Last Stand of the 5th Crusade

Riva: The Publican

15th of Neth, the Bell of Mercy Redoubt

The_Publican.jpg
The Publican represents fellowship and camaraderie, and a place of refuge for those in need. Most would find the cyclops inconsequential, but he has insights relevant to the reading or a quest. Misaligned, the Publican represents refuge unfound, or false information given at a crucial moment.

Utter darkness. I had forgotten what darkness looks like. Looks like. I realize how that sounds. But I haven’t seen the blinding quietude of darkness since I was twelve years old, a scared girl, covers pulled over her head, Mama quietly singing me songs of sweet dreams.

I didn’t know about the others — I was cut off from them in nearly all ways — but I think we all felt in our own ways the terrible distance from the place we had started. However mired in the Worldwound, the redoubt of the Bell of Mercy is blessed, yet we could not have been farther from those blessings. We were somehow on the shadow plane, and in that place there was only a broken priest of Desna, howling curses in my useless ears.

I have never felt so helpless. Even in the depths of the symboldreams I did not feel quite so helpless. I was like that girl again, cower under the covers, and I answered in the only way I knew how: first humming and then singing those Desnan lullabies Mama sang to me years ago. Galea was there with me; she sang too. So did the wraith: somehow I could feel those same songs resonate within its lost soul. Oh — that we could have destroyed it and sent it on to what dreams may come!

But we only cast it back into the darkness, and as it fled so did the darkness’s depth. We found ourselves in a vast underground temple, standing in a wide pit, shallow water covering its surface. Above us there was a statue of Desna and another — the Empyrial lord Pulura, I now know — with water flowing forth from Desna’s hands. I said a prayer and put my hands into the falling water.

I found myself instantly transported to a great temple to Pulura, perched on a precipice where a waterfall once rushed into the plains below: Pulura’s Fall. Now, instead of a river, there was a demon-filled rift; in place of the lake below, a dry and dusty basin teeming with undead. Yet the temple is still here, protected by Pulura’s blessings and maintained by the high priestess Eliandra and her clerics and acolytes. Above the temple, the chaotic turmoil of the Worldwound sky parts, revealing a cloudless expanse by day and the stars by night.

I spoke with Eliandra for some time, while I waited for the others to come over. She recognized me as someone who had been touched by the Black Butterfly. Blessed by the Black Butterfly, she said. I’ve come to believe this myself, though I worry about my hopes becoming too high. Eliandra did not seem to understand how much pain this transformation has caused me. I don’t understand it either.

Eventually, the others arrived. First Locke, and then after a long delay, Kyrk, who carried an unconscious Barca. Kyrk remains forever skeptical, though that is not altogether a bad thing. Our wounds were tended to, though it seems that Locke and Kyrk have been cursed by the wraith, carrying with them its pall of sorrow. I will try to heal them myself, but having been through the battle at the redoubt and the trial beneath it, my powers were utterly spent.

As night came, we gathered on the observing platform at the temple’s center. We sat quietly and looked up at the sky, while Eliandra described the constellations above. It brought me back to sitting on the roof deck of my home in Promise, while Dad described the skies above. It was a wonderful thing to be part of Eliandra’s sacred ritual, but in truth it mostly just filled me with heartache. When she was done, it was nearly midnight. I whispered a prayer to Desna and drew a card from the Harrow deck: the Publican, marking a place of refuge for those in need. I don’t doubt for a moment the power of these cards, and yet it still sends a chill down my spine how accurate they can be. Sitting there under those stars, cards in hand, I thought of Mama, I thought of Dad, an overwhelming feeling of homesickness churning within me. Pulura is a patron of the homesick, I’d learned earlier from her priests.

And so when Eliandra asked us what we wished for, I did not hesitate, I fairly bawled out at her: “I wish to visit my parents!” I instantly felt absurd asking that, but she showed no surprise. She granted that I would visit them, that night, in a dream. Kyrk asked the same, to see his father. Locke, ever thinking of the greater cause, simply asked to speak with Trynna back in Drezen, I presume to let them know our status.

Not much later, we were shown to the temple’s spare guest quarters. I suspect they get few guests these days. I’d been worried that in my excitement I would not be able to fall asleep, but it was only the briefest moment before sleep swept over me, and I began to dream.

————

I am standing on Prophets Road, Promise, seven steps from the house where I was born.

Six steps. All the houses along the street are the same, or nearly so: two small stories designed for two adults and two children, floor plans identically laid out by the Council for Enlightenment’s architectural committee, facades copying various Azlanti motifs. Ours is only notable for Dad’s roof deck and telescope, a major dispensation, and its purple door. Mama chose that color. It caused a minor uprising in the neighborhood, but in the end no one wants to upset the town Harrower.

Five steps. I look up, beyond the roof, at the stars. A shiver runs down my back as I find the North Star. Locating a few constellations, I’m surprised to see them as advanced as they are. Then I realize: I’m halfway to the other side of the world here. The sun will rise in a couple of hours, in the constellation of the Star Gazer, appropriately enough.

Four steps. I look down as I step into the street, its cobblestones perfectly aligned and cambered. They are smaller than I remember.

Three steps. I look to my left, down the road toward Bellows Park, where Ivan and I used to play. Where I was first struck down by a vision of the symboldreams, where the nightmares all started.

Two steps. I look to my right, toward the Center for Psychogenic Advancement, where I spent most of the past ten years.

One step. I look behind me. looking toward the shore, toward the ocean, toward Varisia, toward Cheliax, toward the lands of my mother and my father. And much farther beyond, to the Worldwound, where my body lies sleeping.

I open the purple front door. It’s been so long.

The living room is a mess. Dad is collapsed in his armchair, sleeping, a pile of papers overflowing from the table next to him onto the floor. They are mostly his sketches of the sky, notes scrawled in the margins in a shaky hand. He looks so much older. It’s only been four months since we left home, but his hair is now mostly white. I pick up the pipe by his side, ashes spilling onto the table, and smell the pungent, floral odor of opium mixed with the tobacco. My hands are now shaking as I set the pipe back down. Was coming here a mistake?

I walk up the stairs and down the upstairs hall, my dream form silently passing over the floorboards whose every creak I know. Past my room, then Ivan’s room, to the door of my parent’s room, half open. I push it open.

“Riva. I’m so glad you came.”

I don’t for a second wonder how she knew that, why she would be awake right now, sitting up in bed as if waiting for me. I rush across the room, throwing my arms around her, thankful that however this dream worked, at this moment I feel solid and real and there, my face buried in her shoulder. We hold each other like that for a long time. When we finally let go for a moment, I notice the cards, spread across the bed.

We must have talked for a couple hours, until the sun started rising and this miracle’s effect ended.

I tell her how Ivan was doing, how confident he is in his new abilities. Well, he was always confident! But now his powers of disguise and persuasion are truly amazing. I tell her how happy he is to be seeing the great world beyond Promise.

I tell her about the Black Butterfly. How she shouldn’t be afraid for me anymore. It isn’t some evil force changing me; it is a friend of Desna. I can tell she isn’t sure — so long have they lived in fear of whatever forces were possessing me — so I stand in the middle of my parents’ bedroom and open my wings, great butterfly wings reflecting the darkness and glory of a clear night sky. The wings are so large in the dream, and as I unfurl them they fill the whole room with images of all the stars, planets, and galaxies in creation. Mama sits on the bed silently, just looking at me with a mix of pride and awe and sadness.

I ask about Dad. He continues to blame himself for my condition, and he has only gotten worse since Ivan and I left. I ask Mama to please, please let him know that it is not his fault. Tell him of the Black Butterfly, tell him that the dreams have stopped and I am well again. I don’t mention to her the intensity of the nightmares that ended only a month ago.

I ask how she is. I can see the strain. I want to tell her not to worry, but … the words catch in my throat. There is no point denying the danger that Ivan and I are in. So I tell her about my friends. I tell her how we are all looking out for each other.

And as the first light glows on the horizon, I ask her to pray with me. That surprises her, but with a great smile, she nods and takes my hand. We sit there on the bed, looking out the window to the east, toward Varisia, toward the Worldwound, toward the rising sun beyond, and together we quietly sing the ancient prayersongs of the Great Dreamer.

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JakeHartman

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