As I led our large entourage down the streets to the marketplace, people turned their heads our way. Most of them only stared while others whispered amongst each other.
"That's her. She's the dragon."
It was a departure from the moment I started my quest. From the moment we arrived at Driftwood, we did our best to keep a low profile. But now, it looked like we were the center of attention. Everyone in Arx had to have seen the battle between the dragon and the demon. Not to mention the millions of souls who thanked me when I slew Adramahlihk. Over a million people in the world knew my name. They knew a Dragon Knight was their savior. But they didn't know I was to be the next Divine. At least not yet.
When we made it to the marketplace, it seemed time had stopped. The shop owners and customers all turned their heads to look at me. When I looked behind me through the entourage, I could see a few people following us.
"Looks like you've your first band of followers," Sebille remarked.
"I… suppose so," I replied.
When we crossed the bridge to the Cathedral, the priest in front of the statue was gone. All around, some people turned their eyes to me while others were still enraptured in passionate prayer to Lucian.
Our entourage stopped and dispersed. Cork and his Paladins formed a line over the width of the bridge to keep the people who followed us at a distance. My companions walked up to me while all the rest, including the children, my parents and Brell, were still gathered with the seekers. Malady stepped forward and stood before me.
"This is as far as we go, godwoken," she said. "But we'll do what we can to help from here."
"How?" I asked.
"Why, through prayer of course," Malady said. "Never underestimate the power of prayer."
She looked down at ground instead up at the towering spires of the Cathedral.
"I can sense a place of incredible power below, where a single prayer holds the weight of thousands. With all our help, your heart and soul will fill as quickly as they're drained."
I looked over at my companions. They were surprised like I was. We'd be able to replenish our source thanks to Malady and the others? When I looked at Malady again, she smirked.
"Consider this a taste of your Divine future."
She reached over and placed her hand on my shoulder.
"When you succeed, the people will pray for you. In turn, they'll trust you to do right by them."
She gave a quick glance at the gathering of people at the bridge.
"Of course, it's up to you whether or not to listen. I know how I'd respond, but… you do you."
I raised my brow at her final remark. She winked and backed away. Gareth was the one to walk up to me next.
"For the longest time, I believed Lucian was my only savior. But after what you've done for me, I know the truth. I need worship only one Divine. And I believe she stands before me now."
He bowed before me.
"Thank you, Mahalia. I will pray for your ascension."
Gareth retreated to Malady's side. Now it was Tarquin's turn to walk up to me. It was then I noticed something. He was holding something long draped in a large leather skin.
"Before you go, I want you to have this," he said.
He held out the object to me. I took it from his hands. From the weight and the shape, it was a sword of some kind. But when I unwrapped the leather, I realized it wasn't just any sword.
"It was a laborious task," Tarquin said. "But Anathima is ready."
The assembled blade glowed jade green. From within it, I could feel a creeping power wanting to be unleashed.
I am slayer of sin and the bane of the living.
"Well, I have a feeling we're going to need all the power we need to stop Dallis," I said. "Thank you."
Tarquin nodded graciously.
"Be careful though. It'll only last to deal the killing blow to the one you us it on. Use it on the right person when the opportunity arises. I will also pray for you. It's the least I can do for the kindness you've offered me."
Tarquin backed away. I looked over at the Red Prince. He smiled as I handed him the blade. He tied it onto his back where the Swornbreaker used to be. Next to come up was Almira with Mihaly next to her.
"I've always preferred to be the one reaping the attention," she said. She glanced back at the people standing before the row of paladins.
"But you've turned the tables. I suppose it's only right, seeing as how a new Divinity may stand before me. You've helped me so I will help you."
"As will I," Mihaly said. "Thank you for helping me and my love. You've done us a great help."
"You're welcome," I said. Both he and Almira nodded and backed away. Next was Del.
"I want to thank you again for saving me. Both at Fort Joy and the Island. You've given me a second chance and I will do my best to make the most of it."
"I'm sure Cork can welcome you back into the Paladin order once this is finished."
"Maybe," Del said. "But in the meantime, I'll pray for your success."
"I appreciate that, Del," I said. Del nodded his head and backed away. My parents walked up to me now. Their eyes were overflowing with emotions that conflicted with each other. Pride. Happiness. Sadness.
"Just as soon we get back together, I have to leave you again," I said. "That's really unfair isn't it?"
Mother expelled two tears from her eyes. But Father shook his head.
"This isn't goodbye," he said. "You may become the Divine. But you'll still be our baby girl."
A phrase I haven't heard my father use since I was little. I pursed my lips and felt my emotions going awry inside me too. I moved in and I embraced them.
"I'm proud of you, Mahalia," Mother said.
"Thank you," I said.
When we reluctantly broke our embrace, I looked over at Brell. He had a confident smile on his face. He curtly nodded to me.
"Go and finish your adventure," he said.
"I will," I said. "Thank you."
Brell nodded again.
Next was Han.
"Good luck," he said with a salute. I gave a small salute back to him. Last were the three children. Trice walked up to me first.
"So, this is it?" Trice asked. "When you go inside, you'll become a dragon god?"
I looked back at the gates of the Cathedral. I knelt to Trice's level.
"I may become a god. But I won't forget where I came from. I am and will still be a person like you are. I won't forget the kindness all of you gave me. You believed in me from the beginning and I wouldn't be the person I am now if it weren't for you."
I opened my arms and all three of the children came in for a hug. I held them close to me. This would be the last time I would hold them as a mortal. I cherished it for as long as I could. Like with my parents, I reluctantly let the children go.
"When I come back, I will keep my promise to find you three a home," I said.
"Thank you, Mahalia," Paulie said. "We'll pray for you."
"Yeah," Sandy said. "We'll tell everyone about you. That way they can help pray for you too."
Sandy's words made me grin.
"Just stay with Malady and the others while you do that," I said.
"Yes Mahalia," all three of them said. Then Trice came closer to me.
"I'm very happy to have met you, Mahalia," Trice said. "I knew you were a dragon. A good dragon."
"And I'm very happy that you were able to meet a dragon," I said. Trice's smile grew bigger.
"Thank you, Mahalia," she said. She came in and gave me another hug. I hugged her back. When it was over, Trice backed away with the others.
"Now off you go," Malady said to me.
I stood up and looked to my left and right. My companions all smiled and nodded their heads. We turned around to look at the gates of the Cathedral. Within, the power to save the world lay. I took a deep breath and took the first step forward. Ifan, the Red Prince and Sebille all followed me. When we reached the door, I took the handle and opened it.
When we entered, I was greeted by a beautiful but at the same time disturbing sight. The architecture of the interior was mesmerizing. White stone carved in dazzling formations along with paintings of Lucian himself and the gods all around. But the disturbing part was what lay below. In front of us, instead of rows of pews and an alter at the end, there instead was a large pool with a bridge stretching over the length of it. In the pool, dozens of people, lizard, human, dwarf and elf, stood. But they weren't knee-high in water. They were knee-high in blood. Blood filled the entire pool and flowed out of stone pipes on the bottom of the walls. All the while, the people in the pool leaned down and drenched their hands in the blood. They then raised them to the sky and chanted.
"I pledge my heart, oh Lucian. Please return."
They did this again. And again. And again. And again.
"The Endless Prayer," Ifan said. "Where the fools of the world waste so much of their time with the delusion of bringing a liar back to life."
I've read about the Endless Prayer and even I felt it was obsessive then. Now, after everything I learned and knowing what I was going to do, I had an unsettling feeling in my stomach. If it weren't for the Cathedral's surroundings, I envisioned this would be Adramahlihk's temple of sacrifice where his followers would worship him until they blead out.
About three quarters of way across the pool of blood, a wall stood with a large set of doors obscuring the last length of the bridge. Below the walls, metal grates stood to allow the blood to flow to the pool on the other side. We saw a human woman standing in the middle of the bridge slowly approaching the doors. When she was close enough, the large doors opened on their own. It revealed a grand statue of Lucian in the back of the room at the end of the bridge.
"I am free of sin, Lucian!" the fanatical woman shouted. "I will join you."
She ran across the bridge through the doors. When she reached the end, the doors closed behind her. Afterwards, we heard a thundering crack. We could only assume what happened to her from what I've read of the Path of Blood.
I looked over at Ifan. He was already ahead of me. Without saying a word, he held the Source Amulet and the Scroll in his hands. We looked at the others and everyone nodded to each other. I took my first step on the bridge. My foot landed into a spill of blood. But after everything I've endured, it was nothing to me. None of the worshipers looked up at us as we crossed the bridge. When we reached the halfway point, the doors opened to reveal the result of the woman's attempt to pass the Path of Blood. She was gone. All that remained was a fresh puddle of blood that slowly creeped across the floor into the pool. Her bones and cloths had dissolved so no one had to worry about cleaning up the new mess.
And she seemed so confident.
The four of us walked through the doors. When we reached the end of the bridge, the doors closed behind us. But unlike the fanatic women, we weren't dead yet. Still having breath in me, I remembered what Sanders said. I looked to my left and sure enough, there was a pillar. I walked over to it and looked closer. Like Sanders said, there was panel discreetly nestled into it. Upon it was a button with a slot in the center.
I looked over at Ifan. He smirked. He walked in front of me and brought the Source amulet to the slot. It fit like a glove. The mechanisms around it began to glow with Source.
Step one was complete. Now it was time for step two. Ifan unfurled the band around the scroll and unfurled the parchment. He held the paper with his right hand while I held it on the left. The Red Prince and Sebille looked over Ifan's shoulders at the scroll.
"Ready?" I said. Everyone nodded.
Together, we read the words on the scroll. Thankfully, the voices of the praying pilgrims covered our voices. When the last word was spoken, we heard a click. We looked up to see the button move, like it was pushed by an invisible hand. The Source within the amulet faded, consumed by the inner mechanisms of the button. From below, we heard gears turn. Shortly after, we turned our heads around to see a hatch unseal itself before the mighty statue. Ifan put the scroll away and all of us walked over to the hatch. A flight of stairs lead downwards to no one knows where. I looked to my left and right. Everyone was ready. I was too.
I lead the way down the steps. The walls were lined with candles that dimly lit our way down. The stairs twisted to the left as it led further down. Soon, we came to an open room lit with braziers and candle sticks. At the end, flanked by two lion statues was a large sarcophagus. A sarcophagus carved into the shape of Lucian himself. At first, I believed that was the coffin of Lucian himself. But if it was, where were Dallis and Vredeman?
I walked across the room to the coffin with the others behind me. I then noticed that something was behind it. On the floor, there was another open hatch. The coffin wasn't a coffin at all. It was a decoy. Somehow, Dallis managed to activate something that made the coffin slide forward to show the hatch. The hatch revealed another flight of steps leading further down into the earth.
"It was nice of Dallis to leave the way open for us," the Red Prince said. "Onwards?"
I nodded. I was the first to enter followed by Ifan, then Sebille then the Red Prince. We descended the steps. When the steps ended, we were greeted by a rush of heat. We found ourselves standing on another bridge. A bridge that stretched over a large sprawling chasm with lava boiling at the bottom of it.
At the end of the bridge, a high wall of stone lay. I could barely make out another flight of steps leading down again. That must be where Lucian's body must really be. I lead the way across the bridge. I felt the heat of the lava below enrapture me like it did in the Arena of the One. But when we were halfway across, I felt something else. Like the heat of lava, this feeling was the byproduct of something. It was Source. A large well of Source. The Source I felt when I was only five feet away from it a day ago. Dallis was inside the rock, and the power she stole from us.
But as I continued to walk across the bridge and I felt the power grow around me, a thought entered my mind. I stopped not three quarters of the way from the end of the bridge. All the determination I had to get back at Dallis. It was gone. Suddenly replaced with something else. Doubt.
"You okay?" Ifan put his hand on my shoulder.
"I…" I searched my feelings. "I thought so."
Ifan looked over at Sebille and the Red Prince.
"Let's give them a minute," Sebille said to the Red Prince. He nodded to her. Both walked several paces ahead of Ifan and me. The rumbling of the lava below surely would make it hard for them to listen in. Both Ifan and I walked over to one of the archways erected over the bridge.
"Getting cold feet?" Ifan asked me.
"You can say that," I said. "It's strange. When we were at the Isle, after you told me I was the best person to take the mantle, I raced to the well without hesitation. But now, seeing the Endless Prayer…"
I looked up at the top of the cave, imagining I could see the large chamber of blood the people prayed in through the rock. Ifan did the same.
"Yeah," Ifan said.
"Is that going to be an… inevitability. Blind followers who brainwash themselves into doing these cultish things?"
"Even when I still believed Lucian was a decent man, I did find the obsessive prayers and worship of him to be rather unsettling. Like people forget themselves to look to one man to give them all the support they need."
"Like when people looked to the gods even when they ate their souls when they died," I said.
"Exactly," Ifan said. He stared up at the ceiling for a while longer. "Now that you mention it…"
He looked directly at me. He had a concerned look in his face. Like he was worried about something. Was he worried about me?
"Ever since I learned the truth about Lucian and the deathfog, I've been thinking," Ifan said.
"About what?" I asked him.
He looked over at the stairway at the end of the bridge where Sebille and the Red Prince were waiting.
"About that power we've chased half the way across the gods-damned world," he said.
"What about it?"
Ifan sighed and looked around him, likely trying to find the proper words. When he had them, he looked up at me.
"Entrusted to one person, I don't think it's a force for good."
I tilted my head and raised my brows. He explained himself.
"The Gods themselves were corrupt. Even Lucian, who seemed to be the most virtuous soul in Rivellon, he could fare no better than them. Not to mention his son Alexander. Driven by fear, he took his father's power and used it to turn innocent Sourcerers into Silent Monks."
He looked up at me. I assumed he expected me to say that I'd never do such a thing. But what he said made me think back further than the moment I saw the Endless Prayer. I glanced over at Sebille pacing by the steps leading down.
"Sebille said something about this sort of thing to me on our way to the Isle," I said. "'Would we be truly omnipotent, or merely the servants of an unruly universe, as desperate for control as we are now?'"
Ifan glanced across the bridge at Sebille too.
"Exactly," he said to me.
"So, what exactly are you trying to tell me?"
Ifan opened his mouth but no words came out. He closed it and looked around at his surroundings again to try to find the words. When he did, he sighed and looked up at me.
"Listen. I'm not saying I don't trust you. I'm just concerned. For Rivellon. For you. I know that you're the most pure-hearted and benevolent person in Rivellon but…"
"Yeah…" I said. "I've been having that feeling too. I mean, I did threaten to burn the entire Forbidden City down, didn't I?"
It was meant in jest. But Ifan didn't smile.
"So, you understand why I'm concerned?" Ifan asked.
"Absolutely," I said.
"Okay," he said relieved.
"So… are you saying there's another way besides fulfilling my destiny?" I asked him.
"Maybe," Ifan said. "Remember what I said about finding a new way to fight the voidwoken without a Divine?"
"Well, I've an idea."
He leaned forward.
"Instead of entrusting all that power to one person, why not give that power to everyone."
A silence fell over us both.
Power to the people?
"You mean, use the power of the Divine to make everyone a Sourcerer?" I asked.
"I know it sounds crazy," Ifan said. "But what if everyone had the power to fight the voidwoken? No more gods. No more Divine. Only the people of this world. They would be able to choose their path once they come together and fight the Voidwoken."
Ifan's words echoed in my head. What he was proposing was unprecedented. The end of Divinity? Everyone in Rivellon becoming a Sourcerer? Would that power be given to the evil people too? There were so many factors to consider. But there were a lot of factors if I went through with the original plan Malady and the others had for me.
"That's… a gutsy call," I managed to mutter after thinking about it.
"I know it is," Ifan said. "But we've been making a lot of gutsy calls over the past week, haven't we?"
"That we have," I admitted. "Still…"
I looked away and lost my mind to my thoughts again. But before I could fall deeper into them, I felt Ifan put a hand on my shoulder. I looked at him.
"I don't mean to pressure you, Mahalia," he said. "It's just another option we have on the table. But I trust you. More than anything. If you think you can be better than Lucian and not stoop to his level, then I will understand your choice. And I mean that."
His eyes were earnest. He meant everything he said.
"I'll… think about it," I said.
Ifan nodded and smiled.
He brought his other hand onto my other shoulder. His earnest eyes turned into loving ones. His look warmed my core. For the briefest moment, I felt relief from the predicament I faced.
"Whatever you choose, it's been quite the adventure. You've brought a lot of mess into my life, and I like it."
I couldn't help but smile.
I leaned in and I felt his whiskers brushed over my snout as our lips met again. We embraced each other. I was right, Ifan was the best part of this adventure. I wouldn't be the person I am without him. When we reluctantly broke out of our embrace, we looked over at Sebille and the Red Prince standing around with their arms crossed. I figured we kept them waiting long enough.
"Now, I think it's time we give Dallis what for," Ifan said. "What do you say?"
"Absolutely," I said. I held out my hand. Ifan smiled and clasped it.
Partners to the end.
We walked down the last of the bridge hand-in-hand, ready for whatever lay in store for us.
Author's Note: I initially planned to have Loshe make a cameo in this chapter. But in the end, it was too forced and came off as unnecessary fan service. That's the main reason this chapter took a little longer to make. Also, no pipe puzzle or room of death. I felt it was just unnecessary padding. But I replaced it with hopefully meaningful dialogue from our two lovelies.
Getting closer to the finish line now. Just a few more left.
As always, thank you for reading my story and a review goes a long way. See you next chapter.