Guarding the Abyss
Location: Audience Room, Stormholm Caer, Cymeria
Timeline: Mid-Morning, 3 November 3550
It was the third day after the horror of y'Carthu's attack at Felonwood Hold. Mikhael and his Morrighan had spent most of the two preceding days searching the forests surrounding the farm. They had been looking for any signs of the attackers. A couple more of the mindless apostates had been found. They were near death and did not survive the return journey to Stormholm. Those being held in the keep's garrison were not faring much better, and it was the Chief Battle Surgeon's opinion that they would all be dead within the next three days. Likewise, questioning the only captive who was in command of his senses had proved fruitless. It seemed he would go to the grave in silence. Mikhael did not condone torture for torture's sake so had ordered the end of the interrogation. He still had a decision to make, and it was an unpleasant one.
Restless, Mikhael stood up and turned to stare out the great floor-to-ceiling windows. His mind was on what had been done to the apostates to make them mindless servants of a Darkness that Mikhael could not put a name to. As he'd ridden the forests after the attack, he had sensed it, just out of reach, as if watching from the air. It had thoroughly unnerved him at times.
With his wounds preventing him from doing much else, Richard had spent a lot of the time since the attack thinking. There was much to mull over, though he realized how little actual information he actually had. He did not know who had attacked them or why, but on some level that didn't matter. They would have killed every man, woman, and child there had they been given half the chance, and Richard hated them for it. He had shed his own blood beside the Cymerians. That made them his brothers now.
Richard had been attempting to wash his good tunic, the one Laryn had given him when the messenger arrived to inform him that the High Lord would be available for the audience he had requested. Glancing at his efforts he knew it would never be truly clean again. The stains from his own wounds on the chest and side had faded to a dull brown but stubbornly refused to yield any further to his efforts to expunge them. The blood splatters of both foes he had dealt with and wounded friends he had aided left similar brown spots all over the body and the sleeves were stained solidly up to both elbows. Looking up at the messenger Coyle instinctively ran his fingers over the embroidery at the collar and nodded.
One would think that being from Earth with its advanced medicine, Richard would understand the importance of keeping his wounds properly cleaned and examined. It seemed, to Sofi anyhow, that there were other things on her fellow traveler's mind as she had to physically track him down when he didn't check-in as directed. After asking around, she finally found his quarters with a messenger waiting outside, but before she could knock, the door opened.
Stepping outside of his room Richard found though that he was not alone in the corridor. Sofi stood there waiting, and Richard smiled slightly. "Hunting me down to take my medicine already?" he said with a laugh. "Unfortunately I have an appointment with the High Lord, and it wouldn't do to keep him waiting. After that, though I promise you can change my bandages."
"You were supposed to be there this morning." She reminded him, dropping her voice lower for discretion. "I'm going with you then, I have a couple questions of my own for him. May as well go now if he's already admitting you."
"Sorry..." Richard replied. "I lost track of time trying to salvage my good tunic. I'm afraid it might be a write off even though it was a gift from Laryn..." Sighing slightly Richard shrugged. "I suppose we best be going then."
"Yes." Sofi agreed, also wanting to get this show on the road. This wasn't the first time she'd noticed that Richard seemed somewhat taken with the Lady Laryn, his heavy concern for her being in the aftermath of the attacks and now the dejected-sounding sigh from the man that her gift might be ruined. He was, as her sister Kenna would have once said, twitterpated.
The messenger for his part did a fairly good job of looking disinterested in Richard and Sofi's conversation, but after a moment he gestured. "If you both would follow me?"
The man led both Travelers to the old Throne Room where, when he had no other choice, the High Lord would hold court. It was his preference to engage with his people in less formal surroundings, often traveling to see them at local village halls when possible. The Herald, the man whose job amounted to being a chief aide, organizer of the High Lord's agenda, and head of the High Lord's personal staff, greeted the Travelers and led them through the great room to a door cleverly hidden within the wall.
Mikhael's reverie was interrupted when the door from the adjacent Throne Room opened. The Herald gave a respectful nod of his head, "The Travelers wish to speak with you, Highlord."
Mikhael nodded, "Admit them and send for some mulled wine." He gave a wry smile and gestured toward the fireplace, "I could do it myself, but am not so inclined today."
A short walk later Richard arrived at the audience chamber, moving a bit stiffly as if he were not careful he could easily pull at the wound over his ribs. He offered the High Lord a slight bow. "Thank you for seeing me, High Lord," he said formally before letting out a bit of a deep breath. "I don't want to be rude, but I will come straight to the point. Who were those bastards and when do we ride out to go make them pay?" Though as he spoke, he glanced over at Sofi, concerned apparently about using that kind of language in front of her.
Sofi looked over at Richard, her blue eyes widening with surprise at his choice of language. It wasn't herself she was worried about, she could curse like a sailor with the best of them if she wanted but this wasn't the time nor the place. Rude wasn't quite the word she would have used, but yeah, that was rude. It was one thing to be direct, and to the point, it was another to come across as disrespectful.
Mikhael actually snorted in amusement and gestured to the cushioned window seat, "Please be seated, Traveler Coyle, Sofiya Grace," he said and took a seat himself, leaning into the window embrasure. With an impatient movement, he reached up to pull the plain narrow gold band from around his forehead. "The answer to your inquiry is far more complicated than you could know given your brief time with us." The efforts of both Travelers on behalf of the injured had reached Mikhael's ears. Brychan would be offering a full position with the Stormholm Garrison soon if he had not already done so. The Chief Battle Surgeon was urging him to appoint Sofiya Grace to the position of the House's Healer. It would be good for both if they were settled although Mikhael understood they would probably seek a way back to their homes for some time to come.
Moving toward the window, Sofi gathered up the material of her dress skirt so that she didn't get caught up in it as she took the offered seat. Mikhael's reply that things were complicated didn't surprise Sofi. No, everything here was complicated, Sofi felt like a child learning about the world all over again.
The great doors opened again, and an attendant came in with a tray. He set it on a table near the windows, bowed his head respectfully and withdrew. He was not rude by not offering to serve the High Lord and his guests. It was well known that Mikhael disliked a fuss being made. Mikhael poured the rich, fragrant spiced wine into two heavy pewter goblets, offering one to Coyle and one to Sofiya before pouring his own. "It is cut with fruit juice so not as potent as the wines served after dinner. I do not care for copious amounts of alcohol but please, should you meet any of the Vanir from Nordheim, keep that bit of knowledge to yourself."
"Thank you." Sofi nodded a thank-you as she took the goblet, taking a moment to admire the craftsmanship. The design was simple but well-made and with care. Nordheim... why did that sound familiar? Maybe it was something in the old Norse mythology? She couldn't remember nor did she had time to think about it either as her attention was needed, and placed back, on the High Lord. Taking a sip of the wine, she could taste the fruitier notes over the richer wine she'd had at dinner. "It's good."
Richard sat where the High Lord had indicated and accepted the cup of wine he had offered. Richard was not much of a fan of wine normally. He had preferred beer or whiskey back home and had found the brown ale that was served here to be to his liking. Still, it was not bad, and it would have been rude to his host to decline. "Your secret is safe with me," Richard replied with a slight chuckle and sipped from his cup.
Sighing, Richard looked out the window for a long moment. "I've fought them before," Richard said. "Not your particular bunch of fanatics, but Al-Qaeda are close enough. They were more than happy to kill their own people... and themselves... just for a shot to maim or kill an infidel. They believed that if they died fighting the infidels, meaning my countrymen and me, they were guaranteed to reach heaven. What we saw at the festival could have been pulled straight from their playbook."
Turning back to the High Lord, Richard let his expression return to normal. "It may be complicated, but give me the short version of why those bastards were willing to kill themselves for a shot at killing women and children."
Taking another sip of wine, Sofi settled into the soft cushioning, crossing one knee over the other beneath her skirt. She almost wished that she had a notebook and pen with her so that she could take notes as she was the sort who retained info better if she wrote it all out. "Please." She added, shooting Richard a look at his choice in wording again.
"I am afraid there is not a short version, but I will try to not make it an epic," Mikhael promised with a sparkle in his silver-flecked blue eyes. "What happened three nights ago has its roots in incidents that occurred more than 1500 years ago." His voice fell into the cadence of a storyteller, the accent of his home becoming less pronounced as he spoke. "In the year 1550, Cymeria fell under the rule of House Tsarimov. The House was ancient and powerful. They were cruel and set themselves over the people, Cymry and Celt alike. As had happened many millennia ago, they began experimenting with their magic, using it to commit unspeakable acts. The Tsars ruled for five-hundred years. It was a time of Darkness for this land."
The High Lord paused. For a moment, he felt his father's horror over the use of magic, but he shrugged it off. His story was not finished. "In the year 2050, Mathias Azarov of House Azarov organized and led a rebellion against the Tsars. He was a powerful archadept, a Derwydd, of an ancient and magnificent bloodline. House Tsarimov was destroyed, and House Azarov came to rule."
"Mathias was a kind and compassionate man who held to the ancient ways of our people. He believed our powers should only be used to benefit others or to protect them. Sadly, much damage was done, and the trust the Celts had for all the Chimera was broken. Not all, mind you, but a significant number. There was also a backlash by the Cymry, magic was viewed as a threat, and a belief arose that any use of it corrupted the user. Much of that feeling prevails to this day." Mikhael paused to sip his wine, allowing it to trickle down his throat and alleviate the dryness caused by speaking as he was.
"From the ashes of the Interregnum rose a group calling themselves y'Carthu. In the ancient language of the Cymry y'Carthu means The Purge," Mikhael's voice deepened slightly. "The Purge's stated goal was to purge Cymeria of all those of magical blood, to destroy them. A tremendous number of y'Carthu do nothing more than talk and pass out pamphlets decrying the existence of any of Chimera blood - the Wyr, the Cymry, even the Sidhe. There are those amongst them, however, that do the sorts of things you saw at the Feast of Samhain. The rulers of Cymeria have always tried to be tolerant of those that do nothing more than talk and punish those that do harm."
"There are those that advise me to rid this land of all those that speak against the Cymry and those, many of them Cymry, that feel we should suffer in silence. They feel that those of us who use our powers deserve what y'Carthu does," Mikhael's long fingers played with his pewter mug's handle, smoothing the cool metal. He looked up at the two Travelers, "but as the Shadow gains strength, we must hone our powers in defense of this land and all its people."
She didn't move, she didn't speak, Sofi wasn't even sure if she was breathing as Mikhael spoke, his voice rich and deep as he told them a tale so wild, it was almost unbelievable. Almost... considering she'd fallen through a magical portal that had taken her to a whole new realm. He spoke of war, fought by magic. Those who would do good and those who would corrupt it and use for evil before it was all banished from the land. She was reminded of the story of King Arthur and his father Uther who had decreed death to all magic-users... depending on the version you read.
"We have had wars over religion and faith back home, each side trying to force others to believe as they do and that harm, or worse, would come to them if they did not. Personally, I was raised to treat everyone fairly and as equals unless given a reason. I know my opinion is of no importance here, but if it were me, one of our most basic human rights is that of free speech. People should be allowed to speak their mind freely and without consequence," She paused, taking a sip from her goblet. "But when they choose to push their beliefs on others, trying to bend their thoughts and practices to their own cause by force, that's when they are messing with someone else's free will, and something needs to happen. I think what I'm trying to say is until there's a problem, don't make a problem. If many of these y'Carthu do nothing more than hand out pamphlets and speak their mind, why punish them with banishment? If Cymeria's previous rulers have tolerated things as they are for this long, continue with that."
Taking another pause for a sip, Sofi was finding herself quite liking the lighter wine, she pushed a few flaxen locks back behind an ear. "If you drive all of them out, the preachers as well as the fanatics, I think you would start a war that would do more damage overall. Lands destroyed, innocent people killed. I would continue to seek out the fanatics and take them down as you can."
Richard had listened carefully to the High Lord's story, slowly sipping his wine. He found that the wine was growing on him as he drank it, though that was usually the case for those sorts of beverages. It was a fairly standard story, at least in Richard's opinion, paralleling both history and legends. An ancient wrong, fanatical hatred, a small group who cloaked their psychopathic tendencies in would be righteousness.
Sofi, for her part, was an idealist, which to be fair was as it should be. She was a healer, she needed to believe in ideals. After considering for a long moment how to respond. "Speaking is one thing..." he began slowly. "But there must be those that are providing these terrorists with what they need, food, shelter, weapons, money, information. Providing aid and comfort to the enemy is treason. I would not be surprised if many of those same that spread hatred provide more concrete support to their fighters. We must be sure that they are, but if they are providing material support and not just spreading their hateful lies, they should meet a traitor's fate."
Taking another swig from his wine Richard shrugged. "We are already in a war, if we want to keep it from getting worse, we need to strike at this support network. Imprison them if we can, kill them if we can't. We can't afford half measures."
Mikhael listened attentively to the words of both Travelers. He had never been one to ignore the perspectives of others. One never knew when their words carried wisdom that would apply. Mika had never presumed to be omniscient. Sadly, despite all his father and grandfather had done to avoid an outright fight with y'Carthu, now that it seemed that they were using magic to forward their agenda, a fight was likely unavoidable. It also had not escaped him that Traveler Coyle was saying we as if he considered himself one of them. That did not sit badly with Mikhael. Twice now, the younger man had shown himself as a fierce and honorable fighter.
"Before a council of war against our own people is convened, we need to know more," Mikhael stated quietly, his voice rather sad. "There is more. We have evidence that, for all their hatred of magic and the use of magic, y'Carthu has an archadept in their service - or - that they are in service to. The men and women at the Feast that were immolating themselves had been interfered with. They..." Mika stopped speaking and rose to his feet, looking out of the windows to the vista of mountains beyond the keep, "had no chalon, no spirit. That which makes us us was gone. This is not the first time I have seen high magic used in the presence of a y'Carthu raid." He mentally shuddered, once again hearing the screams of the spirits trapped in High Hallack.
Wrapping her fingers around her goblet, Sofi was quiet as both Richard and then the High Lord spoke, a frown darkening her features. An archadept? What exactly was that? Sofi was about to ask when Mikhael spoke of something that quite seemed to trouble the man. "No spirit?" She asked. "Those people had no souls? How is that possible?" She asked.
Mikhael shrugged his wide shoulders, "Much of my people's arcane arts have been lost or hidden. It would take an archadept of great knowledge and power to do such a thing. He or she would also have to have access to knowledge my people thought lost long ago."
Richard shrugged as well, drinking some more of his wine. "That sort of thing is outside of my area of expertise." Richard commented with a statement that, if it didn't take home the blue ribbon, would have at least placed in the 'understatement of the year' competition at the county fair. "Counter insurgency operations, though, are in my area of expertise." Richard continued. "When you decide that you're ready to pull the trigger on this thing, I'll be ready. I know how to make the bad guys howl without causing undue problems for your people who are just trying to keep their heads down and get on with living." He paused then and gave a somewhat lopsided smile to Sofi. "Well I'll be ready so long as the doc here is willing to give me a clean bill of health."
The High Lord offered a genuine smile to both Travelers, "Cymeria is fortunate that the portals brought you to us. When we have as much information as we can from those taken prisoner, a decision will be made on how to proceed. I do not wish to sacrifice the innocent if at all possible." He rose to his feet and walked with them to the door, "When the council is convened Traveler Coyle, we will send for you."
Once the Travelers had been handed over to the Herald to be escorted out, Mikhael returned to stand near the window. The world was changing, but the changes those that none who followed the path of the Light wished to see.