Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 12
I watched the front of the store carefully. The wind was picking up, by a lot. In a seaside town, I supposed that was to be expected, but it was still irritating. I slid the hood up a little higher on my head and looked over at Axio.
He wasn’t having any problems, I noted. Maybe having that many layers was a wise idea. He was standing stock-still on the landing of the little side stair that snugged up between two buildings. He didn’t blend into the darkness as well as I do, but his attention wasn’t flagging at all. He had an intense look about him, too, as if his whole being was focused on the place.
I looked back to the store, reassured. It felt nice to be working with him, actually. Beyond simply being the best of causes, he took it with absolute seriousness. It was a sign of loyalty I appreciated. I wasn’t as sure about this whole thing. The Baneites were scum, and I agreed they needed to die, but I thought it would be smarter to figure out exactly what ritual they were trying to use before we-
There. Movement. Our heads snapped up at the same time. There was something moving in the windows. Our darkvision showed us the same thing: a large object, easily the size of a man, moving quickly.
“Good to know,” I whispered.
He nodded. “Speak lowly without whispering. Whispers carry farther.”
I lowered my voice. “So this place isn’t abandoned. Should we withdraw?”
“Yes, and find out whether the place has been bought lately,” Axio replied in the same tone. “But not quite yet. If they take a child tonight, I want a chance to intercept them.”
“Good thinking.” I focused on the windows again. “When do we leave?”
“Sunrise. Not before.”
We sat in silence for another hour before we saw more movement. This time, it was on the roofs next to the store. We watched as a huge creature, flapping ugly wings, landed on the store’s skylight. It fell right through like the skylight was smoke, and we saw it land inside.
“Did it have a child?” I asked.
“No.” Axio relaxed against the stone. “No child was taken tonight. Not by those things, anyway.”
“Should we stick around and see the place in daylight?” I asked.
“No. We return home, get your glaive, and inform the Watch,” Axio said decisively. “If there was an attempt at a kidnapping tonight, they need to know, no matter how surly they are.”
“Yes, sir.” I straightened up and melted back into the shadows of the stairway, then circled around behind the block and walked off to the temple. I could feel the tension. We were about to go into battle. We could handle a few gargoyles, I was sure, but there could be hostages in there. I was worried, too. What would happen if my amulet came off in battle? How would the children react to a big red devil coming at them with a weapon?
I gritted my teeth and forced myself to focus. I couldn’t let Ryaire or Axio down, and I wouldn’t. I simply wouldn’t.
Back at the temple, Axio shed his layers. He stripped all of his nighttime and stealth dress, until all he had left was his armor, cape, and shield. He affixed his badge of office – a combination second holy symbol and anointed icon of Ryaire, which proclaimed him her Chosen and the nominal leader of the Church – to his breastplate, and whispered a prayer to Ryaire under his breath. He would need temperance today, but more importantly, restraint. He could be wading into a hostage situation, and even if no children had been taken that night, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be others.
He slid his sword back into its sheath and took a deep breath. One last stop to make.
The Watch officer stared at the two armored Paladins in his posting with unhidden alarm. “Uh… well, yes, sir, the Orsar is here,” he said. Orsars were equivalent to Captains in the Guard. Why they didn’t just use the same ranks was beyond Axio. “I’ll, uh… I’ll go get him.”
“Thank you,” Axio said politely. “This is urgent.”
The Watchman bustled into the back and emerged moments later with a wizened old human woman with a badge pinned to her chest in his wake. “Yes, I’m Orsar Flannigan,” she said at once. “What’s the emergency?”
“We found a nest of gargoyles in the Trade Ward last night, one we believe to be under the control of the men kidnapping the children around the city,” Axio explained. “We surveilled it last night, and found the place to be containing at least two of the creatures.”
The Orsar cocked her head. “Really. Last night, you say?”
She shook her head. “They may be gargoyles, but I don’t think they’re related to the disappearances.”
Axio tilted his head back in surprise. “Explain, please. We have found evidence that gargoyles were involved.”
“We interrupted a kidnapping in progress last night,” Flannigan said with a thin smile. “There were no gargoyles there. Maybe six men, but no beasts.”
Axio and Cavria exchanged a look. “We saw a gargoyle returning to the store last night, just before sunrise. Was there no way a gargoyle could have been present for your raid and simply left when it went sour?”
The Orsar glared. “I know my business, Paladin. We were watching the sky. There was no gargoyle.”
“We found evidence of a flying beast,” Cavria said. She listed out the experiences she and Axio had had already, describing in detail their interview with the family of the stolen child and their meeting with Amsha. When she was done, the Orsar looked doubtful.
“So there’s gargoyles in the city, alright,” she said. “Where, you say?”
Axio filled her in on the details of their stakeout. The Orsar cocked her head when he mentioned the second gargoyle. “Humph. This second one… when did it arrive?”
“I’d say two hours ago,” Axio said.
The two Watch looked at each other. “That’s about when we scared off the kidnappers,” the junior one remarked. “Maybe you’re actually on to something.”
“So how should we delegate responsibilities now?” Axio asked.
“We’ll pursue this group of people from last night,” the Orsar said. “You chase down any leads at the local temples from abductions that may have gone unreported.” Cavria looked stunned, but held her tongue.
“Why not just kill the gargoyles?” Axio asked.
“You could,” the Orsar allowed. “Do you want us to join you?”
Axio shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said. “My partner and I can handle the place by ourselves, I think. We just need to nip back to the temple and pick up a few things.”
“Then do so. Come back alive, Paladins.” Flannigan snapped off a salute.
Axio saluted, though technically he didn’t need to, since he was of a different service. “Can do, Orsar.”
Outside, Cavria rounded on him, still looking surprised. “And that’s it?”
Axio blinked. “Huh?”
“She just believes us? We didn’t have to take her there or anything? After all that rudeness at the beginning?” Cavria demanded.
Axio shrugged. “We’re offering divine aid in a kidnapping case against the slaves of the Hate God. Is she going to say no? Especially when we may find a solid lead she completely missed,” he said. “Don’t forget, somebody higher up is mandating that they come to us for help. If we turn up something useful, they’ll forget their recalcitrance pretty fast.”
Cavria resumed walking. “I guess I just wasn’t expecting people to trust us without jumping through fiery hoops,” she admitted. “I suppose things work differently when they can’t see who I am,” she added under her breath.
Axio caught up to her and walked aside. “Well, not everybody is as reasonable as her, it’s true, but sometimes you get lucky.”
Now, now… wasn’t that interesting? Who she is?
Embersson detached himself from the wall behind the pair of Paladins, where he had been snacking on his own stakeout of the Watch post. He had been planning to watch the local law, since they had been so inconvenient to his employer the night before, but now these self-righteous sorts were sticking their noses in. What had the woman meant?
He had barely heard her, and wouldn’t have heard her at all had he not been wearing his magic ring of observation. He looked from the Paladins to the Watch post and back, wondering where his priorities lay.
The Watch post wasn’t leaving, he decided, but these Paladins were becoming interesting. He slid out the shadows and fell into step behind them. He was wearing his brown cloak today, with every article of clothing different from what he had worn the last time he had been out on a tail. Being memorable was never a good idea, but being familiar was nearly as bad.
Embersson fell in behind the Paladins, trailing them. He risked getting closer than he had before, just in case the woman repeated her earlier thought.
Axio led the duo into the market district. “Now, we can check any temple in the city for more reports of abductions. The thing is, if I were a parent who were reporting a missing child, and didn’t trust the Watch, the temple I’d go do would actually be ours,” he said thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t you think?”
“Yes. Did anybody at the temple report a child abduction?” Cavria asked.
“Well, yes, actually, several,” Axio said. “That was part of what friar Dreblin told me. The others would be Ilmater, I suppose, if you knew the child was alive, or perhaps Mielikki, if you were trying to hunt the criminals… but, really, we may have more luck simply going over the original list and trying to find the most recent successful kidnapping,” he admitted. “It seems they don’t actually bring the gargoyles all the way to the end of the abduction if they don’t need them. Certainly, they don’t stage together.”
Cavria shook her head. “This is too complicated. It would be easier to just kill the families, wouldn’t it?”
“Much,” Axio said heavily. The Aasimar soldier ran his hands over his eyes. “I admit the fact that they’re taking pains to keep the families alive and the neighbors undisturbed is troubling. It’s like they want the fear.”
“Maybe they do,” Cavria said. Her face darkened behind her disguise magic. “Dark gods are basically like devils, you know. Fear is a powerful tool, to people like that.”
“Yes,” Axio agreed. He looked over. Cavria was looking down at the road as she walked. “Are you all right?”
“I’m just remembering how scared people were when they arrived at the Arbor,” she said softly. “The little ones, especially. They just wanted to go home.” She blew out a breath. “I don’t get why the bad guys are always the ones to push the balance. I don’t get why good has to be reactive, while evil is just active.”
Axio rested one huge hand on her shoulder. It wasn’t much smaller than her head. “I know, but remember: we can be active. We can push out into the world, we can sing the faith to those who haven’t heard it… we can go adventuring, too,” he said. “Bane may have the upper hand, but we can beat this, and then some.”
“Yeah.” She reached up and squeezed his hand. “Okay.”
Embersson cocked his brow as he listened. Interesting. So, they weren’t after him and his sponsor, specifically. Just the cult in general, it seemed. The woman had been to a place called the ‘arbor,’ it seemed. Philosophical doubts, too. He moved another few feet closer and strained his ears. He saw them divert down the road towards their temple, though, and hid his disappointment. He had to disengage, and return to the Watch station. His job wasn’t over.
I looked up at the sky above and tried to find some comfort in the bright sun on my skin. The walk around the city wasn’t helping me clear my thoughts. I had to force myself to acknowledge that this was the sort of bullshit the Watch had to deal with all the time. They had to put up with this uncertainty, the reactions to evil, and the wasted time. It wasn’t easy, but I had to do it.
In the temple, we stood in the meager armory and anointed ourselves for battle. Axio slung his dart and sword for easy drawing, and secured a very short cape to his shoulders, which he could pull off into a sling. I had my javelin and my glaive, which would be more than enough when coupled with my fists. My fiend nature irritates me, but it makes me strong enough to punch through wood and stone, and that should been enough, I thought.
Still, I was scared. As a fiend, my nature meant that if I died, I would return to Hell and reform there for punishment torture by the other High Succubae who happened to be present at the time… but as I had a true soul, I could theoretically be exempt from that. Ryaire had sworn to fetch my soul if it came to that, but she couldn’t overrule mighty Kelemvor. Ao could, perhaps, but he wouldn’t interfere to stop a travesty of justice. Everybody knows that.
I sighed and held my glaive close. I had to have faith. Faith in my own power and Ryaire’s shield of unconditional love.
“Are you worried?” Axio asked softly.
I looked over at him. He looked utterly untroubled. His noble face was set in polite neutrality.
“Yes,” I said. I looked down, unable to meet his eyes. “I’m suddenly very scared. I’m not like a mortal, Axio; I may not get to be judged in heaven when I die. What if Asmodeus has made some other mistake? What if I just reincarnate as a High Succubus, over and over?”
Axio’s hand tightened on his blade hilt. “Then I’ll come find you.”
“Really? A rookie Paladin who hasn’t even taken her oath?” I asked drily.
“It wouldn’t be the first time heroes rescued a Paladin in Hell,” Axio pointed out.
“Well, that’s sweet of you,” I said, touched. “But… I’ll just not die. Can’t be that hard,” I chuckled weakly.
He leaned over and caught my gaze again. I stared into his gleaming blue eyes and felt his calm bleed into my unhappiness. “You can survive the chaos of battle,” he said flatly, and he said it with the rock of total certainty that only the truly faithful can have.
I blinked. Suddenly, I wasn’t certain he was kidding when he said he’d come get me from Hell. “Yes, sir,” I said, feeling incongruously like I was in the Planetar’s shadow again.
Axio leaned back and smiled again, and I felt better. How did he do it? “All right. Strap up. We’re taking that store.”
|The tale of the Holy Opposites ||
|Arc 1: | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 |
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
|Arc 2: | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 |
Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20
Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25
|Arc 3: | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30|
|Arc 4: | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 |
Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Glossary