There's shouting just down the hall. Ray's snarling and barking is instant, vicious, and all the warning you need. Not wasting another second, you don't stop Cyril from getting up to move. Your ally is scarred, but you have unquestionably saved his life. Gallantly, the priest of Flesh turns to you, and says again, "thanks." Disdain sinks back into his voice, with vitality and a will to actually live. "I'll keep 'em off."
Harriet looks to both of you, paler than the symbol of her Goddess, and stresses, "we need to go."
Crossing the room quickly, you take the diary from Sister Cardew's hands, and give her a stare that could melt solid gold. "My child's hand. Now."
Without hesitation, the priestess of Spirit produces the bloodied handkerchief from her cloak, and presses the item to your hands. "I'm sorry," she mutters again. "I wish we had more Time."
You make Time, and pray.
"A shroud is held now, before me. I do not walk now, in the valley of the shadow of death."
The gold dripping from your hands swims with a pearlescent hue. The scent and taste of lilies is cloying, sweeter than the reek of decay in the air.
"The shroud is upon me."
You take to a knee, as the same white-gold begins to pool from your eyes, and coats the sight of the world completely. "We have felt you. We have known YOU, more than ANY other. Goddess of the Immaterial. Goddess of Compassion!" Voice shaking, you continue, more fervently than before, "I give myself unto you! The immaterial MUST be known!"
The world gives out from under you.
"This death has no need for Time."
The journal you take in hand contains the writings of a deceased priest of Mercy. In his prior service to the King, all-consuming obsession defined him. Having ventured deep into the ruins, disappointment broke the aging man's mind in two. The libraries of the damned did not contain any answers. The lost city of Ostedholm was a ruin, in every sense of the word. Blinded by grief, over a life wasted, only a blessing from Mercy could permit the sinner to see once more
You saved his life, along with the lives of over fifty other men and women. Now only twelve remain. Each one went to the ruins to die. Each one witnessed your own journey, and having taken only a few words from your battered lips, set out to reclaim their lives.
Your congregation is filled with freaks. The diary is written in an appropriate code. It chronicles a traveling circus. The master of ceremony moves from ring to ring. Harvey Jay Algrith will not be so easily found, but he WILL be among your clergy.
The fingers in your hand are soft to the touch. The nails are broken, and dirt is caked beneath the gold paint. You're vomiting, hard, and it smells horribly of white lilies. No one dares to touch you, as the white gold flows freely from your lips. The out-pour is that of death, and a sight you should not see.
The ring leader has a second in command. Walter Middleton is an expert on freaks. He was last seen in the royal library. It has been five months since he looked upon the sun, and he may never wish to again.
Your head feels fit to burst already, and there is no end in sight. The hand within your palms is moist, tender with decay, and white gold is slowly creeping from your eyes straight into every last recess of the life lost. Of its company. Of your children.
Closest to the expert are a pair of magicians. Sister Corbon and Sister Tirel are truly healers, yet they have slowly lost their minds in Mercy's absence. They are bound to be traveling about the more civilized sectors, discreetly posing as members of the King's guard. The former has a knack for flame, and the latter gold, but you are certain neither of them can invoke. They are losing their faith by the day, and will soon slip entirely from Her light.
Deep beneath the city, most familiar with its underbelly, is a flea circus. One of the men in this congregation has been seen before, though you could not save him at the time.
There's no time. There's screams coming from down the hall, and a heavy thud. Ofelia has likely had to kill again, to buy you precious seconds.
Frantically, dragging yourself upright, you lean into the invocation harder.
A flash of white light explodes before your vision, as the caress of your lover and protector keeps you from being torn clean out of your body. A blinding pain sears into your temples. Ecstasy crashes into you from the sensation. There's a hold, gentle and tender, as if a Goddess has wrapped herself around the abject torture lancing between your skull and more information than you can stand. Spirit is in you, straight into your memory, and She sticks with a cold, cloying relief.
You want more.
Five. They have been watching you for some time, and will not endanger the cause until the time is right.
Clarence Chester "Chesty" Connelly. Contortionist. Often mistaken for a priest of Flesh. A sinner, of sorts.
Eckard Sollers. "Claymore." Sword swallower. Takes any lie given to him, for a chance to use his weapon.
Carlisle Ballard. "Irefist." A strongman. Resents Walter's authority, as he knows he's more intelligent.
James Sower. "Klepto." A clown. Compulsive gambler and thrill seeker. Went to the ruins for the joy of it.
Mathers Ormond. "The Serpent." A snake-man, in every sense of the phrase.
There is no record of their last movement. They will be the most difficult of all to place, but they will fight for you until their dying breaths.
Your head has never hurt so badly. You are definitely the source of the screaming, utterly incapable of stilling the sound. Sister Cardew might be kneeling beside you. There's a shifting form, but your eyes are shrouded with the image of lovers.
Two. They hide beneath the city, blinded by their compassion for each other. They need your guidance most of all, and may grant you the most in return.
Sir Allan Douglas. "Stardust." Idealist. Hedonist. Services Lady Edith, as a lover, and a fighter.
Lady Edith Douglas. "Starlight." Romantic. Dangerously disassociated. Royalty.
You're definitely the source of the screaming.
The main event. A new attraction. A beast tamer. The Father of the Church of Mercy.
Over half of the diary is the ramblings of a madman. The white-hot gold coursing through your veins feels like it's being dumped directly into your mind. There were nails, digging into the dirt, but they've been crushed underhand, consumed by an invocation that should be impossible.
You were gone for the last five months.
They waited in the darkness. They fought, and struggled.
You healed. They have not. There were others that they saw, at the bottom of the world.
There were demons. Hundreds of them, in shadows. Your child watched as so many others before him turned.
You left. You kept going, deeper, into the darkness. He had to watch, as a man who could call upon the Goddess of Protection left them all to die.
"Stop. Please. Stop. Stop."
There's a hard pull. Sister Cardew is on her knees, her trousers sticky with vomit. She's shaking you hard and screaming something, but it's impossible to hear anything. There's a cloying pull at the edges of your mind. The sensation of fingers digging into the back of your scalp is inescapable, as you hold onto the severed hand of a corpse. The hand of a man who trusted you with his life, who never could truly meet you, and who never had his prayers answered.
You scream back.
"The Gods are MERCIFUL, Sister Cardew—!"
A shove— to get the woman off of you— is entirely necessary. With a level voice, convicted and righteous, you insist, "and their blessings will be NEEDED—!"
Realizing how loud you're being, the force that you used, and the terror slaking the woman before you, you make every attempt to level out your voice. "Needed. If we are to survive what lies ahead. I am no coward. Please listen to Us. Trust in Them, as I trust in you— and leave Us to Their will.
Staggering upright, haggard, filthy, and obviously terrified for your sanity, Sister Cardew still persists. "I am not going anywhere." In a low voice, looking to the door with wide eyes, she murmurs, "but I will not intervene. You're only doing as I asked. I know. Please hurry."
Closing your eyes, with no fear in your heart, you permit two Goddesses to embrace you in full.
They show you everything. Not months of turmoil, starvation, and death. With sight beyond sight, you are embraced with the wisdom of divinity. The pain lancing your skull is entirely gone.
You know you are loved. There was never any need to ask.
Spirit leans into you. Rather than struggling or competing for any control over your form, the tension completely drops from your mind. Your breath evens out. Mercy is with you, as a constant reminder that no pain needs to befall you, nor anyone else in your care.
You understand completely. You already know this story.
The diary in your hands is closed, and begins to unravel. Strands of white thread unfurl from the edges of decay. Sodden leather and vellum pages drop to the floor in strings, vanishing before they ever touch the pool at your feet.
It's not vomit that left you.
It's a mirror.
Looking to the ground beneath your feet, the impression in your mind is immaterial. There are countless roads traveled. You're certain of the path there, though many unknowns lie in wait. The streets of Calunoth are seared into your memory, and the current location of your entire congregation.
There is the freak expert: Walter Middleton, AKA Professor Echo. He is in the Royal Archive, and will be the most difficult by any margin to reach alone. His expertise and intelligence could be invaluable in gathering the rest of your congregation. It's a tragedy, that the more people in your company, the more difficult it will be to reach him.
There is your Flea Circus: Randall "Randy" Holland, Norward "Mick" Bauldry, and Victor "Mad Dog" Bonamy. They are currently in the sewers, safe from the chaos in the city streets. Their knowledge of Calunoth is a blessing. Their wisdom is only way you are capable of seeing them now. To have their guidance may be priceless. To know is to serve. It comes to you as no surprise that their company is utterly insane.
There are the Magicians: Sister Beatrice "Spangle" Corbon, and Sister Clemence "Electrum" Tirel. Entrenched in a battle they cannot hope to win, both priestesses of Mercy cannot call upon your lover. Cut off from all hope of protection, light and healing, they are soon to turn to the Catalyst. The truest miracle of their lives is that they are still among your order.
Clarence Chester "Chesty" Connelly, Eckard "Claymore" Sollers, Carlisle "Irefist" Ballard, James "Klepto" Sower, and Mathers "Serpent" Ormond constitute the Freak Show. They have been following your company, though your recent activity has stressed even their capability. As the tip of the spear, they are in the streets, seeking to make your work as seamless as possible. There have been no attacks on your person since entering Calunoth, and it has not solely been the work of the Gods. To linger is an affront to their hard work. It will surely require all of your Spirit to get them to your side.
There is the Conjoined Twin. Lady Edith "Starlight" Douglas, and Sir Allan "Stardust" Douglas are truly inseparable. Deep within the underbelly of Calunoth, they hide, and pray to be able to safely reemerge under your light. You are their guiding hope, in a land of Gods and demons. The royalty in their company is a gift beyond measure. Their loyalty to you is eclipsed only by one other.
The Ringleader, and The Master of Ceremony: Harvey Jay Algrith. He is a coward, and flits about your congregation like a moth to one too many lights. The unnamed order treasures his lack of command, and cherishes his eagerness to please. The man's skill in evasion is unparalleled, and he now moves to pursue the Lovers.
Though he wishes to hide with them, and to seek safe refuge, he is torn. Algrith's Spirit is weak, and he cannot decide which way to go.
Your mission has been to disband them. Their lives are at stake. The only chance you stand at saving your congregation is to reach every single member.
There's a solid mirror at your feet. Spirit cares not for the material, but Mercy knows you need tangible answers. Nothing could matter more than this blessing. You see them. You know who to reach out to first.
Who to pursue.
Who to save.
You collapse forward on hands and knees, as a few strands of golden string unfurl from your lips, and pools around your hands. The mirror at your feet has unraveled into mounds of rapidly disintegrating thread. A fine powder is evaporating up into the air, from all of the string. There is no pain from the motion of your chest and throat. It's as if the decay has parted from your form completely. No illness sticks to the floor, the back of your mind, or the woman standing boldly before you.
Sister Cardew, as petite as she is, is obviously hurt from you shoving her. Though you were under the influence of two Goddesses who care not for the material, you're easily twice the woman's weight and a good foot higher. She's holding onto an arm, tight-lipped, and glancing frequently towards the exit. She seems to be suffering less from carrying a dead man's hand, and more from her bad lungs. No disgust laces her face. Patiently waiting for you to stand on your own accord, she's coughing hard.
You healed her lungs already, and that of all of your companions. The last of the white-gold leaves your eyes, though the searing heat of Mercy's blessing persists.
Your compassion persists.
Getting to your feet as quickly as you're able, you extend a hand to Sister Cardew. Murmuring, "I am so sorry," you can't help but let out a sigh of relief, while she takes hold of your entire arm for support.
"We have to run," she repeats, while you briskly take up all of your things. "There were ten guards on our trail, and they'll have called for aid."
The screams are all from your companions. They're all running about, trying to hold off the front of the building's flame from encroaching on the rest of the wooden hovel. You barely have time to register the piles of overturned furniture, the three dead guards still lying in a pool of their own blood near the front door, or the barkeep cowering behind an overturned table.
"GIVE ME A FUCKIN' HAND," Cyril barks, ripping at a table that's been nailed down to further barricade the front door.
"Of course, Brother Trebbeck," Theodore calmly replies, glancing over to you, and waving distantly.
You do not wave back, and weave through the disorderly bar, towards the corpses.
"Gonna' need him to call on a lot more if he doesn't hurry the fuck up," Ofelia sneers, wiping off a short sword smeared with a green poison, also failing to notice you.
"Shut the fuck up," your bodyguard practically screams, "he asked for TIME, didn't he?! Get the back door, see if Harriet can help him up! We need to move—"
Cutting himself off, Cyril follows Brother Wilhelm's hand. The priest calmly points towards you, commanding your allies attention, while you silently kneel beside the fallen figures in the tavern.
Their throats have been slit. They're all younger than Theodore, and absolutely incapable of putting up a fair fight against anyone in your company. The perpetrator looks down to you, with her hood failing to conceal her utter lack of remorse. "They were goin' fer Ray," the assassin sneers.
Horror sinks into you, not only from the lengths that she was willing to endure for your dog's sake, but at your invocation and the lives of three innocent men.
I never wanted this.
In a voice so firm you do not need to raise the tone, you urge everyone in your company, "move. Now."
Without another word, Cyril throws his shoulder into the nearby bar, dropping the entire wooden framework down before the front door. The crash is nowhere near as deafening as the shouts for blood outside of the building. You don't wait to see everyone in your company part, knowing Ray will have heard the command, and will usher everyone outside.
Wind streaks past you, for the urgency that takes hold of everyone as they exit before you. You move over, to kneel down beside the barkeep who's name you have yet to ask.
He's dead. He may have been a rapist and a bastard, but he's dead, and still cowering in the same position he likely last looked upon a master of poison in. Blackened rot is leaking from his eyes and nose, so thin you could not see it from a distance.
You pull away, with the taste of lilies and death clinging to the back of your throat, and run.
There isn't a second to breathe. Fearing for their lives, your friends broke away, out towards the slums. They're sticking together, winding through the streets after Ofelia, and despite their fading forms, they must be aware you can catch up in a matter of seconds. Leaving behind a burning shack and four dead men, you tear through the streets. There's a fire under your feet, urgency in your soul, an ache in your chest, and heat coursing through you. It really only takes a few seconds for the full sprint to come abruptly to a stop.
You skid past Theodore, who grabs you by the side of your robes, and attempts to pull you behind a nearby outcropping of stone and wood. He's too weak to do anything with your imposing stature or recent weight, being tugged along with your momentum for a second. The broadness of your shoulders practically overshadows the young man, as you straighten him back up, and follow his lead around the corner of the nearest building. Breathless, looking to your hidden friends, you see them all plain as day. They're all scared for their lives, and looking to you for answers.
"I saw everything. The route, and their locations. They will move— so we must move more quickly, still. My congregation has split themselves apart— for their safety— yet it has been their undoing. We will learn from their mistakes. We do not have a second to spare."
Breathing hard, glancing around the corner, you can hear cries off in the distance. Smoke is rising from no fewer than a dozen locations on the horizon. A spark kicks up, followed by a bolt of lightning. No doubt from a demon of Storm, somewhere in the center of the city, you feel more of your breath leave you. Screams are on the air, intermingling with the haze, and imminent rain.
"I know you all are afraid. I am certain, beyond any doubt, that my first order of business will expedite our entire search. We will take to the sewers. It will be safer, faster, and the men who travel beneath the city will aid in our search. I am not making this call lightly. Every hand we have is essential. I will not stand by and watch more of my people die."
No one dares to interrupt. There's a thousand questions brewing before you. Gritting your teeth, knowing you all have precious seconds to move again, you give the only answer that matters.
"I must save all of them."
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Bio: Hi! I'm Alaric, a writer, artist, and solo game developer. In addition to writing quests and adapting them here on Royal Road, I'm also in the process of creating a dark fantasy visual novel based off of my first book: Catalyst: Blind Faith, a dark fantasy and horror-themed visual novel. My work can be followed via itchi.io, Twitter, Tumblr, or our community Discord. If you like my work, feel free to follow or favorite what you're reading! I also have a Patreon or Ko-Fi for anyone who wants to share some extra support.