“Yes, that is correct custodian,” Oswald said in a soft voice, trying his best to keep in his frustration for the old man in front of him. “I would like access to the lower halls of Keeping.”
“Well, that is most odd, usually people don’t go there anymore these days,” the man said as he ruffled through some papers.
“I’m sad to hear that Custodian, One would think that divine research is still a requirement for the initiates.”
“Oh, it certainly is! Only now the Initiates tend to focus more on the recent works, the faculty push them more and more towards the new Light works.”
“The new Light works? Why?” Oswald asked, his interest suddenly peaked.
“Why the new bishopry have declared those works the holiest of holy, they are our new ways to live by. It stands for itself that our initiates need to learn those works.”
“New bishopry? Since when do we have a new one? And why were the missionaries not notified?” Oswald asked, a bit angry and offended now. He would have know if it had been just him that didn’t know about it, but he kept in contact every now and then with other missionaries. None of them knew. This was odd.
“Oh, you are a missionary?” The old man asked, his face cleared suddenly up as if a burden had fallen off his shoulders. “I’m afraid I can not grant you access to the archives then. You’ll need special approval from the bishopry.”
“What? Since when?” Oswald demanded.
“Well, since we have a new one.” The man said it with a smug grin and Oswald felt a deep desire to punch him in the face.
“Okay,” Oswald said with a deep sigh. “Where do I get it.”
“At the Hall of the Bishops, of course. You missionaries are so ignorant fo our ways and our great Maruza, it is shameful.”
“Good day,” Oswald said, ignoring the man’s insults. He turned around and stormed off, grumbling as he found his way through the maze that was Maruza. Soon he ended up at the Hall of the Bishops. A large building, it had always been, but it had changed a lot too since Oswald last visited. Where it used to be a plain kind of beauty it was now heavily ornamented in gold, marble and other luxuries. The people that came and left were all dressed in fine garments and jewellery as well. In fact, now that Oswald thought about it, many people in Maruza looked like that. It was not just the hall of the Bishops that had changed, it was Maruza. It started to look more and more like the old world. People used to be singular in Maruza, a mass of much the same. Now, there were clearly castes forming. A hierarchy, not based on worship or faith, but on excess. In the forms of clothes and jewellery. And large amounts of arrogance.
What had happened to his beautiful Maruza while Oswald had been away? Had it been so long? Only a few years right?
“Business?” A man in a purple, red-trimmed robe stood in front of Oswald, his face stern, his voice demanding.
“What is your business at the Halls of the Bishops?” The voice became even more demanding. Dismissive as well.
“Ah, I seek a permit to enter the Halls of Keeping, the lower level specifically.”
The man’s eyes opened up a bit more as he started to look Oswald up and down. “What business would one of you,” He accentuated the word. “Have in the halls of Keeping, Missionary.” He basically spat out the last word.
Oswald grinned and took a moment to calm himself. “I require the knowledge that is in one of the old works.”
“The new Light works should be all we need, especially the likes of you.”
“And yet, I am in need of the old works. So be a good man and tell me where I can get the permit I need to access them.”
The man narrowed his eyes and then smirked. “Sure, missionary. Go right in, to your left then, the booth, ask there.” After that, the man averted his gaze.
Oswald scoffed and walked in, following the directions the man had given him, Oswald saw that he was sent to a booth and queue specifically for missionaries. It had very little traffic, in fact, there was only one person in front of Oswald. The other queues were far busier.
The woman that was being dealt with now scoffed and exclaimed loudly that this was an atrocity. She turned around, angry, and glared at Oswald.
“Don’t waste your time here man, Maruza is no more, this is all an affront to God.”
Two men were already walking over, telling the woman to leave the building. She cussed them out and then left. With a sigh, Oswald walked up to the booth and was greeted by a woman with a very stern face. It was incredibly hard to put an age on her but Oswald assumed she was in her forties. And by the lack of an aura of power emanating from her, Oswald assumed she was a recent Awoken Player.
“Yes?” Her voice was devoid of any colour or passion.
“I need a permit to visit the lower Halls of Keeping.”
“Wait, what?” Oswald asked confused.
“Your request has been denied.” The woman said in a monotone.
“The lower halls of keeping are restricted to most of the faithful, especially to your kind.”
“What does that mean?” Oswald demanded, leaning onto the booth, looming close to the woman. He made the extra effort of allowing his power to emanate out and to make it as hostile as he could. The woman didn’t budge, as if she was even oblivious to the aura.
“It means that half faithful like you, missionary, will not get privileges over the true faithful.”
Oswald scoffed and was about to tear into the woman when two men approached him.
“Calm your aura and please leave the building.” One of the two said.
“Or what?” Oswald asked as he turned around. He was getting angrier.
“This missionary here is unhappy with the fact that he can not get a permit for the lower halls of Keeping.” The woman snapped.
“Missionary?” the man said. “Ah, had to be one of those. Listen here, you will leave the hall now. Or we will throw you out.” The two men spread out and put their hands on their swords. Oswald sized them up and judged he could take them on. But then calmed himself. Harm fellows of the faith? What was he thinking? He groaned and walked out of the Hall, ignoring the two men who followed him out. The guard was still there and smirked as he saw Oswald leave.
“See you next time, sinner.”
Oswald bit down on his tongue, trying his best to not say anything. To keep his calm. He walked out into the maze of streets again and lost himself, mulling things over in his mind. He walked until he was calm and peaceful again.
“What happened here?” He asked softly, to himself. People were passing him by, left and right. Some of them realised he was a missionary and scoffed, making an effort in evading him and moving around him in an arc. An arduous effort in the busy streets of Maruza. Why did they hate him, evade him like he had the plague? What changed here? He needed to know this first.
Oswald walked the streets, navigating to a new goal. An old friend.
“We are not serving yet, you’ll have to wait until evening before-”
“It’s me Henriq,” Oswald said, interrupting the man that hadn’t even looked up from wiping tables. Henriq was the owner of one of the lowliest inns in Maruza, but also one of the best. Usually frequented the most by missionaries.
Henriq looked up and his eyes went wide. “Oswald!” He walked over as if he couldn’t believe Oswald was really there. “Man, where have you been? How have you been?”
“I’m good Henriq, and well, you know. A bit of everywhere really. How have you been?”
“Ah, the same as ever. Good and bad, depending on the business.”
“And your cultivation?”
“Still broken as ever.” Henriq was one of the Player who had over-exerted their nervures. And as such, most of what made Players special was lost to him. And this was also most of the reason why Henriq owned an inn in Maruza. He had no life left in the old world, so this was all that he had.
“Ah, keep the hope up, the Lord provides.”
“I do, he does.”
“So, Henriq. What in the Lord’s name has happened to my Maruza?” Oswald asked.
Henriq’s eyes got gloomy for a moment and he averted his gaze, as if ashamed. “Oh Oswald, that is… hard to explain.”
“Hard is fine,” Oswald said as he pulled back a chair and sat down. “I have just been denied entrance to the Hall of Keeping and discriminated against for being a missionary. So please, Henriq, explain all of this to me. I should be able to visit the Hall of Keeping as I please, to whatever level as I please as well.”
“You have been away for three years Oswald, a lot can happen in three years. An awful lot in fact,” Henriq said in a soft, gloomy voice. “And the new Bishopry fuelled the changes too.”
“Yes, start with that. This new Bishopry, when did it happen? Why? How? How come none of the missionaries were notified?”
“You were not?”
“No, not me in any case, or any of the missionaries I am in contact with. And three years isn’t that long Henriq. Some missionaries are away for seven years.”
“Well, about two years ago the Bishopry changed. There was a popular, young and new preacher gaining popularity before that. Nobody really paid a lot of attention to him unless they were in his following. The old Bishopry really ignored him in most cases. But a few months before the change his following grew and grew, it really skyrocketed. Before they knew it, he had enough to force himself into the Bishopry, and with a couple of months more, he excommunicated most of the old Bishops. The ones that stayed converted to him. And he made a new Bishopry with people who were most loyal to his cause. He calls it the new Light. They have been writing works about it for the last three years almost.”
“He excommunicated them? What? How? Why did the faithful let this pass?”
“We didn’t. We wouldn’t, but when he announced their charge and their verdict to the rest of us, he had already banished them through the Hall of Sin. Some of us went after them but only those who already had their missionary permits could go. The others were bogged down in fickle bureaucratic. A few of those that left came back, and what they told was that none of the old Bishops remained.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are dead Oswald.”
“Dead? What? Are you saying,”
“Yes, I, nor anybody else, can be sure of course. But a lot among the Faithful think or assume that the new Bishopry has ordered the previous ones to be killed.”
“But they have been servants of God! They have worked for the Faith for decades! Some of them are among the top of Players in the world as well! How can they just throw away such talent like that?”
“The new Bishopry has…. New and dauntless ideas. And they are not scared of breaking some eggs to follow up on them.”
“Some eggs! Henriq we are talking about men like Alvas here!” Oswald said Alvas had been one of the strongest Players Oswald knew. Perhaps even stronger than his Master, and he had been among the previous Bishopry for twenty years.
“Eh, Oswald, you know what I mean. They are ruthless, and their ideas are violent and oppressive. Each new rule they pump out creates a bigger divide between the Faithfull and the Sinning, that is what they call missionaries and others who live on the fringes of the Codex. But each jump is so small and meaningless, that each time the people let it go through. And by now, what little push back that comes up, is silently squished out in the dark of night. People disappear, and when questioned or looked into, they all seem to have ‘packed up’ and ‘went out into the world to be one of the Sinning’. Missionaries that return never end up staying long. And the few that do are either forced out or disappear like others.”
“This is madness!”
“Oswald, listen to me! I am telling you that you are in danger by being here! You need to leave Maruza again. This is not a safe place for you anymore! The people here, most of them hate missionaries by now. There is talk about closing the Hall of Sin!”
“What? They can’t do that!” Oswald screamed in anger. “It will strand all the missionaries. None of them will be able to reach Maruza ever again!”
“That is exactly why they want to do it, Oswald.”
“We are Faithful as well! We are part of the Faith as well! They can’t just banish us from our holy city!”
“But they can, and they will, Oswald. This is the reality under the new Bishopry. Nobody really dares to go against them anymore.”
“Fuck!” Oswald slammed his fist on the table. “Who was this newcomer, the one that started all of this.”
“Nobody really knows, and now he is claiming that he has been sent by God himself.”
“His name is Thedeum. But he is young, so I doubt that is his actual name. But that is all we know about him. Thedeum, and that he hailed from the East somewhere. Eastern Europe, perhaps further.”
“That is not a lot, but it might help. Thanks.”
“What will you do?” Henriq asked.
“I don’t know, I came here to check up on something. But I need to be in the lower levels of the Hall of Keeping for that. But if I see what became of Maruza…. Perhaps I already have an answer to my query then…” Oswald said as he looked gloomy, defeated. His entire life was being ripped away from him. That was what it felt like.
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be able to get into the Hall. They have closed it off long ago, only Boshopry can enter the lowest levels now and-” Henriq was cut off by sudden banging on the door. Loud banging.
“Open up now! The light guard demands it!”
“What?” Oswald asked.
“The light guard, they are the new ‘defence’ force the bishopry called into life.”
“Defence force? What does Maruza need a defence force for?”
“To ‘guide’ sinful out of it, for one thing.”
“I’ll bet you are in need of that quite a lot these days.”
“It hurts, but I must admit that is the case.”
“Open up now!” The banging continued.
“You need to get out of there, Oswald. Right now. Go into the back room, stair down, into the cellar. There are three large boxes, on top of each other. Shove them to the side, open the iron grating, it is loose and then crawls into the tunnel. It will take you to the main sewer line, it follows the main road. From there on, you’ll find your way.”
“Fuck,” Oswald looked at the front door, it was budging with each slam. “Thanks, Henriq,” Oswald said as he took his hand, shaking it. Another hand on Henriq’s shoulder. “You are one of the few I count among my friends.”
“Likewise, Oswald. Stay safe, friend.” Henriq smiled.
“Listen, you and me both know where this is all headed. You need to get out as well.”
“Can’t do that Oswald. I am a crippled Player. No matter how dangerous it is in here, out there it is worse for me. Besides, you might be in need of a guy on the inside in the future.”
“You might be right, but I wish it didn’t have to be you.”
“Such is life, now go.”
Oswald nodded and then left, rushing down into the cellar, into the grating. The tunnel behind it was narrow but soon started to open up more until it fused with the main sewer. A large carved out tunnel, filled to the ankles with refuse. Oswald cursed and swore as he waded through it, damning Thedeum to the eternal hells.
“OPEN THE DOOR NOW!”
Henriq quickly unlocked and opened the door, feigning illness and weakness. A scruffy blanket wrapped around himself, standing hunched over. “Yes, what is all this about?”
Three men stood in front of him and the first roughly shoved him to the side. “Open faster when the Light guard bangs on your door! We have reasons to believe there is a suspect hiding in this building!”
“But I am the only person here?” Henriq asked with a meek voice and coughed sickly.
“We shall see, you two, search!” The man nodded at the others and swung his hand in the air. The men nodded back and started to go through every inch of Henriq’s place. In the cellar, they saw the boxes and moved them. But neither of them thought about touching the grating. A small oversight, but one that allowed Oswald to escape.
“Fuck all of this to the eternal hells!” Oswald said as he groaned, crawling out of the far too small hole, in some back alley. He stunk, of refuse, of sewage, of shit. He had reached nothing, and like this nobody would even allow him to the Hall of Keeping. Perhaps he could try to break in at night. He had thought about that before, but now with this Light Guard walking around town, they would probably defend the Hall of Keeping. Especially if they want to keep others out. Especially if he had requested permission earlier in the day.
“Fuck!” No, this was a failed mission. They were already on his tail, searching for him. Who knows on what grounds. He had to get out, now that he still could.
Oswald took a moment to orientate himself, calculating the best route in his head to the Hall of Sin. Good, he was only a 5-minute walk away. The streets were still busy, busy enough to be able to disappear in the masses. A quick working to clean himself and mask the smell and Oswald jumped into the erratic see of people.
A good five minutes later and Oswald was cursing under his breath again. There were guards at the Hall of Sin. Only two, and they seemed weak too. But they had entered it just before him. He couldn’t see any others in the area, and he had no other choice really. So Oswald entered the Hall of Sin as well.
Inside, the Hall was empty, as usual. The two Light guards were walking in further, checking each room. And further ahead Oswald could see the usual guards, standing watch still by the portals. To his relief, the portals were still open and running. The Hall of Sin kept three portals open at all times. As part of an old agreement that dated back from a time when there was far more traffic coming through these Halls. From a time from before they were called the Halls of Sin.
Oswald focussed and used his Aurem, another sin in the eye of many of the faithful, and judged the four guards. The two of the Light guard were weak as he had suspected. A working each would finish them. But the Guards of Sin were far stronger. They had to be, as they were the first line of defence for Maruza from any threat that could come through the Hall of Sin. Oswald wouldn’t be able to fight all four of them together. He could try to take out the two Light guards first and hope to finish them off in one go. And then face the other two, but that still would be a hard fight. It would take time too, and in that time more guards could show up.
“Fuck.” Oswald cursed again, softly, as he stayed to the walls of the dark rooms. Out of sight of the guards, thinking about his options. The Light guards nodded and started to chat with the Sin Guards while Oswald sneaked through the Hall. Just as Oswald was deciding on just going for it, one of the portals started to erratically woosh around. Two people came out of it and all the guards turned towards them. The people were clearly missionaries, like Oswald. And by the look on their faces, Oswald assumed they were not happy.
The two missionaries and the guards started a heated argument and Oswald tried to sneak closer by, trying to hear what they were saying. But before Oswald could get close enough, one of the missionaries stretched his hands out and fired off a working. It hit one of the Light guards in the chest and he fell down to the floor, dead.
The other missionary drew a sword with one hand and fired a working with the other. The working created a blue orb that expanded quickly and pushed the other guards away from the missionaries.
Oswald did not hesitate and jumped up immediately, firing off working as well. Bolts of light shot forth and hit the three guards as they were being pushed away by the expanding orb. The light guard was killed in an instant, the Sin Guards only hurt lightly. They groaned and started to fire off workings as well and drew their weapons. One had an axe, the other had a sword. The missionaries saw Oswald, decided he was a friend and not a foe and then started to attack the two remaining Sin guards with him. Between the three of them, they had enough power to keep the Sin guards on the defensive, and in a matter of seconds, four guards lay dead on the floor.
“Thanks.” One of the missionaries said.
“I should thank you, I had no idea how I was going to get past them.”
“You trying to get out?”
“Fuck, are they prohibiting that as well now?”
“Yeah, since a few hours ago, as far as I can tell. Why?”
“Shit. We were here two days ago, each on our own. We were denied access to almost everything. Found each other outside and decided to come back and force our way in.”
“Yeah, I was barred entry to the Hall of Keeping. But it is getting bad here, hostile, to faithful like us. I had a mission, but that failed remarkably thanks to this shitshow. So I am returning now. I suggest you do the same, these two,” Oswald kicked at the corpses of the Light guards. “They are part of something they call the Light guard now. Brutish police enforcers. The city is full of them. You won’t get far before you end up in another fight. And I bet there is plenty more of Sin guards out there as well.”
“But this is Maruza! This is OUR city! Our home!!”
“Not anymore,” Oswald said with a sad glare. “There is nothing left here for people like us. Maruza is our home no more.”
“Fuck!” One of the missionaries kneeled down and started to sob.
“It was all he had,” the other one said to Oswald.
“It is most I had as well, but we’ll survive. We have always been the most adaptable ones among the faithful ones. We’ll find away.” Oswald said although he had to convince himself just as much as the other two.
“We always do…” the other missionary agreed softly.
Oswald grasper their shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “I need to leave now, I’m Oswald of Azurn. If you ever find yourself in need of aid, follow this stone. It will take you to my master. Farewell now.” Oswald handed over a small stone to the missionary and then walked past them, into the vortex of the portal.
A few moments later Oswald was back in Koblin Kai. He nodded at some of the Gatekeepers and then walked off. In a dark alley, a few streets away from the Gatehouses, Oswald finally collapsed. Sobbing uncontrollably, crying, as it sunk in what he just had lost.