It’s easy to avoid worrying too much when I’m busy. My imagination gets wrapped up in whatever is keeping me busy. It’s the quiet lulls in between things going wrong where I find myself coming up with the strangest and most troublesome ideas.
“Shouldn’t the Holy Throne have attacked by now?” Kari asked. She’d melted and reformed a stone in the palm of her hands a hundred times in a row without burning herself and was getting bored with spell casting drills.
“We’ll have to reprimand their troops for their tardiness.” I told her. I was fiddling with the remnants of the stone that had held the sanctuary spell. I’d been trying to work out how to restore it but, short of a potentially disastrous, but-ever-so-tempting use of dream magic, I hadn’t come up with any good ways to fix what I’d broken.
We were killing time on the beach, safely within the protection of Way’s Sigil, waiting for an assault force from the Holy Throne. It had been a day since our war council with Grida, Colten and the other leaders of Dawns Harbor. I’d been concerned how the town was going to take the news that we were going to be fighting the church. It had been the central institution of their lives for as long as anyone could remember. With Grida taking the lead and speaking of how the Holy Throne had strayed from the Dominion’s calling people had been surprisingly receptive though.
That’s not to say that everyone agreed with fighting back. A lot of folks didn’t want to believe the situation was as bad as Grida and Brayson were making it out to be. A lot were like Caina and were simply incapable of accepting that the blind faith they’d extended could have been in error.
Some of those had been swayed by their greater belief in Grida, or Helena or Colten. Personal connections outweighed a lot of fear and uncertainty, but not in all cases.
I finished reconnecting to all twelve Dominions by exchanging more stories with Kari. Between the two of us we were able to open portals to other parts of the Empire. We picked places the Holy Throne didn’t have serious troop presences. The people who wouldn’t stay with us, either because they still believed in the Holy Throne or because they didn’t feel they could risk it due to their children or other loved ones, left via the portals with the promise from Brayson that once things were concluded they’d be welcomed back, no judgments rendered, no hard feelings held.
That left us with a town of about half the size it had been, but those who remained were committed, and the helpless innocents were out of harm’s way. Well, the young and the infirm at least. In my eyes, the townsfolk were all innocents and, against the might the Holy Throne could throw at them, helpless as well.
I knew a battle was coming. Way had delivered too severe a blow to the Holy Throne for there not to be retribution and I’d personally insulted the Shadow Breaker Prelates far too deeply for them not to seek vengeance. The delay on their counterstrike was because I’d impressed on Prelate Avernicus that I was a terrifyingly powerful aberration. They weren’t going to attack until they had a plan to beat me.
They also weren’t going to take long to develop that plan though. Whatever frightened them about the Voice of the Blind God was something they thought I was connected to and was something the Holy Throne was willing to exert unrealistic levels of force to prevent or put down.
I should have been concerned about the effort they were likely putting into plotting my downfall, but I was happier for the time it had bought us to straighten out things with Dawns Harbor. Even just getting the children out had been a big relief. Colten, Brayson and Marcus had gone beyond that though. The fishers and drivers and watch guards were all organized and ready for a fight. Helena and her apprentices had spent the day repairing and enchanting armor and weapons and Grida and Peracles had converted the Under Chapel into a hospital ward to care for any wounded we would have.
“How long will the Sigil that Sir Way created last?” Kari asked.
“We should have most of a week left before it fades away completely. It’s already weaker than it was though.” I said.
“What are we going to do then?”
“That’s the deadline for getting the sanctuary spell functional again. If that’s not possible, we’d have to move the town or come up with another method of protecting it.” I said.
“Would bad things really attack while we’re here? I mean, you could just destroy them right?”
“They’d attack because we were here.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Kari objected.
“There are things that are mindlessly drawn to power. People too I suppose. Then there are the ones that will think they might get lucky, or the ones that vastly overrate their own capabilities or importance, or even the ones that derive their sense of self from being the most powerful thing around. Even worse though are the ones that just don’t care. They’re only happy when other people are miserable and all they’d be looking to do is to cause as much destruction as possible. That’s a hard fight to win. You can beat them but if half the houses in town are flattened in the process, they kinda get the points for the win.” I said.
“What about the Holy Throne? Which type are they?”
“They’re one of the worst. They’re drawn to power because anyone else who has power is someone they’re not fully in control of. They don’t want just power, they want to replace everyone else with extensions of themselves. I don’t think the Holy Throne started off like it is now, but at some point, something broke. Someone lost their way and forgot why there are other people in the world.”
“Why’s that? I mean why do you think there are other people in the world?” Kari asked.
“Stories. None of us live the same lives. Even when our lives are very similar there’s always differences. Each is a story unto itself. Short stories, long stories, sad, happy, awful or wonderful stories, we’re all explorations of what it means “to be”. That’s why we have to be different. We can’t all think the same, we can’t all be slaved to one will, or the whole point of us is lost.” I said.
“So we should all try to be different?”
“We don’t have to try. Even at our most conformist we’re still ourselves, we’re still different. There’s no escaping that. The tough part is accepting and cherishing the differences that we find in other people.”
“Wouldn’t that mean accepting and cherishing the differences of the Holy Throne too though?” Kari asked.
“Shouldn’t we tolerate intolerance in other words? Nah. I can respect someone’s choice to believe in something greater than themselves, even to give themselves to it completely. That’s still a path they’re choosing to walk. It’s a very different thing for someone else to strip away a person’s identity and force them onto a path like that. The Holy Throne was literally going to do that with their cauldron, and they’ve done it figuratively in how they’ve demanded blind faith from their flock. I can’t justify destroying them for asking for blind faith, but even that is enough to be worth taking a stand against.” I said.
“And with the cauldron?” Kari asked.
“Oh that definitely puts them on the ‘destroy immediately’ list.”
“It’s that bad?”
“It’s worse. That thing not only destroys the people who are put in it, it creates a rift in the world where they once were. The things that step out of the cauldron aren’t people anymore. They’re fantastic soldiers but they’re also wounds in the fabric of the world. Remember the darkness I showed you and the things you knew were hidden in it? Imagine if some of those found a path into this world. A body they could inhabit that would let them be real.” I said.
“Why haven’t we destroyed it yet then?”
“Two reasons. First things like the cauldron tend to react poorly to being destroyed. Poorly on a scale of ‘a fireball the size of the entire town’ would be my guess. Second, I like to collect horrible stuff like that. You never know when there’ll be a good use for it.”
“What good use could you possible put something like that too?”
“I don’t know yet, probably nothing, but I like to keep my options open.” I said.
A cold wind blew over us. It came over the town and rushed out over the sea, bearing the smell of incense and blood. I saw Kari flinch as the gust hit her.
“What was that?” she asked through gritted teeth, her hands twisted into claws.
“An opening shot.” I said and delved into my meta-awareness for more details.
The Holy Throne was finally moving against us. They wind had carried with it words of excommunication for the town and everyone in it. I was already outside the pale of the church, so I’d barely felt it. Grida, Peracles and the few other junior clerics had been severed from their powers though. That was bad. I hadn’t anticipated the Shadow Breakers or the Holy Throne would be able to perform a blanket excommunication like that.
“We need to get back to town.” I said and called forth the gossamer wings of my flight spell. Kari did the same. As we ascended into the sky, I saw the next stage of the Holy Throne’s assault moving into place.
A trio of sky galleons flew in front of a vast storm cloud that was bearing down on the small town. From several miles out, the attack had already begun with casters on the airships hurling bolts of lightning at Dawn’s Harbor. Their efforts had little effect though. Way’s shield flared to life over the town, easily absorbing each bolt that was fired.
“Go tell Helena and Brayson that the attack is on the way. I’m going to stop those airship’s but they need to ready for a ground assault too.” I said.
“Right!” Kari said and peeled away to head towards the town while I continued ascending.
Three ships would have been overkill against Dawns Harbor normally but with Way’s Sigil protecting it I was surprised they hadn’t sent more. Rather than feeling relieved though, that left me wondering what other surprises they had in store.
I broke past the protection of Way’s shield and hurled a lightning bolt of my own against the lead sky galleon. The magical shields around the ship flared to life, absorbing the bolt like Way’s shield had. With a twist of my wrist I poured more force into the bolt and watched the shields detonate, setting fires along the rigging.
A light mist, conjured by one of the ship’s spell casters, quickly put out the fires, while another spellcaster began targeting me, rather than the town below, with their lightning bolts.
Flying has always been one of my favorite things, at least since I first developed my powers. That didn’t make it easy to evade the lightning bolts, but it did make it fun! I soared in circles and loops, happy that they were expending their strength trying to swat me rather than blasting away at Way’s shield and shortening its remaining duration.
Once the other two ships noticed what was going on, they turned to support their leader and the number of bolts flying at me tripled. I took a glancing shot from one of them and went tumbling, my nerves alight with pain. A quick healing spell though and the damage was all but completely erased. My tumble had brought me within reach of the lead ship’s main deck, and close enough to see the spell caster who had winged me.
That meant the other two ships were probably under the command of Prelates Ralls and Temple. It seemed odd that the Holy Throne would pit them against me after I’d proven I could take all three of them already. Then I noticed the shimmer in Avernicus’ eyes.
A sick suspicion bubble up in my stomach and I focused my meta-awareness on them. They weren’t there. Not the Prelates that I’d known anyways. The things I saw before me had crawled out of one of the Holy Throne’s other cauldrons. They were infused with both the power of the Holy Throne and something from beyond the world as well.
I landed on the deck of the lead ship hard enough to crack the planks under my feet.
“What have you done?” I demanded of the Avernicus-shaped thing that stood a dozen feet away from me.
“To fight abominations, one must use abominations.” The voice that spoke through Avernicus didn’t sound human at all. Meta-awareness wasn’t offering any sense of who it was, but intuition had a clue.
“I’m addressing the Emissary of the Holy Throne aren’t I?” I guessed.
“You speak to only the tiniest fraction of what I am, trespasser.” Not-Avernicus said. As we spoke, I saw the ship’s marines emerging onto the deck to surround me. They had the same shimmering power radiating from their eyes. The Holy Throne had converted them all. Every soldier that was assaulting Dawns Harbor, all of the clerics that supported them. They’d all been unmade and replaced with vessels of the Emissary’s will.
“You would call me an abomination? Seriously? After what you’ve done to your own people?” I needed Way with me. I could feel my anger kindling to an ugly blaze and without her steadying hand on my arm I was likely to do something regrettable.
“Yes. My people. Mine to do with as I wish. I would spend every one of them to keep my world safe from the darkness you bring!” the Emissary barked.
“I came here to relax on a beach you idiot. I specifically had no interest in changing anything until you attacked us.”
“What you desired does not matter. It’s what you are that would cast this world into darkness. You would break the chains that hold my people together. You have already done so! Or did you think I was unaware of your little apprentice? You showed her a world beyond this one. You lured her away from the fold, gave her knowledge she should never have had.” he said.
“Can you hear yourself? Can you hear the most powerful man in the world terrified of a young girl’s imagination? Is that really what you are? Is that what you want this world to be?” I shot back.
“Yes. What you offer is terror and madness. I have suppressed far worse than you for far longer than you can imagine. I will not see the sanctity of what I have created ripped apart by nightmares like you.”
The soldiers had me completely surrounded and I noticed the other two ships docking up with the lead ship so that even more were arrayed against me. A few seconds more and I’d have them right where I wanted them.
“She’s not a nightmare!” Kari said as she landed beside me.
There are times when it’s wonderful to see your friends ride to the rescue. This wasn’t one of them.
“Perfect. None of the taint shall escape us.” the Emissary gloated.
“If we go with you, you’ll leave the town alone?” Kari asked.
“He doesn’t want us to go with him. And he’s not going to leave anyone in the town alive either.” I said through gritted teeth.
“An unfortunate necessity brought on by the corruption you’ve spread there.” the Emissary said.
“What? No!” Kari yelled. She was fast, but only humanly so, as she lashed out with an Earth spell against the body of Prelate Avernicus that the Emissary was wearing. The storm of gleaming daggers was intended to be a death blow. After her experiences with the Shadow Breakers she wasn’t holding anything back. Against Avernicus though the attack clanked to the deck harmlessly. The Emissary had restored and improved on the defensive spells his Prelate had been wearing when I’d fought him.
The soldiers reacted to the attack with their predictably inhuman speed and there wasn’t time to think. Grabbing Kari, I pulled her close and let off the spell I’d been holding. The soldiers moving at blinding speed met animated ropes that were moving faster than them and intent on pulling them to pieces.
Avernicus stepped through the grasping ropes, burning them away with slashes of his hand. I conjured earth and flames to fight him with, pushing him back despite the indestructible defenses he was wrapped in.
“This town is under my protection. I won’t let you harm the people here.” I told the Emissary as I bathed him in a fire so hot it reduced the ship behind him to ash in an instant.
“You can not stop me.”
“You have no idea what I can do. For your own sake, don’t make me show you.”
“I have evaluated what your fellow abomination did to my forces. Burn yourself out destroying these ships and be gone if that is what you wish.” the Emissary said.
“You understand so little. Maybe it’s time I show you. Maybe that will stop this insanity.” I said. I fought to control my anger and felt black fire roiling in my veins. I could destroy him so utterly that reality itself wouldn’t know he’d ever lived. That would leave the world a broken mess though and despite his beliefs, I wasn’t enough of an abomination to want to do that.
“Jin!” Kari yelled.
I turned to find her struggling desperately against Prelates Ralls and Temple along with a handful of the soldiers who had gotten free of the rope trap.
I turned to help her, knowing that any spell Avernicus tried on me I could absorb with dream magic. The fire I’d called against him, I turned on Ralls and Temple, driving them back far enough for Kari to take flight and escape the clutches of the soldiers.
I started to turn back to Avernicus and fell to the ground before I fully understood what had happened. It was only the bright gleam of steel and the all-too-familiar sight of my own blood that clued me in.
The Emissary hadn’t used Avernicus’ magic to attack me. He knew it wouldn’t work. He’d used a sword, a holy sword at that. Right through my heart and lungs with the holy enchantments ensuring that I couldn’t heal my way out of the wound.
I tried to breath and agony ripped through my chest. I’d been wounded like this before. I knew I couldn’t save this body. In the bare seconds I had left, I gathered what magic I could and fired off a wordless spell. It streaked forth and hit, not Ralls or Temple or Avernicus, but Kari. In a flash she vanished, teleported to back to the safety of the town.
Then it was my turn to disappear in a flash. Except I wasn’t going to Dawns Harbor. I’d done a fine job with Priestess Jin’s body, I wasn’t about to let Emissary get his hands on it.
From the ground I think it looked like the sky gained a second sun briefly. As funeral pyres went I couldn’t complain, except that I only managed to destroy one of the three ships. Even as a dead girl that was a little disappointing.