Council of Esus
Followers of the Council operate secretly at all levels of societies where they are found, from beggar to soldier to merchant to prince. Adherents are organized in a complex cell structure insuring those of lower rank cannot locate or personally identify their superiors. All share a secret symbolic and spoken cant enabling members of the Council to communicate and arrange meetings. Clerics of the Council of Esus can choose to specialize in skills normally associated with thieves and assassins in lieu of the typical trickery domain powers.
As might be expected, Esus is very popular among spies, thieves, assassins, arcane tricksters and magic users specializing in illusion and deception. When the Council spreads to an area where worship of Esus is already known, these individuals are quickly brought into the fold. In many cases they may not even be aware they are now part of a vast shadow organization spanning the empires of Arcanearth.
Temples of the Council are secret places well hidden within or beneath cities, ruins or remote strongholds. They never appear as what they are, even in friendly empires, and often operate behind other organizations ranging from mundane (trade guilds, libraries, shops) to exceptional (thieves or assassins guilds, city and local governments). The location of a temple is concealed by means both magical and mundane and they are virtually impossible to find without powerful counter-magic. It is common for people to pass through without even being aware they have just tread on ground sacred to Esus. Exposure of a temple of Esus to public knowledge is equivalent to defilement. Such a place will be quickly abandoned by the Council only to be re-established elsewhere, usually within hours. Even The Empyrean find it virtually impossible to stamp out these networks of hidden temples.
The societies that host and tolerate the presence of the followers of Esus benefit from the services of Council clerics, spies, thieves and assassins, but also gain knowledge of poisons and shadow magic including illusion, disguise and invisibility. Few peoples can resist the temptation of these rewards and the Council’s influence spreads far and wide. Aside from enriching themselves and spreading their faith in deception and trickery, the larger goal of the Council is organization of susceptible empires into a dark Undercouncil opposing their mortal enemies The Empyrean and The Order. It is suspected that meetings of the Undercouncil take place in a pocket dimension or demi-plane accessible only from the most secret Council temples or by clerics of the highest rank.
Lawful Evil/Neutral Evil/Chaotic Evil
How many roles have I played? They blur together in my mind.
I was a victim from the moment my life began. An attacker came for my mother even as she gave birth to me. He possessed Garrus, a simple stable boy and used him to sneak up through the inn to my parents’ room. He tried to get close to my mother, to attack her at her most vulnerable. My father fought to stop him. The details are unknown except that a battle occurred in the room and my father was struck a mortal blow. With his last breath he uttered a holy word that destroyed the spirit possessing Garrus and collapsed the entire inn.
My mother died in the collapse, my father died from the attack. The stable boy was pulled from the rubble, one arm was crushed but he appeared otherwise healthy. My soul fled the dying infants form and took home in his newly evacuated body. I was born into the body of a teenage boy.
The innkeeper raised me, teaching me as if I had simply forgotten my life and in a few years I served him well. He raised me as he rebuilt the inn. But I always knew that Garrus wasn’t my name and I listened intently when those who survived the collapse retold the story.
We didn’t know much about my parents. But my father wore the yellow robes of a priest of the Empyrean. There was a small temple to the god in our city and when I was ready I joined their ranks as a disciple. Within the clergy my identity didn’t matter, I was simply a child of Lugus. My superiors praised my empathy, questioned my maturity and laughed when I said that I thought I was the son of a priest. They claimed no such priest had visited the city and considered my thoughts the wishful thoughts of boy with too much imagination.
My right arm was still crushed, by this point it was shriveled and permanently wrapped against my side. When I asked if it could be healed the priests prayed over it, but it never got better. Others came and received healing, nobles, merchants, beggars, soldiers. But I remained maimed.
One day in early Aedrini the temple was in an uproar. Priests barked orders, disciples scurried about trying to look busy, no one had thought to wake me. After many questions a priest finally gave me my answer.
“Luridus Chalid is coming child, stay out of the way.”
I began to retreat to my chamber when he yelled after me, “And don’t bother him when he arrives!”
That next day a single man arrived on a dappled grey mare. He rode without an escort and though he needed no guards on the road, he could have used some outside of the temple. He was immediately mobbed by well meaning disciples, genuflecting priests and hordes of gawking townspeople. He wore the robes of a Luridus and I wondered if my father wore thesame.
He spent the next three days in our hastily constructed council chamber. The chamber was open for anyone to hear the deliberation and speak in an orderly manner. They discussed the town’s role in the Overcouncil, local legislation and a problem with brigands in the area.
The council meetings always went well into the night, and Chalid attended every dawn ceremony. He only had a few hours between to get some sleep. I was hurrying to the dawn service one morning when I found him standing alone in the refectory looking out the windows toward the east. The morning bell rung, signaling the dawn ceremony was about to startand Chalid turned to find me staring at him.
“Morning disciple, are you ready to receive our lord’s blessing?”
I managed to stammer something unintelligible. Despite that he smiled at me with true affection and clasped me on the shoulder. That was the first he noticed my withered arm.
“Do you have something to ask me?” he said.
He expected me to ask for healing, but that didn’t matter to me. Instead I asked, “What sort of spirit attacked my mother?”
He put his arm around me and we walked to the sanctuary together.
“Let me pray about it,” he said.
The service was exactly like all the others but I paid little attention. Instead I watched Chalid. He looked confused as he prayed, sometimes pained, sometimes resigned and I imagined that it had something to do with my question.
I waited after the service. Chalid spoke briefly with the vicar who had performed the service and met a few of the members. And then he left the sanctuary and went into the council chambers.
I spent the day neglecting my duties and waiting outside the council chamber. But just past nightfall the town’s warning bells rang out, guards ran through the streets yelling that brigands were attacking.
Everyone flooded out of the temple. At the edge of the town shapes rushed through the darkness. Black tipped arrows cut guards down where they writhed screaming in pain. Guards brought torches and under the cover of shield men they retook the fortifications while the shadows simply moved to attack at another point.
A voice from the darkness called, “What good is a god that abandons you every night?”
Chalid ignored the taunt and ordered the men back within the city’s lantern light. He alone bounded over the wall and in to the darkness at the city’s edge. His mace glowed faintly in the starlight and though we couldn’t see any attackers on the open field we all knew they were moving in on him.
Chalid prayed and an aura of golden fire burst up around his head and dark men caught fire on the field, on the walls, and even a few that had sneaked into the city. The holy fire consumed them and guards rushed in to beat or capture the men.
But one was not distracted by the fire. It clung to his black armor and that of his steed but he rode soundlessly towards Chalid, like a shadow of a dark god stretching out to touch him. Chalid raised his mace up, and then back down and the field was lit up as if it was day. A pillar of golden fire, like the sun itself but full of righteous fury, crushed the rider. There was a horrific scream and then when the pillar retreated back up into the sky the rider was gone.
I spent the night tending to the guardsmen wounded in the attack. Their wounds festered from poison and the men passed between fevered dreams and anguish when awake. There was little I could do but try to keep their wounds clean and try to make them comfortable. Chalid and the priests prayed over the men and some were healed, but too many were injured.
That next morning I returned to my chambers to wash up and change into fresh clothes, as did most of the temple. I headed again to the dawn ceremony and found Chalid alone again in the refectory looking out towards the east.
“You saved the town.” It sounded hollow when I said it. Unsuited to the miracle I had witnessed.
“I only had faith that Lugus would protect me, he did everything else.”
I smiled, the warmth Chalid had shared with me yesterday was gone now. He looked troubled but I assumed it was just the events of the long night. I know he hadn’t slept either.
“Did you find out anything about my mother?”
Chalid looked at the floor, the morning bells rang though neither of us moved.
“I should lie to you,” Chalid said, “the mandate of truth is sometimes painful. I am sorry. I won’t lie but I will warn you, it would be better if you did not know.”
“I want to know.” I argued with more passion than I intended, “Knowledge, truth, revelation are the precepts of Lugus. I should know my own past.”
“The woman’s name was Magda de’Vala,” Chalid started, “The man wasn’t her husband but her guardian, though he was a priest of the Empyrean. The child was prophesied to be a great hero, which is why many sought to kill Magda and her baby.”
He paused, but I only waited for him to continue.
“The stable boy Garrus died three days before the attack. That which killed Garras, that which killed Magda’s guardian and caused the collapse that killed Magda and her baby. That was you.”
I was furious and I rushed out of the refectory. Chalid watched me go then headed into the sanctuary. My thoughts went back to those early days, I never felt like I was the stable boy. And for the first time I questioned my origin. Would a baby’s spirit in a boy’s body be able to adapt that quickly? Could even a possessed stable boy be able to overcome a priest of Lugus, or was that creature something darker? And was I that creature?
I stopped in the temple’s infirmary. Except for the wounded it was empty, everyone in the temple was in the dawn ceremony despite those lying here near death. There was only one man awake, a bandage covered his left thigh. I knelt at his bedside. When I saw the torment he was in I forgot a bit of my own.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Abin,” he said, “I’m a jeweler who pretended to be a city guard.”
That wasn’t unusual. Our city was too small to maintain full time guardsmen so most were volunteers with other jobs.
“Either you are too good at pretending, or not good enough.”
He gave me a weak smile.
“Can I pray for you?” I asked. He nodded.
I placed my hand on him and closed my eyes. I have seen many healed but I had never performed a miracle myself. If I could do this, if I could heal this man and channel the power of Lugus then I couldn’t be whatever creature Chalid thought I was. Maybe I was the holy child, maybe the attack on Magda de’Vala failed.
I could feel his labored breath. I could feel his pain, feel his love for his large family of nieces and nephews. His quiet store and hours spent working on small intricate jewelry. And I felt him die.
Then I felt the poison strike, it burnt through my body focused on the wound in my left thigh. I stepped away from the bed in shock. I was taller and my robes, which were big on me, were now tight. And my formerly withered arm was now trapped uncomfortably in its folds.
I loosened the robe and held out my full, strong arm. But it didn’t look like my arm, it was the jeweler’s arm. And as I looked at myself I realized that I was identical to the dead body of the jeweler that lay in the bed in front of me. And then the poison struck again and sent me to my knees. I picked myself up and fled the temple in pain and confusion.
Pain will drive you mad and it only took a few hours of suffering like this before I found a farmer out working in his field.
“Blind goats Abin!” he said, “what is wrong with you? Why are you wearing a disciple’s robes?”
I threw him to the ground and held him, smashing him once in the face when he tried to fight back. I felt for that closeness, I reached out to find everything that he was, and the pain drifted away. When I opened my eyes I saw him staring up at his own reflection in horror. The last I saw him he was running toward his farmhouse, I started running as well. I don’t think I have ever stopped.
I still don’t know what I am. All the roles that I’ve played since then blur together in my mind. I’ve gotten better at reading people. For a time I worked for an assassin’s guild, paid simply for my ability to read people I touch. During other times I steal the lives of those I wish to share. I tried the lavish extravagance of princes and wealthy merchants, but there is little to envy them for once you understand how they truly live. The best stolen lives come from the simple fathers of large families, those who have the love and respect of everyone in their lives. Dump the body of one of those in a shallow grave and I have a few good weeks of fun before I become bored and move on to something else.
Maybe Chalid was right, maybe I am a monster.
“The second most dangerous enemy is the one whose power and influence is vastly superior to yours. The most dangerous enemy is the one whose existence you are not aware of.”
—Arian Kothrax, High Councilor
I had hoped to settle the argument over the existence of the Council of Esus as a religious entity and to put my proof in writing in this tome. Alas, my travels have not proven as productive as I foresaw, and even after visiting many cities and living amongst even such reclusive societies as the Svartalfar and the Calabim, I am left with conjectures. I will leave for evidence of my position on this cult, namely that it is real and has numerous adherents, this one tale.
After some time in Gareth Minar I felt myself comfortable enough with the city to venture out alone at night. Passing the home of a wealthy man, a foreign trader who oversaw a chapter of the Mason’s Guild, I heard a muffled scream. Peering into the courtyard, I saw an assassin crouched over the body of the merchant, sheathing his blade. Unfortunately for him, the man’s mistress chose this moment to seek him out, and her scream of horror pierced the night. The assassin took to flight, and while I followed with some haste, I soon lost him.
I came upon the assassin again, though, cornered by men in cloaks armed with shortbows. These weren’t the brightly dressed watchmen I had seen at the guardhouse, but they seemed to be protecting the city this night. However, the assassin unmasked himself, making a sign with his hands. The nightwatch lowered their weapons and responded in kind. Some further exchange passed between them and the attacker was allowed to go on his way.
This all I would ascribe to mere corruption, were it not for the unnatural darkness and chill in the air that accompanied the nightwatch, and it was only when they left that I noticed every torch they passed dimmed to a flicker, leaving them wreathed in shadows. Again, this cannot prove what I have argued before, but it is consistent with the few stories we have heard of this “Council of Esus.”
—From Chapter 6 of Reflections on the State Cults, by Elder Methyl of the Luonnotar