In darkest night, just as we were told to do by the witch, we stepped towards the pond’s chilling shore, cold fumes rising towards us, the sow in tow. There we found a large, flat stone, slightly sunken into the pond, afoul with an aura of black magic so strong we instinctively held our step. This was the place. As much as I longed for the insights of the Sage, I could not shake off the evil exuding from the dank pond.
I stammered as I expressed my doubts that this was such a good idea. Kelk shook his head, growled something under his beard, then rounded on me, “Syk, you want to know it as much as I do, right?” I did not answer. I lowered my head, burdened by his disappointed tone. “Right?” he repeated, his eyes wide with unease as he grabbed me by my shoulders, and so I sulked forth an unconvincing “yes.” Holding out a rope for me, he demanded sternly, “then help me bind her.”
I followed suit, just as he led the sow next to the stone and grabbed her by her front legs to hold her in place. I threw the rope below her chest, leading it around her hind legs and pulling it close. She was startled and would have run were it not for my brother’s weight, who was then struggling to fasten her forelegs closed. I knew what was expected of me and immediately skipped forward, taking the rope ends from him, quickly finishing the knot he began. Signaling me with a quick jerk of his head to take a step away, he leaped off, letting her weight fell her onto the stone. Still squirming under the binds, I nearly felt pity for the poor beast. Nearly. This was far more important than her life.
My brother then bade me to seat myself on the ground, pulling forth our ritual ingredients. He poured for us both from a dusty flask the mushroom wine, deftly stolen from the hermit at Fort Esmak, the brown liquid foul with the blessings of Umbria. I swallowed the burning concoction with great difficulty, barely suppressing my urge to spew it forth to cleanse my innards. My brother struggled similarly with the hard beverage.
Then it came to the consumption of the fruit. They were round, green growths the size of grapes, though with a leathery skin that seemed much thicker. The flesh, while still bitter, did well in alleviating the brew’s far more despicable taste from our tongues.
As we gazed up we saw how the black of night transformed into radiant green, how the scalps of trees became of such a lively pink that no cherry could hope to compete, and how the songs began. It was already decided at home that I would caw while he would croak, so I took forth my feathers and waved them as we had practiced behind the stables in the dark of night. I fluttered and danced in circles while my brother jumped and hopped just in the opposite direction, a frogskin in hand. After many cycles, the pink of the trees began to bleed into the skies like pyres. And so we began the recitations given to us by the hag, and called upon the All-Seeing, the All-Wanting, the All-Knowing. A hundred prayers of praise we made unto His name, the heavens themselves joining our dance as the pink threatened to drown out all that was left from the green while the barks of the trees began to sing. And thus my brother brought forth our most prized possession, unfittingly held in a birdcage; one of the mysterious One’s own servants, one of the thousand-eyed toads. When we purchased it from the hag it was but a dark blue, but now I saw it was pitch-black with white words of mystery dancing upon its skin. And so my brother, as his role demanded, was the first to let his tongue dance over and between the thousand eyes on its slimy back before giving it to me. I too, though reluctantly, took part in the gifts of the maloric servant. When I lifted my tongue, numbed by the toxins of the beast, I saw that my brother had truly become the toad and judging by his gaze I too had truly become the crow.
Under the three great blessings I felt as free as never before! No worry could ever break my tranquility. Under any other circumstance I would have felt queasy about killing any animal, but when Kelk gave me the ashen dagger I leapt upon the sow and swiftly hacked at her throat, devotedly calling on the court of toads to present Him our offer. My hands running red with her blood, I then rose to dance the last dance with Kelk as we chanted the final summon.
“We call on you, blind king, your eyes ceded for Fortuna’s parting gift.
We call on you, lost king, your mind broken upon the spires of Aryshod.
We call on you, doomed king, your domain devoured with your final word.
We call on you, to imbibe your wisdoms and auguries, to partake in your attainment!”
And so we danced on for another two hours, the pink pyres of tree scalps slowly receding, nearing the end of our visions. Kelk fell to the ground and pounded it with anger, “Why oh why is He not hearing us?! We followed every step laid out by His followers, we imbibed the gifts and danced the dances, we offered Him the-,” he bellowed forth, his own gasp cutting him off before he stormed towards me. “The dagger!” he demanded. “Give it to me!” I hesitated, his erratic behaviour striking a great fear into my heart. Wildly, he grabbed the dagger that I had pulled towards me in fear. He wrenched at it with such force that we were thrown to the ground, rolling about the sow’s cold corpse. He punched and kicked at me, bit at me, and in that struggle he drew my blood with my own blade, the crimson drop dancing through the moonlight in a thousand colours. I never felt less elven. My hand was guided by an unknown force as I, foaming at the mouth, cawed one, last, time. And as I looked up I found my dagger embedded deep into my brother’s chest, surprise absolving him of his anger.
Drenched in his own boiling blood, I let his corpse fall aside, leaving it slumped against the hallowed altar as I sunk to the ground in horror and confusion. I did not understand what power had come over me, not yet knowing that it was a great gift, that I had been chosen. For as I lamented I did not see the crows that began to circle the pond above. I did not hear the toads, those thunderous voices began to swell in a choir that grew ever louder. When I took notice, I gazed upon my surroundings and saw how the blood flowing from Kelk’s breast was being drawn over the water’s surface, forming a circle of magnificent size. The songs grew deafening to the point of pain while the pond’s surface was pierced from below by a shattered, golden crown, followed by a bald, pale head adorned with only a handful of long, grey hairs. What next appeared was not the body of a man, but of a slick, gargantuan, pitch-black toad, seated on a rising white petal.
And then there was silence. The singing ceased in an instant as His blind eyes seemed to draw me in. He then opened his mouth wide, revealing a thousand eyes within, and spoke in a thunderous, divine voice. “What do you seek, mortal?” I cowered before His imposing presence, the effects of the potent ingredients washed away by his divine aura. I was shaken when He commanded, suddenly and angrily, “Speak, or perish!”
“Knowledge, Master, knowledge is what I seek!”
He seemed content, the giant visage smiling briefly. “Knowledge, you say? Once I also desired wisdom, secrets, and omens. For knowledge begets power, and that you understand. However, do you really believe you are ready to hold such power?”
I pondered for but a moment, concerned at what He was implying—How could He, of all beings, not know that we weren't here for his grand wisdoms? Or... was this a trap?
Be it an urge from my subconscious or from long dead Fortuna herself, I however disregarded my suspicions and bluntly answered, “yes.”
Once more He smiled, and this time a thunderous, quacking laughter burst forth. “So it shall be!” he announced as his monstrous mouth opened wide, and his tongue shot forth, pulling me into the great, magnificent eye at its center. Passing by that ever turning storm of a thousand eyes, I came to land in a space of pure, endless white. As I pondered the meaning of it, the ground below me collapsed into darkness.
I was in a hallway, walking towards a closed door, from behind which came the cries of a woman. I opened the door and found my late mother on the kitchen floor, sobbing as she held her reddened eye, my angry father hulking above her. My mother halted her cries abruptly and gazed at me, desperately, “Kelk, go back to bed…”
The world turned black again. “My brother,” I contemplated, confused by what I had witnessed. “How?”
“Eirys”, a woman said plainly behind me, prompting me to turn around. She was a Dark Elf of advanced age, maybe in her forties, holding a light elven babe to her chest. “Eirys”, she repeated again, a tone of love tinting what she probably wanted to be an unemotional plea. “Sister, please take him, as is the tradition of our people.”
I turned around, once more facing the door of the house, feeling the troubled expression on my face. “I don’t think I should, Raeys. Maek is already making it difficult with one child around.”
I felt the other woman grab me by the arm, turning me around once more. “Please, sister. I know of no better person to entrust his life.”
Hesitant, I eyed the babe, he returning my gaze and grabbing after my hand. I felt a fire set ablaze in my heart, and immediately took the babe into my arms. The Dark Elf nodded, then sighed, before bidding me farewell.
I had never known that I was not of my mother’s blood. While my adopted body carried the babe into the house, my adopted mind thinking up the little one’s name, I, the real I, was overwhelmed by a sense of frustration. “Why not tell me, mother? Why did you not tell me?”
Pain then nearly brought me to my knees. The world around me blurred into hundreds of scenes from my childhood.Kelk meeting me for the first time. My drunkard father despising me, angry at my mother for letting her sister force a child on her, and many more visions before I was once again completely immersed in one.
I was shouting obscenities at my mother, she sobbing next to the hearth. And then I struck her a lot harder than usual, I could feel it, bringing her down to the ground, my mother’s skull breaking open on our hearth, the ichor of life quelling forth. My lent persona panicked while I myself became sick. Father always told me she had abandoned us. I dragged my mother’s body into the forest under Daelle’s pale light, haphazardly covering her under dirt and leaves.
I fell to my hands and knees and vomited onto the cold ground, sickened by the man I called father, for whom I had gone to such great lengths. In my despair, the Lord mocked me. “I have brought you to your knees with but a taste of Truth, mortal. Do you still think yourself ready for my gifts?”
I did not hesitate. “Yes.” My life was a lie. What did I still have to lose?
His silent nod rendered the very ground on which I crawled into a pool of thousands of eyes. I was devoured by the waves. In the maelstrom the sight of each aperture bestowed upon me a vision. I saw a promising young wizard encasing himself in his armour, never to leave it again, a worried maiden espying the well-armed midwife sent for by her lady’s kin, a red-cloaked figure fighting a leviathan of enormous size and a man gazing into the night sky to witness Fortuna shatter. Each sight departed faster than the last until all that followed was blurred into a storm of a thousand eyes, yet every single one was burned into my soul. At last, the final vision I was to receive was the one we sought. I saw where the highwayman buried the tax collector’s treasure before being caught and hanged. Oh, what a trivial sight in the grand scheme of things, a pathetic footnote compared to all I saw before.
As the vortex subsided, the Lord’s voice boomed forth questioningly. “Which memories will you keep?” I was in disbelief. How could I let go of anything after seeing all? How could I ever choose?
Distressed, I begged him, “Please, let me keep them all. I want them all!”
His rebuttal was to repeat, louder, “Which will you keep? Knowledge has its price, and for all, your offering is not enough.”
“All of it!” I proclaimed anew. “Master, please, take whatever you want, just let it be all of i-” before I could even finish the sentence, the giant mantoad nodded, dissolving me into eyes.
I awoke before the altar, the same as I had left this world, but I felt myself bereft of my experience. I panicked, mad with desire, pounding my fists bloody on the earthen ground as an urge arose within me, an order from the lord! I did not dare resist as I tore out my own eyes, greedily consuming them, returning every last vision to me.
He heard my plea and found me worthy of a duty more important than any mortal could ever hope to understand.
As I was lost in joyous thought I began to see myself from a beaked face, perched on my brother's corpse. I bade the observer to join me, and they obliged.
I did not leave the hallowed grove a blind man, but one truly capable of Sight.