There are fights that you can back down from. Conflicts that you can resolve with reason and understanding. Even battles that you can avoid by surrendering gracefully. Unfortunately for the Emissary, he’d pushed Kari far enough that none of those were an option for him.
For her opening strike, Kari hit the Cloister with the next mountain over.
Normally animating an entire mountain would be well beyond the power of a mortal sorcerer. Maybe once in a millenia you’d find a spellcaster so intensely in tune with the Third Dominion, the Dominion of Earth, that they could manage a spell of that magnitude.
Kari had granted herself that level of spellcasting prowess with all of the Dominions though and I could see the strain of holding onto Vale Septem was tearing away at her.
The living mountain shattered the ceiling of the Cloister and most of the shields that the Emissary had in place. The Demon Lords were thrown to the floor in the earthquake that followed.
In ghostly form, I wasn’t affected by the titantic physical forces that were being unleashed but I still needed to maneuver to stay close to Kari as the mountain the Cloister was on began to collapse and the Cloiser plummeted dozens of feet downward to a crashing (and temporary) halt.
Kari didn’t let up though. A golem that eclipsed the sky broke off from the top of the mountain she was animating. With fists the size of football stadiums, it continued to hammer away at the shields that the EMissary had in place.
Despite the tremendous force the golem was exerting, I could see it hadn’t attracted the Emissary’s attention. He eyes were focused on some faraway point, searching for something that was hidden even from his near omniscient gaze.
Rask and Avernicus, on the other hand, weren’t quite so distracted. They took over the attack in place of the disoriented Demon Lords, slicing out with arcs of brilliant fire to cut down the knightly defenders that Kari had summoned.
Half of the Knights exploded on contact with the holy flames and Kari shifted to defense again. The next barrage of holy fire was met by the remaining dream knights locking their shields together. That shouldn’t have been enough to save them. The power that Rask and Avernicus were throwing was enough to light the air itself on fire. The dream knights’ shields held though since Kari used her dream magic to steal away the force of the divine flames.
Reaching inside myself, I found the Sovereign Defense spell I’d ripped from Avernicus and transferred it to Kari. It would have been useful in the fight on the airship where I got skewered but I like to hoard useful spells like that. In the end this was a better use for it too.
The Prelate and the bishop redoubled their efforts as the Demon Lords rejoined the fray and the temperature of the room spiked up to the point where the walls and floored melted away to lava in seconds. Kari was starting to glow the way the Emissary was with all of the power that she was siphoning off of the incoming attacks and I had to wonder if there was going to be anything left of the mountain range itself if the fight continued much longer.
Looking at her opposition, I noticed something odd. Eleven of the twelve Demon Lords that had been summoned were fighting. The last, the only one who didn’t appear in human form, looked like he was bound and powerless.
Priestess Jin might be dead, but as her ghost, I still had the knowledge that she’d worked to accumulate. I turned my meta-awareness to the question of who the Demon Lords were. There were thirteen of them, arranged in a mockery of the Twelve Dominions. I knew their names and primary powers as well as their broad affiliations and historical significance . None of that seemed important though. The important bit of information was something much simpler.
Thirteen Demon Lords and Twelve Dominions? The numbers didn’t add up and that helped the pieces of the puzzle I was facing fall into place.
“This is pointless.” the Emissary said at last. His gaze and focus had returned to the present and the battle that surged around him.
He turned to look at Kari.
“Bind.” he said, the single word carrying a spell of enough power to engrave the truth of it into the world. He didn’t appeal to the Dominions. He effectively was one.
Chains of light surged around Kari burying her under a meter of constraints.
“We will deal with the apprentice later. The Voice must be silenced.” the Emissary said. With a wordless spell, he and the rest of his party then vanished.
The chains of light around Kari exploded a moment later and she emerged transformed into a figure of burning steel.
“They’ve left.” I told her via dream speech.
“Where did they go?”, she demanded as she let the ‘body of metal’ spell fade.
I cast out with my meta-awareness to confirm what intuition was telling me.
“They followed the Goblin King to Dawns Harbor.” I said, showing Kari a scene of the Emissary and the Lords of the Underworld forcing a path into the town.
“We’ve got to stop them!” she said.
“We will. Can you portal us back?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said and opened one for us.
“I need to talk Liggy. Do you think you can hold them off for a few minutes?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I feel like I’m being torn apart and the Emissary wasn’t even fighting back.” Kari said.
“You’ve been using a lot of dream magic. It’s trying to pull you into the dream world. If you stick to summoning things from within yourself and working with the Dominion magics it won’t be as bad.” I explained.
“I’m sorry. I wish I was stronger!” Kari complained.
“You’re as strong as you can imagine yourself to be. Heck, you’re stronger than I am here. I couldn’t have fought the elite forces of hell and the Holy Throne to a standstill like you just did. Not without being completely swept away by the dream world.”
“But what if I can’t stop them?”
“Remember when I said there would be a price for following the path I took?” I asked.
“Yes?” she said hesitantly.
“This is all part of that price. This is the kind of life you wind up with. The kind of choices you need to make. It’s not about power. Not for people like us. It’s about what we choose.”
“I don’t understand. If I can’t stop them, if everyone is going to die, then what’s the point of making a choice?”
“That’s the big question. Or at least one way to phrase it. Let me ask you this though: Even if you knew for sure that you couldn’t win, would you let the Emissary hurt and kill everyone in Dawns Harbor? Or would you stand against him?”
She thought on that for a long second.
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t let him to do that, no matter what it costs me.”
I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I wasn’t afraid of the Emissary, but Kari was. I could have shown her that she didn’t need to be afraid, but I couldn’t show her how to reach beyond that fear on her own. I couldn’t teach her to value others. Those had to come from her.
If she’d chosen to fight the Emissary because she’d given up hope and was resigned to her death, I wouldn’t have let her. Nihilistic dream lords wind up alone in the empty reaches of Oblivion all too quickly. That she was fighting for people she cared for though? That I could encourage wholeheartedly.
“That’s your answer. Our choices define us, and yours define you as someone wonderful. Now let’s go have some words with the Emissary.” I said.
Kari nodded, gathered her courage and stepped through the portal.
On the far side, we arrived at a scene out of the apocalypse.
Against the Demon Lords, the Prelate and the Bishop, stood the Goblin King supported by his troops and the elders of Dawns Harbor.
The western side of the town was ablaze and crumbling under the insane exchange of powers. In the distance I saw the sigil that Way had left for us shining like a sun going nova as it fought to diminish the powers assaulting the defenders of the town. Even with that though, the defenders were being pushed steadily back.
Colten, Brayson and Helena were locked in combat with one of the Demon Lords, with Grida pouring support magic into them. Working together it looked like they could overcome the monster, but that was only one of the Demon Lords. Even dimished by Way’s ward, the rest were far too much for even the Goblin King, his arch-mage and his most elite forces to contain.
“Go get ‘em!” I told Kari and she was off like a shot.
I watched her transform in mid-air, shifting back to the all metal form she’d worn to supplement the Sovereign Defense spell I’d given her. She landed amongst the Demon Lords like a cannon ball and summoned giant wriggling worms of stone from the ground to bind them.
From the skies above, the two dragons she’d summoned earlier descended with heaven shaking roars and the battle was joined.
Grida’s team and the Goblin King’s forces both pushed forward to support Kari and take advantage of the opening she’d created. It looked like everyone who could hold a weapon was trying to help too. Or almost everyone. Glancing over the battlefield, I confirmed that the three people I’d expected to be missing were indeed not present. With a guess as to where I’d find them, I took to the air and sped towards the safest place in town, the base of Way’s sigil.
There, as I’d thought, I found Gahn, Maak and Liggy waiting. The knights were standing with their swords drawn in defense of the goblin girl. I still had Grida’s illusion casting to call on, so I formed the image of Priestess Jin to talk with them.
“Sir Maak, Sir Gahn, nice to see you’ve patched things up!” I said as became visible.
“Priestess Jin?” Maak said, his eyes wide in surprise.
“Or a facsimile sent by the Emissary.” Gahn cautioned him.
“I’m the Jin you knew.” I said and walked past them to lay a hand on the glowing sigil. No servant of the Emissary could have accomplished that.
“Has the Emissary come?” Maak asked.
“The others are fighting his forces now. I left Kari with them to help.” I said.
“What power does she have?” Gahn asked.
“She’s got the same power that I do. Maybe even more actually since she’s a native.” I said.
“Will it be enough to defeat the Emissary?” Maak asked.
“Maybe? Maybe not? That’s why I need to talk to Liggy.” I said.
“If you would take vengeance on her, we must stand against you.” Gahn said.
“Whatever it costs us.” Maak agreed.
“No vengeance.” I assured them. “What she did wasn’t what it looked like. But I still need information from her. You understand don’t you Liggy?”
The goblin girl was looking at me intently with a worried look on her face.
“Why did you burn away? You didn’t have to. You weren’t supposed to. You’re the Queen!” she said.
“It wasn’t time for me to wear that title.” I told her.
“Queen? But you met us as the Shadow Queen, did you not?” Gahn asked.
“Liggy’s talking about another title I carry.” I said. The Oblivion Queen was what the Shadow Queen had become after the black fire of Oblivion had consumed her and most of her subjects. I’d beaten her too, and in so doing had earned that title as well. The Shadow Queen was a creature of nightmares, but the Oblivion Queen was far worse. If Vale Septem ‘didn’t need’ a Shadow Queen, then it couldn’t even survive having an Oblivion Queen show up.
“You could destroy him though.” Liggy said, tears welling up her eyes.
“Tell me about the Emissary.” I said gently.
“He has bound the future and the past. He is consuming all of the power in the world and when it is his, he will consume its souls as well.” Liggy said, though it was not her own voice that she spoke in. Beneath and around the words she spoke in the physical world, I heard their echoes in dream speech.
With the dream speech came a flood information.
I saw the Emissary as he had once been. Ages ago. In that far distant past he had been nothing more than a man, old and afraid. One of the powerful but not powerful enough to stop the changes that he saw taking place. The world of his youth was long past and the future was a terrifying place. People were falling away from the Holy Throne, finding their own ways of speaking to the Dominions. The traditions on which he’d built his life were crumbling in the face of a new generation who believed in each other more than the unquestioned holy writs that had stood the test of time.
Aeons sped past, revealing the Emissary of today, his humanity lost in a drunken sea of power. His will had spread the reign of the Holy Throne far beyond the borders he’d known in his first life and within his domain, his rule was absolute. No one prayed except through him. No one questioned the holy writs. Or at least no one questioned them twice.
Time flew forward into the most probable future and I watched as the broad strokes of history played out. Across the loops of time, the Empire of the Holy Throne continued to grow until everyone on Vale Septem knelt before the Throne. The various supernatural powers of the world were consumed first, and then the powers of the Underworld and the empty heavens. Eventually the Emissary ascended to Holy Throne itself and, seated upon it, saw that there was still more he could reach for.
He started first with the souls of those who had proven unloyal. The unworthy and unwanted, he devoured, absorbing them into himself, taking all the life and power and possibilities that they held and making them his own. With their strength, he remade the world into a paradise for those who remained.
In their perfect cage, some few grew discontent though, and they were eaten as well. The rest tried to blind themselves, tried to believe that they were more than puppets to the Emissary’s will. What started as a trickle though became a flood and I watched as the last souls living on Vale Septem tried to break free of their beautiful hell and were burned in the insatiable fires of the Emissary’s lust for power.
What had once been a small and scared man had become a malignant god and Vale Septem the ruined, empty shell out of which he would hatch to continue his consumptive rampage.
“You see why he must be stopped.” Gahn said quietly.
“We are already lost, but we can at least spare the next worlds that he will ravage.” Maak added.
“If he’s here, I need to go to him.” Liggy said. This time it was my own meta-awareness that supplied the extra information.
They were protecting Liggy because the Oblivion fire that she wielded was beyond anything the Emissary could defend against. If she could touch him with it, she could unmake him completely.
“You’ll be destroyed too though.” I said, as the last piece of that particular puzzle fell into place. No wonder she was terrified!
“All will be destroyed but those who remain will be saved and born into a new heaven.” Again it was Liggy who said the words but a much more ancient voice who spoke through her. Spoke through her cryptically to be accurate. I rolled my eyes. I hated being on the wrong side of a cryptic discussion.
Fortunately, “Cryptic Speaking 101’ was, literally, one of the courses I’d studied.
“Taking out the Emissary will result in enough backlash to destroy the world, but whoever’s alive will be carried off to a newer and nicer world?” I translated. The exception of course being the one who carried the black fire to the Emissary. Liggy was faced with the prospect that there’d be no new heaven for her.
“Yes.” Gahn answered.
“Out of curiosity, why would you believe that?” I asked, since it’s the kind of line that tends to be spouted by all kinds of con men and charlatans.
“Our future doesn’t matter so much as our past.” Maak said.
“Surely you remember too?” Gahn asked.
Again meta-awareness had to translate for me. When Liggy had spoken I’d seen the ages of history roll by me, but I hadn’t seen myself in them, because I hadn’t worked quite that hard to insert ‘Priestess Jin’ into Vale Septem. This time loop was the only one where she had any “real” history.
For Gahn and Maak though, the vision that Liggy had shared had connected them to all of their past lives. They knew on some undeniable level that they’d seen the events of their lives play out time after time after time. They’d also seen how the Holy Throne had grown and how the corruption at its heart had spread.
“So why are you protecting Liggy? Shouldn’t she be out there, fighting the Emissary?” I asked, more to understand their motivations than because I thought it sounded like a brilliant idea to task an adolescent goblin with destroying the world. If anyone was going to do the world it’d be me.
“We don’t know what defenses the Emissary may have or how he might strike at her.” Gahn said.
“And if the Emissary takes her out?” I asked.
“The Blind God will speak through someone else that I’ve talked to.” Liggy said. Meaning someone else would carry the black fire and be tasked with killing the Emissary.
“Tell me about the Blind God.”
“He’s the flame bringer.” Liggy said. She was speaking in her own voice but I knew she was speaking of things she’d seen due to being called to service as the Blind God’s ‘Voice’.
“He shapes the form of all that is and is the source of all magic.” Liggy continued, speaking with words that weren’t her own, though her voice still was.
I pondered that and let meta-awareness fill in the blanks. The Twelve Dominions defined what the magics associated with their aspects could do but it was the Blind God that provided that raw force, the elemental capacity for change that powered those spells.
“Why is he called ‘the Blind God’?” I asked.
“Because he gives his gifts to everyone. He doesn’t judge us. He’s doesn’t see our differences. Good, bad, goblin, human, that doesn’t mean anything to him.” she explained, all on her own this time.
I thought about what she’d said and connected the rest of the dots.
The Blind God was the god of form and magic? The one who defined what was and what could be? Or, to say it another way, he was the god of Reality? That was a little frightening. There was a name for things could determine what reality was.
He was a Dream Lord.
And the Emissary had trapped him somehow.
“The Emissary spoke to the Blind God. At the start of all this didn’t he. How?” I asked.
“The Emissary was the most accomplished spell caster who’d lived. He connected to all of the Dominions.” Liggy said.
At first I turned to Priestess Jin’s knowledge to see if there was some arch-mage level spell that referenced all of the Dominions and could reach beyond the real world. Then it occurred to me. The answer to the discrepancy between the number of Demon Lords and the Dominions. There weren’t Twelve Dominions. There were thirteen!. The last Dominion, the lost Dominion, was the Dominion of Dreams!
The Blind God had made the world and bound himself to it becoming both a fundamental aspect of the world and forever apart from it. As Dream Lords went, that was one of the more likely pitfalls to fall into if you managed to avoid becoming a monster. The lure of power coupled with introspection and a desire to create could easily result in a new Dream Lord turning within themselves and crafting a world of such depth and character that it either drew in people from (conceptually) nearby worlds or birthed a real population from pure imagination.
“And what did they talk about?” I asked.
“The Emissary offered the Blind God the chance to see the world that he served.” Liggy said.
“And what did he ask in payment?”
“The Blind God’s voice.” she said.
In a world where magic was made by telling stories, the Emissary had stolen the power to tell stories to reality itself.
I watched the scene play out in meta-awareness. The Blind God, so eager to be a part of the world he’d shaped only to be caught so terribly in his own power when the Emissary turned it against him. Forced to endure aeons in silence, watching the world he’d made degrade towards the madness of one man.
And then two girls had shown up. Two girls who carried the spark of Oblivion inside themselves. Two girls who could end the whole horrible nightmare.
When Way and I had arrived we’d been buffeted by an unseen foe. I finally saw that it had been the Blind God, striking out from his confinement. He’d recognized the black fire that burned within Way and I and torn off a piece of it in his desperate bid for freedom.
The Emissary had sensed what that power meant too. That’s why he’d struck out to eradicate everyone who’d been touch by the Blind God. If he could eliminate everyone he could snuff out the flames of Oblivion. Any amount of force was worth using to accomplish that, from his perspective.
“Thank you Liggy.” I said, and rose.
“Are you going to save the world?” she asked, unhappily.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I even can. What I can promise you though is that the future you’ve seen? That doesn’t need to come to pass. We make the future, and I’m going to make one that’s better than that.” I said.
“What can we do?” Gahn asked.
“Stay here. If anyone comes asking for me, let them know where I’ve gone. Oh and take care of each other. You both look like a pile of walking bruises.” I said and winked out of sight.
The battle was still raging when I got back to town.
With the addition of Kari to the defenders forces, they’d been able to rally. The Demon Lords and the forces they summoned lay strewn across the battlefield, smote to pieces and burning.
Kari lead the defenders as they pressed forward against the Prelate and the Bishop. Though their borrowed power exceeded any force in the world, they were giving ground as Kari ripped the light from them in great fiery gouts.
“This isn’t possible!” Rask screamed.
None of the defenders wasted words responding to him. Even the Goblin King’s face was an implacable mask of determination.
“How long much we must hold them back!” Rask wailed.
“I cannot find the girl!” the Emissary answered, fear and rage warring in his inhuman voice.
I settled down to hover just above and behind the advancing defenders of Dawns Harbor and summoned up a handful of Oblivion’s fire from my heart.
The Emissary’s eyes instantly shot up and locked with mine. The one thing in all the world that he was terrified of danced around in my hands as I became visible once more.
“NO!” he screamed. The blast wave that he unleashed would have left a crater a hundred miles in diameter had it been allowed to strike outwards. Instead Kari grabbed it, compressed it into a tight sphere and released it back at the Emissary as a continuous beam.
Avernicus leapt in front of the attack to protect the Emissary. Despite his defenses, despite the extra power he’d been gifted with, the Prelate was vaporized in an instant by the force of the blast.
The light tore into the Emissary as well and hurled him back a dozen paces.
With that Kari finally got his attention.
“This must end!” he screamed and I felt the world lurch and shift.
Then came a feeling of the sweetest relief I’d ever experienced as the Dreamlit World settled over me once more.
I breathed in and felt alive and connected to myself in a way I hadn’t in days. There was no temporal drag, no sense of being ripped away from Vale Septem.
The Emissary had been the one who had created the time loop. He’d been the one to set it running at it’s mad speed. To access his full power, or rather the dreaming power that he’d stolen from the Blind God, he had to merge the Dreamlit World with Vale Septem.
The bad news was, that gave him the power to swat Kari completely off of the world with a wave of his hand.
One instant she was there and the next she was gone, tossed into the deep dreaming before she could resist.
The worse news was that none of the rest of the defenders had even a fraction of her ability to resist the Emissary. It would be beyond trivial for him to edit them out of his perfect world.
Against that bad news stood one fairly important bit of good news though.
With the Dreamlit World connected to Vale Septem again, a bolt of golden lightning tore the sky in half and slammed down at the Sigil on the far side of town..
“Anything I can do to help?” Way asked.