Fire makes a great distraction. It can be beautiful and enticing when it’s far away. When it’s up close and personal though it commands the attention of a very powerful part of the mammalian brain. That part exists to send a clear message to the rest of the mammal: “get the hell away from that”.
Even with their conscious minds restamped by Prelate Ralls, even with their fear response deeply suppressed, the soldiers outside the tower still reacted to the fire instinctively. Given that the commotion bought us time, I had to believe that the fire was both deliberate and set by someone we knew.
“We should leave before Helena decides to get unpleasant about things.” Brayson bellowed out as he parried a thunder spear and slid beneath the soldier’s outstretched arm.
“Working on it.” I shouted back. It didn’t surprise me that Helena had followed us and was working to get us out of this jam. She’d made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t letting her husband go up against the Shadow Breakers without her. It was a little surprising that she’d managed to be so stealthy that I hadn’t noticed her, but my senses weren’t superhumanly sharp and meta-awareness was fickle about volunteering that sort of information.
There was only one door into the stone tower and it was filled with soldiers fighting to get inside. That was one problem. The bigger problem though was the cauldron that sat in the middle of the room. There was no telling what destroying it here might do but I didn’t like the idea of leaving it behind either.
Prelate Temple was momentarily down fighting off the effects of the agony spell that I’d hurled back at him. Beside him, Prelate Ralls was dealing with the thunder spear that Kari had hurled through her. Without magic that would have been a fatal wound, but not instantly so. I was glad that Ralls did have magic though. It meant that Kari hadn’t done anymore than inconvenience the Prelate. There might be a little blood on Kari’s hands but it was no more than you’d get from scraping your knuckles by punching a bully.
I almost wanted to give the Prelates a few punches myself for good measure. The fight was tipped in our direction for the moment, but the tide was going to start swiftly turning against us. The Prelates were both recovering quickly, as were the soldiers that Way and Brayson had stunned. If they recovered before we got out of here, it wouldn’t mean that we would lose the fight, it would mean that we’d have to stop holding back which would be a lot worse.
I watched Way dance up one of the thunder spears and use its wielder as a springboard to avoid a trio of thrusts that had been aimed at her. She flipped on mid-air, catching two of the soldiers with her lightning sword. As they fell, she used their bodies for cover and swept another soldier off his feet. He rolled away, immediately shielded by his compatriots who pressed their own attacks on Way.
“How are we going to get out here?” Kari asked. She’d taken another thunder spear out of the hands of one of the stunned soldiers and was holding it out defensively to ward the fighters away from us. The surge of the fight had pushed our backs to the wall farthest from the Prelates. I suspected that was the primary reason that Kari was still holding the spear rather than playing pin cushion with Prelate Ralls some more.
“Normally I’d have Way knock open a hole in the wall for us, but it looks like she’s a little busy.” I said.
“We’re trapped here?” Kari asked and coughed on the smoke that was starting to fill the room.
“Not exactly. I just need a few seconds.” I said. “Keep me safe ok?”
I didn’t actually expect that Kari would last more than a half second in a fight against one of the soldiers but I also didn’t expect that either Way or Brayson would let any of the soldiers get within ten feet of her.
Secure in that particular gamble, I closed my eyes and knelt on the floor, drawing a quick circle around myself.
Prelate Temple had excommunicated me and broken my connection to the Dominions. It took years to achieve the necessary spiritual centering to successfully swear yourself to a one Dominion. As a result, divesting someone of those connections was a time consuming process as well.
Normally the priest or priestess to be excommunicated would be held in mystical bondage, forced to wait for one of the Dominion’s holy days. At sunset on the holy day, a ritual would be performed and as the holy day ended, so too would the bond between the defrocked and the Dominion.
For someone like me, who’d be sworn to all Twelve of the Dominions, it could take up to a year for the High Holy Days for each Dominion to roll around. Those were the days that were aligned the most strongly with each Dominion, which meant their sunsets were also the most mystically significant.
Somehow Prelate Temple had bypassed all of that though. A thrice uttered pronouncement and, poof, my connections were gone. That was impossible as far as I knew, which meant I needed to see what was really going on.
Meta-awareness was maddeningly vague when it came to providing the details I wanted. Instead of a rich narrative, I got flashes of insight.
I saw Prelate Temple kneeling before a blindingly vast light. I saw a mark appear on his forehead. I saw fire raging out of his mouth and eyes. With each image there was a hint of meaning too.
The blinding light was the Holy Throne, or the man who sat upon it. The mark that appeared on the Prelate’s forehead was the mandate of the Holy Throne, empowering the Prelate with his mission and his authority, power enough to violate all sorts of laws that defined Vale Septem’s reality. And lastly there was the fire, a symbol of how the light of the Holy Throne was consuming him.
I reached out to the last image, freezing it in place and wrapping it in darkness. When the darkness had dimmed the fires out, I looked into the vision-Prelate’s eyes.
“Are you just a victim in this too?” I asked him in my dreamscape.
In answer he pulled his hand aways back from his chest, shielding a dim light within them. His heart burned with the same fire that I’d seen consuming him.
I frowned. I didn’t like it, but that wasn’t going to change the fact that Prelate Temple wasn’t like the ensorcelled soldiers. He hadn’t been tricked into accepting servitude to the Holy Throne. He’d made his choice knowingly. He’d coveted the power that was offered and had known the price he would pay for it.
I could “save him” and “turn him away from the Holy Throne” except he wouldn’t really be himself anymore. The choice he’d made was a fundamental one. If I changed that choice for him with dream magic, rewrote his reality to be the way I wanted it to be, he’d become no more than a weak reflection of me. Just another kind of puppet.
I pushed those thoughts aside. I’d deal with him, but not like that.
Instead I returned to the image of the Holy Throne and the man who sat on it. The figure was lost in a stellar mass of light and flame in the vision, the great light show serving to obscure his form and face.
I’d turned my meta-awareness on Prelate Temple, so I saw the man who sat on the Holy Throne as the Prelate truly saw him. Power, deep and unfathomable. Whether it was the Throne or the man upon it, I couldn’t tell, but either way I could see that I was looking at the source of the church’s powers.
When young priests and priestesses learned their prayers and aligned their spirits with the Dominions they did so through the auspices of the church. It hadn’t always been like that. Just for the last few decades. Just since the time loop began.
It was another piece to the puzzle, but I couldn’t see how it fit in. What I could see was that the path the church had set for communing with the Dominion’s wasn’t the only way it could be done.
“Kari, I need your help.” I said, opening my eyes.
“What do you need me to do?” she asked, glancing back briefly so that she wouldn’t miss any soldiers that tried to move towards us.
“I need you to tell me a story. And I need to tell you one too.” I said.
“A story? Now?” she asked.
“Yes, about the earth, about the Third Dominion.” I said.
“Because I think I can reconnect to it.” I said.
“But why a story?”
“Because that’s what stories do. They connect us to things and places and people that we’ve never met or been a part of.”
“But I’m not a priestess. I don’t know anything about the Third Dominion.” Kari said.
“Not as a great big magical thing, but it’s a part of you. You’re a part of it. You know the earth. You’ve played in the mud. You’ve eaten the fruits that have grown from the soil. Every piece of you is a part of this world.” I said.
“I don’t know…” she stammered.
Admittedly this was not the most conducive environment for spiritual reflection but sometimes we make due with what we’ve got.
“When I was little I thought that diamonds came from the ground, like any ground, anywhere. I figured people probably had to dig really deep for them, so I told my parents I was going to be a diamond miner and make us all rich. They thought it was funny until they found me in a hole I’d dug that was deeper than I was tall. I was crying because I’d worked for so long and I hadn’t found any diamonds at all.” I said.
That was one of my earliest memories. I could still feel the soft dirt filtering through my fingers as I shifted it for diamonds. I could still smell the clean, earthy scent of all the soil I’d dug up. Looking back, I knew the hole couldn’t have been that big, but at the time I thought I’d dug halfway to the center of the Earth.
“I never did anything like that.” Kari said “But I did find a secret tunnel once. I was out in the woods looking for dewberries and I fell into a pit. Except it wasn’t a pit, it was a tunnel and the ceiling had broken away. It wasn’t natural either. The stone was polished and there were these amazing carvings that I saw. I know it’s silly, but I thought I heard a minotaur in there, so I climbed up the carvings and ran all the way back to town and then kept going to the beach. I thought if I was in the water the minotaur wouldn’t be able to find me.”
I smiled and thought of the minotaur that I knew. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have her along for this “vacation”. Since she wasn’t here though, I was going to have to deal with things myself.
I closed my eyes one more time (which also helped keep out the smoke that was getting a little thick) and let my imagination flow back over Kari’s story. It was simple, like mine had been, but that was ok. Earth could be a simple thing.
The land could hold many secrets, geology showed us that there was a complexity to the Earth that rivaled anything the stars had to offer but, for all that that, earth could be very simple too.
I followed that thought and reached out to the Third Dominion. It wasn’t the Dominion of secrets, or deception or anything esoteric. It was the Dominion of Earth and I was already spiritually centered enough so I simply called to it and it simply answered.
Opening my eyes I felt a surge of triumph and pride. Cheating with dream magic was all well and good, but the connection I had to the Third Dominion was one I’d woven honestly. Better still it was unfettered by any connection to the Holy Throne. They could excommunicate me all they wanted, I’d found my own communion with one of the fundamental powers of the world.
“Time to go!” I shouted, more for Kari and Brayson’s benefit than Way’s.
Then I blasted the roof of the stone tower to tiny grains of sand and ripped the walls down around us, burying them back into the ground.