Sayd held the child close to his chest as their horses walked grimly through the mud, in the falling rain, shielding it with his magic. A bolt of lightning shot across the sky on the western horizon, followed seconds later by the rolling crash of thunder. The night was as terrible as the Black Cats’ mood.
The dark held no secrets for his demonic vision, however. He looked back behind him, over the companions in his wake, and forced a smile as Yelenya caught his eye. Elissa, soaked to the bone and terrified, was leading the blind Kaede; Yelenya was in her own world of wrath, no doubt plotting revenge; Miles Bandy followed along, hollow eyed, and Teret, riding a borrowed nag Obediah had liberated, looked a broken man, his eyes downcast.
They had wanted to burn the farm to the ground, but he didn’t let them. A cool hand was required in a dangerous situation, and despite his reputation as a hothead, his time as Prince had taught him to temper his baser instincts for revenge. This was a matter for the priests to decide. Still, he could hardly recall a time when, despite apparent victory, his friends had seemed more demoralized.
He sat at the head of the table as they waited for Vagda, the last council member to arrive to this midnight session. To their credit, none of the council members complained about being woken from their slumber at such a late hour, or in the case of Edgrin, dragged from their dance hall. Grim faces echoed the concern that he and the others could do little to hide.
Sayd sat silently, thoughtfully, while the blind Kaede, with input from Yelenya and Teret, filled in the council on the precarious situation in which their nascent country now stood: a cult of the Hag Goddess Gyronna, hundreds of years old, stalked these lands, and had taken root in Foundling’s Reach right under their noses. A curse that could only be ended with the sacrifice of a male ruler plagued their town. Babies were being swapped out for hag children. All eyes turned to the rescued child, now asleep in Elissa’s arms, as this point was driven home.
Then the strategizing began. Should the public be warned, or should this secret be kept quiet until it could be handled. Could an outside force be aiding this cult, was it part of a broader conflict, could the Queen of Whispers be behind it?
Oleg, hesitantly, offered “If it had been little Yellie who was taken—by that monster, Kedrova…I don’t know what I would do. But still, if word of this spreads, it will hurt our growth. Who wants to move to, or trade with, a Gods-cursed town?”
At this, Sayd held up his hand, calling for silence. So far, he had not spoken.
“This is not a question of economics,” he said, at length, apparently choosing his words carefully.
He paused for a long time, though his face clearly indicated he was framing his thoughts. Edgrin looked like he might sneak a thought in, but he held his tongue. Finally, Sayd continued.
“I grew up in the Ankar-Te, in Kaer Maga, the City of Strangers. I scrambled down the streets with liches, beholders, gnolls, blood mages and thieves of every stripe and description. In a place like that, these cultists wouldn’t make one bat an eye.”
He stood up, circling behind his seat to put his hands on the top of the chair-back, and stared down at his council. “I am a creature of dark magic, born from the Midnight Isles, if the priests can be believed. I was carried to Varisia from the desert lands, far to the south. I grew strong in a place of adversity, of impossibly cosmopolitan strife, where nothing is held sacred, and everything is for sale. I have fought in wars, I have traded secrets, ended countless lives, most deserving, and so much more, in the name of conflict, fame and treasure. When I pressed for command of the Black Cats, I wanted nothing more than to carve our mark on these lands and make us all fabulously rich. I mean truly, that was my goal for us: power, celebrity and massive wealth. I have always felt that tradition was foolish, that nothing was to be taken for true, that by expanding our minds, our awareness, our tolerance and our willingness to learn, we would all grow stronger. That was the lesson of my homeland. That has been the true compass of my life.”
He gazed around from one person to another, searching their faces for recognition. “You are asking yourselves what this has to do with out current predicament, I have no doubt. Well, I assure you, it has everything to do with it. Because this—” he said, gesturing around at the room, and the town beyond the windows. “This is not Kaer Maga. And that’s the point. People grow, and change, and learn truths, based on their environment. In Kaer Maga, to hold something sacred is to court weakness, because there is no constancy there, and the thing you choose to love is just a commodity to someone else. Opening yourself to caring, to thinking in moral terms, will just break your heart. It will shatter it.”
Sayd looked down, momentarily, before continuing, his voice certain. “We all brought our baggage with us here, to this place, didn’t we? Kaede runs our projects, lays plans and keeps books with the sagacity of a Tienese minister. Teret trains our men as he was once trained, passing on knowledge and discipline. We apply our wisdom, our resources, our backgrounds, to the work at hand, don’t we? Only, not all our wisdom is equal.”
Waving down Elissa’s raised hand, like something one would see from a school child, Sayd continued “I dreamed of creating a land of equality, where people like me, like many of us, would not be judged for how we look, for the circumstances of our birth, for our creed, but would tolerate and accept new things. Such was the reality of my homeland, and as I have fought across the world for all these years, I often sorely missed it, when Yelenya and I were judged. Absalom was the only city we visited, outside the breadth of Varisia’s city-states, where we felt anywhere near as welcome. Many of you know that I honor all the gods, that I am a man of faith and mysticism. Desna is the patron goddess of my homeland, and she has always held a close place in my heart, beside Calistria, who teaches us to respond a thousand fold to the merest slight, and Nethys, who cares only for the power of magic. These are the ones I most often prayed to.”
“That was the man you met in Restov, three years or more ago, now. Quick to anger, caring only for the thrill of conflict and the comforts of wine and pleasure houses. Eager to match wits with death, perhaps too eager…”
Sayd’s smiled softly at this. “We walked these lands together, every day charting our progress on maps, filling in details. I, who had seen much, saw things in the Narlmarch that were new to me. I had been away from society before, on expeditions, but never for so long. I came to appreciate the long silences, the quiet marches, the riot of colors in the autumn, the endless plans of snow in the winter. And there was something different about this place, I am sure of it, for all of us. We had to rely on a very fragile lifeline, represented by Oleg’s outpost. After protecting it from the Stag Lord, many of you began to think of the people there as your friends, and perhaps more. Yelenya and Svetlana took to each other as only two Varisians far from home can do. Teret befriended the Free Irregulars. Wally took to the other locals, Elissa met Kalkamedes, and when we discovered Hollow, you made that many more friends. But not me.”
“I confess that I never trusted or revered a single soul we met except Baba Magori, and Josef, who was an outsider like us. I practically called Jhod a spy for the Stag Lord; I converted Woodrow and Akiros to our side because it was strategically sound; I held a grudge against Oleg for trying to out-negotiate us for a very long time. I was angry at Elissa for leaving. I despised our enemies and had no problem eradicating them, showing not an iota of sympathy for breaking my word when I did. I do not regret any of those things because I believed I was doing right by my friends, and because I kept us alive, and led us to victory. But things have changed.”
At Sayd’s self-indicting words, reactions from knowing smiles to frustrated groans to bitter looks to empathetic understanding crossed the faces in the room. He appeared completely indifferent to the reception, clearly intent on his message.
“What have we accomplished here, with our emphasis on control, with our focus on constant trade, on growth, on commerce. Do you know I actually was upset at how many halflings have flocked to our lands? Rather than think, here are people who want to be part of something, I asked myself, why have dwarves not answered the call? We need masons. We need miners. I asked myself, why is this society not growing as I command it? Why do the people listen to charlatans? Do they not see everything we’re doing for them, to protect them?”
He laughed then, a rueful sound. “How blind I was. How fucking blind.”
Sayd walked slowly around the table, stopping behind Woodrow’s chair, and placed his hands uncomfortably on the Asmodean priest’s shoulders. “What do we think Woodrow wants? So many of you have feared his motives, I’m sure. After all, he worships the Prince of Darkness, doesn’t he? But he is just a person, like all of us. I imagine wants the same thing as many of us, power and authority, to shape his own destiny, and this town’s. This kingdom’s. Despite our very different philosophies, Woodrow and I are friends. He’s very valuable to me.”
“Thank you, my prince” the priest offered at Sayd’s pause, his face clearly unsure of whether a dagger might be suddenly jammed in his throat. Yelenya looked on curiously, trying to deduce what Sayd was up to.
He continued stalking around the table, speaking as he passed each chair. “Kalkamedes and Elissa want a peaceful place where they can raise a family, and no one ever goes hungry. Vagda wants the principles of Torag and the noble traditions of the dwarves to have a place here. Everyone has their own vision. I’ll tell you what I want,” he said, stopping back by his own chair.
“I want a land of peace, a land of plenty, where the people are happy and content and can go about their lives, living and growing old without fear of the dark and horrible things of this world, and where I can settle down, after a long life of war, and create something beautiful, and watch it grow, and build a family. Because here is the reality, for those of you too young to have learned it on your own: the world is a dangerous place, and although I may romanticize the philosophical cosmopolitanism of Kaer Maga, the fact is that that place was a death-haven where the weak and the innocent and the good were driven under the heels of the strong and the devious. I grew up an orphan—”
He paused then, sudden emotion flashing across his face and rising in his voice, before it subsided. “I was raised in a stone alley hell, and it did nothing but make me callous, and cold, and controlling, and quick to wrath. I don’t fight fair and I don’t show mercy. And that’s fine. That’s who I am. The world needs killers like Yelenya and me, because there are bad things in the dark. But she—” he said, gesturing at the child asleep in Elissa’s arms. “All of them, they deserve to be safe in their beds at night, don’t they? They deserve that. I want to give them that. Not to atone, or anything. The gods know me well. I have no doubt they will welcome me into Heaven when my hour comes. This isn’t about atonement. It’s about what’s right.”
“Think about that for a minute. What is right? What kind of society did we want, and what have we built after two years? I see a town a land that we labor on ceaselessly, trying to position ourselves for the best trade opportunities, because that fills our coffers and allows us to expand even more. We worry about the kobolds: will they seize more territory than we want them to? Will they ally with the trolls. We have juggle the needs of our neighbors, and all of it is to the end of growth, expansion and wealth. It makes sense, right? A wealthy society is a happy society, right?”
In a sudden motion the shocked everyone, Sayd slammed his hand down on the table, hard enough to splinter the wood. “WRONG!” he shouted, anger showing on his face.
He chuckled then, calming down, and brushed the bangs away from his beautiful features. “We have labored to create a society of strong infrastructure and very intelligent planning, where none of the people are of a mind. Our citizens endeavor to create new trade opportunities, farm the land, work the mines and the rivers, trying to make coin and something of themselves, but nobody believes in us or in this town. They are all, individually, in it for themselves, although I suppose to an extent, the halfling population can be said to be in it together. There is no loyalty to this council, this town. We’ve created economic opportunities, the people have flocked to it, but they don’t have anything resembling a common purpose. Now, this is no one’s fault—we made a choice, to foster the economy and growth, rather than looking after the spiritual and philosophical needs of the people. But what has it given us? A budding town where a single—” he said, raising one finger, “a single dissenting voice, granted, that of a bard who specializes in turmoil, but a single dissenting voice could wreak chaos among the population. A budding town where we do nothing to care for the women wronged by their men and by society, and the cult of Gyronna has now taken root. I will follow this path no longer. From now on, my sole purpose is to frame and shape the development of our society along moral and philosophical grounds, to create a bastion of communal ties in our town, the outlying farms, and the kingdom.”
Oleg raised his hand, saying, hesitantly “But what does that have to do with this cult, again?”
Sayd nodded, listening, and then continued. “It has everything to do with the cult. I will tell you what we all know to be true, now: the cult of Gyronna has existed in these lands for centuries, poisoning the earth, spreading their hatreds, fanning discontent. You can ignore it, if you want; you can ignore that our castle is being built on the site of an old monastery to Gyronna, that we have heard rumors of the Tiger Lords to the north welcoming her champion into their fold. SHE IS PART OF THIS, ok? If there were a priestess of Pharasma or Desna here with us now, she would read the threads of prophecy and confirm it. We are beset, in these lands, by old fates, old lies, and weaknesses between our plane and the First World. These are real dangers we face. This hag coven is out there, plotting our destruction, and they are whispering in the ears of the Troll King. They would have turned the kobolds against us had I not been there to shore up our alliance! The Queen of Whispers and the Duchess of Hoarfrost claim these lands as their own. Agents of the Surtovas and the Drelevs try to weaken us. The Empire of Cheliax and many others have no love for our anti-slavery laws and our protection of halflings. Open your eyes. We are walking a razor’s edge, and this cult is evidence of how we are going it alone.”
“We have slept at the temple of Erastil, and drank from his pool; we have shaded ourselves in the shadow of his statue, many of us. Did you not feel peace? We have seen the Grim White Stag, not in passing, but he came to us and taught us how to bind ourselves to the forest. I have drawn plenty of attention from the gods in my career, or it has felt like it, but never have I seen so powerful a sign. When we first came to these lands, I began praying to Erastil, along with many other gods I worship. I could tell he had a special place here, but as we explored the Narlmarch, it became apparent how special. Old Deadeye is in these lands. He is watching them. He sent his servant to aid us. He wants this town to flourish. He is protecting us, that’s what he does, and I’ll be damned if we will not repay him for it. And I will say it before you all: the God of Hunters is my patron now. I prayed to him before we faced the Stag Lord, because of the desecration of his symbols I saw there, and he delivered us; I prayed to him when we faced the minions of Gyronna, and he delivered us. If the Hag Queen exists to cause strife between women and men, Erastil does the opposite. He teaches that families and communities must be strong, and that tradition and seniority have power. I am the Elder, here. I am the father of this kingdom. The flaws in our society are down to my lack of social leadership, and that ends now.”
“We will crush this cult of Gyronna, but not without addressing the underlying problem, which is that women are being mistreated by some in our town and our farms. We will take whatever steps we must to ensure that families stay together, that no women is cast out by her peers, and that men who galavant about causing pain are ridiculed for it as faithless and worthless.”
“In short, we need an ally more powerful than Gyronna, more powerful than the Queen of Whispers, and my heart tells me that Erastil, the hunter god who watches over us in the deep wilds, is that ally. He has revealed secrets to me. I have seen them, walking the wilds, alone, in the cries of the birds and the turning of the seasons. They say that Erastil gave the first bow to man, and taught him how to follow and slay his quarry, that we did not starve, but instead grew strong. In the cities and metropolises of the world, people only care about image, about prominence, about status. These things are all as illusory as a figment I could conjure.”
Sayd resumed his seat, the chair scraping over the wood. “All that matters in life is power. But how do we use it? I am weary of endless war and bloodshed in the name of gold and platinum. I will bend my energy to making Glamorfell a bastion of Erastil’s power, that the God of Hunters may protect us from the supernatural evil that has tainted this land. No more or less than that. I ate the Apple of Discord, and it changed me. You have all seen it. The wilds are in me, now, too, and I can no more escape it than I can escape death. I choose to embrace it instead, and in so doing, find us victory.”
“Now let us discuss how this will be so.”