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40 Rotten Bones

 A tavern in Wickidor.

It was clearly not nighttime but it was pitch-black in one of the rooms. A thick black cloth had been placed over the window, keeping the rare bright winter sun from reaching inside the room.

If one looked carefully, there were a few vague figures sitting around silently, wearing thin black cloaks and staying motionless, exuding an indescribable weirdness.

Indeed, anyone who entered would probably have the daylights scared out of them by those corpselike figures.

And it would have been true too-each figure there were Rotten Bones cultists who were higher ranked than Carlo and were corrupted heavily by their evil god's power.

Although they still retained their human minds, their bodies were shriveled and stiff like hard wood despite having greater strength. They also would not count as being alive in the original sense, but was closer to a semi-zombie existence.

The silence lasted for who-knows-how-long before one of the cultists broke the silence and turned towards the one seated in a chair who appeared to be the leader.

"O Venerable One, why have you graced Wickidor with your presence?"

"Carlo's divine blessing had returned to me," the one addressed as the 'Venerable One' answered hoarsely. "He's dead."

"What?!" The cultist beside the bed was left in disbelief.

"He was already good with the sword before he joined us, and most mortals would never win against him after gaining divine blessing." A more well-rounded figure seated to the Venerable One's right hand added. "Could it have been a bishop of the Brilliant White Church who killed him? But they don't have any churches nearby..."

"No, the black corpsefly planted in his body informed me that it was the princess." The Venerable One said.

The silent room broke into whispers. The others found that news hard to digest.

It was true that as the former captain of the imperial guard, Carlo's skill with the sword was above the crowd amongst the masses, and one would require overwhelming numbers or supernatural ability to defeat him. Moreover, after Carlo had received the buff from Rotten Bones' power, his weakness as a mortal in terms of defense and limited stamina were solved despite his stiffer movements. That was definitely a huge increase of ability that almost made him a killing machine.

In comparison, the princess who believed in the nonexistent God of Games and therefore essentially believed in nothing was at best a fine swordswoman. She would never have held her own against Carlo!

"Quiet!" The Venerable One growled with his hoarse voice. Even if he was not loud, the other cultists stopped whispering immediately, and the room was completely silent once again.

The Rotten Bones was not a peaceful religion where every member existed in harmony and equality. 'Only the strong survive' was a fundamental doctrine, and if not for their own evil god's prohibition, everyone would probably be killing each other for the divine power imbued into their bodies. With such an environment, becoming a Venerable One-one of the three bishops of their cult took someone with enough power that ordinary cultists would never dare to confront him.

"I know all of you couldn't believe it, but that's precisely why I have come to Wickidor."

As he spoke, the Venerable One brought out a silver bowl and a palm-sized colored glass bottle.

He opened the bottle rather awkwardly and poured the silver fluid within into the bowl. Then, he hesitated for a moment before using his sharp nails to tear a cut into his rigid flesh and drip black blood into the owl as well.

Moments later, the silver fluid in the bowl began to churn, a fearsome but unusual skull appearing from within.

Once that skeleton appeared, the other cultists all went on all fours as if crushed beneath a force of ten thousand tons, devotedly and fearfully pressing their heads on the floor.

The skull spoke despite having nothing resembling vocal cords.

It was a noise that could not be understood, as if something sharp was scratching blackboard. It also resembled the hostile dark miasma of swamps, a blasphemous language containing a vicious influence that exerts itself on the spirit of all mortals, reducing them to a darker species.

The voice would resound even in the heads of imbeciles, and the blind would be able to see the call from hell and abyss. Only those with the firmest faith in their gods could withstand the impact from the other side.

For it was the voice of an evil god.

[I have caught the scent of an unknown god!]

[Catch her and sacrifice her as an offering to the great Rotten Bones!]

[I shall claim the power of the god she prays to!]

"As you wish, my lord."

It was only the Rotten Bones archbishop who could hang on to his rationality in the face of their own god's presence-albeit barely. He was not sprawled on the floor and shaking, and could answer in complete reverence at the end.

The skull formed from silver fluid nodded in satisfaction, before vanishing and reverting to liquid that dropped into the bowl once again.

It was only then that the others breathed a sigh of relief and could finally lift their heads.

"Just as our lord Rotten Bones has said, make haste and find that princess, and sacrifice her to our great god! Lord Rotten Bones can consume other gods to ascend his rank! The day would come that we would no longer have to hide in shadows, to fight against those churches who proclaim themselves justice!" The archbishop pocketed the silver bowl, his shriveled face showing a different look now that combines excitement and wild passion. "Rotten Bones shall walk the earth!"

"Rotten Bones shall walk the earth!"

***

"Wilf, can't you reconsider?"

The chief of Silver Chime's Wickidor branch tried to persuade the traveling merchant patiently. "You can't find a merchant guild as good as Silver Chime nowadays. If you leave now, all your previous work would go down the drain!"

"It's fine, I've steeled my heart for it," Marni Wilf replied without hesitation.

"Alright, if you have already set your mind on it..." The branch chief sighed, before finally stamping Marni's resignation and sealing it inside an envelope that he would send to headquarters. "That said, why do you insist on leaving? Could you have found some new frontier?"

"Hehehe, it's nothing. It's just that I'm renouncing my faith in Gaglomeia, the Goddess of Prosperity," Marni nonchalantly shifted the conversation. "By the way, aren't there more refugees around here in Wickidor?"