I am changing. I can feel it moving and pulsing under my skin, that alien energy, powerful and strange. It has been growing in me ever since I first started having that damned nightmare after the Forgiveness Festival. God, was that only a week ago? It feels like months! How could so much change so quickly?
The silver chalice whispers to me. I should be frightened of it and the immense power that courses through it, but somehow the whispers feel comforting, like a hidden confederate giving me instructions. What was that play I saw in Sixton all those years ago, about the ugly poet who helped a fair but artless man win his love by feeding him romantic poetry from a nearby hiding place? I am reminded of that, but instead of romantic sonnets, these secrets are about power, and transformation, and renewal.
I should explain how we came to find the chalice in the first place, or at least as much as I know for sure. So much is conjecture or guesswork, but I know that the inquisitor, the cruel one – well, the one who is most obviously cruel without the pretence of politeness – was clearly lying to us. We saw the proof for ourselves in that abandoned village chapel.
I am getting ahead of myself again. First, the Inquisition came.
When a herd is harried and wounded it is only a matter of time before the scavengers start sniffing around, and today they arrived. We’d had some forewarning – somebody found a letter on the body of that witchfinder down in Grantham, containing the chilling revelation that those bloodthirsty zealots of the Swords of Astrid were coming to cleanse our poor town in the only way those kinds of people know how.
We had three options, all of them bad: run away, throwing 200 people into the wilderness to survive by their wits in a rapidly darkening world; stand and fight, and most likely see everyone we love cut down by the Inquisition’s soldiers; or stand and talk, trusting in the uncertain fortune of the parley to convince these pious savages to let our town live.
Well, as my old captain used to say, if you can’t be wise, be bold. We elected to talk.
Of course, the unvarnished truth would never do. These kinds of folk are satisfied only when they can see a neat resolution before them, and that was something we could not offer. The evil woman who had instigated the attack on our poor town had fled soon after we tracked her to Oldoak. We were sure our efforts had crippled her effectiveness, robbing her of her a powerful ally and of vital tools, but still, she remained at large, perhaps north of us in Crossings, but nobody could say for certain.
Such a messy answer would not be good enough for these rigid thinkers whose eyes see only virtue or corruption with no subtle shading between. We had to convince them that our supernatural trial was over and their presence was no longer required.
First, though, we had to assure them they were welcome, even needed. The Mayor sent a pre-emptive letter to the Swords, requesting their assistance and asking them to come to Chuton at their earliest convenience. It was a risky move that guaranteed our preparation time would be terribly short, but nothing makes a zealot more suspicious than the impression they are not wanted.
Next, we had to concoct a convincing story. As any good liar knows, lies should only ever be a garnish atop a hearty meal of truth. We all agreed that Rusty would make a convenient scapegoat. He was definitely guilty of some involvement with the evil folk who had passed through our town, and those tiny corpses in his cellar were enough to condemn him on their own. Only a slight blurring of the truth would cast him as our primary villain, and what with him being dead there was little chance he might contradict us.
The rest was almost entirely the truth: we were attacked unexpectedly by demons, and many innocents died. We had formed squads to tackle different parts of the conspiracy and almost all had met with complete success, with all of the weird hovering bones that seemed to sustain the spell destroyed or rendered harmless.
(On that topic, I had an uncomfortable chat with Tonk about the bone he had fetched from the graveyard which he has now taken to wearing as a decoration in his hair. He offered to hide it, but I implored him to destroy it. When he continued to argue, I told him very plainly that if the Inquisition were to realise what that bone was, I would have no hesitation to sacrifice his life to keep the town safe. I fear I was somewhat short with him.)
The continued presence of the weird demonic ghosts at the standing stones in the forest was a blessing of sorts: it gave us the chance to ask for the inquisitors’ help. Few things will put a suspicious visitor off-guard than the four magical words “thank God you’re here”. Conveniently, if they were to destroy those strange spirits, it would be a neat end to the affair and they could go on their way knowing evil was vanquished.
It was as good a plan as we could manage, bolstered by a few hung bodies and burned alchemical supplies. I hated to desecrate the remains of our fallen townsfolk in such a way, but we knew the inquisitors would be more likely to trust us if they thought that we, too, were willing to summarily execute those we thought were infected by malign forces. When these unwelcome guests move on, our honoured dead will be given the funeral rites they deserve.
Many among us decided to flee to the woods. Some were visibly touched by Fey magic – an elf and a faun among them – and others were followers of the old faith who had heard horrifying (and quite possibly true) stories of Inquisition barbarity toward those who still observe the old ways. To all who stayed I gave tokens of the New God to wear and tied the white armband of the missionary on each of them. Bzzzantine even converted, officially becoming a member of the church of the New God, though it was the only one who accepted my offer.
Finally the inquisitors came, five of them (that damned number again – not four or six, oh no, it had to be five). They wore those stupid skull masks that are meant to be intimidating but just make them look like cheap street performers. We made our greeting, respectful without straying into obsequiousness, giving no sign that we were anything other than ecstatic to see their stupid masked faces. A platoon of soldiers came with them, the muscle to carry out any butchery they decide is necessary. Common soldiers, perhaps a little more devout than most, but not crusaders by any means. They certainly accepted the drink we offered them readily enough. Blunt tools, then, directed in all things by the five inquisitors.
Their leader – a woman, I think, but the mask made me unsure – came forward to greet us with a sweet and false friendliness that almost covered her bloodthirsty glee. With me being the appointed priest of Chuton now, the job fell to me to greet her. I could see the twinkle of insanity through the eyeholes of her mask. This was clearly a dangerous person, and I knew I had to be careful.
She invited me to demonstrate my “purity” and of course, inquisitors being what they are, this meant blood and pain. From her robes she drew a long silver needle, much like a wealthy lady’s hatpin but plainer in design. I tried not to start with shock as she drove it cleanly through her own hand. Leaving it in place, she held it up for me to see, and a thin trickle of blood began to trace its way slowly down toward her wrist.
Once she was sure I was deeply impressed by her violent insanity, she drew the pin out and passed it to me with a dainty dip of her head. It was my turn. Fuck it, I thought. Chuton needs me, and I’ve suffered worse. Without hesitation I took the head of the needle in my right hand and stabbed the tip into and through my left. The thin skin on the back of my hand formed a small conical tent as the sharp metal pierced it from beneath. I focused on the crazy eyes peeking through the white mask in front of me and willed the pain away, forcing myself to feel nothing. Somewhere, far away, I was aware of a sharp burning, but I refused to claim it as my own.
When the inquisitor nodded her approval, I smoothly pulled the metal sliver from my hand and passed it back to her. I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed, angry, or excited. For all I know, she was all three at once.
I spoke for a while with all of the inquisitors. They seemed to accept our story readily enough, and regarded the hanging bodies and burning pyres with what appeared to be satisfaction. They expressed gratitude for our hospitality and said – honestly or not, I have no idea – that they were pleased with what they had found and were glad not to have had to put us all to the sword immediately.
However, to prove our loyalty they had tasks for us to perform, and these would certainly not be easy. That was when I was told of the silver chalice, a powerful relic of the New God, which had been stolen by beastmen only hours before. I tried to tell myself that I longed for a simple opponent – what do I know of gremlins and boggarts? – but I suspect now that even the mention of the chalice called to me. Was that a test, perhaps? Did this inquisitor know that I would be drawn to this task? God, it is impossible to tell coincidence from fate these days.
Only two joined me. Tonk the goblin, he of the ill-gotten bone, had until recently been a farmer but had burned his farm as a sign of purification to impress the coming Inquisition. I think it was a moment of transition for him, a sign that he has given away farming entirely and now studies the arcane as his sole pursuit. The other was Nessa, a dwarven bowyer only recently come to Chuton. She is short, even among dwarves, but there is power in her small frame, as I was to see.
The inquisitor ordered us to follow her, and without so much as a glance behind she was away, striding away down the eastern road, past the inn and out of town. The three of us hurried to keep up, but not too much: we hung back far enough to allow for private whispered conversation. That was how we walked out of town, the robed zealot leading on and the three of us following perhaps twenty yards behind.
The afternoon light was taking on a hint of gold by the time she abruptly stopped, facing away from the road and into the forest. A meagre trail was visible through the undergrowth, probably made by deer or wild swine moving between good grazing and fresh water. If people ever used it, there was no sign, but we were interrupted by the priestess.
She told us that two horsemen, one of whom was a captain of the inquisitorial troops, and four infantry had left the road in pursuit of beastmen. They had been walking ahead of the main group, bearing a holy relic of the church: a silver chalice made with a serpent wrapping around the stem and biting the tip of its tail. Even then her explanation was strange – the men had been attacked, and somehow the chalice had been stolen, so they had pursued the creatures into the woods. It would only be later that we would learn that her entire story was a lie.
Once the background was given, she gave her ultimatum: find out what had happened to her men and fetch the chalice for her, or else the village would be destroyed. If we ran away, if we came back without our prize, or if God found us wanting and allowed us all to die, then Chuton would burn for our failure. With that chilling decree still echoing in the air, she turned on her heel and started back toward town. Nobody said anything until we watched her vanish around the bend.
Tonk broke the silence. “I thought the New God was opposed to cruelty,” he stated plainly. I winced, feeling attacked, though there was no obvious personal rebuke in his words.
“The Swords see things differently,” I replied. “I am not a fan of their views.”
Nessa, meanwhile, had been examining the ground. “Two horses, four men on foot, just as she said,” the dwarf told us, then hesitated. “But… that’s it. No other tracks. Unless beastmen can fly, I am at a loss to explain these tracks.” The sun was grazing the tops of the trees in the west, so there was no time to waste trying to solve the mystery. We had to fetch that chalice, or more lives than our own would be forfeit.
The bowyer proved to be a capable tracker, and we made good time along the faint track. Soon we heard the chattering of rushing water and realised we were nearing a bend in the river, upstream of where it made a long curve toward the south, looping around Chuton and heading southeast toward the sea. As the water grew louder, we saw that we were approaching a clearing in the trees, and soon we were at the edge of an open space maybe thirty yards across.
What should have been a pretty spot fit for a picnic was instead a place of abject horror. A battle had taken place here, and for the first time Nessa could clearly see strange clawed footprints unlike any she had seen before, mixed among those of horses and men. Apart from the crushed grass and disturbed earth, two other remnants of the battle remained. First, the corpse of a man in a familiar uniform dangled from a tree on the far side of the clearing, a sharply broken-off tree branch stabbed brutally through the back of his head and out the other side, obliterating his face. As the breeze blew, his toes rasped across the branch below.
Worse than that, though, was the horse. It lay in the centre of the clearing, its large abdomen ripped open like a gutted fish. Broken ribs stood vertical like garden pickets, and even from this distance we could see that the poor beast was still alive. Its lungs were visible, growing and shrinking with its panicked breaths, and its great heart was pounding, exposed to the air.
I have always loved animals and I cannot bear to see them treated cruelly, so the sight of this poor beast left in what was obviously a deliberate state of agony was almost too much to bear. I longed to run to it, to ease its pain, and if I couldn’t heal it then I wanted to ease its departure from this world. Common sense held me back: this could be a trap. The arcane forces laying siege to Chuton had demonstrated the will and capability to twist the dead to its cause, and I involuntarily thought again of the Bailey farm. We needed to be careful.
Tonk told us to wait for his signal and vanished into the trees. It was spooky how quickly and silently he went. I tried to shut out the agonised grunts of the vivisected horse, but it was no good. I’m too damned soft-hearted for this kind of thing, and my cheeks were wet with tears. After what felt like several minutes my resolve broke and I strode into the clearing, traps be damned.
Carefully and quietly I approached the horse. People forget how large and powerful they are until they are frightened or hurt, and then the sheer size and strength of the things becomes terrifyingly apparent. Despite its horrible wounds, one kick could easily break my leg and bring our little expedition to an abrupt end, so I walked where it could see me, and held out my hand for it to smell, speaking softly and soothingly as I came. I haven’t ridden a horse for over a decade, but some things stay with you, and the horse sniffed my hand and allowed me to stroke its blood-flecked muzzle.
There was no conscious choice involved, no decision to channel the divine power that has taken up residence inside me. My compassion for this poor tortured animal seemed to liquefy, flowing warmly from my heart, down my arm, and into the horse. I couldn’t see its stomach from where I was crouched, but I knew that it had healed, at least partially. I could sense the change.
Nessa placed her hand on my shoulder. “That was a kind thing you did, but it hasn’t worked, at least not enough.” I could hear the sadness in her voice – apparently she too was a lover of animals. “You’ve soothed its pain a touch. We need to end it for good, now.” She knelt beside me in the blood soaked grass and stroked the horse’s neck, and as I spoke softly and reassuringly to it, she slipped her dagger cleanly into the base of its skull. I watched its eyes as the life faded from them and they went glassy and still.
Tonk had reappeared from the trees, and was looking up at the grotesquely suspended soldier. He had a shrewd look on his narrow face, so I left the horse’s side and walked over to join him.
“That was a waste of magic, you know,” he said mildly. He always spoke nonchalantly, like he was discussing the weather or next year’s crops, and there was no anger in his words. “It was just a horse.”
“Life is life,” I replied curtly. “Suffering is suffering, and compassion is compassion.” I looked up at the soles of the soldier’s boots. “Nothing done out of kindness is ever truly wasted.”
“Do those folks back in Chuton think that?” Tonk replied, scratching his nose and keeping his gaze on the dead soldier. “Doesn’t seem like kindness is a language they speak.”
I tried to think of a response to this, but everything that came to mind seemed weak, nothing but excuses, and before I could respond Tonk spoke again.
“Reckon you could lift me up?”
My eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”
“No reason, just want to see if I can touch this fellow’s boot.”
Fury burned inside my ribs, and I had to fight to keep my reply civil. “You will not desecrate this body.”
Tonk finally looked at me then, and there was confusion in his eyes. “What is desecration, then?” he asked, and there was finally a touch of annoyance in his mild voice. He gestured upward, but kept his eyes locked on me. “That up there isn’t a man, not any more. It’s meat. It’s a tool that I know how to use.” He tilted his head toward Nessa. “There’s only three of us here, and it’s getting dark awfully quickly. A fourth body would be-”
“No!” I snapped. It had almost been a shout, but even in my anger I wasn’t foolish enough to advertise our presence to anything that might be lurking in the woods. “With all the horrible dead things we’ve seen, you want to create another? No, I won’t allow it.”
The goblin rolled his eyes and shook his head mockingly. “Sentimental,” he muttered.
I cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yes? And what happens if we meet some of these Inquisition soldiers while their friend is strolling alongside us with a hole punched through his face? I’ll tell you what happens: we get cut down and Chuton gets burned. We prove them right and everyone dies.”
Tonk pursed his lips in thought for a moment, then nodded. “See, that is a sensible argument. Far more persuasive than sentimentality.” Without another word he turned and walked across the clearing, apparently ready to move on. I was struck off-balance by his sudden acquiescence, and it took me several seconds to re-gather my thoughts. Nessa had been standing on the river bank, peering downstream, and now she strolled over.
“Stone building ahead, about half a mile,” she said. “Old waterwheel, a mill I think. Looks like a town, maybe, or what’s left of one.”
“A town?” I glanced at Tonk. “Have you ever heard of a town here?” I hadn’t, but Tonk has lived here far longer than me.
The goblin shook his pointed head. “None that I know of.”
The three of us exchanged uneasy glances. Only a permanent town would have a stone mill – a simple logging camp would build everything from timber – but how could there be a town here none of us had heard of, only a couple of hours’ walk from Chuton? The whole situation felt very strange. Casting a nervous eye up at the reddening sky, we set off quietly along the trail, certain that our destination was close.
As we walked, Nessa gave us more strange news. “There were no marks on the tree,” she explained. “No claws, no ropes. Looks like that soldier flew up there.”
“Or was thrown,” I muttered.
“Lifted, perhaps?” Tonk helpfully added.
All three options sounded equally awful, and we continued our trek in uncomfortable silence. If we had kept up our conversation, we might not have heard the soft sounds of something moving to our left, well beyond the tree line and out of sight. I tried not to vary my walking pace – I didn’t want to give away any sign that we had heard – but I turned to Nessa, intending to ask if she had heard it too. There was no need to speak, however: her hand was gripping the hilt of her axe, and her knuckles were white.
That was how we went for almost half a mile, walking in tense silence as we expected an attacker to come crashing out of the trees at any moment, but nothing came. Whatever was crunching through the undergrowth either hadn’t heard us or didn’t care, and it slowly moved away from us until it was lost in the splashing of the river and the rustle of wind through the trees. I still don’t know what it was – for all I know it was a deer, though Nessa swears it had two feet. Part of me wondered if the inquisitor had followed us, intending to watch our progress for herself, but it seemed to bizarre to believe, even for her. Knowing now what we would later find in the chapel, such weird behaviour seems slightly less far-fetched.
Finally, the skeletal remains of a village came into view amid the green. The buildings were old, and while they had clearly once been sturdily built from unworked local river stones and simple mortar, time had done its inevitable work. The hut closest to the trail had partially collapsed, and we could see that almost half of its roof had fallen in, taking part of the wall with it. Creeping closer, we could clearly see that many years of weather had stripped the mortar from between the stones. Even the walls that still stood would no doubt topple at the slightest impact.
Unpleasant sounds were echoing through the long-dead settlement, and they seemed to be coming from the far side of the hut we had been examining. Risking a structural collapse, we picked our way gingerly through the interior of the hut and out the gaping hole in the opposite, then carefully crept along the building next door. The noises were louder now, and were obviously bestial in nature. I was reminded of stray dogs fighting and snarling over discarded bones out the back of a butcher’s shop.
Hardly daring to breathe, we slipped through a narrow gap in the wall of the second hut, then tiptoed across the rubble-strewn floor and around a pile of stinking garbage to where daylight was showing through gaps in the mortar. Being careful not to put any pressure on the fragile stonework, we put our eyes up to the tiny gaps to see what was outside.
The scene was confusing and took a moment to sink in. There was a road beyond the hut, a proper, honest-to-God road, in almost as good a condition as the road we’d followed out of Chuton that very day. Parked on either side were two large caravans with canopies and curtains of rich purple cloth. No horses or oxen were visible, so it was not obvious how they had come to be there, but they were in good condition and did not seem to have been there long.
Two creatures were rummaging through piles of scattered goods that had evidently been thrown out of the caravans, and it was from them that the disturbing noises were coming. They were so revoltingly misshapen that at first my mind simply couldn’t process what I was seeing. It was as if an insane taxidermist had stitched together random animals parts – a goat here, a dog there, a bird over here, and a lizard down there – and formed them into a very loose approximation of humanoid form. There was no sense or symmetry to their bodies: one had a partially broken deer antler rising from one side of its head, while the other side seemed to have a curled ram’s horn instead.
It appeared we had found our beastmen, but were there only two? Could more of them have been hiding among the half dozen ruined buildings that made up this tiny ghost town? We came up with a plan to find out. After a brief whispered conference, it was decided that I probably had the best throwing arm, so it was my job to enact the plan. Lucky me.
I crept back outside through the hole in the wall, realising as I went that the pile of garbage we had stepped across earlier was actually a crude nest. It seemed that these revolting things weren’t just visitors but had made this village their home. I picked up a few palm-sized rocks and moved as close to the corner of the building as I dared, then let fly with one of my missiles. The rock struck a solid blow on the wall of the nearest hut across the road, and I could actually see the structure shudder. Our grotesque new friends didn’t seem to have heard, so I risked a second throw, and the result was far more spectacular than I had expected. The wall tipped inward, and as it fell the roof toppled in on top of it and the two neighbouring walls tumbled outwards. The entire hut collapsed like a house of cards, creating a terrific crash that must have been audible even all the way back at the blood-soaked clearing.
The beastmen’s reaction was immediate. Their snuffling and snarling instantly ceased, and after a moment of silence they both howled. It was a truly awful noise, like a blending of the baying of a hound, the scream of a panicked horse, and the roar of a lion. My nerve deserted me and I hurried back inside the hut to rejoin my companions.
“Whatever happens, stay beside me,” I hissed, and Tonk and Nessa nodded. I closed my eyes, held the silver Ouroboros pendant hanging around my neck in one hand, and began to… well, not pray, really. I suppose I began to actively hope. Maybe that’s all praying is. I fervently hoped that the three of us could be hidden from sight and protected from harm, and the growing warmth in my hand indicated that my hopes had manifested. I heard Nessa gasp in wonder, and I opened my eyes.
We were surrounded by a glassy dome, maybe four or five yards across. It was transparent and colourless, but everything outside the dome shimmered as if through a heat haze. I instinctively knew I had to maintain my focus to keep it in existence, so I tried ignore the warped shapes of, not two, but four beastmen as they loped into the derelict hut. I knew they couldn’t see us, but as their hideous muzzles turned up into the air and quivered, I realised with horror that they could smell us. One of them moved forward cautiously then yelped as its foreclaw touched the invisible dome, blue sparks leaping from the point of contact.
“Now!” Nessa shouted, and she and Tonk heaved their shoulders against the walls of the hut. The strangest thing occurred: the walls toppled, and the roof caved in, but none of it penetrated the dome. Instead I watched it skitter and bounce, forming a perfect hemisphere of tumbling debris. Horrible yelps from nearby made it clear that the creatures had not been so lucky.
Sure enough, the dust began to settle and we could see that two of the beastmen were buried under the rubble, bloody and unmoving. One of the others was howling pitifully, clutching a bloody gash on its malformed shoulder. Only one remained unscathed, and suddenly our chances of survival looked much more favourable.
Tonk must have made the same calculation as me, and it made him foolhardy. He cast a spell of magically increased speed and ducked out through the dome and between piles of debris, appearing as little more than a blur. As he dashed past the wounded beastman and through the hole in the wall, it suddenly lashed out instinctively at the unexpected movement. Despite the creature’s injury and Tonk’s unnatural speed I saw cloth rip and blood splash before he stumbled out of sight, and the monster snarled and pelted out of the hole behind him.
The uninjured beastman hurried over to the gap in the wall to watch its companion go, and that was when Nessa struck. She leapt through the shimmering dome, dodged around the rubble, and swung her axe overhead and down. As I said before, her strength was greater than it looked: her blade split that misshapen head in two, and the momentum carried it down into the furry body. Without a sound the thing tumbled lifelessly to the floor, killed with a single stroke.
With the coast clear, I began to extricate myself from the rubble. I moved slowly, maintaining my concentration so that the dome would hold its position and wouldn’t vanish and drop half a ton of tiles and stones on my head. Once I was standing safely beside the now blood-streaked Nessa I cut the connection inside my mind. It felt like dropping a weight I had been carrying, and the dome popped out of existence, allowing the rest of the rubble to crash to the floor.
Nessa and I went to the opening in the wall that Tonk had fled through and were startled to see that the final beastman was only a few yards away. It seemed confused, like it couldn’t find its quarry, and I readied my staff to attack it. At that moment, I head Tonk’s voice shout something arcane. There was a weird shifting in the air, like part of the world was being forcefully rearranged, and then the beastman just exploded. I can’t really explain it. There was a momentary warping of the air around it, like the sky reflected in the surface of a lake, and then the shaggy body just burst, showering Nessa and me in a fountain of gore. I was so shocked by the unexpected carnage that I stood there mutely, feeling hot blood trickle down my neck and under my collar.
As I stood there staring, Tonk sauntered over, edging carefully around the steaming pool of chunky scarlet liquid. “What’s the difference?” he asked, and I stared at him dumbly. “I mean, was that desecration? If so, why was that okay?”
I wanted to tell him that whatever unnatural forces he had just tapped into to cause such violent carnage were not even remotely okay, but my words refused to come.
Tonk pushed on. “Surely the desecration of the living is more objectionable than the transformation of the dead, and yet-”
“Enough,” Nessa said with quiet authority. “Leave her alone, will you?”
I didn’t say anything, but I was immensely grateful.
Worried about the pink and purple sky and aware that night was frighteningly close, we rushed through the rest of our tasks. We searched the caravans and found no survivors or corpses, just ransacked belongings. They had clearly belonged to somebody of considerable wealth, and in retrospect I wish we could have searched more thoroughly and maybe brought back some valuables to add to Chuton’s reduced coffers.
All that was left then was the larger building down the southern end of the village. It was just a rough stone cylinder, and it wasn’t until we were almost at the door that I recognised it as a chapel, much more intact that the rest of the village. It was a simple church for simple folk, and I was somewhat surprised to recognise that it was dedicated to the New God. There was no sign of the Ouroboros serpent that I carried, but hanging from the lintel was the crude wooden figure of a woman with nails driven through it. While I prefer to centre my thoughts about the eternal wheel, some of the New Faith are drawn to the horrific martyrdom of Saint Astrid, run through with a dozen swords. I wrinkled my nose in distaste as we passed underneath and into the darkness.
It was indeed a small and simple chapel, a raised altar at one end was topped by a wooden lectern, and the seating was just rows of wooden stools, many of them now broken. I heard Nessa make a noise of revulsion, and I turned to ask what was wrong, but the words never left my lips: along the walls to our left and right were piles of dismembered corpses. They were so horribly mangled I could not guess at the number, but it seemed to be a dozen or more. Some wore the tattered remains of inquisition soldier uniforms, but others seemed to be in civilian clothes. There were even animals, though I struggled to discern if they were horses, oxen, deer, or something else.
The dwarf sighed with disgust and said she needed to search the bodies, hoping to find the captain’s body so she could fetch an insignia and prove we had found him. I nodded and moved to the lectern. Sheltered inside away from the weather, the wooden structure seemed well-preserved but was coated in a thick layer of dust.
I don’t know exactly what I expected, maybe a search for a hidden compartment or some kind of locked strongbox. It seemed almost unbelievable when I simply stepped onto the altar, peered around behind the lectern, and saw the large silver chalice just sitting there on the shelf. It was exactly as described – pure silver, large and heavy-looking, with a serpent wrapped around the stem, biting the tip of its own tail – except for one small but vital detail. It too was coated in a thick layer of dust, just like everything else on the altar.
“Interesting,” said Tonk at my shoulder, and I jumped. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Why is it covered in dust? Looks like its been here for years.”
Nessa came to join us, pocketing the insignia from the captain’s shoulder and wiping blood off her hands. She nodded. “Yes, many years. Decades, I’d say.”
I fought to control my breathing. “She lied,” I snarled, fury prickling at my insides.
“Only one way to know for sure,” Tonk said. He held out a hand, palm first, and I felt a tingle of power from him. As it ebbed away, he gasped. “Powerful. Yes, this is definitely a powerful relic. It has to be what we were sent here to find.”
I bent forward and hesitated for only a moment before grasping the chalice around its serpentine stem. It felt like cold metal, nothing more, and yet… was there a whispering in the back of my head? A vibration, perhaps? I thought it was just my imagination, overwrought by the day’s horrors.
Nessa, meanwhile, was distracted. “Oh, what the hell is that?” she groaned. I looked away from my prize to where she was pointing. Our eyes had begun to get used to the darkness inside the chapel, and details were starting to become clearer. What had looked like nothing special when we had come in, just part of the general debris of a ruined village, had resolved itself into another nest. It looked much like the nests we had seen in the huts, but it was huge, a filthy crater of dry grass, animal skins, and God only knows what else.
“We have to go,” Nessa whispered. “Now!”
Our quest was complete and, for our part at least, Chuton was safe, so I am not ashamed to admit that all three of us turned tail and ran. The sky was a deep violet, and in the shadows of the trees it was barely bright enough to be called twilight. I was terrified by the thought of meeting something that could see in the dark and sniff out our scent while we were blinded by full darkness, and that fear kept us running even after we would otherwise have rested. My imagination was drawing connections between the corpse in the tree and the enormous nest, and the idea of meeting one of those grotesque, blasphemous things expanded to giant size, strong enough to toss a grown man like child’s doll, impale it on a branch like a sausage on a fork… It pushed me almost to the brink of panic.
We were in the clearing, running past the corpse of the horse, when the noise erupted behind us. God, I hope to never again hear anything like it. It seemed as if Hell itself had been emptied onto the Earth. It was a cacophony of almost normal-sounding bestial howls and bleats, but mixed with the screams of an asylum packed full of the deranged and a thunderous booming and grunting, like… I’m sorry, words can’t even come close to capturing the otherworldly hideousness of that sound. It was fury and hatred and insanity distilled into noise, and I cannot imagine hearing anything more horrible.
Nothing seemed to give chase, thankfully, and we regained the road and hurried back into town, not daring to slow down the entire way. My lungs were burning when we entered the farmlands east of Chuton, but it wasn’t until we were passing the boarded-up Rusty Crown inn that we dared slow to a walk. I could feel sweat trickling from my hairline, tracing its way around the partially dried blood and tissue on my face.
The three of us parted without a word, presumably all going to our own homes. I retired to the presbytery, filled the wooden bath, and scrubbed myself clean. The town was quiet, but as I bathed I could hear soft voices and the occasional nervous laugh filtering in from outside. Chuton still lived, then. The Inquisition had not yet slaughtered everyone I cared about. It seemed a cold comfort, and I combed revolting chunks out of my soapy hair angrily, thinking about the inquisitor’s lies.
I dried myself, put on my nightclothes, and then simply sat for a time. I don’t remember picking it up, so I was a little surprised to find the chalice cradled in my arms like a sleeping baby. I’m sure now that it isn’t my imagination: there is power in this object, something with intelligence and knowledge, and it is speaking to me in words I can almost hear. I just need to listen more closely to its soft whispers. Keeping the chalice close, I lit a candle, took out my journal and some ink, and wrote this account. Now that it is done I suppose I should eat, but I have no appetite.
For now, I suppose I will sleep. This thing is too precious to leave unguarded, so I will keep it with me. In the morning, I will no doubt be expected to hand it over to the liar who sent me to fetch it, and I don’t know if I will be able to. The story seems clear enough now: she knew or suspected that the chalice was in that lost village, and must also have known it was guarded by beastmen, so she sent her troops to fetch it. When they didn’t return, she sent us to complete their mission.
She is clearly evil. How can I entrust something so holy to such a person?
I must sleep. Talk to me in my dreams, sweet silver serpent. Tell me what I must do.