“Fellow disciples.” The red pope scanned over the masses from his balcony. “The road to salvation is treacherous, fraught with trials that push us to our limits. And like the blood serpent, you have endured. As you gaze at me with virgin eyes, remade in the image of our beloved savior, think back not to yesterday, but the road ahead: your soul redeemed, one step closer to The Almighty.” A sharp pain knifed through Pope Aquinus’ side.
The crowd cheered, raising swords and bows shaped like serpents. Their reptilian eyes studied him, not a human among them.
“It is time to claim what is ours. The Holy Crescent has sustained a mortal wound, one from which it will not recover. You will return to Abber Sur, under the pretense of burying the fallen prophet. Additional units will shadow you through the mountains, and wait for your signal once the tower has been compromised. You will receive back your old weapons, relics of a rudderless past, die meant to be recast as you have; but not before you cut out the hearts and tongues of all who hold the wayward teachings dear.
“Before I dispense your first taste of The Holy One, a few words if I may. Strength alone will only carry you so far. Those who prize it above all else are the ones that tend our crops. And when they step onto the battlefield, they will perform according to their physical limitations. To gain advantage, everything must align in their favor: confidence, weather…chance. There is little room for error. I mention this because entire societies have been built upon this erroneous notion, lands in which you were born.
“But soldiers of The Holy Serpent are different beasts entirely. A warrior of The Almighty must have equal parts vision and cunning to survive the day. Acknowledging that there is no true strength, only weaknesses that can be exploited, is the first step towards enlightenment. Conversely, you must learn to feign weakness even though you are strong. Lure the enemy close, embrace him if need be, and cut him down in his most vulnerable moment. Deception is meant for the enemy, not oneself.”
Aquinus looked over the crowd, pain snaking though his ribs. He staggered, grasping the baluster before him, nails splintering the wooden spindle as he clawed his way to his feet. “During your travels, remember the teachings I have imparted.” His eyes turned blood red. “It is better to be the water than the stone. Knowledge of all paths leads to the path around. Strike well rather than often. Take time to sharpen your sword before heading to battle. And lastly, a good life not remembered will quickly find its end on the battlefield. Take this to heart, along with the flesh of The Divine One.” He tossed handfuls of dried scales from a red chalice. “Behold The Holy Serpent, your light when darkness falls.” He took one in his mouth and swallowed. “Let him be with you now.”
Abruptly his abdomen swelled, vertebraes snapping off his spine. Blood sprayed from his chest as a fist forced its way through. A full-grown man rose from the pontiff’s mangled corpse, and stepped into the light.
“Like everything in life, we have evolved…even religion.” Pope Ruminus hissed, his eyes glowing bright red. “Look at all the unbelievers, a mockery of everything the Holy Crescent stood for. Not one of you held your ground, and let the false prophet pervert your flesh. A pity, for this would have been the moment of redemption.” He brushed himself off. “No longer are you worthy of salvation; instead your flesh shall feed my army.”
An arrow whirred through the air, striking the pontiff in the eye. Ruminus pulled it out, yanking the eye from its socket. “Be water and not the stone? The words of a weak and pliable mind,” he chuckled. “Instead, be the sea. The giver and taker of all life, not an insignificant puddle of water.” Red flames burned from the empty socket. “For I am the dragon, not the snake. Behold the new order of the Dragon Crescent.” His skin scaled over, flesh morphing into the shape of a giant winged serpent.
Arrows rained down as the balcony crumbled. The dragon sprung off the castle wall, devouring the heretics amid their first and only communion.