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Two days later, I was back in Ankur, standing outside Bram’s townhouse, stained with the dust and sweat of the road and feeling the sweet fatigue of long exertion heavy upon me. Once again, the door opened before I could knock, and James stood there with a welcoming smile.
“Morley! Welcome, friend. Did you find what you sought?” I nodded wearily. “Enter, then, and clean yourself. You have visitors, but they instructed me to give you time to recover from your voyage.”
I nodded. Visitors? There’d been a strangeness in his eyes when he said that, and it awoke a sense of apprehension. James took my pack and my filthy cloak, then led me to my room, where a steaming basin of water and a heap of soft towels awaited me. The water was so hot it couldn’t have been boiled more than a few minutes earlier, and that foresight hinted at the identity of at least one of my visitors. I washed slowly, organizing my thoughts and letting a brisk rub with the towels reinvigorate me and reawaken my mind. When I’d done, I donned the fresh clothing that had been prepared for me, and headed for Bram’s study.
As I’d expected, Bram, Alison, James, and Raphael awaited me, sitting in a companionable silence and sipping warm drinks, failing to disguise looks of anticipation. James poured a mug for me and pressed it into my hand even as I sat. James had said “visitors”, and I scanned the room for the other guest or guests. It was when I sat down that the second visitor was revealed. A small, furry body shot across the room from where it had lain dozing by the fire and vaulted into my lap, spilling hot wine across my hands. Grey settled himself and set up a loud purring that brought smiles to everyone.
For a moment, I was speechless, despite the sting of the hot liquid on my fingers. “How can this be? I left him so far to the west that he should have been dead of old age before he returned.”
Bram’s eyes fixed on the cat as he spoke. “Unless I miss my guess, this is the selfsame witch’s cat that haunted me from our stay in Belfalas through the siege of Ankur, though I knew it as ‘Precious’, the name its witch mistress had given it. I would have sworn the cat was at least ten years old when I first met it, and it has been eight years since.”
“The cat is older by far than that, Bram.” A touch of humor crinkled the corners of Raphael’s eyes. “Morley, This is no ordinary cat, as you surely suspected. If my auguries are accurate, he is nothing less than a contemporary of our friend Orgrim.”
“But that would make him hundreds of years old!”
“If not older. As I said, no ordinary cat. And that is why I sought him out and returned him to you.”
“You sought him out across that distance? How?”
Raphael smiled broadly. “Suffice it to say that I learned of the importance of this humble beast in determining our fates.” His wrinkled brow knit together. “That alone would have prompted me to seek him, but apart from those auguries, I found myself unable to scry anything else about this beast. It was as if he did not exist to my magic, and I could not resist that particular challenge.”
“You could not find him by magic, and yet you found him by magic?”
Raphael’s smile turned smug. “Sometimes a thing’s absence is every bit as revealing as its presence. Now I’ve brought the two of you together once again, for it was not chance that brought you together in the first place, and I would see what will happen. A small gamble, if you will, but an informed one.”
“What happens next?” I asked the question to buy time, though I already knew the answer.
Alison spoke, disapproving, from where she sat beside Bram, studiously not holding the hand that rested in her lap. “They’ve already decided that for you. You shall summon Orgrim and confront him.”
Bram captured her hand, but had something of a struggle to retain it. He made to speak, but I cut him off. “Forgive them, Milady. Though they made the decision without consulting me, I had already come to the same conclusion. ’Twas I who started much of this, and I cannot evade responsibility for helping to end it.”
Alison showed concern now, but she’d stopped struggling and let Bram hold her hand. “It is as I told you, beloved,” he spoke only to her. “Though we made the decision, it was Morley who would carry it through to the end for us, and not unwillingly.” Alison’s hand rested more comfortably in her husband’s, though her face remained tight with concern.
“When will all this happen?” I asked, turning my gaze away from them and towards Raphael.
“Tomorrow, during the day, for we cannot leave Orgrim more time to plan for my presence, and day is always more auspicious than night for confronting dark magic.”
The others nodded, and I mastered my fear long enough to commit myself to this course, for there was still a part of me that urged flight. “Agreed. First thing in the morning. And where shall we confront him?”
“In the crypt beneath the palace, where everything began. There’s a symmetry to that arrangement that favors our plans.” Raphael’s voice turned musing. “There is a spell I have that should hold him helpless long enough for us to slay him. I don’t much like that, yet I can see no alternative for one so dangerous.”
“Nor could the King’s council, despite several days of deliberation,” added Bram, regret plain in his voice.
“And your part in this?”
“He’ll be the fool wielding the sword,” Alison whispered, concern plain in her voice. Bram gathered her to him, heedless of the others in the room, and held her close, whispering something into her ears that clearly failed to reassure her.
“I urge you all to seek your rooms,” Raphael spoke into the silence. “You shall need a good night’s sleep to arm you for what lies ahead. There’s little you need to know, and that can all be told in the morning.”
Everyone rose, and with a few sympathetic backwards glances in my direction, departed; all save Raphael, who took my arm. “Morley, I sense unease in your heart. Are you certain you’re ready for this?”
I met his gaze steadfastly. “No, I’m not. Yet I know this: that if I hesitate and delay, I will either flee Orgrim and leave you all to your fate, or I will embrace him again and what he once offered me. I could not live with myself if I accepted either alternative, hence I must act soon.”
Raphael nodded. “So it seemed.” He pressed a small crystal vial into my hand, and squeezed my hand in reassurance. “Drink this when you seek your bed; it will grant you a deep, dreamless sleep so you can awake, refreshed, tomorrow.”
I thanked him and returned to my room, Grey padding along behind me. As I lay in bed, Orgrim’s ring heavy upon my chest and the cat’s warm weight heavy upon my legs, the magnitude of what awaited me on the morrow grew painful, and it was without the slightest reluctance that I unstoppered Raphael’s vial and swallowed its sweet, cloying contents.
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