May 10th - Dark Citadel
Cathal lay deep in troubled dreams, wrapped in a makeshift blanket and jammed into the hollow of a mighty oak. In recent days he had pushed his body to the very limit, travelling the length and breadth of the war-torn wastes with his message of hope beyond hope, teaching hymns of courage and resistance in the face of unholy and unrelenting war.
The common folk responded warmly to his words wherever he travelled, even in the haunted woods of Helsera where no man held dominion beyond the reach of his sword and even the proud knights of Giblot dared not tarry their men at arms. He would stand in their midst, dressed in his simple travel-stained clothes, unarmed and fearless, and he would tell them of Alowca and the ruin which corruption brought upon her. He needed no tricks of oratory to claim their hearts, no clever promises of wealth and peace, for he spoke from the heart and in his voice the true power of the Gods was unleashed: the power to inspire.
He would reveal to them the scars he earned as warrior and general, telling the tale of that long march from Windaria on which he was shriven of his pride, and the people would touch them and marvel that one so young could have endured so much and yet still survived. And as he recounted the deeds of the warrior saints they would find courage in their own hearts to endure the never-ending war which blighted their hearths.
Sometimes when he finished his tale the people would offer him food but mostly they were too poor to spare a crust and he would share his own meagre rations with them, the rough bread and dried meats somehow always sufficing no matter the size of the company. And then he would say his farewells, leaving hope behind as he travelled ever onwards into the gathering storm.
And yet even as his words strengthened the people, they fell on barren ground amongst the nobility. What few there were who still held the Trinity uppermost in their hearts had either lost their own influence with the fall of Alowca, or else had betrayed their faith to gain power in foreign lands, and so it was that Cathal now found himself buried in the deep dark dreams of utter exhaustion. And as he slept he tossed and turned, his thoughts a tumult of unresolved futures.
There was a woman's voice, gentle as the wind soughing through the branches of the Bakker Woods, and yet carrying deep into the young prophet's troubled slumber. The darkness seemed to fade.
"Cathal Dubhaine..." the words seemed to rinse through his thoughts, sending black streamers receding into the furthest reaches of memory as that bright golden dawn flooded his inner consciousness.
"Who are you?" he spoke without lips, without flesh.
"Awake Cathal Dubhaine!" and he did. He was sitting amidst the tatters of his bedroll, a woman dressed in the simple black tunic and surplus of the Templars squatting opposite him.
"My Lady!" he recognised her without even studying her face or form, the Goddess who had plucked him from obscurity to be the messenger of the Trinity, and yet her immediacy was somehow more terrible and immediate than at any of her previous apparitions.
"The Black Wind will be unleashed Cathal, and none now can stand before it."
"Then I have failed?" in his mind's eye he was once more walking the blistered streets of Portion, the stench of carrion thick in his nostrils as he carefully trod between the bloated corpses.
"It was ever a choice for men to make, and if they have chosen unwisely it is not for want of good advice. Even as we speak my brother Alluran has laid his hand across this land and withdrawn his protection, for the Sanctuary stands no more in the Holy City and our Temple rests now in the heart of men," and as she spoke she placed the tips of her fingers against Cathal's chest, and he knew in that instant the true meaning of faith.
"I have done all that men of peace and reason may do, and yet it has not turned them from their hunger for death."
"They have chosen their path, now you must choose," and even as she uttered these words she seemed to fade from his sight, leaving them echoing on the dark, cold wind...
May 11th - South Bakker
Cathal stood at the crowd's periphery, sensing the hurt and anger in their hearts. But he could sense the hunger for faith that burnt deep within, smouldering coals waiting to be stirred into fresh life, and in that instant he understood the Lady Denariel's message. Understood why he had walked all night through the South Bakker woods to attend the inaugural performance of the Shadow Play.
The time had come to choose. For the play's the thing, and though the Gods would not deny man a fate of his choosing, yet their words might yet rekindle that which was lost.
"And came the prince upon that morn," the voice once used to command armies echoed through the playhouse, seeming to come from all directions and none at all, "to Wetham on his perilous quest, for with the Gods he had tarried long, and in that sink hole he would put faith to the test."
Were these the words? They seemed to flow naturally enough, a tale drawn from another time perhaps?
"A mighty lord of wealth and power, yet now a traveller dressed in rags, he offered peace in that doom-cursed hour, if they would but lay their malice to rest."
The crowd were looking hither and thither, oblivious to the young pilgrim in his travel-stained finery, and Cathal used their confusion to capture their hearts even as he passed silently amongst them.
"Lady Denariel," he silently prayed, "I have made my choice. Let your servant's tongue speak clear that these people find the hope they have so long been denied for if the black wind must now blow I will save all that it is in my power to save."
Standing at the foot of the stage now, he looked up at Lord Aepyornis, the nobleman's face concealed behind an iron mask, and remembered the day he first declared the Church Militant. Few understood the courage it took a man to stand before a fallen people and speak to them of redemption, for regardless of the creed that was the heart of all true faith and all other details were but the imaginings of man.
To the left of the stage Cathal saw a small door, and guiding himself expertly along the edge of the stage and slipping through the door unseen made his way silently behind the curtain. The stagehands seemed oblivious to his passing, intent on commanding the ropes and lights.
The long pause added to the confusion of the crowd, and it seemed to many that the auditorium grew dark and menacing as the silence took on a life of its own. There can be no Shadow where darkness holds reign and minds long since turned to their own affairs remembered the light with longing.
"And at that gate of horrors, the iron teeth a rictus grin," the acoustics give the words an added timbre of solemnity of which Cathal found himself silently approving as he stepped onto the stage, "came forth a dame of ancient days, the sole pure soul who dwelt within!"
"Enter not these gates my friend, less death does travel in thy train, for here dwell none who wish thee well, and all you teach shall be in vain. Yet I must tarry here awhile, for I am one who came afore, and casting pearls before these swine, was martyred by their bloody maw."
"And yet old dame I yet must pass, for judgement must be made this day, and holding forth his ashen stave, he let the beam as balance sway. For written in the hearts of men, in subtle shades of love and hate, tue judge shall find their truest worth, and seal their self-penned fate."
The shroud of darkness lifted and the crowd clamoured their appreciation, their faith rekindled, and sought the voice which had so enraptured them. Surely it had come from the stage? And yet Lord Aepyornis seemed equally as confused by the events of but a moment before, its sole occupant.
"The wind is sown," Cathal thought as he slipped out through the performer's quarters into the noonday sun, "and all who stand before it must bend or perish."