As they headed southeast, the broken boulders and scrub gave way to proper forest. The trio skirted the edge of the tree line, ducking inside for cover whenever anyone got too close. It wasn’t likely that they would encounter any more trouble this far from the capital, but everyone agreed it would be better to play it safe. When they reached the ford across the Lundee river, they had expected it to be guarded, but there was no one in sight. They wasted an hour while Rieki scouted for an ambush, but there was none to be found.
They crossed the river which marked the border between the forests of Westwood and the southern plains of Barsan. Cravan knew a blacksmith who had set up shop in one of the border villages, and they managed to unload some of the heavier junk in exchange for some food and a small keg of ale. The town had no inn, so they spent the night in some farmer’s barn with the horses and ducked out early the next morning.
They rode for three days and nights to the mountain pass at Illmadress and crossed over into the kingdom of Keshab. They could see the rays of the last hour of sunlight reflecting off the tiled roofs of the Temple of Light. Even at this distance, the tower that gave the city its name rose above the valley floor like a thorn stuck in the side of the world. The Temple was the tallest building in all the Seventeen Kingdoms by far. Any less, it was said, would be an insult to the Goddess herself.
The sight filled Mor with excitement and dread. The Temple Library was one of the greatest ever assembled, rivalling the Magic Academy itself in its acquisition of historical tomes. While the books inside where not available to the layman, Mor had previously established his credentials when he’d run errands there for his old master. With luck, the Records Keeper would remember him, and he would not need to through that lengthy process again. That was not what worried Mor though.
His eyes panned down from the spire to the cluster of estates that sat on on plateau above the the valley floor. On of those was the home of Pertwin, a minor lord and a major pain in the ass. On the companion’s last trip through Hightower, the noble had made a spectacle of himself by loudly and drunkenly misquoting the epic poems of Yanos the Wanderer to a somewhat attractive but disinterested serving girl. When Mor could stand it no longer, he had corrected the lord’s faulty memory. Embarrassed at being shown up by the mage, Pertwin had challenged Mor to duel then and there.
Instead of accepting, Mor had punched the man in the nose. Already tipsy from drink, Pertwin had collapsed in a heap on the floor, and the wig that he used to cover his bald pate had come unseated and rolled across the floor. Mor had compared it to a mangey badger before tossing it into the hearthfire to the uproarious laughter and applause of the entire tavern. All but one that is, for someone had slipped out and informed the guards, and the trio were forced to fight their way out of the city. Later, when Pertwin had regained what little sense he had, he had put a sizeable bounty on Mor and his companions should the ever set foot in Keshab again.
“There it is,” said Cravan. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know.”
“Are you going to forget the debt as well?” asked Mor.
“Don’t be daft,” answered Cravan. “If you’re stupid enough to make that wager, I’m stubborn enough to hold you to it.”
“Let’s get going then,” said Rieki. “We want to enter the city before they close the gates for the night.” She spurred her horse to a gallop and the others followed after her.
They rode hard and made the drawbridge just as twilight turned to dark. The guards, eager to get home or to the tavern, hardly gave notice to the three travellers in a rush to get inside before nightfall. Only one challenged them to state their business. Mor claimed to be a travelling merchant with his guard and guide. The watchman seemed suspicious until Mor tried to sell him one of blades they had recovered from the dragon. He went on and on about the unparalleled sharpness of Aborjani steel until the bored man waved them on.
“We should get what you came for and get out of the city at first light.” Rieki kept her voice low to not draw attention to them. “I don’t relish the thought of public executions, especially when I’m the one on the gallows.”
“But it might take days to find the correct passage, or even to find the right tome,” said Mor.
“Days?!” whispered Cravan hoarsely. “You never said anything about days. I figured minutes, maybe hours. We can’t stay here for days.”
“I can’t be sure,” said Mor. “I might get lucky and find what I’m looking for right away, or I might not. I won’t know until I can get in there and talk to the Keeper of Records. If he knows what I’m looking for we might be able to leave in the morning. If he doesn’t then…well, let’s worry about that of it comes to it and not before.”
“You are being very nonchalant about our impending deaths,” said Rieki. “I suggest we go straight to the Temple and not waste any more time.”
They rode through the nearly-empty back streets, straying only to the main roads when there was no other path. Before long they founded themselves at the base of the spire of the Temple of Light. Its walls gleamed brightly as though they were bathed in full moonslight, even though the sky was overcast and the night dark as pitch.
They tethered the horses outside at the pilgrim’s stable under the watchful eyes of the Temple Guard. These mindless automata, seven feet tall and plated in silver, were animated by divine will and watched unwaveringly over the grounds for violations of the Temple and sacrilege to the Goddess. They were known to take a thief’s hands off for even the smallest transgression. Even Rieki did not risk stealing within sight of them.
Consequently, there were fewer safer places in all the realms – as long as you played by the rules. Cravan grumbled at having to leave his axe behind, but no weapons were allowed beyond the tower’s threshold. One look at the menacing halberds in the hand of those metal giants. however, was enough to convince even him.
The interior of the Temple almost blinded them. Full of mirrors and polished metal to reflect the thousand candles that burned in the main hall, it was a startling contrast to even the well-lit exterior of the Temple. As their eyes adjusted, they saw that the room was empty except for a single caretaker. This was not unexpected as the Prayers of Last Light would have been said an hour before and the Prayers of First Light would not come until dawn. They walked the length of the hall and stood before the altar where the priestess knelt. It wasn’t until they were closer that they realized that she was praying over a closed coffin, a burning candle clasped between her slender hands.
She rose and faced them as they approached. The priestess was young with dark hair and brilliant blue eyes. “Welcome to the House of Light. How may we be of service?”
“I’ve come to see the Keeper of Records,” announced Mor.
“Of course,” she said and went back to praying.
After a minute, Mor looked at his companions and shrugged. “Excuse me,” he said to the priestess, “do you think you can get him for me?”
She stood up again and faced them. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. You said said you came to see the Keeper of Records.”
“Yes, I have important business with him,” said Mor.
“But he is with the Goddess,” said the priestess, “and can’t be disturbed.”
“Is that what they call making water around here,” asked Rieki, “because I need to use the little goddess’s room myself.”
“Well, boil me in oil,” said Cravan. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was the smart one of the bunch. He’s the one in the box, you lunkheads.”
“Your tactless companion is correct.” said the priestess. “The Keeper passed from our world this very morning. I am keeping vigil until the rites of ascension can be given in the morning. Do you still wish to pay your respects?”
“Damn,” said Mor. “I mean…yes, of course.” He took one of unlighted candles from the altar and held it forward. “May the Light of the Goddess lead him home.”
The priestess tipped her own candle forward until the flame touched Mor’s wick and ignited it. “May Her Light shine upon us all.”
Mor placed the lit candle into the holder next to a dozen similar candles of varying lengths. He motioned for his companions to do the same and waited until they were finished before he spoke again. “We are very sorry for your loss, but we desperately need to access the Temple Library. May we speak to the new Keeper.”
“I am Tia, Apprentice Keeper,” said the priestess. “At least until the rites are performed tomorrow. Can your business not wait until then?”
“I’m afraid lives may be in danger if we do not act quickly,” said Mor. Even he felt guilty lying in church, but the gist of it was true. She didn’t need to know that the lives at risk were their own.
“Very well,” said the Tia. She took her candle in one hand and reached down to ring a small handbell. The tinkling sound summoned a tall, thin priest with a heavy beard. Wordlessly, he took a candle from the altar and bowed toward the priestess. After she had lit the priest’s candle from her own, she placed hers upon the altar and motioned for the trio to follow her up the winding staircase.
The Library took up four floors, the shelves arranged like spokes on a wheel around the central atrium that ran the height of the tower. Tia went through an archway and the air seemed to shimmer as she passed. “Do you have your ward stone?”
“Of course.” Mor followed closely behind her but when he reached the archway he was stopped dead in his tracks as though he had walked into a wall. He rubbed his nose and checked for blood as Cravan snorted and Rieki giggled outright. “I don’t understand,” said Mor. “It’s not working.”
“May I see it?” asked Tia, extending her arm through the barrier. Mor reached into one of his pouches and produced a small flat stone the size of a coin. He handed it to the priestess who took it into a nearby alcove. After several minutes of paging through an unnecessarily large book, she returned to stand in the archway. “That particular ward has expired.”
“Expired?” asked Rieki. “Did you forget to pay your overdue fines, Mor?”
Tia’s lips curled in disgust and contempt. “Nothing so trivial. You have been branded as criminals by Lord Pertwin. I remind you that while all are welcome at the Temple of Light, any thievery will be dealt with harshly. The Temple Guard will know if any items are unlawfully removed from the grounds. The Goddess grants them the sight to identify every transgression, no matter how small.”
“Pertwin is the real criminal for butchering the works of Yanos,” said Mor. “I don’t suppose there is any way to appeal?”
“It is a magical seal which can only be removed the Keeper of Records. I could do it after the rites are performed in the morning, but Lord Pertwin is a respected member the court and you are complete strangers. I see no reason to repeal the ban. Do you wish to confess your sins to the Goddess?”
“We don’t have that kind of time,” said Rieki.
“If you can’t get in, there’s no point staying here,” said Cravan. “Besides, temples are boring. Let’s go find a good alehouse instead. You’re buying.”
“It might be time for a tactical withdrawal,” said Mor, “while we consider our options. Once again our condolences on your loss. We can see ourselves out.”
Despite there being only one way to go, Tia insisted on showing them to the door. Mor, Cravan, and Rieki descended the stairs back to the main hall to find that they were not alone. Standing in the main aisle surrounded by a dozen guards was Lord Pertwin himself, a look of smug satisfaction on his face.
“I never thought you’d be foolish enough to show your face in Keshab again,” said Pertwin, “so when I heard you were back, I had to rush over and see for myself.”
“If it’s a fight you want,” shouted Cravan, “you should’ve brought more men.” He reached for his axe and scowled when he remembered it was outside with the horses. He began sizing up a chair to use as a club.
“Stop!” called Tia. “You cannot shed blood in this holy place. It is sacrilege.”
Mor grabbed his arm to hold him back and pointed at one of the silver statues standing in an alcove at the side of the hall. “She’s right. We can’t fight here or the Temple Guard will cut us down where we stand. Let’s just wait and see what his next move is.”
“I’m not very good at waiting,” said Cravan. “I’m more of a kill you now and don’t ask questions later kind of guy.”
Without warning, Rieki rushed forward and threw her arms around Lord Pertwin. “Kind sir, have mercy on me. I didn’t know what sort of filthy, despicable characters these men were when I fell in with them.”
“Hey!” whined Mor. “I’m right here.”
Cravan belched and scratched his armpit. “I’ve been called worse.”
Rieki ran her hand down Pertwin’s chest. “If you could see your way to forgiving me,” she cooed, “I’m sure I could make it worth your while.”
He pushed her away so hard that she almost fell to the floor. “Get off me, harlot! You don’t think I’ll believe you lies for one second, do you? I did some checking up on you after our last encounter and it seems there’s a price on your heads in half of the Seventeen Kingdoms. My only problem now will he choosing which one to hand you over to. Guards! Bind their hands and gag the mage. We wouldn’t want him casting any charms on us, would we?”
Before the trio could even think to run or fight they were each flanked by three guards who pinned their arms behind their backs and stuffed greasy rags in Mor’s mouth. The soldiers led them out of the Temple and into the courtyard where they collected their swords.
“Whatever sins you have committed,” said Tia, “remember that forgiveness is always granted by the Goddess to those who seek it.”
“Thanks,” said Rieki, “but I never was one for church. Too many rules. If you want to go somewhere and talk about though, I can tell you about all the nasty, wicked things I’ve done. Perhaps over a bottle of wine in your bedchambers?”
“I can’t believe you’re hitting on the priestess as we’re being led away to our deaths,” said Cravan.
“Call it the last request of a condemned woman.”
“Quiet you two,” said one of the guards, “or we’ll gag you as well.” He pushed them forward roughly. As they approached the gates to leave, however, two of the Temple Guards moved to block their path.
“No thieves may pass these gates,” the statues boomed in unison. “Surrender and be forgiven.”
“What did you take?,” Cravan asked Rieki. “Aren’t we in enough trouble already?”
“I didn’t steal anything,” she answered. “I swear.”
The statues did not respond but instead walked directly up to Lord Pertwin. His soldiers stepped away from them knowing that their swords would have little effect on the Temple Guard’s metal skin.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Pertwin demanded. “I don’t have time for this nonsense.” He strode forth and tried to go around the Temple Guards.
One of the statues grabbed the noble’s arm in a grip that cause the man to wince. It tore the belt pouch from his waist and tossed it on the ground. A small golden incense burner tumbled out.
“For your first transgression, the Goddess shall take one hand,” proclaimed the statues.
“But I didn’t take it,” insisted Pertwin. “I’m innocent. I’m not a thief.”
“That is a lie,” said the statues. “For your second transgression, the Goddess will take your tongue.”
“Do you know who I am? I am Lord Pertwin of the House of Lannek, a member of the Queen’s court in good standing. I will not be treated like some common criminal!” The lord drew his sword and took a swing at the metal arm which held him. The blow made the Temple Guard’s arm ring like a bell being struck, but otherwise it did nothing.
Cravan sniggered. “Even I know that wasn’t very smart.”
“You have brought violence to Temple, droned the Guards. For your third transgression, the Goddess will take your head.” The Temple Guard that was not holding Pertwin swung its halberd and took the man’s head off with one stroke. The soldiers, worried that they might be next, ran off and disappeared into the city streets. The Temple Guards, their service complete, returned to their posts by the gate.
“How could he have been so stupid,” said Cravan.
Rieki, having already slipped out of her restraints, walked over to cut Cravan’s bonds with Pertwin’s fallen sword. “I may have planted that on him. I figured that the Temple Guards were using magic to detect thieves, and detection spells don’t discriminate between intent and action. They are very literal that way.”
“Clever girl,” said Cravan, rubbing his wrists to restore the circulation. “I’d kiss you but I know where those lips have been.”
“It was only meant to be a distraction,” said Rieki. “Who knew he was such an arrogant fool as to attack a Temple Guard?”
“Honestly, he will not be missed,” said Tia, stepping over his body to retrieve the incense burner. “He was a nuisance at the best of times, always groping the priestesses like we were streetwalkers. The Queen and Temple only tolerated him because of his title, but now he has passed on without even leaving an heir. Perhaps Her Majesty will donate a portion of his estate to the Temple for getting rid of him.”
“I suppose that the ban is lifted with Pertwin’s death as well,” said Mor when Rieki removed his gag. “Now we can get information on the Five Fates from the Library.”
“The Five Fates?” said Tia. “You don’t need the Library for that. The story of the Five Fates is bound in every copy of the Testament. Come let me show you.”
She produced a small, leather-bound book from her robes and began to leaf through it. “And Llandrim cast the Five Fates upon the world,” she quoted, “that men might determine their own destiny.”
“May I see that?” asked Mor.
Tia handed it to him. “You may keep it. There is much wisdom contained in the Testament’s holy words. Perhaps there is yet time to save your souls from damnation. Now if you’ll excuse me, the Temple may welcome all, but I have had enough of you three.” With a flourish of her robes, she turned and strode back inside.
“So what’s it say?” asked Cravan.
“This will take some time,” said Mor. “I suggest we get a room for the night.”
“C’mon, give us something,” pleaded Rieki.
“The hand of twenty fingers rests beneath the dragon’s wing,” quoted Mor. “That should be easy enough for even you get, Cravan. I’ve read this before but didn’t put it together until now.”
“So it is true. Does it say where the others are?” asked Cravan.
“Probably, but it’s dressed up in code and metaphor. I’ll need to study this.”
“I guess this means Mor gets to keep his cut after all,” said Rieki.
“Damn,” said Cravan. “But on the other hand, there’s no more bounty on our heads here, and we still have our part of the haul. C’mon, girl. The tavern awaits.”