In Gears of Faith, Keren is a sworn knight of Iomedae, proper and disciplined in every way. Her partner, Zae, is the opposite—a curious gnome priestess of the clockwork goddess, who loves nothing more than the chaos of her makeshift hospitals. When a powerful evil artifact is stolen from a crusader stronghold, both knight and gnome are sent to the great city of Absalom and immediately drawn into the clandestine search for the stolen Bloodstone. Sure, they may not be the most powerful or experienced members of their organizations, but that's the whole point—with legendary champions and undead graveknights battling in their race to recover the stone, who'll notice one young knight and a gnome healer? All they have to do is stay alive long enough to outsmart a thief capable of evading both gods and heroes. No big deal, right?
Chapter 2: Welcoming Committee
Veena Heliu, the Precentor Martial for Magic, was often described as fiery for reasons that had nothing to do with her red hair. She was deep in an argument when they arrived, her raised voice audible from the other end of a long marble hallway. Pages wearing indoor boots of soft leather shuffled past silently, carrying scrolls in secure tubes and not making eye contact with Zae or each other. Keren, by contrast, had the conspicuous jingle and clank of armor to accompany her every step.
Zae couldn't distinguish Veena's distant words through their echoes, and she was almost disappointed when the yelling cut off abruptly upon their approach, replaced with the sibilant hisses of angry whispers. From the set of Keren's jaw, this wasn't normal; Zae surmised that whatever the source of the buzz Keren had mentioned, it had not been resolved overnight.
Zae had never been inside Vigil's Crusader War College, but Keren's father had taught here, and his children had grown up within Castle Overwatch's walls. Zae and Appleslayer followed as Keren led the way with the familiarity of muscle memory rather than recent experience. She tried a couple times to make conversation, but Keren's face was drawn tight and Zae left her to her own thoughts.
"Keren Rhinn! Right on time." Most people towered over Zae—she was used to that—but she suspected Veena Heliu could tower over people even taller than the sorcerer herself. She radiated such power and certainty that the air was alive with it. Zae looked around, but saw no one else; whomever Veena had been arguing with had left, if they'd ever been physically present at all.
"Reporting as summoned," Keren answered, stopping sharply at a respectful distance. Veena was a half-elf, and though she was not Keren's true aunt, Keren had referred to her as "Auntie Veena" on the walk over. There was no sign of that informality on Keren's part now. "This is Sister Zae, Cleric of Brigh."
The precentor nodded curtly toward Zae, then surveyed Appleslayer, who stood alert at attention in his polished saddle. "And this is your mount, ready for his combat training." More often than not, the people Zae encountered were surprised to see dogs in such a role, but Heliu's life revolved around the art of war and the duty of defense. Her lack of surprise was no surprise. A note of approval hung in her voice, which might or might not have been Zae's hopeful imagination.
Appleslayer's plumed tail twitched back and forth once in a single low, uncertain wag.
Heliu held out her hands, one toward each of them. "Are you ready?"
"Speak freely, Crusader."
Keren cleared her throat. "Excuse me, ma'am, but I'd requested
to be briefed on the reason for the fast transport."
"I didn't receive orders to brief you. I'm afraid your request's
been denied from higher up."
Zae looked between the two women. Keren always accepted
command decisions, even when they left her conflicted—and Zae knew when she was conflicted, because the bottled-in frustration came out in the safety of their home—but Zae had also seen Keren's can't we work around this? face enough to recognize it now.
"Well, thank you all the same," Zae said to defuse the silence. "I would be excited to spend weeks on a boat, but I'm sure Keren's glad to be getting to where we're going."
"Quite so," Heliu answered. "I'll be taking you into a private park. It's discreet, unchanging, and no one pays much attention to how many people are wandering around there. I must return immediately to my duties, so I won't be able to direct you to the Seventh Church myself, but someone from the church will be there to meet us."
They both took Heliu's offered hands, and Zae and Keren each buried their free hands in Appleslayer's fur. The sensation was slight—just an odd weightlessness in Zae's stomach—and then it was over. Her feet were now on grass. Whereas they had left at noon, they arrived in a place where the sun was noticeably lower in the afternoon sky. A copse of trees at the edge of the park made an almost accidental clearing that would be difficult to stumble upon by chance. In different circumstances, it would have been a perfect spot for a moonlit tryst.
Zae checked herself and her companions. No limbs seemed to be out of place. Veena had already disappeared again. Appleslayer whuffed softly under his breath, and Zae shook her head. "No exploring for now. Stay close."
When they stepped around the corner and into the larger park, they found an expanse of lush green meadow dotted with people lounging in twos and threes. In front of them, sitting on a stone bench with a small leather-bound book in her hands, was a woman dressed in the robes of Iomedae.
"I leave you to it." Veena nodded toward the initiate, and exchanged quiet words with Keren. Zae was too distracted studying her surroundings to pay attention.
The priestess stood and tucked the book away into the folds of her robes as Zae and her companions approached, greeting them with a warm smile. Roughly the same age as Darrin's aunt Strella, she had straight honey-brown hair and a particular intensity Zae had often seen in people who were strongly devoted to their gods. "Welcome," the woman said to them, gaze lingering on the white and gold of Keren's armor. "You must be our new arrivals from Lastwall."
"That we are." Keren held up her left palm in greeting,
displaying the sword-mark there. Zae and Keren both bore the shield on their right palms. While Zae had her odd gear-shaped birthmark on her left hand, Keren had received the sword-mark of Iomedae on that palm to identify her as a Vigilant defender of Lastwall. "Crusader Keren Rhinn, and this is Sister Zae. Thank you for meeting us. We're pleased to be in Absalom."
"My name is Kala, initiate of Iomedae. It's a pleasure to be of service to the Knights of Ozem, especially in these trying times. Shall we?" Kala gestured to the path.
They walked along a quiet wooded trail at an unrushed pace that surprised Zae, considering how hasty their departure from Vigil had been once all the gears were in motion. Kala addressed Keren while Zae and Appleslayer followed behind. Keren stole a look over her shoulder, eyebrows drawn in momentary concern, but Zae smiled assuringly in response. She didn't feel slighted. If her organization had greeted them, Zae would have expected the attention to be hers, but it was a pleasant day, with a breeze stirring the tops of the trees, and she was content to walk with her dog, enjoy the weather, and muse about what studying at the Clockwork Cathedral would be like.
"What's the name of this place?" Keren asked.
"Oh! I should be a better guide. I'm sorry. It's always so exciting to meet new people. This is the... well, Greenery Park. We'll be heading west into the center of Absalom from here. It's the best route at this time of day."
Her hesitation sounded like embarrassment, so Zae said, "City planners are strange creatures. Seems like a redundant
name for a park, doesn't it? Does the temple have you on guide duty often?"
"Oh, not often. Well, not until recently. All these servants of Iomedae flocking into the city. I do quite enjoy meeting new members of the order. Not new new, I mean, intending no offense to your possibly extensive and decorated service, but new to me."
They followed a wide carriage road out of the park and entered the bustle of a city headed toward evening. "You mentioned these trying times?" Keren asked.
"Are those camels?" Zae blurted at the same time. While there were a few horses and donkeys to be seen, camels seemed to be the customary beast of burden and transport here. Zae had never seen a camel in person before, and something about them struck her oddly. Maybe it was the spindlyness of their legs, or the long, questing necks, but they just didn't look like they'd been assembled according to an optimal design. Appleslayer stopped in the middle of the road, sniffing the air, and took a few steps toward a narrow side street, whining under his breath.
Zae followed him and peered down the street. She saw an aged pub sign creaking over a narrow doorway, and a shadowed dead end piled with rubbish beyond. She snapped her fingers by her thigh. "Come on, Apple. I know the camels stink, but I need you to stay close."
The dog whined once more, grumbled under his breath, and trotted back to Zae's side. She rubbed between his ears. "Good boy. I know it's all really interesting, but we need to keep up with Keren."
When Zae returned with Appleslayer at her side, Kala was still describing the various troubles the city was facing. Keren, who had never lived in any city but Vigil, listened patiently while the initiate rambled. Zae, who had spent time in several cities, knew the issues to be mostly generic. Sewers not keeping up with rising population; crime in the poorer districts; too much distrust of certain officials and too much trust of others. Meanwhile, there was no mistaking their passage across some invisible border into the next district to the west—buildings were suddenly closer together and more people crowded the streets, all with different destinations. A knot of chaos resulted, which for Zae manifested as a sea of knees and thighs. She noticed armor, leather and metal; women in soft breeches or simple dresses with minimal ornamentation; and very few shoes that had seen a brush or cloth in recent memory. These were commoners by and large, with a few servants shopping for their masters, and a few lawkeepers maintaining order or soldiers doing their own errands. She hopped up into Appleslayer's saddle and then, while stopped at a corner, stood atop it with Keren's arm for balance, at last catching a glimpse of the peaks of market stall tents.
"What's this place?" Zae asked.
"Ah, this? This is the Gold District."
A passing servant with a broad basket at her hip bumped into
Kala and looked at her askance. "It's the Coins, actually," she said, and then moved on.
Kala cleared her throat, ignoring the imposition, but Zae exchanged a glance with Keren. A translation error, perhaps, though Kala didn't have any particular foreign accent that Zae could place. "Whatever you call it, it's the trade quarter, if you will. Anything can be bought and sold here, at any time of day or night. Is there something like it where you come from? Lastwall, wasn't it? They never tell me anything about the arrivals, just when to be at the meeting point."
The constant questions were having an effect on Keren's bearing, though Zae knew no one else would have noticed the shift in her armored shoulders. "Have you always studied here in Absalom?" she asked, redirecting the initiate.
"Oh, I've only arrived recently, myself. It's the home of so many miracles, you know. Legendary for its concentration of relics, too.
I've heard that practically everything of religious significance probably finds its way here eventually. Have you heard that?"
"I hadn't, actually."
"Well, apparently it's true. The Pathfinder Society has its headquarters here, and securing relics is one of the many things it does. And there are so many museums! Both public and private collections. This truly is where antiquities are traded and where history lives."
"Speaking of living history, are you taking us directly to the church, or to our lodgings first?" Keren asked. The row houses here weren't exactly crumbling, but they looked like drunken old men in the small hours, propping each other up as they stumbled home from a tavern. It would be interesting to stay in one of them, Zae thought. She imagined them smelling of booze on the inside and swaying slightly around last call.
"Oh, to your lodgings of course, so that you can freshen up before you present yourselves to the church. You'll be staying just west of here, in the Foreign Quarter, where most of the city's guest housing is. I brought you this way because it's just so important to know where the markets are in a new city, don't you think?" Kala returned her attention to Keren. "Everything can be bought and sold in the Coins."
Keren nodded. "As you said. It's very good to know; you have our thanks."
Kala pressed her point. "Everything."
"So, if you were searching for someone who'd stolen something,
perhaps to sell it, this might be where you would look. Wouldn't you say?"
Zae knew the expression that now crossed Keren's face. For a moment, she wore the same one. "I daresay you know the city far better than we, Sister." Keren was only that formal when she was choosing her words carefully. "Surely a city this large has many crevices for people who don't want to be found."
"Yes, surely. But where are they sending you to look?"
"Look for what?" Zae asked, nudging Apple to keep up. Kala didn't spare her a glance.
"It's all right." Their guide shifted closer to Keren. "I know why you're really here. I so desperately want to help, but I'm a new initiate so they've got me just escorting the seasoned ones in. I don't get to see any adventure for myself. Take a little pity on me and let me live vicariously through your mission. The other groups have all told me where they're being sent..."
"I didn't think it was exactly secret," Keren said, and Kala's posture straightened expectantly. "My mission is to train at the Tempering Hall. I'll be deepening my understanding of my faith, studying the Acts of Iomedae, and—"
Kala waved her graceful hand. "There's no need for such pretense."
"Your cover story is practiced to perfection. It's completely believable. But I mean your actual mission, of course. The... artifact. You know."
"I'm sure I don't," Keren said. "Perhaps you've confused us with another traveling party."
Kala smiled a smile that was just on the forced side of amusement. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. Tell me, in—Lastwall, did you say?—is torture a part of your training?"
"The giving or the enduring?" Keren answered, her voice just a notch too tight to be joking. Kala tossed her head back and laughed.
"Oh, you're lovely. The enduring, of course."
Keren stiffened again, and Appleslayer's muscles tensed as if he'd caught wind of an unpleasant smell. He knew how to read Keren's body language as well as Zae herself did, or perhaps an actual scent signaled her wariness to the dog's sensitive nose.
"Yes, yes, you're very loyal. I can see why they chose you." Kala turned a corner, leading them down a narrow alley that ended at a crumbling wall. "But unfortunately, that loyalty means you're of little use to me. I've given you plenty of chances to answer me freely, but those answers will be carved out of you if need be. No one can hold out against torture forever." Four shadows dropped from the low roofs on either side of the alley. "This is your last chance."
Zae blinked. At times like this, when the course of events took a turn she wasn't expecting, she felt like a clock that had just started to run down and would be fine again after a bit of winding. While it was a relief to see that, once again, Appleslayer's wary instincts had been correct, Zae felt strangely betrayed. There had been something endearing about the guide who didn't know the city.
Three men and a woman in leather armor and shrouding hoods converged on them, weapons drawn. Rather, they converged on Keren—she had the big sword, and had held Kala's attention. Zae and Appleslayer hadn't registered as a threat. This was something Zae could use to her advantage; she retreated a few steps and dropped her hand to her side, palm back, signaling for Appleslayer to wait. She called upon Brigh to bless her allies, and saw courage surge through Keren and the dog.
Keren drew her long, straight-bladed sword up into a parry, deflecting an attacker's sword with a clang of angry metal. "I don't know what you think I have, but I swear to you I don't have it. We're just here to train."
"Unlikely," Kala said, drawing a sword from the folds of her robe. "We've been waiting for the Knights of Ozem to get involved. How convenient that they always arrive at the same place. So. Lead us to the artifact and we'll spare you. Defy us and we'll kill you both, and the next knights they send after you, and the next."
Zae curled her hand into a fist; Apple, recognizing the wordless command, sprang forth with teeth bared.
"Tezryn—behind you!" one of the attackers shouted, and the robed woman turned. She slashed at Appleslayer with her sword, but the dog sprang out of range. He circled and made a lunge for Kala's calf. The dog had enough bulk to throw an unprepared opponent off balance and enough herding instinct to shuttle enemies toward Keren's blade, but Kala sidestepped, raising her sword to parry Keren's attack. No matter how many times Apple engaged in combat, Zae was always fascinated to see him employ the same leaping and bounding maneuvers that were trademarks of his breed's energetic play.
Zae ticked over the spells she had prepared that morning, without having known she would be teleported to Absalom or dropped into the middle of an alley brawl. She now knew several things about their guide: not only was she not a cleric of Iomedae, but if her first instinct was to strike out with a blade rather than a spell, then she likely wasn't an aspiring priestess of any god at all. Meanwhile, something odd was tickling at her senses, something about the way the rest of them moved that wasn't quite right.
Kala—no, Tezryn—dodged Keren's next attack, but that put her right in the path of Appleslayer's teeth. He latched onto her hamstring, jerking his head from side to side. Keren neatly sliced the back of Tezryn's other leg, bringing her down, then turned her attention to the closest attacker, matching him swing for swing.
Appleslayer released his prey and turned toward one of the other shadowy figures, a fury of sharp teeth and strong paws, nimbly ducking swords and unarmed swipes. He would come in from behind to keep an enemy turning and distracted, and then Keren would take the foe down with one fierce swing. He and Keren fought as one, seamlessly aiding each other with each foe. While Apple's emotional devotion was to Zae, he was equally loyal to Keren. She had trained him well, and their rapport was a beautiful, fluid dance that just happened to result in a certain amount of blood.
But this time, it didn't. Keren sliced a man's arm clean off, and it fell twitching without the trademark arterial gush. Zae cursed herself for not realizing it sooner, and called upon Brigh to bring down her holy wrath upon the attackers. The maimed man fell, and the others cringed and staggered at the sudden assault of light. Though remarkably whole, they were not alive. And neither was their leader. She had struggled to her knees at the periphery of the fight, but she cried out and curled herself into a tight ball under the assault of power.
Appleslayer and Keren tore through the attackers one by one. Their blows rang against Keren's shield. When all of them were on the ground, Zae finished them with another surge of holy power. The initiate, however, had worked her way to her feet somehow, and was stumbling toward the mouth of the alley. In a fluid movement, Keren freed her shield from her arm and threw it like a skipping stone. It scuttled across the cobbled street and cut Tezryn's wounded legs out from under her, sending her sprawling. When Keren pushed the leader onto her back, she was glassy-eyed but snarling.
Keren reversed her grip and held her sword over Tezryn's throat, two-handed. "What do you want from us? Tell me!" Her hands were steady and the swordpoint didn't waver, but Zae knew her well enough to hear the hurt in her voice.
When the mock-initiate only grinned at her with bloody teeth, Keren brought the blade down with such force that it struck all the way through the woman's throat and impacted the pavement beneath. Tezryn gurgled, and was still.
Zae started to call Appleslayer back to her, but the dog was approaching Keren, so she held her tongue. He sniffed at the knight, tail low, pacing around her like an anxious child while she checked the other attackers to make sure they'd been put down for good. Now that they were still, peeking into their hoods showed skin stretched tight over starved cheeks, and the teeth within their parted mouths were longer than they should have been.
Tezryn was dead without a doubt, but that didn't put Zae at ease. She pressed her fingers to the guide's forehead, then brought them to her own nose. The scent was faint, but it held notes of rosemary and clean linen. "Undead, and disguising it," Zae said. "Unguent of revivification, I think. And she's definitely not Iomedae's priestess. She concealed both her appearance and her aura." Beneath the vestments, she wore the same leather armor as the others.
"Are you sure she wasn't just alive and evil?"
"Positive. I called Brigh's light down upon the undead, not the living."
"So the others... ?"
"Probably not under her thrall, but likely she told them where to go for a good feast. None of them bit you, did they?"
Keren shook her head. "Apple bit one of them, though. Should we be worried about that?"
"I don't know. I don't think so, but better to be safe than dog food." Zae motioned the dog over to her and extended a hand. Apple sniffed cautiously at her fingers. They still smelled of the ointment, Zae realized. She wiped her hand on her coat and gave him her other hand instead, whispering to Brigh and sharing a soft, warming light from her fingertips through Apple's fur, concentrating on following the warmth all the way through him. She encountered none of the sorts of obstacles that would indicate disease or corruption. "He's fine."
"Which means that our real welcoming party..." Keren and Zae exchanged a long look.
Zae mounted up on Appleslayer's saddle while Keren took the vestments of Iomedae from Tezryn's corpse and re-shouldered their supplies. "Apple, that alley you were curious about. Can you lead us back there? Good dog!"
As they hurried away, Zae took a quick glance back over her shoulder. Figures were already emerging from the shadows and creeping toward the corpses. Zae had seen squatters and street gangs scavenge what they could from the dead in the seedier quarters of other cities. It felt a little strange to her, knowing that it was happening, but it worked in her favor; there would likely be little left for the attackers' masters to find.
In the alley with the pub sign, Apple's nose led them through a heap of rubbish to the dead end and a broken, upturned crate, underneath which was bundle of bloodied rags that had once been fine cloth; it must have been the actual Kala's underdress. Keren cursed and turned away, but Apple stayed by Zae's side while she peeled back the stiffening fabric. There was little flesh to be found. Small scavengers hovered, drawn by the blood and determined to find a scrap to eat.
"Get, you!" she heard Keren shout, followed by a scattering of refuse and a scuffle of many tiny feet. Half a dozen rats scampered out of range of Keren's sword, but didn't flee from sight, unwilling to give up the chance of a meal. Keren crouched over the cloth, her expression set and cold.
Zae gave her a moment, then asked, "What do you think they wanted so badly that they'd kill a priestess just to ask us questions?" "I don't know," Keren said grimly. "But we're going to find out."