The first part of basic training coming to a close was mostly a relief to Dee. Now she didn’t have to deal with the mind games of the trainers anymore, because now the focus of the training itself would change. If the first part of basic training was about physical improvement and weeding out unsuitable people, the second part is where the actual training as a holy warrior began. The focus was no longer on making the recruits miserable; instead it was now on actual learning.
All the remaining recruits had been gathered on a wide paved square with a podium at the front. Dee did a quick count and there was about four and a half hundred recruits still remaining. The commander in charge of their training was getting up on the podium, most likely preparing to give a rousing speech or something. Dee was more interested in what would happen after the speech.
The commander started his speech. “Congratulations to all of you for making it through the first part of basic training. Those six months are an ordeal that we all have to go through, and they are one of the things that bind us together. They are also one of the things that prove that every paladin and templar you work with in the future is here because they belong here, that they want to be here and that they have the ability to be here. No matter what happens in the future, this is an achievement that no one can take away from you. You can now properly call yourselves members of the Order of the Radiant Sun.”
“That said, you are not full members yet. The next part of training will turn you from the band of ruffians you still are into proper paladins and templar. At the moment, at best you can be called warriors with maybe a slight access to holy power, and the vast majority of you don’t even have that yet. That is something that will change today. What separates us from the other warrior types is our ability to use holy power, and that will be the focus of you training for the foreseeable future. Oh no need to worry, you still get training in the use of weapons, group tactics and most of all physical training, so no need to fret. However, the focus will be in using holy power.”
“To that end, before you leave on your well-earned small vacation, all of you will go through the Ritual of Choosing. Why before the vacation? So that you can make use of the wasted time you call a vacation and get to terms with the basic usage of holy power. Make sure you don’t slack off for the whole two weeks.”
The commander’s speech was only slightly pompous and even elicited a few laughs from the gathered people. He went on for a while longer but Dee tuned him out at that point. What needed to be said had been said. After the speech finished, all the recruits were taken towards the headquarters of the Holy Orders. There was no point for the Radiant Sun to keep temples on their grounds when the headquarters of the Holy Orders was right next to them.
While the headquarters of the Radiant Sun had a certain military camp feel to it, the headquarters of the Holy Orders were the opposite. The Holy Orders had built separate temples, or outside shrines in case that was their preference, for every known deity in existence. It was geographically the largest of the five headquarters, covering enough ground to match the area used by the other four communities ten times over. That was one of the main reasons the headquarters of the Holy Orders and Radiant Sun had pretty much grown to be attached to each other. The priests were always expanding and building new temples, and the paladins and templar provided the safest and most natural direction to expand.
It was impossible to tell how many temples and shrines the grounds of the Holy Orders held. Dee slightly doubted if even the priests working here knew exactly. The temples ranged from grand cathedrals and luxurious pagodas, to ominous caves and dark citadels, and from elegant buildings to simple shrines in the midst of nature. Dee noted with interest that one of the shrines seemed to be a large crystalline flower tended by what looked like giant bees wearing basic priestly vestments.
All of the temples were built to the image and tastes of the deity worshipped and had their own cadre of priests and clerics. The Holy Orders headquarters were perhaps the most varied place in the entirety of Pantheon when it came to the multitude of races present. Many of the deities were only served by a single race or alternatively only approved of their clergy being from a single race. The thousands upon thousands of temples had clergy from hundreds upon hundreds of races. Some of the races Dee didn’t even recognize.
While the Radiant Sun preferred their members to be blessed by the light gods, trying to confine them to light gods only was both stupid and dangerous. It was necessary to have some of their number serve the dark gods, and a large portion of the members in the order were neutral. As a result, the recruits couldn’t take their ritual in one of the temples of light. There was only one temple in the entire complex that housed both the dark gods and the light gods, and it was the grand temple in the center of the area.
The grand temple was one of the largest buildings Dee had ever seen, combining both shrines for every deity known as well as the administration and power elite of the Holy Orders. The imposing marble structure stretched for kilomels in every direction like a great dragon sleeping on its hoard. The domes and towers of the temple reached into the clouds, and the gaping maws that were supposed to be doors were flanked by pillars that would take fifty people to surround. The pillars actually looked a bit like teeth of the great beast.
The grand temple was a beehive of activity as priests, priestesses, clerics, guards, officials and acolytes ran around on various errands, paying no attention to the hundreds of recruits whose presence was dwarfed by everything they were seeing. The commander led them through the doors into the depths of the temple. The walls were all adorned with paintings, frescos and reliefs. The passages were all lined with statues, vases meant for holding sacrificial items and holy objects. Dee also noted an extravagant amount of precious metals and gems, mostly used as ornaments and gilding. Almost every surface that wasn’t covered with a painting or a holy object was covered with a carving depicting the glory of one of the gods.
The floor was of course some marble-like stone shiny enough to be used as mirror. Dee noted idly that the color of the floor changed depending on which part of the temple they were in. The areas dedicated to the light gods were white, grey for neutral gods and black of course for dark gods. Not very imaginative, but at least functional and beautiful if you were into that sort of thing. At least it made things clear.
It took them almost an hour but they were finally led into the central chamber under the large dome at the center of the building. The room had a diameter of several kilomels, and the ceiling was almost too high to be seen properly. The only thing that kept the whole thing from collapsing due to its own weight were several powerful spells used during the construction.
The room was a hubbub of activity. While the recruits were here for their Ritual of Choosing, that wasn’t the only thing happening tonight. The ritual was held on certain days for a reason, and that reason held even more true in the case of the grand temple. This night was the night when the power of the faithful was passed on to the gods, and the gathered power was stupendous inside the grand temple. Dee could feel the walls humming with power. Additionally, the Holy Orders also planned on having their acolytes participate in the Ritual at the same time. The number of acolytes was much higher as the priests had their training focused here, while the Radiant Sun spread their training around much more. Only the best got trained at the headquarters.
While waiting, Dee noted the various shrines and statues around the room. As with the temple she had visited previously, the size of the statues and the symbols of the deities were directly related to the respective ranks of the deities. The ten largest were bigger than the others by a wide margin, signifying the difference between them and the other deities. Dee recognized three of them and wasn’t surprised by their presence.
The two largest were again much bigger than the eight others, and Dee was actually surprised to notice the large difference. It was almost as big as the difference between the top ten and those under them. On the other hand, she only sighed in resignation as she noted that the largest of them all depicted a stylized serpent eating its own tail, twisted into the shape of an hourglass. The second largest symbol was that of a dark crow standing on the top of what looked like a tombstone. The crow seemed to have something indistinct in its beak, which Dee sensed was supposed to represent a soul.
The other eight were similar enough in size that it was hard to rank them properly. The half open eye inside a dark moon that symbolized Umbra seemed to be the third largest, and was bigger than Lumen’s. That was as expected as Umbra represented both dark and chaos while Lumen only represented light. Dee didn’t really recognize the other shrines, though she could make educated guesses based on the symbols. The fifth largest shrine seemed to be that of Order, based on the pure wave of disgust Dee felt as soon as she saw it. Interestingly it seemed that there was an equal amount of light and dark gods among the top ten, with three each. The neutral gods had the most at four, and they also held the top two spots, although it was hard to say whether the crow shrine was supposed to be neutral or dark.
As the time of the ritual closed, several priestesses approached the recruits. They were all handed a flask of golden liquid Dee was already familiar with. ‘Hey it’s the psychedelic wine again. I still can’t get over the fact that the supposedly solemn ritual is mostly about boozing up with a drink spiced up with goddess knows what. Also a healthy dollop of holy power.’
One of the priestesses spoke. “I am aware that rare few among you are already blessed by a deity. You will still take part in the ritual, mostly because it’s a part of becoming a paladin or a templar. Take it as a chance to have a talk with your deity. Who knows, you might learn something new about your blessing. Or you might have a brand new encounter. That is also a possibility. Or you might die due to the jealousy of your old deity. Life is full of risks.” The last part was mostly said in jest…right?
The priestess then explained the whole ritual in tedious detail. This was something the acolytes of Holy Orders would’ve already been taught, but the recruits were here straight off the basic training. The whole spiel was already drilled into Dee’s head by Mazatl well enough that she could conduct the whole thing by herself if she had to. She had already done it once after all.
They all took their places as the high priest started conducting the ritual. The whole thing was much more dragged out affair when compared to the truncated version Dee had done earlier. It had a lot more pomp and ceremony, which was rather impressive considering Dee had felt that the truncated version she had done years ago was already half nothing but fluff.
Once again there were offerings and supplication, though a lot more than previously. Once again all the recruits donated a bit of their own blood to the flames as a personal offering. Dee almost slashed her palm again before she remembered that this time there were others donating their blood, so she only needed to give a drop this time. Finally it was once again time to get into the vigil part.
The recruits were encouraged to find a place they felt comfortable in to perform their vigil, or as Dee thought about it, to booze up. Dee found herself a nice remote alcove by the side of the room, and started her wait. They were instructed to take a shot of the golden liquid once every hour, but Dee decided to double up as she already knew she wouldn’t be affected as much due to her werewolf blood. She didn’t want to waste away the whole night again.
Dee was slightly surprised to find herself right by the campfire of the old man this time, with Umbra and Lumen sitting around the fire as well. “No walking in the dreary fog this time?” She asked, slightly amused.
“Not this time. We have other things to worry about.” The old man answered calmly, his speech betraying none of the hurry his words implied.
“Oh? So not just a social visit. That explains their presence. At least partly.” Dee waved at the two goddesses. “Which reminds me. Really?! Rank nine priestess? Did you have to?”
Lumen shrugged. “I actually set it at rank seven. Blame the old man this time.” The three women looked at the old man.
“Oops.” He said in a deadpan voice, and without a shred of remorse. “Anyway, we have a bit of a situation. While we, and by we I mean mostly Umbra, have been hiding you from the attention of the other gods, it was only a matter of time before someone noticed that all three of us have blessed someone. Also these two nitwits have been spending their time in my domain, which was bound to draw attention. Now you’ve come to the attention of another deity who has also taken an interest.”
Umbra picked up at this point. “If we weren’t keeping you here, you would’ve already ended up on her doorstep instead. That’s how the ritual works. It connects deities that are interested with mortals that have affinity with them. We can delay for a bit, but soon enough she will come here instead.”
“Wouldn’t that be a bit problematic for them? I mean isn’t this the old man’s domain? If I’m not totally wrong, he should have the power to keep anyone out, or at least lost forever in the fog. Also why do we want to keep her away from me exactly?” Dee asked.
The old man replied looking more serious. “The others I could keep away, her I can’t. Our domains have a lot in common, and she has the ability to come and go as she pleases. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, these two keep tramping around here as well, which makes it easier for others to come in as well. You really don’t need to understand why.”
‘Actually I think I have a hunch.’ Dee thought to herself. It seemed that the old man controlled time as part of his domain, so he could probably make the time within this space move according to his will. However, when there was someone else here, like Dee or the two goddesses, the time flowed the same for both them as well as any intruders. The old man couldn’t have one time for them and one for anyone trying to enter without permission.
“As to why we would rather not have her here…” Lumen started to say but hesitated.
Suddenly a voice came from the fog. “Just say it. Factional politics, jealousy and unwillingness to share. Not very attractive reasons I have to say.”
The female voice coalesced into one spot as the fog parted to show the fully robed figure of something female. “The gods have factions as well, and those factions are in constant conflict. Despite what one might assume, Light and Dark actually get along fairly well. They might be rivals, but they have respect for each other. It would be problematic for them if you ended up helping a faction that is against them, and as it happens, I’m not part of their little faction. I try to avoid the petty factional conflicts, but sometimes I cannot. Lumen especially has been pressured a lot lately.”
Dee just looked a Lumen with a raised eyebrow. Lumen sighed. She had resigned herself into explaining this but had wanted to avoid it because it might make it less likely that Dee would want to help her. “I’m sure my sister rather gleefully pointed out earlier that while she represents both chaos and darkness, I only represent light and not order.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Umbra gleefully interrupted from the side.
Lumen continued, ignoring Umbra. “While chaos and darkness are inextricably linked, light and order are not. While we aim for similar goals of the good of the group and stability, light and order exist on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our methods of getting to those goals. Dark and chaos don’t really care about the methods. That’s the whole point in their philosophy in the first place. That’s why they get along so well. The methods used are much more important for light and order. The differences are many and varied, but suffice it to say that while we as Light want to achieve our ends through softer means, order wants to do it by enforcing its will through strength. We want cooperation, order wants authority.”
Umbra once again interrupted. “She makes it sound nicer than it is. While light can be helpful and soft at good times as it preaches the values of working together for a common goal, it is also naïve and often unwilling to do what needs to be done. While order can seem tyrannical at worst times, you need power to safeguard that which you wish to protect. At best of times order can be like the protective paladin shielding his companions from pain and suffering. On the other hand, our dear light can at worst times be bigoted, fanatical and obsessed with purity. Do note that the Holy Purge of demons that you escaped is based on the tenets of light, even if it is a warped and extreme interpretation driven by Order.”
Lumen grimaced. “While my annoying sister paints a bleak picture, she isn’t wrong. Anyway, as the angels that so much represent me slide more and more towards the tyrannical and martial side of order, I lose power. I’ve already been challenged many times to probe my strength. Order himself hasn’t yet gathered his courage to challenge me, and he would still lose currently. It is only a matter of times as things stand though. I may even end up losing my dominion eventually. There are other gods of light that would happily take my place in exchange for submitting themselves to order. ”
Things finally clicked in Dee’s mind. “That’s why you’re so eager for me to remake the angels and their society. That’s why you’re so willing to see Paradiso burnt to the ground if that becomes necessary. You no longer have the tools among the angels that you need, so you need to borrow strength from elsewhere.”
“Not exactly, but you’re not far from the truth. I have other reasons as I already told you. And despite what Umbra claims, you are still part angel and as such as much part of my domain as hers.” Lumen said a little defensively.
“And that’s why it would be problematic if you got roped in by others. Dark’s goals still align with hers. Yes I’m aware what she wants from you. The others? They aren’t as well aligned with Light’s interests. As weird as it is, Dark is Light’s best ally at the moment.” Death interjected, still calling the other gods by their domains instead of their names.
“I think I get the jealousy and unwillingness to share part without explaining.” Dee mentioned.
“It might be a little more complex than you think, but I digress. In any case, they have no choice. Neither of us has any choice either. Everyone here knows peace is not in the cards in your future. No matter if you decide to do their bidding or not, the hunger inside you will drive you to battle. Either you go willingly, or you will go berserk. And this will only become more obvious if you do what they ask of you. Wherever you go, whatever you choose, death will follow. Whether we like it or not, you will be my herald. We might as well make it official.” Death said, her identity becoming obvious.
“I would beware though, Death’s blessings are not always positive. I’d argue that there’s a reason so few people are blessed by her. Death truly follows in their footsteps.” Umbra pointed out.
Death scoffed. “You get cause and effect mixed. My blessing isn’t what causes the deaths of people. I simply bless those that are already fated for that path. In any case, unlike the other gods, I don’t play games. I will tell you exactly what you will gain. What you make of it though is up to you. There will be no holy power gained from my blessing. My power simply isn’t conducive to such spells. Though knowing those three, I suspect that’s not a problem for you.
“My gifts for you are three. First is protection against attacks that carry the power of instant death. An example would be the Doom Eyes ability of Gorgons. Those that want to kill you will have to actually work for it. Do take note that this doesn’t mean just any attack that would kill you instantly. If you pick a fight with a dragon, their breath will still incinerate you just fine. This only applies to the special abilities of certain beings that carry a piece of my power, and as such can bring death to people by attacking their souls directly.”
“Secondly, you can cause your attacks to carry a bit of my power. What that will do to your opponent and how much of my power those attacks carry will depend on your ability to use my blessing. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it also depends on the amount of beings you kill. The more lives you end, the stronger the power of death that clings to you. This of course enhances those attacks that already carry the power of death, such as some of the magic used by priestesses. I’m pretty sure you’ve already used one or two such spells, considering the affinity Umbra’s blessing gives you to such things.”
“Thirdly and most importantly, I will improve your ability to feed on the power of those you kill. You are familiar with the power known as Sengir, yes?” Death asked and Dee nodded in reply. “With my gift your power of Sengir will grow, as you devour their souls as you kill them.”
Dee frowned. “That sounds a bit harsh. I’m not exactly squeamish about killing, but devouring their souls sounds a bit too much.”
“Do not worry. I should probably have phrased that differently. You will channel their souls. The souls will still get sent to me, but you will steal a portion of the power the owners of those souls possessed. A bigger portion than a normal person with the power of Sengir could. You will save me the trouble of gathering the souls in exchange.” Death then gestured towards Dee. “Now go. Your time here is done. I’d advise not advertising my blessing, as it is not very popular among mortals. The old man can hide it along with his own.”
As Dee disappeared, the old man couldn’t help but ask. “Are you sure that’s wise? We both know what can happen when someone gets too strong in the power of Sengir. Their power can become unstoppable. She was already slated for something like that and you just made it worse. And the best countermeasure against beings like that are those abilities that cause instant death. And you just protected her against those.”
Death’s smirk was hidden by the hood. Her reply was hidden from the two goddesses nearby. “I’m bored with the tedious balance that has stood for so long in this universe. Games to grab the power that the lesser ones so value. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt the same boredom. We’ve seen it all so many times already. Eons come and go, wars rage on, gods rise and fall. Everything changes yet nothing changes. Time to shake things up. I want to see how far she can go. Maybe she can finally grant us release as well. I’m tired of all this. Even your eternal existence must be starting to chafe after all this time.”
“You know I was the first, and you know I will be the last. You were the second, and you will be the second to last. This is how it is.” The old man replied in the same silent communication.
‘Does it have to be like that though? And if it does, could we hurry up the end?’ Death thought to herself.