Something tugged at Paki, pulling him onward. It wasn’t a physical force and he had to concentrate to really feel it. The amulet helped him focus on the sensation, but he knew that it had always been there, calling to him. Something deep within him resonated like a dowsing rod and instinct told him it was right to find the source. So it had been since attuning himself to the amulet in the temple of the Brotherhood. Paki was glad his friends agreed to follow his instincts. They had been on the trail for some time now but he felt the destination just ahead. Then he saw it, a circle of ground that might have been a shelter at one point but only a few large stones remained standing.
He moved to clear some of the debris away that had collected on the holy ground, for that’s what he knew it was, but something strange happened as he crossed the threshold of the circle. One moment he was outdoors in the ruins of a long-forgotten shrine and the next he stood within that shrine as complete as it had once been. Immediately he knew that he was in the presence of the Brothers, Aron and Tybel. Paki felt a sublime peace in this place. In the center was a stone table and he instinctively sat at it expectantly. The others followed, though much more cautiously, and took seats themselves. The last of them to sit was Lylee, which seemed natural since she had been the last of them to join the company, and then the feast appeared.
When they finished the feast Paki followed his instincts through one of the two vine-covered exits and they embarked upon a most unusual journey, prompted directly by Aron and Tybel themselves. Though long and arduous, Paki understood that the journey was meant to bind the friends together and prepare them for a great task, hinted at in the Brothers’ words in their central temple. From his reading on the Brothers’ lost religion, Paki knew of the priesthood Circles and suspected this was what Aron and Tybel had in mind for them. This suspicion would be confirmed at the end of the trial, but not before Paki and his friends were forced to face the most frightening foe imaginable – themselves.
Paki stared into the pool of water, open to anything that his gods would show him. He saw only his reflection. With puzzlement he examined his image. It was clearer than one would expect from a simple pool of water – more so even than a good mirror, which he’d seen from a distance in the city. The more he stared at himself the more real his image appeared, taking on depth and tone. Though the effect was interesting he couldn’t help but feel disappointed, having expected something wondrous. Then he met his own gaze – and was lost.
Kind eyes gazed lovingly down at him as his baby fingers caressed his mother’s face. They were large brown pools that promised protection and happiness. He could hear her voice and, though he did not know the words, it was comforting music. There was a deeper voice in the background, his father’s, which complimented the music like a bass beat. His eyes drooped and he started to drift off, but the music changed rhythm and pitch, becoming strained. Now he was huddled under a bed with his mother while a strange fog rolled in through the open door of their small home. Screams could be heard from outside and his mother was calling his father’s name. The young boy reached out a hand and touched the fog, which curled around his fingers playfully. He turned to his mother, confused and frightened, and watched with horror as the fog melted her flesh away, pouring in through her mouth, open in a silent scream. He scrambled away from the corpse as it rapidly decomposed, running out into the street. There he saw others dying in similarly gruesome ways, their spirits wailing as they were caught up in torrents of whirling fog.
The boy ran. He ran with eyes tightly shut against the terrible sight as tears streamed down his face. He ran with hands covering his ears in a vain attempt to ward off the cries of the dead and dying around him. He ran screaming at the top of his lungs to drown out the terrible sounds. He ran until his strength gave out and he collapsed in silent darkness. Time passed and he gradually became aware of shapes in the blackness. Numb from shock he wandered through the now ever-present fog. The boy’s eyes learned to pick out shades of gray among the darkness and fog. A mountain took form in the distance and he moved inexorably toward it. Eventually he became aware of a presence beside him. Keeping pace at his side was a looming skeletal figure shrouded in robes and carrying a large staff. The boy was not frightened of the figure. Either he knew on some instinctive level that he was in no danger or all fear had been burned out of him by his recent experiences.
They reached the top of the mountain an indeterminate amount of time later. Time worked strangely in this place. Atop the mountain was a black lake, still as death. The boy knelt next to the lake and peered at it. The surface was motionless, opaque and non-reflective. He reached down slowly as if to touch it but a bony hand on his shoulder made him stop. He looked up as the skeletal figure reached down and touched the surface of the pool. A thick black substance clung to one of its fingers when he lifted it back out. It then used the finger to inscribe something on his forehead. As it did so he felt a chill spread from the point of contact throughout his body. From that moment he knew that he belonged to Death.
Paki screamed as he backed away from the pool. Memories flooded his mind, every sensation and emotion that had been suppressed flaring back to vivid clarity. His family and friends dying gruesome deaths as their town was pulled into the Gray Wastes during a freak dimensional vortex. The events that followed as he wandered the Gray Waste and adjacent dimensions, hiding and fighting for survival until he found the elemental plane of Earth, which he knew would take him home. Once more he recalled stumbling out of the mine in Lower Balleria and being taken in by the locals. They were kind to him but he could tell that he frightened them. Events leading up to the present flashed through his mind and he saw the same thing in the eyes of those he met along the way. He was forever changed by the traumatic circumstances of his childhood and everyone could see the mark of Tybel etched into his very soul.
Terrible circumstances had taken his childhood – his innocence from him. Divine powers had marked him for great purpose. Though Paki looked like a child still, he did not know his true age. In truth it didn’t matter. The important fact was that he could not afford to continue clinging to remnants of the child he had been. He would accept his past and work to become a man capable of achieving great things. He would be loyal to his gods, to his friends, and to his mission. Any who opposed them would learn the true meaning of fear.