Ethnila stared at the pale body of the elf, who lay in the sparsely furnished room’s only bed. She herself sat in the most comfortable chair they had been able to snatch from the common room. A strained silence hung in the room; she couldn’t even hear the woman’s shallow breathing. Only the erratic movements of her chest told Ethnila she was still alive.
Something didn’t feel right. The mark, the Midnight’s Kiss as Marnius had called it, had been exorcised from her neck by divine Light, only for Marnius to conclude that it had been nothing more than an illusion. The curse which they had spent so much time unravelling turned out to be simple magical trickery, though for what purpose…
Marnius had done everything in his power to ease her suffering and delay her passing, but was powerless to save her. He was now doing his best to console the girl; help her deal with the imminent loss of the only friend she could remember. Ethnila, meanwhile, was staring at a soon-to-be corpse and trying to figure out why something felt wrong.
Imaerla seemed quite serene for someone at death’s door. Marnius’ magic had done much to ease her pain, but there was something more to her calm. A hint of something Ethnila could not quite perceive, hiding behind the aura of Marnius’ healing Light.
“So…” Marnius broke the silence upon returning with two steaming cups of mulled wine. He placed one in front of Loriana before moving to sit across the table from her, wrapping his hands around the other. It looked so tiny and fragile, and Marnius couldn’t help but smile to himself.
“Are you really an inquisitor?”
“Hm?” Marnius was caught off-guard by the question, for he had been careful not to mention that to anyone but Ethnila. She stared at him, her cherubic face surprisingly stern. A quick glance about the room assured him that the innkeeper had returned to the kitchen, cleaning up after lunch and leaving the two alone.
“Well?” she pressed, a hardness creeping into her tone.
“Yes,” Marnius replied quietly. “I am an Inquisitor of the Order of the-”
“Order of the Resplendent Watch,” Loriana spoke with him, the ghost of a smile creeping onto her lips in response to his raised brow. “I know a lot about the Church of Light and its orders… I just wish I could remember why – who taught me.” The smile was gone, replaced by an intangible sadness.
“Perhaps you are a member of the clergy? This far from Chaar, I doubt very many others would know our Orders,” Marnius suggested.
“Maybe…” she murmured, her gaze going distant as she turned to look out the window. “I remember… a round chamber… big, vaulted ceiling… great skylights… an elegant altar of white marble, standing on a raised dais… surrounded by pews bathed in sunlight from dawn until dusk…”
“Sounds like a cathedral.” The girl was too deep in her memory to even register Marnius’ words.
“A sphere of liquid sunlight, hovering far above the altar, illuminating the chamber at night… Thick carpets of soft fur stretching out from the dais like rays of sunshine… marble statues, silent guardians towering over the hall…”
It being Marnius first trip to Malqish, he kept finding himself amazed by the sheer extravagance of the culture. Everything was steeped in a veneer of prosperity, meant to exhort the wealth of the owner but frequently serving only to reveal the limitations of their imagination. Even a temple of the Light, meant to be a place where all faithful are judged for the content of their hearts and not their purses, was being described as something outright gaudy.
“There was a great fire…” That was strange. Though the Church of Light did not include fire in their rituals; for a holy site to be ravaged by fire was truly a bad omen. “The whole building was ruined… the statues standing charred and blackened… I remember the clergy praying around the altar, and one man… I don’t remember his face… He spoke to them, reminded them of the glory of the Sun’s light… They rebuilt the cathedral. Replaced the sculptures with prisms and instead placed a gigantic statue behind the altar, holding up the Sun Orb-”
Marnius drew a sharp breath. Loriana turned to look at him with a mixture of curiosity and alarm, her expression shifting to incredulity when she realized he was staring at her.
“Nothing,” Marnius replied, shaking himself out of his thoughts. If the place she described was Brighthill Cathedral, as seemed quite likely, then he would have to prepare for his worst fears being true. The girl was still looking at him, clearly not content to leave things there.
“Loriana!” Ethnila’s voice thankfully interrupted any chance the girl had to press the issue. The woman’s grim expression had Loriana rushing up the stairs without another word.
Ethnila sat down in the vacated seat and looked at Marnius. Her expression was impassive as ever, but there was something about her that gave her a troubled air. Marnius had known her only for a short time, but he had learned quickly to let her pick her time.
“I suspect she grew up in Brighthill.”
Ethnila tilted her head slightly to the side, her unwavering gaze locked on him, but said nothing.
“She remembered a cathedral, before and after a fire.”
“The Inquisition, you, would know if Brighthill burned,” Ethnila said, furrowing her brow slightly.
“And yet Brighthill has the only cathedral of the Church this side of Blacktusk. She spoke of a statue holding the Sun Orb above the altar after the temple was rebuilt…” Marnius paused, but if Ethnila understood the implication she made no outward sign.
“They are being deceived,” Ethnila cut Marnius off as he was about to continue. “Dark magic has a hold on her, Marnius. Even still.”
Loriana sat at the foot of the bed, staring at Imaerla’s motionless form. She just lay there, lifeless and pale, not a single sign of life to be seen. It was hard to believe she was still alive, but when Loriana had checked she had been breathing… barely.
She looked so very weak and frail, so unlike the regal and dauntless woman who had interrogated Loriana back in Wyrm’s Wood. During the weeks they had been traveling together, Imaerla had been confident and resolute. Despite concerns that her people needed her, concerns she had tried to hide.
Loriana was still not sure why this “Queen of Wyrm’s Wood” had left her home to escort a lost girl with no memory out of the forest, but there was definitely something strange behind the decision. At least it seemed that any regrets Imaerla possessed had been slowly fading away.
Loriana thought back to the first days of their journey, especially that night in a clearing when she had first realized she trusted the woman. Things had been so strange between them, with neither really knowing what to make of the other.
She had spent most of those nights staring at Imaerla, watching her intently for fear she might work some strange fey magic while Loriana slept. The past few nights had been very much the same, just for a very different reason.
“You never did teach me how to start a fire…” she yawned, moving to lay down.
She fought to stay awake, knowing Imaerla would be gone by the time she woke were she to fall asleep. Yet even the daylight shining through the window was not enough and Loriana soon entered the realm of dreams.