Guardians of Mistcrown
* 1 *
Darius carried a lantern in the morning to find his way through the chilly, clinging fog. No improvement from yesterday when his surveying tools had been useless. He checked on his pack mule, still staked and grazing the wet grass, and scratched her ears. "I still hardly know the way around here better than you. Let's go find that pass."
He hiked three miles east along the southern slope of the Mistcrown Ridge. Any spot along this land could become his by ducal decree, if Darius could just find and map a better caravan route than skirting a hundred miles around the mountains. He'd build an inn, a toll road, and then move on and let the fame and profit follow him onward to more discoveries.
Wait. What was that eddy in the mist? Darius crept toward it, afraid to jinx things. He murmured a prayer to Janya, friend of all travelers. There was a patch of darkness... but no, it was just a cave.
His mule sniffed and sidestepped. "What is it, girl?" he said. White crags towered above them. Maybe the cave was deep enough to be a passage through this stubborn range! He chuckled. He might as well wish it was a portal to fairyland, lined with gold. Worth checking, though.
Darius tied his mule down, checked his lantern, and drew his machete. He swirled the fog around him as he approached the cave.
The white tunnel dimmed a few steps in. A faint animal scent reached him. Darius paused. He shouted "Hey!" into the gloom and listened for the growl of any beast he'd rather hear before meeting.
Instead, a voice squawked back. "Human, stop!"
The human stepped back. A click-thud of odd footfalls raced closer. Darius turned to run but the cave dweller bounded after him. A hot fuzzy weight pounced him, knocking him to the floor. His lantern rolled and its glow flashed like lightning across a mass of fur, claws and feathered wings. In panic Darius slashed with his machete. The blade cut into the monster's foreleg. Talons grabbed his wrist.
The lantern stopped. It now showed a sharp eye and a hooked beak that opened to hiss and say, "Stop!"
He said, "What?"
"I, guardian," the creature said. It warily let him go. "Stand."
Darius eased himself upright and put his blade away, then slowly set the fallen lantern upright. This was a griffin! Supposedly they were a common sight in the skies of distant lands... or in forgotten treasure-hoards. How did one talk to legendary predators? He held up his palms, where the minor pain of his scraped skin pulsed with his rapid heartbeat. "I don't want to fight."
The griffin said, "Good. See that mark?" It pointed to an elaborate rune carved on the dim floor. "You cross, I must kill. Spell. Understand?"
The mark was just past where he'd been tackled. "A spell forces you to kill intruders?"
It nodded. "Maybe I not kill you." The griffin settled down on its haunches. "Where you from?"
A judgment of whether he counted as an enemy to slay, maybe? The beast's relaxed pose confused him. He spoke truthfully, "Ironleaf, a town west of here. My family fled from a race of witch-rats and became wandering merchants. I'm more of a mapmaker."
"You see many places?"
The griffin bounced on its taloned forefeet. "Tell, tell!"
By the gods, this creature was demanding a story! Darius cleared his throat and sat on the cold stone floor. He told the griffin of the mines of Ironleaf and their water-pumping vines, and the coastal city that traded in the mystically light metal called lumina, and the brutal Holy State where masked priests held back the sea with spikes of coral.
His stomach rumbled. The griffin tilted its beak. "Hungry?"
"I hunt. Wait. Do not cross mark." The griffin pushed past him and trotted out of the tunnel, twitching its feather-edged tail.
Darius was alone in the misty cave, unguarded, while its defender went out to kill something for them. His poor mule was the most obvious target. He hurried outside, saying, "Hey! That's my animal out there!" The tethered mule reared up in fright, but then the griffin glanced back at him, squawked, and took to the air.
Of all the things to find in these mountains! Darius went out to reassure his pack animal. Petting her calmed him down, too. "Think we should run?" he asked. The mule snorted and looked toward the cave. "Yeah, I still want to know what's in there, too."
He walked back into the gloom of the griffin's lair. When he approached the warning rune, it began to glow and he took a hasty step back that made it fade. Whew! He peered as far around the curving tunnel as he dared. There was green-tinged light beyond. Maybe it really was the other end of a passage, leading to a forested valley.
Darius laughed at himself. An encounter with a magical guardian and all he cared about was his maps? He could just ask. He walked back outside to wait.
A rush of wings stirred the fog overhead. The griffin dropped a rabbit at his feet and landed, wiping blood off its beak. "Take."
"Thank you," he said. "That won't be enough to share, though."
"Don't need. I hunt only sometimes. Eat."
The great cat-bird watched as he skinned the rabbit and kindled a small fire that burned away the nearby mist. It kept asking questions about his travels and about humans in general.
Darius fed twigs to the fire so that it would help feed him. "Sir griffin --"
"Figure of speech." The creature's accent was odd but it was hard to say how much of that was the beak, or its intelligence, or wherever it was from. Darius had been thinking of the creature as an "it", with less respect due than to his pack animal. "I'm Darius. What's your name?"
Eagle eyes stared into the campfire. "No name."
"You should have one." He thought through simple names, and remembered an innkeeper that he'd never seen leave her building. "What about... Zara?"
The griffin raised one wing tentatively toward the fire's warmth, basked in it, then scooted closer. "Good."
"How long have you been guarding this place? And why?"
"Many, many years. This cave, spell nest."
He searched his memory. He hadn't been born with the power to touch the Weave of magic and cast spells himself, but the power to see its emerald swirls of energy ran in his family. For him to sense a glow in that cave without even trying, could mean he'd found a natural fountain of mana, flowing into the world. So that's what Zara was guarding! Kingdoms had been carved into the map around nodes like this. One of them was the private fiefdom of a supposedly immortal wizard who, as a hobby, designed the witch-rats that had connived their way into ruling his hometown.
The fountain was of little use to him, but powerful people would love to buy knowledge of its location. Still, he did have a job to do. "Is there an easy path north from here?"
"Easy? Fly." That beak didn't look capable of smiling, but there was a note of amusement in his voice. "On foot, only rocks rocks rocks."
At least he'd asked. As for the other find... He could go to the duke and have him send a dozen soldiers to claim this place. Darius would be well rewarded. He'd just have to help murder a magical creature who wanted nothing more than to share campfire tales.
He asked, "Why do you guard the 'spell-nest'?"
The griffin watched the flames. "Old wizard, here. Said he come back. Did not."
"Do you know his name?"
Darius startled. "The founder of the Holy State way south on the coast? But he died over a century ago!"
"Not coming back, then."
Darius pried the rabbit off its spit and cut a slab for himself, then offered the rest.
The griffin might not have needed the food, but he devoured his portion, tearing it up with talons and beak and gobbling each chunk. He seemed fascinated by the simple miracle of roasting. "You heat food much?"
"While traveling. I can teach you." Darius sighed. "I wish I could teach you to escape from this spell, instead. You're forced to attack anyone who crosses that mark in the cave, right? What if you're far away when that happens?"
"Can't go far. Pulled back."
"How far?" He was negotiating now with the terms of an ancient master wizard's compulsion.
"Short flight." Zara squawked, looking thoughtful. "You cut through cave? Go around mark?"
"Good idea, but I don't think that would work. At best I'd need to bring a wizard to see if the spell is on the tunnel itself or on the whole area around the magic node. I'd also need to bring digging equipment and a lot of patience, or miners." Which meant hiring people who'd care more about the node than about whether the griffin survived. "Can your claws break stone?"
"No." The guardian settled down glumly with his head on his talons. "No good way out. Darius... I, trapped. If you, trapped by spell, you try leave?"
"You mean, would I try to escape? Yes. It sounds like you were forced into this guard job, without even a book to read or a proper camp."
Darius fetched two thin leather-bound books from his still-uneasy mule's bags and showed them to the griffin. "This one's my journal, where I write about my travels. This one is a book of Janya's stories. She protects merchants and wanderers."
"Book! Yes. Baccata had one."
"He didn't happen to leave it?"
Darius' eyes widened. "For that, I would trade you more than cooking help."
Zara's talons scraped furrows in the dirt. "Trade... Yes. Wait." He ran back into the cave.
Darius sat there eating. There was hardly a way not to get rich and famous for his discoveries here! He murmured a prayer of thanks.
Zara bounded out of the cave with something in his beak. He ran up to Darius and before he could react, tagged him with it. Not a book, but an egg carved from coral. Light flashed from the ball, hurling them both backward. Darius crashed onto his back and felt the fog swirl around him. "What was that?" he said. The mist had closed in on Zara, making him ripple like a reflection.
Zara screeched. "Why you nice? It easy if you just thief!"
A line of pain burned across Darius' arm. He hissed and clutched the long, shallow cut near his right wrist. Must have fallen on a rock. His skin was discolored already around the wound... Yellow and scaly, along his unhurt arm too. His fingers were growing sharper and each thumb was migrating to turn backward, like a bird's foot. "What did you do?!" he shouted.
"I, trapped," said Zara. "Only way out."
It wasn't just the fog that made Zara look strange, but his flesh flowing to make his beak shrink, his fur and feathers grow thin. Darius' own skin felt like clay being sculpted. His teeth pushed forward as a yellowing mass, and the taloned arm he used to feel it had tufts of brown feathers growing down past his elbow. When he got his first sight of a long tail snaking its way out from the base of his spine, he passed out.
* * *
Darius opened one weary eye to find a beak at the edge of his vision. The hard, curved thing rested on the ground, where an ant was crawling on it. He swiped the bug away and heard the clack of his scaly hand against the beak's numb surface. He sprang to his feet only to crash back down onto all fours. In front of him lay an equally groggy human dressed in the clothes Darius no longer wore. A man with Darius' face.
"Zara, what! How!"
The man stirred, coughed, and said, "Had to. So much time here." He rolled upright and slowly discovered how to stand. "How? Old spell egg. Many years to learn." Both their voices were drunkenly slurred, coming from unfamiliar faces.
Darius crawled in a circle to look at himself. Cat paws, golden fur, dark feathers.
He staggered out of the cave on all fours, as though he could flee from this body. When he got outside he sped up, waggling unfamiliar muscles on his back. Zara called out after him, but he kept running through the grasping fog with its looming rocks and trees.
His chest ached from fatigue. He imagined he could get away, find help, undo the last day. But there was a headwind now shoving him backward. The wings he'd barely noticed spread out to catch the air and throw him skyward like a kite. He was suddenly high up, clawing with six limbs at empty air and unable to get farther away from the cave. Gravity slammed him down in a sobbing heap. He wasn't just cursed into this new shape; he was trapped!
When he lifted his beaked head from the ground he found human-Zara standing there. Darius swore and ran past him, hearing no footsteps behind him with his long ears. He bounded back across the land until the line of the mountains stopped him. When he'd finished shouting his lungs raw, cursing Zara and fate itself, the former griffin was there again to hear his abuse trail off. He glared, starting forward to lunge at Zara, then tripped over his own tail.
For a while he lay there curled in on himself. Fitful, shuddering sleep took him for a little while.
When he looked again, Zara remained. He said, "Why are you still here, body-thief? Dark wizard! Monster!"
The new human said, "I... sorry."
He lifted his head from his taloned forefeet. "Why didn't you ask, damn you! I wanted to set you free and this is how you reward me?"
Zara looked down at the dead campfire and prodded with one booted foot at the bones from their meal together. "Last human here, I kill. No choice. Two before, same. You, two steps more in cave..." He frowned and spoke slowly but more clearly. "If you take two more steps, past the mark in the cave, I must kill. No more kill."
Darius' altered body shuddered. Had the human shape given Zara some of his speech and intelligence? Even now, was there a fog slowly dulling his mind? "The mark in the cave," he murmured, twice, slightly relieved he could form the words.
"The binding spell on you, now," Zara said. "Senses griffin like me, so senses you. Sorry. Took years to see the spell."
There had to be some way to reverse this magic! Though really, no rule of the world said so. Creatures used and hurt one another, and as Janya's sayings put it, "Rare and blessed are the fair dealers and the pavers of safe roads."
He should use this new body to tear Zara apart in vengeance. But... all the former guardian wanted was the freedom of travel that Darius had enjoyed.
"So," he said. "The wizard's book?"
"In the cave. Take."
Darius looked around for his mule, but she'd slipped her tether and left an obvious trail of trampled grass leading into the endless fog. There was even a comforting animal scent in that direction. He lifted one forefoot, glared at Zara, and pointed. "Fetch my mule. She'll trust you more than me, now. Her name is Nini." Looking like this, he couldn't approach her himself.
Zara staggered away, unsure on two legs, and called out. Soon he came back holding the spooked mule's reins. He winced at the way Zara mishandled poor Nini. "Stop acting like you mean to eat her. She's yours now."
Zara's head tilted.
"You stole my body and you've trapped me here. You may as well take the mule too." He tensed, still wanting to charge and try out these new claws. The Travelers' Tales had Janya admonishing believers: "Strike down the false dealer, as a service to the true." But she also said: "Some folk can be led onto a true path." He counted the cost of an attempt, as a set of travel equipment he no longer needed much.
Zara saw him warring with his own anger. "Can't take it back," Zara said, looking down.
"Then leave me my small knife and my journal. Unbuckle Nini's packs without wrecking them and I'll tell you how to use the other things."
They passed the afternoon and evening outside together, human and griffin, as though they were friends. Darius taught Zara enough that he might avoid being robbed and killed or dying lost in the forest. "Where do you want to go?"
Zara, sitting on a rock, looked into the endless haze. "Anywhere."
"You might try Ironleaf. The wizards there aren't evil, and they'd pay to get a look at someone affected by this spell."
"Ironleaf? You said they drive your family out."
"That doesn't make them bad. They outwitted and out-competed us with their magic and trade, is all." Darius winced at another thought, and saw from Zara's worried look that he'd realized the same thing. Consorting with wizards likely meant that they'd learn about the cave and its magic node, and they'd want to claim it. Over his dead body, literally. Damn! If he were ever going to be human again, he needed Zara to stay alive, and for one of them to find a mage sympathetic enough to help him peacefully. Since he was now trapped near this cave, the negotiator had to be this former cat-bird who'd been a hermit for over a century!
Wait... Did that mean he might now live that long? This body didn't feel old or brittle. He glanced toward the magic wellspring whose curse linked its power to him.
Zara said, "I not care whether cave kept secret. No love for Baccata. But I not want you dead."
"I guess you're eager to be off," he said.
He tried to bury his face in his hands, fell forward onto his beak, and laughed in frustration. "So, I don't need to eat?"
Zara shook his head. "No. One good thing. The other good thing, wings." He approached and took hold of Darius' scaly wrists. "Flap. Practice."
Darius looked back at the unfamiliar spans of feathers that covered most of his sides and back like a coat, and he felt the feathers fluff outward. He didn't know what muscles to move.
"Like this," he said, and gently pulled one of Darius' wings outward and made it circle.
He gradually learned to copy the motion with both wings, stirring the air, learning how much force would lift him off the ground. Zara spoke quietly about wind and landings, how to roll with an impact and plunge talons-first at prey. "Now, fly low."
Darius beat the air until it fell beneath him, leaving his hindpaws dangling. He squawked in fright. There was only fog around him. Then a tree loomed ahead and forced him to dodge, hit the ground, and tuck his wings in to crash to a painful stop upside-down.
Zara came running. "Pull back to slow."
After a few more weak attempts he was able to make a low, slow flight without terror and disaster. Zara tilted his head back and screeched. "Good!"
"I don't think I can hunt anything for you yet," he said. He was bruised all over.
The former griffin sat down and shook his head. "Why not angry, Darius?"
Darius' talons clenched. "I am angry. But I can't do anything about it except to help you more. I want you to find help for me when you can."
He looked back at his wings. "You stole from me, but you gave me something in return. That's not all bad. A good human doesn't just take, he trades. In fact..." They'd made a pile of his belongings near the mule, who at least tolerated him now. The two books lay next to his small carving-knife. He picked up the Travelers' Tales in one forefoot and awkwardly carried it back to Zara. "Can you read?"
"You can find someone to read this to you. Take it."
"What does it say?" asked Zara.
He opened to the first chapter. "Once there was a woman of common birth and uncommon sense, who left home to seek her fortune, not knowing the wisdom she would find and give to all who wander…"
* 2 *
Zara stayed for the night, eating some of the stale food Darius had brought for himself, and left in the morning. Darius watched the man fade into the mist, then slumped to the grass. The world was quiet and empty.
He trotted away from the mountains in a new direction. After a mile's walk, he felt as though the air had grown thicker until he couldn't push any farther ahead. He instinctively mapped out part of the circle where he was now caged. He hung his head, then returned to the cave. He might as well see his new home.
He hesitated in the cave tunnel. The guardian's mark still stood along the floor. He crept closer but it didn't glow in warning this time, even when he stepped over it. He ruefully congratulated himself on being judged welcome by the ancient wizard's spells, and kept walking.
A beam of emerald light streamed up from a crack in the earth and into the cavern roof. The air thrummed with raw natural power that prickled at the roots of his fur and feathers. The magic node was like a brimming well or fountain. When he let his thoughts slip into the frame of mind that let people see the Weave, the source stood out even more brightly and the world was full of green threads like a harp ready to be played. Just enough of the mountains' mist filtered through here to create eddies of green like sunlight seen through leaves.
He blinked and looked around the cave. It was only around forty feet across and twenty high. Zara had built a pile of dry grass, leaves and branches along the curving wall for a bed. In another area were a few shiny stones, a sword in a rusty scabbard, and some bits of armor and clothing. A third place held gnawed bones. Darius raked through this last pile and thought he recognized a human thigh-bone. He glanced back at the little supply of treasure. Zara had talked about being forced to kill three people before. Had he unleashed a man-eater with his face?
Darius shuddered. Zara was more than an innocent wild animal; he was capable of fair dealing. All Darius could do now was to control himself and avoid killing if he could, and trust that he'd rightly judged Zara as a decent person who'd do the same.
He found a piece of charcoal from his last fire and used it to mark warnings in the tunnel in Mithraic and Waldic and pictograms for the illiterate, saying "Danger! Talk with the griffin! Do not cross here!"
Second, he checked on his journal and the little bottle of ink Zara had left him. He pulled out one of his own feathers and yelped at the unexpected pain, then dabbed the blunt quill against the next page and left a line of blood. Griffin blood. He was a walking pile of ingredients for any quack of a mage who believed in sympathetic magic. Darius found this so hilarious he flopped over onto his back and laughed hysterically until he wept.
Then there was the old book, hidden under Zara's trinket pile. He opened it gingerly as though exploring a dangerous new land. The pages were sturdy and the ink mostly readable, written in outmoded Waldic. Here were the notes of a powerful mage obsessed with control, who'd hidden his discoveries in a cave and forced a "beast" to guard them.
Darius found that the light coming from outside had changed. He'd been reading for hours, though he'd understood few of the details. His ears flicked backward, which startled him. A book was a poor trade for the freedom to travel.
He walked outside and practiced his flying in the small ground allowed to him. Long, low swoops and then a little higher, with plenty of practice at how to crash and survive. As night fell and only the fountain's light lit his lair, he settled down on the pile of leaves and branches and slept with fitful dreams.
Over the next few weeks he tried to craft the home he wanted. His hands weren't quite as good as his human ones, suited more for walking than for tools, but he still had thumbs of a sort. He sharpened his quill and wrote. His talons and knife helped him make a crude stone axe, which earned him a more comfortable bed with a raised frame and then a workbench and an array of little gadgets. He kept busy. It wasn't like there was much else to do. How had Zara tolerated spending so long here living like an animal?
He was a flier in an elaborate cage, a keen-eyed creature in a land of endless fog. Worse yet, he was a thoughtful traveler with no one to talk to and nowhere to go. It took him over a year before he even had a visitor.
* * *
On a spring morning, a shout echoed down the tunnel. Darius twitched his ears, still asleep, but the second call woke him. He sat up groggily, imagining an innkeeper telling him he'd overslept, but then he remembered the danger. He bounded up the tunnel on all fours, shouting, "Wait!"
"Is someone there?" said the visitor. There were footsteps... and a sudden surge of magic all along the passage. The might of the place's enchantment crackled like green lightning and stabbed through Darius. It locked all his muscles and then began moving them forward, unbidden.
Darius swore. "You idiot! You crossed the line, didn't you!" He strained to hold himself back, but his body was moving like a puppet and it was hard to speak. He was making insane screeches and roars that echoed everywhere.
Then he was face to face with a young man in peasant clothes, brandishing an axe and looking down at him with fright. "A griffin?"
Darius growled but managed to force out the words, "Run! I'm not in control!"
The man stepped backward, afraid to look away, and started to backpedal more. He was out past the mark, but Darius still felt the compulsion that now drove him to leap and pounce and tear. He resisted it as well as he could, but he jumped all the same and snagged the intruder's ankle, snapped down at it with his beak, raked the human's leg with his talons. Darius had knocked him down. "I can't stop. Get away! Run!"
The peasant's axe lay nearby. He grabbed it and swung but only struck the floor. Darius clawed at him, straddled him, and as both of them screamed, slashed the man's throat. The man lay there twitching and gurgling as blood sprayed along the floor. The spell's power drained from Darius and he staggered, falling over sideways to land in a sobbing bloodstained heap. He'd done his duty as a guardian. "I didn't even know your name."
Darius buried the man and prayed he wouldn't be the first of many.
* * *
He sorted through his victim's belongings. A bag of bread and cheese and nuts, some copper coins, leather boots Darius could no longer wear, the axe and a knife. Also, a battered pamphlet. The griffin's eyes went wide as he unfolded the thing. Invitation To Arcana: Spellcraft For the Beginner. Printed by House Blackthorn, Ironleaf. The lettering was blocky and regular but for some scribbled notes in the margins, and the paper was cheap. Darius set the thing aside, saying, "A young adventurer who had the talent for magic and decided to go exploring. Janya guide your spirit."
The world had gone quiet and peaceful again. Darius cleaned off the blood, then sat in the sunlight like a cat until his thoughts settled. He was glad not to be hungry for fresh meat.
He returned to the pamphlet. The witch-rats of Ironleaf had designed an ink-pressing machine (mentioned in an offhand boast) and were cranking out these papers as a suggestion that talented mages should come and work for them. The text explained the basic principles of the Weave and a few simple spells. There was even a page with a spiral printed in special ink that glowed to the magic-sense, with each curve being fainter and more diluted. "Can you see the glow?" the text asked, after explaining how to perceive magic in general. "The Forest Lord Himself can see all five turns, and the master of House Blackthorn, four." If he squinted, Darius could see the glimmer of the third spiral arc. He doubted he'd have seen even two as a human.
He mumbled and traced shapes on the ground and in the air, imitating the instructions. The threads of the Weave weren't just visible; he could touch them now! Maybe it was this new body or his connection to the magic node or just the clear tutorial, but after many attempts he was able to make a stick twitch along the floor as though in a river's current. His wings fluttered in excitement, brushing the cave wall. Maybe if he learned enough, he could find a way out of this cage and become a free wanderer again.
Darius took to the lessons quickly. He wrung every secret he could from the pamphlet, managing to carve a simple runic wand that could fly at his command. He dug through the trinkets from Zara's collection and found an old amber amulet marked with the holy sun of the southern lands. He learned to touch it and make it glow, and how the spell worked.
In between lessons he charted what little part of the world was allowed him. He found a pass through the mountains after all! A low pathway stood near the cave, choked with trees and vines that hid it and would take work to clear. He said a prayer of thanks, but his heart wasn't in it. The knowledge was of no use to him here.
After weeks of magic practice, he turned his attention back to Baccata's journal. There were hints of brilliance in the scrawled, archaic text. Now that Darius had learned to cast spells for himself he could appreciate it better. There had to be some way to shake off the guardian spell and maybe the transformation; Zara had figured it out. The gadget she'd called a spell egg was gone, now, but... he would find a way.
He spent the next year trying.
* * *
Darius stomped back and forth in his lair, lashing the floor with his tail. Maybe there was some way to push the boundaries of his cage a little wider. He rooted through his many talon-crafted possessions for inspiration. Something clattered to the floor, making his ears flick to catch the sound. It was a nut, left over from his victim's food and now long dried. He could sense the Weave through it as through other objects made of wood. He stared at it and wordlessly caused it to rise into the air. There was a natural current leading away from the mana node, so that the nut drifted while left in a loose magical grasp. Darius set it aside and thought.
After some experiments, he ran his tongue along his beak in concentration. The nut had given him an idea. Just as he had that damned pull forcing him back to the cave if he went too far, the seedpod had a natural direction it "wanted" to go, even aside from the node's current. With some work he could encourage it and make the thing fly somewhere far away, where he couldn't follow, even after he stopped concentrating on the spell. Darius sat up straighter, staring at the nut that bobbed like a cork in midair. He could use it to send a message!
He spent weeks trying to make more wooden messengers, but only this particular nut would drift after he stopped casting. He was careful with this one chance at escape. He wrote out a message on a slip of paper, phrasing it to draw curiosity rather than greed, and rolled it into a crack in the seed. He watched the nut float away until he could no longer follow, then sent a prayer after it.