I am Brother Mordecai, Paladin of the 9th Order. And this is where I die.
Who can say how long the war against the Demon Lord’s forces has been waged? Centuries? More? As long as there has been an Order, there has been a demon army to oppose it, and the Order has stood for time immemorial. It is our first, last, and only bastion against the predations of witchcraft and blasphemy. It is the Gods’ will made manifest, and it has waged this war for years unending.
It is a war we are now losing.
Who can say why the Demon Lord chose, one bleak and misbegotten day, to transfigure all of their forces into infernal mockeries of our women? No sane man can say, and none dare to listen to the ravings of our enemies regarding the matter. But all know this: the Order has been losing ever since that day, the day where iron and steel became nothing but useless scrap in the face of a new, terrifying enemy.
You have not seen them in the field. Seen their active demonic mana fields turn spear strikes into pinpricks, halberd swings into mere playful slaps, and the thrust of a blade into little more than an annoyance. Seen them walk through our mages’ fire as if it simply tired them. Where the armies of the fey once respected our feats of arms, now they find it but a trifling distraction.
No, worse. They find it an amusement.
Have you seen an arachnid woman-beast charge through a formation of pikemen, as wheat before a scythe? Have you seen its talons lash out, men crumpling inwards with their armour shredded to scraps, but with not a mark upon them? Have you heard the obscene noises of them writhing in what should have been agony, wracked with spasms of hideous pleasure, while the beast simply grins and continues? It is an ungodly, accursed sight, and one I will never burn from my memory so long as I live.
I have tried. By the Gods, I have tried.
The front lines have been going backwards, village by village, town by town. Our only hope has been to slow them, to throw our useless weapons against them until they grow bored and retire from the field, buying every second of precious time for our rearguard to evacuate the townspeople to the nearest Order fortresses. We have reports from the precious few of our scouts that have returned from the monster-held lands, and the picture they paint is grim indeed – they speak of villages where man and monster cohabit, like some mockery of our own lives. Our mages have concluded that they are either being held under geis, or otherwise enslaved and pacified by unclean magicks.
We can contemplate few fates that are worse.
There are dissenters and turncoats, of course. Madmen that babble on about cooperation and understanding, as if the Order is somehow wrong in wanting to survive, free of monsters and demons. If we are lucky, they are given a few weeks in the stockades for their blasphemies. It’s the cunning ones, the ones that manage to escape, that bode ill for us.
Incubi, I have heard them called. Blasted copies of noble knights, bathed in auras of dark glory, linchpins in the Demon Lord’s lines. A mere handful of us have ever fought one and won, for they are soaked in the same damnable energies as the monsters they cavort with. They are the worst insults against the Gods made manifest, blasphemy given form and function. I have seen them in the field, and the mere memory of it still makes my stomach churn.
It is in these dark times that I now stand. It is the dawn of the Nineteenth Crusade, and the twenty-seventh year of my life.
Ah, but who am I?
I am Brother Mordecai, Paladin of the 9th Order. This is my calling.
The life of a knight is all I have ever known, for my mother was a knight herself, my father a battlemage. They and the Order raised me, moulded me into what I am – a warrior without peer, raised to fight the armies of the Demon Lord, to slay all who would not yield before me, and to bring the message of the Gods to every misbegotten corner of their lands. I chose to master the greatsword, perfected the art of the two-handed blade until I could wield it as easily as I wielded my very breath. When Brother Adalvald retired from duty, I was the natural fit to replace him.
I had been in his position for naught but a year when the Change occurred.
How can you know what it feels like to have your life’s work, your very reason for being, rendered null and impotent? To find that all of your blade-craft and discipline, once the bane of any demon foolish enough to cross you, was now but a party trick? It has been years since the Change, and the bitterness seethes within me still. I hate myself for it, but at the same time I cannot let it go. Not now. Perhaps that bitterness is part of what still drives forwards.
My brethren and laymen alike still call me Paladin, their faces beaming with pride. I am not fit to wear that mantle, not any more – who among us is? But I bury my misgivings and continue as their light of hope and divine right, for that is what it means to be a Paladin of Order.
That is what it means to be me.
To call the Order ‘the’ Order is to be somewhat reductive, for such an organisation to exist on that kind of scale with a single core of leadership would be a logistical nightmare. Though all submit to the judgements of the Synod, every demesne has its own ‘branch’ of the Order, a more direct link between the Gods and their devout servants. I am of the 9th Order, hearth-homed in Valenheim, kith and kin to the 8th.
And, of course, the 10th. May the Gods remember their loss. Some say they still hear the shrieks of obscene pleasure from Mordant’s Watch, when the winds blow right.
The Nineteenth Crusade is such a grand, noble idea. A counter-thrust into the territory of the Demon Lord, a grand quest to occupy their forces long enough for the 8th Order to withdraw the laymen of the border villages back towards the safety of the Order’s citadels. It is to be the first Crusade in history without a Saint at its head, for in these dark times Man has to seize the reins of Destiny with their own hands.
Suicide, of course. But precious little isn’t, these days.
I volunteer. Of course I do. So do countless others. Many sign up because they know that Paladin Mordecai – Mordecai the Golden, Bastard Blade Mordecai – will be leading them. The thought both comforts and saddens me in equal measure. I am glad to see that they still have hope, even in hours as dark as these. But I wonder to myself how many men and women would have remained safe behind our lines, had I not been here to inspire them to enlist. Knight and yeoman alike attend Bishop Selene’s inaugural address in Valenheim, each and every one eager to do their part, safe in the knowledge that the Gods and the Eighteen Saints alike are with them and that their actions will save countless others.
I admit, her words give fire to even my tired bones. I let the flame of hope flicker, nurture it, keep it close. At last I have a cause I can believe in with all of my might. Gods be with us, I shout with the crowds. The Gods will it. I march out at the van of a force of hundreds – mounted knights, halberdiers, spearmen, arbalesters, archers – and with them I set out to enact the Gods’ will. The chime of bells is in the air, and the scent of grass is upon the breeze.
Nineteen days. It is nineteen days before we fell. What a damned auspicious number.
They’d known, of course. Some turncoat bastard in our ranks, I’d wager. We march for two weeks with naught but a handful of monsters in sight, driven off easily. Too easily, in hindsight. Every village and township we find is half-filled with seemingly untouched and unharmed villagers – apparently not under the thrall of the Demon Lord, but curiously ambivalent to our presence. When Bishop Selene proselytises to them and renders unto them the word of the Gods, returned to save their lost kin, she is met with blank stares and grunts of disinterest. We can get nothing out of them save for a courtesy tithe of food for our supply train, and when we leave, we feel their eyes drilling into our backs.
Every township. Every village. It starts to grate on us. Grate on me. We catch glimpses of some of them at night, running between their houses, despite the clear and present danger of monster attacks. None of us know why. Why do they treat their fellow Man as total strangers?
And more importantly, where have half of them gone?
They attack on Gespenstersnacht, the Night of Ghosts. We should have been celebrating a seasonal festival, but not one of us dares to let down our watch – not that it matters. Harpies from the blackness of the night sky, in and amongst our supply train before any arbalester can loose his bolts, shaking off arrows with feathered wings. I see a dragon-witch pluck an entire cart filled with provisions from the ground, the yeomen clinging to it screaming for dear life as it flew away. I know then that it had taken its food – and it hadn’t been what was in the crates.
I don’t shudder, as I once had. It is a sight I’d had to grow used to.
The night is lit only by our torches, and the infernal flames of Order battlemage and Demon Lord sorcerer alike. I rally to defend the Bishop and her entourage, and yeoman and knight alike rally around me in turn. We are a wall of faith and steel, and though our metal may have been but a pinprick against a wall of flesh, our faith holds true.
Faith and… other things. Things I am not proud of. Things I would gladly do again, for the Order.
Godsblood, it is called. None save the highest Order alchemists know how to concoct it, a brew rarer than gold itself. A single phial can turn a warrior into an act of nature, their reactions multiplied tenfold, every strike a lightning blow. It is a process as lethal to others as it is to the imbiber, for it makes one’s blood literally boil – the only antidote is the restorative ambrosia, as rare as its counterpart. In the days before the Change, it was our superweapon. A Crusade would be lucky to have a handful to spare for the entire army.
I have four phials of them alone. Four in claret and four in gold, the destroyer and the restorer. Such innocuous little bottles for so potent a creation. No larger than my smallest finger.
I spend the first phial of godsblood that day, in defence of the Bishop. My blade spins as a whirling dervish, a flash of argent metal in the face of the Demon Lord’s horde. Greatswords are weapons made to combat horses and cut the tips of spears – only my training and my reactions make it workable here. It is a fine weapon, of meteorite steel, the metal damascened and thrice-blessed – the only metal any of these damned beasts seemed to react to. And even then, it didn’t kill them – it simply wore them out, sapping their stamina until they withdrew from fatigue.
But an advantage, any advantage, is what we need. And it is what I am.
“Rally!,” I hear men shout. “Rally around the Paladin!” The sword makes me distinctive. Bastard Blade, indeed.
Selene is too proud for her own good, refusing to cower in her procession cart, fighting alongside us in full plate, mace in one hand and shield in the other. She stands in the pocket I carve in the enemy’s ranks, loyal retainers at her side, shouting and bellowing and invoking the fury of the Gods themselves, every inch the warrior-priestess. She made a fine bishop of the Order, and would have made an even finer cardinal.
It is when the godsblood at last runs dry when she finally falls, fighting to the end, holding the demons and beasts back while yeomen drag me to safety. I can only watch in impotence, too fatigued to so much as cough in anger, as she lands a blow in an albino demoness’ face that should have twisted its neck backwards, only for the strike to simply bruise and annoy it as its accursed mana rendered it null and void. I lie useless, waiting for the ambrosia to hurry up and do its damned work, while a hero falls.
I am alive thanks to her. It should have been me in that throng of monsters. But such is the cruelty of fate.
Days pass. Days of constant marching, the few yeomen who have rallied around me following me doggedly onwards as I strive to keep the Crusade going just a little longer. Days of near constant harassment by roving bands of monsters, every engagement another yeoman lost. And yet every day is a day the Demon Lord’s cohorts spend hunting us, instead of being on the front lines, each beast a beast not hunting a defenceless villager back home. That makes it worth it. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Tell everyone. Damn them, but they believe it with all of their heart.
Days become a week. Two more half empty villages of uncooperative locals, devoid of monsters yet glad to see the backs of us – when some among us elect to remain behind with them, none of us have the heart to deny them. Some want to stay and defend these clearly helpless villagers – why else would half of their townsfolk be missing, if not for monster predation? Others are simply too tired to go on, for even the light of faith will burn out its candle eventually. I bid them good fortune, for that is all I can offer them.
The townsfolk smile at their new protectors, welcoming, their expressions earnest and true. It is the only time we ever see them thus. It troubles me more than their ambivalence ever did.
My second and third vials of godsblood become naught but empty glass, when no other option presents itself. It is here that we experience the Visitation – as many of the yeomen came to call it. One amongst the monster horde is different, almost human save for a pair of brilliant white wings, in mockery of a true angel of our faith. It wears Selene’s face and speaks with her voice. It bears her mace, her shield, her coat of arms, all bathed in a white radiance. It comes to us at midnight, the twilit air rendered as daylight by its glow. It insists that it is her, that we were wrong, that our will to hate and keep hating made us blind to a chance to coexist. That her abhorrent transformation was something she was offered freely by the Gods, and chose to accept.
That there is always a choice, and we should make the right one.
We pause. I pause. How can I not? Part of me wonders if this really could be Selene – it has her palpable confidence, her smile, even the unrestrained energy in her voice. It is almost a better Selene than Selene herself – not simply the Bishop in her prime, but beyond it, glorified and rendered magnificent. Surely… surely only the Gods themselves could make it thus? Bishop Selene, incorruptible, unwavering – when has her faith ever been in doubt? What if it – if she – is right?
What if I am wrong?
I can see many of my kin edge towards her as she speaks, drawn as moths to flame. They are loyal, as they always have been – but loyal to the faith, to the Order, an Order whose word they now see comes from supposedly divine lips. The already meagre party has split in twain – those who would follow me, unquestioning, and those who heed the words of that which calls itself Selene.
I take a step forward. Two. Then…
…then I remember what word the false Selene speaks, praising beasts who even but a handful of hours ago took my brethren from me. No god would render it thus. Not this mockery of Man.
I cut its head from its lying shoulders. At least, I want to. Mortal blades cannot pierce the flesh of beasts, but Man is more than capable of slaying His brothers. I know that to strike at Selene is to doom good men on both sides to a death by fratricide. Part of me insists that this is all to the good – that they are blasphemers, taken in by a false prophet, and that they will fall in ignominy if they dare to raise arms against me.
But I am tired. So very tired. I will brook no more death tonight. Not here.
I bid them take leave before I rethink my mercy. The false Selene smiles weakly before she goes, half of my yeomen going with her – with it. The light of its radiance leaves us, and the twilight descends once more, leaving me with naught but my thoughts, and but a fraction of my starting force.
I shudder, and it is not from the cold of the night’s air.
We march on because by now there is no other option. By the end of the second week it is just me left – the last of my kin, Anais, goes down to a monsters with the tail of a snake, meters of lethal, coiled muscle. He vanishes, limp and slack-jawed in hideous delight, amidst their coils as they withdraw. That they do not bother to even try to fight me insults me more than anything, though only in hindsight do I realise that they had outnumbered me – they could have won, and chose to leave me be.
That thought alone unsettles me.
The end of the third week comes and goes. I have gone for days, running on enough hours of sleep to be counted on one hand. My armour, hardly shining from the outset, is caked in filth and the char of magical fires. Monsters find me, look upon my bedraggled form, hear my hoarse excuse of a war cry as I raise my blade, and simply… leave, as if the maudlin nature of my presence repels them more than any spear or shield ever could. I am driven only by…
What… what drives me? I cannot say. All I know is that the only direction is forward.
My few dreams are fitful, erratic. I dream of lights in the sky, of the chime of bells at sermon, of the scent of grass wafting on the breeze, and of choirs – their tune unnatural, otherworldly. The lights seem to follow me into my waking hours, as if the stars themselves are trying to point me onwards, hallucinating as I walk when sleep no longer takes me.
Or perhaps they don’t. Perhaps I am simply going mad. But the Nineteenth Crusade has gone on for too long for something as trivial as its last crusader going mad to stop it.
Only one dream can be described as lucid in any sense. I sit at a table, surrounded on all sides by books, leafing through a weighty tome under the light of candles. I cannot read a word of it, yet in the strange world of dreams it brings me earnest pleasure regardless, drinking in the gibberish letters as a fine wine – only in dreams can I seem to find peace like this. For hours upon hours do I sit and read, finishing one work and making to start another, before I hear the rustle of paper behind me.
It is my dear companion. Of course it is. I do not need to turn to see that, something my dream self has simply taken as fact. They exchange words with me, utter nonsense language, and I reply in kind. She laughs, a resonant, syllabic chime of impossibly beautiful notes, as a feather flutters down from over my shoulder and lands on the open page of my book. I turn to face my companion and –
– light, pure, radiant, incandescent, burning, burning –
They called this place Pilgrim’s Rest, once, before the Change drove us back. It was never particularly special, I am told, but it always seemed to attract a steady procession of wandering priests and pilgrims alike. It was a place for the exchange of treatises and tomes, for idle theological debate and the furthering of one’s knowledge of the Gods. I am also told it was quite quaintly picturesque.
I am too tired to see that. Not now.
It is yet another damned township without a monster in sight. Yet this one is somehow… different. The layfolk come out to watch me pass, as they always have, yet this time they are smiling. It is a warm, gentle smile of a folk happily welcoming a long lost friend. They offer me food, which I accept, and a hot bath and warm mead, which I don’t. My insistence that a horde of beast-women marches behind me and will come for them any day now is met with a polite lack of cognition. Their hospitality is neither insidious nor seems to carry any hidden malice. It is genuine.
And that unnerves me more than anything.
One of them – Hector? Harold? Their names and faces blur together – points me in the direction of the chapel. It is an unassuming work of stone and stained glass, humble and lacking in ostentation. He says that no priest has ever manned it, yet it is in pristine condition. By this stage I am too fatigued to question any of it.
Something he says catches me off-guard. I wearily ask him to repeat it.
“Oh, the patron?” He smiles, in that infuriatingly genuine way they all smile. “Why, the Nineteenth Saint, of course.”
Nineteen. A damned auspicious number. That, more than anything, is a sign from the Gods I cannot ignore.
I am Brother Mordecai, Paladin of the 9th Order. And this is where I die.
This chapel will be my fortress, where I shall make my final stand. It will be my tomb, where I shall draw my final breath. And neither a castellan nor a caretaker will choose either without first inspecting it.
It is as spotless inside as it was outside. The pews are perfectly lined up, the wood lovingly varnished, nary a fray or patch of miscoloured fabric upon the padded seats. The stained glass windows are perfectly kept, yet no-one claims to ever have cleaned them. Candles line the building, their wax and tallow untouched, yet not a pinprick of dust upon any of them. The cellar is stocked with books, a veritable theological library, the only place the locals ever seem to touch – and even then, it is pristine beyond any man’s capacity to keep it clean. The candles here are lit, yet their wax remains unconsumed.
Part of me remembers a time when I wanted to be a librarian, or a priest – to take up the book instead of the blade. It is a desire I never voiced to anyone, for fear of being seen as a coward, too timid to continue his life as a knight-errant. Were those fears of judgement unfounded? It is far too late to say.
All of it, pristine. Near untouched. The exception to all of this is the statue.
Ah, yes. The statue.
It is of an angel – that much is unmistakeable. Were she to stand in front of me, she would easily be a full half a head taller than me even in my full plate, though she is posed in a way that does little to accentuate this even further – sculpted as if kneeling upon her oblong plinth, hands outstretched in welcome. If one stands in front of her, a pattern in the window behind her places a crown of concentric golden halos around her head – even in my fatigued state, I can appreciate the genius of the craft. She smiles with a warmth that is achingly well sculpted, though her eyes are occluded.
Six great wings extend from her frame, three pairs of two – four curve forwards from her back in a flattened X shape, their wingspan easily twice her own height, wide enough to engulf two whole men at full spread, while a third pair crosses her eyes in divine imitation of a blindfold. Her hair is sculpted to be long, flowing down to her shoulders and across her chest, clad as she is in a rendition of a simple robe. There is an inscription carved into the base of the plinth, which takes me a few weary attempts to read.
ALL SHALL BE WELL
AND ALL MANNER OF THING SHALL BE WELL
FOR FATE SMILES MOST UPON THE PATIENT
It is the only thing in the entire building that looks anywhere near as untended to as it should be, the stone strangely intact, yet coated in a layer of dust. The idea that the townsfolk would leave such a work of majesty to gather dust is, frankly, insulting, and it takes no small force of will to stop myself reaching out towards the statue and –
I stop. Pause. Collect myself. Now is not the time to be cleaning sculpture, not matter how holy. It is a time to make peace with myself, and face my end. With my level of fatigue, I know that this will be my final stand, no matter the outcome – I will burn myself out on the last phial of godsblood long before any amount of ambrosia can take effect. I will light my life’s candle at both ends and dare any bastard monster who comes near to burn themselves upon it, until the Gods see fit to finally remove me from this mortal coil. At last, the Nineteenth Crusade will end, and it will end with me.
Mordecai the Golden. Bastard Blade Mordecai. Paladin of the 9th Order.
I stare at the statue. It would not do well to take one’s last rites with their altar in such a shameful state. I procure a cloth from an unusually well stocked (and unused) side nave in the chapel and set to work, undoing what must have been countless years of gathered detritus. The stone is almost warm to the touch, more than the steady gaze of the sun through the window would allow, though in my state I do not think much of this. The dust practically leaps away from the statue, offering practically no resistance, yet such is the level of build-up that the work takes a while regardless.
The sun doesn’t seem to move in the sky. It lines up with the window, then halts, as if it, too, is too tired to continue.
My task is finished, the cloth returned to its nave. I stare at my last phial of godsblood – such an innocuous little thing – for… for a time. I no longer remember how long. It is with no small effort that I leave it to hang back at my waist. I have but one more task to attend to. One more task.
“Hail, my lady.” A strangled croak is the best I can muster. It seems ill-fitted to address a maiden of the Gods, stone or otherwise. “Fate has acquainted us with strange bedfellows, it would seem.”
I smile, weakly, before coughing. It is not my finest soliloquy.
I draw my blade, placing it tip-first on the stone flooring in front of the statue, hands placed upon the crossguard. I have removed my helm – it clatters to the floor ungraciously. I am too worn out to notice that it is not at my belt. For the first time in what feels like weeks, I can hear my own breathing – ragged, uneven, throat parched. I look upon the face of the angel’s statue, and I prepare my final vows. I am tired. So very tired.
I make to speak. No words come.
The world spins, then twists, then inverts itself. I am barely cognisant of the fact that I am keeling over. I try to balance my weight on my sword – and fail, miserably, the blade skittering off as the tip slips on the cool stone flooring, throwing off my posture. A sixth of a ton of plate armour and Paladin crumples forwards, skewing around as it goes, the back of my head coming to an abrupt rest on the statue plinth.
The sound of glass shattering. The godsblood came loose. The claret liquid hisses and bubbles as it spills across the floor, eating into the pristine stone.
The statue is warm. Welcoming, almost. And I am so very, very tired.
My last sight is the ceiling, and the angel’s wings of stone curling out above me. My last thoughts are of relief, a rest well earned, and –
It is everything and everywhere and all things at once. All is the light and the light is all. It is a cold, white glare of absolute nothing, and it is everything.
The chime of bells. Grass, upon the breeze.
And yet, even in this light there may still be radiance. For this new light is gold, the gold of honey and warmth and a hundred thousand sunbeams. It is the brilliance born of a child of the heavens, piercing and pure, a fragment of divinity given form.
And lo, what a form it is.
Wheels within wheels, spinning at maddening speed. Wings of prismatic ebullience, too many to count, softly undulating in a non-existent breeze. A hundred eyes and a thousand more, for nothing may be beyond its sight. And a halo, rings of gold inset within one another, stretching upwards into infinity. This is its pure, untamed, primal form, a sliver of godliness given spark and animus. It is her form.
For hers is the Glory, and long is its reach.
Since time immemorial has she waited, watching from on high as the great mortal coils of the universe merrily spin, and the music of the spheres resounds as one sibilant choir of creation. Eighteen came before her, eighteen equally brilliant sparks of the Divine, each descending to the realm of the Mundane to seek their chosen ones. To be a vector of the Gods’ own will, and to visit that will upon Mankind – that is why they were created. To show Man that they were loved, and could love in turn.
For they set their rainbows in the clouds, the covenant between Heaven and Earth.
The coming of the new Demon Lord was such a joyous day – a queen of unprecedented concord, whose… unorthodox methods could perhaps have finally ended the wars between monsters and humans, working as she did her grand spell of transfiguration. But alas, faith makes blind men of even the most far-seeing priest, and the blades of humanity never rest, no matter how dull their metal becomes.
But no light in existence can blind the Divine.
She has foreseen this since before the first champion of Man raised his spear and proclaimed ‘ORDER’ – and she has acted, in her own way. After all, what is Fate to one such as her but yet another constant to be gently caressed, to be worked into an artform, as a sculptor fashions clay? A chance meeting between two eligible humans here, an immaculate conception for two smitten warrioresses there, a handful of fairy-tale escapes for star-crossed lovers…
Nineteenth is her fate. It always was, and always will be. Who is to say she cannot make it a little sweeter?
And thus does uncounted aeons of careful shaping and gentle encouragement come to its apex, in a church built for one specific purpose by long passed artisans, the home of a preacher who would not be born for centuries more. A place not even dust dares to touch, save for a single piece of unassuming stone.
And lo, from the heavens comes a streak of kaleidoscopic lightning, punching a swirling hole straight through the clouds. It strikes the chapel with a resounding CRACK, travelling through stone, snaking its way through mortar and glass, leaping from the very tip of the vaulted ceiling to touch upon the statue below. The fragment glows in unabashed joy as the whole comes down from on high to rejoin it once more, and, in a blinding flash of pure, brilliant light, they become One.
There is a peal of thunder beyond compare. Glass shatters for miles around, then stops, the shards lazily retracing their arcs and sealing themselves back into place.
Let all who bear witness know that they shall not be afraid, for they have looked upon GLORY, and it shall be Glory evermore. And all shall be right with the world.
A face that has not moved in centuries looks down, and sees her fated charge upon her step. For he finds favour in her sight, and she knows him by name, as she has for millennia before his conception.
A smile touches her lips, lips that bring their first taste of the air of the Mundane. The chime of bells. Grass, upon the breeze.
I am Brother Mordecai, Paladin of…
… is that what I am? Once was? Have yet to be? Time seems to have given up on making any sort of rational sense. All I know is that I am dead.
My vision is nothing but light, blinding, yet strangely causing me no pain. Everything blazes gold, hints of rainbow hue dancing at the corners of my vision. I feel as if I am floating, my body weightless, my head resting on something impossibly soft and pleasantly warm. I am…
…I am comfortable. I have not known that word for over a month. The very notion seems alien. I suppose that eternal comfort is something Heaven is known for.
“Indeed, my dear. Eternal and everlasting.”
A voice cuts into me as a blade through vellum, echoing with the force of thunder from everywhere at once. For a moment I forget myself – my training, my years of combat experience – and panic. I an utterly helpless and –
“Be still, my dear. Be still. Be not afraid.”
The voice is calm, patient, despite its sonorous delivery. For a moment I blink, and –
– a hundred eyes and a thousand more, wings beyond recount, a halo into infinity, the wheels, the wheels, the wheels –
“Be not afraid.”
– the chime of bells.
Grass, upon the breeze.
I am… I am…
… Mordecai. This, I know.
The ceiling of the chapel arches above me, rendered indistinct by the omnipresent, gently glimmering haze in the air, as if the lights of a dozen candles have been set free from their tallow and left to roam. I remember scattered things – a sword, a helmet, a shattered phial. I must have passed out from fatigue before I could –
The godsblood. By the Heavens, no. No. I have to –
“Be still. You push yourself too far, my dear.”
A voice, melodic and sing-song. A voice to which a sweet benediction could come as easy as breath, honeyed and sublime. Once more I am reminded of the warmth behind my head. Only now do I truly see the statue above me.
No, not a statue. An angel. Divinity given form and function.
How does one describe colour to the blind, the ocean to a cave hermit, the rustle of leaves in an autumnal forest to a nomad in the sands? I can muster no words that can truly speak for what I saw, but I will do my best.
She is everything her statue had been, and a million times more. Her head is framed in a three-tiered concentric halo, each ring lined in polychromatic light that danced and flickered. Her hair is as golden gossamer, curls rolling down across the top of her shoulders – not the tacky, ostentatious gold of filigree, but a faded flaxen hue, like impossibly silken wheat, swaying gently in the breeze created by the wings on her back. And what mighty wings they are – a white so pure as to be almost blinding, a down richer and softer than any feathered beast of this earth could ever aspire to, rustling softly as they move with an idle grace. She is radiant – not in a mere poetic sense, but literally radiant, veiled in a thin aura of Heaven’s own brilliance. Her eyes are occluded by the wings entwined over them, but her smile…
I will not do it a disservice by putting it into words. It deserves better soliloquy than I could ever muster.
I am cognisant of the fact that my head is on her lap, an act she has clearly encouraged. Slender fingers run through my hair, backwards and forwards in a comforting motion, her other hand balanced off to one side. I can no longer hear my own, assumedly still rather ragged breathing – she is beating her wings in exact sympathy with me, drowning it out with the soft susurrations of feathers.
She continues to smile that gentle smile of hers, a sunbeam in the flesh.
“My, but you did turn out handsome, didn’t you?” She giggles, a series of utterly joyous notes that any maestro would have killed to learn how to render into song. How do I even begin to respond to that? Everything is as a dream. How can any of it be real?
“Oh, but it is, my dear.” There she goes again, reading me like a book. “And you’ll find no dream as palatable as this, I should think. Not to sin through pride, but I did put in a lot of effort for this.”
It takes me a while to muster words, equal parts from surprise and fatigue. The angel waits patiently, that smile never leaving her face. Her hand comes to rest, placed on my forehead as if taking my temperature. It feels like an age before I can speak.
“Am… am I dead?”
The angel laughs, a clear, splitting clarion of mirthful splendour. “No, my dear, no! All is well, my little knight. You are alive. You are safe.” Her expression returns to normalcy – insofar as it could be called normal. “Though you may be forgiven for such thoughts. I am an excellent Host, after all.”
She giggles at a pun only she understands. I manage to posit my second question once I feel a little less dumbstruck.
“Your… name.” Simple etiquette. The words come uneasily, but my throat no longer feels hoarse. “What’s your name?”
She tilts her head to one side, quizzically. “Ah, yes – do excuse a lady her impoliteness. My name! My name is…”
It would not be possible to describe what came out of her mouth, only that ‘sound’ is not enough to encapsulate it. It is a noise, a feeling, a concept – golden light haloed in rainbow hue, the smell of rainclouds, the feeling of wheat between one’s fingers in the harvest season. Of a stretch of time beyond anyone’s ability to process, watching, waiting…
“… but perhaps a son of Man would not best be served by such a thing.” She pauses. “You may call me… Glory. Perchance that is easier for you.”
Glory. Apt. I nod dimly, about to return the favour when she speaks once more.
“And you are Mordecai. And many other titles besides, if I’m not mistaken.” A twinge of mirth enters that smile of hers. “Which I’m not. It is exceptionally pleasurable to meet you, my dear.”
“Likewise.” So unceremoniously put. How much of an understatement that is cannot be overstated. A Paladin of the Order reduced to being wordlessly meek – oh, how my brothers and sisters would have delighted in it. Mordecai the Golden, now Mordecai the Meek.
Though I suppose I wouldn’t be the one catching their attention in this situation, would I?
I note that the beat of her wings – and thus, assumedly, my breathing – has slowed. I am… calm. It is an emotion I have not felt for what feels like aeons, and it is entirely welcome. Part of me idly wonders if she has been slowing down on purpose to trick my body into doing it, or whether I am simply overthinking it.
The mirth flares again in Glory’s smile. She knows, and she knows I know she knows. She isn’t telling.
I feel as if her energy has seeped into my very bones, as if warmed by a campfire on a cold night. My aches and pains are fading, and my fatigue is clearing, vanishing as the mist on an autumn morning. It is only now that I am renewed in vigour that I realise just how fatigued I had been – if the godsblood hadn’t killed me then another week of my relentless pace certainly would have.
Glory’s expression seems… saddened, almost, a patient smile worn over concealed sorrows. The very thought of something daring to cause this being any kind of anguish brings me no small amount of discomfort – especially as I have cause to believe that that something is me.
“Oh, Mordecai,” she intones, equal parts gentle admonishment and quiet sadness. “My dear, sweet Mordecai. Why must you ruin yourself so?
“The… the Demon Lord. The armies of the damned.” I am confused. Surely an angel, of all beings, would know the threat that demonkind possessed? “I have to protect the people. Hold the beasts back. That is… that is my purpose. The Order’s purpose.”
Why must she look so sorrowful? Her gaze pierces my heart deeper than any arbalest could manage. The light of her halos are dim, their lustre gone.
“And what of you? Have you no care for your own life? The life the Gods saw fit to bless you with?”
“My life in exchange for countless others is a life spent well indeed.” The words come to me practically unbidden, for I am nothing if not a devout disciple of the Order’s texts. “I fall so others live. That is my purpose.”
There is something in her hands – no, something above it, two halves of a familiar, now shattered phial hovering gently in place. The angel affixes it with a look of something worse than disgust – disappointment. It radiates from behind her feathered blindfold like an aura, palpable, an emotion one so glorious should never have to suffer.
“Destroying yourself to destroy others. Such a pitiable thing. No man should have to defile himself thus.” There is a crackle, and the hum of unseen, melismatic choirs, before the phial simply vanishes in a flash of azure light. “Now, of all times, more than ever.”
“How?” I am still confused. Such is nakedly evident in my voice. “The Order falls on all fronts. Villages enslaved, knights captured to be slain, our weapons made dull and –”
I pause. Glory seems as confused as I am, if not more so. Her expression discomforts me.
“Oh, little knight… my dear, sweet knight. How blinded you are. How all of Man is.” The palm on my head rises away, now a pointing finger. “Be still, my sweet. I shall visit my clarity upon you.”
I neither refuse nor protest, but I would not have had the time to even if I had wanted to. She presses her finger ever so gently to my temple, and my vision distorts –
The forests of Eichendrache. So verdant, so clean. The air is filled with the smell of pines.
I am Brother Mordecai. It is the dying days of my first year as a Paladin. Paladin of the 9th Order. Some already call me Mordecai the Golden, for my example is one many strive to attain – a fact I take some degree of pride in. They also call me Bastard Blade, though that has persisted from my days as a knight-errant, and will persist for many days more, so long as a greatsword sits at my waist.
We received reports from the pathfinders that the beast that wounded Brother Adalvald into retirement is here. It has been a thorn in our side for months, always escaping before we can enact vengeance. But now, we have routed its subordinates and driven it into a corner. The Beast of Eichendrache has run out of options, and now we are in its home, here to finally put it down.
At last, I can avenge my old tutor. Vengeance will not fix his wounds, but one can hope it will bring him satisfaction nonetheless.
It is a dragon, emerald green in scale and skin, a beast of the Demon Lord’s horde of magnificent proportions. We have only been able to wound it, to slow it – but here, we can at last slay it. It has grown tired from weeks of restless retreat, and its weakness is something we can now exploit.
Our cleric, Sister Selene, is with us, her words bringing us succour. She will make a fine bishop of the Order, one day. Maybe even a cardinal. The battlemages need her words more than anyone – they have felt uneasy for a few days now, as if the winds of magic have somehow… changed. How, and for what purpose – none can say. There is a new energy in the air that none can identify, cloying and sweet, like no other mana they have come across – they say it came all at once in a wave, then receded.
Brother Jerrod still hasn’t woken up from it. The mage twitches in his sleep, restlessly. He has not woken for a week. None of us know why his expression is so pleased.
We pray to the Gods for their blessings, and to the Eighteen – the Saints and their companion angels, the guiding lights of the Order’s past. Perhaps they shall visit upon us a nineteenth, some day, so that we may final triumph over the Demon Lord’s armies in totality. But that is but an idle hope, and for now, we must focus.
It is in a clearing in the trees where we finally track the mana of the Beast of Eichendrache to its source, yet there is nothing there but a pile of discarded scales, moulted like a snake – much to the confusion of the battlemages, who insist that this is the place, that their auspices cannot be wrong, even though all among us know that dragons do not moult. Sister Selene is about to muster up another sermon of encouraging words before we notice movement in the scale heap, and someone emerges.
No, not someone. Something.
It is unmistakeably feminine, a woman born of Mankind’s image, yet in many ways corrupted from its divine baseline. Its thighs meld into those of a drake, its arms capped by wicked talons, a set of horns protruding from beneath its locks of hair. Leathery wings stretch out from its back, while a thick and muscled tail juts out from its lower spine. The thing is easily two heads taller than even the tallest amongst us, and as it stretches its limbs and yawns in a hideous mockery of a human, its wings reach a span that could have encompassed three men lying on their side.
Its form, draconic. Its scales and hair, emerald green.
The Beast of Eichendrache.
It stares at us with lidded eyes half-shut, the irises a piercing yellow, the pupils a reptilian slit. There is a pregnant pause – we of the Order, frozen in naked disbelief, and the once-drake, apparently out of freshly-woken slowness. It blinks, lazily – once, twice – before speaking in a low, booming rumble completely out of place for a creature of its size, yet still unmistakeably that of a woman.
“Who dares disturb my slumber? I am tired, and I expect only one visitor today. Begone, lest I remove you myself.”
Sister Adeline regains her composure first. She snarls a benediction under her breath before addressing the monster.
“Speak not your idle ravings unto us, beast! Your mockery of humanity’s Gods-given form will not spare you from the blade. Make peace with whatever deity you parley with, monster, for we –”
It yawns. It just yawns. The very indignity of it sets my teeth on edge.
“Good grief, is that any way to treat a lady? I didn’t accept this form to be shouted at, human. This is all I get for my Lord’s blessings – insults?” It pouts. “Frankly, I’m offended.”
It speaks nonsense and curries lies. Brother Mercurius jabs an accusing finger towards it.
“No curse of the Demon Lord can ever be called a blessing, beast. Your honeyed words have no purchase here. You have come here to die.”
“Die?” The drake laughs in an infuriatingly genuine manner, before pausing. “Oh, goodness, you’re serious, aren’t you? Didn’t any of you feel the changes in the air? Our new Lord moves for peace. Surely you know that?”
A pause. “Ah. You don’t, do you? No matter, we’ll just have to talk-“
I cut it off before it can spit any more nonsense. “Enough talk, monster! On this day we will see you slain, and Adalvald’s wounds will be avenged.”
Its expression brightens. “Wounded? Oh, goodness me, he’s alive! Thank the Gods, I’d have hated to have slain him. Such a strapping man. But I suppose the old me was a tad more violent-”
Weapons come free from their sheaths. None of us will let the thing take our Gods’ names in vain. It stares at us, unamused.
“Who taught you lot manners? Frankly, I’m getting tired of being interr-”
We freeze. It’s Brother Jerrod, walking slowly between us, as hale and healthy as he’s ever been. None of us saw the comatose mage rise, nor heard him approach. He paces through our ranks towards the beast, likely confused in his newly woken state.
“Dear?,” he repeats. So lovingly, despite all the uncertainty.
It stares at him. Gods’ blood, it’s beaming with joy. Its next words horrify us in their frankness.
Jerrod is sprinting like a madman before any of us can stop him. He leaps at the beast, his dagger hurled aside of his own volition. It catches him – spins him, laughing with an earnest happiness that no monster had any right to possess, wings fluttering with the rapid whap-whap of leathery folds. It cradles him as one would cradle one’s newlywed bride. I have never seen Jerrod so happy in all the years I have known him. None of us have.
It is terrifying.
“Oh, what splendour! Splendour, splendour indeed!” The dragon-witch lets out a disgustingly pleasant giggle. “What unexpected humour humans have to bring me my husband, disguised as knights – such a jest! Our Lord’s words were true!”
It stops, as it becomes cognisant of the horror on our faces. Sister Adeline is shaking as she speaks.
“What… what did you do to him, witch? What did you do to Jerrod?” She is panicking, her brother in battle now in the claws of a beast. “What did you do? Answer me, monster!”
The battlemage seems… confused. “Adeline? That’s you, isn’t it? Please, don’t be afraid! The mana wave, the Change – it’s wonderful, simply wonderful! All these years of war and they’re finally offering us an olive branch!”
He extends an open hand, the other braced around the beast’s shoulders. “Sister, it’s okay. They’re not here to hurt us any more, they –”
“LIAR!” Adeline screams, bordering on hysterics, magic dancing at her fingertips. “Blasted tricks and accurs’d sorcery! You’ll not steal my battle-brother from me, draconian whore! Gods’ will be done!”
It is a cry we take up with matchless ferocity. “Gods’ will be done!”
They look at us, man and beast alike. They look at us with naked disappointment in their features, as if saddened. I do not see this at the time, blinded as I am by fury, blade in my grip and thunder in my stride, as our mages’ fire smashes uselessly against a mana field of hitherto unmatched strength. I can only watch in seething rage as the monster’s great wings beat – once, twice – and propel it skywards, away from our mauls and blades and magics, until it vanishes over the tops of the pines, Jerrod clinging tightly to it as it goes.
Adeline is screaming. First in anger, then in dejected misery. No consolation can appease her.
We lose the forests within days, the whole area within weeks. The Beast of Eichendrache lives there still, and beside it strides its incubus, a thing with a kindly smile and a familiar voice. The false Jerrod begs with us, pleads with us to see the truth, but it offers no truth I could ever want to accept. Adeline hurls herself at it but its draconic mate simply knocks her out cold with a swipe of its talons – talons that should have maimed, have killed, yet do neither of the sort. It carries her away, muttering about “making her see reason”. How she’ll be alright once she “calms down a bit.” That it doesn’t want its husband’s sister to be unhappy.
A more bitter mockery I could never have imagined.
The hold of Eichendrache falls. Then Vespen. Then Walder’s Halt. Then –
– then the light of a divine being’s features, smiling down sadly at me.
“Now do you see, my dear?”
I am wordless for what feels like an age, awash in my memories. In the bitter insults of a once-drake, who stole away our brother. But now, hindsight renders things in a different light. I assumed so much to simply be tricks and mockery, and yet… and yet with this divine retrospection I can see what I did not.
It – she – was earnest and true. By the Gods, she was being honest.
Glory is cognisant of the utter horror spreading slowly across my features, her expression one of sombre empathy. Were all my years as a Paladin – nay, our entire Order’s continued existence – for naught? How many of my brothers and sisters were offered the earnest olive branch of parley, and blindly refused it? How many turncoats have I mocked, jeered at, called every insult under the sun, for the crime of… what? Of love? Of daring to want peace?
The revelations come unbidden and unwelcome. Every nagging doubt, every hint of dissent I have ever had at the Order’s purpose, rendered bitterly true.
“The half empty villages you came across as you marched, their layfolk scurrying around in the night.” She starts to posit a question to which I am already starting to feel I know the answer to. “Who, perchance, do you think they were seeing to, if not their fellow Man?”
I mumble, almost to myself. “The monsters were hiding, weren’t they? They were… they were scared, were they not?”
The angel nods gently. “Only a few of the Demon Lord’s ilk can fight as you do. Could you ask your brother to fight, he who has wielded naught but a scythe and a trowel his whole life? Could you ask your librarian to set down her quills and ink, and take up a sword?” She has returned her hand to a flat palm, against my head. “Your kinds are more alike than you think, little knight.”
I remember the looks the villagers gave us as we went – looks I now realise were ones of fear. “They thought we were there to kill them.”
A gentle nod is her only response to this.
“Think now to the ambush. So strangely timed. So sudden. Could they not have enveloped you the moment you set foot in their lands?” Her questioning is earnest, as if she knows I already know the answer somewhere inside of me, and is tenderly coaxing it out.
The wheels turn in my head. The lack of monsters until so many days had passed, until we had gone through township after township, hamlet after hamlet. “It wasn’t an ambush at all, was it? They came to defend their homes from invaders – from us.”
The pain of losing one’s home to invaders – how vain I was to assume only humans could feel such misery.
“And then, a Visitation.” Glory glimmers with a pleasant warmth. “A visitation from Our youngest of sisters.”
Another thought comes – that of the angel-like beast, a lesser mirror of Glory herself, wearing Selene’s likeness.
It wasn’t simply her likeness at all. I see that now.
“We thought to send you a sign – a sign of Our love, Our newfound harmony, the greatest among you enlightened and returned. Dear Selene. She was faithful, and We rewarded her with Sight.” Glory smiles, weakly. “So many among you were blessed. But it did not work on you, of course. That, I foresaw.”
I insulted a lesser angel who had once been my bishop. I cursed her followers – her loyal followers – as heretics and sinners. I intended to cut her head off. Gods’ blood, such blasphemy –
“– is forgiven, my child.” She has placed a finger to my lips before I can give voice to the thoughts. “You were blind to the Light, you knew not what you did not see. You did what you did for the sake of your brethren – and, moreover, gave them mercy. You were misguided, perhaps, but noble.” She gives another joyously syllabic giggle, her returned mirth granting me succour. “She has forgiven you, by the by. She knows how stubborn you can be, more so than anyone.” A pause, and a mischievous smirk. “Save for myself, perhaps.”
And yet, what of my countless other brothers and sisters? Knights and mages and squires and pages, captured, taken by what I had thought to be my enemy. I make to ask what became of them, and – of course – I am answered before my lips so much as quiver.
“They are safe, my dear. Each attended to in their own way. Many betrothed, in fact.” The full warmth of happiness returns to her features, something that lifts my heart more than anything else as her hands rise and clap together. “Oh, such joy! Where once was hatred, compassion springs forth. It gladdens me to think of it.”
I think back – to the dragon that had called Jerrod ‘husband’. I had thought it a bleak jest, once. How wrong I was. And yet, one question burned within me, unanswered.
“Why?” A single word, so bluntly put. “After all the Order and the Demon Lord’s forces have done to one another for years, centuries. Why reach out to us now?”
Glory is silent, for a time.
“Demon Lords have come and gone,” she finally replies. “In a way, not too dissimilar to your Pope. Each has ruled in their own way, and – in time – has fallen, succeeded by another. For time immemorial they have lived by the blade, seeking to conquer the realms of Man. For time immemorial, We lent humanity Our hand in victory, for to see your flame snuffed out would have been the greatest of miseries. Eighteen of my sisters came before me, and with them came the light of Hope, against which no demon’s blade could stand.”
“Century after century of the sword has seen only defeat for beast, for demon, for monster.” Her voice is enrapturing, enthralling. “They grew tired – of war, of conflict, of loss after loss. When the last lord who ruled by the sword fell, their successor decided she would instead take up the ploughshare. Long had she looked upon Man, and seen not an enemy, but kindred spirits. Thus did she take upon herself a mortal husband, and came to Us with open arms.”
The bitter chill of ice snakes its way down my back. The words she speaks… surely they can’t be right? No demon, Lord or otherwise, would make truck with Man without guile, let alone the Divine.
The angel, seemingly oblivious, beams with delight, the polychromatic light of her halos sparking back into life. “Oh, what splendour! What a joyous surprise We felt as one, when she came to us with her parley! Here, there was peace. Here, there was love. What right had We to refuse, We who had championed compassion for all things? We bade Our newest sister and her betrothed welcome, our hearths and hearts open, and thus all was right with the world.”
I am struck dumb with conflicted emotion. A being as radiant as this could never be a trick, and yet her words tell of an unspeakable heresy – that the Gods not only met with the master of all that was ill in the world, but welcomed it. Accepted it.
“That… that can’t be true.” The words leap unbidden to my lips, years of well-honed Order theology taking over. “A demon cannot be Divine. It’s oxymoronic by definition, it’s… it’s…”
“Unorthodox?” She tilts her head. “You question. Good. I had not had you pegged for a blind fool.” She smiles in equal parts pride and well-intentioned bemusement. “Ask thyself this – have I ever lied to you? Have I been naught but earnest and forthright? Have I had cause to lead you astray, my dear Mordecai?”
I make to answer, to counter, but I find I cannot. She has not spoken a word to me that can be taken as a lie. The evidence that I have been misguided – that everything I once held as absolute fact is wrong – is plain for all to see. But for her to be right, for her proclamation of the Demon Lord’s acceptance to be true… it is a fact I cannot easily stomach.
Glory watches me seethe in introspection, kindly and patient as ever. “Mayhap one last sign shall bring you succour, little knight. Think now to your dreams, my dear, fitful as they may have been.” Her smile fades for but a moment as she looks upon me while she speaks, taking in my bedraggled form. Slender fingers idly tousle at the fringe of my hair.
I do as directed, and reflect upon my recurring thoughts of late. Of lights in the night sky, flickering, dimly acknowledged and followed. Of now painfully prescient sounds and scents, of bells and grass. And of a quiet cloister of books, accompanied by beautiful, achingly familiar laugh. As if…
As if the Heavens themselves bid me here. Bid me welcome and well met.
The angel smiles. She knows.
“The light of faith burns ever brightly, my dear. For some it is as a conflagration, its radiance bidding all be humble in its wake. For others it is as a candle, wafting gently in the autumn air.”
“And for some…” Her blindfold of entwined wings obscures her eyes, but I somehow know they are staring into mine, kindly and bright. “For some it is as a lit hearth in a blizzard, where one may lie and slowly draw out the cold. Where one may rest, and bid his aches and pains be gone.”
Glory’s head tilts once more, her hand continuing to tousle my hair. “And you have earned your rest, little knight. Be warm. Be content. Let your troubles and ills flow as water, and drain away.” Her tone is sweet – not the cloying saccharine of false reassurance, but the honeyed words of one to whom pure and earnest tenderness comes as easily as breath.
There are tears on my cheeks. They are mine, gently given. The impossibly soft hand of a heavenly being wipes them away.
“Hush now, my little knight. All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Revelation is slow, but it shall be all the sweeter when it finally dawns. And Man’s cup shall runneth over with peace and prosperity.”
She leans slowly forwards, planting but a single, gentle kiss upon my forehead. Lightning wracks my spine, the very fibre of my being rejoicing in wondrous splendour. It is a feeling like no other.
“I bid thee rise, Sir Mordecai,” she intones with a mixture of encouragement and pride. “Rise, and stand tall. You need lie no further.”
Steadily, with care, I do as bidden and haul myself to my feet, the angel’s hands at my back in the event I should fall – with no small amount of fortune, I do not. My armour feels almost weightless, my limbs invigorated with an energy no elixir of godsblood could ever hope to match. I feel refreshed as I set my lost blade back into its sheath and turn to face the plinth, as if my whole life I have simply been dreaming, and only now have I truly come alive.
Glory is there in all her splendour, of course. She rises from her kneeling position with an effortless grace, her wings waving gently as if in a breeze as her sandaled feet touch upon the stone flooring with lackadaisical ease. The sun sits high in the sky through the window behind her, yet no ray of sunshine could ever have compared to the radiance of the being in front of me, nor to the brilliance of her gaze.
She smiles, as she always has, and always will.
“For he shall find favour in My sight, and I shall know him by name.” A single tear of elation rolls down her cheek from behind her cross-winged blindfold, as she giggles. “My, but you did turn out handsome, didn’t you?”
My world vanishes in a blur of radiance, and the warm embrace of feathered wings.
They call this place Pilgrim’s Rest. It has never been particularly special, but it always seems to attract a steady procession of wandering priests and pilgrims alike. It is a place for the exchange of treatises and tomes, for idle theological debate and the furthering of one’s knowledge of the Gods. It is also quite quaintly picturesque.
It is a township with monsters in plain sight, living as they do in cohabitation with humans. The layfolk of both kinds come out to watch visitors pass, as they always have, smiling as they do. It is a warm, gentle smile of a folk happily welcoming a long lost friend. They offer food, a hot bath, and warm mead. Their hospitality is neither insidious nor seems to carry any hidden malice. It is genuine.
And that makes me content more than anything.
Here comes another pilgrim now – a hakutaku, a scholar from the East. I do hope I pronounced that right – the Eastern folk have a funny way with syllables that still confuses me. Hector says she asked to see me personally, once Harold fixed her up with a nice drink. A lot of pilgrims these days seem to do that, but it still flatters me nonetheless. And who am I to refuse?
She has the legs of a cow, all pale fur from the thighs down, capped in hooves – a bovine satyr (though not a goat satyros, a distinction a certain fuchsia-haired brewer beat into me when I last made it, being related instead to the common holstaur). She wears the glasses of an earnest reader, and is dressed in something called a cheongsam (though I can only recall the spelling, and still have no idea how to properly pronounce it). She says she’s here to learn from the chapel’s stock of books, and would be happy to transcribe what she already knows in exchange. We spend a pleasant afternoon in the library, the bovine scholar somehow able to pore through our tomes and regale me with tales of her own at the same time without pause. Every new person I meet like this is a fresh experience, with its own unique quirks. It never ceases to delight me.
The morning turns to mid-afternoon. I have lost a few hours of my time, and gained both the beginnings of a new tome and a delightful conversation partner in exchange. The hakutaku takes her leave for the inn, where she will no doubt be regaling yet more folks with her stories after a few samplings of the local brew (satyros-crafted, and exceptionally tasteful). A gaggle of children run past, monster and human alike amongst their number, shouting gaily to me as they go.
“Father! Father!,” they bellow. They can’t pronounce the official title, but I can hardly bemoan that. I smile and wave back, to their giggling delight. The afternoon air is crisp and comforting.
The chime of bells.
Grass, upon the breeze.
“Most wondrous, aren’t they?” I feel arms wrap around me over my shoulders from behind, as the children vanish down the street. “Creating such small and adorable copies of yourselves to frolic so freely. Humanity never ceases to bring me joy.”
It is Glory. Of course it is. No being on this earth has a voice like hers, even before the soft beating of her wings can clue me in. She isn’t here in full glamours, for I cannot feel the glow of halos above my head.
“Humble talk from one who says she came to bring joy to Humanity,” I reply. “I suppose you delight in the tables being turned?”
I know she is smiling, for she almost always is.
“I could render unto us a most wondrous child, if you so wish it. Several, in fact.” I suspect there is a hint of mischief in that smile, now, as her head comes to rest on my shoulder. “Would you prefer an immaculate visitation, or the human method? I am told there is much joy to be had in the latter.”
“All of the Gods’ creations are my children, my dear.” I speak with confidence, despite the slight flush of red to my cheeks. “I already have much, and my cup runneth over. I would not demand more.”
“You cannot demand what I freely give, my dear.” Glory nuzzles the side of my head in an infuriatingly delightful manner. She is teasing me, and we both know it. “For am I not a most generous and beneficent –“
“– Host.” I know the pun off by heart by now. I can hear a soft hmmph as she pouts in mock offence, her wings fluttering in indignation. “You are going to have to come up with better than that.”
“Repetition isn’t a sin.”
“It should be.”
“And would you make it so if you were Pope, perhaps?”
She giggles that harmonic tune of hers, matched by my low sniggering. It is a well-trodden routine, but one I would not have changed for all the riches in the world, for this earth’s greatest treasure stands right here beside me.
“Technically I am not a treasure of this earth, my dear.” Glory reads me in that way she always does, her secure ticket to always having the last laugh. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”
I smile, and she smiles with me, two sunbeams of one star. Her hand is entwined with mine as we retire to the chapel, to prepare for the evening’s mass.
All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
I am Frater Mordecai, and this is how I live.