Cold sweat breaks out on her skin as Shyan pulls Fassn away from the growing crowd. Her vision swims and her joints ache, as though a virulent ifluenza were coursing through her blood. She doesn’t know what the poison is, but she knows she needs the antidote, and getting lulled into some sort of animistic rage-state by this preacher’s chanting isn’t in the cards. It’s working on the peasants, though.
Once Fassn’s ears are safely plugged again, Shyan finds a stone that fits snugly into her palm. She grips it, tosses it gently, gets a feel for its mass distribution, before arcing it beautifully through the sky to fall upon the unprotected head of the preacher. His chanting stops with a short, garbled noise as he sinks to the dust. His eyes glaze and he murmurs, shifting slightly. The peasants, no longer under the effects of the chant, shake their heads incredulously.
“Let’s go?” Shyan asks.
“Let’s go,” the princess says.
The gang, alongside the small grey princess, dart out of the town square, past the tree line and into the woods.
Abia recognizes the preacher’s peculiar liturgical tongue with a start. “Plug your ears,” she says to her companions, tearing strips from her loose robes, rolling the fabric into tiny balls. She jams these into her ears to block the noise, then helps the princess do the same. Shyan, Fassn and Cang take their cues from Abia, too, and tear at their clothes to form rough ear plugs. A buzzing sensation crawls over their flesh, they can almost feel the sound waves of the chanting buffeting their bodies.
The townsfolk to whom the preacher is obliged are not so fortunate. By turns they emerge from their hiding places, their eyes wide, their mouths agape and making the shapes of the preacher’s chant. Their shuffling feet remind Shyan of the lich’s castle, and she feels a wave of revulsion creep over her again. If she had anything left in her belly, she thinks, she’d throw up again. Meeting Fassn’s pained gaze, she grumbles, “Gotta get that antidote.”
Fassn plucks the fabric from his ear and says, “What?”
Shyan springs upon him to shove it back in.
Fassn rises from where he was bent over, retching. “Wait, are you Orolio?”
“No,” the preacher screeches. “This temple is dedicated to Orolio, most holy, and you have acted against her, have blemished her face with your misdeeds, with your incredible willingness to let such a heinous beast escape and live.” He gestures to the grey princess, who pays him no heed.
“Well we’ve already got a divine protector,” Fassn says. “And thanks for that, Old Aj,” he adds.
“Old Ajralan? Really?” The preacher laughs once, a sharp, hard syllable. “You trust the sensuous old fool with your lives?”
“Perhaps not our lives,” Cang says, under his breath.
“Rise, friends,” the preacher says to the village folk huddled behind crates and shutters. “Rise and strike down this unbelievers, who bring their foreign religion to our shores. Act now, for the holiness of Orolio!”
The peasants are hesitant. The few the gang espies give one another questioning glances, until the preacher begins chanting methodically in an unusual language, at which their eyes begin to cloud.
Cang takes point at the church’s front door. There are figures in the square, crouched behind crates wrapped with rough rope and market stalls of flapping tarpaulin. A breeze passes through, turns up the dust, makes the twined flourishes on the church sway. The men who’ve taken wounds roll about in the sand, moaning, gripping their battered limbs, clutching their bruises. He turns to the gang, nods, and pads out into the square.
The princess is right behind him. Her feet have wide, grasping toes with a thin, light membrane between them — not ideal for the dusty terrain. She’s careful to avoid the sharpest rocks. Shyan, beside her, idly wishes she had the strength to pick the princess up but the very idea makes her muscles wash with cold incapability.
The gang is halfway through the square, making for the forests beyond the village, when the gruff preacher’s voice rises up behind them, loud and apoplectic. “The story of Orolio does not end here,” he screams.
The preacher on the floor is an older man with sallow skin and a neat but wiry beard. His open, staring eyes are pallid with that “no one’s home” kind of look.
Shyan prods him with the end of her boot before Abia bends to close his eyes.
“Is he dead?” Fassn asks as he clumsily climbs to the floor to lay beside the preacher.
“No, not dead. Out.”
“We too should be ‘out,'” Cang says.
“Yes, please,” the princess says. Her eyes, in contrast to the preacher’s, are bright and excitable. She rubs at her wrists where she’d been bound and tests the springiness of her grey limbs. “The sooner we return to my people, the sooner you may have your antidote.”
Shyan, supressing the urge to vomit, offers a shaky thumbs-up.