Father Nate was not at his church in Callic, but the squad was able to find him easily enough. He was at the tavern helping the tavernkeeper with a beer brew. He and everyone else there greeted the squad warmly. It had taken just ninety minutes to ride to the village from Shane and Earl’s cabin at the start of the Tanglefoot Trail, so it was not even lunchtime. Father Nate invited the squad back to his church, where he sat down with them in the pews.
“Ye just missed Father Morrenthall. He left here yesterday morning,” Father Nate said.
“Oh, did he spend the night?” Pinch asked. “He must have arrived here in the very early morning, the day before yesterday, right?”
“Indeed! We are well informed, aren’t we?”
“Well, he left us in the Spitzer church to come here, after all,” Pinch said. “He seemed in quite a hurry. I’m surprised he spent a night here.”
“Indeed. But we discussed matters for the better part of the day. Then, his plan was to head straight to Strana, with all haste, so he wanted a good night’s rest. He’s off to see the Bishop,” Father Nate said, giving Peep a significant look. “But, I suppose ye knew that already. So, enough about what we all know. Tell me, what brings ye back here? Nothing good, I fear.”
Pinch and Choke went on to relate to Father Nate basically everything that had transpired since they had left Callic three days before. As well, they gave him the goblin sign from the Tanglefoot Trail. Their only omissions were the story of Earl and the Desolate One’s romantic entanglements with the log woman, and Earl’s offer of his anus to Knuckle as a venue of leisure. Father Nate listened sagely without interrupting. When they had finished, he sat quietly and had a long think.
“Well, this is quite the mess we find ourselves in, isn’t it?” Father Nate said, his bearing not overly concerned. “Goblins amassing in the bush, murdering bounty hunters in hot pursuit, and the Desolate One popping up out of his swamp! What are we to do?”
“We seek only your counsel, Father,” Choke said. “We understand that handling these matters is our responsibility.”
“When one goes with Stron, my children, they need never stand alone against the evils of this world. Know that. I shall think on the matter of this Chisel that the evil men of Strana send after you. We have some time on that front, I think. If only a day or two. I think the first order of business must be this ring that Otilla finds herself presented with. Let me see it child,” Father Nate said, holding his hand out to Peep.
Peep dug the Stronian Wheel ring out of her coin purse and handed it to Father Nate by its chord. He let out a low whistle.
“Well, now! Aren’t we a pretty one?” he said.
“Father, what do you think an undead such as the Desolate One would be doing with a Stronian ring?” Choke asked.
“From everything I know of the creature, it is older than our faith. So there is no way this item is one of its original belongings. I expect this belonged to one of the Stronian adventurers that tried to destroy the Desolate One.”
“That’s just what we were thinking,” Pinch said. “So why would it give it to Peep – I mean, Otilla?”
“Well, that is the question, isn’t it?” Father Nate said. “Obviously to get her attention and make her take its invitation for a visit seriously. To what end with that, there is no way to say. We can think more on it later, though. Firstly, let’s find out just how much of an impression the Desolate One sought to make with this gift.”
Father Nate grasped his holy symbol and spoke a simple prayer: “Lord Stron, grant me your vision to detect magic. Amen.”
As Father Nate finished the prayer, he spent a minute staring at the ring intently. Then he looked over the squad quickly.
“Well, Otilla, this ring is magical. As well, just in case ye didn’t know, yar shortsword is too,” Father Nate said, gesturing to the blade on Peep’s hip.
“That sword is magic? Fu—” Knuckle interrupted his interjection as he remembered where they were.
“Indeed it is!” Father Nate said. “That and the ring are all the magic ye all possess, just in case yar wondering. It seems, as tends to be usual, Stron is selective about bestowing his favors.”
“Yeah. No doubt,” Knuckle muttered, glaring at Peep.
Peep winked at him as she clicked her tongue and gave the hilt of her sword a pat.
“Now, as to this ring,” Father Nate went on. “It would seem to be a ring of protection, of some kind. Which is hardly surprising, given that such rings are the most common. However, if this is cursed, it would still appear to be a ring of protection. The only way to know for sure whether it is cursed, or not, is to put it on and try to use it.”
“So, what does a ring of protection do?” Peep asked eagerly.
“Generally, it either makes you harder to hit in combat, or it shields you against harm from one type of elemental energy. Fire, for example. For the combat variety, it provides protection against attack by exerting force in opposition to an opponent’s attacks. For example, if you imagine a punch thrown at your head, the ring would push the fist a little to the side and make it easier to dodge. The stronger the ring, the more protective force it provides.”
“That’s great!” Peep exclaimed. “But what if it’s cursed?”
“Then it might attract blows towards you. Or, make your fingers slick as though coated in oil. Or the soles of your boots. Or just make you unlucky. There are all manner of curses. And, of course, once a cursed ring is put on, it cannot be removed without magical intervention.”
“Shit. So, what should we do with it?” Peep asked.
“What I propose is that I put the ring on to test it out,” Father Nate said. “I do not have the spell, Remove Curse, prepared today, but, if it turns out to be cursed, I can prepare it tomorrow morning. And I think that I am in a more secure position to weather whatever curse it might be. May I?” Father Nate asked Peep, holding the ring up between them.
“For sure! Thanks, Father!” Peep said.
Father Nate cut the rawhide chord with a small knife from his belt and slipped the ring on his left middle finger. He shook his hand a little, and then pulled the ring off. Then he slipped it onto his left pinky finger, where it visibly resized itself to fit: shrinking down to fit comfortably and snugly on the smaller digit.
“Well, so far so good,” Father Nate said with a smile. “It is happy to let go of me, so it is not cursed. Now, let’s figure out just what it is meant to be doing.”
Father Nate stood up and moved to an unlit torch in a wall sconce. He said a quick prayer to produce a short burst of flames from his fingertips to light the torch. Then, he stuck his other hand into the torch’s flames. He grunted a curse and yanked his hand back as the smell of burnt hair and scorched skin reached the watching squad.
“Okay, so a ring of protection against fire this is not,” Father Nate said, sucking on his burned fingers. He contemplated the damage for a second before quickly casting a healing spell on them.
“Fire is the most common element protected against, since it is the one most likely to be faced. Since I cannot produce cold or electricity, we shall not be able to test against those,” Father Nate said.
“Electricity, Father?” Pinch asked.
“Lightning, essentially. Now…” Father Nate looked the squad over with a speculative eye. He chose Choke.
“Bartholomew, would you do me the honor of sparring with me outside?”
Choke blinked, confused for an instant before he remembered his lessons. “Yes, Father. Of course.”
“What, yar gonna fight? How come?” Knuckle asked.
“I need to get into combat, or a near approximation to it, in order to feel the effects of the ring,” Father Nate said as he stood up and began tying up his robes to gird his loins.
“Huh. Okay. But how come ye wanna fight Choke?” Knuckle asked.
“Well, Theodas, he seemed a suitable opponent. Properly armed to give a good fight. And, no offense, less likely than you to get carried away. I have no desire to be catching a blow from your greatsword. Shall we?” Father Nate gestured to the exit.
Father Nate stepped off into his side chamber to put on a good suit of chainmail and collect his longsword and a roundshield. Then, outside in the village common, he and Choke clashed. Those villagers that were around gathered excitedly with the rest of the squad to watch the contest.
“Too light, boy! You come at me too easily!” Father Nate chided after he and Choke had broken off their first exchange. “More aggressive, if you please.”
The cleric and Choke closed and set upon each other once more. They fought hard enough, without any attempts to strike any vulnerable areas, such as the face, neck, arms, or legs. Finally, Father Nate was able to score a point when Choke, thusly disregarding a proper defense of his lower extremities, opened himself right up. The cleric slapped the outside of Choke’s calf with the flat of his blade, just above the boot.
“Your point, Father,” Choke conceded with a deep nod.
“No, I took advantage, son. I knew that if I were to cut you, I would be able to heal you up no worse for wear. And so, I scored a cunning blow on ye. Still, I’ll take it. When age faces youth, all advantages must be levered, after all,” Father Nate laughed.
“It is fine, Father. Again?” Choke asked.
“Just a moment. In our fight, did you at any point feel as though some detrimental force worked upon your blade, my son?”
Choke shook his head. “Not at all, Father.”
“That is what I thought. There was nothing. Yet…” Father Nate dropped his shield to stare at the ring on his left pinky finger thoughtfully, “I feel something. As though the ring begrudges me the use of my shield. Once more, then, Bartholomew. This time I shall use no shield.”
“Very well, Father,” Choke said, throwing his own horseman’s shield aside as he and Father Nate stepped into each other again.
Without shields, the fight was much more open. In just a few seconds, Choke was able to land a good swipe across Father Nate’s side, who signaled for them to continue. Within a few more seconds, Father Nate had returned the favor. Then, Father Nate broke into a wide grin as he said to himself:
“Yes. Yes! I see.”
Then he closed on Choke again, this time leading with his empty left hand forward and his sword held low covering his right side. This being a sword and shield fighter’s stance, without a shield, it left Father Nate’s whole left side wide open.
Not wanting to injure the cleric, but still looking to score a point in the hard-fought contest, Choke stepped in to move right. He thrust the tip of his sword at Father Nate’s midriff, and when that was parried, took another lunging step rightward as he swung his blade around and down at the cleric’s back. With Father Nate fully mailed, there was no danger of the blow injuring anything but his pride, but it never reached him.
Father Nate stepped and pivoted left as he brought his empty left hand around in a move that would block the strike with a shield if he had one. With there being no such shield in his hand, Choke was stunned as his blade rang as though it had struck stone and was turned aside by the very air. Then Father Nate stepped to Choke with a left jab punch that stopped a good thirty centimeters short of him. Once again, the air itself seemed to harden for Father Nate’s purpose, and the invisible edge of something very hard struck Choke in the chest.
“Ha!” laughed Father Nate. “Another dishonest, cunning blow! What have I become?”
Father Nate continued to laugh at the shocked expressions of his entire audience. He swung his sword in small circles to tap its flat against the hard, invisible edge that hovered around his left hand. As Choke’s blade had, Father Nate’s sword rang out brightly.
“An invisible shield?” Choke said. “That’s an invisible shield!”
“Indeed it is. Summoned at will from the ring. Come, feel it, Bartholomew.”
Father Nate and Choke each took their time feeling the invisible shield with their hands. It was the size and shape of a standard roundshield, but utterly smooth and hard.
“This feels like a… oh, what did he call it?” Choke said, closing his eyes as he scoured his memory. “A wall of force! Yes that’s it!”
“Just so,” Father Nate said, raising his eyebrows, impressed. “Wherever did you learn about such a thing?”
“I went to check out the Mage Tower in Strana, Father. My guide showed me one, which blocked access to a pit that contained what he called an elevator.”
“Ah, yes. You took a tour of the Mage Tower? That alongside thrashing some gang bosses and Altas only knows what else. You lads really did the town up properly!”
“I suppose we did, Father.”
Father Nate allowed the other members of the squad to come and feel the contours of the shield ring before he removed the ring and handed it to Peep.
“Here you are, Otilla. A very fine gift indeed!”
Peep put the ring on her left middle finger. Once again, it resized itself: shrinking down to a nice, snug fit. Then, Father Nate did his best to explain to her how to activate it with a concentrated intention of her will. She soon figured it out. Once activated, the ring filled her clenched fist with a bar of force that acted as though it were the handle in the center of a round shield. This allowed her to manipulate the force shield as though it were a normal one. Without any weight, it was much faster to move, which was a great advantage. However, this benefit was counteracted by the shield lacking the momentum and inertia of a normal one.
“I suggest sparring with it as much as possible until yar used to it,” Father Nate told Peep. “It’s not going to behave in combat like any normal shield. But I’m sure ye’ll figure it out.”
“No doubt. This is sweet!” Peep said with a wide grin. She then gave Knuckle the finger as a showcase of her glittering new prize.
“And with that settled, I should think it is time for lunch. I am ravenous!” Father Nate boomed, slapping his big, mailed belly happily. “To the tavern!”