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Aradin Teral eyed the priest tottering with uneven steps from altar to altar in the Westraven Chapel, located in the heart of the Katan continent. Prelate Tomaso was ninety if he was a day, with hair not only white but wispy and thinned with age, a face with more seams than a student tailor’s practice piece, and two canes to hold himself upright. Still, the man was revered by the locals, some of whom stood in the center of the eight altars. The rest, including Aradin, stood or sat on the benches placed outside the eight altars and watched while the new father toted his infant daughter from altar to altar in the priest’s wobbling wake.
In accordance with local customs, the newborn was to be blessed by both the God Jinga and His Wife Kata at each pair of Their four altars, representing the four seasons, four aspects, four this and four that. It was an interesting religion, one of the older ones around, and apparently a conglomeration of two individual sets of worship combined many centuries ago into a single faith to unify two nations into one. Enough time had passed that the two different styles of worship for the local God and Goddess had been successfully and smoothly blended. Normally, Aradin would enjoy it, as he enjoyed learning about any manner of new cultures and faiths in his travels.
This time, however, he wasn’t traveling abroad for the usual reasons. If he had been, Aradin would not have been in a large chapel like this, watching a newborn receive an elaborate set of blessings. The Darkhanan sighed under his breath, wondering how long this service would take. At the moment, the most elaborately decorated, flower-wreathed altars were the ones for summer, given the actual time of year down here below the Sun’s Belt. Unfortunately, the age-stooped priest was only just now moving on to the blessings for autumn. Those would be followed by the rites for winter, and then spring, before closing the “year” with one last rite at the summer altar.
(…This won’t do at all,) Aradin thought. Not to himself alone, but to the Guide he bore inside the Doorway of his soul. (He’s kind and thoughtful and everyone respects him…but I seriously doubt Prelate Tomaso could survive a trip through the Dark. He’d be liable to die physically in there from the shock of it. That’s never a good idea.)
Teral shrugged mentally. It was all the older male could do, since Aradin was the one in command of their shared body. (So we look at the next on our list. Or better yet, ask him who he thinks would be a good representative before their local Gods. Just don’t mention politics.)
(I have to. We almost picked Priestess Tenathe. If we hadn’t been there the day word of the Corvis brothers’ claim for independence reached her ears, we would’ve picked a woman enraged enough to sabotage everything,) Aradin reminded his Guide.
(Yes, yes, I know,) Teral dismissed, clasping a mental hand on his Host’s mental shoulder. (The Seers have predicted this Nightfall place will be the focus for the new Convocation of the Gods, if all goes well, and it is vitally important that Orana Niel speaks before the reconvened Convocation. But it’s hardly our fault the Katani government cannot stand these Nightfallers.)
(Only the politically active ones,) Aradin thought back, snorting softly under his breath. (I don’t envy Cassua, having to deal with the Mendhites. They’ve been seeking a Living Host since before the Aian Convocation fell.)
(Heh, feel sorry for our Brothers and Sisters who have to pick out a Mekhanan priest,) Teral joked back, though it wasn’t much of a joke. Official Katani policy might have been anti-Nightfall, but at least this was a civilized and polite land. The kingdom of Mekhana was not. Or rather, its government was not.
The priest’s voice, wavering but rich with belief, rose and fell in cadences that were familiar, even if the rituals themselves were not. Both males could understand the words being said; Aradin wore a translation pendant, which allowed him to read, write, hear, and speak in a specific language—in this case, Katani. But while the actual words of the blessings and aspects being invoked were unfamiliar, there was something soothing about being in a fellow priest’s presence.
Then again, after having spent almost four months roaming this land, Aradin and his Guide, Teral, were becoming increasingly familiar with the Katani way of life.
Like Darkhana, Katan had a God and a Goddess. The priesthoods of both lands accepted both males and females, mages and non-mages. Then again, both lands had a fairly even ratio of one mage born for every fifty without any added powers, their numbers more or less evenly divided among males and females alike. Of course, the Katani religion was a bit more lighthearted about some things, following in the wake of their so-called Boisterous God Jinga, who served as counterpart and foil for the more Serene Goddess Kata.
Back home, their God was Darkhan, the slain deity who had formerly been the Elder Brother Moon. Millennia ago, His highest priestess, Dark Ana, had bound her very life to His out of love and worship. When the third and farthest moon had been destroyed by demonic efforts, shattering His original power-base, she had managed to salvage the God of their ancient people. Now, He served as the God of the Dead, He Who Guides lost souls to the Afterlife.
The high priestess’ sacrifice had directly aided the world’s effort to thwart an invasion attempt by the denizens of the Netherhells, and the upwelling of faith and gratitude had elevated her to Goddess level, forever bound to the Dead God. A new faith had been born, rising out of the ashes of the old, and the people of Darkhana had moved on. That background and its resulting mythos didn’t exactly lend itself to an overly cheerful or buoyant religion, though the Darkhanan faith wasn’t completely somber.
Since all lives, all souls around the world went through the cycle of being born, eventually dying, and of traveling through the Dark on their way to the Afterlife, home of the Gods, Darkhanan Witches didn’t think of themselves as being the one true religion, or the only faith worth following. Their entire philosophy when traveling abroad was based around being an adjunct to whatever beliefs a person might hold while they were alive, and an advocate for that person when they were sent to the Gods for judgment on how they had lived their lives, whether that judgment would end in a punishment or a reward.
(We celebrate life, and we do not fear death,) Teral murmured, following his Host’s sub-thoughts. The newborn squirmed a little in her father’s arms, emitting a mehhh meh sound that said she would need nursing soon, but otherwise cooperated. (So while this ceremony is going on a bit long compared to some we’ve seen…it’s an auspicious day whenever we can celebrate life, even if it’s in a foreign way.)
(Dark Ana, you’re feeling preachy today,) Aradin groaned. He stifled another sigh, since he didn’t want to seem impatient or bored with the proceedings.
(I’m feeling my mortality, such as it is,) Teral admitted. (Which is odd, because I died in my fifties, and not my nineties—as you well know—but I suppose it’s just a touch of envy, seeing this aged gentleman still getting around, doing what he was ordained to do.)
(I should be so lucky, living to be so old,) Aradin replied, irritation fading as quickly as it had risen. It had to fade; if it didn’t, their shared life would have quickly become unbearable. Both men had lived together, two spirits in the younger man’s body, for well over a decade now. Learning tolerance was one of the key requirements for being a Darkhanan Witch, if an unspoken one.
(Well, you won’t be that much older in a few moments,) Teral pointed out, looking through Aradin’s hazel eyes, (because it looks like the ceremony is coming to an end.)
Sure enough, as the priest’s voice wavered and rose in a final benediction, the gathered worshippers chanted a mass, “…Witnessed!” that rang off the vaulted ceiling. Naturally, it startled the infant, who immediately began squalling. The father brought her over to the mother, who had been placed in a cushioned seat-of-honor at the center of the eight altars. While the new parents fussed gently over the infant, the deacon, a sort of junior assistant-priestess, urged all the witnesses to head for the tables laden with food around the outer edge of the church, food which everyone else had brought as an offering to the Gods and to the new child.
Not hungry, Aradin watched the locals mingle and gossip. He smiled and dipped his head in a friendly way when people came near, but otherwise dismissed his presence as being, “…just here to chat with Prelate Tomaso,” and, “I’m in no hurry; I’ll get to my business once you’re all done celebrating this new life.”
One of the older women sat down next to him after a while, and proceeded to talk Aradin’s ear off about this, that, the other, all of it local gossip about the family with the newborn, their family members, the history of the village…all things of which Aradin had no clue about. Patience was another trait favored by Darkhanan Witches, as was politeness. Though he hadn’t originally intended to become a Witch-priest, he had learned how to be patient, polite, and kind. Which meant listening to the elderly woman prattle on until her middle-aged daughter came to collect her when the post-blessing party began to wind down.
(I’ll be happy when we can get back to trading and talking herbs again,) Aradin thought, smiling politely in farewell as the village gossip moved off with her family. (Searching for holy representatives is rather tedious. Though I did like her story about her nephew and the pig down the well.)
(Only because we didn’t have to help rescue it,) Teral agreed, chuckling. (Ah, I see through the corner of your eye that the priest approaches.)
Sure enough, when Aradin glanced to his right, he saw Prelate Tomaso hobbling their way, using his two canes for balance and a touch of support. A quick glance around the chapel hall showed it was now nearly empty, and that the assistant-priestess had grabbed a mop and rag to start cleaning off the now emptied tables. Without fanfare or fuss, the locals had gathered up their food and their belongings and taken themselves out, leaving only a bit of scrubbing and sweeping to be handled by the local church staff.
The elderly man smiled a semi-toothy smile—several were missing from old age—and wobbled over to a spot on the bench next to the foreigner. With a few audible creaks from his joints, he sat down, sighed in relief, then turned toward Aradin.
“Well, well, young man! To what do I owe this honor? It isn’t every day a priest of distant Darkhana comes to visit our far-flung land,” Tomaso stated without preamble. His voice was light and strong with energy, despite his deep age.
Aradin raised his brows in surprise. He spoke quietly, not wanting his deep voice to echo off the walls now that there weren’t any other noises to muffle and mask it. “I wasn’t aware anyone in this region was familiar with my Order. Katan is very far from my home.”
“I and not We?” the local chief priest asked, in turn surprised. He poked an arthritic, age-spotted hand at the broad-sleeved robe Aradin wore. On the outside, the robe looked to be a plain, sturdy, travel-worn shade of tan linen. The inside, however, was lined with a very tightly woven, stark shade of black. “Is this not the robe of a Darkhanan Witch-priest? The lining, I mean? It may have been sixty or so years, but I do distinctly remember meeting with one of your Order.”
Aradin smiled wryly. “Forgive me. Yes, it would be ‘we’ and ‘our’ home. I speak in the singular out of habit so as not to confuse the people in the far-flung lands where we travel. I am Witch Aradin Teral, a procurer of priestly paraphernalia and magical mundanities for the Church of Darkhana, and thus something of an emissary in foreign lands.” He offered his hand, palm up and mindful of the older male’s swollen joints. “You are Prelate Tomaso of the Holy House of Kata and Jinga, correct?”
“That is correct,” the elderly priest agreed. He rested his fingers on Aradin’s palm for a moment, then squeezed with a bit of strength. “And a pleasure it is to meet with you. The last—and only other—one of your kind I met was a Witch named…Ora Niel?”
“High Witch-priestess Orana Niel, yes; Ora is her nickname…and now that you mention her, I am not surprised you would remember her and her Guide after all these years,” Aradin chuckled wryly. He gestured at the study around them, and the land beyond. “I am actually in Katan on her behalf.”
“Oh, indeed? How fares the young lady?” Tomaso asked.
Considering the “young” lady in question was technically older than both of them combined, Aradin grinned ruefully at the label. “Still more than a match for any man or woman alive, and still as young-looking and lovely as ever. That is, the last I saw her, which was…two full turns of Brother Moon ago, if I remember right. I was—sorry, we—were wondering if you could help us with a little quest we’re on?”
“Well, that would depend upon the nature of the request, of course,” the Prelate cautioned. He patted Aradin on the knee. “But I’m sure it will be something manageable, or at least not too unreasonable. What is your quest, young man?”
Aradin cleared his throat, consulting silently with Teral on a good way to word their request. Finally, he sighed. “Well, we need to find a priest or priestess who would be the best possible emissary between your Gods and your people…without politics getting involved. Someone who has the holiness to speak with blessed Kata and Jinga on your people’s behalf,” he stated, nodding at the eight altars, “but also some level of authority with which to bring back the words of the Gods to your people, and have them be heeded. But again, without politics muddying the issues. The perspective of a…to put it politely, a bureaucrat would only make the situation difficult to manage properly, and possibly make it prone to failure.”
Tomaso wrinkled his brow in thought. He had plenty to spare, and the pouty look of his half-scowl was almost cute in a way. Brows working, he mulled it over, then asked, “Perhaps what you need is a Seer, not a priest?”
“That would be more of a one-way form of communication, from the minds of the Gods to the mouth of Their chosen vessel, to the ears of us mere mortals,” Aradin corrected gently. “That is also a matter of simple warnings of the future. What we seek is a two-way communicator who can work with those things we mortals already know about. An arbiter and an advocate. Someone who is used to speaking with your God and Goddess, bringing the concerns of your people to Them, and bringing back whatever rulings or prayer-effects They may choose for Their replies.”
“Well, I don’t know about rulings, exactly,” Tomaso mused, scratching at his wrinkled, stubbled chin, “but if there’s any priest or priestess in the Empire who speaks with the Gods on a daily basis about the concerns of their parishioners, and manages the sheer power of prayers on a daily basis, all without dabbling in politics…then it would be the Grove Keeper. That’s about as far as you’ll get from politics for a holy intermediary who also possesses a distinct level of authority.”
“The Grove Keeper?” Aradin asked. He could feel Teral’s confusion and curiosity as well as his own. “I don’t think either of us have heard of that position before. At least, not outside of the land of Arbra, where their deity is the Goddess of Forests…and I’m not sure if that is one of their titles or not. What do they do?”
“He…actually, I think it’s a she right now,” the elderly priest corrected himself. “She is the Guardian of the Grove, a place which used to be the Holy Gardens where Blessed Kata and Jinga were wed, uniting the two main kingdoms of this continent into a single empire ages ago. Unfortunately, when the Convocation of the Gods destroyed the Aian Empire two hundred years ago, give or take…the Grove became a place of untamed, uncontrolled magics. Energies too powerful to allow pilgrims to visit or betrotheds to wed.”
“That sounds like yet another location in need of healing,” Aradin muttered dryly. (Which means it is all the more imperative Orana Niel speaks at the Convocation of Gods,) he added silently to his Guide.
Tomaso continued, patting Aradin’s knee. “If there is anyone who is an expert on judging the merits and turning the petitions of the people into the quite literal power of prayer, it would be the current Grove Keeper. If you will indulge an old priest in the lengthy process of rising and retiring to my study, I will see if I can find a map showing you how to get to the Grove. That is, if you are prepared to travel that far, and to face the dangers which make it an ill-advised place to visit for the unprepared, never mind the unwary.”
“I am a well-trained mage, and a cautious man by nature,” Aradin comforted him, clasping the older priest on the shoulder. Rising, he turned and offered his hand to assist the elderly clergyman to his feet. “And my Guide is even more careful than I. If it is not forbidden for a foreigner to visit such a holy place, then we will go.”
“Forbidden? No, not at all,” Prelate Tomaso dismissed. “But difficult? Yes,” he grunted, struggling to his feet. “It is no longer the garden of delights it once was—one more tug, young man! Ahhh, there we go. This way…” Canes in his hands, the priest headed for one of the doors leading into the wings of the church. “My body may be getting old, but the Gods have given me a still-sharp mind. I remember your fellow Witch’s visit. She brought the most lovely, delicate tea from some place in Aiar. A mountainous land…Cor-something…”
Aradin perked up at that. “Oh, yes, I’ve had a variety of Aian teas in our travels. And other things. Studying plants is one of my specialties. I’m always eager to find out what plants are being harvested and used in various ways locally for magical, medicinal, and culinary uses wherever I go.”
“Heh! You’ll find the Grove a terrifying place, then,” Tomaso chuckled. “But before you go, I think I can find a tin of spell-preserved tea somewhere. Will you stay and have a cup, while I dig for those maps? And perhaps, could I have a chance to meet your, erm, Host? No, sorry, your Guide, was it? You would be the Host, yes?”
“Yes, and we’d be delighted,” Aradin agreed, following him through the door. Privately, he wondered what the elderly priest meant by that quip about the Grove, but knew he’d either learn it in conversation, or learn it when he got there. The polite thing was to let his host dictate their conversation. “Teral would be happy to meet you in person as well, so to speak. At least with you, we won’t have to explain what to expect first.”
Chuckling, the Prelate continued to lead the way, his pace slow but otherwise steady. “I suspect you’ll have to explain it to the Grove Keeper, if she has the time to meet with you to discuss your request. They’re usually wonderful people, the Grove Keepers, very trustworthy, but they’re often far too busy with their duties to bother with learning about foreign lands and exotic oddities.”
Aradin smiled wryly. “That actually fits in with what we’re looking for. I can only hope she’ll suit our needs.”
Saleria, Guardian of the Grove, did not want to get up. In fact, a part of her was afraid to get up. To get up, face the unending labor, and the burden of her day.
Earlier, she had woken under a nightmare of being bound in chains to forever wander the paths of an increasingly menacing, overgrown garden, one filled with shadows that moved and hissed in unnatural ways. The plants themselves seemed to have taken on a demonic twist, with the glowing red eyes, fangs and claws of beasts from a Netherhell. As things stood right now, the Grove wasn’t that far off from the dream. Not yet fully malevolent, but…unsettling.
She had finally relaxed after waking, taking stock of her normal surroundings, and had gradually drifted back to sleep, but now that it was daylight, she knew she had to get up. Duty demanded that she get up. She just didn’t want to comply.
Her bed was soft, comfortable, and at this time of year kept cool by spell. The birds were chirping noisily outside the diamond paned windows of her bedchamber, the morning light was bright and cheerful, and she could hear the faint creak of the plants growing fat on magic, warm sunshine, and yesterday’s brief but thorough rainfall. But mostly she heard the birds twittering cheerfully. Noisily.
Groaning, she dragged the spare pillow over and plopped it on top of her head. That cut out the bright light and muffled the bird-twitterings, but did not disguise the sound of the door opening. Nor did it shield her from her housekeeper’s cheerful greeting.
“Good morning, Keeper! It’s time for your breakfast.”
The pillows sandwiching her head did muffle her impolite reply, but didn’t stop Nannan from tugging at the one atop her head. Saleria tugged back, clutching it in place. She got the covers ruthlessly stripped away instead. That let a bit of the early morning warmth wash over her lightly clothed body, a warning that the day would soon grow hot.
“Oh come now, Your Holiness,” Nannan scolded, lightly swatting Saleria on the rump. The younger woman yelped, but the matron ignored it. “Time to get up and get to work. Those prayers aren’t going anywhere without you, you know…but those plants might!”
Just once, Saleria thought grumpily. Just once I’d like to see her be silent when she comes into my bedchamber…or not come in at all. Unfortunately, she is right about the damned plants.