The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 24 Resolution

They came in sight of the clusters of houses, farms mostly, just to the north of Palmaris, and were heartened indeed to see that many of the folk had come out of the walled city and returned to their homes.

"The region is returning to normal," Connor remarked. He was sitting astride his horse, riding next to Pony, who along with Bel-li'mar Juraviel was up on Symphony, while Elbryan and Roger walked in front, flanking Brother Youseff, whose hands were bound tightly behind his back. "We will know peace again, and soon," Connor promised, and that seemed a likely notion to all the others, for they had seen no monsters all the way to this point.

"Caer Tinella and Landsdown may have been the last monstrous strongholds in the region," the ranger reasoned. "What few remain there should prove of little trouble to Palmaris' garrison." The ranger stopped then, taking Symphony's bridle and bringing the horse to a halt. He looked up at his two friends, and both Pony and Juraviel understood.

"We do not dare enter the city," Elbryan said to Connor. "Nor even get close enough that those folk in the farms might see us." He looked at Brother Youseff as he finished the thought. "Even knowing of us seems to endanger people."

"Because you recognize that you are rightly branded as out-laws," Brother Youseff retorted sharply. "Do you believe that the Church will cease its hunt for you?" He laughed wickedly, seeming not at all the prisoner here.

"It may be that the Church will have other, more pressing prob-lems when the truth of your actions at St. Precious becomes known," Connor put in, stepping Greystone up between the monk and the ranger.

"And you have proof of these absurd accusations?" Brother Youseff was quick to reply.

"We shall see," Connor answered, and turned back to Elbryan and the two on Symphony. "Roger and I will deliver him to my uncle," he explained. "We will use the secular channels of power before trying to decide how much of the Church will side with this dog and his masters."

"You might be starting a small war," Pony reasoned, for it was well- known that the Church was nearly as powerful as the state - and some who had witnessed the magical powers of St.-Mere-Abelle considered the Church even more powerful.

"If such a war is to begin, then it was started by those who murdered Abbot Dobrinion, not by me or my uncle," Connor replied with conviction. "I am only following the proper course in response to that heinous act, and in defense of my own life."

"We will wait for word," Elbryan put in, not wanting to belabor this point any longer.

"Roger and I will return to you as soon as possible," Connor agreed. "I know that you are anxious to be on your way." He was careful to end the thought there, for he did not want the dangerous monk prisoner to know that Elbryan intended to go straightaway to St.-Mere-Abelle. Given the wonders he had seen of stone magic, Connor had thought it foolish that the ranger openly declared to Youseff that they would be going after their captured friends. The less precise information this dangerous man held, the better for all of them.

Connor motioned to Elbryan and turned his horse aside, the ranger walking beside him, away from the others. "If I cannot get back out to you, then farewell, Nightbird," the nobleman said in all sincerity.

Elbryan followed the nobleman's gaze back to Pony.

"I would be a liar if I did not admit that I was envious of you," Connor went on. "I, too, loved her; who could not, after witnessing her beauty?"

Elbryan had no practical response, and so he said nothing.

"But it is obvious where lies Jill's ... Pony's heart," Connor added after a long and uncomfortable pause. "That heart is for you," he said, looking the ranger in the eye.

"You do not intend to return to us," Elbryan suddenly under-stood. "You will deliver the monk, then stay in Palmaris."

The man shrugged noncommittally. "It is painful to see her," he admitted. "Painful and wonderful all at once. I have not yet de-cided which is the more prominent emotion."

"Farewell," Elbryan replied.

"And to you," said Connor. He looked again to Pony. "May I say my good- byes to her privately?" he asked.

Elbryan offered a consenting smile - not that he considered this in any way his decision. If Pony wanted to speak privately with Connor, then she would do so, whatever he, Elbryan, might think of it. He made things easier for Connor, feeling some honest sym-pathy for the man, by walking back to Pony and delivering the message. After waiting for Juraviel to slip down from Symphony, the woman urged the horse out to join the man.

"I may not return," Connor explained.

Pony nodded, still unsure why Connor had come out in the first place.

"I had to see you again," he went on, understanding her un-spoken question. "I had to know that you were well. I had to..." He paused and sighed deeply.

"What do you need from me?" Pony asked bluntly. "What can we say that has not been said?"

"You can forgive me," Connor blurted, and then tried desper-ately to explain. "I was hurt... my pride. I did not want to send you away, but could not stand to see you, to know that you did not love me..."

Pony's smile silenced him. "I never blamed you, so there is nothing for me to forgive," she replied quietly. "I find what hap-pened between us to be tragic, for both of us. We had a special friendship, and I shall always treasure that."

"But what I did, on our wedding night..." Connor protested.

"It is what you did not do that allowed me to place no blame," said Pony. "You could have taken me, and if you had, I would never have forgiven you - indeed, I might have used my magic to cut you down on the field when first I saw you again!" She knew that to be a lie as soon as she heard the words come out of her mouth. Whatever her feelings toward Connor, she could not use the gemstones, the sacred gifts of God, in such a vengeful way.

"I am sorry," Connor said sincerely.

"As am I," Pony replied. She leaned over and kissed the man on the cheek. "Farewell, Connor Bildeborough," she said. "You see the enemy plainly now. Fight well." And she turned her horse about and walked back to Elbryan.

Soon after, Pony, Elbryan, and Juraviel were heading back to the north, full of hope, but making plans for a journey that they knew might be as dark as their trip to Aida to face the demon dactyl. They hoped Connor's mission would be fruitful, and quickly, and that the King, and the sensible and godly members of the Abellican Order, if there were any left, would turn against this wicked Father Abbot who had so wrongly imprisoned Bradwarden and the Chilichunks. They hoped, too, to find their friends healthy and free before they ever entered St.-Mere-Abelle.

But practicality told them otherwise, for such political actions might take months, even years. Bradwarden and the Chilichunks could not wait, did not deserve to wait, and so the three planned to set off for the abbey on All Saints Bay as soon as Roger, and per-haps Connor, returned to them.

It was with equal determination that Roger and Connor strode toward Palmaris. Connor held great faith in his uncle Rochefort. Ever since he was a child, Connor had looked up to the man as someone who could get things done, a great man who shaped life in the city. All the many times Connor had gotten himself into trouble, his uncle Rochefort had taken care of things quietly and effectively.

Brother Youseff recognized that confidence in the man, both from his boasts of what his uncle would now accomplish and the swaggering manner in which he sat in his saddle.

"You should understand, Master Bildeborough, the ramifica-tions of being in league with those two," the monk taunted.

"If you do not shut your mouth, I will gag you," Connor promised.

"But the embarrassment to your uncle!" Youseff pressed. "What fun it shall be when the King learns that Baron Bildeborough's nephew is traveling with outlaws."

"I am indeed," Connor said, looking down at the man. "Now."

Brother Youseff was not amused. "Your accusation is ridiculous, of course," he said. "And your uncle will recognize that fact and apologize profusely to the Church - and perchance the Church could be persuaded to accept the apology and not excommunicate him."

Connor scoffed openly, not really impressed, and certainly not be-lieving this dangerous monk's words. Fear did lick at Connor's thoughts, though, for himself and for his uncle. He tried to hold fast to his confidence in the great man, the Baron of Palmaris, but reminded himself repeatedly not to underestimate the power of the Church.

"Perhaps even you two could be forgiven," Youseff went on slyly.

"Forgiven for defending ourselves?" Roger quipped.

"Neither of you was involved," Youseff replied. "Only the girl and the other one. And perhaps the elf - no such creature was known to us, and thus his fate is yet to be determined."

Again Connor scoffed. For this man who had stalked him at the Way, who had tried to catch him to kill him, to insist that he wasn't involved was purely ridiculous.

"Ah yes, the girl," Brother Youseff went on, changing his tone, looking up out of the corner of his eye to measure Connor's re-sponse. "How sweet that capture will prove," he said lewdly. "Per-haps I might find time to take pleasure with her before I present her to my superiors."

The monk saw the strike coming - indeed he had invited it! -??and he didn't waver now, but let Connor smack him across the back of his head. It wasn't a hard blow, but one that Youseff could con-vincingly use as he dove down to the ground, slamming his left shoulder squarely and pushing through the blow. He heard the pop-ping sound as the bone dislocated, felt the waves of pain washing over him, and he cried out, seemingly from the pain, but really to cover the movements as he brought his arms closer together behind his back, changing the angle of the bindings.

"We are almost to the city!" Roger scolded. "Why did you hit him?"

"Did you not want to do exactly the same thing?" Connor replied, and Roger had no answer. Roger went for the fallen monk then, as did Connor, sliding down from Greystone.

The security of Youseff's ties depended on not being able to bring his arms farther back behind him, but now, with the shoulder popped out of place, that was no longer true. He got his left hand free in moments, but held his position, keeping his hands close to-gether, ignoring the numbing pain in his left shoulder.

Roger was beside him first, stooping to put his arms around the man.

Youseff bided his time - this one was not the most dangerous of the pair.

Then Connor was there, helping Roger hoist the monk back to his feet.

Faster than either of them could realize, Brother Youseff tucked his feet under him and came up straight. The binding ropes flew wide as his right arm swung about, fingers and thumb locked in a rigid C position. That deadly hook drove right into Connor's throat, stunning the man, smashing against his exposed flesh, then driving right through so that Youseff held Connor's windpipe in his hand.

He looked the nobleman right in the eye, unblinking, uncaring, then tore out Connor's throat.

Connor Bildeborough fell away, clutching at his mortal wound, gasping for breath that would not come, trying futilely to stem the explosion of blood that rose about him in a crimson mist, that backed down his open windpipe into heaving lungs.

Youseff spun and struck, knocking stunned Roger to the ground.

The young man wisely discerned that he could do nothing for Connor and little against the powerful monk. He was moving as soon as he hit the ground, and while Youseff turned back to taunt the dying Connor, Roger managed to get to the horse.

"I think I will go and kill your uncle next," Youseff said with an evil grin.

Connor heard him, but only from far, far away. He was falling, he felt, slipping deeper and deeper into a blackness, deeper within himself. He felt cold and alone, all noises diminishing to nothing-ness. His vision narrowed, became points of light.

Bright and warm.

He found one place of great comfort, one place of hope: he had made his peace with Jill.

Everything was gone now, except the light, the warmth. Connor's spirit walked toward it.

Roger held on dearly to one stirrup as Connor's frightened horse bolted, dragging him along. Behind him he heard the monk coming hard; Youseff had taken up the chase.

Growling against the pain, Roger pulled himself closer to the horse as he ran alongside it. He strengthened his grasp on the saddle, then reached back and slapped Greystone hard, spurring the horse on. He managed to glance back as he did, and saw Youseff, running fast, closing ground.

Using all of his agility, every ounce of his strength, Roger pulled himself up, up. He somehow got his feet off the ground, and with the drag gone, the horse put some ground between itself and the running monk.

Roger didn't even try to gain a proper seat, but just pulled him-self over the saddle sidelong, hanging head down, grimacing with each painful jolt.

The fine horse left the monk behind.

A frustrated Brother Youseff kicked hard at the ground. He glanced up and down the road, both ways, wondering which course he should take. He could go back to Palmaris - with Connor dead, there would likely be no accusations raised against him concerning the murdered abbot. Certainly the word of the rogues in the north would not be suf-ficient to bring such charges against the Abellican Church.

But while he didn't fear the Baron of Palmaris or the monks of St. Precious, the thought of reporting back to Father Abbot Markwart with news of the disaster made the hairs on the back of Youseff's neck stand up. Dandelion was dead, but so was the troublesome Master Bildeborough.

Youseff looked the way Roger had gone, to the north. He had to get to him before Roger could rendezvous with the others, had to ensure complete surprise when he sprang back upon the woman. And Youseff knew he would indeed go back after her, and her two companions. They had only beaten him the first time because they knew he was coming, but now...

Then he could report back to the Father Abbot.

Brother Youseff started to run, legs pumping tirelessly, carrying him over the miles.

Roger was riding easily, but quickly. The monk hadn't given up, he suspected, for they both knew that Roger meant to get back to Elbryan and Pony, which Youseff could not allow. Still, Roger was not too worried, for with the horse he could keep ahead.

But barely, he saw when he climbed the side of one hillock, looking back down the road to see the monk, far in the distance, but still running!

"Impossible," Roger muttered, for they must have covered more than five miles by then. Yet the monk's speed seemed as great as if he had just taken up the chase!

Roger climbed back on the horse and started away at a faster pace. He could tell that the mount was tired - sweat glistened onthe golden coat - but he couldn't afford to let Greystone slow down. He glanced back many times, hoping, praying, that the monk could not outlast his mount. On and on he went, staying to the road, more concerned with speed than stealth, knowing that the monk, incredible as the man was, could not match his horse's pace.

He was riding easily again soon after, confident that he had left his pursuer far behind, and plotting the best course to find his friends; they had arranged to meet at an abandoned farmhouse no more than ten miles farther.

The horse stumbled, and Roger's eyes went wide when he saw the gleam of metal to the side of the road. Greystone was limping now, having thrown a shoe.

Roger was down to the ground in an instant, running to retrieve the shoe, then back to the horse to see what leg it had come from. The answer was obvious before he even approached, for the horse was limping badly now, favoring its rear left leg. Gingerly, Roger hooked his arm about that limb and bent it up at the knee.

The hoof was in bad shape. Roger didn't know much about horses, but realized that this one couldn't go on unless that shoe was replaced. And there was no way he could do that.

"Bloody powrie luck," the young man cursed, glancing back ner-vously down the road. It took all of Roger's willpower to control his mounting fears, to force himself to think clearly, to reason through the problem. First he considered running, but he dismissed that thought, sensing that the monk would find and catch him long before he got to Elbryan and the others. He then wondered if any houses this far north were inhabited once more, thinking he might find someone to replace the shoe, but again he understood that he had not the time.

"The fight is mine," Roger said aloud, needing to hear the words as he continued to gaze back down the road. He went to the saddlebags then, for he and Connor had collected many items on the journey south, looking for something - anything! - that might help him now.

Most of the items were simply general supplies for the road: ropes and a grapnel, a small shovel, pots and pans, extra clothing and the like. One item caught his attention, though. At the last stop, at the very farm where Elbryan and the others would wait, Roger had taken a come-along, a small block-and-tackle unit favored by farmers for hoisting bales, or even for pulling in stubborn bulls.

Roger held the item in his hand, studying it, trying to find some way to put it to use. Several images flashed in his mind, and he fo-cused at last on one in particular, one that utilized his abilities. He couldn't outfight the monk, he knew, but he might be able to outwit the man.

By the time Brother Youseff got to that spot, Roger and the horse were gone, but the horseshoe remained, right in the middle of the road. The monk stopped and examined the shoe, then stood and glanced all about curiously. He couldn't imagine that the young man had been so foolish as to leave the telltale item behind.

Youseff searched ahead on the road and saw no fresh tracks be-yond a dozen or so feet. To the side of the trail, he easily found signs of the limping horse's passage, and on the other side, a spot of blood and a lighter set of tracks, the footprints of a light man. Now it made sense to the monk. The horse had thrown the shoe and had then thrown the young man. Smiling widely, the monk started down the sloping ground, toward a copse of trees, in which, he suspected, he would find his second victim.

From high in one of those trees, Roger Lockless, rope, grapnel, and come-along in hand, watched the monk's confident approach. Youseff slowed as he neared the trees, moving with more cau-tion, darting from cover to cover.

Roger lost sight of the monk when he entered the copse. Again he was amazed when Youseff emerged at another point, quite far into the trees, for the man had traveled many yards without even stirring the thick underbrush. Roger looked to his items, to the finger he had purposely pricked to leave a blood trail, and won-dered if his wits would be enough.

It was too late to change his mind about his plans, though, for Youseff was right at the base of the tree now and had spotted the last drop of blood.

The monk's head slowly turned up, staring through the leafy shadows, his gaze at last settling on the dark shape high among the branches, hugging tight to the trunk.

"If you come down, I will spare your life," the monk called.

Roger doubted that, but still, he almost began a negotiation.

"If you make me climb all the way up there to drag you out, then know that your death will be most unpleasant," Youseff went on.

"I never did anything against your Church!" Roger replied, playing the part of a frightened child, which at that moment did not seem to him to be too much of a stretch.

"And thus I will spare your life," Youseff repeated. "Now come down."

"Go away," Roger cried.

"Come down!" Youseff yelled. "I give you one last chance."

Roger didn't reply, other than to whimper loudly enough for the monk to hear him.

As Youseff started to climb, following a predictable course among the branches, Roger watched the monk closely. He tugged on one rope for the hundredth time, testing it. One end was tied fast to the tree, the other secured to one end of the come-along. A second rope, fastened to the grapnel, was tied to the come-along's other end.

The knots were secure and the ropes were the right length, Roger reminded himself, but still, when he considered the enor-mity of his plan, the need for perfect timing and more than a bit of luck, he nearly swooned.

Youseff was more than halfway up now, fully twenty feet from the ground.

"One more branch," Roger muttered.

Up came the monk, planting his feet on the last solid limb of the lower trunk. He would have to pause there, Roger knew, and map out the rest of the climb, for he was in an open area that afforded no ready branches.

As soon as Youseff was in place, Roger Lockless took his rope firmly in hand and leaped out. He plummeted between a pair of branches, getting a few nasty scratches in the process. Then, some feet out from the trunk, he hit another branch, as he had planned, and kicked out, launching himself on a circuitous route about the tree. He crashed and bounced repeatedly but held fast to his cir-cular, descending course, passing the startled Youseff barely an arm's length away.

How Roger breathed easier as he continued around, for Brother Youseff had been too surprised to leap out at him.

"Damn you!" the monk cried. Youseff had at first thought that Roger was using the rope to get ahead of him to the ground, but suddenly, as the loop tightened about him, pinning him to the trunk, as Roger swung around and below, he understood.

On the last turn, Roger, holding the rope in only one hand now, took up the other rope and launched the grapnel at a cluster of white birch. Then, hoping it would catch, Roger braced his feet as he came around the base of the trunk, the first length of rope playing out to the end. He dug in then, pulling with all his strength to keep the rope taut about Youseff.

He knew he didn't have long, for with the many branches inter-fering with the pull, the rope was not tight enough to hold the agile and strong monk for long.

Not yet.

Roger pulled on the rope in the birch trees with one hand, using the other to crank the come-along and take up some slack. He groaned aloud as he felt the grapnel slipping through tangle. Finally, though, it caught fast.

Up above, Youseff was laughing and trying to extricate himself. He had the rope up above his elbows now and would soon slip under it.

Roger gave one final tug, and then, seeing that the slack was nearly gone, he dove for the come-along, cranking hard and fast with both hands.

Youseff had just started to lift the rope over his head when it snapped taut, slamming him back against the tree trunk. "What?" he asked, for he knew that the skinny little man couldn't pull so powerfully. He could see well enough below to know that no horse had come into the area, and so he stubbornly pushed back against the rope.

He heard the crack of a branch below, breaking under the strain, and was loose for just an instant before the rope pulled hard again, squeezing him against the trunk. Youseff's left arm was free and under the rope now, but the binding crossed diagonally down his shoulder, right under his other arm, pinning him tightly. He con-tinued his stubborn fight as the rope tightened even more.

Roger wasn't looking up, was just pulling on the come-along's crank with all his strength. The rope was no longer even vibrating, was out straight and tight, and so Roger finally stopped, fearing he would pull one of the birch trees right out of the ground.

He stepped out from under the tree and looked up to see the squirming, helplessly pinned monk. Now he did smile, with absolute relief. "I will return," he promised. "With friends. It seems that you now have two murders to answer for!" And he turned and ran off.

Youseff paid the words little heed, just continued struggling against the impossibly tight binding. He squirmed and shifted, thought to try and slip out under the rope.

He realized that to be a foolish move almost immediately - but too late - as the rope slipped up an inch, creasing the side of his neck.




Belli'mar Juraviel was first into the copse, moving ahead of El-bryan, Pony, and Roger. The sun was low in the sky now, its bottom edge dipping below the horizon. The group had hurried back to the spot as soon as Roger had come to them, wanting to capture and se-cure the dangerous monk before nightfall.

Elbryan and the others waited outside the cluster of trees, the ranger watching Pony closely. She had been silent all the way back to this place; the news of Connor's death had hit her hard.

Strangely, her mourning did not incite any jealous feelings within Elbryan, only an empathy for her. He understood, truly understood, the relationship between Pony and the nobleman, and he knew now that with Connor's death, the woman had lost a part of herself, had lost that time of healing in her life. So Elbryan vowed silently to keep his own negative feelings private, to focus on Pony's needs.

She sat straight and tall on Symphony now, cutting a stoic and strong figure in the fading light. She would get through this, as she had come through the first massacre at Dundalis, as she had come through the bitter war and all the losses, particularly the death of Avelyn. Once again the ranger found himself marveling at the woman's strength and courage.

He loved her all the more for it.

"He is dead," came a call from the tall grass, Juraviel return-ing to the group. The elf cast a glance at Roger, one that perceptive Elbryan didn't miss, and explained, "He was just about free when I came upon him, stuck in the tree just as you described. I had to cut him down - it took several arrows."

"You are sure he is dead?" Roger asked nervously, not wanting anything more to do with that one.

"He is dead," Juraviel assured him. "And I believe that your horse, Connor's horse, is just over there," the elf added, pointing across the road.

"He threw a shoe," Roger reminded.

"Which can be easily repaired," Juraviel replied. "Go and get him."

Roger nodded and started away, and Pony, on Elbryan's signal, kicked Symphony into a trot after him.

"Your quiver is full," the ranger noted when he and the elf were alone.

"I retrieved my arrows," Juraviel replied.

"Elves do not retrieve arrows that have hit the mark," the ranger replied. "Not unless the situation is desperate, which ours, now that the monks are both dead, is not."

"Your point?" Juraviel asked dryly.

"The man was dead when you went into the copse," Elbryan reasoned.

Juraviel agreed with a nod. "He apparently tried to get out of the bindings, choking himself," he explained. "Our young Roger did well in tightening the bonds, and was quite clever in capturing the man in the first place. Too clever, perhaps."

"I have battled with one called Brother Justice before," Elbryan said. "And you saw the fanaticism at our ambush. Did you doubt that it must end like this, with the death of the monk?"

"I wish he had not died at young Roger's hands," Juraviel replied. "I do not believe that he is ready for that."

Elbryan glanced to the road, to see Pony and Roger walking to-gether, leading Symphony and Connor's limping horse.

"He must be told the truth," the ranger decided, and he looked to Juraviel, expecting an argument.

"He'll not take it well" was all the elf warned, but Juraviel did not disagree with the ranger. The road ahead for all of them would be dark, no doubt, and perhaps it was better to get this unpleasant-ness over with here and now.

When the pair arrived with the horses, Juraviel took Greystone and, after examining the injured hoof, led the creature away, mo-tioning for Pony to take Symphony and follow.

"Juraviel did not kill the monk," Elbryan said to Roger as soon as the others were gone.

Roger's eyes widened in panic and he glanced all around, as if ex-pecting Brother Justice to leap out at him at any moment. The man had unnerved Roger more than any other foe, even Kos-kosio, ever had.

"You did," Elbryan explained.

"You mean that I was the one who defeated him," Roger cor-rected. "And that the kill by Juraviel was no large matter."

"I mean that you killed him," the ranger said firmly. "I mean that you tightened the rope and it somehow slipped about his neck, choking the life from him."

Roger's eyes widened again. "But Juraviel said - " he started to protest.

"Juraviel feared for your sensibilities," Elbryan bluntly replied. "He was not certain how you would accept such grim reality, and thus feared to speak plainly."

Roger's mouth moved but no words came forth. The weight of the truth was hitting him hard, Elbryan realized, and he could see that he was swaying.

"I had to tell you," Elbryan said, softly now. "You deserve to know the truth, and must get beyond it if you are to handle the re-sponsibilities that have now been put on your young shoulders."

Roger was hardly listening, was swaying more pronouncedly now and seemed as if he might simply topple over.

"We will speak later," Elbryan said to him, walking up to him and dropping a comforting hand on his shoulder. Then the ranger continued past, going to join Juraviel and Pony, leaving Roger alone with his thoughts.

And with his pain, for truly Roger Billingsbury - and suddenly he craved for that title again and not the foolishly pretentious Roger Lockless - had never been hit by anything like this. He had known grief many times, too many times, in his young life, but that pain was different. That pain allowed him to keep himself up on a pedestal, to continue to view himself as the center of the universe, as somehow better than everyone else. In all the pain and all the many trials young Roger had ever known, he had been able to hold on to his somewhat childish Roger-centric view of the world.

Now, suddenly, that pedestal had been kicked out from under him. He had killed a man.

He had killed a man!

Without conscious choice, Roger was sitting in the grass. Des-perately, his rational side battled against his conscience. True, he had killed a man, but what choice had the man given him? The monk was a killer, pure and simple. The monk had killed Connor right before his own eyes, brutally, evilly. The monk had murdered Abbot Dobrinion!

But even those truths did little to assuage Roger's sudden sense of guilt. Whatever the justifications, and in spite of the fact that he had not intentionally killed Brother Justice, the man was dead, and the blood was on his hands.

He put his head down, laboring hard for breath. He craved all those things that had been torn from him at too young an age: family warmth and the reasonable, comforting words of adults he could look up to. With that thought, he looked over his shoulder to his three friends, to the ranger who had so bluntly told him of his crime and then left him alone.

For a moment Roger hated Elbryan for that. But it could not hold; soon enough he understood that the ranger had told him out of respect for him, out of confidence in him, and had then left him alone because an adult -??and he was an adult now - had to work through such pain, at least in part, alone.

Pony came for him soon after, saying nothing of the monk's death, but only informing him they were going to gather up the fallen monk and then go south to retrieve Connor's body.

Silently, Roger fell into line, purposefully averting his eyes from the spectacle of Brother Justice, slung over Greystone's back. The horse was walking better now, for Juraviel had shaved its hoof to level, but still the pace was slow. Night fell in full, and still they walked, determined to get to Connor's body before he was torn apart by some scavenging creature.

With some difficulty, for the night was quite dark, they at last found the man.

Pony went to him first, and gently closed his eyes. Then she walked away, far away.

"Go to her," Juraviel said to Elbryan.

"You know what to do with him," the ranger replied, and the elf nodded. Then, to Roger, Elbryan added, "Be strong and be sure. Your role is perhaps the most important of all now."

And then he walked away, leaving Roger staring at Juraviel for an explanation.

"You are to take Connor, the monk, and the horse and head straight out to Palmaris," the elf explained.

Roger inadvertently glanced at the dead monk, at the image that so shook his self-perception.

"Go to the Baron, not the abbey," the elf explained. "Tell him what has happened. Tell him of Connor's belief that these monks, and not any powrie, murdered Abbot Dobrinion, and that they chased Connor out of Palmaris, for he, too, had unwittingly be-come an enemy of the wicked Church leaders."

"And then what for me?" the young man asked, wondering if this was the last time he would see these three.

Juraviel glanced around. "We could use another horse - another two," he added, "if you plan to ride with us."

"Does he want me to?" Roger asked, nodding toward the distant Elbryan.

"Would he have told you the truth if he did not?" Juraviel replied.

"And what of you, then?" Roger quickly asked. "Why did you lie to me? Do you think me a foolish young boy, unable to take responsibility?"

"I think you a man who has grown much in the last weeks," the elf replied honestly. "I did not tell you because I was not sure of what Nightbird - and do not doubt that he is the leader of this group - had planned for you. If we meant to leave you in Palmaris, in safety with Tomas and Belster, if we had determined that your role in this fight was at its end, then what good would it have done you to let you know that you had the blood of a dead man on your hands?"

"Is the truth not absolute?" Roger asked. "Do you play God, elf?"

"If the truth is not in any way constructive, then it can wait for a better time," Juraviel replied. "But since your course is yours to de-termine, then you needed to know now. Our road will be dark, my young friend, and I do not doubt that we will find other Brother Jus-tices in our path, perhaps for years to come."

"And each successive kill gets easier?" Roger asked sarcastically.

"Pray that is not the case," Juraviel replied in a severe tone, eyeing Roger unblinkingly.

That demeanor set the young man back on his heels.

"Nightbird thought that you were emotionally strong enough to know the truth," the elf added. "Take it as a compliment."

Juraviel started to walk away.

"I do not know if he was right," Roger admitted suddenly.

The elf turned about to see Roger, head down, shoulders bob-bing in sobs. He went to stand beside him, put his hand on the small of Roger's back. "The other monk was only the second man Nightbird ever killed," he said. "He did not cry this time because he shed all those tears after killing the first, the first Brother Justice."

The notion that this stoic and powerful ranger had been equally shaken hit Roger profoundly. He wiped his eyes and stood straight, looked to Juraviel and nodded grimly.

Then Roger was on the road south, too agitated to sit and wait out the remainder of the night. He had to move quite slowly, for the injured Greystone carried both bodies, but he was determined to speak with Baron Bildeborough before the midday meal.



As I learned more about the Church that Avelyn served - the Church of my parents and of every fellow human I have ever known - and as I met more of the Abellican monks, I began to recognize just how subtle the nature of evil might be. I had never spent time considering this before, but is the evil man inherently evil? Is he even aware that his actions are evil? Does he believe them to be, or has he tainted his perspective so that he believes himself to be in the right?

In these times, when the dactyl awoke and the world knew chaos, many, it seems, have come to question the very essence of evil. Who am I, or who is anyone, they might say, to judge which man might be considered evil and which good? When I ask, is the evil man inherently evil, I am supposing an absolute distinction that many people refuse to acknowledge. Their concept of morality is relative, and while I'll admit that the moral implications of many actions might be dependent upon a certain situation, the overall moral distinction is not.

For within that truth, I know a larger one. I know that there is indeed an absolute difference between good and evil, with individual perspective and justification notwithstanding. To the Touel'alfar, the common good is the measuring stick - putting the good of the elven folk first, but considering the good of all others, as well. Though the elves desire little contact with humans, they have for centuries taken humans under their tutelage and trained them as rangers, not for any gains to Andur'Blough Inninness,for that place is beyond the influence of the rangers, but for the betterment of the world at large. The elven folk are not aggressors, never that. They fight when they must, in defense and against imperialism. Had the goblins not come to Dundalis, the elves would never have sought them out, for though they have no love of goblins or powries or giants, and indeed consider the three races to be a scourge upon the very world, the elves would suffer them to live. To go to the mountains and attack these monsters, by elven standards, would reduce the Touel'alfar to the level of that which they despise above all else.

Conversely, the powries and the goblins have shown themselves to be warring and wicked creatures. They attack whenever they find advantage, and it is little wonder that the demon dactyl sought out these races for its minions. I tend to view the giants a bit differently, and wonder if they are, by nature, evil, or if they simply look at the world in a different way. A giant may look at a human and, like a hungry hunting cat, see its next meal. Still, as with powries and goblins, I feel no remorse in killing giants.

None at all.

Among the five races of Corona, then, I consider the humans most shrouded in mystery. Some of the very best people in all the world -??Brother Avelyn, as a prime example - were human, as were, and possibly are, some of the very worst tyrants. In general, my own race is a goodly one, but not as predictable and disciplined as the Touel'alfar, certainly! Still, in temperament and general beliefs, we are much closer to the elves than to the other three races.

But those shades of gray...

Perhaps nowhere is the confusing concept of evil more evident than in the ranks of the Abellican Church, the accepted moral leader of the majority of humankind. Likely it is because this body has been entrusted with so high a standard, no less than to serve as the vanguard of human souls. An error in perspective among the Church leaders is a disastrous thing indeed, as Avelyn proved. To them he was a heretic, though in truth, I doubt there has ever been a man more godly, more charitable, more generous, more willing to sacrifice everything for the common good.

Perhaps the Father Abbot, who sent Brother Justice after Avelyn, can justify his actions - to himself, at least - by claiming them to be for the betterment of all. A master was killed in Avelyn's escape, after all, and Avelyn had no legal claim to the stones he took

But the Father Abbot is wrong, I say, for though Avelyn might be technically labeled a thief, the stones were his on purely moral grounds. Having watched his work, even before he sacrificed himself to rid the world of the demon dactyl, I have no doubt of this.

The capacity of any individual to justify his or her actions will forever amaze me, I fear.

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