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.