Ever had a sick feeling in your stomach. Like you’d swallowed a rotten fruit whole or jumped into a pit of slime, sludge, and sewage? Well, right now I had a maggot infested melon inside me while I drowned in a cesspool of gunk.
I didn’t know why I felt that way, but the feeling had been creeping over me for days; ever since I’d met Clare.
“The brave and valiant hero is leading an excursion into the Fire kingdom to vanquish the evil monster Origin. Able-bodied citizens are requested to sign up at their local church or government office, to help fight the scourge of the false god and bring peace to Erath.”
I tossed the flyer aside and nodded to Kai. “She’s headed to the Fire kingdom.”
“So it would appear,” said Kai, frowning. “I don’t get this at all, though. She isn’t ready to take on Origin, we barely managed to escape from him the first time. What is she thinking?”
“No idea,” I said. “But what I do know is she’ll need our help.”
“Right,” said Kai.
We were on a village road in the North of the Light kingdom. The crops were ready to be harvested, grains sticking to the top of large stalks and stems. It was a picturesque place, the kind that made you want to leave the big city for a quaint life in the countryside. Despite the natural atmosphere, though, everywhere you looked, you could see evidence of human hard work and ingenuity.
The crops had been raised with tender love and care for months, the farmers weeding, fertilizing, and watering their precious plants regularly. There were barns and silos in the distance, no doubt full of stored grains and hay. The neighs of the horses carried all the way to the road, despite the stables being on the far end of the fields. In a place like this, there were no unruly noises, lots of crisp, fresh air, and lush fields. I’d spent countless years aimlessly trotting along roads like these, taking in the scenery and forgetting my troubles amidst the cornfields.
But the farmers weren’t out harvesting tonight. Despite all their efforts, Fate had dealt them a cruel hand. A massive storm ripped through their fields, crushing corn, and tearing wheat stalks asunder. A few barns collapsed, battered to pieces by the ferocious winds.
Kai and I were powering through it with the strength of our stats, but the sheets of rain crashing down on us made it hard to see.
“You know what, give me a sec.” Kai pulled something out of his robe. It was a rod with a strange black cloth at the top. He twisted the handle and the cloth unfurled to reveal a curved surface. He pointed it straight up and stood underneath. “Come on.”
“What is it?” I asked as I stepped under it.
“An umbrella,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Really? You should know about these,” he said. “They were all over the place back in the Air kingdom. I bought one when I left that one time.”
He left quite frequently. I stayed up all night guarding Lily, and saw him leave nearly every night. He’d left the party a couple of times during the day too, especially in the Air and Dark kingdoms. Worst of all he always gave a lame excuse afterward: I went for a stroll, needed to take a dump, or went out to catch some bugs.
“We better hurry,” he said. “The hero left the palace so there’s no point going there anymore, but we can try to cut them off before they reach the Fire kingdom.”
I nodded and we dashed across the muddy road, the umbrella shielding us from the worst of the storm. After a few hours of relentless dashing, we reached the border between the Light and Fire kingdoms. My shrine was a stone’s throw away – or at least it used to be.
“This is the best way to get to the Fire kingdom, the Light kingdom’s vanguard should be here soon,” I said, surveying the place. It was an empty clearing, with trees stretching off to either side. No one had been here for a while but there were still signs of humans living nearby. There must be a village nearby.
“They’ll try to go through the Fire goddess’ shrine first,” I said. “It’s their best bet for getting some local support. Then they’ll want to sweep down to Beigo to confront Origin before retaking Ashpool.”
Kai nodded. “Let’s set up camp and wait for them.”
Deep in the night, when the moon hid behind the clouds, and the nightbirds dozed off, Kai carefully extricated himself from my embrace and walked off. I pretended to be asleep, waiting for a good fifteen minutes before cautiously opening my eyes and lifting myself up. Usually, after Kai left on one of his mysterious nighttime strolls, I’d stay up looking at the stars or soothing the anxiety of the people praying to me.
But today was different. I left the campsite and disappeared into the forest. The trees gave way to a tall, craggy mountain. I leapt up the mountainside, touching down on a ledge halfway to the peak. I changed into a flowing red robe and pushed aside a clump of dry brambles to reveal an unassuming cave. I entered the cave and the brambles flicked back into place, blocking the already sparse moonlight from filling inside.
I snapped my fingers and a small flame appeared above my hand, shedding its light onto the black rocks and stones lining the cave’s walls. I walked further in until I reached a door, a door carved directly from a chunk of gold ore. Since it hadn’t been refined, it didn’t have gold’s distinctive luster, so the door was a patchwork of different colors; perfect for what it represented.
I pushed the door open.
I took my place at the table. Two robed figures sat on my right, and three sat across me on the opposite side of the table. The room was dimly lit so I couldn’t make out anyone’s features, but I didn’t need to see them to know who they were.
“Now that everyone is here,” said Solaron. Her body began to glow, illuminating the features of everyone on our side. “Let the conclave begin.”
“Can we skip the charade?” said Lunaris, sipping her tea as always. “Being with you losers is annoying as fuck.”
“Really Lunaris? Can’t you be happy to see your sisters for once?” said Adriana with a sigh.
“Stop it you two,” scolded Solaron. “We need to focus. There are a lot of pressing concerns on the agenda.”
“Whatever,” said Lunaris, putting her foot on the table. “Opal, got anything to say?”
“Yeah,” said the Earth goddess, her smile sickeningly sweet. “Aia here has been very naughty. Goddesses aren’t supposed to interfere in each other’s domains yet she went galivanting across my kingdom, wrecking all my mines. She cost me a fortune and although she did come say hi afterwards, I’m going to need a proper apology.”
“Is this true Aia?” asked Solaron.
“You know it is,” I replied tersely. “And I’m not going to apologize.” I glared at the Earth goddess, daring her to argue, but she didn’t. Instead, she kept smiling at me with an even sweeter smile.
“Adriana, you had a complaint as well,” said Solaron, turning to the blue haired girl.
“Yes, the Alliance has cut off trade with my company. This is completely unprecedented; my company has always been allowed to trade even during times of war.”
“Our economies are in shambles because of the hero,” said Breize. “We didn’t think she’d wreck the place so badly, but she did. And now your company’s profiting from our troubles. You were selling food at ten times the market price!”
“You’re just angry I wouldn’t sell you any platinum,” muttered Adriana.
“I need it for my experiments!”
“This is why I hate these family reunions,” complained Lunaris, as tendrils of darkness materialized to cover her ears.
“Look, it’s basic economics.” continued Adriana. “My goods are worth more because I’m the only one who can provide them. What are you going to do without me, let your people starve?”
“No,” said Opal. “We’ll have plenty of food after we win the war.”
Silence. Both sides stared at each other.
“This is the most serious we’ve been about a war since… ever,” said Adriana.
“Yes,” said Breize. “Arms production hasn’t been higher at any point in history. We can thank the new demon lord for that, his management is incredibly efficient. Despite the destruction of the mines in the Earth kingdom and the fall of the Air kingdom’s islands, we’re ready for battle.”
“The hero did a number on you guys though. Morale is insanely high in the Union right now,” said Adriana. “And the hero will beat the demon lord for sure, she has more blessings than he does.”
“But the Fire kingdom’s army is out of your reach,” said Opal. “And they’re your best fighters.”
“Which reminds me, we need to discuss the second most important item on the agenda,” said Solaron. “How do we get the Fire kingdom back.”
“We?” said Lunaris, with a chuckle. “It’s Aia’s kingdom, she should get it back herself. If you Alliance sods want to help her, go right ahead. But why the fuck should I help a goddess who can’t even keep ahold of her own domain?”
I frowned. “Says the goddess who lost control of her kingdom to an immortal minister.”
“I did not lose control! I tolerate him because he’s more fun than most demon lords.”
“The current demon lord isn’t under your thumb either,” I said, provocatively. I could almost picture Runir riling her up at every opportunity. He wasn’t the sort to listen to someone else, even if they were a goddess.
Lunaris smirked. “You’ve been out of the loop, Aia.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You need to pay more attention to our messages, Aia,” said Solaron, shaking her head. “You’ve always been like this. Have you even checked your divine prism lately?”
I made a blank expression.
“Come on Aia!”
“No wonder she lost her kingdom.”
“Shut it!” barked Adriana. “We’re all busy, aren’t we?” She turned to me. “Although I hope you at least read the agenda for today’s meeting.”
I looked away.
“Aia…” Solaron shook her head.
“Typical.” Lunaris chuckled.
“There’s nothing important in them anyways!” I exclaimed.
The room fell into silence.
“I thought there was something weird when you came to my place,” said Breize. “We had a chat about it too. I praised you for your foresight, you’d set the ball rolling long before the rest of us recovered from our shock.”
“Hell, you acted so dumb when we met, I almost thought you’d turned traitor,” said Lunaris. She let out a relieved sigh and smiled. “Thankfully, you’re just a dumbass.”
“Here I was, thinking you’d engineered the whole thing. Wow, do I feel dumb for overestimating you like that,” said Opal, shaking her head. “I told the others you’d agreed to talk about the details during the conclave but to think you were…”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Wow, this is…” Adriana muttered. “How’d you end up traveling in that party?”
“With the hero and the demon lord,” answered Breize. “The strangest party in the history of Erath.”
“It just… happened.”
“You can’t be serious?” said Solaron, wide-eyed. “The hero travels the Alliance under the protection of the demon lord himself, and you tell me you had no hand in that?”
“No,” I said, confused. Where’d they get that idea from?
“Screw that,” said Lunaris. “You’re telling me you brought him here by accident.”
“Him?” I asked. “Who are you talking about.”
“Fuck,” whispered Lunaris. “She’s serious. She’s absolutely serious.”
“Serious about what?”
“We’ve been planning this for months,” said Solaron. “And you say you don’t know?”
“Know what?” Confused, I was confused. What on Erath were they talking about?
“Are you kidding me?” shouted Opal. “The only reason I let you destroy my beautiful mines was because of what I thought you were doing.”
“I should have dissected you for what you did to my islands!” said Breize. “I stayed my hand solely because of your actions. I admired you greatly, knowing it was something I’d never be willing to do myself.”
“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, my eyes flicking frantically between the other goddesses; all of whom were looking at me like I was a stranger.
“You got on his good side as soon as he got here,” said Solaron. “You went around the world with him. He saved your life countless times. You gained his trust, I’d argue even his love. You kept him under control, away from the rest of us while we plotted against him.”
They don’t mean…
“We didn’t know what you were planning exactly,” said Lunaris. “When you came to my place, I thought you’d brought him there so I could deal with him. But then you didn’t help at all! Afterwards I thought it might have been because you saw I couldn’t finish him, and I agreed, his powers were far above my expectations.”
They’re talking about…
“We assumed you couldn’t speak of your plans because he was listening,” said Adriana, her bright blue eyes twinkling. “Even when Breize took you away from him, you still wouldn’t speak freely, so we assumed he could hear through walls and long distances too. We made sure to talk in codes after that. It took a lot of effort to find a way to isolate our conversations from his reach but we came up with something eventually. When you replied so directly to Opal’s code, we thought for sure the padding in the room had made you comfortable enough to speak openly about your plans.”
“This is bad,” said Solaron. “You brought him here, didn’t you? Do you know where he is? He mustn’t find out what we’re planning. He mustn’t!”
“He went for a stroll.”
“Let him come, I need to pay him back for last time,” said Lunaris, sneering.
“Why are you looking for him?” I asked, despite knowing the answer. It had been in the back of my mind for a long time, but I’d suppressed it. Only now, when my sisters confirmed my suspicions, did I accept it.
“Because,” said Solaron. “He’s our greatest enemy.”
“The one we hate the most,” said Breize, her eyes narrowing. “He gave us the Haze!
“He made us slaves to his whims,” said Opal, her breathing ragged.
“He took our loved ones from us!” cried Adriana. “Granny, he took my granny from me!”
“A life of eternal animosity and hatred for one another,” said Solaron. “He made us sisters enemies. Condemned Erath to centuries of conflict and bloodshed. Every death, every miserable event in this world, they’re all his fault!”
“He’s an asshole,” grumbled Lunaris. “You don’t want to know what he made me go through. The pain, the sorrow, the anger! We’ve all cursed him for nine hundred years. Nine hundred fucking years! Hell!” she screamed, throwing her teacup across the room. It shattered loudly. “I don’t even like tea! He makes me drink it! Makes me drink tea every fucking hour of every fucking day!”
“I didn’t –”
Lunaris stormed out of her chair and grabbed the front of my robes. “This was my chance to get back at him. No, screw that. This was our chance to be free. Free of him for the first time ever. Free to do whatever the hell we wanted to. End the wars, eliminate death, eradicate suffering, we could finally build a perfect world!” She brought her face close to mine. “We were going to destroy him once and for all, and now you tell me you didn’t even know who he was? He’s –”
“Right behind you.”
We all turned around. A figure stood at the cave’s entrance, looking at us with a smile. “So this is what you’ve been doing. At first I was worried because I couldn’t see inside these rooms of yours, but to think, you were having a secret tea party. I’m offended you didn’t invite me.” He picked up a piece of the broken teacup. “I like tea.”
“Kai, how long have you been here?” I asked, breaking out of Lunaris’ grip.
“Long enough to hear about your plans. Destroy me? Did you really think you could do that?” He chuckled. “No one can resist Fate; not even you, the goddesses.”
“So you really are…”
“Is that really a question worth asking?” he said, wagging his finger. He walked further in and leaned over the table. The other goddesses shrunk away. “I’m just happy you weren’t in on it. I didn’t know if you were really using codes and playing me like a fiddle like these idiots thought. I couldn’t bear having to deal with you too.”
“Deal with me?”
“Of course!” he said. “I have to make them pay for conspiring against me. Besides, I can’t let them roam about so freely now that war’s about to break out. They could mess up my plans.”
“You don’t need to worry about that.” He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me close. “I’m going to fix this world, and then the two of us can be together forever.” He smiled, making a warm feeling rise up my chest.
Someone started laughing. Kai raised an eyebrow. “What’s so funny?”
Lunaris banged the table and cackled maniacally. “I was so worried, so fucking worried –” She laughed again. “That the plan was going to fail.” She burst into another fit of laughter.
Kai frowned. “What are you –”
Solaron sighed. It was a sigh of relief. “I felt the exact same way, Lunaris. All that painstaking effort and it seemed as if the plan would fail at the last moment. I’d made contingencies for everything but this never crossed my mind at all.”
“Same, although the way it got resolved was kind of anticlimactic,” said Adriana.
Kai’s eyes widened. “I don’t like this. The hell are you talking about?”
“Exactly,” said Opal, flashing her sweet smile. “We’re talking about the hell you’re about to go through.”
“Do it now!” shouted Breize.
The cave shook. A loud bang echoed off the walls just as they began to crumble. The ceiling collapsed and the floor gave way. Kai grabbed my hand tightly, not willing to let go, but something stronger was pulling me in the other direction.
I resisted the pull, but the pain grew unbearable. My soul was stretching to the point of breaking and my vision blurred, but I didn’t let go.
“Damn it,” cursed Kai as he released me.