Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 8

The wonderful thing about being on vacation is that if there’s not a crisis in the midst of occurring you can just kick back and relax. The tough part, of course, was convincing my worries that we were not, in fact, in the midst of a crisis and that they should shut the hell up for a bit.

That was more a more difficult thing to believe than it might have been given how events were starting to shape up. Vale Septem wasn’t what we’d expected it to be and it would have been arrogant to assume that we could handle everything that it could throw at us. On the other hand, it would have been foolish to turn our fears into self fulfilling prophecies. If we jumped at every shadow and fought every foe we could imagine we’d run ourselves down to nothing.

Sometimes you have to push yourself to your limits. This wasn’t one of those occasions. Not yet anyways. A part of me disagreed, but I’d known that part of myself for a long time. The voice of my fears was an old friend. These days I preferred to listen to a different voice.

“See what I mean about the water being nice?” Way asked as she swam by me.

Kari had calmed down after she’d had a chance to sob out her stress. With no sign that the Shadow Breakers were immediately due to descend on us and the meeting with the Goblin King days away we’d decided to do the sensible thing and hit the beach.

It was a clear and sunny day, so the surf and sand looked inviting enough. The chill spring wind would have been sufficient to dispel that notion but with the application of a few spells tied to the Eighth Dominion’s Fire aspect the ambient temperature ceased to be an issue.

Kari had fled the Inne with only the clothes on her back and didn’t own any special clothes for swimming even if she’d had a chance to pack. Or rather she didn’t until we unleashed “Jin and Way’s House of Fashion” on her. Granted not all of our clothes were enchanted to resize themselves to fit any wearer but it wasn’t hard to find a dozen or so outfits for her that were.

It was kind of magical watching her sort through the racks of clothes that we produced for her to pick from. I felt like a fairy godmother. That my actual connection to the Fey was closer to Maleficent than Flora, Merryweather or Fauna was something I chose to studiously ignore.

“The fishermen must think we’re mermaids to be in water this cold.” I said to Way as Kari swum up to us. Thanks to the spells that wrapped us up, the water felt warm and pleasant but I knew it was just this side of hypothermia inducing in reality.

“But mermaids are hideous.” Kari objected.

“Different mermaids.” I said. A check on meta-awareness told me that Vale Septem’s mermaids were indeed quite different. They were predators that made sharks look tame. Their song might lure sailors in but there was nothing “pretty” about their teeth or claws. The last thing a sailor who saw one would be thinking about would be giving them a kiss. Fleeing for their lives? Yes. Romantic ballads and moonlit smoochies? Not so much.

“Speaking of the fisherman it looks like they’re heading in.” Way said.

The boats that had been trawling the coast all day had turned their prows towards the mouth of the bay where we were floating. Their day’s work was accomplished and their nets were full with whatever fish they’d managed to scoop up.

“Think we could grab dinner from any of them?” I asked.

“Maybe. Do you have anything to cook it with though?” Kari asked.

There was a fire pit outside the bungalow and a small fireplace within it. Healer Grida had left a few pots and pans there as well but it wasn’t exactly a luxurious cooking arrangement. On the other hand fish didn’t take a lot of room to prepare and I had enough gear in my pack to handle making a simple meal. Or I could just use magic.

Among its other aspects, the Fourth Dominion covered crafts, which in turn covered cooking. To invent new dishes took real skill. To make normal dishes, normal skills were quite sufficient. To make great food without practice? That was the kind of cheat you needed magic to get away with. While a serious cook would have scoffed at the notion of such cheating, I was more than willing to embrace it in the name of a yummy meal.

“Let’s see what we can get then. I think I’d prefer Jin’s cooking to another round at the Inn.” Way said.

As it turned out ‘what we could get’ was precious little. The first two fishermen that made it to shore claimed that their catches were too short for the day to sell any. That seemed a little suspicious given how full their nets were and the boastful comments we’d overhead as we walked over to them. To be fair to them though, it was common for the local fisherman to have “standing orders” with the traders who came through town, so the fish they caught could have been spoken for even before they even set sail that day.

It was also possible that they were fearful of inciting the church’s wrath and didn’t want to risk being associated with us. That was aggravating, but also understandable. The sanctuary spell that kept the town safe didn’t extend beyond the bay. That meant the fisherman had to rely on portable charms and prayer beads to ward off the monsters. The charms were weak and costly to make but when that was your best chance to avoid an encounter with the creatures from the deep it was worth giving up the coins offered for a few fish in order to stay in the church’s good graces.

I was starting to make alternate plans for dinner when the third boat landed. Its nets weren’t as full as either of the first two had been but the owner of the boat didn’t seem to mind. He was a tall, broad chested man with a deep and even tan. The mop of grey hair on his head and the wrinkles that looked they been carved into his face with a chisel suggested he was well past his prime but his eyes sparkled with a youthful zeal that suggested today was his best day yet and tomorrow would be better still.

Since the source of his joy was probably not the anemic contents of his nets, I looked around for another source and spied a likely candidate. An older woman, hair as gray as his but with rich ebony skin, stood on the dock that the happy fisherman was sailing towards.

“Healer Grida!” Way called out as we walked close enough for conversation.

The woman turned to catch sight of us and waved us over.

“Sir Way, good to see you up and about. Did you do those exercises we spoke ok?” Grida asked.

“I went swimming twice. It helped to work out the soreness.” Way said.

“Good, good. And Kari, what happened to you dear? I heard there was some trouble between you and Caina this morning.” Grida said.

“She fired me.” Kari replied.

Grida rolled her eyes.

“That silly old fool. Whatever did she do that for?”

“She didn’t want me to serve Jin and Way.”

“And you did?” Grida asked.

Kari nodded, and looked away.

“Well good for you! I have no idea how that old goat has kept that place running for so long with how she treats travelers. I’ll give her a good talking to for you. Daft woman would be a fool not to take you back.” Grida said.

“I don’t want to go back though. I’m going to travel with Jin and Way now.” Kari said.

Grida’s eyes widened at that and she regarded Kari with an appraising air. Further discussion was interrupted by the happy fisherman’s boat arriving at the dock though.

“Can an old man beg, borrow or steal a hand tying off here?” the fisherman said as he hurried to take down his sails.

“Depends if you brought anything good back for us Colten.” Grida said.

“Only the finest delicacies from the sea’s bounty for you my wild rose.” Colten answered.

The two moved with practiced ease through the process of getting the ship tied down and stowed for the night. Kari pitched in as well, drawing on a lifetime of being around fisherfolk to know what to do. Way and I managed to contribute by holding ropes and staying away from the actual work that was being done.

“So how do I find myself in the company of so many fair beauties?” Colten asked as the last of the empty nets were stowed.

“We were looking to see if we could buy any of the day’s catch for dinner tonight.” I said.

“You were uncommonly wise to wait for my arrival then. As I said, I have the finest of the sea’s bounty in my nets.”

“Our good luck then that the other fishermen wouldn’t sell to us.” I said. I didn’t want to scare him off, but Colten seemed like a nice enough guy that I didn’t want to leave him too much in the dark either.

“A strange day when an honest fisherman turns down honest coin. Were you offering them seashells instead of copper bits perhaps?”

“Their coins were true, but the Bishop, perhaps, was not.” Grida said.

“Ah, you’re the girls that gave his Oh-So-Holiness a verbal drubbing? Well in that case you’re money is no good here either.” Colten said, his smile undercutting his words. “Here’s the second finest catch of the day, on the house!”

He reached into the net that he’d consolidated his catches into and pulled forth a giant fish of a species I didn’t recognize. To be fair, I’d never been much of a cook, so it could have been an exact match for a fish from my own world and I still wouldn’t have been able to guess it’s name. I checked meta-awareness, but the Jin of this world had spent her time studying her magics and learning to fight. Seafood (and all other food) preparation was subcontracted out to the magics of the Fourth Dominion.

“Now Colten, how are these nice girls going to prepare that thing? They’re just in my old little shack.” Grida said.

“It’s no problem. I can manage it.” I said.

I wasn’t sure if Colten’s boasts of it being the second best fish were true, but I was pretty sure the cooking spells would make it reasonably palatable. Grida just shook her head at that idea though.

“If you girls don’t mind keeping some old folks company, I’m having a few friends over for dinner tonight. It would be wonderful if you could join us.”

“She’s a good cook when she’s not making medicines. Her and Caina tied for first place at the Winter’s Day Fair this year.” Kari agreed.

The prospect of having food as good as the Inn’s had been without the Innkeeper poisoning it was appealing. Very appealing. I looked over at Way who was already looking to me with a hopeful longing in her eyes. Sometimes we didn’t need dream speech to know exactly what the other was thinking.

“That would be fantastic! Is there anything we can do to help with the preparations?” I asked.

“No. No. I’ve already made more food than we can eat. Anything else would just go to waste. You three go enjoy the rest of the day. We’ll eat just after sundown.” Grida said.

That pronouncement lead to another trip to “Jin and Way’s Fashion Boutique” once we got back to the bungalow.

“I don’t think they’ll mind if you go in your priestess robed and armor.” Kari said as Way and I rummaged through our outfits.

“Probably not, Grida seems like a pretty nice sort.” I said.

“Colten too. Are they married?” Way asked.

“Grida and Colten? Oh no. They’ve just been friends forever. They were married to other people when they were younger but they’re both widows now. Or widower for Colten I guess.” Kari said.

“What are their other friends like?” I asked.

“I don’t know who they’ll have coming over tonight but they’re friends with a lot of people in town. Everybody wants to be on Grida’s good side since she’s the town’s healer and half the town’s fishermen learned how to sail from Colten.” Kari said.

“A little harder to pick an outfit then.” Way said. She was holding up a long blue dress that shifted from a midnight blue at the base to sky blue at the neck. The fabric was interwoven with bits of silver thread giving it a shimmer and the appearance of holding shooting stars when the light hit it right.

“That looks beautiful!” Kari said.

“Thank you. I think it might be a little too much though.” Way said.

“Whoever’s there will think its brilliant!” Kari protested.

“How about this one?” Way asked. She held up a pale green blouse with a dark green skirt.

“That’s nice, but the other one’s more exciting.” Kari said.

“Wonderful! I’ll go with these then.” Way said, setting aside the green blouse and skirt.

“Why? I mean why not just go in your armor?” Kari asked.

“Sometimes armor can protect you from the wrong things.” I said. “If we dress in exotic fabrics and come in looking as fancy as we can, we’ll be the center of attention, but the clothes will also distance us from everyone else there. Sometimes that’s the statement you want to make. Other times, like tonight, you don’t want to put up those barriers.”

Kari reflected on that for a minute.

“I’ve never had enough clothes to think like that. I just wear whatever’s cleanest.” she said.

“Let’s pick out something for you then.” I said.

I conjured a set of mirrors for Kari to see herself in as we got to work. I wasn’t an expert tailor or a clothing designer, but with the simple fashions we were going for it was really more about finding colors and styles that were appealing and comfortable.

In the end, Kari picked something a bit more exotic than I would have gone for. A long sleeved white silk shirt with lace ruffles at the wrists and pearl buttons complimented a sweeping black skirt with a silver filigree patterns that rose up both sides. She finished off the ensemble with a black silk vest that was edged with the same silver filigree as the skirt.

The outfit gave her a regal air which, oddly, suited her well. The serving girl probably hadn’t worn anything close to courtly clothes in her life, but I could tell she was be a natural in them. I would have been concerned about being overdressed for the  occasion but I suspected that since the others were likely to know Kari already they wouldn’t be particularly put off by the extravagance of her garb.

For myself, I avoided white and black. White was too reminiscent of my priestess robes and black was too reminiscent of the royal robes I’d worn when I first claimed the title of the Shadow Queen. I wanted neither of those images to come up during the dinner so instead I ventured out into the daring and daunting world of color like Way had.

A pink tunic, edged in white lace and a deep red skirt gave me a similar “light and dark” color scheme to Way and Kari while not repeating any of their choices. I debated doing something interesting with my hair, but decided not to. All of my ideas were running to things like tiaras and other crown like objects and I was determined to be as ordinary as possible.

I started to dispel the mirrors that I’d set up but paused for a moment as Way and Kari finished dressing. “Ordinary” was perhaps a goal we weren’t quite going to hit. Way had a grace and power that shone through whatever garments or disguise she wore. Kari was lit with the joy of the new world she saw before her.

And me? I’d changed over the last two years too. I liked who I saw in the mirror. That hadn’t always been true. The girl there was far from perfect but I liked being her. For a dream lord that was fairly critical. In dreams you can be whoever you want. As a dreamlord I can literally make dreams come true. Ergo, if I didn’t like who I was, I could change that. Mostly.

There are serious pitfalls in changing yourself with magic, the biggest one being that dream magic is limited by imagination. Meta-awareness helps out a bit there but it’s notoriously prone to leaving out fairly important details.

If I decided that I hated being regular Jin and I wanted to be Warrior Princess Jin instead, I could become that easily, but some of the pieces wouldn’t quite fit. I might not be able to imagine how hard a Warrior Princess has to work to keep her abs of steel or how alert you need to be for random ninja attacks. That kind of dissonance can lead to shifting around who you are to the point where you can eventually lose all sense of your own identity. Being without any sense of self can lead to a lot of bad places so it’s one of the first things that the Parliament focuses on helping new dream lords deal.

That said, trying on new identities isn’t inherently a bad thing. There’s just an important line between “playing at being someone” (like Way and I were doing on Vale Septem) and actually living as them. It wasn’t something other people could determine for you either. Finding who you were could take a lifetime. At best all anyone in the Parliament (or anywhere else) could do was make sure you asked the right questions and had someone to talk to when you needed it.

I was lost in thoughts like that as we packed up the Jin and Way’s Fashion Boutique and headed out. That made the presence of a burning effigy outside of our door all the more shocking.

“Oh right. There’s people who hate us here.” I said.

I frowned. The two dolls that were burning were probably meant to be Way and I. Someone had hung them from the tines of a pitchfork that was planted, handle down, into the sand. In case the subtlety of the message was lost on us, the perpetrator had also left a sign with the words “Get Out” scrawled on it resting against the pitchfork.

“What are we going to do?” Kari asked. The joy she’d been shining with had been snuffed out in an instant. That, far more than the threat offered by the burning dolls, bothered me.

“About what?” I snapped my fingers and a column of blue fire exploded upwards consuming the dolls, the pitchfork and sign.

Kari yelped and jumped back away from the flames. Way caught her so she didn’t fall over.  I’d called on the Seventh Dominion with dream speech for a fire spell but that didn’t feel like a sufficient enough response.

“They didn’t try to kill us.” Way cautioned me.

“I know. I’ll be gentle.” I told her.

Standing over by the ashes that remained of the burned dolls, I let the Seventh Dominion’s fire spell drop away and called to its aspect as the Dominion of Justice and Punishment.

“Those whose hands wrought this effigy and those who encouraged them, by their fears, none of them shall sleep until the sun rises once again. Unless they repent.”

I spoke the words aloud, in the more formal syntax demanded by the Seventh Dominion, as I finished weaving the spell I had in mind with dream speech. At my command, the ashes of the burned dolls rose up in the form of little girls before flying apart and racing off with the wind in search of those who had left the message of hate for us.

“What did you do?” Kari asked, her fear growing to encompass me as well.

“Just a small curse.” I said, offering her a smile. “The ash dolls will seek out those responsible and scare them to keep them awake.”

“Scare them how?”, she asked, regaining her composure.

“Spooky noises. Things moving on them. Cold patches and icy fingers touching them when they least expect it. Nothing deadly, and if they happen to think to offer an apology the curse will break.” I said.

“They might escalate instead.” Way said.

“Possibly, they weren’t vicious enough to light the bungalow on fire though so we may be able to convince them that escalation isn’t the right idea.” I said.

I thought of the girl in the mirror. She could have been a monster. She still could be. The curse I’d spoken was nastier than I’d described. The torment the ash dolls would lay upon the guilty wouldn’t harm them but the terror the dolls would evoke would be all too real. Those who’d tried to terrify us into leaving were about to spend a night living out the worst ghost story they’d ever imagined. The girl in the mirror wasn’t a monster, but I’d never said she was nice either.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 7

In general, coming home to find a devil waiting for you does not make for an auspicious start to an afternoon.

“This looks very bad doesn’t it?”, the ram’s horned man said as Way, Kari and I entered the small bungalow.

He was sitting on the floor of the small dwelling with one hand stuck inside my magic backpack, struggling to pull it free.

“That depends.” I said, crossing my arms in front of my chest.

“On what?” he asked.

“Whether you look at it from the point of view of the thief who got caught or the priestess who gets to bring him to justice.” I said.

“I don’t think you’ll find anyone to render justice to me here.” the thief said, an odd smile creasing his lips.

“You can dispense summary verdicts as a knight right?” I asked Way.

She cracked her knuckles and produced a handful of flames.

“For creatures of darkness, the judgement has already been pronounced. As as a knight I am simply tasked with executing it.” she said.

“Might I be permitted to say a few words in my defense?” devil guy asked.

“I believe that is traditional.” Way said.

“This is, as you might imagine, not quite what it appears to be.” he said.

“You didn’t try to take something out of my pack without my permission?” I asked.

“The evidence on that front is clearly not in my favor, but if you will release the theft binding spell I believe you will understand my intent when you see what I was trying to extricate.” he explained.

“Tell me what it is first.” I said.

There were all sorts of nasty magical surprises he could have rigged up, but intuition was telling me that wasn’t the case.

“It’s a communique of a sensitive nature. I had thought to leave it in your pack so that others wouldn’t stumble on it before you did. You will understand why I suspected a personal meeting might result in some unpleasantness.” he said, gesturing to his appearance. “My mistake was changing my mind and attempting to extricate it without checking for the thief binding first.”

“So you were stealing your own property from me?” I asked.

“The spells on your backpack disagrees as to the ownership of the missive after I released it into your pack but yes, that is the general scope of the problem.”

I gestured to the pack and released the anti-theft spells.

“And who would this missive be from?” I asked.

“You will find his seal on the letter.” the demon guy said as he withdrew his hand and a small case from my pack. He stood and handed me the letter then folded his hands behind himself while he stood at attention.

The letter was a piece of folded parchment paper sealed with a magical golden wax that bore the imprint of the crescent moon and a trio of stars. I didn’t need meta-awareness to tell me that the letter was sealed by a royal hand.

I considered casting a spell to see if it was trapped but those magics were the purview of the Fifth Dominion in its aspect as the Keeper of Lore and Secrets. I still had the flight spell that I’d cast when I arrived bound to the “Air” aspect of the Fifth Dominion though and I didn’t want to risk giving that up since the spell had turned out fairly solid.

I stepped forward to shield Way and Kari in case my guess that the paper was harmless was wrong and then broke the seal.

I felt the magic of the seal reach out and caress my fingers. Whatever it was looking for it found and the seal broke effortlessly. I unfolded the letter to find words written in a thin but precise runic script. In the single day that I had been in Vale Septem I hadn’t learned to read the native language but the Jin who had lived here for sixteen years had.

“Greetings Unto the Queen of Shadows,” the letter began. I re-read the opening line three times. The Moon had known about that title but she was one of the great spirits of the realm. They played by their own rules. That one of the mortal rulers of the world was aware of it as well was more disturbing. The last thing this world needed was a Shadow Queen.

I continued reading.

“Your arrival has greatly affected the tides of fate. It is our desire to speak with you on the  matter of where you intend to stand on the catastrophe which has consumed us. If you will accept my pledge of good faith and hospitality, indicate your acceptance and terms to my servant Andromalius.  Sincerely Ten Rex, Lord of Goblins, Defender of the Nightward Veil, Master of the Lost Corridors.”

The King of the Goblins wanted to talk to me. And he knew that I was the Shadow Queen. That was scary enough. It changed what we were doing from a simple exploration mission into a diplomatic issue, and one that was probably above my grade level. That said, I could probably handle it even half trained as I was. I was a good student and together Way and I were pretty potent. The really scary part was his mention of the “catastrophe”. Meta-awareness translated that for me all too clearly.

He knew about the time loop they were stuck in.

I cursed, loudly and suddenly enough that everyone in the room jumped back a step.

“I take it that you are displeased with missive?” Andromalius, the devil guy, asked.

I breathed out a calmly sigh and turned to him. He was a devil, so it was possible this was a trick right? I turned my meta-awareness on him to get a sense of who he was and what his angle might be. Unfortunately it showed me that he was on the level. More than that, it showed me that the Holy Throne’s teachings left out a few key elements when they boiled things down to “light is good and dark is evil”.

“No. It’s fine. Please tell your liege that I look forward to meeting with him at his earliest convenience. My entourage will consist of my knight and possibly one other. I will require promises of hospitality and safe passage for them as well.” I said.

“Your terms are acceptable.” Andromalius confirmed.

“When does your liege wish to meet and what venue does he propose?” I asked.

“He proposes the Cloister of the Silencing Bells at sundown three days hence.” Andromalius said.

I checked my meta-awareness. The Cloister was two weeks away by foot. It lay on the border of the human and goblin kingdoms in a, predictably, remote mountain valley. It’s location was notable for several reasons, including the neutrality its position afforded it. More crucial than that though was its chief mystical property. It was a natural temple to the Fifth Dominion, specifically the Dominion as the Vault of Secrets. Scrying and other forms of magical divination failed there. It was one of the few spots where we could have a conversation that no one would be able to listen in on.

“His proposal is acceptable. Please convey my desire that as few representatives as possible be included in his entourage. I do not begrudge him an honor guard of any strength he may wish to bring, I merely believe he has chosen the location for our meeting wisely.” I said.

“I shall bear your words to him. Please accept my apologies for the untoward manner of our initial meeting.” he said with a deep formal bow.

“They are accepted.” I said with a royal nod.

He smiled and took that as leave to depart, disappearing in a wisp of brimstone.

“That…that was a devil.” Kari whispered.

“Yeah.” I confirmed.

“I thought you said you weren’t evil?” Kari was standing still in precisely the same way a rabbit in a tiny room filled with wolves would.

“He wasn’t here to tempt us. He’s bound in redemptive service to the Goblin King.” I said.

“I don’t understand.” Kari said.

“You were taught about the Light and the Dark in church school right?” I asked, knowing from meta-awareness that church school was the extent of the education that would be given to a girl of Kari’s circumstances.

“Yes?” Kari said, still looking like a cornered rabbit.

“Would you believe that the world was more complex than what they taught to a bunch of little kids?” I asked.

She laughed a short, harsh laugh.

“Yes.” she said.

“Ok, here’s the deal with Andromalius then. You know that there are demons and devils right? Most are seriously nasty. Most isn’t all though. Some of them regret what they did when they fell from grace.” I said.

“But they’re deceivers!” Kari objected.

“Yeah, some of them regret falling from grace, and a lot of others just use that story to get you to let your guard down. That’s where the idea of ‘redemptive service’ came from. Basically someone calls up a devil that claims to want to change their ways. The devil agrees to serve the summoner’s benevolent requests, meaning no killing, no tempting mortals to their doom, etc. If they comply with those terms they can remain in the material world and work on making amends for any damage they’ve caused. If they break their vow, they’re cast back to the pit and indelibly soul branded as oath breakers.” I explained.

I expected Kari to ask more questions but she just stared at me with an odd look in her eyes for a minute.

“I see. That…that actually makes sense. You’re…” her voice trailed off as a thousand thoughts seemed to flash behind her eyes. “You’re not bad at all.”

I smiled and ran a hand through my hair.

“I’m glad you think so, but don’t go overboard. I’m a person, and you know what’s universally true about people?” I asked.

“No.” Kari said.

“We’re all screwed up somehow. If you think you’ve met someone who isn’t you just don’t know them well enough yet.” I saw her frown at that idea, “It doesn’t mean that we’re bad. Or that we can’t trust each other. Just that we’re not perfect. But that’s fine. Perfect is boring.”

“And boring would be just terrible wouldn’t it?” Way asked with an accusatory smile. She knew there was a part of me that was jumping with joy at being presented with a problem to solve. I half wondered if she wasn’t going to just sit on me for the next three days. Missing the appointment with the Goblin King wasn’t likely to make whatever was brewing someone else’s problem but going to the meeting was pretty certain to land us right in the middle of it.

“Maybe not completely terrible. Check this out.” I admitted as I handed her the Goblin King’s letter.

“What does it say?” Kari asked.

“Remember how the Moon called me ‘Dark Queen’? The Goblin King knows more about me than he really should too. He wants to talk.” I said.

“Where’s that Cloister place that Andro talked about…wait, it’s north of here? Pretty far away isn’t it?” Kari asked.

I looked at her. With her education (or lack thereof), it didn’t seem likely that she’d ever learned of the Cloister, much less knew where it was. On the other hand she had been a waitress on a busy travel route. Maybe she heard of it from some travelers?

“Yeah. Too far to travel by foot. I’ll set up a portal to take us there, or at least close by, when the time is right.” I said.

“What are we going to do till then?” Kari asked.

“That will depend on when the Shadow Breakers get here. If it takes them more than three days then Way and I will enjoy a few days of rest I think. If they get here earlier then we’ll need to deal with them. Either way, it would be more than understandable if you wanted to go somewhere else. I can open a portal to a new city as easily as to the Cloister and we have enough money that you could start over with a fresh slate.” I offered.

“I can’t stay here?” Kari asked.

“That’s the other option. If you want, I can see about getting you your job back and smoothing things over with the townsfolk. You don’t have to leave this life.” I told her.

“No, I mean, can’t I stay with you two?”, she asked.

“That’s the dangerous option.” Way said.

“Why?” Kari asked.

“Because we’re not from here. I thought that wouldn’t matter. No one should know about it, or care, but apparently some fairly powerful people do.” I said.

“More powerful than the Shadow Breakers?” Kari asked.

“Yes. It’s not their power that’s a problem though. It’s what it would mean to be caught in between them. If you come with us, I know we can keep you alive, but I don’t think you’d ever be able to come back to your ordinary life.” I said.

“I don’t care. I don’t want that back. I hated it here.” Kari said.

“You won’t. If you come with us you’ll have days when you yearn to be back here.” Way said.

“Why would I?” Kari protested.

“Because here things make sense. Here the monsters are kept at bay and you can focus living.” I said.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think the monsters are kept away. I think they just look different.” Kari said, dropping her gaze to the floor.

“The Shadow Breakers?” I guessed.

Kari nodded in agreement .

“Would you do it? If you were me?” Kari asked.

“That’s not important. You’re you, what matters is what you’re willing to live with. Even when my choices are the right ones for me, they may be ones that would be wrong for you.” I said.

“But would you?” she asked, her voice smaller and more vulnerable.

“Yes. She did. It hurt her, but she left her old life behind when it was asked of her.” Way said, regarding me with a mixture of kindness and joy.

“That’s what I want to do. I know I’m no one special, but I want to go with you.” Kari said.

“What do you think?” I asked Way.

“I think I’ve never met someone who wasn’t special in some way. She might be very interesting and unique if that were true.” Way said.

“I believe it’s settled then. As long as you want it, as long as you chose it, you have a place with us Kari.”

She was still looking down at the floor so it took me a second to notice the tear drops that were falling. Way and I together gathered her into a hug as the stress of the day and the loneliness of her orphaned years caught up to her.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 6

Inasmuch as an illusion can be real, and inasmuch as the Moon’s domain was also the Moon herself, Kari had become the first person to walk on the moon in Vale Septem. True, the Moon’s Handmaidens were technically there before her, but it had been her imagination that had made them real so I was still willing to give her the distinction of being first.

“You’re not from here.” Kari said. She looked calm and relaxed but I knew that was misleading. I’d intended to give her a delightful vision, not a trip to another world and a meeting with a deity class power. There was no way that hadn’t rattled her and if she looked calm it meant it had done more than just scare her a bit.

“That’s true.” I said. I kept my voice gentle and unconcerned. If she needed time to sort through the experience of having a dream come true, I had no intention of rushing her. I remembered all too well how terrifying it had been when it had happened to me for the first time.

“I mean you’re not from this world.”

“That’s true too.” I admitted after a heart beat’s worth of surprise.

That wasn’t something Kari couldn’t have guessed. She shouldn’t have had any way to tell that I was dreamwalker. Even if she could somehow sense that I was an alien to this world, that should have translated as “foreigner” to her. She didn’t have the context to build the idea of other worlds from.  I gazed at her and looked for signs of an outside influence, something or someone that could be feeding her information that she couldn’t otherwise be aware of. As far as I could tell though, she was free of anything like that. The girl sitting before me was the same girl who’d given us breakfast and who’d been fired for that kindness.

“Are…are you a demon?” Kari asked. She wasn’t flinching away, but there was a resignation in the way she stood. I had powers that she couldn’t imagine, she’d seen that first hand. If I was a demon then she had no hope escaping me.


“Why did the Moon call you a ‘Dark Queen’ then?”

“It’s a long story. The short form is there was a spirit Queen that attacked my home. I beat her and took her title to stop the forces she’d unleashed. That made me the new Queen.” I said.

“What happened to the old one?” Kari asked, still teetering on the edge of overly calm and visibly nervous.

“I locked her away, sealed her in a prison along with her troops. They were too dangerous to allow them to roam free and too unrepentant to pardon.” I explained.

“If they were bad, why not kill them?”

I blew out a breath. That was a question I’d been asked more than once.

“A lot of reasons. The biggest one though is that I don’t think they have to be as bad as they’d become. I think something twisted them and I don’t want to let them go until I’ve had a chance to twist them back to what they were.”

“Why did you really come after me? What do you want?” Kari asked. She was still looking down, not meeting my eyes, but there was a growing defiance in her voice.

“You tell me. What are you afraid I might want?” I said as I sat down on the desk.

Kari tilted her head and looked up at me. I shrugged and smiled at her.

“You want to take me away?” she said, but her voice was filled with uncertainty.

“Nope. I’m planning to help you stay here. I think I can still get you your job back if you want it.” I said.

“You want to make me like you?”

“Gah! No! I’m enough me for this world. Having more of me always gets confusing.” I was thinking of the times I’d met shadows of myself from other worlds that paralleled my own. It was fun in the right circumstance, but in the wrong ones it was confusing and painful. Mistaken identity hijinks and evil twins were just the start of where things could go horribly awry.

“I don’t know then.” Kari said.

“The actual reason’s really complicated. Are you ready for it?” I asked.

Kari nodded.

“You did something nice for me, and I don’t want to see you get hurt for it.” I said.

She looked at me and frowned.

“That’s not complicated.”

“Really? Cause a lot of people seem to have a hard time with that idea. I mean it seems obvious to me, but if it was I expect more people would buy into it.”

“So I can go then?” Kari asked.

“Sure. I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.” I gestured to the exit to the room indicating she was free to leave. “Umm, not that you have to be the one leave. This is your place after all. I’ll head out if you want. I didn’t mean to rude before but it didn’t look like you were doing too good either.”

“What about me going with you?”

“That would be fine too. If you’re tired of this town, we can get you set up someplace else.” I said.

“What about the Shadow Breakers? You can’t leave town can you?” Kari asked.

“Way and I aren’t connected with the dark powers here. If the Shadow Breakers are honest then they won’t find any reason to persecute us.”

“But they’re not.” Kari said, suddenly passionate.

I waited a moment and then asked, “What do you mean?”

“They’re not honest. The Bishop isn’t either. My father…my father tried to stand up to them.”, she looked away, “They lie. When it gets them what they want they lie.”

There was old, deep anger in her words.

“I’m sorry.” I said. The image of a lowborn man trying to stand up to injustice from the Shadow Breakers and being “made an example of” was terrible enough. That it repeated again and again across the unending loops of time that Vale Septem’s history had been tied into was unbearable.

“They’ll find a reason. Or they’ll make one up.” Kari said.

I smiled a thin, wicked grin.

“The Shadow Breakers prey on fear. They’re too powerful too touch. What do you think they’re afraid of?” I asked.

“Real demons?” Kari guessed.

“No. Demons give them a reason for being. All the devils in the underworld give them justification for what they do. They’re not scared of demons. They need them.”

“Then what are they afraid of?”

“Someone they can’t touch.” I said “People who abuse power can imagine all too clearly how someone more powerful would abuse them in turn.”

“So what are you going to do?” Kari asked.

“Do about what?” Way asked as she stepped in view.

Kari flinched when she saw Way but then relaxed, apparently recognizing her from the Inne.

“About the Shadow Breakers. Kari think they’ll be less than charitable with us. She has some experience with them.” I said. In dream speech I added “They took her father from her.”

Way’s eyes flashed to mine. I’d lost my father when I was little. It had left me devastated and mad at the world on a level I hadn’t been fully aware of. It was possible that I might sympathize a bit too strongly with Kari. It was possible that I was entertaining thoughts of burning down the entire Shadow Breaker organization. We both knew that was the wrong way to handle the situation but we also knew that there were some things we didn’t process all that well. Situations where we each needed the other to hold us back. Like I said, acting on instinct can lead to some terrible mistakes, so we each played the other’s voice of reason when the need arose.

“What do you think?” I asked Way, acknowledging that this was one of the times when I needed her judgment in place of my own.

“We should wait till they get here. If we can find an honorable path to smooth things over then all will be well. Anything else is going to wind up with someone getting hurt.” Way looked at Kari as she said that, indicating who was mostly likely to be affected by an open battle with the Shadow Breakers. It wouldn’t be hard to keep her physically safe, but her association with us would mean that she wouldn’t have a place anywhere in the Empire of the Holy Throne if we were declared “persona non grata”.

“That sounds good.” I said. I didn’t trust myself to negotiate with the Shadow Breakers but that was if they came at us with the disdain and arrogance that Rask had. If they were professional though, I could manage to be as well.

“And it’s ok if I come with you?” Kari asked.

“Of course.” Way said before I could answer. There was a faint, amused smile on her lips that puzzled me.

What?” I asked in dream speech.

The resemblance between the two of you is amazing.

We don’t look anything alike though.

Forget how you look. How would you describe her?” Way asked.

She’s brave and kind, but she’s feeling overwhelmed. Her imagination is unreal though and she’s either got access to super human insights or someone’s feeding her a lot of very accurate information.” I said.

Like I said, the resemblance is amazing.

I rolled my eyes and smiled at Way. She was great for my morale but I had doubts about how accurate her “unbiased evaluations” of me were.

“We should head back to the bungalow. I checked in with Healer Grida. She’s fine with us staying there.” Way said, adding via dream speech, “I don’t think she likes the Bishop either.”

“Any idea when the Shadow Breaker team is due in?” I asked.

“Grida said she’s seen them show up in less than a day but two or three is more usual. She said if we were out exploring, she would let the churchmen know we’d be back by nightfall.” Way said. Or in other words, if we want to leave town, Healer Grida would do what she could to buy us a head start.

“Wait! Where did it go?” Kari asked.

“Where did what go?” I asked.

“The gown the Moon gave me! I had it in my hands and now it’s gone!” Kari looked around the small room in panic, despite the fact that there was no where a glowing white dress could be hiding.

I split my vision and clung onto the physical world. The Dreamlit world was extremely difficult to make out with the time differential between the two but I was able to spot the glow of the gown resting within Kari’s Dreamlit shadow.

“You still have it. It’s special though. You’ll only see if when you’re dreaming or if you visit the Ivory Temple again.” I told her.

She paused and I could see her considering the idea.

“I see.” she finally said. Her expression said she was still chewing on the idea and making new connections from that one unexpected observation.

The trip back to the bungalow was calmer than the flight into the forest had been. Kari led us to one of the nearby trails, so we could have made good time, but the early flowers were in bloom so we took our time admiring them.

Way had her hair pulled back and tied into a bun. It made an irresistible spot spot to tuck the tiny multi-hued flowers that we found. She tried to retaliate but my hair was too loose to hold flowers anywhere except behind my ears. Kari tried to join the fun, but given that her hair was tied off in two sets of braids that led from her forehead to halfway down her back, we were able to nearly bury her in flowers compared to the few that she got on us.

By the time we exited the forest, we were as silly and giggling as any trio of school girls ought to be allowed to be. The laughter made us seem harmless enough that the first few people we ran across even gave us a “Good Day!” greeting rather than running in terror.

We were debating what to do about lunch as we approached the bungalow and I caught the unmistakable scent of brimstone.

Way and I stopped in our tracks at the same moment and Kari bumped into me before noticing that something was wrong.

“The day was looking a little too sunny wasn’t it?” I asked Way.

She clenched her fist.

“If a little rain has to fall so that we can have our vacation then that’s how the weather has to be I guess.” she answered.

“Should I stay out here?” Kari asked.

“No. This is either going to be a nice civil conversation, or I’d like you near enough that we can protect you.” I said.

With that we went in to our home away from home and greeted the man with the red skin, ram’s horns and chiseled metallic teeth who waited inside for us.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 5

Being noticeably different is frequently a hassle. People slot you into the “Other” category where a whole bunch of nasty prejudices and behaviors lurk. Most of those come from social conditioning that extends across the history of humanity or whatever the species in question may be.That which is “like me” I can find common ground with, that which is “Other” is dangerous and best avoided if I can’t straight up destroy it.

As Parliamentary Diplomats, that’s one of the areas that our studies are most focused on reversing. Finding the commonalities with sapients you’ve never encountered before is the bedrock on which all other communication needs to stand. Anyone can transmit information to an “alien”, but to communicate requires “communing”, or in other words understanding the person that you’re communicating with on an empathic level. Our classes are mixed up to help maximize that, which is why one of my “study buddies” is a twelve foot tall spider and another has the kind of horrifying morphology that you only find on my Earth in the deep ocean creatures that live below the depths that light can penetrate.

Both of them are wonderful people. Xoxl’s a fantastically gifted poet and Yulono can somehow cook every style of food ever imagined. They’re funny, and kind and a delight to be around. But even after knowing them for over a year, there’s a part of me that jumps and shrieks if I run into them unexpectedly. The same is true for them too. It’s uncomfortable but it reminds us that “trusting our instincts” is a great way to make terrible mistakes.

The flipside of that is we’re also trained to recognize how other people can wind up governed by their instincts. One of the most effective forms of manipulation is to arrange for someone to manipulate themselves into doing what you want.

The serious coursework on that sort of thing is still several years away for me, but even so I could appreciate how people’s instinctive urge to avoid the “scary devil girls” caused them to clear a path for us as Way and I chased after the fleeing Kari.

Kari ran without watching where she was going but she clearly knew the town well enough that it wasn’t a problem for her. Rather than running off towards the beach she angled to the north breaking away from the stone lined streets and wooden building to plunge into the foliage undergrowth that bordered Dawns Harbor.

The forests around Dawns Harbor were kept safe by the sanctuary spells of the Holy Throne but the spells weakened considerably the more distant from the town or the roads you went. Kari had to know that, but she was upset enough to be past caring.

“Wait!” I called as we ran. That didn’t slow her flight at all and for a young girl without any magical enhancements, Kari ran damn fast.

“Catch her in the woods?” Way asked via dream speech.

“Probably the best idea. We’ll have more privacy there to talk.” I replied.

“The townspeople will ostracize her further is she’s linked with us.” Way cautioned.

“Might be too late to avoid that, but you’re right. It’ll be worse the more contact they think she’s had with us.” I said.

“You’re going to try to clear up the misunderstandings, aren’t you?”, Way asked out loud. There was the air of accusation to it, which was fair. Clearing up the mess I’d inadvertently made meant getting involved. That meant work and, with the way things normally went for us, fighting. In other words pretty much the opposite of rest and relaxation.

“That’ll depend on her.” I said. Leaving Kari on her own seemed wrong on a number of levels, but forcing her to take stand as the catalyst for changing the entire town’s opinions on us didn’t strike me as any kinder.

We followed Kari through the woods to a cleft at the base of a small waterfall. I motioned Way to hold up before we could peer inside it.

“This feels like a great place for a trap and that devil guy is probably still watching us. Could you check out the area while I talk with Kari?” I asked.

“Sure. Let me know when you’re ready for me to join you. I’ll yell if I need a hand with anything.” I nodded and headed towards the cleft in the rocks.

“Kari?” I called out before stepping into view. It was both an acknowledgement of her space and a request to enter it.

“Go away!” the young girl sobbed.

“I’m not sure leaving here without you is a good idea.”, I said.

“I’ll be fine.”

“I meant for me actually.”

“What? Why are you here?”

“I won’t lie, I heard some of what happened back to the Inne. It sounded like you got fired for helping us out. I didn’t like that and I’d like to be able to help you with it.”

“I don’t need any help.”

“Is it ok if I come around? It feels a little weird talking to a waterfall.” I asked.

“Fine. Whatever.”

I walked around the edge of the cleft and saw the room beyond. It had probably once been only a natural fissure but someone had carved it out to be a sizeable room. Kari was sitting against the far wall hugging her knees and looking at me with accusatory eyes. Beside her there was an old chest that was closed and locked with a heavy padlock. A desk and pair of chairs stood conspicuously out of place against the wall to her left. Someone had used this as a hideaway at one point.

“Nice sanctum.” I said. I’d seen grander dwellings, but at the same time, I hadn’t had a private spot like this when I was her age so I was a little envious.

“Nice what?”

“Sanctum. It’s a special spot that’s all yours.” I said as I strolled slowly into the cave.

“How do you know that?” Kari was looking at me, but her arms were still wrapped around her legs.

“If you wanted to be with people you could have run home.” I said.

“Listen I don’t want to get in anymore trouble. I shouldn’t even have talked to you.” Kari said. She moved her hands from her legs and crossed them in front of her chest. Defensive and angry.

“I know. I’m grateful you did though.” I stopped strolling and leaned back against the wall beside the desk.

“So what are you doing here?”

“Figuring out how I can pay you back.”

“I don’t need your money. They wouldn’t let me keep it anyways.”

“I wasn’t thinking of money, though you did just lose your job for getting me breakfast so I suspect I owe you a pretty big tip.”

“They won’t let me keep it!” Kari insisted, looking away down and away from me.

I slumped against the desk and lowered myself to sit on the ground.  I wasn’t facing Kari directly, but I could see her out of corner of my eye.

“There are ways around that.” I said.

“Like hiding it?”

“Sure, but that has a lot of problems. I was thinking more in terms of getting you your job back if you still wanted it. If your boss didn’t think we were in league with the bishop’s enemies, she wouldn’t begrudge you a tip right?”

Kari croaked out an unkind and bitter laugh.

“Yes she would. She only pays us in food and clothes and a place to sleep. She keeps all the coins ‘for our own good’. And you’d never get her to take me back.”

I kicked myself for having forgotten to check my meta-awareness memories for how the economy worked in Vale Septem. Reviewing them, I saw that while professionals traded in coin, the poor worked and traded mostly via barter. Kari’s employment wasn’t bad for a girl of her age and skills, but there also wasn’t much future in it. She was poor and was going to stay poor no matter what she did.

Well, almost. Sticking up for a traveling dreamlord ought to earn one some perks I felt. She was right however that simply dumping coins on her would not fix her problems.

“I can be pretty persuasive when I’m telling the truth. But before I work out how I’d get your boss to believe we’re not ‘that kind of people’, there’s the question of whether you want that job back at all.”

“It’s stupid. I don’t have a choice.” Kari sniffled.


“There’s nowhere else I can go.”

“You’ve seen everywhere else?”

“No, but it doesn’t matter.” she said angrily.

“You ever imagined being anywhere else?” I asked.

Kari laughed again and again it was short and bitter.

“All the time. I hate it here.”

“Tell me about them.” I said.

“About them?”

“The places you’ve imagined going.”

“They’re just stupid places. None of them are real.”

It was my turn to laugh, though there was no bitterness in the chuckle that escaped my lips.

“What’s so funny?” Kari asked.

“Some of the most wonderful places I’ve been, my home even, are places you would never believe are real. Trust me when I say there’s nothing stupid at all about imaging places like that.”

“Yeah, but I’ll never get there.”

“Maybe not, but tell me about one anyways. What’s your favorite place to imagine?”

Kari looked down at the ground again and was silent for a moment.

“The Ivory Temple.” she said.

Meta-awareness didn’t give me anything on it so I knew it wasn’t an actual location in the world. I could also tell that it wasn’t her ‘favorite’ strictly speaking. She was treating me like I was an adult, so she edited out any of the ones that would make her sound childish, or that were too personal.

“What’s it like?” I asked.

“It’s on top of a mountain, above the clouds so the sky is always blue. It’s the Moon’s home when she’s not in the heavens so everything is the white of stars.”

As Kari spoke, I began weaving a spell. I couldn’t cast one in the usual fashion without her noticing, so I cheated a bit with my dreamlord skills. In place of calling verbally to the Seventh Dominion (which covered Illusions), I bent reality just a little bit and called to the Dominion with dream speech, weaving a spell based on the story that Kari was telling.

“What about at night? Is the sky blue then too?” I asked, fighting to keep my vision and senses within the physical world. Touching the dreaming was easy enough but if I wasn’t careful I’d get swept up in it and wind up falling out of time. Even a second in the Dreamlit world would cast me a week and a half forward in Vale Septem which would be a bit counterproductive under the current circumstances.

“Yes, the sky’s always blue, it’s not dark like the night is here. It’s a like the ocean when it’s shining at sunset. All silver and blue and red.”

“Is the Moon alone there?” I asked.

“No. She has her favorite people with her, her Hand Maidens. They’re all beautiful and they’re dressed in moonlight.”

“How do you get to be a Handmaiden?”

“If you look up at the Moon and tell her how pretty she is a thousand times, she’ll look down on you and if she needs a new Handmaiden she’ll carry you to her home on a glowing horse of stars.” she said a spark of wonder playing in her eyes before she sunk back down into a frown. “See, I told you it was stupid.”

“You also said you’d never go there right?”

“No one can go there. It’s not real.” Kari pouted.

“This is asking a lot, but will you trust me for one moment.”


“Because you’re brave and I want to show you something.” I said.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, still uncertain.

“Just close your eyes.” I said.

I knew I was asking for a huge leap of faith from her. If I had any malevolent intentions there were countless horrible things I could do to her. To be fair though, if I was some kind of monster I could do most of those to her whether or not she closed her eyes.

Kari looked at me, uncertainty painted all over her face. I met her eyes and waited quietly while she made up her mind. After a moment whatever battle had raged within her was decided and she gave a small nod and then closed her eyes.

I breathed out the spell that I’d been holding and made it real within the world, or at least as real as an illusion could be.

The grey stone floor of the room rippled away, replaced by a radiant white which spread up the walls as well. The ceiling sparkled away revealing a brilliant blue sky above. On the walls, the areas which weren’t covered by the white moonstone fell away to reveal more blue sky and the sea of white clouds far below us.

Like ghosts, wisps of vapor coalesced into a dozen women in scintillating robes who were waiting in attendance on a giant woman of pure alabaster skin, hair and clothing.

I smiled looking at the work. There was far more imagination packed in Kari’s words than the mere sound of them had been able to convey.

“Ok, open your eyes Kari.” I said as I walked over to help her up.

She opened her eyes and screamed. It was a short, panicky scream cut off by disbelief as much as any rational process. The Hand Maidens and the Avatar of the Moon turned to look at us in it’s wake.

That was unexpected. They were only supposed to be set decoration for the illusion.

I blinked my eyes and cast out with my meta-awareness. The Handmaidens were real. That was scary. So was the Moon. That was scarier.

I looked at Kari. She was awestruck. I blinked and looked at her again. How much imagination did this girl have?

“My children, we have guests.”, the Moon said.

I almost panicked, but the decorum Professor Haffrun had so diligently labored to instill in me won out.

“Though we are uninvited, I hope we are not unwelcome and pray that we have not intruded or trespassed against your grace.” I said to the Moon.

“Neither intrusion nor trespass are you guilty of, nor are you unwelcome or uninvited.” the Moon replied.

“It is by your will that this vision has found form in the solid world?” I asked.

“Yes, Dark Queen.”

I felt my heart freeze up at that. If the Moon knew to call me by that title, then she was more than a simple spirit of Vale Septem. I hadn’t worn it openly since I’d awakened to my powers two years ago. That, and the secrets that went with it, weren’t meant to be a part of any world except my own.

“As I stand before you, I claim no territory in this world and hold no dominion over any who call this place home.” I protested calmly.

“Yes. And yet, you bear the title still. The title and more, about which I would speak with you, though not in this form.”

“I have no other form here.” I said.

“You need no other, it is my own form I speak of, one lost to me.” the Moon said.

Spirits love their riddles and cryptic speech. Having been on the other end of this sort of conversation though I was aware of how difficult it can be and was willing to cut the Moon some slack. Her references might be opaque to me but between meta-awareness and whatever additional context I could pick up on my own I had a feeling it would all make sense eventually.

“That discussion is for another time however. For this moment I merely wished to indulge in the loveliness of the vision you created.” the Moon said.

“The vision was woven from my magics, but the loveliness you see, and the imagination that powered it, belongs to this brave one.” I said, indicating Kari with a gentle wave of my hand.

Kari didn’t look pleased with the extra attention. She’d blanched almost as white as the floor and walls and her eyes had flown open so wide they were the size of dinner plates.

I knew that feeling all too well too.

“It’s ok.” I said simply and reached out to take her hand.

Wordlessly she extended her hand to me, but her eyes remained glued on the Moon even as I helped her stand up.

“Approach please child.” the Moon said to Kari.

Kari tried to move but her body looked like it had locked up on her.

“She’s here because she likes your work.” I whispered to Kari.

That seemed to penetrate her awestruck brain. She turned to me, blinked and then shook her head to clear it.

“Ok.” she said and let me guide her forward.

The Handmaidens parted as we approached the Moon’s throne and formed into two lines to funnel us towards the great spirit.

“Mortal child, you have given us a wondrous gift in this place. Should I have need of a new Handmaiden I would be pleased for you to join me here. Until then please accept this gift in remembrance of the guise you has chosen to see me in.” the Moon said.

The Handmaiden nearest the Moon stepped forward with a glowing white bundle in her hands. She turned to stand in from of Kari and bowed, presenting the girl with a dress of moonlight. Kari looked at the offering with her eyes wide and her mouth open and moving but producing no sound.

“Th-thank you!”, she finally managed to breath out and then thought to add a deep bow.

“Our time here must, of a necessity, be brief. If you need seek us out again, we ask that you invite us here once more.” the Moon said.

And then the vision faded away. The last image of it that I saw was the Moon lowering her head in a small bow at me. That did not bode well for my vacation.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 4

Waking up in the morning after a deep night’s sleep is a feeling unlike any other. I’d forgotten how much I used to like staying wrapped up in my blankets on a cold morning while the tide of residual weariness slowly drifted away. Whatever dreams I’d had that night, however the previous day had been, for a few precious minutes none of that would matter. New day, fresh start, clean slate. Moments like that don’t last, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious.

My memories of the previous day woke up a few minutes after I did. The image of Bishop Rask’s rage twisted face was enough to drive away the pleasant comfort I’d been snuggled in and get me to sit up and take stock of where we were at.

“Way?”, I asked in dream speech.

“And at last she awakens!”, Way dream spoke back. I could tell she wasn’t that far away. I could also tell she was teasing me.

“What time is it? How late did I sleep in?”, I asked.

“A few hours past dawn. You missed out on low tide.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“You needed your sleep.”

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“You may, just possibly, be right.”

I sensed her satisfaction at that admission.

“So, how much trouble do you think I got us into last night?” I asked.

“Less than I would have.”

“What? How’s that possible?”

“I don’t argue with people well.”, Way said. She sent along the memory of our ‘negotiations’ with the Kriltrix Hive. The Kriltrix had evolved from their world’s equivalent of locusts. They retained a similar feeding pattern after their Queen had been uplifted to sapience. When we’d realized that the world we’d met them on had been fully populated before the Kriltrix had arrived Way had reacted somewhat aggressively. One the plus side I had managed to save the Kriltrix Queen and once Way was done there wasn’t any need to bury the billion mindless warrior drones the Queen had commanded. Of course there also wasn’t a planet left to bury them on either.

“I’m not sure Professor Haffrun would give me particularly high marks for last night’s performance.” I said.

“It doesn’t matter at this point. They all left a little after dawn.”

“I’m a little surprised. I’d expected they’d come after us last night, or send someone to arrest us this morning.” I said as I pulled myself out from under the covers. I swung my feet down off the bed and immediately regretted the move. The floor was so cold I flinched away from it, curling my toes to grasp the escaping warmth.

“Is it against the law to speak to a Bishop like you did?”, Way asked.

“Not exactly, but someone at Rask’s level could trump up whatever charges they wanted. If he said I was in league with the diabolists there weren’t a lot of people there who could oppose him. On the other hand, with a charge like that he’d have to stick around and convene a trial. That would involve calling in at least one other Bishop, so maybe it just wasn’t worth his time.” I said, drawing on meta-awareness to act as my memory of Vale Septem’s legal customs.

I reached in my magic backpack and pulled out a pair of thick socks. That gave me enough shielding to hop across the floor to where my boots lay before the door. My traveling robes weren’t any warmer as I pulled them on but after the initial shock of touching the chilly floor,  I knew to be ready for the robes being frosty as well.

“What are you doing now?”, I asked her as I exited the bungalow into the crisp spring morning air.

“Swimming, the water’s very nice!”, she sent the sensation of the warm salt water’s embrace as she glided across the bay.

“Umm, you’re warded against cold aren’t you?”, I asked, still shivering a bit in my chilly robes.

“Yes, how could you tell?”

“Because it’s freezing out here!”

To be fair, with the sun shining on me it wasn’t quite as cold as I was making it out to be.

“I should probably head in then.”

“Might be good. People probably think we’re nuts as it is.”

Way emerged from the tide following a wave that rolled up onto the shore farther than most. She’d been beautiful when I’d first met her and the two years since had only added to her loveliness.

Dawns Harbor was just off a major trade route through the human empire of the Holy Throne. That had meant the populace was used to seeing people of many different ethnicities. As a result we’d been able to keep the bodies we fashioned for ourselves close to our original physical bodies without fear of attracting too much attention.

In Way’s case that meant she had her youthful vibrancy paired with all the graceful accents of feminity a young woman might possess. She wasn’t a flawless beauty, flawlessness was the realm of glamor and other magical artifice, but she about as beautiful as any real person I’d ever seen.

I was a different story. I didn’t mind how I looked, but I was nowhere near as pretty as Way. I’d developed enough in the last few years that I wasn’t in danger of being mistaken for a boy, though with a little work and a haircut I could probably still pass for one. Even in my nicest, most girly dresses, I was kind of plain though. It was something I took an odd pride in, mostly because I could have ‘fixed’ that with dream magic but had chosen not too. I wanted the ‘real me’ to be as real as I could be.

It probably helped that all of the people who might care about how I looked liked me the way that I was too. In that, and in many other ways, I was extremely fortunate.

“We should get some breakfast.”, Way said, in regular speech as she toweled off the salt water. She spoke a quick incantation to the Sixth Dominion and called a shower of water over herself, washing the remaining salt water out of her hair and swimming suit.

“I’m certainly hungry enough. The food was great last night but I could have used the next course to really feel full.” I said, following Way back into the bungalow while she changed into her armor. Going into town wasn’t likely to involve getting attacked, but then most successful attacks happened when they were unlikely. As an itinerant knight, it also wasn’t out of character for Way to be in armor any more than it was for me to be in my priestess robes.

I held that idea in mind as we walked into town and noticed that we were attracting more than our fair share of attention. It wasn’t pleasant interest or curiosity either. The first person we passed on the street turned around when he saw us and started walking the other way. The next paused at the door to her house, shutting it until we were past. The same pattern followed with the next three people we happened upon.

“They’re afraid.” Way whispered.

“They weren’t last night.”

“They may not have been able to see us clearly last night.”

“Or Rask spread some rumors about us.”

“That seems petty.”

“Yeah, if he wanted to make things hard for us, he could have trumped up some charge to summon us back for today.” I said.

“I think you may have been right about him being too busy. The company of soldiers left quickly this morning.”

“Something’s up. This is supposed to be a peaceful era. Why would a bishop be commanding a military force against a group of diabolists?” I wondered.

“Either its a large group, or someone in the group is exceptionally powerful.” Way suggested.

“Or they’re after something else entirely.”

“Possibly. We’re not running off to see what it is though.”

I smiled. Among her other traits, Way was very dependable. I hadn’t thought she’d let me off the hook for getting some R&R but I hadn’t expected her to beat me to the punch like that either. I could have protested, but ultimately she was right. Anything that happened here had happened again and again, across countless other iterations of the time loop. Whatever Rask’s pet project was, it hadn’t left a noticeable mark on history. For all his bluster and self importance, he just didn’t matter that much.

We arrived at the Inne to find that breakfast was still in full swing. The tables weren’t packed but there was a crowd of perhaps thirty or so people dining or waiting for their food to arrive. Way and I took one of the side tables, noticing as we did that conversations quieted or ground to a halt as we passed people by.

“What do you suppose they’re thinking?” Way asked in dream speech.

“Given that Rask was after diabolists? Probably that we’re under suspicion for aiding and abetting them. If we were full fledged diabolists, Rask would have to had to deal with us personally. If we’re just working with the diabolists then it’s a case for the civil authorities to deal with.” I replied in dream speech.

“Want to study while we wait?” Way asked, switching to normal speech for the benefit of those around us.

“Sure, you brought our books?”

Way answered by passing me a text named ‘Intercultural Communications and Conflict Resolution’. The joke wasn’t lost on me given the way I’d antagonized Rask. Normally we didn’t study from ancient handwritten tomes of vellum and leather, but our holotexts would have looked too out of place on Vale Septem.

I’d been in restaurants that had poor service but after an hour of waiting, during which the wait staff passed by our table but refused to acknowledge us on several occasions, it became clear that we simply weren’t going to be served. My stomach grumbled at the thought. Our packs had all kinds of dried trail rations, the standard fare of itinerant adventurers on many worlds, but the food at the Inne had been delicious and I was craving one of their loaves of bread like mad.

I looked at Way, frowning in both hunger and aggravation.

“Not the best start to our vacation so far is it?” she asked.

“Leaves room for it to get better right?”, I replied with a weary smile. In theory I could still shapechange. The (silly) thought crossed my head that, worst case, I could always turn into a landshark and just eat the damn wait staff.  I chuckled and shared the idea with Way via dream speech, as well as the complete lack of seriousness behind it.

More realistically, there was the fact that they were making a fairly accomplished itinerant priestess grumpy. ‘Itinerant’ in this context translated to ‘combat capable’ and ‘used to solving problems with violence’. Yes, they might be scared of Rask, but he was far away and I was right here. Also I was much much scarier than Rask.

It wasn’t a struggle for the angel of my better nature to shoot that thought down though. The last thing these people needed was more fear in their lives. They were afraid of Rask because of his power, both that he might use it on them and that he might cut them off from it.

Dawns Harbor had a local guard but as a small seaside town they didn’t merit either a large force or a particularly well trained one. Most of the protection they enjoyed came from the sanctuary spells that were placed on the town by representatives of the Holy Throne, like Bishop Rask. Absent those spells, monsters of all sorts would be able to invade the town and its local environs. The spells weren’t given freely of course. The town tithed heavily for them, but they were still dispensed by the will of the Holy Throne, or more specifically the will of people like Rask.

That wasn’t the kind of setup that would last forever under normal conditions. Eventually people would find other ways to make themselves safe. That usually came at the price of a war of some kind, either against the monsters, or against those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, or (most often) both. Except that would never happen in Vale Septem. Over and over, history would repeat itself without the possibility of real growth or change. I felt little sick at that thought.

“We could always go someplace else.” Way said. Her frown said that she was feeling as hungry as I was. That made me think leaving was a great idea. Cranky Jin was bad, cranky Way was much worse. Plus, she need the R&R as much as I did and stressing over breakfast wasn’t exactly conducive for that.

“I understood that you girls were going to be staying in town so as to avoid causing any trouble?” I turned to look at the large man who’d spoken. He was standing behind me with his arm draped over the back of the seat I was in. There was an arrogance to the gesture, it said he didn’t consider me any sort of threat since I had a wide open shot at his torso (armored) and head (unprotected).

“And you would know or care about us why exactly?” I asked. Again, that was the kind of response that Professor Haffrun would dock me points for. As a diplomat, social judo was an art we were required to develop and practice. Technically I wasn’t working with the Diplomatic Corp at the moment though so blunt force social exchanges were potentially more forgivable.

“My name’s Watch Commander Brayson and it’s my job to know what kind of trouble might be in town and head it off before it gets out of hand.” the armored man said. He hadn’t come with any backup which said he was either reckless or had enough experience handling young adventurers that he didn’t think he needed anyone else along.

“Why would we be trouble?” I asked.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know. Just like I’m sure I don’t know why the good Bishop asked me to keep an eye on you. Said he’d sent for a Shadow Breaker team to do a routine inspection of the town. Given our proximity to the problem his force is moving to handle, it was only reasonable he said. He also wanted me to remind you two specifically that anyone who flees from the Shadow Breakers forfeits the assumption of innocence. So, maybe you can tell me. Why would you be trouble?” Brayson said.

The Shadow Breakers, meta-awareness informed me, parallelled the Inquisition from my world. They were the ones charged with hunting down those who worshipped or consorted with the dark powers of the world. Unfortunately, as the judge, jury and executioner in such matters, there was no one who oversaw the claims they made, no court of appeals. Like the Inquisition, the Shadow Breakers had become a political force more than anything else.

There were still trials of lowborn people, but these were primarily to reinforce the image the Shadow Breakers chose to project. Their primary purpose was to keep the various noble houses in line and bleed out any that were weak enough to be culled for the Holy Throne’s benefit. The number of Shadow Breakers were kept low not because of the training required, but because those who held their reigns didn’t like sharing that power anymore than they had to.

“I see. I presume word has gone out about that to the town in general.” I asked.

“No official statements have been made at this point.” Brayson said.

Which meant he’d told someone unofficially and allowed the town grapevine to disseminate the news. With the way news like that gets distorted, I was little surprised the townsfolk hadn’t gone for their torches and pitchforks already.

“Good. I wouldn’t want people getting the wrong idea. Did the Bishop say when he would be back? I’m hoping it will be while the Shadow Breakers are still here. I’m sure they’ll have some interesting questions for him.”

That was a dangerous line to play. If Rask was able to call a Shadow Breaker team into the field on short notice like that, he had to have fairly deep connections with them. On the other hand pretending that I had dirt on him might give the locals here a reason to keep their hands off the aforementioned torches and pitchforks. It was certainly better than looking afraid (and therefore guilty) like a normal person would. There was even an outside chance that the Shadow Breakers weren’t friendly with Rask and would welcome an opportunity to break him down, but the odds there were longer than it was worth playing for.

Commander Brayson looked at me critically for a moment, trying to judge how serious I was.

“Yeah, I just can’t imagine how you could be trouble.” he said after a minute had passed.

“You probably also want to tell us that the people in town would feel more comfortable if they didn’t have to worry about strangers lurking about, right?” Way asked.

“I have no official position as to the whereabouts of guests to our town, providing they are behaving in a lawful manner. I will say that people who come to our fine shore intending to recuperate tend to find their rest more peaceful when they avoid the bustle of town though.”

“And do these resting people tend to eat while they’re here?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t know. I suppose some go foraging for food and find themselves traveling to quieter spots.” Brayson replied.

He could have said ‘get out of my town’ but that might have upset Rask if the bishop actually was trying to snare us in the Shadow Breaker’s net, so instead he made it clear that he wouldn’t do anything to stop us from leaving on our own.

“Oh I’m sure we won’t be foraging much or getting lost. I’d really like to talk to the Shadow Breakers and offer them my insight on a few things.” I said.

“Good, good. So you’ll be staying put. I’m sure the bishop will be glad to hear that.”

“Yes, in fact it looks like we may be staying put right here for a while. It’s a nice spot to read and business has been so busy we haven’t had a chance to eat yet.” I said it loud enough that the three nearest tables and two of the wait staff could hear it clearly.

“You should see Healer Grida when you’re done. She asked after you as well, and it’s her bungalow that you’re set up in.” Brayson said, addressing Way instead of me.

“Will she need it back?” Way asked.

“She didn’t say. Just wanted to check in on your recovery I believe.”

“I remember being taken to her house in town. I’ll make sure to stop by there.” Way said.

“I will let you two get back to your breakfast then. Do try to stay out of trouble.” Brayson said, and detached himself from the booth we were sitting in.

A few minutes later, a waitress of a few years younger than us came over carrying a large tray of breakfast fare.

“Sorry for the wait. The, uh, cook was busy.” she said as she put out plates of scones, bowls of jam and a sampling of different meats and cheeses. For drinks she poured us each a cup of a sweet, minty, lemony, beverage that went nicely with the other dishes.

“My name is Kari, if you’d like any more just let me know.” she said and then scampered off back to the kitchen.

Whether out of helpful exuberance or simply a desire to ensure we left as soon as possible, Kari had given us far more than a standard portion so, even as hungry as we were, we had a hard time finishing the dishes off. Since both Way and I were starving by that point we did give it a valiant try however. Once it was clear we were done, Kari swooped by again to gather up our plates and verify that we didn’t need any more food.

“Listen, not everyone here thinks you’re bad.”, Kari leaned in and whispered.

“That bishop…”, she began and then cut herself off, unwilling to risk voicing whatever complaint she had in mind. Before either Way or I could respond, she turned with the empty dishes she was carrying and fled back to the kitchen.

We were gathering our books together and getting ready to leave when we heard shouting begin in the kitchen. At first it was generally inaudible over the chatter of the other patrons but the voices rose in volume until more or less everyone in the Inne could hear them.

“I told you we don’t serve their kind!” an older woman’s voice rang out through the growing silence.

Kari’s reply was muffled by the door so that I couldn’t make out her reply, except to guess that she was the one who was yelling back.

“Then you’re fired! Get out of here!” the older woman screamed.

There was some more screaming, punctuated by sound of pots and pans being thrown before Kari burst out of the kitchen in tears and dashed out of the Inne.

I looked at Way and saw that she shared my intent. It was a ripple from our actions that had caused Kari grief. She owned the choices that she made, so in a sense it wasn’t our fault she got fired. On the other hand, we did owe her a debt of gratitude and even without that I’d want to see things made right for someone who was brave enough to feed strangers like we’d been.

As we rose to follow after Kari, I noticed that Way had burned a sigil into the table, a scythe with a handle of lightning. Under it were the words “Bill me”. Tactfully she’s left out the “if you dare”.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 3

One of the neat things about creating an identity for yourself in a new world is that you can have any “stuff” you chose to imagine. Since Way and I were both “itinerant adventurers” we’d opted to keep things fairly simple. A reasonable pile of gold coins, general supplies and food. The one deviation from the strictly pragmatic was our clothes.

I’d never been much of a fashionista. My normal outfits were pretty deeply on the “casual fit in plain colors” side of the clothing spectrum. That said, when you can have whatever clothes you can imagine, it’s hard to resist getting creative. Add to that vastly enhanced carrying capacity of the magical bags that were commonly used by adventurers in Vale Septem and between Way and I, the tiny hut we were in could have doubled as a major fashion boutique.

I’d spent a fair portion of the afternoon dithering over what to wear as “dining clothes”, trying on various combinations for Way to comment on. I wasn’t that concerned with how I looked, but it was something to do that kept me occupied.

Somehow the prospect of dinner with a pair of Holy Knights that included the possibility of attack by the forces of darkness didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as the prospect of spending an hour doing nothing at all.

“Not to discourage you, but why not go in your priestly robes?” Way asked from behind the table that she’d assembled a pile of her spare armor pieces on.

“I probably will.” I admitted. I looked at the shirt I was holding. Just because you can imagine fuscia and teal together doesn’t mean you should. I threw it back in my magic backpack. “What are you going to wear?”

“My armor.”

“I thought we weren’t expecting trouble?” I teased her.

“We’re not expecting trouble to interrupt our vacation.” she corrected me.

“And if you can deal with it before I notice, then it’s not really trouble?” I guessed.

She smiled silently and continued polishing her armor to a mirror bright shine. Way was fast, impossibly fast in some worlds. On Vale Septem she wouldn’t be breaking the sound barrier but barring an early warning from my meta-awareness, she’d be the first to deal with anything that came our way.

I frowned at the idea of her having all the fun before I noticed what I was thinking and mentally kicked myself. We’d had a pretty long string of successes. We’d defeated a number of threats to my Earth because our foes got overconfident. I prided myself on not being stupid enough to fall into that same trap, but I could see how that was easier said than done.

In the end I tried on four more outfits before settling on a clean and undamaged version of my priestess robes. The robes weren’t particularly flattering, but there wasn’t much to flatter on me either. As a symbol, the robes were iconic enough in Vale Septem that they’d get the message across that I wanted to send. In theory that should have been to advertise that I was available to help anyone with metaphysical problems. In practice I viewed it more as painting a bullseye on my chest and daring the bad guys to take their best shot.

“Those robes have protective wards?” Way asked.

“Yeah. Physical mostly but I managed to squeeze in a little shielding from magical effects too.” I said, passing the robes to Way for her inspection.

“I could fortify them further?” she offered.

“I’d rather you keep your armor as solid as possible. People will expect a knight to be tougher than a priest and I’ll be unhappy with you blocking for me unless I know you’re a lot better shielded than I am.”

“Ok. As long as you let me cover you.”

“Within reason. If we get attacked by a thousand ninjas, I call dibs on at least two of them.”

“I’ll hold you to that. No more than two.”

“No more than two on my own, the others I’ll just provide an ‘assist’ for.” I promised.

Way threw her polishing towel at me and I snatched it out the air before it could it cover my head. I sighed and tossed the towel back into her backpack.

“Not that the chance of a ninja army attack is terribly high.” I said.

“You sound disappointed.” Way said. Her tone was light but there was a hint of worry there. I flopped onto the bed. This was supposed to be a vacation for her too. She spent far too much time worrying about me as it was, I certainly didn’t need to give her more cause for concern.

“Don’t mind me. I used to know how to goof off really well. I’m just out of practice, I’m sure it’ll come back to me though.”

“What do you think was bothering Maak?” Way asked, content with my answer for the time being.

I thought of the shorter Holy Knight that had approached us. Dark hair, dark scowl, dark mood. The only side he’d shown us was a grumpy, distrusting one. There had to be more to him than that though given the interplay between the two knights.

“They’re hunting devils right? Or sorcerers that are in league with them. I thought he was suspicious of us, but now that you mention it, it’s probably more than that.” I said.

“Something about this is personal for him?” Way guessed.

“Probably. He was civil to us though so either he’s prejudiced against adventurers and under orders not to show it, or he was actually mad about the Expedition they’re on.”

“He feels bound by his duty.” Way said, and I saw a wisp of old pain drift across her face.

“Could be a lot of different reasons.” I said.

“Think he’ll spoil dinner?”

“Yes and no. I don’t think he’ll cause any trouble, but I don’t think he’ll be very talkative either.  And I’m betting Gahn won’t feel like chatting about the details of their mission with Maak glowering at him, which is a bit of a loss for us.”

“If the watcher who saw you earlier comes back, the details of their mission won’t matter since we’ll need to deal with him then. If he doesn’t come back then it won’t matter since we won’t be joining them.” Way said.

“There is that.”, I agreed, “So, what do you suppose an company on the move eats in this world?”

As it turned out the answer was ‘bread and soup’, though that did not do the dinner justice at all.

With it being early spring, Dawns Harbor was still working off their winter stocks for their meals. The company that Ghan and Maak traveled with had brought their own supplies, which included a more varied fare but to stretch the meat and fish further most of the ingredients were prepared into one or more of the soups and stews that were served.

Being guests of the Holy Knights meant we ate with them in the local Inne’s private upper room. Most of the commoners who made up the bulk of the company ate either downstairs in the public room or took their food back to their encampment just outside of town.

Maak had greeted us at the door to the Inne when we arrived, still scowling and gloomy. With as few words as possible he’d acknowledged us and led us up to the private dining room. Gahn had spied us as we entered and spared Maak from the need to make introductions. Besides the four of us there were five others gathered at the dinner table. Four of them were the company’s squad leaders, two men and two women, all older than Way and I, and all cut from the same well weathered cloth.

The last dinner guest was an older man who was dressed in robes like my own except richer and more ornate. As an itinerant priestess, I’d chosen robes that were functional and sturdy. Bishop Rask’s robes on the other hand were made from fine silks, woven through with golden embroidery and backed by spells to preserve their luster through all sorts of inclement weather and other poor conditions for travel.

Due to his rank, Rask’s seat was at the head of the table. Perhaps because of our shared profession, I was seated on his right with Way beside me. Across the table, Gahn and Maak sat opposite us, with the four squad leaders taking up the rest of the seats.

The first course was served as soon as introductions were made and we were seated. We were presented with bowls of bread filled with savory stews that were delicious enough to halt our conversation completely. Plates filled with mounds of rolls and cheeses followed after the soups and were accompanied by dried sweet fruits that tasted like very mild pineapples. Wine accompanied each course and while Way and I were underage on my Earth, on Vale Septem the drinking age was pretty much “as soon as the child is done nursing”.

“I hear that you do not wish to join our Expedition.” Bishop Rask said without preamble after he finished the few bits of dried fruit he’d selected.

“We’ve traveled here for a period of recuperation. Neither Way nor I are in suitable condition for a campaign at the moment.” I replied, meeting his gaze evenly. The look I got back told me a number of things. Rask believed himself to be a figure of great authority and presence. Even the Holy Knight’s showed him deference. He’d expected me to be awed by his rank and the benevolent fare he provided.

As an itinerant priestess, I drew no income from the Holy Throne, but I was still subject to its laws. Charges of diabolism or the commission of any of the rest of the “Great Sins” would land me in the same fires that a commoner would burn in. In theory, Bishop Rask should have been a terrifying figure. In practice he struck me as a nothing more than an old man who was far too used to getting his own way all the time.

“My Knight’s tell me that your companion needed no further healing. Are you of unsound body?” Rasked asked. His tone was still cordial but the underlying message was clear. If we weren’t physically debilitated then he saw no reason we shouldn’t volunteer to aid his cause since he was so very important.

“I am quite well.” I said without offering an explanation or excuse for why we refused to join them. I flexed my leg under the table testing out the healing spell I’d tried on it. It wasn’t one hundred percentage fixed but the damage was largely repaired. A good night’s sleep and I’d be fine.

“You are perhaps pledged to some other campaign?” Rask continued. An Anointed Expedition would take precedence over any quests of merely local importance, so any attempt to plead for a prior commitment would be one Rask could easily overturn by his holy whim.

“No, though we may do some traveling. This is the first time Way and I have been to Dawns Harbor. The countryside looks quite lovely.” I said.

“You should take care in that case, looks can be deceiving. We’re not here hunting diabolists because of the scenic views.” Gahn joked. His smile was broad and open but when I met his eyes I saw concern there. He knew I was antagonizing Rask, he just couldn’t imagine why.

In truth I didn’t even have a good reason. The prospect of joining them on their devil hunt was fairly appealing. It would mean I’d be doing something, fixing things that were broken, making a difference.

“When did I become a junkie for helping people?”, I asked Way via dream speech.

“The first you did when we met was reach out to me and offer understanding and friendship, so I’m going to guess that you always have been.”, Way replied.

I smiled in response to that, which fortunately looked like a smile at Gahn’s joke for those not privy to our dream speech.

“Our paths may not lead us far apart then. Perhaps we’ll find some of your diabolists for you if they should be lurking near our scenic locals.” I said, offering as much of a flag of truce as I could.

“And what would you do if you should encounter those we seek?” Rask asked, his smile cold and calculating as he took a bite from a fresh roll that had been placed before him.

“After we defeated them? Bring them into custody I suppose.” With the existence of truth spells in Vale Septem, a live diabolist was a highly valuable asset in ferreting out any other members of their cabal.

Rask’s smile sharpened at that answer.

“That would be a foolish risk.”, Maak said, “The prescribed course of action is to alert the nearest Holy Office as to the presence and identities of the diabolists. Raising awareness of a diabolist that all may act against them is far more important than any personal glory you might gain from defeating them.”

“Were there a possibility that they might escape, then I agree, alerting any who might encounter them would be the most sensible course of action.” I said.

“Do you believe yourself so mighty as to rule out the possibility of defeat and subjugation?” Rask asked.

“No.” I lied.

While it was possible that a sufficiently armed and prepared horde of devil priests could defeat Way and I, there simply wasn’t any means they could use to enslave us. I couldn’t exactly tell Rask that any attempt to imprison our bodies or minds would lead to us quitting their plane of existence though. It would sound insane and impossible, which in a sense it was.

“We have more experience that you might imagine. If the situation looked dire I would ensure that Jin made it to safety and could warn others of the danger.” Way said.

“It is a dangerous sort of pride that believes it can see through the machinations and magics of those who worship the darkness.” Rask said, his tone the same as one he would lecture a dim toddler with.

“I see and that’s why you want us to join your Expedition? To guard against that sort of overweening pride?” I asked. Gahn’s eyes widened in shock. He’d understood the jibe I’d leveled against Rask. Rask, fortunately, was too self absorbed to imagine I might be referring to his pride rather than my own.

“Exactly. You would find your path much safer were you to travel with us.” Rask said. I didn’t miss the implied threat of what we would be safer from. On the other hand I also didn’t care about it much.

“We’ll be certain to exercise all due caution.” I said without flinching from Rask’s gaze.

I noticed that the squad leaders were diligently attending to their food. Very carefully not making eye contact with anyone at our end of the table. That put Rask in an even more awkward position.

“Perhaps we could speak with your Knights to learn what warning signs they will be looking for?” Way suggested.

“I think not. We shall be leaving with the morning’s light and no simple signs will let you discern the workings of the dark powers.” Rask said. His irritation chilled the other conversations out of the room. The contempt in his voice was warming my anger to compensate though. As a priestess I had the same training in recognizing dark powers as he did. If anything his time as a Bishop meant he would have less familiarity with them since he was so often dealing with the management of the church rather than the monsters that preyed on its members.

“So by joining the Expedition, we could rely on your True Sight to see through any disguises or veils then?” I asked. A dream walker would have been able to see that Way and I weren’t exactly natives to Vale Septem. Even hinting at that would have tipped them off. I was betting that wouldn’t be enough for Rask to discern it though.

“It is not my vision but the Holy Eyes of the Dominions which pierce all deceptions.” Rask said, speaking as though he was addressing a particularly slow child. I fought back a smirk, which Maak noticed. I saw rage in his eyes. He knew I was mocking Rask and he’d already been half convinced I was a devil of some kind.

If he only knew how much worse than that I really was. Fighting the smirk grew more difficult as that thought flickered through my mind.

“Have the Dominions seen sign of of our quarry here in Dawns Harbor Holy Father?” Gahn asked, trying to steer the conversation towards an area where compromise would be possible.

“Or among our fellowship.” Maak added through gritted teeth. Not that he wanted to count Way and I among his fellowship but it was the closest he could come to calling our motivations into question without explicitly accusing us and forcing Rask’s hand.

“The strength of the Holy Throne’s anointing has not yet abated. No shadow lies over our company. Nor, by the strength of the Holy Throne’s prayers, over this town.”

“If they plan to stay within Dawns Harbor, is there cause for worry?” Gahn asked.

“Can we be certain they can be trusted to understand what’s best for them?” Rask asked in reply.

“We have traveled into many dark places and returned. You may trust that in recuperating our spirits from battles hard fought we will have no interest in seeking out new ones.” Way said.

“Speak for yourself.” I dream spoke to Way, sharing my amusement and annoyance at Rask.

“He’s not our enemy.”, Way cautioned me, sharing the concern that she saw in the rest of our dinner party. They were scared. People didn’t talk back to Bishops like this.

“Maybe he’s not our enemy but he is a jerk though.”, I replied, making sure my face way carefully neutral this time.

“Granted, but fighting him won’t change that.”

“You’re right.” I admitted and forced myself to let go of some of my irritation.

“Your intentions may be honorable but you yet have the folly of youth upon you. To claim that you have faced the darkness already and overcome it can only be the voice of inexperience. The true dark places in the world are more powerful than you can imagine. Only by the grace of the Holy Throne do we stand against them.” Rask lectured.

I don’t know why I let him get under my skin. A part of me wanted to show him just how much darkness I was familiar with. A part of me wanted to slap the simplistic notion that darkness was bad and light was good right off his stupid lips.

Another part of me was aware that I was simply crabby at having to relax and that I was yearning to take it out on the first annoying person I ran across.

“And the Dominions.” I said, softly, as though speaking from a well of faith. In truth, I didn’t have faith in the Dominions at all. I had knowledge of them, thanks to my meta-awareness. I knew they were benevolent and that they were more powerful than Bishop Rask could imagine. I also knew that only their raw power remained in the fragment of Vale Septem that had been time looped. No divine voices spoke to the Holy Throne or any of its attendants. All of the “wisdom” the clergy dispensed came from their own hearts and minds.

“The grace of the Holy Throne and the grace of the Dominions are one and the same.” Rask tisked. It was my turn to be surprised. It was a crucial piece of the Holy Throne’s doctrine that the clergy were merely the tools of the Dominions. Wars had been fought over that point of doctrine.

“I haven’t been educated in the theology of the Dominions as you have, so perhaps I misunderstand, but are you saying that the Holy Throne and the Dominions are as equals?” I asked feigning confusion. In asking the question I had as good as accused him of committing one of the ‘Great Sins’. No one in the room missed the significance of that.

“Do not dare to twist my words against me.” Rask growled, slamming his cutlery down on the table.

We held each others gaze, Rask trying to force me to backpedal, to submit to his authority. Two years ago I probably would have crumbled under his glare. That seemed like more than a lifetime ago. Instead of panic, or fear, or even concern, all I could think of as his complexion flushed a deep scarlet was whether I’d remembered to bring all of my study materials with me.

Meta-awareness suggested that if I pushed him far enough, he’d probably hit me, despite the loss of face that would ultimately cause him. I was torn on how to react to that. As it turned out I didn’t need to decide. Way stepped in instead.

“It is getting late, we should be going.” she said simply, offering no further excuse or apology.

“You’re right. We haven’t finished unpacking yet and it’s been a long day.” I said, rising from my seat at the same time she did.

“I have not given you my leave to depart.” Rask said, each word slowly and carefully enunciated.

I turned to look at him and just as clearly replied, “I didn’t ask for it.”

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 2

The worst thing about being caught crash landing from orbit by a teleporting devil guy was the thought of the paperwork I was going to have to fill out. Oh dear god the paperwork!

Umm, slight problem here.” I dream spoke to Way, cringing at the thought of dragging her into the mess that was a Ops Secrecy Breach Review. On the other hand if I tried to hide something like that from her she’d get dragged in anyways but without any decent answers to give. Nothing annoyed Ops reviewers more than people who honestly had nothing to tell them.

That didn’t take long.”, she sighed.

Someone was waiting where I landed, or teleported in pretty quickly afterwards.” I said, sending her a memory of what the devil guys looked like.

That gives us one piece of the puzzle then. Think he’ll be trouble?” she replied.

Not sure. His first play was to try the subtle approach. It worked for a while, so I’d bet he’ll stick with that. I’ll keep an eye out for him if he comes back in a disguise or veiled again.

Have you worked out the native magic system yet?”, Way asked.

Partially. It’s not one of the standard ones, but I think I can work with it. I’m going to start with a flight spell, that should be reasonably safe.

Nothing said safety like potentially uncontrollable three dimensional movement.

Try to be a little careful at least?” Way said.

Always.” I replied with a smile. I could have tried for a healing spell first, but the potential for that to go horribly awry seemed a lot higher. Also, even if my leg was in better shape, it would take a lot longer to hike to where Way was than it would to fly, so I’d be risking the flight spell anyways.

Fortunately, I wasn’t taking quite the risk a genuine novice to the mystical arts did when casting their first spell on Vale Septem. From my classes on Gix, I knew the basics of manipulating magic on a number of different worlds. Reality manipulation was an extremely potent ability but for some problems it was also extreme overkill, and there were always side-effects to be wary of. Beyond my training though, I also had both my meta-awareness to draw on and the story that I’d woven into my identity on Vale Septem.

Identity was something that a traveller through the Dreamlit world always needed to consider when entering a new world. Stepping out of your own “real” world wasn’t that hard (relatively speaking). Stepping into another world though could be quite challenging. The hardest part was that you simply weren’t “real” in the context of the new world. You had no history and no future beyond the time you were in the world. The particles that made you up weren’t accounted for in the original mass of the universe and had never influenced any other particles until the moment you entered the world. Most realities didn’t like that sort of thing.

Dream walkers got around that problem by crafting an identity that that fit within the new world. It was sort of the reverse of dreaming. Instead of a real person dreaming they’re someone impossible, an unreal person would dream they were someone who’d been a part of the world all along.

Once you had a suitable identity firmly in mind, the next step was to convince the new world to accept it. If you were successful you could slip across the Dreamlit barrier with ease – you belonged in the new world as much or more than you belonged in the Dreamlit one. The trick with identities was that it was a lot easier to get the new world to accept your identity if it didn’t stray too far from the norms of the new world and if its history could be integrated without disturbing the existing history much.

It was, in theory, possible to make your new identity the Queen of the World, but it was a whole lot easier to convince the world that there was one more random high school student, or scullery maid, or red-shirted security guard than it had noticed before.

By all rights, Way and I should have entered Vale Septem as ordinary peasant girls without any special talents or skills. That was the easy and safe play. Little attention generated, little hassle with the new identity and very easily overlooked. Even the meager experience we’d gained in our two years of training had showed us what a bad idea that could be. Ordinary peasant girls don’t tend to do so well surviving reentry without an aircraft or spaceship for example. That was why we tended to cheat and create identities for ourselves which were a little on the extraordinary side. It made convincing the world to accept us a bit harder but had always proven to be worth the effort.

Way’s identity was as that of an itinerant knight. Vale Septem wasn’t a fully civilized world and there were creatures that lurked in its dark corners that no commoner had the training or tools to deal with. Itinerant knights and other adventurers were a fairly common sight, so in that at least she’d chosen an inconspicuous form and it was one that fit well with her natural aptitude for physical prowess.

My own aptitudes were a bit more metaphysical, so I’d cloaked myself in the body of a Priestess of the Dominions.  That meant that I could draw on a history of magical studies that I hadn’t actually undergone. As far as Vale Septem was concerned though, the Jin who had lived here for sixteen years had spent the last ten of them diligently practicing her magical studies. That gave my meta-awareness a bit of an extra edge when it came to helping me figure out what I needed to do.

“I call on the Fifth Dominion with my breath and mind.” I said, touching the index and middle fingers of my left hand to my lips and forehead in succession.

Each of the Twelve Dominions covered various aspects of Vale Septem. Among other elements, that Fifth Dominion held sway over the winds. Casting magic in Vale Septem was unlike most of the other worlds I’d studied. Rather than raw mystical force shaped by the caster’s will, the magics in Vale Septem were invoked by speaking a word, a single mundane word, that resonated with the Dominion of your choosing and then telling the Dominion a story to shape the spell effect around that word. With your story, you tied yourself to that Dominion for the duration of the spell you wished to invoke.

All magic comes at a price, and Vale Septem was no exception. Tying yourself to a Dominion allowed the Dominion to manifest around you more easily. Frequently this meant that problems or issues related to Dominion would be drawn to you. In tying myself to the Fifth Dominion for example I was likely to attract things like any errant Storm Elementals that might be rampaging nearby. Given who and what I was though they’d probably be drawn to me anyways so I wasn’t giving up all that much and in return the sky was mine!

I lifted off on wings of gossamer silk and felt like I was floating through the air. The Fifth Dominion’s version of flight, at least the one I’d talked it into, wasn’t a brilliantly fast as my normal dreaming flight but it was much more relaxing. I was buoyant as cloud being pushed along cool winds and the beating of my wings.

I could have called to the Twelfth Dominion, which governed the concept of “Travel”, for a faster mode of transit but, given that I was still new to Vale’s spell casting, trying a Teleport spell seemed as ill advised as trying a healing spell. Plus I really enjoyed flying.

It was about a twenty minutes later when I caught sight of the small seaside town where Way was staying. The primary houses and buildings of the town sat atop a low hill at one end of a wide, curving bay. The bay was sheltered from the ocean by a series of reefs that gentled the incoming waves and left a quarter of the bay’s circumference open to the ocean beyond.

The midday sun glistened off the dark blue waters and the shining white sands of the beach as I glided in closer to the town, beyond which lay a myriad of huts scattered about the beach. People were bustling about in the town below but it looked like it was still too early in the season for the locals to be enjoying the surf.

To the east of the town, at the far end of the bay, the low hills gave way to rocky escarpments to that quickly rose to tall mountains. On the mountain nearest the town I could see the shattered summit that Way had plowed through. I’d seen her take heavier hits than that but that wasn’t while under the limits that Vale Septem placed on us.

As I floated down towards the hut that Way was resting in, I focused my meta-awareness on picking out any devil guys or gals that might be hiding under a veil of invisibility. It wasn’t a matter of “if” he would be back but when, why and with what reinforcements. Happily, while the beach had several humans wandering around it, nobody with horns and red skin seemed to be lurking about. What I did notice though was a pair of armor clad humans walking towards Way’s hut in front of me.

Are you expecting company?”, I asked her via dream speech.

Just you. Why?

Two warriors are heading your way. Armored and armed but their weapons aren’t drawn.” I said.

Might be from the village?

Maybe. I don’t think they’re under any kind of disguise spell. I’ll land before they get to you and we can greet them together ok?

Yeah.” Way agreed. I could tell she was strapping on her armored breastplate. The body she’d conjured was plenty tough but surviving the impact with the mountain had come as much from the enchantments her armor held as anything else. My robes had similar enchantments though not quite as strong.

I angled my flight path down  behind  enough huts to block the men’s view of me and landed at Way’s hut just as she was emerging from it. The armor clad men showed up half a dozen seconds later or so.

“Hail Sir Knight.”, the taller of the men called out to Way. He was fair haired, with the lean, muscular build of someone who needed his body in top condition to survive the peril he routinely threw himself into. Like his companion, his armor showed signs of use, but was also polished to where it gleamed in the sun, shining even brighter than the pure white sand.

“Hail Sir Knight. Are you seeking me or did you come to enjoy the lovely weather.”, Way called back.

“The day is a fine one, but we have come seeking you. I am Gahn and my companion is Maak. The herbalist said an itinerant knight had been injured in a rockslide from this morning’s earthquake. I see you have a priestess to tend to your wounds already though, so perhaps you do not need our aid?”, Gahn said.

“I appreciate your offer, but my injuries were not severe ones. I was more rattled than broken. My name is Way, and my companion’s name is Jin.”

“Excellent. If you are fully recovered then perhaps you would be interested in joining us? We march with a company of common fighters on an Anointed Expedition.”

“What’s that?”, Way asked me via dream speech.

Meta-awareness filled me in.

“Their Holy Emperor, or his appointed representatives, can give their blessing, and resources, to a military campaign. For itinerant knights who wish a place in one of the Holy Orders, it’s a way to get recognized.”

“Where is your expedition bound?” Way asked.

“We hunt diabolists. The Holy Throne has foreseen us preventing the summoning of a great darkness.” Gahn explained.

Maak, was silent beside him, but the scowl he wore spoke volumes. We were unknowns, unconnected and unaccountable. It wasn’t unheard of for an itinerant knight to “go bad” and cut deals with the monsters they were supposed to be protecting people from. Priestesses were less likely to go bad that way, but mostly because there were fewer itinerant ones and of those, most didn’t interact with monster that much. From Maak’s point of view though that just meant if we were a danger it was one people were less likely to see coming.

“I thank you for the offer to join your company but my companion and I are in need of a period of recuperation.” Way said.

“I can see why you made Dawns Harbor your destination then, right Maak?” Gahn said, playfully slugging his friend on the shoulder.

“Certainly.” Maak replied, raising a dubious eyebrow at Gahn.

“Maak is convinced the Holy Throne will add recreation to the list of Great Sins any day now.” Gahn said in a faux whisper.

“I am familiar with someone who apparently shares his belief.” Way said, casting a sidelong glance at me. I feigned shock and indignation.

“I hold no quarrel with recreation, it is idleness when called to sacred duty which I believe walks close to Perdition’s flames.” Maak said.

“And so he condemns me.” Gahn said. His tone was playful and it was clear the argument was one they’d had many times already and likely would many more.

“Never.”, Maak replied, “Never condemned, merely chastened.”

“As neither of you were called to this sacred duty, we shall wish you a restful idleness. Our company shall be encamped in Dawns Harbor till tomorrow. If you should change your mind please seek us out. In fact if you have no other plans for dinner, I invite you to seek us out as well. Exchanging tales with fellow travelers can make for a safer journey for all.” Gahn suggested.

“Thank you for both offers.” Way said with a nod of her head.

“A pleasant day then Sir Way and Priestess Jin.” Gahn said.

“A pleasant day to you both as well.” Way replied.

With their departure, we returned to the hut. Way took off her breastplate and laid it on the small table in the room. Reaching in her pack, she produced a polishing cloth and a small hammer and got to work repairing the damage the collision with the mountain had produced.

I sank onto the bed after dropping my own pack beside it and removing my shoes. I had to admit, resting did feel heavenly, especially since it let me take the weight off my injured leg.

“Coincidence that they’re hunting diabolists?” Way asked as she polished the armor.

I laughed.

“In some universe, at some point in time, yeah, coincidences like that have gotta happen at least once in a while.”

“Just not to us.”, Way said, her smile mirroring my own.

“Maybe we should join them?” I said.

“In two weeks, if you’ve actually rested?”, Way’s eyes narrowed.

“There was a guy waiting where I landed. A half hour later, we’re talking with recruiters for Devil Hunters R Us. I’m not thinking we have two weeks.”

“Dinner.” Way replied.

“Dinner?” I asked.

“Right. Let’s have dinner with them. If we can make it through that then we can rest easy right?”

“Maybe. Unless devil guy’s into drama and decides to strike at midnight.”

“Ok. Dinner and dawn then. If nothing happens then we don’t go with them and we just relax.”

“And if something does happen then we deal with it, and then relax?” I suggested.

“Yes. That’s the kind of plan I was looking for.” Way said.

I snuggled down into the bed and closed my eyes. Part of me was still clinging to the hope that Way was right, nothing would happen and we’d have some time off. Another part was kind of eager for something to go wrong though. It was a little disturbing. On some level I felt more comfortable with a world than was besieging me than one that was peaceful.

Struggling to put that out of my mind, I turned my thoughts towards imagining the most boring dinner date with a pair of Holy Knights that I could think of.


The Broken Bonds – Chapter 1

Somedays it feels like the whole world is crashing down on you. As I lay in the wreckage of a small forest I’d plowed through like a meteor, I knew that was the sort of day I was going to have. The worst part was, it wasn’t even my own world that was crashing down on me.

“Wonderful start to our vacation.” I moaned as I picked myself up out of the remains of a shattered tree. I’d hit the poor old thing like a cannonball. Fortunately for me I was a bit tougher than a cannonball. Vacation or no, I didn’t like traveling in bodies broke all that easily. Two years of the training in the Parliament of Time’s Diplomat Corp had drilled into me the dangers that lurked across the dimensions. My current body might be a quasi-magical construct but that didn’t mean it was fun when it got damaged. That’s why I’d cheated and made myself a little more durable than, technically speaking, was actually possible in this world.

Tough as I was though there were still limits to what I could sustain. My back ached as I stretched and my left knee twinged with the kind of pain that suggested walking was a bad idea. Neither of those were dangerous problems normally. Anywhere else I’d just fix up the injuries with a touch of dream magic.

Vale Septem, the world I’d crashed into, was a bit unusual though, and any kind of overt dream magic work carried a price I wasn’t willing to pay. At least not on the first day of what should have been a wonderful and relaxing vacation.

Looking around the damaged forest, I saw that I’d carved a path of destruction about a hundred yards long through the thick stand of evergreens. I could smell the heady scent of pine from the broken trees and felt a stickiness on my hands and face that, thankfully, turned out to be pine resin rather than blood.

The chirping of insects and the warble of songbirds slowly resumed in the wake of the ear shattering crash I’d made. Apart from the various bugs and birds though there wasn’t any sign of creatures stirring. From what I could tell, I was alone. The nearest humans wouldn’t have noticed anything more than distant shooting star when I fell.

Way? Are you nearby?” I dream spoke. I was alone in the forest but that didn’t mean I was alone. As a dreamlord (Parliamentary slang for someone with the powers I had) one of my abilities let me speak with other “dream aware” people no matter the distance between us. It wasn’t telepathy, I couldn’t read their minds for example, but it had similar uses.

Jin! Are you ok?” Way answered back immediately. Along with her answer I felt the worry she was holding back and saw a quick vision of where she was. Dream speech conveys more than just words. It’s sort of a meeting of minds that lets you see what the other person is feeling and imagining. With practice you can limit the extent of that greatly. Way and I had been drilled in dream speech to the point of near-perfect proficiency, but with each other we were free to let our barriers down.

Mostly. A little banged up but nothing worth bailing out for.” I assured her and ‘heard’ her sigh of relaxation in response.

I can find you.”, Way offered.

I’ll be ok. How long have you been here?” I asked, guessing at the source of her anxiety.

About six hours. I was out of it for a little after I landed.” she said.

What did you hit?” I asked, surprise almost knocking me over. I’d cheated a little to make myself tougher than average in this world. It was the most I could do and have my body still count as “real” as far as Vale Septem was concerned. Way was much better at that sort of cheating than I was. She hide it well, but when it came down to it I’d seen her shrug off atomic blasts like someone was shining a flashlight on her.

A mountain. I kind of broke it.” she said. She shared the picture of her landing site as she did. Where I’d had nice breakable trees to cushion my fall, she’d impacted onto solid granite. She, fortunately, hadn’t left a girl shaped hole in the mountain but the peak did look like something large had taken a bite out of it.

Forget about me, are you ok?” I asked, it being my turn to worry.

Yeah, just a little bruised and achy.” she said. She sent the sensation of her flexing her arm along with the words. The bones were solid but the muscles were sore.

Any idea what hit us?” I asked. Transition from the semi-imaginary space of Dreamlit world to a world like Vale Septem was hard enough under normal circumstances. With our training, we would have been able to manage it just fine except that we’d encountered ‘resistance’ on stepping through the barrier. Resistance that had felt like getting punched by a fist the size of the moon.

No. I was hoping you’d know.” she said.

It was too fast.” I admitted.

I was afraid of that, with the time flows being so crazy I only caught a glimpse of something reaching out for you. I tried to block it but I don’t know if I even got a basic shield in place before we were knocked apart.” Way said.

Think whatever you saw could have been natural?” I asked.

Doubt it.” she replied.

That boded poorly for our vacation.

In theory, Vale Septem was supposed to be the ideal getaway spot. It had the slight problem of being a temporal anomaly, but that was also part of its appeal.

The Parliament of Time is a “Hyper-dimensional organization of Class 4 civilizations”. In layman’s terms, it’s the club that civilizations join once they can start manipulating reality on a fundamental level. That included things like traveling to other dimensions and even creating nano-worlds on the edge of the Unreal. With that kind of capability finding or manufacturing a pleasant vacation spot was trivial. Vale Septem had a quality that was fairly rare though and difficult to construct.

In most dimensions, time ran at relatively the same pace. That meant that when I spent an hour in class on Gix, the nearest Parliamentary world to my version of “Earth”, about an hour would pass at home. Some worlds ran a little faster, some a little slower, but the great majority were within a narrow range of each other.

Vale Septem was one of the worlds where that wasn’t true. Time in Vale Septem ran much faster than the Pandimensional Standard Time that the Parliament worked in. It was like the dimension was shifted relativistically compared to the realities around it. I was due to take classes on what that meant next semester, but I understood the short version of it well enough. For each hour of Pandimensional time, one hundred years passed in Vale Septem.

Looking at it the other way and it meant that travellers like Way and I could afford to spend a few weeks on Vale Septem and when we returned home only a few seconds would have passed in Pandimensional time.

Think we found the source of Vale’s anomaly?” I asked.

It would fit but this time period is supposed to be cleared right?”, Way said.

That was the other special aspect to Vale Septem. Most of the dimensions that ran faster than normal were either dead, starless husks or home to ultra-advanced entities that required that level of chronal acceleration to survive. Neither of those qualities said “resort destination”. Vale was special because it was a world fragment.

Somehow a century of time and one solar system had been sliced away from some other reality and twisted into a time loop. For every hour of Pandimensional time, one hundred years passed on Vale Septem and with the next hour those same one hundred years passed again.

The Parliament was studying what events had occurred that caused Vale Septem to be cut off from Vale Prime, it’s base timeline. That was how Way and I had managed to finagle the “vacation” that we were supposed to be on.

It was, but that was only via external scrying. No major wars or serious unrest anywhere near us, supposedly. On the other hand there’s a reason the Exploration Corp was willing to take a couple of D-Corp students on as extra helpers.”, I said.

I thought Professor Haffrun had to put in a special requistion for that?”, Way said.

She did, but that was to get us in before the end of the term. I guess a lot of students had the same idea we did about using Vale as the ultimate cram school.

Think any of them lost a week of class time averting an interdimensional war?” Way said, referring to the primary reason we were behind in studies. When it’s pass a test or keep a race of planet sized extra-dimensional squid from eating Earth, no one faulted us for choosing the latter, but we still had to take the exams sometime.

With how big the Parliament is? Probably a few.” I said with a smile. We had some pretty amazing classmates in the Diplomatic Corp (or D-Corp) and I knew the Explorer’s Corp was no different. Giant space squids were on the tamer end of things that the D-Corp wound up having to deal with.

So where do you want to go from here?” Way asked.

You mean do we head back to the Dreamlit world?

Yes. Do we need to report this?

I thought about that. As an “Initiate Guardian” and a “Junior Envoy”, Way and I were trained in dealing with worlds where the Parliament had already established relations. For this deployment though we were on loan to the Explorer’s Corp. That meant that our primary objective was investigation.

I think we should stick it out, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.” I said.

I want to hear your thoughts first.” Way said.

Ok. First, we know that we hit something in the chronal turbulence that surrounds this world but we don’t have any sense of what it was yet. If we can unearth that we might find an important piece to the whole puzzle. Second, if we bail now this area may stay unexplored for hundreds of iterations through the time loop. It’s not a critical area, otherwise they wouldn’t entrust it to two D-Corp students like us. By the time our report gets read and processed whatever was in this time period and place may have been pushed somewhere and somewhen else by the time loop.” I said.

Agreed. And I’m not certain about what hit us either. I don’t want to throw away our vacation over exceptionally choppy turbulence.” Way said.

And if it turns out to be more than just chronal turbulence?” I asked.

We leave. We still have the weekend. It’s not as much, but you need to get some rest.” Way insisted.

Me? Rest?” I projected thoughts of innocent confusion that were entirely undermined by the fatigue that had built up over the last few years. Taking regular high school classes by day and then dreaming myself to Gix to spend the other half of the day taking Diplomat classes with Way meant I didn’t have a whole lot of downtime.

It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounded – my body was in it’s best health ever thanks to little dream magic touch ups and my mind was hanging in there thanks to some intense dream sessions that let it get caught up on the “sleep” that I was sort of skipping.

Way didn’t say anything, she just sent me silence and the sensation of her glare of disapproval.

Ok, ok. I’ve been a little overworked lately.” I admitted.

You’ve been overworking yourself for two years now.

Someone I know is hard to keep up with.” I said.

Someone I know needs to find a different excuse. I’m not the one going to two schools at once and baby sitting at the same time.” Way replied.

I’m not babysitting that often and anyways that helps me relax too.” I said, sending along the image of my baby sister May. It was true that babysitting for her was relaxing, at least compared to some of the stuff I had to deal with. A one year old baby took a lot of attention but the range of things I had to worry about doing for her was pretty limited.

She’s still adorable, but my point stands. You need to rest before the semester exams.” Way insisted.

I sighed.

You’re not wrong.”, I admitted, “Where do you want to meet up?

I’m in a little bungalow on the beach. A little goblin girl found me while I was out and brought some fisherman over to carry me back to their town. They thought I was injured in the earthquake the brought the mountain down.” Way said sending me an image of the room she was in.

It was a small house with a single room inside and a covered porch in front facing towards the ocean beyond. A fireplace and chimney were set into the wall that faced away from the ocean and, from way the roof was constructed, it looked like the bungalow was meant to be used year round. It was a cool enough spring day that someone had lit the fire and apparently left some food for Way as well. I could see the remains of breakfast on a table off to one side of the bed she still lay in.

That looks nice and cozy! Give me a few minutes and I’ll see you there.” I said.

One of the other abilities I have is a sort of extra insight into what’s happening around me. It’s hard to describe but the closest metaphor I’ve come up with is to imagine there’s a script for what’s going on. I can read ahead a little and also see some of the “stage directions” in terms of who people really are and what’s actually happening. It’s not precognition, people aren’t tied into the following the script, but my ‘meta-awareness’ can tell me a lot about them even so.

Part of the training for my “Initiate Seer” certification from the Parliament had been learning how to work with that meta-awareness. Locating Way was particularly easy since that was one of the most basic exercises I did with it every day. I’d also learned to pay attention to the footnotes though (to extend the metaphor). That’s what helped me locate the man who’d been spying on me the whole time I’d been talking to Way.

He was covered by a veil of invisibility, one woven from the magic of Vale Septem and a strong one at that. Meta-awareness worked on a whole different level than the magics inherent to Vale though and with a slight change of focus I was able to see him clearly.

He was half again as tall as I was with bright red skin and coal black hair. A pair of black ram’s horns curled out from his temple. They’d been painted silver to match the highlights on the black plate mail that he wore. Across the tips of his fingers, a tiny blue flame danced back and forth the way a stage magician might make a coin dance when he was bored. As I looked at him, the flame slowed and then went out.

“How intriguing. But surely…” he began, speaking to himself.

I cut him off.

“Yes, I can see you. Would you like to tell me why you’re here?”

There was effectively zero chance that he hadn’t seen me land or that he was unconnected with my fall given the remoteness of the area I’d crashed in.

He smiled, showing chiseled metallic teeth as he dropped the invisibility spell.

“I don’t believe I would. But don’t worry. I’ll make sure my lord hears about your arrival immediately.”

With that he vanished in a cloud of sulphurous smoke.

I sighed. I’d been on the ground for less than ten minutes and already random devil-guys were scampering off to tell their master about me. Nothing was ever easy.

The Hollow Half – Chapter 35 (Epilogue)

The next invasion of the Earth came on May 20th, conveniently enough right in the middle of my final exam in history, which I just hadn’t had time to study for.

Meta-awareness was great for pointing out an incoming fleet of Ex-terrestrial lizardmen. It filled me in on the fact that they were descended from Earth dinosaurs that were captured and uplifted millions of years ago. It was delighted to show me a quick vision of their original home in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, with the warning that it was the central aim of their “reconquest initiative”. But telling me what George Washington’s home state was for question fourteen on my history final? That was apparently asking too much.

“Think they’ll let us go out there?” Minnie asked.

“Not sure. These guys may not even make into the atmosphere.” I replied as we were bustled down to the shelters below the school.

“Who’s on the case?”, she asked.

“Pretty much everyone I think. The Dinolords or whatever their name translates as aren’t exactly subtle. The Galactics pegged them as inbound a week ago.” I replied.

“Invertrix said they had some weird tech.”, Jessica said as she joined us. She was already transformed and looked just a little bit too eager to try out the training that Invertrix had been putting her through.

“How weird?”, Nell asked as she joined us. She was in her official costume already as well.

Of our group, only the three of them were registered with the FBMA. I’d considered joining but Agent Haffrun had arranged for a different sort of apprenticeship for me instead.

“Extremely long range teleporters for one, but limited to organics only.” Jessica explained.

“So they’re going to start dropping plague bombs on us?” Minnie asked.

“No, troops. It’s part of their honor system. Also, they want to use the planet after they ‘win’ it, so they can’t afford to go too destructive.” I said, relaying both meta-awareness info and what I’d read from the report Heartbeat had passed along.

“How tough are their troops?” Minnie asked.

“Well, they’ll be naked, so there’s one advantage. On their other hand they’re uplifted dinosaurs with about a million years of gene breeding to support their war forms. So, pretty tough.” I said.

“I don’t gotta hold back then? Excellent!”, Jessica eyes were alight with joy.

“Will you be able to support us?” Nell asked me.

“Yeah, definitely, and not just me either.” I said.

“Seriously? She’s gonna be here too? Where’s the fun in that?”, Jessica grumbled.

“No humans need to get hurt? Sounds kind of fun to me.” I shrugged. “Anyways, the Galactics are here too, so if the Dinolords are strong or sneaky enough to break through them, there’s going to be plenty of fighting to go around.”

Nell’s wrist communicator lit up a bright blue.

“They’re sneaky enough. No response to friendly communication hails on their known hyperwave frequencies and long range teleports are being reported from around the globe.”

“And we’re being called in!”, Jessica exclaimed, looking at her own communication read-out.

“Good luck!”, one of our classmates called out.

“Yeah! Bring us back some dinosteaks!”, another said.

“Ewww, that’s gross!”, a third said.

There was a general chorus of well wishes that followed before the portal opened to take us to Brassport’s FBMA command center.

“Junior Agents, Envoy.” Mission Chief Stackhaus nodded to us as we arrived. It was still a little weird to see Chief Stackhaus without his fire fighting gear on. That first image of him had lodged itself indelibly in my mind. With his experience in both disaster response and coordinating human and meta-human teams he’d been a shoe-in for the role of Meta-human Mission Chief in the wake of Agent Haffrun’s departure.

He’d taken the job at the urging of several people, Agent Haffrun, Heartbeat and myself included. In theory he could have easily refused. His service with the Brassport fire department was long enough that his retirement package was quite secure. In reality though I don’t think there’s anywhere he would have felt more comfortable being.

“We in reserve or do we have an objective yet sir?”, Minnie asked.

“Reserve.”, Stackhaus said, eliciting a groan from Jessica, “But I want you suited up and equipped as a strike team secondaries.”

“Strike team? Not Rescue and Recovery?”, Jessica asked.

“You were cleared last week. Didn’t want to use you this soon but the Dinos aren’t giving us much choice. Brassport PD is on reconnaissance duty. Professor’s got the first target or the hardest one we find. Taurus you’re with him. Heartbeat’s on the second incursion, Amp you’re with her.” Stackhaus said, using Minnie and Nell’s official code names.

“Wait, what about me?” Jessica asked.

“Invertix is on overwatch for the North East. She’s requested you for her squad.” Stackhaus said with a solemn expression. At Jessica’s squeal of delight, I noticed a tiny smile struggled  to break out of the corner of his mouth.

“As for you Envoy Smith, can we count on any support from the Parliament in this?”, Stackhaus said, addressing me.

“I’ve sent the data that we had on the ‘Dinolords’ to Adjudicator Haffrun. She’s going to log it with the Parliament, but no Fleet response is expected. Terrestrial assets are free to act according to standard ‘Defense and Deterrence’ protocols however.”

“So you can help us?”, Stackhaus said.

“Yes, myself and one other who will be arriving shortly.” I said.

“I’ve seen what you can do. Give me a sense of what this other ‘asset’ is capable of.”

“Way too much!” Jessica chimed in before I could answer.

“Sounds fine to me.”, Stackhaus said. “What about the Olympians?”

“My brother told me that they’d have St. Agatha’s Hospital out of the Nyx’s realm in less than twelve hours.” I replied.

“I can’t believe somebody stole an entire hospital the day before an invasion!”, Jessica said.

“Not just one. One hundred and eight hospitals and urgent care facilities from points around the globe.”, Nell said.

“Yeah, that’s why it’s going to take twelve hours. They’ll get them all back, but it means they’re out of the fight for now.” I said.

“Then we’ll make due without them. Might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if they can bring St. Agatha’s back in one piece after the fighting’s done.” Stackhaus said.

We got down to planning our deployments from there.

As full heroes, Professor Platinum and Heartbeat were independently scouring the city to assist the Brassport PD in locating any incursions before the Dinos had a chance to establish a beachhead. While the others discussed tactics for supporting the heroes, I excused myself and found a spot relax. No sense waiting for Way to show up when I could meet her halfway instead.

Transdimensional projection was a daily activity for me at this point. Transfering from Earth 2615 (the Parliament’s designation for my world) to Earth 2614 was something I’d done so many times I could manage it without thought. I left a physical body behind on my own Earth to make the return trip quicker and then started hiking from the entrance portal I’d arrived at on Earth 2614 to the secured portal that lead to Gix, the nearest Parliamentary world.

Earth 2614 was an uninhabited world, with a deep, lush forest around the area between the Gate to my world and the Gate to Parliamentary space. Flying would have been a lot quicker but Earth 2614 was under Class 10 Heavy Interdiction by the Parliament. Essentially the Dreamlit barrier was like a wall of steel here and punching through it would set off all kinds of alarms. It was a measure taken to ensure my world would face fewer threats like the Oblivion Knight by making travel to it noticeably less convenient.

Normally that wasn’t much of a problem. It added about a half hour to my “commute” to the school on Gix each night but the time spent walking in the woods wasn’t unpleasant. With an invasion looming though I found the “commute” a bit more irritating.

“I wonder how much paper work punching through the barrier would really be?” I wondered aloud, looking towards the sky.

“My hand went numb after the second day.” Way said, jogging around a corner.

“Hi there stranger!”, I said, “How’d your week of Guardian training with Professor Haffrun go?”

“You know how she seems really nice? Lies. All lies.”, Way said with a smile that matched my own.

After the “incident” with the Oblivion Knight, Agent Lynn Haffrun had made a full report of the events that occurred to the Parliament of Time. Their protocol for such events were clear. Any time a civilization like my Earth’s either developed the capability to interact with the Dreamlit world or suffered an attack from a “Transcendent Entity” (which the Oblivion Knight more than qualified as), the Non-Intervention Protocol was suspended and formal relations were opened.

The idea, as Agent Haffrun explained it to me, was that societies that were exposed to the Dreamlit world were part of the Parliament’s realm, like it or not. We’d saved the world from the Oblivion Knight but other threats would follow him. It wasn’t a matter of allowing us to develop in our own way and at our own pace anymore. Either they helped us or my world would last just as long as it took me to make a fatal mistake.

Since she had worked so closely as part of the FBMA, Agent Haffrun was reassigned once discussions between the Parliament and the world leaders of my Earth began. In part that was to insure that there would be no favoritism shown to any one nation or organization. In part it was also to allow time for a thorough review process of Agent Haffrun’s actions and the events that lead up to and transpired during the “Oblivion Knight Incident”.

With her reassignment, “Agent Haffrun” also accepted a new position as “Professor Haffrun”. She began her teaching tenure with a class of fresh new recruits to the Parliament’s Diplomatic Corp. A class wherein Way and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with recruits from a dozen different worlds.

It’s worth noting that the Parliament of Time’s “Diplomatic Corp” was also the division responsible for the operation and deployment of their World Breaker Fleets. As “diplomats” went, the Parliament’s had some serious teeth.

As a very junior member of the Corp, I’d been assigned an official station on Earth 2516 and given the rank of “Junior Envoy”. It was the Parliament’s equivalent of “foreign exchange student” in terms of how much real authority I possessed. Mostly I was allowed to pass along official communications, which was fine with me.

Despite my “stationing” on my homeworld, I was expected to attend daily classes as part of my Diplomatic Corp training. Fortunately those classes were held on Gix, which meant all I needed to do was turn in early each night, travel through the Dreamlit World to Earth 2614 and then on to my classes.

Absorbing knowledge during my Earthly and Parliamentary school periods every day had been crushing my poor mind, but the end of the semester was drawing nigh which meant at least a few weeks of break from Diplomat school and a couple of months off from regular classes so I was pretty sure I could hang on.

“Did Professor Pen assign much reading while I was gone?”, Way asked. Professor Haffrun wasn’t the only teacher than we had at Diplomat school. The Parliament had been delighted to take Pen in and put him to work too.

They were able to identify him as a Remnant but unlike the Oblivion Knight, who’d been an Annihilator type, Pen fell into the “Akashic” class of Remnants. Akashic Remnants were basically parts of beings who’d reached some level of omniscience before they were scattered.

I teased Pen about being a know-it-all when I learned that but whatever omniscience he’d once had was lost when he became a Remnant. He still held a tremendous amount of knowledge though and had a good sense for how to impart it to young minds that wanted nothing more than to get out of school and go flying.

Which isn’t to say that we spent all of our time in class. Diplomat school ran about six hours per day, with Gix-time synched almost exactly to Earth 2615 time. Classes started at 9:00pm Earth time for me and ran till 3:00am. That left three hours a day that we could hang out afterwards before I needed to leave to get back for my Earthly classes. Some of that was spent doing Diplomatic Corp homework, but working on it together or with some of our other classmates meant the homework was usually done in just an hour or so.

“Yeah, two chapter each day. I took notes though, so it shouldn’t be too bad to get you caught up. Belle promised she’d help too.” I said. Despite how my first meeting with Way’s talking-dog-made-out-of-black-fire had gone, Belle and I had turned out to have a lot in common. That she happened to have far more casual reading time than I and amazingly similar tastes to mine meant she was my “go to” reviewer for pretty much all of the new fiction that I managed to squeeze in time to read.

“So what are we fighting today? I got your message and came as soon as we got back.”

“Dinosaurs from Outer Space.” I said.

“Ok. What do I need to know about them?” Way asked. I had to smile. I’d yet to find anything that could surprise or shock her.

I filled her in on their known capabilities and the plans that the other had been making.

“What about Adella and Patches?”, she asked.

“They’re still on walkabout. Adella’s catching up on some of the years that she lost and Patches is acting as her guide. I got a postcard from them a couple of days ago, they’d been at Machu Picchu last month.”

“Was that the place that had the outbreak of Incan zombies that you were telling me about?”

“Yep. I’m not sure from their postcard if they set that off, shut it down or both.” I said.

“Dinner says Patches set it off and Adella shut it down.”

“Hmm, risky bet, but I’ll take it. Betting on the catboy has worked out for me pretty well so far.” I said.

We arrived back at the portal to my Earth and stepped through it, transitioning to the skies above Brassport for a better view over the situation.

For just a moment everything was peaceful and calm. The two of us hung there floating on happy thoughts in a wide blue sky.

“Hi there!”, a diminutive voice said from behind me.

I turned to see a little girl, floating in the sky with us. She had on a plastic Halloween mask and a towel around her shoulders as a cape over her school clothes. I blinked in surprise as I recognized Samantha, the little girl from behind the library that I’d rescued half a year ago.

“So, I saw you at the stadium last winter, and I thought you were really great and then I saw you again when I was sleeping and then I sorta figured out how to do stuff like you and I wanted to say thank you and that I think you’re great.” she said.

“Samantha? You can fly?” I gasped.

“Yeah, I can do the dreamy stuff like you did. I should go back to Mommy now or she’ll be scared. So thank you! Good bye!”, and like that the world’s littlest dreamwalker vanished back to her Mom.

I stared at Way who looked back at me and shrugged.

“You had to know you were going to inspire someone right?”

Far below us I caught sight of Heartbeat winging her way around the city, Nell’s sparkling form flying after her. Below them police cars and fire trucks were dispersing to be ready for any trouble that was to come. Beyond them, all the people in the city were preparing too, whatever grudges they had put aside for the moment to unite against a common foe.

Living in a world with heroes can be pretty awesome sometimes.