The stone statue shatters against the floor, shards of rock flying. The combatants scatter, and the Black Oak woman presses left, hoping to move around Rafe to the exit. The heftier knight clatters to his knees, protected from the falling debris by his shield.
Sable wipes blood from his nose and fearlessly pushes back in towards the fray, this time successfully recovering Theo to drag him to safety. The doctor, nervous, begins his assessment of the deep cut. He is surprised when a rough hand pushes him aside, and the green-robed Mercy kneels beside him. The eyes on the man’s neck blink out of synch, and his back twitches unnaturally, but as he rolls up his sleeves, it is the glowing hands of the Mercy that reach out for the Andrastan’s neck. The wound begins to knit beneath his hands, and his aberrant eyes cry thick, heavy tears of blood.
“There, there, child, we’ll take care of you now, ye’ll be right.”
The Mercy healed Theo from Harm 3 to Harm 2. This exceeds the usual effect of a Mercy, but I thought, given he was in his place of power, a little heroic exertion was justified. I still marked him as Wounded.
Vani staggers at the rumble, the rain of stone-dust and fragments unexpected and ominous, its sound as much audible as a vibration through the bones. The Black Oak resets himself, favoring his right, the sharp edge of his shield slashing out to buy him room. If she had breath for it, she would offer a prayer.
Frieta does better, the larger Bartan dropping her shoulder, then shifting with her hips and coming up as she lunges. The top of her shield catches the bottom of his, and the opening is there for an instant, and Vani takes it, the point of her blade entering between plates of armor at his armpit as the knight’s arm rises involuntarily. She drives up, twists, her full weight until the blade can go no further, then yanks free. He drops heavy.
She pivots, squaring up again, but there is no room to join Leopold and the Captain, even as Frieta scrambles over a table, a shelf, seeking to offer aid on the flank. Leopold steps back, raising his blade to warn Vani back from the two fighters. It’s not that the blades are a blur, not the rapier work she is familiar with from the other Vipers. But the exchanges are now coming so quickly she expects to see sparks.
Fighting with two swords has always been explained to her as either arrogance or supreme skill. The woman seems to fall to the latter. But Vani sees the mistake when it comes, the knight catching the Captain’s lunge in a rising cross-block, and the moment she does she realizes her mistake. Whether by luck or intention, the Captain exposes her midline as she parries, and the kick he delivers to her chest rings on armor and slams her back against a set of shelves.
She tries to throw off his blade and regain her footing, but she is simply not quick enough. His sword slashes, lacerates her face and takes an eye, and then again, across her throat. She pitches forward, one sword lost as she instinctively reaches for her throat, the other dropped, going to her eye. He catches her against his chest as she falls, lowers her face first to watch the rest of her lifeblood leave her.
This was a tough engagement. The Vipers are built for brains, not brawn, and putting together group Skirmish rolls was a real challenge, especially with Theo out of action. Three rolls down the track of this, and some Stress divvied out, the Threat 2 Specialist NPCs did the heavy lifting.
The squad catches their breath for a moment. Then Leo is scrambling for the shelves.
Leo quickly riffles through the books, glancing at the marginalia and the brief notes that the dead woman has sketched out. He quirks an eyebrow, before glancing back at the woman with a half smile.
"What a pity. Well, at least one of your conclusions did you credit today."
The Captain ducks around a pile of rubble. “It’s time to leave, Fist Leader.”
"Yes, sir. On my way."
The room continues to shake as Leo guides his Fist at their labours, though it feels more in the nature of aftershock and aftermath now. Even amidst the holiest and most storied of books in this magnificent library, the Bok dem Blud stands out, a massive tome sitting on a pillar dedicated to the book alone. It weighs as much as Frieta’s shield, the dark red leather seeming to absorb the light. Ripples of movement flow along the cover, as if the title is constantly being written by the tititular fluid.
The Book of Blood is the major prize here. I named it as an in-joke for my very DCU-aware players.
The information the players will unpack later, but is mostly guessed by Greg-as-Vani already, is that Mercies are (in my setting) part found and part made.
First, you need people with an exceptional degree of empathy, because to work the miracle cure, a Mercy must genuinely wish that the injury had happened to them and not the sufferer. Secondly, the Mercy must have a sound medical knowledge of the wound to be able to safely absorb it.
This mystical understanding of the body and spirit is also what allows a Mercy to heal faster and more surely than others, and inculcating this understanding is what both the medical lab and the torture devices above are for. Children make good Mercys for small wounds - if the will is there, it is rarely jaded - but are worse at complex wounds, and they heal slower, so tend to be found in big temples and royal courts, not on battlefields. What is going on with Taisa remains a mystery.
The Temple of Mercy also believe this why Mercies cannot transition Blight - first and foremost, Mercies generally do not want an incurable corrupting blight, so cannot transfer it; and secondly, do not understand it enough to move it.
The Book of Blood solves the second problem, teaching Mercies meditative exercises tpo understand the Curse of Dar, which is close enough to Blight to work. The mechanics are that Legion Mercies can undo Corruption now, even to the point of reversing Blight, but it transfers to them and like Alchermists, they get slowly corrupted until their pool fills. I’d love opinions on whether people felt this was balanced for a relic.
I also gave Leo a Research roll, and with a partial success, I said he could pick up books with information on two of three possible topics - info on Askira’s Chosen and the ritual to summon her; info about the Church’s creation of Mercies; and information about Dar and its curse. He went with the latter two.
Leopold grabs two sets of heavy volumes from the desk and crams them - albeit carefully- into his book bag. It is with some regret that the third volume proves too cumbersome to lift, and he hastens back over the corpse to rejoin the rest of the soldiers.
"On we go, sir. Do we try for the last room?"
“I don’t think it’s a choice, Fist Leader,” the Captain rolls his shoulder, “The ways out all go through the axis now.”
Rafe looks to Sage, dispatched up the tall narrow ladders to crane up and look out one of the small angled windows for light.
They call down, “You were right, sir, some of the dead are preparing to cross the river. A number seem missing, but there’s a boat’s worth.”
The Mercy wipes some blood off himself with his robes, and pats Theo on the cheeks. Theo feels he can rise now, and it is clearly at the old man’s expense. He does not fall back into a reverie, but he sits on his ass hard, and his breathing is ragged and wet.
“They have someone big with them, sir,” the Panya speaks as they clamber down, “Fills the damn boat.”
“The Seal is broken,” the Mercy chokes out, “Askira to our aid, the Seal.”
Sable reaches out to gently calm the man, but his bedside manner gets nowhere, his hands brushed aside roughly. Rafe’s sword flickers back to life, the blue and red flames licking the edge of the blade like dying embers.
“If the Seal is broken, what does that mean?”
The old man groans, and his eyes still weep blood.
“I had crossed too far… too far, and yet I awoke. The dead and damned may enter freely now, this place has been blasphemed against. Grundholt’s miracle has ended.”
“I know you are suffering, but please bear with us,” the Captain kneels beside the Mercy, “We have come to rescue the holy works in this chapel as best we can.”
Rafe holds out the key, and hopes it is enough, “We have the blessing of Her Eminence in our efforts. But understand, we have a wider responsibility. I am disturbed by the enemy’s interest here, and if you can tell us anything about what is risked if we simply depart now…”
The old man coughs, and makes the effort to stand, “Apologies, I take your… support for granted. Trust I do not take much stock in parochial prejudices, not even against the Remnant. I am the Most Humble and Merciful Mattin, for my sins stripped of the title of Most Wise.”
He adjusts his robe so the eyes and feathers are hidden, “The Cathedral is gone from the faithful. It is no weapon or tool sized for their hands, anything but… ah, but here, here the mark of the Powers remains impressed strongly on the Weave.”
While the term means nothing to Rafe, the academics recognise the Weave as an obscure, and perhaps arcane, term adopted by sorcerers (and recently by agnostics uncomfortable with words like ‘miracle’ and ‘god’) for those patterns of energy that connect the Chosen with what common folk call magick - the Orite trinity with their alchemy, or the Chosen of Ostra with Mercies.
The old man nods at the flaming sword, “I see you have also been touched by the Powers, son. So perhaps you will understand…”
His bloodshot eyes - the ones in his head - meet Rafe’s. “They will rape this place, as they have many others, as fuel for their Cinder flames.”
Vani doesn’t move for several seconds. The end of her sword looks black in the light of the library, what drips from its tip hitting the floor in a deep crimson. She lifts her head, watches as Theo is helped closer, as Sage and Leopold begin quickly searching the shelves, pulling volumes. She looks to the Mercy, blood running from his eyes, a brighter shade of the same stuff coating her blade.
All at once she shudders, then sheathes her sword and twists her pack onto the table nearby. She quickly pulls Kseniya’s tunic from within, begins tearing it into strips, no wider than two fingers. She ties them together, begins knotting them at regular intervals. Frieta can hear her praying under her breath.
“Oil,” she says. “Who has oil?”
Without waiting for an answer, her eye falls to the lantern clipped to Theo’s harness. She snatches it free, quickly unscrewing the shield.
“Two, no, three,” she says, speaking more to herself than any of the others. She holds up one of the strips she is fashioning, gnaws her lip for a moment.
“Maybe fifteen minutes. There, there, and there.”
She turns to the Captain, still holding the lantern, its reservoir now exposed. She soaks one of the strips as she speaks, wrings it out, sets it aside.
“We must burn it,” she says, and the Oritian officer can see the tears shining in her eyes. “We must burn it all , sir. Because they are not like him…” and she doesn’t need to indicate the Mercy for her meaning to be clear “…and they will not take this pain and transcend it. They will take this pain and they will corrupt it, all of it. All of the knowledge here, they will not seek wisdom from it, they will seek only torment with it. If we leave them this wisdom, they will use it to Corrupt our Lady. They will do it. They will Break her as they have the rest.”
Without waiting for the Captain to answer, she turns to the Mercy.
“Most Humble, I beg your understanding. I beg your forgiveness.”
She looks to the rest of the Vipers. The tears run freely down her cheeks, though she does not sob.
“We must,” Vani says.
The Mercy puts his hands on Vani’s shoulder and wipes a tear from her cheek. “Be not afraid, dear, for She still walks this world.”
“She doesn’t dwell in a stone building, we just keep hold of the warmth of the miracles of her past Chosen, and her Mercies. Alchemy did not becomes diseased because they took the guildhalls and academies of Deori. It fell because of Blighter fell, and none other.”
He gestures out towards the small window, from which light pours in, “Hold in your faith. Shreya is out there, my daughter. She is unBroken. Nothing they can do here today can change that.”
He sighs, “Burn this place, if you wish to deny them knowledge. Burn this place, and hope that the the reliquaries even can burn with it.”
“But do not fear the Breaking of the Lady while Shreya flies the land bringing respite. The gods are not so small, child.”
Apart from being just a nice establishing scene with Mattin, I was noticing my players were pretty sure that the Oak had some way of using the cathedral to break Askira, or some equally nefarious big advancement of their agenda. This put me in a spot, because firstly, in some sense, they were right, but it wasn’t something they were at all obliged or even able to prevent, and secondly, they were off on the details, but I wasn’t sure how to pass that on. A little Giles-from-Buffy exposition goes a long way, though.
Theophilus takes a few arduous steps. Steadies himself on one of the ransacked plinths that had held a volume that Leo had stashed into his pack. He winces in pain; the re-knitted wound on his neck was still raw, despite having been healed by the Most Humble and Merciful Mattin. The Warrior-Scholar’s expression of agony might as well be for mourning what must come to pass with the library they were taking refuge in.
“I came East to learn,” says Theo with a melancholy tone. “It seems harder and harder to do so without leaving blood and ash in our wake.”
The Andrasti Viper takes thumb and forefinger to his beard, which he strokes thoughtfully, finding something somewhere to carry on.
“I say this not without hurt,” Theo says. “But Vani is right. Setting these texts to the torch is the lesser of two evils. And at least we’re saving the most precious tomes we found, right Leo?” Theophilus smiles a wan smile.
Mattin turns on Theo, and for the first time, his expression is dark.
“You take, what, a dozen books from a thousand, and claim you have the most precious? The secret to treating the Red Pox is here, and the maps to unknot the womb of suffering women. The lost treatments to blackrot and the key to the language of the proto-Panyari may be on these shelves, and because they did not meet your soldier’s needs, you have what is precious?”
He staggers from the exertion, and coughs an intensive fit. The spluttering has drawn blood, and his anger seems to fade with his focus.
“Look, you know your business. If this place is so dangerous it must be denied future generations so there can be future generations… do as you will. But respect what you are destroying.”
“I will not beg a Mercy for mercy,” says Theo. “Especially not one who heals me within the hour after I threaten his life. But you take what you will from me, Master Mattin. This war is far from over. Mayhap my actions can sway you better than ill-chosen words.”
With that, Theo steps in and props the many-eyed Mercy up onto his shoulder. They make an odd couple in a stranger embrace.