The Gray Druid - The Diary of Aoth Sepret
It is a thin journal, barely larger than a human hand. Within it are the words of Aoth Sepret, a druid of Akadi, written in Mulhorandi with an elegant hand that mixes the Infernal script of Thay with a scattering of traditional pictograms.
Am I growing sentimental, Katrin?
It seems evil to me that a being should be alone. Whatever the cost, companionship is a noble pursuit, is it not? The pulse behind so many stories. So a few lives have been lost in this tale? What does that matter? Those people had opportunities to make themselves something. These heroes, they summon our kin on a whim, never concerned with the nature of the thing they summon. They force our kin into golems and other machinery. Which is worse?
Is this my problem, Katrin? You know my thoughts on my human kin. What of my other, later heritage? I have no urge to destroy Aldoon, and he has wronged me worse than your father ever did. It is different somehow, the purity of the elemental mind. Do I see myself in this Smoke? Am I too searching for companionship?
They call him aberration. Do they think the same of me? No. Of course not. Sentiment, friendship. They see me as a peer. So they call him the aberration, but he has a mother. Perhaps we should find her, if she survived. Mothers so often do not, I find. The cost of pouring your being into another.
Look at me, Katrin. Sentimental. Impossible.
Peltarch hurts my feet. Everything is so close. I can smell the earth on my clothes. But I cannot move just yet.
There are good days too, Katrin.
Witnessing a story reach a conclusion. Simply knowing that it is possible. Two joined upon a mountain exactly like a novel would have them. Equals, complementary.
Making a request of a god. Having the patience and the space to think, to wait on a god's timescale.
The freedom to simply travel, to embrace both those outsider's impulses that whisper within me as well as that very, very human core. Oranges, mist, and spray of the sea. 600 miles from those who know our names.
"Now the difficult work begins."
I did not even begin to suspect, Katrin. How utterly impossible these days have been.
I never even wrote in these pages the words "Knights Requietum." I knew from the start that it could not last, and every time I sat, I found myself at a loss for commentary. Or is this merely the story I tell myself? Perhaps I was simply embarrassed. (I can hear you laugh in my memory. Stop that.)
The Knights were meant to be the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Order of the Watchful Repose. For objecting to the charter and praising the Furies, I was given a position of leadership. I ask you, Katrin: ill-fated or not, how do you decline a puzzle such as that? I could see value in the order, but I began carelessly. I expected to be the lone voice of tolerance among paladins and clerics. Then, incident by incident, I saw how wrong I was. How can so few people make more mistakes than the entire Legion? The days have been dizzying. Either Shae is incompetent or a Cyricist, and I do not know which is worse.
This should have been a test of my dreams. I expected to be a teacher among the order, and saw that was needed. The conflicts were amusing at first, and dallying, I took them less than seriously. I saw only the challenge of bringing the knights together, seeing how their differences might complement the other. Balancing compromise and coexistence. All things the Circle must teach. It seemed so perfect an opportunity.
Then the vampires returned, and I began to see how this was not an order of the faithful. Far, far from it.
A certain sort values escape over understanding. They replace righteousness from the heavens with self-righteousness, with the unfalsifiable belief that surviving is moral. Dissecting any decision is an attack to them. They are either victim or victor in everything, and both outcomes are decked in garlands. I do not know how to reach these minds.
Look at me, Katrin. "Moral." When have I ever written a word so dreadful? The order left me tired, Katrin. I felt dull and chained. I failed. I see no future in reclaiming the order's name. Everyone speaks ill of it though the trial has not even begun publicly. I did not like this feeling. So I have left.
"This land tries very hard to give me a conscience."
It is as I told the new druids. What Leena referred to as the a "call." That call is all the difference. In the Knights, I felt surrounded by amateur actors on a stage during a festival, reciting half-remembered lines in an old tongue. Among the Circle, at least, we understand our roles. There are three new druids in fact. Leena rushes them toward apprenticeship. Perhaps she fears they will leave if she does not, but we risk becoming like the Knights if we are not careful. We do not have the demons to unite us, and already the other elders have retreated.
We should talk on that, Leena and I. At least with her it is never torture. Even if the bathhouse, as we dissected my failure, I felt at ease with her. I do not know how she sees me from so many angles at once, nor how despite that, she yet has such unswerving faith in me of all creatures.
"For you, I wish victory. For you, I wish to take something from this, and every other thing you encounter, and not be lessened in any way by someone else's foolishness. Even when it's mine."
Perhaps this is exactly what I would have come to write myself by the end of this page. I should thank her for sparing me the agony of finding those words myself.
It is done.
Now the difficult work begins.
Is it pain or control, Katrin? I have watched others die and recover. Do you remember our aunts who were so frequently born again in Kossuth's name? They are like that, these friends. They torture themselves over their faults. They obsess over stiff muscles and dull senses as if they are portents of moral failings.
After many victories, Leena lost her life to death magic by one of four balors. This convinced her to trade in her ironwood. We traveled the orcs together, she wearing little more than a nightgown. I flung my spear about, but I loaned her no healing magic. That is what they want, those who return. They yearn to feel the pain of their uselessness. To burn their limits into their consciousness. Sense and caution are not what they need.
But Leena went too far.
As the warrior Thyr recruited for a trip toward the lava caves, Leena proclaimed her uselessness. In any measure, she was no weaker than I had been days before, and she is capable of far more than she was when we met, when we committed ourselves and the Circle to ending this nightmare in Jiyyd.
It would have hurt our cause worse to scold her in public. We cannot let the Circle's name be muddied now. So in the belly of the orc cave, I spoke my only demand. We have too much work to do yet. Well after Glymphimhor's forces retreat, we will rely on the faith of others in our wisdom and guidance.
Laerune fell in the same fight. A spell little magic had hope of countering, it seems. "Why do we do this?" she asked. She who relishes pain, who admits pleasure in killing. She who promised to teach me to beg, Katrin. "Why do we do this?" It took a few questions of my own to learn she meant treks into hostile territory. Slaying goblins, orcs, and such. The dark twin to Leena's desire to burn the old, this apathy is not unusual.
Though the priest was with us, I answered honestly: I go to observe others. This was tested the next time I traveled with Laerune. I had meant to show her the other knights the bugbear mines. Laerune can be vocal in criticizing another's leadership, but she rushed headlong into every conflict. Of all the knights thus far, she seems the most valuable. I did not know whether to run at her side or guard the others. I thought drugs. Perhaps the influence of the Loviataran sorcerer. Nothing fit until we talked later and Laerune described the "burning passion" at work.
I should have seen that. But in a course of days, to go from that existential anxiety to such passion? This is unusual. Most return to their comfortable middle. I wonder what tomorrow brings. I wonder how this might be used.
You must want to know of the knights now, Katrin. You will have to wait. The grove stirs, and Leena seems prepared to make a speech…
Another significant gap in dates…
I do wonder, Katrin. Did I fly over you as I crossed Thay? Had you looked up to see a swiftly crossing cloud, one cloud among the countless of your years, this one alone thought of you in return.
I traveled in search of insight. I crossed the Great Waste bound for the Glittering Spires. I visited the kenku village where my staff was created. We had little to say to one another. The druids there misunderstood my intent. They insisted I keep it.
I traveled to Mulhorand next, where Nut-Akadi was revered as protector once. I found little evidence of the faith in Skuld, but an old druid of Sebek told me I would find inspiration among the monuments in the Land of the Dead. I traveled up the River of Shadows by boat. The valley of the dead was like a recurring dream of mine. Shifting sands, silent penitents and groundskeepers wandering among the dilapidated stone. I found nothing that moved me once the eeriness had passed.
I made the pilgrimage to the Shaar, to the ruins of Blaskaltar, for Midsummer. As the crowd of Akadi's faithful gathered, I found that I was not recognized. That amused me, so I kept my identity hidden. I listened to their many arguments. I watched their diverse rituals. I learned much, but very little of what these presumptive leaders of the faith wished me to learn.
Now I have returned to Narfell. There are many new faces, and many old problems. Though nothing else was achieved in my travel, I return feeling anew and capable of hope again.
There is a significant gap between the date of this and previous entry.
I have watched Wick loaf around the glen since the fall of the demon Ruin. The woods are not free of demonic influence, but it is enough for him: his dream come true. While he rests, the demons could yet take control of the woods before the end of the year. Visions are too dangerous that way, Katrin.
I am learning a similar lesson myself. I changed when I merged with the elementals and brought their experiences into my own. I told the damned guardsman I had lost some humanity. I knew speaking such a truth was a mistake, even other druids refuse to discuss this aspect of shapeshifting. But the elemental voices wanted the freedom to speak. Restraint is not their language. So between building this coalition, delivering news good and bad, these inner voices preoccupied themselves with possibility, with an opportunity for growth. The Circle of Jiyyd, I might as well whisper like a child with a crush. Should I write it on my skin too? Fancies I could be working toward long after my more mortal peers lie in the grave. Yet without foresight, without vision, how do I persuade others to look beyond the immediate? The short term victories they crave mean nothing if all of this must happen again and again and again.
Katrin, this is not whining, not angst or paranoia. They are talking of activating another demon-born artifact. They believe the words of a succubus, Katrin. A succubus. They are willing to repeat the same mistakes - note for note - as what birthed all of this. Madness. Utter, impossible madness.
In my change, I forgot those first lessons taught to me by my uncle, the Red Wizard, the Archdruid. Power shapes reality. Those with power decide truth. If they believe themselves invincible, people will fear them as such. They will take, they will harm, and the others will believe it the only way to victory. Here in Narfell people hunger for that sort of power. There is a vile entitlement. A refusal to regret. A blindness over mistakes. Lessons of the past go unlearned even as people face their consequences. Discussions of means and ends proceed as if the gods themselves had not descended to Toril to learn the same. But no, these heroes are the cleverest, the fastest - their past victories justify every decision. Or they sacrifice for their people and therefore their compromises cannot be condemned.
What do we do, Katrin? The Circle cannot win this alone. We cannot win this by hunting those who abuse power. We cannot win this with allies who predictably play into the demons' hands at every opportunity. So what do we do?
Change is the answer. Always the answer.
A lack of experiences is not the problem, Katrin. Pain is no longer a problem. I fail to write because nothing is fixed enough for words. Any day now could change my interpretation of everything.
There was pain however. So much that I cried like a child, and like a child I wondered if there could ever be an end to it. The events were quite confused. I fell to an immolith. Leena managed to revive me, but not before a demon found me in the Fugue. Whether the damage was done to my soul or body first, I lost my arm. Necromancy prevented the wound from regenerating. My shoulder was rotting flesh, dying, yet alive enough to feel.
No– I am recounting events in a version well-rehearsed by now. Is this why I keep you, Katrin? I think not.
I do not know you any longer, Katrin. What can I say to someone I do not know? That is why I do not write. Farewell.
The ink of this last line is smudged as though the diary had been closed hastily.
There is a long gap between entries here. Between the previous and next dated pages, there is only one sentence - written in an inelegant hand on a line that curls at the edge of the page.
I will not be spurred or spooked like some mare.
Revisit these next pages carefully. Forget the illusion that this diary is a series of letters, a game, a trifle. Read and remember. Read that you may survive.
You were curious about the devils and the Golden Light. Paranoid even. With Roslyn, you went beyond the hill giants and into the ogre gorge. The names: Hannibal, Isolde, Alvaniel, Rasuil, Jojono, Anheim, and Tanya, Atel's daughter. Kimara and Salin were there among the ogres but would leave shortly.
Beyond the fire traps, the ogres died by another hand. A fantastic, masked swordsman. (Already you suspected, Aoth. Remember.) The swordsman stood among others - the Night Parade - and on the ground a man in Cerulean blue.
Here understand this is no feint, no wishful thinking, no rosy-reflection: you sensed a trap. In your bones you knew the Cerulean suspicious though there was no evidence yet. Your bones knew the truth on sight.
Saved, the Cerulean demanded a teleport, fast passage, to the location he had been studying. You wind walked. There was an opening, a portal, which responded to Roslyn's amulet. Some story was invented about Sarah Snow. (Remember, Aoth, when the details and explanation rely on another's feeling, how far can you trust them? Question how far you proceed, how much you risk, for another's understanding. Question.) Hurry, hurry, everyone said against their own judgment. No time to prepare. You saw, as everyone saw, the mistake as it was being made.
The keys, the hallways were familiar. It was all familiar. Believing the others had the truth of it, you suspected that the group was influencing your surroundings. Dabu's towers. Korvan's woods. All a reflection. Then Tanya dispelled it all, washed away the illusion. Why did you not understand, Aoth? Ask yourself that. This was no dreamscape, no memory. Divination clarifies memories and dreams, does not destroy them. Instead you thought it a game: think of Brightwater, you said. (Foolish girl, why are you laughing?)
The twisted orcs appeared in time to spur you to rush, to forget your misgivings.
Then the Cerulean found the third key alone. That was the moment your suspicion solidified. Why did you trust Isolde to find the truth? Foolish girl, trust yourself alone. Remember how he requested to enter first? A double-bluff and you all fell for it. Remember.
The cage sealed. The very moment you feared. Did you cower? lash out? panic? No. Your training below ground is a success. Fear no more. Trust in yourself.
You survived, Aoth, but remember this. You survived because you use spells sparingly. You survived on instinct, and your instincts would have spared more trouble had you listened.
You will find scrolls to resurrect the dead.
You will carry potions of true seeing.
You will not tread laughing into illusion again.
You will question.
You will demand.
You trust only Akadi.
Revisit these pages and remember.
Korvan is dead. Szath lives again. And I feel "pleased."
Silvia is free, has invited us to a dinner. And I feel "pleased."
Look back through these pages, Katrin, all the words I have written. How often have I said that one? When have I ever written of joy, happiness? Have I ever been sad? Have I shed one tear since the day tears failed to bring my father back?
Damn them for putting the thought in my head, Leena and Hannibal both. I was content. Now, Katrin, I wonder – could I have more? Is there a key to that cage? Is there anything inside?
"I think you are a good person and deserving of happiness," he said. Yet he calls me cold, distant, intimidating. How else was I to survive? Leena calls our people arrogant, Katrin. I may not be, but like arrogance, my coldness too is a shield. We are not good people, you and I, whatever Hannibal says. The mind heals. The mind buries doubt to avoid recognizing its own cruelty.
But there is another reason for my curiosity.
The Night Parade dropped a maze upon us in the Giantspires - Maria, Leena and myself. We escaped just before its walls closed. In Peltarch we learned what it was, and one of them - masked - pointed us back toward the mountains. We were half-resigned to go when my search of the city turned up commotion at the Hemways.
They are here, and this is no fight for fire and lightning.
Tests. Experiments. These are the ways others talk of the cultists' work. Studying reactions. Noting our choices. Learning our limits. I would be a fool to ignore the limit that has been shown to me again and again.
If there is a cage, I will learn what is inside it. If there is a key, I will find it first.
Dreammist. Vapors. Remember this.
Power. We despise it when others possesses it. We cherish when we hold it. That is the way of all nations. But can power be taken? Can it only be given? I do not know, Katrin.
I am no wizard. I know my magic is a gift. With those talents, Leena, Doona and I slayed field upon field of goblins. Scores. Hundreds. Their leaders came to talk, but we barely bantered. The bloodlust of the hunt was what we were after, no gold, no goblin trinkets. When the leaders fled, I caught them with my spells. When the goblin queen tried to escape with one last contingency, Leena blocked the spell. Our hunt caused enough death to catch the attention of a god.
I never told you of what I heard in Hafep's study. (And with the wisdom of years, I think perhaps you never told me of a similar story.) A demon, a devil - some foul outsider for certain - summoned into the Red Wizards chambers. I knew Hafep's voice, though not the tongue. The other–
Malar had a voice like that. A presence beyond language. With this voice he praised us and he denied us.
So I persuaded a god.
I told the little assassin that is what I wanted: to change minds. "You fight in honor of fate, yes? You risk death to come out again, alive. Akadi is goddess of change, transformation. I have no other end." I did not expect this opportunity though. So whose gift is this? Did my Queen work through me on the Beastlord? I will believe that, I think.
"I admire your faith," Leena said in the swamp.
"I would be very different without it," I said. "I want to transform the parts of me that do not serve Akadi."
I do not want power. I do not want to be seen as powerful. I do not care if anyone knows my name. Yet leaving the woods that day, I confess I felt quite pleased.
Everything depends upon the ranger, Katrin. All arguments circle around the ranger. The necromancer wants him for a champion. Mindless, feral, easily controlled. The others - even Hargakku - think him halfway there. I am not convinced. I recognize that drive for revenge. It is deep but not so wild as they think. Dangerous, yes. But what of value isn't?
Enchantments aside, he is not as easily controlled as he lets them believe. After all our talks, I feel no closer to understanding what he truly wants.
And what of balance? Do I not protect the 'good' Malarites in the name of it? Rasuil could never slay them all, but his actions would transform the faith if he continued. Perhaps he and the Wolves already have. I wonder how much of Korvan's path was set before his old pack came to Narfell. This Saernclaws and his gospel. Was it born out of the goodness of his heart or in response to some threat?
This must bore you, Katrin. But I must practice my druidry sometimes.
I was wrong about the hin, this Doona. Terribly wrong. That will entertain you. I wanted her to be me as a child. Directionless with anger. Torn between expectation and desire. Wild with confusion. She is a better liar than I allowed myself to see. More dangerous than the snake, perhaps.
There, Katrin, is a difference between Leena and I. She sees Szath as a druid above all, a brother already. She sees the sorcerer too as a sister in faith. She welcomes them, but they lied in my home, Katrin. We invited them into the glen, and they hid things from us. I cannot see past that. And why should I? They have told us less than we learned with a Legend Lore spell. They have told us less than Horgrim Blackweave did. They are using us, and we only presume their motivation. That is far more dangerous than the ranger's plan.
Here I grow distracted as the others have. The goal is to free to fey or to end her suffering. We have argued too long already about what could have been done. So let the past be the past. When we meet next, I must become the voice of planning and foresight and tactics.
Yes. How very entertaining for you, Katrin.
I thought I was so careful, Katrin, at hiding my soul. I should have known Leena saw from the start. Or did I know? Am I merely surprised by her view? Her phrasing was so perfect.
I know you don't like cages. Cells. Caves. May I ask a personal question? Why some part of you seems to be behind one?
You called me a monster, Katrin. You and my sister both. I blamed your father, our homeland, our education. I thought myself robbed. Scarred. Burnt. I never considered that the lost part of me was locked where a key might open it again.
Is it true? Am I hopeful? Or am I comforted to believe the promise of transformation ends there?
I have no answers. Perhaps I have no interest - not if the soul within that cage is ordinary, human.
The vampire hunters are free. Through the courts and not through shadow and steel as I had planned. I will have words for the little monk. That is the education we remember. Rewards and punishments. Lavishing attention and withdrawing. What cruelty drove the gods to make it easier to shape any soul but your own.
"Aoth Sepret of Akadi, I presume?"
How strange to hear that contradiction of names on the blue lips of a djinni, Katrin. I am Lady Sepret, or I am Aoth of Akadi. (Your father would laugh at either.)
We make a mistake if the Citadel of Ice and Steel is to be our enemy, but I am given hope today. Aldoon sends his enforcers uninformed of the whole truth? Like the footman knowing the accounts before the Lady, that speaks of a broken house. They cannot expend this much effort for every wayward petition, but why hide it from the legionnaires? If this is the game they play at the Citadel, it is a game whose rules I know.
"The Great Caliph cannot be mistaken - the Great Caliph's will is Truth, and his words, all that is right - and to deny it is to deny truth, and to invite all manner of fault."
Fools to give so much away. The Lord whose will is called Truth is the Lord who fears questions. Katrin, you know me by now. I deny all such truths, from mortal and outsider alike. I deny their aeons and winds of tradition.
"Heretic," the second said.
I would sooner destroy myself upon the winds of change.
The past is hooks in my flesh, Katrin. I am a contradiction. I know this. I would become one with my faith, and leave nothing of the original Aoth behind. Yet when I am reminded of those who hurt me, the hooks tear my skin. The vision of the fey on the tree. The elf's insults. I hear these, and I become that child again. (Is that not what I wrote before? I begin to think the fears are one and the same.)
Now my years have been stripped away. A fountain of youth. A crystal palace. Arvandor. I look much as I did facing disappointments in the Shaar long ago.
The bard did it for true love, to match the youthful looks of her fiance. (You laugh, Katrin, I do too. But if any two have deserved the phrase, it is the two bards.)
The former servant of Orcus? I do not know her reasons. She is a deeper well than I had reason to believe.
And why did I? The archon reminded me that change happens on the inside as well. Yet the hooks pulled too. It was my sister's name on my lips as I stepped into the waters. Always ten years older, chiding and controlling. Well, she can keep her years now.
I wonder if you feel captive, Katrin. Perhaps you hold your family's title now. (I have wondered that before too, haven't I? Another contradiction: the druid who clings to nobility.) Does the past, does family, bite your flesh too? Did you know I did not flee Thay the day I escaped prison? I fled long before. The day I did not shave my head. You must have thought my mourning turned to madness. But it was a different madness, a taste of true freedom. Not a scrap savored in secret. I walked to breakfast a new being, and I felt it warm my skin like a fever. The archdruid too was angry with me. Already I had slipped beyond her control.
Now in my new-old skin, am I new being again? Perhaps I look for meaning in something shallow. I am vain. That is enough.
The elf wizard did not touch the waters. It seems she has rejected my lesson already. The ogre is bad enough - and now he takes a student? I am already in debt to the little monk - though a meaningful word might do as well as gold this time. No. Let my new-old skin find a different strategy.
(The monk did not resist, unlike you. I could not imagine it more beautifully. A holy place. A covenant against the laws of a city. Two against a world. Just like the stories.)
They are all beautiful.
Pain and the lessons it teaches. Death and the fear of that unknown transformation. The cold, the beauty of its stillness. Fire and the rebirth that follows. The fields, where hands remember the work that sustains them. The storm. The hunt. Harmony between human and the wild.
They are all part of a balance. Not by working together, no. Not by treaty and convention. But through fierce loyalty to themselves and none other. By working against one another, their conflicts bring change.
And how do I choose, Katrin? They are all so beautiful, so dangerous. At times I wonder what damage I do when deciding by the convenience of my own survival, by my own fears and passions. But that view is like the righteous; my little eddies do not change the wind. And tomorrow, who knows where the wind may blow.
She is more cunning than people think. Driven by a personal justice greater than mere revenge. She desires challenge, and, I do believe, not only physical ones. It is a dangerous combination of traits, and yet, Katrin, she has won my confidence. I should fear her. I should prepare to face the other side of her in time. But try as I might to imagine the worst, I find I cannot plan for it. Would I surrender? I think I would, Katrin.
The Hemway woman thought of her as a pet, an oddity from a traveling show. I think others make the same mistake without yet facing the consequences.
My mistake is quite another thing. You would laugh in my face, Katrin. I can hear your voice now: "A friend? You? Aoth, she is using you." How many years did you have me convinced you were the only one who could understand me? Do I repeat myself like the elf warned against?
No – this is no letter. I find no answers here. That my mind dwells on history is testament to the transformational power of friendship and nothing else. I must go pray. The wind changes.
Did the Malarite tempt me, Katrin? I continue to wonder.
First she dared me to change Rasuil's mind. Easily dismissed. Then, at death's door, she swore to change. The ranger's fey sword was deep by then. Though the Malaraite lingered in this life for another minute, I didn't intervene. There were greater winds prevailing that day, ones long in motion.
I feel sad now, if you can believe me capable of it. Had we met in other circumstances, we might have worked together. She had already left her band of hunters. A few more moves and she might have become a valuable asset. But the ranger remains the more practical ally.