The four moved grimly, nearing the town line. Though Caelum Mount still glowed brightly behind them, the road remained dark and quiet.
It did not last for long.
Screams of fear and anger rang out in the distance. It seemed that more ‘Safety Zones to Root out Hatred’ were being arranged in that fallen place.
Gottschalk and the others had endured their own ‘Safety Zone’ in Caelum Mount just that evening, a show-trial, nearly sacrificed by the cultists as a result. Any who stood against them of course was to be denounced and destroyed in the ‘Name of Tolerance’. But though Gottschalk and his allies had escaped and then been nearly killed by an angry mob of more of the urine-tossing lunatics, he had come out relatively unscathed.
The same could not be said for some of his companions. Ramzeus still clutched his painful, oozing eyes. Laurissa Austral cradled her broken arm, trying to hold back her tears. On the other hand, Gorm, though battered and bruised, seemed completely pleased, happy to have helped them escape the corrupted town with his great axe. Being a barbarian, the man was untroubled by external or even internal debate. It was enviable.
Gottschalk knew the land they were heading for might be no less dangerous, but hoped it hadn’t been overrun by cults intent on killing them yet. Few were brave enough to venture into such a haunted land as Monjaksen anyway. He was just about to discuss the matter when he suddenly stopped. There, on the road before him, was Captain Salpinx, the one who had promised to save Caelum Mount.
The aging blond man was flanked by his personal hoplite bodyguard and what seemed his family. It was obvious that all was far from well in the town, and yet he was acting as if it were fine. Even odder, he was addressing a donkey.
“This will be fantastic! Yes, let’s invade West By Golly again- we have our troops standing by! Make it big! No, no, I respect the Cult Position... we must come together as a great town again!”
Gorm raised his eyebrow at this: it took a lot to make a barbarian believe you were unhinged.
Ramzeus was so shocked that he even forgot his injured eyes for a moment. “You’re SUPPORTING the cultists? They would murder you and your entire family!”
“I support all Caelum Mounters,” replied Salpinx calmly. “We can’t Tolerate Amaranthinism.”
“We aren’t Amaranthinists, but the cultists are foul!” cried Laurissa. “Look what they did to us! They are Equalitarians: followers of an even more murderous ideology! We would defend you- why won’t you defend us?”
She turned to emphasize her broken arm, but Salpinx’s daughter began to whisper in his ear. The Captain turned again to address the donkey.
“Why you talk to pony?” asked Gorm.
Salpinx ignored his question, though Ramzeus had regained his composure enough to reply instead: “It’s the talking donkey, C’nnamon. Salpinx is trying to appease it because it got the cults to ravage the town.”
“How it do that?”
“By claiming that there were Amaranthinists hiding everywhere. That gave the Equalitarians the excuse to purge all opposition and take over. Corrupt shopkeeps followed suit, denying service to those who disagreed. Now no one can gather together or even say anything without cult approval. And all the statues of the Gods and Heroes are to be torn down and replaced by cult ones! Once the freedoms and traditions of the people of Caelum Mount have been purged, then the people themselves will be next.”
“But why invade West By Golly?” interjected Gottschalk. “To capture the Lost City? To fight the Monongahls? I thought that campaign failed a decade ago!”
Laurissa laughed. “C’nnamon has been tormenting Salpinx ever since he began to captain the town, claiming that the Maurians had helped him get the position. Being in league with the cultists, it of course claimed that he was being ‘Intolerant’ by supporting freedom too. But now that there’s more senseless war to be had, the donkey and its conspirators might finally leave him alone.”
Gottschalk sniffed then, realizing how close they were to the Draining Swamp now. Even in the cold night air, he could detect the ill stench of it: rotting, cloying, corrupting any who might attempt to drain it. Though it seemed like months ago, he and Gorm had been there only yesterday (in Parts XI and XII) and had survived, though it also seemed like it had proven too much for Salpinx.
He hoped he was wrong. He hoped that the once-great leader would still save Caelum Mount and not be defeated by corruption and cults.
The four turned south once more, to the haunted land of zombies and unquiet spirits.
It seemed preferable to all the ‘Tolerance’ here.
* * *
The night grew darker. They hung near the road, though not right upon it. All knew the rumors of wicked things that might race by to snatch the unwary. Still, they did not dare to stray too far either, for the many scattered structures and lonely moors would likely be just as dangerous.
“We need to leave the road entirely,” said Ramzeus. “We can’t go on like this. We need to rest, regroup, and head into the countryside now, like partisans would- maybe even go underground.”
“What? You tired?” offered Gorm. “Here, me carry you?”
Gottschalk blocked the barbarian’s misguided attempt at assistance. “How can you say that? We’ve done nothing wrong- we are on the side of right! Humans should be able to stand up for themselves, just like all other peoples!”
Ramzeus only laughed. “It doesn’t matter if that’s true- cultists have taken over and they don’t care for the truth. We have to be wise.”
“But my arm!” exclaimed Laurissa. “I need a healer! Perhaps there is one nearby?” She began to rummage for her Ghul-Ghul box in her pack.
“Why are you doing that again, woman!?” said Gottschalk as he turned to her, trying to keep his voice down. “That thing is worse than talking donkeys!”
“Yeah!” added Gorm. “And who would trust them?!”
A few dozen yards away, they spied a lone farmhouse upon a hill. Like all the structures about this place, it looked deserted. Tired, the party approached it cautiously.
It then dawned on Gottschalk what Ramzeus really meant: one might have the moral high ground, but that might also lead to a shallow grave.
Next week: The Hacks of Gorm, Part XXVI!