Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 15
I sat with my head in my hands in the little garden, describing my experience to Grand Cleric Solen and Axiopistos. “The pain was just getting worse and worse as I sat there,” I said. “It was so bad I nearly screamed!”
“My dear child, I’m afraid I don’t know what that would mean,” Solen said. “If Ryaire had judged you ill, you most certainly would not have left the Arbor alive. You should not have been in pain.”
I squeezed my hands around each other, staring holes in the grass. Axio rested his hand on my shoulder, and I tried to draw strength from that. “The relief I felt…”
“That may have been Ryaire,” Solen said. “Her Ladyship may have sensed what was happening.”
Axio looked around to make sure they were unobserved. “I could ask Ryaire in my prayers tonight,” he said. “As her Chosen, I can extend contact to her in prayer, and she can send me physical signs or even speak to me in my sleep.”
I hesitated. “I wouldn’t ask you to…”
“No, but I’m offering to do it, and I will do so if it makes you feel better. I’m offering, Cavria,” Axio said gently. “This isn’t a headache; this was an interruption of a holy ritual.”
I sighed. “I suppose I do take this seriously. Thanks, Axio.”
“Of course.” Axio stood and looked over at his grandfather. “Sir, if I may, I would like to ask a few unrelated questions of the Elder Brother Forswaithe before he departs.”
“Certainly, Axio,” Solen said. “He should be in the rectory.”
Axio walked off, leaving me with the Grand Cleric. “Thank you, sir,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry to bother you with this.”
“Dear girl, if there is something wrong with you, it’s not a bother,” he assured me, but I wasn’t convinced.
“‘Wrong with me?’” I asked bitterly. “Well, I’m a devil.”
Solen sighed. “Cavria, this self-loathing of yours is interfering with your mind. You took a conscious choice to embrace the light of Lady Ryaire.”
I glared at the green grass. “Yeah. Yeah, I did. That doesn’t mean I don’t have evil still lurking inside me.”
“Who doesn’t?” Solen asked. I looked up in surprise. “I’m being serious. There is evil in all beings, Cavria, whether intrinsic or learned. All, save the smallest of children, which Ryaire knows.” He held out his bare hands. “Do you think I have never raised a hand in anger? Never against my daughter, no, but against those who impugned my church in its infancy. I have slain, girl, when I served alongside the Guard in battle as a War Cleric.” He closed his eyes, and I saw old pain on his wrinkled face. His half-celestial visage seemed all the more poignant with such regret scribed on it. “I slew the non-believers and I found myself enjoying it. I am half-divine, Cavria, do you imagine I did not know shame when I awoke from the haze of battle?”
I sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, sir. I must sound selfish.”
“Yes, you do, Cavria, but not deliberately. You see, your world was pain and bliss,” he said, “in unequal measure.” He sat back in his seat, and the pain was gone from him. “From agony and loss in the Hells, to the cool, non-judgmental peace of Ryaire’s Arbor and the gentle hands of the nymphs, and an entire world alight with the laughter of children. From utter hopelessness to infinite delight. I do not demean you with my pronouncement of selfish-sounding words, Cavria, for you had never known the mortal world… nor will you ever know the mortal mind.” He tapped the side of his head, skewering me with his old blue eyes. “You see, Cavria, though I am longevous in my descent from the demigoddess, I am not eternal, nor does my mind hold eternity within it. You shall. Eternal youth is a great thing, to be sure, and you shall make the most of it in Ryaire’s service, but you are in the first few years of your life.”
I frowned. “So I’m being selfish because I’m so young?”
“No, no, my dear, you are not selfish. You simply would sound that way to others. I know you are afraid. Things are happening in your world for which you were not created, and for which you have no context.” He leaned forward again. “That would lend anybody to self-doubt. Anybody. You focus on your inherent flaws to such an extent that you ignore your own strengths. Think of it, Cavria, how many will ever have your strength and your connection to the divine? Few mortals will ever have the might and knowledge you have acquired in your few, short years. Few mortals will ever walk the planes, or sleep in the shadows of the Arbor.”
I looked away. “Oh. I guess…”
“You needn’t change your worldview today, of course,” he said gently. “But the longer you fixate on a flaw of yours that you can’t fix, the longer it will take for you to gain true mastery of those of your strengths you can improve upon, or fix what weaknesses of yours you can address. You can fixate on the unchanging, or acknowledge it and change what you can.”
I looked over at him. He wasn’t smiling or frowning, he wasn’t even raising his voice. Somehow, though, I felt him extending his patience to me, and I couldn’t help but relax. I felt very tired inside. “Thank you, sir. I need to think on what you’ve told me.”
“Then please, help me to the kitchen,” he said, extending his hand. “Leading the flock in prayer does make me so hungry.”
A disarming moment, to rob his image of himself in my mind of its judgmental quality, and help reassure me that I could come back and talk again without concern. My respect for him grew again.
“Of course, sir. Would you like me to make us something?” I asked, helping him up. “There are some very good cooks in heaven.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” he said, and we walked off together. The burden on my soul was fading. Yes, I reflected, I had indeed fallen in with a good sort.
Axio walked into the rectory and looked around. Finding Forswaithe wasn’t hard. He was holding court in the outer rooms, where the monks worked and scribed, talking to the assembled friars. “Of course, there is always a risk in even the most just and fair campaign,” he admitted to one friar. “But it is also vital to remember that there are causes for which such a risk is worth taking. Mass abductions, whispers of ritual sacrifice, these things must be stopped.”
“Will you be joining the campaign, Elder Brother?” one friar asked.
“Oh, I imagine I will, but not in the first wave,” Forswaithe said. “My fighting years are long, long past.” He turned to Axio and grinned. “Brother Axio, here, is approaching his prime, and could probably have borne half of us on his shoulders, so we’ll make him do all the fighting instead.”
“Oh, hush, Elder Brother,” Axio chided jokingly. “I apologize if I’m interrupting.”
“Not at all, Axio. Can I help you?”
“I wanted to ask you something,” Axio said. The older human nodded. “Can you help us determine where the enemy’s principal lair may be in town? We found little on the man we arrested, and the Watch are inspecting the ruin of their rookery, but we may not have time to wait.”
The Oracular Cleric rubbed his chin. “Perhaps. Ask me again tonight, after evening ceremony, and I may be able to help you.”
“Thank you, Elder Forswaithe,” Axio said gratefully. “I’ll speak to you then.”
As evening drew close, Axio sat in the little private chapel and listened. Forswaithe was a patient man, as he had to be when receiving oracular sight, and it wasn’t Axio’s strength. Forswaithe had a small bowl on the altar, and he was kneeling before it, deep in prayer. Axio may have been impatient, but what he saw still awed him. This was a form of magic that eluded him completely.
A thin circlet of smoke, which rose and fell all around him, leaving no trail, surrounded the Oracular Cleric. The ring never turned darker or more translucent, even as it grew and shrank. It traveled up and down around Forswaithe’s body, never more than an inch or two away from the man’s clothes. Every so often, a bulge would appear in the ring of smoke, pulse slightly, and withdraw, looking disturbingly organic.
Oracular Clergy were vanishingly rare. They did still exist in places, but the traditions to train and upkeep their magic were so dizzyingly complex that few bothered to learn them, and they generally were so all-consuming in their training requirements that only people with an intrinsic bent for focused magic even bothered.
Forswaithe was a master. Even as Axio watched, he moved his hands through the smoke ring, not visibly disturbing it, and inhaled the scent of the incense he was burning on the altar. He reached down and drank a bottle of some potion dry, the set the bottle down at his feet and bowed his head.
Axio watched in silence. The room would have looked ordinary to the normal churchgoers, but his own divine senses let him detect the ring of magic in the room, pulsing behind his mind like an audible buzz. Ilmater was speaking to the old cleric, and despite his urge to fidget, Axio sat as still as stone.
Finally, after nearly an hour, the smoke abruptly vanished. Forswaithe pitched over, heaving for breath. Axio was at his side in an instant. “Elder brother! Are you all right?” Axio demanded.
Forswaithe turned to him, and Axio recoiled. The man’s eyes were black as night, and full of stars. “Listen now, Chosen of Ryaire,” Forswaithe said in a voice as deep as the sea. “Ilmater has spoken for his subordinate, and his words shall carry.”
Axio bowed his head to the floor in an instant. “I hear, sir,” he said, his heart leaping into his throat.
“Know how the leaves shall fall, for the passing of time rings with Fear,” Forswaithe said, putting emphasis on the last word. Axio knew what that meant. Bane was the Fear God. “Know how the stones lie, for the rocks upon which we build are sturdy, but foundations can be raised too high. Know how the new blood stirs, for it runs hot without old veins to carry it.” Forswaithe took a deep breath. “Know how deep the cellars run, and the unseen sights may be perceived, for not all that is familiar is explored. Know your own fate, for He is God of Martyrs, and many hands shall hold the blades.” Axio’s stomach clenched into knots. “Know Ryaire’s labor, for she shields all who die young, but also those who miss them, and even evil may love. Know bonds can run closer than blood, and know peace is treasure in itself.” Forswaithe breathed again, his voice growing raspy. “Know the servants of evil are not of one mind, nor one path. Know that the righteous and the guilty are all as naught in time, and hastening departure is not the same as guaranteeing it. Above all, know that not all who bear the wages of sin may do so in full knowledge, and even shadowed hearts beat.”
Forswaithe let out a rattling cough, and sat back on his heels. His eyes returned to normal. “Well, lad, there you have it,” he croaked. He leaned on the altar for support. “Are you alright?”
Axio slowly rose. “‘Know my fate?’” he asked hollowly. “What in the world does that mean? ‘Many hands shall hold the blades?’ Is somebody going to kill me?”
Forswaithe shook his head. “One moment, Axio, one moment.” He picked up a quill he had set aside before and began writing furiously. He scribbled the words down on paper as quickly as he could, and then set the quill down. “All right, here we are.” He looked over everything he had said again. “Hmm. From what I can interpret, it seems that the Cult of Bane is… somewhat disunited,” he said. “This bit about how even evil may love may mean that a member of the cult is at risk of losing somebody. Maybe a certainty there,” he mused. “Ryaire wouldn’t need to shield them from anything if they didn’t die.”
He sensed Axio’s agitation and raised a finger. “Lord Ilmater was specific when he sent me this vision. I wasn’t speaking in His voice, but these are His words. This bit about the inescapable nature of death, and how haste isn’t a guarantee… I believe that means that He wants us to remember that all mortals should die, and the enemy may be using undead against us, or perhaps that you should be merciful to somebody in exchange for their help.”
He set the paper down. “As for the bit about you, my friend, I suspect he’s saying you should avoid groups of enemies, so you do not become a martyr to the cause.”
“Avoid groups of… brother, we sent most of the Order south!” Axio said angrily. “Cavria and a few temple guards are all we have left! How am I supposed to avoid being outnumbered?”
“I’m not solving your problems, just telling you that you have them,” Forswaithe said lightly.
Axio was immediately contrite. “My apologies, brother,” he said, putting his hands up. “I’m… not used to hearing about my death. I’m twenty-two, it doesn’t come up much.”
“I understand, Axio.” Forswaithe returned to scanning the document. “Hmm. The bit about rocks and foundations is a reference to your family running this church, I suspect,” he said. “Perhaps a warning that they shouldn’t be too involved in your struggle. The only bit that isn’t clear to me is the bit about cellars. Perhaps… hmm. He said that the familiar is not the same as the unexplored.” Forswaithe put the paper down and tapped his chin again. “The familiar is not the same as the explored. If He meant that literally, it may mean that a place you’ve been before holds a clue to the enemy’s intent, but you haven’t seen it, because you’re so used to the place that you’re not looking at it closely. If it’s figurative… something you take for granted may hold a clue towards the enemy’s behavior.”
Axio blew out a breath. “All right. Well. Thank you, brother. May I keep that list?”
“Of course.” Forswaithe passed him the document. “I hope this is of some value to you.”
“Oh, it will be,” Axio promised. “I’ll put it to good use. Now… what do I owe you, brother? Such rituals are neither easy nor cheap.”
Forswaithe rose unsteadily to his feet. Axio helped him up. “The ritual components cost only two hundred gold pieces, brother,” Forswaithe said.
Axio hid a wince. That was actually kind of a lot. A city Watchman made only ten gold per year. Still, he would cover it as best he could. “I don’t have that much on hand, brother, but I can cover part of it. I’m afraid I’ll have to owe you the rest.”
“Mm. Well, alright, my friend, I know you won’t forget about it,” Forswaithe said. “Besides, there may be a bounty on the men you’re pursuing.”
“Also true, that actually hadn’t occurred to me,” Axio admitted. “Is there anything I can do to help you, in return?”
Forswaithe shook his head. “No, my friend, I must prepare to depart. I am already due at the Temple of Martyrs for a meeting in a few hours. Still,” he said, resting a hand on Axio’s shoulder. “As long as we have the place to ourselves, I have to ask. Do you know of Sister Cavria’s true nature?”
Axio blinked. “What?”
Forswaithe held up his hand. He bore a ring of true seeing, a potent tool for piercing illusions. “Your friend is… something not human,” he said. “I showed no sign of my awareness in the ceremony, since Ryaire’s eyes cannot be fooled, and she clearly bestowed her grace on the girl, but...”
“Yes, she’s a devil,” Axio said quietly. “We are aware, and so is she. Please, please do not spread it around; she’s having enough trouble fitting in around here.”
“I understand. Is this an effort of redemption, child?” Forswaithe asked.
Axio hesitated. Once again, he had to remind himself not to say too much… but Forswaithe was a good friend. What was appropriate? “No,” he said truthfully. “She’s already redeemed herself fully, but… its personal, sir,” he said cautiously. “She is not a fallen angel, she is… well, she’s more like a rising devil. It’s complex.”
Forswaithe nodded again. “I understand,” he repeated. “I shall speak no more of it.”
Axio shook his hand. “Thank you, brother.”
|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