Fiction: A Lady's Prerogative Book II: Wounded Aerth - Part VI by Brian Joseph Johns

This is part VI of A Lady's Prerogative: Wounded Aerth, recently republished for Aerth Day 2024.

If you're arriving here from the website or an external link and haven't read this book before, you might want to start from the beginning of the book.

Warning: This story deals with some mature situations. Reader discretion is advised.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Barris And Confrontation

Barris walked in circles around Sato, much like the Moon orbited the Earth. Perhaps in some way they were tethered to one another by way of their mutual experience. Barris was full of tension and concern for his wife to be and succumbing to the effects of the enormous stress upon her.

"This doesn't change things. You still have a responsibility as you did before. Keep calm, you must be there for her. She'll feel your stress and it does her no good for you to wear it so apparently." Sato told Barris as he paced.

"I am here. Every single time that her and I have had a moment, a break in the midst of this eye in the storm... What is the Codex? Why is it that every time..." Barris spoke though Sato knew this was a conflict Barris had to deal with himself.

The best that he could do for his friend was to share guidance, but ultimately Barris would need to find his own way.

Mila lay upon a make shift bed, padded with a stack of quilts to keep her skin from the cold floor. A few more atop of her curved yet frail form to keep her warm as she slept off her Codex driven delirium. Mila had often much trouble from the Codex as others had made their entries. It being the constant cumulative record of living and past experiences of the members of the craft, its annals fueled their knowledge, empathy and intuition. Those more sensitive members of the craft often were subject to reactions indicative of new entries, especially those involving extreme emotions or harsh circumstances. To the rest of being, Women's sudden stress might have easily been written off as part of the menstrual cycle, though most never understood that it was part of something much more evident of the burden placed thereupon them. Never solicited to them. Never the permission given by them. Most often accepted involuntarily.

This was the burden and the inner working of those involved in the arts and especially in those of Mila as hers were so bound to her emotions as they were her expression. She had entirely created a new school of magic based upon the energies wielded within and contained, thereto, by the arts. She was creating the rules for it as she ventured forth through it, almost all of it drew upon her emotions and experience with tremendous weight. Adding to this was the energies and experiences as a requirement of the Sanctum were often linked to the Codex itself. As a driving force to offset the tremendous burden of the history of hidden injustice wrought by humankind. In this sense it was almost always a tug of war, trying to keep up and to feed this seemingly bottomless void so that one day humanity, nature and the universe alike might find peace and solace with one another. Though she was independent of the Codex and her creations were her own, she found herself in a constant struggle building her resistance to the weight of the Codex through discipline and intense practice of physical arts, such as ballet, yoga and occasionally vocal melody. The way of her voice, which she had also developed into a calming and healing art based upon her studies of Opera. Mila was an enigma within the arts, but as such she was very sensitive to the burden imposed by the Codex.

Men who'd been initiated into the Sanctum had reacted to knowledge of the Codex in many different ways. It often took a few years for most men to adjust to the tremendous load, many losing step along the difficult path. Many had after living in denial of the hidden history failed to acknowledge or accept that they'd formerly been a part of a very one sided equation that had ultimately kept them isolated from truly knowing or understanding women in the first place. With many of those men it took much time in breaking down their ego driven barriers before they became comfortable with themselves and the hidden history. Others embraced this knowledge gaining a new admiration for the opposite sex and saw it as an adventure. For the first time truly getting to know a life long friend whom they'd thought they'd known all along. Neither case was the better or worse. Most men were still wearing the illusive emotional armour with which they'd been raised. Never really having taken the time to understand their mutual similarities and uniqueness with regard to the opposite sex. For all it was an experience that could only be lived to be fully understood.

Barris had naturally felt that weight for most of his life. Perhaps having made him the pariah that he was amongst the rest of society during his youth. He'd grown up in a family with many women. He'd recognized early on that those women bore the scars of history and they were expressed by their competitive nature, especially with regard to men. Barris and his father understood innately the relationship between this hidden history and the resulting vigor with which the strong women in their lives would stand for little in the way of the unjust. They would often stand back during such times, perhaps aware of the pain that burden must have bore upon those women. Admiring their tenacity and courage in preventing such a history from ever repeating itself. Ultimately it was that aggression of zeal that alienated Barris from them and the rest of his family. He could never blame them, for it was not their fault but he did have to make his own way in life, and so he did. As he grew more distant from them, the animosity of others who interposed, became more apparent. Almost as if they resented his insightfulness and sense of compassion. Even finding ways to push him towards frustration and anger to undo his better side.

Some of them even behaved in ways very similar to these wytch hunters, the strangers, whose main weapon was the eventual denial of the existence of its victims, erasing them from having existed at all. Whenever Barris had been at his most compassionate and empathic, he'd often been accused by others of being completely someone else other than himself. As if he was somehow incapable of such empathy. It took him a long time to realize that the problem was theirs. Their sense of egotistical jealousy or envy that manifested itself in the propensity to deny him of his own identity and being. As if he wasn't good enough to be compassionate or empathic. As if he didn't possess the right blood. The right gender. The right to be either, instead confined to a familial and social reputation that no matter how fair an individual he was, that it was not truly him that was that driving force within him. That it came from someone or something outside of him, and he simply did not exist except as an instrument for receiving the blame for the worst at the hands of those sickened by jealousy.

Barris' father did his best to support him as he became more and more alienated by the interference of those who were trying to divide him from the family. The pariah and outcast that just didn't seem to fit in, anywhere. His compassion somehow wasn't his own. His empathy for others was denied him and always awarded to others' being, as if Barris was experiencing someone else's feelings and simply did not exist at all. In the end, those attempting such malice against Barris' got exactly what they wished for, and Barris simply ceased to be.

Barris had befriended Sato after having discovered his shop in the Shepperton suburb of London. For Barris it had been a nerd's paradise. A quiet store he could peruse, finding treasures that very often appealed to his sense of underground culture in terms of literature, art and music. As he more and more frequented the shop, Sato got to know him. As he did, he'd find items in his basement storage that he thought might catch Barris' attention in the shop. More often than not, Sato would hit the bullseye in terms of Barris' esoteric tastes. That had certainly been the case when he'd dug up an old out of print edition of Edgar Allen Poe's literary works. Barris had quickly purchased it upon sight. Sato had also retrieved a book of Haiku by Matsuo Basho, one that he'd translated himself into English by way of his own notes in the book. Barris had taken that one too.

Before long, Sato and Barris had become friends, with Barris dropping into the shop if only to catch up rather than just browse. Not long after their camaraderie, Sato offered Barris a job at the shop, which Barris gladly accepted. It was as if destiny was at work, with their future mutually connected through Mila.

Sato had been a family friend of Mila's mother, even having spent time with Mila's parents during her childhood. Their families had been connected throughout history in the Osaka region of Japan, and Sato's loyalty in times of need exemplified this. Ironically it had occurred to Sato just three days prior to that fateful day that Mila would arrive through a portal into his shop, that Barris was close to Mila's age and that many of their tastes overlapped. As the hour neared the time of their first official meeting, Sato became increasingly aware of Mila and Barris' connection to one another, as if the aether had spoken to him through the ripples of causality.

Sato had recognized Barris' fear of his own empathy and that his sense of humour was merely an insulator, preventing any such sense of compassion from taking place. He'd sensed that Barris had gone through much struggle that had (purposely?) shaped him that way. Hidden behind the safety of his scathing sense of sarcasm. A personal barrier that spared him the feelings of others and one that had developed out of their scorn for him. Almost permanently isolating him within a wall whose bricks were crafted to trap him in loneliness and distrust of others. Sato knew that it would take a very special partner to break down that wall, and that's when he thought of Mila. Three days later, she arrived with her friends Nelony and Shaela through a magical portal they'd channeled to his shop. This would be the first time that Barris would lay eyes upon Mila, and when he did, something in him struggled to peek through that wall for her.

They'd bonded with one another in a relatively short time, and not once had Mila ever scorned or scolded him for his sense of empathy for her. Nor did she devise any plans to change or mould him to her liking. She just accepted him, as if she was already fond of him without condition. Instead, for the first time in his life he'd met a woman who didn't resent him for his weaknesses. Who didn't regard masculinity as being the measure of meanness and brutishness within a person or the ability to bully others to his whim. It was as if she'd be with him for the journey, and not in anticipation of him becoming something that he wasn't, as much so as he'd felt the same for her.

Having met Mila, who'd manifested her spite with that burden in very different ways had rescued his lost soul from eternal emasculation. She too was a loner though a very confident one and she had a very particular taste in men, though one that wasn't governed by criteria or a brand of masculinity. In fact, if she'd met such a man, they would both know immediately and there would be a connection between the two of them. She couldn't speak from frequency in this matter for it had only happened thrice in her life that she'd opened up enough to get close.

Her first two connections in that way had been summertime romances, involving men very different from Barris. She'd been able to see through them right away and to the core of their character and being. Easily stripping away their armour and seeing them in all of their frailty and vulnerability as much as they'd happened to perceive hers. It was almost a respect when they'd realized that they were mutually so vulnerable that they'd quickly bond and from this, romance would ensue.

Barris was much different in that upon seeing Mila, he felt that he'd known her through and through, though he was not aware of the fact that she could see him just as well. He'd slowly progressed through many barriers to the point where he was courting her in an awkward and round about way. Much to their mutual surprise when romance bloomed between them, they both realized that they'd been mistaken about their mutual knowledge of one another. In fact, it had been an adventure since its beginnings and had never lost its momentum from therein. There was rarely a moment where Mila wouldn't find herself giggling at Barris' unintentional humour, sometimes even to his embarrassment. He never acted the way that he thought Mila wanted him to be. He was always merely being himself and never disingenuous. As such there were never situations where Barris had been trying to make Mila laugh. It would just happen naturally and when it did, it was just as gratifying for Barris.

Barris strode around the room for a moment before he approached Father Wilsen, who sat a short distance from them on one of the pews in watch of Mila. Barris had reached the limit of his patience and was ready to explode.

"What did you do to her? What letter? What is the Codex? This is my wife that you are playing with! What is it with you and your dislike of women! You blame humankind's original sin on them? Every time a guy sleeps with another woman, its her fault. Then a hundred years later and you're selling them for the pleasure of others? Then another eight hundred years later you're hunting them as wytches? They liberate themselves from this tyranny and take back their sexuality and they become heathen to you! They dress too provocatively and you blame them for being victimized or raped! And don't you dare tell me that hate means love or vice versa! You've been hiding behind that one for too long! Perhaps then your plea of innocence means guilt?" Barris' eyes flared, his face grim as he waited for an answer.

"Son. We walk the same road, and I am not your wife's enemy nor that of any women. Your steps by way of your say have led to a grim road that humankind has long walked. It 'tis not our way, but the few who've staid their path to push for the fair and just treatment have been stood 'pon in ways few could know, less sojourn alone. When you've staid to make their life a better one, those who'd likely started the poor mess will reverse your stance illusively to others and make you apiece to the problem, just to keep your good history in their name and them as the fairer. Believe me son, I know and I've lost a love such as yours and one who seeks to free and be so of such chains imposed by original sin, and every ill that humankind has bore blame upon those for it, as not by her downfall, but ours. We fight the same fight yet the blade which those who've murdered the steps of progress made in hers, in their name has been passed upon to myself, while I've been made guilty for a life of their taking. They put me as the Wytch taker when I am but a protector, and used their ills to cast me asunder beside the ideals that I uphold including that of a lady, of all ladies and mine own Lord." Father Wilsen replied, matching Barris' grimace with a somber futility that somehow further angered Barris.

"Who! Who if not you has done this! How many of those you've wed have put their wife to bear theirs, burden and all! Worse yet. Who but you or those of your following have given that burden its weight? Playing her for what she might know of an ill, by word or by speaking in tongues and playing her? Playing her fear of betraying her husband by way of dropping that burden she carries for him? Those who feel that such a marriage was not right then using that burden and giving it weight as a means to break her of her love and wedlock. Then, after having ruined her and her faith in her most important commitment, you make her guilty of the sin of separation or divorce and hold her to rules that govern her allowance to be social and constrain her right to find love again! You disgust me!" Barris nearly spat as his feelings came out.

"Making that weight unbearable and making her nothing more than a mule for the burden of society and the Church! If such a lady finds a great love and husband, then you tell them how and in what ways they may love each other and before long you're nosing your way into their bedroom. Only the missionary position is approved by our Church you might tell them! Then when they're comfortable with their womanhood and bodies and understand that they are in control of them you subjugate for their want of play with their committed partner. Only the lowliest of cowards could give such a burden then give it weight by tormenting them or others for it! Is it years of sexual depravity or a lack of the understanding of love and the language thereof? It all started with that one thing, that one sin and putting that blame upon them for it, and from there guys like me have been trying to fix it ever since while those of yours or some other similar ideas or beliefs give that burden to their weight! The weight for women to carry! How many other people have you or those of your ideology done that to? Maybe you do that to women because you feel they are lesser? Subdue them then work on guys like me who are out to stop you? Many more of us will figure it out before you make it that far and we will stop you, though I wouldn't be surprised if at some point you turn it all around and then take the credit for our having stood our ground against you! Maybe you're the real wytch hunters..." Barris said, exploding upon Father Wilsen for the wrongs of history.

"I cannot tell you enough how much we are alike, yet I cannot turn on my faith in the Lord and my sworn duty thereto. What you propose to engage in conflict takes longer to resolve than within one's life. You seek to resolve wounds which took many centuries, even millennia to make. They'll not heal so easily by scorn. Some may never heal as they are bound within ideas to which some are bound closer to than their own beloved. Perhaps in as such they know not what love really is, or theirs is misplaced. I know this. That if you walk the town with words like those, your grave will be opened before you and with haste!" Father Wilsen held onto his tears, for he felt as if Barris were a reflection in a mirror that had been his life, their only differences being the label placed upon their virtues in kind.

"We are nothing alike. If I had lost the love of my life, I'd stop at nothing to put an end to such a thing that tore us apart! Instead you bury yourself in your Church and dogma, presumably dipping into the Wine of the Eucharist in order to escape the responsibility of standing up for what you know in your heart to be right!" Barris countered.

"And you'd join those you sought to protect in a grave, your truth and history stolen from you and replaced with the sins of those you sought to cease in their acts. They'd feign a sense of loss while inside they'd be singing in joy having taken from you your noble acts for their own false merit! The books and records would reflect your dire and despondent attitude and their accumulated sins, while they would be recognized as the saviours for your efforts that had been stolen from you. Your wife's creations would bear a different signature than hers and those who absconded with that credit would have no conscience for having taken it. You charge in where you should tread with care lest you fall. They will bury you in their wrong and cast their stones at you for it. To others who don't know the truth, you will seem the bad one. The one possessed of wrong. Your behaviour may even betray you as by that point you'd be quickly to zeal lest you have handle of your emotions, for that is where they'll play you. You'd not be able to convince the unbiased of the truth as your extreme emotions will have betrayed you. You'd become the possessed of the Devil! You'd become the Wytch they hunt. All of the headway that you had made in protection of those that you love will be taken from you while you'll become the villain to the rest of history. They are about deceit and treachery and that is what they want. They'll pick us down one by one, as others watch in fear of being next. I know because I too am victim of it. Upon my taking the side of those they'd sought prior charges of Wytchery, they cast me away and have set upon me by the same means. I was their idol, and a false one symbolizing the the Wytch hunt by this, my Church under the Lord's house. My history too will be undone and I will likely become vilified and despised while those who set upon me will have arisen to sainthood. That coupled with the weight I already bare and some of which is that of these vile hunters themselves." Father Wilsen explained, his forehead pressed with tension and his eyes on the brink of tears.

Barris listened, understanding a bit more of what Father Wilsen was saying. Before Barris' pride told him that he should be reproachful of what Father Wilsen was saying, Sato stepped in.

"Barris, my good friend. He speaks of much that I've said to you. Yet, your ears hear but your ghost refuses to accept it. Your beliefs and their details may be different at a fundamental level, but your ideals are one and the same. Mila needs you to be with her not just for now, but forever. You are planning for the near future while ignoring the distant future. You will cease early because you will be broken and worn before you even get there." Sato paused, a calm serenity had overtaken his face while he spoke to his friend.

"Imagine that you are a tree and that as such are in conflict with the wind. The wind is too much for you as a tree to fight on your own for it is everywhere at once. So you decide that you will make yourself sturdy against it. The the wind blows strong one day and as a result of your sturdiness and inability to move with the wind, a branch breaks. If the wind were just that much stronger, you might have broken and come down. You must learn to move with the wind and not be so rigid and in doing so a strong wind will not break you. You will live another day to deal with the wind. Maybe you will befriend the forces that give the wind power and be able to prevent it from causing you or those you love, grief. Perhaps you won't and the wind will always be there and other trees will learn as you have, to cope with it rather than to change it. This is also true of water. Do not lose the flexibility of water by becoming inflexible and frozen as ice*," Sato explained.

Barris thought about what Sato had said. He thought about losing Mila to this scourge before continuing with his response.

"The same thing could be said of a large stone in the stream, but the longer the stone is in the stream and does nothing, the smaller it and others become as they are warn away by the rushing water as time goes on. If many stones get together and stop the stream by making a dam, then the stream can no longer wither the other stones of the stream. Then those ones will be free to deal with the next set of hurdles that might be obstacles to their being of stones. Until they stop the stream, they cannot continue together to the next obstacle." Barris replied to Sato drawing upon his love for Mila to formulate his analogous argument.

Sato paused for a moment as he thought about this before smiling.

"My friend. Your love is much stronger than my wisdom, but not by much and I have learned from it and you. I only hope that I have done the same for you. I am with you in what must be done but my friend you must be careful and tread lightly. We are in unfamiliar territory in a place we do not know. Father Wilsen is a victim of what you are accusing him of being a part. We must act together to stop this and you must give him the benefit of the doubt if we hope to succeed. Because of this extra weight upon Mila, you have to be what she needs more than ever. We can not rely upon her digging us out of this by her power alone. You must be her greatest strength and ally and be that power for her." Sato offered confirming his allegiance to his friend.

He was proud of how Barris had progressed and completely taken aback by his analogy of the stream. True love could only fuel such sound argument and he'd seen it in his friend's eyes.

"You must know of Lenore my friend." Sato continued.

"Lenore who? What are you talking... Oh. You mean Poe's long lost love?" Barris asked Sato.

"One and the same. His love for her fueled most of his poetry, especially that which was amongst some of his most prized, though as you know his renown was for his story and verse. He lost her and as so the love of his life. He lost his happy ending, as all story books are often composed of: and they lived happily ever after. Let yours be one of those endings and recognize it for what it is: a beginning and not an ending. Don't chase the ending before it has even begun." Sato finished.

Barris pondered this carefully thinking hard upon what both men had given him in support of their arguments.

"...honey. Come to bed... Keep me warm." Mila spoke very obviously addressing Barris making Barris wonder if she'd heard their discussion.

"Go to bed son. You need the rest. We need the rest. Besides, I don't have a service for three days so you're free to rest a few. Mr. Sato, you may take up the rest of my extra quilts for your own and rest as long as ye'd like. It is all that I can offer ye." Father Wilsen offered.

"I graciously accept your offer." Sato replied moving to the storage alcove to retrieve a quilt for himself.

"We'll talk about this when Mila is better so we can have her input." Barris told Sato and Father Wilsen firmly before joining her under the covers and nuzzling up close to her.

She wrapped her arms around him and pressed herself tight against him. They were for the time being as one.

Father Wilsen dimmed the candles and climbed the stairs to his room, leaving them to sleep and hoping that Mila would recover soon so they could address this outstanding issue.

Haven And The True

Yirfir had stopped to let her horse cool down under the blazing hot sun. They had encountered a small freshwater creek and she thought that it might be the perfect opportunity to do so. They had long since left the shade of the forest and had entered into dry and barren plains. So dry in fact that this had been the first source of water they'd found in over nine hours. They'd kept quiet for the ride instead listening for any sign of life around them. Since their encounter with what appeared to be bounty hunters, they'd decided that it was far better to err on the side of caution than carelessness. 

As their trip had progressed they'd begun to feel the eerie feeling of being watched. Not just by one pair of eyes, nor the eyes of the resident fauna of the land, one of whom Yirfir had become acquainted the prior evening. These were the eyes of those who make plans and are capable of learning from the past and anticipating the future. Yirfir and Jasmer had looked at each other in that way when they simultaneously had the same realization. They continued their journey quietly and attentively before arriving at the stream where they nonchalantly dismounted and led their thirsty horses to the drink.

"Is there any more bread honey?" Jasmer asked Yirfir, going through her saddle bags in search.

"We ate the last of it at our last stop. There's still some vegetables though." she replied as enthusiastically as she could muster though she was getting close to heat exhaustion herself.

"I think we need to get you into some shade for a while, you've got quite a sunburn." Jasmer pulled a cloth from the saddle bag and wet it with a healthy dose of water from the stream.

He then sat her down and put himself between her and the sun, giving her shade and began to wipe her with the cold water from the cloth.

"That feels much better. Maybe we need to find some shade and get out of the sun for a while." Yirfir agreed, as the she'd finally become exhausted.

"We'll take the first shady area that we can find and set up camp for the rest of the day. I'll cook this time. Just don't drink too much water. You'll end up sick, and with who knows what or how many on our trail that could be fatal." Jasmer spoke as he rubbed her shoulders.

Across the stream Jasmer heard a series of whistles. Startled, he stopped rubbing Yirfir's shoulders and took up focus in the surroundings.

"Did you hear that sweetie?..." Jasmer paused as a tremendous whirlwind spun up from the dusts of the opposite bank of the creek.

It grew to twenty feet tall and sent many small pebbles and stones flying before it stabilized and started advancing upon them. Jasmer stepped in front of his wife to ready a spell, his hands tense with energy. The whirlwind stopped ten feet from their position, the horses backing away from it without panic. Its rotations slowed and the form of a toned and shapely woman appeared and floated forth from its center as the dust settled to the ground.

"By what authority are you here in this territory to tread foot upon our sacred ground." She spoke in a familiar voice.

"It's uncanny. This cannot be. Are you... Nelony?" Jasmer asked the woman.

"That's a relief. I was expecting the Tasmanian devil for a moment, except we're not in Tasmania!" Yirfir said sarcastically, perhaps to ease her own tension and sun stroke.

"Seek and ye shall find but be cautious of whom you seek. You know not the powers that you stir. I should like to know who asks before I answer any such query." Nelony answered, an aura surrounding her form.

Yirfir stood carefully, feeling inexplicably revitalized and energized by Nelony's arrival.

"I am Yirfir, this is Jasmer. We received your message from Thedrick. He told us to meet you here. We are looking to talk with you and The True about this situation." Yirfir told her diplomatically.

"Well met. I sense that you speak truth. Yes. I am as who ye seek. I knew of your arrival and called for you to be here amongst us. I am Nelony Theearin of the True and Mother Of The Aerth. We will go and upon our arrival in the haven, we will arrange for a talk." Nelony told her guests.

Nelony Theearin was much like her modern day counterpart: an Aerth Wytch of the Order Of The Aerth Mother though her physique was immaculate. Toned musculature lined her body from top to bottom yet never overtaking her form with mass. Her hair was slightly longer than the shoulder, and varied in colour from dark to sun bleached blonde. Her clothing was made from carefully woven foliage and vine that could only be recognized if one looked closely enough as did both Yirfir and Jasmer. Her entire being elicited an energy aura that both nourished and energized the two of them and their mounts. It was as if she was the very essence of life itself.

"You call yourselves the true? True what? You don't mean anything resembling an unjust entitlement, do you?" Yirfir queried Nelony.

There was a moment of silence as Nelony considered Yirfir's question.

"We are of the True Of Intent. The True Of Virtue. The only entitlement to which we are privileged, is that given under the eyes of the Aerth Mother herself, and that given to all of nature. The only truth that blood holds is much of it has been spilled in the name those seeking to take that which is not theirs: the good of others while seeking to rid themselves of that which is theirs alone: their own crimes," Nelony responded naturally.

"Then you are truly the one of which Thedrick spoke," Yirfir agreed.

"How far is it to the Haven?" Jasmer asked Nelony, patiently waiting for Yirfir to finish first.

"We are almost there and you will not need your mounts. I will see to their safe delivery to Thedrick. You need only what you wear. We will leave now." Nelony spoke, a curl of the leaves that made up her clothing shuffled in the breeze, which had picked up into a whirlwind as their exit portal appeared.

It looked much like those that Nelony or Shaela would summon for their portal travel between two locations, either material, ethereal or otherwise. Nelony floated into the twirling wind of the portal and was instantaneously consumed in a stream of energy before completely disappearing.

"Just a moment honey." Yirfir told Jasmer as she approached her horse, and rubbed the soft spot on the front of its nose.

"I'm going to miss you. Thanks for getting us here safely." She said to the creature, kissing its nose before walking to the portal.

Jasmer said his goodbyes to his mount, feeling a little bit guilty about leaving them here by themselves.

"I'll miss you Twytch." Using the nickname he'd given to her, stroking her nose.

The horses would likely be whisked away through space back to Thedrick's farm, assuming that he was still alive. They'd be better off in his care assuming he'd made it back to his home.

When Jasmer emerged from the portal, he found himself in a community built up within a forested area, composed of houses built against trees of various designs and an assortment of wigwams and tee pees. None of their living arrangements seemed invasive of the forest but were somehow complimentary and integrated with it. Animals and other fauna walked freely amongst the exteriors of the dwellings without interference from the residents and there seemed a quiet yet peaceful calm to it all. Some of the residents still wore the clothing that they had left when trying to escape the wrath of the hunt and others had crafted their own. In the center of this lightly forested habitat was an elevated platform with a tree that had grown and curved in such a way that it took on the appearance of a throne. There upon it sat Nelony, a large Kodiak bear on her left side and a large Lynx on her right. They sat beside the throne, the Lynx busy cleaning its fur via the tongue and paw method while the Kodiak lay with its head perched upon its two front paws. Its eyes glanced left and right innocently giving Yirfir and Jasmer the impression of it being more like a house pet. As they approached the tree throne, it lifted its head and glared at them as if to say: that's far enough.

"Easy there big fellow," Jasmer said as they stopped eight feet before Nelony and her guardians.

"They are quite docile but could be a problem if provoked. They will harm you not. Welcome to the Haven Of The True. You are welcome here but you are required to earn your keep and to provide a service to the upkeep of the Haven, whether that be the cultivation of food, the construction of shelter and utility, seamstery and cloth craft, wine craft or care for the forest and its fauna. If you prefer to engage the Strangers Of Lorr and the Wych Hunters in their own game, you could also assist with our insurgency though you will find that they are no match for our agents of the craft except perhaps in number." Nelony spoke with a confidence and surety not possessed by her modern counterpart.

"I shall take you on a tour of the Haven. I will tell you all about it and answer your questions," Nelony stood from her throne and stepped to the ground beside Yirfir and Jasmer.

Nelony led the way through the Haven, pointing out their residents, amenities and all of the activity currently under way to maintain it. There was no tension or ill in the air, and most people both those working and those playing seemed quite content with their surroundings and life. Some of them looked on watching as Nelony walked by with Yirfir and Jasmer following hand in hand. Two children ran up to Nelony, one brandishing a flower in her hand and reaching up in offer to her. Nelony looked down at the child and smiled, accepting the flower from her. The flower had already started to wilt as it had been tugged from its home in the ground though the child did not know any better. Nelony sat on the ground beside the child and held the flower up.

"This little flower needs her place on the Aerth, for the Aerth gives her life. Let's see if we can help her, then I'll let you save her by giving her back to the Aerth and replanting it safely once again." Nelony told the child, who was no more than five or six.

"Ok," The child smiled at Nelony enthusiastically.

Both of the children watched as the wilted flower suddenly came to life, its stem straightening in Nelony's hand, growing strong again its petals reaching out from its piston and its leaves extended as if asking for a hug. A new set of roots grew from its severed stem and writhed at the heel of Nelony's hand looking for a place to root itself.

The little girl shrieked in excitement, giggling at the flower and its new found life.

"There. Now you take the flower and give it a home and you take care of it every day. A little bit of water and give her a bit your of love too. When you see another flower, leave her in the Aerth where she is. That way you can see her every day healthy and alive." Nelony handed the flower back to the little girl.

The little girl accepted the flower and ran back to the soft ground close to her home. She stumbled forward once as she made her way before continuing. When she arrived, she gingerly placed the flower upon the soil laying it down on the ground. The roots upon feeling the soft soil dug into it and found purchase pulling the flower upright where it remained, appearing healthy and happy.

"We better get going before the rest of them see that... We'll be here all day rejuvenating flowers," Nelony joked quietly.

Yirfir and Jasmer broke into muffled laughter as they continued their tour. They were a little relieved to see that Nelony was not beyond levity.

"Are there many children here and families?" Yirfir asked her as they picked up their pace.

"There are forty families, each with children under sixteen. Two of those families were among the first to arrive, after the Sharlesbury hunt started. That hunt was spear headed by a man of the Church according to rumour though it is difficult to tell what is truth in that part of the land. The Strangers and the Wytch Hunters keep truth in motion and obscured with deceit and lies. The only real truth there is that if the truth is good or beneficial, one of the supporters of the Strangers or the Hunters will end up with it for their own. If the truth is detrimental, then likely an innocent or a practitioner of the craft will bare its weight, possibly even to an early grave on the end of a rope or in the bottom of a pond or burnt to death tied to a pyre." Nelony told them, her tone changing slightly.

"You earlier referred to these strangers as the Strangers Of Lorr. Do you mean the Lorr of the Power Lords?" Jasmer asked hastily.

"The legend of Lorr and Lyra is one of many hidden mysteries. I being the last Aerth Mother and Wytch of the Aerth Mother know some of the mystery, but much of that legend has been lost to time. The Strangers Of Lorr were a people often employed by the Norbids to precede a non-invasive takeover of a populace. Their methods were largely unknown until recently for us here. Our only clue to their identity was what remained as part of a rhyme taught to us by the last generation of the Wytch-kind:

When Strangers come, we'll be undone
Alone or together.

Pit left against right, and day fights night
Our common ground does wither.

A flock's lost sheep, do these Strangers keep
Fear keeps them from resistance.

'Til truth does fall, Lorr's Stranger's call
Led blindly by their insistence

That is the only remnant of the legend, that verse written by Lyra herself and passed on for us all to keep watch," Nelony explained a somber expression kept her emotions hidden.

"This is the same old conflict. Lorr versus Lyra once again. They're trying to take over the colony. Why have you not engaged them in force, surely there are others who sympathize with you?" Yirfir asked Nelony.

"We are not an armed force ready for war. We are but a sensible people who have sought peace and truth away from those whose ways have led them askew and into dangerous territory that will and is being settled in the generations to come. Their legacy will fall lest they change their ways. Should they make the foolish choice to hunt us, they will fall as our agents and allies can be found in every ounce of living tissue in every creature on the face of the Aerth. The entire sky is our eyes, all of the mountains our ears, weather the Aerth over our voice. The oceans and rivers are filled with our allies. There is nothing that the Aerth does not teach us and there is no secret that the Aerth from us keeps. There is no pain that she feels that I do not," Nelony's voice seemed to permeate the air in a way that one could feel just as much as hear.

"What about the pain of those who are trapped and do not make it here because of their fear? Do you feel their pain? What about those who've lost loved ones to these Strangers Of Lorr and the Wytch Hunters and others who've been left behind to their brand of scathing, alone and lost. Do you feel their pain? Thedrick and the others that your current residents left behind to be here? Are they not part of your pain?" Yirfir asked Nelony with empathy and compassion.

"I feel for them but ultimately they must choose to come here and seek us out. Our agents keep eyes everywhere and we go to great lengths to ensure their safe arrival upon notice of such an expatriate twice removed, their journey from the old world to the new and finally their journey from the new world to the Haven of the True." Nelony was content with her explanation and felt no further need to justify herself.

"Why do you call yourselves The True?" Jasmer asked Nelony.

"I thought that I was clear? Surely you know what the word truth means? I assume that you do, and that is what the True means: the truth. It also means those pure of heart and intent though we impose no such test of virtues or innocence upon our residents. In living our ways they will undoubtedly arrive at the same point as have we all, the truth. That of where our hearts reside and the purity of our intent confides. We are not eugenicists. We are not purists of blood or lineage seeking to cure human kind of its ills by expunging the unhealthy branches from the tree of life, like Lorr. We do not discourage relationships that involve those of two differing cultures nor those of the same sex, provided that both in such a relationship are of age and in consent to it, which by our deciding is sixteen years. Nor do we uphold ideals that only allow certain people possessed of the correct heritage to work in specific vocations. If you have a skill or aspire to learn one, we support it as long as you put it to use to serve the Haven and the forest and what we stand for as the True. Once your duties are done for the day you are free to do as you will within the confines of our rules. We do not abhor tools or progress as long as those tools contribute back to their source, the Aerth in some way. Birds fly as surely as we will someday and to prevent it would be to spit in her face. As we grow, more people will learn different skills to meet that growth. Our rules are simple. No taking from another resident of the Haven without a fair trade agreed upon by all parties involved whether it be goods or a service of some form. No forced labour or forced sexual trade shall occur within or by residents of the Haven and engaging in such activity automatically results in a transgressor standing before a council to defend their continued stay in the Haven. No harm to anyone in the Haven or its fauna or the indigenous peoples of the land, either by force of brutality or by emotional exertion and torment or torment of word. Every new resident that is not of the age of sixteen and without family shall be assigned a to another family or should a couple be found to be fit before a council, they shall be allowed to take custody of the youth as part of their family. No transfer of another person's actions good or bad shall ever take place within the Haven or by its residents against one another except for those who choose to share or in seeking a relationship, wedlock and the family thereof. Anyone caught making the burdens of transgression heavy by word or action or pilfering good actions for themselves shall find themselves swiftly before the council defending their continued stay here. No use of any coercion to illicit reactions which result in the breaking of one of our rules. Anyone caught trying to trick another resident of the into breaking the rules by reaction or provocation, shall find themselves before a council to justify their continued stay, though that crime is among the worst one can commit next to rape and murder. Our methods of finding such transgressions are elusive as the Aerth is our witness and she is everywhere. The transgressions discussed are the methods of our enemy, the Strangers and the Wytch Hunters. Honour the Aerth by deed once every day to keep her healthy above and beyond what you take from her and what you replace to her. Three times any of those rules of the Haven broken and the transgressor shall stand before a council to whom they must justify their continued stay with us. Should they fail that council, they are exiled and never welcomed back. In the case of such transgressions occurring at the hands of a youth under sixteen, their entire family shall stand before the council and answer just as the transgressor of age would. We've never had an issue involving a youth stand before the council for the risk is the entire family's stay here. As a result youth are cared for and taught carefully and encouraged to be responsible and mindful of their actions. Should anyone exiled betray us to our enemies after such exile, we will seek justice such as the justice we seek against those who hunt innocents and good Wytches alike." Nelony answered Jasmer without pause.

"What about those who soldier or act as agents for you? What are their duties?" Jasmer asked trying to understand the Haven and how such a thing existed at this time.

"Our soldiers act mostly as guards, scouts and even as agents overseeing our rules. Your arrival into our territory was watched by them with eager curiosity. They could tell the quality of your heart and of your intent by the way you treated your mounts. You earned their trust early as likely did your mounts of you. Our agents on the other hand had known about you from your arrival in Thedrick's field a few nights ago and I'd known of your arrival years ago. Our agents also execute justice just as they did to the murderers of Thedrick's wife for the charges of the craft of Wytchery which were brought forth in ire by the two responsible. They were investigated by our agents and found guilty. The punishment was served immediately and without mercy. On occasion if such an investigation turns up one of the Strangers or a Hunter, then I am informed and usually deal with them myself. They are of value for their information and I've never had a problem with extracting it from one of them in less than a quarter day from their time in my presence. We seek to uncover all we can about the Strangers of Lorr for they are deadly and never to be underestimated, even by an experienced practitioner of the arts like yourselves and myself too." Nelony's eyes flared at the last statement.

Yirfir and Jasmer could barely believe what they were hearing. Here was another version of their Nelony who'd arisen to become the leader of a utopian society in the mid sixteen hundreds in North America. She was the complete antithesis to the modern Nelony in confidence and demeanor yet her attitudes toward virtue, nature and the Aerth were identical.

"How did you know when we were coming?" Yirfir asked her.

They continued their walk circling back towards the centre of the Haven and towards the tree throne.

"Your Nelony and myself are connected through the aether and I am with her at all times from birth to death as she is with me. Our connection is independent of time so I am aware of her being at every age as is she mine, though she is probably not aware of our connection. In a week from now something will happen. Something of tremendous proportions from which the Aerth will recover but humankind's fate is undecided. It is in the aftermath of these events that something will happen which will result in your arrival and those of Yirfir's former students. Beyond that point I can see nothing of what the future brings," Nelony announced dramatically.

"You mean they are here and now?" Yirfir asked with shock and excitement.

"They are all here and some will live while some may not. That is the way of things," Nelony told them with little concern.

"Where are they?" Yirfir and Jasmer asked in unison, looking at each other in surprise before the words left their mouth.

"One is in the east, one is in the west and the other to whom I'm linked is in your time." Nelony told them still without concern.

"And the Aerth is going perish?" Yirfir asked her.

"The Aerth will heal. Humanity may not. Your friends may not and before this is done, one of them will be gone. I cannot tell as I have said, something will happen that I cannot see beyond. Even now Meeweshaa in your time is preparing to deliver the final cleansing before Aerth is expunged of their ways," Nelony replied to them, returning to her seat upon the throne.

"What about the innocents? What about those people who live in fear of the Hunters and are too isolated by them to act? What about everyone else who aren't aware of the injustices that have occurred by their hands?" Yirfir pleaded with Nelony.

"Fate will find a way and prevail in their safety where we have failed them. We have tried and I can only do so much," Nelony responded to Yirfir's pleas.

Jasmer opened his mouth to speak just as a runner approached the throne and kneeled before her as he caught his breath.

"Mistress Nelony. A large force approaches from the north. Cavaliers and a battalion on foot. They have set up a camp and sent a messenger with this message." The runner told Nelony of the their approach, handing her the message.

She examined the seal before opening it. It did not resemble the official seal of the administrators and legal representation of the colony she'd dealt with when fighting the Wytch hunters through the courts years ago. She made a mental note of this and read the message.

Addressed To The Leadership Of Your Settlement

We the people of the new colony of the Americas, representing the interests of all who reside here and by the good of the land do hereby declare that the land that you reside upon is the property of the colony both legally and by claim of force. In good conscience, we demand that all settlements upon this land be removed and relocated at once. You have two days to comply and upon failure to comply unconditionally and reply to this request, we are authorized to remove you by force.

Commander Of The New Americas Colony Armed Forces

Nashan Millener

"Why was I not informed earlier?" Nelony asked the runner.

"They got three of our agents. Two in their settlement and one in the wild. We suspect that they've been tracking  us as we have them. They surprised us Mistress," The runner replied.

"Wshiekookrath!" She yelled, standing from her tree throne.

The Kodiak and the Mountain Lion immediately stood, both bounding for the depths of the forest while the entire settlement came to life with activity. A small band of soldiers who made up the Haven guard proceeded to their lookout points while a few marched to the north and flanking positions. Residents fled their homes heading to the south and into the plains where they ventured towards a large cave with supplies enough to feed and house them for three days.

"It seems that you were followed. Could it be that you are working for them? I need you to prove yourselves in defence of the Haven. Either help us fight them or fight us and me." Nelony said as her skin hardened to a stone form taking on a grey tinge.

"We're on your side but we need to investigate this force. Maybe we can deal with them with the arts alone." Jasmer shouted to her.

She stood a moment glaring at them, measuring them of their intent before agreeing.

"We will go ahead and scout. If you feel up to it, we will see if we cannot dispatch them by magic and nature alone," Nelony responded opening a portal into the unknown.

Jasmer jumped through, followed by Yirfir and Nelony. They emerged from the portal at the top of a lightly wooded hill just outside of the Haven and beyond its defensive wall. Jasmer scanned the horizon to the north, his jaw dropping when he saw them. Their hopes were immediately dashed when they saw the size of the armed force encampment.

There were several battalions of troops, perhaps of a hundred men each. All were armed with arquebus weapons and a side arm consisting of a short saber. Leading the procession were four rows of sixteen mounted troops, the foremost being light mounted Infanteers followed by heavy Cavaliers who were both armed with arquebus and saber. Jasmer was grateful that there were no signs of cannons or artillery.

"That's not a battalion. That's their entire army!" Jasmer quipped.

"We have to think of something and soon." Jasmer said insightfully.

"They're going to attack the Haven soon. We need to find our friends. You said that they are located in the East and the West. Can't we go find them?" Yirfir asked the Nelony of the True.

"We need everyone here in case they attack. The only way is if one of you go. I would urge that Yirfir stay behind to help in the defense of the Haven should they attack." Nelony asked pleadingly.

"If that's the way it has to happen, then I'll go." Jasmer told the two Wytches.

"You can't go. Don't do this Jasmer! Don't you do this!" Yirfir told him grabbing hold of his arm.

"Honey, I have to do this. We need more help than we've got. I don't think that they'll attack until they know for certain what kind of defenses we have and until they're certain of what to expect. They're a private army and they are already over extended just by being here in the middle of nowhere. Those men have to eat and that takes resources. So does the ammunition. If they don't attack in three days, they'll lose the advantage of high morale for they'll start running scarce of common supplies. Keep that in mind and play them at that end and do whatever you can to delay them. I'll be back with the help that we need to win this, maybe even prevent the battle altogether." Jasmer's argument was as convincing as it was sure.

"It won't take me long once I am under way. I just need some supplies and a horse. I also need you to transport me as far north east as you can so I can get as close to the eastern settlements that you spoke of and work my way back." He asked the Haven Nelony.

"I can do both, though sending a horse and rider through simultaneously is a bit dangerous." She explained to him.

"I'll walk my horse through. I just need to get far enough to begin that journey and soon. I'll leave tonight. I might arrive at the first settlement by tomorrow afternoon." Jasmer seemed focused having a new goal.

"We'll set this up right away. We need to return to Haven to do all of this. Then Yirfir and I shall keep vigil from here while you are gone and until you return." Nelony laid out the plan.

With that they set about seeing to Jasmer's supplies and horse while Yirfir kept watch of the camp.

Nelony handed him the message from the encampment's commander.

"This is the message that they sent our village. I want you to take this too. It may help in procuring support for our cause. You may want to make note of the seal." Nelony asked Jasmer handing him the message.

He looked at the seal and understood immediately before returning to see Yirfir one last time.

"I love you, my love and I shall return. Soon." Jasmer kissed her delicately and passionately.

"I'll be waiting, my love." She said hanging on to him a little longer before letting him go.

Jasmer left that night with a horse and a plan while Yirfir waited for him to return.

The Strangers Of Lorr

Shaela walked with Evan back to the law offices and just outside of the entrance and by the main strip of town, Evan suddenly raised his voice, causing pedestrians and others out for a stroll in the town to stop and gawk at them.

"Milady! I have stated that this is wrong and absolutely so! My favour in legal matters and legal process is not for sale at any price nor for any coin purse! I must leave you at this juncture in our acquaintance but I will respect my wife's wishes and see that you have a place of rest in my house for the night. After that you must find your own residence and your own way from there! That is where our common ground ends and I will not have discussion of it. Take your gold and tread elsewhere that someone of lesser virtue might be purchased for such a price as your bottomless purse! I bid you good day!" Evan stomped into the law offices leaving Shaela all by her lonesome.

Shaela's face flushed a bit and she turned walking towards the General Store in search of something to sooth her sudden embarrassment. Those on the street watched her as she strode across the main street and towards the stores on the other side from the Law Offices, Court and the Town Hall. She walked into the General Store seeking something for purchase though she did not know what she was looking for. Then she spied it as the store keep addressed her.

"May I be of service, Milady." The store keep asked her having already heard about her arrival from Europe.

"What price must I pay for this of your goods?" Shaela drudged on an accent and charm, gazing at the store keeper who visibly blushed.

"Milady. For the price of two coin that fine hand crafted fan can be yours. It was made here by a skilled craftswoman who specialized in such arts and lady's couture for years overseas." He smiled in hopes that he'd ensured the sale.

"And such a bargain too. I will take it." Shaela told him, retrieving two shiny golden coins from her coin purse and placing them upon the counter space.

His face immediately went pale though it was apparent that he was attempting to conceal his amazement and good fortune. She'd not known that he had meant two copper coins. He'd not seen this much currency in one place before. Shaela had no idea about the value or exchange rates in regard to her coins though she cared little about it as they'd cost her nothing to produce but a handful of stones from near the reservoir. She was grateful for the wonders of transmutational alchemy.

"That's perfect Milady," he said trying not to draw any attention from her.

Shaela picked up the item and unfolding it began to lightly fan her face. It gave her an air of sophistication that eluded her, prior to the purchase. She was quite content with the store keep's reaction as it would help seal her cover story much better.

"You couldn't tell me a little about why Evan, the law man has so much against the hunters could you? I mean they are keeping us safe from the scourge of Wytch and the craft alike. Is not that good for us here?" Shaela asked the store keep.

"Oh Evan? Oh he's just a crotchety law keeper with too little to do in such a fine town. He needs to make it up when it doesn't exist. If there's no crime, then he has no job, right? The hunters are the real law around here. They are helped along by the strangers who taught them their ways and the way of the hunt. We'd be lost without them. We've experienced a renewed market from their teachings, not to mention we've rid ourselves of some dead wood if you know what I mean," The store keep answered, a painted smile on his face.

"Why are they known as the strangers? I mean if they are here then someone must know them?" Shaela continued her questioning.

"They prefer it that way. Something pertaining to the air of secrecy when hunting those versed in the craft. The less about them known, the more effective they are. I provide them with goods should they need them, time and again. In return they protect the store from those who practice craft," The store keep told her.

"Where would I go should I want to donate a contribution to their cause?" Shaela asked the store keep.

"Milady, you are fortunate that you came to me. Many of the other shop owners around here are not so gracious to the strangers, and you've found mine as their ally. Should you want to share your fortunes for their favour or otherwise, they have an office at the far end of the main street here. They purchased and converted the old colonial supply depot into their headquarters. Their offices and training facilities exist in there. They've even got their own armed services from what I've heard, but keep that from Evan. Might come in handy when we seek to take the colony from our current dead-end leadership," The store keep exclaimed, already thinking about how he was going to spend the two gold coins.

"I'll keep that to myself, dear," Shaela said smiling coyly.

"You are gracious Milady. I will put in a word to them should you like, as I meet with them from time to time," the store keep offered.

"Yes. I'd like that. I will go see them right this moment too about that donation as well. You do have a good day and do please keep it from Evan that I was here," Shaela told the store keep.

"Consider it done, Milady. Good day to you," The store keep escorted her to the door.

"And to you my good Sir," Shaela stepped out the door as the store keep locked it obviously excited about his small fortune.

Her first foray seemed to work out perfectly and this helped to peak her confidence for what was to come. She suspected that getting into the strangers' offices and obtaining information from them was going to be a bit more tricky. On her way back from the reservoir with Evan, she'd obtained a few pine cones which helped to mask the aura of magic of those versed in their craft. She crushed them up and added them to the little potpourri pouch that Evan's wife had prepared for her earlier that day in the morning. She could not be too careful in these matters and erred on the side of caution.

After a ten minute walk down the main street she'd arrived at an enormous building. It appeared almost like a barn but much wider and longer. In front there was a much smaller building that had obviously been added to the construction at some point much later on. She approached the door to this smaller addition and walked in.

It was not as she'd expected and contained a waiting room and a reception area with seating. At the reception desk sat a lady who was busy making notes with a quill. She (politely) ignored Shaela continuing her writing until the quill had run dry.

"May I be of service?" The receptionist asked.

"Yes you could help. I am looking to find out a bit about your organization. I seek to invest in realistic services which provide a definite utility to this and other growing colonies. I've heard much of your solutions to West View's social dilemmas and was interested in finding out more," Shaela asked waving her fan which helped to keep her sense of nervousness at bay.

"I see. One moment if you might," The receptionist asked Shaela before disappearing into another room.

Shaela waited patiently, cautiously eyeing the entirety of the interior hoping to find something useful. The offices appeared much like those of the law offices and held little information on the wooden walls or anywhere else for that matter. The note that the receptionist was working on seemed to be a writ of some form, possibly an authorization for a bounty however she could not see a name on it. She drew her eyes away from the letter just before the receptionist returned.

"Someone will come to speak with you shortly. Please do have a seat," The receptionist offered.

Shaela accepted, seating herself in the waiting area upon a hand crafted wooden chair. She held her silence a moment and just long enough to avoid arousing suspicion.

"So how much safer have you made the town in the last week? Any success stories you might impart upon a potential investor?" Shaela asked the receptionist who had returned to her letter.

"We've accomplished some milestones in the last month which I'm sure that Mr. Exeter will be more than glad to discuss with you. More transgressors have recently been discovered and we are are in the midst of investigation. Other than that I cannot comment," The receptionist whet her quill and continued with her cursive handwriting.

A few minutes later and the receptionist had finished her writing and began preparing a wax seal for the writ. Shaela reached into her pocket and pulled out a cloth which she'd been using to wipe her face after her horseback riding earlier in the day. She stood and handed it to the receptionist.

"You couldn't find a suitable garbage for this could you?" Shaela asked politely.

The receptionist stopped and looked at the cloth.

"Most certainly." She replied sounding ever so slightly annoyed.

She stood up from her desk and walked through the office to a door which lead to the warehouse disappearing behind it. As soon as she was out of sight, Shaela checked the letter again finding the name on the writ to be that of a husband and wife. Their names were Farner and Souza Ganley, which Shaela committed to memory before continuing. Apparently they were under investigation by the strangers for putting a curse upon some of their customers. They had a garment business on the main street which would likely be the place they'd be apprehended by the hunters. Shaela returned to her seat making sure that she'd not forget their names.

A moment later the receptionist returned from the warehouse with a large burly man. He was dressed rather fashionably for the times, yet had a quirkiness about him in much the same way that a puritan may have had around the town drunk.

"I am Mr. Boris Exeter of our organization here. I am sure you've heard tell of our exploits, Milady?" He bowed, taking her hand.

"Pleased and well met. I am Lady Shaela, Countess of the Third House Of Sumner. I was hoping that we could discuss some matters of business in private," Shaela spoke clearly and professionally.

"Please if you will, join me. My office is as private a place as any for such discussions," He extended his arm and she accepted it as they proceeded.

Shaela took a seat across from Mr. Exeter, once again using the hand fan to add to her dramatic approach. She sat quietly looking around Exeter's office once again in hopes of finding something, anything to add to her knowledge of the strangers. When she thought she'd aroused his suspicions she spoke, putting her hand upon her chest for effect.

"Forgive me. I'm a bit overwhelmed by this experience. Its a rare day that you encounter a group dedicated to the cleansing of the social ills of Wytch sorcery," Shaela spoke sounding somewhat flustered.

"Yes well that is one of our many aspects and perhaps the one that receives the most attention. Surely you are aware of Evan and his interests related to our activities seeing as you are a resident at his abode. Am I to suspect that there is more to this visit than I should already be wary of?" Mr. Exeter spoke deliberately.

"Evan, bless his heart is a little naive in the ways of the world. I myself have lost family to those who practice such dark arts and am well aware of their ills. I, having dabbled in some shall we say, less than shady business dealings in my life have often found interference by locals when it comes to such dealings. Such a shame that some had to be put down for their sins if not only to keep my efforts and repute clean you see," Shaela spoke as candidly as she could during the midst of her ruse.

"Yes, I understand perfectly. Cleaning up the world can be a bit of an awkward business at times. Especially when so many have come here in the colony obviously to escape the wraths of the craft in the first place. That is why I am sometimes at such odds with the idea that so many could still be practicing it here, both the locals and the colonists. While we seek to grow an air of new beginnings, yet there are still so many wrought, the lamb for the slaughter. Such a shame," Mr. Exeter spoke doing his best to be intimidating to her and to expose a reaction from her.

There was a moment of silence and within that instant, Shaela suddenly felt her emotions and composure slipping as if something was playing them from the outside of her towards her innards. Not now, she thought. Of all times to have a panic attack this could not have been worse timing. She felt an inner anger and anxiety rising from within as if by spell or weave. She'd not experienced such effects since she was a teenager, having dealt with a series of deaths in her family during the first Sanctum wars. She was told later in therapy that she would experience from time to time a return to such stress and that she would have to learn to deal with it carefully lest she be pulled from the Sanctum. She struggled to regain control of her emotions as Mr. Exeter just sat ominously quiet watching her for signs of struggle.

"If not they then who? Us?" She asked him channeling her scathing sense of hypertension into her feigned scorn and laughter which burst from her like air escaping a suddenly burst balloon.

Mr. Exeter sat quietly still watching her carefully for signs obviously unsure if she'd been affected or not. His face twitched as he'd somehow lost the upper hand in the conversation.

"I am glad that you find this amusing, but I can only assure you that this is deadly serious business," Mr. Exeter told her struggling to retrieve control of the conversation so he could direct its emotional tone and possibly hers.

"And I can assure you that I am here to attend to such business, though I had to make sure of you first," She told him as she emptied half of her coin purse onto the desk, before smashing the coin pile with her clenched hand making him jump in his seat.

She used the opportunity to vent some of the tension she'd somehow inherited at such an awkward and dangerous moment. There scattered across the desk were thirty gold coin, enough to buy the entirety of the warehouse from them and outfit it with a new set of employees. He stared in disbelief.

"I meant business and you test my patience? Perhaps this investment will clear your already poor vision," Shaela presented her offer.

By his estimates, not even Evan could have come up with this amount of coin for such an offer. She had to be telling the truth and yet she somehow sidestepped his emotional coercion. They were rare, those who could resist the abilities of the strangers in this manner, even that of one as himself who'd trained in such an ability for decades. Mr. Exeter was somewhat intimidated and taken by Shaela, leaving him feeling confident enough to delude himself into thinking he'd somehow kept the upper hand. If she was an enemy of their organization, she would be a very difficult adversary. For now he suspected that he should play her game and accept her investment but keep her an arms length out of their private matters until he was sure that she could be trusted.

"Accepted most graciously," A grim rictus crept across Mr. Exeter's face sending chills up her spine.

"I take it this will buy some cleansing, will it? My soul feels a little dirty," She said in an attempt to be seductive to him.

His face returned to one of calm and serious demeanor as he examined her carefully yet somehow pondering an idea.

"There is something that you could do to help our interests here that indeed play beyond that of finances to prove your intent once and for all. We are having problems with an official right now. He has staid his intent to walk the middle neither favouring our interests in the colony nor that of the colony itself. We need him removed by scandal as it were. Someone of your appearances and appetites I suspect might be a capable operative for such a task if you are up to seduction?" Mr. Exeter examined her once again showing no signs of interest, just intrigue.

"Are you scuttling your interest of me for the political benefit of your opponent?" Shaela asked again hanging onto the conversation.

"I am saying that I need you to deal with the Magistrate. You've indicated your interest and backed it up with coin that would be well beyond the means of any ruse. For your final step into our organization you must deal with him how you see fit. Scandal would be best and yet a public display of some kind to reduce his supporters both in administrative and legal matters would be best. I leave it to you to see to it. You have three days. Should you find yourself successful I'll nought question your intent again. Should you betray us, you'll be resting on the bottom of a lake after you've been tried as a Wytch. Do I make myself clear?" Mr. Exeter said finishing his monologue, punctuating it with an intense gaze.

"Much clearer than before I arrived," Shaela told him, fanning her face innocently.

"I have another pressing meeting shortly. I urge you to attend to your dealings elsewhere. Thank you and I bid you a good day." Mr. Exeter walked her back to the reception area where the receptionist had sealed the writ in wax and placed it in the delivery box.

Shaela had caught the addressee's name as she passed it, seeing that it was going to a Mr. Reginald Pasche who worked in the law offices.

She left the building and began to walk up the main street. She retrieved her horse Winnifred, tossing the stable hand a coin.

"This is for all of the times that I cannot pay you. Care for mine and all the other steeds well." Shaela told him as she rode off into the sunset.

She had an appointment at her temporary home with Evan.

To be continued in A Lady's Prerogative II: Wounded Aerth - Part VII

* A slightly adapted version of Bruce Lee's own idiom: "Be like water my friend", while the metaphor of the tree can be found in ideas presented by many Japanese philosophers.

There is Chinese representation in the Sanctum Seclorem, by way of Xenshi and Xushu, brother and sister ancestor spirits of the path.

Barris' follow-up to Sato's metaphor is something I came up with.