The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 28 – What Gazes Back

The Abyss loomed beyond the cliffside, not merely an emptiness by a hungry yawning void. The gods who slept had pulled forth light, and form, and being from the void in which their creation hung. From nothing, they had created all of the existence of the Blessed Realms and its Shadow World predecessors.

The Abyss possessed no awareness then. It held no form or substance of its own, and while the gods had not intended to give it any, crumbs of the reality they created leaked away and fed the emptiness with the whisper of being. In the nothingness, the suggestion of a heart began to beat and from that beat came a single cry that hungered for more.

“So you’re saying that the Abyss out there wants to devour us?” Iana asked.

“If it can be said to have any being at all, or any desires, then they begin and end with hunger,” Wynni said.

They were tied up but still conscious, as were the rest of the party they’d accumulated. Tonel’s forces had been sufficient for the Gallagrin princess not to press for combat in the confines of the small home they’d unwittingly ventured into.

Instead they’d been shackled and bound and forced to walk through a standing portal, one of the few stable gateways between the Shadow Worlds. The transit had been swift but unpleasant, as was common to all journeys into the deepest, and most far flung of the lost places.

“Why is it hungry for us? It’s not a thing, it’s just darkness, it doesn’t need to eat,” Yuehne asked.

“I can’t say. It’s not like it speaks to us,” Wynni said.

“What existence it has come from the remnants of the god’s creations,” Lagressa said. “I’ve always thought that means the incompleteness of the void hungers for more, hungers to find the fullness and reality it lacks. It looks to consume us because we are the best source substance and intent.”

“That’s a plausible sounding theory but a more important question is why Tonel brought us here?” Iana kept her voice low as they were marched along the rough terrain towards what looked like a vast crater that ended was filled with strangely glowing rocks. On the far edge of the crater the land dropped away into the undulating darkness that surrounded them.

“The touch of the Abyss is corrosive,” Lagressa said. “To the body it is like a weak acid, slowing dissolving a person on all levels.”

“So we’re not just going to die, we’re going to magically melt?” Yuenhe asked.

“If so you won’t be aware of it,” Lagress said. “The body is resilient. It knows itself and its heavy with substance and definition. The mind however is another matter.”

“What happens to our mind if we’re thrown off into the Abyss?” Iana asked.

“Memories are less solid than vapor,” Lagressa said. “They dissolve away almost the instant you touch the Abyss.”

“Ok. That sets a limit for us then,” Iana said.

“What do you mean a limit?” Yuehne asked.

“We have until they try to throw the first of us in to work out how to unseat Tonel from power,” Iana said.

“Killing him would work, wouldn’t it?” Yuehne asked.

“No,” Wynni said. “If Tonel dies here, especially at the princess’s order, then the Shadowfolk will have an actual blood grudge to hold against her.”

“Could we challenge him to single combat?” Yuehne asked.

“We don’t believe in trial by combat,” Wynni said. “If it comes to violence to solve an issue then the proper application is via an assassination which leaves no clue as to the assailant or their patron.”

“We can’t assassinate him either,” Iana said.

“I believe you mean to phrase that as we should not assassinate him,” Lagressa said. “Our capability to do so is not in doubt I believe.”

“We’re chained up and surrounded by guards,” Yuehne said.

“Lagressa’s right,” Iana said. “There’s very little stopping us, definitely not the chains, and not the guards either.”

“Do they know that?” Yuehne asked.

“No,” Wynni said. “Most are alert to our surroundings. It is profoundly unsafe here. The ones that can hear snippets of what we’re saying think we’re bluffing, and are conveniently far enough away that they wouldn’t have to intervene if the fight looked unpromising for their side.”

“What about this Elder Tonel guy? How did he know where we would be?” Yuehne asked.

“We opened a rift into Nelosa’s kitchen. Those aren’t quiet or subtle,” Wynni said.

“A necessary aspect of using the Silence Breaker,” Lagressa said. “They can take you almost anywhere but they are a disruptive mode of travel. For those who know how to listen, the damage they cause is easily perceptible. It was poor luck on our part to land so close to a Shadowfolk stronghold though. Chance should have placed us far distant so that we could have fled the scene before anyone arrived to discover our presence.”

“Tonel probably had listeners our everywhere he could,” Wynni said. “We’re lucky we had time to get everyone through before he found us.”

“They don’t look so happy about that,” Yuehne said, stealing a glance behind them.

Iana’s group of prisoners, which included Yuehne, Lagressa, Wynni and Venita was being marched ahead of the rest of the party they’d assembled. In between the groups, heavily armed Shadowfolk warriors marched, keeping them separated so that they couldn’t try to fight back as an organized group.

“Tonel’s forces seem to be focused on me,” Iana said. “That should keep the rest of them safe until we’re ready to act.”

“What action can we take?” Yuehne said. “You want to topple Tonel’s leadership but he has us as his prisoners.”

“I’ll admit it’s not the best position to be working from,” Iana said. “I was hoping we could build support from within the Shadowfolk community, but that plan didn’t work out.”

“And do you have another plan?” Yuehne asked.

“Several,” Iana said. “It’s what they taught us when I was young. Never approach a battlefield with only one path to victory. We’re supposed to make sure every path leads to victory, but I was never that good.”

“And we’re supposed to trust you to save us then?” Yuehne asked.

“Of course not,” Iana said. “You’ll see things I’m missing. You need to help save us as much as anyone else here.”

“I’m thinking run away,” Yuehne said. “Only there’s nowhere to run to.”

“That might be a plan we could work with,” Lagressa said.

“How?” Yuehne asked.

“The last place this Tonel’s forces will chase us is into the Abyss,” Lagressa said. “If we ran into the ‘nowhere’ out there, we might be able to escape them.”

“But we’d lose our memories, wouldn’t we?” Iana asked.

“Yes, but not all of them,” Lagressa said. “The memories you can call to mind could be offered up first.”

“That’s good to know,” Iana said. “But let’s save that as a backup plan. What we need is some method for exposing Tonel’s lies, of waking people up to how he’s gathering power only for himself and in the process putting them on the path to war and extinction.”

“His followers won’t believe that,” Wynni said. “They’re too invested in what they’ve been told. They want to hate the sunlit people so much that any lie he tells them that supports that they take as the gods’ own truth.”

“Why isn’t that true for you?” Iana asked.

“I was never one of Tonel’s blind devotes,” Wynni said.

“But from what you’ve said, the Elder’s are still obeyed unquestioningly aren’t they?” Iana asked.

“That’s the official story they tell, but reality is more complicated.”

“I’ll make it simple then,” Iana said. “How many of Tonel’s troops will follow him into death and how many will rout and flee if the battle looks like it’s turning against him?”

“I don’t know,” Wynni said. “A safe bet would be at least half though I think.”

“We need to do better than that. We need at least three to one,” Iana said. “His support won’t crumble until it’s obvious that his side is overwhelmed.”

“We can’t get that many,” Wynni said.

“Not working alone,” Iana agreed.

“Who can we get to work with us?” Yuehne asked.

“No one,” Wynni said. “The people here are all Tonel’s elite guard. They’ll be loyal to him and only him. It what he picked them for.”

“Not fighting prowess?” Iana asked.

“They’re not poor fighters either,” Wynni said. “And they’ll fight like demons if they think their Elder is in danger.”

“Are there others you could convert to the cause of peace between us?” Iana asked.

“Yes, definitely,” Wynni said. “But they don’t matter because they’re not here.”

“If you could get back to them, could you convince them to get back here in time to help us?”

“I don’t think so,” Wynni said. “I can only talk to them one at a time. That’s going to be too slow to convince enough of them to turn to the tide.”

“This ancestor of yours,” Iana asked, “can he speak with more than one of you at a time?”

There was a pause while Wynni listened for an ancestor.

“He says he was wondering if you were going to ask for that,” she said. “He says that he can, but that there’s a price attached to it.”

“Tell him he’ll need to try harder than that if he’s trying to surprise me,” Iana said. “What is it that he wants?”

Wynni waited again, listening.

“What? Are you serious?” she asked.

Another moment passed and she turned to face Iana.

“He wants to be able to talk to you he says.”

“And what’s the hidden catch there?”

“Oh, I can answer that,” Wynni said. “There’s no special catch, the drawback to allowing him to speak to you is that he’ll be speaking to you. All. The. Time.”

She paused for a moment.

“Yes, you do,” she said, addressing  a comment that was unheard by everyone else. “No. No. Listen. You have literally not stopped talking for the last five minutes trying to explain how you don’t talk all the time. You are making my case for me!”

“I accept,” Iana said. “We, the Princess Prime of Gallagrin, willling consent to a verbal delegation with the Shadowfolk ancestor known as Silian.”

“What if he possesses your mind now?” Yuehne asked.

“My mind is not a nice place,” Iana said. “Shadowfolk hero or no, I doubt he’d like it in there.”

“That still doesn’t help us though,” Wynni said.

There was another pause while Wynni and Iana both waited and listened.

“Yes, I understand,” Iana said after a moment.

“What did he tell you?” Yuehne asked.

“He can’t mind control anyone,” Iana said. “All he can do is show people, Shadowfolk specifically, the truths about themselves that they’re trying to hide from.”

“That sounds very limited,” Yuehne said.

“It’ll be enough,” Iana said.

“How?” Wynni asked. “Even showing the guards the truth of what they’re doing won’t stop them. There’s too many other forces; loyalty, duty, power, prestige, and so on, holding them where they are.”

“You’re not going to have to try to convert these people,” Iana said. “You’re going to find the others, the ones whose minds aren’t shut yet. The ones you can still reach.”

“I’m still chained up,” Wynni said.

“Not with this you aren’t,” Iana said, and produced the enchanted knife that Dae gave her as though drawing it from thin air. Without a moment’s hesitation, she handed it over to  Wynni.

“What is this?” Wynni asked.

“A gift from a sorcerer to me, and now a gift from me to you,” Iana said. “The blade is yours. Among its other properties, it can work as the Silence Breaker did. Slice your shackles off and use it to bring back help.”

“And if I just run now, and betray you all?” Wynni asked.

“There is no curse on the blade to stop you from doing so,” Iana said. “You are free to do as you wish, with no debt owed between us.”

Wynni stared at the girl before her and saw not a scruffed up young human she’d traveled with, but, for the first time, the Princess of Gallagrin that everyone had spoken of Iana being.

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