The Gray Druid - The Diary of Aoth Sepret
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.
I tire of being human. With human concerns. Human feelings. I need to know what my soul wants, not this body.
I could fly. I would flee this land, Katrin. I would find comfort in my old ways. But that is not growth. Comfort, stasis are not my Queen's way.
I told you the opposite mere months ago in the first pages of this diary. The world looked the same when I returned – a question more, a question less. My life as a wandering shaman has meant transformations with no lasting impact.
I have my pieces in play now, Katrin. I have changed the course of the game. I have worked my Queen's will to rip from the sky the lieutenant of a demon-lord. I have gone to other planes. I rescued from dreams a mage instrumental in ending the demon threat. It all sounds heroic, no? Your mother never had faith in me. She called me a dreamer. But I have my traps, I have my pieces to be sacrificed too. Priests and assassins alike are my allies. (No, not allies. You understand.)
But it is tiresome. It is very, very human.
I envy the Aurilites in the mountains. Their anger. Their single-minded solution. There is beauty in their conviction as in their land.
At times I envy those "burdened by righteousness." They too are always so convinced, so certain, that their way is best. Endlessly they argue, Katrin. Do you remember Checheg, who never had a kind word to say about another slave except to their face? Those who serve righteous gods are all like her. They play at kindness when others are looking.
My Queen gives me no certainty. But she is watching me. She sent me a staff on the winds. She brought lightning down on one who offended her when she felt my anger. It is good to be watched. I would not expect you to understand such faith, Katrin. All your concerns are so human.
I must admit my jealousy.
(I am a fool to write any of this down, Katrin, where someone will find it.)
The transformation began within the cave. Wings, a tail. By the time we had seen the cleric of Chauntea, Leena had been transformed completely. She could no longer speak human tongues.
(I call you Katrin because I must believe I am writing to someone in order that I write at all. Is that curious? I do not know how to write for myself. All the speeches that our tutors assigned to us, yet I remember only the gossip we wrote, the foolish romantic stories for which we lusted.)
It is not the completeness that I envied. I’ve lived as a bear, Katrin. A hawk. I’ve lived many lives since we last spoke. Since your father…
(Do you remember the games we played with our diaries? Hiding them, seeking them. Inventing false diaries to leave out. Charming the keys to stain fingers. You were quite skilled at that, Katrin, and I wore gloves in the summer as a result.)
I acted on instinct. I was exhausted. I could not think. Could not form a plan. Without the windrider, Willow, Leena would have been lost. Without Ros, Leena’s true friend, who knew more than all my inquiries had revealed. She would have been lost. This is what I envy. I want to risk the loss of myself. I want to go with my mind where there is a chance I will not return.
(You must be married now, Katrin, or dead. How have you changed, I wonder? Your daughters could be stealing diaries of their own by now. If you are lucky, you are still your father’s heir – unless his new wife has given him the son he wanted. I wonder how many wives you have had to poison. I remember how the second looked as she died - so without grace - and you said it was a mercy.)
Yes, I have my transformation, the one you imagine when you hear my name – if you hear my name. The girl Aoth was no one. It was no sacrifice to lose her to become the shaman Aoth, Since then, I have been a bear, and it had no effect. The world looked the same when I returned – a question more, a question less. My life as a wandering shaman has meant transformations with no lasting impact. I tire of the forms of the wild. I cannot breath this way.
This is what caused my jealousy.
When Leena had been restored, I received the invitation. The druids here are a strange group with elves, bugbears. You would not like them, Katrin. The faiths and races mingled. Speaking to one another as equals.
I nearly dropped the seed, the invitation, there on the ground. Just to see their reaction. (I am still that girl Aoth, you see.) I do not want to be a part of a group that will have me, Katrin. I told them they did not want me. I reminded them of our people, yet the invitation stood.
They are too trusting, Katrin. I will need to change that.
In an instant I am a child again. It is harder to breathe the dark air. The walls close upon me. If I do not scream, I will be buried. But I cannot scream.
I am ashamed of my soul, Katrin. How naked I was, cowering in the corner. This fear is inseparable, inalienable from my being. It made me. I know it to be my teacher, this fear that leads me only to be more like my Queen. But I am ashamed.
I came to the baths looking for vampires. (Isn't that odd, Katrin? Such is my life now.) The bards, Nate and Isolde, were there speaking with a member of the local aristocracy, a family called Ashald. We did find a vampire later that day. I must remember the bards are less innocent, more complex than they appear. He - the vampire or so I believe him to be - spoke of stability. The golden years of Peltarch. An unlife built upon nostalgia. In itself almost as sickening to my soul as their flesh is to my lips.
We were nearly through the family tomb when the panic caught me. I would not shift, which sometimes help, because others would need my healing. When the shadows were dispatched, the others did not see Aoth of Akadi. It was Aoth the child hiding in a corner.
Then there was the elf-girl, Elriel. When the high priest told me he would not raise her, I felt naked, ashamed then too. Questions my soul had not asked. Insights I thought nothing of until too late. I'm meant to ask a favor of this same priest. How will he not remember my face? How will he not have questions? If only I had other shapes which could speak, I would wear a new face every day.
I slept under the stars. I write now in a glade surrounded by mist. I don't know if you would find that romantic or pathetic, Katrin, but I can't abide walls for now. The panic has never lingered like this. I don't think it is a fear of the lightless crypt. I have bared my soul to those who may mean me harm.