Chapter Twenty-Eight The Temple’s Dark Secrets
Glancing up from the Book of Deception, Vénes realized that another day had passed in the tower. He had spent nearly half of the past week reading books on black magic, an alignment that he’d not delved into for many years. It was beginning to seem like a lifetime ago that he’d been mourning his beloved’s death in Mithkyn, scarcely leaving the home that they’d shared.
The room he now occupied in the Temple of Métius reminded him of how he’d kept his room while mourning; the windows were covered, and he’d only lit a few candles to read by. The difference now was that he could actually find the resolve to read, and he no longer needed his brother to check in on him.
Vénes cursed those wasted years. His magical powers had advanced only grudgingly, and he’d all but refused to let his heart mend. Even though he shied away from Métius’s black power, the very thing that he blamed for her lover’s illness, he’d let the sadness consume him. It had kept him from embracing the truth about why Lysander had become so ill.
His thoughts turned to how long ago his last visit to a magic school was. He’d graduated from initiate to full sorcerer only a short time before Lysander died and he gave his studies up to mourn him. Before that, he’d visited only a handful of other magic academies, including the one in Ayafir. That had been in his youth, though, and it no longer existed. The king had burned it down in his purging of anything not centered upon Kearr. Many said that even his own family hadn’t been spared, leading to the queen’s silent depression.
If only he’d had researched it more, Vénes told himself as he let his thoughts wander. The events were pivotal to his life. He’d only been a young boy at the time he was studying in Ayafir with his mother. They’d arrived a week before the royal guard surged in to destroy anyone who did not pledge their life to the god of light. The memory was bitter for him.
His mother, a mistress of sorcery– one of the more elite, some said– had been slaughtered. She, more than anyone else in the academy of magic, refused to denounce the three other realms of magic, and for that the holy priests used her black aspect against her. They thrust a holy lance through her heart, which reacted her dark magic and consumed her. Vénes remembered fleeing the guards after his mother had ordered him to run, scarcely able to escape with his life.
“Run, Vénes!” she’d cried as blood poured from the wound in her chest and the white-armored men were turning towards him. “Run, and do not stop until Ayafir is far behind you!”
He could not remember why they had gone to Ayafir to study magic to begin with. It may have been the center of Kearr’s power, but had they not known of the unrest there? He’d been no younger than nine years old; wasn’t that old enough to take away better memories? Mearrk’hal had told him that it was because he’d seen his mother killed, and that he was blocking it all out.
With all the rush to escape, Vénes was uncertain how exactly he’d met up with Vincent or Mearrk’hal. He knew that Vincent had been injured, and had to be carried, but most everything else had to be recounted to him by the old shaman. He could remember some of what had happened once they were on the hills beyond the holy city, running beside Mearrk’hal as he carried the younger boy, but it wasn’t until they’d found a stable home on the ashes of Shyal’In that he’d been able to form better memories.
Vénes pulled his thoughts back to the present. He closed the book and set it on a small table so that he could stand up to stretch. He’d removed his colorful robe and hung it nearby earlier that day, respecting an old custom followed by sorcerers in training. They would not wear their robe whilst studying, but would always wear the white uniform under it. Shu-Giri had known of such a practice– he seemed to know a great deal about sorcerers despite not being one– and had commented often about how much he liked the long white tunic and the narrow pants.
He ended up letting his thoughts wander again as he stretched, this time focusing on his Rrandah. They’d had precious little time together since their discussion about Jzienfiarm, what with his days being spent in the temple. He hated talking about it. The Great Desert reminded him of his parents– the mother murdered by those purporting to hold life as precious, and the father who’d never returned– and his beloved Lysander, lost to an incurable illness, who had encouraged him to visit his father’s homeland. What good was the desert if it only reminded the sorcerer of death? He knew that anyone not born on the sands would as good as forfeit their life if they tried to traverse it.
It had been years since Vénes had studied the dark arts of Métius. He’d entered Mithkyn’s temple to the Dark Destroyer at the request of his mentor at the school of sorcery. He was partway through his study of the spells, and was spending both days and nights at the temple when Lysander fell ill. Vénes had called upon whatever doctors and healers he could find, but none were able to cure his beloved. The sorcerer started to blame himself, worried that he’d infected Lysander with some kind of darkness through his lack of care.
In the end, Lysander’s body had given in to the illness, and his death took the sorcerer’s heart to the grave with him. Vénes had done nothing to stop the pain and sorrow from taking him over. There had been days when Vincent worried that his brother would follow Lysander to the next world, and struggled to keep him afloat.
But now Vénes was needed. Onsira did not have time to find another sorcerer willing to help the kingdom, and they needed to know what kind of black magic was afoot. He’d studied stronger white magic in order to try to save Lysander, leaving his black magic untouched ever since. It was difficult entering the black temple now, to ascend its tower and scour its library, but he knew he had to if he was to be of any help.
Although he’d overcome his fear that he’d caused Lysander’s death, and had even learned that it was a rare illness that had infected him, being in the Temple of Métius made him nervous. Vénes had to focus on the fact that, despite all the years of guilt, he had not infected Lysander himself, and the same thing would not happen to Shu-Giri.
He stepped over to the window to peek behind the curtain, and found that the daylight was fading. It was time for him to leave; he didn’t want to be in the temple at night, when the devotees of Métius enacted their rituals. He wanted only their magical knowledge, not the favor of the Lord of Demons. Vénes pulled on his robe and descended the stairs of the temple’s spire, the Book of Deception in his arms.
Once he got to the main floor of the temple, he hurried past the priestesses, towards the tall, narrow doors to the outside.
“Leaving us so soon?”
Vénes frowned upon seeing the woman standing by the doors.
“Nothing to say, sorcerer, after I so graciously allowed you into the library?” Her voice was smooth as velvet, but etched with a dark tone that disturbed him.
“It is your duty, Eavan,” Vénes reminded her.
She stepped closer to him and reached her pale hands out to touch his cheeks. Her skin felt cold but soft, her jewelry icy and sharp as it grazed his skin. Eavan stared at Vénes with crimson eyes, daring him to be irreverent towards her. “My duty is to Métius alone,” she whispered.
Vénes pulled back from her touch. He wanted to avoid making eye contact with her, but also intended to avoid looking at the rest of her body; the gown that she wore was tight-fitting, and its silk had been cut in such a way that it revealed just as much as it covered. She seemed amused at having made him uncomfortable.
“Do what you want with the book, sorcerer, but know this: Métius is mightier than what lies within those pages.” Eavan grinned mischievously, her slender form drawing nearer and nearer. “I could teach you more myself.”
Vénes shook his head. “I didn’t come here to serve you, nor Métius. I am here for magic alone.”
“You came all the way from Mithkyn for black magic? Perhaps I should be honored, sorcerer.” Eavan’s vermilion lips stretched into a grin when she saw the sorcerer’s startled reaction. “Of course I know where you lived before embarking on your journeys. I make it my business to know about all the outsiders who come here.”
“I must go,” Vénes said evenly, moving past her.
Eavan grabbed his hand, clinging to him and pulling him back. “Beware, sorcerer,” she hissed. “You have a Rrandah, and I can harm you both if need be.”
Vénes gave her a cold stare. “Let me go.”
“Are you all right, mistress?” The voice came from the shadows between the temple’s columns. Stentran emerged from the velvety umbra, watching the sorcerer as well as Eavan.
“Yes, my priest. Come to me.” Releasing Vénes, the elvan woman held her hand out for the high priest. He knelt before her, holding her fingers gently in his own, and kissed them softly. She smiled down at him.
“My loyal Stentran,” she cooed, now ignoring Vénes. “How dear you are. Your loyalty should be rewarded.”
“Serving you is enough, mistress,” Stentran riposted.
Seeing that Eavan had shift her attention away from him, Vénes closed his eyes and focused his thoughts on the astral plane. When he opened them again, he could hardly contain his surprise at what he saw of the priest and his mistress’s forms. He blinked his eyes, casting off the astral vision so that she would not notice his magic. After that, he stayed only long enough to commit what he saw to memory.
While Eavan went on praising the temple’s high priest, Vénes crept past the doors and into the cool evening air. He hurried down the steps of Métius’s temple, following the cobblestone roads that led through Jzifélan City. Most of the merchants had closed their shops for the day, and some were still cleaning from the day’s activities. Vénes could smell bread and meat cooking in some homes, and began to wonder if dinner was already underway in the palace.
As the sorcerer approached the city center, a shadow passed over him. He stopped and turned his eyes up to the sky. Several dragons had flown by, and were now curving around the palace. One broke from the group to descended upon the palace’s roosts, leaving the other three to glide past the city once again. Curious, Vénes hurried the rest of the way to the palace.
The guards, having come to recognize him as a guest of the empress, paid him little attention as he entered the gates. Vénes couple see up on the ramparts that a dragoon squire was struggling with the reigns of the ebony dragon, which seemed to delight in being difficult. He could not make out the details of the beast’s plated armor, nor his rider, so he continued on inside. The guards and servants were astir, too excited to stop and explain to the sorcerer what was going on.
“Vénes!” a voice called to him as he ascended the first flight of stairs on his way back to his chamber.
He glanced up to see Shu-Giri calling to him over the railing, grinning wildly. The treasure hunter hurried down the stairs and flung himself into Vénes’s arms, nearly knocking them both down to the floor.
“What timing you have!”
“What has happened, Shu-Giri?”
“Prince Zarrek is back!” his Rrandah answered him. “A dragoon– er, I mean, the general– called Elezar brought him home, and he was taken straight to see the empress.”
“Did you see him?”
Shu-Giri shook his head. “I didn’t have the chance.” Seeing Vénes’s disappointment, he went on. “Do you think we should observe his astral form, too?”
Vénes faltered, remembering his vision of Eavan and Stentran. “Perhaps we should,” he whispered. “But for now, I must speak with you.”
“Certainly, Vé–” But the sorcerer had already taken him by the hand, and was leading him towards the palace library.
Once they were there, Vénes closed the door and pulled Shu-Giri down a row of books. When he found a table beside the fireplace, he set down his book, then sat in a chair beside the hearth. The Jzamneh elf sat across from him, watching his companion with great interest.
“Are you familiar with the hierarchy that the Temple of Métius abides by?” he asked Shu-Giri.
“Not in specific, no.”
“It is basic knowledge for sorcerers to know the hierarchy of all the gods; I will tell you what I can.” Vénes took a breath and explained to him, “Most temples are run by the high priest and priestess, and they answer to the gods. But…” the sorcerer grasped for the right words. “In some of Métius’s temples, there is someone above the high priest besides Métius and his dark legions. A favored being, so to speak. Someone mortal but loved by the Dark One, and given great power and respect.”
“Intriguing,” Shu-Giri said at last. “Are they particularly dangerous?”
“It depends what they are favored for. Usually, Métius gives them a ritual that they must perform, or a mission to carry out. What it means to the temple is that it’s somewhere important, or that someone import attends that temple.”
“It isn’t just any temple to Métius?”
“Indeed. It’s vital to his power, his need to…” Vénes sighed, unsure how to describe what he meant.
“To bring suffering to the world?”
“I suppose that is as good a description as any.”
Shu-Giri thought this over for a moment. “Why are you asking me about these favored of Métius?”
“I saw one today. She spoke to me as I was leaving the temple.”
“What did she want from you?”
Vénes shook his head. “She is suspicious of us, I suppose. She was quite unfriendly, even threatening. But what bothered me was that she was even in the common rooms of the temple.”
“Why is that?” Shu-Giri asked, worried only because he saw that his sorcerer was troubled.
“The favored are known to seclude themselves. If she has come out of her private chambers, either her mission has failed, or it was completed. Either way, it could mean that Métius is ready to make a move of his own.”
Shu-Giri frowned gravely and stared at the hearth. “Do you suppose that Z’Lé has caused this to happen?”
“It may be his reason for leaving the empire so suddenly.” Vénes faltered, then sighed uncertainly.
“What is it?”
“If he’s under some sort of strain, enough to affect his k’haarana, then maybe…”
Shu-Giri gave the sorcerer a serious look. “You believe that Z’Lé left because he was hurt?”
“I find that hard to believe,” another voice commented from further away.
Vénes nearly jumped from his seat, so surprised was he that anyone else was there. He turned to look behind the armchair, then sighed in relief to see that it was only his brother.
“Did you meet the young prince?” he asked Vincent, eager to hear anything new.
“For but a moment, aye.” He sat down on the fur rug covering the floor between them. “Tamlin insisted that I give them some privacy.”
“Then Zarrek said nothing of where he’s been?”
“No, Vénes. The lad is in a dark mood, and would hardly speak– even to his mother.”
Vénes frowned with disappointment. After a moment, he asked, “What of Mearrk’hal?”
“He said that he would be here soon. He wants you to look at the books of sorcery that we found.” Vincent got up to go to a table stacked with books and scrolls, and returned with several to show his brother. “These scrolls are amazing, Vénes. The library has much more than texts on sorcery. It also contains the original bardic scripture, in our language. I’ve even found Starr spells!”
Vénes took the first offered scroll, even though he himself could not read it; the bard’s enthusiasm had a tendency to add to his insistence. The drawings on it were beautiful, elegant creations that seemed to reveal the whole universe in their simplicity. He could see in them the mysteries of the Starr and bardic powers, though no words could ever truly convey them. He smiled faintly as he looked it over.
“Starshine would certainly enjoy reading them.”
“She’s been asking to,” Vincent said. “I haven’t been able to finds scrolls like these anywhere. The only ones that I ever knew of were in Ayafir, before the king burned the magic school.”
“A tragedy indeed,” Vénes replied, almost inaudibly.
The memories were painful for them both. Though in different ways, they had both lost their parents, as well as their home, in that incident. Vénes could not find his way through the desert to find the city where he believed his father was from, and Vincent knew nothing about his true origins. He could not even be sure that Ayafir was his homeland.
What they did remember was fleeing the kingdom and watching smoke rise from it. Vincent had a memory that Vénes could not recall, though he did not doubt his brother: a woman, her identity unknown, running with the boys through shadowy tunnels, not stopping until she happened across Mearrk’hal, to whom she entrusted the boys’ care.
Vénes wrapped the parchment around its rod and gave the scroll back to the bard. “Where are the books on sorcery?”
Vincent pulled another book from the stack, this one decorated in lines of color, the pages edged in marbled paint. Vénes opened it to gaze at the magic lettering contained therein. He turned several pages, skimming them with great interest before saying anything to his friends.
“This should be of great help to me.” Looking to Shu-Giri, he added, “It even contains Rrandah spells.”
“You look worried still,” Shu-Giri told him, noticing the look on his face.
Vénes sighed and shut the book with a soft thump. “I’m hoping that I do not need the spells contained in this library.”
“Or those of the dark temple?”
“Indeed,” Vénes replied to his Rrandah. “It feels rather like preparing for battle.”
“You fought to protect Jzamneh,” Shu-Giri reminded him. “I don’t think that will have been your last battle.”
Vénes stared into the fireplace, sighing uneasily, but said nothing more. Shu-Giri exchanged glances with the bard, unsure what to do with the sorcerer when he was in this state. Vincent shook his hair out of his face and hummed softly. As the rhythm of his song grew and developed, his lips opened to let out a song that spread warmth into the library. Vénes seemed to relax, but otherwise did not move from his position. Shu-Giri leaned over his chair and wrapped his arms around him, his head resting on Vénes’s. The quiet desert elf laid a hand over his companion’s and closed his eyes as they both listened to the soothing words of his brother’s song.
When it ended, Shu-Giri smiled to the bard. “You have a true gift, Vincent.”
This made the bard smile. “I help where I can.”
Shu-Giri looked down at the sorcerer. A tear had fallen down his cheek as he sat in thought. He wiped it away with his fingers, then moved to sit in front of Vénes, gazing expectantly into his eyes.
“Your hands are rough,” Vénes whispered, his throat tightening before he could say anything more.
With the two engaged in their own discussion, Vincent slipped back out of the library.
“’Tis from working with the crystals. Much of finding them is like mining; they are not all hidden is chests, dear sorcerer.” Shu-Giri was disappointed that Vénes could not find his humor, but he went on. “I didn’t get to show you my workshop before we came here. I spend a lot of time there, carving the crystals that I find.”
“You are very much connected to the earth, yet you always have high spirits.”
Shu-Giri squeezed his beloved’s hands, sighing, uncertain how he was expected to reply. “Your brother and I would like to see your spirits just as high. You needn’t feel so much pain… least of all on your own.”
“Vincent used to tell me the same thing…”
“Can you see now that he speaks true?” Shu-Giri tried not to sound like he was pleading with his companion, but he had begun to wonder why Vénes was so hard to console. “Can you focus on me? On my heart?”
Vénes closed his eyes, nodded, and took in a deep breath. He channeled his thoughts into the other elf’s warm spirit, his easy-going heart. Shu-Giri had such a light spirit, he smiled and laughed so easily; Vénes had been cut off from joy for so long that he found it startling. But now… He reminded himself how desperately he needed it. Although he dreaded losing his beloved again, he had to accept it fully. He had to stop the fear and pain from holding him back.
“Shu-Giri…” Vénes whispered, falling forward into his lover’s arms. He clung to the treasure-hunter, who returned the embrace with a sigh of relief and whispered into his ear.
“I feel the same way,” Shu-Giri told him in a soft voice, an affectionate grim crossing his face. “I am here; we are in this together. This is what we wanted.”
Vénes looked down into Shu-Giri’s bright eyes. He cupped his cheeks in his hands, then ran a hand through his thin curls of springtime pink and green. He drew in another nervous breath, and kissed his forehead softly.
“If this is to be my fate… then I am glad to have you at my side.” Shu-Giri grinned wider as Vénes spoke to him, and the sorcerer went on. “Just… be careful?”
“Of course,” the Jzamneh elf replied happily. He hopped to his feet, offering his hand to Vénes. “I would do nothing to harm myself, nor you.”
Accepting Shu-Giri’s hand, Vénes showed a weak smile. As he stood, he could hear voices coming from near the hallway. After a moment, Vincent returned to their nook of the library, Mearrk’hal following him.
“Good evening,” the old shaman told them, taking a seat. The others followed suit.
“I hear that Zarrek has returned home,” Vénes said.
“He has,” Mearrk’hal replied. “But he has nothing to say to us. I doubt that he will change his mind any time soon.” Then he changed the subject, clearly frustrated by the young prince. “How have you been, Vénes?”
“Well enough,” he replied, willing to say more but uncertain what to add.
“I’ve hardly seen you these past few days.”
“He’s been studying at the Temple of Métius,” Vincent said for him, evoking his brother’s glare.
That statement evoked Mearrk’hal’s interest. “Have you really?” he asked with a smile.
“Aye,” Vénes conceded, “but more importantly, I saw something as I was leaving today.” Seeing that the others listened intently, he went on. “I saw Eavan, one of the Favored of Métius. I could tell by the mantle that he’d given her on the astral plane. She had come out of her seclusion.”
“Woeful are those of the kingdom where the Destroyer’s Favored hide themselves no longer. For they have served him well, and made way for Métius in this world.” Vicente said the words slowly, darkly.
Shu-Giri looked to him with worried eyes.
“Did you learn why she’d emerged from her private chambers?” Mearrk’hal asked.
Shaking his head, Vénes told him, “I left before I could learn the reason. She was threatening me. I did see her speaking to the high priest, who seems to revere her.”
“There is a small chance that her mission failed,” Vincent added, trying to sound hopeful.
“With Z’Lé missing and Zarrek holding his tongue, we have no way of knowing until the Demon King strikes. He may bide his time, or he may move swiftly.” Mearrk’hal paused, frowning deeply. “We must meet with Prince Loracaz in this matter. And Shu-Giri…?”
“Yes, old friend?”
“I want you to steal a look at Zarrek’s astral form. I doubt that he would share it willingly.”
Shu-Giri nodded. “I will learn what I can, but it will not be much more than what we know already. We need someone with stronger astral magic.”
“Is there anyone with such ability?” Vénes asked worriedly.
“Oh, yes,” the Jzamneh chieftain told him with a smile. “The Mékneh.”
“The tribe of Blackwood Forest?” Vénes raised a brow, incredulous.
“Of course,” Shu-Giri replied matter-of-factly. “They have fantastic trances, and great ability on other planes of existence. They can navigate the astral plane with great ease and more safety than we could.”
“The Mékneh are very private,” Vénes reminded him. “Would they really come all this way to help us?”
“If your need is great enough, they will consider it.” Shu-Giri thought a moment, then added, “It would help if a member of the royal family were to visit and ask for the favor themselves.”
“I am sure that Arialla would agree to go,” Vincent said. “With us to accompany her, she would be safe traveling to the forest.”
“It might be possible,” Mearrk’hal said, worried that the bard assumed too much about the empress. “if she feels up to the task. We can discuss the matter with her in the morning.”
“I should remind Vincent,” he added as they stood up to leave the library, “that she is the empress, and she has a k’hurin. You should treat her as such.”