It’s not right.
As he continued the ceremony, Elerbee, Chosen priest of Sirrah, panicked. It was a simple soul-passing ceremony; the old man’s soul should have appeared by now. He searched the room around him and found no hint of the ephemeral chill that comes with a soul moving along its journey to a new home. The air here was thick and heavy with a sickly sweet smell that made Elerbee wrinkle his forehead as his anxiety grew. His hands involuntarily moved to clutch at the pristine white robe he wore.
“Something’s wrong,” he heard himself whisper.
The three younger priests were staring at him, confused at his breech of silence which was required of the ritual. The soul of the dead man should have responded directly to his spell. It should have flowed from the body in its radiance and upon command, should have then found its next home; passing from one living being to another. A soul could chose whatever life it found attractive at the moment of passing. What was a man for one lifetime, may chose to live its next as a cat, fish or even a plant.
The intricacies of the ceremony relied heavily upon the priest performing it. Elerbee had done this ceremony many times – for fellow priests, common farmers and even beloved pets. The more complicated the being, the more intricate the ceremony. This man had been a fellow Chosen. Sirrah, the same god Elerbee served, had laid his hand upon him and left his mark, making him an honored priest and someone worthy of a little pomp and circumstance.
There was a reverence to the ceremony, however; a solemn undertone of quiet respect for the gravity of leading a soul to its next phase of life. When Elerbee spoke, he broke the reverence, causing the others to regard him curiously. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
He began his barely audible chant once more. The words wound through his veins and warmed his heart, giving him an awe-inspired feeling of being very near his god. He passed his hands over the body before him, tracing the prescribed sigil patterns from head to toe. When he murmured the last of the chant, opened his eyes and prepared for the soul to lift out and float above the lifeless body, the same sharp pang of wrongness jolted him.
There was no soul.
The others were fixed on him, their expectant gazes boring holes through him. He had no idea what was happening. Never in his time as a Chosen had he ever encountered a being with no soul. A cough escaped his dry throat and he fumbled for the bracelet on his right wrist and nervously twisted the loose strands of twine. One of the others dared ask what they were all thinking.
“Master,” the youngest, and an apprentice by the looks of him, began quietly, “what does it mean?”
“I—“ Should he lie? Try to appease them and quell the fear?
“I telled ye! I telled ye the souls were missing!” a man in the corner of the room pushed forward. His sparse white hair stuck out in all directions and the only two teeth left to him were a sickly yellow. He was a citizen here, in the town of Fareath. The deceased Chosen was one of a handful of priests that had been sent to investigate the claims of the people here that someone was stealing the souls in this small farming community.
Elerbee thought quickly, as the murmurs of those gathered rose in alarm. “Sir, it is only that I have performed the ceremony wrongly. The chant was in the wrong key, perhaps.”
“Nossir. ‘Is soul ain’t there. I seen it last time. Look, there,” he stretched a bony finger to point at the old priest’s chest. “There’d be a mark, I ‘spect. A small white mark, look like a snake.”
All eyes again moved to Elerbee. Expectant gazes that made him want to shrink into the floor. He rubbed his hands on the robe. Despite his best efforts at control, his hand quivered as he reached for the elder man’s robe. He managed to grasp the edge of the fabric and move it gently, trembling at the chill of the corpse as his fingers brushed lightly over the skin. On the dead man’s chest, just below the jutting clavicle bone; a slightly raised white mark. Indeed, it could be described as looking like a snake, but, more accurately it resembled a small letter “s”, turned on its side. It was whiter than the skin around it and puckered together as a scar would. He hesitated, reached out to trace the figure with his index finger.
A shock made him snatch his hand away and he strangled a frightened cry before it could escape him. If he was scared, those around him must be terrified. He reached immediately again for the bracelet on his wrist and he absently rubbed at the flat, violet dragon scale surrounded by a myriad small, interesting stones. Instantly, he felt a wave of comfort wash over him and he let out the breath he had obviously been holding. He knew what he was to do; he had to get this information back to the Elder, he had to prep this man’s body for the journey and he had to find someone nearby to help escort him and his acolytes back to Jareen. They couldn’t use magic to travel with a corpse in tow.
“We have to get him back to the Elder. Darin,” he turned to the young man beside him, “prepare the body to travel. I will be back in five minutes.”
“Where are you going?”
“To contact the Hierarchy. We need an escort back to Jareen. Someone to help protect us and our cargo. None of you have learned combat magic and it’s not a good idea that I be the only one who can protect the four of us and what we carry.” He swept out of the room quickly. No more questions – he didn’t have answers for them, anyway.
The small mud hut he and the other priests were sharing was down the street, just past the main square. It was small, with only three rooms; a sleeping chamber, a small kitchen and a gathering room with table and chairs. It wasn’t much, but they weren’t used to anything more. Priests are in service to others, their own indulgence was secondary.
As Elerbee knelt before a small, hastily constructed altar, he placed a tiny wooden statuette on the uneven surface. It was the physical likeness of Sirrah, although the features had been almost obliterated by constant handling. He pulled a medallion from around his neck and laid it gently next to the wooden image.
“Lord of light and goodness, hear my prayer,” he began. Elerbee felt the familiar warmth pulse in the raised circle at the base of his neck and spread out to the rest of his body. Just as quickly, a chill ran behind it, making him shiver. What? He tried again.
Fear gripped him and he struggled to push it down before it could consume his thoughts. He had to keep his mind clear. The god did not respond to doubt and distrust. He had to get himself together; the missing soul had shaken him that was all. He took a deep, cleansing breath and blew it out.
Closing his eyes, he brought to mind the image of his god that was with him since the day he was Chosen. He concentrated on the shimmering light that radiated from the deity. Love, compassion, trust, and warmth flowed from the being and Elerbee reached out to embrace it and hold it near his heart. A soft smile spread across his face and he melted into the light to become one with it.
His words were slow and measured. “Lord of light and goodness…hear my prayer…”
This time the warmth wrapped him like a velvet cloth, protecting him from any misgiving that might find its way through. He continued speaking, barely conscious of the words he whispered to the empty room.
Then the light blazed; brighter than any man could imagine and as it receded, images formed. They were ringed in the brightness and barely visible beyond the spots created by the glare. Voices rose in volume, he heard his name.
“Elerbee! We didn’t expect to hear from you. All is well, I trust?”
“As a matter of fact…” the others kept speaking as though he had said nothing.
“…and then the Elder went…Lucas was there and you can’t imagine…Something’s happening to the image…Elerbee? Can’t you hear me?”
Only snatches of voices were coming through and the puzzled looks of the priests he could see told him they were just as confused. The light wavered; he tried speaking again.
“Brother, is there anyone … strengthen the spell?” the broken voice asked.
There were a few light flares then the brightness dimmed, leaving the room temporarily in blackness. As his surroundings came into sight, Elerbee sank back and let out a loud sigh.
What was happening here? Was this town in a void? How else could he explain the utter failure of every spell he had tried to command? He had heard that voids existed but he had never actually encountered one. His mentor had told him of a town where no one believed in any of the gods, they ruled themselves and somehow had shielded their village from any contact with the deities, rendering any spiritual magics useless. But, the people of this village did believe in the Triad, they even accepted the lesser gods of some of the outlying lands; they had a Devotee that hosted minor ceremonies once per month. Elerbee’s confusion grew with each of these thoughts. None of this was making sense.
A noise brought him back to the present. He was clutching his white robes so tightly his knuckles were almost as white as the fabric. The feeling that he was not alone was so strong that he turned his head, fully expecting one of his acolytes to be standing there. No one. Maybe he heard nothing; his nerves were so on edge he would have jumped at the wind.
Why were his spells failing him? If this area was some sort of void, he couldn’t rely on traditional methods of spiritual power. His eyes went to the bracelet encircling his wrist. Conventional magic may work; he could contact his friends. Perhaps they could shed light on the strange happenings he had been up against. He loosened the strands that held the bracelet in place. Laying the band out on his hastily-made alter, the gems caught the sparse rays of sunlight that had snaked through the high window and sparkled. In the center of the brilliant blue, red, yellow and green gems, was an intensely deep plum-colored dragonscale. Strands of gold and contrasting raven hair were woven together and bound it all tightly.
A piece of each of them. His companions and dearest friends had all contributed to make these wristlets for one another so they could stay connected; in times of loneliness, happiness or need. He needed them now. Meylaran, who had been the last of dragonkind on Cantor had contributed to each a scale from her glorious hide; Thom, a Mage of the Circle, had bolstered the magic within the scales with stones, necessary to conduct conventional magic. The golden hair was taken from their fallen comrade, Bob – Meylaran’s beloved uncle and wise tutor. He was an elf from the lands of Orphana. The course, raven hairs were from their dwarven companion, Durlag. His own claim to history was that his father banished the last of dragonkind to the outlying planes. Yet, they had all come together to guide Meylaran on her journey to discover her heritage and claim her position as a ruler of the lands. Dragons had always been the sovereign leaders of Cantor, except for the last one hundred years. Now, they had their rightful place and balance had come back to the lands; even the abominable creatures that had been able to claw their way through the fabric that had thinned between the planes were falling into line and being tempered by the presence of the Dragons.
Elerbee concentrated on the purple scale while he mentally called out to Meylaran. She was connected to them all; an ability inherited through her elven heritage but made strong with her dragonblood. The scale pulsed, slowly at first, gaining momentum as Elerbee continued to call to his friend. He felt the mental “pop” as her consciousness connected to his. It was liken to the strings of a harp being pulled to their limits, then let go to snap back into place. He felt her happiness at hearing from him and he smiled. She was excited about something else, as well, but he was shielded from most of her thoughts; only allowed to share the ones that pertained to him. He could feel it, though. Her smooth, calming voice chimed like bells through his mind.
Elerbee! What a pleasant surprise! How are you?
Mey, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear your voice. Things could be better, I’ll admit.
Worry flooded him and he quickly tampered it by letting her know he was alright. When he mind-spoke with her, feelings were the most prominent; conversation was secondary. He could feel what she was thinking before he could hear it.
I am fine. Just at a loss. I think I am in a void and can’t contact my Order. I am in need of an escort back to Jareen. He continued to explain his situation to her, imparting as much detail as he could to explain the absence of the souls and the failing magic. He left out the creepy feelings of being watched. That was probably just his overactive imagination.
Durlag is just a day’s travel from Fareath. He is helping to rebuild a dwarven mine in Cas. Thom’s deep baritone broke through the conversation and Elerbee grinned. He should have known she wouldn’t be without him. We could speak him and send him your way. He could be there first thing in the morning.
As much as I would love to see Durlag…Elerbee had hardly gotten the thought out before Meylaran interrupted him.
Elerbee, what else is going on? I can feel your anxiety and it’s so overpowering, even I am jumping at shadows!
I’m just a bit concerned about my spells not working. I don’t know why I can’t communicate with Sirrah. I guess I’m just unnerved at his absence.
He felt her send a calming wave to him. He took a deep breath and let her do it. He needed it. Muscles that had, only moments before, been tense knots of worry and doubt, melted into warm, liquid peacefulness. The next thing he knew, she was speaking again.
…so we’ll send Durlag your way. I’ll speak him now so he can be there as quickly as possible. The connection was gone before he had a chance to protest any further.
Some of the tension immediately flowed back through him, but Mey’s calming effect lingered to help keep it mostly at bay. Great. Durlag. The dwarf had proven himself on the last journey but he was also a hopeless drunk. Elerbee found himself counseling him on the evils of imbibing too far into his cups more often than not.
Elerebee sighed. “I guess a drunken dwarf is better protection than nothing.” He let his hands fall to his lap with a slap. Well, they were stuck here in this void for another night. That thought did nothing to keep the calm feeling Mey had planted in him and more muscles tightened with apprehension.
No use dwelling on it. He had to inform the others and make arrangements to store the elder Chosen’s body. As he began to rise, he again felt the overwhelming sensation that he was not alone. His skin crawled and all his senses came alive. He was trained for battle, and the past year had him more attuned to his senses than ever before. Elerbee did the first thing that came to mind: he closed his eyes. If he had learned anything from traveling and fighting with Meylaran Moonshadow, whose occupation up until the past year had been thieving, it was never to trust your eyes. Opening himself to his surroundings, he relied on other senses: smell, touch, hearing. Elerbee took it further and opened his mind to this place; as soon as he did, he stumbled and had to catch himself. The entire atmosphere was off-balance here. He felt his throat tighten, he gasped for breath and anxiety threaten to overtake his sanity.
Just get out, he told himself. The few steps to the door were like walking through syrup. Once outside, he took a deep breath and let his senses right themselves. He wouldn’t do that again, he vowed as he shook his head. No one was watching him; it had to be this place and the void that it was in. Priests were just overly sensitive to any spiritual disruptions and the missing souls here could have something to do with how off he was feeling.
He hurried his steps as he headed back to inform the others they would be stuck here one more night to await their escort. The body could be kept at the ice-house in the middle of town for the night but once they began their journey, he would have to enchant it to keep it cool enough. Traveling traditionally, it would take them a week to reach Jareen.
He found the same crowd waiting for him at the Town’s Hall. All the townsfolk were buzzing to one another about who would be the next to wind up on this table without a soul. It was a frightening notion – to be without a soul. How would you carry onto the next life journey? Elerbee shuddered as he dwelled on the thought. His three acolytes were gathered in a knot as far from the body of the Chosen priest as they dared. Not that anyone else would come near it; the prospect that they could “catch” anything from it kept even the most brazen town thieves well away. Everyone looked to him expectantly as he approached.
“We will be required to stay one more night. Our escort will arrive in the morning.”
Hopefully no one caught the slight roll of his eyes as he uttered the word “escort.”
That evening, Elerbee answered confused questions and reassured his younger counterparts. They were worried, and rightly so, about the failure of Elerbee’s spells and the fact that they could be in a void.
“I’ve heard that demons create these voids. It’s not natural to have an absence of the gods,” Darin was telling his fellows.
The big, red-headed one, Archer, Elerbee thought his name was, shook his head in agreement.
“I think we’re safe from demons here,” Elerbee assured them. “I can’t feel the presence of any evil. Only an impression that something isn’t quite right.” Even as he said the words, he had to mentally steel himself. He picked at his immaculate robes. There wasn’t anything there, it was something he did when he was anxious.
“But what about the missing soul?” Darin asked. “And the old man said there had been others.”
“We don’t have any proof there really were any others,” Elerbee told him.
“A report of the suspicion should still be made, Master. The Elder will want to know how the townspeople are reacting to this anomaly.”
“True. The more information we can give him, the better he can assess the situation. Good thought, Darin. You can prepare a report for him as we travel.” Darin’s smile spread from one ear to the other. Elerbee remembered being an acolyte. Anything you could do to be noticed by the Elder and the Chosen was an achievement. The priests who made themselves known and indispensable to the Higher Order were likely the ones who would be sent on assignments. If you kept quiet, you were likely to end up a scrivener in one of the many schools in Jareen, never seeing the outside of the city proper. Some, like the third in his small party, were destined to only serve a year or two and then be moved to a smaller, outside town. This boy, Erik, had aspirations that extended only to his own hometown. His homesickness was written all over his face.
Elerbee’s own thoughts turned to his mother and sister. He was supposed to have been with them right now. His mother would understand. Again. His sister would be furious. A small smile touched his lips, briefly. Sadness at why his visit was necessary crashed at him with a force that threatened to knock him from his feet. His father had died; his heart finally giving out after years of hard work in the fields. Elerbee had been ready to go, to help his mother and sister settle his father’s affairs and move them closer to him. They would have put up a fight, he would have insisted. But the Elder had called on his service. And a Chosen’s first responsibility was to his god. He swallowed hard, blinking back tears. There was no choice; his god had demanded his service.
And now he’s left me alone here.
A touch on his arm made him jump, abruptly jolting him from his reverie. It was Erik.
“Master? What would you have me do?”
“For the fallen Chosen’s soul?”
“For all our souls, Erik. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get.”