Malachi woke up on a pallet in a small, austere room. This was very strange, because not only had he never seen this room before, he had not expected to wake up at all. Actually, he had never expected to experience anything again. Death was the end, or a beginning, depending on personal views of the afterlife. Nowhere, however, had he ever encountered any sort of philosophy that described anything remotely like this as a form of afterlife.
The room had no windows, but nor was it dark. He saw lantern brackets attached to the walls in intervals, but they held no lanterns. Instead they held some type of ball that gave off a steady pale white-blue light. The lights were like nothing he had ever seen before, certainly not like any lantern he had ever encountered – or heard of. Lanterns did not give off a steady light. Every single lantern that he had ever seen flickered; if someone else had encountered a steady lantern, the news would have spread faster than a plague. Lanterns flickered – that's what fire did.
Then he remembered the fire and the feel of the flames on his flesh with a shudder. And found to his surprise that he could shudder – without pain. Or rather – without the pain one expects after being burned. He had a pair of cuts on his upper right arm, another handful on his forearm and several along his left arm; two fingers on his right hand and some ribs were broken; a deep bruise on his left hip and a cut just above his right knee; a twisted ankle; various cuts and scratches; not to mention all of the bruises to his face; those were all from the fight and his – brief – time in captivity. He had pain in his shoulders and rope-marks on his wrists from struggling against his bonds. He also had a very mundane headache.
Other than some burns present on his clothing, there was no indication that he had just been burned alive. Except – he hadn't been? The fire still burned in his memory, he could feel it reaching for him, consuming him, but then how could he have ended up here, with nothing more than superficial burns on his Whites? It hadn't been a nightmare, the singe marks on his clothes could attest to that fact, but he didn't have any burns on his skin. At all.
The injuries at least told him that he was still alive, which was as strange as everything else. He had been captured by Karsites and used as fodder for their accursed fires. No one survived their fires. The Sunpriests didn't want their prisoners to escape their execution. He had been sent to be executed. He had been burned in front of an assembly of the most powerful Sunpriests in all of Karse. So how in the Havens had he ended up here, relatively uninjured?
It just didn't make any sense to him; it only made his headache worse, so he lay back down, only to have a sudden thought make him bolt upright, to a jolt of pain from his broken ribs. Darvin! Malachi tried to reach out along their bond, but still couldn't reach his Companion. He could feel that Darvin was still there – somewhere – but he couldn't actually reach him. After he had been captured he tried to contact Darvin, but had found himself blocked. He was still blocked now, except there was a different – almost a flavor – to this shield. He didn't know what it meant.
For that matter, he didn't know what any of this meant, he only knew that it didn't make any sense. He tried to think it through, but all that he got was a headache and a sense of confusion; no answers appeared among the confusing and contradictory facts. He was about to give up in frustration when he heard the sound of a door opening.
Malachi froze. He suddenly felt very uncertain, and wasn't sure if he should be afraid. On one hand, there was nothing to defend himself with in this room, and even if there was, he wasn't sure if he would be able to fight. For that matter, he was certain he would be unable to put up much of a fight. He was the next thing to helpless and completely at the mercy of this visitor. On the other hand, he was almost too confused to really be afraid, and a part – albeit a small part – welcomed whoever was coming, in the hope that maybe they had answers for him.
The sight of a woman in the Black Robes of the Priesthood of the Karsite Sun God entering the room brought forth a surge of fear.
The Black-robed Sunpriests were the demon-summoners; they had the strongest magicks, and had the highest rank. A Black Robe had also been the one to set the torch to his pyre. Even if he showed no outward damage from the flames, he still remembered them. Remembered his futile struggles to get away from the heat, from the flames that licked at his skin, leaving agony in their place. Remembered the agony, never ceasing, only growing, from the heat and the fire. Remembered his despair at being unable to do anything at all, trapped and helpless, dying alone, surrounded by enemies and unthinking civilians watching his final moments in uncaring silence.
The memories carried with them a paralyzing fear, but also an anger; an anger that they wouldn't be done with him, like a cat playing with a mouse it caught, tormenting it, not letting it find escape even in death, for surely only the powers of the Black Robes had enabled him to retain the memory of being burned alive without any of the physical damage.
The anger swept through him, replacing the debilitating fear, giving him the strength to prevent the fear from returning as he awaited the latest action of his captors. Once again he wished for a more combative Gift. Strong Mindspeech with a touch of Empathy and Animal Mindspeech might be excellent for reconnaissance, but it did little in combat, especially when the Sunpriests had shields as strong as any of the Heralds.
He raised his eyes toward the priestess, intending to meet her gaze, to show that he was uncowed by their methods of torment, and that he would not bow before them. He intended to stare at her, as cold and unfeelingly as they had stared upon his pyre.
What he saw in her face, however, caused the fury to vanish like water in a suddenly broken bowl. Malachi didn't see any signs of the gloating or arrogance he expected on the face of the Sunpriestess. Instead he saw weariness, frustration, and uncertainty. This unexpected turn of events made him stop and study more closely this woman, who was not what he had anticipated. None of this was making any sense at all.
She was slender and did not appear to be overly tall, but she carried a sense of power and authority. She was mostly of the Karsite type, with sharp features and brown hair. Her hair was apparently braided down her back, but he couldn't determine the length from where he was sitting. Her eyes were unusual, not the typical Karsite brown. Instead, they were a silvery-gray, much like smoke. The strange lights gave more than enough illumination to see the weariness in her peculiar eyes. But it wasn't a physical weariness. It was more the weariness of someone who was trying to bail out a leaky boat with cupped hands – as much as they could get out, more keeps coming in, faster than they can stop it.
It was the expression of someone who knows they are fighting a losing battle. It stood in stark contrast to her Black Robes.
Other than her face, there seemed little to set her apart from the other Sunpriests. Her Black Robes had the same elaborate trappings, with a golden medal displaying the sun-in-glory hanging from a gold chain around her neck. Malachi suddenly realized the priestess had stopped in the doorway, watching him as he studied her. He felt awkward and uncertain. Presumably this woman was the reason he survived the Fires, but he didn't think it was to torment him. Taken in concert with her expression – perhaps she had wanted to save him? But if so, why? It still didn't make any sense. If she had tried to protect him, why had he still felt the flames? He had felt the agony quite clearly, even if the flames were somehow illusionary. But they couldn't have been illusion – his clothes were singed, and the Black Robe who ignited his pyre would have noticed if it was illusion – right?
This was just making his head hurt again.
He didn't think studying her would produce the answers he wanted. "Where am I?" Malachi asked in Karsite. He knew her language, but he doubted she would know Valdemaran. He didn't really think the Sunpriests would put enough effort into learning the language when they didn't have the chance to use it. Maybe a scholar might know it, but even then, their accent would be simply atrocious due to the fact that they would never have heard to spoken and they would hardly advertise such knowledge. No one in Karse who valued their life would let the Sunpriests know they knew the language of the Demonspawn.
"You are in my private quarters," the priestess in the doorway replied. There was a stiff quality to her words. Almost a tentative tone, a hesitation. He was at her mercy and she was hesitant? What in the Havens was going on?
Did she expect him to know where her quarters were? Her answer was not very helpful. Although – did that mean the other Sunpriests were unaware of his location? There had to be better places to stick a prisoner, places a lot more secure than private quarters. Then again, these were the Sunpriests he was talking about. He didn't know of a more power-hungry, back-stabbing bunch anywhere on the map. Their private quarters were probably very private, and very secure. Under the right circumstances he doubted they would hesitate to eliminate a rival. Permanently. He needed more information. "Where is that?"
"The Sun Temple," she answered. "While not the Temple proper, this building is still considered to be part of the Temple. We are closer to the rest of the city than the Cloisters, though, actually between the city and the Cloisters." She grimaced. Not much, but enough that he noticed.
Why the grimace? I mean, I would grimace at that, but that's because I dislike the methods they use to control the children. The Children's Cloisters were towards the middle of the Temple complex, positioned where the children would be better guarded from potential escape. The children were kept isolated in order for the Sunpriests to control them as much as possible. Kept in the heart of the Sun Temple, the children wrenched from their families were only exposed to what the Sunpriests wanted them to see.
"How did I get here?" That was something he really wanted to know. How he ended up here from being in a fire in a room full of Sunpriests. She could have hardly walked off with him. Maybe he should have rephrased the question, though, because when he put it that way the answer was kind of obvious . . .
"Magic," the priestess said simply, with an enigmatic smile.
He barely managed not to roll his eyes. He bit back a retort of "That was real helpful, thanks." Sarcasm and captivity generally do not mix well. His feelings must have shown on his face, though, because her smile widened for a moment before dropping back to impassivity.
"It is very complicated," she elaborated. "The short of it is that I used magic to spirit you out of the fire while simultaneously convincing everyone involved that nothing was different."
"Everyone involved" evidently had included him as well, because he certainly had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. Although he supposed that was necessary; if he had realized there was something strange about the fire, the gathered Sunpriests would probably have noticed too, from his reaction.
This was all very interesting, but he wasn't getting anywhere with the answers. Perhaps he shouldn't complain, however, because he was the prisoner and yet she was answering the questions. Normally it was the other way around.
Still, something very strange was going on, and he could not make heads or tails out of it based on what he knew. Finally, in a desperate attempt to get solid answers, he gave voice to his confusion. "Why?" Malachi asked, summing up the heart of his confusion in that one word. He winced inwardly when he realized how insecure that statement sounded.
She must not have noticed, or least not have been surprised, because a faint smile graced her face. The smile didn't reach the weariness in her eyes though. "Because," she replied in a tired voice, "the priesthood is wrong. What they do is wrong, and most of what they teach is wrong. I do what I can to help those I can."
So she had acted to save him! He had figured as much from the way this conversation seemed to be, but that still didn't explain much. It raised even more questions, so Malachi tried another inquiry. "How? How did . . . " he trailed off, suddenly uncertain if he was being rude and not sure what to ask first.
This time her smile had a touch of irony. "You already asked how you got here. How did I manage to pull it off in a room full of Sunpriests, you mean then? More magic. And practice." Then she added softly, "Too much practice."
Practice. That was interesting. He had not been expecting that. But then he could never have expected most of what was happening. Did she mean . . . "You mean you've done this before?" He asked, startled by the idea.
For a moment her only response was to raise her eyebrow. She met his eyes. There was a fire and a fury in her eyes that made him look away. "Do you really think someone who would betray her vows and rescue one of the 'enemy' would stand idly by as children were murdered? Children guilty of nothing more than inconvenience?" she asked, her voice thick with scorn and anger.
Malachi looked away, embarrassed and confused, yet again. But he knew the anger wasn't directed at him – it was toward the priests who "murdered innocent children." He understood her point – in fact he shared her anger, it was well deserved – but this was not what he expected to hear from the lips of a Karsite Sunpriest, especially a Black-robed one. Everything about this woman was a paradox; she was confusing and contradictory. How could he reconcile her words with her rank? He clearly remembered her standing with the other Sunpriests at the ceremony earlier, staring at him, cold and impassively, as he struggled in vain against the ropes that trapped him in the flames.
The memory of the fire made him shudder again, but this time it disturbed his broken ribs, and he let out a pained gasp. He looked up to see the woman starting towards him, and with the memory of the flames fresh in his mind, all he saw was Black Robes, coming at him. Fear surged through him again, and he had to get away!
He scrambled backward – only to drop back to the pallet to pain. His sudden movement had summoned a wave of agony from his ribs, as well as reminding him of his dozen assorted cuts and bruises that he had almost forgotten in the face of the priestess.
He lay back on the pallet, trying to take shallow breathes because it hurt to breathe, trying to make the pain subside, when a whisper of movement recalled his attention to the woman standing in the doorway. Malachi sat up, trying to be careful, but still with a grimace as his abused body shouted in protest. He saw that the priestess had retreated to her post in the doorway; this time, however, she was looking down, putting her face into shadow. More than his questions or confusion, his panicked retreat away from her had upset her. She must have heard his pained gasp – how could she have missed it? – and wanted to help him. And he had fled from her in fear.
Those with the Healing Gift were gathered into the priesthood, just like all the Gifted, he knew. Her Robes announced she was a Priest (Priestess?)-Mage. It was rumored that they could Heal even without that Gift. Whether she had the Healing Gift or not, it was likely she knew enough to help his injuries. He also knew, often as not, that the healing knowledge was often used to inflict pain. In his pain, he had judged her by what he knew of her office, because, still, he had trouble reconciling her actions with her Robes.
He knew he should say something to break the barrier of awkward silence that had risen, but didn't really know what he could say. He had acted in accord with everything he had ever learned about Sunpriests, and while her actions still confounded him, she was a Sunpriest. "I'm sorry" sounded far too much like submission under the circumstances, and regardless of the fact that he was helpless and at her mercy, he refused to submit to a Sunpriest, even a confusing one. Perhaps especially a confusing one. None of his questions would be appropriate now, so he settled on starting over.
"Hello. I'm Malachi Rowen," he stated in his most pleasant Court voice.
The priestess in the doorway jerked her head up, startled. Then she blinked and smiled, a true, sincere smile, the first he had seen her wear. It erased the lingering traces of the weariness from her eyes, and again, her expression didn't seem to fit with her clothing. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," she replied. "I am Lillian."
"No. We have to give up all worldly blood-ties when we enter the service of Vkandis."
"Oh. Okay. Um, pardon my asking, but if you dropped your family name because you entered the priesthood, why did you leave your title out of your introduction?"
"Well, I figured you already knew my title, and I decided it would be more – diplomatic – not to remind you. I've heard that my title doesn't make a very friendly impression. I have also found that my title has a reputation of its own. One that, while generally well deserved, makes it difficult for me to have amicable relations with people."
"Is that a diplomatic way of saying your title causes people to be fearful and less than willing to trust you?" Whoops. That ended up a bit more blunt than he had intended.
The corners of her mouth twitched, ever so slightly. "Indeed it is. And you can see why I would have thought such a description was less than polite." There was real humor in her voice. Was she enjoying this?
His own mouth twitched as well and he nodded. "I do see, and I have heard that as well. In any case, it is nice to meet you, Lillian, though one might have wished such a meeting had involved better circumstances."
The twinkle in her eyes was hard to miss, even if she did still try (rather unsuccessfully he thought) to hide her smile. "I have often found that one does not get much say about the circumstances they find themselves in. While the situation we find ourselves in could certainly have been better, it could also have been worse."
"True," Malachi said, trying to hide his own smile. "For example, I could very easily have been burned at the stake for being a Demon Rider with a Hell-Horse out of Valdemar." He was finding that small talk, making light of the situation, was doing much to ease his tension. He saw the priestess – Lillian –relax her stance somewhat, and guessed it was doing the same for her.
"Well, if you persist in wearing those awful clothes, in that rather ill-fated color, I am afraid that such things are a distinct possibility." She must have been just as uncertain as he had felt, but she slipped easily into this playful banter. He was rather pleased that they were joking like old friends, considering their inauspicious beginning. Malachi hadn't really been sure if it would work; this wasn't exactly the sort of situation they covered in his class on "Courtly Graces."
He looked down at his Whites, and realized they hardly looked like Whites anymore. The white cloth was torn, slashed, dirty, blood-stained, covered in sweat, and burned. His uniform looked like hell. Not surprising, really; he felt like hell, and the pain was making it hard to breathe. "I am afraid I was not given much choice of wardrobe since I arrived here yesterday." Was it really only yesterday? It felt like forever ago. "I have not had the chance to change into better clothes, although I suppose these are appropriate. We are called White Demons after all. I doubt I could be mistaken for anything else while dressed this way."
The tension had finally drained out of the Sunpriestess, he was glad to see. What is this world coming to, he wondered, when a battered Herald is trying to play nice with a Black Robe Sunpriest? But it wasn't simply playing. He wanted to be nice to her, if only for the cold-blooded reason that she was the only way he was getting out of here. There was more to it than that, though.
It was partly what she had said earlier, that she had betrayed her vows to rescue him, someone she should consider an enemy. He wanted to understand why. What had happened to make her see the truth of the world, and to try to fight the injustice from the inside? As much as she confused him, she also intrigued him. And he still wanted to know how she had pulled off her trick in full view of the most powerful Sunpriests in all of Karse. Of which she was a member. So why had she rescued a Herald of Valdemar, someone she had certainly been raised to hate and fear?
There were so many questions he still wanted answers to, but he didn't want to disrupt the fragile balance they had going. The unlikely pair that they were, they seemed to be getting along rather well. He did not want to disturb the friendly banter they were presently engaged in. He had almost died, and since it appeared he was safe, all he really wanted at the moment was to smile and laugh, to put the memory of the fire put of his mind for now. He was still injured and would need to spend a lot of time healing. There would be time for his questions later. For now he just wanted to try to relax, which he had not thought would be possible while in Karse. Relaxing in the company of a Black Robe – he would never have considered such a thing to be conceivable, not in his wildest, most far-fetched dream. Had anyone suggested such a thing to him – well, he probably would have smiled politely and brought the poor fellow to the attention of the Mind-Healers.
"I suppose I could find you something to wear, although it seems a shame to ruin such good clothes that way," the woman mused, unaware of his thoughts.
"Ruin good clothes? Hmph. I would rather keep my tattered uniform than put on one of those ridiculous robes. Black! Who wants black when they could have pure white?" Malachi responded with good-natured offense.
"Besides the fact that white is a dangerous color in Sunhame? Well, if that is what 'pure white' looks like, I can see why no one would want to wear it," the Sunpriestess replied with an air of superiority.
Malachi grinned despite himself, unable to hide his amusement. Although Herald's Whites were pure white, these Whites were anything but. He had inadvertently set himself up for that he knew, which only made it more amusing. He wondered what anyone else would think of this situation if they could see it. A Herald, injured and in the heart of enemy territory, smiling and joking with a Black Robe Sunpriestess, both in their respective uniforms. Alex would have called him a flirt, and mad of course, but Alex was safely back in Valdemar, riding Circuit. His friend had departed Haven several months ago, in the company of a young Herald on his Internship. As for a Sunpriest – well, if they didn't have an apoplectic fit and collapse at the blasphemy, they would probably condemn the pair of them to the Fires of Cleansing immediately.
He was suddenly struck by a worry, but he didn't want to ruin the good humor. "I hope no one can hear you maligning my uniform," he retorted, trying to disguise his worry. "I don't think I could take the shame."
She must have understood his concern, because her reply, while not straying from their banter, assuaged his fear. "I wouldn't want to inflict your poor choice of clothing on anyone, it might hurt their eyes. As long as you stay within my quarters, no one will have to see such a hideous sight. I have enough shields around my rooms that I could wage a full scale war in here, and no one would ever know. No sound or magic can pass these walls, unless I explicitly allow it."
"Impressive." A new thought occurred to him: Mindspeech was a type of magic. Was her shield the reason he couldn't reach Darvin? "While I don't know how much hot air is in that statement, I must admit that your shield seems to be blocking me."
Not being able to contact Darvin was like missing a limb; Darvin was as much a part of him as an arm or a leg, even if a limb could not usually talk back to him. He was also worried about his Companion, not knowing how his friend had fared from the ambush. Not too well of course, or else Darvin would have tried again to get him free. But he also knew Darvin hadn't died; their connection, though obstructed, still told him that much. If her shield was blocking that connection, perhaps she would be willing to remove it. No, that sounded like it would threaten their security here. He really didn't want the Sunpriests – the other Sunpriests – what a thought! – to find him. But maybe she could alter the shield, do something to let him through? As annoying as Darvin could be, he missed the Companion, because Darvin was really his friend. Closer than a friend, he was like a brother, one privy even to his thoughts. He hadn't been able to reach his partner since he had been captured two days ago. He hoped Lillian would let him contact Darvin. He didn't see why she wouldn't, if she really was trying to help him.
He pushed that thought away. If she wasn't trying to help him, there was absolutely nothing he could do; he could hardly forget that he was wounded and trapped, not only in Karse, but in the Sun Temple, in Sunhame, the capital of Karse, where the majority of the Sunpriests lived. In his current condition he could barely sit up. There was simply no way he could survive without help. If she didn't help him, he would die. Certainly in a painful fashion, and most likely in a slow one as well. Even if the Sunpriests didn't get their hands on him again. Stop that, he chided himself. Stop worrying about things you can't do anything about. If Darvin could hear me now, he would certainly give me an earful, Malachi thought ruefully.
Unaware of his internal conflict, the priestess responded to his last comment. "Blocking you? How am I blocking you?" she asked in genuine confusion.
Mentally shaking himself, Malachi answered, "I cannot reach my – my 'Hell-Horse.'" He smiled as he said this, because he knew how much Darvin disliked the titles given to them by the Karsites.
"I blocked your connection to your Companion?" she asked. His shock must have been apparent on his face, because she continued. "What? Did you think that just because we call you 'Hell-Horses' and 'White Demons' that we didn't know your real titles? I suppose most of the general population wouldn't know, because the real titles are never used, but I assure you, many in the priesthood know. They might not admit it, but they know. Or at least they should, if they haven't started believing their own lies."
"I guess I never really thought about it much," Malachi admitted. "I just knew the names your people called us, Demonspawn and the like. No one I know has heard anyone in Karse call us by our proper titles."
"The nerve of you to lump us all in together, not even taking the time to get to know us!" she said in mock indignation.
"Well it's not as if I was ever given the chance to get to know your people," Malachi retorted. "Just think, I came to visit and they tried to kill me!"
They glared at each other in silence. The Sunpriestess broke first. She cracked a smile, and they burst out laughing. A sharp burst of pain forced Malachi to stop immediately, but the pain didn't subside this time, it got worse. Much worse. He fought to breathe as his chest burned with agony. It felt like he was trying to breathe with someone – several someones – sitting on his chest; it was a struggle to draw breath. Through his pain he heard the brush of clothing and suddenly Lillian was kneeling beside him. He didn't flinch away from her this time – it hurt too much to move. A new throbbing rose in his chest, and despite the pain he doubled over in a fit of coughing. When the coughing finally subsided, he took his hand away from his face, and stared in blank confusion at the red color he saw.
The priestess saw it too. "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn," she swore, put more feeling into each curse. She put one hand on his back and the other on his shoulder. She paled. "Lay down," she ordered.
"Why?" he asked weakly – it hurt to talk. "What is– ah – happening?" It hurt just to breathe.
Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she tried to gently push him back down. He resisted her push simply because it hurt to move. "Stop fighting! You have a punctured lung."
"What?" The pain was making it hard to concentrate. He couldn't seem to get his eyes to focus as the room spun around him. There were two women in black robes bending over him. They were spinning too. It hurt to breathe. Maybe he should just lie down.
"Not on your back! I will not have you drowning in your own blood!" That didn't sound good. He let her roll him onto his side. He was coughing again, very weakly, and he could feel something dripping out of the side of his mouth. The Sunpriestess swore again, this time more colorfully. Maybe it was just the pounding in his head, but he didn't think most of what she said was even possible. "Your broken ribs punctured your lung. This is bad, very bad. Damn.'' She swore again; this time it was something about priests.
Part of his mind was still functioning more-or-less coherently through the fire in his chest. He didn't like fire. He couldn't seem to remember why. "Can – you – help?" he asked, struggling to make the words come out, struggling to breathe, his breath coming in shallow gasps. Those words seemed to have drained the last of his energy. He was tired. It hurt to breathe. Why did it hurt to breathe? He thought it was important, but couldn't recollect the reason. He was just so tired.
"I'm going to have to try. Your managed to do enough damage to your body to occupy a half a dozen Healer-Priests, not including your lung. That is a project all by itself." He wanted to tell her it hadn't been his fault, but he couldn't remember what had happened anymore. He couldn't think clearly. How had he gotten injured? "Since it is incredibly unlikely that any of the other priests would be willing to help, though, I'm going to need to do this alone. Which will complicate matters somewhat." Priests were a bad idea. Why were they bad? He couldn't recall. Weren't priests supposed to be good? Why wouldn't they help her? He should know, but he didn't, the pain making it too difficult even to think. He was so tired. Maybe she would let him sleep. She moved her hand from his shoulder down to his chest. "This is going to hurt."
Hurt. That didn't begin to describe what he felt. When she moved her hand it felt as if his world exploded in agony. The pain before was nothing like this. He had thought he had hurt before. He had been wrong. This was worse, much worse. The pain seemed to have increased past all imagination. He could barely see, could barely stand to keep his eyes open. She shifted her hand again, and this time, mercifully, he blacked out.