Social order takes a while to build. It involves a lot of compromises. People need a time to work out the rules that govern their behavior as a group. Violence can play a role in sorting that but more often expectations are communicated in subtle ways.
I looked around the room at the stunned people who surrounded me. As it turns out, promising to destroy the cornerstone of their society and faith wasn’t a particularly subtle move.
“Now you can’t hold the actions of a rogue bishop against…” Pastor Peracles began to say but was cut off by Grida.
“The Shadow Breakers are not the whole of the church. You can’t judge all of the good people in it by the evil you’ve seen in them.” There was raw fear in her eyes. She’d been afraid I was some Elder Abomination from Beyond Time and Space before I’m promised to destroy one of the corners of her world. She was right on all but one of those counts (I’m not that old). The thought of what I could do had her quite rightly terrified, except that my actual intentions weren’t as apocalyptic as she was imagining.
“That seems like a tall order even for someone of your skills.” Colten said. He believed that because he didn’t know what my skills actually were.
“It may be that the Throne must fall, but must the good souls who have held faith with it suffer too?” Maak asked. He was a man adrift, so, unlike Colten, he was ready to believe almost anything. He raised a good point though.
I wasn’t going to destroy Vale Septem or even the Empire of the Holy Throne but any actions I took against the current resident of the Holy Throne would have ramifications for all who lived under its aegis.
When I’d shattered the sanctuary spell on Dawns Harbor, it had been for the best of reasons, to prevent an atrocity from being committed on everyone who lived there. Even with that good intention though I’d nearly damned the town to abandonment. What I was proposing doing to the Holy Throne would be several orders of magnitude worse than that.
Without the sanctuary spell, there hadn’t been any safety in Dawns Harbor. Without the Holy Throne there wouldn’t be any safety for anyone in the Empire and, if my guess was correct, anyone else in the rest of the world either.
A quick glimpse at my meta-awareness confirmed that. The Empire held back some of the darkest terrors that were buried in the world. They’d accumulated there over the thousands of loops of time the world had been through. Tearing down the Holy Throne would free them from their slumber and their bonds allowing them to rampage uncontrollably.
“Destroying the Holy Throne is worse that you know, but the alternative is worse than you can imagine.” I told them. None of what was occurring should have happened from what Way and I had been told. History was running off its tracks and the Holy Throne was at the center of it. The risk of unleashing a horde of terrors on the world paled in comparison to allowing the world to shatter completely.
Kari turned to me, her eyes wide and her breathing fast and irregular. She was caught in the grips of a vision.
“Unending life.” she whispered.
“That is the promise given us by the Dominions.” Pastor Peracles said.
“Not for us. For him. For the Holy Throne. We burn. We dissolve. Fed to him across aeons.” she said. She shook her head as the vision broke and clutched onto my arms, curling up against me for comfort while the horror of the vision drained out of her. Meta-awareness didn’t offer true precognition, but it did allow you to glimpse possible futures and get a rough sense of how likely they were. It came as no surprise that there were terrible ones that were likely enough for Kari to have stumbled on. I put an arm around her and turned to the others.
“I told you that I’d put my cards on the table and let you decide what was to be done for Dawns Harbor. I guess it’s time I do that.” I said.
“You also said that only those who will bear the cost of a decision should be the ones to make it.” Maak said.
“Yeah. I know. What does that tell you?” I said.
“That either you are a hypocrite or that you intend to bear cost of destroying the Holy Throne yourself.” Maak said, unafraid of offending me.
“I can’t claim I’m not a hypocrite sometimes, but in this case it’s the latter of those options.” I said.
“And how will you accomplish these miracles?” Colten asked. He’d seen what Way had done first hand but what I was talking about went far beyond that.
“I’m going to talk to him.” I said.
“You’re going to talk the Most High Emissary of the Holy Throne to death?” Colten asked. “Grida, you know I trust your judgment. More than I trust my own. But this is madness isn’t it?”
“It is madness, but not the kind you think.” I said. “I’m not from this world. Healer Grida, you worked that out yesterday didn’t you?”
“Yes.” she said. She was still as stone but her body language was all defensive.
“Was it when you saw me healing the Pastor?” I asked.
“No, though that confirmed it. It was when I went to the battle site. Sir Way’s sigil is like nothing I’ve ever seen, but it was the Cauldron that you sank into to the earth that gave me the clue.” she said.
“The cauldron? You didn’t unearth it did you?” I asked. It wouldn’t work unless someone followed the proper rituals but they were pretty easy to figure out.
“No. I couldn’t. My magics couldn’t affect it. But yours could. I tried to study it but what I saw…”, she swallowed, forcing back disgust before resuming. “That thing should not be. ”
“You’re right. And she’s right to be concerned. “ I said addressing Colten briefly before turning back to Grida, “What you saw in the cauldron? That’s a part of me as well. It’s something that has no place in this world or any other. I carry that emptiness within me because of a rash decision I made, but it’s not all that’s within me.” I said.
“What are you.” she asked.
“I am a sixteen year old girl. I’m a grandmaster cleric with more skill at spellcraft than any cleric who has ever lived. I’m warrior who can fight any two men alive and come out unharmed. And I’m a student who’s supposed to be studying for her exams but was kind of planning to goof off for a few weeks and take it easy in a quiet little seaside town until everything almost literally went to hell.”
“But what are you?” Grida pressed.
I hestitated. I didn’t want to have to explain any more. I didn’t want to risk awakening anyone else. Not when they’d be faced with the same choice that Kari was. Not when there was a chance that I wouldn’t be able to be there for them. Not when they might turn out to the kind of monster that I saw lurking in the mirror when I was feeling at my lowest.
“She’s a child Grida. A powerful one maybe, but you told me yourself that she wasn’t wearing any illusions. She’s not any older than we were when we first set out.” Colten said.
“I said she hadn’t cast any illusions from the Seventh Dominion on herself. That doesn’t mean what we’re seeing here is real.” Grida replied to Colten and then turned back to me again. “What are you.”
If I was a spirit I would have been compelled to answer by the magics she’d woven into the thrice spoken question. As a young girl the magics held no power over me, but Grida’s words did.
She wasn’t asking me what I was because she wanted to banish me. She didn’t believe she had the power to and she had no desire to learn that for certain. She was asking me what I was because she wanted to trust me again.
As an adventurer, Grida had seen monsters aplenty lurking in the unknown corners of the world. In her experience unknown things that held power were more often than not deadly threats. Monsters didn’t act like I did though. For one thing they did a better job of pretending to be normal.
I looked at Grida one more time, weighing my decision consciously. I wanted them to trust me. That meant trusting them in turn.
“What you see of me is real.” I said as I stood up.
“But so is this…” I reached into my dreams and changed to one of my other selves. In the place of Priestess Jin, a goblin with blue skin and the most clever needle hook fingers stood.
“And so is this…” A twirl and I was a pirate lass.
“And this…” One more twirl and I was a giant spider, a hunter, and they looked just a little bit tasty.
Colten was on his feet a split second before Maak, though to be fair the younger knight was still badly wounded. Peracles reflexively threw shielding spells on everyone present, including Kari I was happy to see.
Where the men were on the verge of panic, Grida and Kari sat calmly.
Kari was looking at me with an unconcerned expression. Her head was tilted to one side as though she was evaluating an interesting looking bug, which in a sense I suppose she was. Meta-awareness was almost certainly telling her that the giant spider was no more a threat than the girl who’d she’d been sitting next too.
Grida on the other hand was smiling. I clicked my mandibles together in the spider’s gesture of agreeable fraternity. It was like a smile but with more sense of ‘I’m not going to eat you right now, perhaps we can hunt together?”
Predictably the humans didn’t seem to understand it. Except the little one. She chomped her teeth together in a response. That translated to “the bugs are rotting well”. A happy child’s response.
As tempting as it was to stay in the comfortable simplicity enjoyed by giant spiders, I twirled once more and returned to the girl that I was. I felt myself blur a bit as I did and had to hold fast to fabric of reality around me. Dream magics, even purely personal ones like transformations, still ran the risk of sweeping me away into the Dreamlit world.
“How did you do that?” Pastor Peracles asked, dropping the shields that he’d raised.
“Those forms were all as real as the girl you see before you now. There was no magic, or at least none as you think of it, in my changing between them. They’re a part of who I am. I can shift between them because I can control what is real and what is unreal. I’m a dreamlord, that’s what I do. It’s what I am.” I said.
“You’re like a living Dominion.” Grida said.
“Not exactly. And not here at any rate. The Dominions can influence and create magic in this world a whole lot easier than I can. They’re ‘of’ this world. They’re fundamental to it. I’m a lot more limited because my powers aren’t ‘real’ here. I can cheat a bit at things – that’s why I’m so good at magic for example – but doing anything big, like wishing away the Holy Throne, would mean that reality would probably wish me away too.” I said.
“Can you teach us? If it meant restoring the proper balance to the world, I would eagerly pay the price you speak of.” Maak said.
“It’s not that simple I’m afraid. None of this is real. That aspect of me that you saw? It’s not real. Becoming what I am, would mean that as far as this world was concerned you wouldn’t be real either.” I said.
“How are you standing here then?” Colten asked.
“I told the world a story of who I wanted to be. I spoke to it of ‘Priestess Jin’ and convinced it to let me be a part of it. That takes a while though and this world doesn’t have that long to wait.”
“What fate do you foresee for us?” Grida asked.
“I can’t see the future, but I know the general path that its supposed to follow. For some reason the Holy Throne has broken the world off that path. Drastically so. If I’m right, the ‘Most High Emissary of the Holy Throne’ as you call him, is going to keep escalating and given that he has implements like the cauldron and enough power to provide sanctuary to the entire Empire I don’t think it’s going to take him long to push the world to a breaking point.” I said.
“So what are we to do about it?” Pastor Peracles asked.
“That’s for you to decide. I can offer you options. I can tell you what my plans are. I can even give you the mystical insights I have that might not, strictly speaking, be reasonable for a Priestess to have access too. What I can’t do though is tell you what to do. Your fate is your own.” I said.
I looked to Grida and Colten to see where we went next. I expected them to deliberate more. I thought I’d made reasonable points, but it was always hard to tell when people were in the mood to be reasonable versus when they were too scared to appear otherwise.
What I didn’t expect was to see a veil of invisibility slide away as Brayson spoke up.
“I think I’ve heard enough.” the Watch Commander said.
“I agree.” Helena said as the veil dropped away from her as well.
I blinked. Meta-awareness hadn’t pinged at all that they were hidden and listening to us. The stealth spell they were under was impressive. Meta-awareness can be very spotty when I’m not actively looking for something, but even so I usually picked up on people lurking invisibly near me for an extended period of time. I looked at Helena, curious what else I might have missed, but it was clear that she wasn’t a dream walker. She was just that good at stealth magics.
In a sense it was flattering. Grida had clearly convinced them that I was potentially dangerous. So Helena and Brayson had hidden themselves when I came into the room and let Grida and Colten do the talking. If it had turned out that Grida’s fears were justified they would have been in the best position possible to end me before I could do any harm.
That Helena had dropped the veil was a good sign too. If she’d decided against me, I knew I wouldn’t have seen the first glimpse of her before she struck.
“We’ve known this day was coming for a long time Grida.” Brayson said.
“And better that it be today than some distant tomorrow when the problem has passed to those who follow us.” Helena said.
“Aye, let their hopes and dreams be for a brighter tomorrow. The tyranny of the Holy Chamberpot is our problem to deal with. Let’s make our legacy one those who have gone before us will be proud of.” Colten said.
Grida looked at her friends, tears welling in her eyes. In a small voice she began to whisper the words to an ancient pledge.
“Though the foes before us rise to the sky…”
“Though they blot out the sun and overshadow the moon and the stars…” Colten answered.
“Though we are lost in the shadow of death…” Brayson continued.
“ …and all hope has fled…” Helena continued.
They paused for a moment, as though waiting for other, missing, voices to fill in the remaining words of the pledge.
“Together we shall stand.” Marcus said as he descended the stairs and joined the group. By their expressions his arrival was utterly unexpected. Nonetheless they all joined in speaking the rest of the pledge.
“Together we shall fight. And together shall we prevail.”
They all joined hands in the center of the circle they stood in. Pastor Peracles and Sir Maak reached in as well and, at Grida’s silent invitation, Kari and I did too.
With a final, wordless cry we raised our hands and broke apart.
“We said this was behind us. That it belonged to the younger generation.” Grida said, wiping her eyes.
“Like the younger generation could ever measure up to us?” Colten said, a wide smile beaming on his face.
“From what I heard the little Priestess over there could take you three falls for three old man.” Brayson said.
“Maybe two falls out of three.” I offered. “I doubt anyone gets that gray haired without picking up at least a few sneaky tricks.”
“When this is over Priestess, I’ll be sure to teach you some of them.” Colten promised.
“For now, we have weightier matters to consider.” Brayson said, as he drew out a map and gestured for everyone to gather around it.
The War Council had begun.