The shock of the realization that she had been identified for a special purpose by an angel or spirit of the Stronian Holy Host lay heavy upon Peep. She sat silently between Father Nate and Choke as the villagers celebrated Amia and Nester’s wedding around them. After about an hour, Peep stood up without a word and went back into the church to go to sleep.
“She’ll be fine. She just needs some time,” Father Nate said.
“I am sure,” Choke said. “But, if I may, Father: Why her? She is obviously not one of us. She has no respect for the Church or its teachings.”
“You are right. She does not. But can we expect a wild animal to have respect for the yoke and the plow that we harness their domestic cousins with?”
“Of course not. But why would such a wild animal be chosen?” Choke asked, his question earnest, without too much of his envy showing.
“There is no way to know. Sometimes a wild thing is what is needed most. She has steel at her core, that one. A raptor’s eye, and a fox’s cunning. And a will to fight. How could that not be useful to our faith? Yes? But enough of these musings, for such mysteries are not for us to know. Tell me, though, Bartholomew: what have you found in the Scripture that might lead us to what clarity there is for us to know?”
“You were right, Father,” Choke said, opening his Holy Book to a page he had marked with a blade of grass. “The passage I was remembering was in the Book of Twelve Conflagrations. Chapter four, verse eighteen, to be precise. May I?”
“Of course!” Father Nate said cheerfully, settling in to have a good listen. A number of the peasants that had been lurking around came back over to sit in front of Choke.
Choke took a moment to settle himself before he began reading aloud:
“‘And lo, did Stron hold his sword aloft and call forth Altas’ holy fire to be set upon it. And so it was. And Stron did plunge his flaming sword deep into the pyre of furnishings and filigree and the papers and books of that unholy office. And the pasha, that unholy priest of the demonic Alquinian pantheon, did call to his unholy host to be saved. But his fate was sealed under the eyes of Altas and no demon or devil could undo His holy will. And so, the pasha priest and his harem whores were burned upon the trappings of his profane station. And the holy fire did cleanse that place of their evil. And as the screams of the righteously burned did begin to wane, the very fire itself took to laughter at their anguish. The flames laughed and all who heard did quake in fear at the voice. And Stron did say unto his people: “Hark! It is the laughter of Zenetash, holy spirit of flame and death, as old as the stones; and it does bless us with its voice!” And Stron and his people did praise Zenetash for the blessing of having heard. And they knew in their hearts that Aern was a cleaner place for their having fed the evildoers to the holy flames.’”
“Well, then. Perhaps it was Zenetash that visited Otilla today. Have you heard this name spoken of before, Bartholomew?” Father Nate asked.
“Perhaps. It seems familiar.”
“Well, you could seek counsel from more learned minds than mine. But, I don’t think it is of utmost importance. Whatever holy entity visited Otilla; it has done its work. And she shall do as she must. To know more than this is not required of us.”
“I understand, Father. But surely to seek out greater understanding of this miracle could not be wrong, could it?” Choke asked.
“No, of course not. It is good and right to seek our answers within the Word. And in this you may be a guide to Otilla. She is, as you said, wild, and has been raised outside of the fold of our faith. She shall need guidance. It is no accident that she found you to help her leave her troubled life and set out on a path of righteousness. She found you. She reached out to you. Yes? Surely this was the work of Altas’ agents.”
“I understand, Father. I agree. I could feel this today. Something passed between us. I feel a synergy of purpose,” Choke said.
“Synergy of purpose! Well, then, there we have it. Praise Altas! Praise Stron! For we have been witness to their good work this day. Happy day, indeed! Happy day!” Father Nate shouted, standing up tall as he did to spread his arms wide over his assembled flock at their merriment.
The next day, the squad rose late in their own time. They had all gone to sleep on the wooden pews of the church. Choke awoke feeling stiff from the strenuous week, but otherwise fresh, having imbibed little the day before. He looked over his passed-out compatriots and noticed Peep was not among them. He strolled outside with his Holy Book in hand to go and find her.
Peep was sitting on the ground in the field outside the village walls. She had her shortsword naked in her lap and was idly running her fingers over its razor edges as she stared at the heads of Goldy and Horsecock on their pikes over the gate. Some crows were already working them over, squabbling over the bits of flesh they were tugging from the faces.
“May I join you?” Choke asked.
“Sure. Have a seat.”
“Are you alright?” Choke asked, once he had settled in beside her.
“Guess so. Would it matter if I wasn’t?”
“It would to me.”
“No shit, huh? Well, that’s something, at least. I finally find someone that gives a shit for me, and it turns out to be a… you,” Peep hesitated as she rethought her initial word choice to conclude her sentiment.
Choke laughed. “I’m sorry. It must be a terrible stigma for the likes of you to have to associate with the likes of me.”
“Yeah, for sure it is, me being Princess Sapphire of Alquinia over here. But I’ll manage. Don’t be getting any ideas, though. I told ye before, and I meant it: I aint never fuckin any of ye.”
“I know,” Choke said sharply. “That is not what I’m about here. I hope you understand that.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Ye got yar own different kind a mess yar trying to lay on me,” Peep said, gesturing at the Holy Book in Choke’s lap.
“Well, I don’t think, ‘a mess,’ is how I would put it.”
“Nah, of course ye wouldn’t. Yar too deep into it to see it proper. But I’m telling ye: It’s a fuckin mess.”
“Woah. Okay, let’s get one thing straight about that. I’m Peep, right? If ye wanna be my friend, then ye call me, Peep. If ye wanna be my Church boss, then ye call me, Otilla. And that’s fine. Every boss is gonna have their own fucked up ways of letting ye know that yar ass is theirs,” Peep held her branded palm up to punctuate this point. “So I get that if I’m gonna be on this crew, doing wet work for the faith, then the bosses are gonna call me by the handle that Church Daddy hung on me yesterday. But, if ye wanna be my friend, then ye call me Peep. Right?”
“Okay. Peep it is, then. And am I?” Choke asked.
“Are ye what?” Peep returned.
Peep laughed. “Yeah, sure. Why not? Just don’t go spreading it around.”
“Understood. But, listen, Peep. Father Nate was correct yesterday when he cautioned you about being respectful to Church men. They do not have a sense of humor about our faith. Nor should they.”
“Yeah, I got it. I heard the man. But it’s just you and me here right now. So, as long as we’re gonna be friends, I’m gonna tell ye just this once exactly what I think of this fuckin mess of a religion ye got us mixed up in. And yar gonna listen. And then we can shut the fuck up about it forever. Right?”
“Very well. If you must,” Choke sighed.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Nate here is a bad fuckin guy. He seems alright. But that don’t mean that all this aint fucked up. Ye got these men demanding that ye kneel in front of them and call them Daddy to receive their blessing. A big fucking sword that they lay on yar forehead. Nothing creepy about that at all, huh? Ye don’t think that in some of these churches out here, some of the priests aren’t giving some lucky favorites an extra special blessing by sticking something in their mouth while they’re at it? It’s fucking creepy. So that’s one,” Peep said, holding up one finger.
“Okay. Great. Let’s hear two, then.”
“Well, ye already heard my gripe about that. They let ye men run around, pretty much doing whatever ye want, and then make women have the kids that they get stuck with from it. But do they give ye any help once ye have that kid? Fuck no.”
“I think you are wrong on that front,” Choke said reasonably. “Didn’t Father Nate arrange a situation for Amia with her marriage yesterday? What was that?”
“Oh, right! Yeah, I forgot! What a fuckin blessing for her. Now instead of fucking just any man that gets his hands on her, and praying to the moon so she doesn’t get knocked up, she only has to fuck the one. Whether she likes him or not. And then she has to have whatever kids he pumps into her, even if it kills her.”
Choke began to flare up at Peep’s mention of the moon, so she held her hand up to placate him:
“I know, I know. The moon’s a bitch whore demon and women that pray to her are witches to be burned. I got it. But ye lot saying that don’t mean that it aint also a path to a better life for most women. So don’t ye dare try telling me that yar Church has women’s best interests at heart. Or that Father Nate did Amia a big favor by handing her off like property for some man to fuck whenever he wants. Like she’s some kinda milk cow to be traded. It was a pimp move.”
“Well, if this is all so horrible, then what the fuck are you doing here with us?” Choke barked, slamming his hand down on his Holy Book as he finally lost his temper.
“I told ye that already, Choke. I’m tired of getting kicked around. Tired of being dirt poor. Tired of living on fuckin bugs and creek water. Tired of having pricks like that,” Peep waved her sword Goldy and Horsecock’s way, “thinking they can fuck anybody they can hold down. So if yar Church is gonna feed me and pay me to kill motherfuckers like that, then I am down for it. And I’ll put up listening to some bullshit and keep quiet about it from here on out. That’s a small price to pay. But that don’t mean it aint bullshit. And I just wanted ye to know that I know it. That’s all.”
“This,” Choke said, stabbing his finger down on his Holy Book, “is not bullshit! This is real! You know it! You experienced it yesterday! You might not remember it right now, but somewhere inside you; you know it. This…” Choke tapped the Holy Book again, “is real.”
“I dunno what that is, man. But I’ll take yar word for it. What I do know is: this…” Peep raised her shortsword and flicked the blade with a fingernail so that it rang out like a chime, “is real. And I cut Horsecock’s throat with it. And then I cut off his head. And you cut off Goldy’s. That shit was real. As real as it gets.”
“I know, Peep. But you were the subject of a holy possession. I know you don’t remember it, but—”
“Oh, I remember it,” Peep interrupted. “Or, I feel it, at least. I know it. Whatever that was has settled down into me and is along for the ride now. So don’t ye try to tell me what it was, because ye don’t fuckin know. And all that hunting about in yar book for a name aint gonna tell ye shit about it neither.”
“Okay. So, what is it inside you then?” Choke asked earnestly.
“It’s like a feeling in my gut and bones, right? But a feeling that has its own thoughts. And I know what it wants. I know why it chose me,” Peep said calmly, still staring at Horsecock’s head. A crow was now perched on it and leaning down to dig around in an empty eye socket with its long, black beak.
“So what does it want?”
“Did ye know something?” Peep said, with a total change of tone and posture. “Orcstabber was my first. Not the first man that did his thing with me, I mean. He’s the first person I killed.”
“Really. That’s a surprise. You seemed rather good at it,” Choke said.
“I know, right? But I done plenty of hunting, and butchering kills and that. And I seen plenty of people get it. So I guess all that came into play.”
“I suppose so.”
“Yeah, so there we were in that alley, and he has me around the neck, and I could feel this knife of his right there for the taking,” Peep paused to draw Orcstabber’s buck knife and give it a good look before sheathing it again. “And there ye were. You and me. And I seen ye kill before and I knew ye could handle Orcstabber’s boys. And this voice inside me said: ‘this is it, Peep. Do it now.’ And I did it.”
“And how did that feel?” Choke asked quietly.
“It felt fuckin great. It was… better than anything. And that voice that told me to do it. It was laughing inside me. Just like the one that came onboard and laughed yesterday. Ye understand? Then we go on and I do Smitty, then Horsecock, and then Stringer. And those kills weren’t quite as sweet because I never really had beef with them the way I did with Orcstabber. But still… easy. Fun. I’m good at this, right?”
“I would say so.”
“Right. And that thing that came and looked inside me yesterday. It saw that thing that told me to do Orcstabber. And it put something else in me. And that thing… well… it wants what it wants,” Peep said, her voice now far away.
“And what does it want, Peep?”
“Ye know the answer to that, Choke. And it’s what this religion of yars is all about. What it’s always been all about. It wants more of that,” Peep said, pointing her sword one last time at the crows at their meal. Then she pointed at the Holy Book in Choke’s lap. “That book. All them words. That’s just like a package that men made to hold the real thing. A pretty box for people to look at and fiddle around with, without ever understanding what’s inside. Stories for men to tell sheep so that they can get paid and get laid. It aint what’s real.”
Peep stood up then and gave herself a full body wiggle to settle her leather armor and weaponbelt into place. Then she sheathed her sword, where it hung low at the front of her left hip. She looked down at Choke and smiled.
“Okay then, partner, good talk. Let’s go find this Barrelmender church daddy of yars and get back to work! My palms are getting itchy.”