Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 5
I emerged in a quiet, misty forest. All around me, I could see vast trees. Pines, birches, oaks, ashes, rowans, huge maples with their proud crowns, crowding firs and fruit-bearing apples and pears. A thin layer of mist hid the ground, but I could feel bare dirt beneath my feet, even under the trees where there should have been leaves. I watched a pair of birds fly by overhead. I heard a deer scamper away. I could have been somewhere else in Arvandor, but I sensed otherwise. The air felt thicker, somehow. I took a few steps forward when I heard the portal close behind me. I didn’t turn around. If whatever being ruled here wanted to speak with me, they’d find me, I could tell.
I walked on, feeling a warm breeze on my face, and was drawn to it. Why, I don’t know, but it felt natural, like I was going to a home I actually liked instead of the one where I was kicked through windows. I must have walked for an hour, not stopping except to listen to the silence and enjoy it. I liked that place, as frightened as I was.
“Frightened?” Axiopistos asked.
“Yes. I was lost on a strange plane, being judged by people I hadn’t met,” I listed, counting on my fingers. “I was not told the criteria, nobody was coming to find me, I was naked and alone, defenseless… yes, I was frightened.”
Axiopistos nodded. “I wasn’t judging. Continue.”
Eventually, I found a pool of water, similar to the one in Arvandor. I gingerly stepped in, and found the water warm to the touch, as warm as bright sunlight. I saw how much deeper it was than the water in the other pool, but I had nothing else to do, so I plunged in. I climbed into the water and held my breath, letting it cover me completely. I closed my eyes and counted to ten before rising to the surface and blowing out a breath.
My hair stuck to my face. I pushed it aside and looked around. To my surprise, I heard what sounded like voices which hadn’t been there before. I wondered if I should hide. Clearly, this place was holy. I could smell it in the air, taste it in the water. I morbidly wondered what would have happened if angels or petitioners found a naked Succubus in the water.
What emerged from the forest, though, wasn’t a petitioner or an angel. It didn’t come out from behind the trees, either. Spectral creatures, looking like nymphs, only both male and female, appeared from the stones, slowly resolving into fey shapes. Tall, well-muscled men, delicate females, and a few of the reverse for both. I looked around and saw that perhaps ten of them surrounded me. Their features seemed to shift and change as I focused on them and their clothing morphed between styles, but never grew wet in the water.
“Er… hello,” I managed. A few nodded in greeting, though the voices were quiet now.
“Is… this your pool?” I asked awkwardly. Most shook their heads. One spoke, very quietly.
“No, miss, we belong to the world.” It sounded very distant.
I looked around. “So… uh… what can I do for you?”
“Rest,” one murmured. “Find peace and comfort. This is a place of pleasure and happiness.”
“Your desire to be alone no longer brought us here,” a female specter whispered. “And we can leave again if you wish.”
I slowly sat down between two of them and sank down to my collarbone. “No… I’m tired of being alone.”
“Very well,” one male said softly, and he sat down beside me. A female sat down on the other side, and the rest vanished.
We sat in silence for a while, as I just enjoyed finally having other people nearby. Eventually, I started asking questions. I learned the place was called the Arbor of Innocence, and it was where the souls of sacrifice victims who were children went when they died. Others could come too, if loved ones or a large group of strangers prayed for them, and petitioners of adult age could join them if their faith was true.
I rose up in the water and rested my head on the shoulder of the male, with my eyes still shut. He explained, in that distant voice, how this was the realm of Ryaire, a servant of Ilmater of the Triad, and that she had taken interest in me.
I sighed. “I don’t even have a name.”
The female stroked the back of my hand and smiled. “You will, child. Don’t be afraid.”
I opened my eyes. The faint, spectral nymph on whose shoulder I was resting wrapped an arm around my middle and snuggled me close. I cooed in the first genuine happiness I had ever felt.
“I’m not afraid now,” I whispered.
Faint footsteps approached us as soon as I said it. I felt a tremor of trepidation in my stomach as I felt something of immense power approach me, but the male nymph leaned over and pressed his lips against the crown of my head. “She likes you already,” he whispered. “Be comforted.”
“Hello,” a voice said. The world rippled with that single word. I felt miniscule again, as if I was standing beneath the Balor and the Planetar, but that was nothing compared to this. “I’m glad you’re well now.”
I tried to speak. I couldn’t. I tried again. I failed. I tried one more time, squeezing the hands of the nymphs for support. “Thank you, Ryaire,” I finally managed, in a mouse-like squeak.
I hadn’t turned to face her yet, and she took no efforts to walk around in front. “You know me?”
“My… my false…” I cleared my throat. “My false memories tell me to hate you,” I confessed. Tears welled up. “I have…”
“Do you hate me?”
“No,” I whimpered.
“Then why do you avert your eyes?”
The tears spilled. “I am… an unclean thing,” I managed. How was she doing this? Her words alone were cutting me deeper than the shards of glass Asmodeus had embedded in my back. The angel had spoken in a celestial tongue that had nearly driven me into the ground with its sheer force. The Noble Eladrin had been a very piece of the world and hadn’t imposed on me like this. How did her words drive me to confession? “I am so dirty…” I cried. The male nymph kissed my hair again, and I managed to calm myself. The angel made me feel clean and good, and now, the goddess' mere words felt like torture.
“You have bathed in the blood of River Styx, true, girl, and the clean waters of Deep Sashelas, and now my own Waters of Comfort,” Ryaire observed. “Are you so unclean?”
“I am a thing of blood and sin,” I wept. “I am cast of the blood of devils and the damned.”
“And your first conscious act was to save a child,” Ryaire said gently. I felt her hand on my back, and I nearly leaped out of my skin. Why was it physical? “Devil-girl, you are born of sin, and absent of it.”
I simply wept. I had never felt so conflicted. Then, I was perhaps seven days old. Ryaire was quiet for a moment, but then her hand withdrew. “What happens next is determined by how well you overcome your irrational fear of me,” she said, her maternal tone shifting.
I swallowed. I forced myself to rise and turn, shrugging off the comfort of the spectral nymphs. I faced down my second god in a week as I did so.
Ryaire was certainly not visually frightening, like Asmodeus. She was a human, by the look of her, or maybe a half-elf. She had a simple white dress on with colored trim, red and yellow and black. She had a yellow and black sash on over it, and white slippers. She smiled at me. “Not such a hard step, was it?” Again, I boggled. How did she have a physical body? Gods aren't supposed to have those!
My teeth were chattering. “Yes, it was, Lady Ryaire.”
She sighed sadly. “I see. Your soul recoils from me.” She produced a scrap of cloth. “Here. Will this make you more comfortable?” The scrap expanded to an entire robe and hood, with shoes in her other hand.
I hesitated. I wasn’t ashamed of my nudity, but perhaps it wasn’t acceptable here. “Uh… no, but I appreciate your gift, Lady Ryaire…”
The goddess stepped back and let me dress. I didn’t feel different after dressing, save the loss of the feeling of the bare ground on my feet. I looked around, feeling rather helpless. “So… the… er, the Noble Eladrin I spoke to, he… well, he said I would face a choice here… what did he mean?”
Ryaire nodded. “First, child, you need a name. A real name. I can’t call you devil-girl forever.”
I hesitated. The only names I knew were Asmodeus’ servants and enemies. “I… what else is there?”
Ryaire pondered that. “Well. I serve Ilmater. One of his oldest saints was Cavria, a preacher-woman of great resolve and nobility. She could turn minds towards things they hated addressing, and do so in a way that didn’t diminish them. It suits you, I think. Do you find that acceptable?”
I swallowed my tongue, but forced out the words. “Cavria? I… I will be Cavria.”
“Then it is.” Ryaire beckoned me to follow, and I did, still afraid, but less so. She clearly wished me no harm, even if merely standing near her was almost painfully intense. The nymphs faded to nothing behind me as we strode through the mists.
The trees parted after a few minutes of walking, and we found ourselves on the edge of a large field. I shielded my eyes against the light and then looked about in confusion. Where was it coming from? There was no sun I could see. The light just came from above, throwing harsh shadows all about.
Ryaire stopped at the edge of the clearing and waited for me. “We shall talk now, you and me, Cavria, and we shall choose your fate. Do not fear it. We will be thorough, but honesty has its own rewards.”
I flinched, but I followed her. When I emerged into the light, I found it almost painfully bright, but the sensation faded to nothing, and I could see clearly. The field was vast, beautiful, with a hill in the middle and thousands of people all around.
I squinted. No, not people. Petitioners. The souls of the dead. Whole clusters of them, shimmering in the sun. They sang in the light, sat on the soft grass, wandered about, ate and drank at great tables, rested with the nymphs in the pools around the edge of the trees, and disappeared into the pit in the middle of the field, from which the hill arose.
Not just petitioners, either. Enormous angels, some merely human in stature but projecting mighty auras, and some others even bigger than the Planetar in the Abyss had been, strode like sentinels through the crowd, exchanging words with some people, but mostly just walking.
“This is the Arbor?” I asked, overwhelmed.
Ryaire smiled. “No, this is the outermost ring of it. The Arbor is below us, in the pit in the middle of the field.” She turned to me. “Your presence is unusual, but it merits discussion, I think. You are a devil, but there is no malice in your heart of your own design.”
I stayed silent. What else could I say?
She waited for me to speak, but continued when I did not. “The process you have undergone to come here is grueling, of course, and none would turn aside a lost soul like yours, but it begs the question. Why, exactly, do you have a soul at all? Are devils not projections of elemental Law, turned to Evil? That, or the tattered remnants of nupperibos and lemures, elevated to manifest form?”
“Generally,” I mumbled.
“Then you are more like a human child, or perhaps an Illithid child,” Ryaire mused. “Given soul, but the body of an adult. You have magical memories, do you not?”
I looked away. “I don’t know. Somebody very old and bitter. I see rivalries, crimes…”
Some flashed before my eyes, there, in Axiopistos’s office. I buried my head in my hands as memories of ugly, savage conduct, seen through the eyes of perpetrators and victims alike, ran before my eyes.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and flinched, but it was just the old friar, trying to comfort me. I took some heart at his gesture. I had fallen in with good people.
“And do you have the means of harm that all of the first clade of Succubae held, Cavria?” Ryaire asked.
I sighed heavily. “Weaponized intimacy, yes. I can kill with a kiss; I can send a soul to Hell through sex… I can summon a Vrock, though why I would ever do that is beyond me.”
“Intriguing,” Ryaire said. “You can summon your own foes? Can you control it?”
“Not that I know of. I…” I paused as a thought occurred. “Could I have been given another’s soul by accident?”
“It would be unprecedented for a Fiend, but not impossible, given Asmodeus’ relative lack of control over his powers,” Ryaire suggested. “A soul he had recently seduced or perhaps one of his mortal Chosen who had passed away.”
“I have memories going back thousands of years, though,” I protested.
“Perhaps an Eladrin or Sarrukh,” Ryaire said. “Regardless, the fact remains: your body is built for evil, but your heart is as pure and innocent as a baby’s. I will not kill you, though I suspect some will demand I should.” She narrowed her eyes at me, and I felt the barest mote of her divine power press against me. It nearly blew my mind to scraps, but I managed to stay on my feet.
“Tell me,” she said, and suddenly her voice was a world and I but a dust speck, “tell me, Cavria of Nessus, what you want.”
I spoke, compelled. “I want to live and be free.”
The pressure remained. “And what do you want to be?” Her voice wasn’t a word of ruinous power like the one the Planetar’s had been, but it was inescapable. It was coming from the ground, from the air, from the light.
My eyes teared up again. “I don’t… know. I don’t know what I can be.” She wasn’t using my Truename, and yet she still managed to force words from me.
The pressure vanished. She smiled, and whatever test had been set to me, I had passed. “Then stay a while, Cavria, and learn from me.”
“Why did she do that?” Dreblin wondered. I had told him the smallest piece of the tale when we had met. This bit was new to him.
“I think she was trying to see how much of Asmodeus’ designs were imprinted on my mind,” I said quietly. I had learned to respect and love Ryaire, but she still scared the shit out of me. “She wanted to see if he was asserting passive control over me.”
“Like a spy,” Axiopistos offered.
“Yes.” I finished my water and set it down. “The rest… you can guess. She took me into the light and taught me. Things Asmodeus had hinted at, as means of disguising myself. Art, history, music, politics, language, conversation theory, alchemy, a bit of divine magic. She sealed me, as well.” I lifted the hem of my shirt and showed the glowing white brand on my stomach. “She bound my flesh with a divine clasp spell. I can’t send somebody to Hell or kill them with a kiss or sex, now, I can’t conceive, and I can’t summon a Vrock without effort, though I can still do that one if I’m feeling desperate.”
Axiopistos nodded and sat back in his chair. He was looking much more relaxed. “I’m amazed we didn’t cross paths while you were there, Cavria. How long were you in the Arbor?”
“Ah… perhaps three years,” I said.
“Oh. Then never mind, I was only there five years ago, for about a week,” Axiopistos said. “I suppose you know what I am, in relation to Ryaire?”
“Yes.” He rose to his feet and cross around the desk to stand beside me. “So… can you fight, too?”
“I can,” I said. I allowed myself to feel pride for a moment before quashing it. “I fight well. I use the Asymmetric Knife style with a glaive, and I can drill a hole in a target with a javelin, too.”
“Good.” Axiopistos looked down at Dreblin. “Brother, what did you mean when you said I would not be joining the campaign against the Baneites?”
Dreblin sighed. “You are bound for another task, according to Cavria. You are to stay in the city for now, and locate a cleric of Bane who has hidden himself in a building here in town, and has begun abducting children here. Just as the other clerics of Bane are doing in the countryside.”
Axiopistos’ fists clenched, and I felt a wave of black, simmering rage in him for a moment. It didn’t suit him at all. It faded at once, however, and the rage slid off his soul like oil off steel. “I see,” he said coldly.
“Find him. Kill him. Then, and only then, will Ryaire consider releasing you to join the campaign,” Dreblin said. He stood and tugged his smock up his neck. “Now… I should leave you to meet each other properly, I think. You shall be working together on this assignment.”
|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