The two men ride down until the summit of the mountain is too high to see. The older man pulls his mount to a halt and takes a deep breath. “Areza; it has been too long since I was last here. Can you feel how the air is different, William?”
William shrugs. “To be honest I cannot, Kiran.”
Kiran laughs, a much more contented laugh than William has heard from his companion in some time. “The air is clearer because the stench of Revan is further away. Soon you will agree with me.”
“How far is our destination?” William strains his eyes ahead, but apart from hills and green pasture there is nothing of note to see.
Kiran grunts. “No more than two days’ ride from here.”
“If there has always been tension and conflict between the Order and the church of Revan, why is the home of the Order so close to Suria?” William’s expression is thoughtful.
Kiran smiles. “A very intelligent question, my friend; many years ago there was a great battle. Revan triumphed that day, but what remained of our order built our home on the site of Revan’s victory. That place will serve forever as a reminder of what we lost that day, and to steel us for The Second Coming.”
William strains his eyes once more ahead of them. “The second coming? That is not something you have mentioned before.”
Kiran smiles. “It is not something that should be discussed outside of Areza, and even then extreme caution must be taken. If Revan’s Priestesses were to discover how close we were, they would do everything in their power to stop us.”
“When you said ‘we’, did you mean the Order?”
Kiran shakes his head, his face deadly serious. “I meant us, my friend. You are The Second Coming.”
Carly had an uneventful journey back to Crossmoor, something she was grateful to Revan for. Despite the fact she was now a Priestess, the thought of the stressful and near-deadly journey she, Olbane and Michael had undertaken still made her shiver. She arrived at the temple during the evening and was thankful that the majority of the Priestesses were otherwise occupied, which enabled her to prepare for the difficult questions she would have to answer the following morning. Of course, she still had to walk past the front desk, where she encountered acolyte Sophia, who looked upon her with wide-eyed amazement and a gaping mouth. Carly merely bowed with respect and carried on walking. When she arrived at her room, she was not surprised to see that it had been cleared of her belongings and was waiting for a new occupier. Deciding it would not be appropriate for a Priestess, even a newly promoted one, to sleep in an acolyte’s room, Carly spent the night in one of the rooms left aside for Priestesses based in other cities who were visiting, much like the room she slept in at the temple in Surian. She slept well and awoke as usual in good time to complete her morning prayers, then went to the dining room for breakfast.
A number of Priestesses looked up when she entered, but there was no particular attention paid to Carly. She took a seat at an empty table and waited for an acolyte to dutifully serve her, which of course did not take long. Carly was sipping a glass of water and about to bite into some bread when she heard a voice behind her.
“Revan does indeed work in mysterious ways, Priestess Carly.” Carly turned to see Priestess Eliza, one of the more senior members of the church, standing behind her. She was about to respond when the other woman raised a hand. “Do not feel you need to explain yourself, my sister. I will arrange for your belongings to be placed in a room more suited to your position, and I am sure we will talk soon.” Priestess Eliza smiled warmly. “Welcome back. We are truly blessed this day.”
Carly almost glowed with pride, and she received some encouraging glances from other Priestesses. Priestess Eliza turned and left, the smile still on her face.
For the next two days Carly spent most of her time discussing her recent experiences with a large number of other Priestesses, all of whom were fascinated that her Test had not involved any of the usual activities. The one Priestess of note she did not meet was Thereza, whose business in the south clearly had not concluded. For the remaining time she settled into her new room, which was more than double the size of her previous one, with ornate furniture and a large bookcase which held the texts she had acquired during her studies. She also noted that the bookcase had considerably more capacity, which indicated that a Priestesses’ studies did not stop just because she had passed her Test. On the third morning the thought of studies made Carly consider visiting the temple library, and with it Priestess Elspeth; she had made a mental note to discuss what she saw in the ancient text in Surian with the old woman. Deciding that was a more constructive use of her time, Carly finished her morning prayers, left her room, and walked briskly towards the library. She was about to push open one of the large doors when a voice caught her attention. “Priestess Carly?” Carly turned around to see acolyte Susan.
Susan bowed. “I have been asked to pass on a message to you, Priestess. Priestess Eliza would like to speak with you.”
“Of course. Thank you for passing on the message.”
Susan rose from her bow, smiled briefly, and turned and left.
Carly immediately left the library entrance and made the short walk to Priestess Eliza’s chambers. Every Priestess knew that when a senior member of the clergy asked for you, you didn’t need to ask if it was urgent.
Outside Priestess Eliza’s door, Carly paused before knocking. Until recently she had only spoken to Priestess Eliza once, and that was to take an order as an acolyte. Meeting her when she had returned as a Priestess had boosted Carly’s confidence, but being summoned to Eliza’s office was a different matter entirely. Carly composed herself, and knocked. A few seconds later she heard Eliza’s confident voice. “Enter.”
Carly opened the door to reveal an extensive office, which was at least three times bigger than her own room. The walls were lined with bookcases, which in turn were crammed with texts. Carly silently wondered if there were items there that were never returned to the library, those that were for the eyes of only the most senior of the clergy. The desk in front of her was of the highest quality, as were the curtains around the ornate window, and the other furniture. Eliza was sat behind the desk and briefly looked up from the papers in front of her. “Please, Priestess Carly. Close the door behind you and take a seat.” Eliza’s tone was business-like, and there was no smile that time.
Carly smiled meekly, closed the door, and sat down at one of the three chairs facing the desk. For five more minutes Eliza read in silence, until there was a knock at the door; Eliza did not look up. “Enter.” Moments later the door opened once more, and Carly turned to see another Priestess, one she did not recognise.
“Ah, Priestess Catherine. Please, close the door behind you and take a seat.” The other Priestess dutifully did as she was asked, while Eliza continued reading.
During the next few minutes the two other Priestesses exchanged the occasional glance. Priestess Catherine scowled on more than one occasion, at what Carly hoped was the delay. Catherine was a tall, elegant looking woman, with long blonde hair that was neatly tied back, and a square frame. Her blue eyes had a challenging glint in them, and she had a square jaw. Some men would no doubt have considered her beautiful, although even if she was a tavern wench Carly suspected most would not dare cross her.
Eliza looked up from her desk and sat forward in her chair, then addressed Catherine. “Priestess Catherine, it is a pleasure to welcome you to Crossmoor.” Catherine inclined her head, before Eliza continued. “I have read your report, and must admit it makes me sad that our way of life has sunk to such appalling depths. I am, however, glad you brought it to my attention as it must be stopped.”
Catherine nodded in agreement. “I agree, Priestess Eliza. It must be stopped at all costs.” There was an edge to Catherine’s voice, and Carly suspected the other Priestesses’ involvement was more than just professional.
Eliza paused for a moment, studied Catherine, then addressed Carly. “Priestess Carly, I would like you to accompany Priestess Catherine and investigate this matter further. Priestess Catherine will brief you on the details.” Eliza put the report to one side and took another document from a pile of papers on her desk. Catherine, who was clearly more versed in the ways of senior Priestesses, rose immediately and left the room, which triggered Carly to do the same.
Catherine was already striding towards the rear of the temple when Carly left Eliza’s chambers and the smaller woman almost had to run to catch up. When Carly reached Catherine’s shoulder the other Priestess kept the conversation brief. “We haven’t much time if we are to intercept them, so I suggest we gather our mounts and leave immediately. I will brief you as we ride.”
Carly tried to keep herself composed. “Of course.”
What felt like moments later the two women were in the temple stables, where Catherine released her grey mare and mounted immediately. Carly looked around for the horse she had ridden rather clumsily back to Crossmoor three days ago. Fortunately for her, a stable boy recognised her and brought her horse with him. Carly found time to say a brief prayer of thanks for the boy, quickly mounted and reached the gate just as Catherine was outside the temple and gathering speed. While she prayed she would handle the horse better than last time, Carly kicked her heels and spurred on her mount.
They rode north for nearly three hours without so much of a word in conversation, and Carly was at least ten horse lengths behind her fellow Priestess, who rode effortlessly. Carly did handle the horse better than the last time, but not by much. By the time Catherine slowed her mount down to allow Carly to catch up, the younger Priestess was exhausted and very sore. Catherine, seemingly oblivious to her companion’s discomfort, finally started to talk as they rode at a more sedate pace. “By my calculations the caravan will be arriving north of here shortly.”
Carly took the time to notice that the road they had been riding appeared to join another road a few hundred yards ahead. “Priestess Catherine, what is this caravan carrying or doing?”
Catherine’s reaction was intense, and her attractive face grew fierce; it was the first time Carly had seen a Priestess behave in that manner. “Slavers. A contact of mine warned me about them when I was this side of Surian, and I rode immediately to intercept them. I didn’t have time to go back to the temple there to ask for help, so I came via Crossmoor.”
Carly suddenly had an image of Catherine riding the entire distance between Surian and Crossmoor without rest, and despite her better judgement couldn’t dismiss it. “If you do not mind me asking, how do you know they will be coming here?”
Catherine’s face changed immediately, and the angry expression was replaced with one of serenity. “He gives me guidance.” It was an enigmatic response, but not an uncommon one for those in the clergy.
Carly nodded, and recalled her own experience with the bandits when they were pursuing Lia’s abductors. She nodded and smiled briefly. “That is good enough for me, Priestess. Do we wait here until they arrive?”
Catherine shook her head and her expression grew fierce again. “We ride out and meet them. He would expect nothing less. Arezans of this nature have no business in Suria, and we will first ask them to free any captives before escorting them back to where they came from.”
Carly resisted the urge to swallow, and Catherine appeared to notice her apprehension. Her expression softened and she placed a hand on Carly’s arm. “Revan guides our hands and minds this day, and we will achieve our goal and protect His lands and followers. Stay true to Him and we will turn these fiends back.” She looked ahead to the fork in the road. “Come, let us move.”
After turning west at the fork they reached the top of a hill, where they could see for miles around. While Carly admired the view, Catherine almost immediately caught sight of their quarry. “There!” She pointed directly west to a relatively slow moving group of objects, approximately a mile away. Without pausing, she kicked her horse ahead to a gallop, which forced Carly to do the same. Inevitably the distance between the two increased, and Catherine arrived at the caravan and stopped to engage before Carly caught up.
A man was shaking his head in response to something Catherine had said. “With respect, Priestess, my companions and I do not recognise Revan’s law.” Carly noticed that behind the man there were six men on horses, all armed, followed by a number of reasonably tall wagons, which were covered with tarpaulins. At the side of each wagon were further armed men.
Something had clearly irked Catherine. “But you are native to these lands! How can you not recognise His law?”
The man shrugged. “We are more interested in our own profits than any law. Times are changing.”
Catherine almost stood up in the saddle. “We were going to free any prisoners you have and send you back to Areza, but as you are native to these lands we are forced to take more severe action. By Revan’s order, you are placed under arrest until we can escort you to the watch in Crossmoor. Lay down your arms.”
The man shook his head. “You are outnumbered, Priestess.” He looked briefly at Carly. “I suggest you take your little friend and go back to Crossmoor yourselves. Tell the watch we don’t recognise their law either.”
Carly nudged her mount forward; she was offended by his description and determined to justify her position. “Sir, the Priestess does not jest. Please, put down your arms; we do not wish to be forced to take unnecessary action.”
The man’s expression hardened. “We will pass, Priestess. Words mean nothing to us.” He drew his sword, which prompted the other men to do the same.
Carly’s heart jumped, and her horse, which seemed to sense her anxiety, took a few steps back. Catherine, however, stood resolute. “You will not harm us, and I forbid you from taking any more innocents against their will.” She gestured towards the head of the caravan, who yelped in pain and dropped his sword to the ground. He then shook his hand in agony.
Catherine looked towards the six riders behind him. “Does anyone else want to challenge us, or will you drop your weapons of your own accord?”
One of the men answered by throwing a knife in the Priestesses direction, which made Carly gasp involuntarily; Catherine’s face remained impassive, however, and the blade hit an invisible shield and fell to the floor. Suddenly all of the armed men in the caravan called out, as their blades suddenly became unbearably hot, and they were forced to drop them. Some of the men at the back of the caravan immediately turned their mounts around and fled, but the leader and the entourage at the front did not. Carly suddenly saw two men to the east, no more than thirty yards away. Both held bows, and aimed them at Catherine. They both loosened arrows, and Carly had a feeling that Catherine’s shield wasn’t formed at the sides.
“No!” Carly shouted instinctively, and held up her left hand at the same time. The arrows were completely destroyed before they reached Catherine. A moment later, both men were hurled through the air, and landed at least ten horse lengths from where they were standing. Neither man rose. Carly exhaled and turned to Catherine, who looked shocked for a brief moment, before she recovered and turned back to the caravan leader. “Order your men, all of them, to show themselves and to drop their weapons. We do not wish to cause further injury, but we cannot be held responsible for our actions should we be forced to defend ourselves again.”
That time the leader dismounted, and threw his remaining weapons to the ground. The men behind him did the same. Catherine nodded, rode around to the left of the caravan and pulled up one of the tarpaulins. The cage underneath was empty. Moments later the leader and all of his remaining men were locked within, and Catherine held the key. She then rode the length of the caravan, which had six wagons in total and checked them. The three wagons to the rear were all crammed with people, who, when uncovered, shouted for aid.
“Silence!” Catherine’s voice seemed to be amplified, and suddenly there was complete quiet. She lowered her voice and continued. “You will all be freed in time, and we will ensure your journey to Crossmoor, where you will be cared for at the Temple of Revan, is as comfortable as possible. We are less than a day’s travel from Crossmoor, so freedom will soon be yours.” Some people cheered, some wept.
Both Priestesses agreed that the captives needed to spend time out of the cages to recuperate, which allowed Catherine and Carly to tend to injuries as best they could. They then utilised the two spare cages to provide more comfortable travelling conditions for the journey back to Crossmoor. It was only when the last of the cages were being filled that Carly noticed a young man, about six feet tall, fairly slim, with sandy coloured hair. He had filthy clothes and was sporting a nasty bruise on his face. “Olbane? Olbane!”
The young man looked up and walked towards her, then threw his arms around her. “Carly! You don’t know how good it is to see you!”
Carly flushed, then gently pulled herself away and looked him up and down. “Are you wounded?”
Olbane grinned and gingerly touched his face. “Only my ego, Carly. I have no injuries that need special treatment.”
“What happened? How did you end up being captured, and where are Lia and Michael?”
Olbane’s expression grew dark and he looked uncomfortable. “My attempt to bring Black to justice did not turn out as I planned. I ran into trouble, and events forced me to leave Surian.”
Carly frowned. “What trouble? Did the slavers have the nerve to go through Surian?” The expression on Carly’s face was incredulous.
“No. I headed north once I left Surian, and came across the caravan there. I was still angry at my failure, and decided to take matters into my own hands and free the prisoners.” Olbane looked down to the ground. “I was captured.”
Carly reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “It was a noble thing you did, and without regard for your own safety. I am glad Catherine and I were able to help you and the others.”
A sad smile came across his face. “Not as much as I am. I have no idea where they were taking us, but I had all but given up hope.”
“They at least will not harm again, but I am disturbed to know that our own countrymen have taken to slavery. This is something I will report to my superiors back in Crossmoor. I am sure they will deal with it.”
Olbane patted his jacket pocket. “Well, I still have the evidence, despite everything that happened.” Olbane paused and looked Carly up and down. “So you are a Priestess!”
Carly smiled briefly. “You were right, as usual.” Her expression grew serious. “Olbane, I must know; where are Lia and Michael?”
Olbane looked away. “I don’t know.”
Carly sensed Olbane didn’t want to tell her what had happened, so she decided to leave it for the time being. “We can talk more in Crossmoor.” She had the urge to touch Olbane, and raised a hand to his bruised face. A moment later, the bruise disappeared. When she saw it happening, Carly almost jumped, and took a step back.
Olbane rubbed his face and smiled, this time a more natural one. “Praise Revan; it appears He chose wisely when he guided you, Carly. May He always bless you and keep you close.”
Lia awoke, and blinked at the sunlight shining through the window. She sat up quickly and realised she had no idea where she was or how she got there. The room was small, most likely in an inn. She slid out of the bed, and noticed she was fully clothed, although in a light brown knee length dress. Lia looked towards the closed door, and was suddenly frightened to open it. It was at that moment she remembered: Michael was dead, murdered by the guards at that house Olbane had taken them to. She had escaped, although all she could remember was one image: fire. She also had no idea what had happened to Olbane; was he also dead? Lia sat down again, and ran the events through her head. Michael, whose a love she had rejected, had died to save her. Everyone who had ever loved her was dead. Lia lay down on the bed and cried like she never had before, and where she was or how she had got there were no longer important to her.
Some time later, Lia awoke again; from the lack of light from the window, dusk was fast approaching. As she sat up, there was a knock at the door. Suddenly very frightened, Lia brought her knees up to her body and hugged them. A few moments later, there was another knock. “Lia? May I come in?” It was a voice that was somehow familiar.
“Who… who is it?” Lia silently cursed herself for sounding so weak.
“A friend; the person who found you two days ago and brought you here. You must be hungry, and I have something to eat here. May I enter?”
“Where am I?” Lia wanted more information.
“In an inn, just on the north border of Surian. We didn’t travel far once I found you; you needed rest.”
The voice sounded caring, but Lia still wasn’t sure who it was. “What is your name?”
“It is I, Rastlin.”
Rastlin. The man who orchestrated her kidnap and the murder of her parents. The man who had destroyed her life. “Get away from me! You took away everything that was dear to me!”
The voice paused. “Lia, I mean you no harm, I never have. We need to talk, but not through a door. I will leave the food outside the room; please, take it, and I will be waiting for you whenever you are ready. Take as long as you need.” Lia heard soft footsteps away from the door.
Later, hunger got the better of her and Lia took the meal, which considering how famished she was tasted as if Revan Himself had prepared it. Once she had finished eating, she thought of Rastlin again. Considering he was a murderer, there was something strangely comforting about his presence, and despite the situation they had been in he had usually treated her with respect. Lia recalled the words he had used when they last parted: Remember, follow your heart. She realised could not stay in the room forever, and went to the window, where she was relieved to note she was only on the first floor. If she could use the bedclothes as a rope, she could escape and be back within Surian quickly, which would have made it almost impossible for him to find her again. She could even take refuge at the Temple of Revan; she hoped that Carly was still there.
Lia stripped the bed, tied the bedclothes together as best she could, and made a crude knot around the bedpost closest to the window. She threw the makeshift rope out of the window and delicately climbed out. The support held, and within a minute Lia was down on the ground. She instinctively grabbed the arm of the first passerby, who turned to look at her angrily. Before he could speak, Lia blurted out her question breathlessly. “Which is the quickest way to the Temple of Revan?”
The man shook her arm off and grunted. “You are lucky I don’t report you to the watch, jumping out of a window and assaulting me!”
Lia was close to tears. “Please. I need help.”
The man’s expression changed, and he gestured to the south. “That way, but you won’t make it there by nightfall on foot.”
As long as she was moving, that was good enough for Lia. She ran.
It was late evening when the caravan arrived at the Temple of Revan in Crossmoor. It had been a painfully slow journey, but both Priestesses agreed that some of the hundred or so the prisoners were in no condition to be transported any faster. Once they arrived, Catherine immediately summoned the watch, who in a no-nonsense manner took the slavers into custody. Carly was relieved to be free of the evil men, and had found the journey back very stressful. Catherine, on the other hand, had rode at the head of the caravan in a regal manner, with a contented smile on her face.
Once the men were dealt with, other Priestesses appeared and led the former captives inside, and within minutes three makeshift infirmaries had been constructed in various places within the temple. Those that were uninjured were led to inns where they could rest, and the remainder received treatment. Carly instinctively followed the other Priestesses, but Catherine caught the sleeve of her robe. “Priestess Carly, we should report to Priestess Eliza immediately.”
Carly turned around and nodded. “Of course. Please, follow me.” Being the resident Priestess it was Carly’s responsibility to lead. She took a few moments to compose herself and recall which way Priestess Eliza’s chambers were, then led Catherine along the short walk.
Eliza’s door was open, which Carly believed was an unusual occurrence. “Come in, Priestesses. I have been expecting you.”
Carly led the way, followed by Catherine. Eliza was sat at her desk, once again with in a pile of documents. “Please, take a seat, and tell me what you know.”
Catherine didn’t waste the opportunity. “It is as we expected, Priestess Eliza: slavers. They had over a hundred innocent souls captive, some of them wounded. All of the captives appear to be Surian, and Priestess Carly and I had little trouble liberating them.” Catherine paused, and her expression was anguished; Carly knew why. “The slavers are from Suria, Priestess Eliza.” Catherine didn’t elaborate.
Eliza’s expression remained impassive. “That is most disturbing. Despite the indiscretions of our neighbours to the east, Suria has always maintained a level of ethical standards that has abhorred practices such as slavery, which has meant it hasn’t needed to be policed. It appears that situation has changed.” She looked back across the desk at Catherine. “Priestess Catherine, do you have any reason to believe these men are part of a wider organisation?”
Catherine shook her head. “To be honest, no. Although when we were alerted to their presence in Surian, I didn’t have time to do any research. I think it is fair to say, however, that we weren’t aware of any activity in Suria that didn’t involve Arezans.”
Carly raised her hand and Eliza smiled at her. “Yes, Priestess Carly.”
The youngest Priestess cleared her throat. “Priestess Eliza, you are aware of the circumstances of my Test?”
The other nodded. “Yes I am.”
“During my Test I met a young man, Olbane Jonson. He was carrying evidence of merchants in Susanon being involved in slavery. What is more, he happened to be a captive on this slave caravan. I believe he is still carrying that evidence.”
Catherine looked interested. “Is he still here? His evidence, along with whatever the imprisoned slavers may tell us, might hold the key to finding out who is behind this evil practice.”
Eliza looked sceptical but nodded. “So be it. Priestess Carly, assuming Olbane Jonson is still here, please ensure we have his full co-operation.”
Carly nodded. “That will not be a problem, Priestess. Olbane wants nothing more than to see this stopped.”
It was late when the innkeeper heard the banging on the door, which was incessant. “Alright, alright! Don’t you know what time it is?” He opened the door to reveal a young woman, whose features were obscured in the shadows. The young woman walked straight inside, and didn’t stop until she was near to the fireplace, which was still lit. In a chair next to the fireplace sat a figure. It was the young woman who spoke first. “Despite wanting to run away, I couldn’t.”
The man stood up. “That is because it is your destiny to be with me, Lia. I no longer need to pursue you.” Lia started to speak but Rastlin held a hand up. “The hour is late; go and get some rest, and we will talk on the way in the morning.”
“Where are we going?”
Rastlin smiled. “Home.”