Guardians of Destiny

The Guild - Book 3

Jean Johnson's - Guardians of Destiny: The Guild

CHAPTER ONE

...

Cult’s awareness, it shall rise:

Hidden people, gather now;
Fight the demons, fight your doubt.
Gearman’s strength shall then endow,
When Guild’s defender casts them out.

...

If it weren't for the way the silvery web covering his jaw prevented him from casting spells, Torven Shel Von would have immediately freed himself and transformed his captors into little insects, the kind that were easily squished.

It wasn't possible, though. He couldn't even curse them verbally, let alone magically. The silencing-web spell had been applied thickly enough to prevent even plain speech, though the captured mage knew there was an intermediary version that allowed the one while still cutting off the other. Strapped onto a table while fighting off the effects of what felt like a long-applied sleep-spell, he could only breathe. That, and contemplate two important things.

One, he was going to get free, and kill whoever betrayed him and the Healer strapped to the other table in this dark, unpleasant, heavily carved chamber. And two…he was going to need a refreshing room soon. There might be some vengeance to be found in relieving himself straight into the faces of his captors, though they had yet to remove his clothing. The fact that they hadn't was a mixed blessing; it was late winter, and the low-burning braziers in the four corners of the room weren't doing much to either heat or light the place, so at least his clothes were keeping him warm. But oh, how he wanted vengeance.

The sounds of someone approaching turned his head to the side, toward the door. A slender figure entered the chamber, dressed in a dark brown, lumpy-woven tunic with a black, felted cap pulled low over his head. The youth lugged something up to the first brazier, set it down then furtively looked at the door and approached the still unconscious Crastus. Fishing a strip of something out of the pouch hung at the front of his belt—knitting, that was what the lumpy fabric was, Torven realized—the lad laid it across the Healer's brow.

More bodies approached. The youth quickly snatched the piece of intricately knitted yarn off the Healer-mage's forehead and stuffed it into his sleeve, then realized Torven was watching him. The youth gave the mage an impudent stare, and returned to the brazier. Torven couldn't even ask him what that was all about; his mouth was still bound by the enspelled webbing.

Two figures entered the chamber, dressed in high-quality velvet robes embroidered with symbols of gears and esoteric runes. The stone walls of this place were a dull shade of gray and the robes were rich, dark reds and purples, but the carvings and the embroidery matched. Priests of Mekha, God of Engineering and Patron Deity of Mekhana, making this a temple to Mekha.

May He rot in Heaven.

Torven had learned what to look for, or rather, what to look out for, regarding this particular deity. It had long been known in Arbra that the fate of mages caught by the priesthood of this land was an ugly thing, and the natives there had warned him and the others in his group. To have one's magic, one's essential superiority above all common souls, siphoned and stolen away without consent was an ugly theft. But the fact that he and Crastus alone had been taken captive and brought here while their whole group had slept in a barn set with warding spells meant someone had betrayed the two of them.

Perhaps it was the Arbran farmer, whose permission they hadn't sought since it had been snowing, though most Arbrans hated Mekhanans with a passion. The farmer would have been able to penetrate the subtle shields Torven had laid on the structure, since it was his property and Torven hadn't intended to block out the owner. But perhaps—and more likely—it had been one of the others. That lock-picker, Unsial, was at the top of his list. She'd trade her own grandmother for a bag of gold, in his view. Not that he'd seen her do so literally, but she had that kind of attitude about her.

Possibly Barric and Kellida. Those two had been getting rather chummy, Torven recalled, watching the priests warily. He couldn't disguise the fact he was still awake, but he could watch them as they first looked over him and the Healer, then eyed the boy working to refuel the braziers with black lumps. Coal, he realized. Oh, I have a spell or two I could use on those braziers that could damage this lot…but this stupid webspell is blocking even the most basic and intrinsic of cantrips from working. And somehow I doubt they're going to wait to deal with me long enough for the webbing to dry up and crumble. If they were going to wait that long, they'd have used anti-magic shackles.

The taller of the two priests leaned over Torven. Unlike the other, who was short, rotund, and had solidly gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match, this fellow had a smooth-shaved head, and a white-streaked, dark brown beard a full hand-span in length. He reached down and pried one of the mage's eyes wider, and lifted his brows when Torven angrily pulled his head free. "Don't bother resisting, foreigner. Your magics are very strong, but we are very good at holding your kind captive…and you'll do very well to feed His hunger, praise Mekha."

"Don't bother, Hansu," the other priest stated, busy examining the still-unconscious Crastus. "He probably doesn't speak a word of Mekhanan. Remember, they were picked up within Arbra, may He smite the Tree Slut's lands," the shorter man stated in a bored tone that suggested it was nothing more than rote repetition to say such things.

Actually, Torven did know the local tongue. In his youth, he had run across a description of how to craft Ultra Tongue, and had stolen the tiny supply of myjiin powder available at the academy where he had trained. That had eventually been uncovered, and he had been forced to flee and give himself a new name so he could start over at a different school…with some funds liberated from the previous one during his flight. It wasn't the first time he had to flee a bad situation. The trick is to make sure this situation isn't my last one. But in order to do that, I need to talk! I can convince people to give me the gold rings off their fingers if I can only talk.

He had to settle for meeting the first priest's gaze, then rolling his eyes away in expressive, bored dismissal. Hansu frowned, then quirked a brow. "What, you understand Mekhanan?"

Torven raked his gaze over the man's bearded, bald-scaped head, then nodded curtly. He returned his gaze to the ceiling as if the other man's presence were trivial.

"You aren't the least bit scared of your surroundings?" Hansu asked.

Deigning to glance at him, Torven shook his head. The priest snorted. He stroked his beard, pressing it against his velvet-clad throat as he leaned over the Aian mage.

"Clearly, you don't understand what danger you are in. If you did, you'd be begging me for death."

Oh, I know what danger I am in, Torven acknowledged silently. But he gave the priest a pitying look and shook his head slowly.

"What, does he think he knows something we don't?" the other priest scoffed.

Torven nodded curtly, then relaxed back against the table or altar or whatever they had him pinned onto, as if whatever happened next didn't concern him in the least. He had a plan, based on a question that had been bothering him ever since being exiled by that short little bastard who dared call himself Master of the Tower. A question of why the God Mekha had to rely upon draining mere mages for power, when there were far better sources available.

"I doubt it," Hansu muttered.

His companion glared at the youth. "Aren't you done building up the fires, you lackwit?"

"Sorry, sir," the boy mumbled in a light tenor. "Gotta git more coal." He lugged the empty pail out of the room, head ducked in a servile hunch.

"If he had a lick of magic, I'd have plugged him into the God ages ago. That's all the little fart is good for."

"That's all any of them are good for," Hansu agreed. "The Servers Guild takes in the idiots, and foists the worst of them on us, but the magicless are of no use. Still, as long as they're in a guild, we don't have to feed and clothe them."

"Heh, or train them. Remember the temple in Bordastowne?" the other priest chuckled. "They thought they could make things cheaper by hiring non-guild orphans. Burnt food, stained robes, dust in the corners… The archbishop there finally agreed to hire from the Servers Guild again. I'll admit the boy is slow and stupid, but he does the job thoroughly."

Torven rolled his eyes again. If only I could speak! They're wasting my time with these trivialities. The taller priest caught that eye-twitch. He stroked his beard, then placed his hand over Torven's mouth and muttered something. From the tingle of magic, the Aian mage guessed something had changed, though the web didn't vanish. His guess was confirmed in the next breath.

"I've given you the power to speak normally, though you still will not be able to spellcast, mage," Hansu told him. He poked Torven in the chest with one bony finger. "If you think you have something to tell us to get you out of your predicament, now is your chance to try...and I do mean try. It would have to be of miraculous proportions to avert your fate. Mekha hungers, and you're next on His plate."

"A fat, juicy pig like that should have an apple in his mouth," the other priest muttered. "And should not be allowed to squeal."

Listening to them muttering, Torven suppressed an impatient sigh. Instead, he asked pointedly, "Why are you wasting your time siphoning magical energy from mages?"

"Because our God demands it, you fool! Or have those Arbran lackwits you were dallying with not explained it to you?" Hansu scorned.

If Torven had believed in any one particular God, he would have prayed for patience. As it was, he saw Them as nothing more than leeches on the rights of mortal man. Glaring at the bald-pated priest, he clarified himself, using crisp, biting syllables because he didn't have much patience with idiots. "Not that, you imbecile. Why are you piddling around with mages when there are far greater sources of power available for your God?"

Hansu scowled at him, and the unnamed, gray-haired priest moved over to frown down at the captive Aian as well. "What do you mean?" Hansu demanded. "There are no other sources! Gods get their powers from mortals, which means the energies must come from mortal mages!"

He rolled his eyes. "Gods spare me from the uneducated," Torven muttered. Raising his voice, he countered the older man's arguments. "There are singularity-points, commonly called Fountains, which spew masses of energy into the world. Get your hands on one of those, and you can make Mekha a God of Gods."

"We're not ignorant of such things," the other priest snapped. "We have none of those within Mekhana's borders, and our neighbors fight with such ferocity, we cannot gain more than a finger-length of land in a generation! Your advice is as useless as you are. Only your magic is of any value. For as long as it lasts."

"It is not the only source of vast power, though it is the easiest, which is why I suggested it first," Torven countered. "If Mekha is a God, then summon up and enslave a demon to Him! The underprinces of the Netherhells have almost as much power as a Fountain—and you can enslave a whole host of the lesser kind to equal that kind of power with a minimum of risk. They're actually easier to summon and bind than finding a Fountain would be. The only trick lies in binding it thoroughly, and in knowing how to tap into whatever passes for its life-force."

Hansu scoffed, folding his velvet-robed arms across his chest. "And I suppose you just happen to know how to do this demonic energy stealing?"

"Of course I do. I've made it my life's work to study how to gain vast power in numerous ways." He knew they didn't believe him, could see it in their eyes, but Torven wasn't lying. "Bring me a Truth Stone, and you'll see the pure white of my words for yourselves."

Hansu looked at the other fellow, who sighed and dug into his robes. The gray-haired priest pulled out a white marble disc and pressed it into Torven's hand. "I'm sure you know how they work, foreigner. First a lie, and then a truth."

"I am in love with you," Torven stated.

He uncurled his fingers, but the angle at which he was pinned to the altar didn't allow him to see what color the marble was. From their satisfied looks, the cold stone had been striped in black wherever his flesh had touched. Giving the stone a more few seconds to let the marks fade, the Aian mage gripped it again.

"I am Torven, a mage of great power and greater knowledge, and I hold the secrets of how to summon, bind, and drain a demon of its magical energies. Mind you, this is a dark form of magic, almost as bad as blood magic," he warned them, pausing to flex his fingers a couple times to show it was the truth, "but since you're already stealing life-energies from your own citizens, which is a worse 'sin,' I sincerely doubt you'd quibble at using a demon's energies."

The two stared at the Stone in his hand, then retreated to the doorway for a whispered conference. Torven relaxed, knowing that he had at least been given a shot at freeing himself. The distant Threefold God of Fate—well, not so distant, now that he was just two kingdoms away from Fortuna—gave chances and opened doors of opportunity to the wicked and the good alike.

Of course, Torven didn't consider himself all that wicked. Selfish, oh yes, quite, but then why shouldn't he be? Every single person in the world was after whatever he or she could get in life, and he was merely determined to be very good at getting whatever he wanted. Stealing the Fountain at the heart of the Tower had been one possibility, but there had been many others buried in the dusty, forgotten tomes of the Tower archives. Demonic enslavement and power-draining was simply another way to power.

Eventually, Hansu and the other priest had to break up their little conversation as the boy came back, cheek smudged with coal dust and struggling with the now heavily laden bucket. Letting him pass, they waited for him to reach the next brazier and begin tending it, then Hansu led the way back to Torven's altar table.

"If you really can do what you say you can do, we'll presume you want your freedom. For both you and for this other mage, I suppose?" Hansu asked him, flicking a hand at the still unconscious Healer.

Torven didn't even glance at Crastus. Most Healers tended to be selfless twits who bleated on and on about having some sort of stupid obligation to use one's powers for the good of many. Before their exile from the continent of Aiar, Crastus had been more interested in being paid for his services, as a sensible person should. After their exile…the older mage had expressed occasional doubts, even feelings of remorse, as if the simple bad turn of luck, of losing that stupid fight in the banqueting hall and then being tossed out onto another continent to live or die was some sort of holy wake-up call. Bad luck was simply Fate's way of saying find another path toward one's goals, or be stuck in stagnation like an idiot.

"I don't care about him either way, other than that he's a good enough Healer. But he probably won't serve you willingly, so either let him go or drain him dry. As for myself…" He tried to smirk, though the silvery web-material covering his mouth probably hid the effect. "I want power. Secular and magical power. A position of some rank in your order, a decent amount of money—obscenely decent, by preference—and of course a way to tap into some of the power that'll be raised. And a nice title wouldn't be amiss."

"Of course," the bald, bearded priest drawled. "And naturally you'll escape the moment we set you free. We do realize how powerful you are. We're not idiots."

The gray-haired priest started to say something, then glared at the youth in the dark gray knitted tunic. "Aren't you done yet, lackwit? Stop fiddling with the coals, and get out!"

The boy jumped, hastily scooped a few more black lumps onto the glowing orange-white ones, and scuttled off, bucket clutched to his chest.

Hansu covered his brow with his palm. "I swear, we're surrounded by inbred idiots… You were going to say something, Koler?"

"Swear a mage-oath," the other priest asserted. "Bind unto your powers an oath that you'll serve our holy order and conjure us a demon for power-binding unto Mekha."

Torven narrowed his eyes. "I'm not swearing any oath casually…but if you'll let me sit up and fetch pen and paper, perhaps we could draft a version between the three of us that will satisfy both sides. You know I know how to conjure and bind a demon for power-draining. A few minutes' delay won't harm anything either way."

Koler, the shorter priest, narrowed his eyes under his bushy, age-salted brows. "If you know how to do it, then why haven't you done it before? You claim you crave power, and that this is a great source of it."

That rolled his eyes. "Because binding a major demon requires a lot of participants? If it's one tiny denizen of a Netherhell, that's fine; one mage can do that…but their power is piddly, and a mage can bind only one or two personally before they start to threaten his control. A larger demon has exponentially greater energies to drain from its vast reserves, but it requires many mages to subdue, bind, and control it.

"Most mages whine about how dealing with anything associated with the Netherhells is an abomination against the world," he continued while the other two considered his offer, and mulled over his motives. "They wouldn't touch such a project if their immortal souls depended on it—which they don't. You'd be binding the power for your God to use, not for yourselves. Heaven couldn't touch any of us...and They certainly won't touch Mekha, or They'd have done so by now."

"Heaven doesn't give a damn about any of us," Hansu scoffed under his breath. "If They did..." He broke off, sighed, and asserted firmly if a bit rotely, "We serve Mekha, and that is our reward. Fetch pen and paper, Koler."

"If this isn't a viable option, you'll be plugged into our God without a second thought," Koler warned Torven before turning toward the door.

"If it isn't a viable option, that will be the fault of your colleagues, not mine," Torven told him, clenching his fist as the older priest turned back with a scowl. "Check the Truth Stone still in my hand—I am not going to let any fault of mine damage my chances of gaining vast power." He relaxed his fingers, showing what was undoubtedly an unblemished disc. It was the truth, after all.

Koler grunted and turned toward the door again, and was almost bowled over as a junior priest ran up the corridor, skidding to a stop in front of the gray-haired man. "Brother Koler!" the youth gasped, panting. "Brother Hansu! He's gone!"

"What do you mean?" Hansu asked. "Who is gone?"

"Mekha! He's gone! Not ten, fifteen minutes ago, He was in the power chamber soaking up everything like normal, then there was suddenly a great, shimmering light in front of Him, like a giant egg. He stood, said, 'Finally!' and…was gone! The light took Him and vanished, almost like He stepped into nothingness!"

Bound on the table as he still was, Torven couldn't see the young man's face clearly, but he certainly heard the bewilderment in that breathless, cracking voice.

"He just vanished, Brothers, and no one knows why! We waited, and we waited, but now…now the symbols are going, too! 'Scuse me, I have to go tell the others!" A patter of feet took him farther down the hall.

Koler turned to watch him go, just enough that Torven could see the scowl form on his face. "Haven't you moved on, boy?"

Hansu frowned and started to say something—then reached out and clutched his fellow priest's shoulder, hard enough to make the older man grunt. His other hand pointed straight at the carvings, and he hissed, "Look!"

His shoulder and sleeve blocked part of Torven's awkwardly angled view, but the robe itself was more than enough. The runes and the gears, painstakingly stitched on the fabric and carved into the walls...were melting and fading. Vanishing. Being erased, the Aian mage realized, as the phenomenon spread from the direction the youth had come to the direction he had fled, rippling across the walls and even the ceiling.

As it passed his toes, he felt the spells binding him to the altar weaken…and felt the webbing decay. Surging his personal powers, Torven broke the last of it and quickly sat up, shifting to dangle his legs over the side of the stone table. He didn't move further than that, since his head pounded with a lack of blood from the sudden change in position, but it was enough to catch the attention of the other two men. Quickly, before they could re-enslave him, he held up one hand, thinking hard and fast.

"I suspect, gentlemen, that you no longer have a Patron Deity. Which means it is no longer necessary for you to bind and drain me. This...vanishing," he added, gesturing vaguely at the walls, "matches some old records I have read, about old Gods and Goddesses being disbanded. Which is a little odd, because that would normally require the Convocation of Gods and Man, which hasn't been seen since my homeland was an intact empire two centuries ago...but it isn't impossible. After all, there is no reason for Mekha and His symbols to disappear otherwise...and with no detectable traces of magic, I might add."

"If this is true, then this is a disaster," Hansu muttered, swiping his palm over his bare scalp. "Without Mekha to keep the peasants in line, we'll have rioting in the streets! They'll try to attack us—and I can feel that I don't have the great power I once held..."

"Then it sounds like you need a powerful ally...and that you still need a power source," Torven reminded him, ignoring the faint groan from the Healer on the other altar-table. "My point earlier about other mages not wanting to handle such a source is still valid, particularly if you cross-gift the energies, so that you are not tapping the creatures you yourself bind, but instead exchange powers with the beings tapped by someone else.

"I am still willing to work with your Brotherhood, for the reasons why you would be willing," he reminded them. "It's not as if you have anything to lose at this point, if the peasants will turn on you once they know that the wrath of their vanished God no longer holds them in check. Gather the others in a secure place, lay out these suggestions to all of them, and make up your minds. But do it quickly."

"Hansu—the mage-prisoners," the gray-haired priest said, catching his companion's sleeve while Hansu hesitated. "Without Mekha draining them, they will start to recover, and then they'll come after us. We have bigger problems on our hands!"

Torven rolled his eyes again. Feeling well enough to stand, he pushed off the altar, but leaned his hip against it for hidden support. If he had to fight to get out of here, he would need his reserves for handling that, not for balance. "For the love of a proper education... Gentlemen. Set them free, apologize to them—even if you have to choke on your bile to do it—and tell them that you were forced into doing everything you've done by your former Patron Deity! After all, who can go against the will of their very God? Who cares if it's a partial lie or a flat-out fib? With Mekha gone, banished from existence itself, you have the perfect scapegoat to blame!

"At the very least, you'll have them pushed outside the temple doors before they'll know what's happened to them, and a valid excuse to lock those doors behind them," he added archly.

"Apologize?" Hansu looked like he was being asked to swallow a manure-covered toad. He checked himself after a moment of thought, albeit with a look of distaste. "I…I suppose if we must..."

Mind no longer fogged by the spells laid on him, Torven had already thought five moves ahead. I could easily flee, or probably easily overpower these two...but I'd have to go looking for another Fountain to try to take over, and that could take years of searching and careful insinuation. If the shattered remnants of this priesthood can pull their heads out of their collective arses long enough to stay organized, we might be able to summon up a vast source of power…and retain positions of power in this land. If they're not idiots.

"Yes, you must," he said, barely concealing his impatience. "You have a very rare opportunity, gentlemen. With the removal of Mekha—as evidenced by the loss of His symbols and sigils from everything, even from the embroidery on your robes—you have the opportunity to create a God or Goddess of your choosing. One with all the power you could want...and one completely under your control."

He smiled at them. Not a bland or a pleasant smile, but rather the kind that showed too many teeth. Koler blinked and frowned at him, but the bearded Hansu slowly nodded his head. "Yes... Yes. A powerful 'God' of our choosing..."

"Whatever you have planned, you had best stay here, if you want to see it through, mage. The others don't yet know that you're willing to join us," Koler said, pointing at the Aian. "And they may not yet know that Mekha is gone. If He is truly gone."

Torven glanced down at the hand still clutching the Truth Stone, then lifted it. "I have every reason to believe, based on ancient texts I have read regarding similar situations, that the disappearance of Mekha's sigils from your robes and these walls—and His very presence from your 'power room,' whatever that was—means that He has somehow been disbanded and removed from His Patronage of Mekhana."

Turning his palm up, he unfurled his fingers, revealing the unblemished white disc balanced neatly on his palm.

"As you can see, I have every reason to believe this may indeed be the truth." He gave the other two men an arch look. "If you still want to retain some power, magical and governmental, I am willing to work with you on terms favorable to both sides."

Again, the stone was white. Sighing heavily, Koler stepped into the hall. "I'll contact the Patriarch and talk with the other temples. This may just be something which is strictly localized, or it may be kingdom-wide. We won't know for sure until then."

Hansu looked at his departing colleague, looked at the groaning Healer whose mouth-covering web was still in place, and snapped his fingers, knocking out the older foreigner with a wordless cantrip-spell. He stared at the younger one. "Don't get full of yourself, Aian. We'll see how 'favorable' those terms truly are…and you may still have to be oathbound to them."

Torven dipped his head. He was a capable law-sayer when needed, quite able to word rules and oaths just so. Without the power of their God behind them—provided Mekha truly was gone—then Torven was fairly confident he could wrest a good deal from these people.

At least they seem to be sensible, practical souls like me, and not a bunch of moralizing imbeciles, hobbling themselves just because they're afraid of the true advantages that lie beyond being mindlessly good all the time.

...

Torn between wanting to stay in the next prepping chamber over from the two newest prisoners and try to keep eavesdropping on that slimy foreigner, or running to the slavepens to free the mages—if they were free—Rexei finally set down the coal bucket she had been clutching to her flat-bound chest and forced herself to think through the thoughts swirling and clashing in her head. It wasn't easy to comprehend, but the bare blankness of the very walls around her did seem to corroborate the mage's claim.

Mekha...gone. Just gone, poof, vanished! It was a giddy thought, but a disorienting one. She felt like a mouse long caught under the stare of a cat, only to see it finally move off and vanish. Except her brain couldn't quite believe it. Indeed, the background tune—one of a score—that always filled her thoughts only hummed louder, cloaking her life-force to further hide her magical signature.

He's gone from this temple's power room…but I know the other major temples around the kingdom also have power rooms, which He occupied simultaneously. I…I need to get close to the scrying room and try to overhear.

His other claim was quite chilling. Conjure a demon? Bind its powers for draining? Did I hear him right? She hoped not. Demons were reputed to be even nastier than Mekha was, and He was loathed by His whole people, save for the priests who profited from His demands. And yet if the foreigner was telling the truth…

She picked up the coal-bucket, since it gave her an excuse to go places, though she didn't yet move from the room she was in. It was winter, and Heiastowne had been built in a broad valley nestled against the foothills of the eastern mountains. The entire temple was crafted from thick stone laid by masons many centuries ago, back when Mekha had been a kinder, less capricious, less insatiable, less insane God. That meant the place required braziers and hearths to keep itself warm. The priests weren't going to tend those fires, though; they considered themselves superior to all other guilds.

In all other guilds, from Apothecary to Chandlers, Masons to Tanners Guild, Vintners and more, all apprentices were equal to each other. Journeymen were equals, and masters and grandmasters, each to their own rank. There was a little bit of jockeying among the Guild Masters, but mostly among related groups, such as Goldworks, Silverworks, Brassworks, Ironworks and the like, though Brassworks and Silverworks were both considered equal to Lumber, even if they didn't always agree between themselves.

Elevation and rank were based on merit and ability, a most sensible way to give someone authority and power...but not in the priesthood. Their "novices"—apprentices in any other guild—were to be accounted equal with journeymen in other guilds, and their priests as masters, their bishops as grandmasters, and their archbishops the equal of any Guild Master. That was supposed to be the highest rank one could attain, for there was only one Guild Master at a time in all branches of that guild. The Patriarch, the Guild Master of the Priests Guild, was supposed to be considered the highest-ranked of all, the spiritual leader…and the default kingdom leader, because he outranked everyone. A fact which rankled.

The Patriarch's bound to be in a panic, Rexei realized when her thoughts circled around to the highest priest of all. He might start issuing nasty orders, if he stops to think that this means the people will try to overthrow the stranglehold of the priesthood, once their greatest source of political and magical power is gone.

I'd hate to be in Mekhastowne, in the heart of the kingdom. As soon as everyone there realizes Mekha is gone, there'll be rioting for sure. Even the Patriarch won't be safe; priests may be able to use their magics unfettered by fear, and they'll know tonnes more spells than anyone else, but even a strong mage can do only so much in the face of an infuriated, finally free mob.

Another, more disturbing thought crossed her mind, making her hurry faster, taking the stairs two steps at a time. Oh, Godsthis place won't be safe, once people realize what's happened. I need to get out of here! But...I need to know if they're actually going to try the demon-conjuring thing. That's far more important...isn't it?

It was not an easy choice. Ever since her family had been torn apart when she was barely ten, forcing her to flee her home and make her way on her own, Rexei had always preferred caution and flight. She wasn't a fighter, and didn't want to be one, ever. She had always avoided being drafted into the local Precincts in her guise as a boy by initially pretending to be too young to be drafted whenever questioned about her age—aided by her slim figure and youthful, beardless face—and then by vanishing to a new town and a new Guild a month or so later, well before she could be considered old and healthy enough to be hauled to the Precinct headquarters for training.

Just like she had fled many other jobs. In fact, she had fled their associated guilds in the beginning as well, though after the first year she tried to make a point of giving the grandmaster of each local guild a feasible reason why she had to leave, and leave in a hurry. Often enough, the truth sufficed: Some of the priests were looking at me funny. I got a bad feeling. I need to go. But sometimes it was a non-priest who looked at "the boy" funny. At least, until her time in the Messenger Guild. That had allowed her to move around quite a lot.

It was through the Messenger Guild that she had met up with the Hydraulics Guild, and that...had led her to her position here. A spy in the local priests' stronghold. Which means...which means I have to find out what is going on, and report on it. Even if it scares me.

Or annoys me, Rexei added, feeling the tender spot on her tongue where she had bitten it. The gray-haired priest, Bishop Koler, had startled her with his shouting about her being a useless lackwit. I'd think after two months of being berated and harangued on a daily basis, I'd have grown used to it...but all it does is make me want to stand up tall and proud and claim I'm not a boy, I'm an adult...since technically I'm not a man.

Unfortunately, she couldn't let either her fear or her irritation show. She was here on behalf of three Guilds: as a representative of the Gearmen's Guild, acting on behalf of the Servers Guild, in order to investigate claims of guildmember abuse—that was the legitimate cover story—and the third was the Mages Guild, to see if there was any way of freeing the other mages kept somewhere in here.

In two months, she had determined the Server apprentices were treated with equal doses of disdain and contempt, but otherwise were treated fairly for their lot. She had not, however, managed to make it into the basement level, though she at least knew which door the priesthood used. Only those bound to Mekha's will—one way or another—were allowed to pass through that particular door.

Keeping her forehead and cheeks relaxed, breathing through her mouth as well as her nose, she carried the coal bucket to the stairs leading up to the second floor. Here were the little offices for each of the priests and the bishops, plus the larger one for the temple archbishop. Koler's study was next to Archbishop Elcarei's, and from the sound of his voice as she approached, it was there he had gone to use his scrying mirror.

Scrying mirrors were far more secure than the talker-boxes, since the messages sent by those could be picked up by anyone else within fifty miles who had a talker-box. Unfortunately, the scrying mirrors required magic to activate, which meant they were a secret reserved for the priesthood alone. No one outside of the priesthood knew how to make them, here in Mekhana...but that was okay, because unlike the sound-maker on the talker-box, which had to be held to an individual's ear, mirrors made conversations as easy audible as if the persons involved were standing in the same room.

She ducked into the archbishop's empty office and moved to the fireplace. Her gloved hands went to work, pulling the tongs off the edge of the bucket, shifting the glowing embers, adding new lumps of black in a scattered pattern so they would slowly turn white and pale orange, heating up the place. This room didn't have a brazier; it had a hearth, one which shared a thin brick wall with the chamber on the other side. If she strained her ears...

Footsteps were her only warning. "Boy! What are you doing up here?"

© 2014 G. Jean Johnson