The Dark Circle (working title)

Hello. I am DarthRevan, a newbie here. I’d been working on a SD3 fanfiction for some time and I needed to find someplace where I could get some feedback. I heard I could post here. So… criticisms, concerns, praises, objections, violent denunciations… feel free to make them.

Chapter One. Here goes.

One. The Dark Circle

The fishing village Palo was visible in the distance, a few white buildings against the huge dark mountain behind them, the home of the Wind Kingdom of Rolante.  Mataro recognised the sight – he had seen it three years before, before escaping the explosion of Bucca.  He gazed fondly into the dawn light, smiling bleakly over the city before him.  This time, his purpose was far less frivolous, now he was pursuing no ghosts, no spooks, no monsters, though the feeling of excitement that tingled at the nape of his neck was the same as they had once brought him.  He had a cause, and he had a goal – he would pursue it to the end, even to his death.  Fate would be waiting for him, though what she had in store for him he knew not.

Mataro had looked around the small circle in the basement of the merchants’ guild in Byzel just as he was looking out at Palo now, the light of the candle at the centre of the table lighting up the grim, determined countenances of the Abolitionist Society of Byzel, including his own fair-haired round face.  They had to be both:  between them, they were fighting an uphill battle in Byzel – most of the merchants in the port city either benefited strongly from the slave trade or didn’t have the fortitude to oppose it.  These men around him were mostly former slaves and disgruntled underlings of slave traders, but every now and again a merchant affiliated with the black market would develop a conscience and work for freedom in Byzel.  The most trusted among them and the leader of the Byzel abolitionists, a grizzled and seasoned-looking former merchant named Billie, removed a sheet of crumpled, yellow paper from his vest.

‘Fate has written to us again,’ Billie announced, his voice a low growl.  ‘I just got this off the port – we have a lot of sympathisers in Palo, it would seem, as I got this from the captain himself.’

‘What bad news has Fate for us this month?’  asked a rather wry, skinny former slave named Peter.  ‘Sometimes I wonder whether or not she’s even on our side.’

‘Rest assured, Peter, I know where her loyalties lie.  Apparently, once, the slavers captured someone very close to her.  As to the letter, well…  we’ll see what news she brings,’ the merchant extracted a small pair of glasses and held the letter up to the light.  The writing was light and broad, but firm, a young woman’s hand.  But Mataro got no more a glimpse of it than that before Billie glanced over it and started to read.

‘My friends in Byzel, I am afraid I can no longer stop the course of events which Navarre’s thieves guild has unwittingly set in motion, but must ask you to stand strong with me a little while longer.  The Dark Circle is soon to act against us, the defenders of freedom; I must ask aid from a trustworthy member of our Society, who knows Byzel and knows the sea routes.  Tell him to come to Palo, alone.  When he gets to Palo, he must find thanks and simply say good-bye.  You will know us when you see us.  We await your arrival.  – Fate.’

‘What does that mean, “find thanks and say good-bye”?’ asked Mataro.

‘One of her codes,’ Peter scoffed.

‘A trustworthy member who knows Byzel and knows the sea routes…’  Billie read.  ‘I could go to Palo to meet Fate…’

‘Absolutely not,’ Auram, a tall, rather imposing black-browed man, rumbled to Billie.  ‘We need you here.  More, it sounded like we needed a Byzel native, and you are from Maia.’

‘True enough.  Mataro,’ Billie spoke up.

‘Yes,’ Mataro looked up.

‘Will you go to Palo, and assure Fate of our aid?’

‘Are you sure I would be the most useful choice?’  Mataro asked uncertainly.  ‘I may be a Byzel native, but…’

‘Don’t be so modest,’ Peter smiled lazily.  ‘You’re the resident paranormal expert, are you not?  Didn’t you once boast that you knew the route the Ghost Ship took, three years back?’

‘Yes,’ Mataro lowered his head, ‘and I found it.  I even saw the Booskaboo after I escaped it.  But I didn’t have the wisdom to avoid the eruption of Bucca Island.’

‘You still had enough wits about you to survive it,’ Billie nodded approvingly.  ‘I think of the few of us here, you probably have the greatest use to our mistress Fate.  And certainly you have proven your devotion to our cause.’

‘I will not rest until every slave in Byzel can walk free,’ Mataro confirmed.  ‘When do I leave?’

‘As soon as you may,’ Billie told him.  ‘May the Goddess speed you on your journey.’

And so it was that he came to be perched on the prow of this fishing vessel, en route to his meeting with Fate.  The wind roared and whipped about him, ensuring a speedy landing for the ship.  The sun rose and Mataro found himself jostled about by the fishermen and the tradesmen of the fishing village, which had grown prosperous over the past three years before Mataro had set sail from here on the Ghost Ship.

He pushed his sandy hair away from his eyes as the light poured into them.  He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but he was lost – what did it mean, to ‘find thanks and simply say good-bye’, in order to meet with this woman, Fate, whom no-one seemed to have met or even know?  ‘One of her codes’, Peter had said.  Indeed, she liked to use them – Fate was not her real name, that much he could be sure.  And what was this ‘Dark Circle’ that she had mentioned?  Perhaps some danger to the abolitionist movement, some other secret society?  Suddenly Mataro felt vulnerable and alone.  Perhaps he was not as well-equipped to take on this mission as his fellow society-members had thought him to be.

Mataro found himself once again dependent on the hospitality of Palo, the one commodity which seemed to be in short supply.  It was understandable that the residents of the village might grow resentful of outsiders, particularly after their occupation by the thieves and assassins of Navarre.  But it still annoyed Mataro to no end that he, as an outsider, could not get even one civil word out of these citizens of Palo, much less a word of thanks.  Even when he stopped to help a little boy find his pet chicken, the boy simply took the chicken and went running without so much as looking back.

He was beginning to find it hopeless, spending much of his time staring at the dilapidated ceiling in the inn, whispering the words to himself:  ‘find thanks and simply say good-bye,’ over and over again.  And he saw a young woman enter the door to the inn.  She was dressed in the garb and armour of one of the Amazons of Rolante – he recognised the uniform from a girl he’d met three years before:  Riesz, the famous Heroine of the Mana Sword.  The image of the Heroine rose to his mind, an image powerful and at the same time tantalising – seventeen years old she had been then, as beautiful a creature as ever walked upon this world, said to be an avatar of the goddess of love and war.  How well had she deserved that honour, and not just for her appearance!  Mataro distinctly remembered her tough self-sufficiency, as distinctly as he remembered her mild, courteous voice.  He saw, or perhaps he fancied, a trace of Riesz in this girl now – tall, blonde, self-assured and proper even as she did the mundane business of asking the innkeeper for a bed for the night.

‘Very good, miss.  And your name?’

‘Merci, sir,’ the Amazon replied.

Mataro mouthed silently to himself the name ‘Merci’ – in one of the tongues used by the merchants of Byzel, ‘merci’ was the trade word for ‘thank you’.  A wild hope sprang into Mataro’s chest, and his heart began beating as she took the bed beside him.

‘Good-bye,’ Mataro murmured to her.

Merci started, and then hesitated just slightly as she turned toward him.  A flower came out of her hair and she took it in hand, holding it to his face.

‘And good-bye to you…  for now,’ she returned gently.

Mataro had little time to wonder what she meant, but even as he realised what was happening to him, the scent from the flower was making him feel heavy, as though his every limb had turned to lead.  He struggled against himself as he felt himself lie back, his vision swimming, clouding over in a burst of stars, and then…  blissful nothingness took him.

Mataro became aware of his surroundings slowly as he emerged from his deep, drugged sleep.  The soft, heavy bulk of a feather mattress lay beneath him, and though he was covered by a warm blanket, he found himself surprised by the chill of the air.  A light, thin breeze whispered about Mataro’s ears, carrying the fragrance of fresh, alpine air.  Mataro, with some difficulty, forced open bleary, drugged eyes which were stunned into closing themselves again by the unbearable light and dark of the world around them.  As he made another attempt, he could see vague shapes in stone – he was in a bed inside a fortress!

His limbs still felt as though they belonged to someone else, he moved them around like deadweight, even as the intolerable light softened as his eyes adjusted.  He looked out the window at blue skies and awe-inspiring mountain peaks.  What had happened to him?  And then the rush of memory that comes after a deep sleep, in flashes of images before they took the forms of conscious thought.  The ceiling of the inn…  the beauty in the doorway…  the flower in her hair being held above his face…  He had been knocked unconscious by the flower!  But, that had been the ‘thanks’ he had been searching for.  So what was this place?  Had Fate betrayed them all, or was this some kind of Abolitionist redoubt?  His question was answered when an Amazon walked in, fully armoured, with a feather in her helmet and the determined look of someone who had been given an irritating duty on her face.

‘Ah,’ she said, matter-of-factly.  ‘You’re awake.  If you’re feeling enough recovered from the effects of the flowers to move, her Divine Majesty the Queen requires you in the throne room.’

The Queen?  Of course – these were the Amazons; this must be the Kingdom of Rolante, at the foot of the Stairway to the Heavens, the highest point in the world.  Mataro had noticed that the air was rather thin, though it was sweet all the same – Byzel always smelled of interesting flavours, fish and exotic spices and the salt of the sea.  Up here the fragrance was milder, cleaner.

Mataro found that his body was lightening nicely, and he let out a yawn and stretched widely.  ‘Indeed?’ he asked, though the grogginess of his voice surprised him.  ‘I’ll be there shortly, then, if you’ll kindly point me the way.’

The Amazon looked slightly annoyed as Mataro rose, but nevertheless straightforwardly told him the way to get into the throne room from there.  Mataro thanked the Amazon, brushing out his longish flaxen hair and dusting off his robe to appear slightly more respectable before appearing before the Queen, though it seemed a lost cause.  The Amazon led the way out into the sunlight.

Mataro couldn’t help but gape.  A tremendous skyline appeared out before him, the fishing village of Palo and all the human activity that took place regularly therein seemed tiny, insignificant against the sheer elemental power of the mountain that engulfed it.  All Mataro could feel was awe at the landscape, beyond the mountains the open sea stretched out into the misty horizon.  But it was a moment Mataro couldn’t let linger – the Amazon laid a rough hand on his shoulder to guide him withindoors.

The fortress itself was impressive, too, and seeming ancient.  Threads of female voices filled the halls in song, producing an eerie, unearthly sound that echoed all around him.  The walls held ancient tapestries, mostly in blue and green and gold, commemorating the brave deeds of a dozen generations of the warrior-women of Rolante against various foes.  As they approached the throne room at the very centre, Mataro noticed a marvellous tapestry, depicting a scene in which three steadfast heroes, guided by the hand of the Goddess, slew the Archdaemon, the grim malice of the Underworld, expressed in red and grey and black.  These heroes Mataro knew for Riesz and her companions, Kevin of the Beast Kingdom and Carlie of the Holy City Wendel.  The Amazon stopped him just under this magnificent work, and spoke to him.

‘You will conduct yourself with politeness and respect to her Divine Majesty.  She wished to see you; her purposes remain unknown to us, but we know that whatever they are, they are bound to be important.  Deserve the attention she gives you, man of Byzel.’

Mataro gave a deferential nod, and the Amazon stood guard outside as the doors were flung open.  He strode forward with some trepidation into the hall.  Now he was likely to get some answers – whether he had been betrayed or whether he was indeed destined to meet with Fate.  He kneeled before the throne, not daring to look up at the woman seated upon it.

The Queen spoke.  It was a voice suited to courtesy and diplomatic deference, hardly an imperious one, but one which was at the moment quite solemn.  ‘You seem familiar,’ she pondered after a few moments.  ‘Look at me; show me your face.’

Mataro looked up at her, and his heart began beating wildly in his ears.  ‘Divine Majesty’ had been an apt description for her:  she was exquisite in her regal attire – the ceremonial armour that sat upon her comely, young-womanly frame gleamed like burnished gold (which indeed it may have been), as did the winged helmet perched upon her fair head.  Her smaragdine eyes peered benevolently over him, trying to match him to memory just as he was trying to match her to his.  Her heart-shaped, rosy face was framed with strawberry-blonde hair, which she let hang in a long braid over her shoulder.  And he knew her, even if she did not know him.

‘Riesz!’  Mataro blurted before he could help himself, forgetting for a moment all etiquette as he recognised the young slip of an Amazon he had met three years ago.  ‘I didn’t recognise you, not at first…  you’re changed!  You probably don’t remember me…  I’m Mataro, of Byzel!’

‘Mataro…?’  Riesz tried the name on her tongue.  Mataro could not remember a time when his name sounded so pleasing, especially when it was followed by a peal of delighted laughter.  ‘No…  it can’t be!  Not the expert on paranormal phenomena!’

‘The very same, your Highness,’ Mataro spoke.  ‘Though I haven’t pursued that particular obsession since the last voyage of the Ghost Ship.  I never got a chance to say it after, but…  your Highness, I’m really sorry I got you into that mess…’

‘Don’t mention it,’ Riesz waved off the entire affair with a forgiving gesture and an angelic smile.  ‘You led us to Shade and to the Booskaboo, so it all turned out well for us in the end, and I can see you made it out alright!  But, we have other business to discuss.  Eliza,’ she motioned to the Amazon nearest her.

‘Yes, your Highness?’

‘I wish to speak to this person alone.’

‘As you wish, your Highness.’  With a signal, Eliza motioned every Amazon in the hall to depart, leaving only Riesz and the young man in the hall, to speak as freely as either wished.

Mataro waited for Riesz to begin.  He felt that from her, answers would be forthcoming, and he was not disappointed.  ‘So,’ Riesz said.  ‘The Abolitionist Society of Byzel sent you.’

If she knew as much there was little point in denying it.  ‘Yes,’ Mataro said.

‘Found this more worthwhile than chasing after ghosts and ghouls?’  Riesz smiled ironically.

Mataro merely nodded.

‘I’m glad,’ murmured she, ‘that our cause is not entirely friendless.  You see, Mataro, it was I who sent you the letter, and signed it as Fate.’

The self-proclaimed expert of unexplained phenomena would reflect later that he was perhaps not as surprised at this revelation as he ought to have been.  It did, however, make a certain kind of sense.  Even though Mataro had a rather obsessive nature, his intellect gracefully accepted the revelation as logical:  it had been a soldier at her command that had brought him here, and the letters she had kept sending the Abolitionist Society of Byzel had betrayed an uncanny knowledge of politics and diplomacy, such as a responsible monarch might be expected to have.

‘I imagine,’ Riesz spoke, ‘you are wondering why, if I felt so strongly about slavery, I didn’t openly bring all the might of Rolante down upon the slavers and wipe it from the face of the world on the tips of our spears?’

‘The thought had crossed my mind,’ Mataro answered her frankly.

Riesz gave him a shy, rueful sort of grin.  ‘I’ll be frank with you, Mataro, since you have done me the courtesy of being frank.  Rolante is not the power it used to be.  Even three years after we defeated the Archdaemon, Bigieu still managed to fell some of our best Amazons and burn much of the valley we inhabit.  So my first duty has always been to my people, helping them to rebuild and recover.  I made a promise to the spirits of my father and my mother that I would not let this kingdom fall to ruin, and I intend not to.

‘You have to realise that it is a fine line I have to walk as Queen,’ she murmured softly.  ‘It is still my wish to rid the world of slavery; has been even before my dear brother was kidnapped and enslaved by the Thieves’ Guild of Navarre.  But if I took any action too overt, too heavy-handed, it would place Rolante in opposition to both Byzel and Sultan.  At best, there would be trade sanctions; at worst, war.  Neither option holds much appeal for me.’

Mataro couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  She was defending her own from harm and taking comfortable shelter in the mountains while innocents were being taken by force and sold as chattel in the black market at Byzel!  He had not expected this kind of self-serving behaviour from the Heroine of the Mana Sword.  This ungracious attitude was quickly followed by a more sober reflection:  hadn’t she steered the Aboltionist Society from its inception, helped it to grow, taught it to thrive and stand firm in the political winds, even though she remained anonymous and tethered to her kingdom?  After another moment’s consideration, the young man replied, something along the lines of ‘of course’ or ‘I understand’.  Riesz gave a shy smile; some detached part of Mataro observed that the effect she was having on him was dire, and that perhaps he was in grave peril.  Did she do this to every man who was given an audience? Mataro couldn’t help but wonder.

‘I’m glad,’ she replied.  Mataro’s attention had been fixed on her, but he wondered all the same what she was glad about for a moment, before he realised she was replying to his ‘I understand’ a couple moments before.  ‘I’ve always tried to live up to the name the Amazons have given me – I still hope I don’t disappoint them.’

‘What name is that?’  asked Mataro.

Riesz hesitated, then laid a hand on her ample breast and lifted from it a necklace that sat upon it.  Its fiery golden filigree glittered with a ferocity that could blind, or so it seemed to the man of Byzel.  Its gold and precious stones would have made it a sybaritic article, if it didn’t bear all the marks of antiquity.  ‘Do you know what this is?’  she asked.  As Mataro shook his head, a flicker of a smile came to her face.  ‘Really?  Not even the paranormal expert of Byzel has heard of this before?  This is the necklace Brísingamen, the last artefact of Freyja, the goddess of love and war.  After I obtained it in my journey to rescue my brother and to avenge my father’s death, the Goddess of Mana released its power…  into me.  You said I’d changed; you see the reason here before you.  It lent me Freyja’s strength.  It wasn’t long after I returned home before the Amazons were calling me Vanadís, “Lady Fate of the Vanir”, and the Avatar of Freyja.  Though I’m rather proud of the fact that I haven’t inherited the goddess’ reputation for promiscuity along with her name and her powers.’

It was said in a tone which led Mataro to imagine Riesz was teasing him.  But when he looked back at her, he saw in her eyes a vulnerability which she undoubtedly tried to hide from the Amazons she ruled.  He realised that she was afraid, afraid of letting them down.  Undoubtedly she had a kingdom to protect, and secrets, and she had also mentioned a little brother – Eliott.  From the sound of it, he’d already had a run-in with slavers, and Riesz blamed herself for it.  All this she said in little more than a glance.

‘But enough of that,’ she said, replacing the necklace and leaning over to look Mataro directly in the face.  ‘I suppose you have questions.’

‘Yes…’  Mataro spoke.  ‘You mentioned something called the Dark Circle?’

‘Not exactly what it calls itself,’ Riesz shook her head, ‘if indeed it is something as organised and methodical as I fear.  It isn’t as though I wanted to disband the Abolitionist Society on some half-baked, paranoid delusion, but my evidence, as you’re likely to find, is rather scanty.  Some of it I want to see for myself, some of it I just wanted to have make sense.  That is why I need help from someone loyal and trustworthy, who knew Byzel and who knew the sea routes.  Just trust me on this,’ Riesz asked him, ‘I wouldn’t have robbed Byzel’s abolitionists of you if I didn’t think this was important.’

‘I understand,’ Mataro said.

‘Good,’ Riesz lightened up considerably.  No longer did it seem the golden armour weighed down upon her, crushing her with the burden of the rule of a kingdom.  Instead, she seemed almost heady, and the armour made Mataro shudder for anyone who dared get in her way.  ‘In that case, before we leave for Jad, there’s someone I would like you to meet.  Come with me.’

She brushed Mataro’s hand, and stood, striding quickly out of the room.  Mataro half-ran to catch up with her as she flung open the doors and hurried past a surprised Amazon guard down the stone stairs.  A light at the end of the long stairwell told him that he and the Queen of Rolante were headed outside, into the cool mountain air.  The alpine meadow of the valley outside and the peak beyond and the slope leading down to Palo were all visible from this doorway, and Riesz before him seemed to stop and breathe in the air – for a moment, Mataro thought she was in the midst of the same reverie that possessed him when he had first seen it.  But she turned aside suddenly to face a teenage boy who might have been her twin if he didn’t look considerably younger.  He had the same fair hair, the same eyes, the same heart-shaped face, though he sat in the sun with a cat’s blasé grace, not with Riesz’s more regal bearing.  His appearance might have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the three large, circular scars on his forehead, and still more, longer ones along his arms.

‘Hi, Sis,’ the boy said.  ‘What are you doing out-of-doors?  I thought you were waiting for that man Merci brought up from Palo to wake up.’

‘He did,’ Riesz replied, gesturing toward Mataro.  ‘El, I’d like you to meet Mataro, one of the members of the Abolitionist Society of Byzel.  Mataro, this is my younger brother, Eliott.  He has been of great help to me in restoring our kingdom, these past three years.  Not a military mind, but he’s a brilliant steward.’

Eliott grinned as he shook Mataro’s hand.  ‘Lowlander, huh?   I was in Byzel once – very nice city, but I’m afraid my lodgings weren’t anything to write home about.’

Mataro lowered his head.  ‘I’m sorry you had to visit it in such circumstances.’

‘And that’s why you’re fighting the good fight?’  Eliott’s voice turned grave.  ‘Well, I wish you the best of luck.  I wouldn’t want any other poor soul to go through what I did.  But with Fate on your side, how can you fail?’

Mataro was taken aback.  ‘H-how did…’

Riesz’s tone was amused as she spoke again.  ‘Restoring the Kingdom of Rolante isn’t the only thing he’s helped me with, you see.’

Mataro laughed.  ‘It seems I ought to be thanking you, then.’

‘Sis is the brains behind it,’ Eliott said.  ‘Though I can’t deny that I feel rather strongly about the problem.  I assume Sis has brought you here because she wants me to cover for her again.’

‘Now, El…’  Riesz’s voice was pleading.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Eliott told her brusquely.  ‘Eliza can sit on the throne for a few weeks while you’re gone, it’ll be good for her.’

‘If anyone asks…’  Riesz told him.

‘I know, no one has before,’ Eliott waved her off impatiently.  ‘She’s you.’

Riesz gave her younger brother a hug while he made an indignant squeal of protest.  ‘I couldn’t ask for a better brother, thanks!’

‘Off with you, then,’ Eliott pushed her away, but he was grinning.  ‘You – Mataro!  Take care of my sister out there; if you can bring her back in one piece I’d be much obliged.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ Mataro waved back as Riesz led him back into the castle.  Mataro was still not sure what was going on, even as he was hurrying through corridors with Riesz leading him along, teasing him forward with that long, red-blonde braid.  She led him straight to her rooms.  As Mataro entered behind her, he noted Riesz’s modesty extended even to her personal space, which for a monarch’s was rather small and Spartan.  Obviously, she still considered herself first and foremost a Captain of the Amazons, and wanted to set an example for her warriors.  Against the frame of her bunk stood a spear, and a bag, as though she had intended to leave on short notice.  Beside these was a statue of the Goddess, her familiar, calm eyes and serene smile beaming benevolently out upon the world, her robe flowing elegantly down to the pedestal on which she stood, a verdant branch of the Mana Tree held gently in one hand.  Riesz kneeled before the Goddess statue and began the familiar prayer:

‘Goddess who stands in the Holy Land, whose name is blessed, may your branches cover the heavens and the earth.  May we live in your balance.  Nourish us with your unending compassion, and watch over us on the paths which you lay before us.’

Mataro kneeled beside her, and finished his own prayer in silence.  After she was finished, she stood, and began taking off the golden armour that was the symbol of Freyja’s power.  Mataro could feel a burning heat rise to his face as her frame, covered only by a thin bodice, came into sharp relief.  Riesz turned to him and smiled nervously.  ‘Am I making you uncomfortable?’  she asked.

Mataro shook his head, and turned back to the spear and bag he saw at the foot of her bunk.

If Riesz was aware of Mataro’s discomfort, she gave no indication of it.  ‘Sorry if I’m going too fast for you; I’ve been planning all of this for some time.  I haven’t really explained what we’re doing yet, have I?’

‘Well, you did say that we were going to the castle city…  and that you needed me because I knew the sea routes…’  Mataro stammered, still blushing furiously.  ‘But I don’t see what use I can be – surely someone down at the docks at Palo can be of help?’

‘Very astute of you,’ Riesz said, and once again Mataro might have gotten the impression she was taking the mickey out of him if her voice hadn’t been so quiet and solemn.  ‘But not just anyone will do.  I have a couple of suspicions, but I want someone to talk to about them, to see if I can’t make sense of them – if I’m right, it could mean that the abolitionists could be in very great danger, and Rolante would eventually become involved.’

‘What suspicions are these?’  asked Mataro, making an effort not to look around at Riesz as he said it.

‘Well, that the Archdaemon may have returned,’ Riesz said.  ‘And that someone in Byzel or Jad – maybe even both – may be responsible for it.’

‘But…  that’s not possible,’ Mataro said.  ‘The stories have been that you – you, Kevin and Charlotte – killed him!  You stopped his plan to take over the Holy Land, killed him after he cut down the Mana Tree and took the powers of the Goddess!’

‘We should have,’ Riesz muttered darkly, buckling her Amazon armour on with a vicious snap.  ‘Let me tell you what happened in the Holy Land…’

I’m a bit pressed for time, from what I read I liked it. No constructive criticism, I’m afraid.

That’s okay - seven months later, chapter two (I can never get around to these things; sorry):

Two. A Boat to Jad

[i]The last of the changelings splattered against the bark of a dying tree as the werewolf kicked it with a mighty rear paw. The gelatinous, blue substance trickled down into the grey grass, and the werewolf’s snarl receded, and his jaw seemed to slacken. His hair seemed to retreat, his eyes became rounder, his nose took a more human shape, and suddenly there was a dark-skinned, fifteen-year-old boy standing where the werewolf had just a moment before.

‘Nice one, Kev,’ Riesz said.

The swarthy young beast-man took in a deep breath and seemed to relax.

‘D’you smell him, Kevin?’ asked Carlie.

‘Gah…’ Kevin considered. ‘This way,’ he pointed, up the murky stream that led further into the dying forest. The three of them ran, their hearts pounding in their chests. They could feel the fear constricting their lungs, pounding in their hearts as a cruel, calculating malice swirled about them. He was close. So close, they could almost taste him – Riesz remembered wondering if they were all running to their deaths. But that malice – the one who had caused all the death and destruction, the one who had hoodwinked the thieves of Navarre, the one who had had Rolante burned near to the ground, the one who still held Eliott prisoner, the one whose intent was to murder the Goddess and destroy their world – he needed to be stopped, no matter what it cost Riesz or Kevin or Carlie, even if it cost them their lives. There was a log bridge across the stream ahead of them, and another further upstream. Their feet pounded over it as the dark water trickled below, mocking them with a mirthless burble. Riesz could see clearly now…

No… it couldn’t be…

The Mana Tree was completely gone. The great, majestic tree, the source of all life and mana in the world, was now nothing more than a shattered, blackened stump. It hadn’t been simply cut down – it had been scarred, burned, mutilated by malevolence: naked, raw, violent and ugly. Riesz stamped across the bridge and saw at its foot the limp body of her brother slung over one of the deadened roots, and a man standing beside him, clad in armour of red and black metal, glistening coldly in the poisoned light. It was the same man that had met them on the highest tower of the Dark Castle: fair and grimly beautiful, though his eyes glittered with a nameless evil.

He let out a high, cruel laugh as he mused to himself, ‘Too bad. The Goddess of Mana is dead.’

Riesz heard the familiar voice of the faerie in her ear, but it was her own voice that shouted, ‘NO! How could you!?’

The pale man turned, a thin, wicked grin on his perfect face. ‘Painful, isn’t it? The Mana Tree – your only reason to live – is gone. It seems the days of Goddess worship are over. It’s time for the daemons to take their rightful place.’

‘I can’t let you do that,’ Riesz said with determination. A flash of light erupted from the centre of the Vanadís’ chest, and the faerie streaked mercilessly toward her target. The pale man simply turned and cut into the air with a similar flash of red light, and they saw the faerie slam, wounded, into the broken stump of the Mana Tree. Her light flickered briefly and went out.

‘Faerie!’ cried Riesz.

Again, that cruel, hateful laugh as the pale man smirked at where the faerie had fallen. ‘Silly little faerie. So weak… so impotent and fragile. Then again, I suppose she had nothing left to lose.’

He turned back to Riesz and her companions. ‘Soon, this world will merge with the Underworld. You have no place in our new world. Now…’ he glanced at Eliott’s body as it lay limp against the tree. ‘It’s time for me to get rid of this body. Behold!’

The man vanished. A wild hope sprang into Riesz’s breast as she fancied for a split-second that he had fled. But then Eliott stood, and his body raised itself into midair, his head hanging at a grotesque angle and his limbs dangling down. But suddenly they became rigid, and Riesz let out a scream of wordless anger, horror and revulsion as the face she knew for her brother’s sprouted two long horns and countless tendrils of red and black emerged from his lower torso, enveloping him in a cocoon which hardened into something resembling metal plates, which spread themselves wide at the broken stump of the Tree of Mana. Her brother had transformed into one of the hideous apparitions of the Underworld, and when it spoke it was not the voice of the twelve-year-old brother she had known since childhood, had raised and cared for and loved, but the voice of the Dark Prince.

‘Gaze upon your world’s end; gaze upon the ruler of the Underworld, the Overworld and the Holy Lands! Witness my unstoppable power!’

Riesz and her friends barely had time to react. A blazing, burning pain took her as dark flames erupted all around them – she could see Kevin and Carlie writhing in agony before she too was blinded by it. She was thrown backwards, every nerve in her failed body still searing as she heard the daemon laughing at her, at her foolishness in daring to challenge him, at her futile sentimentality over her brother. But then the laughter stopped – and her body began to feel lighter, and the pain was flowing out of her.

‘W-who…?’ the Archdaemon’s voice had lost its cruel edge, and now sounded almost fearful.

And Riesz once again heard the faerie’s voice, though she could feel her own lips form the words she spoke. ‘That’s it. Even if the Mana Tree withers and dies, even if mana disappears from this world forever, we will never give up! Long after I’m gone, Riesz and the others will fashion a world of their own design… with or without the power of mana!

Kevin! Carlie, rise! Rise and fight! Fight for the future! Mana will live on, inside your hearts!’

Riesz felt her body lift itself, felt her soul rise in hope and felt a cooling, soothing sensation spread from the small of her back, out over her entire body, healing her completely. She picked up her spear where it lay, and saw Kevin and Carlie in the corner of her eyes as they too lifted themselves on the ground and readied themselves to fight the Archdaemon. Eliott’s face – no, no longer Eliott’s, the Archdaemon’s – was no longer smiling that cruel smile, but his brow seemed to be furrowed in worry.

‘A futile attempt…’ came the voice, now in a panic. ‘Without the Sword of Mana, I cannot be defeated. It’s simply not possible. The sword is lost! It’s over!’

‘But the Sword was not lost. Can’t you see?’ the faerie’s words, once again issuing from Riesz’s own mouth. ‘It’s inside Riesz, and Kevin, and Carlie! As long as they are here, the Sword of Mana – their hope – will never be lost!’

‘Hope?’ sneered the Archdaemon. ‘Hope is a petty emotion; it can’t possibly save you now, not from me! But enough talk – let the killing begin!’

‘Now!’ shouted Riesz, feeling the spell well up inside her as she recited the familiar words. She heard a wolf’s howl behind her as Kevin’s anger boiled inside him, transforming him into a werewolf even as Carlie blessed his fists with the holy powers of the element of light. Riesz’s spell sent Kevin flying into a frenzy at the Archdaemon, even as sparks began flashing all around the armour, and the Archdaemon channeled great bolts of lightning, tearing into Riesz’s body and Kevin’s. But Kevin’s fists connected all the same, as Carlie helped them back to their feet. The diminutive half-elf began chanting a healing spell, just as Kevin’s rage burst out against the Archdaemon, and he launched into the death-hand’s ultimate technique, the Green Dragon Fist of Death.

The attack, striking two parallel blows along the Archdaemon’s body, produced two small cracks in his armour as he let out a scream more of rage than of pain, reeling backwards with the force of Kevin’s martial-arts techniques. Just then, a great blast of air blew all three fighters off their feet, giving the Archdaemon a bit of space to recover and launch his next attack, but not before Riesz cut into him once again, knocking a few quivering tendrils to the ground. The Archdaemon screamed in pain and let out a curse which took sent a white-hot ball of light careening into Kevin, who was sent reeling head over paws. Riesz kept hacking with her spear, but to little avail, as Carlie set to work healing her fallen companion.

Then Riesz threw her spear into the air, and as it turned it rained fiery projectiles onto the Archdaemon, and Riesz leapt up to catch it as it came back down. As she was doing so, she noticed that she had been reduced to a quarter of her height and reach – the force of the spear landing upon her shrunken body knocked her to the ground. Thankfully, Carlie had taken the Chibikko Hammer from their sack and ran to touch them all with it, reversing the Archdaemon’s curse and restoring them instantly to their former size.

For a moment, all stood still, contemplating each other. The Archdaemon was like no enemy they had ever faced before – he had no weaknesses, no chinks in his armour (save those small dents Kevin had made with his ultimate attack), and he was keeping them on the defensive with his every move. The most powerful daemon of the Underworld would fight them down until they were exhausted and could do battle no more, unless they ended it with a quick and merciless drive.

Suddenly, Riesz felt as though her entire body were drooping, and that it became a burden to stand. She felt the weight of the curse as it sapped her of her strength and will, and pain lanced her every thrust, her every retreat. But with an inner discipline she withstood it, as Kevin seemed to drive himself into a berserker frenzy, the way only the most reckless beast-man death-hands can. The grove around them quaked as battle, like a slow and painful tide, crashed in and out. The water in the tainted streams began to boil and the leaves on the dying trees began to blow away. The Archdaemon threw them all back with an attack, then he began to summon forth the fires of the Underworld.

Wave after wave of unendurable heat and flame swept across the field of battle – only Carlie’s magic barriers stood between them and instant death. Kevin snarled at the Archdaemon, while Riesz remarked wryly, ‘Well, this was certainly a very warm reception.’ Carlie squealed with nervous laughter at Riesz’s rather weak attempt at foxhole humour, nearly dropping the magic barriers that kept them relatively safe.

The entire grove was alight with daemonic flame, the rotting wood and dead leaves going up in a smoke which blotted all light from the sky, and the Archdaemon in the centre of it all was grinning and flexing hands and tendrils, his armour splayed as he exulted in his own power. With a single implosion of dark magic, Riesz and Kevin were blown off their feet, Riesz lying spread-eagled in a pool of her own blood. Carlie, panicking, fished an angel-grail out of their bag and poured its contents over her fallen comrade, who stood once more and began casting magic on herself.

The daemon, undeterred, raised both hands in a long, frightening incantation as dark spheres gathered about him and exploded outward with tremendous force, forcing all three heroes constantly back. As soon as they seemed able to mount a counterattack, the daemon finished his incantation, and drew the sign of the hell-cross before him, and all three of them were brought to their knees by the excoriating waves of pain that emanated from it.

Though as soon as the hell-cross receded into nothingness once again, Kevin met the Archdaemon with a punishing series of blows and kicks followed up with a Green Dragon Fist of Death, employed to better effect this time, as the Archdaemon surrounded himself with a series of explosions that blew them all backward. When Riesz could finally get to her feet, she found that any trace of Eliott had disappeared from the Archdaemon, who had melted into his armour and made his face into a mask of black metal. Two great fists had formed from the hard red-and-black shell, which now stood swept behind the Archdaemon in an ominous kind of cape. He had dug deep into the the Mana Tree’s stump, and was doubtless corrupting the last of its energy to toss these three pests, these insignificant hampers on his plans for dominion of the Overworld, to the side. Riesz stared into the Archdaemon’s eyes as he let out a blood-curdling scream which sent shivers down the Amazon’s spine, almost making her lose her nerve. But the three attacked now in full force, sensing that the Archdaemon was becoming desperate. They pressed home their attack, which the Archdaemon, tied as he was to the roots of the Tree of Mana, could do nothing to avoid. Struggling, the Archdaemon righted himself and let down his hands, opening his mouth and emitting a blast of fire that caught them all by surprise. Riesz, who was the most unaffected, got first to her feet and charged wildly at the Archdaemon, but as she approached a blade slashed up from the ground beneath the tree. It caught her leg, and she saw rather than felt the spurt of blood from her leg as she was sent reeling away. She lay limp only for a moment – Carlie had seen her, and she felt Carlie’s healing touch upon her almost instantly. Meanwhile Kevin was hitting hard, fighting literally tooth and nail, and for a moment as he slashed out with yet another Green Dragon Fist of Death, the Archdaemon wavered, as though experiencing pain for the first time.

The Archdaemon reflexively hardened his shell, and his muscles bulged out in a grotesque manner. Riesz stepped forward and thrust her spear skyward once again, raining down fire from heaven once more, but once again the dark spheres surrounded the Archdaemon, the hot, smoky wind whipping around them as the power of mana crackled between them in the air. A single blast of dark energy caught Riesz off her feet, and she fell. It occurred to her as she lay there that the Archdaemon feared her, even more than he did Kevin, because somehow she presented a threat to him. But no sooner had that thought occurred to her than the fire began to overwhelm her senses, smoke filling her nostrils, her eyes blurring and tearing with the heat. The Archdaemon, however, was slowing at last – even the prince of the Underworld has his limitations.

Once again Riesz rushed to the attack, slashing with her spear recklessly, not caring what or where she hit, as long as it caused a wound in the Archdaemon. But this was a mistake. She slashed at one arm and it separated from his body completely. Exultant, she pressed forward… but where his arm used to be there came an ominous glow. Riesz stepped back, confused, and then the Archdaemon let out a roar of rage and triumph as both his arms exploded outwards, showering them all with countless needles of energy, followed by an explosion of corrupted mana. Riesz, being the closest, was flung the furthest – she saw as she hurled through the air to slam limp against a rock, Kevin as he struggled to stand and Carlie as she was knocked about helplessly like a rag doll in the midst of the catastrophe. And the Archdaemon’s arms reattached themselves.

They all rushed forward once more, desperation tingeing their battle-cries, Riesz lashing out with her spear and Kevin with his front paws, while Carlie’s flail began to do its work as well. The Archdaemon struggled to move, but was rooted by the Tree of Mana, whose roots had wound themselves about him, tying him in place. The Archdaemon reeled like a punching bag, but he did not go down as tamely as one. He let out one more gust of daemonic breath before Riesz threw her spear forward… and pierced his armour, straight into his heart.

Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The earth trembled around them as the Archdaemon realised what had happened to him. His roar turned to a choke, his armour began to erupt in foul-smelling plumes of daemon-fire, and he fell forward onto the ground, chunks of armour falling off him and rolling off onto the ground. A whisper issued from him, audible only to Riesz.

‘… T-the underworld… my… underworld… h-how? … I-I… will be…’

And there was a roar as Riesz stumbled back, and the flames that blazed all around them consumed the body of the Archdaemon… he was gone.[/i]

Riesz fell silent, Mataro sitting in rapt attention to her telling of the story.

‘And those were his last words?’ asked Mataro.

‘Yes,’ Riesz spoke quietly. ‘I remembered them exactly.’

Mataro shuddered, but stopped and pondered as a realisation came to him. ‘Hold on! What happened to Eliott? I mean, we just saw—’

‘Yes,’ Riesz confirmed. ‘The faerie found him with the last of her strength, and sent him home. His body had been damaged… scarred by the Archdaemon, but his soul was still intact.’

‘I see…’ Mataro spoke softly. ‘But it still sounds as though you killed the Archdaemon.’

‘We did,’ Riesz’s voice was almost sour. ‘But death doesn’t seem to have the same effect on daemons as it does on human beings. When we confronted Bigieu in the Dark Castle, she as much as told us that in exchange for his soul, the daemons of the Underworld, among other things, made him their leader, and immortal. She as much as told us he had died already once before, in order to open the gate to the Holy Land – and we saw him die again, before he took Eliott’s body for his own! And then his last words… “I will be”. Could have been “avenged”, perhaps? Or “reborn”?’

‘How might that happen?’ asked Mataro.

‘I… I don’t know,’ Riesz admitted. ‘When it happened last time, we were at war with Navarre, the Beast Kingdom had declared war on both Jad and Wendel, and the war between Forcena and Altena in the north had only just begun. The world was a lot less peaceful a place back then, and the daemons had Navarre at their beck and call. And they had the mana stones to bend to their use, and those were all destroyed.’

Mataro nodded. Byzel had not had an easy time of it either, and they had done something nearly unheard of in such an active port city – they had (temporarily, of course) barricaded themselves in and disallowed any foreigners to enter, on the strength of a rumour of an invasion by Altena across the Cleft of the Earth.

‘It would take some great upheaval to let the Archdaemon feel safe enough to come back,’ Riesz mused. It was said half to herself; she wasn’t looking at him, but it seemed she was aware of his gaze upon her. On the side of her face that was turned towards him, Mataro could have sworn he saw a tinge of pink on that fair cheek.

‘Aren’t you trusting me to extremes?’ asked Mataro suddenly. Riesz surely knew that he didn’t simply mean discussing with him the battle with the Archdaemon.

‘And why shouldn’t I?’ asked Riesz, her green eyes blazing. ‘You’re one of the abolitionists; you knew the code. That aside, you’re not a difficult man to read. You take an interest and you pursue it. I’ve no doubt you’ve already spent more energy fighting slavery than you did chasing phantoms. I don’t think I’ve got anything to fear telling all of this to you.’

She had dressed herself in ordinary Amazon garb – a warrior’s uniform, definitely more utilitarian than the goddess-armour she had been wearing.

‘Even so, you’ve only met me…’ Mataro protested.

Riesz’s expression was pure patience as she walked past him and picked up her spear and the bag she’d prepared. ‘True. But if you’re to accompany me to Jad, I don’t have much of a choice. Either I trust you, or I’m simply wasting my time and yours. Let’s see… I think this walking-staff should be suitable for you. Now, shall we set off?’

The path down the mountain was long and treacherous, and led through a dim cave which might have thrilled Mataro had he been three years younger.

‘This cave used to be guarded by the ancestors of the Amazons to keep Rolante safe from invasion,’ Riesz explained. Her voice even now had a note of irony to it. ‘Every now and again, we find undead or sometimes minor daemons up here, but they’ve been fairly quiet recently, ever since the mana left the world.’

They came out on the other side, to where a long, rickety-looking old rope-and-plank bridge spread itself between two creases in the mountain face. Riesz glanced into the air, her fair face tense and taut, even as the bridge creaked and swayed below her. Mataro stepped forward, but Riesz’s hand shot out and blocked his path.

‘Hey! What—’ he began, but Riesz hushed him.

‘Needlebirds,’ Riesz whispered. ‘I can handle them really easily, but I think you might have a bit of trouble. Just stay behind me, and watch closely.’

‘Well, if your spear can really rain fire like you said it can, we shouldn’t have any trouble, should we?’

Riesz just gave him a quirky look as a shadow swooped out of the sky behind them. Mataro could see from its sword-like beak and vicious talons why Riesz called it a ‘needlebird’ – the only innocuous thing about it was its colour, a very pale pink, almost white in its feathers. Riesz readied her spear and, with reflexes honed to the space of a thought and muscles tuned like steel wire, struck up at it in one graceful stroke, the instant before it dive-bombed her. It was caught at the neck by the spear-head and swept backwards over the bridge, plummeting to the earth below. There was little doubt that it was dead before it hit the ground. The bridge beneath them hadn’t even trembled.

Mataro whistled.

‘“Really easily”, indeed.’

As they made their way down the mountain, there was the occasional needlebird attack, but Riesz fended them off with such ease that Mataro felt his presence to be superfluous. Even though he was aware that not only was she an Amazon whose entire being had been fine-tuned to the arts of war, she was the woman who had killed the Archdaemon, the greatest threat to life on earth that had ever been faced, it still bruised his pride slightly that he wasn’t able to do anything but carry her pack. However, about half-way down the slope, a cluster of purple imps descended upon them. The expert on paranormal phenomena recognised them (with a slight, familiar thrill) for lesser daemons, of the kind known informally as ‘chibi-devils’. They had round, almost cherubic faces, but their horns and spade-tipped tails were nastily sharp, as were the miniature tridents they habitually carried around with them.

Riesz quickly dispatched two of them, but one thrust his trident at Mataro, skinning his face slightly as he dodged. His staff moved up quickly and caught the imp in the chest, but it seemed only to annoy it. A second chibi-devil joined him, and Mataro soon found himself surrounded.

Riesz let out a cry of frustration, and in the corner of his eye Mataro thought he saw her throw her spear straight into the air in desperation. But it seemed to glow as it came back down, and something similar to an explosion blossomed into view at the very peak of its arc, raining fire down upon them all. Every chibi-devil got fatally lanced by at least one of the points of flame as they peppered in a shower of small explosions onto the ground, but it seemed as though some charm was protecting Riesz and himself from being skewered in a similar fashion. The bodies of the chibi-devils melted away into the astral plane, and the fiery lances dissipated in puffs of smoke. Soon the only traces of their existence were a couple of small scorch-marks on the rocks where they had landed.

Mataro stood stunned for a second as Riesz clapped him on the shoulder.

‘You—! You can really… wow!’

‘It isn’t fair – haven’t I trusted you? You didn’t believe me when I said I could do that?’ Riesz was definitely taking the mickey out of him now. ‘It’s the light-shot spear technique. Only those who have been graced by the Brísingamen have been able to learn of it.’

‘Well, well,’ Mataro stammered. ‘Thank the Goddess for that much!’

The remainder of their trek down was uneventful, though they took a rather inconspicuous turn nearing the bottom of the path that lead behind Palo’s main plaza, and Mataro could now see how Merci must have gotten his unconscious body up to Rolante – a back door to the inn had been added recently, along with a faint track that led up to this back road. Riesz stopped him just outside.

‘If anyone asks,’ she told him, ‘my name is Beth, and I’m just a rank-and-file Amazon who decided to take her honeymoon in Jad with her new husband, Mataro.’

‘Husband?’ Mataro asked, stunned.

Riesz sighed. ‘Amazons in Rolante’s service are only allowed to leave the kingdom under special circumstances – direct orders, exile, or family matters like marriage. I obviously can’t go around as the Queen of Rolante; that would attract too much attention. On the other hand, I can’t really hide the fact that I’m an Amazon. Believe me, this is the best way – if there were a better one, I’d leap at the chance to take it.’

An irrational resentment simmered in Mataro’s chest. ‘Gee, thanks.’

Riesz opened her mouth in annoyance, as though tempted to say something else, but settled instead for a dirty look. ‘Forget it. Just stick to the story, alright?’

‘Sure thing,’ Mataro grimaced. It was going to be a long, long journey to Jad.

It was less difficult than he imagined, acting the part of Beth’s new husband. He just had to stick to the story, nod when Riesz spoke, appear with her on his arm occasionally – otherwise, there was nothing to it. No one took any particular notice of them, not even in Palo, where she might be most recognised.

‘This ship’s headed for Jad,’ the captain said. ‘That’ll be 240 luc, for the pair of you.’

‘I swear these trips are getting more expensive by the month, darling,’ Mataro murmured in Riesz’s ear as he extracted the coins from his belt and handed them to the captain.

‘Hush,’ Riesz spoke amicably and led him away. ‘Where are our quarters?’

‘Down below, madam,’ the captain indicated. ‘It’s a two-bunk compartment on the starboard side.’

‘Thank you,’ Mataro gave the captain a jesting salute as he led Riesz belowdecks.

Mataro had been on or near ships his whole life, and was quite used to them. Riesz, however, seemed to be having difficulty getting her sea-legs back, if she indeed had ever had them. He could see the signs: the faint uneasiness in the eyes, how her skin suddenly turned pale, how she rolled too far on her toes, overcompensating for the swaying of the wooden hull in the water. Mataro took her by the shoulder. ‘Come on, you should sit down.’

Riesz did as he advised, but it didn’t help her look of pale distress. Perhaps she just needed to take her mind off the rocking of the ship while it got underway. ‘So, honey,’ Mataro chuckled. ‘What is it that you expect to find in Jad?’

The Amazon held up her hand for a moment, steadied herself, then dove into the bag which Mataro had set down beside her, fishing up a rolled piece of parchment. ‘Sit down here,’ she said. Mataro obeyed.

The parchment turned out to be a map of the world. Riesz unrolled it carefully – it had obviously seen plenty of use. ‘Here we are,’ she said, pointing out Palo. ‘And here’s Jad. Remember what happened in Jad three years ago?’

‘Of course; we were discussing it earlier,’ Mataro noted. ‘The beast-man invasion.’

‘Right,’ Riesz told him. ‘But why invade Jad?’

Mataro thought a moment. ‘Going by sea, it’s the quickest way to Wendel, which was their main goal, right? Even if Jad’s a neutral city, the beast-men must have figured that if they had control of Jad, there would be no escape for the Priest of Light, and even if they failed at an invasion, they’d have a fall-back position.’

‘But why did they need one?’ protested Riesz. ‘See… look here. There’s the Beast Kingdom…’ Riesz jabbed a finger at the forest on the western half of the Great Continent, ‘… and there’s Moonreading Tower…’ she shifted a finger slightly east and north, ‘… and there’s Mintos, just northwest of Wendel. Jad’s way to the northeast even of that. Not a very tenable fall-back.’

‘But the only road to Wendel starts in Jad,’ Mataro observed.

‘Mataro…’ Riesz smiled patiently. ‘Think about it: these are beast-men we’re talking about, not humans. Humans need the road; they’d get lost in all that forest. But most of the beast-men live in the forest, along those rivers between the Beast Kingdom and Wendel, which lead up to Mintos. To invade Wendel, they would merely have had to cross that patch of forest and walk along a bit of the lakeshore,’ Riesz pointed to the peninsula just to the west of Wendel and drew her finger around the mountains to the great central lake, to Wendel. ‘It would be a tough hike for most Amazons, even, but for the beast-men who live in the forests, it would be very little effort, certainly less than going by way of Jad from Mintos.’

‘Jad’s a port city,’ Mataro argued. ‘Perhaps the beast-men simply wanted to isolate Wendel from outside aid while they invaded? Wendel can’t be reached by sea by other humans, only by land.’

‘I’d thought of that, too,’ Riesz said. ‘But Wendel’s fairly isolated anyway; it can’t be reached even by land by other humans except through the Waterfall Caves, and those had a barrier safeguarding it.’

‘But… they must have gone through Jad for a reason,’ Mataro muttered, scratching his tow-coloured head.

‘Yes, they must,’ Riesz answered him. ‘I’ve got an idea, but it’s going to sound really silly.’

‘I’m sure it’s a good one if it’s yours,’ Mataro told her gallantly.

Riesz smiled. ‘Hm. Well, most of the world had fallen into various wars by that time. The Wizard of the Red Lotus had made a pre-emptive strike, beginning the Forcena-Altena war; the Navarre thieves had taken Rolante under Bigieu’s guidance; and the Death Jester had masterminded the beast-man invasion of Wendel… through Jad. Jad was a neutral player.’

‘Meaning the Death Jester had some other reason for considering Jad a threat,’ Mataro said.

‘That’s what I think,’ Riesz said. ‘The Death Jester didn’t consider the Wizard of the Red Lotus or his Altenan sorceresses to be any sort of threat – he made short work of them when they got too close to Moonreading Tower. But when Bigieu took Rolante without any kind of struggle, I think the Death Jester took that news rather seriously, and started looking more seriously at Bigieu’s strategic position. I think that the Death Jester first planned to invade from around the lake, but the taking of Navarre may have altered those plans, and so for some reason he went through Jad instead.’

‘So… we’re going to Jad to look for reasons why the Death Jester decided to change his strategy?’ asked Mataro.

‘Yes,’ Riesz said. ‘And to see whether it has any connection with Bigieu and the prince of the Underworld she served. I could be completely wrong about this, but I think it’s worth a look at least.’

Well, at least now she had something to think about, other than the motion sickness. Mataro risked another look at her face, which was turned away from him a little bit, still thinking her deep thoughts. Her colour was better, and she seemed more relaxed now. But it was uncanny – the only time he’d ever felt as excited as he did around her was when he had been on the Ghost Ship, searching out its secrets. She was perfection itself… though her aura had dimmed since she’d removed the marks of her office – Freyja’s armour, Freyja’s helmet, Freyja’s necklace – she was still the Amazon Mataro had met three years ago, one for whom ‘beauty’ would be an almost ridiculous understatement. Often Mataro found himself yearning irrationally to touch her face, to feel the fine strands of gold and copper between his fingers, to kiss her lips, to assure himself in some way that she was real and not just another obsessive fantasy his mind had worked up. But this wasn’t the time, and it wasn’t the place; she had larger things to think about. Goddess, why had she determined to play at the part of his wife? Why had he agreed, like a man with a death wish, to act out the rôle of her husband? He would remove himself to his own bunk, and attempt to find some peace and quiet, to sleep in the familiar rocking of a ship at sea.

You sometimes overdescribe and don’t leave your words space to breathe.

Take for instance the last paragraph. “Understatement” is pretty much a self-contained word, adding “ridiculous” doesn’t really enhance its effect. But it’s “almost ridiculous”, “almost” contradicting the beginning of your sentence, according to which she’s “perfection itself”.

Less is, at times, more.

Yes - it does seem like I was overusing my superlatives here, and not to the best effect. Thanks!

I’ll see if I can’t tone it down a bit. The thing I liked about SD3 is that it tended to overstate things visually; that’s kind of what I was trying to pull off here. Like you say, though, less can often be more.

Three. Troubled Reunion

The bell clanged as the ship made harbour in Jad. Mataro had indeed fallen asleep; a deep and imperturbable sleep, as was his wont. The bell woke him, however, and he rose from his bunk. Riesz had fallen asleep also. Mataro spent a few precious seconds contemplating her still form, her breast rising and falling with each breath, her graceful hips in perfect outline, her face the very image of serenity. He was indeed in trouble, he noted with chagrin. But he touched her shoulder gently and roused her.

‘Wake up, Riesz. We’ve arrived.’ Mataro whispered.

She stretched and stirred and yawned, sitting up and rolling her magnificent head around on her neck, making a grimace. ‘Aggh… forgotten how much I love sea travel,’ she muttered facetiously. ‘We’re in Jad already?’ she asked.

‘Unless they dropped the anchor onto the ocean floor for no apparent reason,’ Mataro said.

‘In that case,’ the Amazon replied, ‘we should get going.’

Mataro led Riesz – now in her rôle as Beth – up above-decks. No mountains appeared before them, but the sunset skyline was similarly broken by an artefact of human design – massive stone walls, lit afire by the sunset in the west and burning brilliant orange and pink, lifted into an impressive, majestic fortress more massive than any other in the world, except perhaps the Ancient Ruins of Light and the erstwhile Dark Castle, the latter of which had fallen to the Heroine of the Mana Sword three years before. The state flags of Jad flew from its austere granite battlements, a proud statement of the strident prowess of human civilisation. Elves there may still be somewhere, and dwarves in the Cleft of the Earth, and beast-men in the forest, but this castle seemed determined to prove that human beings had dominion over the world now. Mataro grinned at the irony. It had been captured by the beast-men, and still it flew its colours unmated and unabashed. Was it human arrogance or human will to make permanent their culture and their proud rule that led them to do that? Maybe a mixture of both?

Riesz turned his satirical eye back toward her. ‘Perhaps we had best check into an inn,’ she told him, ‘and reserve a room for the night, dear.’

‘Your wish is my command, darling.’

‘And perhaps,’ she spoke, sotto voce, ‘we ought to begin our investigation at the local tavern.’

‘My thoughts exactly,’ Mataro whispered back.

As they passed through the archway that led into the streets of Jad, the tavern was not difficult to find – Riesz remembered it from the first time she had come to Jad, when she had come looking for her kidnapped brother. It was an establishment made wealthy by the merchants who frequented it, from Byzel, from Maia, from Palo, even from Mintos – a two-storey, half-timbered affair with the typical sign outside the door that indicated rest and food and drink within. The doors swung open readily, and a rather hassled-looking bartender greeted them.

‘An Amazon, eh? And you’re a Byzel man by the look of you. What can I get you?’

‘What’ll you have, darling?’ asked Mataro.

‘A pint of drowse-mead,’ the Amazon answered readily.

‘Forcenan ale for me, thanks,’ Mataro said, fishing out a handful of lucs and plopping them on the bar.

The bartender tapped the appropriate barrels, and the Amazon had just gotten her drink and the Byzel man his, when a rough, male shout came from across the hall.

‘Riesz! Riesz!’

Riesz, who had been on her first sip of mead, inhaled sharply and began to cough and splutter, setting down her tankard and wheeling about to see who had recognised her. The idiot – he couldn’t have picked a worse time to go around shouting out her name, especially when she was supposed to be here incognito. Mataro turned as well, finding facing him the biggest, meanest-looking beast-man he’d ever seen, all muscle, swart skin and long, brown hair, dressed in a blue cloak, a blue vest and matching, baggy blue trousers. Around his head was a royal-blue headband, and dangling from one ear was a long, lupine fang, glistening in the light that poured through the glass panes behind them. His own formidable teeth were bared in a menacing grin.

Strangely, Riesz seemed to know him. But her own expression showed only the barest hint of pleasure in the recognition as she pronounced, ‘Kevin?’

‘Riesz!’ Kevin hailed her once again. ‘Good… see you again! People here not very friendly.’

‘Kevin!’ Riesz shouted as he threw his arms around her in a bear hug, and she returned the embrace with fervour. Her cover had been blown; there was no use denying it now, and it would be unpardonably rude to her old friend not to acknowledge him. ‘How are you doing? I haven’t heard from you in years!’

‘Gah…’ Kevin grumbled by way of apology. ‘Trained hard; fought Beast King. Now, me… new Beast King! See?’

‘Wow,’ the Queen of Rolante mused. ‘Is your father still alive?’

‘Beast King not dead,’ Kevin assured her. ‘Still alive. Advise me come here.’

‘So why are you here, Kevin?’ interjected Mataro.

The massive teenaged beast-man’s countenance scrunched as he finally placed Mataro. ‘You… Byzel ghost nut! Here with Riesz?’

‘Yes,’ Mataro affirmed. The beast-man gave him a cautious sniff.

‘Nnh… Riesz trust you; I trust you,’ Kevin pronounced, extending his hand, which Mataro shook. Still, there was a look in the beast-man’s eye that showed that he hadn’t forgotten the incident aboard the Ghost Ship. Kevin came closer to both of them and lowered his voice to a growl. ‘Visit… Priest of Light. Want to sign alliance, friendship treaty. Beast King want to apologise, make amends for invasion.’

‘Wow,’ Riesz gasped. The only alliances that had been successful in the last fifty years had been the trade agreements between the port cities. Kevin was undertaking an audacious and an admirable quest. ‘That’s great! When’s this going to happen?’

‘Landed in Jad today,’ Kevin said. ‘Go through Waterfall Caves tonight and spend night in Wendel. Then, Kevin and Priest… sign treaty, go to diplomat party!’

Kevin, the new Beast King and a diplomat. It seemed incongruous somehow; Kevin still had the same trouble speaking. But somehow, this young death-hand would face the task and do it – he had the courage and tenaciousness, and even maintained some of his boyish charm despite having grown to such a fearsome size.

‘Riesz… you and ghost nut, come along?’ asked Kevin hopefully. ‘Leave soon… getting dark.’

Riesz shot Mataro a questioning look, prompting his opinion. ‘We can come back to investigate,’ he said. ‘And we’d only be gone a day or two.’

Riesz gave her Amazon helmet a satirical flick so that it perched on her head with a comic effect, like a jester’s cap. ‘Seems I’m to be outvoted in any case. Very well, Kevin, we’ll go with you. But I’m here in disguise; when we’re in public, call me Beth.’

‘Okay, Beth.’ Kevin looked puzzled, but he would respect her wishes.

Still, everyone now in the bar knew her name, and it wouldn’t be difficult for them to figure out that she was the Queen of Rolante. And gossip here was flame in dry grass… even so, she would stick to her story. Mataro gave a worried look around. One debonair young man in particular, at the end of the bar, with a long bluish-black ponytail and dark, loose-fitting clothing, had been paying them a good deal of attention. There was something in his look Mataro did not like at all.

‘I think the sooner we leave, the better,’ Mataro murmured, still throwing occasional glances toward the suspicious man.

The road that led from Jad south to the former village of Astoria, where the faerie had first appeared to the Heroine of the Mana Sword, was a pleasant forest path, still verdant even after all the strife that had happened along it. Perhaps it was some remnant of the grace of the Goddess whose journey had both ended and begun here that had kept it living and green. Kevin obviously relished travelling upon it, his feet padding silently over the ground, littered as it was with twigs and leaves. It was the walk of a swift and secret predator, though as he walked before Mataro, he felt that here was one who had spent his entire life fighting his own nature, his own flesh and blood, and now had come to terms with that nature in a delicate dialectic, a balance between outward peace and the inward instincts of the hunter. Wolf and man; warrior and diplomat. He was a death-hand and he was King of the beast-men, and this balance was both an extension of his discipline, the mastery of the death-hand’s art, and a necessity of the Beast King’s office.

In the forests they heard the sounds of the native rabites, who were normally a nuisance, but now seemed rather timid. As dusk fell, the forest began to glow with its own inner lights – the myconid mushrooms that lined the path shed their luminescence before them, playing eerie tricks with light in the shadows cast by the trees in the pallid moonlight. As they came into view of the lake, Mataro gasped.

Riesz simply smiled, her brilliant teeth catching the combined light of moon and myconid, a knowing smile: she knew this forest well – it had been the place where she had been chosen by the Goddess, and her quest for the Mana Sword had truly begun. Mataro was struck with awe – he had very rarely seen anything of such breathtaking beauty as this lakeshore, reflecting both the forest’s luminous mushrooms and the stars that shone above the canopy, a dizzying array of tiny lights. In the distance, also reflected in the lake’s surface, there was an immense ruin, which seemed to be eternally lit, even at night.

‘That… Ancient Ruin of Light. Holy ground,’ Kevin explained. ‘Death Jester not respect, so we lose battle. Wendel still safe.’ Kevin paused to sniff the air.

‘I remember this place,’ Riesz spoke fondly, if a little sadly. A small wooden sign pointed to the Astoria ruins in the south, and a cave which lay to the east. ‘This way to the Waterfall Caves – it shouldn’t be far, now.’

Kevin broke into a long, loping run down the path around the lake and beneath the mushroom-lit waterfall, followed by Riesz and Mataro. Mataro could see the cave entrance now. Kevin ran into it full-tilt, and then was thrown sprawling backwards out of it again, onto the ground. Riesz rushed to his aid.

‘Are you alright?’ asked the Amazon.

‘Y-yeah,’ Kevin replied.

‘What happened?’

‘Is the entrance blocked again?’ asked Riesz. ‘Damn it, we’ll have to go all the way round!’

Kevin shooed them away with a massive hand as he stood and brushed himself off. ‘No… not blocked,’ he said. ‘Ran… ran into wall.’

Kevin glared at them, then Mataro let out a hesitant chuckle, followed by an ill-suppressed titter from Riesz. Kevin’s dark eyes looked almost hurt as he clenched his jaw, but the tension died when it opened with a roar of laughter. Soon Riesz and Mataro were doubled over with mirth. They laughed for a long while, before Riesz wiped a tear from her eyes.

‘Seriously, though,’ she interrupted, ‘we’re going to need light if we want to get through these caves.’

Kevin thought, then moved to the lakeside and broke off a piece of myconid, which flashed with a greater brilliance where it had been severed. ‘We have light now,’ he grinned triumphantly.

The cave was long and pitch-black, though the light from the piece of myconid that Kevin gripped firmly in his hand was enough for them to pick their way down step-by-step. Aside from their footfalls and the sound of their breathing, only the faint rushing sound of a waterfall greeted them. They chose their footing carefully, circumnavigating now one pool, black and ominous in the dark, now another. The cave seemed nearly interminable as Mataro wondered whether or not they were going under the lake to get to Wendel.

‘Careful,’ Kevin growled. ‘Up there… slippery bridge.’

Indeed, the subterranean waterfall had cut cross paths through the caves, leaving slippery archways over the pool below. The one above them and to their right seemed to have eroded away long ago, from the shadows their feeble light was casting onto it. But it was clear to Mataro that Kevin and Riesz had been here before, since they took extra care crossing but still made their way over relatively quickly. It was obviously not something forgotten.

Mataro came across, and picked his way carefully over the bridge. Kevin had been right – the rock was wet from the waterfall’s spray, and slippery beneath his leather shoes. He was a third of the way across now… halfway… he could make it. He was not normally afraid of heights, but he couldn’t see the dark depths below him – for all he knew he could be falling into the centre of the earth, falling forever if he made one bad step. Kevin’s myconid lit the bridge well enough, but not the water below. The waterfall to his right was roaring in his ears… three-quarters of the way across…

Mataro must have gotten overconfident as he reached the other side. His foot strayed a little to the right and he shifted his weight disastrously to compensate. With a shout, over the side of the bridge he went. He heard the roar of an alarmed beast-man above him, and his name being called as he began falling into the blackness. But something had caught at his right trousers leg, and he hung, swaying ridiculously, held by a single feminine hand.

‘Damn it, Mataro, grab the wall,’ groaned Riesz’s voice above him.

‘I’m trying,’ Mataro grunted as he swung into the wall and pushed up with his hands. He could feel Riesz’s other hand grab more firmly onto him, then two larger hands on his other leg as they hauled him up.

‘You… lot heavier than Carlie,’ Kevin grunted as Mataro sat down on the wet rock, breathing hard and cursing himself for his clumsiness.

‘Carlie? You mean the young cleric who helped you defeat the Archdaemon,’ Mataro recalled. It may have been a trick of the light, but as he said this, he chanced to look at Kevin’s face, which, swart though it was seemed to have flushed an even deeper shade.

‘Yeah,’ Riesz confirmed. But her voice took a berating tone as she cried, ‘By Goddess, Mataro, you had my heart going nineteen to the dozen! Don’t do that to me again!’

Before Mataro could open his mouth to reassure her, Kevin whiffed again at the air. ‘Come on! Wendel… very close now!’

And off he ran again, into another chamber, through which Mataro could see the night sky – a welcome sight to his eyes. Mataro wondered that the moonlight should be so bright – the difference between night and day was not so great to his eyes as the difference between this and the eternal blackness of the Waterfall Caves. But here they were… only a short stretch of track left. Already he could see the towers of the great Temple which was the centre of the holy city Wendel, and the centre of Goddess worship in the world, where the Priest of Light once watched over the power of mana, back when the power of mana once flowed through the world and back when the Priest of Light had lived.

Kevin led the way into the holy city. This was Mataro’s first time into the city, and he felt like another pilgrim. Perhaps, indeed, he was one, though not one after the ordinary kind who came to visit the place where the Goddess, wielding the Sword of Mana, had sealed the eight elemental beasts inside the Mana Stones. No – he had become a pilgrim of truth and a pilgrim of his cause, to end slavery in the world. If it meant aiding their leader, Riesz, on a quest which Mataro even now found rather dubious, he would do it gladly. Perhaps there wasn’t so much harm in asking the Goddess to bless this quest and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, and ask her aid in abolishing slavery in the port cities.

Indeed, now Mataro felt that he was standing on hallowed ground, as Kevin had described it. There was a numinous sense of calmness that pervaded this place, as though it had been blessed in its assurance of the Goddess’ protection. All was still, all was timeless. Mataro was sure that this is the way this town had looked the day the beast-men attacked. And now, here was an envoy of the beast-men, intending to propose something that hadn’t been done in the past five hundred years: sign a treaty of friendship between the beast-men and a city that had traditionally been ruled by humans, taking the first steps toward ending centuries of rancour, bitterness and distrust between Wendel and the Beast Kingdom.

In the light of the torches guiding them up to the temple, Mataro could now plainly see that Kevin was nervous, even flustered. Not good emotions in someone undertaking such a huge diplomatic venture. ‘Kevin? You doing alright?’ asked Mataro.

‘Nnh? Me? Fine,’ answered Kevin, distractedly. Kevin’s eyes didn’t meet his.

‘Don’t lie to him, Kevin,’ Riesz chided. ‘I know you better than that.’

Kevin gave her a mutinous look, but gave a low growl of resignation and explained. ‘Three years… I trained hard. Trained to beat Beast King, take over throne. Why? I want peace between beast-men and Wendel… also want to see Carlie again…’

Riesz gave him a look of respect. ‘That took a lot of courage, Kevin, I’m sure of it.’

Kevin shook his long, tangled brown mane, as though she hadn’t understood. ‘Want to see Carlie again… but… three years. Maybe Carlie forgot me…’

‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ Riesz assured him. ‘She’ll probably be delighted to see you! Wasn’t I?’

Kevin gave a feeble grin. ‘Riesz… Beth, sorry…’

‘Never mind that.’

‘Riesz… you know, Carlie and me… same age, both half-breed. Her father human, her mother elf; my mother human, my father Beast King… when travel together, think… maybe… Carlie and me mates.’

Kevin, if it were possible, looked even more abashed as he turned his face away. Mataro gave Riesz a significant look, but did not laugh. To do so would not only be inappropriate, but also profoundly unkind. Riesz wasn’t laughing either, but rather, she smiled gently, as though she had known before he’d told her. Mataro had known on an intellectual level that Riesz had known Kevin a lot longer than she’d known him, and if these were feelings that he’d been sitting on for three years that might make matters worse.

‘That’s something you’ll want to consider asking her, Kevin. But perhaps it would be better to sign the treaty of friendship first, spend a few days here. Don’t rush things, think them out.’

‘Thought them out…’ Kevin continued, ‘for three years. Trained… all for her.’

‘Right,’ Riesz asked. ‘Keep in mind that you probably also haven’t seen her for three years.’

‘Maybe…’ Kevin sulked, ‘maybe she already mate with someone else…’

‘You don’t know that,’ Riesz rebuked him sharply. ‘And you won’t until you see her.’

Eventually, Riesz talked Kevin into checking into the inn until the morning. They would see the Priest in the morning, and with any luck, they would see Carlie as well.

On the morning of the Mana Holy Day, the Priestess of Light led the Tierce service, as was the tradition in the Holy City of Wendel, with an Elfin song. The Priestess’ voice was high and clear, a bell-peal of a voice which matched the sunlight as it came in from the east, as she sang the words:

Na glassen gerthenrád pedyrech, ai afade mé Aenil.
Na glassen in bith hen lastech, ai as emel-Aenilendil tire.
Na glassen úgerth avo cerech, anand pade raid hen.
Ae! anmuin Aenil, lín connant ammen hébe thenid lín.
Ae! tolo ammen raid nar estelen nan beriad!
A ammen avam na nienoren, liwig ammen lastel fain thúl lín,
A ammen lain-linnam an i aglar lín, le, ai anniel ammen heniad.
A ammen in bith hen lastam, no nev ammen oiale.

The Priestess lowered her head before the statue of the Goddess before her, as the clerics of Wendel took up the traditional response to her song. Her tree had been felled, and mana had left the world, but the Goddess who had once led the world out of darkness had given them the hope that she would one day return. And the Priestess had been there, had heard with her own fine, perceptive ears the gentle pronouncements of the Goddess, had taken into her heart the exhortations of the reborn Goddess that her children remember her, to await that day. The Priestess rose from her meditation, and turned to face the clerics gathered there.

‘The mercy and the grace of the Goddess be upon you,’ the Priestess spoke gently, spreading two fine hands wide before her. She mirrored the image of the Goddess, standing in her snow-white vestments, the golden sun symbol of the Wendel clergy draped over her petite shoulders.

‘And upon you,’ those gathered in the temple recited back. The Priestess shook her head slightly, as though she had seen some vision she found hard to believe. But her sapphire-blue gaze met it again – three figures in the back of the temple, some recollection come to life: for there was Riesz, with a man whose name she ought to have remembered, and…

Could she ever have forgotten that face, fierce and canine even its more human moments, but which she remembered with such kindness and tenderness that it could be remembered only as a friend’s, a comrade’s? He had certainly grown, but those dark puppy-eyes and that toothy, bashful grin were timeless. It had been years – indeed, it seemed like centuries – since she’d seen Kevin, but had it truly been centuries she would never have forgotten. Her ears, of which she’d been rather self-conscious since they’d grown into points this past year, perked up in delight at seeing him again, and it was in high spirits that she continued the Tierce service. Well, well… perhaps the Goddess was still working miracles, mana or no mana!

After she had ended the service and stepped down from the altar, she waited until most of the Wendel clerics had filed out before she ran straight at Kevin and hugged him right about the middle – indeed, her head didn’t quite come up to his shoulder level. ‘Kevin! It’s been way too long!’

‘Carlie…’ Kevin hugged her awkwardly, patted her on the back.

‘Riesz… It’s great to see you again, too,’ Carlie broke away with some reluctance from Kevin and opened her arms to Riesz, who hugged her, expressing the same to Carlie.

‘Congratulations on being made Priestess of Light, Carlie,’ Riesz said warmly.

‘Thanks, Riesz!’ Carlie lowered her head modestly. ‘Grampa said I was old enough to become Priestess, and he was old enough to retire. This was only about a fortnight ago; I’m not surprised you hadn’t heard yet. This was only my second Tierce for the Mana Holy Day. How’d I do?’

‘Beautiful,’ Kevin spoke. It was spoken low, and Carlie could tell he wasn’t speaking just of the service.

Carlie looked up at him, her face reddening fiercely. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.

Mataro gave Kevin a surreptitious nudge in the ribs.

‘Nnh…?’ Kevin growled at Mataro, but caught the Byzel man’s eye, which spoke of business. ‘Oh… Carlie. Me… new Beast King!’

‘So I’d heard,’ Carlie said, smiling. ‘I’d also heard that the Beast King wanted to write up a treaty of friendship and alliance with Wendel. Is this what you wish to speak to me about?’

For the next few minutes, Carlie and Kevin discussed the treaty. Both were heavily inclined toward it from the beginning, but now they were deeply immersed in the finer points of diplomacy. Mataro’s attention drifted about the temple, and toward the statue of the Goddess. Mataro meandered over to the altar, and kneeled down before it, in prayer. But suddenly, on some compulsion, he chanced to glance out of the corner of his eye, to where the Wendel cleric who had been left to guard the altar had hidden himself – the only indication of his presence was a rustle of movement. Mataro turned his head slowly enough not to be noticed, but he saw clearly that emerging from the gap between two stones in the corner of the wall, a pipe was aimed directly at Kevin, whose broad back was turned.

‘Kevin!’ Mataro shouted a warning. Kevin swung around, but it was too late – a quill dart hit him in the arm. He howled in agony and slumped to the floor. Mataro rushed to the wall, where he saw the cleric whip out another quill and load it into the blowgun, aiming this time at Riesz, who had rushed forward, her spear at the ready.

‘NO!’ Mataro yelled, battering the cleric with his staff, knocking the blowgun out of his hands and the man himself to the floor. Mataro continued to rain blows down on the cleric with his walking staff until he lay slumped against the stone wall of the temple, unconscious, blood flowing from his broken nose.

Kevin was growling, and winced slightly as Carlie removed the quill, which was barbed and lodged fast in Kevin’s arm.

‘Shhh… shh… Kevin, it’s alright, it’s alright…’ the Priestess’ voice was shaking as she said it, though. The grey quill was stained red with the beast-man’s blood, but the hollow of the quill was filled with some kind of brown oil. It had a pungent odour, which worried Carlie. Carlie’s voice shook more as she asked,

‘Kevin… how does it feel in your arm?’

‘Arm… feel pins and needles…’

‘Is it numb? Are you going numb?’

‘Nnh… yes…’

Gurthan!’ Carlie let out the strongest Elfin oath* she knew. Whirling round to Riesz, Carlie said, ‘It’s gaurbalthor – oil of monkshood! It’s dangerous enough for people, but for beast-men even the smallest dose can kill! You—’ Carlie pointed at Mataro, and then out the door, ‘go to the temple garden and see if you can’t find some dúlumbas and lebeddol leaves. Dúlumbas has purple flowers shaped like bells and broad, oily leaves; lebeddol has pink flowers shaped like fingertips and smaller leaves growing on a long stalk. Hurry! I’ll do what I can, but healing magic won’t help worth a damn if I can’t get those herbs!’

Mataro leapt down the steps and sprinted out the door.

‘Riesz,’ Carlie gasped. ‘Go to the tavern and ask for some Forcenan gin. Go!’

As Riesz departed, Carlie looked down at Kevin. The poison was coursing through him more quickly than it would through any human, and it seemed to have a more dire effect. Kevin’s breathing was already growing erratic; if she didn’t work quickly, it would stop altogether. Kevin was still awake, struggling to hold on to life.

‘Kevin, don’t die on me!’ Carlie placed her hands on his body and began casting healing light from her hands, reciting the incantation non-stop. She gazed down at Kevin, and her chanting voice began to quiver. A single tear slid down her ivory cheek.

It took a matter of minutes for Riesz to return with the gin, a portion of which, under Carlie’s instruction, she applied to the wound, which had taken on a pale, almost deadened look. The magic was failing – indeed, without the power of mana, Carlie’s magic drew only from her will to keep Kevin alive. Strong though that was, it did little more than buy time, slowing the spread of the oil of monkshood. But apparently Mataro was having difficulty finding the herbs. Carlie was on the verge of panic when Mataro burst through the door, fistfuls of leaves in each hand.

‘Great,’ Carlie exclaimed. She stopped casting the healing light just long enough to withdraw a small mortar and pestle from a seam in her vestments, placing them on the ground and feverishly crushing them until the juice emerged from the mixture. She ran to the unconscious cleric and ripped several untainted quills from his robes, ran back and dripped several drops of the juice into the hollow of one quill, then punctured Kevin’s injured arm with it. Kevin growled harshly, but relaxed as the antidote went to work.

For several painful minutes, Carlie continued to cast the healing light onto Kevin and prayed to the Goddess to spare his life, but eventually, Kevin’s breathing grew deeper and more regular, the flesh around his wound returned to its usual healthy tawny colour, and Kevin made a move to sit up. Carlie held him down.

‘Please, Kevin, don’t move.’

‘Carlie… is important…’

‘What is it?’ asked Carlie.

Kevin’s great, dark eyes took her in, the golden curls falling down over her shoulder and onto his chest, the innocent blue eyes now baptising him in tears, the face that would always be virtue to him, always be Carlie’s.

‘I… love you, Carlie… always have…’

The Priestess wept silently a long moment longer, then her hands found either side of his face, which she lifted to hers. Mataro looked away, and Riesz did the same. This was a private moment for the two of them, one they were not entitled to look upon.

‘It seems,’ Mataro remarked slyly, ‘that diplomatic moves toward that alliance are proceeding apace.’

‘Yes,’ Riesz said, biting her knuckles in anxiety, before descending with all the grim fury of a vengeful goddess onto the treacherous cleric, blood still flowing from his nose and staining his robes, coughing as he regained consciousness. She jerked him roughly to his feet, holding him by the front of his robe.

Why?’ she demanded. No sooner had she said it but she inhaled sharply, and a look of recognition came across her face, though it was not a welcome one. The assassin’s red eyes glinted, and he laughed at her.

It was a hideous sound; partly cough, but wholly malice. ‘Queen of Rolante…’ he taunted her, ‘you will not have the satisfaction of an answer.’

Mataro saw the assassin’s arm jerk, and caught the flash of metal and sprinted to Riesz’s side, but it was too late. There was a spurt of blood that spattered onto Riesz’s armour, and the assassin’s body went limp.

Riesz hurled the deadweight to the floor in rage and disgust. Carlie and Kevin had broken off their embrace in time to see this.

‘Why?’ asked Carlie. ‘Why would he commit such a sacrilege?’

‘He wouldn’t tell me,’ Riesz’s bloodstained face was grim as her mouth formed the words. ‘He killed himself rather than tell me. But it’s obvious why, isn’t it? He wanted the Beast King dead, and he wanted it to happen in Wendel. He wanted to start another war.’

  • The Elfin language Carlie is speaking here is a bastardisation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sindarin language, but in this story it only appears as liturgical song and in herb-lore. ‘Gurthan’, the strongest curse word in the Elfin language, is based on Sindarin gurth meaning ‘death’, but has more of the strength of ‘son of a bitch’.

The Elfin song is based on Psalm 119:

Glad are you who tread an innocent path, who follow the way of the Goddess.
Glad are you who hear her words, who seek her with all your heart.
Glad are you who do no wrong, but walk in her paths.
Oh dearest Goddess, you have asked your rites to be kept with fervour.
Oh, may our ways be true in their upholding!
We shall not then be ashamed, having our ears listening to your every breath,
We shall sing to your glory in freedom, you who have given us understanding.
We shall hear your words, be with us always.

Gaurbalthor is based on Sind. garav ‘wolf’ and belth ‘to kill’, hence a name for ‘wolfsbane’ or monkshood plant, which in folklore is lethal to werewolves (as well as being poisonous to humans in real life!). Dúlumbas is deadly nightshade (Sind. ‘night’ + lumb ‘shade, shady’). Lebeddol is foxglove (Sind. lebed ‘finger’ + dol ‘head’, fig. ‘hat, cap’ – since I couldn’t find ‘fox’ or ‘glove’ in the Sindarin dictionary I used a literal translation for the German name of the plant, Fingerhut ‘finger-hat’), both of which are also poisonous, but in small amounts provide an antidote to monkshood. I know that in real life, injecting nightshade and foxglove juice in such a crude fashion into someone who’s been poisoned by monkshood is probably not a good idea, but hey, this is fiction, and Kevin isn’t dying in any fanfic of mine.

Four. Plot Exposed

‘Ow!’  Mataro exclaimed as Riesz wrapped his left hand in a bandage soaked in gin.  ‘That burns!’

‘It’s Forcenan dry gin, 90 proof,’ Riesz yanked the bandage tighter, eliciting a grimace and another ‘ow’ from Mataro.  They were seated on the steps of the Temple of Light, enjoying the afternoon air.  ‘It’s supposed to burn!  Let that be a lesson to you – when your hand breaks out in blisters because you weren’t careful with the dúlumbas leaves, for Goddess’ sake don’t pick at it!’

‘Alright, alright!’  Mataro winced.  ‘I’ve learned my lessons.’

‘We’ll see,’ Riesz told him playfully as she tucked in the bandage.

‘How’s Kevin coping?’  asked Mataro.

‘Better,’ Riesz said.  ‘A lot better, I should say, now he’s got his feelings for Carlie off his chest.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this treaty they’re hammering out might be sealed at a wedding ceremony.’

‘As I implied earlier,’ Mataro quipped.

‘Mataro, you have a most remarkable talent for employing your wit, impressive as it might be otherwise, at the most inappropriate of times,’ chided Riesz.

‘I’ll consider my wrist slapped,’ Mataro raised his injured hand to demonstrate and regretted it as the bandage rubbed, causing him to draw a pained, hissing breath through clenched teeth.  ‘How’s the investigation into the murderous cleric going?’

‘Not well, from what I hear,’ Riesz murmured.  ‘They’re not even sure where he came from.  He appeared a few months ago as an itinerant cleric, but didn’t make any friends while he was here, nor express any wish to stay long.  They searched the cell where he stayed, but there’s nothing that tells us he was anything but who he claimed to be.  Except that he obviously couldn’t have been a cleric, itinerant or not; he would be cast out for committing a triple sacrilege.’

‘Triple?’  asked Mataro.  

‘First, those in clerical attire are not allowed to draw blood or cause open wounds, except to heal,’ Riesz recited, ‘that’s why Carlie always used a blunt flail when she had to fight. Second, he profaned the temple by shedding blood within it. Third, his intention was to cause death in sight of the statue of the Goddess of Mana, thrice, though he only succeeded once: first Kevin’s life, then mine, then his own.’ Riesz sat down beside him, and held his uninjured hand in hers. ‘Thank you, by the way. You saved my life.’

Mataro’s face was reddening.  ‘Oh, it wasn’t…  I mean…  how many times have you saved mine?’

‘If I don’t watch your back, who will?’  Riesz teased, her voice becoming feisty again, though it seemed incongruous with her face.  ‘Goddess knows you need it!  Just, thanks for returning the favour…  Mataro?  Is something the matter?’  Indeed, his face seemed to be set, and it was worrying Riesz.

‘You know who it is, don’t you?’  Mataro asked.  ‘For a moment there, you seemed to recognise him.’

Riesz shook her head and laid a hand on Mataro’s shoulder.  ‘No – I thought I did, but I know it’s impossible.  One thing’s sure, though:  he didn’t count on Byzel’s expert on paranormal phenomena coming in to save the day.’

‘Pure serendipity,’ Mataro grumbled, holding up his bandaged, blistered hand.  ‘I’m afraid I’m not capable enough without it.’

‘Perhaps,’ Riesz shrugged.  ‘Perhaps all you need is a little more confidence.  I’m off to buy a pint of mead.  If you need me, I’ll be back at the tavern.’

Riesz left Mataro there, and went southward into town.  Mataro sat awhile outside on the stone steps of the Temple of Light, staring up at the great edifice; the ancient stones lit golden by the afternoon sun, trees swaying all about it.  Riesz’s suspicions were looking more and more likely – this could be no mad attack by a single man.  There was some mover, elsewhere.  But perhaps there was more to be learned here before they returned to Jad.

Mataro saw Carlie come down the steps.  Her face was in high colour, and her hair had an almost tousled look about it, as though it had been suddenly blown by a strong gust of wind.  Mataro hailed her.

‘Is Kevin doing alright?’ Mataro asked, hoping his voice didn’t sound too suspicious.

Carlie’s grin was pure mischief as she caught his eye.  ‘Oh, he’s recovered quite well.’

Well enough to put that saucy grin on her face and that glint in her eye, at least, Mataro thought.  ‘I wish the best of luck to you both,’ he remarked dryly.  ‘Are you still investigating the assassin’s room?’

‘The others have all left now for evening prayers, but they were fairly thorough,’ Carlie said, a little surprised.  ‘Why?  Do you need me to point you the way?’

Carlie was good to her word, and showed him to the dead man’s room, which was in the cell in the lower hall on the right.  And there she left him.

‘Sorry, Kevin needs me upstairs,’ she said with a somewhat guilty blush, and left.

And here Mataro was, alone with his hunch, in this rather claustrophobic room.  Three beds lined the wall opposite, any of which could have been the guilty man’s.  But he searched them all, from the plain straw mattresses to the unsteady frames, down to the back corner behind the one shoved up against the far wall.  And the tables – there was nothing of interest, no sign of secret communications.  Mataro let out an oath, not that it helped bring him any understanding, but it felt better.  He tried stepping into the shoes of the faux cleric.  Cold, grimly determined to avoid detection, the better to carry out his scheme.  If he had any correspondence, it would have been destroyed.  But one can’t simply throw it out the window for anyone to find, that would be sloppy.  Perhaps…

Mataro’s eyes caught it just as he had thought of it:  a small hearth in the back corner of the room, cold now that it had been put out while the clerics were at prayer.  Mataro went to it.  Yes…  the hearth would be better than any brazier.  But all that was in there now was ashes, though it appeared that someone had been poking through them recently.  Mataro set down his staff, kneeled down and ran his good hand through the ashes in the hearth, sifting through them carefully, when his fingers found something flaky.  He picked it up.

Yes, it was a small strip of burned parchment.  The assassin had finally been careless – much of it was now nothing but grey ash, but portions of it were blackened and some even unburned.  Mataro held what was left of it up to the light coming from the brazier in the corner.  Only two phrases were visible and complete, both written in a cultured, male hand:  ‘[b]for vengeance[/b]’ and ‘[b]your father, Jagan[/b]’.

Mataro suddenly heard behind him a faint clink of metal on stone.  He whirled about and stood, walking to the place where he’d heard the sound.  He looked down and found a single five-luc coin, which he retrieved.  The brass disc had been sharpened on its edge, he noted curiously – sharp enough to cut, if need be.  This examination was cut short by the feel of a blade of a very different sort against his throat.

‘I’d advise you to be more cautious; picking up someone’s throwing-blades can be deadly.  Still, I’d be most obliged if I could have it back.’  It was a young man’s voice, suave and cultured, but with a definite dangerous edge to it.  The knife pressed a little harder against Mataro’s neck.

Mataro lifted his good hand, which held both the blackened scrap of parchment and his captor’s sharpened coin.  The man took both.  ‘Be my guest,’ Mataro muttered.

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ the youth’s voice laughed.  ‘But I’m afraid you’ll have to pardon my rudeness; I never intended to stay long anyway.  Still, you’ve been a marvellous host, and it wouldn’t do to leave without giving you a little present.’

There was a blinding whirl of motion as the knife came away from Mataro’s neck, but as soon as he turned around, an irritating plume of smoke and dust engulfed him.  Coughing and gasping, Mataro blundered his way out of the room, just as Riesz came running up the hall, spear in hand.

‘Who was that?’  asked Riesz.

‘I don’t know; I didn’t see,’ coughed Mataro.

Riesz looked around.  ‘Neither did I.  Well, he couldn’t have gone far.’

Mataro wiped his streaming eyes with his sleeve and went back inside to fetch his staff, and joined Riesz at the stairs leading out of the Temple and into the sunlight.  Riesz caught his arm.  ‘Wait.’

‘What?  Don’t you want to follow him?’

‘Was that box there before?’

Indeed, just inside the door, there was a plain wooden crate.

‘It’s just a box.’

Riesz gave him a funny look, and went over to where the crate was set up against the wall, the hand holding her spear relaxing slightly to allow the blade to fall.  She sighed and sat on the crate.  ‘You’re right.  Just a box,’ she sighed nonchalantly as she brought the spear-point down hard between two of the slats, splintering the crate.  She was rewarded by a thump coming from inside.

Riesz stood up and tossed the crate aside viciously, freeing her spear and holding it at the throat of the young man who had been crouching beneath it.  Mataro suddenly recognised him as the shifty character that had been paying such close attention to them in Jad.

‘Damn it, Hawkeye!’  Riesz yelled.  ‘What were you doing?’

The debonair young man got up, brushed himself off and adjusted his headband.  ‘I was in a box.’

‘We could see that.  But isn’t that a bit…  cliché?’  asked Mataro.

‘I don’t know, maybe it is,’ Hawkeye admitted.  ‘I just looked at it as I was planning my getaway, and I suddenly felt this urge to get inside.  No, not just an urge…  it was more like my destiny, to be in the box.’

‘Your destiny?’  asked Riesz, in a no-nonsense tone.

‘Yeah, something like that,’ Hawkeye said, tongue now firmly in cheek.  ‘And when I got under it, I suddenly got this feeling…  I’d found inner peace – like the box was where I was meant to be, like I’d found the key to true happiness…  does that make any sense?’

‘None at all,’ remarked Mataro dryly, ‘but I’m sure there’s a box with your name on it in the dungeons of Jad Castle, and you’ll have plenty of time there to find inner peace.’

Hawkeye grinned at Mataro.  ‘Well, your divine Majesty, I must say I’m disappointed with your manners.  Or perhaps you weren’t intending to introduce me to your friend, seeing as we’ve already met?’

Riesz threw a glance at Mataro, but kept her spear trained on Hawkeye’s throat.  Obviously someone known to the Queen of Rolante, but not trusted.  ‘Mataro, this is Hawkeye of Navarre:  infiltrator, saboteur, con artist…  and petty thief.’

‘A pleasure,’ Mataro nodded, extending his hand.  Clearly a handshake was not what he had in mind.

‘Indeed,’ Hawkeye sighed, and with two nimble fingers withdrew from his loose tunic the burnt paper, placing it deftly in Mataro’s outstretched hand.  ‘Well, now that everyone’s respective property is in everyone’s respective hands, I think I’ll just be on my way…’

Hawkeye was quick, but Riesz’s spear was quicker.  She had thrown it just far enough ahead of him that it grazed his neck as he made his move to escape.  He turned to her, eyes feigning shock, but his neck appeared largely unharmed.  ‘Not so fast,’ she said.  ‘First, I think you owe me – and Mataro – an explanation.  What in Goddess’ name is going on?’

‘I’m afraid I can’t say,’ Hawkeye replied with a slight smile.

‘What’s so important about this paper that you wanted to steal it?’  asked Mataro, holding it up.

Hawkeye shrugged.  ‘You tell me.  You’re the one who was searching for it.’

‘Were you in league with the man who tried to assassinate Kevin?’  Mataro asked.

Hawkeye gave him a hurt look.  ‘Do you really think an honest petty thief like me—’  Riesz coughed suspiciously, but Hawkeye took no notice, ‘—would be so foolish as to ally himself with a fanatic like that?’

‘Think about how this looks for a minute,’ Mataro said.  ‘Not twenty seconds after I recover the only thing the dead man might have left us, you distract me and steal it right out of my hands.’

‘Ah, yes,’ Hawkeye said with a rueful grimace.  ‘Truth is, I want that scrap of paper too.  It’s likely to tell me far more than it can tell you; that’s all I’ll say.’

‘Why?’  asked Riesz.  ‘What’s on it?’

‘It seems to have been a letter,’ Mataro whispered to her.  ‘Only two phrases were visible:  “for vengeance” and “your father, Jagan”.’

The last pronouncement caused Riesz’s gaze to fall upon him.  That name, Jagan, meant something to Riesz that it didn’t to him, something that frightened her.  It was strange – Mataro had not yet seen that fair, calm face frightened by anything.  It troubled him, more than her wrath had.  Mataro opened his mouth to question her further, but she flashed him a grim ‘save it for later’ look, directing her attention once more to Hawkeye.

‘I assume you heard all that.’

Hawkeye shrugged again.

‘What does that tell you that it doesn’t tell us?’

‘Give it to me, and I’ll show you,’ Hawkeye offered.

‘Not a chance,’ Riesz told him.  ‘That scrap of paper is all we have to go on to find out who is behind this attack on the Beast King.’

‘And believe me,’ Hawkeye cajoled, ‘I want to find that person as much as you do.  Perhaps even more.  If we could work together on this…’

Mataro shook his head slowly.

‘I—I’ll think about it,’ Riesz told him sweetly, ‘but for right now, we’ll hand you over to the care of the clerics.  You’ll find they are quite gracious hosts, if you don’t make the impolitic decision to attempt to flee.  Do I make myself quite clear?’

‘Inescapably, your Highness,’ remarked Hawkeye, who was handling the whole thing with a notably complacent kind of resignation.

Hawkeye was, with little further ado, given over to the Temple guards, who had him under lock and key in one of the penitent cells.  Though I imagine, Mataro thought dryly, penitence is not what is on his mind.  Escape will be more like it.  Mataro could see that Riesz and Hawkeye had known each other a while, and even though it was clear Riesz did not trust the sneak thief, Mataro still couldn’t help being more than a little jealous of him.  The more he travelled with Riesz, the more he felt he wanted to know more.  She was of royal birth, and it showed, but it didn’t extend itself to her manner.  He was fast becoming familiar with her deferential, almost self-effacing courtesy, and he had seen her roused to the awe-inspiring fury one might expect from an Amazon of Rolante, but he had never seen her put on airs.  He had to remind himself firmly that he had met her properly only two days ago, and as yet his fascination was only just that.

Carlie came once more to meet them, and she told them of Kevin’s recovery, which had been speedy and without complication.  She also told them that she had invited a larger beast-man delegation, which would arrive from Mintos in three days or so to discuss the extent of the alliance.

‘Kevin tells me,’ she was saying to Riesz, ‘that there is a lot of resentment among the beast-men that has to be overcome for this alliance to succeed, and particular ill will toward Wendel among some.  Their defeat by my grandfather must still rankle.’

‘So it would,’ Riesz said.  ‘They are a very proud people, who have been much wronged.’

‘Yes,’ Carlie murmured.  Mataro just barely could catch the half-elf’s words.  ‘Though I’d like to think that my grandfather wasn’t responsible, are we really so blameless?  He had ample opportunity to extend a warm hand of friendship to the beast-people, as any good neighbour should.  Instead, he ignored them – and that added to their perception that humans did not respect them.’

‘It doesn’t sound,’ Riesz told her, ‘like you’re planning on making the same mistake.’

‘No.  Kevin intends to make the events of today clear to them, telling them that I saved his life when he was attacked, that I am a woman of my word and that I do respect them.  Also, Kevin may wish…’  Carlie’s voice had lost the Priestess’ gravity and had become almost elfin in its glee, ‘h-he may wish to unite the Beast Kingdom and Wendel…’

Riesz laid a warm hand on Carlie’s shoulder.  ‘Well, if ever it so happens, I wish you both happiness.’

‘Well, it’s thanks to you that we met again,’ Carlie returned the hand on the shoulder, though she was significantly shorter than Riesz and had to reach a little more.  She turned her head back toward Mataro.  ‘And thanks to you, Mataro, that the Beast King is still alive.’

‘I only did as you asked me,’ Mataro said.

‘True, but thank you all the same,’ Carlie laughed.  ‘I’d like to invite you to stay the night in the Temple too.  If I give such consideration to your petty thief, it would be unpardonable of me if I didn’t extend the same to both of you.’

Mataro lay on his bed in a tower room of the Temple of Light, unable to sleep, pondering.  Four days ago, he had been in Byzel, planning the abolition of slavery and the banishment of slavers from the Byzel marketplace, unaware of any of this.  He had done some venturing out into the world, of course.  He had sailed since boyhood between Palo and Byzel, had walked the Yellow Road to Maia, and then there had been his rash little expedition on the Ghost Ship to Bucca Island.  But had he been told a week ago that he would be the companion of the Queen of Rolante and together stop an assassination attempt on the Beast King in the most holy pilgrimage site in the world, he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t have laughed himself hoarse.  His world then seemed so…  small, now.  He hadn’t seen beyond his own little corner of the world, but now…

It was thrilling.  Beautiful.  Terrifying, all at once.  Was it because of her?  Riesz, the Lady Fate of the Vanir, the Queen of the Amazons, the champion of the abolitionist cause – everything she did, everything she was, was writ large, even when it was done in secret.  And here he was beside her.  He didn’t trust himself – all she needed to do was smile at him and he was in bliss, scowl at him and he would quake.  All she needed do was ask of him anything and he would give it to her without hesitation.  It was ridiculous – this obsession made his fascination with the supernatural seem moderate and well-tempered by comparison.  How long would he be able to hide it?

Mataro rolled onto his side and looked out the window at the moonlit lake.  Even in the dim moonlight the lake seemed colourful and bright, the luminescent ancient Ruins of Light reflected in its shimmering surface.  Mataro let out a deep breath.  He hadn’t realised how tired he was from the past couple of days.  He placed his hand over his tunic pocket where the burnt letter was still safe, and even as he was making this realisation, he fell into a deep sleep.

Luna’s Day dawned bright over Wendel – not a single cloud could be seen out the tower window facing northeast over the lake.  The sunlight shone in over Mataro’s face, and his eyes cracked open.  His entire body felt sluggish as it usually did in the morning, creaking and cracking as he raised a hand to shield his eyes against the inconsiderate sunlight.  He rose, washed his face in the basin the hospitaller of the Temple of Light had provided for him and dried it off, feeling better for a little cold water in his face.

His hand went instinctively to his tunic pocket, and sure enough, the paper was there.  But…  it was an odd feeling…  as though it had been folded funny as he slept on it, and it didn’t have quite the same texture as it had yesterday.  It also seemed heavier; bulkier.  Puzzled, Mataro withdrew the small sheet of paper from his pocket, and found to his shock and anger that it was not the scrap of paper he had withdrawn from the hearth, but a sheet of very clean, very fresh white paper, folded neatly down the middle with a wax seal bearing the coat-of-arms of the Navarre raiders.

At a loss for words, Mataro cracked the seal and began to read:

[i]My dear Master Mataro,

I offer my most sincere apologies as a Thief of Navarre that I was obliged once again to part this particular article from you.  It is a matter of some importance not only for me, but for the Thieves’ Gld. of Navarre, and the article you carried is rather sensitive as well as informative.  Although, I must give you your due; you didn’t make it easy for me to remove it from you – I was impressed to find that you carried it on your person, and most gratified to find that you are indeed learning some caution.

You must understand that what I have done was in a pursuit that must be undertaken [b]for vengeance[/b], and that you fell into my path in this pursuit and have suffered for it is most regrettable.  However, business awaits me in Jad and I’m sure you’ll understand why it would be impossible for me to convey my apology in person.  Please offer my congratulations to the Priestess and to the Beast King for what I am certain is to be a most fruitful accord, and also be so kind as to advise the good Priestess that her clerics could use some instruction in how to secure a cell.

Yours most sincerely,
Hawkeye of Navarre
Thieves’ Guild

P.S.  I promise not to tell H. D. M. the Queen of Rolante that you talk about her in your sleep.[/i]

Damn the man!  Through every genteel phrase, the thief was laughing at him.  Mataro could read it all over his letter.

Mataro groaned.  ‘I hate Luna’s Days.’