Promise to a Star (book)
-A Promise to a Star-
by Lathaliu Ewoenyn
If I do not find her eventually, she will die. Even now the evil that festers within is slowly draining away her very spirit. It may not happen today. It may not happen tomorrow or in a few weeks, months or even years. But it will happen; that I know without a doubt now, and I will forever be burdened with the pain and certainty that knowledge could have saved her. And may save her still.
I was a first year student at the prestigious Izma Ru'ef University in Leth Deriel. One of only a handful of non-Elven students admitted that year, I was determined to prove my worth to my professors and peers. But I had few ideas of where I wanted to go with my future. The professors were starting to pressure me to choose an area in which to concentrate my studies, but I was torn between my love for the holy magics and my love of the lore of the stars. I decided to leave the University for a brief visit in the nearby Crossing, hoping that maybe a change of scenery would help me think, and also planning on securing a few interviews with some of the guild leaders there.
After spending just a few terrifying moments with the volatile Moon Mage guild leader, I left to wander the crowded streets with a heavy heart, beginning to wonder if this visit had not in fact been such a good idea. It was surely a divine hand that guided my weary feet to the welcoming and open doors of the cleric guild. There, in the quiet of that sunlit sanctuary, I sat and meditated, or tried to anyway, although I'm sure that to any observer it might have appeared more like sulking. Just then a group of clerics entered, radiant souls they were, with light hearts and light feet, and I watched in silent awe and admiration as they proceeded to celebrate the glory of the Thirteen Immortals through a graceful and elegant dance the likes of which I had never seen. Then one of them, a fellow Elothean, bent and paid homage to the altar, touching it ever so slightly with the tips of his fingers. A far away look stole over his face then, and he appeared momentarily dazed. Then he turned abruptly and stared straight at me.
I had hidden in a shadowy pew in an attempt to go unnoticed, but now he was walking towards me and with a growing sense of apprehension I looked around for a hasty exit. But he was at my side before I could even rise to my feet.
"The gods have sent me a vision of you," he said calmly, as if communicating directly with the most powerful beings in the universe was a perfectly natural occurrence. His face was serene and when he smiled warmly at me I felt as if I too had been given a glimpse at the divine. Anyone with whom the gods spoke was a chosen one indeed.
"I saw you holding a child in your arms," he told me. "But it was not an Elothean child, it was the child of some other. You were smiling and I knew that this child needed you and meant a great deal to you. The gods have spoken to you through me, and ahead of you they have already laid the path on which you will walk."
"The gods sent you this vision?"
"Yes. Do you find that surprising? The gods have many ways of communicating with mortals. But while they seek to speak to us all, only a select number of Elanthians have ears keen enough to hear their call."
The notion of the gods seeking to communicate with mortals was not new to me. My mother was a strong believer in omens and spoke of them as "road signs at the crossroads of destiny." At that moment I felt like I was indeed standing at one of these very crossroads that my mother had spoken of, and I knew that the path I took then would decide the fate of my life.
"What does it mean?" I asked the priest.
"That I cannot say for certain. But the gods have taken an interest in you and that is no accident."
"Do you think," I began, uncertain of how to phrase the question that had formed so urgently just then in my mind, "Do you think that I could learn the holy arts someday?"
"Fellow Eloth," he said to me then warmly, "If you feel the calling of the gods within you do not be afraid to embrace it! Remember that we, as the seventh and most perfected of the races of this land, are held in special regard by the gods. It is a natural choice that we should feel moved to be their messengers, their intermediaries, in this world of mortals."
I left right away for Leth Deriel, wasting no more time in the Crossing. I was now eager to begin my studies at the University. As I stood on the ferry that would take me south, watching the dark canopy of the treetops on the opposite bank growing closer, my head was filled with the words of a traditional Elothean lullaby that my mother had sung to me when I was a child:
When the world was nothing but earth and air
Devoid of life's soft breath and sigh
The gods created seven beings fair
To fill the Void and walk the green land dry.
Your life has come
Hear now, hark!
You were born
from gods' divine spark.
When the first six rose and took on life
Animals and trees stretched far and near
A silence broke the sky like the cut of a knife
As the gods wept with joy and shed a tear.
You'll fly so far
Stand up, stand tall
Be not afraid
to answer your call.
From that crystal tear a rain did fall
And the seventh being took shape and form
Enlivened from the gods' very beckoning call
Through divine will the first Elothean was born.
Sing your own tune
Live long, live full
Roam where you will
when you feel that pull.
As they spread across both earth and sea
Eluned smiled on each child's birth
Every mystery revealed, their mind the key
Knowledge their food, and wisdom their mirth.
Your thoughts will run
Bathed in light
Do not hide
from what is right.
By darkened shadow or awakening light
Know the Thirteen made you whole
For you are blessed (and chosen!) in their sight
Divine spark resides within your soul.
Be not undone
Hold true and proud
For heritage makes you
one out of a crowd.
From then on I took diligently to the study of Divinity. I lost myself eagerly in reams of books and manuscripts, and made the library my second home. So intent was I to drink in all the knowledge I could, that I barely noticed when an unusual Elven child was brought to the University Dean. She soon caught the attention of every student and professor there, however, and it wasn't long before I too was hopelessly embroiled in her strange and dark fate.
She arrived dirty and malnourished, and her hair was so entangled with twigs and brush that at first I was unable to even tell what color it was. She seemed to have little if any language skills even though the local Elven empath assured us that she was only a few years away from adolescence. Her origins were uncertain; it seemed that no one from leagues around would admit to having bore her or even know if she had any surviving family members at all. Perhaps, though, this was not surprising in light of her condition. She appeared to be afflicted with an odd and debilitating illness that many took for sheer madness. At a loss for a cure, she mysteriously arrived on the University doorstep like a child out of a mythic tale, and soon became an exotic research specimen of great interest to the scholars.
That first night she put up a terrible howling, loud enough to wake all of Leth's living residents and probably its dead ones as well. Even though she had been given a tidy little room with a warm comfortable bed, she scratched at the walls and doors like an animal caught in a cage. I had snuck out of my dormitory room late that evening and was just peering around the hallway corner when I saw one of the professors, a stout Dwarven woman, strolling serenely down the hallway towards the child's room. Behind her trailed the sweet scent of herbs, and a wreath of jadice flowers was nestled in her thick hair.
I crept silently behind her and watched as she strode confidently into the child's room and closed the door behind her. The screaming immediately stopped and the hallway grew silent. Around me a small crowd gathered, everyone waiting eagerly with their breaths caught in anticipation. No one seemed to pay any heed to the fact that most of us were still in our evening gowns.
Shortly after the hour, the Dwarven woman emerged again, her face strained and sad and her shoulders heavy. Folding her hands she bowed her head and informed us all that nothing more could be done. "That child is afflicted with no illness of the body that I have ever seen in my long days as a healer. I'm sorry, but I am at a loss. She is sleeping peacefully now, or at least for the time being, until the effect of the tea wears off." Murmuring in hushed voices, we spectators crept back to our respective rooms.
The following day a great commotion drew me from my quiet studies in the library. A tall Elf was approaching just outside, dressed in long robes that trailed out behind him like a cloud of blue smoke. Surrounding him was a throng of people, commoners and students alike, all shouting to him at once. He raised a jeweled hand to silence the crowd and spoke loudly. "There will be time for you all to have brief appointments with me later. Right now, my time is consumed by a very important business that can not wait."
He was ushered into the large foyer of the University, and the great doors were shut, bringing a sudden quiet to the building. Several other professors spoke with him in hushed tones to which he replied in a booming voice, "Yes, yes, I will have it ready by morning. The results will be no less than astounding, I assure you. Leave it all to me. Just lead me to your laboratory. I can not be disturbed while I work." I soon learned that he was a visiting professor from Asemath Academy, a renowned alchemist and herbalist who was famed for his miracle cures throughout the Realms.
But the alchemist had already left in a hurried flurry of activity before the light of the next dawn even touched the sky. He had locked himself in the University's main laboratory that afternoon before and did not emerge for lunch, dinner, or evening prayer. Hours went by as a thin, pale assistant came to and fro from his room, bringing him all sorts of foul smelling plant life and animal remains. Finally, just as I was preparing for bed, there was a great commotion from inside the lab and the thunderous shake of a frightful explosion shook the entire University building. The door burst open and a torrent of terrible fumes and smoke billowed out followed by the alchemist, who appeared with arms triumphantly raised like a savior emerging from the clouds.
He was led directly to the child's sleeping quarters, where again, a crowd of curious onlookers waited outside the doors. Barely a few strained minutes passed when a loud, definitely male, shout broke the silence. The alchemist emerged, looking sober and cross, literally drenched in a shiny green slime. He packed up his things immediately afterwards and clearly made it known that he wanted nothing more at all to do with "that wretched child."
Day three and still no progress. Two solemn clerics from the nearby temple appeared that afternoon, shuffling quietly in their dark robes like shadowy apparitions, cradling prayer beads in their hands and whispering softly amongst themselves. They drifted into the child's room and closed the door. All night their steady rhythmic chants filled my dreams and the next morning the faint smell of incense had wafted under my door. But they too fared no better in finding a cure, although they did have a diagnosis for her malady. "She is possessed by a malicious entity of some sort," the priestess explained, "and it appears to be slowly draining the life from her very spirit. I fear she may only grow worse as time passes."
In the following days numerous eccentric and questionable personages filtered in and out of the University, all offering their advice, services, and expertise. Although greatly disturbed by the news of the girl's health, I retained a distant yet curious attachment to the proceedings, which might never have gone beyond that had something else not intervened to draw me in.
I was walking through Leth one day just as dusk was falling. The streets were quiet and I walked the roads alone with nothing but the sound of my footsteps and the wind in the trees to keep me company. But as I approached a side street, a tall hulking figure stepped out into my path. Reflexively, I reached for a tiny knife in my cloak pocket, but the figure before me held out his enormous hands in a gesture of supplication and said in a soft, gentle voice, "Please. Wait."
The man was a Gor'Tog, finely dressed in a smart velvet vest and doeskin breeches, but upon closer inspection I noticed that things were not what they seemed. While his clothes might have been elegant once, they appeared to have seen better days. The vest was threadbare and unraveling in spots and the breeches were stained. Something about the pallor of his pale green skin gave me the impression that he was malnourished, possibly ill, and his eyes were shaded by dark circles underneath them.
"You are from the University? You must be, yes. Smart Eloth like you. I know of the Elven girl. The girl who is sick? I can help her. I know what is wrong. I know why she is so ill. I know why she doesn't get better."
Thinking that I had stumbled upon yet another charlatan intent on selling his expertise like all the rest, I started to turn away. But he held out an hand to stop me.
"I tell the truth! Listen, please. You must. I bring you something. I bring you a cure." He reached into his pocket and removed a piece of tattered yellow parchment which looked like it had been torn from a book. It had crumpled in his pocket and he quickly tried to smooth it out with his thick fingers. He looked around furtively and clutched the parchment to his chest. Then he thrust it at me.
"I have to leave. You hide this. Don't tell anyone we met. That parchment...it may cost me my life."
"Why are you doing this? Why are you sacrificing so much to help a child you have never met?"
"Because he will hide it from the world forever! He will take the cure with him to his grave! But what he does is wrong. So I bring it instead. I bring it so he doesn't know." The Gor'Tog was growing increasingly nervous by the minute, fidgeting so much that he looked like he might jump out of his skin at any moment.
"The Keeper of the Library. He lives hidden in the Forest of the Night. The library is old. Back to the days of the Dragon Priests. Many secrets hidden in that library. Dragon Priest secrets. Cure for the Elven girl hidden there too." Naive that I was, I shook my head in disbelief. "The days of the Dragon Priests are over. No one but the Elves and Dwarves are alive now from that era. Are you saying that this Keeper is a Dragon Priest?"
"Shhh! Not so loud! Old ways still alive. I know. I am servant to the Keeper."
"You took this from the library?" I looked at the parchment he had given me and briefly lamented that the book it must have been taken from was now torn and incomplete. He nodded.
"Elven girl's sickness is not natural. Dragon Priests made it. Dragon Priests can cure it."
His eyes darted about quickly as if he had heard some small sound, but the quiet of the early evening had not been disturbed by anything that I could hear. I thanked him for the parchment, not really knowing how much of his tale I should believe. He was gone from my sight in seconds, his tall frame melding with the shadows.
In odd, undecipherable script, which appeared to be some ancient form of Eth'ral'khh, was a simple list. My curiosity now baited, I painstakingly took to the task of translating the parchment as best I could, using what old texts I found in the University library. The list, upon full translation, contained a series of ingredients, a recipe of sorts. However, there were no instructions on how to prepare or administer them. Dismayed, I wondered if all my work had been for naught.
During that time, while I was spending my nights in the library, I had decided to acquaint myself with the Elven girl during the day. On the first visit, I had entered her room with great trepidation, feeling more like a tiny mouse in a lion's den rather than a grown woman in the room of a mere child. To say that her reaction surprised me would be an understatement. The child leaped up from her chair and embraced me, smiling and babbling what sounded like nonsense. Each day, she continued to greet me in this way until it dawned on me that her babbling was patterned and precise - in fact, it was not babbling at all. It was a language! My shock grew even greater when a language expert was brought to her room and confirmed my growing suspicions. She was not speaking any known Elven language, but some remote dialect of S'kra. Perhaps this parchment did indeed hold an answer.
Things grew more complex everyday. News began leaking out about the girl's odd situation and whereas before she had been given up as an orphan, suddenly everyone began claiming her as their own. The local Elves loudly insisted that she be returned to her own people to be brought up in elven ways, while the nearest S'kra communities claimed that if her language and culture were already S'kra in origin, she should rightly be adopted by a S'kra couple to be raised in the ways with which she was already familiar. I tried to shield her from the controversy, since arguments had been breaking out on the streets and relations between the S'kra and Elves in the town were quickly declining. She was doing well, and I wanted nothing that would interfere with her progress.
I soon found that I began looking forward to our visits together as much as she. The professors welcomed my interest in her, especially when she seemed calmed by my presence. I had taught myself a few simple words in her language, and that endeared me to her all the more. I read to her stories about the gods, of which she knew nothing, took her for walks in the nearby forest lands, and rested with her on the grass in the early evenings, gazing at the sky. She took particular interest in the stars and constellations, which she referred to as "jewels in the sky," and so I took to calling her "Avtai", or "Star" in Gamgweth. She had started calling me "Thal-yoo," the best way she could pronounce my name, and so she seemed very pleased to now have a name of her own that I could call her.
As we lay on the grass at night I told her how the gods had arranged the stars in the sky so that mages might divine meaning from them, so that even those who could not commune with the gods directly could still read in their handiwork the messages they meant to send us. She was fascinated by stories of the gods, and so when I ran out of books about them, which I had been sneaking out of the library, I told her folk tales, traditional fables, and stories of my own creation instead. No matter how much I told her, Avtai was never satisfied and always wanted to know more. I filled her with proper love and respect for the Immortal Thirteen and taught her to pray. I found in those days a peace and contentment that before I had never known.
But as the days passed, she grew weaker and paler, and began locking herself in her room, sometimes refusing to go out with me. Her strange fits of madness had abated for a while, but I noticed that now they had returned, taking hold of her more and more frequently. She appeared to be trying to fight it, whatever it was which afflicted her, but it was clear that she was losing the battle.
I had not seen the strange Gor'Tog since that unusual night, and I feared that I might never see him again. As I watched this innocent child suffer, I grew increasingly angry. The answer to my questions, her cure, the key to her very life and spirit, lay somewhere nearby, locked for eternity in a library to which I, nor anyone else, had no access. A mere recipe it was, and it all seemed so simple. A scrap of knowledge was all I asked for, was all I dreamed about, all I prayed for. My days and nights were filled with nothing else. But then something did happen, as in answer to my prayers, but it was not as I had expected.
A strange S'kra arrived one day at the University, with eyes the color of fire and a cloak that shone like the sun. He was not very tall, yet his presence filled every room he entered making him seem like a giant. He raved and hissed in terrible anger, his tail slapping the ground, yet his body stood stiff and controlled, his eyes searching every face. I crept away from the spot where I had been watching, unnoticed, and retreated to my room, where I could still hear his voice, even behind my closed door.
"It is here somewhere, I know it, and one of you has it. I will not leave until it is found! The thief who stole it will be reprimanded appropriately as soon as I have the parchment in my hand to prove the deed." The professors protested uselessly, denying all knowledge of such a parchment, but I knew only too well why the Keeper had come - and what and who he was looking for.
As his steps sounded on the stairs and his voice announced that a search of every room would be necessary, I was already hastily lighting a fire in the hearth in my room. My heart pounding, I remembered the words of the Gor'Tog, saying that his very life depended on that parchment. It seemed the stakes had risen, for now two lives depended on it- one on its preservation, and one on its destruction. There was one brief moment before I fed the parchment to the fire, one moment where time stopped as my mind reached out in need to the gods, questioning - What Do I Do? And then I knew.
I wept freely flowing tears as the parchment curled and blackened in the flames, something inside me curling up and dying with every black wisp of smoke. But by the time my door was thrown open and the Keeper burst in, all evidence of the parchment's existence had been forever erased.
Avtai, the Elven child whom I had grown to care for so much, disappeared that same day. I continue to believe that she ran away, while the Keeper was searching the rooms, while everyone's attention was diverted. I cling to the hope that the Keeper brought no one else with him that day, no one who could have seen a slender elven shape as it slipped out of the University and into the forest. She is still alive I know, for her death I would surely feel, and there is still time yet to save her. All that was written on the parchment was not lost, for I etched every word of it clearly in my mind and I too will take it with me, will guard it and hold it, like the Keeper.
Now I spend my days as I once did with Avtai, doing the things that had filled me with such joy. I am a messenger of Eluned, and of Lemicus and Drogor as well, and I will share my knowledge and lore of the gods to the world, through stories and hymns and prayers. Eluned spoke to me that dreadful day that Avtai ran away, and taught me a valuable lesson. Knowledge is a precious thing, a thing that must be shared, honored and protected, but I know now that there are times when it must be kept from us or when it must be destroyed as well. Mere words on a stained and tattered parchment almost cost the death of one innocent being, and may still save the life of another. I will search for Avtai and the cure that will save her, and every story I tell of the gods I will tell in her name.
To Avtai, and to all my brother and sister Elotheans who have heard and answered the call of the gods, I faithfully dedicate this true tale,
Year 356, day 225 since the Victory of Lanival the Redeemer.
The 6th month of Arhat the Fire Lion in the year of the Crystal Snow Hare.