Morning has arrived and the rain is still pouring outside. It began as a light drizzle but has only gained in strength since. To my annoyance, there is a leak somewhere in this house, and I’ve been listening to it for the entirety of my time sitting here. That’s right, we still haven’t received a response, and I’m growing more anxious by the hour. I can sense the closest mana stream shifting further away. If the signal isn’t received soon, we’ll have to venture into the hills to find another line.
Hm? It seems Lili is stirring from her slumber. It seems the rain didn’t bother her at all.
“Good morning, Lili. Do you still feel groggy?”
“E-enbos? Oh, that’s right. We were working on the array and… Has anyone received our signal since?”
“Sadly, no, and I’ve been channelling mana the entire night.”
“I’m sure all our hard work will be rewarded. Would you like me to take over?”
“No need to worry, I’m still full of mana. I picked up a skill from Hachirou’s father that allows me to absorb ambient energy to reinvigorate myself.”
“Truly!? How astonishing! If healers were to learn this technique-”
“Un~fortunately Lili, it only restocks spiritual energy. To recover mana, you’ll need to have <Soul Eater>, which is, well…”
“Oh. How regrettable.”
“Anyway, you best fetch something to eat and sit tight. The rain has been going strong and nobody has…”
Huh? Why is Lili so wide-eyed? Are ants crawling into my body again?
“The magic core is shining blue! Somebody has received our call of distress!”
I immediately snap back to the array, and sure enough, the stone is glowing with an azure light. I almost jump to my feet in elation, but I manage to restrain myself to continue channelling mana.
Talk about rewarding your faith! I’m glad all the time I spent was well worth it. Wait, could it be whoever is on the other side only now woke up and realised our call? Is that why they didn’t respond earlier!?
“Argh, who cares! All that matters is that help is on the way!”
“Thank the Lord for this blessing! But most of all, thank you Enbos. It wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
“The same to you, Lili, the same to you.”
“By the way, you can stop channelling mana now. A connection has already been established between the amulet and the receiver.”
“Right. Now, let’s go tell everybody the good news. Of course, we’ll need to adjust the story so that nobody will question your background.”
“A-actually Enbos, before we do… I think it would be best you heard the whole truth. I’ve said this before, but things are going to get… complicated for you.”
I deactivate the array and collect the pendant from the main circle. Joining Lili at the table, I drop the still-glowing item into her palms. A small smile appears on her face as she holds her precious heirloom.
“You know, it’s kind of relieving to finally tell somebody of this.”
“Funny, you didn’t look so relieved when I found out about your elven heritage.”
“T-that’s because I had no idea you knew at all! You suddenly spouted my secret along with my true name. S-speaking of which, you said I was of the Ascleson family, but I don’t believe you truly understood the significance of the fact.”
“Are you of peerage, Lili?”
“Yes, but there’s more to it than that. You see, the Ascleson family is-”
“Enbos! I-I have terrible news!”
Suddenly barging into the room, Hachirou is standing at the doorway in his masked form while speaking in a panicked tone. It’s obvious from his rain-drenched clothes that whatever happened was so urgent that he didn’t bother getting a rain cloak.
“What happened Hachirou!?”
“Are cultists heading our way!?”
“N-no, quite the opposite in fact! When I woke, I heard some commotion but everything fell silent afterwards. I thought everybody had retreated to cover from the rain, but when I left for breakfast, I-I discovered all the adventurers at the inn were gone! I-I think… I think Sen and the others are going after the cultists!”
The rain is heavy and the water-logged path is sapping the strength from our cattle as they pull a large, covered cage. Walking alongside the carriage, I pull my hood more tightly over my head, both to shield myself from the weather and to keep my face in shadow. Likewise, my five companions escorting the platform are wearing black rain cloaks with large hoods. Although troublesome, the rain is actually a blessing in disguise as we can hide our faces and equipment with ease. We need every advantage we can get for the coming endeavour.
“We’re almost upon the destination. Is everybody ready for this?”
“Ready as ever.”
“We’re getting uncomfortable waiting in the back.”
“I’m itching for some payback.”
“Don’t go expecting a fight! Remember that this is first and foremost a rescue mission. Either way, we’re going to prove Enbos was wrong.”
“… Are you still uneasy about not telling them, Sen?”
“I am, but I know Enbos would do everything in his power to stop us. Besides, it’s too late to turn back now.”
Yesterday evening, a messenger pigeon arrived at the Whistling Willow carrying a sealed letter. The message seemed to be from the cultists, who had assumed something was wrong with the communication item. Upon reading the letter, it turned out to be an order to deliver all captives to their main base… for “processing”. Upon learning this harrowing news, we grew more anxious about leaving our friends and loved ones in the cultist’s hands, which is why we’re going after the camps without Enbos or Lili’s knowing. There was still apprehension about the idea at first, but a certain piece of news pushed us past hesitation. To our dismay, we received word that the communication item was accidentally damaged by our salvaging. Enbos and Lili are still trying to fix the artefact, but it seems it will take at least a day.
“Don’t worry. All we have to do is keep up our charade and quietly collect the captives. It may not turn into a fight at all. By the time the enemy realises, I’m sure Master Enbos and the Holy Maiden will have completed the repairs.”
“I agree, Borris. Still, if it does turn into a fight, I want to show them we can hold our own. Don’t anybody dare die, you hear?”
“Oh, trust us Sen. We don’t want to die either. After all, I want survive long enough to laugh at my pal’s faces back home. They think I’m dead, after all.”
With one last round of laughter, the group then falls silent and redouble their concentration. As I look ahead, I feel then a few taps on my shoulder.
“I hope you know that even if everything goes perfectly, we would still have a lot at stake. Even if Enbos and Lili succeed today, it will take at least a day for the closest force to arrive. The longer it takes for the main cultist body to notice, the better.”
“I’m well aware of that, Minna. Still, I think it’s well worth the risk. By the way, I’m surprised you ever agreed to accompany us. You were so against our rescue plan right up to the end.”
“To be honest, I still think this is a bad idea, but… I swore to myself I would never leave your side again.”
“Thank you, Minna. I know I can be stubborn and stupid, but I’m really glad you’ve stuck by my side.”
She doesn’t say anything but gives a slight nod before returning to her prior position. I can’t see her face through her hood, but I can tell she is in a heavy mood. It seems she still bear some misplaced guilt, but really, I couldn’t have asked for a more dependable friend. If I didn’t know any better, I might have mistaken her words for a confession, but it just goes to show how strong our bond really is. The same kind of bond that we share with Eric.
“Eyes up, everybody. There is a spotter on that hill and he sees us coming.”
“I’ll go talk to him.”
“Alright, Borris. Be careful.”
As we slowly make our way around the hill, Borris runs up to the cultist scout. We can’t hear them from down here but it seems the conversation is going smoothly. For a moment, Borris gives a worrying jolt, but he quickly regains his composure. The cultist then turns away to blow a horn. However, as soon as he’s finished, our comrade immediately locks him in a strangle hold and they both fall out of sight. Flabbergasted by his deeds, Borris soon returns with a bloodied knife in his hand.
“W-why did you do that!? If they find his corpse later, the village will be-”
“I-I have bad news, Sen. It turns out the orders weren’t the same for all the camps! We have no choice but to silence them all.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying that all the captives here are being sacrificed instead!
“What!? Damn it! Quickly, we have to-”
“N-now hold on Sen, I haven’t finished. That scout informed his pals we were coming, so they’re going to postpone the ritual. We can still take our time and really hit them.”
“O-okay. Still, things are going to get bloody.”
“Yeah, they are. I’ll stay on the hill and look out for any trouble. Give those cultists hell for me.”
“We will, Borris. Come on, guys. It’s time.”
Keeping our heads slightly tilted, we continue heading towards their camp. It doesn’t take long for us to spot the site, and it seems as if they’ve completely hollowed out half a hill. Compared to the excavation sites in the Tiel Woods, this one is much larger with large shades to block out or divert the rain. Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be any ruins to be found. What we do find, however, are about a dozen captives, bound, gagged, blindfolded and herded into the heart of the area. Five cultists in dark rain cloaks are standing before us, awaiting our arrival. Their matching masks hide all intent and I begin to worry about our plan.
(Keep your calm, Sen. Are you sure you don’t want to switch with me?)
(I can handle this, Minna. Just leave it to me.)
(Okay, but I’ll provide support when you need it. Norf, please go check the tents while we distract them.)
“Hail, brother! What brings you here in this weather?”
“W-we received orders from our hierarch to deliver all captives back to base. We are here to collect.”
“Hm, how strange. Was Father Alan not informed of what we’re doing here?”
“Unfortunately, the communication item was recently damaged, so we were not aware you had other plans.”
“Ah, I see. Then, allow me to provide an update, brother. You see, we recently uncovered a valuable relic, but it is being protected by a powerful barrier.”
He points towards the centre of the group of captives, and sure enough, there is a rocky protrusion from the ground. On closer inspection, it looks like a ghastly arm made of ancient stone. it is half-swallowed by the ground and yet it’s large enough to reach the height of my chest. It may just be due to the rain or centuries of erosion, but the surface is reminiscent of melting flesh. What kind of insane artisan or manner of giant creature could inspire such an unholy thing? It looks as if it’s raising its fist against the heavens, but within its elongated claws, there is a dull sheen of some kind of jewel. For some reason, just looking at the plain-looking gem is chilling me to the bone, even more than the unnatural pedestal raising it. Although I cannot see this barrier, a circle has been drawn around it, and all the captives dare not approach the line despite being blindfolded.
“This relic has lasted for over two millennia, and yet, it’s defences are still strong to after surviving the ravages of time and nature. It even left a cavity when it was buried in the earth, and despite our best efforts, we can only dig around it. And that’s why we’ve resorted to this using ritual. We already received permission from our Hierarch to sacrifice these infidels, but I fear it may not be enough.”
“By the way, brother… is this the first we’ve met?”
“Well, Morris usually handles the transport of captives and I don’t believe I recognise you.”
“H-he’s been feeling under the weather. I was recently sent here by, erm, the higher ups.”
“Anyway, since you don’t have enough sacrifices, would you like to use some of the captives we have?” interjects Minna.
“Oh, what an astute suggestion, sister. Indeed, compared to their meagre lives, the relic will be of much greater value to the order.”
“You best inspect the prisoners first. You know, pick out the best ones.”
“Of course, brother. Karl, Harold, go open the carriage.”
Everybody is in position. The cultists are completely flanked. I spot Norf from the corner of my eye, and with a quick shake of his head, we confirm that nobody else is in those tents. As two of the cultists open the cage door…
The adventurers waiting inside pounce on the unsuspecting cultists. Likewise, I use <Toppling Sweep> to knock down my target. His head hits the ground hard, and before he can recover, I impale his throat and shatter his vertebrae. He doesn’t even flail as he quietly passes away. I quickly dislodge my spear and prepare for my next target, but…
“… Wait, is that it?”
“Yeah, we got them all.”
“Well… That was easy. Were we really held captive by these guys for so long?”
“This one is still twitching, but other than that, they didn’t even struggle.”
“Haha. Seriously, I have no idea why Enbos was so worried. He said we should look out for their hierarch, but if they’re this much of a joke, I wouldn’t mind fighting him at all.”
“You got that right!”
“Okay guys, enough chit chat. The captives are still bound and they have no idea what is going on.”
“Right, Minna. Come on, you guys, let’s take them home.”
We set about unbinding the prisoners, and with each person freed, we’re rewarded with their undying gratitude. Seeing them hug each other with their frail limbs reassures me that our actions were right. However, upon looking around I soon realise…
“… He’s not here, Minna.”
“Yeah, I noticed as well.”
“Do you… Do you think we’ll find him at the next camp?”
“Sigh, to be honest, Sen, I don’t. Eric is a B-rank adventurer, and if I were them, I would put him somewhere more secure. While the chances are not zero, there are only a few sites left.”
“Yeah, and it really makes me think about Enbos’ words…. But even so, I think it’s worth it for their smiles.”
“Maybe, Sen, maybe…”
Still, as glad as I am, I can’t help but feel really uneasy. It all went a little too well. These guys were nowhere near as tenacious or fanatical as I remember. Am I missing something?
As I ponder my discomfort, Norf fetches blankets for the shivering captives. They continue to express their gratitude as they accept the sheets.
“T-thank you so much. We almost froze to death when they dragged us into that circle and made us wait for what must have been an hour!”
Wait, an hour!? Why would the cultists leave them for so… Oh no.
Blood rushes to my head as I race to inspect the cultist I killed. I realise that there is far too little blood for somebody who was stabbed through the throat, and with terrible foreboding, I tear off his mask to examine his face.
It’s a corpse alright, but the sunken eyes and discoloured skin suggests he has been dead long before I met him. My heart beats even faster as I spot the large glass orb crammed his jaw, reflecting my horrible epiphany.
“RUN! IT’S A TRAP!”
I’m too late. By the time the others become aware of my words, the ground is suddenly covered in a layer of black. Hundreds of dark tendrils rise from the earth and wrap themselves around us. Unable to break free, everybody is pinned to the ground and forced to watch as five cultists rise from the earth around us.
Damn it, the circle around the prisoners was a ruse. The real one was much larger and we’re all inside it! They must have known well before our arrival to prepare such a trap, b-but how did they know?
I force myself to my knees, and as I look up, I suddenly receive my answer: one of our own is standing outside of the circle.
“Damn you, you dastard! Why did you decide to betray us?”
“Betrayed you, ya say? How rude. On da contraree, I’d like ta fink I’mma very loyal guy indeed.”
All of a sudden, my mind goes empty as all my rage is suddenly replaced with shock horror. I slowly shake my head in disbelief upon hearing that familiar voice coming out of the cruel smile on Borris’ face. Beside me, Minna and Norf are equally stunned as their expressions turn sickly pale.
“Man, ya know how lucky it was dat wannov da guys ya caught was a mage, and dat da guard was poor Borris ‘ere? Bless Maleosis dat it was someone wiv a similar build. It was a quick job, but I fink this face turned out quite well.”
“Y-you… You monster! You killed Borris and- Wait, you even killed your brethren at the gaol, didn’t you!?”
“Please, don’t start gettin’ emoshunal about Borris. Afta all, you neva really met da guy. As fer my brothers and sisters, dere deafs were not in vain.”
“You son of a troll! This isn’t over. It won’t be long before Enbos and Lili get in touch with Catorrem and-”
“And wiv wat, I wonder? Ya mean dis?”
My heart almost stops as he pulls out a large crystal ball from his bag. Although I’m not a mage, anyone can tell that what he’s holding is the communication item.
“N-no way. Why do you…”
“Seriously, did ya forget who was da who told ya Enbos and Lili were fixin’ da item? Dat’s rite, it was me. Ta be honest, dis is acshally my own communicashun item. How else do ya fink I coordinated all my trips from da other side of da Vivian Forest? As fer da one back at de village, I “accidently” broke it and took away its magic core. Ya friends have been tryin’ to build one from scratch all along, and I’ll tell ya now, it takes a lo~ng time ta make one of doze.”
“B-but if that’s true…”
Why didn’t Enbos or Lili tell us sooner?
“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” spits Minna as she glares at him with fierce eyes.
“Oh pleez, ya neva had a chance anyway.”
“Did ya really fink His Holiness didunt know? He was informed da moment we realised ya escaped our trap. Furthermore, he knows wheneva one of us passes on. Even if I had died, da others woulda visited ya and dragged ya here by force. Instead, he was wize enuff ta make use of ya ignorance. Once we’re done, we’ll be dealin’ with ya three pals and da villagers ya so kindly left alone.”
“Damn it! I hope you die a horrible death, Mr Kell!”
“He already has. Anyway, as much as I enjoy talkin’ wiv ya… it is time.”
He directs his attention to the glass orb, and with a quick chant, it begins to glow. A hazy face appears on the surface, to which “Mr Kell” says, “Everything has gone as planned. We are ready, Your Holiness Tascus.”
“… Proceed, my son.”
A faint voice comes from the crystal ball, and for some reason, its deep and commanding tone suffocates my wrath. Nodding in affirmation, “Mr Kell” takes a small wooden idol from one of his colleagues and carefully places it on a small clearing outside of the rain.
Suddenly, despite the rain falling above us, it feels as if the air is becoming much drier. The hairs on my hands and neck are standing on ends. As I try to calm my heart from beating out of my chest, the sinister idol begins to hum.
S-something is coming. Something worth all our combined dread… and more.
The low drone becomes a violent rumble as the very air reverberates with power. The idol suddenly explodes, but instead of splinters or flames, a cloud of pitch-black miasma expands then lingers in place. It is soon followed by the sound of a light thud, like two feet landing on the damp earth. While the dark haze vanishes into nothingness, my eyes widen in equal parts awe and dread upon spying the overwhelming figure standing in its place.
Clothed in ebon robes made from exquisite silk, embroidered with unholy inscriptions in golden thread, he towers everyone in both size and presence. He might even be taller than Norf, with a broad frame to match his height. I have never seen a man inspire such macabre majesty. His waist is lined with ivory tipped scrolls made from ghastly leather hides. The long staff in his hand looks as if it were made from an assortment of human bones, before being dipped in liquid gold. But most striking of all is his illustrious mask, which is gilded with the same precious metal and bears the unquestionable semblance of a proud and mighty ram.
Naturally, I’m reminded of Enbos’ dark garb and animal-shaped mask, but everything else between them couldn’t be more different. Even his aura doesn’t inspire as much fear as it does before an enraged Enbos. Instead, I sense a far more worrying feeling before his avatar of death and decadence: resignation.
Seeing their beloved hierarch appear, all the cultists promptly drop to their knees, even the ones still maintaining our entrapment.
“You have done well, my sons.”
“Thank you, Your Holiness. Your words are too kind.”
“We only did as per your careful instruction.”
“And the rest of my children in Kasseus?”
“They all chose to offer their lives in penance rather than delay the Ascension. I deliver their souls to you…”
Reaching into his bag, “Mr Kell” takes out a small, sealed jar that is glowing with a ethereal hue. The hierarch take the offering and holds it up for inspection. He offers a silent prayer before attaching it his belt.
“May their souls rejoice in death, for their sacrifice shall soon benefit the Order, as will the lives of these lost lambs. May you all rest in peace, knowing your aimless lives have at last achieved meaning.”
“R-rest in peace? How can you have the nerve to say such a thing when your own lives have been nothing but a blight on humanity!?”
While a scowl appears on “Mr Kell’s” face, the hierarch raises his hand to stop him. Swallowing my spit, I glare at him with empty bravado as I draw his full attention. My mind is screaming at me to stay silent, but the despair in my heart seems to have loosened my tongue. Surprisingly, he even kneels before me to better meet my gaze. I hear the clatter of metal and realise he is wearing armour beneath his extravagant robe.
“Your Holiness, we don’t have to entertain-”
“Let him speak, my child. It is only right to hear his final words, especially when so few have dared to do so before me. Now tell me Sen, do you truly believe we serve no greater purpose?”
“L-like what? Satisfying your bloodthirsty god? Y-you and your ilk have stolen hundreds, n-no, thousands of innocent lives before turning them against their kin. You terrorise society and spread chaos wherever you go. Now, you want to sacrifice us for some stupid gem in a rock. How can someone justify any of those things and still call themselves human!?”
“An understandable thought, but a mistaken one nonetheless. On the contrary, we only act as such because we are driven by such a noble cause. And what we strive for is, and has always been… an Eden for all.”
“Maleosis demands, but He also gives. Every life we take is another brick paved towards paradise. I can see the disbelief in your eyes, but when you truly consider, it is a small price to pay for everlasting peace. Far more blood has been spilt for the Church of Eden, and although we desire the same vision for humanity, well, at least in principle, their ways have led to nothing but ignorance, vanity and stagnation. No. Only Maleosis can shine the true path to Eden, and I intend to be His greatest shepherd.”
“D-do you seriously believe what you are saying!? You’re nothing but a self-styled messiah.”
“O my child, you truly have no idea what that “gem” really is. Sadly, it seems you have rejected my wisdom, along with any peace you could have hoped to gleam in your final moment. I pray some of you will find solace from knowing of our earnest pursuit of Eden. May your next incarnations be in that wonderful world.”
I can feel the blood drain from my face as Tascus rises to his feet and takes one of his leather scrolls. A hint of warmth reaches my palm, and I turn to find Minna holding my hand. Everybody has the same look of exasperated despair as this madman’s aura is crushing any and all desperation or frustration. I grip Minna’s hand in return and gaze deep into her teary eyes.
“I’m sorry, Minna. You deserved better…”
“[O Mighty Maleosis, hear my-]”
All of a sudden, a familiar voice echoes all around us as said projectile tears through the rain shade and comes flying towards the hierarch. To my disbelief, he handily catches the explosive skill and then crushes it in his hand. It explodes with violent force, but he emerges completely unscathed with the scroll equally intact. However, his attention has clearly been diverted as he stops his chanting to find his attacker.
No… Don’t tell me…
“Seriously, how many times does this make? Three, I guess? Why are you always in trouble whenever I’m not around? You might as well put on a blonde wig to make yourself easier to spot.”
Standing atop of hollowed hill, with the silhouette of a undaunted stag, Enbos stares down at everybody and the monstrous ram watching him with keen interest.