This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Fernando Freitas!
“There,” Val said finally, lowering his arms. The golden light in that dingy alley receded as the other clerics followed his example and let it ebb away. “That’s about all we can do here, but it should be enough.”
“More than,” the Avenist agreed, nodding and rolling back her left sleeve, which had come loose during their casting. “A brute force approach works fine for that kind of simple cleansing. We were seeing no reaction for at least the last minute. This is just mundane scorched carbon now. Charcoal.”
They all paused, frowning down at the smudge and piles of black detritus stretched across the alley floor which had been a crocodile-sized demon minutes ago.
“Still,” the Avenist added thoughtfully, “I don’t think we should just leave this here. In theory it’s safe, but I wouldn’t want somebody to put it in their stove or something.”
“Oh come on,” the Izarite said with a weary little laugh. “Surely nobody would do anything that stupid.”
The other three just turned to look at her.
“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly after a momentary pause.
“Well, then, this calls for more mundane tools,” the Omnist said briskly, turning back to face the mouth of the dead-end alley. “I’ll see if one of the adjacent shops will loan a broom and dustpan…”
He trailed off and they all turned at the sound of booted feet. A woman in bronze armor marched toward them, at least three more following. The narrow walls made it hard to judge the size of the squad.
“Everything all right here?” she asked. “Someone claimed there was a demon back here still.”
“Good timing, Sergeant,” said the priestess of Avei. “There was, but it’s taken care of.”
“It was just a canker-dog, and already injured,” Val added, stepping aside so the Silver Legionnaires could see the smudge and pointing down at it. “Cleansing finished it off. We were just discussing cleanup.”
“It’s pronounced khankredahg,” the Avenist cleric corrected softly.
“Ah, thank you,” Val said, turning to her with a polite nod and donning his stereotypically priestly mask, all beatific serenity. The monk of Omnu gave him a sidelong look that said he caught the irony, but there was no point in explaining the joke to an Avenist, and even less in getting openly sarcastic about it.
“Very good, we can take over that,” the sergeant said briskly. “I’m sure the four of you have much better things to do. Private Sola, bring up some cleaning supplies.”
The nearest soldier saluted her and trotted back to the mouth of the alley.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” the Sister said, nodding to her.
“Of course, ma’am.”
The other three followed her back to the main street, the Legionnaires pressing themselves to one wall of they alley to make a path for them. The damage here was heavier than in most places; this had been one of the sites of an actual skirmish, evidence of which lingered in smashed windows, broken shingles, and fallen shop signs. The charcoal corpses of slain demons had by now been cleared off the sidewalks, but there were still black scorch marks where stray wandshots had raked the storefronts.
It was also more active than such a sleepy street would ordinarily have been at this hour of the morning, and not merely with commerce. Shop owners were cleaning up and repairing their stores as best they could—actual repair crews were in high demand today. Like most of the city, too, it was under much heavier patrol. The rest of the squad from the Third Legion was distributed around the vicinity, talking with the locals and checking the alleys for more stray demons. A few Imperial soldiers were just disappearing up the street as the four priests emerged from the alleyway.
“What is with all these Huntsmen?” the Avenist cleric asked as a group of five bearded men in leather and fur walked past, carrying longbows. Some unfriendly looks were exchanged between them and the nearby Legionnaires, though nothing worse than that; clearly everyone had the sense to stay on task today of all days. “I’ve seen more today across three streets than I thought there were in the entire province.”
She and the other two all turned questioning looks on Val, and he changed masks to a more pensively focused one, just to keep the sardonic look off his face. Naturally, when something fishy was up, everybody looked to the Vidian. Explaining that he wasn’t one of those Vidians would either be wasted effort or just ignite a particularly unproductive theological discussion.
“I’ve been running on the assumption there’s a lot more going on here than any of us have been told,” Val said aloud. “In fact, I’m hoping that my cult has patched together some more intelligence on it—some of the higher ups are very good at that—but I set out with the dawn this morning and I’ve been doing spot healing and cleanup all day. If more is known, it’s not by me, yet.”
The monk leaned his head back to study the cloudy sky. “Hm. Now you mention it, it’s nearing noon. Have any of you eaten?”
“You look exhausted, sister,” the Avenist added, turning to the Izarite. She was right; the girl’s robe was smeared with ash, her cheeks were sunken and her eyes were practically pits. “You’ve been at work longer than the rest of us, haven’t you?”
“Oh…since the announcement last night,” the girl replied with a strained little laugh which served to emphasize her youth relative to them. She couldn’t have been much more than a novice. “It’s fine, there’s too much need—”
“Self-sacrifice is only noble up to a point,” the monk said, doing that distinctly Omnist thing where he could cut someone off mid-sentence without ever seeming less than politely gentle. Val had tried repeatedly to form a mask of that over the years and never pulled it off; he suspected it relied on that aura of peace they were rumored to have. “You can help no one if you drive yourself to collapse.”
“He’s right, you know,” the Avenist agreed. “I didn’t realize it was this late in the day. There is still much to do, but I think we should all find temples to rejuvenate ourselves before continuing. The cults probably know more by now, too,” she added, nodding to Val. “It’s a good time to check in and get new marching orders.”
“I agree,” he said, then turned to the young Izarite, adopting a mask he’d made from studying Omnist monks, a kindly but firm one which ineffably projected wisdom that made people reluctant to challenge him. “And the brother is right, you really need to get some rest. There’s plenty of suffering for us to address without adding your own.”
She sighed heavily. “It’s not that I don’t know you’re right, it’s just…”
“Come with me,” the Avenist ordered, slipping an arm through the younger woman’s and turning her to head up the street. “There’s a Legion post two blocks from here with an emergency medical station and kitchen active. We’ll get the news and get some food, and if the medic on site clears you for more service…”
She led the unprotesting priestess away. The monk gave Val a smile, and a shallow bow. “Be careful out there.”
“I’m never anything but,” Val promised, mimicking the gesture. “Be sure to take your own advice, friend.”
They parted in the same way they had met: without ado, without even exchanging names, just seeing the need and getting to work.
Tiraas was reeling from the Black Wreath’s attack, but was far from broken. As Val made his way back toward Imperial Square, he saw plentiful evidence of the damage, and the personnel both Imperial and religious out in force to help, but also signs that at least some of the capital’s citizens were stubbornly going about their business as normally as they could. Shops were open, factory antennae alight, and enterprising vendors were hawking in places they ordinarily did not, to take advantage of the additional crowds.
Including one he was particularly glad to see.
“Rip!” Val called, raising a hand and allowing a natural mask to slide over his features; the relief he felt at finding the boy unharmed and hard at work didn’t need any careful presentation. Sometimes it really was best to let the face do what it wanted. “Am I glad to see you!”
“Hey, Val!” the paperboy replied cheerily, flashing him a broad grin that showed two missing teeth. “Figured you’d come along sooner or later! Buy a Lancer? Extra edition, all that’s known about the Wreath’s dastardly assault and the freshest news from the frontier besides!”
“Yeah, you can spare me the spiel.” Val was already handing over the coins. “Not like I’m going to pass up the news on a day like this. You look okay. Is your family well?”
“Everybody’s fine, thanks to Ma bein’ such an old worrywart,” Rip reassured him while handing back a newspaper. “We spent the whole night huddled inside, not even goin’ near the windows. Pa’s already back at work an’ Lorinda went down to the Omnist temple to help out.”
“Glad to hear that. You keep your head down till things settle a bit, will you?”
“The hell you say,” the boy replied cheekily. “EXTRA! SPECIAL EDITION! BLACK WREATH ASSUALTS TIRAAS AND LAST ROCK! GET YOUR NEWS HERE, FOLKS, IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”
The central temple of Vidius was, naturally, a far more somber place today. Strictly speaking, Val didn’t have to pass through the public areas of the underground complex to reach his destination, but he did anyway. It was a point of principle for him not to distance himself from the experiences of the people. Vidians ministered to a lot of the most fun and gaiety civilization offered, their god being the patron of actors, but also to those touched by death. A good life was a balanced life. A person who sought only pleasure and avoided even glimpses of pain would become unhinged. Val Tarvadegh, though he was not a death priest by vocation, never avoided them or their work. To be a calming presence among the grieving was part of what it meant to be Vidian.
There were many grieving today.
Not as many as there could have been, in a city which had been invaded by demons during the night. Even as he passed funerary processions, occupied viewing rooms, heard the weeping and saw survivors clutching each other for support, he could not help tallying up the impact and offering silent gratitude to the gods that the harm had not been greater. These mourning vaults had been filled to greater capacity by the last typhoon. Clearly, the damage had been far lighter than it had any right to be.
Which was just one of the things of which he’d started keeping a mental tally that did not add up.
He was joined by another welcome face as he retreated further into the temple complex. Sayid was an older man and one of those within the Brethren whom Val trusted most, a priest whose vocation was ministering to the grieving, and who had been responsible for Val’s own training in that aspect of their faith in his youth. Though the Brethren had no formal uniform, Sayid was dressed as he usually did, in the manner most death priests in Tiraas adopted, with a tightly-cut long black coat such as Vidius was often depicted wearing. Allegedly, that was how their god most often manifested himself, when he did, but of course few among his faithful had ever seen that, or ever would.
Sayid was wearing the very mask he had taught Val years ago, the one Val had automatically assumed upon passing through the halls of mourning while they were in use. It held sympathy, openness, the offer of a calm presence and support if it was needed. Truly held those things; this was not a superficial mask. Sayid had hammered that point home back then. Unless they truly cared for those who needed them, and were willing to offer ministry when it was called for, they had no right to name themselves clerics. It was far more than divine magic that made a priest.
“You look tired,” the older man said quietly once they were deep enough in the corridors to be out of earshot of anyone grieving loved ones. “Been rushing around the city putting out fires, if I know you, Tarvadegh. How is Tiraas coping?”
“Well,” Val said, shifting his mask to one which revealed a hint of his uncertainty. “Much better than I feared. There are indeed fires to put out—you’ve been doing the same here, old friend. Overall I’m surprised by how superficial a lot of the damage appears. The cults are all active, as is the government, and a lot of the people seem determined to get right back to work.”
“Good for them.”
Val held up the newspaper he was still carrying. “Information is still sketchy, but the Silver Throne is already claiming to have dealt a mortal blow to the Black Wreath during this. Imperial Intelligence claims much of the Wreath’s leadership were captured or killed in the fighting. Of course, you know what that means.”
Sayid grunted, his own mask changing to project his skepticism. “Means the capital wasn’t razed to the ground and the Wreath is not in a position to put out its own press release. The Throne all but has to declare victory here, if they can at all get away with it.”
“I’m hoping there’s more word here, by now,” Val said, not changing his mask. The look of calm, slightly suspicious uncertainty still suited his purpose, at least here, before a trusted friend. “I know you’ve been doing important work, Sayid, but have you gleaned any important news?”
“Have I ever,” Sayid said, and his mask changed to a countenance that made Val immediately wary. Whatever Sayid had learned, he didn’t know what it signified and expected trouble at the very least. The older priest gave him a significant look, and Val nodded, falling silent.
They proceeded without speaking till they reached the circular doors into the inner sanctuary, the parts of the temple where only initiates of the Brethren were permitted. Rather than the mask and scythe sigil of Vidius, the doors were made in the shape of an even more ancient symbol, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two curving teardrop shapes, one black and one white, eternally chasing each other. The gray-robed novice standing watch over the doors bowed to them, her face hidden behind a mask—a literal one of ceramic, as Vidian clergy wore in some ceremonial duties, or when they were new enough that their tutors had not vouched for their mastery of the Doctrine of Masks. A face which could not control itself should not be seen.
As soon as the round door had slid shut behind them again, Sayid halted right inside the sanctuary, taking Val’s sleeve and leaning close. His mask was still one of excitement, worry, intensity. “Tarvadegh, everything is changed. Vidius has called a paladin.”
For the first time since his own initiation, Val Tarvadegh slipped. For just a split second, his mask tumbled away to reveal naked shock, before he composed himself. Sayid simply put on a mask of understanding. Under the circumstances, it was a forgivable lapse.
He shuffled mentally through the obvious questions, of which there were far too many.
“I know little,” Sayid said while Val scrambled to get his thoughts in order. “As you said, there’s been much more important work than hobnobbing with the rumor-mongers down here. All I know is he’s one of the kids at that cockamamie school out in Last Rock, apparently a close friend of the Hand of Omnu.” He hesitated—mostly for dramatic effect, as the mask he put on expressed. “The boy is a half-demon.”
Val allowed his own mask to revert to a natural one, now that he’d mastered his shock. An expression of awe and trepidation was entirely appropriate. “Omnu’s breath. I bet the vultures down here are going absolutely insane.”
Sayid nodded, assuming a mask of wry amusement. Even beyond the natural Vidian predilection for duality, it was a truism that there were two kinds of people among the cult. The way they were described varied widely, but everyone understood what the kinds were. There were the clerics who went out and did the work of ministering to people going about their lives, and then there were the clerics whose primary vocation consisted of maneuvering for power.
Though Val (and Sayid, and most who shared their outlook) privately sorted them into groups of “ambitious” and “useful,” it had to be acknowledged that the other kind—the vultures, as he had just called them—were far from useless. They may have had self-serving motives, but not exclusively so; after all, any Vidian worth his salt would be working on at least two objectives with any given action. The cult itself thrived in large part due to the funding and influence they secured by maneuvering among nobles, royals, and the other rich and mighty in society.
Complex their aims and natures might be, but manipulators and schemers needed the constancy of intricate systems in which to operate. Now? A Vidian paladin? A half-demon Vidian paladin? There was absolutely no guessing how many careful ploys had just been permanently upended.
Val couldn’t deny feeling a spark of satisfaction at that prospect, though of course he kept it concealed behind his mask.
“Speaking of,” Sayid murmured, and Val, following his gaze, had to switch to an almost dishonestly serene mask to suppress the fatalism he suddenly felt. Another gray-robed novice was making a beeline toward them from the opposite side of the long sanctuary, where she had clearly been watching the door. “I warned you not to cozy up to that woman, boy. Told you she was destined for great things. Now look. Every time anything happens…”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Val said innocently. “It may not be a message for me. Perhaps you’re being excommunicated.”
Sayid gave him a scathing look that barely counted as a mask.
“Val Tarvadegh?” the novice inquired with proper diffidence, stopping before them and bowing slightly.
“Yes,” he said simply, turning to her wearing his clerical mask of serene benediction.
“There is a meeting in progress in the Outer Sanctity; Lady Gwenfaer wishes your attendance as soon as you return to the temple.”
“I guess I’m safe for another day,” Sayid said, wearing Val’s own mask of serenity rather than his customary one.
Val just turned the look on the older man without bothering to change it. Would’ve served the old coot right if he’d stuck out his tongue, but he wasn’t about to set such a bad example in front of a novice. “Thank you, acolyte. I will attend the Lady directly.”
The girl bowed again, retreating, and Sayid patted him encouragingly on the back. Val nodded to him and set off for the innermost depths of the temple, putting on a mask he used almost exclusively for events such as this: calm, no nonsense, not aggressive but unwilling to suffer fools. He had crafted it after the example of an Avenist cleric he knew. When he couldn’t avoid being drawn in by Gwenfaer and her ever-rotating circle of hangers-on, it was the closest he could manage to keeping himself unscathed.
“Do we even know what kind of demon he is?” a priestess he didn’t know was exclaiming with open exasperation when he joined the meeting underway.
“Half-demon,” said Tarkan Raskin from behind a mask which projected calm so aggressively it was clearly a deliberate rebuke at those who failed to. Val didn’t know Raskin intimately, but he was one of the upper-circle maneuverers whom he respected the most, a man who enjoyed his games of connivance but was more interested in the cult’s goals than furthering his own temporal benefit. “And no, so far we know very little beyond what the god has revealed to Lady Gwenfaer. Gabriel Arquin is known to have been a friend of Tobias Caine in his youth, so there are records available to follow up and we’ll be doing so as quickly as we can. For now, though? We know he’s a boy, so he’s not half khelminash. That’s the extent of our intelligence.”
“They could put that on your tombstone,” the woman replied acidly. Raskin looked directly at her without replying verbally, though he shifted his mask to a condescending parent’s disdain toward a misbehaving toddler.
Arquin, hm. Val didn’t recognize the surname; it might have been Tiraan, Western, possibly even Stalweiss. Gabriel was an old but not very popular given name. This still told him very little.
“Val!” Gwenfaer gushed, rising to her feet and gliding across the room toward him. He put on a deliberately long-suffering mask, which she ignored, swooping right up and kissing him lightly on both cheeks, a greeting used by absolutely no one outside Glassiere except Gwenfaer Maalvedh.
The Lady Gwenfaer was tall, blonde, and one of those women whom it was impossible to tell how voluptuous she was because every movement of her body and article of clothing in her wardrobe was part of a contrivance to make her seem more so. Her face was improbably free of even the tiniest lines for someone in the descending half of her forties. That mane of luxuriant golden hair was impeccably styled, as always, in tousled waves which suggested she had just climbed out of bed; her robes were also very deliberately cut to evoke a hastily-donned dressing gown, hint of cleavage and all.
She insisted she was Old Tira, not Stalweiss in descent. While it was a matter of record that there had been a race of pale, fair-haired humans in the Tira Valley before the modern Tiraan had begun moving in from Calderaas (in fact, Tanglish was thought to descend from their language), they had been gone for centuries. It was a purely laughable claim, and that was Gwenfaer all over. Her goofy affectations and overt vampishness were both masquerades not held in favor among the Brethren of Vidius, where they were considered Vesker stereotypes. Val had never met anyone else in the faith who tried to leverage either; Gwenfaer was surely the only one who made a practice of both.
She was also the most intelligent person he knew, and it frankly scared him that he had no idea how deep her capacity for ruthlessness went. Nobody ascended to the leadership of the Brethren unless they were a person to take with the utmost seriousness.
“Welcome, Val,” said the other blonde woman present when Gwenfaer had drawn back enough that he could see the room again. “Are we awaiting anyone else, my Lady?”
“This should be it for now,” Gwenfaer said, wearing a dreamy little smile. Alone among the Vidians Val had known, she had a knack for making her expressions look like the uncontrolled emotional flickering of the uninitiated. Others had remarked on it; Vidians could generally recognize each other simply by their facial control, but not the Lady Gwenfaer. He suspected there was some secret branch of their cult’s attention-deflecting magic involved in it. “Lorelin, would you be a dear and catch him up for me?”
“There hasn’t been much established so far,” the other priestess said, nodding respectfully to Val with a mask of pleasantly aloof friendliness in place. “I believe you heard Tarkan’s clarification just now. Vidius has called a Hand, he is a half-demon attending Tellwyrn’s University, and a friend of the Hand of Omnu. The only thing you’ve missed is that Bishop Querril has placed himself in formal seclusion in the Grand Cathedral at this news.”
“Oh, dear,” Val murmured, adopting a mask of perplexed concern to avoid having to respond directly to Lorelin Reich. If Raskin was his idea of a good ambitious Vidian, she was the opposite. In his opinion the Brethren would be better off if someone stuffed Reich full of pine cones, bent her in a circle, and strung her up as a solstice wreath.
“Of all the bloody times for one of his snits,” huffed the priestess who had been sniping at Raskin a moment ago. She was the oldest of them, white-haired and clearly fond of aggressive masks. “Querril has always been more of a theological purist than is good for him; I’m frankly impressed he received this news without having a literal stroke.”
“Are we absolutely certain he hasn’t?” Lorelin asked from behind a mask of concern so obviously insincere it was clearly meant as a joke. “That is a downside to seclusion, of course. Poor Bishop Tannehall was dead in her office for almost two days before anyone discovered she wasn’t praying.”
“We should be so lucky,” the old woman grunted.
“Really, Tassie,” Gwenfaer chittered, a picture of vapid reproof. “This is hardly the time.”
“Not to mention that Bishop Querril’s long service to the Brethren merits some respect,” Raskin added, “no matter how annoying many of us find him.”
“Tassie, was it?” Val inquired politely.
“Not to you, boy,” the woman retorted. “Tasselin Vistirian. And you are…?”
“Val Tarvadegh,” he replied, putting on a mask of such ostentatious politeness that the reproof was implicit. Raskin smiled thinly at him.
“So!” Gwenfaer clapped her hands, affecting a delighted and somewhat vacant smile. “It seems to me we have two immediate objectives. Or rather, the countless problems before us can be sorted into two neat categories: the internal and external.”
“Imagine,” Val said, adopting a mask of pure sincerity. “Vidians dividing an issue neatly in two.” Reich and Vistirian gave him looks wearing masks so similar they might have been modeled on the same disapproving schoolmarm.
“Oh, Val,” Gwenfaer tittered. “But yes! We are very much in the dark. Tarkan, you’ve made a start at tracking down information on this Gabriel Arquin?”
“I have set some inquiries in motion, my Lady,” Raskin said respectfully. “I dare hope there may be some answers waiting for me by the time this meeting is ended. I’ll get more as soon as I am able to devote my own energies to the task.”
“Splendid, splendid, we’ll need to know everything we can. No detail is too extraneous! Bring me any scrap you can dig up.”
“As you will, my Lady.”
“But that isn’t the only thing on which we must gather intelligence. I don’t have to tell all of you that the official line spouted by the Empire and the Universal Church about this Wreath attack does not entirely hold up. Under any circumstances I wouldn’t want to be kept in the dark, but last night’s events culminated directly in our god naming a paladin for the first time in history, and choosing a specific individual guaranteed to precipitate a theological crisis.”
“That’s a truly remarkable coincidence,” Reich observed.
“Isn’t it, though?” Gwenfaer said pleasantly. “The people in this room I know I can rely on—even if you have to do things others might not approve of.” The four of them so pointedly avoided looking at each other that the entire room practically throbbed with unvoiced speculation. “I am dividing these responsibilities among you. Tarkan, Tassie, I need you to sniff out secrets among the city. Find everything that can be known about Gabriel Arquin, and what he has to do with what happened last night—what really happened, and why and how the truth is being hidden from us.”
“A tall order,” Vistirian murmured, adopting a mask of disgruntled contemplation. Val had the stray thought that she might have modeled it off a librarian; he had seen Nemitites make that exact face whenever someone raised a voice in one of their libraries. “For one thing, some of the other cults are riled up even more than the situation calls for. This city is absolutely crawling with Huntsmen of Shaath, which is truly inexplicable. And the Thieves’ Guild is far more active than I would have expected.”
“There, see?” Gwenfaer beamed. “You have a start! Work together on this—and do try to get along.”
“I will see what I can do,” Raskin replied with a mask that was as close to expressionless as Val had ever seen. Vistirian gave him an openly sardonic look.
“That leaves the other half: the internal.” Gwenfaer turned her wide smile upon Val and Reich.
“I can only imagine how stirred up the entire cult is right now,” he said.
“I doubt you can,” Reich murmured, and he put on a particularly bland mask of politeness. Was he really going to have to work with this woman?
“Oh, my, yes, but that isn’t what I need you two to deal with,” Gwenfaer said earnestly. “I really cannot have the Bishop losing himself to a crisis of faith at a time like this. Do something about him, won’t you?”
“Like what?” Val demanded.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she simpered. “I have complete faith in you both! And there is also the matter of young Gabriel himself. After all, he’s now one of us! And we’re definitely going to have to do something about him.”
“You want us to go to Last Rock, my Lady?” Reich asked, shifting her mask to reflect uncertainty.
“Dear me, no, I need you both at hand! But someone has to train the boy, after all. He’s not even Vidian by upbringing; believe me, if there were any of those at Last Rock, I would know it. Therefore, I want you two to sniff out and nominate a teacher for our new paladin. We must find someone to serve as Gabriel’s tutor and guide, someone to teach him our doctrines and our ways, and nurture his development. Someone we can trust to administer the needs of the Brethren without interfering in whatever exciting thing Vidius is planning! Because oh, my, yes, our god is clearly having a little fun at our expense.”
“Fun.” Reich turned a blank mask upon Val. “Yes…this will be fun, won’t it?”
He heaved a sigh. “Oh, yes, Lorelin, I’m very much afraid it will.”