I was drowsy, on the edge of sleep myself when I heard the footsteps of someone approaching up the staircase. They were the heavy footsteps of someone in armor, and so my first thought was of that person, XIII, who had opened the temple in the first place.
I nudged Jack with an elbow, jostling them into something resembling wakefulness. Jack’s head shot up, their mouth open to ask a question, but I promptly hissed them into silence.
By now, night had fallen, and the storm practically dissipated; only a few stray clouds blocked out the stars above us, and the light of a thin crescent moon didn’t quite provide enough illumination to see clearly. Up on the altar, though, Jack and I would be obvious to whoever was approaching.
The figure stepped out from the archway, and I could at least be relieved at the way the moonlight reflected off their armor; that silvery light would have just disappeared into the black armor XIII was wearing.
My relief was not long-lasting, however, as within the next few breaths, I recognized the woman I had met at the market – the one who had already been suspicious of me as some thief of temple artifacts. Which, while I was innocent, I was fairly sure the missing artifact in question was the one that had opened the temple sanctum where I now sat alongside a quickly rousing Jack.
(Who, being at the very least some definition of a thief, was probably not a help to my case.)
“You again?” Clearly, she had recognized me as well. “I knew there was something suspicious about you. Hand over the Key, now!”
She put one hand on the sword at her side, the threat implied by it obvious. I flinched, and started as calmly as I could, “I know this looks really bad, but – ”
“But we don’t have your damn key,” Jack cut in, before I had the chance to finish.
“Clearly a lie. How else could you have entered the temple?” The words were accompanied by the quiet sound of her sword being drawn a little higher in its sheath. “The sealing magic could only have been opened by the Key, or another such artifact from one of the other temples.”
I glanced at Jack. “We’re not arguing with that. But we weren’t the ones who opened the temple; we just came in after it was opened.”
The paladin’s stare upon us didn’t lessen; it felt almost like we were isolated in a point of light, the better that she could examine us. “And why should I believe you?”
“You can look down at the entrance,” Jack cut in, their voice full of firm confidence. “Most of the stuff’s packed up, but I’m sure you can still see sounds of them… Once it’s daylight again, anyway.” The last few words carried a note of wry amusement, and Jack gave a little shrug as though to say uptoyouifyoudon’twanttowait.
What I could see of the paladin’s face in the dim light did not look pleased by Jack’s usual joking tone, or perhaps simply the fact that there was actual evidence that she was wrong. Even having only met her twice, I could guess that she didn’t appreciate very much when someone proved her to have made a mistake.
“Then what of this?” she asked, tone still imperious. She drew her sword fully, stepping forward onto the altar stairs as she pointed her sword at Jack. “How is it that you’ve stolen the power of the spirit of storm itself?”
“It’s not stolen!” Jack protested immediately. “Vayesao trusted me – you think the two of us could force one of the spirits to do anything?”
Apparently we were convincingly pitiful in that regard; the tip of the sword wavered in the air, before its owner lowered it to point at the ground. When she spoke again, her voice was less harsh. “I see.”
It still didn’t seem that she was particularly inclined to take our words seriously, but as long as she wasn’t pointing that sword at us anymore, I was much more comfortable with our chances of getting her to listen.
“Regardless,” she continued, “I’m going to have to take you to the temple for questioning regarding this incident. If you come willingly, I won’t be forced to place you under arrest.”
I didn’t have any objections to going with her – it wasn’t as though I had any real plans about where to go anyway – but I didn’t know if the same could be said for Jack. I glanced in that direction, but rather than the nervousness I half-expected to see, Jack’s expression was overfull with excitement.
“You mean, all the way to Luxali?” When the paladin nodded, Jack whistled air between their teeth. “And the church is paying? Hell yeah, count me in.”
The paladin didn’t seem to have been suspecting us to cooperate so easily. She looked at me, and I just nodded a little, which was enough to satisfy her.
“Then, as a paladin of Luzumen, I, Diana Mercy, take you under my protection. Be it within my power, no harm shall come to you until we stand upon the stairways of the Temple of Light.” It was a very solemn-sounding oath, accompanied by an unfamiliar gesture – Diana curled her right hand into a fist, kissing her knuckles, before placing that fist briefly over her heart.
There was a good long moment of silence, after that. A stray lightning wisp drifted into view in the temple doorway, and Diana sheathed her sword finally, turning towards it. “We should get moving as soon as possible,” she said to us, glancing over her shoulder.
“What, at night?” Jack said, and I couldn’t help but agree. The inside of the temple might still have been lit by the lightning-magic above the columns, but the night would be just as dark when we came out the other side of the temple’s stairs. No, even darker – a glance at the moon showed that it was soon to set, depriving us of even that sliver of light. “I don’t particularly relish the idea of trying to get through the forest in the dark,” Jack continued, and I couldn’t help but agree.
Diana didn’t seem to be concerned by the words, however. It seemed like she was smiling, actually, although in the darkness it was nearly impossible to tell. Her voice when she spoke next, however, carried a distinct amount of good humour. “If you’re so concerned, then I suppose I’ll just have to light the way.”
The words of magic she murmured were short and brisk; the accompanying gesture was really more of a flick of her fingers. As I watched, golden light worked its way up her armor from that hand, filling in the detailing of her shoulders, her breastplate, and so on, until Diana herself was a small nimbus of golden light. It was easily enough to see by, even as distant as we were from her, and it lit up the small smile that I had heard in her voice, a warm expression like she had given to the children at market.
I couldn’t help a small awed noise. Jack, in contrast, grumbled and slowly started to lever themselves up from their position against the altar’s back wall. “Alright, fine, you’ve made your point… I was really hoping to go back to that nap…”
I giggled a little at Jack’s comments as I stood up myself, my feet a little wobbly, and made my way down the stairs to the doorway. Diana didn’t wait for the two of us much; by the time Jack and I reached the door, she had already begun descending the covered staircase, leaving us to catch up as best we could in order to stay within the circle of golden light. At least it seemed to scare away the volt spiders; I heard a few small skitters, but none of them approached us.
As we re-entered the area full of wisps, I said to Jack, my voice as quiet as I could make it (although I’d be surprised if Diana could make out the words anyway, over the sounds of her armor), “Why did you agree so easily?”
Jack tilted their head a little at me, and then grinned. “Well, it is a free trip. Plus, if those void people come back to the temple and find that it’s truly empty, it’s probably not a good idea to be around, you know?”
I nodded, and said quietly. “If they were going to try to make a vessel – we kind of did their work for them, didn’t we?” A bit of worry attached itself inside my chest.
“Only if they can catch me,” Jack said, skipping over the last step in the stairway cheerfully. “And that’s another good reason to travel under the protection of a paladin, if you ask me.”
I glanced up at Diana’s back – she was already most fo the way across the room full of wisps, which all shied away from the light of her armor. Indeed, most of them seemed to be trying to cluster close to Jack, perhaps trying to catch one last little bit of lightning magic off the spirit hidden inside. “Well, if you want to stay under her protection,” I said, taking in a slightly larger breath in preparation for a sprint across the room, “then we should probably catch up with her.”
And with that, I took off across the round room, leaving Jack’s laughing cries of “Hey, Aster, wait up!” behind me.
By the time we cleared the forest and were near enough to the town that we were instead surrounded by fields and farms, the sky had lightened enough that the glow of Diana’s armor didn’t make much of a difference in how much we could see. By the time we reached the brick roads of the town proper, I felt weary enough to simply sit and fall asleep against the side of the nearest friendly-looking house. Jack looked as tired as I felt, and even Diana seemed to be showing signs of it; although she held herself just as straight as any other time I’d looked at her, her face had dipped from carefully neutral into a vague frown, her eyebrows scrunched together just a little.
“We’ll take the afternoon ship south,” she said to us, turning away. “Take the day to finish your affairs, whatever they are, and we’ll meet at the docks two hours before sundown.” She turned and fixed us with the stare that had so scared me the first time we met. “Don’t make me come looking for you, do you understand?”
“Loud and clear,” Jack said, with a gesture that was probably some kind of salute. As Diana turned away, they looked at me. “Well, I’m going to go take a nap till then. You coming?”
I shook my head. “No, I’d better leave word for Min, so she knows what happened.” I could leave a message with Maribelle – surely she’d make sure to tell Min. Leaving a letter wouldn’t do any good, though, and I wasn’t sure I wanted Maribelle to know the things we had discovered about my magic. I’d have to consider carefully what kind of message to leave.
“Suit yourself,” Jack said with a shrug, before turning off and heading down one of the nearby alleys. “Seeya later.” And with a wave and another turn around some corner, I was alone in the street, at least as far as my new companions went. Already starting to compose the message in my mind, I headed off towards the square in the center of town, to navigate my way to Maribelle’s from there.
Afternoon came surprisingly quickly; I left my message with Maribelle (ultimately, only that I was headed south and would be travelling for a while; I remembered Min’s suspicion of Diana before and chose to leave that part out) and she gave me a lunch to take with me. It was more than a lunch, really; there was enough food for two large meals, or three small ones, all wrapped together into a large cloth. I thanked her before running down to the docks.
When I arrived, Diana’s bright armor served as an easy enough landmark to point me in the right direction; Jack was already there, still yawning, still practically humming with electrical magic. A few people cast curious glances in the direction of the three of us – being under so many gazes was uncomfortable, and mostly made me want to get underway as quickly as possible.
“Here’s your writ of passage,” Diana said to me, her expression stern as she handed over the folded piece of paper. “We’ll be taking the river to Engel, and from there, taking a short road to the capital before going over the mountains. I hope you told whoever you live with that you won’t be back any time soon.”
I glanced at Jack and almost wanted to laugh. I didn’t think either of us had anyone who would be waiting for our return. Instead, I turned towards the wooden path down to the docks. There weren’t many people left, this late in the day, and only two barges and the single, small passenger craft were still tied up. Even as I watched, the crew of one of the barges began casting off, throwing ropes free and pushing away from the dock with long poles, moving slowly towards the quicker flow of the river.
“Let’s get going, then,” I said, and took the first step.