Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 14


Preface: Greetings, all! This is the fourteenth chapter of the tale that began with “Wisdom in Shadow – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 13,”and is the third story is a series that began with “What You Don’t Know,” also located on this site, although it features a mostly-different cast of characters.

As always, my standard disclaimer: The monster girls featured in this tale, and many elements of the setting, are based off of the works of Kenkou Cross, and as such this work is intended to be a tribute to his creativity. The characters, however, are my own. Pray neither sue nor steal; I have very little to take, but I love that which is mine.

Wisdom in Shadow

Chapter 14 – Salvation

     “I’m… I’m sorry…”

     Simon fell against the wall beside him, his vision swimming as he struggled to stay upright.  His lungs burned in his chest as sweat trickled down his brow and back, and it took all his withered willpower to keep himself from collapsing to the floor.  Distantly, he knew he was pushing himself beyond exhaustion.  With all that had happened, it was all but impossible to think that just a day ago, he had been in bed with Gina in Mr. Kramer’s inn.  That day had included his infiltration of the monastery, his discovery of the laboratory and Sarah, his two escape attempts, his confrontation with George, and his passion with Sarah and Gina.  His brief slumber while Sarah had cast her summoning spell was hardly enough for his body to recover from such constant exertion.  

     But he had to keep moving.  He knew that Lector Themras wouldn’t hesitate to condemn Mary and Charles Kramer to the flames for helping him and Gina, and he would not allow that to happen.  After he and the others had left the laboratory, they had passed through the fallen door into the service tunnels that George and the mercenaries had pursued Gina through.  Those sharply-inclined passages wove back and forth through the mountain’s bowels, past storage chambers and natural caverns with walls glimmering with leyfluid.  Simon didn’t know how far they had come, or how far they had left to go, but morning had to be swiftly approaching, and they didn’t have time to wait for him to rest.

     Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself off the wall, but a furred paw against his chest arrested him immediately, and he looked up into Gina’s concerned eyes.  He forced a smile onto his lips despite the flaring agony in his legs, trying to move her arm away even as he leaned into it. “I’m okay now,” he lied, but she stared at him intently, refusing to let him pass.  Nodding to herself, she turned, squatting before him and leaning forward.  Simon looked at her dumbly, not understanding her intention, and she glanced back at him insistently.

     “She’s offering to carry you,” Sarah explained, her usual sarcasm absent from her voice as she stared at him analytically. “You’re exhausted; you should take her up on it.  We might need you in decent shape when we meet your fanatical friend.”

     Simon shook his head, fighting to stay upright. “We might need her, too,” he countered.  Sarah’s eyes narrowed at his stubbornness, and Gina refused to rise from her spot in front of him.

     “We don’t have time for this.” Beside them, the armored figure of John Foster sighed and reached for a pouch at his waist.  He withdrew a thick vial full of a dark fluid, and extended it towards Simon. “Drink this, it will help.”

     Simon took the vial with a grateful nod, yanking free the stopper.  He was too tired to ask about its sharply-pungent contents, too exhausted for curiosity.  Instead he tilted his head back and forced the fluid to drain down his throat, trying not to taste it.  In that, at least, he failed, and he smacked his lips as he squinted his eyes against the cocktail of combating flavors, none of which he especially appreciated.  He held the drained vial, stopper back in place, towards the other man with a wince.

     John laughed at his reaction. “Don’t worry, you’ll be thankful for it soon enough.  It’s a little something I had an alchemist ally of mine brew up for me.  It’ll make you feel like you’ve had a solid night’s sleep, at least for a few hours, but it’ll knock you out afterwards.  Just, ah, don’t ask about the ingredients.”

     Simon’s eyes narrowed at that. “What are the ingredients?” he asked defiantly.  Despite his concern, the other man’s words were true: already, he could feel new vitality flowing into his muscles, and his mind was clearing.  The earthy taste lingered in his mouth, however, filling him with a distracting dread at the thousand possibilities for its origins.

     John only laughed in response. “Let’s go!” he shouted, jogging on down the tunnels.  His teal-haired partner chased after him, leaving Simon and the other two girls alone.  Simon shared a grateful smile with both of them before they set off after the two armored forms descending into the shadows.  This time, Simon did not fall behind, his body finally able to keep up with his racing anxiety. 

     After a while, the tunnels began to expand, and Simon took that as a sign that they were nearing the exit. “So, you said that your old boss has your friends.  How many more soldiers does he have?” John shouted back to Simon.

     “It should be just one Purifier; he’s a friend of mine that…” Stumbling over the complexity of that relationship, Simon sighed. “He’s a good person, just misled.”

     At John’s side, the elegant armored woman glanced over at her partner, who frowned at that news. “We’ll subdue him until we can free your other friends,” she promised, eyeing the dark frown on John’s face. “Don’t worry.”  John said nothing, his eyes narrowed.

      “Sarah said you used to be a warlock.  Do you know a spell that could help us sneak past the Lector, or restrain him until we are away from Videre?” Simon asked as they passed into a larger room.  Now, Simon could feel a chill breeze, and the air tasted fresher.  Soon enough his suspicions were proven correct as they exited out into a natural cavern, passing a disguised door that had been left ajar.  A few steps more saw them under the open sky, and ahead was the familiar dark woods that ringed Videre.  Simon’s heart clenched as he noticed that the heavens above had taken on a brighter hue, violet being chased westward by deep reds.

     “About that,” the man at the head of their party responded regretfully. “I know many spells that could, but… I’m not much use these days in a magical conflict.  It’s complicated, but I can’t use much of my mana without paying a heavy price, and I didn’t have any leycrystals on hand when I was summoned.” The former hero glanced back to Simon with a grimace. “I can hold my own with a sword – I had a good teacher – but if it comes to a duel of spells, we’re going to have to rely on you and Sarah.”

     Simon’s throat tightened painfully at that declaration.  His confidence in their chances plummeted with that admission, and he couldn’t even muster his mind to wonder at how John’s loss of power could have come to pass.  He worried at his chances against Lector Themras, even with his newfound aptitude with arcane magic, and he definitely did not want Sarah to have to face his former master, especially since she probably didn’t have much mana left after summoning John and Ceann.  Still, he forced his mind past such concerns as Videre came into sight.  It would all work out; at this point, it would have to, or they would lose more than he could imagine.

     The shadowed buildings ahead were iced with morning brilliance seeping down their roofs, but the windows remained black, and the heart of the town seemed unnaturally still.  Simon didn’t know how the townspeople would react to the sight of Gina, Sarah, or the newcomers, but he hoped they would stay out of the conflict.  At the least, Themras’s bitter nature had made him no friends during their stay, which was to their advantage.  Still, Simon wasn’t prepared to fight innocents, and he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

     Simon pressed himself to the fore of the group, his legs pumping. “The town square is this way,” he called back, and ran for the nearest row of houses.  Just to the side, he could see the inn that he had called home for the past week, and the stables where he had first met Gina.  Those buildings were cloaked in shadow from the forests, but the sight of them brought Simon a new determination, and he forced himself onward despite the burning in his lungs.  He owed the Kramers a debt, not just for Gina but for how this past week had changed him, and he couldn’t stop until-

     Simon stumbled to a halt as a piercing whistle ended in a sharp thump as an arrow sprouted from the earth just in front of him.  He stared in shock at the quivering fletchings, spreading his arms wide to warn those behind him, who trotted to a stop at his back.  Simon’s eyes searched the shadows for any sign of the archer, remembering suddenly the staff he held at his side.  Before he could visualize the spellsign for his protective magic, however, he watched as a darkened form detached itself from one of the buildings nearby and stepped closer.  He noticed the arrow nocked in the bow that person held before he noticed the golden gleam in his eyes, but it was the latter discovery that made Simon’s heart sink the most, especially as the look on George’s face was revealed as he walked into the morning light.

    “Simon, turn back,” the Purifier commanded. “You don’t want to see what comes next.  Mary wouldn’t want you to be there.”

     “Is that what the Lector ordered you to say?” Simon responded angrily.

     “No, he ordered me to bring you to him.” George scowled at the figures behind Simon, but his arrow didn’t waver from the person at their fore. “Just you.”

     “We’re here to save them, George.  Get out of the way.” Simon could feel his magic surging within him, as if in response to his tumultuous emotions.  He knew, if he let it go, he could force his way past George, and that they didn’t have time for this distraction.  Distantly, however, he still had to hope his friend could be convinced, could see the right way forward.

     “You can’t save anyone, Simon.  Run away, and make it harder for me to hunt you.  Live as long as you can.” George stared relentlessly at his former friend, and the bowstring creaked as he drew it back further, an unspoken threat. “That’s all I can give you.  They chose their fate, and I guess you did the same.”

     “We need to hurry,” John hissed at Simon’s back. “Step out of the way and let me take care of him.”

     Simon didn’t move. “George, this is wrong, and deep down you know it.  I am fighting to save lives, just like the heroes we both look up to.  This isn’t about punishment, this is murder, and you are better than that.” Lowering his staff, he extended his free hand towards his friend. “Come with us, and I’ll show you why I chose this path.  I’ll show you the lies and the truth, all of it.  You don’t want to hurt anyone, and what I’m offering you is a way to avoid that.”

     The arrow dipped earthward, but only slightly. “Simon, I…” George hissed under his breath, looking bitterly to the side, but the arrow straightened. “I can’t.  This is what I was trained for.  You’ve sided with monsters!  What would the Heroes say about that?”

     Simon glanced back towards John, who wore a wry smile.  Before he could speak, however, another voice rang out. “Very well, then.” Simon turned as Ceann strode confidently past him.  The teal-haired woman walked directly towards George, who turned his bow to aim at her. “If you seek to be a hero, then I am your best option.”

     “Stay back, Simon is the one I want.  Don’t come any-”

    Ceann was still a distance from the Purifier, but she was unfazed by the arrow pointing straight towards her heart.  She drew her blade, and it blazed with a violet light as she flourished it dramatically. “If you seek a worthy opponent, then I am the one you want.  I am the daughter of Na’amah, the personal guardian of the Demon Queen herself.  My sire is the greatest swordsman known to both man and monster, and he was my teacher from my youngest days.  I am Ceann Alpestria, the Lady of the Blade, and it would be great honor to fall to my sword!” The tip of her blade pointed directly at George, who stood transfixed by her speech and dramatic gesticulations.

     Simon could hear John hiss behind him. “Damn it, Ceann, last time you nearly-”

    In the brightening light, Simon could see George nervously lick his lips, and a bead of sweat dripped down the monster hunter’s brow as he nodded. “Fine,” he muttered, too low to be clearly heard, “This is fine.  This is…” His widened eyes flicked over to Simon. “Alright.  Watch me, Simon.  See how a true hero fights!” He tossed his bow to the side and pulled his sword from its scabbard, holding it before himself in a ready position.

     Ceann spared a single glance at the others. “Go, now,” she demanded, before turning her attention towards George.  She slipped into a ready stance, waving him forward, and with a resounding yell he accepted her challenge, charging towards her.  They met with a ringing clash, their swords singing as the blades twisted in arcs, back and forth, in and out.  Their feet sent morning dew splashing off the grass as they pirouetted around each other, lost instantly in their battle.

     “We need to go, Simon,” Sarah prompted urgently.  Simon winced at that, but nodded, his eyes still locked on the embattled pair.  He could hardly tell who was faring better; Ceann was definitely more skilled, her blade weaving fluidly like a dancer’s arm, but George’s fervor drove him onward, and he could see the armor-clad woman shudder under the force of some of the Purifier’s strikes.  It took all his willpower to pull himself away from watching the fight, and he didn’t know who he was more worried for as he glanced one final time back at them.

     The remaining four sprinted past, John cursing under his breath as they ran, hesitant to leave his partner behind.  Still, they dashed through the silent town, hastening towards the open area at its heart.  Simon noticed that even the shouting and ringing steel had not stirred any of the townsfolk from their beds, and that fact pricked at his nerves, but he didn’t allow himself a chance to worry about that.  He didn’t have time, because in the eastern skies he could see the faint pinks of dawn about to break over the mountains, and just ahead was the clearing of the town square.

     They arrived to discover the twin pyres.  Just as it had been for Father Wulfe, Mary and Charles Kramer stood tied to poles, kindling heaped below the wooden platforms they stood upon.  Their heads were lowered, and they didn’t even look up as their rescuers-to-be ran into the town square.  Other than them, the plaza was abandoned, and for just a moment Simon dared to hope that they would be able to free them and escape before they were discovered.

     “Ah, how punctual.” Simon’s heart sank as he heard the contented praise, the familiar baritone voice scraping against his nerves like salt on an exposed wound.  Exhaling once to compose himself, Simon turned to face Lector Themras.  The older man stood behind them in the center of the town’s main avenue, his entire body glowing with an inner light that was painful to look at.  Nowhere was that light more intense than the gleam in his eyes, but far worse was the madness that cavorted behind that glow. “It simply would not do for you to be late to your own execution, and so I thank you for your promptness.  Sloth, is, after all, the enemy of good works.”

     “Good works?” Simon faced the priest directly. “Like murder?” He motioned back towards the two figures strapped to poles behind him. “They are innocent, Themras.  I have come to set them free.”

    “With monsters at your side?  You, child, are blinded by your sin.  You have chosen heresy over faith, and you presume to lecture me on innocence?” Despite his words, the smile did not leave Themras’s face, and the man looked like nothing more than a cat crouched over a mouse with a broken spine. “What I give to those blighted souls is a mercy, compared to the torment they have earned.  You may also be so fortunate, if you choose: simply kneel and repent, and help me purge these monsters.  Then we can discuss your own penance.”

     Simon’s laugh was short and bitter. “Yeah, I think I’ll pass.” He glanced back at the trio behind him, indicating with his eyes the pair tied to poles behind them.  They read his meaning well enough, edging away toward the pyres while he turned back towards the mad priest.  He only hoped he could distract the Lector long enough for them to free Mary and Charles so they could all make their escape.  To that end, he stepped towards the older man, his staff tapping against the dawnlit stones as he came.  Lector Themras still stood in the shadows cast by a nearby building, but the harsh brilliance radiating from his skin made him stand out like a lonely candle in a deep cavern.  “No one has to die here today.  Let us go in peace, and you will not ever see any of us again.”

     “You are right about that,” Themras acceded, nodding his head magnanimously. “After today, I will never have to see any of you again.  Today is all that matters, and I – and these people – will all watch you suffer for your hideous crimes.” He spread his arms wide, and from the darkness of Videre the shadows shambled forth.  Simon froze in place as he watched the townsfolk shuffle forward stiffly, their bodies limp accept for their mechanical strides, a dull golden gleam shining in their eyes. “I have called the populace forth to witness this purifying ceremony, and they will all be enlightened by your end.  Take relief in that, Simon; your martyrdom will bring these poor souls back to the proper path, for fear of sharing your torturous end.”             

     Simon’s stomach churned at that piteous sight, but not just out of sympathy for the unfortunate townsfolk, controlled and moved like puppets by the cruel Lector.  He knew how much power it would take to cast a spell like that on one or two people, but dozens of citizens thronged the streets.  And that was the worst of it: as Simon watched, every avenue and path was blocked by the mindslaved populace, leaving no easy route of escape for him and his friends.  This complicated his plans, and Simon forced himself to talk, to buy himself time to think of a way to get past the teeming crowd.

     “Themras, you speak of enlightenment, but what you really preach is lies.  I have seen proof with my own eyes that the Heroes weren’t as you tell us.  How much have you hidden, for your own purposes?  How much history have you and men like you rewritten to blind us from the truth?” Simon scowled at the other man, pouring his own frustrations into his words.

     Lector Themras shook his head with paternal indulgence. “Ah, my boy, you misunderstand.  What you call ‘lies’ are only for your protection; the words of the priesthood are like the warnings that parents give to their children.  What matters is the result, that you are saved from iniquity and corruption, not the veracity of every single word.  We would rather shepherd you to safety, than let be led astray by that truth which you cannot comprehend.”

     “So, you think people are too stupid for the truth, and you rely on that to stay in power.” Simon shook his head in disgust. “This is all for your own benefit, no matter what lies you’ve told yourself.” He glanced back towards his friends, who had managed to reach the two strapped to the poles and were tearing at their bonds. “I promise you, I will make sure people know the truth about the Heroes, about monsters.  About you.”

     “I will give you a chance for that, then,” Lector Themras offered generously, glancing towards the east as dawn broke over the mountains. “You can scream it as you burn.  But, first…” He glanced past Simon towards those atop the pyres. “Let us see how your convictions fare once you see their rewards.” He raised his crozier, inclining it towards the kindling.  Several lights appeared above his head, simmering as they danced, seething with golden flame.  As Simon watched, they lengthened into spears, and the Lector smiled at the oblivious trio working to free Charles and Mary. “This is a whole new day, and it’s the last you will see.”

     The flaming lances, modified Spears of Contempt, flew forward inerrantly, crossing the town square in an instant.  They would have pierced into the stacked wood, setting it ablaze in an instant, flaring to life and devouring those above.  Would have, if not for the shimmering blue barrier that sprang into existence as Simon slammed his staff onto the ground. “I’ll die before I let men like you hurt those I love,” Simon proclaimed, glowering at the mad priest as he held the staff out before him.  His arcane shield gleamed in the morning light, forming a long wall between him and the Lector.

     “At last, we find common ground.” Themras’s smile bared his teeth.  Simon swallowed audibly as a dozen more spheres of light formed over the Lector’s head, followed by a dozen more, ominous constellations being born and aiming directly at the lone man in front of the priest. “You can die knowing you failed them.” 

     Simon opened his mouth to reply, but the Lector unleashed his assault before he could utter a word.  Simon’s heels dug into the ground as he was pushed back, his head aching sharply as he felt instantly weakened by the absolute fusillade of holy magic.  The Lector’s shots rang out in a thundering cacophony as they exploded against Simon’s barrier, which flickered spasmodically as the onslaught continued to pound it without pause.  Simon thrust his staff forward, locking the spellshape in his mind, pouring every bit of his willpower into maintaining the shield.  After a while, he heard the Lector’s laughter as the barrage continued, drowned out a moment later by a defiant screaming.  It took him a while to realize that shout came from his own throat.

     Simon collapsed to a knee as he panted for breath, spots swimming in front of his eyes as his ears rang with the sudden silence.  He could feel the blood coursing through his skull, and it took all he had to cling to his staff, which felt warm in his hand.  He finally managed to turn his eyes upward to look to Themras, who stood unfazed and unfatigued, smiling with cold, angelic grace at his former subordinate. “Impressive,” he cruelly saluted Simon, taking a step forward. “Your depraved devotion is an example to all of your wretched kind, I’m sure.  Maybe they will tell stories about how you stood here… and how you fell.  Well, they would, if any of your friends would survive to flee, but that isn’t going to happen.”

     “Simon!  They’re loose!  We just need…” Sarah’s voice died away as she looked at the Lector, her jaw dropping in despair as she watched dozens more spheres of burning light appear all around the gloating clergyman.  These spread out, forming a line a dozen feet across, spreading out wider than Simon’s shield.  Meanwhile, the captive townsfolk lurched forward, spreading their arms wide, forbidding any attempt at escape.

     “Ah, but please, would you deprive this man of his chance for glory?” Lector Themras extended a hand towards Simon.  In front of him, a larger sphere of energy appeared, a more powerful spell than any he had launched at his opponent thus far. “Would you strip him of his chance for martyrdom?”

     Simon closed his eyes.  He knew what the Lector intended.  If he expanded his barrier enough to protect his friends against all of the lesser spells, then the Bolt of the Wrathful would pierce straight through his barrier, and into him.  He was being forced to choose between his friends, or his own life.  Simon’s hand brushed against the journal in his pocket, and he climbed to his feet with a smile.  That wasn’t a choice at all.  With a wave, his barrier shimmered as it expanded, spreading wide enough that none of the priest’s shots could go around it, and he met Themras’s gaze with a contented smile.  If this was how he was to die, then at least he would die to make a real difference.  Not that he intended to die, of course, but if he had to… he was ready.

     “Farewell, Simon Hopkins.  You’ve earned your place in whatever hell you find yourself in, but don’t worry,” the Lector reassured him. “You’ll soon have your friends for company.”

     The barrage began anew, and dozens of bolts dashed themselves against his shield with suicidal intensity.  Once more, Simon dug his boots into the earth, concentrating against the strain of upholding his protective barrier even as blows came at it from every direction, arcing and snaking in different directions.  The magic flickered like a dying candle, but with a roar that made his throat ache, Simon forced it to stay up through mere willpower.  He couldn’t see clearly as sweat dripped into his eyes, but he believed he could see that the Lector’s floating armaments well all but spent, save for that final shot, which was now bloated to the size of his head – and then it, last of all, speared forward, and shattered Simon’s shield like a stone through glass. 

     Simon’s feet left the earth as he felt the breath rush from him, and he stared up at the heavens above as he came to a rest.  Pain blasted all thoughts from his head, though he could hear, distantly, three female voices screaming his name, and he wished he could tell them not to worry.  He wished he could say anything at all.  He wished he could breathe.

     The ground was cold, and Simon’s lungs burned as the heavens swam around his head.  He fought not to close his eyes, and his rebellious hand strayed with grim curiosity towards the source of radiating pain that made him want to vomit.  He cringed as he felt the singed edges of his tabard, burned away over his ribs.  At least he wouldn’t have to wear that hateful insignia anymore.  Simon coughed, and it wracked him with agony, and his hand fell against his chest where the magic had struck.  Against his bruised, sore, yet whole skin.

     Simon sat up, looking with shock at the place where his chest should have been burnt away.  He knew that the Lector’s magic should have pierced through him with enough power to exit the other side.  However, though he could already see bruises down to the bone and he wondered if his ribs had fractured from the force, the magic had spent itself without leaving his chest a smoking ruin, and he was far too surprised yet for gratitude.  As if not believing his eyes, he touched his own chest once more, and that was when he noticed the sigil glowing incandescently on his left hand: the outline of an owl, the mark of Athena.     

     He was not the only one shocked by his survival. “How far have you fallen, Simon?” Themras bellowed, his previous façade of gentility washed away by his rage, his livid face reddening to the same hue as his beard. “What did you sacrifice for such a vile, tainted blessing that could shield you from my sacred magic?” 

     Simon climbed back to his feet, conscious of the furred paws and pale hands helping him upright but not turning his attention away from the ranting priest ahead of him.  He could feel the presence of his friends at his back, all of them including the Kramers, and that gave him the strength he needed to step forward with grim determination, his eyes challenging Themras without hesitation.  He pointed his staff forward once more, breathing heavily but not wavering, and the glimmer of his magic appeared between them once more.  Simon knew he had almost nothing left, but that didn’t stop him. 

     Simon’s wordless defiance left Lector Themras trembling with rage, and he raised his staff high. “It won’t be enough to save you,” the priest swore, spit flecking his beard. “I won’t stop, until you and all your kind are burned from this world.  I will spend my life committing every monster, every weak-spirited man and woman, to the flame, and there is nothing you can do to stop me!”       

     Simon Hopkins nodded in calm acceptance as he glanced to the deep shadows behind Lector Themras. “There is nothing I can do, yes, not alone,” he admitted, his words almost drowning out the rattle of chains. “She might be a different story.”

     “Who-!” Themras glanced to his side as his crozier shook in his hand.  His eyes narrowed as he glared at the dark chain wrapped around its shaft, but he didn’t have time to give voice to his fury before the staff was ripped from his grasp.  The divine light surrounding him flared as he turned, eyes blazing in outrage, but as he gazed into the shadows his face fell.  He didn’t have time to protect himself as a wave of chains erupted from the darkness, coiling themselves instantly around his limbs and torso, yanking him from the ground and holding him aloft.  His enraged roars said plenty despite their wordlessness, and immediately a handful of brilliant spheres of light appeared above his head.

     This time, however, his assault was countered instantly.  A dozen of the chains formed a tight sphere around him, and the gaps between them were lit with a gleaming intensity, a swirling haze of reds, purples, and oranges that Simon had come to associate with Pandemonium’s fell energies.  As the Lector’s magical lances darted forward, they exploded against that barrier, which did not show any strain from the collision.  Themras did not relent, spending shot after shot, each of which died in spectacular pyrotechnics contained entirely within the field outlined by the chains.  The air vibrated with concussive bursts as the priest switched to Bolts of the Wrathful, but even these heavier explosions did nothing to the constraining globe that had devoured Themras.  The priest refused to surrender, even as the brilliant light around him begin to dim, his skin losing its divine glow as he spent his power in impotent fury.

     While Themras unleashed everything he had into his restraints, Simon stared into the darkness that the chains had emerged from.  He wasn’t surprised to see the shadowed form emerging into the dawn’s light, but he did force himself to conceal his anxiety. “Hello, Sophia.  Thanks for your help.”

     “Anything for you, my darling,” the dark priestess smiled as she stepped into the light.  She looked just as she had the previous night, her illusions foregone in favor of her natural appearance and skimpier attire.  Her smile towards Simon was predatory and hungry, but he stood his ground, his head inclined, and his barrier hung in the air interposed between them. “Forgive me, but I must see to this man first.  Please,” her violet eyes sparked dangerously, “don’t think of going anywhere just yet.”

     “Release me, witch!” commanded the struggling priest, who had fallen to trying to pry the chains from his body with his fingers.  The serpentlike bonds toyed with him, allowing him to grasp their links before yanking him back spread-eagle, defeating his every effort to free himself, physical and magical. “You will burn for this!  I will see you writhe as you collapse into ash, and I won’t even do you the mercy of stepping on your fragile neck!”

     Sophia glanced up at the suspended man with disdain, her face contorted as if she had just smelled fresh sewage. “Such arrogance.  Did you really believe you could provoke a goddess and escape unscathed?  Did you think your stolen divine power was a match for the real thing?  There is nothing you can do to free yourself from Her grasp.  I descended the mountain as much to apprehend you as to retrieve Simon, though that is the only thing in common between you.” Her lips twisted in a bitter smile. “Soon enough, you will be someone else’s problem, and I wish them the patience of stone.”

     Themras’s face purpled in apoplectic outrage. “What do you mean, you defiled harlot?  What could you possibly do to-”

     Sophia’s words were as cold and sharp as broken ice. “You stand bold when you have your armies and your fire at your back, but how firm will your faith be in the face of the truth?  How long can you cling to words even you know are lies, when all hope of retribution is taken from you?  When surrender is sweeter than your obstinance, when will you give in?” She met his eyes and smiled insolently at his helplessness. “When your faith is broken and stripped from you, what will remain of you?” 

     “You really shouldn’t have said that,” came a murmur from across the plaza.  Simon’s face fell as he heard her words, and he held out his arms to keep his friends safely back from what would come next.  He knew the Lector better than she did, and there was only one thing that man would do in the face of inescapable capture, something he would choose before he admitted he was powerless.

     Lector Themras was silent for a long moment, staring at her with chilling intensity, but she did not look away.  Finally, shattering the silence of the square like a snapping bone, Lector Themras began to howl with laughter.  This, at last, discomfited the proud priestess below him, who glanced to Simon for understanding, but the younger man only lowered his head and looked away.  When she turned back to Themras, she jumped in shock at the rekindled light in his eyes and the glow emanating from his skin.  He leaned towards her, leering, as he laughed his defiance, even when the golden flames emerged from his skin.  Too late, Sophia realized that she had trapped his power within the field, but that didn’t diminish it, and now he unleashed it upon the only target he had.  Before she could think of anything to do, the flames burst forth, racing across his holy vestments, licking up his beard and hair, burning his eyes from the inside out.  The fire consumed Themras like dry grass, filling the town square with the unsettling fragrance of seared meat and an unnatural heat, as the selfmade martyr howled with laughter that rang out long past when it should have been possible, past the point when Lector Themras ceased to be a man.  Its taunting echoes hung in the air even as the ashen remains crumpled and fell to the bottom of the containment field.  Sophia stared at them for a moment before recalling her chains, looking away in disgust as the wind captured the ashes and scattered them, the mad priest’s final insane victory dance swirling across the plaza until he dissipated into disquieted memory.

     As one, all around the courtyard, the inhabitants of Videre that Themras had controlled collapsed to the stones at their feet.  They lay as though sleeping, as unconscious as Mary and Charles Kramer had been when Simon and his friends had entered the town square.  Now, however, those two stood behind Simon, eyeing the dark priestess warily, while Sarah and Gina stepped forward, placing themselves between the young man and the woman now watching him with hungry eyes.  Beside Simon, John stood with his sword in hand, a frown creasing his brow as he shared a look with the man holding his old staff.  None of them rested despite Themras’s demise; if anything, they all knew that this development only heralded the second phase of their battle.

     Sophia frowned as she noticed the ragged hole in Simon’s shirt, and the darkened skin underneath.  Her head shook as she shot a hateful glance towards the ashen stain where Themras had fallen before looking back empathetically to Simon. “I’ll heal you when we arrive in Pandemonium,” she promised him with a faint smile. “You will never feel an ache from what he did to you.”

     “Thanks,” Simon acknowledged with a bowed head, “but I’m not going to Pandemonium.”

     He tensed as he heard the rattle of chains, and Sophia smiled indulgently at him. “Oh, yes, you are.  Mother is waiting for you, and She will not accept ‘no’ for an answer.”  Sophia spread her arms wide, stepping even closer to Simon, her eyes locked upon his relentlessly. “You shall take your place with me at Her side, and together we shall make Her dreams of paradise a reality.  You will be as a saint to our followers, and together we shall discover new wisdoms, new joys – a perfect existence for you and me.” Her eyes narrowed slightly as they flicked between the two girls interposing themselves between her and the object of her desire, before her head turned towards the person walking into the open plaza. “I will even see your friends to safety, somewhere far away from harm.”

     Simon followed her gaze to discover Ceann limping towards him, the bulky form of George slung over one of her pauldrons.  George was still, but blood tickled in a line from the raised knot on his skull.  The victor of their fight looked a little better, but a gash along one of her greaves showed that the Purifier had put up a strong resistance.  Seeing his friend alive brought a relieved sigh to Simon’s lips, but he tensed as he turned back towards Sophia, who now extended a hand out towards him with a gentle smile.

     “Come to me, my love.  I shall show you happiness, and I will promise that all of your friends will be safe far from here before any of these villagers even stir from their slumber.  Surely,” she paused, biting her lip with a faint tremble, “a blissful eternity with me is a small price to pay for their freedom?”

     Simon swallowed through a tight throat.  Sophia wasn’t directly threatening his friends, but she was offering him a chance to do what he had already been doing: an opportunity to sacrifice himself for those he loved.  He couldn’t support the future that Sophia and her goddess believed in, but he knew he had nearly lost Mary, Sarah, and Gina this day, not to mention his own life.  If he accepted, if he just nodded, then they would all be safe…

    “Sorry, miss,” interrupted another voice.  Everyone turned to look at John, who was spreading his hands in a helpless shrug. “I know the rules you monsters follow.  I’m afraid those two have beaten you to the punch, as it were.” He nodded towards Sarah and Gina. “Maybe you can find another man to martyr himself to your loins.”

     “I have a prior claim,” Sophia responded, her lips twisting as she looked away from the fading sigil on Simon’s hand to the armored man. “But, now that you call my attention, I recognize you.  John Foster, the Twice-cursed ‘Hero.’” Her eyes glanced downwards, past his waist. “Or should I say ‘Thrice-cursed?’” Her smile was sharply cruel as she looked on his face again. “I know you, and all your failures, and that is a spectacularly long list.”

     “I did help kill a god.  Did your goddess tell you about that one?” Sophia all but snarled at his rebuttal. “Anyways, if you know my history, you should understand that I’m tired of watching friends sacrifice themselves for the greater good, so I really don’t intend to let you make off with him.”

     Simon smiled at that. “Did I just get compared to the Priest and the Holy Martyr?” he asked Sarah in a giddy offhanded whisper.

     The lich looked at him with rolling eyes. “Let’s save that talk for later, alright?” She huffed as she turned her attention back to the conflict. “We really don’t have time for me to explain that one.”

    “So, why don’t you just hop a portal back to your little sex dimension, and-”

     “Enough.” Sophia’s hands balled into fists, and her chains slithered out of the shadows, edging closer to the faint sheen of Simon’s weakened barrier. “He is coming with me.  He is mine, and there is nothing you can do to stop us from leaving together.”

     John glanced over to the others, and the regret in his eyes was an instant concern for those watching the verbal bout. “I really hope this works, but just… be ready,” he warned in a tense whisper. “Fine, then,” he began, stepping closer, his voice raising to take on the tones of a formal command. “By the blood we shed together, by the pain we endured together…” He stared defiantly at the dark priestess, his body tensed, “I invoke the name of Paul Bernard, her chosen champion!  He once called me friend, and on that bond I claim this right!  Bring your goddess forth, and let me plead my case to her.”

     All sound died in the air surrounding Videre as every eye stared at John.  The color fled from Sophia’s face as she gaped at him, eyes wide, lips open, head shaking just slightly.  She said nothing for a long minute, but the others could feel the pressure building in the air, the eerie feeling of weight pressing against them.  No animal dared cry, no bird was brave enough to sing, as Sophia tilted her head quizzically, looking at John Foster with naked wonder. “You truly have a talent for making things worse, don’t you?” she asked.  He didn’t have a chance to respond as everyone watched her eyes roll back into her head as her body began to shake.  Immediately, a vicious wind whipped through Videre, shutters slamming as the clothing of the fallen townspeople whipped, the small party standing before the pyres clutching to each other to keep from being ripped from their feet.

    “John!” screamed Ceann, fighting to be heard over the roaring wind. “When this is over, we really need to have a talk about your decisions!”

    Simon’s breath caught in his throat as he looked back to Sophia to find she had lifted above the ground, floating a foot above the stones without signs of effort.  Her chains were gone, but escape was a ludicrous consideration as this impossible tornado fought to pluck them from the earth.  He could see the power limning Sophia’s form, the mixed hues he knew came from the power of Pandemonium and the Fallen God.  When her eyes shot open, the wind stilling instantly, they were filled with the same energy, which shot forth like light beaming from a mirrored lantern.

     “Kneel.”

      None of the watching figures had the chance to think.  Their bodies listened to those words before transmitting them to their brains, dropping to their knees without an instant of hesitation.  Simon saw all of his friends fighting to stand again, even as he noticed the unconscious forms of all the villagers rising to their knees as well, their heads bowed as if in prayer.  Simon felt that power pressing into his back, but he shifted on the stones, moving his leg away from a sharp rock stabbing uncomfortably into his shin.

     “You invoked the name of my champion, my beloved Priest?” Sophia’s body frowned down at John, and his head bent lower towards the ground despite his efforts to rise. “You absolute fool.” John’s body lifted into the air, limbs extending out in each direction, his head flopping back as he gasped for breath. “I should pop your wretched head free of your neck for even sullying his name with your hateful tongue.  If not for your failures, he would have lived!” Simon could hear John gasping for breath, and a glance heavenward showed that the man’s neck was denting inward, as if giant fingers pressed on either side. “Don’t speak, I see your insipid thoughts.  You think yourself safe from death, because I am a monster?” The laughter from Sophia’s mouth was dark and bitter. “I am a god.  Such rules mean very little to one who can shape reality, like erasing you from it.”

    “Please… please spare-” Ceann’s voice died immediately, and her mouth opened and closed fruitlessly as she wordlessly pleaded for her partner.

    “You think to convince me to let this man, my daughter’s betrothed, go?  What a messenger you chose!” John’s body floated parallel to the ground now, his arms and legs straight in different directions as if being tugged away from his torso.  The muffled groans of agony coming from his mouth suggested that was exactly what was happening. “You were there!  You could have done something to stop Paul from sacrificing himself!  You could have found another way!”  John’s body trembled like her voice, and the metal of his armor began to squeal as if it was compressed as if being squeezed by a titanic fist. “YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED INSTEAD!

     “Stop.”

     The goddess’s chosen avatar turned her head slowly, incredulous, to watch the man climbing to his feet.  He dusted his knees off, bending to pluck his staff from the stones, before stepping closer towards the girl with the wrathful face.  Simon met her gaze with a placid smile, shrugging his shoulders calmly. “Stop, Athena.  You’re better than this.” He stared at her with sad eyes, his hands spread in a gesture of peace.

     “Paul…?” The goddess’s voice was quiet, and a drop of moisture formed at the corner of one of her blazing eyes.

    “Paul is dead.  He died because he chose to, out of love.  Love for his friends,” Simon motioned back towards John, “love for this world… love for you, and all you embody.  He understood your pain, and the gifts you bring, and thus he gave himself to save us all from pain.” His smile was fragile and sympathetic. “I’m not Paul, and I could never be his replacement.  I’m just… Simon.  But I understand what he wanted.  He wanted to make this world better, and he made his own choice.”

     The goddess didn’t reply, watching him come closer. “I know what you want from me, but you can’t have it this way.  No, for the same reason I can stand, while they can’t: you want me to choose to kneel to you, of my own free will, the way he chose his own fate.  You want my devotion, and you can’t force that.  Not whole-heartedly, because I have my own convictions, my own beliefs.  You can’t force my choice, just like you couldn’t force Paul’s.” Simon stood before the goddess, and gazing upwards with hope in his eyes. “And I choose to believe this world can be saved.”

     The floating figure lowered enough for one hand to reach towards his cheek.  The fingers reached for him tentatively, as if afraid he would flinch away, but he didn’t move, nodding slightly.  She stroked his cheek with maternal gentleness, meeting his gaze with wide eyes. “You’re wrong, my child.  You don’t see what is happening, what they are doing.  They will burn… everything.

    “Not if I can stop them.” Simon’s eyes hardened as he nodded resolutely. “Give me a chance.  Let me do what I can to save… whoever, whatever I can.  Allow me one opportunity to show you this world can be redeemed.” He lowered himself to one knee, his head bowing. “If I can’t, then I will admit you are right.  I will come to you, of my own accord, and submit to your will.  I…” He glanced back to his friends, and Gina and Sarah nodded in agreement. “…We will find Pandemonium, and no voices will sing your glories louder.”  He didn’t voice his last plea, except in his heart, and he wondered if she heard: ‘Give me a chance to save you.’

     Silence reigned over Videre for minutes stretched more arduously than the man hovering in the air.  With a clatter, he plummeted to the earth like a meteor, no care shown in his graceless landing. “Three years,” the goddess proclaimed, glancing at him. “Wasn’t that how long your journey lasted?

     “…yes,” groaned the agonized, crumpled form of John Foster.

    “Three years, and then…” The goddess spread wide her hands, but her eyes never left the man kneeling at her feet. “You will come to me, with your eyes open and your wisdom matured, and you shall reign at my side.  You shall be my daughter’s other half, and together you will complete the great ritual that will turn Pandemonium into an eternal paradise.” Simon looked up at her gratefully, and her gravity slipped as she returned his smile with matronly indulgence, her hand reaching out once more to stroke his hair.  Her eyes blazed intensely, however, as she looked over to the rising form of John. “And, if anything happens to him during those three years, then I will give you a place in Pandemonium instead.  A throne of eternal torment, where you can savor my rage at your failures forevermore.

     John nodded, rubbing his throat and coughing. “Deal,” he managed, his voice scratchy and pained.

     Simon looked around him with a broadening smile.  He looked at his friends who were smiling at him, and that filled him with happiness.  He looked at Gina and Sarah, whose expressions were full of love, and he gave them a smile that proclaimed his love for them in return.  He looked around at Videre, where his life had changed, where he had found the truth and uncovered the past, where he had saved himself.  He looked at the inn, and the stable, and the mountain that Paul had wanted to see one last time.

     “Are you sure about this?” John asked, his voice still coarse. “Three years isn’t a long time to save the world.”

     Simon gave him a bravely confident smile. “You should hear all I’ve done in the past week.”

    “I will be watching.  You are my chosen, and you have a great task ahead of you.

     Simon nodded to her. “I know.” He saw the pride in her eyes, the worry and the desperation and the hope. “I’ll show you this world is worth the wait.”

    “Speaking of,” John interjected, raising his arms in a placating gesture as the immediately-wrathful goddess turned his way, “We are an awful long way from home, and there are a lot of men with swords and torches between here and there.  It might help if you gave your chosen – and the rest of us – a little help on the trip, you know what I mean?”

     The goddess scowled at him. “You really are a tiresome man.” She looked once last time to Simon as she extended her hand, her middle finger and thumb pressed together, on the brink of a snap.  The sound of that snap rang through the town square, and everything changed.

    They were gone.  It was if they had never been there at all.

 

Continued in “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 15”

Author’s Note: I will keep this note brief; you’ve come a long way with me already.  I will admit I decided to post this chapter early in honor of Valentine’s Day, and to encourage myself to hurry to complete the final chapter, which will be shorter, as it serves as something of an epilogue to this tale.  There is one last surprise, of course, but such can wait until I return…

     I will admit that I am postponing the preview of the next story until then, as well.  Mostly because it would reveal certain things about the next chapter, which I hope to avoid.  I will, however, reveal that the title is simply to be ‘Heroes.’

     But, before I succumb to my own wordiness, I will thank you all for making it here, to the penultimate chapter.  I hope you have enjoyed the journey thus far, and I shall return soon with the conclusion to this tale.  Perhaps, if I am lucky, sooner than you may expect, although I make no promises.

    Now, however, I shall treat myself to well-earned sleep…

     ~Wynn Pendragon      

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One thought on “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 14

  1. Ah man that was satisfying. I’m glad they managed to save the innkeeper and his daughter. I’m very curious as to what will happen to George. I don’t think I even saw any typos, so kudos to you or whoever is editing. I’ve been really enjoying this series, and I can’t wait for the next installment. Awesome world building, and kudos to how much time it’s taken to get here. Thank you for sharing with us.

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