Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 27
Chapter Twenty Seven:
Luanea, priestess of Eilistraee, was kneeling in her unfinished temple, inside the curtained room. She had clasped her hands in prayer. The torchlight glinted off the simple metal circlet she had around her waist, and threw dancing yellow light on her bare skin.
Eilistraee was delighted with her, she could tell. She could practically hear the Dark Dancer’s songs in her mind. She had risked her life in the Night Below and emerged victorious. She had saved the lives of hundreds of children, she had renewed her bonds of trust with the Church of Ryaire (despite their concealing of a devil), and the money she had brought back had shaved two tendays off the construction time of the temple.
She beamed as she felt the very faintest sense of a pair of warm hands caressing her cheeks and a kiss on her forehead. “Thank you, my holy Lady,” she whispered.
Luanea let the moment drag on before rising and slowly putting her clothing back on. Almost the moment she was done, the flap budged. “Sister? Are you in there?” a very young voice asked.
“Yes, brother, do come in,” she said.
A drow boy, barely entering manhood, sidled in and bowed at once. “Sister, there are two people here to see you,” he said. “One is your friend Axio, the other is a strange man in dusty clothes.”
The priestess frowned. “I shall see them outside.”
Luanea sat in the shade of a great stone pillar on the site of their temple’s construction and listened. She sipped a cup of water and looked at the disheveled human as he sat in shamed silence. The two had explained the events of the past day, leaving out nothing save the details of Embersson’s confession.
Axio handed her a sizeable bag of treasure. “This is for you, my dear friend,” he said solemnly. “The money is to be split four ways, between yourself and Doshellas, myself, and Cavria.”
Luanea took the bag and hefted it. This was… a lot of treasure. “I am humbled,” she said. “Thank you, Axio, for your generosity.” She peered at the spy, Embersson. “And you, sir. What has happened, I ask, in your own journey?”
Axio raised a finger. “That is between him and Ryaire,” Axio said quickly. “Please do not ask.”
Luanea looked the spy over. He was sitting as if he had a raging stomachache. Guilt? Fear? “Very well, Axio, I shall trust you,” she said. “How is Cavria?”
Axio’s sapphire eyes narrowed. Had that been a subtle rebuke, aimed at him, stemming from the last time she had trusted him and been misled? Was she not over having been uninformed of Cavria’s true nature?
No, he decided, she was just being polite. “The loss of her power sits heavily on her,” he said. “But she is recovering with admirable speed.”
Luanea shook her silver-maned head sadly. “I see,” she said. “So she did go through with it.”
“Do you blame her?”
Axio rose and straightened his tabard. “Will you be staying here long, Luanea? I would be eternally grateful if you come with us when we attack this Temple of Bane.”
Luanea nodded. “I shall ready myself. When?”
Axio glanced down at Suivi. Suivi started when he realized she had been referring to his own aid. “Oh! Uh, perhaps a week of work,” Suivi said. “Less, if you can convince the Watch to lend me a Blackstaff or something.”
“You overestimate my ability to command the Blackstaffs of Waterdeep,” Axio said drily, “but I will see what I can do.” He turned back to his priestess ally. “Is Doshellas well?”
“As good as new. Is this his share of the treasure too?” Luanea asked.
Axio held out another bag. “No, this is his share.”
Luanea gasped. “Axio! Such wealth… this is so generous!”
“And he more than earned it. Tell him to get himself proper armor this time,” Axio said with a chuckle. “Cavria sure will. I’m getting quite a few upgrades to my own equipment.”
“You want him to help again?” Luanea asked.
“If he is willing,” Axio replied. “He saved our lives down there when we were fighting the illusion.”
“I shall do my best to persuade him,” Luanea promised. “Though this money will certainly do as much.”
“Good. I will return.” Axio leaned in for a quick kiss. “Farewell, dear Luanea.”
I sat on my chair and reclined into the cushions. I winced as pain set in and then faded. “Agh… still stings like mad,” I grumbled.
Axio sat on the chair beside me and laced his fingers with mine. “You’ll be alright, Cavria. I promise.” He whispered the words of a spell, and I felt a wave of soothing power wash through me, reducing the swelling and pain a little more.
“Ahhh… thank you, Axio,” I purred. “Much better.”
Solen sat down across from us, examining the large bags of treasure on the table between the two of us and him. “And the Watch did not claim this?” he asked.
“No. I think they know we can only really spend it here,” Axio said. “With this much money, though, we can afford to improve our equipment substantially.”
“So you can. Did Luanea promise her aid?”
Axio smiled. “Bless her heart, she did.”
“Good. Where is Embersson?”
“We let him go back to his apartment. The Watch is keeping an eye on the place,” Axio said.
Solen sighed. “Do you think he could not evade them if he wanted?”
“Of course he could, but I think he knows better,” Axio said. He shifted as he remembered the details of the spy’s confession to him in the chapel after returning from the bookstore’s portal. “I think he won’t run.”
His grandfather peered at him. “So was my suspicion correct?”
Axio nodded solemnly. “So be it then,” Solen said. “Moving on to other things, Cavria, how is your back? Will you be able to fight in a few days?”
“I believe I will,” I said. “I’m healing as fast as I could expect.”
“Grandfather, should we wait for Embersson, do you think?” Axio asked. “The ritual may be ongoing, even now.”
“I know,” Solen said sadly. The old cleric rubbed his weary eyes. “But there’s nothing we can do, save pray to Ryaire and wait. Even if we were prepared at this very moment, where would we go?”
“Wait. We go?” Axio asked. “Are you going to accompany us?”
My eyes widened at the thought of the mighty old cleric joining us in person, but he shook his head. “No, my days of field battles are long over,” he admitted. “I will stay here and protect the place as best I can.”
Axio nodded and rose, sensing the dismissal. “Time to go, then. I need to have new armor commissioned.”
“Me too. Help me up,” I said, raising my arms. He effortlessly lifted me to my feet, and we walked out together.
I stretched awkwardly when we reached the hallway. “Okay… armor for me, and you,” I said with a yawn.
He noticed. “Not sleeping well, still?” Axio asked sympathetically.
“Very well, actually. I cast the spell properly this time. I slept like a baby,” I said. “Yourself?”
Axio grimaced. “I’ve begun dreaming of disasters.”
“I keep seeing us fail, in my mind,” he admitted heavily. “Over and over, and in different ways. The details are always different, and they always flee with the sunrise, but it’s still happening.”
“Maybe Ryaire can help,” I suggested. “Ask her, when you lie down.”
He looked vulnerable for a moment as his weariness peeked through his normally cheerful demeanor. “I should,” he said quietly.
I hesitated as Solen closed the door to his private study. We were alone. “Axio…” I asked, “when we were in the temple…”
“Why did you kiss me?”
He stared. That had not been the question he had been expecting. “Er… I felt like I should,” he said. He blushed as the memory returned. “The children were scared of you, so I thought… that was how I should show you were a friend… I didn’t make you uncomfortable, did I?”
“Well, no, I was just so stunned, I wasn’t ready,” I admitted. “I didn’t mind at all.”
“Okay. I’m sorry if I surprised you,” he said sheepishly. Seeing the armored, angelic killing machine fumble around girls and kissing was oddly endearing, and I had to hide a smile at his clumsiness. “Uh, anything else you wanted to discuss?”
“Nope, stallion, I’m fine,” I giggled.
To my surprise, he frowned and looked away. “Good.”
“I’m not good with women, all right?” he said grumpily. “I know it. You don’t need to laugh.”
“Axio, I wasn’t-”
He whipped his head back to glare at me. I stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry.”
He harrumphed. “My parents forced me into military clergy training at the twelve. I’d not even held a woman’s hand until two years ago. I’ve barely had even the most basic physical interactions with women. If what I did in the temple surprised you, I’m sorry, but-”
I put my hands up. “Axio! Slow down! I said I was sorry! I didn’t know it was a sore point.”
He flushed again, this time in embarrassment. “Right. Right. Sorry. I just get… pissed off about this stuff. You know, I’ve had male visitors at the Temple in peacetime say things like ‘man, a guy like you must be swimming in pussy,’” he said, making air quotes with his fingers, “and all I could do was shake my head. How much of a presumptuous asshole…” he trailed off as he reined in his temper. “Anyway. I’ll see you later. Come find me if you need more help with your back.” He barely acknowledged my nod as he walked off in a huff.
“Well, that wasn’t my intention,” I muttered under my breath. In the back of my mind, I wondered if perhaps he was more aware of Luanea’s affection for him than I had thought.
Axio lay back on his bed that night, holy badge clasped in his hands. He closed his eyes and extended his thoughts to his sacred patroness, calming his mind and body.
‘Lady Ryaire, I ask now for your advice,’ he thought to her. ‘Since returning from the Undermountain excursion, I find myself plagued with nightmares of failure. Each night, I lie down and dream of horrid death, of vast rooms filled with the bodies of children, and worse. I ask for your aid. Nightmares are not the stuff of my dreams, my Lady, nor does the fact that the details differ so much bode well. Please, aid me with your insight. Amen.’
He set his badge aside and pulled up the covers. If his previous attempts bore a pattern, there would be a dream again tonight, and hopefully one of his patroness, not a vision of disaster.
Sure enough, he felt himself awake in seconds. He was kneeling on the soft grass and patchwork moss of the edge of the pit in the Arbor. He instantly felt better as he watched the dim structure below swarm with petitioners.
“I thought you may have wanted to see the good you’ve done,” Ryaire’s divine voice said from behind him. Axio bowed his head without turning.
“Yes, your Ladyship, it does,” he said. “Thank you for showing me.”
Ryaire sat beside him, a surprisingly humble gesture from the demigoddess. “Your nightmares interest me, Axio,” she said directly. “Please describe them, if you can.”
Axio unhooked his knees and sat, feet dangling over the edge of the mossy pit walls. “Well, the first one was the worst,” he said heavily. “I dreamed of a huge church of some sort I had never seen before exploding, collapsing and killing hundreds. That was the night I came back from Undermountain. The next night, I saw our party of adventurers being killed by a great monster of some sort, I couldn’t tell what. The night after that, it was Cavria and myself kicking down a door and charging into battle… surrounded by thousands of infant corpses,” he said. He teared up. “Disasters, over and over.”
Ryaire rested a hand on his back, and he felt her endless wellspring of power open to him. His pain and sorrow washed away in a heartbeat. “There, there, my dear Chosen,” Ryaire said softly. “I’m sorry if it hurts, but I must know. Has this ever happened before?”
“No,” Axio told her. “I’ve never had dreams this lurid and horrifying.”
His ancestor nodded. “I see. And your eyes, this is recent as well?”
He put a hand to his face. “Yes. Grandfather Solen says it was the result of me becoming more like the angels who serve you.”
“True and irrelevant,” Ryaire said, surprising him. “My son is mistaken. You are starting to look like an angel, but not because I have angels in my service. You are starting to look more like an angel because you are fated to become an exarch in death, like some Chosen do. Your appearance is coming to reflect your inner alignment with the planes as your soul attunes to them.” She smiled at the started Aasimar. “You will become an exarch of mine in death, and your future power is bleeding into you now. It is not unprecedented. Certain Chosen of Tymora and Eilistraee, Lolth and Gond, and even some Sigil residents who spend too much time wandering the plane to which they will go in death before they actually die, have had the same thing happen. I am sorry it is causing you distress. I wish I could say I wanted to stop it, but I don’t.”
“You don’t?” Axio asked, hurt.
“No, Axiopistos, I do not. Do you guess why? It is making you a stronger instrument of my will, and a greater force for good in the world,” she said, cutting through the Gordian knot of politeness as she sometimes chose to do. “Besides, Axio, this nightmare prophecy will eventually resolve into a tool you can exploit. It’s random now, showing only possible failures, but eventually it will crystalize in your mind and become the most likely failure. How many folk in the worlds can avert their own fates?”
“And now you will become one of them.” She removed her hand from his back and stood. He quickly did the same. He towered over her, and she dwarfed him. “This is only the beginning. Eyes that never suffer from light or darkness, dreams that see the future, blood that boils… more is coming.”
“My blood boils now?” Axio asked helplessly.
“It will soon. You could even weaponize it, if you’re crafty.” She wasn’t making fun of him. He just stared, inexpressibly distressed.
She could sense his discomfort, of course. The demigoddess took his hands and clasped them between her own. “Axio, I know you do not like that you are destined for so much,” she said gently. “I know what the cleric of Ilmater told you. A death, brought by the blades held in many hands.”
“How could I like knowing that?” Axio asked miserably. “I’m not the master of my fate, but you say I can avoid it. What am I to do?”
Ryaire held his clasped hands to her cheek. “Know that I love you very much, and that though your star shall not burn forever, my dear Axio, the light you cast shall draw many souls from the dark,” she said, and her voice rippled with power. “Nor shall these prophecies all come to pass. As I say, you have the means to foresee the worst possible outcome of your decisions. Who is to say that Ilmater’s man saw the same flow and shift of prophecy you have? I do not know your death. Ao, Mystra, Chauntea perhaps, they are the only ones among us who can see the future to perfect precision.”
“But… now I will be second-guessing myself forever,” Axio said. “I can see the worst ending, but not see how I got there.”
“True, but you will learn to interpret them,” Ryaire countered.
Axio looked down. “Am I selfish to want to avoid such a burden?” he asked. “Surely avoiding nightmares is not a sin.”
Ryaire smiled. So honest. “No, my son, but I am not giving you a choice. Your hard work will not be unrewarded.”
Axio frowned, but said nothing. The silence dragged on for a moment before she released his hands. “Now, my Chosen one, I know you have other questions,” she said.
Suddenly, he didn’t feel like sharing his self-conscious reaction to Cavria’s taunting. “This spy of the Baneites, Suivi Embersson,” he said instead. “He gave me his confession.”
“I was listening,” Ryaire said. “I suppose I should grant him forgiveness if he works to earn it, though it’s not my approval he seeks.”
“If he dies in this state, it’s off to the Wall with him,” she said flatly. “Let him serve you, maybe he’ll earn something better. He’s got a hell of a lot of work to do before he earns a place in the Arbor, though, I will say that much.”
“Right. And how, if I may ask, are things with Eilistraee?” Axio asked carefully. “We did rather waylay two of her servants.”
“Well, one servant and an admirer,” Ryaire said drily. “And things are fine. She can hardly disapprove of our work to stymie Bane.”
“Very well.” Axio bowed. “I think I’m done here, your Ladyship. Thanks for taking the time to speak to me.”
Ryaire held up a finger. “No, there is one last thing to discuss,” she said. “The souls of the children taken by the cult. I am afraid your words in Undermountain were quite correct; many are lost to me forever, though not as many as you think.” The quiet grief in her voice made Axio shudder. She probably knew better than he did what the daemons were doing to those innocent children. “Only a few of each sacrificial batch are actually consumed in the process of the ritual. The rest are arriving with me piecemeal. I am entering them into the process of healing. However, one or two have given me some knowledge I may use to assist you.”
Axio inclined his head. “Thank you.”
“The leader of the cult is a man the other cultists fear greatly, though why, the children did not know. His name is Darius Vorthane, and he is a deadly cleric of Hate.” Ryaire conjured an image in the air of man in black robes with a friendly smile and little glasses. “He does not appear to be so openly and unapologetically evil as his counterparts in the service of Orcus, but perhaps that is why he is so dangerous. He inspires absolute terror in the minds of the beasts his cult has enthralled, including the undead.”
Axio stared at the picture. “Why would that be? The only thing the undead fear is death. Does he have some necromantic powers?”
“He does, though it seems that fear stems from some other cause, as well,” Ryaire told him. “Regardless, he never sets foot outdoors any longer, but he does have some hidden means of escape. So the children heard in whispers amongst his cultists. The cult itself is mostly humans and half-elves, with a few halflings and a dwarf or two. The second-in-command is a female half-elf named Drentil, whom no child who has passed into my care has seen.”
Axio rubbed his forehead. “And the location of the temple?”
“Somewhere deep underground and very hot,” Ryaire informed him. The light threw a dazzling gleam of rainbow color off her earrings as she turned. Given her diminutive stature, it would have been able to forget she was a goddess, had she not been radiantly gleaming with her own internal power. Her words shook the air, even in a quiet conversation like this one. “The ritual seems to be undertaken in pieces. Children are being shipped in by gate spells from some great cult-hold in the south or from Waterdeep, and then sacrificed in lots of one hundred, but the intervals between lots seem random to the children.” She turned to see a group of kids bounding up the cliff face, bobbing and leaping as they navigated the gravity shifts. “Speaking of.”
A pack of eight or nine children sprang past the edge of the pit. One half-eladrin landed first and pumped her fists in the air. “Woo hoo!” she cried out, as the others fell about laughing. “I told you I’d get here first!”
She spotted Ryaire and bowed. “Hello, mistress,” she said, still panting. The other scrambled up and bowed as well.
Ryaire smiled. “Hello, Lyafe.” Axio had to turn away as his heart shattered.
The children sprang back into the pit and fell slowly. The entire pit was charmed with feather fall, so that no kid would hurt themselves while moving around the great three-dimensional playground.
Ryaire turned back to see Axio holding his hands over his eyes. “I didn’t plan that, Axio, I promise you,” she said gently. “I know you encountered her brother.”
Axio heaved a wet sigh and brushed his eyes dry. “Yes.”
An awkward silence filled the clearing near them. All around, petitioners wandered and chatted, played and danced, slept, or cavorted with the nymphs in their pools, but Axio just felt the awkwardness weigh on them both. “At least she found her way here,” Ryaire finally said.
After a moment more disquiet, Ryaire raised her hand, palm up. Two shining pieces of metal sat there in her palm. “Take these, my son, and you will find them when you awake.”
Axio took them from her hands and looked them over. One was a copy of Cavria’s collar pin badge, increased in scale to match his, and shining with a protection from evil spell. The other was a copy of his Chosen badge of office, and he felt a spell of hybridized bless and aid woven into its metal. “These are to be your new badges of office when you go forth in battle,” Ryaire said. “You will need them soon, my dear Axio.”
Axio felt the remarkable precision of the casting – both of the metal and the magic – and looked up at her. “Did you make these yourself, my Lady?”
“I did. Do you like them?”
Axio smiled. “They’re a lovely gift, my Lady, thank you so much.” He put them in his ethereal pocket and bowed deeply. “I will ensure their use.”
“Good. Now, my son, awaken, and prepare to face the day. It shall be eventful.”
Axio’s sapphire eyes snapped open. He sat up in his bed to see Cavria at the door, just having opened it. “Hey, Axio, sorry to wake you,” she said. “It’s almost breakfast time. You coming?”
Axio looked over at his bedside table and sighted two metal badges he had not left there before. “Yes, Cavria,” he said. “I’m coming.”
|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