Alumuran sat in the basement, feeling the sweat gather underneath his short shaven hair and trickle downwards, across his nose. This room was far too hot, but Alumuran didn’t have any will to complain; this was his lot in life. Although he was chosen to be given great power, that power was a curse. He had lost his individuality to the power, and become solely a tool.
That was what it meant to be the Heretic of the Unity Church.
But today was a relatively good day because the voices above weren’t the usual dull mumble of prayers and confessions. Alumuran felt some small twinge of guilt when he admitted his strong dislike of those as they were the gracious and correct statements of a pious populace. However, Alumuran had largely given up his free will; he was unable to act on his sinful thoughts. Therefore, he comforted himself that they were relatively harmless.
It was not as good as yesterday, where Alumuran was seen by the other like him. Well, perhaps the other was not like him. Alumuran had developed a small ability to sense the flow of the poisonous energy that the System propagated, and the other was soaked in it. But it was like seeing bloated tuna your whole life and then encountering a shark. It was a being designed for this, for all that it was a fish all the same. It filled Alumuran with a profound fear and wonder.
Unfortunately, the other departed quickly. But this current guest seemed intent on staying. With his Holy Domicile Skill, there was very little that Alumuran could not sense within the cathedral of the Unity Church. As such, listening in on their conversation above was simple.
“It is about fulfilling our implicit promise,” The young woman in front of the Bishop argued. She was shapely and opinionated. Alumuran had no further opinions worth even thinking about her. Her name was Tessa. “As an organization, you have made numerous representations by your outward actions, and from what I understand, you have betrayed these people’s trust on numerous accounts.”
“You certainly are… direct, aren’t you?” The bishop said with pursed lips. “Some would say that what you are doing steps over a line… it isn’t polite to waltz in here, ask for a favor, and then criticize our methods.”
“Then you shouldn’t have murdered hundreds of people. Is it only hundreds?” Tessa countered. “As a public and influential organization, you have a responsibility to behave in accordance with a certain set of moral rules-”
“I would say that we largely do. It is only the actions of… individuals that lead us astray.” The bishop said dryly, but most of her ire had evaporated as she considered Tessa. “I will speak plainly; my main issue with your proposal of Knightly Orders is how it seems to boil down to a popularity contest. If the only way to advance is through the votes of your peers-”
“Isn’t everything a popularity contest? I find it hard to believe that even the most sanctified institution would escape the grasping reach of politics and platitudes. And you are not the most sanctified, I believe.”
“Oh? You seem to be premising much on a single mistake in the history of the Unity Church.” Now the chilliness returned to the bishop’s voice.
“I was, in fact, speaking of the fact you are a powerful religious organization that rose to power in the immediate aftermath of the largest catastrophe in the living memory of humanity. But if you wish to talk about how the loss of life your organization allowed and used to your benefit is simply a ‘single mistake’...”
“Now you are simply being argumentative.” The bishop said, exasperation clear in her voice. “Is winning a single verbal spar worth losing my support for your idea? I get what you are saying; you are recommending we rebrand. This would primarily be a PR move. For all that the tragedy of Father Foster will continue to stain us, word has not trickled out very quickly. I believe the man who knows the most doesn’t think much of public opinion. That means that this might be an unnecessary preventative measure.
“And, the favor you are requesting would undoubtedly spread the word. The rise of the… intelligent monsters will lead to questions that implicate us very directly. It is not something that we will be able to plead ignorance over. So please, describe for me the benefits of what you are suggesting.”
Tessa’s face was incredibly serious as she held the gaze of the bishop. As though waiting for the response she was about to give, the entire cathedral was silent around them. Alumuran watched, his eyes blazing in the dark room. Another trail of sweat wound its way down his nose, across his lips, and gathered at his chin with a few other such drops before it fell and hit the floor.
“I do not think it is as horrible a thing as many others that you encourage your congregation to refuse the benefits the System. True, they are inherently vulnerable to the attacks of monsters. But the power of the System is closely shaped by belief… and not just the beliefs of the individual. Society also has a powerful effect upon the images and Classes and Skills we possess. And if people believe it is nothing to use the power of the System, it is simply nothing. But with the wide base of your congregation, if they believe that possessing the power is a gift and a curse… those dark thoughts will shape those few that are users of the System’s power into something greater than they were. Do you see?”
The bishop considered. “...there is no proof that what you are saying is true.”
“Then consult your faith. Pray. What does your heart tell you?” Tessa said.
The two were silent for almost a minute when Tessa spoke once more.
“There is… another angle that might be of interest to you. It is regarding Randidly Ghosthound.”
The other. Alumuran almost jolted into a standing position, remembering the man’s piercing emerald gaze, looking downward through several layers of plaster, metal, and wood, to see him. To truly see him, like none others ever had. And at that moment, he had named him truly: Heretic.
Alumuran was a man who had taken the cursed power and couldn’t now escape it. Heretic. His only saving grace was that he could be the sword and shield that the righteous people of the Unity Church congregation needed.
“Oh? It truly appears that he is as famous as they say. I have in fact met with Mr. Ghosthound. He seems… somewhat domineering. With the strength to back it up. You also mean to use the Orders as a method to bind him?”
“I mean to use the Orders as a method to explain him to people,” Tessa said as she leaned forward over the table.
After the younger woman had left, the Bishop sat at her desk for a long time, looking at the proposal that had been left by Tessa. The younger woman’s handwriting was looping and elegant. It was impressive in a way that Alumuran didn’t have words for that she had handwritten and signed the proposal she had left with the bishop. Wondering if she did that for every document, Alumuran closed his eyes and prepared to go into deep meditation to refine the almost toxic energy roiling within him.
There were donations from so many strange sources that it all mixed together in a viscous muck. Almumuran slowly extracted threads of it, purified them, and then added it to his main total, but the process was so slow and the donations were coming in so fast that he was quickly falling behind. The polluted energy within him weighed on his chest like a death sentence. But he had learned the Skill Aether Purification, which would speed up the process gradually. Hopefully, it would be enough.
But to Alumuran’s surprise, he was interrupted by a voice.
“Chosen one, what do you think of this idea?” The bishop said.
Blinking slowly, Alumuran’s thoughts moved like molasses in response to the question. He was… being asked for his opinion. But he- He was a Heretic. It was his role to discard his individuality and be simply a tool for those whose minds weren’t polluted as strongly by the influence of the System. Of course, it would be foolish to keep the leader completely without a Class or Level, otherwise they could easily be targeted. But only Alumuran received the energy from the congregation.
Well, there had been others, but the influence of thoughts had left them… broken. They had strayed from their mission. Father Foster, for all her flaws, had herself decisively killed any of the Heretics that began to behave overly erratically. After she had died, the experiments into finding new Heretics had largely stopped. No one had the nerve, a small part of Alumuran suspected.
The bishop was still pondering, and it hit Alumuran once more that she had asked him a question. He licked his lips, along in a dark room three floors below her. His lips were dry.
“I… dreamed of being a knight when I was a child,” Alumuran found himself saying. “In my fantasies… they were the ones that would slay the monsters that haunted me.”
The Bishop nodded, almost absent-minded. Then she nodded again, more decisively. “Hmm. Well, maybe that foolish girl knows more than her brash exterior would indicate. Oh, and Alumuran? I know the purification of the faith power is important, but you must not lose touch with your humanity. Please occasionally take a walk in the gardens to remember normalcy.”
Alumuran noded. Then he realized with a flash of guilt that the bishop couldn’t see him and said, “I accept.”
I accept? What sort of response was that? But the bishop seemed satisfied and left her office, heading over towards her private quarters.