Setnesu, Tehaksha’mon, 1186 AF

I walk through the woods, winding my way through their maze-like corridors.

I glance at the trees as I pass them by; so tall, they seem like giants.

Birds sing up in their branches with their flute-like voices.

A feeling of peace descends over me like a freshly cleaned blanket.

The solitude of the woods is as complete as a good book.

— Excerpt from Ytharial’s Blessing


The following morning, he paid the rest of his balance to the same lunyari man he’d met the day he’d arrived in Oldwatch. Xantoxu was waiting out front for him. He attached his bags to the back of the saddle, mounted up, and headed to Tehaksha’s temple. The streets weren’t as busy, for which he was thankful. 

A large ox-drawn cart stood in the square in front of the temple. Several priests and acolytes milled around, checking the ox’s harness and loaded packs into the cart. Beryna stood to one side, supervising the proceedings. Linndan dismounted nearby and led Xantoxu over to her.

“Good morning to you, Scholar Linndan,” she said amicably, eyeing his horse. “That’s a fine beast you have there.”

“Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you come by it? You don’t strike me as the sort of man who can afford such a creature.”

“Ah, well, that’s an interesting story. Xantoxu is a cull, gifted to me by a rancher back east for some work I did for him.”

“An expensive gift, even if he is a cull.”

“Considering the nature of the dispute, he thought it a fair price to pay. Xantoxu has a deformity that makes him ineligible as a stud, so he’s useless to the rancher, but makes an excellent mount.”

Beryna raised an eyebrow. “He looks fine to me.”

Linndan bent down and brushed aside the long hair hiding the horse’s front hoof. Rather than the cloven hooves common to Melphor’s equines, Xantoxu had a single, solid hoof.

“I’d never heard of this deformity before.”

“Neither had he until Xan was born.”

“Shame. He’s lovely otherwise.”

Linndan straightened and patted the gelding’s neck. “He certainly makes getting around much easier and is faster than a lirnune.”

“Better looking, too.” 

At that, Linndan chuckled. “He’s well aware of how handsome he is. It looks like you’re not quite ready to leave. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait in the temple.”

Beryna flashed him an odd look. “Are you sure?”

He spread his hands. “It’s bound to be more comfortable than the steps.”

Without saying anything more, she swept one hand towards the door. He bowed and made his way inside.

He was greeted by a priestess as he walked through the door. As near as he could tell, she was alone, tending to something near Ellias’s alcove. He sat down on a nearby pew, wriggling a little. It was quite possibly the hardest surface he’d ever had the displeasure of sitting on and that was saying something given his long life. 

It felt like an eternity before the priestess moved off to another part of the temple. He gave it a few minutes, waiting to see if she would come back. When several minutes passed without any such sign, he got up and paced the length and width of the temple to disguise his true purpose. He walked past Ellias three times before pausing as if studying the skull. He slid the opening of his satchel around to the front of his body to hide what he was doing. While most skulls looked the same to the casual observer, he knew every inch of Ellias, every chipped tooth and imperfection. The skull in the alcove was clearly Ellias. If anyone had noticed the change, no one had done anything about it. Gently, he picked Ellias up and stuffed him inside before easing the original skull back in place. Heaving a sigh, he went back to the pew, resigning himself to a long wait. At least he knew Ellias was safe. That was a load off his mind.

Lost in thought, he nearly jumped out of his skin when something touched his shoulder. With a yelp of surprise, he jumped up, spinning around.

A middle-aged priest stood behind the pew, trying and failing to conceal his amusement. “The High Priestess sent me to fetch you. If you still plan on joining us, we’re ready to depart.”

“Uh, yes, thank you. I’ll be out shortly.” The priest inclined his head and left. Linndan flopped back down on the pew. He closed his eyes, taking slow breaths to calm himself. When his heart no longer felt about to burst from his chest, he stood, ran his hands over his hair, and went outside.

Beryna turned as he exited the temple, looking him over. “Are you ready to go?”

Linndan clutched the strap of his satchel. “I make a habit of travelling lightly. I’m ready to go whenever you are.”

Beryna nodded and walked over to the cart. Two other priests waited for her. “Let’s be off, then. The sooner we leave, the sooner we arrive in Paraten.”

One of the priests climbed up into the driver’s seat and took hold of the ox’s reins while the other got into the bag with their bags. Linndan realised with a jolt that this was the same priest he’d spoken to the day before when he was settling Ellias into the alcove. He made a note to be careful around him, just in case. Beryna joined the first priest in front. Linndan got into his saddle and followed them out of Oldwatch. The road merged gently into Sersteva Road. It was a road Linndan knew all too well. Roughly a day’s travel down the road would take them to a fork that, if taken, led to the Scholar’s Academy, the school he’d studied at in his youth. 

The ox plodded along at a slow but steady pace, slower than what he was accustomed to travelling at. Xantoxu tossed his head but obeyed his rider. In some ways, it was nice to not be in a rush to get from one place to another, but on the other, having to restrict his pace to something as slow as an ox was maddening.

The first few chimes passed by with nothing more than birdsong, the sound of the cart wheels rolling along over the hard packed dirt road, and Xantoxu’s hooves to break up to silence.

“Have you been this way before?” Linndan asked.

Startled, Beryna turned. “Why do you ask?”

“While I’m accustomed to travelling in silence, I enjoy conversation. It’s rare that I have company on the road other than Xantoxu here. He’s not exactly the greatest conversationalist.”

One of the priests chuckled.

“I have not,” Beryna said, answering his question. “I’ve been out of Oldwatch a few times, but never down this road.”

“I myself am from Sunhame,” the priest in the back of the cart volunteered. “Before today, Oldwatch was as far away from home as I thought I’d ever go.”

“Really?” Linndan eyed the man with curiosity. “Why did you leave Sunhame?”

“Our sect isn’t welcome there,” he said bitterly. “My… devotion to our holy Mother caused friction within my House. I left rather than bring shame on them. I found myself welcome in Yupruk, eventually making my way to Oldwatch on a pilgrimage of Her holy sites.”

“That’s quite the journey.”

“May among us have similar tales,” Beryna told him. “Tehaksha is much maligned by all. It’s only on occasions such as this one when they remember Her and find Her useful.”

“I don’t pretend to understand your bitterness, but I’ll remember your words when I write about Her people,” Linndan promised. “All the gods are worthy of our love and devotion. They all have a place in our lives. They made us, after all. Who are we to reject even one of Them?”

“Well said, Scholar,” the other priest said.

“By the way, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” Linndan said.

The priest at the front hesitated before speaking. “You can call me Neissen.”

“I’m Mician,” the other said with a wave of his hand.

“No House names?”

“I have no desire to bring any dishonour to my House by association,” Mician explained. “I love my family and my House, but they are ashamed of my choices. Perhaps one day this will be different, but today isn’t that day.”

“My reasons are my own,” Neissen said brusquely, turning his attention back to the road.

“Pay them no mind,” Beryna said. “As I said, you’ll find many such stories among Tehaksha’s people. Many of us are reluctant to identify our House or Clan to outsiders.”

“Are there any centauricorns among you?” 

“If there are, I don’t know of it. As I understand it, their Herds are largely identifiable by physical characteristics, so hiding that piece of information would be difficult.”

“I know. That’s why I asked. I’ve met a few of them in my travels. They make excellent Scholars when they bother to come south.”

Mician barked with laughter. “Imagine that, a centauricorn Scholar.”

“They have a penchant for telling things exactly as it happened and never exaggerate,” Linndan said. “These are ideal qualities for a Scholar.”

“I imagine so, and yet I can’t see one putting down their lance and picking up a quill.”

“As they say, the quill is mightier than the lance,” Linndan quipped.


* * *


Several chimes later, the road forked, heading northwest. They ignored it and travelled for another chime before taking a break for the night. Although unseasonably warm during the day, the night air had a bite to it that spurred them into building a fire before doing anything else. Neissen saw to the care and feeding of the ox while Mician set up camp. Linndan watched them while he was giving Xantoxu a rub down. He kept an eye on them over the horse’s back.

“Is it just me, or was that suspicious?” Ellias asked.

“Keep your voice down,” Linndan hissed. “But yes, it was. To be fair, their reasoning was sound, but not above suspicion. And then there’s Beryna.”


“She claimed the other day to have never left Oldwatch. Today, she said she’d been down the road we were on. Both things can’t be true.”

“So, which one is the lie?”

Linndan shook his head. “I don’t know, but I aim to find out.”

“Are you going to brush that horse all night or are you going to come join us?” Mician called out to him.

“I’ll be there in a moment,” Linndan called back. To Ellias, he said, “I’ve got to go, but keep your ears open.”

“I don’t have ears anymore,” the skull grumped as Linndan walked away.

Linndan joined the others around the small, crackling fire. He glanced around, frowning.

“Is there a problem?” Neissen asked.

“It’s probably nothing, but we’re camped far from the road.”

“What of it?”

“None of you are concerned about beast attacks?” he asked, his eyebrows arched.

Beryna’s eyes danced with mirth. “In this part of the country, the Order is vigilant in dealing with any potential threats to public safety. The road between Oldwatch and the Academy has been clear of anything more dangerous than a pack of wolves for years.”

Linndan exhaled. “Forgive my paranoia, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been this far west, and I don’t make a habit of spending my nights out in the wilderness.”

“I suppose we can forgive you,” Beryna said gravely. “In any case, Mician is an accomplished archer. Should the worst happen, he’ll be able to protect us.”

“An archer? An oddly feminine pastime.”

Mician shrugged, embarrassed. “My sister is highly competitive. She taught me so she’d have someone to hone her skill against. I’m not as good as she is, but it serves me well enough.”

Neissen plucked one of the skewers of meat from beside the fire and offered it to Beryna. He gave a second one to Mician and another to Linndan before finally taking one for himself.

The meat had an odd texture and dripped with hot fat, but it was good and filling. Linndan offered to help Neissen clean up after, but the other man declined, insisting that he get his rest. When he asked about the night watch, Neissen laughed and explained that the ox—Murrus—was a more effective sentry than anyone else and would wake at the slightest hint of danger.

Frowning, Linndan unpacked his bedroll and crawled in. As tired as he was, it was still several chimes before he fell asleep.


* * *


They rose just after dawn. Linndan, habitually an early riser, found himself wishing for a few more chimes of sleep. His body ached and there was a strange taste in his mouth. Not a pleasant one, either. He shimmied his way out of his bedroll and stretched, trying to relieve the aches. He caught Mician glaring at him. It took him a moment to figure out why. Embarrassed, he grabbed his shirt and put it on over his bare chest. That was the downside to his travels through the Way. So many worlds and each of them with their own ideas of modesty. While it was socially acceptable on Liulge for people of all genders to walk around bare chested, on Melphor it wouldn’t do to be so in public, especially around a woman.

Linndan packed up his bedroll and saddled Xantoxu. Mician, satisfied that Linndan was properly attired, turned his attention back to dispersing the remnants of their campfire. Beryna sat cross-legged beside the cart, her eyes closed and her lips moving. Linndan didn’t know what she was saying, but assumed, given her status, she was praying. 

Neissen returned, laden down with full water skins. He handed them out and hitched Murrus back up to the cart. Soon afterwards, they headed off. They ate some fruit and cheese as they travelled, tossing the remains off to the side of the road.

They passed a few people travelling on foot, but exchanged no words with them. Linndan frowned as they passed, but kept his peace. He would have liked to chat with them, but understood that it could delay their arrival. Had he been travelling alone, he would have happily stopped to talk to them to find out why they seemed so fearful. It seemed at odds with Beryna’s claims that the area was safe.

He kept his concerns to himself as they continued on, passing a number of hamlets and farms before the encroaching darkness forced them to stop for the night. Once again, Neissen took care of the ox while Mician set up camp. Linndan saw to the needs of his horse before joining Beryna around the fire.

“Something on your mind, Scholar?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Yes, but it’s probably nothing.”

Beryna arched an eyebrow. “If it was nothing, you wouldn’t find it so bothersome. You’ve had nothing to say all day.”

“As I said, it’s probably nothing, but are the roads around here usually so… empty?”

“How do you mean?”

“Aside from those few travellers we passed, there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. There were signs of life, but no one on the road.”

“We’re nearing Paraten,” Mician explained, skinning a couple of unfortunate rabbits. “Folks there don’t travel much this time of year. They see it as unlucky.”

“I see.” Linndan pondered this. “I suppose I find it strange having never travelled in this direction at this time of year.”

“There, you see?” Beryna asked. “A simple explanation, rather than something sinister.”

A chime later and food was ready. Linndan ate his portion, taking care to let the fat drip into the grass at his feet rather than onto his clothes. Rabbit wasn’t a taste he was fond of, but food was food and anything was better than having to eat his own cooking or worse: cold rations.

His hunger pangs relatively sated, he went to bed and tried not to think too hard about the fact that the only guard their little camp had was a sleeping ox.