Chapter Twenty-Five

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          The cathedral was dark, illuminated only by the circle of torches at the center of the massive room. Siobhan remembered it differently. Last time she was there, stained glass ceilings lit up the pews in a slew of rainbow colors. Outside it looked like nothing special, a continuation of the square stone walls forming the courtyard. Inside, it was grander than any church in all the lowlands. Now, gone were all the pews and the statues representing every deity in every magical races culture. Gone were the golden altars atop the dais and the grand floor to ceiling organ that once greeted worshipers with a melody that was somehow both gentle and forceful. Siobhan liked that cathedral better. It was welcoming, comforting, and peaceful.

She didn't have time to wonder why, or how, it shifted so drastically. The High Mages were already surrounding Natalia when Siobhan entered. One stood between every torch, both arms extended, palms facing the flames. Thirty High Mages had gathered, a small group compared to the hundred who existed in the world. A rigorous test, one Siobhan could only hear of in stories, determined a High Mage. Any could nominate a mage to become a High Mage, but only those with the right combination of power and compassion and determination survived.

Siobhan admired the men and woman gathered in that cathedral. They were the best the mages had to offer in every way. She stood next to Wren who nibbled on his fingers and shifted from foot to foot.

"She's tied on a cross. A cross of all things! They strapped her down like a damn animal," he said.

"It's for her safety as much as for the High Mages safety."

"Have you seen one of these before?"

"Aye. It wasn't here in Raiven, it was back in Draygon. The first time I ever saw one of those blasted bracelets actually. I was ten and there was a wounded man brought to us by an outlying village. Father didn't know what to do. We knew of the bracelets but to that point they'd never come to the highlands. Yet there this man was. Naked, blood oozing black as if he were Draygon, and soulless. Any rational person with the wounds he had would be in agony, but he stood like a statue and walked stiff. When we asked him a question, he said nothing. There happened to be a mage in the castle, so father sent for her. She immediately contacted the Prime of the High Mages at the time, Maisey. Rufus was her Second actually. They came and set up a ceremony like this in our dining hall. At that time, they'd only tried to remove the bracelet magically themselves once, so there weren't nearly the numbers as there are here."

"I'm guessing it didn't go well."

"That would be an understatement." Siobhan sighed. "This isn't going to be pretty, Wren. May the Goddess bless us and free Natalia with her life force intact, but it won't be pretty."

"Do me a favor," he said, grabbing her hand and threading his fingers through hers, "don't let go. If you let go, I might rush in there and yank her off the table. Rufus told me not to interfere and to keep my distance."

"I've got you, Wren." She tightened her grip on his. If she had to, she'd fill him with enough ice magic to freeze his feet in place, but she wouldn't let him anywhere near Natalia.

"Are we ready?" Rufus asked, walking out from a back room with Gerda on his heels.

"Yes, Prime Rufus," the High Mages said in unison.

Rufus and Gerda stepped up to the circle of High Mages and torches. She tucked her hands into her purple robes and walked to Natalia's feet. Rufus stopped, turning to Wren.

"Are you sure you want us to proceed?"

Wren nodded. "She's already dead with that thing on her wrist. We have to try."

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