The Mural on the Wall
Death of the Fourth
GM Death of the Fourth: Thelek’s Introduction
Pleasant smells roll from a kettle placed upon the fire. A chisel crossed with a sprig of wheat adorns the copper surface, marking it as a creation of Gilvarr and one of the namesake kettles from which his former hall derived its name. Now it brews tea at the hands of a doppelganger. Smiling at the soothing aroma, she would neither see it left behind in ruins or to serve purely as a memento.
Satisfied with the preparations, Emmiven divides cups and pours. The heat issuing from the warmed tins helps ward against the chill autumn air. Soon the temperate weather will give, allowing the bite of winter to assault exposed skin, but for now the weather is tolerable and the sky uncluttered and clear.
Finished, she sits cross legged on her bed roll and gently blows against the dusky liquid. Jasmine, with a hint of whiskey. Her favorite. The two tastes complete for dominance, but the relaxing properties of both harmonize well. In a few cups she’ll call it a night, snoring peacefully as soon as her head hits the knapsack she uses as a pillow. Though enamored by luxury and fond of complaints, she sleeps as quickly in the dirt as on a bed of feathers, a trait common for those used to living on the run.
The trees of the Heartland have already changed. Their leaves die in brilliant shades of sunburst yellow and crimson red before time brings them falling to the ground. A light breeze stirs their painted boughs and gently feeds the smoking fire. In the winding down of night, it’s hard to remember the enemies that plot in the shadows, let alone the one lurking behind a familiar eye. Such things appear distant, as far removed as the ill-fated voyage aboard the Annie’s Song. Not since has the being manifested or desired his presence known.
Emmiven kicks off her boots, lays her toes close to the fire, and leans her head back, looking upward. Silver pinpoints, Selune’s presence shines strongly, pure in their intensity. Emmiven takes a drink and traces the stars encompassing the eyes of Selune with an outstretched finger. “Pretty,” she admits, “You think she returns our gaze with fondness?”
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“After what we’ve been through if not Selune there is definitely something looking out for us. Praise the spirits that we won the battle with that dragon… I thought I was a goner when that bastard nearly bit me in half.”
Zioran sat, quietly smoking the long, slender pipe he’d had for quite a while, half-heartedly carving a new pipe from a sizeable horn. The pervading gloom of his people pressed on him, and darkened his mood as he stared into the fire. Even now, a crushing melancholy loomed on his mind despite the excitement and adrenaline of the past few months. It was a burden he carried. It was a gift given by Narfell and her people’s legacy of shade, a legacy to which Zioran tangentially belonged.
He set down his carving and quickly ate his soup when it was passed to him. He savored the flavor, but even moreso savored the feeling of the burning liquid as it scalded his throat. An experience, any experience, was an aid in pulling him from the bleak grey which assailed his mind. It was the reason for his recklessness and thrill-seeking. It was the reason for his current situation.
He sat back, resting his body on his elbows. He cast his single eye to the sky and puffed on his pipe in silence and thought for a long moment. After some contemplative silence on his part, he spoke. “Who’s to say they watch at all? Though if any watch for us, Selune would be my choice of patron – if only for her opposition to my peoples’ dark legacy. Bah – now I just sound like I’m kissing Aiden’s ass. I don’t need anyone watching over my shoulder. I’ve got problems as it is, and what good have the gods done me?”
He slumped back, chewing on his pipe a bit as he thought more on Emmiven’s comment. “I do like them though,” he said. “…the stars. There were many nights spent like this for me in Narfell. Colder – but still…”
“You’re kissing whose ass?” Aiden asks with a smirk as he strides over to sit on his bedroll by the fire. “I feel light without it on, it seems like I’m always wearing it recently” he thinks to himself as he pushes his armor a little further from the bedroll. “They’re done” he reports as he gestures to the three faint eyes around the campsite. “If you hear a few dozen owl hoots tonight, then we have unexpected visitors.”
Nursing a cup of Emmiven’s best, Aiden looks up at the familiar skyward scene. A genuine smile grows across his face as he agrees, “they are very beautiful.” Yet they remind him of pain, of every time he invokes her name to channel that same heavenly light towards his companions. “What have the gods done for you?” He thinks to himself, “at least she’s always been there, for all of us.” As he sits his mind races with thoughts of the moonmaiden, of home and his family, and of the things he wants to accomplish before the drink begins to kick in. A long yawn lets him know that his body wants a reprieve from the rest of the night. Laying back and closing his eyes, he tries to remember everything from the evening and if anything was neglected. “Emmiven’s drink was too good…” he thought, and the mention of her made him smile again. “I don’t ‘think’ she looks back with fondness, I ‘know’ she does…”
Zioran grinned, clenching his pipe in his teeth. “Well.. I’m certainly not kissing your ass. That’s for certain,” he jokingly chided. “You’d have to tidy that backside up before I plant one on it, priest.”
Redgar takes a deep breath letting the scent of nature fill his nostrils and stretches his arms letting his upper body be embraced by the chill of the night reminding him of his homeland. “So how long have you two been betrothed? You bicker like a couple who can’t come up with a date for the wedding.” Redgar gives Zioran a smile “My recommendation is some time in the fall so your blushing bride can wear his armor without the sweats.”
Her eyes still resting on the heavens, Emmiven wanted to believe the gods watched, even protected them, but the realities of her past and the horrors she’d seen inflicted upon others caused her lingering doubt. Gods. They are like us, she thought. Capable and with good intentions, but distracted by rivals and unable to save everyone who invokes their names. No the gods are not all powerful and some in their apathy wouldn’t help even if they could, but no bother, people like the Harpers, her companions, even herself would fill the gaps and keep the floodgates from overflowing.
Emmiven refused to grin at the bantering; although, she did find the trivial subject matter a welcome relief from heavy thoughts. As the only girl she felt as though she lived in a barracks. In her experience men who live on the edge, whether soldiers, thieves, or sailors, had little need for pleasantries and euphemisms. Why should they? Outside the protection offered by most societies have they not wrestled the right to call a sword a sword? When life is short and brutal, picking one’s words tends to waste valuable breath. Breath best spent elsewhere. Such men are foolish if not direct.
Her eyebrows arched with amusement at Zioran’s emphasis. Your ass. So that meant the dour swordsman engaged in the practice. As she couldn’t remember a single time the man had been overly nice to anyone, she could only take the phrase in the literal sense. The Nereids? She shook the thought from her mind and would inquire as to the proper interpretation if she didn’t fear she’d picked right. Undoubtedly, such questions would bring about yet more barrack flavored levity.
She downed the dregs from her cup before filling another. She loved the warmth it brought her stomach. No one is sad with a warm belly. It was one of Drustenna’s homegrown proverbs. The Dwarven daughter of a famous general had never been one for propriety either. More than once she’d drag her husband upstairs after telling Emmiven to mind the kitchen. Gilvarr, she’d say, has his own fires to attend. Least to say, the young doppelganger had sought to place such thoughts far from her mind as well.
Emmiven took a moderate pull before raising the kettle to all. “More?” she offered.
Turning his attention to the barbarian, Zioran cocked an eyebrow at the chiding. “Not to worry, wildman. We’re not exclusive. There is room in our hearts for you. No more will you have a bleak and lonely existance.” He puffed on his pipe, as if to emphasize his point, and turned his attention away from Jett’s brother. He was mostly joking, though his words had an implied theme of acceptance as well. Given time, he would likely accept the wildman as a member of the group, barring anything to the contrary, at least.
When Emmiven offered a refill, Zioran batted a hand at her, his thoughts mostly elsewhere. He was staring into the fire again, and it consumed his attention. He let his pipe smolder and burn the leaf he’d stuffed in it, chomping on the stem of the tool absent-mindedly as a trickle of smoke rose from the bowl and the fire crackled.
Redgar looks at Zioran with a smile “Aww I’m touched that your feelings already run so deep.” Then Redgar let out a hearty laugh ending with a genuine smile. Redgar then let out a long sigh and looked back up to the sky “This reminds me of the first time father took me and Tragen, er Jett out camping” Regdar looked around at the others “It was much colder of course, heh you get that far north and everything is a lot colder, it was a peaceful night, and in the morning I was to prove myself to my father that I had what it took to be a Stormrunner.”Regdar smiles while thinking of his family and wondering what has been happening since he set out.
Aiden laid there with steady breathing and eyes closed. “Seems like sleeping is out of the question… makes me wish I hadn’t set up those sentries’ now” he thought as he mulled over the idea of giving up on sleep for the time being. He concluded that leaving his eyes closed and listening to the north man and Zioran chatter was the best choice. He could listen in and maybe be entertained without incident before sleep came. “Besides,” he thought, “I don’t quite trust Redgar yet. He may have ‘escaped from Wheloon’ more than once in battle, but I’ve been on duty enough to learn you don’t just trust strangers with open arms, no matter how much you might want to believe in the goodness of others.” He felt like the thought was a little unfair; after all, he traveled with Zioran, a man who you wouldn’t call good nor necessarily evil, just… flexible or morally predictable. “And then there’s Emmiven. Not a chance in the hells of figuring that one out. Everything from hairy bartenders to kings, and everything in-between makes up the Harpers. I couldn’t begin to predict or profile one.”
A short while passed as he listened to the sounds of the campsite. All the noise around him and his own thoughts made him unable to sleep and he was feeling more and more restless these past months. The idea of getting up and writing was beginning to sound appealing. He could compare this place to the King’s Forest back home. He would have to describe it in great detail for the next time he saw his father, since the man just wouldn’t be sated unless it was in perfect, full detail. It would also give him something to read to Alex without her being worried or mad at him for what she would surely call a, “severe lack of prudence” and “a gross negligence for the consideration of others”.
He laid still but opened both eyes slowly to see if anyone was fully aware that he wasn’t asleep. “I’ll as her for another cup…”
Curious, Zioran turned to the wildman. “How well did you know your brother? What was he like when you knew him? He didn’t speak much of his past – which I guess is because he hadn’t known. So he’s a barbarian like you? That’s sort of amusing, considering his skill with the Art. I don’t imagine tribesman as mages. Was he hotblooded, like the stories I’ve heard of the northern tribes? He never really seemed to spoil for a fight, but he had no trouble holding his own.”
He adjusted his feet, shuffling them about into a new position, as the parts closest to the fire were getting exceedingly warm while the rest was beginning to feel a chill. And then the one-eyed swordsman looked to the wildman for answers to his questions, gnawing on his pipe in thought.
Regdar looks at Zioran and says “I knew my brother quite well we were only two years different in age with me as the eldest, growing up he was always more of the type to think before acting.” A very broad smile crosses Regdar’s face “Well that is except for when I was around or so I’ve been told, there were many times where I had seen him start fights for fun, mother always said that he was trying to get approval from me and father. As for him being a barbarian like me, can you really say anyone is like me?” Laughter echoes from Regdar “He was of the same tribe as me and bore the same family name as I do however when it became his time to commune with the spirits and prove his ability as a member of the Stormrunner family he had failed to produce any results.” A grim look comes over Regdars face momentarily. “This was an unusual event but not so uncommon that we blame the children as cursed or worthless mind you, but I always felt that my brother took it very hard. That’s when he dedicated himself to the way of the sword and became a great swordsman. Then he and I decided to leave the village to see the world and agreed to return to the village and tell one another the tales of what we endured. When I returned to the village I found that he had not, there were the letters that he had written to our parents telling of what he had been doing and where he had been, which is what gave me the lead that I had to get this far. At first I had not had any luck if not for someone recognizing my description of my brother only with blue skin.” A very sad and worried look comes over Regdars face as he remembers the rumors and tales he had heard about what had happened to his brother at the mage’s tower, then the expression fades as he changes the subject slightly. “That’s also when I heard of his new abilities and how he has finally been able to harness the powers of a storm, I do not know how it happened but I know that father would be proud that once again there has never been a Stormrunner who could not wield a storm as their own.”
Emmiven listened to Redgar’s story, intrigued and confused. Jett was stoic, standoffish, not impulsive. Had Langmor’s and Caprul’s experiments altered him that much? Would Redgar be able to see through cosmetic differences and recognize the brother beyond, or was Tragen, a person Emmiven had probably never met, dead in all but form? Who was Jett? Another being imprisoned in the body of another? A willing hijacker? Or simply Tragen as he would have become had he never known family or friends, merely servitude? Redgar stuck Emmiven as uncouth and obnoxious, perhaps unjustly so, but she felt for him. Did he have any idea what awaited him? Perhaps he’d better off never finding his sibling. What if Jett wasn’t the same being as Tragen? Would Redgar allow the boarder to continue? Or would the North man never rest until flesh rejoined spirit in the afterlife? Redgar had a tough battle and many questions without adequate answers ahead of him. She didn’t envy the path he walked.
She sighed. More heavy thoughts. Why oh why would anyone wish to become an adventurer, she wondered for the hundredth time. She was fascinated by the lifestyle; that was never in any doubt. She collected stories of high adventures, of men whose deeds had elevated them beyond mortality. However, their hardships belonged in hindsight. Living through the day to day uncertainty, the grit and mire and pain, without an indication of either success or failure rattled her. Stories were the passing sport of children and fools. Reality proved far more arduous and debilitating. Her travels brought about a new understanding. Strength came not from picking up a blade in the name of necessity but from keeping it raised. Fighting the good fight. Enduring in silence. Till the end. That’s what separated heroes from dabblers. She wasn’t certain she belonged to the former, or even if she wanted to.
She took another drink, enjoying the pause it gave her. She adjusted her legs, almost sat back, but something bothered her. The tea. She swirled the liquid around, staring at it in the firelight. “That’s… That’s not right,” she mumbles.
Halfway-turning to Emmiven, Zioran looks over his shoulder at her. “What’s up? Did you brew your drink with my smoking leaf again?”
“Is something the matter with it Emmiven?” asked Aiden, “I wanted to have another cup.” He focused intently on Emmiven so that he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with Redgar. Redgar’s account of Jett was all foreign to him. How was he suppose to reply? Sure they had spent some long months together at sea, but family history wasn’t exactly the dinner table conversation. Aiden had spent most of his time trying to help fill the gap left by the deceased captain, watching Zioran’s behavior following the ominous dream, and tending to Summer.“Poor Summer,” he thought as the memory became fresh in his mind, ”at lease in Corymr she’ll have a chance.” Regardless of the time he had spent with Jett, he knew little of his history and broaching the subject further with Redgar, here and now, didn’t sound appealing at all.
“The first cup was good and I don’t mind if it’s not perfect.”
Regdar sniffed the cup at his side, he had not drunk too much and it had begun to chill. Finding nothing wrong with the smell he took a sip. “Doesn’t taste bad, maybe you got something in your cup?.”
Aiden looked to Emmiven and set his cup by the fire. He wanted another drink but he also wanted to write. ”The forest, I’ll get all the details of the forest…”, as he flipped though his journal, he headed for a fresh page, but he noticed an entry that he had forgotten. He was almost shocked to see it. He knew it and had forgotten about it. He refused to send it away with previous missives despite knowing its words by heart. His early life was filled with visions and dreams of being a proud Purple Knight, but these were the words he uttered at his sermon. The Silverstar that enchanted him so much, that gave him a calling in life, so much so as to change everything, asked him to write his own words to the moonmaiden. Without thinking, he read aloud his promise to Selune…
“The kingdom sleeps
And children scarify themselves day by day
Until they extinguish,
And they may never awake.
Such tragedy destroys
In front of them
Every beloved thing.
And in this neverending night
Look there, the real vision
On the edge, I will see you
And the next morning the time will awake.
An act is inevitable
Actions have consequences
And consequences always await
There are no exceptions.
While the kingdoms sleep
And children lament
While the night seems endless
And the consequences await
I will see you.”
He felt better, almost as if he had forgotten what he had set out to do. “I wanted to see again the man who defied mortality… but this, this is why I left those most dear to me.” He looked up in realization. There were familiar faces behind the campfire’s light. Looking down to his cup, it was still empty.
“Nothing, I guess,” she added, sounding unconvinced, “Just thought I saw something.” Emmiven looks at her hand and screams. Her fingers have turned the exact shade of bone.
The concern in her voice unmistakable, Emmiven begins to shudder. Her eyes drastically loose color, becoming the milky pallor of a blind fish. A matching whiteness creeps up her hands and arms. Her hair follows. Lustrous black bleaches to white before bleeding through her scalp, staining her skin. In seconds all signs of humanity melt away. A doppelganger, rarely seen in its natural form, sits in her place.
“I… didn’t,” she mutters before collapsing face first into the dirt.
The white pallor spreads further, spilling forth from Emmiven and stripping the dirt of its earthen hues. Far quicker than you can react, the egg white color gushes forth, drenching everything it touches. Trees, bedrolls, campfire, all converge as one. Only Emmiven’s cup remains. Spilled on the blanket of white, the tea issues forth, taking on form. A tree. A rope. A struggling man. The image stretches and folds upwards. No longer a picture on the ground, it becomes three dimensional, a scene transpiring in the distance. Even had you legs to run, you’d never make it in time. Once again, your role is merely to watch. To observe the passing of another follower. To bare witness to the coming of Thelek. Seconds pass, maybe minutes, perhaps even longer, but it matters little. In time, the fourth stops kicking and lies still. 4 of 12.
Color leaches back into the world. First a dark sky under foreign stars. Then, banners lancing the ground, some broken and askew, others imposing and standing tall. The ground is torn, fractured from battle. Broken bodies, mostly human scatter the landscape. Spears, discarded shields, and blooded gear- the litter of war- collect in heaps, waiting to picked apart and desecrated by scavengers. Sporadic fires dot the horizon like lighthouses amidst a sea of strife. The world is calm. Whatever turmoil existed is spent and gone. The conclusion reached.
Aiden, Zioran, Regdar, and Emmiven, back to her human vestige, stand in the wake of an alien war that feels eerily familiar. The banners are somewhat altered but their origins are still capable of being ascertained. Gods and Kingdoms native to Faerun. Their vision is clear. The land that bore and raised you…. has been leveled by cataclysm.
Regdar crouches slightly taking a stance as if ready for combat and reaches for his mace. “By the spirits what’s happened? ”
A shift in Zioran’s relaxed mood makes itself evident across his scarred face. A shadowed pall falls across his countenance as the devastation of the landscape sinks in for him. His smile flattens, one corner of his mouth turned downards due to the pull of his long, thin pipe. He clenches his jaw and surveys the scene. “What the Hells..” he says, unable to fully finish his thought. He turns a full circle, taking in the full breadth of the destruction. When he had finished, his mood had not improved, nor lightened at all. A firm scowl was set on the shadowy man’s face, his one eye drifting through the battlefield. His brow was furrowed, and he clenched his pipe in his teeth. “We might want to prepare ourselves,” he said, drawing a weapon, “…just in case.”
“This can’t be real, it must be a trick” he thought. “I don’t hear them…” he said aloud, referring to the sentry eyes he had placed before. The landscape was confusing and worrying. None of it made sense to him. Was he looking at something that had happened, was happening, or was it an image of something yet to come? The last few moments were too much to take in at once. Any single thought about the surroundings was swarmed by a dozen other rapid deliberations going through his mind. “Calm down” he thought as he turned to observe his companions. They were acting normally given the situation. The humility on Emmiven’s countenance was an unexpected change. He never would have thought her base form would be so shocking; then again, she wore the same face for most of his time with her for a reason.
He grabbed Ebonscour, wrapped the belt around his waist, secured it, and picked up his own sword and shield. The careless relaxation he felt before from not wearing his armor was gone. He wanted it on now, but thought it better to make ready. Something was happening, something dreadful. Looking over the battlefield he took note of the countries and churches that he could identify. “I didn’t hear them…” he thought again. Could someone have slipped past the sentry’s and enchanted him? The North man couldn’t have done this. Was any of what he was seeing really happening? He didn’t feel like he was dreaming and previous image of the dead man struck a chord of fear. He suspected he knew its meaning. “Calm down damnit” he told himself as he began to watch Zioran intently.
Emmiven runs her hands across her face before checking them as well. The tip of an index finger turns white before returning to the normal human shade of her choosing. “I never lost control like that,” she explains, more concerned with her reversion that the savaged landscape. “Sorry you had to see that.”
Satisfied she can maintain her form again, she takes in the surroundings and whistles softly. “This is real?” She asks before turning to Aiden, hoping his divine connection would offer insight one way or another. “It can’t be? Can it?”
She grabs a piece of hair and pulls. “Don’t know if it helps,” she adds, releasing the strand to be blown away by the wind, “But it still hurts.”
The heat is oppressing. The air scorched. Gray clouds drift overhead, threatening to block out the stars. The earth reeks of boiled tar. In places the black liquid bubbles up from some lower point. The pools move slowly and gather together. Accumulating. Their actions indicate motivation if not intelligence. Their purpose and origin remain unknown yet are sinister and unnerving. There must be thousands of pools.
A crack of thunder splits the skies and a shadow rolls across the empty battlefield. Gigantic and winged the shadow is as large as dragon but humanoid in shape. Fires flare up violently as it approaches only to be snuffed as soon they connect. The shadow paints the ground dark but leaves nothing to indicate the object creating it. Given the size, perhaps that’s for the better.
Gliding across the dead and battered, the shadow shrinks an inverse-purportion to the distance from the clearing. A hundred feet away it becomes no larger than a two story house. Twenty feet away, it becomes the size of a tall man. At the edge of the clearing, it stops and a face begins to rise up from the void. The shadow is pealed from the earth like the skin of a fruit as the form draws closer, growing taller with every step. In a matter of seconds the shadow is gone, replaced by a mirror of Zioran. A scarred man with a single, bright yellow eye. Dark cloth with gold highlights drape across his shoulders. Well fitting but antiquated. A suit fashionable among long dead royalty. The entity is unarmed, his hands unclenched against his sides.
“I have dwelt on the outskirts of your mind for some time,” he begins looking at Zioran, “Now I welcome you to mine.”
Immediately, upon seeing himself/Thelek, Zioran’s look of concern drops, replaced, instead, by a look filled with murderous intent. “You!” he shouts, pointing the tip of his drawn sword at his double. He advances on Thelek by a few steps, raising the weapon, “Get the hell out of my body!”
Thelek looks over the raised sword. “From one immortal to the next, what do you think a blade will accomplish?”
One face, two individuals. Thelek’s manner is altogether different from his clone’s. Relaxed to the point of weariness, he stands his ground without returning aggression. His voice is soft-spoken, without haste, and bereft of passion.
“As for your command, I will oblige in time. When I am again capable of wearing flesh.”
Regdar looks from one Zioran to the other with a questioning look on his face. “So you’re the thing trapped within him?” Regdar grips his mace tighter while trying to figure out a way out of this hellish area. “So what’s your plan now that you have us here? I doubt that it’s to join our fireside chat.” Regdar digs his feet into the ground and readies his shield in anticipation of the fight to commence.
Having one Zioran around was plenty. Now there were two. The past moments Aiden spent watching Zioran had proved fruitful and informative. Judging by the looks and Zioran’s reaction, this was the demon. Moreover, he didn’t have to worry about betrayal yet. The Zioran he knew was still with them and in the right mindset at the moment. Aiden didn’t waste time in following suit.
He began to pray, going through all the motions to bolster his companions and weaken his enemies. “You look calm demon, composed, as if you aren’t afraid…” he spoke with an angry tone as he neared the end of the motions. The divine radiance built up in his symbol like usual, gaining strength before exploding all around him. He wanted to see if this immortal demon could be frightened.
The symbol hung, dull silver indicating nothing. No burst of energy or power, just nothing. Everything had been done right, yet nothing happened. No interruption, no interference, no results. He intended to put emotion on the face of the demon, to see it panic, but now he was the one in fear. “How…” he started to say before biting his tongue. The shocked expression on his face was enough to relay to everyone what had just happened. Whatever time or space he was in, wherever he was, even the god’s had been removed.
Zioran lowers his weapon, a grudging acknowledgement of the truth of Thelek’s words. “You speak true enough, but what do you want? You’re giving us time in your mind, sure, but why the dramatics? What is your true nature – who are you, really, and how is it that you are so powerful? How does your hatred for the gods fit into it all?”
“So you’re the thing trapped within him?” Regdar grips his mace tighter while trying to figure out a way out of this hellish area. “So what’s your plan now that you have us here? I doubt that it’s to join our fireside chat.”
“To witness what I cannot explain, that’s is your purpose here.”
The first holy word that spills forth from Aiden’s lips draws the immortal’s attention. Thelek’s composure remains steadfast, but the intense heat emanating from the ground increases with each syllable spoken. Thelek waits, unmoving. On the last quartet he adds his own voice to the incantation. A perfect recitation done from memory. Finished, he turns his head upward, looking at the stars as Emmiven had done only a few minutes prior. Again he waits. Silence. Satisfied, his eye returns to Aiden. He shrugs.
Though Aiden bites his tongue, Thelek chooses to answer. “At this point,” he responds, spreading a hand out to indicate the battlefield, “Divine intervention has become an anachronism.”
“You speak true enough, but what do you want? You’re giving us time in your mind, sure, but why the dramatics? What is your true nature – who are you, really, and how is it that you are so powerful? How does your hatred for the gods fit into it all?”
Thelek watches his reflection in the rim of Redgar’s shield, seemingly taking little notice of Zioran’s questions. He runs a finger over his ruined eye and the multitude of scars cris-crossing his face and neck. He frowns. “Three mortal. Twelve superficial but nevertheless disfiguring. You’ve lived long to have died so many times, Shadar-Kai.”
Thelek tears his attention from the shield and turns to look at Zioran. “My true nature?” he asks aloud, thinking as he steps into the clearing. His footprints leave small crevices that fill with boiling tar. “In answer, I return the question, child of shadows. Are you so easily classified. You began as one thing but changed to something else; became both more and less than your origins. Have you told them the entirety of your past? Of those who hunt you? Do you even know what you are?”
“The Star Slave calls me Demon. Close. I was not so long ago, and such a condemnation would have earned the full brunt of my abilities. But now…,” Thelek shakes his head, pondering a choice of words, “Things have become complicated.”
“Power? I have always possessed much. As have all my kind; yet, I was particularly favored, or cursed, to possess powers well beyond normal. On Faerun, my glory is but a sliver of former incarnations.”
“But I think you ask the wrong questions. Concern yourself not with beginnings. Knowing personal history will shed little light as to vulnerabilities, and efforts geared towards my demise waste time and energy. Rather concern yourself with things to come. Are my goals irreparably dissimilar from yours? And if so, how do we proceed from here?”
“The gods,” Thelek states in a steady monotone that hides much strength behind two simple words. “To call it hate would be a simplification. I don’t hate them but rather hate how they make you. Their influence. That I cannot abide.”
“Perhaps you are right, creature,” Zioran says, rubbing his chin. He resumes puffing on his pipe and muses “But what are we without our history? We are empty shells, nothing more. You may not find it the most relevant of questions, but it is still fitting. What I’ve told my companions is certainly no more evasive than you. They just aren’t direct enough to ask.” He rubs the scarred-‘X’ carved across his chest, a souvenir from a fight before his immortality, in thought.
“Regardless,” he says at length, “you haven’t brought us here to tell us nothing. I would know of you before I decide to become friend or foe. Tell us of your complications. Win us over with your Blackened Tongue, if you can.”
“Zioran is right. You ask if your goals are so dissimilar from ours, but how are we supposed to know that without hearing you speak plainly.” Aiden kept his guard up, if he couldn’t rely on divine abilities, then it would have to be his martial skills that would defend him should things turn for the worst. “You call me a slave to my Goddess but it seems your pride blinds you to my relationship with her. Don’t presume so much about me or her or us. You speak of Gods and their influence as if it was coercive, you mentioned your goals, but all I see is death on a battle field.” Aiden was angry, “Star Slave? That godless snake may know hate but I’ll show him wrath”, yet he picked up on what he suspected was Zioran’s intention. This was a chance to get some information directly from the source of their troubles. Gesturing at Zioran, “He’s right, we are all here now, and for some reason, so let’s dispatch with your pungent charms and get to the point? What are we to witness? What are your goals?”
“Zioran is right. You ask if your goals are so dissimilar from ours, but how are we supposed to know that without hearing you speak plainly.”
“I withhold pieces of the puzzle not to mislead but rather to shelter your perceptions. Even my true name would be enough to cloud your judgment. I desire your wisdom, not your biases.”
“You call me a slave to my Goddess but it seems your pride blinds you to my relationship with her. Don’t presume so much about me or her or us.
“Relationship?” Thelek laughs. The distant clouds spill forth vicious forks of lightning. Sparks from an impact against the ground ignite a large nearby oil pool. The fire casts a gentle, warm glow on the clearing. Thelek, however, still stands in shadow. “You talk of hubris. What of yours? Of us, only I have met your mistress. Shedding light into the far reaches, stymieing the machinations of her sister, and resisting the primordials, not to mention her pet project with the lycans, what makes you think she has time for every fool who procures a charm in the market? Your relationship exists with underlings, lesser beings through which her powers and messages are delegated, filtered and delivered. Likely she knows nothing of your wants and fears, only of your service.”
“You speak of Gods and their influence as if it was coercive, you mentioned your goals, but all I see is death on a battle field”
“You haven’t brought us here to tell us nothing. I would know of you before I decide to become friend or foe. Tell us of your complications.”
“This,” Thelek again points to the brutalized landscape, “was not wrought by my hands, but by those whom mortals pay homage. Another holy war between good and evil. Yet no god numbers among the causalities. Only men. It is but one mass conflict of hundreds that will transpire in the years to come. Again and again, ad naseaum, divine ambition will infect the world to spill mortal blood. I seek only to tip the scales, to see the cycle ended. No more will mortals be used as pawns to settle the disputes of the divine.”
Aiden thought it was a little funny. All of the snake people before had spoke with cryptic words too, but at least they wore their intentions on their sleeves. Nevertheless, mincing words with Thelek was proving informative.
“Carrying out the will of a fine king or queen, despite never directly meeting them, does not diminish the quality of the ruler. When a Queen loves her lords, and they love their servants, as Our Lady of Silver does her Shards and priests, that relationship doesn’t diminish. The world is full of darkness, but it also has many small, bright lights that shone at night. You are merely the cloud that attempts to block the stars light, whimsical, moving elsewhere with a purpose. You will not break my faith with clouds and riddles, so tell me plainly, unnamed dark cloud, what wisdom do you wish from us? You speak as if you have some knowledge that would interest us, but withhold it.”
He was getting caught in Thelek’s pace. This wasn’t the theater for dogmatic conflict… "Zioran asked you, ‘What is your true nature – who are you, really, and how is it that you are so powerful? How does your hatred for the gods fit into it all?’ and you have yet to answer. Push aside the things you think you know about us, us “pawns”, and we might be inclined to respond in kind, and listen.”
“Sounds to me like you plan to kill the gods because you believe that’s the only way to stop holy wars.” Regdar stands a bit taller showing some pride in his words but still keeps his shield and mace at the ready. “That may be true however if not holy wars we would instead have just wars, I have seen tribes go to war for something as small as one tribe hunting in lands they believed to be theirs, these tribes do not worship the gods you seek to destroy. Wars are fought all the time the gods do not force us to do it we willingly go to war for what we believe in to protect what we feel needs protecting.”
Zioran’s face soured a bit as he looked at his yellow-eyed copy. He hated smug, and this guy was oozing it. “Look, I’m sure it’s fun to antagonize us with wordplay, poking ants and all that, but let’s not mince words. If this was a matter you could handle yourself, why make introductions? What are your goals, plans and troubles?” He chomped on his pipe quickly, puffing some acrid smoke from it, exhaling as he spoke “Because as far as I see it, all you’re doing is inviting us to – or possibly just showing us – a bloodbath.” He gestured to the battlefield to emphasize the devastation.
“You are merely the cloud that attempts to block the stars light, whimsical, moving elsewhere with a purpose. You will not break my faith with clouds and riddles.”
“Soon men will have little need of night lights to sleep through the dark. Keep your crutch. I seek to wean mortals off the gods, not steal them away.”
“You speak as if you have some knowledge that would interest us, but withhold it.”
“Is this not knowledge? Evidence that the god wars continue without end? The bodies stack upon each other like stone and mortar until the end of time and you find this not worth knowing? Are you so inured to the passing of life as to think this the natural course? I’ve seen the battle transpire, and countless more. We can stop it. All I ask of you is the wisdom of an open mind. Decide not before hearing the course.”
Sounds to me like you plan to kill the gods because you believe that’s the only way to stop holy wars… That may be true; however, if not holy wars we would instead have just wars. I have seen tribes go to war for something as small as one tribe hunting in lands they believed to be theirs. These tribes do not worship the gods you seek to destroy. Wars are fought all the time. The gods do not force us to do it we willingly go to war for what we believe in to protect what we feel needs protecting.
“You mistake me North Man. I seek not to end war, but war imposed from on high. Inevitably men will let blood for land, women, and a thousand other causes, but the origin, blame, and choice would be yours. Free from the obligations and meddling of far away beings, the path of man will lie in his hands alone. Fight for your own prosperity and goals, not theirs.”
“Killing the gods? I purpose nothing so rash, nor would I have the means. I seek the demise of one. One whose coddling does man far more disservice than any malevolent deity. As the status qoe exists, the gods will spar and bicker until world’s end. However, an imbalance would force a conclusion one way or another. Done properly, we can ensure the light prevails, but nevertheless remains weakened to the point that man can decide his own fate for the first time. Mankind has long come of age. You need not pedagogues and parents.”
“Look, I’m sure it’s fun to antagonize us with wordplay, poking ants and all that, but let’s not mince words. If this was a matter you could handle yourself, why make introductions? What are your goals, plans and troubles?… Because as far as I see it, all you’re doing is inviting us to – or possibly just showing us – a bloodbath.”
“If my semantics offend, I offer apology, but I have long been without company. Those whom supplicate before absent masters try my resolve. I will not serve, and have little patience for those who do so willingly. Even less when they look upon bondage with gratitude. I harbor no ill will towards the rest and have opened communications as a courtesy. What I could take, I would rather ask. You need not oppose me. Killing you, any of you, would bring no comfort. But sacrifices have and always will remain a necessity.”
“I have set plans in motion hundreds of years before my imprisonment. I will succeed with or without your compliance. I have foreseen it. Do not force me to add your deaths to an already heavy toll. Future events will explain both my history and designs. With the knowledge comes a choice. Think on it… weigh it. That is what I ask. Nothing more.”
“Looking on bondage with gratitude?!" Aiden says, clearly upset. “Where are my chains? Take my faith away and what does the rest of my life look like? It is still rich, if only lighter so, filled with love and family and respect, the stuff men dream of. I was accomplished before I followed the moon; I was wealthy in all things important.”
“You say you want men to decide for themselves, but you contradict yourself. I oppose injustice and do what is right, just as many others do, devout and faithless alike. I am no puppet and I won’t recount my deeds for you here and now. You say you want men to carve their own destiny, but what noble man wouldn’t oppose wanton death, starvation, or oppression? You come to us, show us death, and ask us to trust you? You offer us nothing, no reason, you ask ‘the wisdom to open our minds’ and then confuse wisdom with prejudice when the former advises caution. Clearly you are unable to separate one from the other and progress the dialogue.”
“If your intentions were as vindicated as you suggest, then why do you keep them so close to the chest? All I know of you is that you intend to do harm to those I cherish. All manner of creatures would oppose such a threat. Am I wrong? Do you mean well? Have you offered ANYTHING to suggest otherwise?” Aiden felt angry and wondered if there was anything about Thelek to understand at all. “You say ‘we can ensure the light prevails’ but against what? Don’t speak as some creature that knows what men want, unless you’re willing to offer something to an “open mind”. Were you to discuss something taboo or delicate, there is no reason to ignore your words. But alas, you don’t seek the commune with someone virtuous; in fact, you seem to harbor ill will towards me, perhaps a reflection of your own flaws.”
“So if you do not want to stop all wars, only those fought at the behest of the gods, what is your plan? Also, I am curious if your plans will succeed without our help, why bother trying to get us to help? How does our help benefit us and you?”
The Shadar-Kai smoked his pipe, casually, as though he were becoming disinterested with his copy. He glanced about the area, taking note of his surroundings. He remained silent for Aiden’s rant and Regdar’s subsequent questioning. Finally, he looked at Emmiven, and said “Got any more of that soup? My double here is full of shit, and I need a distraction.”
Emmiven turns to Zioran and laughs. The entity’s dire posturing and Aiden’s fiery riposte had created a tense atmosphere… a tense atmosphere while in the mind of a being probably older and more powerful than some gods. She didn’t know if yelling at Thelek as Aiden or even dismissing him as Zioran had done were wise, but she couldn’t help but laugh. The entire episode was absurd.
“Soup no, but if pulling hair hurts, I suppose mind tea is still capable of packing a punch,” she says, reaching for the kettle.
Aiden wasn’t sure about what to do. He had given Thelek something to chew on, or so he thought and he wouldn’t let his questions be abated; this ‘thing’ deserved death yet hadn’t earned it just yet. “It knows only hate and I have prodded it all I can”, but even that might have backfired.
He had already fallen back on his emotions, something his training told him to do when lacking all else, but he found it hard to understand, this was all new to him, this primordial abhorrence. This ‘thing’ had made him angry beyond what he thought was capable. Nonetheless he continued, “Redgar is right as well, if you won’t talk to me, then answer him you cloud!” He suspected that Redgar, like Zioran, was well aware of what was transpiring. His angers said, “I’ll see this thing bleed. This thing is wrong! And if he isn’t, how am I to compare! He loves nothing, cherishes nothing, and if he did, then Moonmaiden forgive me!" He pressed further, " Here at-the-ready stands the North man, true in the face of battle and largely unknown to me, yet even he opposes your claimless beliefs, even he, the spirit worshiper, would need more than fancy words! But alas, you do not want to commune with me, but maybe you want to commune with him, daemon?"
Something near to rage fueled Aiden and knew he couldn’t do more with words with this demon, “Redgar poses the equal to Zioran’s question. You have not answered me, nor Zioran, but maybe the North man? He doesn’t fit within your narrow perspective, or does he? The Northern man, Redgar, is here, and like the rest of us, speaks for himself. You detest me, but what about him, and before his inquires Zioran, or do you intend to shun all that abide your will and open their minds?” He had listened to the daemon, it was all absurd, or so he thought.
“…Also, I am curious if your plans will succeed without our help, why bother trying to get us to help? How does our help benefit us and you?”
“Careful thought benefits only yourself. I need no aid; yet, opposition will force me to end you. Something I hope you will find… unnecessary.”
As the priest rages, Thelek looks over the battle. Whether prodded, pressed, or trapped, the entity shows no reaction. His thoughts are an island, isolated from an unmoving countenance. The oilfields continue to churn from below and cover the remains scattered about the horizon. Soon there will be nothing left but a sea of black.
Hearing the priest finish or at least pause before another assault, Thelek picks up a scrap of cloth. A purple dragon on a white shield; the banner torn and fragmented. He stands and examines the symbol before letting it go. The wind carries it from the clearing where it is stained and submerged under the rolling surface.
Thelek returns his attention to the group. A zealot on the attack, a shadar-kai attempting to appear apathetic, and a doppelganger and a North man somewhere between.
“Nothing I can say would satisfy reservations. You have but my word. The word of a being caged beneath the earth for centuries by those sworn to protect humanity. What weight could they possibly hold? Even the carnage of this battle remains unverified. Easily denounced as illusion or false vision. Only a fool takes such matters on faith, so I came not to convince but to offer introduction. I have said what I intended. Heed it or not, at this point it matters little. But be not so spoiled as to assume you have heard nothing of worth simply because I refused to answer your queries. Knowledge will come. I care little you disapprove of the pace.”
“For you priest, a word of advice. Be not so easily goaded as to brag of family and love. Were I the demon you claim, your foolishness would be rewarded in blood.”
Thelek inhales sharply. The air leaves the world. The bonfires instantly snuffed. His form sinks into the earth, either merging with shadow or oil. The raging skies quiet and the alien stars smear and blur, returning to familiar forms. Gone is the destruction, the reeking oil. You are home, standing up in your campsite. The warding eyes remain undisturbed. Emmiven’s tin cup still lies on the ground; its contents long ago leeching into the soil.