After leaving the Sheriff’s office on Main Street, the squad immediately went to the church. There, they tethered their mounts in the street and went in the wide front doors. It was not a minute before Father Spencer Morrenthall, cleric of the militant Stronian order of the Knights of the Holy Sword, gave them leave to put their mounts away in the church’s stables. Following this, the church’s housekeeper herded them like chickens into her kitchen where she put on a hearty feed for their dinner.
After dinner, Father Morrenthall had all four of them seated in his office where he served them wine. He encouraged them to speak of their mission, and listened intently, eliciting more information from them with pertinent questions.
For some time the interview was relaxed, even when Father Morrenthall scolded Knuckle for his killing of the mother in the bandit camp. However, as it went on, Father Morrenthall became increasingly distracted. Several times, his mind drifted and he would stare off into space, to then shake himself out of his fog and, with all apologies, direct whoever was speaking to repeat themselves. As this continued, he began to stare at Peep for longer and longer stretches. Finally, he held his hand up to silence Pinch, who had been doing most of the talking.
“I am sorry, Nikolas,” he said to Pinch. “But I find myself all at sea here.” He then turned his intense focus on Peep. “Excuse me, miss, but: who are you?”
“Me? I’m Peep. I was here before, after they sprung me from the tower after I killed Orcstabber.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Father Morrenthall said as he fanned Peep’s words away from him irritably. “I remember all that. But, who are you? Why do I…” his voice drifted away. After a spell of ponderous silence, he addressed everyone: “Something is off here. What is going on?”
“Well, Father,” Choke answered for them, “we would have been getting to that. I suppose we should have led off with it, though.”
Choke looked expectantly at Peep, who continued to sit immobile, staring at the floor just as she had for the entire interview. Choke sighed and spoke for her:
“Well, Father, Peep here was baptized as Otilla by Father Nate in Callic.”
“Yes. Very good,” Father Morrenthall said impatiently. He glanced back Peep’s way and, as he did, his eyes flared wide and he gasped. “Oh! It’s you! It’s… I… Oh, Stron! How could I have forgotten?”
Father Morrenthall leaped to his feet into a wide ready stance, his eyes jumping all around the room as though in an ambush. Then, as his moment of alarm passed, he seemed to deflate, collapsing back into his chair, looking shocked. He sat rubbing his face, still deeply shaken.
The sight of this seasoned combat veteran and iron-willed man of Stron in such a state was deeply unsettling for everyone else there. They exchanged worried looks.
“Are you okay, Father? Do you need anything?” Choke finally asked.
Father Morrenthall took some time to answer:
“No. I’m fine. Or… I suppose… I don’t know. It’s a prophesy. It must be. But, if that is so, then we are…” he drifted off, staring into space with profound horror. Then, finally, he managed to regain his composure in a series of mental steps, finishing off with a loud, sharp slap to his own cheek.
“I am sorry, my children,” Father Morrenthall addressed them, once more in his controlled persona. “I have dreamed of you, Otilla. Two nights ago. Perhaps three. A dream completely forgotten until just now. A terrible dream. In it, I saw you bathed in Altas’ light and consumed by Stron’s holy fire under a flaming sword. This was your baptism, yes? In your baptism you were visited by a holy agent, were you not? You were the subject of a holy possession.”
“Yes, when Father Nate—” Choke began, but Father Morrenthall shut him up with an irritated hiss and a slashing hand gesture.
“I am speaking to Otilla. I would hear from her,” he said, his fanatical eyes never leaving Peep’s face.
Peep, who had continued to stare at the floor this whole time, finally raised her eyes to meet the Father’s gaze. She blinked in shock as she beheld how he was looking at her. Watching her closely, Choke could spot the exact moment in which she realized that she had very real potential to become an object of worship. The subtle shift of her bearing in this was the most frightening thing Choke had experienced since leaving the Pekot orphanage.
“I don’t know, Father,” Peep said, with the faintest trace of smugness in withholding.
“Yes you do. Tell me.”
“Well, okay. Yeah, well, in the fire from the sword there was a spirit, or some shit, and it got into me. We laughed together. Then it branded me like some kinda cow, and let me know that I’m gonna have to do a lot of killing for you guys now. So, that’s cool, I guess, because it seems like I’m pretty good at that. And it also means I’m on the team now, right? So, yay Stron!” Peep said with a forced smile, giving Father Morrenthall a double thumbs-up.
Father Morrenthall blinked at Peep as he struggled to distill the critical information from her disrespectful delivery. He managed it soon enough.
“Oh! Oh Stron!” he gasped. “Yes! The marks of Stron! I saw them in the vision! Burned into your flesh and soul! Oh, Stron! Thank you!”
Father Morrenthall fell out of his chair and crawled on his hands and knees across the floor to Peep. Kneeling in front of her, he grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands towards him, turning her palms upwards. Father Morrenthall sobbed as he beheld the marks of Stron.
“Oh! Oh Stron! Ohhhh!” he sobbed as he kissed each of Peep’s palms in turn, again and again. Then he pressed her hands to his face and wept.
Peep sat motionless and stared down at Father Morrenthall on his knees before her. Finally, she looked sideways at Choke, who was watching the scene with a stunned expression.
“Dood. Seriously?” Peep said quietly to Choke.
Finally, Father Morrenthall was finished. He stood up slowly and wiped the tears and snot from his face with the sleeves of his cassock.
“I am sorry, child,” he said to Peep, raising his hand apologetically to her. “I know this is all new to you. My foolishness must seem very… I suppose, foolish to you.” Father Morrenthall stumbled back to his chair and flopped down into it, looking completely spent.
“My dream. It was more than that. It was a vision, brought by some agent of the Holy Host. Much of it is still lost to me in a fog. As you were until I saw you. But there can be no doubt. It is a prophesy. And from what I remember, it is dire. It was Father Nate in Callic who did this baptism, you say?”
Peep, who was busy wiping Father Morrenthall’s facial effusion off her hands onto her pants with a pissed off scowl, was back to ignoring the priest, so Choke risked answering for her:
“Indeed, Father. And, if I may, the laughter we heard, the laughter she said she shared, it was otherworldly. It brought to mind Stron’s immolation of the Pasha and his harem in the Book of Twelve Conflagrations. Chapter four, verse eighteen. In it, Stron names the holy spirit, Zenetash.”
“Ah. That is quite possible. Thank you! I need to speak to Father Nate.” Father Morrenthall, seemingly himself once more, stood up and began to organize his thoughts. “I shall be leaving at once. If you need anything, please let Mrs Dunn know.”
“What? Now? It’s after dark, Father. He’s all the way up in Callic,” Pinch said.
“I am aware. As I said: I need to speak with him at once. It is only a few hour’s ride, and I know the road well.”
“But you cannot go alone, Father. We must escort you,” Choke said.
“Thank you, my son. But no. You four must continue on your chosen path. That much is certain. Stron shall see to it that you are placed where and when you are needed. As for me: I am a battle cleric of Stron, and the veteran of many a campaign. Woe unto any that would attempt to waylay me upon the road, on this, of all nights, after I have kissed the marks of Stron upon the flesh of a holy vessel. No. I shall be fine. Rest assured of that.”
“Well, if you are certain, Father. I’m sorry, I know you are in a hurry. But, before you go, if I may ask: what do you think all of this means, Father?” asked Choke.
“If I am right about my vision, this may be the beginning of the end times. At very least, something momentous is upon us. Father Nate is the priest whose baptism ceremony provided conduit for the holy agent into Otilla. I must know what he experienced in that moment. Then, I expect I shall be off to Strana to seek audience with the Bishop.”
“The Bishop?” Pinch asked, his voice quivering.
“Indeed. This was a holy visitation, son! Do you think this is something that happens every day? A holy agent visited both her and me. She is to set out to find her holy purpose. I am to rally the soldiers of the faith to be ready to respond when it is made clear where they shall be needed. There is something momentous coming. Terrible and grand! Mark my words: this is the end of things as we know it. Prepare yourselves. And be honored, for you shall likely be the first to know more of it and see the new world.”
“Okay,” Peep said. “Thanks, Father. Good talk!”
“I’m sorry, Father. But what are we supposed to do?” Choke asked, panic rising up in him.
“As you were, Bartholomew. Do just as you would do as if nothing had happened. For you, this shall all unfold as it should, naturally. So go to Bristlehump and seek out Brother Barrelmender. He is to play a part in this as well, of that I am sure.”
“Very well. Just one more thing, though. I’m sorry to bother you about this now, Father, but there is no choice,” Choke said. “We have need of some replacement equipment. Theodas needs a greatsword, Nikolas some new arrows, me quarrels, and we should buy Peep, I mean, Otilla, a horse. Should we just go to Main Street tomorrow to take care of that?”
“Ah. For the weapons, no. Tomorrow morning, talk to Mrs Dunn. She is generally the housekeeper here, but for the last while, with only her and Thorn helping me, she serves as the quartermaster here as well. Seeing as you are all in funds from your mission, you shall have to buy what you need. This is not a charity, after all. We all must earn our keep. But she shall give you a good price. I’ll leave her a note letting her know. As to the horse, just go to the livery and tell Elliot there that I sent you. He shall treat you well, I am sure. Is that all?”
“I suppose so, Father. Thank you. I’m sorry, this is all rather crazy. I’m not sure what to say,” Choke said.
“I quite understand. And I do apologize for my earlier loss of composure. It has been a long, lonely road for me, in this life. I had begun to question if I would ever be given a proper mission by our Lord. And to have it come to me in such an unexpected manner. Well, it was more than I could bear in the moment. I expect you can all understand my feelings, though,” Father Morrenthall said, smiling paternalistically at the four.
“Yes. Quite, Father. Thank you,” Choke said.
“Very well! Stay tonight in the cells, and for as long as you need. Please do not bother Mrs Dunn until the morning. She works hard and needs her rest. Then, if you feel it prudent to stay in town a little to deal with this spot of bother you find yourselves in with the bad fellows from Strana, I am sure that will be quite alright. However, I do think that the sooner you get yourselves to Bristlehump, the better. Yes?”
“Yes. Thank you, Father,” Choke said.
“Good. Let us pray,” Father Morrenthall said. He grasped his steel Wheel of Stron with his left hand and raised his right hand high.
Choke, Pinch, Knuckle, and then, after only a moment’s hesitation, Peep, all got down on their knees and bowed their heads.
“Lord Stron! Thank you for your blessing of all of us with your holy mission. Please grant us the strength to bear that which we must as we carry it forth and do your work. Thank you, Stron. With all our praise to you, we thank you. Amen.”
“Amen,” the squad of four kneeling before him intoned.
“Now,” Father Morrenthall said, “if one of you could help me into my armor, I would be most obliged. Thank you.”
Choke raised his hand and hopped to the priest’s side. The other three nodded deeply and left them to it.
When Choke left Father Morrenthall’s office a few minutes later, he soon found the other three sitting in the church pews waiting for him.
“We thought we should figure out what we’re doing before turning in,” Pinch said quietly.
“That’s a good idea,” Choke said as he sat down with them.
“Well, that was fucked,” Peep said. “That guy is fuckin crazy.”
“Mind your tongue! We are in a church!” Choke snapped at her.
“Oh, right. Sorry. But that guy is nuts, right?” Peep pressed on.
“No! That is a priest of Stron you speak of! In his own church, no less. Do you not understand what is going on? What your holy possession means?”
“No. And neither do any of you. And if yar thinking that dipshit who was crying like a bitch has any answers, yar even crazier than he is,” Peep said.
Choke closed his eyes and did some focused rage breathing through his nose for a while. After some time, Pinch spoke:
“Anyways… whatever all this means, he did tell us to carry on. So, what does that mean? What’s the plan?”
“Well, first thing tomorrow we reequip here. Then we should go to the general store for some basic supplies. Get you a new bedroll, and some camping gear. Then to the livery to get Peep a horse,” Choke said.
“What?” Peep cut in, looking disgusted. “Ye wanna buy a horse? What the fuck, man. That’s gonna be, what? Twenty silver, or something? With the heat coming down on you guys now, we’ll be killing someone who has a horse sooner rather than later, I expect.”
“Well, I thought, Peep, that it would be best to get to Bristlehump as soon as possible, before that heat comes down on us. With you riding a mule, we won’t be making good time,” Choke said.
“Well, that’s a really fuckin dumb idea, Choke,” Peep said with a smile.
“Language! And how is it a dumb idea?”
“Well, yar heading up there to go and offer yar services to the raven. This Barrelmender, right? But it aint like he’s hired ye on already, is it? From what I understood, ye gotta go up and get him to take ye on, right? And he’s the law up there, right?”
“Exactly so. What’s your point?”
“Well, Choke, think about this from his side for a second. Ye think he’s gonna be real thrilled with you showing up in his joint asking for a job, and protection, basically, with a kill squad hot on yar heels? Is that the way ye wanna start out in a new job? Stupid!”
Choke was all set to argue, but stopped with his mouth agape as her argument sank in.
“She does have a point, Choke,” Pinch said.
“No doubt,” Knuckle seconded.
“Alright,” Choke finally said. “So, what do you suggest we do, Peep?”
“Well, we fuckin handle it before we head up there. Like yar priest here just suggested we do. Didn’t he?”
“He did say that,” Pinch said.
“No doubt,” Knuckle agreed.
“So, what do you suggest we do?” Choke asked Peep again, this time earnestly.
“Well, the sheriff basically flat-out told us that there’s a hit squad from Strana here in town. So, let’s figure out who and where they are. Then we go and kill them,” Peep said with a smile.
“Oh, just like that?” Knuckle said.
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“Peep,” Choke said. “After everything the Sheriff said to us, you want to go out looking for a fight?”
“No, I wanna go out and kill. And the Sheriff said we have until noon tomorrow. Other than that, alls he said was that he doesn’t like bodies in his streets. So, we just try to keep it outta the streets, right? And besides which, who gives a shit about what he likes or not?”
“He’s the Sheriff!” Choke barked.
“Yeah. And are all of you assholes worshiping sheriffs around here? No. Yar worshiping Stron. And in case ye haven’t noticed, Stron’s priests in these parts have taken a real shine to us of late. So even if we piss off Sheriff Fuckknuckle, I think we’ll be fine,” Peep said.
“Okay, hold up,” Pinch interjected. “I see what yar saying, Peep. But how do you suggest we go and find out who is in town trying to kill us? We can’t just go out and start asking around.”
“No. You can’t. But don’t ye fret, I got ye covered!” Peep grinned.
“You!” Knuckle laughed. “And just what are ye gonna do?”
“It’s still pretty early. I’ll just dress up like a peasant boy and go and wander around the pleasure quarter. Nobody pays boys any mind. And nobody likes to gossip more than drunk men, so I should be able to overhear plenty. At least that’ll give us a better idea of what we’re up against,” Peep said.
“Are ye nuts? Dress up like a boy! Now that is stupid!” Knuckle laughed.
“I done it plenty before. All I need is the clothes. Pinch, yar not that much bigger than me. Do ye got any clothes I could throw on? Just a jerkin and a pair of pants.”
“Yes,” Pinch said slowly, looking thoughtful.
“Wait a minute,” Choke said. “If you go out there, dressed as a boy or not, someone is going to recognize you. You were in town just last week killing Orcstabber in the street, and we rode through town with everyone staring at us just this afternoon.”
“Yeah, so? Today going through town I had the wolf hood up. And last week, everyone was drunk and mostly paying attention to you anyways. Now, everybody out there is gonna be drunk again. They aint gonna pay me any mind.”
“Ye sure about that? Maybe one of them likes boys,” Knuckle laughed.
“Well, if that’s so, I’ll bring ye his balls as a souvenir, Knuckle.”
“I still think it’s risky,” Choke said.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Peep conceded. “But I say it’s worth the risk. And I’m the one that’ll be taking the risk anyways.”
“I think she’s right,” Pinch said.
“Okay, so, let’s say you find out where these guys are. Then what?” Choke asked.
“Well, if they’re someplace we can get to easy, I come back here and then we suit up and go take them out. If not, at least we got more information on them. Then I guess we should try to jack them on the road to Facefuck.”
“Facefuck? What?” Knuckle laughed.
“Enough with the profanity in the church!” Choke snapped.
“Okay, fine. Bristlehump,” Peep said. “But where d’ye think they got the name from?”
“I dunno. It has a hill with a lot of brush on it? Or they killed a big boar there?” Pinch hazarded.
“Maybe. Or, maybe there was an epic man-hoor out there who didn’t shave much. Whatever. Go get me them clothes, Pinch,” Peep finished.
Pinch went and dug his breeches and jerkin out of the bottom of his saddlebags. Peep took them into her cell and emerged within a minute as a rumpled boy in oversized hand-me-downs. The only thing that was not a spot-on match was her bare feet, which were too clean for an urchin.
“See?” Peep said, doing a turn for them.
“It is convincing! Ye just have to get yar feet muddy,” Pinch said.
“I’ll see to that out in the yard here.”
“Are you armed?” Choke asked.
“Are ye for real?” Peep said as she flashed her buck knife from under the front of her jerkin. “Okay, then, I’m off!”
“Woah. Just wait a minute,” Choke said.
“It seems like this is happening, I suppose. But, I want you to be careful out there. You’re going to be all alone. So, no unnecessary risks. Don’t be asking questions and interacting with people. Stick to the shadows,” Choke said.
“Oh, great. Now a lesson on stealth and creeping from the Scythan goon that beats gang leaders up until their heads look like a pumpkin! Now I’m all sorted out!” Peep laughed. She gave the three of them a double thumbs-up. “Okay, boys, don’t wait up!”
Peep left them out the side door by the altar to leave the church from the back yard door by the stables. When she was gone, Choke and the others sat in silence for a while, trying to wrap their heads around everything that had just happened.
“Man, but she has some balls, don’t she?” Knuckle said. “I mean, like courage balls. Not balls balls.”
“Yeah, I took yar meaning, Knucklehead,” Pinch said. “And, yeah, she does.”
“I still don’t like it. We can’t let her get carried away with all this,” Choke said, mostly to himself.
“Oh, we can’t let her? After what the priest just laid on her in there? How do you expect to rein her in once she gets going, Choke? I think we’re just going to be going along on her ride now, man,” said Pinch.
“No doubt,” Knuckle said.
“Well, let’s do our best,” Choke muttered. “Stron preserve us.”
“I think he has other plans,” Pinch said. “But, about all this, if she comes back with a location for us, are we really gonna head out and do this?”
Choke just stared grimly at the Wheel and Sword suspended over the altar.
“Yeah!” Knuckle answered. “She has a point. If she finds out where those Strana guys are, we go get this done! It’s them or us. What’s there to talk about?”
“Well, whatever happens, we will need our rest,” Choke sighed. “Let’s turn in and see what happens. She’ll wake us up if she needs us, I’m sure.”
“No doubt,” Knuckle said happily.
With that, the three went to their shared cell and went right to sleep.