62.0 Grayscale_Chapter 20: Off-white

“The hero is here!”

“All hail the hero!”

“Mommy, mommy. I heard the hero came to beat the big bad demon lord!”

“Yes, Felicia. The hero has come to save us from the evil demon lord.”

“That’s not all, Ms. Marcia. I heard the hero bravely infiltrated the Dusk Alliance all on her own.”

“Yes, I read all about in the papers. The Air Kingdom’s flying death machines were no match for the hero!”

“She razed the cursed forest to the ground. It was all over the prism networks. Those monsters tried to sully her purity but bit off more than they could chew.”

“That’s not the best part. I know someone inside the Light temple and they told me the hero fought with the vile Dark goddess herself!”

“No way! The goddess wouldn’t stoop low enough to fight the hero directly, would she?”

“She’s the goddess of those demons up north, I wouldn’t put anything past her. Besides, they must be desperate by now.”

“Fair enough. But the hero managed to survive an encounter with a goddess. Isn’t she amazing?”

“She’s kind too. Have you heard about the Earth kingdom? They’re horrid people who enslave their children as soon as they’re out of the womb. They make the poor things mine miles below the earth until they die.”

“Terrible, absolutely terrible. Just what you’d expect from those barbarians.”

“Yes, but get this. The hero couldn’t bear to let such inhumane acts go unpunished, so she destroyed dozens of mines across the Earth kingdom. Not only did they lose a ton of money, but a whole bunch of slaves saw the light and joined the Union’s army!”

“She converted those heathens? She truly is the greatest champion of the light!”

“Oh, here she is! That horse is magnificent. I heard the LeAgua company provided the finest horse in their stables. Rumor has it, the hero is personal friends with the Water goddess,” said the woman in a white gown.

“At this point, nothing surprises me anymore,” said the lady in a pink dress, as she fanned herself with her hands.

I guided Spirit along the road, waving to the people lining the streets who showered me with flower petals. Spirit whinnied in protest when a short man came over to take his reins. I patted his neck gently and handed him over. I walked the rest of the way up the city, letting the light shine off my stainless Mithril armor. The people fawned over me, and discussed my adventures with gratuitous compliments.

“I heard she tricked the demon lord, too.”

“Yes, the demon lord escorted her over his own territory! What a fool.”

“Another sign of the hero’s cunning, I reckon. They say even the evil goddesses gave her their blessing.”

“I heard she faced off against that Origin monster in the Fire kingdom.”

“Look at her hair too.”

“And her face. It’s like a sculpture.”

“I wish she’d have a drink with me.”

“You crazy, old man? You have no chance with the hero.”

“I can dream, can’t I?”

“Look, she’s going into the palace!”

“Hero!”

“Hero!”

“Long live the hero!”

“Long live the Union!”

The palace doors shut behind me. I took a deep breath, and walked up the promenade. Soldiers saluted me, their pikes pointed above my head to make a tunnel. Fountains lined the walkways, gushing with clear water that cascaded into the gardens. The gardens were full of white peonies and daisies.

As I approached the main hall, my armored foot clanged against the hard marble floor, sending echoes throughout the nearly empty palace. All the servants were in the left wing, readying the hero’s banquet I would be attending in the evening. I pushed open the white doors and entered the throne room.

“Took you long enough,” said Fabar, or rather, Adriana. She’d told me her real name a while back. The water goddess was wearing a sharp navy-blue suit with golden buttons and cuffs.

“You’re the one who made me wait two days at the border,” I reminded her. “You wanted to parade me through the kingdom.”

“The hero’s return is a momentous occasion. They’ll write stories about this,” she replied.

Stories, that reminds me of –

“Fate is strange,” said the person on the throne.

It wasn’t the king. The royal family had been told to stay in their quarters, and the person who gave that order, was…

“Solaron, you’re the only goddess that still compliments fate,” said Adriana, facing her sister.

“I do not have any unreasonable affections for Fate, but even a skunk’s stench is worthy of praise,” she said. “If Fate makes the hero come back to me, is that not worth complimenting?”

“It wasn’t Fate that led me back,” I said, curtly.

“Yes, you came to fight the demon lord. Yet your newfound love for justice is certainly Fate’s doing,” she said, fixing her fluffy white dress.

The Light goddess looked exactly as I’d imagined her. Pale skin, white hair, and a haughty demeanor. I’d only heard her voice when I first came to this world, but even then, I could tell that she was full of it. Now, the dozens of rings and pearl necklaces, as well as the regal, feathered dress she was wearing, all confirmed why I’d hated her immediately.

“Solaron, the hero must be tired after such a long journey,” said Adriana. “We should let her rest before the big banquet.”

“You are correct, dear sister,” chimed the Light goddess. “I’ll summon someone to escort her to her chambers.”

“No, it’s all right. I’ll take her there,” said Adriana.

“Nonsense, you’re the Water goddess, just wait a –”

“It’s fine, you need to go prepare for the banquet too.”

“Oh! You are right, I forgot my glass tiara. See you girls later,” said the Light goddess as she vanished.

Adriana and I left the throne room and walked down an empty but well-lit, corridor.

“Glad to see you got here safely,” she said.

“The LeAgua company was escorting me, even the demon lord wouldn’t attack them so brazenly just yet,” I said.

“I wouldn’t put it past that bastard,” she said, quietly.

We walked silently until we reached a small door.

“Why do they know so much?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“The people outside, why do they know so much about me? They know where I’ve been and what I’ve done, only they think it was a plan to take down the Alliance,” I said.

“News of your exploits have been spreading for a while now. I thought you might have been whispering in your sleep or something, but I guess that wasn’t the case,” she said. “And since my information network was not involved, that leaves only two possibilities.” She opened the door. “Let’s step inside.”

The room was opulent and lavishly furnished. The walls were dotted with rare rubies and a dust of silver, the bed carved from the finest mahogany and laced with gold leaf inlaid with emerald, and the sheets and curtains were fashioned from pure silk and embroidered with intricate designs and magical symbols that increased their softness.

Or at least that’s what the plaque on the wall said. After admiring the room, Adriana and I sat down on the bed. She stretched a hand and the sheets vanished. I didn’t object, magical symbols made me antsy.

“Like I said, there are two possibilities. It could be one of your friends, since they would know about this stuff. The demon lord doesn’t stand to gain anything from this, but maybe one of the others has a hidden agenda. I say this because I couldn’t dig up anything on those two, though I do have my suspicions regarding one of them, the other is a complete mystery.”

“And the other possibility?” It didn’t seem like the kind of thing Kai or Amy would do.

“It’s a scary idea but one I’ve come to accept over the years,” she said. She sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear. “If you asked us, the goddesses, who was the strongest amongst us, we’d say it was Lunaris.”

That crazy asshole. I should have –

“But if you asked us who was the most dangerous,” she continued. “Then the answer would be: Solaron.”

Solaron, the light goddess?

“More dangerous than that crackpot Lunaris?” I asked. “I mean she has it all down; crazy powerful and just plain crazy.”

“Exactly,” said Adriana. “Lunaris is unhinged and unpredictable. She doesn’t plan, she doesn’t think. And that’s where Solaron excels. There’s a reason the Union is more prosperous and populated than the Alliance, and it isn’t all because of the resources at their disposal. Solaron has been managing things from behind the scenes, slowly nurturing her lands whilst destabilizing the Union.”

I furrowed my brow. Was everything I’d seen of her, a façade?

“Oh, but she is definitely an airhead,” continued Adriana. “She’s like a different person when she isn’t managing the Union. Fusses over makeup, and gossips all the time. Frankly, she’s annoying.”

“Oh…”

“She’s probably been collecting information about your travels ever since you left. Her spies are everywhere, spreading the word of the goddess and reporting back to her through their prayers. I’d keep an eye out for them in the future.”

She stood up.

“I need to go now. The conclave’s coming up soon and I’ve been out of the loop for a while. I heard something big was about to happen, I need to do some research.”

“Take care,” I said. She hugged me and left the room.

As the door clicked close, I collapsed onto the bed. Staring at the ceiling, I thought about what had happened since Granny’s cottage burned down.

After crying the night away, Fabar and I went to the nearest LeAgua company outpost. She told me her real name was Adriana, and formally introduced herself to me. She blessed me, which made my level shoot up again. We hitched a ride across the marshy lands of the Water kingdom, following various leads in search of Granny’s killers. We eventually caught wind of a group of bandits burning villages and towns all over the place, causing mayhem and spreading terror among the people.

After tracking them down, we interrogated them but couldn’t get a word out of their mouths. Even after Adriana had her men torture them, they wouldn’t speak a word. Adriana sent them to a secret prison and told her people to tell us if the bandits revealed anything.

A few days later, her team sent a message. The bandits hadn’t said a thing, but after running a few tests, the company’s analysts had concluded that the bandits came from the Alliance – specifically the Dark kingdom. At the same time, we found out that similar bandit teams had been uncovered across the Union, and all of them showed signs of being from the Alliance. Then Adriana’s information network said the demon lord had sent these bandit teams in secret, to chip away at the Union’s resources.

But as I stared at the ceiling, something bubbled up inside me; suspicion. Something was strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I sat up, tied my hair in a bun, changed into something more comfortable, and jumped out of the window into the growing night.

I crept along the bustling roads of Cerena – the capital. It was still early in the night so the socialites and elites were still inside, preparing for the balls and parties that would run through the night. The people on the streets were the middle-class folk going home from work or helping prepare for the parties. A few nobles appeared from time to time, but their guards pushed the crowd to the sides so they could stroll straight down the street.

Still, I caught a whisper here and there.

“Prices are up again,” said a gentleman in a bowler hat to a lady in a dress.

“They say the crops have been burning all over the kingdom,” said the lady.

“Yeah sure, listen to the government,” said the man. “It’s probably those darned nobles trying to leech more money. Burning crops, you expect me to believe enough crops have been burned to make the prices go up so much?”

“Sure Jack,” said the lady, rolling her eyes. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to trust the government for once.”

Walking further, I came across an old lady lecturing a younger woman.

“I’ve been alive long enough to remember, this is the sort of thing that happens before every war, got that?” said the old lady. “Those heathens up north love killing our folk, it’s what they live for. Nasty beasts, they’ve been plundering the countryside forever, killing our people, raping our women. You heard the reports?”

“Yes, mother,” said the woman, exasperated. “It’s just bandits, things have gotten rough because of the tax hike, that’s all.”

“Not it ain’t! The tax hike is cuz they don’t pay their taxes but still use the roads. I’m telling you, this happens every time. We let em in, and they mess everything up, so we have to go to war to put them in their place.”

“Come on mom, they’re not all like that. You’ve known Tabitha for a long time, she’s from the Alliance.”

“She’s one of the good ones.”

I left them behind. A bunch of kids came running out of an alleyway. They had wooden swords and tattered robes, and ran around in circles.

“I am the demon lord, fear me puny insects!” said the oldest kid, laughing maniacally.

“No way!” said the others, as they tried to hit him with their swords but got knocked aside easily.

The big kid kept laughing until he was picked up by his shirt from behind. “What do you think you’re doing out so late, Jeremy?”

“But sis, it’s only eight!” complained the big kid, as the other kids sniggered. He shot them a threatening glare but they didn’t stop.

“No buts, it’s a school night young man,” said the older girl as she dragged Jeremy away.

“Big sis Mary’s the hero!”

“Yeah, the hero always wins!”

I stopped by a window. The house was large and well decorated, with statues and sculptures all over the place.

“The king wants to do what?” said a high-pitched voice from within.

“It’s just a rumor, we won’t know for sure until tomorrow.”

“But why would he do that, all of a sudden?”

“I’ve heard the Alliance has been provoking the people of the Union for a while. They’ve been raiding villages, and cut off trade along the bridge. Our merchants have been disappearing in the Dark kingdom, and the demon lord’s regime won’t help us find them.”

“Still…”

“And the new demon lord’s an absolute monster.”

“How so?”

“I heard he experiments on his own people. Kidnaps babies straight from their mother’s bosoms, and tortures them to death to invent better weapons and interrogation techniques.”

“That’s detestable!”

“Indeed.”

“But still, would we not make things worse by taking such drastic measures? The hero just got here, isn’t it traditional to give her as much time as possible. The later the war, the stronger the hero, and therefore, the greater likelihood that she’ll beat the demon lord.”

“Yes, it might escalate hostilities further, but we have no choice. From what I know, the real reason His Majesty wants to do this is because of secret intelligence he received straight from the Light goddess herself.”

“From the goddess?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what is it.”

“It’s all pretty hush-hush, but one of the guards overheard the king’s court discussing it the other day. Apparently, the demon lord developed a frightening weapon that can destroy entire cities.”

“Rubbish.”

“It’s true. They say entire villages have been wiped out in the Dark kingdom, seemingly overnight. All the survivors talked about roiling clouds of darkness. Of course, the survivors vanished soon after – no doubt silenced by the state.”

“That’s –”

“The weapon has already struck in the Fire kingdom.”

“Really?”

“The entire kingdom’s in lockdown because of Origin and the Circle’s terrorist coup, but what little we know suggests that entire cities have been destroyed in waves of darkness.”

“How could that be? The Fire goddess wouldn’t allow for that!”

“The Fire goddess is nowhere to be found. Her shrine was destroyed by Origin several months ago.”

“Then why doesn’t Origin do something about it?”

“Are you kidding? He’s a monster, an abomination of the worst kind. He’s probably happy the demon lord is using ordinary people for target practice. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to stop him. The weapon strikes without warning and annihilates its targets in seconds.”

“Then if…”

“It hits us? Yeah, that’s the problem. I have to say, I disagree with the current government’s policies but at least the king still has his head on right.”

That sounds like a terrible weapon, but something doesn’t feel right. Would Runir do that? Then again, he was behind Granny’s death.

Or was he?

“It’s cold, Elizabeth. Mind closing the window?”

“Sure.”

The window shut and I couldn’t hear anymore. I wandered the city, hearing similar conversations all over the place.

People complained of taxes and price hikes, then cursed the Alliance and the demon lord. Some were afraid for their lives, having heard tales of border raids and the demon lord’s weapon. Others complained about the barbarism and savagery of the Alliance, and the demon lord’s inhumane treatment of his own people.

I stumbled into the slums, which were just as lively at night – if a little seedier. There I heard a similar sort of conversation.

“Curse those Allers, heard they ruined another batch of crops. We already got nothing to eat and they went and poisoned all our wells!”

“Honey, don’t get mad. We’ll get through this.”

“Don’t you be telling me to calm down when things are this bad. The kids haven’t eaten in days, and the guards’ been out recruiting against the bandits up north. If they don’t stop and war breaks out, I’ll be out fighting while you’ll all be here starving to death!”

“It’ll be all right, I’m praying to the goddess.”

“They’re praying to their cursed goddesses too! You know what the church said, our goddesses can’t fix nothing cuz the other goddesses wanna destroy!”

“Hush dear, I think the baby’s up. We’ll talk later…”

“All right.”

The baby’s wails faded away as I moved on. There was a large crowd outside an old, rundown building. I pushed my way closer and heard a deep voice preaching loudly.

“Hear me, believers. We the righteous, we the chosen, must take heed! The enemies of peace, lovers of hate and destruction, the heathens who refuse to acknowledge the truth, they are on the rise!”

The crowd roared its approval. My heartbeat quickened.

“The ancient scripture dictates.” The voice paused. “That the roots of all evil, are the goddesses of evil! The goddess of Air created want. The goddess of Earth created desire and greed. And the goddess of Darkness gave birth to death, destruction, and terror! Tell me, is that not repulsive?”

The crowd jeered.

“Tell me, if you had the power to shape the world, would those be your gifts to humanity? Would you create greed, lust, selfishness, and death? Would you constantly try to push the world towards darkness? Would you take joy in the misfortune of others, like a sick, sick monster?”

The crowd booed and hurled insults.

“Or would you, my friends, do what our goddesses did. Would you bless the world with kindness like the Fire goddess did? Or grant humanity abundance and plenty, and the means of living a happy, prosperous life, like the Water goddess did?

I know what I would do. I would do what the Exalted Light goddess chose to do. I would grant humanity that which is unparalleled, sets us apart from the animals, and makes us humans, humans! I would create love, love and affection, that is the best of creation.”

What is this? I’ve never heard of this before. None of this is true, the goddesses didn’t make the world, it was Fate.

The crowd was restless, shouting praises for the Light goddess. Many cried tears of joy and a few fell onto their knees. Hysterical, they were all hysterical.

“But fear not, brothers and sisters. We know what we must do. To rid the world of all evil, the forces of evil must first be vanquished!”

Huh?

“It is only through righteous conquest that we can save the world from the tyranny of the evil goddesses. The poor heathens of the Alliance have fallen for their witchery so we must liberate them, show the truth, guide them to the righteous path so that their souls may be blessed upon their return to the Light goddess. Of course, once the Dark goddess is defeated, death will plague us no more. Fear, famine, and farce will be no more.

Brothers and sisters, once we liberate the Alliance and defeat the forces of evil, we will usher in an era of unparalleled prosperity for all of humanity. Food will no longer rot. Disease will be eradicated. Honey shall flow in rivers and lakes of the finest wine will spring forth, wine that does not intoxicate for that too is an affliction created by the Earth goddess.

We will be happy. All our needs and desires will be met. No injustices will occur ever again for men will no longer transgress upon each other’s rights. And brothers and sisters.” He paused again.

“We will be immortal! We will be righteous! We will be…

Victorious!”

The crowd screamed, chanting the same phrase repeatedly:

“Let there be light! Let there be light! Let there be light!”

These guys are crazy, I need to get out of here.

I tried to leave but was jostled back in place by the feverish crowd.

“Do you want a house? You’ll get a house!”

Crazy, this is crazy. Maybe I should jump straight up.

“Is there a girl you wanted to marry? Then prepare your wedding ring!”

Right, time to leave. I braced my knees and crouched, preparing to jump.

“Have you been betrayed? Do you want justice?”

I hesitated.

“The unjust shall be punished once their protectors are defeated!”

It’s religious bullshit, Lily, ignore it.

“Has someone you loved broken your heart?”

A couple of faces flashed in my head, but I shook them away.

“Worse yet, have some unfortunate circumstances gotten in the way of your love.”

Runir. He’s the demon lord.

“Would you like them to go away?”

I –

“Then join the liberation movement! Join the holy war! If you die, you’ll become a martyr whose soul will be greeted and blessed by the goddess herself. And when we vanquish the enemy at last, you shall be revived!

But most importantly, you will fight for your future, and your children’s future, and your grandchildren’s future. You will fight for hope. You will struggle for love. You will light up the world with the light of truth and benevolence. Brothers and sisters, let us spread the light!”

“Let there be light!” cheered the crowd.

I jumped out, and although a few people noticed, I was gone long before they could react.

Stumbling through the dark alleys of Cerena while making my way back to the palace, something caught my eye. In the center of a deserted square was an iron sculpture around ten feet tall. Its features were well carved out, and the armor was intimidating, exuding an air of rugged yet regal power. A sense of dominance and righteous authority that made everyone droop their shoulders and bow their heads, a presence that was refined, majestic and maybe even a little … heroic.

“Is that an older hero?” I mumbled. Unlike me, they looked the part, felt confident, and probably gave everyone around them a sense of security. This was a hero you could go to war behind.

I walked up to it, and the cold but shiny armor reflected my features. I hadn’t seen myself in the mirror for a long time, so the bags under my eyes and the sunken cheeks were a surprise. But the biggest surprise was what wasn’t there: the scars I’d earned over years on the streets, the acne that crept over my forehead during puberty, the crooked nose from when I’d been pummeled by a larger kid, and the fierce light in my eye that wasn’t even a pale fire.

There was more. I didn’t match the statue; I couldn’t. I was too uncertain, knew too little about the world, and worried about the unknown. I wasn’t trusting of others, so I didn’t give off an air of trustworthiness like the statue did – I was too used to betrayal.

But was I heroic? A less regal, more rugged type of hero. I was realistic, sometimes brutal, and maybe I wouldn’t trust you with my back. But I cared. I’d jump to save an innocent person, even if it put me in danger. I would do the right thing even if it tore my heart apart and made me hate myself forever.

There was something fishy going on in the Light kingdom, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. The Dark kingdom was killing people, so I’d fight them, but I wasn’t going to do it on the goddess’ terms.

I left the statue and returned to the palace.

“Adriana,” I called out as I spotted her sitting alone in the garden.

She nodded in acknowledgment, but never lifted her gaze from the pond. Worried, I sat down beside her.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Solaron told me something unsettling,” she said. I waited for her to continue but she didn’t.

“So unsettling you can’t tell me?”

She didn’t reply.

I didn’t know what to do, so I stared at the pond too. The bottom of the pond was white marble, and the water itself was clear. However, a layer of grime had settled onto the marble, killings its luster and dulling its sheen.

“Do I have to be worried?”

“You’ll find out soon.”

I frowned. This wasn’t like Adriana – or Fabar. Just as I was about to pursue the matter, a servant walked over and bowed.

“My hero, this came for you,” she said, handing me a parcel.

Mail? In this world? I grabbed it. Adriana looked over, her face sullen. My heart beat rapidly as I opened it. A small, crystalline prism appeared, giving off a dark light that was, for some reason, more reassuring than ominous.

“Hello Ms. Hero…”

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