Inasmuch as an illusion can be real, and inasmuch as the Moon’s domain was also the Moon herself, Kari had become the first person to walk on the moon in Vale Septem. True, the Moon’s Handmaidens were technically there before her, but it had been her imagination that had made them real so I was still willing to give her the distinction of being first.
“You’re not from here.” Kari said. She looked calm and relaxed but I knew that was misleading. I’d intended to give her a delightful vision, not a trip to another world and a meeting with a deity class power. There was no way that hadn’t rattled her and if she looked calm it meant it had done more than just scare her a bit.
“That’s true.” I said. I kept my voice gentle and unconcerned. If she needed time to sort through the experience of having a dream come true, I had no intention of rushing her. I remembered all too well how terrifying it had been when it had happened to me for the first time.
“I mean you’re not from this world.”
“That’s true too.” I admitted after a heart beat’s worth of surprise.
That wasn’t something Kari couldn’t have guessed. She shouldn’t have had any way to tell that I was dreamwalker. Even if she could somehow sense that I was an alien to this world, that should have translated as “foreigner” to her. She didn’t have the context to build the idea of other worlds from. I gazed at her and looked for signs of an outside influence, something or someone that could be feeding her information that she couldn’t otherwise be aware of. As far as I could tell though, she was free of anything like that. The girl sitting before me was the same girl who’d given us breakfast and who’d been fired for that kindness.
“Are…are you a demon?” Kari asked. She wasn’t flinching away, but there was a resignation in the way she stood. I had powers that she couldn’t imagine, she’d seen that first hand. If I was a demon then she had no hope escaping me.
“Why did the Moon call you a ‘Dark Queen’ then?”
“It’s a long story. The short form is there was a spirit Queen that attacked my home. I beat her and took her title to stop the forces she’d unleashed. That made me the new Queen.” I said.
“What happened to the old one?” Kari asked, still teetering on the edge of overly calm and visibly nervous.
“I locked her away, sealed her in a prison along with her troops. They were too dangerous to allow them to roam free and too unrepentant to pardon.” I explained.
“If they were bad, why not kill them?”
I blew out a breath. That was a question I’d been asked more than once.
“A lot of reasons. The biggest one though is that I don’t think they have to be as bad as they’d become. I think something twisted them and I don’t want to let them go until I’ve had a chance to twist them back to what they were.”
“Why did you really come after me? What do you want?” Kari asked. She was still looking down, not meeting my eyes, but there was a growing defiance in her voice.
“You tell me. What are you afraid I might want?” I said as I sat down on the desk.
Kari tilted her head and looked up at me. I shrugged and smiled at her.
“You want to take me away?” she said, but her voice was filled with uncertainty.
“Nope. I’m planning to help you stay here. I think I can still get you your job back if you want it.” I said.
“You want to make me like you?”
“Gah! No! I’m enough me for this world. Having more of me always gets confusing.” I was thinking of the times I’d met shadows of myself from other worlds that paralleled my own. It was fun in the right circumstance, but in the wrong ones it was confusing and painful. Mistaken identity hijinks and evil twins were just the start of where things could go horribly awry.
“I don’t know then.” Kari said.
“The actual reason’s really complicated. Are you ready for it?” I asked.
“You did something nice for me, and I don’t want to see you get hurt for it.” I said.
She looked at me and frowned.
“That’s not complicated.”
“Really? Cause a lot of people seem to have a hard time with that idea. I mean it seems obvious to me, but if it was I expect more people would buy into it.”
“So I can go then?” Kari asked.
“Sure. I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.” I gestured to the exit to the room indicating she was free to leave. “Umm, not that you have to be the one leave. This is your place after all. I’ll head out if you want. I didn’t mean to rude before but it didn’t look like you were doing too good either.”
“What about me going with you?”
“That would be fine too. If you’re tired of this town, we can get you set up someplace else.” I said.
“What about the Shadow Breakers? You can’t leave town can you?” Kari asked.
“Way and I aren’t connected with the dark powers here. If the Shadow Breakers are honest then they won’t find any reason to persecute us.”
“But they’re not.” Kari said, suddenly passionate.
I waited a moment and then asked, “What do you mean?”
“They’re not honest. The Bishop isn’t either. My father…my father tried to stand up to them.”, she looked away, “They lie. When it gets them what they want they lie.”
There was old, deep anger in her words.
“I’m sorry.” I said. The image of a lowborn man trying to stand up to injustice from the Shadow Breakers and being “made an example of” was terrible enough. That it repeated again and again across the unending loops of time that Vale Septem’s history had been tied into was unbearable.
“They’ll find a reason. Or they’ll make one up.” Kari said.
I smiled a thin, wicked grin.
“The Shadow Breakers prey on fear. They’re too powerful too touch. What do you think they’re afraid of?” I asked.
“Real demons?” Kari guessed.
“No. Demons give them a reason for being. All the devils in the underworld give them justification for what they do. They’re not scared of demons. They need them.”
“Then what are they afraid of?”
“Someone they can’t touch.” I said “People who abuse power can imagine all too clearly how someone more powerful would abuse them in turn.”
“So what are you going to do?” Kari asked.
“Do about what?” Way asked as she stepped in view.
Kari flinched when she saw Way but then relaxed, apparently recognizing her from the Inne.
“About the Shadow Breakers. Kari think they’ll be less than charitable with us. She has some experience with them.” I said. In dream speech I added “They took her father from her.”
Way’s eyes flashed to mine. I’d lost my father when I was little. It had left me devastated and mad at the world on a level I hadn’t been fully aware of. It was possible that I might sympathize a bit too strongly with Kari. It was possible that I was entertaining thoughts of burning down the entire Shadow Breaker organization. We both knew that was the wrong way to handle the situation but we also knew that there were some things we didn’t process all that well. Situations where we each needed the other to hold us back. Like I said, acting on instinct can lead to some terrible mistakes, so we each played the other’s voice of reason when the need arose.
“What do you think?” I asked Way, acknowledging that this was one of the times when I needed her judgment in place of my own.
“We should wait till they get here. If we can find an honorable path to smooth things over then all will be well. Anything else is going to wind up with someone getting hurt.” Way looked at Kari as she said that, indicating who was mostly likely to be affected by an open battle with the Shadow Breakers. It wouldn’t be hard to keep her physically safe, but her association with us would mean that she wouldn’t have a place anywhere in the Empire of the Holy Throne if we were declared “persona non grata”.
“That sounds good.” I said. I didn’t trust myself to negotiate with the Shadow Breakers but that was if they came at us with the disdain and arrogance that Rask had. If they were professional though, I could manage to be as well.
“And it’s ok if I come with you?” Kari asked.
“Of course.” Way said before I could answer. There was a faint, amused smile on her lips that puzzled me.
“What?” I asked in dream speech.
“The resemblance between the two of you is amazing.”
“We don’t look anything alike though.”
“Forget how you look. How would you describe her?” Way asked.
“She’s brave and kind, but she’s feeling overwhelmed. Her imagination is unreal though and she’s either got access to super human insights or someone’s feeding her a lot of very accurate information.” I said.
“Like I said, the resemblance is amazing.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled at Way. She was great for my morale but I had doubts about how accurate her “unbiased evaluations” of me were.
“We should head back to the bungalow. I checked in with Healer Grida. She’s fine with us staying there.” Way said, adding via dream speech, “I don’t think she likes the Bishop either.”
“Any idea when the Shadow Breaker team is due in?” I asked.
“Grida said she’s seen them show up in less than a day but two or three is more usual. She said if we were out exploring, she would let the churchmen know we’d be back by nightfall.” Way said. Or in other words, if we want to leave town, Healer Grida would do what she could to buy us a head start.
“Wait! Where did it go?” Kari asked.
“Where did what go?” I asked.
“The gown the Moon gave me! I had it in my hands and now it’s gone!” Kari looked around the small room in panic, despite the fact that there was no where a glowing white dress could be hiding.
I split my vision and clung onto the physical world. The Dreamlit world was extremely difficult to make out with the time differential between the two but I was able to spot the glow of the gown resting within Kari’s Dreamlit shadow.
“You still have it. It’s special though. You’ll only see if when you’re dreaming or if you visit the Ivory Temple again.” I told her.
She paused and I could see her considering the idea.
“I see.” she finally said. Her expression said she was still chewing on the idea and making new connections from that one unexpected observation.
The trip back to the bungalow was calmer than the flight into the forest had been. Kari led us to one of the nearby trails, so we could have made good time, but the early flowers were in bloom so we took our time admiring them.
Way had her hair pulled back and tied into a bun. It made an irresistible spot spot to tuck the tiny multi-hued flowers that we found. She tried to retaliate but my hair was too loose to hold flowers anywhere except behind my ears. Kari tried to join the fun, but given that her hair was tied off in two sets of braids that led from her forehead to halfway down her back, we were able to nearly bury her in flowers compared to the few that she got on us.
By the time we exited the forest, we were as silly and giggling as any trio of school girls ought to be allowed to be. The laughter made us seem harmless enough that the first few people we ran across even gave us a “Good Day!” greeting rather than running in terror.
We were debating what to do about lunch as we approached the bungalow and I caught the unmistakable scent of brimstone.
Way and I stopped in our tracks at the same moment and Kari bumped into me before noticing that something was wrong.
“The day was looking a little too sunny wasn’t it?” I asked Way.
She clenched her fist.
“If a little rain has to fall so that we can have our vacation then that’s how the weather has to be I guess.” she answered.
“Should I stay out here?” Kari asked.
“No. This is either going to be a nice civil conversation, or I’d like you near enough that we can protect you.” I said.
With that we went in to our home away from home and greeted the man with the red skin, ram’s horns and chiseled metallic teeth who waited inside for us.