Lily and Iris found themselves at the gates, in the attire that Serena had provided. Loitering at the side, they watched countless people pass through the gates, awaiting the guildmaster. They had arrived about an hour earlier than scheduled, but now it was getting to be close to ten minutes past the agreed time.
At that moment, from within a crowd of people leaving the city, Serena broke away and strode towards them briskly, a satchel in hand. She approached them, then looked over their clothes approvingly, before she blinked and looked them over again.
“…Were you intending to leave without any supplies?”
Evidently, she was confused by the lack of any sort of bag or satchel on Lily’s person, save for the jingling coin purse fastened to her white belt.
“And how were you intending to eat?”
“We would’ve hunted.”
“And how did you intend to cook your game without flint or any kind of firestarter?”
Lily said nothing and simply placed a hand on Iris’ shoulder. The smaller girl blinked questioningly, uncomprehending. Serena’s own eyes flitted to Iris, then moved down to her hand, upon which the Nekoi woman pressed two fingers to her brow and muttered.
She returned her hand to her side and held out the satchel to Lily.
“In here are the necessary documents you’ll need to get into Saphiz and out of the continent, along with a letter of introduction to the guildmaster there.”
“Do you have your wax seal with you?”
“…Since I thought you would ask, yes.”
Having confirmed a way of resealing the closed envelope, Lily broke the seal and pulled out the letter, swiftly reading it. Nothing out of the ordinary, simply a letter, signed by Serena, attesting that they were two “highly skilled adventurers” who had “done a great service” for her, assuring the other guildmaster, one Kaine Hyssop, that they were more than capable of any jobs required, even those above their adventurer rank level. Satisfied, she handed the envelope to Serena, who produced a wax stamp from a side pouch and resealed the letter, handing it back with a dry look.
“I’m so glad to know you trust me.”
“Simple precautions, you understand.”
Both women broke into synchronised, harmonious, completely insincere laughter. Then Serena’s face became serious.
“If you desire to go to… that continent, know that you risk the ire of the Church.”
“…the Church? Which church?”
There were a great number of religious sects in the world, each following a different deity; but all accepted the existence of other deities, and all drew from the same pantheon. Lily herself was not a follower of any deity, but religion was widespread. Due to the different sects all acknowledging the existence of the other deities in the pantheon, religious conflicts were rare and isolated, and was usually caused by some legend or other about feuds between the respective deities.
Thus, when Serena mentioned the Church, as if it was some self-evident entity, Lily was confused. From her memory, there were at least seven different sects that identified themselves with the term “Church”.
“Well, the Church, of course. There’s only one Church.”
“What? That’s not right. There’s the Church of Fyte, the Church of Lyst, the Church of Kostryi, the Church of…”
Lily’s listing of the Churches she knew trailed off as she observed Serena’s slack-jawed, unbelieving expression.
“…Have you been living in a secluded wasteland for the last three years!?”
“…that’s pretty close, yes.”
Serena shook her head in disbelief at Lily’s nonchalant confirmation.
“Listen closely. I’m talking about the Church of Unity.”
“The Church of Unity. Three years ago, the leaders of all the main religious sects had an emergency meeting. Upon its conclusion, they announced that the churches of the world would band together to create a single faith, the Church of Unity. All the Churches you mentioned? They’ve all been subsumed. The Church of Unity spent a half a year convincing all their followers, then the next year standardising dogma. It’s now possibly the greatest body of influence in the world.”
“…Huh. And what does it preach?”
“The usual. Good deeds lead to reincarnation, bad deeds lead to the eternal destruction of the soul, et cetera. Main thing is, it preaches that all the gods are equal and should be worshipped equally.”
“Now that’s the kind of thing you should have mentioned first. I’m surprised the churches all agreed to that. What happened?”
“It’s not certain, but probably, Vessel happened.”
“What? A Vessel?”
“Vessel. That’s the name she goes by. A woman, with long white hair. Wears a full-face mask, never takes it off. Appeared from nowhere three years back. Claimed to be the embodiment of the gods’ will.”
“Sounds awfully suspicious. And everyone just bought that?”
“Thing is, she had the evidence to prove it. She’s performed miracles: healing congenital disorders, turning wine into water, seeing the future, predicting natural disasters, fuck, she even has wings. She’s done a ton of things nobody can explain, and if there’s one thing humanity likes to do, it’s worshipping the mysterious. She’s basically the leader of the Church, and she heads their militant wing too. Nobody’s ever beaten her in a duel – and trust me, plenty have tried. Add to that the fact that all the sects’ prophets proclaimed that she was the embodiment of the gods, and it’s kind of hard to doubt her.”
“Hmmm… militant, you say…?”
Lily scratched her chin. This Vessel person was highly suspicious, but the fact remained that she had won the trust and faith of the leaders of the world religion. Lily was impressed. But what caught her interest was the notion of a militant arm. She was aware that a number of the sects had militant arms, especially those of Kostryi, God of Battle. However, what Serena said implied that there was a militant arm to this apparent megachurch.
“Yes. About two years ago, the Church began recruiting volunteers to its militant arm, building up an independent military force. Volunteers are given food, shelter, money and the blessings and prayers of the church.”
Serena recited the last line in a dry, monotonous voice which clearly conveyed that she held no small amount of contempt for the idea.
“And these volunteers are trained?”
“As well trained as the rest of the armies in the world. Perhaps more. You know how religious zealots can get.”
Lily nodded sagely. In truth, she had never actually seen a zealot in action, but it was the fastest way to move the conversation forward.
“So you said that going to Jin-Asalys would draw the ire of the Church. Why?”
Serena’s expression darkened.
“Because that selfsame Church has declared the continent of Jin-Asalys as a taboo location.”
“What? Why? Did the people there not agree with Vessel or something?”
“No, that’s not it…”
Serena bit her lip and looked away.
“It’s better for you to go there and find out for yourself. Sorry.”
Lily growled, her hands balling into fists. As she was about to give into the urge to beat the information out of Serena in public, the warm touch of Iris’ small fingers on her wrists calmed her down. She patted the android in thanks, then turned to Serena, eyes burning with resolution.
“…Fine. I’ll go see for myself.”
Serena breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m sorry. In that case, that’s all I have to tell you. I wish you good luck.”
Serena extended her hand. Lily stared at it, then took it.
“Thank you. But why tell me all this? Why help me?”
Serena put on a business smile.
” ‘Long-term investment’, ”
Her smile changed into a genuine, warm one.
“Is what I’d like to say, but it’s really just me wanting to help out a benefactor, and a friend. Is that so hard to believe?”
Lily stared into the guildmaster’s eyes. She was no expert at reading people, but Serena’s eyes were far less calculating now than when they first met. Lily sighed, then smiled.
“Honestly? Yes. But I’ll choose to believe you.”
With that, she broke the handshake and strolled toward the gate, right hand raised in farewell, Iris tottering behind. After they passed through the gateway, she let her hand drop, and her eyes narrowed as she focused on her next objective. She would go to Jin-Asalys. She would find out what was wrong.
And then she would make it right.