove of tall, thin trees with sharp green needles. Galleren remembered the words of the artisan, describing a place where “exotic trees grow green,” and began to think maybe the artisan had not cheated them after all. Past this grove was a copse of shorter trees with silver trunks and wide leaves of even more brilliant red, yellow, and orange, the branches full of a startling amount of parrots of many shapes and colors. The copse was covered in a net as fine as webworm thread and hard as chainmail. Beyond the parrots, they passed through more of the thick, dark, rough trees.
Suddenly, Astor saw something drop from a branch in front of him and attach itself to Lott’s thigh. His sword was out of its sheath about the same time that his mind recognized the common reptile: “Fingertail!” he called out. The long articulated appendages grasped Lott tightly as the stinger drilled in, the head biting and the vestigial feet clawing as the snake-like body swung through the air.
Although he would not have judged anyone else falling victim to dumb luck, Lott condemned himself for bringing calamity on the team. Astor quickly severed the head from the reptile, whose tail continued clinging and body flailing. Arn expertly removed the appendages and stinger, but the thigh was already swelling, and Rennick barely caught Lott as he collapsed. Galleren was running through scenarios in his mind: without a healer, they would have to try to cut and drain the wound themselves, and they would have to blaze a trail to the common path. Perhaps they could float the river back to Batana quickly enough. At the same time, Galleren felt that eerie sixth sense of being watched, looking significantly at Astor who felt the hairs raise on the back of his neck, too. As Arn and Rennick bent over their fallen comrade, the other two flanked them, watchfully.
Then several things happened quickly.
An apparition appeared, as though emerging from a nearby tree, the air seeming to shimmer and coalesce into a human shape composed of the rough bark, finally transforming into the more natural colors of clothing, hair, and skin. The figure had strange tools hanging from a belt beneath its open white cloak.
“Salem,” said Astor putting his hand on Galleren’s sword arm. “Friend.” The figure applied one of the tools to Lott’s wound, numbers and symbols scrolling across a small window. The Shadow Raptors and scout restrained themselves, though they surged with adrenaline, for they saw the wound close and the swelling subside under the humming tool. Astor noticed a vibrant tattoo on the neck of the stranger, a symbol of a white bird with a green branch in its beak, as clear and colorful as an oil painting. He recognized the ancient image. “Dove,” he found himself saying aloud.
Suddenly, Galleren, too, spoke a single word: “Hostiles.” As though in ambush, probably watching for Salem, two groups of Herron barbarians rushed at the men from two directions. Instinctually, Galleren noted enough open space and distance for bow shots. In one fluid motion, he drew an arrow, notched it, and lifted the bow from his side. Something from his training caused him to step back scanning the distance. His muscles rather than his mind recalled the barbarian tactic of staggering a rush attack. Because the primary barbarian objective was not warfare, they often attacked in two waves, one to distract and one to secure spirit artifacts. But this time the two groups came simultaneously. True to their culture, the ten barbarians were armed with every kind of staff imaginable. They had long staves and short staves as well as double- and triple-chained staves. Galleren first sent an arrow through the Herron with a poised throwing staff. Three more had fallen to the sound of wood whistling through the air before the rest had closed in.
Arn fought off two of the Herron, parrying and thrusting with his own long staff. Lott had recovered enough to sit up and send a throwing ax into the neck of a Herron sneaking up behind Arn. Rennick had somehow knocked two of the long-haired heads together and delivered a spinning kick to a third as he drew his sword. Astor engaged two others with his short sword, which was already wet from the blood of the fingertail, the clash of metal and wood lasting for only a minute before eight Herron lay bleeding and everything went dark.
Astor regained consciousness and saw the bodies of the contenders laying where they had fallen all around. The stranger sat close by on a log with another strange tool in his hands, motioning for him to come closed, patting the log beside him. Astor’s limbs were tingling as he picked up his sword and sat down.
“I was hunting that reptile when it dropped on your friend, for I oversee this land. Do not worry about these living ones. I have merely given them a short sleep,” Salem spoke evenly, coolly, with no word emphasized. “How is it you know my name and my emblem?”
“An artisan directed us and gave us your name,” said Astor. “But I have seen this picture in my studies, a drawing said to belong to the first children or perhaps the other world. It is an ancient symbol of peace.”
“Yes, the dove is the emblem of my purpose. Although the screen has been down for many years now, I continue to protect the life of Galapagos,” said Salem.
“The artisan called you the cold man.” said Astor. Salem placed Astor’s hand upon his forearm. The skin felt as cold as a rock from the river.
“My friend the artist often visits and helps me preserve the life here,” said Salem. “Have you come to help me, too?”
“We are sworn to preserve life just as you do,” said Astor thinking quickly and speaking truthfully. “We have come for news of such spirit artifacts as I see you carry, for we hear the Crystal King wields some new power.”
“Yes, I have seen that the king has an artifact, as you call it. It is a large wave lantern that he must have found near Stoke. I have a small one here and can show you what it does.” The cold man took a strange tool from his belt, touching and tapping on a small window. Darkness covered them for a radius of 10 meters, which expanded and contracted as he twisted something. “The lantern also makes light, and it controls sound to produce callings and warnings. The Crystal King uses this lantern for destruction. But you also carry weapons. How is it you claim to preserve life?”
“We are of an order that fights for no single throne or ruler,” the Shadow Raptor said. “But just as light casts shadows, we are necessary to protect knowledge, wisdom, and ethics that belong to all people.”
“I, too, I must sometimes do the work of the hawk to preserve the dove,” said Salem.
“Can you tell me more about the plans of the Crystal King or what has happened at Stoke?”
“Someone has accessed an inactive transport of my people near Stoke. Your people would probably know it as a sacred space. If the king has not found them all, there will be near stoke such items as you see me carry. There was once a cold man there. I only patrol the mountains on the borders of Galapagos where have seen him use the wave lantern. I disconnected from my people during the great mutiny years ago, but I continue to fulfill my purpose here. Will you pursue what this king has acquired or seek the lost transport?”
“We will report to our order for further instruction,” said Astor. “But I am certain we will follow up on all you can tell me.”
“If you follow the way of the dove, my friend, I will give you something to aid your work.” Salem took a small item from within his garment. It was black as obsidian, smooth as glass, hard as rock. Astor recognized it as a keystone. “This powers what you call artifacts—just as you see those fallen here, I hold active and secure. Promise me you will use it only to further our good purposes.”
“Yes, I promise.”
“Now please help me remove these two living ones, and the dead can stay to nurture life in Galapagos. I will awaken the living ones that belong to you.”
It took some time to drag the two living Herron to the hedge and cast them out. By the time the men awoke, Salem was once again camouflaged and long gone. Astor assured Rennick that the cold man had told him all he knew, that they should hasten back by the common path, and the leader sensed the gravitas behind the words. They left the motionless bodies of the Herron behind. The Shadow Raptors could tell, though Arn could not, that their comrade had achieved more than he said.
The men headed south, passing a few of Salem’s odd habitats—one of rocks and water, another of tall grasses—and many more of the strange trees, until they reached the perimeter hedgerow. Crossing over and leaving Galapagos, they soon they reached the river trail and saw to the west the spectacular cascades of the Great Falls crashing down the mountainsides from icy heights and filling the air with mist far below at the headwaters of the Great River.
During the journey back to the citadel, Rennick suggested Arn apply as scout for a further mission in the spring, and for much of the trip along the common path back the two conferred, walking behind the group as Galleren took the lead. After leaving Arn behind, during the long ride back to Lak along the Royal Road, Astor had plenty of time to brief his fellow Shadow Raptors, although he waited for an opportune time with Rennick alone to discuss the keystone and Salem’s claims of relics at Stoke.
He stood upon the balcony, the wind wailing like wraiths around the cold mountain. He had built his tower right into the mountain and had moved parts of the mountain back until it was like a stone hand curled around a black staff. Tall and skeletal, the priest was as robed and cloaked as the Grim Reaper--and he might have been happy with the comparison if he could have accessed the folk images. For though his hoarded knowledge was probably the greatest on the planet, most knowledge of the old cultures was hidden throughout Haven and always well guarded. His followers zealously searched for remnants, sometimes finding a few pages, the odd drawing, or the extremely rare treasure from the other world. He held such an item in his hands now, a translucent half globe, which he needed to deliver to the oracle.
Even in quiet moments of sheer beauty like this one, looking down upon the realm, Nardak felt a hunger to know more. He was driven to fill the tower with more scrolls and books, and his mind with greater knowledge and lore.
The view down to the fields and villages below was indeed beautiful, the stone walls and structures of the City of Lak visible in the distance. Behind the mountain, visible from the topmost point of the tower was a tarn, vaguely shaped like a hawk with outstretched wings spanning a mile with the tail-feather-like contour merging right into the base of the mountain. The forest surrounding the tarn was the domain of the Order of the Oracle, but every few years, barbarians were discovered scouring the terrain for spirit items in their relentless zeal to rid the world of all vestiges of the other world.
Nardak felt the familiar tightening in his stomach that always came before meeting with the oracle—not quite of fear or hope, but still a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. The ritual stages of the encounters always helped to ease his uncertainty. He did not go empty handed, for he had a new artifact to place upon the altar. As he descended the stairs into the heart of the mountain, he gripped the new hemisphere tightly. The smooth surface of strange material that composed the half globe was cool in his fingers. As he reached the familiar indentation just before the tunnel forked, he spoke the words the oracle had taught him from the other world:
Guru dev namo"
The oracle had assured Nardak that only he, in the whole world of Haven, knew these spirit words. The door slid open silently and closed behind him. Like the translucent hemisphere and the opaque walls of this cave, the door was smooth as glass and hard as rock. Nardak settled the hemisphere onto a keystone affixed to an altar where he kneeled. He snuffed out his torch as the spirit glow brightened within the half orb and within the chamber.
"I am here, Wind of Haven."
"Don't you remember my name?" The oracle said. "Last time I taught you my true name."
"I really thought we had an affinity, that we had made progress." The voice of the oracle was like that of a noble woman or an angel—softly spoken without accent, without age.
He took a moment to find the words: "I feel the same.”
“When ready, please record the circumstances of the discovery of the new item, Nardak.”
He stood and approached another half orb in its place further down the altar. As he spoke the key words “theta log pages” the ghost book appeared before him, suspended in the air as usual. It was imbued with the glow of the half orb, smaller than a half folio with pages of the purest white he had ever seen. The pages responded to his touch, but he could feel nothing as he turned to a new blank page.
“Eighth month, third day, 253 years after the Awakening,” spoke Nardak as the figures appeared at the top of the ghost page: 8.3.253 A.A. Letters in the common tongue continued to appear almost instantaneously as he spoke, “After two years on open pilgrimage, Priest Phi returned from the Crystal Kingdom today with a new half orb. He reported that his travels this time took him into the northern mountains where Derrek communities have minimized barbarian scavenging. The new half orb was found in a deep habitat probably abandoned two generations before the Awakening. No keystone has been located.”
Nardak paused briefly and continued, “There are reports from multiple sources in the Derrek communities that the Crystal King is using a spirit artifact during battles in the west lands. According to some stories, the Crystal King’s new power makes him invincible. According to other stories, the spirit simply affects the minds’ of his enemies, creating fear and terror. End of message.” The ghost book and the orb’s glow dissipated.
“Thank you, Nardak,” said the oracle, “both for the new treasure and this important news. We will need the Empire’s assistance. Your priests should gather more information, but they will not be able to physically secure this item.”
“Yes, Wind of Haven”
“Please call me by name, Nardak,” said the oracle with infinite patience.
“Yes, Sara. But please understand that it would also be difficult for me to call the Empress by name."
"I would like you to learn that in the higher world, power does not preclude friendship or even intimacy. Your hesitation shows a kind of backward thinking. Please know you can serve me best by becoming ever closer, knowing me more, knowing my heart."
"I have never heard you call it 'the higher world', always 'the other world,'" he said.
"That is because you are ready to learn more about the place beyond both this world and the other world. I have waited eight generations to share the things I share with you from now on. Others will be ready someday soon, but you are ready now, my child and my friend, to see the place that I prepare for you."
The oracle guided Nardak where she had never guided him before: the seat before the master orb, a huge half orb that had always occupied the centermost altar of the chamber. She described how to place his palms upon the surface and how to pronounce a few key words. Unlike the ghost books, maps, and images he had seen in the past, Nardak felt himself transported and beheld a vast library full of shelves of books, cabinets of scrolls, and uncountable half orbs, each on a table, desk, or dais and each with the telltale glow of a keystone. He was in a wildly enhanced version of his tower, with windows in every direction revealing his mountain, the woods, and Hawk Tarn. In the distance, the city of Lak was incredibly built up with what appeared to be towers of mirrors, castles of glass and silver. The landscape was filled with other cities, temples, and roads everywhere--wider than the Royal Road. Iron carriages ran without horses, and strange boats sailed in the sky. He walked a few paces to the shelves, surprised to find that he could feel the hard surface of wood and the soft covers of the books, very different from the ghost books and spirit maps. Taking down a volume, he read the title Leaves of Grass and flipped through what appeared to be a collection of poems. Before he could focus clearly on the printed lines, however, Nardak returned from the vision, back in his cave, his heart beating fast and his eyes watering.
“We have much work do, my child and my friend,” said the Oracle.
“Yes, Wind of Haven. Sara.”
Some days after the vision of the higher world, Nardak had an audience with the Empress, making the journey with Priests Chi and Epsilon. Before setting out, he had another consultation with the Oracle, who had further enlightened him about the higher world, a spiritual realm which existed even now but could be physically manifest in the future of this world. She could share knowledge from the higher world with him, she explained, but sharing with others at this time could destroy the priesthood. The oracle had then instructed and equipped him for his audience with the Empress.
Palace guards escorted the three priests into the counsel room. The Empress wore casual evening clothes, working over a large map of the realm with a trusted advisor. Although not as lavish as the throne room, the walls were adorned with large landscape paintings featuring every realm in the Empire. The windows were dressed with golden curtains, and the carved wooden furniture was covered with embroidered tapestries. Intricate bronze lampstands of burning oil brightened the room.
“Greetings, High Priest,” The Empress said, drawing near, grasping Nardak’s two hands in the custom of her people, and nodding to his companions, “Greetings, priests. I hope your travel was smooth.” The High Priest and Empress, after many years of sharing questions for the oracle or revelations from the oracle, did not engage in long, relationship-building pleasantries, merely brief exchanges of decorum.
“Thank you, Empress. It is good to be in the city.”
“Will you be staying long?” The smile of the Empress was warm, her dark eyes comforting. Peace seemed to settle around her as easily as the dark hair that fell in soft curls upon her shoulders. She was known to put the sternest rulers at their ease as she overlooked all discomfort, stress—and even personal slights—reserving her more characteristic displays of strength for upholding the law and protecting her people.
“In fact,” Nardak said, “I plan to be in the city a few days for community service.” All citizens of Lak, even the Empress herself, provided community service amounting to 40 days a year, one of the progressive rulings that had been passed since the Awakening. Nardak, like many priests, served as a teacher and archivist at the public academy.
“I am sure the academy benefits from your expertise,” she said, and every word sounded sincere. She opened her arms wide to include the priests and the advisor, touching their shoulders freely, kindly. “Now I know everyone has been busy and will want to rest tonight. Please share your concerns with us frankly.”
“Yes, Empress. I come to you by the guidance of the oracle after receiving news of the Crystal King. The necessary action is beyond the ability of the priesthood.”
“Go on, please.” The candlelight flickered over the Empress’s friendly face.
“The king wields some new power from the other world, and the oracle fears this power could create imbalance in this world, making even the Empire unstable. The Wind of Haven suggests we confirm the reports and seize this spirit artifact with haste. She has sent an omen from the other world to help persuade you of the seriousness of the situation.” Nardak drew a small half orb from his robe and spoke a key word in a strange tongue. Above his palm and surrounding the half orb was a living map of light: the Great River on one side and the Haunted Forest and Crystal Pass on the other. But there was no Royal Road, no Citadel of Batana. It was like a moving model of the unbuilt world, water flowing, trees moving in the wind. A small black sphere rose from the trees and flew directly into the mountain side where the rock seemed to melt and make way. The spirit sphere disappeared into the Crystal Mountains. The living map faded.
“What have we just seen?” The softness of the Empress’s voice was imbued with a strange strength.
“This is the omen from the oracle, Empress,” said Nardak. “We do not know what spirit power he has found, but the oracle has sent this vision of a spirit transport from the ancient days of the Crystal Mountains. The Wind of Haven warns that something evil may have been awakened and urges us to identify whatever artifact the king is using and seize it.”
“You know, dear citizen, I cannot order such an action without approval of the senators. I cannot seize the property of an ally. These laws come from the long history of guidance from your oracle.”
“Yes, of course.”
“But considering the source of this revelation, I think I know someone who can help.”
“Yes, Empress,” said Nardak.
Later when all civilities were done and the door had closed behind the visitors, the Empress called for the basin, for she would need to wash her hands as usual.
The news was passed on to those who could help.
Celeste scaled the wall around the First Healing House with ease. Being in the city, she did not feel the need to bring weapons, nets, map supplies, or any of the usual accessories. She dropped silently down into the courtyard well away from the torches at the gated entrance, her hooded, full-body cloak blending in with shadows and darkness. Vyladie the Healer's cell was on ground level. It was small: a sleeping pallet, a desk, shelves, two chairs, and a tea table. Celeste entered Vyladie's cell, crouching below the window ledge, and the healer had read about five pages from a large folio before she noticed her sitting there.
"Cel, you could have used the front gate," Vyladie smiled, her freckled face and strawberry blond hair glowing in the moonlight and candlelight. "You could make an appointment or even just drop by."
"I don't like any unnecessary records at the gate. Besides, you might not want to have to answer questions about why I came. I know how honest you like to be."
"'Only darkness hides from the light,'" Vyladie said, quoting a precept of the healers.
"If you want to make progress, you must step with the left foot as well as the right," Celeste countered. "The darkness is only truly known by the light, and the light is only truly known by the darkness."
"I think when you mix the two, you end up with shades and shadows, Cel."
Although she followed the Path, this last comment actually gave Celeste pause because she was a full-born member of the Order of Shadows, where she had grown up at the monastery among the adopted acolytes and recruited members. Her enthusiasm for the Path was a recent addition to her more formal training.
"So what's your secret mission?" Vyladie asked, seeing that her friend would not be baited into their usual discussion.
"If you still have the cards from Batana, I want you to do a reading for me."
"O, Celeste! You know those are just for study and meditation. Only wisdom and the Most High can provide true guidance." The Healers believed the Most High bestowed great gifts to all of his children, and that he was the source of all true prophesy.
"Yes, and I only walk the Path. But I will be decorated as a master soon, and I am considering my calling. I remember that when we played with them before, the cards were uncanny. I don't believe they had any kind of power, but somehow they helped me think and feel settled when I had to decide whether to train with the Shadow Dancers. At that time, you said the Batanians claimed to tap into higher wisdom or a collective symbolism. Strictly speaking, that is not against our religions, and besides..." Celeste paused, "I could ask you to do some deeper things."
"I don't think callings are limited to graduation time," Vyladie said with a tight smile and a shake of her head. She took a small woven chest from the shelves and motioned for Celeste to sit across from her on the pallet. She took out a drawstring bag from which she pulled out a thick stack of cards wrapped in a red silk cloth. She mixed the cards, the colorful pictures and numbers flashing in the dim light. They were ancient images that supposedly came from the other world. She spread the cards face down on the red silk, the backs painted blue with white stars.
"Draw out three cards," said Vyladie. "Turn the first face up to represent your past." The first card pictured a young person in royal garb, who could have been a prince or princess, holding a golden cup from which a fish emerged. The fish seemed to be staring the human figure directly in the eye.
"This card is the Page of Cups and reflects your emotional past. It would suggest looking back on all of your soul searching as the fish can represent the soul. Remember those times when you felt most in tune with your feelings as well as those times when feelings seemed powerful or even out of control. Mastering the emotions is part of growing up, and this card calls you to remember these intuitive passages of life."
A few memories played through Celeste's mind: becoming a Shadow Dancer, breaking off her courtship, celebrating the Spring Festival with her family of Shadows—whether real, adopted, or recruited. She remembered her father’s blessing at her 16th birthday party, and she remembered her graduation from public school. She nodded for Vyladie to continue.
The second card, representing the present, pictured a woman seated in front of a veil with the moon at her feet and a shining crown on her head. In her hands, partially covered by a royal blue robe, was a scroll. Behind the veil could be seen an expanse of water like the sea.
"This card is the High Priestess," said Vyladie. "She symbolizes personal wisdom or secret truth, the quiet voice of conscience and the guidance that comes from deep within yourself. This card reminds you to be still and know your own heart rather than social pressure. The card speaks of your private prayers rather than public ones and reminds you that ultimately you must resonate with truth internally and not just accept what comes from the outside, even if you are told it comes from the other world."
Just as Celeste had remembered, the cards seemed to fall in uncannily appropriate patterns. She felt she had really needed to hear these words.
"The third card is supposed to represent the future," continued Vyladie. "But I assure you the cards do not tell the future. Not only do you have power over your own destiny, but if you saw the actual future you would then have even more power to change it, for such knowledge would be powerful indeed. The card is best seen as either a promise or a warning, depending on how you freely respond." She turned over the third card picturing a man riding in a chariot drawn by two horses, one black one white. He wore a golden crown and held a golden staff.
"The Chariot card represents a kind of victory, as the ruler has mastered contradictory elements in order to make his journey or win his battle. This is a physical or outward success, a mastery of external forces. As a promise, this card shows you the rewards of mastery, but as a warning, this card suggests how pride can lead to downfall.
“Taken as a whole, Celeste, this spread tells a story: after tuning into your experiences, feelings, and deepest thoughts, your will meet with a great victory. Given the question of your heart, your great success could confirm your calling. ”
Celeste sat pensively as her comrade wrapped the cards back into the red silk cloth. After a few minutes, she said, “Thank you, Vyladie. I have taken up enough of your time. I guess I should tell you my real reason for coming. Rennick sent this for you.” From somewhere within her cloak, Celeste produced a thin envelop sealed with red wax.
“I imagine Rennick wants a meeting,” she said before slipping out of the window into the night. Other than the Grand Master, the Master of Dancers, and Rennick—the Master of Raptors—only two others knew that Vyladie belonged to the order of Shadows: Talitha—another Shadow Dancer—and Celeste, who was soon to be a master monk of their order.
When Vyladie met with Rennick the next morning in the central gardens, she was very excited. Almost certainly there would be a special assignment; nothing else could explain the sealed summons. The benches and pathways were filled with other anonymous people cutting through the city, playing pebble war on checkered slabs, eating lunch, or otherwise taking breaks from work or community service. As fall approached, the leaves of trees were turning from their usual green-bordered red or purple to dark brown, grey, and black. The wind was crisp and the water in the fountains cool. The central garden was the symbolic heart of Lak, a physical sign of the three axioms: all lives are sacred under the eternal, all lives are free from interference, all lives are equal before the law.
She had not sat long in the secluded spot—hidden by wall, fountain, and tree from almost every angle—when Rennick sat beside her. He was dressed in common clothes and, other than his blond hair and blue eyes, was nondescript. Vyladie also wore street clothes, having changed from the white robes of a healer, which she now carried in a small shoulder bag. “Hello friend,” said Rennick, his eyes as steely and piercing as ever. “I hope you can take some leave because I have a holiday in mind for you.”
“Yes,” she said, the roundness and brightness of her face somehow reminding Rennick of Luna’s smiling side. Her beauty was almost enough to give pause to the task-minded, driven Shadow leader. “But I have great freedom as my devotion and work also often call me away from the House.”
“Right, right,” he lowered his voice. “I will brief you and your usual companions soon. You all will need to travel under cover and make a friendly visit to the Crystal Kingdom. We need information about a new spirit artifact that the king may be using in battle. I will be checking out some contacts on this side of the mountains, but we all need to be back by the Spring Festival. Regardless of what we find out, the Grand Master wants a strategy meeting by the springtime. Needless to say, these are all dark missions.”
“Needless to say,” said Vyladie.
“I have one special assignment for you before the journey as I know you have had occasion to consult the oracle in your spiritual quests and know Nardak personally.” When she had confirmed with several quick nods, Rennick continued. “I need you to find out about any recent activity of the priests or any suggestion that the high Priest is withholding information. Of course you cannot ask directly as…”
“Needless to say!” said Vyladie.
She sensed Rennick’s underlying impatience, and she had no questions, nothing to add. She was excited.
Later that week, Vyladie hired a two-horse carriage and by late afternoon arrived at Nevodak’s tower. Leaving the driver at the livery stable, she entered the temple at the base of the mountain, fairly certain she could get the audience with the high priest. The temple was actually a compound of connected stone domes and arches, a maze of mediation rooms, lecture halls, study cells, all around a central worship court, which was used for private prayer when not occupied by a public ceremony. All faiths were welcome here, although the Order of the Oracle generally followed the Eternal—along with the progressive revelations that had arrived since the Awakening of the Oracle. Vyladie entered the vestibule of the main dome and approached what seemed to be the ranking priest, reading a parchment at a desk.
“Priest…” They all looked the same to her, well-fed and jovial, in the black robes, closely-cropped hair, and long beards, but she took a guess, “…Gamma.” He looked at her, smiling, neither confirming nor denying the greeting. “I am Healer Vyladie from the First House of Healing and seek consultation with the high priest.” A consultation was a formal audience, often requiring a return visit after a question had been researched by the priesthood or even taken before the oracle. Counseling, therapy, discipleship, and other more mundane guidance were managed through regular sessions and meetings.
“High Priest Nardak is present,” Priest Gamma stood, still smiling. “Please wait in the court of worship.”
Entering the court beneath the dome and taking a seat on one of the benches that, like the outer archways, encircled the central platform, she rehearsed her question. Here and there among the benches, pilgrims or acolytes studied or meditated peacefully, some alone, some in small groups. True to her training that all subterfuge be mixed with a healthy dose of the truth, Vyladie had come with a real issue: why in Haven were there so many different religions, even so many factions among those like her who followed the Most High? The doctrine among the healers was that there could be only one true faith and one Most High. Yet when she had posed the question once to the Grand Master of Shadows, he had asked in return, “Why does this question plague you? If you seek knowledge, I fear nothing will answer. Even if you could you live a lifetime as a true follower of every religion and every faction on Haven and the other world, you would only have the beginning of the answer. However, if you seek to help those who doubt, then know that goodness and love must be taken seriously and nurtured in all of its forms.”
She did not have to wait long before Nardak entered the court and sat beside her. He grasped her hands with his and welcomed her warmly, “Healer Vyladie, I am overjoyed to see you again. I hope all is well with your order.” His was the only beardless face among the priesthood, coarse skin starting to wrinkle yet stretched so tightly, deep set eyes increasing the skull-like effect.
“All is well, High Priest Nardak.” She said. “Our healers are returning from their ministries in the five realms and soon we will begin preparations for the Spring Festival. All my cases are closed now, but I may have one more ministry trip to the Crystal Kingdom before the new year.” She sensed the good will and freedom to try the bold gambit. A flicker of interest played over the skeletal face before her. She added smoothly in the customary manner, “I hope all is well with your order.”
“Many of my priests also travel but should return for the new year. The forest and temple are nearly vacant now because of these recent quests. The servants here are few now, mostly scribes and protectors.” Nardak moved closer, though their voices did not carry far. “In fact, the quests are to the west lands where we seek news of spirit power in the Crystal Kingdom. I would covet any news.”
“Of course, High Priest. We are friends. Have you received descriptions of the spirit power?”
“No, my Healer. We have only conflicting rumors of a new artifact used in battles. But I can share more as priests return. I will eagerly await your report as well. But I divert you from your business. What brings you to a consultation at the temple? I still remember past visits when we discussed the decline of religious rituals and roles. Once I believe asked whether the stories of the other world are history, folklore, or news of another place. And last visit, I believe we discussed divination and spirit powers beyond the artifacts. What interesting search brings you here now?”
”A common question,” Vyladie smiled, “but like the other important ones, one that seems never ending. Those who have no faith sometimes say the many conflicts and contradictions among the religions destroys all credibility. Even among the Eternal and my own order of the Most High, there are many factions. How should people of faith answer?”
Nardak said, “There are many paths to the Eternal and that the Eternal transcends our finite minds. The Eternal say that many roads lead to the true temple. We tell the story of the priests and the cave. In the pitch black cave where priests come in and out is a manaboar. Some find milk from a warm breast, while others feel trained by the tusks and teeth of the large beast. Some say there is the stillness of sleeping; others say there is stomping that shakes the ground.”
“Yes, according to this parable,” said Vyladie. “All of them are right.”
“And all of them are wrong,” added Nardak as his thin lips stretched around his large teeth in a wide, grim smile. He enjoyed the dark irony.
“They are right and wrong in two ways,” continued Vyladie. “First, there is a basic level: they all identify something living and breathing within the darkness. Then there are partial truths as each priest has a piece of the puzzle—recognizing different parts of the beast or different states of the beast. My order believes that truth leads to what is Most High and that half truths lead us astray.”
“The analogy breaks down, too,” sighed Nardak, “when we consider those like the barbarians who reject a spiritual realm. They are like those who go into the cave and observe only the darkness although they also contribute to complete understanding. Yet the Eternal believe we can encounter the transcendent more immanently within ourselves but more accurately from without. The individual conscience and experience is like touching the beast within the cave, but the discussions of the factions outside the cave lead to a better picture. We hope to find and preserve all the human experience that we can—even of those who wish to destroy such knowledge.”
“Doctrine and debate do help appease the mind,” said Vyladie.
“Common sense and shared human sentiment help us appreciate what is eternal,” said Nardak.
“Thank you, High Priest,” said Vyladie. “It’s always a pleasure talking with you. If the oracle ever leads you to greater knowledge of this issue, I hope you will share it with me.”
“My pleasure, Healer.” Said Nardak.