Someone was shouting. Aurora shook her head trying to pretend she couldn’t hear anything, but the voice only relented, getting louder and louder. With a groan, she opened her eyes.
“The night of sacrifice is upon us!” a robed man roared from a podium below her in the distance. “Rejoice!”
Aurora coughed a bit and slowly turned her head to take in her surroundings. It was dark. She squinted, and the haze around the corners of her vision started to recede. She could make out the stars, so she had to be somewhere outside. Tilting her head downward, she could see bright, fuzzy dots below her.
Torches. And carrying the torches… was a crowd.
Regaining her awareness, she felt a rough pressure on her wrists. She tried to bring them up to her face, but she couldn’t move them at all. They were… tied to something on either side of her. That’s when she noticed the tall, cross-shaped silhouettes rising from the crowd below her.
“Cautery is the only cure for heresy. Tonight, we burn away all the lies and deceit. Tonight, we rejoice, for no one has ever escaped the scalding wrath of the stake!” The crowd roared in response. “God leads those who would disrupt our reverent lives right to our doorstep. It is a test! God always tests our faith! Like Good Samaritans, we must welcome the evil, as we do the good, into our homes. We must feed them, keep them well, usher them in with open arms. Because only then will they be fit to sacrifice! Only then will their sins be truly punished!” The crowd broke into incoherent screaming. “The road to Hell is soaked in oil. Light the path for the nonbelievers!” And with that, the bobbing torches below her were flung at her feet, and the mound of straw piled up there began to kindle.
With a deathly stare, the robed man gazed at Aurora as the fire slowly approached her. “Burn, heretic!”
“Burn!” the crowd echoed.
Aurora looked around for Ruben, but he was nowhere in sight. Thinking fast for anything that could help her out of the situation, she was led to a solitary conclusion. She needed help from above. Luckily for her, divinity wasn’t required. All she needed to do was activate the microchip in her neck to communicate with the agent who’d been following her since leaving the Empire. Although, that was easier said than done while her hands were tied up.
“You’re making a mistake!” Aurora addressed the robed man still standing before her.
“Oh, how can that be? The punishment for heresy is clearly defined in the Book of Mormon. Though, I wouldn’t expect a backward nonbeliever like you to comprehend it.”
“I am a seer! God has bestowed upon me His eyes!”
He laughed at the notion. “Preposterous! The only ones who could see into the future were the Oracles, and they’ve been dead for over 100 years.”
“The dead have no bearing on my faith!”
The robed man laughed again, gleefully. “Is there truly no end to your heresy?”
“You cannot go against God’s will! He does not wish for me to die here!”
He was clearly taken aback by such gumption, but still pressed Aurora.
“Very well then, tell me the future. But I suggest you hurry. The fire is getting awfully close.”
Aurora closed her eyes and pretended to focus heavily. She began shifting her shoulders up and down, as if performing some elaborate ritual. If she could get her right shoulder just high enough, she’d be able to activate the microchip. After shifting about seven times, the ropes loosened enough for her to raise her shoulder to her neck. She hit it and initiated communication.
Circling far above in the night sky, Agent Delaney sat in the cockpit of his BA-50, observing Aurora as ordered. He heard the com get keyed, and he pushed the button to listen in.
“Do you see that two-story building, opposite the square ahead of me?!” Aurora shouted.
Agent Delaney checked his infrared scope and got a fix on the building she was describing. He heard a masculine voice, faintly, over the radio say, “Yes, and what does God have to say about it?”
Agent Delaney acknowledged Aurora, “Aurora, I got your building. Awaiting orders.”
“In exactly seven seconds, the thatched roof of that building has to catch fire and collapse!” Aurora yelled. Agent Delaney understood what she needed and readied the onboard heat-laser to fire, aiming it at the building she’d specified. After counting off seven seconds, he fired the laser.
Back on the ground, the robed man stood awestruck as the roof of the building across the square burst into flames and collapsed a few seconds later, just as Aurora had said. Some of the people toward the back of the gathered crowd noticed and frantically began trying to put the fire out.
The robed man, still at a loss, finally spoke up, “You really are an Oracle! Maker forgive me.” He quickly motioned towards a few people at the base of the platform he was standing on. “You two! Quickly! Help me put out this fire!”
Running up the platform, the two grabbed some of the nearby buckets of water. Along with the robed man, they began to douse the approaching fire, soaking Aurora in the process. After about five buckets, the fire was out, and the robed man rushed up to Aurora.
“I am so sorry about this,” he said as he started to untie her from the wooden stake she’d been fastened to, “If I had known…”
Aurora grunted as he undid the final knot and looked at the bruises on her wrists where the ropes had been. “You could have asked,” she said with an ominous glare.
“I-indeed,” the robed man stuttered, “but this changes things. If you are an Oracle, I must take you to see Prophetess Jasmine.”
Aurora looked around, analyzing the gravity of her situation and turned back to the robed man. “Is that truly necessary?”
“Yes, it is,” he replied somewhat sternly, “the Kingdom has been without an Oracle for quite some time now. It’s vital that she be made aware of your existence. Unless, of course, you prefer the fire?”
“No, I’m sure the Prophetess is preferable,” Aurora answered.
“What about the man I was traveling with?”
“Oh, him? We have him locked away for tomorrow’s festivities.”
“I’d like him returned to me as soon as possible.”
“Very well, I can arrange to have him meet us at the castle.”
With a wave of his arm, a number of clergymen rushed up to Aurora and ushered her to one of the nearby buildings, where she was given access to a rudimentary but functioning bath, along with new clothes, fresh nourishment, and first-aid.
After she’d been treated to all the services they had to offer, she requested to have a look at all the items they’d confiscated from the heretics. Obediently, they complied and directed her to the storehouse. As it was still the middle of the night, the single torch she had was not enough for her to make out many of the items in the vast hall. Regretting her idea to pocket what she could while she had the chance, she decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and turned to leave. The torch swirled in the air, following the movement of her body, which was then interrupted by a flash from the middle of the hall as one of the items reflected the light.
“…huh?” she muttered to herself. Her curiosity getting the better of her, she trudged through the piles of junk toward the item that was reflecting the light. She chuckled when she saw what it was: the same ornate dagger she’d picked up from the helicopter. “You just won’t leave me alone, will you?” she whispered rhetorically. Well, it did seem like a well-crafted weapon. Sighing, she picked it up and stuffed it somewhere in her garments.
Returning to the place she’d been given to stay, she collapsed on the bed and fell asleep.
Ten hours later, Aurora found herself sitting next to Ruben on one of the gold leaf chairs in the castle’s divinely appointed rotunda.
“So… they treat you well?” Ruben probed.
“They burnt me at the stake,” Aurora replied.
“Funny, you seem rather… uncooked.”
“You look no worse for wear though. What happened to you after we got separated?”
“I wasn’t being facetious. I woke up tied to a stake last night. The only thing I remember before that was going to sleep in that town over the border.”
Ruben looked rather surprised. “And how exactly did you extricate yourself from that predicament?”
“It took a little bit of… creative rhetoric, you could say.”
“Don’t give me that look!”
“You have a knack for the escape arts, you know that?”
“It’s not an art,” Aurora said, lowering her voice, “Lying is a skill, and like any other it has to be practiced.”
A smug smile flashed across Ruben’s face as he stared back at Aurora.
“Oh, nothing. Just imagining you begging for mercy while tied to a stake.”
“That is not what happened!” Aurora protested.
Ruben’s smile turned into a raucous chuckle.
“You really know how to piss me off, old man, you know that?”
“Sorry,” Ruben said between giggles, “it’s just so easy.”
One of the room’s wooden doors swung open, and a man in steel armor strode in. “Sir Serafin, Lady Serafin, please follow me. The Prophetess awaits you,” he announced. Without waiting for their response, he turned around and strode right back through the door he came from.
A bit startled, Aurora and Ruben stood up hastily and hurried towards the open door. Once through, they were greeted with the decadent sight of the divine throne room. The wooden flooring gave way to smooth marble, rippling throughout the vast expanse. Enormous pillars loomed over the two, obscuring the spectrum of light seeping in from the towering stained glass windows on either side of them. Directly in front of them was the jeweled, onyx throne, and atop the throne, sat Prophetess Jasmine.
Draped in loose-fitting swathes of luxurious white fabric, she sat perfectly poised. Her nails were adorned with powdered jade, and her olive slippers studded with green diamonds. Emeralds hung from her ears, and her onyx-dotted platinum crown rested above her rich, black hair, immaculately styled in an updo. Her stinging, nettle-colored eyes, thinly outlined by eyeliner, looked condescendingly down at her audience, her lips curling into a menacing smile.
On each side of her were a handful of elegantly dressed attendants with veils over their faces, and escorting her attendants were a number of guards with pikes. Jasmine towered above all these laymen as the center of attention, her soft, pale skin starkly contrasting with the stony, black altar.
“Kneel before Her Holiness!” one of the guards ordered.
Everyone in the room immediately got down on one knee in humility. Anticipating Ruben’s noncompliance, Aurora gripped his arm and brought him down into a kneel as she did so herself, mimicking Jasmine’s subjects.
“Bishop Roland,” Jasmine stated in a mesmerizingly commanding voice as she motioned to one of her veiled attendants, “has informed me that you are a woman of God like myself.”
Confused as to who Bishop Roland was, Aurora ad libbed, “Yes, that is correct.”
Jasmine’s eyes lit up and she clapped her hands in excitement. “My, my! This must be a miracle! To think there were others out there who could hear the voice of God besides myself! It’s beyond my wildest imagination! How did you end up at my doorstep? Which church do you hail from?”
With no idea how to reply, Aurora simply said, “I don’t hail from any church.”
“You mean to say you are not ordained?”
“…No, I’m not.”
There was a brief, awkward silence as Jasmine narrowed her eyes, warily scrutinizing Aurora’s face. Jasmine finally continued, “…Ah! What a splendid opportunity! That would mean you’re available to be ordained as a member of my holy order then?”
Ruben inconspicuously tugged at the hem of Aurora’s pants and gave her a shifty stare. He clearly didn’t want to get any more involved with this religion than he had to be, and Aurora was of the same mindset. However, unlike Ruben who had already been imprisoned by a foreign power once before, Aurora knew the meaning of prudence.
“You would be so kind as to offer me a place to practice my faith? You are a truly benevolent and blessed ruler! I accept wholeheartedly.”
The rage emanating from Ruben was palpable.
“Well then, rest assured, the benevolence of my holy order will grant your every desire as a woman of God,” Jasmine proposed, smiling gently. “Die.”
The guards lowered their pikes, and there was a loud clang from behind them as a thick wooden bar was swung over the doors.
“W-what are you doing?” Aurora exclaimed, shocked.
“Like I said, I only wish to grant your truest desire as a woman of God: to reunite with the creator,” Jasmine proclaimed.
“Th-then what was all that about being ordained?” Aurora asked, grasping at straws.
“Oh. I meant posthumously, as a relic.”
The veiled attendants each raised one arm, palm facing Aurora, and chanted, “As the Prophetess commands, so shall be done.”
From their palms sprung forth a glaring white light that kept increasing in intensity. Desperation filled her entire body. She drew the ornate dagger from where she had it hidden and lunged at the ecclesiastics assaulting her. The best she could do was graze the shaft of one of the pikes extended quite the distance out from the actual belligerents.
As she retracted and thrust forward to attack a second pike wielder, Aurora felt that things around her were moving considerably slower than they had before. The adrenaline coursing through her carried the dagger through another pike, snapping it in half and glancing off the armor of the guard. He arched backwards, like he’d been struck by something twice his weight. But everything in the throne room was happening slower and slower, until eventually even the splinters of the pike Aurora had slashed through were frozen in midair.
She looked around her, flummoxed by the stock-still faces of everyone in the room. No one even flinching. She felt almost… disturbingly confined.
Aurora tried to gasp, but her mouth wouldn’t move. Immobile, she had a creeping feeling that someone was watching her. It wasn’t any of Jasmine’s men because they were all frozen in place as well, and for some reason, they looked like they were unaware of what was going on. These eyes that were watching her weren’t… couldn’t possibly be… human.
She felt the soft vibration of footsteps treading towards her. They were coming from behind. She tried to swivel her head to look, but it stayed locked in place. Even her eyes wouldn’t turn. She was stuck staring straight ahead.
Out of the peripherals of her vision, a tall, cloaked figure walked up to her and stopped, just barely within her range of visibility. She couldn’t focus her eyesight on it at all. All she could make out was that it was wearing a mask made of what seemed to be copper.
An airy feminine laugh emanated from behind the mask. “Funny, isn’t it,” the voice began, “how little you humans know your own strengths?”
Aurora tried to respond, but still couldn’t move.
“Oh, that’s right. You’re just as mute as the rest of them. Forgive me, it’s been quite a while since I had to talk to a human like this. If you simply think of what you want to say, I will hear it.”
Aurora reluctantly tried to cooperate. “L-like this?” she thought.
“Yes, excellent! Most people don’t get that on the first try. Most impressive.” the masked figure still vocalized.
“Who… what are you?” Aurora asked.
“Me?! You want to know about me? Wonderful! But where to begin…? I suppose you could say I’m something… peregrine. A thing alien to this world. Though, you humans have a very different term for us. Shortly after we manifested here, we earned the title ‘Collective’ and it seems to have stuck.”
“Collective? You mean… like that… thing Darius uses to listen in on everything that happens in the Empire?”
“Darius? Oh yes! He’s contracted to what you humans call the Sound Collective. It’s very useful for keeping track of people.”
“And… what kind of… Collective are you?”
“I’ve earned the dubious title of Impact Collective. As you can see from what you’ve been able to accomplish with my dagger, I’m pretty good at manipulating physical forces. Though, that’s only a fraction of what I’m capable of. Which brings me to why I’m here.”
“I intend to contract the full breadth of my power into that dagger and allow you to use it as you see fit. With the journey you’re on, I think you’ll find such power… useful, to say the least.”
“Why are you doing this? Why me?”
“Why? Because Darius made me an offer I couldn’t rightly refuse. You humans may be less advanced, but you certainly are entertaining. And that Darius Nyhrin might be the most entertaining of all.”
“What do I have to do?”
“That’s very simple, Aurora,” the Impact Collective said, leaning in next to Aurora’s ear with a much softer voice than before, “don’t die.”
With those words, and a pithy chuckle, the Impact Collective disappeared into a shower of copper light that seemed to get sucked into the dagger, making it glow momentarily with an amber tint.
The splinters suspended in the air started to slowly continue along their trajectory, picking up speed, little by little. The guard she’d sent flying began moving again, and the pikemen surrounding her seemed to be initiating a retreat, their formation breaking. Or rather, they were being blown back. Everything accelerated at an exponential rate, and there was a violent burst of air originating at the blade of her dagger, similar to the blowback from a firearm, only on a massive scale. Aurora and Ruben were jettisoned back, tumbling all the way to the door. Aurora heard glass shattering, men screaming, and metal crumbling.
Picking herself up, she wiped fragments of marble that she’d blown apart from the floor off her face. Marble dust was floating through the air, but she could make out that most of the stained glass windows had been blown out.
Through the dust cloud, one of Jasmine’s veiled attendants rushed at her. Aurora flung the dagger at her assailant. It spun a few times in the air before making contact with the attendant, where a burst of force suddenly erupted, sending the aggressor cartwheeling back into the dust cloud. The impact caused the dagger to reverse its path, soaring towards Aurora again. She snagged it from the air and readied for a second wave.
A beam of bright light suddenly shot out from the dust cloud, grazing Aurora’s cheek. “Fuck!” she screamed and clutched the cut with her left hand, her flesh burning. Her protests were met with a barrage of laserfire. Aurora’s body moving instinctively, she just barely managed to dodge the worst of it.
Sweating profusely, she continued to swear under her breath. But before she could finish her string of curses, more blinding light was fired from the other side of the room at her. This time, the light formed a wall beside her, cutting her off from Ruben. The light wall extended from the floor to the ceiling, as well as from one end of the room to the other. She glanced at it wearily.
“What the fuck is going on?!” she heard Ruben shout in confusion from the other side of the light wall.
“I don’t fucking know!” Aurora screamed back at him.
Cutting their conversation short, the light wall began to move, quickly approaching Aurora. Backing off, she noticed the rubble being caught in the advancing wall’s path was getting vaporized.
“Fucking fuck!” She sprinted in the opposite direction of the advancing light and slammed the dagger into the marble at the end of the room. The stone shattered and kicked Aurora right back towards the advancing vaporizer.
Gritting her teeth, she used all of her leg strength to find traction. Literally centimeters away from the wall of light, she found enough grip to reverse her direction. Using what stamina she had left, she bolted for the opening she’d cracked in the marble.
A fracture in the floor caught her shoe, and she dived forward. Not many options left, she recklessly whipped the dagger in front of her. Stabbing the floor, the dagger’s force indented a small crater, launching Aurora up and out through the opening she’d ruptured into the wall.
Her body arced through the air and landed outside, crumpling on the grass. She coughed blood, feeling that a few of her ribs might have been broken from the fall. Propping herself up with her arm, she took a look around. Bodies of the pikemen lay strewn everywhere, shards of glass tearing up their skin. They must have been blasted through the windows from the initial impact.
If she didn’t treat her wounds relatively quickly, she was going to die of internal bleeding. She started crawling towards a nearby shed, a trail of crimson staining the grass behind her. Only a few more meters…
Deafening klaxons were suddenly blown from every corner of the castle grounds, and a regiment of armored swordsmen began storming the open ground Aurora was lying in. Grimacing, she prepared to fight to her last breath. She brought the dagger up into a defensive stance. Immediately, an arrow pierced her palm. Crying in pain, she dropped the dagger. In a matter of moments, the swordsmen had her surrounded.
An enormous pair of iron-studded wooden doors swung open on one side of the grounds, and Prophetess Jasmine stepped out, followed by two of her veiled attendants. Walking up to Aurora, bleeding in the dirt, Jasmine stifled a chuckle.
“What’s wrong, dear? Are you not ready to enter God’s Kingdom? Where is your faith? Don’t tell me… you were lying about being a woman of God?”
“P-Prophetess!” one of her veiled attendants piped up in an adolescent voice, “there’s no reason to bully her so much.”
“This isn’t bullying, Alter. This is interrogation.”
“You mean, a presage to execution?”
“Don’t play semantics with me.”
“Prophetess, instead of killing her, it would be more prudent to take her into custody. She’s no ordinary conwoman. I’m positive we can find a use for her.”
Jasmine paused for a moment to ponder the proposal. She looked down at Aurora’s battered frame in despondent contempt before turning back to the veiled attendant. “Fine, but she will be your responsibility.” Jasmine brought her face up close to her attendant’s veil. “Don’t disappoint me.”
“As the Prophetess commands, so shall be done.”
“As the Prophetess commands, so shall be done,” the swordsmen echoed.
“I hate to sound ungrateful,” Aurora spoke up through gnashed teeth, “but if you’re not going to kill me, can you at least get this arrow out of my hand?” She held up her left hand, the projectile had pierced through to nearly the midpoint of the shaft. Blood was still trickling out of the wound.
“You and you” Alter said, pointing out two of the assembled guardsmen, “take this woman to the infirmary. See that she gets the care she needs.”
“Yes, your holiness!” the two guards roared simultaneously. They approached Aurora and gently lifted her off the ground. Aurora let out a pained groan as they did.
Alter walked up to Aurora as she was lifted and leaned in close, whispering, “Don’t worry, I won’t let her kill you so easily.”
Aurora said nothing in response as Alter gathered the dagger off the ground. With an unceremonious heave, the guards craggedly carried her back into the castle, Alter walking soberly behind them. As they approached the ironclad door everyone had exited from before, another guard standing by opened it for them.
In the foyer, Ruben stood shocked, surprised, and confused by Aurora’s current state. He ran up to her in a frenzy.
“Aurora! You’re… what happened? What the Hell is going on?!”
“I think I found us a place to stay for the night,” Aurora said, laughing and coughing up a bit of blood as she passed.
The guards kept moving with Aurora down a long corridor.
Ruben threw his arms up in frustration. “What does that—” The feeling of a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Ruben turned to find the veiled attendant staring at him.
“You are that woman’s traveling companion, yes?” he asked.
“Y-yes,” Ruben replied, unsure how to take this turn of events.
“Good. Come with me,” he said, not asking, but commanding.
“Okay,” Ruben mustered.
He directed Ruben toward a corridor adjacent to the one Aurora had been taken down. The two walked alongside each other in silence until the veiled attendant finally spoke up again. His words sounded methodically calm.
“I have some questions about that woman, and I think you can provide some interesting answers.”