Chapter 26 - Armoury of Words, Part I
Liene guided Natalie into standing up, and the two of them shared a knowing look. "From now on, Natalie, you will be an honorary member of the sisterhood. I will see to it that our fellow sisters treat you kindly and fairly, as if you were a new member of our order. What we have will be yours to share. When we get back to Thistledown, let us speak to order-mother Akara. We may make a sister out of you yet."
Roland snapped a finger to the group and gestured out past the railing. Below, the madam had finally come back, her nigh two dozen courtesans following right after, to inspect the damage they'd caused to the brothel. Art noted, "Looks like we may not be all that welcome for much longer. At least, not unless we can front the repair cost for all this." Art turned to Elexa. "Do you think you're able to move?"
Elexa nodded, then made to stand up, before wincing and collapsing into Diane's and Liene's arms. Within moments they had gotten Elexa onto Liene's back. "Let's go," said Liene, and led the way downstairs, with the rest of the group following suit. The madam and the other courtesans stopped and stared mutely as they passed, seemingly not interested in demanding any reparations out of respect for the injured.
They made it back to the Smug Mug without any further ado. Liene carried Elexa up the stairs and Diane knocked on the door. Amplisa opened the door a crack, then opened it wide, staring at Elexa in shock, before stepping out of the way so Liene could enter and set Elexa down on a bed. "Elexa… Is she going to make it?" -- "Yes," said Diane, to several audible sighs of relief.
Art looked around the room and saw it was much more compact now, with most of the other sisters already returned. Apparently the serving girl had already delivered the meals to them; bread and stew and a variety of other dishes were set down on the one table in the room, with several pewter dishes placed in a pile. They quickly stopped eating and gathered around Elexa, checking up on her and asking after the state of her wounds. Then Diane shouted, "Ryann! Oh, Ryann, what happened?" she darted past the other sisters to kneel beside Ryann, muttering, "Oh no, this can't be happening… First Elexa and now Ryann too…" They engaged in a tearful embrace, with Amplisa patting Diane on the back in a slow, rhymic pace.
Art and Roland stepped out of the room, leaving the sisters to their commiseration, as he couldn't bear to hear any more of their cries of grief over the two sisters' wounds. Seeing as much, Jezebel and Natalie stepped out as well. "I'm in the mood for some food," said Art, making for the stairs. -- "Really?" asked Jezebel, gettting Art to pause. "Given what happened, how could you have the appetite?" -- "You don't care much for them at all, do you?" added Natalie. -- "I'll be the first to fast if fasting could relieve them of their wounds," Art replied, "But as that doesn't seem likely, I won't. And Roland, after exerting yourself in the way of channeled vigor, you definitely are in need of a proper meal." He propelled Roland to the stairwell, and together they headed down the stairs. -- "Still can't believe it," said Natalie, shaking her head. -- "Well, that's Art. He's always like that."
The serving girl was quick to take their orders once they had seated themselves at a table on the first floor. "By the way, I don't think we were properly introduced," said Roland, stretching an arm forth for a handshake. "Roland Tarth, of the templar." -- "I'm Art Taverley, sellsword." -- "Jezebel Lyrassia, adept of Stormy Skies." -- "Natalie Ingusetia, and pleased to meet you all."
"So… what do we do now?" -- "The sisters are planning to return east to Thistledown, heading out tomorrow, though chances are more like they'll be leaving day after that. Tomorrow morning, Roland will be visiting with the bishop," said Art. "Speaking of which, I think we should be preparing for that. For the good of the sisterhood, we can't allow it to go down the way the meeting with the count went, which is to say an absolute disaster. I don't think the sisterhood can take another setback like this one. What do you think, Roland? Something we should know about how the meeting should go, what one might expect to be discussed?"
Roland nodded. "Well, part of it boils down to this: the sisters' unwillingness to adopt the religious zealotry the Church of Light -- or rather, this Bishop Erend Arevain in particular -- would expect or like to see of them. Liene's made it crystal clear that it's completely off the table, even if their refusal means the bishop would have next to no incentive to help at all."
Art added, "And we can expect them to try to get the sisters to handle the problem all on their own, just like with Count Traben. It would mean no losses for the templar, more casualties for the sisterhood, and a more exhausted treasury for the sisterhood besides, which would certainly make the sisterhood more pliable to any demands the bishop makes going forwards."
"Yes," agreed Roland. "And contrary to what you laity might think about the clergy, appointment to the higher positions is not a matter of piety, but a matter of political maneuvering. Bishop Arevain has wheedled and strongarmed his way into his current position, and thus cannot possibly be new to such matters. He has to have concluded that it would be in his best interest to stay out of the war."
"And with the King having already made his position clear… It would be a difficult matter regardless, only now that the count has also taken an antagonistic position… I fear that the bishop may have already met with the count by the time we have our appointment with him tomorrow, for then there would be almost no conceivable way that he would opt to aid the sisters and go against the count's wishes."
"Doesn't the bishop outrank the count by several ranks?" asked Jezebel.
Art replied, "Yes, but his cathedral is still within the town walls. It would behoove him to work with the count on this matter, if for no other reason than to ensure that the local church branch gets its tithings and that the cathedral is protected from potential vandals and the like."
"What all this is all coming to," said Roland, "Is that this really isn't looking good for the sisters. We can expect quite a major debate or persuasion job on our hands tomorrow morning."
"Well then, perhaps we can put our heads together and come up with some kind of plan," said Natalie, and they all fell silent for a moment.
"We'll obviously have to speak to the bishop," said Roland. "Try to convince him to dispatch allies to fight by the sisterhood's side. I don't expect it would be easy." -- "You mean to argue him into a corner, if to comes down to it, do you not?" asked Natalie. -- A nod.
"There's something I don't get about all this," asked Art. "You're not even officially a templar any more, since you've been excommunicated. Even if you pass yourself off as still a templar, why would the bishop bother to answer us? Wouldn't he just kick us out the moment we pose a hard question to him?"
"Of course he would. Which is why I need your help. You see, I'm not going to try to convince him to help the sisterhood." -- The others looked at each other, surprised, before Art turned to him. "…You're… not?" -- "No. You three will." -- "…What are you up to?" -- Roland explained, "We have to put him in a situation where he has to argue the merits of the matter and be unable to simply shut us out when he becomes discomfited. That would only happen if he were to be speaking to someone of similar or higher rank. Who's qualified to speak to a bishop as equals regarding the tenets of the religion?" -- "You?" asked Art tentatively.
Roland shook his head. "Another bishop." -- "We don't have a bishop among us." -- Roland patted himself on the chest. "Now we do." -- "What?" asked Natalie. -- "He means to pass himself off as a bishop," explained Jezebel. "He'd be the only one qualified to do so, after all. I'm sure there will be things that clergy would be expected to know, and Roland would be the only one who knows it. Hence he's in the best position to play the bishop." -- Roland nodded.
Art turned to Roland. "Wouldn't the bishop Arevain know the face of the bishop of Kingsport?"
"I'm pretty sure he hasn't. Kingsport is a thousand five hundred miles away; it isn't even in Khanduras. Bishops are quite busy persons and don't usually go traveling into other kingdoms. Hence why I feel confident with the role. The rest of you will play the bishop's three recently met companions who have, as a result of traveling together, for a few days with the bishop -- that is to say, me -- learned a few things here and there about the religion."
"So the plan is?" -- "Let me guess," said Jezebel, "the plan is for Roland to introduce us three as his companions, and then in the middle of our conversation one of us brings up the plight of the sisterhood, and then between the three of us we engage the bishop and attempt to convince him; while Roland stays to watch. Just his mere presence, with him being presented as a fellow bishop, means the bishop Arevain wouldn't be able to simply boot us out."
"Why wouldn't he be able to?" asked Natalie.
"A bishop, kicking another bishop out of the meeting? That would reflect poorly on the both of them. Erend would stand to lose some stature. Nor would he want for a rumor of such a thing to spread. Hence, we are using Roland's presence to allow us to keep the argument going."
"Isn't that kind of wasting our strongest card in this showdown?" asked Art. "Roland's the most well versed in all the arguments the bishop can field. If the bishop argues us into a corner, or references something that we don't know, we wouldn't be able to continue the argument. I think we should have someone else play as the bishop and have Roland act as one of the 'bishop's traveling companions'."
"Agreed," said Jezebel. "We want the person who's most familiar with the material to do most of the talking -- that's you, Roland." -- "But then who's going to act as the bishop?" -- "One of us, naturally," said Art. -- "You mean you," Roland said. "Erend's going to laugh at the idea of a woman bishop." -- "Well then so be it," said Art. -- "Do you know the mannerisms of the clergy, Art?" -- "No, but you can teach me, can't you?" -- "And if he asks any questions? Do you think you'll have any idea how to correctly answer them?" -- Art looked down at the table. -- "The moment you slip up he'll know you aren't a bishop. Then the game's over."
"Okay, fine, you play bishop," said Art. "But it's not like we'll know what to say, to make our argument. And with just the three of us laity speaking, I'm sure he'll have an answer to everything we say."
"Of course he will," said Roland. "Thing is, when we go there tomorrow, I would expect discussions over scripture to come into play, and I quite expect the discussion to fly right over your heads, as you are now. You won't have an opportunity to interject anything. Without a background in the clergy, studying the scripture, you wouldn't even know how to go about setting up a convincing argument for him."
"Well then, looks like we have a lot of catching up to do," said Art. "You'd best get started." -- "Wait are you serious? This is not the kind of thing that can be taught in an hour or two." -- Art tilted his head at him. "Not like you have much to lose."
"Point," Roland said, staring off into the stuffed deer's head mounted against the opposite wall. He then clasped his hands on the table and looked to each of them intently. "How many of you know the story of Thaar's Convent?" -- As he looked over the others, Art, Jezebel, and Natalie all shook their heads. -- He shook his head as well, and clicked his tongue. "I would have thought that to be one of the more familiar tales from the scripture, but it seems you're quite the let down today."
"Are you done mocking us?" asked Natalie.
"This is actually quite an important tale to understand in the context of what we can expect Erend to allude to during our meeting with him. This was actually a vision that Akarat -- the Successive One, and founder of the Church of Light -- saw back before he turned prophet." -- "Supposedly," interjected Jezebel. -- "It is recorded in the scripture," Roland said, turning to glare at her. "It was later verified as an actual prophesy, some one hundred years after Akarat's death, when the battle for the convent occurred.
"Now, to some necessary exposition for this. Ghrab Thaar, the great-great-great-great-grandson or something of one of Akarat's Appointed, proved himself a capable templar. After completing his first tour of duty, Ghrab became a templar-errant and went on a pilgrimage across much of what was now Khanduras and Entsteig, preaching and miracle-working as he went. He was seen by the devout as a saint; and his theurgies proved as much. He wielded a mighty war hammer, quite a unique one, because this war hammer… Let's just say, it's not every day you see a warhammer with a business end that's seven inches by six, and nine inches deep."
"That's… preposterous," said Art, "No one in their right mind would wield a warhammer that hefty, the slow swing exposes the wielder far too much."
"Exactly, but nonetheless he wielded it. Certainly a way of some kind, and it allowed him to swing that monster of a weapon as easily as any sword. And a weapon that massive had great power against the risen dead because of all the blunt trauma that can be inflicted with an impact from such a weapon. Furthermore, it was blessed with the power to crumble undead into dust from the lightest of touches, and the two of them made for a powerful combination."
"Blessed? Surely this was another way of some kind," mused Art. He thought back to the bow he'd seen back at the monastery, which granted a way just on holding it; and of the redskins' staves, which granted ways as well.
"It can't be," said Jezebel. "For… what was his name again?" -- "Ghrab." -- "Ghrab, to wield it effectively, it would have required the use of a way just for the swinging of it. This blessed property must be something else then, because one can't use two ways at once; it's impossible to hold multiple ways as strongly as one needs to in order to tap into the power of both ways, at the same time." -- "Well I stick to my hypothesis, it's the only explanation that makes any sense." -- "I'm saying that it doesn't make sen--"
"Guys, that's tangential, I can get on with the story?" said Roland. -- Nods of acquiescence. -- "Blessed or not, the hammer was deemed a sacred relic of the Church of Light. When Ghrab died in 943, it was determined that could never be lost to an enemy of the faith, by which I take it to mean be lost to a necroturge for them to develop a counter to its blessed property; but also that it would be sacrilege to lose or destroy it. So a convent was built over and around the caldera of an active effusive volcano -- by which I mean the lava is always flowing -- with the hammer placed on a platform atop it, such that the only way to access the hammer would be through the bridges suspended over the caldera, all of which, in the advent of an attempted thievery, could be lowered to just above the surface of the volcano -- not enough to destroy the hammer, but plenty hot enough to cook anyone trapped on the platform or its bridges. Due to the difficulty of the undertaking, it took sixty years for the convent to be fully built. And the nuns of the Thaar's Convent were charged with keeping the sacred relic."
"All this, for a hammer?" asked Art.
They paused for a moment while the inn's serving girl brought forth a tray laden with their food: bread and butter, boiled eggs, vegetable stew and a few shreds of chicken, and they started partaking of their food.
Jezebel added, "About the convent… Seems a bit much, don't you think? Why didn't they just bury it somewhere? Or just keep it under watch in the Temple of the One? Surely there it would be safest." -- "Indeed," Roland replied with a smile. "Seems a bit overmuch, at first blush, doesn't it? I suppose the whole 'the floor is lava' thing they had going on was intended to scare the crap out of any would be attackers." -- "Let me guess, it didn't work."
"It didn't," Roland agreed. "Despite the numerous defenses erected atop the fortress's battlements, and the nuns boasting several hundred of their number, almost all of whom, it is said, were adepts of the Church of Light, their enemy was not deterred. In the winter of the year 1068, Azmodan attacked the convent with hordes of undead. The nuns fought well, killing hundreds, and rebuffed the invaders time and again, however with each successive wave the Prince of Sin doubled the forces he sent up the mountainside. Eventually there were just too many. Against so many, the sisters stood no chance."
"Oh, I see, it was a trap," realized Art. "Let me guess: By fighting so well with such numbers, the nuns eventually forced Azmodan to commit more troops than he had originally intended, then dropped the convent into the lava, killing them all and delivering a strategic blow against the forces of Hell." -- "Uh, no…" replied Roland. -- "Really? Seems the logical course of action to me," Art mused.
"Where were they fighting?" asked Jezebel. "Because if I were Azmodan, I would have simply collapsed the supports suspending the fortress over the caldera and drop them all into the lava without even bothering to fight them."
"No, there were only a small platform and a few bridges that were actually suspended over the caldera, the fortress itself was built in a ring around it, " Roland replied. "A suspension bridge can only hold so much weight, you can't pile thousands of tons of stone and mortar on top of it and expect it not to crumble. Besides, Azmodan was trying to get his hands on the hammer, not to destroy it," replied Roland. "In order to, as I mentioned earlier, determine how it was thus blessed and develop countermeasures against it. You have to understand, the hammer of Ghrab Thaar is no ordinary hammer. It was a gift fashioned by Hephasto, the heavens' angelic smith. There was only the one of it in all the world, but the demons knew that given time, Hephasto could create more, and that since the first one had proven so effective, there was no way he wasn't already stockpiling more hammers in heaven's armory for a later battle."
"But it was kind of futile to attack the convent, he must have known that the nuns would have just tossed the hammer overboard the moment the demons got close."
"Obviously," replied Roland. "That couldn't have been Azmodan's plan. We don't know exactly what he was up to at the time. Not much survives of the historical event, and the Anointed One's visions were a bit sparse on the details. Azmodan is the Prince of Sin, however, and no doubt would have made an attempt at corrupting the nuns."
"You mean like getting one of the nuns to steal it and deliver it to Azmodan? Though if that were the case, why bother with the siege at all?" -- "Why would they do such a thing, though? Their whole lives were dedicated to safeguarding the relic." -- "Which is why the siege was necessary in the first place," said Art. -- "Explain?"
Art leaned back and mused, tapping a finger to his chin. "If I were Azmodan, I would have surrounded the convent entirely to prevent anyone from escaping. Then I would have sent in waves of demons and undead, repetitively and increasing in number with each wave. I would give standing orders to my forces not to kill the nuns if at all possible, but to capture them. In no attack would I permit any forces to get close to the platform itself, lest the nuns throw it over into the caldera. Then, after my forces retreated from each wave, I would parade the captives about the convent, and apply the most horrific treatment to each one, torture, rape, mayhem, prolonging it as much as possible, then a crucifixion or a burning, all in full view of the convent. Make it clear that there's no possible escape, that I had endless numbers of troops to throw at them, and that eventually every single one of them would be captured and killed in the most gruesome way possible."
"That's…. very disturbing," said Jezebel, staring pointedly at Art.
"What, do you think my portrayal of the demons inaccurate? It's not like they're particularly known for being bleeding-heart pacifists."
"Why would you even think such a thing?"
Art replied, "I would expect Azmodan to have done such a thing in order to wear away at the nun's resolve in the expectation that at some point, some of the nuns would cave and bring the hammer without the fortress and deliver it to the demons in exchange for mercy. I would then further expect the abbess of the convent to attempt to convince her fellow nuns that demons never hold true to their word; and then when the fellow nuns' resolve seemed on the verge of breaking, to proactively drop the hammer, thereby frontrunning any attempt to smuggle it out."
Roland continued from there with a nod. "Your interpretation may well be, Art, but we'll never know for certain. Regardless, it is said that, when more than half of the convent's original numbers had fallen in battle or been slain at the hands of the demons, realizing that there would be no escape from their predicament except through betrayal and sin, the abbess jumped into the fiery chasm with the hammer in her hand, and that the nuns, in order to spite their enemy, began throwing themselves in shortly after, after having made prayers to beseech the heavens for aid.
"And then, when two dozen of them had done so, a powerful manifestation of the light of heaven washed over Azmodan's legions, and two dozen identical hammers -- the ones that Hephaesto had smithed in the intervening century -- appeared out of nowhere, each of them shining brilliantly, and the spirits of the nuns who had sacrificed themselves emerged from the lake of fire to wield these blessed hammers as they spun outward in circles around the caldera, dragging their weapons with them and swinging them about as they went. The undead and demons, unable to kill that which was already dead, unable to readily escape from the volcano, and particularly vulnerable to these weapons, were annihilated. It is said that in the wake of this devastation, thousands of demons were found dead with their backs facing the summit."
"Wow," said Natalie, looking at Roland in mesmerized awe, "I had no idea the heavens had such powerful weapons at their disposal."
"That's just legend," said Art, "And not likely to be one hundred percent true. Most of them aren't, at least." -- Roland turned to Art with a look of indigation. "These are recorded in holy scripture!" -- "So?" -- "You doubt scripture?" -- Art shrugged with a frown. "I doubt any claim made without evidence, Roland." -- "The scripture is evidence!" -- "If the story is indeed in scripture, well then I guess I doubt it also." -- "Roland looked at him, flabbergasted. "You doubt scripture? These are the very words of the Anointed One!" -- "So says the templar." -- "So says all true believers," he said, sounding utterly incensed. -- "Uh, guys, can we get over this?" said Jezebel. -- "People can be misled into believing all sorts of falsehoods," retorted Art. Like how they mistakenly assumed the sisterhood responsible for the fight this morning."
"Then what does it take to convince you?" -- "Like I said, Roland, I want evidence, not just attestations." -- "What evidence? I have to ask because clearly the scripture doesn't count as evidence for you." -- "Well, you could start with the hammer." -- "The hammer of Ghrab Thaar? It was destroyed, consumed by the lava." -- "No, I meant the other two dozen that showed up at the end of the story. If the spirits of the dead nuns flew about the mountainside smashing them into the demons as they fled, then after the battle was over these hammers should have been recovered." -- "Art, those were magical hammers of immense value. They were brought into the world by the heavens to destroy the undead, but at the end of the day they were still the property of the heavens, and of use in their eternal war with the forces of hell. Surely the angels in heaven had gone back to reclaim them." -- "How convenient." -- Roland clenched his fists and glowered at him--
"Guys!" said Natalie, standing up and slamming a fist on the table, causing everyone in the room to look at her for a moment and causing Art and Roland to fall silent. She stared at each of them, daring them to make a sound, before sitting back down. " Whether the story is true is irrelevant. What matters is the bishop believes it to be true. Now Roland, as I'm sure you brought up this story for a good reason, can you enlighten us as to its significance?"
"Right," said Roland. "See, the convent in the story maps quite well to the Sightless Eye's monastery. The demonic forces of Azmodan, to the redskins. The fact that the Sightless Eye's monastery is already lost is irrelevant. What matters is that in both cases, the sisters were faced with impossible odds, and emerged victorious.
"Tomorrow, when we go before the bishop to request the aid of the templars, he is almost sure to refer to the siege of Thaar's Convent as an example that the sisters ought to follow. That is to say, the sisters can fight on on their own, and as long as they are devout in heart and beseech the heavens for aid, the angels will grant them salvation. Which is also to say, the bishop would refuse to provide any assistance, and couch it in terms that make it out as a test of the sisters; such that whether they ultimately win or lose their war, fighting without the templars' support, it would be what the sisters deserved. To wit: if, at the end of this war, the sisterhood is destroyed, the bishop could say, 'see, they lacked piety in their hearts, and the heavens have chastened them by their abandonment; hence none may blame the templar for having refused to come to the aid of such heathens also.' And if the sisters end this war by retaking the monastery and breaking the redskins' forces, the bishop could say, 'See how this was all prearranged by god, that in their victory the sisters might demonstrate the glory of god and his vicars the angels in heaven.' A win-win situation for him, is it not?"
Art said, "And if we, or the sisters were they to join us, were to persist in requesting the bishop's assistance, he could spin that as the sisterhood knowing themselves to be lacking in devotion; for why else would they be so desperate for assistance?"
"Not only that," added Roland. "Since the sisters haven't been particularly zealous in their faith, it's also to chide them for that, and to goad them into becoming more pious in short order. The bishop would in essence be saying, 'now might be a good time for you to start adopting our faith with fervor, given how your lives are going to depend on it'.
"And in addition to that, the whole allusion implies that the sisters will lose a great deal of their forces -- the nuns had lost over half their number in the fighting, and then another two dozen as sacrifices, before the rest of them were saved by miracle. If the same were to befall the sisterhood… well, the sisters have been trying to keep their exact numbers secret but two hundred's a good number to go by. We're talking their numbers being reduced to around seventy. If the bishop brings this up, he may imply that he'll bring his templars to bear when the sisterhood has become that depleted. At which point, he could very well simply make an attempt to seize the monastery for the Church of Light, and with such reduced numbers the sisterhood would be powerless to do anything about it."
Art whistled as he looked about to see Natalie and Jezebel nodding in understanding. "Wow. That's sly. That's really sly."
"If you think that's sly, you haven't seen anything," said Roland. "Consider this a kind of battle as well, only that it's a battle of words. And just as you wouldn't go into a battle without arms and armor, so you wouldn't go into a battle of words without knowing the right words." He looked at each of the other three. "Well? Scared, are you?"
Natalie seemed to take affront to that. "Scared? I already pledged to help the sisterhood, putting my life on the line if need be. This battle of words wouldn't even put our lives at risk; so why would I be frightened?"
"That's the spirit," said Roland, with a smile. "Prepare yourselves then. I'll make warrior of words out of you yet."