The city of Watford rested on the southern coast of the Oculus Sea. The place was in shambles, many of the buildings reduced to rubble - smoldering or otherwise - and much of the streets and ports rendered completely unusable. This devastation was only to be expected given the fact that the Demon King had been unleashed upon the city. The unique method through which Weaxohn was summoned had actually given him nearly twenty minutes of ‘alone time’ with Watford, an event that the locals had already dubbed ‘the Blackout.’
Yet despite all that, the city was in a state that could only be described as surprisingly intact. Especially when compared to the charred crater that Nagnamor left behind at the end of the recent war. Sure, the damage to the buildings and infrastructure was devastating and the casualties numbered in the thousands, but all things considered it could’ve been much worse. And the only reason it wasn’t was because the Inquisition was there.
Though the details of that day were still sketchy, the iron will, tenacity and prowess that Teresa’s faithful displayed at the time could not be denied. The Inquisition naturally had all sorts of members within its ranks, as faith was something that encompassed many different walks of life. That said, those with religious Jobs were without a doubt a majority, and it was thanks to them that the city had been spared. The abnormally high number of Priests chanted holy hymns and sacred arias to counteract the otherworldly terror’s mental influence over the populace, greatly diminishing the death toll. The Monks, though much fewer in number, did their part by fighting both rift walkers and citizens who had gone berserk.
Yet it was without a doubt the Paladins who had contributed the most, though not directly. Clad head to toe in heavy, blessed armor, with golden auras radiating from them like guiding lights in a sea of darkness, Teresa’s champions had become beacons of hope. They inspired those around them to push harder, to work together against this insurmountable foe. Not only Watford’s adventurers, but even its mercenaries and criminals found themselves all standing side by side with the holy warriors as they braved the nightmarish storm that was Weaxohn the All-Knowing.
The end result was one where the Inquisition came face to face with a Calamity-level threat and lived to tell the tale. Though the Blackout had been a terrible catastrophe without question, the loss of life would have been far greater without their efforts. It was a beautiful story, in a way. It was not often that humanity was able to set aside their petty differences and unite under a single banner like that. That went double for a place like Watford, where grudges ran as thick and deep as the ocean floor.
It was almost a shame that this spirit of camaraderie only appeared in dire life and death situations. And indeed, though it had only been two days since that event, the ugly side of humanity was already rearing its rotten head.
“What do you mean you won’t give us any more potions?! We’re still digging people out of the rubble and our Priests can’t keep up with the demand!”
“Look mate, I’m gonna be honest with you. I appreciate what you did for me and mine, but I’ve already given you lot half of my stock for free, and I think I’ve been more than generous in that regard.”
“Yes, and your nearly expired, poorly made and barely sellable goods were very much appreciated, but we need actual mana potions. Not swill you were going to throw away anyway!”
“Then pay for them like everyone else! I got mouths to feed and a bloody store to rebuild! Or did you not notice the giant fecking hole in the wall?!”
The large armored figure let out a tired sigh as he lifted his hands off the dusty counter. This was getting him nowhere, and he had better things to do than to argue with this old geezer. He’d been in this backwards town long enough to know his type, so he wasn’t sure why he even bothered. He did, however, make a mental note to come back once the dust had settled and find out whether this ‘humble Alchemist’ was making more than just crappy salves and tonics.
The man left the shop while rubbing his bald head in frustration. The tidy black handlebar moustache on his lip did little to hide his displeased frown while his brown eyes darted all over the place. He let out another sigh as his gloved fingers traced over the large cross-shaped scar on the left side of his skull - a constant reminder of why helmets were important.
As the man walked, his armor rattled with every step. His gear was nothing special at first glance, appearing as just another set of steel plates bound together by leather straps and fur padding. Frankly speaking, the only aspect of this equipment a bystander might consider exceptional was its size. The man had a rather tall and wide build, standing at an intimidating height of just under two meters, so his gear had to be fittingly large and bulky.
However, though roughly polished and buffed out, the numerous dents, scratches and blemishes on his gear hinted at how it had seen him through many battles. The fact that both the armor and its owner were still intact despite all that spoke volumes regarding its toughness, while the black tabard draped over his shoulders marked him as an agent of the Inquisition.
But the man called Sigmund Law was an Imperialist through and through. He loved his country and his Goddess in equal measure, serving them both to the utmost of his ability. That was why he did not blindly follow his fellow Paladins into that blasted war. His gut feeling told him something was not right with that conflict. Blaming the Calamity of Monotal on an entire nation just seemed… ludicrous somehow. And given that Teresa herself had revealed that claim to be a sham, his instincts had been right on the money.
It was only natural that when the opportunity presented itself, he joined the Inquisition right away. They promised to rid this Empire of the disease that had been allowed to fester in its highest echelons, yet what had they done after months of questioning and inquiries? Jack shit, that’s what. Sure, they exposed corruption in a few minor lords and nobles, but Sigmund refused to accept that was the best they could do. Teresa had given them a divine duty, yet his brothers and sisters in arms seemed considerably less driven than he had hoped. It wasn’t like he expected to see blind zealotry, but their apparent complacency and unwillingness to disturb the status quo was rather infuriating.
This festering city was a prime example of why such an attitude was insufficient. It was a place run by criminals, drug cartels, smuggling rings and other unsavory elements while the local government did little to nothing about them. It seemed like the kind of place the Inquisition would be eager to clean up, yet it was still the same cesspool of human scum it had always been despite their major presence here. This both angered and saddened Sigmund. Imperial citizens were better than this. Humanity was better than this. He honestly believed that, and setting things right was his only reason for being here, to drag his fellow man into the light, kicking and screaming if he had to.
But there was ultimately very little he could do on his own. He had hoped to find like-minded individuals within the Inquisition, but that had proven to be exceptionally difficult. Ranks, patrols and assignments were given out seemingly at random, making it nigh-impossible to form any meaningful discourse with people for extended periods of time. He had certain doubts the local Chief Inquisitor might have been bought off in some way, but bringing up such accusations without a single scrap of evidence was pointless.
A squeaky voice broke the bald man out of his disheartening thoughts, prompting him to look at the little brown-haired girl next to him. She must have been only four or five years old, as she didn’t even come up to his waist. He didn’t recognize the kid at first, but quickly realized she must have been one of the children he helped dig out of that basement two days ago, immediately after the Blackout faded. And unless he missed his guess, this one was-
“Yeah!” she exclaimed with a bright smile. “You remembered!”
Of course he remembered. Sigmund made an effort to commit the voice, face and name of every person he had helped to memory. Whenever he felt depressed, disappointed or sad, he thought back on those people to give himself the courage to push forward. It may have been a selfish act entirely for his own satisfaction, but it was also part of the reason why his conviction was so unyielding.
“So Suzy, what can the Inquis- … What can I help you with?”
“I found a pretty pebble in the rubble! I don’t know whose it is, but I figured you should be able to find who it belongs to!”
The girl was holding up a small square gem. One that was completely gray, almost lifeless in its coloration. It looked awfully unscratched and undamaged for being dug out of a trash pile, suggesting it was probably a magic item.
“Well! Aren’t you the upstanding little citizen!” he beamed while crouching down in front of her. “I’ll make sure to return this to its rightful owner, don’t you worry. And here, for you and your friends.”
He exchanged the gemstone for a small package wrapped in brown paper.
“What’s this?” Suzy asked curiously.
“Brickwheat crackers. They’re bland and dry, but will fill your belly up like nothing else. It’s not much, but it’s all I can give you right now. You make sure to come find me while this is all settled down though, I’ll make sure to make it up to you properly, okay?”
“Okay! Thanks for the food, Paladin Law!”
“Anytime Suzy. You be careful now, and may Teresa watch over you.”
The man put the gem in his pocket and parted ways with the girl with a wave before continuing back towards the barracks, smiling. He really needed that. Pure souls like hers were hard to come by these days, though that was only to be expected of a little kid. If it had been an adult that found that precious item, they would have surely pawned it off without even considering seeking out its original owner. The man understood why they would do that, especially in these dire circumstances, but that didn’t mean he condoned such behavior.
Sigmund’s good mood didn’t last long though, as he remembered he was scheduled to be interviewed by a superior of his within the Inquisition, a man called Ravenholm. The Paladin was one of the first people to set foot on that torn-up courtyard and bear witness to Weaxohn’s summoning, so it was only natural he’d be questioned. The problem was that Sigmund really didn’t want to recount the events of that day. Though he put up a strong front, the things he’d seen would stay with him for a long while.
Various thoughts of pointless self-pity swirled inside his shiny head until he found himself in his superior officer’s cramped office, saluting the man respectfully.
“Sir! Paladin Sigmund Law reporting as ordered, sir!”
Ravenholm was an older gentleman with thinning gray hair. He was a Priest in service to Teresa, though his time seemed more dedicated to paperwork and politics than worshipping the Goddess. That was fine though, he was in a position of authority so these things only came with the job. Sigmund sincerely wished they didn’t, but it was rather impossible to alter reality through happy thoughts alone.
“Ah, yes,” said the lanky captain. “Do come in and have a seat.”
The Paladin did as instructed, taking the chair in front of the captain’s desk. The crappy furniture creaked and groaned under his armor’s weight, but it somehow managed to hold it without snapping.
“Well, where to begin?” Ravenholm mused, putting his elbows on his desk. “I’ve already heard the gist of what had happened from your comrades, but I need to confirm a few things with you.”
“First, did you notice any sort of magical disturbance when you arrived at the courtyard? Something not caused by this Overlord, I mean.”
“Ah, yes sir. There was a weird pink portal there, with snow pouring out of it. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.”
“Mhm, I was told as much. And did you see anything go in and out of it?”
“Sir. I saw some of those stick-things, the ones called rift walkers? A bunch of them leaped through it, but that was all I saw before I had to fall back to the keep.”
“What about after the Blackout ended?”
“Sir. I went to assist with the relief effort, sir.”
“Not that. I mean with the portal. Did you witness anyone use it afterwards?”
“Sir? I don’t follow.”
“According to my report, that… anomaly persisted for roughly an entire hour before it collapsed. We’re still trying to figure out what it was, where it led to, who opened it or why it lasted that long.”
Though some would argue that the Inquisition should have just leaped through the portal to chase after any suspicious individuals that might have used it, that was easier said than done. Their people had only just overcome a major crisis and suffered many casualties. Nobody who had lived through that waking nightmare would ever consider sending more of their fellow men and women through some unknown mystical gateway. Especially not given the extreme weather conditions and silhouettes of unidentified gigantic monsters that could be seen on the other side.
“Sorry, sir. I don’t have anything more I can give you in regards to that thing.”
The man, was of course, telling the truth, as was his boss. Their oaths made it so that they could not utter a single lie, lest they be branded by Taboo. Well, technically Sigmund’s FTH Attribute was high enough to take four or five major fallacies before it dipped into the negative, but that was besides the point. And the point was that the Paladin’s words were true, even though the source of that mysterious portal had already crossed his fingers without his knowledge.
The bauble Suzy had given him earlier was actually the exhausted Atlas of Dreams that Boxxy had to leave behind during its retreat. The shapeshifter wanted to avoid tangling with the Inquisition entirely, but it couldn’t just sit around and wait for the instant dungeon to collapse, so it just left. The Divine-ranked item would find its way back to it eventually, so it wasn’t the least bit worried in that regard. In fact, the gemstone had already slipped out of both the Paladin’s pocket and his mind, and was well on its way to being shipped north towards Republic territory.
“Very well. Then did you notice anything bizarre elsewhere in the city?” Ravenholm continued. “Anything at all?”
“Hmm… Come to think of it, I did catch a glimpse of something troubling. It looked like a pink slime that was dragging an unmoving bald man in a blue robe into the sewer. I couldn’t do anything about it though, as I had my hands full trying to beat back those demonic abominations.”
The good captain raised an eyebrow, as this story piqued his interest.
“Can you describe what you saw in greater detail?”
“I apologize, sir. I’m afraid my memory of the event is fuzzy, so I’m not sure how reliable my testimony is.”
“I do not care, just tell me whatever you can.”
That ‘I do not care’ slightly irked Sigmund. Unreliable information could lead an investigation astray like nothing else could, so he did not believe his words should be taken into account. However, a superior officer had asked him a question, and it was his duty to answer to the best of his ability.
“Yes, sir. If I were to offer anything more, it would be that I was left with the distinct impression that the monster in question was… smiling? Something resembling a face and head was poking out of the blob at the very least.”
“Forget about the slime, just focus on the victim. Did he have any scars or identifying markings? Maybe an insignia or something on his clothes?”
“I wouldn’t know. His upper body was enveloped in pink goo, so ‘bald man in blue robe’ is all I can offer. Sir.”
“I see,” Ravenholm sighed. “Apologies for pushing you like that, Paladin.”
“If I may ask, sir, why are you so interested in this man I mentioned?”
“Because there is a chance he is the Gilded Hand agent called Hook.”
Hearing the name of the organization that had arranged for that unjust war and needless loss of life naturally lit a fire under Sigmund’s ass.
“So it is true what the rumors are saying? The Gilded Hand was responsible for this atrocity?”
“… Our preliminary investigation suggests as much, yes. We’re still sorting through the mess but we’ve confirmed that four of the rogue organization’s ringleaders were found dead, three of them at the scene of the summoning.”
Using the information gleaned from interviewing captured or deserting Gilded Hand operatives and agents, the Inquisition already knew the identities and appearances of Edward Allen’s inner circle. The upper half of Edge and mostly intact corpse of Bandit were found in the castle courtyard. Mist’s body had evaporated during the summoning, but the gear and personal belongings he left behind were enough to ascertain his identity. Unfortunately, the gold-plated staff he had been given by the previous Emperor as well as whatever accursed item he used to call forth the Overlord were nowhere to be found.
Question was likewise tricky to identify. Not only was his body badly mutilated and had huge chunks of it missing, but it looked as if something had quite literally eaten his face. Likely the same sick individual that used his blood to paint a rough drawing of a chest with the words ‘Box + Claws’ on the side of the tower he had died in. Truthfully speaking the Inquisition never would’ve found him if not for that gruesome graffiti. Thankfully their Scribes were able to appraise samples of his blood to confirm it did indeed belong to the man called Question.
“However,” Ravenholm continued, “the ones known as Zone, Hook, and the former Spymaster himself are unaccounted for. The man you described could have been Hook, though if he was captured by a slime then we will probably not find a single scrap of him to identify. I suppose we’ll just have to continue looking for them. You’re free to go, Paladin.”
“Pardon me, sir, but I can’t let this slide,” Sigmund said calmly. “If the Gilded Hand truly were right under our noses, then how did we not notice them?”
“Because they are- were this nation’s most elite spies. Even fallen from grace, they must have had a lot of sway and influence with the locals while we were treated as outsiders and bullies. There was nothing we could do without the people’s cooperation, though I suspect that will change in our favor soon enough.”
“You have heard the rumors, so you must know what the populace is saying. They think we’re heroes that saved this city and vanquished the traitorous Gilded Hand. The Inquisition stands to gain much with publicity and goodwill like that.”
“… Excuse me, sir? Did I mishear you, or did you just admit you were going to willingly perpetuate a falsehood?”
The Inquisition may have saved a significant part of the city, but they most certainly did not defeat the Gilded Hand. Granted, Sigmund didn’t have all the facts right now, but Ravenholm most certainly said they were ‘found dead’ just a few moments ago. It was not something they could or should be taking credit for.
“We will be doing no such thing, Paladin. However, if the people misunderstand the situation and we can use that to our advantage, then-”
Sigmund leaped out of his seat and slammed his hands onto the wooden desk, his face twisted with outrage.
“Then we are no better than the filth we were supposed to eradicate!” he yelled.
“You forget your station, Paladin.”
“It is you who has forgotten yours, Captain! We are supposed to be the instruments of Her will, working to cleanse this Empire of its treacherous side! Not sit idly by while misinformed opinion and speculation muddies the waters even further!”
“I admit, I do not feel right doing this, but it is necessary. Though Teresa guides us, this nation is still one of mortal men, not gods. We need this sort of influence and clout if we are to make a meaningful difference in its ruling class.”
“Influence? Clout?! We have the Goddess at our back! We should not be currying favor with those arrogant self-serving nobles!”
“Do you expect us to just storm their estates and drag them out of their homes by force based on mere speculation?!”
“Expect it? I’m wondering why the fuck we’re not already doing it!”
“Because there are laws, Paladin! I would expect you to know that, given your blasted last name!”
“Laws made by corrupt officials to protect their own hides, you mean! The faithful of Teresa should not be trying to navigate some maze of regulations and bureaucracy! They should be knocking it down in their pursuit of the truth! The inquisition was created to be Her Hammer of Justice, and we should start acting like it!”
“So you would rather see this holy institution turn into a bunch of criminals with no respect for peace or order?! Do you think the people we are supposed to be looking out for will appreciate us disregarding the basic principles of society?”
“If a society allows evil to fester in the hearts of men with power and authority, then it is those ‘basic principles’ that are at fault. One does not cure a gangrenous limb by playing nice with it. It needs. To be cut. Away.”
“I will no longer tolerate you treating this nation and the ones burdened with its governing with such disrespect. Certain compromises have to be made for the greater good, Paladin. If you and your zealotry cannot see that, then perhaps you should just stick to foot patrols and keep your big mouth shut.”
Sigmund took his hands off of the desk and stood upright with a heavy sigh.
“It is you who is blind, Captain. Justice is not about compromise. It is about doing the right thing, even if it isn’t pretty.”
No longer able to stand the stench of hypocrisy in the room, the scar-headed Paladin left the office in disgust. He walked the halls of the semi-collapsed stone building in a mood so foul it made his comrades in arms give him a wide berth almost on instinct. Needing to clear his head and do some serious thinking, he went into the nearby training hall. He walked up to one of the wooden practice dummies and proceeded to take his frustrations out on it. He pummeled it over and over with his armored fists until all that was left of the doll was a short stump surrounded by splinters, but all that did was make him tired and angry.
Sigmund collapsed on his knees, staring idly up at the ceiling as he steadied his breathing. He closed his eyes thinking back to all the people he had helped. He never asked for any payment for his deeds, nor did he expect any. All he wished for was to see their smiling faces and witness them do good unto others. Such things gave him hope. They reminded him that humanity was not as ugly as it made itself out to be, and that it had the potential to do great things if only it stopped being so maddeningly selfish.
Normally this mental exercise would be enough to calm him down, but this time was different. That ‘talk’ with the captain just now reminded him of just how powerless he was to act. Though his conviction, faith, and shield arm were all strong, in the end he was but a nameless grunt. Spreading small acts of kindness was the most he could accomplish, but that was at most nursing the symptoms. They would not cure the disease of rampant corruption that infested this Lodrak Empire. No, that needed to be burned away at its source, but even he wasn’t stupid enough to think he could do that on his own.
Dejected and depressed, Sigmund opened his eyes and got ready to stand up, except he found himself in a different place. Rather than on the floor of a dingy training hall, he was now kneeling on a solid cloud drifting in a blue sky filled with countless other clouds. He rose to his feet in a panic and looked around frantically, trying to get his bearings. The instant he turned around, however, he fell back to his knees and lowered his head while clasping his hands in front of him.
For before him stood Teresa, the patron Goddess of Truth and Justice. Granted, she was slightly more blindfolded and far more naked than how she was depicted in iconography, but no Paladin would fail to recognize the deity they served if they were literally standing before them. Or floating, as was currently the case.
“Sigmund Law,” she spoke in a clear, bell-like voice. “Know that I have seen your devotion, and I have felt your frustrations. Like yourself, I too have felt my people being led astray from the path I have set out before them. But do not hate them, for not even the divines are infallible. We all make mistakes. The most we can do is hope to learn from them and make an effort to not repeat them.”
The Paladin felt his chest tighten at those words, for they were overflowing with sadness. He thought back to the Goddess’s silence following the demise of her chosen Hero. It was a harrowing time that tested all of her faithful, himself included. But he did not need to feel Her presence to do what was right. Though he naturally worried what had happened to Teresa back then, he weathered that particular storm better than most.
He then realized the Goddess had fallen silent, and was probably waiting for his reply.
“I cannot help it, my lady,” he declared. “Seeing my brothers and sisters fail to recognize their own folly despite my best efforts, it is not something I can overlook.”
“Indeed, I can understand that,” the deity agreed. “The more a soul suffers the twists of fate, the more he or she loses their way. And you, Sigmund Law, have suffered more than most, yet that conflict has only made your conviction stronger. It is an admirable quality, one that I must admit I am quite envious of. It is also the main reason I have brought you here.”
Sigmund couldn’t help but raise his head, though he had to look away almost immediately.
“Why do you avert your gaze, Paladin? I know for a fact you are not one to turn away from the truth.”
“Th-that may be so, my lady, but… Your, uhm, ‘truth’ is a bit much for me.”
Much like the rest of his order, Sigmund had taken a vow of celibacy. And though that particular tradition had been disbanded recently, it still left him as someone with zero experience when it came to women. In fact, Teresa was the first one he had seen completely naked, so he genuinely did not know how to react. The floating deity smiled at that innocent side of his, as it helped confirm that what she was about to do was the right thing.
“Rise, Sigmund,” she beckoned. “Rise above the deceit and lies that have plagued this world for millennia. Stand proud in a way that makes it clear you will not bend the knee in the face of adversity. Point those wilful eyes of yours forward, so that you may never lose sight of your ideals. And steel your heart, for what I am about to ask of you is a burden that will likely cost you dearly.”
The man did as instructed, doing his best to answer all of those lofty expectations, even if it meant staring at a sight that made him uncomfortable. He stood with his head held high, looked Teresa in the blindfold and slammed his right fist against his breastplate loud enough for the clang to echo across the divine space.
“What it is you request, my lady? Name it, and I shall give all that I have to see it done.”
“Become my Hero, Sigmund Law. Bear my wishes upon your broad shoulders and respectable muscles, so that we may lead humanity towards a brighter and more righteous future.”
Choosing this man as her herald was by no means an easy decision on Teresa’s part, nor was it one she had made lightly. The Goddess had been keeping a close eye not only on Sigmund, but many other Hero candidates ever since her rehabilitation. It was frankly rather ridiculous how huge that list got once she dropped the ‘blond blue-eyed hunk’ part of her requirements. But among them, Sigmund was without question the one who exhibited the exceptional strength of mind, faith and body she needed to set things right.
“It- It is both an honor and a privilege to even be considered for such a thing!” he said with a bow of his head. “If my lady deems me worthy, then I shall humbly accept.”
“Humility is good, but that is not why I chose you. What I expect of you is to wield my authority brazenly, loudly and confidently. You will make my flock listen, whether they like it or not. You are to show mercy to those who repent, but smite down all who oppose your duty. If you come across souls so lost in their own petty desires that they are unable to see the error of their ways, then you are to open their eyes with the most direct method possible - the careful and diligent application of violence. Do I make myself clear?”
Sigmund couldn’t help but crack a smile at those words. In other words, the time for half-baked measures was over, and the time for tough love was now.
“Understood, my lady. If that is your will, then I shall not hesitate to lay down the Law.”
“… That pun was terrible, and you should feel bad for making it.”
“Now go, my chosen Hero. Go and make humanity great again!”
Though the Lodrak Empire and its Inquisition didn’t know it yet, they were about to get themselves a brand new Grand Inquisitor. A man who in the months and years to come would become both feared and respected in equal measure. A man of absolute vigilance, but also profound kindness. Someone who would extend one hand to help those in need, while using the other to punch those who deserved it right in the face. Not even the Emperor himself was safe from having some truth and justice beaten into him.
Quite literally, in fact, as the brash monarch’s first meeting with the newly appointed Hero of the Hammer would end with him sporting a black eye and a broken nose.