Balthus recovered from his passage through the portal to Al’Shazan’s realm with a lurch. Blessedly, at least for his stomach’s sake, the place smelled less like an unholy mixture of lube and wine than the last time he had visited. Striding forward, Balthus quickly came upon the God relaxing on a well cushioned sofa while a trembling artist slowly chiseled his likeness into marble. Seeing him enter, Al’Shazan leapt up from his couch excitedly, startling the sculptor into missing a blow with his hammer and chisel.
“BALT!” Al’Shazan shouted cheerfully, the power of its voice rocking Balthus back onto his heels. “IT’S GOOD THAT YOU CAME SO QUICKLY, I’M AFRAID THAT THERE’S BEEN A BIT OF AN ISSUE.”
The sculptor began shaking, almost crying as he looked at the deformed bust. The previously unmarred marble now scarred by his errant stroke. The rest of the work looked very good, it captured the God’s soft androgynous curves beautifully. Balthus was hardly an art critic, that was more Gareth’s field, but the sculptor was clearly a master of his craft. The sculpture represented hours, days, possibly even months of the man’s life devoted to trying to capture an impression of the mercurial God, now ruined in one errant stroke. Poetic really. Matthias wouldn’t be pleased.
“OH SORRY ABOUT THAT,” it said, “WHY AM I SHORT OF ATTENTION? GOT A SHORT LITTLE SPAN OF ATTENTION. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT SO MUCH, WE CAN ALWAYS TOUCH IT UP IN POST.” Not waiting for the sculptor to respond, Al’Shazan changed its appearance, molding its nose mirror the divot on the sculpture.
“SEE,” Al’Shazan continued, “IT LOOKS JUST LIKE ME.”
“My Lord,” Balthus sighed. “We both know that you could have easily fixed the mistake to the sculpture. Frankly, I don’t even see why you utilize artists at all. You could create a perfect carving of yourself out of any material with a single thought.”
“OF COURSE I COULD,” it responded affably, “BUT OVER THE EONS IT’S JUST GOTTEN BORING BEING OMNIPOTENT. I COULD DESTROY AND CREATE THIS ENTIRE WORLD IN A SECOND. I COULD ANNIHILATE EVERYONE IN THIS REALM AND BRING THEM BACK WITHOUT THEM EVEN KNOWING IT. I KNOW I’VE KILLED AND RESURRECTED YOU AT LEAST TWICE BALT, AND DO YOU KNOW WHAT, IT JUST DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORK FOR IT. SOLATH HERE IS A MASTER ARTISAN AND HE’S SPENT A LIFETIME HONING HIS CRAFT. THIS SCULPTURE IS THE CULMINATION OF HIS VERY BEING, AND IT MEANS SO MUCH MORE THAN ANYTHING I COULD MAKE EVEN IF THE PRODUCT WAS LITERALLY IDENTICAL.”
“Excuse me my Lord,” Balthus responded slowly, trying to keep the distress from his voice. “Did you say that you’ve already killed and resurrected me twice?”
“WELL YES,” the youthful God of All nodded affably, “YOU WERE SO SMUG AFTER BEATING ME AT TINALL IT WAS JUST SATISFYING TO ATOMIZE YOU. VERY PETTY OF ME I KNOW, I’M SEEING A THERAPIST ABOUT IT.”
“And the second time my Lord?” Balthus questioned, heart clouded with morbid curiosity.
“OH I WAS TRYING TO MAKE ANOTHER MOON BUT I DROPPED IT,” Al’Shazan shrugged sheepishly.
“What do you mean you dropped it my Lord?” He couldn’t help himself.
“MY SUBCONSCIOUS REGULATES GRAVITY, THE FORCE THAT PULLS EVERYTHING TOWARDS THE GROUND,” the God scratched its newly asymmetrical nose while refusing to make eye contact with Balthus. “I ACCIDENTALLY APPLIED TOO MUCH GRAVITY AND IT SMASHED THE ENTIRE EMPIRE. VERY TRAGIC.”
Balthus sighed. He didn’t really know what he expected when he asked the question. Of course Al’Shazan had killed him in a fit of pique and accidentally destroyed all life. Of course it would reverse its actions and pretend that it had never happened. At least it had the good manners to be embarrassed about what it had done. The last time he had caught Al’Shazan in a mistake this large had been when explorers discovered the Platypus. He still hadn’t heard a good explanation for that abandoned science project.
“Very good, I’m sure my death was extremely satisfying,” he stated as he opened his eyes. “Now you said that there was a matter of some urgency? I believe you even mentioned that it might be life or death?”
“WELL, DO YOU REMEMBER THE PARTY YOU THREW FOR YOUR ASCENSION DAY?” Al’Shazan asked, not making eye contact with Balthus.
“Do you mean the party you had me plan and explicitly forbade me from attending?” Balthus replied neutrally.
“YES, THAT ONE,” the God of All nodded enthusiastically, “PERHAPS YOU REMEMBER THAT I DRANK TOO MUCH AND ENDED UP WITH A HANGOVER. I KNOW YOU SAID THAT LETTING MYSELF HAVE A HANGOVER WOULD BE A NOVEL EXPERIENCE, BUT I DO HAVE TO SAY THAT IT REALLY WASN’T THAT ENJOYABLE. REGARDLESS, DO YOU RECALL ME THROWING UP?”
“I do recall you vomiting, yes,” Balthus answered quizzically, not having any idea where the God was going with its line of questions.
“APPARENTLY MY VOMIT IS DIVINE ICHOR,” Al’Shazan continued, its tone obviously artificially casual. “THAT MEANS THAT ANY MORTAL EXPOSED TO IT WILL MUTATE RAPIDLY INTO AN ABOMINATION AND BE DRIVEN MAD BY AN ECHO OF MY POWER. IN SHORT, YOU’RE ABOUT TO HAVE A COLLECTION OF QUASI DIVINE MURDER BEHEMOTHS ROAMING THE COUNTRYSIDE.”
“That certainly sounds like an issue of life or death,” Balthus agreed, trying to avoid losing his temper at his God. “I seem to recall this happening a little over a month ago. Is there a reason why you’re only informing me now of a threat to all human life in the Empire?”
“I WAS BUSY WITH THE SCULPTOR AND LOST TRACK OF TIME,” the God replied with a shrug before pointing at the man, still hyperventilating next to his depiction of the God of All. “LOOK AT HOW CUTE HE IS. YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN HIM WHEN HE FIRST ARRIVED HERE. HE LOOKED AROUND AND SAID HE ‘SAW ANGELS IN THE ARCHITECTURE SPINNING IN INFINITY.’ WHATEVER THAT MEANT. ALL HE SAYS IS ‘AMEN AND HALLELUJAH.’ I’M STILL TRYING TO GET HIM TO CALL ME AL BY THE WAY.”
“Very good my Lord Al’Shazan,” Balthus didn’t look at the panicking sculptor. “Now please tell me more about your divine vomit. Are you going to provide me with a holy bag of sawdust to spread on it? Perhaps with enchanted odor absorbing crystals?”
“WELL I COULD CLEAN IT UP,” Al’Shazan replied, “BUT THAT REALLY SEEMS LIKE IT WOULD JUST BE ENABLING YOU HUMANS. YOU NEVER CAN SOLVE PROBLEMS ON YOUR OWN, ALWAYS PRAYING FOR SALVATION AND MIRACLES. INSTEAD YOU SHOULD JUST CLEAN OUT THE DAKHMAR SWAMPS. IT LANDED SOMEWHERE IN THAT AREA AND IT HAS PROBABLY INFECTED THE GROUNDWATER BY NOW. ANY SENTIENT BEINGS WITHIN ABOUT THREE HUNDRED MILES OF WHERE IT LANDED RISKS BEING TURNED INTO AN ABOMINATION SO YOU SHOULD GO AND DEAL WITH THAT.”
“The Dakhmar swamps are the ancestral home of the lizard people Lord Al’Shazan,” Balthus spoke slowly. “They worship you and are loyal citizens of the Empire, but they consider the swamps to be their holy land. Their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors are buried there. I don’t think that they will leave peacefully.”
“BALT, I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU TO CALL ME AL,” the One True Flame chided him. “PLUS, WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT THEM LEAVING. WOULDN’T IT JUST BE A LOT EASIER TO YOU KNOW,” the God made an incomprehensible hand motion, “KILL THEM ALL AND LEAVE THEIR BONES FOR THE SWAMP? IT JUST SEEMS LIKE LESS OF A HASSLE.”
“That sounds like genocide my Lord,” Balthus replied, eyeing the God closely.
“GENOCIDE!” It snapped its fingers excitedly, “THAT’S THE WORD FOR IT! THAT SOUNDS A LOT EASIER THAN ROUNDING UP ALL OF THE LIZARD PEOPLE AND MOVING THEM OUT OF THE SWAMP. THEY’RE PROBABLY HIDING BEHIND EVERY TREE AND IN EVERY SINKHOLE. NO, IF YOU SLAUGHTER SOME OF THEIR FEMALES THE REST OF THEM WILL BE TOO MAD NOT TO CHALLENGE THE EMPIRE AND THEY’LL CHARGE YOUR FORCES. VERY EFFICIENT.”
“That doesn’t sound entirely moral my Lord Al’Shazan,” Balthus cocked his head to the side, “to be perfectly honest it sounds more like the opposite of moral. I really don’t think that massacring defenseless and loyal subjects will go over all that well in the history books.”
“WELL JUST PAY SOMEONE TO CHANGE THEM THEN,” the God shrugged, “THAT REALLY ISN’T THAT HARD EITHER. YOU CAN JUST DECLARE ANYONE SPEAKING ILL OF THE PURGE A HERETIC AND HAVE THEM KILLED AS WELL. AS AN ASIDE, IF YOU COULD GET IN CONTACT WITH JOHANN TAMMES, THE AUTHOR OF ‘LADY HEAVINGBOSOM’S SECRET LOVER,’ PLEASE LET HIM KNOW THAT IF LADY HEAVINGBOSOM HAS AN AFFAIR WITH LORD STURDYROD I’M GOING TO AFFLICT HIM WITH BOILS AND GIVE HIS CHILDREN AN INCURABLE BOUT OF THE FLUX. JUST SOMETHING FOR HIM TO CONSIDER WHILE HE PONDERS HAVING HER CHEAT ON BARON DREAMYHAIR.”
“Are you threatening to kill an author’s children if he doesn’t do what you want my Lord?” Balthus asked, a note of incredulous confusion in his voice.
“YES,” Al’Shazan nodded, “AND MAKE THE COMMUNICATION WITH JOHANN A PRIORITY. I THINK HE’S ABOUT TO PUBLISH SOON AND I WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT THE DASTARD STURDYROD GETS HIS DUE. YOU CAN MASSACRE THE LIZARD PEOPLE AFTER.”
“My lord, I will handle it,” Balthus responded through gritted teeth. “The Church will make sure that the world isn’t overrun with abominations. Is there anything else we need to know?”
“WELL YOU PROBABLY ONLY HAVE THREE MONTHS BEFORE THE ENTIRE POPULATION TRANSFORMS,” Al’Shazan mused. “YOU’LL HAVE SOME SPONTANEOUS MINOR TRANSFORMATIONS IN THE NEXT MONTH SO MAKE SURE TO WARN THE CRUSADERS YOU SEND IN THERE TO YOU KNOW ‘KILL ALL OF THEM.’ NOT NEARLY AS DANGEROUS AS THE FINAL VERSIONS, BUT EVEN SMALL AMORPHOUS LUMPS OF FLESH THAT CAN MANIPULATE MANA EFFORTLESSLY ARE PROBABLY A HUGE THREAT TO YOU HUMANS. YOU’RE ALL AWFULLY SQUISHY AND PRONE TO BLEEDING TO DEATH AT THE DROP OF A HAT. I’D COMPLAIN THAT YOU ARE POORLY DESIGNED BUT I THINK THAT IT WOULD REFLECT POORLY ON YOUR CREATOR”
Balthus walked down the steps of the Sky Tower fuming. Al’Shazan was always an aggravating entity, but this was a new level. Blaming humanity for the God vomiting mutagenic toxic waste was pretty low, especially for a guardian deity. Of course, at least some of the blame probably did reflect on Balthus, after all he was the person that convinced the God to allow itself to get drunk as a form of petty revenge. How in the blazes was he supposed to know that the omnipotent creator of the cosmos couldn’t hold its liquor any better than a first year fraternal society pledge at Lyles Hall.
He sighed, knees burning from the steps of the Sky Tower. He only had one to three months before the Empire’s largest racial minority became insane and overpowered monsters bent on everyone’s total destruction. Balthus’ face crumpled into a frown as he weighed his options. Al’Shazan clearly wanted him to order the genocide of the lizard people, mostly out of laziness. It hadn’t explicitly banned relocating the creatures to a safer area, but it had been right that doing so would be an absolute nightmare. Although the lizard people were citizens of the Empire and they did worship Al’Shazan they didn’t exactly trust humans, and with good reason. Centuries of racism and enslavement at the hands of their pink, soft-skinned neighbors were hardly endearing. They likely wouldn’t respond favorably to an attempt to relocate them and force would almost certainly be needed.
Finally, he had an actual use for Matthias. Time to dust off the ‘old Good Priest, bad murderous Knight-Commander’ routine. More than anything, he was sure that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the immense political fallout that would come with either relocating or massacring loyal citizens. There were already enough people calling him a power mad tyrant without racking up actual war crimes to add to their list of grievances. Luckily, Matthias hated lizard people. According to him, anything that didn’t blink was probably harboring some sort of sin. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to set him up to drive the creatures from their homeland, the real concern would be stopping him from going a step further and purging them all for the sin of looking at him funny.
Balthus stopped his walk to massage the pain from his knees. He would need to find a place to put the lizard people once Matthias evicted them, and somehow he would need to find the funds to pay to establish them there. Given the Church’s current financial situation, they would likely have to dip into the Edra reconstruction fund. Matthias’ raids on the nobles had helped slightly, but the asshole had already redistributed a significant portion of the funds towards meaningless vanity projects.
Or he could just let Matthias loose on the Dakhmar Swamp. It was what Al’Shazan had heavily hinted it wanted after all, and it would be a lot simpler. Balthus shook his head, dismissing the dark thought. It might be hard, it might be expensive, and he might get no thanks for it, but the lizard people were sentient beings and deserved the same basic rights as humans. Frankly, the fact that Al’Shazan wanted to harm a group of beings was almost all the argument Balthus needed to try and preserve them. He’d have to talk with Gareth and Matthias soon. They’d need money and they’d need troops, and he couldn’t raise either without calling the Triumvirate to make a formal decision.