A god of the Pantheon made a pretty good host, even for surreptitious surveillance. In addition to shielding himself, Rasha, and Rogrind from detection by the Archpope’s party, Eserion ensured a comfortable temperature for them that somehow did not affect the surrounding snow, and even conjured a cozy little cot for the unconscious dwarf. By that point Rasha half expected him to provide snacks, which she did not mention due to her suspicion that if she did, he would, and that would just be a little too weird.
“You’re sure he’s okay?” she inquired, glancing again at Rogrind. By the rise and fall of his chest, he might just be peacefully asleep.
“Why, you suspect me of ill will toward the ol’ boy?” Eserion asked, tearing his eyes from the spectacle amid the ruins to grin at her.
“Well, I mean, he did sort of stalk, harass, and try to murder several Guild members, not to mention abducting, drugging and torturing Pick…”
“Never pad a rap sheet, Rasha,” the god chided. “Pick wasn’t tortured; they wanted intel and the Svennish are too professional to make that blunder. Anyway, all that’s settled, yeah?”
“I’m just…I dunno, surprised. The Guild itself is pretty big on force as a deterrent. I assumed that came from you.”
“There are people who just can’t be reasoned with,” Eserion said, his expression immediately growing solemn, almost glum. “People who cannot be redeemed and won’t improve. There are people in this world who are unsalvageable, intolerable, people with whom you can do nothing but destroy them before they can harm anyone else. As an Eserite you’re going to have to deal with a few of those people over the course of your life, Rasha, and as such you need to be aware that that is a tiny number of people. Nearly everyone is doing the best they can to do what they think is right, and when they fail, it’s just failure, not sin. Often well-meaning people have to be stopped, but there’s rarely a point in pursuing them after that.”
She frowned down at the sleeping dwarf again. “Well, okay, but…I mean, all the kidnapping…”
“Your dwarf friends saw shadowy abusers behaving violently and were willing to get violent themselves to shut that down.” He glanced at her again and winked. “Eserites of all people should respect that. Perspective’s a powerful thing, Rasha; if you can put yourself in someone’s shoes, you’ll be much better able to tell if you can find common cause with them. Do so, if they’re not too depraved to be worth it, which these guys aren’t. Thorn had the right idea on this. Ooh, eyes front, it’s about to get interesting again!”
The interlopers had not been idle while Rasha and Eserion got the unconscious dwarf settled. The twelve soldiers had positioned themselves in a ring encircling, oddly enough, not the Archpope or his companions but Lanora’s corpse. Though they carried battlestaves at the ready and all faced outward, eyes ceaselessly scanning the area for potential threats, to Rasha it appeared more like a ritual formation than a military one. All twelve were arranged in a perfect circle, spaced around it totally evenly, and though Eserion had been chattering to her at the time, she hadn’t missed Justinian and the officer apparently in charge of them, Nassir Ravoud, directing each to stand in their exact spots. Once placed, they stood immobile—not more still than military attention demanded, but not straying from their assigned places by so much as a toehold.
“This is entirely unsatisfactory,” the grouchy enchanter named Rector barked moments after Eserion’s warning. “These conditions— I need my equipment for the kind of certainty you’re talking about!”
“I will be able to guide the temporal transfer to a degree,” the Archpope told him patiently. “You need only initiate the basic rift, Rector. What is essential is the Angelus configuration. Is there any problem with the remote link to your equipment setup?”
“Wait, temporal transfer?” Rasha muttered while they continued to argue. “Rift? That sounds like time travel. There’s no way, even he would have Scions crawling up his ass…”
“Justinian’s got a way with gods,” Eserion said with a grim chuckle. “The Scions don’t respond to what Vemnesthis is prevented from noticing, see?”
“More for me’n for you, I bet. Hsst, this part’s important.”
“It should work, but this is not ideal,” Rector was saying in response to the Archpope’s last comment. “It’s not just remote interfacing with the machines, it’s translocating the entire ritual effect from the prepared chamber to…out here. You have any idea how much data has to be transferred for that to work? Even along a trascension interlink this is pushing it! And this is the prototype version! Makes way more sense to write this one off and start over with the next—”
“Rector,” Justinian interrupted, his voice still patient and gentle but now with a firmness that stifled all debate, “we cannot waste a keystone soul. It is not a common state of affairs for a soul to be imbued directly with divine power by the Pantheon, and then specifically cut off from its notice. I am gathering others, but none are yet in the vicinity of Tiraas, and events have made the need for a functioning Angelus Knight urgent. It is profoundly regrettable that we failed to secure Lanora in time to prevent this, but this is now the situation, and these the extraordinary measures we are forced to take to recover her. Can you do it? If it will not be possible, you must warn me before we make the attempt.”
Rector scowled at the inscrutable machine he was hunched over, and Rasha gaped at the scene.
“He can’t…surely he can’t bring her back from the dead?!”
“Oh, if only,” Eserion murmured. “No, I’m afraid it’s a lot worse than that, Rasha. Watch.”
“It…should work,” Rector said reluctantly. “I don’t like it. This is not tested. First attempts should always be in secured conditions, not in the field. If it goes wrong…”
“Will it?” Justinian asked, calm as ever.
The enchanter blew out a heavy huff of air. “I said it should work, didn’t I? It’s just not proper. It’s not safe procedure!”
“I have faith in you, Rector.”
“The tracks terminate over there, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported as he returned to the Archpope’s side from studying the mess left in the snow around the crash site. “Abruptly; I think they teleported out. Two of them, a dwarf and an elf.”
“An elf?!” Rasha exclaimed.
Eserion cackled and patted her on the back. “You’ve got small feet, and those slippers leave tracks that look like moccasin prints. Cos, y’know, nobody would be wearing shoes like that in the forest on purpose. Goes to show, a person can reason with perfect logic and still be dead-ass wrong without all the facts.”
“The Confederacy is too unstable yet and has no interest,” Justinian was musing to himself while Ravoud stood patiently by and Rector growled at his machine. “A dwarf and an elf who can teleport… Last Rock?” He frowned at Lanora’s body, then shook his head. “No. Neither Tellwyrn nor Yornhaldt would have done this. But…” Slowly, Justinian’s expression cleared, and then he actually smiled. “Trissiny. Avei chose well; that young woman is rapidly growing into her mother’s cunning.”
“I…suppose the second set could have been a half-elf,” Ravoud said, clearly dubous, “but they weren’t wearing Silver Legion boots, I would have recognized that.”
“Indeed. We shall have to add Svenheim to our roster of potentially hostile actors, Nassir.”
The soldier winced. “That would be trouble, your Holiness. The Church lacks influence in the Five Kingdoms.”
“Indeed, that is what makes it a clever move on her part.”
“I do not like how intelligent this guy is,” Rasha muttered. She hadn’t made that connection until Rogrind spelled it out, and she’d been standing in the middle of it, not looking at the aftermath. The god beside her just nodded.
Rector heaved another large, overdramatic sigh. “My fingers are cold. All right, I’ve made this secure as I can. Everything was already set up on the other end for the Angelus configuration, and initiating the temporal rift…well, it’s ready. Long as you’re just accessing the divine field’s battery bank, it hasn’t been long enough to make that any harder. I can’t do anything to make it all more ready.”
“Thank you, Rector.” Justinian nodded deeply to him, which he appeared not to notice. “Then we shall delay no longer.” The Archpope stepped forward from his position to the side of the circle, not crossing into it but changing his placement in a way Rasha recognized as symbolic. Spreading his hands at waist height, he addressed the assembled soldiers. “My faithful friends.”
None shifted from their assigned spots, but all twelve turned to face Justinian and dropped to one knee in the snow, not lowering their heads but gazing up at him raptly. Looking at their faces, Rasha felt an involuntary shiver that had nothing to do with the weather. Those expressions… It was as if they were staring at the source of all light and hope in the universe. She had rarely been in proximity to true fanaticism, but Glory had taken pains to bring her apprentices as guests to religious services where they could see it, and recognize it in the future. There was nothing more dangerous that came from the hearts of people, Glory had warned, and in this moment Rasha believed that. The Universal Church was supposed to be a simply administrative body, a facilitator of interfaith diplomacy between the Pantheon cults. For these men and women to so obviously regard the Archpope as an object of worship, Justinian had clearly twisted everything beyond all recognition. Even if he was successfully deposed, repairing what he’d done to the Church itself would be the work of years, if not generations.
“Each of you knows what comes next,” the Archpope addressed his devotees, his delivery a masterpiece of presentation: grave, solemn, yet kind. “Each of you has volunteered, unasked. What lies before you is not sacrifice, but ascension. And yet, it will be a change—a transition to something you cannot yet conceive. I would ask no one to embrace this except fully of their free will. If any of you would step back from this task now, this shall be the last moment to do so. There will be no recrimination, and no punishment. The task before you I cannot ask of you; it must be fully of your own volition. I would condemn none who choose to turn aside from this path.”
There was silence. Not one of them spoke, or even moved, merely gazed up at him in something very like rapture. Rasha had to tear her own eyes away from them in sheer, sick horror. Even not knowing yet what was about to happen, that little speech told her everything necessary. Faith was a powerful thing, able to uplift people, but if twisted, could utterly destroy them.
“Yeah,” Eserion said gently when she turned to stare helplessly at him, patting her shoulder once. “I know, hon.”
“We can’t just—”
“You gotta let people make their choices, Rasha. Even when those choices are obviously uninformed, or formed out of somebody’s deceit. None of us are qualified to control someone else’s life. Not even me, certainly not you.”
She clamped her lips shut miserably, suddenly sure she didn’t want to know what was coming next.
“I am humbled,” Justinian whispered, bowing his head before the silent soldiers kneeling in front of him. “As you have kept faith beyond what anyone could ask or expect, I swear your actions shall be honored as long as human memory persists. Even as you transcend the need for names of your own, the names you leave behind will be kept for eternity, that all who come after us will be reminded of the meaning of duty. Go forward, my dearest friends, with my gratitude, and the certainty that you are bringing salvation to the world.”
Ravoud, Rasha noted, didn’t look remotely comfortable with this, either. Wide-eyed and stiff beyond the demands of military bearing, he looked like a man on the verge of making a protest. But he didn’t, and when he turned his head to look at Justinian she saw something that, in a way, was even sadder than the blind fervor of his soldiers: simple, unconditional trust.
Rector was a living contrast to the mood, watching the Archpope with an impatient grimace. Justinian turned to him and nodded once, and with a soft exhalation, the enchanter placed his fingers in position upon the device he was carrying and began to move them in precise patterns.
The world around them grew lighter.
“Easy,” Eserion soothed, patting her on the shoulder again. “What you’re about to see isn’t gonna be comfortable but you’re in no danger. This part here is just a general surge of divine magic in the area. Hell, after the morning you’ve had, it might do you a world of good.”
It actually was sort of pleasant, incongruously with the scene thus far. Aside from a general lightening of the atmosphere, which looked odd due to how gentle it was and not glaring off the surrounding snow the way sunlight did, she felt a sense of imposed calm pushing against her mounting unease, plus a pleasant tingling replacing the sore spot at her shoulder where the destroyed warming charm had burned her. At the very edge of her hearing was a soft tone, reminiscent of both bells and flutes; Rasha couldn’t quite place what it sounded like, but it was soothing.
Justinian had closed his eyes and tilted his head back in a pose Rasha recognized as common among spellcasters focusing on something, and now the light suffusing the area brightened further around him, coalescing into a golden aura illuminating his body in particular. Except, unlike any divine aura she had personally seen, it seemed to solidify into constant, ever-shifting rays of discrete light beaming out from him in all directions, rather than a simple suffusing glow.
“Uh…” Rasha leaned away from a sunbeam that flashed past to her left.
“Relax, those wouldn’t hurt if they hitcha dead on,” Eserion assured her. “And they won’t, anyway. You’re not what this hoodoo is targeting.”
“That doesn’t look particularly targeted.”
Almost as soon as he spoke, a target did indeed emerge. More and more of the rays shifted forward, peppering the blood-stained snow in the middle of the circle, until they clustered to the point that a scintillating spotlight was focused on Lanora’s nearly-beheaded corpse.
“Target locked in,” Eserion murmured, watching intently. “Now comes the ‘temporal’ bit. This may start to get disorienting.”
“And yet you keep telling me to watch it.” Most people’s gods probably didn’t appreciate being sassed, but he chuckled.
It was at that point the ritual began to truly demand her attention, because Lanora twitched.
Not physically, the way a body would, Rasha realized; golden after-images were beginning to flicker around the corpse, suggesting at movements it was not actually making. At least, for the first few moments, before it quite abruptly sat up. In a single jerky motion the body heaved upright to a kneeling position, then passed through another series of blurry flashes before even those consolidated into a kind of reverse spray of light flashing into place around Lanora’s head.
This consolidated into the missing parts of her skull, formed out of golden light. The rest of her body had taken on a luminous quality, as if the solid matter were dissolving into energy even as energy flowed in to make up for what had been lost. She twitched and heaved again, jerking unnaturally upright into a hunched standing posture. Only when another reversed explosion flashed into place at the missing chunk of her side did Rasha’s appalled brain catch up with what she was seeing.
“He’s reversing what happened to her!”
“Think this is the cutoff point you were looking for,” Rector grunted, eyes fixed on his machine rather than the awesome spectacle in front of him. “Right? Right. Re-syncing.”
The light changed, no longer streaming directly from the Archpope but still lingering around Lanora’s upright body—and in fact, beginning to glow more brightly from it. Justinian’s eyes opened and he heaved a breath, not ostentatiously but enough to reveal the exertion of his performance, and his chest continued to rise more heavily as he stepped back from the circle, Rouvad hovering about him like a worried mother hen.
“Translocation’s working fine,” Rector reported tersely. “Whole system seems to be running, power’s sufficient to activate the ritual remotely, no significant throttling of energy or data across the connection. Everything’s within expected tolerances. This seems to be working.”
Justinian just nodded at him, which he didn’t see, eyes still fixed on his gadget. Rasha was barely paying attention to them, her gaze fixed on Lanora.
The body continued to change, color seeming to gradually leech from it as the glow intensified, as if its physical substance was dissolving to leave a person-shaped construct of Light behind. Now, as the glow intensified further, she actually began to rise off the ground. Her limbs shifted in an almost lifelike way, as though the woman’s intelligence were once again operating them. Now fully translucent and golden, Lanora ascended vertically, still in the center of the circle, until her feet dangled just above the heads of the onlooking soldiers. Spine arched, she leaned her head back to gaze at the sky, extending her arms behind her. Rasha couldn’t see her expression from that angle, but the pose could have indicated a sublime experience, or the furthest extreme of agony.
Staring at this, it took her an extra few seconds to notice the changing light was beginning to affect the twelve soldiers as well. More divine auras were slowly rising into existence around each of them, somewhat unevenly as if the energy affected every individual in a subtly different manner. Gradually, their own postures shifted; all had turned by that point to face Lanora’s transmuting body in the center, and one by one, military bearing began to yield to postures similar to hers. Heads back, arms going loose, spines slowly arching, their bodies clearly gripped by some extreme sensation, for good or for ill.
None of them made a sound. The scene was so chillingly silent that the distant, high-pitched chiming of divine magic at work seemed far louder than it was.
Rasha had to avert her eyes at the sudden explosion of pure golden light from the center of the circle, bursting with a sound like an enormous bell. A surge of wind and sheer kinetic force rushed outward, blasting snow in every direction—not the bloody snow, thankfully, that appeared to have dissolved along with Lanora’s corporeal form—and only Eserion’s hand against her back saved Rasha from being tipped over by the sudden impact.
When she could see again, Lanora was gone, and what had happened to her was beginning to take hold of the twelve soldiers. Slowly, they each rose off the ground, the colors and textures of their physical forms fading into constructs of translucent gold.
“Oh, no,” she whispered, “they’re not…”
Eserion made no reply, and no one else heard her.
The effect wasn’t as simple as it overtook the twelve sacrificial volunteers. Where Lanora had hovered there was now a single point of light, blazing like a second sunrise and connecting each of them with streamers of luminous energy. More such tendrils coiled and connected each of them around the circle, and across it, making a web of intricate rays. Not just direct beams connecting them, either; the more Rasha stared, the more she felt there was a pattern to them, something fiendishly complex, and yet, something it felt she should be able to grasp the purpose of, if she could only study it long enough. Narrowing her eyes in concentration, she glared against the throbbing pain that began to grow behind them…
A hand settled atop her head and Eserion forcibly turned her face away from the scene.
“It’s like an eclipse,” he advised. “Glance, then glance away. You don’t stare directly into that unless you wanna seriously hurt yourself.”
“Trust me, Rasha, that only seems like you should be able to parse it. You’re looking at sheer mathematics of a caliber that’d tie your brain in knots. Study the edges, get a broad impression, and don’t fixate. This is almost over, anyway.”
She tried to follow his advice, averting her gaze and glancing across various soldiers’ rising forms individually without trying to take in the whole scene, checking in on the Archpope and his two lackeys—none of whom were doing anything interesting, just watching the unfolding ritual like she was—then turning her head to take in the ritual with only her peripheral vision. That didn’t make much difference, but as long as she didn’t gaze too long at any one point or let her consciousness get sucked back into the intricate riddle of magic unfolding in the center, she could follow the progression of events.
By that point, what had befallen Lanora was in the final stages of affecting the twelve soldiers, and Rasha very much feared she knew what was next for them. Unlike Lanora, though, they were being pulled forward as they rose into the air—or more accurately, toward the center. The whole thing gave her the intuitive sense of a well-made sailor’s knot tightening in on itself to form a solid structure from loose coils of rope as the tension was pulled taut. Even without understanding what was happening, she could sense the momentum, feel the pull on her very soul as existence bent around them, the magical forces at work tugging everything into a single point of collapse.
Something was taking shape, something forged from thirteen mortal souls, crafted of impossibly intricate flows of magic.
Rasha finally had to look away entirely as all dissolved into Light. She could no longer make out any details with her eyes, nor could they stand to be directed at the intensity of luminous power that shone from the ritual circle. There was nothing now but the blaze of divine magic, so intense it felt warm on her cheek as she shifted her head away from it.
Then it faded, quickly at the end. The finality came not with another burst of power, but almost anticlimactically, the glow dissipating and the ringing in Rasha’s ears receding to a barely discernible tone at the faintest edge of hearing. Reluctantly, fearing what she would find, she turned back to see the result.
In the center of the disturbed snow, now cleansed of every trace of the twelve soldiers or Sister Lanora, including the sprawling bloodstain itself, there knelt a glowing…lump. Rasha blinked, unable to visually parse what she was seeing for a moment, until it shifted.
An arm emerged from amid the golden shell, bracing itself against the ground as if it had nearly toppled over. The luminous outer coating continued to crack and shift, reshuffling itself confusingly until the face emerged, along with the shape of a kneeling person within, and perspective snapped into place, finally letting her realize what she was seeing.
It was wings. Broad pinions wrought of sheer golden light, glowing gently and somehow distinct enough that she could pick out every single feather. They had been mostly wrapped around the kneeling form, obscuring its shape, but now flopped outward to spread across the snow in an ungainly manner. The figure lifted its head, and she realized its hair had also contributed to the glowing confusion. That, too, was golden, and not like simple blond hair: it seemed not only made of light, but subject to some force outside the norm, shifting slowly about as if in a soft breeze, or an ocean current.
The winged person had white skin, the color and texture of marble, so pure it resembled a moving statue more than skin. Its features were angular, androgynous, and it wore a robe of snowy white, over which was laid a suit of armor, golden and glowing as its wings and hair. Rasha saw the hilt of a sword buckled at its waist, also gold, but apparently actual gold, and not made of glowing energy.
Justinian paced forward, the soft crunch of snow under his careful steps incongruously loud in the stillness, and knelt before his creation, reaching out with both hands.
“Mnn,” Rector grunted, ruining the moment. “Looks like…success. All measurable values within their expected ranges based on the Vadrieny and Azradeh data and my extrapolations. We’ll have to do proper tests in a secured location, of course.”
The Archpope ignored him, gently taking the hands of the Angelus Knight, as he had called it.
“Rise, most honored servant of the Light.”
The Angelus fully lifted their head finally, opening their eyes. Within were pure, fathomless pools of the Light itself. It answered him in a voice like a choir, thirteen resonant souls speaking in unison.
“What is your command?”
“What?” Rasha echoed faintly, the single word sounding dumb even to herself. It was all she could come up with, though.
“Demigods are interesting critters, y’know,” Eserion commented, once again bracing a hand against her back to help keep her upright. Rasha didn’t ordinarily care for being touched by men she did not know very well, but his little pats and pushes had all been simply reassuring, and now she just felt grateful for the support. “They don’t follow…any established rules, see? Basically a god’s apex creation, something they make out of bits of themselves and usually some mortal they found especially worthy. They cause the most abominable fuckin’ trouble, which is why most of us haven’t done that in the longest time. For a good while, the only demigods were the daughters of Elilial.
“Then, well, the worst befell them. Only Vadrieny survived, stuck in the body of Teal Falconer… And just about the first thing that happened to the two of them was that they spent weeks in the Universal Church, being poked and prodded and studied by Justinian’s best and brightest minds. What he learned from that formed the basis of this little science project, along with some additional sources of info he’s scrounged up since, and a lot of really high-level magical understanding that was necessary to fold all that data into a useful form.”
“But what is it?”
“That,” Eserion said quietly as Justinian helped the Angelus to their feet, “is for all intents and purposes an archdemon, minus the demon part. Crafted from divine magic, and loyal only to him. And now that he knows it works, he can make as many as he wants.”