Willow reined Mist in at the base of Akasha Mound. The sun was falling in the west, casting long shadows along the heather-covered field. The High Temple of Dral stood atop the mound, towering majestically against the reddening sky, its shadow reaching as far East as the eye could see. It had been a good few months since Willow had last been here, but nothing had changed. The trees leading to the temples high stone steps were perhaps greener, and the grass longer, but apart from that the temple looked as if time had by-passed it. Nothing ever changed here. It was seldom that people came to the temple. The worshippers of Dral had grown fewer in number since the War of Sorcerers, and the temple had kept its doors shut to the public until very recently. Still, no one ventured to the temple. Dral was a highly respected God, but not a highly worshipped one. Not in a time when magic was so feared.
Willow looked around for any sign of movement. Nothing. The others shouldnt be too far behind. Hed been sent forward to scout for any danger. The Pazuza were free, and not even a Temple of Dral was necessarily safe from the ravages of the Unclean. Willow patted Mist affectionately. "Easy, boy." He said. The brown stallion had been uneasy all day, ever since theyd left the Golden Bear. Willow suspected that he was just picking up on the general fear around him. "Easy." he repeated. The Stallion snorted, and Willow smiled.
"I know," Willow replied. "Theyll be fine. Theyre right behind us!"
As if his words were a summons, the rest of the company appeared on the hilltop behind him, the horses hoofs kicking up dust from the run-down road, their footsteps echoing around the surrounding hills. Willow watched them appear, waving with his longbow to get their attention.
Kern was the first to arrive, his blade drawn and his eyes looking around warily like an eagle ready to swoop. Willow nodded in greeting. He and Kern had rode side by side most of the day, talking and sharing stories. Willows original intent was to learn more about this stranger, about where his loyalties lay. But he had found himself actually liking the man. He suspected Kerns intentions were no different to his own. Kern seemed very sparse with his trust. "Alls clear!" Willow said, and Kern nodded.
Amelia arrived a few moments later, Turin right behind her. The Brown mare she had brought from the innkeeper was panting hard, but its steps never faltered. A fine animal indeed. She adjusted her skirts, as she tended to do whenever she was agitated. She always denied it of course. But Amelia had never been very good at hiding her emotions. She smiled warmly at Kern, who returned the smile. Not very good at hiding her feelings at all. Willow frowned at that. He liked Kern well enough, but he wasnt sure how far he could trust him. If Amelia wasnt careful, she may make a grave mistake. Humans were always hasty. Love clouded their senses.
"I trust you didnt push that poor animal too hard, Your Grace." Willow said, eyeing the horse she had named Peppin. Amelia just glared, and didnt answer. He shrugged. Humans were sometimes so wrapped up in their own affairs they didnt think about their horses. Without the horses, the Mannish folk would be confined to their over-populated towns, never venturing further than their homes. Nothing would be accomplished. The creatures deserved respect, if not love.
Amelia glanced upwards at the temple, then back towards the failing sun. "Come. The Temple closes its gates at sundown. I dont fancy standing on the porch all night reasoning with the Templars. They can be very strict about rules." Smiling once more at Kern, she kicked her Peppin into a gallop, and headed up the hill. Willow sighed. Amelia was in a foul mood. She had been all day. Willow didnt understand it. Surely the news they carried was enough to lift any spirits.
He looked anxiously at Kern, who just shrugged, and galloped after Amelia. Turin gave him a sympathetic look, and then followed. "Humans!" he said, exasperated. "Always in a rush!" Mist snorted, and Willow grinned at him. "I know, I know." He replied. "Come on." Mist trotted off after the company, following the road which wound to the top of the hill, and to the Temples high stone steps. Hasty humans. The scout wasnt supposed to be the rearguard.
The temple was carved entirely of white stone, carried south from the Enedhaur Mountains. Large steps lead up to the tall bronze doors, and pillars lined the porch. The doors were engraved with a giant eye, and a large statue of Dral sat above the entrance, a pair of scales in one hand, a wand in the other. The large amethyst set in the centre of its forehead glistened in the dying sun, bathing the steps in a warm purple glow. The two templars on the door shifted uneasily as the horse approached. Their white armour shone brilliantly, as did the runeswords they carried. A single purple eye emblazoned their cuirass. "Who would enter the Temple so late in the day?" one of them asked, trying to peer at them silhouetted against the sun. "His Eminence sees no one after sun down."
Amelia dropped down from the horse, passing her reins to Willow. "Tell him Amelia is here. I bring important news."
The guards looked a little stoned. "Your Grace?" the other Templar said. "We thought....we feared you were dead!"
"Do I look dead, Brother Jikk? Tell His Eminence I am here. Ive been travelling hard, and I dont intend to spend the whole night dallying with you two, trying to prove I am alive! Let the evidence speak for itself." She scoulded. Willow winced. A very foul mood.
"At once, Your Grace!" the two templars stammered simultaneously. They both made to leave, nearly bumping into each other. Scowling at each other momentarily, Brother Jikk nodded, and the other templar left at a fast run. Jikk looked ahead, staring at nothing, obviously embarrassed about the whole situation. Willow knew the feeling well.
"Amelia, is something wrong?" Willow asked, concerned.
Amelia smiled slightly. "No," she said, apologetically. "Not now." She made a special effort to smile. She had obviously been worried about the journey. Who could blame her. No one journeyed well when Fear was a travelling companion. "Im just tired, thats all."
Willow nodded, but said nothing. The four of them sat in silence waiting for the templar to return, which didnt ease Jikks awkwardness. After a few minutes, the guard returned, running as fast as hed left. "His Eminence will see you now, Your Grace." He said, slightly out of breath. "In the Chamber of Akasha."
Amelia nodded curtly, and dismounted, giving her reins to Jikk. She gestured for the others to do the same. Willow slid out of the saddle gracefully, smirking slightly as he watched Turin rub his rear painfully. Willow had been more or less born in the saddle. A figure of speech, of course. The Fair Folk seldom used saddles on their horses, preferring to ride bare-back. It was much easier to guide the horse when you werent separated by inches of thick leather. Turin scowled at Willow, and he turned away bemused. Noticing Amelia had already gone inside the large bronze doors, he quickly followed.
The corridor was exactly the same as he had remembered it, carpeted with a thick green rug, with statues of former High Priests lining the walls. There was old Hilmar, and Galen, and Figrin. Even Morandor was there, holding a jug of ale and smiling maniacally. The footsteps of Kern and Turin echoed from behind him. He suspected they would be gazing around, marveling at the statues, and the fine jade floor tiles. Willow just kept his attention ahead, on Amelias back. Even if she wasnt there to lead, hed know exactly where he was going. Hed been to the Chamber of Akasha more times than he could remember. As an acolyte, hed been trained to memorize the room, to imagine it in every detail. That was the first step in learning astral projection. Willow had never been very good at it, nor had he cared much. Beastmastery was his strength, and he was the best in the United Realms.
Willow stopped beside a pair of Jade doors, whilst Amelia knocked. "Enter." came the reply. Amelia pushed the door, which opened smoothly. The room beyond was large and hexagonal shaped, with a tall domed roof. A large pentagram was carved on the floor, and the walls shone of purest silver. A Jade altar sat at the far end of the room, carved in the image of The Eye of Dral, and topped with green and white candles. A man in a long green robe stood behind the altar, a white eye on his forehead and tunic. His curly black hair hung around his shoulders, and a thin black beard covered his chin. Aradin, the High Priest. He smiled kindly on them as they entered. "Ah, my children. You have returned!" he smiled. His eyebrows rose slightly as Kern and Turin entered. "With friends?" he enquired.
Amelia bowed slightly. "Your Eminence, this is Kern Aldritch, former knight of the Palace of Angost," she said, indicating Kern, who nodded politely. "And this is Turin, a travelling bard of good repute." Turin bowed flamboyantly. "They are friends, Your Eminence, and I will vouch for them!"
Aradin just nodded. "If you say they can be trusted, no more needs to be said on the matter. I know you would not endanger the quest recklessly. But first things first...." Aradin said. "Be seated." Amelia took a chair in front of the altar, followed by Willow. Kern and Turin gaped a while- no doubt they hadnt noticed the chairs when they first entered. Willow wasnt surprised by that. The chairs werent there when they first entered. Aradin poured out four glasses of wine into silver chalices, and passed them among the group. Willow smiled as Kern downed the wine gratefully. The Mannish folk were always fond of their drink.
Aradin waited until they were comfortable before he spoke. "Amelia, I feared you were dead. Reports came to the temple of a female Member, slain by Demons. The guard who delivered it was certain it was you."
Amelia smiled. "A trick, Your Eminence, nothing more." She said. "People believe anything they see. Or anything I want them to see." Willow grinned at that. Amelia had always been highly proficient in Glamour. Second only to the Visions, of course.
"You feigned your own death?" Aradin asked.
"It was necessary, Your Eminence. The Unclean were hunting for me. I had already lost both my bodyguards." She sighed. "And Geanne." Geanne had been an acolyte of Dral, and had shown great promise as a Seer. Amelia must have been distraught at her death. "In the end, it served no purpose. The Pazuza werent fooled." Willow noticed Turin shift uncomfortably at that last comment. For all his so-called adventures, Turin seemed very ill at ease with the prospect of Daemons. Not that he blamed him at all.
Aradin showed no visible emotion at Geannes death, but Willow didnt doubt his sadness. Geanne had been his favourite niece, and the two of them were close. But Aradin never revealed what he was feeling, not even to Amelia. His face remained as stone. "There will be a Ritual of Mourning at the next Festival." he said. He put his hands on the desk, and leaned forward intently. "And what of your news, Amelia?" he asked. "Why was Tor so eager to stop you? Do you have something to tell me?" A faint smile touched his lips. Aradin would have guessed that the news was good. Why else would Tor send so many Unclean after her?
Amelia smiled, and nodded. "The Avatar has been found." She said simply. A simple statement, yet the effect on Aradin was dramatic. For the first time Willow remembered Aradins face was awash with joy. "Morandor has him."
Aradin could barely keep the excitement from his voice. "Dral be praised!" he said, grinning. "Is he sure?"
"He seemed so, Your Eminence." Amelia said. "He rambled a lot, and it was hard to work out what he was saying. He was certainly excited about it. I think he might even have been sobre." she grinned. Aradins eyebrows rose at that. "Morandor has taken him to his tower, and is training him in the art."
Aradin paced the room, seemingly unable to remain still. "Then He must be brought here!" he said excitedly. "The Avatar must be made ready for His task."
"That may not be such a good idea, Your Eminence!" Willow said. "From what I can tell, Tor knows the One has been found. A vision most likely. He is looking for him as we speak!" Willow said. He was aware Kerns eyes on him as he spoke- how much could the man be trusted? "However, I do not think he knows where he is. He has Unclean scouring the realm, and his assassins are already slaying people who match his vision. Three young boys were slain in Thara-Parta last week." Aradin was listening intently to Willows words. He had never been adverse to people voicing their opinion, no matter what rank they were. "It is likely that Amelias attackers were trying to find out from her where the Avatar is hiding. At the very least, their intent would have been to stop the news reaching you, so Tor had enough time to find Him himself." Willow glanced at Amelia. She seemed to have no doubt that the Unclean were trying to kill her. "If we bring him here, its as good as handing the Avatar to him on a platter."
Amelia shook her head. "I doubt that. Even the Unclean would not dare attack the Temple."
"Tor is desperate." Willow said. "If the Avatar reaches His full power before he can be stopped, he stands very little chance of winning the Final Battle. If he gets too desperate, he may even attack the Temple himself."
"Do not underestimate the powers of Kyzak Tor," Aradin said gravely. "If he doesnt know where the Avatar is yet, he will very soon. We are not the only ones to possess Seers." He said. "I have been to Doromir before, to Morandors tower. They are hardly capable of withstanding a bandit attack, let alone the full might of Tor. Plus there are other factors to take into consideration."
"What kind of other factors?" Amelia asked warily.
Aradin eyed Turin and Kern suspiciously, obviously uncertain as to how much he could reveal in front of them. "The Temple is divided." he said a tad scornfully. "As you know, High Magus Berrias disagrees with many of my methods. He feels that the prophecy will come to pass as long as all the Components are in place. He thinks he can speed these components along, rather than rely on Fate."
"The man is a fool!" Amelia spat.
"Maybe, but he is a fool with great standing. Already, many of our number follow his beliefs. He has started another sect, dedicated to the fulfillment of the Components. They call themselves The Circle of Hyrak." Willow frowned at that last statement. Hyrak was Drals name in High Antillian. "They may cause all kinds of trouble."
Amelia cursed. "The Prophecy of Maromiz."
Aradin nodded. "And, alone and bitter, the Avatar shalt vanquish Tor utterly. Thus shall the Golden Age of Dral be upon us." He recited. "The Circle believe that it is their duty to force this to prophecy come to pass. No doubt that involves isolating the Avatar somehow."
Turin nodded. "They may have already started." Turin fidgeted uneasily has he noticed everyone else in the chamber was staring at him. Swallowing nervously, he continued. "There have been many reports of murders and banditry, all of which are being blamed on the boy." He said. "I like to think Im a good judge of character, Your Eminence, and I would never believe the boy capable of such things. Certainly, he is a little rapscallion, but what boys arent? He gets in trouble a fair bit, but murder? I think not. Anyway, what better way to isolate someone than to frame them for a crime, and have them locked away. And it would certainly make me rather bitter." Turin cut off, as he realized that Aradin was frowning.
"Boy?" Aradin asked, a little confused. "You have met the Avatar?"
Amelia answered for him. "That is why I have brought him here, Your Eminence. Master Turin is a frequent visiotr to Doromir, and knows the boy well."
"We are friends." Turin confirmed.
"And what is this boys name, Master Turin?" Aradin asked, looking at the Bard as if hed noticed him for the first time.
"Grendel. Grendel Darkmoon." Turin responded promptly.
"Very well, Turin. You will guide Amelia, Willow, and your Knight friend back to Doromir. I gather the people know you well?" Turin nodded at that. "Well, you certainly wont look out of place." Aradin turned his attention to Amelia. "Amelia, you will talk to Morandor- convince him to put the boy in your care. He must be brought back to the temple, where it is safe. We can teach him as well as Old morandor can. Maybe even better."
"Are you sure about this, Your Eminence? As yet, the boy is unaware of his destiny. It may be damaging to reveal too much too soon." Amelia said.
"Let me worry about that, Amelia. If necessary, Morandor can accompany him. An apprentice will follow his mentor anywhere. Nothing needs to be told of the boys destiny. Not yet."
"And if Morandor refuses to give the boy up?" Willow asked, a little concerned. Morandor had his own agenda these days. He may decide the boy was safer with him.
"It is not an option. You will do everything in your power to get the boy to the Temple. Everything." Aradin said grimly.
Willow simply nodded at that. Morandor was one of Aradins mentors, and an old friend. Yet Aradin knew the price of failure. The boy would be brought to the tower even if they had to..........Willow cut the thought off quickly. He hoped it would not come to murder. Morandor was a living legend amongst the Order. Amelia herself seemed to twitch nervously at the order, and Turin gasped aloud. Kern looked as if he wasnt listening. Willow knew him better than that.
"Willow, take Turin and Kern to the guest chambers, where they can rest and freshen up." Aradin said. "Get some sleep. Tomorrow you will all leave for Doromir."
Willow stood up, and bowed, and gestured for Kern and Turin to follow. Turin followed eagerly, picking up his harp off the floor, bowing extravagantly to Aradin, and all but running out of the door. Kern followed slowly, a predator moving carefully through a strange and dangerous land. He glanced once at Amelia, who was still sat before Aradins desk. He had not dismissed her. No doubt there was more to the tale than Aradin was letting on.
Willow sighed as the door closed behind him and the two men. A difficult state of affairs. The prophecies said the Avatar would bring turmoil before he brought order. That was proving to be true already. The unclean were walking the Realm, The Temple was divided. There may even be a conflict with Morandor. A sorry state of affairs indeed. Things would only get worse if the Avatar was not brought to the Temple.
"Come, Ill show you to your rooms." He said to Kern and Turin, as he set off down the corridor. A difficult time for all. He should have stayed in Enedhaur, with the rest of the kin. Not for the first time, Willow cursed his bad luck.