Chapter 19.

30th Day of Early Spring 768 n.c

Malkarov woke me about noon. I hadn't even woken when he returned and he must have let me sleep. It was a fitful sleep though and not very refreshing; full of vivid dreams of dead kobolds and a recreation of the events the previous night but with the chief's spear piercing me through the chest instead of bouncing away off my Shield. Malkarov woke me just as I had collapsed onto my knees in agony, the scaly devil's tooth filled maw about to bite my face.

"Oh!" I exclaimed when I opened my eyes, relieved and surprised to see his face right there in front of mine, "I'm so sorry, I must have fallen asleep!"

"That's alright Sharein," he said with a smile, "something tells me that you were up quite late last night. Would you like to freshen up and then bring down a couple of hot drinks?"

"Of course!" I said, hopping up out of the seat and heading upstairs to use my in-house. I set off some water into the bath and splashed my face to wake me up a little more and clean the gunk from my eyes. Once I felt a little better I went up to the kitchen to make two mugs using Malkarov's favourite herb blend, I brought them back down and handed one to Malkarov then sat down back into my arm chair.

"Thank you Sharein," Malkarov said and then began, "right then. Why don't you tell me what you got up to last night?"

I blushed a little and the feeling of guilt returned, but I launched into a recounting of the events of the previous night (excluding of course any reference to Shard). Malkarov nodded in a self-satisfied way when I told him about using Elemental Bolt to kill the first kobold warrior.

"I remembered the way the other kobolds looked when I saw that body," he interrupted, "that's how I knew you were responsible."

"But," I said confused, "what happened to the other kobold then. The chief was the only one there."

"I picked it up and dragged it into the forest a little ways," he replied, "I just hoped that the townspeople wouldn't go looking too far. Continue though, I'd like to know what happened after that."

I was thankful that Malkarov covered my tracks like that. I could not have imagined what might have happened had the townspeople seen that. I continued my story and stopped it just prior to my discovery of Illith.

"Well then," Malkarov said, then asked, "would you have done anything differently?"

I thought about it for a moment, "No, I don't think I would have. Everything seemed to work out, perhaps if I had scared them enough they might have fled but I get the feeling that the kobold leader might have been acting to ensure its control over the tribe."

"Good, good," Malkarov nodded, "it's important to go over the way you handled situations and think about how you might have improved the outcome, it ensures that you know better next time you are put into a similar situation. Now, why did you do it and should you have?"

"What do you mean should I have?" I asked, confused. I think we both understood why I did it, but what did he mean by 'should I have'?

"You are always put into situations where you can do something. Where you can fix a problem, especially when you have access to the magic that we have, but the question most everybody seems to forget about before the doing is 'should I do this?'" Malkarov explained, "just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean that you should do something."

I thought about that for a moment before saying, "just because I can use magic to fetch things for me instead of standing up and getting it myself doesn't mean that I should?"

"Exactly!" Malkarov exclaimed, "but why?"

"If I use magic to do everything for me then I might exhaust myself?" I posited.

"Yes, that's true," Malkarov agreed, "or you might get close to exhaustion and something will happen that will require the use of more magic? If you merely summoned everything to you, you might get quite a bit larger. People who are unable to get out of bed, but maintain a healthy appetite can grow so large that they cannot get out of bed even should they want to. Movement is necessary for good health as well, without the movement you might get short on breath after a short walk?"

"Okay," I said, with a better understanding, "well then. Why I did it was that I couldn't let the people of Easthaven kill all of those innocent female kobolds and the young ones. The children in town didn't have a say in the vote to attack the kobolds and there were very few women present at the meeting, maybe those kobold young and females didn't have a voice in their attack on our town?"

"Yes," Malkarov said, nodding, "I agree. I said much the same in the meeting and your reaction made me wonder even then if you might not take matters into your own hands. Now… should you have done so?"

"If I didn't do it, then the townspeople might have murdered all of the kobolds," I suggested, "one or two of them might have been injured or even killed in the attack?"

"What about the kobolds?" He asked, "what do you know of them?"

"Some might have fled?" I suggested and he nodded for me to continue, "they might have found other kobolds and brought them back to get revenge?"

"Yes, yes," he exclaimed excitedly, "a never ending circle of hatred. They attack us because we attack them because they attack us because we attack them," he repeated drawing a circle in the air with his finger pausing at the top of bottom with each 'us' and 'them'.

"It's better to put a stop to that sooner rather than later," he continued, "of course with some races like orcs or goblins there is often a bloodlust there and a desire to kill that overrides any sensible resolution and they must be attacked straight away, without hesitation."

I nodded in understanding. The orc wars had been going for longer than I cared to think, even books written fifty years ago contained references to them. Nobody knew why the orcs and their goblin allies continued to attack Carn, but they did. Even if there was a slight lull at present, the general thought always was that they would attack again soon when the topic was raised in discussion.

"All right then," he said, "why don't we walk down to the Pig and Wheelbarrow to see if Missus Rose has anything good for lunch?"

"That sounds like a fantastic idea," I agreed and we both stood up to return our mugs to the kitchen and then to head out to the Inn.

On the way, once we had crossed over the bridge, I spotted a small blackbird that had been killed, resting on the ground next to the path. My mind flashed an image of the body of the kobold that I had killed with Elemental Bolt and the bodies of the kobolds that I had killed during the attack on the village and the bodies of the kobolds that I'd killed during the raid on our farm. All of them, all of the death, all of the dead. It was so sudden and unexpected that it made me stop. I blinked to get rid of them, to force my mind onto something else but it didn't work.

It had worked all of the other times before, when something made me randomly think of the lives that I had taken, "why doesn't it now?" I whispered to myself.

"Sharein?" I heard Malkarov shout but I didn't look up as I was suddenly distracted by the salty taste in my mouth.

'What was that?' I thought, 'tears?'

My vision went dark and I realised with a start that Malkarov had taken me up in a hug and I was sobbing into his shoulder. The visions of kobolds had receded and I could feel more clearly once again.

"There there," I heard Malkarov say, and could feel him rubbing my back gently.

I lifted my head, "I'm sorry," I apologised.

Malkarov let me go and handed me a handkerchief to clean my face on, which I gratefully accepted and used.

"There's nothing to apologise for," Malkarov said, "what was wrong though?"

"I was just thinking about all of the kobolds that I'd killed and how I killed them," I explained, "I don't even know why… I mean, I saw the dead bird down here…" I pointed to the blackbird beside the bath, "and it all just came up."

"Ah," he sagely replied, "it happened to me also once, after I helped track down some bandits that were praying on travellers."

"But why?" I asked. Why would I be beset by these images?

"It's too much, too quickly," he explained, "we know that it's wrong to kill people, but what about when the people need killing? It takes a lot to override that restriction inside of us to do something that we know we shouldn't. We don't feel it for animals and I've never felt it for kobolds, goblins or orcs to be honest. But for you, it's your first time and at a guess I'd say that you just haven't been thinking about it?"

"Pretty much," I said, "I've been occasionally thinking about it, but I've made myself think of something else by blinking away the visions."

"You've probably been treating killing kobolds like killing animals," he explained, "we generally don't feel bad about killing a lamb or a chicken for instance, but with the way you interacted with that kobold child last night I guess that you are starting to see them more like people?"

His words made sense. The kobolds that attacked the farm were similar to any wild animal attack and so was the attack on the town. I had seen them as nothing more than that.

I nodded sadly, "How do I go on, how can I keep doing this?"

He sighed, "You just need to put it behind you and continue on, that's all there is to it. You will likely see some truly horrible things in this world, things that will keep you awake for nights on end… But you will be able to put it behind you, you will because you must, because there is no other option. Eventually, you sleep again. But it's important to know that it's normal, completely. If you didn't feel anything, then I might worry. I've known one person like that, an assassin who could sneak into an enemy camp and kill indiscriminately. Human or orc, it didn't matter to them. We spoke quite frankly one night about this sort of thing and they disclosed to me that they were aware that they were different from everybody else, that they knew there was something broken inside of them. They just didn't feel... at all."

"Why do you keep calling them; they?" I asked, confused.

Malkarov laughed, "That's what they asked me to refer to them as. As an assassin they would dress as a man or as a woman to infiltrate the place where their target was and one day I asked them exactly what they were; a man or a woman? They said that they were born a woman, but never felt any attachment to being a woman, or a man. They said that they were neither, which made them a perfect assassin. I asked them if all assassins were the same and they laughed at me, 'No, just me.' they said."

"Are there many assassins?" I asked.

"The Druaga-darg, the Brotherhood of Druaga, the Allarthian God of Death," Malkarov explained, "are the guild that they belong to. I don't know how many assassins there are, but you can take out a contract with them or you can pay them a large sum to hire one for a period of time. This one, the Baron had hired them to take out a number of enemies including a bandit lord and some orc warriors."

We were interrupted by Father Mattias and Sister Tera walking over the bridge. Both were using their usual robes and were talking animatedly between them.

"Malkarov and Sharein!" He called cheerfully when he saw us, "how good to see you both. Sister Tera and I were just heading over to the Pig and Wheelbarrow for some lunch, would you care to join us?"

Malkarov looked to me, silently asking a question that I assumed to be, 'are you alright with that?' I nodded in return.

"Of course!" Malkarov exclaimed, "we would love to have lunch with you both."

And so we continued our eventful journey towards lunch accompanied by the Priest and Priestess of Mithras. On the way Sister Terra asked after my health, explaining that I, "look a bit pale." I told her that I was fine and just a bit hungry. Malkarova and Father Mattias meanwhile had seemed to pick up a conversation out of nowhere. I looked between them confused.

Sister Terra giggled, "they do this all the time. The last conversation they had, they will just pick right up again as if they had never stopped. It frustrates me no end."

Malkarov and I entered the Pig and Wheelbarrow first and were greeted by Missus Rose.

When she saw Father Mattias and Sister Tera come in behind us she greeted them and then questioned Malkarov, "It's not a nine day or are you making up for missing yestereve? Would you like the usual room?"

I looked at him questioningly, but he just nodded to her, "Please, if you would be so kind."

Missus Rose escorted us up to one of her private meeting rooms on the second floor. Having never had a reason to stay in the Pig and Wheelbarrow, nor really set foot into the establishment prior to taking up my apprenticeship with Malkarov, I hadn't ever seen them first hand but had heard of their existence.

"Father Mattias, Sister Tera and I meet here for dinner every nine day, usually," Malkarov explained to me as we went up the stairs.

Once Missus Rose had escorted us into the room, I saw that it was decorated with utilitarian furniture and two paintings. One of the paintings depicted the town of Easthaven from a direction and height that could be nothing other than from the roof of Malkarov's tower. The other painting was of a waterfall, running over a stone cliff. The room was nice and warm, and smelled of the freshly picked spring flowers that decorated a vase on a buffet hutch. A window at the end of the room looked out over the road and had an excellent view of Malkarov's tower and the church.

Malkarov, Sister Tera and Father Mattias sat down automatically in what I supposed were 'their' chairs at the table. I followed their lead and sat down next to Malkarov.

"Something for lunch and the usual?" Missus Rose asked.

"Please," Father Mattias replied and directed everyone's attention to me, "ale or wine Sharein? I suppose that Malkarov has been making you drink nothing but ale, while I prefer a nice red wine and Sister Tera prefers a sweeter white. "

Malkarov blustered good naturedly at the jibe as I replied, "I confess that I have drunk more ale as Malkarov's apprentice than I had ever had previously, but have found that I quite enjoy the taste," I looked at Missus Rose, "an ale for me, if I may."

Missus Rose winked at me conspiratorially and left with a strange smile, an action which Malkarov completely missed but which was noticed by the two clerics.

Father Mattias raised an eyebrow at me and I responded in kind.

Father Mattias deferred but Sister Tera spoke up, "Missus Rose seems exceedingly pleased that you and Malkarov share a liking for ales."

I blushed a little and listened carefully to see if I could still hear the sound of Missus Roses'

boots on the steps outside. I gave an apologetic smile towards the wizard.

I spoke quietly "Missus Rose said to me once, that she believes that Malkarov 'needs a wife' and suggested that perhaps that 'one must be a wizard to marry a wizard' is the reason why he has never made eyes at any of the girls or women in town."

Malkarov was staring at me wide eyed while the two priests started cackling, this made Malkarov snicker a bit.

"I confess, that I completely missed what she was suggesting at the time and was much preoccupied with my own worries that a wizard could only marry a wizard," I continued. This revelation renewed their lagging laughter and caused my cheeks to burn red.

Once their laughter calmed down a little, Sister Tera asked, "what did you think when you realised what she was suggesting?"

I sighed, "It wasn't until Missus Rose first saw me in trousers that she commented that 'You'll never catch the heart of the wizard dressing like that!' that I realised what she was saying. I confess that my first thought was that I might have more luck in trousers than a dress."

This made everyone at the table laugh uproariously, Father Mattias most of all.

"I must say Sharein," Sister Tera confided, once she had dabbed the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief, "you do look rather fetching in trousers. These robes," she said, indicating her shapeless white woolen robes, "do not show anything of my figure."

She sighed wistfully, "but then, who would I show that figure to?"

"I could always see what Amaldra is doing at the moment?" Malkarov suggested and I had the distinct pleasure of watching the usually stoic and unflappable priestess blush like a young girl.

"I do not understand why you persist," she said to the wizard a little crossly, "you know as well as I that the last time she was in Easthaven I worked up the courage to ask her here to share a bottle of wine with me. She was pleasurable company indeed, but it was only a friendly outing to her."

"You two are a hopeless case," Malkarov said, "I know for a fact where your interests lie and I'm mostly certain that her's are in the same… direction."

"I think you need must face facts Malkarov," said Father Mattias, "that you might need to find a new quarry?"

Malkarov laughed once and looked slyly across at the old priest, "I did tell you about that acquaintance of Alladrial's didn't I? That priest of Alii'alarana?"

Father Mattias made a warding gesture, "you know my vows Malkarov, I cannot be tempted so readily."

Malkarov chuckled next to me, "I know, I know. Such a silly promise to make."

"We all know where I stand on the rules as laid down," Father Mattias replied, "but it was my promise to make and I did so honestly, regardless of it's warrant."

Missus Rose returned then, with our drinks. I had expected simply glasses and cups, but she brought with her two bottles of wine and a jug of ale along with the full glasses and cups.

"It's fried battered flatfish from the river today," Missus Rose informed us, "along with duck fat fried chipped potatoes and a servach salad."

"That sounds delicious, dearest Missus Rose!" Malkarov announced, "I await such a fine meal eagerly!"

Missus Rose was all blush and smiles as she left, closing the door behind her.

I looked at Malkarov and then pointedly at the bottles and jug and he smiled, "yes," he said, "this is what we get up to when you're not around."

"I didn't…" I began, but Father Mattias waved away my denials, "I must say, Missus Rose keeps a tight lip about it, but if the rest of the townsfolk knew they would probably see us as somewhat more 'normal', more like them. It is helpful, for them to have the impression that we three… we four, are somewhat more. It lends an authority beyond that of the church, or magic."

I nodded, surprised that he would talk so bluntly and suddenly aware of how correct his statement was. I had always seen him, more so than Sister Tera, to be… not aloof, but apart from everyone else. He almost never came out to visit anyone and didn't really seem to have 'friends' as such. Sister Tera often left the church to perform her healing duties, but likewise she never seemed close to anyone else.

"I don't think that I could possibly break off my friendships with Mari, Beka or Brahdi," I said, worried that was what he was hinting at.

"Oh, no…" he said, "to begin with you are… merely an apprentice, but it will be something to consider when you move to your own town."

"If you move to your own town," Malkarov corrected, "although Father Mattias hates the idea of one of his… children going out into the world as an adventurer, it is a perfectly valid use of your abilities. Whatever you decide to do, I'm sure we will support."

Although both Father Mattias and Sister Tera nodded at this, I wondered how supporting they would be if they knew that I was fully committed to becoming a Chosen of Tenebrae?

"Of course," Father Mattias said, "whatever you wish to do Sharein, we will assist in any way we are able… I just got the feeling that there might be something, or someone that might potentially keep you in Easthaven?"

"Oh?" asked Malkarov and I had three pairs of eyes eagerly looking at me, waiting for me to spill my romantic secrets to them.

"What…" I stuttered, all a-panic, I hadn't said anything and I didn't think that I had given anything away, "what makes you say that?"

"Nothing I can put in words," he said with a chuckle, "except your reaction just now. Don't worry, we won't push. Those of us without romantic lives of our own live for the stories of others, as much as it sometimes pains us."

We chatted about local matters after that, which mostly concerned the goings on of townspeople and news of the orc-wars. Mostly Malkarov and Father Mattias, at least. Sister Tera and I mostly listened and interjected occasionally (she more than I). Soon, lunch arrived and we all ate eagerly, washing down the delicious meal with our chosen beverages. Missus Rose returned periodically with another bottle or jug and took away the empty ones.

Once we had all finished lunch, we continued our discussions.

"Have you ventured out much?" Father Mattias asked, "I recall that there are many components that you like to collect in Early Spring."

"We had been," Malkarov replied, "but of course this tenday has been rather… busy with other things."

"Ah!" Father Mattias exclaimed, "I had wondered whether you met the new Novice Sister Alia at the church in Sunhaven?"

"No," Malkarov replied, "we didn't visit the church."

"Oh," Father Mattias said, sounding disappointed.

"Should we introduce ourselves to her?" I asked.

"If it suits," Father Mattias said, "she joined the sisterhood for similar reasons to Sister Tera."

That sneaky old man!

"I thought you said that you wouldn't push?" I asked, much colder than I felt I would ever have dared before today. Maybe it was that I suddenly felt a part of their 'group', or that the pedestal I had put him on earlier was now gone, or perhaps it was just the effects of the ale. Either way, I seemed to have more confidence to treat him differently than I would have and It did actually shock me a little.

He threw up his hand, "I'm sorry," he said, "I did say that, didn't I. I just thought that it might have explained a few things."

I wondered for a brief moment what other things it might have explained, until I recalled our earlier conversation.

Before I could say anything, Malkarov asked, "what things?"

I tried to shoot the old priest a 'look', but he had turned his head to the wizard next to me.

When he opened his mouth, I briefly considered jumping across the table to cover it with my hands, "why… Sharein's knowledge of severing."

I fair near let out a growl, like some sort of wild beast.

Malkarov looked confused and asked, "what?"

While Sister Tera looked at me in shock. Obviously severing wasn't something widely known outside the church, although I gathered that from Father Mattias' original reaction.

"How did you?" Sister Tera began then continued, "did your Mother tell you about that?"

"I told you," I said very coldly to Father Mattias, "that I couldn't tell you about where I'd heard about it."

"What's severing?" Malkarov asked Father Mattias and then turned to me, "why can't you say?"

"Sharein," Sister Tera whispered, then touched her hair in a subtle manner and looked at me questioningly. I knew her meaning immediately, as she was the only person to know about my swearing of an oath to protect Shard's identity (even if she only knew of the existence of the oath and not who it protected).

I nodded my head in response.

"Father, Malkarov," she spoke up quite sternly, "you shall drop this matter right now."

Father Mattias swung around in shock, Malkarov looked rapidly between us.

"It is not a secret to poke and prod as the poking and prodding may cause damage," she said and looked to me, "you are still in no danger?"

"No Sister," I replied, "quite the contrary."

She nodded and said to Malkarov, "then to answer your first question as I shall provide no answers to the second; Severing is what happens to a priest when they violate their God's will. For a priest of Mithras in Carn, it would mean doing something that goes against the First Messages, the instructions from Mithras. If we sacrifice one of our people to save ourselves for instance, Mithras would sever the connection between us and her until such a time as we atoned for our transgression. It can be quite tricky for priests of other gods, I'm given to understanding. A priest of the Askaidian god of Lies for instance, might be severed if they were to tell the truth in such a way as their statements were intended to be believed. Askaidia must be a very interesting place to live."

My sharp intake of breath in shock at Sister Tera's acknowledgement of other gods was horribly audible and I blushed at the attention everybody directed at me.

Sister Tera let out a chuckle, "a bit strange to hear me talk of the other gods when we usually pretend that they don't exist?"

I nodded at her and Father Mattias chuckled quietly.

She smiled, "It's not a popular subject to study and some would like to pretend to themselves that there are only Celestine and Mithras. But it can't be escaped; even when Father Mattias quotes The Book and it's talk of the eternal fight against Darkness, he's talking about Tenebrae; the Goddess of Darkness."

Father Mattias must have caught the widening of my eyes, or some other sign of recognition, "you've heard of Tenebrae, then?"

I nodded, slowly.

"Well then, I would advise most strongly not to mention that name anywhere in public," I nodded when he gave this advice, but he continued with a chilling warning, "the Inquisitors of Light, the sect of Celestine Priests who ruthlessly enforce their God's will do terrible, terrible things to 'root out the corruption of darkness.' We are devotees of Mithras, but our church in Carn is the only religion allowed to be openly practiced in Carn due to a long ago agreement between the King, the High Priest of Mithras and the Inquisitors of Light. Should I not quote verbatim, the battles between Celestine and 'darkness', there is a risk that somebody might report it to an Inquisitor. As a Priest of Mithras, nothing much would happen to me, but I would lose my posting at Easthaven and a replacement would be sent out."

"So that's why your sermons are all wrong?" I blurted out before I could fully work through my thoughts, "they are biased by the Priests of Celestine?"

As soon as I said it I berated myself and questioned the wisdom of drinking more than my usual amount of ale.

Father Mattias laughed quite loudly, "I suppose from some points of view they are quite wrong. Did you know that an ancient copy of The Book was found a few years back? It was destroyed as a heretical forgery."

"Destroyed?" asked Malkarov, extremely shocked. For someone with such a large collection of books, the destruction of any record must have been anathema.

"Yes," the old priest nodded solemnly, "I spoke to one of the priests who had found it and he disclosed to me that it was different."

"Different?" I asked.

"The First Messages were slightly different and the earlier Second Messages were very different from those recorded in our modern copies of The Book," he replied.

"Can't you just ask Mithras what she said originally?" I asked.

"No," he answered, "Mithras left us to follow her chosen ones, the High Priests. It is said in The Book that long ago she did communicate with her clergy directly, before her appointment of the High Priests to speak in her stead."

"That seems like a very silly way to do things, if only for the reasons we discussed earlier," I replied.

"Earlier?" Malkarov asked.

"The reason we got onto the topic to begin with," Father Mattias explained, "Sharein pondered why the High Priest who declared our attractions to be abominations wasn't severed, if they acted against the will of Mithras. The problem is that the High Priest cannot be severed, they are appointed to speak with the voice of Mithras and anything they say is the will of the goddess, even if it isn't."

"That does seem very silly," Malkarov agreed, "does that mean Mithras made a wrong choice in her appointment of a High Priest?"

The older priest merely hummed, but Sister Tera let out a snort, "not just a High Priest in my opinion. Maybe it was just a matter of the best of a bad bunch, but the Earth Mother seemed to have made a few bad selections in the past."

Father Mattias let out a chortle, "I've heard your opinions on Holy Father Everon time and time again and I don't disagree, but please don't raise your belief that he was in love with his own mother again."

"But he was!" she exclaimed loudly, "it's so obvious!"

We continued to discuss the variously notorious High Priests for most of the afternoon, with Missus Rose returning to replace our bottles and jugs a few times.

Sister Tera at one point shared some shocking news, shocking to Father Mattias at least.

Rumour had reached her that the Mother and Brother of the church in Hillvale were 'involved' with each other.

"Mother Sephrenia?" He asked and Sister Tera nodded, wide eyed, "and Brother Makus?"

"Uh huh," she confirmed.

"But he's..." he began and Sister Tera supplied, "twenty five."

"And she's…" he continued and Sister Tera once again supplied, "sixty two."

"Well," he said, musing, "I can't say that I blame her."

This broke Malkarov, who fell out of his chair with laughter.

We all laughed at him and determined that it might be time to leave, while we could all still walk.

We bid farewell to Missus Rose and together walked back over the bridge over the river with everyone doing a remarkable job at pretending sobriety all the way to the bridge.

Father Mattias was asking me questions about my studies, although they were asked in such a way as to make Malkarov sound bad in some way. I knew that it was all in jest and the feeling to defend his honour warred inside me against the desire to poke fun at him instead.

As we reached the crest of the bridge, Father Mattias mused aloud, "I didn't think that there were any priests of Tenebrae left in Carn."

"There aren't," I responded without thought, "just some cultists somewhere."

I stopped, stock still when I realised what I had said. Malkarov walked into the back of me and we both went down in a heap. I expected something more, but when I extricated my head from Malkarov's sleeve, I saw Father Mattias shooeing Sister Tera along ahead of him as they both walked back to the Church. I looked at Malkarov out of the corner of my eye, the wizard was propped up on one elbow, lying sideways on the bridge and looking at me with one eyebrow raised questioningly.

"Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked.

I sighed, 'oooh poo.'

"Yes," I answered aloud, "but nothing I can."

"Okay," he responded simply, "when you can, you can."

"Come," he continued, "let's get back to the tower. Alladrial ought to be popping by soon, I think. He usually avoids visiting on nine days because he doesn't like 'how annoying I get'," he said in a very amusing impression of his other half, "after I've been at drink. This will be a lovely surprise for him."

Alladrial was indeed waiting for us, in the sitting room on the ground floor. I couldn't be sure that he hadn't been standing there tapping his foot the entire time, but he definitely was when we entered. He took one look at Malkarov and let out an exceedingly dramatic sigh.

"You can walk yourself?" he asked.

"Of course I can walk myself," Malkarov decried, "I'm not some sort of infant or invalid!"

"Good!" Allardrial retorted, "then you shall walk yourself up to our room which you shall not exit for the rest of the day lest you inflict your annoying intoxicated self upon your poor apprentice!"

Malkarov was about to march himself up the stairs but he abruptly turned around with a huge smile on his face and pointed his finger straight at his love, "You said our room!"

Alladrial let out a sigh, "you're drunk," he said, "I most certainly did not."

"Yes you did!" Malkarov responded.

"No I didn't." Allardrial replied.

"Sharein!" Malkarov announced much too loudly, "Sharein, he did, didn't he?"

I rolled my eyes at his pleading and looked at the elf, "you did," I stated simply.

Alladrial rolled his eyes back at me, "you're drunk too," he replied as he turned back to Malkarov, "enough of this nonsense, get yourself up to your room."

Malkarov bent down and kissed the elf on the end of his nose with an exaggerated "mwah!" before he began skipping up the stairs.

Alladrial turned back to me and said goodnaturedly, "traitor," before he sighed and followed the wizard up the stone steps.

A thump and a loud "Oof!" echoed down the steps before Malkarov's shout of "I'm okay!"

I sighed myself and allowed another small measure of time to pass before I headed up the stairs myself to go to my room. A bath sounded like a wonderful idea and I was eager to continue reading An investigation on stylus materials in effective rune creation.

I ran the bath, got undressed and selected the book from the bookshelf. After using the in-house, I gently lowered myself into the steaming water. I was half-way through the book and the water was decidedly cooler than it was when I first entered when I found myself debating over whether to just get out or let some more hot water in. Curious sounds from outside my door made the decision for me, I let out the water and began to dry off. I walked over to my door and pressed my ear against it, trying to ascertain the nature of the noises. They sounded like grunting noises, as if Malkarov or Alladrial were trying to open a jar lid that had seized. I stood there a moment, far longer than I probably should have before I realised what the noises meant.

"Oh," I said aloud, though quietly and followed by quickly admonishing myself. In my embarrassment I became a little muddled and indecisive; and was just about to leave my room to go and sit in a comfy armchair in the sitting room when I realised that I was not yet dressed.

'Silly Sharein,' I thought to myself, 'why are you so befuddled?'

It was a natural thing, similar to what Shard and I had done… or was it? I didn't really want to think about what those two were getting up to in there, or how they were. The mechanics both intrigued me and slightly disgusted me at the same time. I frowned at my own reaction, it wasn't like those mechanics involved me, did they? If they didn't involve me then what reason had I to be disgusted by them. I wondered whether Malkarov would be disgusted by the things Shard and I had done. The things that brought such pleasure? The noises that I was hearing didn't really sound that full of pleasure though, they sounded rough and forceful.

"Allavaer!" I heard Alladrial shout in an exhausted but bliss-filled tone and had to re-evaluate my opinion.

Perhaps there was some measure of pleasure? I went to sit down on my bed, thinking in the now silence; of the shared love between Alladrial and Malkarov. I was torn between running my hand down to my velvety wetness in an effort of recapturing some of that joy and ecstatic pleasure shared between me and my love; and just falling into a dark melancholy at our separation. How I longed to feel her body against mine once more! To hear the sounds of our tender noises, shared blessings to the love we shared. It was that longing that brought the tears to my eyes, the harsh gasping of air in great sobs of pain. I cried into my pillow at the loss I was feeling, at the dark and heavy blanket of desolation.

I felt the darkness surround me, suffocatingly pressing in. I sat up in sudden shock. There was nothing but darkness around me, as If I had been suddenly struck blind. I looked down and could see my body. Not blind. Asleep.

I looked around hopefully and there she was, somehow standing in front of me as if she had been there all along.

"Allavaer!" I cried as I rushed into her arms. We crashed together and her arms wrapped around me, providing me such a feeling of security and safety, love and warmth that all of the feelings of despair left me in an instant. I felt movement and tilted my head up to look at her as she captured my lips with her own. I melted into her, all thought fleeing from the feelings of pleasure bursting inside of me. I felt her hand move and brush my hair behind my ear and my eyes flickered open only to be filled by her winter's heart eyes.

"How long have you been studying elvish?" She whispered with a cocky smile.

I blushed a little, "It was the last word that Alladrial said… uh, shouted, afore I fell asleep."

"Oh?" she questioned, with a raised eyebrow.

"Why are you?" I began, desperate to change the subject, "not that I'm complaining of course, very much the opposite. In the whole time you've been gone I haven't needed you more than I did just now."

"Well…" she said with a slight smile that made my heart flutter, "I'm on my way back to you."

Excitement welled up inside me with any remaining shred of sadness removed in an instant.

"Does that mean?" I asked and she was so quick to reply, "yes. Tenebrae has granted our request."

My eyes widened in surprise and I let out a joyous whoop of excitement. We crashed together once more, our lips joined and our bodies slotted in perfectly against each other. I became a concentrated mush of feelings of love, excitement, elation, lust; no acknowledgement of the non-corporeal form that was me in that dreamscape but a manifestation of my baser emotions. I couldn't feel her hands upon my skin, my dream-skin, but I felt the building and intense pleasure ripple all through my very form that was surely the result. There was no exhaustion, no requirement to catch my breath, just an ever growing feeling soaring me higher and higher with each passing moment until the darkness of our dream-scape was lit up with an explosion of dark light. The purple lightning that always manifested wrapped itself around me and shot out in all directions as I called her name in a voiceless exhortation of ecstasy. In that timeless void that feeling both continued forever and ended instantly and when I looked back to Shard it was a look of pure adoration.

"I love you," I whispered, "more than anything. I'm yours."

"And I'm yours, my love," she whispered back, "forever and always."

"When?" I asked, "when will you be back?"

She looked away for a moment before stating, "within the ten-day, I think."

Excitement welled once more, Shard would be back with me so soon!

"Oh," I whispered, remembering the events earlier, "Father Mattias suspects… he tricked me into admitting that I knew about the Tenebrae cultists. That I know about Tenebrae."

Shard hummed, "concerning, but not overly worrying. If he was intending to do something, I don't doubt that he would have done it before now. He will have questions though, once you dedicate yourself."

"When?" I asked, "when will I be able to dedicate myself? Will it be on the Long Night?"

"Normally, yes it would," Shard informed me, "but Tenebrae decided that as you will be her chosen, there is no tradition to stick to. It will involve the loss of sight for a time, but not for the year she traditionally holds it for. For a regular priest, the year is a test to ensure that they are completely willing to abide by her will. For you, however… you will be her will. She likes the symbolism of the sacrifice and it is a requirement for her to bestow her gifts, but you will be the first; and possibly only. So… as for when to hold the dedication? On this coming nine-day, if that suits?"

"Oh yes!" I exclaimed, "yes indeed, that suits me very much."

We came together once more, a melding of shared ecstatic pleasure that ended when I opened my eyes, my screams of "yes! Yes, Allavaer!" echoing inside my mind. I was lying on my back, on my bed with a wet, sticky hand still resting between my legs.

'Just a dream?' I thought, momentarily before I dismissed it, "not just a dream."

I washed up quickly and got dressed before I headed upstairs to see if there was something to eat.

Alladrial was there and he blushed furiously as soon as he saw me, which confused me a little.

He coughed a little before he spoke, "my apologies Sharein, if we disturbed you earlier."

Now it was my turn to blush, embarrassedly. I didn't really want to acknowledge what I had heard, "not at all."

Malkarov came up the stairs just then as Alladrial said, "Malkarov really should figure out some way to stop the sound travelling out the bedroom doors."

"There's no need," I stammered, "I didn't hear anything."

Malkarov let out a barking laugh, "so it's just a coincidence that you screamed exactly the same thing he did just a little after?"

The elf shot Malkarov an extremely dirty look as I felt my face catch fire, how mortifying! I tried to compose myself as I walked past him to flee back to my room.

"If," I said, pausing briefly at the top of the steps, "if I had… shouted something like that. Which I did not. I remind you, that you would not at all be the cause of it."

I fled to the sound of Alladrial's laughter.