Jovunel stepped into Tovarich's Venom, rain falling off of his elven cloak. The matron of the bar saw the pin on the lapel of his tunic and narrowed her eyes. Jovunel could hardly blame her. Recent days had split the city of Felwithe into three pieces: those allied with the church of Tunare; those allied with the council of Felwithe; and those allied to neither. The woman was likely from the last category as were most of the citizens of Felwithe. No one knew who to trust anymore.
"I seek the Hand." Jovunel said and placed a parchment with a single sigil scribed in black ink on its surface. The woman examined the parchment, returned her narrowed eyes to Jovunel's own, and then tilted her head to the narrow stairs that led into the bar's basement.
Jovunel stepped down the stairs, each creaking in turn. He could hardly fathom the power held in this small broken-down basement cellar. Such stories these walls could tell. Such history lay within the splintered wood.
Jovunel took a deep breath and knocked on the door twice.
"Come." The voice sounded raspy and weak.
Jovunel entered the room. Like the rest of the cellar, the single-room apartment was built from warped wood and populated with only a bed, a desk, and a chair. A rug, long eaten through, lay on the floor.
A thick candle on the desk was the only source of light. Wax dripped down its side to a hard puddle on the floor.
He sat in the chair, leaning over a tome of unfathomable age. The years had not been kind to the priest. Jovunel had last seen him screaming of war with Kael in the council chambers nearly seventy years earlier. The priest had let his whiskers grow into an unruly bramble and streaks of dark gray wove through his white hair. The priest turned his head and beheld Jovunel with unblinking eyes.
If the rest of his body looked old, his eyes were oldest of all. Light blue shifting to cloudy gray, Jovunel saw changes in this elf that should never have occurred.
Jovunel shook his head slightly and cleared his throat. He had a simple job to perform; it was not his place to judge the priest or gage his abilities.
"The council brings word to you, Hand of Tunare." Jovunel saw the priest's eyes narrow at the use of the strange title. "They have reviewed your reports and written theories. While they do not agree with the urgency outlined in the report, they will give you what you ask. You have ten days to research the forbidden tomes beneath the church. You are not permitted to bring any ink, quills, paper, parchment, or vellum. You are not to speak of what you read within those dark works. You will not be given any longer than the ten days you requested."
The priest did not speak.
"May the Mother protect you, Hand of Tunare, for the council will not."
Jovunel turned and left. When he stepped back into the cold rain, he felt the stress of the situation wash off of him. His job was done. He could go home and forget it. The image of the Hand would be hard to let go, as would the strange cryptic words of the Councilman who had permitted the Hand access to the forbidden works.
"Let the words soak into him like black oil," the Councilman had said, and, for just a moment, Jovunel thought he saw the Councilman's own eyes turn as black as midnight. A trick of shadow and firelight, no doubt. Jovunel turned down the wet cobblestone street and headed home.
The ten days spent in the dank forbidden library of Felwithe were some of the worst days in Loral's long life. His eyes burned as he read words penned in the blood of heroes on pages carved from elven skin. Only twenty of the ancient tomes, bound in demon-hide and glyphed in dark languages older than Veeshan herself, still remained in the library. Loral's eyes flowed over the dark script while the voice of Xuzl, the demon prince trapped within a shield captured by Loral years past, translated in his head. Loral learned of things best left forgotten by all living mortals and visions of nightmare flashed in his eyes.
On the tenth day, eyes and cheeks sunken into his ashen face, Loral stepped out of the church of Felwithe and into the cool air. Dark days lay behind the cleric, but dark days remained ahead. Loral began walking back to his small apartment. He had letters to write and armor to polish. His days of study were over. A black shadow once again lay over the city of Felwithe and the faithful servants of the Mother. Once again the old priest would travel into the dark shadows of Norrath to defend them. Fire flashed in his eyes and streamed down his veins. The Mother required defense, but the weapons he must use in this defense were far darker.