She shouldn’t be here. Not this late in the day. And, definitely not by herself. Allyara will surely receive a stern talking when her uncle finds out. Of course, Dilgorin really isn’t her uncle. Point in fact, he is a high priest of the One and protects this city with his wisdom.

Making her way through Sedare’s marketplace, she heard seagulls off in the distance and smelled the brisk saltiness of the bay. They both calmed her nerves. She likes being outdoors. To her, the rectory and church often feels too confining, like a jail. And so, whenever she can, she takes strolls through the city. Once, she managed to sneak out through the gates and roamed the nearby green hills for a few hours before the city guards found her, daydreaming under a tree.

“Coming through!”

“Excuse me,” Allyara said with a polite curtsey.

While thinking about daydreaming, she nearly walked into a merchant pulling down the tarpaulin over the front of his leather stand. All the hawkers and merchants were hastily closing up shop for the day, wanting to finish before sunset. Wanting to get home to their families. Or wanting to spend their earnings on stale ale. She has seen some of them at Falamil’s. She’s sure of it. In fact she’s going there now.

And so are the two guards that have been following her since she left the rectory. They were the same two guards that followed her virtually everywhere. Jon and–What’s the smelly one’s name–Rothyr! Yes, that sounds right.

Even if her attention to her surroundings lapsed for a moment, theirs surely would not. When visiting Falamil, she has often offered them a pint, but they have always refused. She knows Jon would have drink; he just doesn’t want Rothyr to know about it. At least, that’s what Allyara senses. And she is rarely wrong.

A few streets from the market, closer to the wharf, Falamil’s Wooden Tankard boasted the least watered down beverages. Sometimes, when a new patron asks for something that isn’t watered down at all, Falamil gives them an empty mug. Allyara remembered the note he sent earlier. It said to come right away. Otherwise, she would still be reading the holy manuscripts in her nightgown. Her thoughts traced back to the first time she saw Falamil…

Three years ago, just after she turned fifteen, she had her first adventure in the city. And she had almost died. Well, she could have, if Falamil hadn’t saved her from the mugger.

She had found herself in the wharf district near nightfall. Allyara felt uneasy, as though she was being followed. She picked up her pace and kept looking over her shoulder. Unfortunately, she soon realized she was in a dark alley. Alone and scared. She had wished she never ditched the church guards.

She turned around to face her pursuer. It was dark and she couldn’t see his face. He was about her height. But he was thick and stocky. Her gaze fell upon the knife he brandished in his left hand.

“Don’t scream, Pretty. Don’t scream and I won’t cut you.”

He was lying. She knew it. If she didn’t escape, he was going to kill her–or worse!

Just then a door in the alley opened and large man stepped out of the light and down the ramp. He carried an empty keg in front of him.

He immediately became aware of the situation and threw the keg at the attacker. The attacker dodged but the keg struck him in a leg and he fell. The larger man, who was just as stocky, rushed to the man on the ground. They wrestled for control of the knife.

Allyara screamed and ran up the ramp to the open door. She stopped just outside.

“Help us!” she screamed again into what she would later learn to be the storeroom of the Wooden Tankard.

Allyara turned back around just in time to see the attacker stab the larger man in the side. The fight left him. The attacker pushed his heavy body aside and sprung to his feet. He glared at Allyara then looked to the door. Light and shadow moved inside. He turned and ran down the street and soon vanished around the nearest corner. Allyara stood there in shock. A few people surged passed her to the fallen man. They picked him up and brought him back into the building. She stepped inside, passing the larder, kegs, and barrels. One person shoved trays and mugs off a countertop before the others heaved the burly man onto it. He cried out in pain. Allyara saw a steady stream of blood flowing from the wound.

Something told her to go to the man. She stepped forward, quietly.

One man ripped open the injured man’s shirt, revealing the wound. Hope faded from the faces in the crowd. The man would surely die.

“What are you doing? Get back out of the way, girl,” an older man with greying hair said.

But Allyara didn’t stop. And she didn’t back away. Something told her to continue. Something told her she can save this man’s life. She just didn’t know how.

“No. You, step aside.”

The command puzzled everyone in the room. A few were reluctant, but they moved away just the same.

Allyara stood beside the counter and looked at the man who tried to save her–the man who did save her. She held his massive hand with both of hers.

He looked up at her, tears running along the wrinkles of his crows-feet. He barely managed to pull his hand away from hers to brush the hair out of her eyes. Several hairs had been trapped by her tears. A grateful smile came to rest on his face.

“I’m… I’m glad to see… you’re safe.” His arm fell to his side, all his strength gone. His face and arms were ashen grey. His gaze still fixed upon her.

She leaned in close and said, “I am Allyara. And now, I am going to save your life.”

The onlookers turned to each other, skeptical at what they heard. The older patrons knew it was a mortal wound. No one could survive that.

Allyara turned to face the wound. She thought, How am I supposed to save this good man? Lord help me.

She placed both hands on the torn flesh. Blood flowed through her small fingers. And she concentrated. She poured all the goodness the man had shown her and all the goodness of those in the church and all the goodness of her faith into his side. And she concentrated. She envisioned the flesh mending. Envisioned the blood clotting. And it became so.

The patrons looked on with astonishment and, occasionally, to each other nervously. They had never seen anything like this first hand. Many even discounted the rumors of healing they’ve heard over the years. Allyara grew weaker with each passing moment, her strength flowing into the man. Life and vigor returning to him, he regained his light olive-skin color.

When the wound was completely sealed, leaving just a jagged scar on the man’s side, Allyara’s legs suddenly fell out from under her.

The man was quick. He rolled off the counter and grabbed her before she hit the floor.

“Thank you,” she said.

The man held her up and stammered, “Allyara… I… You… How did you?”

“What’s your name?” Allyara asked, her tongue heavy, her mind and body still drained.

The man obliged, “Falamil. This is my tavern, The Wooden Tankard.”

Allyara snapped back to the present, perhaps instinctively knowing that she had arrived at Falamil’s. She went through the front door leaving it for one of her two shadows to close. Despite it being early (for the drinking crowd, anyway), there were several people scattered about, sitting at the tables or the bar. She passed table after table, nodding at the faces she recognized. To her left, a flutist sat on a stool playing a soft, lively tune as the hearth crackled with a low fire.

The tavern had become her second home over the last three years. And Falamil had become the second man she called uncle that really wasn’t.

At the far end of the long bar-counter, Nirena, one of Falamil’s barmaids, poured a drink for a rather handsome young man seated on the last stool.

The barmaid offered no resistance as Allyara stepped around the counter and, in a melodic voice, called out, “Uncle, I’m here.”

“Be right there, Ally!”

A few moments passed and he emerged from the back with two mugs gathered in one large hand and two plates of food in the other.

“Grab these two, would you?” He offered her the mugs.

She looked at him and took the plates.

After they delivered the order to one of the round tables near the flutist, they started back to the kitchen. The two guards moved as if wanting to follow her, but she held up her hand, which they understood to mean “Down boys. I’m safe here.”

Once in the kitchen, Allyara looked at the table–the table where she healed Falamil. To her, this place seemed to be the real beginning of her life.

“Still brings back memories to me too. Every time I look at it. You know, you scared off a couple of my long time regulars that night.” He chuckled. “Ah, they were lousy tippers anyhow.”

“We could have reminisced tomorrow, or next week. What is so important?”

“Do you remember Maeylisa that worked for me last year?”

Allyara gestures with both hands in front of her breasts while saying, “The blonde with the–”

“That would be her,” Falamil interrupts. “She went missing this morning. We’ve checked everywhere, even at her bloated-pig-of-a-father’s house.”

Falamil told Allyara more about all the disappearances. Even before that night three years ago, people had been coming up missing. But recently, he said, the occurrences have become more frequent. Young children are being snatched from their mother’s arms. Teenagers never make it home from their work. And now, young Maeylisa has vanished. He’d hoped she could talk to Dilgorin and ask for help.

“Well? Surely with the number that have disappeared–he has to send his guards. He must.”

“Don’t worry, Uncle.” She placed a hand on his cheek and the worry melted from his face. “I will talk to him. Help will come.”

Nirena called for Falamil. More customers had come in and she needed help tending to them. Allyara followed him back into the front room. The number of customers had doubled in the short time they had talked. Falamil began helping and Allyara sat down on a stool. She noticed the handsome young man had left and a small wave of disappointment washed over her. Maybe Nirena knows something about him. He was cute.

After Falamil had passed her twice, scurrying between tables and kitchen, she stopped him.

“Since I am here and I’m hungry, you need to feed me.”

Falamil looked at her sternly. She stared back at him. Finally, they burst into boisterous laughter. She had no idea why that was particularly funny.

Nearly a week had passed before Allyara’s request to speak with Dilgorin was granted. Apparently, he had been to Berland on affairs of the state. Allyara doesn’t remember when Dilgorin became the High Theocrat, that happened nearly twenty years ago, when King Terius was murdered.

During much of his reign, the king had depleted Sedare’s coffers. He had become a king at an early age and was immature and impetuous. His subjects suffered for his frivolity and indiscretions.

Some years before the king’s death, Dilgorin was appointed as cardinal over the One’s church in Sedare. The king had become a devout follower of the One’s teachings and gave Dilgorin unprecedented access to the inner workings of the small, but strategically located kingdom. Soon, the king began seeking advice from Dilgorin before his own trusted advisors.

In fact, Dilgorin’s plan to revitalize the city-state is directly responsible for the current prosperity of Sedare, the wharf district notwithstanding. Sedare had become known as the City of Thieves. Much of the reputation came from poor families simply stealing to survive. Sure, there were the occasional violent confrontations, but those were rare.

Dilgorin’s plan involved imposing a different kind of port tax. In addition to gold or silver, visitors had to provide food or grain or seeds. Some volunteered their time to feed the poor or cultivate and teach those eager to learn to live off the land.

Sedare has thrived under Dilgorin’s wise rulership. The people are happy and Sedare’s allies have enjoyed stability that had been missing during the earlier years of the king.

Allyara learned most of this from scrolls and stories told by those around the church. Some of it, she learned at Falamil’s place, much to Dilgorin’s chagrin.

She waited outside Dilgorin’s study for what seemed like hours. The bench was comfortable enough, but after all the time that she’s wasted (even though it really wasn’t her fault), she wanted to talk to him about the disappearances. She was sure that Falamil hadn’t given up on her, but she also didn’t want to let him down. She couldn’t let him down.

Three men turned the corner into the hall coming toward Allyara. One of them, a young balding man, carried a small wooden chest in front of him. Allyara noticed that his clothing was rather ragged. And she noticed his limp. Quentin’s leg had been crushed by a cart when he was a child. When he started working at the church, she tried to heal his leg, but couldn’t. The other man, much older and rather handsome, was Dilgorin’s personal assistant. There was just something about Dannac’s black goatee, spattered with greys here and there, that appealed to Allyara.

Dannac held an unfurled scroll at arms length, occasionally glancing to his right, to a man in stately, priest robes.

Dilgorin, a tall slender man with long silver hair so wispy that it bounced with each stride, strolled forward, head tilting on occasion toward Dannac. Allyara guessed that he was in his late fifties, though she wasn’t sure. She assumed that a man who had been appointed archbishop over Sedare (he didn’t become cardinal until a year before the king’s death) had to have been at least twenty-five years or more. She was sure that if was much older, he truly did not look it.

Allyara stood up to kneel in front of the bench, waiting for Dilgorin.

“Ah, my child. Dannac told me that you are quite eager to speak with me. That you have an urgent matter to discuss.” Dilgorin’s speech was soft and direct, as if he spent careful consideration to each word before it’s uttered. He extended his right hand, the signet ring boldly displayed.

Allyara took his hand in hers and leaned over to kiss the ring, honoring the station that the One has given Dilgorin. “Yes, your grace.”

“Come, stand up, and give your uncle a big hug. It feels like it has been weeks since we have enjoyed each other’s company,” Dilgorin said with welcoming arms. His ever present smile turned into a large grin as Allyara stood and hugged him. “Now, let us go in to my study and have your discussion.”

During Allyara’s and the cardinal’s ceremonious greeting, Dannac had opened the door to the study and went inside. Quentin had followed suit, giving the cardinal and Allyara a wide birth.

Allyara was lead into the study by the cardinal. When she was younger, she spent several hours sitting in the corner chair. It was an elegantly upholstered highback chair. Allyara remembered the first time she ever sat in it. Actually, the first time she was in it, she stood and could barely see over the back to the bookcases behind. A younger Dilgorin had scolded her and from then on, she always sat in the chair like a lady.

Today, she would not be sitting in her favorite chair, the safer chair (besides that first time). No, she will be sitting across the massive oaken desk with Dilgorin facing her. She promised herself to be direct and, also, to convey the emotions of those of stolen friends and family.

Dilgorin was settling into his chair. Dannac placed the scroll away and was standing behind Dilgorin, just to the right. Quentin had already deposited the chest down on the table near Allyara’s favorite chair and left the room. She could tell he was more than just a little uncomfortable in the study. To her knowledge, he’d never done anything inappropriate. Never dropped or broken anything. But he still seemed scared in the presence of the cardinal. Allyara assumed it was Dilgorin’s station that intimidated Quentin so. She forced herself to remember this later so she could talk with him.

Dilgorin spoke, startling Allyara just a little. “What do you feel we need to do about the disappearances in the wharf district?”

She didn’t recall mentioning what she wanted to discuss in the letter she had sent. With any other, she would have been suspicious. But, Dilgorin always seemed to have his ways of information discovery. In truth, Dannac most likely had a large part in that discovery.

“We need to send someone to investigate. A small group of city guardsmen and their captain.”

“Child. We have sent guardsmen to the district before. On numerous occasions. You must know that I want peace for all children of the One. But they have proven time and again that they do not want our assistance. That is the very reason we have left them to their own devices.”

Allyara recalled, at least three points in her life, that the church and city guard have attempted to bring a semblance of order to the wharf. Each time, they were met with resolute commoners. Dilgorin had given strict orders that no blood shall be shed. And so, each attempt was a stalemate before it even began.

“Surely, your Eminence, there must be something that we can do,” desperation heavy in Allyara’s words.

Dilgorin beckoned Dannac to his side. They exchanged a few whispers, none of which Allyara could understand.

“Very well. You shall get your investigation. But you shall be the one investigating. You are a bright young acolyte. And, more importantly, you have a connection a few in the district. How is your friend Falamil faring these days?”

“Falamil is fine. Did you say that I shall investigate?” Allyara’s mind travels back to her first adventure to the wharf. It almost cost her life and another’s. Her heart pounded faster. She could feel the veins in her neck pulsing.

Suddenly, Allyara’s senses became dull. She could no longer feel the pounding of her heart. A thick blackness hung in front of her eyes. Her hearing became nothing more than a muffled echo. She had never lost her senses like this. Even her thought had become disjointed. Allyara was scared. No. She was terrified.

She wasn’t sure how long this sensation stayed with her. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Perhaps days.

She let out a mental sigh of relief when her senses slowly started returning. Through the haziness lingering in her eyesight, she could tell that she wasn’t in Dilgorin’s study. In fact, as the fog lifted, she was certain that wasn’t anywhere that she had ever been. She was in a wilderness, a thick dense forest. There were sounds of fighting, muffled then crackled. She could see large tents erected in the middle of a large clearing, even though the trees boughs still formed a luscious green canopy. She could see armored men attacking. Other people, dressed in leather or cloth, were attacking the armored men–some with swords and some with bows.

They looked different to Allyara. Some had a very pale green color about them, others were more the same Allyara. On some, she also could see long ears standing tall above their hair. They moved gracefully as they attacked. But the soldiers, that’s what she thought they must be, had more numbers and were blow by blow felling more of the strange ones. Allyara tried to call out. She tried to shout into the fray to stop it. But her voice was gone. Not one syllable escaped her mouth.

Her senses jolted again. This time without much loss at all, only a shift in the haze. She could see she was near the same place. The soldiers and the strange ones were still fighting. But now she could see a young girl, close to her own age. The girl was helping a fallen strange one. Allyara moved in for closer look, though she could not feel motion in her legs.

When the girl turned to face her, Allyara immediately recognized her. It was herself! It was Allyara! She was looking at herself! Allyara grew nervous. The girl screamed and Allyara reached out to touch her, to offer comfort, but she had no arms.

She could hear a horse galloping fast and, before she could turn or move out of the way, the horse and its rider appeared right in front Allyara–almost as if they had ran through her.

Just then, from above, a figure lunged off a high tree branch, tackling the rider. The force knocked the rider to the Ground where they struggled momentarily. The rider’s hand searched for his sword and he stood up. He was clad in armor with a long black tunic and a silver crest that Allyara could not focus on.

The figure became that of the young man Allyara had seen at Falamil’s a week ago. He sprang to his feet while drawing a thin sword with his left hand and a dagger with his right.

The two maneuvered for better striking positions and they lunge, thrust, swing, and parry. The rider had the obvious advantage. The young man was tiring. The other Allyara cried out at the young man. Distracted for a second, he turned and yelled something back at the other Allyara.

The rider took the opportunity and struck the man in the head with his sword-hand. The blow staggered the man and he collapses. The other Allyara rushed to him and flung her body on top, putting herself between the man and the rider.

The rider grabbed the other Allyara, despite her hitting him with her fists. He called for another soldier who held her from behind. The rider went to his horse, removing something from a saddlebag. He placed strange looking bands around the other Allyara’s arms and locked them in place. The two men lifted her into the saddle backwards. The rider clasped a couple leather straps ensuring the other Allyara could not fall from the horse.

Just as the rider began to climb into the saddle, the young man shook off as much pain and made a weakened attack. With his dagger, he sliced at the rider’s chest. From behind, the soldier slammed his shield into the young man. He fell forward grabbing at the rider, tearing off a piece of the tunic.

The rider pushed him back and kicked him solidly in the chest. Forced back to the ground, the young man laid there, motionless. Blood trickled from a deep cut on his forehead.

In a matter of seconds, the rider had mounted the horse and had bounded away. All the remaining soldiers began disappearing. Some of the strange ones vanished and some appeared on the ground, mortally wounded. In a flash, the forest was consumed by flames. Allyara’s heart raced. The world became dim once more.