Something very bad was going on...
Tobimar staggered as he placed yet another gasping body – a child, no more than ten in human terms, with delicately pointed ears and long silvery hair smeared with blood – on the altar. I can't fall now. We aren't even near done. He called on his meditations, the training Khoros had given him, released the reserves of his soul. Strength flowed back into his body, clarity to his thoughts. There'll be a price for that, later… but not now.
The Lurali, a priestess of Terian, looked even more exhausted than he had felt. She wavered as she laid hands on the girl, invoked the power and prayer. Blue-white light as gentle as gathered starlight flowed from the Lurali, into the little Artan girl, knitting the injuries, pulling together sundered sinew and flesh, restoring blood to the flow and pulse of life. Then she collapsed to her knees; Tobimar caught her before she fell forward. "You have done as much as the Light in the Darkness can ask, Lurali," he said. The semiconscious priestess tried feebly to argue, but others came to bring her to a place of rest.
Tobimar shoved his sweat-soaked hair back into place and looked around. The Temple of Terian was filled all along the eight walls with refugees, the injured, the homeless, and he could see more being brought in. "Sand and sun… how many are there?" he whispered.
"A lot." The voice, a very subdued one, spoke from near his feet. Poplock looked up at him, a completely uncharacteristic expression of exhaustion and pathos clear on his amphibian face. "Tobimar… it's like this all up and down the Blessed Quarter. The Hall of the Aesir's practically full – not that the Spear and Hammer will turn any with the courage to make it this far away. You know the Palace courtyard was crowded. The Cavern of Endless Crystals," Tobimar nodded to show he recognized the name of the temples of the Dragon Gods, "the Cavern's full. Hundreds of refugees there. The Triad, the Three Beards, the Lifecross, the Aegeians… even Blackwart's Pond. All of them, it's the same." He seemed to deflate. "The priests are running out of strength, even the greatest of them. There will be people dying in the temples tonight, Tobimar. Dying. In the temples of the gods."
Tobimar bent and picked up his exhausted friend, hearing the grief still in Poplock's voice. "Don't blame yourself. Please."
"How can I not?" the little Toad's voice was something between a scream and a croak, a pathetic sound that sent a shiver of sympathy up Tobimar's spine. "I knew they were planning everything… I should have made people listen to me!"
The thought of little Poplock – dangerous though Tobimar knew he could be, in the right circumstances – trying to force someone like the Winnower to listen brought a faint, sad smile to the exiled Prince's lips. "You know that wouldn't have worked. And Khoros always told me that we must learn from the past, but not let it pain us more than the learning requires. For like any open wound, it will never heal if we do not let it alone."
"Heed the words of your friend, Poplock Duckweed." It was the Nomdas herself, highest priest of the mortal god on all Zarathan, the Shading Glory's pearlescent glow blurring her features as all representations of Terian blurred his. She was clearly exhausted as well, but refusing to stop. "You cannot fault yourself for being who you are. Learn, but do not punish yourself. There is too much at stake for those who are already a part of this great game to abandon their places."
"Great game? What are you –"
Yet the Nomdas had passed on, was bent over an injured mazakh, and Tobimar could tell the time for talk was already past. He saw how few of the priests were still up, still able to act, and realized that Poplock's horrific prediction was all too likely to come true.
Deaths in the Temples. It was a horror story, something to frighten children with. Yes, it could happen in the wilds, in places where there were few priests, but in the greatest city of the world, in the very temples of the Blessed Quarter?
But looking around him, seeing the refugees still trickling in, a slow but relentless flow of need and pain that was overwhelming even the servants of the gods, the alchemists, the sorcerers who practiced the healing arts, Tobimar realized that was going to happen. It was happening. And the very fact that it was happening told him that Master Khoros' warning had to be true; somehow, the gods themselves could no longer act, could not step down from their realms and wield their supernal powers directly to stem the relentless tide of the injured and dying.
"I refuse," he muttered.
Poplock's confused query shocked him; he hadn't realized he'd actually spoken that aloud. "I refuse to accept this, Poplock. This is… monstrous."
The little toad looked at him with a wry tilt to his body that seemed at least something more like the old fearless, carefree Poplock Duckweed he'd come to know. "Well, yes, it is, but exactly how can you not accept it? If you close your eyes and put your thumbs in your ears you'll still be tripping over the people."
"I mean that this is part of what they – whoever they are – intended."
Poplock narrowed his eyes. "Oh. Oh, my. You mean that the assassination –"
"Has to be part of it. It was all coordinated." He whirled, strode over to the northern wall, picking his way carefully past healers and injured and sleeping, to point to the inlaid map of the continent. "Look. That first group of refugees… came from Pondsparkle. Right?"
"Well… some of them had 'ported or gated from farther in, but they'd come to Pondsparkle, yes. Couldn't pop to Zarathanton for some reason."
"So here… Pondsparkle's about two hundred miles north of Zarathanton – but if you go about this far south you can take the river for a good long distance, which you would if you were refugees in a hurry. If they took that route, when did they start running, to get here when they did?"
Poplock thought for a moment, tongue flicking out absently, and he suddenly sat up. "That's –"
"Exactly. The attack must have started almost precisely when the assassination took place."
The little Toad bobbed slowly. "And the refugees…"
"They're not trying to kill everyone. Driving so many people here will overload the Temples, terrify the population, demoralize people… and reduce support, because people will start to worry about protecting their own. Fewer nobility subscriptions because people don't feel the privilege is worth it now, maybe established nobles retract their subscriptions… with the Sixteen not able to intervene and make a show, the State's in trouble."
"They'll do what they can, but they can't support the defense of the whole city. If enough people lose faith, the whole system will collapse."
"Oh, drought and quicksand." Despite the grim situation, Tobimar felt his heart lighten a tiny bit. Poplock was sounding more himself, and somehow that made things better. "What can we do? I don't think we can defend the city ourselves either."
"No," agreed Tobimar, "but right now we need to make sure the King sees the whole situation, and then…" he gave a weak grin and shrugged. "Then we do the best we can. He can't leave. He's the Sauran King, the living representative of the Dragon Father and the Sixteen. As long as he's here, he might by himself be able to keep the people's confidence. But he'll need all the help he can get.
"Still, someone has to find out who did this, track them down, and stop them."
Poplock hopped on his head and then leaned perilously over, looking down into Tobimar's eyes. "That's an awfully tall order for one exiled Prince and a somewhat height deficient Toad."
"True. But if we can at least find out who we need to stop, maybe after that we can figure out that little question of how."
Poplock's gaze bored into his own for an eternity of seconds; then the little Toad suddenly bounced off Tobimar's head and onto his shoulder. "Then it's a good thing we registered with the Guild last week!"
"Helped to have Toron as the sponsor. Come on." He turned, bowing to the remaining priests. "My apologies; we have just realized something of grave importance that needs to be told to the King."
The Nomdas returned the bow wearily. "You have done much here already. Go, and Light Unto Darkness."
"Light Unto Darkness, Nomdas."
Tobimar strode out into the night.
And finally they start to put pieces together.