The Circle Opens (0)

19 Jul
The Circle Opens (0)

You may have read another post here called “The Flight of the Dawn Arrow”. That was the real ending to a real campaign that my friend and I ran for 5 years. Today I thought I’d bring you the beginning. I’m also going to write up an arc from the early part of the campaign. But that’s for another day.

Master Wei Chi was in the great hall, listening and occasionally speaking to the the South winds. The high domed chamber seemed to almost sing in harmony with the breeze, the nodding trees that lined the amphitheater dozing as if in lullaby.

His afternoon meditation was broken by the patter of a student’s footfalls. He begged forgiveness for the interruption and gave thanks for the communion with the winds, bowed twice and rose to his feet, turning to face a year seven male, Grelleck, the young boy’s face showed fear and shock. Something had happened.

“Master Wei, honored teacher, there are visitors in the Grove!”

The old monk scowled as the boy’s excitement chased away the last of the visiting winds, a rumble of wings went with it, starlings and an old owl. The boy scrunched his shoulders and winced.

“Forgive me, Master”

The old man suddenly headed towards the doors and Grelleck scrambled to follow, but Master Wei said, “Food for our guests. Quickly, now.” and heard the boy change direction behind him, heading for the cavern stairs. The monk moved upwards, a vast flight of polished maple risers enscribed with prayers of protection, harmony, peace, and reflection. The warm springtime sun lit the whole in a honeyed light, and at dawn and dusk you could watch the light slowly pour down or rise up the six-hundred metre staircase and become entranced. Master Wei had no time for reflection today.

He crested the staircase and stepped into the mass of gardens and fields that surrounded the Circle of Reflection Monastery, which itself was a granite plinth rising like a giants leg-bone out of the earth, with caverns and tunnels hollowed out in the rock beneath the surface.

Master Wei headed across the outer gardens, seeing students at work, or rest, he spoke to none of them, his mind turning over recent events, sorting and sieving, but no visitors were due for many months.

He was not troubled. Trouble would not come knocking.

The outer grove was a stand of cherry trees, flaming pink in the springtime breeze. As he neared, he spoke a phrase in his native tongue and many dozens of spirit creatures suddenly sprang into view, clustered in the trees and throughout the ground cover of the old cherry stand.
He smiled to see them, calling out to them as friends and the birds, and squirrels, and rabbits and more, started chattering to him all at once, of 2 people come to the right place, the right grove, to petition for access or at least an audience with Master Wei. One was old and sick. The other was young and afraid. Neither posed a threat, at least not that the kami could sense, and they could do no harm in the Grove anyway.The old monk thanked them for their help and reassured them of his friendship and gratitude for their guardianship. The kami did not answer, but scattered away and disappeared, even to his enchanted-eyes.

He stepped across the threshold, knowing he was welcome in this sacred place, and immediately sensed the presence of the other 2, as he knew they were now sensing him.

Anyone entering the Grove is always a friend come to visit, or an ally come to trade goods or trade gossip, but none of those were expected, and strangers in this part of the Emerald Hills are rare, as there is nothing but hostile monsters and miles of confusing-to-navigate, endlessly rolling green hills, dotted with the occasional cavern, cave or sinkhole, and teeming with clans of orcs and hobgoblins and many warring ogre tribes.

These two were not known to Master Wei, but they were very far from home. The dark skin and angular features of the Ashaarian people were hard to miss. Their dress was simple and functional, with minimal weaponry and few possessions. He saw the young one had a crowd of kami gathered at his feet and sitting atop his head and shoulders. Truest sign there was that this boy was to be trusted. The older one was very old, he saw, and was indeed sick with some wasting disease, but a fire lit his eyes and he looked ready to maybe take on a few orcs before he died.

The elder Ashaarian turned and spoke quietly to the boy, who then sat down where he was, the invisible kami snuggling into his lap and cuddled all around his legs and torso, and the elder Ashaarian stepped forward out of earshot of the young one and much to Master Wei’s surprise, spoke in the quick, clipped cadence of a long-time speaker of the monk’s native tongue, Rokugan.

“Honored Teacher and Wisest of the Ka, forgive my intrusion into your solitude and work, but I have come to you on the orders of a shadow thought long dead. He has shown me much that I wish I hadn’t seen, and sent me thousands of leagues to find your hidden sanctuary.” The man stopped and looked pained, and Master Wei stepped forward to place a steadying hand on his elbow, when the elder stranger whispered, in Common, “We are all lost if he ever finds the truth.” and then the elder swooned at that moment and Master Wei quickly asked permission, received a near-instantaneous answer of yes, and then eased the frail old man into a seated position against the trunk of an old cherry tree.

He looked around and saw Han Xu, his family kami, currently in the shape of a feline, waiting nearby. He smiled and asked if the Wise One could give entrance to his students, and felt the Grove admit two of his older students, a year 15 named Fenner, who walked quickly to Master Wei’s position and laid down a basket of food and drink, and a year 17 named Ainosh, who stood back and waited, hands behind his back.

Master Wei returned his attention to the elder man and asked him softly in Rokugan for his name. The man’s eyes fluttered open and fought for focus but whatever burden he was carrying proved too much and he sank back into unconsciousness. The young one, watching nearby, rose and walked cautiously forward and said in Aqaba, the city-tongue of Akbar of Ashaaria, oft called The Shining City, “He never eats, and he sleeps too much. He is dying, but he won’t tell me why.”

Master Wei looked up at him and gave him a reassuring smile and spoke to him in Al’Ishi, the only northern Ashaarian language he knew, hoping the boy knew enough to get his meaning, and said “He is near to his end, it is true, but his winds still blow. Please rest, and let me tend to him.”

This seemed to placate the young boy because he smiled and nodded and replied in Al’Ishi “Many thanks. I would share salt with you and be honored to do so. Wet winds for your help.”

Clearly the boy understood him perfectly and Master Wei said no more for the boy went back and sat down near their meager belongings and only watched with curious eyes.

The crowd of kami around him had thinned with only three or four cats loafing near his feet.

None would come near the old man. He had not been warned of any threat, but while the kami were wise beyond measure, they were not infallible.

Master Wei was tempted to move them into the Monastery’s main grounds, but some part of him, that part that has kept him alive for far longer than he wanted, that part of him spoke in whispers and it was whispering now, urging caution and this alone colored his decision to let the strangers tarry here, where it was safe, where the strangers from the South could be watched, where they could be repulsed, if necessary.

The Master felt the caution and the kami’s trust start to mix. Strange. These opposing ideas were actually causing conflict within him. He could feel the discord churning through his essence, clouding his reason and the revulsion of his weakness sickened him, and he took six short cleansing breaths and focused.

The frail old man was still unconscious, and a quick pass of the Master’s expert hands and eyes revealed that there was no hope. Comfort was all that could matter now. He used his own cloak as a blanket and rearranged the old man on the ground, and with a few words, asked the four Winds for a blessing to ease his passage.

The old monk’s mind then turned to this man in his care, and grappled with several questions: Firstly, how does an Ashaarian come to speak his native language when it was forbidden to teach it to non-natives? He was not known to Master Wei, nor had any of his spies in the many places of the Realms alerted him to such a man. His mind turned to anyone who could have taught this man the language of his homeland, and thought of no one who would be in a position to reveal themselves so openly. No, there could be no one. Even if that were somehow possible, who would gain from it? Master Wei’s enemies were the perfect number. Zero. He thought. He quickly searched his mind, replaying details of battles past and found no flaw, no risen enemy to torment him or deceive him (again).

The Master was ever watchful, ever vigilant of the comings-and-goings of the Hills and the Realms. “Strange”, he thought, “how all my time is spent thinking of the darkness we all worked so hard to obliterate. Its absence causes us to conjure it now more frequently than when it was still a present threat.”

He frowned. Evil’s insidious persistence gave him a cold shiver.

The more he pondered this the more he began to worry that poor planning and shortsightedness had blinded him. Alarms started to ring in his mind and he thought, “Am I being deceived even now? If not treachery seen, then perhaps unseen? I have stayed and watched. I have watched and waited and it has been quiet. If not, then death and the next cycle, but I have seen no signs, no shadows of doom creeping in silently to strangle and blind us. No signs at all. Perhaps that in itself is the sign!”

Master Wei frowned and clamped a firm grip on that nonsense and pushed it away. Hard.

“It will not do to puzzle and brood,” he thought, “I need to act. Could this instead be an ally helping from afar? Unseen? Unspoken? There are a few of those I can think of who would, who could do this thing. Yes.”

He nodded unconsciously, and over across the grove the boy waiting worriedly for the fate of this old man saw this slight nod and felt better somehow, even though he had no idea why.

He returned to the old man and rummaged in the basket the students had delivered. He brought out a carved wooden box, opened the box and used the herbs inside to infuse a cold tea. After a few moments he eased the elderly man’s head up and got him to drink, the man’s eyes fluttered open and he drank greedily, using his own hand to tip the cup upwards, some of the tea spilling down across his chin and robes. The man lay back, gasping, wiped his hand across his mouth and spoke again in Rokugan.

“Ah, that was refreshing. Many gentle winds for your help, Honored Teacher.” He stopped again, panting slightly, still regaining his wind. With help from Master Wei he sat up a bit, and he wiped some drool from his mouth and said, “There is much we need to speak of and I haven’t much time. My name is Elder-Master Ikshir of the Quluthane and over there is my apprentice, Moham, and we have traveled from the Aqaba Conclave to speak with you. I’m afraid much of what I have to say will not be pleasant. Please send Moham away, he has a quick mind and I don’t want to worry him.” He stopped and took some more tea, smiling at the taste.

Without having to ask, the kami near Moham revealed themselves to the boy. Delighted, he began to play and romp around with them, and the kami led the boy away from the quiet scene.
When it was silent again, Master Wei looked closely at this strange druid from the South and waited for him to begin.

When Ikshir began he spoke in quick, low tones, the jumbled singsong of Rokugan, the native tongue of the Empire of Clu, and again the Master was struck at how eerie this man’s accent was. He spoke as if he had walked the dusty streets of Mishima personally! It was flawless, and that was what troubled him. It was too good, too perfect, no outsider would ever be able to develop a homegrown bent to his daily speech unless he was born there, unless he ate and slept there! Master Wei’s mind raced to keep up with what the old man was saying and strove to drive this troublesome distraction from his mind.

“Master Wei, I bring word to you from an ancient friend. He-who-was-Lord-Deshthen. He is coming. You cannot win. You cannot resist. You should compose your death poem soon.”

The monk looked away. A minute passed. “When?”

“Come the Plantings. A few weeks, perhaps.”

Master Wei turned away from Ikshir and stood. He then paced a few yards among the falling blossoms and the kami of the Grove started to reappear near him, their presence lending him strength as he felt the shock of this wash over him, testing his will.

Ikshir said, “He says he is called Dreadcircle now. He says he is the servant of the Unmaking.”

Master Wei snorted and almost laughed, an ugly short sound, and barked, “I know what he is now. I know whom he serves. I was there!”

The elder Asharrian took the last of his tea and leaned his head against the old tree. He said, very simply, “I am an old man now. I have walked the endless dune seas of my home and seen the shattered Pinnacles of the Anasazi. I once advised Rama Narali about improvements to the palace gardens and was honored for my knowledge and hard work. I am dead in a few hours, and there is nothing anyone can do. My part is over now. I should tell you everything before Moham returns.”

Master Wei kept his back to the old man and waited for Ikshir to continue, his mind a calm hurricane.

Ikshir said, “When Moham was a baby his parents were savaged by the beasts of the Dune Seas and their caravan was lost. The boy was found only hours after the attack by some good folk, the Al’Ishi of T’Taan, whose swift horses carried him north to Akbar to deliver him into the care of the Holy Circle of Swords, as agreed by an ancient compact.

He was looked at by the Shining Light and deemed worthy to join the Quluthane, stewards of the sands, though we wage constant war against the beasts and raiders of the Scorching Winds, we accepted his nomination.

When I carried him through the circle of our most holy and sacred place of worship, the ancient ring shook with a mighty tremor and all of my order were thrown down and badly shaken. When the violence finally stopped, the head of our order, a wise and ancient druid called Ahen’ichep’ukatt, suddenly cried out in a loud voice “The prophecy of the Codex has come true! The Llanyr is broken!”

A horrified gasp escaped as we stood and saw it was true. The truly ancient stone ring built by the first of the Quluthane was now slanted at a sharp angle and two of the plinths had sheared off and the lintel of the trilithon had dislodged and lay vertically resting against one of its supporting plinths. The Llanyr Aatma, sacred circle, was lifeless and our order had lost a vital link with our gods and with the rest of the Realms.

Our Arch Druid, Ahen’ichep’ukatt was looking at Moham with a most intense stare, and spoke again pointing at the boy and said “It is said in the Codex that when the Aatma is broken a child of the Faith will travel far from these lands to wake the Kala Jaandra, the Dawn Arrow, and the child will wrestle, and lose, with the many tentacles of the Void.”

Before any of the druids could erupt with questions, the Arch Druid plunged on, saying “I have heard from the Chaos Hunters that female twins have been taken into the Forge, as prophesied in the Codex! They are the shaddar-kai, the Catalysts, and there is no mistaking that these are truly the end times, and the Void’s fell wrath will soon darken all the lands unless we prepare this boy!”

The old man stopped and asked for more tea. Master Wei did the labor himself, his hands were sure and steady and Ikshir seemed to gain some comfort from this quiet ritual.

After he had drank, dribbling a little down his tunic, Ikshir began again, and said,

“The Arch Druid pulled Moham out of my arms and held him up for all to see He shouted, “We show the Beacon his true path or we are all lost! We must protect him at all costs!”

The Arch Druid handed Moham back to me and said to me in almost a whisper, his voice hoarse with emotion “Keep him and train him quickly, Ikshir, for we don’t have much time, three decades, maybe less. Make him strong and smart and tell him nothing of his true destiny. Nothing must prevent him from waking the Arrow.”

Moham learned quickly and soon grew into a faithful follower and defender of our ways and our people. I told him nothing, as Arch Druid Ahen’ichep’ukatt instructed me, and 6 months ago we left Ashaaria on our trip, ostensibly to deliver a gift to you, Master Wei, from the Arch-Druid himself, and Moham was told that he was coming to study the domains of the northern realms, so different from our own.

Now we are here, and now you have been warned, Kala Jaandra, and now I can die knowing I played my small part in the defense of our home, our Drexlor.” Ikshir slumped a bit, his face draining of energy, and his demeanor visibly paled. But he still smiled at Master Wei, and he tried to take his hand.

Master Wei returned the smile and took Ikshir’s bony hand in both of his own. “I thank you for the warning, but I am not the Kala Jaandra of your prophecies. I am called the Prava’chaan, the Archer, or have you not read the second Kaand of the Codex?”

Ikshir’s eyes flew open. “How did y- , Only the most powerful of our order are allowed access to the holy kaands. It is not possible!”

Master Wei smiled and said “I am privy to secrets you could not dream of blessed defender. I am one of the Ka, and know my place in the grand cataclysm to come. Do not doubt me, for I have been to the outer realms and I have seen the face of evil incarnate.”

Ikshir, unable to rise to his feet, nodded his head in the most reverential manner he could manage and spoke humbly to Master Wei, begging his forgiveness and assuring him that he would do nothing to interfere with his dharma and did not mean to offend the wise, powerful and ancient monk.

Master Wei softly, “I will aim the Arrow true, blessed defender, but no man or god can predict where it will land.“ and the master smirked and said “He’s dwarven you know.”

Elder-Master Ikshir, 5th circle of Renewal, Aqaba-Quluthane, smiled back one last time at the kindly face of Master Chi and breathed his last in the Grove of Harmonious Reflection 436 miles inside the borders of the Emerald Hills of Gemseed.

In exactly 16 days the Monastery would be razed to the ground and Master Wei and his students murdered. Only one survives. A one-armed hill-dwarven student monk named Klemgathed Shalecott. The Dawn Arrow. Fated to save the world, it all began here, in this place, with the Monastery in flames, his master and friends butchered and the face of a former paladin, now called Dreadcircle, etched in his mind.

Dreadcircle is a servant to Okotarg-the-Deformed, a necromancer of unmatched power, known to the world as The Unmaking, or The Void.
In exactly 27 years, 15 months, 2 weeks and 1 day, The Dawn Arrow and The Void meet.

For the first and last time.


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