The wench avatar was a big mistake.
Barking Street was much shorter when Ellison had walked up it while wearing the assassin outfit, with its long pants, jacket, and heavy, hooded wool cloak.
Walking back down to Aldwich Row in a skirt and a bodice-baring chemise was an endless march. At least the skirt had multiple layers and Ellison’s legs were warm.
But the walk did jog his brain. He’d seen Remember Keturah Bohannon before. He didn’t know who she was back then, but she’d attended a fancy dress ball at Elea Carlyle’s castle a few weeks back.
She’d been friendly with both Elea and with Rodge Bannister, the head of the Armsforge Guild.
Rodge had a dungeon and a torturer on staff.
If Remember had knocked Fulke out, stuffed him in a sack, and dropped it out the window, Rodge could have easily had one of mercenaries waiting in the street below.
Elea was extremely vindictive if she thought that someone had crossed her. If Remember shared that character trait, almost anything that Fulke did could have set her off.
He walked faster. The sex cult might not have Fulke, but at least they had warm cloaks.
When he got back to the Aldwich Row Community Center, the evening service still hadn’t started, and the crowd outside was starting to get impatient.
“What’s going on?” Ellison asked the last person in line, who was dressed in the same default wench avatar as he was but with a slightly different face.
“The woman who owns this place won’t allow all of us in,” said the other wench. “Something about overcrowding. So then they said they’re going to have a second service.”
The next woman in line turned around. “Did you hear? She won’t let them do a second service because someone else has the building reserved afterwards. A knitting circle.”
“I thought that when Fulke disappeared, the Round Krim people had to give up some of their slots,” Ellison said.
The third wench shook her head. “Looks like she changed her mind again.”
“What, did Fulke come back?”
“No, the Rounders just paid her more money.”
Further down the line, another man chimed in. “Round Krim has been getting a lot of donations lately now that their leader’s been kidnapped by the grid admins,” he said. “They’re rolling in the dough.”
“How do you know?” asked the third wench.
“I’m a member,” the man said.
Ellison wondered how much of the new influx in cash was from the ship captains running the edge of Krim tours, ensuring that the Round Krimmers would stay afloat. So to speak.
“So what do they do at these things?” Ellison asked, gesturing in the direction of the door. “Is it just, you know, prayers and stuff? Or do they actually sacrifice people?”
“Is this your first time here?” asked the wench next to him.
He pulled out the flyer that Matilda had grabber earlier. “Yes. A friend gave this to me. Said it would be fun. But then, of course, she had to go do something else.”
The wench patted him on the shoulder. “Well, you’re very brave for coming along. But don’t worry. No sacrifices tonight.”
The next wench down laughed. “They don’t do them here. It’s up at the main temple. And you have to be invited — it usually takes at least a year before they trust you enough.”
“Qualdir, God of the Underworld, has a lot of enemies,” said the first wench. “They have to be careful.”
“Praise be to Qualdir!” chanted several other members in line.
“Like the Temple of Evjun?” asked Ellison.
“Well, sure. But more like the True Believers of Qualdir.”
“True unbelievers, you mean!” said the other wench.
“So,” Ellison said, trying to deflect them from a discussion of the religious schism that must have torn apart the cult, “What do you have to do to become trusted?”
“It’s mostly about being a good member of the community,” said the wench standing next to him. “Helping out with the bake sales. Bringing in recruits. Dedicating your life to Qualdir. Serving on the cleanup committee. That kind of thing. For example, tomorrow, a few of us are going to go trolling for sacrifices.”
Ellison put his most interested expression on his face.
“It’s when we go up to the main gate and wait for newcomers to come through. We look for people who are by themselves, don’t know where they’re going, a little shy.”
“And you recruit them for the cult?”
“Well, sure, if they want to join, we’ll give them pamphlets and ask for donations and stuff. But we’re more looking for those who are a little freaked out by the idea of human sacrifices in the worship of Qualdir, God of the World.”
“Praise be to Qualdir!” chanted the other believers.
“Why those people in particular?”
“They make the best sacrifices. Qualdir likes his victims to be terrified.”
“Praise be to Qualdir!”
“He’s that kind of god.”
Ellison looked down the line. “A lot of women here,” he said.
“There’s no cover charge for female avatars.”
That explained the high number of default wench outfits. Plus, people probably preferred not to show up in their usual bodies to something like this, even when their regular avatars were female.
Ellison shivered. It felt like he’d been standing in the alley for hours.
And odds were, the sex cult didn’t have Fulke. If Remember used them to get Fulke out of the picture, she wouldn’t still be arguing with the cult about scheduling.
Plus, being in this alley kind of creeped him out.
He turned to go when he heard chanting behind him. The chanting steadily grew louder and louder. “Qualdir! Qualdir! Qualdir!”
He stood on his toes to see what was going on.
“They’re letting us in!” whispered a wench next to him. “Praise be to Qualdir!”
Then a new figure came hurrying down from the end of the alley, in a hooded cloak. There were several people behind Ellison who grumbled when the newcomer strode past them.
“Sorry, running late, coming through,” said the cloaked figure.
“Hey, there’s a line here.” The man who previously said that he was a member of the Round Krim Society stepped into the figure’s path, then backed away quickly when he saw who it was under the hood. “Sorry, high priest, didn’t recognize you.”
“Praise be to Qualdir,” said the high priest.
It wasn’t Skullash. How many high priests did Qualdir have? But the aura around the figure was very familiar. In fact, Ellison had seen it earlier that day. It was Taenaran the Bard, in a new body.
Ellison was surprised to see him, after Taenaran had been so insistent about how much he hated the sex cult, and didn’t know any of its members.
It probably didn’t mean anything. Why would anyone admit to being in a sex cult? Consenting adults, and all that. Well, and non-consenting human sacrifice victims. Either way, it had no bearing on where Remember stashed Fulke.
Ellison shivered again. It would probably warm inside the community center, surrounded by the warm bodies of Qualdir’s followers.
The chanting got louder, and the cult followers pushed towards the back door. Ellison crouched down and fiddled with his bootlaces until the last follower pushed past him, then walked away.