“Before the time of Celeru and Nahael, the Old Gods reigned in Visseria,” the high templar said as he stepped across from us. “It was the time of Amvoldin, Salapsis, and Izirath. When the Order of the White Church was founded by Nahael nearly 3000 years ago, it was considered a pagan religion by the peoples of that age. Pagan and forbidden by punishment of death. And so the Order operated secretly, building underground places of worship.”
Darren looked up at the atrium, smiling. “This is one of them. It’s been here for thousands of years.” He turned his eyes back down to us. “But what most people don’t know is how the Church was able to find the funding for such endeavors. Have you heard the Story of the Two Brothers?”
“High Templar Tamblion,” Cassia said in a tone that suggested she was short on time for long meandering history lessons. “The man standing next to you has been following us for days. We must apprehend him for questioning.”
“Cassiaaa…” I said as I rubbed my temples. Sometimes she was incredibly capable. And other times, she was dense as obsidian. How did she still not see what was happening?
Darren continued his story as if he had not heard Cassia. “Celeru had seven disciples, and of them, two were brothers—Nahael and Inias. We all know Nahael founded the White Church and died fighting his brother when Inias turned against the Word of Celeru. But what is never spoken of openly is that, alongside his brother, Inias was also a founder of the White Church.”
Darren’s voice grew louder now. Stronger. Forceful. “Without Inias, the White Church could never have become what it is today. Inias was the one who made sacrifices and cut deals to secure allies among the elites that would give the White Church the ability to practice its faith.”
Darren stepped forward now. “Inias sold his skills as a warrior-mage to any that would pay his fee. He killed many men. Some were his enemies. Some were his friends. And some were simply innocents that were in the way of the wealthy and powerful. But in return, he gained the funds necessary to build secret churches across Visseria. These churches spread the word of Celeru. These churches made the Order what it is today.”
Cassia was frowning now. I wondered if she had heard this version of history. I certainly had. It wasn’t exactly a secret among the faithful, but it was rarely spoken of, and when it was spoken of, it was done in hushed tones. Inias was the black sheep of the Order. The one who had nearly brought the whole thing down. But what Darren said was also true. Inias, who had reached the 11th Gate of Awakening before he was brought down by his brother, was an original founder of the Order of the White Church.
Darren opened his hands. “This atrium is his. For hundreds of years, the followers of Celeru would practice their worship here in secret. Without it, the Order would never have existed here in Meritas.”
Cassia had been watching him closely, and I think she was finally becoming suspicious. She said, “Who is that man in the priest’s robes, High Templar?”
Darren shot Cassia a look as if he was annoyed that she ignored his story. But he answered her and said, “This is my servant, Drimdelon. I had him watch you.”
“Why?” Cassia asked.
“Oh, come on, Cassia!” I exclaimed, unable to hold myself back anymore.
Everyone turned to look at me.
“Remember the kid, Simon, the one who ran into you?” I said. “Remember what he said to the leader kid under the bridge when he saw you? He said, She’s here. He didn’t say ‘Why is she here?’ or ‘What is she doing here?’ or even “Aahh, they found us!’ He said, She’s here!
“What are you saying?” Cassia asked, still not understanding.
Darren’s mouth turned into a thin smile.
“And Gendro?” I said, turning to Darren now. “Who in Celeru’s magnificent ass is Gendro? The kids said they were part of Lord Ashbane’s syndicate. Not this make-believe Gendro fella.”
The wrinkle in Cassia’s eyebrows was deepening. “You believe there is someone else behind this?”
“Yes, there’s someone else!” I was getting heated. I never get heated. I pointed at the priest. “That bald idiot has been following us since we left the church that day. Why else would he follow us again after we’ve already caught the bad guys and saved the kids?”
Cassia’s face was stricken as the realization hit. “To ensure that we believed what we saw…” Her body was shaking. Her fist clenched and her knuckles turned white. “To ensure we would not continue the search for the orphans…”
“I would have preferred to avoid a confrontation with you over this, Cassia,” Darren said. “I’d hoped you would give up after the capture of Gendro. But it seems your companion saw through my little ploy.” He looked at me. “Tell me stranger, who are you?”
“Me?” I said. “I’m a pain in your ass.”
Darren scowled as did the bald priest. “My father was right to want you arrested,” Darren said. “I should have let him.”
“How could you?” Cassia said, still shaking. “Where are the orphans we rescued yesterday?”
Darren smiled. “They are back where they belong. Part of a growing underground enterprise. It was bad luck that one of them targeted you. If that boy had not run into you that day, none of this would had to have happened.”
“What I don’t get is why you bothered with the big show with Gendro,” I said.
“My mistake,” Darren said. “It had cost me too. I paid good money to have Gendro take the fall. But it was important that Templar Cassia reported the issue was taken care of when she returned to Yestereaster.” Darren ran his hand back through his hair. “No matter, this way works too.”
Cassia trembled with anger. “How could you?” She said. “You’re of the Order. You are to serve and protect and aid the people… You monster.”
Darren’s reserve broke and his expression turned ugly. “You do not know the position I am in! You couldn’t stand the pressures that I face. But I will succeed. The Church of Meritas will overtake the Chamberlain in Yestereaster. We will become the seat of the Order. My father’s wishes will be fulfilled! He will be a better Archbishop than Katharis! But to do that, it takes coin. Don’t you see? I am only doing the same as Inias, making sacrifices for the greater good of the Church. Those orphans have no one to need them or miss them. Their lives are put to much better use by helping me strengthen the Church. Each is worth a gold brilliance on the black market! You would have done the same in my position.”
High Templar Darren Templion sounded as if he wanted to hear Cassia’s approval. Or, if not approval, at least her understanding of what he was doing. He stared at her, his eyes large and pleading, begging for her to acknowledge him.
It didn’t happen.
Cassia said nothing for a long moment, but then she looked up at him. Her eyes wet with disappointment. “You are no templar,” Cassia muttered quietly. “You are the Fallen.” And I felt immense power rushing from her gates. More than I thought possible for a mere Spirited.
Cassia had finally come face to face with corruption and hypocrisy in her own church. Yet, I did not feel the need to rub the situation in her face, which was what I had intended to do and the true reason I agreed to tag along in the beginning. I had never given up my despise for the Order, and I knew from the moment the orphan boy, Simon, bumped into Cassia that there was a high probability things would end in this confrontation. But seeing her now, standing there, ready to risk her life, I did not feel my typical scorn for the Order, which was strange to me.
Rage washed over Darren’s face as he heard her words, but it was quickly masked over by his handsome features. He sighed and shook his head with a disturbing smile. “It really is unfortunate. I don’t enjoy killing young women.” He slowly ran his eyes over her body and licked his lips. “Especially incredibly beautiful ones. I would not have thought a templar such as yourself to wear such a provocative dress. I’d always thought you a good girl back at the academy. Oh, how wrong I was, wasn’t I? A shame. If this was any other time, I would have bedded you.”
Cassia did not shrivel from his gaze or turn away in discomfort from his comments. She simply said, “You, Darren Tamblion, are a bad human being.”
Darren’s face flushed, and I found a big smile on my face that held. Then Darren’s eyes deadened. He drew his sword.
“Drimdelon,” Darren said to the bald priest. “Kill the boy. I will take care of the girl.”
It took me a moment to realize that by “boy” he was referring to me. Despite having spent a year in my new life as a bonafide nineteen-year-old, I still was getting used to being seen as barely a man in the eyes of strangers. Although my appearance had not changed in the past 200 years, I was never called a “boy” during that time. Even the unawakened could unconsciously sense my power when my gates were open. But with them closed, I probably seemed as much of a threat as the pudgy-faced baker’s son down the street from the tavern.
As I was contemplating these thoughts, both Darren and Drimdelon burst forward from their positions without warning. Darren had his sword raised and was already swinging it down as he closed the distance to Cassia.
Drimdelon looked to be a mage, yet he moved like a charging barbarian, coming at me at an incredible speed.
“Celeru forgive me,” Cassia said quietly as if she was truly sorry for what she would do next. “Rule of Ruin, Twenty-Six, Spectral Sword.”
Cassia’s halos widened enough that I could see them without the Spell of Seeing, and once again, I tasted fresh snow. A long red blade of aura appeared in her hand just as Darren brought his sword down.
Cassia swung up with a perfect grace that was practically blinding in her white dress and parried Darren’s attack, sending him falling back. But before he could counter, she jumped backward in a single leap, appearing in front of me just as Drimdelon arrived.
The priest was not expecting her. With her unsworded hand, she buried a fist into Drimdelon’s stomach in a powerful thrust that sent him flying into a wall.
The wall cracked as he bounced off of it. He fell to his knees, the air rushing from his lungs. He propped himself up on one foot and tried to stand before twitching once and collapsing to the ground, motionless.
And just like that, Drimdelon was out of the fight.
Damn, this girl knew her battle business. I knew she had opened two gates, but this was the real thing. No wonder Deacon Obi had nearly crapped his pants when he heard her name.
“Darren Tamblion,” Cassia said with strength in her voice. “You have acted against the Word of Celeru and the Order of the White Church. By the powers granted to me by Nahael’s Edict and the Archbishop, I hereby renounce your title as High Templar.” She pointed her strobing red sword at him. “Face your judgment.”
Darren chuckled. “Do you really believe you will leave this place alive?”
With a sudden force, I felt Darren’s power. I had sensed it before, but now he was releasing it in a massive thrust. His halos exploded from his core in great rings of energy, and I knew right then and there that we were in a perilous situation.
As strong as Cassia was, her halos were minuscule compared to Darren’s, for he had opened the Third Gate of Awakening, the Gate of Radiance. At his level, he was at equal standing as Galston the Gallant, Champion of the Tournament of Heroes. It was likely Darren and Galston were the only two people who had awakened the third gate in the entire city.
Each gate made the awakened several times stronger than an awakened of a previous gate. This was especially true of the Gate of Radiance.
Although each gate granted the awakened an increase in magical aura, the Gate of Radiance increased one’s halos at least a dozen times more than before the gate was opened. Comparatively, Cassia’s halos were a fraction of Darren’s, and mine were a fraction of Cassia’s.
Back in the old days, we used to say that it took three Breathers to defeat a single Spirited, and five Spirited to defeat a single Radiant. But here in this room, there was only one Spirited to fight the Radiant.
“He has awakened the Gate of Radiance…” Cassia said with widening, glowing-blue eyes having cast the Spell of Seeing. She turned to me. “Arch-don, perhaps with your assistance, we will stand a chance.”
“Huh?” I said, picking at an itch in my ear. “What are you talking about? Our agreement was for me to help you find the orphans. We found them. And you already took care of our stalker. This issue with the high templar… well, that’s the Church’s problem.” I balled the wax and flicked it, giving her a smile. “I’m on vacation, remember?”