Visions of Amareth
"Master, we've just received word: Serkan has been destroyed."
Tachrim stood, slightly breathless, in the doorway. Xulos did not turn around. Something twitched on the table in front of him. Xulos spoke in a sermon-like drawl.
"So he has. Very well, ready the resurrection process."
Tachrim started, his brow furrowed.
"I was under the impression that with this plan you aimed to obliterate Serkan."
"Precisely. Bring him back."
Xulos, attending to his work, still hadn't turned to face Tachrim. After several moments more of silence, in which it became apparent Tachrim had neither entered nor spoke nor left, Xulos paused. He at last turned, although he didn't look at Tachrim directly, but instead addressed the room.
"Tachrim, if you cannot see the ethos behind these actions, then it will be a while yet before you can surpass your own master, as I have long ago surpassed mine. Ask the question you wish answered."
Tachrim collected himself, settling into the accustomed role he played with Xulos.
"Why bring back Serkan immediately after removing him?"
"Because he is a powerful ally."
A moment of silence.
Xulos had an odd streak, but was rarely this outright unintelligible.
"Your lack of faith is refreshing; many are not inquisitive enough. You viewed this as a final move in an ascent to power, but that is not so. The coup de grace, the great play -- these are the tides of mortal minds. Death is the sea itself. We fight a war of inches and centuries. The flash of mist and spray disguises our creeping gains upon the shore until, eventually, it has all eroded away. Do not concern yourself with Serkan's death and rebirth; it's only a stirring of the water. Go ready the resurrection, and then return to your work. Much more important are the excavations in the north and east."
Xulos, finished, returned to his work.
"Yes, master. It will take weeks, perhaps months. But as you say: we can wait."
Kartch sighed in frustration and crouched down next to Gekaal. They were in the priest's private chambers, back in Forglar. It had been only a short journey back for Kartch, but an exhausting one. And now new worries weighed on his mind.
"And a treaty with the Sundered Lands, you say. It's hard to believe, which isn't to say I doubt Berkchani's abilities, or his choices. But after this long at war… it's risky. They may trap us."
"We must pursue agreement where we can. They will not learn without a guide. We may use this opportunity to reform the harsh elements within the Draksar Legion."
"They are all harsh elements, Gekaal."
Gekaal looked down at his friend. They spoke only rarely, but each knew their role and played it willingly. Kartch did not falter as the leader he had to be. His brooding worried Gekaal.
"We must give it time."
Kartch turned his head up.
"And what of the artifice the Draksar pursue? And the Salaman? Don't say that won't hurt the nora. Give them a few years of this, and we'll have a second Catastrophe."
Gekaal's brow furrowed.
"Let us take a walk."
Kartch wearily rose, and the two walked out into the marsh, heading for the pond. The pond was the only place the two of them visited together outside of official meetings, although Kartch new Gekaal wandered much more than that. The soft ground gave way to moisture which then spilled out into a little body of deep water, perhaps thirty feet across. A log, eaten half away since they first met, lay awkwardly askew from one of the banks. The conditions weren't quite right for any practical use; it was always empty, except for the pair of them. Kartch paused at the water's edge.
"Can I get us some lunch?"
Gekaal moved to join him and knelt, bringing a single finger to the pond's surface. Rather than dancing away in fear as water often does when disturbed, the liquid rippled inward to make small waves against the priest's outstretched hand, just as a crowd moves in patient turns to greet an old friend. Gekaal withdrew.
"Yes. We may eat."
Kartch plunged his spear through the pond in a few quick strokes, and pulled it back out, three fish stuck on the end, already dead. Gekaal neither smiled nor frowned. They ate, two to Kartch and one to Gekaal, in a comfortable silence, the fish customarily raw. When they finished eating, Kartch leapt in and went for swim; Gekaal was comfortable with a spiritual connection, but for Kartch -- he never felt quite at home anywhere if he couldn't drink it in and feel dirt between his toes. The priest waited, sitting straight-backed on the log. Kartch was ready to listen when he emerged.
"We must be careful of our ventures, but not be clouded by over-zealous caution. The Salaman seek peace for now, and for now that is enough. Present concerns deserve a place within our scope of considerations as well. We can survive a treaty -- the swamp, and you and I."
Kartch started: his friend so rarely spoke in the singular. Kartch gazed out over the pond, still brooding, but mollified.
"What you say is right. That Darkmarsh rhetoric has been getting to me."
Gekaal smiled. Kartch always sold himself short.
Maxxarek's words had done nothing to calm Grimlic, although of course that was not their intent.
"And now even my own people doubt my purpose! To return simultaneously with my brother -- and you say that it was intended?"
Ermalion frothed: "Break them! Or Maxxarek will give your fleshy elves to me and they will not last half as long."
Grimlic turned and spat, the liquid vaporizing as it touched the ground before Ermalion
"I know my business, and my people. Two Nefari are already dead. They had in their possession a mandate on my head, one they certainly did not fashion themselves."
Ermalion hissed back with a sound like splitting skin. Maxxarek, chin perched upon one hand, grinned. He had missed Grimlic.
"And do you doubt our purpose?"
Grimlic looked up with grudging restraint.
"No. Of course not."
"But you must tell what you know -- that was no god we fought, but neither was it an illusion that slew Serkan. That venture cost us a great deal, both in time and allies. To rebuild, we must know what we lost."
The laugh rolled out of Maxxarek.
"We have lost nothing. Ironfist that has lost. Forglar has lost too, although they may not know it yet. K'Thir sits on the edge of civil war; already they panic and burn. Your spies have been helpful. As have the Firk."
That last phrase was what Grimlic needed: the pieces fit.
"You should have told me before I went."
Ermalion bellowed in frustration, striking the ground -- he did not like being left out.
Turning coolly, Grimlic began:
"The threat was a fake. Not that the Firk knew that, I would reason." He glanced up again at Maxxarek to be sure, but Maxxarek only smiled.
"Our Firk prisoner finally broke, and those mental tortures you so often disparage allowed for something truly remarkable: a false memory. The Firk believe their connections make them strong, unassailable even, guarded behind their enigmatic racial memory. But pluck one string and the whole instrument resonates. Lord Maxxarek broke our captive, the very one saved from you" -- Grimlic would pass up no opportunity to hold this over a rival -- "and wormed into its head an ancient fear, an ancient lie. If it worked as well as we thought it might, then it would be completely oblivious to its nature. And what reason would the rest of its race have to doubt its veracity, once they encountered the firk again? So the thought would promulgate throughout not just its mind but their entire mind, a lie within their entire race, believed beyond any other belief, a belief strong enough to create a void of space from nothing."
As he narrated, Grimlic marveled more and more at the elegance of the project: torture a single executor, and the Firk would do the rest -- all the effort and all of the risk. It was an ultimate kind of manipulation.
"Perhaps there was once a Roa, perhaps there was not. But the Firk believed it, feared it, strongly enough to project their version of a god into his own prison. A prison and threat which could contain leaders from every faction. Xulos finds out, and seizes the opportunity to send in Serkan."
It had been difficult for Maxxarek to reconfigure the false Roa to specifically target Serkan, as per Xulos's request. Maxxarek would have rather seen Talgar or Sceian dead. But Ermalion didn't need to know that, nor did Grimlic.
"We sowed seeds with an invasion, and leave them with a chaos they cannot solve. With my brother alive, K'Thir will split. We need only watch."
"De’lim is responsible! We must find him."
"There’s no proof, do not be hasty."
"What does it matter whether we find De’lim or not if the Stronghold will not come to our aid? We should -- "
"Our pressure along the east has only aggravated them! Letus tend to the traitor first."
"But we do not yet have proof! De’lim is gone but absence does not mean guilt."
"And neither does it mean innocence. Our search party -- "
"We don’t need a search party when his guilt is obvious. As soon as we drive off the invasion, Menalaus returns and De’lim disappears, that is -- "
"Be quiet! We need order!"
"Yes we need order, order which we can only have by hunting down that violent upstart and bringing him …"
The voices of the Circle bled into each other, while Menalaus sat in silence, eyes closed. The bickering would do only harm, but the councilors could not even agree when to stop. The clearing, opened the sky and even now dappled, used to be calm, a place for the reasoned discussions of great elves, who knew how to protect the order of things.. Those were better times. The trees were green, and concentration was the only thing to cause a frown on any face. More than fifty years later, Menalaus could still sense it, the faint smell of warm honey brought in on afternoon sunlight, the silent folding of grass as one elf shifted his weight forward in eagerness at a new thought.
Now though -- Menalaus did not even need to open his eyes to see the scene around him -- the scene was panic and anger. Light still fell, but its sweet scent was overrode by the mixed and furious breaths from shouting voices, each of the once-wise elves lost within their own beliefs. Nothing would be saved, not the Circle, not K’Thir, not the nora itself, if they kept on like this. Amareth had saved him, but it would be for nothing if he did not extend the act. Already the structure frayed. With deliberateness, Menalaus uncrossed his legs and got up. One elf continued speaking for a moment, until she realized, and let the point drop into the fresh silence. With great care, Menalaus began.
Even as they spoke, De’lim was in flight. The assassination had failed, somehow it had failed, but worse than that, they had lost the assassin. He got away. If they found and killed him, they could have salvaged the situation, passed it off as a Nefari attempt, but now… How one dumb, passionless elf could slip through their fingers De’lim did not know, but it cost him everything. K’Thir would not survive under Menalaus’s timidity, and De’lim almost wept for the injustice of it. They just wouldn’t listen.
He would not have time to dwell on it now, however. He tightened his cloak, surveyed the charred forest one final time -- a cause perhaps forever lost -- and walked through the portal.