Captain’s report: We have arrived at Leomara, a long-term Pantheon trading partner whose culture is made up of a huge number of large islands. After several expected Leomara trading vessels didn’t arrive in Mytertown, the Phoenix was sent to investigate.
Sailing into the port city closest to the arrival portal, Captain Baxtor saw smoke and devastation on the shore. Eyeing the burnt buildings, Third Captain Reeves asked, “Were they attacked?”
“Perhaps,” said Joseph Baxtor, studying the scene in front of them. “People are wandering through the rubble as if they’re about their daily business. That doesn’t usually happen after an attack. Much of the damage was done some time ago, while other damage is recent.”
“There isn’t any aura for their god,” observed Reeves. “I’ve never been to Leomara before, what does theirs feel like?”
“Their god is Zerarus. His aura is a confidence, almost arrogance, thing. It makes you feel like you’re the best at everything and morally superior to everyone around you,” said Captain Baxtor. “You’re right, how could it possibly be absent? Something is terribly wrong here. Take Radiance, Healer Foran, and Henry Cook with you when you go ashore. Maybe one of them will catch something that the others miss.”
* * *
Walking along the dock, the group from the Phoenix stepped over holes where the boards had been pried loose and carefully navigated sections that had collapsed. When they reached the shore, Henry Cook pointed to a burnt-out building. “That used to be a shipyard. We used them once when Captain Baxtor and I were on the Drake.
“It doesn’t look like it’s doing much work these days,” Albert Reeves observed. The stylish third captain had neatly cropped hair and a well-groomed black goatee. He saw a woman digging through the rubbish of one of the burnt-out buildings and approached her.
“Madam, I was hoping that you might be able to direct us to…,” he began, flashing her a roguish smile.
“Madam? I don’t run a brothel. The nerve! I have a good mind to round up some people and give you a good thrashing for coming up to me, insulting me, and besmirching my good name,” she said, getting increasingly agitated as she gave the Third Captain a dressing down.
“I only meant it as a term of respect,” said Reeves, raising his hands open-palmed in an attempt to placate her.
“I know what you meant,” she said viciously, “and now you’re raising your hand, threatening me, with these goons of yours. Help! Help me!” she began screaming.
The party from the Phoenix looked at one another in confusion, then around the boardwalk. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the commotion. The group moved away from the woman, walking along the boardwalk, while she followed them, yelling threats, accusations, and insults.
“What’s happening here?” Reeves asked Radiance.
“I have no idea,” said the orange-skinned giant.
* * *
Moving along the boardwalk, the sailors encountered a group of men and women lounging on the side of the path. As a group, they looked dirty and poorly kept, with the beginnings of malnutrition. Moving to intercept the landing party, the leader of this group demanded, “Who are you and what are you doing in Leomara?” He jutted his chin toward the Phoenix.
“We’re from the Pantheon,” said Albert Reeves, looking over the group. “We were expecting trade ships from Leomara that never arrived and we’ve come to try to determine what happened to them. How has your city gotten into this state?”
Looking back with contempt, the leader said, “Undesirable elements have been making trouble, backed by foreigners like you. You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here and trying to impose your will on us. We’re an independent nation, not some godless primitives to be colonized!” The gathering of people muttered throughout his speech, with individual members vocalizing their support by the end.
With a smile, Reeves said, “I know all about undesirable elements causing trouble. It’s a full-time job keeping this lot under control,” jerking his thumb back towards the men with him. Radiance and Sinclair Foran looked back at the third captain indignantly.
“That’s it exactly,” said the man, warming up to Reeves. “Strong leadership. That’s what’s needed.”
“Exploitation is more like it,” said a nearby woman. “Strong leadership is just a way for those in power to push down those who aren’t.” Murmuring in the group seemed to indicate split support between the two positions.
“It’s attitudes like that that embolden the rabble-rousers!” shouted the man who had been talking to Reeves. His attention shifted to the woman. “I say those who support the undesirable elements are just as bad.” Moving closer to the woman, he leaned into her face, “Maybe worse, ‘cause they should know better.”
Moving faster than expected, the woman cold-cocked the man with her fist, knocking him to the ground. A melee broke out within the group as they seemed to break into two groups and began fist-fighting one another.
Moving away from the melee, Radiance said, “These people have gone crazy.”
“Yes,” said Reeves. Speaking loudly so everyone in the landing party could hear, he said, “Sorry about besmirching all you good men, just trying to win over the locals.”
* * *
Looking at the cockfighting ring, apprentice elementalist Adam Hudson shrugged apologetically at quartermaster William Nickerson. “The problem is,” he reiterated, “elemental sprites don’t fight. I could summon them, and direct them to bump into one another, but I’d be controlling every blow. It would be a completely choreographed fight.”
“That’s not so bad, lad,” said William Nickerson, stroking his wide chin. “That might help me set odds on the fight.”
“I’m not comfortable helping you cheat our crewmates,” said Hudson.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” replied Nickerson. “Cheat is an awfully strong word. Stories keep going around the ship about the big fight the third captain had with the earth elementals at the mining site. I think the crew would like to see something like that in person. What about you conjuring a sprite against an animal? Maybe a rat or a chicken, or I’ll get someone to grab a sweetums for you.”
“A sweetums? Do we still have those damn things on the ship?” asked the apprentice.
“We kill ‘em as fast as we can find them, but they keep popping up,” said the quartermaster. “A lot less rats these days, so… silver linings!”
“Fewer rats” corrected the apprentice.
“You’re saying you’d be ok having a sprite fight a rat?” asked William Nickerson, misunderstanding.
“I just don’t think my Master Radiance would like it,” said Adam Hudson.
* * *
Norah Foran sat in healer Foran’s cabin, next to the window, flipping through a book she had already read three times. Her left cheek had rotting boils on it that continued down her neck. With a sigh, she tried to see something onshore out the window. Giving up, she moved to an open area of the cabin and went through her exercises, again.
She heard a noise in the corridor outside her cabin and hid in a compartment underneath the bunk. After a few minutes, when no one entered, she decided it must have just been a crewmember in the hallway.
Picking up the book she’d been looking at previously, she started reading it again for the fourth time.
* * *
The sailors left the boardwalk and entered a residential area of town.
“We visited with some of the shipyard’s managers who lived here. I think,” said Henry Cook. “Maybe we can find someone who worked at the shipyard around here and find out from them what happened.”
After getting cursed out by a few more of the residents, many of whom looked like squatters in the previously affluent neighborhood, they made their way to the house of a foreman from the shipyard.
“Never liked the Pantheon,” the foreman said, eyeing the assembled group balefully. “Acted like you were better than everyone, just because you’ve got some coin.”
“We all despise the Pantheon too,” lied Albert Reeves. As he looked around at the men with him, they began to nod in agreement. “We’re all one step up from indentured servants.”
“I don’t care much for working men or servants either,” the foreman continued. “They’re almost as bad as the owners.”
“Terrible. All of them are terrible,” agreed Reeves, nodding sympathetically. “Which of them is to blame for the shipyard shutting down?”
“They all are!” exclaimed the foreman, aggrieved. “You might as well come in for a cup of tea if you’re going to bother me all day. I’m Gustav Bergman, by the way.” He led the officers into his house and into the receiving room. Dirty plates, clothes, and debris cluttered the room. “Make yourselves at home,” he said as he headed towards the kitchen. “The missus, kids, and I got into a squabble and I had to kick them all out.”
Returning after a few minutes with tea in dirty cups, he set them down on a table.
“So, the shipyard shutting down,” he began. “That’s a story worth telling.”
* * *
“We were trying to operate the shipyard, and the bastards running the place kept giving us quotas and expecting us to meet them. Total exploitation, they’d just come down and tell us what they expected us to do,” said Gustav, beginning his story. “Then, in addition to dealing with that insanity, the workers expected to just stop working periodically for rests or to go home to eat or sleep.” Looking at the Phoenix officers staring at him, the shipwright said, “When their work still wasn’t done!”
“So, the people in charge, who were paying you money, told you what to do and your workers would get tired and not be able to work anymore?” asked Reeves.
“Yeah! Just so. What could I do, other than burn the place down?” Gustav said.
“You burned it down?” asked Reeves, shocked.
Gustav said, “With a few of the other foremen. We talked it over and we all felt the same way and figured it was the only solution.”
“And after the shipyard was burned down, what happened?” asked the third captain.
“So, get this, then the bastards stopped paying me. They’re the owners, they’re the ones who have decided to take the risk of starting a business. My pay should have continued, even if they didn’t have their precious shipyard anymore,” the man said.
“And what happened to your workers,” asked Reeves.
“Those ingrates came around to my house and asked for money. Money! They said they had bills to pay and had expected to be able to earn money working at the shipyard.”
“Which they couldn’t anymore because it was burned down,” said Reeves.
“Right, because they didn’t want to work harder,” said Gustav. “Then the wife and I get into it with one another over the whole thing. My kids chime in, taking the owners’ side, it becomes a whole kerfuffle and eventually, I had to kick them out of the house.”
“Well, that clears things up. I applaud you for standing up for yourself, Mr. Bergman,” said Reeves, standing up to go. “By any chance could you direct us to the city guard outpost?”
“That’s been shut down for almost a week now,” said Gustav.
“How about where the head priestess lives?” asked Reeves.
“What do you want with her?” the shipwright asked, suspicious.
“Some priests were rude to us and we want to lodge a complaint,” lied Reeves.
“Oh, alright then,” said Gustav and provided directions.
* * *
After knocking on the door of the large mansion for a few minutes, a woman in a filthy robe opened the door. “What do you want?” she asked Reeves and his party.
“We wanted to tell you that the rest of the priesthood and the citizen worshipers are no good. No good at all!” said Albert Reeves, eyeing the high priestess carefully.
A smile broke out on her face before she leaned in and said, “Zerarus has a lot of problems too.”
“He certainly does,” agreed Reeves. She stepped aside to let them into her home.
* * *
Onboard the Phoenix, Captain Baxtor stood watching the assembled crowd on the dock yell and chant at their ship.
“Go back to your Pantheon!” “No need for foreigners!” “You’re not wanted here!”
Responding to the commotion, a lethargic Frank Ward moved across the deck to join the Captain. “What’s this all about, sir?” the blonde second captain asked.
“I honestly have no idea,” responded Baxtor. “They’ve been at it for almost twenty minutes so far. I figured they’d shout themselves out, then go home, but they seem to be getting more worked up as other people join them.” He gestured to a steady stream of people moving out along the dock to join the protest.
A series of smashes sounded as the crowd started throwing bottles. One sailed over the side of the ship and crashed on the deck fifteen feet away from the two men.
“Get Adam Hudson up here, as quickly as possible, and prepare to cast off,” ordered the captain as he moved away from the side of the ship.
* * *
Getting his face close to that of the bound woman, Albert Reeves screamed, “Tell me what’s happened here! Why are you all acting so crazy?”
“You’ll all pay for this,” said the high priestess, eyes flashing angrily at the assembled men. Her arms and legs were tied to the chair she was in. She thrashed about, trying to free herself.
“This is the first thing you’ve gotten angry about that makes any sense. What’s happening?” demanded the third captain.
“How dare you not follow my commands. I’m the high priestess of Zerarus! I told you to untie me and leave my house, but you haven’t done it. In spite of my orders!” said the priestess, ranting until her objections became incomprehensible.
“Can you do anything to break this enchantment over her?” Reeves asked Radiance.
“I don’t know what is wrong with her,” said Radiance apologetically. “I could spray water in her face or burn her with a sprite, but that wouldn’t have any more effect than splashing her with water or burning her with something we found around the estate.”
“Get her out of that chair, but tied up for transport,” Reeves ordered. Looking at the thrashing woman. “Tell Captain Baxtor we’re bringing their priestess back to the ship.”
* * *
A series of thudding noises began sounding on the deck of the Phoenix, coming from the dock below.
“What’s that noise, Mr. Ward,” asked Captain Baxtor.
“They’ve started chopping the hull with axes, sir,” said the second captain.
“What? Marines, fire a volley over their heads and push these rascals away from my ship,” the captain ordered.
Adam Hudson frantically prepared to provide wind for the sails with his summoned air sprites. “Captain, you understand that I won’t be able to match Radiance’s speed, I’m only able to summon…”
“Yes, yes, lad,” said Captain Baxtor, cutting him off. “We just need to get moving, we don’t need to go fast.”
A series of booms sounded as the marines fired over the heads of the rioters. Rather than dispersing the crowd, the shots seemed to antagonize them further. A bottle filled with green liquid and a flaming rag in it flew over the deck and, as it smashed on the deck, burst into flames.
“Cast off now!” ordered Captain Baxtor. Three deckhands began working to put out the fire.
As the Phoenix pulled away from the dock and slowly began to pick up speed, the crowd continued to pelt it with garbage, stones, and bottles. A few members of the crowd got pushed off the dock and fell into the water.
“Move us three hundred feet offshore then drop anchor,” ordered Joseph Baxtor.
Watching the people on the dock, the captain and second captain saw the crowd begin to lose interest and disperse now that the ship was no longer within reach.
* * *
“Madam,” said Captain Baxtor after the captive unleashed a torrent of abusive complaints. “While I can understand your displeasure at being abducted and restrained, I’m having trouble understanding the specifics. If you can be more concise in what you want from us, I’ll do my best to accommodate you.”
“Madam?” said the high priestess. In spluttering outrage, she began foaming at the mouth.
“You’ll find that’s the only reaction you can get out of them,” said Third Captain Reeves. “As long as you’re agreeing with their insane complaints, they’re calm. If you disagree or do something they object to, they’re inconsolable.”
“What was your thinking bringing her on board?” asked Captain Baxtor. Accepting that the high priestess’ fit wasn’t going to end any time soon, he gestured for the marines to take her below deck to the brig. “It seems like the Leomarans have bigger problems right now, but I can’t imagine they’ll be happy about us absconding with their high priestess.”
“I wanted healer Sinclair to have a look at her. See if he can figure out what’s wrong with her. If he could develop a cure, we could start treating the Leomara population.”
“Hmm,” mused Joseph Baxtor, then dispatched a deckhand to have Sinclair Foran examine the prisoner as soon as possible.
“Failing that, I was thinking that we could remove her from the area and see if that breaks whatever spell is on her. Head out to sea or, if that doesn’t work, take her out of the world entirely,” suggested the third captain.
“That all is worth a try, I don’t know what else we can do here,” said Captain Baxtor. “By the way, what’s her name anyway?”
“Anna Ohlin is what we were told. We set her off before she could formally introduce herself to us,” said Albert Reeves.
After the captain gave orders to set sail for the portal they had arrived through, the two men resumed their duties on the ship.
* * *
“Madam,” began Sinclair Foran as the high priestess thrashed in the jail cell in front of him. “I’m not going to hurt you and this would be quite a bit easier on you if you’d just calm down.”
“MAAA!!!!” screamed Anna Ohlin, “DAMMM!!!!” A guttural cry came out of the woman as she threw her head back and howled.
Surprised at the fit he was seeing, healer Sinclair watched in horrified fascination as the woman wailed until she passed out.
“That should make this easier,” observed healer Foran as he began his examination.
* * *
“You’ve proven yourself capable of maintaining a wind while I’m meditating, but getting the ship underway on your own wasn’t something I’d have asked of you yet. Regardless, now that you’ve done so, let’s work on improving your technique. I understand that it took you about a minute and a half to have the ship underway after the captain gave the order?”
“Yes, sir,” said Adam Hudson proudly.
“We need to get that down to about fifteen seconds before we can consider it half-competent,” said Radiance.
“Yes, sir,” said the apprentice sadly.
* * *
“Honestly Captain, if I was seeing her in Mytertown my diagnosis would be madness. The only treatment I would suggest would be keeping her under constant supervision so she doesn’t harm herself. At home, if she came from a wealthy family, at an almshouse or prison if she was from a poor family, or at a hospital otherwise.” said Sinclair Foran, reporting on the patient’s condition to Captain Baxtor. “I can’t imagine any sort of communicable affliction causing this, but you say the entire town was behaving the same way? We should give a general order for the crew to report any strange behavior onboard.”
“Yes, do so,” said Captain Baxtor.
* * *
Sailing far underneath the surface, the Phoenix rushed forward at full speed, with Radiance’s sprites maintaining the air bubble around the ship and keeping her sails full of wind. The water stayed calm on the bottom of the air bubble, along which the ship glided.
In preparation for crossing the boundary, Captain Baxtor and Albert Reeves were on deck with Radiance, the elementalist. Sliding forward, the portal came into view and, almost immediately, the Phoenix sailed through it and was in another world.
“Another smooth trip, Radiance,” observed Joseph Baxtor, “my compliments. Mr. Reeves, if you’d be so good as to check in on our guest. I’m hoping that crossing through a portal helps her since moving away from port didn’t seem to.”
The wind died down as Radiance let some of the air sprites vanish. The ship slowly came to a halt, as if becalmed. “Where to, Captain?” asked Radiance.
“Let’s wait here for a couple of hours and see how our patient is handling the change of scenery. Then we’ll report back to home port and figure out our next step,” ordered Captain Baxtor.
* * *
Seated in the officers’ mess, deckhand Taylor finished pouring out double whiskies for the assembled officers. Frank Ward was absent, but William Nickerson had been included as the most senior enlisted man.
“A double whiskey, this is either good news or bad news,” observed quartermaster Nickerson as he looked greedily at his drink.
“That will be all for now, thank you, Taylor,” said Captain Baxtor, dismissing him.
“Gentlemen,” announced Joseph Baxtor after the deckhand had left, “What I’m about to tell you remains in this room. Everyone is on a need-to-know basis, and only the people in this room need to know right now. Panic will break out in the crew if this becomes widespread knowledge, so please take me seriously when I say keep your mouths shut.”
“Our guest Anne Ohlin isn’t doing any better, even after leaving Leomara. We reported in and my expectation was that we had done everything possible there and would either return the high priestess or bring her to a nearby Pantheon port.”
“Mytertown has weighed the situation and has decided on another course of action. None of you will like it, Radiance didn’t like it when we received the message back, and I didn’t like it when he relayed it to me. But we’re men of conscience and duty, not children, and we do what needs to be done, even when we don’t like it.”
A heavy silence greeted this pronouncement and the assembled men looked at their captain, trying to imagine what this could be leading to.
“We’re returning to Leomara to meet with their god, Zerarus.”
William Nickerson lost hold of his glass and it tumbled to the ground, shattering and spilling whiskey onto the planks. Albert Reeves drank his in one gulp. Turning pale, Sinclair Foran took a small sip of his drink, then immediately a second. Radiance swirled the liquid in his glass as he contemplated it.
“But, we can’t do that,” Adam Hudson said, trembling. Some of the whiskey splashed out of his glass. Henry Cook reached over and steadied the apprentice’s hand. “Is there any other option?” Cook asked.
“The order was quite clear,” said Captain Baxtor. “No other option.”
* * *
In Frank Ward’s cabin, Captain Baxtor lit a candle and looked across at the disheveled second captain. “You know I hate to push you, Frank,” Joseph Baxtor said. “I know you’re in a bad way right now, but we’re going into the jaws of the lion seeking out this damn Zerarus.”
“I’ll pull myself together,” said Frank flatly. “Who knows, maybe this will be my final release.”
“You’ll be taking all of us with you if it is, so please don’t hope for that,” said Joseph, with concern.
“No, let’s get through this one then,” said the second captain darkly.
* * *
Moving through the port city, Captain Baxtor led the group of marines, along with Frank Ward, Albert Reeves, Sinclair Foran, and Radiance. All the men wore purple sashes. Back on the ship, Henry Cook had assumed temporary command, assisted by William Nickerson and Adam Hudson.
After the departure of the landing party, Henry Cook had waited for a while before releasing the high priestess on the dock, then casting off and anchoring a short distance offshore.
“Does Zerarus grant any powers to his priests or the citizenry in his theocracy?” asked Albert Reeves as they moved through town.
“His citizens are self-confident and willing to believe in themselves. They’ll start businesses, find new trade routes, that sort of thing,” answered Captain Baxtor. “The clergy are able to convince small groups of people about whatever they believe. It’s a form of mind control and lasts while in the priest’s presence and for a few hours afterward.”
“Why didn’t the high priestess use her mind control on us?” asked Sinclair Foran.
“I don’t know,” admitted Joseph Baxtor. “Perhaps it isn’t working for the same reason their god’s aura is gone.”
A group of armed rioters approached the landing party.
“What are you foreigners doing in our city?” demanded a woman from the group. “I don’t like those purple sashes.”
The marines aimed their hand cannons. Captain Baxtor reached for his rapier as Albert Reeves jumped forward.
“Damn foreigners!” the third captain said. “We were specifically invited here, by the high priestess Anna Ohlin herself. It infuriates us that we came here the right way and other foreigners are sneaking in without permission.”
The woman who had challenged them sneered at Reeves. “I don’t care if you came here with an invitation or snuck in. You’re not wanted here!”
Another woman in the crowd spoke up. “There’s a difference between foreigners who come as our invited guests and those who sneak in. He’s exactly right. It’s the sneaks that are the problem.”
“You’re splitting hairs!” shouted the first woman to the second. “They’re all thieves, rapists, and murderers.”
“No, there’s a difference between invited guests and intruders,” shouted the second.
The group broke into a grand melee with members choosing a side and wrestling with one another. The Phoenix crew slipped past.
“Every one of them has been willing to talk to us,” said Albert Reeves. “They’re happy as long as you’re agreeing with them, and usually if there’s some subtle difference of opinion, it starts a fight between them and splits up the group.”
“Well done,” said Captain Baxtor as they continued through the streets toward the god’s palace.
* * *
Henry Cook and Adam Hudson watched the approaching rowboat with sixteen unruly locals gesturing and screaming at them. It was still too far away to make out what they were screaming.
“I suppose I could fire a cannon to warn them off,” mused Henry Cook, eyeing the cannons appreciatively.
“Captain Baxtor tried that earlier and it only made them angrier,” said Adam Hudson.
“One of the smaller cannons could easily sink their dinghy. It’d be likely to hurt them though,” the young engineer said. “I suppose some of them might not be able to swim.”
“I could put a couple of water sprites on them,” offered the elementalist’s apprentice. “Keep their boat going in a circle and prevent them from approaching. Or flash some fire sprites in their faces if you wanted to be more aggressive.”
“The water sprites are probably the better choice,” said Henry Cook. “Let’s do that.”
* * *
“Bet you didn’t expect to be assaulting the god’s palace when we landed in Leomara, did you Ward, old boy?” asked Albert Reeves as Frank Ward lazily skewered the last of the attacking palace guards. Ward grunted in reply.
“That’s Second Captain Ward, not ‘old boy’,” corrected Captain Baxtor. “The guards still seem to be doing their job, so don’t get sloppy.”
Some of the marines with broken rapiers retrieved the broadswords previously wielded by the sacred guards.
“We never would have made it this far under normal circumstances,” offered Reeves. “They must be run down dealing with locals or have lost some of their numbers.”
An alarm was raised and another group of palace guards came charging toward them. Entering the enormous double doors they had been fighting in front of, the marines pulled them shut behind the group and barred them as the sailors moved deeper into the palace.
* * *
The group from the Phoenix entered an enormous throne room. At the far end, a fourteen-foot, indigo-skinned figure sat on an appropriately large throne. A horde of priests and palace guards milled around between Baxtor’s group and the throne.
One of the priests, recovered from the surprise at seeing them in the doorway, yelled, “Infidel interlopers, rend them limb from limb!” All the people in the room charged at the Phoenix landing party.
From behind them, Zerarus loudly announced, voice supernaturally amplified and carried throughout the room, “Yes, erm, rend them limb from limb, I suppose. In my name and for my honor. And all that.”
* * *
“Stand back, sir,” said Albert Reeves, stepping in front of Captain Baxor to meet another charge from the angry crowd of priests and guards. “This is what you pay us for.”
Protected by the marines, Sinclair Foran was busily reloading spent hand cannons while Captain Baxtor examined the situation facing them. Frank Ward had ripped his shirt open and now wielded two broadswords, one in each hand, as he danced through the crowd, striking down priests and guards who ran senselessly to their death.
The marines and Reeves kept a tight semi-circle around the captain and healer and pushed back each wave of attackers. The priests attacked barehanded or with small knives for dining.
Captain Baxtor called out, “Is this what Zerarus wants? Bloodshed in his throne room?”
A nearby Leomaran yelled back, “He just told us this is what he wants. Who are you to try to dictate theology to us?” The nearby attackers, further enraged, threw themselves against the marines.
After striking down the guard fighting him, Albert Reeves had a momentary reprieve from attackers. He called out, “The priests aren’t following Zerarus’ will any longer. They shout commands before learning his desires.”
Thrown into confusion, the guards nearby stopped their attack and eyed the priests suspiciously.
“They have been somewhat less obedient, I suppose,” acknowledged Zerarus, voice projecting throughout the room. The guards fell on the priests and started massacring them. Frank Wards moved through a series of stances as he expertly dispatched a group of five guards. As he sliced the head off of the last guard and began to decide on his next victim, Captain Baxtor rushed to his side and said, “That’s good Frank, that’s all we need. You’re done now.” The second captain eyed Joseph Baxtor with wild eyes, full of rage, then collapsed on the ground. Two marines rushed forward to drag him back into the protection of the circle of marines.
Calling across to Zerarus, Captain Baxtor said, “Lord Zerarus, we only seek to converse with your divinity. We mean no harm to you or your people. We were sent by your friend Mytar.”
Having finished their slaughter of the priests, the palace guards renewed their advance on Baxtor and his crew. One of the guards in the group called out, “We haven’t been told to renew our attack. Maybe this isn’t what Zerarus wants.” Another said, “Serving Zerarus faithfully means defending him, even if he hasn’t explicitly told us to.”
Zerarus announced, “Perhaps we can converse with them at a distance and determine their intent.”
Ignoring the god, various other guards offered their own interpretation of recent events and they fell on one another.
Moving forward towards the god, Captain Baxtor bowed deeply. “Lord Zerarus, Mytar sends his love and well wishes. We have been dispatched to aid you during your time of trouble.”
Cowering on his throne away from the approaching group, Zerarus looked uncertainly at Captain Baxtor. “You’ve turned my people against me, now you’re here to execute me? I won’t go quietly, you hear? I won’t!” The god smashed his fist down on his marble throne, crumbling the right armrest.
“We have no wish, nor ability, to harm you, Lord,” said Captain Baxtor, halting his advance twenty feet from the god. “We wish to serve you and help you and your followers.”
Beginning to cry, Zerarus looked at Baxtor in despair. “I have lost my followers,” he howled. “And now Mytar has come to kill me.” He sobbed.
“Mytar isn’t here and wishes you no ill will lord,” said Baxtor. “Please believe me when I assure you we only want to help you and depart from your lands as soon as possible. What happened to your followers?”
Breaking through his sobs, the god looked hopefully toward the group. “It was all so beautiful,” he said, between sobs, as he brought himself under control. “My people were glorious, self-possessed. A nation of leaders, boldly tackling the future. The people began to develop their own, individual ideas and started fighting with one another over everything. My priests kept them focused for a while, but then they started developing the same issues.”
“A brand of theology spread that represented a new form of worship. It emphasized the individual relationship with me, rather than a connection through the clergy. Each of my followers determined my desires for themselves. There was a short-lived holy war and the reformation was successful at persuading most of the population and dispatching the loyalists.”
“I can feel a new god trying to form,” said Zerarus. “If you kill me, he will arise.”
“We don’t want to deal with a new god,” said Joseph Baxtor, reassuringly. “Who knows what problems will result from that? We need to get you in control again.”
Sniffing, Zerarus said, “Really?”
“Really,” confirmed Captain Baxtor. “Now, it seems to me that your followers here in the palace were doing better than your followers outside. Perhaps if you met with them directly and told them how you want them to behave, you could convince them to stop attacking anyone with different ideas and get back to the work of operating your country. Reinforce the loyalist ideas directly to each individual.”
“But what happens the next time there’s a reformation and new ideas start spreading?” asked Zerarus.
“If you want,” said Captain Baxtor, “and this really is only if you want it, you could join the Pantheon as a subordinate god to Mytar. Mytar isn’t looking to change your culture or harm you in any way. Mostly it will be the same as being our trading partner. The Pantheon will send administrators to run Leomara for you. You will remain the spiritual head. A part of your instructions, when you meet with worshipers, is obedience to the secular authority of the Pantheon. Privately, your worshipers can grumble and criticize the government all they want, but as long as they don’t break the laws, the grumbling is fine. They’ll be able to continue worshipping you and you’ll be able to continue having followers.”
“So,” said Zerarus angrily as his face darkened, “your plot is revealed! You’ve engineered this coup to seize control of my world.”
“No, lord,” said Joseph Baxtor. “If this is unacceptable to you, we’ll leave. Or assist you in any other way we can. We don’t want a new god rising and we don’t want the Zith or another great power to seize your world.”
Sadly, Zerarus said, “Even if I get my population under control, this is going to happen again.”
“Yes,” agreed the captain.
“Then do it, and damn you all to hell,” said Zerarus.
* * *
Watching the interaction between Zerarus and the stream of worshippers making the pilgrimage to visit him, Captain Baxtor and Albert Reeves stood with the Pantheon administrators at the rear of the court.
“Meeting directly with a god isn’t something I’d seek out,” said Administrator Lewis to the two men.
“Nor I,” agreed Captain Baxtor.
“We’re setting up a new capitol building,” said the administrator. “Once it’s finished, we’re planning to leave this temple alone as much as possible.”
“That would be wise,” said Captain Baxtor.
“Render onto the Pantheon what is the Pantheon’s and onto Zerarus what is Zerarus’,” said the god, as he dismissed the follower he was meeting with. The next approached him in the throne room and he began his instructions again.
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