HE DIDN'T WANT TO BE HERE. Snow fell upon Demeas concealing the golden brown of his caped cloak. Looking older than the forty-six years he assumed he was, his wrinkled skin, under several days of grey stubble, revealed the toll the elements had on him. Winter came early at this altitude, evident by the sight of his breath and that of his horse. As a priest he was accustomed to hardship. He never enjoyed what many considered luxuries. As a tracker this was his job. He was glad, however, he brought his rabbit fur gauntlets. His steel blue eyes surveyed the vastness ahead of him. The tracks that lay ahead of him would be preserved by the cold, making it easier for him to track his quarry. He just didn't want to be here.
He picked up the trail soon after the reported theft three days earlier, after being summoned to Elder Gallien's personal quarters.
"Demeas," said Gallien, the Elder of Temple Khalmara, walking toward Demeas. "Glad you could make it here so quickly."
"I came as soon as you asked for me. The message seemed urgent."
"It is. Our copy of The Pillars has been stolen."
"What!" Demeas squeezing the pommel of his dagger, turning his knuckles white.
"Yes. A shocking and extremely disturbing event."
"When did this happen?" Demeas asked, his tone calm, but not his mind. He wondered who would do this and why? Faces came to mind and names remembered, but none raised suspicion.
"Overnight it would seem. Sit with me, Demeas." The old man motioned for Demeas to sit in one of the large chairs in front of the fireplace. With a chill in the air, feeling the warm fire eased Demeas's agitation somewhat. The Pillars were the foundation of The Faith. A collection of Sacred Writings passed down by generations of priests for more than three thousand years. Painstakingly preserved by conscientious scribes and priests, the theft was a sacrilege.
"One of the young priests noticed It missing just after sunrise when he opened the Sanctuary."
"That was less than an hour ago."
"You understand, then, the urgency of your summoning?" Demeas nodded his affirmation. "We need you to find The Pillars so It can be restored to Its proper place."
Demeas stood, "Of course, Master Gallien. I will leave immediately."
"Sit please, Demeas. There is more you need to know. You need to know what you could find yourself up against. Not everyone at this Temple has been accounted for. One novice priest cannot be found." Gallien paused a moment. He bent his shoulders forward and, voice breaking, continued, "Nor can two H'Rhophyans. Costane and Faldron."
Demeas sat erect, "I know these men. I have trusted my life to both on more than one occasion."
"I know, but they have the access and ability the young novice does not possess. So unfortunately, they are to be suspected until proven otherwise."
Demeas noticed the old man's ashen face, making the wrinkles more pronounced. A pair of moist eyes seemingly stared into eternity, yet not seeing anything. Was it because of the suspicion of two H'Rhophyan priests or simply fatigue? Gallien was, after all, ninety-five years old, by far the oldest serving H'Rhophyan ever. Or could it be both? No one in the history of The Order had ever been charged with theft that Demeas could recall. He thought about how difficult this moment was for the old man. He took a deep breath trying to think of a way to ease his friend's, his spiritual father's, burden. He could think of nothing. The implications of this incident were great. The H'Rhophyans enforced the judgments of both the religious orders and Kingdom magistrates wherever The Order served. For someone within The Order to perpetrate this crime could have longstanding ramifications, such as bringing into question The Order's integrity.
"There is something else you need to know," continued Gallien playing with the signet ring he used to seal official documents. "Five other copies of The Pillars have been stolen from other Temples in the past week, and more thefts are feared."
"Why haven't I heard of this until now?"
"We deliberately kept it quiet. If the people were to find out these Holy Books are missing it could shake the faith of the most ardent followers and crush the faith of many more. Trackers have been dispatched for the other copies." Placing his hand on Demeas's shoulder he continued, "You must find our copy as soon as possible." He paused again. Tears slowly welled in his eyes, "There is more. The Order is strong here in Sendeshia. In Ghendhar the Monarchy attacks us. Who's behind it?" he shrugged his shoulders. "We don't know. But if things continue as they are, we will be forced out of Ghendhar like the H'Rhophyans were ordered out of Khelonah. Not in my lifetime. Perhaps not even yours. But it will happen."
"Because of our involvement during the Elven War?"
"No Demeas, it would have happened eventually. Our Order restricted the worship of Zhenkrad in Khelonah. Besides, we also opposed their enslavement of Elves. Instead of complying with the greater principle, they forced us out of the Kingdom: declared outlaws."
"And to think all three kingdoms were one not long ago."
"If we don't stop what is happening with these thefts we could be looking at a reunification under the spiritual leadership of Zhenkrad. I think you can see the importance of finding The Book quickly."
This ends the excerpt.