Chapter 7 – A Holy Quest

Because of my situation, I am often on the outside looking in. My attachments and my duty are often one and the same. But every day I see people make questionable choices based on misinformation, fear or desperation. I do not believe I have the capacity for self-deception that others do, but then I wonder if that itself might not be a form of self-deception. If Dahr or Eric were here, it is a discussion I could have with them, but they are not. And so, every step of the way, I am forced to question my motivations to make certain I am motivated by duty rather than fear.

                                                                                             Kalutu, The Book of Lost Wisdom

Seventeenth of Learning 1142

Eric, exhausted from his previous exertions, felt himself moved. He had no idea what was going on, but it was extremely uncomfortable. He was surrounded by people, but he couldn’t figure out most of what they were saying. What little he understood suggested that he was undergoing some sort of scans, probably magical in nature. He could tell that the results of the tests had surprised certain people, but he didn’t understand any of what they were saying. They were speaking English, but it was being interpreted into his own language because he had transitioned. And there were apparently too many words in English that had no equivalent in Twylish.

Eventually their conversations became a background drone, and he was able to think. He had been with Dahr and Striker. He remembered trying to attack her. He remembered getting hit really hard by the kreve. He had stood up, but Striker hadn’t ordered the creature to attack. Instead, she had leapt toward him and…kissed him. That’s all he remembered.

That kiss had been different than the kisses he’d shared with Chari. There was no emotion in it only power and malice. Because he couldn’t remember what had come next, he wondered if she had indeed seduced him as she had threatened she would. Chari would be devastated when she found out. Damn Striker. Damn her. What she did was wrong. It was evil. But what else could you expect from the undead.

And they had spies in the palace? Was that possible? Who could possibly be one of them? His mind went over everyone he knew, and he found it impossible to separate out any one person who could possibly be one of theirs. He felt like it was mostly safe to limit it to people who had gone off to fight in the war, but perhaps that wasn’t true either. Striker simply joined an adventuring team. It could be anyone.

What he needed to do was wake up, and take stock of his situation in real life, because whatever was happening here was beyond him. In Mysandrika, at least, he had some control over his life.

Well he had. But now Striker had control. The irony of it was not lost on Eric. Here he was free of mind, but his body was completely inert. There his body could move about freely, but he’d lost control of that body to one of the undead. The very thought sent a shudder through him, or would have if the body he was currently inhabiting had been capable of such a reaction.

So he lay there, thinking, unmoving, listening to background chatter he didn’t understand, hoping against hope that when he again woke, he would be back in control of his other body again.

*

The walk back to the palace was uneventful. No one spoke to High Priest Veloran, even though it was clear to him that everyone still saw him as Princess Chari. He had experienced many weird events over his time as a Priest of Sheba, but this was near the top of his list.

It got worse when he got to the palace and people would bow or curtsy as he passed. He nodded, tried to look regal and counted the seconds until he was back in his room…her room. Anywhere that was out of the public eye.

Eventually that came to pass. He opened the door to Princess Chari’s bed chambers, realizing it was actually Prince Eric’s too, and walked inside, looking around uncomfortably.

Now what? He sat down on a sofa, and tried to figure out what was going on. This lasted all of about thirty seconds, before he was interrupted by a shout.

“Princess Chari, you’ve returned!”

The girl was probably about 11, with long, straight brown hair and green eyes. She had a small, slightly upturned nose and her mouth tried to form a smile, but seemed not quite sure it was the appropriate response, so it ended up looking more like a grimace. Veloran wasn’t sure if he was supposed to know the girl or not, so he studied her but didn’t say anything.

She was young for a serving girl, but that wasn’t uncommon. There weren’t enough older children for the job, so children at the palace were being trained younger than usual.

“Sorry, Your Highness. My name is Willo and Leata sent me to make sure you had everything you needed.”

“Thank you,” said Veloran, relieved that they were strangers.

“Can I get you anything? Tea? A glass of milk? Something to eat perhaps?”

Veloran shook his head. “No thank you. But if you’d like to sit and talk, that would be nice.”

“Sit and talk, Your Highness? Begging your pardon ma’am, but why would you ever want to talk with a mere serving girl.”

“Everyone has value, Willo. That’s a pretty name.”

“It’s not my real name. The kitchen mistress gave it to me, because I was always crying. It’s short for weeping willow.”

Veloran paused. This really wasn’t a conversation he had time for now, but he felt for the girl, who obviously had a tougher life than he did, even at the moment. So, he smiled as supportively as he could manage and leaned forward.

“Why were you crying?”

“The other servants used to pick on me and make fun of me.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I used to think it was because I was an orphan, but then I thought maybe it was because that Leata had shown a special interest in me.”

Leata took a special interest in this girl? That was indeed interesting. “Even if that was the case, it wasn’t very nice of them to make fun of you. It must have hurt.”

“It’s not really their fault,” said Willo. “They weren’t brought up right.” She paused for a second as if thinking. “I bet being a warrior like you is amazing though. No one ever picked on you when you were growing up.”

“That’s true, because I’m a Princess,” said Veloran, uncomfortable with the claim, but playing the role so that he could help the girl.

“I wish I was a warrior. Then I’d be strong.”

“And what would you do if you become a warrior. Would you find the children that made you cry?”

The girl looked confused. “Why would I? Who would that help? I’d find children who were being picked on and put a stop to it. The children that picked on me will be grown ups by the time I become a warrior, but that will never happen. I’m just a servant.”

“You know, I’m good friends with High Priest Veloran at the temple. I bet he could train you to be a warrior.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because sometimes, the goddess touches people who aren’t nobles or rich.”

“Yeah, but not servants.”

Veloran leaned close and whispered conspiratorially. “Do you know who Arimen is?”

“Of course!”

“Well, he was poor when he was young.”

“Really?”

“He was. He was poor and lived a hard life. But it made him stronger. And Sheba touched him, and he became a great warrior.”

“Yes, but that’s Arimen, not me. I’m not important.”

“No one is important before they are. Tell you what, I’ll talk to the High Priest for you and see if I can’t get you an apprenticeship.”

The girl looked suspiciously at him as if she thought it might be a lie, but then let a tentative smile slowly emerge. “That’s very nice of you.”

“From these tiny seeds do mighty oaks grow,” whispered Veloran under his breath.

“Excuse me, Your Highness? I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s nothing. Something I heard a long time ago. Maybe I could use a spot of tea, if you’re still offering.”

The girl jumped up. “Of course, Your Highness.”

She scurried away and left the room, leaving him blissfully alone.

“Did you arrange that?” he asked aloud.

“I did not. It was a pleasant coincidence.”

“I thought you believe everything happens for a reason.”

“I do. That includes coincidences.”

Veloran rolled his eyes, remembered who he was talking to and changed the subject.

“Milady, what am I doing here?”

“We’re waiting, my friend.”

Veloran shook his head in wonder. Gods simply weren’t meant to be that familiar with mortals. “May I ask for what?”

“Of course you may ask.”

“That means you’re not going to tell me.”

Sheba laughed. “That means I’m not going to tell you.”

“The girl, Willo, did she truly have it tough?”

“Dear Veloran. Everyone has it tough. Not everyone comes through it and retains some goodness. The girl is worth the investment. Whether it pays off or not, time will tell.”

“I’m glad. I’m willing to put the time in with her.”

“Are you? Just this morning, you were talking about retirement.”

Veloran’s head jerked up as if it had been pulled by a string. “You wanted this for me.”

“It’s what you needed, Veloran. Not just the weight of responsibility, or the position of authority. You needed human contact again that was more than just peripheral. The girl will be good for you. It’s time you remembered why you became a priest in the first place.”

Veloran nodded. “I do remember. They told me they had cookies.”

Sheba laughed and she was gone. But Veloran felt different after that conversation, as if he’d turned a corner.

Now if he could only figure out what he was waiting for.

*

Chari, Kalutu and a gaggle of familiars all walked toward the palace, carrying what equipment they could take with them, which turned out to be a good deal. Admittedly, most of it was carried by Obby, the cube creature, whatever he was. Apparently it had the ability to flow around everything they were taking and hold it inside, suspended in its gelatinous interior. It had the ability to change its size as well, for it had grown large in order to hold the bulk of the supplies. Obby was as tall as Chari now, still a cube. Chari wondered if it could form other shapes as well.

It moved by extending a pseudopod of slime in front of it and pulling itself along. In fact, it could move surprisingly fast this way. Suspended inside it were all the supplies they needed. The downside to the arrangement was that they couldn’t get anything out fast, so the three of them that could use packs carried other goods on their back, the things they might need in a hurry. If the priests had any questions about the odd group they were provisioning, they didn’t raise them, though a few seemed surprised that Veloran intended to accompany the party.

The trip back to the palace would have been routine, but the expressions on the faces of people the group passed kept the trip entertaining enough. No one knew what to make of them. For that matter, neither did Chari.

Would this motley group of familiars truly be useful in the days ahead? Did she want to be responsible for such a group? Surely they could make up their own minds… or maybe they couldn’t. Maybe as familiars they were used to everyone deciding for them. In which case, taking them along was a form of manipulation.

“Kalutu, are you sure it’s a good idea to take them with us?”

“They are familiars who have lost their masters, Princess Chari. They ache for purpose in life. Giving them purpose helps them. Their presence helps us. I fail to see a downside to this situation.”

A large white and brown falcon descended from the sky and landed on the bear’s back. It didn’t seem to mind. Chari had no idea which one was which, though she assumed the falcon was Wingman. It would take her forever to learn all their names. She thought about how strange this situation was, and hoped against hope that her disguise would remain intact until they got inside the palace.

People stared and pointed, or moved out of the way, but everyone recognized Princess Chari as Veloran, and since he didn’t display panic, no one else did. Once again, Chari marveled at the transformation, and Sheba’s very visible effort to aid them. Whatever was going on was bigger than she had dreamt. A goddess had stepped in on her behalf. Did that mean that Eric and Dahr were in real danger? Was there some time limit she had to reach them? Not knowing was driving her slowly insane.

Focus on the here and now. That was the answer. She couldn’t do anything more than she was already doing, and she couldn’t do it any faster than it was already happening. In record time she’d managed to end up with a team, even if they were used familiars, and a bunch of supplies, even if they’d have to clean the slime off them to use them. She kept things like healing potions and some food in her pack, and wore a water skin on a leather strap across her shoulder as well. The important stuff was on her. The rest of it slid along behind her, suspended in a familiar. Just one normal day, that’s all she wanted.

She glanced at each one of them as they proceeded and thought each might be useful in a different situation. She thought about her lessons with Maynor and decided, when they had a chance, she needed a list of their abilities. They wouldn’t have time to make a proper plan and test it, but knowing the strengths of your team seemed like a good idea. Her thoughts were cut short, when they reached the palace gates.

The guards inside regarded her with surprise and curiosity.

“High Priest Veloran, can I help you?”

“You can let us in.”

“All of you?”

Chari scowled. “What’s the matter? Have you never seen familiars before?”

“Not quite so many at the same time, no.”

“It’s okay. I’ll take full responsibility for them. But I need to speak to the king.”

The guards had a brief whispered conversation, but there was never any doubt that they’d open the gates. No one would deny the High Priest of Sheba entrance to the palace. And with everything else that had happened recently, this was hardly the oddest thing. The gates were opened, and Chari and her party entered, thanking the guards as they passed.

Chari and Kalutu in the lead, they walked into the palace proper, continuing through the lower level until they came upon a passage Sam recognized, at which point he took the lead. They made their way toward the kitchen, passed startled servants and an occasional palace guard, but no one stopped them. Their paths eventually took them to the wine cellar, or more technically a wine cellar, since the palace had more than one. This was where the less collectible wines were stored. More expensive vintages were kept in a private cellar that was kept locked at all times.

Chari worried that the bear, a female named Mal she remembered, wouldn’t fit down the passages they needed to traverse, but it turned out not to be a problem. Once it managed to squeeze through the doorway and make its way downstairs, the aisles in the cellar were quite wide. They continued past several aisles down to a dead end with a wine rack that was mostly empty. It looked like it hadn’t been touched for a long time. Sam stopped here and spoke to all of them.

“This is a secret door into a warren of passages that I wouldn’t want to get lost in so stay close.” He looked sternly at the spider. “And no pranks, Bruce. This place can be dangerous.”

If Bruce were at all offended by being singled out, it didn’t show. It raised two palps in an acknowledgement of sorts, and Sam turned his attention to the rack.

It was several long seconds before he remembered how to get it open, after which he pulled at it, and it swung away from the wall revealing a dark passage beyond. There were glowing lamps that never went out in the cellar, but in the passage beyond that wasn’t the case. Chari took a lantern from her pack and used a tinderbox to light it. Then, slowly, they made their way single file through the doorway.

They walked for some time, until they came to a flight of stairs going even further down, and then another passage that went on for so long, that Chari suspected they were no longer under the palace.

Ahead of them, a door glowed in the darkness. None of them had ever seen a door like it. It was made of metal, and it had no knob or handle on it, but a single lever jutted from the wall beside it.

Sam studied it before speaking. “This wasn’t here the last time I came this way. It was just a passage.”

“I don’t like the look of it,” said Kalutu.

“I don’t either,” said Chari. “What do you think?”

“It’s the direction Eric and Dahr can be found in, but that doesn’t mean it will lead us to them. If we get stuck in here and have to backtrack it will cost us time.”

Chari shrugged. “That’s true. But Sheba didn’t lead us here and give us all this gear for us to turn around at the first sign of possible danger. I mean it’s a door. If this is the worst thing we encounter on our journey, we should count ourselves lucky.”

Chari was clearly in charge, by virtue of rank alone. The decision to proceed was hers, and she’d take responsibility for it. That too was new. Eric really was a bad influence on her. She reached out and pulled the lever. The door swung inward with a hiss, as if the air inside had been trapped and was suddenly released after a long time. It smelt musty and stale, as if no one had opened this door for time out of mind. In the glow of the door, they could make out a corridor running straight ahead and branching both left and right.

“This definitely wasn’t here the last time,” said Sam.

“I wonder,” said Kalutu, “if this might be an entrance to a new dungeon.”

Chari looked at him, then back to the door. “Do you think it might be?”

No one had an answer, except the corridor ahead of them, which let out a barely audible moan that sent a shiver down Chari’s spine.

She drew her sword and slowly advanced, not turning to see if the others followed behind. But she had spoken the truth. She was on a holy quest for Sheba, and nothing was going to stand in her way.

*

Kalutu examined the familiars arrayed behind him, every eye on him, including the eight that belonged to Bruce. Wait a second… didn’t he have two eyes when they met? He was sure that had been the case. Could Bruce change his form? He had only just learned that phase shifters could from that dinner at the palace…had that only been last night? Anyway, if Dreek could change his form, perhaps Bruce could too. He returned his attention to the matter at hand.

“We can’t ask you to follow us. Looking for our masters is one thing, but entering what might be a dungeon is something else. This is too much for me to ask of you.”

We will come with you.

“Is that you Bruce? How are you communicating with me?”

Can you not feel the link between us, master?

“What? It’s impossible. A familiar can’t have a familiar!”

Or two masters. The rules do not seem to apply to you.

Kalutu looked around panicked.

You might want to get used to this. I don’t think it will change any time soon.

“Wingman? You too?”

I think it might be all of us.

The voices were all in his head, but somehow, he could tell them apart.

“What’s going on?” asked Sam.

“I think the familiars have somehow bonded to me.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I agree.”

Sam examined his compatriots and shrugged. “Well, if it’s true, it’s probably good for them. It’s not likely a familiar is going to mistreat other familiars, though stranger things have happened. Obviously, if they’d bonded to you they’re going to follow you, so I’m going to follow as well.”

“Why are they all bonded, but not you?”

“Perhaps the gods need a way for you to communicate with them, and I can talk. Whatever the case, it looks like we’re all going. They’d better have beer in there.”

“In a dungeon?”

“Where is the law that says that monsters can’t be brewers?”

Kalutu didn’t have an answer for that, and with each moment that passed, Prince Dahr and Prince Eric were getting further and further away. He realized Chari was looking at him.

“Are you and your familiars ready?” she smirked.

“You find this amusing?”

“You and your masters are weird. That said, we need to get going.”

Kalutu nodded and, without another word, Princess Chari resumed moving forward into what was most likely a dungeon that hadn’t been there a couple of weeks earlier.

Kalutu followed, shaking his head and muttering to himself. If he was their master and Prince Dahr and Prince Eric was his master, how would his familiars be related to them? Would they be grand masters? It made sense, since a grandfather was just that. Would his familiars obey them, or just Kalutu? If that were the case, Kalutu would have to make sure they all knew to follow Prince Dahr and Prince Eric’s commands.

He also wondered what would happen if Prince Eric and Prince Dahr disagreed on a point. Who then would they follow? Who would Kalutu himself follow? The whole thing was a mess.

The point, if there was one to all this, was he was suddenly responsible, not just for the safety of his masters, but also the safety of a gaggle of familiars that he’d only just met. How was that fair? How would he hold up under that kind of pressure?

Chari had moved into the dungeon, and Kalutu followed. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he felt a chill, like he’d stepped out of the palace on a chilly evening. Without knowing why, he drew his sword and felt his familiars…his familiars…tense at his apprehension, but they followed as he knew they would.

“Can any of you scout?”

Without a word of reply, Bruce walked up the side of the wall, and crawled past Chari, who looked up startled and almost took a swing before recognizing him. Then he moved ahead of her and scuttled back to the floor.

Chari looked back at Kalutu. “A little warning? I almost skewered him.”

I was in no danger. I would have phased before she could strike me.

“My apologies, Princess Chari. I will try to be more forthcoming in the future.”

Chari returned her attention to the corridor and the spider who was getting further and further ahead of them. She started moving cautiously forward.

“Will he be okay out there?”

“I can’t say for sure, but from what little I know of his abilities, he should be fine.”

Sam nodded agreement. “He often scouted for his master, when he was still alive. He can detect traps, feel air currents on the hairs on his legs and body, he can go invisible and phase shift. Of all of us, Bruce is the safest.”

“Thank you,” said Kalutu. Any idea who is the least safe?”

They all looked pointedly at the were-owl.

“Your confidence in my abilities is not flattering,” he huffed, walking faster to catch up to Chari.

*

It’s time to talk to King Terrence, Veloran.

He stood so quickly that Willo was startled by his sudden movement.

“Princess Chari? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, I have to see the King. Thank you for the tea. I hope to see you later, Willo.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”

The girl curtsied, and Veloran looked away. The subservience of the gesture was different than the respect he usually got. People didn’t bow to him, but rather to a servant of Sheba. The respect being shown was for the goddess, not him. This felt quite different, and he didn’t at all like it.

He opened the door quickly, and the guards were immediately alert.

“I need to talk to King Terrence.”

There was a brief whispered conversation, but one of the guards, probably the one in charge, nodded and gave a signal.

“Let’s go, Your Highness.”

The tone of his voice bordered on disrespectful, and Veloran wondered what was behind it, but they set off toward the throne room. Veloran was pretty sure he knew the way and he walked in that direction, the guards following immediately behind. After only a short while, a stern voice called out, just after he had turned a corner.

“Guardsman Sart!”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Veloran had no idea what was going on but turned and walked back around the corner, since the guards had not followed him. Before him stood King Leonid of Melar. All of the guards had turned at the sound of his voice.

“Where is my daughter?”

The guardsman looked around in panic, and said, “She’s right here.”

At which point he ran to the corner and looked around surprised. There was nowhere she could have vanished to in the few seconds he’d been distracted.

“High Priest Veloran,” said King Leonid. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Your Highness. I was just on my way to see King Terrence, as he had summoned me to the palace, but I heard your voice and thought it would be impolite to not offer Sheba’s blessing to a royal guest.”

“Thank you, High Priest. A moment, please. Sart, where is my daughter?”

“She was right here, Your Highness.”

“And where is she now?”

“I don’t know, Your Highness.”

Sart turned hopefully to Veloran. “Did you see Princess Chari just now?”

“Sorry,” said Veloran. “I did not. I haven’t seen her all day in fact.”

Sart paled. King Leonid was livid.

“You were supposed to watch over my daughter.”

“I was, but you called out and I stopped…”

“Are you trying to blame me for your own incompetence?”

“Never, Your Majesty. I’m sorry. We’ll find her.”

“See that you do. Because if you don’t, you’ll be in a world of pain.”

Sart ran down the corridor in the direction the princess had gone, cursing under his breath, though Veloran was close enough to hear it. The guards with him followed.

“Of all the incompetent…” King Leonid realized that Veloran was watching and cut off whatever else he was about to say.

“At least we know she’s in the palace,” he said. “She’ll turn up.”

Veloran didn’t say anything but he nodded as if agreeing and bowed. “You seem to be preoccupied, Your Highness. I must find King Terrence, but if I see your daughter, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”

“I appreciate that,” said the king. “Do you have any children of your own?”

Veloran thought briefly of Willo and shook his head. “Not yet, at any rate.”

King Leonid gave him a long considered stare, before laughing and continuing on his way.