Fantasy games hadn’t prepared Roger for how large the world was, and how much time it took to get from one place to another. Once again he found himself walking through the woods. The cool mountain air blew in fitful gusts, and it seemed like every five minutes they came across some vista that was more inspiring than the last.
Roger didn’t pay a lot of attention, he was feeling pensive. They were approaching the abbey that contained The Shrine of Oir’s Chosen. Once they arrived there, he didn’t know what he would do next. He had seen a little bit more of this world, and he was starting to understand how it worked. He was starting to feel alright with the idea of trying to figure out life for himself. Besides, Ari didn’t really seem to like him at all, and Hil just reminded him of all his personal problems. He didn’t know whether Hannah would want to keep hanging out with him or not.
If he was going to be perfectly honest with himself, though, he would feel very lonely without Hannah around. Even if Ari didn’t think a lot of him, it did do something for his ego to know that he was traveling with someone as strong and attractive as she was. Hil was pretty nice, and he seemed like a useful person to have around.
Maybe he didn’t want to be left alone. He wanted to keep the weird little group of former strangers that he’d fallen into, but he couldn’t see why they would want to stay with him. That thought made him feel so bad that rather than crying he just cringed all over instead.
“So what’s the plan once we get to the shrine?” Roger asked.
“I need to talk to the abbot about things that concern him,” Hil responded, “Then I will return home.”
“It’s just a stop,” Ari said, “After some rest and food, I’m going to keep heading east so far that nobody I know will ever hear of me again.”
“Oh.” Roger trudged on, kicking at the rocks in the dirt.
Hannah came up beside him, “Something bothering you, Roger?” she asked, lightly bumping her shoulder into his.
“Nah. I mean, yes,” Roger said quietly so that only Hannah could hear him, “ I just don’t know what’ll happen to me once we get to this shrine, and it’s making me nervous.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, but don’t worry I’ll still hang out with you!” Hannah said cheerfully.
“I thought you said yesterday that you liked Ari better than me.”
“I did, and I do, but you’re not so bad. Besides, I don’t think Ari will want me to tag along with her either,” Hannah smiled, “So we’ll just be outcasts together.”
“Thanks Hannah. That really does make me feel better.”
“At least until my probation is up and I can go back to being an angel of death again.”
“Oh right.” Roger had forgotten that detail. Even if Hannah had wanted to keep being around him, she couldn’t. He felt seriously down now.
At length, the abbey came into view. It was nestled down between two ridges, with forests growing all around it, an ideal retreat from the world for those devoting their lives to Oir. With every step closer, Roger felt more and more morose.
Soon they arrived at the door, which opened to allow them in. They were greeted by a very polite priest in a plain brown habit. He talked briefly with Hil and Ari before gliding off again. The abbey was quiet; everyone moved softly and spoke in quiet voices. Tapestries hung on the walls and the rooms were lit by windows set high above.
Eventually another person came over to talk to them.
“Hello young travelers,” He greeted with enthusiasm, “I am Miha, and I’m the abbot here, but maybe you already know that.” He gave Hil a sly wink.
“Hello again, Father Abbot,” Hil said, raising his hand in greeting, “Today I come as an envoy from the dwarves. Could we speak privately for a moment?”
“I do hope it’s not serious. You’ll have to acquaint me with your new friends later,” the abbot replied, and the two of them sauntered away together.
Hannah, Ari and Roger stood in awkward silence for a moment. “Should we go visit the shrine, then?” Ari asked.
“Of course,” Hannah replied.
The two girls walked ahead and Roger moped along, feeling sorry for himself. This was it, the end of their little party. Soon he was going to be all alone with a bunch of weird priests. And Hannah.
The shrine was in a little chapel, situated at the end of a hallway, and filled with multicolored light that came through stained glass windows on all sides. The shrine itself was a collection of odds and ends placed upon an uncut stone block that sat on a small grassy mound in the middle of the room. Around it grew a ring of green grass which in turn was encircled by the cut stone of the floor. It looked as though the shrine had existed first, then the chapel had been built around it, and then the abbey had been built around the shrine.
Ari stood next to it, a dark expression covering her face.
“What are you doing?” Roger asked.
“Praying,” Ari said.
“You look really angry.”
“I am angry.”
“Because my god is an idiot. Do I need a better reason?” She lapsed into an angry silence, occasionally broken by a bitter snort or an incredulous grunt.
“Maybe we should try praying too,” Hannah suggested.
Roger was unsure, considering Ari’s reaction to the activity. “I don’t know how it works,” Roger objected.
“It’s pretty simple at a shrine,” Ari explained through a sidelong glare, “Just think of the things that you want Oir to hear, and he’ll commune with you. Not that I recommend it.”
“I’m going to try it out!” Hannah said. She clasped her hands in front of her and bowed her head. Suddenly she snapped her eyes open and cried out, “Ah! Nope. Not for me.”
“What happened?” Roger asked.
Hannah blushed deeply, “I don’t want to talk about it. Ari’s right, Oir is an idiot.”
Curiosity piqued, Roger prayed a salutation to Oir, “Oh great Oir, hear me.”
“Pretentious. That’s just silly. Tone it down,” Roger heard the voice as distinctly as if Oir had been standing next to him.
“This is weird,” Roger continued to pray, “I’m not sure if I like it.”
“Oh, I definitely wouldn’t if I were you,” Oir said, “But people keep praying to me, and it just seems polite to acknowledge it.”
“I see… Hey, maybe you can help me with a problem I’m having.”
“Everyone’s got problems, kid, even me. I’ll see if I can give you some advice, though.”
“I’m worried that everyone’s going to leave me and I’ll be left all alone.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. You’re kind of a loser. My advice, be less of a loser.”
Roger stopped praying immediately. “Yeah, I don’t really like this Oir guy, either. I’m going for a walk.”
Roger stepped out of the chapel and wandered down the hallway. He passed rooms on either side with priests going about their business, meditating, writing, chatting, and whatever else the priests of such a useless god could want to do.
Eventually he found a door that let him outside. The abbey grounds were surrounded by a wall, and inside of that wall grew an orchard with several different kinds of trees. Roger decided to go relax in their shade.
As he walked through the orchard he encountered a priest studying a book and scribbling down notes. He smiled when he saw Roger, “Hello pilgrim, are you enjoying the abbey?”
“In general, yes. It’s peaceful, and I like the grounds, thank you.” Politeness satisfied, Roger began to walk away, but stopped, “If you don’t mind telling me, why do you worship Oir anyway?”
“What? Why do you ask?”
“I tried praying to him at the shrine, and, to be honest, he seems kind of like a jerk.”
“Ah, I see. Yes, at first communing with Oir can be an uncomfortable experience. He tends to force us to be honest, which can be uncomfortable.”
“Here at the abbey,” the priest continued, “We spend our time pondering on the values that are most important to Oir, those being honesty and loyalty. When not attending to our priestly duties, we also spend our time on various other pursuits.”
“But that doesn’t explain why you would revere him in the first place.”
“Oir blesses our kingdom, he helps us prosper and imbues our priests with power. In return, we maintain the shrine and try to spread Oir’s values to those who are interested.”
“Huh,” Roger grunted.
A shadow passed overhead. Roger wouldn’t have even noticed its passing except that the priest looked up, and so Roger naturally followed his gaze. At first Roger didn’t see anything, even as the priest stood up in alarm.
“No way,” the priest said with an intense release of breath, “Quickly pilgrim, we must get back to the hall.”
With that the priest started running toward the main abbey structure. Confused, Roger trotted after him. The priest had only just broken away from the edge of the trees when a massive beast landed in front of him. It skidded to a stop, throwing bits of sod all about. The priest stopped and drew himself up, raising a hand toward the heavens. A serpentine body, as large as a school bus, unwound from where the beast had landed. Its wings and smoking, fanged maw gave it away for what it was. Just a few feet in front of Roger a dragon had come to earth.
It turned its head from side to side, fixating on the priest with each of its reptilian eyes in turn. The priest’s skin began to glow with an inner light. He didn’t move toward the dragon or make any aggressive movements. Instead he stood, hand raised, and exclaimed, “This place is sacred to the followers of Oir! It will not be defiled by you or your magic. Begone beast, Oir compels you!”
The dragon wavered for a moment, recoiling from the priest. A ripple passed through the dragon’s body and it rocked its head from side to side. Then, in an instant, it struck forward. It caught the priest up in its teeth, skewering him on long fangs, and, tilting its head back, let the priest’s body slide down its throat.
Roger gasped in shock at the suddenness of the beast’s attack. He instinctively crouched down low behind a couple of tree trunks that grew close together. Looking out, he could see the dragon surveying the area, looking into the orchard. By some luck or trick of the shadows it overlooked Roger and turned toward the main building. It trotted over to the large front doors and unceremoniously rent them off their hinges with huge foreclaws before slithering inside.
Roger sat in the orchard, trembling, until he heard the calls of strange voices. They grew louder and louder until goblins, with their small square bodies and long mops of hair, hoisted themselves over the top of the abbey’s walls. They poured in from many directions at an alarming rate.
Roger was suddenly on his feet. Hannah. And Ari. He needed to find them, warn them. His body acting braver than he felt, he found himself running toward the broken doors that the dragon had just entered. The chattering of goblin voices grew louder as he ran.
He reached the door and took a cautionary glance in. Inside, the hall was in disarray. Decorative items and furniture were strewn across the floor, and glass from the high windows had fallen to the floor, spreading its shards across everything. There were scorch marks on the walls and several cloth items still smoldered. From down one of the side passages Roger could hear the sound of beastial roaring, human screams, and crumbling masonry.
Which way was the shrine again? If memory served, Roger believed it was in a direction away from the sound of the dragon. That was a small blessing, at least. He ran as fast as he could down the corridors, searching for the shrine, and he found it before long.
Ari was there, kneeling on the grass, a sour expression on her face. She turned her head when she heard Roger running toward her, a look of startled surprise on her face.
“Dragon,” Roger blurted out.
“Excuse me?” Ari asked.
“There is a dragon tearing the abbey apart.”
Ari scowled, “That’s bad.”
“Yeah. It’s real bad. We should escape.”
“Can the priests not banish or repel it?”
“I just saw one of them try, and he was turned into dragon lunch.”
Ari stood and said, “What about Hannah and Hil? We should find them.”
“Yeah, of course. Let’s get going,” Roger said urgently, coaxing her toward the passageway.
“I don’t know where Hil is, but I think Hannah said she was going to go look for the dining room.”
“Let’s look for her first, then.”
They dashed through the halls. Priests were running about strapping on weapons and helmets. Word of the dragon and goblins must have spread quickly. Ari and Roger asked a priestess to direct them toward the dining hall, and she pointed down a corridor as she hurried off holding a spear over her shoulder.
They found Hannah sitting alone at a table, dipping bread into a bowl of creamy soup as people ran through the hall all around her. She took a bite of the sopping bread, taking her time to carefully chew and savor it.
“Oh hey, guys,” she said once she was done chewing, “You want soup too?”
“No Hannah, we have to leave,” Roger said before filling her in about the dragon attack.
“That explains a lot. Like the people running around with weapons, the screams of agony, and all the reapers flying around.”
“You can still see other angels of death?” Roger asked.
“Nah, I can’t see them. I just know they’re there somehow.”
Ari interrupted, “I don’t want to know what you guys are talking about. Let’s go!”
The building shook and Hannah’s soup bowl quivered along the table a couple of inches. “That seems like a good idea,” she agreed.
The three of them headed back toward the shrine, and they could see the multicolored light radiating from the chapel down at the other end of the hallway. The chapel was filled with priests, their weapons raised and their bodies emitting light as they focused their prayers.
Instantly the chapel filled with scorching flames, and the many colors from the stained glass broke into the white outdoor light as the windows shattered. Priests fell to the ground, incinerated, and goblins quickly filled the room, chasing out anyone who remained. The survivors came running down the hall back toward Roger, Hannah, and Ari.
Through the door at the end of the hall, Roger watched as the dragon entered the chapel and wrapped itself around the altar. Its serpentine body squeeze the stone tighter and tighter, until with a resounding bang that shook Roger’s body, the altar split. First one priest, then another priestess, and then all of them together let out a cry of horror.
“I can’t–” Ari started, “I can’t commune with Oir.”
“What does that mean?” Roger asked.
“It means I have no holy powers. It means… What does it mean?” She looked bewildered.
The dragon, looking quite smug with itself, turned its attention toward the hallway where priests were fleeing past Roger and his companions. Goblins started flowing down the corridor toward them with violent intent written on their faces. The dragon’s head slithered through the door.
“One side, please!” a voice from behind bellowed.
As the three turned to flee they saw Hil standing, relaxed, behind them. His massive bow was in his hand with an equally large arrow nocked to the string. Suddenly, he raised the bow above his head with both hands, flexing as he lowered his hands, straining to push the bow forward while the hand holding the string dropped next to his face. The muscles in his arms rippled. His back bulged as he brought the string back, and the veins on his face and neck stood out. As he reached a full draw, the seams of his tunic split and his clothing fell back from his enormous chest.
Hil’s hand was steady as he took aim, and, having settled into his stance, he released. The arrow streaked down the hallway, impaling a goblin. Another followed the first but it glanced off the ceiling before reaching the dragon.
Roger, Hannah, and Ari reached Hil just as he loosed his third arrow. Like a bolt of lightning, it struck before Roger could track it. It hit the dragon on the bridge of its nose with a resounding crack, and stuck there quivering. The dragon recoiled, drawing back in on itself, and snorted. A gush of blood came running out of its nose, splashing onto nearby goblins. The goblins that were hit cringed in pain before collapsing to the floor.
The nearest goblins were getting closer. Hil drew again, his muscles bulging. The bow creaked before snapping loudly as he released another arrow.
“You, Hil!” a priestess called out and ran up to them. “You were with the abbot. Where is he?”
“He’s behind me, back the way everyone is running.”
“Please, you must take him and escape!”
“I’d rather stay and help take back the abbey,” Hil objected.
“We can manage, it is our sacred duty. Will you please escort the abbot away from here?”
Hil hesitated for a moment. “Alright,” he said, returning a half nocked arrow to the quiver at his waist. “Come on you three, you’re with me,” he said to Hannah, Ari and Roger.
Hil led them through the abbey, the sounds of battle echoing behind them. They found the abbot sitting in a side room, hands resting on a cane, and breathing deeply with his eyes closed. He wore a simple habit, and his long white beard flowed over his chest.
“I've been told to take you to safety,” Hil said.
The abbot nodded, but said, “I'd rather be giving them a taste of my knuckles! Alas, I'm not so young anymore.”
“Perhaps not, sir.” The building shuddered.
“Let’s make for the stables,” the abbot said, standing, “This way.”
The group walked briskly through the halls, casting glances over their shoulders. Sounds of fighting and the cries of priests and goblins reverberated down the corridors. They passed rooms and chambers with sunlight filtering peacefully through the windows, items lying undisturbed where they had been left.
Coming around a corner, they watched as the last of a group of priests was cut down. His body slumped lifelessly to the blood soaked floor at the feet of a large goblin wearing a padded coat and a conical helmet with a nasal guard. The goblin carried a crude old sword and buckler, and Roger cringed when he realized that both were covered in a coat of blood. Behind it, a small group of other goblins, similarly equipped, blocked the hallway.
In one efficient motion, Hil raised his bow while nocking and drawing, his muscles once again bulging. At the close range, the heavy arrow pierced the large goblin’s padded coat, passed through its body and came to rest, quivering, in the throat of a smaller goblin behind. The large goblin stumbled forward, and fell on its face.
The other goblins rushed toward them, and Hil was forced to take a couple steps back. Hannah –who had somehow picked up an arming sword and was using it in two hands– and Ari moved forward to block their advance. When the goblins approached, Ari used her staff to keep them at bay while Hannah punished any that tried to flank. Despite that, it soon became apparent that the goblins were going to be able to surround the girls. Hil raised his bow, looking for a safe shot.
Suddenly, the abbot sprang into motion, the wide sleeves of his habit flowing as he whipped his cane down on a goblin’s head. With a satisfying crunch, the creature collapsed. The abbot managed to close the gap, forcing the goblins to fall back to a safer distance.
Roger felt inspired to action. Wanting to help, he drew his knife and stepped forward to join in. A goblin took a testing thrust at him, and, dodging, he promptly scurried back out of reach.
Ari, Hannah, and the abbot continued to prevent the goblins from moving through the hallway. Hil moved forward, finding a space between his allies, and shot his bow into the goblins. One by one they fell, with feathers sticking out of their chests, until those that remained broke and fled down the hall.
Roger was sweating all over. He may have been wet with some other fluids as well, but he didn’t want to find out for sure. He sighed from relief.
“Not much farther now,” the abbot said, once again leaning on his cane.
They continued to walk through the abbey. Roger came up alongside Hannah and asked, “Where do you keep finding these swords?”
“Huh?” Hannah grunted, looking at the sword as though she was surprised to be holding it, “I don’t know really. I guess as an angel of death you just kind of notice all the ways people can die and the things that can kill them.” She shrugged. “I wanted the goblins to die, and this sword was just kind of there. One thing led directly to the other, ya know?”
Roger felt unsettled.
They exited the main abbey complex and found themselves on a short path that led to the stables. All around were signs of chaos and death. Bodies of priests and goblins lay everywhere. The ground was churned and bloodied. Scorch marks marred trees and stones. Crossing the distance they entered the stable.
“We’ve readied a horse, for you, Father Miha,” a priest said to the abbot when he entered.
“Thank you very much. Can you have some made ready for my companions?” the abbot requested.
“Of course, though one of them will have to ride Gallant.”
“That won’t be a problem. I think Gallant would be perfect for this fellow,” the abbot said, gesturing toward Roger.
“Understood.” The priest darted into a side room, and could be heard rustling about.
“Who’s Gallant?” Roger asked.
“One of my favorite mounts!” the abbot said enthusiastically, “He’s a fine steed. You’ll find him most delightful.”
Minutes later a few priests brought around several animals. The abbot accepted the reins of a dappled grey horse, and Hil chose a large, muscular beast with a tan coat and dark hair. Hannah’s was a little shorter, and a deep red color all over. Ari was given a slender legged horse that had a dark nose but was otherwise pure white.
Roger waited patiently to meet the horse he would ride, and soon enough the priest came round guiding him. Gallant was a short, shaggy little pony with a barrel shaped body. He was completely jet black with hair that fell in sheets over his neck and eyes. He peeked out from behind his mane, and his small ears swivelled around curiously. He had a perky, high stepping gait and the feathering around his feet flowed as he moved.
Roger felt crushed. For some reason, from the name, Gallant, and the abbot’s praise, Roger had been expecting something else, something larger, something intimidating. Truth be told, he had hoped that maybe somebody had thought enough of him to expect him to handle something really manly.
Instead they gave him the pony. The child’s horse. He felt completely humiliated.
Roger took the small step required to climb up into Gallant’s saddle and took the reins. His groin ached, because the animal’s wide back required him to spread his legs further apart than he was accustomed to. Gallant’s ears swivelled lazily toward Roger for a moment, and then went back to pointing in random directions.
“We’re all set then?” Hil asked, glancing over the group.
“All ready here,” Ari replied, looking magnificent on her horse.
Hil grunted an acknowledgement before turning his horse and walking it out of the stable. The other horses followed dutifully, and eventually it was Gallant’s turn to move. For a moment he just stood there, ears swivelling about, looking dully to either side. Roger bounced a little in the saddle.
“Umm, how do I make him move?” he asked the priest.
“Just give him a little tap with your heels, have you never ridden before?”
“No,” Roger replied as he squeezed Gallant’s sides with his feet.
Immediately the pony raised its head proudly and broke into a bouncy little trot, his hooves beating a staccato rhythm on the floor of the stable. Roger bounced uncontrollably on the saddle, and his entire backside started to ache almost instantly.
Leaving the stable, the group crossed the grounds to the outer wall. There, they went to one of the smaller side doors and slipped out as quickly as possible. Outside the walls, the forest was quiet, and the sun cast its rays upon the leaves, creating the illusion of a peaceful forest landscape. No goblins or other beasts could be seen as the party guided their horses along the path through the woods.