Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 3)
The sun was beginning to lower on the horizon by the time Raff made it back to the Messenger's mosque in Rinos and he idly wondered if he'd be able to borrow a horse for his next assignment. Backtracking was boring. Once inside he was unable to locate the head priest, so he looked around to see if anyone of a high enough rank to help wasn't too busy. Spotting someone who looked to be both his own rank and currently staring into space, Raff walked over to him. Still not able to get the man's attention, the half-elf was beginning to wonder if someone had charmed this cleric into not moving (it wouldn't be the first time a Messenger pranked one of their own in that manner) when he blinked, finally noticing the shorter priest standing in front of him. "Ah, Brother Rafion, you're back. And looking more unkempt, I see," he said, all but tsking.
"It's Raff," he replied automatically, thinking at least he didn't use my surname, too. I'm really not in the mood to be laughed at right now. Not that this guy looks like someone with a sense of humor- what kind of Messenger doesn't have a sense of humor, anyway? Then the rest of the comment made its way from his rather large ears and he looked down at his carnelian-colored robe. With a shrug, he added, "That's unimportant. I got into a fight and it got torn." Well mostly from the fight, he told himself, crossing his fingers behind his back, but surely he doesn't know about the frayed hem and a few stains it already had. That's one thing that never came easily to Raff as a priest- keeping himself as neat as their deity apparently required. He'd been training to be a ranger long before being Called by Hermes and was so used to ending up rather disheveled that he rarely noticed unless someone pointed it out. And he still couldn't understand why a mischief god was so concerned about clothing, anyway. Seemed silly and a waste of time, but maybe deities had a lot of time on their ethereal hands.
The other priest frowned at that comment. "If you plan to get into fights, that really should be on your own time, not when you're out on an assignment."
Raff blinked. Is he serious? I had one person underestimate my fighting abilities today and then would have killed me if it wasn't for my quarterstaff, and now this one thinks I go looking for scuffles? So much for appearing harmless and innocent. Part of him snorted at that and chimed in, Riiight. Harmless. Perhaps he's heard stories about us? The rest of Raff chose to ignore that inner voice.
Great, even I'm ganging up on myself now. Can I get a retry of this day, please? "No, look, I was attacked and someone tried to steal the message I was carrying." He had been holding the staff together because it didn't feel right to have it in two pieces, but now he separated his hands to illustrate this fact.
The man glanced at it and asked, "What, did he try to steal the staff, too?"
Raff rolled his eyes up to stare at the ceiling and wondered if hitting him with one of the pieces would knock some sense into him. How, in the name of Hermes, did this dunce ever reach full priesthood? "No," you stupid man, he silently included. "He tried to hit me with a sword and the staff blocked it. What would he want the staff for?" Realizing this was a dumb question to ask as the man probably didn't understand rhetorical, he quickly added, "Wait, don't answer that. A cloaked man tried t'steal the letter from me and I got into a fight to defend it. Like we're supposed to, remember?" Yes, this was coming off snarkier than Raff had intended, but he was rapidly running out of patience.
Before the man could do more than open his mouth to spout another inane comment, Raff went on, "I knocked him out and the dog said he'd guard him while I got help."
"A dog said that?"
"Yes. Some stray dog came to my assistance and told me to get help." Please tell me he's not going to harp on this small point.
"But dogs don't talk."
Oh, for the love of- "You're a Messenger, aren't ye? You should be aware that some of us can speak with animals." Not that Raff knew how that particular animal had talked to him, but he wasn't about to bring that point up here.
The other priest looked sheepish, which was an improvement on simple. "I never quite believed that was possible."
"Well, we can. Now will ye please find me the Head Messenger? I don't know how long my attacker will stay unconscious." It was finally occurring to Raff that he probably should have tied the man up before he left, the dog obviously not possessing hands to be able to do that itself.
"He's busy-" the clueless cleric started to reply, but was interrupted by the voice of an older man.
"Not for something this important, Geoffrey. Please return to what you were doing," the high priest, a dark haired man just entering middle age, said. The moronic priest bowed his head and walked away as the Head Messenger turned his attention to Raff. "If you'd follow me to my office? I think I have some important information for you before help can be sent."
The half-elf wanted to comment that they should go now, but knew better than to backtalk to his superior. With a nod, he followed. Once in the office, the Head Messenger took a seat behind his desk. Noticing Raff's preoccupation directed at the quarterstaff pieces still in his hands, he knew what was bothering the younger cleric- or was at the top of the queue of things bothering him, anyway. "Do not worry about the staff; it served you well and we can reattach the symbol to a new piece of wood if you'll let it go for a short time. Hermes would rather have you in one piece than what you carry."
Raff looked up, surprised that he'd been able to catch what he was thinking. "I figured, sir, but... it doesn't feel right for it to not be together. I've carried this for fifteen years and it's never broken." Frowning, he placed the pieces on the desk.
The older priest gave a reassuring smile. "Sometimes things have to be broken so you can see what the risks really are."
Profound, but not particularly helpful, Raff couldn't help thinking. Trying to ignore the broken staff, he changed the subject, "We really need to catch that thief who tried to attack me. Shouldn't we?"
"Of course, but that's what I wanted to tell you away from … rather senseless ears." Well, at least he agrees with me about whatshisname, Raff thought as the man continued, "We've received word about attacks like this, but assumed at first that they were isolated events, targeting specific important letters that somehow someone had gotten word about. But they've picked up in frequency and range and two things bother me here: your attacker seems more skilled than the ones we had previously known about, and that message you're carrying isn't anything vital."
Raff shrugged, "I figured as much about the message, but he wasn't that good. I mean, the dog and I were able to take him out-"
"A dog that the man likely did not see until too late, correct?" At Raff's nod, he continued, "And skilled as you may be with a staff, a piece of wood is no match for a sword, as you learned. What happens if the man attacks someone without a trained pet or who isn't very good with weapons?"
Raff froze at that last comment, then brought his hand up to briefly clutch the jade and gold pendant always worn at his neck outside his robe. Raff's beloved was a Messenger who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with any weapon, assuming that he was persuaded to even try; he'd have been no match had he been the one attacked. What if he was the next target? But he did usually travel with a group of mercenaries... Right, mercenaries. Like they'd be willing to risk their skin for a piece of paper; they have no regard for a Messenger's duty. Panic was starting to rise in the back of his throat. Trying to keep his voice calm but wanting only to run out of the room and take that would-be thief down before he could do any more harm, Raff tried to focus on the first part of that last sentence. "But that dog wasn't a trained pet. I'd never seen him before."
The older man saw that he was fidgeting and biting his lip, but only raised an eyebrow in response, which Raff was too preoccupied to take any notice of. "But you mentioned speaking to animals? I'd assumed it was one of your pets."
"I just have a cardinal and a mouse," Raff pointed to the mouse that was still perched on his shoulder, mostly screened by his long hair. "I've spoken to other animals before, as well, but only after casting a spell. That was another odd thing; the dog spoke to me first."
The high priest paused in thought for a moment. "I'm not going to belittle you by asking 'are you sure he spoke?' because I've heard of your bond with animals." As Raff opened his mouth to question this, he continued, "Head Messengers have to know things about the followers of Hermes, or at least the ones who work through our mosques."
Oh boy, Raff could just imagine the information his record included. Probably something along the lines of "Rafion 'call me Raff' Goldenstrings: half-elf. Hails from Woodland City and for some reason keeps trying to get sent there despite being a Messenger errant with no home base. Older than he looks, but is apparently younger than his years (says he's thirty-five, but we're not convinced; surely no more than twenty-six? See: half-elf). Often disheveled. Rather impulsive with a tendency to get into fights, frequently after someone comments on his name or stature (also see: half-elf). Good with animals, though. Also good with disguises and music; bets are on if he'll end up smacking someone with his gittern if irked while in minstrel disguise."
A knock sounded at the door, breaking Raff's reverie. The head priest stood up. "The horses are ready now so we can set off. We can worry about the dog later."
Yes, let's leave now, please! Raff thought, then felt rather embarrassed. Not for his enthusiasm, as protective enthusiasm was a normal reaction for him, but he should have known that a high priest would be smart enough to not waste time just chatting and would have already put a plan into motion. He just hoped, in vain, that the man hadn't noticed how jumpy he'd become a few minutes ago.