As a kid I was terrified of the darkness. When I grew up, I learned to be terrified of other, more concrete, things for a while. Then I awoke as a dream walker and met some of the things that lurked in the deep darks. They were worse than anything I’d imagined while I was hiding under my covers in bed. I should have been terrified of them, but insteading of becoming afraid of them again, I changed. I ‘woke up’ fully. That’s what it means to be a dreamlord. I wasn’t afraid of the monsters in the dark. I’d become something for them to be afraid of.
That’s one path that a dream walker can travel.
In the darkness of the illusion I’d cast, I watched Kari search for the direction she would take. It was possible that she’d walk a path like mine. Or, faced with the infinite unknown of the dreaming, she might very well chose to turn away from the Dreamlit world entirely and return to her ‘real’ life. Either way, she’d have my support. I couldn’t leave her alone. Without someone else to lean on, at least occasionally, it’s all too easy to fall onto a path you never want to walk.
When faced with monsters, the greatest temptation is to become monsters ourselves. I’d made that choice too and I bore the scars within me as a result. I’d been saved from becoming something I hated by my brother, and from disappearing entirely by Way. Kari wasn’t under the same kind of stress that I was when I awoke, but that only meant that she’d become her own kind of monster if she couldn’t reach beyond her fears.
I let the illusion of darkness fade, and the bungalow we were in came back into view.
“You don’t need to chose one side or the other. Not yet.” I told her.
“But you can answer my questions right?” she asked.
“Most of them.”
“Ok.” she said and then quietly added, “There was more than darkness there, wasn’t there?”
“Yes.” I agreed. I didn’t say any more though. What lay hidden in the darkness for me wasn’t the same as what she would find there.
“I need to think about this for a bit.” she said, gazing inwards once more.
“Why don’t you sleep on it? This has been a long and crazy day.” I suggested.
Kari blinked and her focus came back to the bungalow.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep. It feels like my head is caught in a storm.” she said.
“Give it a try. I’ll be here to catch any nightmares that try to sneak out.” I said.
“Nightmares?” Kari asked.
“Yeah. You’re not fully in control of your magic yet so sometimes it can get out and cause problems on its own. That usually happens when you’re sleeping and you kick out a bad dream in favor of a good one.”
“And you’ll stop them? Won’t you be asleep too?” she asked.
“No, I’ll being standing watch. Way bought us some time, but I don’t trust either the Holy Throne or the demons to have learned their lesson. They’re going to move against us again and I want to be able to react when they do.”
“Won’t you be really tired though?”
“I know some tricks that’ll help.” I said, specifically ones where I’d be able to split my awareness, and sleep with one part of my mind while remaining alert with the other. I’d gotten well practiced at that in order to be able to deal with problems in the Dreamlit world without totally spacing out in the waking world.
I settled into one of the bungalow’s beach chairs while Kari curled up on the bed.
“I’m probably going to be awake for hours.” she said.
Five minutes later she was out like light.
To my great surprise, the night then proceeded to pass uneventfully.
Several hours after the sun came up, Kari finally stirred and looked around, all bleary-eyed and confused.
“Good morning. How’d you sleep.” I said, stirring and stretching myself.
“I dreamed I had the day off from work. It was wonderful.” she said, still blinking and fuzzy.
“Well, good news on that front!” I said.
Kari blinked again and came to full wakefulness.
“Oh wow. Yesterday was all real wasn’t it?” she asked.
“Yeah, pretty much.” I admitted. “You did a good job with your dreams too btw.”
“What do you mean?”
“You had a few nightmares – you were tossing and turning – but it didn’t look like you had any problem dealing with them.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Most people don’t. Waking up to find your nightmare is real on the hand? That tends to stick with you for a while.” I said.
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Depends. Usually it happens only once, one way or the other.” I said.
Kari shivered at the implication.
“We should see how Healer Grida is doing with the pastor and Sir Maak.” I said.
“Think she’ll have breakfast for us?” Kari asked.
“Better chance than at Caina’s place.”
Sadly by the time we arrived at the church’s Under Chapel, breakfast was being cleared away. Grida, Colten, Pastor Peracles and Maak were the only ones there but they’d managed to polish off what looked to have been a half dozen bounteous plates of fruits and cheeses.
“Priestess Jin! and Kari! We were just talking about you girls.” Colten said as we entered the temporary infirmary.
“Sir Maak was hoping to see Sir Way as well.” Grida said.
“I’m sorry, she’s left and won’t be able to return here for quite a while.” I explained, for Maak’s benefit.
“Then allow me to extend my apologies to you alone for now. When next we meet I shall apologize to Sir Way as well.” Maak said. He looked gray and weak from the blood loss but there was an animating spark in him that seemed to want to leap out of his recovery bed and storm off onto an adventure immediately.
“What would you have to apologize to Way and I for?” I asked.
“In piety, I was led astray and behaved in a less than civil fashion to you both. I have seen that my piety was misplaced and that you were never worthy of the disdain which I showed to you.” Maak said.
I was taken aback by that. In my experience people changed their views very slowly. An overnight change of heart was more often the result of a traumatic head injury than self reflection. Of course given Maak’s current physical condition I couldn’t rule out the traumatic head injury possibility.
“Was that why you came to our bungalow last night?” I asked, knowing it couldn’t have been the reason. The last thing someone who was slowly bleeding out would be concerned with was saying sorry for being impolite to a pair of strangers.
“No. I came to see you because I believe you are at the crux of great events. Ones that are reshaping the world. From speaking with Healer Grida and Pastor Peracles this morning I am more convinced than ever of the truth of that.”
“What ‘great events are reshaping the world’?” I asked.
“I do not know. I had hoped to learn that from you and Sir Way. I seek only to discern what my role in them might be.”
I turned to Grida and Colten. They didn’t look quite as comfortable as Maak was with the idea of me playing a central role in changing the world.
“It’s true that I’m not just a simple priestess. You’ve guessed that much already I think. I can’t explain everything about myself, but I’ll lay as many of my cards on the table as I can.” I said. “I think Maak’s right and there is something major happening, something that wasn’t supposed to. I can help, maybe, but Dawns Harbor is your town. How do you want to handle this?”
I could have made suggestions. I could have made demands for that matter. Neither seemed like a winning strategy though. Grida was already concerned that I was some kind of eldritch abomination. Anything I suggested she’d have to be skeptical of. Under other circumstances that would be fine. I’d met a lot of my friends in situations that gave them good reason to be suspicious of me and had won them over by slowly building trust with them. While we weren’t under immediate attack, something told me I wasn’t going to have a lot of time to work with once the Holy Throne decided to come back for round two.
“That’s the other thing we were talking about.” Colten said.
“We do not seem to have many options open to us.” Pastor Peracles said.
“That’s something I can help with.” I said.
“You’ll provide options and we’ll choose one?” Grida asked.
“That doesn’t make sense. Jin understands what’s happening better than any of us. Why not have her pick what’s best?” Kari said.
“Best for who?” I asked. “Any course of action will involve some sacrifices. I could chose for you, but I have the least invested here. I could take command of the town, but you’ve already got excellent leaders here. One’s who will be bearing the burden of any sacrifices that are chosen in a way I never could.”
Maak laughed and then winced in pain as the laughter pulled on his wounds. The rest of us looked at him in varying degrees of confusion.
“I am a fool.” Maak said. The humor that colored his words was betrayed by a catch in his voice.
“After our dinner engagement, I was convinced we’d found two of the Diabolists we were searching for. I thought it so strange that the Bishop wouldn’t allow me to pursue you. Gahn and I…” Maak’s voice trailed off, his jaw hard set against some painful memory.
“Sir Gahn had a more charitable view of my behavior I imagine?” I said.
Maak’s mouth stretched into a bitter smile.
“Gahn’s view of everyone was charitable.” Maak said.
“What happened on your expedition?” I ask, softening my voice.
“Disaster.” Maak said. “We set off at first light and made excellent time. The Bishop kept us to the major trade roads so that we could reach Dancing River, the goblin border town, as fast as possible. Gahn and I were told that the corruption was widespread and to alert the Bishop to the sightings of any goblins that the expedition encountered.”
“The luck of the Dominions was on us, because we encountered no one as we trekked to Dancing River. I don’t know if they were warned of us or if fate felt a rare moment of kindness. Most likely the latter. If the goblins known of us and our aim, events would have transpired very differently.It wasn’t until we reached the town that the Bishop informed us of our true objective you see.” Maak said.
“You weren’t there to hunt a rogue group of Diabolists.” I said. It wasn’t a guess. Meta-awareness was filling the story in for me as fast as Maak was telling it. I felt a cold pit opening in the bottom of my stomach.
“No. Our orders were clear. We were to annihilate the town. No quarter given for any living thing that we could find.” Maak said.
“That’s an act of war!” Grida said.
“It’s more than that. It’s a violation of the vows the knights had sworn to uphold. You two couldn’t obey an order like that, could you?” Colten asked.
“No. We couldn’t. Except under one condition. If there living things within the town had all fallen to darkness, if they were beyond redemption, then…then we could grant them the final mercy.” Anger and pain warred behind the rigid mask of Maak’s features.
“Gahn objected of course. By which I mean he threw a screaming fit at the Bishop. Rask was immovable though. The Most High Emissary of Holy Throne himself had given Rask the orders. The Bishop would not see them questioned or disobeyed.” Maak said.
“Based on my experience, I’m surprised he allowed any such backtalk.” Pastor Peracles observed.
“Gahn was too strong.” I said, understanding flowing through me. “Rask’s force was small. A lot of it depended on Sir Gahn, Sir Maak and the experience of their troops. Rask couldn’t afford to geas Gahn like he did you. Gahn would fight the geas and be either less effective in fighting the goblins or he’d break the geas and then slay Rask on the spot.”
“I’m not sure the Bishop was capable of being as rational as you describe. Gahn was though. He saw something change in Rask and let the matter drop after confirming that the Holy Throne had personally ordered the annihilation and that there would be no stain on our honor whatever the outcome was.” Maak said. “I think that’s why Rask relented and believed him. Gahn had to appear as hungry for the approval of his superiors as the Bishop was.”
“Aye, that sounds like the Bishop to me.” Colten agreed. “So what stopped Rask from ordering the slaughter immediately?”
“Gahn suggested that he lead a small team into the Dancing River to ‘cut off the town’s chief shaman from providing them aid’.” Maak said.
“Knight’s don’t make the best assassins.” Colten observed.
“No, we don’t. Rask was delighted with the plan though. I think he was afraid of matching his power against the Chief Shaman’s.”
“That makes sense, Bishops aren’t front line battle casters. He would have been at a disadvantage against the Shaman even if he had better overall skills at spellcrafting.” I said.
“What happened next?”, Kari asked.
“I don’t know. I knew that Gahn wasn’t going into Dancing River to kill the Shaman. Not unless the town really was overtaken by darkness.” Maak said. “What I suspect happened is that Gahn met with the Chief Shaman, was convinced they weren’t servants of the Underworld and warned the Shaman of the attack that was coming. He was probably introduced to the Voice of the Blind God after that.”
“Who’s the Voice of the Blind God?” I asked.
“Again, I don’t know for certain, but I believe she was the one we were sent there to kill.” Maak said.
“That didn’t happen though.” I said, again seeing the story play out before Maak could relate it.
“No. When Gahn and his strike team didn’t return, Rask ordered us all in for a lightning fast attack on the town.” Maak paused there, a wave of bitterness rolling over him. “I’m not proud of what happened next. Even mad with grief, I shouldn’t have consented to lead that charge. You have to understand though, when Gahn didn’t return, I could picture only one reason for his absence.”
“You thought the Shaman had killed him.” I whispered, understanding more than just what had happened, understanding what Gahn meant to Maak. I felt a twinge in my own heart and a desperate longing for Way. There weren’t many reasons I would willing turn into a monster, but I could understand how the thought of losing Gahn had done that for Maak.
“Or corrupted him. Either way, my rage…I was lost. We fought our way through the town, slaughtering the defenders that stood against us. Thanks the heavens that Gahn had warned them though. That at least meant that the young and the old and the weak weren’t laid before us.” Maak said.
“We carved a path to the center of town, to where Rask and I could sense the Shaman working a strong magic. It was a portal through which the town was being evacuated. The remnants of the goblin militia stood to guard it from us and at their lead was Gahn and his men.”
“I screamed when I saw him, because I knew, knew with the certainly of someone who has completely abandoned reason, that he’d been corrupted. I didn’t see him there. Not really. All I saw was a devil wearing a suit made from the man I loved most in the world.” Maak breathed a great deep breath to expel some of the pain that gripped him.
“We fought. Oh heavens above we fought. I lost track of the rest of the battle. I hurt him so terribly. Twice as bad, or three times as bad as he hurt me, or maybe a thousand times, I don’t know. All I knew was that I needed to destroy this abomination that was before me.”
“In the end…in the end the heavens were merciful at last. He cast me down. My strength was gone. I was helpless before the monster that had taken my love. And then he knelt down and spoke to me. He kissed me on my ruined lips and on my slashed forehead and on the very tip of my nose. He said that he knew I couldn’t believe him, but that he still loved me. He said that we’d fallen into something much bigger than we could imagine and that the little goblin girl he’d been defending was the key to righting a fundamental wrong in the Holy Throne. She was the Voice of the Blind God. The last thing that he told me before he cast a spell of healing slumber over me was that I should seek out you, Priestess Jin and your companion Sir Way. The two of you, Gahn believed, were a part of this great change as well.” Maat said.
The room was silent while we absorbed Maak’s story.
The Goblin King had sent Andromalacles to call on me in the afternoon. That would have been after Dancing River was evacuated. After Maak and Gahn had fought. The King had known what had happened at Dancing River and had decided only then to reach out to me. Why? Because he didn’t know which side I was on before that. Not until Gahn had told him about my row with Bishop Rask.
“Sir Gahn was right.” I said. “Way and I weren’t at the center of this, but we do have a role to play. Way did her part by buying us time. There are a lot of things I still don’t understand, but I can see one thing clearly that I’m going to do.”
“What’s that?” Grida asked.
“I’m going to destroy the Holy Throne.”