“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
Keynan never did learn how his mother knew Elvish. He grew up and the single day was left to the depths of his memories but the message his mother set — that all folks on Duzakh had their place — was kept in his heart forever.
He was thirteen when the dreams began. They were horrific nightmares, visions of orcs pillaging villages and dragons eating farmers and their families. Scenes of bandits roaming free and killing whoever got in their way were the most vivid, because many of the towns they destroyed reminded Keynan too much of his own sleepy little home. He shared these dreams with his parents, who were concerned that a witch or other evil being had put some kind of a curse on him. The town had no cleric skilled enough to help, so the next time the family traveled to Kore it was not just about trade.
With a pendant of a star cast in iron around his neck and a shawl embroidered with other holy symbols of the gods over his shoulders, Keynan felt quite ridiculous walking into Haruw’s temple. It was not particularly large, only two stories tall and barely bigger than Rosalind’s barn — and she only had four horses, not six like the Barrells. But he had never been in a holy place before and he was scared of misstepping.
There were few people inside, mostly older folks and their accompanying younger guardians. Keynan didn’t know what to expect. His parents were setting the stall up, confident that their son could manage this trip alone. Besides, he was thirteen. He wasn’t a child anymore.
“Hello,” a cleric — made clear by the robes she wore and the gold star hanging from her neck — greeted him. She walked over, the heels of her boots clacking against the stone floor. “Are you here on a pilgrimage?”
Keynan realized that he was literally covered in religious symbols and winced. Hopefully he didn’t offend anyone on the way here. He didn’t know if the iconography all went together or not. “No, uh, I needed to talk to a cleric.”
The woman had a pleasant smile and soft green eyes. Keynan wondered if she had served here a long time — it was impossible to tell. She didn’t have the pointed ears of an elf, though, and she wasn’t a tiefling or any other unusual race. Her robes were a sky blue with gold trim, unlike the others who wore plain blue. Keynan supposed that meant she was special, but frankly she didn’t look like it.
“We can talk. Do you wish to sit or do you want to walk?” She asked. Keynan shrugged. “Let’s go sit by the shrine.”
She led him deeper into the temple, where a large stained glass window let in multi-colored light. There was a statue of a man with candles and other offerings at his feet. The man had stern features and a hawk on his shoulder. He wore healer’s robes but, in Keynan’s opinion, he looked more like the teacher who had rapped Keynan’s knuckles with a rod after he was caught sleeping in class.
Keynan said none of this as the cleric sat on a wooden bench near the statue, indicating that he should sit next to her. He nodded at an elderly man who was leaving before joining the cleric.
“My name is Pella. What is yours?” She still had that small smile on her face.
“I’m Keynan Ashwood. My father is a carpenter from Norfield.” Keynan tangled his hands in his cloak. It was always weird, talking to someone from Kore. The city was just so different from his home.
“Keynan. A good name. What troubles you?” Pella asked.
“I’ve been haunted by these dreams.” Keynan described them to her, the blood and violence and death that followed whenever he shut his eyes. “I don’t know what to do. I’m scared to close my eyes. Is it a curse? Am I being targeted by some devil?”
“You are too old for most hags and, frankly, there are few devils or demons who would be interested in you. Have you gotten into any fights recently?” Pella frowned when Keynan shook his head. “If you are able, I have a few rituals I can perform but frankly, I do not want to rush to conclusions.”
Keynan didn’t like the sound of having to be part of any ritual, but he supposed if he had to choose at least Pella was a cleric of Haruw. “How long will it take?” He ended up saying.
“Well, you said you are from Norfield? That is not too far. I can do most of the rituals today, if you would like.”
“How much will it cost?” Keynan had twenty gold with him — the entirety of his family’s savings. He was loathe to part with it, but… did they have a choice?
Pella shook her head. “This is a house of healing, Keynan. You do not owe us anything.” She gave him a wry smile. “Though perhaps a few prayers would not go amiss. Unfortunately there are not many devout among the young.”
That made Keynan think about the last time he had prayed with real faith, not just a muttered prayer to Ceres in thanks for the harvest or something similar. He was not particularly religious — nor were his parents. In fact he didn’t know anyone who was.
“The gods have abandoned us, haven’t they?” Keynan had to ask.
Pella pursed her lips and Keynan wondered if he had horribly upset her. He was rash, or so his parents liked to claim. Keynan knew he was too smart for his own good — he could read far better than most of his peers and did lord that over them a little — and if he ever got in trouble he was very good at talking his way out of it. That didn’t mean he always knew the right thing to say.
“The gods work in ways that us mortals cannot question. Not because they are infallible, but because they can see things we do not even know exist.” Pella shrugged. “I do not know if Haruw knows of me. If my prayers reach him and hold any weight. But I trust him to help us — all of us. Or else why would he give me my powers?”
She reached out and touched the star pendant that hung on Keynan’s neck. He gasped as it began to glow, at first dim like a candle but then brighter and brighter until he tore it off his neck because he was frightened of it burning. Pella grinned and touched it again as it dangled in his grasp. The light faded just as soon as it had appeared.
“The gods are still with us, even if they do not speak to us,” she reassured Keynan
He thought about his mother and father who worked hard every day to provide for him, who had never had another child despite trying for years.
He thought about how the town celebrated the Harvest Festival every year, thanking Ceres for continued growth.
He thought about the rugged mercenaries who had once passed through Norfield, how they had smiled and laughed as they went off to deal with a clan of orcs that had been giving the area trouble.
He thought about how they had left with six and come back with five.
“I don’t know if I believe in the gods,” Keynan said slowly, “But I cannot keep having these dreams. I will stay here until you can help me.”
Pella smiled warmly. “I am sure it is nothing serious, Keynan. You’ll be back in Norfield soon enough.”
Many, many, many decades later, Keynan sighed as he cleaned his sword off, the purple blood of the demon dripping over his fingers and onto his boots. Those are going to take forever to clean, he thought. He was practically immune to the smell of brimstone at this point, though, which was nice.
He was still fucking sick of being on the side of a volcano, alone, fighting demons that were coming out of a portal somewhere.
His left leg throbbed from the last demon that had managed to get its claws into him, his healing powers not quite capable of fixing everything that had gone wrong. His armor was shredded on his entire left side, actually, and he was down to his last health potion. Still not the worst odds he had ever dealt with, but not his favorites either.
“All right,” he murmured, “time to get going.” He hoisted his mostly clean sword over his shoulder, giving up on his boots as a lost cause, and started to walk.
Portals to another plane of existence were a new one. Keynan had fought plenty of orcs, a lich, and there was that one dragon that had refused to give the fuck up, but a whole new dimension? Haruw better have a good reason that he couldn’t come down from his own plane to deal with this.
Or up from. Or across into. Keynan was still figuring out how the whole “multiple planes layered on top of each other” thing worked.
He was contemplating if it was worth breaking out the tent and camping for the night — his leg wasn’t feeling any better what with getting dragged through the volcanic ash — when he heard it. A deep, low rumble, not unlike the growl of a greybear, but harsher. Sharp, almost.
No, not sharp. Smooth.
Keynan jumped out of the way as the ground suddenly broke apart underneath him. He threw his bag to one side and brought his sword up as he hit the dirt. His injured leg thronged but adrenaline started to kick in. He glanced back and saw a beast of molten lava emerge. It had rock for armor and breathed fire and stood twelve feet tall. Smoke rolled off of it, partially obscuring everything around it for about ten feet.
Well, I have to earn my wings somehow, Keynan thought.
He dashed out of the way as a blast of fire rolled by him, taking the hairs off his arms as he crossed the distance between them. He channeled divine strength out of his soul and into his blade. It glowed gold, cutting through smoke and rock with a vengeance.
Keynan narrowed his eyes as he sliced right through the beast. He was not at all surprised when it split into two, slightly smaller fire monsters.
“Demons, fire elementals, what’s next? A dragon?” Keynan mumbled as he stepped back. Two foes were always more difficult to face, even if they were weaker. He glanced up towards the sky. There was no sun, no stars that shined.
Around his neck, his amulet began to glow. It was not because of Keynan.
This was the exact opposite of a problem. He set his mouth in a thin line, adjusted his grip on his sword, and dug his heels into the ground. Then, as the two elementals charged at him, he faced them head-on.
Slash, pivot, duck, block, weave, roll, stab — Keynan felt everything else fall away as he got into the swing of things. He murmured blessings under his breath, chants and sayings that someone had taught him years and years ago. His blade sung with devotion and glistened with blood and light. His eyes were pure gold and from his dark hair shone beams of light in mockery of a halo.
After a minute, the world was rid of two fire elementals and Keynan was on his way to his goal.
Getting Haruw’s Blessing was not easy, but it was just a matter of closing a portal to another plane of existence to stop a horde of demons and devils from escaping onto Duzakh and terrorizing the known world. It could have been worse.
The road was quiet. The trees hung heavy with spring’s gifts and the birds sat and made the branches bend even further with their weight. There were the soft noises of nature, hinting to other creatures a in the forest, but none bothered the sole traveller as he made his way down the dirt road. In the distance, he could hear a river. It was a soothing sound, the kind that one could fall asleep to during a warm summer day.
A songbird insisted on following him. He wondered if it was another god or goddess reaching out, trying to recruit him to their cause. He was tired. His back was heavy with his sword and with his thoughts. He bore no scars on his flesh but plenty in his soul. The dreams had not gotten better, only less frequent. That meant very little when he was seeing ships on fire and cities burning.
Keynan had lost count of the amount of times he had seen, in no uncertain terms, Kore torn apart and burnt to the ground by beasts with no face. Forget the wings, the fact that he could sleep was a miracle in of itself.
He sighed when the songbird finally gave up. He was tired. He had things to do. He always had things to do. And he missed the sea — Haruw had been keeping him landlocked for some time now. His heart ached for the freedom the ocean granted. His destination was, eventually, the coast where he could charter a boat and perhaps earn himself a spot as a deckhand or cannoneer. But on the way there was a short stop…
The town itself was small and forgettable. It did not boast of great heroes born in its boundaries nor did it have rare materials to sell. It had been attacked many times but always rebuilt, always persevered.
Norfield was funny like that.
Keynan road into town with his hood down, his sword visible, and a genuine smile on his face. He recognized no one and they did not recognize him. That made sense. It had been a good hundred years since his last visit. Haruw had kept him busy.
As per usual, he visited the blacksmith first to refit horseshoes for his steed. He then travelled on foot to the carpenter’s shop. It was odd, to say the least, to see someone else stand where his father once stood. As a child, Keynan had hated being alone. Now that he was older, Keynan was grateful that he had no more blood ties to this place.
A lump built in his throat when the carpenter, a young woman with dark skin and green eyes, asked if he was looking for work.
“No, I am simply here to admire your craftsmanship.” Keynan gestured towards a wooden bird sitting on the table. It was unpainted, barely sanded. “How much?” He asked.
“Oh, that? Uh, that was my apprentice’s work. I don’t know if he’s selling.” She cleared her throat. “Kynor! Kynor, you finishing up this bird of yours?”
A moment passed. Keynan heard the sound of steps and then a teenager, maybe fifteen or sixteen, appeared. He had brown hair and lighter skin than the woman but the same eyes.
“What are you going on about, Elna?” He complained. “What bird?”
“This one. Are you selling or—”
“Oh, that? I dunno. Why,” Kynor said, looking at Keynan, “you want it?”
“Yes.” Keynan did not move. He did not reach for his bag or his sword. Kynor met his gaze for a moment before shrugging.
“Take it. I’m not using it.” He started to walk back upstairs but Keynan cleared his throat.
“A craftsman should always take payment for their work.” He put two gold pieces on the counter.
Kynor’s and Elna’s eyes both went wide. They began to stammer, neither making much sense beyond general surprise. Keynan smiled and put another two gold on the counter. He took the bird, nodded to the two of them, and left.
He made sure to hit the treeline before either could follow him.
The graves were long since lost. Keynan had attempted many spells to maintain control over them or at least continue to have the spots marked. But it was difficult enough when folks started being buried more than cremated. The spots were completely different, for one, and burial grounds tended to be hit or miss in terms of privacy. Besides, he couldn’t just set up a grave anywhere.
So instead he picked a particular bend in the river and called that his parents’ graves. He brought with him the traditional incense, a few candles, and his stories. He told them everything, even if he had been gone for over a century now. It was not like they had anything to do other than listen to him. They never replied, but what with his history with the undead and ghosts he decided that was a good thing.
It was nice. Nice enough that he could convince himself it didn’t matter that he didn’t remember their faces and that he could barely remember their names. He could convince himself that he was certain they died of old age, not of any other number of things while their son was off looking for a god who would not answer for another decade. He could convince himself that his fond memories weren’t just delusional dreams created by a desperate man looking to maintain some hold over sanity, some reason to exist other than the will of his god.
Keynan knew he was doing the right thing. He was making the world a better place. Haruw would someday return and he would need a Herald to show the people of Duzakh that there was nothing to fear from the gods. Duzakh had not been abandoned by the gods. It was just hard to see.
Keynan talked for a day. He took breaks only to drink. Then he returned to what was once his home, retrieved his horse, and left.
His dreams warn of ships filled with slaves, of those who need saving. And Keynan would always answer the call.