One year later…
A fog was how it always started…
On land, in the sea, or up in the air…fog always enveloped the priest.
That’s how they always started—with a fog.
Thick as mud, but always moving, an unfelt wind seemed to guide the fog along an unseen path.
The priest never knew the true reason why visions came to him. But he took them seriously, always careful to fulfill each part in past visions. His faith was stronger than most, and his devotion even stronger. Perhaps that was why he experienced such things; maybe in some sense he was a prophet of sorts. Of course he would never be the type to scream his lungs out from the top of a box on a busy corner like some crazed zealot. No, instead he was more practical in his work for Eschua, but ever the passionate one in research and implementation of what he found.
Over time the man had discovered that the fog in his visions was a way for the mind and soul to cope with them. Some showed him scenes from the past or the future, and a few showed him scenes from the present—right when things were happening. He swore he could smell, feel, and taste everything around him, though he knew he was only an observer. At times they were so powerful and felt so real he had almost gotten lost within them.
Still, the priest did not fear them, for as long as he had faith, he knew he was safe to walk through the great ocean of fog—and an ocean it was this time. In his latest vision, large waves of thick mist rolled and crashed against each other. The man half walked, half glided along on some unseen current. It had purpose, it possessed direction, and the fog quickly strengthened in movement until the man was lifted off his feet and rushed along on a river of mist. He traveled for a while before he noticed an orange glow in the distance. It became brighter and larger as he grew nearer, or it grew nearer to him, for there was no sense of direction or time in this place.
Finally, the man came to an abrupt halt and was lifted straight up to a standing position. He looked down at his feet as the fog cleared around them and realized he was standing on a set of stone stairs, gazing upward as the stairs disappeared into the fog which concealed their origin. He turned around to see what was behind him and almost fell off the bottom step into a great chasm that stretched out into endless darkness. He quickly moved up several steps away from the edge, and the bottom step crumbled under his weight. Something was wrong. This felt different, and it felt more personal to the man this time.
The last of the fog around his feet rolled off the final step and poured into the deep chasm like a great waterfall. The space before him was split into two realms. The first was that of darkness stretching across the chasm, lit only by fire and colored by shadow. However, the realm above and beyond the chasm was engulfed in a great light that dispelled both shadow and fog. As long as the priest kept his eyes on the light, he felt warmth that vibrated through him and washed over him, keeping him safe and at peace.
But when he turned his gaze downward into the chasm, he began to lose himself in a coldness that shook the very foundations of his soul. Even though he could not see them, he knew there were eyes watching him from the darkness. Hidden in shadow, strengthened by fire, they seemed to pierce every fiber of his existence, stripping him down to his core, leaving him naked in his sins.
A thunderous, booming voice reached out from deep within the chasm, “I am coming priest…You and your God cannot stop me this time.”
The man was transfixed; he could not pull his gaze away. His body began to move toward the darkness, and with each step the darkness closed in and the coldness enveloped him. His soul fought like a caged animal, raging against chains that appeared before him. They slithered like fiery snakes, wrapping themselves around his body and binding tightly until his skin bruised and blistered. More chains lashed out ensnaring his arms and neck. Struggling against them only made them tighter, causing them to cut into his flesh and sear the skin with an emerald flame that emanated from the chains. The man’s eyes were wide with horror, his visage transfixed in terror. His soul cried out to his God, Eschua, begging for mercy, praying for sanctuary.
As his feet crossed the final threshold of the last step before plunging into the chasm, the darkness revealed itself. Hellish fires in sickening hues of reds, greens, and blues erupted around his vision. Reaching up for him with a mind of their own, the flames twisted and rose like great tentacles of an unseen horror, strengthened by millions of souls that cried out in agony. Those tentacles of the eternally condemned screamed and clawed at the space around them, trying to escape, but they, too, were bound by fiery chains.
Thunder rolled across the wall of the chasm below him, “You are mine, priest.” It was a malignant, evil presence that washed over him and crept into his soul.
Just as the priest thought all hope was lost and he was going to plunge head first into chaos, a bright light exploded through the fog from the stairs above him, grabbing hold of him and pulling against the chains. The battle between the light and the dark for his soul raged for what felt like an eternity. Then in the blink of an eye, a sword wreathed in white flames swung down in front of the man breaking the chains away.
A soul shattering roar rushed forward, “NOOO!!”
The sudden freedom caused him to fly back into the fog as a voice spoke gently into his soul…
An underground complex protecting a series of forges was built into a small plateau in the center of a valley in the Northern Reach Mountains. Inside the complex, the scent of hot metal lingered in the air. The clanging of hammer on steel rang through the moist, stone halls. Human and Dwarven blacksmiths worked tirelessly on numerous projects. Some worked on farming equipment and various tools for the town, while others meticulously crafted weapons and armor. Smoke rose from the fires that burned so hot they blistered the craftsmen’s skin while they hammered away. In one such forge were two figures-- so different from each other, and yet they were the best and oldest of friends.
A priest of middle age sat on a bench at one wall of the forge, as far from the smoke and fumes as he could get. The hood of his robe was pulled low over his eyes, and leaning against a table, he held a piece of cloth over his mouth and face. He disliked being here; the smoke and smells always played havoc with his breathing. He had always had a breathing problem that none of the healers could fix. That is why he lived in the mountains, but coming down here to the forges always left him weak afterward.
The priest coughed again as he gazed across the room at a stout dwarf, grizzled with age; his salt and peppered beard, long and curly, was tucked into his belt. A shimmering gold staff, a little taller than the priest, lay on a workbench near the forge. With stubby hands and finely crafted tools, the dwarf worked meticulously on engraving the text that the priest had recited to him. As he worked, he hummed an old tune as the coals in the fire crackled and hissed nearby. The dwarf studied every detail, brushed out every flake of metal, and polished the staff after every word he engraved. He worked slower than he used to, but he never made a mistake with his work. He no longer worked on larger forge projects; his bones wouldn’t allow it. Still, he prided himself in engraving, and when it came to the priest, Brother Thomas, only the most special engraving was requested.
The words the old dwarf tapped out were of an ancient language, back before Anoria was spoken into existence, the language of the Eschrehim—the message of the Almighty. The Eschrehim, angelic beings, were created by the Almighty, the Father, the God of all Anoria—known as Eschua. Their purpose was to serve the Almighty in many tasks that included fighting the Dark Lord, Delnok, and his minions, delivering Eschua’s Message to the people, and helping those in need.
Brother Thomas was one of the most devoted followers of the Almighty and a master scholar of the angelic language. Few people across Anoria knew or even understood the language, and even fewer had the knowledge that Brother Thomas had of it. The words of the Eschrehim are deadly if said against a foe, but even deadlier against the forces of Delnok. Every day Brother Thomas studied the language, committing it to memory so that he would always be ready when the Almighty called on him to serve on a holy quest. Constantly he would read and re-read the language, disciplining himself in order to remain faithful to his god.
The dwarf, Halfgrim, finished the last of the engraving, tapping even slower and steadier to ensure the text was correct and complete. Grabbing a brush, he carefully swept aside the dust and scraps of metal that he had chipped away. Then, with a rag dipped in a bowl of amber liquid, he began to polish the end of the staff. Back and forth, he rubbed until the golden hue shined brightly in the fires’ light. Sliding off a stool, Halfgrim leaned back, cracking his spine in a few places, and let out a long, gruff yawn. “Your stick’s ready, Brother Thomas,” the dwarf said as he pulled out a pipe and a pouch of Orium Weed. Stuffing some of the weed into the pipe, Halfgrim grabbed a hot poker from the forge and lit his pipe with it.
Brother Thomas shook his head as he rose from the bench, still holding the cloth to his mouth. “You know, old friend, that stuff will kill you,” the priest muttered as he walked over to the work bench admiring the work of the dwarf.
“After living 400 years I think I can put that myth to rest,” Halfgrim smiled as he drew in a deep draw of the pipe and let out a large cloud of smoke.
“True, my friend, and as usual your work is perfect.” The priest smiled, “The Almighty has blessed your hands beyond measure.” Picking up the staff, he weighed it in one hand and then twirled it over into his other hand.
“Ah, come on! You’re making me blush, priest,” the dwarf chuckled as he puffed once more on his pipe. Hobbling over to the workbench, he cleaned off the scraps of metal and then polished his tools before putting them away. Brother Thomas grinned as he leaned the staff against the wall. Putting the cloth into an inside pocket of his robe, the priest then pulled back his hood. His chiseled features glistened as the firelight reflected off his moistened skin. He kept a clean-cut, short goatee that was smoky brown like his hair. His emerald eyes mirrored the forge’s fire as he gazed upon the burning embers.
“And now, Halfgrim, for the final touch to your masterpiece,” he said at last. The priest raised his hands towards the staff and began praying in the ancient language. As Halfgrim sat on a little wooden stool smoking his pipe, a low hum filled the room. The air began to crackle around them causing the hair on his skin to rise. The priest continued to pray more fervently, and the hum grew louder with each new prayer. Then there was a small breeze that blew through the forge halls, slowly picking up speed and strength. After a few minutes it became a forceful wind. The folds in the robe of the priest began to whip around violently as the wind increased even more. Next a bright light began to emanate from the staff, casting eerie shadows on the walls. The smoke from the pipe was no longer lazily gliding through the air but now was chaotically whipping about in the dwarf’s face. The forge roared in objection to the wind stirring up the embers and hot coals, causing the flames to jump about. Lightning began to crackle and leap out from the staff, racing around the room. The bolts darted out of the forge and down the halls of the smithies. Humans and dwarves jumped away from the lightning as it leapt about sporadically through the rooms. One bolt zigzagged around a weapon stack, knocking over swords and crashing a stack of shields to the ground. Another bolt bounced across the walls and the floor and zapped a dwarf in the behind, causing him to yelp and jump up into the air. In a maelstrom, the wind whipped down the halls and into the other forges, stirring up embers, blowing aprons around, and knocking over boxes, bags, and tools. The emanating light became so brilliant that Halfgrim had to shield his eyes. The hum was now deafening as Brother Thomas yelled out another prayer in the language of the Eschrehim.
Then the priest called out in the common tongue, “I pray that the Almighty blesses this staff that its work may serve Him and give Him glory,” and suddenly, the humming stopped. The room became black as night as all the light was sucked back into the staff. Silence lay heavily like a blanket across the great forge hall. For what seemed like ages, the seconds passed as Halfgrim opened his eyes trying to see through the inky darkness. Then an explosion of lightning and thunder blasted out from the staff, shaking the very foundation of the plateau. The letters on the staff began to glow and throb in a brilliance of white light. The thunder and the lightning filled the room and the entire forge complex. People cried out in panic as they were blinded by the spectacle. Yet, as suddenly as it had begun, it all stopped. The thunder and lightning raced back toward the forge and back into the staff.
All that remained was the light of the fires, as the white light that had pulsated from the letters of the staff died away. The wind subsided and the hair on Halfgrim’s skin no longer stood on end. The folds of the priest’s robe collected around him as he pulled the hood back over his head and brought the cloth back out. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he walked over to the staff that still leaned against the wall. He took the staff in his hand and looked at the writing inscribed on it, noting each phrase, each verse, and each word. Looking up at the ceiling as if he were looking at the sky, Brother Thomas said one last prayer, “Now, may your will be done, Father.” He stood there for a moment, his eyes closed, and his head still tilted upward. He could feel the power flowing through the staff and coursing down his arm into his body.
The blessing had been given to him; he knew for sure now as the power of the One emanated from the staff and coursed through his body. He knew what he must do; he remembered the vision given to him and the task at hand. Opening his eyes, Brother Thomas wiped the sweat from them. Regaining his thoughts and surroundings, he looked around. Halfgrim teetered on his stool, drawing on his pipe, his hair all tussled from the force of the wind.
“Some weather we are having, eh?” the dwarf smirked as he blew a smoke ring into the air. It floated lazily around before dissipating in the rafters.
“Some weather indeed,” the priest whispered as he coughed into his rag while leaning against the staff for support.
“It has been some time since I have seen a spectacle like that,” Halfgrim mused. “I never knew a prayer could be so powerful.” The dwarf realized he had smoked the last of his pipe weed, so he knocked the pipe against the workbench, allowing the ash to float to the floor below. Then, pulling up a flap on a long pouch on his belt, he placed the pipe within, patting it against his side. Fixing his hair and beard, Halfgrim reached down for a bucket of water and poured it over the coals in the forge. The stones hissed and crackled as smoke erupted from the dying flames.
Brother Thomas watched the dwarf for a moment as he thought about what had happened over the past few minutes.
“It is a mighty blessing indeed that the Almighty has bestowed upon us,” he finally said as he looked over the runes that glowed once more. Every couple of minutes the runes on the staff pulsated in a white light. Looking back he saw that the dwarf now leaned against the workbench, so he sat down on the stool, leaning the staff against the wall. “You know, old friend, words are a powerful thing.” Clearing his throat, he continued, “With a single word kings rise and kings fall. People live and people die.”
Halfgrim brushed some dust from his left shoulder and then gazed up at the priest. “Yes, I know this, priest. Words can also lift up and tear down. Words persecute and words set free.” He then slid the apron up over his head and hung it on a peg buried into the stone wall.
“The words of the Almighty are a very powerful thing in this world,” Brother Thomas continued. “They create life and destroy it. They heal and make lame.” He got up, taking the staff in hand again, and made his way to the door. “Follow me, old friend,” the priest motioned as he stepped through the door. Pausing in the hallway he continued, “I have something important I must tell Lord Orin now that the first task is done.” He held the staff out for a moment and then added, “It concerns all of us, and we must make haste.” With that, he hurried off down the hall, the staff making a loud thud every time it hit the stone floor.
Halfgrim was still thinking about the spectacle that had just taken place, and now the priest was marching off to Lord Orin like nothing had happened. The dwarf shrugged and stooped down at the workbench, rummaging through the junk underneath.
Grabbing a backpack full of his adventuring gear--after all, one never knows when an adventure might arise--he hurried out the door after the priest.
He knew the man could be mysterious at times, but what did the staff have to do with master Greystoke? The old dwarf knew that if Brother Thomas thought it was urgent to speak to Lord Orin, then it must be very important and possibly dangerous.
Halfgrim had a hard time keeping up as the two made their way through the many forge rooms that interlocked with each other. The underground smithy complex was in chaos after the priest’s little spectacle. Many of the dwarves and humans moved aside as they made their way around overthrown shelves and piles of debris. Some stared in awe at the glowing staff, while others were upset. But all of them noticed the determined and stern look in Brother Thomas’ eyes. They knew better than to get in his way or to get into an argument with him. The priest never even noticed the hushed whispers and stares from the smiths as he marched toward a door in the far wall of the last room of the complex. The door was a massive piece of oak that protected the smithy from the outside world. A large anvil with a hammer and sword making a cross adorned the center of the door.
The valley, Greymist Past, was home to the town of Helmcross. Ruled by Lord Orin Greystoke and Lady Alicia, Helmcross was a prosperous and yet simple town. The valley’s soil was enriched by the Bluestone River that ran through the mountains. A waterfall in the northern rim fed the river as it snaked toward the southeast and disappeared into a cavern in the cliff face. The fertile valley floor produced rich crops and hearty animals. This and the many travelers that would come and go made Helmcross very wealthy. And yet, the people lived simple lives and did not waste money on extravagant things. Most people came from families that have lived off the land, braved numerous raids, and survived the harsh winters for centuries.
Brother Thomas waited for Halfgrim to catch up, and then together they opened the large door stepping out into the afternoon sunlight. Halfgrim took a deep breath of the mountain air enjoying the aroma as he squinted to see the valley spread out before them and the cliffs towering above. In the distance he could see the farmers tending to the fields as they got ready for the fall harvest.
The priest began to make his way down the dirt path that led to a road encircling the plateau that Lord Orin’s castle sat atop.
“Hurry, Halfgrim,” Brother Thomas beckoned, “we must make haste. I have a message for Master Greystoke that I must deliver at once.” The priest, using the staff for support, marched off down the path. Halfgrim grunted as he hurried after him.
Bolting up in his cot, cold sweat pouring down from his brow, Tristan leaned forward breathing heavily and pushed back his long black hair.
Not another nightmare, he thought to himself.
This had been going on for some time now, off and on for nearly two full moons. Tristan couldn’t get rid of the dreams. No medicine, herbs, or any prayers to the Almighty could relieve Tristan’s suffering. Every time he closed his eyes, Tristan would fall into a deep sleep and go through the same nightmare, over and over again. It was as if some dark force wanted him to suffer, wanted him to never forget the loss and the pain of that night.
Tristan put his head in his hands and sat in bed for a while breathing slowly, bringing better images into his head and calming himself down. He steadied his breathing into a simple rhythm until his heart was no longer racing. Opening his eyes he felt more at ease as he looked around the room. Rays of sunshine slowly began to filter into his little cabin through the cracks and branches in its thatched roof. Shimmering light reflected off some glass figures and crystal statues he had carved that now sat on shelves. Their mirage of colors spread out like a mural on the opposite walls. The warmth of the light touched the skin of Tristan’s legs and sent a comforting chill up and down his body. Leaning over the side of the bed, Tristan stretched his arms and legs. Then running his hands through his long black hair, he slowly rose out of bed.
There were a few coals in the fireplace that still burned a dull orange and red, so he threw a couple of sticks on to get it going again. Pouring some water into a beat-up clay pot, Tristan added some vegetables and a pinch of herbs to make a stew. He sat down for a little bit, gazing into the fire and smelling the aroma of the burning wood. Then, grabbing his bowl and spoon, he scooped up some stew and went outside to enjoy his breakfast.
Sitting under a tree by his house, Tristan watched an eagle soar off in the distance chasing a small sparrow through the skies.
“Well, little one, you won’t last long with cranky old Talon on your tail,” he joked to himself, covering his eyes a little as he watched the two birds fly in front of the sun. They did some acrobatics as they flew through the sky, the little sparrow doing his best to keep away from the clutches of the eagle.
“I didn’t think so,” Tristan added, as he watched Talon swoop down on the sparrow, grabbing its wings and shredding them with his claws. Talon let out a cry of triumph before soaring off to his perch high upon one of the distant mountain cliffs.
“Now we both get to enjoy breakfast!” Tristan piped between mouthfuls of stew. The sun glistened and sparkled across the distant waters of the Kadesh Sea. A breeze brought the slight hint of salt and the fragrance of jasmine from the fields below. In the distance he could hear the low creaking sound and muffled hoof beats of a horse drawn cart. Tristan didn’t bother to look in the sound’s direction, for he knew who it was, his old friend Father Alban Gammel. The sound got louder as a little wooden cart rolled up the hill being pulled by a massive Clydesdale horse.
“Good morning, old man,” Tristan smirked, emphasizing the word old. He still didn’t look up until he finished his last bite of stew.
“I see you still do not have many manners when it comes to your elders,” Father Alban piped with a smile as he half climbed half fell out of the cart.
Father Alban was a short, aging man with a long, smoke-colored beard that came down to his stomach. He always wore the same ivory robes with a dust colored cloak around his shoulders. This attire designated him as a high priest, or “Father,” of the Sanctuary of Nemalia. Father Alban was a believer in the Almighty with all his heart and soul and he took care of things at the Sanctuary of Nemalia. He walked with a knobby, old cane that firmed up over the years of use. His right leg had been hurt in a tussle with a couple of thieves, and ever since then he walked with a limp. When he travelled, he wore a tall, dust-colored, domed hat with a large brim that hung over one eye. A gold and silver crested medallion of an eagle chasing a dragon shimmered in the rays of the sun as it bounced around, hanging from the old priest’s neck.
“If I were 80 years younger, I would teach you a thing or two about respect,” the priest continued, waving his cane in Tristan’s face.
“If you were 100 years younger, you would still be an old man,” Tristan laughed while standing up and pushing the cane aside. He still couldn’t get over the fact that the old man was 210 years old; some believed he had Elven blood in him but no one knew for sure. Walking over towards the door he continued with more laughter, “How are you today, Father Alban? Has anything new happened in the Sanctuary lately?” He washed out his bowl and spoon in a water basin by the door and then stepped inside.
“Oh, the usual things with everyone,” the old man answered leaning over the cart, scrounging for something. “A few new pilgrims came in yesterday, seeking discipleship and knowledge. Brother Maldon finished his scrolls on the recent history of Silverhall.” Finding what he was looking for, he slid it into his pocket quickly and walked up to Joulin, his horse. He gave the old horse a pat on the neck and walked over to a stump by a weathered, wooden table and gave his old bones a quiet rest.
“Well, I bet Maldon is glad to be done with that set; he’s been working on it for over six months.” Ever since Brother Re-Aine and Brother Cristof came back from the Dwarven city of Silverhall with their latest reports, Brother Maldon had worked tirelessly trying to get it chronicled and organized. The monks from the Sanctuary travelled the world chronicling all the latest events and then returned and wrote it all down on scrolls in the scriptorium. Hundreds of years had been chronicled and stored in the archives of the monastery with wall-to-wall shelves of scrolls piled high.
Tristan came back out with two clay cups of water and handed one to his friend, who was leaning over rubbing his back.
“That ride gets worse on my bones every time I come to see you,” Father Alban complained, sitting back and taking the glass to his lips. “Joulin is too rough on me when he pulls my cart along those mountain paths. He thinks he is still a young horse,” he continued, smiling at the horse who snorted a reply to him like he didn’t care.
“I think he just wants to get to his destination before you complain his ears off,” Tristan defended after taking a sip from his cup and smiling at Joulin. Joulin neighed in agreement and then went back to nipping at some lonely grass chutes in the ground.
There was silence for a while, too long for Tristan, as he turned to look at his old friend gazing off at the distant mountains with sadness in his eyes he hadn’t noticed earlier. As he watched the priest sit there looking off into oblivion, or wherever his friend’s mind had wandered to, Tristan wondered what had changed. Something felt off, but he knew better than to interrupt the priest’s thoughts and so he sat back and waited patiently on his old friend.