“Do you ever think about the end?” asked Jonathan, commander-in-chief of the Holy Armies, from no-one in particular. As the only person within hearing distance from this utterance Sebastian, acting templar-general, decided it would be prudent of him to offer up a reply, to the best of his ability.
“Not a learned man, sir” was this reply, and he said it almost under his breath, hoping that it wouldn’t be too offensive. Silence may have been rude, but ignorance may well have been worse.
“What was that?” commander Jonathan enquired, apparently confused as to why he was being spoken to.
“The end, sir, I think, is more a subject for learned men, what with their theology degrees and such-like” the man who until yesterday afternoon had been a sergeant in the city watch but now ranked number two in the Holy Armies of the Priest King explained himself.
“Oh, indeed. It seems to be getting on now, though” the commander said absentmindedly.
“What is, sir?”
“The end, man! The end!”
This last came accompanied with a grand sweep of the arm, a gesture which captured in its arch the devastation that had occurred over the past few days, the crumbled cliffs and the muddled waters where a major city had once stood, not even the highest steeple of Saint Carlos’ Cathedral standing up above the surface.
“It’s a small miracle we managed to secure the Relic, and I thank God for that, but this…” Jonathan trailed off, shaking his head. With a sigh he turned away from God’s Wrath and turned to his closest underling, his second-in-command, his right hand, a man who had been given a hasty baptism yesterday just to be on the safe side, and then in augured into an office of immense importance after three decades of service as a watchman. Compared to somewhat ceremonial armour Jonathan wore, this man had on him merely the leather and chain mail of a watchman ready to lead a militia in defence of a city. A man of common birth, common life and common ability, now second only to the highly bred and gruesomely trained commander and, of course, the Priest King Himself. Truly the ways of the Lord were not to be understood by mortal minds.
“Was there something you wanted, Sebastian?” he asked, studying the unkempt hair, the weathered face and unseemly stubble on the man. There would have to be changes before long. For now it was impossible of course, but this was no the kind of templar-general you could present to the Priest King. Well, the next one, in any case. The current one was quite too blind to mind much. But would the old man live until they reached Vinstock? No, it couldn’t be expected. There would have to be an election for a follower, seeing as there was no direct heir, and the man himself was in no shape to choose… though there were possibilities in that idea weren’t there? The Priest King is infallible, thus sayeth the Lord. Even a feeble minded Priest King who couldn’t see or dress himself was infallible. He could be made to choose an appropriate follower in the case there was doubt of a good candidate being found through the election. Yes…
“…and that’s why simply can’t keep shovelling the shit, sir” Sebastian finished and cleared his throat, looking at Jonathan with the hopeful eyes of a dog that sees a tasty piece of chicken their master is not eating. Dear, oh dear, he hadn’t been listening at all.
“You do as you see fit, Sebastian. I gave you this position because I trust you, and the Lord will grant you the wisdom to act in the best manner. We shall be off within the hour in any case, I hope” the commander concluded. He had not achieved this position in life by concerning himself with the micromanaging of his underlings. It couldn’t be anything too important anyway.
“Right you are sir” Sebastian said, scratching his jaw in a way that would quite upset the courtiers of the Holy Court. This pleased Jonathan greatly. He corrected the position of the cloak on his shoulders and walked off, leaving his capable new lieutenant to see to mundane matters.
The camp was of a considerable size, with a constant rota of guards keeping the riff-raff from entering it. There were animals here, pigs and sheep and cows for food, dogs and cats as reserves, chickens and geese as well, and of course they had their horses. There was grain here, and bread, porridge and soup and stew being made in many, many pots and cauldrons to keep everyone fed, and this scent was attracting many survivors from the destroyed city. The food was not for them. The blankets, tents and clothes were not for them. The shelter and security was not for them. It was thankless and cruel work to keep them away, hearing the crying women and babies and having to endure the curses of the men and the stones of the children, but it had to be done. In this camp were the survivors of the Holy Army and the Holy Court, the supreme rulers of the world. Their need was greater than that of any other, and they had to make a long, arduous journey into the mountains from here, a journey that would take weeks and even months, and many of them would not live to see it end.
Jonathan sniffled as he smelled a particularly good scent, a scent of meat being cooked. Not soup or stew, but proper MEAT. This was an appetizing scent, quite irresistible. He took a detour from his intended journey to follow his nose, and found the source of this culinary promise to be less appealing.
There was a small campfire behind some tents, quite discreet, and skewered on some sticks were rats. Fat rats, yes, and there had been no plague hereabouts, but to eat a rat when so much other meat was available… of course rats were not rationed, so to eat it was an extra portion of meat. The smell did not turn worse for knowing whence it had originated, and now Jonathan eyed up the cooks of this meal. There were two, and the sight of them quite shocked him at first.
There were two, and only one was a man. Of course there were women in camp, this was no secret to Jonathan, and he of course was no stranger to the pleasures they could offer, and some women he had known had not been human. Even so it was not entirely unheard of, and she did wear the dark-grey armour of the Order of Shadow. This was not an order of knights that stood in battle valiantly and purged heathens or monsters with valour, no, rather it was an order for the completion of tasks ordinary knights could not undertake.
There were two, and one was a Monster. She stood taller than most men, her skin reminiscent of the peoples of the desert, her eyes yellow and snake-like, and her tail coated in black scales and almost hidden by the cloak she wore around her shoulders. What Jonathan had thought at first were gauntlets were in fact claws, with nasty-looking nails and those same black scales. Looking down he saw she wore only sandals on her feet with foot wrappings, rather than boots. No boots would have fit those unhuman toes.
She looked him in the eye and a set of transparent lids flickered. Jonathan wrinkled his nose, half expecting a forked tongue to flicker out, but instead she opened her quite soft lips and a pink, delightfully human tongue danced over white teeth as she spoke with a strong, yet smooth voice.
“Ya want some, gaffer?”
Jonathan was taken aback by this. Nobody spoke to him in such a manner, certainly not a Monster, not so long as he was the commander-in-chief and the Order of Shadow was subject to him!
“The lady asked you a question, chief” spoke the other figure there, which Jonathan had ignored until now due to the interest he had taken in the woman-thing with the flowing hair that seemed to be a dark, reddish brown now that the light caught it, rather than black…
Jonathan steeled himself to look upon this other person, the man. He too carried the armour of the Order of Shadow, and he was not quite so pleasant to look at. Not quite so old as the new templar-general, but still no spring-chicken was this one, and his beard reached well beneath regulation length. Of course, Order of Shadow and all that, extraordinary circumstances, yes, but Jonathan felt petty for whatever reason and wished to slight this man in some manner.
“I don’t think he’s hungry” the she-thing said, grabbing a rat from the flames with her bare hand and biting straight into it.
“Hold up now, I told you about the onions, I didn’t steal them so we could eat these without seasoning” the man said and hurried to dig for something in his satchel.
Jonathan could take no more.
“You two! Do you not know who you are speaking to?” he demanded in his most office-like voice.
Neither one was particularly impressed. The lizard-thing kept chewing the rat, took a raw onion that was handed to her and took a bite out of it.
“Hu huu haah he heeh?” she asked, her mouth full. Apparently her companion understood what was said without trouble and handed her a flask, from which she took a decent quaff, making her cheeks bulge out as she chewed until she finally managed to swallow.
“I asked you a question!” Jonathan snapped, losing the composure of a good officer.
“No, we don’t know you” the man with the flowing beard replied, shifting around on his feet uncomfortably.
“Well I’ll have you know, I am the commander-in-chief of the Holy Armies and I…”
“Oh! He’s the one Karl!” the lizard-thing exclaimed happily, standing up to her full height, which left her a head and shoulders taller than the man.
“So he is” the man nodded his assent. “Nobody around, I suppose?” he added, shifting his eyes to and fro. Of course there was nobody around as this place was behind so many tents only meant for storage and…
Knightly instincts and years of training took over. Jonathan drew out his sword. Perhaps it would have been wiser to call out, but he didn’t think of such things. He pulled down the visor of his helmet and prepared to do battle against these scoundrels, these traitors, these assassins!
The lizard-thing pounced and caught him in the stomach with her shoulder, tackling him down. Jonathan did not loose the grip on his sword, but before he could get it into a position where he could swing it, the she-lizard had her surprisingly strong claws gripping his arms. Her weight on him kept him from squirming too much and the position was too awkward for him to do much abou-
The sea-air had never agreed with these types of men. They were all accustomed to the stuffy air of indoors or, at most, sunny days in gardens and parks well walled off of real nature. Soft in body, many soft in the head as well, these were those men who held supreme power on Earth, they were the Holy Court, and when they wrote their little letters and pressed their little seals on them, kings and countries went to war against one another, dynasties fell and Dragons were slain. The Holy Army may well have been a small one, more of a bodyguard outfit for these men than an actual army, but it was not through their own military force that these people ruled, it was with divine mandate and the knowledge that people feared them above all things in this world, even more than they did the monster-kind.
Their council was being held in the largest of pavilions, with furs on the walls and thick carpets laid on the ground, with braziers to keep them warm and in the light, and to them were carried the finest of meals, breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, and all else could starve before any of them missed a single meal. They were not all fat, but they were all appreciative of fine dining, and yearned to be back in a palace of some kind. It was to discuss this very matter that they had now gathered.
Spread out over the back of the pavilion was the largest map that could have been produced, so large that even those with poor eye-sight could survey it in a general manner from their comfortable chairs. Even so, there was one man from among the Holy Court who now stood and walked to the map, where the servants handed him a stick of ebony with which he could point. He did so, at a blotch of black on the map.
“This was once the Holy City. As we remember, not a week after our departure, it sank into the ground”
There was a general assenting murmur at this, and the speaker ran his stick along the red line that lead from the black spot on to a number of other places, all marked with a similar spot.
“And wherever we have gone, following the route that His Holy Majesty chose based on the prophecy…” the speaker did not finish his sentence, confident in the knowledge that all knew what had happened.
“It seems evident to me that the prophecy is by now beyond question. So many lives have been lost, so many cities lost to Monsters, it must be said out loud! We are living in the End of Days!”
There was excited murmuring. Everyone agreed, doubts had no room in their minds after the sinking of Carlosburg from practically underneath them just the other day.
“The prophecy, as we are without a doubt all aware…” the speaker began again, grinning smugly, knowing most of his colleagues had not bothered to study it like he had, “tells us, with no uncertain terms, that to escape the deluge that approaches, we must seek higher ground, and ‘a sanctuary among the sages’. Gentlemen, the monastery of Vinstock is some distance away…” he followed a yellow line to a blue dot in the mountains, “…but not an impossible journey, not by any means. Uncomfortable, yes, but we’ve all been pilgrims before!”
There was awkward but enthusiastic assent again. These men had not been pilgrims in the true sense of the word, not ever, and neither had the speaker, but none of them would ever admit to having suffered any lesser pains than the common folk.
“Our beloved King shall lead us to that place of sanctuary, where we may lay to rest the bones of Saint Carlos, and wait out the End of Days. There, in the high hills, behind the walls of master masons, we may contemplate and enjoy the famous wines of Vinstock!” the speaker finished. It was well known by all present that the Priest King’s days were numbered, and that there would soon be a new one. That, without a doubt, would be the man speaking. He had often been called the Royal Apostle, and indeed his ambition was a relief to many present. Rulership presented a myriad of problems none wanted.
The speaker returned to his seat and nodded to a man who was standing by the doorway to the tent, a man in a long black robe. The Lord Templar of Shadow, an invaluable asset. The Light of God was bright, and the shadows it cast were deeper sometimes than the darkness it sought to illuminate.
As soup was being served, the Lord Templar discreetly made his way to the Royal Apostle’s chair, and whispered in his ear.
“It’s done” he said, and without waiting for it to be acknowledged, he was off. An efficient man, but also a dangerous one. He had no designs on the throne or crown of the Priest King, but he was a man who could very well decide who sat on that throne and wore that crown. A vile, irksome creature he was, one who enjoyed the profane, perverted pleasures of Monsters rather than remaining chaste as would be becoming, or at least copulating with women of his own species, as did the Royal Apostle. Oh well, he thought as he saw the smirking fornicator depart. He could always be removed. Discreetly. Perhaps with a bit of poison? There was some very potent stuff in the medicine cabinets they had, he knew. The thought made him chuckle and spill some soup on his chin. With a quick glance he ascertained none had noticed, and so he lifted his napkin along with his wine glass to wipe his chin without anyone paying attention to the movement. As he sipped the wine, he noticed a quaint aftertaste. Was it almonds? It wasn’t how this wine had been during the last course, surely they hadn’t opened up another bottle without informing him? They were practically his personal property, and… and…
Travel-preparations had been much harder to get underway than Sebastian had assumed. There so many people doing so many things that absolutely had to be done, that couldn’t be packed away, no sir, no hope of that sir, it’ll be another day at least sir, oh we couldn’t do that sir, it would ruin everything, now how do you propose we do that sir and so on and so forth. If listening to people’s excuses for misbehaviour hadn’t been his job for the past three decades, Sebastian may well have lost heart. To his delight he had managed to get some tents packed up and some carts loaded up and there was more empty space within the camp’s perimeter than there had been before. He’d spent a couple of hours on this feat though, and that was after giving up on the idea of cleaning up after the pigs, horses and cows. Commander Jonathan’s idea of leaving within the hour had been a ridiculous one, and now it might be best to go inform him that they really wouldn’t be leaving until tomorrow. The problem was, the man was nowhere to be found.
Sebastian had asked around, and nobody could ascertain the whereabouts of the commander-in-chief. He wasn’t in his own tent, he hadn’t been in the mess-hall tent for the big-wigs, he hadn’t been in the camp-brothel, where Sebastian found himself enjoying a rather expensive but educating half-an-hour, whereby he discovered how sensitive a Succubus’ wings could truly be, but leaving that aside, the camp was no closer to leaving and Jonathan was no closer to being found. He did learn just how badly rationed they were, and he had extensive discussions with the various quartermasters of different knightly orders he never knew existed about how much meat and wine they could really have every day – the initial understanding had been “as much as we fucking please, what’s it to you? – and finally he’d managed to set up guards from different orders as guards over the larders of each other. The competitive nature of the orders meant that any chance at causing grief for another was taken up gladly, no matter how much boring guard work or measuring of rations this took.
Satisfied with himself, Sebastian made his way around camp once more. This might not be such a bad day after all, eh?
The tent wherein Saint Carlos’ earthly remains were being kept was heavily guarded by quiet types in dark suits of armour. These were not the men who had been guarding it when the shift started, but there was nobody around at the time who could question this change, and there never would be if things proceeded according to plan.
The personage responsible for this plan was in the tent at this time. It was not the Lord Templar of Shadow, despite his prominent role in the events of the past months. It was of course he who had prepared the network of spies and runners and scouts who infiltrated every location and institution necessary to fool the Holy Court into thinking their homeland had been destroyed and that a trail of destruction had been following them, and it was indeed he who had seen to it that the Curator of Prophetic Archives (sadly deceased now) discovered the authentic and genuine prophecy that the Holy Court was now following to the monastery of Vinstock.
The Lord Templar himself had never been in any position to vie for the throne of the Priest King, and he had never been interested in it. Power restrained by excessive ritual and protocol was not true power at all. The Priest King was at best a figurehead who ruined well laid plans with ambitions and zeal, at worst a puppet with no will of his own. Or was it the other way around? In any case he had been quite content to be running things behind the scenes and allowing people like Jonathan and the Royal Apostle to bask in the glory and to be met by the scrutiny of others. He had access to far more than they ever could, be it knowledge or power. And yet…
“Did you bring my dinner?” asked a disembodied voice, and Lord Templar took a bow, pointing to a tray on the table he had brought here like a common servant. The voice’s source was able to tell he had replied in the affirmative despite having no way of seeing the interior of the tent. Well, no natural means in any case.
The lid of the coffin slid aside and a woman lifted herself out. A woman who was remarkably well preserved for someone who had been dead for a very long time. She wore a cloak around her shoulders, but was naked underneath. She hadn’t bothered to wrap it around herself either, leaving the Lord Templar with an unobstructed view of what True Power looked like in the nude. Her bosom was modest and she was a bit too skinny around the waist and thighs for his personal tastes, but that didn’t matter. He would make love to her with more enthusiasm than he personally was able to muster if she so desired.
True Power dug into the roast chicken without the faintest elegance. The Lord Templar found himself wondering if she was actually hungry, or if she simply missed the taste of food and the feel of eating. Surely the undead did not feel hunger. Though they wouldn’t be expected to feel lust either, and this one had it in spades.
“So how’re things?” she asked as she licked the gravy off the plate like a dog, her ass lifting up to the air as if she were presenting herself. The Lord Templar wiped sweat off his brow.
“The Commander-in-chief has been removed and his body prepared as per instructions. Once they notice he has disappeared, they will connect it with the death of the Royal Apostle and draw their own conclusions. Any further interference in this regard is not likely needed” he explained; glad to be back in his own comfort zone.
“And then what?” asked the undead woman, quaffing down a tankard of beer in a most unladylike manner.
“Then we shall hold a funeral service for the Royal Apostle, and most likely prepare a contingent of knights to pursue the disappeared commander-in-chief”
The woman nodded, scratching her belly. The Lord Templar found his gaze wandering towards her crotch now that they were facing each other, and so he began to pace around the tent in order to avoid the distraction.
“These troops will, of course, be intercepted by our agents. They will not become a problem” he continued.
“Once we have begun to move, the same principle as before applies. My... OUR, agents will surround us at a distance and ensures nothing is encountered that contradicts the narrative the Holy Court and the remaining troops have been fed. As many people as possible will be convinced to leave their nigh-extinct knightly orders and to join us, at which point they shall receive some re-education, as you have instructed”
The woman wasn’t smiling. She had never smiled. But The Lord Templar liked to think that she was smiling internally at the smooth operation he had built for her.
“By the time we reach the monastery, we will have full control of all troops, m-mistress” he concluded, feeling a slight blush at the word he had concluded with. The temptation had been there for a while now. He hardly ever had the opportunity to say such things.
“Good boy, Harold. I bet you’ve got eeeeverything figured out and that there’s nothing that could possibly backfire on us” she said, stretching her words for emphasis despite speaking in a monotone. The Lord Templar was beginning to feel quite ready to perform his duty.
“Now come here and give me a kiss” she said, pointing between her legs. The Lord Templar of Shadow fell on his knees.
Having wrapped up the body and placed it in the tub of fluids which he assumed were for embalming, Karl left the inconspicuous tent marked with the sigil of the Order of Shadow to get what qualified for fresh air in this camp.
“I don’t get it” Diana said to him, expecting an explanation without actually asking for one.
“Not all that complicated, actually. See, there’s this Lich…” Karl began.
“What, like an undead witch-bitch?”
“Yes. And she’s hitching a ride in the sarcophagus of Saint Carlos. Nobody would think to look for her there, you see”
“Uh-huh. So where’s she going?”
“From what I can gather there’s a big network of tunnels under the Vinstock monastery, all sealed off now, full of the dead. She wants to turn them into an army, see” Karl explained, twirling his moustache in a way that Diana had always found amusing. A smile was elicited from the Salamander this time as well.
“And we’re just helping her get there? Why can’t she just walk up to the place herself?” Diana inquired.
“Well I suppose there’s spells in place to protect the monastery or some such” Karl mused.
“Spells in a monastery?” the reptile was incredulous.
“Hmm. And that’s why she needs to hide in the sarcophagus, to get in. And the lads will take over the monastery once we’re there, so she can have the run of the place while she goes about unsealing her army”
“Neat. These guys are really dumb, you know?”
“Well I mean, they’re like paladins and priests and bishops, and they’re all getting strung along by a Lich. I thought the whole point of wearing those dresses was that you wouldn’t get bossed around by a Lich or something”
Diana’s astute discovery made Karl laugh.
“Oh, they’re rather easily led by the nose, but don’t worry. This lot will have plenty of fighting to do once they get to the monastery”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that I sold the location of the monastery to some… interested parties” Karl smiled enigmatically and twirled his moustache again.
“Oh, someone you don’t know, dear”
“Come on, tell me!” the Salamander demanded, stomping her foot.
“Her name is Greta” Karl conceded. “She’s far more interesting than some Lich building and army, I assure you”
“Then how come we’re not in her camp? This place sucks!”
“Because you would get into too many fights there, dear” Karl said, his eyes shifting to focus on an approaching figure.
“I would not!” Diana protested, but hushed up when she saw Karl’s silence.
Templar-general Sebastian walked past the two of them, whistling a merry tune and nodding to them as he passed. The duo returned the greeting, and waited until he was outside hearing-distance.
“Well he seems happy” Diana grinned, seeing he was coming from the direction of the camp’s brothel.
“Hmm, yes. Good for him. I might have to pay a visit there myself, actually…”
“You gotta pay my way too if you do. You should be rich if you got paid for selling that monastery to that Greta-person” Diana pointed out.
“Hmm, fine, fine”
The two people who alone knew what awaited the people around them in the future departed for the brothel, content in the knowledge that they alone did not have uncertain futures.