“By the power vested in me,” the priestess proclaimed, “I evoke thee!” She slammed the brunt of her stave into the ground and everything began to tremble at once. The ground seemed to writhe beneath them, rising and falling all around them, churning like the bowels of the leviathan at sea.
“Enough!” she screamed, turning her staff sideways, parallel to the earth: The shaking stopped, but as the balance of the stave seemed to break from the strain of holding the earth still, if only fractionally it swayed, the ground kept stirring.
“I descry thee, I expel thee,” she went on in a hurried whisper, a bead of sweat rolling down her brow, “I expel thee, I command thee: Relinquish thyself from the hold of the earth. I expel thee!”
She pivoted the staff till it pointed straight ahead of her, the tremors of the earth concentrating themselves some distance ahead. The air stiffened as the ground bubbled and boiled where her rod pointed, then all of a sudden it broke apart entirely and a brown fugue emerged in a cloud.
“Wretched Gnome,” she snarled as the smoke pulled itself together into the guise of a massive boar with tusks as large as she was tall. “Wretched creature of disdain, I expel thee from this world–from all that thy foulness hath touched!”
The priestess charged forward, dashing so quickly the boar had no hope of dodging the end of her staff as she stabbed it between its eyes and deeper into its skull. The edges of the boar began to waiver as it grunted, trying to fight the effects of her spell as she braced for the inevitable, but at last it could no longer fight her: Its shape vanished and the lingering fugue erupted outwards until it had entirely faded into the clear air.
She sank to her feet, grasping her rod tighter to hold herself up. She surveyed the area quickly, taking no sight of any damage incurred upon the small town other than what had already been, and then with a heavy breath, closed her eyes.
A young maiden ran up to her, skidding to a halt at her side. “Lady Levoir, are you alright?”
The priestess nodded and released a hand to brush her brown locks out of her face. “Yes, Nin, I’m alright.” She sighed again, opening her eyes and turning them toward her apprentice. “These expulsions are getting harder every time.”
Nin looked at the skies and the sun reflecting off her yellow hair made her look Fae for a moment. “What has made the gods so enraged, Lady?”
“I couldn’t say,” Lady Levoir said. “But whatever’s setting the gods on end…” Her threat faded into another sigh of exhausting. “Bring me some water, Nin, and perhaps a wafer as well.”
“Yes, Lady,” Nin said and after a short curtsy, ran off.
The priestess looked down at the blackened earth beneath her. That was the third god she’d had to expel in two weeks. At first she had assumed the gods were her enemies; now she knew her true foe was whatever force lay behind all of this.
* * *
Count Evehr looked down from his perch at the distant field below. Three statues stood in his courtyard, each aligned along a corner of the eight-pointed star he’d had engraved in the grass.
Undine had been the easiest to draw down into the stone. The goddess was so softly spoken, so gentle and caring…all the more easily tempted by his smile. Sylph hadn’t been as straightforward, but the god had little strength of his own to fight with. Gnome took a lot of brute force to draw out, but once his fracture point had been reached, it was numbingly easy from there.
Salamander would be next. The fires of hell raged inside her, and as with any flame, a step too close could get yourself burned. But just as any other fire, there was always something that could put it out.
Thankfully, thought Count Evehr, that stupid priestess of the church was doing all the hard work for him. And best of all, she had no idea her valiance was the biggest part of his plan.
He grinned, swinging himself around and striding back into his castle. A fire was already burning at the altar, and he had work to do yet.
* * *
Nin hurried behind the priestess, carrying a satchel of all sorts of magical herbs whose aromas wafted up into her face and made her feel faint one moment and raving mad the next. She held her breath to try to block out the smells, but Lady Levoir kept going so fast, it was difficult to keep up without gasping every two or three steps.
At last Lady Levoir turned from the stone corridor into a larger space, one whose ceiling went so far skywards it became unseen and whose lowest parts were broken by a maze of bookshelves.
“Lady,” Nin called in the short moment both of them were standing still, “how much farther?”
Lady Levoir turned her head slowly to look back at Nin. Her eyes were bloodshot, rather unusual for the priestess, and her face was pale. “Until I find an answer, Nin, and I’m afraid no sooner.”
Nin nodded. She knew Lady Levoir hadn’t been sleeping well since the last god went on a rampage two days before last, but she hadn’t noticed how torn apart the priestess looked until just now. Nin had been kept so busy running errands, she felt no surprise she hadn’t seen it any sooner, but now that she had, she couldn’t get the image out of her mind.
The priestess looked ahead of them again and began moving once more, this time much more slowly as her eyes darted from shelf to shelf, book to book, and Nin got the sinking impression that for all Lady Levoir wanted to find, she had no idea where to find it, or what truly she was looking for.
“Lady,” Nin asked after she was certain morning was looming near, “Can I get you anything to help? Some water, perhaps, or some tea?”
“No, Nin,” the lady whispered, “I’ll be alright.” They kept moving along the shelves, so slowly now Nin was certain the lady was reading every title they passed, and Nin just sniffled a bit, trying still to get accustomed to the ever-changing slew of scents from the satchel.
At last, when Nin felt so weak from following she was certain she’d pass out at any moment, the Lady stopped where she was and withdrew a large tome from the shelf. She wiped aside a layer of dust from the cover (Nin stifled a cough) and then opened the tome and began paging through it right there.
When the priestess had been staring at a single page for some time, Nin braved to ask, “Did you find it?”
Lady Levoir looked down at her from above the book. “Something similar, perhaps. It speaks of the elemental gods, says that they’re tied to the world through themselves and each other.”
“What does that mean, Lady?”
The lady looked away, off into the distant halls of the ever-deeper archival hall. “I’ve banished tenfold gods and demons to other lands when others tactics have failed to soothe them, so I thought nothing of it when Undine could not be settled. Afterward there was no change in the sea: Things were as they had been before.
“But I fear, should the fire goddess become enraged and unable to be soothed…” She shook her head. “If I have no choice but to banish her like the others, I fear for what may become of the world.”
Nin skewed her eyes and tried to think through everything the priestess had just told her. Finally she looked up, her eyes as wide as the sky was round. “Would the elements just cease to be?”
Lady Levoir shrugged. “Perhaps. Or the elements could grow no more and the world fall to stasis. Such has never occurred before, or so I believe. There’s nothing else I can do but hope that it won’t come to such, and if it does…” She shuddered.
They set off again, the Lady still carrying her tome as she appeared to look for another. This one, however, was far less hidden and they found it rather quickly compared to the first. From there the walk wasn’t too far to the deepest levels of the archival hall: The ancestral altar.
The massive sphere had been carved thousands of years before and rested atop a circular dais that held it in place. The lower half was darkened with the burns of ancient fires and the top, with the blood of long-forgotten offerings. When the kingdom became the keeper of the church, the altar had been moved inside and other altars, less imbued with the spells of antiquity, were put in its place. Nin had heard tales of this altar, but until now, had thought all of them myth.
Lady Levoir placed the second book on a stand nearby and as she began flipping frantically through the pages, beckoned for Nin to come closer. “Lay out the herbs there, I’ll need them for the ritual.”
Nin nodded and hastily accomplished her task before returning to the lady’s side just as she found the page she was looking for.
“You recall the names I taught you?”
“Yes,” Nin replied, glancing at the herbs and quickly running through them once more in her mind.
“Very good. I cannot be interrupted during the incantation, or else the spell may fail So listen closely, and the moment I speak each name, place the herb upon the altar. Should it slip to the side, leave it. Do you understand, Nin?”
“Yes.” The girl gulped, and nodded.
“Very well. Then light the fire.”
Nin reached into the satchel once more and retrieved a small fire started. She was slightly surprised to see the dais already prepared for a burnt offering, but nonetheless did not hesitate to strike the flint and start the flames. This was the easy part, she knew; the hard part was still to follow.
As soon as the scent of smoke became thick in the air, Lady Levoir began chanting. Nin stood off to the side, behind the herbs, waiting, listening. She was quite familiar with the old tongue, the thee’s and thy’s so lyrical yet parallel to the vulgar, but Lady Levoir’s words now were wholly garbled and harsh, a language Nin had never heard before–without a doubt the older tongue, the one with which the world itself had been created.
She heard the name of the first herb and quickly grabbed it. She rushed toward the altar before rearing back before the flames, but swallowing her fear, stretched her hand over the altar and placed the sprig of leaves right atop the sphere. Nin held her breath, but the herbs stayed there, and she retreated with a thankful sigh.
The process continued, repeated more times than Nin could count as the Lady’s voice steadily rose to a crescendo yet to be reached. Twice an herb had slid to the flames, and the latter had pulled down with it two others, but Nin held tight to the warning to leave what fell, and prayed only that the spell would go on as intended, ending in success.
She held the last bundle of herbs in her hands, palms sweaty and shaking, when the pile of herbs atop the altar stood stacked perilously high. She heard the cue from Lady Levoir and stepped forward once more–by now her fear of the flames had transformed into the fear of the herbs falling.
She reached out, trying with all her might to keep her hand steady, and gently placed the last herb on the pile. As she loosened her fingers, one at a time, less than a full breath each, she closed her eyes softly with the relief of the stack feeling steady underneath. As she pulled her hand away, however, the stack shook, and slipped.
It happened so quickly Nin barely had time to move away: The flames roared upwards, engulfing the entire altar and then some above, and Lady Levoir’s chanting became a single note, a shrieking cry that pierced Nin’s ears and echoed heavily around them.
Nin held tight to her breath and scurried back on her hands and knees, entranced by the raging flames but wanting desperately to look away.
Finally all sound broke and the flames seemed to freeze in the air. The power around them was so great Nin could feel it seeping into her from all sides, and for the briefest moment she felt at one with everything: The stone altar hidden beneath the flames, the fire itself and the entity it contained, and Lady Levoir, the priestess herself. And as she spoke, Nin felt as though the words came through her.
“I bind thee, Goddess, keeper of the flame, the fire, the fury of the land. By my name I chain thee, by the command of Leliana Levoir, I bind thee till the moment I choose to free thee.”
The silence ensued once more, but now the flames retreated into the base of the altar, retreated until even the sparks had vanished. Nin felt the power dissipating as well until all the ties she felt were severed and the room seemed to return to how it had been when they’d entered hours ago.
“Nin, are you alright?”
The girl slowly got to her feet and brushed the dust and dirt from her hands and dress.
“I think so, Lady.”
“Very well.” The priestess shut the book forcefully and turned back toward her apprentice. “Gather the satchel; our deed here is done.”
Nin did as she was told, and as she followed Lady Levoir back through the archival hall, asked her, “Lady, what deed was done?”
“The fire goddess is bound. Whatever force has been enraging the elements thus far, it can no longer touch her.”
* * *
Count Evehr slammed his fist down, disregarding the blood that poured from the gash in his hand. His face contorted slowly into a snarl as he tried to contain himself, but his rage was too great: He pushed forwards, shoving the altar to the ground and smiling at the sounds of stones shattering beneath him.
“That wretch,” he yelled as he whirled away. “She bound the goddess!” He clenched his fists tighter, certainly supposing that if he were in a better mind, he’d mind the blistering pain in his hand, but at the moment, didn’t care. “She’s found something, made a connection I had not planned for.”
He raised his hand and cupped his chin, taking his fingers away and staring with disgust at the red blood smeared across them that he’d finally just noticed. He shook his hand a few times, starting to feel the sting, and made way for his remedy hall to treat himself as he had three times already. Too much longer and the damage might be permanent, he knew, so he pushed his unease away and tended to the matter quite literally at hand.
When a bandage graced his palm and all traces of blood had been washed away, Count Evehr returned to his scrying stone and rubbed it softly with the fingertips of his untouched hand. If only it could so easily inspire him as the damned priestess had been inspired–by what, he wondered–to learn what could come of the world if all the elements were banished. Such would come still, he was certain.
It would simply take an alternative route, that was all. After all, four more points of the star remained after the elements had claimed theirs. And it was to those, he decided, that he would turn to now.