It always came back to the dagger.
Layak picked up the blade from the table. It was tarnished, perhaps once silvery or bronze in color. She ran her finger along the edge, dulled now beyond danger. The tip tapered off to a point she was certain still fit between someone's ribs. The handle wasn't ornate, also from an aged metal she couldn't begin to guess at. Hardly anything to look at, but it would do the job in capable hands.
She set the dagger back on the table and turned to the five separate books laid open. Layak scanned each page, willing something to leap out of the text at her. For all intents and purposes, it was nothing more than a historical artifact. But that was the point. Something callously tossed down here with the rest of history the Sisters of Kade managed. Nothing important. Nothing anyone would take note of.
Layak shuffled over to a separate book shelf on the far side of the examination chamber. The tomes here were printed with gold trim. She found one in the Indexing section and hoisted the overweight volume. The top bore a fine layer of dust that made her sneeze. It landed with a resounding thud when she set it on the table next to the dagger.
She flipped the pages carefully. Several still tore at the edges despite her caution. Not that anyone would notice. These Indexing volumes were from nearly five hundred years back when the Sisters finished construction on this particular vault. A neat, organized way to keep records together of where everything came from and where it was now.
Untouched paperwork for a long overlooked vault.
Just shy of two thousand pages in, Layak found the passage she needed. Serro's Blade. Retrieved from the Farth Shewel ruins, dated to year 11832. Said to have been a common personal defense weapon of the Cinntol people. Noted for its attached register found on site.
Yes, Layak knew about the register. It was in a separate vault beneath the mountain abbey. What surprised Layak at the time was how the register contained so much data and yet the Sisters made no effort to log the two artifacts together. Just another sign that she was on the right path. It'd taken her two more months to track the dagger's location to this vault, and a week of pouring through index after index to retrieve the accursed item.
Now that she had it everything was falling into place.
Layak took her time stowing all of the tomes and artifact bins to their appropriate place in the vault. None of the other Sisters would question her business in here. No one would likely note her path of research and why it brought her in here. She didn't know if that was by design as well or merely the natural consequence of religious bureaucracy that overcame the Sisterhood's order. The Sisters of Kade were one of the oldest surviving religious organizations in the world. And time had done its job on them.
Once everything was in its proper place, Layak reached into the folds of her religious habit to stow the dagger. The garb was heavy, stuffy, and generally itchy. As far as Layak knew, there were no specific oaths or vows of chastity the Sisters took; the tradition of the costume had simply persisted over the centuries. It certainly helped her look the part, and had the added benefit of deep pockets where Layak could conceal objects. The dagger fit securely in a pouch on her left hip, while a handgun sat on her right. She'd never had to use it in the abbey.
Layak made the long climb out of the artifact vault via a circular staircase. The Sisters of Kade did wonderful work carving into the mountain. The abbey had resided here for nearly one thousand years. Most of it was natural; hewn from the stone itself. There were modern lights wired in the deepest parts these days, but most of the structure close to the surface received lighting through massive archways and skylights cut from the top of the mountain. The whole of the abbey was rich with history. Layak had more than enough time in the last two years here to brush up on it.
Priestess Gabrious waited for her at the top of the stairs. Locks of her silver hair spilled through the edges of her coif. A usually cheerful woman, Layak was surprised to see her face creased with…unease? Discomfort? For a brief moment, panic surged within—she knew about the dagger! But Layak inhaled quietly. No. There was no way she could know.
"Child," said Gabrious, "there's a young man here to see you. He seemed adamant that you were expecting him. Did you summon him?"
Young man? Expecting her? "No, Priestess. I haven't summoned anyone. I'd expect no one to come here for me."
Gabrious' face immediately relaxed. She smiled. "That's what I told the other priestesses. Still, this man insisted. Perhaps we can solve the dilemma."
Layak fell into step beside Gabrious and the two started down the long corridor to the front of the abbey. Following her searches here had taken Layak far from her usual circle of travel companions and associates. The last familiar face she remembered talking to before joining the Sisterhood was Larv, but that's because he ran the best tavern in these mountains. And Layak knew she wanted one last good drink before committing to however many years she needed to play dress up in the abbey.
So who had tracked her down here? And why now after all this time? She thought most of her old friends would assume she'd finally died in one of the tombs she explored. Or, if nothing else, suppose she'd quit the trade entirely. If anyone knew she was at the abbey, maybe they thought she'd devoted her life in service to God.
And not in the service of killing that God.
Layak followed Gabrious into the antechamber where amber sunlight filtered in from the west. Priestesses scurried about the open space, many carrying books and papers. Several carried tablets and small computers. The Sisters of Kade were the foremost scholars in this region of the world. It was one of the few places left where Layak could find reliable scientific information for her purposes.
Beyond the antechamber was the entryway, which housed massive archways cut out of the mountain, allowing natural light to flow in. Here there were only a handful of priestesses, most handling clerical duties for individuals coming in and out of the abbey. And standing at the main gate was Menno.
Layak nearly stopped in her tracks. She forced herself to keep walking alongside Priestess Gabrious. The older woman didn't need to see any sign of recognition. For his part, Menno kept a straight face. He'd cut back his once long blonde hair. He'd certainly stayed busy. He was a little more filled out; toning in his arms and legs that she hadn't remembered before. And there was a new scar on his left cheek.
"Thank you, Priestess," Menno said as they walked up. "I have an artifact I wish Sister Layak to appraise for me. She has an expertise in these things I've not had from any of the other priestesses before."
Layak stole a glance at Gabrious. The lines around her eyes relaxed and her smile widened. Menno knew exactly what to say. Suddenly this wasn't a stranger looking for a pretty young Sister. This was a devoted traveler looking for religious wisdom. It fit a better narrative in the older woman's head.
"Yes, of course," said Gabrious. "Allow me to take you to a council room."
She led the two of them back into the antechamber and off to a side door. There were dozens of them in this part of the abbey where travelers could bring their artifacts for the Sisterhood. It was seemingly business as usual. On the way over, Layak shot Menno a smirk. He kept a blank stare, but she swore something twinkled in his eye. He was enjoying himself. Playing his part well and probably having a good laugh about Layak's outfit. It was a far cry from the tac-pants and dive vest she wore when they spelunked caves together.
The council room felt like a workshop, with books on one wall and tools on another. There was a large table with chairs, but the center had clamps and other amenities for examining artifacts. Windows cut into the other two walls allowed for line of sight into neighboring council rooms, where other priestesses worked tirelessly on their projects. Still, it would provide them some semblance of privacy.
Gabrious showed them in and then closed the door. The moment it clicked shut, Menno threw his arms around Layak, hoisting her off the floor. Layak grunted.
"Been a long time, old friend," said Menno. He laughed. "I'm digging the outfit. When did you decide to find God?"
Layak squirmed out of his grasp. She had to work to smooth out the wrinkles in her habit. Thank Beyonds he hadn't rubbed any dirt or grime on the pale gray fabric. That's all she'd need; having to explain that away.
"The Sisters of Kade are very tightlipped about their vaults," said Layak. "It was the best way I could get access."
"Don't you have to swear your life over to them? How long have you been in here?"
"Two years now."
Menno didn't hide his shock. It was a long time. And while Layak didn't feel any particular religious zeal, the time was well spent. She'd learned more in the first few months alone than the last five years combined. One stage of her journey was nearly complete. It was starting the next that would be troublesome.
"Was it worth the lifestyle change?" said Menno.
Layak folded her arms. "I'm becoming a priestess. I haven't sworn off my life."
"But two years…"
"Is not so long, Menno. Not when you have the Kade archives at your disposal. I spent the first six months studying their Indexes alone. Do you know how much history is in there?"
Menno chuckled, shaking his head. "You know, Sarves thought of doing the same thing, once. Only problem is the Sisterhood only accepts in women. Go figure."
Layak glanced left and then right. So far she could see in the distant rooms that the priestesses hadn't taken note of them. Yet. "What are you doing here, Menno?"
He grinned wide. "I'm here to recruit you. We're about to go on a raid and it's one you don't want to miss."
Beyonds, but didn't that sound amazing. As much as Layak enjoyed soaking up the history locked away in the abbey, she desperately missed the life of scouring ruins. Repelling deep into the earth. Getting her hands dirty and covered in mud. She knew she had grown weak after two years of shuffling about this mountain dwelling. Climbing stairs only did so much for her endurance.
"I see that look on your face," said Menno. "You miss it."
"You have no idea."
He laughed. "After two years in this stuffy place? I think I have a pretty good idea. Come with me. You know you'll love it."
Layak bit her lip. Truth be told, now that she had the dagger she was ready to leave. She hadn't worked out the specifics, but she supposed either tonight or tomorrow evening she'd slip out in the dark. It would be an easy affair. She usually wore a pair of decent pants and a jacket underneath her habit with enough pockets to carry whatever she needed. She could walk out the front gate now and no one would stop her.
But Layak wanted to probe a little more. There were records and stories here she probably wouldn't find anywhere else. The Sisters of Kade were her best bet at finding the next part of her journey. Granted, she'd started out probing their vaults looking for that part of the journey, only stumbling upon the dagger as an afterthought. There was no guarantee another two years would come close to revealing what she needed here. That was probably something she'd have to find out in the tombs she normally explored.
"Don't tell me you'd rather stay here," said Menno.
"I've been trying to find something," Layak began slowly. She wasn't sure how much she wanted to reveal. "A site lost to the ages. And I'm not sure I've exhausted all possible avenues here."
A tight smile formed on Menno's lips. He reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I've found something better. It's also a site lost to the ages. Or, it was until recently. I've been a lucky man while you were away, Layak. I've found things I never dreamed were possible. And the place we're going to raid is none other than the Lost Passage of Aermoth."
Layak's breath caught. That was impossible. "No…"
"Yes! Can you believe it? We've already scouted the canyon area around it. This is the real thing. Don't tell me you'd rather stay here with these religious freaks instead of diving into a place of legends and myth."
Layak's hands streaked out, grabbing the straps of Menno's pack over his shoulder. She yanked him close. "Tell me you're not joking. Tell me you've really found this place."
Their noses almost touched. "I'm not joking, Layak. And I know you've made it your life's work hunting down relics and lore about Aermoth. That's why I came here. If anyone deserves to step through the Lost Passage, it's you."
Layak let go, stepping back. She hugged herself, looking up through one of the skylights. The fading sunlight was hot on her face.
This wasn't a coincidence. Layak hadn't found any special faith in her time at the abbey, but she had found something long ago. A realization that there were higher forces at work in the universe. A lot of things happened for no reason whatsoever. But these things…the timing of it all was no coincidence.
Layak turned around. With both hands, she tore open the tunic holding her habit together. It took a little work to separate the fabrics, but in a few seconds it was in a pile on the floor. She ripped the coif off her head and stepped out of the clothing gathered around her ankles. Menno didn't look surprised. Somehow he'd gambled that she'd be ready to go when he came for her. He was usually right.
"Let's go quickly."
Menno slipped his hand into hers and they marched out of the council room. It was a straight shot from there to the abbey gate. Layak forgot to worry about the priestesses who might try to stop her on the way out. She couldn't think about anything else besides Menno's revelation.
The Lost Passage of Aermoth. A pathway to Aermoth the Master. The forgotten name of God Himself.
The God Layak was going to kill.