Eremis awoke with a start. It was still night. The camp fire was still crackling.
He felt warm. At last.
As his eyes followed the sparks of the camp fire trailing up into the night sky, he remembered the dream he had had. And his heart still pounded wildly.
"You seem to have been quite exhausted, Eremis."
Brother Benedikt's voice surprised him, but it was a welcome sound after what he had been through. "I told you that you shouldn't take all the treasure on your back. You are strong, but there are surely limits."
Hrgungdvar was silently cleaning his axe nearby, and Nichuan was grinning at Eremis as he awoke from his slumber wiping away some drool.
Eremis held his head. It was hurting. And he was still a little out of it. "What... what happened? Did I fall asleep?"
Now it was their firedancer Nichuan who answered the mercenary: "You can so say. We made camp. And we drank and waited for food ready. And you drank all day. Was too much. Soon snoring. Yes?"
Eremis furrowed his brows. After their long journey down into the mountain, where they eventually found the temple of the ill-omened Hehl and faced yet another mighty demon, he had kept drinking on their way back. They had found a lot of treasure and with open eyes he would dream about what to do with it and ask his companions for their plans.
But the dream just now was very different. It had felt so real. And he couldn't get it out of his head. He looked around as if he was looking for somebody.
"You... you were all here? The whole time? And I was sleeping?"
The quiet priest of winter Hrgungdvar reached over and offered him a deerskin filled with water. His deep voice rumbling through the silence: "Where else should we have been?" Eremis watched his eyes and couldn't say whether the huge man in thick pelts was making fun of him or if he knew something else.
Eremis took a long swig and wiped his mouth. "I had a strange but vivid dream... Benedikt, you told us about your grandfather as we were drinking, right?"
The priest of Solus nodded confirmingly. A slight smile crept upon his face. "You nodded off right at the beginning. It was about The All Frozen in the north, about 'Eistor' in its midst and about a tragic love triangle. You would have loved it. Shall I retell the story once more, my friend?"
Eremis shook his head as he came closer to the fire. Still he had the feeling that he had left something behind, but the story was vivid in his mind as if he had heard it just now. "No need for that, my friend. I think my ears heard you well... even in my sleep. And I seemed to have dreamt about it. Let's see:
Your grandfather had once told you about the rich duke 'Fian Eisdotter', about the lord and priest of Perra 'Asgrin of Thule' and his wife 'Sieglinde', right? The duke fell in love with Sieglinde and abducted her to his frozen city of Eistor. The priest became as furious as Perra's winds and tried to rescue her, but failed to overcome the frozen gates and walls. In his anger he terrorized the settlers surrounding the city and brought hundreds of corpses to the gates.
After a while the people of Eistor became restless, Fian was tempted to release Sieglinde. But with the death of all the settlers came Hehl and with Hehl came the plague. The people in Eistor died in Hundreds and the plague still increased in speed. And then, Sieglinde died. And now Fian became very afraid. What could he tell Asgrin of Thule to calm his heart now? The priest had forsaken his believes in the storm god Perra, and in his anguish he had become a slaughtering fiend. No worlds would calm his heart now.
The only choice Fian saw was to trick the dark priest. So he filled a wagon with whale oil and put the dead Sieglinde on top of it and covered everything with tarp. He made his remaining archers hide on the walls, and when the priest discovered his dead wife under the tarp, the duke ordered the archers to fire flaming arrows at the wagon. And as the priest was wailing in aguish and pain for his love, the arrows struck home and in a ball of flame the priest and all of his men were caught on fire. The priest cursed the living and as he perished it is said that Fian saw demons in the flames. His tragic destiny had even reached the hearts of demons.
That day, as the sun was rising and Solus' might dispersed the shadows of Hehl, the body of the priest finally fell.
But every night since then, when Hehl's power overcomes Solus' power, the dark ghostly riders plague the land of ice and wind far up in the north, and Asgrin of Thule rides in their midst, never to stop killing the living. And his broad shoulders are still covered in an aura of flames and hate and anguish. And it is said that the Lord of Thule has collected a mighty treasure in his tower but no one dares to enter."
Benedikt and Nichuan clapped their hands. "Can sleep and snore and still listen!"
Still ashamed for falling asleep when the priest told a story, Eremis scratched his broad neck and grimaced.
He felt bad for lying to his companions. Now even more than ever.
They have the right to know. At least one of those secrets. The other... is better still kept hidden. What would they say if they knew?!
Slowly his resolve strengthened. He noticed that his friends - that's what they are, right? - had secured him some leftovers from their dinner. Just some scraggly hare, but after all it was more than stale bread. Hungrily he reached for it, but immediately felt a hollow stone in his belly. His guilt made it impossible to eat right now.
Eremis looked into the flames, absent-mindedly holding the cold meat in his hand, but only seeing what he had experienced just now. And has his deep baritone dispersed the silence, he told them about his dream.
"I dreamed. I dreamed of being in the All Frozen. I 'woke up' by the hands of a stranger. It was cold, terribly cold, and he offered me his bearskin although I couldn't understand his initial words. We were surrounded by spruce trees. A strange circle of them in the midst of Perra's white plains and a storm was all around us. But strangely, in this cluster of Freya's warmth, we found each other. He was a learned man, a skald, as he told me in Common, which is something like a bard with a beard. His name was Ulrik. And he was in search of an artifact that could instantly bring him to places far away. But we had very little time. We had to leave for the next settlement unless we wanted to die in Perra's remorseless winds."
Shortly, Eremis looked up at the priest of Winter to make sure that he hadn't offended him with his layward words.
He seemed to not have been offended, as Eremis noticed relieved.
Finally putting the meat down and starting to poke with a stick into the fire which made it burn even brighter, Eremis continued the story:
"We had only moments before the wolves attacked us. And I don't talk about common forest wolves, I'm talking about mighty creatures of 5 feet height, muscled, fanged and taloned for the predators they are. A whole pack fell upon us. I barely escaped the initial attack and fell to the ground, as Ulrik took his black silvered horn from his chest and played such a deep and terrorizing note that I can still hear it linger in my ears.
All but the most fearless of the pack remained while the rest fled for their lives. I was lucky I had a bard, no, a skald with me that night. I didn't know where I was and I was confused that you were all gone, but had I met the pack alone, I would surely have perished. In my dreams. But it didn't feel like a dream. I felt the hot stinking breath of the female. I felt her 150 pounds of weight as she was lunging on top of me to eat my face off. I felt the cold of the my metal shield protecting me from her fangs. It felt real.
No moment to loose, I threw her off and against a mighty spruce, breaking her leg. Years of combat training even influencing my dreams. I jumped up and defended against another attack. And as my companion fearlessly protected himself from the mighty jaws of the alpha, I just had to help him in his most dire moment. I screamed and threw myself into the air, launching a powerful blow to his skull. I smashed it right in. No, Carrikal smashed it in and dropped the alpha mid-attack, inches before it could rip my companion's throat out. And then it was over. The pack fled and I cut the still warm beast open to cover my body as we travelled to the next 'long house', as they called it.
We stayed the night and the family provided food and shelter. And Ulrik was a great storyteller. He didn't just tell them about the wolves, he made it sound like it was a legendary achievement. he called me 'Wolfmane' and completely exaggerated what I had done. Afterwards, he told a story that made me again question where I was. It was the story of your grandfather, Benedikt, it was the story of Lord Thule who still harrassed the land where we were at the moment. And Ulrik told us that he was looking for the tower and treasure of that Lord Thule, to break the curse and to find the artifact with which to travel through druidic circles. And everyone listened to him as if under a spell."
Likewise, his companions were now listening to him as if they were under a spell. Given they had nothing better to do, it seemed natural now. But it had been so completely different with Ulrik. He really had a way of speaking that was hard to ignore. Taking another sip of water, Eremis had to smile. He suddenly remembered a detail.
"That night, we were drinking mead. And it was a long time that I had not drunk mead. When I was young there was no ale or wine, but mead. Oh, if we had mead here..."
Eremis shook his head excusingly. "Anyway, later that night, the daughters of that household told us about a friend of their grandfather, an hermit named Isgrim who lived nearby and who was said to have lost his eye sight when he found Thule's castle. We made a deal to bring him food if they told us where he lived. And the next morning we travelled to the north. Towards the snow cropped mountains, the desolate white plains burning in my eyes and threatening to blind me also. We found the cabin leaning against a mountainside, a shabby thing indeed. And the huge northern man welcomed us in as we told him our story. We brought him food and wine and he told us that he had been a great warrior and scout once, his weapons and armor and spoils of war showing of the truth of his words. He was part of the company who allegedly banished the trolls from the lizardfolk's swamps. But then he told us, that he didn't loose his sight due to old age, but due to the undead!"
Eremis let that word linger a moment, before he continued.
"They had a shaman called Rogar with them when they finally found the castle. Black and towering above a ravine. They found the dead bodies of Thule's companions and they found the treasure. And they also found a big tear-shaped artifact made out of obsidian. But as they touched it, the fallen warriors came back to life and the troup's weapons passed through as if it was nothing, while the shades sucked their life out of them. Only Isgrim the Scout was unharmed and could flee."
Eremis slowly takes out his golden medaillon inscribed with the symbol of the sun, the symbol of light and life, the symbol of the lord Solus. It is still glowing from Benedikt's blessing.
"And as the old warrior was relieved to hear that his companions would surely not hate him for fleeing and fell into a slumber, we noticed a big beautiful chest to one wall. No key would unlock it, but the touch of my holy symbol opened the traveling chest formerly probably owned by a priest of Solus. There we found a big black key, a bent obsidian dagger, and a map on thick leather to show us the way to the tower. But then, something strange happened."
Eremis poked again with a stick into the flames and a bit of wood collapsed shooting sparks into the night sky.
"Ulrik had told me before of magical lines that he had seen at the circle of trees. Now he told me that he saw evil and magic in the fire. And as I held Solus' holy symbol into the flames, they actually retreated and something, a black shimmer or so, was gone. Hehl was listening in, he had said. Listening to our every word through the flames. But the power of Solus had made him flee, Ulrik affirmed. I don't know, if that is even possible, but I was happy, I had your symbol, Benedikt. For once, and later for twice in this dream, the gods were real and protected me."
Eremis looked around at his friends. Yes, they were his friends. He had gone through demons and undead with them. What more would it need to become his friend? And how did he repay them? With a lie, several lies. He had to come clean after the story. Once and for all.
"We came upon the tower. It was already the end of dusk and the moon was bright in the sky. I had misread the map and we had lost precious time and only arrived as Hehl's power increased. The tower's top floor was already crumbled by Perra's relentless breath, and the air tasted of death and entropy, an evil that could be felt. Even by me. And as a red glow was slowly starting to increase in the lower floor, we decided to hide and enter the tower when the riders were gone and to burry the corpses in a holy Perra ritual as it befitted a former priest to give him and the land peace."
"But we discussed to long and didn't actually hide. As the shades glided rapidly through the clothed gates and towards us, riding ghostly night mares, we were still not in hiding and almost surprised as they jumped over the gorge and attacked us. I had barely time to chuck a healing potion over to Ulrik, as the leader of the group, the mighty Lord Thule himself called me for a duel and two of his four followers attacked the skald.
His first blow brought even me to my knees. His strength otherworldly, his speed impossible for a living being, his black armor almost impenetrable even by magical weapons, and yes, my weapon did not slide through as it had done with the ghosts at the Lonely Tower. The magic of Carrikal the Bonecrusher had effect and gave me a chance. Oh, my ego rose high as I saw me already winning against a Lord warrior's shade. But then he was too fast for me. He hit me in my left side and it was like nothing I have ever felt before. My life, literally my life was sucked out of my body. My shield was already freezing over with ice as my side seemed to crumble to dust. I feinted an attack with the shield and then crushed his weapon arm right above the elbow. His axe fell down, his arm vanished, but he was by no means defeated.
Meanwhile, my companion got hit several times and screamed and collapsed, but not until he called forth the gods and prayed and banished the shades he was facing with the power of the living and the oath to burry their corpses in holy ritual. But as he collapsed and the remaining two were circling in on him, I felt a new strength within myself. A power true and honorable. And your voice, Benedikt, echoed in my mind: Solus is with you, you said. And Solus light engulfed my symbol as I drove Carrikal deep into the shades ghostly body and pushed the symbol right into it.
And then, with a flash of light, they were gone. A faint scream still in the air, but gone. And my companion had drunk the potion and survived. As I had. Barely though. Had his attack connected another time, I would have perished. Ulrik called me 'Shade killer' afterwards.
The rest is quick to tell. We found the corpses, burried them and had a ritual that would probably make you crinch, Hrgungdvar, but it seemed to have worked. We found the treasure and with the black tear-shaped artifact we travelled back to the druid's circle as he called it and Ulrik sent me back. And then... I awoke."
Eremis hand reaches deep into his backpack as he begins to tremble within himself. His grip tightened around the fine object and he took in a deep breath. It was time to confess.
Having been engulfed in the light of the god that never speaks anything but truth, he realized once more and stronger than ever before that he needed to change.
Solemnly and ashamed Eremis continued. His hand was slowly coming out of the backpack as he talked.
"Benedikt, Nichuan, Hrgungdvar, I... I have to confess something to you."
He was angry with himself in that moment that he - even as he needed all the eloquence that he could possibly muster to convey his meaning -, he felt his stomach clench with fear and dread and was distracted by that. He could hardly bring himself to look them in the eyes. Although Benedikt had a warm but wary expression, Eremis shifted his gaze to Nichuan, his friend with whom he had travelled the farthest and who knew him best.
"There are a lot of things you don't know about me. Some things I'm proud of, and some things I'm not proud of. There are things I'm still not comfortable talking about. Yet. Sorry. But there are others that have an influence on you. And here... after telling you of my dream and still feeling this sensation of ... Solus within me... I am feeling more guilty than ever and want to come clean about something."
He knew he was trying to buy time. He felt anxious to talk about it. But maybe, if he talked about this, he could someday talk about his upbringing and where he came from and why he left. It would be like if a huge boulder would be lifted from his shoulders. Now, he wanted to begin with just a big stone.
"I... I betrayed you. I stole from you. Not with bad intentions, but nevertheless. I'm sorry."
As he was saying this, his hand came out the big backpack and in his hand there was a shiny, delicate, very beautiful golden necklace. It was intricately carved, made in dwarven design, and looking exceptionally expensive. He holds it toward the fire for all of you to see.
Eyes widened around the fireplace. Before anybody could actually begin a sermon or anything though, he continues and again longs into his backpack, retrieving a solid golden ring and three Abyssium knives.
"And this is not all. Here is a ring from one of the skeletons and the knives of those grinning monstrosities."
Eremis heart throbs in his ears and he feels them getting warm.
"I didn't intend to steal them... I... you know, I have been - this is no excuse of course, but... when I first joined the Crimson Legion in the Wasteland of Durkmar I was not at all interested in coins. I had much more important things I wanted to achieve or retain. Becoming a hero for one. But after a while, when it was always 'first grab holds on to it' I somehow... yes, I attained a trait that I am not proud of. I pocketed the necklace, the ring and the knives to sell. Even before I realized what I was doing. Anyway, I think you have the right to know. You are very different from the Legion and our rules are different than the rules of spoils we had back then. If we are going to create something like the guild I was talking about, this behavior mustn't happen. And I'm no exception. I hope you can understand and forgive me. And I hope the truth is more worth to you than the fact that I made a mistake. And just for appraisal... in case you think this a petty crime, I think it has a total worth of about 23,000cp what I pocketed without your knowledge and I feel bad about it."
Now he stopped silent. Expecting some kind of reaction. Anything.
Benedikt listened attentively to the words of Eremis. The dream that seemed so unbelievably true. The mercenary described it so vividly that the priest had the feeling that he could see everything in front of him.
The fire illuminated the face of Eremis and something besides this dream seemed to occupy him.
He could see the shame and fear in the man's face as he spoke the words.
"And here... after telling you of my dream and still feeling this sensation of ... Solus within me... I am feeling more guilty than ever and want to come clean about something."
"What's next?" he wondered.
"I... I betrayed you. I stole from you. Not with bad intentions, but nevertheless. I'm sorry."
The next words came in quick succession and the Solus priest noticed that not only Eremis' face turned red with shame.
He also felt heat rising within him, born of anger and disappointment. His hands clenched into fists. He thought of the goal of his brothers and him, thought of the money he had given to the poor souls on the way through the villages. With so much silver he could have done so much more.
The mercenary's other words were almost lost in the noise of this anger, but then it was Benedikt who felt shame.
What was he doing here? Was this the path his God, Solus, had shown him? Was this what he was preaching to everyone else? Was he preaching water and drinking wine?
With all the strength of his will and also through the shame he now felt, he calmed himself and his heart.
Eremis, Hrgungdvar and Nichuan had become more than companions through the events of the last days and weeks. They had saved his life, more than once.
They all deserved his loyalty, his understanding, and his forgiveness. After all, they were all mere mortals with flaws and weaknesses.
"And I'm no exception. I hope you can understand and forgive me. And I hope the truth is more worth to you than the fact that I made a mistake. And just for appraisal... in case you think this a petty crime, I think it has a total worth of about 23,000cp what I pocketed without your knowledge and I feel bad about it."
For Benedikt, the wave of sincere emotion he felt was like a clear call to do something. And he did.
Slowly he rose from the fallen tree trunk and walked over to Eremis.
He put his hand on the man's shoulder and then, with surprising strength, pulled him up by the arm to look directly at him. The fire was reflected in Benedikt's eyes as he spoke: "Guilt is like a heavy burden that can weigh down a soul. It makes you sick, changes you, and if you don't face it, it eats away at your life force like the cold of winter or the eye of Solus in the south. I know that it is not in my power to take away your guilt. But you have made the first step so that you may heal and you have given your friends", Benedikt emphasized this word, "the possibility to forgive you. Repentance from the wrong path can lead to reconciliation with oneself and also to reconciliation with Solus. I don't know which is more important."
Benedikt embraced the mercenary to then grab him by the shoulders.
"Without forgiveness, friendships are not possible! I speak only for myself now! I will make mistakes in the coming years and hope that you can forgive me then. And you will make mistakes and everyone around us. Only the gods are free of them!"
"Believe me, Eremis! I am not a man free from guilt and free from mistakes. And I stand before you and say, let he who is free from fault cast the first stone!"
Benedikt reached for Eremis' hand and squeezed it tightly.
"You are a friend! I forgive you! " Then a smile stole onto the priest's face and he suddenly looked very much like his brother Jacob. "But I think a massive donation to your friends here and the needy in Holt Lindeck would be somehow appropriate."