Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 6:31 pm

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 6

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My whole life I've felt alone, isolated
by my origins, my sex, and even my
intellect. I fit in by forgetting where
I came from, covering up my feminity,
and playing dumb. Not the best solution,
but it worked. I cherished the times I could
be myself... whoever that is.
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—Wren</DIV>
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<div align="center"><font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 18pt;">Chapter 6<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">The Phoenix, Revival, and a Promise</div>
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The noontime bell was ringing. Wren roused with a start, throwing off the covers and snatching for the dagger that usually lay under her pillow. Something metallic banged between her breasts. The heat of it made her flinch. Her heart thudded as she searched for the intruder.

She focused on a priestess who’d frozen in the doorway in response to her sudden movement. Wren let out a breath, the tightness in her chest loosening as clarity came and she grew more awake.

“Sorry, I’m still tense from last night,” she said rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Her free hand went the metallic object between her breasts. Blinking, she examined the small gold talisman. A symbol of a bird with its wings upraised.

A phoenix.

The image brought back the dream in a flash. At this moment, it felt more real than the massacre at the guild. Grahm, alive? The thought brought a smile to her face. Only, you’d be sneaky enough to sidestep death. She closed her eyes then opened them. ‘Survive, be free, grow—’

A realization made her skin prickle. The visit with Grahm must have worked a magic on her mind. The horror of the massacre had faded. The blood, the screaming, it all seemed dream-like now. Even the grim memory of Grahm’s trembling body as he shuddered and went still. It was as if something had reached into her mind and culled out the hurt.

Grahm had somehow survived. She could take solace in that. The best thing you can do for me is to focus ahead. Kill those bastard Dagger if it suits you. Don’t look back. Look for me down the road.

She gripped the phoenix tighter and felt a tingle spread up her arm and into her chest. Kill those bastard Dagger if it suits you.

It suited her fine. They’d taken Grahm away. Destroyed her home. Killed her friends. The Dagger would be sorry they ever returned to Corwin or crossed the Brethren. She’d find Desiray and make her help, even if she needed to drag the mistress back to Corwin by the ear.

Wren looked up and saw that the priestess still stood in the doorway eying her as though she were a crazy person. Wren glanced down at the phoenix emblem again. For all she knew, a crazy person might be exactly what the priestess was looking at.

No point in trying to explain it. “Where’s Jharon?” Wren asked.

The woman jerked at the sudden break in the silence. She put a hand to her chest as if to keep her heart from flying away. “Master Jharon is leading mass, he will meet you later. He instructed me to bring these to you.” She cautiously approached the bedside and laid a black bundle down and unwrapped it. As she worked at the leathern knots Wren took closer note of her. The two of them were similar, from their modest statures to the blonde hair crowning their heads.

The priestess’ eyes were a deep blue, and she frowned when she caught Wren staring. Unrolling the bundle revealed a pair of black doeskin breeches and tunic, a leather belt and climbing moccasins. A sheathed short-sword and a pair of daggers lay at the center.

“Perfect!” Wren said. They were from one of her clothes stashes. Jharon knew more about her than she’d thought.

The priestess gave her a disparaging look as she examined the clothing, and started to remove the gown.

She stopped. “Is there something wrong?”

“Of course. You’re filthy. You should bathe first.”

“Pardon me. I didn’t know a bath was available.”

“Look at what you’ve done to that gown.”

Feeling guilty, she inspected herself. “These must be yours then.”

The corner of the priestess’ mouth twitched. “Yes.”

Wren grinned. It felt wrong to be able to smile so soon after the tragedy. She didn’t know whether she should be concerned or not. “Lead me to a bath. I’ll gladly clean up and besmirch your attire no longer.”

“Excuse,” the woman replied, chagrined. “I did not mean to be so rude. Please, follow me.”

Wren followed the woman out of the room and down the long corridors of Ishtar’s precincts. Eddies of incense-laden smoke curled through the air. Weapons adorned the polished-stone walls, badges of honor captured in campaigns when the kingdoms were still young. Long tapestries of battle scenes were interspersed with romantic renderings of varying levels of intensity.

Wren stopped and stared at a particularly vivid scene involving several men and women sexually intertwined. When the priestess stopped and looked back, she felt the urge to chuckle.

“Perhaps I’ve been mistaken about you people.” She glanced from the picture to the dame and smiled suggestively. “If this is what mass is like, it can’t be all that bad. Ishtar certainly has an interesting way of bringing her congregations closer together.”

The woman looked at the picture and flushed.

“Some people interpret Ishtar’s word differently,” she replied in a tight voice. She turned abruptly and continued down the hall.

“That’s some interpretation,” Wren murmured as she followed, her gaze lingering on the picture.

The temple bath area was surrounded by a colonnade and looked more like a pond than the tiny wooden basins she was accustomed to. Floral arrangements, statuary, and tile frescos surrounded a pool of clear water several paces across.

Wren simply stared. It looked more like a work of art than a place people bathed. She never realized how well the servants of Ishtar lived. The whole stigma of the clergy’s implied poverty was an act. They acted poor outside, but here in the precincts they lived like kings and queens. It made her regret choosing not to accept the temple appeals. Instead, she spent her childhood scrabbling for coppers and eating what she could beg for.

“Well?” the priestess asked, hands on hips.

Wren met her gaze. “You expect me to wash—in there?”

The dame sighed. “Yes. Use those steps over by the two statues. I will have towels and oils sent.”

She started forward. This would be the most extravagant bath she’d ever experienced. In the later stages of her career as an elder of the guild, she usually had enough gold to buy conveniences. Once she could afford it, she rarely went more than a few days without a trip to the bath house or to the perfumist. Even after the big heists, she never went in for the lavish expenses. She gave most of it away, saving enough to keep her in good clothes and food until the next mission. Now that the cult had gutted the guild, she was poor again. Best to take advantage of this opportunity. It would have to last her.

It took the better part of a bell to scrub the blood and dirt from her body. She stepped from the water to towel off, eager to be back in her leathers.

She fingered the phoenix symbol. Though Grahm had touched her mind to free her of the weight of Brethren’s death, if she were to avenge them she would be facing it all again. What if the despair all came back?

Wren shuddered. Still, she had to try to help those who might still be alive. They didn’t deserve to die, not the way the Dagger would kill them. She strapped on the sword and knives, the sensation of being armed again made her feel whole again. The Dagger men had managed to strip away her dignity, make her helpless. This time they did not have the advantage of surprise. If she returned with the help needed, the Dagger guild would pay for every Brethren life they’d taken.

She made a promise to herself. If I get a chance, I’m going to kick that black-eyed bastard hard enough put his manhood in the next kingdom.

The priestess returned as Wren was finishing her hair and examining herself in a mirror built into one of the columns. She picked up the nightgown she’d left folded by the steps and gave it to the priestess.

The woman took it somewhat stiffly, body growing taut as she met Wren’s gaze. The dame’s features hardened, deep blue eyes sparking. Her lips drew back in a snarl.

“What’s wrong?” Wren asked moving her hand to the hilt of a dagger.

The priestess’ face contorted as though she were in pain. The woman shuddered and tossed the gown to the floor. She shook her head as if casting off the effects of a spell.

“Great evil,” she looked at the garment lying on the floor as if it were a snake ready to bite. “It has tried to force itself on you. I feel its touch in this gown.” Her scared eyes locked on Wren’s and she put a shaking hand on her shoulder. “You will face this creature again.” A whisper. “It is not a man, it is—” She cut herself off and fled down the corridor.

“Wait!” Wren called. She glanced down at the gown and then at the priestess’ retreating back. She started to chase after her but stopped. She looked again at the gown. The cloth had turned black, tendrils of smoke drifted up from smoldering fabric. The phoenix around her neck grew cold.

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Wren wandered through the precincts without direction until she could get someone to stop long enough to give her directions. Eventually, an acolyte directed her to Jharon’s study where she could wait until he finished mass.

Gold paneling and shelves of books lined the walls. Jharon had always been quite diversified in his interests. While many of the texts covered the precepts of war, she saw others on diplomacy, romance, map atlases, cooking primers, treatises on anatomy and other varied subjects.

She wandered around examining little statues, and paintings of various sea and forest scenes; letting her mind idle, trying not to contemplate the meaning of the priestess’ outburst.

My friends are gone. What will I do after the Dagger are taken care of?

Wren heard the second afternoon bell before Jharon entered, dressed in his blue surplice. She gave him a hug.

“Thanks for staying with me last night.”

His angular features were solemn. “That’s what friends are for. You’ve had a remarkable recovery considering what those heathens put you through. I expected you to be down for weeks.”

Wren decided not to tell him about Grahm. Her hand crept to the phoenix symbol. “Ishtar spoke to me in my dreams. She told me to let the dead rest, and that the living must go on.”

He nodded. “Words more true could not be uttered.”

She swallowed. “There was one problem though.”

Jharon raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”

Wren recounted the incident with the priestess.

He frowned. “I felt great evil in your wounds, I did not realize its magnitude. Dame Kirikos is very sensitive. You’ve been touched by potent evil and its aura still clings to you.” He took a breath and ran a hand through her hair. His dark eyes appeared troubled. “This priest who tried to rape you could be an avatar.”

“I don’t care what he is. There are Brethren who will be sacrificed if I don’t get Desiray to help.”

“How will you find her? I hear she’s been missing for a while now.”

“I’ll go to Ivaneth. I’ve heard her speak of the wizard there. He should be able to help me locate her.”

“Ivaneth is a thousand leagues to the East.”

“Sovereign Dauntless of Isis owes the guild favors. He can send me with magic.”

“What if Desiray’s dead, Wren? They might have killed her first. Did that ever occur to you?” His hand tightened on her shoulder.

She shook her head. “They were grilling me about her whereabouts. If they killed her first, they wouldn’t be torturing me to that out now would they?” Taking his hand off her shoulder, Wren patted it and smiled. “I can take care of myself. I have to try. They’re my friends.”

Jharon sighed and closed his eyes with a frown. “You will be the death of me.”

“I’m fond of you too.” She laughed. “We will speak again, I promise.”

Jharon nodded, acquiescing hesitantly. “My prayers go with you little bird. I hope they are enough.”

“They will be.”