Chapter 8 – The Veiled
The building to which they made their way was secluded far from the rest within the Old City, off to the north east, where the walls climbed up through the hilly ground. Trees grew in thick profusion around it and if not for the path that led towards it, it would have been almost impossible to know of its existence.
The building itself was large and of two stories in height, while at the same time being rather plain and functional in appearance. There was no elaborate stone work or architecture, in stark contrast to most of the buildings Kathri had seen in the Old City.
Passing out from under the trees, they came to a clearing out in front of the building, contained within an arc of gently sloping ground. There were a number of stone benches spread out around in the sunlight, all facing inwards towards a small pool in the centre of the clearing. From out of the pool rose a fountain, taking the form of a woman, the water pouring out from an amphora that she carried.
There were people seated on some of the benches, while others walked slowly around, most being attended by people in long robes of a dark blue colour. The robed figures, both men and woman, had veils across their faces, ones of a deep purple. Crimson tassels hung from the veils and gold thread was worked through them, forming mystic, arcane sigils.
Though she had never been to the place before, Kathri knew of it well, as did most people, for it was the fames Hospice of Ciosala. The Veiled, as they were known, the Ghiaro sil Triagi, the Company of the Soothing Hand, were a faction within the Mages, one which devoted itself to the exclusively to the healing arts. Even in lands that were hostile towards the Mages and they were not allowed to go, the Veiled could, as they, for the most, kept out of the politics that most Mages engaged in, and treated any, regardless of who they were or where they came from. Even the most ardent of those that Kathri knew who despised the Mages saw the Veiled in a different light.
Esarrio took them into the building, following a route through it without hesitation. They walked along corridors lit up by glowing glyphstones attached to the walls high up, ones that cast a pale golden light. Numerous doors opened up off the corridor, while the whole of it had a remarkably clean feel to it.
From the corridor, Esarrior climbed up a set of stairs to the floor above. There were fewer doors up there, spaced further apart, ones that opened up into larger rooms. Esarrio stopped before one of the doors and knocked on it.
“Come on in,” a woman’s voice called out.
Esarrio opened the door and stepped on in. Kathri caught sight of Braethir’s face as he followed, growing tighter and more uneasy.
The room was an office, though one rather spartan in design. A table and chair took up a large part of it, behind which a woman sat. There was a small collection of books on the desk, along with a small figurine, one of a woman carved out of red stone, about the only decoration to be found in the room. A window opened up behind the desk, looking out over the clearing in front of the Hospice.
The woman rose from her chair as they entered, one tall and slender and graceful, her long hair pale, almost white, though she was not old. There were other hints of colour within the hair, of soft greens and blues, barely noticed. Her eyes were a particularly stormy grey, ones that almost seemed to swirl about like wind swept clouds.
A Stormblood! Kathri had not expected to meet many, if any, of the blooded in Ciosala, and even less so one of the Stormblooded. The blooded were not common, and even among those there were some that were rarer than most, those who had more than one bloodline flowing through their veins. Such were the Stormblooded, those with the blood of the seas and the winds within. That she worked for the Mages was very much an oddity, given the attitude they held towards members of the Blooded.
The woman moved around from behind the table, her movements poised and elegant. She wore the same dark blue robes of the Veiled, though she herself had no veil across her face, it instead resting upon her shoulders. With her face unmasked, Kathri could see that was remarkably beautiful, though in a delicate way, all colour blanched from her. There was more to her than that, as about her clung an aura, one both serene and sad. She smiled as she saw them, one that lit up her face but it failed to fully chase away the sadness. The sadness was for the most masked, only hints of it surfacing for those adept at reading the signs.
A woman of many sorrows, Kathri reflected, And yet she carries them alone.
Braethir walked over to the woman, and though he too smiled, there was a hint of pain in his eyes he tried to hide.
Esarrio touched a hand to Kathri’s arm and motioned for her to stay back. “Give them a moment,” he said softly.
The woman, who Kathri took to be Cosatia that they had come to find, and Braethir stood close by to each other, not quite touching, speaking to one another in low tones. Kathri could see each trying to hide the pain they felt from the other, for the most successfully, for they gave no reaction to it.
“What is her story?” Kathri asked, “If you are able to say that is.”
Esarrio let out a soft sigh. “It is a tale of such tragedy as to make poets and playwrights weep, or at least to inspire them. One of the finest minds of the times, with a healing hand able to coax life back from near any ill when other have given up hope, and yet she can not cure herself.”
“She is dying?”
A brief nod of the head answered. “Yes. She has managed to delay it long past where any others though possible and yet she wastes away, day by day.”
Esarrio did not answer immediately, instead watching the pair, even he reflecting sorrow. “That is where the real tragedy lies,” he answered finally. “They grew up together, out along the Ditch. Not an easy life for one of the Blooded, as you well know. Braethir looked after her, kept those at bay who would make her life difficult. They became like family, as close as brother and sister. When she was diagnosed, he took it hard. He had spent his life protecting her, and here was an enemy he could not defeat for her.”
Cosatia and Braethir ceased their conversation and came across to join Esarrio and Kathri.
“Braethir has filled me in on your situation, dear Esarrio,” Cosatia said. “Take me to this poor man and I shall endeavour to do my best to heal him.”
Astiara’s room was crowded when all of them had returned to it. Cosatia stood above the bed, studying the pale, sweat soaked man. She bade the others be quiet as she concentrated. Raising the veil from her shoulders, she placed it across her face. Above it, her eyes flashes a stormy green. She rested one hand upon Astiara’s brow. He moaned at the touch and began to thrash about. With her other hand she pressed down lightly on his chest. Despite her apparent slender fragility, she restrained him with ease. Slowly he calmed down until he lay still, breathing easier.
“There is much damage there,” she told them. “His mind has been terribly afflicted. I can feel the poisons flowing through it, ravaging at it.”
“Can you heal him?” Kathri asked.
“I do not know. I can deal with the poison, to leech it from his mind. The damage though, that I can not say with any degree of accuracy. The damage may yet prove to be permanent. Not having had any experience with this kind of poison before I can not answer you yay or nay.”
From her belt hung a small velvet pouch, and from this she removed two glyphstones, one of jade and the other of gold. The gold one she set on Astiara’s forehead while she kept a hold of the jade one. The green in her eyes flared brighter and tendrils of arcane energy surged forth, to coil down her arms. She swept the jadestone over his body, the arcane energy falling from it like gentle rain, little motes of glittering light sparkling from with in it. A touch of sweat touched Cosatia’s face as she worked and Kathri saw Braethir move closer, almost hovering over her.
She paused in her work and took the goldstone from Astiara’s forehead and replaced it with one made of opal. She placed her hand upon the opalstone and set the jadestone on Astiara’s chest. The green energy settled on Astiara, wrapping around him like a cocoon of light.
Astiara reacted to the touch, his body going rigid and trembling.
“Quiet, now,” Cosatia said softly, her voice calming. “All will be well.”
She stood there for some time, the arcane light continuing to stream forth and come to rest around Astiara until the room glowed with it. Kathri stood silent, her breath held, as she watched Cosatia at work. No one else spoke or even moved either.
Finally Cosatia finished, lifting the glyphstones from Astiara and stepping back, the light fading away. She almost fell as she moved, sagging at the knees. Only Braethir’s quick reactions prevented her fall, catching her. He helped her to a seat and set her down in it.
“If you would be so kind as to get the lady a drink,” Esarrio asked of the elderly woman who had been tending Astiara. “Something fortifying I think would be for the best.”
Cosatia smiled appreciatively, a wan smile, as the woman left. “It is done,” she announced, her voice laden weariness. “I have cleansed the poison from his system. Beyond that, we shall have to wait and see.”
“He looks better already,” Kathri said, looking down at Astiara. Colour had returned to his cheeks and his breath was regular as he slept easily.
“How are you feeling?” Braethir asked of Cosatia.
“I am merely tired, dear Braethir,” she replied, patting him on the arm. “That was far more of a challenge than I had expected. I should not like to deal with it again.”
“If we can not find the one responsible, I fear that there will be other victims before long,” Esarrio replied.
“There are not many who could deal with this,” Cosatia told him. “It may be that we will need to train more who can be of assistance if that is the case. For most it will require the services of two to accomplish.”
“I hope that it does not come to that. I feel it best that we hold off from revealing what has happened here, at least for now, until we are certain of what we are dealing with. It may be that we are able to stop this creature before it comes to that.”
“I will leave that in your capable hands, dear Esarrio.”
“In the meantime, you rest up. I will have a room prepared for you until such time as you have recovered enough to return to the Old City.”
How long Kathri waited at Astiara’s side, she could not say. Seated beside his bed, she had been aware of the setting of the sun and of a vague, uneasy sleep during the night, punctuated by fitful bouts of waking. The day had been long, and the rapidity with which events had unfolded had left her greatly wearied.
I can not rest though, she told herself. Not until I know how he has fared, and what he meant by his earlier warning.
The exhausted Cosatia had left not long after she had finished with Astiara. Braethir had escorted her to the room Esarrio had ordered prepared for her, despite her protestations that she did not require it. She had not resisted though, leaning gratefully on his arm.
Despite her best efforts, sleep did come to Kathri. She woke with morning sunlight streaming onto her face through an open window, becoming aware of it, and of the call of birds, as she rose up out of her slumber.
Her eyes opened, blinking from the light. Her neck was sore, strained from having slept in the chair. She rubbed at it as she looked around. Astiara still slept, while Esarrio sat in a chair on the other side of the bed, reading from a small book. For some reason, it brought to Kathri’s mind the scroll that she had taken from the tomb. It had travelled the long journey downriver with her, almost forgotten, and unread.
Her pack sat beside the chair she had slept in, dropped there the previous night. She opened it and took out the scroll case that held the scroll, extracting the ancient document.
“I had forgotten all about this in the rush of the last day,” she said, “But it may be of interest to you. Beside the figurine, this was the only other thing that I took, one scroll from among a large collection of them. I think that it is a work in praise of the Emperor, from what little I could make out of it.”
Esarrio looked up from his reading, his brow creasing for a moment before he nodded. “They do tend to be found in tombs, that is true.” Closing the book and slipping it into a pocket, he stood up and came around the bed to join Kathri. She held out the scroll to him and he took it. “It is amazing that they lasted so long. Then again the Hajanri did use powerful preserving magic on their tombs to prevent decay, of the kind we are no longer able to replicate.”
Just as he started to unroll the scroll, a stirring came from the bed.
Astiara’s eyes flickered before opening. He looked around, appearing puzzled as he tried to focus on the room and the people near to him.”
“How are you feeling, Astiara?” Kathri asked.
Astiara looked up at her. Then his eyes went wide and his face pale again. “Kathri? But you died. I saw that rock fall on you.”
“Almost on me” she told him. “I was knocked unconscious by debris though.”
“If I had known,” he started to say, only to shake his head. “No, it was best that you were out of it.”
“What happened in the tomb?” Esarrio asked. “We need to know.”
Astiara looked to Kathri, a question in his eyes.
“You can tell him,” she replied. “He knows of the tomb and wished to help.”
A touch of fear crept into Astiara’s face as the memories came back to him and he shuddered. “Darkness,” he said in little more than a whisper. He pushed himself up into a sitting position, though the simple task appeared to weary him. “When the tremor hit and the rocks fell on you, I was thrown off my feet, back through the portal. It closed behind me, the rock that we were using to keep it open having been knocked clear by the shaking of the earth. I was preparing to open it again, to go back through to recover your body, if I could, when I heard a whisper behind me.” He shuddered again and shut his eyes, a look of profound horror settling upon him. “I didn’t want to turn around, to face whatever stood there, and yet I had no choice. I felt a chill on my shoulder. Dark fingers of shadow had settled there and turned me about. That was when I saw him, it. I have not seen their likes before and do not wish to do so again. A creature stood there before me, like a man but with a serpentine cast to him, a vile thing part man and part snake. He gazed upon me with cold, dead yellow eyes, a gaze that I could not break away from. The shadows crawled over my head and I could feel them sink into my mind. Try as I might, I could do nothing except that which it commanded me to do.” He swallowed hard, sweating again. “We opened up the portal again, or rather I did at its behest. After that, all is as a dream, a nightmare, of fragments of dark memories all scattered. The crown we took, though as to how we got by the Guardian I can not say. In its wake the creature wove a cunning illusion that took the place of the crown as we carried the true one out. We headed back out through the tomb and as we went, I saw that one of the crystal sarcophagi had cracked open like an egg. Even as we passed the others, I could hear them began to splinter as cracks radiated across their surfaces.”
“The others were opening?” Astiara asked, his tone sharp, and worried.
“I did not see it, but it sounded as such. The creature I followed laughed as we passed them. Let them come, he said, for I have the Crown now, and I alone shall be rewarded for it. Next I remember was that we were outside the tomb and I was released from that shadowed grip. The creature headed off and I was alone, though my thoughts remained addled. I could not think straight and my only thought was to reach safety. After that, I remember nothing until I woke here.”
“Is there anything else that you can remember?” Astiara asked. “Any clues or indications as to where the creature was taking the Crown?”
A deep frown creased Astiara’s face as he considered the question. “There are hints of thoughts, of feelings there, ones not my own. Dark thoughts and ideas I do not wish to touch. A name stands out though, clear, and a longing for it. Eshnur-Arsan. I do not understand how I know, but it seeks the place and yet is confused, for the lands are changed.”
“Eshnur-Arsan? Are you certain of that?”
“That is somewhat problematic for it then,” Kathri stated, a smile starting to form.
“Why?” Astiara asked.
“Eshnur-Arsan of the Ukishir is no more,” Esarrio explained. “The lands of Agnar and Azash now lie beneath the waves, drowned for a thousand years. It gives us a chance, faint as it may be. While he searches for a place that no longer exists, we can search for him and stop him.” He looked at Kathi, giving her a stern gaze. “We will need to return to the tomb of Emperor Ajanathad first, and for that I will require your aid.”
“It is not as if I have much of a choice, and even if I did, it it not a request I would reject,” Kathri responded. “We must stop this creature, no matter what it takes, and prevent whatever plans he has for the Crown.”
Here ends part three of The Crown of Fire. Part four sees trouble brewing in Digaran lands as attempts to recover the Crown are thwarted.
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