Then...

Lying on her back, Sister Selena's hot tears stung deeply as they dripped onto the fresh slashes on her right shoulder. Her breath came in shallow gasps, the hemp ropes biting painfully into her wrists now tied behind her back. Just a few scant inches away from her was the cooling corpse of the Mother Superior. The rank scent of blood and waste hung heavy in the air, nearly making the frightened young woman retch. Selena choked back a sob. Turning her head away would only make the sight worse. She was surrounded by the bodies of her fellow nuns, their throats slit, their bellies cut open and their life blood staining the stone floor of the convent. Each woman's face had been etched into a moment of agonizing fear as they died, their desperate prayers to Theus unanswered in this time of horror. Yet, throughout it all, their killer had said nothing.

Now...now she was the last. A menos que Inéz...

The scrape of a boot step on stone immediately broke her from those thoughts. Death was coming. The knife blade of the hooded figure was still slickly coated with the blood of her fallen sisters. Selena gurgled and whimpered. She bucked in impotence, helpless as a flipped tortoise and unable to move even one inch away. Heartbeat thundering in her ears, she shook her head frantically, trying to will herself awake from this approaching nightmare.

"¿Por qué?" Selena croaked. "¿Por qué estás haciendo esto?"

With a cock of the head, the figure paused suddenly. Not to look at her, but to instead look down the alcove towards the bust of the Third Prophet. Carved from marble, his visage was stern and silent, watching the horrid scene in cold judgement. Selena's gaze fell upon the bust, wildly hoping that maybe, somehow, she would be the one spared after all. Wasn't she an innocent? ¡Profeta, sálvame!

The hooded one's lips just quirked into the faint trace of a smile, speaking softly in a language she would never know.

Then in a final, frenzied motion, the blade was driven into her throat.

Now...

It had taken two days for the coach to reach Santa Barbara from Altamira. The coach normally only carried mail between Altamira and San Gustavo, down in Rancho Gallegos. It was a quiet trip, broken up by only the stops at small military garrisons (for letters to and from loved ones for soldiers stationed) that dotted the remote vineyards and rolling hills along the way. Nearby, off towards the west were the foreboding mountains of La Sierra de Hierro – the "Saw of Iron" – that bordered between Castille and Vodacce.

Santa Barbara was a small village in between Altamira and San Gustavo – really, closer to a hamlet - settled in near those mountains. It was a welcomed stop, a chance for the driver and her guard to have a proper warm meal and a glass of wine rather than military rations. With the cold air signaling the end of the Feast of All Souls and the arrival of Nonus, such stops were even more appreciated.

This time, with the mail though, the coach carried a passenger. A foreigner from the country of Avalon, he had gotten on at the very start of the journey in Altamira. He seemed friendly and appeared to know enough passing Castillian to make himself understood, saying that he was meeting up with an old friend in Santa Barbara. Passengers weren't usual on this route, let alone foreign passengers, but they weren't totally unheard of either. And he offered a fair amount of guilders to pay for his passage as well. Both driver and guard figured that, if he meant trouble, they could take him in a fight, then toss him out in an ignominious heap at any of those garrisons. But the passenger was as true as his guilders, only adding that his friend in question was the local priest at Santa Barbara.

And the name that he gave himself was of a man presumed dead elsewhere, but only a few in Castille were actively aware of that.

The first things the villagers out on the main square of Santa Barbara noticed about the newcomer were his long brown overcoat and the fact that his hair (also brown) was as unruly as the grass in a fallow field. On closer inspection, they noticed he was thin, was dressed like a scholar, carried a satchel, a smallsword peacebonded at his side and a wide grin that genuinely seemed to enjoy what passed for small town life in Santa Barbara.

The first thing the newcomer noticed, however, was the odd structure that nearly blended in among the towering mountain side on the outskirts of town. At first glance, it could have passed for an outcropping of stone, but it was too symmetrical, its lines too clean. He filed the interesting sight away in the back of his thoughts for the time being, asking a villager in Castillian for the whereabouts of one Father Leo Alfredo Ortega. And, in about fourteen minutes, the newcomer was passing by a small church, knocking on the door of an even smaller house adjacent to it.

Silence. He knocked one more time.

"¡Un momento por favor!" Came the gruff response. "Mi cocinera esta lejos y me muevo lento!"

Outside, the thin man only chuckled. "¡Muévete más despacio y no quedará nada de la mermelada de tu madre!"

The door flew open at that. Standing in the door frame was a shorter Castillian man with hazel eyes, salt and pepper curly hair with a matching slight beard and a pair of round spectacles perched upon his stout nose. Switching to Avalon, Father Leo said in mock sternness "You wouldn't dare!" Waving his guest inside, the priest gave a quick glance to see if anyone else was nearby outside before quickly shutting the door. "Foreman, thank Theus you've come! Sit, please…get comfortable! I wasn't kidding about my cook being away, I'm afraid. I hope you like leftover rabbit escabeche."

"I'm sure I will," said David Foreman. His smile was one of familiarity with Father Leo. "Your mother sends her best, by the way." He pulled out a cloth-covered jar from his satchel and handed it to the priest before sitting down. "Marmalade, made from Avila oranges. Admittedly, I was very tempted to crack it open, but I stayed good, Father!"

"Oh, I would have absolved you, never fear!" Father Leo laughed, setting the jar down on a table. "This will be for breakfast tomorrow, most assuredly!" He paused, looking over the Avalon before sitting down himself, asking quietly. "How have you been feeling?"

"…I'm managing…" In spite of himself, David looked away, trying to cover up the flinch. He absent-mindedly rubbed his left shoulder. Physically, the scars were all healed. Mentally, emotionally, though…

…Father Leo noticed the distant regret clouding in the Avalon's brown eyes and the tightness in his jaw and let the matter immediately drop. Instead, he turned the conversation over to other topics. About concerns in town involving early snow possibly falling next week and what was the latest gossip from Altamira? In response, the Avalon brought up how, apparently, a band of wayward Vestens had moved into that illustrious city and were now building a mead hall. And how someone was trying to produce an opera about a beloved stray dog. Soon after, supper was served and laughter rang again. Good crusty bread with olive oil and salt to pair with that promised rabbit escabeche as well as spicy patas bravas. A meal between old friends, devoured with great relish.

After the plates were cleared, Sherry-sack was poured and the fire was restoked. Back in his chair, David nodded to Father Leo, ready to discuss more important matters. "I did get your mother's message. I'm here…what's all this about?"

"I'm assuming you saw the tower when you arrived? Up the mountains?" After Foreman nodded again, the father continued. "Built when the Crescents first came to Castille. A watchtower. Existed long before Santa Barbara came into existence. After the Crescents were driven out of Castille, it stood abandoned for three centuries until the Vaticine Church converted and consecrated it for its own use. Our Lady of the Mountains, a convent."

Father Leo paused to enjoy a sip of Sherry-sack, though his expression turned towards the grim side.

"I admit, I never heard of it until I was assigned to the parish here – or of the tragedy that happened up there."

"Tragedy?" Foreman straightened up in his chair, interest clear now on his face. He kept his focus on Father Leo, waiting for him to continue.

"'Tragedy' might be too mild a word," sighed Father Leo, shaking his head sadly. "'Massacre'. Seventy-three years ago, six nuns were murdered during one night. They were tied up. Throats slit, then mutilated…Theus, I hope they were dead before they were mutilated."

"Theus!" breathed the Avalon, jaw dropping in shock.

"…they weren't—" The priest struggled to find the correct word for a few moments. "—they weren't violated at least, or so the reports say. But it took nearly a month before anyone in town realized they hadn't seen any of the sisters in a while. Those poor women…. No one knows who did it or why…Crescents, Legion worshippers, the Vodacce, a band of brigands, a band of Vodacce brigands. No real leads as to who, just sick rumours. The place eventually became abandoned again. And then the stories started. Children daring their friends to spend the night up there. Drunken louts with something to prove. They'd hear screams and weeping, but couldn't see who or what was making the sounds. Finally, the town decided to lock it up with a chain on the door to keep any trespassers out. Until now."

"Go on." David's gaze was intense.

"The Church wants to reconsecrate the building, use it as a convent again. The Order wants this to happen too. Given its remote location and the proximity to Vodacce, it'd make a fine safehouse. We already have Daughters to put in play. But there's a complication. The Church has asked me to look into the murders after all this time." Father Leo took another sip. "You see, there were six bodies found – but there were seven nuns stationed at Our Lady of the Mountains."