Outside, a cold wind howls through the narrow streets of Blackbridge, rattling windows closed and barred for the night. The hour is late, so late that even the most ardent barflies at the Dreaming Djinni have drifted into slumber and only a precious few light sources dot the darkness outside.
From within the thermal caves comes one such glow, faint and diffuse. A slush of melting snow surrounds the doorway, where wet footprints lead off into the mist. Past the lantern, past the bench with its heap of crumpled clothing, a lone figure sits immersed in the hot water, head bent and arms cradled tightly around themselves.
A whimpering sound breaks the silence and the figure stirs; fingers ceasing to drag and tear at old burn marks along arms, shoulder and side. Dark eyes blink open as Eve turns her tear-streaked face up, salty to the wolf's worried tongue as it tries to nudge and console the obvious hurt in its human companion.
Later, dried off and with the wolf slumbering at her feet, Eve cracks open a simple notebook, hesitant in beginning to write:
That's what my mother always called me. I was her evening star, born late in life and after a string of painful miscarriages. My parents had both given up hope when she found herself expecting one last time. Despite all odds, I was not only born alive, but whole and hearty, a strong and healthy child if not in any other way remarkable. But to my parents, I was a miracle and a part of me believed it - but wondered, too, what this should mean. I was cherished and important to them, yes, but a miracle? Surely being a miracle should mean something more, something grand. Yet I was never really that good at anything. Not the strongest, the fastest or the smartest - not the prettiest or the one to make others laugh or even listen when I spoke. I was - and am - mediocre in most all respects.
With the loss of my parents came acceptance, past the sorrow and the rage, of my own limitations. I was no miracle. Not when I couldn't save them. But that didn't mean real heroes didn't exist; I'd heard their name whispered in secret, the liberators of Zakhara, purging the Banites in Torm's light. The crusaders of the Silver Host stood up against cruelty, injustice and tyrrany and though I'd never be the shining star my mother thought me, I could still be ~part~ of something great, if only they'd have me. I set out to join with renewed fire in my heart and found myself accepted, despite having little to offer but sheer enthusiasm.
My time in the Silver Host was brief if you count the days, yet seemed more full of realness and life than any others before or after. We newcomers were but a ragtag group of greenhorns, yet I felt enveloped and welcomed to share in the greatness of the whole, in that giddying sense of unity and purpose, so uplifting of body, heart and mind. It seemed that around Sir Robert and Vere, nothing was impossible and no darkness could ever prevail against the light.
How I miss that feeling - I miss that most of all, that unswerving faith that what was right and true would always win the day. Surviving the Host's fall was a miracle in itself, if a cruel one - I shouldn't have, nor can I explain the how or the why. Once again alive against all odds, but this time wishing I wasn't. I didn't want to live, yet the unescapable fact that I 'did' was an obligation I couldn't shake off. If my survival truly was a miracle, then there must be a purpose for it, some unfathomable reason why I lived while all my betters perished in the darkened flames.
Now, at long last, a glimpse of purpose is revealed. Yet I selfishly still wish I had died with the rest of them, that I could simply be part of the ghostly Host, one of the many instead of here, alone amongst disjointed strangers I must try to work with against impossible odds. I'm still not the strongest, not the brightest or best at anything - I'm part of the group but still apart, struggling just to keep it together, struggling to survive another day. I have to do better than to just survive, somehow. They need me to, but I'm still just ~me~. I can't work miracles. I'm not a valourous knight or a mighty priest.
I'm just a girl with a bow. But I have to try all the same."
By the walls of the great fortress of High Hold lies a curious oasis - a sheltered ever-green garden where fruit trees bear ripe and luscious harvest upon branches unbroken by the snow and harsh winds outside. Here, beneath a cherry tree at the far end of the garden, Eve reclines, slumbering the afternoon away after a night of watchful wake at the Dreaming Djinni. Her journal lies sprawled across her lap and a smudge of ink dots the hand that covers it. Within, the pages read thusly:
It's expected, without question, that as a woman you shall one day bear young - in fact it is supposedly the main mission of your life to be a wife and mother. Am I less of a woman for wanting neither (and if so, do I care)? More importantly, am I negligent in my duty for choosing differently? And finally, am I letting my parents down by willingly foregoing that which they strove so hard to attain; a child?
The last question troubles me the most.
Despite these questions, despite the lack of definitive answers, in my heart of hearts I'm sure of one thing. I cannot do the things I do now and be a mother too. I'm not strong enough, not ~brave~ enough to risk having something it would cost me so dearly to lose. Children are so very vunerable, so small and soft and fragile, so fumbling and foolish in their first steps into the world! How does anyone dare? How do parents not live in a state of absolute panic, day and night?
Perhaps they do. They've every right to be afraid.
There are monsters in this world. Some walk right amongst us, hide in plain sight, while others bear down upon you from outside, crashing down like a black tide. I've attempted to deal with both sides of late, though the first remains elusive. The latter though, in every way outsiders.
Neogi is the name to fit to the lights in the sky; reprehensible creatures from beyond the stars, merciless slavers, mind-wrangling monstrosities with eel-like heads and spidery bodies. They are all too easy to hate, but difficult to fight for their seemingly innate ability to take control of one's mind - enslaving not only bodies but like mindflayers, enthralling and leaving those they use vacantly staring.
Near Marren's Eve, we fought them and their giant minions and though the battle was bloody and fierce, it was not that which left our party's spirits broken afterwards. For amongst those unfortunates we sought to free were children, locked in a cage set with a horrific and volatile acid trap. I did not count their numbers. I'm trying, trying oh so hard not to recall their faces, to forget their cries, the sounds and smells that followed the unthinkable.
Only one girl survived. I didn't look her in the eyes, did not ask her name, I just couldn't bear to. She was me, she's just like me only her nightmares will be filled not with fire, but with burning acid. She will wonder why, just like me. Why she lived, when they did not. She'll feel guilt and anger and grief too vast to bear and I - I can't help her. I can barely help myself and talking about it, to anyone, is still so hard.
I told Zoma only because he asked, because I want to be honest with him as he has with me. But my throat felt tight and the words far away, ill fitting, pathetic. Just another sob story. He asked me if I'd ever tried to find those responsible and I faltered. He asked if I wanted vengeance and the words stuck to my tongue. Do I want to stare down the persons who took my parents life, do I want to end theirs in turn? Does it even matter, when that's what ALL the Zhentarim do, when their violence and brigandy is systematic?
Do I want to kill them all?
A part of me screams yes. But evil like the Neogi is easy to oppose, you're ever righteous in striking down a creature incapable of mercy or change. People are different. I can't just kill them all - not without becoming a monster too. And I can't wage any large scale war without the Silver Host. But maybe I can still do my part in killing the system - break apart the chain, weaken the network?
A question for a later time. For now, I need to take the wins I can and let them strengthen my resolve. A hulking demon, another outsider, evil pure and simple, banished from this world through collective efforts. And unlike the last time, though there was blood and pain and struggle, the child so possessed was actually saved. His mother cried tears of joy and for once, victory was unspoiled and something to be savoured.
I'll take solace in that - and in knowing Torm truly is watching over me. I felt his presence in those dank caves, felt that warm glow of light beat back the darkness threatening to swallow me, after the ground all around exploded from the giant worm's burrowing. I must be doing something right - or at least, he sees that I am trying."
Outside, a thick and icy fog hangs over Blackbridge, frosting windows and muffling sounds. People huddle indoors, sharing hot beverages and each other's company in varying degrees of rowdy. Across the street from the Dreaming Djinni, in the relative quiet of the Black Bean café, Eve sits in a secluded corner, wolf dozing at her feet. She nurses a mug of hot chocolate, idly scratching out the symbol of a gauntlet on the window's frosty surface and then writes:
I dreamed of Zachary tonight, all of a sudden and in such vivid detail that upon waking, I thought myself still part of the Host. The bed was wrong, of course, the room, the everything else - and as reality sunk in, I could not stop my tears from falling.
It's stupid, of course. Pathetic really, but Zachary had an air to him that would not, ~could~ not fail to uplift. It's not only that he was handsome (although by Torm, he was), but more that his heart shone through and it was a good, bright heart, the kind that brings warmth to all those around it.
He put his arm around me once. A companionable hug, nothing more, a friendly ruffle to my hair, but that was all it took. I was helplessly, painfully smitten from that moment on. Never mind the folly of it, never mind that lady Marlene, his stalwart and steady companion, was a paragon of beauty, zeal and martial prowess. My heart wouldn't heed sense and my treacherous eyes would ever seek him out, greedily committing every line of his face to memory.
Not that Zachary ever noticed. I was mute and dumb-struck around him, a bumbling fool! Even had I been able to speak my mind, I knew even then it was always going to be a one-sided affair. As painful as that was, it was still a good sort of pain, for surely the world was better for Zachary simply being in it. Waking, realizing he is not, remembering his death and then all the others…
It hit me all over again. That heart-wrenching moment in which the spirits revealed themselves - a ghostly collective, awe-inspiring yet bereft of their individuality. I wept with joy to feel their presence, to feel a part of that greater whole again. I begged them to stay, even knowing they could not, then wept anew at all that which remained lost. Where was Loras' crooked smile, or old Maurice's morning rant during breakfast bustle? Where was Marlene's stern conviction, or that rare and sudden laugh she'd burst into at Zachary's teasing? I used to envy her so. Now, I just miss her.
I miss all of them, but Zachary's the one whose colours will not fade, whose every detail lingers, whose absence hurts even when I've told myself the end was fine and worthy. If this is puppy love, I think I shall not ever want the grown-up version in my life. It's been difficult enough just to let myself care again, care for real about anyone. But I think I finally do. Who my new friends are is somewhat surprising, even to me - for both are so contrary to myself and my former life. Is that part of their appeal though?
J.T. and Zoma are sorcerors both, bright and vivacious persons positively sparkling with magic, with daring, with a zest for life I can't help but to wish rubbed off on me. Although they're brimming with chaos, although they can both appear at times whimsically uncaring or even selfish, I find myself marvelling that either would call someone as dull as I their friend. Perhaps, in a sense, they're the Zachary to my Marlene, for making me laugh when I risk getting caught in a permanent frown else?
I feel protective of J.T. She's like some exotic butterfly, whirled by wicked winds from her native lands to the frozen north where unless cradled and kept warm, she'll surely perish. She decided, seemingly at random, that we're the best of friends. The why still confuses me, but I can't help but to feel chosen. Zoma, by contrast, has little of J.T.'s edgy vunerability but instead a sweet sincerity, balancing out an array of mostly endearing quirks. I sense a familiar search for meaning in him, like an undercurrent ever present past the swiftly shifting rapids.
They are my friends. That, too, is a form of love and one I won't be too afraid to feel."
The sun shines brightly across the snowy peaks of the Giantspires, glinting off the valley's walls of ice and turning frost-bitten grass to delicately glistening works of nature's art, every little blade of it clear and crystalline. The sky is brilliant blue, streaked with thin wisps of clouds, and the air cool and crisp as a winter apple, inviting all that lives to take a bite, to breathe the brilliance of creation in by the lungful.
The woman in silver and blue does just that, after sprinting up a hillside with the wolf at her heels. She breathes in, breathes it all in with tears brimming in her eyes - then exhales through a wonderous smile, a plume of mist rising. Seated on warm furs by a small campfire, she writes as the tea water warms to a simmer:
It is good to be alive.
For the longest time, that simple feeling is something I'd forgotten, lost with all the rest. I lived for duty's sake alone, convinced there was meaning behind my miraculous survival without ever appreciating the wonder of being alive. In those lost years, it's wrong to even say I lived - I existed as though an empty shell, waiting to be filled with some untold purpose. I moved when told to move, I ate and slept but I didn't even begin to live until Laswell and Berlinne found me.
In Blackbridge, I tried to learn to be myself again. I tried to make friends, make jokes, have adventures but joy was a far way off and reawakening brought such a chaotic onslaught of sorrow, of feelings I neither wanted or felt ready to express. They spilled out all the same, sometimes to people all but strangers.
When the Silver Host reappeared, when the dark threat revealed itself, I tried so very hard to focus only on my duty and the task at hand, for early on it was evident I could not afford emotion. Not when Vere's killers were now amongst my new group of uneasy, yet powerful allies. I couldn't afford to fall apart, not infront of them, not infront of the spirits of the Host who'd tasked me with seeing this through. Failure was not an option but constantly a weight I carried, a fear coiling sickly in my gut.
Losing everything - you'd think I'd been used to it by now, but throughout it all I had always had my faith, my god, my duty to cling to. To lose ~that~ - to lose all that was more than I could bear to think of, let alone the knowledge that the Host, returned at such a cost through Jasmine's sacrifice, would then be lost twice over. The end of the rest of the world was a mere abstract, too vast to really register.
And now it's over.
The Shadevari are defeated and through the Silver Host's sacrifice, contained within the reforged Shatterstar. A duty ever after, a never-ending crusade to keep true evil at bay - this seems an honourable end, and an end, I knew was coming one way or the other. Still I mourn for knowing I'll never see them again, not even in the afterlife. I'll never again rejoin the Host, though I'll try to honour them in all that I do. And I'd like to think that through Torm's grace we are still united, in a sense.
That final memory glows within my heart, like an ember lit by the divine. The overwhelming feeling before Torm's avatar; that same feeling from first meeting Sir Robert, rekindled tenfold:
Right makes might.
I am filled with wonder, with thankfulness, relief and sorrow mingled; a confusing but somehow heady mix that makes me feel acutely 'alive'. Yet for all of that, I also find myself wondering. If this was my purpose, my duty now fulfilled, what comes after? I think I'm beginning to look forwards to finding out."
The early morning sun rises over the Temple of the Triad in Peltarch, pale and faint as though it too is weary, caught in the sleepiness still hanging over the city. Past the stained glass windows and despite the muted morning outside, inside the temple there's already a bustle of movement and the buzz of countless voices as priests, monks, knights, and fighters prepare for the day ahead. Having slipped out through a side door, with her back against the worn stone wall, Eve sits in solitude. Pensive, with a small frown creasing her brow, she writes:
The Knower of Truths, the Seer my group was tasked with protecting is not one of the spirits now returned. Vere has no place in the ghostly Host and after learning of her betrayal, it feels forbidden to even include her in my grief. But I still do.
She deceived us all. The Purgatory she created, the prison to which those subjected to judgement at the tribunals were sent, was not what we were made to believe. It was meant to be a place not only for containing dangerous and wicked people, but one in which they had time to reflect upon their crimes, time to reconsider and find within themselves the will to repent. Instead, it leeched away their strength and their will. It enslaved them. Vere's Purgatory was undoubtedly evil, but was she?
I can't find it in me to condemn her so. I heard it said she was an Ur-priest, that she stole the power of the gods. Vere mislead us, mislead Sir Robert into thinking this stolen power was Torm's true light - yet for all of that, as wicked and wrongful as that is, I don't for a moment think her intentions were. She was nothing like that Succubi, who under false guise weaseled into the heart of a paladin just and true, corrupting him and his to committing heinous crimes. No, Vere used the power she channelled to bolster the Silver Host's crusade against evil - and only against evil.
I know that doesn't make it right. But it makes it understandable to me. I won't claim to understand everything about Vere - she kept many secrets but I do understand this: she saw with perfect clarity; saw someone's full history, their intentions and their hearts laid bare before her. She knew what evil was. She knew all too well the damage caused by wickedness, by cruelty, greed and wanton destruction. Past her calm demeanour lay a fury that resonated with my own - I know this because she saw me.
Though all of the Silver Host welcomed me, Vere is the only one who really ~saw~ me. She saw all of us newcomers and in each found promise and potential which she tried to draw out. It wasn't because she needed protection that she gathered us around her - even then, that was blatantly obvious. Vere weilded powers the rest of us could only dream about, yet she always treated us with a gentle kindness. Even when we time and again failed to grasp the lessons she attempted to impart.
She sent us away that day; that fateful day when all was wrought to ruin. Did she know she was going to die? I have often wondered. I'd accompanied Sir Loras the day before and was late in returning. My group was already gone by then and we made haste, following the main Host through a forest alive with fire. We found Vere outside the burning village. She blazed brighter than any flames could, directing us immediately ahead.
I followed orders, as a good soldier should, but can't stop wondering what had happened if I'd stayed to protect her. I know I couldn't have stopped the attack, but if I'd just stood by her, perhaps I could have warned her in time. With even a little window in which to act, could Vere have saved herself? 'Would' she have, when redirecting her power at that time meant the deaths of innocent people?
I'll never know the answers. That, and so much more, was taken from us. Lost to the perfect storm."
Night time at the Dreaming Djinni. The bar's closed and all is quiet, save for the soft snores and grunts from sleeping patrons, tucked warmly in under rented covers. At the far end, a figure twist and turns uneasily. The wolf beside the bed lifts its head, wary of what's coming. A quiet protest, a panicky gasp and then a cry, followed by irritable cursing from the nearby bed. A shoe is thrown and the wolf growls, while Eve sits upright, mumbling apologies. Drenched in cold sweat, she leaves the dormitory with the wolf padding silently at her heels, finds a quiet corner to light a candle and writes:
In my dreams, there's always fire. The events blend and bleed into one another, but always there's fire. Always the scorching heat and acrid smoke, the darkened shapes against flickering flames. Always the cries for help and my choking fear. Always my inability to save them, whether I hide, run or try to fight.
Tonight, I hear my mother screaming and see my father's empty eyes reflecting the flames, gone and beyond my reach. I'm too late, too weak and bitter smoke fills my lungs. A screaming child runs towards me, trailed by fire elementals. My arrows, hitting true one moment, turn suddenly to ash and in the distance I see Vere's body crumpled like a discarded doll. The scream continues after the child's struck down and I realize it's my own.
I want to wake up there but the cinders keep dancing in the air. Trees shatter and reform in a nightmarish heatwave, building to a roaring inferno. There are skulking shadows moving through the flames, now edged in darkness. Through my panic, I hear Sir Robert's booming voice rallying us, see brightness envelop his form. Hope floods my heart, only to be dashed when the darkfire flares, blotting out the light. Consuming all, 'til all that remains is darkness.
And then I wake."