“Master Davit took me up to his plateau after my name day,” Shyan begins. “At first, I hated it. The lush vegetation of my youth gave way to a barren hillock, and dalliances with friends were replaced by ritual training.”
Abia nods. She knows a thing or two about ritual training, of another sort.
“Master Davit drilled me in a dozen martial arts, most of which I had never heard of,” Shyan says. “I stood like a flamingo in the rain for three days. “A caterpillar took its home in my open palm and spun its way into a butterfly.” She chokes up, takes a moment to find her words. “Years later, I killed him,” she says, as fresh tears fill her eyes.
Cang darts away behind the turret of the church, his movements lost to the shadows and the swaying of the braided fabric draped across the building. He leaves his compatriots, Shyan, Fassn and Abia, standing at the edge of the village square, facing up to the church.
From within, over the angry muttering and disbelieving murmurs, they hear a feminine voice, small and raspy, like those of the grey creatures from the trees. “She’s in there,” Shyan says. She staggers, puts her hands on her knees, and bends to vomit.
“That looks like fun,” Fassn says, before joining her.
“Better get antidote,” Abia says.
Cang, meanwhile, peers through a ground floor window at the back of the church. Inside is a dais, with a grey creature strapped to it, her head piled with golden curls. A human priest stands above her, chanting and gesticulating. Cang’s watching for an opening when suddenly their eyes meet. The priest’s widen just a hair before, with a furious shout, he points at Cang through the window. Cang reacts with a start and ducks.
The congregation begins filing out of the church, hands clenched into fists.
“There is naught but the wickedness of the woods contained within these walls, and the shining beacon of good that is this village’s populace, banding together to tamp down the dark spark of villainy that is this twisted grey creature, and all its black companions,” comes a voice. It’s low and paternal, thundering with all the passion of the pulpit.
“I think that’s a yes,” Shyan says. Fassn nods enthusiastically. “Can we buy the villain from you?” she calls out.
Confused murmuring rises from the assembled patrons. The pulpit master says, “Knave, no offer on this green earth could sway us from our noble task of cleansing our village and our woods of this menace. Come, friends,” he says, addressing his flock. “Let us join our voices in prayer so that we may exorcise this grey beast and, if needed, its busibody friends outside.”
With that, a choral chanting rises from the church group. The wrapped fabrics tussle gently in the breeze. The gang huddles. “We’ll distract them,” Shyan says. To Cang, “You get the princess.”
A lascivious grin creeps over his face.
“We will get antidote,” Abia says gently, her hand on Shyan’s shoulder. “Save princess, save Shyan.”
Shyan’s smile is strained. “I hope she’s sweet.”
Cang has crept up to a window of the church, is peering in, his hands shielding the sun. Inside, a child’s face pops up into the window. Their eyes connect. The child’s go wide and Cang winks. The child turns and flees to the adults, who are in a circle around a dais at the back of the church. “Ritual,” Cang says.
Fassn, meanwhile, plants his boot in the centre of the church doors, blowing them open. He maintains his balance, woozily, as all faces within turn to him, horrified and expectant.
“Fassn!” Shyan chides as she and the others move to back him up. “Uh, hello,” she calls out to the assembled church-goers. “Have you got a princess in here?”
The farmer doesn’t wave back. The cigarette dangles from his lip as he stares, until he pivots on his heel and strides back inside the church, smoke trailing.
“Unfriendly,” Fassn says, squeezing his hand. It’s got a gentle burning sensation coursing through it which he tries to massage away.
“Must be place of worship,” Abia says. The church is festooned with orange banners, strands of fabric wrapped in helixes and draped across the facade.
“Indeed,” says Cang. “And they appear to be in session.”
“So much for—” Shyan stutters. “So much for—”
Abia gives her a concerned look.
“For the element of— of surprise,” Shyan concludes. Her face is unnaturally pale. She coughs, then murmurs sadly, “Antidote…”
The bucolic village is a day’s trek through the woods from the chittering grey creatures’ nests. When the gang reaches it, the sun is high in the sky and chickens strut through the dust, pecking for nutrient fragments. The gang arrives doing much the same thing.
The village is absent of people, though: the chickens are unattended. A warm barnyard smell sweeps through the sandy streets. There are a dozen buildings or so, maybe a dozen and a half, each with their doors shut, save one: the largest of the group, it stands proudly, second storey and all, just at the edge of the village clearing.
From within floats a chorus of human voices, chanting some liturgical verse.
“Sounds like everyone in town is enjoying the service,” Shyan says.
“Maybe they’d like to hear about Old Ajralan,” Fassn replies. They’re both looking rough; the skin around their eyes is sallow.
Just then a farmer in a straw hat steps out of the building to light a cigarette. He freezes with the smoke in his mouth, staring at Shyan, Fassn, Cang and Abia. Fassn waves.