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The Poison Priestess
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Sample chapter from The Poison Priestess -
Book 4 of the Silk & Steel Saga

*****SPOILER ALERT*****
It is suggested you do not read this chapter if you have not read the previous books in

The Silk & Steel Saga
Prologue

The summons from the Grand Master came in the form of a whisper. “Come!” A subtle hand signal drew Rafe down the cloistered corridors towards a shadowy alcove, the whispered message passed with the barest of nods. “The Grand Master bids you to bear this.” The monk opened his fist, revealing a fine-linked chain…and from that chain dangled a plain iron ring. 

Rafe gaped like a novice. He’d heard of such rings, though he’d never dreamt of seeing one. Just a simple iron band inscribed with the All Seeing Eye yet this ring was the key to long guarded secrets. In any village marketplace it would fetch a single copper, nothing more than a worthless trifle, yet it was old and of incalculable worth, an heirloom of the monastery. He longed to accept it yet the truth could not be denied. “I’m not worthy.”

“None of us are, yet you are called.” The monk smiled, his face a crease of wrinkles. “Your protest proves your worth.” He placed the ring and chain into Rafe’s open hand, closing his fingers into a fist for safekeeping. “Bear it well.”

Rafe clutched the ring. “Why me? I’ve worn the blue for less than a handful of years?” 

The monk nodded, giving Rafe a kindly look. “Fresh perspectives are always needed, especially in times of prophecy.” A chill shivered down Rafe’s back, like a spectral hand leaving its mark. “Only twelve such rings remain to us. Eight are held by the wisest of the Order, masters in their fields of study. Two are reserved for the wanderers, monks who spend more time in the southern kingdoms than they do in the monastery. And two rings are rotated among the young, those with more promise than proof. By order of the Grand Master, this is yours to bear.” 
Rafe struggled to contain his excitement. “For how long?”

“Till you are unbidden…or until you leave the monastery.”

Rafe hadn’t yet made his decision regarding his future, whether to stay in the monastery and deepen his studies, or to become a wanderer and serve in the southern kingdoms. Both choices held their own allure, but to be asked to join the conclave was an honor undreamt. To sit among the wise, to have his voice heard in conclave, a chance to change the future, he clutched the ring, realizing how badly he wanted it.  

“Your first conclave is tonight, at midnight.”

Rafe gasped.

“Meet the others at the ironwood doors.” The monk nodded. “Bear the ring well and tell no one. Secrecy remains one of our greatest strengths.” 

Astounded by the turn of events, Rafe slipped the slender chain around neck, hiding the ring beneath his midnight blue robes. Setting his hand to his robe, he pressed the ring against his heart, struggling to believe it was true. Tonight, at midnight!  His first conclave, yet it seemed an ill-omened hour. But then he realized the frost owls flew at night, and all their messages brought grim tidings. Of late, the owls flew thick as starlings, bearing coded messages from monks seeded across the southern kingdoms. Knowledge flowed towards the Kiralynn Monastery like a river in flood, warning of ancient prophecies that rushed to be born. Rafe wondered if anything could stem the Dark tide. 

The waiting proved hard. He paced his cell, seeking to meditate but inner peace proved elusive, his thoughts skittering like wild hares. At the appointed hour, he drew the slender chain from his neck, and set the iron ring upon his finger. Such a simple ring, yet it gave him access to the wise. He bowed his head, asking the Lords of Light for guidance. Raising the deep cowl of his midnight blue robe to signal a desire for seclusion, Rafe left his sleeping cell, his eagerness warring with his apprehension. 

Like stepping from darkness to enlightenment, the change was always startling. Lamplight flickered along the hallway, cunningly set to illume the walls, so different from the simple austerity of his sleeping cell. Shimmering with gold and jeweled tones, vibrant swirls of intricate script filled the walls, a celebration of the written word. History was written upon the walls of the monastery, ancient truths mingled with pages of prophecy, the past and the future set side by side. As always, Rafe found the hallways intoxicating, seductive with knowledge and art, like living in the pages of an illuminated manuscript. 

His gaze caressed the text as he made his way through the labyrinth. Each masterpiece held layers of meaning, from the words, to the entwined images, to the convoluted script. Legends said that if you stared at the script long enough, the complex patterns would unlock the mind’s hidden doorways, revealing deeper truths. Rafe had long sought such enlightenment, yet for all his striving he’d never gained a deeper awareness. 

The sweet scent of incense intensified and so did the silence, as if the hallways were steeped in thought. Stairs took him to the lower level, to the oldest part of the monastery, a relic built before the War of Wizards. Doors became scarce while the calligraphy lining the walls grew more ominous, depicting the darkest pages from the Book of Prophecy. Torchlight flickered along the mage-stone walls, casting shadows in his wake. Rafe felt as if he traveled backwards in time, to the very origins of the Order. 

The long hallway came to an abrupt end. Two towering doors of ironwood painted a deep midnight blue blocked the way forward. Cold seeped through the ancient wood like a warning, casting a chill on the corridor. 

Rafe found the others already assembled, eleven blue-robed masters, their hoods raised in seclusion. No words were spoken, for none were needed. He bowed towards them and then extended his right hand, revealing the iron ring. One at a time, the others mimicked his action, till each revealed a ring twin to his own, the twelve rings of conclave. 

“By tradition, the oldest goes first.” From a basket, the wizen master selected a candle as thick as a man’s wrist and as long as a sword. Lighting it from a glowing brazier, he held the candle aloft and approached the double doors. A pair of iron Seeing Eyes adorned the wood. Pitted with rust, the ironwork was old and brittle; a testament to a thousand years of use, yet the workmanship was superb. Inset in the elaborate handle was a Dahlmar crystal, gleaming pale as chiseled ice, a warning and a test. 

Rafe shivered to see the crystal, knowing the Order’s oldest enemy had Awakened within the very walls of the monastery. He wondered if the ancient builders had foreseen the threat. 

The master grasped the handle with his ringed hand, setting his bare palm against the crystal. 

Rafe tensed, but the crystal remained dormant. 

The master stepped back, waiting. 

The ancient doors shivered opened of their own accord, just wide enough for a single man to slip through. A wintery gust burst through the narrow opening, snatching at braziers. Shielding the candle, the monk stepped into the beyond.

The doors shuddered closed, swallowing the monk whole. 

Peace returned to the hallway, yet anxiety settled like a mantle on Rafe’s shoulders. The monastery had ways of protecting its secrets; he wondered what trials lay ahead. Staring at the others, he silently pleaded for answers, but no one spoke. Rafe stifled the urge to pace, trying to mirror their apparent calm. Locked in silence, he waited as the others took their turn at the door. 

One by one, the masters passed the test of crystal and stepped beyond the ironbound door. The last master, a woman with rich auburn hair, gave him a smile before gliding through the doorway. “Watch your step and do not falter.” The door closed behind her and Rafe was left alone. With no one to watch, he began to pace, fidgeting with his ring, silently counting the beats of his heart.

A chime sounded signaling Rafe’s turn. Choosing a tall candle, he lit it, and held it upright like a sword. He approached the doors, setting his ringed hand to the crystal. For half a heartbeat he wondered what would happen if the crystal flared red. Perhaps the door had a way of slaying harlequins, but thankfully his question went unanswered. 

The crystal remained dormant and the ironbound doors shivered open. 

Rafe muttered a prayer and stepped boldly into the unknown. 

His boots slipped on ice. “Bloody hell!”  He struggled to keep his footing. The doors closed behind him with a solid thud. His heart thundering, Rafe shuffled backward, clinging to the ironwood. Winter snatched at his robes. A cold wind howled around him, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He stood outside the monastery, on a narrow ledge. A slender stone causeway, barely wide enough to hold a single man, arched across a bottomless abyss. Darkness lurked on either side, like a hungry maw waiting to be fed. Rafe leaned against the doors, a solid haven against the fatal drop. Refusing to look down, he stared aloft. A narrow slice of stars glittered overhead. Cold as ice chips in a moonless sky, the stars offered little comfort. In the dead of night, his candle provided the only light, a frail pinprick guttering in the wind. Fingernails digging into candle wax, Rafe took a steadying breath and stepped forward. 

“Seek knowledge…Protect knowledge…Share knowledge,” he whispered the Order’s creed like a mantra, his words snatched away by howling wind. One foot in front of the other, he edged his way forward. Halfway across he wondered why the builders had not added a railing, but then he remembered something from his novice year. Rumors spoke of a stone bridge that would reject anyone who dared cross without the proper token, flinging the intruder to a terrible death. He wondered if this was the bridge. The monastery had ways of protecting its secrets…and testing the mettle of its monks, as if knowledge alone was not enough to join the conclave. 

Rafe shuffled across the narrow span, wary of ice. A cold wind battered against him, pushing him towards the edge. Hunched forward, he rushed the last few steps, cursing the ancient builders. 

A single door waited on the far side. Ancient ironwood, painted a deep midnight blue, perfectly fitted into the sheer cliff wall. Chiseled above the door, a pair of massive Seeing Eyes stared down at him. Icicles hung from the right eye, the frozen tears of winter. Rafe touched the door with his ring hand and it opened. Relieved, he rushed inside, pushing the door shut against the winter wind. A cold gust followed him. Candles guttered, sending the light dancing across midnight blue walls. 

Silence returned with the closing of the door. A solemn stillness washed across Rafe, making his hasty entrance seem like a sacrilege. He bowed and smoothed his robes, trying to collect his dignity. Taking a deep breath, he raised his stare and was sundered by a sense of awe. Star constellations shimmered above each master like a halo. In the dimness of the rock-hewn chamber, the celestial lights hovered over each monk as if the very stars guided their thoughts. 

The wind battered the door like a knocking ghost and Rafe realized he was gawking like a traveler fresh-come to the monastery. Embarrassed, he shuffled forward, not knowing what to do.

A kindly voice said, “The first seat to your left. Set your ringed hand against the backrest to awaken your star sign.” 

Rafe walked to the appointed platform, the one closest to the door. Eighteen raised wooden platforms circled the oval chamber. Five were forever shrouded in shadows, a testament to their lost rings. One glowed with a brilliant star sign, the one at the head of the chamber, yet the seat stood empty. Blue cloaked masters claimed the others. Sitting cross-legged, they remained statue-still, their blue robes puddled around them like still waters, their star patterns glowing overhead like guiding lights. 

Humbled to be among the wise, Rafe set his ringed hand against the backrest. Crystals inset in the wood blazed alight, awakened by ancient magic. Placing his candle in a niche on the floor, Rafe took a seat beneath the glowing Hourglass, the symbol of time and the ever-changing seasons. 

A solemn hush settled over the chamber.  

“Each conclave starts with meditation. May the wisdom of the Lords of Light fill your minds.” 

Seeking to mimic the others, Rafe sat cross-legged, his blue robes pooled around him in warm folds. He tried to meditate, but his gaze leaped around the chamber, drinking in the details. Carved from sheer rock, the walls were painted a deep midnight blue, devoid of calligraphy or any adornment. A subtle cold seeped through the chamber, proof of the mountain’s chilly embrace. Rafe shivered. So different from the mage-stone monastery, the chamber reeked of age and ancient intent, a secret hollow hidden from the world. And then his gaze found a deeper riddle, a small blue door cunningly set into the chamber’s floor. A trap door, perhaps to a hidden vault, he wondered what it held. A chill shivered down his spine. Riddles wrapped in secrets, such was the Order’s way, but sometimes it made him uneasy. His gaze sought the glowing star patterns, a comfort in the dark. Water dripped in the depths, like the pluck of a single harp string…or the heartbeat of a mountain. Lulled by the gentle sound and the soothing light, Rafe’s thoughts drifted. 

“A young one has joined us, a new ring bearer.” 

Rafe startled alert. 

The oldest master spoke, his voice a dry rasp beneath the star sign of the Hermit. “As this is his first conclave, he must hear our rules. Within the Star Chamber, we have no names. We are known only by our star signs, a symbol that we leave personal ambitions behind.” The Hermit gestured toward the empty seat. “As always, we serve at the bidding of the Grand Master.”

Rafe stared at the empty chair with its glowing star pattern. As with all things in the monastery, the vacant seat held another, deeper meaning. By its very emptiness, the platform bestowed a unique power upon the Grand Master, the power of anonymity. Anonymity was something the southern kings would never understand and certainly never value; yet in many ways it defined the very nature of the Kiralynn Order. Cloaked in secrecy, the monks took the long view, using subtle means to achieve their ends. Staring at the empty chair, Rafe wondered how the Order’s deep seated desire for concealment would influence the coming war. 

The oldest among them struck a small gong. The sweet sound shimmered through the chamber like a blessing. “This conclave is now sealed.”

The others made a graceful gesture, closing their hands in front of their mouths as if to catch their words and then pressing their fists to their chests, a silent vow of secrecy. Rafe hastily copied the gesture. 

Rafe watched the others. He knew most of their names, but he followed the conclave’s edict, thinking of them by their star signs. It said much that the oldest monk sat beneath the constellation of the Hermit. 

The Hermit spoke first, his voice a dry rasp, full of age and authority. “The Grand Master has called a conclave to hear your wisdom. Another owl has come to the monastery, turning a page in the Book of Prophecy. The watch fires of the Octagon are lit.”

Rafe swallowed a gasp, tasting his own fear. He’d never expected that prophecy to be fulfilled in his own lifetime. 

 “And what of the crystal dagger?” The question came from the Hunter, an auburn-haired woman of middling years. “We hoped to stop the Mordant before he came to his power. Has the blade bearer failed?” 

“Yes and no.” The Hermit answered. “A wanderer resides among the Octagon knights. It was his owl that brought warning this very night. The bearer of the crystal blade has crossed over the Dragon Spine Mountains, following the Mordant into the north.”

The Hunter eased back in her seat. “Then there is still hope that the Mordant can be stopped.” 

The Weaver shook her head. “Do not be deceived by false hopes. The Book of Prophecy is clear.” Her voice deepened, quoting the ancient text. “When the red comet tears the sky and the watch towers of the Last Knights are lit, then war will come like a dark plague to Erdhe, even to the very gates of the Seeing Hand.”

Such an ill omen, Rafe shuddered to hear it spoken aloud. 

“War at our gates.” The Scorpion’s voice was grim. “Darkness threatens to swallow all knowledge. But even if the southern kingdoms fail, the monastery will protect its own.” 

Rafe thought of the bridge he’d just crossed and realized the ancient builders had prepared for this very threat. 

“Walls of Mist will not save us.” The Weaver shook her head, her silver hair gleaming in the candlelight. “Never forget that the Mordant escaped with an amulet keyed to the Guardian Mist. Our best defense is lost.” Her gaze circled the chamber. “The Kiralynn Order has ever fought the Darkness but we must also be prudent. The knowledge entrusted to us must not fall to the Dark. We must move deeper into the mountains, claiming a new sanctuary.”

The Scorpion said, “The Dark Lord will loose more harlequins.”

A grim pall settled across the chamber. 

“The southern kingdoms have forgotten the harlequins.”

The Hunter said, “They are learning, though it is a grim lesson.”

“We must expose the reborn before they can betray those who serve the Light.”

The Archer said, “A harlequin was seeded into the court of Lanverness, a traitor to lead the Red Horn rebellion…and we did not see it.” 

“They say his eyes glowed red when he was boiled alive.” The Dragon scowled. “Boiled alive in front of half of Pellanor.”

“I was there.” The Hunter spoke, her voice grim with remembering. “While the rest of you hide in the mountains studying ancient lore, I have roamed the southern kingdoms seeking the enemy. I stood in the crowd and watched as the queen ordered the traitor’s execution. The Lord Turner was the last to die. His parboiled corpse capered in the cauldron, his eyes glowing with the red light of hell. The queen caught more than she expected.” 

Rafe stared at the Hunter, unable to imagine the horror of meeting a harlequin. 

The Hunter pressed her point. “A harlequin sat at the queen’s council table and none here suspected it.” 

“We are not infallible.”

The truth sent a spike of fear through Rafe. 

“Prophecies have a way of twisting to their own purpose.”

“Yet we cannot afford mistakes, not when it comes to the reborn.” The Hunter’s gaze pierced the gloom like a hawk. “The Archer has the truth of it. The Dark Lord calls all his minions to battle. This will be no ordinary war. We must find the demons before they twist the future to Darkness.” 

“And there will be a dark heart hidden among the princes of the sword.” Everyone turned to stare at the Weaver. “The Book of Prophecies is rife with warnings of harlequins hidden among the royal houses. One quatrain in particular points toward the Octagon Knights. The Order must do more to expose the hidden evil.”

The Hermit answered, “Aeroth was sent to Castlegard and the knights passed the test.”

“Castlegard was not enough.” The Weaver’s voice snapped with warning. “The knights have holdings all along the Dragon Spine Mountains.” 

The Archer said, “And now an owl brings word that the Mordant has escaped into the north. Our most dire prophecies rush to be born. If the Mordant brings an army south, the Octagon must hold.” His words fell like a threat, choking the air from the chamber like a hangman’s noose. 

The Hermit broke the silence. “The hidden harlequins must be found, starting with the Octagon Knights. The Grand Master will be so advised.”

“So be it.” Words of agreement circled the chamber. 

Rafe huddled beneath his robes, feeling a sudden chill. 

“The harlequins are not our only problem.” The Archer spoke with grim certainty.  “History tells us that the Mordant craves the powers of the ancient wizards.

The Hunter whispered what others refused to say. “Soul magic.”

“Just so.” The Archer nodded. “The Mordant is patient. Long has he scoured the land for lost magic, collecting focuses and hoarding them toward a dire future. Now, after a thousand years of preparation, the second cataclysm is nearly upon us. The Mordant has waited till all other magic has faded from Erdhe. With a single focus he can strike terror into the hearts of men.” The Archer’s gaze roved the chamber. “Swords alone will not defeat him. We must find a way to counter his magic or Erdhe will fall.” 

The Weaver shook her silveredhead. “But most of our magic is peaceful in nature.”

“Then we must be creative. And we must have a second testing.” 

Silence thundered through the chamber. 

The Archer leaned forward, his voice intense. “You know of what I speak. The Order holds many focuses that remain unclaimed. We must test every monk, acolyte, and novice, hoping to waken more bonds.”

“And what of the relics?” The Scales voice sounded like a doom.

For a dozen heartbeats no one spoke.

“We don’t dare.”

The Archer exploded in anger. “How can we not dare!” His dark gaze challenged the others. “The time of destiny is upon us. We must test the relics. We need to know if anyone here can wield them.” 

The Scorpion hissed, “Such power should not be wielded by mere men.” 

“The Mordant will not hesitate to use all his powers.”

“And if we fight power with power the Order will become just as evil as the Mordant!” The Scorpion glared at the Archer. “Magic is dangerous and unpredictable. Once unleashed, it has a way of bringing unintended consequences. Remember the Deep Green…and the foul tales of the Pit.”

The Hermit nodded, his voice reluctant. “In the War of Wizards, the Order underestimated how far evil would go to win. We must learn from our mistakes and prepare for the worst.” 

“But the relics?” The Scorpion shook his head. “I fear for Erdhe if the relics are unleashed.” 

“True, but the Mordant must be checked or Darkness will cover Erdhe.” 

The Scale’s voice rang like a portent of doom. “Who knows what ancient magics the Mordant has hidden in his lair? We may face legends ere this war is ended.” 

“But the relics?” The Dragon entered the discussion. “I agree with the Scorpion and counsel for caution.”

The Archer answered, “We’ve all read the prophecies and seen the signs. We are way past caution.” He shook his head. “I’m not arguing for their use, only that we be prepared. Even the oldest relics may be needed…if any here can wield them.” 

The Hermit intervened, sounding the gong to end the discussion. “Is it the will of this conclave that the unclaimed focuses be tested?”

“So be it.” The replies echoed through the chamber. Rafe lent his agreement with the others. 

The Hermit nodded. “The focuses will be tested. And what of the relics?”

No one spoke. 

Rafe’s gaze was drawn to the seat reserved for the Grand Master. The star constellation of the Hierophant glowed bright above the empty chair. In the celestial hierarchy, the Hierophant served as heaven’s guide to knowledge and wisdom, a fitting star sign for the leader of the Kiralynn Order. But the Hierophant also had a second, more obscure meaning, the wielder of arcane mysteries, the master of magic. Rafe wondered how much magic the Grand Master wielded…and if it would be enough to stop the Mordant. 

The voting commenced but the conclave was evenly divided. The Hermit nodded. “The relics will remain untouched.” 

Rafe was secretly relieved, but he wondered if he’d cast the right vote. He glanced at the Archer, not surprised to find frustration glowering on his face, but he did not protest the outcome. 

The Weaver said, “We should have done more to aid the bearer of the crystal dagger.”

The Swan said, “Do not give up on the blade bearer. That one started as a pawn amongst knights but she will not remain a pawn for long. She has dared to cross into the north, into the very lair of the Mordant. The north will change her. She will become more…or she will fail.” The words fell like a stone, like a prophecy…or a doom.

The Archer frowned. “She has gone beyond our reach. But I believe she will surprise us all, even surpassing the prophecies. Everyone save the Grand Master overlooked the princess of Castlegard. We all expected the crystal blade to choose a different bearer.”

“The princess from Navarre.” 

“Just so.” The Archer nodded. “That is why she was called here for her Wayfaring.”

Rafe had watched the princess at weapons practice, spending long hours wielding her sword. He’d seen her determination and liked her for it. 

“The Mordant attacked her when he made his escape, as if he recognized the threat.” 

“He could not have known what he did.” The Scales shook his head, his gray hair peppered with a hint of black. “It had to be an accidental meeting, or the cursed luck of the Dark Lord.” 

“Either way, the girl survived. Recovered from her wounds, she petitions the Grand Master to be released from her Wayfaring.”

“Yes, she speaks of visions, or are they merely an excuse to leave?” 

The Archer glared at the Weaver. “You should know better than most. Perhaps the gods have gifted us with a second seer.”

 “But we’ve barely had time to train her.” The Hermit’s voice lashed with protest. “You’d loose another pawn into the great game?” 

“The princess is bound by her Wayfaring. She must finish what she has started.” 

“But the Order owes her!” The words burst out of Rafe.

The others turned to stare. 

Rafe swallowed, realizing he’d spoken out loud.

The Hermit said, “The Hourglass wishes to add his voice to this conclave.” 

The old man’s glare could melt granite but Rafe refused to be cowed. “We invited her here. We promised her sanctuary, yet she was brutally attacked within our halls. A debt is owed to the princess of Navarre.”

“And are you the one to pay it?” 

Such an odd question from the Weaver, Rafe did not know how to reply. 

The Archer said, “The Hourglass has the truth of it. She was attacked under our protection, a debt is owed.” His stare circled the chamber. “I believe the Navarren princess has a part to play in the coming war. I served as the girl’s inquisitor when she first arrived at the monastery, taking her interview in the garden of contemplation.” His voice dropped to a hush. “So few women dare to take up the sword, it is almost a sign of greatness. Like the princess of Castlegard, I believe she is another touched by the gods. I agree with the Hourglass and lend my voice to those who petition the Grand Master to release her. Loose the Osprey and see what damage she can do.” 

The Weaver said, “But she should not go alone.” Her gaze turned to Rafe. “Since you petition the conclave on her behalf, will you join her quest?” 

“Me?” Rafe was shocked by the question. 

The Hermit said, “You should know that if you choose to leave the monastery you must forfeit the iron ring.” 

Rafe’s hand curled into a fist.

The Dragon said, “Be warned. If you give up the ring it may never come your way again.” 

The Hermit smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. “Do you stand by your convictions?” 

Rafe bowed his head, studying the iron ring. He felt the other’s stares pounding against him, felt the weight of decision crushing his shoulders. He’d just gained the iron ring, a door to wisdom, a key to so many riddles, yet he felt the Order owed a debt to the princess. He’d always yearned to make a difference, perhaps this was destiny’s way of pointing him in the right direction. “I will give up the ring to aid the princess.”

A murmur of approval rippled through the chamber. 

Rafe pulled the iron band from his finger.

The Hermit said, “Not yet.” This time his voice held a measure of respect. “You will need the ring to safely cross the chasm.

So the rumors are true, Rafe settled the ring back on his finger. Stunned by his own decision, he heard little of the discussion. He was leaving the monastery for the chaos of the southern kingdoms. Dire prophecies stalked Erdhe, but perhaps he’d find a way to serve the Light. Regret warred with his sense of duty. He twirled the iron ring, wondering if his sacrifice would make a difference.
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