:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Blackhill Saga, Part Three ::

Part Three - Faith

Karnus’ mind drifted, delirious, through the past, present and future. Scenes swam before him that he recognised from his youth; friends now departed; places never to be visited again. There were visions he didn’t recognise; he stood in starlight on a plane of silver sand; a boy wandering in the dust; Lana’s face, contorted with grief; the meteor, bearing down on him, as inevitable as destiny…

Karnus awoke with a start to find himself lying upon a bed in a dimly lit room. Rising up on his elbows he regarded his surroundings with bewilderment. The cot he lay upon had clean sheets and he noticed he was dressed in a simple white shift. A chest lay in the far corner, his staff propped against it. A single door lead out of the room, and the only window had been boarded up and covered with a rug to keep the dust out.

He sat up fully and was startled to find that he felt… absolutely fine. The burning sensation in his chest was gone, his head felt clear and sharp. He was a touch on the hungry side, but the sickness that had crippled him seemed to have departed. Glancing at his arm he could see that his wound had been bound competently, though it still hurt a great deal. As Karnus swung his legs off the side of the bed the door opened and in walked Anora Pellagi. She smiled to see him up and about, and he returned the smile, glad to see her again.

Anora carried a plate with her and a pitcher of water. She sat the plate down on the bed and sat herself beside the confused wizard, who proceeded to question her.

“How did I get here?”

“Ryndathilar brought you – he says you saved them from an army of shadows.”

As she spoke Anora reached out a hand to feel Karnus’ forehead “Ah, you seem much better now.” Karnus was surprised to find himself relishing the feel of Anora’s palm upon his face. Her touch lingered for just a second longer than needed, and she smiled at his flushing cheeks.

“I feel amazing,” said Karnus, “better than I’ve felt in days.”

“The ash has brought much disease, exacerbated by the befouled food and water – your ailment had advanced very far, and the shadows’ attack all but killed you. You’re very lucky we were able to treat you when we did.”

“How long have I been out?”

“Just a few hours.”

Karnus frowned in confusion. “That’s not possible – I was coughing blood and could barely think – that sort of disease should take weeks to heal.”

Anora smiled and took his injured arm. “This I could not treat yesterday,” she looked up at him, “but this morning…”

Karnus watched, confused, as she unbound the dressing, then laid a kiss upon his arm, near to the ugly bruise that had been left there by the shadow’s touch. Overcome by the excitement of her touch, his concentration slipped, and when he began paying attention again he just caught the end of what Anora had been saying

”… thy loving touch upon this lonely wanderer.” Suddenly, her touch seemed to warm remarkably, a warmth which spread through Karnus’ damaged arm. As he watched the necrotic wound left by the shadow slowly healed, the greyed flesh turning pink and healthy before his eyes. As Karnus looked on in shock, Anora leant in to place another tender kiss on his limb, glancing up at him as she did so.

Karnus recoiled in horror from her, spinning off the bed and coming to his feet with a hand outstretched. From the corner of the room a few feet away the Staff of Hutaaka shot into his palm, the azure light from its eyes leaving visible trails in the air, which hung there visible for a few seconds. Karnus levelled the staff at the cleric, who had not reacted to his sudden hostility; indeed, she sat calmly regarding the wizard with a serene, quizzical expression.

Karnus held her gaze for a second, staff held aloft and ready to strike forth with its power. The energies of the staff continued to accumulate as its eyes glowed brighter and brighter, ready to release its power. Instead of unleashing those energies, Karnus sighed, and lowered his staff. “You play a dangerous game, Anora.”

“This is no game to me, Karnus. I know the risks of coming here, but look around you – how could I stand by and not help these people?”

Karnus padded round the room to stand between the cleric and the door. He still held his staff in his hand, but no longer pointed it at Anora. He gestured towards the door, “If these people only knew what you were they’d tear you to pieces.”

“Not all of them. Some of them have been very interested in the teachings of Valerias. I’ve been in Glantri for a few months now and the suffering of the people,” she shook her head, “they are hurting, Karnus. They need guidance…”

“They have guidance!” cried the befuddled wizard.

“Not the cold sterile words of Rad! They need to know they are loved. And now, in the middle of all this misery, they need that love more than ever before.”

Karnus sighed, “forgive me, I did not intend to react so… fervently. Perhaps this land is beginning to get under my skin.” He shook his head in disbelief and moved to stand before Anora. “But, this… this is insane. I’ve heard of clerical opportunism, but this…”

Anora stood at this latest comment, visibly bridling. “Opportunism? Is it opportunistic to offer people succour when they need it most? Do I take advantage of them when I intervene where their superiors would not? Are they betrayed when I offer them unconditional compassion? I think not.”

Anora turned her back on Karnus. “The wizards of this land have abandoned the people. They do not care if they live or die, so long as their own interests are protected. They do not care for the most precious thing in this entire cold universe – life.”

“Some of us do,” whispered Karnus softly to her back. As she turned Karnus could see the tears in her eyes, tempered by the warm smile that she now wore. He was struck by the fact that one cleric, so reviled in this land, could care more for the people of Blackhill than anyone else he had met. As he stared into her tear filled eyes, Anora returned his intense gaze and stepped forward, embraced him and then kissed him passionately, deeply, in a long slow action that Karnus wished would never end. She released him, smiling, and softly said “I know” before taking his hand and leading him back toward the bed.

Seconds later, the Staff of Hutaaka clattered to the ground. For a second it’s eye’s burned intensely, before fading to a dull azure light.

The next day found Karnus in a fine mood. He arose early and dressed, glad to find that Anora’s assistants had managed to get the worst of the dust out of this clothing. He found the cleric at work amongst her patients, and she greeted him with a warm smile. The two breakfasted together and while they ate, Anora told Karnus of why she had come to Blackhill.

“One night in my dreams, I saw a blighted land – ash choked the air and covered the ground, great black clouds rolled across the sky, blocking the sunlight. Then a shaft of light broke through the cloud, and where it struck the ground, suddenly sprouted a small plant – a vibrant shoot of green amidst the desolation. The shoot grew tall and strong, then, in a moment of triumph, it bloomed into a beautiful red rose.”

“You when the meteor struck…” began the wizard.

“I knew that my place was here. I had a… friend… send me here using a teleportation spell and set about helping the people.”

“Well,” said Karnus, finishing his meal and smiling, “I’m glad you came, even if it is risky. How many people know?”

“I’ve confided in a few of my assistants, and I’ve never lied to any of my patients. Most of them seem to accept my assistance, and those who seem more close-minded we treat using conventional means.”

“What of Ryndathilar?”

“I would imagine he’s placed two and two together, especially after I healed him and his friends yesterday. But he seems an honourable man – I do not think he will betray us.”

Karnus smiled, “I hope not. I intend to go back to Eriadna today to make sure that everything is going okay. Will you come with me?”

Anora shook her head, “Karnus, you know I can’t. Much as I may wish to spend the day with you, my duties require me here. Once we’re on the move, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time for one another.” The cleric smiled cheekily at Karnus.

So after memorising his spells, Karnus strode out into the open air with Anora. Even the atmosphere didn’t seem that bad today – Karnus could have sworn that the dust wasn’t quite as pervasive, and the dull rain had turned into snow. He decided to risk a flight spell, and soared into the air, turning once to wave back at Anora before shooting off in the direction of Eriadna.

It took Karnus only a half hour to fly the distance to the capital of Blackhill. He was invigorated by Anora’s healing, feeling better than he had done in days, and was more than able to control his flight spell. Descending through the thick, heavy snow he set down at the very limits of the city.

As he landed, he thought he saw for a moment the outline of a figure through the snow. He cleared his throat and called out, but there came no reply. Setting out after the apparition, he found the remains of a small wooden outbuilding, left mostly intact and with its door ajar, a light coming from inside. He stepped in and found a man sitting by a small fire, his gaunt features hidden behind a long, ragged beard, wearing a rough hairshirt and clutching a wooden staff. As Karnus entered the vagrant glared up at the wizard with piercing blue eyes, and Karnus found something hauntingly familiar in his handsome, noble features.

The man stared deep into Karnus’ eyes and the wizard was left with the uncomfortable impression that he was not so much looking at Karnus as into him. When he spoke it was in a deep but soft, sad voice.

"Why is it Monsieur that I have the terrible feeling that this is all my fool brother's fault?"

The stranger got to his feet and loomed over Karnus, who caught a glimpse of something that the other wore around his neck and hidden under his shirt.

"I think that no mortal can take the blame for this catastrophe, sir,” replied Karnus cautiously, “even the Empress of Alphatia could not have perpetrated this... atrocity..."

"I do not mean directly responsible as such - more that he has brought this upon us through his ambition and arrogance."

The man extends his hand to you. "I am Simon d'Ambreville,” he said, with a pregnant pause before announcing his surname.

Karnus' eyes momentarily widened as he shook the proffered hand, and he nodded his head to disguise his surprise "Karnus Perdissium. I'd say it's a pleasure to meet you, but the circumstances are hardly pleasurable." He gestures to a spot by the fire. "May I sit? I find myself wearied by the journey..."

Simon nodded his assent, and Karnus sank to the ground by the fire. He took a swig of this water then offered it to d’Ambreville. "This brother you speak of - I assume it's Prince Etienne?"

"Oui, c'est vrai. Etienne is my brother." Simon waved away the offer of water. "You are kind Monsieur but I do not need it. I would welcome your company for a short time however. It has been some time since I have had human contact. Tell me what has brought you to this desolation."

Karnus took another swig of the water and smiled wryly; "Madness?" He laughed brightly at his own wit...

"No, I was... far away when I heard about the meteor, “he began. “I don't know why, but I felt... responsible somehow, as if I could have prevented it by doing something different, by just being at the right place at the right time. Maybe all it would have taken would have been one well placed word, whispered in the right ear..."

He heaved a sigh, "but, wherever the right place was, I wasn't there. I was off, gallivanting round the world. So the only thing I can do is try to deal with the aftermath, try to save a few lives. To be honest, it feels futile. How many can be saved? A few hundred? Weigh that against all that's been lost - not just the people, but the culture, the art, the learning. All gone, and all I can do is try to save a few hundred people...it seems almost pointless..."

Karnus sighed again and took another swig of water, before putting the bottle away, "so, I've been in Eriadna, trying to impose some order on the chaos - digging people out, organising search parties, that sort of thing. I think we need to leave here soon," he coughed, "it won't be safe to live here for months to come."

Looking to Simon, Karnus added, "I don't mean to presume, but you're welcome to join our group before we leave - the more of us stick together the more likely we are to make it..."

There was not a trace of a smile on Simon d'Ambreville's careworn features. "You do not know of me do you? You do not fear me."

Before Karnus could answer he said; "I have known madness and indeed it is not madness that has brought you here though many in this nation might question the sanity of one who demonstrates conscience and compassion for his fellow man. These are not traits that will advance you in Glantri but then you are not Glantrian are you? We are alike you and I. I know what it is to feel guilt for things beyond your power. I know what it is to feel that whatever good you try to do is futile."

He looked pained as if reliving bad memories.

"But it is not. A strong will can make a difference in this world. You should believe in yourself. You have considerable power mon ami for one who has lived not yet thirty years although you should be wary of attempting to oppose Order on Chaos. Chaos is strong in Glantri and will grow stronger. Be strong yourself and you can lead these people out of darkness. The question is where will you lead them?"

Karnus lowered his gaze. "That, I have not yet decided. If I lead them to the capital most will be condemned to a life in the beggar's court. If I bring them to a ruler, they will think me mad for foisting these people upon them. I do not have the means to support the number of people left alive, and I doubt they will integrate anywhere, given their... background..."

He stood and paced as best he could in the small space. "I had thought that the elves may be less prejudiced against them, but Erewan has it's own problems, and the Belcadiz are not known for their generosity. Some of the people have skills, abilities, but most are likely to be a liability rather than an asset, at least in the short term... You know this land better than I. Have you any suggestions?"

"I have long been removed from the petty differences and infighting between the Glantrian nobility and their subjects. I cannot tell you where the survivors of Blackhill may find welcome. It is something you must determine. The Elves of Erewan may be a good choice. They are for the mostpart a gentle people and Princess Carlotina is merciful. Perhaps Braastar. The Ethengarians know what it is to be shunned by others and are more welcoming of different cultures than most within Glantri. One thing is clear. You are leading farmers and townsfolk. They are used to civilization and will struggle in the Glantrian wilderness or anywhere they cannot raise horses and cattle in their accustomed fashion. Remember that winter will soon be here."

"I am heartened that, although of Thyatian blood, you are taking it upon yourself to aid those of Alphatian descent. Perhaps there is hope for this land. I wish you well. It is interesting how history has a way of repeating itself."

Karnus nodded. "What little I can do, shall be done. I will think upon your advice - the Ethengarian option had not occurred to me but I see the logic of it.” He shifted his position and continued, “you said earlier that you feared this catastrophe could be traced back to your brother's defiance. Has Prince Etienne's boldness towards the Alphatians been so ill advised? Was it not they that declared war?"

"I was not speaking of his defiance of the Alphatians." He paused again.

"My exile has been long and painful but it is clear that it is coming to an end. The time is not right yet but Glantri will be ready for me soon and I shall return. If you should encounter my brother tell him that he shall have need of me. For all his power and pride he shall invite me home. Tell him I shall come and it shall be without fear. Until then I shall watch over this wasteland."

"Exile?" Karnus was startled, "you'll excuse my ignorance - I find matters concerning your family difficult to follow, but I had not realised anyone had been exiled...You implied earlier that I should fear you. Should I?" The wizard tightened his grip on the Staff of Hutaaka.

For the first time something like a smile briefly flickered across Simon d'Ambreville's stoney face.

"You have nothing to fear from me and you are not the only one who finds my family difficult to follow. It occurs to me that the message I have given you may be met with anger or disbelief. If so, tell Etienne you have seen this..."

The tall man pulled open his shirt to reveal the ornament he wore around his neck - a tree carved from stone. Karnus regarded the small amulet with a raised eyebrow, and slowly panned his gaze upward to look into Simon's eyes. "The holy symbol of Razud? You'll excuse me if I fail to see how such an item would assuage Prince Etienne's wrath..."

Simon seemed surprised that Karnus recognised the symbol. The wizard pointedly relaxed his grip on his staff. "If I logically conclude that you follow the teachings of Razud, it would lead me to question what your motives are here."

"It will divert Etienne's wrath from you and that is my sole concern. He can be as angry with me as he likes - it will not change the truth of my message. I have no fear. My purpose is strong. I have done great evils for which I must atone. Through Razud's guidance were the Flaems saved from annihilation once before and if they have the will so may it be again with their new nation and all its peoples. I will be waiting. When Glantri is ready I will come. For now, bring the sick and the dying to me that they may be relieved of their ills."

He drew himself to his full height, towering over the yet seated mage. "Or is there after all too much Glantri in you for you to accept my aid? Will you declare me a heretic, an enemy to be destroyed? I hope not but you must choose now!"

Karnus maintained his gaze on Simon, “I do not see an enemy before me. I may have an issue with your choice of career, but your patron is one that I respect. Regardless, this is neither the place nor time for a philosophical debate. If you say you are here to help people, I believe you, and if that is the case, then we share a goal.”

Karnus stood up. “There are many things I admire about this land, but its prejudices are not one of them. Though I may not understand your obeisance to another being, I can at least respect your choice.”

“Besides,” he added almost to himself, “once you’ve met one cleric incognito, the others are less startling…” Simon raised an eyebrow, but before he could interrupt Karnus continued, “but tell me, do the wills of Rad and Razud not share a common path? Why would one patron of magic work against the other?”

"You are correct - this is not the time for a lengthy discussion. Although I am impressed that you recognise the symbol of Razud I am puzzled that you think of him foremost as a patron of magic. I suppose it is how most Alphatians view him but in truth it is but one small aspect. However, I will not lecture but rather answer your question. You say that Rad and Razud are opposed. I do not truly see the Shepherds of Rad as my opponents. Etienne invented Rad and all the philosophies that the temples promote. When our family first arrived in Braejr we made friends amongst the Flaems. I became fascinated by the Flaemish history and culture, discovering the Temple of Razud - an ancient order that had existed for millenia prior to the Flaems arrival in this world but had been all but forgotten by them in the centuries since they settled here. This is ironic as it was the will of Razud that guided them to this land but I shall return to the point - I did not intend to give you a sermon. Etienne regarded my newfound calling with amusement but little else. However, in later years it served his own interests to take many of the teachings of Razud, emphasise some aspects and downplay others before combining them with old Flaemish legends and more recent rumours concerning magical forces at work in this land to create what has become the official Glantrian philosophy. There is much common ground I share with the Shepherds - a respect for wizardry, the pursuit of knowledge, the search for answers within oneself and the promotion of self-sufficiency. All these things Etienne has adapted from the teachings of the Temple of Razud. Even the name he chose ....."

"I intend to help the people of Glantri regardless of the laws of the Wizard-Princes. I believe Razud will support me in this. I believe also that it is only the fact that the vast majority of His followers in this world are Alphatian that has in any way set him against belief in the Light of Rad. He is not a jealous being. He does not demand worship or push others to act against their own will. Alphatian clerics may invoke His name in support of the Empire but I am not on a crusade. If however I can remind the Flaems of His wisdom and bring others to follow Him I will do so."

Karnus crinkled his brow in thought for a moment, mulling over all that the cleric had said, then suddenly looked up at Simon. “Then… it’s true. Etienne D’Ambreville is Rad.” He laughed out loud, “this land, so paranoid of the immortals, is ruled by one of their number.” Karnus shook his head in disbelief. “I had speculated that your brother was an avatar of the immortal Rad, but from what you say he became Rad after arriving here from… well, wherever it is your people come from…”

The mask of righteous certainty that had built up over Simon's face suddenly cracked and his expression became a mixture of shock, confusion and doubt, making him look more troubled than ever.

"Quoi? Non! I did not mean... You think... Why?"

He breathed in deeply and composed himself.

"I did not mean to imply Etienne is Immortal. He is Rad in a metaphorical sense I suppose but I only meant that Rad, whether as an impersonal force like the Shepherds teach or as an actual Immortal as you seem to believe, is a fabrication, an idea to unite this divided nation and keep the 'mundaners' in line. But you ... you think that Etienne has become Immortal and taken the name Rad as his 'nom de guerre'! That is quite a theory mon ami! And yet ... and yet what you say is not impossible - that I must admit. Incredible yes, but not impossible. His ambition has always been unquenchable."

"Even his death .... but then did he really die? And if not .... what then was the Land of Mists? And if what you say is true and he has set up temples to glorify his own name whilst perpetuating the old Flaemish invectives against clericism ... that goes far beyond the vanity and political opportunism of a mortal wizard. Mortal follies can be forgiven but that would be a betrayal like no other. Even the darkest of Immortals have not succeeded in depriving a nation of the blessings of the Immortals as Etienne has done."

"I find myself unable to accept what you are suggesting but I am also unable to ignore that it would explain much. I cannot believe I am even entertaining the notion but I will seek the guidance of Razud. Before I go however I will heal the sick and injured as was my intention. Bring the worst afflicted to me that Razud might grant them relief from their suffering."

Karnus frowned, "perhaps you're right - the facts support alternative conclusions, and, upon reflection, I have no evidence to support my particularly radical hypothesis."

He straightened up "I will bring the wounded and infirm to you if I find them, though the people of this land may find the thought of a cleric more terrifying than the thought of death..."

Simon tucked the symbol of Razud back beneath his shirt.

"I hope in time that the attitudes of Glantri will change, though you would think after more than two and a half centuries I would have given up such foolish dreams. But I came here to help not to take advantage of the suffering and attempt to convert these people. There is no need for them to know who I am."

He laid his hand upon a rock and invoking Razud's name called forth a spring of fresh water.

"Fill your flask. We can pretend I am a wizard or alchemist with potions of healing. I have a light spell I can cast on the flask. That ought to make it seem suitably magical. I need only touch the injured briefly to heal them. They need not know from where that healing comes."

Karnus was satisfied with the plan, and shortly thereafter headed into Eriadna to fetch back the sickest amongst those whom the Shepherds had been caring for. Simon spent the afternoon healing the wounded under Karnus’ watchful eye, and by the time night fell over the ravaged city the cleric had healed many people and bolstered their supplies of food and water.

As the last of the recently healed moved back into the city, Simon came to stand beside Karnus.

"You have given me much to think on Karnus Perdissium. I have a feeling that this day has changed the direction of both our lives. I pray that we meet again but I will not seek you out for it would be too dangerous for both of us. If you wish to speak with me again, return to the ruins of Eriadna on the night of the Necromantia. I will be waiting. One last thing - beware of Etienne for one thing is certain - he is the most powerful wizard in the Known World and the rules he plays by are his own."

With that final warning the cleric spoke a single word, and vanished, leaving the wizard alone and suddenly afraid on the outskirts of the dead city.

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