“Eroth is the good and the light, brothers and sisters!” The preacher bellowed to his congregation. His voice echoed powerfully around the small chapel. “As He entered the gates of oblivion and stood before the Enemy, did He not declare: ‘It is the fate of all good men to be both the savior and the damned’?”
The townsfolk gathered before him murmured in agreement.
“I cannot hear you!”
“Eroth is the way.” They chorused, reluctantly.
The preacher slammed his hand down on his podium.
“It is His will that protects us from the Enemy! He needs our strength so that He may prevent the Enemy from enslaving us once more and dooming us to an eternity of servitude! Do not take your faith lightly, brothers and sisters, for dark times are coming and only His grace and sacrifice will see us saved!”
With noticeably more fervor, the congregation chanted again.
“Eroth is the way!”
“That He is!” The preacher agreed, walking around the podium and addressing them more personally, “I recall a time in my life when I wore not these hallowed robes, but armor and blood. Do you know where I was?”
Around the crowd, heads shook back and forth.
“I was in Aselun! I was a Legionnaire of the Black, ready to burn that holy city to the ground!” He boomed, raising his fisted hands aloft.
The preacher’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But as I entered the city and stood before the Tabernacle, I had a vision, brothers and sisters, yes indeed. We all did.”
The preacher’s flock hung on every word.
“The Martyr came before us all and he said: ‘Turn from your paths of tyranny and evil, for-”
The preacher stopped, mid-sentence. His outstretched hands trembled. He gawped for a moment and then dropped to his knees. Gasps and murmurs came from the assembled peasants, a few started to get to their feet to help, and the preacher pitched forward onto the chapel’s oak floor.
The Thane in black armor held his sword with both hands, blade down, above the thief.
“Do you concede to the judgment of your peers?”
His voice was emotionless and imposing, much the same as the blanket of clouds that covered the sky above him. The thief lowered his head.
The shopkeeper and his assistant stood within the ramshackle mob that had gathered. He clutched the reclaimed loaf of bread to his chest, and watched as the Thane delivered sentence.
Tears ran down the thief’s cheeks. A thin little girl stood across from him, red-eyed and puffy-faced.
“Then you will be absolved in death.” The Thane declared.
The thief’s eyes flicked up to the girl, and he mouthed at her: I love you, little sister.
In the dull grey afternoon light, the little girl started again to cry. A somber woman standing by her in the crowd placed a hand on her shoulder, and the little girl fought herself down to a quiet whimper. A heavily-tanned man on the other side of the girl watched the Thane and the thief through a deep squint.
The Thane raised his arms with a rattle from his heavy armor, and tightened his grip on the pommel of his sword. The tip of the blade hung over the back of the thief’s neck. The thief covered his face with his hands and wept unashamedly.
The Thane arched his back and the little girl shrieked. She turned away, bawling, towards the unknown woman whose hand still rested on her shoulder. The tanned man leapt forward, but not quick enough
The sword hit the ground. The thief looked up through bloodshot eyes.
Awe had softened the Thane’s features. He gazed out above the heads of the crowd, arms still outstretched, as if pleading. His faraway expression smoothed the hard lines of his face, and he began to weep as an unseen wave washed over him.
The old witch felt it too. It ran up her spine and across the back of her skull. Her blind eyes turned to the night sky as she gaped like a landed fish. The moon was crimson, like a congealing drop of blood, and she stared at it. She swayed precariously, nearly falling into the mire around her. She dropped the reagents she had collected.
Steadying herself on the rotting stump of a broken tree, she fought for consciousness. The hag blinked rapidly and drew in wheezing breaths. Her fingers dug into the stump, clawing up black clumps of dirt and moss.
Her rags trailed through the swamp as she splashed back to her hut. It was a small, ramshackle construction; crude wooden beams supported a thatched roof. She scuttled in quickly.
In the gloom, she ran to a table. Frantically, she scoured it for something, knocking a priceless grimoire to the floor and scattering lit candles in all directions. Eventually she found the object of her desire: a small leather sack.
The hag swept the rest of the clutter from the table, and opened the sack. She poured the contents into her hand, and began to chant. She closed her eyes, pointless but part of the ritual, and the objects in her hand glowed briefly.
She casts her hand out, scattering the collection of small bones across the table. Her eyes snapped open, and the white orbs followed the path of the bones.
When they came to rest, she let out a piercing shriek.
“Are ye a reader?” The mayor asked. He leant back in his leather chair, behind his mahogany desk, and peered at Nal Karsair. Nal looked at him blankly.
“A reader, sir?”
“Yes boy, a reader!”
Nal’s expression did not change.
“A mind reader?”
“No, boy, are you litter-at?”
“Oh, well of course, sir. I am an official Erothian Archivist. Literacy is part of the job.”
The mayor nodded, and rubbed a hand over his shiny head.
“Aye, good. We need a reader ‘round here ‘cause of all the strange reports we been gettin’ in.”
“Strange reports, sir?”
“Aye, bloody strange. There’s a stack of them out the back to go through. You know the Holinson’s were attacked by their cat, Ren’s pigs stampeded and killed his little boy, and pretty much every animal that wasn’t in a cage has disappeared?”
“If no-one here is literate, who has been writing all these reports?”
“Mrs. Sheld been charging people five copper pieces a go to write something down for ‘em, and they have been queuing up for her.”
“So why can’t she read them?”
“She says she went to the bother of writin’ things down so other people can do the readin’, not her.”
Nal nodded, and sighed inwardly.
“Actually, the reports are why I’m here. Do you know anything of the beastmen?”
The mayor peered at Nal suspiciously.
“Beastmen? Like minotaurs, satyrs and the like?”
The mayor snorted.
“No, why would I? We are a long way from the western boarders here, son.”
“I know, but there’s been a great deal of activity there.”
“Yeah?” The mayor asked, leaning forward onto the desk.
“Yes. I have been sent here because of Asuza.”
“Asuza, eh?” The mayor responded conversationally. “And just why would you need to see her?”
“She is a satyr, is she not?”
“And a druid?”
“So it is said.”
Nal stood up. “Then I have to speak to her immediately. The fate of the Empire is literally at stake, sir. Armies of beastmen have begun to move, and no one knows where they are going or why. We have to know.”
“Alright, Mr. Karsair, you wait outside and I’ll send someone along promptly. Probably Hanas. He’s a good lad, and knows the way to find Asuza.”
Nal and Hanas stopped dead as they rounded a corner.
“What should we do?” Nal hissed to Hanas. The young man stood petrified in the middle of the road.
“I have no idea.” Hanas whispered back through clenched teeth.
Five adult bears walked towards them, muzzles in the air, as if following a scent.
“Should we run?”
“They will chase us down if we do.” Hanas replied. The bears were close, thirty feet away and walking steadily forward. Nal trembled; each of the bears was huge. They walked abreast across the road, filling it.
“We can’t just stand here!” Nal insisted.
Frozen with fear, they did.
The bears passed them by without incident. One brushed so close to Nal that he could smell the dank odor of its fur. The bears appeared not to notice the two. He glanced at Hanas, who had his eyes closed. His mouth moved in a silent prayer.
“Hanas!” Nal whispered hoarsely.
Hanas opened his eyes and looked around to see the bears receding behind him. He blinked in astonishment.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Nal answered, “but I am damn well going to find out.”
Deep in the woodlands surrounding a small hamlet called Last Retreat, they found Asuza. She was alone, tending crops with the loving caress only a druid could have bestowed upon them, and they flourished.
“Asuza?” Nal tentatively called out.
“Eh?” The old satyr started. Various charms and talismans attached to her horns and shapeless garb jangled as she stood up. Leaning heavily on her walking stick, she rose to face Nal and Hanas.
They stared at her wizened goat face. Heavy creases across her snout and down the long angles of her cheeks made her look as old as her forest.
“Yes,” she croaked, “and who are you?”
“My name is Nal Karsair, I am an Archivist and I have been sent to find out-”
“Find out what’s going on, yes?” She interrupted.
She limped towards him, crutch thudding into the dirt, and appraised him close with her rheumy eyes.
“It is The Call.”
Nal raised an eyebrow, and glanced at Hanas. Hanas shrugged.
“What do you mean?”
“The Call! Can you not feel it?” Asuza asked, wistfully. “It pulls on me like a rushing river. I want to go…” She clutched his shirt with a craggy hand, and pulled him closer. “I want to go so badly,” she growled.
Nal, leaning back, looked down at her, eyes wide.
“…Why don’t you?”
“I am lame, I cannot walk any more. You do not understand,” she stated, upon seeing his face, “any who can see into the Firmament have felt it, and any who revere life must respond. The Call has gone out, and I am unable to answer it!”
“Who sent out The Call?”
“It is Gaea!” Asuza with fervor, causing Nal to squint as her foul breath flowed over his face. “She has awoken because she is in danger, and we must all heed The Call!”
Nal tried to take a step back, but the old satyr’s grip was strong – too strong. He pressed a hand against her bony shoulder, trying to push her away.
“I feel it! It is a call to arms - the call to arms - and it burns inside my belly like a hunger, a compulsion, telling me I must come, I must join the others for The Call has gone out and who am I to refuse it!”
Out of fear, Nal pushed again, harder, and broke Asuza’s grip. She tumbled to the ground in a heap. Her walking stick landed a few feet from her.
“I-I’m sorry…” Nal began.
Asuza merely grunted, and crawled to her walking stick. Nal and Hanas both saw her right hoof protruding from beneath her rags. It was black and rotten.
“Go, Archivist. We have spoken enough, and you have learned all I would impart. Be gone.” She said, without looking up from the ground.
Hanas took Nal’s arm, and led him away from the druid’s grove. Nal took one last look over his shoulder. Asuza, still slumped in the dirt, saw him look back at her.
“Tell your masters that Nature’s Army comes! No matter what her purpose, she will see it fulfilled through her children!”
The pair said nothing, and left as quickly as they were able. Nal was
at a loss to explain what he had heard, but knew he must spread this news
quickly. If nature itself were rallying against them, for whatever reason,
then The Call would be answered in kind.