“Are you sure this is necessary? Or even a good idea?” Branwen huffed slightly, trying to keep up; Basra was setting an even more blistering pace back to the Cathedral than Mary had to the factory, and the shortest member of their group was actually having difficulty, now. Darling and Andros were both tall and long-legged; the elves, of course, had no trouble keeping up, even though one had his arms tied behind him and the other two were occupied keeping him under control. They marched right behind him, Flora holding an end of the rope lashed securely around his wrists, Fauna ready with an unsheathed knife.
“I’m with Ginger,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “It’s late, it’s damp, everybody could use a warm brandy. What say we call this a night and pick up in the morning?”
“We’ve got nothing but this guy’s word that his Holiness is responsible,” Branwen went on, ignoring him. “And even if he’s right, it’s not as if we were set up! It’s the Crow who sent us into this encounter. He has nothing to do with us!”
“Well, if I’m just getting in the way, here, I could toddle off,” said the Jackal helpfully. “Sounds like you lot have some things to discuss.”
“Justinian sent us out into the city to hunt adventurers,” Basra snapped, still stalking forward. She wasn’t quite running, but used the full length of her legs with every rapid step. “He conveniently failed to mention that he was employing them himself—to do the very thing he’d set us to hunt them for. How dense can you possibly be?”
“You don’t need to be rude,” Branwen muttered.
“Bah. Antonio, explain it to her.”
“That combination of factors made it pretty much inevitable his two groups of agents would blunder across each other, and likely start shooting as soon as they did,” Darling said grimly. “Not having sent us specifically after the Jackal only means he arranged himself plausible deniability.”
“All of this only matters if we are taking this oaf at his word,” Andros growled. “Why should we suspect the Archpope of this?”
“Because I do suspect him of it,” Basra snarled. “It’s too perfect. He’s got multiple teams in the field, involved in dirty work that he can’t have coming to the public’s attention. There’s no better tool to silence them than each other.”
“When you see him,” suggested the Jackal, “be sure to ask why Brother Hernfeldt needed to die. Not that I’m admitting anything, mind you. I may be privy to some interesting facts, however. Better yet, don’t ask the Archpope; do your own digging. Find out what the good brother was covering up for his Holiness.”
“You’re being awfully accommodating, considering you’re being marched to the gallows,” Darling remarked.
The elf laughed. “Oh, please. You lot aren’t going to kill me; I’m a source of information you very much need. Neither is anyone else, because you’ll find there’s a total lack of evidence connecting me to anything to do with that dwarf. All you’ve got me for is vandalizing a factory. I can survive a few months in jail.”
“Speaking of that, where are we taking this guy?” Flora asked. “It doesn’t seem like a great idea to march him into the Archpope’s office…”
“No,” Basra said sharply, turning her head as she walked to glare back at them. “Don’t put him in Justinian’s clutches where he can be silenced. We’ll put him in Imperial custody.”
“Bad idea,” said Darling. “Justinian can get to him there. Take him to the Temple of Avei, explain the situation. They’ll keep him secure.”
“All of this is just a wacky misunderstanding, you know,” the Jackal said, oozing sincerity. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“You’ve just admitted you were working with the Archpope!” Fauna exclaimed.
“Didn’t say doing what, now, did I? I am but a humble shoe-shine boy. His Holiness is very particular about his holy boots.”
“The Avenists are probably the best custodians for him for the time being,” Andros rumbled. “Funny how you didn’t think of that, Syrinx.”
Basra didn’t acknowledge him.
They emerged into Imperial Square and came to a momentary stop.
“Looks like this is our platform,” said Darling, turning to his apprentices. “Straight across to the Temple of Avei, girls.”
“What should we tell them?” asked Flora.
“Why, the simple truth,” he said serenely. They exchanged one of their glances.
“You guys are Eserites, yes?” asked the Jackal. “I dunno if you should try the truth. You might burst into flames or something. Not that I care, but y’know, one of you’s connected to me by rope…”
“Aren’t you hilarious,” Fauna said sourly.
Flora flicked his rope like a horse’s reins. “On with you.”
He carried on his good-natured jabbering as they escorted him across the empty Square to the Temple of Avei. The four Bishops watched them go for a moment. Then Basra snorted and began climbing the steps to the Cathedral. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, caught up with her.
They didn’t speak during their trek through the Cathedral itself, and she didn’t slow until they came right up to the doors to the Archpope’s chambers.
“His Holiness is in prayer,” one of the guards said. They both angled their spears to block her path to the door.
Basra paused, looking back and forth between them for a moment. The Holy Legion wore heavier armor than the Silver Legionnaires—and more elaborate, buffed to a luminous shine and etched with decorative spirals. Beneath the armor, their uniforms were all extravagant white and gold, and the two ceremonial spears bore enough ornamentation that they had to be too heavy to use effectively in battle.
“See, it’s fine,” said Branwen. “We can come back when—”
Basra punched the guard on the right in the throat. The other man wasted a precious half-second looking shocked; before he could even draw breath to cry out, she kicked him between the legs, hard. He crumpled with a hoarse gasp.
“Gap in the armor, there,” she said. “This whole pet project of Justinian’s is just ridiculous. These guys are recruited from the Army—they’re trained to fight with wands and staves, in light uniforms. Then he gives them armor and melee weapons. Feh.”
“Oh, no,” Branwen fretted, wringing her hands, her gaze darting about between Basra and the two felled guards, both of whom were clearly struggling to breathe. “Oh, dear, this is going to be trouble…”
Basra kicked open the doors, then bent momentarily to grab both guards by their heavy steel breastplates and stalked through, dragging them along. For being a woman of such compact build, she was remarkably strong.
The papal meeting chamber in which they ordinarily conferred with the Archpope was deeper into his suite. These main doors opened directly upon a chapel of sorts; the room itself was two stories tall and dominated by a towering staircase covered in thick red carpet, leading up to a dais above. Only a small foyer area sat at its foot, ringed by doors that led deeper into the complex. On the dais was an altar, surrounded by a trifecta of stained glass windows depicting the Trinity of Omnu, Avei and Vidius. All in all, the unusual chapel was more vertical than horizontal. It hadn’t been designed to host religious services; it was just for the Archpope’s personal use.
Justinian himself knelt before the altar above. Two more of the Holy Legion stood at attention at each side of the steps on the floor level; upon Basra’s dramatic entry, they sprang forward, leveling their spears at her.
The Archpope didn’t trouble to raise his voice. The accoustics in the room being what they were, it wasn’t necessary. He rose smoothly to his full, imposing height, turning to gaze down at them. The two soldiers paused, not taking their eyes off the four Bishops now crowding in the doorway.
“What’s troubling you, Basra?” Justinian asked mildly.
“We need to talk,” she snapped.
“I gather this must be rather urgent, then. I do hope you’ve not damaged my guards unduly.”
“Plenty more were they came from,” she said dismissively, dropping the two men to the floor. Both were still clutching the injured portions of their anatomy, the one who’d been hit in the throat making ugly rasping sounds. Branwen shoved past Darling and knelt beside him, lighting up with a golden glow and ignoring the soldier who swiveled his spear to aim at her. After a few seconds of her attention, his breathing eased audibly.
“Thank you, Branwen,” the Archpope said, nodding down at her. “Gentlemen, would you kindly escort your comrades to the infirmary?”
“Your Holiness!” one of the men protested.
“It’s quite all right,” he said, serene as ever. “I have nothing to fear from my Bishops, and this must be very important indeed.”
They obeyed, visibly reluctant and with much glaring at the Bishops. Soon enough, though, they had helped the two limping soldiers out, and Darling pushed the great doors shut behind them.
“So,” said Justinian, still unruffled. “What’s on your mind, Basra?”
“We just had a fascinating conversation with an elf calling himself the Jackal,” she said, glaring up at him.
“He just murdered an Izarite priest by the name of Hernfeldt, in the Temple of Izara itself.”
“And he insisted,” she went on, baring her teeth, “that you contracted him to do so.”
“I see.” Justinian appeared to ponder this for a moment. “My friends, would you join me, please? I hate to talk down to you so.” He stepped back and to one side, making room for them on the dais.
Again, three of the Bishops held back for a moment, exchanging uncertain glances, but Basra began climbing the stairs immediately. Darling followed suit once she was about head height above them, the others finally falling into step behind him. In short order they stood clustered around the altar; while they had ascended, the Archpope had stepped around behind it.
“So,” said Justinian, his expression serious, “in the course of your work on the adventurer problem, you apprehended an admitted murderer, who claimed that I had hired him. And…you believed this?”
“I didn’t,” Branwen said immediately.
“Oh?” He turned his gaze on her, open and nonconfrontational. “Why not?”
She stared back at him, her mouth open soundlessly.
“Forgive me, perhaps I misspoke,” Justinian went on, shaking his head. “I was not challenging your acceptance of this Jackal’s claim, merely calling your attention to it. I gather he offered you no evidence to support this, or you would have mentioned such in the first place. Yet the mere accusation was enough to send you marching back here, to mow down my guards and burst into this chamber.”
“Just for the record,” said Darling, “most of that was Basra.” She gave him a filthy look.
“Then I salute her initiative,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “Yet you all followed. Now, why is that?”
“Because,” Darling replied evenly, “it would be quite in character.”
If anything, the Archpope’s smile widened slightly. “And since you’ve been set loose upon the adventurers of this city, at least one of whom is a priest-killer of terrifying power, you are naturally somewhat perturbed at the thought that one might be working under the Church’s auspices.”
“It is a troubling idea, if true,” Andros rumbled.
“Troubling?” Justinian raised an eyebrow. “I should think it would be appalling.”
The four of them exchanged looks again; even Basra seemed confused, now. This was not going at all the way they had anticipated.
“I would like to show you something,” Justinian said with a small smile. Turning, he ran his fingers along the lower lip of the frame holding Omnu’s stained glass portrait, then reached under it. Silently, the entire window swung inward, revealing a spiraling staircase vanishing downward into darkness. The Archpope stepped through this. “If you would follow me, please? Whoever is last through, kindly push the window closed behind you.”
They looked at each other for an uncertain moment, in which he vanished completely from sight around the bend and downward, and then Basra grunted and set off after him, Darling right on her heels. Branwen followed, leaving Andros to come along behind and close off the secret passage.
It wasn’t a dauntingly long stairwell, though it was steep, narrow and generally uncomfortable. At least it wasn’t left in pitch-darkness; the lights came from the tiniest of fairy lamps, but they were frequently spaced, leaving the steps dim but not difficult to navigate. They descended perhaps two stories before the stairwell terminated and deposited them on the floor of a room much smaller than the chapel above.
It was a library, that much was obvious at a glance. For some reason, it was predominated by a fountain against the far wall, which produced both a soft, constant chuckle of falling water and a pale blue glow which was the only illumination in the dim room. It was barely enough to reveal the laden bookshelves lining both walls and low reading stand in the middle of the floor. Justinian stepped to one side, turning a knob mounted by the door, and fairy lamps came alight, bringing the illlumination in the room up to a pleasant, warm glow.
“This,” he said, “is one of the great secrets of the papacy. In that fountain is an oracular koi, a gift from Sifan.”
“An oracle?” Branwen breathed. “A real one?”
“Its powers are, of course, limited,” the Archpope admitted. “It does not answer questions pertaining to immediate tactical concerns, but rather those which touch upon a person’s path in life.”
“What’s the difference?” Basra asked.
“I confess it sometimes eludes me,” Justinian said with a smile. “It can be…frustrating…to work with. Luckily, there are other tools available.” He gestured to the shelves lining the left side of the room. “You may recognize some of those instruments as divinatory. All are relics; modern divination enchantments are quite specific in their application, but less powerful. The Church, of course, has access to such measures, and they are useful in their place, albeit quite easy to block with simple counterspells. These older, more powerful tools are, like the oracle, designed to reveal truth, not fact. They are likewise rather difficult to work with, and harder still to interpret. The same is true of the books,” he added, nodding to the shelves lining the other side of the room. “Every one old, and profoundly magical. These are the sort of tomes which are more than ink on paper; they reveal whatever truth they are designed to, which often depends upon the reader and the needs of the moment. Some of them, in fact, are quite full of personality. Some of those are particularly difficult.”
Smiling, he stepped forward, positioning himself in front of the reading stand, and spread his hands. “Welcome, my friends, to the Chamber of Truth. You are the first individuals aside from a sitting Archpope to set foot in this library. Here, generations of pontiffs have consulted these various tools to gain wisdom and perspective. And, to a lesser extent, knowledge, though as I have said, the creators of these devices were either unable or unwilling to grant access to the facts of the present-day world. I cannot, in short, identify the perpetrator of the murders, but I can obtain guidance toward the right direction in which to look.”
“Why show this to us?” Andros demanded.
“Why assume the Jackal spoke truth to you?” Justinian returned. He shook his head, his expression growing troubled. “Each of you is a politician, in your own way. You are here, as I told you when I formed this group, because your particular personalities are, in my opinion, well-suited to the kind of work I intend for you to do. But there must be thousands with such inclinations; you have brought yourselves to this point through your own cleverness and ambition. You know what the politics of this city are like. Mistrust is deeply seeded in you…and rightly so.”
“And?” Basra said skeptically.
“And,” Justinian replied, “that has placed us on uneven footing. You have always had to come to me as supplicants; you have always scrabbled for every scrap of information you could find, while I reaped the benefits of all these gifts, gathered by all those who came before me.”
He began to pace slowly around the room, frowning in thought as he studied various books and tools in passing.
“I am not satisfied with this. There are men and women…and then there are gods. What other steps do we need between?”
“There must always be sheep and shepherds,” Andros rumbled. Basra rolled her eyes.
“Quite so,” said the Archpope with some amusement, glancing at him. “Make no mistake, I am a man of many complex plans; it is not, for innumerable reasons, feasible for me to share every detail of my operations with you. But I want you, finally, to understand what it is that I mean to accomplish.”
“Which is?” Darling prompted when he fell silent for a moment.
Justinian stopped directly in front of the oracular fountain, staring at them intently. “Change. A more equal world. A world in which only the gods are above us. The world is evolving rapidly; institutions are failing. The Empire teeters, and the Church cannot claim to be faring much better. Individual cults cling to ancient ways that simply don’t function in the modern world. We have reached and passed the limit of what can be accomplished through reform. Right now, Elilial and her Black Wreath are preparing another mighty campaign against the mortal realm, as she has done several times in the past. This time, though, she has struck at a perfect moment; there are no more heroes or adventurers of a quality adequate to throw her back, and the institutions which should otherwise take up that burden are reeling from their own failure to adapt to reality, too weak and misaimed to take action. It falls to us, my friends, to break both the rock and the hard place. To bring humanity into the future.”
“That’s a lovely speech,” Basra said skeptically, “but I don’t see what it has to do with you hiring the Jackal to kill us.”
“I hired the Jackal,” said the Archpope evenly, “but not to kill you. To be frank, Basra, I did not plan or expect you to encounter him at all; he was not aimed at you.”
“Are you behind all the killings?” Darling asked.
Justinian shook his head. “Not even most. However, I have taken the opportunity they present to advance my goals.”
“How remarkably…forthright,” Andros said, narrowing his eyes.
Justinian smiled faintly. “I have brought you here and shown you this for a reason. It is time that there be greater trust between us. Up till now, you have moved in suspicion, uncertain of each other’s intentions, or mine. Now, we are on even footing: now, I have as much to prove as you. To be honest, I had not expected things to come to this pass so soon. Still, we adapt. I would have us be more equal, my friends. We must be, to work together. To save our world.”
He stepped to one side, gesturing around him with one hand. “This is the beginning. Going forward, I want you to have access to this library. You may find it takes some time to develop an affinity for it; extracting useful information from these various tools is something of an acquired skill. But you have proven yourselves trustworthy, at considerable personal risk. It is time that I do the same.”
“But…what are we doing, then?” Branwen asked tremulously. “Are we done chasing the murderers?”
“The Black Wreath’s retaliatory strikes are a lesser concern,” said Justinian. “I would not consider the matter dropped, but for the time being, it must become a lower priority. In any case, the killings are about to cease.”
“How are you able to ensure that?” Andros demanded.
“Because their pattern is quite particular, and because I have taken steps to identify all those who meet the criteria they have shown in picking their targets. They weren’t exactly subtle. There simply aren’t any suitable victims left.”
“So, you think they’re just going to stop?” Basra asked scornfully.
Justinian shook his head; the faintest grin tugged at his lips. “I think they are going to change tactics. We will deal with whatever comes next, but I fear we must acknowledge our failure to stop this particular campaign. However, it has set us on the right track. I intend nothing less than the dissolution of every corrupt, non-functional institution holding humanity back and leaving us vulnerable to Elilial’s advances. Obviously, to simply obliterate the political powers of this world would result in sheer anarchy, leaving us even more vulnerable than before…”
“So you’ll set yourself up as the power in Tiraas,” Basra said.
“No.” Justinian turned to focus the full weight of his gaze on her. “I will set humanity up as the power. And a necessary first step in that is to cull the last destructive malcontents who roam this world. Your work will continue, my friends. We must control or silence every powerful remainder of the Age of Adventures, and we have not much time in which to do it.”
Silence fell while they digested this, staring at him.
“You are talking about war on the entire damned world,” Darling whispered. “Treason against the Empire is only the start of this. You’d need to bring down the Church itself, the cults… The elven tribes, the remaining dragons, Tar’naris, Tellwyrn’s University… Everything which is a power in the world.”
“A daunting prospect, is it not?” Justinian said, smiling pleasantly. “To do this, Antonio, we will need to move beyond combative models of thinking. As you have implied, waging war on all these institutions simply isn’t a prospect—and if it were, we could not afford to leave the world so vulnerable to Elilial’s depredations. No, this will not be about destroying, but creating. We must lift up the people, grant them the power to seize their own destiny. We must create a world in which everyone is a power to contend with. In this world, no one can rule over or oppress the masses. No demon goddess can destroy them.”
“You’ll still have to bust a lot of heads to do that,” Basra mused, rubbing her chin and staring into space thoughtfully. “There are a lot of well-established institutions that won’t take kindly to losing their power.”
“Such as, for example, all of them,” Andros grunted.
“But we wouldn’t need to break every one of them completely,” Branwen added. “Just…prevent them from acting against us…”
“How, exactly, do you mean to elevate the human race like this?” Darling asked.
“Eight thousand years ago,” said the Archpope, “the beings we now call gods were mortal men and women. They rose up when the needs of their people demanded it, to seize power, to level the playing field, cast down the corrupt powers of their age and usher the mortal races into a new and brighter era. What has been done once can be done again. A great doom is coming. We will finish what the gods began, and lift up everyone.”
“If everyone is a god,” Darling said slowly, “no one is.”
The fountain splashed quietly, all of them staring, thinking, waiting.
“I can see why you need all the adventurers either working for us or out of the picture,” Basra said at last.
“It is a necessary first step,” Justinian agreed, nodding. “The question is: can you share my vision? Will you join me?”
“I will,” Branwen said immediately. She was gazing at him with something perilously close to worship. Andros nodded silently.
“Hell with it, I’m in,” said Basra.
“All right,” Darling said slowly. “All right…let’s do it. But!” He pointed a finger at the Archpope. “This business of running around chasing our tails after various adventurers isn’t going to work. We’ll just keep tripping over each other, scaring them off and provoking them to counterattack. We only stumbled across the Jackal because this project spooked Mary the Crow into intervening. If we do this, we do it smart. We do it my way.”
Justinian smiled. “I would have it no other way.”