Pathfinder: Reign of Winter
(The History of Cyric Blackwell)
I have learned many things in my long years upon this world – the first and foremost being that time is the most implacable enemy of all. Many of my people live apart from the world and so they never notice the relentless stream that surrounds us all. It is difficult to appreciate the passing of a single season when you know you have a thousand more ahead of you. But I was blessed, and cursed, to walk a different path. This is my story…
My parents, those I was born to, were killed when I was very young. I hardly even remember their faces now, much less the name they gave me. They come to me sometimes, in my dreams, whispering to me of the world that could have been. But it matters little. That life, that name, those faces, they’re gone – and I was left orphaned before I had even reached the cusp of my tenth summer. My first family ripped away from me by the bloody claws of orc raiders.
Unlike my parents, I was not put to the blade. I was taken, marked to be sold as a slave when the raiders next found a suitable auction block. It was only through the grace of the gods, and the strong arms of several good men, that such a fate never befell me. The orcs met the same bloody end they had visited on so many others over the years. And when the smoke cleared and the last of the raiders lay dead on the cold, hard ground, I found myself free. Free, but alone.
I was lost. The still too fresh memory of my people’s slaughter tore at my every waking moment. The sight of their flesh being rent, the smell of their blood boiling, the sound of their dying screams – I was haunted by it, by the faces of all that I had lost. Even sleep offered no solace or sanctuary and every night I would awaken to the sound of my own screams.
I was broken. The kindly people of the village that took me in knew it well. It was written in their sympathetic stares and voiced in their mumbled prayers when they saw me. It is a wonder they didn’t simply toss me into the mad house and throw away the key. And likely that would have been my fate had it not been for my mother and father.
Thomas and Jacqueline Blackwell may not have given birth to me, but they were my parents – my true parents – in every way that mattered. They took in a lost, broken little boy and raised me, caring for me in the same way they cared for their own children. They nursed me back to health, body, mind, and spirit. They picked up all of the scattered pieces and slowly, painstakingly, they somehow managed to put me back together.
When I was finally able to speak again, they asked me my name. I told them I didn’t know. That wasn’t entirely true. It was the one falsehood I ever spoke to my parents. I remembered my name, but there was too much pain and sorrow associated with it for me to ever speak it again lest I conjure up all those restless ghosts, open all those still too fresh wounds.
I believe my parents knew I had been less than honest with them, but they understood and they never pushed the matter. Instead they asked me if I would like to join their family. They had been nothing but kind to me. They had given me food and shelter. They had helped me to mend. And now they were offering to make me one of their own. I eagerly agreed.
They gave me the name Cyric. It had been the name of Jacqueline’s father who had died the previous winter. She said she would be honored if I would take his name, but the honor was mine, and it is the name I have worn with pride all the long years since.
Time passed. I grew into adulthood along with my newfound brothers and sisters. But once I matured, time seemed to stand still for me, like a quiet, placid pond, while it washed over the rest of my family like a hungry river, taking little pieces of them with each passing year. I tried not to think about it. I tried to distract myself, keep myself busy. I would slip from one profession to the next. I would read anything and everything I could find. I would do whatever I could to ignore the graying hair or the newly formed lines or the hundred other signs of aging that became clearer by the day.
Of all my siblings, I was the only one who wasn’t married, who had no children of my own. And while I was graced by a plethora of nieces and nephews, it wasn’t the same as having a family of my own. Both my mother and father had gently encouraged me to begin my own family as well. Perhaps they thought it would finally help to heal the last vestiges of those old wounds.
As I was growing up, I never wanted for female attentions. It wasn’t that I was the strongest or most handsome or even the most daring of the boys in the village. But I was different. I was exotic. I suppose maybe I was that little spark of excitement people crave before they finally settle down to the lives they truly want. Whatever it was, it made me very popular with the young ladies, and often times it made me very unpopular with the young men. I suffered more than one beating after spending an afternoon with someone’s girlfriend. Not that I knew she was their girlfriend – at least not always.
Several of the girls had expressed an interest in firming our relationships. But to be honest, I had little interest in such things. I was always more than content to continue with the occasional tryst here or there as the fancy took me. At least that was the case until I met Sarah.
Sarah was the niece of the town’s sage. She had lived in the city with her parents, but they’d taken ill with some plague or pox and had passed on and she had come to live with her uncle in the village. She was pretty, in a bookish sort of way. But there was something about her, something in her eyes that spoke to me. I believe it was the sorrow we both shared in having lost our parents too soon that bound us so tightly. Our courtship was a whirlwind and within a month we were wed.
There are times I look back and wish that things had been different, times when the sorrow and grief are almost too much to bear. But those times grow fewer and further between as the years pass. More often than not I look back at that time and I smile. It may be a soft, sad, wistful smile – but it is still a smile nevertheless.
The following year my daughter was born. Talia Blackwell. She was so small, so beautiful, so perfect. I had never been happier, or more terrified.
Every day it gnawed at the back of my mind that I would outlive my wife. Not by a month or a year, but by centuries. And while my daughter shared some of the longevity my blood granted, she too would be gone half a millennia or more before I finally passed on into the next world. For years I battled to put such thoughts out of my mind, but they were always there, like shadows in the night. At times they were small things, easily dismissed – but not always.
In the end, time catches up with everyone, at least that’s what the old sage told me. But I would always correct him. Time catches up with everyone… everyone but me.
My father died in the winter. Not from sword or arrow or disease. It was simply his time. My mother followed him into the next world the spring after. They could never stand to be apart. They had led rich, full lives. They had watched their children grow into fine men and women – men and women I was proud to call my brothers and sisters. They had seen their grandchildren born and in turn had seen them grow in the fullness of time as well. They had even lived long enough to see the birth of the first of their great grandchildren. By any counting, their lives had been blessed. I still miss them terribly.
But I had my own family to think about. I had taken over the duties of Sarah’s father, now serving as something of a sage for the people of my village. Sarah ran a small apothecary shop, waging a battle against sickness and disease one poultice at a time. We were more in love than ever.
And then there was Talia. Our little girl had grown into a beautiful young woman – smart and strong and full of life. But such is the way of the world. While the prospect of our little girl growing up terrified us, we also couldn’t have been more proud of her. It was obvious to anyone who cared to look that she was the best of both of us. And many people were more than happy to look, especially the young lads from the village. Talia was reaching the age where I would have to begin fending off potential suitors with a cudgel before long.
But such things were never to be. One terrible night of fire and death took from me any dreams I’d ever had. Riders in black tore through the village. They took what they wanted and the rest they put to the torch. I remember smelling the smoke and hearing the hooves. I rushed outside to see what was happening and saw them. They were everywhere, killing the people of my village like they were cattle in a slaughterhouse.
I snatched up my blade and rushed into the fray. I’d watched my people die once already and I had been too young to do a damn thing about it. But not this time, at least that’s what I told myself. This time I would fight. But I was a scholar, not a warrior. I knew how to use a sword and a bow, but not nearly as well as those filthy raiders. And in the end, all I got for my trouble was a blade in the ribs.
I can remember lying there, dying on the cobblestones just outside my house. The sky above me was an ashen blue and at the dimming edges of my vision I could see columns of smoke rising up all around. It felt like I was breathing syrup and it took me a moment to recognize the taste of my own blood. Then I heard the screams. Above the hellish din of the carnage and destruction going on around me, I could hear the screams of my wife and daughter.
I tried to move, tried to struggle to my feet. At that moment I would have given anything, everything, for the strength to help them. But it was to no avail. All of my effort was in vain. My vision clouded and blurred and it felt like I was falling until finally, the darkness took me.
I have idea how long I laid there. Hours? Days? I mattered little, as I thought myself dead.
An old man roused me. He asked if I was alright. No, my friend – I was as far from alright as a man could ever hope to be. But I said nothing. What was there to say? My village, my life, everything I had ever known was a ruined, burnt husk. The old man tried to give me water, but all I could do was stare in mute horror at the carnage all around me.
Then, like a bolt of lightning, thoughts of Sarah and Talia screaming tore through my mind. Shakily I pulled myself to my feet. My head felt like it was going to explode and my side felt like it was on fire. I was crusted in dried blood but the wounds themselves seemed to have been healed. Magic, no doubt. I wasn’t sure if I was grateful for that or not.
What I saw in the remnants of my house answered that question for me.
I found Talia first. She was laying there, so pale, so still. My wife’s dagger was still in her chest, piercing her heart. Had it been so terrible Sarah thought death the better alternative for our beautiful child? But I had seen the atrocities that had been committed out in the streets and I knew my wife had made the only decision she could.
I wept as I knelt down beside my daughter and gently kissed her brow. I had done this every night since the day she was born. It was the last thing I would do in the evening before going to bed. Knowing that this was the last time I would ever do it nearly ripped me in two.
“Good night, sweet one,” I whispered, tears in my eyes.
Then I stumbled from the room, looking for my wife. When I found her, my knees gave out beneath me and the cry of anguish that came welling up from my soul would have put the banshees to shame.
My beautiful Sarah… the love of my life. Her death had been neither quick nor painless. She was strapped down to our bed, her blood-crusted body a roadmap of bruises and cuts, and even in death, her face… the face I loved so dearly… was contorted into a funeral mask of pain and anguish and fear.
My mind spun with the agonies those monsters had visited on her before finally ending her torment. My heart ached, knowing it was my name on her lips as she’d suffered and died… hoping and praying I would come and somehow save her. But this was no fairytale and I was no magical prince. There was no happy ending here, just pain and blood and death.
I buried my family that night. My brothers and sisters, their wives and husbands, my nieces and nephews, and even their children… all of them were gone. All of them taken in a single, bloody night. And for what? A few coins? A bit of food? It was senseless… it was madness. The enormity of it, of burying everyone I’d ever loved, of everyone I’d ever known, it was simply too much for me.
By the time I laid Sarah and Talia to rest, there was nothing left of me. And when I finally stumbled out of the ashes of the village, I was little more than another of the ghosts haunting that place. Maybe I was still breathing, but I was dead in all the ways that mattered.
How long has it been since then? Years, no doubt… maybe decades. I have wandered the world, taking on odd jobs here and there just to make enough coin to survive. Honestly, that’s all I thought I had left to look forward to – centuries of empty survival until I could finally be reunited with my family in the next world.
It wasn’t until I met the priest in the last city that I was finally roused from the grief induced fugue I’d been languishing in. I took a job scribing tomes for him and he’d been impressed with my work. He asked me about myself, but I wasn’t too keen to share my pain with anyone. It was mine; it was all I really had left. But the priest kept poking and prodding about my life, wheedling what little bits he could out of me here and there until he could finally begin to see the shape of it.
“You’re doing them a disservice, you know?” the priest said as he filled my water glass at dinner that night.
I looked at him blankly, not even grasping what he was speaking of.
“You’re family,” he explained. “You’re doing them a disservice.” He sat across the old wooden table from me, he eyes hard but still tinged with compassion.
“What do you know of it?” I asked, trying hard to keep my tone civil. It was a struggle, but one that I was mostly winning.
“You’re the only one left,” he said solemnly. “It is up to you to carrying on their memory. They live on through you. What you’ve done with your life… you’re doing them a disservice.”
My first instinct was rage. How dare this bastard judge me? He hadn’t been through the things I’d been through. He hadn’t seen the things I’d seen. He hadn’t washed the dried blood off the cold flesh of the two people he loved dearest in the world. He hadn’t buried his whole damn family!
I stood up from my chair, my fisted balled so tightly my knuckles had flared white. Honestly, as much as I’m ashamed to admit it, I think I meant to hit him. This priest who had done nothing more than speak the truth and the only thought rumbling through my mind was pummeling him until he was silent.
“Would your daughter be happy to see you like this?” he asked unflinchingly, staring up at me with those hard eyes.
His question stopped me dead in my tracks. Not just because he had invoked the memory of my daughter, but because I knew the answer. I could almost see the sadness in Talia’s eyes for what I’d let myself become.
But the priest wasn’t done yet.
“Would your wife be proud of you?” he asked, still locking my eyes with his.
I could feel the air go out of me and my knees started to buckle. It was all I could do to slump back into my chair rather than collapse to the floor. The thought of the disappointment etched across the face of my beautiful Sarah was almost too much to bear.
“No,” I said in a voice that was scarcely more than a whisper.
“I didn’t think so,” the priest said, giving a sad, knowing nod. “So what are you going to do about it?”
At first I didn’t even know how to answer him. I’d wallowed in my own grief and heartache for so long. I didn’t have any idea how I would even begin to drag myself out of that mire. But it didn’t take long before it finally came to me.
Twice I’d seen the people I’d loved butchered by the cruel, uncaring world around them. Twice there had been absolutely nothing I could do to stop such atrocities from happening. But I swear it will not happen again. I may not have the strongest arm or the sharpest eye or even the fastest step, but I do have one thing at my disposal.
I have time.
And I will squeeze every moment out of the time I have left. I will learn everything there is to learn of the art of magic. And so armed I will return to my homeland. I will become an eternal sentinel for my people. I will stand guard for them down through the generations, through the centuries. And when it is finally time for me to pass on into the next world, I will do so with my head held high.
My daughter will be happy to see me.
My wife will be proud of the man I have been.