Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 18
Axiopistos removed his helmet and crouched before the small child that was sitting in a huddled ball on the floor in front of him. The mighty Paladin set his helm on the dirty floor and removed his armored gloves and gauntlets. The child was trembling, with his head on his arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
Axio gently rested one hand on the child’s shoulder, and he whimpered at the Paladin’s touch.
“Little man, what is your name?” Axio asked softly. “Can you remember?”
“He-Her-Her-Hernan,” the little half-elf boy managed.
“I am Axio. I’m going to take you to safety in Waterdeep,” Axio told him. “I’ll carry you, if you can’t walk. Do you understand?”
“Wh-where are we?” Hernan begged.
“In a very bad place. That’s why I’m taking you to the city,” Axio said. “Alright?”
The boy was convulsing in shock, but managed a sick nod. Axio lifted Hernan with both hands and tucked him against his armored chestplate, careful not to let the kid touch the blood. He lifted effortlessly, and they slowly walked down the stairs past the Guards.
He emerged on the back porch and sat down on the stone steps. “Hernan?” he asked softly.
The child was still shivering with cold, shock, and terror. “Wh-what?”
“You know what I think?” Axio asked.
Axio very gently hugged the boy. “I think you were very brave to grab the criminal like that.”
“I don-don’t remem-em-ember,” Hernan admitted, still shaking.
Axio unhitched his cloak. He wrapped the child in his cloak and let the soft fabric of the camouflage cloak keep out the chill. “I do, and I’m proud of you. That took courage.” He stood again and walked around to the front of the house, where the Watch team was approaching with the horses and carts. “I won’t take you back in there,” he promised. “Do you know what your home is?”
“With my pa-parents,” the boy said, though Axio could see his eyelids dropping. Axio silently cursed. Shock wasn’t a healthy state at the best of times, and now he was falling asleep.
“This may feel odd,” he said softly. He reached into himself and cast his lesser restoration spell, healing his shock, and the boy’s eyes fluttered open.
“I healed your injury,” Axio explained. “You’ll be safe for the trip.”
The boy stirred in the blanket. “Thank you,” he whispered, and buried his face in the fabric.
Axio’s heart melted. He slid the child into a more comfortable position on his chest and sat down in the back of a wagon. He would wait until the boy was asleep before he went back inside.
I watched the Guard poke their way through the room in total, abject horror. The cellar was like a tomb. Hundreds of little burlap bags were stacked high, to the stone ceilings and wooden lamp lines. I slowly walked down the dim cellar. I reached out for one bag and paused. I could only make things worse.
Each bag had a child inside. Some awake, most asleep, all frozen in time. The sheer volume of stasis spells in the room made my head spin. This was Halaster Blackcloak magic, this was Elminster magic. The scale of it all, it was horror above horror.
Hundreds of souls, stacked like cordwood wall sections ceiling-high. Hundreds of families adrift.
Worst of all was the back wall. A brown wooden box with empty bags in it, each emptied and cleaned, neat as you please, with a ball of twine for sealing them off. This was routine for somebody. It was their job.
I was crafted from the raw stuff of elemental, unremorseful, pure evil. Whomever had done this would have made my creator proud.
“Death is too kind for a sinner like the one responsible for this,” I whispered.
“Too right,” the Captain said, looking green. “There was a man down here when we arrived. He was napping. He’s out cold, tied up out front.”
“Good.” I saw the other Guards emerge from the tiny back room next to the bag box. “Any more back there?”
“No, but we found a sending circle,” one Guard told us. “A big one, the re-usable stone type with the runes carved in it.”
“Don’t even breathe on it,” the Captain said sharply. “I’ll call the wizards in from the city.”
I walked away, still utterly dazed. It was wrong. It was a sin. It was thousands of sins, cold and deliberate. How? How could anybody bring themselves to do something like that? How could a god allow it from their worshippers?
I stumbled upstairs, determined not to vomit madly on the floor. The smell of the dead golem didn’t help.
“Cavria?” a familiar voice asked. I looked up and saw Axio sitting in the back of a Watch wagon, protectively hovering over a small child in a bundle of cloth. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
I instinctively shook my head. “No, no, I… it’s sickening,” I grunted.
He nodded glumly. “Yeah.”
“You saw the basement?” I asked. Hadn’t he been upstairs?
He cocked his head. “Basement?”
“Yeah. The basement, with all the children?” I blinked. “The missing children are there, in bags. They’re in stasis.”
He recoiled. There was a look of total shock on his face. “What? No! I hadn’t…” he trailed off as the little boy stirred. “I hadn’t known,” he said softly. “I should go down there.”
I held both hands up. “No, no you shouldn’t,” I said firmly. “Let the Guard handle it. Trust me. You don’t want to see.”
He huffed and stood up from the back of the wagon, making sure to tuck the little boy’s cloak in. “Fine.” I waited until he had walked back towards the house before asking my own question.
“Axio, do you have a second?”
I kicked a pebble at my feet into the darkness. “How can any of the gods be evil on purpose?”
He sighed. “The short version? The Gods are a varied and mysterious lot. They’re hard to categorize.”
“But that doesn’t mean anything!” I said, throwing up my hands. “There’s things in that basement that would turn the stomach of any god I’ve ever met!”
Axio, bless him, refrained from pointing out that I hadn’t met many. “Well. Yes, there are evil gods, sadly, and yes, some do it on purpose.” He looked up at the house. “Can we hold this discussion on the way home? The people inside may need our healing magic.”
I sighed. “Yes, yes, that’s fair,” I grumbled. “Fine.”
Inside the house, Axio and I tended to the wounds of the soldiers, but we didn’t have much to do. The cult had only had six people here, plus the golem; we had outnumbered them substantially. There had been no Guard fatalities, for which I thanked Ilmater.
Ryaire would be more busy. I looked down sadly on the desiccated body on the bed. The boy’s soul was flying off to the Fugue Plane and the City of Shadows even now, and would rest in Ryaire’s arms if all went well.
That, of course, assumed that Bane wasn’t just enslaving the souls right there. My jaw tightened with a flash of pure hate. What sort of monster commanded his followers to sacrifice children in the first place? I forced it back. That was a question I could discuss with somebody; it didn’t need to stay rhetorical.
Axio lowered his hand over the boy’s head and closed his own eyes. He whispered a prayer in Celestial. I didn’t know Celestial, since everybody in the Arbor had spoken Common, but I knew what he was saying. He was commending the child’s soul to the Arbor; he was asking Kelemvor to see the child kindly, Ilmater to see him as a martyr, and Ryaire to see him home.
I teared up as I watched my partner commend the child’s soul to the endless playground. I couldn’t have done it, not without my voice cracking, but Axio managed it with a rock-solid certainty I found reassuring.
There wasn’t much left to do, after that. The Watch squad was already moving back to the city as fast as their horses could take them to fetch wizards to break the spells on the children. Axio and I would leave the forensic work to the Watch, while the Guard left the house under their own protection until reinforcements arrived. Axio and I set out by our own agreement, walking back to the city.
It was quiet. We walked in silence, carrying our bags and cloaks. The darkvision we shared allowed us to travel in safety, even when the moon ducked behind clouds. We followed the well-worn road to the distant City of Splendors, and my feet grew heavier with each step.
“How do they do it?” I asked softly.
“Which?” Axio replied at once. He had been ready for me to ask, clearly.
“The cultists. Why do they serve a monster?”
Axio looked up at the sky again. He did that a lot when he was looking for how to phrase an answer. “They want what all people want – power and security. They just get it from the wrong place. There’s more to it than that, though,” he added as I started to ask the obvious question. “Some people want things out of life so urgently that they can convince themselves it’s worth any price.”
“But why get it from someplace that’s so uncaring?” I pressed. “Have these people never seen the Banehold? It’s a cracked, barren, lightning-struck wasteland full of crying people and death! Who would want to go there when they die?”
“Somebody who’s convinced themselves that they would be better off if they were ruling a place like that. You know, clerics and Paladins like ourselves are sometimes given extra power and responsibility in the realms to which we go when we die,” Axio reminded me. “Some people choose the faith that suits them best regardless of its good or evil.”
I glared holes in the ground. “I’ve seen where that gets people,” I said coldly.
To my surprise, Aio shook his head. “I’m sorry, Cavria, but no, you haven’t. Things don’t work in the Hells like they do in the Banehold, the Supreme Throne, the other realms of the evil gods. The Hells are where the souls of those who have a personal code but still do evil go when they die, and only then if a god doesn’t claim them. Not all people who do evil are pious in their evil, you know. Lots of people go to the Hells, the Blood Rift, and the Abyss, even though they nominally worshipped deities.”
I grunted. “Fine, that’s fair. I still don’t get why any deity would choose to be evil. I mean, Finder Wyvernpur killed the evil god Moander and used his power to become a benevolent god, and Ao Overgod didn’t punish him for it. Why wouldn’t other interloper gods or ascended gods do the same thing? Or even Kelemvor! When he took over from Cyric and Myrkul, he turned death from something to be feared into something to respect and await patiently!” I pointed out, throwing my hands up in exasperation. “Why would any being with so much power elect to be an asshole?”
Axio hid a smile behind his helmet at my frustration, I noted irritably. “Because some people are just plain and simple assholes. There’s really not much else to it. Godhood lets mortals who ascend act out their deepest power fantasies.”
I kicked a rock off the road. “It’s not fair.”
Axio hesitated. “No, I… I think it’s fair to them. After all, they were the ones who found the power and ambition to become gods. But no, it certainly makes the lives of the people left behind harder.”
“Why don’t the good gods do anything to stop them?” I demanded. “I mean, when I was in the Arbor, I loved every second of it. Who wouldn’t want to see gods like Ryaire and Ilmater triumph over evil gods?”
“Most people do, and that’s how we have jobs,” Axio pointed out. “We do our work so that evil gods can be opposed. It’s our responsibility. Or are you asking why the gods don’t war in person?”
He kept his voice level despite my rising ire, and I felt a pang of conscience for my tone. “Because then worlds die. History has seen it. The entire point of the Sundering is to drive mortals and the divine a bit farther apart, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know,” I grumbled. “I just wish… how can people like that succeed? How can a world where monsters set the status quo be acceptable to Ao?”
Axio looked down at the ground. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But he’s not stopping us either. We still fight back, and we will win.” He looked back up, resolute. “We always will, in the end.”
I looked up at his face through the darkness. He was utterly, wholly certain. “I admire your faith, Axio,” I said quietly. “You’ve got more of it than I do.”
He stopped. I looked back and saw him spread his arms. I let him hug me, and I rested my head on his armored shoulder. “You’ll see,” Axio said softly. “And when we finally fall in battle, we’ll get to go enjoy the fruits of our hard labor. You and I have both seen it.”
“Yes,” I whispered, remembering my years in the Arbor. It was less than a month ago, and it already felt so far away. “Okay. Yes. I’m sorry. Seeing all those kids…”
Axio released me, and we started walking again. “I know, Cavria, I know. They’re in the Watch’s hands, now.”
We walked in silence for hours, not stopping when the sun came up to our left, over the eastern forests. The two of us didn’t tire, not with Heaven and the Hells fueling our muscles.
Eventually, we paused to rest by a small creek north of the farms that fed the city. It wasn’t the cleanest body of water, so we didn’t drink or bathe at first, but we took the time to rest. I prepared my spells for the day, as did he, and we purified the water beneath us enough to take a drink.
I watched Ryaire’s power sweep the waters clean in the bowl, and I drank deeply. Axio was munching on the dried bread and jerky he had brought with him. When I was done, I sat back against a tree and looked up at the brilliant sky overhead. I did feel better. I had had much time to think. “Axio?”
“Thanks for talking to me last night,” I said. “I think I’ll be okay.”
He grinned. “Good.” He rose to his feet and dusted off his hands. “Alright. Let’s get going.”
|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