Alanna-Lucile hopped off of the wagon that had brought her to the base of the waterfall, grateful for the ride but sore. She felt she knew the place, as often as she had seen it through Ryan's mental world; and yet, even with all of her divine senses, from below she simply could not sense the concealed places within the cliff.
It wasn't as though she was considered an enemy; no, Ryan had done some tweaking of the original enchantment. It was... difficult, but he had manipulated the rules slightly. The place was protected, and heavily, and would always be; yet she easily found the staircase, marked with a simple triangle in a simple circle, and slowly walked her way up the stairs.
It was a long series of switchback steps, if gentle in slope and with a convenient system of railing so that she always had something to grab on to or even lean on if she got tired. For whatever reason, Ryan insisted that the way into the cliffs be only accessible from above, and so to get to them, she had to first climb all the way up. She didn't mind, although the porter she'd hired to carry her luggage would be miffed.
When she stepped up into the plateau and back into the sunlight, she found Miana sitting by the cliff, looking out over the seemingly unbroken sea of trees beneath. The wind that came over the cliff was fresh, but Lucile could tell without coming close that a miasma hung over Miana, an exhaustion that was palpable, and also... very difficult to put into words.
So Lucile came and sat next to her, and put an arm on Miana's shoulder. Miana turned to look at her friend and partner, but the reserve there was tangible. There was something tangled between the three of them, now; a sense of knowing true selves, of their dirty secrets being exposed. Although they had not quite sorted out their thoughts and feelings, they knew what the others were hiding, and why.
And the why wasn't much. It wasn't complicated. They did it because they trusted what they were told instead of opening up and learning each other. Each had approached the other two based on perceptions, and history, and past heartbreaks. None had actually seen the true heart of the others before they made their decision.
Lucile had assumed Miana would be a butcher, a brainless simpleton who liked to wag her sword at everything that moved, but she was bright, sharp witted, and wrathful. That wrath, although it made her unstable, was always pointed towards those she considered unworthy--she didn't strike indiscriminately, but at those who wronged her, and to Lucile, that seemed like a major difference.
Miana, she knew, had thought of Lucile as a nobody, and Alanna as a stuck-up bitch; she was sure the other woman's opinion of her had changed, now, though to what, she wasn't clear.
"Show me around?" offered Lucile, with forced cheer and eagerness.
Miana nodded, and the two moved towards the temple, and the few stone buildings atop the cliff that had sprung up nearly overnight to house the refugees of the town of Balant. More, now, were quickly appearing, though out of shoddier wood construction. Soon, a great many of them would leave and scatter throughout the nation of Belma, finding relatives and others to stay with, but the ones that stayed would need a proper town, and that was missing.
In the end, the hidden fortress had not been needed for this fight, but the truth was that the war was far from over. The army they had beaten was not the only army, and the necromancers they killed were not the only ones, nor even the most dangerous of their enemies. They had spoken, a little, since then, and it seemed that Miana was keen to ask a number of her people to stay and guard her here. They would be joined, soon enough, by other members of the Goddess of Blades' religion, as well as some from her own religion, as they restructured the churches into one.
She'd found out after the case that the seed of the idea was planted by that meddling fox-woman, but Alanna understood. She'd had... to negotiate things with Erika in the past. Apparently, her domain of Knowledge infringed on the Arch Sorceress in some way, and in return for being allowed to meddle with her domain, Alanna was given a small favor. Since then, she had shown up a time or two, always seeming to know everything, always interfering in ways that were strangely prescient, even to a Goddess of Knowledge.
Could she really have known that the three gods would merge for this battle? So long in advance? Alanna would not have considered it plausible that any three gods would get along with each other well enough to pull that off, let alone manage to still be friends afterwards.
They passed a low stone cottage with a waterwheel driven by the river. Lucile, borrowing again just a bit from her repressed domain of Rivers, which she had inherited with her key, examined the flow of the water and the sturdiness of the banks, but found nothing to quibble about, not there. She sensed... a disturbance in the river's flow, one she felt sink deep into the cliff, but she knew better than to probe it.
They wandered the small village for a half hour, Miana introducing her to a few people, including Chibal, who was (and apparently had been since the battle) sunk into a stupor on the other shore of the river.
"Many of my people are like that, now," said Miana, with a heavy tint of sadness to her voice. "The goddess failed them. No matter what we say, many will view what happened as betrayal, or as death. The Goddess they knew is gone."
"And another took her place," replied Lucile, firmly. "People will talk, and people will worry. We'll get through this, Miana."
"Yes," she said, the doubt heavy in her voice, though she tried to add some determination. "I know we will."
They walked up the river and back down, watching as several hunters returned with thorngoats and birds and vegetables and who knows what else foraged from the wilds.
They waited for a while, and were granted a small bowl of stew each when the meal was ready. As daylight waned, the whole town began to funnel in towards the Temple.
Lucile had never really sat in on another religion's lectures, and certainly not one from another god--unless she counted Ryan's impromptu speech in her own church. Still, she knew him to be a bit of a brat about these things, and wondered if he would really be able to pull off a good speech.
The pews arranged in a ring around him were mostly full, and a hush fell over the assemblage, before he started speaking. Lucile noted with some pleasure that the acoustics of the room seemed fantastic, letting Marth--that was the name Ryan gave his other body--speak clearly without magic.
"Ryan told me recently that his people have a saying," Marth began, "that you only ever know a person when you have walked in their shoes. Not their clothing, exactly, but lived their life, known their burdens as they do. I find this an interesting concept. How do we ever really know someone? Do we ever really know someone?"
"The Three--Xethram, Alanna, and Ciel'ostra--are as different from each other as could be. One wandering prophet, whose feet have taken him far from home; one gentle scholar, only interested in peace and stability; one warrior, dedicated to defending her people even if it means throwing away her own life. How could any of these three know the others? How could a wandering man understand one who never wishes to leave? How could a scholar know the grit and pain of enduring your wounds to fight one more battle, just one more blade stroke, to save just one more life? How could a warrior, avid defender of the weak, ever understand a man who chose to walk away from everything that was once his life?"
"Our lives are not just in the places and things that we gather. So much that you have left behind in your homes will be used by your enemy, and yet, your enemy will not know you because of what you left behind. If they find a forge," he gestured at a person, "or an oven, or a tanner's, or a school, they will not know the people who lived there, and they will not care. To know someone else is a choice. It is a choice made by those who love, and who know love, or by those who hate, and who know hate, or sometimes just a choice made by those who are curious and wish to know. Knowing someone, knowing something is not an accident. You must learn."
"To learn about people is to learn a great deal about yourself," he turned at last away from Lucile, but his voice continued to ring clearly. "You will see many of the same weaknesses in others that you see in yourself, but expressed so very differently. You will see many of the same strengths, but each having very different consequences. You will see the same history, the same places, from different Eyes. By knowing people, you know how you are alike, and how you are different."
"And both in peace and in war, we are alike, and we are different. Your warriors have killed their civilians, as their warriors have killed yours." Marth gestured at the men in the back, prisoners from the enemy. "Hate them, but do not be surprised that they hate you. Or love them, knowing that you cannot protect them. Because all you could possibly do to protect them is end the war, and that is, as always, out of our hands, alas." Marth continued turning, slowly, giving the speech to each section of the church in turn.
"And in the end, if you could understand your leaders, you would know why the war is not so easily ended. Should be, perhaps; but still, time and time again, it is not. It is not ended, and it will not be, because each side in turn believes the other has gone too far. This atrocity--and it was one--was not the first, and may not be the last. All we can hope to do is to not become monsters. We must not become twisted by war."
"Because after every great storm, after every great turmoil, there will be peace," said Marth, and his voice carried reverence and a hint of love. "After we endure the trials of blood and pain and suffering, we will return home and raise children, and smith and bake and teach and tan hides. And if our souls are corrupted by blood and death then they will yearn to leave behind those beautiful and peaceful and loving places that we call home and strike out once more for the battlefield."
"We are not yet to that shining oasis of light," said Marth, his voice awash with reverence, but now also pain. "We are not yet through this storm. But the gods have shown us that peace and love can descend upon a battlefield, and evil can be rooted out and destroyed. That yes, war continues, and death continues, and suffering continues." Pain showed distinctly on his face. "We could all wish that what was done be undone, but time moves ever onwards. We could wish that our friends," his voice almost cracked, though Alanna suspected that was slightly an act, "would return to us. But some things are beyond even the gods. They cannot undo what has been done, nor can we. We simply move forward."
"Move forward, and fight when we must, and preserve our souls so that we can return home, so that we do not become monsters taken by the scent of blood and the feel of death. At home we create strength, and at war we preserve it, and if we must wander between the two, or wander this world looking for answers, for strength, then we go where we must, and search for our place in the world. And finding your place in this world," Marth turned to look at Miana, and at Lucile, and Lucile felt her heart quicken at his glance, "is a wonderful feeling, and a beautiful thing. Something worth defending--sometimes by going to war, and sometimes by staying at home, so that the beauty of your soul is not smashed by war." He smiled, and Lucile smiled back.
"This church shall not judge you--not except for heretics, those who commit certain sins. Necromancy; corruption; betrayal; torture. Those who know they court the darkness, and accept it; those are heretics, and to be cast out, or destroyed, that they do not pollute the world that we seek so earnestly to create. Warriors and cooks and smiths and scholars, peasants and nobles and all others. To the gods and to us of the church you are neighbors; you are our people. And to us, all people are one, or could be."
"Until then, until we find an answer that lets us create peace, we weather this storm with the help of the gods, and thank them. For I know I," he said with a sudden laugh, "would certainly not be standing here before you without them. I would be dead, as would so many of us."
"Live, love, worship the gods, and be at peace. This place is a sanctuary and a home as long as you wish to be here. In the name of the Three, go forth, and make the world a better place." He clapped his hands three times, and the others, clearly having learned that that signaled the end, began speaking quietly to each other.
Lucile and Miana watched as several people approached Marth with questions, until after a moment, Miana pulled her towards a small side room, one that led to a staircase. At the base of the stairs were a few closed doors, but Miana instead slid aside a section of wall, and they passed within.
Lucile paused as she neared what she felt was a barrier. She knew what was coming; this was the core of the protection, and once she was within, once she left a body and Key within, then her enemies would never be able to find her. So, too, would her religion not be able to find her; only through the Church of the Three would anyone be able to reach them.
It had taken some doing, but apparently someone had been impressed by their efforts. Alanna didn't really understand, but... she trusted her friends.
Still, she hesitated at the edge of the barrier. Lucile herself did not carry the Key, but she would send it along soon, and then that would be that. Her church thrown in turmoil, to be saved by the Three. Even sending one body through, she felt, would begin to make that turmoil begin to churn.
"We will get through this, Alanna," teased Miana.
Lucile just sighed and stepped through. They would; she knew. Or perhaps, she had faith. What a concept, she mused quietly to herself; gods that she, as a goddess herself, could have faith in. People that she could have faith in.
Far away, she felt a twisting as something that had gotten used to her reacted to her fading presence. She smiled grimly to herself, and kept walking. Soon.
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- Pseudonymous bastard
A lost soul looking for a path through life. My history has not provided a stable foundation quite yet, so who knows when it will all collapse. Hopefully not soon!
I have been writing stories since I was a child but I wasn't really encouraged or taught. I have developed bad habits and gotten lost inside myself, but still intend to keep fighting and trying to get myself set upright. Fortunately and not, I am not quite alone, but it's always hard to have the wrong kind of help, isn't it?
Best of luck to anyone silly enough to find this page. Work hard and don't end up like me. It has its upsides, but it's really not worth it...