What had once been an idyllic, mist-shrouded valley was now a bombed-out wasteland of craters, broken buildings and broken bodies. The mist had faded away, the air now filled with an ozone tingle of lingering magic and the iron taste of blood. Little more than a few buildings, lucky to have even one wall left standing, was all that remained of the village. Adventure Society and Magic Society personnel swarmed what was left like ants on a corpse.
The Adventure Society staff were mostly hauling away the dead, piled onto wagons that floated over ground too rough for wheels. The Magic Society investigators were conducting magical analysis even as the dead were being carted off around them.
While the adventurers who had participated in the battle had casualties, they had managed to avoid all but a few fatalities. The Purity loyalist had more fallen amongst their number but most of the dead were the angel-like beings that had come through the sky portals. Torn apart and dropped out of the sky, large portions of their bodies had been annihilated, leaving only macabre remnants behind.
“They call themselves messengers,” Clive explained as he and the rest of the group picked their way through the carnage. “They’re too inherently magical to use essence magic and they aren’t native to our world.”
“Your sister can summon one, right, Humphrey?” Belinda asked.
Humphrey’s sister, Henrietta, was a summoning specialist, with an array of summoning abilities and familiars. It was an unusual specialty that made her something of a one-woman team.
“That isn’t a true messenger,” Clive said. “Messengers are living things from physical reality. A summoning ability essentially creates a controlled monster. It might have the shape and the power, but it’s not the real thing.”
“Is that what happened here?” Neil asked. “Some kind of mass summoning?”
“No,” Clive said. “If the messengers here were just summoned fakes, the dead ones would be going up in rainbow smoke by now. Those rings were portals bringing the messengers from somewhere. Even with the kind of magic that dam had gathered up, it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Jason came here,” Sophie pointed out. “Twice.”
“These are not ordinary times,” Ken said.
“Exactly,” Clive agreed. “This monster surge is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It is a time where the impossible had become possible, at least for a while. Every surge weakens the dimensional wall between our universe and the deep astral, but this time it’s been shredded. It will take a while to repair itself. Until it does, we’ve got the worst monster surge in recorded history to deal with, plus whatever manages to invade through the gaps. First the Builder and now these messengers.”
“Which leads to the question of their intent,” Ken said. “The Builder’s purpose is clear: the plunder our astral spaces. What do these new beings want?”
“All the ones that survived flew away,” Humphrey said. “We’ll find out when some of them are captured.”
“We already know what they want,” Gary said. “They were called here by Purity extremists. They’re going to declare everyone and everything they don’t like to be unclean and try to wipe it off the face of the planet.”
“There has always been a question as to why Purity chose to take a part in this affair,” Ken said. “Pitting itself against the entire world, with only something it should detest as an ally. Perhaps we finally caught a glimpse of their ultimate objective.”
“Even if as many of those messengers came through those rings as the valley teams reported,” Humphrey said, “that’s not enough for the Purity church to take on a whole world full of adventurers and other churches.”
“You’re assuming this is the only place they’re doing it,” Clive said. “We forced their hand, here, and they opened the portals ahead of plan. What if there are places like this all over the world? What if they were waiting for the conflict with the Builder to reach full swing before swooping in with a global army of messengers?”
“Why would these messenger things participate?” Neil asked. “What’s in it for them?”
“And why are they called messengers?” Sophie asked. “What’s the message, and who is it from?”
“What I’m about to say is broadly generalising,” Clive said. “Very broadly, since we’re talking about a people spread across multiple realities. From what I understand, however, the messengers have a very rigid and uniform culture. They are also one of the few intelligent beings known for interdimensional travel. It's the main reason they are so well known."
“We get it,” Belinda said. “It’s not a research paper, Clive. You can just explain things without needing to qualify every detail.”
“Fine,” Clive said. “By and large, messenger culture has a single, unifying idea: that they are the highest form of life and that they represent the will of the living cosmos.”
“The cosmos is alive?” Humphrey asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Clive said.
“Since when does something not being true stop people from believing in it?” Neil asked.
“Very true,” Ken agreed. “Once people invest enough in an idea, true or false no longer matters. They have made it such an intrinsic part of their identity that any challenge to that idea’s validity is viewed as an attack. Once it takes hold in an entire culture, that culture becomes very dangerous to its neighbours.”
“That’s the problem with the messengers,” Clive said. “Their idea is that they are born perfect and that this makes them inherent rulers.”
As they made their way through the valley, the remains of messengers were still being hauled away. Sophie watched a floating cart, piled high with bodies, driven past them by an Adventure Society official.
“So much for that,” she said.
“Has Purity decided that these things should be in charge and started to bring them in?” Neil asked.
“That’s for the Adventure Society to find out,” Clive said. “It’s out of our hands, now. There’s no way they leave this in the hands of a silver-rank team.”
“It won’t be a team,” Humphrey said. “I imagine they’ll either set up a new department, like the Builder response units, or roll it in with the Builder response and bump their resource and staff allocation.”
“You said that they can travel between dimensions,” Belinda said to Clive. “Wouldn't that make them showing up here a lot less impossible than you said? And what do they need portals for, then?”
"It's not that they can travel between dimensions inherently," Clive said. "One of the things that makes them unique is that their bodies and souls aren't separate the way they are for almost every other physical being. Nor are they beings of pure astral energy, like disembodied souls or ordinary astral entities. They’re something in between, neither fully physical nor fully spiritual in nature. They are gestalt beings, body and soul fused together. Only through death do their souls become completely spiritual.”
“Sure,” Neil said. “What does that actually mean?”
"It means," Clive said, "that they can endure dimensional forces far beyond what we can. More even than a celestine, like Sophie, with her inherent astral affinity. Dimensional travel is hard. Even if you can punch through the dimensional membrane and escape physical reality, that puts you outside it. No physical reality means your body stops existing, leaving your soul to drift off to wherever souls go when we die."
“That’s what happened to Jason, right?” Humphrey asked. “Except for the soul floating away part.”
"Yes," Clive said. "Outworlders are plucked out of their worlds and sent down a channel of magic to another one. Their bodies stop existing, exactly like I said, but their souls form a new one to inhabit when they arrive. It's very similar to the process of a monster manifestation. Of course, all essence users go through the same process of forming a body out of magic as they rank up; we just do it more gradually. Jason being an outworlder simply gave him a head start."
“You’re saying that we’re all monsters?” Sophie asked.
"There are some differences, but it's a matter of details and specifics," Clive clarified. "We're more similar to summoned familiars."
"What does any of this have to do with dimensional travel?" Belinda asked. "Is it that these messengers don't get turned into dimensional breakfast spread the moment they head out into the astral?"
“It’s not quite that simple,” Clive said. “They are far more resilient to dimensional forces, but even they can’t just roam around the astral without being annihilated. For beings like us, we would require some manner of dimensional vessel. Essentially, a small astral space that can fly around with a pocket of reality for us to live in.”
“Wasn’t the Order of the Reaper’s astral space some kind of broken dimensional vessel, like what you’re describing?” Sophie asked.
"Yes," Clive explained. "So, it doesn't even have to be that small. These messengers, though, can use much harsher means of dimensional travel. Something close to the randomly forming magical streams that carry outworlders between worlds, although it would need to be more regulated and more stable. Methods like that would destroy any of us, but the messengers can endure it because of their gestalt nature. Of course, creating the kind of dimensional stream is beyond any astral magic we have here. Or had here, before the Builder showed up."
"But these messengers have it, and they've given it to the church of Purity," Ken said.
"So it would seem," Clive said. "Even with the right knowledge, it would require an almost unconscionable amount of power and resources to accomplish. Even the dam wasn't enough and they had to sacrifice gods know how many people. Even then, it's not a means of dimensional travel that we could use. Only the messengers can survive that kind of journey."
"And these messengers traverse worlds to imposing their own ideology and order?" Ken asked.
"I don't think they came to increase their between-meal snack options," Neil muttered.
“You’re right, Ken,” Clive said. “Also, as Gary suggested, they’ll fit Purity’s ideals far better than the Builder. Having them come in and take over may well be the god’s true goal.”
“That’s bad, right?” Neil asked. “That sounds bad.”
“It doesn’t change anything,” Sophie said. “There’s a bunch of pricks coming to our world and we need to punch them a whole lot.”
“We may be getting ahead of ourselves,” Humphrey said. “For all we know, the messengers here are the only ones, and a large portion of them were killed before they could escape. This might be a negligible threat.”
“Humphrey,” Gary said. “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention for the last few years, but if you bet on things not getting worse, it won’t be your money you lose. It’ll be your head.”
The group made their way out of the destroyed village and through a woodland path where more wagons of dead were being taken out. These, unlike the ones they’d seen previously, were covered with tarps. The dripping blood gave it away; the smell of death was too pervasive to pinpoint a specific source.
They arrived in a large forest clearing. One of the main ritual sites used to create the portal rings, the ground had been covered in massive ritual circles. It was also covered in blood. Like everywhere else, the original state only remained where not cratered with damage from the ritual being sent awry by Clive and Belinda’s sabotage. It seemed to have been less heavily affected, though, and was crawling with Magic Society investigators. It looked like the bodies had already all been removed from this area, to facilitate the investigation. The last of them had been those they had seen being taken away along the forest path.
"Does it seem to anyone else like there's a surprising amount of blood on the ground?" Humphrey asked.
“There was a battle,” Ken said.
“And people have a lot of blood in them,” Neil said. He was a healer and knew this better than most.
“Yep,” Sophie agreed. “You’d be surprised at how much there is once you take it all out.”
The rest of the group all turned to look at her.
“What?” she asked.
“Over here,” someone called out to them. Miles Cotezee was weaving his way through the craters and the investigators poking around at any trace of ritual circle left behind. He signalled them with a reserved wave as he approached.
“Any word on what the power source here in the valley was yet?” Clive asked immediately.
“Yeah,” Miles said gravely. It was a change from his general air of tiredness at the bureaucratic lot that was his life as an Adventure Society official.
“You know how this place was where all the Purity loyalists brought their families?” Miles asked. “We thought it was to keep the most zealous worshippers safe, but it turns out these evil bastards were just stocking firewood.”
Clive went pale.
“What?” Humphrey asked.
“Ritual sacrifice,” Clive said darkly. “Everyone has magic in their bodies. Even normals. Like the blood Sophie was talking about, there’s a surprising amount once you take all of it out. I've never seen it done myself but it's one of the worse ways to go. What's left after is…”
They all turned to look back the way they came, where they’d seen the covered wagons.
“We need to burn what’s left of this filth religion to the ground,” Miles snarled. “There were kids on those wagons. What used to be kids. I’m never going to unsee that.”
“Can these people get any more foul?” Sophie asked. “I thought I’d met some detestable gutter scum in my life but this is something else. How many people are we talking about?”
“Too many,” Miles said. “With what’s left of them and the general destruction, we’ll never have solid numbers.”
“They sacrificed their own families?”
“From what we’ve been able to tell,” Miles said, “most of them went willingly. The parents, anyway. That’s the kind of faith we’re dealing with. It looks like not all of them were willing to lay down for the cause, though. A lot of these people didn’t go quietly, so it wasn’t all unyielding faith.”
“Most of Purity’s worshippers turned aside from the god as the truth came out,” Ken said. “I knew that only the most zealous orders remained with the church, but I had no idea the ramifications would be this.”
“They’re not a religion anymore,” Neil said. “I’m part of a church and I won’t let them say that they’re the same as me. They’re just some kind of death cult, now.”
“That’s an opinion being mirrored by anyone who had to see this mess,” Miles said. “That’s not what I called you in here for, though. This is way bigger than any of us, now.”
“Our goal hasn’t changed,” Humphrey said. “We want our team member back.”
“Funny you should say that,” Miles said. “Come with me.”
He led them away from the main area and onto a forest path out of the clearing.
“We’ve set up in another clearing that wasn't full of dead... where we’re processing the people who arrived at the bottom of the craters.”
“Any idea who they are?” Humphrey asked.
“Or where they came from?” Clive added.
“Yes, and yes,” Miles said. “The who is outworlders. A hundred and nineteen outworlders, all arrived at the same time. As for the where they’re from, that’s what you’re here for.”
“Why us?” Humphrey asked.
“Because when we told them they’d been brought to another world, they all asked about Jason Asano.”