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The catalyst floated between unconsciousness and the waking nightmare of his life.
“Holiness, forgive me!” he muttered feverishly. “Take me back to our sanctuary! Free me of this terrible burden. I cannot bear it!” Tossing on his crude bed, Saryon put his hands over his closed eyes as though he could blot out the dreadful visions that sleep only intensified and made more frightening. “Murder!” he cried. “I have done murder! Not once! Oh, no, Holiness! Twice. Two men have died because of me!”
“Saryon!” The voice repeated the catalyst’s name, and there was a hint of irritation in it.
The catalyst cringed, digging the palms of his hands into his eyes. “Let me confess to you, Holiness!” he cried. “Punish me as you will. I deserve it, desire it! Then I will be free of their faces, their eyes … haunting me!”
Saryon sat up on his bed, half-asleep. He had not slept in days; exhaustion and excitement had temporarily overthrown his mind. He had no conscious thought of where he was or why this voice — that he knew to be hundreds of miles away — should be speaking to him so clearly. “The first, a young man of our Order,” the catalyst continued brokenly. “The warlock used my Life-giving force to murder him. The wretched catalyst never had a chance. And now the warlock, too, is dead! He lay before me helpless, drained of his magic by my arts! Joram —” The catalyst’s voice sank to a hushed whisper. “Joram….”
“Saryon!” The voice was stern, urgent and commanding, and it finally roused the catalyst from his confused exhaustion.
“What?” Shivering in his wet robes, Saryon looked around. He was not in the sanctuary of the Font. He was in a chill prison cell. Death surrounded him. Brick walls — stone made by the hands of man, not shaped by magic. The wood-beam ceiling above bore the gouges of tools. Cold metal bars forged by the hand of the Dark Arts seemed a barrier against Life itself. “Joram?” Saryon called softly through teeth clenched against the cold.
But a glance told him the young man was not in the prison cell, his bed had not been slept in.
“Of course not,” Saryon said to himself, shuddering. Joram was in the wilderness, disposing of the body…. But then, whose had been the voice he heard so clearly?
The catalyst’s head sank into his shaking hands. “Take my life, Almin!” he prayed fervently. “If you truly do exist, take my life and end this torment, this misery. For now I am going mad —”
“Saryon! You cannot avoid me, if such is your intent! You will listen to me! You have no choice!”
The catalyst raised his head, his eyes wide and staring, his body convulsing with a chill that was colder than the breath of the bitterest winter wind. “Holiness?” he called through trembling lips. Rising stiffly to his feet, the catalyst looked around the small cell. “Holiness? Where are you? I can’t see you, yet I hear — I don’t understand …”
“I am present in your mind, Saryon,” the voice said. “I speak to you from the Font. How I am able to accomplish this need be of little importance to you, Father. My powers are very great. Are you alone?”
“Y-yes, Holiness, for the moment. But I —”
“Organize your thoughts, Saryon!” The voice sounded impatient again. “They are such a jumble I cannot read them! You need not speak. Think the words you say and I will hear them. I will give you a moment to calm yourself with prayer, then I expect you to be ready to attend me.”
The voice fell silent. Saryon was still conscious of its presence inside his head, buzzing like an insect in his mind. Hurriedly he sought to compose himself, but it was not with prayer. Though he had begged only moments before that the Almin take his life — and though he had sincerely meant that despairing plea — Saryon felt a primal urge for self-survival well up inside him. The very fact that Bishop Vanya was able to invade his mind like this appalled him and filled him with anger — though he knew that the anger was wrong. As a humble catalyst, he should be proud, he supposed, that the great Bishop would spare time to investigate his unworthy thoughts. But deep within, from that same dark place whence had come his nightdreams, a voice asked coldly, How much does he know? Is there any way I can hide from him?
“Holiness,” said Saryon hesitantly, turning around in the center of the dark room, staring fearfully about him as though the Bishop might at any moment step out of the brick wall, “I … find it difficult to compose my … thoughts. My inquisitive mind —”
The same inquisitive mind that has led you to walk dark paths?” the Bishop asked in displeasure.
“Yes, Holiness,” Saryon replied humbly. “I admit this is my weakness, but it prevents me attending to your words without knowing how and by what means we are communicating. I —”
“Your thoughts are in turmoil! We can accomplish nothing useful this way. Very well.” Bishop Vanya’s voice, echoing in Saryon’s mind, sounded angry, if resigned. “It is necessary, Father, that as spiritual leader of our people, I keep in contact with the far-flung reaches of this world. As you know, there are those out there who seek to reduce our Order to little more than what we were in the ancient days — familiars who served our masters in the form of animals. Because of this threat, it is necessary that many of my communications with others — both of our Order and those who are helping to preserve it — must be on a confidential basis.”
“Yes, Holiness,” Saryon murmured nervously. The dark night beyond the cell’s barred window was thinning into gray dawn. He could hear a few footsteps in the streets — those who began their workday the same time as the sun began his. But otherwise the village slept. Where was Joram? Had he been caught, the body discovered? The catalyst clasped his hands together and attempted to concentrate on the Bishops voice.
“Through magical means, Saryon, a chamber was devised for the Bishop of the Realm whereby he can minister in private to his followers in need of support. Known as the Chamber of Discretion, it is particularly useful for communicating with those performing certain delicate tasks that must be kept secret for the good of the people —”
A network of spies! Saryon thought before he could stop himself. The Church, the Order to which he had devoted his life, was in reality nothing more than a giant spider, sitting in the midst of a vast web, attuned to every movement of those caught within its sticky grasp! It was a dreadful thought, and Saryon tried instantly to banish it.
He began to sweat again, even as his body shivered. Cringing, he waited for the Bishop to read his mind and reprimand him. But Vanya continued on as though he had not heard, expounding upon the Chamber of Discretion and how it worked, allowing one mind to speak to another through magical means.
So tense that his jaw muscles ached from the strain of clenching his teeth, Saryon pondered. “The Bishop did not notice my random thoughts!” he said to himself. “Perhaps, as he said, I have to concentrate to make myself heard. If so — and if I can control my mind — I might be able to cope with this mental invasion.”
As Saryon realized this, it occurred to him that he was hearing only those thoughts Vanya wanted him to hear. He wasn’t able to penetrate beyond whatever barriers the Bishop himself had established. Slowly, Saryon began to relax. He waited until his superior had reached an end.
“I understand, Holiness,” the catalyst thought, concentrating all his effort on his words.
“Excellent, Father.” Vanya appeared pleased. There was a pause; the Bishop was carefully considering and concentrating on his next words. But when he spoke — or when his thoughts took form in Saryon’s mind — they were rapid and concise, as though being repeated by rote. “I sent you on a dangerous task, Saryon — that of attempting to apprehend the young man called Joram. Because of the danger, I grew concerned about your welfare when I did not hear from you. Therefore, I deemed it best to contact a trusted associate of mine concerning you —”
“Simkin!” Saryon thought before he could stop himself. So intense was the image of the young man in his mind that it must have translated to the Bishop.
“What?” Thrown off in the middle of his speech, Vanya appeared confused.
“Nothing,” Saryon muttered hastily. “I apologize, Holiness. My thoughts were disturbed by … by something occurring outside….”
“I suggest you remove yourself from the window, Father,” the Bishop said ascerbically.
“Yes, Holiness,” Saryon replied, digging his nails into the flesh of his palms, using the stimulus of pain to help him concentrate.
There was a second’s pause again — Vanya attempting to remember where he was? Why didn’t he just write it down? Saryon wondered irritably, sensing the Bishop’s thoughts turned from him. Then the voice was back. This time, it was filled with concern.