Regaining a joyful mood is hard in the wake of an unexpected shock. Fear has a way of lingering and poisoning your thoughts. Laughter can help but it’s not a panacea. Sometimes things just don’t seem funny enough to pick up your spirits.
I reflected on that as we trudged towards Healer Grida’s house. Our earlier air of joviality had been left behind with the ashes of the effigies and the sign telling us to get out of town. Somewhere, someone was starting to have a very bad night thanks to Ash Doll curse that I’d laid on them but that didn’t help us forget the general animosity that the town seemed to feel for us.
The dour mood the doll burning had placed on us was only magnified as we walked through the streets and saw people turning away, avoiding eye contact, suddenly going quiet and generally avoiding even the slightest appearance that they knew we existed.
“It’s dinnertime so everyone’s trying to get home now.” Kari said, perhaps guessing the direction my thoughts were going.
“Hopefully we’re not spoiling their appetites.” I said. I wasn’t thinking kind thoughts and I knew it came through in my voice. Way just frowned.
We walked a bit longer in silence until the faint sounds of music began to wing their way to us. Approaching Healing Grida’s home made the music grow louder and more distinct.
“I wonder how many people Grida’s entertaining tonight?” Way asked.
I caught my first whiff from her kitchen as we entered the short walk to her front door.
“Mmm, probably more than she bargained for if that aroma reaches the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.” I said.
We rang the bell that was on the stoop and were greeted by the enormous form of Colten. He’d changed out of his fisherman’s clothes and was dressed in a tunic and pants with a serving apron covering his front. There were letters embroidered on it that read: “I’m the one that got away”. Below them the image of a giant fish had been embroidered as well.
“Hello girls! You’ve arrived just in time! Grida said the food will be ready in just a bit and the rest of the guests are here. Come in. Come in and I’ll introduce you.” Colten said.
We filled in with Way taking the lead and Kari next. I entered last and so was the last to be drowned in the overwhelmingly delightful scents of Healer Grida’s cooking. It wouldn’t have been the best way to make a good first impression on the rest of the guests but letting my mouth hang open while I drooled over the prospect of our impending meal was certainly tempting.
“Commander Brayson!” Kari’s said with restored happiness.
I turned into the dining room to see the Watch Commander playing a fiddle. He and a very tall woman (who was playing a clarinet) were the source of the music that we’d been hearing. They continued playing as we made our way into the room and I saw a bemused smile settle on Brayson’s lips.
I wondered if we were going to get introduction to the other musician or the younger man who was present or if dinner would come out first. Or if I could go into the kitchen, save on dirty plates and just eat it right out of the oven. Yes, that would have been terrible manners but it smelled really good!
As it turned out, the players reached the end of the song just a few moments after we entered the room and Colten took the opportunity to present us to the group.
“Grida has invited Kari and our town’s two visitor to join us this evening. Girls, this is Darius Brayson, in addition to his talent with the fiddle that you’ve just been witness too, he is also the commander our local Watch.”
“A pleasure to see you again.” Brayson said, waving his fingers towards his forehead in an informal salute.
“We met this morning.” I explained to Colten.
“I’m sure that was a delightful encounter.” Colten replied to me and then turned back to Brayson “Tell me you didn’t try to run them out of town?”
“As they have broken no laws which are in my purview to uphold or administer, I did no such thing.” Brayson said. There was the air of mock seriousness in both their tones that spoke of a long acquaintance.
“Helena, how do you put up with him after all these years?” Colten asked the very large woman beside Brayson.
Helena rolled her dark brown eyes and wrapped an ebony arm around her husband’s pale white neck. She pretended to throttle him back and forth as she answered.
“Who says I put up with him?” she joked. “It’s nice to meet you girls. Darius has told me nothing about you, but I hear there was a bit of a ruckus this morning at the Inn while you were there?”
“Caina was throwing pots again.” the younger man said before we could respond.
“Girls this is Marcus Greenfields, he handles the transport and distribution of some of the finest catches that come out of the sea around here.” Colten said.
“It’s true. And sometimes I also carry Colten’s fish too.” Marcus said with a smile. “Which I must admit do occasionally fetch a fair price.”
“Where do you carry the fish too?” Way asked.
“Most go to Hemstead Grove, but I have weekly orders that deliver as far as Knight’s Peak and Batmoor.” Marcus replied.
Meta-awareness told him that Hemstead Grove was the nearest sizeable city. It lay a long day’s ride out from Dawns Harbor but the roads were well protected and maintained. Knight’s Peak and Batmoor were also major cities in the region, both of which lay several days travel away (to the northeast and southeast respectively).
“How do you keep the fish fresh on the trip?” I asked when meta-awareness didn’t provide the info to me.
“Depends on the species. Most are encased in frost spells but some we need to transport live.” Marcus said.
Colten turned to us when Marcus finished speaking.
“You all know Kari, the best waitress who, I gather, Caina used to have?” Colten said.
“Umm, yes.” Kari said.
“We needed a local guide, and Kari has agreed to help us out. My name is Jin” I said.
“And mine is Way.”
“And you two are…?” Marcus asked.
“Adventurers.” Way supplied.
“And Trouble right Commander?” I asked, testing to see how much of his earlier mistrust of us remained.
“Seems fair to say. You did manage to steal Caina’s best server from her.” Brayson agreed.
“They weren’t a part of that.” Kari said, looking a bit embarrassed.
“Seems a fair trade for getting that idiot Rask out of here early.” Colten said.
“Careful my friend. The church is not fond of those who point out the intellectual deficiencies of its more senior members.” Brayson observed.
“You drove the Bishop away?” Helena asked, looking at Way and I.
“Not really. He and his knights were planning to leave early today anyways. I don’t think we did much more than spoil one of the dinner courses for them.” I said.
“And invited a team of Shadow Breakers to town for a review of your credentials.” Brayson said.
“That was the Bishop’s idea.” I countered.
“Yes, it’s the kind of thing he does to those who annoy him.” Brayson replied. He was looking at Colten rather than Way or I though, perhaps in warning about Colten’s earlier comment.
Colten’s response was cut off by the entrance of Healer Grida bearing a tray of family sized fish dishes.
“Ah, good, everyone’s here. Sit, sit. We don’t want these to get cold.” Grida said. From the size of her dinner table, I gathered that parties of our size were fairly common at Grida’s house. Kari, Way and I sat next to each other on one side of the table across from Marcus, Helena and Brayson. Grida and Colten sat at the end of the table with Grida beside me and Colten opposite her.
We held off on further conversation briefly as the food was passed around and doled out. Beyond the promised fish dishes there were soups and breads and a variety of vegetable dishes. The only uniformity to the options presented was that they all smelled delightful. Filling up my plates and bowls with a sampling of each left me with enough food to feed a small army.
“So are you girls planning to stay in town long?” Helena asked.
“We’d been planning on a two week vacation here, but we’ll need to see what the story with the Shadow Breakers is.” I said.
“You seem remarkably unconcerned about them.” Marcus observed.
“We’ve been through scarier tests than anything they’re likely to throw at us.” I explained.
“How long have you been adventuring for?” Grida asked.
“Two years.” Way asked.
“You started very young then.” Grida said.
“A bit.” I admitted.
“Best to earn your wisdom early, I say!” Colten laughed.
“If they don’t like Rask then I’d say they have wisdom aplenty already .” Grida said.
“Grida!” Brayson exclaimed.
“Yes Darius?” Grida asked.
“You have to be more careful than that Grida. You know what kind of ramifications there are for seditious talk about the church or its governors.” Brayson said.
“I’m quite aware of how the church tends to its flock. I also know that there’s no one in this room who disagrees with me on the subject of its present governors.” Grida said.
“Do you?” Brayston asked. “Miss Jin, Miss Way, would you care to share your opinion of the leadership of the Holy Throne?”
“That’s not fair Darius.” Grida said before I could reply.
“Isn’t it? You presume because of one incident between them and Rask, of all people Rask, that you can speak freely in front of them?” Brayson said.
“She’s not wrong to.” I put in before the argument could escalate further.
“We would presume that anything said within these walls is said in the confidence that the words will stay within the walls.” Way explained.
“You will forgive my mistrust, but you are both due to be interrogated by the Shadow Breakers and from your attitude I don’t believe you fully appreciate how persuasive they can be.” Brayson said.
Actually, meta-awareness had given me a crystal clear vision of the kind of “persuasions” the Shadow Breakers employed. Magic was both the first and last measure employed, but since compulsions and enchantments could be resisted there were a variety of physical measures they employed to “soften” the subject’s will.
Meta-awareness wasn’t precognition. It didn’t show me the future, but it did reveal possible futures, similar to what imagining them was like but with greater clarity and more acknowledgement of what would make those futures to come to pass.
I saw burning brands and cutting knives, isolation and living burial. The Shadow Breakers were adept at creating horrors of purely human origin without need to resort to magic or supernatural powers.
“I don’t know if that needs to be the case.” Grida said.
“What do you mean?” Brayson asked.
“I don’t see any reason why they should be here when the Shadow Breakers arrive.” Grida said.
“If they run now, the Breakers will hound them across the Empire.” Brayson said.
“I’m not sure that will be a problem.” Grida replied. “You two are more adept than you should be for your age. We’ll assume that you’re prodigies, but whatever the explanation, I imagine that you won’t have any problem with moving beyond the reach of the church will you?”
“That’s true.” I acknowledged.
“And what? We would denounce them then? If the church excommunicates them, the priestess at least will be cut off from her powers, and I’m sure the knight knows a prayer or two that she relies on. How well will two girls make it in the world once they are bereft of power and connections?” Brayson asked.
“Three.” Kari said.
“Don’t tie your fate to theirs. We might still spare you yet.” Brayson said.
“Darius, what if Grida has a point? We’re not going to stand by and allow the Throne to take two more innocents are we?” Helena asked.
“Are they”, he asked and turned to us “Are you innocents? Your age invites that assumption, but I find it hard to believe that you provoked the Bishop unknowingly.”
“You cannot blame them for the rashness of the Bishop’s actions, or the foulness of his temper.”, Helena said.
“He’s not wrong though.” I said “I’m not going to plead ignorance. I knew exactly what I was saying to Rask. More than he did I think. He missed the meaning of a few things I said, but they wouldn’t have improved his opinion of me.”
“There is your wisdom!” Brayson said, gesturing to Colten.
“You say that you provoked his wrath purposefully? And do you claim that you knew the the extent of his influence?” Grida asked.
“In broad terms yes. I didn’t know of Rask’s specific connections but his command of the Shadow Breaker’s wasn’t all that surprising either.” I said.
Brayson buried his face in his right hand for a moment, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Before he could speak, or maybe it was scream at me, Grida asked one more question.
“So then the question that remains is ‘why’?”
“Why did I provoke him?” I asked
I paused for a moment. The truth was that he didn’t deserve my respect and I had refused to be cowed by him. I’d been confident enough to take that stand because I knew he couldn’t actually touch me. What I hadn’t taken into account was that he could touch the people around me, or that I might care if he did.
I looked at the people in the room. I’d arrived in Vale Septem with the view of its residents as historical anomalies. Almost as though they were actors staging an elaborate play of what had once occurred rather than real people. In a sense that was somewhat accurate. From an external view, their time in the world could be measured in minutes and with the passing of each hour a new rendition of the play would begin.
Except, here they sat. Passionate, laughing, worried. Alive.
They weren’t puppets or shadows. They were people caught in a trap that was both gilded and cruel.
“I could offer a very long winded explanation but its really as simple as he tried to frighten me and he failed.” I said.
“Beyond a certain point bravery becomes stupidity.” Brayson said.
“I don’t think that’s the case here.” Marcus said. The merchant was examining me with an appraising gaze that was sharp enough to fillet the fish he normally traded in.
“What do you mean Marcus?” Helena asked.
“I mean that I think that our guests are more than they let on. Priestess Jin, if this isn’t too forward of a question, can you tell us how many of the Dominions you are sworn to?” Marcus asked.
I smiled. One of the dangers of cheating with your identity was that observant people would notice the places where you were a little too exceptional. In this case, Marcus had managed to catch on one of the bigger liberties I’d taken with ‘Priestess Jin’s’ history.
Normally a Priestess began her career by swearing herself to one of the Twelve Dominions. That’s a lengthy process which involves a great deal of study and months of purification rituals. In the end a link is established between the Priestess and the Dominion so that the Priestess spell prayers can be fulfilled. In return, even when she’s not carrying a spell prayer, the Dominion always has a weak but active conduit to her life.
A Priestess focused on healing, for example, would swear herself to the Sixth Dominion for access to the healing magics it can provide. That would be as far as many would take their magic since having a constant connection to the Sixth Dominion would mean that it would constantly be bending fate to send injured people and other problems relating to the aspects it possessed at you.
Itinerant Priestess, being likely to encounter a wide variety of problems, tended to swear themselves to at least a few other Dominions as well. The Ninth for Endurance, the Second for Luck and the Fourth for food were common choices.
Gaining access to the additional Dominions took years though and wasn’t something entered into lightly. Yes, it was nice to be able to magic up a meal while you were on the road, but that also meant you were more likely to be drawn to areas where famine had hit. Famine beyond the reach of the spells granted to you by the Fourth Dominion to fix.
In short, the Dominion’s problems became your problems.
“I’m sworn to all Twelve Dominions.” I said. In retrospect that probably wasn’t the best way to ensure that our vacation was a smooth and peaceful one. I would suspect ‘subconscious sabotage’ if I didn’t force myself to admit that the ramifications of what I was choosing for my identity in Vale Septem had crossed my mind more than a few times.
The effect of those six words was almost amusing. Commander Brayson jerked back in surprise like I’d hit him with a baseball bat. Colten’s jaw had dropped open as though it had a date with the floor. Even Marcus’ eyes widened in surprise. And Grida just smiled a knowing smile.
“Sir Way, I believe you are similarly accomplished is that not true?” Grida asked.
“I don’t have Jin’s gift for magic.” Way said.
“No, your gifts are expressed more physically I believe. For instance, the fact that you’re sitting here enjoying dinner with us.” Grida said.
“Why would that be unusual?” Way asked.
“I saw the spot where they found you. With that much rock and debris you shouldn’t have an unbroken bone in your body.” Grida said.
“Oh, yes, I am somewhat resilient.” Way admitted.
“Yes. Allow me to say that should you encounter something that can overcome your resiliency, I would like to be several days distant from the encounter.” Grida said.
“I don’t understand? How is that possible? Grida, how many Dominions are you sworn to?” Brayson asked.
“Eight.” Grida replied.
It was my turn to look surprised.
“You’re sworn to eight of Dominions? I wouldn’t have guessed a healer would need so many?” I said.
“I wasn’t always a simple healer.” Grida said with a smile.
The clue was all my meta-awareness needed to send a lot of other pieces tumbling into place.
Itinerant adventurers tended to end their careers in one of two ways. Most wound up in the stomach of a monster that they weren’t prepared for, sometimes with a “tenderizing” phase of passing through one or more of the monster’s deadly traps. The successful ones on the other hand often retired to lives of calm normalcy, having slaked their desire of danger and mayhem early on in life.
They would generally wind up as pillars of whatever community they settled in. Healers, Watch Commanders, or perhaps even the senior fisherman who taught the younglings how to survive on the seas.
I looked around the room at the aged people who sat with us. Aside from Marcus, they were grey of hair and wrinkled of complexion but age had not diminished the fire in their eyes. There was toughness there that stones might envy and power that even the sea itself couldn’t overcome. I wasn’t afraid of them but it was hard not to respect what they were based on how they lived their lives.
Marcus was an anomaly until the final piece fell into place. They hadn’t been a party of four originally. There had once been at least one more and Marcus was that missing member’s son.
“I understand.” I said. “And I understand how my actions have affected you. Commander Brayson, I may owe you an apology.”
“For what?” Brayson asked.
“You were right about Way and I being trouble.” I said
“Can you see where I’m going with this?” I asked Way in dream speech.
“Yes.” Way dream spoke back, sending with it a resigned but accepting smile.
“Thank you.” I told her, sending back the image of a grateful hug.
“We’re trouble but I believe we’re the sort of trouble that has been needed for quite a while.” I said aloud.
“What are you saying?” Brayson asked.
“We’ve put you in a tough position. You, all, don’t want to see any more innocents sacrificed on the pyre of the church’s ambition. If we were to run we could escape that fate, but regardless of whether you denounced us or not, regardless of what help you might give the Shadow Breakers against us, you would still fall under suspicion if we weren’t caught and punished.” I said. “So we’re not going to run.”
“We will not ask you to sacrifice yourselves for us.” Helena said. Her voice was firm and an old anger hardened her eyes.
“We’re not going to sacrifice ourselves.” I said.
“We will talk with the Shadow Breakers when they arrive.” Way said.
“We’ll make them understand that they’re in error.” I promised.
“They won’t listen to you.” Helena insisted.
“We may have to get somewhat…loud, in our discussion. If so I will make sure that the discussion happens someplace suitably removed from town.” I said. “The important thing is that your town, your people, Kari, no one else will suffer for our presence here.”
“That’s a mighty broad promise even for a girl who’s sworn to all Twelve Dominions.” Colten observed.
“If it seems too big a tale to swallow then accept at least that we’ll try and in trying make it clear that no one else here is to blame.” I offered.
Colten’s reply was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Is our party missing any guests?” Marcus asked.
“No invited ones. Colten could you see who that is?” Grida asked.
The giant man rose from his seat and went to answer the door which gave me a chance to nab a bite of the food. It was as delicious as I’d expected even cooled by the duration of our conversation so far.
I’d barely gotten a mouthful down when Colten returned with a young man in armor at his side.
“It’s for you Darius.” Colten said.
“Watch Commander! A delegation from the Church in Batsmoor has arrived. They want to see you immediately.”
“A delegation? The Shadow Breaker’s are here already?” Brayson asked.
“Yes sir. And they’ve brought troops. Maybe five hundred men sir. They’re setting up in the fields to the north of town.”
We all paused at that.
The Shadow Breakers didn’t need an army. They had the full force of the church behind them. Whatever had brought them to Dawns Harbor was a lot bigger than Way and I.