Pillar Of Empathy--Tower Of Truth
By: Rasthran

Tall maples and pines speckled white by the latest snowfall, peppered the slopes of the mountains in the northern plateau. The snowline had crept farther down the slope than usual, but a warming trend the past few days before the fall had caused great overhangs on the icy cliff faces. A group of rams grazed on the meager slopes, pulling the occasional tuft of exposed grass from the frozen ground. A pair of kids butted newly forming horns on one of the cliff faces, their efforts pushing them closer and closer to an icy overhang. A single step, an instant of pressure, caused a large piece of overhang to plummet into the snowy slope below it. A great rumble echoed down the mountain range as the ice and snow tumbled and tore at everything in its path.

A single boulder, great and ancient, stood vigilant in its path, sealing beneath it an even older evil. Small pebbles rolled away from its base as the first rumbles occurred. Soon, the whole weight of the avalanche crashed into it. The fury of the avalanche pushing like thundering hooves against it weight. The weight of the snow became too much and finally the whole mass teetered and rolled down the remainder of the slope, bringing ton upon ton of snow down upon the small village at the base. The villagers’ screams died under the suffocating snow slide.

Minutes passed and the mountains finally fell silent as the last trickle of snowball and mists of water and ice settled again upon the land once more. The exposed crevasse, an old wound never quite healed, a great rage filled the belly of the chasm roaring out like the breath of a great beast, pushing dirt and snow hundreds of feet into the air. A single hand, clawed and yellow with age, broke the surface. An aura black as death hung upon the form as it pulled itself into the sunlight feeling the sun’s warmth that it had not felt for a hundred years. Rellik breathed in the sweat smell of fresh air and cough out a black cloud of death. Black eyes narrowed as they adjusted to the white surface of the land, but he knew its face well for he had fought the Red Legion here. The path to the valley below still marked by the ancient battle as tree trunks, blackened with soot, and rock cloven in half, marked the great magic that was exchanged between himself and the mages of the then king of the High Realms forces. It did not matter now, for they were all dead, while he, Rellik the Unholy, still breathed the air of the living.

Rellik began circling the entrance that had marked his tomb, looking at the snow. His mouth worded a spell of calling, as his eyes waited patiently for the sign. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the pulse of red light that marked his query. Dim in the morning light, its green aura pulsed and pulsed again as he closed to look down upon the snow. The length glowed at his closeness, and he dropped to all fours and dug out chunks of snow with his yellowed hands. The end of a staff appeared and his power grew from its closeness. His blackened teeth glistened as he withdrew the staff and held it aloft in a sign of triumphant return. A slight whine of pain stopped his gloating and he turned to see what might have cause the noise. A kid, trapped beneath the snow had dug itself out enough to breathe, but his broken back legs would not hold his weight to climb from his entrapment. Rellik mused as he waited for the final struggles of the helpless goat to slow, then closed to watch the last hopes wash away from the young goats life.

"Indeed, this is the beginning of a wonderful day." Rellik bent low and siphoned the life force from the dying creature, its cries shrilling with fright and pain.

In the distance, another avalanche began rumbling down the face of the mountain.

Joshua awoke from a very contaminated sleep. A fever had set in during the night and several times, he had woken with retching spasms of the previous nights dinner. His fitful night of sleep filled with nightmares of hell's born creations built up in the pits of his mind. One dream in particular hung in the surface of his thoughts as he tried in vain to rise from his down filled cot.

He swam through the images again as he fell feebly back into the pillow. A laughing skull of crystal echoed the halls of his mind. Picturesque alabaster statues depicting the many races that graced the realms, cried rivulets of blood down upon the marble floors. A freezing wind filled with the stench of decay and death filled his nostrils as he peered into a pool of glass. Three large shards of ice, black with filth hung from the ceiling like stalagmites of impurity, grasped for the surface of the pool. He reached to touch the pool when a bright aurora erupted from the slim pillar that jutted at the center of its depths. A raw power that enhanced everything that it touched. The freezing wind turned to a scalding sauna. The shards of ice melted to reveal three black hands of death, each one garnered with rings of magic. The hands withdrew the pillar from the water, breaking its serene beauty and putrefying the rings of tiny waves that spread away. The beautiful power darkened as well, an evil that consumed, tearing at the very soul of whatever its light touched. He turned and ran from the hall, chased by the laughing crystal skull until he woke.

Joshua knew that pillar well for he had looked into its depths everyday for the last fifteen years in the service of the Monastery of Truth. It was the Crystal Pillar of Empathy located in the very heart of the Monastery itself. The crystal, as written in the Annuls of the Truth Followers, stored unfathomable magic that only the gods could control. It was this very belief in which the whole Monastery was based upon. It was written that the dreams of the righteous would reveal the ways of the world. Joshua had been the high priest long enough to know that one never disregards his dreams, even fever induced ones.

Joshua pulled himself to a sitting position by using the large wooden shelf that ran half the length of the wall above his bed. The volumes of leather bound books sent dust particles spraying into the morning sun that shone brightly through his lone window. Biting back the rising bile in his throat, he rose, wrapped his heavy blanket close, and pitched himself towards the door. A sudden ringing in his ears made him catch his breath and his balance. When the buzzing subsided he felt the black ink dripping from his hand, where he had caught himself upon his writing desk, knocking the inkwell upon the latest copy of the manuscripts of Alm. The ink had covered most of the page, but a single line remained readable in the center of the vellum script.

.. And death has claimed the gluttonous that claimed the rights of the Pillar of Empathy.

"Another prophecy from the gods no less." Joshua murmured to himself as he opened the door.

"How fare thee today Master Cainnon?" Phillip had entered the hallway from the master chamber just as Joshua's door had shut behind him.

"Not well I'm afraid." Joshua leaned against the wall for added support and nodded for the younger student to aid him in his walk. "Come with me Phillip, I need to see the Pillar for enlightenment today, though my balance has left me this morn."

Phillip's eyes lit up with enthusiasm. He had only been in the brotherhood for a few weeks and was elated with the chore of aiding the High Priest.

"Do you have other chores this morn?" Joshua asked in idle talk.

"Yes, but they can wait." Phillip was slightly taller than Joshua was, but his leaner body heaved with the effort of balancing the elder priest's stockier form.

"Do not neglect your duties, but when you are done, I wish you to join me again in the main hall after I have finished my vigil."

"As you wish, Master Cainnon." The additional duty inspired the youth and he doubled his efforts to steady the ailing Joshua.

"Good lad. Good lad." The pair walked the remainder in silence as Joshua contemplated the outcome of what might become of his frightful dream.

Joshua was glad that the morning worship had already cleared by the time they had reached the Hall of Devotion. He dismissed Phillip and walked the remainder of the distance to stand within a handbreadth of the magnificent Pillar of Empathy. Though it was only three knuckles in diameter, its length was that of two men tall. Its crystalline structure refracted the light of the room in a spectacle of color and hue. Though a peasant would be the pillar too thin to uphold the pressure of the ceiling above, it had lasted for six generations of High Priests and survived three wars without a single scratch to mar its surface.

Joshua began reciting the scriptures of Alm and Botomis and Halpin, kowtowing in the traditional style of respect to the Pillar of Empathy. He hoped the words of the Annuls of Truth would lend him the courage to make the decision he needed to make in possibly the Monastery's, or even the Realm's, hour of need.

"Have you finished your duties?" Joshua asked the approaching Phillip.

"Yes, Master Cainnon." Phillip kowtowed to the pillar before bowing low to the leader of his sect.

"Good, good. I have a special errand for you to run. You will find all the money you need behind the Book of Kerimis in my room."

Phillip found it ironic that the High Priest would hide such a valuable item as money behind the writings of one who faced charges of pilfering from the coffers of the Monastery for his own gains.

Joshua noted the smirk upon the youthful face, "When hiding something of worth you look to the those of treachery for the best teachings in respect of property."

Joshua rose to his feet, the mornings ailments already lessening to just a bothersome pest. "Return to me when you have retrieved the money and a vellum of paper and my writing utensils." Joshua stopped for a second as a thought dawned upon him. "You do know how to read?" the statement was a confirmation more than a question.

"Aye, my mother taught me letters when I was young. She said it was important for a merchants son to understand the words of contracts."

"Good. Then I have chosen my messenger well. Return with those items and anything you may need for a long journey. Should anyone stop you, tell them it is of my utmost concern and they should see me with any questions." Joshua stared deeply within the crystal pillar drawing upon its vigilant strength for guidance.

"You are to follow my directions to the letter lad." Joshua turned and filled the boys vision with the full power of his position. "Regardless of what your beliefs are. Even if you think it is the wailing of a madman. You are to follows these directions, is this understood."

Phillip could only manage a nod to the awe-inspiring respect that Joshua's position held.

"Good. Go," Joshua watched as the boy fled the room before returning his gaze to the pillar. "and may my decision be straight and true."

King Tallian adjusted the helm again to realign the eyeholes with his own. It was the third time that day that Rasthran had dropped him on his royal derrière during the daily sword lessons. Rasthran had been a loyal follower of the Greymane lineage since he was a mere child, the fact that he was forced into the servitude due to a hereditary bonding that had been in place for the last twenty three generations in his family.

"You are not watching the shoulders, my King." Rasthran twisted the blade in midair and whacked the king’s knuckles twice in succession, causing the training blade to fall helplessly to the ground. Rasthran paused in striking the killing blow to allow the king to retrieve the fallen blade.

Tallian stepped back three paces and brought the blade up in a defensive stance. Rasthran approached the king cautiously keeping the blade low but well in front to block any frontal assaults the king might attempt.

Tallian slowed his breathing and brought the blade down in an attempt to knock Rasthran’s blade wide. The blow landed hard upon the blade but Rasthran used the momentum of the attack to swing it up and around for a high slashing move to the chest. Tallian feinted a back step sliding down and in. The move, executed well, caught Rasthran in sidestroke. Rasthran smiled down at Tallian as he halted the motion and brought a knee up to clang heavily against the armored head of the King, sprawling him out on the ground before him.

"Never presume you have the advantage until the bout is over and your opponent is defeated." Rasthran held out a hand and helped the king back to his feet.

King Tallian enjoyed the training on most occasions, but today he had other things on his mind, and those things were too much of a distraction for an expert swordsman such as Rasthran could ignore. Finally, Tallian had called the training to a halt.

"Enough Rasthran, my pride becomes as sore as my behind," Tallian waved his hand in surrender before strolling to a nearby seat to catch his breath.

Rasthran continued the lessons alone; shadow boxing to keep the muscles from tightening up from the grueling exercise. He went through the motions with practiced ease. The sword moved in a graceful precision of metal and muscle, catching the morning rays in quick flashes of brilliance. The turning and pivoting had always reminded Tallian of one of the gypsy dancers that graced his courts from time to time.

Tallian sat in the shadow of the twin statues that overlooked the courtyard. Tallian glanced up at the masterpieces just as the sun broke out from the shadow of the one closest to him. Hye had always loved those statues and was glad to see that the money he had paid the artists for their design was worth every pence spent. The statues were in the shape of dragons, each one coiled back like a giant snake preparing to strike. The bodies half turned, jaws gaping, and right claw extended as if in motion to blast down any intruders upon the lands surrounding the castle. The eyes were the greatest design of all, a pair of jewels crafted specifically to capture the light of the day, aglow from within to give them the sense of life to any who looked their way.

The dragon twin statues stood adjacent to the entrance to the castle, each atop a perch of redstone from the Fyremane Mountains, which lay several hundred miles to the south. The castle sat atop a steep grade hill, overlooking the citadel that had grown up around it. Nothing, save the grass and the marks of ancient battles, marred the surface of the hill leading to the castle. In its two hundred years since its ressurection as the center of the Greymane reign, twice warring neighbors had sieged the town and castle. Both times unsuccessfully due to the winding labyrinthine tunnels that lay in the depths of the hill underneath the castle and the dry food storage that were packed away in the many rooms that the maze lead to.

The surrounding wall was made of the same brick as the perches that the dragons stood. The walls, built top heavy to deter scaling, were as thick as a man in height was and thrice as tall. The walkways could be walked around and accessed from several wooden bridge ways, each one collapsible from the base. Arrow slits and oil cauldrons ran alternatively around the top of the wall. The cauldrons tilted in either direction, either to take out intruders on the outside, or to fill the runner that ran along the base of the wall on the inside. A construction meant to withstand war, magic, dragon and element.

Tallian finally managed to return his breathing to normal and stood to return to the castle and the main hall within.

"Rasthran, will you accompany me back in?" Tallian waited for the soldier to put away the practice blades before walking back.

"I have had word from the west that our neighbor Calliban, is still hostile toward any trade routes we have tried to set up with the Endarins." The news, no more than a nuisance to the mercantile families under the King’s homage, was well known to almost all in the courts, but Rasthran remained silent about hearing the news beforehand. It was only polite to allow the king to address the pertinent issues without wording opinion.

"His actions towards the Endarins warrants that a war will break out soon between them. I would suggest that we double the forces on those borders to deter any backlash from our relations to either country." Tallian nodded his head knowingly as Rasthran pointed out several contingents that were close to the needed area.

"I see that my bondsman has earn his worth again with his insight into the world of war." Tallian seldom reminded Rasthran of his bondsman state to the kingship of Greymane. A hereditary bonding enforced through a lineage attachment between the Clan of Greymane and the Redtree clan. The debt Rasthran performed admirably though not always in his own best interest.

The well-placed wording of Tallian had made Rasthran’s skin crawl. The use usually meant that Tallian had a special job for him, one that did not allow for morals. "I would like for you to continue showing that same insight into the job I have for you."

Rasthran’s face took on the facade similar to the many statues that lined the hall leading to the throne room; hard and empty of life.

Tallian patted Rasthran on the shoulder, a reassuring gesture. "Do not fret young Rasthran. There are no children involved this time."

Rasthran turned dagger filled eyes upon the one man he showed complete loyalty. "I should hope not my king, I would rather destroy myself than kill another child in your name."

"It was for the best interest of the kingdom." Tallian said flatly.

"It was for your best interest, My King. Taking the life of a child, even one of lineage to your enemy, does nothing to save your kingdom."

"His death was pertinent in the withdrawal of Talban’s troops." Tallian retaliated, his words filled with poison.

"Talban would have withdrawn regardless." Rasthran retorted. He was loyal to the king, but he still opinionated himself when needed.

"Enough! It is over. Talban will eventually have another heir." Tallian waved off the conversation as a nothing more than an annoyance.

"True, my King. He will have another heir, but will the new heir be as forgiving to your kingdomand your people, knowing that you were the reason for his elder brother’s death?" Rasthran dropped the conversation then. The words doing more harm than the sword he had wielded outside.

"I need you to retrieve something for me, and for the kingdom." Tallian let the conversation drop as well. Pushing Rasthran would only warrant the man be more hesitant in his reserves, something that Tallian did not need at this time. "I need you to retrieve the Pillar of Insight from the Monastery of Truth."

Rasthran stopped short of entering the throne room. "The Pillar of Insight, but the people." Tallian cut Rasthran short, his temper was to the breaking point and he did not want Rasthran prying into his delicate and crucial situation.

"You will do as you are told, per the bondship that your lineage holds to this crown!" King Tallian’s voice boomed off the walls of both the hallway and the chamber beyond.

"I will do as the king wishes, as long as those wishes are beneficial to the kingdom, per the bondship! If there is any time that those actions would cause the loss of the crown or actions to bring the people against the crown, I will deny!"

"They will thank me for this Rasthran, they will bow to me as per the rightful respect that this crown bears." Tallian turned then, his cloak flowering about him in a wave a red and blue.

"So be it. My King. Nevertheless, I have given warning." Rasthran bowed low, lower than normal to the man he swears allegiance to, before slowly backing to take his leave. His parting words heard on by the statues as the king had already entered the throne room.

"You have been warned."

"Would you please tell me what the flaming Ceribite are we doing this far inland again?" Penumbra brushed away another set a gnats again for the thousandth time that day.

"A job." Risqué debated whether to take the annoying Feranese along for this journey, but knew better than to let her enjoy a weeklong catnap at her expense back aboard The MoonRider.

Ellorian, Risqué's first mate and sometimes lover, had remained inhumanly quiet for most of the journey. He had argued against going on the mission. His instincts had told him that it would be a bad idea to mess with the religions and the gods. His silence had only left more openings for the fur covered Penumbra to whimper about the journey ahead.

"Can you tell me again how much this job is worth?" Penumbra scratched at a spot in her back with a pair of her inch long razor sharp claws the protruded from the tips of her fingers.

"More than you could steal in a lifetime." Risqué thought about how much the agile Penumbra may be able to pilfer in that span of time and thought her answer may not be as accurate as first guessed. With the Fyre Mountains stretching off to their left, Risqué guessed their journey had only a few hours left. The Fyre Mountains stretched over a good portion of the Great Plateau that separated the barbarian hordes of the Glacial North from the Nomads of the plains and deserts. The lush green valley that they walked through now was located many leagues south of these areas, but it was no less dangerous to travel. Though the Red Gryphon Inn fell within Garchian Province, no one truly claimed a hold on the Inn. If anything, they had acknowledged the inn as a nation all in itself. Wars had been settled within her walls and alliances built over the ale that filled her mugs. She would be grateful to fill her belly with the food of the infamous Red Gryphon Inn.

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" It was the first words Ellorian had spoken in almost a full day.

"Yes." Risqué nodded as she turned to face the only person she trusted with her life.

Ellorian's gray eyes buried themselves within her own, trying to decipher the true reasoning behind Risqué taking such a gamble when things were going so well.

Risqué only shrugged her shoulders at the knowing look. "It's in my nature. They don't call me Risqué for nothing."

The Red Gryphon Inn had remained the same as the first time Risqué had visited it when she was just hitting her adolescence. Her father had been a farmer who had made the trek from her home to the market in Brisdon every Winter Solstice. His crops sold well enough to feed his family, until the Graymane Legions came through on their march against the Talbon tribes, taking all the foodstock her father had. Risque had vowed from that point on to never be poor again.

The Red Gryphon Inn drew its name from the reddish hue of the roof and the two outstretched hillocks that rolled off on each side of the humungous building gave it a look of a great beast resting on its front paws. Strong oaken pillars lifted the portico overhang and their boots clacked off the planks as they approached the large double doors. No sound came from the hinges as the doors easily swung inwards to their efforts. Ellorian stepped through first and was taken aback immediately by the difference. The noise from the patrons was of raucous laughter and jolly cheers, a great contrast to the complete silence one heard just before stepping through the doorway.

Whole caravan groups and merchants gathered in the open space of the main room, while the game rooms, each one sporting a different taste in gambling, overflowed with all types of adventurers and mercenaries.

Penumbra nudged at Risqué’s shoulder as they made their way through the groups eating at the many tables that ringed the main hall. Risque looked in the direction that Penumbra nodded in to see a giant of a Northman trying his hand at "The Mighty Chalice." A great dragon horn used as a drinking cup, filled to the brim with the inn’s best ale.

Risqué smiled over her shoulder at the shorter Penumbra, "I bet you five crowns that he can’t finish it."

Penumbra chuckled taking in the girth of the man. "You're on."

Both watched as the barbarian tilted the horn, dispensing the liquid in an even flow into his mouth. Guzzle after guzzle the liquid went down, drink after drink the barbarian endured the flow. The tankard began tilting on a greater plane as the behemoth continued his efforts. Slowly the man’s eyes began to grow, the whites became glazed as the potent liquid worked its way through his system. The flow faltered, dribbling helplessly down each sides of his mouth. Ultimately, the man pulled the whole weight of the goblet down upon himself, pinning his inebriated and unconscious form under the still flowing tankard. The sight of the smiling, sleeping man brought a loud guffaw from the bystanders.

A bard struck up a chord, cutting through even the loudest of laughter to gain his audience’s attention. Soon the music and voice calmed the room as the tale enthralled the crowd. Risqué used the distraction to her advantage. Sidestepping around the snoring drunkard, they made their way into a private area where business transpired between patrons in a much quieter atmosphere.

Risqué ordered drinks from a passing barmaid who went about with little notice to her surroundings. The trio settled in and waited for the drinks and the unnamed client. Shortly the barmaid returned bearing mugs of ale for the three.

"Welcome to the Red Gryphon Inn," the girl stated in rehearsed efficiency, wiping the table off with a dirty rag and placing down the drinks, "Excessive drunkenness means you are expelled for one day from the inn, and no returns are given. Those caught cheating or pilfering are dealt with promptly." Risqué remembered the ancient stump with the oversized axe, displayed in front of the building. Its wood stained red from use and the ancient axe rusty and dull. "Those wishing to settle quarrels must do so in ‘The Pit’ out back." The maiden indicated towards the rear of the building. "That will be three pence for the ale."

"Pay up, Penumbra." Risque turned a smirk Penumbra’s way.

"Oh, sure, you would want me to pay now." Penumbra pulled a purse out of her calf length boots and produced three silver coins, each one with the heraldry of the King of Graymane marking both sides of the coin. Sighing heavily, Penumbra handed the coins over to her captain. "I’ll have to owe you the rest."

"That pelt of yours would fetch me the rest." Risque huffed as her friend’s face heated up with surprise.

"Not Likely!" Penumbra hissed, sticking out her purplish-red tongue in defiance.

The approach of the stranger made them both cease the conversation for a more serious tone.

"Are you Risque?" the rough-faced gentleman asked.

"Aye, I am Risqué, that’s with a long ‘a’ sound, and unless you have a job for us then I have nothing to offer you." Risque took a sip of her ale and waited for the gentleman to decide.

"Then it is you I seek, for the offer still stands, two thousand crowns." The man produced a large bag from underneath his cloak and tossed it on the table in front of the three.

Risque finally looked up into the face of her would-be client. His pulled over brown hood hid most of the features from her, but she could still make out the eyes of man terrified for his life.

Penumbra’s hand snaked over the tabletop to shake the purse. The hard jingle of coinage and weight were enough to satisfy her. Ellorian still had his doubts, "Risqué."

"We’ll do it." Risque shot out before Ellorian could try to persuade her otherwise again. Risqué looked again at Ellorian in her most assuring look. Ellorian cast his eyes back towards the minstrel hiding his own fears for the worst.

"Then return here in three days with the item and I will pay the other half." The man turned and left the three to settle their own affairs, crossing the room to sit with another who wore a similar robe.

Risqué listened to the minstrel a little while before finally excusing herself to go outside, Ellorian followed shortly after.

Ellorian watched Risque as she strolled under the moonlit sky looking up at the stars as if pondering something that no one else could fathom. Ellorian shrugged his shoulders in defeat and went to stand closer to the one that he loved.

"Why do you do this?" he asked, hoping that he could finally drag it out of her.

"Because." Risque looked back at him, her green eyes dark as the deepest forest in the moonlight.

"Because? That is all you can give me?" Ellorian raised his voice, something he had never done to her before.

"Yes. That is all I can give you for now," Risque let her gaze harden, "If you don’t like it, take the money he gave us and go back and wait at the ship!"

"I..." Ellorian could not win and he knew it. She was set in her way now and much like the ship she steered, only a major storm would sway her now. "Fine, if that is what you want." Ellorian gave her one last look and stormed off into the night.

"It is for the best Ellorian, you will see." Risque said to herself, hoping that her own words would hold true.


Introduction Of Rellik The Unholy
Rasthran The Elven Rider
The King's Plan
The High Priest Joshua
Travails Of Risqué (Part I)

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