Getting dressed for important functions was never something I looked forward to. It was one thing getting to try on a wardrobe of nigh infinite possibilities before attending a dinner. That was play time. Meeting royalty for a meeting that could decide the fate of an entire world was something I needed to take a bit more seriously though.
Part of me was tempted to meet the Goblin King in jeans and a t-shirt. I didn’t have anything to prove and casual clothes would communicate that fact clearly, assuming he was perceptive enough to be of use to me. On the other hand he’d asked to see me as one royal to another. It would be polite to treat with him as someone of similar station, which meant a slightly more elaborate outfit than jeans and a t-shirt was in order.
Maak and Kari had it easier in that regards. Maak needed nothing more than his armor cleaned up a bit and he literally was a knight in shining armor. Kari, as my herald, didn’t have to make quite the impression that I did and my travel pack held plenty of clothes that would fit her position.
“You’re sure we can’t come with you? The goblin’s haven’t been our foes for centuries now, but I mistrust the Goblin King if he’s playing a central role in the events that are unfolding.” Helena said.
“I’m afraid so. In the terms of the agreement, I specified how many I would bring and urged him to bring only a like number.” I said, via Grida’s illusion spell.
“And if he should prove to be untrustworthy and arrives with an army at his back?” Brayson asked.
“That would be very bad. For him.” I assured him, glancing over at Kari. As a native, her dreams had just enough purchase on Vale Septem that she could summon them into being here. She apparently had some natural talent at summoning too, since I’m not sure I could have pulled off summoning two titan-class dragons even with the home field advantage.
“Let them go Darius, they don’t need us for this fight.” Grida said as she completed a healing spell. The man she’d been ministering to breathed out a relaxed sigh as a restful sleep claimed him.
The wounded from the battles were arriving as fast as they could be safely carried in. Marcus’ drivers were doing most of the hauling of the wounded. They had experience moving heavy and fragile burdens and because they traveled alone most of the time and had to be ready to patch themselves up as needed, they made decent field medics. They were able to triage the injured and stabilize the ones who’d been badly wounded but were still alive. The number of those being brought in to the makeshift hospital below the chapel was daunting but it would have been far worse if the Prelate’s forces had been able to fight for much longer.
“Actually we very well might need you.” I said. “This place is the one safe spot I know of. If something goes wrong we may be coming back in hurry and with less than friendly sorts in hot pursuit.”
“I shall ensure their safety.” Maak promised. He was in the process of strapping on his armor. It did not look like a pleasant activity with the wounds he was still carrying.
“This is going to sound weird coming from a dead girl, but I need you to believe me. Kari and I can take care of ourselves. If I tell you to flee, I need to know that you’ll go.” I said.
“On my honor, I cannot leave you to face danger while I save myself.” Maak replied. It was important to him. No, it was central to him. The fight with Gahn, acknowledging that he’d been wrong, acknowledging that the Holy Throne he’d pledged his life to had been wrong, those had cost him a big part of who he was. He had little left to hang his sense of self worth on other than his honor, however tarnished it might be.
It was a dangerous mindset. I didn’t need a minion that was looking for an excuse to pitch himself in front of a fireball for me. I needed someone I could trust to handle tasks I wouldn’t have the time or attention to take care of myself.
“I may not have time to explain if a situation arises, but I promise you, I won’t ask that of you. If I tell you to flee, it will be to save us all.” I told him.
Maak didn’t look like he believed me, but he didn’t push the matter either.
“How long before you have to leave?” Colten asked.
“I agreed to meet the Goblin King at sundown. I think Kari should be able to open a portal a few miles away from the Cloister, so we’ll need to get going soon.” I replied.
“I think we’ve got the worst of the injured taken care of. Pastor Peracles and I can handle the rest.” Grida said.
“Are you sure? This is a lot of wounded for just two of you.” Colten said.
“It’s easier now.” Grida said. “I think I’m much closer to the Dominions now.”
“We are.” Peracles confirmed. “I’ve never been able to manage more than a few healing spells a day without exhausting myself. I’ve been casting them for an hour now and I don’t feel winded at all.”
“Are you sure we can’t fix them all up right now?” Kari asked as she finished concentrating on a spell to repair the damage the woman I’d possessed had sustained.
“I think so. Even with this extra power, we don’t want to stress their bodies too much. If we force them into fighting shape again, their wounds will heal wrong. Instant healing leaves scars that are much harder to heal around in the future.” Grida explained.
“Got a few of those myself.” he said.
“And they were all my fault, so you see I’m speaking from experience here.” Grida said.
“I seem to recall the alternative to the healing scars was being eviscerated by monsters most of the time, but I will concede your point. Thanks to Kari’s ‘pets’, I don’t think we need to worry about monsters chewing on us any time soon.” Colten said.
“What do you say then? Are you ready to head out or do you need some time to catch your breath?” I asked Kari.
“Let me change and we can go. I don’t know how accurate my portal will be.” she said.
I looked at Maak and he nodded in agreement. He was holding himself together with willpower and bandages but the look in his eye said that was going to be more than enough to see him through.
“I have one more request then. Healer Grida, could I borrow this spell from you?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean?” she said.
“I’d like to use this spell until I return. It will block out your access to the Seventh Dominion while I’m borrowing it though.” I explained.
“I don’t…that’s not possible as far as I know, but if you can do it I am amenable. I wouldn’t have any of my magic without you. Letting you borrow one part of it seems only fair.” she said.
“Thank you!” I said. I reached out with my dream magic and plucked the spell from Grida’s mind. Ghosts in Vale Septem couldn’t cast spells, so I had to fight to stay real in the world as I absorbed the connection to the Seventh Dominion. Meta-awareness searched through all of the possibilities for me and in the end I changed from a simple ghost to a Temple Guardian. Where ghosts were spirits of the once living, Temple Guardians were essentially sapient spells, aligned with one of the Dominions.
Reality wasn’t too happy with the notion that I’d been a Temple Guardian all along. That didn’t fit with the history that I’d once been Priestess Jin. Instead it decided that I was the fragment of a Temple Guardian that she had been entrusted with as a baby. That also explained Priestess Jin’s phenomenal abilities with spell casting. There were a few weird bits to that story but if reality wasn’t feeling grumpy about them, neither was I.
I felt myself grow more solid than I’d been as I finished absorbing the spell. I knew I wasn’t really solid, but the illusions that a Temple Guardian of the Seventh Dominion could cast included all of the senses, mundane and mystical, so my illusionary body was all but indistinguishable from a real one.
Kari finished changing and came back into the waiting area where we were gathered. She squinted at me for a second and then shrugged.
“You’ve improved the illusion?” she asked.
“And changed what I am. You’ll need your magic free in case anything comes up so I didn’t want to burden you with maintaining the illusion spell for me..” I explained.
“Are you going like that?” Kari asked, pointing to the priestly robes my illusory body still wore.
“No, I’ll need to change too.” I said and did so with a wave of my hand. In place of my priestly robes I called forth the old traditional attire of the Queen of Shadows. I’d updated them, and made them my own for when I needed a ‘costume’ on my home world. The Goblin King has specifically asked for a meeting with the Shadow Queen though, so that’s what he was going to get.
On my brow a crown of brambles burned with sickly purple fire. My robes were black and rimmed with the same purple fire that blazed on my head. Pointed thorns flared out at my shoulders, elbows and knees. My eyes took on the appearance of liquid black pools and in my hands I held a sceptre carved from human bone.
“We should leave now.” I said my voice echoing as though I stood alone in a great empty hall.
Maak looked startled at first and then concerned. I watched him bury that concern under a hard expression. There wasn’t anything about the Shadow Queen that suggested “good” or “kind” or, when you got right down to it, “human”. I was pushing his trust by showing him this side of myself.
I could feel my thoughts taking on a more sinister bend. Maak’s discomfort was just a little bit delicious. I clamped down on that line of thinking though. The Shadow Queen wasn’t a “nice” role. In making her “real”, I had to accept the parts of myself that weren’t particularly nice either. I had to accept them, but I didn’t have to lose myself to them. Whether I was cruel or kind, evil or empathic, came down to what I chose to be. A myriad of things could influence me. A bad enough day could make it nearly impossible not to snap and lash out, but “nearly impossible” is still not “actually impossible”. The final choice was always mine.
Not that I was always an angel of course. Cranky days and colossal screw ups are just another part of being human. With what I could do though? It paid to keep a somewhat tighter lid than normal on those screw ups.
“Ok, I can see the Cloister of the Silencing Bells.” Kari said with her eyes closed.
With a simple gesture of her hand she called a scintillating portal into existence. The rim was a foot taller than Maak and wide enough for the three of us to walk through abreast. On the other side, I saw a well tended brick road leading to a mountaintop that had been reshaped into a cathedral.
“Follow me.” I said and stepped through the gate.
Maak and Kari came through together and the portal popped closed in their wake.
“We’re not the first ones here.” Kari warned me.
I tried to scan the Cloister with one of the Seventh Dominion’s mind related spells but it turned up nothing. That wasn’t surprising. In the Cloister, the Fifth Dominion’s aspect of Secrets reigned supreme. Any sort of information gather spells were doomed to failure.
Meta-awareness on the other hand dealt in things on a bit more fundamental level. Focusing on that I saw the Goblin King had indeed arrived early. Sir Gahn was there as well. As was a goblin child. And a couple dozen of the King’s most powerful casters and warriors.
I paused. Technically I’d said I would bring only two people with me and had suggested that the King do the same. I hadn’t made it an explicit part of our deal that he do likewise. Given what he thought I was, I decided I couldn’t fault him for bringing a healthy amount of backup.
“There is a task force worth of soldiers waiting for us in there.” I agreed with Kari.
“Betrayal?” Maak asked.
“No. I don’t think so. Sir Gahn is there as well. I think they’re worried about us. About me to be specific.” I said.
Maak cracked a rare smile. Before today he probably would have found it ridiculous for anyone to be that worried about dealing with me. In the form that I was standing beside him though it had to seem equally foolish to even question the need for an army of troops as backup.
“Do we go in?” Kari asked.
“Yes. One way or the other, we need to hear what they have to say.” I said.
I allowed Kari and Maak to proceed in front of me and noticed as we walked that the sounds around us became muted and indistinct. The shadows that were cast in the setting sun seemed to be deeper than they should have been too. As locations for an ambush went, the Cloister had a lot going for it.
We reached the main doors and saw them swing open as we stepped towards them. At first I thought it was due to an enchantment on the doors, but then I noticed the Cloisters acolytes pulling them inwards. In the center of the open doors a bald man in monks robes stood. He gestured us forward and allowed us to pass to the large central chamber within.
The inside of the Cloister was lavishly decorated in various kinds of worked stone. There wasn’t a drop of paint anywhere on the walls but every color of the rainbow could be seen in the mosaics and statues and fine carvings that covered the interior.
At the far end of the chamber three figures waited for us. I recognized Sir Gahn and was able to guess that the tall figure beside him was the Goblin King. The third figure appeared to be a goblin girl, younger than Kari. Something was off about her though. I looked again, focusing on my meta-awareness and saw that the girl was actually a goblin woman who almost crackled with magical power.
I suppose I could have been concerned about the deception, but given that I was a walking illusion I suspected I didn’t have much right to be throwing stones.
“Hail and well met! Queen Jin, Lord of the Shadow Court, Far Wanderer and Lady of the Never Marches bids you greeting.” Kari proclaimed. I’d coached her in the proper form of declaration but the booming presentation was all hers.
“Hail and well met, Queen Jin.” Sir Gahn responded. “Ten Rex, Lord of Goblins, Defender of the Nightward Veil, Master of the Lost Corridors offers his greetings in turn.”
I studied the Goblin King while the formal declarations were exchanged. He was a tall man, close to seven feet. His features were slight and his moppish hair would have looked comical on someone who lacked his poise and presence. There was nothing comical about either his bearing or the calculating look in his eyes though. His expression was mild but I could almost feel him dissecting me with his gaze. Magical means would reveal nothing about me in the Cloister, but he struck me as possessing the sort of intellect that had little need for magic to completely understand someone.
‘Wait for it.’ I told myself and sure enough a moment later a look of puzzlement washed over the Goblin King’s features.
“Has the Queen truly come to treat with us?” the Goblin King asked. His tone was wondering and almost playful.
“Yes, though what stands before you is an illusion.” I replied.
“And why have you not come yourself?” the Goblin King asked and again his tone was almost playful, yet underneath the mildness there was deadly steel. I didn’t hear anyone move but meta-awareness told me that the soldiers who surrounded us had readied their weapons at the King’s silent signal.
“I am here.” I assured him “You have my full attention.”
“Then we must attend to the question before us. Time is short. Put simply, is it true that you stand against the Holy Throne and the abomination that sits upon it?” the Goblin King asked. He was so casual in how he asked the question that it seemed like any answer would satisfy him. In truth though, one answer would allow us to continue having our congenial discussion and the other would unleash an instantaneous attack.
“Wait. Where is Sir Way?” Sir Gahn blurted out. He’d been looking at Maak with a quietly happy expression a moment earlier but the thought of Way’s absence had jolted him out of reverie. I saw the tactical possibilities flashing through his mind. Of all of us, Way would make the best assassin. What Gahn didn’t understand was that if Way was with me, she wouldn’t need to strike from the shadows to take out everyone in the room regardless of how well prepared they were
“She is absent. She held off an army the Prelates brought to Dawns Harbor and the Greater Demon’s that they unwittingly summoned as well.” I told him.
“I heard the same tale from the elders of the town.” Maak confirmed. “That is a second hand account but with my own eyes I have seen that their sanctuary spell is shattered and in it’s place stands a sigil the likes of which I have never seen. The townsfolk credit it to Sir Way’s work.”
“The question still stands, though perhaps it is of less importance in this new light.” the Goblin King said. His disappointment was as mild as his good humor had been, except that it was unfeigned.
“You are correct that it is of less importance than it had been but not for the reason you imagine.” I glanced over at Kari and invited the Goblin King to speculate on what her place in this was. “As you say though, time is short and so I will answer plainly. I am going to destroy the Holy Throne. As for the man who remains once the power of the throne is broken? I do not understand him enough yet to say what his fate shall be.”
“You will stand against him with this small illusion?” the Goblin King asked, honest disbelief in his voice.
“I will not need even this to destroy him.” I replied.
“Then what power will you have to turn against him?”
“You have called me the Queen of Shadows. You know, at least a little, of what I am. Do you think I am limited to this form? These magics? The powers of this world?” I asked. With each word my voice grew broader. Not louder but vaster, as though it originated from a source external to me that grew to encompass the room. And with each word, the light in the Cloister dimmed. The shadows deepened and became an impenetrable darkness until, at last, the six of us were alone in a solitary pool of light.
“You weave a cunning trickery.” the Goblin King complimented me. At his gesture, the goblin arch-mage beside him dropped her illusionary form and focused her magic on dispelling the illusionary darkness I had summoned. Except it wasn’t an illusion.
As Priestess Jin I couldn’t have accessed the shadow plane that lay below Vale Septem. The dark world was the spawning ground for all sorts of horrors but it was a chaotic place. Until I donned my royal mantle. Until there was a Shadow Queen to rule it.
It would take time to crush the denizens of my realm to my will. That they hadn’t yet acknowledged me as their Queen mattered little in terms of my right to rule them. I had power. Even here. Even without my dream magic.
Tempting as it was to revel in that power however, the only purpose to my demonstration was to make it clear to the Goblin King, Gahn and most importantly the Voice of the Blind God not to discount me.
“I cannot free us my lord.” the arch-mage whispered to her King.
Gahn unsheathed his sword and stepped forward. Maak unsheathed his and stepped in front me of me to meet Gahn.
“I do not wish to quarrel with you.” Sir Gahn said.
“Nor I with you. You were right. About many things. But I can’t let you hurt her. You would never forgive yourself, as I can never forgive myself for what I have done.” Maak replied.
“And we have the makings of such a pretty tragedy.” the Goblin King cooed, observing the two knights.
“Yes, and I suspect my next words will only add to that: I need to speak with the Voice of the Blind God.” I saw Sir Gahn stiffen. There was no part of him that wanted to attack Maak, but stacked against that was what the Voice of the Blind God meant to the world. He’d done that calculation once already and Maak had come up on the losing side.
“Let us tip the balance then with one last question: Why?” the Goblin King asked. His whole focus was on me.
“Because she understands the catastrophe that’s before you, and unless I miss my guess, she knows what its source is too. If I am going to stand against that catastrophe I have to understand it or I could make things immeasurably worse.” I told him.
He looked at me for a long moment, his head slowly tilting to the side like a curious animal. I felt a small smile spread across my face and reach up to my eyes. He’d been playing with me the whole time. The theatrics had been for the benefit of those watching us.
I focused my meta-awareness on him. He wasn’t a dreamwalker but he was something close, a lunatic in the original meaning of the term as someone who was touched by Luna, the spirit of the Moon. He wasn’t a genius because he could see things others couldn’t. He was a genius because he could still see and understand normal things despite his natural vision being knocked askew from the regular world.
He’d known the world was time looped but it wasn’t until I’d arrived that he’d worked out that the future was always supposed to come after the past, not occasionally before it.
“Very well! Liggy, will you please step forward.” the Goblin King said with a triumphant bow.
I released the shadows that surrounded us as he began to speak. Out of the ones that remained, a young goblin girl appeared.
“Is this wise lord?” the arch-mage asked.
“Of course not! But sometimes one must be a little mad. Liggy dear, go chat with the Queen of Nightmares there would you?” the King asked.
Liggy, the goblin girl, the Voice of the Blind God, looked at me with uncertain eyes. She walked over to me and I knelt down so we could talk eye to eye.
“You’re going to save the world.” she said gravely. “You mustn’t!”
That wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting her to say.
“Why?” I asked, bending my meta-awareness to make sense of her words.
“Because that will save him!” she said and pointed over my shoulder.
I closed my eyes and winced. The most secret place in the world and we were still getting interrupted. I rose to my feet without turning to face the newcomers who were arriving by portal.
“You’re not welcome here Emissary.” I said as I began gathering in my magics.