Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 6:32 pm

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 8

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Temples always made me uneasy, even though a patriarch was my friend. In my everyday life, I rarely thought about gods. Imagine my surprise when I learned they were thinking about me. I sure wish they wouldn't...
<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 8<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">Back Alley Revelations</div>
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Wren walked down the cobbled street conscious of everything around her, but especially mindful of the silence that surrounded Jharon. He seemed in pain. The priest walked stiff-legged, his shoulders slumped and his gaze on the paves.

His last words echoed in her head. You will be involved in the matters of gods. Jharon said it as though he quoted dogma from Ishtar’s scriptures. He acted as if he’d signed an edict for her execution. Gods. The word repeated in her mind like the tolling of a doom bell. Gods. It made her cold inside.

She clutched the gold emblem around her neck. What had Grahm and this phoenix gotten her into? She knew what Jharon must be thinking. ‘The matters of gods’. To him, it probably meant an avatar waited back at the Brethren guild. It didn’t matter. She had to get to Desiray and save as many of the guild members as she could. No-one deserved the fate they would receive at the hands of Set’s followers. Sacrifice was the least of the torments they would face.

Wren stayed alert for Dagger thieves, but it appeared her choice of streets had been wise. She walked along acutely aware of the distance between her and Jharon. She sniffed the damp salty breeze. The clamor of pedestrians, merchants, and street priests was a buzz in the background.

The out-of-plumb back alley buildings appeared to lean over them. Poorly squared windows covered in black crepe looked like empty eye sockets. To the East, the spires, minarets, and towers of the greater temples glinted in the noon sun. Farther on, the land rose toward citadel hill, the streets, canals, and quarter walls forming concentric circles around the sprawling green structures of Corwin’s seat of power.

It occurred to her how hostile and alien the city seemed to her now that the Dagger were in possession of her home. She stepped back and took Jharon’s hand. “Ishtar will protect me, won’t she? You’ll see to it, right?”

He looked at her fingers around his. The frown on his face slowly turned to a smile. “Personally,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead.

They arrived in front of Isis’ temple, unmolested. She stared at the huge pyramid shaped structure. Constructed of gold stone, it glittered in the light. Pillars lined the periphery of the huge structure. The gilt-work gates stood open, and a handful of clerics on the steps preached to a gathering of seekers who shuffled uneasily in the mud.

Wren climbed the stairs and spoke to a raven-haired priestess dressed in Isis’ flowing white. “Is Sovereign Dauntless in the temple today?” she asked.

The priestess looked to Jharon and nodded. “The greeter can take you to him.” She indicated inside the temple doors.

The entry hall stood empty except for the many statues depicting the goddess in her roles as mother and maiden, mage and law giver.

A bald dusky-skinned man entered from a side chamber. There didn’t seem to be half enough man to fill his voluminous robes. The man’s aquiline features lit up in an insincere smile. “How may I help you seekers?”

“Sovereign Dauntless,” Jharon said.

The greeter’s eyes widened as if recognizing Jharon. “Does the Sovereign expect you?”

Jharon folded his arms. His voice took on a commanding tone. “Tell him Patriarch Jharon of Ishtar is here.”

The man straightened. “I will inform him directly.” He hurried from the hall. Apparently, Jharon had influence even here in a rival temple.

While they waited, she studied the lavish displays. Gold and silver sparkled everywhere. Rich tapestries, paintings, and other art decorated the walls. The resources of the temple amazed her. She’d never looked at the cults as targets because Desiray harshly punished any of the Brethren who dared to rob a temple. She rubbed Jharon’s arm. He looked down at her a smiled. She suspected that Desiray’s reasons for protecting the cults might be similar to her own.

The greeter returned. “The Sovereign will see you.”

He led them into a sizable chamber lined with books. Behind a large desk, a hawk-faced man sat studying an ancient tome. He appeared to be in his late twenties, his skin dusky like the greeter’s, his black hair down to his shoulders. A white tunic and kilt revealed muscled arms and shoulders likely developed from martial training. Deep gray eyes shone from an angular face. Wren felt transparent to that gaze as if he could see all her secrets.

His rich voice sent a shiver down her spine. “Greetings.” The voice of a trained mage always mesmerized her. Wizards spent years learning to inflect and enunciate with exacting precision. “Master Jharon.” He looked to her. “The lady, I do not believe I’ve met.”

“We haven’t.” She flashed him a smile. “I’m Wren, from the Brethren guild, here on behalf of Mistress Desiray.”

Jharon leaned on the desk. “Sovereign, I believe Set may have an avatar here in the city, a priest who is leading the Dagger guild. The elders of the Brethren may all be dead except for Wren here. Mistress Desiray is missing somewhere abroad. Wren would like your help.”

“An avatar, Patriarch. Are you sure?”

Jharon glanced at the phoenix emblem hanging from Wren’s neck. “Fairly certain, yes.”

The Sovereign’s face turned stormy. “This is grave news. How can I help Ishtar and the Brethren?”

“The Wizard of Ivaneth deals with Desiray,” Wren said. “I would like you to magically transport me there to find out if he can locate her. With Desiray’s help, we might be able to defeat the Dagger.”

The Sovereign rubbed his chin. “You think you can get in to see the wizard?”

“I’ll find a way.”

The Sovereign stared at her, then looked at Jharon. The two men obviously respected each other. There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Done. I owe the Brethren as Wren knows. I shall change robes, prepare my materials and be ready forthwith.” He looked to Jharon. “You are not going?”

“No, responsibilities to my flock,” he said with a resigned tone. He looked at her with longing in his eyes. Not only to be with her, she realized, but for the adventure it represented.

“Ah.” The Sovereign nodded, apparently understanding.

He stepped around the desk and took her by the elbow. “Have you teleported before?”

Wren shook her head, she’d only heard it described.

“Calm your mind and body. The experience while brief, is unsettling.”

Feeling uneasy, Wren nodded. She and Jharon waited in the hall while the Sovereign changed. The man returned shortly. He’d fastened his hair with a silver circlet and pulled it into a long tail. He now wore velvety gray ones.

He guided them to another room, empty save for a large silver pentagram inlaid in the floor. Smaller versions of the big symbol marked the walls and ceiling.

“I will put you as close to the Wizard’s tower as I can.” He positioned her in the pentagram’s center facing the cardinal point.

Wren looked at Jharon. “I hate good-byes.”

“So do I.”

Jharon gave her a firm hug. Face hot, she gripped him hard and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.

“You’ll see me again.”

“I know.” Jharon stepped back and stood behind the Sovereign.

Elation ran through her like a summer wind; a rush of excitement and trepidation. She’d cross half a continent in the blink of an eye. Shivers went up her spine.

The Sovereign began the rhythmic cadence of his spell. The chant sounded like a song that gradually grew in power. Light surrounded his body, concentrating in his swaying hands that now shimmered like suns. The pentagram glowed and the room hummed.

She saw the light reflected in Jharon’s intent gaze. She waved to him. He answered with a clenched fist; the warrior’s victory sign.

With a flick of his wrist, the Sovereign loosed the energy. It exploded around the pentagram, driving inward toward her chest in a blaze of light. For an instant, a crushing pressure hit her, but the sensation abruptly became one of falling. The room, the Sovereign and Jharon toppled away as if disappearing down a tunnel.

She felt acceleration. A blackness yawned around her pierced through by a multitude of colored lights. Her stomach knotted as her destination rushed at her. The threat of impact tightened every tendon and muscle, and she tried to scream.

Wren stopped in mid-yell, realizing a host of people were staring at her. Chest aching, she looked around. She stood in what appeared to be a lightly populated section of a crafts district. She hoped it was Ivaneth. Neat wood and brick buildings lined the street around her. Flower boxes and decorated paper windows threw pastel colors into the otherwise brown and white background.

The remnants of the magic dissipated around her like mist. She staggered as the after-affects of the teleportation hit her. Fighting for balance, she stumbled to a wall for support. Her lungs refused to work. Shooting pain lanced through her brain. She slid down the wall with a groan. The torture faded after several long breaths.

Leave it to a mage to understate something—‘unsettling’ indeed.

When she could breathe again, Wren sniffed the fresh air, a salty tang that made her nostrils burn. She looked up and saw sea birds wheeling overhead.

Ivaneth is a port city too. I must have made it.

“You all right?” asked a deep voice.

Wren glanced up into what was now the radiance of late afternoon. The hulk who’d inquired looked big enough to blot out the sun. Corded muscle stood out on his battle-scarred bare torso. A pair of vacant blue eyes looked out of a round face with high cheekbones and a blocky jaw.

Wren squinted in the brilliant light. “I’m fine.”

He smiled. “Hello, Fine. I’m Kalibosh—Kalibosh Pitchbender. You need help up?” He extended a thick hand. “Dori says I should always try to help people.”

She accepted, scanning the street. “Who’s Dori?”

“My wife. She’s smart. Always knows what to do.”

“I bet she does.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.” Wren frowned. “You know how to get to the wizard’s tower from here?”

He grinned like a little boy. “Go down this street here.” He pointed. “Until it crosses, uh—” He scratched his head. “Oh yes, Cathedral street. Follow Cathedral to the tower gates.” He looked down and toed the ground. “Ummm, do you know what a paper of Tirith-expairsis is? Dori’ll get mad if I tell her I forgot. No one here knows.”

“Oh, that’s a writ to get someone—put in—jail.” Wren stopped. She’d responded without thinking. Being a guilder, she knew that set of papers all too well. “What does your wife do?”

His voice took on a note of pride. “She’s the King’s master litigator.”

“Oh.” Litigators made her nervous, even relations of ones. “Well, Kalibosh, good day and thanks for the directions.”

She headed away.

“Thanks to you!” he called after.

A likable man, if a bit dense. That happened to fighters who’d been hit in the head too often.

Ivaneth was smaller than Corwin, and the streets better kept. She saw few street folk, and merchants were everywhere. Dozens of stalls across the street teemed with humanity. As she walked, Wren realized she’d been looking at the wizard’s tower without recognizing it. The structure dominated the view to the South. An immense spire of stone well over a hundred paces high. The street paralleled the curtain wall that girded the manse at the tower’s base.

On Cathedral, Wren headed south toward the gates. So far everything was going well.

Focused on the tower, Wren only peripherally noticed the shops and stalls along the street. She heard a yell. Then a tavern door on her right exploded. She dodged, averting her face to protect her eyes. It felt as though a log had hit her. She sprawled underneath the weight, side and back stinging. White dots spun before her eyes. Gasping, she pushed at the object covering her.

The thing moved. Wren realized that the projectile had been a person. Face contorted in pain and smeared with blood, the fellow rolled to his knees. He focused on her for an instant, dark eyes filled with fear. A sound in the doorway made him jerk. Three struggling bodies had neared the threshold.

Shaking himself, he tried to rise and run.

“Beia, no!” said a deep female voice. “You’ll get us in trouble sure!”

“Sister, desist!” said another.

The exchange came from two huge women, one with white hair, the other red. They ducked to keep from hitting the top of the door frame. The orders appeared directed at the smaller blonde woman that they struggled to restrain.

The one named Beia glared at the man on the ground near Wren. A star-shaped scar on her left cheek and a black lightning bolt tattoo on the other stood out the woman’s reddened face. “Let go!” She growled. Long hair cascaded across her features as she tossed her head.

The groggy man managed to rise. He swayed like a tree in the wind, fear apparently paralyzing him. Wren recognized the shadowbolt tattoo; a sign of the blade-masters who judged in the grand tournaments. If that woman broke loose, he’d die before taking a step. Thank Ishtar it was the man Beia was mad at. Not her city, definitely not her fight. She couldn’t help the man if she wanted to.

Beia broke loose from the red-haired woman. Her freed fist snapped through a piece of the door as she shook it.

Wren backed up, insides icy. Beia was strong.

“Damrosil!” She kicked the wall. Wood and stone exploded.

Wren retreated farther, still unable to rise. She dared not turn and run. Something else might hit her.

“Calm!” Damrosil snarled at Beia.

The man fled, holding his face together with his hands.

“He’s getting away!” Beia cried.

“You’ll let him,” Damrosil said.

The smaller woman jerked loose with a final heave and punched the wall, scattering bits of stone across the walkway. Wren’s heart did a dance in her chest. Beia’s hand should have been pulp.

“Damn! You saw what he did!”

“Grabbed a handful and put his lips on you. You’re even.”

For Myrmigynes, they spoke the common language well.

“Calm, my sister,” the red-haired one soothed.

The white-haired woman turned to Wren. “All right?”

Wren shook her head, not having the breath for words.

“He probably hit her going through the door.”

Beia walked toward her. Wren’s stomach tightened and she looked for a means of escape. Her body wouldn’t move.

Anger still reddened the blonde woman’s face. Her voice sounded tight. “Sister?” She put a hand on Wren’s shoulder.

Her touch made Wren’s skin prickle. Beia pulled her up. Wren coughed when she tried to take deeper breaths.

A thought rang in her mind.

Could this woman be another avatar?