One of the things they try to teach us at Diplomat school is that there are far more ways to solve a problem through communication than there are through conflict. The difficulty lies in thinking creatively enough to talk your way through a problem instead of punching the other guy in the face. In my experience there was another issue beyond creativity that made things difficult though; some people just needed a good punch in the face.
I glowered at the soldiers possessed by the Shadow Breaker Prelate. Some people needed a lot of punches to the face.
“Are we still going to be ok?” Kari asked, walking close beside me as we approached the camp the Shadow Breakers had set up outside Dawns Harbor.
“We’ll be fine.” I assured her, taking her hand in my own.
“Fear not, though you are condemned, the Holy Throne is wise and just. You will be restored to grace, the taint which blackens your soul washed away in holy light.” one of the soldiers said in Prelate Ralls’ voice.
I looked over at Way who narrowed her eyes and nodded back to me in agreement. We were going to have to ‘disagree’ with the church rather vociferously if Prelate Ralls tried to ‘wash away our taint’.
The ‘grace’ the Holy Throne offered was the grace of unwilling servitude. If it washed away any existing mystical taint it did so only by replacing it with a far worse one, and in this case there was nothing to ‘wash away’.
As a Priestess, I could draw on the Seventh Dominion’s aspect of ‘Deception’ to see the mystical or otherworldly influences on people. That gave me spells that were as powerful as anything the Shadow Breaker’s could have employed to determine whether someone was possessed or had fallen under demonic influence. As a dreamlord I didn’t need them though.
The demons and devils of Vale Septem were fairly standard as ‘evil powers’ went. They were masters of deception and adept at plotting the downfall of the mortals who turned to them. For every spell of True Sight a mortal could cast there was a veiling spell that would protect the demon’s secrets. That didn’t mean it was impossible to discover them with magic, it just meant that you needed a wide repertoire of spell prayers to draw upon and more determination about using those spells than the demon had for maintaining their veils.
The awareness of a dreamlord entered that contest the same way “planet killing super nova” entered a rock, paper, scissors battle. Meta-awareness could fail to warn me of things for a variety of reasons but, no matter what veils a demon might employee, if I deliberately looked at someone, I saw what was real.
There were things that could block meta-awareness, for example people and powers that could manipulate their own reality, like other dreamlords, but I was fairly confident that neither Vale Septem’s demons nor the Shadow Breakers were in that league. If they had been, their cruelty and malice would have either been left behind or made far worse.
That’s how I knew that the Shadow Breaker’s assertion that we were all already damned was yet another lie. With meta-awareness I could see that there was no taint, dark or light, good or evil, on the people of Dawns Harbor. The poor reception they’d given Way and I had been a purely human response. Grida and Colten taking us in for dinner had been the same. The people of Dawns Harbor were real and complex in ways that demons could never quite manage to be.
That meant that, despite how they’d treated us, they deserved better than what the Shadow Breakers were going to do to them.
We reached the camp to find another party of ensorcelled soldiers waiting for us.
“You are charged with obstructing the orders of an agent of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. Charges of blasphemy are also being prepared. Surrender your weapons.” the leader of the soldiers who were waiting for us said. The voice was, again, Prelate Ralls.
“And you are charged with brigandage and assault. If you should resist arrest on these charges I am required to use lethal force in response.” Brayson answered. He was calm and relaxed, perhaps sensing that violence was not immediately forthcoming, or perhaps confident that the force presented against us was not yet sufficiently overwhelming.
As a retired adventurer, Brayson had to be masterful at combat. The only way an adventurer lived long enough to retire was to hone their skills far beyond that of a common soldier. That was more or less the opposite of the way it worked in my world, but in Vale Septem it made a degree of sense. Vale’s adventurer’s were the ones who spent their lives poking into dark corners and fighting the unimaginable variety of horrors that lurked therein. The Empire’s soldiers on the other hand rarely saw action and when they did it was in battles where personal prowess mattered less than the overall coordination of the unit they were in and the kind of support they had backing them up.
“Your charges are meaningless as are your threats.” Prelate Ralls said through the leader of the soldiers who stood around us.
“As is your claim of legitimacy until you provide a sealed writ confirming it.” Brayson answered.
“We are preparing the writ now. Any further time that you spend holding the Sanctuary spell against us will be counted as additional sins that must be expunged from you.” Ralls said.
“Preparing the writ? Forging a document at this point won’t help you. But I will add that to the list of charges that we’ll hang you for.” Brayson smiled at the soldiers.
“I could kill you where you stand, and still you offer insolence in place of the awe and respect due to a Prelate.” Ralls asked, disbelief plain in her voice.
“You seem to be under a misapprehension. I am offering you far more respect than someone claiming to be a Prelate but offering no proof of that deserves.” Brayson explained.
“And once you have your proof?” Ralls asked.
“Then I will treat you with exactly as much respect as a Third Prelate of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court deserves.”
Ralls didn’t catch the undertone of that promise, but I did. Meta-awareness showed me glimspes of Brayson’s history with the Shadow Breakers. Kari’s father wasn’t the only townsperson that Dawns Harbor had lost to the Breakers. Spurious charges, backed by confessions and “conclusive” evidence that no one was allowed to see or contest due to “greater spiritual concerns”. There’d been enough circumstantial evidence that Brayson hadn’t been able to gainsay the Breakers, but as far as he was concerned none of the townsfolk that had been taken had been guilty of anything they were accused of. If I scrapped together the respect that he had for the Prelates of the Shadow Breakers into a thimble I’d still have plenty of room for my middle finger.
It’s why he was helping us. He didn’t like us, well Way or I. Kari he was at least fond of. Way and I were trouble though, which meant his first instinct was to wish we were elsewhere. Barring that, he’d be happy if we managed to avoid attracting his attention. The one thing that overrode that general disapproval though was that the Shadow Breaker’s presented a target he truly loathed. As common ground between us went, it wasn’t the most stable of foundations but it would do under the circumstances.
“I thought you were going to meet us here in person?” I asked the nearest Ralls controlled soldier.
“Once the Sanctuary effect has been restored to its proper function and operations here have commenced, I will be happy to deal with you personally.” she replied.
“Why are they all talking in the same voice?”, Kari whispered.
“Because this army has been unified by the grace of the Holy Throne.” Ralls replied through another soldier. Superior hearing was apparently also part of the enhancement package the soldiers were enspelled with.
“The church has decided that the life force of these soldiers is worth less than the aim they are pursuing here.” I added.
“We all live to serve the Holy Throne, but you speak as though you are aware of prayers which are spoken for the Blessing of Unity?” Ralls said.
“Yes. I know what you’re doing to these men and women.”
The soldiers around us paused for a moment, processing that. Meta-awareness filled me in on why. The Blessing of Unity was a prayer that was only taught to high officials of the church. It was both demanding to cast and easy to misuse. I offered no explanation for how I, an apparently underage Priestess, knew of it and allowed Ralls to draw her own conclusions.
“Priestess Jin, how much longer would you expect the soldiers can be kept in this state?” Brayson asked.
“That depends on how much they are misused. With moderate activity, I imagine a caster such as the one speaking to us could manage to keep them alive for four or five days in this state.” I said.
“And if they were freed before then?” Brayson asked.
“That depends on when they are freed. If it was tonight they would need no more than a week’s rest. The longer they stay like this though the more rapid their decline will be. By two days from now they’ll start suffering a permanent loss of strength and reaction speed.” I said.
“Significantly decreasing the fighting prowess of the Imperial Army is grounds for both execution and excommunication.” Brayson said to no one in particular. Ralls caught his meaning on that one. It was weird to see the faces of all of the soldiers surrounding us darken into the same scowl.
The mirrored expressions reminded me of the fact that they were as much victims in this as the townsfolk of Dawns Harbor were poised to become. Their consent to the Unity Blessing entered into a questionable philosophical area. On the one hand it might have been genuine when it was given, motivated by respect for authority or faith in the church. On the other there was no way the Shadow Breakers had explained the Unity Blessing to them fully or made them aware of what its real nature was. The spell only called for consent, not informed consent though, a feature that was completely a part of the Breaker’s design of it.
There was a commotion in front of us, from within the camp, as another set of soldiers marched forward. At their head was a woman in priestly robes. Prelate Ralls held a scroll in her hands and an expression of wicked satisfaction on her face.
“Watch Commander Brayson, here is the documentation required for control of this town to pass to the the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. I hereby officially relieve you of your duty and your rank as Watch Commander. Further the charges I had read against you will now be put into full effect.” Prelate Ralls said as she handed the sealed writ over to Brayson.
He opened it and read the contents, his frown shifting to a small smile.
“I hereby accept this writ of Emergency Powers to be granted to the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. However, Prelate Ralls, you appear to be unfamiliar with the Emergency Powers procedures and doctrine. This writ requires that I render you all aid and comply with any legal orders given. It specifically does not allow for the ouster of the existing governors of the village, town or city referenced.” Brayson said.
“You will find that you are mistaken. It is well within my power to strip you of your rank, your privilege and your life. Were this not a Conscription mission, I would have done so already.”
“Prelate, I am aware of the sorts of actions you are used to being able to take. Allow me to assure you that my understanding of the laws as they are actually written is quite accurate. You have the right to execute any legal order within this town, up to and including trying me for heresy. Past experience may have left you confused and under the impression that any order you make is legal simply because you wish it to be so. Further, you have brought five hundred warriors with you. This likely leads you to believe that you have the necessary might to enforce your orders regardless of whether they are legal or not. Allow me to correct that misunderstanding.” Brayson slipped on a pair of mailed gauntlets. Jewels gleamed on the knuckles, and I could feel them radiating with a disturbing amount of power despite being in a quiescent state.
“You cannot threaten me. You do not know who you are speaking to.” Prelate Ralls said, though she backed away a step.
“I am speaking to a Third Prelate. You are speaking to one of the six people who survived the Battle of Empty Swamp. It has been many years since then, but did you know we fought over two thousand undead there.” Brayson said. Ralls froze, her face hardening into a silent scowl.
“The charge of heresy remains against you. You will turn over all of the weapons you possess and submit yourself to our custody.” Ralls demanded.
“As you wish.” Brayson said. He unbuckled his belt and handed it over with the sword that was strapped to it. “I must warn you though, assembling a proper tribunal to try a town Watch Commander will take several days. Longer, I believe, that you can sustain these troops. And until the trial is completed I will not turn the Sanctuary spell over to your control.”
Ralls laughed at that. A chilling cackle of glee.
“The Sanctuary spell is a gift of the Holy Throne. Now that we have command of the town, it is ours to command as well.” Ralls explained.
With a twisting gesture of her hand, I felt the ward that Brayson had woven against the Shadow Breakers unwind and reform, settling on us instead. One moment we were free and the next we were encased in the chains of magic that had kept the town safe for decades. I reached out for my Priestess magic and found a hard blockage holding it back.
Looking around I saw that Way had been similarly constrained. No sword of lightning would come to her hand while the Sanctuary spell was turned against us, and our strength and reflexes were severely diminished. We weren’t the worst affected though,
Kari looked at me as the mystical chains fell on us. Her eyes were wide with fear. Behind them I saw visions of her father’s fate playing out in her mind’s eyes.
“We shall render our judgment upon you now.” Prelate Ralls said.