Sunlight streamed through the windows of the Faeleran's tallest tower, where dust motes danced lightly on the cool morning's breath. The curtains fluttered as though from the passing of unseen visitors, and the smell of salt water seemed to wash over everything, purifying it. Outside and down, the streets of the city of Karmen teemed with people, their voices and footsteps echoing dully against the light granite buildings inside the Faeleran's large walls. Birds chirped within the orchards of the sprawling complex, and occasionally the lighter chirp was answered by the calls of seagulls.
The Chosen of Yatindar strode patiently down the wide hallways of the tower, on his way to the morning's reams of paperwork. His step was light for an elderly man, and he wore chain mail beneath his ivory-white and blue robes. Across his back were slung two heavy longswords made of some white metal that absorbed light like a strange form of polished stone. At his side, his retainer Merilyn strode with equal patience, bearing arms and armor of more conventional steel. Merilyn's slightly squinted eyes and downward cast gave the only indications that he was thinking hard.
Yatindar's Chosen paused in a window, and gazed out at the Faeleran, and Karmen beyond. Hundreds of galleons and carracks were in the harbors of the island city, and thousands thronged the cities, supporting the largest collection of churches and temples in all the world.
Merilyn paused as his leader did, but instead of seeing the bright blue beauty of another day, looked down at the windowsill, still thinking.
The Chosen said softly, “If you think any harder, Merilyn, steam will pour forth from your ears.”
The retainer blinked, and glanced up. “My apologies, Chosen. What did you say?”
The elder man smiled, his hands clasped behind him. “I said that you are a lost pig, covered in mud up to your ears.”
Merilyn's eyes went wide, and he gasped, “My Chosen?”
The Chosen chuckled, and looked again out to the lands beyond the window. “I'm kidding, Merilyn. But I would know what it is that occupies your thoughts so.”
The retainer paused for an instant too long, and then said, “It's nothing, my Chosen.”
The elder man glanced back from the window to Merilyn, and asked, “Nothing? Nothing is on your mind?”
Merilyn sighed. “I was thinking about the Iron Lord, my Chosen.”
Yatindar's Chosen sighed softly, and glanced fleetingly out the window, before continuing on towards his office. The loyal retainer followed quickly, frowning at his Chosen's lack of response. The hall was not long, and soon the two reached the guarded door. The two paladins that maintained vigilance before the office opened the door with respect, bowing low to the Chosen of Yatindar. The elderly man returned the formal bows, and gave brief blessings to each, before moving through the opened door.
The office itself felt heavy, with heavy dark-stained furniture, heavy chairs, and a massive desk that weighed more than most carriages. Heavy drapes were open to let in the morning sunshine, and large books filled many of the thick bookcases lining the walls. Decorations were spartan, and mainly related to the Chosen's grandchildren – a child's hand-drawn scroll hung up, a painting of his wife in her youth, and some toys along one low shelf. The toys themselves, though, were strong and sturdy – built to resist the frenzies of youth.
The Chosen slid his swords off, and leaned them against the desk, before he sat down, and shuffled through several parchments arranged in various folders. His retainer quickly brewed two cups of green tea with an orison to heat them, before bringing them to the desk. Merilyn sat before his Chosen in one of the heavy chairs, and sipped at his tea, curious about the elder man's reaction.
After shuffling through several dozen parchments, the elderly man found one in particular. He quickly scanned it, before sliding it across the desk. His eyes met Merilyn's in invitation.
Merilyn sat his tea down, and reached across the desk to lift the parchment up. It was addressed to the bishop of Baridinic in Northern Nor, on the Sabron River, and written by an Inquisitor, one Defender of Yatindar named Damia. Merilyn scanned the parchment quickly, getting past the usual effusions to a bishop.
“…recent destruction of Malent's Butchery in Vidour is of some note, as it bears several marks that tie it to the Iron Lord. The butchery burned to the ground, and the local authorities ended their investigation as an accident. Careful work indicates that the structure collapsed before it was burned, and the heavy smell of naptha in the lower portions of the wreckage indicate arson, such as was used in the dustruction of the seamstress Myriam's shoppe in Gasinov. I outlined the details of Myriam's death in a report to the Faeleran, dated Vor the first. Several corpses were found in the wreckage of Malent's shoppe, and though badly burned, the bones themselves were cloven, and not broken. Very few weapons are sharp enough to cut through bone, and the fact that the stone below the corpses was gouged as though by a master stonemason, suggests a weapon of enchantment. Interviews with a number of locals both in Vidour and Gasinov hint that the two may have had connections to a local sect of Curiss. The destruction of the temple of Curiss in Butara bore the marks of the Iron Lord in no uncertain terms, though it was thought to be an isolated incident. It would appear that the bloodshed has spread further and deeper than was at first suspected. As your parish houses the nearest temple of Curiss to Butara, I implore you to warn the temple, and dispatch your servants to defend the temple and all members of the sect. Whatever bone of contention has arisen between the Iron Lord and the Church of Curiss has lead to violence, and could easily spread…”
Merilyn finished scanning the letter, and glanced up, to meet the Chosen's eyes. “It's dated three weeks ago, my Chosen. What has happened since then?”
The elderly man accepted the proffered letter from his retainer, and shuffled it into the paperwork on his desk. He leaned back, his hands clasped on the desk. “As you know, the temple to Curiss in Baridinic was completely and utterly destroyed last week by the Iron Lord. What our priests were able to determine, after conferring with several others among the Circle here in Karmen, is that both temples housed captives of the Iron Lord's – men and mercenaries loyal to him, whomever he is.”
The retainer frowned, glancing out the window into the blue sky as he thought. Aloud, he asked, “Why was the Church of Curiss holding those men?”
“We've been asking ourselves that question for some time. The Chosen of Curiss hasn't been forthcoming, but one of his Disciples let slip that there seems to be some sort of split within the Church of Curiss.”
Merilyn glanced back into the elder man's eyes. “What would a split have to do with the dest… You think one sect or another hired the Iron Lord?” His tone was incredulous.
The Chosen nodded. “For now, yes. If that's so, then we might be able to catch the Iron Lord, once and for all.” The elderly man scowled, glancing unconsciously at the toys for his grandchildren. “The 'Iron Lord' has been a sorcerer hiding for too long from the Inquisition. If he isn't caught soon, he might take on students. He's already too powerful. He's outlived two Chosens.”
The elderly man's eyes caught Merilyn's disbelieving eyes, and held them. “Oh, yes. Stories of the Iron Lord go back nearly a century and a half – perhaps longer. If the Iron Lord is human, he has a great deal of magic at his disposal.”
The retainer's eyes flickered, and then he frowned. “If he is human? You suspect he's not?”
“It's possible he could be one of the Dark Race, still living here in the north, long after the Storm Wars. I suspect, though, that it's an ogremai.”
Merilyn gasped, and said, “My Chosen! An ogremai, here in the east?! Surely not!”
The Chosen's eyes held his retainer firm, and quieted him. “He has resisted our spells, hidden from our Inquisitors, and lost our Seekers for a long time. We know he is a brute, huge and powerful.” The elderly man sighed, and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Imagine an ogremai, clad from head to toe in full plate, casting the dreaded wizard spells of the Storm Wars – surrounded by an army of fanatically loyal, ensorcelled followers. This is a grave threat, indeed.”
The retainer's eyes were wide, as he exclaimed with obvious disbelief, “Then we should rouse all the Seekers, and bring all of our Inquisitors to bear on this!”
“No.” At his retainer's amazed consternation, the Chosen said, “The last thing we want is another panic. Remember how the whole of the east acted as the necromancer Demik Coruth's undead hordes poured out of the Sea of Kiriath, from the west? The panic at another mage – an ogremai, none-the-less – loose in the east… Especially one that has already destroyed two temples here?”
Merilyn sighed softly. “So what do we do, my Chosen?”
“We wait. We give Protector Damia all the help we can, and we have the Seekers keep a close eye on all of the temples of Curiss in this region.”
The retainer frowned slightly. “We just wait?”
The elderly man nodded, his eyes on the desk with all the weight of the Church of Yatindar in them. “We wait – and hope that the Iron Lord makes a mistake. Something that lets us find him.” The Chosen's eyes leapt up from the desk like a lion, pouncing on Merilyn's gaze. “Find him, and end the threat once and for all.”
* * *
The bouncer inside the tavern arched one eyebrow, his lips unconsciously twisting into a lopsided sneer.
She was a tall woman, nearly six feet tall in her calf-length riding boots. Her bosom was not large, but had enough lift that the torches in the walls threw heavy shadows across the cotton tunic covering her flat stomach. Her legs were very long, and the bouncer followed them all the way up, to her strong face. Her long, dark hair was swept back in a ponytail, the free end of which reached her impressively muscled rear. The woman's lips were luscious and wide, and her large, dark eyes hinted at Chillean ancestory with their slight tilt.
The tavern's patrons slowly grew silent as she stood in the entrance, surveying everything, her gaze sweeping over everyone.
The bouncer's eyes went wide, as his gaze slid past the woman's beauty. Her bare arms were well-toned, but her forearms were as large as any man's. A shoulder harness was almost lost in the folds of her tunic. Low on her back, with the hilts almost out of sight, and the unobtrusive scabbard tips just showing – she wore twin longswords.
He sighed, and shook his head. Hiding his eyes with one hand, he muttered just loud enough to be heard, “Effing paladins.”
The silence had just begun to give way to the first wolf-whistles, when the whispers rippled away from the bouncer into silence. Admiring looks and outright lust turned to fear and hatred. The stares of the tavern patrons turned away, as everyone stared at one another, or their tankards, instead.
Her voice was rich and vibrant, with a hint of laughter. “I'm looking for Muro of Vidour, the mercenary.”
When there was no answer, save the clatter of a horse's hoofs outside, she smiled like a serpent about to strike. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. Either way, someone will tell me where Muro is.”
She snickered, and moved forward through the tables. She paused before one table in particular, and laid her hands on the table. The two men to either side of her glanced once at her bosom, and then back at their tankards. The man across from her looked intently at her hands, noticing the size of them, and the calluses on them. He glanced up, meeting her eyes. Their color changed as he looked into them, the brown swirling and melting away, to reveal the blue of Yatindar.
The man's eyes went wide, and he stared into her intensely blue eyes, saying nothing.
Her vibrant voice was not loud, but it carried in the stillness of the tavern. “Too bad you don't know where Muro is. Because if you did, I wouldn't have to bring you in.”
The two men to either side of her glanced at the man before her, and then to one another. Slowly, hoping to be unnoticed, the two men began gathering their legs under their chairs, and moving their hands towards their knives. The man before her glanced from one to the other of his comrades, and asked, “Is that so?”
She nodded slowly, twice, with a slight smile to her face. “A few days with the priests of Yatindar, and we'll find out just what it is that stains your soul so. And why it is that the Abyss itself screams for your spirit.”
The man's eyes went wide, as he stared into her blue, blue eyes. And then he narrowed his eyes shrewdly; his comrades at the table needed a bit more time, and he would buy it for them. Quick glances to either side of the woman assured him that others, at other tables, were slowly going for their weapons as well.
Her eyes slid from side to side, without seeming to leave the man before her. The intense blue of her eyes faded, swirling to a deep, rich brown. She smiled, and her hooded eyes seemed to say, “I know, what you are going to do.”
* * *
Someone slapped her cheek hard, tearing her from sweet oblivion.
His breath was heavy in her ear, and it stank of garlic and rotten teeth. “What, is your name, bitch.”
His clothing was brushing up against her body, and she slowly came to her senses. She was chained to a wall, her arms directly over her head. Her ankles were chained below her, but all of her weight was on her wrists, where the iron dug through her skin with its ill-cut abrasive edge. His clothing was brushing up against her body, and she realized with a sick feeling in her gut that she had been violated.
He slapped her again, striking her cheek with a gloved hand – to protect him from her blood, she realized dimly.
She looked around, one eye swollen painfully shut, tears streaming down her cheeks, mingling with the blood from her nose and her split lips.
She was in a small brick cellar with four men, one of which was wearing heavy field plate beneath a plain brown cassock. Strapped to the armored man's side was a battle-axe whose edge was nearly two feet long.
The man that had slapped her face grabbed her cheeks painfully in his gloved hand, squeezing them together. She met his eyes, and saw the grim determination of murder there. He said, “You can tell it to me now, and die quickly, or we can draw this out for several days.”
She saw the lie instantly. He was in a hurry. Her mind rippled with the placid calm of years of training. He let go of her cheeks, and turned to speak to one of the other men in the room, a man wearing gray robes with a hood over his face. “This is a waste of time. Kill her, and be done with it.”
The man with the hood shook his head. “Not yet.” He tilted his head beneath the hood, and whispered silently in a long-unused tongue. She strained, listening to translate the words. “As Miribok fought with words, so grant me the strength of speech that Miribok enjoyed, that I may know as he knew, the truth…”
She sighed, realizing that the man in the gray robes was a priest, invoking a prayer to his god that would let him know when she was lying.
The one interrogating her turned back to her, and grinned evilly. “She knows…”
The hooded man nodded his head once. “Ask her.”
Her interrogator took his hand away, and punched her in the gut. She gagged, trying to empty an empty stomach, gasping in pain. He asked, “What. Is. Your. Name.”
She looked up at him, her good eye sweeping over the fourth man. He wore light leathers, but bore the longsword at his side with practiced ease. Muro. The name echoed in her mind, as her eye focused on her interrogator.
She took a deep, calming breath, and said, “Damia.”
Her arms flexed, and her whole body went rigid as she forced every ounce of strength into her arms at once. The bolt that held her manacles in place above her head was drilled into the mortar, and not into the brick itself. She ripped the pin out, and brought the iron bands around her wrists down full upon her interrogator. The jagged edge of the manacles sliced his head open, splintering off fragments of skull. He went down in a heap, as the other stared for a split second.
The warrior in field plate stepped forward with his battle-axe held up to slash her in two. She brought her still-bound wrists up, the end of the chain wrapping around the handle of the axe, and pulled up with all the strength in her legs. The axe slipped out of the warrior's mailed grip and went clattering against the wall and the floor, while Damia swung the chains of her manacles against Muro.
The chain wrapped around Muro's neck, and she dragged him closer. The figure in the gray robes struggled briefly to get around Muro, before laying his holy symbol against Damia's bare arm. Agony coursed through her body, and she dropped to her knees as her bowels let go.
Muros unwrapped the chain about his neck, and leaned against the far wall, gasping for air. The warrior in field plate had retrieved his axe, and stepped forward. He raised his battle-axe high, and then brought it down.
Damia raised her interrogator's body into position just in time, and the axe clove through his skull with a sickening crunch of bones and brains, like a ripe melon being squashed. The paladin grabbed the axe's handle just below the warrior's grip, and shoved him back. He went flailing backwards against the wall, as Damia brought the battle-axe up, and down, across the gray-robed priest's body.
She sliced the man's chest to the ribs, and she brought the axe back across his belly, spilling his guts across her feet. Damia stood up, her legs awash in blood, brains, and bits of guts, with blood dripping off of her bosom, and running down her arms to pool on her hands. She turned all of her attention to the man in field plate, her one good eye turning blue.
He rushed her, throwing himself at her with his hands up over his head to ward off the axe. The force of the attack knocked her head back against the wall, and there was a sickening crack. Shaking off the nausea that gripped her, and ignoring the triple and quadruple vision, and the stars wheeling before her, she struggled to resist.
The warrior straddled her, pinning her arms against the bodies beneath her. His iron-like grip squeezed the feeling from her wrists, and she finally let go of the battle-axe. It slid from her fingers, and she butted her head against his.
She saw an explosion of stars, and began to dry retch even as she struggled. He shook his head, blood streaming from the cut across his nose, and moved his hands to her throat. He began to squeeze, suffocating her, and she felt her wind pipe collapsing. With balled up fists, she began to pummel his ears, once, twice, and then thrice.
He grunted with each strike, but maintained his vice-like grip on her throat. She weakly tried to knee him, but even had he not been wearing a steel cod-piece, her ankles were still bound together, the manacles bolted to the wall.
Damia refused to give up. She placed her hands upon his head, and pushed her broken thumb-nails deep into his eyes. He screamed as blood and the wet fluid from his eyeballs spurted onto her face, and then let go. Backing off of her, he stumbled backwards, pressing his mailed hands to his face, screaming.
The paladin grabbed the battle axe, and used it as a prop, to sit up. With a slow, languid overhand motion, she struck the soft iron of her ankles' chains. Each strike caused sparks to fly, and it echoed dully on the blood-wet stone beneath her. The soft iron finally gave way, and she wedged one of the links open as the man in field plate moaned, “My eyes!”
The Inquisitor stood up, drying blood caking all over her body. She dropped the axe atop Muro, and leaned against the wall with one hand to steady herself. Breathing heavily through the damaged cartilage in her throat, she tried to steady her vision. She could focus, but barely, and glanced about the room.
Muro of Vidour was breathing, but barely. The priest of Curiss was dead. Her interrogator was dead. And the man in the field plate was holding his hands to face, blood and tears pouring from his eye sockets, where tattered remnants of his sight dangled painfully through his fingers. The door – the only one into the tiny bricked cell – was closed.
Damia slowly but stiffly made her way towards the door, and leaned against it with relief. Outside, she heard nothing. The paladin opened the latch slowly, with the battle-axe held numbly in her other hand. Outside the door, was a long tunnel that went far back into the darkness. The one torch that was lit inside the cell scarcely penetrated the ebon shadows of the tunnel, and she was glad there was no one there to hear the moans from the blinded warrior.
The protector of Yatindar sighed heavily, and turned back to the dead priest.
Her necklace was in his belt pouch, beneath his blood-stained gray robes. She donned the silvery braid, adorned with the three-pronged circle that represented Yatindar, and the Three Truths. Though Muro was closer to her size, she wanted him out for questioning, and began to strip down the priest, donning his clothes and his robe.
The warrior in the field plate passed out from pain and fear, and he whimpered on the floor with his sightless eyes turned towards the torch.
Damia shouldered Muro, and kicked the door open, the captured battle-axe held in one hand. Grim determination replaced automatic reactions, as she slowly limped through the darkness with the torch from her cell held high in one hand, and the other around the unconscious mercenary.
* * *
Damia woke to the smell of beef sausage and fresh bread, and her stomach growled in protest for its lack of fill. She opened her eyes, expecting one to hurt, and took a moment to remember where she was.
The young accolyte put down the tray of food, and sat on the bedside. He was in mid-adolescence, but he had the calm and competent aura of an experienced healer. “Here, let me look at you, before you eat.”
The paladin leaned back, letting him gently caress her ribs, her eye, and even her thighs. There was not a hint of impropriety in his gestures, and he was more professional about the quick examination than men many times his elder. “You're healing quite well.”
He got up quickly, and helped her sit up, propping her up with pillows. After a moment, he turned and retrieved the tray full of food. Her stomach growled again, and the accolyte chuckled. “If you're still hungry after you eat this, then I'll fetch more from the kitchens. How do you feel?”
Damia greedily tore a bite off of a thick sausage, and glanced up at him with both her eyes. “Hungry.” She hastily finished chewing, and then swallowed, before adding, “But otherwise, quite well. Thank you. Were you my healer?”
He chuckled again, and shook his head. “No, that was Mother Ryas. I'm Estanis.” He offered her his hand, and she shook it with her sausage-greased hand, firmly.
The accolyte said, “I'll leave you to finish your meal. If you need more, or need anything at all, just ring the bell here.” He placed his hand on a small bell near the bed. “I'll hear it out in the next room, where I'm studying.” He smiled assuredly at her, and nodded. With a whisk of his green robes, he stepped out of the room with his sandals clapping the floor gently.
Damia paused for a moment to consider the maturity Estanis had displayed, and then shook her head. The bread called to her, as did the water and the cheese.
* * *
Muro of Vidour, the mercenary, was chained to the wall with his wrists above him. His ankles were chained as well, and the irony of the situation was not lost on the mercenary – for it was the same position that Damia had been in, during her… questioning.
To conclude the role-reversal, it was Muro who was being questioned.
The paladin, Damia, was there, as was a priest of Yatindar, and a young accolyte of Whalin. The priest was formidable, with iron gray hair, and blue-dyed leathers over banded mail. At his hip was a large longsword, and across one shoulder was a sash of white with the emblem of Yatindar upon it. The accolyte was an adolescent boy in the green robes of Whalin, but his eyes were too shrewd for Muro's comfort. The whole situation stank, and the mercenary had no doubt that he would talk – whether he liked it or not.
The priest of Yatindar cleared his throat, and he said, “I'm Father Turnstoy, of the Church of Yatindar. This is Defender Damia, also of the Church.” He waved his hand at the woman, and then at the boy. “And this is Accolyte Estanis, of the Church of Whalin. We'd like to ask you a few questions.”
Muro spit at him. “I'll tell you nothing.”
Father Turnstoy said with iron voice not his own, “Tell us all you know of the Iron Lord.”
The mercenary fought against his chains like a man possessed, drawing blood from his wrists and his ankles, even through his leather boots. Unlike Damia, he was still wearing his clothes while he was chained – but they quickly began to soak through with blood. Estanis rushed forward, and began to use prayers to soothe the man's pain, and to heal his wounds.
Muro whimpered as the pain was taken from him, and his body, undistracted by the dictate, was forced to speak, even as his mind rebelled. His voice was calm and methodical, missing nothing, even though his soul screamed against the telling of the secret – for deep down, he knew it meant his death.
“The Iron Lord is a giant, standing nearly ten feet tall, clad in steel from head to toe. His feet and hands are enormous, and his eyes glow with a demonic red light. His voice –”
Father Turnstoy interrupted him, demanding, “Where is he now?”
Muro relaxed, catching his breath. He smiled evilly at the priest of Yatindar, blood dripping down his chin from where he bit through his lip. “I don't know that.” The mercenary spat blood in the face of the young accolyte tending his wrists.
The accolyte ignored the insult, and continued to soothe his burning wounds.
Damia asked the elder priest, “Ask him who those other men were, interrogating me.”
Father Turnstoy turned again to the mercenary, and the man futilely tried to silence his mental terror. The priest's cold blue eyes bored into Muro, and he asked in that otherworldly voice, “Who were the other men interrogating Defender Damia?”
Muro cried out, silently cursing the accolyte who robbed him of the pain that would silence his tongue. “One was Stantion Mackrur, one was Inabren Tane, and the other was a minion of the Iron Lord.”
Both Damia's and Turnstoy's eyebrows shot up, and Father Turnstoy quickly asked, “Which was a minion of the Iron Lord?”
Muro gasped, blood dribbling down his chin, and then he said, “The man in steel plate with the brown cassock, and the short-handled battle-axe.”
The mercenary closed his eyes, letting the accolyte heal him. He was dead, now; he knew it. Even the temple to Yatindar would not be able to protect him from the Iron Lord's wrath. He opened his eyes, and with the conscience of a man who knows he is dead, finished the interrogation of his own free will.
“The priests of Curiss are split, over an interpretation of the Avard Accords. The accords specified that the mages would be hunted for five centuries, and one sect of the church believes that the five centuries has passed. If that's the case, then the accords no longer apply to the Church of Curiss, and the priests are no longer obligated to aid in the Inquisition. The other sect feels the five centuries won't pass for another forty years, because of some Event that will take place then.”
Damia's training and raising were raised full in her mind in a moment of history that was condensed into a heartbeat, as the mercenary took a breath. The Avard Accords had been pushed through the governing Circle of Priests in Karmen, at the end of the Storm Wars. The prophets of the gods had all spoken in one voice, saying that the mages would remain silent for five centuries, or the Dark God Nathel would be resurrected, and all the world plunged into a nightmare that would last for eternity. The accords had been pushed through by the Church of Yatindar, which had also created the Inquisition to hunt down the mages, and end their magic. If the mages would not voluntarily give up their spellbooks and magics, then the Inquisition would take them by force. Though distasteful as the Inquisition might be, it was a holy mandate from the gods, and could not be disobeyed. Yet every novitiate and accolyte knew that the Avard Accords had been written only four and a half centuries earlier – and there was nearly four decades left in the Inquisition.
Muro paused to stand a little taller, as his wounds healed up under the accolyte's care. “The pro-mage sect hired the Iron Lord to end the dispute, forcibly. There are new Stantions, though – new specialty priests. Their powers are not over the living dead – their powers are over the living. The Church of Curiss is frightened, and the new Stantions are anti-mage. They reneged on their word to the Iron Lord, and he took vengeance upon them at Baridinic.
“I'm simply the go-between. I know how to contact… I knew how to contact, Inabren Tane, a representative of the Iron Lord. And now, I fully expect to die.”
Father Turnstoy turned to look at Damia, and nodded. He then turned back to the mercenary, and said, “We'll protect you. Not even the Iron Lord can assault you here, in this holy temple.”
Muro smiled sadly, the look of the condemned man in his eye. “You don't get it, do you, priest?”
Estanis moved away from the mercenary, his healing complete. The young man looked at his charge gravely, and then looked into Father Turnstoy's eyes.
Muro said sadly, “The Disciple Murkorik of Curiss, was at Baridinic. Not even a Disciple can stop the Iron Lord. Nothing can.”
Damia set her jaw, and there was a blue fire in her dark eyes. “I can.”
* * *
Merilyn sat in the vast Library of Law, inside of the Faeleran's basement. The codes and laws of dozens of nations surrounded him, as well as the rules of nations long gone. The Chosen's retainer often retreated into Library of Law when he needed to think. His original training had been as a monk. It was only later, when the Chosen had been but a Disciple, had he been tapped to be a Defender of the Faith.
The retainer's eyes slid off of the pages of the tome before him repeatedly, and he soon gave up. The hundreds of candles overhead in their chandeliers gave a gentle glow to the tome, and ordinarily its warmth would be irresistible. Merilyn's eyes completely lost focus, and he stared into the near distance, thinking hard.
Word had come from Defender Damia. Not even the temples were safe from the Iron Lord. He had visited the Lilted Voice temple to Yatindar in Milithos, barely one-hundred miles west of Karmen, and the Faeleran. The Lilted Voice was a small temple to Yatindar, and the senior priest there had been a Father Turnstoy. Though he was not a bishop by title, Father Turnstoy's power had been considered formidable, and he was far more experienced with the law than some of the cardinals Merilyn dealt with in the Faeleran.
The retainer pulled the letter from his pocket once again, and hesitated. Glancing around surreptitiously, he unfolded the thin vellum, and read over the hastily scrawled words.
He was enormous – three again over six feet tall, and nearly six feet wide at the shoulders. The Iron Lord was dressed in full plate of a rusted color, and his eyes glowed with a reddish light. With his bare hands he destroyed the wall nearest Muro, and, in completely ensorcelled silence, he crushed Muro with the same casual ease with which we might crush a sheet of parchment. The mercenary made no sound, and no attempt to scream. He had already made his peace with his goddess. Father Turnstoy tried to stop the Iron Lord, but his prayers were silenced in the confines of the small room. His prayers were unheard, though he tried to fling himself at the Iron Lord. The monster flicked him aside in complete silence, and he landed atop me, his neck broken. When I finally pushed Father Turnstoy's body off of me, the Iron Lord was gone. My prelate, the threat this Iron Lord and his people represents is greater than anyone could have guessed. The power he possesses is such that neither stone nor steel can stop him. The protective prayers around the temple went unanswered, and Yatindar refused us aid, when it came time to battle the man. I fear for the safety of the Chosen, and the Faeleran. The Iron Lord's path of destruction leads directly towards Karmen, following the Sabron River. I urge you to recall your Defenders from abroad, and fortify the Faeleran. If a battle is to occur between the Iron Lord and faithful of Yatindar, then we will need all of our faith – particularly if Yatindar himself will not answer our prayers against this monster, for whatever reasons.
Merilyn's hands trembled, and he quickly folded the vellum back up, and placed it inside his pocket. Prelate Vaugn had brought the message straight to him, to give to the Chosen. The retainer had not yet shown it to his Chosen, and had to work himself up to it. The ogremai was coming.
He looked up, towards the chandeliers, and the heavens hidden from view. The monks of Yatindar taught that even the gods were bound by laws, though those laws were impossible for mortal men to understand. The gods vied with one another for power, to remake the world in his or her own image, though they were bound by laws and rules. Whatever the reason, Yatindar could not answer the prayers of his priests where the Iron Lord was concerned. And neither, apparently, could Curiss answer the prayers of his priests, against the Iron Lord.
Merilyn glanced down at the open tome, seeing with his mind's eyes. There had been nothing to date to connect the Iron Lord to any particular god or goddess. It was entirely possible that whatever the ogremai did was beneficial, though, to Yatindar's enemies. The god of the antipaladins, Dakis, or perhaps the Mad God himself, Nabrol, would take great pleasure in seeing the Faeleran fall, and the Chosen of Yatindar slain.
Looking around, he realized that, for all the books and stone, sweat and years that had gone into making the Faeleran the heart of worship to Yatindar – it all meant nothing. Temples could be rebuilt, no matter how grand they were. Though knowledge might be lost, the message of Yatindar could never be lost so long as one of his followers lived. And if worse came to worse, Yatindar himself, or one of his archons, could come down from the heavens to stop the Iron Lord. So the ogremai was not a direct threat to the church itself. Just the people within it.
The retainer sighed, and rubbed his eyes. Closing the tome, he stood up, and squared his shoulders. He decided that it was time the Chosen knew of the Iron Lord's coming, and he left the tome there on the desk for an accolyte to return to the proper shelf. The Laws of the Gods was a small tome, for no mortal knew what the laws were – but it was filled with speculation.
* * *
Damia shook her head, and when that failed, used her free hand to brush the hair out of her eyes. Strands of dark hair were continually escaping her chain mail coif, and her war braids. For a brief moment, she thought back enviously to the fair-skinned accolyte that had helped her dress in her armor. The accolyte's hair had been cut shorter than that of most men, and Damia envied the young priestess. She shrugged, and forced her mind back to the situation at hand. The paladin had been awake for two days straight, and her mind tended to wander.
Prelate Dawkins pointed at a map of the city, the finger of his gauntlet resting upon the Temple of Death on the northern side of the island. Damia idly noted that the temple had been beautifully rendered into a near exact likeness of the ugly, misshapen temple, and that the prelate's steel-clad finger was smudging the beautiful inking.
The prelate's voice was grave, as he said, “That light outside is coming from the Temple of Death, which explains why it's violet in color.”
A templar asked, “What kind of light? I haven't been outside to see it.”
A young priestess with hair that shown auburn in the torchlight, replied, “It's a great column of light that reaches up into the heavens. You can't stare upon it long, it's so bright. The column's engulfed the entire temple.”
Prelate Dawkins nodded. “There's considerable fighting around the temple, but it's all priests of Curiss. We can't intervene unless they manage to destroy buildings off their church grounds, or, Yatindar forbid, take the life of someone outside the church.”
Damia glanced at the time candle, as it slowly burned down the four marks to dawn. “When did the fighting actually start? Before or after the column appeared? And when did the column appear?”
Dawkins shrugged, glancing at the priestess that had spoken earlier. She answered, “The priests began fighting, first, I think. The column appeared barely a quarter mark ago, and I've seen several reports half a mark old on the fighting.”
The prelate nodded. “We can expect the Iron Lord to make use of the chaos, though. We're simply waiting word from the ArchPrelate to deploy outside the walls of the Faeleran.”
A huge, hulking paladin in field plate like Damia's interjected, “Or inside the walls.”
Dawkins said quickly, “Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but if worse comes to worse, our primariy responsibility is safeguarding Disciple Arnor.”
Damia crossed her arms, ignoring the plain steel shield affixed to one forearm. “And where is Disciple Arnor?”
Prelate Dawkins suddenly aged a few years, as though the weight of his job was becoming too much for him. “He's still in council with the Chosen.”
The implications of the situation struck all of them. Where the Iron Lord was concerned, Yatindar was giving no answers. The Chosen and his Disciples had been in council for nearly a dozen marks, trying to find a prayer to the God of Justice that would be answered – to no avail.
A young cleric, clad in chainmail beneath his cassock, asked, “If Yatindar isn't granting prayers to his Chosen, then why would he grant prayers to a lowly cleric?”
The prelate quoted one of the sacred texts, saying, “Yet when Orania and all her Disciples failed to move the boulder, it was the simple peasant with his shovel that toiled for generations to move a mountain.”
The cleric nodded, his eyes glazing over as he thought furiously.
Damia and all the rest of the Order of Arnor grabbed the table to keep from falling, as the very foundations of the Faeleran itself shook. There were gasps and cries, as bits of plaster and debris fell from the ceiling. The shuddering stopped, and Damia was first on her feet, racing out the door. Calling over her shoulder, she yelled, “To our Disciple!”
Though clad in nearly eighty pounds of steel and leather, Damia ran quickly, pounding through the hallways, towards the base of the tallest tower in the Faeleran, known as the Pinnacle. The kite shield of steel strapped to her arm did not hinder her in the least, and she used it to bowl over one rotund monk that was wandering around in a daze after the 'earthquake' the fortress had taken.
The paladin paused to open a door across the open square in the heart of the fortress, and then sprint forward through the myriad horses and templars and soldiers, towards the one tower where she was needed most.
There was debris everywhere, and one horse had been destroyed by a huge chunk of masonry that had fallen from the Pinnacle. Damia had just enough time to glance up, before she was through the door. She had time for a moment's sadness, before she glossed over it with steel. Though there were fallen, bleeding, and dying in the square, the Disciple was her appointed priority. Only four people in the world could change her orders, she knew, as she bounded up the stairs two at a time.
She was breathing hard, and sweating so hard she could barely see, when she made it to the top. There, she burst through the door into the small hallway that led to the office of the Chosen. Two paladins stood guard outside the double doors into his office, and their swords were at the ready in Damia's direction. When they saw it was one of their own, they saluted with the long weapons. One called out, “What's happening, Defender?”
Damia leaned against the wall, panting – and resolving to get into better shape. She finally could say, “I have no idea,” as the other members of the Order of Arnor burst into the hallway with their weapons drawn.
The small hallway became very crowded. Damia took the opportunity to throw wide the shutters to the windows, and a purple light spilled in from outside. To the north, a massive column of purples, violets, and whites, spun into the heavens from the Temple of Death. On the ground itself, a battle raged in the midst of a frightened mob.
The priests of Curiss, clad in their purple and white robes, were battling one another with the prayers of their god, flinging lightning bolts, death, and darkness at one another. The simple peasants and nobles of the city were caught in the battle, and tried to flee wherever they could, though there was nowhere to run.
Damia had time to idly wonder why Curiss would grant the prayers of his priests to battle one another, and Yatindar not the prayers to battle the Iron Lord, when she spied one of the Iron Lords' minions in the streets below. Clad in full plate beneath a brown cassock, he bore a large battle axe with ease. The crowd flowed around him, as fearful of him as they were of the priests of Curiss – and he moved steadily closer to the Faeleran. Damia looked out the other window, and saw other minions of the Iron Lord slowly advancing on the fortress.
Prelate Dawkins said, “I know. I see them, too.”
Another, smaller explosion rocked the Faeleran, though Damia could not see what caused it. She grabbed onto the window's ledge just in time, and the prelate held onto her, to keep from falling.
He said, “If this keeps us, there won't be a Faeleran.”
The huge, hulking paladin cursed, and asked, “Shouldn't we be down near the base of the tower? If the Iron Lord and his men have to come up, we could fight them every inch of the way up, one at a time.”
The prelate shook his head. “If the Iron Lord or his men can get into the Faeleran, then they have more formidable powers than we could have guessed. The closer we are to the Disciple, the sooner we can aid him when the Iron Lord does something unexpected.”
Damia wanted to disagree. She wanted to wade into the battle that surely was raging in the Faeleran between the Iron Lord's men and the congregation of the faithful. But she obeyed, wanting to scream in frustration.
Of a sudden, she and the other members of the Order of Arnor were very, very quiet. From deep down in the maw of the winding stairwell, they could hear the rhythmic steps of someone inhumanly heavy.
Everyone took up preparatory stances. Despite the cramped quarters, the Order of Arnor was quite adept at fighting together. All together, they cast a quick prayer to Yatindar, and were answered – each of them could almost see what the others saw, and feel what they felt, so that they would fight as a single unit.
By unruly happenstance, Damia was furthest from the stairs. Behind her were the two paladins that guarded the entrance to the Chosen's office, and before her were the men and women she had trained with and against for many years. She readied her longsword, and growled to herself, as a strand of her hair worked itself loose from her coif, right into one of her eyes.
The rhythmic thudding echoed loudly up the stairs, and suddenly, he was there. The Iron Lord was nearly stooped over in the small hallway, and his fists and feet were inordinately huge. From within his visored helm, his red eyes glowed with a hellish light.
Prelate Dawkins yelled, “Stop! Or face annihilation!”
The Iron Lord turned his helm to look down upon the prelate, and with the most casual flick of his hand, slammed the prelate into the wall – and through it. There was a stunned moment as the sound of crumpling steel and shattering rock registered in the ears of the Order of Arnor.
They rushed forward as a unit, and five separate weapons struck the Iron Lord simultaneously. Many of the weapons glowed with a holy light, both from the answered prayers of the order, and from the innate powers of the weapons themselves. Chips of rust flew off of the monstrous ogremai's armor, and light sparked in the relative darkness.
The Iron Lord grabbed the hulking paladin in one hand, the giant's fingers wrapping around his breast plate with ease. The ogremai crushed the breast plate, with the paladin inside, and a spattering of blood splashed onto everyone. His other hand curled into a fist, and slammed into the skull of one waif-thin cleric. Her body crumpled into its armor, what had once been a vibrant woman with a wonderful smile suddenly became an armored pair of legs with a bowl of red goo on top.
The link the Order of Arnor shared with one another protected them from the worst of the horrific deaths, but those left standing were filled only with rage and anger – and impotence.
Damia's body trembled with rage, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her eyes were the deepest, most intense azure of the skies and the seas and the stones. As the Order of Arnor crumbled before her, she finally had room to maneuver, as she stepped forward with another paladin of the order, and a priest sworn to defend the Disciple. The two paladins behind Damia also stepped forward, eager to engage the monster that would threaten their Chosen.
The inquisitor leapt full in the face of the ogremai, until her breast plate was even with his head, and her feet curled beneath her six feet off the floor. She struck with one powerful leg, her steel-shod foot scratching rust off the monster's armor and leaving a long gash of silvery steel in its red armor. With the grace born of unity, her other foot landed on the shoulder of her fellow paladin of the order, and the moment that balance brought her enabled her to strike out with Bailiff. The blade shot forward, and into the eye slit of the behemoth's visor.
The tip of the blade struck something harder than steel, and snapped off. The Iron Lord did not even blink, with a red glowing eye that had no iris and no pupil. The giant casually swept her aside with a strength beyond that of any human.
Damia slammed into the wall, and felt it give. Her armor was crushed so badly that she could barely breathe, with her ribs confined by the hot metal. Drawing in short, ragged breaths, she drew herself up to her feet, braced against the wall where dozens of large stone blocks were fractured and crumbling. Her shield had shattered, and her arm with it. Inside her armor, she could feel dozens of spiky bones cutting through her flesh. The shield and her arm had absorbed most of the blow that would have killed her.
Hefting her sword for a final strike, she lurched forward even as the Iron Lord slaughtered the other three paladins, and the priest.
The Iron Lord turned his visored helm towards her as though preparing to strike, just as the double doors to the Chosen's office opened from the inside.
The monster turned its head to meet the new threat, and before him stood a man of middle years with dark hair just turning to gray. He wore chain mail of steel, and across his back were slung two longswords that seemed simply wicked. “I am Merilyn, the Chosen's retainer.”
The Iron Lord's hand shot out, wrapping itself around the retainer, and binding his arms to his sides. With as much effort as a man might take to breath, Merilyn was lifted high into the air, until his legs dangled three feet off the floor, and his head was level with the monster's. A gravelly voice that was strong, and surprisingly a tenor, asked, “Where is the Chosen.”
Behind the open double doors, the office of the Chosen was glaringly empty save for furniture and documents.
Merilyn arched one eyebrow, and cleared his throat. With deceptive calm, he said, “The Chosen is not here. Would you like to leave a message?”
The ogremai growled, and perceptively squeezed on the retainer. Merilyn began to turn blue, as his lungs struggled against the crushing grip of the giant in full plate. The Iron Lord spoke slowly, as though to a child. “I will ask you, one more time. Where is the Chosen?” He slowly relaxed his grip on the retainer, who took in a deep breath of air.
A voice from behind Merilyn said, “Leave him be, monster. I am right here.”
The retainer spun his head around, gasping.
The Iron Lord dropped Merilyn to one side, peering into the office. The Chosen stood calmly before his sturdy desk, wearing the blue and white robes of his office, together with the ivory white longswords slung across his back. The ogremai said, “You know why I am here.”
Damia was frozen in place, barely breathing though her lungs ached for air. She feared that the slightest sound would shatter the fragile peace – for only her broken body, the retainer's stare, and a dozen feet separated the Iron Lord from the Chosen of Yatindar.
The Chosen seemed infinitely sad, as he let loose a slow breath, and cast his eyes downward. “Yes, creature. I know why you're here.” His eyes leapt up to meet the Iron Lord's with the strength of a Chosen. “You're here to end our threat to you. But you will fail.”
The Iron Lord's voice was soft, but powerful. In the distance could be heard the war the priests of Curiss wrought upon themselves and the city, and the chaos of battle going on in the Faeleran, the yell of people, and the screams of horses. “If that were my purpose, you would already be dead.”
In the barest fraction of a second, the Iron Lord ripped one great oaken door off its hinges and flung it forward, end over end, to shatter the stones of the walls behind and beside the Chosen. The Chosen did not even blink, but turned to survey the damage. After a moment's study, he turned his gaze once more upon the ogremai.
The Chosen's voice was soft, yet firm. “What do you want, then?”
The monster pointed, through a wall to one side, in the direction of the Temple of Death. The eerie violet light flickered over his reddish armor, and the soft golden torch light made him seem half in day, and half in night. “That is only the beginning. Had I not struck the Faeleran, then your templars would have streamed into the streets to strike at the warring priests of Curiss. My men are even now ending that fight.”
Merilyn's brow was drawn together, and Damia could see him in furious thought. The pain of her arm threatened to overwhelm her, but the fierce discipline of the paladinhood held her in check. Yet she felt her gut growing cold, as her blood flowed from within her armor, slowly splashing on her silver plate, and onto the stone floor.
The Iron Lord said, “Division has begun, in every house and every temple. Curiss' priests were only the first. The division will continue, until even the priests of Yatindar war with one another.”
Merilyn glanced at the Chosen, and then back at the Iron Lord. “Because of the Inquisition. Because of the Avard Accords.”
The Iron Lord glanced respectfully at the retainer. “You are correct.”
Damia snarled, barely standing. Her iron will was crumbling with every drop of blood that splattered upon the stones at her feet. “You hide behind words, ogremai. But you just killed all of my order. Just. Lawful. Courageous. And you mowed them down like so much wheat. You could have given them a chance to surrender. You could have struck to incapacitate, rather than kill. Yet you chose slaughter. You are an agent of destruction, dark lord.”
All eyes were on her, as she dropped her sword, and slid down the wall with a scraping of steel on stone. With her one good hand, she pulled off her open-faced helm, and then her chain mail coif. “Rot in hell, ogremai.” Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
The Iron Lord turned his head away, to stare at the Chosen. Merilyn strode boldly past him to aid the fallen paladin, and only a nervous twitch in one eye, and the sweat on his forehead, gave his fear away.
The Chosen said, “She is right. And for your crimes, you will die.”
His reddish helmet scraping the ceiling, the Iron Lord said, “Heed my words, Chosen. The Inquisition must end. The Avard Accords are satisfied. Else, the churches will turn in upon themsel-”
The Chosen set his jaw, and the Iron Lord ceased his futile reasoning. In the small hallways, and in the office, four blue rings of light appeared, adding their light to that of the Temple of Death, and the torches. The rings suddenly expanded into portals ten feet wide, and on the other side of each portal stood the Disciples of Yatindar.
The Iron Lord said, “So be it.”
With one Voice and one Mind, the Disciples and the Chosen issued a single, monosyllabic prayer to Yatindar. And nothing happened.
The Disciples each looked startled, and the Chosen stared at the Iron Lord in disbelief.
The Iron Lord wasted no time, and leapt through the nearest wall. Each of the Disciples rushed through their portals, which quickly closed behind them. Arnor moved to the broken stone nearest the hole the ogremai had made, and looked down into the Faeleran from the Pinnacle.
Arnor said, “He's gathering his men, and leaving.”
Lit by violet light from the Temple of Death, the Disciple looked very much like the Chosen. A weakened Damia wondered if perhaps he and the Chosen were brothers. Suddenly, the room was plunged into the relative darkness of the torches. The screaming throngs of the mob outside the Faeleran grew louder, and then slowly, slowly diminished. The light from the Temple of Death had gone out, and the priests of Curiss no longer flung their spells at one another.
The darkness closed in on Damia's sight, and she could see as though through a long tunnel. Her last vision in consciousness was that of Merilyn bending over her.
* * *
A stonemason noisily chipped away at a huge block of granite, out in the hallway. Merilyn thought briefly of telling the workers to be more quiet, and then dismissed the thought. Golden sunlight streamed in through the opened windows of the Chosen's office, and the great double doors were closed. Though the noise still penetrated the room, the retainer remained in his seat, unable to move.
The Chosen read the document with great care, and then set it down distastefully. “When did she leave?”
Merilyn cleared his throat, bringing his attention back to the office. “Yesterday morning, my Chosen.”
The head of the Church of Yatindar steepled his fingers, and stared thoughtfully at his retainer. “Does our lord still grant her, her prayers?”
The retainer reluctantly nodded yes.
Squinting his eyes, the Chosen asked, “Were you tempted to go with her?”
Merilyn started, and said, slowly, “Yes, my Chosen.”
The retainer sat there for a moment, trying to put into words the chaotic thoughts that had circled round his brain since reading Damia's letter. He stared at one of the sturdy toys in the office, and finally said, “My Chosen…” His eyes moved back to meet his superior's. “No one can lie to you. Not even, apparently, the Iron Lord. I know Defender Damia. She speaks the truth in her letter. And so did the Iron Lord.”
“Yet you are still here.”
“Defender Damia has her reasons for withdrawing from the church. I cannot fault her reasoning. But her path is not mine.” Merilyn sat up a little straighter, and leaned forward. “She wants to fight. To fight the Inquisition as hard as she once defended it. My battleground is here. In this office. In the Library of Law. Within the walls of the Faeleran. I must end the Inquisition, here, within these walls, first.”
The Chosen was silent for a moment, as he gravely regarded his retainer. “So you would side with the Iron Lord? An ogremai?”
Merilyn swallowed, but remained defiant. “I would side with the side of justice. If the Iron Lord speaks true, then a grave injustice is being done to all mages. And Yatindar himself will judge us for our crimes.”
There was silence for just a moment, and then the stonemason in the hall took to his hammer and chisel once more – as did three of his workers. The call of a seagull passed by the open window.
The Chosen said, “Disciple Trellinae tried to have Damia excommunicated. But the fact that Yatindar still grants her prayers prevents that.”
The retainer blinked, absorbing that bit of news. “Then… You won't stop me?”
“It is not my place to decide, Merilyn. Not any more. Disciple Arnor has received Yatindar's blessings. He will be the next Chosen.”
Merilyn stared for a moment, digesting the horrible information. “Then you're stepping down as the Chosen.”
The older man seemed about to disagree, and then nodded his head in the affirmative.
“And Disciple Arnor is fervently anti mage.”
The Chosen nodded, again.
“Then we are doomed.”
The man in the blue and white robes of his office smiled sadly. “No, child. We are not doomed. There is always hope, and faith.” He glanced down at his desk for a moment, and then clasped his hands together, leaning forward. “Yatindar has asked me to step down, as was obvious by our inability to harm the Iron Lord, even here in our inner sanctum. I feel that Arnor would be the best choice as my replacement, and the cardinals will agree. He has a strong background in administration and law, and will make a good judiciar.”
Merilyn's face was anguished. “My Chosen, he would crush the mages, and send us into a civil war within the Church!”
The older man smiled sadly. “You put too much faith in the prophecy of a monster. Someone must oppose Arnor, and none of the other three Disciples are strong enough, or level-headed enough, to do so. And if in that opposition, you bring the church to war with itself, then… Then Yatindar himself will stand judgement upon us all.”
The retainer asked, “Me? I can do nothing to oppose a Chosen – even you!”
“Yet you just spoke of fighting back – 'here, in this office'. Where is your courage, now?”
The younger man sighed, staring down at his hands. “I think Damia took it with her.”
The Chosen chuckled deep in his throat, and said, “She would return to the church, if there were an order dedicated to defending the mages.”
Merilyn said, “Such an order would begin the same divisions within the church that wracked the Church of Curiss. It would destroy us, and fulfill the prophecy.”
“And yet, it must be done.”
The retainer shook his head. “Besides, only a Disciple can found an order, and appoint a head of the order.”
“This, my faithful retainer, is true.” He paused for a moment, forcing Merilyn to meet his eyes. “When the Iron Lord demanded that we listen to reason, you of all of us did. He forced that reasoning down our throats, with the decimation of Disciple Arnor's order. I will not defend the vile ogremai.” He nearly spat as he said the words. “But even a fool as arrogant as myself can realize that all he has stood for, is wrong. The Inquisition must end. And only when Yatindar has ceased granting me – his Chosen – prayers… Only then do I see the light.
“No, child. You must carry on. Damia was right to be angry with me. The Iron Lord must still be destroyed. And the mages must be repayed for all the harm we have done them, since the centuries' old ban should have been lifted after the War of the Undead. And you – you will finish what you and Damia have started.”
The Chosen looked at Merilyn expectantly, as though awaiting an answer. After an eternity, the retainer nodded. “I will accept my place, as Disciple of Yatindar, my Chosen.”
The old man's eyes were full of sadness, though his smile was warm and compassionate. “So be it, Disciple Merilyn. Please tell your Prelate Damia to return to the folds of the church. You both have much to do.” He tossed the letter on his desk back to his former retainer.
Disciple Merilyn glanced at it, held there in his hands, and then smiled. “Hope is brought by the strangest messengers.”
“Such is the nature of life.”
The letter was written in Damia's calm and collected script, and dated two days previous.
“I, Damia d'Martagne, hereby resign from the Order of Arnor. For five years, I have dedicated my life to the eradication of magic from the realms. In one night – in one near death experience – I learned that the Inquisition had become a lie. No longer can I proudly say that I am an Inquisitor. The Avard Accords are no more just than the enslavement laws of the Alekdan Principalities. There is no honor in flushing out magic and mages who but seek to survive, all for a cause that has long since passed from the realms of necessity. Though the Iron Lord may be evil, he spoke the truth in the presence of the Chosen of Yatindar. And in that bitter truth, all that I had fought for, bled from me as did my own life's blood. We all die. The only question, is how and when, and do we look back upon our lives with pride – or sorrow and regret. I am deeply sorry. The Order of Arnor is decimated, and but a handful of survivors are alive today. But I can no longer serve the Inquisition with a clean conscious. I will return to the Faeleran one day, when the stain of passion is no longer a factor in the interpretation of law.”