Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 26
Chapter Twenty Six:
Three days later, Axio was sitting on a bench on the northern shore of Waterdeep’s walls. This far from the harbor, there wasn’t much trash on the beaches. The sun was beating down on his bare chest as he leaned back against a sandy rock and stared out at the waves.
There weren’t many bathers out there in the water. It was still a bit too cold for much swimming. He had the place to himself.
More than a few children from the temple were so badly traumatized that they had been sent to the Temple of Ryaire for treatment from the horrors of the Baneites. He saw them every time he went past their room to his bed.
He rarely slept, now.
The Aasimar closed his eyes and tilted his head, looking up at the sun. It felt good on his face. The wind picked up a bit, splashing water on the sandy beach.
This, at least, didn’t make him feel utterly inadequate.
Axio looked over his shoulder when he heard somebody approach. Triera had spotted him. “Hey, there,” she said, squatting beside him. “Finally working on your tan?”
He glared at her. He raised his arms, lightning-fast, and pulled her into a crushing hug. “Nothing wrong with my tan,” he growled.
She shrieked and clawed at him, trying futilely to escape. “No, unhand me, fiend!” she protested. She wriggled out of his grasp and scrambled away. “See what I get for being nice?” she asked with faux disappointment.
“What do you want?” Axio asked, still chuckling.
“For you stop being all depressed out here,” Triera chided. “Half the city wants to take you out for a drink, the other half wants to give you a parade! Why are you out here on the beach, moping?”
“Because I lost!” Axio snapped. Triera recoiled from his sudden anger. “Half of those cells were empty, Triera. Half! The kids we saved tell us that they were all full a day before we got there. We failed to save half the children! How many more would we have saved if we hadn’t waited a day to prepare to hit Undermountain?”
“And would you be dead if you hadn’t waited that day?” Triera pointed out acidly. “If you want to sit out here and be mad at yourself, fine, but don’t think Grandfather and Mom and Dad won’t call you out on it.” She kicked sand in the air in frustration. “Can’t you be happy that you saved a bunch of those kids? Cavria’s the toast of the town, and you should be out there!”
Axio looked away. “I just need to think.”
Triera shook her head. “If you say so,” she said softly.
Cavria sprawled over the bed in her room, eyes shut. The morning light was warming her up, and she twitched feebly to move a blanket to block it. It was too much effort. She stopped.
Nightmares had plagued her the night she had returned. She had forgotten to cast her spell the next night. The nightmares came back. Now, she woken in wracking agony from the surgery on her back, and even her fiendish lack of need for sleep was wearing thin.
Solen had shorn her wings off. She had allowed her shame to influence her decision, and she knew it, but the fact was that the children had hesitated to follow her because she had them. If that evacuation had been under tighter time limits, people might have died.
Cavria had her face buried in a pillow. Bandages covered her back. If her self-distaste extended as far as mutilation, she might have been able to convince herself that she deserved the pain, but no, she saw it for the massive inconvenience it was.
Solen had told her discreetly, after the operation he had performed with her the moment she could safely leave the bookstore under the cover of night. Her horns would be next, then her tail – possibly. That wasn’t a given. The vast majority of Succubae didn’t have tails.
She closed her eyes and sighed. She was out of tears. There was nothing to do. She had poured all of her healing magic for the day into her back; since she had no access to the restoration spells, there was no risk of the wings growing back. She just had to endure the swelling and the pain.
Cavria did feel oddly empty. Her mind had filled with the knowledge of how to fly in an instant. It was as instinctual as breathing. She still had it, but now lacked the means to use it. It made her feel weak and tiny.
Axio knocked on the door and stuck his head in. “Cavria?” he asked.
“Mmm. Here,” she said groggily.
“Are you well enough to talk?” he asked.
Axio gingerly sat down beside her and squeezed his hand around hers. “Hello, Cavria,” he said. “I won’t ask how you’re feeling. I can’t imagine it’s too bad.”
She exerted the effort needed to twist her head around and stare at him. She caught his raised eyebrows and silly smile, and she snorted out a laugh. “Not funny.”
“And I thought Doshellas was the taciturn one,” Axio teased. He squeezed her hand again and leaned back against the headboard of the bed. “So… I thought you might like an update.” He rested her hand on her back and let his magic pour into her shredded flesh. Solen had had to disconnect entire bone structures from her skeleton. It had not been easy.
Cavria seemed to deflate a bit as his magic soothed the agony. His reserves of divine power were far greater than hers were. “Oh… thank you,” she sighed. “That’s much better.”
He squeezed her hand one last time, and then released her. “The others are fine. Doshellas is taking his share of what little treasure we found and having new armor made. Luanea is meeting up with her people in the town, so she can update their master map of Undermountain.” He screwed his eyes shut and rubbed his face with both hands. “The children, well… most still have a home to go back to, you know, but some were orphans or their families were killed in their capture. That’s harder. A few may stay here.” He swallowed. “One died of his illness before we could get him to safety.”
Cavria looked up at him and shook her head. He knew she was telling him it wasn’t his fault. He was the sort of leader who lived and died with his charges and his men, and she respected him for it, but there was such a thing as over-dwelling.
He forced back another sigh. She had enough on her mind. “I’ve prayed for Ryaire to take his soul. I’m sure she heard it. You should know, both Doshellas and Luanea have offered to help us again if we ask, though Doshellas has made it clear he’s not doing it free. I don’t blame him. We barely broke even on that mission.”
“Okay. Thanks, Axio.” Cavria painfully shifted onto her side so she could see him better. It saddened him to see her so vulnerable. “So… the next step?”
“The children go home, if we can find them homes. Then… well, the Watch is crawling over that portal and interrogating the surviving cultist. We’ll find what we can, you know?” Axio said.
“No, you won’t.”
Both Paladins started. Axio spun from the bed and raised his hands into a fighting stance. There was a man standing ten feet away, unarmed and cowled.
“Who in the Abyss are you?” Axio demanded.
Suivi Embersson pulled his hood back and met the young Aasimar’s eyes. “I’m the man who made it happen.”
The spy sat shackled to the chair in the back of the rectory. The church hadn’t had any shackles on-hand, so they had improvised with rope. “How did you get into the church?” Axio demanded.
“The garden wall,” Embersson said. “It’s only eleven feet high.”
Solen sat across from him, and despite his outward calm, Embersson felt a drop of ice in his spine as the ancient cleric’s eyes flashed white. “Now, young man, I would hear you speak. Why have you come to us? I can smell the taint of Tyranny on your soul,” he said. His voice wasn’t wavering now. Clearly, this intrusion into his temple was galvanizing the old man.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Embersson said. He looked down. “The kids in the bookstore were the last straw. I can’t do this.”
Axio narrowed his eyes. He was lurking behind the chair in the little rectory pantry, wearing his full armor and armed with his sword. He kept his expression clear, even as he seethed over the entire situation. This man was fourteen steps from the dormitory where the children were living until they could find their parents. He could have…
“It’s… I’m a mercenary, not a cultist,” Embersson said.
Solen tapped his finger on the table, and Suivi stiffened. He felt a zone of truth spell appear in the room. “Repeat that, sir,” he said.
“I’m a mercenary, not a cultist.”
Axio rolled his eyes. He wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t being truthful. “You don’t care for our faith, do you?” he asked.
“It’s faith. I pray when I need to, I don’t play favorites,” Suivi said archly.
Solen glowered. This Embersson wasn’t acting like a man who wanted to do them a favor. “And yet you are here.”
Suivi nodded. “I was watching when Axiopistos here brought the children out of the bookstore.”
“And you knew where to look… how?” Axio asked.
Suivi tried to lie, as his decades of experience would have him do, but fact spilled from his lips anyway. “Because that bookstore’s apartment is how I contacted Toller.”
Both clergymen fell silent. “How insightful,” Axio said darkly. “And what sorts of things did you tell him?”
Suivi glanced back nervously. In for a copper… “I’ve been following you for a few weeks,” he admitted carefully. “Ever since the new woman, Cavria arrived.”
Axio’s finger joints creaked as he forced himself not to take the little rat’s head off his shoulders. He had been stalking them like animals for over a week! “Why?”
“Because the Baneites have an extraordinary amount of money,” Suivi said.
Solen leaned across the table and pressed a fingertip to Suivi’s forehead. It glowed. A lance of faith, no doubt, though he did not release it. “Speak,” Solen rumbled. “Did you partake of the kidnappings?”
Suivi’s shirt was sticking to him. “No! No, I swear it!”
It was no lie. Solen released him and sat back in his chair. “What do you offer us in parity for the depth of your crimes?”
Suivi licked his lips. “T-the Baneites, I can tell you about them. Their leader, the man who runs it all.”
“Then do so, but name your price,” Axio said. He rested an armored hand on Suivi’s shoulder. “We will tell you if it is worth paying.”
“I want out!” Suivi said angrily. “The entire cult is mad!”
“Many Baneites are mad. You worked for them anyway.” Axio pulled his hand away. “What did seeing me in the streets change?”
Again, the zone of truth pulled honesty from Suivi. “I didn’t think they could actually do it!” the spy said.
“Do what? We know of their desire to open a passageway to the Banehold,” Axio said.
“They can, I really think they can,” Suivi said. “I have no idea where they’re getting the sacrifices, but they have them.”
Solen looked grave. “And where are they keeping them?”
“That, I don’t know,” Suivi admitted. “They’re close to the city, but I don’t know where. I’d bet anything the place in Undermountain can get there, though. There were more children the last time…”
He trailed off as he realized he had just admitted to having known there were children being tortured and done nothing. Amongst people of no ethical proclivity, that may not have been such a condemnation, but in the presence of the two highest-ranking members of the church of child protection, it had not been his smartest available move. Suivi felt ice drip down his spine as he saw Solen’s aura flare. He heard the clink of steel against steel as Axio rested his hand on his sword hilt, but the Paladin restrained himself.
An ugly silence fell over the room. Solen controlled himself with an immense effort. “Who is this Toller?”
“A cleric of Bane. Old, human man.”
“And what can you tell us that we don’t know for ourselves?” Solen asked thinly.
Suivi thought back. “Well… I’d guess he wasn’t there in person when you hit his temple,” he hazarded.
“Then he’s probably in the doghouse. He hadn’t broken away from the greater cult, not per se, but he was definitely not following all of his master’s orders.” Embersson remembered encountering Toller in a poor mood because of his instructions. “The cult master is a mage or something else, plus being a cleric. I don’t know all the details.”
“Do you know any other passwords for the portal in the Undermountain lair?” Solen pressed.
Axio released his sword. “Then why are you here?” he asked curtly. “You haven’t told us any gods-damned thing. What do you even want?”
“I want the Baneites to never find me.” Suivi would have said that regardless of the zone of truth. The Baneites would probably have never found him anyway, but it never hurt to have a guarantee. “But I also want help.”
Axio circled the chair and stood behind his grandfather. “Help with what?”
Suivi took a deep breath. “These Baneites, they have a huge cult. They’re working with their larger forces in the south. I want to escape the Sword Coast and head inland to Cormyr. There’s no way I could get there without help. I can fade out of sight for a while, but the Baneites have eyes everywhere.”
Axio considered that. “And what do you offer us in exchange for your escape?”
“Can you even do it?”
“Of course I can do it. I can get you safely almost anywhere on the continent. I’m asking what you’re offering that would be worth the trouble.”
“I can find the other portal and sending destinations, and I can do it much faster than the Watch can,” Suivi said. “You could cut weeks out of this investigation.”
“That’s my business.”
“It’s our business,” Solen interjected. “Or it shall be, if you want us to trust you.”
“I just can. I have means.”
Both clergymen shared a disgusted look. “You’re offering us precious little evidence of anything you’ve said,” Solen pointed out.
“You have me tied to a chair. What evidence do you imagine I can produce like this?” Suivi asked acidly. “Let me show you to where Toller kept his money, at least.”
“It wasn’t in Undermountain?” Axio asked.
“Oh, it was, but if you haven’t found it yet, you’re not going to.” Suivi sat back in his chair. “That’s my offer.”
Outside, I sat on the chair in the women’s dormitory and focused. My reserve of healing magic for the day was all but spent, as was my divine pool, and all I could do now was hope my fiendish heritage would help.
Meditating felt good. Since the Undermountain excursion, I had felt my connection to Ryaire grow. I could cast higher-level spells, now, but I could also hear the faint sounds of the Arbor in my mind, sometimes even while dreaming. When I cast my protection from evil spell at night, I sometimes dreamed of the brilliant sunlight in the Arbor, or the laughter of the kids in the honeycomb playground.
I gingerly tested my back as I moved in the chair. It really hurt, even now, but Solen had assured me it would pass in a few more days, if I kept healing it as I had been.
I smiled as Triera draped a hot blanket over my shoulders. “Thanks.”
Triera smiled unhappily. Her parents were out of town, working in the community of Rassalanatar to help the children saved from the farmhouse raid. The Temple of Ryaire was empty, save for old friar Dreblin, tending to the children, a few monks in the open chapel, and the two of them. The place was all but vacant.
“Do you think you’ll be leaving again soon?” Triera asked after exchanging greetings.
I shrugged gingerly. “Who knows? I Hope I can go as soon as my back heals. I want to get back out there.”
“That’s very brave, wanting to go out there again so soon,” Triera said sadly. “I wish I had the choice, you know?”
I looked over at where she was sitting. She had her hands folded in her lap, and she fixed her eyes on the floor. “I shouldn’t be selfish, but… I dunno. I just dislike fighting. I doubt I’ll be good at it.”
I nodded. “I understand. I think you could serve as a missionary, honestly, if that were what you wanted.”
She looked miserably out the window. “I wish.”
Suivi squinted as Axio loomed over him. “This cache in Undermountain. How do you know where it is?”
“I didn’t know it was Undermountain at the time. It could have been anywhere.” Suivi thought back to his first visit to the little satellite temple. “It’s behind a false wall.”
“And I suppose I’ll need to bring you with me to find it?” Axio asked sarcastically.
“You didn’t find it yet.”
“I wasn’t looking,” Axio pointed out.
“You’ll waste time. I can find it right now. And, for the record, I promise you won’t find the other portal and sending locations without somebody like me helping you.”
Solen slowly sat back in his chair. “Axio, bring him with you.”
Axio responded at once. “Yes, sir.” His military training drilled obedience in the presence of the enemy into his reflexes. Years of self-imposed social training hid his shock. Even Suivi looked surprised, though he didn’t say anything.
Axio reached down and cut the rope that had bound the spy to his chair. “On your feet.”
Suivi stood, rubbing his wrists to get the circulation going again, and, more discreetly, to hide the tiny file he had been using to loosen his bonds. “Right now?”
Axio met his eyes. Suivi flinched when he saw the gemstones. What was this man? “Right now,” Axio said.
Suivi stood awkwardly in the back of the temple’s main chamber while Axio pulled his grandfather aside. “Sir, what is this?” he asked urgently. “You can’t trust him.”
“No, Axio, I trust him about as much as I trust Loviatar,” Solen said, “but he’s right. If he’s having a crisis of conscience, or just realized what’s going on, or doesn’t wish to be here if we lose, or what have you, we can deal with it, but if Toller has some resources we haven’t taken away, we’re in greater danger. That…” he said, and his voice drifted off. “I think there’s something in him. A parallel. Something stirring conscious discomfort in him. Perhaps he has some limits to his behavior he’s never seen before. He spoke truth in that spell zone he did not intend to speak.”
“You think he’s guilty over what he’s done? It’s not just survival?” Axio asked.
Axio considered that. “I’ll keep an eye on his reaction to the cells and the torture devices,” he said. “His reaction may be telling.”
Outside, Axio and two Watchmen followed Suivi through the streets of the city. More than a few citizens tried to stop the easily recognized paladin and thank him, but he shook them off with a heavy heart. He was working.
Suivi led them through the city to the bookstore. Two Watch were downstairs interrogating the owner, who was furiously protesting any insinuation of wrongdoing. Suivi led the others past him to the stairs and walked into the apartment.
The privy’s back wall swung open at the password. “I thought this was Undermountain before I heard it from the criers,” Suivi explained. “The air feels different here.”
Axio shut the door behind them. “The pressure plates have been disarmed, I suppose?” he asked the Watch.
“They have,” one Watch officer said. He looked a bit queasy. “Gods above, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The bodies of the children who had died in the place and not been selectively picked over by the bone golem as food were laid out on the floor in rows that lined the outer walls. At some point, the Watch had run out of cloth to put over them, so they had started using handkerchiefs to cover their faces. It didn’t do anything to hide the unnatural gashes and pressure-cuts in their bodies where the Baneites had put them on the altar and fed them to the Golem, nor did it hide where the majority had withered flesh. The same ritual puncture tools the Baneite Halfling had used in the farm outside Rassalanatar had clearly found use here, too.
“It’s atrocious,” Axio whispered. He felt his heart break as a priest of Kelemvor laid his fingers over one girl’s desiccated face and begin whispering prayer. He shook himself. “Embersson, the money.”
Suivi snapped out of his own sense of disquiet and looked around. “Right. Uh, right. Here.” He closed the door to the apartment on the other side. “Now, open it again,” he said, doing so. “The privy in here, it’s connected to the offal pits like everything else in Undermountain, but if you grab this bar and turn it…” he said, grabbing a random length of pipe in the corner, “then this happens.”
The Watch murmured in surprise as a false panel opened behind the pipe. Axio slowly scanned the pile, looking for any signs of magic. “Is it trapped?”
“Not that I ever saw,” Suivi said.
Axio reached in and cast light on his glove. The shining rays scattered over a vast pile of gemstones. There were more than Axio had ever seen in his life.
Behind the gems, a pile of gold and platinum coins shone brightly, beside what looked like a heap of magical trinkets. The alcove was only about a foot to each side and two feet deep, but it was packed full of valuables.
“This is… heady stuff,” Axio finally said. “How do you close it?”
Suivi demonstrated. “Just reset the pipe,” he said.
The alcove swung shut again. “All right, then,” he said. “I believe you now. We’ll send somebody in for the goods.”
“Good. I knew you’d come around,” the spy said in satisfaction.
His smile faded when Axio turned his sapphire gaze on him. “So now we talk, a bit, Suivi Embersson. You say you want us to aid you in your escape.”
“I do. I need to get out of Waterdhavian territory, fast.”
Axio steered the other three men out of the privy and shut the door behind him. “And this survival is all that motivates you.”
“Can’t spend money when I’m dead,” Suivi sniffed.
“And what else will happen when you’re dead?”
The spy frowned. “What?”
“What else will happen when you’re dead?” Axio pressed. “Will Bane come for you?”
Suivi grimaced. “Who cares? I don’t.”
Axio held his gaze. “Follow me.”
The paladin walked out of the privy and through the trap room, past the rows of bodies. He walked through the altar chamber where an Oghmite priest was gingerly disassembling the mechanism. He led the Watch and the spy through the door to the stairwell and stopped. “Embersson. Did Toller ever show you what was down here?” he asked.
Axio’s shoulders sagged. “Then you need to see.” He resumed walking down the steps.
Suivi paused. The smell from below was beyond horrible. “Follow me,” Axio said coldly. “Do it now.”
The spy slowly followed the Paladin with the glowing hand down the stairs to the bottom. When he saw what lay beyond, he stopped dead. “What…” he managed. He swallowed bile and leaned on the doorway for support. “What is this?”
The room of cells into which the children had been rammed was a charnel house. The doors hung open on stone and metal hinges. They were so filthy it would have turned Suivi’s stomach, had there not been something worse on the floor.
“What is that stuff?” Suivi asked unsteadily, looking at the black powder on the floor and knowing perfectly well.
“Bodies,” Axio said. “That’s what’s left of a person’s corpse after their soul has been ripped out using the harvest spell the Baneites have modified for their ritual.” He walked up beside Suivi and pointed at the floor. “They fed some to the golem, you know. It was animated by a daemon, so it ate their souls and used them for fiendish fuel.” Axio fixed Embersson with his sapphire eyes. “Those children are lost forever. They are being digested, slowly but inexorably, by the daemons of the Blood Rift. You see, the daemons don’t want demons, devils, or evil gods to win their eternal wars. They want the wars to go on forever, so there will always be a call for planar mercenaries like them. But the others? Oh, no. No, no.” Axio crouched down on the floor beside one spot where a thin patina of black powder had built up. “You see, the daemons need rest. They can’t consume souls constantly. It’s tiring. So the Baneites who spun off this satellite branch of the larger cult, they used the old methods too. They drove these magic pins into their bodies, and cast harvest on them with a relic. It takes a while, the children feel everything.”
Suivi felt sick to his stomach. One of the Watch was audibly holding back vomit. “So, the branch here uses their rituals to collect the souls of the children, and they toss them across the planes. They use the terror and pain of those innocent souls to force gaps in the planar membranes and open passage to the Astral Sea, where Bane awaits.” Axio slowly dragged his fingers through the dust, smearing it on the blue and silver paint. “This is what’s left, Suivi Embersson. Hundreds of children in this temple alone. At least eighty more in the farmhouse by Rassalanatar. Who knows how many more in the main temple? Thousands? It’s not impossible. If they have portals or gates which can cross space, they could be funneling in abducted children from all across the planet.” Axio rose and grabbed the spy’s collar. “And YOU made it possible,” he hissed, and his absolute, total rage finally bubbled over. Suivi recoiled in actual fear. “YOU! You told them when to lay low, how to avoid us.”
“No, n-no, I didn’t!” Embersson protested, but the words rang hollow in his ears.
“YOU worked for these scum! You saw a place where children were being taken to die, and you asked for a JOB!” Axio threw him against the stone wall and he collapsed, landing face-first in the dust. “YOU! You threw your lot in with these deplorable sinners! And when you die, I will ask you one more time, what will become of you?”
Axio loomed over the spy as Suivi scrambled to his knees, desperately wiping the dead children off his face. “I will tell you,” Axio snarled, with a voice like boiling acid. “There is a long walk of the dead, a procession. It winds through the Fugue Plane, up to the gates of Kelemvor’s halls. It winds through corridors and hallways. All around you stand the mourning fateless. They are the False, and they professed to faith they do not uphold.” Axio crouched again and grabbed Suivi’s shoulders. The spy stared up at him in the first moment of horror he had felt in his life. “When the souls walk, they are tempted. Bateezu and other devils, they whisper to the dead, and say ‘come along, it will hurt less.’ They tempt men like you, evil men, who know that only suffering awaits them. And if you ignore the devils, who promise only the second worst of punishments, then you reach Kelemvor, and he calls out to the gods and other Powers. They come for their faithful, and they take their souls away to face eternity.” Axio’s gloves tightened on Suivi’s collar until the fabric frayed. “And when none come, Kelemvor takes men like you,” he said darkly, his gemstone eyes brimming with hate, “and he drives them headlong into the Wall of the Faithless, where they rot and twist and weep for all of TIME!”
He bellowed the last word and rose to his feet. His cloak kicked up the dust of the dead children, and Suivi realized both men’s hands were shaking. “And so now you know, Suivi Embersson,” Axio ground out. “And so now I ask once more and for the last time. What will happen to you when you die?”
Suivi’s head was spinning. He had known most of that already, he was no fool. He had convinced himself over the years that no such fate awaited him. He had told himself that there was no place in the Wall of the Faithless for Suivi Embersson.
“What d-do you want from me?” Embersson managed. He rammed his hands into his eyes, trying to work the dust out. “I don’t know what you want!”
Axio’s lip twisted. “I want you to confess. Come with me to the Temple once more, and confess. When you do, and not one second before, will I accept your offer, and allow you to work with the Watch to find the other portal sites.”
Suivi swallowed and choked on the dust of the dead. He coughed it up and drew a shaky breath. “F-fine. Fine. I’ll do that.”
Axio grabbed his abused collar and dragged him up. “I didn’t even show you the evisceration room, where the Golem fed on the ligaments and souls of the children,” Axio said bitterly. “Don’t disappoint me, or we finish this tour.”
|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