One of the neat things about creating an identity for yourself in a new world is that you can have any “stuff” you chose to imagine. Since Way and I were both “itinerant adventurers” we’d opted to keep things fairly simple. A reasonable pile of gold coins, general supplies and food. The one deviation from the strictly pragmatic was our clothes.
I’d never been much of a fashionista. My normal outfits were pretty deeply on the “casual fit in plain colors” side of the clothing spectrum. That said, when you can have whatever clothes you can imagine, it’s hard to resist getting creative. Add to that vastly enhanced carrying capacity of the magical bags that were commonly used by adventurers in Vale Septem and between Way and I, the tiny hut we were in could have doubled as a major fashion boutique.
I’d spent a fair portion of the afternoon dithering over what to wear as “dining clothes”, trying on various combinations for Way to comment on. I wasn’t that concerned with how I looked, but it was something to do that kept me occupied.
Somehow the prospect of dinner with a pair of Holy Knights that included the possibility of attack by the forces of darkness didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as the prospect of spending an hour doing nothing at all.
“Not to discourage you, but why not go in your priestly robes?” Way asked from behind the table that she’d assembled a pile of her spare armor pieces on.
“I probably will.” I admitted. I looked at the shirt I was holding. Just because you can imagine fuscia and teal together doesn’t mean you should. I threw it back in my magic backpack. “What are you going to wear?”
“I thought we weren’t expecting trouble?” I teased her.
“We’re not expecting trouble to interrupt our vacation.” she corrected me.
“And if you can deal with it before I notice, then it’s not really trouble?” I guessed.
She smiled silently and continued polishing her armor to a mirror bright shine. Way was fast, impossibly fast in some worlds. On Vale Septem she wouldn’t be breaking the sound barrier but barring an early warning from my meta-awareness, she’d be the first to deal with anything that came our way.
I frowned at the idea of her having all the fun before I noticed what I was thinking and mentally kicked myself. We’d had a pretty long string of successes. We’d defeated a number of threats to my Earth because our foes got overconfident. I prided myself on not being stupid enough to fall into that same trap, but I could see how that was easier said than done.
In the end I tried on four more outfits before settling on a clean and undamaged version of my priestess robes. The robes weren’t particularly flattering, but there wasn’t much to flatter on me either. As a symbol, the robes were iconic enough in Vale Septem that they’d get the message across that I wanted to send. In theory that should have been to advertise that I was available to help anyone with metaphysical problems. In practice I viewed it more as painting a bullseye on my chest and daring the bad guys to take their best shot.
“Those robes have protective wards?” Way asked.
“Yeah. Physical mostly but I managed to squeeze in a little shielding from magical effects too.” I said, passing the robes to Way for her inspection.
“I could fortify them further?” she offered.
“I’d rather you keep your armor as solid as possible. People will expect a knight to be tougher than a priest and I’ll be unhappy with you blocking for me unless I know you’re a lot better shielded than I am.”
“Ok. As long as you let me cover you.”
“Within reason. If we get attacked by a thousand ninjas, I call dibs on at least two of them.”
“I’ll hold you to that. No more than two.”
“No more than two on my own, the others I’ll just provide an ‘assist’ for.” I promised.
Way threw her polishing towel at me and I snatched it out the air before it could it cover my head. I sighed and tossed the towel back into her backpack.
“Not that the chance of a ninja army attack is terribly high.” I said.
“You sound disappointed.” Way said. Her tone was light but there was a hint of worry there. I flopped onto the bed. This was supposed to be a vacation for her too. She spent far too much time worrying about me as it was, I certainly didn’t need to give her more cause for concern.
“Don’t mind me. I used to know how to goof off really well. I’m just out of practice, I’m sure it’ll come back to me though.”
“What do you think was bothering Maak?” Way asked, content with my answer for the time being.
I thought of the shorter Holy Knight that had approached us. Dark hair, dark scowl, dark mood. The only side he’d shown us was a grumpy, distrusting one. There had to be more to him than that though given the interplay between the two knights.
“They’re hunting devils right? Or sorcerers that are in league with them. I thought he was suspicious of us, but now that you mention it, it’s probably more than that.” I said.
“Something about this is personal for him?” Way guessed.
“Probably. He was civil to us though so either he’s prejudiced against adventurers and under orders not to show it, or he was actually mad about the Expedition they’re on.”
“He feels bound by his duty.” Way said, and I saw a wisp of old pain drift across her face.
“Could be a lot of different reasons.” I said.
“Think he’ll spoil dinner?”
“Yes and no. I don’t think he’ll cause any trouble, but I don’t think he’ll be very talkative either. And I’m betting Gahn won’t feel like chatting about the details of their mission with Maak glowering at him, which is a bit of a loss for us.”
“If the watcher who saw you earlier comes back, the details of their mission won’t matter since we’ll need to deal with him then. If he doesn’t come back then it won’t matter since we won’t be joining them.” Way said.
“There is that.”, I agreed, “So, what do you suppose an company on the move eats in this world?”
As it turned out the answer was ‘bread and soup’, though that did not do the dinner justice at all.
With it being early spring, Dawns Harbor was still working off their winter stocks for their meals. The company that Ghan and Maak traveled with had brought their own supplies, which included a more varied fare but to stretch the meat and fish further most of the ingredients were prepared into one or more of the soups and stews that were served.
Being guests of the Holy Knights meant we ate with them in the local Inne’s private upper room. Most of the commoners who made up the bulk of the company ate either downstairs in the public room or took their food back to their encampment just outside of town.
Maak had greeted us at the door to the Inne when we arrived, still scowling and gloomy. With as few words as possible he’d acknowledged us and led us up to the private dining room. Gahn had spied us as we entered and spared Maak from the need to make introductions. Besides the four of us there were five others gathered at the dinner table. Four of them were the company’s squad leaders, two men and two women, all older than Way and I, and all cut from the same well weathered cloth.
The last dinner guest was an older man who was dressed in robes like my own except richer and more ornate. As an itinerant priestess, I’d chosen robes that were functional and sturdy. Bishop Rask’s robes on the other hand were made from fine silks, woven through with golden embroidery and backed by spells to preserve their luster through all sorts of inclement weather and other poor conditions for travel.
Due to his rank, Rask’s seat was at the head of the table. Perhaps because of our shared profession, I was seated on his right with Way beside me. Across the table, Gahn and Maak sat opposite us, with the four squad leaders taking up the rest of the seats.
The first course was served as soon as introductions were made and we were seated. We were presented with bowls of bread filled with savory stews that were delicious enough to halt our conversation completely. Plates filled with mounds of rolls and cheeses followed after the soups and were accompanied by dried sweet fruits that tasted like very mild pineapples. Wine accompanied each course and while Way and I were underage on my Earth, on Vale Septem the drinking age was pretty much “as soon as the child is done nursing”.
“I hear that you do not wish to join our Expedition.” Bishop Rask said without preamble after he finished the few bits of dried fruit he’d selected.
“We’ve traveled here for a period of recuperation. Neither Way nor I are in suitable condition for a campaign at the moment.” I replied, meeting his gaze evenly. The look I got back told me a number of things. Rask believed himself to be a figure of great authority and presence. Even the Holy Knight’s showed him deference. He’d expected me to be awed by his rank and the benevolent fare he provided.
As an itinerant priestess, I drew no income from the Holy Throne, but I was still subject to its laws. Charges of diabolism or the commission of any of the rest of the “Great Sins” would land me in the same fires that a commoner would burn in. In theory, Bishop Rask should have been a terrifying figure. In practice he struck me as a nothing more than an old man who was far too used to getting his own way all the time.
“My Knight’s tell me that your companion needed no further healing. Are you of unsound body?” Rasked asked. His tone was still cordial but the underlying message was clear. If we weren’t physically debilitated then he saw no reason we shouldn’t volunteer to aid his cause since he was so very important.
“I am quite well.” I said without offering an explanation or excuse for why we refused to join them. I flexed my leg under the table testing out the healing spell I’d tried on it. It wasn’t one hundred percentage fixed but the damage was largely repaired. A good night’s sleep and I’d be fine.
“You are perhaps pledged to some other campaign?” Rask continued. An Anointed Expedition would take precedence over any quests of merely local importance, so any attempt to plead for a prior commitment would be one Rask could easily overturn by his holy whim.
“No, though we may do some traveling. This is the first time Way and I have been to Dawns Harbor. The countryside looks quite lovely.” I said.
“You should take care in that case, looks can be deceiving. We’re not here hunting diabolists because of the scenic views.” Gahn joked. His smile was broad and open but when I met his eyes I saw concern there. He knew I was antagonizing Rask, he just couldn’t imagine why.
In truth I didn’t even have a good reason. The prospect of joining them on their devil hunt was fairly appealing. It would mean I’d be doing something, fixing things that were broken, making a difference.
“When did I become a junkie for helping people?”, I asked Way via dream speech.
“The first you did when we met was reach out to me and offer understanding and friendship, so I’m going to guess that you always have been.”, Way replied.
I smiled in response to that, which fortunately looked like a smile at Gahn’s joke for those not privy to our dream speech.
“Our paths may not lead us far apart then. Perhaps we’ll find some of your diabolists for you if they should be lurking near our scenic locals.” I said, offering as much of a flag of truce as I could.
“And what would you do if you should encounter those we seek?” Rask asked, his smile cold and calculating as he took a bite from a fresh roll that had been placed before him.
“After we defeated them? Bring them into custody I suppose.” With the existence of truth spells in Vale Septem, a live diabolist was a highly valuable asset in ferreting out any other members of their cabal.
Rask’s smile sharpened at that answer.
“That would be a foolish risk.”, Maak said, “The prescribed course of action is to alert the nearest Holy Office as to the presence and identities of the diabolists. Raising awareness of a diabolist that all may act against them is far more important than any personal glory you might gain from defeating them.”
“Were there a possibility that they might escape, then I agree, alerting any who might encounter them would be the most sensible course of action.” I said.
“Do you believe yourself so mighty as to rule out the possibility of defeat and subjugation?” Rask asked.
“No.” I lied.
While it was possible that a sufficiently armed and prepared horde of devil priests could defeat Way and I, there simply wasn’t any means they could use to enslave us. I couldn’t exactly tell Rask that any attempt to imprison our bodies or minds would lead to us quitting their plane of existence though. It would sound insane and impossible, which in a sense it was.
“We have more experience that you might imagine. If the situation looked dire I would ensure that Jin made it to safety and could warn others of the danger.” Way said.
“It is a dangerous sort of pride that believes it can see through the machinations and magics of those who worship the darkness.” Rask said, his tone the same as one he would lecture a dim toddler with.
“I see and that’s why you want us to join your Expedition? To guard against that sort of overweening pride?” I asked. Gahn’s eyes widened in shock. He’d understood the jibe I’d leveled against Rask. Rask, fortunately, was too self absorbed to imagine I might be referring to his pride rather than my own.
“Exactly. You would find your path much safer were you to travel with us.” Rask said. I didn’t miss the implied threat of what we would be safer from. On the other hand I also didn’t care about it much.
“We’ll be certain to exercise all due caution.” I said without flinching from Rask’s gaze.
I noticed that the squad leaders were diligently attending to their food. Very carefully not making eye contact with anyone at our end of the table. That put Rask in an even more awkward position.
“Perhaps we could speak with your Knights to learn what warning signs they will be looking for?” Way suggested.
“I think not. We shall be leaving with the morning’s light and no simple signs will let you discern the workings of the dark powers.” Rask said. His irritation chilled the other conversations out of the room. The contempt in his voice was warming my anger to compensate though. As a priestess I had the same training in recognizing dark powers as he did. If anything his time as a Bishop meant he would have less familiarity with them since he was so often dealing with the management of the church rather than the monsters that preyed on its members.
“So by joining the Expedition, we could rely on your True Sight to see through any disguises or veils then?” I asked. A dream walker would have been able to see that Way and I weren’t exactly natives to Vale Septem. Even hinting at that would have tipped them off. I was betting that wouldn’t be enough for Rask to discern it though.
“It is not my vision but the Holy Eyes of the Dominions which pierce all deceptions.” Rask said, speaking as though he was addressing a particularly slow child. I fought back a smirk, which Maak noticed. I saw rage in his eyes. He knew I was mocking Rask and he’d already been half convinced I was a devil of some kind.
If he only knew how much worse than that I really was. Fighting the smirk grew more difficult as that thought flickered through my mind.
“Have the Dominions seen sign of of our quarry here in Dawns Harbor Holy Father?” Gahn asked, trying to steer the conversation towards an area where compromise would be possible.
“Or among our fellowship.” Maak added through gritted teeth. Not that he wanted to count Way and I among his fellowship but it was the closest he could come to calling our motivations into question without explicitly accusing us and forcing Rask’s hand.
“The strength of the Holy Throne’s anointing has not yet abated. No shadow lies over our company. Nor, by the strength of the Holy Throne’s prayers, over this town.”
“If they plan to stay within Dawns Harbor, is there cause for worry?” Gahn asked.
“Can we be certain they can be trusted to understand what’s best for them?” Rask asked in reply.
“We have traveled into many dark places and returned. You may trust that in recuperating our spirits from battles hard fought we will have no interest in seeking out new ones.” Way said.
“Speak for yourself.” I dream spoke to Way, sharing my amusement and annoyance at Rask.
“He’s not our enemy.”, Way cautioned me, sharing the concern that she saw in the rest of our dinner party. They were scared. People didn’t talk back to Bishops like this.
“Maybe he’s not our enemy but he is a jerk though.”, I replied, making sure my face way carefully neutral this time.
“Granted, but fighting him won’t change that.”
“You’re right.” I admitted and forced myself to let go of some of my irritation.
“Your intentions may be honorable but you yet have the folly of youth upon you. To claim that you have faced the darkness already and overcome it can only be the voice of inexperience. The true dark places in the world are more powerful than you can imagine. Only by the grace of the Holy Throne do we stand against them.” Rask lectured.
I don’t know why I let him get under my skin. A part of me wanted to show him just how much darkness I was familiar with. A part of me wanted to slap the simplistic notion that darkness was bad and light was good right off his stupid lips.
Another part of me was aware that I was simply crabby at having to relax and that I was yearning to take it out on the first annoying person I ran across.
“And the Dominions.” I said, softly, as though speaking from a well of faith. In truth, I didn’t have faith in the Dominions at all. I had knowledge of them, thanks to my meta-awareness. I knew they were benevolent and that they were more powerful than Bishop Rask could imagine. I also knew that only their raw power remained in the fragment of Vale Septem that had been time looped. No divine voices spoke to the Holy Throne or any of its attendants. All of the “wisdom” the clergy dispensed came from their own hearts and minds.
“The grace of the Holy Throne and the grace of the Dominions are one and the same.” Rask tisked. It was my turn to be surprised. It was a crucial piece of the Holy Throne’s doctrine that the clergy were merely the tools of the Dominions. Wars had been fought over that point of doctrine.
“I haven’t been educated in the theology of the Dominions as you have, so perhaps I misunderstand, but are you saying that the Holy Throne and the Dominions are as equals?” I asked feigning confusion. In asking the question I had as good as accused him of committing one of the ‘Great Sins’. No one in the room missed the significance of that.
“Do not dare to twist my words against me.” Rask growled, slamming his cutlery down on the table.
We held each others gaze, Rask trying to force me to backpedal, to submit to his authority. Two years ago I probably would have crumbled under his glare. That seemed like more than a lifetime ago. Instead of panic, or fear, or even concern, all I could think of as his complexion flushed a deep scarlet was whether I’d remembered to bring all of my study materials with me.
Meta-awareness suggested that if I pushed him far enough, he’d probably hit me, despite the loss of face that would ultimately cause him. I was torn on how to react to that. As it turned out I didn’t need to decide. Way stepped in instead.
“It is getting late, we should be going.” she said simply, offering no further excuse or apology.
“You’re right. We haven’t finished unpacking yet and it’s been a long day.” I said, rising from my seat at the same time she did.
“I have not given you my leave to depart.” Rask said, each word slowly and carefully enunciated.
I turned to look at him and just as clearly replied, “I didn’t ask for it.”