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Jason had not explored many of the Island’s districts. He took the loop to one he had never visited before; the temple district. His new world had no shortage of gods, which as a long-time atheist was more than a little disconcerting. He had been assured that gods existed, but he’d been hearing much the same from his Great Aunt Marjory for years. He wanted to see for himself.

Walking out of the loop terminal, he immediately saw a sign with directions to the Divine Square. Following it, he walked down a street where temples lined both sides of the road. Looking at the prominent signs and banners, Jason quickly gained a sense that gods had hierarchies of their own. The Temple of Roads, he saw, was nestled behind the larger and more impressive Temple of Journeys.

Soon the street opened up onto the square itself. It was a huge, crowded space. Green stone was prominent everywhere in the Island, but in the Divine Square even the flagstones were made from high-grade material. The square was filled with booths and tents, most of which seemed to be hawking religious paraphernalia to the faithful.

“Kind of the same, wherever you go,” Jason mused to himself.

There were people proselytizing to anyone who would listen, and street thieves cutting purses. Jason had originally kept a small pouch of coins hanging from his waist so he didn’t draw attention by plucking coins out of thin air. After the second time it was stolen in as many days he stopped bothering. Even if using his inventory drew attention, there were enough people with similar abilities around that it wasn’t a lot.

Jason bought a sandwich from a street vendor, some kind of meat with cheese and a spicy sauce. Food was one of the ways in which Jason was most reminded he was on a different world. While the preparation was often similar, like bread, soup, sandwiches or cake, the ingredients were more often different than the same. Farms raised different animals and grew different crops. Trees sprouted different fruit. The bread was heavier than he was used to, the beer lighter. The meat was all different. Most of it came from the large lizards Jason had seen roaming in the delta. Even the crossovers, like apples, were not varieties he recognised.

He realised he was stalling, distracting himself with little details instead of following his actual purpose in coming to the temple district. Confronting a challenge to long-held beliefs wasn’t easy. His objective wasn’t the throngs of people in the square, but the temples around the outside. The buildings immediately abutting the square were the most prominent houses of worship in the city, and the effort put into their designs seemed to reflect it. They seemed to be competing in grandiosity, each clearly an achievement in architecture and engineering.

There was a towering cathedral, a columned temple and other buildings the likes of which Jason had never seen. Oddly, there was one building that forwent the ostentation of the buildings around it, looking more like a public school library. It was a square, grey block, with the only ornamentation a picture of a scroll over the double-doors.

“I wonder if that’s what I’m looking for.”

While each building competed to catch the eye, in Jason’s opinion there was a clear winner. It was a huge tower in the shape of an arm thrusting into the sky. Most buildings in the city topped out at five storeys, and while it was not the only temple to breach this limit, the giant arm more than doubled it. At the end of the arm was a fist clenching a giant, bearded head. The head gazed down on the square, fiercely glaring at any with the courage to meet its stare.

“Well, that’s only completely horrifying.”

With all the people around it was easy to ask a passer-by about the unusual temple. The man Jason talked to was short and stocky, with skin of such a deep blue it was almost black. He had no hair at all and was covered in what looked like tattoos of various colours, which glowed faintly. Jason knew the markings were actually natural, a feature of the race known as the runic. They were a rarity in Greenstone, and while Jason had seen them around, this was his first chance to speak with one. Going by his clothes, the man was more likely a local than a visitor.

“That’s the temple of Dominion,” he explained as Jason pointed out the strange temple.

“Dominion over what?” Jason asked.

The man looked at Jason curiously.

“Over everything,” the man said. “Dominion issues the divine right to kings and nobles. It is he who determines who rules, and who serves.”

“Oh. That explains the creepy, overbearing temple.”

“You seem very easy with blasphemy,” the man said warily.

“I am,” Jason said absently. “Mostly to annoy my Aunt Marjory, but also recreationally. Does this world have little cartoon booklets that explain you’re going to hell if you eat between-meal snacks or whatever?”

The man shook his head in wonderment.

“What do you get out of that?” he asked. “Does it make you feel better to disrespect things others find meaningful?”

“Sorry,” Jason said, feeling like an idiot. “Where I come from, the gods aren’t real.”

“The gods are everywhere in this world.”

“So I’ve heard,” Jason said. “I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest. I mean, look at Dominion. I don’t like the idea of an infinitely powerful being whose job is to make sure people know their place.”

“Then venerate a different god,” the man said. “No deity is absolute. If you dislike the message of Dominion, seek out Liberty. They don’t get along.”

The man flashed Jason a cheeky grin.

Jason held out his hand and the man shook it.

“I’m Jason.”

“Arash,” the man introduced himself.

Jason was asking Arash if the plain-looking building was the Temple of Knowledge when a glorious light appeared in front of one of the temples. All through the square people started falling to their knees, Jason’s new friend included. Looking over, Jason saw a towering figure that looked human, but stood twice as tall as Gary. He looked rather like an adventurer, clad in light armour with a sword at his side.

Up to that point, the strongest aura Jason had encountered was that of a silver-rank adventurer he had seen at the Adventure Society. He had sat next to the man on the loop line and found the presence of his aura overpowering. He realised at the time why Farrah said that containing one’s aura was good manners.

The aura from the far side of the square made that experience inconsequential; it was comparing a candle to the blazing light of the sun. Jason had no doubt if the aura of that towering figure were truly unleashed, everyone in the square would drop dead.

“So that’s a god,” Jason said. “Honestly, I was hoping to be less impressed, but that is something to see. So much for atheism, I guess.”

“Get down!” Arash hissed, kneeling next to Jason. Looking around, Jason certainly stood out as the only person still standing. The god turned to Jason. Not knowing what else to do, Jason gave him a casual wave. It was hard to tell from across the square, but he thought he saw a smile tug at the god’s mouth.

“What’s he the god of?” Jason asked.

“That’s Hero,” Arash said. “Get down!”

“I think that ship has sailed my friend,” Jason said. “So, the god of heroes is called Hero. They really stick to that straightforward naming convention, don’t they?”

“Such a shame,” a melodious voice came from behind Jason. “I was hoping to be your first.”

Jason looked around, but didn’t see where the voice came from. He caught a hint of perfume in the air, fresh and clean like a sea breeze. Within it he sensed a fleeting, but potent aura, every bit the equal of the god across the square.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jason muttered.

At this point Arash was yanking on Jason’s sleeve, trying to get him to kneel. The other people around them were looking at Jason with disdain.

“Calm down,” Jason said, tugging his shirt free of Arash’s grip. “Did you hear that woman?”

“What woman?” Arash said. “Get on your knees and show your respect for the god!”

“Just me, then. Kneeling isn’t how you show respect, Arash. That’s how you show obedience.”

“Obedience to a god is respect!”

“They say that where I come from, too,” Jason said. “Never really got onboard with the idea. I think I’m going to head off, Arash. All the people here are giving me the evil eye.”

“You are a fool!” Arash hissed after him.

“I can’t argue with that,” Jason said with a laugh. He started making his way across the square, but all the people who had dropped to their knees made for something of an obstacle course.

“Sorry. Pardon me. Excuse I.”

One of the people near Arash leaned over as he watched Jason wander off.

“Do you know that man?” the person asked.

“Absolutely not,” Arash said.

***

As Jason had guessed, the Temple of Knowledge was the plain, blocky building.

“Is there actually a public library in there?” he wondered. “That would make sense.”

The double doors in front of him were pushed open from the inside as he approached, revealing a pretty young woman. It was the same acolyte who had tested his essences during his Adventure Society intake.

“Good day, Mr. Asano.”

“Gabrielle, right?” Jason asked.

“That’s right,” she said. “It’s lovely to meet you again.”

“Likewise.”

Jason thought he should catch up with Humphrey, curious if the young man had made an overture since Jason gave him Gabrielle’s name. Then he remembered Humphrey was off with Rufus for the field assessment.

“Why does it feel like you were waiting for me?” Jason asked Gabrielle.

“My lady told me you were arriving and sent me to guide you.”

“Your lady?”

“The goddess. Follow me, please.”

She led Jason inside and he felt an aura wash over him. It was unlike the aura of a person, more like an undercurrent that belonged to the building itself. It wasn’t overbearing, but he could feel a vast power behind it. It also had the flavour of the fleeting aura that accompanied the disembodied voice he heard in the square.

They were walking between row after row of books, occasionally passing someone reading at a table. Some of the shelves, instead of books, held ornate tubes.

“Scrolls,” Gabrielle explained, seeing Jason’s curious glance. “The manuscripts here in the library are all copies. The originals are preserved in the archive.”

“So, does your boss talk to you a lot?” Jason asked.

“My boss?”

“The goddess.”

“Of course,” Gabrielle said. “I may be only a junior member of the clergy, but I am a member, nonetheless. I see and hear my lady every day.”

“That must be reaffirming. It doesn’t work that way where I come from.”

“Your world must be very strange. People serving gods that do not exist. How does that work, if I might ask?”

“Not really sure,” Jason said. “They seem to lean heavily on metaphor. You know I’m from a different world?”

“The lady has imparted some knowledge. It is her nature.”

“Her nature could use a privacy disclosure agreement. Where are you guiding me to, exactly?”

“The temple has a room for questions. Ask, and the lady will answer or not, as she chooses.”

“She’ll answer in person?”

“Answers come in many forms.”

“Sounds like she’s leaning heavily on metaphor, too.”

Gabrielle gave Jason a confident smile.

“You will soon see for yourself,” she said.

She led Jason to a set of double doors. They were larger than the ones that were the entrance to the temple, but just as plain. They were carved from wood, aged and unadorned but for a simple handle on each. Jason had the strange feeling they were older than the building in which they were affixed. Gabrielle pulled open the heavy doors with an ease that belied her small frame.

“This is as far as I take you,” she said, gesturing for Jason to continue on. He passed through the doors and she pushed them closed behind him.

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Shirtaloon

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