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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 7: Azure Falls

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Even with the strengthening storm, Ordin had no difficulty leading them along to the road; he merely had to follow the creek upstream, the one the squirrel had told him about.

Celindria offered no rebuttal. She tasted death on her tongue and stayed far to the rear where she turned her stomach out twice along the road. She complained loudly of various aches in her body, and her complexion was a mixture of greenish-gray colors tinged with a putrid yellow.

Close to midday, they came upon a few scattered signs of civilization. As they rounded a bend, the road began to parallel a rushing river cascading over numerous rocks that had fallen from the bluffs above. Water meant people, and where a road crosses a stream, there was usually a village or town of some sort.

As the road descended with the stream into a small valley, the curling smoke of chimneys floated over treetops. Small sheds dotted the landscape, many nestled against the base of a windmill that pumped water or ground grain into flour. Soon, they saw a few thatched rooftops, and that meant shelter from the rain.

It was a small village and probably not one of much means. But it was a proud community, at least on the surface. A freshly painted signboard outside the village greeted visitors with the name in bold white letters. “Welcome to Azure Falls. Site of the Milorian Bridge.”

As Cora read this to Cuauhtérroc, pointing out the letters and sounds, Ordin cupped his ear and asked, “Hear that rumbling? It’s a waterfall, Azure Falls, I would guess. There’s a natural power swell at a waterfall. Just so you know, if at some point you can’t find me, that’s where I’ll be.”

The road, much better maintained here, passed through the heart of a thick copse of trees, the branches forming a leafy canopy that dripped large drops on them as they rode beneath. It seemed to serve as an entrance to the village that lay beyond, a very welcoming and verdant colonnade. As they passed under the canopy, the roar of Azure Falls grew louder, and on the other side the Milorian Bridge came into view.

Cora covered her mouth and gasped. Made of gleaming blue Lothanian steel and ebony wood, the Milorian Bridge spoke of Vashanti design, Dareni engineering, and the lofty elegance befitting the Citadel in Cer Halcyon. It spanned the Rae Azure only a few feet ahead of the waterfall’s crest, giving those who traversed the bridge a stunning view of the water plummeting fifty feet to the rocks below. But even the unique perspective of gazing down a waterfall paled in comparison to the bridge itself. Immense bundles of twisting cables made of pure Lothanian steel—their girth equal to a man’s waist—rose up out of the ground at a shallow angle, one on either side of the road, nearly forty feet to the top of a towering stone pylon that was anchored precariously into the rocky bank. Each of these steel cables then draped high over the river to an identical stone tower on the opposite bank then gradually angled back down into the ground far on the other side. Hanging straight down from these cables over the river were smaller bundles of wires that ended in a clasp, molded as a horse’s head, attached to the side of a long steel brace that together held hundreds of ebony planks over the river. The entire bridge was suspended in midair by Lothanian steel ropes, never once touching the water below.

Ordin pulled in the rein. “Tell me we’re not crossing that.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Cora commented, “if for no other reason than I want to ask the folks on the other side all about it.” She spurred her dappled mare into a brisk canter towards the Milorian Bridge, the clopping of its hooves echoing loudly in the valley. Cuauhtérroc followed quickly, gaping at the water pouring over the edge in the river below. But it took Celindria cajoling the mystic for several minutes to convince him to join his party across the bridge. He didn’t trust the construction—unnatural he called it.

Halfway across, his fears were confirmed as the entire floor of the bridge seemed to sway in the breeze. The motion nearly made Ordin sick, and he could not reach the other side fast enough. Celindria, however, stopped midway and stared down the rushing waterfall. When the others beckoned her, she motioned for them to go on ahead.

“You don’t look well,” Cora hollered over the rumble of the falls.

“I’ll be fine.” After I throw up again.

“You need to see a cassock. Ordin says the mold might—”

“I know what Ordin says!” Celindria shouted, “Leave me alone! I just need to…to…pause here and reflect for a while.”

Cora looked to the men for support. They both shrugged.

“Come on, Cora,” Ordin said, hefting his full backpack. “Let’s get out of this storm.”

In the Savory Salmon, the only tavern in the village, Cora drummed her fingers impatiently. Where’s that reeve gone off to now? They had waited nearly an hour when Cora finally went back outside to check on her. There was no one on the bridge in the distance, and no one walking the highway that ran through the village. Celindria had given her the slip once more, and Cora dared not think about what she might be doing. Gitting her teeth, she turned on her heels and marched back into the tavern.

Cuauhtérroc had drained his third glass of water and they had all nearly finished their meal of boiled salmon and duck eggs, fried mushrooms and blueberries when Ordin suddenly held up his hand. “Listen!” he whispered loudly.

Cora and Cuauhtérroc strained their ears and followed the mystic’s eyes motioning over to the bar. “Someone at the bar is soundin’ an alarm,” Ordin breathed.

“About what?” Cora asked. I hope Celindria hasn’t done anything stupid.

“Not sure. Something up the road. He says…someone was waylaid.”

Cora was about to get up from the table and approach the bartender with questions when a change came over Ordin’s face that stopped her. He stopped in mid-drink, holding his mug to his pale lips, and his eyes grew big with surprise as he focused on something behind the songsage.

“What?” Cora asked.

Cuauhtérroc also looked up, but he only smiled and briefly held up a hand. “Hello, Celeendria.”

Cora twisted around in her chair. Walking up behind her was the reeve. Her platinum hair, darkened from being wet, was pulled back in a single ponytail that left drips of water on the floor behind her.

“Sorry I’m late,” Celindria offered as she sat in the vacant chair at their table. “It’s starting to rain.”

Ordin raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s been rainin’ nearly all day.”

“So…I went for a swim with the swans.”

“In your clothes?”

Cora shot Ordin an indignant glance, but she felt her jaw beginning to drop at a thought. Please tell me you weren’t strutting around in your knickers!

Staring straight at Cora, a thoroughly mischievous grin spread across Celindria’s face. “I wasn’t wearing them…or, anything for that matter. In fact, I shucked it all right before I jumped off the bridge.”

“You…jumped?” Cora just stared incredulously, her face oscillating between flushing red and draining of blood. You could have died! I would have had that on my conscience, and you…you… She turned around angrily, not finding any words to reply that she wouldn’t regret later. What is wrong with you? Jumping off a bridge, over a waterfall, in the nude?! There’s just no words…

Cuauhtérroc pushed his plate across the table to Celindria. “Dees feesh ees good. You have some of dees.”

Celindria forced down a fresh wave of nausea. “If I throw a stick, will you go away?”

With a snarl, Cora stood up, threw her napkin onto the table, and marched out the door.

Celindria grabbed her ponytail and squeezed some water out of it. “You never can tell what goes through a girl’s mind.”

After a moment of awkward silence, Cuauhtérroc pushed away from the table. “I weel talk to her.”

Cuauhtérroc found her sitting on the tavern porch overlooking the bank of the Rae Azure, casually throwing rocks across the muddy road and into the placid pool formed by ages of erosion from the falls. Swans floated gracefully in the still waters, dipping occasionally for fish, mindful of neither the rain nor the occasional rock from Cora’s hand.

Thoughts flowed rapidly through Cuauhtérroc’s mind. Every day brought new confusion to the savage, things he’d never before encountered, things Alton Myrick had not explained. Mostly, he grew frustrated at the behaviors of these mainland people, attitudes and actions that were odd and dishonorable. His kinfolk were honest with their feelings; if a woman pleased her husband, he let her sleep with him; if a panther warrior fought with cowardice, he was spit upon and made to crawl with the snakes; if someone stole your macana, you drove a spear through his heart. Never did his people say one thing but mean another. Never did their eyes belie their words so freely. Celindria seemed to speak with a forked tongue continually, and the mystic rarely offered praise. Cora alone was the honest one, but even she was difficult to figure out. It was hard enough learning the language and understanding the various accents, but it seemed impossible to learn the hidden meanings as well.

However, Cora’s body language was obvious. He watched her for a moment before approaching, carefully choosing his words. She sighed loudly and flung a rock upstream. No, Cora’s was not dishonest; she was too easily upset. She was weak-willed and more concerned with what people thought than with simply doing the right thing. She cared more for the dishonest words that others carelessly tossed about than fulfilling the duty of her life.

Cuauhtérroc sat down beside the songsage, saying nothing. He could not find the right words, not in the Common tongue. After several minutes passed, Cora sniffed lightly and said casually, “I like waterfalls.”

“We do not see dees waterfalls in my homeland. Only flat land and slow waters. But we do have dees rain many days.”

Cora looked up at the drenching rain and threw another rock into the river. “I’d like to see your homeland sometime, Cuauht. I’ve never seen a jungle before.”

She sat quietly for a time, then suddenly asked, “What will you do if you can’t find your army?” Cora asked. “I mean, what if you came all this way up here, got yourself sidetracked by a quest to rescue some stolen goods, but you never actually got what you came for?”

“I weel go home when I have dees army.”

“So it’s press on no matter what, is that it?”

“I theenk that is how you say it.”

“Do you think that’s what I’m supposed to do, too? Just press on no matter what? Celindria is bitter and caustic for reasons I can’t figure out, and she’s always doing something unbecoming to a lady, which just rankles me, but I think maybe that’s exactly why she does it. Ordin thinks everything is stupid, and I suspect he thinks I’m stupid most of the time, too. No offense, Cuauhtérroc, but you can’t read, and for a savage, you’re too…well…nice. I must have the worst freeblade crew ever assembled. All I wanted to do was sing and travel the world and become famous, like my grandmother. Instead, I nearly became a rotlark’s breakfast. Ordin’s having walking nightmares, and Celindria’s out there gallivanting around in her birthday suit. What am I supposed to do?”

Cuauhtérroc listened closely, but he barely caught half of what Cora said as the words came spilling from her lips. But he could read her tone easily enough. “Cora O’Banion, dees feesh in dees water sweem up dees reever sometimes, and dees is harder to do. Dees feesh not ask why it is harder. It only know to sweem harder because dees water push against it.”

The savage stood up and looked deep into her eyes. “Be like dees feesh.”

It wasn’t what he had planned to say, but it would have to do. Without another word, he stepped back inside the tavern, leaving Cora sitting on the porch, alone with her thoughts and the pouring rain.

A few minutes later, Cora reentered the Savory Salmon. Celindria had gone to bed, not feeling well at all, and Cuauhtérroc had started eating again.

Cora frowned at the guest rooms. “I thought she needed a cassock,” she said to Ordin.

The mystic shrugged. “She said she was all right. I ain’t gonna force her.”

“But she looked terrible and was turning out her lunch all afternoon.”

“I know. It’s just yellow scratch; it’ll clear up in a few days. Besides, there ain’t a cassock here, just an old country priest.”

Lightning flashed brightly, casting brilliance through the windows, and Ordin looked up at the ceiling nervously, his legs bouncing rapidly on the balls of his feet. The booming peal that quickly followed shook the small tavern and caused him to jump violently.

“Are you serious?” Cora looked at him incredulously. The thunder had been loud and sudden enough to make her startle, but Ordin? “Are you…afraid of thunder?”

Ordin shot her a hard glare across the table. “Don’t be stupid, Cora. I’m afraid of lightnin’.”

“Oh right, you were struck once as a kid. Turned you white and gave you a destiny or something. Come on, Ordin. We’re under a solid roof. There’s tall trees all around. We’re in a valley. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Ordin stared hard at her. “It ain’t about me. I’m afraid for you. I turn lightin’. What do you do with it?”

Cuauhtérroc and Cora both looked at him with queer expressions as he stood up to leave, then Cora chuckled at him, “No you don’t. You don’t ‘turn lightning.’ You’ve just built up some irrational fear because of your childhood experiences. You’re certainly not about to be hit b—”

The most intensely brilliant light Cora had ever seen filled the room, and her eyes shut down from over-exposure. For one powerful moment she could hear nothing, not even the sound of her own fearful scream. Shards of wood fell all about her, followed by tufts of burning thatch. Then the rain poured in and extinguished those small fires. Slowly her hearing began to return, but the sounds of people screaming, crying, and scrambling about were mixed with a distinct F-sharp tone ringing over the top of it all. She didn’t know exactly why it was F-sharp or even how she had the presence of mind to know it was F-sharp, but there it was. A clear F-sharp filling her head. Cripe…!!

As the scene gradually faded back into view, only three people remained visible of the twenty that had been there just moments before. A jagged hole was torn in the ceiling of the Savory Salmon, its edges smoldering as if fire might break out any second. Cuauhtérroc sat on the floor ten feet away from the table, his hands behind him and his face singed. His eyes were wider than should have been possible, staring straight at Ordin Austmil-Clay, who stood in the center of a black ring of char roughly ten feet in radius around him. The table that had been between them was splintered and scattered across the room, and a fork had pinned the sleeve of Cora’s blouse to the backrest of her chair.

But Ordin was untouched, still as white as ever and apparently unharmed, except that he, like Cora, was now being drenched again by the rain pouring through the hole overhead. He folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow at the songsage. “You were sayin’?”

Moments later, various people began slowly poking their heads above the overturned tables where they had scampered to hide. Celindria came running in from her room, her eyes wide and her arms still clutching her stomach. “What the—” she began, but stopped when she saw Ordin standing calmly in the black ring, rain pouring down upon him and onto the floor. “By the Maker!” she whispered in awe. No one else said anything aloud, but many were whispering theories of curses, omens, divine judgment, and other disparaging things about the mystic.

Ordin simply stood there, arms folded and silently staring at Cora.

“Are you all right?” Cora asked. She was unsure whether she had just whispered or shouted. Her brain was scrambled and her senses jolted.

Ordin looked about the room where twenty pairs of troubled eyes stared unblinking back at him. Even Cuauhtérroc remained motionless where he sat on the floor.

Without another word, the mystic unfolded his arms and walked out the front door.

Seconds after the door closed behind him, the tavern buzzed with theories of the evil that hung over the “strange white man.” Suddenly, his wan complexion was held in suspect when it hadn’t mattered as much before. Cora frowned on much of what was being said about the mystic, though she certainly couldn’t offer any explanations about his surviving another lightning strike, much less basically predicting it.

Cuauhtérroc helped many of the other patrons move tables aside and clean up the damaged area. Cora attempted to comfort the proprietor and his wife and daughter. The young girl was especially distraught by the event, and it took Cora some effort to coax her out of the broom closet. The songsage promised the barkeep that she and her friends—including the mystic, to show his goodness—would lead in repairing his tavern.

Long into the night the storm railed against the wounded tavern. The barkeep officially closed for the night shortly after the lightning strike—each additional flash of light in the skies made his heart skip—but he stayed up, sitting at his bar until the faint rumble of thunder only echoed from far across The Grottoes. As he slowly sipped on a cup of stiff applejack, he watched despondently while rivulets of rainwater rolled across his floor and pooled into a corner near the front door. His wife stood solemnly by his side, clutching his arm and trying to comfort him. All the man could see was a lifetime of hard work being washed away as the rain washed the dirt and char off his floor.

“You don’t think the white man is cursed, do you?” he asked his wife.

The gentlewoman was slow to answer and unsure in her reply. “No, I don’t think so.” The catch in her voice said otherwise.

Celindria woke the next morning feeling much worse than the night before. Her skin had taken on a rancid yellowish tone, like she was covered with the very mold she had inhaled. She tried to arise to wash her face, but the room seemed to sway beneath her feet, and she dry-heaved yet again.

To give the reeve privacy, Cora had brought a blanket to lay out on the floor in Cuauhtérroc’s and Ordin’s room, but as the mystic was sleeping the night out in the wild—rain and all—Cora curled up in the bed across from the savage. The sound of Celindria retching shook her from her dreams, and she got up to tend to the reeve multiple times that night.

They had the tavern all to themselves that day. A few villagers stopped in to look at the damage in the revealing light of day, but most kept a “safe” distance away, as “cursed” and “evil omen” could be heard on their lips. Rumors spread quickly, and the variant tales of last night’s lightning strike and the strange white man who survived it—or caused it—grew in absurdity. One version featured Ordin as a ghost who lived under the floor of the tavern and who had also caused, besides the lightning strike, three droughts, six untimely deaths (including one suicide), and at least four kitchen fires. Another more outlandish rumor suspected Ordin of being a jinadaar sent from the Abyss specifically to ruin their village.

From above, Cora heard voices and the sounds of hammering. She walked out into the street and looked up, squinting into the early morning sun. Kneeling on the roof of the tavern was Cuauhtérroc and two other men, one of which wore a leather smock and wielded a hammer with great proficiency. That was a good sign. Not everyone had bought into the rumors. She chuckled at the panther warrior staring down at a thatched roof. He probably has no idea how to use a hammer.

Cora began replaying the lightning blast in her mind, marveling that absolutely no one was harmed, so long as she didn’t count the ringing in her ears as harm. She thanked the Maker of Music that it was gone. Cora recalled Ordin’s last moments in the tavern before “the event.” Something he had said seemed to indicate that he knew he was going to be struck. What was it he said? He turned lightning? That doesn’t make much sense. Where’s he gone off to?

She finished her tea and went back inside to return the cup. She waved at Cuauhtérroc through the open roof as she passed under the hole. They were going to make this right, no matter how long it took, but she really needed Ordin to show himself a good man right now. He needed to be closely involved in the repairs if they wanted to quell these vicious rumors. The mystic might not care what people thought of him, but Cora certainly wanted to maintain a good reputation.

Then another memory came rushing back to her—something Ordin had said as they were crossing the Milorian Bridge: “There’s a natural power swell where there’s a waterfall.” She snapped her fingers. The waterfall!

Minutes later, Cora gingerly stepped across wet rock down the steep slope of the riverbank to the base of the waterfall some fifty feet below the bridge. The roar of the water was loud, but not deafening. She called Ordin’s name and waited. Sometime later, she tried again, but received no reply. He must be behind the waterfall. She got close enough that she could feel a constant spray off the falls, and soon her clothes and skin were as soaked as if she had jumped in. She grabbed the root of a tree that corkscrewed out of the rocks at one place and wormed back in at another. Leaning closely to the falls, Cora hollered for Ordin with as much volume as she could muster. She waited, and just as she was about to venture back up the bank, a white arm reached through the water’s edge and grabbed her wrist. She nearly screamed, partly because she had no idea Ordin was that close. But, taking his hand, she followed him through the pouring water into a damp cavern only slightly smaller than one of the guest rooms of the Savory Salmon.

Inside, the roar of the waterfall was amplified by the stone walls of the cavern, forcing her to shout just to hear herself. Everything was soaked, and water dripped off her body, draining to the mouth of the cave. Shinnick lay curled up against the far wall, and Cora wondered how anyone, mystic or not, could get a wolf to walk through a waterfall.

“Ordin,” she began at a painful volume, “We’ve all been worried about you.” I can’t scream a whole conversation; my voice is my life.

The mystic sat glumly on a small rock beside his wolf and stroked the animal’s fur. “I told you where you could find me,” he hollered back.

“So, I’m here. But we’re a team, Ordin. We need to stick together.”

Ordin mumbled something under his breath, and the two sat silently for a while.

Cora waited until it became uncomfortable. “The whole town’s saying some pretty nasty things about you,” she shouted.


She chuckled nervously, not knowing if he’d see any humor in the stories or not. “Some say you’re a ghost.”

Ordin only grunted, “That’s stupid. That’s not even physically possible.” Though said under his breath, Cora could read those words on his lips by now.

“And some say you caused a suicide last year. Now how ridiculous is that!” She tried to lighten the tale with another laugh, but it felt empty and forced. Ordin certainly wasn’t responding.

“Well,” she began uncertainly as she closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the mystic, joining him in scrubbing the wolf’s damp fur. “I don’t believe any of it, of course. But I am curious…”

Ordin looked up wearily at the songsage, clearly anticipating her next question.

“You knew you were going to be struck by lightning, didn’t you?” she yelled over the din.

The mystic resumed scratching Shinnick’s ears. “I told you I diverted a lightnin’ bolt from a spellslinger.”

“I didn’t think you meant that literally!”

Ordin looked up at her again, this time with unmistakable seriousness. “Why would I tell you that if it didn’t happen?”

Cora’s jaw dropped slightly.

“I turn lightnin’, Cora. I can feel it comin’, and I got a pretty good idea when it’s gonna hit me. I can channel it harmlessly into the ground, or I can let it go as an electrical bolt of my own. But inside that tavern…I reckon its floor is on a raised foundation and separated me from the ground. I couldn’t dump the whole thing. Sorry about that.”

“You’ll be glad to know no one was hurt.”

“And yet, I gotta leave. No worries; I’m used to it.”

“I don’t think so, Ordin. Not if you reassure the villagers that you’re not a ghost.”

The mystic raised an eyebrow at Cora. “And how do you suggest I do that?”

“Help us fix the tavern. It’ll show good faith, and the barkeep can get his business back on its feet more quickly if we’ve got additional help.”

“I ain’t a carpenter, Cora.”

“Well, you’d be a lot better than Cuauhtérroc, that’s for certain.”

Cora smiled at the mystic, and finally he laughed. At least, it looked like laughter. The songsage’s ears were sensitive, but the waterfall made hearing difficult. And it was giving her a headache.

“I’m going back to the village,” she shouted. She tired of raising her voice, too. “They need me. They need us.” She stood to leave. “Celindria is really sick, Ordin. She needs you.”

Slowly and carefully, Cora plunged herself back through the torrent of water and up the riverbank. She had no idea whether her words would have any effect, but that was her role, her job even. She had to soothe flared tempers, soften rough words, and bolster those in the doldrums. She was the glue that held the party together, the spokesman, the peacemaker and negotiator. She was the songsage, and they looked up to her for inspiration, both magical and mundane.

In her room, Cora found Celindria sleeping again, but it was a fitful sleep, and the reeve tossed frequently, moaning woefully as Cora dried off and changed clothes. The temperature had cooled somewhat after last night’s storm, but Celindria still sweated profusely. She clearly needed some attention. Please Ordin…

When evening approached, the tavern was still closed, but the barkeep served drinks to those who had worked on the repairs. Each of the workers received the drinks with delight, glad to be done with the labors of the day. After the sun went down, however, the generally gleeful mood was squelched when a somber, wet figure with blanched skin entered the common room. All eyes turned on Ordin as he walked in with Shinnick at his side, and all talking ceased. They watched with suspicion as he shuffled across the room, the weight of their judgmental glares bearing heavily upon him as he walked up the stairs to the guest rooms.

The mystic knocked quietly on Celindria’s bedroom door, but there was no response. Finding it unlocked, he slowly opened it and stepped inside. The reeve was lying miserably atop her bed, weakly moaning. She appeared to be sleeping, but if so, she was gaining no rest, and her dreams seemed haunted. Ordin approached the side of the bed and knelt, examining her skin closely. He took one of her hands and felt it for temperature and pulse. The fingernails were cracked and yellow, and her skin was parched of fluids. He nodded solemnly as he pulled back one of her eyelids; the reeve’s eyes were bloodshot and a dull yellow. He swore under his breath; all the signs were there, and the one that worried him the most was the jaundiced shade of her skin, especially now with bright purplish veins showing through.

Ordin laid a hand on Celindria’s forehead. “Dormu pace,” he breathed over her. Immediately, Celindria’s breathing quieted and her sleep deepened. Then Ordin slid his arms under her fevered body and scooped her up off the bed.

As the mystic returned to the common room of the tavern with Celindria in his arms, the villagers’ first impulse was to accuse him in some way for her sickness, but they all knew better. They remembered her battle with the illness last night. Probably some pizzleberries, they all said. Pizzleberries turned the skin yellow and gave the worst stomach cramps imaginable. But Ordin’s face told them this was something much, much worse.

“I’m taking her to the priest!” he nearly shouted at them. He wanted to shout all sorts of things at them. He wanted to shout at a great number of people, including the Mystic Council of the Cerion.

A young woman sprang up from her chair to open the front door of the tavern for Ordin. Sincere concern etched her brow. “Will she be all right?” she whispered to the mystic as he exited.

Ordin paused on the front steps and turned back to her, marveling at how fickle these townsfolk were. “I hope so.”

“Lay her on my bed in the back room,” the priest said as Ordin carried Celindria into his home. “Fetch some fresh water from the well and soak several cloths with the salts in the red jar. I’ll be right there.”

“She breathed an awful lot of yellow dust yesterday, back in the woods,” Ordin said as he opened the door with a wooden pail.

While he waited, the priest lit several sticks of incense until the room where Celindria lay was thick with a pungent, spicy-sweet aroma. He recited a set of lengthy incantations as he waved an aspergillum over the reeve’s limp body. When Ordin entered with the salt bath, the priest looked up with concern. “Had you waited another day, your friend might have died. This is sarga penéz, and as bad a case as I’ve seen in a long time.”

Sarga penéz?” Ordin asked. “I thought it was only yellow scratch. She’s been throwin’ up a lot, and—”

“Look at her eyes…bloodshot and jaundiced at the same time. Makes ‘em look orange. Was there any blood in the vomit?”

Ordin frowned. “I didn’t notice any.”

Celindria moaned, and the priest returned to his task. “Good. Then I’m right…which is not good. Yellow scratch lacerates the stomach and causes bloody vomit; sarga penéz doesn’t. It doesn’t make the veins stand out, either.”

“I see,” Ordin said.

“Now, I’ll have to work quickly. Name’s Gravin, by the way. I’m a Steward. You?”

“Ordin. I’m a Mystic.”

Gravin paused, then nodded. “Well, putting differences aside, I don’t see why we can’t work together for this woman’s benefit.”

The priest spent an hour in meditation and prayer, petitioning the Maker for the ability to help the need at hand. After washing his hands thoroughly, he began the process of neutralizing the disease, a complex procedure that included smearing foul-smelling unguents across Celindria’s face, burning incense that smelled even worse, and cooking a positively horrid liquid that Ordin had to force down her throat.

Throughout the night, the reeve’s repose was punctuated with loud moans and violent spasms. Gravin and Ordin kept watch over her in shifts to make sure her condition didn’t worsen. Ironically, her moans reassured them that she still had her mind, fevered though it was.

Shortly after sunrise, Celindria opened her eyes slowly and looked painfully around the room.

“Where am I?” she moaned. She stared at Gravin for a moment. “Who are you?”

They explained everything to her, even the parts that she should have known about—the lightning strike, for one—but couldn’t remember. It was as if she had simply missed the past two or three days; she had no recollection of them at all. She barely recalled the rotlark or crossing the Milorian Bridge.

Later that morning, Cora and Cuauhtérroc visited Gravin’s cottage, a quaint little whitewashed stone building. Notably absent from this village was a temple or shrine of any kind or size, and Cora asked the nature priest about that when they were inside.

“It’s quite simple,” Gravin explained. “Azure Falls has never needed an organized religion, town watch, or even a council to rule over these people. We have lived quiet and peaceable lives for many generations in the mists of the falls with nary a problem. I have been a Steward of these people for fifty years, and I pray the Maker sends someone to take over for me when I’m gone.”

With Celindria sitting up in bed, Gravin seized the opportunity to teach them about the ways of the Stewards. The Church of Stewards believed that the Maker gave all to be used, but that he also issued a mandate to take care of all he gave. It was a method of following the Maker that Cora had heard about but never seen. And it flew directly in the face of Mystic belief that Nature was to be preserved, that men should live in harmony with Creation and not assume lordship over it.

There were many philosophies of worship, all claiming to have the “better” way. The Solarium emphasized the Maker as Light to the world, while the Bastion preached Defense of the Faith. The Nexus focused on death bringing people into the Maker’s presence, while the Sanctum focused on Family relationships. Cora herself preferred to worship at the Arthouse where Beauty was paramount, but others gathered in Celebration Houses for loud, energetic worship, which, naturally, the Houses of Order considered obnoxious.

Cora knew of a dozen different sects of worship, and each of them said all the others were somehow wrong, especially the Church of Orthodoxy, which preached that they alone had the corner on truth. It was maddening and, frankly, it got a bit ugly at times. Why can’t they all agree to love each other and focus on beautiful things? Sure, some Arthouses are also known as Love Temples, and yes, sometimes they get a little carried away with how much, how often, and in what manner they love each other—infidelity can be a problem—but if one really feels love—

Breaking her rumination was a growing commotion as Gravin and Ordin escalated arguments between herbalism versus mystic lore. And that brought on the eternal debate between Stewards and Grovites—the balance between using nature and preserving it.

Celindria rolled her eyes as various evidences were lobbed across the room. She reached out and grabbed Cuauhtérroc’s arm. “Don’t listen to them,” she said. “It’ll only make you dumber.”

Finally, when Cora could stand the debate no longer, she jumped to her feet. “Wow, look at the time!” she said, quickly glancing out the window. “We had better be getting back to the tavern…right, Ordin?”

The mystic abruptly stopped mid-rebuttal and grinned at Gravin. “Guess I gotta go.”

“Remember,” Gravin said as he waved to them, “the Maker gave all to us; He gave all to use.” It was the Stewards’ slogan. Catchy, but hardly the clincher they presumed it to be.

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