Chapter 10: Loyal Servants of the Empire

Curses are blessings. Blessings are curses.

Nothing but mouth and tail, forced to crawl the earth on its belly, the serpent has other advantages. Due to its basic nature, its closeness to the ground, the serpent is the wisest of all god's creatures. As such, there is none better at seduction.

The Book of Odim Kalodim, chapter 33, verses 11 and 12


Derris made his way into the forest, trusting his ears that he might hear the cries of any wounded beast. The shadows of the trees were long in the early morning light and the undergrowth was heavy. Derris moved slowly, though he expected nothing more than a raven, or maybe a hawk. Likely, the creature was under some bush on the edge of death. Likely, Derris would not find it at all, not if he searched all day.

Despite his doubt, Derris indeed stumbled upon the poor, shot "bird". Meu rested under a lilac and worried about the arrow in her wing. She did not see the guard until he was right in front of her. He poked under her bush with a twig and almost stepped on her! Frightened by the sudden invasion, Meu struck out and caught the guard's leg. She flushed the remainder of her venom into him. It was certainly not enough to control him, but it should make a connection.

"Jeiju's tits!" Derris cursed and leapt away. He pulled his sword and whirled around to face the hedge of tiny purple flowers anew. Now that he knew there was something among the lilac, he could see Meu's camouflaged form coiled about the stocks. "What the devil...?!" He whispered as he realized the size of her.

Jeiju? Meu spoke in his mind. You are not a Trohl, she noted.

Derris stared at the creature. Did it speak to him? "I am not a Trohl," he admitted. "I worship the true gods, Ooroiyuo and Naharahna."

Meu grinned, Yes, the true gods.

Derris realized the voice was in his head. It was certainly not his own. The voice was female, and although her language was strange, he understood it. Yet, when she spoke, he could sense that it wasn't her thoughts alone. Something floated at the edge of her consciousness. Someone else occupied the air, so to speak. He could not hear this other's thoughts, but he could feel the tug of its presence.

Are you the one that shot me? the serpent asked. She stretched her body away from the lilacs, and fanned her wings. Glory, she was massive! Her wings were as wide as a condor! How had Petearus mistaken this creature for a bird? With her snout, she nudged the arrow as it hung among the feathers of her right wing. Derris frowned.

"Non, beast," Derris began. "I am sent to find you and take your corpse back to the one that did," he admitted. Despite his harsh words, he did not approach or raise his weapon. Indeed, he could barely speak. The words came so easily because he only had to think them.

Will you do it? Will you kill me and deliver my body for a trophy? Her candor matched his.

Derris frowned. "I should think it is you that kills me. Am I poisoned? Do I die already?"

You are poisoned, but you will not die, Meu told him. I do apologize. It is the venom that allows us to think to each other. Painful, I admit, but convenient. Please, let there be peace between us.

"Peace," Derris smiled and relaxed a bit, though he did not put away his sword.

Yet, I have grievance, Meu continued. Who has put this arrow in me?

"Petaerus, a tower guard and a braggart," Derris frowned. "He must attend his post. He will not come for you," He leaned toward the serpent in an attempt to get a better look at her. "Are you a chimera?" He whispered.

Non, she chuckled. In these parts, I am known mostly as a wyrm, though sometimes I am called wind serpent, or perhaps basilisk. What do you know of chimera?

"Only that the possess great magics," Derris noted. "And since you are magic..." he shrugged.

Aren't we all?

"I should think I am not as magic as you," Derris snorted.

It is difficult for one to see their own magics when they are hard won with work, Meu said.

Derris frowned. "Hard work has not given you wings and venom that makes you telepathic."

That is true. I was born to this figure. Meu noted. But do you not see your own advantages? For one, you have hands.

"And you have wings," Derris said. He noted the arrow stuck in her right wing. "I am sorry you are shot. Petearus should not have done such a thing. He has very poor manners."

I thank you for your sympathy. Despite the look of it, I do believe it is a minor concern. I believe I have lost nothing more than a bit of blood, pride, and perhaps a touch of mobility, Meu told him. Indeed, I am quite happy that you found me and not some other. I imagine it should not be so cordial between me and many of your brothers.

"I am not very good at soldiering," Derris answered with a frown.

Indeed, you are too frank and friendly. I should think there are better uses for a man like you, the wyrm replied.

"For one of my birth, there is nothing greater than to be a soldier," Derris replied. He hanged his head in shame. "Your venom is cruel. I suspect none can lie with it in their veins."

The wyrm chuckled. Most men lie to themselves. Lies come all too quick to the mind and the tongue. It is the truth they cannot speak, she mused. But you are not such a man. No. Instead, you have sussed a great secret of the venom – it will have your honesty.

Derris blinked surprised that she should tell him so much about it.

Meu took the opportunity to beg a question. Shall we be friends, that I might ask you a favor?

"There is peace," Derris noted. "It is a small step to being friends. What might I do for you, wyrm?"

Will you break this arrow and take it from my wing?

Derris gulped. To approach the creature was to take chances. He wanted to trust her. She seemed sincere in her apology. But there was a dark fringe at the edge of her mind that seemed a torrent of rage and hatred.

Gentle... the creature cautioned as Derris moved close. She lowered her wing.

Derris reached for the arrow and gripped it tight. He snapped it in half. "Sorry," He apologized, as he inevitably shook her. He slid the broken shaft through the flesh of her wing.

Meu trembled and sighed as the arrow was removed. Slowly, she flexed her wing. I thank you, she breathed with relief.

"You are most welcome," Derris stated as he stepped back.

Son of Odim, what is your name? Meu asked.

"I am Derris, guard of the Empress' Own," Derris stated. "Who is this Odim?"

The Odim Kalodim. He is the first, the last, the every. He is the abstract from which the specific is stamped. All are his sons and daughters, Meu began. It is from one of your books – but then, men have so very many books... In the end, it is but a name to call you, she said. I thank you, Derris, of the Empress' Own. It is no wonder she keeps you for herself.

Derris wondered that this creature did not know all the armies of Minist were called the Empress' Own. Derris thought to correct her but decided to let the point slide. There was something else he wished to address instead. "You speak in my mind, and you are kind and considerate..."

Thank you, she noted as he paused.

With a nod and a smile, Derris continued. "There is a vulgar darkness about your thoughts. Why is this?" Derris asked. He wondered if the question might spark trouble. His hand drifted back to the hilt of his sword. If she was devious, this might provoke a strike. He might yet return to camp with a trophy for Petaerus.

Ah, that, the creature snickered. Are you sure you wish to know? she asked. There is no remedy for knowledge.

"I would know. It will tell me if you are more angel or devil," Derris stated, though he did not mean to reveal the second part. It was too easy to speak to her!

That it may, she agreed. I have bit another. His mind is still linked to my own. Do you know this man? The wyrm opened the thoughts of Fedring to Derris. Pain, rage, and obscenity crashed upon the guard's mind. The dark memories of Fedring flooded the guard and staggered him. Derris gasped, shocked that the Corpus Majoris should take part in so much twisted manipulation and ritual. He fed on the tears of women, the fears of men, and the blood of children. Was he not a holy man? A man of the Twin Gods? A Sacred Protector of the Throne? Against the onslaught of putrid thought, Derris leaned heavily on the trunk of a tree as the illusion of his world crashed about him in fantastic fashion. He'd always had his doubts about the baradha, but never suspected they were so nefarious, so underhanded, so bloodthirsty!

The dark thoughts of the baradha subsided. I am sorry. I do not mean to pain you, the wyrm stated. Secretly, she hoped the revelations might do him no end of good, but in the short term, they'd only bring him pain. I must go, she continued. I have had a full night and need rest. I bid you farewell, Derris, of the Empress' Own. If your Gods shall have it, I pray we cross paths again.

"Wait! What do I call you, or shall I call you only beast?!" Derris yelled after her.

I am no mere beast, she smiled in his mind. Call me Meu.

Derris sat on the forest floor and watched her fade from view.

Derris wondered why she exposed him to the hate and cruelty of Fedring. The general corruption of the baradha was something he'd secretly suspected – yet refused to look at it head long. And now he was forced to do just that. He wondered if it was true, and begged that it wasn't. Could Meu manipulate the thoughts of those she bit? Was she twisting his words, so to say? Derris thought she was a devil after all, come to divide the good people of Minist. He wondered if he did the wrong thing when he pulled the arrow from her wing. Maybe he should have killed her and taken her corpse to Petaerus after all... But a small voice told him he did the right thing – a voice he recognized as his own.

For some time, Derris sat against the tree and considered the tight knots of his own confusion. Finally, Derris stood and walked back toward camp. At the edge of the trees, he found two long feathers, both from Meu's wing. He took them to the top of the wall where he found Petaerus waiting. As Derris approached he held out the feathers and gave them to the tower guard.

"What? This is all you find?" Petaerus asked as he snatched the feathers from Derris.

Derris shrugged as he remembered the broken arrow in his pocket. He would not be returning that. Instead, he changed the subject. "What was it you shot?" Derris asked, curious if Petaerus had any idea.

Petaerus shook his head. "Some giant bird..." He stared at Derris and slowly turned sour. "Nothing else?!" He finally erupted. "You found nothing?!"

"A bit of blood... a trail that did not last," Derris shrugged. "Whatever it was, I do not think you killed it. Shall I go back out? Shall I search some more?" He asked and thought he might like to have more time to himself.

Petearus swore and muttered under his breath. He pulled off his helmet and tucked the feathers under a band of cloth as he continued to swear at Derris for his incompetence. He placed the helmet back on his head. "How do I look?" He turned to Dolif.

Dolif smiled and admired the feathers. "They're quite impressive." He assured his friend.

"Dear gods, let that beast return!" Petaerus flexed and shouted. "I'd rather take another shot at that monster than rub the tits of Naharahna!"

Derris was shocked at the impropriety. "Blasphemy!' He whispered to himself.

Petaerus heard him. He turned on the lesser guard and scoffed. "You are too serious! Do you think the gods even notice us as we crawl about the dirt? To them, we are but ants!"

Derris frowned. "Who informs your faith?"

"Informs my..." Petearus repeated as he drew himself up. "Listen here, Derris. We are dust before the gods! We are nothing but the fallen children of a broken moon – and she is most broken! This is our torment! The gods have given us the impossible task of reforming the world, and I am not dumb enough to attempt the impossible! I shall take what I hack it out of the jungle! Hischeidah has the right of it: all is folly! Do as you want! One day the school of Addivus will acknowledge it – if the Empress doesn't put an early end to his band of bleeding heart enablers! Why she tolerates him at all is beyond me!"

Red faced and furious, Derris shrugged and stepped away. He was not about to argue politics with a higher rank. Petaerus let him go.

Derris had a hard time finishing his shift. He finally relaxed after his confrontation with Petaerus, only to be bothered by the foul thoughts of Fedring once more. The longer Derris thought on it, the more convinced he was of Fedring's sins – and also of general corruption among the baradha. And to think he served in their army! What were they really doing in this foreign land? They were certainly not bringing peace to the natives!

Meu felt sorry for the guard as she eavesdropped on his unprotected thoughts. We need not explore the fetid thoughts of Fedring anymore. Let me entertain you with memories of my own, she said.

Initially, Derris was shocked to find her still there, somehow still connected to him. But he quickly relaxed as the sensations of flight washed over him. The warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze mingled as Meu's strong wings twisted in the wind. She spun lazy circles in thermal updrafts as she drifted higher and higher. She dove for the earth at incredible speeds, and the world rushed up to meet her. She skittered about the edge of storm clouds.

But the damage was done. Even as his memories drifted among distant clouds, Derris was troubled by the hate and secret motivations of his better. He could not shake it. He could not break free of Fedring's memories.

After his shift, Derris wandered about the camp, unsure what to do with himself – a lost soul. The reason and purpose he carried through most of days was gone.

Out of habit, he found himself in front of the mess hall. He paid a bot for a late lunch and ate out of obligation to his body. As he ate, Derris looked about the mess hall. Several priestesses sat around a far table with a number of their children, and he wondered if he should take his troubles to the priesthood. Who better to help with a crisis of faith?

There was only one among the faith he cared to trust. Derris didn't bother to change his armor. He went straight to the tent of Wenifas and rang her bell. Agitated as he was, he impatiently rang again. Only then did he realize she might be with another petitioner. The idea that he might have to wait was repugnant. He turned to leave, disgusted by the need to share his troubles.

A slight hand pulled aside the thick canvas door of the tent. Wenifas stared at the retreating form of Derris. For a split second, she thought to let him go, but she liked the man and decided his company might be a fine thing. "Patience, friend," she said to the retreating guard.

Derris turned. Wenifas smiled at the man she knew well and often. She was a petite thing with dark hair and lots of freckles. Just to look upon her melted his troubled heart.

Wenifas looked at Derris in his armor. Her eyes caught on his sword, and she frowned. "What is it? Am I summoned?" She asked. A look of horror crept across her face. "Is it Claiten?"

"No," Derris replied. "I apologize, I have not thought to remove my gear. Must I go to the barracks and change, or might I come in?"

With a sigh, Wenifas stepped aside. "Do not make a habit of it," she smiled. "I trust there is reason for your hastiness?"

"I suffer," Derris frowned as he stepped into the tent. "I have witnessed a thing and I do not know what to make of it." He removed his belt and helmet, and set them aside. He sat on the carpet and Wenifas sat facing him in the soft clothes of her profession.

"What are you suffering?" she asked, a hand on his knee. She rubbed sympathy into his leg.

"A crisis," Derris admitted. "A crisis of faith," he whispered.

"You are in the right place." Wenifas smiled. "Might I ask after the tithe?"

"Yes," Derris answered. "Let us first conduct our proper business." He said as he pulled a purse from his shirt. "I shall have this day and the night with you." He gave her the coins, a proper and generous offering. "Though I must return to duty at midnight."

Wenifas took the money and quickly counted it. "I accept your tithe," she bowed and set the coin in a small bowl. "Now, how shall we start? Shall we perform ritual?" She leaned into him. "Shall we dance and meld ourselves?"

"I would speak," Derris admitted. "I would tell you what I've seen."

"Then I will listen," Wenifas stared at Derris with a serious look.

She smiled at him expectantly. What if she didn't believe his tale? What if she was a secret friend of Fedring? For several seconds, Derris could not speak. He stared at the edge of her clothing. Her blouse was low cut and made of a fine material. At one time, it must have been an expensive outfit – but no longer. Derris could see the wear about its edges. Many of the other priestesses would not wear a thing so thin. As he considered her shirt, Derris realized it was the finest garment in all the land, simply because it touched her skin so freely. He studied the curve of her shirt s it rose and fell over her chest.

"Should I ask questions?" Wenifas asked.

Derris frowned. He opened his mouth. He closed it. He looked about the tent. He stared at Wenifas and then looked away. In the back of his mind, Derris could sense Meu smile, though the wyrm said nothing. This only made him more reticent to speak.

"Okay," Wenifas leaned forward and kissed the guard. "We will talk later. For now, leave your words and concentrate on your touch." She lifted his shirt and undid his belt as she kissed him again. "Yes? Shall we talk later?" She whispered as she pushed him to his back. Her warm, sweet breath made his head swim. The storms in her eyes spoke of mirth and succor.


Having purged Derris of his lust, Wenifas laid with the guard and considered his mood. Normally, Derris was gentle and attentive in his ways, but today he was forceful and aggravated. An edge of suspicion colored his lovemaking. Though Wenifas did not like the cling and neediness of so many of the guards (there was too much of it among the men) she enjoyed the change of this quiet and often inhibited man. It spoke of a depth and complexity she had not encountered, and a capacity for self-preservation she did not expect.

"Now what of this crisis?" Wenifas studied the man. Something certainly bothered him.

"I am hearing thoughts," Derris began. "Not my thoughts, mind you, I am always hearing those. I am hearing the thoughts of others."

"Sounds unlikely," Wenifas kissed him. "What am I thinking?" She challenged.

"I cannot hear everyone's thoughts!" Derris frowned. "It is but a few – two if I must be exact."

"And how did this happen?" Wenifas smiled.

"I was ordered into the woods, after a bird – mind you, a giant bird. I found it, or should I say she found me? But she was not a bird at all. She was a serpent with wings."

"She?" Wenifas caught on the word.

Derris nodded, "She was twelve – fifteen feet long? A great beast though she was no beast at all. Her wings were as long as my arms! She bit me, and after she bit me, she could put her thoughts in my head."

"Then I make love to a serpent?" Wenifas smiled.

"It is not a joke," Derris frowned, though Meu chuckled in his head.

"Of course not," Wenifas agreed. "She bit you like this?" Wenifas playfully teethed his neck.

"Somewhat, only she broke the skin and put her venom in me – here," he said and pointed at two marks several inches apart, one on his foot and one just above his ankle. "She bit right through my boot," he added.

"Indeed," Wenifas frowned as she inspected the bite marks. She was not expecting such proof.

"She was beautiful," Derris noted. "She called herself a wind serpent, a basilisk, and a wyrm. Have you ever heard of such things?"

"I have not. She is a thing of beauty you say? Do you think of her as you dig in me?" Wenifas beamed seductively.

"Don't be vulgar," Derris frowned. "She is beautiful in the way of the wind, or waves as they roll off the ocean. Does one make love to a landscape?"

"Every flower begs for the rape of the bee," Wenifas smiled. She put up a hand and cut off his protest. "You are quite right. Do not mind my jealousy," Her fingers played across his skin. "So this serpent bit you, and with her venom put thoughts in your head. Perhaps she causes you to hallucinate?"

Derris thought on it, "I do not think so. I have suffered hallucination – under guidance of course."

"Of course," Wenifas allowed. "Was she trying to kill you?"

"No. Her only motivation was communication. After she bit me, she could speak in my mind," Derris stated. "Is such a thing even possible?"

Wenifas shrugged. "There is so much I do not know."

Derris nodded. "I must believe it is. The things she showed... We talked for some time. She was very polite, and I was very honest. I removed the arrow from her wing," Derris reached across the room for his pants. He pulled the broken arrow from his pocket and showed the fragments to Wenifas. "It is not possible that I simply imagined it," Derris stated.

Wenifas frowned as she noted the blood on the arrow. "She was shot?"

"By Petearus. He shot her without even knowing what she was," Derris frowned. "I must think he shot at her for mere sport."

"And that is why you went out into the woods, to secure a kill for Petearus," Wenifas surmised. "So let me get this straight, instead of attacking you, this wind serpent bit you, which allowed her to speak in your mind. Then she told you things, and you believe they are true?"

"She's rather wise and honest," Derris noted.

"The devil is wise, and his honesty is cutting to a fault," Wenifas noted. "If she is showing you unbelievable things, then you must not believe them. She may tell the truth, but if she is using it to convince you of lies, you mustn't believe any of it. Evil always uses good things in bad ways. That is the nature of evil."

Derris shook his head. "The things she showed me were not unbelievable. In fact, everything she shows me makes perfect sense. This is what worries me. It is easy to think she deceives me, that her thoughts are all lies. But that means I must go against my own observations. It is hard to believe she showed me the truth – except that it brings a cruel clarity to the world. It all makes sense. I find myself in an intolerable situation!"

"Am I intolerable?" Wenifas teased.

"No," Derris turned from her, embarrassed. "You are among the best of my world. I know it is silly. What makes me any better than others? This is impossible. What makes you any better than others? It is easy to judge you. You are beautiful. You are honest. You are kind."

Wenifas blushed to hear his compliments.

"I hope to be these things," Derris continued. "Is a good soul a thing for humans alone? Is it possible that a good soul might wear a serpent's skin?"

Wenifas narrowed her eyes. "What did she tell you? What has so changed your world that you now call it intolerable?"

For several seconds Derris only stared at her. Wenifas thought he'd clammed up again, but he began to speak after a short silence. "I said there were two voices in my head. She bit another before she bit me. She shared his thoughts. His memories ran rampant through my mind."

"And his thoughts were... dark?" Wenifas guessed. "Evil?"

"He is the worst of things: corrupt, filthy. He does the worst of things: lie, torture, murder," Derris accused.

Wenifas sat back and stared at Derris with serious resolve. "From the top once more: a giant serpent bit you, and thought some thoughts into your head, and also thought the thoughts of someone else into your head that you know and trusted. Because of these thoughts, you now believe this other is a murderer and filth. Is this the tale you tell me?"

"Yes," Derris affirmed.

"And who is this man? Is he one of the guard?" Wenifas asked. She leaned in close and whispered. "Is he one of your captains? Is it Petearus?" Her eyes went wide with the possibility of such a scandal.

Derris took a deep breath. "I do not claim pure righteousness, and I expect it in few others. But this one... I am led to believe he is above reproach. He is so near to the gods."

Wenifas stared at him with anticipation in her eyes. The intense look reminded Derris of what he risked. If word of the guard's suspicions got back to Fedring, it might cost Derris his position, his pay – he might receive the lash for spreading such slander. If there was enough of an uproar, it might mean banishment, or slavery! Personal attacks against a baradha demanded clear evidence! Derris turned his head. Gently, he pushed away from Wenifas and sat up. "No," he whispered. "I cast doubts upon my betters. I do not wish to do so," he hanged his head.

Wenifas took his hand. "You mustn't fear me. Fear is the enemy! As a soldier you must know this," she reminded him. "I swear myself to secrecy," Wenifas assured him. "I swear it on the gods, this story shall go no further than this tent."

Derris looked Wenifas in the eye. "You swear it? By the gods..."

"By Ooroiyuo and Naharahna."

Derris took in a long breath. With fear in his eyes, he whispered. "It is his grace, the Corpus Majoris himself. It is Fedring."

Horror lit across the priestess' face. She quickly hid it. Only Meriona the Jay, and High Commander Gliedian matched the rank of Fedring. Yet Fedring was the ranking member of the Church, which was her order. Wenifas leaned close. "What did this beast show you?" She whispered, unable to stop her morbid fascination.

"The most evil of things," Derris admitted. "I should not think he is capable of such monstrosity. I thought few men are capable of the things I saw, and among them were only our enemies. I thought I did not know such wicked men!"

"What is it you saw?" she repeated. "You have told me nothing, only vague generalities! Can't you see you must offer proof!"

"But I have no proof!" Derris snapped. "It is only in my head! And I cannot describe the terrors I saw! Not to a lady like you!" He gasped. "Blood! Abuse! Molestation! Shall I tell of the things he has done to mere children?! Magics of the worst kind! I am infected with it!"

"What do you know of dark magic?" Wenifas asked.

A wildness took light in his eyes. "If one wishes to be treat with the dark gods, than one must offer up what is most valuable! What is more valuable than innocence, beauty, and youth?!" Derris took a deep breath. "No! I am cured of it! I am sure it is a trick of the devil! I will entertain these thoughts no more! Fedring is above reproach!"

Wenifas frowned. "Now you lie to me. You believe her still – this serpent. You think she shows you true, don't you?" She cast a critical eye upon the guard.

Derris stared at Wenifas, and his gaze was full of love and terror. He could see a battle in her, much like the one that raged in him. He could sense her fear, and somehow knew he'd changed things for both of them. Derris wondered at the troubles he caused, for he could sense them coming. Wenifas was quiet as she laid with Derris. The guard no longer spoke. Indeed, he'd said too much. Both parties knew it. Instead of words, the couple allowed physical touch to speak on their behalf. For a time, neither wanted to say more than I am with you.

After a while, Wenifas felt compelled to speak. "I am glad you tell me these things."

Derris sighed his relief and offered a smile.

"There is much trouble in what you've said. You mustn't tell your friends, other priestesses, anyone. Not now, not ever. Nobody. Do you hear?" Wenifas whispered.

Derris nodded.

Wenifas continued in her serious manner. "You speak to anyone, even a word, and I will deny it all. I will not speak to you again. I will denounce you," she claimed.

Derris frowned as he gave a nod. He kept his eyes locked on hers.

"I must tell you a thing, and you mustn't be disturbed by its implication. Now swear you will repeat none of it!"

"Thrice you have asked me to swear, and I have affirmed it each time," Derris replied. "You are the only one I have told, and it took me most the day to build up the trust and courage to do that! Who else should I tell? I have few friends among the guards."

Wenifas smiled. "Then you are not a fool," she said. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Fedring is imperfect, as are we all. I suspect even the Empress has faults, though it is not my position to say so. It is not my position to speak against any of them – and yet I do." Wenifas sighed. "I see the hypocrisy. I see the lies. The world is not as we are led to believe. Those above us are legally so, but morally?" She shook her head. "I cannot believe that. I have too many doubts."

"It is sacrilege we speak," Derris whispered. "It is sacrilege."

Wenifas felt her heart sink.

"But it is truth," Derris stared at her and gave a nod as he ran his fingers through her hair. "It strikes me as truth, and that is what worries me most."

"What are we to make of such contradictions?" Wenifas gave voice to their fears. "What are we to believe? Are all our leaders evil? Is every part of the priesthood a lie?"

Derris shook his head. "I do not know. How am I to know such things?"

Wenifas thought on it for a long moment. "It cannot all be a lie," she smiled and leaned close to whisper. "You see, I have prayed a great deal lately, because I too see these contradictions. I have seen them for a long time – but I do not have the strength to confront them. I have asked the gods for council, but they are silent – or they were, until they gave me someone to trust," she beamed at the guard.

"Who have they given you?" Derris asked.

Wenifas shot Derris a withering look and pushed against his chest. "You, you fool! Do you not see? The gods answer prayers! And if they answer prayers, then they must be gods!"

"Then perhaps the rituals are not wicked," Derris replied. "Do you know what I thought just now? I thought if it is all wicked, perhaps sex is truly sin against the gods, and we secretly serve demons."

Wenifas considered it for a moment. "I do not think so," she answered. "And this is why: we do not lie. We are honest. We make fair trade. In the rituals we give what is promised."

Derris thought on it. He liked her answer and smiled.

Wenifas frowned. "But that is not to say that the rituals are not perverted," she turned away. "There is no confidentiality in these tents. We swear to speak nothing outside them – but the Majoris visits us here, that we might tell him all that we witness. Like the devil, we tell lies of omission."

Derris stared at her in horror.

"I will say nothing!" Wenifas swore. "You must believe that! And you mustn't speak to the other priestesses of what you know! They will lie to you, as you lay on them! Many are pawns of the Corpus Majoris, his willing spies! He pays them with favor, with coin, with title! He buys them as cheap as he can! I know because he offers me the same trinkets!"

"And you refuse?"

"I play stupid," Wenifas shrugged. "I pretend that I do not understand, and that I have nothing to give. I believe he thinks me simple."

"I know it," Derris admitted. "I have seen his dealings in the serpent's thoughts. But you are not there. I trust you." He hung his head in shame. "I mean to trust you," he continued. "At the moment, I trust nothing."

"I do not blame you, there is an incredible web of lies about us," Wenifas replied.

"It is so much to consider! You shall not have to worry about me telling anyone else. I should never want to speak of this ever again," Derris said.

"That will not last," Wenifas assured him. "For now, let us forget it. For now, let us do other things. For now," She locked eyes with the guard, "let us worship."

Derris stared back at Wenifas and his hand reached for hers. "Is it proper? Is this what the gods want of us? What if other peoples have the truth of it? What if we are meant to be celibate?"

"We have our entire lives to swear off sex. For now, we can be only as we are. Besides, this will bring us peace. It will bring us hope. Will it not?"

"I believe it will," Derris agreed. He pulled Wenifas close and kissed her. "I am glad I have you, even if it is only for the night. I know it is sacrilege to say so, but I wish I could afford you now and forever."

Wenifas smiled. "I think you speak the sweetest things. If it is sacrilege, than I too am a heretic. I would belong to none but you."

His skin was warm and inviting as she pressed against him. With one hand she felt between his legs. He perked with the touch and she prepared to take him in.

A weak cough and a bit of a whine emanated from another part of the tent. Suddenly, the full bawl of a babe erupted. With a heavy sigh, Wenifas pulled away from Derris. She smiled down at the guard.

"It is Evereste. Let me see to her," Wenifas said. Slowly, she disentangled herself. "You stay," Wenifas commanded and jabbed Derris in the chest with a rough finger. She wrapped a shawl about her shoulders as she stepped from the room.

Derris stared as Wenifas walked out. She turned as she parted the curtain to the other room, smiled at the guard, and disappeared into the dark.


Meu's connection to Derris died as he made love to the priestess. Meu grinned to think of the experience. The woman was certainly pretty in his eye.

Distracted, Meu stumbled upon more of her enemies – but it was not Ministrians this time. Instead, it was bugbear. There were four of them and they turned on her immediately. With spears, axes, clubs, and darts, they gave chase. But she was quick and managed to evade them.

Soon, it wasn't just four of the beasts that chased her. Two more joined, then another. They came at her from many directions – too many directions! More of the beasts joined the hunt, now too many to count! Meu climbed a massive pine. The buggers cheered. Did they think she was cornered? More of the beasts approached. She thought there must be dozens below her! They chopped at the tree with their axes. Several climbed nearby trees that they might get close enough to throw and shoot at her.

And still more came! Meu was shocked by the growing crowd of bugbear! There must be fifty of the beasts below her – and still more approached! Meu could not believe her eyes! How many of the little devils were out here!?

With each hack of the axes, the tree began to sway. It was time to escape them properly. Though the right was sore, Meu opened her wings, lifted herself into the air, and rose toward the noonday sun. Now to find a proper place to rest...