In general, coming home to find a devil waiting for you does not make for an auspicious start to an afternoon.
“This looks very bad doesn’t it?”, the ram’s horned man said as Way, Kari and I entered the small bungalow.
He was sitting on the floor of the small dwelling with one hand stuck inside my magic backpack, struggling to pull it free.
“That depends.” I said, crossing my arms in front of my chest.
“On what?” he asked.
“Whether you look at it from the point of view of the thief who got caught or the priestess who gets to bring him to justice.” I said.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone to render justice to me here.” the thief said, an odd smile creasing his lips.
“You can dispense summary verdicts as a knight right?” I asked Way.
She cracked her knuckles and produced a handful of flames.
“For creatures of darkness, the judgement has already been pronounced. As as a knight I am simply tasked with executing it.” she said.
“Might I be permitted to say a few words in my defense?” devil guy asked.
“I believe that is traditional.” Way said.
“This is, as you might imagine, not quite what it appears to be.” he said.
“You didn’t try to take something out of my pack without my permission?” I asked.
“The evidence on that front is clearly not in my favor, but if you will release the theft binding spell I believe you will understand my intent when you see what I was trying to extricate.” he explained.
“Tell me what it is first.” I said.
There were all sorts of nasty magical surprises he could have rigged up, but intuition was telling me that wasn’t the case.
“It’s a communique of a sensitive nature. I had thought to leave it in your pack so that others wouldn’t stumble on it before you did. You will understand why I suspected a personal meeting might result in some unpleasantness.” he said, gesturing to his appearance. “My mistake was changing my mind and attempting to extricate it without checking for the thief binding first.”
“So you were stealing your own property from me?” I asked.
“The spells on your backpack disagrees as to the ownership of the missive after I released it into your pack but yes, that is the general scope of the problem.”
I gestured to the pack and released the anti-theft spells.
“And who would this missive be from?” I asked.
“You will find his seal on the letter.” the demon guy said as he withdrew his hand and a small case from my pack. He stood and handed me the letter then folded his hands behind himself while he stood at attention.
The letter was a piece of folded parchment paper sealed with a magical golden wax that bore the imprint of the crescent moon and a trio of stars. I didn’t need meta-awareness to tell me that the letter was sealed by a royal hand.
I considered casting a spell to see if it was trapped but those magics were the purview of the Fifth Dominion in its aspect as the Keeper of Lore and Secrets. I still had the flight spell that I’d cast when I arrived bound to the “Air” aspect of the Fifth Dominion though and I didn’t want to risk giving that up since the spell had turned out fairly solid.
I stepped forward to shield Way and Kari in case my guess that the paper was harmless was wrong and then broke the seal.
I felt the magic of the seal reach out and caress my fingers. Whatever it was looking for it found and the seal broke effortlessly. I unfolded the letter to find words written in a thin but precise runic script. In the single day that I had been in Vale Septem I hadn’t learned to read the native language but the Jin who had lived here for sixteen years had.
“Greetings Unto the Queen of Shadows,” the letter began. I re-read the opening line three times. The Moon had known about that title but she was one of the great spirits of the realm. They played by their own rules. That one of the mortal rulers of the world was aware of it as well was more disturbing. The last thing this world needed was a Shadow Queen.
I continued reading.
“Your arrival has greatly affected the tides of fate. It is our desire to speak with you on the matter of where you intend to stand on the catastrophe which has consumed us. If you will accept my pledge of good faith and hospitality, indicate your acceptance and terms to my servant Andromalius. Sincerely Ten Rex, Lord of Goblins, Defender of the Nightward Veil, Master of the Lost Corridors.”
The King of the Goblins wanted to talk to me. And he knew that I was the Shadow Queen. That was scary enough. It changed what we were doing from a simple exploration mission into a diplomatic issue, and one that was probably above my grade level. That said, I could probably handle it even half trained as I was. I was a good student and together Way and I were pretty potent. The really scary part was his mention of the “catastrophe”. Meta-awareness translated that for me all too clearly.
He knew about the time loop they were stuck in.
I cursed, loudly and suddenly enough that everyone in the room jumped back a step.
“I take it that you are displeased with missive?” Andromalius, the devil guy, asked.
I breathed out a calmly sigh and turned to him. He was a devil, so it was possible this was a trick right? I turned my meta-awareness on him to get a sense of who he was and what his angle might be. Unfortunately it showed me that he was on the level. More than that, it showed me that the Holy Throne’s teachings left out a few key elements when they boiled things down to “light is good and dark is evil”.
“No. It’s fine. Please tell your liege that I look forward to meeting with him at his earliest convenience. My entourage will consist of my knight and possibly one other. I will require promises of hospitality and safe passage for them as well.” I said.
“Your terms are acceptable.” Andromalius confirmed.
“When does your liege wish to meet and what venue does he propose?” I asked.
“He proposes the Cloister of the Silencing Bells at sundown three days hence.” Andromalius said.
I checked my meta-awareness. The Cloister was two weeks away by foot. It lay on the border of the human and goblin kingdoms in a, predictably, remote mountain valley. It’s location was notable for several reasons, including the neutrality its position afforded it. More crucial than that though was its chief mystical property. It was a natural temple to the Fifth Dominion, specifically the Dominion as the Vault of Secrets. Scrying and other forms of magical divination failed there. It was one of the few spots where we could have a conversation that no one would be able to listen in on.
“His proposal is acceptable. Please convey my desire that as few representatives as possible be included in his entourage. I do not begrudge him an honor guard of any strength he may wish to bring, I merely believe he has chosen the location for our meeting wisely.” I said.
“I shall bear your words to him. Please accept my apologies for the untoward manner of our initial meeting.” he said with a deep formal bow.
“They are accepted.” I said with a royal nod.
He smiled and took that as leave to depart, disappearing in a wisp of brimstone.
“That…that was a devil.” Kari whispered.
“Yeah.” I confirmed.
“I thought you said you weren’t evil?” Kari was standing still in precisely the same way a rabbit in a tiny room filled with wolves would.
“He wasn’t here to tempt us. He’s bound in redemptive service to the Goblin King.” I said.
“I don’t understand.” Kari said.
“You were taught about the Light and the Dark in church school right?” I asked, knowing from meta-awareness that church school was the extent of the education that would be given to a girl of Kari’s circumstances.
“Yes?” Kari said, still looking like a cornered rabbit.
“Would you believe that the world was more complex than what they taught to a bunch of little kids?” I asked.
She laughed a short, harsh laugh.
“Yes.” she said.
“Ok, here’s the deal with Andromalius then. You know that there are demons and devils right? Most are seriously nasty. Most isn’t all though. Some of them regret what they did when they fell from grace.” I said.
“But they’re deceivers!” Kari objected.
“Yeah, some of them regret falling from grace, and a lot of others just use that story to get you to let your guard down. That’s where the idea of ‘redemptive service’ came from. Basically someone calls up a devil that claims to want to change their ways. The devil agrees to serve the summoner’s benevolent requests, meaning no killing, no tempting mortals to their doom, etc. If they comply with those terms they can remain in the material world and work on making amends for any damage they’ve caused. If they break their vow, they’re cast back to the pit and indelibly soul branded as oath breakers.” I explained.
I expected Kari to ask more questions but she just stared at me with an odd look in her eyes for a minute.
“I see. That…that actually makes sense. You’re…” her voice trailed off as a thousand thoughts seemed to flash behind her eyes. “You’re not bad at all.”
I smiled and ran a hand through my hair.
“I’m glad you think so, but don’t go overboard. I’m a person, and you know what’s universally true about people?” I asked.
“No.” Kari said.
“We’re all screwed up somehow. If you think you’ve met someone who isn’t you just don’t know them well enough yet.” I saw her frown at that idea, “It doesn’t mean that we’re bad. Or that we can’t trust each other. Just that we’re not perfect. But that’s fine. Perfect is boring.”
“And boring would be just terrible wouldn’t it?” Way asked with an accusatory smile. She knew there was a part of me that was jumping with joy at being presented with a problem to solve. I half wondered if she wasn’t going to just sit on me for the next three days. Missing the appointment with the Goblin King wasn’t likely to make whatever was brewing someone else’s problem but going to the meeting was pretty certain to land us right in the middle of it.
“Maybe not completely terrible. Check this out.” I admitted as I handed her the Goblin King’s letter.
“What does it say?” Kari asked.
“Remember how the Moon called me ‘Dark Queen’? The Goblin King knows more about me than he really should too. He wants to talk.” I said.
“Where’s that Cloister place that Andro talked about…wait, it’s north of here? Pretty far away isn’t it?” Kari asked.
I looked at her. With her education (or lack thereof), it didn’t seem likely that she’d ever learned of the Cloister, much less knew where it was. On the other hand she had been a waitress on a busy travel route. Maybe she heard of it from some travelers?
“Yeah. Too far to travel by foot. I’ll set up a portal to take us there, or at least close by, when the time is right.” I said.
“What are we going to do till then?” Kari asked.
“That will depend on when the Shadow Breakers get here. If it takes them more than three days then Way and I will enjoy a few days of rest I think. If they get here earlier then we’ll need to deal with them. Either way, it would be more than understandable if you wanted to go somewhere else. I can open a portal to a new city as easily as to the Cloister and we have enough money that you could start over with a fresh slate.” I offered.
“I can’t stay here?” Kari asked.
“That’s the other option. If you want, I can see about getting you your job back and smoothing things over with the townsfolk. You don’t have to leave this life.” I told her.
“No, I mean, can’t I stay with you two?”, she asked.
“That’s the dangerous option.” Way said.
“Why?” Kari asked.
“Because we’re not from here. I thought that wouldn’t matter. No one should know about it, or care, but apparently some fairly powerful people do.” I said.
“More powerful than the Shadow Breakers?” Kari asked.
“Yes. It’s not their power that’s a problem though. It’s what it would mean to be caught in between them. If you come with us, I know we can keep you alive, but I don’t think you’d ever be able to come back to your ordinary life.” I said.
“I don’t care. I don’t want that back. I hated it here.” Kari said.
“You won’t. If you come with us you’ll have days when you yearn to be back here.” Way said.
“Why would I?” Kari protested.
“Because here things make sense. Here the monsters are kept at bay and you can focus living.” I said.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think the monsters are kept away. I think they just look different.” Kari said, dropping her gaze to the floor.
“The Shadow Breakers?” I guessed.
Kari nodded in agreement .
“Would you do it? If you were me?” Kari asked.
“That’s not important. You’re you, what matters is what you’re willing to live with. Even when my choices are the right ones for me, they may be ones that would be wrong for you.” I said.
“But would you?” she asked, her voice smaller and more vulnerable.
“Yes. She did. It hurt her, but she left her old life behind when it was asked of her.” Way said, regarding me with a mixture of kindness and joy.
“That’s what I want to do. I know I’m no one special, but I want to go with you.” Kari said.
“What do you think?” I asked Way.
“I think I’ve never met someone who wasn’t special in some way. She might be very interesting and unique if that were true.” Way said.
“I believe it’s settled then. As long as you want it, as long as you chose it, you have a place with us Kari.”
She was still looking down at the floor so it took me a second to notice the tear drops that were falling. Way and I together gathered her into a hug as the stress of the day and the loneliness of her orphaned years caught up to her.