Standing with your back to an enemy isn’t a tactically wise move. Even moreso, if the enemy is one who has already literally stabbed you in the back. When the alternative is losing your temper and obliterating both the enemy and the world he lives on though it can be advisable to think on a more ‘strategic’ level. In other words, just because the Most High Emissary of the Holy Throne was standing a dozen paces behind me didn’t mean I couldn’t take a moment to breath out slowly and give him the chance to start running.
“I assure you, the world is in no danger.” he said. “Your struggles, if left unchecked might have imbalanced it, but as you can see I am a watchful caretaker.”
No one spoke back to him. They were all in shock, apart from the Goblin King and Liggy, the Voice of the Blind God. Liggy was silent and stone faced, her expression a mix of horror and slow burning rage. The Goblin King on the other hand was smiling. It was the kind of smile that held no humor or kindness though. Behind that smile lay cold calculation.
I turned to face the Emissary. His presence here was an anomaly I needed to understand. I expected to see him as the figure of blazing light that I’d seen in Prelate Avernicus’ memories and I wasn’t disappointed. His light didn’t radiate through the shadows I held around us but it was undeniably powerful. Looking at him, I knew my shadows could no more hold him back than the night could hold back the dawn. The holy light that burned beneath his skin washed out the color from hair, eyes and clothes. I could barely see a scrap of humanity left within him. He was power, collected over a hundred or a thousand or a million iterations through the time loop. Once he’d been a conduit for the Dominions but long ago he’d eclipsed them. There was no one in the world who commanded more raw magical might than he did. No one who even came close.
At his sides stood Prelate Avernicus and Bishop Rask, each burning with gifted power as well.
I wasn’t surprised to see Avernicus. My retributive strike had been enough to take out his ship, but to take him out I would had to have flung enough power into it to level Dawns Harbor.
Bishop Rask on the other hand was an unexpected sight. Even moreso because it was clear that he had not been put through the “purification” of a bath in an Eternity Cauldron. That didn’t necessarily make him less formidable. From the way he glowed with power, I could guess that the Emissary had lent him an enormous amount of force.
“A caretaker?” I smirked. “Try asking your Prelates how ‘well taken care of’ they feel. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not possible is it? I beat them so badly you had to make sure they’d never talk to anyone again.”
“You would test my patience?” the Emissary asked, his voice devoid of tone.
“You think it’s wise to trifle with mine?” I asked in return. I wasn’t being diplomatic. The moment for diplomacy hadn’t arrived yet. The Emissary was bristling with so much power and was so sure of himself there was no way I could reach him with words. We were going to have a very different sort of ‘discussion’ before he’d be willing to listen to me. I just hoped Vale Septem would be around when our ‘conversation’ was over.
“You are a bit of grit, a troublesome but insignificant nuisance, your patience is irrelevant.” he said. I let a cruel smile spread over my lips. I don’t normally like giving anybody a serious beating, but he was making it a lot easier to stomach.
“And yet, you’re talking with me when you could have already attacked. Why would that be?” I wondered. I had nothing to lose by keeping him talking. He held the upper hand in terms of available power. The more information I could extract from him in that state the better. That was so basic they’d barely even covered it in my diplomacy classes.
“He can’t see you.” Liggy said. She was just a wealth of unexpected info it seemed.
“He can’t? That’s interesting. He’s not the Blind God is he?” I asked.
Liggy looked at me and offered no response, positive or negative. I turned to the Emissary again and focused on him. Avernicus and Rask were moving slowly away from him and advancing on us.
“No. He’s not the Blind God.” I said, meta-awareness confirming that much for me. “But you’re right he can’t see me.”
The Emissary didn’t even gesture and, from the heavens, arrows of light slammed through the Cloister’s ceiling and bound my shadow to the ground behind me. I felt paralysis steal over my limbs as the shadow binding took effect.
“I can see you quite clearly.” the Emissary said.
I laughed. Meta-awareness painted the image of the Emissary’s dilemma with breathtaking clarity.
“Except you know what you see is only an illusion.” I said. “We’re in the same situation. Neither one of us understands the other well enough to act freely.”
“I understand your power, Shadow Queen. I know your realm. And I know you. You are arrogance made flesh. You are fear and madness and chaos. I will reshape you into a proper tool for this world. A weapon to wield against all the foul things that will spawn in the wake of your passing.”
“You want to name me Shadow Queen?” I asked, delighted. “You know what that will mean don’t you?”
“Yes. Shadow Queen. I will dare to call your name. In this sphere my will is supreme. I will expose you. Summon your direst minions, loose your most potent weapons against me. Nothing shall avail you. Even the deepest shadows will not hide you. Wherever you flee, I will find you.” the Emissary said. Which meant he had no idea what he was doing, or he was careful enough not to give it away.
I carried the title “Shadow Queen” from having defeated the Shadow Queen of my homeworld. I carried other titles too, but none of them were inherently part of Vale Septem’s reality. I had said that the world didn’t need a Shadow Queen and I’d meant it. A proper Shadow Queen would be able to marshall the creatures that lurked in the darkness that lay within and below the physical world.
I could have built that as my identity when I came to Vale Septem but it would have stretched at reality in some fairly harsh ways. As a native, the Emissary didn’t have that problem. Granted as a normal person he also wouldn’t have been able to make “The Shadow Queen” any more real than “a rain of chocolate pudding”, but he’d left ‘normal person’ behind ages ago. With his power, creating a “Shadow Queen”, or a rain of chocolate pudding I supposed, was something he could do without even being fully aware of it.
Avernicus and Rask had ceased their approach and stood on my flanks about the same distance away as the Emissary was.
“And the Goblin’s? What shall become of them?” I asked.
“They bear the taint of the same Unmaker that you serve. They shall be cleansed as well.” he replied.
“The same for the people of Dawns Harbor?” I guessed.
“And everyone else who bears the Unmaker’s taint.”
“And this reprieve. This moment you are spending on speaking with us? You didn’t want us to escape, but you are still gathering your force for the final blow. You’re going to erase us and everyone else you would name as an enemy in one moment?” I said, meta-awareness giving me the shape of his plan and promising the details would fill themselves in shortly.
“Just so…”, he paused a moment and then released his last two words, “Shadow Queen.”
It was the third time he’d named me Shadow Queen. I felt his power reach out and create a new spiritual mantle in the world. One which settled on my shoulders. I stifled a laugh. Getting to hit the Emissary with his own power was a delightful prospect and it was more fun if he didn’t see it coming.
Predictably though it wasn’t quite that easy.
At the same time as he pronounced me the Shadow Queen, the Emissary, Avernicus and Rask opened portals in front of themselves. A lot of portals.
A quick count told me there were twelve portals in the Cloister with three directly in front of us. The other ten portals had outflanked the goblin army that was still waiting in the wings. Meta-awareness told me that they’d opened more than thirteen portals though. Closer to thirteen hundred, scattered across the Goblin Kingdom and the bordering lands of the Holy Throne’s empire.
“Your Majesty, I believe your Kingdom is under attack.” I told the Goblin King.
“It has been for a very long time now. Almost refreshing to seethe old fool moving so openly.” the Goblin King replied. He’s taken the Chief Celebrant’s chair off the dias behind them and was leaning backwards on it, his feet propped on a short, floor mounted candle sconce. “I imagine we should be more concerned about those however.”
Out of portals strode eleven demons in the shape of men and a shadowy outline that looked as though it was trying to approximate one.
“Only twelve?” the Goblin taunted. “Oh, that’s right, you couldn’t get the full set could you?”
I blinked and focused on the demons. They weren’t simple denizens of hell. They were the Lords of the Underworld! Each one commanded one of the the Thirteen Legions of the Damned. They’d come bound in “redemptive service” to the Holy Throne, though I suspected the definition of “redemption” would be one I would be hard pressed to agree with. They were missing one of their number though.
Intuition beat meta-awareness to guessing as to the identity of the missing Demon Lord.
“Unless you intend to renege on your service?” the Goblin King asked, looking at the empty space behind his chair.
From underneath a veil of invisibility, Andromalius, the Goblin King’s demon messenger stepped forth.
“No my lord. I have little taste for such cliches.” the Demon Lord who genuinely sought redemption said.
“You would stand against your brothers?” the Goblin King asked, a note of genuine surprise in his voice.
“Tis the most of natural of things. Or did you think Hell free of sibling rivalry?” Andromalius said.
The Goblin King laughed.
“I suppose that shall be one more thing which can follow us to the greater heaven that awaits.”
“I would be sorely disappointed if it did not.” Andromalius agreed as he stepped forward to shield the Goblin King and the goblin arch-mage who stood beside him. He would have protected Liggy as well had the girl not started walking towards me.
“You must not save this world.” she told me again.
Something was wrong.
The Emissary had enough personal force to destroy everyone here. Despite that, he’d arrived with two of his most powerful underlings as backup. Then they’d raised the full power of the Underworld to strike at us and yet he was still hesitating.
My mind spun on that.
He’d called me arrogant but I wasn’t so wrapped up in myself to lose sight of who was around me. The Emissary knew of my power as the Shadow Queen and, considerable though it was, he was justifiably confident that he could destroy me.
Kari was a wildcard but he wasn’t looking at her, and didn’t understand the power she held. The one he was looking at, the one he was afraid of, was Liggy.
Why her I asked myself? What threat did the Blind God pose to him?
“He has to go. It all has to go.” Liggy said and as I watched her eyes grew dark, then black and then were filled with an empty swirl that I’d seen on the other side of nightmares.
In her hands I saw black fire gather.
She reached me and placed her hand on my robes. Oblivion, sheer nothingness, reached out and burned through me.
If I was human that would have been the end of me. If I was the girl I’d been, I wouldn’t even be a memory in the wake of the black fire. That’s what it did. It unmade things. Destroyed them so thoroughly that there was never a time when they’d existed.
But I wasn’t the girl I’d been.
I breathed in the black fire and drew it into the depths of my heart, where my own black fires burned. Dream lords aren’t born, or called, or chosen. We’re made. Forged by our own choices. I’d chosen years ago that even in total dissolution, I wouldn’t abandon myself or the people that I knew. In the face of the impossible, I’d become an impossible girl and if reality didn’t want to accommodate me then reality was the one that got to change.
The only problem was, I wasn’t quite willing to tip my hand to that yet. I still needed to understand what was going on and, most importantly, why someone felt that the utter annihilation of Vale Septem was preferable to letting the Emissary live another day.
So I let the Shadow Queen burn away to ash.
For the observant who were familiar with how Oblivion fire worked that would have been a huge clue that I was deceiving them. Oblivion means gone. No body. No ash. No anything. I didn’t really need to be the Shadow Queen of Vale Septem, but I kind of liked picking up titles and it seemed a shame to waste a perfectly useful one like that, so I made sure there were some ashes left that she could arise from.
The Emissary howled inarticulately at the display of a power even his vast might couldn’t protect him from. In answer the twelve Lords of the Underworld opened up with blasts of hellfire hot enough to melt the entire mountain range.
Liggy looked up, blinking in surprise. She either hadn’t expected me to burn away or saw that I wasn’t really gone. Either way she wasn’t fast enough to protect herself from the lances of hellfire the Demon Lords cast.
Fortunately for her, Kari was.
Spell casters in Vale Septem can cast and hold a single spell at a time. Unless of course they’re nascent dream lords.
Kari exploded in a maelstrom of spell casting. Shields of every variety interposed themselves between Liggy and the Demon Lords. Kari herself appeared in front of the girl, summoning forth a dozen knightly protectors from her dreams.
“I know you’re still there. Why did you let her do that?” Kari asked me via dream speech.
“There’s something we’re missing here. We have to talk to Liggy and give her a chance to explain what she knows.” I said.
“I don’t know if I can hold them back.” Kari said, sweat beading on her forehead.
“I know. We have to get out of here.” I said.
“I believe it is time to leave. Andro would you please provide us an egress?” the Goblin King said aloud. He hadn’t been listening in on our dream speech, but he was as able to read the situation as Kari and I were.
“To where sire?” Andromalius asked.
“All this strife puts me in mind of a vacation. Somewhere by the seashore I think.” the Goblin King replied.
With a flick of his wrist Andromalius attempted to open a portal. Nothing happened.
“I believe there may be some problem with that destination, sire.” he reported.
They were trying to go to Dawns Harbor. It was the one place that was warded against the power of the Holy Throne and the powers of the Underworld.
I conjured forth a ghostly body for myself again and laid an unseen hand on Andromalius’s shoulder.
“Try one more time.” the Goblin King suggested.
The friendly Demon Lord waved his hand again and this time I was able to catch his power and put my own signature on it. Way’s wards happily let the portal open in response.
“Sir Maak, your party is invited to join us as well.” the Goblin King said.
“I will hold this portal for the rest of you.” Maak said, looking all too aware what that would mean.
“Nope. We’re not having any of that.” Kari said and cast the same transit spell at the goblins, the cloister monks, the two knights and Liggy that I had used to get her off of Avernicus’ ship.
All alone she turned to face the most powerful being who’d ever walked on the planet.
“You hurt people I care about.” she said. “That was a really bad idea.”