Elemix saw that the storm kept coming. He and Ixian were safely in the Hut, the others inside the cave. Renee was gone, suddenly and for no reason. He did not understand what Mara wanted with her, and if Mara could take her, could she not do the same for everyone else? Made no sense. But, fey are like that, Vorn used to say with a dismissive shrug.
He heard singing.
Outside in the snow he heard a beautiful song slipping by past the howling of the storm.
Who could be singing in such a storm he thought as he stood up and peered through the falling snow outside the cave.
“Do you hear singing,” he asked the others.
They did not answer, oblivious to his questions. The singing continued.
He wondered if this was a dream. Could his friends see him? He moved closer to them to see if they would respond. His hut would fail as he left it, but if he wasn’t dreaming he could always cast it again.
As he moved, the hut, his friends, Ixian, and even the cave wall became lost in the sudden snow. Elemix could hear the singing growing louder but he could not locate it. In the distance, contrasted against the snowfield, but blurred by the winds and blizzard Elemix saw three black figures watching from a promontory. They were more distant than the song, though Elemix could discern the cry of crows just beyond the wail of the snow. The singing was closer, from the northwest and echoed upon the winds.
Not knowing what was going on, nor where to go. He focused then on the singing that had originally grabbed his attention. He was wary of his circumstance and kept an eye on the black figures as he walked.
This was either a very surreal dream or the effects of some powerful magic. Something far more so then he knew if it could affect him in this way from within his hut. Fey? Maybe even that of a deity of some kind? Either way, he would be as careful as possible.
Elemix could make out shapes moving in the distance as he walked. Large shapes they were. Perhaps the Old Men, perhaps something else, but regardless they remained elusive. Ahead of him, dancing slowly in the snows upon the heights ahead was a woman in white. Her skin was as pale as the snow, crystal blue eyes, and hair raven with streaks of white, the woman sung words that Elemix could barely make out. Was she singing to him? Or another?
Wish not thy lips, thou foolish one, nor turn to me thy face;
The blasts of heaven shall strike thee down, ere I will give thee grace.
Take thou thy shadow from my path, nor turn to me and pray;
The wild wild winds thy dirge may sing, ere I will bid thee stay.
Turn thou away thy false dark eyes, nor gaze upon my face;
Great love I bore thee: now great hate, sits grimly in its place.
All changes pass me like a dream, I neither rest nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree, that stole my life away.
As she sung, thundersnow could be heard and great gales felt and for each dirge there was followed blasts of winter fury. This was a woman scorned.
Elemix listened carefully to what she said. Twice she warned him not to look upon her face. She would either harm him or give him grace. She was angry at him and she sang a mournful song. He shouldn’t follow or pray to her. She was somehow out of time and space, as she did not tire or feel a connection to whomever she prayed to. She once loved someone and now hates that someone. She blamed that person for stealing her life away. She used the term thou. Did she really mean Elemix had done this to her, or was she confusing him with someone else?
Who was this person? Could this be the winter fey Emmeline had mentioned wanting to meet? Could this be the priest or shaman woman that had gone missing and was possibly now corrupted by hate?
He needed to know more. But at the same time he didn’t want to risk angering her. He responded first by looking away from her. He did not know what would happen if he met her gaze but he took the warning seriously.
“What happened to you,” he said over the howling of the winds as he shielded his eyes.
She stopped dead. It was haunting as her sudden silence left the winds howling and the drifting snow to be hollow, cold, and full of death. Slowly he could sense she was looking at him, though he could not see her directly. She said…
*Some seek power in endless strife, others by dark accord*
*The man kills the thing he loves, by each let this be heard*
*Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering wordThe coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword*
*The only thing that is worse than death is betrayal. *
*You see, I could conceive death,*
*but I could not conceive betrayal.*
The winds continued to howl.
Elemix didn’t yet know if this was a dream or some kind of spell, but he sensed how exposed he was. He only hoped he could get information that would help all of his party. To that end he kept his fear in check. He had to continue to learn all he could.
“Who betrayed you, and to what end,” replied Elemix. The wind whipped him furiously, but he held his ground and kept his eyes averted.
He saw her feel below him. She was barefoot in the snow, pure alabaster skin unaffected by the cold. She was near him. He could feel her presence and a whispering voice saying…
*His body was a cage that kept him from being with the ones he loved, but it was not me.*
*His body was a cage that made him desired for nothing by those who care, but it was not me.*
*His enemies sought him not, his friends sought him not. I never sought him, yet he came to me.*
*His body was uncaged, his desires made manifest. I never desired him, yet I fell for him.*
There was a quiet pause…
*We both were empty hearted, darkness sought us both.*
*We found each other, but not before darkness found him.*
*Then he gave me to the darkness, now in **sleeping I only can dance.*
*Then he betrayed me with a kiss, now in **waking I only see hate.*
Elemix could feel her, but inches away from him.
Elemix thought a moment and decided to risk saying the name. It might inflame her if his instincts were right, but he had to know.
“Do you speak of Skallagim? We are coming to bring light to the darkness. We are coming to end the hate.”
A blood-curdling scream went out freezing Elemix to the bone and awakening terrors he had only felt once before in the depths of the Hattani Tombs. The cold air from her scream frostbit his hand instantly that protected his face from her gaze. The winds howled in response for what seemed like forever. And suddenly everything went silent and Elemix heard…
A man has a lot of nerve to say he is my friend
When mine are down, your kind stand and grin
A man has a lot of nerve to say you have a hand to lend
For you only want to be on the side that wins
A man has a lot of nerve to say that wicked name
When his magic masks, your kind stand and do nothing
A man has a lot of nerve to say that you light the flame
For you are to be the only ones who do the lighting
A man has to know that he is but a name hollow
When his words swayed us with the tongue of another
A man has to know that the name is always followed
When he who serves the servant is truly the master
She let go and Elemix could hear her turn to walk away.
Elemix’s insights had served him well. He now knew something more of the threat they faced. He thought quickly on what he believed he had learned. Skall had come through here some time ago and was corrupted by hate. Later, perhaps after Elemix had killed him somehow Skall’s essence found the priestess and she somehow fell for him. In doing so she became a victim, He tricked her or somehow turned on her and her spirit was also corrupted.
Was Skall’s essence still somehow alive on its own or was it the darkness that was inside her. By day forcing her actions, leaving her only the nights to be somewhat free.
Elemix couldn’t know. He felt sorry for her and though he might have to confront her soon, he wondered if there was a way to remove the darkness that had changed her. He needed a priest.
What had she said last? Was Skall but a servant? What had corrupted him? If Elemix could eliminate the source or cause. Perhaps it would put a final end to Skall and help this woman at the same time.
He wanted to ask her how he could help her, but she had made it clear she didn’t trust him – that and his hand really hurt. Instead he pinched himself and tried to wake from what he had determined must be some kind of an altered dream state.
Elemix woke up. He was in a pew in the High Temple of Aarith. Sitting next to him was the Tyaanite Ermengarde disguised as a praying Aarithine nun. She finished her prayer, looked up and smiled, singing, “I know, what, you, don’t, know….”
Elemix looked around. Surprised. He had been here next to her before.
“And what would that be,” he replied.
She devilishly smiled and then looked deadly serious, “why should I tell you? Why not let you fail miserably? Your cousin sent me North and I went – while you sat back looking petulant and scowling.
“You seem to want to tell me. As I don’t know what you are referring to I can’t know what it is you wish to say. I am not opposed to listening to what you have to say.”
If however, you are looking for some kind of favor or obligation for your information I would suggest you look elsewhere. Maybe give it to my cousin. He thought to himself.
“Tell you or taunt you? And yes, I require favor for my information. I know who started it all. I know who came up here and and awoke the mountain. And you will love this information – but it comes with a price. If you don’t want to pay, I will keep it and you and yours can suffer – and maybe if you survive you’ll be stronger. But all of this is fault of someone quite close to you…” she said.
“Oh, and I think I know what became of someone called Silverleaf – know him?” she added.
Elemix considered what she said carefully. “What price do you require? And yes, I know Silverleaf.”
“I do not want money or trinkets. I’d take the Aquila for the irony more than its usefulness. But all-in-all I wish a favor from you and yours. I have a mission that needs done. You and yours have proven capable enough. It is something you wouldn’t mind doing anyway – except of course Tyaa benefits.” she said.
Elemix was less than intrigued, but he didn’t change his expression.
“I’m listening,” he replied.
“Some years ago my teacher, myself and several companions discovered the cairn of an ancient antediluvian Elven sorcerer and looted it seeking power to rebuild the followers of the Lady of Ravens. He was not an elf in the standard sense, but something else, darker and colder. Regardless we won our fight but several of our companions betrayed us and made off with several powerful magic items. Recently I learned that one of the traitorous curs lives near a small town in the foothills between Derrien and Guisseny. His death would be welcome, but the retrieval of a specific tome he stole would be the goal.” she replied.
“So you want us to steal a tome that was stolen from you? What tome and why is it so important?”
“It was the thing we were first after,” she replied. “An ancient tome of great wisdom, its specific identity I will share with you if you agree, though I doubt its name will be of use to you – that it was stolen by a wizard will. Or pretended to. Regardless I want it and I want him to pay for his betrayal even in a small way. But you’d need to be wary, he is very adept at deceit.” she replied.
He’s not the only one, thought Elemix. “What information do you have that would make such a trade worthwhile?”
“As I said, I know firstly where Silverleaf is. But more importantly I know why the hatred of the mountain is awake and who started it. I can clarify your quest, giving you the vital clue to removing the undead evil. I…” she paused. “…I…must go. Like you, I have certain enemies. Think over my offer and when it is safe I will contact you again…”
The dream suddenly ended and Elemix awoke into pure darkness. He heard the sound of slow clapping and the sound of footsteps in the distance.
Tonight’s dreams were anything but restful, thought Elemix.
As he sat up he thought it likely that he had awoken in the cave after his shelters magic had dissipated. With that he cast dancing lights and looked around.
The lights danced, but the only reflection were upon a single man approaching Elemix. He wore odd clothes similar to the ancient Danaeans, full pants and a tunic, with some kind of sleeved robe placed over them. He was bearded and slightly scarred, but those scars fit him somehow, making him magnetic and handsome in a rugged way. “Hello Elemix.” Once the words exited his mouth, Elemix felt power.
Elemix immediately realized he wasn’t where he thought he was. Was he still dreaming? Who was this man who apparently knew him?
“Hello,” responded Elemix cautiously. “Have we met?”
“Yes we have. After a fashion. Indirectly nearly two years ago, though I’ve met some of your friends more recently – though they would not know it. I do apologize through, your mind was opened by the witch and another yet before that who also caught my attention. Seemed only fair I should follow.” he said. “I normally don’t do this as I have better things to do. But your loathing toward the person your just spoke to caught my attention. Who is it?”
“You’ll forgive me but I don’t recognize you. What is your name, and why have you as you said followed them into this dream.”
“No, you would not recognize me. While I have met you, you have never seen me. I have said that I followed them into this dream as I sense these things and it piqued my interest. The fact I have seen you before solidified this interest – and you and yours are most interesting indeed. And the name, well, you may call me Athos.” he said. “And you are not the only one dreaming this evening.”
“Why are we of interest to you? You’ll forgive me for having questions but this has been a very strange night.”
“As I told you, you’ve been on the periphery – pardon the pun – of my attention for some time. But that aside, I can help you and yours. I know your cousin is hunted and by whom.” he said.
Elemix eyed the man.
“You obviously wield magic if you have found your way into my dream, and when you say my cousin is being hunted and you know the source you peak my interest. But in all fairness, as I don’t know you or why if what you say is true you would even care, you will understand my suspicions.
“But I am listening. Athos, it that Eterian?”
“Its an older name. You mistake why I’m here. You must be more suspicious – that’s the point. I’m here to warn you, truly, about your meddling in events you normally would not. You and yours have been carefully manipulated to be in particular places at particular times. Others are more chaotically causing trouble – stirring up the pot and unleashing a hornet’s nest of troubles – a tiny bit of that trouble you have been intensionally pointed to. You are being used – and not for your own good. You are pawns in a game far older than Thalassa, Eteria or even the Hattani with multiple sides coming and going and no one ever winning, just surviving. Do yourself a favor, refuse to participate. You’ll be happier. And if you do, I might be able to help your cousin, your friend, and yourself find that good life.”
“You are asking us to stop caring because you believe we are being manipulated.
“To refuse to act on events we know about or that will impact us and those around us, what kind of life would that be? Who would want to live like that?
“You may be correct in that we are being manipulated, but in reality manipulation in some form is a part of life. It is in our nature to want to make things better for ourselves and those we care about, even if that means taking risks.
“I am not saying we should act blindly or simply on the whim of another, but ultimately action is better than inaction because not acting to improve one’s standing puts you at the mercy of those that act.
“I’d rather have a say in how my life unfolds.”
“But you don’t. You cannot defeat the manipulators save by refusing to be manipulated. Go, marry, have children, live a happy life. You cousin can go be with her lover – that is what she truly wants. Think of her and her suffering. Think of your own. Why be scarred and living on the razors edge. Be free. You can’t win the game, so refusing to play is the ultimate act of defiance. I can make that easier. All you have to do is to go home, the manipulators fail, and the rewards will come.”
“What rewards do you speak of?
How can anything in life be achieved by choosing not to participate?”
“No. Choosing your own path and not being misled by others, that is what I speak. Achieving what is best for YOU, not what others want you to do. You for instance live on the edge of nowhere. A person of your talents could be fabulously wealthy, unscarred by war, and living with a beautiful woman and researching to your heart’s content. This could be yours. Your cousin could be un-hunted, living with her man – at his side instead of on the sidelines, perhaps even more. But I’m telling you, you are being used, and not to your benefit. Ask yourself, was your last mission in any way a benefit? Or do you lie to yourself that it was?” he said.
Elemix considered his words.
“Even if we chose not to participate in their plans as you say, how could my cousin avoid being hunted? She is already hunted. And staying in one place for a long time would make her even easier to find I would think.
How could you keep us safe from the dangers that are out there?”
“I am merely a facilitator. Being honest with you, nothing is for certain. But I can tell you that I know who is interested in your cousin – and there are several, and I know how to influence them. They cannot be defeated, only endured. So why battle them? Just rise above the fray.” he replied. “If you do so, as I said, the rewards will begin to come in. But step one is abandoning this mission, one that was a deception to begin with and likely still is. I wouldn’t trust someone who deceived me, played on ‘family’ ties which didn’t exist, and literally stabbed me in the back, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t be used is all I’m saying.”
“I get what you are saying,” replied Elemix. “Who is it that is after my cousin?”
“There is one…a demon that I cannot say its name. Let us call it ’The Prince’. To actually name it would be to draw it into your dream. To say the name again would gain its permanent attention. To say it thrice…well in that case you best have a sacrifice at the ready or you will become the sacrifice. You would not want that. Suffice to say your cousin stole one of its wives. It was annoyed to be sure that she – and you – slew others of her kind, but that is the risk they took. But, to steal a soul, well that is something it will not forget. There is another, let’s call it ‘The Thaumaturge’, who was once of your order and now is something…else. He is more interested in hurting you for fouling up its plans. Years wasted. Hurting you and everything you love is not the first thing on its mind, but eventually it will come around to it as he never forgets a slight. Lastly there is that which manifests in the endless screams of revenge, loathing, and utter malevolence made of a thousand thousand mouths and eyes lost in the void. Let’s simply call it ‘The Nameless One’. You and yours have done quite a lot to gain its avatar’s and minions’ attention. For instance you have, each of you, done your part to wake the mountain you now sleep on.”
“Wake the mountain,” Elemix questioned. “I have heard rumors of monsters of all nature moving South, but within Azenkuul all I have heard is that there are powerful forces that have taken up residence long ago. Most of that is rumored as explorers have routinely gone missing over the past millennia and there is obviously much death and destruction that has happened there.
“What has awakened and how could we have done something to stir anything there?”
“You are naive to your own impacts.
“First, an ancient grave in the Cairn Lands was invaded, the dwarven ancestors of Azenkuul torn from their slumber – you and yours freed what they fought so hard to entrap and set the seed for potential corruption and invasion from the Fey. They mistrust you for that.
“Second, Azenkuul was leveled by the Eterians – you and yours freed one of the architects of that action from torpor who now rises in a new kingdom. They hate you for that.
“Third, Azenkuul’s far-flung Eastern Reaches were betrayed by one of their own – one of yours awoke that spirit of vengeance which affects the hundreds of thousands unavenged and that spirit grows more restless. And she has done – nothing. Why should she? Why should you care? They feel ignored by you.
“And you – and I believe this is true – used Azenkuul as a method of convenience which further awoke the spirits within and the unbridled hate it has for all things human. They feel used by you.
“That’s just a few. And sadly each and every one is architected either by the followers of the Mother of Ravens or by Those Who Watch or by others yet unnamed. None of which you had to do. You sir, have been the unwitting pawn in others games. End the game. Leave.”
“I appreciate your warning, and I will consider what you have said.
“I am still curious how you know about all of this though. How do you know about those who watch? Are you an enemy of theirs?”
“Nothing that I’ve said is known only to you. There are others who know see a piece here, a piece there. There are those who praise you and yours, those who condemn and hate you, and those who know nothing but the effects of your actions and the actions of those who seek to control you. I cannot read your mind or predict the future with any certainty. I am merely a facilitator. I have no friends. I have no enemies. I simply am. And soon I must go. You will awaken soon and I cannot remain. In the morning you must decide to leave or persist. If you leave, then I will know you decided for live for yourself and others with all the rewards. If you stay, then I will know you are happy being a tool of others with all the dire consequences. But you must decide, and by choosing not to decide, you have made a choice to persist. I will not be able to help you then.” he said.
“I understand. What you have said makes sense from a certain point of view, but from our point of view the actions we have taken, be they manipulated ones or know, are the actions we would have chosen if there was no one manipulating things.
“We choose to try and expand the ideals Thalassa was founded upon. We choose to put ourselves at risk if it means growing our knowledge of the world or helping others.
“We may in fact be manipulated into things, but if they are what we would have done anyway is it really manipulation or is it a confluence of goals or common purpose at the time?
“I appreciate your warning, and I will consider the broader ramifications of our actions and who may be influencing us to one course or another, but to remove ourselves from the game, as you call it, entirely would be opposed to our core nature to try and improve ourselves, those in our communities and with those which we interact.”
Elemix knew that wasn’t the answer this Athos was looking for, but it was an honest one. And, he would try to do as he said and consider those behind certain courses of action. In that alone perhaps Athos would find some kind of small satisfaction.
Not that Elemix much cared one way or the other. But Athos had clearly cared enough to try and influence him and Elemix hoped he could get away with not making an enemy of Athos as well.
Still, clearly there was motivation behind why Athos had interjected himself at all. What was his true motivation, Elemix mused.
“If that is your decision I cannot stop you. But remember, the world is more than Thalassa, and for every prayer supporting your ideals, a hundred oppose them. Not everyone wishes to be ‘improved.’ It is them who will make you suffer. It is their gods and monsters that will answer prayers to harm you. It is their hatreds that will empower your destruction. You will sacrifice all for others’ glory, all for others’ needs, all for others’ plans. Not yours. Selfless I suppose, but not in your personal interest. But so be it.” he answered.
Elemix nodded. But said nothing in return. There was nothing more to say.
Instead he focused on waking and wondered if this dream would become yet something more before he woke.
Elemix awoke. Ixian was awake as well, looking outside the hut to the coming dawn. The storm had slowed somewhat, but was not over. Elemix could see through his hut that in the cave Emmeline had just awakened.
Elemix stood and walked over to Emmeline knowing that his huts magic would fade as he left it’s borders. He didn’t know how a spell had been able to penetrate the protections afforded him by his hut, but he felt certain he had been affected by a spell or spells of some kind.
“Emmeline, I just had some very vivid dreams. So much so that I think they were communication spells of some kind.
He then proceeded to inform her of the experiences he had the prior evening and asked, “Did you experience anything strange as you rested tonight?”
“Strange?” Emmeline asked. “Not to me, no. I spoke with Renee a while, in a dream.” She considered for a moment. “Spells can’t penetrate your hut without first overcoming it, destroying it. But your mind could have moved outside it, while your body remained. Then you could receive such magic.
“As far as the Tyanite, my business with her is yet unfinished, so I’m not inclined to do any more until it is. Besides, I don’t trust her. She has no reason to tell us everything we need to know. That could damage us greatly. While I may trade with them if it seems useful, I refuse to do any mission for them. I do not want to give them an opportunity to betray us.
“Whoever it really was that contacted you next clearly wanted you to give up and go home. His intercession belies his neutrality. He took great pains to tell us what we cannot do. What does this tell you? My instincts tell me there is greater meaning there, but I have not your intellect to figure it out.
“In any case, I am not here because I’ve been convinced of anything by anyone. I’m here because yet again a hag has been thrown in our way. And I think there is a small chance that someone can be saved. If I anger the lord of hags and irritate the thing of eyes and teeth, then it is their own fault. I have not deliberately hunted them or their creatures. None of us have. We have only defended ourselves. It is they who should cease their interference in our lives, not the other way around.
“That said, I am unsurprised that the spirits that dwell in the mountain are now restless and angry. I told you coming here was a very bad idea, that it stirred things up that should not be. But I agreed to come anyway. So what is done is done. The best we can do is try to soothe what we can and save who we can, then leave in peace.”
Elemix was relieved his thoughts on the matters were confirmed by those of Emmeline.
“My thoughts exactly.”
“About that which lured you from your slumber and took your mind out into the snow. How do you feel about her?” Emmeline said.
“I suppose I feel a kind of sadness for her. I think she was tricked, and betrayed, and now cursed. That being said, I don’t know that there is any way around us having to confront her. Perhaps if the object or being that cursed her is somehow dealt with, her curse may be absolved, but in any case given her circumstances I think if we run into her we will have little choice but to dispatch her and those she may be with.
Ixian heard that and it caught his interest, “you always have a choice. She was our last priestess. I was her follower. I will help you capture her, but I won’t let you kill her. Hidmeel, if he lives, must be saved as well.”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” replied Elemix. “I don’t want to hurt or kill her, or anyone for that matter. However if it is them or us, I choose us.
“If we can help them we certainly will try.”
“Don’t worry, Ixian. We’ll save her. El is just voicing a concern in the event she has somehow been corrupted and has turned against her own people and her own goddess,” Emmeline said. “Stranger things have happened.”
“I overheard his dream-story. She was used. She may have no idea what she is doing.” Ixian said. “If we save her…I’ll someday lead you to Caranthir. I won’t set foot upon it, but we can find the safest path until you see it with your own eyes.”
“That’s very generous of you. Although I’ll hold out hope we won’t have to go there, it all depends on what we must do to help Typhon,” she replied.
Ixian added, “The high north is where winter never ends and it is vast and endless. Beyond Caranthir they say live only the heartiest of beings.”
Em chuckled. “Well I guess that leaves out El and I. But Typhon will probably think it’s just lovely.”