Chapter Forty-One One Last Kiss from the Morning
Day as terrible as the pitch dark of night;
Alliances drawn and hearts torn asunder.
Woe to those who would break a promise
as old, as sacred as time itself.
Where is the source of all magic?
Where does the goddess dwell
while her champion is upon the earth?
Day broke over Onsira as Ser crept over Blueshade Ocean, past the shores and the fields, and shone upon the capital city. The golden star’s light peered into the palace, where Arialla slept alone in her royal bed while her protectors slept in their own chambers. It glinted over the Temple of Aamh, where the sorcerer rose early purify himself and meditate on his magic. Then it cascaded over Kearr’s temple, where the paladins welcomed it and chanted prayers to their god.
Eventually, it poured into the windows of the high priestess of Jenh’s chamber, where she laid curled in her prince’s arms. The only place that Ser’s light didn’t shine was the Destroyer’s sanctuary, where the dark energy had grown in the night, spreading from the highest spires down to the barren and muddy ground.
It was from this darkness that strange creatures had been emerging; some were demons that wandered the darkest areas of the city streets, trying to avoid the paladins who patrolled in the night, while others were ghouls and evil spirits. Those with little substance on the mortal plane often rushed into the forest that grew beyond the city, where they preyed upon the forest creatures, the more powerful the better. They infected the boars and the wolves with their evil, turning them into monsters both filthy and black. A few wandered far enough to wake and contaminate a handful of bears. By the time Ser crept into the sky over the forest, it was alive with impatient growls and an unnatural desire to rend the flesh off of all the elves the the monsters could find.
But the warriors guarding the city hadn’t seen that; they were too focused on watching for Z’Lé or Métius to arrive, too intent on seeing what they would do when they came, and protecting Jzifélan and the rest of Onsira. None of them could explain what was happening at the evil temple; even Zarrek only understood that Métius was furious, and that he intended to make his presence known, but he insisted that he knew none of the details. It seemed that Z’Lé had told everything to Arialla alone, and that aside from knowledge of how the evil temple worked, she knew more than her son. But even that wasn’t the whole story; there were some things that even Z’Lé hadn’t been aware of when he’d accepted the pact with the Destroyer.
As the morning grew brighter, and the elves stirred and began their day, dragons dotted the sky. The palace went into a flurry of excitement, and it was not long before Arialla sent her friends to bring the crowned prince back home.
In Aamh’s temple, meanwhile, Vénes had taken his Rrandah to sing the morning prayers along with the congregation, and the great hall filled with light and color. As the gathering left in a long procession, the sorcerer lingered behind. He’d noticed the attendants whispering to the head of the temple, who nodded and smiled to him. Once they were alone in the great hall, the Sacred Ordained Priestess of Aamh approached Vénes and his beloved.
“The morning embraces your greetings,” she said, using the old words of the temple.
“And you as well, Sacred One,” Vénes replied. “We are grateful to be made welcome here. I am Vénes Lazarrin, sorcerer of the four magics of Lorata, and this is Shu-Giri Shentaren, chief of his village in Jzamneh, and my Rrandah.”
“Such worthy titles,” the head of the temple replied. “I am Phéluna, head priestess of this Temple of Aamh.”
Vénes noticed that Shu-Giri was staring at her, awed at something that he’d yet to explain. The priestess noticed as well. “What is it, dear elf?” she asked him.
“You… they say the head of this temple isn’t a Starr, but your eyes are such a bright shade of blue, your hair nearly an astral shade of silver…”
“What you see,” Phéluna explained, “are the gifts of my grandmother. She is no longer a part of Lorata, and that saddens my heart to no end. In her day, there were several Starr on Manastaecies, and now there is but one, and she is only a child.”
Vénes nodded. “I know her well,” he said. “When people say that the Starr dwell in each temple…”
“There has not been a full Starr in each one for centuries. Now it is us, their descendants, who carry Aamh’s word. Let us not linger on that, though. You have come to my temple for Aamh’s magic and blessing so that you can defend the kingdom and those who live here this day. As you have already made your offering of prayer, I will delay you no longer. You must still visit the Temple of Kearr in order to complete this cycle and strengthen your magic.”
“I thank you, Phéluna,” Vénes told her.
Then she bade him to kneel upon the dais, where beams of light came in through the windows to shine upon them. Shu-Giri descended to his knees as well, and took his sorcerer’s hand. When Phéluna touched Vénes’s head, the morning light began to sparkle, so that he appeared to be dusted with starlight. Shu-Giri saw it on his skin and clothes as well, and afterwards realized that a soft sound, like the first song that the universe had ever sung, came from the priestess’s throat. Her touch glowed with color, which flowed down the sorcerer to merge with the twinkling lights.
Vénes drew in a harsh breath when he felt everything he was made of awaken. His body, his astral life-force, even his magic felt more alive, more powerful. He felt as though he could hear the temple around him, the city, even the planet humming with him, singing an ode to life and mystery and beauty. It cried out to be protected from destruction, protected from the awful silence that the Lord of Nightmares would see fit to wreck upon the world.
Aamh’s power was his then, he knew. He would be able to use it against the one who wanted to take full control of Lorata, to pull the four forces out of balance and leave the planet scarred. When Phéluna asked him to rise again, he looked at her through the glow of his blessed aura.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“We all know what Métius would do if He had power over Onsira. We need you just as much as we need Jenh’s champion to protect us,” the priestess said. Then to Shu-Giri, “May both your hearts beat together, even after the battle that is coming.“
“We’ll do everything in our power,” Shu-Giri replied with a smile. “I thank you again, lovely priestess. And now, we must away to the final temple.”
Vénes nodded and bowed to Phéluna once more before walking with his Rrandah down the pathway between the pews and through the crystal-lined doors, out into the morning light. It was still somewhat dim, but at least the darkness of the night had fled.
“It’s too bad we missed Kearr’s dawning ceremony,” Shu-Giri commented as the crossed back over the bridge and headed towards the pearlescent sanctuary of light and purity.
“’Tis just as well,” Vénes replied after a moment of thought. “With what happened last night, we may not have been welcome there for very long.”
Shu-Giri grinned to himself, knowing exactly what the sorcerer was referring to, though neither would say it plainly out loud. “Then perhaps I should say that I’m glad we missed the dawning ceremony.”
“Say what you will. The important thing is that when the white priest sees that Phéluna saw no reason to deny us Aamh’s power, he will grant me the final blessing that I need.”
Shu-Giri nodded. “Still, Métius will only be all the more incited that you’re taking Kearr’s blessing last.”
“He should have known that I would,” Vénes told him with a shrug as they passed a pair of knights. “When I go through the rites and cycle through all four temples of the gods and their magic, whichever one I visit first is the weakest, and the last is the most powerful. It’s the only way I’m allowed to hold one power over another and battle the weaker force.”
“Then they know you’re planning to work against them.”
“They always have,” Vénes told him, “but under the laws of magic, they’re not allowed to try to stop me. As far as the evil ones are concerned, it doesn’t matter anyway. They’re confident that they can kill us even after we make our rounds and receive Kearr’s blessing.”
Shu-Giri shook his head and nervously rubbed the back of his neck. “The black priests, the magicians and demons, or Métius Himself?”
“If His followers cannot harm us, then they believe that Métius will.”
Shu-Giri clutched Vénes’s hands tightly. “I’ll protect you. By everything that Jzamneh has given me, I will protect you!”
“I know you will,” the sorcerer replied with a faint smile. He kissed Shu-Giri’s forehead and told him, “We’re almost there. Don’t be afraid; we’ll have Kearr’s protection as well as that of the goddesses.”
Vénes led his Rrandah to the Temple of Kearr, feeling his lover’s heart pound with nervousness at the reminder that Métius would kill them if he had the chance. Its stones were inlaid with circular mirrors, some of which were surrounded with pearls, some with braided platinum, and others with bright jewels of bold colors. This temple’s doors were made of white birch-wood, and stood open to greet the day. A young priestly initiate stood on either side of the base of the stairs that let up to the entrance, each holding a torchier that burned with pure white flames. They both nodded to the sorcerer and gestured for him to continue inside.
After thanking them, Vénes and his Rrandah passed into the bright temple, where a series of mirrors scattered light into every corner of the room and frightened away even the tiniest shadow. Shu-Giri gasped at how unearthly it felt to see everything completely lit, to have light perfectly everywhere. Then the memories of what had happened to his beloved sorcerer in the forest came to him, and he knew that Vénes was remembering it, too. For a moment the room blurred into a bright whiteness. Once Vénes got hold of the magic surrounding him, he relaxed and could see normally once again.
“Is it going to happen again?” Shu-Giri whispered to him. “Do you you have enough control?”
“I’ll be fine,” the sorcerer replied. “Despite all the disruptions to my training years ago, the white magic won’t overpower me again. I have you to help stabilize me, and once we have Kearr’s blessing, I’ll be in balance again.”
“And after the battle?”
Vénes bit his lip and gave Shu-Giri a worried look.
“It will be difficult for us, then…” Shu-Giri surmised, “until you have the training that you missed.” He didn’t say what had made Vénes miss it; they both knew that it was Lysander’s tragic death that had put Vénes in his troubled state, and that now threatened to let the magic consume him.
“Let’s guard Onsira, then,” Vénes said, “and make sure the Dark One does not destroy our homes first. After all, we need a land on which to practice.”
Shu-Giri nodded, though his breaths came nervously. He tried to calm himself by remembering that Kearr governed all that was good and bright, and love and forgiveness and healing. There was nothing that would want to hurt him there. He gazed down the hall, with its columns of white marble, where the worshipers had been gathered only an hour or two earlier to greet the dawn. On the raised area where the altar stood, a wide disc of platinum, bearing an image of Ser with his bright beams of golden light, floated in the single column of light that came in through the skylight set in the ceiling far above them. Shu-Giri gazed at it curiously before looking to his lover.
“Why– how does it float?” he whispered.
“Kearr’s divinity,” Vénes told him with a warm smile. “That isn’t just any ray of light; it shines down from Kearr Himself.”
“But–” Shu-Giri didn’t get to finish his question; a priest had emerged from a chamber behind the dais, an attendant on either side of him.
“What brings such strangers here?” the old priest asked.
Vénes bowed to him and introduced himself and Shu-Giri, just as he had to Phéluna. The priest did not look moved; he glanced to each of his attendants, who said nothing.
“If you will pardon our intrusion, holy priest, I am here on behalf of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Arialla–”
“She who has invited the evil that is now threatening all of us,” he cut in, his face as serious and stern as though he’d been carved from stone eons ago.
Vénes swalled hard and told him, “I came come to this kingdom to defend against that evil.”
The priest thought a moment before responding. “A sorcerer… fighting one of the four realms of magic?”
“It is for the sake of the balance that I stray from it for a time. If Métius takes power in Onsira, His darkness will spread until it consumes all of the continent, and probably all of Lorata.”
“All dominions end in time,” the priest intoned, still unmoved.
“Does he even care?” Shu-Giri whispered, so softly that only the sorcerer could hardly hear him. “He acts like he wants the Destroyer to take over.”
Vénes gave him a serious look and whispered back, “’Tis only a test.” Then he stood up straight and told the priest, “If Métius is allowed to hold dominion over our world, even for a short time, he would destroy all that we now know. The deaths would be untold, the suffering immeasurable. I cannot forsake compassion and light for the sake of the balance that I swore to.”
“You might die while using our light to battle the darkness.”
Vénes squeezed his lover’s hand and replied, “If that is what it comes to, then may Kearr guard my spirit after I have taken my last breath. I cannot preserve my life for a short time knowing that Métius would ruin all that I live for.”
“And your Rrandah is willing to make the same sacrifice?”
“He’s been ready to die with me ever since he made the Rrandah promise. He knows that what we’re defending is more important than our mortal forms.”
The priest looked to Shu-Giri. “Speak for yourself, Rrandah.”
“I’ve already given myself to Vénes,” Shu-Giri told the priest, giving Vénes a loving glancing before turning back to the elder. “I promised to be at his side for all eternity. Whether it’s here or in the Astral, I hold that promise above all other desires.”
The priest thought about their words, then stepped forward. “So you have the will to defend us from the evil shadows, as well as the courage. You need only the blessing that will strengthen your magic. Have you been to the other temples?”
“We have, Holy One,” Vénes confirmed with a nod. “We come to you last, that we may have the light to defend against the darkness.”
The old priest nodded, then sent his attendants to gather the materials that he would need. While they were away, he stood before the sun crest, whispered a small prayer, and rose his hands up. The crest floated up the column of light and rotated so that it appeared that the golden image of Ser cast the light down; it was like a lens, the way it shone brighter, more golden, and spread out further than it had before. Vénes and Shu-Giri stood before the altar across from the priest, watching it.
When the attendants returned, they set the ceremonial items upon the altar, starting with the cone of incense that smoldered beside a hot coal in a small platinum censer. Following them were various other bowls, one with downy white feathers, another with tiny round mirrors hardly bigger than thumb-prints, and another full of cold water. The priest thanked them and they left to allow him to perform the ceremony.
“Lay your hands upon the altar,” the priest told them.
Vénes did as he was asked, and Shu-Giri followed suit, lacing a couple fingers with his lover’s, wanting to remain close to him. He looked into his eyes, tense with unknowing, wondering what would happen next.
“This is a solemn rite that you have come for,” the old priest sai,. “and it is as ancient as the art of sorcery. As the four domains have promised to grant their powers to the sorcerers who would walk all paths at once, I shall grant you Kearr’s blessing.”
He took a white feather, its vane wide and wispy at the ends, and passed it through the smoke of the incense, after which the smoke followed the feather, and he could draw the scent towards the men before him. The smoke wound around their bodies as he chanted old words to his god, and the priest dropped the feather onto the coal, where it faded into white ash.
Then he took a pair of mirrors from the bowl, dipped them in the icy purified water, and laid one in each of Vénes’s hands. Shu-Giri received a pair of mirrors for himself, which he gazed into while the priest sprinkled water over them. The old man’s fingers traced lines of water down each finger that laid open before him, and as his chanting continued the water glowed like the purest platinum, shimmering and reflective like the mirrors.
When Shu-Giri’s last finger was covered with the metallic water, the priest took four tiny white feathers from the dish and, intoning the words that drew Kearr’s power into them, laid one on each of the mirrors. They floated above the mirrors, reflected in them, seeming to give off pearlescent light.
“Grant these two your power, Mighty Kearr,” the old priest chanted. “By their love and their light, they shall preserve that life which You have breathed into this world.”
He took their hands and let their palms meet, each man facing the other. The symbols that he’d given them felt as though they merged with them, disappearing from their palms so that they could absorb the powerful magic they were being given. The platinum lines of water glowed, and the metallic glow spread to cover their bodies. Then it brightened to white, pulsing with energy as it stood guard around their delicate, mortal forms.
Now that he’d received blessing from all four deities, Vénes could feel their powers merging inside him, each one layered upon the other and sharing space within his body. The starlight from Aamh swirled and melded with the pure healing light of Kearr, and the sorcerer felt energized by it. He knew that Shu-Giri felt it, too, that the magic dwelt within him. He would be able to use some of it to protect his sorcerer, since he had been blessed with it, but in a Rrandah it would not last for longer than a few days. What mattered to Shu-Giri was that he had it then, on that day, and that he could fight the evil as well as ensure that it did not kill his beloved.
When the priest nodded to them, Vénes gave his deepest thanks and, with one last bow, they took their leave of the Temple of Kearr.
“Vénes!” a voice called out as soon as they were in the daylight. He glanced up to see Vincent and Mearrk’hal waving him over from the back of a wagon.
“Come with us!” the bard called to them.
Shu-Giri hurried along with his sorcerer into the back of the wagon, which began rolling as soon as they were seated. Vincente wore his daggers at his waist, Vénes noted, and Mearrk’hal had brought his short swords.
“Judging by you having left the Temple of Kearr and that glow about you, I assume you’ve completed your rounds and strengthened your magic,” Mearrk’hal commented.
“Indeed,” the sorcerer replied with a nod. “We have the blessings of the fours gods.”
“We’re going to need it,” Vincent told him as he gazed down the street they were passing. A knight was battling some kind of monster there, but as he seemed to be handling it well on his own, the men traveled on.
“Has the battle started already?” Shu-Giri asked.
“Not exactly,” Mearrk’hal answered. “These are the same strange demons that have been trespassing for days, according to the reports. The impending invasion and battle that everyone is afraid of is not yet upon us.”
Vénes looked to Vincent, expecting him to share a song or a poem, or even lines from an old play that described the situation. But the bard had nothing to say; he simply stared out towards the palace, as silent as the night that had only recently ended. Whatever was troubling him, it had taken away his interest in reciting bardic lore, and that worried Vénes. He’d known Vincent for so long that he couldn’t help but notice when he wasn’t acting like himself.