On the outside, Geela appeared calm and collected, sitting on the throne at the head of Terha’s Great Hall, eyes closed, hands out to the side, palms resting upwards as the prayers of her followers seeped into her soul.
On the inside, Geela was screaming. The doors to the great hall had been sealed, but Geela could hear the pounding of skeletons outside. She’d put enchanted beams across each door, which did a decent job of keeping the skeletons out, but it wouldn’t last. They were definitely void and definitely powerful, so Geela didn’t want to engage until she had her weapon. The worst thing for her right now would be to waste the attacks she’d spent the afternoon building on some skeletons, only for Noire to show up and mop the floor with her.
Geela didn’t mop and wasn’t about to start now.
They were just behind. Destroying the Void Realm had been a time-buyer. Putting Noire in jail was a time-buyer. Now they were running out of time and time-buyers, and if her alchemists and enchanters didn’t pull through here, they would be entirely out in moments.
The scrystone in her lap burned, and she looked down to find that the little security stone she’d planted on Shaun had detected signs of life.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she snapped it open. Usually scrystones weren’t good for showing visuals, but Geela had been tinkering with this one back on the Scilatia. It was more like a visual display unit, planted on top of Shaun, than an actual communication device, but it was just what she needed for this. “Oh wonderful.” She wasn’t sure if the tone should’ve been wry or relieved so her voice settled on a mix of both. It was wonderful, seeing Darkos swinging around his sword while a red-faced Morris toted a huge cauldron, but it was also hard watching them as the skeletons slowly turned from the door and began banging their rib cages in a new tune.
“My followers!” Geela rose to her feet, and all eyes locked on her. “Salvation comes to us from down the hall! Darkos and Morris are in need of armed help.” Then she took a deep breath and set aside some of the formality. She needed to think quick and talk quicker. “I need a dozen armed people at the left and center door. Draw the skeletons to you. Emphasis on armor over weapons since you’re going to be meat shields. When there’s a break at the right door, I want another two dozen fighters, moving fast through the skeletons, to reach Darkos and Morris. The rest of you, barricade the doors to make sure none spill through to the congregation. Anyone with magic, I want you defending the worshippers. Worshippers? Keep your faith strong and do not break!”
The response to this was both resounding and befuddling. It almost sounded like a lamb’s bleat. A kind of ‘baaaaa’ noise. But they jumped to, so Geela didn’t think too much about it. The congregation had been humming with a building energy for the past half-hour, and now it broke into a nervous energy. The guards leapt to their feet as the excitement grew more contagious. Worshippers began praising Geela’s names louder and more fanatically. Adronious the Vast caught Jane in an embrace and kissed her before she slumped into a swoon. An ‘awww’ went up from half the crowd as more people hugged and kissed their goodbyes to the fighters. Many confessed their true loves for each other. One couple even proposed.
God it was enough to make Geela want them all dead.
“Alright alright, enough! Go!” She pointed, trying very hard not to look petulant, and finally they flooded from the chamber in the order she’d dictacted. Mentally, she reached out to Illisandra to see if there’d been an update from Vera or Renby.
Vera’s mind was just static. So no luck yet on reaching Berta. That was bad. It was absolutely imperative that they get another Patron tier entity to wield the light weapon against Noire, and Vera had always been Berta’s favorite. If this didn’t work, they might just all be dead.
Renby, however, had better news. He and Sonatad were putting the final touches on what he called a ‘marvel of modern enchanting and lumination.’ Geela was excited to see it, provided it was something she lived to see.
A huge crash sounded from outside, and she was snapped from hers, Renby’s, and Sontatad’s thoughts by a swarm of jubilous shouts.
“Go Darkos! Go Darkos! Three cheers for the errant spawn!”
Between the declarations of love and the fans cheering, Geela felt like she was watching a bad retelling of current events. Maybe her followers were just so impressed by her that they couldn’t imagine a situation where they failed here, so this was the equivalent of watching an exhibition fight between two champion fighters, and less the last desperate fight between darkness and anyone who wanted to keep living.
Truth be told, Geela actually didn’t mind this. It meant she was doing her job well. All she had to do was win this, and she’d cement her place in their hearts as undefeatable. The only other option was everyone died today, so technically her reputation wasn’t at all at stake.
“Geela! We got the peanut potion!” Darkos’s cry was so excited that finally Geela let a smile crack on her face.
“Wonderful. Place it before me.” She gestured at the raised platform. Darkos took the cauldron—and any potential glory—from Morris, and all eyes followed him as he placed it down before Geela.
“Are you gonna bless it?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth.
Was she? Could she? No harm, right?
“I bless this potion before us in my name, that its serum may travel into the very foundation of our enemy and devastate it.” She made a few random gestures, a few circles and a triangle, which were parroted uncannily well by her followers.
Darkos picked up his cue at this. “Whosoever dips their blade into the holy fluid will find their weapon temporarily bestowed upon by peanut holy powers that will rain down the eternal judgement of our good and wondrous God to smite down, bring a permanent and righteous end to their short but violent blight upon—”
“Dip your weapons in, and you can fight them,” Geela said, cutting off Darkos. Good enthusiasm, poor execution. “Everyone, in a line, now.”
They were getting remarkably good at this and within moments, a new hoard of armed fighters were replacing the meat shields at the doors. The fighting really kicked up several notches, though, from Geela’s vantage point, all she could see was bones flying. Here a hand might sail overhead. There a foot bone crashed against a column. A chattering skull whizzed by Geela’s head, close enough that Geela had to duck, and she found her feet tripped and twisted, forgetting after so long that the ground and her were not friends.
However, instead of hitting the floor, she found herself in Darkos’s arms.
“When are you going to make yourself something to fix that?” he asked, a grin in his voice.
“It’s harder than you might think,” she said, steadying herself and dusting off her outfit. “I’d have to make an enchantment that can modify some very delicate parts of my inner ear, at the very least. It’s just one of the reasons I want to take that doctor apart.”
“Well… let’s survive this first. Where do you want me?” He glanced around the pandemonium in the room. “Probably just guarding you, right?”
“You know me so well.” Geela looked at her scrystone again. More skeletons continued to flow through, well over a hundred, and while the blows by peanut axes and spears were piercing them and causing their bones to blister white and crumble to dust, the fight was far from won. A lot of Geela’s fighters had missed the whole ‘mindless fighter’ part of their job descriptions, and they were trying frustratingly hard to save each other. On one hand, they were minimizing casualties a bit but to what end? There were only a few minor healers, and Geela wasn’t letting Darkos leave her side to help.
She’d have to distract him before his bleeding heart spurred him to save the others. He was needed here, as was evident by the two skeletons he knocked back without even really paying attention. Darkos was good at fighting, and Geela trusted him to keep her safe.
“Renby says the light weapon is almost done,” she said, as Darkos slammed the side of a skeleton’s skull and threw its body into the fray.
“Yeah?” he asked. “Oh shoot,” he said, noticing the skeleton landing on an elderly couple praying. “You need help with that?”
“Nonsense.” Geela shot a Sunnyville resident, armed with a pitchfork, a death glare and jerked her head at the couple. The woman ran to their rescue, and Geela turned a honeyed smile back on Darkos. “He says it’s going to look pretty cool but also said that we’re going to need Berta to wield it.”
“Berta?” Darkos’s voice sounded unexpectedly close to a whine. “Ah jeez. I hope Mom doesn’t see that.”
Darkos scuffed a toe at the ground before catching a leaping skeleton with a hand, cleaving it in half, and throwing the two halves in opposite directions. Then he looked back at his toe. “Mom doesn’t like blood magic. I think that’s why she quit the academy.”
Damn. Darkos was right. Geela had forgotten how soft Darkos’s mother was. “Well, Berta’s working with us in relative secrecy. Once Vera gets a lock on her, we’ll keep the interaction quiet and private and no one will—”
A skin crawling creak shattered the air with a noise that sounded like it might just permeate the whole castle.
“So, the Blood Witch Berta has been summoned by the God Geela to defeat a certain Void Fiend.” The voice sounded like slugs being pulled apart by scorpion claws. “I find this request to be quite… amusing. I am also bordering on offended that she only requests my aid when she is in need.”
“Lovely to hear from you too, Berta,” Geela said. The fighting around her hadn’t quite stopped, especially since the skeletons were nonplussed by Berta’s summoning, but a bunch of the armed celestials looked disconcerted, and their fighting suffered from it. This was offset by the Eight suddenly growing very invigorated by their Patron’s presence. Previously, the cultists had sat off to the side, waving batons at any skeletons who got too close, but otherwise mostly just trying to keep their children from crying. But now they sprang alive, howling and hissing in a bloodlust induced frenzy. Geela didn’t have to like them, but she couldn’t deny that the amount of prophecy that spurred their birth, not to mention their powerful bloodlines, made them terrifying fighters, and soon the air was filled with the scent of blood.
“I would ask what you have to offer me, but I’ve already struck a deal with little Vera.” Berta’s voice dripped with sadistic pleasure, and Geela’s stomach twisted. “But I wish to convene with you in privacy. Find me in the observation tower.”
Lovely. It was just like Berta to make a castle-wide announcement that Geela had come to her for help, and only afterwards request some space alone. Witch.
“Darkos,” she said, “with me.”
He didn’t need another word from her. With a mighty swing of his sword, he threw back a skeleton into three that were charging up at Geela.
“Alright. Follow me.” Darkos turned and gave her a once over. He winced.
Geela glared. “Don’t give me that look. I’m not going to fall.” She meant it too, so as the two began to dodge and weave between skeletons, Geela kept her eyes fixed on the ground. One foot in front of the other, keep walking, one foot after another, across the floor. Soon they’d be out the door and away from this infernal place.
“I’ve filled my sheath with peanut water,” Darkos told her as he hacked his way through mindless skeletons. “Ruined it but I can get another. Maybe an enchanted one?”
Was he really asking for gifts right now? Then again, maybe he deserved it. He was doing valiantly.
“Just lemme know what you want, and we’ll go from there.” The words barely felt audible as they squeezed out between grit teeth, but Darkos must’ve heard her.
“Cool cool. Nothing crazy, just maybe something a little cool. I’ve got some ideas I’ll run by you after.” His voice was overflowing with an excited grin, and Geela wondered just how long he must’ve been contemplating this.
They continued their hazardous path up to the observation tower. Geela had some lightly enchanted armor on but was largely going unarmed. She was keeping as much on standby as possible.
“We might need some help,” Darkos said after another few minutes of fighting. “Or spells—er, magic. More than just me, is all I mean. It’s getting tight up here.”
Geela didn’t look up, but she heard an irritating marimba-like noise growing thick around them. “Call over some allies. I don't want to use my magic on the skeletons.”
A few seconds later, a swarm of pirates rushed to their aid.
Darkos immediately started issuing orders like a pro. “Soft Paws, I want you clapping skulls. Make sure they don’t get up. You there, uh, Oscar, right, you and Vortex, I want you guarding our backs. Yop, on the left there, stop them coming from that crush. You—oh, Sal! Sally, I want you at Geela’s elbow, make sure she doesn’t trip.”
“Aye can do. Hello there, your holiness. It’s good to be seeing you upright and all.” Sale’s voice had never previously done much to reassure Geela, but right now she understood why Darkos had taken such a shining to the man. She could feel him hovering by her, less like the irritating flies she’d come to compare her minions to, and more like a parent waiting to catch their child as she leapt from a tree she was stuck in.
Just maybe less infantilizing. Same concept though.
Darkos continued shouting orders as they made it through. Pirates absorbed shots from skeletons while Geela focused on stepping over the bones littering the floor with grace, and soon they were walking out the door.
Once outside, Geela lifted her gaze. There was still carnage, especially as more skeleton eye sockets turned their way. They had just reached the base of the stairwell that would lead them up to the observatory when the clacking shifted focus to them.
“Floxy, Soft Paws, Yop, Geromen, on them. Clog up the staircase. We can’t risk them getting to us.” Darkos waved his sword at the pirates. “Don’t let any get by.”
Geela took another look at the skeletons swarming the area before her eyes fell to the pirates that were trying to hold them back. “Vortex, keep those stairs slippery under any feet but ours. I want Oscar and Rex to guard her.”
Darkos nodded. “Good call. Sally, you’re with us.”
“Aye,” the large man said, saluting. “I’m sorry my brother couldn’t come with to help. I think he might be able to fill that whole doorway just himself.” Saleman laughed. “But he’s got a wife and three wee ones to guard.”
“He’s got three whats?” This shouldn’t have upset Geela but it did. She was only just getting her head around the idea that anyone could conceivably love Jane, and now the cursed twig of a human had children? Gods how she wished people could just stop having babies for a few months. At least around her.
And speaking of people who couldn’t stop having children, as the three wound up the stairs higher, she could hear the sound of conversation. The voices clearly belonged to Renby, Vera, and Carlosi, but thankfully none were fighting.
Just before they rounded the final turn, Geela tossed her hair back, combing down some flyaways, and wiped the sweat off her face. She held her chin high and let her scrambling run turn into a self-assured saunter.
At the landing, her old cultists, along with the horrible, mutating entity that was Berta, all stood in a circle. The three humans sported matching V-shaped slashes on their arms, ones that mirrored the scar on Renby’s throat. He seemed to have provided the brunt of the offering, likely because of his powerful bloodline, but Vera was in full control here. Her eyes lit with an unearthly glow, as she stood near Berta, occasionally looking to where Carlosi had put a protective arm around Renby. In the middle of their circle was an ornate wand. The long, black handle twined with silver etchings that shifted and moved as Geela watched it. At its end shone a dazzling multi-faceted ornament that radiated light to and from the gems on each of its points. It stood on its end in a pool of light that poured from the telescope, and as the light passed near it, the amorphous energy formed into strands that orbited faster and faster around the shining sigil until they touched a strand and were refracted into another gem. Although Geela could feel the starbusts in her eyes from the light magic, it never grew too bright to look at. It was massively powerful, absolutely beautiful, and functional as both a weapon and a prop for gathering attention.
What had Geela done to deserve such good apprentices?
“Ah, Geela.” Berta’s hideous voice snapped Geela from her thoughts. “I’m elated to hear you have come crawling once again. I will say, I was quite pleased when Vera here reached out. Our newest little God, hmm? You have so very much to learn about being a Patron: what rules you must play by and which become obsolete as you grow more powerful. But that is, perhaps, a conversation for a different time?”
“I quite think so.” Geela kept her words short and clipped. “Vera told you what we need to do?”
“Yes. I will do what was requested in exchange for something precious to me being returned.” Berta let the sentence trail off but didn’t say more as what might generously be considered her mouth formed into something that even the most charitable of folks wouldn’t call a smile. It was, at most, a gruesome display of mirth, and Geela’s stomach sank again. What had Vera offered? Ought she negotiate here? Try and squeeze it out of Berta?
No. No, Geela had more important things to worry about. Too much was at stake here to worry about what Vera might have done.
“Good.” Geela flipped her hair, brushing a few strands out of her face. “So you can wield that and take out Noire?”
“I can wield it.” Berta’s voice creaked around the words until Geela broke out in shivers. “Whether it will contain sufficient power is another question entirely.”
“It will,” Renby said. He pushed against Carlosi to stand up straighter. “I swear it. Sonatad’s light orb is an ancient artifact passed down from the Church of Celeste. I dismantled it to create the heart of the wand. It just needs to collect more light.”
“How much is enough?” Geela asked.
His eyes stayed fixed on Geela, steadfastly avoiding Berta’s gaze. “The core is Celeste’s. It doesn’t rely on her at all, but it does follow her cycles. If we can get it to sunset, it’ll break the world with its power.”
“I appreciate the gusto but we’re trying to avoid that right now.” Still Geela peered out the window. “Sun’s on its way but we’ve probably still got another half an hour. We can do thirty minutes certainly, right?”
A chill ran down Geela’s spine as if in response to her question, and her nose was assaulted by the tang of metal. Geela couldn’t sense void magic, which meant this wasn’t her picking up on the residue of a spell.
It was, more or less, an announcement.
“Thirty minutes is about to feel a lot longer,” Berta said, her voice grim. “Our good friend Noire is awake.”