February 26th -- Tournament in Alowca
Night lay heavily across Alowca, the velvet firmament with its distant twinkling fires - according to ancient legends the shades of worlds long dead or perhaps even of those to come when the Gods finally tired of mankind's ceaseless conflict.
Cathal smiled at the thought.
Those who have stepped beyond the curtain know full well that conflict is the very essence of the Gods' plan for mankind, the ineffable cycle of gift and geasa intended to test men's mettle and focus them not on the heat of battle but on the inner struggle of self-mastery. He'd only half understood that when Lady Denariel had revealed the Faith Militant to him, all those years ago on the long and weary retreat from Windaria. The signs and portents had begun long before that, the sybaritic young knight cleansed by holy fire as he lay in the pits of Oritolon, and they haunted his footsteps to this day.
Alowca was much changed since last he'd been within her gleaming limestone walls, the Armoury district a maze of alien alleyways. The Templar Commandarie had once stood here, that miraculous tabernacle of seamless stone and blackened timber raised in but a day and a night by the will of those it venerated. To the north of there had stood the Palace of the Pontifex, a temple complex as old as the city and it was in that direction that Cathal now turned.
As Duke he'd been more often found preaching in the marketplace or ministering to the poor in the slums which hemmed the magnificent harbour. The small miracles and kindnesses which sustained his people during the dark final years of the city's independence had rarely if ever been remarked by her nobility, and having heard tell of the terrible reckoning which revolt and civil war had brought in recent years he wondered how many of those good people had survived.
"It is not easy being a chosen people: the path is hard and its destination obscure," Cathal turned to face a young woman dressed all in yellow raiment, and as the fabric moved amidst that glorious yellow fine threads of red seemed to flow like rivulets of blood.
"You do not need to tell me that My Lady, for has my path not contained many strange twists since first you called me to service?"
Strange twists indeed. Cathal had been lifted from the wreck of this City he loved more than life itself and cast adrift, the last prophet of an outlawed faith. Who could have foretold that his path would lead to the Dark Citadel and the ancient wisdom of the Bakker woods?
"Were the path of a prophet an easier one, Lord Khagister could have picked many another to bear His revelation. But it is not. It is a path of brambles and thickets, of quicksands and burning coals."
"I have never asked you to lift this burden from my shoulders," he drew himself up straight, and as he did so that spirit within which had passed beyond the curtain flared bright as the waxing moon and the fragile mortal shell it now inhabited seemed consumed with fire.
Even at this late hour the city was bustling with life, the taverns overflowing with rowdy travellers from distant realms who'd made the difficult trek south for the tournament. Such events were so rare in the Colonies that many a man might live his whole life without seeing one and feverish speculation surrounded the prowess of the various knights who'd announced their participation and the ultimate victor of its magnificent prize.
Cathal briefly wondered if the appearance of the Dubhaine armourial at the lists tomorrow would arouse much interest. It mattered little. The rules of tourney guaranteed safe passage for all challengers. Still, if his hosts had realised the import of his mission and the strange opportunity their generosity provided to achieve it without incident...?
The Alowcan Palace complex had long since been destroyed, its finer stones and timbers used to build houses and towers suiting the tastes of a new nobility. Still, the subterranean complex which lay beneath the sweeping boulevards remained largely intact. Indeed unknown to the lords of Oritolon and the colonists they'd imported from their own lands to settle the decimated city, the rock on which it stood had been so extensively tunnelled and excavated by uncounted generations of Alowcans as to represent a whole second citadel.
Most of it was given over to the sprawling necropolis where the deceased faithful had been immured in mighty stone crypts but closer to the Palace complex were well-stocked armouries, treasuries, libraries and the private apartments of the Pontifex. But none of these were of particular interest to Cathal or his companion. Their path lead to a much older and less well known part of the rock, a tunnel emerging high on the cliff beneath the ancient citadel mount and overlooking the harbour.
They walked in silence for some time, barely noticed by the bands of revellers and city watch patrols they encountered - men and women too dull-witted to see through the shadow weave which encompassed them.
The eastern escarpment was lightly defended, it's towering cliffs making a concerted attack from that direction pretty much impossible. The mighty ocean stretched beneath, a black naphtha sheet without limit across which fragile merchantmen plied their precarious trade. Many years since, Cathal had been a passenger on just such a vessel, a young runaway from the stifling court life of gleaming Cagil...
The Lady in yellow interrupted his reverie, "Today that which has lain hidden since the fall of Alowca will once more be revealed. Beneath us lies the Champion's Walk and on that very day your sister Aoifa ascended this cliff face with the Igna, the brother of Margrave The Drake."
Cathal studied the treacherous chalkface and his eye spotted what appeared to be a narrow ledge. He paused for a deep breath and swung himself over the lip, surprised to find his hands and feet guided to one safe hold after another. Even then it took a good half hour to make the descent.
The ledge turned out to be comfortable wide enough for a man to stand, and though from above it had seemed to be a natural feature of the rock it was in fact manmade. Following it towards the northern breakwater he came to an open passageway, and there on the floor lay a carefully assembled suit of Templar armour.
"This was my sister's armour," he knelt and touched the Alowcan arms fondly, remembering how in those last few months the heavy steel plate had seemed part of her flesh.
"She left it here when her duty was discharged," his companion placed her left palm against the black steel and seemed to purr, "but this is not the treasure we are here to reclaim. Follow me."
Cathal stood and studied the tunnel ahead. At first it seemed suffused with a pale bluish light which slowly built in intensity to that of a pale winter's noon allowing him to make out bas reliefs and frescos depicting scenes from the ancient scriptures. Gathering the armour he followed his mistress's lead.
The passage twisted and turned, intersecting others as it delved ever deeper into the escarpment and eventually coming to a halt at a dead end. A fresco depicting the first fall of Alowca filled the entire wall.
"Beyond here are the true treasures of Alowca," a single tear of blood trickled down Lady Denariel's cheek as she tenderly touched the likeness of a woman's face, a proud warrior depicted in gleaming armour, the halo of martyrdom upon her golden tresses.
February 27th -- Tournament in Alowca
There was a click as the Goddess's hand pressed more firmly against the cold stone and the wall swung open to reveal a brightly-lit crypt, four mighty sarcophagi dominating the space.
"Here lie the heroes of ancient Alowca, those whom I called to the service of The Trinity when the world was young," there was a hint of sadness in her voice which Cathal had never heard before.
"Homer and John and Larani, these three gave their lives without question. Though they sit now in the halls of our father, I still mourn their passing for with it came the corruption which you were called to shriven and the death of this my most beloved city. There is however a fourth treasure here, a man blind to faith and yet never faithless. Margrave the Drake."
"I have heard of Margrave," Cathal gently placed his sister's armour on the floor where he stood next to Larani's tomb and approached the stone sarcophagus in which the mummified remains of the former Alowcan General now lay, "but I understood him to have died far from Alowca."
"His brother Igna returned his corpse when the city fell and in this you see the will of Khagister and the truth of His covenant. Thus can you be certain that the covenant which He made with you will likewise be fulfilled. Do not lose heart Cathal, no matter how dark the days ahead, for just as Margrave now rests where fate appointed so shall the true Church of the Trinity arise from the ruin of ages."
"What then brought my sister to this place?"
"The completion of her own covenant," and the Lady in Yellow directed his gaze to where a rusted flanged mace was embedded in the stone sarcophagus of Larani Blood Phoenix.
He studied at the ancient weapon, the badge of office of the General of Alowca. Denariel had wielded in life and every General in unbroken line down to his dear friend Gravitas Martius. He'd wielded it himself at the four-day long battle of Abaka when the men of Alebad had refused to defend their own lands and Alowcan knights had bled in their stead. That sacred heirloom had been believed lost when Gravitas was slain by the heretic Squeaks, and yet Aoifa must have recovered it when she in turn ran honest steel through his foul heart.
"Test it," Denariel's face warmed as a smile spread across her lips.
He placed his hand on the worn leather binding. The flanged head had been driven deep into the diorite slab, a feat of inconceivable strength, and yet it seemed unharmed. He tested the grip once... twice... thrice... the head remained resolutely entwined with its stone prison.
"When the black wind sweeps the land and hatred rules all lands, then look to these arms for salvation," and with that Cathal found himself once more alone with his thoughts.