Our next assignment came to us unexpectedly. We were called in to meet with Eldarian and Haldir, and found Andall there as well, bleeding and dying from a wound in his stomach; no one had been able to heal him, even with magic. He told us the Pantheon was trapped in the Ring of Doom, and had been since it was activated. No sooner had he given us a small package and told us to hurry, than he died.
Inside the box was a copy of his faith’s holy book, the Divine Compass. It was very old, and Xaneak was fascinated by it. While he looked it over Feyren, Bazrik, Eldarian and I devised a way to get us in to the Ring. Enemy forces surrounded it by miles, so rather than wasting our time fighting through them I suggested Feyren turn
untoucha ethereal while I hid Bazrik and Xaneak on my person as small animals. Eldarian said he would serve as a distraction to help Alice and I sneak through the forces more easily.
When we arrived and got through easily enough; I took so little damage sneaking through I didn’t even bother having Bazrik heal me. Once we entered the center of the Ring, a door appeared. I tried to open it and go thrown back, and it wasn’t until Xaneak and Feyren worked together to read the first lines of the book that the door opened.
Bazrik turned to a bird and scouted for us. He told us he saw a group of warriors, scouting and carrying crude weapons of stone and bronze. Xaneak wanted to approach them despite my warnings not to, and eventually got himself and Feyren and Bazrik captured and brought to their king and queen as prisoners. I at least had the common sense to stay hidden during this, and watched everything carefully. I didn’t trust them or their rulers to treat my companions well, and wanted to be able to protect them if the need arose.
They claimed their rulers were “chosen” by the Father and the Mother, the same of the Pantheon as near I could tell. Xaneak and Feyren tried to tell them about the Pantheon, and that we were seeking gods, but the king was so hard-headed and stubborn he only had the three of them thrown in cells. I followed them to the cells, and then returned to the throne room to listen to the king and queen discuss. Apparently the very notion of their gods working with others was “heresy”, and he was all the more upset because Torm’s gift to him supposedly allowed him to see that Xaneak was not lying when he spoke of the need for unity. The queen suggested that there could be truth in what they’d heard—she said the Mother made new things every day, and change was not so bad—but her husband wouldn’t hear it. The king was so agitated to the point of distraction that I could have cut a square of cloth from his cloak, had I wanted to.
Once he and the queen retired to their quarters I returned to my companions, who were wondering where I was. I told them what the king and queen had said, and how they were no the first so-called “heretics” to talk of such things. Xaneak had found notes in the margin of the book, talking about Andall’s own journey to unite the Pantheon. He mentioned something about the need to “submit to judgment” by the Father and we assumed that Andall had been one of those heretics mentioned.
I slept lightly and woke often to move and remain hidden. In the morning guards collected the others from their cell, and brought them before the king and queen for trial. An enormous crowd was gathered to watch the spectacle. Xaneak put forth his argument for the need of unity again, while Feyren explained that there are other gods needed beyond the father and mother—neither could account for death, for instance. Things were not going very well despite the clear strength of their arguments; the common folk were swayed but the king was not. Xaneak mentioned how Andall had come before us, and then the king said no other blasphemers had been before.
I thought I knew that to be a lie, and supposed that if this “chosen” of the Father would break his own god’s paladin-like code to preserve “order” and useless tradition, then the only way to make him yield was to back him into a corner. I called him a liar and stepped from the shadows, telling him I had heard him speak of heretics with his queen only last night. He told me that he had spoken of heretics, but none by the name of Andall or who preached what Xaneak did.
I cannot understand how I was found to be in line with the same god as this stubborn, thickheaded man. He next claimed I was a “shadow priestess” from the north, sent to kill him and sow dissent, and seemed to think Xaneak and I traveling together was a herald of other clans uniting in preparation for war. He never stopped to think and realize that I had been in his keep an entire night with many opportunities to kill him if had I wanted. Besides, what kind of alliance sends a group of people to preach about religion in preparation for war?
Fortunately, the queen was a voice of reason and told him that the shadow people of the north had never allied with the “abominations” (magic users) of the west, and that our presence here was a sign of the gods’ unity, not of war. The king eventually relented once he saw Xaneak’s book had been written in “the language of the gods”, and as soon as he accepted that it split into three. Xaneak gave a copy to each, and kept the remaining one for himself.
With that, the king gave us guards to protect us as we traveled to the borders of his land, and a map to help us in our journey. According to the Divine Compass Andall had traveled south to speak with the “Martans” about their god of death, so we went there next. By then we had realized we weren’t following Andall’s path, but re-living it. Xaneak was also extremely upset that I’d stepped out of the shadows as unexepectedly as I had, so I told him to set a hand-signal for us to use in the future when he or the others need me to become visible. It wouldn’t hurt for us to have an entire, basic language set up that way… Perhaps I’ll work on that.
When we arrived in the lands of the Martans (later to be the Martels, from what I recognized in the buildings and lands), it was little more than a large fishing village. Like in the Bloodlands, the people were maimed, silent, and often sickly. They sent us to a river’s shore when we asked about a religious leader, where we met a man who called himself “The Shepherd”. He was as unpleasant a man as you could expect from someone who worshipped death; he spoke of its necessity to give “comfort” to those who suffered, but refused to acknowledge that changes could also be made now, in this life to reduce or cut off that same suffering, and that other gods could help do that.
Even once Xaneak showed him the book he refused to listen, and instead had a man drowned. Then he challenged Xaneak to give the man “new life”, and to the surprise of everyone, he did. He pounded on his chest and breathed into his mouth, and before long the man was alive again! I didn’t know such a thing was possible… No one there but Xaneak did, in fact. Needless to say, the Shepherd was willing to listen after that, and took the copy of the book that split from the original.
We traveled north next, to find worshippers of the Smith. On our way we encountered a few hundred people on horseback, most unarmed but for a few scouts for protection. Those scouts approached us cautiously at first, but once their leader, Heiken, caught sight of us and heard we were traveling north they all took us in as guests. We were clothed and fed and welcomed in like kin. They follow the Traveler, and appropriately enough Heiken seemed able to read the “paths” we had all traveled so far in our lives. He seemed wise in his own way, despite his eccentricities.
We all rode with the people for a number of days, speaking with them about the Pantheon and learning more about their lives. I was happier and more at home with these people than I had felt in ages. Traveling and living with a group of people, bound by bond and ideals… I’ve missed that freedom, and that sense of camaraderie: the simplicity and joy of coming to know a people and helping them in my own way. Some people call me more human than elf, but by the Ainur I miss it all as much as I think any “proper” wood elf would miss life in a clan.
The halls of the Legion’s keeps are empty and impersonal, nothing like my village or Altrio or even Harenhall. I’m happy enough now—and very thankful for my current three companions—but when this war ends I’ll be glad to return to my people in Altrio and wherever else my heart takes me.
The others seemed to enjoy their time with the people as much as me. Feyren deigned to smile at Heiken’s words at least once, and Bazrik seemed happy enough. Xaneak even proved that he has a sense of fun after all: he sang! He’s no bard, but he wasn’t horrible. I even accompanied him with a dance, something I haven’t done in a while. I was very sorry to leave them, even if our mission was successful and Heiken gladly took a copy of the Divine Compass.
When we finally reached the north, I realized it was the future seat of the Vygold family. From what I knew of them from rumor and had seen with Cedric, I expected the people to be harsh and stubborn, if not outright cruel. Instead we found kind, helpful people and were welcomed in as guests by a man named Thurdane, a great blacksmith. He was friendly but the local customs were strange. He spent a great deal of time insisting I was “too pale” despite my own complexion being darker than his (and many of my wood elf kin), and that I needed to be warmed and fed “properly”. (Perhaps he thought Feyren and I were related; he seemed to think she and Xaneak were wed because of their similar complexions.) At least he was easy to convince, once Xaneak said the book was something meant “to be shared” and Feyren began to recite passages from it to him. Before we left, Bazrik asked him to look at his war axe. He said it was good—apparently Bazrik could be an excellent smith, if he dedicated himself to it—but that it lacked passion and love. He spoke about needing to pour your heart into the things you make and I respect that; I treat each bow I craft with similar care.
We left on good terms, and rode east to the Rift, where followers of the Warrior lived. When two of the people approached us they tried to kill Xaneak on sight, but Feyren blocked one’s sword with her hand and demanded to go and speak with their leader. He was a tall, imposing man, named Azorahai. He said he respected Feyren for her strength, but wasn’t going to listen to people preaching religion when the strength of their own warrior faith was all they needed… Unless one of us could beat him in combat. Feyren volunteered, and challenged him to fight without weapons.
He agreed, saying if Feyren could best him he would listen to us and take a copy of the book, but if she lost then he would get to “mount” her. Of course I’d have put an arrow through his skull before he so much as touched her, and it isn’t as if she was going to lose regardless. He barely had time to react before she’d won and smashed his face into the ground, in fact! I haven’t seen someone beaten so soundly in a while. He begrudgingly took the book, and we left to travel west to the followers of the Mage.
We were nearly in Cormanthor by the time we had slogged through the swamp and people with pitchforks surrounded us. They said they would only take Xaneak to their leader, and he told me not to follow although I did insist he leave his cat behind. The people guarding us weren’t overtly hostile, so we simply waited. After a while I heard many magical blasts being set off, and then they suddenly stopped. Soon Xaneak returned, charred by lightning and fire alike. As Bazrik healed him, he told us he had been successful!
We went north to the Iron Hills next, where followers of the Rogue live. Xaneak, like many others, seems to think that there is no difference between “stealth” and “subterfuge”, and said it would be up to me to out-do the followers of this god. I live in the shadows as a hunter, not a trickster. Of course, he was right in as much that between the four of us I’m the only one who’d stand so much as a chance; I at least know how to pick pockets and charm locks.
We arrived in a mining town, and were met by a drunk who introduced himself as Angvor. After a great deal of prodding (and me leaving to search on my own, but continuing to listen) he directed us to the owners of the mines. I eventually learned that the six of them were wealthy merchants, but people who tried to speak out in the mines or dissent in any way often disappeared. After hearing that I promised myself I’d hold my tongue while Xaneak spoke with them, and I did although nearly every word that came out of the eldest’s mouth made me want to shoot him then and there.
Our first attempts at conversion failed, and I spent some time skulking through the town. Angvor was “conveniently” everywhere I was, and before long I gathered the others up to speak with him. He tried to continue his drunk act for a while, but after I grabbed hold of his hood and made it clear we wouldn’t let him leave, he dropped it and also told us his real name, Radir. He told us he was the leader of the resistance movement in this town, and explained that one of the brothers masqueraded as “The Grey Fox” and killed miners that dissent. He wanted us to help him find and kill this man, and told us whichever brother had a wolf pelt would be the one who was killing people. I told him we’d help, and we set to work.
I told Bazrik to change his face to pose as a new miner, and start causing trouble. While he garnered a reputation I snuck into the mansion and searched each brother’s room for a pelt. The one who had spoken with us, Lan, had a very nice one. I also found that they were all followers of the Rogue, although none seemed to be particularly blessed by him. In a few days Bazrik started to gain more attention and I switched to trailing him, since we couldn’t use the wolf pelt alone as proof of Lan’s guilt. Finally one night Bazrik was attacked in a forest, but I shot the fucker through the knee before he could hurt him. Tulkas I have missed that feeling of striking down those that deserve it!
Unfortunately, the feeling was short lived. No sooner had Bazrik blindfolded Lan than I heard people panicking in the village, and told Feyren and Bazrik to finish tying Lan up while Xaneak and I investigated. A corpse was in the town square, and I had Alice track the scent of the attacker to the edge of a separate wood. The figure pulled back its hood and it was Radir underneath! My blood boiled, and after my first shot missed he turned into a wolf and fled. Xaneak helped Alice and I give chase, and we quickly pinned him. I had half a mind to tell Alice to crush him where he stood for killing that man, priest or no, especially when he started laughing. I reminded myself repeatedly that this was all only an illusion, but even then it was for the best that reality started to fade to blackness once he took a copy of the book.
We all found ourselves outside another door, and this time it opened as soon as we approached it. Inside was the Pantheon, weak and nearly gaunt. We brought them out with us where we met Eldarian, and hurried back to the central safehouse. Haldir and his prophets met us all there, and everyone wanted to know what had happened. Apparently the Pantheon’s divinity was gone; it had left the moment Andall died. Torm and the rest of the Pantheon got on their knees and begged Eldarian to return their divinity to them, calling him “the creator” and even getting upset when he said that he couldn’t do what they wanted. He was clearly unsettled by the entire ordeal and I can hardly blame him; he told them he wasn’t the creator and hurried to leave.
Xaneak and Torm said some words to one another, but I only heard without listening. Once he and the rest of the Pantheon left I went to find Eldarian, and the others followed. He was still disconcerted but he told us he’d be fine. We all expressed our solidarity, and then he told us something interesting: he couldn’t restore the Pantheon. Their divinity had died when Andall had; without the unity he provided, they were no stronger than mortals like… Us. That’s quite a statement: I’ve become as strong as a god that’s lost their divinity.
I don’t know what to think of that.
Eldarian also told us that he has taken over the divine responsibilities for Gruumsh, Moradin, and now the Pantheon as well in order to keep divine magic on Arda. All of us were shocked and worried when we heard that, and Eldarian confessed that some days it all seems nearly too much. He carries the weight of nearly half the world on his shoulders, in addition to all the other things he must do for the Legion. He constantly hears souls asking him for things, and some days he nearly buckles under the strain of giving them magic and all the other things they need; wants to do nothing more than toss it all away and drown all the sounds out.
And yet, he said there were other days when he was glad for the opportunity. He said he isn’t the creator, but it can see through him, and understand the burdens and needs of both gods and mortals because of it. He said days when he dwells on this fill him with such hope and joy that it makes all the pain worth it.
Hearing him speak I felt bad that he had to bear such a burden, and so did the others—especially Xaneak. But more than pity I felt that Eldarian had grown into such a bright, beautiful, brave man capable and happy at times to take on this task. Even thinking back on it makes my heart swell, knowing my son has such strength.
—That’s strange. I’ve never felt comfortable calling him that until now.
Anyways, I thanked him and hugged him because that’s all there was to do; some things can only be left for gods to manage. I know he’ll find us if he needs anything. We all went our separate ways soon enough, and I headed to the archery range to clear my head after the mission and relax.
While I was practicing, Nightblade appeared and of all things praised my archery. That’s hardly how I expected him to greet me upon returning to the Legion, especially when it seemed I hadn’t gotten any better at hearing or seeing things. I mentioned that to him he said I had improved, but so had he. In fact he had improved more than he had ever thought possible, because Eldarian had done something for him that had allowed him to finally “unlock” the potential in him and improve further. I was happy he was given the chance for that and told him as much, but I can’t say I’d ever want the same for myself.
I also apologized to him, for failing to realize that he would ever want companionship beyond that of a student and teacher. He said it was in the past and not to worry, and I had to marvel at how much lighter he seems now, not unlike Feyren does now. He also said that he’d never particularly liked me as a student, for reasons I didn’t expect.
Essentially, I had listened too well. When he started helping me hone my stealth and perception, those were skills I’d have improved on my own. When he started encouraging me to hold my tongue and speak more guardedly, he had expected and wanted me to do the opposite: to get angry and scream at him for it, not give him empty gestures of respect. The irony is that I had given him those so-called “empty” gestures and held my tongue because I thought he was right, and wanted to show him respect.
In response he told me to stop trying to hold back my brashness, and re-kindle the fieriness he thinks I’ve started to loose ever since coming to the Legion. (It’s always been my true strength.) He told me I shouldn’t allow the world and this war to push me around, and he warned me against making the same mistake he did. I told him I wouldn’t and he gave me the first true smile I’ve ever seen on him before he left, telling me to “keep practicing”.