Beware o mortal
Hear my words of truth
Heed this warning and remember
The wrath of the Goddess
Is without mercy
until justice is truly restored
Akisha sat comfortably reclining in a chair by the fire, it was nice and warm in there since the wood in the fireplace was burning hard. Almost the entire group was assembled in what was the circus combined library and living room, it was freezing out there now and had been for several weeks. On the whole, it seemed that winter had taken a real stranglehold of the country this year, it came early and it turned cold at once too. There were no performances as it was, all used the time to practice and training and to relax and enjoy them as best they could. Akisha took a sip of the good spice wine, she had had a cold for a few weeks and had hated it, she and Raigh had been guards for a nobleman who was going on a trip to rather doubtful counties further south and on one occasion she had ended up in a river of all things. It had been a cold bath and it had probably been the cause of the disease.
Now she was back in shape and enjoying the peace and tranquility in the home, she knew it was only a matter of time before she and the others had to go back out again doing their goddess’s work. Raigh sat at a table and played a board game against Rheynek, the game was hard and had Akisha smiling of her mates pretty grim mine when he desperately tried to think out the next moves his opponent would do. Rheynek however, seemed to enjoy the challenge and she thought in her mind that this was typical of him. He sat there just as happy to use his head as to use the sword.
Hawk and Elywen sat in a corner and talked relaxed and subdued together in Elvish and Frostbird was leaning back against Khir in a couch and got her hair combed through. She seemed to be as relaxed as a cat in a soft bed. Enez sat in another chair and read, she plowed through everything she came across now that she had learned the art and sucked in knowledge like a sponge. It was strange to think that the petite young woman had the background she had, she seemed as fragile as fine china but it really was steel in her, she was stronger than one would think. At the back of the room Rhylja had sat down with a piece of leather that would cover the hilt of a sword she had bought, now she sat and braided tiny leather belts into an incredibly complex pattern and repeated outbreaks and obscene swear words told that it was not always easy. She had a tendency to bite down on more than she should at times. Akisha smiled to herself and stretched her legs toward the fire; the cold was the only problem there now. There was fires burning everywhere and luckily Whaly had been predictive and bought a whole lot of firewood, hopefully it would last to the spring but then they would surely be empty.
Raigh grunted annoyed and Rheynek playfully beat down one of his pieces. “You need to shape up, this is too bad!”
Raigh almost sputtered and Akisha had an idea that they should take a practice fight in the arena afterward, so he could get some steam released. Otherwise he would be uncomfortable to be in the house with for a while. Raigh hated to lose, even if it was a mere board game. The good wooden training swords Whaly had obtained from a trader were incredibly nice to work with and she knew that she looked forward to a game of good fencing. She needed to maintain their skills.
She was about to put down the wine glass and fill it again with a little more wine when Rheynek suddenly folded forward over the table, there came a strange sound from the man and Raigh looked distressed and shocked at him. Akisha was sitting with her mouth open and staring.
Rheynek got up slowly again but his face was gray and his eyes were momentarily as black as Hawks, they were just as intensely glowing as the fire in a forge. He cut an ugly face and growled like an animal. Akisha had heard Hawk growl, it was not a sound one would associate with Rheynek. She began to wonder if it had snapped for him or if he was sick. Enez was at a full gallop towards him, it was pure horror in her eyes. “She’s here!”
He groaned and his eyes turned black again. “Something terrible has happened!”
Akisha got aware of a strong smell, it was so strong that she had to cover her nose with one of her sleeves and she heard the shuffling sound of the revenge wolves, judging by the sound they were the size of horses! Her heart sank within her; it was like a cold chasm in her chest. She felt it too, the goddess was near, and she was angry. It boiled in the air. Frostbird fell forward on the sofa with a cry; she bent double with her hands pressed against her head and groaned Elywen moaned hollowly and her eyes rolled back in her head. Akisha stared stunned in front of her; she suddenly saw something quite different from the cozy room they were in. In front of her was like a hole in the air and through it she saw an old castle of some sort. It burned, thick black smoke hung over the treetops and flame tongues stretched greedily out of windows and peepholes. Suddenly she saw a courtyard, there were bodies everywhere and the snow was stained red with blood, it seemed that people were just slaughtered like cattle.
Most were women, dressed in a white dress with a blue mantle over, she recognized it. Akisha felt how a terrible anger worked in her, a grief and rage that were like glowing fire in the soul. The images disappeared, where they had been the black she wolf stood, big as a tiger. She bared her teeth, growled in wild fury and the yellow eyes shone like jewels in the firelight. “You saw my children, you saw what’s happened. Avenge them. Avenge my innocent lambs. Do not let this blood be shed without retaliation.”
There was a flash, she was gone and all there breathed again. Rheynek was panting like a whipped horse, sweat was running off him and Akisha understood that he had to have a closer connection to the goddess than even her; after all, the goddess had made him and shaped him into what he now was.
Raigh looked as if he had fallen down from the moon. “Oh holy Goddess, I saw it, I saw everything, and it was awful!”
Elywen sobbed softly and Hawk had put his arms around her, comforting but his eyes burned. “Swine, monsters!”
Khir just tried desperately to console a sobbing Frostbird but could not calm her down. She trembled in his grip. Rhylja had stood up; suddenly she looked more than ever before like a predator, her teeth were bared and there was something directly inhuman in her eyes
“Where is this place? Someone must know!”
Akisha gathered herself with a shudder, she wanted to scream, and the visions had been filled with such pain and grief that she never had felt anything like it. “I ... I know where it is ... I recognized their suits.“
Raigh became aware that she was pale and raced over to her, forced her into the chair. “Where?”
His voice was low and hoarse; the sight had upset him too. “There is a temple, or rather a mixture of temple and hospital and school, two day’s ride north of Arphen. One of the priestesses there was here for the opening of the new temple in the city, she told a lot about it.”
Hawk straightened up, his eyes were cold as obsidian. “It looked as if the place had been pillaged, and many were killed.”
Akisha felt that her head was spinning; she felt that tears pressed forth. “I think everyone was killed, but I do not know for sure, anyway she is right. It must be avenged, and investigated. We must get there, fast! “
The dark elf looked sharply at her. “Why would anyone be slaughtering a herd of priestesses?”
Akisha put her hands over her face; the shock caused her to tremble. “I have no idea, honestly. We have to find out. Oh goddess, I do not know what to do ....”
Raigh stroked her hair. “But I know, do not worry dear, I will arrange this.”
She just looked at him, her head spinning and thoughts swirling like banners in a rigid storm, she could not think clearly now. Raigh straightened up; suddenly he looked very determined and purposeful.
“Okay guys, we pack and bring everything we own and have of weapons, understand?”
All nodded and went out quickly. Raigh helped Akisha on her feet and guided her to their room. “You stay here; I’ll let the rest of our friends know in case they want to join us.”
Akisha nodded, the visions she had seen danced in her eyes yet. She had seen blood in huge quantities before, rivers of it, and she had even shed much of it. But she had never seen such a thing, a bloodbath in a peaceful country retreat, a senseless murder of defenseless women who only served good. She threw herself down on the bed and sobbed softly, her heart still felt like a cold hard lump in her chest.
Raigh slid down to the kitchen and gave the message to the cook that they needed food for many people and several days. Then he ran to the stables and Dheg ensured that their horses would be ready the following morning.
He found Khean who was responsible for the weapons caches and asked him to find enough to arm a small army and he was actually a little trip into Jirgh’s lab although the alchemist lab was a place he usually avoided like the plague itself. He found Ali and Wilbwyn down in the cafeteria and Wilbwyn agreed to join immediately. Ali could not but Elda and Arnulf would join, Raigh was glad for it, they might need as many sword arms as only possible
Soon the whole circus buzzed with activity, everyone knew that the group was going out again and rumors were rushing around, no one knew exactly what was the cause but they understood that it was something very serious since the leader seemed visibly affected by it.
Raigh packed and arranged everything, usually it was Akisha who was the driving force but now he demonstrated his organizational talents to the full, she was simply too stricken by grief. The Goddess’s anger burned yet in her as a nagging cold fire and she literally trembled with rage and fear of what they would find.
That night she took Elthear and her dagger, greased the weapons and prepared them. She also started to pack her armor and everything else she owned of equipment, something told her that it would be necessary. Elthear whispered to her, wordless tales of blood and fighting, of the battles ferocity. She hoped the swords predictions would not come true.
The morning after they were ready, they all had a lot of pack horses, they carried a lot of clothes and other supplies weapons and other useful things. Akisha was strangely silent and still, Raigh understood her but it seemed in a way that it was ominous. It was as if she had sensed something in the visions the others had not been able to catch, an underlying evil that seemed to scare her. Frostbird had agreed to teleport the party to Arphen, she knew the place and from there it went easily. They had only two days to the destination. As many as they were, it could be quite a challenge for the elf but she managed it just fine.
They arrived just outside of town and were welcomed in the temple where they spent the night. Akisha had a long conversation with the temple’s high priest, it was clear that they had already suspected something for normally an envoy from the little community in the mountains came once a week but he had not turned up. And there were rumors that the whole valley there lay bound by some power that was bantering people. Akisha liked these rumors just as she would have liked to swim in bear shit, it could be just rumors but that they would not find out until they got there.
The cold and the winter was a barrier, but they took turns to ride first and clear the way for the others and they came quite far the first day. They had packed good tents and put up a good camp in shelter of the biting wind. The atmosphere was pressed, they already knew what they would find when they reached it, the question was what they could do. Who was responsible? And why?
Akisha could not leave the questions, they spun in her head constantly and she did not sleep until Raigh literally forced into her a real serving of wine and some herbs that gave a dreamless sleep.
Next morning it was sunny and sparklingly beautiful but she felt no particular joy of it, this was a job that had to be done even if they did not look forward to it. Elda and Arnulf and Wilbwyn had not seen the visions but they had gotten them described, so they were no more cheerful than the rest of the gang. Enez had none of the abilities of the chosen ones but she had seen the goddess and she had seen how her beloved responded. She understood the seriousness very well and her usually good mood and dry humor was noted by its absence. Akisha was silent as an oyster as she rode Steelhawk through the worst snowdrifts, Raigh did not like it.
It was first in the afternoon they reached the goal, the old castle was located on a small hill at the head of a rather broad valley, dense forests stood around and it was quite idyllic. Akisha saw that the buildings were old, the style was almost all gone elsewhere and even if they had maintained the castle as well as it could be done, it could not be denied that it was decrepit. It was probably only half of the place that was left habitable. Much of one side had burned and they could see that from a long distance, stones were blackened and the windows staring out at them like the empty eye sockets of a skull.
Raigh restrained Nightblade and pointed. “See that, whole flocks of crows and ravens! “
Akisha just nodded cold and reined the horse. “I expected that, they feast on the bodies. No one has been there and buried them I think.”
Elda looked around. “There is a village further down the valley, I can’t see why they haven’t...”
Rheynek interrupted her. “Because they do not dare to. “
Arnulf looked gloomy, he had been a soldier for a long time, and he knew what this meant and what they would find. The road up to the castle was not cleared, no other trace than traces of foxes and the occasional wolf broke the white virgin surface.
Akisha griped onto the hilt of Elthear, almost for comfort, with a sword in hand there was little that could stand up to her, it was a comforting thought. The gate stood wide open, the horse’s hoof beats rang hollow through the archway into the courtyard and she forced herself to ride in there. Steelhawk snorted and whinnied sharply, threatening to rear and she forced the horse around, the eyes rolled and his hooves were stomping wildly in the snow. It was worse than the vision had shown them!
She had never been able to imagine it, but it was worse than anything she could even imagine. There was death everywhere. The ground was almost covered with corpses, many grotesquely mutilated, and it crunched in frozen blood under the hooves of the horses.
She forced herself to breath, forced herself to stay calm even though it was like a cry in her head of horror and disgust. Some had been tied to tethering posts and other solid objects in the courtyard; they were shot with arrows until they almost looked like hedgehogs. Akisha could see that it was the leaders there, and they had been tortured. The fatal shots did not come until the end.
The other came through the gateway behind her, no one said anything. Just the whinnying of frightened horses and hammering of hooves against ice and cobblestone broke the heavy silence. Some ravens lifted heavily from bodies the frost had made as hard as stone; the scavengers probably did not get much out of this. Akisha closed her eyes tightly; she had to be strong now, for the sake of others and for these poor victims.
Raigh rode up beside her. She nodded curtly and decisively. “Put the horses at the stable wall over there, Enez; watch them in case we need to get out of here fast.”
She jumped down from Steelhawk, leaned for a moment against the sweating horse’s flank to find peace. “Rhylja and Elda, up on the battlements and keep watch.”
The two grabbed a bow each and raced up the stairs, they would never let anyone approach undetected. She thought quickly. “Hawk, Rheynek, search through the building, we wait here. You can get around undetected nearly everywhere.”
The dark elf and the white-haired man just grinned and disappeared into the main door. The others gathered their horses and tied them thoroughly in front of the stable. Akisha glanced in there and it was empty. Those who did this had taken everything of value. It took a little while, and then Hawk and Rheynek came back. “There is no one in there, but the place has been turned upside down. Someone has been looking for something, there is no doubt. “
Akisha looked down, there was something gloomy in her eyes. “More dead people?”
Hawk nodded slowly. “Many, you will not like it.”
She took a deep breath. preparing herself. “All right, show me the way.”
Hawk went ahead; they had certainly been right for all there were turned upside down. Boxes and chests crushed, chopped up furniture, and even the heavy tapestries on the walls were pulled down and cut up. Here and there lay dead priestesses, and something that had to be novices and nurses judged by the clothes. They all seemed to have been brutally cut down.
“The attack came suddenly, they did not have time to escape or do anything to defend themselves. It was brutal and targeted.”
Raigh’s voice was hard and could have frozen rivers to the bottom, this really affected him.
Hawk nodded toward a door that was ajar. “We took a look in there, must have been a dormitory for novices. It is not pretty.”
Akisha looked at the elf who just stared at the floor with a heavy mine. She knew that Hawk was the one among them who had shed the most blood in his time; he had been as bad as the creatures he hunted and killed every day. But even he found this disgusting.
She walked slowly to the door, peered inside. For a moment it felt as if her stomach would either go straight down through her or straight up and out, she threw convulsively for breath and grabbed the doorpost as not to sink to her knees. The sight was terrible, there were at least twenty dead in there and the blood had made a thin layer of beautiful red ice upon the floors
Raigh placed his hand gently on her shoulder. “Come dear, there’s nothing we can do for these poor wretches now.”
She swallowed the taste of bile, forced herself up. “They were the only children many of them, and those bastards had ... had ...”
Hawk had something in his eyes that told he was about to unleash the dark side in him. “The youngest was maybe six or seven years I believe, they have raped everyone here as far as we could see.”
Rheynek coughed hoarsely, his eyes glowed and he had a weird grimace on his face. “The hospital is worse, believe it or not.”
Akisha looked at them in disbelief. “Worse? How can anything be worse than this? “
Her voice broke. Hawks voice was sharp and bitter.
“Most of the building is burned, and few have come out of there alive. There were probably many bedridden there.”
Akisha felt nauseous, it spun around in her head. Elywen and Frostbird came slowly walking behind and both were pale with huge eyes, the shock was clearly visible. “Are any of the infirmaries spared? “
Rheynek nodded “From the fire indeed, but you should not see it.”
His voice was strangely hollow and Akisha stared astonished at the big man who turned his face away, almost ostentatiously. There were some strange lines around his mouth she clearly had not seen on him before. “We have to look all over, if anything can tell us more ...”
Rheynek shook his head. “This no one needs to see, it’s enough that I saw it and Hawk.”
Akisha got a cold lump in the throat. “That bad?”
Hawk growled softly. ”That bad!”
They walked on, everywhere things were completely destroyed. It was clear that this was a hospital for there were many rooms that may be used for everything from operations to the storage of herbs. All were brutally searched and all living things where killed. They began to approach the burned part; Akisha knew there were several floors there and probably the same situation there. It was enough to make her shudder with pure dread.
Rheynek walked over to a door which apparently led to a room with windows, it shone dimly through the crack. He pulled the door shut with a hard jerk. “This is something nobody should see”
The voice was hard and sore at once. Akisha found she could smell blood, and something else too, something sweet she could not quite place. “So what can we do? The dead must be buried but it’s not possible until spring again, the ground is frozen deep.”
Raigh was discouraged and intimidated, Akisha could hear it in his voice. “They can be burned.”
Hawk was quiet but his voice betrayed his emotion. Khir had come walking behind Frostbird and his face was horrified. For a forest creature like him this had to be awful. “Is hardly enough wood here to burn that many corpses.”
Raigh shrugged. “I know that there were timber skids down the road, it will be enough, but it won’t burn I think since it is raw.”
Elywen snorted. “It’ll burn, believe you me, everything burns if I just want it to!”
Her voice trembled and her eyes blazed brightly. Of course she could get the wood to burn, they had an opportunity there. “So now what?”
Raigh sounded tired.
“We’ll get an overview of the number of dead here, and then we’ll search throughout the building to see if someone is alive however unlikely that is, and see if we can find any evidence of who it was that has done this.”
Akisha was about to turn around to walk out but stopped when Enez came in, she looked excited. “Arnulf found one that’s alive, at the end of one of the storages behind the woodsheds.”
Akisha pulled hard for breath. “Is he conscious, can he or she talk?”
Enez shook her head. “She is unconscious and badly injured, but at least breathing yet.”
They all groaned with disappointment and Rheynek turned to Hawk, the two began to discuss something in Elvish. Enez remained passive, and then she got aware of the door and walked over to it, curious and impulsive as she was. She began to push it open and Rheynek became aware of what she did, he threw himself over to her to stop her but it was too late.
Enez had opened the door and looked in and she stood frozen like a statue before she backed away at full speed and into the arms of Rheynek who spun her around and pulled her against him. Her shoulders began to rise and fall convulsively and then she screamed, a wild piercing wail that cut through the walls.
Rheynek looked at Akisha with a glance full of the blackest despair before he threw the hysterical girl over his shoulder and just carried her with him right out. Akisha thought it reminded her frighteningly about experiences in her own childhood; it had been suddenly and brutally ended by a similar vision.
She brazed herself and glanced in the door before she closed it. It had been a room where they had children who needed care; she swallowed hard and turned around, closed the door hard behind her. They had not even bothered to use a sword, she had seen the war hammer lying in the middle of the floor covered with blood and hair and what had to be brain matter and the broken heads.
The rage awakened in her, forced itself forward like a tidal wave through a narrow inlet, arose with indomitable ferocity. She looked up at the ceiling and let loose a howl of grief and disgust. She stood there a long time before she got control of herself again; Raigh came over and embraced her affectionately. ”Come on, we leave this room.”
She let him lead her out, like a will-less cattle. This was beyond looting, beyond any rudeness from any army she had heard about. It was inhuman. Arnulf sat in the stable with a wrapped body in front of him, it was an older woman and Akisha lost hope of getting something out of her when she saw the condition she was in. This was a human who was completely on the border between death and life. There was nothing they could do for her, other than to let her die in peace.
Hawk cursed softly and Frostbird sighed heavily. “I think we’ll gather somewhere else than here, in their kitchen we should be able to get a fire going and get something hot to eat and drink. We will think better then.”
Akisha agreed, she felt dazed and confused and the world seemed to turn upside down in front of her. The kitchen was placed away from the rest of the hospital, in a separate department and it was pillaged as everything else but the fireplace was there and unharmed and Raigh and Hawk got it fired up.
Elywen found some clean vessels and water from the well and began to cook it up, and the guys brought in supplies so they could make food for themselves. Akisha was still unsure whether they should stay there overnight, what if the attackers came back?
Raigh sat down; he rubbed his hands helplessly against each other. “Goddess save me, I’ve seen a lot of misery in my time but never anything like this. What in the god’s names has really been going on here?”
Rheynek had carried Enez in there and put her on his lap by the fire, she was still gray in the face from shock and tears flowed unrestrained. “Aside from just about every possible evil act imaginable for a human?”
Khir raised his head, the beautiful golden brown eyes shone in the firelight and he seemed to listen to anything. “Did you hear that?”
Akisha twitched. “Hear what?”
Khir rose to his feet, he almost seemed to sniff and listen like an animal. “It!”
Akisha pricked her ears; there was a faint sound there, a thin whimpering almost like that from an animal of some sort.
Hawk was efficient, he snuck around and listened. He stopped and pointed to the huge fireplace, built against the back wall was a metal hatch. It was typical to have a small room behind the chimney where they hung things like dried meat and things that needed to be kept dry and warm and so they had to have an opportunity to enter through an access door next to the chimney.
Raigh drew his sword and held his breath as Akisha and Hawk tilted the hatch open with a foot. It was big enough for an adult to crawl through without problems.
He stooped and looked in and made a quick motion, grabbed something and pulled hard and a shrill scream could be heard as he pulled out a woman wearing only a ripped bodice and nothing else. She was covered in soot from head to toe but several wounds shone red through the black layer.
Akisha gasped and grabbed a cloth that lay sprawled on the floor, threw it to Hawk who wrapped it around the woman who looked terrified and confused. She screamed when she saw Rheynek and literally crawled along the floor; it was pretty obvious what she had been through.
Akisha grabbed her shoulders and forced her down on a bench. “We are not dangerous, we are not your enemies, we are friends. We serve the goddess.”
The woman was relaxing slowly. “Oh praise her name; I never thought I’d get out of there.”
She sobbed and buried her face in her hands. Akisha handed her a mug of wine and she drank it all with a cough. “I thought I was lost ... oh gods ... “
Her voice was slurred and it was clear that the poor wretch was very weak. “How did you get in there?”
Raigh looked at the woman who looked down at the table, her eyes were strangely extinguished, the life in them gone. “One of them helped me ...”
Akisha frowned and all huddled together. “Now you have to explain girl, first of all, who are you and what is your position here?”
The woman sighed; she pulled the cloth tighter around her, almost in desperation. “I’m Adina; I helped our cook with the food here. I come from the village in the valley and was married there, my husband let me work here since we do not have land and need the money.”
Akisha smiled friendly but strained. “And what has happened here? “
Adina swallowed hard, her tears streaked white lines in all the soot. “All are dead are they not?”
Akisha nodded hesitantly and Adina closed her eyes. “I knew it; they never let any get away alive.”
Raigh stared furiously at the sobbing girl. “Who are they? “
Adina swallowed convulsively a few times. “A group of mercenaries without a master, they settled in the valley two moons ago, has forced money and food from us since then. We have barely enough to keep us alive as we have; it’s been a hard winter.”
Raigh’s eyes blackened and Rheynek did growl. Akisha had to look twice at him, it sounded crazy. “Why have they attacked the temple?”
Adina sighed. “Because they believe that the priestesses have a treasure here, that they have become rich by healing people. But they will never ask for more than food and such. There is no treasure here, other than the gift of healing.”
Akisha had to force herself to breathe. “All this violence, all the dead, all just because of a rumor of riches.!?”
Hawk was popping up; he threw a plate against the wall so hard it broke into pieces and shattered. Elywen squealed and ducked. His black eyes shot lightning. “By the gates of hell, this will be avenged so it is remembered forever!”
Akisha forced herself to think clearly. “You said that one of them helped you?”
Adina made a strained smile, she trembled visibly. “A boy, I think he’s been forced to join them to serve. They wanted him to kill me after ... after that ... “
She broke down, her eyes were black as a moonless night. Akisha gently stroked her cheek and Adina continued trembling. “He would not kill anyone, he said, because then he would be like them. So he hid me here and stuck his sword in one of the bodies in the hallway, so it looked as if he had used it on me. He was terribly afraid I know”
Raigh growled. “Then there is a person we should not kill right away, how did he look?”
Adina trembled slightly. “Slightly longer than me, half long hair, blue eyes, blue shirt and pants, sweet boy.”
Akisha nodded. “Then we’ll remember it. We’ll save your people from this scourge, trust us.”
Adina turned her head away. “Then we give you eternal gratitude ... “
Akisha perceived more in her, the strange expression. “Adina? What is it?”
She sobbed softly and pulled the cloth up over her head, hiding literally. “I cannot go back to the village and my husband, not for ... Not after what happened.”
Akisha took her hands. “Of course you can, if he loves you it means nothing to him, this was done to you girl, it was not something you chose.”
Adina said nothing; she only looked down with a blank expression.
Hawk looked at Akisha who just smiled coldly. “We find them, and when we find them we kill them all. No mercy, no questions asked. Only swords and blood and the goddess revenge.”
Rheynek banged his hand into the table so hard it vibrated. “The Goddess’s revenge!”
Rhylja came running through the door, she waved her hands. “There’s someone from the village on their way up here, five or six persons.”
Adina gasped softly and grabbed the cloth harder Akisha smiled quickly at her. “Stay as long as you will, warm yourself.”
Raigh and Rheynek grabbed their swords and Akisha headed over towards the gate. There were really people shuffling along, slowly and somehow hesitant. Akisha saw quickly that it was men, presumably husbands who would look for their wives. They stopped at the gate and looked uncertain. Akisha bowed quickly. “We are the Goddess’s servants, fear not.”
The oldest of them step forward, he looked a little uneasy. “I am Hadthan, the village leader. We have come to see what has happened with our own eyes.”
Raigh looked sternly at them. “Only now?”
Hadthan stared ashamed at the ground
“Revered weapons master, we are not fighters, we do not know other steel than the steel in our plow. We dare not... “
Akisha sighed to herself. “Do not blame yourself for it, but there’s little to find now except the dead.”
The men paled and looked down. “All?”
Akisha nodded. ”All but one.”
She stepped aside. “But let’s get in the house; we need more information about this group that has terrorized you.”
Hadthan drew his breath sharply.
“Can you do something about them?”
Hawk bared his teeth in something that was not a smile. “We will kill them, every one, mark my words.”
Hadthan did not look as if he doubted anything the way the elf appeared.
They walked up the courtyard, the corpses were still lying where they fell and wailing sounds came from the men who seemed totally stunned by what they saw. Akisha had not thought of it, it was bad even for her and the others and they were used to battle and death. For those peace-loving men it had to be a perfectly insane shock to see so much death in one place.
Raigh jerked abruptly, pointing up at the battlements. Akisha had time to see a figure that ran along the wall and then jumped over; on the outside at that point there was a deep gorge. “Adina ...”
Raigh turned away with a groan and Akisha stared lost at the place she disappeared. “It was too much for her poor soul, the shame was too great.”
Raigh looked at her with black eyes. “They have claimed yet another life, curse them!”
One of the men had seen what happened; he looked completely paralyzed and Akisha walked carefully over to him. “Did you know her?”
He turned trembling, his eyes were strangely blank. “It was my wife; it was Adina was not it? Why ... “
Akisha forced herself to breathe slowly, to stay in control, this was so very tragic. “She survived because the boy who was to kill her would not take lives and hid her instead, but before that ... they had their way with her ... She could not face you again, therefore.”
He made a strange sound in his throat, it sounded like a cross between a nascent howl and a groan as he ran toward the gate, as fast as he managed.
Raigh was about to run after but Akisha stopped him. “No Raigh, let him run, let him mourn.”
Raigh looked after the running man. “I’m afraid he might do something stupid ...”
Akisha just looked rundown into the ground. “It may be but we’ll just have let him do it, we have more important things to do now.”
Inside sat Enez, rubbing her chin, Adina had knocked her right down and ran and Enez had not had time to catch her again. Rheynek stroked her comfortingly over her hair and she sighed and buried her face against his chest, as she always did when she was sad.
Raigh saw that the men of the village went around and collected the bodies in piles, all of them were crying but seemed not to be ashamed of it. He looked sharply at Akisha. “What do we do now?”
She gathered her thoughts. “We eat, sleep until tomorrow morning and then we travel to wipe out the bad guys once and for all.”
Frostbird nodded slowly, there was something in the blue-green eyes that was not there usually, something strangely wild and almost ugly. “I will not hold myself back this time, my magic will run free.”
Elywen placed her hand on her shoulder. “Mine too, have no doubt about it.”
Raigh went out to inquire about where the camp was, Arnulf and Elda and the others began to help with the corpses and Rheynek ensured that the doors to the worst rooms were locked. The simple village folks should not see anything like that he thought.
There was a mood there now of silent grief, anger and growing determination. As darkness fell the dead were collected in piles in the yard, lay frozen and grotesque as strange logs. The men had gone back to their homes to tell and explain and Akisha saw that the gates were closed.
Elda and Rhylja made some food and everyone ate but it was without hunger, without joy. This was too wicked even for them, that hunger for wealth could cause such unspeakable carnage they had hardly imagined. Enez was still in shock and Rheynek pulled her hard onto him as they lay wrapped in blankets on the kitchen floor. They had chosen to sleep there all of them since it was the only warm room now. He wished he had been able to save her from what she had seen but what was done was done. It was not possible to go back and correct the error.
Raigh had made a crude map of the area and the soldiers’ camp was located in one hillside, next to a pretty fast running brook. It was hilly there so they had ample opportunity to sneak up undetected. He studied it carefully and allowed several possible plans in his head. It would not do with coincidences; everything had to fall into place. Akisha looked at what they had brought from Jirhg, some of it was certainly usable, and she picked out what made the biggest effects as she called it. The weapons were overlooked and checked and when morning came slowly creeping over the treetops, they were ready. Akisha felt a kind of cold stress in the body, a trembling eagerness mixed with anxiety. Anything could happen, she knew of such groups, they owned no honor, did not know mercy, and fought with all the dirty tricks that were ever invented. As they rode out she was aware that they had to be just as raw if they should have any chance at this.
She was lost in thought as she rode through the open woods on the hillside; she could understand the anger of the goddess to the fullest. Nobody attacked a peaceful country retreat; it was inconceivable, against people’s beliefs of what was right and wrong. Yet it had happened, it was unbelievable in a way. The guilty had to be punished and that hard and consistently. Something like that should never happen again.
After a while they stopped and left their horses, went on foot the last mile. A faint smell of smoke hung in the air, acid and sour, and they heard the neighing of horses, the sound of voices and other sounds that belong to the camp life.
Akisha nodded to Khir and Hawk. “You two can sneak up forward and reconnoiter.”
The two elves just smiled and disappeared and Akisha gathered the others around her. “Now it is important that you do not let your mind run away with you, think fast and think clearly, make the right choices.”
Rheynek had a strange glow in the yellow eyes; it looked as if he was looking forward to this. “Kill as many as possible you mean. “
Akisha grimaced. “Yes, but without being killed yourself, understand?”
They all nodded briefly. Wilbwyn was caressing his ax, he was best in melee and he and Arnulf and Elda were circling the area to check that no one escaped. If anyone tried they were free to send them to hell as Raigh said.
There were a few long minutes of silence, then Hawk and Khir came back, they sat down on their haunches and drew up the camp with a stick in the snow. “It’s huge but orderly. And people are gathered in one place, in the middle. The outer tents are storages so they we can ignore for now.”
Khir pointed out some of the tents they drew up. “These are the leaders, they actually have some authority, and I think they should not get the opportunity to organize a defense. The rest are dregs and scum who just follow orders if it benefits them.”
Akisha stared keenly at them.” Something more?”
Hawk grinned. “They have their horses at the rear of the camp, towards the river. I think we let them loose, it should make some turmoil.”
Akisha agreed and divided the fighters around the camp, Rhylja was a formidable warrior since she was a Kher-el and with the two narrow slightly curved swords of hers she could probably kill dozens if she got the chance, she got to choose her route herself.
Akisha and Raigh should use Jirgh’s inventions first and spread chaos, they should switch to swords afterward and Elywen and Frostbird would use all the magic they could. The same applied for Rheynek. All spread around, small sounds told them when they were in place and Akisha felt that her heart hammered and her senses were sharper than ever and her eyes glowed blue. She let the goddess power into her mind; felt that she was utterly focused on the task. Elthear sang to her mind, demanded to be used. The dagger that hung at her hip was unreasonably heavy; it would also come in handy now.
Raigh caught her eyes briefly and smiled lovingly but a little frightened. “Fight well my dear, and come unscathed from it, it’s an order.”
Akisha grinned fast to him. “Thanks ,do not let them accumulate for a counterattack.”
She grabbed the first of things Jirhg had sent, some arrows filled with a substance that caused people to suffocate. She had the elven bow her first mentor had given her; it was strong enough to shoot arrows up high before they rained down upon the camp, broke and released the deadly cargo. She had twenty arrows and shot them all up.
After just a few minutes chaos broke loose, she heard screams and cries and neigh of horses that suddenly were loose and totally terrified as Hawk had made noises resembling an angry bear. Raigh helped her with part two of the plan, some balls you threw outwards and was firing poisoned arrows when they hit the ground. It was a bad weapon but in this case the insane alchemist meant that the purpose sanctified the means.
In the camp there was complete chaos, since this was not an army with discipline and officers, there was no order, every man for himself was probably the general rule and thus no one understood anything when it fell down arrows from the sky and the men began to collapse with hoarse rattling. When the tents suddenly caught fire there was a hint of panic and the runaway horses did not make the situation any better. Akisha and Raigh threw the balls, several fell and now they realized that they were under some kind of attack.
Those with the most calm and experience armed themselves and managed to form a kind of battle formation, the remaining running around like headless chickens until they also began to dive with arrows in their body.
The leader was among those who stood firm, he was experienced and knew enough not to be grasped by panic. Once he had been a respected nobleman but a hard heart and a great desire for wealth had led him astray. Now everything called conscience and consideration was gone, all that counted was his own ambitions. He saw that they had a skilled enemy against them; it was certainly not the obdurate peasants who fought back. But he had no idea who the enemy was, only that it was a strange presence which made him a bit nervous.
Elda and Arnulf used their bows for all they were worth, both were expert marksmen and picked down people with a steady beat. Khir was also clever and quick and together they decimated the number of enemies quite easily. Frostbird snuck around and used her magic at those she reached so they literally froze and Rhylja could kill them easily.
Elywen burned the tents so there was nothing to hide behind and Akisha whistled the agreed signal, it was time to go into this seriously. The leader stood there amid his men and stared through the smoke and steam, he did not understand this. They had always been so superb, won everywhere and looted the wealth that they had liked.
Suddenly it was as if some of the smoke was compacted, took a form that almost seemed substantial as a creature of flesh and blood. It was a wolf, a giant black wolf bitch who stared at them with glowing yellow eyes. Two similar huge gray wolves were behind and drooled. The men gave up short cries of bewildered horror and pressed together, they tried to comprehend what they were facing.
“Despicable murderers, scum without conscience. Meet my judgment.”
The voice came from everywhere, shaking with anger.
The smoke split up and some people got visible, the leader jumped when he saw several elves and shouted angry orders to the men. They responded quickly, accustomed as they were to be able to overcome all human opponents. They slid out of formation and crashed forward with wild cries to the attackers; normally people would turn and flee. These did not, the mercenaries was perhaps tempered in battle and won with brutal moves and techniques, but so were their new enemies. Raigh roared a battle cry and met a devilish sword attack with an equally bad one. He parried lovely, twisted the sword out of the hand of the guy and ran his own right through the guy before he stabbed another on the return cut.
Rheynek swung Nadharn and literally danced through the large crowd of soldiers; he was faster than them and had a much better technique. Hawk ran straight and the two slender elven swords cut deeply and quickly wherever they went, he seemed to really enjoy this. Wilbwyn almost went berserk with his ax; he was a master of the weapon and cut limbs and necks like a true champion. Frostbird and Elywen took care of those who tried to escape and now it was those who preferred the sword that did the job. It was a brutal battle, the enemy gave no mercy and got none, Akisha saw red now, Elthear danced around her and she jumped and ran and parried with a speed few others would have managed. She was not the master of weapons masters for nothing.
The leader of the mercenaries had been hiding behind his forces. Now he realized that this went wrong if he could not get away and he tried to sneak away but Akisha saw him and pursued him. She felt that the dagger was heavy and cold and she pulled it, it stretched, grew and transformed itself into a sword, slim and not unlike Raigh’s one-edged long sword.
The leader had to stop, suddenly an elf stood before him with a bow and an arrow pointed straight at his chest. He swallowed and saw that someone came after him. It was a woman and he was given a new hope at the sight, for him women were not anything else than objects for pleasure and nothing more. That he did not believe for long.
His first attack was parried with a master’s elegance and suddenly he fought for his life. With two swords Akisha were at least as good as with one and Elthear positively purred to her, lusted after this man’s energy and power. The others fought the rest of the force and the remaining soldiers were slowly pushed together until they stood back to back and fought. They were desperate now, they realized they had no chance to escape and mercy was unthinkable.
The leader was skilled, he had been a champion fencer in his youth, but now he was to slow to technically manage the dangerous dance. Akisha hit his sword right out of his grip and he suddenly had two blades pressed against his throat. He tried to appeal to this creation’s sense of honor. “By the gods show mercy ... “
He tried to seem puny but she just looked contemptuously at him, her eyes glowed blue and he understood that this was not normal people at all.
He saw that a tall black-haired elf and an amazingly beautiful white haired man slaughtered the last of his men and he was shaking inside. “Who are you? Answer me ...”
She bared its teeth; it was cold fury in her eyes. “The Goddess chosen ones, we are your judges and your executioners. We are her anger and her revenge.”
He faded, had not believed that it would have any consequences to rob a temple and kill some priestesses. Now he realized that he was wrong, the deity was real and furious and they were all damned souls.
With a startled cry, he let himself fall backwards to get out of reach of her swords. He tried to spin around to run but he did not have the time. Akisha’s sword arm was stronger than one would think and she leapt and hit the man in the back with her boot heels. He fell forward with a cry and landed on his stomach. Akisha ran the tip of Elthear down into his back, severed the spinal cord and paralyzed him. The last soldiers were dead and Hawk came tugging at a youngster who was tied up and clearly beaten. He looked frightened and it was perhaps not surprising. “Found him at the horses.”
Akisha just looked quickly at them, she concentrated on the prisoner. “You are responsible for this, you desecrated a sacred place, your men killed and tortured in the most terrible ways. The punishment you’ll get in the hereafter.”
The two huge wolves reappeared; they seemed hungry and licked their lips. “They will devour your soul when you’re dead, that’s all you have to look forward to.”
He looked startled and disbelieving around, saw people so mighty and proud that he never could have imagined such a thing. “You broke the goddess rules, there is no forgiveness.”
Akisha took a step back, she let her gaze slide over the group, almost all were covered with blood and filth but no one was injured “The one of you who wishes it can deal with this pest.”
Hawk stepped forward, his eyes shining black, the dark aura was more visible than before and he was a frightening apparition now. “I’ll do it, his blood is not worthy of your blade. “
The leader screamed scared, he had forgotten all so called dignity and desperately tried to crawl away. Raigh spat at him, he had nothing but contempt for such behavior. The leader screamed wildly but Hawk simply put his foot on him and drove the blade of one of the elven swords down through the body of the man before he turned the sword around. They heard crunching sounds and blood splattered when he pulled the blade out. Then he chopped off the head of the man and impaled it on a tent pole. Akisha was quiet now, the anger seemed to slowly die down, and there was peace there now. The dead were avenged in full.
Raigh turned to the prisoner, the boy looked miserable and trembled so they saw it. “How did you end up with this gang boy?
His voice was stern but not judgmental. The boy swallowed frantically and looked terrified onto Hawk who still could scare the devil himself. “I ... they took me, I was only serving ...”
Rhylja grasped his chin, lifting his face to the light. ”They have beaten you, why?”
He looked down. “I was supposed to kill a woman in the temple but I couldn’t and her husband came up here and told that she took her own life. He tried to kill the leader but they strangled him instead.”
Akisha sighed heavily and Raigh looked sad at her. “What did I say?”
She looked down at the ground. “I know, but we cannot stop people from doing what they think is right.”
The boy trembled visibly. “Will you kill me? Please do not torture me first!”
Raigh had to smile but it was a sad smile.
“How old are you boy?”
He swallowed convulsively. “Sixteen”
Raigh looked sternly at him. “You are not an adult, you were not joining them voluntary and you tried to help one of the victims there. It matters to your advantage. No, we will not kill you. “
The boy sank almost to his knees with relief. “Oh gods, thank you.”
Raigh looked seriously at him. “You have had punishment enough; to serve such a bunch must have been hell. Do you have any relatives alive who can provide for you? “
The boy nodded briefly. “Yes, on the coast, an aunt.”
Raigh sighed and cut the ropes that bound his arms. “Okay, we’ll send you there. Too much blood has already been shed here, we will not be adding even more to it.”
They had gathered the horses together, took care of everything that could be used and threw the bodies into a pile, then rode back to the temple. Akisha was quiet but it was a different silence than on the way out. She enjoyed the quiet that now lay over the forest, the dead had peace, the same would not happen again. Raigh saw the expression of hers and smiled softly, she was relieved that it was over and so was he. And no one had been injured.
In the temple there were more now who cleaned up and arranged things, new priestesses would get there from the Temple in Arphen and things would go back to the old ways but Akisha knew that the memories of that awful day would always sit in the old walls.
The villagers got what they brought from the mercenary camp; they had suffered a lot during their extortion and wickedness. Elywen got help from the local vendors to gather more skids with timber, they left it on the outside of the castle and the bodies were placed in the wood.
That evening Elywen’s flames seemed to be dancing high into the sky and the wood burned well, even though it was wet. A dragon’s fire can consume virtually everything. It was a beautiful but sad moment, a moment for reflection. Akisha stood and held Raigh, enjoying the strength and his presence and knowing that she was safe with him. She had again seen how fragile life itself was, how fleeting and short it could be. The Goddess could be hard at times, cruel also but she brought justice for the weak, and she condemned those who broke the laws.
She leaned her head against Raigh’s shoulder and stared at the flames dancing in the wind. Her path was a road of blood; it would never change as long as she was the goddess sword in the world. But she fought for good; she fought for the right side and as long as it was true she would never be a monster, never be losing her soul. Through her sword arm the goddess got her revenge, and through her sword and arm the people got justice. The idea was strangely good; she also had a place in life’s great game. They were standing as the fire burned, and when they returned to the circus a few days later the incident was carefully recorded in the temple’s writings, so that future generations could read about the goddess power, and her anger and revenge when someone broke her laws and did her innocent injustice.