C38 – Holy Church
“Last visit to this tavern left me two teeth short.” The soldier, steering ahead, was simultaneously sharing remarks about the streets of Gray Tree Hall.
“Move aside, move aside, or face my wrath!” They shooed the tottering beggars away from their path.
“Why have you decided to ascend now?” Shire swiveled to view Gina. “Be wary of getting too near to the demon.”
Gina teased a corner of the linen cloth to startle Shire. Observing the apprehensive expression on Shire’s face, she burst into laughter.
“Why the fear?” Gina noted the tiny gemstone adorning her red gown. Passersby observed a radiant girl in a dilapidated cart, with a demon’s body concealed under a dense white cloth beside her, attracting stares and gestures.
“Demons have invariably been frightening.” Shire was lingeringly apprehensive. “They relish consuming our souls. They invade our realm to loot and consider us prey, their powers twist our thoughts, driving us to madness and irrationality.”
“Divine protection is ours.” Gina laughed once more, “Non-believers naturally fear demons.”
“If the Sky God truly could guard all.” Shire reflected, “Then why does calamity persist in the world?”
“You lack understanding.” Gina elucidated earnestly, “The Divine has been our shield. Without divine favor, calamities would be catastrophic. The reason the tsunami spared Gray Tree Hall was divine vigilance.”
Shire was immersed in thoughts. Had he, amidst countless ventures and crises, been under unseen divine protection all along?
“You might have a point. Yet, confirmation is requisite,” Shire masked his thoughts.
“Confirm!” Gina took offense, “One doesn’t challenge or antagonize the Divine, or assess Divine might with whimsical thoughts. Such acts are profound disrespect. Pay homage at the castle’s shrine when time allows, under the aegis of the Meimen Palace’s deities. Demons lose their terror, for they cannot rival the gods.”
Shire inquired within his soul to Gradiu, “Can you contend with the gods?”
“Deities range in three, six, and nine grades,” Gradiu responded ambiguously, avoiding clarity.
It appeared that gods could indeed impact demons. He should seek a benign and trustworthy god for homage and support. Shire contemplated.
“You possess courage,” Shire remarked, “To dare to ascend like this.”
“What would make me hesitant to ascend? I am capable of climbing anywhere, even in a skirt.”
“Your father will be furious.” The image of Reney’s departure crossed Shire’s mind, amusing him.
“He won’t be angered by me,” Gina replied, “Everyone mentions how strikingly I resemble Mom.”
Shire knew of the tale where Lord Reney, notoriously frugal, extravagantly erected a statue in memory of his wife, pulling funds directly from his personal reserves.
Two horses dragged the creaky cart along the lane, bouncing over bumps. Shire observed numerous individuals lurking in the shadowy recesses, their faces veiled with cloaks, every one of them subtly scrutinizing the cart.
They could be mercenaries, informants, or minions of wizards, all scrabbling for intel on demons. Shire sensed his every move had been monitored since entering the city.
They surely coveted the remains of the demons, the souls of whom morphed into a ‘Devil Substance’, a vital component in certain spells. Many desired to procure it, seeking to realize their concealed objectives.
The downside of ignorance was evident; numerous entities had their sights on Shire, yet he remained oblivious. For a novice hunter, safeguarding the Hunter Palace solo was a colossal task.
Draco had mentioned a breach in the Hunter Palace. What did the raiders purloin? Who was pulling their strings? A barrage of queries plagued him.
“It feels like an eternity since I’ve left the castle,” Gina elongated, her sleeves retreating, revealing her immaculate arms. Shire found his gaze lingering.
“Our acquaintance is brief,” Gradiu lamented. “However, our rapport feels years deep, compelling me to caution you against harboring inappropriate thoughts about a 15-year-old.”
“I haven’t,” Shire defended, “Absolutely not.”
“Your impure undercurrents reveal your true self,” Gradiu fumed, “You must maintain your integrity!”
“How does a devil get off lecturing my moral compass?” Shire fumed in return.
Internally, he conversed with Gradiu, but externally he continued his dialogue with Gina, “This city is exquisite. Your father’s stewardship is commendable.”
“They say Dad’s the worst and yet the best among the various Lords. It’s perplexing,” Gina shared, her understanding seemingly at a crossroads.
“Uh…” Shire, pausing briefly, recalled he was at Gray Tree Hall. The young man with red hair standing next to the count remarked, “Your father is always accompanied by a young man. Is he your brother?”
Gina, with a beam in her eyes, replied, “The one with the stern, imposing visage? Indeed, he is my brother. A noble soul, he fiercely protects me from any harm, leaving offenders pleading for my mercy.”
“So this is the picture. What a united and benevolent family,” Shire commented, a hint of helplessness in his tone.
As they navigated a street corner, they were met by a contingent of mounted guards whose focus was clearly on Gina, evidently dispatched by the earl for her protection. The presence of these guards was a constant reminder to Shire of their watchful eyes, their insignia-bearing armor, and their well-armed stance revealing their lack of favor towards him.
Fortunately, the appearance of the guards dispersed the lurking onlookers, who now sought more covert locations to continue their surveillance, presumably wishing to avoid the notice of the governing authority.
“That’s the captain of the guards, Reiss,” Gina noted, identifying the lead guard.
“And what is he like?”
“A man of rigid disposition, he often projects his ample belly, making sporadic sensible remarks amidst his orders.”
Shire stole a quick glance back at Reiss, the captain’s stern gaze forcing his gaze away promptly.
Soon, the carriage conveyed them and the demon’s remains to the front of Hunter Palace. Shire, raising his eyes to the Holy Church, exhaled a profound sigh of relief.
The Holy Church at Gray Tree Hall served as the principal bastion of the Hunter Organization in Upper Lawman, managing and overseeing hunters and demon activities in surrounding locales, ensuring the containment of potential calamities.
The Holy Church, an architectural marvel, displayed meticulously placed gray bricks and exquisite features including a petrified little devil atop its heavy bronze door and a glass window, crafted by dwarven skill, embedded below a high platform.
Adjacent to the Main Holy Church was a hall with broad doors leading to various internal compartments, and to its left, a towering stone structure, inaccessible from the exterior.
With his heart racing, Shire approached the bronze door and carefully unlocked it with a silver key, a storm of emotions swirling within him.
He pressed his lips tightly together and, with considerable effort, opened the door, releasing a gust of wind and seemingly the collective sigh of the church, echoing his return. The eight Devil Hunters, including the ensnared Blade Demon, were now all back.
A heavy sense of responsibility weighed on Shire’s heart.
“Don’t express it so sorrowfully,” Gradiu said softly. “We are the beacon to herald a new age.”
Intrigued, Gina trailed Shire into the Holy Church.
A lengthy red carpet covered the hall, guiding to a grand altar at its termination. The aisles were lined with rows of benches. Signs of plundering were evident; many windows shattered, curtains torn down or missing. A mere few damaged chairs remained. Shire recalled the once-gleaming golden candlesticks that adorned the altar, now absent. The most grievous loss for Shire were the murals of esteemed hunters. Commissioned during the church’s affluent times, they were displayed at the hall’s end. Intended for the hunters’ reverence, they were now missing, leaving only the hefty iron frame. The portrait of the First Hunter once took pride of place here.
“My goodness,” Gina observed, “this place has been ravaged.”
“It isn’t beyond repair,” Shire responded in hushed tones. “The walls remain, as does the foundation. And I’m still here. We’ll restore its former glory.”
How much had the invaders pilfered? Some Hunters took residence in the Holy Church, leaving numerous personal belongings. Had the burglars made away with all those treasures? The thought incensed Shire.
He vowed to exact vengeance on those who desecrated the Holy Church.
Moving to the adjacent garden from the main hall, the devastation was clear. Vandals had left their mark, with heavy footprints marring the lawn. Mud trails converged at one garden wall, notably shorter, the probable entry point.
In the adjoining hall, emptied chests and cabinets bore witness to the theft. The sight pained Shire. Soldiers rolled in a cart, carrying the fiend’s remains, positioning it within the garden.
Apologetically, Shire addressed Gina, “I regret you seeing the church in such disarray, Miss Gina.”
“It deeply saddens me,” Gina replied, clutching her arm. “I’ll commission the guards to unearth the culprits. This sacred place didn’t deserve such a fate.”
“Your kindness is much appreciated,” Shire expressed his gratitude to Gina.
The crowd gradually dispersed.
Alone, Shire retreated to the garden.
“He truly aims to resurrect this ravaged sanctuary,” Gradiu remarked with a chuckle, “You truly embody the spirit of a craftsman.”
Shire caressed a spherical stone by a flowerbed, musing that starting afresh held its own charm.