When I was a kid I took an inexplicable glee in kicking over ugly sand castles. Pretty ones, ones that people had spent time on, those I liked to stare at and imagine myself running around in. There was something precious to them, even if the next high tide was going to wash them away without a trace.
Ugly sand castles though? Ones where kids just dumped a bucket of sand over and then ran away to have fun somewhere else? Those offended me. It was like they were making an artistic statement and all they had to say was “whatever”. I could have done something with the castles, put my own touches on them to improve the looks, they were basically abandoned after all. Instead I’d stomp on them. Smush, and kick, and crush until there was nice smooth sand to start from again. It was mean, but I was little enough that people thought it was cute.
I’d stopped doing that after I lost my Dad. Looking back, I’d withdrawn into myself a lot more than I’d realized. It was hard to kick down sand castles when I felt like the rest of my world was already falling apart.
The stompy part of me wasn’t wholly lost though. It gave a tiny shout of joy as I called on the Third Dominion for a stone shaping spell and ripped down the stone tower we were trapped in.
For a moment, in the wake of the building being sucked back into the earth, the fighting froze.
Generally speaking, destroying a castle wall or a stone tower wasn’t something most Earth casters could manage and even the ones that could needed a while to cast the spell. If the Prelates were paying attention, I’d just given them a huge clue that I wasn’t actually from this world.
I didn’t care. With another twist of my hand to direct the spell I sunk both Ralls and Temple into the earth, burying them alive. It was a temporary measure at best. I knew neither one of them would take more than a minute to extricate themselves, but even thirty seconds would buy us enough time to get away from them. Add to that the confusion of the fire and smoke and we had a decent shot at escaping without them being able to follow us.
Not that escape looked like a simple option. Without the walls to keep them out, we had quite a few more soldiers to worry about. On the positive side though, smoke had flooded over us when the walls dropped so the entire area we were in was obscured.
“Well now it’s just no fun.” Way complained via dream speech, sending along the visual of her and Brayson dropping the nearest dozen soldiers who’d lost sight of them when the smoke rolled in.
They were making better headway thanks to the concealment but we still couldn’t fight the army indefinitely. Not without things getting ugly fast. That meant the key question was figuring out where we could retreat to. Thanks to what I’d done to the sanctuary spell, nowhere nearby was safe anymore. Not for us, not for the army, not for anyone.
“Priestess Jin, come this way.” I heard a woman’s voice say. We hadn’t spoken much during the dinner but between memory and meta-awareness I recognized her as Helena, Watch Commander Brayson’s wife. Also the town blacksmith as I recalled, and a retired adventurer herself. Given the state of the armies camp I had to wonder if “retired” was all that accurate of a description though.
Leading Kari along with me, I called back to Way via dream speech.
“Helena is here. I think we have her to thank for the fires. She’s got a safe place in mind. Can you disengage?” I asked.
“The Watch Commander is already leading me out. He knows she’s here and what her plan is. I think they have a telepathy spell going.” Way replied.
“Any problems with rest of the soldiers?” I asked.
“Yes. They’re ruining our vacation.” she said. I could feel her smirk of confidence underlying her words.
“Try not to punish them too harshly, it’s Prelate Ralls who’s at fault for what they’re doing.” I said.
“I know. Figured you would handle her.”
“Kari saw to that. Temporarily.” I said, sending the image of Kari skewering Ralls with a thrown thunder spear.
“How long do we have before she shakes that off?”
“We surprised them. They’re not going to want to send the troops in until they have a handle on what we can do, but they’re under serious time pressure too. So maybe an hour before they’ve pulled the camp back into shape and put together a plan? Oh, I buried the Prelates too, that might give us an extra minute or two.” I said.
“You buried them? I take it you’ve given up on the ‘talk them out of this’ option?”
“Think it was too soon?” I asked.
“Professor Haffrun might say so, but I was hoping you would do that the minute Ralls opened her mouth.” Way said.
“Who knows, maybe they’ll respond to force better that reason?”
“With the way they treated us, I don’t think they have room to get any angrier.” Way said.
The sound of an immense detonation knocked Helena, Kari and I off our feet.
It was followed by the kind of scream that I’d heard all too often in the last two years. Something inhuman had woken up and, given the way our luck went, was almost certainly eager to eat us. I racked my brain to come up with what new monstrosity might want a piece of us and then I remembered the summoning gate.
The one that Ralls had activated. The one she’d linked to the demon world. The one that I’d broken the wards on by stepping out of the circle. The one that hadn’t been shut down. Oh and the one that wasn’t in an area with an active sanctuary spell anymore!
I swore, loudly, and stopped in place.
“What was that? Are you ok?” Way asked.
I answered in dream speech and regular speech so that Kari and Helena would know what was happening too.
“The summoning gate they put us in. There’s demons breaking through it. I’ve got to go back there and shut it down.” I explained.
Two more detonations sounded nearby, but not in the same direction as the first.
“Oh you gotta be kidding me!” I complained.
“What’s wrong?” Kari asked.
“It’s too late to shut the gate down. The first demons through it were summoners. They’re making more gates.”
“They can’t get to us. The sanctuary spell will keep them out of the town.” Helena said.
“No it won’t. It’s not there anymore.” I said.
“What? How do you know?” Helena asked.
“The Shadow Breakers took control of it. I’ll explain the whole thing later. Right now we need to stop those demons.”
“Won’t they have to fight the soldiers first?” Kari asked.
“Maybe. Probably. That Unity Spell is potent. Maybe enough to prevent any possessions.” I said.
“The Prelates are still alive correct?” Helena asked. I nodded in response. “Then we’ll be fighting the army and the demons. The Prelates will use them the same way they’re using those men.” Helena said.
“The Unity Spell requires a willing subject though.” I said.
“There’s a version that doesn’t. It burns out the recipient much faster but I’ve seen them use it before.” Helena said, her expression grim.
“Would it work on Greater Demons?” I asked. Not that a Greater Demon should be able to fit through a summoning gate like the one Ralls activated but given how our day was going it made sense to ask.
“I don’t know. But if a Greater Demon is here, we have much worse problems than the Shadow Breakers to worry about.” Helena said. Greater Demons were the Generals of Hell. Meta-awareness gave me a flash of insight as I looked at Helena. She’d fought them before. Not many mortals could claim that and none who did walked away from the battles unscarred.
“What are we going to do?” Kari asked. She wasn’t panicked. She was distant. Her eyes were focused far away, but she was looking at something deep inside herself. Some loop of imagination or new connection of ideas forming. If I didn’t know better I’d say she looked like me when I was focusing on my meta-awareness.
“We’re going to fight.” Helena said.
“We who?” Kari asked, though her tone suggested that she already knew the answer.
“All of us.” Helena said.
She lead Kari and I out of the camp just as Brayson and Way emerged from the smoke via another path. Across the border to the town, on the other side of the checkpoint that the army had set up, I saw a great crowd of people waiting for us.
A small squad of soldiers still manned the checkpoint and were warning off the assembled townsfolk who had gathered about fifty yards away from them. In the soldier’s favor, the townsfolk had only ‘gathered’, meaning they hadn’t yet been incited to anything more violent than loud insults.
As a whole, the people of Dawns Harbor were a reasonably pious lot. The church provided them with a number of benefits and took from them a painful, but not crippling, portion of their wealth. It wasn’t a terrible deal as such deals went in the Empire.
That garnered a certain amount of appreciation from the populace. There were some who took their piety even further though, sometimes all the way into blind devotion. Caina, Kari’s former boss, the one who’d fired her for serving us, was among that number. Standing before us was the section of the populace from the other end of the spectrum.
Fishers and pack drivers were pious in their own way, but that piety didn’t extend far enough to cover groups like that Shadow Breakers. Somehow the Shadow Breaker’s campaign of terror against the populace hadn’t inspired a lot of loyalty in those who’d been most affected by it. Hard to believe but people are funny like that sometimes.
The soldiers were so focused on the crowd in front of them that they didn’t even notice Way and Brayson approaching them. Roughly two seconds later the last of soldiers was a twitching, tasered, non-threat on the ground. It hadn’t been a fight and it hadn’t been fair. They were still alive and salvageable though so any complaints they might have had about being bushwhacked they could take up with someone who cared.
“I thought you were going to ‘talk’ with them.” Colten said. He’s been one of the two leaders of the crowd. The other was Marcus. They’d stepped forward to talk to the soldiers while the crowd that came with them lingered safely outside of easy spear throwing range.
Apparently the two of them had convinced the fishers and the pack drivers that rather than getting drunk and fighting each other, they could get drunk and fight the army. How they made that sound like a bright idea was beyond me. My diplomatic skills certainly weren’t up to the task, but then they’d both had a lot of practice manipulating these particular crazy people.
“We did.” Brayson said.
“That’s a lot of commotion for a conversation.” Colten observed.
“They said some things I disagreed with.” I said.
“We have a problem. Priestess Jin says they’ve opened a demon gate.” Helena cut in.
“Several actually. Summoner demons were the first ones through the gate Prelate Ralls activated.” I said.
“Demons? The sanctuary spell will shred them.” Colten scoffed.
“No it won’t. It’s gone.” I said.
“I was afraid of that. The Prelates took control of it, but they messed it up while they were holding us with it.” Brayson said.
Colten growled and put his years collecting profanities as a sailor to work.
The sanctuary spell was the carrot that the church had held over the town since it’s inception. It was one bit of church magic that even the most rebellious of souls had to admit was worth the cost. It didn’t excuse the church’s excesses but for Colten and people like him it was the reason they had avoided striking back against the injustices which they’d seen for years.
It was really and truly tempting to allow them to believe that the Prelates had broken the sanctuary spell. It would unite the entire town, and get them all on “our side”. We’d be seen as heroes for opposing the Shadow Breakers, rather than eyed with suspicion the way we had been. It wouldn’t even entirely be a lie. It was the Prelates fault that the sanctuary spell had been broken.
“They weren’t the ones who destroyed it.” I said. “I was.”
The lie was oh so tempting, but I knew the truth would come out eventually and when it did, it would destroy any trust Colten and the rest had in us.
“What? Why?” Helena breathed beside me. The rest were silent.
“Because the Prelates were going to use it to kill us all.” Kari said.
“Kill us?” Colten asked.
“Actually it was worse than that. They took control of the sanctuary away from the Watch Commander and were going to “purify” him using an Eternity Cauldron.” I said, drawing the name of the abominable magic item from meta-awareness. “Then they were going to do the same to Kari, Way and I and then everyone else in town.”
“What’s an Eternity Cauldron?” Colten asked.
“You’ve seen the Blessing of Unity that Prelate Ralls used on the soldiers? How it gave them all her mind and will? The cauldron does the same, except it does it permanently.” I said.
“That’s insane!” Helena said.
“It is. As bad as they are, they couldn’t do something like that to an entire town. People wouldn’t stand for it.” Colten said.
“Yes they would.” Kari said. “The church would just say that the governors of the town had been corrupted by dark forces and had spread the possession through the rest of the town.”
I saw a sick expression flicker over the faces of the adults present.
“They’ve done that before haven’t they?” I asked, guessing that it was true.
“Gold Wood.” Marcus said, joining the conversation.
“That was different. They burned those people.” Colten said, but his voice lacked certainty.
“Did they? Gold Wood wasn’t a large village and no one has been allowed in there since the purge.” Marcus said. “But that’s not important, the point is they’ve destroyed whole villages before.”
“A village is one thing, but there’s over two thousand people living here. How would they do that?” Colten asked.
“With an army of five hundred enspelled soldiers, three Prelates and control of the sanctuary spell.” I said. It made a terrible kind of sense. With the forces they had, they would easily be able to “process” a town of two thousand through the Cauldron, even if the townsfolk were warned and resisted.
“Why though? It doesn’t make sense.” Colten said.
“They need an army.” Way said.
“It looks like they have an army.” Colten pointed out.
“An expendable one.” Way added.
“How do you figure that?” Colten asked.
“They brought a tool capable of making combat golems out of ordinary people.” Way said.
“How could an entire town be expendable?” Helena asked, appalled at the thought.
“If they felt that the town was lost anyways, or if whatever they’re actually after would mean the difference between them staying in power or losing it. People can find ways to justify doing almost anything under those circumstances.” I said.
“Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t change our immediate problem. Without a sanctuary spell, we don’t have a chance.” Brayson said.
“We can fight the demons.” I said.
“It’s not the demons.” Marcus said. “It’s every creature from every dark corner. Tonight. Tomorrow. For all the days to come. There’s no more safety here. We can’t stay. What happens with the army is irrelevant now. Dawns Harbor is dead.”