A lone traveler was riding along the road that wended its way eastward through rolling hills. This part of Casdra was sparsely populated with only the occasional farmsteads dotting the land. Further east rose the mountains through which the road would ultimately go. A cool breeze blew down from the peaks, easing the heat of the summer day.
Father Thomas was on his way back to the village of Billin where he was proud to be the spiritual leader. Every three years, Casdralla's priests were required to spend time at the High Temple for a period of fasting and purification. Then once completed, they would return to their home temples, recharged in spirit and ready to continue the work of the Lady.
Riding his mule across the hills of the lower region of Casdra, the land in which their holy Lady held sway, he passed the time by recalling many of the theological discussions in which he partook. Such learned exchanges of ideas were a rare thing in his home temple and that was part of the reason he so enjoyed his time at the High Temple. The priests with whom he served on a day to day basis in Billin were not necessarily the brightest of those called to the Lady's service. Billin being a small town with a small temple, it didn't draw many of what many would consider deep thinkers. The only one with whom he could discuss the more abstract theoretical ideals was Brother Frey. But he tended to be rather peripatetic and spent most of his time traveling between temples, being a more hands on priest than most.
All in all, Father Thomas was quite satisfied with his life. The birds were singing and the light breeze aided in keeping the summer heat tolerable.
Sometime tomorrow he would be back in Billin. Nestled in a high valley along the shore of the prettiest lake one could ever hope to see, Billin inhabited the most tranquil, and beautiful area Father Thomas had ever encountered. That was why when he had heard of the passing of the Father in charge of the Billin temple, he quickly volunteered for the position. He loved being in the mountains and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Dabbing away the sweat beading his forehead, he would also be glad to be away from the heat of the lowlands.
It was still early in the day when the road began to rise on its way toward the upper elevations. Casdra on a whole was a land of rugged terrain and deep forests. Almost completely encircled by tall mountain ranges, the greater part of Casdralla's domain was accessible only through a single mountain pass. Father Thomas had made his way through that pass four days ago and then spent the better part of a day visiting a friend who was a priest at the temple in the walled city of Xith.
Xith was by far Casdra's largest city. Situated as it was on the southern border, the soldiers garrisoned behind its fortifications had protected the pass leading into the heart of Casdra for centuries. With its massive wall protecting it, they could sally forth and attack any army which dared try to invade into the heart of Casdra. The last such assault was three centuries ago and the invading army had been decimated so severely, they had eventually given up and returned home in disgrace after losing more than half its men.
Their country was strong, its people prosperous, the world was as it should be.
As he continued along, the road gradually grew steeper as it made its way to the summit. At times it would switchback on itself and grow quite steep. Every time he passed through this section of the road, he would offer a prayer up to the Lady for those traders hearty enough to dare this route of steep incline and narrow switchbacks. For without them, his village would experience grave hardship.
Hours went by as he worked his way to the summit. A hunter's cabin stood not far from the road just over the summit on the eastern side. In the winter, hunters from Billin would come and use it as a base. During other seasons of the year, it was a way-stop for travelers, a place where they could escape the cold of the mountains and take their ease during the night.
Father Thomas always made it a point to stop there whenever he traveled to the High Temple or visited his friend in Xith. Rarely did he encounter another person sharing the cabin during those times. It afforded him a final period in which to commune with the Lady before returning to his duties. And as he crested the summit and the cabin came into view not far down the road, he saw that this time was to be no exception. It was shut tight against the elements and had the look of being deserted.
Behind the cabin was a small stable where he housed his mule. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving to Casdralla when he discovered oats for his mule. They must have been left by the last traveler.
But such was the custom in Casdra. It being for the most part a mountainous and rugged country, way-stops such as this one were not uncommon. Whenever a traveler stayed at one, custom dictated for them to leave what they could for the next traveler. Because who knew when someone's need would be great? The Lady favored those who helped others.
Aside from the oats, Father Thomas discovered plenty of chopped wood stacked inside near the fireplace, another benevolent act by the previous occupant. He stacked several of the smaller logs within the fireplace and soon had a warm fire burning, its warmth quickly banishing the cool of the upper elevations from the cabin.
Once the fire was able to continue burning on its own, he took his pot and went outside to where a small creek made its way past the cabin. There he filled it a quarter of the way with water.
The sun by this time had fallen behind the western peaks and the day was once more giving way to night. Father Thomas took his time on returning to the cabin. The peace of the moment filled him and it was in times like these that he felt closest to the Lady.
When at last he returned inside the cabin, he went about making a stew from the last of his supplies. As he waited for it to become ready, he gazed from the window, enjoying the tranquil view of the trees and mountains.
Tomorrow he would be home.
In the morning before he left, he offered a blessing for the next traveler. Since priests normally weren't expected to chop wood, this was their way of contributing to the way-stops. Anyone who encountered a way-stop that was ill prepared for them knew that a priest had recently spent the night and that they would be blessed. True, there were some who took advantage of the custom and took without giving, but they faced a reckoning for their actions when they departed this world.
Once the blessing had been said and he was again atop his mule, Father Thomas resumed his progress toward Billin. His spirits were high as he worked his way down from the summit, fully enjoying another of the remarkably beautiful days that were so common to this region at this time of year.
He rode for several hours before encountering another traveler. The man was on foot further down the road and making his way toward him. Walking with head down and steps coming in broken rhythm, there was something about the man that made Father Thomas uneasy. Nudging his mule to a quicker pace, he hurried forward. He had covered most of the distance and was about to shout a salutation when the man took a misstep and fell to the road.
Father Thomas immediately slipped from the back of his mule and rushed forward, his concern growing into something more. Even before he reached the man's side, he could see that his clothes were torn and stained red with blood.
His first thought was that the man may have run afoul of bandits. Though not very common along this stretch of road, it did happen. "My son!" he cried as he reached the man's side.
Raising his head, the man looked up. "Father," he said.
Father Thomas gasped in recognition when he recognized the face staring up at him. "Jesop?" he asked in worry. Dropping to his knees, he reached out for his long time friend. "What happened?" he asked. "Who did this to you?" Dried blood matted Jesop's clothes in several places. There was a wound on his head, a bump that appeared to have been caused by contact with a blunt object.
Jesop grabbed the front of Father Thomas' robe. "They're gone!" he cried. "Everyone is gone!"
Fear from deep within the priest began welling to the surface as Jesop spoke. "Gone?" he asked. "Who?"
"I tried..." he began then stopped as the light in his eyes began to fade.
"Jesop!" yelled Father Thomas. Bowing his head, he closed his eyes and prayed. "Lady, who watches over her people as does a loving mother, let not this good man leave us!" When he opened his eyes, he saw Jesop looking back. "Tell me what happened," he said softly.
"They came in the night," Jesop explained. "With clubs and swords they came and took everyone they could find." He started to fade again but strength returned to him and was able to continue. "I tried to save them!" he shouted. "But there were too many." Tears appeared in his eyes as he said quietly, "They took my Valia, ripped her out of my arms as I tried to shield her. She was but a girl!"
"Who did this?" Father Thomas asked.
Jesop didn't reply. His turned his head toward him and sobbed.
Father Thomas held him as he cried. Inwardly, he feared for his people, for Jesop had been one of those who lived within Billin. He was amazed that given his injuries, Jesop had made it so far. Giving silent prayers to the Lady for the safety of his people and for her to protect them, he held the man until his cries stopped. When he loosened the embrace, he found that Jesop had died.
He said another prayer for Casdralla to ease Jesop's passage to the next world, then set about burying him. Father Thomas desperately needed to return to Billin and find out what had happened, but first he would give Jesop the proper burial he deserved.
It took him almost half an hour before Jesop was properly in the ground. Standing by the grave, he offered another prayer then returned to his mule and continued the last stretch home as fast as possible.
An hour later he saw the smoke. Two more hours found him upon the crest of the ridge overlooking Billin and saw what remained of his once peaceful, beautiful village. Not one building remained intact. Whoever had done this had set fire to everything. He sought where his temple had once stood and found only a charred remnant.
A glimmer of hope sprung within him when he saw people moving amongst the smoldering remains of their homes. Nudging his mule into motion, he hurried down to the town.
Daeson was aiding in processing prayers of the faithful as most Qyaendri do from time to time when another of the Qyaendri appeared before him. "Daeson!" the Qyaendri exclaimed. "Xi has returned!"
"Xi?" he asked.
Nodding, the Qyaendri said, "He wants you to come."
Without saying anything further, Daeson vanished and immediately appeared within the High Temple where he made his way to the Rotunda. The temple was crowded to the point of bursting with curious Qyaendri. As he came forward, their ranks parted to allow him a path to the center by the statue of their goddess where Xi waited.
Xi said not a word as Daeson approached. As he came before the most ancient one, Daeson dropped to one knee and bowed "What does my Lady want of me?" he asked.
There was a moment of quiet expectation as everyone within the Rotunda held still to hear Xi's reply. "It is time," his deep voice announced.
Daeson raised his head and saw Xi holding his hand out toward him.
"Take my hand," he said.
Coming to his feet, Daeson reached out and took hold of Xi's hand. In that instant, they were gone.
In a world very much different to that in which Father Thomas hurried to help his people, Larus laughed. He had done much laughing during the past year spent on this world. The people inhabiting this particular world were basically much the same as those he had encountered on every other world to which he had been sent during his time in Casdralla's service. It was what they had done with the world that so amazed him.
He had learned much of this world and its people since his first arrival: radio, television, candy bars, the list was endless. These people had a way of living which transfixed him as none other. From the simple country fair, he had made his way to a more populated area where he planned to search for the one to save his Lady's people.
But soon after arriving, he discovered a place that made the fair seem boring in comparison. It was something the locals called an ‘Amusement Park'. In it were things the locals called ‘roller-coasters' and other ‘thrill rides' which soon had him procrastinating in his mission to find the chosen one. After all, he did have a whole year didn't he?
One of the attributes of the Qyaendri was that when they were around mortals, they were prone to pick up the habits and attitudes of those mortals. Most Qyaendri were able to use this ability to better deal with the mortals they were trying to help. Knowing how mortals thought and felt gave them an edge when attempting to answer their prayers.
However, some like Larus, tended to be more influenced in their own actions by the habits and attitudes of the mortals around them. His susceptibility to being thus affected had played no small part in why he had been sent to help the boy Allen. The little boy lived in a sparsely populated rural community and Larus would have minimal contact with humans. Now though, with thousands of people surrounding him and being constantly bombarded by their thoughts, emotions, and the basic drives of all humans, he was ill equipped to deal with it.
And that is why, a year later, Larus had done very little in the way of finding the chosen one. In fact, for the last three months, he hadn't even thought about his mission at all. Going from one experience to another, he became an addict of this world. Not from drugs or anything like that, but rather from a deluge of experiences so overwhelming, that they were all he could think about.
A year to the day of his arrival on this world, Larus was seated in an old, rundown movie theater watching a Three Stooges' marathon. Aside from himself, there were only fourteen others in the theater. On his lap was a monster bucket of popcorn from which a steady stream of the crunchy goodness found its way into his mouth. Resting on the seat next to him was a half eaten box of bonbons, a pop that was all but gone, and the nachos he planned to eat a little bit later.
There was something about the men on the screen that was hard to resist. Their antics brought forth laughter from him the likes of which he had never experienced. Currently, he was watching them trying to get a block of ice up a tall flight of steps. Every time the block of ice reached the top, it had melted to a fraction of its original size. And every time, he would laugh. Then, they positioned themselves to relay the block of ice to the top. Each moving quickly, they were finally able to get the block of ice to the top intact. When Curly held it up to show the other two they had succeeded, it slipped out of the tongs and shattered on the ground.
Larus broke into laughing so hard, he could barely breathe. When he was finally able to control the laughter and returned his gaze to the screen, he found the picture to be frozen.
"Hey!" he hollered up to the projection room. Glancing to the square through which the picture emerged, he tried to see what, if anything, was going on in there.
About to get out of his seat and head out to the lobby to tell someone, he noticed everyone in the theater wasn't moving either. That was when he saw someone standing nearby in the aisle looking straight at him. A soft nimbus of light radiated from the man. It took only a moment for him to recognize Daeson.
At seeing the Qyaendri, the enormity of what he had done, or rather not done, struck him like a load of bricks. The presence of another Qyaendri did much to negate the accumulated affects of the mortals on this world. He realized the time was up and that he had done nothing in finding the chosen one. "I've come to bring the one to save our Lady's people," Daeson told him. Fear coursed through Larus. He had failed! There was no chosen one! "Where is he?" asked Daeson. Panic filled him. He could be banished from his Lady's presence for this! And what of Xi? What would that mighty one do to him for having failed? Visions of consequences too terrible to mention ran through his mind.
"Well?" asked Daeson. "Don't tell me you failed again." His expression darkened.
"No," lied Larus. It just came out. He had never lied before, ever. Yet there he was, lying! Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "The chosen one is ready."
Surprise appeared on Daeson's face. "Truly?" When Larus nodded, he asked, "Then where is he? Time is short for our Lady's people."
His mind froze. What could he say? What could he do? Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man frozen in the doorway leading from the theater. The man was returning from the lobby with a bucket of popcorn in one hand and a drink in the other. Pointing toward him, Larus said, "That's him."
Daeson turned to look at the man and said, "Good." Moving toward him, Daeson reached out and touched the man on the arm.
As Daeson and the man disappeared, Larus moaned, "What have I done?"
Father Thomas was numb. Only a few of his people had survived the attack. Those who had been lucky enough to find refuge in the surrounding forest told tales of men appearing in the dead of night. Wielding clubs, they felled everyone they encountered.
Here and there as he passed through the pitiful remnants of his once beautiful village, laid men who had fought to save family and friends. Their bodies hacked and stabbed, some beyond recognition. Whoever had done this had shown no mercy.
They had come for his people, taken them toward a fate Father Thomas wouldn't allow himself to contemplate. A steady stream of prayers issued forth from the priest as he moved from body to body. Not only were they of the men who fought in defense of their village, but also of the old and infirm.
"Why?" a woman cried out to him. "Why would they do this to us?"
He looked her way and saw a woman cradling the head of a man in her lap. As he gazed into her tear streaked face, he recognized her as Clarissa. She and the man whose head she cradled had exchanged vows but a month ago. Theirs had been a life of promise. Now she was a widow.
Shaking his head, he said, "I do not know."
"It was them damn Ullentites," stated a crusty old codger. Ogger was one of the oldest living residents in Billin and had been the boil on many backsides during his protracted years. "Always knew they were no good."
Ullen was the nation to the south. Ruled by a king, they and Casdra had enjoyed many years of peace and prosperity. During his recent time in the High Temple, Father Thomas had heard unsettling rumors surrounding a recent shift in the power structure of Ullen. He had paid little heed, now much to his regret.
"Carey!" "Mort!" A woman cried out in anguish as she moved through the charred remains of Billin in search of her children.
Father Thomas continued to sink lower into sadness, his world crumbling around him. All he could think of was that he had not been here when his people had needed him the most. Self deprecating guilt and mind numbing emotional pain sought to take his will from him. Then, almost as if a hand reached inside him and brought him back to his reason, he knew what he had to do.
Moving with renewed determination, he made his way toward what was left of his beautiful temple. Offering prayers and words of encouragement to all he passed along the way. The temple door was gone, as were the walls and ceiling. Fire had taken everything but the stone fireplace and the adjoining wall.
Passing resolutely into the still smoking remains, he made his way toward where the wooden altar had once stood. The silver chalice, the golden statue of the goddess, none of the precious, sacred objects had been spared by the invaders. They had stolen them all. His heart broke at the desecration to his temple, but he persevered until he reached the area just before where the altar had sat.
Charred sections of the crossbeams and ceiling were lying crisscrossed upon the floor. Taking hold of the uppermost beam, he began clearing them to the side. For hidden beneath the floor was the most sacred of all the artifacts which his temple had held.
"Father Thomas?" a man asked.
Pausing in his work, he turned to see Ogger standing at the edge of the ruined temple. The old man was looking at him.
"Could you use some help?" he asked.
Father Thomas was taken aback by the offer. In the fifteen years he had served in Billin, this was the first time Ogger had ever offered to help anyone. "Yes," he replied. "I could and thank you my son."
Ogger made his way to the Father's side, and with his help, the floor was soon cleared of debris.
It didn't look as if the secret compartment had been discovered. The fire which had destroyed his temple had scorched the wood of the floor and warped it slightly but appeared still intact. Kneeling down, Father Thomas pressed in the two places necessary to open it. When it popped open, it only opened half an inch. Then Ogger was there with a knife and wedged its blade into the side of the secret compartment's lid. When he pried the lid open, Father Thomas saw the purple velvet pouch and breathed a sigh of relief.
"What is that?" asked Ogger.
"This, my son," Father Thomas replied as he took the pouch and stood up, "is a piece of the very first temple ever built on this world to Casdralla." Opening the pouch, he pulled forth a piece of wood three inches long and one wide. To Ogger it looked like nothing more than part of a wooden plank that had been chipped away from a larger piece.
Father Thomas let the pouch fall away as he held the sacred artifact. "I am going to beseech our Lady to help our people," he explained.
Ogger nodded. "Is there anything I can help you with?" he asked.
"No," replied Father Thomas. Holding the artifact reverently in his hands, he fell to his knees and prayed. "Great Mother Casdralla, your people need your help this day..." As he prayed, he could feel the holiness of the piece of wood he held seem to magnify and envelope him like a warm, comforting blanket.
Pouring his heart and soul into the prayer, he beseeched her to watch over his people, that they may be safe and quickly returned to their loved ones. "...let them know you walk with them great Lady. Help them, I beseech you." With the utterance of the last word, he grew silent as tears streamed down his face. Finally giving into the emotions which have plagued him since first learning of the attack, he clutched the piece of wood and sobbed.
His sobbing continued for only a short time before a warm sense of calm settled over him, a feeling of safety akin to that of a fearful child being comforted by a loving parent. "Father!" he heard Ogger suddenly cry out. There was something strange in his voice, something he had never heard in it before. Opening his eyes, he was startled to see two men enveloped by a radiant glow standing before him.
"A Qyaendri!" he exclaimed. For the man on the right could be none other. Though they looked as any man one would expect to encounter on the street, a Qyaendri had a certain aura about them that any priest could immediately recognize.
Father Thomas was awed beyond words. Never in his time as a priest had he come face to face with one. While it was true he had been taught that they were the intermediaries between Casdralla and the mortal world, he had always harbored doubts as to their existence. At the High Temple where he had just recently come from, there were many murals and statues depicting Qyaendri. He had always hoped they were real. And, now standing before him, was one. Fear intermingled with awe at being in its presence.
The man standing next to the Qyaendri was an odd sort. His dress was unlike anything Father Thomas had ever seen before. In one hand the man held a bucket containing an unknown substance, while in the other was gripped what looked to be a container.
Remaining on his knees, Father Thomas bowed his head. "Mighty one," he said with as much reverence and respect he could muster. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ogger and several others down on one knee.
"There is a task which this man must complete," said the Qyaendri. "You, Father Thomas, must aid him in whatever way you are able."
"But what of my people?" began Father Thomas when suddenly, the Qyaendri disappeared. The glow encompassing the man faded with the Qyaendri's disappearance.
The man stood there with eyes wide for a moment as he looked first to Father Thomas then to the burned out husk of the temple. Then a small noise escaped him as his eyes rolled up into his head and fainted dead away.