As soon as the light cleared, we heard screaming and yells. We appeared just outside the gate, which was inside a building. That building was currently on fire. Smoke instantly stung my eyes and heat blasted my face. Shit, I hadn’t thought of that. Before I could think of what to do, Celeste’s voice carried through the ashy basement.
“Wind Shield!” Celeste called out.
A rush of wind blew away the smoke and flames. Instantly, my sight was clear. I could see flames on every side of us. The stairway leading out was also collapsed. Of all the possibilities, I didn’t suspect that we’d be trapped with the entrance to the dungeon. The heat was already returning, and the air was limited within this firestorm. Simply put, in a few moments, we’d all collapse if we didn’t do something immediately. I could create water, but stopping the fire with water while in the middle of it was too dangerous.
Once again, it was one of the girls who reacted first. Terra stepped forward and pushed toward a dirt wall that wasn’t in flames. Immediately, the earth began to spread and a path formed. As she moved forward into this new path, I ushered the girls to follow her. Anywhere was better than remaining in this burning building.
She basically created a tunnel heading up and out the side of the building. The path wasn’t long, and it only took a minute to finish the path, but with the flames growing behind me, it felt like an eternity. Finally, she broke surface and the girls piled out into the outdoors. As soon as the pathway to the outside was complete, the cries and yelling grew considerably sharper. I helped all of the girls make it through the path before climbing out myself. It was hot enough that I seriously thought my clothing might catch. I fell down onto the cool grass and let out a cry of relief. Just ten feet away was the burning capital building.
From a quick glance, the entire city looked to be burning. As for the Bandits, they were running around along with the citizens. It didn’t look like the Bandits were particularly concerned about the citizens. They were all packing up and desperately fleeing. It was clear that the city was lost.
A distant roar caused me to look up into the sky. It was daybreak now, so there was just enough light that I could make out a creature flying in the distance. It was too far to see clearly, but I was certain it was the clockwork dragon. It was flying away.
As the girls worked their way back to their feet, we heard some shouts and suddenly a bunch of bandits formed up around us.
“The ones with Carmine!”
Innumerable arrows and magical spells were aimed in my direction. There were at least thirty surrounding us by the time everyone had their footing. Stepping out from a building that wasn’t on fire was the Bandit King. His armor looked like it had received some significant damage during a battle. He must have fought the clockwork dragon before she had fled. He took several steps toward me.
“Stay right there…” His voice called out. “We have you surrounded!”
I sneered. “Girls, hold on, we’re leaving.”
Lydia and Miki were used to this kind of thing and didn’t hesitate to grab on to me. They helped Celeste and Terra to do the same.
“Please!” The Bandit King pulled off their helmet, revealing a beautiful woman with long blonde hair. “Please… help me save my sister!”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“My name is Salicia, I’m the Bandit King.”
What I had thought was a melodious male voice turned out to me a deeper feminine voice. The Bandit King was definitely not who I expected behind the mask. That was mostly because her name was a complete lie. I was right for second-guessing!
“Oi… you’re a woman. You should be a Bandit Queen.”
“I’m a strong enough person to be referred to with reverence as royalty, and you want to argue with me about semantics?” She responded bitterly. “I’ve cut out men’s tongues for less audacity.”
“I apologize.” I lowered my head. “But you wouldn’t have just begged for my help if you were so easily angered.”
She made an annoyed tsk and then nodded. “I suppose you are right. I know Balrack’s strength. For you to be able to capture and bounty him to the city, you must be quite formidable. The fact that you’re standing here so calmly despite the fact I have you surrounded shows your party must be powerful.”
“That is only because I have a way out,” I admitted. “I’d be a little worried if I thought I’d have to fight my way through your lot.”
A slight grin formed on her face. “A little worried, he says. A normal man would be pissing himself. Forget it. Let’s forgo the dick measuring contest for the moment. I’m sure you would win anyway.”
“Mm!” Lydia nodded in conformation.
Miki and Celeste were also nodding as if this was a given. Suddenly, Salicia looked at me with a cocked eyebrow and I could only blush. Only Terra had her head cocked as if she didn’t understand the conversation. It’s nice that you girls think highly of me, but perhaps this wasn’t a good time. I was getting a few jealous and angry stares from some of the bandits. They had their bows strung and pulled, it wouldn’t take much for someone to accidentally shoot it!
“Well, in that case, I will make this simple. That mechanical monstrosity was created by the church. My sister was tasked with recovering it. However, it has a defect. The person linked to the dragon’s mind will slowly be corrupted, and eventually, they will think like the dragon and eventually become one with it.”
“Why would the church send one of their own if they knew this to be true?”
Recovering something you made yourself had some sense. At the least, you could study and learn from your mistakes. However, if they already knew the dragon was faulty, then sending a Paladin to try to control it was just asking for more trouble.
“Because… they want the dragon to go out of control.” Salicia explained. “No one can trace the dragon back to the church, so they want it to go havoc. Then, when they solve the issue, they can gain the adoration and love of the country! It’s how the church has operated for the last few thousand years. Controlled chaos.”
“Okay, let’s say I believe you. What is Carmine’s role in all this? If she’s a patsy for the church, why should I care about what happens to her?”
Salicia made a bitter expression on her face. “Carmine… wasn’t always like this. When we were young, our town was attacked. We thought it was by Bandits. It was the church that came to save us. They took a liking to my sister, so they took her and told the rest of us survivors it was a blessing. My sister when on to become a Paladin.”
“And you became a Bandit?”
“I started out hunting Bounties…” Salicia admitted. “But when I couldn’t find out information on who attacked our village, I realized the only way I could get information was from the inside. I became a Bandit to avenge my village. It wasn’t until I declared myself the Bandit King that I finally realized the truth. The church had hired men to attack the village so that they could come in and save it. Everyone who died… my family… their blood was on the church’s hands!”
“And… Carmine?” I said, already guessing the answer.
“I found her… and I told her the truth. She… was different. It had been ten years from when we were last split up, and the woman I knew was no longer there. They brainwashed my sister!”
I’d like to say that this story was completely isolated, but it had some resonance with me. The Priests had come and saved the day for the people of Chalm too. In fact, Aberis wouldn’t have their loyalty if it hadn’t been for the church stepping in and stopping the spread of the ghosts. Those same ghosts would never have spread out had Lord Karr not been mysteriously murdered, and a book revealing his darkest sins laid bare in front of Astria.
Was that another example? I had never even met someone from the church outside of Carmine. While she did betray me, there were crueler things she could have done. I had no particular beef with the church. In fact, I didn’t know the church at all. I didn’t know how big they were, who they worshipped, or really anything about them. Thus, even putting these events together, the most I could conjure emotionally was to say “That’s interesting.”
If the church really was stirring up trouble only to come in and be the heroes, that was really none of my business. My goal was to just keep Chalm and my girls safe. I was in this world now. I had money, power, and friends. What more did I need? I didn’t need some kind of vendetta against the church. That said, I had made a promise to Terra that we would finish this mechanical monster. I was also curious about this so-called brainwashing. What the Bandit King calls brainwashing, another might just call being raised in another lifestyle.
If the church was good to her, Carmine wouldn’t see any reason to doubt them. However, if we can free her from the dragon’s control, then I was curious if she’d still be able to hold on to that rhetoric. It would be nice if Carmine could be made to see how the church used her, assuming that the Bandit King was speaking honestly and not filling my head up with lies. If I helped destroy a dragon, I don’t think the church would see it as me going against them.
After all, I’m petitioning to be a lord of Aberis and part of that I was told by the mayor to make a rather large donation to the church. In other words, if I defeated the dragon now, to them, it’d look like just an unexpected accident. They might notice my presence more, but that might not be a bad thing. I was okay playing ball. All governments are corrupt, but you still pay taxes. I have no ambitions to battle the church to the death. This particular event is a one-time occurrence because circumstances made things personal.
After that, I’d bow and scrap for the church just like everyone else. It was better than being a rebel or an outcast. Therefore, my mind was settled. I’d help the Bandit King for personal reasons. However, if she wished to continue this war against the church beyond that, she was on her own. Looking down the path I had seen the dragon disappear off to, I considered what the next course of action would be.
“If she’s already heading back to the church, I don’t think there is anything we can do.” I realized out loud.
Salicia shook her head. “I already said, the dragon is controlling her mind. They aren’t heading for the Capital. Actually, they’re heading to a nearby mountain range, to create a lair. After that, they’ll start pillaging the countryside to build a horde of wealth. This is only a mechanical dragon, but the church used a real dragon’s soul when making it.”
“And what do you need from me?” I asked.
“Your party is strong. You were able to hold the dragon off for the length of time it took for her to take control of it. I need you to do that again, but this time, I’ll be severing her bond!”
“What happens after it is severed?
“I only care about my sister. What the dragon does is none of my concern. The church can deal with a beserking dragon.” She glanced at me and snorted. “What? I am a Bandit King, what do I care about stopping a dragon. If you want to… be my guest.”
I glanced over at Terra. “It’ll be in a cave. Right?”
Terra looked up at me, her eyes slightly fearful but growing in confidence. “Mm!”
“Then, we’ll try our best to kill it, and if push comes to shove, will just bury it in the cave, for good this time!”
Terra’s eyes flashed with determination. “Yes, Master!”