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.