The older man suddenly stops, and dismounts from his horse. The younger man, still mounted, raises an eyebrow. “Why are we stopping, Kiran? There is nothing here.”
Kiran turns and smiles. “Yes there is, my friend; you are just not looking hard enough.”
William shrugs and dismounts, and follows Kiran as his companion walks for a short while. Kiran stops once more, this time in front of a small hill. Shaking his fist in triumph, Kiran looks William in the eye, his eyes piercing. “Welcome home, my friend. This site is where the Dragon Order was all but extinguished all those years ago.” Kiran gestured downwards. “On this hill we tasted defeat, but what Revan and His followers do not realise is that the Order still lives.”
William shrugs. “So what do we do now we are here?”
Kiran bends down and starts rummaging through the moss and long grass on the hill, before looking up. “William, help me. It has been many years since anyone has been here, and nature has run its course.”
William crouches to the floor and begins to tear at the foliage. Some time later, a man-sized stone door is visible.
“The Dragon!” William says breathlessly, pointing to a small imprint within the stone.
“Yes!” Kiran shakes his fist once more. “Now my friend, fulfil your destiny and open the door!”
William runs his hands around the edges of the stone and shakes his head. “There is no handle, and there are no grooves for us to prise it open.”
Kiran scowls. “Do you think we would let anyone enter? Only those who have been chosen can do so.”
Without thinking, William reaches out and places his palm over the imprint. As soon as his skin touches it, the door opens.
Lia woke, feeling refreshed, and was at peace with herself. Although she had exchanged no more words with Rastlin the previous night, she felt that a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Whatever was happening to her, he was linked to it, and she needed his help to understand it. Lia rose, dressed and made herself as presentable as possible, then opened the door to her room. She made her way downstairs to the common room, where the innkeeper and his staff were busy serving breakfast. Rastlin was sitting in the same chair by the fire, almost as if he hadn’t moved since she returned. There was an empty chair opposite him, and a table in between, with a tray of food and two cups. Wordlessly, Lia sat down, and searched Rastlin’s face for recognition. Rastlin looked up and smiled. “Good morning, Lia. I trust you slept well.”
“Good. Please, eat.”
“How did you find me?” She blurted it out.
He smiled again and chuckled softly. “There are greater powers at work than just us, Lia. I was supposed to find you, and I suspect you were supposed to return here last night, despite your attempts to subvert those greater powers.”
“I… I couldn’t help myself. Something was almost compelling me to return here, despite what my head was telling me.” Then she remembered what he had said to her the last time they parted. “I suppose I was listening to the wrong place.”
“Yes! Your heart is very special, and you must always listen carefully to what it is telling you.” Rastlin looked genuinely delighted, which made Lia’s heart jump. She tentatively reached down and took a pastry from the table, and remembered she hadn’t eaten since the meal in her room the day before. She ate hungrily and drank a cup of spiced juice.
“Do you know what is happening to me? I…”
He stopped her before she continued. “Do not speak of such things here; you don’t know who is listening. There is only so much we can discuss while we are still in Suria, so we must be cautious.”
Lia looked at him sharply. “Who cares about me? Everyone who ever loved me is dead.”
Rastlin’s face remained calm. “Those who would want to stop you fulfilling your destiny, and even harm you in the process.”
Rastlin kept his voice low. “I cannot say too much here, but you are part of a very important blood line that once was very powerful.”
Lia didn’t believe it. “My father was a scribe, and although that carries a certain amount of respect, he was hardly a man of influence.” She paused, before her expression grew cold. “Before you murdered him, that is.”
“Your parents’ deaths were unfortunate. In time you will come to understand I had no choice. And yes, on the surface your family doesn’t appear to have any power of the more conventional kind. That doesn’t mean other power doesn’t exist, Lia.”
Lia’s voice grew sarcastic. “So assuming my parents’ murders were necessary, how do you fit into this?”
“I am also part of a bloodline, although a different one. Our bloodlines are bound together, and from time to time cross over, until the right time. Now is that time.”
Lia didn’t look convinced. “So is your bloodline all powerful as well?”
Rastlin smiled. “Not in the same way as yours, no. My bloodline is responsible for the knowledge that is passed down through generations, and my bloodline is the light that guides yours through darkness.”
“Knowledge of how to walk into an innocent family’s home and murder them, I suspect. One of your murdering goons met his end when we got separated, but what happened to the other one? The one that needed a good wash.”
Rastlin nodded. “Franklin paid the ultimate sacrifice. Without him, I wouldn’t have discovered you were in Surian.”
Lia didn’t know exactly what Rastlin meant, but she suspected Franklin didn’t volunteer. “You said you were meant to find me? Did you have a vision or something?” Her tone grew sarcastic once more.
He chuckled. “I used my own means to ascertain your rough location, Lia. However once I arrived in Surian I had no idea how to find you. It cannot be coincidence we found each other.”
Lia cast her mind back to that evening. “When we found each other, I was a complete mess and filthy. When I awoke, I was in clean clothes and bathed. Did you…”
He shook his head. “No; I paid the innkeeper to have one of his serving girls attend to you. You were delirious when I brought you here, so I am not surprised you don’t recall what happened.”
Lia sighed with relief; the thought of Rastlin washing her made her skin crawl. “Alright. So, even though I will never forgive you for what you did, for some reason I do feel compelled to find out more. And besides, I have nothing left to keep me in any particular place.”
He nodded. “We will leave today, and travel to Areza. I would normally head north to avoid travelling around Lake Moor, but I don’t want to discuss where we are going until we are away from Suria. We will cross the border through the east gate of Surian and travel north through the country of my birth. There you will learn what it means to have The Blood.”
Carly spent the next three days dealing with the rescued slaves, which made her acutely aware that once a Priestess had confronted an issue, she had to manage it to conclusion. She was required to oversee the medical treatment, speak to the former captives to ascertain where they lived and decide how to get them home. Those that were not badly wounded were given free passage on various caravans travelling to or near their homes. Carly discovered if a Priestess asked a caravan leader politely, it was amazing how much could be achieved. Carly also started to hone her ability to connect with Revan and used His Grace to heal, which she found extremely draining but very rewarding. During her studies she had read that healing was extremely stressful on the Priestess, and that some Priestesses were more adept than others; she soon realised that while it took extreme concentration, she could heal more patients than the vast majority of the other clergy, which was something that raised more than a few eyebrows. Despite the stress and exhaustion, Carly revelled in the responsibility.
On the fourth day Carly awoke and went to find Olbane, who she had not seen for two days. He was deep in conversation with Priestess Catherine, almost certainly regarding slavery and what he knew about it. The two had discussed the subject previously and at length, and it was clear their shared hatred of slavery had been enough to stoke up a friendship. Both of them were in the Priestesses dining room, which surprised Carly as she didn’t think non-clergy were allowed there, and from the looks Catherine was getting from some of the other Priestesses, Carly wasn’t wrong. Catherine’s chin was raised, however, and she ignored their gazes and listened intently to Olbane. Carly found herself prickling at the thought of the two of them having a close conversation, something she put down to being tired. She composed herself before approaching the table. “Good morning.”
Olbane rose from his seat and smiled. “Hello, Carly. It is good to see you.”
Catherine smiled a greeting but remained seated. “Please, Priestess Carly, join us.”
Carly took a seat and waited for some breakfast to be brought to her. “How goes the investigation into the slavers?”
Catherine responded just before Olbane could. “They have been reluctant to talk, but it is clear they are working for someone a lot more important than they are.”
Olbane couldn’t wait any longer. “When Terence Black was mentioned one of them flinched. Apparently the Captain of the Watch didn’t notice, but Priestess Catherine did.” He beamed at her.
Catherine nodded impassively. “It was more of a jolt than a flinch. How the Captain didn’t notice, only Revan knows.”
Olbane continued. “So, the question now is do we have enough to incriminate Black. I am not convinced without a confession.” His face grew angry. “I am not a violent man, but I would beat it out of them if I could.”
Catherine put an hand on his arm. “Which is why you are not allowed near the prisoners. Resorting to violence is not the answer, as you well know. If we allow ourselves to do that, we are no better than they are.”
Olbane nodded slowly. “I understand, and of course you are right. But what is our next step?”
“My next step is to return to Surian. With Priestess Carly’s help I have completed what I intended to do, and I must hand this matter over to my superiors to deal with. It is not our place to take matters into our own hands. Your next step, Olbane Jonson, is to move on with your life and trust that Revan will deal with the matter.”
Olbane looked as if he were about to explode, and stood up sharply in his seat. He appeared about to shout something, but looked across the room and held back. “As you wish, Priestess. You have the papers I carried, and I trust that He will guide your superiors to resolve the matter.” He nodded in Carly’s direction. “I am staying at The Piebald Lamb. If you have time, there is something I need to tell you.” Before she could respond he turned and walked briskly out of the dining room.
Catherine looked to Carly. “He will move on, Priestess Carly. He has told me enough of his life that I know he will have plenty to do when he returns to Susanon.”
Carly nodded her thanks to the acolyte who brought her breakfast. “I know. He is a brave and honourable man, and I hope he can find closure in this matter. His faith is strong, and I am sure it will help him find peace.” Carly’s mind was not on slavery, however. Since Olbane had mentioned The Piebald Lamb, she had been fighting down a feeling that something terrible had happened in Surian; why else did he not know where Lia or Michael were?
Two hours later, Carly arrived at The Piebald Lamb. Olbane was sat at a table in a corner of the inn, and was nursing a mug of ale. When he noticed her walking towards him, his face brightened briefly and he stood up in his usual manner. “Thank you for coming. Do you want anything to drink?”
Carly took a seat and shook her head. “No, thank you.”
Olbane sat back down, and looked extremely troubled. “I couldn’t find the right time to tell you before, but as it appears I am no longer required here I think the time has come. I am sure you wanted to ask me what happened in Surian.”
“I did, but you had already been through a lot with the slavers, and I decided not to press the matter.”
He nodded. “After you went to the temple, I waited for a whole day to see the senator, but it proved fruitless. I was about to give up and return the day after when a young woman introduced herself. She was called Francine. We got talking, and I discovered her family was in a position of influence, and she agreed to help me.” Olbane seemed to brush over what happened with Francine, but despite a mild feeling of irritation Carly didn’t interrupt him. “I went to her uncle’s house, accompanied by Lia and Michael. He only wanted to speak to me, so we were separated. It turned out to be more than I had bargained for. He demanded I give him the papers, and when I refused they attempted to use force. While I was defending myself, it became clear that something was happening elsewhere within the house. In the confusion I managed to escape unharmed and I ran, ran for my life.” He paused, and an expression of anguish appeared on his face. “Back at the inn I waited, but Lia and Michael did not return. After a little while I decided I to find them, and made my way back to the house. What I saw I will never forget. The entire building was in flames, with the Watch fruitlessly trying to extinguish them. Worse, there were various bodies outside.” Olbane looked at Carly, with tears in his eyes. “They were completely charred, some barely recognisable. Something terrible happened, and I don’t know if Lia and Michael survived.”
Carly forced herself not to respond emotionally, which would have made her fellow Priestesses very proud. “There was nothing you could have done, Olbane. It sounds like you did all you could just to survive.”
Olbane slammed his fist on the table, which made Carly jump back. “But I ran, and they died!”
“If you had stayed, you would have likely perished. Lia and Michael would not have wanted that.” She was just about maintaining her hold on her own feelings of shock and grief. “And besides, you don’t know if they died.”
“If they survived, why didn’t they come back to meet me!” Olbane reached into his breast pocket and tossed a letter onto the table.
Carly picked it up and immediately recognised her own handwriting. There was one word on the envelope: Lia. She forced herself to remain as a Priestess should. “I don’t know, but we must take comfort. If they survived, rejoice in that fact. If they died, then rejoice that they are at one with Revan, and their souls are in a better place.”
Olbane looked at her, with an incredulous expression on his face. “Spoken like a true Priestess. I suppose a Priestess cannot afford to have emotional ties, but I expected more from someone who has just lost her oldest and best friend.”
Carly opened her mouth to respond with some kind of retort, but the Priestess in her took over. “Do you want to come with me to the Temple and pray for their souls?”
It looked like Olbane was about to refuse, but he nodded. “I would like that, yes.”
Carly led the prayers. She formally asked Revan to take and care for the souls of Lia and Michael, or to watch out for them if He had not yet chosen their time. Olbane wept throughout, out of loss for two people he had grown very fond of in a short period of time, and for his own guilt, which Carly resolved him from. Olbane wished to be alone, and left for The Piebald Lamb, which left Carly to contemplate what she had heard. On the evidence given, the odds were that Lia and Michael were dead. If they had survived, surely they would have returned to the inn? Perhaps they had escaped but been apprehended by the Watch as suspects? The thought that Lia and Michael had started the fire was not a pleasant one, but if they knew Olbane was in trouble, they may well have done. She also considered Olbane’s description of the bodies. She didn’t know much about the effects of fire, but it seemed odd that they were outside the house. Carly decided she couldn’t grieve for Lia without being sure she was with Him, although she admitted to herself being joyful was more appropriate if Lia was dead. She felt she needed to travel to Surian herself to find out more, but knew that was completely inappropriate. A Priestess could not waste time on personal matters when there was a greater good to be served. It was then she saw Catherine, who was talking to an acolyte. Carly walked towards the Priestess, and caught the end of the conversation. “Please have the smith check her shoes; I have ridden hard for a number of days recently, and I don’t want her going lame.”
The acolyte nodded vigorously. “Of course, Priestess. I will go immediately.”
Catherine nodded, apparently satisfied, and turned to Carly. “Priestess Carly; as you have no doubt heard, I am leaving to return to Surian today.”
Carly smiled. “Yes, I did. I wonder if you might look into a matter for me when you return?”
Catherine raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Of course; what is it?”
Carly cleared her throat. “It relates to something Olbane Jonson told me, and two friends of mine.” Catherine raised an eyebrow again, but didn’t interrupt. “There was some kind of trouble in Surian with a fire, and my friends were involved. We fear they were killed.” She said it with no emotion. “However, Olbane cannot be sure of this.”
“I understand you would like closure on the fate of your friends, Priestess Carly, but is this an appropriate use of a Priestesses’ time?”
Carly knew Catherine was right. “I know, Priestess, which is why I am not going there myself. However, as you are going there anyway, I hoped if you are in the vicinity of the better off areas of the city you might enquire with the Watch? The fire was at a property owned by Rogen Flaun, I believe.”
“Flaun? Can’t say I’ve heard the name.” Catherine smiled. “You seem to care in this matter, Priestess Carly, so I will assist where I can. I will send a message when I have any news.”
“Many thanks, Priestess Catherine. And Revan bless you for apprehending the slaver caravan and bringing them to justice.”
Catherine smiled again. “It was my duty, and yours to help me, which you did admirably. That was an impressive display of power when you stopped those archers; I would surmise that He has plans for you.”
Carly smiled and bowed. “As He has for all of us. May He keep you and be with you always.”
Catherine inclined her head in response. “And you.”
Lia wasn’t surprised that there were two horses saddled and ready when she and Rastlin left the inn to begin their journey. Rastlin drove them hard from the outset, even through fairly busy streets, and he occasionally slowed to look over his shoulder. Within half an hour they were at the east gate of the city. As soon as they cleared the gates Rastlin set an incredible pace, and pushed their mounts to the limit. Fortunately Lia was a natural rider, and Rastlin rode effortlessly. Shortly afterwards the road led to a guarded outpost, where both of them were half-heartedly searched before being allowed to pass into Areza. Lia surmised that Suria was more concerned about what came in than out. They rode again, although not as hard as prior to the border, for at least another hour, where they slowed to a trot and stopped near a ford. Rastlin smiled briefly. “Our mounts have earned a rest, and I think we are far enough away where we can talk a little more freely.” He slid down from his horse.
Lia was grateful for the chance to rest as well, and also dismounted. “Why is it that we cannot talk in Suria?”
Rastlin nodded approval at the question. “Revan and His followers have ways of spying that I don’t completely understand, but I believe they have the ability to eavesdrop halfway through a conversation without previously planning to do so.”
“Are you saying that somehow they can spontaneously know that someone is speaking about a taboo subject and be alerted to that fact instantaneously?”
Rastlin nodded approval once more. “Very well put, Lia; you do yourself credit and show that you do not need to be a Priestess to make intelligent observations. In short, yes. There are various rumours that have circulated for generations on this subject, ranging from Revan Himself speaking directly with certain members of the church, to a group of Priestesses that permanently combine their power just to listen to the voices around them.”
Lia looked doubtful. “But why wouldn’t it work here? We are not far from Surian, where a number of Priestesses live. Surely if they were listening, their power would stretch here? And if Revan were intervening directly, surely he can hear across the whole world?”
Rastlin smiled. “It is true we are not completely safe, which is why I will only discuss certain things here. In terms of your question, that depends on how you believe Revan gets His power, and in turn how He grants it to His Priestesses. What if His power didn’t work very well if there weren’t many followers around?”
Lia blinked. “What you are suggesting is blasphemous! Revan is all encompassing, within everything!”
“Is He? What about the other Gods? Why don’t they have the same power?”
Lia had to admit it. “I don’t know. Perhaps they do, but they don’t manifest it in the same way, and don’t work in that way. After all, Francisca or Celestine don’t have churches.”
“Good answer, but not wholly true. Many years ago in Suria some of the Gods did have more organised followings, but Revan became so dominant that their power diminished. The most popular secondary God in Suria, Francisca, has too disorganised an ethos to command any kind of church, which is why She co-exists with Revan in your beliefs comfortably.”
Lia began to feel slightly uneasy. “The way you use the word beliefs implies none of it is real. I find that very difficult to believe.”
“Of course you do; you have lived your entire life with the belief that Revan controls everything, and is all powerful. The vast majority of other citizens do the same, so there is no reason to challenge the status quo.”
Lia’s jaw tightened. “Do you want to challenge the status quo?”
He smiled. “All I want, and what those of our order want, is for what we believe in to be accepted and allowed to exist. This is no different to what the church of Revan wants for its own way of life.”
Lia couldn’t argue with that as a core belief. “So why the secrecy?” She paused, and gathered enough control to maintain what was a very engaging conversation. “Why the murder? Why did we have to come into Areza to discuss this?”
Rastlin’s expression changed to one of sadness. “I am afraid that the church of Revan doesn’t agree with that belief. Our order was all but destroyed by the followers of Revan many years ago. We cannot risk them discovering what we are doing or where we are heading. I had to cover my tracks, and while I am not proud of what I ordered done, it was inevitable if we are to succeed. After it became clear your parents would not listen to reason or let me talk to you, I was forced to act.”
Lia forced down feelings of anger and hatred. “But why would the followers of Revan destroy another religion?”
“My order was considered a threat, a threat that could not be allowed to continue or grow.” His voice took on a bitter tone.
Lia snorted. “Surely another religion would never match up to the might of Revan? I cannot believe this.”
Rastlin shrugged. “The difference between now and then is that our order gained a lot of followers very quickly, something that had not happened for a long time. People realised there was an alternative order, one that didn’t have the same strict doctrine, one that let them decide who they wanted to be.”
Lia was struggling. “What, so people didn’t have to go to the Temple and pray as often?”
“They didn’t have to pray at all.”
Lia’s eyes grew wide and she shrank back. “Didn’t have to pray? What kind of God doesn’t want interaction with His or Her followers?”
“My order has no god, Lia.”
It made sense to Lia that the Church of Revan would want to stop followers suddenly becoming non-believers, but she couldn’t believe they would commit any kind of violence in response. She was about to respond when Rastlin stopped her. “We need to keep moving. There is more I need to tell you, but I want to be as far away from Suria as is practical first.”
They rode east for what felt like hours and Lia’s mind was racing after Rastlin’s revelation. Why would people abandon their relationship with Revan to convert to an existence with nothing? Lia wasn’t the most devout follower, but she still said her prayers morning and night and followed the practices other citizens of Suria did. She couldn’t imagine not having Him looking over her or her friends and family. Once again she felt a pang of grief over her father, mother, and finally Michael. What had Revan done for them? All three murdered, although she considered Michael’s death valiant and brave, which triggered an involuntarily sob. Michael had loved her and wanted to marry her, and he had died before she had said sorry for rejecting him. It was common knowledge and part of the overall belief that Revan didn’t intervene in mortal matters except through the Priestesses, but Lia wondered why He had decided it was time for Francis, Natalya and Michael. Again she took some comfort knowing they were with Him, but after the previous conversation with Rastlin it felt slightly hollow. While considering the subject of death, Lia made a mental note to speak to Rastlin about how it worked in his order. With no belief in Revan, what happened to the souls of those who had departed? She hoped Revan stepped in regardless, and secured their souls.
As the afternoon came and went, they stopped for a brief meal but only exchanged small talk. When Lia prompted Rastlin for a continuation of their discussion, he insisted they were not far enough into Areza. The part of Areza Lia had seen so far didn’t look particularly different to Suria, but she did notice that they hadn’t seen any settlements since they left Surian. She nudged her mount closer to Rastlin’s. “Is all of Areza this unpopulated?”
He looked across at her. “Not all of it, but it doesn’t have the cities that Suria does. I suspect that’s because the people here do not live under the same order and structure, so don’t need large places for people to congregate and trade. There isn’t one central government than sets the rules, and of course there isn’t one church that sets doctrine and way of life.”
Lia looked around. “So presumably there are more bandits and the like?”
Rastlin nodded. “Indeed there are, although that’s only because there are less populated areas. Suria has its own share of bandits as well.” He smiled at her. “With you around, any bandit would be foolish to attempt anything though, even though he wouldn’t know it until it was too late.”
Lia went pale. She hadn’t mentioned any of her confrontations to him. “What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I am talking about, Lia. You don’t have much control over your gifts at the moment, but that will come in time, and that is where I come in.”
“But how do you know?”
He smiled. “The state you were in when we met in Surian for one. Fire is a common manifestation of The Blood when one is under duress.” He smiled wider. “And of course it helps that I knew you had The Blood.”
“You mentioned The Blood in Surian. What is it?” Lia suspected she knew the answer but wanted to hear it from Rastlin.
“The Blood is what we call the hereditary ability to draw on the elements to generate power. It has been passed through your family for generations.”
“The elements? You mean what is around us?”
He nodded. “Correct. You can draw power from around you and translate it into pure elemental force. Typically it depends on the emotion you are experiencing.”
“Fire. I killed the guards at the house Olbane took us to. I burned them alive.”
Rastlin didn’t look surprised. “Were you angry?”
Lia nodded. “They had just murdered my friend. I don’t remember much of what happened, but within moments the place was ablaze and all around me were dead.”
He looked at her with interest. “The first time someone with The Blood uses their ability, it is often drawn out by strong emotions.”
Lia shook her head. “That wasn’t the first time. I also did enough to scare off that caravan we saw after Goadsby died. I encountered it on the road and somehow knocked over two guards before they fled.”
Rastlin nodded his approval. “They were wise to flee. Had they angered you, they would have most likely perished.” He didn’t seem regretful at all. “Tell me, what were you feeling when you knocked the men over?”
Lia thought back. “Fear. They were going to lock me up and then abuse me.”
“Fear often manifests itself in the form of air. Your heart told you to defend yourself, and your power acted like a shield of sorts, albeit a moving one. I suspect had you been more trained, you would have blown away the entire caravan.”
Lia shuddered, before another memory of that day came back to her. “When I touched one of the men, he burned.”
Rastlin nodded, then paused. “I believe you have engaged me in a conversation we should not be having until we are further east, Lia. I would rather not discuss any more until we make camp at sunset. By then, we will be far enough away from Suria to talk more.”
They made camp hours later, where Lia no more than nibbled at some of the rations Rastlin provided. She was mentally and physically exhausted. She decided to rest her eyes for a brief moment, to prepare herself for the conversation she had been waiting all afternoon to finish. Lia slept, however, and the conversation had to wait until morning.
Carly arrived back at the temple later than she had anticipated, and her heart was heavy. Thomas Eustace had not taken the news that his son was missing well, and Carly had been forced to stay with him most of the evening. When she sat down on her bed her well-concealed emotions got the better of her, and Carly wept uncontrollably.