Gareth’s morning work was interrupted by Anne Bosteel bursting into his office, hair unfurled and laughing uncontrollably. Although hardly a common occurrence, Gareth had grown accustomed to her eccentricity. He sighed and closed the ledger he had been working on. With Anne here, there was probably something important occurring. Or she was bored and had come to bother him. Either way, he wasn’t likely to get much work done in the next hour or so. Plus, he could use her arrival as an excuse to have another serving of the delightful breakfast pastries that still caked his fingers brought in.
“Minister,” she choked out between peels of laughter. “We need to get to a balcony right now. High Priest Aster is solving our noble problem much more efficiently than any blackmail I could dig up.”
“He didn’t tell me that he had anything planned,” Gareth frowned as he stood up and brushed the crumbs from the front of his tunic. “I don’t understand how he can pull something like that off without consulting me. It’s both ill-planned and out of character. What in the blazes is he thinking ”
“Gareth,” Anne wiped tears of mirth from her eyes as she tried to calm down. “We need to get to a balcony facing Diyall Square before this entire thing ends. I don’t want to spoil it for you, just hurry.”
He grumbled to himself as he walked out of the room, Anne impatiently leading the way. He didn’t understand how Balthus thought to influence the nobles. Every effort to traditional attempt to sway them informally, be it via bribery, blackmail, threats, extortion, or outright begging had come to naught. For some reason they had held firm on every request and demand despite the potentially ruinous consequences for them. Anne had tried her hardest to figure out where their newfound confidence had come from, but the most that anyone could figure out was that Rosewoods had called in all of their favors. Evelyn had personally twisted every arm in Diyall to ensure that all of the noble houses would toe the line against the Church. Officially, the word was that the nobles had been emboldened by the death of the Knight-Commander and that they were ready to take the ‘next big step’ towards equality with the Church, whatever that meant.
A short while later, Gareth and a giggling Bosteel reached the balcony adjoining his chambers and stepped out into the morning sunshine. Diyall Square was full, a crowded and clamorous mass of peasants surrounded the central stage where an older woman gave some manner of animated speech. Anne quickly cast a spell, and suddenly the Gareth could hear the speaker’s voice with perfect clarity.
“- and that is why the lies of the Church must be cast into the rubbish heap of history,” the woman exhorted. Gareth paused, and turned to Anne who once again was shuddering with laughter as she braced herself against the door to the balcony.
“Wait,” he said hesitantly, “is that Evelyn Rosewood? What in Al’Shazan’s name does she think she’s doing? Doesn’t she realize that the crusaders could eliminate every noble house in a fortnight if we actually wanted them gone?”
“You won’t have the chance,” Anne choked out, “just keep listening, I really can’t believe it’s gone on this long.”
Gareth turned his attention back to Evelyn who strode dramatically across the stage, gesticulating wildly. His focus shifted past her to a chair at the back of the stage where a rail thin bearded figure sat calmly. He could swear that it was Balthus, but that couldn’t be possible. Why would Balthus be sitting calmly through such an inflammatory speech?
“Al’Shazan is not real, and it has never been real!” Evelyn shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. “The Church lies to you to control the Empire, to give itself a source of authority above and beyond their simple monopoly on force. But their words are just that, lies, the entire matter is nothing but a fraud. Nothing but a blatant attempt to control you, to force you to pay unnecessary tithes and taxes, to force through unpalatable laws. The only real power the Church has is the power that you give them. If all of us: the workers in the field, fishers on the ocean, the soldiers in their barracks, and the merchants in their caravans just refused to follow their lies any further, we would be unstoppable. If the crusaders simply laid down their arms, there would be nothing to stop us from taking power back from the Church. Then we would truly have no God and no Masters. Each man would be free to run his own life according to his own design and plan.”
“Even by allowing me to finish this speech, the Church admits the strength of our position,” Eveyln paused for a breath before holding both of her hands clenched into fists, well above her head. “If their false God were real, Al’Shazan would strike me down here as I speak. If Al’Shazan cared about what I have to say, I would not be allowed on this stage.”
“No,” her eyes burned with a zealots fire, “in their weakness they seek compromise and to equivocate about what their false God can and cannot do. Do not listen to their lies, just know just as I am able to walk off this stage unharmed, Al’Shazan is incapable of harming you. If you were to stand up against the corrupt Church that acts in its name, your only real enemy would be the Church itself, rather than some divine bogeyman.”
Gareth gaped at the woman. She must honestly believe what she was saying, but it made no sense. Everyone knew that Al’Shazan was real. It never acted in a clear or coherent manner, but when it acted its power was unmistakable. He turned to Anne who was now doubled over with laughter. This is what she had meant. Balthus was feeding the nobles the rope that they would hang themselves with and all the while they were greedily grasping at it and pulling for more.
Evelyn gave a brief bow to tepid applause from the crowd before she motioned to Balthus who stood up and approached the center of the platform. He gazed out over the crowd, a slight smile on his face before he raised one hand to stop their chattering. Slowly, silence descended on the crowd as they waited for him to respond to her incendiary claims.
“People of Diyall!” He exclaimed, voice booming through the square. “I could give a speech about Al’Shazan’s majesty and boundless power, but I have always been told to show rather than tell. Instead, I yield my time to the Archangel Tanasriel who will perform the rebuttal in my stead.”
A low keening filled the clearing, starting at the bottom of the audible register and steadily swelling in volume until everyone but Balthus fell their knees clutching their ears. Even on the balcony, Gareth could feel the sound echoing deep into his soul. It seemed to highlight every insecurity and moment of weakness, from the first time he realized that his Father refused to hug him, to the time he chose an alternate route when traveling to his apartments to avoid a particularly energetic bishop that was trying to befriend him. Each moment was dredged from the depths of his subconscious and flashed before his eyes unbidden. In the square, the crowd writhed on the ground, their eyes staring blankly as they were forced to relive their darkest moments.
Suddenly the noise shifted, and instead each person heard a multitude of voices whispering, just a hair too quiet to make out any specific words, tantalizingly out of reach. Gareth wasn’t quite able to make out what was being said, but he could hear a vague promise, impossible to define. All he knew was that he needed to surrender to the sound, and that his weakness and mortal frailty would fade away. The sound began to erode at his will. Gareth didn’t know what surrendering to the whispers would mean, but deep down he knew that it would be an awful idea so he steeled himself against the pernicious voices. As seconds passed, the crowd became increasingly disturbed, many of the people stood up and tried to clear the square only to find that guards from the crusaders had sealed all exists. Then the first person collapsed bonelessly to the cobblestones of the square, their eyes rolled back up into their skull. The crowd became increasingly unruly, some people screamed to try and drown out the voices, others beat on the shields of the armored crusaders to no avail. Finally, the whispers stopped, and in their sudden silence Gareth saw a third figure standing on the stage alongside Balthus and Evelyn.
No one had noticed the figure arrive, instead focusing on fighting the insidious attack on their collective minds. The figure stood almost eleven feet tall, a perfect specimen crafted from bone white clay and mimicking a well muscled nude male form. Its body was etched with holy symbols and verses that glowed a soft blue in the morning light. Behind it, eight glowing wings of light stretched from its back, illuminating the stage and casting much of the square in shadow. The wings flapped slowly once, and the whispering voices returned for a brief second, their volume quickly reaching a crescendo as the crowd shrank back from the stage in fear.
Wordlessly, the figure reached out towards Evelyn with one of its hands. She screamed and tried to run from the stage, stumbling and tripping before she regained her balance and jumped off of the platform. She wove through the crowd as fast as she could, but the arm kept stretching unnaturally. As it grew longer, it moved with a ponderous certainty. The alien being standing beside Balthus did not rush, it simply knew that its objectives would be achieved regardless of obstacles.
Evelyn continued to run through the crowd, pushing past peasants as she screamed for her guards. The Rosewood guards remained rooted to their posts in terror, and pretended not to hear their Matriarch as her panicked screaming quickly devolved into bargaining and then pleading for her life. After ten seconds that lasted an eternity, Gareth finally exhaled when the being it plucked her from the ground and lifted her into the air. Its arm stretched almost thirty feet as it held her aloft without trembling or saying a single word. She struggled briefly, legs kicking wildly as she tried to free herself. The hand clenched with a visceral crunch, and her feet stopped moving.
The figure turned, and gazed over the crowd, most of whom dropped to their knees and made the sign of the One True Flame, avoiding its sightless gaze. Seeing no further resistance or rebellion, it turned to Balthus. After another ten seconds passed in which the crowd didn’t dare to move or breathe, it finally spoke.
“The Clock Is Ticking High Priest.” Its voice was hollow and emotionless, echoing across the square with the weight and finality of a headsman’s axe. Even though it spoke quietly, everyone heard its words clearly.
A shudder ran down Gareth’s spine. Whatever game Balthus was playing, it was for stakes he wanted no part of. The figure faded away and Evelyn’s still body dropped to the ground, head bent at an unnatural angle. The crowd pushed away from it, creating a small clearing twenty or so feet from the speaking platform.
“So,” Balthus stated, a smile on his face, “now that our rebuttal has been delivered, are there any questions?”
Silence answered him. The members of the crowd that still had their minds after being exposed to the angel stared at him with abject horror. Several wept openly while others rocked back and forth. Many in the crowd would never be the same again, turned into little more than vegetables by the Archangel's awful majesty.
“Good!” Balthus shouted, clapping his hands eagerly. “Now that we have answered the question of Al’Shazan’s existence and omnipotence to everyone’s satisfaction, it is time for us to move on to the next step. Al’Shazan has called for the Dakhmar Marsh to be emptied of sentient life forthwith. The Church is planning to resettle the lizard people in Edra refugee camps and integrate them into the reconstruction of the region. I believe that the Rosewood family initially intended to object to that plan, but it seems that they are currently having some difficulty articulating their complaints. So, I will open the floor to anyone, nople or base born, who wishes to articulate an objection to the resettlement plan. I’m sure that Archangel Tanasriel would love to return to explain Al’Shazan’s reasoning. After all, that’s what happens right? The omnipotent God of All comes to the noble classes with its metaphorical divine hat in hand and humbly asks their permission to issue a command to its Empire.”
Balt0hus paused for a second before dramatically snapping his fingers and continuing.
“Oh wait, I’m sorry. That isn’t what happens. Al’Shazan is the God of All and we are but its servants. If it tells us to perform a task, we perform it. If we have questions about the task that we are performing, we ask a priest and have him or her explain it to us. If the priest can’t fathom the One True Flame’s reasoning, which does happen sometimes, we simply accept that not all knowledge will be handed to us wrapped like a yule present with a bow on top.”
Balthus executed a sharp turn and walked off the platform, armored crusaders clearing a path for him through the stunned crowd to the Ember Palace. As Gareth watched the events in the square below he turned, still in shock, to Anne.
“Did he just summon an Archangel to murder the head of the opposition in front of a soulwracked crowd?”
“Yep,” she responded shakily, even her face slightly pale from the exposure to the Archangel’s summoning. “That certainly is one way to beat the defiance out of your enemies. Literally expose them as frauds before brutally having them murdered in front of thousands of people. We obviously don’t have reports back yet on how the various houses will respond to this, but I suspect that the Empire won’t have to worry about a noble uprising for at least another decade.”
“I’ve never experienced a soulwracking before,” Gareth mused, shuddering as he recalled the experience. “I’ve read about them, but the words just couldn’t summarize how weak it makes you feel. How you’re just nothing before such an alien and powerful being.”
“That was an archangel,” Anne shrugged. “Summoning a normal seraphim is still supposed to be pretty rough, especially for the weak minded, but an archangel is on a completely different level. If there is any crack in your self identity, anything you regret or feel guilty about, the celestial energy from its summoning will slip through and exploit it. Even the greatest kings in the past were driven to their knees when one was summoned, unable to do anything but blindly worship and serve it.”
“High Priest Aster’s nonexistent balls are gigantic,” she shuddered, eyes still locked on Balthus standing in the Square, “almost no one is willing to summon one at all, even under controlled circumstances. No only summoning one, but standing mere feet from it through the entire process without flinching is nothing short of a miracle. You made a good choice allying with him boss. Anyone who could throw around that amount of divine magic and survive the wracking afterwards isn’t someone I want to piss off.”
Gareth nodded, slightly upset. Today was the first time he had seen Balthus move openly. Usually the High Priest acted behind the scenes or manipulated others through innuendo, promises and blackmail. He certainly wasn’t used to watching his friend eliminate obstacles through raw magical might. Balthus’ actions did make things much easier for both of them. Evelyn Rosewood had long been a thorn in the Church’s side, corrupting many of the minor clergy and trying to build the nobility up into a power block capable of rivaling the Church itself within the Empire. Gareth wasn’t sad to see the woman go. It was just unsettling to see her disposed of through such an unapologetic show of force.
The entire Dakhmar matter had Balthus making decisions he usually wouldn’t, and it worried Gareth. The man was incorruptible, but if he melted down and decided that entire wings of the Empire needed to be destroyed so that it could be rebuilt in his image, the High Priest would burn them down. Gareth sighed. His job was just supposed to be taxes and contracts. The entire thing was stress he just didn’t need.