Time ticked by, the sun was still hovering low over the Eastmost bluff. It shone through the unshuttered, open air windows glinting off of the viscera coating the bell tower floor.
Silah, now in human form, inspected the twisted and torn bodies that had fallen. She was considering the scene, her eyes afire.
"Kols' throne had been weak for a time. His influence waning." She looked to me, "How long did you say that I was in that mine?"
I glanced up, feeling distant. As my rage had faded, a bone-deep fatigue had swept in to replace it. The horrors we had just encountered made me yet more weary of the world I found myself in. I looked at Silah blankly, eventually recalling her words fresh from my memory.
"Nearly fifty years?" I said, absently.
She tapped her lips, musing. She was seemed unaffected by what lay around her. Perhaps she looked on the dead as simply casualties for a greater cause. It tore at my confidence, my trust and reliance in her. It was hard to shake the feeling that I may be yet another pawn in this game.
"If Kols' throne has fallen then there are other thrones currently at risk." She motioned to the bodies on the floor, "These. They would have come from Hod or from Gevurah. The last I fought them was nearly two hundred years ago, if what you are saying is correct."
If it hadn't been clear before now, this was her war; her intensity and knowledge were proof of that. Unfortunately, everything she was saying was so far beyond me. I could hardly begin to fathom what we had just gotten involved in. The others seemed to have more of an inkling about what she had mentioned, but seemed equally distant or, perhaps, lost.
She looked around the group and grimaced, seeing how listless the rest of us were.
"Do we know of any other active temples?" Sig finally said, filling the silence. "Maybe we could send word to them?"
I shrugged. I didn't recall Materune having a Temple for Kols. That was the last major city I had visited. Of course, I wasn't looking for an order to join. Seeking out another thing to be beholden to after my time in the 10 Years War. I had been under enough authoritative thumbs to make resent yet another set of rules to follow.
From what I could tell, the rest of us hadn't spent any time outside of either Hlofreden or Dowry. Suddenly, I was very small in a very large world and the boundaries of that world had just been shattered.
Danin was looking quietly out the opened shutters toward the East. His eyes were distant. These twisted horrors wore the flesh of his fallen kinsman. And, if what Silah said was true, the God Kols, had likely fallen with these final few dedicated souls.
Among the other remains, there was a pile of personal items piles on the floor, stripped from the priests and clerics of the order before they were infested and hung in these cocoons. I shuddered, wondering if they were aware of what happened to them or if they were dead before their bodies were used as hosts for these parasites.
"I'm going to light the lights. They may not be here, but we can still fulfill their duty." Danin said somberly.
He moved through the bell tower, standing the fueled lantern that had remained lit for the ages before now. Before it had been consumed by the darkness. Rana joined him in his efforts. All of this had happened less than a week ago, just after the break in when Erland retrieved those supplies.
Floki combed through the personal items. Sig pointed out a few things that he saw that were especially valuable. Bromm looked on, with a pained look on his face, watching the collection. The look persisted as he turned and made for the stairway down.
"There was a slate board downstairs," Silah said quietly, the heaviness of the group weighing down her own fervor. "We should talk about what you've seen here. When you're ready, of course."
After Danin and Rana has set up the lantern and lit it and Floki and Sig had retrieved the valuables. Floki rang the bell with the bell pull. A booming, somber tone rang out, you could hear the echo roll through the city streets and, eventually, off of the distant bluffs that encased Hlofreden.
We moved to the basement and faced the slate board. Silah looked at the roughly drawn plan to defend the basement. She picked up the rag to wipe it clear the markings then waited a moment, staring at the board. They must not have had a chance to act. There was a grisly reminder of their failure at the distant rear of the room. Eight doors smashed in. They barricaded themselves and their own defenses, the bars on all of the windows, worked against them as they listened to each one of their own as they were beaten and dragged off screaming to their fates.
I let loose a shuddering sigh with the thought.
Silah wiped away the marks quietly, turned, and then waited. Our collective sense of urgency to tell someone about the temple had dwindled as the realization came that the damage was already done.
"Tell me about the mine, specifically the portal." Silah asked of everyone, "Hakaar … showed me what he saw, but I want to know what all of you saw in there."
The distant Bromm focused in on Silah. It was he and I that conspired to step through the portal initially.
"Hakaar and I tested the portal and I went through with a rope tied to my waist. Hakaar held me from the other side." Bromm said.
Sig was in the background, shaking his head. He thought it was foolish then, and he obviously thought it was still foolish now. Counter to his response, was the slightly devious smile from Silah and her eyes sparkled, looking between Bromm and I.
"Then, what did you see?" Silah's demeanor faded back to business as her eyes pierced Bromm with the question.
"There were many doors. All of them solid rock. There was a mural at the far end of the room." Bromm shrugged, "A man on a throne with people around him."
"Do you know the significance of the mural?"
Bromm shook his head. His weariness was catching up with him and started to withdraw again.
Silah looked to the others.
"Flicky, you were there, too."
Floki's eyebrows dropped into a deep furrow and he looked at her with an awkward mix of offense and incredulousness.
"Weren't you?" Silah asked, pressing past his resistance, not understanding the reason for Floki's expression.
He slowly nodded.
"I didn't go in there for long. When the light showed up and that … creature started hovering toward us, I was out." Floki looked to the rest of us.
She nodded and looked to Sig.
"You saw it, too." She asked.
He nodded to her.
"I had to push these two fools back through the portal. They froze and just stared at it." Sig glanced at us with a frown.
I felt sheepish. I may have unintentionally forgotten to mention that to Silah in my recounting.
Silah glanced at Bromm and I again.
"It's a good thing, too." She said, then added with a wistful tone, "On many levels."
She tipped her head back, voice strong again, "These emissaries have that effect on people. One touch and they can destroy your mind. I believe we are talking about an emissary of Gevurah. He, or it, shared the throne with Kols."
She turned to the newly cleaned slate board and began to draw circles in three columns.
"I use the word share loosely." Silah said, as she continued to scratch out a diagram.
Her hand moved precisely, creating perfect circles and interconnecting them with perfectly straight lines. Her unnatural precision was both fascinating and unnerving.
"Each throne is a place where a balance of power is required. It isn't necessarily a balance of good versus evil, but a balance of those who would protect versus those who would consume this world. This level of existence, plane if you will, was once wholly controlled by the Formless." She was able to divide her focus easily, continuing the conversation while drawing.
"Have any of you heard this?" She said, still facing the slate and completing the drawing.
I could see the others wanting to say something, but they looked to each other wanting someone else to take the lead. She turned back and saw the same trepidation.
"You've heard something about the Formless, at least?" As she said it, there were nods around.
She looked annoyed. I was lost. All of this talk was so alien to me, it was frustrating. I vowed to learn more about this.
"Fine. Let's see what you know." Her annoyance made her eyes especially piercing as she looked to the group. "What do you know of the Planes?"
Bromm quietly looked to Rana first, who returned a befuddled look. It was a strange exchange, but then I realized he wasn't comfortable with that question with her in the room. But then he took a deep breath, forging on.
"We went to the island to find an old friend of ours. Someone we lost a very long time ago. We thought her lost forever to us, perhaps dead." His eyes were on Silah, now. His voice was intense as he delved into memory. "We had visited Sidhe Lara as kids. A joyride to the forbidden island using Beidrick's father's boat. We didn't even make it further than the beach. We fled, not realizing that Keela had been left behind."
His eyes glistened, but he did not tear up.
Bromm continued, "Beidrick received a box a couple of months ago. We assumed it was from Keela, though we weren't sure. Bad things happened that night. The dead rose from the waters and attacked Hlofreden. We fought them back, but needed to know why. If it was Keela. I needed to know."
Rana's expression had swung a wide range from rage to sadness at the recounting. She held her tongue, admirably, even with the questions that lingered in her eyes.
“We took Beidrick’s boat—the same boat, even, that he had eventually inherited—and made sail to Sidhe Lara again, wiser, more prepared. At least, that’s what we had told ourselves. It was there that we discovered a large tree surrounded by stones with glowing runes etched into them.” He nodded to me, “A lot like those pillars where we encountered the Orcs and helped Rana and the old rancher.”
Mention of that day brought up my own awkward memories. I looked to Silah who was still listening intently, focused on Bromm. My mouth pulled into a thin line at the recollection wondering if she had moved on from the painful experience of learning to work with each other after our initial bonding.
"Our friend, Raenir, and Danin determined the nature of the tree. Raenir knew more about it than all of us through his studies, but what we discovered through that tree was beyond any of us." Bromm seemed to touch on a difficult part of his story and looked to the floor.
"I was the one who went through first." Danin, nodded.
"And what did you see?" Silah asked Danin, eyes narrowed, a slight smile touched her lips. I could only assume that she was appreciating everyone's sense of adventure.
Danin seemed to have trouble voicing things as succinctly as he'd like. Sig put his hand in his backpack and easily withdrew a small set of bound pages from his backpack. He began to thumb through it.
"Each symbol led to a different plane." His eyes sped over his written words, "A place of bones. Creatures without skin nor flesh. The tree sits in a warrens of tunnels burrowing in different directions."
He held the notebook up to show the symbol that corresponded to the description. He flipped through a few pages then continued.
"A place of a great battle, the tree sits deep in an embankment, with pennants lining the risen edge of the embankment that was full of massive bones and skulls." A few more pages passed through his gaze and he read on. "Then there was the way to our world."
I caught a change in Silah's demeanor out of the corner of my eye as Sig described the battlefield. She softened briefly as heartache touched her eyes, but it was immediately replaced with a fierceness. Her teeth clenched. She looked resolute.
"There was a world like ours, but strange, light were coming from the wrong angles. Rocks stacked funny. Led to Briarsgate." Sig looked up and added, "We figured out why we could stack the rocks in strange ways."
He looked down again at the notes, grimacing as he read further along.
"And the large floating," he furrowed his brow as he read it, "Baby? Unborn, complete with cord seeming to come back to the tree. Stars in the background."
"This was what Danin spoke each time he looked. Raenir also saw some of this. He wrote them down and I took copies of his notes." Sig folded the notebook and put it away. "Before… he left."
I remember Bromm mentioning Briarsgate to the Salamanders as he explained his weapon's origin. I was starting to piece some of this history together, myself. I understood, now, what Silah was doing. She was making sure everyone knew the same information.
Rana, who seemed equally in the dark as myself, was unaware that her jaw had completely slacked as she swung her head between Bromm, Sig, and Danin.
Silah waited for a moment, allowing for some time for the others to speak up. Silence filled the room and she nodded.
"Did you look closely at the pennants? Were they damaged or removed?" Silah asked, suddenly looking deadly serious.
"I saw them, but did not look closely." Danin said frankly.
Silah frowned slightly.
"Those pennants are a symbolic barrier protecting this world from that world. Signs of damage show that we are failing to hold them back. I am sure we would see something now." She looked from one to the next.
The look of concern she had was that of a general without an army. She saw a war coming and she was powerless to keep it at bay. I closed my eyes, bowing my head slightly feeling my inadequacy. She should be in the hands of someone who could do something.
"The Formless—specifically Gevura—are no longer interested in this place as they have toppled this seat of Kols, maybe even the last seat. That portal you discovered was their way to attack." Silah put an X through the circle on the board, and circled the now weakened thrones. "The temples that are associated with these three are now under threat and will need to push back to stem the tide."
"We could blow up tunnel in the mine?" Sig offered. "That would keep whoever broke into the mine the first time out, too."
Silah glanced at Sig, "Ah, that was right. Someone did break into the mine. Gevurah has agents in this city."
"Raenir ran into one, but we didn't really know anything about it." He shrugged.
She looked at us and I could see her weighing everyone's reactions. She looked to everyone's battle weary eyes blink back and forth between her and the etchings. My heart sunk deep as I saw her start to retreat, suddenly introspective. Perhaps the realization was finally setting in; we were young, inexperienced, and all of this was far greater than any of us.
Bromm stood from sitting on the edge of one of the desks.
"This is not us. We can't do this and I think you know that." He said, looking Silah in the eye and shaking his head, "We are not heroes. At least, I'm not. Perhaps Hakaar, he's free to do as he will. Perhaps he can take you to the front lines, but…"
Bromm trailed off, he glanced at me. The look in his eyes was one of concern for my well being. He had been the first to welcome me, paying me to join them on our first trip to the Poulterhaud Mines. From there, the bonds I had formed since then had gone so much deeper.
Silah's arms slowly dropped to her sides as she—with some effort—pushed her passion aside.
I had kept my thoughts to myself, but as Bromm opened with his frank opinion, I knew I would have to do the same. What we had done here was in defense of our home—this quaint city on the edge of nowhere. Whether I was here for Duncan or myself, I was here to find a quiet place to hide from all of the things I had seen lurking out there. I had seen titans clash in battle, I had seen the Mad Elven king fall, I had seen war and destruction.
I still sought adventure, it was true, but these were situations that I could control. I wanted, with all my heart, to avoid participating in being ground up and spat out as a tool for another being's grand schemes.
Now, we were staring at an all consuming menace that threatened to swallow up everything we had worked for, and we were powerless to stop it.
"I am no use to you in this. I would do it, but I know that my strength would fail and you would have to find another champion." I said simply.
Silah's expression was unchanged—which surprised me. Her eyes seemed far away as she quietly retreated behind her eyes.
Silence consumed the room, dust motes traced through the air, lit by the rising angle of the sun coming through the barred basement windows. The sounds of breath and the impatient scratching of Floki's wolf were the only disturbances that echoed through the chamber.
Silah put the piece of chalk down, then laid her hand on it, as if silencing it.
"We have a party to prepare for, yes?" She said, the smile she put on her face didn't touch the pain in her eyes, but it was a noble attempt.
(Get to know Akeron.)