A brief note before the chapter: this will be the second to last Harael chapter posted on here, at least until the book is finished. Things are getting to a point where I don’t want to give away too much as the plot gets going. I might move on to posting a few Tymun chapters after a week or two, though.
It was late in the morning when Harael, Teramus, and their accompanying Guards and soldiers made their way through the Three Gates. Katreina and two of her own Phoenix Guards rode along with them. Harael was glad for the extra hours of sleep, especially considering how draining the clash had been the night before. He wasn’t used to the things demanded of him, and he had had unsettling dreams.
The sun was overhead, though, and only a few small white puffs of clouds marred the otherwise clear sky. It was unseasonably warm. He managed a smile, breathing in the crisp air—until they came out of the Second Gate and into the killing field from the night before. Then, his breath caught and his attempts to inhale were rewarded by the acrid stench of smoke and char.
The field was entirely black, charred, in some places glassy and playfully reflecting the sunlight. Here and there, odd circles of metal marked the ground, blackened and warped. Whenever a horse trotted over one, its shoes clicked against the congealed metal. His eyes widened, seeing the results of Katreina’s work in full light for the first time. He twisted in his saddle to gauge her reaction, and was surprised to see wrinkles on her forehead.
“What is it?” he asked.
Her face smoothed as she turned her attention away from the devastation. “Hmm? Oh, nothing to worry yourself over. I was thinking about the attack. About their tactics.”
Harael nodded. “I don’t know what we’ll be able to find, to be honest. I was not trained in espionage or anything.” He patted his saddlebags, blocky with the outlines of books. “Though I trust well enough in my prayers and the Flame.”
Katreina smiled, her eyes flickering down to the bags and back up. Her pristine white robes, delicately embroidered with gold, ruffled in a small breeze. They made for a stark contrast for the blackened field around them. “I must say, I was very impressed that you were able to pull that off,” she pointed at a small crater in the blackened ground, “by memory.”
Harael stared; he had missed the two chunks missing from the field, obviously the fruits of his own prayer the night before. It was impressive, he admitted privately, in a macabre kind of way. Shrugging, he said, “Well, I didn’t get it totally right. I forgot the passage protecting myself. If I’d been closer, I might have killed myself.”
Katreina laughed. It was startling, the sound ringing out in the clear morning air. “We all forget things like that, Harael. Even us White Robes. It is easy to, in the heat of the moment.” Her smile took on an odd quality, and she turned her head so as to look at him from the corners of her eyes.
“Yes, the heat of the moment,” Teramus interjected. “Very amusing.”
Katreina laughed again, and this time Harael joined her.
“Harael is right, though,” Teramus continued, a frown on his face. His dark brown eyes were hard and flat, this morning. “He made a mistake, and he could have killed himself.”
“Oh, hush,” Katreina murmured. She made a little shooing motion with her hand, her sleeve fluttering like a dove. “No harm came of it, and he has learned a valuable lesson. I’m sure Harael will remember the passage in the future.” Her eyes turned to him, sparkling and green, as she spoke.
He hurried to confirm that as they finally cleared the killing field and went under the First Gate. Here, the signs of fighting were more conventional: soldiers dragged bodies out of side corridors and rooms, preparing them for ritual burning. Blood was everywhere, splashed on the stone of the central corridor under the wall. Servants with buckets of water worked at cleaning it away.
His stomach trembled a little at the sight of one body, a particularly mangled Nera Nashan soldier.
“Do you get used to it?” he asked Katreina. “To the violence, up close like this?”
She pursed her lips, and her eyes followed the corpse as two soldiers dragged it away. “After a time. I don’t usually get such a splendid view of the carnage, but I’ve seen my share. It is…easier to take, when you are at a distance.” She met his gaze, and for the first time that morning her stare was not at all playful. “Meditation helps, too. The Flame guides us.”
“The Flame guides us,” Harael and Teramus repeated in unison. It was as central a teaching of Pirinism as any.
The actual gate came up quickly as they moved through the wall. Here, all signs of the battle were absent; whether that was because the men had already cleared it or because the treachery of the night before meant no fighting happened here, Harael was unsure.
Four soldiers, pikes in hand, bowed to them as they passed back out into the sunshine. While the escort continued on up the road, Harael and Katreina reined in their horses and moved to the side. Teramus joined them, his own gelding causing a fuss and tossing its head.
“Be careful, now, you two,” Katreina said.
Harael caught himself admiring the way the sunlight glinted off her golden hair. She’s a decade older than you, and a White Robe besides, you fool.
She continued, glancing up the road as their soldiers filed by. “There are…dangers…out there, beyond the border. Specifically for priests. Keep firm in the Faith, no matter what.”
Harael and Teramus exchanged a look, surprised that she felt the need to say that. Perhaps she knew more about them—about Teramus—than she let on.
“Of course, Katreina. Always.”
She shook her head, meeting his eyes. “You don’t understand. You can’t understand, until you are actually out there. It is different. Just—just keep strong. Pray. Meditate often. And whatever else you do, believe.”
Her tone, almost frantic, worried Harael. “We will. We promise, Katreina.”
She transferred her gaze to Teramus, who hurriedly nodded in agreement. She sighed. “Very well. Before you go, I’d like to give you both a blessing. It may help, some.”
Harael nodded and Teramus shrugged. They dismounted, and huddled closer to the White Robe. Katreina reached out, laying a hand on each of their bowed heads. She closed her eyes, and her lips moved silently.
Harael shut his own eyes, feeling a trickle of warmth move through him. From his head down it ran, intensifying. When it reached his hands and feet, he gasped. It flashed back up him, much hotter now. He heard Teramus grunt in surprise.
“By the Flame, let it be done,” Katreina whispered, and removed her hands. “That should help, whatever comes. Just remember: have faith.”
Harael flexed his hands, feeling strangely invigorated. He noticed a warping of the air around them as he did, as if his hands were on fire.
“What was that blessing?” Teramus asked, awe in his voice.
Katreina smirked. “Something for priests of the Sixth Shade to know, and not for you young children of the Fifth Shade.”
Harael snorted, but Teramus was indignant. “Children? We are both almost thirty.”
Katreina’s smile widened, and she winked at Harael. “Have a fun trip, boys.” She brushed a hand against Harael’s arm. “Stay safe.” With a laugh, she turned and mounted her horse. Riding back under the First Gate, she briefly turned and waved.
Harael stood, frozen for a moment, more warmth flowing through him than her blessing accounted for.
“Did…what…” Teramus sputtered. “Did I just see that?”
“See what?” Harael answered, his eyes still locked on Katreina’s retreating form.
“She was flirting with you!”
Harael watched her until she disappeared down the curve of the tunnel. “I suppose she was.”
Teramus shook his head, clearly exasperated. “You’re ridiculous. Both of you.”
Harael chuckled and remounted his horse. The column of soldiers was snaking up the mountain pass now, and their contingent of Phoenix Guards was waiting just a little ways back. He kicked his horse into a canter, quickly making up ground. Teramus followed, looking as easy on horseback as the most seasoned cavalryman.
Oritten waited for them, his Phoenix Guards drawn up around them. He sat his own horse easily, relaxed yet ready. He held his helmet under one arm and his reins with the other hand. In the morning sun, his ornate armor was radiant.
Oritten bowed his head, managing to be pious yet impatient at the same time. “Your Brightnesses. We are under way, now. I recommend that you do not stray from the company at any time until we return to Barrier.”
He did not outrank them, but he had advisory authority. After spending weeks on the road and getting to know the man, Harael was not surprised that Oritten was going to use that authority.
“A pity. I was planning on wandering off by myself, looking for Avernen to convert.”
“Can’t even take a joke,” Harael sighed. He still felt warm, for several reasons, and he refused to let Oritten’s rough attitude ruin his mood. “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to come along nicely, then.”
Without a word in response, Oritten tugged on his reins and pulled ahead of Harael and Teramus.
“Do you suppose we’re just going to hunt down whatever survivors there are, and question them?” Teramus asked, squinting up at the mountains rising into the pale blue above.
Harael shrugged. “I don’t see why not. But we are not the ones in command, here. We are just here to support the guys who know what they are doing.”
“And spy on them for Selonius.”
A corner of Harael’s mouth turned up in a wry smile. “Of course. That, too.”
“And get cold, and sore from sitting in the saddle for days on end, probably.”
“At least the view is good,” Harael remarked, looking up at the snow-dusted peaks above.
* * *
“Still enjoying the view?” Teramus grumped, massaging his legs where he sat in the back of one of their supply wagons. There was plenty of room, now, with a week’s worth of rations gone.
Harael ignored him, instead squinting into the heavy fog that enveloped the mountainside road. He could see only a dozen feet or so; some of the soldiers further away were only misshapen forms, darker than the fog. Most of the company was totally obscured.
He led his horse, the reins gripped tightly in his fist. The path was tricky, often uneven, and as sore and tired as he was, he found walking preferable to sitting in a rickety wagon, being jarred every five feet.
“Too bad we couldn’t stay on the road,” Teramus grumbled, for about the fortieth time. “Flaming Nashan couldn’t at least be kind enough to run away in a straight line.”
Harael sighed. “You know, we could do something about this fog, if we really wanted. I’m sure we could burn it away somehow.”
“Great idea, Master Blue Robe,” Teramus sneered. He was in a prime mood. “Why don’t we say a prayer and light a signal fire for the Nashan as well? Maybe that way they won’t have to keep running. They’ll come right at us with an army.”
“Something tells me they are more than a little afraid of priests right now.”
“Please.” Teramus made a noise halfway between a snort and a groan. “If they knew there were priests this side of the border, they’d be crawling down the mountainsides to fill us with arrows.”
“Maybe so. If I were them, I’d be terrified after what Katreina did.”
“Oh, do go on more abou—“ Teramus yelped as the wagon hit a rough patch in the path. “Ahem. About Katreina.”
Harael felt his cheeks heat. Even he had to admit that he had gone on at length over the past week. Perhaps it was a side effect of the blessing she had put on them. Yes, I’m sure that is it. Must be.
“Anyway,” Harael said, choosing to ignore Teramus’ jibe, “it couldn’t hurt to burn away just a bit of the fog. It might even make your leisurely ride there a little more comfortable.”
Teramus glared up at him from where he reclined. “Oh, if you must. Just, nothing fancy. Or I might be forced to get up and hunt down Oritten to tell on you.”
“Horrible man, really. There is no need to do that.”
Teramus laughed. “I’m not used to being treated like a child, either. He can be a bit much.” He shook his head. “But we are stuck with him.”
“Sadly,” Harael said as he reached down to paw through one of his saddlebags. “I just need to find the prayer book. I’m sure I have the one I need.”
“For the fog? Oh, go on, then.”
Harael finally dragged out a slim volume with black leather binding. “I got this in Meriil. Do you remember? It was from that odd Tinnish Monk, Tan Lah.”
“Tan Lah? I do remember him. Bookish. Strict. Didn’t he enjoy singeing his students when they didn’t pay attention?”
“That’s the one, all right,” Harael chuckled. “Now, give me just a moment to get this done.”
While he opened the little book and recited the requisite prayer, Teramus continued reminiscing. “He got me more than a few times. I remember one time, when I was a Bloody, he burned off my eyebrow.” Teramus chuckled to himself. “And all I was doing was noticing the new girl in the class.”
Harael finished his prayer and splayed out his fingers. Little flames flowed down his arms and out from each fingertip, dispersing into the fog. He closed his eyes, feeling the heat emanate from him and warm the air. When he opened them again, the fog immediately around them was gone, as if an invisible bubble were surrounding them. It wasn’t as large as he’d hoped for, but he supposed it would do. A few soldiers, inside the bubble, made noises of surprise and thanks.
Teramus halted his story to appreciate Harael’s work. “Nicely done, Harael. That might actually help.”
Harael plucked at one blue sleeve of his robe. “The skill comes with the territory.” He neglected to mention that his effort should have had a greater effect.
“Yes, well, this particular territory is also noticeably warmer. Which is a thing I appreciate, sitting here on my mighty throne.” Teramus grinned and pulled aside his robes to reveal a sack of grain underneath him. “It is far too cold, up here in the north. No wonder the Nera Nashan want Letaalese land so badly. Snow is worth fighting to get away from.”
Harael couldn’t help but smile. He shoved his little prayer book back into the saddlebag. “Snow is not so bad. But I will admit, things are much nicer down in the capitol. Or Meriil.”
Teramus nodded. “Meriil. Yes. I do miss it, sometimes.”
“Meriil? Nothing but dusty libraries and boring classrooms. And temples.”
“Hardly. You never did join us often, when I snuck out with the nobles to go drinking. That was always fun.”
Harael shrugged. He looked down at his hands, folded atop the reins in front of him. “That never interested me as much.”
“Right, you were too busy following Lareina around.” Teramus sniggered. “You are still the same, you know. If Selonius hadn’t banished us to this awful expedition, you would still be in Letaal, sniffing around after her.”
“I would not.”
“Instead, you have Katreina to help make a fool of yourself.”
Harael frowned. That was hardly how he acted. “I did not make a fool of myself. Neither there nor here.”
“As you say,” Teramus said, leaning back against his sack of grain. He raised his right hand in front of his face and closed his eyes. After a moment, they opened again and he frowned. His forehead furrowed in concentration, and then his typical strand of red fire snaked into existence. It made a loop around his middle finger, then slithered out before wrapping around his little finger. He smiled, and it turned blue.
“Feel better, now?” Harael asked, unable to keep the snark out of his voice. He was annoyed at Teramus’ prodding about women.
“Oh, sure,” Teramus responded, and then looked at Harael. “That was odd, though. My prayer didn’t work, the first time.”
“Maybe you forgot a line,” Harael muttered, remembering his own mishap during the fighting at the Three Gates.
“No,” Teramus was adamant. “I’ve said that little prayer and summoned this flame ten thousand times. I don’t make mistakes on it.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, then.”
Teramus sat up. “Well, word is that that Chaplain, Artius, told Selonius that he did try to pray, right? And that it didn’t work?”
Harael shrugged, “He lied, most likely. The man was a coward.”
“Maybe so, but perhaps he wasn’t lying. Perhaps he was telling the truth, and it wasn’t just his own incompetence that prevented his prayers from working.”
Rolling his eyes, Harael shook his head. He pursed his lips and said, “If he wasn’t what was it, then?”
Teramus shifted against his makeshift pillow. “I…couldn’t say.” There was something off in his tone, but Harael couldn’t place it.
“I certainly don’t know. You know your training. You know the tenets. The only explanation for a failed prayer is a mistake in the recitation.” Even as he said it, Harael felt a twinge of anxiety. He knew Teramus struggled with his faith, sometimes. Perhaps that could affect it? But no, of all the prayers Teramus could have said, his habit of playing with that strand was the last one he would doubt.
Teramus looked down, silent for a moment as his little snake of blue fire ran laps around his fingers. “You know that there are different beliefs in Pallonia, yes? That the Faith supplanted another religion when you Letaalese invaded?”
Harael inhaled slowly. His hands stilled on the reins of his horse. This was dangerous territory. “I…have heard stories. It was some hope in the return of the creation of the world.” His gaze fixed on Teramus, intent.
“Yes. Mostly. I cannot speak much on it, as I did not grow up in the tradition.” Teramus paused, his eyes pained as he met Harael’s stare. “I—I was orphaned, when I was young. I do not like to speak of it.”
Harael’s breath forced its way out of him in an explosive puff. That was unexpected. “I can understand why,” he responded, careful to keep his tone neutral.
“My parents held fast to the old beliefs. At least, my father did. He was always the one who sat me down to give me my lessons. I cannot recall my mother ever doing so; perhaps she gave in to the Faith.”
“The Faith is true, Teramus. The proof is in your hands right this moment.”
Teramus barked a laugh. “Oh, the proof is undeniable. The Flame is real. But the fact remains: outside of the Empire, there are other Faiths. There was the force of creation in Pallonia. In Roetel, we know that they worship the sun as a twisted version of the Flame. The Avernen have their snake god. The Tinnish believe in gods long-departed from this world, who left us all as stewards.”
“Spare me the theology lesson,” Harael said wryly. “I spent enough time in a classroom back in Meriil learning this.”
“This is important, though,” Teramus insisted, sitting straighter. “Why would these religions still exist, when Pirinism is so manifestly the true faith? Why resist the light of the Flame?”
Harael shifted in his saddle, suddenly uncomfortable. “What does this have to do with anything?”
“What if it is a regional arrangement?” Teramus’ eyes almost seemed to glow as he spoke; his voice was effervescent with revelation. “What if the Faith is true—but so are these other faiths?”
Harael felt his stomach clench in anxiety for a second, but it was only a fleeting feeling. With a relieved chuckle, he said, “But we know that that isn’t true. The Faith took hold readily in Pallonia. Areas of Hareen were under Roeteli sway for decades before the Empire took hold, and the Faith is as strong there as in Letaal itself.”
Any glowing in his friend’s eyes faded as quickly as he spoke. “I—no, you are right. I was getting carried away. Still, there was something with my prayer.” Teramus perked up. “You prayed. You made this nice little bubble around us.” He waved at the dome of clear air surrounding them. “Did you have any trouble with it?”
Harael hesitated. He certainly didn’t have it fail, or have trouble, really, but… “It was smaller than it should have been,” he admitted. “But I am not exactly in practice with that prayer, and it did not fail.”
“That could be something, though!” Teramus was excited again, his posture taut and his eyes squinting into the fog past Harael as if he could divine answers from its inscrutable depths. “That is three priests, now, who have had trouble north of the border.” His eyes widened. “And the stronger the priest, the less trouble he has had!”
Harael frowned. “What do you mean? You and I are both Blue Robes.”
Teramus sent Harael a withering glance. “Please. You and I both know that you are the better priest.”
Harael said nothing, preferring to keep his personal opinions to himself.
It was then that the shouts came back along the column of soldiers, threading through the fog into their little island of clarity. “Village up ahead! The scouts say the trail goes down into a valley.”
Harael exchanged looks with Teramus. “I suppose we can at least ask a few questions of the locals. No harm in that.”
“Who knows? Maybe this is the village that scouting company went through. They might know something about the Chaplain.”
Read the next chapter: “Of Pallo and Tyler”