“Hold on Cyrus, you were there when Tisma cut Lovalde–Ah, Valita’s head off. And you didn’t think that was the slightest bit suspicious when you saw her walking around in the Sun Lands?” Julius had to ask, frowning at his dumbass friend.
“In my defense, I was more focused on the creatures she had fighting with her than what was happening with her.” Hm. True, those things had been pretty horrifying. Still.
“You still saw the body afterwards.”
“Then let me ask you this,” Cyrus began, frowning at Julius as they all continued on their walk through town, “Why didn’t you notice anything off with her after she was ‘killed’?”
“Do you seriously expect me to know anything about how liches work?”
“How’d you know she’s a lich?” questioned Mira as she walked beside her father, on his other side.
“It’s either that or she’s just some regular undead. And, as far as I know, regular undead don’t turn purple. Or get up from having their heads cut off.”
“Hm…well, you’re right at least.”
“So…um…Mira, may I ask what you’re doing here?” Cyrus asked, still hesitant, “And why did you call Valita a bitch?”
“I came here to find you because I thought you were a deadbeat asshole who abandoned me with that bitch of a woman. As for why I call her a bitch, she’s a fucking bitch. Surprise dad, turns out she lied about not being a psychopath anymore.”
“W-What? How’s that possible?! I used ‘hear no lies’! That literally means I can hear if she’s lying! She swore oaths!”
“Hm…it’s possible she used very specific, exact wording so nothing she said was a lie. Or she was being truthful at the time, and changed her mind later,” suggested Seona, as she trailed behind the three, idly looking around the dark buildings on the way to the Blood Church, “Oh, she may have also used a counter spell to negate the effects! And maybe she did break the oaths but just hasn’t been punished yet? Sometimes mortals can dodge those if they’re steeped in enough heretical protections.”
Cyrus grimaced, then sighed in defeat. “Well, regardless, she’s certainly someone we’ll need to deal with when we can…Mira, do you mind telling us where you saw her last?”
“You’re going to need more than what I know. Last I saw her was when I ran away nine years ago. And before you ask, that was in the Dusk Lands.”
“Wait, what??” Julius stared incredulously over at Mira. “How did she get there?!”
“She raised a bone-ship and had a crew of revenants sail east,” she replied.
“…I meant more how she got into a land that’s supposedly covered in perpetual fog and can’t be accessed from the outside by anyone.”
“Yep.” Mira smirked, lacing her fingers behind her head as she kept on walking like a cheeky brat. “I honestly can’t say how she did it though. I think she had some type of pendant she stole from a pyramid or tomb, but I don’t know how it would let her into the lands of the exiled god. I just knew that I had a chance to get away from her, and I took it the instant I could. Stole enough money to buy passage on a trade ship and left.”
Julius blinked. “They have trade ships? Who the hell would they trade with??”
Cyrus, on the other hand, stayed on subject. “Was your m…Was Valita really that bad?”
“Eastern Skiritaba, mostly, and she murdered my twin, so you tell me.” Julius, Cyrus, and Seona immediately stopped in their tracks. After a few seconds, Mira glanced back at them with a small frown. “…Was that too blunt? I, uh…I can be bad about that. Sorry.”
“…Y-You have nothing to apologize for,” Cyrus said in a dull and wooden voice, “I…I didn’t…realize she’d…that she…”
“Yeah, I can tell you didn’t. And I forgive you for it.” Mira shrugged, one hand tapping against her thigh. “You didn’t make her do anything, you didn’t know about us, and she didn’t do anything to make you think we’d even exist.”
“I still should’ve-”
Julius put a hand on Cyrus’s shoulder, cutting him off, and let out a deep sigh. “Don’t. If you get stuck in ‘what ifs’, you’re fucked. Just try to be there for her now, okay?”
“Miss Lovalde, forgive me for saying so, but your mother is an abomination,” Seona said in the politest tone possible, earning a little bark of laughter from Mira.
“Yep, you’re preaching to the bishop there. Speaking of-” Mira gestured over to the crimson behind her with a skull serving for its lock. “-welcome to the Blood Church.”
And sure enough, behind that gate, there was a huge building with two massive, intricate spires on either side of its already large front. A spiked, triangular roof separated the two and formed the top of the seven-story building, which towered over everything around it and was, of course, all made of a crimson stone, though the roof and the top spires were a deep, rusty brown. Gargoyles and statues of armored conquerors lined much of the church roofs and alcoves, and lent an eerie air to the already evil-looking building.
“What business do you have here?” questioned someone on the other side gate, dressed in a crimson cloak and a skull mask.
“Ah, hi. Sorry for coming by so suddenly, but Marrow told me I can get help here,” Julius explained as the guard looked them all over.
“And you bring a follower of Mordant, a demon of death, and that bard with you?” For some reason, Julius could tell the monk was mostly annoyed at Cyrus.
“Will that be a problem?”
“…Hm. You, give me your hand.” Reaching out through the bars, the guard extended his hand. Frowning a bit, Julius walked over and grabbed the offered hand, then immediately felt a rush of magic go through him. “…So you are not only a follower of Marrow, but you are also a direct conduit of her power.” The monk firmly shook Julius’s hand, his tone noticeably lightening. “Forgive me, brother, for failing to recognize one so blessed by our Crimson Mother. You and your companions may, of course, enter.”
The monk stepped back and there was a click as the skull on the gate split in half. A second later, the halves of the gate pulled back, opening for the group, and the monk gestured towards the church’s dark-brown double doors. “Please, enjoy the hospitality of our Mother’s estian domain. I shall inform the archbishop of your arrival.” He bowed, then paused. “…One more thing, if you would.”
Julius blinked, glancing away from the imposing church and back towards the monk. “Uh, yes?”
“Please keep your bardic companion restrained.”
“What’d he do this time,” he immediately asked, ignoring the offended noise Cyrus made.
“He profaned our holy grounds by engaging in coitus with one of our gardeners.”
“…Is this just gonna be a thing that if I try going anywhere with him, that he’s going to be on someone’s shitlist because he tried seducing the wrong person?” Mira asked, already looking annoyed.
“Ah…well, it’s not everywhere…” Cyrus mumbled.
“Greaaaaaaaaat.” Well, those two were clearly going to have a fun time with this whole ‘family reunion’ business.
“…Well, I’ll make sure he doesn’t try anything again,” Julius said as he turned back to the monk.
“Thank you, brother.” The monk bowed to him again, then began leading the way along the brick path, which was flanked on either side by a lawn of red grass. Which was weird, but apparently people really stuck to their ‘themes’ around here. “Now, I’m sure you’ve had a long journey getting here, so would you care to eat and rest, or would you prefer going on a tour of our grounds?”
“…Getting something to eat would be nice. Preferably somewhere private if possible.”
“Very well. We do have a private room for when we must discuss important matters, and it can double as a dining room for when the meetings drag on.”
“Oh, thanks, that’s really nice.”
“It is the least I can do for someone blessed directly by mother Marrow.” Julius wasn’t sure what he was expecting when he arrived at the church, but it definitely wasn’t to be treated so kindly by someone wearing a skull mask.
And soon enough, the group found themselves in a small office off to the side of the main cathedral interior, where a round table with some armchairs placed around it had been set up. Said table already had some bowls filled with some kinds of round, purple fruit about the size of oranges laid out on top of it, and while he wasn’t sure what they were exactly, they were tasty, if very tart.
“Well, now that we are settled in, I believe we have some business to talk about,” Cyrus began as he finally sat down after about five minutes of nervously wondering if he should sit down next to Mira or not. The answer was yes, but he very noticeably made sure his seat was next to Julius too. “What to do about Valita.”
“While I will agree that trying to find her is important, we can’t just go tracking her down by ourselves,” Julius brought up as he used a provided knife to peel one of the fruits, “Even if she wasn’t the strongest of that old bunch, she was definitely the smartest, and we don’t know what kind of experiments she has on her side after so long.”
“Well let’s just go gather everyone up, and then go to the Sun Lands. It’s the best place to start.”
“…Cyrus, you do realize that the Light and Dark Lands are about to go into all out war, right? We can’t just grab everyone and go.”
“And as I said, Valondrac isn’t like most Demon Lords. As it stands, once the remaining nobles of Naloriva willingly join her because of their citizens, I’m sure there will be talks of a truce and peace.” Well that was ridiculously optimistic. The invasion couldn’t be going that well, could it?
Whatever. “Counterpoint, Zemava and Rosiava.”
“…” Judging by Cyrus’s pout, Julius just won the argument. Ha.
Instead of savoring his victory though, Julius just shrugged and popped a piece of the tart fruit in his mouth. “Anyways, Douglas and Tisma are in the Light Lands, so even if we want to recruit them for this ‘journey’, I’d have to wait for you to get them.”
“Wait, why’s that?”
“…Cyrus why were we allowed here?”
Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “Is this a test? You were allowed to enter because you accepted Marrow, yes?”
“Now take that fact, and ask yourself why I’m in Maleficaba. I’ll give you a hint: I’m not allowed back.”
“Er, because you-…wait…no.” Cyrus furrowed his brow in a surprising amount of disgust and anger as he pushed himself up from the table. “What the hell!? You’re you! Yes, you’re a complete asshole at times-” Hey. “-but shouldn’t you be exempt from exiles?!”
“I know a Pontiff and at least one angel that disagrees with you.” Still, it did feel nice for Julius to see his friend getting angry on his behalf. Gods knew he was pissed off about it. Joking just dulled the sting a little.
“Ugh, c’est des conneries…Then that’s another thing we’ll have to solve. We can make it a list then. Fixing the exile, finding Valita, and…some other f-thing with Valondrac.”
Julius was struck by the sudden, easily explicable urge to punch Cyrus in the face, but nope. He was a calm man now. Definitely not a bundle of rage that butchered a chimera because he lost it completely. Focusing.
“So, hey, what are the Dusk Lands like?” Julius asked as he deliberately looked at Mira-…
The bounty hunter blinked back at him, some purple juices leaking down her chin as her cheeks bulged with fruit–a look matched by Seona–before she gulped them all down in one go and wiped her face off with her sleeve. “Uh…dark? Darker than the Dark Lands usually are, so…someone probably made a mistake on the naming conventions somewhere.”
“Mrwll, dh’drk lnds ys’d tt bh crll’d dh d’mhn lnds, bht zhn zhh whrh r’nnm’d c’z dh lght lnds whnt’d tt mhk drk shund hvil,” Seona……explained(??), not at all bothering to swallow her fruit as she spoke. And yet, both Cyrus and Mira nodded as though she was making perfect sense.
“Yeah, that makes perfect sense.” …Julius was very tempted to just get up and leave.
“Aside from that, I don’t know anything about the Dusk Lands; I left as soon as I could so I didn’t spend any time sightseeing.” Huffing, Mira leaned back in her chair, balancing on the back legs.
“Uh… speaking of, how exactly did you make it? I mean, no offense, but trying to live on your own in the Dark Lands doesn’t seem like it would go well,” Julius asked.
“Hmph. If there’s anything worthwhile I got from that bitch, it’s the shitton of magic that I can use. So I was able to take care of myself till some old asshole decided to make me his student.”
“Um…and who exactly is that?” Cyrus questioned.
“Old warlock named Hans, he’s one of the generals of the Lady Valondrac.” Wait what. “Hm? Hey, Blondie, you know him or something?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, yeah. How’d you know?”
“Even if I wasn’t good at reading people, it was pretty clear from your face that you knew him the moment I said his name. Same goes for Valondrac, since you seemed angry when he mentioned figuring out what to do with her.”
“Wait, why would you be angry?” Cyrus asked, frowning at Julius.
“Probably because you said we needed to ‘f’ Valondrac, pops.”
“Pops??” Cyrus blinked, then paused and glanced at Julius again. “…’F’ could’ve stood for ‘fight’, you realize?”
“You realize you’re you, right?” Julius replied.
“…I conceded to your reasoning, but resent your tone.” He paused again, considering something. “…Also, why would you be offended by any implications regarding Valondrac?”
Oh. Right, shit, he hadn’t actually explained the, er…”thing” he had going on with Claire. Right, how to explain this…
“So…I might’ve…been in contact with her for awhile.”
Cyrus just stared at him, kinda blankly– “Julius, did you fuck the demon lord?”
“What!? N-No! I haven’t even met her in person yet!”
“Then why are you getting angry at me?” he asked, like that was a reasonable thing to ask.
“…Julius, are you in love?” Yes–
“I haven’t even met her in person!”
“Well if you don’t tell me what the deal is Julius, what am I supposed to think?”
“Just…” Topic, topic, need a new topic- “Hey did you know one of your daughters is actually my student? Wouldn’t you rather talk about that?”
“…Julius, while I would like to know about her, you can’t ju-”
“She’s the daughter of a certain archdruid we know.”
Cyrus blinked, then sighed and frowned at the table. “Of course Namita got pregnant…”
“Or we could talk about one of the two city elf kids I know. One of them works for me, and the other is the kid of a certain Rosiavan noble.”
“…That explains that bounty hunter.”
“Not you Mira, a different one.” Cyrus paused, looking up towards the ceiling. “Hm. There were quite a few bounty hunters, now that I think about it–Waaaaaait, you’re deflecting!” Ah shit.
“…So yeah, about those kids of yours–”
“Yes, I certainly plan to interrogate you about all of them, but later.” Cyrus grinned, leaning forward on the table. “For now though, tell me, Jules, how is your love life going~?”
Julius leaned back, definitely not trying to get away from him, but just…distance was good, and ah dammit, Mira and Seona were both looking curious now–why would they even want to know; hell, Mira just met him today??–which wasn’t good and okay, divine intervention, come in now-
And that’s when the door opened and Julius immediately decided he was one hundred percent forever onboard with worshipping Marrow, may her merciful soul be praised. And as he praised Marrow, Julius looked at the figure walking in, who was wearing the same type mask and robes as the guard from before, though while the guard’s mask was plain white, this new person had a blood red mask.
“May the mother’s blessing be forever on you, our new champion,” they said as they bowed to him with their hands in their sleeves, “My name is Zia, and I have been given the honor of leading Mother Marrow’s followers within this church.”
“Hello, Zia, uh…thank you for the hospitality.” And for interrupting that awkward mess.
“It is our honor to take you in. It is not often Mother Marrow blesses us with two Champions at the same time, so it is very fascinating to meet you.”
“I see. So, if I may ask, did you need something?”
“A few things. First of which is to meet you, and next, of course, is to show you our grounds once you have finished eating.” Pausing as they thought for a moment, Zia turned to look at Cyrus. “And to make sure your friend hasn’t wandered off.”
“Well, you’ve met me now, and you can see Cyrus is here, so how about we go do that tour thing while he stays here to catch up with his long lost daughter and you can put guards on the door to keep him from escaping?” Julius offered, ignoring the offended look Cyrus shot him.
“Oh? Have you filled yourself on Donoa fruit?”
“Yes! So we can go on the tour, immediately.” Standing up, Julius walked, definitely didn’t run, towards Zia.
“Wh-Hey! Julius, we weren’t done talking!” However, before Cyrus could reach him–and wow, he got up quick–Zia stepped between them.
“Please, do enjoy your stay. Should you require anything, you only need to ask our fellows outside the door.” With that Julius and Zia stepped out of the room, and begin to head down the hall, leaving behind a baffled Cyrus, an amused Mira, and a still-eating Seona. “Before we begin, if I may ask, how long have you had the Divine mother’s blessing upon you?”
Wait, the divine–Oh, right, they wouldn’t call their own god demonic. “A…few weeks. Though I’m still not sure how to properly use her powers.”
“Hm? Are you not a practitioner of her arts?”
“Not…really. I’ve kinda used it subconsciously but I don’t know how I did it.”
“Odd. You must be quite fascinating to receive her blessing without even being a practitioner of her magic.”
“Yeah, fascinating, that’s me.” He shrugged, scratching a little at his cheek. Huh. It was getting kinda fuzzy. “…Unlucky might be a better description though.”
“Potentially. One never knows whether misfortune lasts, or is simply a low step towards a brighter end, dear brother.”
“…Sure. Uh…is the brother thing because we have the same god or something?” Huh. Did that make his thing with Claire weird?
“Of course. That, and you have not told me your name.”
Oh. “Oh. Uh. It’s Julius.”
“Good to meet you, Brother Julius.”
Hm. He scratched at his cheek again as they entered the main…chapel? The main room with the pews and such. “…So, weird question, but are the worshippers of the same god allowed to date each other or…?”
“…” Aaand they were staring at him now, welp. “…I…Julius, the ‘brother, sister, sibling’ thing is symbolic. Why would…” They blinked behind their mask. “…Is there someone in particular you’re thinking of, or should I start preparing myself for your seduction-”
“And we’re changing the subject, okay.” Julius clapped his hands together, trying to grin. It was probably the worst smile he’d ever had on his face. “So, tour?”
“…I’m not good with people-”
And so, the tour continued.
“…It’s a different person,” Julius admitted as Zia took him through the rows of pews towards the podium at the front. Better to get that out of the way.
He was a little annoyed that they actually sighed with relief though, before straightening and walking properly again. “Well then, I can only offer you the advice to be open and honest with your intentions. Lay your flaws and strengths bare, and allow them the choice in deciding if they return your love. And no, it’s not weird if you worship the same god. We actually tend to encourage that type of thing as it allows us to keep followers going through heritage and tradition. Though we do discourage nepotism, so be aware of that if they are an ordained member of the faith.”
Huh. Where would Claire even fit in ‘the faith’…? He was apparently a ‘brother’ because of his ‘champion’ status, so…hm.
“…Where would someone fit in if they, say, were part of multiple faiths?”
“So the target of your affections is Lady Valondrac?”
“Please do not think of me as a fool. It is simply a safe guess to assume it is her for many reasons, and your reactions prove so. She is certainly the most sought after woman in the Dark Lands, and her beauty is certainly undeniable.”
“…S-So. Where would she fit?”
“Well, while her faith may have started with Mother Rot, she is still undeniably one of our sisters, and she is undoubtedly the champion of us all.”
“So…how exactly does that work? I mean, her being a ‘champion’ of three gods?”
“Hm… I suppose the simplest and best answer would simply be strength of will. For example, let’s say you have a bag. What would you do if the bag was completely full, but you still had to carry more?”
“…Get a new bag?”
“That would be the obvious answer, yes. Now, in this scenario, you and Lady Valondrac are the bags. Single bags, each filled with the energy of our Mother. The only difference is that she craved more power, so she asked Mother Rot to help her gain an audience with her sisters.” Huh.
“…Isn’t that dangerous? With how you explained it and all.”
“Immensely so. As far as recorded history shows, anyone who attempted to directly take on the blessing of multiple gods died during, if not soon after, the process. Yet she not only did the impossible, she did it twice.”
“…and she was able to do it with will alone?”
“That is my assumption, yes. Though it did take its toll on her, if the rumors are to be believed. From what I’ve heard, she was bedridden for some time as her body adjusted to her new powers.”
“Huh.” Well. That answered some questions. And without raising more, for once. “…Hm. So, what else do you have to show me?” Better stick to a safe subject before someone else decided to take an interest in his romantic life.
“Oh, many things, brother.” Zia gestured up with two fingers towards the giant statue of Marrow that took up the very back of the room, and it suddenly slid back into its alcove, revealing a staircase down. “For one, here is the entrance to the true Church of Blood.”
Zia’s eyes seemed brighter under their mask. “Brother Julius, a Church is no mere structure constructed by mortal hands. It is a holy place, yes, but also one of immense power and hidden secrets. As such, the grand structure you see on the surface is merely the tip, so to speak. The truth, the secrets our Mother would want hidden, is deep, buried, and treacherous.” They abruptly clapped, and the statue slid back into place, sealing the staircase again. “But that is a thing for another time. Instead, we shall go up.”
“…Wait, what? Hold on, you can’t just…tease something like that-”
“I can, and I did. Perhaps you’ll see it at a later date. Now, come along.” They put their hands back in their sleeves and walked off, clearly expecting Julius to follow them. He watched them walk for a moment, then looked towards the statue and tried to copy the weird two-fingered point they did.
And that’s how Julius got struck by lightning inside a church.