A Troubled Economy

Dear Journal

We stopped the cultists. Was the cost something worthy of our souls? Before, my soul’s ownership was in question, now I have no doubts.

At first, I thought my rescuers were decent people. Each with their own agenda, but overall good. Yet the more time I spend with them, I wonder how they cannot see that their actions are not the actions of good people.

Their actions are of the desperate. I find myself withdrawing from social interactions. Keeping my interactions to a minimum. I am now a prisoner. How do I proceed. How do I find my way when everyone I see is lost.

We found another halfling, naked. Some kind of blessing I suppose. Not sure on this person’s sanity, after having to experience and witness the things I can only guess at.

I am tired. I am so tired. I just want to lie down and never wake up.

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Oh, What Evils Do We Face?

“Help”

A simple word floated from unknown region. It caught my attention immediately. Was there someone who survived the cults machinations? I set off in the direction that I was certain it came from, followed closely by Danjo and company. We came to hall of visceral gore, each of us disturbed and sickened by the site. I chose to shove it to the back of my mind and trudge forward, ignoring the horror for the sake of saving anyone who may be left.

I can only hope they can be saved, and it isn’t, once more, a situation where we have to end their suffering.

The hall of gore was thick, I could feel it seeping through my footwraps, making an unpleasant squish with every step. The intent behind this heinous hall was a malevolent one, beyond what I’d grown accustomed to in the Dead Orc Pass. It looked like an entire village had been torn and rended into pieces, for no other reason then just that. Even the most savage of orc would have no reason for such violence.

At the end of the hall, we found what we discovered to be a breeding pin, the site of which was just as awful as the hall. Fallen, malformed children scattered the ground, not fully grown to birth. An obvious sign of incompatible species, I’d seen this a few times with the orcs, but never to this extreme. Behind a lone sawhorse, which I can only imagine what acts were committed upon, a small hin poked his head out.

“Friend or foe?” he asked.

“Friend,” I responded, before any of my companions.

Danjo spoke up, asking the hin for his name, to which we got “Chand,” as a response.

“I am Rakor,” I told the hin, hoping to welcome him among us.

He came out from behind the sawhorse, naked as birth and shackled at the wrists. We decided to help him look for his belongings and with a simple description of his gear, Sahil was able to call upon his spirits and locate the direction the hin’s belongings rested in. It did not seem to be far, so we made our way to them.

A large door stood in our path. I took point, holding my faith in Ilmater to keep me from harm. As I cautiously opened the door, it burst into flame, covering itself in ash, but causing no harm to me. Alarmed, I jumped back and asked the group if we should proceed.

“Fuck it,” Shino popped up, “If we die, we die.”

A vulgar, if not fitting, choice of words. Inspiring enough that they were, I chose to open the door fully. We saw a room much like any other room in these cultists’ chambers. Large tapestries dedicated to Orcus adorned the room. Sahil told me that the hin’s belonging seemed to be emanating from behind the large bookshelf just opposite the room from us. Everyone did their best to see if the bookshelf was a false wall, but we ultimately decided to take another path, down the hallway that was also in this room. I suspected it may circle around to a room behind the bookshelf, and the shelf itself may very well just be a shelf.
Rounding the corner into the following room, we came across what looked to be another ceremonial room for these cultists. There was a man sitting on a pedestal in the center of the room, his eyes closed, and he made no inclination as to noticing us here. I decided I would simply try to pass by him, and make my way further into the new found complex.

The moment I crossed paths with the man, I was pulled from the halls and brought to a woodsman’s cabin, unfamiliar to me. The very man that sat on the pedestal, sat here, enjoying a stew with a woman and child, presumably, his family. When I tried to interact with them, I discovered I was merely a ghost of sorts. I tried all sorts of ways to interact, but none of them succeeded.

It wasn’t long and the doors to this cabin burst off their wall. Demons stood at the door and forced their way inside. They took the man and forced him to watch and they raped his wife repeatedly and flayed the skin from his son, killing them both in the process.

I stood in horror, able to do nothing, and the world faded to black. Confused, outraged, and simply stunned, I could hardly process what I had just seen when I found myself just inside the door to this cabin, watching the man and his family have their dinner a second time. I tried my best to interact with them, ultimately reliving the same moments again and again. I decided to leave the cabin and found myself chest to chest with Danjo. I told everyone what I had seen and we proceeded to attempt to find a way to help this man.

I know little of magic like this, but I do know one thing. This man is in eternal torture, I will stop at nothing to free him.

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Rite of Passage
A Recollection

“Morth al haugh nothok! Bettah al nothokari!” the orc standing above me shouted, attempting to goad me. The tribe raged on, cheering in their bloodlust. As I attempted to stand, my foe kicked the side of my head, blinding me both by rage, and by blood coming from my beaten face. I laid on the ground, still, watching the orc out of the corner of my eye. The winter air of the North licked my skin, as the clan had stripped me down to just a loincloth.

A right of passage for a halfblood in my home. Survive the elements, survive being beaten to death, even then, it was no guarentee they wouldn’t kill you outright. Most of us were kept as whipping boys. Barbaric entertainment.

The orc came down with all his might, punching me in the back of the head. I could feel my world turning to black. I could feel the rage building inside. I knew this is what he wanted. Born of a human woman, he wanted to remove that stain from my blood, turn me savage. Make me a true orc. As he attempted to stomp my head into a pulp, I rolled aside, just enough to get on my feet. He had a few stone on me, but there was no option.

Kill or be killed.

I grabbed the most immediate solid stone I could reach and swung wide as he approached, connecting hard with the side of his head. He stumbled, stunned, and I took another blow. The rage boiled over inside as I knocked the orc to the ground. I smashed into his head with the rock several times. He stopped moving before I stopped pummeling him.

My father watched with pride as I killed the orc who had raped and killed my mother.

I stood, a broken man, staring into the gore of my enemy.

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The Life of Asahi Gumo and his father Aoda.
1 of 2

_Birth and death mark time
Life’s interlude spins tales dreams.
Seal time in amber
_

Danjo busied himself making tea as he did whenever he awoke from his rest signifying the end of the watch. He felt the ghost of stiffness invade his joints but with a sigh he shrugged It off. He’d rested far too long through the kindness of his companions. Rakor who had pulled his tendon back into place and who had spent the last week or so tending to It getting him back to a full range of motion. Danjo stared into the steeping water of his tea pot and the steam from the warm water clouded his vision and he remembered something…

Aoda castle, Province of Iso, Wa, many years before.
‘It is time you learned how to handle a blade’, said an older man handing a carved wooden stick to the young boy. Asahi Gumo looked at his father quizzically. ‘Father this is no blade this is a stick’. The boy only about eight summers old took the stick and held It gingerly. ‘Yes my boy though this training stave is how you will learn the form to handle and wield a blade, I learned just the same from my master when I was a boy,’ the elder man smiled as his sons expression momentarily awe struck hardened with determination. This would be the first day of young Asahi Gumo’s martial training in the way of Samurai under his father’s instruction. Though it would end with Asahi in his enthusiasm knocking his father off his feet and tackling him to the ground amid his father’s laughter. The two would sit at days end under the lone cherry blossom tree in the castles back garden and Asahi would pour tea for his father. The boys innate fire his boiling spirit showed in his eagerness to please his father. To anyone else this would seem like inelegance though Asahi knew that his father saw something else. Despite the rather clumsy tea preparation and presentation his father smiled and drank all the same ‘You’re improving my son do not let stumbles keep you from walking’
…Present Day

Danjo blinked as he led the way down the cold stone stairway into the realm of the foul cult of Orcus. The group had moved in relative silence as the Hin Tuck Arbuckle snuck and slinked his way ahead and through the halls like silent wind. With the light of his second, Shino Fumie behind him the group searched the cult complex. Finding only the mutilated bodies of the cult’s members who had after knowable suffering finally expired had dread writings daubed in their own blood in the language of fiends set before their gory scene. Such blood brought a memory bubbling from the void of Danjo’s past and he felt the recollection shudder through him.

Wa, the remains of a battlefield, after the carnage.
The day had begun with that airless vibrating anticipation that precedes battle Asahi had thought. It was his first battle as a leader of men a contingent of some of his Fathers best warriors from Iso and his orders were to route the enemy advance and if possible drive what remained of them into allied forces to be crushed. And as the day wore on the mist was thick and heavy on the field that day. A man could barely see clearly three feet in front of him. The locals said that strange creatures and monsters prowled the mist for wayward travelers on days like these. Asahi was not afraid his spirit had been tempered and he had been taught how to slay monsters. As he moved his forces forward into the blind man’s battlefield they came into contact with the flank of the enemy forces. Just as the first voice cried out Asahi gave the order. The men of Iso under his command coated their blades with an alchemical oil that made them burn and shine as if they were fresh from the forge and as the blades shone through the mist the men charged. The battle that followed was recorded as a victory for the Wa Shogunate against an attempted insurrection assisted by pirates and even some of the local ninja clans. However the battle was noted for leading to the death of the primary instigator an estranged member of the Shoguns own family after he impugned the honor of a lone Samurai. Tradition dictated that he must defend his honor though to win held consequences. As Asahi Gumo stood before the cocky swordsmen in his pristine armor emblazoned with the Symbol of the capitol and dishonor thick on the mans lips he started again, ‘Men from Iso?, I had heard there were no men native to that Province, only Rice mongers and peasants and cheap concubines.’ The man laughed imperiously as Asahi drew his blade and with his known wealth of spirit positioned himself to strike. ‘Men like you will do well to remember the Men of Iso on this day braggart, though you will not live to remember them’ The grub in armors chuckling caught in his throat as fear began to dawn on his face just as Asahi’s sword stroke severed his head from Its shoulders and a final squirt of blood kissed the sky as he fell into a crumpled heap. Asahi would later regale his father with the story of the battle over Sake and the pride on the elder man’s face could have pierced any veil.

Present Day

‘The suffering and evil here bleeds through the walls I can taste It in every breath’ Sahil the young man from Ormpe said even his soft tone somehow twisted by the unhallowed halls. They had finally moved into unknown territory as the walls had turned from worked stone into the natural caverns found deeper in the mountain. Danjo still lead his mind and vision focused on the path ahead. The natural caverns had funneled down into a long single hallway with Danjo in the front leading the way into what would be a theater of carnage and lunacy in only a short time to come. As the hallway opened into a larger room Danjo saw a raised dais ringed by fire and in Its center lay a tiny form of a human child skinned the muscle pinned to the spot by large nails of a dark metal. The swordsman thought the child mercifully dead then in one long horrible moment it lifted Itself through some last burst of strength and It’s sunken hallow pain filled eyes met his “D..Daddy?” Danjo forget himself for a moment and a name escaped his lips that he hadn’t spoken aloud in ages not since he left Wa and his old life behind in billowing smoke “Asahi”

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From the kettle to the fire
I am surrounded by morally ambiguous people

As we gather up our things, and the items the fallen orc had upon his person. I am left shaken. Originally, I was grateful for the aid these people have offered me. They have shown compassion towards me. Offered me shelter, and gifted me with armaments. I felt gratitude and a desire to earn my place within this group.

Now, I walk together, and feel apart from everyone. Tuck has always been a difficult person to read, but now I question my original impressions of each of these people.

Rakor, a orc cleric who has had a crisis of faith, and appears to have found his chosen path. Following illmater. From what I am hearing, Illmater is a good god. Yet Rakor had no problems dealing with that, thing. That horrible incarnation of evil, to fight evil. I do not know if I can ever truly trust Rakor after this. A man of faith, principle. A man who is giving up so much, to follow his faith, and to trust in his god, only to throw it away at when confronted with an overwhelming evil. I do not know the ways of the gods, and doubt I will ever understand it.

Shino & Donjo. Two people I am still trying to understand their culture. So different, so foreign to everything I have encountered. I have watched Donjo read a book about gods. Gods I am told, hold to a ideal of good. Yet he has no qualms agreeing with this evil being we somehow summoned.

DID we summon him? Or is he just another part of this horrific life under the mountains? Did we just end up getting tied to another evil being, being used as pawns in their evil games? Death will not be a release from this. I am loathe to continue my existence, with the thought that my every action is aiding these evil denizens. Yet, if I die, am I really limiting their impact, or adding to it?

Sahil, the quiet man. He joined me in our fight against the evil. He kept silent during everything with the horrific being and his faceless companion. Ultimately, he signed over to this person as well.

I do not believe a word this creature has said. I know, in my heart, that I am still tied to the Wraith and now this creature. Now, I am tasked to stop the remaining threats to the Wraith, as well as find some questionable ore. The task sounds simple, but no task ever is.

I am surrounded by morally flexible people. People who will utilize anything they can, to accomplish a task. I do not feel comfortable being around such people. People who looked at me, as another of their troubles they have to remove, to continue on.

I saw the look in Shino & Donjo’s eyes. I know that trust has been broken. By the fallen, my trust has been broken with them all. Do I keep myself in a perpetual state of awareness, slowly falling into madness, do I leave, hoping I can escape this location, or do I act like I was wrong, and move forward. Hoping to find an escape from this place, and these people.

Having no one to talk to, no one to share my thoughts with is going to be difficult. I have taken to sharing so much with these people. That has to stop now. A facade, thin tho it may be, will have to be the slight veneer that keeps this civil. We all have a single shared goal. To escape this mountain.

Ubtao help me, I do not know how long I can hold out against all this evil.

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Vengeance

“Here stands a gathering of broken men. All of us from sorted pasts, none of us perfect, but hear our plea. We are hear together, bound by blood and sacrifice. We will not back down from this evil, even if we were all to perish. I pray to anyone who would grant me aid. This cruel evil still stands, even being judged by the saint, Alaric. I do not ask for compassion this time, but for the ability to end this blight. The abomination that stands deserves no forgiveness, there is only evil in it’s heart. If left to live, there is no doubt in my mind, it will continue it’s reign. Too long have the screams of the innocent filled these halls. I ask of you, sunder this demon from all planes of existence.”

Both Shino and Danjo prayed out to deities as well. Over the chaos of the battle, our words blended to one, I am unsure as to what they said. Weshtek and Sahil both faced the demon head on, casting their various spells at our foe. Even Shino threw out spells while shouting his prayer. Out attempts did little more then scratch the demon as he proceeded to throw all manners of vile spells out. My companions took quite a beating from his spells as I kept my distance, I’d faced that maul once before and did not intend on dying before we could defeat this atrocity.

We did not seem to be making any headway, a couple of us knocking at death’s door, when suddenly, the demon vanished. If I recall right, he vanished before we even finished our incantations. We stood in a shocked awe, trying to figure out exactly what happened. Tuck spoke up and declared the demon had teleported. We stayed still for a moment, still stunned, when time seemed to shimmer to a stop. A faceless being appeared, accompanied by a large devil, covered in loose scrolls.

He asked us if we were willing to make a deal.

I was the first to speak. I agreed to make a deal. Whatever the cost, I would put down this Orcus cult. If I must sacrifice my soul to end the suffering here and in these lands, so be it. I was born into evil, yet I chose to leave and become a better man. Maybe not a good man, but I am the one who is here in these caves. Good, evil, all I know is we need to stop this cult. A damned man I’ll be if it means even a chance of removing this cult.

The rest of the group, Westhek aside, agreed to the terms of the devil. Weshtek was furious that we would sign, and we argued on if using evil to defeat evil was worth the cost. It was ultimately revealed that we had no choice in the matter, as Weshtek’s contract was already signed. My blood congealed to form my own signature, regardless of my own decision. It turns out, the devil had bought the wraith’s contract, at least Westhek’s, but I’m thinking he may have bought all of ours.

Once we “agreed” to the terms, he summoned an army of bearded devils who took off and began tormenting cultists further into the complex that we had not seen. We could hear the orc demon himself yell out in rage as his allies were surely being irradicated. Danjo made his way toward the screaming, likely wanting to see an end to this demon. We banded together, and not a moment later, there he was, flying high above us once more. I stayed close to my allies, ready to offer Ilmater’s compassion to them as needed, as the demon flew too high for many of us to hit. He eventually made the mistake of flying low, and also took a few solid hits from Shino’s fire magic. Once he flew low, I chose to let Ilmater’s wrath guide my hands.

I managed to punch his leg, just as Shino gave him a final blast and he crumpled to the ground. He lay helpless in front of me. I could feel my orcish blood boil, a rage deep inside me. This thing deserved no compassion, no mercy. I thought of the child we had just put to rest and clinched my fists.

I gave into my rage and pummeled the priest’s face into a pulp.

“For the child we put to rest,” I thought with one of my blows.

“For the too long, tortured souls that reside here,” I thought with another blow.

“May Ilmater have no compassion for you, I know that I have none,” the thought passed with my final blow.

I stood, a broken man, staring into the gore of my enemy.

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The Broken Man

Waking from my dream, I am immediately greeted with the familiar stench of the underground. The damp mold, dried blood, and sweat of my companions is thick enough to stick to one’s throat. The taste is all but pleasant, but as I said, familiar. Through the morning ritual of rations and tea, I can’t help but think of the dream.

“Why did the man become Danjo?” I thought, staring at the same tea cup from my slumber, “Who were those men, and why am I dreaming of them?”

I could feel the weight, however small, of my carved idol in my pocket. Saying nothing of the dream to my companions, I took the idol from my pocket. It’s likeness to Danjo was striking, at the time of crafting it, I had only passed it off as my way of coping with the trauma of his death and resurrection, but maybe the likeness was more. I put the idol away, the thoughts still in my mind.

We broke down camp and began the day. I continued being lost in my thoughts, both of the dream and the fact we had discovered the Tomb of Alaric. Maybe these dreams and their frequency is a way for the gods to attempt to communicate, I do not know., all I know is I dreamt of men I’d never met.

I am snapped to attention with the voice of a stranger. A dark skinned drow stood before us, likely the one we were looking for. She has with her demons of formidable power and stuck fear into our hearts with her harsh words. We are little more then flies to her presence, dismissed as she leaves us to our fears.

Everyone begins to debate further actions. The cult of Orcus must be dealt with, as must the drow. Both exceed our abilites, as have been proven time and time again, but alas, we press on. Our determination hopefully met with divine intervention of equal force.

If nothing else, our last stand will be one for the books.

As we make our way through the tunnels of our home, I can’t help but watch Danjo, clutching my idol at the ready.

“Who is this man from Wa?”

“Why does he haunt my dreams?”

These trials may be lost on me currently, hopefully their message is clear before I pass.

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Cryptic Dreams

In a field of yellow roses, a beaten man sits before me. His back is faced to me and I can make out little of his features in the dim, campfire light, illuminating the otherwise dark night, a lone star the only light in the darkened sky.

“I’ve had this dream,” I thought to myself, attempting to stand, but finding my legs to be useless. I only sat on the opposite side of the fire, I just wish to view the man’s face.

“Drink,” the man said without turning as a pint appeared next to me on a makeshift log table.

I stared into the pint, a swirling vortex residing inside. The longer I stared, the more hypnotic it became, showing me images of a life I’d never known.

I saw adventurers, not ones I’d known. There was a plated man, wielding a longsword and shield, a hunter’s horn on his side. Dwarving the man at his sidestood another human, a beast of man, aged in his years. A waraxe in his hand, and a forest green cloak resting on his shoulders. Another girth of a man sat opposite the campfire of the plated man. He was a large one, easily weighing twenty stone, sweat gleamed off his bald head, as he joyously regaled tales that I myself, could not hear. A smaller man of unimpressive build plucked the stings of a lute, obviously adding to the fat man’s tale, as a man of similar build sat close to him smiling. The oldest of the group sat near them, nodding to sleep. He wore grey robes and had long white hair, unkempt and far past his shoulders.

I blinked and came to, back at the campsite in the field of roses. My pint, now a ceramic tea cup, small chips around it’s rim, eaten by time. The man turned to face me and I stared into the familiar eyes of the man from Wa.

“Rakor, would you like another cup of tea?” he asked, motioning to the battered tea pot I’d seen so many times before…

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Same old shit again!!
Gods and power and lives in the balance

Tuck’s journal.
So after resting we set out in search of the drow sorceress (or whatever). My companions and I were not too happy when we discovered that SHE found US! For truth, though I am normally adroit with words, for some unexplainable reason, I found myself silent. I wanted to challenge her with words! I saw that her threats turned the courage of my companions to water that ran down their legs, but to me, I know, threats and posturing are the currency of drow society. To cow opponents with words is the most economical way to win a war. As if by some strange power, my tongue was stilled. It was like my body was there but my personality was absent! So as we so often do, we succumbed to bullying and brow-beating and slinked away liked kicked dogs. How I hate, Hate, HATE DROW!!!

We went to the room with two doors. We allowed ourselves to rest and mourn our lowly predicament. We soon forgot the terror of the Orcs of Orcus and decided (ha!) to take them on once more. We gathered our wits and our bits and we set out. We explored more deeply than ever before into their lair. The Temple of Orcus, as always, is a pit of cruelty and despair! The evil made manifest in those halls describes the worst things done by the worst sort of folk.

We came upon an ogre guard and thought to kill it quickly to hide our presence! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!! FOR THE LOVE OF TYMORA! SURELY CYRIC WAS GUIDING OUR STEPS!!!!!!!!

The beast of our nightmares was there all along and he crushed the ogre, like Danjo crushes mosquitos! Once again we remember fear!

Now cries of succor and plaintive prayers leap to the lips of my friends, and no wonder!! They love their life!! Do I love mine less? NO! A thousand times no, I say! I have lived trying to avoid the gaze of the gods. I find that the powerful see me as only a morsel, or a pawn. I enjoy neither appellation. When I am creating an alternate truth that suits me, in order to gain some thing, I don’t ask Tymora for help, nor do I ask Tyr for forgiveness! I do what I do, to gain what I can gain. Can I fool the gods? I don’t believe I really want to know that answer. I just hope they don’t decide to notice me. So far the gods have not protected many from my scheming.

I prefer to create “deals” where both parties can prosper, but if it comes to a choice of you or me, I’m striving for ME. Best of luck and may the best Hin win!

So, will I join my friends in supplication? Good question. I have seen that Rakor, Danjo and Sahil as well get the help and support of their gods. Will the help of a hypocrite like me spoil their chances? I don’t have long to ponder… Why would Alaric return life to Danjo and Rakor? Why would spirits respond as they do to Sahil’s healing gifts, as occurred in this underground hell a few weeks back? I don’t know, but maybe my survival while being ignorant of the gods, has been a fluke. I certainly never dreamed they would intervene in my life, but I’ve witnessed their intervention with my friends! How long can I deny the power of their faith? How long can I deny the power of Ilmater? Alaric? Torm?

I know this, I want to live! I want their gods to save me too! I saw the wickedness of the spider queen destroy and ruin, and I’ve seen the work of the Triad do even better. I suppose it is time to take sides. Dare I? Will I be found worthy, (surely not!)?

“Torm and Ilmater! Alaric the righteous! Save us from this hateful force of destruction and torment! Strike him down, that we may serve you for many years to come! Help us in our hour of need!”

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The Dream of Sahil, Trashpicker Priest of Ormpe

I dreamed I was a bird, a white songbird just like Pak Pak. Or perhaps I was Pak Pak in the dream. Or perhaps Pak Pak and I had always been one and the same.

I flew over great forest canopies and across untamed savannas. All the lands glowed with hues of red and purple, but whether it was dusk or dawn in this wild land, I could not tell, for two suns of equal size hovered at the edge of opposite horizons. I alighted upon the boughs of a great cedar to catch my bearings, for I recognized nothing of this place. As I sat and contemplated my strange circumstances, purple clouds above me began to roil as if disturbed by some great wind, though the boughs of the tree upon which I perched remained undisturbed. I gazed as the roiling clouds began to form, to my astonishment, the likeness of a human face.

Like thunder, the face boomed, “Petitioner, what merit do you claim that you presume to come to the Beastlands?”

I opened my mouth, or beak rather, startling myself with the piping tones that warbled from my throat, “Brother Cloud, I do not know where I am, nor how I came to be here.”

At this, I heard nearby a hooting laughter, as of a mad man, but it was no man: An orange-furred ape swung into view from a nearby tree. “Ho, ho, ho, the child does not know! Does not know!”

“Forebear from your mockery, ape,” growled a third voice, that of a great-maned lion who entered the clearing before me. He stretched and yawned in the dusky sun, before continuing, “You too were quite confused when first you arrived. Let the child make his case.”

“I do not understand what case I am to make.”

The orangutan howled with laughter, but the face in the cloud spoke again like thunder, and the ape fell silent. “The Lord of the Dead has judged you fit to pass from his City to this realm, and yet I cannot divine which god you serve that you should be granted admittance here.”

“Perhapsss it wasss a missstake,” hissed a great python that unwove its enormous length through the branches above me. She eyed me like prey, and I recoiled in instinctive dread.

“I serve them all,” I warbled, shrinking away from the great python’s predatory gaze.

“Hey, hey, hey!” laughed the orangutan. “It doesn’t work that way! He cannot stay! Cannot stay!”

“I have prayed to She Who Guides to safeguard us in our journeys,” I replied. “To The One Who Endures to help us relieve the suffering of the innocent. To the Goddess of Wisdom that I might use my abilities to their greatest potential. I have prayed to all the gods I know, in such circumstances as their aid was proper and fitting.”

“Faithlesss he isss,” spat the python as she inched slightly closer, flicking the air with her tongue.

“Perhaps,” opined the lion, “But it may also be that his worship, though ignorant, was genuine in its intent, and the Judge of the Damned was merciful in light of his sincerity. Certainly, if the Judge required of petitioners a complete understanding of the afterlife, then none would find their way here. Did we not all arrive here with a degree of ignorance?”

“Well said,” replied the face in the clouds. “But we still know nothing about how this child conducted himself in his first existence. Speak child. Make your case.”

It was then I understood. I did not remember having passed from the prime material, but I knew then that I was dead.

“I kept my hands clean of bloodshed. I caused no violence to any sentient being.”

“Death isss not bad. It isss the way of all thingsss,” hissed the python, creeping still closer.

“That is true, my sister,” replied the lion. “But the child’s intent is nonetheless a noble one for those who are able to live by such tenets. Certainly the antelope would be quite happy if I were to dabble in pacifism.” With the semblance of a wry smile, he laid his head upon his great paws.

“Hoo, hoo, too true, too true!” howled the orangutan.

The face in the cloud gazed upon me intently and I felt at once as if he was seeing that which had passed before. “But you helped take many lives, did you not?”

“None by my hands. True, I manipulated the strands of fate that I might aid my companions. I summoned creatures to do my bidding. But I myself slew no one.”

The lion frowned. “So you establish your case upon a technicality. I care not whether you killed, for indeed, much suffering could be avoided if evildoers were given a quick death. But regardless, you should at least be faithful to yourself, not attempt to assuage your conscience with such pedantry.”

“You have told us what you have not done,” thundered the cloud. “But inanimate matter, sticks and stones, these things also do nothing, and they do not rise again as petitioners. What have you actually done, child?”

At this, I thought of the siblings, Setibyr and Enalda, who had begged to return from the wilderness. I had argued that we should proceed, that the gods would safeguard our steps. I remembered the sounds as they were torn asunder in the forest.

I thought of Malakai, brained by a stone in a senseless explosion. I thought of the suffering of my other companions whom the gods chose to make whole again but who had suffered horribly before they were restored to life. I thought of the visions in the temple, the bodies tortured and violated, sacrificed for some diabolical end.

And lastly, I thought of the vile pact we had entered into in order to spare our own lives. I convinced myself that the pact would be forgiven if my intent was pure, if we could yet come to the aid of the suffering. But now, I questioned whether this was just more technicalities and self-deception.

I had sought to combat the great suffering that had fallen upon my homeland, but in the end, I could not point to anything my actions had actually accomplished.

“My heart was pure,” I said. “But I cannot say exactly what I have done.”

With this, the snake flicked the air again with her tongue, catching my scent. “Hisss sssoul, it doesss not sssmell ready.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed the orangutan, “Away then he should go!”

“I concur,” yawned the lion. “But the child does show potential.”

“Indeed. This, then, is my judgment,” thundered the face in the cloud. “You shall leave this place and return to the life you knew, but know this: Make your preparations. All things must come to an end, and indeed, your end approaches quickly. Make sure, ere you next come to this place, that you have made yourself worthy.”

And with that I awoke. No harm had come to me. The dream, alas, was merely a dream. But I knew that in dreams the gods may reveal portents of future events. Regardless, this much was certain: Whether it was soon or many days from now, death would come for me, and I would need to answer for what I had done with my years upon this sphere. A judgment was coming, and I would need to prepare my soul.

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