“I think I’ll stand, actually,” Donovan said. Linda offered a wary, almost parental look as she joined the increasingly-uncomfortable onlookers.
“Very well,” Keel replied. There was a righteousness to his posture that was not often present. Typically Keel seemed the pious sort who might travel from town to town, tending to the sick and praying for the dead, asking nothing in return. Now, he looked as likely to pray for Sol to immolate your impure soul as to shine upon your crops.
“I know the Suntouched is a friend of yours, Ms. Arterford, and a subject of affection, Mr. Allman, and these attachments will make what I am about to say very difficult, but I believe it’s necessary for everyone in this room to hear. If I could, I would make it known to every living person in Penscarop.
“It is the story of how the village I was raised in came to an end, nearly thirty years ago now.
“I grew up in a village called Dundry, which resided in the shadow of Mount Paylor. We were farmers, mostly, and like all farmers in that region, we believed in the divine protection of Druidlona, whose magic was said to permeate the lands and prevent any evil from prevailing there.”
Donovan’s stomach churned as he realized what Keel was recounting, but he said nothing.
“As a young man of fifty, I admired the Suntouched. Envied him, even. Here I was, a simple apprentice at a – I suppose you might call it a diner. I washed dishes mostly, and cleaned. In my free time, I did not merely worship Sol, I devoted myself to Him every day, through prayer and love and sacrifice. I was kind to everyone in Dundry, but I was sheepish, and thought strange. The Suntouched, on the other hand, was an adventurer, was Sol’s chosen, was loved and recognized across the world for his heroic feats and good heart. He was everything anyone wanted to be, and everything I aspired to become every day.
“So, when news reached town one day that the hero would be passing through Dundry the following morning, I was among the most excited. I even requested the day off work, so I might greet him a ways up the road. My request was declined, so I lived with my master’s ire and went anyway.
“Those of us who waited for him at the foot of the mountain, where the road turned toward Dundry, were stunned to silence when we looked upon him. He was exactly as the stories said: skin burned red by Sol’s kiss, silk black hair as dark as night, a strength and slenderness that left him somewhere between beautiful and handsome. He was more than human, and it was an honor to be in his presence.
“Despite his inherent superiority, the Suntouched was very gracious when he met us. He thanked us for escorting him to town, he asked us how our mornings were going, and told us about his recent stay in Castiron, during which time he thwarted pirates on the Narrow Sea.
“He was exactly how I dreamed he’d be. Initially.
“We offered him a place to stay that evening, and he rewarded us with entertainment in the form of physical feats. Felling a tree in a single stroke, catching an arrow between his fingers, climbing our church in the blink of an eye. It was impressive, no doubt, but his demeanor did not sit well with me. He was too proud of his accomplishments. Too eager to hear us cheer. He reveled in the glory.
“This was not, in my opinion, the marking of a true hero. Sol urges us to be humble. To do good without reward, and to accept them gracefully when given. This man was remarkable, no doubt, but he wasn’t divine. When Linda spoke of his greed regarding the kraken’s hoard, I knew exactly what she meant. I’ve seen the look in his eye, the one he must have had as he swam into that cave.”
“I never said he was greedy,” Linda interrupted.
“You didn’t have to.
“This on its own would not be enough for me to besmirch his name. This was early in his career. People could grow. Sol does not always anoint champions who are perfect, but Sol always anoints champions who can be. It is what happened the following morning that placed doubt in me. Not only doubt, but certainty that the Suntouched’s soul is corrupt. I know this, because I saw it laid bare.
“The following morning, just before sunrise, another traveler arrived, this one a goblin woman with uncharacteristically smooth skin, like polished stone. Her dark makeup and strange features unsettled us, so we asked if her she’d like to see the Suntouched, who was passing through. She delighted at the opportunity, which concerned us further.
“Defter Erlong, our village leader, told the Suntouched in private about the strange woman, and warned him that she might be laying a trap for the hero. Surprising no one, he chose to confront her anyway
“She waited for him on the road which cut through the cluster of buildings at the center of town. ‘I am Carricula,’ she said. ‘I am here to weigh your soul.’
“Typically, down on the surface, when one hears a declaration like this, it is from some traveling old crone claiming to be a witch, offering to peer into your future or determine the severity of your sins, for a price. The petty chicanery of a charlatan. But when this…Carricula, when she said that, you have to understand, the air went cold. Our hairs stood on end. We onlookers tried to gasp, but there was no air in our lungs. Even the Suntouched looked affected, for a moment.
“The hero began to utter some witticism, when the goblin thrust her hand forward, closed her fist, twisted, and pulled, like so,” Keel demonstrated the quick, violent motion, “causing the Suntouched to cry out and fall to his knees. An orange light burst from his chest, only to recede, burst one more, and recede again. The Suntouched was sweating, fighting to keep whatever this was inside him.
“‘Do not struggle,’ Carricula told him. ‘I do not wish to kill you. I act in service of my master.’
“‘Who…is your master,’ the Suntouched managed to ask. Then he gasped, as the orange light was ripped from him, and ran like a river into Carricula’s hand. It spread over her body, until it consumed her. She closed her eyes serenely as she was enveloped by a harsh orange glow, which grew brighter and brighter, accompanied by a loud hum, only to fizzle out just before climax. When the light receded, Carricula was gone.
“We people of Dundry let out a collective breath we didn’t realize we were holding, and the Suntouched stood to his feet. ‘Well then,’ he said. ‘That was…odd, but I feel fine, all things considered. Problem seems to have sorted itself –’ BOOM.” Keel clapped. “The ground split apart perpendicular to the road, and a single, oversized hand reached out. Then another joined it, and the earth split further as a massive being pulled itself from the ground.
“It was humanoid, but it was nearly as tall as two men. Its skin was a dark red, it had a mane of orange fire, and its eyes and forearms were likewise wreathed in flame. I know now that this was what they call a primal, a being representing some base emotion. It towered over the Suntouched, who was preparing to draw his blade.
“‘You have summoned me,’ the creature roared, as if this fact angered it.
“‘I did no such thing,’ the Suntouched insisted.
“‘It is your essence that binds me to this plane, mortal. I am the product of your ambition, and I am called Glory.’
“‘And what is it you wish, Glory?’
“‘To prove myself your superior, so the world may know I am peerless. Only then will I return peacefully to my home plane.’
“They fought. Glory had strength on his side, but the Suntouched had so much more. He was fireproof, he was fast, he was vicious, he wielded a blade of starmetal. Their duel lasted no more than ninety seconds. My people’s fear turned quickly to awe and enthusiasm. The Suntouched sheathed his blade dramatically and showed us all a triumphant smile.
“And then, our general goods shop burst into flame, sending wood and rope and glass shrapnel into the street, and out from the wreckage came Glory.
“A primal cannot be killed, you see. Its physical form can only be destroyed, while its essence reforms in the primal plane. But so boundless is the Suntouched’s lust for greatness, so unquenchable is his greed, that this demon of his own creation reformed in mere seconds.
“They fought again, and it was messier this time. Glory’s flames spread to our fields. The Suntouched dispatched the primal once more, but within a minute, it returned. They fought again, and in five minutes, it returned. Then ten minutes. Then thirty. But even thirty minutes was not enough to halt the fires that had spread by then. He dispatched the beast once more, and this time it did not return. But Dundry…Dundry was lost.”
“The Suntouched saved your lives,” Donovan said.
“He also endangered them!” Keel shouted. “And what more, he took our homes from us. Our land. Our food. Our jobs.”
“The witch might have done all that and worse.”
“Might have!” Keel yelled, his anger palpable. He took a deep breath, and then another, until the red tinge left his skin. “Might have. But who is to say he did not lead this Carricula to our village? If he hungers for glory as desperately as has been made plain, what is to stop him from inventing troubles to solve?
“Why is it there everywhere the Suntouched visits, they are in need of a hero? Is the world so evil? Does trouble follow him like a plague, or is it something more sinister? A revolution in Dol Belvargamar, just as he visits? A necromancer plagues the dwarven surface towns while he happens to pass through? Does that not seem absurd to you, Mr. Allman?”
“Unlikely, perhaps, but no less true.”
“Open your eyes, sir. You are a good man, and this shop is a boon to our community, but your allegiance to this so-called hero is a sickness. One that rests in the hearts of millions across Penscarop. We tell ourselves men like the Suntouched will save us, so that we don’t have to do our own good.
“Even the people of what was once Dundry felt that way. So desperate they were to believe in him that they thanked him for saving them. Thanked him for ruining their lives. It made me sick, all of it. Everywhere I traveled on the surface was just the same, idolizing a man they’ve never met, thinking their own lives insignificant because he could come and solve all the problems.
“Not me. Not after that day. That’s what brought me to Skymoore. A pleasant town of pleasant people, A refuge from the violence and sin of the surface. But still, evil persists. The Church of the True Believers can cleanse that evil. It can make us better, and give us the tools to make the world a better place, instead of standing around and waiting for someone else to do it for us.”
“Alright,” Donovan said, putting a hand on Keel’s shoulder. “Enough sermonizing.”
Keel brushed his hand away. “And what do you call your constant praise of your precious idol?” He pointed a finger directly and Gwendolyn Bottlehelm, who had an arm around Linda. “What do you call her putting on a play to honor him? Same thing, false god.”
Linda stood, positioning herself between Keel and Gwendolyn. “Keel, you are also a good man, but you’re losing your temper. Take a seat. The Suntouched is a good man. I will be the first to admit that he’s not without flaws, but blaming him for what happened in Dundry is –”
“A part of his soul destroyed my home!”
“Your grievance is noted and we’re all sorry for what happened, but you need to calm down. You’re making everyone uncomfortable, and there’s enough tension in here as it is.”
Keel examined the occupants of Odd & Ends and saw she was right. Where once there had been rapt interest, awkward eye contact (and the avoidance thereof) stood instead. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes, and as his lungs expanded, so too did the light of Sol take place and grow within his mind. But it was not enough, he was weak, he was mortal. He allowed his anger to get the best of him.
“I am sorry,” he said, calmly. “That was…unbecoming of me. I stand by my values, but not the way I’ve presented them. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
There was a murmur of forgiveness, but he shared a contentious gaze with Donovan. He’d gone too far there, he knew.
“If you’ll excuse me, Elma should be back by now. I’m going to check on her.”
He left, and it was uncomfortably quiet for a time.