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 2, Part 4)
The head priest, who Raff had learned was named Edward, and two other lower ranking priests, who he was assured were of use in a fight (although he was a bit cynical about that after his scuffle earlier), followed the half-elf's lead. They made it there far faster than Raff's trip out, but still the sun had set by the time they reached their destination. Leaving his bird resting on a saddlebag (his mouse already safely nestled in his hood), he swung himself down from his horse and walked towards the tree while the others fumbled through their packs for a light source. Expecting to see heat radiating from the unconscious man and the dog, he was surprised to find neither. Thinking that maybe the man did get away and the dog had changed position to wait elsewhere, he moved to scan the area. Still nothing.
He waved to his traveling companions to get their attention, forgetting that they couldn't see him in the dark as anything other than a pair of glowing green eyes. Right, humans. No wonder humans are so good at not noticing things right in front of their noses, he thought as, not for the first time, he wondered how they got by with such a limited range of vision. He began walking back to the group, but unfortunately one of them managed to get a large lantern lit at just that moment- and since he had been looking in that exact direction, the sudden light blinded him. His companions located him this time by the string of muttered Elvish curse words involving the inconsideration of humans and their blasted need for light.
Hand covering his eyes, he brought the mumbling to a close and said, "They're gone."
"Are you sure? It's rather dark," the one younger Messenger replied, forgetting who (or rather what) he was talking to.
Raff removed his hand and blinked, trying to bring his vision back to the visible range. "Dark isn't a problem. Half-elf, remember? Yes, I'm sure they're gone." A thought occurred to him and he added, "Although... I know I didn't hit the thief hard enough to kill him, but maybe something else got to him after I left? Then he wouldn't be radiating any heat."
The head priest handed his lantern to the female cleric. "Charity, Tomas, circle the area and see if you can find any sign of them."
The two set off, taking the light with them. Raff blinked again, infravision returning as his headache began to fade. "Thank you for passing over the lantern. But now you can't see, which doesn't seem fair," he said to Edward.
The older priest shrugged and sat down on the side of the road. "We only brought the two lanterns so no more than two could search. To tell you the truth, I'm not entirely surprised to find the man and dog gone. … What have I just sat in?"
"Whatever it is, it's neither alive nor emanating heat or cold, so you're probably fine," Raff said without thinking, his ranger training taking over. Catching what he'd said, he blushed, glad that his superior couldn't see him, "Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to be curt." He realized that the man was chuckling and grinned in relief. "But what did you mean? You expected them to be gone; but one was unconscious and the other seemed well-trained by someone, even if that someone wasn't me," he couldn't help adding that last part in, figuring that this particular head priest didn't mind frankness.
"Tell me- did the man appear out of nowhere?" Edward asked as Raff sat next to him.
The younger priest looked embarrassed again, and once again was glad that he was talking to a human who couldn't see in the dark. "I don't recall. I wasn't really paying attention; he could have just been silent and snuck up on me. But thieves don't generally have the ability to just appear, do they?"
"Not normally, no. I ask because the records we've received of the thefts frequently involved the Messenger either being surprised by the attacker catching them unawares, or the man vanishing after the delivery was stolen. At first we just attributed that to head trauma from the attack, but too many stories have matched up for it to be anything so simple."
The half-elf frowned unseen. "There have been many attacks, then? Has anyone been seriously hurt or killed?" Please say no on that last one, he thought silently. He'd never forgive himself if he'd let a killer escape to hurt more of his innocent brethren. Stupid, that was stupid. I should have found a way to drag him back with me, regardless of what that dog said. It's not as if the dog even did what he said he would. That bothered Raff more than would be expected; humans may be good at lying, but previously he'd always been able to trust an animal's word, even if that word generally was blather about cheese.
"Yes, there have been many; as far as we can tell, they span back more than a year." Catching the worry in Raff's voice, he answered the next question in a reassuring tone, "We've received no word of any Messenger being killed. Yes, some have been more injured than others, depending on how hard they fought back, but no one was gravely harmed."
That helped ease some of Raff's apprehension, but he was still upset. "I just wish that I'd done something more t'stop him. Now he's free and the gods only know where." This was likely an incorrect assumption considering how confusing the gods were making everything, but Raff wasn't to know that. "And I wish I knew where the dog vanished to!"
The mouse, possibly disturbed by his raised voice, climbed out of his hood and scampered down his arm to the ground, then darted away. Raff jumped to his feet, not hearing Edward's next reply. Calling "Rhy! Get back here!" in Elvish, the stress of the day causing him to revert back to his native language, he chased after the small glowing shape until it finally came to a stop and began chittering. Raff knelt down next to the mouse and cast the spell needed to speak with animals, assuming that his pet had something to tell him. Sure enough, after he'd waved his hands around and completed the chant, the chittering turned into coherent words in his head. "Teeth-growler was here. Pointy big thing here. Small pointy thing from wind not-mouse here."
Coherent, but not necessarily understandable. Such was having a mouse for a pet. Raff tried to get him to explain further. "Pointy things?"
"Pointy things. Big and small. Wind mouse sheds like small." That made a bit more sense; it occurred to him that Rhy called the cardinal "wind mouse", presumably because there was some sort of camaraderie between the pets. So "wind not-mouse"... another bird? "Wind mouse sheds"... a feather, of course! So the mouse was telling him there was a feather and... something else pointy.
The half-elf reached around, trying to locate these objects; his one hand found the feather laying in the grass at the same time he felt his much-abused robe acquire yet another tear, this time at the knee. Ah, "pointy big thing" would be a sword, then. About to grab it lightly to try to locate the hilt, he suddenly heard a thought echo in his head, "Don't touch that!". His hand shot back as if the air around the sword was a half-elf repellant and he wrinkled his eyebrows in confusion. His first instinct was always just to grab something; why would he tell himself not to? And, come to think of it, that voice didn't sound like him... he looked around to see if someone was nearby watching, but located no other heat source than the mouse, and that voice was far too … powerful to be a rodent. He shook his head. It's been a long day. I must be hearing things. Still, he quickly shrugged out of his robe, carefully using it to wrap around the sword while taking care not to touch it and doing his best not to snag the fabric. He'd surely catch some flak for being out of uniform, but wasn't as though he was technically on an assignment at the moment.
"Where is the dog now? When did he vanish?" Raff asked, mostly to himself, as he tucked the feather into his belt pouch. Sure enough, the reply he got back from the mouse was, "?" Too complicated. It's not like the mouse would have known this, anyway. He sighed and picked the mouse back up.
"Teeth-growler went away." The mouse chimed in again.
"Yes, I know that."
The mouse wrinkled its nose. "Went away! No trail. Went away." Raff had managed to teach the mouse what to call the path of another animal, even if he hadn't been able to teach it better grammar. But... "no trail"? That didn't make any sense. Everything left a trail. Beginning to feel overwhelmed, he figured it would be a good time to head back to the group; maybe they could figure out what was going on. Before standing up he said softly, "Thank you, Rhy," and handed it a piece of grain rations from his pouch, then put his pet back on his shoulder. As the mouse nibbled on its treat, Raff received ramblings of his hair being a secure den- and another of cheese, for some reason- which he always assumed was its way of showing affection. Or possibly the mouse wanted a better snack. It was hard to tell with mice.
This time Raff made sure to let his eyes adjust to the brightness of the lamps as he approached the rest of the group now waiting by the horses. Before they could voice confusion at him carrying a bundle of robes in his hands, he explained, "I found the discarded sword but didn't want to touch it." Turning to the head priest, he elaborated, "If the man can appear and disappear, maybe it's magical."
Edward nodded. "That was wise. Perhaps we can track him or whoever he's working for using the sword. Truth be told, there's something I didn't tell you about this thief earlier; I believe that a renegade Messenger is involved."
The younger priests looked incredulous and rather offended. "The one who attacked Raff couldn't have been one of us. We don't know swords, for one thing," Tomas pointed out.
Here Raff quickly shook his head, his braids whipping around fast enough to cause the animal on his shoulder to squeak in protest and, since the spell hadn't worn off yet, Raff heard a mental "No shaking den!". Absentmindedly petting the mouse to calm it, he corrected, "We can't wield most weapons. Some of us may possess the knowledge or training." That was one point that had irked him when he'd entered the priesthood as a teen: having to give up the weapons he knew how to use in order to learn far less potent ones. "But you're right. That man certainly didn't seem like a Messenger, renegade or not."
"I think you're both correct." As the three looked confused, Edward continued, "My belief is that he's a thug hired by the renegade Messenger. The first reports were of a weaker opponent who seemed to always know where to find the most important deliveries; I think this was the Messenger."
"But that doesn't make sense," Charity chimed in. "We don't... well, renege! There's never been an instance of one of us going bad, right? Hermes has never made a mistake in the people he's Called." Raff reached up with a free hand to touch the feather-in-amber pendant now visible over his tunic, noticing the other three bring their hands to their chests to grab theirs still hidden under their robes. Despite the gravity of the situation, he couldn't help feeling amused that in times of spiritual crisis a Messenger would reach for that particular holy symbol, not the one that the rest of the world knew about; having two holy symbols certainly came in handy whenever they had to go undercover where the quarterstaff would be conspicuous. Not that I could grab the staff now if I wanted to. Hmph.
"You've hit upon the major flaw in my theory," Edward said, then sighed. "Perhaps he was forced into this or is being influenced by someone stronger. There is no way of knowing, unless..." The older man looked thoughtful as an idea struck him. "Maybe we could set a trap to draw him out?"
Raff grinned mischievously at that idea. Tomas still looked rather confused but the half-elf noticed Charity's smirk that mirrored his own grin- she, too, must have realized that this would be the perfect time to work some playful treachery.
Sure enough, she already was plotting something. "If there is a Messenger involved, how about we try to lure him out with an innocent and solitary piece of bait, possibly spreading a rumor that he or she is carrying something of great importance?"
Here Raff had to shake his head again. "That might not work. To all appearances I was an easy target, and that possible hired thug was still used."
"That is true. Hmmm..." Edward paused in thought, then went on, "If one person serving as bait would not work, what if there were several? Surely he wouldn't be able to acquire more than one or two lackeys or accomplices to assist him."
Finally caught up to speed, Tomas added his two coppers, "And with multiple targets, if there is a renegade Messenger involved, he'd go after the weakest of them."
Raff noticed three pairs of eyes simultaneously turn his direction. One time I could milk innocent and weak for my own enjoyment and it wouldn't work, he though and shook his head ruefully. "Sorry. I'd love to be this bait, but I have a feeling whoever is in charge of this scheme has already received word about a half-elf with a demonic dog. There aren't enough half-elven Messengers even without canines for this person to not realize that they'd be going after the same target, and a disguise would make me even more oddly conspicuous." The downside of being a half-elf: even good with disguises, there was nothing he could do about his height. He usually had to settle for either human adolescent or full elf, neither of which would work in this situation; no full elves were Messengers and teenagers weren't sent on important assignments, which a rebel cleric would know.
As the other three mused silently, probably wondering who else they could throw under the wagon, a flaw in the plan occurred to Charity. "But what if he found out that this delivery was a scam? The ideal would be an actual message from someone important who needed to send something important, right? Where would we find someone who fits that description?"
Here a plot contrivance fell into place as Raff recalled in just what city he'd ended up. "Don't worry about that part. I've got it covered."
"I thought you said a disguise wouldn't work?" Charity asked, eyebrow raised.
"Not me personally- I just know someone who fits the bill." He grinned impishly, knowing the person he had in mind wouldn't be able to turn down this opportunity. "Trust me."