I had never met an Astra before. The Pantheon claimed that they were blessed by the gods; individuals from every race and culture, born with pure white wings to mark them as messengers of the divine. Only Astras could become high priests of the Pantheon--and nearly all of them did.
This Astra’s name was Inoch, and he had come to speak with Lucius about his play.
In the play, Lucius claimed that the gods we worshipped were not gods at all. It pointed to the obviously humanly failings of each deity, and the similarities between the gods of different times and cultures. It was a radical theory, thinly disguised as satire. It was causing all manner of trouble for the Pantheon and the people of Delphinad loved it.
Shockingly, Inoch was not there to condemn the play. Instead, he suggested that Lucius may not have taken his theories far enough. If these divine beings were not gods, he argued, then who granted them their power?
Together, Inoch and Lucius wrote a new play. It incorporated ideas from Inoch's home tribe, the Hiram, who believed that a single mother goddess was responsible for the creation of the world and all its gods. They found a beautiful dancer--Naima--to play the part of the goddess and stripped away the last vestiges of satire. The script wasn't just poking at the church, now; it was openly calling the teachings of the Pantheon into question.
They had finally gone too far.
The day the play opened, Inoch appeared at Shadowhawk House. He told us that Lucius and the dancer, Naima, had been arrested for heresy. The Pantheon would be holding an open trial the next morning, where the crowd would get to choose the fate of the accused.
The Astra paced back and forth in agitation. "I managed to slip out without being seen," he said. "But Lucius was right in the front row! They'll execute him if he'd found guilty. We have to do something!"
The next morning, the square in front of the Pantheon was packed with people. Many had heard of the heretical play written by the city's most famous playwright and had come to judge his crimes for themselves.
We had brought every person we could think of to help vote Lucius innocent. Tahyang, Gene, and Melisara had scattered their Shadowhawks amongst the crowd, disguised as ordinary citizens. Eanna had brought whatever nobles would listen, and Aranzeb and Ollo had canvassed the Ayanad Library for any young mages who would join their cause. Even Inoch risked being there, his white wings covered in a heavy cloak.
Lucius and Naima were led to a platform at the front of the square. Their trial had begun.
The Great Priest, Neolle, unrolled a scroll and began reading the indictment before the crowd.
"This man, Lucius Quinto, stands accused of abusing his position of influence to spread heresy and profane the gods. The woman, Naima, acted as his accomplice."
The priest gestured at the pair, raising his voice so that the whole crowd could hear him.
"These people--these heretics--spit upon your beliefs! They call you fools for trusting in the gods!"
The crowd began to mutter angrily, and the priest continued," And what answers do they provide, hmm? A mysterious goddess that no one has ever heard of? It's nonsense! They would tear down our oldest and most treasured institutions, and replace them with wild fantasy!"
The crowd was becoming more animated now, hissing at the pair up on the stage.
"Guilty!" someone roared from the front of the crowd. Soon, the whole square reverberated with the chant. The head priest of the Pantheon smiled in satisfaction.
Suddenly, a pair of blinding white wings snapped open in the middle of the crowd. Inoch had thrown off his cloak. The people around him stumbled back in fright and awe, forming a dramatic circle around the Astra as he stared up at the stage.
"No!" he cried, and the square fell deathly silent.
"Lucius Quinto is not the guilty party here," said Inoch. "For years, I have suspected our religion to be based upon false beliefs. Lucius's play seemed like the best way to spread that idea to the people. He and Naima were my puppets, nothing more. Let them go, and accuse me of this crime!"
The courtyard erupted into chaos.
In the confusion that followed, the Shadowhawks were able to spirit Lucius away into the crowd. But Naima and Inoch were seized by the city guards and dragged back into the Pantheon.
Soon, the announcement was made that the Astra and the dancer were to be put to death. There would be no more trials.
Back in Shadowhawk House, Lucius was furious.
"You don't understand! He said he wrote it! He said he wrote my play! He was an...an advisor at best! It's preposterous!"
Gene frowned at his friend. "Lucius...they're going to kill him. Do you really think this is the time?"
The playwright turned on Gene with a wild look in his eyes.
"The hell they are!" he shouted. "We're gonna free them! Inoch and Naima both! And when I have that smug feathered bastard safely out of the city, I'll...I'll give him a beating he won't soon forget!"
Tahyang chuckled quietly from the corner, then stood up and clapped his hands together. "Well then, my brave pen-wielding warrior. I suppose we'll just have to go save him, won't we? Wouldn't want you to be robbed of your just revenge, after all."
"You're damned right!" yelled Lucius, smacking a fist into his open palm. Then he paused, looking at the Shadowhawks uncertainly. "So, uh...where do we start?"
In the end, it was Aranzeb who effected the actual jailbreak. While the Shadowhawks created a diversion, the young mage slipped into the Pantheon and spirited its prisoners away by opening a portal into Ayanad. But doing so cost him greatly.
"I'll never be able to go back," he told us sadly, once we were gathered outside the city gates. "The Ayanad Mages keep records of everyone who uses a portal spell to enter their domain. By morning, they'll know it was me who helped you escape."
"Then join us," said Ollo.
The Dwarf gestured to our little party. "We're all implicated in this. It's not safe for any of us here anymore. We've decided to travel to Inoch's homeland and find the origin of this 'mother goddess' his tribe worships. If she really does exist, we can come back and rub the Pantheon's noses in it. And if she doesn't...well, at least we gave it out best shot."
He picked up one of the bags we'd packed, offering it to Aranzeb. "Come on. What have you got to lose?"