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Lawful Neutral Female Galiadre Elf
“Ah Teacher Relyb, please come in, you are expected.”
“Thank you Sister, for seeing me this day.”
Gold chains clinked and swayed gently off the cuff of the man as he raised his arm to bring back the hood of his robe of office. The motion brought the hem of his grey robe up several inches, displacing the small hand of a child clutching to the folds for protection.
“I see you’ve brought us a visitor this day.” Behind a nondescript stone desk, more carved as a part of the room than placed as furniture, sat Teacher Relyb’s counterpart in this conversation. A woman of questionable years and plain features, dressed in a hanging cloth outfit with long sleeves and tied with a golden threaded rope made of yellow silk.
“Yes Sister, an illustration. May I sit?”
“Please do Teacher. I am curious to hear what this is about.”
With a quick motion of his wrist Teacher Relyb drew a line through the air. A nearby chair made of a dark wood and crafted with obvious care slid across the smooth stone floor of the room into easy conversation distance of the desk. With practiced grace the man used his other hand to produce some give around the midsection of his garment and sat even as the chair was still in motion. The child behind him took small quiet steps around behind him, obscuring its presence as much as possible and remaining out of sight.
“Both our time is short Sister and so I will be as brief as the gravity of the situation allows. As we are both aware Sister the apprentice program is more of an art than a science so I will not waste your time in discussions of the politics of it. Unless some serious flaw is discovered I am content to accept it as it is. However I am brought here today on behalf of several discrepancies which have managed to work their way into the system. Ordinarily I would not be concerned, but it does seem rather unfair to our students to limit their growth unnecessarily.
Before you respond to this allow me to simply state that I do not ask you to bypass the law or go against long standing custom. I simply wish for you to officially witness an irregularity and hope to gain knowledge of your opinion about it.”
An awkward silence followed for a brief instant as all sound within the room ceased, but was fortunately cut short before it was noticed by either party as the woman behind the desk pushed her chair slightly back, creating a high pitched squeaking noise. Given several seconds before her response was missed by this, she used the time to sit back into a more contemplative position and settle into a more authoritative posture.
“Well stated Teacher,” she stated without emotion or connotation. “You are obviously aware that it is our highest ideal in the Light Path and our duty as children of the High Waters to do all that we can to ensure that those we serve reach their highest potential in service of the Goddess. Well crafted and spun through your speech as they are, I do though sense your true intentions. However well you try to conceal it with politically correct phrases and well thought out dialog, you cannot hide the truth of what you need to say. I am sure you know that all new children accepted to the order have already been chosen this cycle and new members will not be chosen again for perhaps as much as a decade. I will thank you to be patient and trust that these ways of ours are for the greater good of all of us.”
“I am so aware of what you say Sister,” the Teacher of Script replied. “As I am aware that you believe that deviation from your ways would cause an imbalance. I would still wish you to see what I have to show you. There are some things that must be seen to be understood and I believe that this is one of these. It will not disappoint, I assure you. May I have your permission to continue?”
“Very well Teacher, I will humor you,” the woman sighed. “But make it quick.”
“As you say so shall it be so.” The man cleared his throat and concentrated for a brief instant on remembering exactly how he had planned to proceed. Then mentally prepared he began his presentation. “As I am sure is common to both of our apprenticeship programs the younger members often experience … anxiety when they enter the academy. Unfortunately we are not so lucky as you in being able to use magic to deal with this problem. It is most unfortunate, but despite our best efforts we are forced to simply accept a certain amount of disquiet do to this phenomenon.
We were very surprised then, when some of our more problematic cases suddenly resolved themselves without our involvement. This however was nothing compared to our surprise when we learned why. I will now demonstrate.”
“Child, if you would be so kind, now would be an appropriate time,” he more commanded than requested finally.
If one was standing in the room one would have been able to hear the wind blow outside the stone walls of the windowless room in the silence that followed. The Teacher of Script suddenly looked slightly nervous and his attention shifted toward the figure still behind him. Fortunately he had prepared for this as well.
“Very well I did not wish to use threats, but if you do not present yourself immediately young one you will be exiled from the academy, abandoned on the streets, and left to die and be eaten by wolves.”
Almost before his counterpart could react, Relyb raised his hand to silence any opposition. To emphasize the point he left it there. “I mean it, this is serious business child. This is no way to behave when meeting an individual of such character. Come out from behind there.”
The silence continued for several seconds and it seemed nothing had changed, but then a quiet sniff came from behind the sitting man. In moments this sound slowly increased in pitch, intensity, and frequency and it became quite apparent that the child behind him had begun to cry.
“Now!” he demanded.
And suddenly, the sound ceased. From behind the man, out stepped a young child. Not half a century old by several years, it, for the dress and manner of child did not betray a hint of which sex the child belonged to, stepped boldly forward with a hard stare to its face. The features of the child were wet with tears, and these had run down its face and collected in the fabric of the red tunic the child wore, but its eyes were dry, and dilated quite narrow.
Now finally something had collected the interest of the woman, and she looked quickly at the man in the chair before once again staring blankly at the child. “Child why are you here?” she asked now quite focused on the matter at hand.
“I do not know,” came a calm and serious response.
“Who taught you to do that?”
“Do what? I have not done anything ma’am.”
“Since you first came into this room you seemed very shy young one, but suddenly now you are quite bold. Is that normal behavior?”
The child looked puzzled for a moment and seemed to be trying to find the correct words. Slowly it continued as it searched. “The … thing … helped me. The thing that is, without being.”
“Do you feel this thing with you now young one? Do you ever feel like it is around you, somewhere where you cannot see or hear it?”
“No. The thing only comes when I ask it to. Then it is gone.”
The woman shifted her focus for a moment. “That would be why the mediums left the child in your care. She was intelligent enough to learn the ways of magic but did not seem to possess ‘the touch.’ Any person who goes on to become an effective priestess, even if they become a specialist such as a druid, possesses the feeling, a connection to something that they cannot see or hear, like another sense, that they carry with them all their lives. This development falls outside the bounds of our experience.”
“And the irregularity does not cease there,” Teacher Relyb continued. “This one somehow has taught this ability to two other students in my care. One of them is quite young.
It is not unknown for an occasional student to show a proactive interest in their studies like this, and the practice is actively discouraged. We prefer our students to learn through discipline and practice. What caught our attention this time is that this ability falls outside of our curriculum. To put it into rough discourse this is not a spell we have on file.”
The lady rose from her seat and slowly walked a few steps to a far wall. She idly examined the smooth surface of the stone, and removed some dust from a potted plant. Standing there silent for several seconds she began to scowl slightly as she realized that she was being worked into a political corner by the man. “But it is something that we teach our students to do, and you know it,” she finally said. “Goddess, why couldn’t you have gone to see Sister Nibyen at the office of the Dark Path instead? You would have received more sympathy for your case there.”
“Perhaps, but this is an important matter, and I did not wish to become distracted,” the man tried to say in a matter of fact tone. Just missing the mark, he turned his head a bit in embarrassment.
“That you become distracted when you see Sister Nibyen is not information I wished to know Relyb, however I guess that a rhetorical question deserves such an answer.
Very well, I will see what I can do. For now the children should remain in your care, for there is nothing that can be done about that. Have them continue in their studies as well. I will send a tutor to teach them the basics of religious studies until something can be done about their situation.”
Crossing her arms, the Sister turned around and took a more serious posture. There was but only one path for her to choose now when confronted with something this direct, but moral rectitude and political savvy had become at odds with one another at the same time. “This may take some time to correct. Our classrooms are currently full and as I have previously indicated it will be years before more candidates will be accepted. As you know once a child has been tested they cannot take the tests again. We will find a way to deal with this in the time we have.”
“I had originally thought of going to the assembly and asking for a special audience to the Great Mother. I do not believe though that they would come to a consensus. They would put the children through too much before they would even consider such a course of action. Do you believe that seeing the Council of Elders would be more helpful?” he asked to force the question.
“The council would not approve a course of action that you would agree to. You would see decisive action, however without first securing the support of one of the members you may be resigning the young ones to life as personal servants to one of them or worse. We are all dedicated to the cause of helping those who need us, but we do disagree on what the best course of action to take is, quite often. Do not despair. We have time enough to find a way. Trust that I will do what can be done.”
“Let it be so. I will yield to your greater understanding Sister. Please do not disappoint me.”
Switching topics suddenly, as he was now satisfied that his burden had been partially shifted to what he considered to be a more proper place, he then continued. “We should go. I have other duties I must perform. Would you care to accompany us back to the academy to meet the other two children?”
“Yes I believe I would. Please lead on and we can discuss this further along the way.”
The two each stood up from their particular positions and adjusted their clothing for travel. The priestess went to take the hand of the child this time, and without a hint of doubt the child took her hand back. Finally checking the room one more time, the woman motioned to the door. Without another word between them the three moved to the door of the stone-walled office, and were soon outside amongst their kind, thinking to themselves about the task which has been thrust upon them by chance and the duties associated with their respective offices.
Warm tears fell from the sky that day, and the walkways of the usually packed city were all but empty now as the travelers made their way around the great stone trees and down to ground level. It was autumn here, and although the city was protected in the rain shadow of the high mountains that surrounded the Sacred Valley, the local druids made sure that sufficient water reached the plant life.
The path they walked was smooth as though carved by natural forces, as was all stone architecture here. A tribute to the ancestry of these people, that they practiced the almost magical art of stone singing. The trees too, the homes and meeting places of the local people, were made of local rock, and worked into the shape and likeness of the natural varieties around them. Lateral space was a precious commodity here, and so over the centuries, these trees had grown in size, once spaced properly and of sufficient girth as to look as natural in their surroundings as possible, but now they swelled to preternatural height and size, creating a maze of paths and walkways that had to be learned to be properly traversed.
Secrecy was also a grave concern here as well, and to keep these gigantic trees from view, the natural citizens of the surrounding forest had grown their own trees to match in size, even if not in density; which was not to say that proper visitors were not welcomed here, but more to say that the practice was actively discouraged.
The fact that the structures could be called trees at all was in fact a part of the illusion. Built more like towers than an actual tree, these buildings were capped with a reasonable facsimile of branches complete with stone leaves. From the air this would theoretically look like a natural tree, although at ground level the distinction was far more clear. In other cities in other parts of the world, the sides of similar towers would be smooth or perhaps carved with runes, but here a wood grain was etched into many of them, and plant life such as vines and moss was allowed to grow on the higher levels, all to facilitate the idea from a distance that the city was little more than another grove in a vast forest.
And so as the small group walked along a collection of partially enclosed semi-circular paths toward ground level, they passed the homes of many of families who had lived their lives here for thousands of years. Looking into the windows of many of them, one could see all the regular activities of a city of this time. Women prepared food for their families and older citizens of both sexes told stories and shared wisdom of times before them. Children from lower castes such as woodworking and weaving watched masters at their work, and one family was engaged with a priestess in prayer for a sick man, who could be seen sleeping feverishly in his bed.
All these things could be seen on any given day here, and most paid little attention to the day to day details of their neighbors. It was not in good etiquette to be too nosy, and a person might see things that they had rather not. Of course families could put up barriers over their windows, but then they would need to rely on artificial light, and when a person lives in a small stone home with neighbors above and below, ventilation for breathing as well as for fires can be tricky to obtain. Of course taking care of this need meant that most people could hear what was going on in the buildings around them, but this was something that was deep rooted at a cultural level, and the citizens of the city were rather unabashed about others knowing their private affairs.
Light pollution was a more immediate problem. In an age when you can never know for certain who is flying above you or watching from a far away mountain, the amount of light that a city produces can be a real problem for concealing its presence. Over the years, and quite some time ago, a crafty artisan had discovered a way to make a cheap substance that would glow blue without producing any smoke, and it was lanterns lit by this chemical that shown light on the darker parts of the journey today. Light from these fell off rather quickly, and more than several hundred feet away the eyes tended to ignore it. Smoke from cooking fires was of course still a concern, but the morning fog that blanketed the surrounding valleys every day was good enough for concealing the hundreds of morning fires needed to cook food for the people here. A clean burn was still essential however and an industry of drying wood properly and producing charcoal had risen out of this.
Eventually the travelers came to an obstacle, barring their path. The tree they had been following had led into a short tunnel where two trees met, and they were now exiting this bridge on the other side. This new tree was highly damaged, and looking around could be seen to be mostly abandoned for the time. High up one could see past its shattered trunk and on to the next tree behind it where Stone Singers, suspended on ropes, were crawling over the remains, and attempting to repair the ruin of a tree behind it. Still visible was a boulder, the size of a pair of oxen, which had smashed clean through this tree and on to the one behind, finally lodging itself deep in the trunk there, and totally obliterating someone’s home.
Another boulder, for it took several to shatter and topple one of these massive structures, had caused rubble from above to collapse onto the exposed path here and shear it from the face of the tree, creating a wedge of destruction below as rock continued to bounce off of and remove more of the structure. The missing link then ended up totaling about 20 meters in a straight line, and because the face of the tree was missing here, one could actually see the other side.
This destruction had occurred about a decade prior now, but it was taking quite some time for the stone singers to make their way around to each and every tree. Their force was sufficient to make ordinary repairs, but they were woefully understaffed to deal with destruction of this magnitude. Of course ordinary citizens could finish out the insides for themselves over the course of several weeks as any person here was capable of shaping some small amount of rock, but the true crafting of large amounts was a specialized skill. Fortunately even the most knowledgeable of historians could count on one hand the number of times an army had breached the outer walls of the city, and so the fact that rebuilding might be a little slow was simply accepted. It was better to work a little slow than to train new singers who would have nothing to do after the work was completed.
Unfortunately this group was now going to be late for an important appointment this day. This path would have led in a few minutes to a main junction which could have quickly taken them to ground level near to their destination, but with this section out they would have to back track and take a longer route. Cursing himself for not being prepared for this, the group leader turned around and began thinking about what the next best way to take would be.
Several minutes that the group did not have to spare later, the five members of the pack stepped down onto firm ground. They were in what was essentially a back alley now, and would have to navigate through one of the many marketplaces to reach their ultimate destination. Taking the hand of the person next to him in an attempt to keep the group together and moving quickly, the group leader walked out onto the street.
Fortunately the rain meant that some of the shopkeepers had decided to stay home today. Walking past the menagerie of pots, carvings, and food products, the group began navigating through the open air market. All of the merchants who were out had treated the cloth tents they used to mark their territory here with a mixture of plant pulp and oils to keep them watertight, and so the rain simply dripped down onto the graveled ground around them. And as the group traveled on past the many shops this dripped onto them too, dampening their garb even further than it was now becoming. By the time they reached the building they were looking for, their outer layer would surely be soaked through and the fine garments that they had worn today would be wet.
Looking around, the man at the head of the group noticed that his companion was now carrying the youngest member of their party. A child of little more than 30 years, the distance and the speed that was required had been too great a strain, and now it was necessary to carry the small one. Both were becoming quite wet from the rain now and the man cursed his lack of foresight again.
With his free hand, and bouncing a bit to do so, he readjusted his grip on the case he held beneath his rain gear. The bag was water tight and the only content inside that would be damaged by it was protected anyway, but somehow keeping it out of site seemed prudent. It wasn’t that street crime was common or even rare though. Punishment for even moderate crimes was harsh and charity was plentiful, but occasionally incidents did occur. Perhaps the most common crimes were assassination and political espionage. Even in a society that touted moral righteousness and caring for one’s fellows, it was all too common for ambitious individuals to arrange for unscrupulous things to occur behind the backs of those in charge. People did not talk about it much, but one look at the security that went into the day to day lives of important individuals was enough to see that someone, somewhere, was worried about it. It would be considered unbrotherly for a politically connected individual to show oppose to some platforms such as reappropriation of funds away from church special projects, to feed key citizen demographics after a bad harvest, but if a faceless nameless individual, completely loyal to their master and uncaring about the afterlife, happened to destroy key documentation or poison a key speaker before debate had ended, then so much the better for the opposition.
No one exactly knew how many people within the city were trained to do such things but it was suspected that every important political bloc had them. It was out of suspicion then that the man chose to carefully hide what he carried on this grey day, since what was about to happen could become very political if one wrong step was made. He was not privy to all the details of it, and although this was for the best, it made him more cautious.
Eventually the group made their way past the last of the vendors, an elderly man selling pipes, tobacco products, and some form of a mild hallucinogenic that he had labeled as a meditation aid, and out into one of the few open areas of considerable size inside the protective walls of the city. This was the back of the city here, and one could truly call it the back because of the huge outcropping and attached rock wall, that eventually worked its way up to narrow ridges and the mountain beyond. There were no passes through the geography here, and the collection of rock that passed for mountains were not the type of terrain that was ever likely to be crossed on foot. That made the expanding forest in the opposite direction the front, and the valley pass in that direction had been considered to be the only viable way to reliably travel in or out for well on four thousand years.
This part of the city was the oldest, and the buildings here were of a different design. The residence of the Great Mother was here, the 9th spiritual reincarnation of the Great Prophet, who had led her people to this place several millennium ago and had obtained permission from the creatures who called this grove home to allow them to stay and live here. Here too was the temple, a gigantic ziggurat that enclosed all temple functions and hopefully looked much like a weather worn rock from above. City building code dictated that the residence of the Great Mother, where she both lived and worked, could not be seen into from the surrounding structures nor access gained into it from them, and so for some ways back the buildings around this area were squat and piled upon like stone with no windows on the internal sides. The central area, a courtyard running the length between the residence of the Great Mother and the temple was kept open as both a park and a memorial, and was likewise granted as a protected zone around which permanent structures could not be built.
The same could not be said for the temple itself, upon which generations of people here had built smaller structures that had over time grown. Deference was of course given to it as a religious site, and so no buildings were taller than it by several stories, but it had been used as a common wall to build upon occasionally, and so even as the temple grew out of the rock face behind it, so too did a number of smaller buildings grow out of the back sides of the temple. These eventually grew up to height and as the design changed to that of towers the entire area formed a sort of bowl with the courtyard at its center.
Today it was one of these smaller buildings that was the group’s destination. One of these complexes had been taken over by the religious caste and was currently being used to hold meetings. The five individuals, four walking, and one being carried, fifteen minutes late and soaked, finally arrived.
“We had begun to worry,” said a tall woman dressed in fine silks as the party approached, walking lightly down a hallway that had originally been an alley between two separate buildings. Their footsteps echoed down the hall and the collective dripping sound they made now that they were out of the rain, sounded like an erratic leaky faucet as the moved.
“High priestess, please forgive our tardiness and our condition,” began the woman carrying the small child as she put it down. She pulled back the hood of her rain cloak as well and tried to drip solely on the floor doing so. “We were delayed because of the construction.”
“I am sorry to hear that Sister,” the other continued in the same tone, “but you should have been prepared.” This older woman, standing straight with regal elegance, wore a white dress that covered every part of here body less her hands and face. It had been lined with a green thread that had been carefully woven to resemble jade as well as could be done, and was emblazoned on the lower portion with a bull motif. She wore a holy symbol of a single circle with a white stone center around her neck, its wood rim designed to resemble twisting vines, and upon her head she wore a pair of bull horns, set in place by a tiara that had been hidden by her black hair. The cuffs of the outfit had been altered at some later date, and a series of blue lines had been stitched upon them.
“I am afraid that it is my fault your excellence,” explained the man who had already hurriedly removed his outer cloak and was pulling the cloak off of another member of the group, a second child perhaps a decade older. “I did not walk the path ahead of time and did not prepare the proper spells this morning. Please accept my humble apologies.”
“I see. Well get them out of that drenched cloth and make them ready to meet their guests Teacher Relyb. We have waited long enough now that the extra few moments taken to make them presentable will make little difference. Have you brought the gifts?”
The two had by now removed all of the cloaks, which were piled unceremoniously in a pile on the floor. Relyb nodded with understanding of the permission they had been given. With practiced speed he and his counterpart now spoke but a single word of ancient power, each in their own way, and made a gesture with each hand. The air swirled in unnatural wind, and the clothes of the three remaining members of their party began to dry with speed. Within moments they were finished and three children, each of a different age and dressed in the finest of cloths, were now presentable.
The Teacher set down the leather bound case finally, that he had been both concealing and protecting from the rain. Carefully he undid the latch and pulled back the top, checking to make sure that the contents had not shifted. Seeing all was well inside he reached in and first pulled out a scroll case. Checking both ends to make sure that they remained sealed, he nodded to both priestesses and handed it to the oldest child.
As he did this he once again checked the condition of his ward. The dark, almost black hair of this one had been braided in the front and allowed to fall down naturally. The back had been cut short at an angle and was feathered out to good effect. This one wore a red tunic of satin, high cut with a stiff neck, and was edged in silver. A black sash tied the waist, and a circular design several inches thick edged the bottom of the outfit near the child’s knees.
Satisfied he turned once again to the open case and brought forth a crystal vial, containing roughly a pint of a silver liquid. This he carefully handed to the middle child after testing the stop, making certain that it was secure in the other’s grasp before letting go.
This one was dressed in multicolored silks, ranging from yellow to blue. The arms of this outfit flared at the elbow and hung loose at the cuff presumably to allow for a wide range of arm movement. The neck was cut to a circle and lined with silver thread, and the entire outfit hung loose to the child’s ankles. Its reddish-brown hair was pulled up in two tufts through a red hat which completed the outfit, and fell down next to two bells which came down from the back of it from sagging cloth puffs. A fish design had been worked into the cuff and bottom edge of the outfit in black thread, symbolic of the Low Waters and the sea element, although this was a reflection of the designer’s tastes rather than the place the wearer held in society.
Finally from the container came a smooth spherical stone which was lined through with crystallized minerals and which glowed softly. This was handed more or less without care to the third and smallest child.
Doubly checking this one, it was found to still be in order. The green outfit this one wore was certainly more simple that that of the other two but of equally fine design. Lined only at the shoulders and at the thighs with a thin golden edge, this armless outfit was tied with silk rope at the waist more out of fashion than functional design. Careful attention had been given to this one’s hair however, and the elaborate braids and ties took it down around the pointed ears and back up to the top of this child’s head in loops.
Finally satisfied the man finally stood back up and nodded to the high priestess. “They are ready,” he said with a smile.
Nodding without emotion the high priestess turned and pushed open one of a set of double doors at the end of the hallway. Beyond was a round chamber some twenty meters across, carved of marble and floored with fine red rugs. The chamber was well lit and as an internal room with no windows was using a combination of candlelight and torches.
With a smile and a glance at each of the three children, she then turned her attention inside. “Your excellencies the children have arrived,” she proclaimed. Then allowing each of the children to precede her, she stepped into the room as well.
Guarding the entrance to this room stood two armored men. Wearing elaborate full plated armor, not but their mouth, chin, and ears were clearly visible, and thus only these features made them identifiable as persons. Made of a highly polished and intricately acid etched silver metal, the plates of this armor overlapped each other and formed a tight bond. The chain and leather joints were protected by these plates and would be mostly inaccessible to the thrusts of weaponry. For protection these knights carried with them ceremonial swords of a curved design and bound in black leather sheaths at their sides. These sheaths as well as the curved helms of these guards were marked with the royal seal. This seal of purity, given to those qualified to protect the high priestesses and their families from assassination and attack, was given to only the chosen few who would make up the highest elite of the city.
These two did not even stir when the high priestess with her entourage of children passed through the doors, perhaps sensing them before the door was even opened. The seated creatures beyond however looked up and took notice.
Four beings sat at the far end of the room, presumably waiting for the children to arrive. The first on the far left was a man, middle aged, and well kept. Dressed in a short tunic and pants of the highest quality design and the most expensive materials, he smiled as the children were brought in.
Next from left to right came a wolf-like creature of enormous size. Its fur was well kept and shiny with good health, and its eyes shown with intelligence. It looked up and resettled itself when the four entered but refrained from further action prudently. Children of these ages were likely to have never ventured outside into the forests, and this creature was aware that he, in all likelihood, was frightening to them. Because of this he kept his head low and refrained from sudden action.
Third in the set came a tiny creature which was much too small for the chair it sat in. No more than a foot tall, this small man sported blue skin and multiple wings upon his back. He wore loosely around him what appeared to be a section of green vine and sat quietly for the time being. A look at his eyes however would have revealed that he was somewhat bored and uncomfortable with his surroundings. Still he did his best to look important, sitting in a chair that was designed for a creature five times his size.
Finally sat a middle-aged woman dressed in a shear black partial cloak, tied in the front, and decorated with a leaf design that was woven into the actual fabric. Beneath this she wore a long waist cloth of the highest grade blue cotton, lined with actual solid silver. Upon her head she wore a circlet of silver and jewels, a style unusual and considered somewhat garish among these people, and around her wrists dangled silver bands. She noticeably brightened when the children entered the room and stood up. Moving to one side of the room she continued to smile and held her hands in front of her.
The children passed the room with purpose and took up positions in a line in front of the three remaining seated figures. Her job now finished, the high priestess bowed to the four respectfully and backed out of the room. With a quick motion she applied pressure to the open door, allowing it to close itself, but wedged her foot into the gap to keep it from closing completely. Behind her, deep muffled voices were now speaking.
“It is going well,” she finally said when comfortably outside. “I do not imagine there will be any problems.”
“Excellent,” replied her subordinate, “We have worked hard on this for some time now. It will be gratifying to see the results if I may be so bold in saying so.”
“Indeed,” continued the man, “I will be glad to have this matter over with once and for all. I am, to reiterate, impressed that you have managed to bring this to fruition. Even I was impressed with the manner in which you found a solution.”
“Yes, involving our hosts seemed like the most obvious way to cut through the politics of it all,” stated the high priestess, adjusting the high neck of her white cotton outfit as she did so. “They have always had the ability to sponsor candidates to our order as per the agreement made during the founding, but have rarely ever done so. Asking two members of the Ruling Assembly for their support as well as obtaining the support of another Elder practically guaranteed no objections to this action in either of the two ruling bodies, and cleared the way so to speak. Additionally the timing is right as we have sadly lost many from our order in recent years. We had been considering allowing additional students to join us anyway to replenish our numbers.”
“Yes it is very sad that we were not able to keep those unholy forces from entering our gates. I know that our hosts feel as violated as we do, having their ancestral lands invaded by an army of humans and demons. The entire academy weeps at the loss we have suffered, even in ultimate victory over them.”
“Fortunately we are almost finished with our work restoring the forest to its original state,” interjected the younger priestess. “We have been most blessed by the Goddess with good relations with the forest creatures and we have been able to work swiftly. Barring outside influence, conflict with the nonbelievers will not again surface for at least another thousand years.”
From behind the doors a deep voice once again began to speak. Catching the attention of all three engaged in conversation, they thus looked up expectantly. The high priestess opened the door once again a few inches more and stuck her head in. One of the guards turned his head a bit in response.
“… and I am likewise impressed with your gift of light and warmth for the lair of my family,” the voice continued. It was the wolf-like creature. “Makkapitew will sponsor you then, of the red hat.”
“Ah, good,” smiled Relyb, “Of the three, I had worried most about that one. She comes from a family mostly from the laborer caste. She was the youngest of her family and was only discovered because one of her older siblings became an artisan with a few connections. Life at the academy has been a big change for her.”
“She will be well cared for with us,” responded the high priestess. “You need not worry about that. It is normal for our students to be presented with social situations that are far removed from what they are used to. We are well prepared to deal with that.”
Just then a head stuck through the still open door. It was the woman in black. “Elder Oliel, you will be happy to know that all three of the young ones are to be accepted immediately into the order.”
Teacher Relyb let out a sigh of relief but quickly lowered his head a bit and stepped back. With one hand he began to wring moisture out of his still wet ceremonial dress putting his full attention into it. Meanwhile the woman in black had stepped all the way into the hallway. “The three will now give a demonstration of what they have learned thus far at the academy to entertain the guests. Mister Angell is quite excited about it,” she laughed. “Apparently he does not have opportunity to be social enough. Those three are quite precious,” she added to the Teacher.
Now obviously embarrassed with the presence of the woman, Relyb continued to look down. “Thank you mistress,” he muttered. “Praise from a member of the Council means much to me.”
Not seeming to notice his posture and tone, the other Elder continued on, this time speaking to the other two priestesses. “I believe our work here is done for now. We can move the three into their new home today. I will send a bipartisan group of priestesses here as soon as I return to my office to orient them and finish with the official paperwork.” Looking over toward the man her eyes caught his for an instant before he once again shifted his gaze to her feet. “Teacher Relyb, you have done a wonderful job here these last few years and we are proud to be working so closely with our friends at the academy. Would you care to escort me out today?” To emphasize the rhetorical nature of the question she took the Teacher by elbow.
“Of course mistress, it would be an honor,” he mumbled, still looking at the floor. Turning, and completely forgetting his case and cloak he began walking toward the exit. Rolling her eyes the younger priestess picked up the wad of cloaks as well as the case, and followed behind. The other elder woman followed suit, and with their business concluded the four walked down the stone hallway, out into the courtyard, and out into the open sky where the sun was finally beginning to shine once again.
The light filtered down through the holes in the cloud cover to the grass of the courtyard and reflected off of the surface of the puddles still there from the recent rain. Sister Elon Zelinia finally took off her cloak, revealing her gray robe beneath and took a deep full breath. She was standing upon the first plateau of the temple some six meters above the ground, a common area where the citizens of the city were encouraged to socialize and even to sell wares to their fellows. Today was no different than any other, for in any weather or condition there were always people who could be found talking, laughing, eating, playing music, and generally loving life at this place. High above them the statue of the Goddess, in her most general aspect, looked down upon her children and smiled.
The priestess turned her attention out across the open field. At the far end, a few meters more than 50 away, the residence of the Great Mother began. Idly she wondered what was going on inside the tower today. Was some new magic item being discussed, examined, and ultimately cataloged and stored in the catacombs beneath the city, forever to sleep unless needed for good cause? Was some new tome of ancient knowledge in reading, spilling forth knowledge the world had thought lost for millennia? Pondering this made the woman sigh, for she had little time to sit in on these tasks. Of course the entire priesthood was welcome to come and spend time in these studies, but for most their work took priority.
Creating a broken set of lines from the tower down to the main steps of the temple, two rows of statues sung from marble could be found, and it was now these that the priestess examined. Each of these statues marked a different original follower of the Prophet on her journey to this territory, and if one was to count them all, including the ones carved into the entryway to the tower of the Great Mother and those into the base of the temple itself, one would find all hundred represented as one walked from the Great Mother’s throne directly to the base of the statue of the Goddess, inside the temple.
Not to be outdone by her followers however, a statue of the Prophet herself centered an outdoor fountain just outside the main entryway of the temple itself. When the settlers first came to this land there was no clean water supply and so the Prophet herself had created an endless pool of it upon the spot. The fountain today was created and carefully shaped around this well, and still used the original magical source.
Looking down more carefully at the fountain now Elon could see one of the more unusual sights one could find within the city. Sitting quietly with his eyes closed, seemingly enjoying the sounds of music down near the ground, she could see a man some two meters tall, which made him instantly stand out, as most men were only a bit more than half that here. His red skin and hard chiseled features showed his heritage well, but the fact that the large thorns that covered near his entire body had been meticulously shaved down to studs showed his culture. Even still the man wore the special green torc that his ancestors, who had come here bound to the service of war, and had ultimately been abandoned by their callers centuries ago, still wore to this day. His kind as a pure blood was certainly rare these days, for those that had been granted citizenship that long ago and had taken on the arduous task of being rehabilitated and enculturated through magic and training both, had eventually worked their way almost fully into society.
They were valued members of society now and rarely caused a problem. In fact the knowledge of the original ones was highly valuable in combating further incursions by foreigners into the city and when such incursions were successful they proved able diplomats to their peers who were always left behind when the rest of the army retreated. They were also wonderful fighters and though they could never hold any official office or command until the original bloodline had thinned, they served marvelously as wall guards, even if that idea had taken some time to sit well with the natural citizens of the forest beyond.
Suddenly a hand was put down upon the priestesses shoulder and she was snapped out of her thoughts concerning these unusual citizens. Surprised she turned around quickly and almost immediately recognized her friend.
“Sister Ife it is good of you to come talk with me this day!” she exclaimed joyfully as she hugged her old friend. The two had gone through school together and loved one another dearly, but found time to talk all too infrequently these days.
“Ahimsa your presence has been missed from my life,” Ife gleamed back, using the other woman’s child name as she was accustomed to doing. “What can I do for you today?”
“It is about one of our students here my friend. Can we move inside? It is so hot and humid today.” The priestess shook the shoulders of her robe to allow more air inside. Indeed now that the rain had finished, the ambient temperature was rising quickly on this summer day.
“Of course, please lead the way.” The second priestess clenched her hand into a fist in response to her natural tendency to grab the hand of her friend as she did when they were children. Sometimes old habits died hard.
The two turned to the left and began to walk up the stairs of the outside of the temple. After a few feet they reached the main gateway. This platform was a domed junction, leading to both the ground and to the holy entrance that those in service of the Goddess used. It also was the only means to access the first platform of the temple and both the Light and Dark orders had their temple offices near here. On holy days and in cases of need for overflow to the main temple chamber on the bottom level, there was a secondary hallway around the corner on the first level which led inside to a balcony where anyone could go and worship.
Standing here were several guards. These were mostly for show, with their only real duty being to open and close the doors that blocked the way to the second level. If some individual with criminal intent was to attempt to gain access they would theoretically have to go through these guards as well, but any real assassin would simply climb the walls around behind the temple. Still these men were from the Honor Guard, and as such were well versed in the arts of assassination themselves. Despite the obvious flaws, the system did manage to work well.
Now it was that these guards, recognizing the two priestesses, opened the doors here that were symbolic of the barrier between the High and the Low Waters. They were painted with all sorts of symbolic relief, but almost no one actually took the time to view these anymore. The two, one in gray robes and one in black, made their way on.
At the top of the steps stood a pillar, holding the domed roof of the gateway in place, and the priestesses, as most that walked here did, turned to the left. Walking around the second platform and passing several other priestesses as they did so, they reached a stone door. This was the main portal into the private places of the temple and was once again guarded at all hours. Passing beyond, the priestesses now walked in single file.
Most priestesses lived in their own private residences, although many found home at the courts of one of the Elders or for a precious few, the complex of the Great Mother. The inner chambers here were mostly for the training of the young students with only basic living space given to the instructors and students, both of whom worked and lived here. This being the case, the way down to the classrooms and living facilities were not wide, but were very secure. By barring a single set of stairs one could practically guarantee the safety of the children here and this feature was most certainly designed on purpose. Now the two priestesses walked down these stairs, passing the place where the holy women themselves came to worship, and the current high priestess who was charged with the task, gave services while standing in the hand of a great statue of the almighty Goddess.
Making an ‘S’ turn the two now walked down a wider set of stairs and past the temple classrooms. On a day like today most classes would be given outside, but at least one class was currently in session as voices could be heard behind a closed door. Here too was a bust of the goddess to one side of the top of the stairs. This was different from the ones outside in that it showed the Goddess with one body but two faces, a feature only found here within the private areas of the temple. A cryptic space between the two faces was also evident, but very few talked about that even amongst themselves.
Now at ground level in the temple, behind the main statue, the priestesses finally worked their way down part of a wide hallway and turned into a room to the left. This was where Sister Zelinia lived and worked as a caretaker and counselor to the students.
The room was small, only a bit more than three meters to a side, and slept four, but it was tall. Because of this, each room had a second floor above the sleeping chamber which was used as a study. Pulling a cord now, a set of steep stairs lowered and the two walked up these to the room above.
Finally by pulling the stairs up and pulling the cord into the room with them the two could be alone. Sister Zelinia took a seat in a nearby chair here and opened her hand to the couch across from her. Then looking up at nothing in particular and noticing that even here underground the heat was strong, she examined her robe. As her friend accepted her invitation and sat down across from her, she stood slightly and removed this. Placing it carefully on the table behind her, she took mental note so that she might soon remember to wash it.
“This student,” she finally continued without skipping a beat in the conversation since it was put on hold several minutes ago, “Is one of those brought to us in the transition, when the cycle had been put on hold so that we might reorganize after our tragic losses. The introduction of a few new members was a blessing then, even if they required additional care in looking after. No one had expected them to simply integrate themselves into their studies and this was so, but in the following years they have worked their way in well, except for this one problem.”
The woman took a moment to collect her next thought and examined the skin on her arm as she did so. She spent most of her time inside these days, and her skin had lightened over time to more of a pale shade than that of a healthy medium grey. Now with summer here she had been outside more frequently, and the sun had left its marks upon her, burning the backs of her hands to where the cuff of her robe met them, and sitting here without that on the tan lines were obvious.
“It is not that this one will fail out, in fact she has a place here much as any other does. Despite her somewhat sullen manner which is probably due to the pressure that she is under, she has made many friends here. She has taken to the gift of music well, and probably would have made an excellent stone singer if she had not originally been sent to the academy. Of course coming from that training program, she is quite intelligent by our standards and picks up our more mundane lessons quickly.
Unfortunately she distinctly lacks any intrinsic feelings of how things interact. When we first got a hold of her, she was exceptionally poor at reading people. We worked hard with her on this for quite some time, as being able to understand the feelings of others is the basis of most of our teachings as you well know. Eventually we were able to train her to an acceptable degree but even still she has no idea what to do with this information. Practicality seems completely lost on her, and she often comes to rather strange conclusions about what she observes.
I fear that she was somehow taught at the academy to suppress any connection and feeling she had to the things around her. We were slowly able to get her away from the habit of reading magical texts each day in order to use these abilities, and the fact that she was able to do so is proof of her connection to the divine. It is strange however, that she continues to be able to use simple abilities taught to her at the academy without the writings. We assume that she has simply memorized them from reading them so often in the past.
It is also troubling that we cannot seem to teach her some of our most basic divine arts. She has failed to pass on to more advanced material twice now, and her instructor had vocalized to me her concern that perhaps she had been misplaced in our care. Knowing that when she came to us she already possessed a divine talent that was more powerful than anything taught at that level however, we simply moved her on to the next class and watched her progress carefully. At the intermediate level, which is all that is required for a student to pass before being accepted fully as a Sister, she did marginally better. Recently she passed her trials in this area of focus, learning four of the disciplines taught. Not to say that her progress was good, for most learn five or six, with the exceptional students being able to demonstrate the ability to use all that was taught to them.
And so we are quite certain that she belongs here with us, but remain seriously concerned with the slow pace that she progresses on with. We are willing to overlook her failure at the basic arts given her success in the more advanced material, but we are concerned that at some further point in her training she may stumble again unless she has outside help beyond what we normally allow our students.”
Finishing her tale, the woman adjusted her position in her seat and took the hands of her friend. She smiled to the other, in a way that said that no matter what would ever happen the two would always be close friends. “You are such an excellent friend to me Olina,” she began, using the other’s child name. “Could you possibly consider tutoring this student for a time? I feel that she is a good person, down deep behind the mask she wears, and I know that someone as wise and caring as you could help to bring her out. She is under so much pressure to succeed.”
Sister Ife looked embarrassed and lowered her head a bit. “You know of course that if I take her with me and show her the work I do, it will show bias toward the aspects I have chosen to follow,” she replied quietly.
“You are conservative and mild amongst those who follow the Dark Path, my friend. You do not follow the aspect of Cat. It will not be inappropriate for a young one to learn from you. If there is bias in that, then we will be secure in knowing that somewhere else there is a balance for it.”
“All right, you have convinced me. I will send a servant to escort her to my residence in following days.”
“Good. I am happy that you have accepted,” the woman replied. Standing up without letting go of her friend’s hands, she gently pulled the other up with her. “Let us go to the bath sister, for you look as overheated as I, and talk of more social things. Black is such a warm color. Tell me, what rumors have you heard?”
Lowering the stairs, the two walked down the wooden steps and out into the lower level of the room. There was another priestess here now, reading a book on the nomadic habits of intelligent races after the great impact at the end of the eighth millennium AC. She looked up and shot the two a mysterious smile and a nod before returning to her book.
As the two exited the room and walked back down the hall towards the library, dining hall, and bath, amongst other things, the sister in black finally answered. “One thing I have heard is that the Great Mother is considering inviting a human to the city,” she exclaimed with some authority. “The Council will begin debates about it soon.”
“Really!” the other reacted with surprise as the two took a left and into the bath chambers, a large room big enough for many of the students here to use the facility at once. “I had not heard! A human has not walked here in peace for longer than I know of! Please do explain!”
It was not that those who had an informed opinion here actually hated humans, but more that they actively and vigorously distrusted them. There were many reasons, the most basic of which was that humans never took the time and care to think about what consequences their actions might provoke in a hundred years or more. They had always had a tendency toward blind action, trying to live life with the speed of a hummingbird, and becoming dangerously bored with any length of time without something to occupy them.
Then of course there was the fact that periodically, an army of these creatures would divine the location of some lost piece of what they considered to be their rightful heritage in the city, and would gather an army to come claim it. These armies were always religiously aligned, and it never occurred to the leader of one of these crusades to simply ask for it. Instead they preferred to start burning trees to the ground, and to kill everything that moved as they blundered into the protected Sacred Grove.
Usually the natural protections placed by the inhabitants of this forest combined with the abilities of the scouts that the city sent out was more than enough to force these humans back mystified as to why they had failed. Then eventually it was presumed that some other shiny object would catch their eye, for the same group never came knocking twice. Rarely though a group was large enough and surly enough to barge their way past these measures and inevitably a siege would ensue. Thankfully this was exceptionally rare, and the inhabitants of the city trained for such eventualities, and so the city was still standing to this day.
This however had lead to the popular opinion that humans were a variety of locust. Stories of how they bred by the hundreds and ate their own children like fish were common and although the educated knew better, there had still been a city wide ban on them for longer than most could remember.
Of course humans did occasionally become druids, and amongst the soldier cast, as well as the priestesses of the Light Path, some of whom became druids themselves, it was not unknown for a human druid to be seen somewhere in the forest beyond. The creatures of the forest, like in most things, did not talk about this however, and although they were considered citizens and more so, first amongst the chosen people, they were practically wholly segregated.
Thus when rumors began that a human was visiting the Great Mother in an advisory capacity, a wave of shock rippled through the city. People who knew were not surprised to find out that the human was a druid and an ancient one at that, but were rather incensed that it, was in fact, a he. Men were not allowed in many holy places in the city, such as the back rooms of the temple, and men rarely received permission from the Ruling Assembly for a direct audience. Even the consort to the Great Mother, as routinely the man within the city who was allowed the most access to these places, had his own separate chambers within the complex, and so there was a general sense of dissatisfaction that was growing.
Still these were all just rumors until the mediums were called in. The official testers of the youth in the city, these scouts decided if a child was qualified to go on to be taught ancient arts at either the academy or the temple. When these mediums began to ask to speak with young boys outside of the usual cycle, people knew that something was going on but few suspected the truth.
People knew that when the walls of the city had been breached, now decades ago, that many defenders had fallen in defense of their home. Included in this were many priestesses, and even one of the Council had been laid to rest that season. In the following years they had gotten used to the fact that there were not as many of the Order around to help, but none outside of it quite knew how many were missing.
Those that did know had assumed that life would eventually return to normal as new members took on their full duties and came of age. Training cycles had been shortened, and more applicants were accepted at older ages. This would have all worked out eventually except for another problem that, when everything was known, would be considered the impetus for these actions. In the years till then however, additional concerns would develop and the events surrounding the human visitor would be forgotten.
It was usual for students accepted to the academy to be removed from their homes and isolated with their new family until they came of age, and it was this fact that helped disguise the intentions of the Great Mother until it was too late for people to object. While the families of the boys accepted between cycles had assumed that their children were being taken to the academy, none suspected that they were actually leaving with the human visitor. The few that did know, never gave hint of it though, for they understood how important this action would be in the future to preserve the continuation of the traditions that had developed here, even if the rules were bent slightly. Dangerous precedent was also being set with these actions, but in the end they were taken anyway.
It was a warm spring evening finally when the dozen or more boys returned home. A special assembly had been called, with specific individuals ordered to it by invitation. Not just full priestesses, but also many initiates were among them. Now they were assembled at the base of the statue of the Goddess in the temple, awaiting what was to come.
One of the younger among those assembled turned her gaze upward and the statue of the Great Goddess looked back down upon her. This statue was some fifteen meters tall from base to the top of her head, and depicted the deity in her more abstract form of childbirth. If the statue was standing upright it might have been twice that tall, but here it had been sung by the finest of craftpersons from a solid rock wall some five thousand years before into that position, and it was not likely to be changed any time soon. Time had worn the features a bit, but the detail was still quite exquisite. The features of the face were especially well done, and you could actually feel the presence of the woman depicted looking back down toward you.
The air hung heavy this night. The torches had been lit full to the top of the room, and they danced in the young night air. Shadows were cast in all directions, but there was an undeniable warmth to the room despite the feeling that something of great importance was about to happen.
The young initiate was a bit frightened this night and she was not alone in this. Looking around one could see dozens who were confused and disconcerted by this unannounced ceremony. All of the assembled were young, no more than three hundred years old, but the youngest were mere children at seventy.
No one talked much today, which was unusual. This behavior began with the oldest of those assembled, who had probably already figured out what was going on, and filtered down to the younger members of the group. Rumors had been circling around, and although they could be kept from the students, the same could not be said for those in long practice. They kept to themselves and looked around with their arms crossed, as if sizing up those around them. A few had smug expressions on their faces.
Above the assembled crowd on the third level, and still out of sight, one of the Elders waited. An elderly woman from the aspects of the Dark Path, she would begin the ceremony once the remaining participants arrived. She had been informed by the Honor Guard many minutes ago that the remaining were working their way around the side streets of the city, and would be arriving any moment.
The assembled had been waiting for almost an hour, when a procession stepped into the back of the circular room. Those already waiting were pushed together as the comfortable standing capacity of the room was now being exceeded. Those in the back saw what was coming in first. A train of exceptionally young druids, slightly less than a score in number, plus a guard of escorts filed in solemnly to the back of the room. Muffled exclaims of surprise went up and an awkward hush followed, as the news spread from the back to the front that these druids were all young men.
As unsettled conversation began, the Council Elder knew that the time was right. Walking down from her position high above the crowd onto steps sung to look like folds in the Goddess’ garb, she finally came to rest standing in the open hand of the statue.
“My children,” she began with authority. All other sounds in the chamber ceased. “Welcome. It has been more than seven hundred years now since our Great Mother, the 9th reincarnation of the great Prophet, who led our people to this land to fulfill their destiny, took her throne after the passing of her predecessor, and the retirement of her Council. It has been a prosperous time for us, and we have survived many hardships, but also known much joy. Her reign will go down in the records of time, and when our bodies have all gone to dust, our immortal spirits will know her grace into our next lives.
It is with great sorrow then, that tonight I announce that our Mother will be leaving us. Her time has been long, but even for us, it is not eternal. Before this millennium grows cold she will be gone, and it is because of this that I call you here tonight. Walk with us then my children, in living memorial of our Mother. My peer, and first among the Elders will lead you.
The assembly turned, person by person, to the back of the room. There stood a woman in a full length white robe. Her hood had been raised, and her arms were each crossed into the opposite arm of her clothing. Once she held the attention of the crowd, she turned without a word and walked down the corridor and out of the building.
The crowd followed, and made their way with whispered voices out and across the courtyard. The woman in white continued on, and made her way slowly forward, eventually reaching the entryway to the tower of the Great Mother. Without pausing she stepped on, and as she approached the double doors of the tower, they opened for her, and she passed through. Walking into the chamber she made her way to the front of the throne room, paused for a moment, did something unseen, and then moved to one side and stood, waiting.
The initiate piled in with the others but when those in front stopped, she continued to push forward and into the room. The throne chamber was not large, nor was it designed to hold this many people, and so the assembled flowed out into and filled the entryway beyond the tower doors. Never the less the girl had never seen inside the tower, and she was not going to miss this opportunity. Some objected to her movement, but no one tried to stop her.
The room represented just more than one half of a circle, roughly 13 meters in diameter. Upon one back wall, centered in the room laterally, there was a dais upon which sat a golden throne. This throne, made of solid gold, silver, platinum, and jewels, and featuring what looked like a satin seat, was more ornate and intricate than the initiate could clearly see from her position in the back of the room. The ceiling here was not particularly high, but high enough that she guessed that you could clearly see the statue of the goddess while sitting on the throne, standing in all her glory, upon the top of the temple dozens of meters back and raised well into the air. There seemed to be an inscription or at least a design on the dais as well, but the initiate could barely see that now as people continued to pack themselves in. All the walls here had been painted as well as the ceiling, and the floors were of smoothed and highly polished marble. If the initiate was not being packed into the room, shoulder to shoulder, and front to back, along with her fellows, she would have had the mobility to observe them more closely. As it was something far more important took her notice in the direction she was already facing.
Standing up from her seat, arose the Great Mother. Once a priestess of the Light Path, she still wore the white robes associated with that order. Adorned with symbols of birds, snakes, and representations of water, she was the living embodiment of the will of the Goddess on the planet. Time had been very good to the woman and except for a full head of glorious silver hair which hung down far to her back, one could not guess her age. Time it could be said was actually kind to her, for a pair of white wings came from her back, and it was said that they were quite real and functional.
She was quite awe inspiring to behold. Not that the initiate had never seen her before, as she led the prayers at all the ceremonies and holidays, but for one as young and inexperienced, she was never this accessible before.
Upon this occasion a red triangle had been painted upon her forehead and it was this that the initiate was examining as she began to speak. Her voice was neither loud, nor deep, but still it wrung out for all to hear with unnatural reverberation. “My children,” she began as she spread her arms wide in welcoming, “It is so good to see you all gathered here for me. It is with great honor that I tonight continue a tradition dating back to the time of the Prophet, when our people were much younger and much less experienced. I know that we have suffered much in recent years, and that our suffering as drained our collective spirits. We are fewer than we should be, but even in this time it is my duty to uphold our traditions as best I am able.
When the Prophet left our former homeland in exile, she took with her one hundred of her most trusted and loyal followers. These were not only women but also men, great in wisdom, and sound in judgment. In the past, this has not always been so, but tonight I welcome our brothers with open arms and open spirit. You are all equally loved and a blessing in my sight.”
“I am overjoyed then to name you, the assembled here, my Hundred,” she announced, and gazed across the room with eyes older than time itself and stared into the soul of each and every person as she did so. “I know that for some of you, especially the young ones, this will not be an easy journey, but I know in my heart that each and every one of you is capable of this task. Be at ease, secure in the knowledge that I and my council believe in you.
This trial shall be in the best traditions of our people. It is our duty as the chosen to further the knowledge of all peace loving peoples, and to protect this knowledge from destruction. Here too we have expanded this purpose, and taken upon ourselves the sacred duty of finding, collecting, and binding dangerous magical devices, too potent or dangerous to be left in the hands of a world filled with those of evil intent.
To complete their part in this time honored and most holy of quests, each one of the Hundred must return with some item of historical value, pertinent to our goals. The best of these, once all have been accounted for, will know great things, and take their places as first amongst their peers.”
Of course what was not said is what would happen to any of the boys that returned successful in their quest. While the best and most useful item or knowledge returned to the Great Mother and given as a gift to her reign, would secure the bringer to the coveted position of replacing her as the next Mother after her death, with the runners up serving as her council, the men were of course not eligible for this. Instead it had been prearranged with the members of the Ruling Assembly, the highest position to which men could serve, that those who returned would without question, be set into position to replace members of that ruling body as they retired or became deceased. The distinction seemed unnecessarily to announce at this time.
“In your exile from our protected city it is hoped that you will learn the skills necessary to serve your fellows better upon your return, with more open minds, and an open hear. To honor you this night your names shall be recorded in the tome of our history, written there forever for all to see. So too shall you be each given a holy garment and a ring, symbol of your honor, that you may carry with you on your journey and beyond through your lives, to remind you of how special you each are to me. Finally for those of you who are younger, and who would not be asked to walk this path at all, were times not so desperate, for you I grant a special gift. A guide shall be granted to you, as advisor and guardian, who shall serve you well, and lead you to a proper path. The orders have already been sent out, and before you wake tomorrow morning, they shall be with you, protecting your interests on your holy endeavor.
And so to you my children, I say this night that I wish you all the blessings of the Goddess and the best of luck. I know that you will all make me proud, and I expect good things of you when you return. A celebration has been prepared for you, this last night you sleep in your home. The fires have been lit as you have been standing here, and the citizens of the city have been roused before the hour has gotten late. The food is prepared and the dance is beginning to grow. Enjoy this night my sons and daughters, and be at peace with the Goddess and with your destiny. Finish with me now in prayer: We are the Order of the Goddess' Warden.”
In response the assembled spoke as one, “Time is only eternal if you do not forget the past.” Finally it was finished. And as the speech concluded the magnitude of what was said finally sunk in with the young lady. The crowd was beginning to back out of the room respectfully, and somewhere outside she could hear drums playing. Shouts and singing began to go up in waves, and she suspected that one of the largest celebrations this century was beginning. The wine would flow and all sorts of social behaviors that were ordinarily frowned upon in public would be set loose in the streets this night.
She was now one of the last to leave, and as she turned back to the throne she noted that the Great Mother was still seated there watching. Just for an instant their eyes caught and she thought that she saw the elderly woman smile just a bit more and nod her head slightly. Removing her red, belled hat, and lowering her head and shoulders deeply, the initiate finally backed out of the room.
Finally turning around once again, the girl looked around. Suddenly from off to one side a gray robed woman thrust something into her hands. Looking up she recognized one of her instructors.
“Here you are my child,” the woman said. “I believe that this one is your size.” Then taking her hand she placed a ring upon her finger. “Many do not return from this quest. I know in my heart that you are strong, and I can see in your serious eyes that your will is unbreakable, but many have done much to see you this far and we would be exceptionally saddened if you did not come home. Please make us proud.”
“Do not worry,” the younger replied in monotone, “As there is life in me to give, I will not fail you.” And to herself she thought, “even if I am disfigured beyond recognition in the attempt I will bring back a gift worthy of any honor. I will not fail.”
Nodding to her superior, she backed off and began to walk back to the temple. There was dancing on the steps she could see, for dance had always been one of the trademarks of the members who followed the darker aspects just as food preparation was a trademark of those that followed the light. Great bonfires had been erected, and it was certain that wizards from the city were working late to mask the light of these from far away view. Dozens of conversations and happenings were already going on between the two buildings, and the young initiate walked around them all, reflected in warm fire light.
Looking up she could see on the top of a nearby building, several young boys, who were watching what was happening. Children would not be allowed out so late, but these obviously snuck out to observe the events. She had not had a lot of opportunity to socialize recently, and seeing them made a part of her wish to stay up late, but she had more important things on her mind. Instead she simply sighed, made her way on, walking to the very top of the temple where she was alone with the statue of the goddess standing over her. There she meditated as she had been taught until sleep caught her in its arms and she drifted off for the night.
Somewhere else in the forest a silent shadow waited in the branches of a tree. It had been holding its position for half a week now, moving only enough to keep the muscles in its legs from cramping. In one hand it held a bow ready, one hand ready to string, draw, and fire off a warning shot within seconds if needed. Intelligence had reported that some wandering humanoids had been seen near here, and so the creature had every sense tuned to finding trouble.
From behind it, in the direction that should have come from friendly lines, the sound of snapping twigs and leaves came. The figure stayed silent however, in case an ambush was about to follow. Slowly it reached one hand over to a dagger.
Suddenly up ran a grey skinned man. Dressed in loose cloth, he was marked as a runner. The creature turned to him and opened his eyes fully. Red pupils pierced the darkness fully and he intentionally shifted his weight to allow the runner to become fully aware of his presence.
“I’m sorry sergeant, but I carry urgent orders. You yourself are to return to the city immediately at best speed.”
This was the outskirts of the forest. If there was a full out incursion, it would not have been a runner that came first. Turning his head to another tree, he made a series of hand gestures that he was certain could be seen by his partner even in the blackness of night. Dropping down to the ground gracefully, the forward scout flexed his back and sheathed his bow. Taking the orders with one hand, he broke the wax seal after a quick inspection and read through the first few lines. “Very well runner, I will follow you immediately,” he said without hesitation.
Turning around he spoke one last time. “I will be gone for quite some time brother, and I may never return. Take care in my absence and be always vigilant.”
“Serve with honor,” came a nearby response.
Then shaking out his frame one more time, the man broke out into a full on run. If he was to reach the city tonight he would have to hurry. Thinking to himself as he ran, he pondered why in the world he had been chosen to be the guardian of an initiate. He was a good soldier and always performed to the best of his duty, but he had no experience with children. Gambling, smoking, and womanizing were all skills he would claim, but not fathering. Still he would never question it.
Many hours later, near to dawn he arrived at the temple, and to his final destination. He would have to go another day without sleep, and even the thought made him weary, but he would not complain. Instead he took a look at the party not quite finished around him. As he walked on he fished in his pocket for something he had placed there earlier in the week. As he passed by several attractive women in order, many of whom appeared quite drunk, he paused. “Have a light my lady?” he asked a young woman as he pulled out a cigar, his favorite vice.
“Of course, for you,” she replied, obviously spinning with alcohol. From somewhere he didn’t see, as she was moving more than slightly erratically, she pulled out a chemical match already lit. Managing just enough manual dexterity to hold it up, she brought it to the cigar which was by now in his mouth, lit it, and then immediately slid down into him like a pillow and stayed there, dropping the burning wood.
Sighing with the regret that he did not have time for this, he carefully propped the woman back up and leaned her against a nearby wall like a board where she stayed, giggling. Then putting the match out with his foot, he took a long drag on his cigar and made his way on. Finally he came to the second level of the temple and stopped outside the door. A guard was there as always, and to this honorable warrior he nodded approvingly. Much to his surprise the man smiled when he nodded back and pointed up to the highest level of the temple. “Up there,” he said with a smirk, and let it be at that. The scout raised an eyebrow but figured the man knew what he was talking about. Eventually finding the stairs going up, he climbed them and looked around.
It was a magnificent view up here at dawn, and the man felt honored just to be standing there. If he did not know so many of those working in the soldier caste he probably would have been stopped down at the last door, but the guard must have known him. It was hard to tell in those helmets. Looking around once again after admiring the view at sunrise, with the first rays of dawn shining over the tall peaks and making the world a comfortable yellow, he saw something slumped over on the ground.
Walking around the statue that was here, and tilting his head for a better view, he finally recognized the form as a young woman or old girl depending upon how you looked at it, maybe about 80 or 90 years of age. She was passed out real good and was drooling on herself besides. Opening his orders once again he checked the description inside. Looking at the girl he nodded approvingly that this was indeed his target. That settled it for certain, he must know the guard down on the second level, and he mentally decided that on the way back he’d find out who he was.
Carefully putting away his orders for good now, he next threw a pack of survival materials he had picked up back at the barracks on his way in at the form, but it just landed with a thump next to her with little result. Not thinking better of it in time, he finally tried kicking the girl in the shins to get her attention.
Slowly she opened her eyes and rubbed them, regaining focus and gaining a bit of time to remember where she was. Quickly the man took his cigar out of his mouth and hid it behind his back. It was not exactly good conduct to be greeting a priestess, even an initiate, with a stick of tobacco hanging out of one’s mouth. As he did this the girl finally turned her attention in his direction. Before she could look surprised and do something rash he decided he had better introduce himself.
“Good morning mistress Ayoi,” he said with as much style as he could manage as he extended his other arm to help the lady rise. “I am Cawanan and I will be your escort on your journey. Gather your things now for it is time to go.”