This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
[music listened to while writing: enya - 'watermark', 'the celts', adamski - 'naughty', aphex twin - 'selected ambient works 85-92', shamen - 'arbor bona arbor mala', 'axis mutatis', ltj bukem feat. mc conrad - 'progression sessions', massive attack - 'blue lines', 'protection' (and 'blue lines' again because I was too involved to go find a different cd and because the track 'unfinished sympathy' is precisely the mood I wanted ;)]
* * *
Sean breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the summit of the last hill before Lower Illesdon. It was almost midday, and the summer sun shone brightly down on the village below, the village that had been his childhood home. Light glittered prettily off the small river - or large stream, whichever way you wanted to look at it - that ran along the valley's center providing water for the villagers and for the flour-mill. The small stone-arched bridge that joined the two banks was just as he remembered it, tiny and chunky and moss-covered in places, and the inn by one side looked still to be in operation - just as well, as he intended to stay there.
Villagers were working strips of land in the surrounding fields, and sheep dotted the hillsides, nibbling their way through the plentiful early-summer grass. Even the sheep looked the same as always, although that was unsurprising since one looked like any other to him; probably the shepherds could tell them apart.
The village was just the way it always had been, and that was why his relief.
He settled the pack more comfortably on his shoulders, and began the short walk downhill towards the ragtag cluster of houses and workplaces. Of course, not everything would be the same. For one, his parents no longer lived here - their deaths four years ago had precipitated Sean's decision to leave and study - and somebody else had taken up residence in the old farmhouse, a mile away. He didn't even know their names; though the building's price had paid for some of his education, he'd left its selling to the innkeeper as his agent.
But maybe, hopefully, he could still expect to find his childhood best friend, Ashan... He could still remember the pure dark shoulder-length hair, always immaculately clean, that bounced like a live thing when the boy laughed. The clear guileless sound of that laugh, the sweetness of a smile that could go with it. The easiness and gentleness of simple touch, a hand on his shoulder; something he'd missed in training, among other magelings who could be friendly enough but always seemed to keep a certain distance.
Ashan had been working for the innkeep when Sean left, learning how best to look after horses - there were precious little travelers through this town to require such facilities, but the innkeeper was trained in stable-work and would pass on his knowledge in exchange for help with other things. Ashan had been good with animals as well as people, able to calm a creature almost with a look; a skill Sean had even suspected as innate magic. But there would be little enough need for that in Illesdon, and little chance of working with horses, which was the boy's desire - Sean grinned at the thought of explaining to his ambitious peers that someone's aim in life was to become a stablehand - so perhaps Ashan would have moved away to a town or city after all.
* * *
Sean looked about him. He'd reached the bottom of the hill some time ago and was approaching Illesdon's center on the main cart-track, for once not needing to skirt its edges; the last few days of warm, dry weather had hardened the mud. A few people had passed by, heading back to work on their plot of land for the afternoon, but most had not recognized him. He wore a plain, dull gray hooded robe, the hood little used in this weather, and held a sturdy oak staff in one hand; together they marked him out as a wizard, and sight of such was probably unusual enough out here that an onlooker wouldn't get to considering his face. But though they hadn't known him, he could name most of them - Mary who lived alone and worked her own land ever since her life-partner had died in childbirth, Old Man Jacob who was evidently still hale and healthy, Michael the innkeeper's younger son - and they too seemed little changed over the four years. Mary's expression was no less bitter, Jacob couldn't possibly look any older, and only the young boy had changed. Grown into almost a man, of about the age at which Sean had left the village, his face and manner were still clearly recognizable.
Crossing over the pronounced bump of the stone bridge, Sean wondered how it was that so little had changed. Perhaps it was simply not so long a time in a village; though he himself had been altered apparently beyond recognition in four years, it was silly to expect the same from everyone or everything else. Or perhaps, and he judged this more likely, there were simply changes that he had not encountered thus far.
He reached the inn, noticing that the painted sign - a representation of the old arched bridge he'd just crossed - was still hanging slightly crooked, as it swayed gently in the breeze. Stepping through the open doorway, he rubbed his boots on the mat in the entrance-chamber to wipe off what little mud had accrued, and then made his way into the main room. In a cursory glance, he ascertained that this, too, was much as he remembered - although there was a new painting on one wall, a portrait of the inn cleverly made to look its prettiest by some traveling artist.
The small difference reassured him - though he hadn't realized it, he'd been harboring obscure, silly fears that this place was stuck in time - and Sean walked slowly towards the back of the empty main room, its tables and chairs unused now in early afternoon. Evidently, someone had finally heard his footsteps, and a moment later the innkeep bustled in from the back entrance ready to welcome a traveler.
"Why, hello... sir," the rotund man greeted Sean, evidently spotting the oaken, engraved staff and deciding that anybody who could turn him into a frog deserved the honorific.
Sean laughed. "Hello, Uncle Patrick, and you can drop the 'sir'. Don't you remember me?"
"Sean! Is it really you?"
Smiling, he nodded, slipping off his pack and shrugging out of the robes to present a more recognizable figure. "Back unscathed, mostly at least, and feeling a lot better than when I left. I thought I'd stay here a few days on my way to Gannesh Port."
He'd spoken partly to give the innkeeper - not really his uncle, but close enough - time to decide on an appropriate welcoming. After vacillating briefly between an uncle-like clap on the shoulders or bearhug, Patrick settled on a more restrained handshake. "It's good to see you again! Even if it must only be for a short time. So, will you tell me about your studies? I trust they went well."
"They went well," Sean confirmed. "I'm posted to Gannesh as a weather-mage, to help the sailors know early if storms are coming, but I'll still be learning there too." He hefted the pack, which was largely filled with books.
"Four years and you still aren't done! But, you must tell me all about it. What else happened to you?"
"I've only been here a few minutes and you want to know the detailed story," Sean complained, chuckling. "I'll tell you later, this evening perhaps. Thought I'd wander around a bit, talk to some other people."
"Sure," Patrick agreed, a very slight change of some sort coming into his voice that made Sean pay attention. But he only said, changing the subject, "You'll be wanting to stay here at the inn, then?"
The young mage nodded. "For the next couple of days." He took coins from a belt pouch, put them on a table. "I was wondering, though. Does Ashan still live in Illesdon?"
"That he does," the innkeep said shortly. "I'll take this pack up to your room, and you won't be wanting that robe either this afternoon."
He scooped up Sean's belongings and walked quickly towards the stairs, leaving the man bewildered by such an abrupt exit. Evidently Patrick didn't want to talk about Ashan, for whatever reason. Sean almost called him back to ask, but something in the innkeeper's voice made him think twice. Patrick really didn't want to talk about Ashan.
Puzzled and worried, the young mage left the inn. The sun still shone brightly, there were only a few small, fluffy clouds in a wide expanse of blue sky. Birds sang in pretty, repetitive little tweeting patterns; a gentle breeze kept the heat from becoming oppressive. The river's water reflected patterns of light onto the picturesque stone bridge, as it ran both clean and clear. But, to Sean, it didn't seem such a perfect day any more.
* * *
He'd wandered aimlessly around the village, chatting with the people he met; the girl, now young woman, who'd had a crush on him for a time but now had taken a man from another village as life-partner; the old man who'd taught him to read and write; the friend who'd become apprentice to the wagon-maker. But it wasn't until late in the afternoon that he saw Ashan, and then by coincidence.
Sean was leaving the wagon-maker's workshop, which was at the northern extent of the village, alongside the continuing road. That was the road he would take when he left Lower Illesdon, and also the road which led to the "upper" part of the village; really only a single large house, the house he'd lived in, on the other side of the hills that were visible from here. He was glancing at the hills as he thought about it, and suddenly spotted somebody up there, a youth or small man emerging from a forested area of the slopes with an armful of deadwood.
A small man... could it be... He looked more closely; yes, the man had black hair, shoulder-length, and the way he moved - at once Sean knew this was his childhood friend. For a moment he hesitated, mindful again of the innkeeper's attitude and a part of him not wanting to find out the reason... but whatever had happened, he would find out anyhow, and he really wanted to see Ashan. He dashed along the track and up the hill, hurrying since the other man was turning away and it seemed he might head back into the woodland. There was half a mile between them, and if no obvious forest path was used, it could be difficult to follow somebody in amongst the trees.
Ashan was, indeed, heading back uphill with his burden. But as he entered the shade, the small, lithe man turned around - seemingly for no reason - to examine the slopes below. He caught sight of Sean, who waved, and the young mage's appearance obviously startled Ashan. Almost dropping the firewood, he instead put the bundle carefully on the ground and then rushed down to a meeting half-way up the hill.
About to finally meet the best friend that he hadn't seen for four years, Sean was suddenly unsure of the correct behavior. Much like the innkeeper had before, he paused, trying to decide an appropriate mode of greeting, but Ashan made the decision for him; the smaller man practically bounced into Sean with a tight embrace, which he gratefully returned. For a moment, the mageling was almost overcome by emotion, the sum total from four years of missing his friend far more than he'd realized. When they finally released each other, there were tears in Sean's eyes, and he stared blurrily at Ashan for a moment, to see what had changed. The face was still the same, serene in smiling innocence, smooth-skinned and slightly pale. Green eyes with a spark that showed the smile was meant - and what might have been a few tears there, too - looked back at him, and the black hair was as glossy and luxuriant as ever. Ashan hadn't changed a bit.
Although... to command evasive reactions from a once-friendly innkeep must have taken some difference.
Annoyed at the stray thought, Sean determined to concentrate on the present. Ashan was asking how he was, what he'd been doing for the last four years; Sean gave the short version of the answer, the one he'd had plenty of practice refining this afternoon to three different audiences. Training had been hard both mentally and, at times, physically. Food and accommodation had been spartan. The first few months had been especially hard, both because he was still grieving then and because of the slow progress when learning basic theory, but ever since then the learning had been rewarding. Now he was competent in all the basics of magic with a degree of more advanced knowledge in some areas, his best being weather magic, which was why they were sending him to work at the port for a couple of years.
"Yes," Ashan said, "but what were the people like, the other students? How did they treat you?"
"Reasonably well," Sean answered, thinking back. He should've realized that Ashan would be more interested in the people (and after that the animals, if any had been mentioned) than the actual learning of magic. "Some of the noble sons and daughters were pretty nasty to begin with, acting superior; most of the wizards didn't give a damn whose parents got offended, though, so that didn't continue long. Apart from that, it was okay. I made a few friends, but none really as close as you."
Ashan shook his head a little, unsettling his hair. He looked troubled. "I'm sorry to hear that. I think you in particular really need somebody very close."
"It was okay," Sean demurred. Inside he agreed with the assessment; the four years had seemed almost unbearably lonely, with achievement in his work largely having to make up for the lack of human attention. His friends hadn't been that close mostly because they were like him, shy and self-contained; in fact, almost all the students had fitted that description, save those who countered it with arrogance. Maybe the magecraft school needed an equal number of Ashans to go with all the Seans they already had.
He couldn't help but chuckle out loud at the thought of all the identical pairs filing into the courtyard of the Academy, and Ashan raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Nothing," the young mage said. "Just a silly thought."
His companion smiled back. "I guess you weren't too emotionally scarred, after all," he allowed.
Sean grinned. "Anyway, what have you been doing recently? The innkeeper didn't seem to want to tell me, for some reason."
The smile faded from Ashan's face. He paused a few moments before answering, then said slowly, "Patrick didn't much like it. Neither did most people in the village, and maybe nor will you. They didn't understand-" Abruptly he broke off and gestured at the bundle of firewood on the ground a way up the hill. "Maybe you can help me, carry a few extras along with that stick of yours. I'll explain on the way back, it's getting late."
"Back where?" the mage asked, as they climbed the hill to get the deadwood. He picked up half the sticks, carrying them under one arm with his staff in the other hand. "And what do you want with firewood in this weather, anyway?"
Ashan took the remainder of the pile and indicated a lightly-trodden path that led into the forest. "Back there. We're going to your old house, actually. And-" He paused for a second, then continued. "And the wood's for a ritual fire, tomorrow night."
"A ritual?" Sean blinked in incomprehension. He'd been the one trained in magic, what would his childhood friend know about it?
Not looking where he was going, he tripped on a stray tendril of plant growth from some creeper, and would have fallen but for Ashan's quick support, a hand to his shoulder.
"You didn't understand, did you?" the other man asked, keeping that touch. "I meant a religious ritual. I'm part of a group that worships the Goddess Alitrea. The group's based in your old house."
Sean nearly fell over again. For a moment he didn't believe what he'd heard, tried to think of some other way to interpret it. The last few hundred years had seen this kingdom free of religions, after a particularly nasty civil war in which three quarters of the population was slaughtered in the name of one god or other. The bloodshed only stopped when a new King seized power and forbade the worship of any deity, enforcing this with harsh justice. Since then, the people had gradually come to realize that they could get on quite well without any gods at all; news of similar "holy conflicts" from other lands regularly reinforced this position. A whole sequence of lessons at the Academy had covered this history in detail, along with the dangers of religion in general; but everybody knew the basics of the story.
"You've got to be crazy," Sean said flatly. "What do you want, another war?"
"It's not like that at all."
"Oh? There's only a few of you," the mage temporized, figuring that his parents' house wasn't that big, "and already you've managed to alienate the innkeeper and half the village. Not bad going."
"C'mon," Ashan muttered, pointing along the path. They started walking again, in Sean's case somewhat reluctantly. "I didn't like losing the friendship of those people at all, and I'm sorry I've hurt them. But I've gained so much, and helped others to gain so much, in the service of Alitrea. Anybody can join us and get the same, no-one is turned away."
"Even someone like me?" Sean asked dryly, reading between the lines.
"Most especially you. And I know you don't mean it - yet - but if you did, that would be the most wonderful thing..." He trailed off, his face showing fervent emotion.
The mage shrugged awkwardly, not quite sure how to respond. His duty as a friend, he thought, required him to make the best possible effort to get Ashan out of this mess. Religion might not be punishable by death any more, but it clearly wasn't popular and more importantly, he did not want a friend of his to be helping spread those divisions between people that had caused the wars two centuries previously.
The little path, one Sean remembered as a useful shortcut, passed over the summit of the hill and down the other side a way before it joined up with the regular road. They left the shelter of the trees here and followed the cart-track until they reached the house which had once been Sean's.
Outwardly, it looked much the same as it always had, bar a few repairs. The large, stone-built cottage was designed to form an L-shape, both arms of which were visible from the road. Within the corner of the L, on the other side of the house, was room for a muddy yard and some land which produced crops.
Ashan led them around into this area, which still kept the same purpose although a blackened patch in the yard's center presumably marked previous ritual fires. The wood-shed - not really a shed, but a simple outbuilding held up by the wall of the house - was where it always had been, and they stacked their bundles of dead branches with the other firewood.
"I'd better be getting back soon," Sean realized out loud; the sun was low in the sky, casting a warm pinkish glow over everything. It would go down completely before long, and Uncle Patrick would worry if he turned up at the inn much later than sunset.
"Just stay a moment," Ashan said, "and you can talk to Priest Keel. He'll explain this better than I can."
The mage was unenthusiastic, but he followed as his friend almost dragged him into the house. The kitchen, the first room entered, was still a kitchen and still much the same as it had been before, with pots and pans hanging up along the walls, and cupboards which presumably still contained plates and bowls. A cooking stove dominated one side of the room and by it a woman worked, stirring what looked like an enormous pot of stew over the heat. She took no notice of them and Ashan ushered Sean through into the next room, which had previously been the main bedroom. It now appeared to continue in that role, although with several more beds and blankets crammed in. A desk remained from the old furniture, and in a chair at this desk sat a man. Tall, angular, dressed in dark robes that seemed to have a silky gleam about them, the man was poring over a book, in the diminishing light from a window-opening.
"Priest," Ashan said quietly, "I've brought a stranger, an old friend of mine. Perhaps you could explain our purpose to him."
The priest turned round to look at them. His face was like the rest of him, all sharp edges and points. It wasn't a pretty face - it was a face of somebody who didn't pay enough attention to eating, or else somebody consumed by a more important passion - but it wasn't ugly either; just different. Small black eyes - perhaps brown, if the light was better - examined Sean, and their depths hinted at some level of strength beyond the norm.
Sean felt a little uncomfortable, and he was reassured somewhat when the priest started slightly at the sight of the mage's engraved oaken staff.
"A wizard, I see." The man smiled slightly, a small smile that was gone completely in a second. "Well, Ashan asked that I explain our purpose. It's quite simple; we realize that worshipping Alitrea, as well as being her rightful due, brings us an incredible sense of belonging and companionship. We understand that it's right to spread this worship throughout the land, both to glorify the name of the Goddess and to bring this happiness to as many people as possible."
A well-rehearsed speech, Sean thought. "So are you planning on another round of holy wars?"
The priest blinked in what seemed a calculated gesture of offended politeness. "Naturally not. Do you see any armies or even weapons here?"
"None," Sean admitted. "Well, I suppose I can't stop you worshipping in peace. I'd better be heading back." In truth, he didn't see any way to dissuade the priest from this religion, but he hadn't given up hope for his friend.
"Just one minute," Ashan begged Sean, turning to the priest. "May he take part in the ritual tomorrow night? That he might understand?"
There was a slight hesitation, enough for Sean to glance more carefully at the priest's expression. A hint of worry, fear perhaps... but it was gone in a second. "I don't think that would be worthwhile. Your friend seems quite firm in his skepticism and I doubt he would change his mind. Such an attitude might even disrupt the ritual."
Disappointed, the small young man nodded in acquiescence and led Sean back outside, to the back yard of the house. "Well, goodbye, I guess. I'll try to come and see you in-"
"Hold on," Sean interrupted. A loose idea was taking shape in his mind, based on the priest's momentary pause and fear. "These rituals, do they normally have some kind of weird effects? Bright lights, visions of your goddess, that sort of thing?"
"Well, yes," Ashan said. "It's very inspiring. But why do you ask?"
"Oh, just wondering," the mage replied lamely, mentally kicking himself for not having a better excuse ready, and quickly switching the subject. "Anyway, what were you saying? Will I see you again in the next couple of days?"
His friend nodded, causing his thick mane of still-beautiful hair to bounce and glitter in the twilight.
"I'll come and find you the day after tomorrow." Ashan hugged the mage tightly, quickly. "I'm sorry you're disappointed with me... Goodbye for now."
"Goodbye," Sean said, his throat tight. He wanted to say something else, but didn't have the nerve, and it wouldn't help anyhow. "Until the day after tomorrow."
That brief deception complete, he left, heading for the road and glancing back just before his friend would be out of sight behind an arm of the house. Some part of him had hoped to see Ashan gazing after him, but that wasn't the case. His friend was looking down, staring at and fingering a pendant he wore, a symbol of that goddess.
Fighting back some emotion - anger, or despair, or maybe even jealousy - the young mage made his way onto the track and followed it back to the inn of Lower Illesdon.
* * *
It was nightfall of the next day, the day the priest's ritual was due to take place. Sean had spent most of the afternoon poring over his spellbooks, making sure he had the appropriate motions in mind that would trigger up a tranced memory of the true manipulations, too complex to be written down or represented in gesture. These particular spells were not overly difficult - they would tax his energy, but not drain him - although he was less familiar with them than he'd like.
Little else of note had happened in the morning or the previous evening. The innkeeper, finding out that he knew what had happened to Ashan, had been less unwilling to talk about it. Patrick had apologized for selling the house to the 'cult', but he hadn't known who they were at the time and the money had been good; Sean reassured his 'uncle' that it wasn't the man's fault. Several other old friends and acquaintances had stopped to talk with the young wizard, and he'd told the brief story of the four years' education so many times that it would probably be etched in his memory until the day he died. It had been good to meet with them again, though, in this brief few days of continuity with his previous life before he moved on again to somewhere else new.
Now he was making his way up the hillside that would lead to his old house as quietly as he knew how, treading carefully in an attempt to avoid breaking any stray sticks of wood in the forest path. It was very dark among the trees, especially tonight; it was new moon, and though the sky was clear, the starlight didn't penetrate the overhead cover. The darkness made it difficult to see where he was going, but he knew the path well, and it would help him remain unseen now and later. With that in mind he was wearing the dull robes, hood up despite the warmth of the summer night, making him - hopefully - appear as little more than a shadow in the night.
The path turned to the left, but he wanted to stay within the safety of the trees for as long as possible. Peering ahead, he could just see a dim flicker of firelight through the forest, and his heart quickened. Carefully, feeling his way where necessary and forcing himself to move slowly, Sean forged a path through the woodland, heading directly for the glimmering light. Holding as close to silence as he could manage, he strained to hear any sounds from ahead, trying to reach out his senses as far as possible. Above the ordinary noises of a forest at night - tiny snapping sounds and rustles of leaves as small animals moved about, for whatever reason - he could just make out the crackling of fire. There was nothing else, though, so unless this was a very quiet ritual he had not yet missed its start.
Carefully, he went on hands and knees for the last few paces of forest, peering out from the edge of the trees. In the center of his old house's muddy backyard, a tall pile of wood formed the fire, which was being coaxed into life by two dark-robed people; a man and a woman, Sean thought, although as they were facing away it was hard to tell. The smaller twigs and kindling at the base of the fire had caught light, and now the robed worshippers were encouraging some larger twigs into flame in order that the whole pile would follow.
In Sean's judgment, they were near succeeding, and he quickly backed off into the forest a short distance, circling round by the edge of the trees in order to get as close as possible to the ceremonial fire. The spot he finally chose was only four or five yards from the fire, the closest that the woodland approached, and he positioned himself carefully. Hidden behind a bush, he could watch the proceedings through its leaves and branches, getting a rather poor view which was hopefully sufficient. The worshippers shouldn't be able to see him if they stayed around the fire, and he made sure he was settled into a reasonably comfortable position so as to avoid getting cramp.
Then he sat down to wait. In his mind, he once more went through the necessary steps for the spells he wanted ready to cast, convincing himself that he was all ready and would not make a mistake. He went through several possibilities in the event of failure; even though the priest had claimed his group was unarmed, that might not be true, and in any case they outnumbered him significantly. Ashan would not hurt him (are you sure?, a dark voice inside himself asked, until he pushed it away) but he knew none of the others. It was as well to have quick escape routes marked and to be ready with a simple illusion spell that would distract pursuit.
Finally, the piled firewood caught light and began to burn high. That appeared to be the signal; the tall, sharp-faced priest stepped out of the house building, leading a procession of his worshippers dressed in the identical dark robes. In silence they formed a circle of a dozen people around the fire, facing in, with the priest almost directly opposite Sean. There was a pregnant pause, filled with expectation and tense suspense, as all present held their silence and the only sound was a fierce crackling of burning wood. Flickering shadows highlighted the faces of the hooded worshippers, in shifting dark contrasts that at once revealed and hid their expressions and feelings.
Then, the priest pulled a small drum from a pocket of his robes, and at this signal the others followed suit. He pulled his hand back and away, looking round the circle and scanning carefully the faces of his followers, and then slammed it back into the drum. The resulting sound was louder than Sean had expected from such a small instrument, and at the next beat the rest of the group joined in, producing a combined thud that dwarfed the noise of the fire. Regularly the drumming continued, producing a single combined pulse that battered Sean's ears and - rather against his will - forced his heartbeat to match its rate.
At this point, the ritual was not astounding; simply a group of people around a fire hitting a drum in time. But gradually, the atmosphere changed. The drumbeats, though keeping the same pace and intensity, seemed somehow more driven, more forced, as if each beat was a necessary consequence of the one before. Some subtle connection seemed to be growing between the worshippers of the circle, and even Sean felt it a little, an insinuating tendril of shared presence. Suspecting some trick from the priest, he blinked into awareness of the magical web; though the increasing link was visible it seemed to be somehow natural, a simple change happening outside the normal scope of magic. The priest wasn't controlling it.
With a single unspoken decision, the worshippers began to dance. Slowly at first, they swayed a little from side to side. Gradually the movements increased, involving legs and arms in a complex pattern that still left a space for hands to beat the pulse. The motions became more frantic, involving almost every muscle from head to toe, and it was all Sean could do to prevent himself joining in, enspelled by the moment.
Finally, when it seemed the dance could get no more extreme, it ceased entirely in a single synchronized moment. At the same instant, the priest began to sing, a strange pulsing repetitive tune that had no words, although sometimes guttural noises and sound changes that seemed like words; maybe they made sense in some strange language. A few more beats of this, and the remaining worshippers joined in with the peculiar song. The intensity of the dance returned gradually, although the worshippers stood still, only swaying a little with the drumbeat. Somehow there was a feeling of energy, togetherness, communion with - Sean hesitated to admit - something from realms beyond the human. The emotion was strong, powerful, incisive; it left Sean itching for more, itching to run and join the circle, and he knew they would accept him...
But with his wizard's training and reserve, he resisted the urge and the call. He kept his attention on the proceedings; the priest's voice had faded away, and the man himself appeared to be ducking out of the circle. He disappeared for a minute or two while the strange singing continued, the keening in a weirdly discordant form of synchronized harmony. Then he returned, drifting back into his position within the group, in his dark robes seeming like a purposeful wight. He had discarded the drum and instead his hands held a small rabbit. The creature stared with terrified eyes, scared by the noise and by the tension and maybe some presentiment of what was to happen. It struggled, but the priest held it firm.
The communal singing - sounding almost as if it came from a single, large entity rather than the voices of a dozen humans - continued for some beats more, but there was an expectant edge to it now, an acceptance of the experience this far and a desire or need for more to come. The dancing started again, increasing until it once more reached the point of frenzy. Slowly, the priest held out the helpless animal in one arm, presenting it in front of all concerned as the expectancy reached a peak.
Then, with a quick movement of the knife in his other hand, he cut the rabbit's throat. A thin burst of blood came from its neck and he shook the creature around, spraying droplets over all the worshippers. The song rose to a shriek of ecstasy, joined again by the priest, and continued at that peak as he threw the lifeless corpse into the roaring flames.
Sean sweated uncomfortably, feeling the vital rush of the moment in one part of him even as another part was disgusted by the sacrifice. The tension and energy had almost caught him up to join the worshippers despite his resolve, and he was fighting a strong desire for more of the emotions he'd felt only at a second-hand distance. If there was more like this, surely his willpower would crack.
But thankfully - for one part of him at least, another part had been wishing otherwise - the dancing slowed to a halt, the singing faded to silence, and all that was left was the crackling of the fire and the steady pulse of the drumbeat.
The priest made a tiny movement, one which wasn't shared by his worshippers, and Sean abruptly remembered his purpose here. Could that be a key-gesture...? He was unsurprised as he shifted his sight to the realm of magic and watched the faint blue tendrils that - in his envisioning of the truth - indicated the extension of mystical power. They seemed to stretch out from the priest, concentrating on a region in the center of the still-burning fire.
Back in the ordinary spectrum of vision, a beautiful and yet powerful face was gradually appearing in the center of the fire, with what looked like a tattoo of a double-triangle symbol on her forehead. This, though, was Sean's cue.
He jumped up and out of his concealment - the sound of his exit attracting the startled attention of all concerned - and announced loudly, ignoring a sudden fear, "That is an illusion, which I shall now cancel. You have all been duped by this so-called priest."
Planting his staff firmly in the ground, he quickly traced his own key-gesture for the spell of cancellation and let his subconscious take over, expending a burst of his energy as the illusory head vanished.
Forcing himself through the sudden rush of tiredness, he continued with the speech. "None of you can trust this man, or his religion. Remember what you've been told about the dangers of worshipping deities, what kind of effect that can have. It's time to go back to your homes and forget this nonsense. There's no need to kill any more helpless rabbits."
The mage paused a moment to look over his audience. Many of them seemed affected by his words, especially the touch of disgust he'd let seep into his voice at the end, and he felt a rush of elation. These people could be rescued from the dangerous situation they'd got themselves in.
"It was an illusion," the priest agreed smoothly. Sean's hopes were dented as he remembered the man's persuasive manner. "I apologize for any dishonesty, but the display was intended only to remind you of the Goddess we all worship. And now I ask our unexpected guest a question."
He paused, so that all eyes were on the young mage. Then the priest continued, "Was there any use of magic earlier in the ritual? Was I, perhaps, controlling the minds of the participants for my own purposes? Affecting their feelings? Anything?"
Sean desperately tried to judge if he could lie, the best way to do so, what else he could say... but he paused too long, and the doubt showed in his face. The priest nodded silently, accepting the point, and stood still where he was. Gradually, his followers turned their heads that way, stepped a little in that direction to show their loyalty.
Sean was losing them, had maybe already lost them. Desperately, he tried another tack, drawing on all his trained powers of argument. "I admit that whatever you worship is real, but does it deserve your attention? Did you not feel, as I did, the wrongness of the ritual tonight? You are involved in the spread of a great evil."
His impassioned point fell flat. Somebody, a woman who looked to be a few years younger than the mage, asked, "But how can the ritual be wrong if Alitrea wills it?"
The young wizard swept his gaze over the group once more, to see them still standing together, unified with their master. It seemed there was no arguing with these people. He tried to catch the gaze of one in particular, but Ashan's face was hidden within the shadows of his hooded robe.
The fire was dying down, and with it the mage's hopes. Defeated, humiliated, a failure, Sean turned away from the group. In his dull robes and the night's dark, he must look very like them; a single, stray worshipper lost from the fold. The precise reverse of the image he'd wanted to convey... Bitterly, he took his first steps away, heading round the house to the road, and began to trudge down to the village.
* * *
Halfway down, he felt a touch on his shoulder. Angrily shaking it off, he kept walking, but its owner was persistent.
"Sean? Sean, please..."
He abruptly turned about, fully intending to make a caustic remark, but it died on his lips at the sight of Ashan's face. The young man's expression was creased with worry and his eyes deep, brimful of understanding and empathy.
"Sean, I'm sorry... I never meant this to hurt you..."
He nodded, throat still burning with accusations, but what he actually said was, "How can you? Be a part of that evil?"
"Are you sure it's evil?" Ashan asked gently. "How much experience do you have with religion? Or is it just a hunch of yours, from a person who mistrusts the whole concept?"
Reluctantly he nodded slightly in admission. "The rabbit, though? You were so fond of animals..."
"That worried me at first. But if you'll think about it, we wouldn't hesitate to kill a rabbit for ourselves as food. Why not for a goddess?"
Sean stared at the ground, his arguments used up and a deep tiredness taking over - from being up so late, from the use of magic, but more from the feeling of hopelessness. He realized his vision was blurred; hot tears were trickling down his cheeks, liquid indicators of the loss he felt.
He half-closed his eyes against the world, felt Ashan's arms encircling him, holding him tight. Their faces touched, sharing some kind of warmth and allowing tears to mingle. But it was a bittersweet embrace, a kind of goodbye that they both understood.
They released each other. "If you ever change your mind, and maybe need some help getting loose," Sean managed to say through the tightness in his throat, "send for me."
Ashan looked at the young mage, his eyes glinting in the starlight. He nodded slightly. "And the same applies to you, friend."
At an unspoken indicator, the two turned away from each other and set off, one heading up the hill to his companions and fellow worshippers, another heading downhill to the village inn and his lonely room. Neither looked back, it would have been too hard. Sean would leave early next morning, and they would never see each other again.
Unless one, or the other, of them changed his mind.
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