Varen’ka leaned back in the rigid, olive chair placed at the center of the room. The layers of seats in front of him remained empty as if he awaited the judgment of ghosts. He gently laid his ring hand on the arm rest, caressing the polished wood mindlessly.
A few hours ago he had been under the care of a scholar and a training guardian, a Gardein as the title was given to those that bonded a companion. He knew to some extent what the process entailed and the history behind it. In his travels, he had heard whispered rumors of the Ressavia village. People spoke of it as a necessary precaution to ward away some evil that they weren’t even sure existed, following blind faith like human herds. The Gardeins were looked upon in the same way, a caste of people who were needed but were kept at a personal distance.
He was also aware of the council that would decide his fate. Outsiders were never allowed unescorted into Ressavia because it was considered a sacred place by the Church of Allahavi. It was guarded by the assigned Gardein that also protected the Estrav Province following the rule of the Hand of Allahavi, or the church’s warrior class. The members of the Hand were stationed in Ressavia to keep a main post focused on the borders of Estrav and frequently stationed handfuls of Gardeins in outer towns. There were many underlying conflicts that raised between the outer Gardeins and those posted closer to home. There was rumor of a rogue set of Gardeins far north past the Verstav Peaks once known as the Fist for their stubborn stance against the church. Varen’ka did not doubt their existence and even among this sacred village there may exist a dissenter or two. At least, he hoped for his own sake.
One thing continued to puzzle Varen’ka as he perused the room and came to study the pair that had cared for him. They sat on the antechamber’s far right in the railed off bench section in deep conversation. The scholar, Senior Tevkin the girl had called him, kept his calm demeanour though Varen’ka discerned a shadow of concern in his lean face. It was strange that a scholar should be stationed in the presence of the Church. His steel blue robes and cowled hood marked him as belonging to the Society of Theras, often referred to as the teaching of the elders. Their teachings diverged from the church’s beliefs and faith, relying on human ingenuity and enlightenment to guide humanity rather than legends. The factions had been in heated conflict a long time ago when the last monarchy faded and the need for a central authority rose again in Estrav. Theras followers found this a good opportunity to expand their teachings and develop a community devoid of ignorance and petty squabbles. The church strongly opposed them, secretly skirting the lines of law and massacring those that denounced their faith in Allahavi. Eventually, the Society could do no more than let the church take over. Many fled to the Isam plains or escaped north to avoid the reach of the then newly created caste of Gardeins. Varen’ka scowled at the memory. He had no interest in politics, but his sympathies rested with the Society. He, too, had been surpressed one too many times by the church.
A sharp thwack on the wood brought Varen’ka’s attention to the front where finely robed men were filling into their seats. They all wore similar robes of royal violet that melted like oozing purple blood. Their faces were partially covered by matching masks that had two prongs, one extending on each side of the face to reach behind the head and connect forming the shape of a halo. He bit back a grimace at the pretentiousness of these members of the Hand. From what he knew, they were not saints by any means.
The man in the foreground and most center ceremoniously stood with his face set in a somber tone, “We gather here today to decide upon this foreigner’s fate by way of testimony from Master Scholar Tevkin and the Gardein pupil, Ms. Elliera.”
The man paused and Varen’ka closed his eyes in relief. The councilman’s voice was nasally and obnoxiously high with the twinge of arrogance that resided in so many of the church’s members. There was a long pause as the councilman stared at him, but Varen’ka took no notice.
“May Allahavi pay witness to these proceedings and grant the truth to be spoken and let no information be withheld that prevents the council from acting on behalf of the Church of Allahavi and all under its protection. The Council of Nights may proceed,” and the councilman gestured to the man sitting to his right.
“The council calls Elliera, pupil Gardein, to bear testimony.”
The man’s voice echoed around the room, swallowing the empty silence. Varen’ka watched as the girl fumbled nervously to a second chair situated to his right and closer to the council’s seats. This was his first look at the girl as he had quickly been escorted from the chambers while he was unconscious. Her blond hair looked almost dirty, though it was pulled back in a neat wrap and she wore plain clothes that a hunter might wear in the forest, her button shirt a quiet green and her brown pants tucked into cured hide boots. She was petite and her features delicate, her face looked younger than the age she held, which he guessed had to be at least twenty years of age as a Gardein could not be younger. She was terrified, it was obvious on her face, and why shouldn’t she be? She was the trembling mouse caught in a lion’s paw to be saved only by a miracle.
Varen’ka switched his gaze back to the council, pondering the name. The Council of Nights. He had indeed heard Niem mention it once and it sent a chill through him. The rumor she had come across came from one of Niem’s contacts in the village of Strovat where she had infiltrated one of the Hands of Allahavi. Her informant had spoken of the Council of Nights with aggravation in his voice and flinched as Niem had pursued the subject. He eventually gained enough self-control to recount a story involving a scholar that pushed the church’s patience too far. The woman had been one of the blossoming leaders of the Society that challenged the church, bringing evidence to bear against their crimes and claims. Her name was Lauran Doetra. Apparently, the church had enough of her dissent and sent someone to silence her, a member of the Council of Nights. No one had borne witness to what tragic event had taken place, but the scene afterwards had devastated the town into obedience.
Niem had explained that Lauran had been found in her quarters with her flesh ripped off and her blood smeared on the wall in symbols more ancient than in any text held by church or Society. The natural assumption was that the church had committed the deed, but they denied such allegations. Unfortunately, there was no proof, but the monstrous visage remained as a sign to obey.
The violet robes that reminded him so much of blood distracted Varen’ka from his memories. He studied them like an animal studies its captor, waiting for the right moment of escape. He didn’t know much about the Council of Nights, except through rumor, and that was enough for him to know that he could not sit and wait for them to pass judgement.
He would need assistance, though, as he began to conceive of an escape plan. He casually peered over the chair, searching the vast antechamber for the lucien. It crouched at the doors, barring its teeth at the council. That left him to speculate further about what these council members truly were and if they were of the same powers that had led him to run to this village.
Varen’ka forcefully shook the thoughts from his mind and reached out with his thoughts, concentrating on the lucien’s strange eyes. It blinked once and glanced at him. Varen’ka willed it to obey, to believe in his cause, letting his feelings mingle with those of the lucien’s. Then, he let peel a horrible screech that shattered the glass windows.