Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 16

When I was a kid I took an inexplicable glee in kicking over ugly sand castles. Pretty ones, ones that people had spent time on, those I liked to stare at and imagine myself running around in. There was something precious to them, even if the next high tide was going to wash them away without a trace.

Ugly sand castles though? Ones where kids just dumped a bucket of sand over and then ran away to have fun somewhere else? Those offended me. It was like they were making an artistic statement and all they had to say was “whatever”. I could have done something with the castles, put my own touches on them to improve the looks, they were basically abandoned after all. Instead I’d stomp on them. Smush, and kick, and crush until there was nice smooth sand to start from again. It was mean, but I was little enough that people thought it was cute.

I’d stopped doing that after I lost my Dad. Looking back, I’d withdrawn into myself a lot more than I’d realized. It was hard to kick down sand castles when I felt like the rest of my world was already falling apart.

The stompy part of me wasn’t wholly lost though. It gave a tiny shout of joy as I called on the Third Dominion for a stone shaping spell and ripped down the stone tower we were trapped in.

For a moment, in the wake of the building being sucked back into the earth, the fighting froze.

Generally speaking, destroying a castle wall or a stone tower wasn’t something most Earth casters could manage and even the ones that could needed a while to cast the spell. If the Prelates were paying attention, I’d just given them a huge clue that I wasn’t actually from this world.

I didn’t care. With another twist of my hand to direct the spell I sunk both Ralls and Temple into the earth, burying them alive. It was a temporary measure at best. I knew neither one of them would take more than a minute to extricate themselves, but even thirty seconds would buy us enough time to get away from them. Add to that the confusion of the fire and smoke and we had a decent shot at escaping without them being able to follow us.

Not that escape looked like a simple option. Without the walls to keep them out, we had quite a few more soldiers to worry about. On the positive side though, smoke had flooded over us when the walls dropped so the entire area we were in was obscured.

Well now it’s just no fun.” Way complained via dream speech, sending along the visual of her and Brayson dropping the nearest dozen soldiers who’d lost sight of them when the smoke rolled in.

They were making better headway thanks to the concealment but we still couldn’t fight the army indefinitely. Not without things getting ugly fast. That meant the key question was figuring out where we could retreat to. Thanks to what I’d done to the sanctuary spell, nowhere nearby was safe anymore. Not for us, not for the army, not for anyone.

“Priestess Jin, come this way.” I heard a woman’s voice say. We hadn’t spoken much during the dinner but between memory and meta-awareness I recognized her as Helena, Watch Commander Brayson’s wife. Also the town blacksmith as I recalled, and a retired adventurer herself. Given the state of the armies camp I had to wonder if “retired” was all that accurate of a description though.

Leading Kari along with me, I called back to Way via dream speech.

Helena is here. I think we have her to thank for the fires. She’s got a safe place in mind. Can you disengage?” I asked.

The Watch Commander is already leading me out. He knows she’s here and what her plan is. I think they have a telepathy spell going.” Way replied.

Any problems with rest of the soldiers?” I asked.

Yes. They’re ruining our vacation.” she said. I could feel her smirk of confidence underlying her words.

Try not to punish them too harshly, it’s Prelate Ralls who’s at fault for what they’re doing.” I said.

I know. Figured you would handle her.

Kari saw to that. Temporarily.” I said, sending the image of Kari skewering Ralls with a thrown thunder spear.

How long do we have before she shakes that off?

We surprised them. They’re not going to want to send the troops in until they have a handle on what we can do, but they’re under serious time pressure too. So maybe an hour before they’ve pulled the camp back into shape and put together a plan? Oh, I buried the Prelates too, that might give us an extra minute or two.” I said.

You buried them? I take it you’ve given up on the ‘talk them out of this’ option?

Think it was too soon?” I asked.

Professor Haffrun might say so, but I was hoping you would do that the minute Ralls opened her mouth.” Way said.

Who knows, maybe they’ll respond to force better that reason?

With the way they treated us, I don’t think they have room to get any angrier.” Way said.

The sound of an immense detonation knocked Helena, Kari and I off our feet.

It was followed by the kind of scream that I’d heard all too often in the last two years. Something inhuman had woken up and, given the way our luck went, was almost certainly eager to eat us. I racked my brain to come up with what new monstrosity might want a piece of us and then I remembered the summoning gate.

The one that Ralls had activated. The one she’d linked to the demon world. The one that I’d broken the wards on by stepping out of the circle. The one that hadn’t been shut down. Oh and the one that wasn’t in an area with an active sanctuary spell anymore!

I swore, loudly, and stopped in place.

What was that? Are you ok?” Way asked.

I answered in dream speech and regular speech so that Kari and Helena would know what was happening too.

“The summoning gate they put us in. There’s demons breaking through it. I’ve got to go back there and shut it down.” I explained.

Two more detonations sounded nearby, but not in the same direction as the first.

“Oh you gotta be kidding me!” I complained.

“What’s wrong?” Kari asked.

“It’s too late to shut the gate down. The first demons through it were summoners. They’re making more gates.”

“They can’t get to us. The sanctuary spell will keep them out of the town.” Helena said.

“No it won’t. It’s not there anymore.” I said.

“What? How do you know?” Helena asked.

“The Shadow Breakers took control of it. I’ll explain the whole thing later. Right now we need to stop those demons.”

“Won’t they have to fight the soldiers first?” Kari asked.

“Maybe. Probably. That Unity Spell is potent. Maybe enough to prevent any possessions.” I said.

“The Prelates are still alive correct?” Helena asked. I nodded in response. “Then we’ll be fighting the army and the demons. The Prelates will use them the same way they’re using those men.” Helena said.

“The Unity Spell requires a willing subject though.” I said.

“There’s a version that doesn’t. It burns out the recipient much faster but I’ve seen them use it before.” Helena said, her expression grim.

“Would it work on Greater Demons?” I asked. Not that a Greater Demon should be able to fit through a summoning gate like the one Ralls activated but given how our day was going it made sense to ask.

“I don’t know. But if a Greater Demon is here, we have much worse problems than the Shadow Breakers to worry about.” Helena said. Greater Demons were the Generals of Hell. Meta-awareness gave me a flash of insight as I looked at Helena. She’d fought them before. Not many mortals could claim that and none who did walked away from the battles unscarred.

“What are we going to do?” Kari asked. She wasn’t panicked. She was distant. Her eyes were focused far away, but she was looking at something deep inside herself. Some loop of imagination or new connection of ideas forming. If I didn’t know better I’d say she looked like me when I was focusing on my meta-awareness.

“We’re going to fight.” Helena said.

“We who?” Kari asked, though her tone suggested that she already knew the answer.

“All of us.” Helena said.

She lead Kari and I out of the camp just as Brayson and Way emerged from the smoke via another path. Across the border to the town, on the other side of the checkpoint that the army had set up, I saw a great crowd of people waiting for us.

A small squad of soldiers still manned the checkpoint and were warning off the assembled townsfolk who had gathered about fifty yards away from them. In the soldier’s favor, the townsfolk had only ‘gathered’, meaning they hadn’t yet been incited to anything more violent than loud insults.

As a whole, the people of Dawns Harbor were a reasonably pious lot. The church provided them with a number of benefits and took from them a painful, but not crippling, portion of their wealth. It wasn’t a terrible deal as such deals went in the Empire.

That garnered a certain amount of appreciation from the populace. There were some who took their piety even further though, sometimes all the way into blind devotion. Caina, Kari’s former boss, the one who’d fired her for serving us, was among that number. Standing before us was the section of the populace from the other end of the spectrum.

Fishers and pack drivers were pious in their own way, but that piety didn’t extend far enough to cover groups like that Shadow Breakers. Somehow the Shadow Breaker’s campaign of terror against the populace hadn’t inspired a lot of loyalty in those who’d been most affected by it. Hard to believe but people are funny like that sometimes.

The soldiers were so focused on the crowd in front of them that they didn’t even notice Way and Brayson approaching them. Roughly two seconds later the last of soldiers was a twitching, tasered, non-threat on the ground. It hadn’t been a fight and it hadn’t been fair. They were still alive and salvageable though so any complaints they might have had about being bushwhacked they could take up with someone who cared.

“I thought you were going to ‘talk’ with them.” Colten said. He’s been one of the two leaders of the crowd. The other was Marcus. They’d stepped forward to talk to the soldiers while the crowd that came with them lingered safely outside of easy spear throwing range.

Apparently the two of them had convinced the fishers and the pack drivers that rather than getting drunk and fighting each other, they could get drunk and fight the army. How they made that sound like a bright idea was beyond me. My diplomatic skills  certainly weren’t up to the task, but then they’d both had a lot of practice manipulating these particular crazy people.

“We did.” Brayson said.

“That’s a lot of commotion for a conversation.” Colten observed.

“They said some things I disagreed with.” I said.

“We have a problem. Priestess Jin says they’ve opened a demon gate.” Helena cut in.

“Several actually. Summoner demons were the first ones through the gate Prelate Ralls activated.” I said.

“Demons? The sanctuary spell will shred them.” Colten scoffed.

“No it won’t. It’s gone.” I said.

“I was afraid of that. The Prelates took control of it, but they messed it up while they were holding us with it.” Brayson said.

Colten growled and put his years collecting profanities as a sailor to work.

The sanctuary spell was the carrot that the church had held over the town since it’s inception. It was one bit of church magic that even the most rebellious of souls had to admit was worth the cost. It didn’t excuse the church’s excesses but for Colten and people like him it was the reason they had avoided striking back against the injustices which they’d seen for years.

It was really and truly tempting to allow them to believe that the Prelates had broken the sanctuary spell. It would unite the entire town, and get them all on “our side”. We’d be seen as heroes for opposing the Shadow Breakers, rather than eyed with suspicion the way we had been. It wouldn’t even entirely be a lie. It was the Prelates fault that the sanctuary spell had been broken.

“They weren’t the ones who destroyed it.” I said. “I was.”

The lie was oh so tempting, but I knew the truth would come out eventually and when it did, it would destroy any trust Colten and the rest had in us.

“What? Why?” Helena breathed beside me. The rest were silent.

“Because the Prelates were going to use it to kill us all.” Kari said.

“Kill us?” Colten asked.

“Actually it was worse than that. They took control of the sanctuary away from the Watch Commander and were going to “purify” him using an Eternity Cauldron.” I said, drawing the name of the abominable magic item from meta-awareness. “Then they were going to do the same to Kari, Way and I and then everyone else in town.”

“What’s an Eternity Cauldron?” Colten asked.

“You’ve seen the Blessing of Unity that Prelate Ralls used on the soldiers? How it gave them all her mind and will? The cauldron does the same, except it does it permanently.” I said.

“That’s insane!” Helena said.

“It is. As bad as they are, they couldn’t do something like that to an entire town. People wouldn’t stand for it.” Colten said.

“Yes they would.” Kari said. “The church would just say that the governors of the town had been corrupted by dark forces and had spread the possession through the rest of the town.”

I saw a sick expression flicker over the faces of the adults present.

“They’ve done that before haven’t they?” I asked, guessing that it was true.

“Gold Wood.” Marcus said, joining the conversation.

“That was different. They burned those people.” Colten said, but his voice lacked certainty.

“Did they? Gold Wood wasn’t a large village and no one has been allowed in there since the purge.” Marcus said. “But that’s not important, the point is they’ve destroyed whole villages before.”

“A village is one thing, but there’s over two thousand people living here. How would they do that?” Colten asked.

“With an army of five hundred enspelled soldiers, three Prelates and control of the sanctuary spell.” I said. It made a terrible kind of sense. With the forces they had, they would easily be able to “process” a town of two thousand through the Cauldron, even if the townsfolk were warned and resisted.

“Why though? It doesn’t make sense.” Colten said.

“They need an army.” Way said.

“It looks like they have an army.” Colten pointed out.

“An expendable one.” Way added.

“How do you figure that?” Colten asked.

“They brought a tool capable of making combat golems out of ordinary people.” Way said.

“How could an entire town be expendable?” Helena asked, appalled at the thought.

“If they felt that the town was lost anyways, or if whatever they’re actually after would mean the difference between them staying in power or losing it. People can find ways to justify doing almost anything under those circumstances.” I said.

“Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t change our immediate problem. Without a sanctuary spell, we don’t have a chance.” Brayson said.

“We can fight the demons.” I said.

“It’s not the demons.” Marcus said. “It’s every creature from every dark corner. Tonight. Tomorrow. For all the days to come. There’s no more safety here. We can’t stay. What happens with the army is irrelevant now. Dawns Harbor is dead.”

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 15

Fire makes a great distraction. It can be beautiful and enticing when it’s far away. When it’s up close and personal though it commands the attention of a very powerful part of the mammalian brain. That part exists to send a clear message to the rest of the mammal: “get the hell away from that”.

Even with their conscious minds restamped by Prelate Ralls, even with their fear response deeply suppressed, the soldiers outside the tower still reacted to the fire instinctively. Given that the commotion bought us time, I had to believe that the fire was both deliberate and set by someone we knew.

“We should leave before Helena decides to get unpleasant about things.” Brayson bellowed out as he parried a thunder spear and slid beneath the soldier’s outstretched arm.

“Working on it.” I shouted back. It didn’t surprise me that Helena had followed us and was working to get us out of this jam. She’d made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t letting her husband go up against the Shadow Breakers without her. It was a little surprising that she’d managed to be so stealthy that I hadn’t noticed her, but my senses weren’t superhumanly sharp and meta-awareness was fickle about volunteering that sort of information.

There was only one door into the stone tower and it was filled with soldiers fighting to get inside. That was one problem. The bigger problem though was the cauldron that sat in the middle of the room. There was no telling what destroying it here might do but I didn’t like the idea of leaving it behind either.

Prelate Temple was momentarily down fighting off the effects of the agony spell that I’d hurled back at him. Beside him, Prelate Ralls was dealing with the thunder spear that Kari had hurled through her. Without magic that would have been a fatal wound, but not instantly so. I was glad that Ralls did have magic though. It meant that Kari hadn’t done anymore than inconvenience the Prelate. There might be a little blood on Kari’s hands but it was no more than you’d get from scraping your knuckles by punching a bully.

I almost wanted to give the Prelates a few punches myself for good measure. The fight was tipped in our direction for the moment, but the tide was going to start swiftly turning against us.  The Prelates were both recovering quickly, as were the soldiers that Way and Brayson had stunned.  If they recovered before we got out of here, it wouldn’t mean that we would lose the fight, it would mean that we’d have to stop holding back which would be a lot worse.

I watched Way dance up one of the thunder spears and use its wielder as a springboard to avoid a trio of thrusts that had been aimed at her. She flipped on mid-air, catching two of the soldiers with her lightning sword. As they fell, she used their bodies for cover and swept another soldier off his feet. He rolled away, immediately shielded by his compatriots who pressed their own attacks on Way.

“How are we going to get out here?” Kari asked. She’d taken another thunder spear out of the hands of one of the stunned soldiers and was holding it out defensively to ward the fighters away from us. The surge of the fight had pushed our backs to the wall farthest from the Prelates. I suspected that was the primary reason that Kari was still holding the spear rather than playing pin cushion with Prelate Ralls some more.

“Normally I’d have Way knock open a hole in the wall for us, but it looks like she’s a little busy.” I said.

“We’re trapped here?” Kari asked and coughed on the smoke that was starting to fill the room.

“Not exactly. I just need a few seconds.” I said. “Keep me safe ok?”

I didn’t actually expect that Kari would last more than a half second in a fight against one of the soldiers but I also didn’t expect that either Way or Brayson would let any of the soldiers get within ten feet of her.

Secure in that particular gamble, I closed my eyes and knelt on the floor, drawing a quick circle around myself.

Prelate Temple had excommunicated me and broken my connection to the Dominions. It took years to achieve the necessary spiritual centering to successfully swear yourself to a one Dominion. As a result, divesting someone of those connections was a time consuming process as well.

Normally the priest or priestess to be excommunicated would be held in mystical bondage, forced to wait for one of the Dominion’s holy days. At sunset on the holy day, a ritual would be performed and as the holy day ended, so too would the bond between the defrocked and the Dominion.

For someone like me, who’d be sworn to all Twelve of the Dominions, it could take up to a year for the High Holy Days for each Dominion to roll around. Those were the days  that were aligned the most strongly with each Dominion, which meant their sunsets were also the most mystically significant.

Somehow Prelate Temple had bypassed all of that though. A thrice uttered pronouncement and, poof, my connections were gone. That was impossible as far as I knew, which meant I needed to see what was really going on.

Meta-awareness was maddeningly vague when it came to providing the details I wanted. Instead of a rich narrative, I got flashes of insight.

I saw Prelate Temple kneeling before a blindingly vast light. I saw a mark appear on his forehead. I saw fire raging out of his mouth and eyes. With each image there was a hint of meaning too.

The blinding light was the Holy Throne, or the man who sat upon it. The mark that appeared on the Prelate’s forehead was the mandate of the Holy Throne, empowering the Prelate with his mission and his authority, power enough to violate all sorts of laws that defined Vale Septem’s reality. And lastly there was the fire, a symbol of how the light of the Holy Throne was consuming him.

I reached out to the last image, freezing it in place and wrapping it in darkness. When the darkness had dimmed the fires out, I looked into the vision-Prelate’s eyes.

“Are you just a victim in this too?” I asked him in my dreamscape.

In answer he pulled his hand aways back from his chest, shielding a dim light within them. His heart burned with the same fire that I’d seen consuming him.

I frowned. I didn’t like it, but that wasn’t going to change the fact that Prelate Temple wasn’t like the ensorcelled soldiers. He hadn’t been tricked into accepting servitude to the Holy Throne. He’d made his choice knowingly. He’d coveted the power that was offered and had known the price he would pay for it.

I could “save him” and “turn him away from the Holy Throne” except he wouldn’t really be himself anymore. The choice he’d made was a fundamental one. If I changed that choice for him with dream magic, rewrote his reality to be the way I wanted it to be, he’d become no more than a weak reflection of me. Just another kind of puppet.

I pushed those thoughts aside. I’d deal with him, but not like that.

Instead I returned to the image of the Holy Throne and the man who sat on it. The figure was lost in a stellar mass of light and flame in the vision, the great light show serving to obscure his form and face.

I’d turned my meta-awareness on Prelate Temple, so I saw the man who sat on the Holy Throne as the Prelate truly saw him. Power, deep and unfathomable. Whether it was the Throne or the man upon it, I couldn’t tell, but either way I could see that I was looking at the source of the church’s powers.

When young priests and priestesses learned their prayers and aligned their spirits with the Dominions they did so through the auspices of the church. It hadn’t always been like that. Just for the last few decades. Just since the time loop began.

It was another piece to the puzzle, but I couldn’t see how it fit in. What I could see was that the path the church had set for communing with the Dominion’s wasn’t the only way it could be done.

“Kari, I need your help.” I said, opening my eyes.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked, glancing back briefly so that she wouldn’t miss any soldiers that tried to move towards us.

“I need you to tell me a story. And I need to tell you one too.” I said.

“A story? Now?” she asked.

“Yes, about the earth, about the Third Dominion.” I said.


“Because I think I can reconnect to it.” I said.

“But why a story?”

“Because that’s what stories do. They connect us to things and places and people that we’ve never met or been a part of.”

“But I’m not a priestess. I don’t know anything about the Third Dominion.” Kari said.

“Not as a great big magical thing, but it’s a part of you. You’re a part of it. You know the earth. You’ve played in the mud. You’ve eaten the fruits that have grown from the soil. Every piece of you is a part of this world.” I said.

“I don’t know…” she stammered.

Admittedly this was not the most conducive environment for spiritual reflection but sometimes we make due with what we’ve got.

“When I was little I thought that diamonds came from the ground, like any ground, anywhere. I figured people probably had to dig really deep for them, so I told my parents I was going to be a diamond miner and make us all rich. They thought it was funny until they found me in a hole I’d dug that was deeper than I was tall. I was crying because I’d worked for so long and I hadn’t found any diamonds at all.” I said.

That was one of my earliest memories. I could still feel the soft dirt filtering through my fingers as I shifted it for diamonds. I could still smell the clean, earthy scent of all the soil I’d dug up. Looking back, I knew the hole couldn’t have been that big, but at the time I thought I’d dug halfway to the center of the Earth.

“I never did anything like that.” Kari said “But I did find a secret tunnel once. I was out in the woods looking for dewberries and I fell into a pit. Except it wasn’t a pit, it was a tunnel and the ceiling had broken away. It wasn’t natural either. The stone was polished and there were these amazing carvings that I saw. I know it’s silly, but I thought I heard a minotaur in there, so I climbed up the carvings and ran all the way back to town and then kept going to the beach. I thought if I was in the water the minotaur wouldn’t be able to find me.”

I smiled and thought of the minotaur that I knew. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have her along for this “vacation”. Since she wasn’t here though, I was going to have to deal with things myself.

I closed my eyes one more time (which also helped keep out the smoke that was getting a little thick) and let my imagination flow back over Kari’s story. It was simple, like mine had been, but that was ok. Earth could be a simple thing.

The land could hold many secrets, geology showed us that there was a complexity to the Earth that rivaled anything the stars had to offer but, for all that that, earth could be very simple too.

I followed that thought and reached out to the Third Dominion. It wasn’t the Dominion of secrets, or deception or anything esoteric. It was the Dominion of Earth and I was already spiritually centered enough so I simply called to it and it simply answered.

Opening my eyes I felt a surge of triumph and pride. Cheating with dream magic was all well and good, but the connection I had to the Third Dominion was one I’d woven honestly. Better still it was unfettered by any connection to the Holy Throne. They could excommunicate me all they wanted, I’d found my own communion with one of the fundamental powers of the world.

“Time to go!” I shouted, more for Kari and Brayson’s benefit than Way’s.

Then I blasted the roof of the stone tower to tiny grains of sand and ripped the walls down around us, burying them back into the ground.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 14

There was an abomination before me. That’s not a term I use lightly, but, in the case of items that are designed to utterly destroy anyone who is placed inside them, I find it to be reasonably accurate. Full accuracy would require the use of a long string of expletives as well.

“In this holy vessel your souls shall be cleansed of all that has separated you from the light of the church. You shall be reborn, filled new purpose and vision. Where sin and darkness has twisted your soul, the light of the Holy Throne shall place within you a heart that is eternally incorruptible.” Prelate Temple preached.

His blather was lost on pretty much everyone else in the room. The other Prelates were unconcerned with the state of our souls. Avernicus in particular eyed us with a look that said he was all too aware that the Cauldron was not a tool to washout sin. The soldiers, by virtue of the fact that their current minds were copies of Prelate Ralls shared her disinterest. That left only Brayson, Kari, Way and I as an audience and none of us were inclined to believe a Shadow Breaker’s lies.

Prelate Temple’s diatribe did have one positive benefit though. It gave me time to examine the Cauldron and understand what it was.

The most obvious thing was that it wasn’t a part of this world. Someone, or something, had brought a piece of dreamworld technology into Vale Septem. Which, in a sense, was great news. Way and I had been sent to Vale Septem in order to help unravel the mystery of how it came to be in its current state. Sitting before me was a giant cauldron-shaped piece of that puzzle. In a weird way I coveted the Cauldron because of that. Whatever its purpose was, it was a string I could pull on to discover more about the one who brought it here.

A deadly, dangerous string though. There wasn’t much that could actually harm Way or I. Technically the cauldron wouldn’t be able to destroy us like it could anyone else here but being cast out into Oblivion was not a trivial problem to overcome. Especially since I suspected the cauldron was set up to do more than merely destroy us.

My meta-awareness usually looked only at what was real. The “unreal” was more difficult to focus on. It wasn’t there, it wasn’t a ‘thing’ the way even real ideas were, so any information about it was both true and false and most values in between. In short, it hurt my head to think about it too much. Figuring out the cauldron’s story was worth the headache though, so I gave it my full and undivided attention while Temple spoke.

What I saw when I looked past the surface wasn’t a cauldron at all but a writhing twisting mass of contradictions. The cauldron was only partially unreal. Bits of real magic and real cauldrons were twisted inside a shell of unreality, set to capture and reform the essence that was shredded away from anyone who was submerged in it. Oblivion would rip them apart and the real magics would reweave heart, mind and body into little more than an automata.

An incredibly powerful automata, one that was able to follow complex instructions and execute detailed battle plans, but without any of the personality or will of the person whose essence was used to construct it. Perfectly loyal, perfectly subservient, incapable of sin.

It had to be destroyed.

“Put the Watch Commander in first. His soul is the most tainted.” Prelate Ralls suggested. Not that the status of Brayson’s soul had anything to do with Ralls’ desire to see him go first. Brayson had angered her most and Ralls was still under the mistaken impression that we three “children” were looking to him to protect us. Seeing our “big hero” converted to a willing slave of the Prelates was about the worst punishment she could think of for us.

Her imagination was really lacking.

I closed my eyes and felt the silence spell that she’d bound us with. It was a masterful working. Given that she’d been able to cast it almost effortlessly, Ralls clearly used it often. It was an extremely difficult feat but not surprising that she could manage it. As a Third Prelate, her skill at weaving magic was superb. On par with the best in the world. It was time she learned who she was dealing with though.

With a thought, I shattered the spell and sent a surge of magical backlash at Ralls like an open handed slap across the face.

By excommunicating me, the Prelates had disrupted my connections to the Twelve Dominions. That had taken away my priestly magical powers. As a dreamlord though I didn’t need magic to be powerful. Vale Septem’s odd time acceleration limited my ability to change the world around me, but I held my own dreams within me and those were always mine to control. Affecting magic that were affecting me was as easy as imagining what I wanted to happen and suggesting to the world that my view was the more real one.

“You’re wrong, Watch Commander Brayson is far from the first person you should worrying about.” I said as I cracked the knuckles on my left and right hands.

“Demon child! Shadow spawn!” Prelate Ralls eyes were wide with shock. From everything she knew, it was four flavors of impossible that I’d been able to break her silence spell. The magical face slap actually made it five flavors but she’d probably lost count by that point.

“You have no idea how far off base you are.” I laughed. My history with “shadow” powers was not one that could be called “amiable” by any stretch of the imagination.

“Fool! I shall cast you out. You have no place in this realm!” Ralls screamed and I felt that sanctuary spell that warded Dawns Harbor close on me like a vice. There was a cracking sound and I looked down to see that circle we were contained within had been converted to a summoning gate.

Ralls was trying to literally send us to hell.

I tried to move out of the circle but the Sanctuary spell had bound my limbs. I looked over at Way. She wasn’t moving either.

“Right. This has gone far enough.” I said, a cold anger rising in me.

Grida had made us a part of the town, had extended the sanctuary spell to include Way and I. That let me feel it inside me as well as wrapped around me like a set of chains. In my mind’s eye I followed the weave of the sanctuary spell back to its source.

The heartstone of the spell sat within the church building that overlooked the town from one of the highest hills. It was a green-blue gem of some variety native to Vale Septem. All of the magic bought from the Holy Throne to sustain the spell glittered in the gem’s core.

Until I shattered it.

I couldn’t have done that from a distance, but with the spell touching me I had all the connection I needed. In breaking the part of the sanctuary spell that permeated me, I broke it all, right back to its source. By all rights it was something I shouldn’t ever have done, but given the choice between remaining a helpless victim of the Shadow Breakers verse fighting for our freedom, it was an easy decision to make.

“The sanctuary…someone at the church has destroyed the spell’s heartstone! They have accomplices!” Prelate Rall screamed, jumping to the only conclusion that made any rational sense to her.

“Leave the accomplices to me.” Avernicus said. With a series of intricate gestures he folded to the ground and rose back up transformed into something that looked like a giant pterodactyl. With a beating of reptilian wings he was outside of the stone tower and off to investigate our supposed accomplices.

To be fair to the deluded Prelates, the insults we’d given them were nothing compared to the unbelievable sin of destroying a sanctuary spell. Not to mention how hard doing that would be for anyone who wasn’t cheating reality with dreamlord magics like I was.

“Can you hold them until Avernicus is back to purify them?” Temple asked Ralls.

“No. She can’t.” I said, and stepped through the boundary of the summoning gate.

The three nearest soldiers reacted instantly, Ralls’ rage burning in their eyes as they thrust their spears out to impale my heart and lungs. A thundercrack knocked them all away and flattened everyone else who was outside the circle. I shook my head to clear my hearing and saw Way standing before me, the sword of lightning in her hands once more.

Without the sanctuary spell for Way to worry about, I had the sense that the Prelate’s soldiers were about to have a fairly bad day. On the other hand there were several hundred of them to contend with, and they were only puppets, innocent of any personal wrongdoing despite how dangerous they might be.

Way had that fact in mind too. Her first attack came immediately on the heels of guarding me. With a sweep of the her blade, she reduced the nearest soldier to a spasming unconscious body. I’d seen her use similar attacks before. They packed a lot of punch but wore off swiftly as well. A normal person would be down for an hour or so and wake without any serious discomfort. Against the enspelled soldiers I guessed each stunning blow of her blade would buy us a couple of minutes at most. Two minutes is a long time in a fight though.

As much as I might have hated the Blessing of Unity spell, I had to admit that it was effective. Way managed to stun only three of the soldiers before the rest were on their feet and pressing her back. If the outcome of the fight hadn’t been so critical, I might even have enjoyed watching it.

The soldiers were enhanced with speed, strength and coordination beyond anything a normal human could manage. Way was far from being a “normal” human too though.

The soldiers held a tight formation, closing her in and supporting each other with their spears. Whatever side she faced away from became a path of victory for the soldiers. In the tightening circle they kept her dancing back and forth, warding off blows from all corners.

That’s where the beauty of the fight came from. Where the soldiers moved with precision and speed, Way danced with a liquid grace that made it look like the soldiers around her were standing still. A parry to her right was made in time with a leg sweep to her left. When one of the soldiers blocked her blow with his spear she slid in close to him and spun him around to act as a shield against the rest before backflipping away and slicing him along the back with the tip of the lightning sword.

For each soldier that she stunned through, two more entered the stone tower and took up positions behind their comrades. She was being gentle, fighting for them as much as she was against them, but eventually that would have to change. As the soldiers she’d stunned started recovering she was going to have switch to more disabling blows. Ones that their enhanced healing wouldn’t be able to shrug off. One’s that would do permanent damage to them.

The necessity of that was delayed when four of the soldiers were disabled at once. As it turned out the lightning spears they were carrying weren’t enspelled to work only for them and in Watch Commander Brayson’s hands the spears were every bit as effective as Way’s lightning sword.

The two of them didn’t have the supernatural coordination the soldiers enjoyed from the Blessing spell. I knew that, but I wouldn’t have believed it to watch them fight together. Neither was actually precognitive but both seemed to be able read the battle and their foes responses to a degree that allowed them to not only predict the soldiers’ actions but also what each other would be doing in response to those actions.

The Prelates weren’t used to this kind of fighting. Their preferred targets were ones that had been rendered helpless long before they arrived. Even so though they could see that the battle was one where the outcome was very much in doubt. Even if we held no further surprises, the effort it would take for the soldiers to get us under control would burn out more of the soldiers remaining fighting time than they could afford to spend.

Prelate Temple attempted to join the battle first with a simple binding spell. I really didn’t want to think of the sort of uses he would normally put a spell like to, so I shattered it the same way I had Ralls’ silence spell.

He tried an agony spell next. Technically it was a blasphemous inversion of the Ninth Dominion’s aspect of “Endurance”. Even with eyewitness testimony though, I somehow doubted I’d be able to arrange for the conviction of a Prelate through the Ecclesiastical Court though.

I shattered that spell as well and flung the shards of it back at him. Prelate Temple didn’t enjoy receiving as much as he did giving as it turned out and he collapsed with a scream of terror and pain.

Since I wasn’t visibly casting counterspells, Prelate Ralls didn’t know what to make of what was happening. I took Kari’s hand and called on one of my dreams to shield us from any physical attacks Ralls or her soldiers might throw our way.

Instead of a physical assault though, Ralls went for a mental attack, summoning a wave of crippling fear designed to break our minds and leave us collapsed in horror at the enormity of her power. I didn’t even need to counterspell that one. Instead I just altered my dreamshield to share my perspective on it with Kari.

As the fear spell rolled over us, Way and Brayson merely shrugged and, essentially, ignored it. Ralls’ spell was powerful, but both of them had trained their minds every bit as much as their bodies. If anything Brayson was probably less affected than Way, having fought through similar effects many times as an adventurer.

For Kari and I the experience was different. The magical fear washed into us like a stream but in the dreamshield it met an ocean that was vaster than anything Prelate Ralls could imagine. She could have achieved a similar effect by screaming “Boo” at us from across the room. We didn’t literally point at her and laugh, but the temptation was there for both of us.

The Prelate went to cast another spell, but I never found out what it was. She was cut off by one of the fallen soldier’s thunder spears burying itself in her stomach. I tracked the flight of the spear back and saw that Kari had apparently found one and had a much better throwing arm than I would have guessed.

Kari lifted another spear, perhaps to finish the job, but the attack on the Prelate had brought us onto the soldier’s threat list. That didn’t work out well for them though since taking their attention off of Way and Brayson meant they were stunned nearly instantly by blows from Way’s lighting blade and Brayson’s two thunder spears.

More soldiers surged in but I noticed it was not just to join the fray. They were fleeing from the smoke that was billowing outside the entrance.

Someone had lit the camp on fire!

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 13

People like to divide things into “light” and “dark” as a shorthand for “good” and “evil”. When they do that with magic, they tend to lump protective spells into the “light” category. Few people enjoy the idea of being hurt, so protection sounds inherently good. Life isn’t that simple though.

Power rarely has an inherent bias towards good or evil. Healing magics can be turned to horrifying ends in the hands of a torturer and death magics can provide closure and healing by calling up the shades of the departed to help resolve the issues that linger in their passing. In both cases, and is so many others, the key lies in how the power is used.

I’d learned that in Diplomat school, but it was the practical object lesson which the Shadow Breakers were providing that I knew was going to stick with me.

The Sanctuary spell that shielded Dawns Harbor should have been a “good” spell. It should have protected the citizens of the town from those who sought to harm them. In the Shadow Breakers’ hands though it had become a weapon. With our offensive capabilities suppressed, the Breakers were able to apprehend us with little trouble.

I can still fight.” Way said to me via dream speech.

Not without damaging the Sanctuary spell.” I pointed out.

If they’re using it against us, does that matter?” she asked.

Unfortunately, yes. It’s still protecting the town. Without it, they’re as doomed as they’d be if we let the Shadow Breakers do whatever they wished.” I said.

We can’t let them separate us, especially not from Kari or Brayson.” Way said.

Agreed.” I said with some reservations. If Way damaged the Sanctuary spell there was less than no chance that the church would see fit to repair it, but losing track of Brayson or Kari could be a lot worse than that.

“This is a violation of all legal custom.” Brayson growled as the soldier slapped a set of manacles on him.

“The tribunal will determine that.” one of the soldiers said, speaking with Prelate Ralls’ voice.

“Usurping control of the Sanctuary spell is not a matter for a heresy tribunal to determine.” Brayson insisted.

“Did you think you were beyond the reach of the church’s law? Or do you think that when we find corrupted governors we are bound to leave that corruption place to work further ruin upon the Empire?” the Prelate asked.

“The Sanctuary spell is a sacred trust. Only those pledged and bonded to the service of the community are allowed to manipulate it.” Brayson said as the soldiers around us started to lead us off. Neither Way, nor Kari, nor I was wearing obvious weaponry, so Ralls apparently felt that we weren’t threatening enough to warrant manacles of our own. That puzzled me since the Shadow Breakers didn’t tend to err on the side of being unnecessarily merciful.

I looked at the camp as they lead us through it and the overwhelming impression I had was one of sloppiness. Judging from the bustle and chaos around us, the sloppiness didn’t come from apathy but rather urgency. The Shadow Breakers had scrambled to get an armed force out here but whatever crisis they were responding to was still unfolding.

“And how long will it take you to assemble the tribunal?” I asked.

“You are being brought before it now.”  Prelate Ralls said.

“A proper tribunal for a town governor requires twelve judges, drawn from the local governors and the militia garrison commanders.” Brayson growled.

“Or, the direct voice of the Holy Throne.” Prelate Ralls said.

“If the Holy Throne were here you wouldn’t need these men to compel the people of my town.” Brayson replied.

“We speak with the mandate of the Holy Throne. We are the direct representatives of the Holy Throne’s will. You and this town may be so far lost in sin that you can no longer see that but justice will be done upon you nonetheless.” Ralls said as we arrived at a large stone tower.

It had been raised from the land through raw mystical might. It’s creators had a lot of magical skill but virtually no care for aesthetics. The tower was a circle of stone, smooth and uniformly dirt brown. There were no windows in it, nor embellishments. At its crown there was simply the end of the cylinder with no thought given even to militarily advantageous designs.

Ralls led us into the tower through the single opening that had been blasted into it’s side. As conjured dwellings went, it lacked, well, pretty much everything. Light was provided by torch spells, seating was non-existent and the interior space of the room wasn’t divided in any way. Basically the only reason for it’s height was to look impressive to people who didn’t know how to work Earth magic.

“As one of the town’s governors you should be tried first Watch Commander Darius Brayson. By expunging the taint from you, we shall loosen its hold on the rest of the town that much more rapidly.” Prelate Ralls said, a smirk of triumph on her face as she lead Brayson to stand in a circle that had been inscribed in the floor.

I recognized the design from my meta-awareness memories. It was an anti-magic ward, designed to neutralize not only spell casting but also the enchantments on any magical items the subject might possess. Normally removing those items from someone’s possession was enough to prevent their use but between enchanted tattoos that couldn’t be removed and soulbound rings that could respond to the owners will from anywhere on the planet something as simple as a strip search wasn’t sufficient to guarantee that the defendant didn’t have access to magical powers or enhancements.

“Disrobe.” Ralls commanded Brayson as the majority of the troop of soldiers who had escorted us in surrounded the circle. With the circle in effect there was no reason to demand that of him, except for the psychological one. She wanted him to feel helpless.

“He is not required to.” Way said. “A knight can be asked to peace bond or surrender their weapon by a legitimate authority but only their direct commander can strip them of their armor.”

“This is our court, child. Our laws are the ones that apply here!” Prelate Ralls hissed.

“Are they not all part of the one set of laws? Derived from the Twelve Dominions? Or do you wish to say that the greater body of law that rules the Empire hails from merely mortal wisdom?” I asked. The truth was that the Dominions had never set down laws for mortals, but the Holy Throne had made it a point of doctrine that all of the laws which governed the empire stemmed from the “divine wisdom and guidance gifted to the church through the grace of the Dominions”. It was a very roundabout way of saying ‘yes, mortal men and women wrote these laws, but they’re perfect because the gods told us the are.”

As a side benefit, I’d once again pointed out that Ralls was blaspheming. It seemed to be a running theme of my dealing with agents of the church. Probably because they were such staggering hypocrites.

“Unless you wish to join the Watch Commander, you would wise to hold your tongue Novice.” Ralls spat at me.

“How is that possibly supposed to frighten me? Not five minutes ago you said we were all already condemned. Am I supposed to hold some delusion that if I let you victimize a poor old man that will somehow ingratiate me enough to you that you’ll let me go?” I asked.

“Poor old man?” Brayson said, his voice affronted.

“You are a fool if you do not plead whatever clemency we see fit to grant to your soul.” Ralls said. Her jaw was set in a trembling rage. Noone, pretty much ever, talked back to her the way we had. People were far too afraid of her power to do so.

In Brayson’s case, his defiance came from a deep well of courage. He’d seen terrible things in his life as an adventurer and he’d managed to survive them. Ralls was more powerful than he was both in a physical sense and judicial one, but he’d fought more powerful enemies enough times to know that simply caving in before them wasn’t necessarily the best option.

In a sense, I was more afraid of Ralls than he was. I wasn’t worried about what she could do to me, but venturing out of the bungalow had been a bit of a mistake. I’d let myself start to care about Dawns Harbor and the people in it. Whatever happened here would have an impact on them, one that I was increasingly beginning to suspect shouldn’t have happened in the normal flow of time. Or in other words, their lives were about be upended and it would pretty much be entirely my fault.

“I’m pretty sure I know how much mercy there is in your heart, so let’s cut to the chase shall we?” I said and started pushing through the ring of soldiers to join Brayson in the circle.

That Way followed me came as no surprise at all.  She was my calmer, braver, better half. She wouldn’t let me stand alone anymore than I’d allow her too. What did come as a bit of surprise was that Kari pushed past the soldiers to join us as well.

She’d been all but invisible thanks to Brayson commanding Ralls attention. I’m pretty sure she could snuck out of the tower and none of the Prelates or soldiers would have cared. From the look of anger in her eyes though, sneaking away into the night was not an option.

“Fine. Then you shall all be judged together.” Ralls said.

“By whom?” Brayson asked. “You are clearly the prosecutor of our case, so you cannot be judge and executioner as well.”

“Those shall be our roles.” a black bearded, pale skinned man said. He looked young compared to the balding, liver spotted man beside him. Both wore the same Prelate robes and insignia that Ralls did.

“Avernicus, I see reports of your demise at the battle of Temple’s Peak were somewhat exaggerated.” Brayson said, address the older of the two men.

“One can never control such rumors.” Avernicus said in a rasping voice, a cold smile on his lips.

“Hope springs eternal.” Brayson observed. It wasn’t technically an insult but I don’t think anyone missed Brayson’s meaning there. “Who’s your companion.”

“This is Prelate Temple. He shall be acting as the judge in these case.” Prelate Avernicus said.

“And you’ll take the executioner’s task. Good, nice to know it’ll be someone with a lot of practice at it.” Brayson said.

“Someone has to stir the pot.” Avernicus agreed. Something told me there was more to that reference than there appeared to be, but meta-awareness had nothing to offer me.

“Time is short.” Prelate Ralls snapped. “I accuse these four of being tainted by dark powers, resisting the lawful orders of a Prelate, multiple count of blasphemy and working to harbor an agent of the apocalypse.”

I did a double take. An agent of the what now?

“Has the agent been discovered here?” Prelate Temple asked, eagerness twisting off his breath as he spoke.

“No. Possibly due to their interference. The delays they have caused may have allowed the agent to escape.” Prelate Ralls said.

“Damn.” Temple scowled and looked at us with the same malice that Ralls had shown us.

That left only Avernicus not displaying open hostility. He wasn’t any more comforting though. Something reptilian lurked behind his eyes. The cold joy of murder, carried out under the auspices of a holy flag. Meta-awareness, unsuppressed by the anti-magic circle, gave me glimpses of his delight at playing executioner. Of the three of them, he was the most monstrous by far.

“In that case I pronounce them…” Prelate Temple began.

“No.” I said, my voice loud enough to cut through the sounds of the camp being constructed.

“No?”, he asked.

“No one here, or in this town is guilty of anything Prelate Ralls has charged us with. She has no evidence and no witnesses.” I said.

“I have witnessed your guilt myself. That is all of the evidence that is required.” Ralls said.

“You’ve witnessed…” I began to say but she cut me off.

“I’ve witnessed your blasphemy against the church, your refusal to obey your superiors. I’ve seen you play your games of words, just the way the devils you’ve pledged your souls to do.” Ralls screamed.

“We’ve done…” I began again, and again she cut me off.

“You’ve done everything you can to slow us down. We are the law, we are the voice of Dominions. Your obedience to us should have been instantaneous and unquestioning if you were still faithful servants of the church.” Ralls bellowed.

“No, you’re…” I tried one final time only to find my voice freeze in my throat.

I looked around and saw that Brayson, Way and Kari were clutching their throats as well. Outside the circle, Ralls held her hands in an intricate gesture as they glowed with pale blue light. She’d cast a silence spell on us.

“This is done. Your words are worthless. Prelate Temple render your judgment.” Ralls said.

“I judge them guilty on all counts and sentence them to Purification so that they may rejoin the church as our brothers and sisters in faith.” Temple said.

“I believe additional judgments may be needed for the Watch Commander and the Priestess.” Ralls said. “Their sins being so much heavier.”

“Agreed. Their burdens were clearly too great for them. The Watch Commander I judge to be stripped of all ranks and privilege. He shall be no more than a common citizen. And for the Priestess, there can be only Excommunication. Once she is purified, the church shall in mercy welcome her back, but as she had misused her connection to the Dominions, they must be stripped from her evermore. So say I. So say I. So say I.” Prelate Temple clapped his hands three times, once for each ‘So say I’. I recognized that as a ritual action, but was still shocked when I felt the bonds I had with the Twelve Dominions shatter at the ritual’s completion.

With a few words, he’d destroyed my magical powers. That shouldn’t have been even vaguely possible. Or, rather, it shouldn’t have been possible to do that easily. Any member of the church could be excommunicated but it was an involved process and stripping a priest or priestess of their powers involved at least one ritual per Dominion they were sworn too. The process could take up to a full year for someone like me that had sworn themselves to all Twelve Dominions.

I wanted to scream, but Ralls silence spell still held my throat frozen shut.

I’m getting us out of here.” Way said in dream speech and I could feel her anger blazing behind her words.

Wait, there’s something’s impossible going on here, we need to see what they mean by ‘Purification’.” I replied, sending the sense that I was still ok back as a comfort to her.

She didn’t respond in words, but I felt her reign her rage in.

Beside me Kari was trembling, so I laid a hand on her shoulder and gave her a small smile and a shake of my head to let her know not to count us out yet.

As a diplomat, I’d more or less utterly failed to manage the situation. Granted I hadn’t had much room to work with, but the mere fact that the Prelates had been willing to speak at all would have given a senior diplomat more than enough opportunity to take control of things. All wasn’t quite lost though. I might have lost the first round to them but I had a plan.

Once they’d carried out whatever “purification” ritual they had in mind, they’d consider us neutralized. For a junior diplomat like me, that was an amazing spot to be able to strike from. It would take some cleverness and more work on understanding them than I’d put in so far, but with “purification” as a shield to hide behind I could get away with so much it wasn’t even going to be a challenge.

Or that’s what I’d thought until the soldier wheeled in a gleaming white cauldron. It was large enough for even a big man to be fully submerged in it. The soldiers set it down in the center of the room and I saw Avernicus smiling broadly as he walked over to it.

It should have been a holy artifact. It should have been a relic of the world. It should have been real.

It wasn’t any of those things.

When I saw it, it was only with my eyes. My meta-awareness told me that there was only a void there. I’d seen things like that before. Two years ago, when I started my life as a dreamlord.

They had a tool of Oblivion. The Cauldron didn’t purify those put into it. It unmade them.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 12

One of the things they try to teach us at Diplomat school is that there are far more ways to solve a problem through communication than there are through conflict. The difficulty lies in thinking creatively enough to talk your way through a problem instead of punching the other guy in the face. In my experience there was another issue beyond creativity that made things difficult though; some people just needed a good punch in the face.

I glowered at the soldiers possessed by the Shadow Breaker Prelate. Some people needed a lot of punches to the face.

“Are we still going to be ok?” Kari asked, walking close beside me as we approached the camp the Shadow Breakers had set up outside Dawns Harbor.

“We’ll be fine.” I assured her, taking her hand in my own.

“Fear not, though you are condemned, the Holy Throne is wise and just. You will be restored to grace, the taint which blackens your soul washed away in holy light.” one of the soldiers said in Prelate Ralls’ voice.

I looked over at Way who narrowed her eyes and nodded back to me in agreement. We were going to have to ‘disagree’ with the church rather vociferously if Prelate Ralls tried to ‘wash away our taint’.

The ‘grace’ the Holy Throne offered was the grace of unwilling servitude. If it washed away any existing mystical taint it did so only by replacing it with a far worse one, and in this case there was nothing to ‘wash away’.

As a Priestess, I could draw on the Seventh Dominion’s aspect of ‘Deception’ to see the mystical or otherworldly influences on people. That gave me spells that were as powerful as anything the Shadow Breaker’s could have employed to determine whether someone was possessed or had fallen under demonic influence. As a dreamlord I didn’t need them though.

The demons and devils of Vale Septem were fairly standard as ‘evil powers’ went. They were masters of deception and adept at plotting the downfall of the mortals who turned to them. For every spell of True Sight a mortal could cast there was a veiling spell that would protect the demon’s secrets. That didn’t mean it was impossible to discover them with magic, it just meant that you needed a wide repertoire of spell prayers to draw upon and more determination about using those spells than the demon had for maintaining their veils.

The awareness of a dreamlord entered that contest the same way “planet killing super nova” entered a rock, paper, scissors battle. Meta-awareness could fail to warn me of things for a variety of reasons but, no matter what veils a demon might employee, if I deliberately looked at someone, I saw what was real.

There were things that could block meta-awareness, for example people and powers that could manipulate their own reality, like other dreamlords, but I was fairly confident that neither Vale Septem’s demons nor the Shadow Breakers were in that league. If they had been, their cruelty and malice would have either been left behind or made far worse.

That’s how I knew that the Shadow Breaker’s assertion that we were all already damned was yet another lie. With meta-awareness I could see that there was no taint, dark or light, good or evil, on the people of Dawns Harbor. The poor reception they’d given Way and I had been a purely human response. Grida and Colten taking us in for dinner had been the same. The people of Dawns Harbor were real and complex in ways that demons could never quite manage to be.

That meant that, despite how they’d treated us, they deserved better than what the Shadow Breakers were going to do to them.

We reached the camp to find another party of ensorcelled soldiers waiting for us.

“You are charged with obstructing the orders of an agent of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. Charges of blasphemy are also being prepared. Surrender your weapons.” the leader of the soldiers who were waiting for us said. The voice was, again, Prelate Ralls.

“And you are charged with brigandage and assault. If you should resist arrest on these charges I am required to use lethal force in response.” Brayson answered. He was calm and relaxed, perhaps sensing that violence was not immediately forthcoming, or perhaps confident that the force presented against us was not yet sufficiently overwhelming.

As a retired adventurer, Brayson had to be masterful at combat. The only way an adventurer lived long enough to retire was to hone their skills far beyond that of a common soldier. That was more or less the opposite of the way it worked in my world, but in Vale Septem it made a degree of sense. Vale’s adventurer’s were the ones who spent their lives poking into dark corners and fighting the unimaginable variety of horrors that lurked therein. The Empire’s soldiers on the other hand rarely saw action and when they did it was in battles where personal prowess mattered less than the overall coordination of the unit they were in and the kind of support they had backing them up.

“Your charges are meaningless as are your threats.” Prelate Ralls said through the leader of the soldiers who stood around us.

“As is your claim of legitimacy until you provide a sealed writ confirming it.” Brayson answered.

“We are preparing the writ now. Any further time that you spend holding the Sanctuary spell against us will be counted as additional sins that must be expunged from you.” Ralls said.

“Preparing the writ? Forging a document at this point won’t help you. But I will add that to the list of charges that we’ll hang you for.” Brayson smiled at the soldiers.

“I could kill you where you stand, and still you offer insolence in place of the awe and respect due to a Prelate.” Ralls asked, disbelief plain in her voice.

“You seem to be under a misapprehension. I am offering you far more respect than someone claiming to be a Prelate but offering no proof of that deserves.” Brayson explained.

“And once you have your proof?” Ralls asked.

“Then I will treat you with exactly as much respect as a Third Prelate of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court deserves.”

Ralls didn’t catch the undertone of that promise, but I did. Meta-awareness showed me glimspes of Brayson’s history with the Shadow Breakers. Kari’s father wasn’t the only townsperson that Dawns Harbor had lost to the Breakers. Spurious charges, backed by confessions and “conclusive” evidence that no one was allowed to see or contest due to “greater spiritual concerns”. There’d been enough circumstantial evidence that Brayson hadn’t been able to gainsay the Breakers, but as far as he was concerned none of the townsfolk that had been taken had been guilty of anything they were accused of. If I scrapped together the respect that he had for the Prelates of the Shadow Breakers into a thimble I’d still have plenty of room for my middle finger.

It’s why he was helping us. He didn’t like us, well Way or I. Kari he was at least fond of. Way and I were trouble though, which meant his first instinct was to wish we were elsewhere. Barring that, he’d be happy if we managed to avoid attracting his attention. The one thing that overrode that general disapproval though was that the Shadow Breaker’s presented a target he truly loathed. As common ground between us went, it wasn’t the most stable of foundations but it would do under the circumstances.

“I thought you were going to meet us here in person?” I asked the nearest Ralls controlled soldier.

“Once the Sanctuary effect has been restored to its proper function and operations here have commenced, I will be happy to deal with you personally.” she replied.

“Why are they all talking in the same voice?”, Kari whispered.

“Because this army has been unified by the grace of the Holy Throne.” Ralls replied through another soldier. Superior hearing was apparently also part of the enhancement package the soldiers were enspelled with.

“The church has decided that the life force of these soldiers is worth less than the aim they are pursuing here.” I added.

“We all live to serve the Holy Throne, but you speak as though you are aware of prayers which are spoken for the Blessing of Unity?” Ralls said.

“Yes. I know what you’re doing to these men and women.”

The soldiers around us paused for a moment, processing that. Meta-awareness filled me in on why. The Blessing of Unity was a prayer that was only taught to high officials of the church. It was both demanding to cast and easy to misuse. I offered no explanation for how I, an apparently underage Priestess, knew of it and allowed Ralls to draw her own conclusions.

“Priestess Jin, how much longer would you expect the soldiers can be kept in this state?” Brayson asked.

“That depends on how much they are misused. With moderate activity, I imagine a caster such as the one speaking to us could manage to keep them alive for four or five days in this state.” I said.

“And if they were freed before then?” Brayson asked.

“That depends on when they are freed. If it was tonight they would need no more than a week’s rest. The longer they stay like this though the more rapid their decline will be. By two days from now they’ll start suffering a permanent loss of strength and reaction speed.” I said.

“Significantly decreasing the fighting prowess of the Imperial Army is grounds for both execution and excommunication.” Brayson said to no one in particular. Ralls caught his meaning on that one. It was weird to see the faces of all of the soldiers surrounding us darken into the same scowl.

The mirrored expressions reminded me of the fact that they were as much victims in this as the townsfolk of Dawns Harbor were poised to become. Their consent to the Unity Blessing entered into a questionable philosophical area. On the one hand it might have been genuine when it was given, motivated by respect for authority or faith in the church. On the other there was no way the Shadow Breakers had explained the Unity Blessing to them fully or made them aware of what its real nature was. The spell only called for consent, not informed consent though, a feature that was completely a part of the Breaker’s design of it.

There was a commotion in front of us, from within the camp, as another set of soldiers marched forward. At their head was a woman in priestly robes. Prelate Ralls held a scroll in her hands and an expression of wicked satisfaction on her face.

“Watch Commander Brayson, here is the documentation required for control of this town to pass to the the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. I hereby officially relieve you of your duty and your rank as Watch Commander. Further the charges I had read against you will now be put into full effect.” Prelate Ralls said as she handed the sealed writ over to Brayson.

He opened it and read the contents, his frown shifting to a small smile.

“I hereby accept this writ of Emergency Powers to be granted to the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court. However, Prelate Ralls, you appear to be unfamiliar with the Emergency Powers procedures and doctrine. This writ requires that I render you all aid and comply with any legal orders given. It specifically does not allow for the ouster of the existing governors of the village, town or city referenced.” Brayson said.

“You will find that you are mistaken. It is well within my power to strip you of your rank, your privilege and your life. Were this not a Conscription mission, I would have done so already.”

“Prelate, I am aware of the sorts of actions you are used to being able to take. Allow me to assure you that my understanding of the laws as they are actually written is quite accurate. You have the right to execute any legal order within this town, up to and including trying me for heresy. Past experience may have left you confused and under the impression that any order you make is legal simply because you wish it to be so. Further, you have brought five hundred warriors with you. This likely leads you to believe that you have the necessary might to enforce your orders regardless of whether they are legal or not. Allow me to correct that misunderstanding.” Brayson slipped on a pair of mailed gauntlets. Jewels gleamed on the knuckles, and I could feel them radiating with a disturbing amount of power despite being in a quiescent state.

“You cannot threaten me. You do not know who you are speaking to.”  Prelate Ralls said, though she backed away a step.

“I am speaking to a Third Prelate. You are speaking to one of the six people who survived the Battle of Empty Swamp. It has been many years since then, but did you know we fought over two thousand undead there.” Brayson said. Ralls froze, her face hardening into a silent scowl.

“The charge of heresy remains against you. You will turn over all of the weapons you possess and submit yourself to our custody.” Ralls demanded.

“As you wish.” Brayson said. He unbuckled his belt and handed it over with the sword that was strapped to it. “I must warn you though, assembling a proper tribunal to try a town Watch Commander will take several days. Longer, I believe, that you can sustain these troops. And until the trial is completed I will not turn the Sanctuary spell over to your control.”

Ralls laughed at that. A chilling cackle of glee.

“The Sanctuary spell is a gift of the Holy Throne. Now that we have command of the town, it is ours to command as well.” Ralls explained.

With a twisting gesture of her hand, I felt the ward that Brayson had woven against the Shadow Breakers unwind and reform, settling on us instead. One moment we were free and the next we were encased in the chains of magic that had kept the town safe for decades. I reached out for my Priestess magic and found a hard blockage holding it back.

Looking around I saw that Way had been similarly constrained. No sword of lightning would come to her hand while the Sanctuary spell was turned against us, and our strength and reflexes were severely diminished. We weren’t the worst affected though,

Kari looked at me as the mystical chains fell on us. Her eyes were wide with fear. Behind them I saw visions of her father’s fate playing out in her mind’s eyes.

“We shall render our judgment upon you now.” Prelate Ralls said.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 11

There’s a strange sort of peace that comes from heading towards trouble. I think its because your uncertainty drops away. Often trouble sneaks up on us. One moment things are fine and the next you’re hip deep in problems and sinking fast. People like the Shadow Breakers rely on that. It’s easy to make a victim of someone who’s too surprised to fight back.

“They called for me, so let me do the talking.” Brayson said as we walked through town.

“As long as they’ll listen to you that’s fine.” I agreed.

“Do you know where they are?” Way asked Brayson.

“I don’t think five hundred men will be hard to spot.” he said.

“I meant the Shadow Breakers. Will they set up a command post immediately or will we have to find them among the troops?” Way asked. I could see what she was thinking. If it came to a fight, being in the middle of an armed camp was ‘less than optimal’. Too high a chance for unintended casualties.

“Can’t say. I haven’t seen them do this kind of thing before.” Brayson said.

“They’ll defer to the Knight commanders.” I said, meta-awareness sketching me an image of how a group like the Shadow Breakers would take command of a military force. “For something unusual like this they’ll have picked commanders that they’re comfortable with.”

“I never seen them deferring to anyone.” Brayson said.

“They’re probably not obvious about it. It probably looks more like delegation. The order to set up the camp will come from them but it’s the Knights who know what that means and how best to do it.” I said.

“That I’ve seen.” Brayson agreed.

We turned a corner off of a street that was lit by a collection of magical torches and entered a wide but unlit alley between a textile merchant’s shop and a two story residential building. The cobblestones that paved the main road continued only a few feet down the alley, leaving us to navigate around the muddy puddles that dotted the alley.

I saw that Kari was picking her way down the alley with extra care for her new dress.

“Don’t worry.” I told her “The skirt’s self cleaning. I’ll show you how to trigger the enchantment later.”

“Oh, thank you.” she said and hurried her pace to catch up to Way and Brayson. She still avoided the puddles though.

“Who are those people?” Way asked, pointing at a group of armored men who marched by the far end of the alley.

At her question, the men halted, wordlessly, and turned to look down the alley. The armor they wore was marked with a glowing sigil in the shape of the Ever Watchful Eye. On their brows, pure white halos glowed and in their hands they held spears that crackled with electricity.

Their leader was a taller man, and his armor was adorned with more glowing sigils than the rest. He stepped forward and when he spoke the voice that emerged wasn’t his own.

“Halt. This town is under General Confinement and Conscription by direct order of the Holy Throne. ” a feminine voice commanded.

“I am Watch Commander Darius Brayson. Under what charges was that order issued, and who I am addressing?” Brayson demanded.

“I am Third Prelate Ralls of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court, I am in direct command of the forces sent to enact the Holy Throne’s decree and I order you to lay down any weapons you are carrying and submit to yourselves to our custody.” the leader said.

Meta-awareness quickly unpacked a bunch of what was going on for me.

The Supreme Ecclesiastical Court was the official name for the Shadow Breakers. As a Prelate, Ralls was one of the Shadow Breakers commanding officers. Third Prelate meant she was about as high up as one could get and still see action in the field. The Second Prelates were concerned with the governance of the Shadow Breakers organization and the First Prelate was an office whose sole member sat on council that advised the Holy Throne on the governance of the entire Empire.

When Ralls said she was in ‘direct command’ of the forces, she was speaking quite literally. The sigils and halos that the troops wore offered them enhanced combat prowess, from greater strength to faster reflexes to added layers of armor-like toughness and rapid healing. It was extremely rare that the spell was put into use though as it drew its power from the life force of those who bore the sigils. Sustained use was as certain to kill the wearer as any sword blow would be and even if they survived, the recovery time was measured in months or years.

That wasn’t the ugly part of the spell though. The ugly part was the way the recipient of the spell became a puppet for the spell’s caster. No will, no thought, save what the caster allowed. That meant no fear, no hesitation and no chance anyone would disobey a clearly immoral order.

That control came at a price though. No human spellcaster could consciously control five hundred soldiers and have them fight effectively. That’s where the Shadow Breaker’s turned to mind alteration. In place of the subject’s conscious mind, the spell stamped a copy of the caster’s mind into the host body. It was a ‘temporary effect’, in theory ending when the spell was released. In practice bits of the caster’s mind could linger with the subject, disturbing their sleep and instilling paranoia and doubt into every waking moment for years afterwards.

“I refuse to surrender my weapons or any of those under my charge until you present a writ bearing the Holy Seal.” Brayson said. His hand wasn’t on his sword and the rest of us were unarmed as far as the mind controlled squad could see. For some reason though, they still paused. You couldn’t intimidate the mind controlled soldiers, but intimidating the caster who was directing them was another matter.

“Refusal to obey a directive from a Prelate of the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court is an act of treason and punishable by summary execution. Throw down your weapon.” Ralls commanded again.

“Until you verify your identity and your authority, I am required to treat armed invaders in my town as brigands, or are you unfamiliar with the requirements of official judiciously practices, Prelate?” Brayson said the last word out with enough contempt that he might as well have been spitting it into the dirt.

I saw what was coming next as the soldiers started to move. They didn’t need to communicate when they made the decision to attack. They were of one mind after all. The Shadow Breakers had rallied a force out to Dawns Harbor at an inhuman speed. There was no chance they were going to waste time answering questions or presenting proper paperwork. We weren’t looking at a group of defenders for the town or even peacekeepers. This was an assault group. They’d brought overwhelming force and there was no reason, in their minds, not to use that force to reach their objectives as fast as possible.

They started to move on us and things happened very quickly.

Way moved first, a flick of her wrist sending a thunder clap down the alleyway as she pulled an enormous blade of lightning down from the sky above. With their magically enhanced speed, the soldiers answered the threat Way posed by hurling their spears at her in unison.

Brayson thrust his arm forward and the shield that he’d been silently weaving into place sprang to life in front of us as a wall of blue radiance.

The spears detonated against the wall like cannon balls, shattering it but being destroyed themselves in the process.

“As Watch Commander of Dawns Harbor, by the power of my office and in execution of my duly appointed duties, I charge you all with assault and disturbing the peace. I bind you by law to stand down and submit yourselves to the judgment of the next tribunal.” Brayson said, loud enough to be heard a block away.

His words were more than a warning or a declaration. The sanctuary spell was responsive to any official of the town. By charging the soldiers with an official crime they had to answer for, he was able to turn that power against them.

Ordinarily the magical fear that the sanctuary spell could generate would be enough to force a brigand to submit or at least flee. The haloed soldiers couldn’t feel fear though and Prelate Ralls was far too strong mystically to succum to it.

Which isn’t to say the sanctuary spell was worthless. The soldiers responded to Brayson’s words by conjuring and hurling another set of electrified spears at us. The assault shattered into dust before the spears even got close enough for Way to parry them.

“I say again, you are bound by law. Continued resistance will be met with the use of lethal force.” Brayson said. There was no anger or malice in his voice, but it was also the farthest thing from warm.

“Your authority has been revoked. The General Confinement and Conscription places all citizens and officials of this town under the authority of the Prelates sent to secure it.” Ralls said.

“My authority remains in effect until I am relieved of it by death or a properly delivered edict from my superior, Knight General Longinus. Watch authority can be suspended by the Holy Throne in times of crisis but notice must be presented in writing to that effect.” Brayson said and began striding towards the soldiers. “Since death will end my authority, I suggest you try to kill me. I am nearly convinced that you are heretical brigands already, I could use confirmation of that fact ‘Prelate’.”

“You are a foolish man. There will be no mercy or leniency shown in your sentencing thanks to this.” Ralls said.

“Continue resisting my lawful command and I promise I will show you precisely what ‘no mercy’ looks like.” Brayson said.

“Threatening a Prelate is also grounds for summary execution. Time is of the essence however and it will be faster to produce the documentation and officially relieve you of your command than to undo the damage of your misuse of the Sanctuary spell. Come with us. You may retain your weapons until you are stripped of your rank.” Ralls said, before turning the squad of soldiers back towards the edge of town and the army that encampment that lay beyond it.

“I expect you to be waiting for us in person, Prelate Ralls.” Brayson said, falling into step behind the soldiers. Way released her lightning blade and she, Kari and I followed in Brayson’s wake.

“You are in no position to make demands.” the leader of the squad said.

“Aren’t I? We both know the Shadow Breakers don’t have the authority to command the Imperial army. When Knight General Longinus finds out what you’re doing here he’s going to make your little interrogation chambers look like pleasure parlors.” Brayson said.

“We are not commanding the Imperial army. The Holy Throne is. We are merely servants.” Ralls said.

“I’m sure the distinction will be very meaningful to the Knight General.” Brayson said.

“You place your faith in a mortal man rather than the Holy Throne, and so commit one of the Great Sins as well? Oh, I will definitely be seeing you in person.” Ralls said.

“You meant to say ‘faith in mortal power instead of faith in the divine wisdom of the Dominions’, didn’t you?” I asked, innocently.

“You wish a lecture on theology child? Your father’s influence will not spare you from the church’s wrath if you speak blasphemy.” Ralls hissed.

“Who’s influence? Child? I am priestess of the Twelve Dominions Prelate and I would take care with accusations of blasphemy. Bishop Rask seemed to have a similarly difficult time distinguishing proper dogma from Ecclesiastical shorthand.” I knew baiting her was a bad idea, but she was pushing the same buttons that Rask had. Between that and my revulsion at the Halo spell she’d cast, I wasn’t feeling particularly well disposed towards Prelate Ralls.

“If you know Bishop Rask, then know that you cannot call on him for aid. It is because his mission has failed that we have been mobilized. There is no one who will speak for anyone in this town. You are all already condemned.” Ralls said.

Her words rocked me back. Not because she claimed we were condemned. If the church knew what I really was they’d excavate a new level of the Abyss to bury me in.

No, the shocking thing about her words was that she didn’t recognize me, didn’t know who Way or I was at all. The Shadow Breakers hadn’t come for us. They’d come for the town. Rask had just wanted us to be held here so that we would be caught in the wake of whatever was planned to happen to Dawns Harbor.

That also meant that Ralls was lying. Rask had known the Shadow Breaker’s would be coming before he left to pursue the mission. On the other hand they were in a rush. This couldn’t be a long thought out plan. It would have been better organized if so.

I had a vision of the world falling apart and the Shadow Breakers desperately scrambling to hold together the grains of sand that made it up. They were going to fail, and somehow I knew, I was going to make sure that happened.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 10

Generally the phrase “you and what army” is a rhetorical question. When someone who’s looking for you shows up with five hundred armed troops under their command however it becomes the sort of thing that you might be genuinely curious about.

“Did you recognize the livery on the troops that are encamping here?” Commander Brayson asked his underlying who had come with the report of their arrival.

“They all wore the Shadow Breakers insignia sir.” the guard reported.

“That’s not possible. The Shadow Breakers don’t maintain regular forces, that’s not their role.” Marcus said.

“I don’t know about that kind of thing but they’re wearing the Breaker’s colors and carrying the standard of the Ever Watchful Eye.” the guard said.

The Ever Watchful Eye was the Shadow Breaker’s official symbol. It showed an eye wreathed in rays of light. Occasionally they would dress the image up with various demons and monsters impaled on far ends of the rays of light. Just in case people weren’t terrified enough of them to start with.

“I think Way and I should go talk to them.” I said.

“Confidence and self sacrifice are wonderful things, but I believe the presence of a small army changes the issue before us somewhat.” Brayson said and then turned to his underling. “Head back to the watch barracks and call everyone in. No excuses from anyone. We got something big going on tonight.”

The guardsman nodded and headed out to obey the order.

“Darius is right.” Grida said “You don’t bring an army to arrest two young girls, however talented they might be.”

“We should still go talk to them.” Way said, flexing her fingers as she spoke. The others weren’t familiar enough with her to understand the gesture but I was. Like I said, sometimes we don’t even need dream speech to know what the other one is thinking.

“Five hundred is kind of a lot.” I said via dream speech, since it was apparently my turn to play the cooler head.

“Not if we’re just going to talk to them”. Way included an image of saintly innocence with her words and I almost burst out laughing. We so often went into situations with the best of intentions, having convinced ourselves that this time, this one time at least, we would be as calm and genteel as Professor Haffrun was trying to teach us to be. Sadly, other people just didn’t tend to agree with those intentions.

“To what purpose?” Brayson asked.

“We’ll carry word to them that you were delayed with a matter in town and find out what their intentions are. Then we can come back here and you can plan your response appropriately.” I said.

“And you think they’ll just let you go like that? If the plan wasn’t madness, I’d support it just to see the look on their faces.” Colten said.

“Quiet you old fool.” Grida said “Girls, this is serious. The Church wouldn’t move like this unless it were part of a much larger plan. That means they will have prepared for meeting resistance. Let Darius and I go speak with them first. If there’s someone reasonable in charge, we’ll send word for you to join us. If not, we’ll send word that their leader wishes to meet with you.”

“And in the latter case we flee?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m not going to be coy here. If the army they’ve brought is bent on mayhem then there’s no point for you to try speaking with them. You may have an idea of what their punishments can be like but let me assure you that they hold their most terrible practices as tightly guarded secrets.” Grida said.

“If you and my husband are going then I will be joining you as well.” Helena said in a tone that brooked no disagreement.

“Aye, I wouldn’t miss this either.” Colten said.

“By rights, I should go with you as well, but I believe my talents might be put to more profitable use here in the event that a sudden departure is required.” Marcus said.

“Stop.”, I said, “I appreciate what you all are doing, and I understand that since this is your town you feel like it’s your responsibility to take care of the problems that show up in it. But this isn’t what Dawns Harbor needs you for.”

“What do you mean?” Colten asked.

“Grida’s right. Bringing an army against two girls is ridiculous. I insulted Rask but this would be ludicrous overkill for that. I could have stabbed him and called up a demon with his blood in front of witnesses and the church still wouldn’t send an army after us.” I said.

“They’re here for the town. Or the town’s people.” Way added “That’s what setting up an encampment here says.”

“More than that. They had to have traveled by portal. That’s difficult. Extremely so for a force that size. That means two possibilities exist. Either where they wanted to go is warded against portal transports and this is the closest they could get, or Dawns Harbor was their intended destination.” I said.

“Why would they come here?” Kari asked. Old fears lay behind her eyes.

“That’s what we need to find out.” I said.

“We need to discover their motives, you need to protect your people.” Way said.

“Protect them from what?” Marcus asked.

“Being caught unaware. The Shadow Breakers brought an army of five hundred. Dawn’s Harbor has at least that four times many citizens as that right? The Shadow Breakers arrived after dark when people would be home, isolated in small groups. Maybe that’s coincidence, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The town needs to roused and gathered so you all can stand together. Way and I can’t do that, there’s no chance the people here will listen to us, but we can talk to the Breakers.” I said.

“You want us to get the whole town together? That sounds like an overreaction. The army may be here to use the town as a base, or to defend us from a coming attack.” Marcus said “I could believe that the Shadow Breakers were up to something nefarious but the army is not sworn to them. Even if the Knights in command of it were ordered to assist the Breakers they wouldn’t assault the town. It would violate their knightly vows to attack the innocent.”

“And if the entire town was said to be possessed by dark spirits? What would their knightly vows require of them then?” I asked.

“That’s not possible…” Marcus said, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice.

“Rask’s force was hunting diabolists, right? And they left with haste this morning. They even had two knights with them, Sir Gahn and Sir Maak. Do you think they were hunting some small or weak enemy?” I asked.

“There’s a large difference between hunting diabolists hiding in the wild and accusing an entire town of corruption.” Marcus objected.

“Yes, about five hundred soldiers and an unknown number of Shadow Breakers worth of difference I would guess.”  I said.

The room fell silent as my argument sank in.

“Fine.” Brayson said, breaking the silence. “People should know to be alert. But you’re not going to the camp alone. The three of us will go and talk with them. The rest of you can get the word out.”

“I’m not staying behind.” Helena said.

“You never do. But if you come with us I will need to explain why a frightening warrior woman is glowering at the Church’s ‘Most Holy Representatives’, and that won’t go well for anyone.”

“I don’t…” Helena began but her husband cut her off.

“Yes you do. You’re glowering now. You can’t help it when you get annoyed.” Brayson said. The expression on his wife’s dark skinned features glowered harder at him.

“He’s got a point.” Colten agreed.

Helena looked from the men to Healer Grida for support but the best Grida could offer was a silent shrug.

“Fine.” Helena said with little agreement in her tone and absolutely no happiness. They would be continuing the conversation later I suspected.

“What about me?” Kari asked.

“You’ll stay here with us too.” Grida said.

“Thank you but I think I need to go with them.” Kari said, her voice slightly distant and distracted.

“Grida’s right Kari, it would be much safer if you stayed with them.” I said.

“No. They’ll know what happened this morning. They’ll need to see me too.” Kari said. “Don’t leave me behind now.”

And I couldn’t. However terribly bad an idea it was, I’d promised her that she’d have a place with us as long as she wanted it. I wasn’t literally bound by my word the way a Faerie was, but I couldn’t break that promise to her. The sound of her trust shattering would be unbearable.

“Ok.” I said, and turned to Grida and Helena. “We can keep them safe. Both of them. One way or the other I suspect the conversation won’t take that long, so you should see us soon.”

“We will be back. We won’t send for you. If someone says we have, or that we’re hurt…” Way said.

“We know their tactics child.” Grida said with a sad smile. “But come, even if we let you go, we needn’t send you without aid.”

“We don’t need…” I started to say but she cut me off.

“Humor an old priestess.” Grida said.

I regarded her, trying to read what she had in mind. She was better at looking inscrutable than I was at perceiving intentions without meta-awareness cheating for me.

“Ok.” I said finally, nodding my assent to whatever she had in mind.

The spell she cast was one that she knew well enough that her prayer to invoke it was only a single word in the High Arcane language used for the official prayers of the Holy Throne.

“Welcome.” she said in the old language as she placed her fingers on her own forehead and then on mine.

I felt my muscles relax and a warmth spread from my toes up to the top of head. I felt secure and protected. I felt like I was home.

Grida repeated the gesture for Way and I watched as Way relaxed in the wake of the spell too. Grida’s spell was more than a simple protection charm. She’d brought us directly into the sanctuary spell that warded the town from harm. It was an extra layer of protection, but it was more than that, it was an offer of citizenship, an acknowledgement that we belonged there.

“You could use a different sort of help.” Helena said to Kari as she sketched a glowing sigil onto the young girls vest. “This won’t provide you with much protection, so if there’s trouble but sure to stay out of it. If any stray arrows or spears happen to graze you though, you should be ok.”

“If there’s going to be trouble, I should tell my drivers. They’ll be halfway to their stupors already but even half a driver it worth a couple soldiers.” Marcus said.

“We don’t know that there’s going to be any fighting yet.” Brayson said. “So don’t go getting them all riled up.”

“I’ll go with the boy and keep the ruckus down.” Colten offered. ”Half fishers in town will be racing the drivers to their bottom of their cups. I figure we can get them to leave off their drinking and bring the message back to their homes.”

“You’re going to get between a bunch of fishers and their drinks?” Marcus asked.

“Our young guests aren’t the only ones who can be ‘persuasive’.” Colten promised.

The likelihood for a bar brawl seemed high there. Since it was likely to take place in Caina’s Inn and break her stuff, I wasn’t, perhaps, as worried about that as I should have been.

Grida was busy putting away our unfinished dinners. I knew from meta-awareness that she would be contacting some of the larger families and having the word spread in a calmer manner than a bar brawl. With everyone on guard, I hoped the Shadow Breakers wouldn’t have as easy of a time ‘disappearing’ people, which was one of their more preferred tactics. Granted they could strike with magics that the townspeople weren’t prepared to counter but if word got back to Grida that people were disappearing, she’d be free to act in ways she couldn’t without provocation.

Then there was Helena. I didn’t think she was going to be talking to the townsfolks. They knew and respected her certainly. She was one of the most experienced blacksmiths they had and while most didn’t need the armor and weapons she had honed her talent on, there were plenty of other metal oddiments that she supplied them with. Despite that connection though, I could tell she wasn’t thinking of the townspeople. She might be angry with him, but from her gaze it was clear that under the present circumstances she was only thinking of her husband.

“There’s more to Way and I than you can see.” I said, feeling suddenly protective of the people around me. Grida had included me in their world. I couldn’t include them in mine, not fully, but I could offer them a piece of it, or rather a piece of myself. “If you’re in trouble, if you need help or if the situation seems bleak, speak my name. Call to me specifically and I’ll answer.”

It wasn’t the kind of promise that I made lightly. It could mean blowing apart my identity, but if they needed me that badly it would be a small trade.

With that, we went out into the night to meet the worst villains the Empire of the Holy Throne unleashed on its populace. To talk to them. I suspected our words would be loud ones. In fact I was inclined to make sure they loud enough that they could be heard all that way back to the Holy Throne itself.

The Broken Bonds – Chapter 9

Regaining a joyful mood is hard in the wake of an unexpected shock. Fear has a way of lingering and poisoning your thoughts. Laughter can help but it’s not a panacea. Sometimes things just don’t seem funny enough to pick up your spirits.

I reflected on that as we trudged towards Healer Grida’s house. Our earlier air of joviality had been left behind with the ashes of the effigies and the sign telling us to get out of town. Somewhere, someone was starting to have a very bad night thanks to Ash Doll curse that I’d laid on them but that didn’t help us forget the general animosity that the town seemed to feel for us.

The dour mood the doll burning had placed on us was only magnified as we walked through the streets and saw people turning away, avoiding eye contact, suddenly going quiet and generally avoiding even the slightest appearance that they knew we existed.

“It’s dinnertime so everyone’s trying to get home now.” Kari said, perhaps guessing the direction my thoughts were going.

“Hopefully we’re not spoiling their appetites.” I said. I wasn’t thinking kind thoughts and I knew it came through in my voice. Way just frowned.

We walked a bit longer in silence until the faint sounds of music began to wing their way to us. Approaching Healing Grida’s home made the music grow louder and more distinct.

“I wonder how many people Grida’s entertaining tonight?” Way asked.

I caught my first whiff from her kitchen as we entered the short walk to her front door.

“Mmm, probably more than she bargained for if that aroma reaches the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.” I said.

We rang the bell that was on the stoop and were greeted by the enormous form of Colten. He’d changed out of his fisherman’s clothes and was dressed in a tunic and pants with a serving apron covering his front. There were letters embroidered on it that read: “I’m the one that got away”. Below them the image of a giant fish had been embroidered as well.

“Hello girls! You’ve arrived just in time! Grida said the food will be ready in just a bit and the rest of the guests are here. Come in. Come in and I’ll introduce you.” Colten said.

We filled in with Way taking the lead and Kari next. I entered last and so was the last to be drowned in the overwhelmingly delightful scents of Healer Grida’s cooking. It wouldn’t have been the best way to make a good first impression on the rest of the guests but letting my mouth hang open while I drooled over the prospect of our impending meal was certainly tempting.

“Commander Brayson!” Kari’s said with restored happiness.

I turned into the dining room to see the Watch Commander playing a fiddle. He and a very tall woman (who was playing a clarinet) were the source of the music that we’d been hearing. They continued playing as we made our way into the room and I saw a bemused smile settle on Brayson’s lips.

I wondered if we were going to get introduction to the other musician or the younger man who was present or if dinner would come out first. Or if I could go into the kitchen, save on dirty plates and just eat it right out of the oven. Yes, that would have been terrible manners but it smelled really good!

As it turned out, the players reached the end of the song just a few moments after we entered the room and Colten took the opportunity to present us to the group.

“Grida has invited Kari and our town’s two visitor to join us this evening. Girls, this is Darius Brayson, in addition to his talent with the fiddle that you’ve just been witness too, he is also the commander our local Watch.”

“A pleasure to see you again.” Brayson said, waving his fingers towards his forehead in an informal salute.

“We met this morning.” I explained to Colten.

“I’m sure that was a delightful encounter.” Colten replied to me and then turned back to Brayson “Tell me you didn’t try to run them out of town?”

“As they have broken no laws which are in my purview to uphold or administer, I did no such thing.” Brayson said. There was the air of mock seriousness in both their tones that spoke of a long acquaintance.

“Helena, how do you put up with him after all these years?” Colten asked the very large woman beside Brayson.

Helena rolled her dark brown eyes and wrapped an ebony arm around her husband’s pale white neck. She pretended to throttle him back and forth as she answered.

“Who says I put up with him?” she joked. “It’s nice to meet you girls. Darius has told me nothing about you, but I hear there was a bit of a ruckus this morning at the Inn while you were there?”

“Caina was throwing pots again.” the younger man said before we could respond.

“Girls this is Marcus Greenfields, he handles the transport and distribution of some of the finest catches that come out of the sea around here.” Colten said.

“It’s true. And sometimes I also carry Colten’s fish too.” Marcus said with a smile. “Which I must admit do occasionally fetch a fair price.”

“Where do you carry the fish too?” Way asked.

“Most go to Hemstead Grove, but I have weekly orders that deliver as far as Knight’s Peak and Batmoor.” Marcus replied.

Meta-awareness told him that Hemstead Grove was the nearest sizeable city. It lay a long day’s ride out from Dawns Harbor but the roads were well protected and maintained. Knight’s Peak and Batmoor were also major cities in the region, both of which lay several days travel away (to the northeast and southeast respectively).

“How do you keep the fish fresh on the trip?” I asked when meta-awareness didn’t provide the info to me.

“Depends on the species. Most are encased in frost spells but some we need to transport live.” Marcus said.

Colten turned to us when Marcus finished speaking.

“You all know Kari, the best waitress who, I gather, Caina used to have?” Colten said.

“Umm, yes.” Kari said.

“We needed a local guide, and Kari has agreed to help us out. My name is Jin” I said.

“And mine is Way.”

“And you two are…?” Marcus asked.

“Adventurers.” Way supplied.

“And Trouble right Commander?” I asked, testing to see how much of his earlier mistrust of us remained.

“Seems fair to say. You did manage to steal Caina’s best server from her.” Brayson agreed.

“They weren’t a part of that.” Kari said, looking a bit embarrassed.

“Seems a fair trade for getting that idiot Rask out of here early.” Colten said.

“Careful my friend. The church is not fond of those who point out the intellectual deficiencies of its more senior members.” Brayson observed.

“You drove the Bishop away?” Helena asked, looking at Way and I.

“Not really. He and his knights were planning to leave early today anyways. I don’t think we did much more than spoil one of the dinner courses for them.” I said.

“And invited a team of Shadow Breakers to town for a review of your credentials.” Brayson said.

“That was the Bishop’s idea.” I countered.

“Yes, it’s the kind of thing he does to those who annoy him.” Brayson replied. He was looking at Colten rather than Way or I though, perhaps in warning about Colten’s earlier comment.

Colten’s response was cut off by the entrance of Healer Grida bearing a tray of family sized fish dishes.

“Ah, good, everyone’s here. Sit, sit. We don’t want these to get cold.” Grida said. From the size of her dinner table, I gathered that parties of our size were fairly common at Grida’s house. Kari, Way and I sat next to each other on one side of the table across from Marcus, Helena and Brayson. Grida and Colten sat at the end of the table with Grida beside me and Colten opposite her.

We held off on further conversation briefly as the food was passed around and doled out. Beyond the promised fish dishes there were soups and breads and a variety of vegetable dishes. The only uniformity to the options presented was that they all smelled delightful. Filling up my plates and bowls with a sampling of each left me with enough food to feed a small army.

“So are you girls planning to stay in town long?” Helena asked.

“We’d been planning on a two week vacation here, but we’ll need to see what the story with the Shadow Breakers is.” I said.

“You seem remarkably unconcerned about them.” Marcus observed.

“We’ve been through scarier tests than anything they’re likely to throw at us.” I explained.

“How long have you been adventuring for?” Grida asked.

“Two years.” Way asked.

“You started very young then.” Grida said.

“A bit.” I admitted.

“Best to earn your wisdom early, I say!” Colten laughed.

“If they don’t like Rask then I’d say they have wisdom aplenty already .” Grida said.

“Grida!” Brayson exclaimed.

“Yes Darius?” Grida asked.

“You have to be more careful than that Grida. You know what kind of ramifications there are for seditious talk about the church or its governors.” Brayson said.

“I’m quite aware of how the church tends to its flock. I also know that there’s no one in this room who disagrees with me on the subject of its present governors.” Grida said.

“Do you?” Brayston asked. “Miss Jin, Miss Way, would you care to share your opinion of the leadership of the Holy Throne?”

“That’s not fair Darius.” Grida said before I could reply.

“Isn’t it? You presume because of one incident between them and Rask, of all people Rask, that you can speak freely in front of them?” Brayson said.

“She’s not wrong to.” I put in before the argument could escalate further.

“We would presume that anything said within these walls is said in the confidence that the words will stay within the walls.” Way explained.

“You will forgive my mistrust, but you are both due to be interrogated by the Shadow Breakers and from your attitude I don’t believe you fully appreciate how persuasive they can be.” Brayson said.

Actually, meta-awareness had given me a crystal clear vision of the kind of “persuasions” the Shadow Breakers employed. Magic was both the first and last measure employed, but since compulsions and enchantments could be resisted there were a variety of physical measures they employed to “soften” the subject’s will.

Meta-awareness wasn’t precognition. It didn’t show me the future, but it did reveal possible futures, similar to what imagining them was like but with greater clarity and more acknowledgement of what would make those futures to come to pass.

I saw burning brands and cutting knives, isolation and living burial. The Shadow Breakers were adept at creating horrors of purely human origin without need to resort to magic or supernatural powers.

“I don’t know if that needs to be the case.” Grida said.

“What do you mean?” Brayson asked.

“I don’t see any reason why they should be here when the Shadow Breakers arrive.” Grida said.

“If they run now, the Breakers will hound them across the Empire.” Brayson said.

“I’m not sure that will be a problem.” Grida replied. “You two are more adept than you should be for your age. We’ll assume that you’re prodigies, but whatever the explanation, I imagine that you won’t have any problem with moving beyond the reach of the church will you?”

“That’s true.” I acknowledged.

“And what? We would denounce them then? If the church excommunicates them, the priestess at least will be cut off from her powers, and I’m sure the knight knows a prayer or two that she relies on. How well will two girls make it in the world once they are bereft of power and connections?” Brayson asked.

“Three.” Kari said.

“Don’t tie your fate to theirs. We might still spare you yet.” Brayson said.

“Darius, what if Grida has a point? We’re not going to stand by and allow the Throne to take two more innocents are we?” Helena asked.

“Are they”, he asked and turned to us “Are you innocents? Your age invites that assumption, but I find it hard to believe that you provoked the Bishop unknowingly.”

“You cannot blame them for the rashness of the Bishop’s actions, or the foulness of his temper.”, Helena said.

“He’s not wrong though.” I said “I’m not going to plead ignorance. I knew exactly what I was saying to Rask. More than he did I think. He missed the meaning of a few things I said, but they wouldn’t have improved his opinion of me.”

“There is your wisdom!” Brayson said, gesturing to Colten.

“You say that you provoked his wrath purposefully? And do you claim that you knew the the extent of his influence?” Grida asked.

“In broad terms yes. I didn’t know of Rask’s specific connections but his command of the Shadow Breaker’s wasn’t all that surprising either.” I said.

Brayson buried his face in his right hand for a moment, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Before he could speak, or maybe it was scream at me, Grida asked one more question.

“So then the question that remains is ‘why’?”

“Why did I provoke him?” I asked


I paused for a moment. The truth was that he didn’t deserve my respect and I had refused to be cowed by him. I’d been confident enough to take that stand because I knew he couldn’t actually touch me. What I hadn’t taken into account was that he could touch the people around me, or that I might care if he did.

I looked at the people in the room. I’d arrived in Vale Septem with the view of its residents as historical anomalies. Almost as though they were actors staging an elaborate play of what had once occurred rather than real people. In a sense that was somewhat accurate. From an external view, their time in the world could be measured in minutes and with the passing of each hour a new rendition of the play would begin.

Except, here they sat. Passionate, laughing, worried. Alive.

They weren’t puppets or shadows. They were people caught in a trap that was both gilded and cruel.

“I could offer a very long winded explanation but its really as simple as he tried to frighten me and he failed.” I said.

“Beyond a certain point bravery becomes stupidity.” Brayson said.

“I don’t think that’s the case here.” Marcus said. The merchant was examining me with an appraising gaze that was sharp enough to fillet the fish he normally traded in.

“What do you mean Marcus?” Helena asked.

“I mean that I think that our guests are more than they let on. Priestess Jin, if this isn’t too forward of a question, can you tell us how many of the Dominions you are sworn to?” Marcus asked.

I smiled. One of the dangers of cheating with your identity was that observant people would notice the places where you were a little too exceptional. In this case, Marcus had managed to catch on one of the bigger liberties I’d taken with ‘Priestess Jin’s’ history.

Normally a Priestess began her career by swearing herself to one of the Twelve Dominions. That’s a lengthy process which involves a great deal of study and months of purification rituals. In the end a link is established between the Priestess and the Dominion so that the Priestess spell prayers can be fulfilled. In return, even when she’s not carrying a spell prayer, the Dominion always has a weak but active conduit to her life.

A Priestess focused on healing, for example, would swear herself to the Sixth Dominion for access to the healing magics it can provide. That would be as far as many would take their magic since having a constant connection to the Sixth Dominion would mean that it would constantly be bending fate to send injured people and other problems relating to the aspects it possessed at you.

Itinerant Priestess, being likely to encounter a wide variety of problems, tended to swear themselves to at least a few other Dominions as well. The Ninth for Endurance, the Second for Luck and the Fourth for food were common choices.

Gaining access to the additional Dominions took years though and wasn’t something entered into lightly. Yes, it was nice to be able to magic up a meal while you were on the road, but that also meant you were more likely to be drawn to areas where famine had hit. Famine beyond the reach of the spells granted to you by the Fourth Dominion to fix.

In short, the Dominion’s problems became your problems.

“I’m sworn to all Twelve Dominions.” I said. In retrospect that probably wasn’t the best way to ensure that our vacation was a smooth and peaceful one. I would suspect ‘subconscious sabotage’ if I didn’t force myself to admit that the ramifications of what I was choosing for my identity in Vale Septem had crossed my mind more than a few times.

The effect of those six words was almost amusing. Commander Brayson jerked back in surprise like I’d hit him with a baseball bat. Colten’s jaw had dropped open as though it had a date with the floor. Even Marcus’ eyes widened in surprise. And Grida just smiled a knowing smile.

“Sir Way, I believe you are similarly accomplished is that not true?” Grida asked.

“I don’t have Jin’s gift for magic.” Way said.

“No, your gifts are expressed more physically I believe. For instance, the fact that you’re sitting here enjoying dinner with us.” Grida said.

“Why would that be unusual?” Way asked.

“I saw the spot where they found you. With that much rock and debris you shouldn’t have an unbroken bone in your body.” Grida said.

“Oh, yes, I am somewhat resilient.” Way admitted.

“Yes. Allow me to say that should you encounter something that can overcome your resiliency, I would like to be several days distant from the encounter.” Grida said.

“I don’t understand? How is that possible? Grida, how many Dominions are you sworn to?” Brayson asked.

“Eight.” Grida replied.

It was my turn to look surprised.

“You’re sworn to eight of Dominions? I wouldn’t have guessed a healer would need so many?” I said.

“I wasn’t always a simple healer.” Grida said with a smile.

The clue was all my meta-awareness needed to send a lot of other pieces tumbling into place.

Itinerant adventurers tended to end their careers in one of two ways. Most wound up in the stomach of a monster that they weren’t prepared for, sometimes with a “tenderizing” phase of passing through one or more of the monster’s deadly traps. The successful ones on the other hand often retired to lives of calm normalcy, having slaked their desire of danger and mayhem early on in life.

They would generally wind up as pillars of whatever community they settled in. Healers, Watch Commanders, or perhaps even the senior fisherman who taught the younglings how to survive on the seas.

I looked around the room at the aged people who sat with us. Aside from Marcus, they were grey of hair and wrinkled of complexion but age had not diminished the fire in their eyes. There was toughness there that stones might envy and power that even the sea itself couldn’t overcome. I wasn’t afraid of them but it was hard not to respect what they were based on how they lived their lives.

Marcus was an anomaly until the final piece fell into place. They hadn’t been a party of four originally. There had once been at least one more and Marcus was that missing member’s son.

“I understand.” I said. “And I understand how my actions have affected you. Commander Brayson, I may owe you an apology.”

“For what?” Brayson asked.

“You were right about Way and I being trouble.” I said

“Can you see where I’m going with this?” I asked Way in dream speech.

“Yes.” Way dream spoke back, sending with it a resigned but accepting smile.

“Thank you.” I told her, sending back the image of a grateful hug.

“We’re trouble but I believe we’re the sort of trouble that has been needed for quite a while.” I said aloud.

“What are you saying?” Brayson asked.

“We’ve put you in a tough position. You, all, don’t want to see any more innocents sacrificed on the pyre of the church’s ambition. If we were to run we could escape that fate, but regardless of whether you denounced us or not, regardless of what help you might give the Shadow Breakers against us, you would still fall under suspicion if we weren’t caught and punished.” I said. “So we’re not going to run.”

“We will not ask you to sacrifice yourselves for us.” Helena said. Her voice was firm and an old anger hardened her eyes.

“We’re not going to sacrifice ourselves.” I said.

“We will talk with the Shadow Breakers when they arrive.” Way said.

“We’ll make them understand that they’re in error.” I promised.

“They won’t listen to you.” Helena insisted.

“We may have to get somewhat…loud, in our discussion. If so I will make sure that the discussion happens someplace suitably removed from town.” I said. “The important thing is that your town, your people, Kari, no one else will suffer for our presence here.”

“That’s a mighty broad promise even for a girl who’s sworn to all Twelve Dominions.” Colten observed.

“If it seems too big a tale to swallow then accept at least that we’ll try and in trying make it clear that no one else here is to blame.” I offered.

Colten’s reply was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Is our party missing any guests?” Marcus asked.

“No invited ones. Colten could you see who that is?” Grida asked.

The giant man rose from his seat and went to answer the door which gave me a chance to nab a bite of the food. It was as delicious as I’d expected even cooled by the duration of our conversation so far.

I’d barely gotten a mouthful down when Colten returned with a young man in armor at his side.

“It’s for you Darius.” Colten said.

“Watch Commander! A delegation from the Church in Batsmoor has arrived. They want to see you immediately.”

“A delegation? The Shadow Breaker’s are here already?” Brayson asked.

“Yes sir. And they’ve brought troops. Maybe five hundred men sir. They’re setting up in the fields to the north of town.”

We all paused at that.

The Shadow Breakers didn’t need an army. They had the full force of the church behind them. Whatever had brought them to Dawns Harbor was a lot bigger than Way and I.