Morah - Wehnimer's Landing

Light flickered across her features, shifting in hue as she paced past the many-colored globes that danced just beneath the rafters. Her skin, pale as Liabo's face, showed the colors perfectly, a blank canvas for the whim of the mages who had imprisoned the wisps of crimson and indigo and emerald flame. Bare feet touched stone too hard, allowing a faint whisper of sound to coil about the silent room and further revealing her nervousness. This night, she did not care how clearly her feelings were betrayed.

The pacing only tensed her mind and muscles further, but she continued to circle the room. Eight steps. Turn. Eight steps. Turn. At last, with a sigh of disgust as soft as her footsteps, she settled onto the low pallet, reaching for the sheathes that lie before it. Eyes half-lidded, she caressed the hilts, running fingers over roughened leather and smooth steel before finally drawing the blades and crossing them in her lap.

The edges were as sharp as stone could make them, and the flats gleamed in the colored magelights like gems, though she would have found them as beautiful were they nicked and streaked with blood. Carefully, she inspected them for imperfections before re-sheathing them with a silent promise of "tomorrow."

When she slept, she curled tightly in a ball, weapons laid beside her like a child's stuffed doll.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

The test was difficult, as expected, but my skills sufficed to carry me through. I have a small cut on my arm -- I must remember that a shield, properly sharpened, is nearly as dangerous as a blade -- and others elsewhere, but nothing worth purchasing the services of a healer for. I am the least bloodied but for Halreithan Koial Faendryl, who crouches behind that massive shield of his. He moves with all the grace of a human, and will one day learn that not all attacks can be hidden from. There will be chances to show my skills against him later. It is not worth the worry now. I showed myself well, and there will be no lack of offers for hire once tomorrow's ceremony is complete.

From where will my first employment come? No noble or Basilican would hire a new graduate, even I, but it had best be better than some two-bit magnate ofmushroom farming. The choice is in the hands of the Palestra and not myself, in any case. I will wish for someone interesting, someone whose summonings may challenge me. Someone of more power than the sorcerer who hires Halreithan.

* * *

The first thing she noticed was the roundness of his chin; the second, the pale, watery blue of his eyes. She wondered idly how many centuries ago his family's blood had mingled with that of a lesser race; slightly less idly, she wondered how often he called others to a duel of honor for voicing insinuations of just that, and whether she might be asked to stand in his stead as his bodyguard. She would prefer to be fighting creatures of magic, to be sure, but it might be a source of practice.

"Morahael Lyshven Faendryl?" he asked, looking at her as if she were some new and interesting species of insect. She ignored the expression outwardly, although her hands shifted imperceptibly closer to the hilts of her weapons. It was a gesture of comfort, nothing more; she could draw them quickly regardless of her pose.

"Yes," she said, shortly. Her instructors at the Palestra had told her his name and all the other details of the contract. She was impatient to leave the compound, to see Rhaeshem Jakine Faendryl's house and books so she might begin to judge the skills of her charge for herself. She waited patiently nonetheless, still as a statue as he blandly recited all that she already knew of their contract and then described his skills in terms that made the highest Basilican seem incompetent by comparison.

She paid little attention his words of self praise, instead studying his richly adorned robes and other garments and constructing from them a not entirely unsatisfactory portrait of his position in life. No second-rate magnate, to be sure; he had money, either from his own skill and cunning or from inheritance. Her analysis was interrupted by the end of his introductory speech, and she set aside further conclusions for later thought as she followed him through the city to his home.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

Rhaeshem is skilled; I cannot deny this. Hiscreatures are well-bound enough for there to be little need for me, and they are no lesser imps. Any knowledge I have of them, however, must come from my own research and learning, for he is more close-lipped than a tongueless slave. He calls me when he requires my services and dismisses me when he does not, and no more words pass between us than that. I have not heard him speak longer with anyone else; the household staff receive their orders and nothing more, and he never once stops to offer a greeting on the street, nor does he receive callers. I wonder sometimes how he managed to let the stream of words at the Palestra slip past his grudging lips.

I grow bored here. I gain less practice in combat than I did within the walls of the school, for I have only the walls as my partners in the dance. Rhaeshem does nothing that might teach me more of magic, and I can gain no connections from him, for he has no associates. I might almost consider means of shortening the time of our contract, but no one would wish an escort who allowed a creature to slip past her guard.

* * *

She did not know where they were, or why. Her guard duties had rarely taken her outside the walls of her house, but they were beyond the limits of the city now, in desolate lands she had never seen. The ground was parched and cracked, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up at the wild whistling of the wind. She thought, from the direction of the sun, that they walked towards Maelshyve, but she had chosen not to break the silence he wore like a cloak to ask.

When he stopped, she halted a few paces behind. She found the chosen destination as surprising as the journey itself; there was nothing to her eyes to distinguish this patch of ground from any other. He seemed pleased, however, and reached within the pockets of his robes for the bones and blood and other stranger things of his trade. After a slight pause, she drew her dagger and began to sharpen it, finding the shrill noise of steel on stone more calming than the wind.

Both blades had been whetted to as sharp an edge as they could hold by the time he finished marking his circle, and she had turned her attention to studying her surroundings for any sign of what had drawn him to this particular place. She shifted her focus as he began chanting, raising her blades in defense as he called whatever creature he sought to summon. The airwithin his circle had shimmered from heat even before he began, but now it became opaque, writhing in a fashion that might have turned the stomach of one unused to such spells. She only stared at it, struggling to make out the shapes forming within.

The air congealed slowly, like blood thickening and scabbing on the surface of skin. At Rhaeshem's final word and gesture the creature's outline solidified, separating from its surroundings like a shattered spike of crystal. Its body was clear as air, but with a faint silvery tinge that showed her a reflection of Rhaeshem's exhausted collapse. She watched her own reflection warily in its crystalline skin, stance never wavering. Time seemed to slow to a halt.

Then, as Rhaeshem's creatures never did, it moved. Slowly at first, it stalked the boundaries of the summoning circle, pressing against the unforgiving bindings. Hands melded to the hilts of her weapons, she watched. It paused for a moment as it completed its circuit and then, without any seeming difficulty, stepped beyond the borders. Breath hissing through her teeth, she raised her sword and lunged, dagger dropping into place to ward off any retaliatory blow of its claws.

There was no impact when the sword hit its torso, and she nearly lost her balance as the blade slid forward as smoothly as it would through air. She drew back the blade just in time to parry as the creature struck out with both claws at once. Now it was solid enough, and the strike of its crystal claws against her steel rattled her teeth. Her lips pulled back in a snarl that matched the creature's as she twisted her sword to slice off its hand, but again the steel passed through without harm.

It struck again, and she narrowly turned the blows away, all the while seeking to draw it further from Rhaeshem's prone body. She fell silently into the pattern of the dance, blocking each blow while never attempting to return one. The world narrowed to her blade and its claws as she closed even the searing lines of pain where it had succeeded in its attacks out of her perception.

She did not know how long she had fought before the creature suddenly jerked back, screaming. At first the change made no impression, and she pulled her dagger up to parry a blow that never came. The strange creature fell to the ground, writhing in agony, and began bit by bit to dissipate into the surrounding air. Turning her head once she judged hersafety likely, she saw Rhaeshem propped up on one arm, the arrogance of his face hidden behind a mask of concentration. He hissed a final word, and the creature vanished silently, leaving only a hint of a breeze in its wake.

"Well fought," he told her tiredly, as she stared at him with ill-concealed surprise. "Guard me. When I awake, we will return to the city." His eyelids fluttered shut.

She stood over him with her sword until sundown, jumping at every breeze that tousled her hair, and ignoring the slowly spreading stains on her ashen tunic.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

I was no idle student in the Palestra; I learned my lore of summoning well, from tomes barely less complete than those of the Basilica. How else might one learn to defeat whatever challenge arises? I know the charts of vulnerabilities and styles and magical abilities as well as I know my blades, and I know also this: what Rhaeshem summoned was nowhere on the lists. No creature is immune to blades, properly forged and magicked, else what use a guard? No creature yet catalogued.

Such a discovery ought to have had the Basilica reeling, yet Rhaeshem has let slip not a word. Indeed, he has not to my knowledge left his study since we returned. For such a discovery to go unreported so long is dangerous and unwise. Much fame would be his were he to reveal his discovery; what, then, does he await? Does he seek only to perfect his notes and knowledge, or does he have deeper plans?

I might march to the Basilica myself, but have I not sworn myself to him for the year? What future for a guard proven so willing to betray her employer? And yet, were he to summon another, my own skills might be insufficient for my survival. Best to wait and watch his plans. Perhaps, if fortune smiles, he will go to the Basilica tomorrow.

* * *

The city still lay in shadow, though to the east she could see a faint blush framing the darkened spires. The guards at the gate to the Basilica paid no notice to the time, however, but simply stood, straight as ablade, and watched the empty streets with the same intensity that they would gaze upon the crowds at high noon. Jealousy and contempt mixed in her as she approached them; they were the most skilled of any in the city, and the position had high prestige indeed, but they were forced to waste their days waiting like statues.

None of that showed in her voice as she requested entrance in tones that made her words little less than a demand. The request was routine, and they let her pass with barely a glance, resuming their vigil. Her summoner's robe, purchased the previous eve, swirled about her legs as she crossed the courtyard, and she was uncomfortably aware of how little freedom of movement it would give in battle, but her belt was free of weapons in any case.

A few scholars, more likely stumbling off to bed from candlelit books than newly risen, passed her as she paced down the echoing halls. She ignored them, and they, her. The keeper of records nodded to her as she reaches the hall of his office, but she could not be bothered to return the courtesy, so focused was she on reaching the book. Softly, she turned aside the cover on the last volume of the Enchiridion Valentia.

The early pages flipped past her fingers quickly, but she slowed as she approached more recent months, scanning down the column of names and occasionally glancing at the intricate descriptions. Rhaeshem appeared twice; Rhaeshem Jakine, not at all. Her expression dark, she turned from the room, leaving the book open on the table. The Archchancellor's office was near by, and if he had not yet risen she would wait.

The keeper of records glanced up as she left, then crossed the room to return the volume to its place. He did not even need to look to see that it had been left unshelved. The arrogant came and the disappointed left every day; it was a ritual he was more accustomed to than any ceremony of the summoning circle.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

By now, Rhaeshem must be wondering why I am late to arrive for this day's practices. He will not need to wonder long. The guards have been sent to collect him, and the Archchancellor awaits him within the Basilica. I do not doubt they can draw out of himwhatever truths he will not admit willingly.

I wonder what he thought to do, in summoning such new creatures and hoarding the knowledge for himself. Did he not care for the prestige his reports might have brought him? Did he think they gave him such power that the laws no longer applied? He hired me, no doubt, in hopes that my inexperience would prevent me from identifying, or rather failing to identify, his summonings. I wonder if he expected me to survive the first fight and why he did not kill me when it was through. I do not suppose I will have a chance to ask him; the Basilica may learn, but they have little reason to tell me.

I know the escort's contract. Confidentiality is the most important guarantee, for who would summon before one who might turn and sell the knowledge to a neighboring sorcerer? Yet I had no other choice, for I also know the laws of the city, and the reasons for them. He could have destroyed the city with his creations, as others have come near in the past. More importantly, he would certainly have destroyed me, calling me to defend against creatures which cannot be fought.

So I break my word to keep my life: a simple enough exchange. It will not seem so simple to the other mages, and I do not know from where my next contract will come. It is not the season for hiring, and even if it was, who would take me when my last charge lies dead by my own words and deeds? No one except the most desperate: those whose coin is too poor for better, or those who have killed too many escorts for most to look favorably upon their offers.

* * *

He slouched casually a step beyond the doorway as she swung the door open, and her first impulse was to slam it shut in his face. Only an unwillingness to allow him such a disgracefully clear view of her feelings kept her standing there, one hand curled tightly around the thick maoral door.

"Hello, Morahael," he said, gaze flicking casually and almost dismissively across her. "You're looking as lovely as ever." Her fingers bit deeper into the wood, and her eyes narrowed as she gazed at her old rival.

"Halreithan. What do you want?" He clucked his tongue slightly. "You leave the gates of the school and your manners desert you. Is this any way to treat an old friend?"

"What do you want?" she repeated, more sharply.

"I have an. . .opportunity for you. May I come in?"

"You can explain what it is here."

"No, I'm really afraid I can't." He dropped his breezy tone, letting the distaste that they both felt slip into his voice. "I'd love nothing better, but it requires privacy."

She stared at him long enough that he began to shift his weight slightly. Smiling a little at that, she let the door open fully and turned to walk into her house. Her back itched at the thought of him standing armed behind her, but she resisted the urge to turn her head as he followed her, shutting the door behind him.

She turned to face him when they reached her living room, waiting for him to pick a seat before settling onto a carved wooden chair that allowed her a clear view of his hands. He gave an exaggerated sniff.

"A bit dusty, a bit shabby. Money's not coming in like it used to, is it? Tell me, why did you do it? We're all wondering, you know."

"You said," she told him, struggling to keep her voice even, "that you had an offer. What is it?"

"Always straight to business? Not even a glass of wine to barter over? Very well. There may be someone willing to hire even you."

"Why --," she started, but he shook his head and raised his voice over hers.

"Manners again. Let me finish. You may have heard of Cilhyr Verani Faendryl? No, perhaps not. You're rather young." He steepled his fingers on one arm of his chair, pausing long enough to allow the insult to draw a response, then shrugged and continued. "She's a sorcerer, one of the best. And for the past two hundred years, she hasn't left her tower, nor allowed any to enter it. Her servants are all summoned creatures, and occasionally she sends them out to procure a book or two and to remind us all that she hasn't yet died. One appeared last week and mentioned, curiously, that she was interested for the first time in procuring the services of an escort fromthe Palestra."

"Fortunately," he continued, "my employer was the only one to hear this, and I'm afraid the creature suffered something of an accident afterwards. The Palestra won't be hearing of it to send forth their best and brightest to apply. As she's been rather secluded, she may not have heard of the circumstances which befell your late employer, and may thus be willing to consider you for the position. Of course it's not the idea job; who wants to be locked in a tower for a year on end, and who knows what strange and illegal creatures she'll call up while you're there. But I doubt you'll do better." Halreithan settled back in his seat, looking pleased with himself.

"Why are you telling me this?" she asked again. This time, he made no attempt to interrupt.

"As I told you, she's rather seclusive. My employer desires an opportunity to speak with her and to. . .exchange a few pieces of knowledge. Call it a favor for a favor. We provide you with the opportunity to contact her, and you ensure that she accepts a visit from my employer. Of course," he added lazily, "you could break your word. It wouldn't be a first, would it? But then, I assure you, I would make certain Cilhyr learned of your last employer's demise, and you would shortly be out of a job. Do you accept?"

"Why not simply ask a friend, with a purse of coin to sweeten the purse? Why this elaborate charade?"

Shrugging again he said, "Perhaps my employer simply wishes to save coin? But no, in truth, there are few available to take a contract in this season, and fewer still who are female. Cilhyr was rather specific on that point."

She was ashamed to find she had leaned forward slightly during his speech. Licking the inside of her lips, she said slowly, "I will need more time to think on this."

"Of course you will. But I'm certain you'll come to the right decision in the end. Here," he said, dropping one hand into his pockets in a sudden gesture that made her fingers twitch towards her weapons, "this scroll will tell you all you need to know to contact her." He tossed the rolled paper across the room to her and she caught it, not bothering to glance down. "No need to stand. I'll show myself out." He gave the dusty room one last distasteful glance before leaving her to contemplate the scroll alone. * * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

I wish nothing more than to throw Halreithan's scroll into the flames of my fireplace and forget the whole sordid exchange. If his master wishes to blackmail a warrior into serving his bidding in this, it is a clever enough plan, but I would not be the one so taken advantage of. Surely there are others in the city willing to take such a chance. And yet.

And yet the food does not appear on my table out of air, and if I do not find employment soon I will begin to starve. No other offers have been made. It will be many decades till I am experienced enough for the Palestra to accept me as a teacher, if indeed they will ever cease to frown upon me for breaking the contract they wrought. The Basilica guard hires as much on politics as on skill, and I have no patron to sponsor me nor, in truth, sufficient ability to join their number. No noble would accept a guard with a history of betrayal any more than a summoner would. I will shortly be reduced to taking a job as a common servant.

There is my family, of course, but they have not spoken in a dozen years to their promising daughter who set aside spells in favor of the path of the sword and I doubt they will be any more willing to accept me now that I return in disgrace. Better to allow Halreithan to blackmail me than to be thrown across the doorstep of my family home again.

Even if I apply, there is little guarantee that she will accept me, alone and without the sponsorship of the Palestra. And should she be willing to hire me, there is hardly more guarantee that I will be able to arrange the meeting which Halreithan desires. Still, perhaps by the time the first contracted year has ended, she will be willing to overlook my past if I proven myself trustworthy enough.

I dream and hope like a child. Enough. I will follow the scroll's words and seek out her creature to arrange a meeting. The future will bring what it will bring.

* * *

Her stride through the streets was quicker than it had been of late, and for the first time in months she felt a sense of purpose. She ignored the commonservants scurrying about the city in the faint dawn light, too focused on her destination to spare attention to her surroundings.

The tower was just beyond the outskirts of the city proper, and she vaguely recalled passing it on her last fateful trip with Rhaeshem. Simple stone, just the faintest shade away from black, and a blue slate roof had not been enough to catch her eye for long. If anything about the tower was notable, it was its plainness against the background of the splendor of New Ta'Faendryl.

What kept attention on the tower once it had been drawn there was the lack of anything resembling an entrance. Morahael glanced up, judging the position of the rising sun, and paced carefully around the tower's base. The instructions had been very specific about the proper angle of approach, and she eyed the sun three times more before settling on a stone that looked the same as any other. She knocked twice, crossed her arms, and waited.

The time she waited made her seethe inwardly, sharpening a temper already honed by the thought of serving as Halreithan's lackey. Still, when a slight, almost frail woman with ebony skin at last stepped through the side of the tower, the hour was still early enough that the road was deserted. She turned her piercing eyes upward to gaze at Morahael, though her bearing made it seem as though she was looking down her nose.

"Mor--," Cilhyr began, and stopped as a bolt of fire shot towards her, striking her arm only a moment after the caster faded out of invisibility. Her words quickly changed to the arcane language of sorcery. Morahael whirled, weapons in hand, to seek out any other attackers, and froze as Halreithan stepped out of invisibility a few feet from her. She managed to move again in time to parry the blow of his broadsword.

Cilhyr's battle with the mage faded from her consciousness as her sight narrowed to include only Halreithan. She fought with more enthusiasm than she had ever gathered in the Palestra's practice melees, spurred not by the thought of her death but by a hatred born of the realization of how easily she had been set up.

Longsword parried broadsword away with a screech of steel and dagger stretched past to score his shoulder a moment before his shield came up. Broadsword swungback into place too quickly, drawing a thin red line across her arm. She heard a scream behind them but did not look to see who had fallen.

She fell into a simple pattern of parry and riposte, hoping to lull him into dropping his guard, then switched to trying to maneuver him into facing the sun as he proved too cautious. One more step would have brought him there.

"Halt!"

A new blade imposed itself between Halreithan and her. She let her gaze slide up its length to see the distinctive hilt decoration of the Basilican guards and dropped her weapons, followed a moment later by Halreithan. For the first time since the fight had begun she allowed herself to look towards the tower. Cilhyr's body lay on the pave stones, her black skin charred and torn.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

One moment longer and he would have fallen. He will have the death he deserves, but it will not be at my hands. That I regret above all.

Halreithan and his employer, Sivald, did not hide their tracks as well as they might have supposed, and the Basilicans rooted out their guilt in the assassination easily enough. That much I have been able to determine. Their executions will be soon, or perhaps have already been completed. Time passes strangely in these cells, and it is difficult to tell the hour or day.

My own involvement has been more difficult for them to uncover, I believe. Halreithan named me as willing accomplice in drawing Cilhyr from her tower and our battle as mere show. It hurts almost as much to deny this and admit to the truth, that I was a mere dupe, as it would to accept his words and follow him to the block. It is my word against his, but the guards, I think, saw that our fight was more than a game, and it seems the Archchancellor to whom I reported Rhaeshem has put in a few words on my behalf.

So. I am not guilty, but neither am I declared innocent. My punishment at least will be lighter than theirs, but that does not mean I look forward to the hour. For now, there is only waiting. There is a mark on the wall of the cell. It seems Rhaeshem stayed here last. When I saw, I did not know whether to laugh or cry, but I have not the energy for either.

* * *

She felt naked without her blades, and wished she could have them for comfort's sake alone, something to whisper to and caress as she waited in the cell. It would have been foolish to use them against the armored guards who stood silently in the hallway, and she was not so bereft of hope that she would turn their edges against herself. The weapons would have been safe in her keeping, but such a request would have been foolish.

Instead, she paced the cell, loose tunic brushing against polished stone walls and exquisitely wrought iron bars. Nothing in the Basilica was allowed to be merely utilitarian, no matter how low its purpose. Had it been furnished properly, the tiny chamber would have been finer than her modest dwelling in the city. Even fitted with only the barest necessities, it would have been comfortable enough were it not for its purpose.

She let her mind gradually refocus, slipping away from the blank and empty planes of thought where it had drifted, as a key slowly turned in the lock. Her pacing brought her before the door just as it opened, and she did not break her stride as she turned at the orders of the guards to follow them out into the marble hall. She thought she might recognize one of the guards, perhaps from her days in the Palestra, but his eyes narrowed as he caught her studying his features and she let her gaze slip away.

The room to which they lead her was no larger than her cell, and she took in the lone occupant and all his equipment in one glance. The guards stopped at the doorway, and she walked forward alone.

"Morahael Lyshven Faendryl?" he asked, and she felt a moment a deja vu. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

"Do you understand why you are here, and what your punishment will be?" She nodded again, and he smiled, though without much mirth. "You might as well speak now, for you won't have much chance later."

She licked her lips, hating herself for the weakness, and said, "Yes." He watched her for another moment, the gestured to the chair, reaching for his tools as she slowly sat. Her eyes flickered, once, towards the guards, before he turned back towards her and carefully fastened each leather strap. The last held her mouth open.

She did not have time to scream between the fall of the knife blade and the touch of the red hot iron, and even when both were withdrawn she could do little more than whimper. Tears filled her eyes, but at least the surgeon had done the small kindness of turning away, cleaning his tools as she sat and shuddered with pain. She spat out a mouthful of blood, staining her tunic a brilliant crimson. Her memory told her of the coppery tang that her mouth could no longer taste.

* * *

Journal of Morahael Lyshven Faendryl

I can still feel the scab, but it no longer hurts when I slide my fingers into my mouth to search in disbelief for what my mind says is there. I may eat true food now, though it makes little difference to me whether it is fresh meat or poor brown bread. Only the texture changes. My coin will last longer on liquids in any case, and I have little enough of it.

There is nothing in the city for me now. The healing is complete; I have lost even that reason to remain. I will take what little coin and few possessions I have and turn north. My House is exiled from the Empire, but there are lands beyond there, across the mountains. Perhaps they will have home for a fool.

* * *

She had meant to choose a different path, but somehow her feet brought her to Cilhyr's tower nonetheless. She paused, searching for some sign of the battle, but time and the efforts of slaves had scrubbed it from the pavestones. She forced herself to turn away, towards the wastes beyond the city, and took one step, then another. She did not allow herself to look back.