Balthus walked through the smoking ruins of the battlefield, a hastily written letter clutched tightly in his hand. The letter was crumpled, and his knuckles white with the force that he gripped it as he surveyed the dead and dying. Their moans and shuffling tore at him as they begged for water or healing magic, most of them too far gone for anything short of a major miracle and the priests capable of casting one of those were focusing on rescuing the critically injured officers. The entire burial ground was a twisted ruin, the walls torn down by a combination of hastily assembled light siege machinery and magic. The interior buildings flattened by an arch mage dropping a meteor barrage on the living quarters before a lizard person shaman was able to erect a mana shield. The building still burned in places, filling the battlefield with the acrid stench of charred flesh.
Gareth’s letter had arrived too late. The lizard people might have wanted to die, but charging into their fortified home and trying to take them prisoner multiplied the crusaders’ casualties a thousandfold. The troops had fought with blunted weapons and stunning magic, inefficient against the lizard people’s ‘glorious fervor’ for most of the battle before finally, the great shaman of the lizard person host, using the time granted by the crusaders using nonlethal weapons, turned into an abomination. She had started the ritual as soon as she sighted the oncoming crusaders, and Balthus couldn’t help but believe that they would have been able to disrupt its casting if they had used their full arsenal of weaponry. He shuddered remembering her locking eyes with him as she completed the final sacrifice of the ritual and exploding into a writhing mass of tentacles, flesh and teeth.
Then, Armand had disregarded his directives and ordered edged weapons and killing spells. A good thing too because the battle turned into absolute shit from there. The abomination attacked both sides, tearing through the cheering lizard people as they bowed and worshipped the ball of dark magic and hatred. Soon it worked its way through the unresisting lizard person crowd and reached the Imperial ranks. It immediately began carving through the crusaders as it charged directly towards Balthus. Armand and him were forced to make a final stand, using the combination of his magic and Armand’s steel to hold the thing back before a squad of mages and battle priests were able to purify it in a pillar of flame and holy light.
In the end, it was all a waste. The political maneuvering. The threats, the blackmail, the murder, and the wars. The young men and women dead and dying mere feet from him. All of it was a cosmic prank played on him by Al’Shazan. It simply could have said that it had planted an apocalyptic religion amongst the lizard people and that they wanted to die. It could have cleaned up the bloody divine vomit. It could have told the lizard people that they should resettle to Edra. Blazes, it could have just blessed the crusaders, protecting them from the abomination’s alien magic.
Instead, tens of thousands of sons and daughters would not be returning home to the Empire. Dying for no gain, and for no reason. Even thinking about issuing an order for bards to glamorize the awful slaughter made Balthus feel sick. He just couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t lie and manipulate endlessly for no foreseeable purpose just to amuse a childlike God. He was being crushed underneath a million minor indignities, and as surely as a man could die of being buried in gravel, he too was being smothered. Each individual wrong or slight was minor, but over his term as High Priest they had added up. Fifteen years of striving and trying to be a good person, only to have his best efforts thwarted at the last minute by an indifferent God was simply too much.
“Al,” he whispered staring up at the uncaring heavens, still pregnant with rain clouds, “you are an unimaginable piece of shit.”
Time stopped. Not as a metaphor. No, flames and people alike froze in place and all sound simply ceased to be. Balthus blinked, perplexed that he was still able to move only to jump in surprise as a soundless bolt of lightning exploded next to him, depositing Al’Shazan’s youthful and androgynous form next to him.
“BALT!” It shouted cheerfully, its voice almost knocking Balthus from his feet, “YOU FINALLY DID IT! AFTER ALL OF MY YEARS OF ASKING AND HINTING YOU FINALLY CALLED ME AL. THIS TRULY IS A MOMENTOUS OCCASION. COME WE MUST FIND AN APPROPRIATE WAY TO CELEBRATE.”
“Al,” Balthus continued, voice building until he was almost shouting at the omnipotent being, “absolutely none of this was necessary! If you had simply told me that the lizard people wanted to die, I would have had them killed. There wouldn’t have been any need for us to dismantle the entire government and the hundreds of years of institutions just to launch a rescue mission that was doomed from the start. Better yet, you could have told them to not launch impossible suicide attacks and fight to the death over absolutely nothing. Even better than that, you could have simply just not fucking thrown up in the material plane creating a crisis that would lead to the destabilization of the Empire and tens of thousands of deaths.”
“OF COURSE I COULD HAVE BALT,” Al’Shazan agreed cheerfully, nodding its youthful head. “I AM OMNIPOTENT, AND MANY OF THE SOLUTIONS YOU JUST LISTED WOULD REQUIRE SIGNIFICANTLY LESS POWER THAN ME LITERALLY STOPPING TIME AND APPEARING BEFORE YOU RIGHT NOW. REALLY IT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN A BOTHER AT ALL.”
“What in the name of all the stars in the sky is wrong with you,” Balthus bit out, eyes wide as he stared at the God. “You aren’t even leaving the world to its own devices. You are actively increasing the amount of misery and suffering in the world. What you’re doing isn’t even hedonism, it’s just flat out petty and banal malice.”
“I DISAGREE BALT,” Al’Shazan shook its head while tsking him in an over-exaggerated manner. “IT IS HEDONISM. WATCHING YOU AND YOUR COMPANIONS FRANTICALLY CREATE AND SOLVE PROBLEMS IS SOME OF THE MOST FUN I’VE HAD IN HUNDREDS OF YEARS. THE TOWER OF CARDS YOU HAVE BUILT OUT OF THREATS, BLACKMAIL, EXTORTION, DESPERATION AND GOOD OLD FASHIONED VIOLENCE. IT IS A WORK OF ART BETTER THAN ANYTHING CREATED BY YOUR SCULPTORS AND MUSICIANS. YOU REALLY DESERVE TO BE COMMENDED FOR THAT, AND THUS HERE I AM.”
“What you are saying is that my suffering,” Balthus shook his head, speaking almost to himself. “My panicked struggle and descent into almost madness served no real purpose in the grand scheme of things except to provide some transitory amusement to you. None of it mattered.”
“TO BE CLEAR BALT,” Al’Shazan interjected helpfully into his musing, “THIS ENTIRE WORLD REALLY DOESN’T SERVE A PURPOSE IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS BEYOND PROVIDING ME WITH SOME TRANSITORY AMUSEMENT. REALLY IT IS THE ONLY FACTOR THAT MATTERS. WHAT I’M SAYING IS THAT YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T BE THIS UPSET. IN CONTEXT, YOU ARE POSSIBLY THE MOST SUCCESSFUL BEING TO EVER WALK THE FACE OF THE PLANET.”
“Why Al,” Balthus looked at his God, a pleading look in his eyes, “Why are you taking so much delight in my suffering and now, at the end of things, when I know that my efforts have all come to nothing, why are you here. Is it to torment me further? I hardly see the point or the fun in that. I’m just an old man, and I’m too tired to keep running in circles any further. I just don’t have it in me.”
“WELL, I AM HERE TO OFFER YOU A CHOICE,” the God responded, its booming voice cheerful, “YOU ARE NEAR THE END OF YOUR RUN AS HIGH PRIEST. YOU’VE HAD CANCER FOR THE PAST YEAR AND YOU HAVE MAYBE HAVE ANOTHER THREE YEARS IN YOU BEFORE IT RESISTS ALL HEALING MAGIC AND YOU EVENTUALLY DIE. EVEN IF THAT WOULDN’T SPELL THE END FOR YOU, THIS ENTIRE CAMPAIGN HAS BROKEN YOU. I COULD THREATEN YOUR FRIENDS AND THE EMPIRE AND MAKE YOU KEEP WORKING, BUT YOUR HEART WOULDN’T BE IN IT.”
Balthus stared at Al’Shazan blankly, unable to speak as it starkly addressed him. He had never known about the cancer. None of the diagnostic spells had picked it up, and unless it was caught early, even major miracles were insufficient to cure the growths. Healing spells had a nasty tendency to make living tissue expand which wasn’t the most helpful thing to do when dealing with cancerous growths. Without direct intervention from the God, he was already dead. The question was just ‘when.’
“INSTEAD, I AM GOING TO GIVE YOU PONTHEEL’S CHOICE,” the One True Flame continued speaking. “WHEN SHE NEARED HER END, I APPROACHED HER AS I DO YOU NOW, AND OFFERED TO TURN HER INTO SOMETHING GREATER THAN A HUMAN. I MADE HER INTO A MEMBER OF THE HEAVENLY HOST, BUT WITH THE SAME FREE WILL THAT I GRANTED TO HUMANITY. THERE WAS ONLY ONE MINOR EXCEPTION TO HER FREE WILL. THEN, I CREATED A NEW CONTINENT, DEPOSITED HER ON IT AND NAMED HER THE DECEIVER. NOW SHE IS FREE TO DO WHATEVER SHE WANTS WITH THE EXCEPTION OF REVEALING HER ORIGIN.”
“The Deceiver?” Balthus asked carefully. “The enemy of all of your works is Pontheel the Wise, the greatest High Priest in the history of the Church?”
“THE SECOND GREATEST,” Al’Shazan corrected. “WHAT YOU HAVE DONE IN THE LAST COUPLE OF MONTHS IS BEYOND EVEN HER. SHE NEVER THOUGHT OF SUMMONING AN ARCHANGEL IN THE CENTER OF A CITY, REDUCING HER OPPONENTS INTO DROOLING VEGETABLES AND MEAT PASTE.”
“Why?” Balthus asked, confusion written on his face, “Why would you do such a thing to her or for me. I opposed you and tried to undermine you at every turn. Literally my tenure as High Priest is nothing but me trying to circumvent your orders or manipulate you into doing something I wanted. Even this last period that you have praised so was nothing but a frantic series of almost failures.”
“IT IS WHAT MADE YOU GREAT AS A HIGH PRIEST AND WHAT WILL MAKE YOU PERFECT AS A SECOND DECEIVER,” Al’Shazan, God of All and the One True Flame responded. “YOU ARE INTERESTING BECAUSE YOU ARE AN ARTISAN OF STATECRAFT AND DECEPTION, AND THAT IS WHAT I WANT OUT OF YOU. I NEVER REALLY CARED IF THE PEOPLE FOLLOWED MY WILL OR MY ORDERS, I AM ONLY REALLY INVESTED IN THIS WORLD FOR ALL OF THE INTERESTING MELODRAMAS THAT PLAY OUT AS YOUR LOT STRUGGLES FOR MONEY, LOVE OR POWER.”
“THE EMPIRE IS TOO STABLE,” the God continued with a shrug. “IT NEEDS SOMEONE TO SHAKE IT UP, TO FORCE THE CHURCH TO FIGHT GLORIOUS BATTLES AND RESPOND TO PRESSING SOCIAL CHANGES. THAT IS WHY I NEED DECEIVERS TO OPPOSE THE CHURCH. UNTIL YOU ASCENDED, FRANKLY PONTHEELS WORKS HAVE BEEN MORE INTERESTING THAN ANYTHING HAPPENING INSIDE THE EMPIREH. THAT IS WHY I WANT YOU TO JOIN HER. FORCE MY CHURCH AND THE EMPIRE TO ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING OTHER THAN HOLD ONTO POWER LIKE IT IS TRYING TO CHOKE THE LIFE FROM THE LAND.”
It paused and eyed Balthus, whose eyes had glazed over at some point through the speech due to a combination of sheer divine force and information overload.
“SO BALT,” it finished up its pitch. “WHAT WILL IT BE. DO WE FAKE YOUR DEATH HERE AND LET YOU LIVE OUT AN ENDLESS LIFE AS THE ETERNAL ENEMY OF EVERYTHING YOU HELPED NURTURE OR CREATE OR DO WE LET YOU LIVE OUT YOUR NATURAL LIFE BEFORE YOU SUCCUMB TO CANCER. ALL I NEED IS ONE WORD FROM YOU AND YOU CAN LIVE AN UNFETTERED EXISTENCE MAKING SURE MY WORLD IS INTERESTING FOR ME ONCE AGAIN.”
Balthus stared blankly for a solid ten seconds. Finally, with one last hint of resignation in his eyes, he nodded mutely.