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Chapter 5-1

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 8 years, 10 months ago

A soft drizzle of rain drums against the linen umbrella, and a dozen tiny waterfalls cascade to the ground. There small rivers trickle, gather and flow, gently roiling down the grooves of a stonework masonry. It is a calm composition; a melody that suits the remote getaway seated on the edge of a lonely and rocky hill. A monastery supported by a small quaint village surrounded by nothing but nature. No other trace of civilization exists for leagues around.


Tiny waterfalls cascade between the ramparts down a hundred meters of sheer cliff and into the valley below. The late afternoon sun is blocked by dense grey clouds, and only sparse breaks allow a few rays of brilliant sunshine to illuminate the dulled landscape below. Far below the monastery and its village are swampy wetlands where the rainwater had begun to pool into an impenetrable mess of muck and fog. There the oasis sits alone, high above the mire and isolated from the rest of the world.


Leaning off the side of the mountain, in the monastery’s terrace garden, are four people. They gather around a circular table where a gentle breeze caresses them. The pure and fresh air, which had made the location a famous sanatorium, invigorates their souls instead of chilling them to the bone. Two sit at the table while two others attend behind them. Steam rises from a piping hot kettle and whisks into the breeze.


Basking in the grey sunlight sits a plump older woman with her bluish-grey hair cut short. Youth had long left her, but the lack of wrinkles on her face showed that it had not yet forgotten her. She was short, round and squashed, but she has the airs of a regal and dignified mother. A pair of sharp and sparkling baby-blue eyes peek out from behind her squinting gaze. Her eyelids have become so heavy with the passage of time that she no longer has the energy to keep them fully aloft and gives a perpetually laid-back appearance. Hanging from her shoulders were rolls of tapestry adorned with the runes of an old language no longer spoken. Yet it exhibits the entirety of her favorite passages from the Chronicles of The Almighty, her eternal master.


The robes she clothes herself in displays her status, even a peasant busy ploughing his field would recognize it in an instant. Rich red dye and real gold embroidery make a masterpiece out of a simple brown priest's garment. With dignified poise she holds up a tiny white saucer in her left, a tea cup in her right. As she sips the hot brew, the man sitting across from her fidgets. She is one of the nine. The Seventh Grand Cardinal: one of the most influential and powerful women in the world.


Sitting opposite of her was another elderly man with long and straight whiskers jutting out from the sides of his head. The sun at his back almost gave him a halo, but his worried face and restless fingers dispelled any illusion of divinity. Age had not been as kind, and his face was being pulled down by gravity without an ounce of youth in his bones to resist it. His robes are dyed the same brilliant red, but they lack the amount of gold and other articles of office. He is a bishop, which would be an impressive station on its own, but even he had to bow his head to the woman who sits in front of him. The teacup and saucer sit motionless on the table in front of him.


Standing behind the man was a page; a young teenage boy acting as the servant for the two holy dignitaries. His features are forgettable as is his plain chestnut colored hair and mud colored robe, but his discipline while remaining perfectly still, attentive and not distracted is admirable. Behind the Grand Cardinal was a man of much higher stature. A tall man encased in a suit of gleaming silver armor. Plates trimmed with gold and polished to a mirror shine with a richly dyed tabard of a bronze star. Under his left arm he cradled a winged helmet while the fingers on his right drummed against his armor, just next to the hilt of his sword. Long platinum blond hair catches in the wind while a pair of sharp blue eyes watch carefully above his aquiline nose and handsome cheekbones.


     Breaking the long silence at last, the old bishop speaks, “My lady, it is almost twilight of the third day. I can arrange a bath be drawn before you slumber and your belongings gathered for your journey back to Perrsolis in the morning.”


The old man's voice is shaky which was strange given the nature of his company. One eye of the Grand Cardinal opens, and it beams straight on the man. She calmly puts the saucer and cup back on the table as she takes a deep resigned breath.


     “And I shall wait until the sun has vanished on this third day.” Her toadish voice softly speaks, rasping as though her lungs had been shriveled by decades of smoking. “I am quite certain my invitation reached him, and if I return to the capital now... I most likely will not have this chance again.”


     A clatter of armor interjects as the knight behind her shifts on his feet to salute, “If I may speak honestly, your holiness...”


The Grand Cardinal does not respond; she instead lifts her tea cup again, and the man takes that as a yes.


     “I have stationed my men far and wide in a secure perimeter around Kneljewl. With thirty minute intervals between reports I have yet to receive any word of inbound travelers. It is already quite late on this third day; I highly doubt he has chosen to accept your invitation.”


     “Even you now, Sir Abdren? I expected more patience from a Paladin Captain.”


The man saluting with a clenched fist across his chest sighs in his own resignation in deference to her.


     “Your holiness, I merely wish to put the least distance between us and the capital before the spring melt finishes and summer is upon us. The Demon Realms between Kneljewl and Perrsolis will be restless during the heat and their radius more expansive and unpredictable after the winter chill.”


Unperturbed, the Grand Cardinal finishes the last of her cup and sets it back on the table. The servant springs into action to refill it; meanwhile, she calmly responds to the paladin's concerns.


     “The journey back concerns me less than ignorance. I also relish the chance to make an exchange.”


With a scrape of wood against stone, the bishop seated across from her leans forward in his chair which sends it backward. His fidgety and nervous eyes are immediately replaced with passion as the words from the Grand Cardinal's lips set a fire beneath him.


     “I must risk rudeness and insult in order to protest, my lady! We of his Holy Church should not stoop so low to make deals with lowlifes, no matter the circumstance.”


     “I too must agree, your holiness,” the paladin agrees. “I shall follow your any order, but it is also my duty to advise. If you would leave the matter to me and my men-”


     “Just as I have for the last two years with no results to show for it?” The Grand Cardinal interrupts while she lifts a fresh cup of tea to her lips.


The Paladin and bishop stop in their tracks and grit their teeth. The old man slumps back in his chair while the paladin's shoulders slump in defeat with a sigh. Neither had a response, and she takes one long savoring sip before placating their concerns.


     “If half the rumors I have heard are true, then he will be more than helpful.”


     “How can you be so sure?” the bishop asks. “I have heard many rumors; a simple woodcutter who is abducted one day by a giant. A woman standing twice as tall as any man and six times stronger. Later, he claims he is Baron of Relly Crossing, demands tolls and takes what he wants from town while riding upon her shoulder like a child.”


His tone is rude, but he is fired up with genuine passion and concern that he could not be faulted for. If she took offense it did not show.


     “I did not come here because of trivial local matters, Bishop. That is your responsibility to solve.” She says sternly.


     The Bishop is shocked, but he flusters and continues talking regardless, “T-then the minstrel of Gallover? Playing his tune in a grove three counties over. Attracts the attention of a wretched little imp. Only a few years later and the place is littered with them, corrupting the children!”


The Grand Cardinal's posture changes immediately upon the Bishop mentioning children. Her lip twists upward in disgust, her brows furrow and she nearly cracks her tea cup as she brings it down on the table. The Bishop cowers and slinks back in his seat when her fierce eyes burn into him.


     “Be careful with your words. Brother Octavus. I know not what deal you struck with the Fourth of the Nine... But I do have an idea what unsavory activities led to your transfer from that Orphanage you used to headmaster-”


The Bishop's face begins to go pale.


     “-I have put up with your hospitality for two full days now. But do not presume 'that' and some choice tea leaves will bolster my patience with you forever. I may forget having you flogged or worse in my presence is not worth the trouble. You being able to sit right now at all is only because I have more important things to do than quarrel with Grand Cardinal Yelkovich.”


His face has gone pure white, and he now throws his chair back in order to prostrate himself on the ground beside the Grand Cardinal. His forehead grinds into floor as the rest of his body hugs the soaked stone.


     “P-please! I mean no disrespect! Forgive me! I have already paid for my sins. Please!”


The moaning of the old man does not please the woman at all, nor the paladin standing behind her. Her tea begins to taste like ash, causing her to purse her lips for a moment, while he wails and begs for forgiveness in such an unpleasant and undignified manner. But she bares with it until the moment passes, and she takes a fresh swig from her dainty cup.


Sir Abdren whispers into the Grand Cardinal's ear on the Bishop's behalf and for their collective curiosity, “Those two cases are but some of many for this area, but you claim that is no longer our business?”


     “A cover story, Sir Abdren.” She speaks plainly, not whispering back. “Your ignorance is for your own protection. No. Who we are meeting may be an Incubus Lord.”


The Bishop's wailing stops, even the paladin is taken aback while the old man plastered to the floor looks up with shock and awe on his face.


     “Your holiness!” The paladin shouts, concern dripping from his voice.


     “I said, 'may be',” The Grand Cardinal says, her own voice brimming with a chastising tone. “I have my suspicions this may be a special case. If it is true, then he may be of use to me... And I may have what he wants.”


     “I would have prepared differently for your safety if I had known this, your holiness!” The paladin pleads.


     “Feigned weakness, Sir Abdren. Bait for the trap. I do not believe he means any harm, so long as we display no threat.”


Sir Abdren once more relents in deference to the Grand Cardinal, but his mind races as it tries to reorganize all his plans and preparations. An Incubus Lord is perhaps one of the most dangerous beings to walk the world. Not because of any imminent threat of aggression, but because of the potential power they can wield when not otherwise preoccupied. Many monsters roam and may prey on many men, but even they will settle down eventually. Out of ten men tempted and their souls stolen by monsters, nine are locked in an unbreakable mating pair. One out of the ten, however, are something else.


Neither Abdren nor the Grand Cardinal know the reason why, but some men are subjugated to more than just a pairing. A single monster, a single tribal unit, is dangerous on its own, but many monsters gathered together with one collective purpose is on another unimaginable level of danger. It was an army of monsters acting together a thousand years ago that brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Monsters had always been a constant threat, but they were never unified in purpose and would just as readily fight amongst themselves rather than prey upon humanity. Some men gather monsters much like a flower may attract not only the bees but butterflies and birds. The power he can wield through them, if he is ambitious, is a danger to humanity.


The Grand Cardinal was about to speak again, but she just as suddenly purses her lips and silences her tongue. The Grand Cardinal's attention looks over the bishop and off into the distance. Her silence worries the two men, but they dare not say a thing and instead wait for her to continue.


     “Have either of you ever traveled further north than here?” She asks at last.


     “N-no, my lady.” The Bishop says as he slowly and cautiously stands on his two feet again. “My title resides here, but I have never had the need to travel to more northern and pagan lands.” He says, spitting at the mention of those living in the north.


     “I squired for Commander Fleiterhorn at the Darrick Archipelago a decade ago, but this is as far north as I have ever been, your holiness.” The paladin responds with a touch of pride in the beginning.


     “I see.” She says calmly.


Her attention turns to the quiet servant standing by. The boy almost leaps out of his skin when her old blue eyes turn on him.


     “We have finished with our tea. Please take it away and return only when we send for you.” She commands him with a smile.


The page almost panics at the way she politely addresses him with a smile, but never before has anyone gathered delicate china faster than him. With a veritable circus act, he waddles away from the table as he balances more finery than he is worth in his arms. He skillfully navigates through the garden and disappears back into the monastery. The bishop and paladin look at one another, pressing the other for answers with their eyes, but neither has anything to offer the other. The Grand Cardinal merely closes her eyes and starts breathing deeply as if to calm and center herself.


In the distance a bestial shriek is carried by the wind. It is faint, but all three persons at the table hear it together. The sound of it sends shivers down their spines. Even the Grand Cardinal shudders a little as she twitches in discomfort for a moment. Abdren reaches for his sword and pulls it half way out of his scabbard on instinct while the bishop spins around to look out into the distance. There, on the horizon, they spot a large green shape descending from the grey clouds.


Another shrieking roar is carried in on the wind, and the table itself shudders ever so slightly. With alarming speed the green mass descends upon the monastery, and it glides right by. Two massive leathery and scaled wings and a long muscular tail steer and steady the monster as it strafes the garden terrace only fifty meters above. It is difficult for the three in the garden to make out, but it is without a doubt a wyvern. The paladin looks on with his mouth agape as he witnesses something out of his childhood stories, and the bishop breaks out in a cold sweat and is on the brink of panicking yet again. The Grand Cardinal is breathing deeply, but she remains calm.


Something smaller and brown is holding tightly at the base of its neck, which becomes visible as the wyvern banks right and circles back around. Someone was riding upon its back. There was also a white ribbon tied around the beast's neck which the man seemed to be holding onto like reigns. With powerful flaps from its wings it slows down, circles, steers and descends upon the monastery. The linen umbrella is blown away as a buffet of wind kicks up wind, water and dust into the air. The mighty green wyvern with razor sharp teeth the size of arms, great and mighty horns protruding from its dinosaur like head and massive muscles in its colossal wings, legs and tail grab hold of the rampart. The weight of the beast hitting the balcony causes her teacup to leap from its saucer and roll off the table to smash on the floor.


The cardinal and paladin were drenched in a spray of rainwater; the old man retreats behind the paladin while the Grand Cardinal does her best to remain seated at the table, unperturbed. Her eyes are wide open now though. She had once seen a wyvern in her youth, but the size of this one now only twenty meters away astounds even her. It stands twice as tall as any horse, about thirty hands from talons to the top of its head. Even then, it is hunching, not even standing upright on its hind legs with its back rigidly straight.


A wyvern that is about one and a half times larger than an average wyvern. It is a relic of a bygone age. A time more than a hundred years ago when the monsters of the world took on completely different forms. It was a giant and fierce flying dragon. Its golden reptilian eyes watch the three of them carefully; a heat mirage shimmers through the rain droplets and puffs of steam rise from its head as the rain evaporated on contact. Its talons dig into the stone rampart that crack under its strength, each talon is like its own curved sword. Those fierce eyes turn on the paladin with his hand still on his sword, and it narrows its eyes at him. It was a disturbing sign of intelligence from the creature; he let go of his hilt and allows his sword to slide back into the scabbard.


The wyvern bows its head and reveals the cloaked man hidden by its massive frame. He dismounts carefully and sets foot at last on the solid stone. With a clank, leather and steel boots clink like spurs. His tattered and ragged brown cloak is soaked and sticks to him. The three at the table notice the brilliant blue from his pants, a rare dye to the likes of them. A shaggy head of brown hair whips in the wind, and a layer of stubble covers his face. His face is grimy; many days and many miles of dirt has stuck to his face and clothes, but even then the glint of his blue eyes shine through.


Behind him a brilliant flash of light consumes the massive frame of the mighty wyvern. With a shimmer and ringing like a struck tuning fork, the form changes, shrinks and twists. Human features, a woman's silhouette, forms complete with massive bust and fit feminine curves, yet the wings, talons and horns remain. The woman, now standing where the wyvern had just been seconds ago, leaps off the rampart next to the man, and they walk forward side by side. A long white scarf with two long tassels flutters in the wind as it wraps around the bottom half of her face and neck.


The closer they approach, the more the size and scale of them hits home for those gathered at the table. The man stands just over half a head taller than even Sir Abdren, and the wyvern beside him stands a full head taller than him. The scraping and thudding sound of her talons on the masonry unnerves them while the constant clank of the man matches its tempo.


     They both stop at the other edge of the table, and the man speaks, “This is the right address, right? Because we've seen those faces like that earlier and it turned out to be the wrong address.”


An awkward silence hangs over the balcony. The rain continues to drizzle unabated as it soaks all five of them. A chill from the cold reception and failure to break the ice was so bad, if the puddles were to freeze over, the wyvern's heavy footsteps might very well fail to even crack them. The Grand Cardinal swallows heavily while the paladin's hand inches closer and closer to the hilt of his sword, and the Bishop cowers in fear behind them all. An arm slips out from underneath the man's tattered brown cloak, and a steel gauntlet grabs the back of the Bishop's old chair. He pulls it away from the table, the wooden legs shuddering and groaning against the wet stone. It's the only sound other than the rain as he seats himself and just as slowly pulls himself under the table. All the while his furrowed expression doesn't let up. Now sitting at the table, his pent steel fingers rest on the stone table, and he looks dead-on into the Grand Cardinal's old grandmotherly eyes.


     “Mr. Laven... I presume?” The Grand Cardinal speaks at last.


     “That would be me.” He replies.


She takes another long breath and exhales even longer.


     “I am Grand Cardinal Ulmpher, the Seven of Nine of our Lord's, the Almighty's, Holy Church.”


     “I heard... From the notes you left. I thought it was safe to assume considering how much you stand out.”


The Grand Cardinal restrains herself at how casual and disrespectful the man was being, but it is Abdren whose job it is to be outraged for her.


     “Watch your tongue, peasant. Show due respect or I'll-”


The paladin stops in his track when the wyvern's gold eyes lock onto him and start burning holes through him. He withers for a second, but bred and trained hatred bolsters his courage in no time.


     “And who is this supposed to be?” He says, looking up at the wyvern across the table, puffing his chest out to try pretending he is bigger than he really is. “What's with the mask?”


     “It doesn't matter who I am; what matters is what he wants... You shouldn't care who I am because no one cared who I was until I put on the mask” The wyvern says, muffled by the scarf.


Abdren's fingers itch and twitch on his waist next to his swords hilt as he tries to stare down the monstrous woman. He wrestles and tries to regain some control of the situation as he continues to bluster with his pride and bravado.


     “If you won't remove it, then maybe I should?... Would it kill you?”


     “It would be extremely painful-”


     He flashes a wry grin, “You're a big girl-”


     “-For you.” She says with a threatening rumble in her voice.


A presence radiates off the wyvern as her eyes glare at the man in the shining suit of armor, and a blood-lust in the air weighs down on the haughty paladin. A deadly cocktail mixes in the wyvern's lungs as she takes a deep breath, and a catalyst in her saliva pools.


     “Abdren! Enough!” The old woman croaks.


The paladin—who looked like a small rodent in the presence of a snake ready to strike—shudders and bows his head to the Grand Cardinal.


     “And you, Laven. Control that... beast of yours.”


Laven's hands clench on the table top, and his brows furrow even further while the corner of his mouth curls anger.


     “I don't tell her what to do,” He hisses. “And if I hear you call her that again, I'll encourage her instead.”


Another awkward silence descends with nothing but the rain to try washing it away. Abdren stirs restlessly behind the Grand Cardinal, but he is frozen in a standoff. His eyes dart off to the side every so often. He wants to look back at the monastery, back where his reinforcements are. His confidence in the blessed longsword at his waist goes only so far since he would have to deliver a fatal strike immediately. If it was anything less than a mortal blow with all his strength that hit squarely, even his divine weapon would only injure the wyvern. He'd provoke a counterattack he could not weather alone without his shield. There was a clear and present danger, but he knew there were marksmen watching the garden from the monastery as well.


When he looks back at the wyvern, her eyes are no longer locked on him but far beyond and above him. His heart jumps for a moment; it is an opportunity, but he had been ordered to stand down so he takes in a long breath to calm himself instead.


     “Three men in the bell tower. Crossbows.” The wyvern says.


The paladin's heart sinks. Laven looks back and up at her, and the Grand Cardinal's hands cling tightly to her robe while her face remains frozen in place and refuses to budge and reveal even a trace of worry.


     “One's got red eyes... Drank too much, too little sleep or sick.” She elaborates.


The monastery is another thirty meters away and the top of the bell tower is up a flight of stairs five stories up. To a wyvern's eyes, as sharp as an eagle's, that wasn't far enough away. Abdren grits his teeth as the situation seems to be slipping further and further out of control.


     “Why so tense?” Laven says with a hint of mockery in his voice. “If we weren't here to talk, do you really think we'd come down and sit like this instead of just strafing the garden? Burning it down and you along with it? Maybe you thought we'd all just skip merrily through the swamp and be escorted up here with a dozen spear points pressing up against our backs?”


     “That's quite enough, Mr. Laven.” The Grand Cardinal interrupts. “I apologize for any rudeness or insult. These are dire times, and common courtesy is in short supply. I hope you can forgive us for that. But... It is about time we finally got down to business... The reason I have gone through the trouble and risk of bringing you here today is to warn you. I suspect convening of the Holy See is inevitable. The first Patriarch in almost a thousand years will be ordained.”


Her lazy old eyes open and stare into Laven with their full intensity as she speaks her next words from the bottom of her heart.


     “That would be... a disaster.”


     Laven takes a deep breath, soaking up her passion and judging if it was genuine before he is compelled to ask, “And why is that?”


     “There is a man poised to take over that position. Grand Cardinal Ol'een. He is a radical. With the Emperor old and sick, with his sons squabbling and preparing to wage civil war for his throne; he'd be the most powerful and influential man in all the Empire with no equal... 'If' he were ordained as Patriarch.”


The old woman could not sit still any longer as she worked herself up. She stands up and walks over to the flower gardens beside the table and inspects the various beautiful dew covered petals to calm herself as she continues. Laven turns in his chair and watches her, as does the wyvern, paladin and bishop. Her passion builds more and more while she talks.


     “I know him. I've known him for more than thirty years. He'd call for a new Grand Crusade. This delicate peace we've had for forty years will be destroyed. He will march any soldier heeding his call and rallying under his banner into the fallen lands... The demon realms... He will not stop until he has burned and purged each one then salt their fields. He'll slaughter everything in his path. He believes The Almighty will be on his side, that he will be privy to his words of wisdom and his will. With both, he has faith that victory will be assured. I cannot claim what our Lord's will is, only his word, but I know that even if he were to succeed... Hundreds of thousands... Millions of men, women, monsters and incubi will die. The monsters... The Demon Lord... They'll fight back. Their numbers will swell and Ol'een will fight harder. It will create a vicious circle, and it will spiral out of control. He would sacrifice everything trying to put the world back to where it was.”


The old woman turns away from the flowers and looks back at Laven. Rain soaks her grey hair; her robes turn dark red as they sponge up thousands of tiny droplets of water; all as light desperately tries to shine through the grey clouds above. Her appearance looks miserable, undignified but genuine. Like a wet dog her eyes are pleading. She is near her wit's end; and for the first time in a long time, she is letting it show.


     “I must become Matriarch, Mr. Laven. I must hold that position till the day I die, so that I might stop him. War will not be the solution. The segregation between the Empire and the demon realms must be upheld. This peace must continue. I am sure... As the decades pass hatred will falter and reason will persevere. If it all goes to the hells again... It could be another two centuries before we get that chance at peace again.”


Laven's fingers clank against the table stop, the steel encased fingers of his gauntlet drumming as he thinks.


     “And how do you do that? And why do I matter?”


     Laven's attention encourages the old woman as she continues, “The Holy See will vote. All the cardinals and grand cardinals from the world over will converge on the capital. They won't leave until the new head of the Church is elected. Ol'een is popular; he has many friends and allies. More so than I, but his hold is not perfect. If I can bring a prize, an accomplishment to bolster my own credibility, I stand a chance to defeat him.”


     “Still not answering my second question. Every time I have to deal with your church; it involves attempts on my life... A bunch of scattered parchments in the forest asking for 'parley' was a nice surprising change of pace, so I thought I'd give you guys another chance... Just this once.”


     “I shall confess; I was one of nine who ordered your assassination. However, I only did so because it was not politically expedient to do otherwise.”


     “And it's different now... how?”


     “You're not dead.” The Grand Cardinal says plainly.


Laven's face slackens as he is exasperated.


     “No shit, I'm right here, aren't I?”


She ignores his foul language.


     “The First of Nine... Grand Cardinal Ol'een was the one to put forward the motion. He is a man who has succeeded with everything he has set out to do for the last twenty years. For the first time in decades, what he has wanted to happen, ordered to happen, has not. I'd prefer that to keep happening.”


The rogue shifts in his chair and sits upright. Laven's brows unfurrow, and with a neutral expression he really looks at the old woman for the first time, and he pays attention.


     “The Green Reaper... It was a most... unexpected conclusion.” She continues, struggling to find the right words. “But she's dead, and you are not."


Laven slumps back down in his seat, lays off the paladin and turns his attention back to the old woman. He takes a sharp breath, but keeps his lips shut. The old woman doesn't notice, nether does the paladin or the bishop. A thought bounces around inside his skull at the speed of light, and his eyes shift back and forth as he casts them down briefly at the table. He looks up and into the eyes of the one person still watching him closely; someone who knows what to watch. The wyvern, Christophaclies, stares back down at him. Her eyes are pleading, and she shakes her head ever so slightly.


Word of the Green Reaper's death has shaken the bishop visibly as well. It is not a widely known story. The Arch Assassins are a notoriously famous fairy tale. Hardly any proof or creditable eye witnesses can attest to their existence, but people know of them all the same. Not so far fetched stores about the lives they have ended and the feats required to do the deed are told in hushed voices in the corners of taverns. They are a boogeyman that terrify the people. Still, Laven remains silent. The real story might jeopardize his position even further. History would perhaps one day judge what happened at this table, but Laven makes his choice. He keep his mouth shut.


     The old woman speaks softly, “There are many that fear you are an Incubus Lord, yet... You do not behave as one. I believe we can come to an agreement and assist one another. A fair exchange... Mercenary work. I know the Thorn Knight would not be opposed, and it would not be unheard of for even me to pay for your services so long as the results are in the Church's interest. If you can foil Ol'een, I am confident you are more than capable of doing this task for me.”


     The point was long since driven home, so he interrupts to get her to move along, “Alright, next question... What's in it for me?” Laven asks.


     “You do this for me, and I do something for you. Your ultimate goal is the Free Ports, correct? It would be the wisest choice. The safest place. Why else would you risk traveling through the heart of the Empire?... I will take on the risk of protecting you from the Church. When I am Matriarch, I will pardon you and let you do as you wish.”


     “Do I get that in writing?”


     “I swear upon the Almighty, may he strike me down.” She says holding a withered old hand over her heart. “For now... I am sure you are tired, bruised, beaten. There is an alpine retreat for nobles in this corner of the Empire. I can arrange it to be empty for you... For three nights. You will need the rest...”


She says the last part rather cryptically, but Laven does not pick up on it.


     Laven sighs, “With these witnesses... I suppose that's good as any coming from someone like you... Last question... What am I actually doing?”


A rare smile comes to the old woman's face, “The Empire is already on the brink of crisis. Groups that have hidden, been silent or inactive for decades are beginning to stir.”


     “Like Typhon?” Laven asks.


Laven's hand unconsciously slides down to his pant's pocket for a moment; something out of sight shimmers inside; where its blue light is absorbed by the dark blue dye of the denim. No one notices while the old woman keeps talking.


     “And worse.” the Grand Cardinal says ominously. “There have been many abductions in a town across the mountain passes three counties from here at the edge of the duchy... Mostly children.”


Laven's face slackens, and he turns his attention to the old woman with a trace of disgust on his face. The steel of his gauntlet, which had been drumming before, scratches the tabletop.


     “I need proof that it has been uprooted. Its leader, dead or alive, dragged into the light. I've had Abdren and others toil away for years without result. But you, I've heard all the rumors, and I believe you may be capable of doing it. I know you have all the allies necessary to make defeating them a reality. It is a splinter cell of a dangerous, pervasive and insidious organization allied to the Demon Lord. A fifth column. The Sabbath. The New Moon Sabbath.”

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