When Gwen and Elvia's retinue of Knights materialised in the world outside, Golos had returned, and she had redressed in safari khakis more suitable for sun and sand.
"Father's Vessel has arrived?" her Wyvern's first act, after dropped off a pair of bloodied bodies, was to remark on the bewildered figure of Elvia. Even now, her friend was reeling from Gwen's conversion of her Ordo's Inquisitors.
When the majestic Wyvern's elongated snout reached the Inquisitor and his Senior Knight, the Wyvern's usual arrogant Draconic gave way to English. "Greetings, Daoshi of the West."
"We hail thee, Scion of the Yinglong." The Inquisitor bowed his head while Gwen introduced them, evidently impressed by so noble a creature.
Her Wyvern appeared to struggle in placing the duo within his internal hierarchy of being. "Calamity, be these allies or foes?"
"We're all friends here," Gwen assured her Wyvern, then directed their attention to the two bleeding, mangled piles under Golos. "I assume those are not our friends."
"Ha! That's the Chief of the Qasqir and his child." Only now did Gwen notice her Wyvern's entire lower half was covered in wet, as opposed to desiccated gore. From the looks of the carnage, Gogo must have had a lot of fun raiding the camp of the Sawahi's hapless, terrestrial Demi-humans. "I thought they might be useful."
"They certainly are!" Gwen patted her Wyvern on the snout. "Well done, Gogo! Your brother would be proud!"
The Wyvern snorted with evident pleasure, then haughtily reared back a head that was as violent as it was handsome.
"That said—" Gwen stepped in front of Elvia almost unconsciously, then felt embarrassed after realising her friend was probably more resilient to Gogo's carelessness than she was. "— are they still alive?"
Her Wyvern shrugged its shoulders, an act so human that both Elvia's Seniors remarked at the Thunder Wyvern's affability.
"I'll check," Elvia offered, conjuring forth Sen-sen without apparent need for an invocation.
The bipedal Ginseng took a wide path around Gwen, then grew out its tendrils to nestle the potential wolf-kin corpses onto makeshift field beds formed of interwoven roots.
The Knight Companion's eyes took on the dim glow of Clerical Divination; after a quick inspection, she raised her Holy Symbol and proclaimed the all-compassing "Aid" of the Nazarene. Miraculously, Sen-sen took on the same illumination as conjured by her Prayer Cantrip, bolstering Elvia's spell with its unique constitution.
It took several minutes for the Aid to run its course. As the spell's gentle suffusion took place, Rat-kin from all over the dig site came to see what their Lord Golos had brought and what their Priestess' companion was capable of performing.
Perhaps hoping that their death should have been the end of it, Gwen's prisoners opened their despairing eyes. Interestingly, Elvia had only partially restored the Wolf-kin, a testament to how well she had read the situation.
"Your names?" Gwen stood beside the scoundrels. If the wolves were to attack, they would instantly discover just how potent a Ginseng could be when reinforced with the Essence of a True Dragon.
In front of the four humans, a Wyvern, an endless ring of rats, and two disorientated Wolf-kin raised their subdued eyes at their captors.
Both Wolf-kin had seen better days, but there was still a savage majesty about the pair that made Gwen think of documentaries she had seen about the Wolves of Yellowstone. In the cold, sandstone pupils of these creatures, she saw cunning, malice, and the deep-set ego of alpha predators.
"Kinsur of Qasqir," the larger of the two replied. "This is Tatatunga. I am chief of the Qasqır."
Gwen looked to her Wyvern.
"If they're lying." Golos grinned cruelly, revealing teeth that the Rat-kin could use for daggers. "I'll raze their village and every other wolf settlement within an hour's flight."
"Thank you, Gogo. Wolf-kin of Qasqır. Why did you attack my Rat-kin?" Gwen asked a loaded question, one she would use to gauge how the Wolves would pay.
"… Nourishment," the wolf calling himself Skinkur spat blood as he answered. "And orders."
"From?" She activated her Desolation Aura.
"From Temir Khan's Eagle-kin." The wolf moaned with every stuttering word, struggling to deliver his rationale. "There's no crime in it. We live on the Steppes. Strength is how things are. They're welcome to raid us back if they're able."
"I see. Though I would be careful what you wish for." Gwen studied her mangy, mangled foe, then turned to Elvia. "Nourishment, you say? Evee, can you use Detect Disease on our guests?"
"Of course." Elvia turned her diagnostic vision toward the Wolf-kin. Incanting a few words, she sent forth a ripple of Positive Energy that travelled through Sen-sen's tendrils to pulse through the creatures' bodies. A few seconds later, Gwen had her answer. "It's a minute manifestation, but it's there. They're sick with the same Blood Fever that's carried by your Rat-kin."
Gwen's lips formed a red line of mockery. "Ah— karma can be a cruel mistress. Tell me, Kinsur, did you two know that the Rat-kin you're attacking are the plague-ridden Tasmüyiz I rescued from under the Khan's hooves?"
The two shook their heads. "Nay. Dini Saran's advice was that these were fleeing the war."
Dini Saran? Gwen scanned her recent memories, and a smiling Şöpter Shaman's face flashed across her mind's eye, the very one who told her to chill out over Strun's mother. If Saran had planned to "reward" the Qasqır by offering them diseased rats, then the fathoms of the Dini's twisted mind was depthless. In one act, the Shaman would have shamed her, killed the rats, then infected the Qasqir, the Centaur's natural competitors.
"I know of this Saran," Inquisitor Hawkford volunteered. "She has served as the 'nurse' of three generations of Khans thus far, an exceedingly unusual prospect for a Şöpter Shaman."
Briefly, Gwen described her encounter with Saran to Elvia and her companions, then elaborated that these two and their Clan of hunters were responsible for the life of some eight hundred refugees.
"Nonetheless, I would hope that your 'mercy' is just." Inquisitor Hawkford appeared to have read her mind. "And without unnecessary Soul Sorcery."
"I'll give them the mercy they deserve," Gwen informed the Inquisitor, then stepped into the air to address her circle of rats. "Prefects! Your Priestess requires your presence!"
A few of her Prefects were already close, while the few that had duties further afield delegated responsibilities to their fellow Centurions, then scampering to the fore.
“We are here, Priestess—“
The title was enough to raise the brows of her companions.
"It's what they've taken to call me." Gwen laughed off their concern, sensing that her new companions had taken on odd expressions in the rats' presence. "It wasn't easy getting this many folks you've met for a few days to work together without adequate theatrics."
Hawkford gave Elvia a questioning look while her friend once more took on a consternated expression of guilt and concern.
"Trust me, there's nothing to it—" Gwen turned to her rats. "This is Strun, a Centurion and grand scion of Stian. Beside him is the rat himself, Elder of Clan Jildam and a Prefect. Tell them, Stian, what am I the Priestess of, exactly?"
"The Afaa al-Halak! Sovereigns of the Sawahi!" Stian replied at once. "And You are the tamer of the Wyrm, the Rat-kin's salvation, O Priestess."
"See?" She rewarded the Prefect by patting the rat on the head. "Evee, Mattie, you'll be working with Strun in the coming days, together with Garp— that's the Sand Wyrm over yonder. Strun is my Wyrm Rider and Champion among the rats. If there are any problems, Strun will solve them for you."
"Hello, Strun." Elvia waved at the rat. The Knights nodded, unconvinced of the authority bestowed upon so unassuming a Demi-human.
"Welcome, Prefects," Gwen addressed her newly gathered audience. "Over there are the leaders responsible for that night of terror— their Elder and his heir."
The rats' eyes informed Gwen and her fellow sorcerers that they had only one thing on their minds.
"From the fact that they're sick with the Blood Fever," Gwen continued. "I take it that they ATE your kin. Raw."
The murderous aura grew thick enough to slice.
Opposite Gwen, Elvia and her Knights silently waited for the carnage to come.
"In their eyes, what they did was not a crime." Gwen eased the atmosphere of simmering rage by merely raising a hand. "Fortunately for our Qasqır neighbours, I am not one to judge. THEREFORE, what I shall do is encourage the fruits of their labour— Golos will take these two diseased murderers back to their Clan. There, they will inform their kin, or not, that the Khan has gifted them a Necromantic phage that would desolate their stronghold. That will be the karmic outcome of their choice to attack us like jackals in the night."
Gwen waited for rats to digest her judgement. "Does that satisfy? If any should object, come forth now."
Her Prefects were quick to prostrate themselves. "None, noble Priestess, your wisdom is faultless."
"Inquisitor?" Gwen turned to Hawkford. "Can I get a professional opinion?"
"Unorthodox, but apt." Inquisitor Hawkford nodded with solemnity. "As you said, the Qasqır shall eat the fruit of their sins. Tis an admirable summation, Magus Song."
"Thanks, Kent." Gwen gave the man nod. "Mathias, you said you brought supplies?"
"A hundred Cure Disease Potions, and twenty Restoration Potions." Mathias made to remove one of his Storage Rings.
Gwen tossed the ring to Stian, knowing that the rat could use simple items, then turned once more to their cowering prisoners.
"I have given these potions of Cure Disease to the Rat-kin," Gwen informed the pair. "They are free to gift them to you if your people are sincere enough. If so, the penitent may be spared to perpetuate the Clan."
"HA!" Golos snorted, understanding as well as she did that having the Wolf-kin beg at the Rat-kin would break their spines. "Calamity! Ruxin would be proud."
"I know," Gwen stated the obvious. "Now, would you mind delivering these two back home?"
"I shall do it at once!" The Wyvern's innate sadism overflowed from the expression of pure pleasure. "You two! Hold still lest I crush you like Ryxi's carp!"
The Wolf-kin dared only to protest in silence, though they were gone in an instant, disappearing along with Golos' gleeful laughter amid the flapping of great wings. Knowing her Wyvern, he would not only deliver the Wolf-kin's leaders but inform their Clan and the Clans around them of the disease, then stay to watch the shit show like a kid poking at anthills.
"An excellent finishing touch." Inquisitor Hawkford was the first to speak in the aftermath of her judgement, offering an opinion that juxtaposed Elvia's consternation. "Mercy and judgement in equal degree— but not without cost or consequence. Elvia, Mathias, you have much to learn from your friend here."
"Yes, Inquisitor," both Juniors of their irrespective Ordo hailed the Inquisitor's advice.
"So, what will you have us do?" Hawkford indicated to himself and his Senior Protector. "Sir Smallwater and I can spare you a day at best. Companion Lindholm and Sir Rothwell will stay, of course, as per their original designs."
"Please do as you will." Gwen turned to her Prefects. "Ix, Jarl, Bith, can you take these Masters to see Centurion Kuka? They're interested in studying the illness. Give them whatever they need. Scour the mischief for the newly sick if you must."
To her companions, she explained that Kuka was the old Shaman of Clan Jildam tasked with helping those suffering from the direst symptoms of the Blood Fever. In those victims, the mature phage and the phage seeds should gift the Inquisitor the means to trace the mana signature of Spectre's Plaguemancer.
"If there are enough samples and Miss Lindholm's aid, we shouldn't need more than a few hours," Hawkford assured her.
"Gwennie, I brought a field clinic with me," Elvia showed off two rings on her off-hand, by which Gwen took to mean she brought tents, supplies and medical necessities for surgeries. If so, then the thousand or so injured rats relying on soiled bandages and splints would be thankful indeed. "Where can I set it up?"
"Skaz," Gwen called on another familiar rat-face. "After they visit Kuka, show our friends where we're situating the town centre, west of the oasis. If Evee needs more space, gather the men to clear out whatever she needs."
"Yes, Priestess! I'll inform the Contuberniums working the site!" The Rat-kin scurried away.
"I'll be back soon." Elvia and herself exchanged a hug, then left to perform her volunteered duty.
While the rest of the rats returned to work, she called over Stian to continue what had been interrupted when Elvia and the Ordo had descended from the heavens.
"Sorry about that unexpected detour, Stian. How are the fields looking?"
"We completed the canals by hand after Lord Garp liquified the stubborn sediments," the Elder explained, gesturing with his clawed hands. "There was also clay which Lord Garp transported, that our artisans had used to fashion aqueducts for your Worshipfulness' magical spigots. Likewise, the planting teams have done their best to enrich the sandy soil with Lord Garp's blessed excrements. If you wish it, Priestess, the Rat-kin can begin seeding immediately."
Gwen felt thoroughly impressed. Her Rat-kin's protestant work ethic was downright admirable. Not even under the reward of bonuses, pay rise, and living quarter incentives had the collective workforce of the Isle of Dogs demonstrated remotely as much efficacy. In a way, the Rat-kin reminded her of the Dwarves, for they never stayed still and always seemed to be engaged with one thing or another. Was it because their natural life-spans were shorter? She wondered, or that Shalkar was now their home?
Whatever the case, Gwen produced the Druidic pouch hanging from her belt.
Just as she was about to hand over the seeds, a stray and daring thought suddenly struck.
Kiki and Sen-sen.
And Golos' poop, from which she would need to retrieve additional spoils anyway.
Assuming her seeds were already soaked in the Essence of Tryfan's Tree, what would happen if they were to receive additional boosts from Elvia's plant Sprites and Draconic modifications?
What "GM crops" could her "Ratsanto" then produce?
What if the Rat-kin, who were natural experts, could build a shining farm on the hill producing quasi-magical crops for trading to the Mageocracy?
Gwen's Crystal senses chimed like a church bell.
As a lass growing up eating "normal" food in the Frontier, she knew exactly how rare and costly "Wildland" produce could be. Now, she imagined a farm ploughed by innate Earthen talent from a Sand Wyrm, fertilised by refuse from a True Dragon's Scion, and planted with seeds blessed by Tryfan, the Yinglong and Almudj— Hell's bells, what would grow? The beanstalk of legend? She had always maintained that Jack was an idiot to cut the stalk down when he could have become the Soy King of England.
"Jesus Lord Almighty…" Here was an opportunity, and she was the only one with the means and the "technology" to seize it. If indeed she could produce results from her little experiment, then in a month, she would have indisputable results to convince Meister Bekker and Magister Frank Taylor, assuming the Southern Campaign ended in their favour.
"Priestess?" Stian carefully stood to one side, alarmed by the strange aura emanating from his cackling Priestess.
"We'll reconvene once the others return," Gwen rescinded her order. "For now, continue with the waterworks and the sand enrichment. There's grain and SPAM in that ring as well, so inform the others, for tonight, we feast in celebration of a better, brighter tomorrow!"
"Yes, Priestess!" Stian received his orders with a bow, nodded at Strun, then left to supervise the field.
"What shall I do?" Strun was the last of the rats' leadership left by her side.
"You're with me," Gwen said. "Do you remember when I asked about the Murk?"
"Yes, Priestess," Strun answered eagerly. "There are entrances all over the Eastern Sawahi, especially in the Badlands."
"Are there any near here?"
"There is." Strun gestured toward the horizon. "At Muruntau, where the rocks pierce the sand to point at the heavens."
"And that's where you saw the white-fleshed fiends?"
"Have you seen any Dwarves? They're kind of like humans, but stout, drinks a lot, relishes smithing, drives those—" She pointed to the two Golem Suits she had brought. Unfortunately, she didn't have time to teach the Rat-kin how to use the complex machines, though she could probably import human instructors in the future. With educated rodents, even sans Dwarves, it shouldn't be impossible to create a warren-City underneath Shalkar.
"I am ashamed for my lack of knowledge, Priestess." Strun hung his head.
"That's okay." Gwen rather enjoyed patting the Rat-kin's head, Strun's soft tufts of fur there, and the rat's pink-fleshed ears were soothing on the soul and were on par with Ariel or Evee. "We'll find out in time. For now, go to Garp. We'll put together an expedition once Gogo returns. If Garp is coming, we'll need another guard dog to look after our home."
It wasn't until the evening that Elvia and her companions finally returned to the camp for supper.
Golos returned at nightfall, giddily reporting that the Wolf-kin had murdered their ex-leader and his son, only to grow wide-eyed when Golos announced that they're all sick and that the Rat-kin had the only cure— and that a tiny obstacle lay between them and the Cure Disease potions— Garp.
The Familiars were out in full force as well, with Ariel, Caliban, Kiki and Sen-sen all running amok among the Rat-kin, whose pups played with the Sprites, unaware that a single one of them could wipe out a hamlet without so much as needing mana from their Master.
Over scattered laughter and steaming plats of Afaa al-Halak both underdone and overcooked on Maxwell's Convenient Camping Kits, the Human Mages shared food with the Rat-kin Prefects. Once again, Gwen re-introduced her officers one by one, sharing the origins of their Clans and the Rat-kin's stories as the Tasmüyiz.
Of the numberless atrocities that gave birth to the Rat-kin's current plight, it was Strun's mother that triggered the Inquisitor, whose eyes grew dark with malice as she described the Centaurs playing carcass Quidditch with a living "Snitch".
The Inquisitor, in turn, shared accounts of the Fomorians, whose cruelty was more deliberate than the Centaur's casual holocaust of whatever civilisation they happened across.
"They have a ritual," Hawkford spoke while drawing a vague figure of a wicker man in the sand. "The captured slaves are carefully selected, with a preference for the young and virginal, then herded into this contraption. In a bad year, some constructs could hold a thousand people; often, there are multitudes of constructs..."
Their audience listened with horrified fascination.
"… at the climax of the Ritual, Balor himself has the honour of igniting the Wicker Man with his cyclopean eye, slow-roasting the victims over hours with his Faerie Fire."
Gwen glanced at the delicious block of fatty Afaa al-Halak meat, slightly charred but sizzling famously as one of the rat-cooks re-applied the lard to retain in the moisture.
"Their victims are not for eating." Hawkford caught her hesitation. "The Fomorians feed on the psychic energy of horror, pain and suffering. That's what our Seminary Scholars proposed— the more we fear them, the stronger they grow."
"That's one of the reasons why we had to move everyone we could when the Wyld Hunt broke through the Prime Material," Elvia added to her experience. "If a person is left behind or couldn't be evacuated, suicide was infinitely more preferable."
"Mages have a worse fate if captured," Hawkford said. "They can be made into Changelings who would murder their family, friends and loved ones. The Fomorians take great delight in that sort of thing because it foments even more belief in their capabilities."
The camp quietly listened to the sizzling of fat on Wyrm meat. Gwen sat beside Elvia, hugging her knees in contemplation of why they started trading atrocities in the first place and why a happy dinner had degenerated into a "my atrocity is worse than yours" competition.
"Magus Song." Hawkford broke the silence. "Your companion and I would like to verify a peculiar fact, if that is alright with you, pertaining a matter of Faith."
"Do you know of it?" Hawkford asked.
"Evee's kept me updated, sort of," Gwen said. "Faith is a powerful and supplementary focus for IMS Spells, correct?"
"Yes." The Inquisitor nodded. "Though that is an oversimplified analogy reserved for casters rooted in secular society. I speak of Faith, Gwen, because we detected significant manifestations while searching for the origins of the Plaguemancer's phage. It's something we verified again while working with the sick. Suffice it to say; your rats have put their 'Faith' in you."
"I see." Gwen had suspected that the Inquisitor had a few more citations up his sleeve. Though now that she'd wrangled the man onto the same venture, she was way past the foot-in-door needed to gain his sympathy. "It's fine. It won't be the first time I am treated like a specimen."
"We would request that you perform a simple ritual." Hawkford motioned to Elvia, who produced what looked like a broach with a tri-crown logo. "This is a Holy Symbol, an unblessed one. Though it cannot gather Faith, the Glyph array within will reveal the presence of Karmic Tethers— or what those studying the secular system denote as Faith Threads."
Gwen took the Holy Symbol from Elvia. "Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"
"The Inquisitor has the best of intentions," Elvia explained with complete earnestness. "If you're a candidate, Gwennie, it's better that your phenomenon is kept on record. If a judicatory Peer of the Ordo can vouch for your credibility, it will save you no ends of trouble."
"That would be my suggestion as well." The Inquisitor nodded. "If you wish to raise the meek Rat-kin to rival the Centaurs and return Elemental balance to the Prime Material, then you cannot afford to leave glaring vulnerabilities for others to exploit."
"Vulnerability?" Gwen cocked her head. "Folks having 'Faith' in my ability to improve their lives can get me in trouble?"
"You did exact a very peculiar narrative to bring them this far," Hawkford reminded Gwen of their conversation in the Habitat. "Whatever the outcome, I can send a report to the Ordo, and our Rectrix may inform your Patrons to be ready against subversions from the Factions."
Gwen considered the Inquisitor's gift of erudition.
The man spoke true.
Although Hawkford had no idea what she had planned between Golos' poop, Sen-sen, Almudj juice and Garp soil— she knew exactly how attractive Shalkar might shortly become to the Grey or Militant Factions.
A food-producing region with a race of pliant ex-slaves smack in the middle of a potential trade route between Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent?
Could a better place exist to plant a Tower and chase off the locals? Surely Humans in Golem Suits could do just as good a job as the Rat-kin, given the same resources?
If Hawkford was willing to vouch for her— not only could she leverage the Ordo to push Bekker and Taylor to her side, anyone challenging her for Shalkar in a legal sense would also have to measure their mettle before making an ancient Knight Order eat their words.
Affirming her willing participation, Gwen carefully examined the Holy Symbol with its three crowns. The item was not complexly imbued— albeit her Enchantment knowledge told her it was made from a composite of gold, Orichalcum and Mithril, making its material value well in the hundreds of HDMs.
"I suspect there will be a fair volume of Faith Threads, assuming that's how it works," Gwen said after a pause. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"You've led these rats for just over a week, Magus Song," Sir Hawkford gently rebuked her pride. "Even if they're fanatics, there's less than ten thousand of them."
"What's a significant amount?" Gwen asked out of interest. "Evee, how many threads do you have?"
"It's not a number, Gwen. Mine is enough to rival senior members of the Ordo, all thanks to you." Elvia laid a proverbial wreath at her feet. "I can empower intermediate-tier Faith Prayers several times a day and supplementary-tier Prayers hundreds of times."
Gwen looked to the Inquisitor for a better metric.
"Us Knights walk a different path." The man raised a gloved hand. "Our icons must be nurtured through prayer, and its psychic energies are expended and restored much in the manner of a wand. Tis a limitation put in place for those who wield the Prayers of Judgement."
"He who judge others are judged in turn," Gwen spoke from experience.
"Well said, Magus Song." The Inquisitor nodded approvingly. "So sayeth the Scripture."
"Hold the Holy Symbol like so," Elvia instructed her to keep the icon just above her forehead. "Now, close your eyes. I will invoke the Mandala in the Tri-Crown icon, and it will verify if there are Faith Threads directed toward you or an idol in your likeness."
"You'll find no idolatry here." Gwen gestured to herself. "Alright, Evee, light 'em up!"
Gwen closed her eyes and turned her mind inward, observing her Astral Body, which appeared no different to its usual garish self. If she could tap a few strands of Faith, maybe she could also learn a few tricks to bolster some of her spells, or perhaps even dig through her Master's collection to see if Henry had toyed with "Prayer Magic". But to whom would she direct her prayers? Gwen stifled a snort, cringing from the thought.
Beside her, Elvia's sweet voice began with a benediction, then moved into the main verse. "O Lord, Him who reveals deep and secret things; Him who knows what lurks in the darkness, let it be known that light dwells with Him."
True to Elvia's words, there was no impact on her Astral Body, nor did she feel any different.
However, the world around her grew suddenly very quiet, and then without warning, a tremendous commotion stirred among her Rat-kin, growing into a deafening clamour.
She opened her eyes.
A solid pillar of light resembling that of a light sabre with her as the catalyst crystal blasted the heaven like an upside-down rocket, lighting up the oasis and causing her rats to hiss and howl.
"IS THIS NORMAL?" Gwen shouted over the sound of the rats scampering away from the retina-searing brightness, every nerve in her body howling that this wasn't normal. "EVEE, TURN IT OFF!"
Elvia quickly withdrew her mana, disempowering the Glyph array in the holy icon.
The light dimmed, fading until only the dull fireflies of Maxwell's Camp Heaters remained around the stunned observers.
"That was…" Inquisitor Hawkford appeared lost for words.
"Excessive?" Sir Smallwater aided his Inquisitor.
"Impossible." Mathias' tone sounded like he had just seen her raise a man from the grave. "It can't be right. Something's wrong with the icon."
"The icon is without fault," Sir Hawkford silenced the panicking Knight of St Michael with a rebuke. "Gwen, tell me true— have you ever engaged in cultivations of cults, parishes or denominations in your likeness?"
Gwen felt her heart shudder even as she forced herself to appear entirely in control. "Not to my knowledge. Was that Faith Threads?"
"More like a Maximised Faith Strike..." Smallwater scratched his beard. "Lass, if you're the Archdeacon of Canterbury, you should let us know. The Ordo and the Church, we are natural allies."
"Calamity, what's the catastrophe this time?" Even Golos thought it fit to give his input. "Should I tell Brother?"
"Gogo, go away," she hissed at her Wyvern.
The dread engendering in her chest grew direr the longer the Knights remained perplexed. As a student of British history, she knew better than anyone just how hot a stake could burn if a girl were to head-butt a state religion. Everything she had accomplished could vanish in an instant, like ash borne on the wind.
"Look, there's got to be a better reason for this," she denied any form of apostasy with complete, categorical vehemence. "I am not even baptised, certainly not to my knowledge. I've never received benedictions in a church unless it happened when Helena got married while I was unconscious because, you know, sex out of wedlock. Oh— My father's a Godless Communist womaniser."
"But your good deeds..." the Inquisitor appeared unconvinced.
"Maybe it's the IIUC?" Elvia appeared to have recovered enough of her wits to come to her defence. "Gwen saved Kachin from a Naga, and they're very religious over there. She's also the IIUC's MVP, which means she was on plenty of advertisement billboards for a year in China— there are lots of NoMs in China and no religion— maybe they're sending her thoughts and prayers?"
While Elvia tested the possibilities, Gwen refuted her hypothesis. Was Faith that easy? One "like" equalled one "thread"? A million "likes" for sainthood? Her mind raced at a mile a minute. Could it be the Mermen? But that was even more absurd! Considering the food piracy the fish performed, who the hell would start a religion around looted cans of SPAM?
Or maybe it was Almudj; Gwen felt her scalp crawl. If she's Al's Vessel, and there's some prominent tribe in Australia worshipping the Rainbow Serpent, would the Faith rub off?
Or Mayuree— Buddha above, would Mia go as far as to put her face on a Pagoda? Surely not. That would step on Ruxin's tail, and besides, putting Ruxin's mug on the Pagodas was far more likely to curry favour with their real boss.
"... so I don't know, truly." She reinforced her expression of earnestness. It was an act, but not of deception, for she honestly had no idea.
"I see." Sir Hawkford indicated to his Knight Companion. "Elvia, try it again."
Gwen quickly held the icon aloft.
Elvia spoke the words with a trembling voice,
When the spotlight once more struck, the Rat-kin raised their hands in worship. "Priestess! Priestess of the Pale Light!"
"SHAA— SHAA—" Caliban joined the chorus of worship.
"EE—EE!" Ariel flew into the spontaneous stadium lighting because there wasn't enough chaos.
"Kiki!" The Alarune danced, sashaying from tendril to tendril.
"Sen!" Sen-sen hid, as Ginseng roots disliked strong sources of light.
"Ha! A new malady for the Calamity!" Golos was never one to miss a party. "Who is trying to murder her this time?"
"SKAAARRRWWWAARRRGH—" Somewhere outside the oasis, Garp burst into whale song.
She tossed the icon back to Elvia like a hot potato. Though the light faded, her face remained as pale as the ivory nimbus. What had manifested wasn't a Faith Thread but more of a fucking Faith "Pillar" the size of Temir's prized Totems.
Unbidden, her thoughts turned to her earlier haughtiness. Those who judge others are judged in turn! Karma is a harsh mistress! To think she had sent off the Wolves no more than eight hours ago!
"Inquisitor." She could feel the cold sweat soaking through her safari outfit. "While I am happy to cooperate with an investigation. I am afraid this isn't the best time for me to return to London."
Hawkford appeared to study her once more.
In truth, the Inquisitor's coolness was as strange as the light shooting from her wherever. In her mind, Sir Smallwater should be readying the pillory and bonfire.
"Magus Song, please do not overreact." Hawkford's following words affirmed her suspicions. "Rather, I bring fair tidings— for I may now affirm that you're not a part of the pact that must not be named, which places you in a more trustworthy position."
"Chaplain..." Elvia attempted to speak, only to be halted by her superior.
"Give me a moment to gather my thoughts on the matter," Hawkford interrupted their interjections, then appeared to mumble a silent prayer for guidance.
While waiting, Gwen delivered her most endearing simper.
Untouched by her feminine wiles, Hawkford met her gaze head-on, then grinned lopsidedly. "Gwen, do you believe in providence?"
"No?" Gwen stuck to the truth. Earlier, that had served her well.
"I do, and I believe our meeting is no accident. But, let us return to my earlier claim, did you know that to those holier-than-thou symbionts of the World's Pillars, Faith is anathema? The guardians of the Planar fabric hold great apprehension for little birds that cannot be controlled and which they cannot cage in their menagerie."
Gwen mulled over the man's words, but her uncertainty remained.
"Then why would the Bloom in White feed me a satchel of seeds?"
"Because you are a powerful adherent of the IMS, Magus Song, a prized Songbird, in a sense." Inquisitor Hawkford's expression grew to encompass both benevolence and admiration. "But if you've garnered Faith— no matter the means, that changes things. Those who dwell above are deeply suspicious of powers so uniquely mortal. For them, Faith is as unnatural as Necromancy."
It took several more seconds for the Inquisitor's cryptic speech to unknot itself in her head. "… So, what you're saying is that you believe me when I say that this Faith ordeal is a coincidence?"
"That is correct."
"And although I've been recruited to work with Tryfan, you deduce that I can't be working with Tryfan because apparently, I have the potential to access Faith as a resource?"
She turned to Elvia. "Evee. Does any of this make sense to you?"
Besides her, Elvia had wrung a length of Sen-sen's root so hard that green juices were leaking down between her strength-enhanced fingers. Not far, Sen-sen bore the torture, its old sage's mien hiding the pain.
Her Evee nodded, then shook her head. "All I know is that if that many people think of you fondly, Gwen, then it must mean you've helped them change their lives for the better. That's something which the Ordos will respect."
"To garner Faith, your actions, your 'tale' must consistently occupy their thoughts as well." Sir Smallwater gave his opinion. "I do agree with the lass. You must have aided many a folk, Magus Song. It's a commendable demonstration of how you've impacted our world, whatever your methods."
"Faith" sounds eerily utilitarian. Gwen cautioned herself against taking credit lest a future outcome was counted against her favour.
"From the concentration of those Tethers, you've helped far more people than me." Elvia's eyes sparkled with affirmation and support as she caught her hand. "I am so proud of you, Gwennie. I bet all those people who got jobs and livelihoods at the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich think of you every day."
"Thanks, Evee." Gwen squeezed the Healer's fingers back. "I did it for my benefit, though..."
Her gaze swept over her worshipful Rat-kin, then pointed a finger toward the heavens. "Sir Hawkford. To be clear, I have no intent on cutting into the Church's share of its resources. My ambitions are and will forever be secular. Whatever the Ordo is offering, I wash my hands like the Pilate."
"You're very astute, Magus Song. And I agree," Inquisitor Hawkford said. "For now, my advice is to keep this between yourself, the Ordo, and those you trust in the Mageocracy. Of course, those invested in you should be notified lest they're caught up in a future fallout. As for us, Companion Lindholm will not divulge your secrets, and Sir Smallwater, as well as Sir Rothwell, are well-sworn to secrecy. Likewise, your Rat-kin likely can't communicate the details even if questioned. Whatever the case, I shall present the findings in the best light."
Gwen felt her brain throb. "I agree. I'll need some time to digest this. Where can I know more about Faith Magic?"
"I do believe NOT knowing is in your interest," the Knight chuckled. "As matters stand, ignorance is truly bliss."
"Now you're the one tempting me," Gwen groaned, then sat beside Elvia to sort her newly acquired information into its respective mental categories. What Hawkford had stated about The Accord being allergic to Faith Magic was very interesting indeed. Considering the uncensored history she had managed to pick up from the Dragons, Elves, Dwarves and her Magisterial studies, she could feel a vague hypothesis taking place like a deep-diving Leviathan rising to the surface.
Now that Sir Hawkford gave his word, the Mages stepped lightly around the topic for the duration of their dinner, choosing instead to unassuming banter about Shalkar's future; around them, the rats eventually returned to their arduous labours in building their new home.
"Gwen?" Elvia's head rested against her shoulder. "Are you feeling alright?"
"I still feel as lost as ever," Gwen confessed. "BUT— Sir Hawkford is right. I've got work to do here, and I am far too committed in Shalkar to run off and deal with this. I mean, it is not like I'll give up the rats or the Isle of Dogs as a result. Whatever comes will come; there is providence even in the fall of a sparrow— the readiness is all."
"That's from the Book of Matthew, isn't it?" Elvia exhaled with relish. "Have you been studying the Good Book, Gwennie?"
"Goodness isn't found in a book, Evee." Gwen plagiarised a line from The Bard for the benefit of leaving a final good impression for their Inquisitor. "If a person can open their hearts a little bit, they shall see that there are tongues in trees, books in the brooks, sermons in stones and goodness in everything. That's all the teaching a devotee needs."
"WONDERFUL!" Sir Smallwater slapped his thighs. "Well said, Magus Song, now's that's a quote for the Seminary!"
Inquisitor Hawkford nodded with recognition, his conviction in her goodness once more affirmed.
Elvia squeezed her guilty fingers to communicate her support, her delicate face aglow with adoration.
Gwen gave herself a mental slap, then warned herself to refrain from furthermore misleading her Samaritan companions. However, what she had said was true, for she did feel like a sparrow caught in the guiding hand of some greater power. Faith? Who the hell could foresee that bringing economic prosperity could send her careening into the realm of theocracy?
And what did Hawkford intimate?
No. Fuck that second-rate Divination.
She was no rat in a plague pit.
A world where the NoMs lived in Districts and the Tasmüyiz subsisted on grassroots could not co-exist with a good and all-knowing God.
In this life, only herself, her companions, her family, her Crystals, her Sorcery, and the connections she forged mattered, the sum of which pointed to a single, cardinal truth— that whatever winds directed her sails, she alone held the steerage of her course.