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PostPosted: Sat Feb 03, 2018 12:07 pm 
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No Good Deed
by OrcishLibrarian
Status: Public :diamond:
Word Count: 3,692


The drunken man was still clutching a half-full glass in one hand as he emerged from the Silver Bullet Saloon onto the streets of Verkell. Stumbling outside, he reeled beneath the noonday heat, and took a few staggered steps backwards before he seemed to steady himself. He held up one arm to shield his face from the blazing sun, and he blinked his pickled eyes over and over again as he tried to adjust to the brightness and noise of the street. Then he took another drink.



That was when Sister Temperance stepped forward, and bowed before him.



“When we are lost, faith can be our lodestone,” she told the drunk, paraphrasing one of her favorite hymns, and holding one of her handwritten tracts at the ready. “There are no answers to be found at the bottom of a glass – we must look higher.”



At first, the drunk just stared at her, as though his whiskey-addled mind were unsure about what to make of the earnest young woman who had appeared before him, and was attempting to press a religious pamphlet into his free hand. But, eventually, his eyes went wide as saucers, and he tried to sidestep the smiling sister, batting away the offered tract as he did so.



But Sister Temperance had the advantage of both youth and sobriety, and she moved quickly to intercept him.



“Please,” she said, making a second attempt to hand him the tract. “Please, just take it with you, and let the angels guide you home?”



This time, she managed to get the pamphlet into the drunken man’s open hand, which he closed – reflexively – around it.



He stared down at the folded paper, onto which Sister Temperance had copied relevant verses from the Book of Virtues, and he seemed momentarily confused.



“Angels keep you,” Sister Temperance said, and she bowed again before the drunken man.



In reply, the man leered at her, and he returned her blessing with a particularly graphic obscenity – although his words were sufficiently slurred that Sister Temperance couldn’t tell if the sentiment was directed at the angels, or at her.



Then, with a crooked smile on his lips, the man raised his glass above the kneeling sister, and he emptied its contents out over her head.



Tepid, vile-smelling whiskey soaked Sister Temperance’s hair. It ran down her sunburnt face, it stung her eyes, and it dripped from her nose and chin to puddle on the sawdust-covered street. The priestess tried to wipe the liquor away with the sleeve of her sackcloth robe, but a trickle of liquid found its way into the corners of her mouth, causing her to spit, frantically, as she tried to keep from swallowing.



The man pointed, and laughed, and, after delivering himself of a second, even cruder obscenity – this time directed clearly at the Sister – he crumpled the tract she had given him into a little ball and threw it to the ground at her feet, before brushing brusquely past.



Still trying to wipe her face clean, Sister Temperance turned to look at the man’s retreating back.



“Angels keep you!” she called out after him, as he disappeared into the bustle of the Verkell street.



Kneeling down, Sister Temperance picked up the pamphlet where the man had dropped it, and she did the best she could to smooth it out before tucking it back into her robe.



Each tract took her an hour to copy. It would not do to let one go to waste.



Then, after sighing a small sigh, and a whispered prayer for strength, Sister Temperance moved to stand in front of the door to the Silver Bullet, and she began to sing a hymn. It was a struggle to make herself heard over all the shouting and laughter coming from inside, but she trusted in the power of the angels to carry her words.



Every seventh day, Sister Temperance stood on the doorstep of the Silver Bullet, and she offered her pamphlets to the lost souls she saw going in and out. She had chosen the Silver Bullet because it was the saloon closest to the chapel where she had been cloistered ever since she had left her home in Hickle Gully on the back of a mail train, and had pledged herself to the Sisterhood of Angelic Mercy. After taking her vows, she had cast aside all vestiges of her former life, and had taken one of the seven virtues as her own name – a tradition that, to her surprise, few of the Verkell sisters seemed to practice.



She had chosen temperance because it was, to her mind, the most difficult of the virtues to attain – a fact which only made her need to evangelize about it all the more urgent. So, on those days when she wasn’t needed in the kitchen, or at the orphanage, Sister Temperance found herself outside the Silver Bullet, with tracts in her hands and good tidings in her heart, as she preached to the lost souls of Verkell with the earnest fervor of one for whom salvation was more than an article of faith.



But, so far, salvation had proven to be a harder sell than whiskey. For all her singing and proselytizing, more patrons of the Silver Bullet had spat on Sister Temperance than had agreed to accept one of her tracts.



If she had failed in her effort to spread the angelic virtues, though, then that failure was not the fault of the virtues themselves, but rather of the imperfect vessel through which she tried to embody them. So, each night, as twilight fell outside the cloister, Sister Temperance performed her devotions with the same sense of purpose as she had since the hour of her conversion, and she begged the angels to give her the strength to touch even just one life in the same way that their mercy had touched hers.



Which was why, week after week, she came back to the Silver Bullet, in spite of all the evidence that she was not wanted there.



As she finished her hymn, a pair of women – one human, one rattler – stepped off the street and in the direction of the saloon. Sister Temperance smiled at them, and produced two tracts from her pocket.



When the two women saw her, though, they stopped dead in their tracks. The rattler jerked her head in Sister Temperance’s direction, then whispered something into her human companion’s ear, at which point they both executed a sharp turn and disappeared back into the passing crowd.



“Angels keep you!” Sister Temperance called after them as they departed.



They would probably just go to a different saloon, Sister Temperance knew. But maybe not.



There was always hope.



“What in the seven Hells are you doing here?” growled a rough, sandpaper voice from behind her. “You must be crazy to show your face here again.”



Sister Temperance turned around to see Tarrik – the Silver Bullet’s erstwhile bouncer – glowering at her from the entrance to the saloon.



“Hello, Tarrik,” Sister Temperance said to the minotaur, whose massive frame barely fit through the hinged double doors. She pressed her hands together in a gesture of respect, and she bowed. “I hope your day has been as blessed as mine.”



The minotaur did not return the gesture. Instead, he snorted at her.



“Don’t talk to me like we’re friends,” he said, as he stepped outside to tower over the human. “I told you what would happen if you came back here. I told you more than once.”



“I know,” Sister Temperance said, with a resigned nod. “And I’m sorry to have put you in this position. But I have work I must do.”



“So do I,” the minotaur said. Then, before the Sister could react, he grabbed her by the shoulders and hoisted her up into the air, slamming her against the saloon wall so forcefully that sparks flew in front of her eyes, and the breath was knocked from her lungs.



As Sister Temperance gasped for air, Tarrik lowered his head so that it was level with hers, and he was so close that she could feel the breath from his flared nostrils as it washed over her in warm, whistling gouts. His eyes were wide, and his face was a mask of anger.



Then, after casting a furtive glance back over his shoulder, as if to see who else might be watching, the minotaur’s face softened almost imperceptibly, and, when he spoke again, it was in a hushed, plaintive whisper.



“You’re driving away the customers, Sister,” the bouncer said, before glancing back over his shoulder a second time. “That’s bad for business, and business wants you gone. They told me to get rid of you, which I did – three times.” He closed his eyes and exhaled, before opening them again. “But you keep coming back, and now they want you gone permanently.”



Sister Temperance could see the fear that was lurking beneath the minotaur’s anger. She nodded her head.



“I understand,” she said.



“No, you don’t,” the minotaur said. He leaned in even closer, so that his face was just inches from hers. “I’m supposed to send you off today with a message that you won’t be able to forget. And, if you come back again?” He shook his horns. “It’ll be someone other than me waiting here for you the next time. And they won’t just rough you up – they’ll kill you.”



Sister Temperance closed her eyes, and she sighed. She knew what was going to happen next, and there was a part of her that was afraid of it.



Still, she had taken beatings before, and she knew that, with the angels watching over her, she could take one more.



She did not feel any anger towards Tarrik, either – she never had, not even on those occasions when he had raised his hand against her.



Instead, what she felt was sadness, and pity. Her heart went out to Tarrik. He was not a bad man, she thought. He was just lost, and he needed someone to show him the way.



Sister Temperance had hoped that someone could be her. But she had failed. She had not saved him.



So she prayed to the angels for strength, and forgiveness, before she opened her eyes.



She took a moment then to remove most of the tracts from her pockets, and she placed them in a neat pile on the ground, safely off to one side, where they would not get too crumpled, or bloody.



Then she drew in a deep breath.



“You must do what you must do,” she said. “Just as must I.”



The minotaur shook his horns one more time, and he sighed.



“I can’t take it easy on you,” he whispered to her, “or they’ll know. So, for the love of all that’s holy, when I hit you, go down, and just stay down. Okay?”



Sister Temperance nodded her head. The minotaur sighed again.



“I really wish you hadn’t come back,” he said. Then he released his grip on her shoulders, and she fell to the ground.



Before she could get up again, the minotaur hit her in the back, square between the shoulder blades, with a fist that felt like an iron hammer. Pain exploded through Sister Temperance’s body, and the force of the blow knocked her to the ground, where her head slammed against the street with a sickening crack. With her mind swimming and her whole body shaking, Sister Temperance tried to get back up on her knees. This drew an angry snort from the minotaur, followed by a sharp-hooved kick that caught her in the ribs. The young priestess could hear the sound of her own ribs cracking, followed by a searing pain that seemed to cover her whole side in fire.



She was knocked down to the ground again, and, this time, she stayed down.



As she lay there, prone, face flat against the street, the minotaur kicked her again, and again, and again. He seemed to be making some effort to avoid hitting her in the same place too many times, for which she was silently grateful. But each kick still felt like being hit by an oncoming train, and, as Sister Temperance felt herself sinking through a red haze of pain towards darkness, and oblivion, she repeated the names of the seven virtues over and over to herself, as though they were the lifeline upon which her spirit clung.



Charity, she vowed to herself, as the blows rained down.



Chastity, temperance, forbearance.



The pain was unlike anything she had ever experienced.



Humility, honesty, and obedience.



A kick landed hard, just below her elbow, and she felt her arm break, heard the bones snap like dry kindling. She wanted to cry out, but held her tongue.



Charity, chastity, temperance, forbearance, humility, honesty, obedience.



She repeated the virtues again, even as she felt the world slipping away.



Charity, chastity, temperance, forbearance, humility, honesty, obedience.



Charity, chastity, temperance, forbearance, humility, honesty, obedience.



Charity, chastity, temperance, forbearance, humility, honesty, obedience.



Finally, the beating stopped.



Sister Temperance felt calloused fingertips press against her neck, as the minotaur checked her pulse. Then, with more tenderness than she would have expected, she felt Tarrik lift her up off the street. He draped her carefully over his broad shoulder, and, slowly – taking care not to jostle her too much – he began to walk.



“Let’s take you back where you belong. Away from here,” he said, with a tone in his voice that she could not quite mark. Then, more quietly, so that only she could hear it, he added: “Forgive me, Sister.”



She wanted to answer, to tell him that all was forgiven, and that she would pray for him, but, between her broken ribs and her whistling breath, she could not quite form the words.



Instead, she somehow managed to extract a crumpled, blood-spattered tract from the folds of her robe, and, as her last willful act before fading into unconsciousness, Sister Temperance slipped the little pamphlet into the minotaur’s pocket.



Then she smiled, and was gone.




* * *



Sister Temperance sat – painfully – on a low-backed wooden chair in the Supreme Mother’s office.



As she sat there, waiting for the Supreme Mother to speak, Sister Temperance’s eyes kept drifting to the decanter of centaur wine that sat atop the Supreme Mother’s desk. “For sacramental purposes,” the Supreme Mother had once assured her, when Sister Temperance had inquired, and Sister Temperance had known better than to question the head of her chapter further on the matter.



Obedience was, after all, a virtue.



Even so, Sister Temperance could not help but wonder just what sacramental purpose the cut crystal glasses next to the decanter were meant to serve.



Meanwhile, from her seat behind the desk, the Supreme Mother cleared her throat. Sister Temperance looked up to see the gray fox staring down at her from behind thick glasses, with a pained expression on her face.



“I have spoken with Sister Florence in the infirmary,” the Supreme Mother said, steepling her paws together as she spoke, “and she tells me that we may need to break your arm again, if we’re to have any hope of setting it properly.”



Sister Temperance looked down at her right arm, which was bound up in a sling. There was something visibly off about the angle of her elbow, and, whereas every other part of her body seemed to cry out in pain every time she moved, the fingers on her right hand were conspicuously numb.



“Aside from that, though,” the Supreme Mother continued, “Sister Florence assures me that you will mend. Which is a near enough miracle, given the state we found you in.”



Sister Temperance nodded her head. She could remember nothing from between when she had passed out on Tarrik's shoulder to when she had woken up in the infirmary three days later, wrapped nearly head-to-toe in bandages, with Sister Florence – the chapter’s most practiced nurse – praying silently by her side. Based upon the expression she had seen on Sister Florence’s face when she had first opened her eyes and asked for a drink of water, Sister Temperance had been able to deduce the severity of her own injuries. And, although she had improved steadily since then, she still hurt all over. Even just sitting was excruciating. Sister Temperance could find no way to position herself in a chair that didn’t aggravate either her bandaged ribs, or her broken arm, or both.



“Sister Florence has been extremely kind to me,” she said, bowing her head slightly. “I thank the angels for her every day.”



“Of that, I have no doubt,” the Supreme Mother said. She sighed, and turned her face upwards, as if to study the ceiling. “Which leaves us with the question of what I am going to do with you.”



That remark left Sister Temperance confused. She shifted in her seat, which sent needles of pain shooting through her ribs.



“I don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head, carefully. “Once I’ve mended, surely I will resume my duties?”



“Yes. But, tell me,” the Supreme Mother said, still looking up at the ceiling, “to your mind, does that resumption of duties include a return to sermonizing outside saloons?”



“Of course,” Sister Temperance said.



With a sigh, the Supreme Mother looked back down, and, for a moment, she closed her eyes.



“Your faith is a beacon to us all, Sister Temperance,” she said. “As is your commitment to spreading the virtues. And I have nothing but praise for the way that you discharge your duties – within the walls of this chapter, that is.” The fox sighed again, and shook her head. “But this crusade of yours has to stop, before you get yourself killed – or worse.”



Sister Temperance could not believe what her Supreme was saying. It took her a second to collect her thoughts, by which time her eyes had drifted back over to the decanter.



“With all due respect, Supreme Mother, I cannot stop now,” she said. She forced herself to look away from the wine, and back up at the fox. “You see, I believe I am being tested. I believe this is my trial.”



“On that we agree,” the Supreme Mother said. “Where we differ, though, is on how you might pass that trial. I, for one, would argue that getting yourself killed out in front of the Silver Bullet hardly constitutes a triumph for the virtues.”



Sister Temperance shook her head.



“The angels will watch over me,” she said.



“The angels have gone!” the Supreme Mother snapped, drawing a painful flinch from the young Sister. “The angels left Verkell decades ago, and they have not spoken to any of us since. They left the city in pieces, and they left us to try to hold it together – a commission which is difficult enough at the best of times, and which will become properly impossible if you persist in antagonizing the sorts of people who can bring all seven Hells down upon our heads, now that we are without our protectors.”



The Supreme Mother took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes. Her voice grew distant, and she suddenly seemed very old to Sister Temperance. Very old, and very small.



“The city is lost, Sister,” the Supreme Mother said. “It was lost a long time ago, and our responsibility now is to see that we don’t become lost with it.”



Sister Temperance blinked.



“If the city is lost,” she said, slowly, “then isn’t our responsibility to save it?”



“You can’t save the whole city, Sister Temperance,” the Supreme Mother said. She sounded tired. “No one can.”



“Not the whole city, no,” Sister Temperance said. For a moment, she closed her eyes, and she thought about Tarrik, the bouncer, and about the pamphlet she had placed in his pocket. “But maybe just one soul. That would suffice.”



The Supreme Mother rubbed even harder at her eyes, before sliding her glasses back on.



“Should I take that to mean then that you intend to defy my order, and to return to preaching on the street?” she asked.



Sister Temperance was silent for a long moment.



“Yes,” she said.



“Obedience is a virtue,” the Supreme Mother said.



“So is honesty,” Sister Temperance said.



“So it is,” the Supreme Mother said.



The gray fox leaned back in her chair and she, too, passed a long moment in silence before she opened the top drawer of her desk and extracted a small slip of paper, which she offered to Sister Temperance.



“Tradition holds that a Sister must spend five years in the cloister, doing good works and demonstrating her mastery of the virtues, before she is entrusted with her mission,” the Supreme Mother said. “But, by right, I, as the Supreme of this chapter, have the power to make an exception, which – in your case – I intend to do.”



Sister Temperance accepted the paper that the Supreme Mother had offered to her. She looked down at it.



It was a train ticket: one-way, third-class, to a destination that Sister Temperance had never heard of.



A place called “World’s End.”



“Sister Temperance,” the Supreme Mother said, “I charge you with carrying the gospel into the Waste. You will go to World’s End, and you will preach the virtues there. That is your mission.”



Sister Temperance stared mutely down at the train ticket she held in her hands.



“Who will I report to?” she finally asked. “Will I be met at the station?”



“No,” the Supreme Mother said. “The Sisterhood has no chapter in World’s End. You will be the first among our number to carry the virtues quite so... far from Verkell.”



Sister Temperance was too surprised to say anything. She remained silent even as the Supreme Mother unstoppered the decanter of centaur wine.



“Do you have any questions?” the fox asked, as she poured herself a generous glass.



“No,” Sister Temperance said. “Only, when do I leave?”



“As soon as you are able,” the Supreme Mother said, and she took a drink of the strong, red wine, before adding: “Angels keep you.”



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