Barn closed his eyes as he walked up to the gates of Tordiir. The dwarven city sat on the crest of the largest hill in an expanse of softly rolling ridges and berms. The snow was beginning to melt, leaving a disgusting brown-black expanse of bare trees and uncovered mud.
It was as if the very world itself was reflecting Barn’s mood. He trudged through the sludge, towards the hopefully cleaner inner city. His robes were streaked with dirt from the journey, his shoes were nearly worn through from the rough conditions.
“Please state your business.” Two city guards stepped up, hands on their sword hilts. “All visitors must… Oh, Highsand.” Both bowed their heads. “We welcome you to Tordiir.”
“Please.” Barn held up his hands. “I am a mere man, like yourselves. Subject me to any search, as you would another traveler.”
“No search needed.” One of the soldiers glanced at the other before stepping forward. “Please state your business. All visitors are required to submit a formal query before entering.”
“Of course.” Barn dipped his head and sighed. For a moment, he simply closed his eyes.
The reality was that he still had no idea what his intentions in the city were. Destroy the true faith of countless individuals? Lead them on a path that they could never escape, allowing them to potentially never find rest with an Elemental in the afterlife? Or simply reveal the truth and let them all be killed right that instant? If they were already following a heretical path, they wouldn’t rest with the Elementals, which meant that maybe keeping them alive would allow them to see the error in their ways and convert back.
Barn shook his head after a few seconds and looked back up. “I’m here to investigate the new Elemental.”
“Of course.” The soldier nodded. “We’ll make a note of it. You’ll find them in the rear quarter of the city.”
Barn frowned. “The rear quarter?”
The soldier held up his hands. “As you know, we house the temple of the Morning Star. The Highsand in charge of that particular minor Elemental doesn’t believe the new discovery to be of importance.”
“Right.” Barn sighed. He had completely forgotten about that particular temple. That would make life more interesting. “Thank you for your assistance. Do I need to do anything else?”
“Of course not, Highsand.” The guards bowed again. “Enjoy your stay in Tordiir.”
Barn smiled and stepped past them. He hadn’t made it very far before he heard one of them call out for him to stop. Slowly, he turned around as the guards jogged up to him, armor clanging as they ran.
“We forgot to tell you, there’s a place in town for traveling Highsands to stay the night.” The guards gestured off to the right. “The Salted Ham. It’s a strange name, but the owner allows any cleric or priest of any religion to stay the night there free of charge. Since you guys never have money anyway.”
Barn dipped his head. “Thank you for that information.”
The guards smiled. “Anything for a Highsand.”
With that, they turned around and moved back to their posts. Barn sighed, turned, and began moving deeper into the city. Buildings rose around him, the short and squat dwarven constructions that he was used to. It was nearly impossible to find a structure higher than two stories, not outside the temple district.
The words of the guard came back to him, and he sighed. He received such high treatment, but was that what he deserved? He worked for the Fond’sar, he had done so many things that resulted in death and destruction. Was he even worthy to wear the robes of such an individual?
He did his best to put the questions and doubt out of his mind as he made his way to the rear of the city. Most Highsands, those who didn’t hold knowledge of the Fond’sar, would have visited the Temple of the Morning Star to pray for guidance before heading to look on the heretics. Barn just couldn’t bring himself to do it, though. He knew it was just an empty shell, a monument to something that the disgusting dwarven underworld had dared to profane.
As such, it didn’t take long to find the heretics. In the rear of the city, an old theater brimmed with activity. He frowned as he crested a small rise and gazed down on the activity. Dozens of dwarves moved in and out of the building, a three-story construct that had obviously seen better days. Large chunks of stone had been chipped out of the edifice, either through natural process of vandalism, and the sign over the door was long unreadable. Nevertheless, it was obviously the location of the new Elemental, a draw for many across the city.
Interestingly enough, Barn could see several Highsands and acolytes, dressed in the light yellow robes of the Morning Star, standing in the streets nearby. They seemed to be issuing warnings against heading into the theater, though Barn couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying from his distance. Slowly, he paced forward, a bit curious about the situation.
When he drew closer, one of the Highsands turned to face him. His face was a mask of anger, his voice hoarse with speaking for so long.
“Do not enter the temple of this false god! Setting foot on that cursed ground will declare you a traitor to the Morning Star, and will require penance for…” His voice trailed off as he noticed Barn’s robes. “My apologies, Highsand.”
“None required.” Barn sighed and glanced down at his robes. The small insignia on the left side of his chest indicating his dedication to the Consuming Wave was smeared with dirt, rendering it nearly unreadable. “I suppose I don’t look the part, right at this moment.”
“You look it more than we do.” The Highsand held out his hands. “Highsand Torlock.”
Barn frowned. “Torlock?”
“I know.” Torlock shook his head. “It sounds like I kept my family name, but I assure you, I didn’t.”
“I accept your word.” Barn nodded. “Highsand Barn, myself. I’ve been sent here to investigate this new Elemental.” He frowned. “Do you mind answering some questions? Might save me a bit of time down the line.”
“Of course.” Torlock dipped his head. “Though, if you’re planning on entering the temple, I have to warn you that you will still be subject to an act of penance unless you have the approval of a Highrock or the Airlaun.”
“Of course.” Barn dipped his head. He couldn’t blame the Highsands for instituting such a system. It would help weed out the Highsands who would show up simply to participate in the heresy. “How many of your own have joined the cult?”
Torlock sighed. “Too many.” He closed his eyes in thought. “Three of our Highsands and a dozen or so of our acolytes. They’re all in there right now, begging more people to join them.”
Barn grimaced. “Heresy has a strong draw. Can you tell me a bit more about the circumstances surrounding its appearance? I only know a that it was discovered years ago and is only now surfacing.”
Torlock nodded. “Of course. Honestly, you know most of it, then. When it was pulled from the home, all three of the people moving it claimed that it spoke to them. They immediately took it to our Highrock, who did an examination of it and determined that it was simple magic. He placed it in our vaults, and that was that.”
Torlock sighed. “Of course, it didn’t stay that way. Several of our Highsands started hearing voices at night, and while most of them fought the words, some of them bent to the artifact’s spell. They removed the sphere under the cover of night and placed it in the new temple.”
“Right.” Barn nodded. “So why not just send guards and retrieve it immediately? Why let this build up?”
“Because by the time we realized that it was gone, it had begun to attract attention.” Torlock shrugged. “The Highrock sent guards, but the people of the town demanded that it be given time. A formal investigation, so that a new Elemental wouldn’t be overlooked.”
“And the Highrock agreed to the demands because of the people.” Barn groaned. “Of course.”
“I must say, I might have done the same thing.” Torlock held up his hands. “The story does mirror that of the birth of the Dappled Stag.”
Barn nodded as he recalled the story. In brief, the Dappled Stag appeared in a small village, performing many miraculous signs. When the villagers took him to the nearby Highrock, they were dismissed out of hand, and the Dappled Stag was caged. It was only after many years of captivity and a constant care for those around him that the Highrock allowed for a more formal investigation that reveal the Minor Elemental.
“The Dappled Stag didn’t have his followers break him out of captivity.” Barn puffed out his cheeks.
“Let us not forget that the Morning Star has a tendency to exhibit irritation.” Torlock held up a finger.
Barn raised an eyebrow. “You sound like you’re advocating for it.”
“Not at all.” Torlock shook his head. “I simply understand where they’re coming from, is all.”
Barn stroked his beard for a few long seconds. “Well, thank you. If you don’t mind, I’m going to do inside. I’ll be at the temple later this evening for my act of penance.”
“Of course.” Torlock flashed a small smile. “Stay free of heresy in there. I suspect that you’re one of the good Highsands.”
Barn simply flashed a small smile back and moved forward. It wasn’t hard to push through the crowd of people and step into the small theater. Barn frowned as he walked through a small hallway and into an open room, designed for displaying the arts. Several rows of bleachers rose on one side of the room, able to seat perhaps a hundred dwarves. On the other side of the room was the stage, which at that moment was holding the artifact, along with the three Highsands that had deviated from the path. Curiously, they still wore the yellow robes of the Morning Star.
The artifact itself, the controller egg, sat in the middle of the stage on a small pedestal. It was larger than the other Hearts, nearly two feet across and plated in metal. Curiously, there wasn’t a single mark on its surface, it was a simple metal sphere. The images that Barn had viewed of other controller eggs all showed ancient dwarven runes and markings.
Barn frowned and stepped up to the stage. Dozens of other dwarves clustered around, making it difficult to force his way to the front. A screaming dwarven mother rushed forward, nearly knocking him down. She did manage to knock down an elderly dwarven man, who released a series of curses that made Barn’s ears tingle.
“I need the blessing!” The woman shrieked. “My son needs the blessing of the Guiding Whisper!”
One of the Highsands stepped forward and bent down. Barn couldn’t hear what was being said over the general commotion in the room, but he could tell that the woman wasn’t receiving the answer that she wanted.
“No!” She screamed. “I have to let my son touch the Elemental! This is his only chance at purification!”
Barn frowned and glanced towards the hallway. Scuffing his feet and looking at the ground was a dwarf that Barn was certain was her son. He edged towards the exit, but stopped when she glared back at him.
“One does not need to touch the Elemental to receive purification.” The Highsand raised his hands, using an enchantment to project his voice through the room. “Neither will forcing a blessing on a person cause them to receive it. They must come of their own accord. And, right now, I don’t think your son has any desire to be here.”
“You don’t understand!” The woman snarled. “He’s sick! Sick in his mind! You should hear the things he talks about, the things he wants to do!”
The Highsand, to his credit, maintained his calm. “I truly am sorry, my good lady. If I might make a suggestion?” The woman quieted down, and the Highsand knelt on the stage. “Perhaps you should ask your son why he wants to do those things. Listen to him, and I think the answer may surprise you. You might even find that he’s not as bad as you thought in the first place.”
The woman’s hysterical shrieks rose in the air again, and Barn sighed. Her son turned and simply wandered out, moving back out into the street. The woman turned and ran after him a moment later, screaming curses at her offspring. The Highsand continued to hold his hands above his head, and, after a few seconds, sighed and nodded.
“Perhaps it is time for another sermon. Please, why don’t you all have a seat?”
Barn shrugged, turned, and made his way towards the rows of bleachers. He hadn’t made it far, though, when the Highsand called out again.
“Highsand? Do we have another Highsand in our midst?”
And there went his cover. Barn sighed and turned around. In theory, he was supposed to be revealing himself as an emissary for the new Elemental. Which meant that he was in a bind. If he revealed himself at that moment, they would question him, which would reveal that he knew nothing about their beliefs. On the other hand, if he said nothing, they wouldn’t believe him after waiting for several days.
“Yes, I am.” Barn turned around and held up his hand. “I was curious as to your happenings here.”
“You look like you’ve traveled far, brother.” The Highsand beckoned him to the stage. “Please, come. You should have a place of honor in these proceedings.”
Barn nodded and walked back towards the stage. He really wasn’t sure what the Highsands were planning, but it made him a bit nervous. His footsteps felt like thunderclaps as he stepped up the small flight of stairs and onto the stage. The lead Highsand motioned for him to join him at the front of the stage, and Barn slowly moved forward.
“Thank you all for joining us here.” The Highsand crossed his arms as the last of the listeners sat down. “My name is Highsand Tarc, of the Temple of the Morning Star. I assume that, while some of you are already devoted to the Guiding Whisper, many of you are simply curious. Word of the new Elemental is finally starting to spread, which means that many will want to know of the new deity.” He turned to Barn. “If I had to make a guess, you’re the single outlier in the room. You, more than simple curiosity, are investigating what it means to your own faith. You want to determine if it’s true or not, likely before the official investigation arrives.”
Barn spread his arms. “You have me.”
“Fantastic.” Tarc dipped his head. “In that case, I suggest we begin. The Guiding Whisper is unique in his design. Where most of the Elementals like to hide themselves from us, only revealing themselves to specific elect officials, the Guiding Whisper seeks to make himself available to all.”
Barn frowned. That didn’t sound like a controller. At all.
“For the moment, until we have been cleared by the Airlaun and the Elemental has been made public, myself and my brethren serve to keep the Elemental protected. Once we’ve been cleared, there will be no Highsands that serve it directly, as the people themselves will be able to serve him on their own.”
Barn groaned inwardly. That was bad. Very bad. The more people that saw the egg, the more people the Fond’sar would kill, the more people would set off on the path to heresy. The idea that an Elemental would reveal itself to the common people was an appealing one, indeed, and explained why it was rapidly becoming so popular.
“Now, we could continue to preach, but as long as we have a Highsand in our midst, I think we should do things just a bit differently.” Tarc turned to Barn. “You have your doubts, of that I have no doubt. Would you care to voice them? Perhaps we could even have a debate?”
Barn stroked his beard. It was an open call, the chance to potentially sway some away from heresy. It was also a fantastic chance for Tarc to solidify his own case. Oh, the Fond’sar were going to have his head.
Barn groaned after a moment and nodded. “I do have some questions, yes.”
“Good.” Tarc smiled. “Would you care to state your name?”
Barn nearly rolled his eyes. “Highsand Barn.”
“Friends, Highsand Barn comes from the Temple of the Consuming Wave.” Tarc smiled. “An admirable Elemental to pursue, for certain. Now, Barn, could you tell me what your problems are with this new Elemental?”
Barn crossed his arms. If he said so much as a word against the Guiding Whisper, while he might later be able to slide by as a convert, there wasn’t a chance in the world that he was going to become its emissary.
“There’s the obvious question, first and foremost.” Barn crossed his arms tightly. “The Great Conference, held seven hundred years ago, was the only occasion when every single Elemental, major and minor, spoke in unison. They declared unilaterally that there were no more divines, that if any more were to be born, they would come from the current Elementals themselves.”
“Of course.” Tarc nodded. “There are several immediate possibilities that can be drawn from such a statement. The first possibility is that the conference never happened to begin with.” Barn felt heat rise in his chest, but Tarc held up a finger too quickly. “Now, I think that’s ridiculous, and I hope that none of you try to use that logic. The Great Conference was where the final Elemental was confirmed, without it, a good portion of our faith vanishes.”
Barn nodded. “So then, how do you resolve it?”
“Be patient and I will show you.” Tarc crossed his arms. “The second possibility is that the other Elementals themselves were wrong. There were, indeed, more Elementals, and they just didn’t realize it.” Barn felt heat rise in his chest again, and once again, Tarc beat him to the punch. “And yet, that would require the divines to be wrong. Since they are indeed gods, they cannot be wrong. To believe such a thing is to believe in too small gods.”
“Then why are you talking about it?” A man in the front row roared.
“Simple. I wish to cultivate faith, not destroy it.” Tarc shrugged. “If you believe these two heresies, or hear someone teaching them, do your absolute best to stomp it out. We must believe in the true faith beyond all else.”
Tarc took a few steps back, to the egg itself. “The third possibility, the one that the Guiding Whisper has revealed, unites all factors flawlessly. The Elementals stated that there would be no new Elementals that were not born from themselves. Could this not be a new birth? A new offspring, the outgrowth of two of the more powerful Elementals?”
Barn could see multiple fallacies with that theory, but had no room to speak as the room exploded in uproar. Tarc held up his hands, trying to calm the crowd.
“No, we do not know what two Elementals, if indeed it was only two, that gave birth to this one. That is part of what we are seeking to discover as the investigation begins.”
Barn sighed. Debating the point any longer than that would only result in confusion. “Alright, then.” Barn glanced at the egg as the room began to calm down. “What do you have to say about the new Elemental wanting to be out among the people?”
Tarc frowned and glanced at the crowd. “Why would that be a bad thing? Why would the Elemental wanting to be among the masses be any sort of an issue at all?”
“Because of the words of the Brilliant Light.” Barn held up a finger. “The declaration that the Elementals be sealed behind closed doors, not for their sake, but for ours.” He shrugged. “The reports of the early Highsands are disturbing, you’ve certainly read them. Exposure to such a divine force can drive the mind mad.” Passion built up inside him, forcing his voice out ever stronger. “The Elementals being sealed away isn’t to keep them from the masses, it’s to preserve their divinity. If being able to glimpse a god was a daily occurrence, then they would cease to be gods.”
“I believe differently.” Tarc countered. “Perhaps being accessible to the population makes this one even more of a god than the others.”
Barn simply couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You can’t seriously believe that.”
Tarc turned and spread his arms. “Please, I implore you. If this Elemental can become public, if this Elemental can serve us all, perhaps the others will, too. I’ve glimpsed the Morning Star on select few occasions, and the brilliance that it emits…” Tarc bowed his head. “It’s to die for. I long for everyone to be able to gaze upon such glory.”
Barn scoffed. It was as he had said earlier. If the temples were open, what reverence would there be for the Elementals? If a young dwarven child could throw a piece of rotten fruit at one of the Elementals, what would they be? What…
And with that, another thought struck him. If the people began demanding that all the Elementals be opened to the public, it wouldn’t be long before many of them realized that the Elementals were fake. A skilled enchanter would recognize the enchantments for what they were, and chaos would break out.
If that was to happen, millions would die. Barn shuddered at the thought. There was a chance, however slight, that revealing such a truth would result in the exposure of the Fond’sar and the freedom of so many. However, there was an equal chance that it would simply destroy the faith of all but a few and result in revolts and revolutions that would kill an enormous percentage of both countries of plains dwarves.
Barn groaned as the choices rolled around in his mind. Why was he even thinking out that far? The Fond’sar would kill the entire city before they let things escalate that far. They probably already had plans in place, ready to act the moment that things went horribly south. Barn just sighed as the crowd began to explode with questions.
“What’s its sign?” Barn spoke up an instant later.
Tarc frowned and slowly turned back to him. “Excuse me?”
“What’s its sign? Its energy?” Barn shrugged. “All the Elementals have an energy that they emit. If you’ve seen the Elementals, as I have, then you know it will. The Consuming Wave feels like an ocean current, the Internal Flame feels like the fire of the ground itself.”
Of course, there was no way that the Highsand could truly know that feeling. The only way it would be possible was if he was actually working for the Fond’sar like Barn, and that was impossible with how terrible the plan was. That said, everyone knew that the Elementals had their own energy signature, it was a fact passed down from Highrock to acolyte, possibly as a way of determining if the individuals could actually feel the Elementals or not.
“Of course.” Tarc dipped his head. Slowly, he turned and placed his hands on the side of the egg. Barn noticed it start to rattle, which he assumed probably wasn’t a good sign. “Please, allow me to ask a favor of the Guiding Whisper. Perhaps he’ll be willing to grant you all a glimpse at his glory. Though I can’t promise-”
A dull roar shook the room an instant later. Barn felt the floor shaking under his feet, saw the walls cracking and splitting.
“I am the Guiding Whisper.” The voice poured into Barn’s mind. He was quite certain that it sounded more like a shout than a whisper, but he was equally certain that he really didn’t want to argue with the creature doing the talking. “I am the new Elemental. Follow my teachings, follow my wisdom, and you will be granted many riches.”
Before Barn could say a word, the vision began to intensify. Plants began to grow up through the floor, the walls began to dissolve. Barn’s eyes opened in surprise as they were revealed to be standing, not in a city, but in a glorious open meadow. Light began to swirl in front of them, and he crossed his arms. This was going to be interesting.
“So what happened next?” The aqahartis leaned forward and propped its elbows up on the table. “Did it actually show up?”
Barn chuckled and nodded, taking a large bite out of a cheese wheel. “Sure did. Real big, had to be fifty feet tall. Cross a deer with a porcupine and you’ll be getting close.”
The aqahartis snorted. “And what did it do then? Isn’t it supposed to be a whisper?”
Barn sighed and nodded. “It made some speech about how a whisper is the most powerful force of all, how the smallest of words can turn the most powerful of ears. Bunch of crap if you ask me.”
“I don’t think I need to.” The aqahartis leaned back in his chair. “May I buy you a mug of ale? I have truly enjoyed our conversation.”
Barn held up his hands and took another bite out of the cheese wheel. He was in the pub area of the Salted Hog, where meals both fine and common could be purchased. While priests and clerics of nearly every religion were allowed to stay for free, food was a bit trickier. They allowed one wheel of cheese per guest per night, but couldn’t manage more than that. Barn was perfectly fine with that arrangement, since he didn’t have any real sort of income.
“You truly are a man of the cloth.” The aqahartis sighed shook his head. “I’ve grown too fond of the finer things in my years since retiring.”
“I’m afraid that such a thing probably won’t happen to me.” Barn sighed as the aqahartis waved a hand at the bartender. “Highsands rarely ever retire. When they do, it’s often out of necessity, not choice.”
The aqahartis sighed as he received a mug of ale a loaf of bread from the bartender. He slid a few gold coins across the table and began eating the heartier meal.
“Aqahartis clerics are a bit different as such things go. We’re actually encouraged to leave in our old age, to experience the world and bring our knowledge to those who may not otherwise receive it.”
“A noble goal.” Barn held up his hand. “What are you doing here, then? Please, forgive my rudeness, I’ve forgotten to ask.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.” The aqahartis waved his hand. “It’s simple, really. After I left Tifingor, I’ve simply been wandering. I made it to Dirnor, and heard of the new Elemental. Matters of religion interest me, so I came by. Little more than that, really.”
Barn sighed and nodded. “And your name?”
“Aqahartis clerics have no name.” The man sighed and smiled. “We relinquish it upon being elevated to the priesthood. Then, you’re much the same. You relinquish your clan name, which is the most important part of a dwarven identity.”
“You’re telling me.” Barn snorted. “You have no idea how many of my fellow acolytes dropped out of the college because they couldn’t stand the idea of giving up their clan.”
The cleric chuckled. “How were you able to handle it?”
Barn sighed and closed his eyes. The answer was simple. Like so many other things about his faith, it raised dozens of questions. Questions of worthiness, questions of whether he would have been able to continue with the training if the situation had been different.
“My entire clan is dead.” Barn finally spoke again. “When I gave up my last name, it was in the knowledge that I wasn’t giving up a thing. I was the last, and now that name shall never be attached to a dwarven name again.”
“I suppose it would be rude of me to ask what noble family line was cut short.” The cleric took a long draught of the ale. “You have my condolences, though. In a way, it seems like that would make it even harder. You would know that your family line died forever when you took up the robes. No offspring, no chance for it to succeed ever again.”
“Perhaps.” Barn sighed. “It’s too late now, in any instance. I made my choice, and I don’t regret it.”
“If you didn’t regret it at least for a moment, I would suspect that you were not truly fit to wear those robes.” The aqahartis chuckled. “All clerics struggle with doubt and regret. It’s what makes us certain of our path. The fact that forces of darkness attack us, try to leave us whimpering and wounded, means that we’re on the right path.”
“Maybe.” Barn finished up his cheese and sighed. “Well, you now have my report on the new Elemental. Are you going to go see it for yourself?”
The cleric frowned. “Would that be allowed?”
Barn shrugged. “They’re saying that it’s going to be open to the people, so I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. Not to mention that I’m pretty sure it’s just a telepathic creature or something that they dredged up.”
The aqahartis chuckled. “When I show up and say that I can feel it, they’ll probably say that they’re opening up the Elementals to other species.”
Barn laughed. “Now that I would love to see. Oh, the Highrocks will be hopping mad. The only times that other species have been reported looking upon the Elementals was-”
His voice was cut off by a loud yell. He frowned and climbed to his feet as a young dwarf, somewhere around sixty or seventy, barged through the door gasping for breath.
“It’s happened!” He yelled out into the bar. “The Guiding Whisper has chosen an emissary!”
Barn groaned as dwarves flooded out of the room. That news left exactly two possibilities. Option one was that the Fond’sar had just sent someone else. Option two was that the creature had actually selected someone to be its emissary. Neither options boded particularly well for him. With a frustrated growl, he hauled himself to his feet and bolted out the door.
If the Fond’sar were stepping in, he was in for a world of hurt when he got back. For all he knew, they would just extract his blood, find a way to duplicate it so he wasn’t needed anymore, and toss him into the lava. If the creature had indeed chosen an emissary, it meant that the being was getting cocky.
Desperate, Barn flew down the street as fast as his legs would take him. He needed to get to the theater, and he needed to do it fast. And then, maybe, he’d be able to salvage some tiny part of the situation.
Barn puffed around the corner, arms flailing. He drew up short, unable to get any closer as the crowd now filled the entire street for a hundred feet in any direction. Desperate, he began to push forward, trying to get as close as physically possible.
“The rumors are true, the Guiding Whisper has chosen!” Tarc’s voice boomed through the streets, echoing off the cobblestone walls. “Come one, come all! See the emissary, prepare for the wonders!”
Barn growled and pushed closer, fighting his way past the elderly and the young alike. What did they think they were doing? They were going to wind up killing everyone, didn’t they realize that?
He argued with himself as he ran. No, they didn’t realize that. How could they possibly realize that an evil group of maniacs was manipulating the entire world? And that the egg that they were holding was the key to their domination?
It took him well over fifteen minutes to force his way up to the door. By that time, most people he passed seemed to recognize him as a Highsand, and allowed him through. For once in his life, he actually didn’t mind the extra attention. He just needed to get to the egg, and fast.
With a final push, he managed to break into the theater itself. His jaw dropped at the sight of Highsand Torlock up on the stage, holding his hands high. Streamers of light burst from his palms, dazzling the onlookers. Lightning flashed across the ceiling, rainbows colored the walls.
“Oh, Torlock.” Barn breathed in disappointment. It made sense, in a way. If the egg chose someone that publicly maligned it, it would show even more so how powerful it truly was. Barn frowned after a second. Did that mean that he could have torn it apart and still posed as an emissary?
It was too late now, in any event. As the lights continued to dance, Barn sighed. The lights were simple illusions, basic magic that nearly every species could manipulate to some degree. Elves could produce bursts of light with almost any material that they could find laying around, humans could do it just by blinking, while lighting was one of the most common dwarven enchantments. And yet, the crowd was mesmerized by it.
“What is this?” Barn tried to yell over the crowd. “What are you doing?”
His voice was lost in the chaos, lost in the celebration. The Guiding Whisper had its new emissary, and that was that. Tarc caught his eye and flashed him a disapproving look, but took no further action. In a way, Barn supposed that was smart. If he threw out someone who didn’t agree with him, it made them look scared. It made them look weak.
They most certainly did not look weak.
“Well, now.” The aqahartis’s voice ran in his ears. Barn turned to see the man eying the proceedings with a small smile on his lips. “This is something interesting.”
“And what brings you here?” Barn crossed his arms. “Come to check out my story?”
“Curiosity, mostly.” The cleric chuckled. “This, I must say, is entertaining.”
“How so?” Barn turned and pointed up at the stage. “This is going to cause massive amounts of destruction. Chaos. Riots.”
“Believe me, I can see the potential.” The aqahartis chuckled softly. “I’ve seen similar cults form in other areas. Down in Distisil, it’s really bad. Seems like every family has their own particular cult. Of course, one time I was in Delsinar, and-”
His voice was cut off by a blast of light that left streamers on Barn’s vision. When they cleared, the creature from the vision earlier that day stood on the stage, in place of everyone who had one been there. It looked more or less like a deer or elk that was covered in quills. In addition, this time, the quills changed color, cycling through the rainbow in a kaleidoscope that made Barn’s head hurt.
“Rest assured, your leaders have come to no harm.” The voice screamed through Barn’s head, once again, not at all sounding like a whisper. “They are here, I am simply concealing them with my presence.”
“Which means he’s an egoist.” The aqahartis snorted. “Haven’t the other Elementals always maintained that they only speak through people because they don’t want to overpower the work of the clerics? They make appearances enough to prove their existence, but that’s it?”
Barn nodded. “This is unprecedented.” He snorted. “If it wasn’t going to cause mass destruction, I’d almost just sit back and laugh. The Highrock’s investigation into this is going to be great.”
“I recognize that some of you here debate whether I am a true Elemental or not.” The creature continued to speak.
“A first-year aqahartis hatching would know that.” The cleric continued his commentary.
“And, I must say, you’re right to wonder.” The creature dipped its head. “I, myself, wonder on occasion. Am I an Elemental, or something else?”
A muffled gasp rolled through the crowd, and the cleric started slapping his leg and doubled over. “I take it back, this guy is good.”
Barn had to agree with the assessment. By making the statement, the egg was both allowing for doubt and admitting that it might not be proven an actual Elemental, and opening the door for it to be classified as a different type of celestial being. Even if the Airlaun himself declared it evil and tried to have it destroyed, there was certainly a cult that would spring up to defend it. It was brilliant, twisted, and terrible plan.
After several more dramatic seconds, to allow for the confusion and wonder to spread, the creature faded from sight. The Highsands reappeared, with the lightshow continuing, and began raving about how the next day, they would see wonders. Barn snorted in disgust and turned away, stomping out into the streets. The cleric followed him after a few seconds, chuckling as always.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” Barn finally turned around and snapped lightly at the man, who still appeared dead-set on following the hapless Highsand.
“Not really, no.” The cleric sighed and clapped a hand on Barn’s shoulder. “Though I suspect that you do.”
Barn frowned. “What do you mean?”
The cleric laughed. “You’re not part of an official reporting squad, and yet you’re taking far more of an interest in these affairs than you have any right to. That tells me that you have something up your sleeve. Something more happening.” Barn sighed, and the cleric held up his webbed hands. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for an explanation. The Spring knows that I’d hate to make it all the way to retirement just to get on the wrong side of the Fond’sar or something.” He chuckled and sighed. “Just know that I’m old and looking for a laugh. You need help, know that I’m excellent with illusion magic. I’d be happy to have some fun if you need it.”
With that, the aqahartis stalked off into the distance, his long scaled legs eating up the distance. Barn watched him leave, then sighed. The offer of help was appealing, but far too dangerous. There was a solid chance that the conversation they had already had would be enough to get the man killed, and Barn rather didn’t want that.
With nothing else to do, he simply started wandering back to the Salted Hog. With luck, he could figure out some sort of brilliant plan to stop both the Fond’sar and the growing heresy. Without luck… He didn’t know how he was going to live with himself.
Many years earlier...
Barn followed the Highrock as the elder walked out of the room theoretically containing the Consuming Wave. He saw several dozen other people throughout the temple glance up at him, envy and awe on their face. He could only hope that his own face didn’t betray the confusion and turmoil in his own mind.
They soon moved off to the side, into a narrow hallway that housed most of the offices for the building. The entrance to the Highrock’s office was directly across the hall from the primary janitor’s office, a way to keep the Highrock humble, to remind him that he was an much a servant as the people who kept the temple clean. It was a unique setup, not mirrored by many of the other religions.
Barn shook his head as they walked into the large, ornate office and the doors banged shut. Barn opened his mouth, only to be immediately shushed by the Highrock.
“Hold.” The Highrock walked to his desk, a piece of carved granite that shone with a number of unique enchantments. He ran his hand across the stone, and Barn heard a soft hum rise in the air. A shimmering field popped into existence across the doors and windows, and the Highrock sighed.
“Now we are alone.” He walked around to the front of his desk and held up his hands. “Now, you likely have many questions, am I right?”
“I have…” Barn shook his head. “Many doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
“Then let us start with the most pressing issue.” The Highrock crossed his arms. “You likely want to know who took the Heart of the Consuming Wave and what we’re doing about it.”
Barn shook his head. Those were, indeed, quite high on his list of things to be concerned about, but they weren’t the top priority.
“You said that only a few people are ever aware that it isn’t the Consuming Wave.” Barn took a deep breath. All the Highsands that he had studied under, the clerics that had taught him in his youth, they had just been lying? “Everyone talks about the experience, how lifechanging it is. And for most people, it isn’t?” He shook his head. “Is the entire order of Highsands just a lie?”
The Highrock sighed and glanced at the floor. “Yes. I can see now, you would be concerned with such a thing. Your heart lies in the Elementals, you seek to serve the gods in whatever way you can.”
“Of course.” Barn nodded. “Is that not how most Highsands think?”
“Before I answer that question, I need you to know something.” The Highrock crossed his arms. “While there have likely been Highsands who were not worthy of the cowl, I have never elevated someone that I didn’t believe were fit for the job. The other Highrocks I know personally believe the same thing. We only confirm people that will wear the robes with pride, and serve the Elementals in their absence in the best way possible.”
Barn shook his head. “I don’t understand. You’re okay with allowing Highsands to lead people astray? To worship ancient enchantments instead of the true Elementals?”
The Highrock just sighed. “Please, put yourself in my shoes for a moment. You’re in charge of filling the churches of Tornor and Dirnor. Only one or two acolytes per year pass through your temple with the ability to detect the Hearts. Over one hundred Highsands per year need replaced, either because of elevation, retirement, or death. If we were only to confirm those few individuals, the number of Highsands would drop dramatically.”
“But then the truly good ones would be there.” Barn argued. “The people would be receiving the truth.”
“No.” The Highrock held up a hand. “Most dwarves out there, the ones in remote villages and reclusive shacks, aren’t going to travel twenty miles in one direction for a church service. For some, it would be even farther. Sure, the people who go might get a better experience, but the vast majority of the population would likely revert back to the old religions of dwarven tribalism. Worshipping enchantments and ‘gods’ conjured by human wizards. Perhaps the Highsands aren’t all the purest, but the teaching is still getting out there. More and more dwarves are able to rest with the Elementals in death.”
Barn sighed and stroked his beard. “I guess. I…” His world spun. It felt like everything he knew, his entire life, was being ripped apart. “Is there anything we can do?”
The Highrock allowed his head to droop. “I’ve attended many such meetings on that very subject. Once a year, all the Highrocks meet with the Airlaun himself in a general council, and though we all have knowledge of the situation, to date, we have yet to figure out what to do about it.”
“About what?” Barn held up his hands. “Who took the Heart? I…” He stammered for a moment. “I assume that all of them are gone?”
“You’re sharp.” The Highrock sighed. “Yes, all the Hearts are gone. All fourteen Elementals have been removed from their resting places, born away by thieves in the night. As it happens, we know exactly where they are. As it also happens, without an army, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Barn pointed out the window. “We have the entire might of two dwarven nations!”
“Mustering an army would take months, if not years.” The Highrock shrugged. “And by the time we had taken that much time, the Fond’sar would have already struck.”
That was the point where all semblance of clarity faded. “The Fond’sar?” Barn laughed. “The Fond’sar are a joke!”
“Oh, how I wish that were true.” The Highrock let out a long breath. “The Fond’sar are as real as the air that we’re breathing. And they’re almost exactly like the stories make them out to be. A silent, invisible organization capable of striking from the shadows and killing anyone and everyone they feel like. They’ve had their hands in dwarven society for far too long, longer than any of us know.”
Barn shook his head. “Why steal the Elementals, though? What’s the purpose of that?”
“Maintain control over us.” The Highrock held up his hands. “They possess the fourteen most sacred items in all three dwarven nations. As it happens, they have them suspended over a giant pool of lava, behind the most destructive spells and enchantments on the continent. If we don’t behave, they kill the Elementals. And, as was revealed by the Elementals themselves, that’s a very real possibility.”
Barn frowned. “Does that mean that our teachings have been sullied? Are we preaching their message?”
The Highrock shook his head. “To date, the Fond’sar have only used their influence once, over five hundred years ago. A high elf stole something critically important from their vaults. She sought refuge in the Airlaun’s temple, and he happily granted her asylum. Until the Fond’sar threatened to drop the Elementals in lava if he didn’t hand her over. Knowing that they would likely just raze the temple and capture the elf anyway, the Airlaun went ahead and handed her over to the Fond’sar. It has been one of the most-debated moments in all of history, whether the Airlaun was correct in this action or not. Since then, they have yet to use their influence in a capacity greater than simply letting us know that they exist and hold power over us.”
Barn closed his eyes. His entire religion was being held hostage by the Fond’sar? The Fond’sar weren’t even supposed to be real! They were stories told to children. They were fun to laugh about in the dwarven academies. They weren’t supposed to actually exist!
“Can I see them?” Barn opened his eyes again. “Can I go?”
The Highrock barked a laugh. “You want to see the Fond’sar?”
“No.” Barn slowly shook his head. “The Elementals. You said that the Fond’sar had them suspended over a pool of lava. I assume that they allow us to see them, to prove that they’re capable of such a threat.”
The Highrock sighed and crossed his arms. “I was afraid you were going to ask a question like that.”
“Well?” Barn held up his hands. “Please? You can’t just tell me something like that and expect me not to demand to see the true Elementals!”
“Actually, I can.” The Highrock groaned and stroked his beard. “And, in fact, most in your situation simply run upon hearing that same news.”
“Why?” Barn pressed forward. “You can see the very gods we worship! What’s a bit of danger in that regard?”
A chuckle rose in the air, and the Highrock groaned. Barn turned as another dwarf simply materialized from the air. An invisibility charm. Barn frowned at the man, who wore a robe the color of blood itself. His beard was flecked with spots of red, and his eyes were hard.
“You’ve got a good one, Highrock.” The man swept forward and held out his hand. “Barn, I believe it is? I must say, it’s wonderful to meet another wonderful operative.”
Barn frowned. “You’re from the Fond’sar.” It wasn’t a hard leap in logic to make. “I’m no operative of yours.”
“If you have true knowledge of our organization, you are.” The man shrugged. “Either that, or you’re dead. I can kill you right now, if you’d like.”
Barn took an involuntary step back, and the Highrock sighed.
“This is why I dread it when people of your caliber step through my doors.” The Highrock stepped forward and put a hand on Barn’s shoulder. “The Fond’sar don’t let anyone go. If you had turned and ran, they would have ran a memory wipe over you and allowed you to live. Now… Now, you’ll get to see the Elementals.” For the first time, as the Highrock turned and stared at Barn, Barn noticed the pain in the elder’s eyes. They were sad, they were terrified. “And you’re going to regret ever asking for the privilege to do so.”
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