Pharial arrived at the temple where Ordestia Prima had found Sempleticus Lorax murdered as quickly as he could after leaving the presence of his divine master, the Third Swordlord. The temple stood a little apart from the rest of the small mountain town, being both on the outskirts and set in its own ornamental park, and there were very few people around. As Pharial watched without becoming manifest to mortal eyes, a rather-looking Benarian in his mid to late twenties strode briskly out of the temple, through the park and stopped at the entrance. At first he wondered if this might be the murderer fleeing the scene, but the man hailed a passing youth, spoke with him and then handed over some coins, and the lad ran off in the direction of the town centre. Pharial supposed from this that the Benarian was the religious of the god Hasnor he'd been told about, although he would have picked the man as a handyman rather than a devotee of the god of carnal love, even though it must take all kinds because humans seemed to produce more humans at a most prodigious rate....
Pharial started moving towards the temple so he could find his own master's paladin, Ordestia Prima, and find out what she knew that his master had not included in his briefing, when his way was suddenly blocked by another angel. He was larger than Pharial, burly and with thick facial features that made him look as if someone had been aiming for a larger sized being than was usual when he was created. He was clothed in a tunic much like Pharial's but his greaves, bracers and chest piece looked very business-like and he was carrying a drawn sword. Hasnor's symbol was used as a decorative motif on all of his equipment. His wings were a soft buff-white colour. "Who are you?" The voice he challenged Pharial with was deep, but Pharial had a sudden irrelevant impression that the other angel's skin was absurdly soft.
"I am Pharial, servant of the Third Swordlord," replied Pharial, "come to find out what I can for my divine master concerning the death of his mortal servant, Sempleticus Lorax, which occurred in this temple. I believe another of my master's mortal servants, Ordestia Prima, is within."
The sword point dropped. "Ah, we were warned to expect you. I am Cassandios, an Eroi in Lord Hasnor's divine service. Ordestia Prima is still within the temple, keeping mortal watch while the local authorities are summoned. We are sorry for your master's loss of his servant, but it is beginning to look as if he might have saved us all from a great evil by his sacrifice."
Pharial looked at the other angel with interest, "I've heard of the Eroi. Weren't you Lord Hasnor's bodyguard during the Death War?"
Cassandios gave a short barking laugh. "We were his only angels back then. We set ourselves to protect him, even though we didn't have martial skills in those days. A number of us did manage to survive the war and everything that has happened since." He gave an unamused smile.
"I need to speak with Ordestia Prima, if I may, " said Pharial. "Also, if it is permitted, I would like to inspect the body of my master's servant and see where he died."
"I understand," replied Cassandios sympathetically, "but it might be best if neither of us enter the temple at the moment. There's something very strange going on here, including hole in the roof and something that I think I've seen before. Once. During the War. If it’s what I believe it is, then I’ve heard a lot about them."
Pharial just looked at him for a moment and then asked, "What sort of thing?"
"They were impaled with a wooden staff," replied Cassandios. "A purple crystal sphere is mounted on the top of it, and it appears to be partly filled with a moving liquid or gas that shows as dark swirls inside the sphere."
"It's a booby trap," said Pharial. "I remember those too. Whoever did this is counting on the staff having to be removed so the bodies can be moved. They may be assuming that we won't talk to our lords' mortal servants before that is done, or that our advice would be disregarded. If it comes to that, do we know what effect that stuff has on mortals?"
Cassandios asked, "Which variant? Of course, that's a rhetorical question until it's opened. None of the ways they killed angels were pleasant."
"Some seemed worse than others, from the outside," commented Pharial. "We can tell our people to be careful. We could even tell them to inter the bodies in place and unmoved...."
"Inappropriate for several reasons," murmured Cassandios. "Haigenes, our man who discovered the bodies with your lady paladin, thought the weapon looked suspicious from his own observations, and he made sure that neither he nor she touched the thing. While he was sending for the local authorities, my brother Polymneal left to tell our master of our discoveries here."
"How long is it before decisions have to be made?" Pharial went on, "I admit that I'm not clear how much time has passed since the murders occurred or when they were discovered."
"Haigenes believes that the murders occurred early this morning, because Sister Dame Hiliel was in the habit of bathing first thing in the morning. The...freshness of their corpses says that it cannot have been yesterday morning." Cassandios sighed and went on, "That, of course, makes it more likely that whoever did it was trying to replicate Lady Erithme’s murder - she was attacked as the sun rose. And that is a thing I heard from one of her angels that my lord gave haven to. It certainly wasn't made common knowledge. As for when they were discovered? Less than an hour ago, late in the forenoon."
"If the murder was to have been replicated in details that were not disseminated, then that implicates the original attackers, those who found and recovered Lady Erithme's remains, or someone that either group would talk to. Are we assuming a vard or vard servant then? I cannot imagine one of her former servants would do this." Pharial was feeling uncharacteristically pensive.
"Nor can I," agreed Cassandios. "Also, a vard could have gained access through the roof and easily survived the drop to the floor below." Movement near the gate caught his attention. "Ah! The local authorities seem to have arrived."
A man dressed in the local fashion of tunic, sandals fastened by wrappings up to the knee over socks of that length, and a short cloak pinned at the front of the right shoulder had arrived. He was carrying the three staves bundled together and bound with cord, plaited leather, and plaited hay that was the mark of a district magistrate's assistant in these parts. He looked worried and he was hurrying. The bovine-looking Benarian, Haigenes, emerged from the temple accompanied by Ordestia Prima and the two of them greeted the new comer in a formal fashion before ushering him inside.
"There's nothing the local authorities can actually do," remarked Pharial. "It seems a waste of his time."
"What if we're wrong," countered Cassandios, "and they were murdered by a human? Or the vard had a human assistant? That the local authorities can deal with. Besides, better for our two to report it now than try to explain why it wasn't reported in a few days or a week's time."
"There is that," agreed Pharial. "I still need to speak to Ordestia Prima to find out what she knows. Our master wants to know what happened to Sempleticus."
"As ours wants to know what happened Sister Dame Hiliel," admitted Cassandios. "Despite the event occurring within his temple, his view of what happened was somehow clouded or impeded."
"That shouldn't be possible," said Pharial quietly. "I begin to have a more thorough appreciation of your caution over my entering the temple. We will have to wait for our mortal friends to re-emerge then."
They waited about twenty minutes and when the three mortals left the building the magistrate's assistant was visibly upset.
"She was such a beautiful lady," he was saying, "and kind. She could give very pointed, helpful advice in a way that didn't offend or upset people." He seemed to collect himself a little and added, "Or so I've been told."
"It's both upsetting and worrying," agreed Haigenes. "Now, so we can all of us make proper reports to our superiors, I suggest that we get a ladder from the shed out behind the temple laundry room and then climb up to take a look at that hole in the roof."
"And if someone has broken into the shed and moved things around, well that will tell us something too," added Ordestia Prima. "As I was saying, Sempleticus Lorax sent us a message that he would be delayed getting to Castra Pokorna because he'd come across something of interest up here. When he was two weeks late, I was sent up here to find out what was so interesting that he was delayed so long."
Haigenes added prosaically, "I came up here because Sister Dame Hiliel sent me a message asking me to come. She thought the temple had a rat problem: she hadn't seen them but had caught flickers of movement out of the corner of her eye and heard sounds that that she couldn't track down."
The magistrate's assistant and Pharial simultaneously blurted out, "She was being watched."
Haigenes nodded bovinely and agreed, "It seems likely."
Ordestia asked, "So did Sempleticus stumble on that somehow, or was his interest caught by something else?"
The magistrate's assistant shook his head and said, "We may never know."
"From what I've heard, he's right there," said Pharial resignedly. "We should follow them to have a look at this tool shed."
"Of course," said Cassandios. As they began following the mortals he added, "If it's anything like the other sheds that Haigenes uses, I expect it to be clean, neat and tidy."
"Is he a general handyman for your temples?" asked Pharial, more for something to say than any real curiosity.
Cassandios laughed gently. "In a manner of speaking. He is the Protector of Sacred Spaces for my master's temples in these parts." Then grimly, "No-one expected that the temples would need to be protected from this."
The shed and its contents appeared to be undisturbed and the ladder tall enough to allow access to the roof was still inside. Haigenes' expression became more bovine. Ordestia looked increasingly concerned. The magistrate's assistant appeared to be no more perturbed than he already was. Pharial thought that his suppositions were close to being confirmed, and Cassandios' face began to have a closed in look, as if he were keeping strong emotions in check.
Haigenes positioned the ladder and went up it first, helping Ordestia and the magistrate's assistant onto the roof as they reached the top behind him. The three mortals carefully picked their way across the roof to the hole. The magistrate's assistant spoke first, "Well, that was definitely made by something going through from this side. Could you punch through it like that just by jumping up and down on the roof?"
The two angels exchanged glances as Haigenes replied, "No, you couldn't." He leant over to peer at something, straightened, and pulled a glass jar with a metal lid held down by clamps out of the tool pouch on his belt. He flicked the clamps open with the thumb of one hand and handed the jar to Ordestia. "Could you please hold this for me, ma'am?"
"Of course." She took it in both hands. "Why so formal all of a sudden?"
"This is going to be difficult, I think, in the long run." His eyes were still fixed on the roof, as he pulled a pair of thin leather gloves from the tool pouch and put them on.
"Those are nice," remarked the magistrate's assistant, apparently eager for a normal topic of conversation. "Where did you get them?"
"Sister Dame Antonia Octavia, at the temple over in Silvericus Magna, made them for me," replied Haigenes. "They're very useful." He leaned down and tugged gently at something for a moment, then straightened and put something in the jar that Ordestia was holding. "There's two colours there," he said. "I'd separate them into separate jars, but they seem to have been snagged at the same time."
"Wait, are those feathers?" Ordestia lifted the jar to her eye level to get better look. "Orange and white. Odd, I don't know of any bird with that shade of orange in its plumage."
"I don't think that these feathers are from a bird," said Haigenes quietly. "They are flight feathers though."
"They look like the whole feather might be bigger than a goose's," commented the magistrate's assistant. "Those pieces are substantial without being a significant portion of the whole feather. If it was just white I would suggest maybe a swan. Wait, could the orange one be dyed that way?"
Just as Haigenes was saying regretfully, "I'm afraid not," two other angels joined Pharial and Cassandios.
One of them, who looked very like Cassandios except that his wings were pearl-white, said, "Brother, our divine master has bid me return and tell you that the mortals have unlocked the block on his perception of this place and we may now enter it without confusing matters. This," he indicated the brown skinned, sharp-faced angel with pale gold wings who was with him, " is Starmenious, a servant of Lord Baraktas."
Baraktas was the god of thuggery and murder. His angel looked like his left cheekbone had been broken and hadn't set straight - it lent his features a not unattractive rakishness.
Cassandios replied, "Have either of you met Pharial, servant of the Third Swordlord before? Pharial, do you perhaps already know Polymneal, my brother in service to our divine lord, Hasnor?"
Pharial had not met either of the two newly arrived angels before but before politenesses could be exchanged, Starmenious said abruptly, "We should make ourselves manifest to the mortals before we go further. My master was quite clear that they need to know that the weapon has been neutralized."
"All of us? To all of them?" Pharial regarded the magistrate's assistant dubiously.
"Yes." The other angel's wings glittered softly in the sunlight. "Veroxix Licentor is known to my master and his servants - he is not a worshipper, but he offers regular thanks for the protection we provide to the souls of the murdered as they journey from this life to the Hall of Judgement." He smiled briefly and added, "Respectful acknowledgement of his lesser known roles is appreciated by my master."
"I suggest that we wait until they're back down on the ground," observed Polymneal. "A small host of angels appearing to them could lead to people falling off ladders and walking off roofs."
"Something to be avoided," agreed Starmenious. "If we are to prevent a repeat of the Death War that the enemy is trying to trigger using mortal substitutes for dead gods, then we will need the mortals' help to stop them."
As it happened, their manifestation to the three mortals was almost anticlimactic. When they became visible Haigenes made a short bow, Ordestia Prima saluted, and they both grabbed Veroxix Licentor as he recovered himself enough to throw himself down before the angels in prostration.
"They're not gods," Ordestia told him.
"One is respectful to angels. One does not worship them," added Haigenes. He turned to the angels and asked, "Would you be here about the murders, sirs?"
Cassandios' affirmation was followed almost immediately by Starmenious's abrupt, "I'm sorry about your priestess and the paladin, of course, but I'm here to neutralize the weapon before it can do any more harm. I have Lord Hasnor's permission to enter his temple and I would be happier if we could continue this discussion inside where there is less chance of our being overheard or overlooked."
Polymneal affirmed that the other angels had permission to enter the spaces dedicated to Lord Hasnor on this occasion, and Veroxix Licentor had recovered enough from his awe to give a wry smile at the specific and contract-like wording of the exchange.
"Excuse me," Haigenes' interruption was polite, but it was an interruption, "but are these feather pieces what I think they are?" He'd taken off the gloves and tucked them away for dealing with later, so he now held the clear glass jar in his hand. The angels looked at it while Ordestia scanned their surroundings with quick glances, looking for observers.
"This is what you found on the roof?" Pharial was horrified.
"But those are...." Cassandios seemed to run out of words.
"These came from near where the killer got in?" Polymneal' quiet, bass request for clarification made the others hopeful for a moment.
Then Haigenes replied, "I found them snagged on the edges of the hole in the roof, yes."
Starmenious swore violently in four languages, one of them dead.
"Ah," commented Ordestia. "No wonder my Coternian recitations don't rhyme the way I think they ought to - I've been getting half my vowels all wrong and putting emphasis on the wrong syllable."
Starmenious gave her an odd sideways look and said, "That wasn't supposed to be a teaching moment. You're one of those paladins your god has, aren't you? Don't you have your own angelic mentor?"
"Well, yes I do," agreed Ordestia. She blushed. "He's very busy so we've never gotten around to discussing more the standard spiritual checks...." She cleared her throat and asked, "What are those feathers from that it upsets you all so much?"
The subtle shifts in the other three angels' stances told Pharial that it was up to him to answer. "They're angel feathers. We thought a vard did this, but-. Something is very wrong here. Something worse than we thought."
"Polymneal and I should check the interior for skulkers before you enter," said Cassandios abruptly to Starmenious.
"We may not have time for that," replied Starmenious, shaking his head. "Some of the vard weapons that looked like the description I've been given of this one had time triggers in them. I need to deal with it quickly. There are four of us and, at most, there appear to be two of them. If there is an ambush, I think we can deal with it."
A short time later they were gathered near the bodies of the murdered religious, still jointly impaled by and pinned to the stone floor with the wooden staff topped with an amethyst ball that was the weapon of their murder. "I need you all to wait here," said Starmenious firmly. "If things go wrong, the airflow in here will carry the contents of that ball away from you. You should have time to get away unharmed."
"What about you?" Haigenes had a very bovine frown on his face.
"I'll probably be dead," replied the angel flatly. "On the other hand, I will be using this." He produced a transparent vial that's contents filled a volume that was half as deep as the palm of his hand. Said contents seemed to be a swirl of rainbow churning around itself. "My divine master doesn't cry often, but his tears are the sovereign remedy against all poisons. I'm told that they cure some diseases too." He turned to the deadly staff and said in a business-like tone, "Right, let's do this."
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