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The subterranean Temple of Vidius was a veritable warren, designed to confuse those who had no business there. It was such a typically Vidian approach, creating needless complication which they themselves could navigate with ease while everyone else fumbled to keep up. So ingrained was the habit that they did it even in cases like the design of their main temple, where it caused more nuisance than benefit. Of course, there were areas where outsiders were not welcome, and others still in which secrecy and privacy must be upheld, but there were far less convoluted ways of achieving that end. It wasn’t as if anyone could just bumble in off the street and right into the High Commander’s office, or the chamber of the Dawn Council. Vidians just preferred to watch people chase their tails rather than go to the in-person effort of keeping them out.
It was not lost on Justinian that of the three temples in which the paladins could have chosen to meet him, they had selected this one.
Justinian’s estimation of the paladins’ abilities had steadily risen during the short trip here from the Grand Cathedral, when he had found himself with a considerable audience for his own passage to the Temple and been informed by Ravoud that evidently the trio had created that by riding all the way here from the city gates in a procession. Even at midnight, the passage of paladins had brought a crowd, who were still milling about in Imperial Square, discussing what they’d seen. Now, they had something further to discuss, and the Archpope had been seen emerging from his own citadel of power to follow them. Truly, what clever children—and how well they had diversified their skills in just a few years! They had certainly not learned that from Tellwyrn.
He had been required to leave behind Ravoud and his escort of Holy Legionaries, to the former’s vivid displeasure, but Justinian had soothed him and proceeded deeper into the temple accompanied by Bishop Raskin. It had never been the job or within the authority of the Archpope to make demands of the Pantheon’s member cults, particularly within their own temples.
Besides, this was not that kind of game.
They arrived, eventually, at a door which was suitably large and ornate to fit the gravity of the occasion, once Justinian no longer had a clear idea where exactly the twists and turns of their descent had brought them. Raskin stepped to one side and bowed deferentially.
“They await within, your Holiness.”
“Thank you very much for escorting me,” Justinian said, inclining his head in courtesy. “I hope I have not inconvenienced you too greatly, given the hour.”
“Nonsense, your Holiness, we are all here to serve the gods. I shall stand ready to return you to your soldiers when your business is concluded. Please feel no need to rush; I have plenty of time.”
“The courtesy is appreciated, my friend,” said the Archpope with a benevolent smile which Raskin returned. Neither felt any need to allude to Raskin’s planned denouncement of him tomorrow. It was such a pleasure to work with someone who understood how the game was played.
The door had no handle, but opened when Justinian placed a hand against it, swinging slowly under the effect of an obvious charm. He stepped through and, untouched, it drifted shut behind him. Even its gentle motion produced a resonant boom when it fell flush with the wall again, simply due to its size and weight.
The chamber beyond was circular, with a sunken floor reached by three steps which wrapped around the room and formed a mosaic at the bottom. Rather than the mask-and-scythe sacred sigil of Vidius, it was the much older symbol of duality the cult liked to use, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two teardrop shapes, black and white, wrapped around each other. This one also had smaller circles within the bigger shapes, showing the alternate colors to symbolize the essence of light and darkness found within one another.
Around the walls, in the upper tier atop the stairs, were three alcoves at right angles, forming a cross intersecting the room with the door at the fourth point. Chairs had been set in these, backlit by fairy lamps in floor stands, and in each chair was seated a paladin, staring down at him.
Justinian had to smile at how neatly they had reversed his planned trick of positioning. There was nothing for it but to step forward and stand in judgment before their collective eyes. He did have to wonder why the Vidians even had a room like this; they obviously went in for dualistic symbolism, and this was too perfectly arranged to have three parties convened around a single target. Most likely the chamber had some use in their secretive ritual magic. It would be just like Gwenfaer to repurpose such a thing on the fly just to help these three put him at a symbolic disadvantage.
He nodded his head again, just enough of an inclination to denote respect and courtesy without implying submission. In rank, an Archpope and a paladin related closely, hence this opening struggle over positioning.
“I am grateful to you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said aloud, “and apologize for the hour and notice. You are most courteous to be so accommodating.”
“We are all here to serve the gods, after all, your Holiness,” Toby said in an ironic echo of Raskin. “How can we help you?”
“It has come to my attention,” he said, “that you three are spearheading an effort to withdraw your cults from the Universal Church.”
“Full withdrawal isn’t on the agenda,” Gabriel clarified. “Nothing so permanent. But yeah, the Thieves’ Guild is still part of the Church, merely withholding its presence in protest. We feel they’re owed some solidarity.”
“In the case of the Sisterhood of Avei,” Trissiny added in a particularly sharp tone, “the same position is not voluntary on our part. After months of needless and petty obstreperousness, you now have the gall to begrudge us formalizing the position in which you have placed us?”
“I understand your position,” Justinian said smoothly. “The ebb and flow of politics inevitably causes some affront. I have asked you to attend me in order to request that you abstain from this measure, and of course, Trissiny, it is at the very least fair to offer concession in turn. I understand you have brought Nandi Shahai to the capital to step into the role of Bishop? Her performance in the role was most satisfactory; I would be glad to confirm her.”
“Too little, too late,” she retorted. “I see no need to offer you the chance to sign off on what you can’t stop from happening.”
“Not to mention that this says nothing about why our cults should accept your proposal,” Gabriel added.
“All of which is ultimately beside the point,” said Toby. “We have not done this lightly or without reason, your Holiness. Your long-standing pattern of behavior has demanded a check upon your ambitions. Even if you were willing to offer the true scope of concessions it would take to make your request acceptable, you’ve brought us to a place in which we would be foolish to believe your assurances.”
“You want to stop this from happening?” Trissiny said, raising her chin. “Resign your position as Archpope. I’m reasonably confident I can persuade High Commander Rouvad to accept that compromise.”
“I’m sure you don’t need me to specify that such a measure is not on the table,” Justinian said gently, still smiling.
The Hand of Avei shrugged, armor rasping softly. “Then it would seem we have nothing to discuss.”
“Why did you come here?” Gabriel asked, leaning forward intently. “You can’t have thought asking nicely was going to get this dropped. I know you’re way too intelligent to think everything you’ve done would be forgiven that easily.”
“Well,” Justinian replied, widening his smile in acknowledgment, “there is the fact that the very act of reaching out to you positions me favorably for the next round.”
“Snowe mentioned that,” Toby said noncommittally.
“Ah? She must think well of you, then. Branwen usually tries to conceal her intelligence from casual acquaintances.”
“We’ve seen a bit too much of her to buy it,” Gabriel observed, “even before Ninkabi.”
“That was only one reason, though,” the Archpope said with a more serious expression. “I expect you three of all people to understand the greater. There are some things that simply must be attempted, even if the attempt is inherently futile, merely because they are right. If a destructive conflict might be averted by talking… How can the impossibility of coming to an accord justify foregoing the conversation?”
“You’re a fine one to talk about justification,” Trissiny whispered. “We know what you did at Ninkabi. And at Veilgrad.”
“If you plan to accuse me of something, I do hope you are prepared to furnish compelling evidence,” Justinian said, serene.
“Oh, let’s not play that game,” Gabriel snorted with a wave of his hand. “We know, you know we know, we know you know we know, and your ability to cover your trail to a reasonable extent is only more antagonizing. How’d you get past the dreadcrawlers?”
He was far too adept at concealing his expression to react overtly, save with a convincing little lift of his eyebrows to convey confusion. “The what?”
“It was a nice gesture, chipping the limestone off the plaque,” Gabriel continued, eyes intent on Justinian’s. “Obviously not useful or necessary for anything, but…nice. I have a hard time squaring that with, y’know, everything else.”
“You will doubtless find this a humorous statement,” Justinian said, “but I am a nice person.” Indeed, Trissiny and Gabriel both made derisive noises. “A good person…I think not. One tries, but no. Too many hard choices cost me the right to make that claim long ago.” He paused, tilting his head fractionally. “I am not certain to what you refer, Gabriel, but I would like to think I’d take the time to show a small kindness if I could, no matter what else might be going on. Doubtless that was not the impression Eserion wished you to acquire when he took to sending you down into dank holes. Be wary, my young friends, of anyone who guides you on a journey. They are well positioned to determine what beliefs you acquire along the way.”
They were good, he noted. Not great, but they were inexperienced and learning. All three faces went impressively blank, revealing nothing. Had they been better, they would have looked confused rather than revealing they were hiding something. As it was, all he gathered was that he’d landed a point. They had not known he’d known about Eserion’s meddling. Perhaps it was for the best that this confrontation came before the trio gained more experience. Trissiny and Gabriel, at least, had the training to avoid such blunders, they only lacked the practice.
“Unfortunately,” he continued in their silence, “the other and most important reason I requested this meeting is no longer a possibility. You have—quite cleverly, I might add—succeeded in positioning us to your advantage, with the regrettable side effect that I cannot now risk revealing too much, as I am no longer in surroundings I can control. There are doubtless few if any places in this temple where words cannot be overheard, to say nothing of your valkyrie friends, Gabriel. The necessary security of my position limits my options here. Had you met me in the Cathedral as I asked, I intended to tell you everything.
They stared at him in impassive silence.
Then Gabriel grinned, mockingly. “Bullshit.”
“Well, not everything,” Justinian allowed. “Forgive me, it seems I succumbed to hyperbole. There are a great many things you should and deserve to know, but some secrets are simply too dangerous to reveal. There are truths protected by the existence of divine magic itself, things which result in a person being instantly struck to death by the gods if they learn too much. I enjoy protection, but it is granted to me, not achieved by my own works, and I cannot extend it to others.”
He spread his hands at waist height in a silent gesture of apology.
“Perhaps the gods would protect you, but I deemed the risk too great. I can work with your cooperation, or I would not come here to ask it. My plans were made around the assumption you would oppose me. The one thing I cannot accept is your destruction, my friends. I will not risk your lives, not over something as simple as a secret.”
Gabriel’s grin widened until it was an overt threat, exactly the kind of wolfish rictus which had been the last sight of many a person who pushed Arachne Tellwyrn too far. That was undoubtedly where he’d learned it.
“You, sir, are talking out your ass. ‘Oh, I would totally have told you everything if you’d just come to my own center of power.’ Please tell me you don’t actually think we’ll believe that. Because that would be insulting.”
“And why not?” Justinian asked with a mild smile. “Because I am obviously manipulating you? Lies are limited tools, Gabriel, and prone to twisting in the hand that wields them. If you would control what people think, you must learn to use the truth with skill, not suppress it. Any of your Vidian brethren could explain that much.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Toby said firmly. “The powers and influence you wield are well beyond those granted to an Archpope. We would be foolish to march into your own citadel.”
“And that’s the summation of all of this,” Trissiny said, her voice bitter. “The Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church is not safe for paladins of the Pantheon. Can you not see how you’ve corrupted, twisted everything, Justinian? But no, if you were willing to unleash the kind of death and destruction you have on innocents, you wouldn’t balk from that.”
“So you would think,” he whispered. “I admit to none of your accusations, but it should strain no one’s credulity to state that I have blood on my hands and wrongs to my name. One cannot exist in a position of power and not be so stained. I assure you of this much: I feel the weight of every one of my crimes.”
“And you will be brought to justice for them,” she swore, glaring down at him. “One way or another.”
Justinian nodded deeply. “That is my ultimate intent, yes. That certainty alone keeps me going. I could not maintain the strength to do what must be done if I were not sure that the balance would come for me in the end. All my plans aim at that conclusion.”
“Why do all this?” Toby asked. “Or, let me guess, is that the thing you can’t afford to tell us where the Vidians might hear?”
“I don’t fear the Vidians learning the truth about the gods,” Justinian said, shaking his head. “If I meant them ill, I would tell them. No…someday, everyone will know the truth. Know what they did. A great doom is coming, and with it…the rules will change. They will no longer be able to hide.”
“Is that really all it comes down to?” Gabriel asked, leaning back in his seat. “You’re mad about some secret? How much destruction are you willing to cause just because you hate the gods?”
“You won’t be so cavalier when you learn the truth,” Justinian sighed. “But no. I don’t hate them. I did, I think, when I first stumbled upon the secret myself. The horror of it is just too… And yet, the very fact of resolving myself to right that ancient wrong has changed my perspective. I’ve come to understand what it means, to choose between evils, to accept a terrible wrong in order to avert a greater one. I have…sympathy, now, for them. They could not do what was right, so they did what they thought best. I still think their choice was the wrong one, but having been there myself, I am no longer able to judge them for it. Now, there is only rectification of what was done. And ultimately, the only redemption possible. For them, and for me. Only then, finally, will everyone be free of this ancient sin.”
“None of that means anything,” Trissiny said harshly. “You can stand there muttering bout secret sins all you want, but you can’t even furnish an accusation! Even if you could, after what we know you’ve done, there’s no chance we’d take your word over the gods’.”
“How certain are you,” he asked with a sad little smile, “that you know what you know?”
Gabriel shook his head, then looked at each of his comrades in turn. “Well. I think we’re pretty much done here.”
“There doesn’t seem anything more to be gained,” Toby agreed softly.
“Past time,” Trissiny spat.
Golden light rose around all three of them, shining out from their respective alcoves and overwhelming the glow of the fairy lamps. This was more than just the summoning of divine magic, however. With the light came pressure, the personal invocation of awesomely powerful entities, and suddenly the spacious ritual chamber was very cramped indeed, as the personal attention of the three greatest deities of the Pantheon was summoned onto that spot.
“You can spin whatever lies you like, Justinian,” Trissiny declared, her voice echoing, “but we know what you did, and what you are. And now, so shall they.”
Justinian bowed his head. “Your servant stands ever at the ready, to carry out the will of the gods when it is revealed.”
For a moment, all was silent as the immense force of their regard fell upon him. Vision seemed to shift and falter, each paladin’s aspect being simultaneously just their own, and that of another being entirely, and also everything in between. For long moments, it seemed the lines between mortal and deity were blurred.
But when they spoke, it was as themselves, out of the air itself and not through the lips of their mortal anchors.
“Well done,” Omnu’s warm and deep voice pulsed in the very stones around them, “good and faithful servant.”
“Keep faith, Archpope of the Universal Church,” said Avei, a resonant alto that seemed to come from within the hearts of those listening as much as it vibrated through the air. “The times grow ever darker. It falls to you to bring the light to our people.”
Vidius said nothing, simply conveyed a must surge of approval that washed over all of them.
“My thanks,” Justinian said softly, then raised his head. He met Gabriel’s eyes while he spoke, keeping his own expression utterly calm in contrast to the boy’s increasing shock. “Now go back to sleep, you tired old things.”
On command, their presence faded, leaving the four mortals alone once more in the chamber.
“Well. That’s unfortunate.”
The deadly calm of Trissiny’s voice was his only warning. For a woman in full armor, she could move with astonishing speed, and uncanny silence; Justinian barely raised a wall of divine light in time to deflect the sword that had nearly plunged into his throat. A pulse of energy sent her staggering backward, but she immediately lunged forward again, ramming her blade into the barrier.
Gabriel launched himself forward in the next moment, whipping out his gnarled black wand and extending it to full scythe form even as he brought it down in an overhead swing. The tip of the blade impacted the sphere of power surrounding the Archpope, which rippled under the pressure. Not, in fact, the pressure, but the nature of that all-destroying valkyrie weapon. It was hungry, its nature seeking the annihilation of whatever it touched.
Under that force, the shield rippled…and stilled. Justinian turned a cold shoulder to Trissiny’s repeated and ineffectual hammer blows upon his shield, once again meeting and holding Gabriel’s gaze as the scythe of death just rested there, seemingly impotent.
That was when he felt the pressure again from his left, the consciousness of Omnu pushing down on him. Justinian’s connection to the cosmic entities which now called themselves gods was of course not the same as that which the paladins had, a thing of ancient machines, attunement of vast energy fields, and meditative disciplines of his own devising. But he had done that work years ago, otherwise he would never have risked coming here. Shaking his head, he simply directed his will back into the staid, mechanistic intelligence of the god, as he had before.
This time, it did not bend. Someone else was pushing on Omnu’s very being, commanding the god to think in a certain way. Someone with a far more powerful connection to him than Justinian had.
He turned, staring to Tobias Caine, who simply stood in evident serenity before his chair, hands folded. He was not straining, or fumbling; this was no last desperate attempt, but the execution of a feat he already knew how to do. Something he had clearly done before.
Well, that answered some of Justinian’s lingering questions about Ninkabi. More immediately, it raised the first actual danger to himself he had faced in many years.
The Archpope acted decisively, before Omnu’s will could fully coalesce under Toby’s direction. The pulse of divine energy which surged outward from him threw all three paladins bodily backward, even as a second blast was drawn in the opposite direction—not crushing them between the two, but cushioning the force, to prevent them from being dashed physically against the stone walls behind their alcoves.
It was at the exact moment of that impact that he unleashed a subtler surge of the Light, snapping directly into their minds and severing their own workings. All three divine auras winked out, along with the golden wings fanning behind Trissiny—and, most importantly, Toby’s immediate connection to his god.
Many knew that mind magic was the province of the divine, but relatively few bothered to study it. Those crafts were difficult and incredibly dangerous, and suppressed when not outright prohibited by many of the Pantheon cults. Despite the intricacy of most mental workings, it was actually fairly easy to disrupt a spellcaster’s focus on any magical working they sought to perform, if you knew how. The real trick in using the mind snap was to time it exactly with a physical attack and give no outward sign that anything else had been done. Most people would naturally assume their concentration had been disrupted by the bodily impact and fail to realize you had done anything else, and thus, fail to develop a defense against the mental attack they never realized had been used.
Justinian shoved them back and forth with a series of outward and inward pulses of powerful kinetic force, rattling all three and causing their own divine shields to collapse, before finally depositing them none too gently into their seats in the alcove. Then, finally, quiet restored itself in the chamber as the three rattled paladins stared down at him.
After a moment, he deliberately let his aura drop, leaving the room in the dimmer light of the surviving fairy lamps. Two had been knocked over, one of which had shattered.
“Now that we have established beyond doubt that you pose me no physical threat,” he said, calm as ever, “there is something I need you three to understand: I have nothing for you but admiration. I urge you to remain committed to doing what you believe is right, with all the courage and ingenuity you can muster. If that must put us at cross-purposes, so be it. The one thing you must not do is give up. Despair is a sin, my young friends—perhaps the ultimate sin. So long as we aspire to do and to be more, so long as we look out on the world and see not only what is but what could be, we are doing justice to the only thing that makes us more than brute beasts.”
He bowed once, as they just stared at him in shock and confusion.
“Thank you for meeting with me. We shall doubtless speak again. Until then.”
They didn’t speak, or even get up, as he turned and glided back the way he had come to the door, which had handles on this side. The silence remained behind him even as the door boomed shut again, sealing them back in the trap he had just sprung and walked away from.
“Your Holiness,” Bishop Raskin said, bowing. Apparently the man had just stood there by the door, as patient as any Butler. “I trust your meeting went well.”
“A most fruitful discussion, your Grace,” Justinian replied, nodding to him. “You have my thanks for waiting. I fear I must call upon your aid to find my way back out.”
“No imposition at all, your Holiness, that’s why I am here. This way, if you please.”
While he followed the Bishop back toward his men and the surface, Justinian kept his face serenely calm, and furiously planned.
He had never really hoped for an accord with the paladins, and was not exactly certain whether the seeds he had attempted to plant with that conversation had properly taken root. It seemed their plan would proceed starting tomorrow, and the true endgame would begin. He was…as ready as could reasonably be expected. Obviously it would have been ideal for him to set the timing himself, but one could not ask too much.
The biggest concern by far was Toby. How had he learned to do that? It could ruin everything, and it was far too late in the game for such a disruptive new element. Worse, he could not even remove the threat; without Tobias’s prodding, nothing would shift the Omnists into action, and Justinian needed them on the move along with everyone else when the moment came. Toby had to be alive and active to the end. His cult wouldn’t even seek revenge if he murdered the boy in the middle of Imperial Square.
So he walked, and already began plotting new measures. He had come too close to be thwarted now.