"Did you pack everything? Food, water, clothes, and your pillow?"
"Mum, I'm not a baby anymore. I can pack my own bag." Sylvester annoyedly closed the straps of his cloth bag.
"Max, you will always be a child to me. I'm your mother. Here, take these honey cookies. I made them for you with a Bright Mother friend of mine. Share them with Sir Dolorem too." She handed him a whole jar.
With a sigh, he resigned to his fate. "Okay, thank you, mum. I'll go now. Sir Dolorem must be waiting. You take care and don't skip meals."
But Xavia jumped to hug him. "Be careful. The outside world is not as kind as it is here. So many of them might come after you just because you are God's Favored. So never underestimate any situation."
'I agree with you for once.'
"Yes, mum, I will be careful," He looked into her eyes, waiting to see if she had anything else to say.
"Have a safe trip."
He picked up his luggage and left for this 13-day trip. Since he was too young and short, he could not ride a horse on his own. His legs would not reach the stirrups no matter what. So thankfully, the School of Dawn was rich enough to provide a carriage for all of them.
When he reached the entrance of the Bright Mother's complex, there was a single horse-pulled stagecoach. It wasn't too large as their destination was not too far and just four people were going.
"Master Maximilian." Sir Dolorem greeted him.
"Let's go. We should reach Goldstown by day's end." He jumped into the stagecoach and took a seat. Sir Dolorem sat beside him, and two more people, one Knight and Clergyman, took the reins.
These two would be Sylvester's evaluators and were not supposed to talk to him about anything other than their introductions. Sir Melodious and Priest Boroly were their names. Sir Dolorem outranked these two lower church members by a margin.
Despite being a single horse carriage, it was very fast, most likely the boon of having great wide roads. As soon as they passed the tunnel, they took the left road, called Holy Road, as it traversed all Kingdoms and Grand Duchy on the East side of the continent.
"Do you know anything extra about this exorcism job, Sir Dolorem?" He asked as he took out the assignment notice. Unfortunately, there wasn't much written on it other than name, work, and reward.
Sir Dolorem checked the paper closely. "I don't, but since the School of Dawn picked the job for Deacons, it shouldn't have too high of a difficulty. Wizards and Knights Guild take all kinds of jobs, categorized based on their difficulty, so no underpowered man takes it.
"They are usually A, B, C, and D. Above these four, there are also S, SS, and SSS, but these are restricted to the most powerful Wizards and Knights. Exorcisms usually come under C and D, as anyone with Holy Runes and Light Magic can deal with it. People just dislike the job because it gives nightmares for months to come."
Now Sylvester was wondering if he made a mistake by taking it. 'Well, I've seen worse things in two lives. How bad can this be?'
"Have you decided to do something about Bishop Norman? I believe he will not let you pass the exam." Sir Dolorem inquired in concern. "As suggested, I can ask the Lord Inquisitor to meddle."
"No, I believe the Lord Inquisitor already knows about it. Maybe even the Holy Father knows, as the class of God's Favored is supposed to be important for the future of the faith. This is likely a test for me." He confided his observation.
Sir Dolorem may be more loyal to the church and Inquisitor, but Sylvester had put the fear of Solis and his hymns in the man's mind, effectively making the latter the best aide possible.
"What I want to know instead is how will this examination be judged? Because the range of jobs went from chopping trees to fighting bandits. How can both be the same?"
Sir Dolorem looked at the two men sitting at the reinsman seats and lowered his voice. "They are not the same, Master Maximillian. The one chopping wood will have to preach to the people of the location and help them in everything they need. The less the difficulty, the more they must strive to do little things to make the people happy. This leaves too much to the mood of the examiners.
"Meanwhile, fighting thieves is enough in itself to get a full score. You don't need to preach anything. However, many will not make it through these harsh 13 days. Caskets have been prepared for casualties."
This shocked him a little, and the face of Felix, Markus, and Gabriel appeared in his mind. He wasn't worried about Felix, but Markus and Gabriel had mediocre talents at best. "Isn't it counterproductive to let talented kids die?"
"You picked this job; it's good. It would have been hard if you had taken the thieves eradication job. It's a simple process of filtering. If they can't survive this simple test by not picking a job above their level, they can never be a God's Favored. This also reminds other Deacons that the stakes are real. I remember reading in the Holy Father's biography that when he was God's favored, out of the class of 40, only 15 survived the first year. By the end of eight years, only he was left."
Sylvester sat back silently. This was the first time he learned that the Pope was also God's favored once, but it didn't come as a surprise. Selection of the next Pope most likely starts as soon as the new Pope takes the throne.
'I hope they don't die.' He prayed for his friends.
Reaching Goldstown was not easy because the town was far away from the Holy Road, and one needed to take a side dirt road that was unmaintained. Moreover, people rarely used it as Goldstown made all its trade through the river.
However, things were even worse today because it had been raining for the past two days. The sky was cloudy the whole time, appearing gloomy. Sunlight was the best friend of a Wizard or Knight, so this was not welcome.
"Ah! The wheel is stuck again!" Sir Melodious exclaimed and jumped out of the seat to push the stagecoach. This was the tenth time it had happened, making their journey feel more ominous.
Even Sylvester jumped out to help regularly, as he didn't want to spoil his image in the eyes of the examiners. All of them had become dirty with mud and sweat. All they wanted now was to reach their destination and take a bath.
"How far is it?" he asked.
"Very close, but with this speed, it will be evening by the time we reach." Sir Dolorem answered.
They pushed the stagecoach out of the muddy ditch and proceeded only to get stuck again a few meters away. The more it was raining, the worse the road became.
'I hate rain.' Sylvester muttered as he jumped out of his seat again.
It took them three more hours to cover the last stretch of land and arrive at the outskirts of the town. At least the town seemed highly developed, with all its streets made of fine stone, houses having two or three stories. But it was all barren, befitting a supposedly haunted town.
"Head directly to the monastery. We shall sleep there tonight and start work tomorrow." Sir Dolorem advised. The two examiners silently nodded, as they appreciated some rest now too.
Knock! Knock!—They slammed on the Monastery door. However, there was no response. The group was a bit taken aback as Monasteries were never supposed to close their doors.
"Open up! We're from Holy Land!" Sir Melodious clamored.
However, the house on the right opened instead of the monastery's door. An old man peeked his head out first and looked. Once he noticed the armors and church robes, he ran out quickly.
"Holy men from Holy Land have returned? Holy men have returned!" The man went from looking scared to excited in a matter of seconds. He opened the door and jumped out excitedly, ignoring the rain spoiling his fine silk clothes.
Silvester took the lead this time to appear good. "Greetings, I am Deacon Sylvester Maximilian, a God's Favored, also called Lord's Bard. Why is the monastery locked?"
"I-I'm Marigold Roger, Chief of Goldstown. I've heard so much about you… your hymns are sung and memorized here by all. Ah! You all look dirty. I will quickly tell the people to heat the water and cook a meal."
"Where is the monastery staff?" Sir Dolorem asked this time.
"They left for Holyland to bring help. And since the haunted menace has not stopped here, everyone is afraid to go out after sunset. I have the key to the monastery. I will bring it, please wait." Marigold quickly returned to his house and brought the keys.
It didn't take long for the group to enter the monastery. After unpacking, they bathed, ate a quick meal, and decided to sleep. Then, as advised by the town chief, they closed the gates. The monastery was big, but they slept together in the main hall of the building on portable mattresses to ensure they could all react in case of an emergency.
With a big yawn, Sylvester closed his eyes. His body was aching from the journey, and the lack of sunlight affected them all to some degree.
'I hope it stops raining tomorrow.' He thought and dozed off to the dreamland, knowing that at least his bed felt warm.
However, things at Goldstown were far from good. The night was long and gloomy. The rain made hearts shudder as people holed up in their homes. But the word had spread that people from the Holy Land had come to help. The hope that after more than a year of living in terror, peace would return had now risen.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
"Please open the gate! Lord Bard! Sir Dolorem!"
Bam! Bam! Bam!
In the middle of the night, the monastery doors boomed with knocks, and the voice of Chief Marigold resounded.
Sylvester's eyes shot open with his heartbeat skyrocketing. The rest stood up in a hurry as well.
"I will open it." Sir Dolorem went to check.
As soon as he opened the door, a small crowd appeared. At the front was Chief Marigold, crying his eyes out and his face pale as a moon.
He ran in and knelt before Sylvester with a thud. "God's Favored, please save my granddaughter! The vile creature took her just now! Please! Y-You can do anything! You are favored by Solis. I beg you!"
Sylvester looked around himself. It was still night outside and raining with thunder striking every few seconds. The faces of the town folks seemed as pale as Marigold's. 'They probably think I'm some divine apostle just because I have God's Favored associated with my name.'
"Where did you see her last time?" he inquired.
Marigold replied in stutters. "S-She said she needed to relieve herself, so I accompanied her to the privy in my backyard outside. B-But I dozed off for a few seconds while guarding the door. When I looked again, she was nowhere to be found."
Boom!—Thunder suddenly struck somewhere nearby and shook the grounds.
Sylvester had no idea what the case here was even about. He reckoned it had to do something with a haunted ground, house, or a zombie-like creature. But he never knew abductions were going on too.
So this raised the question. "How many people have been abducted until now?"
"That vile creature has abducted eighty people. Men, women, and children, they were never found." Another man spoke from the gate.
Chief Marigold added. "It's that damn haunted mine. First, the archpriest tried to exorcise it, but he and a priest died. Then a Bishop came from Holyland, but he also died. The surviving priests went to Holyland to call for help and sent you. Please… save my granddaughter. She's just ten."
'A bishop died? What in the living hell!' Sylvester was alarmed.
"Chief Marigold, when was the first time you sent a request for help?" He questions.
"More than a year ago."
Sylvester took a long breath and quickly looked at Sir Dolorem in confusion because if a Bishop had died here trying to exorcise whatever the creature was, this matter was way above his pay grade.
"Master Maximillian, this job isn't in the C or D category. It's likely…"
Boom!—An even louder bolt of lightning fell outside the monastery and lit the spot on fire for a few seconds, scaring the whole town.
Fear gripped everyone's hearts as the ominous night just turned more menacing.