Cowl The Neophyte Returns


The Neophyte Returns

The walk is long and arduous and your feet ache with blisters, just as you had planned. In the distance you can see the mighty Gul Marrow mountains in whose shadow your cloister is secreted. High above and somewhat to the south is the ancient Dryven homeland of Dendrell. And still further to the south is the Saurith homelands; the seat of Geezbik's noble family.

As you draw closer a foreboding breeze carries and ill-favored scent. Your hand thoughtlessly brushes against your most treasured tether to this world, the Graven Links, warm to your touch, it momentarily pulses with a heartbeat of its own, much like it did that fateful day. The afternoon air is still and silent. Carrion birds circle in the sky above your destination.

My gait falters momentarily. "Hmmmm..." I mumble, arching an Eyebrow. My eyes narrow as I purse my lips slightly. Then, with a deep breath, I school my emotions and smooth my visage.

Loosing the Graven Links from around my waist with a practiced and subtle turn of the wrist, I let gravity pull one end toward the ground. The Links shift reassuringly in my palm. Just before the cruelly barbed end touches earth, my fingers close and the kinetic energy of the fall is redirected. So begins whirling dance of chain and self as one. I let my chain taste the air, spin as if of its own accord. The gentle hum of metal parting air fills my ears like a bull roarer.

"Become one with your bonds and they no longer bind; thus, you are no longer bound." I murmur to myself.

My motions slow and the form culminates with the Graven Links coming to rest across my shoulders and down my arms. I feel the comforting push of the barbs through the fabric of my hood on the back of my neck.

My pace as I continue homeward though quickened, is not hurried. My center regained, I place each foot where it is meant to be and know in my core that I will arrive exactly when and how I should.

Moving with menacing precision you glide through the boulders and undergrowth. Rounding a corner a grisly sight meets your gaze. A man lies face up stretched across a jagged boulder. He is covered and bound in viciously barbed spiraling links heavily weighted by dangling stone blocks. His face and skin bear myriad lacerations and ritual markings you know well.

"Brother, is that you? Cowl? I would recognize the singing of the Links in my deepest slumber", Brother Trammel manages to wheeze out between gasps and coughing spasms sending fresh blood pouring from the barbs. "I am finally awakening, brother. Dawn is upon me! It is right that you should see me off!"

Three and twenty Awakenings have you seen in your many years in the cloister, but few this ... advanced. You can tell he has been here for at least three days. Soon Trammel's Dream must end. The Graven Links whir overhead singing their sonorous dirge.

"Your pain must be exquisite, brother. Soon you will know things I have only glimpsed. May the light of the Dawn shine warm upon your face. But why so soon? You've been with us only a decade..."

He pauses, gathering his strength to render words. Coughing spasms force him to start several times before he is able to gasp, "The time has chosen me, Brother. Many have heard the call of late. We must pr-". His body his wracked with violent seizing has he chokes on his own blood. Again the barbs twist in his flesh and awash the rocks in gleaming crimson. He gags a few times as he tries to speak, and gives up. His tortured form heaving punishing gulps of air.

Beyond Brother Trammel you glimpse the entrance to the abbey, an unimposing natural-looking stone doorway comprised of massive boulders and a nondescript darkness beyond. The sound of deep chants wafts up from the blackness.

"Be at peace, my brother," I whisper laying my hand upon his sweaty brow. "Your dream is done." I cast Death Knell on him, feeling the last of his energy flow into me. His heaving chest finally still, I walk onwards to the door and through.

An inscrutable serenity comes over Brother Trammel's visage and his tormented body revels in its suffering for one final moment. As his empty shell goes limp upon the rock, the dripping sheets of crimson that bath the rock and the ground begin to recede. In a moment, the last of the blood has vanished. The Graven Links throb once ominously sending waves of bass through your skeleton and vigor through your corporeal vessel.

Knowing the Watchers will soon come for Brother Trammel's body, you leave the empty vessel as it lay in tribute to a magnificent Awakening. What mystery could Trammel be delving now?

The path beckons and you soon find yourself in the main chamber where congregations are held. Plain straw mats are laid out in rows and sections around the central dias. Splotches of faded red decorate the stone and mats. Blood is often shed during services as the holy order punish their flesh in pursuit of oneness. It's ominously quiet for a temple where the faithful must often suppress screams. Soft footfalls can be heard reverberating off the natural stone walls.

A Nameless One, a brother who has given up his entire identity in order to free himself from the self approaches you from across the hall. Having sacrificed sight and sound, he senses the room about him with his spirit alone. When he is within arms reach of you, the Nameless One halts and holds forth a chalice of foul-smelling brew.

Q - Is this brew anything I recognize? A - There are many brews and herbs used in the Wakers' rituals. Based on the scent, color and the steam rising from it you suspect it is a tincture of blue whinnis and ginger root. It will most likely cause you to fall into a deep slumber for several minutes to an hour. There could be some nausea.

I take the chalice from the nameless one, stepping back. Reaching my arm straight out, I pour the potion on the floor between us. I keep the nameless one in sight as I scan the seemingly empty room with my periphery. Not shouting, but rather, pitching my voice to carry, I address the chamber at large.

"What is the meaning of this?" I demand.

Your own voice echoing off the stone walls is your only reply. The Nameless One hangs his head despondently, turns and quietly walks back to the other side of the great hall. There should be monks here meditating and debating about the finer points of enlightenment, but there is only silence. In a few moments, the Nameless One, or perhaps a different Nameless One, returns with two chalices. He places one on the ground at your feet. He then sits cross-legged on a tattered straw mat and quaffs his chalice. Hands crossed over his knees in meditation, his body relaxes and it seems consciousness leaves him. With only rough iron links where his eyes once were, it is difficult to tell if he is dreaming.

Pinching the bridge of my nose with thumb and forefinger, I sigh, schooling my emotions. I take a seat, my legs folding with practiced elegance.

"Perhaps I was a bit hasty, brother. My apologies," I say, lifting the chalice to my lips. Downing the vile liquid in one long pull, muscle memory settles my arms in the correct position as my eyes slowly close.

Waiting for the tonic to take effect, your thoughts begin to wonder. What has become of your brothers? Could so many have Awakened in such a short time as Brother Trammel suggested?

Click me, relax and wait 30 seconds! Then read on ...

In a moment your head swims. You suddenly feel the chill of the grave as a sea of fog swallows you. Disoriented you fall forward on your hands and are surprised to find yourself elbow-deep in fetid water and muck. The stench of death is overpowering but somehow alien. Various fleeting shadows lurch aimlessly in distance. The sounds of gently sloshing water and dancing chains come from far off in every direction.

Pulling yourself together, you rise to your feet and take stock of your new surroundings. Shadows continue to lurch through the bog at the edge of your vision. The scene is the same no matter which way you look, save for a distance speck of green flame. Familiar chants carried on familiar tongues drift through the mists. The Graven Links pulse longingly.

Coming closer you see that there is not one flame but many floating free at varying heights extending out into a large circle. Within its border no mist lingers and the silhouettes of monks in various meditation poses can be seen. Brothers! Their feet do not touch the ground. Instead they are maintained in their postures by incomprehensibly long tendrils of linked iron disappearing into the boundless darkened gray sky. Sinister hooks of pitted iron gain purchase in willing flesh. The Chant of Chains echoes through this realm of gloom.

You can feel your brethren watching you despite closed eyes as you move into their midst. Making way they effortlessly part and then close behind you like macabre marionettes. You recognize them all. And almost all are here. But why are they here? And where is here anyway? Is that Brother Trammel!?

"As the one has become many, now the many is again one. Our circle is complete again, Brother Cowl". Ul-Nullith stands in a rigid tree pose hovering before you; one leg straight, the other with its heel held against the first leg's thigh and hands folded before him, elbows out. He too is held aloft by black hooks pulling at his aged flesh. He bows his smooth tattooed head at you and opens his unsettlingly blue orbs. He smiles widely and then let's it slip away. "Welcome home, my son."

"Perhaps in days to come this shall be my home, but my corporeal frame still draws breath the the Vast Dream. It weighs on my heart that I must tell you I am yet needed in the Vale, lest the Dream become a savage nightmare."

"Astute as always, my pupil. This is indeed what many would call the afterlife. This is but the first circle of Kulgaris, the underworld ruled by a powerful being known as a god. The god Shul Dranor. We have made ... arrangements with him for now and relocated the abbey here."

"Shortly after you left for Velnori, our dreams grew dark and ominous. What was once a protected nursery is now exposed to the harsh outer world. The once-great god of the Dryven, Maru, still impedes physical ingress to the Vale but many beings are unhindered by mountains, swamps and magma fields. Soon visitors will be slipping into the Vale, some for good and some for ill."

"In our Reveries we foresaw the destruction of our Order. So we have come here, far from the coming chaos. But fear not. For the Graven Links bind you to us and we can call your dreamself here from the land of Nod. But be wary. Should you fall, our pact with the Lord of the Dead will be forfeit and your brothers and I will be subject to the full brutality of this realm." Ul-Nullith's eyes pass over the shadows moving forebodingly through the mists just beyond the circle of flames.

"Our visions of your path, however, are cloudy. We sense some ... force ... behind this. Return to the Dreaming and walk the two-fold path with care, my son."

With his final words echoing faintly your eyes grow dim and all fades from view. Within moments your corporeal vessel stirs and you once again find yourself in the now-abandoned abbey. The Nameless One sits across from you, pallid and motionless, illuminated soley by the pale light of a single moon leaking in from the entrance. It seems he too has now joined your brothers at the new abbey in Kulgaris.