Flora exited the Cradle and took the portal to Talpica from the Metaworld. That was faster and cheaper than transportation from Zauberberg to Talpica.
Immediately, Flora plugged in the Octopussy and her mech-suit. Even with Bliz's company, she had felt incomplete without them. She dismissed the elemental after thanking her because politicking would be more painful for the hyperactive icicle than even herself.
From the portal square in Talpica, she took the Mover to the temple. It was her first time navigating the air space above the capital, and she immediately handed over the controls to Aidan. The land traffic was horrible, but the air traffic was a nightmare.
Talos guarded the entrance of the temple, and Flora greeted him politely.
"This woman says she's with you." The temple guard added after his greeting.
Only then Flora spotted Mia, who sat like a beggar next to the gate, leaning on the temple's walls. Her eyes were closed, and her breath steady. She seemed to be drowning in her oversized grey hoody.
"Send her in when she wakes up, please."
"I'm awake," Mia mumbled, but when she recognized Flora, she sprang to her feet. "I'm awake!"
"Indeed, you are," Flora said, noticing the deep rings under Mia's eyes. "Why are you looking like you should be asleep?"
"It's nothing," Mia said, swaying.
"I didn't even know that you could look that bleary-eyed in this world. How did you manage it?"
"I'm on my last stamina and concentration bar. I speed-ran instances the entire night."
"Burned toast! Teenagers!" Flora shook her head and walked into the temple.
"All the rankers did it, not only teenagers. The patch cleared the leader boards of the instances because of the increase in the mob's health. It's prime time to set some new records." Mia explained while trailing her. "We have to strike the level 1 HI3 while we are still in the level range for it. There are only thirteen level 1 HI3s, so it's doable in one night."
Flora stopped. "You conquered 13 instances in a row?" She asked incredulously.
"Yes, well, not exactly. You know, there is a leader board for one player, two players, and three players. So, of course, I ran each of them three times."
Flora laughed and shook her head.
"We did okay on most of them, but the instances in Zauberberg are technology restricted, so we only reached the top 50," Mia said without any inflection in her tone. That girl knew how to humblebrag! Flora made mental notes for her next chat with Isabella.
"Oh well, you can't have everything," Flora said, grinning, and Mia nodded earnestly.
"I'm sure with your help, we could reach the top 10," Mia stated.
"Let's talk about it after the entourage selection … and after a nap."
A novice led Flora and Mia to a meeting room.
"One question," Flora asked before entering. "I've heard AIs can't lie. Is this true for NPCs as well?"
"They can't lie in their free interaction, but they can have scripted dialogue with lies. You can notice it when they are repeating themselves with minimal variation. So the blatant lies are pretty obvious, but they are uncannily good at hiding the truth without lying."
Flora nodded and opened the door.
The council members, Captain Tomos Ceart, Bishop Ellaciel Zander, and Bishop Afstira Nomizo, sat next to the four additional candidates. Flora knew Deriga, her favorite ex-novice, and she had seen the short-haired Fireling monk, Babra before. She recognized the other three from the pictures Aidan had provided.
Ursula, the church's rising star, had golden skin on a sharp face. Her slanting golden eyes shone with intelligence. Flora found it hard to judge her age, but she still had the kind of serious aura only young people projected.
The other paladin candidate, Konstantin, sported a nervous smile. He had brown skin and pink hair and was probably in his thirties or early forties.
Last but not least was Vatten. Even though he was a chaplain, he had more muscles than the paladins and wore his long blue hair in a ponytail. Despite his chiseled jaw and muscular physique, he presented a docile facial expression. He was the oldest and highest leveled of the candidates.
Only abbot Mino Irden was missing, but because he excused himself from the entourage, his attendance wasn't necessary. Nonetheless, as soon as Flora put a plate full of toasts on the table, he sprinted into the room.
"I'm here! I'm so sorry for being late." He greeted the round cheerfully and grabbed a Nutella toast on the way to his seat.
"Thank you to each and every one of you for being here with us today. I know the last week wasn't easy for you. Our pope turned on us, and another council member showed he wasn't loyal to our great church and Goddess. We were attacked, our holy places were destroyed, and our clergy was captured. We are in an era of tumult and uncertainty."
Flora paused and looked everyone in the eyes. Nomizo nodded while Zander didn't give away any emotion. Ceart's and Ursula's faces were neutral, but their eyes glowed with fighting spirit. Vatten and Deriga looked concerned, and Irden shook his head in regret. Konstantin's eyes darted between his colleagues.
"I don't deny that I'm the cause of everything."
Now, Deriga shook her head and opened her mouth to say something, but Flora held up her hand.
"Everything bad and everything good. Do you prefer to have a traitor as your boss?"
Flora watched the audience's reactions like a baker the blooming of his newest dough.
"Do you prefer to survive and be unchallenged in obscurity?" Flora sneered at them.
"No!" Babra jumped from her seat.
Flora ignored her and continued. "Next Sunday, the church of Evailyn will prove to the world and to itself that we deserve to influence the Cetviwos. Evailyn is our Goddess, and it is her right and her duty to return to the big stage."
Ursula, Ceart, and Deriga stood up. Konstantin and Vatten followed them.
"I will give my best to ensure our victory, and I humbly ask for your help and support. Who will fight with me?"
"We will fight with you, Champion!" Babra yelled, and the paladins echoed her.
"You have my support, Champion!" Irden said, laying down his third toast.
"For Evailyn!" Zander said, dignified.
"For Evailyn!" Flora and everybody joined in, even Mia.
"Thank you. Knowing you have my back means a lot to me. I reviewed your suggestions, and Abbot Irden raised a good point. He mentioned that events like the Champion selection influence your RGS and rating. So my first question is for the level 250. Can you make full use of this opportunity, or should we give it to the rising clergy?"
"While I want to break through and reach the second realm, I'm far away from it. I yield my spot to the younger generation." Zander said.
"I agree," Irden said, then grinned. "At least to the last part. I have no aspirations of getting into the realm of sages."
"I'm even further away than my colleagues. I could use the Champion selection to increase my Recommended Group Size. With only an RGS of three, I'm the weakest council member." Nomizo pressed her lips together. This admission had cost her. "However, I have refused to clean dishes in the past, so I have no right to demand to polish silver. I'm fine with passing."
Flora nodded. She respected the decision of the Bishop and her formulation. If someone used homemaker metaphors, they belonged in the church of Evailyn. Mentally, she took Nomizo off the list of suspects.
Flowing Flowers to Aidan: "Add raising the RGS of the council members to the to-do list, dear."
Everybody looked at Tomos Ceart. His hands were balled into fists.
"I'm the youngest member of the council and one of the most powerful. I can contribute the most to the champion competition. I worked hard all my life. I have the will to breakthrough, and I want to seize every chance."
"Thank you for being honest," Flora said. "I'm not familiar with the requirements for 'breaking through'. You refer to leveling above level 250, right? Can you tell me more about it?"
"I need to raise my rating to A, and I need to slay one more worthy opponent. My skills and attributes are up to the task."
"It differs for Earthlings, so no wonder you are unfamiliar," Zander said. "We have to bolster our stats, have an RGS of 10 and Rating of A. When we breakthrough, the RGS gets reduced by ten, and the Rating to E. So not everybody is willing to go from a sage to a pauper."
"How do you raise Rating and RGS?"
"RGS is raised by training and achievements, Rating by stepping up and acting like a leader," Zander answered.
Ceart stared at Zander as if she had said something offensive. Most of the clergy looked thoughtful. Only Irden was relaxed and grabbed his fourth toast.
"Is this information new to you?" Flora asked in the round. She was puzzled by their reaction.
"There are as many methods to raise your RGS and Rating as for losing weight. If someone has a minor accomplishment with one method, they swear by it, but it might not work out for you." Irden said while chewing. When some of the toast left his mouth, Babra kicked him under the table.
"Bishop Zanders statement conforms to my observations. Deriga's RGS increased after she trained with me, and her Rating rose after she stood up for her beliefs. You all fought the Pope, but the B-rated council members just defended themselves, whereas Zander, the only A-rated level 250, defended the novices. What did you do, Ursula?"
"I organized the evacuation of the church together with Deriga." The only other A-rated person on the table answered.
Flora nodded. "I wondered why I haven't seen any maneuvering for the pope's job from you. I'm happy that no one tried anything shady, at least to my knowledge." Nobody looked like they had a bad conscience, which was enough for Flora to continue. "However, the attacks on the shrines and temples were a prime opportunity to step up. We required leadership, but nobody came forward on the macro stage. I'm sure you did a good job on your assigned tasks and fronts, but nobody looked at the big picture and organized the response of the entire church."
"You are right." Zander nodded, still sporting an emotionless mask. "I acted within my usual responsibilities, which is organizing the novices and contacting the allied churches for help. I didn't even realize that we have a power vacuum to fill."
"I did what was necessary, defending the church!" Ceart insisted.
Flora remembered the non-existing guard schedule and his misjudgment of where the next attacks would hit. Coupled with his unwillingness to take responsibility, he didn't seem to be a leader. Unfortunately, she wasn't one either and had no clue how to say that to him without alienating him more. "I'm sorry. I haven't stepped up either. I'm no leader and never wanted to be one. In my world, there is something like peer-review. I suggest that the council assembles to speak about what went right and what areas you could improve. The attack caught us with our pants in the cleaning cabinet; we have to think up and implement speed steaming and dressing routines. More incidents will happen."
The council members nodded, and Ceart got a grip on his emotions and calmed down.
"Captain Ceart, your application for the entourage still stands. Now, I want to hear from the younger generation what they can bring to the table."
"I want to start!" Babra exclaimed. "I can contribute because of my fire enhanced prayers. The other champion candidates are all from the religious factions, which means they have high resistance against divine skills. My fire isn't affected. I have already organized a babysitter for the next few days, so I will train hard and sleep enough. Okay, that sleeping part came out wrong. I don't want to sleep, I want to compete!"
"It's alright, dear. I'm a mother, too. I'm glad that you made sure to be in optimal condition for Sunday. You are part of the team. Congratulations." Flora decided, half spontaneously, a quarter because the fireling monk made a good impression, and a quarter because she was the only monk available. Maybe she had been a bit rash, so she glanced at Mia. The girl was busy taking notes. Therefore Flora received no feedback.
"I want to remove my application, Champion," Ursula said. "I'm very thankful for the opportunity, and I'm learning a lot by just witnessing the procedure."
"What?" Babra stammered while Deriga shook her head in disbelief. Ceart's knuckles turned white under the pressure of his fists. A wave of astonishment rolled over the table.
"May I know your reasons?" Flora asked. She had to admit that Ursula made her job easier by abstaining. She wanted to build a team with maximal diversity, and she already had with Deriga, a Metalling in Ursula's age group, and more than enough women and paladins. However, Deriga and Ursula seemed to be quite different from each other in temperament. So, she wouldn't mind having both. Furthermore, diversity was only one aspect of assembling a strong team−competence and willingness were also important. (1)
"Captain Ceart is my mentor, and it doesn't feel right competing against him. I have the least seniority of the paladins, so it is my duty to step back. I'm willing to take up more responsibilities in the church. I want to serve our Goddess well, but I don't believe that I can contribute more than my colleagues in the competition."
"No, Ursa! This is a unique chance for anybody. You have to use it." Ceart said. "I forbid you to abstain!"
Ursula shrugged and showed Ceart her empty hands.
"Champion, I'm withdrawing from the competition!" Ceart said and glowered at Ursula. "Now, take your resignation back!"
Ursula shrugged again but glanced at Flora.
*beep* (Where is popcorn when you need it?)
"Let's hear out the others," Flora said, suppressing rolling her eyes.
(1): To the topic of diversity: Flora is looking for real diversity, not just ticking of race and gender boxes, but with her determination to choose from the church, she has little variation. There are studies that a mixed team of mechanics, technicians, engineers regularly win competitions against teams solely composed of Ph.D. holders. Diversity of upbringing, experience, and education is beneficial for group tasks.