Metal Day, 1st of 1st Month, ZY1114
Doubts weighed heavily on the mind of brother Bayar. The weeks previous had opened his eyes to some uncomfortable truths about his religion. His new traveling companions, including the lowly Goblinoid drovers Tse-dong and Mo-tse, and the wandering Elf women Tass and Kanya, were anything but proper company for an upper-class Orc priest of Thauma-Virun. Yet he had found trustworthy company in them, and perhaps even a hint of solace. Should he keep a distance from them, as appropriate to one of his rank and station? Or should he open his heart without regard to status? What would his fellow Orcs think? What would his fellow priests think? Most importantly, what would his god Viru think?
After Bayar and his companions spent all night capturing the Black Beast and all morning selling the yaks, it was more than he could handle. He needed time to himself. He needed to get his head straight. So, at the first opportunity, he parted company with his friends, saying he’d meet up with them later. Then he struck out into the woods in search of solitude.
Tiny streams wound their way through the snow-covered hills of evergreens and leafless tanaka trees outside Po Keng. Bayar followed the streams, deliberately avoiding any known paths.
The sky was overcast – hardly a good omen for a worshiper of a sun god. As Bayar trudged through the cold snow, his thoughts were distant. Too distant, apparently, for he blundered into a trap. A rope constricted around his legs and before he knew it, his whole world was turned upside down. Bayar found himself hanging from a tree. Wasting no time, he cut himself down, and did such an amazing job of flipping to his feet that the trees themselves were startled.
A laugh echoed in the woods. Soon appeared an old Dwarf with a wild gray beard and ragged robes.
“I see you stumbled into one of my animal snares,” called the Dwarf.
“I have business to attend to,” he said. “I must be off.”
“Of course, of course,” said the Dwarf, grinning. “Business out here, in the woods, where nobody ever goes…”
Bayar fidgeted uncomfortably.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a visitor,” the Dwarf said. “You must be hungry. Would you care for some soup?”
Bayar was in fact starving. Hesitantly, he went with the old Dwarf to his tired-looking shack. As the Dwarf made some rabbit stew over a fire, Bayar saw that the shack was filled with books on religion, spirituality, and off-the-beaten-path mysticism.
Over stew the Dwarf explained that he had been a soldier in the Imperial army in the decades just before the Conquest. In those days, the Empire spent all its energy fighting Orc raiders, and frequently hired raiders to fight other raiders. The Dwarf had thought he was fighting the good fight. But when he found himself fighting Orcs one day, and fighting alongside the same Orcs the next day, he began to doubt his way. He was reassigned to the Yellow Forest, and that’s where he met an old Goblinoid shaman who helped him find a new way.
Bayar confessed he too was struggling with doubts. Soon he was confessing his heart to the man he had met just moments before.
While listening to Bayar, the Dwarf shuffled strips of bamboo painted with scenes, and laid them out before them one by one. They told his fortune, but it was more like clarifying his thoughts than telling the future. Bayar watched as the strips linked up with the words falling out of his mouth. Then he fell silent as the strip representing his spiritual journey appeared. Painted on the bamboo was a black raven and a skeletal arm holding a scythe, and a single word:
The Dward explained that only rarely did the Death strip forebode actual extinction. More likely it referred to a metaphorical death, a complete dying off of the old self, to make way for a new one.
The divination concluded, and the Dwarf offered one final word of advice. There was a flower in these words that granted visions. It had orange petals and purple anthers, and bloomed in the winter. If he desired, Bayar could make a tea of these flowers to commune with his inner guide or his deity.
Uncertain whether he was making a mistake or not, Bayar trudged into the woods and came back with a handful of the flowers. The Dwarf assisted in preparing the tea, and then took Bayar to a small cave. There he left the Orc priest to have his communion.
With a shaking hand, Bayar took the tea to his lips and gulped. After five minutes, nothing happened. After ten minutes, nothing happened. Twenty minutes and still nothing happened. But suddenly a wave crashed over his brain and the cave transformed into a theater of visions.
First, true-life memories flitted across his mind’s eye. Bayar remembered playing at home as a small child, and looking at his father’s empty chair. It was empty because his father was always off on some military campaign. All little Bayar got was a stone sent from each new place that he went. He was more intimate with these rocks than he was with his true father.
Next, he remembered himself as a teen, attempting to train in the use of the bow. His father scolded him severely. But however hard he tried, clumsy Bayar could not hit the target.
After that, he recalled motherly and compassionate Eyet, the Orc priestess that took him under her wing and trained him in the ways of the Thauma-Virun religion. And he remembered his initiation ceremony, kneeling before the Vicar of the Abbey of the Black Tortoise, and the vicar’s peculiar cuff link that had recently fallen into his possession.
Finally, the memories gave way to a new scene. No longer did Bayar passively experience recollections flitting before him, but found himself actively engaged in a scene unlike anything in the real world. He was in a verdant green land at a crossroads, with three paths spread out before him.
Bayar took the first path and came upon a priest in glittering, gem-encrusted robes standing before an awe-inspiring temple. The priest said, “Welcome, Bayar. Power and wealth await you. Enter, and take what is yours!”
Without hesitation, Bayar fled and took the second path. He came upon a priest in still more stunning robes before a still more imposing temple. But this time the priest’s aspect was fierce, and he shouted, “Bayar N’Oko! You have gone against the temple, and for this you must pay! Stand and take your punishment!”
Again Bayar ran. He took the third and final path. This time he found a hole in the ground filled with blankets and pillows and feathers, in the likes of which he might sleep the sleep of ages. Meanwhile, storm clouds gathered and soldiers marched on all sides.
This time Bayar ran further along the path, leaving the hole behind, but somehow found himself back at the crossroads again. There at the center he felt empowered, confident, and serene. A light shined down on him from the heavens, and he looked to see himself wearing neither priestly vestments nor warrior’s gear, but a strange white robe like paper with nothing written on it.
At this point, Bayar fell on his knees and prayed to Viru for guidance. Out of the sun swooped a black raven, and landed on his shoulder. The raven was not fearful of Bayar, and looked him long in the eye. Then the bird took wing, and Bayar chased after it.
It was at that point that the vision dissolved, and Bayar found himself once again back in the snowy cave. He emerged from the cave and found a black raven alighted on top of the cave. The raven flew off, and Bayar stood in awe.
“Did you find the answers you were looking for?” came the voice of the old Dwarf, from a few paces away.
Bayar scratched his head. “Only more questions,” he said.
The Dwarf laughed and said such was the way with visions—all questions. But in time, the answers would become obvious.
With that, the old Dwarf took his leave of Bayar, but before doing so he told him that the Goblinoid shaman who had helped him so many years ago gave him the same tea of visions, and foretold that one day he would help someone else in the same way.
“You too may help another to see visions one day,” said the Dwarf. “Remember the recipe. It is yours now.”
“By the way,” said Bayar. “What’s your name?”
The old Dwarf laughed, as if he had not heard the question in a long time.
“They called me Nipada,” he said.
“Good-bye, Nipada,” said Bayar, and he headed back toward town.
Just then, the clouds finally broke, and the sun came out. It seemed a good omen indeed.
As he was turning over the vision in his head, Bayar suddenly had another true-life memory flash through his mind. He recalled a moment after his initiation ceremony, when he overheard the vicar cry out “The Grimoire of Immortality—I must have it! I must have it!”
Quickly Bayar doubled back and asked the Dwarf if he had ever heard of such a book.
Nipada shrugged. “A grimoire can refer to any kind of book, but it is often the term used to describe a book of sorcery.”
A chill ran through Bayar’s spine. He thanked the Dwarf and returned to Po Keng.
Back in town, Bayar found his friends nowhere to be seen, and the yaks likewise missing. Talking to the acolyte at the Thauma-Virun shrine, he learned that his companions were off chasing down some norther gang youths that had murdered a few southers that day.
“Oh, one more thing,” said the acolyte just as Bayar was leaving. “A letter came for you today.”
The letter was from Bayar’s mentor, Eyet. It read:
Friend in faith,
Good words reach me from the head priest of Kong Wan. It gladdens me to hear of your notable actions, for soon I shall be able to recommend you for advancement.
First, however, I must deliver an urgent note of caution. My superior, the Vicar of the Abbey of the Black Tortoise, anxiously presses upon me for the yaks of which I spoke earlier, and I am beginning to suspect some motive other than Viru’s greater glory. I fear you and I may be in mortal danger. Proceed with caution, friend. If you have allies, stay close to them. If not, keep to the shadows, and do not return to Xing Xiang until I give the word.
Trust in Viru. May he deliver us from harm’s way.
An awful sense of foreboding came over Bayar. He feared for Eyet as well as himself and his companions. So he shut himself up in an inn for the rest of the day to await the return of his friends.