You’ve always been a little different. It’s impossible to describe, but…different. A part of things. A part of everything. More than others. Learning to change things came naturally to you, like a stone in a stream ever so slightly altering the current. The other followers of Aluviel you met, the men, and dwarves, and even some of the Halflings…what they did seemed more perverse, like force, or wrestling the world to their will. It’s like a darkness in them woke and they used it to twist the universe. It made you uncomfortable.
You knew Whisper’s army was coming. Twenty-three years ago. You heard it on the wind, like the soft alto of Cheery Thistlewine’s voice, telling you to flee. And you did. You hid in a deep cave east of Harfoot Downs and collected up survivors of the extermination. Cheery wasn’t one of them. You closed their wounds, and beguiled the Peacekeepers scouring the woods. You went with the survivors across the Masaan and into the desert. You raised Brandywine’s Lament out of the sands with your own two hands and hundreds of your kin just out of sight of the spires of Karpassis. You carved a new life for yourself out of the world.
You watched the sun and sand and wind weather your people. They become leaner and harder than they were. They went from a culture of joy to one of survival.
Twelve years later when The Breaking came, the inhabitants of Brandywine’s Lament fared better than most others. A few of the resident priests went mad, including an elder for whom you had a profound respect. You had to help put him down.
You had, of course, heard of Shara Tev and her unusual companion Chumley. They were legendary and revered for their work smuggling Halflings out of the south. Tev, Chumley, Jacob Dain – the Wizard of the Wilds, Harfur Stoutfoot, and Peruppi Dentkettle were common names among your people. You knew she had set up shop in Karpassis after Riverton fell just before The Breaking, but you’d never met her until three years ago.
Shara came to town alone, which did almost nothing to help her anonymity. Spontaneous festivals broke out when Shara came to town, and crowds of children followed her from stop to stop. You had a moment of panic when you found out she was asking after a Halfling who could change things. A Halfling whose eyes didn’t turn black. A Halfling who was part of things. But it was Shara Tev asking, and so when you heard, you sought her out in The Longhouse speaking with a few of the town elders. When you entered, the room became quiet, and Old Skritch nudged her elbow. She looked at you and smiled.
She was a perfectly average human woman. Somewhat attractive, in late middle years, starting to show the miles she’s travelled since Riverton fell. And yet, she was astonishing. The whole of creation seemed to be made purely for her. You couldn’t describe how exactly, but the focus of reality seemed to shift to keep her in its center. You felt the flow of the river swirl and eddy around her, and you were immediately and willingly pulled into her orbit.
You thought for a moment that you’d fallen in love, but that wasn’t quite right. It was something else. Like meeting a long-lost sister, or maybe even mother.
She said you were special, and there weren’t many like you – in fact, you were the first she’d been able to find. She couldn’t describe precisely how you were special, but it had something to do with how you fit in with everything. How you didn’t go mad at The Breaking. When she asked you to come back to Karpassis with her, to keep you close, and to do good works, you didn’t even pause to think, and you rode with her back to her trading post the next morning.
There you met Chumley, the twelve-foot stone troll who wore spectacles and quoted poetry, and the head of their guard, a cool-headed woman named Syl. For three years you helped manage Shara’s “quiet network”, the information brokering that took place on the back of the mercantile exchange. You did a lot of good there alongside good people. There were pockets of Halflings in the South who needed help across the mountains or by sea to the relative safety of The Wastes. The Dwarves were starting to trade again, and you helped flow some master-crafted goods into the hands of the people who needed them, the people displaced by the war between Volkov and Tyr.
Then a month ago, the Grey Man came.
Shara, Syl, and yourself were returning from meeting a merchant caravan at the edge of the city. When you stepped through the front doors of the Rivers Exchange, you discovered a man…a completely unassuming, nondescript, perfectly average-looking man wearing a simple, but finely tailored outfit of nondescript, unassuming grey, holding two-ton stone troll Chumley to the ground by his neck. You arrived just in time to witness the unassuming man, with his one free hand, casually tear Chumley’s arm off at the shoulder.
Chumley roared in pain, Shara gasped in horror, Syl screamed and swung her long gun from her back up to her shoulder, but before she could fire, the man tossed Chumley’s severed arm – which must have weighed several hundred pounds at least – across the room, knocking her against the wall with a wet thud. He picked Chumley up by the neck and tossed him against the opposite wall like a ragdoll.
He straightened, flicked a bit of grainy, sandy black troll-blood from his doublet, and smiled at you and Shara. It was the sort of smile that accountants give customers. Polite.
“Why Shara Tev,” he said with a smooth, deep voice, “it has been far too long.” He seemed to notice you then, and he cocked his head to the side like a curious puppy. You felt his eyes. They weren’t part of the world. They were outside it. You’d never encountered anything quite so…alien. It felt like he was looking into you, at a very specific part. His smile became wider, and his face took on the look of a hungry predator.
“And you have one of The Unbroken…my master will be most pleased to meet you, good sir.”
You wanted him away. You wanted him to not be. One of your three best friends in the whole world was dying across the room. You don’t know what you did. But you did something. You changed something.
The man blinked in confusion, and then took a step back. Then another. Then two more. It was as if he was being pushed by an unseen wind. He leaned into it and tried to struggle towards you, but he kept being pushed backwards. He finally stumbled into Chumley, who wrapped his remaining arm around and pulled him into a hug that would’ve crushed a team of oxen.
Shara dashed to a writing table and scribbled something on a piece of parchment, then strode across the room towards the creature.
“I know your true name Gideon Nell,” she snarled, tearing the paper in two before his eyes, “You’ll not have him, nor me so easily.” A look of calm came over the man’s face, and he smiled a knowing grin, and then went utterly still, as if frozen solid.
The air seemed to leave Shara and she took the last two steps towards Chumley, reaching up to cradle his huge head in her arms. You heard Syl get to her feet behind you. She was broken. In three places, one was about to drown her in blood. You casually reached your hand out and took hers, and you made her better.
“What the…” stammered Syl, “what the hell is that thing?”
“I don’t know,” you replied quietly. “I can’t…” Syl looked to you, then to Shara and Chumley, and let out a deep, sad sigh. She knew. She knew you couldn’t fix Chumley. You’d tried before on a much less dire injury. You both looked on…interlopers on a moment between two lifelong companions.
“I’m saddened,” said Chumley to Shara through gritted teeth, his refined, Teribain accent a sharp contrast to a voice like thunder heard in the mountains, “that our story has to end here, love.” Shara nodded, her face wet with tears pressed against his. “We did good though. We did good.”
“Yes, old friend, we did,” she whispered. “Walk in Her light, my gentle, mighty Chumley.”
“Walk in Her light, Slayer,” he whispered with his last breath. You watched as the animate stone of his skin hardened, growing somewhat lighter, until all that remained was a statue where your friend used to be, embracing his killer.
Shara didn’t move for several moments. Then she straightened, took a long look into this Gideon’s frozen gaze, and turned towards the two of you.
She strode across the room and took your and Syl’s hands in hers.
“Listen to me, both of you. You’re going to want to think about this, you’re going to want to ask questions, but there’s no time. I need you to saddle Stormy and Vixen, grab up your kits, and ride West as fast as you can.”
“But..,” began Syl.
“No buts. That creature has my scent now, I won’t be able to lose him, but you can. He’ll break free of that little trick in a few hours, then he’s likely to spend a few days torturing me to death-”
“Now wait just a minu-” you cry.
“No. Time. Listen. A few days hard ride should shake him. He’ll have to track you like an ordinary man.” Shara lets go of Syl’s hand and kneels in front of you, taking both of your hands in hers. She looks into your eyes and smiles warmly, and you feel as though all of the goodness and wonder and beauty and light in the whole of the world were concentrated in that one, teary-eyed smile.
“My dear, sweet, Sanorin. We’ve discussed this. You’re going to help change the world. You’re going to help end all the suffering. I need you to go to Sergei Volkov. He’s the only one with a plan that can work now. Help him. Bring the light back. Go to Harrowburg. Ask for The Mechanic. They’ll get you to Volkov. He’ll get you where you need to be.” She pulls you in close and you hold each other there for a moment. “It’s a long road,” she whispers in your ear, “but there’s hope. Be hope.”
She lets you go and pulls away, holding your shoulders.
“Goodbye, dear friend,” she says to you, smiling her smile, “we will meet again, when all is light.” She holds your gaze for a moment longer, then stands. “Now go, please. Get the horses together. I’d like to speak with Syl alone for a moment.”
You choke back your tears and nod. You grip her hand one last time and make it so she feels little pain. Then you quietly step out of the Exchange.
The world outside is jarring. It’s bright, and the midday sun is harsh, even at this time of year. People are going about their lives just meters away from a deadly demon and the corpse of one of their employers. You gather a few men and get travel gear for two together and the horses readied. Then you tell the men they should leave for at least a week before checking in with Shara’s man in the city who handles her business accounts.
Syl emerged from the Exchange in somewhat of a daze. She gives you a curious look that you can’t quite decipher before visibly shaking herself back to the present and inspecting the assembled gear.
“I told the men to leave,” you said. She nodded. Then without a word rode out of the compound and towards the gates of Karpassis.
You didn’t speak for the first day. Literally. Not one word. You knew you were in shock and Syl likely was as well. You rode, you stopped, you ate, you rode, you slept. You didn’t speak the next day either until you had to discuss making your way around a rockslide.
Halfway through the second night, you felt Shara die. A psychic shudder seemed to go through the world, and the desert wind wailed in horror. Syl silently held you as you wept. You’re pretty sure she wept too. After that, Syl seemed back to normal, which meant cool, detached, and not very talkative – but after three years, that was perfectly comfortable.
You continued to flee to the West, across the desert and over the central Masaan and into the plains of the Northlands. The war between Volkov and Tyr was heating up again. Highguard had been lost to the new Southern General Vane. People were scared. The two of you looked innocent enough to not be threatening but tough enough to not be worth the trouble, so you had a completely uneventful journey to Harrowburg.
After discreetly asking around for a few days for “The Mechanic”, a man approached one brisk midwinter morning and asked you a few questions, just enough to make sure you knew Shara Tev personally and little more. He had you collect your things, saddle your horses, and led you out into the woods.
Several miles outside of town you enter a farm that was very carefully made to look abandoned. He led you to a house artfully designed to appear as if it were falling to the elements, under the watchful eyes of sentries who were almost, but not quite, well-hidden.
It was a special place. A sacred place. You could feel it. It took you a few minutes, but as you entered the house, you realized that this must’ve been His home. You were being led to a clandestine meeting in Kironius Mengst’s family home.