The Witches of Ne'arth (The Star Wizards Trilogy Book 2)

The

Witches

of

Ne'arth

 

by S.J. Ryan

 

 

 

(REV E 2016-07-20)

 

 

 

To Molly and Rishy

 

1.

 

The sun named Delta Pavonis shone upon the face of the planet called Ne'arth, above the Amero Archipelago.  Afternoon light bathed the central northern coast of the sub-continental island of Amara. 

Perched upon a ridge above the city of Balti, the Abbey of Klun overlooked a vista of a lake encompassed by virgin forests.  Central within the Abbey's walls was the triple-towered Cathedral of the Star Wizard, its gargoyles staring impassively, its stained glass windows gleaming. 

Morning services and afternoon tours having been concluded, the Cathedral was deserted save for a young woman in the great main chamber of the nave.  Oblivious to the majestic artwork beneath the high arching rafters, she was kneeling over the stone floor of the central aisle, scrubbing furiously with a soapy brush at a dark spot that would not go away. 

In all the years that she had been assigned to clean the Cathedral floor, the spot had always been there.  It was plainly a blemish of the stone, but that hadn't stopped generations of priests from scolding the orphan girls assigned to their supervision for failing to keep the Cathedral 'spotless.'

At that moment, her concentration was disrupted by the echo of creaking doors.  A shaft of sunlight poured from the entry at the western end, casting the girl's long shadow toward the apse.  She worked all the harder, pretending to ignore the echoing cadence of shoe heels.  When the noise stopped, a priest's black robes swayed in front of her.

“Lachela.” 

She recognized from the harsh tone the voice of Horbin, the archbishop's secretary.  She cringed, knowing that Horbin's presence was not for a mere scolding; her twentieth birthday had been last week, heralding her scripturally-designated coming into 'womanhood.'  However harsh her life at the orphanage had been, she knew that it was fated to become far worse. 

Horbin roared:  “Look at me –
Matt damn it!

The profanity shocked her.  Overcoming her fear, she met his stern glare. 

“The Archbishop wants you to his office,” Horbin snapped.  “Wear the dress. 
Now
.”

He strode away and was out of the Cathedral as quickly as he had come.  Alone, Lachela slowly wobbled erect and breathed deep, too stunned to cry and knowing that if she did, the punishment would be severe. 

Wear the dress
, she thought.  No ambiguity there.

She stowed the bucket and brush in the utility closet and headed for the entry, crossing bars of sunlight that streamed through the pillar-like windows.  The images in stained glass recalled the stories that the priests taught, the stories that she had learnt over and over from childhood attendance in Scripture Class, stories that were meant to provide solace but did not. 

Here
the Wizard fights the Pandora Box.
Here
the Star Child (that is, the Wizard Reborn) slays the Serpents of the Sky that inhabit the Storm Barrier.  In a most colorful window, the shining faces of children gathered at the feet of a bearded man in a garment of blue that covered him from neck to ankles.  The caption at the bottom of the window read: 
The Wizard Cares For All Children

Despite her trembling, Lachela almost snarled.  Never in her recently-concluded childhood had anyone cared for her.

She exited the Cathedral and wandered the hedged paths, entering the compound of the orphanage and then into the dormitory.  Other girls, in dresses as soiled and threadbare as her own, met her gaze with little acknowledgment.  She bathed thoroughly and put on the much-prettier, almost-new dress that had been placed in her locker only last week.  The Superior withheld her routine scolding upon the sight.

Lachela emerged into the sunlight and felt the breeze waft from the west.  She imagined she could smell the salt of the sea, and she wished she were as free as the gulls that hovered over the Cathedral with their mocking bombardments.  But the walls of the Abbey were high, and she had no wings. And where would she fly if she could?  She knew well that the world had no place for her, save this, the worst place in the world.  

Strike me with lightning
, she pleaded to the billowing clouds, wishing for any way to escape her imminent future. 

The landscaping of the paths became less foreboding, with flowers and lumen trees bordering.  At last she arrived at the hulking mansion that was the Archbishop's Residence.  The guard at the door wordlessly assessed from her garb that she was tonight's 'Chosen.'  Given a nod, she entered the foyer.

Lachela had not been in the Residence since fifteen years earlier, shortly after her parents had died and she had been brought into the care of the Abbey.  That first time, she had marveled at the goldenwood paneling and the shelves bursting with hand-carved curios alleged to be from the far-off and currently inaccessible Shong, Barat, and Yuro Archipelagos.  This evening, her interest was eclipsed by a desire to puke.

The office door at the far end of the foyer was open.  A pair of silhouettes posed before the windows overlooking a grand view of the surrounding forests.  One figure wore silken robes whose jeweled patterns twinkled with the setting sun.  The other man's clothing was a sparse gray, with the severely modernistic outlines of pants and shirt. 

“I for one doubt he'll come here,” said the robed figure of Archbishop Kantel, whom Lachela recognized from rare sightings.  “There is no scriptural reference for his visitation.”

The other man, a stranger, snorted. “You can wipe my ass for all the good your Scripture is.”

Standing outside their notice, Lachela trembled at the sacrilege, but the Archbishop only bobbed his head.

“Do you have instructions from the Lady on how shall we prepare for his arrival?”

“He's only a man.  Barely more than a boy.  Just hold him and contact us by radio.”

“'Radio?'  Oh, that device you gave the artisans.  It seems, well, magical.  You're sure it will work?”

“It works fine – assuming your monks can follow operating instructions as well as they do their mindless rituals.”  The man in the gray clothes withdrew a gold-plated pocket watch.  “I'm due at the ship soon.  You . . . sent for the girl?”

“Of course, Captain.  She should be here by now. Oh, look!“

Archbishop Kantel walked to the door, ushered Lachela inside. 

Lachela shyly appraised the other man.  His clothing, though well made and immaculately clean and sharply pressed, was as plain as any priest's work habit, except that his shirt bore four tiny dots of golden jewelry on each collar.  He was relatively young and tall and while not thin, neither was he obese like the Archbishop.  Lachela thought she might consider him attractive, under different circumstances.

The man referred to as 'Captain' clasped his hands behind his back and stalked around her.  Clear eyes above a straight mustache projected a dissatisfaction matched by his frown.

“Not exactly becoming.”

“As our treasured guest you can always pick from the orphanage,” the Archbishop replied.  “But this one came of age only last week, and is yet untouched.  As you specifically requested.”

“Untouched,” the Captain said, his frown lessening.  “Yes.  She'll do, then.  So . . . ah . . . where do we . . . ?” 

The Archbishop unlocked a side door and handed the Captain the key.  The Captain strode inside.  The Archbishop gestured, but Lachela didn't move.  Finally he grasped her hands and herded her forward. 

The Archbishop growled:  “My dear, you've been in the orphanage for many years, receiving our food and room and grace.  It's time that you –
what are you doing?
 
Let go of my hand!

Lachela stared without comprehension.  The Archbishop had released her right hand, but though she held it limp it insistently stuck to his palm.  She attempted to pull away, but despite his and her tugging the Archbishop's hand continued to attach firmly to her own.  Then he shook harder and harder, and finally contact was broken.  Breathing in gulps, he staggered against the desk.

The Captain furrowed his eyebrows and addressed the Archbishop:  “You all right?”

The Archbishop clutched his chest and his eyes bulged at Lachela.  “
What did you do?

Lachela was too afraid to speak. 

“She didn't do anything,” the Captain said.  “Evidently you had a spasm of some sort.  You should  lie down and rest.”  He checked his watch again.

“Yes,” the Archbishop said.  “I should lie down.  You can . . . let yourself out.”

When he was gone, the Captain glanced at Lachela and said, “Will you come on now?”

Lachela entered the room.  It was just large enough for a couch and table.  The windows were frosted, the wall paper was shades of red.  A statue of a naked cherub grinned from atop a pedestal.  Lachela gingerly sat on the well-padded, dark pink couch. 

The Captain lit the lantern, closed and locked the door.   With his back to her, he poured wine.  He handed her a goblet.  Trying hard not to faint, she stared into the drink.  The Captain finished his sip and watched her expression.

“A nice vintage,” he said.  “Nothing like what we're issued in the Navy.  Of course you make your own wine here, don't you?”

“Yes,” she replied.  Even in her naivety she knew his chatting was simply to put her at ease – and so had the opposite effect. 

“Well now, my little lady.  Drink up!” 

She trembled, but the liquid got to her lips.  She sipped.  He nodded, eyes alight.  She drank deeper.  She felt warmth and a soft glow and thought,
Maybe if I have enough, I won't feel as bad.

Then something happened. 

“Chemical analysis has detected a high-potency soporific compound,” a voice said.  “I am neutralizing.  Please countermand if you wish otherwise.”

The voice spoke softly and calmly.  But it was not her voice or the Captain's.  And there was no one else in the room.  She searched about frantically and wondered if voyeurs might be peeping from behind the walls.  But no, the voice had sounded as clear and loud as if it were from an invisible man at her ear! 

The Captain chuckled.  “Girl!  What on Neeth are those wide eyes for?”

“Didn't you hear it?”

“Hear what?”

“I – I heard a . . . voice.”

His visage darkened.  “Are you feigning to get out of this?  I'll have Kantel know!”

“No, no, I swear!  Please, I – “

“Here now.  I brought a gift.”  He produced a slender coin.  “It's a 'dime.'   Brand new mint – quite shiny, isn't it?  Be a good girl and – “

– And then his gaze plunged into her eyes with animal hunger.  He yanked her against his chest.  He pressed his lips against hers so hard their teeth jarred.  She felt fingers fumbling upon the buttons at the back of her dress. 

At first she was limp. 
Just let it go
, she told herself. 
It'll be over soon
.  That was what the other girls said. 
Pretend it doesn't matter.  Don't try to fight.  You would be punished and still forced to do it.

He squeezed the breath out of her and his hands moved so fast they seemed to be everywhere and then he stripped off his shirt and pulled down hers and years of subservience and training to be submissive and all the teachings of Scripture telling her to be obedient filled her with paralysis.

– But deep within her, a tiny spark resisted. 
No
, she thought. 
No!
  And the spark grew into a flame, and her fear was overcome with revulsion and she pushed back and cried:  “
Stop it!

Between his pantings he said,  “You'll enjoy if you just relax – “


No – NO!
”  She felt tears upon her cheeks.  “
Please!

“I should have doubled the dose.”  He scowled.  “Dear, do you know what most women of your station would give to be with a man of mine?”

Her gaze fell upon his ring. 

“You're married,” she said.  “The Wizard says that –“


To hell with the Wizard!
”  He let out a low growl.  “We'll soon seize your 'Holy Matt' and have him dissected – and that's a promise!” 

He grabbed her and bit her shoulder by her neck.  She screamed – and heard the Voice of the Unseen once again.

“You appear to be under assault,” it said, calm as before.  “Do you wish to incapacitate the assailant?”

She wanted to unthinkingly say no again, but somehow in the terror and fear and verging hysteria she understood what the voice was asking, and she sensed that somehow – perhaps – it had the power to stop this abomination.

Her voice was flat, empty of hope and anything that might be called faith, as she replied, “
Yes
.”

The Captain burst into laughter.  “
Finally!

And then he moaned and his grip loosened and his arms dropped away and the weight of his body slid off hers and tumbled onto the floor, unmoving. 

Lachela, in paralysis the whole time, continued to sit.  She stared at his closed eyes and listened.  The only sound of breathing she heard was her own.

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