Few things make non-believers into believers in the mystical Vine of Urluthe the way watching how the corruptive power of belaisan degenerates its purity does. Though no one can see the Vine, anyone who observes creation can see the quickening of its substance driving life throughout the earth. When it becomes impure, everyone feels it. Everyone knows it. Especially an elder.
Elder Cale Barnside sensed the Vine lurch, recoiling from a violent act of destruction not far from the pub where he lunched with Shup. “Pay for the food and find me outside.”
Cale strolled out the door. A fetid perversion lingered on the the Vine’s tendrils leading him down the street. He came upon a sanctum and started up the front stairs.
“Please, sir.” A cleric stepped in front of him. “I’m the benefactor of this sanctum. A private ceremony is being led within. What is it you seek?”
“I seek one who corrupts the Vine. A jerber. A heemer. Maybe even a lockheer.” It was too weak to be a lockheer, but Cale wanted to impress some urgency upon this man. “Please step aside.”
The man held up his hand. “I do not allow such people in the sanctum. Try next door.”
Cale glanced at the sign in front of the building. “A bakery,” said Cale. Shup appeared next to Cale and handed him his staff.
The cleric gasped and gripped his fingers. “You’re an elder.” He stepped aside. “Please, don’t let it be known anything was corrupted here. The sanctum would not last if it was.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“No. I only learned of it because Jericort, the tanner’s son, told me before he fled. If his father got news of him visiting here, he would flog Jericort fiercely.”
Cale scowled, then walked up the steps and into the sanctum. Many artifacts—statues, pendants, and sky stones among others—were displayed in the regularly placed nooks around the apse, most of them enhanced by the Vine in some way. A few people spoke animatedly in low tones on the rostrum. Three young men and a girl. One of the men wore whites, another was dressed in black, while the third had dirty farming clothes.
“What’s happening?” Shup whispered.
“Someone bled the Vine. Someone in here.” Cale strolled to the front. “Who has the watch?”
A youth in whites answered. “Me, sir. Lastert is my name.”
“Who bled the Vine, and what did he do with it?”
Lastert gasped. “No one, sir. My watch started two hours ago, and nothing has happened during that time.”
“Did any of you see anything?” He saw insolence in the eyes of the farmer and fear in the one in black. He went after the fearful one. “What did you witness?” Cale chose the word witness deliberately because it carried the power of formality that forced men to weigh the gravity of their words.
“I thought someone messed around with the artifacts in the right-side nooks in the back,” he said.
Cale reached into the Vine, opening his senses to discern where the corruption was. He could not match a direction with the world of flesh, as if the wound surrounded him and smeared him with a rotten substance. He didn’t think the man was being truthful.
“What do you say?” he said to the farmer.
“Leave Meb alone,” said the girl.
The farmer shushed her. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “These guys would know better what happened. I just know farming.” Cale blinked at him.
“And you?” he said to the girl.
“None of us did it, but a few people came and went. We were all here just praying and talking about the Creator and his mercies.”
A rancid sensation enveloped Cale. The corruption still ran, the bleeder holding on to the Vine’s injury. He probed the Vine, searching for the lesion, groping for any bond the Vine had with a corrupted object.
“Don’t move,” Cale said, and walked to the back of the sanctum, Shup following. “What do you think?”
“They’re all hiding something, but they seem uncomfortable with each other,” Shup said. “No way that girl’s been standing there praying. She’s got about as much serenity as hunted fox.”
“I think you’re right. The cleric tried to lead us away from where it happened. The guy in whites was intent on when. The man in black doesn’t want us to know what got corrupted… Why is that?” He scratched his chin. “And both the farmer and the girl tried to influence who I suspected. My money is on one of those two, but which one?”
“When I used to rip the Vine for fun, it was often to impress a girl,” said Shup. “I suppose a girl could use it to impress a guy. I don’t know. It was always fun to bring the other guys down a peg or two, even if the girls didn’t go for it.”
Cale chuckled dryly and walked up to the group. “You, in black. Give it to me.”
“Give what to you?” he said.
“You know exactly what,” said Cale. It didn’t matter that Cale didn’t know. He knew this one did.
The man reluctantly drew out a green amulet with black lines from under his shirt and pulled it off, handing it to Cale. “This brought me great fortune,” he said. And prestige, Cale was sure. He’d have to rely on the dubious power of his personality to earn esteem now.
“Not any more,” said Cale. Cale followed the Vine up to the bond with the amulet, easily separating them, pulling the amulet loose. He sensed the bleeder pull away and the touch was masculine. Such things had little ambiguity in the Vine. He handed the amulet back. “It’s still pretty,” he said.
Cale grabbed the farmer’s arm. “Okay, Meb. Come with me.” Shup took the other arm and pulled him toward the door.
“I didn’t do it,” he said.
“Leave him alone,” said the girl. “He doesn’t know any magic. Please, don’t take him away.”
“We’ve got our man,” said Cale.
“I did it,” said the girl. “I melted the amulet with the Vine.”
Cale stopped and turned to her. “It wasn’t the melt. It was the rot.” He opened the door. “And you should find better companions than this loser.”
They went outside and handed the man over to the cleric to turn into the resident elder in Isdoron.
“I can’t take him,” said the cleric. “He will torment me the entire way. Last week he melted my shoe soles, and yesterday he shot fire at me. Burned a hole in my tunic.”
The farmer smirked. “You’ll have to let me go.”
Cale clutched his staff, resting the bushy end against his head. “Hold him.” He passed the farmer’s arm to the cleric and cleared his mind, joining his substance with the Vine’s, filling the bond between them. And from that power he drew substance and brought it out of the Vine to encircle the farmer’s wrists and form bracelets, hard as steel. The exhilaration of creation in its purity sent a rush of good will through him.
“He won’t give you any more trouble,” said Cale. “If he tries to bleed the Vine, those bands will cause him extreme anguish.” Cale printed a note on some parchment and gave it to the cleric. “Give that to the resident.”
“Back on the road?” asked Shup.
“Almost,” said Cale. “First I have an appointment with the tanner.”