Vamir joined the council five minutes late. There were many murmurs and annoyed stares greeting the youngest council member as he slipped through the rows to his seat, which was inconveniently stationed between the two fattest members of the council, Elders Ramos and Vimmar. Not that he'd ever describe them in such a fashion anywhere in earshot.
Council Elder Rovaris was pontificating on the need to establish tighter security on food stores, water, and the gardens used to grow their foodstuff. Vamir thought he was an old bag of wind. Most of the old hard-liners were. Protect this, protect that, pride and power of the Vorst people, never let them win, fight fight fight. Vamir, being one of the few Council members still young and hale enough to still be a part of the fighting occasionally, was sick of rhetoric that did nothing to advance their situation. And the arrival of the Dhuar was just the catalyst he needed. Unfortunately, if he did not make his case well, he'd lose all support he had garnered over the past years.
Ever since the corruption of Kaih Liah, and the fall of the Kaer's Barrier, the elders had focused on building walls, vigilance, and 'regaining' what was lost...as if the loss of a third of the population to a magical plague, and trust in your fellow man could be regained so easily.
Most of the Elders did not fight. To be fair, most had at some point. The fall of the Kaer had happened while Ramos and Vimmar had been hale and hearty (and thin). They had fought in the hardest times, during what Vamir called the direct assault. All the constructs, horrors both major and minor, in the vicinity had joined the disciples of the Black Mind in pouring through the breaches in the walls, and had killed hundreds, if not thousands in the first years. It was a horrible time. But what was happening now was worse. Vamir would address it today, popularity be damned.
"Vamir!" exclaimed Rovaris from the floor. "So nice of you to join us! Sit, sit, take some tea! Don't worry, we all know how time flies for the young. I was merely entertaining our fine council till you arrived, so the truly important things could be addressed." The sarcasm practically dripped.
"I can tell, Rovaris...I can tell by my colleagues that the speech was truly gripping. I'm sorry I missed it." said Vamir. A loud snort, and a snore emanated from his two closest neighbours. "I shall try to be more prompt in the future. Oh...and I think I will stand. I can assume that in addressing me, you had finished what you had to say?" The council members murmured surprise. Vamir had won his seat on the council by recommendation, due to 'youth appeal' and some famed warrior endeavors. He was rumoured to be thick-skulled, and uneducated. They were half right. He was thick-skulled. He spent his time not in the library like most of the other elders (though he did read), rather, he mingled with the troops, and attended the occasional festivity. Morale was of the utmost importance in Vamir's eyes. The elders, to tell the truth, didn't spend much time in the library either; their aides did. In fact, it was sometimes hard to say what some of them did do...in particular Rovaris.
"The tardy one wishes to speak, o' council! Pray, let us listen in humbleness..." Rovaris bowed exaggeratedly.
Vamir was truly starting to dislike him. He smiled grimly and managed to sound magnanimous. "Oh...you may continue, my good man, if you have pressing new concerns to share."
"Why, thank you..." said Rovaris, dryly. " As I was saying, colleagues, friends, the north wall is weakened by repeated strikes, and the storehouse there was attacked by jehuthras just the other day. As you well know, these spider-like constructs, though not extremely dangerous to our skilled warriors, often come as precursors to a larger adversary. I propose that we post more...”
Vamir made a big show of being bored. He tapped his foot, looked up at the magical timepiece far above Rovaris’ head (an exquisite work of art, in fact) and examined his fingernails. He succeeded in distracting (and amusing, though they’d never admit it) half the room.
“Vamir...do you mind?”
“Huh? Oh...what? I must have dozed off there...jehuthras are a really big threat...yes, go on...” Vamir smiled brightly.
“We’re so sorry, Vamir, to be keeping you from your nap-time!”
“Rovaris, let us not begin insulting one another. I would hate to have to have to remove your tongue.” answered Vamir. Rovaris was treading a bit far from the pretended civility they had so far managed to maintain.
“You think you can take it?!” growled Rovaris.
The old man had balls. For a moment, Vamir was unnerved. It was Rovaris’ eyes that were disturbing. Vamir held his hands up in a placating manner, then bowed a bit exaggeratedly to hide the discomfiture.
Sarich, one of the other elders, older than Vamir by a decade, yet still hale enough to fight, stood. His early gray seemed to lend him credibility, for he had both Vamir’s trust, and that of the elder members of the council. “Rovaris, Vamir, this has long since ceased to entertain. If you have a legitimate dispute to bring up, then this is the place. If childish insults, and petty posturing are your game, then you can take it out into the hall.”
Rovaris opened his mouth to retort, but a chorus of “Hear, hear!” from the council quieted him, and he slunk to his seat, muttering. Vamir stayed up, to everyone’s surprise, and held his hands up for their attention.
Sarich fixed him with a baleful eye. “Vamir, if you persist in your games, so help me...” he left the warning hang.
“I apologise humbly for my behaviour, gentlemen and ladies.” There were only two women in the council, Setandra, and Oleta, and most council members overlooked them in their addresses. They did not speak often, but when they did, the council was all ears, at least outwardly. That way, their wives could not complain later. “I do have things to share. Personal beliefs, for the most part, but also some truly novel tidings. Many of you think me frivolous. I drink with the men at social functions, and I visit with all and sundry, regardless of rank. Some have said I follow where the wine flows. I am a social butterfly, floating on wings of popularity. What I have to say will definitely put that supposed popularity to the test.”
There was a loud murmur and alot of shuffling in the seats. He had their attention. He took a deep breath and continued.
“It was stupid of me to belittle Rovaris for stating old news. Let us face it, friends. No matter how fresh the attack, or even if a new type of construct is seen at the gates...this is all old news.” He paused and looked around, ensuring this point was emphasized clearly enough. “But it was stupid of me to say so, for I intend to bring up even older news. It is a story we know well, but which I feel we have failed to understand. It is the story of Kaih Leah.”
Confused muttering greeted him, and a somewhat annoyed murmur. This was going to be the tricky part, and if he was going to lose them, it would be here. He hurried on.
“Kaih Leah was a good man. Despite what happened, I hold this to be true. He was a curious man, a learned man, an intelligent, strong-willed, independent man, devoted to his people. But he was not a very wise man. Tendris ‘Al took him because of one little eccentricity. He liked to travel. He could not do so physically, so he travelled mentally...or astrally if you prefer. The mechanics of this are surely more clear to the magically inclined amongst you. He made himself useful to us, by warning us of Horrors outside our gates, and those lying in wait farther out. He was able to confirm that things were still bleak beyond our still strong Barrier, which was news we could not otherwise have obtained. He also provided us hope, for he could say from experience that there was a decrease in Horror activity over the course of his years of travel. This was all before his Tainting. Some scholars try to blame some character flaw, as if to say that any of us performing the same services could not possibly have fallen to the same risks. People forget that he travelled those outer reaches farther than any of us dared to go...they forget that he discovered much that brought hope before he met his most dangerous foe. Who knows what knowledge was lost when Tendris ‘Al opened one of our Kaer’s brightest hopes mind like an overripe fruit, and devoured it whole. The Horror, then, as we know, inhabited Kaih Liah’s empty shell, and set to work corrupting all he came into contact with. It took time to discover the Horror’s work, because Kaih Liah’s reclusive nature worked in Tendris’ Al’s favour, allowing him the opportunity to finish his plan. That is right, council...he finished his plan. We like to think we discovered the plan in time, that because we discovered what the creature was up to, that we won. We didn’t. The Kaer was breached, and this is the reason we fight today. We killed the shell Tendris ‘Al inhabited, and prevented him from entering another, so far as we know. But we did not stop the Horror from breaching the Barrier. This was the beginning of the Long Death. The disciples of the Black Mind slid among us for years, wreaking lesser havoc, but still creating the chaos expected of them by their former master. But we don’t speak of them anymore.”
“We purged them! They are dead! It would dishonour their memories and Names to mention their crimes as Tainted.” Said Rovaris angrily. “And you accuse me of pointless rambling!”
“At last, intelligent words from your mouth, Rovaris! Good man!” said Vamir, smiling tightly. “I agree wholeheartedly. I do not speak Names, however. But we MUST speak of the crimes. We must be aware of past atrocities, lest we forget the signs. Do all of you believe Tendris ‘Al dead? Or that Horrors like it might wait outside the gates? The tainted all share certain goals, no matter which spawn of evil they serve... First...”
“Have you become a doom-crier, Vamir Ro?” This was Sarich, once more, apparently becoming quite angry. For a moment, Vamir, flinched. It was somewhat like being addressed by your mother...possibly due to the use of his full name. Vamir had expected resistance from Rovaris, and had a response for anything the elder man could say. However, Sarich was another story. He had Vamir’s respect, and so it was incredibly difficult not to sit down when the warrior/counsellor addressed him so.
“Far from it, sir. But I cannot get to a solution, until we agree there is a problem.”
“Oh this is rich...Vamir has a solution to all our problems. This I must hear. Make it quick, Vamir.” Laughed Rovaris. There were murmurs of agreement, but also murmurs of discontent. Dischord rang out, as elders argued with elder. Rovaris had a good following, but Vamir had caught their attention. This was proved when silence was regained by Vamir raising his arms for attention.
“Obviously, some of you guess where I am going with this. I’m glad, at the least that I’m not boring any of you.” He looked pointedly at Rovaris a moment, unable to help the gibe. He worried it would affect his credibility, but his dislike for the Elder overruled good sense at times. He continued quickly before Rovaris could interrupt again.
“I’m going to make this short. At least the remainder. Just the facts, as I see them.
Fact: They are still out there, and trying desperately to get in here. We fight them constantly, nearly every day, and yet they still come. Someone dies each day, and children born do not replace them. They don’t attack as often because they don’t have to. They are bleeding us dry.”
“Fact: The disciples are still among us. Call them Tainted, zombies, shells, the Nameless, whatever you wish. Even if they do not serve Tendris ‘Al, they all want the same things. Tendris ‘al was an Astral Horror. Do we truly believe it dead because we destroyed the host? Even during the battle, he controlled more than one mind. I have my doubts about his defeat.”
“Fact: We lose more men to Taint, or to suicide, than we do to battle at the walls. Men slip off in the night. Are they tainted, or simply in despair? This is a horrible thing to say, but I almost hope they took their lives in despair. Just consider the alternative. Consider if Tendris’al is out there, biding his time, gathering fighters over time? Warrior and swordmaster adepts, devoid of soul, but not of lethality, growing in numbers, and dedicated to one purpose, our destruction. But as I said, we are discussing facts, not conjecture.
“Fact: The Black Mind was discovered through art. We first noticed her presence in the works of three of our artists. I will forego names, in order to preserve their memory. The painter and sculptor, she painted scenes of devastation the likes of which were never seen. Those who saw the works retched, and could not function, let alone fight, for weeks afterwards.The singer sang in pitches no human could reach, and caused grown men to hide under their beds. Several children...our brightest hopes possibly among them...died from screaming nightmares, hearts bursting from several hours of terror from which they could not awaken. The troubadour told stories of woe and despair, and his tales too, targeted children in particular. Many committed suicide. Luckily we stopped a few in the attempt, and discovered the cause. But the point is that the Horror chose targets well.”
He paused for breath, as murmuring amongst the council increased, and heated discussion erupted in hushed tones in the darker corners of the room. Vamir was glad in a way...the indecision on whether to stop his tirade gave him the chance he needed to finish. He needed their minds churning, rebelling against the thoughts they had refused to acknowledge for so long. This was a cruel reminder, but a necessary one.
He spoke louder, to reach even those arguing in back rows. “Fact! There is nothing here for us! Our buildings, our homes, have become the scene of a multitude of crimes. A death has occurred in the family of every known citizen in the remnants of this Kaer. We fight endlessly. True, our efforts are focused outwards as they should be, and we keep many alive who would not be otherwise. But do any of us call this a life? We have no art to speak of, unless you count the designs on the hilt of the blades we bear. Blades which never leave our sides. No art is almost as bad as tainted art. Even the gatherings you say define my frivolous character are grim and joyless, with soldiers drowning sorrows rather than revelling in a short-lived victory. There is no LIFE left here! There is no LIGHT behind these walls!”
The council was quiet now...noone had ever put it so bluntly, so bleakly. Vamir waited, staring at each in turn, though he skipped Rovaris and his aides. He stopped finally on Sarich, and on the two women, Setandra and Oleta. He knew that emotional pleas, or fearmongering garnered the strongest reactions from them. They were as much warriors as any of the men here had ever been.
Setandra stood at the same time as Rovaris, who had noticed the slight given by Vamir at being skimmed over after the address. Setandra shot Rovaris a glare that could turn reduce a wet sponge to ash. “Sit down, Rovaris! Vamir didn’t take your tongue earlier, but so help me, if I hear another word out of you today, I will!”
She then turned to Vamir, leaning over, and clenching the seat in front of her. “You have become a doom-crier, Vamir. You have disrupted this meeting with tales we know all too well, terrors we face on a daily basis. We listened because we thought you had a point. You seem to be advising us to curl up and die. You are right, with all we face, it is difficult to be anything but a doom-crier. But there is light, Vamir! There is light so long as their is life, and the will to fight!”
Oleta stood and offered wordless support to Setandra, placing a hand on her shoulder. Sarich too, stood, grim-faced. Setandra continued.
“I for one have no plans to curl up and die, Vamir. If you see death in our future, and cannot see the value in what we do, go out and seek that death, outside these halls, outside these walls!”
Vamir merely smiled.
“Thank you, Setandra. I do have a future, as do we all. Hear me now, those who believe I am merely encouraging despair. I suggest those of you with such skills, do your best this evening to create the work of art you have postponed. Those without such skills, find something....something created recently, mind you...that uplifts you. If you cannot, I need you to consider the risk I will propose. I don’t believe you would consider it without the sense of desperation I have attempted to instill within you. The fire I hear in Setandra’s voice is what I hope to address in each of you. The hope for a better day must be buried within each of you, and a challenge has brought it shining forth. Setandra, I thank you.”
“But what are you proposing?” sputtered Sarich, bewildered.
“Recent events have led me to new hopes...no...not new hopes, but renewed hopes. I cannot say more than that, Sarich. Not yet. I need every council member to heed my preliminary proposal. Make something beautiful, something untouched by the fear and darkness around us. If you cannot make such a thing, look for something made recently that lifts your spirits. I wish to reconvene this session tomorrow first thing. Can we do this? Can I call for a vote on this?”
Rovaris stood, obviously seething. He had no standing above any in the council save in terms of connections, but he had secured the honor of being Speaker. This was a task that had likely never seemed more odious than it did now. He stood, and hissed out the question.
“A vote has been called...closure of the meeting...and a bloody stupid homework assignment. Raise hands for Aye...”
To Rovaris’ obvious ire, and to Vamir’s happiness, hands raised, slowly at first, but soon nearly three quarters of the chamber had hands raised.
Vamir spared Rovaris the discomfort of repeating the question for the Nay vote, which would be negligible. He’d goaded the fellow enough. He bowed dramatically and thanked the council, moving swiftly for the door. For an uncultured pup, he had certainly gotten them riled. They still argued about what had just happened. But a backward glance worried him . Rovaris stood, still as stone, in the middle of the furor as everyone about him speculated and argued amongst each other. He stared straight ahead, brow furrowed and hands bridged in front. His two aides buzzed around him, whispering in his ear regularly. Something was definitely not right.