Archive for the ‘Dear Father Mulcahy’ Category

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Forty Four




Pavil and her squad were crossing the square when the ghouls spilled from the meeting hall.  There were six of them in the first rush and before any of us could react, one of the young men was pulled from his horse.  The other horses reared and panicked.  A second boy was thrown, landing just a few strides from the first but the ghouls were too busy attacking the first lad to notice right away.

First of all, let me be clearer.  These young men deserve to be remembered.  The first lad who was pulled off his horse was named Riven.  The second lad who fell was named Gordon and the third boy was named Droo.

It’s important to me that I take the time to put their names down here in case this is the last place they are ever remembered.  I cannot bear the thought of so many nameless, faceless deaths in this world any longer.

Ghouls are creatures of evil, risen from the dead by a practitioner of the vilest arts.  Of course that is why Eronel had burned Broadmire.  She needed the bodies to build her army.  She no longer looked for the malcontents and thugs in her valley, she just killed people and made them into what she wanted.  The implications were chilling.

If you recall.  There was no tradition of clerics in the Tranquil valley.  Healers were only of the mundane sort, and any who could exhibit any overt magic were either explained away like the Quietus, killed for their heresy and damning sins, or vilified and feared like Eronel.  Those who she could she made into priests, snatching the damned from their stockades or buying gifted children from villagers who did not want to deal with the trouble makers.

What Eronel did not know, nor did she teach, was that a true cleric can turn the undead away, causing them to flee before the true glory of the divine.  I wheeled my horse around as those staked on the crosses began to pull themselves free of their spikes and lurch forward to kill us.  Zombies and ghouls were more than we could handle.  The young ones were my first priority.  Chloe and Liz hacked at the zombies that lumbered toward us as I spurred my horse around the central well to get a clear view of Pavil, Riven, Droo and Gordon.

What I saw in that split second was heart breaking.

In the order of events.  Riven hit the ground, pulled off his horse by the ghouls and disappeared under the weight of their bodies  I could not see how he fared in that moment.  Gordon had struck his head when the horse threw him, and he did not rise.  Droo was fighting to get his horse  under control and was attempting to draw his sword.

And Pavil, bless that girl.  She not only kept full control of her horse, but she drove the animal into the midst of the ghouls, scattering them while she lashed out with her sword, taking the head off the ghoul she’d struck.  Then, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it myself; a bolt of blue light shot from the girl’s off hand and a second ghoul crumbled to the ground, collapsing into nothing more than rotted flesh and bones.  For one moment she had them routed, but ghouls are creatures of death, fearing nothing.

That is, of course, until they met me.

I held up a fistful of holy symbols and called out in celestial, imploring the deities to save my new friends and send the monsters into the abyss.  Not my most eloquent phrasing but I don’t think the divine cared to the level of my poetic abilities.  White light flashed, illuminating the clearing, burning away the dusk and replacing it with the glorious light of the noon day sun for the span of twelve heartbeats, but that’s all it took.  Any undead in my vicinity staggered away from me.  Several of the zombies actually collapsed with the power of my faith, but not all.  Those that were not outright destroyed fled in all directions, moving away from the harsh light of the living.

Before I could dismount and see to the wounded, Pavil was off her horse and working on Riven.  Somehow the boy lived, but for how long was unknown.  Pavil was attempting to staunch the slashes and bites that covered the boy.  There were chunks of his flesh missing and he shrieked uncontrollably.  Pavil had his head in her lap and was singing to him, a song I had not heard, but I distinctly heard the words “ship” and “sea”.

“He’s going to become one of those things,” Pavil wailed, staring at me.  “I have seen it before in my village.  I think I have to kill him.”  She reached for the knife at her belt.  “But I am afraid it will not stop him from becoming a monster.”  Tears rolled through the dust on her cheeks as she pulled the blade free of its sheath.

I placed a hand on her arm, catching her gaze.  “Let me,” I said, knowing that look of horror and guilt.  She watched me for a breath then nodded, closing her eyes and turning her head.

That was the curse that Eronel had cast upon this village.  The dead would rise and make more undead, building an army that would scour the valley.  I could not let this curse stand.  But I could also not save this boy.  He had been too badly hurt.  He wanted relief from the pain.  How was I to choose otherwise for him?

I placed my hand upon Riven’s chest and called forth his spirit, whispering a prayer I had read once as a child in the monastery, Father.  One of the tomes on dealing with grief.  I recalled it was centered around a dance with twelve steps, but I had no memory of those.  Still, the prayer caught the boys spirit and helped it shake loose from its mortal shell.

When he had drawn his last breath, Pavil choked out a single sob, but she did not release his head.  I entreated the spirit to hie away to the Far Shore.  It hung back for a moment, watching Pavil cry, radiating sadness.  Then it was drawn away from the living and passed into the light.

Pavil rose before I did, gently laying Riven’s head down on the dirt and went to Gordon.  He yet lived.  But the fall had cracked his neck.  Without intervention he would be paralyzed, which in this world was as good as dead.

I told Pavil not to move him, not to touch him and I knelt, examining him with the green sight.  The bones in his neck could be mended, and the nerves healed if they were not severed by being moved.  So that is what I did.  It would take a full on conjuring, channeling the divine with a delicate but forceful hand.

And speaking of hand, of course, I only had the one.  It was something I constantly forgot and regretted.  I would reach for something and stumble when my right arm was not there.  Damn those foul vines.  So while I pulled in the divine, I could not properly channel it for the purposes of this level of healing.  I could not balance the green and the white in such a way to heal the young man without burning away his spirit.  Luckily I thought back to Liz and how she had been my hands.  I explained to Pavil what we needed to do, and she looked at me for a moment, deciding, then nodded.  She knelt before the boy’s head, not moving him, but placing her hands on both sides of his neck.

I rested the stump of my right arm on her shoulder and placed my hand on the top of her head.  I pushed the divine through her, and by using her body to diffuse and channel the energy, the healing power of my deities was able to save the boy.  I don’t know who was more shocked.  Gordon for coming to his senses sound and whole, or Pavil for being a divine vessel used to heal.

By this time Chloe and Liz had destroyed the zombies that remained in the town.   It was full dark before we realized that those in the town meeting hall would have also been undead if they had not burned.  That had not been Eronel’s work.  She would have wanted the most undead to slow us down.

While we gathered the horses and strapped Riven’s body over his mount, Liz and Chloe discovered tracks of a group that had been through the village within the last couple of days.  These were not Eronel’s lot, Liz had decided, but another group that had gone into the woods to the east.  That was a mystery for another day.  Right now I wanted to get back to our camp before any more undead showed up to wreak havoc on our people.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Forty Three




Brindle and I scouted the next farm where we found the same as the last one.  Eronel was not leaving any behind her for some reason.  What had Broadmire done to incur so much of her wrath?  And the farms that had been burned, the families butchered were half a day’s ride from the village proper.  It’s not like they were reappraisals.  Here was saw a shift in her tactics.

I called a council and pulled out the maps I had recovered from Eronel’s rooms.  Why she burned the diary, but not the maps eluded me.  Perhaps they held no power.  Regardless, I spent an hour adding marks from the Tranquil valley, listing out the villages we had been to, and letting the others fill in the gaps as they knew them.

Beyond Broadmire were several more villages: High Field, Rocky Cairn, and Forest Edge.  Danby told me as a child he’d been as far as Rocky Cairn with his father, trading good winter wheat for worked steel.   Not swords, but plow shears, hinges, and other items only a working smithy could provide.  River Crossing had a farrier, but the only blacksmith had been murdered more than forty years previously and they had been forbidden from hiring or training another.

The further away from the raider’s old fortress, he reported, the less compliant the villages got.  He had heard rumor that Forest Edge had never paid tribute, and that the effort had been too great for Eronel to mount a raid.  Made sense to me.  Cowing people with fear took a lot of energy.

Liz, Lilith and I talked a bit away from the others.   If the village ahead had been slaughtered, things were going to get a lot uglier.  We couldn’t hang around and bury all those people if we were ever going to catch up to Eronel.  I had a good idea she was heading to the lizard folk temple in any case, but if the folks at Forest Edge were willing to put up a fight, then her and her rag-tag army of ruffians may well avoid them.

We talked about what we were going to do once we caught the witch.  The valley was devoid of any real predators.  There were no orcs or hobs, no trolls, goblins or even giant spiders.  This valley had truly been isolated before the great cataclysm and the people lead a tranquil life.  Well, besides the witch  That was a different form of torment.

We avoided the rest of the farms, moving past them at a steady pace.  With each one we sent out a scout, but not once did we find survivors.  The mood of our caravan had gone from shock and horror to frustration and anger.  People began to bicker at one another, little things that would have been overlooked just two days ago, were like a burr under a saddle.  Fear can be an ugly thing and these people had anger and paranoia down to a honed edge.

We stopped two leagues from the village.  I told everyone to make camp, even though we were close to the village and we had several hours of sun left.  Frankly, I didn’t want to be surprised by what we found.  I discussed it and took a hand-picked group of volunteers with me to scout the village.  Danby stayed behind to help defend the caravan just in case, as did Lilith, surprisingly.  She said she had promised to work with Ingrid on her fighting skills.  Seemed like a good idea.  I suggested she add Jayden to the mix and anyone else who wanted to learn about close-in fighting.  She cast me a side-eye and said she’d do what needed doing.

Liz scouted ahead with Chloe.  The girl had the makings of a good tracker.  She listened to Liz well enough, and had good eyes.  The other three, farmer’s sons with stout arms and broad chests, rode in silence, deferring to their squad leader, Pavil.  She had garnered her squad’s respect quickly and efficiently.  These three followed her orders without hesitation.  But they were quiet.  I don’t know what horrors these few had seen, but based on my experience with others, I could assume the worse.

Brindle tagged along with me and I was coming to enjoy the dog.  He was very bright.  I had begun to believe that he could understand what I told him nearly as well as Brother Charles had in his day.  I missed that great blue bird, but Brindle was good company.

We didn’t hurry.  I wanted to get a good look at the lay of the land, and Liz wanted to give Chloe some time tracking.  We let the horses go along at a sedate pace, and closed the two leagues in just under two hours.  We would have about an hour in the village if we wanted to make it back to the camp at the same pace as we came out this far.  More time if we wanted to return after dark, or push the horses a little.  I was leaving our options open.

Glad we did.

Eronel was a witch after all.  Yes, the village had been slaughtered.  That did not surprise me.  Many of the building had been burned a couple of days before so the blackened ruins of a few buildings remained standing.  Mostly the building had been burned to the ground, leaving nothing but a blackened shadow of where they had once stood.

Seven buildings remained standing, including the great hall, which had been made off both wood and river stones.  The roof had collapsed, but the walls remained standing.  We headed to the well to water the horses and see if we could find any survivors.

Shouldn’t have bothered.  What we found was similar to the village of Black Oak, where we had first encountered the raiders.  Here in Broadmire a dozen individuals had been crucified on great crossed beams.  If they were not dead by the time Eronel left the village, the ghouls had seen to them.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Ghouls.  Fouls undead that preyed on the living and consumed the dead.  And that is what they had been doing when we rode into town.  The town hall had been stuffed with the villagers, the doors barred and the place set on fire.  Those inside had been roasted alive.  Turns out that’s just fine for the ghouls who had broken open the doors and were feasting on the dead.

Of course, to a ghoul, killing the living was much preferable.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Forty Two




The difference between a good person and a bad person is frequently something small, an incident where things are not going well, tempers flare, words get said, perhaps violence is started.  Oh, there are more insidious ways to be a bad individual, but when a decent enough man or woman does bad things, it behooves society to make an example of them.  That is what I have always been taught.  We are all responsible for our actions.  We cannot control what another thinks about us, or says to us, but we can control how we react to any slight or abuse.

We would reach the first farms on the outskirts of Broadmire before sundown.  Folks from River Crossing had cousins here.  The talk all that morning had been about catching up with seldom seen relations and seeing who joined up with Eronel when she rode through.  Several folks were making wagers about the village chief, Laird, and whether or not he’d be locked in irons like old Danby had been.

Now, Danby, a proud and obtuse man who once saw to his own needs and desires above those of his village, laughed at those jibes.  It seemed that the turn of the days, the events of late, and the change in the fortune of every man, woman, and child in the Tranquil valley had breathed a new spirit into the man.  He did his part, no matter how menial, and did it with a smile and song.  I honestly think he was relieved to have given up the mantle he once held.

Spirits were soaring until someone spotted the smoke on the horizon.

River Crossing had gotten off lucky.  The first farms were burned out, animals wandering loose in the field and the farmer’s family butchered in the yard.  They didn’t take any slaves here, just killed every one of them.

One of the women in Bardo’s squad ran screaming across the blackened field from the road, a wail of grief echoing across the scorched land.  No one moved for a bit, just let her run ahead.  Then Liz spurred her horse forward and caught up with the woman, leaping from her horse and catching the woman before she made it to the dead.

Ebith was her name, a woman who lost her one and only child to the pox just the year before.  He husband had run off after that, joined the raiders for all she knew.  But the family that had farmed this land had been the only family she had left in the world and they had been slaughtered.

It took a couple  of hours to get her settled enough to stop screaming.  There had been young children there, children she had doted on when she’d had a chance to visit come harvest each year.

Liz held the woman, let her rail and scream until she was spent.  Gizela and Belle took the woman and walked her back to the wagons, supporting her from collapsing more than once.

Without a word, Danby grabbed a shovel and went to the farm house and began digging a grave.  Before I knew it half a dozen other folks had grabbed spades and shovels and were helping him, sharing the chore.

Others went out to the fields and began gathering the animals.  I was surprised that the raiders had let any of them live, but I guess once they’d killed the family, they moved on.  Cattle and sheep would just slow them down.

No one talked about the smoke that clouded the horizon.  No one wanted to think about the other farms, nor the village less than a league further down the road.

Once the family was put in the ground proper, I said a prayer over them, asking all my various gods to see that they reached the Far Shore, and that we made those who killed them pay for their sins a hundred fold.

People were upset and out of their elements.  We had lost the carnival atmosphere.  Emotions were running high and many in our little caravan had grown afraid.  Oh they were also brave, but generations of abuse and beat down has a way of infusing the spirit.  In a society like that, those who are strong rule those who are weak.  It’s human nature.  And the loss of this family, the wanton destruction and callous disregard for life had shaken them.

We moved down the lane far enough to lose sight of the farm and we made camp.  I’m sorry it came to this, but those on guard duty were suddenly very attentive.  The initial euphoria of rescue and release had been smothered by the old malaise of hopeless acceptance.  Dinner was a sullen affair.

I thought of my most awful moments, the death of Meredith and more recently, Thomas the brigand child slain by orcs.  Then I recalled the lament Bob had sung into the night.  That song haunted me, coloring the world in shades of melancholy and grief.  But it also proved a catharsis.  Once the fires were banked and all who would sleep, bedded down; I stood on one of the wagons and began to sing.

I did not have his voice.  He sang light a nightingale.  But I knew the words, could carry a tune, and had a deep and abiding love that I was willing to share.

At first I faltered, my voice too quiet, my tenor squeaking with anxiety.  Then Lilith joined me and I felt stronger for her harmony.  By the time we finished the first circuit, our voices were mellow and strong.  As the second circuit began, Liz joined us, her soprano adding a layer of light that brought tears to my eyes.

Just as Bob had, we sang the song through three times.  When we finished, we climbed down from the wagons and went about our business.  The others in our train watched us with open mouths and shining eyes.  Several of them cringed in fear, their own demons a shadow on their heart, but most of them seemed relieved of some of their grief.  And that was good enough for me.

You see, while I have many blessings in my life, I am acutely aware that many others do not fare as well.  I set out to answer this dream quest, sure.  But my true calling was to proved succor to those in need.

It was my honor to bring them a modicum of hope.  It was my duty to provide them a moment of peace.  And finally, it was my divine obligation to teach them a different way of seeing the world.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Forty One




Thirteen farm families, ten farm wagons, seven donkey carts, two dozen mules, thirteen plow horses, seven ponies and thirty three men and women willing to take up arms against the enemy.  All in all it was quite a lot to take in.

Before we left town I went to talk to Old Man Danby.  He was a surly cuss, but not an evil man.  Oh, he was not a pleasant man by most counts, but like most bullies, he had gotten his way for so long, he couldn’t conceive of a world where others didn’t look away when he glared at them, much less have two old women beat him unconscious and put him in the stockade.  We had a nice chat, he and I.  I told him how we had overthrown the raiders compound and burned the place out after killing the priests.  He was shocked, I can tell you.  In the end, he showed remorse.  It’s not as if I trusted the man, by any means, but I could not in good conscious leave him in irons.  I freed him, explained what we were doing and where we were going and offered him to join us.  Not all were abandoning the village.  There were families who had small children who did not want to take the risk, or others who were afraid that their small shops or homes would be looted.  There were only forty or fifty families in the entire community and the worst of the lot had gone off with Eronel.  But they had that right to choose.  I expected Danby to puff up his chest, say something about staying to see to his village, so imagine my surprise when he asked to go along with us.  He even went back to his place and pulled out a suit of chain mail and a sword that his grandsires had passed down through the generations for the protection of the people of the valley.  I wanted to study that sword later, but for the meantime I had him go to Ordo for an assignment and told him to see Liz or Lilith for some help in tending the blade.  It needed a good oiling if nothing else.  He laughed at me and unsheathed it, and it looked newly forged, without a notch or bit of rust.  Either that sword had magic in it, or Danby’s family knew a valuable heirloom when they saw it and knew how to take care of it.

Ordo organized the  wagon teams and we set out toward the next town.  That took us the better part of the day, so we only made it a few miles outside of town before it started getting dark.

Liz and Lilith took Ingrid with them to go scouting ahead and that’s when I discovered the first of the dubious surprises.  Lilith had kept Bernard’s knives and she gave Liz her twin short swords.  Liz had been pretty upset having lost her own blades to Reginald and vowed to get them back, but she said she could manage with the halfling’s blades.  The second surprise was that Ingrad had taken Sasha’s knives for her own.  They were magical, that we knew.  But only Lilith had an inkling to what extent the magic worked.  Basically she assured us that until Ingrid had drawn blood with them, there would be no affect.  Once she drew blood, the process would begin.  Lilith offered to spar with her using wooden blades for now, but that eventually they’d need to spar with the true blades.  Blood would begin the connection.  The true attuning would occur when Ingrid killed with them for the first time.  That’s when she and they would become as one.  I wasn’t sure I wanted that broken girl to fuel her need for vengeance.  Vengeance usually ended badly for all concerned.  That is a well that can never be filled.

We stopped two hours after full dark, set a picket for the animals, and divvied the watch with one of the three of us on each shift until we could teach them what to do and what to look for.  These were farmers, not warriors.  I just wish I had a solid squad of hobs with me, or even the croakers had a level of discipline I could work with.  These dirt grubbers were as likely to kill each other in an attack as they were to take down determined trained raiders.

I created a council, using Ordo, Belle and Gizela as my senior advisers.  Then I had the farmers broken into squads with Ordo’s two sons, Bardo and Jiardo, as squad leaders since the other farmers looked on them as leaders.  I also appointed Pavil to form a squad.  We did not worry about gender, though Danby and a few of his cronies made a few comments about who should be leading and who should be doing the cooking and cleaning.

So I took him at his word and set him to preparing food with a couple of his friends while I met with my council.  Just to be sure they complied, I set Brindle to watch them, make sure they saw to their tasks.  That dog acted like he understood every word I said and the three men set to fixing enough stew for the entire wagon train.

Brindle was a huge, slobbery dog with a head like a shovel.  His markings were interesting, with dark irregular stripes and an undercoat that ranged from brown to gold along his torso. He was good natured to those he liked and a demon to his enemies.  The bite on him could  tear away a man’s calf muscle without much effort.

Anyway, I described him to Danby and his friends, telling them that Brindle could kill a man before he had time to cry out, then I left them to their food preparations.  Brindle eyed me and I winked at him.  He yipped once, then turned his attention to the grumbling men.

I talked with my advisors, keeping an eye around the camp to make sure things were going well.  The near carnival atmosphere had not left the group yet.  Soon enough, things would turn from festive to drudgery and I needed them to be disciplined and organized before that set in.  Equal work all around kept things cordial.  Favoritism sowed dissent.  I would meet with each squad individually later.  My time with the hobs would not be wasted here.

The night went smoothly enough.  Everyone was more than ready for their bedrolls by the time we called it for the night.  Those on guard duty set about their tasks with the enthusiasm of children discovering a  new toy.  I knew that would grow old before too long.

When I told Danby and his boys that they had to also wash the pots, I thought they would mutiny, but when I took Ordo with me and helped them down at the stream, they seemed taken aback.  I needed them to know that everyone worked at something, no matter how menial.  Or this little venture would fail before it began.

Once we were cleaned up and I sent Danby and his friends to bed, he shook my hand.  I wouldn’t say we’d be friends, but I think he had the first bits of respect growing.  Now we had to see how he behaved when things got hard.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Forty




We debated what to do with the captives that we had rescued.  We didn’t know anyone in the valley, and with Sasha and Bernard dead, we had to one who could look after them.  When we asked if they wanted to return to their home villages, the oldest among them told tales of abuse and outright slavery.  Eronel and her lot were an infection in this valley and the only cure for them had died rescuing the lot of us.

Liz and Lilith ranged on horseback, scouting ahead as we crossed the river.  Jayden drove the first wagon with a young woman named Chloe in the back with the younger children.  The second wagon was driven by Lena with Pavil in the back with that group of children.

Ingrid and I rode horses, one to either side of the wagons, to watch for problems.  It was a decent enough plan and it took us across the river ford and onward toward the first of the villages.

We rode for the better part of a day before sighting the first farms.  Pavil knew this territory and warned us which farms were trouble and which would be sympathetic.  Oddly enough many of the worst farms were abandoned.  We finally stopped at a farm where Pavil had a cousin and we got the news.  Eronel had come through her a few days previously with a wounded Reginald and a few of her worst raiders.  They stayed in one of the outlying farms for a few days, and the raiders came into town, coerced a group of the seedier men to join them, loaded wagons with anything they could take and left.

The news that Eronel was fleeing before us was welcomed by a few but mainly the folks hid when we came through.  Generations of locals had dealt with the witch and had learned that keeping one’s head down usually meant you suffered less.

By the time we go to the center of the village, news had travelled head of us and there was a crowd waiting.  There were a few men of fighting age, but mostly there were women, children, the old and the infirmed.

Two elderly women approached us with staves in their hands and a gaggle of children following in their wake.  They introduced themselves as Belle and Gizela.  Turns out, with the ruffians of the village haring after Eronel, folks began to realize that perhaps they could just take back their village.  No one had ever seen the witch in such an all fired hurry to flee the safety of her infamous complex.

That and the fact that Belle had “conked old Danby on his fool head and locked him in the stockades” was enough to bring out the more daring in the village.

“Rumors fly farther than arrows,” Gizela said with a cackle.  “If the witch was fleeing before our motley band of women and children, then by the Night Blades, they’d take back their lives.”

Turns out Belle and Gizela were both old enough to remember tales from before Eronel’s reign of terror.  And the Night Blades, or the Quietus as Sasha and Bernard had called themselves, were folk heroes to those around the village.  I was astounded by the resilience of those folk.  With generations of oppression, a single day of seeing their worst enemy flee had fanned the flames of their hope and rebellion.  Made me heartened once more for our collective fates.

I’ll mention it here, since I rarely complain, but this quest has proven harder than I had ever imagined.  I have no desire to turn back, nor eschew my duty, but many of the things I have seen fill me with such disgust and horror that I have wondered if perhaps cleansing this world and starting anew wouldn’t be a service to the universe.

Then we find good people like Belle, Gizela and the portion of this village who had the bravery and fortitude to come to us, to throw their lot against the tyrants and the evil in their world.  I wanted to hug the lot of them, but it was too soon.

The next village was more than a day’s ride by horse further north, and with laden wagons would take two to three days.  We decided to stay at least one day in the village while Belle sent runners out to the farmers she trusted to come and see us, talk to us.  Four sisters took horses we provided and set off with celebratory whoops.

We had a bit of a debate around Liz, who patiently answered the villager’s questions about her “demon” status.  I was very proud of the patience she showed this day.  We settled the children in the village meeting hall and most of those remaining here pitched in to help feed them, and provide much needed supplies like clothing and blankets.

Farmers began arriving in town with wagons loaded with food and farm hands who had been too far away from the village to be conscripted.  One burly farmer by the name of Ordo asked after the village elder, Danby.  He wasn’t very pleased when he found out the village strong man was locked in the stockade but backed down under the Belle’s withering stare and Gizela’s sharp rebukes.

“Your own daughter was taken just last spring,” she snapped at him.

He stared at his feet.  “Had to keep the others safe.  She was only my third daughter.”

Gizela punched him in the breadbasket and the man didn’t even let out a breath, but he had the grace to take a step back and nod to the old woman.

After that, things began to nearly get out of control.  Ordo and two of his sons began organizing the farmers as they came in, sending some back to gather hidden weapons and all the food their wagons could carry.

Before we knew it we had an army ready to march.  Oh, they weren’t trained, and they mainly carried scythes, but they were strong men and women who had finally found a reason to rise up against their oppressors.  The tales of the raider’s complex burning had helped, but the tales of Eronel fleeing before us swayed even the stoutest doubters.

Liz it turned out, was more a novelty than a fearsome demon spawn.  It was the children, you see.  They had known true monsters in their lives, lost family and friends to the worst of their own kind.  Liz was a mighty warrior, an avenging legend from the furthest reaches of mythology and with her at my side, and my abilities to wield power for good, there was true hope in this village for the first time in memory.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Thirty Nine




I’ll leave aside the details of the rescue.  I’m sure you can imagine Lilith being freed, Brindle leading Liz to find me and Sasha and Bernard rescuing the children, not expecting to find us as well in the depths of that place.  Oh, the fighting was grand and the defenders fell like golden wheat under a scythe.  But all that is trite and redundant as far as my mind is concerned.  Oh, I am sure I will recount more thrilling adventures as my quest continues but for this point, this final entry that will catch us up to the present, I want you to imagine in your mind, if you will, a pool of water twenty rods across and an unknown depth deep, though I would wager far over my head.

The water is cold and black under a rocky dome that soars over head — a great cavern alight with glittering gems that glow with the accumulated magic of decades of casting and sacrifices.

Now imagine four altars, one at each compass point around the edge of this great lake of water.  It is at these four points that a priest would sacrifice a young person, draining their life’s blood into the lake.  Only after their bodily fluids had been totally drained, were the remaining lifeless shells tossed into the water.

At the quarter marks between each cardinal point stands a priest chanting over a brazier filled with burning coals.  From each brazier a smoke roils out over the water in a thin line, connecting with their mirror opposite, creating a six pointed star of smoke over the water.

That is the scene we came upon.

Sasha and Bernard had the children with them, searching for others, grabbing supplies, hitching a wagon, and generally making ready for the escape.

Liz, Lilith, Brendil and I had delved deeper into the oldest portions of the complex, seeking out the priests.  Seeking the summoning point.  Here there were battles once more.  Liz was armed with her bow, but Reginald had taken her blades.  Lilith’s blades had been found along with my pack and our few remaining supplies which we had sent with Ingrid.  They would gather whatever supplies they could and put it all in a wagon for us to escape in.  Frankly, once we dealt with the priests, I did not think there were too many to block our escape.  Foolish, foolish thinking.

As the priests chanted their incantations, we stood in the shadows.  They had no thought that any would penetrate this far into the complex, and were therefore unconcerned when we arrived.  Of course, when the first died, they changed their tunes.  It’s funny how delicate great magic can be.  I recall watching Rufus weasel gnome spend far too much time working some grand spell or other when we battled the blighted, only to have the spell disrupted and the effort wasted.

These priests had been casting this summoning for months.  They rotated out at each position, reserve priests allowing the next group to rest and recover from the ordeal of the constant magic use.  They lived in a warren of rooms that honeycombed this level of the complex.   Guards lined the edges of the cavern, nearly a dozen, to protect the priests.  But they too had grown complacent, much to their demise.

Liz killed the first guard with a well aimed arrow, alerting our enemy to their danger.  She sprinted east around the lake, firing into the men-at-arms while Lilith dashed westward.  None of the priests around the lake could attack us without breaking the circle, which we used to our advantage.

I strode directly north, mace in my fist and attacked the high priest at the southern cardinal point.  These priests were not helpless, and the magic they wove could withstand a bit of inattention for a short period of time.  That is how they managed to trade out with their reserves.

The priest I fought was an older man, with a  beard that trailed down to his chest, and eyes the color of chipped stone.  His broken toothed grin spoke of madness as he pulled a cudgel from his belt and swung it at my head.

The battle was short and fierce.  In the end I cracked the priest’s skull with my mace and he fell at my feet, bleeding out his last beside the altar where he had sacrificed so many.

The magic, of course, cared naught for who stood at the points.  It sought the next individual with power and that was me.  The magic snapped onto me, pulling me into the configuration without conscious thought.  I was not tied there by any means.  I had the ability to step back from the point.  But for that instant, as I was part of the whole, I looked into the water of that frigid lake and saw… goldfish.

Yes.  Dozens and dozens of goldfish the size of my two fists held together swam in that cold water, living off the bodies of the dead.  They were at once beautiful and grotesque.  For one moment I thought that perhaps I should remain in that position and just watch the golden scaled acrobats flipping through the cold depths.

When Lilith killed the priest at the western cardinal point, I felt a shock go through me, breaking the mesmerizing image of the fish and I staggered back, shredding the carefully maintained spell.

A great splintering echo went up in the cavern as the spell was shredded and suddenly we were hard pressed with enraged priests.

We prevailed as you can see by my writing this entry, but the battle was merciless and brutal.  End the end Liz and Lilith slew the remaining priests, broke open the stores of oil and set the place on fire.

For you see, at the end of the spell, the goldfish had all died — hundreds upon hundreds of them floating slowly to the surface of the lake.  I had fallen to my knees, the truth of what I had witnessed washing over me like a wave of bile.  Each of those gold fish was the transformed spirit of a sacrificed child — hundreds upon hundreds of them, growing fat in the lake in preparation for the final summoning.  I  sat down on the edge of that black water and wept as the golden fish floated to the surface, lifeless.  The gold fish were to be the first meal for the vile one summoned from beyond the void.  This was the purpose of the sacrifices.  Not to bring Eronel’s dark lord into this realm, but to have an adequate supply of food for it when it arrived.

By the time black smoke filled the halls they had to drag me out to the surface.  I had waded into the water, gathering fish into my arms, weeping.  Liz thought I had been befuddled by one of the priests.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Thirty Eight




She told me on the third day that she would never touch Liz.  Eronel had visited the lizard folk temple when she and Sasha were girls barely a year from their first menses.  They had ranged far in their spirit quest before taking up the blades.  It was something each child of the Quietus performed to see if they wanted a life beyond the blades.  Few took it up, but it was an important option for them.  It weeded out dissent.  The temple had been a rumor of the local villagers.  Sasha and Eronel were bright girls, crafty and capable.  They hunted down the best stories, plotted their excursion and found the temple buried deep in the forests on the very edge of the valley, right up against the broken mountains that protected the valley from the horrors of the north.

For Sasha, it had been an eye opening experience, that year of mystery hunting and she returned to the Quietus ready to take up the sacred blades.  Eronel had not fared as well.  She had been nearly overwhelmed by the horror of the place.  There was a part of her, darker and more open to vicious thoughts, that allowed the being trapped within to insinuate itself into her thoughts.  She also returned to the blades, but made the pilgrimage back to the temple three times, each time growing darker.

Sasha followed the true path, seeking justice and honor, while Eronel began killing for spite.  When another of the neophytes noticed, Eronel captured her and took her to the temple, sacrificing her to her new dark god.

Visages of the lizard folk covered the temple, but the god she called upon was something darker, older.  Yet the imagery of the temple filled her with awe.  None lived in the Tranquil Valley but humans.   Eronel fancied that she worshipped the lizard folk, not believing or caring for the truth.  In the end, she became the monster she is today, and the gods weep for her existence.

After that first human sacrifice, Eronel left the Quietus to follow her own twisted path, which led her to me.  Imagine her delight in finding one who wears the armor of Kithri’s Fist.  Her dark patron knows of the order, knows the history of their demise and the usurpation by the Hand of the One True God.  After all, it was that god, or the remnant that had been trapped in the temple by the powerful lizard folk elders in the last days of the cataclysm before the mountains were raised and the valley cleansed.

The lizard folk sacrificed themselves to trap the tainted one, leaving behind a single temple.  I could not help but notice the irony of us arriving, Liz and I, two mythological characters in the  farcical drama of her life.

Liz, who represented the dark one in Eronel’s mind, had been kept confined to opulent quarters where she received anything she asked for, including food and water.  Well, anything but her freedom.  Eronel wanted to speak with Liz, wanted to plumb the depths of her lizardy wisdom.  But I was the threat.

In all actuality, it was Sparkle who was the threat.  She killed three different jailers before they abandoned her in a pitch black cell deep within the bowels of the hills, without food or water.  I don’t know how she lived without water for so many days.  Some secrets are better unknown.

Eronel focused her attention on me and it made me realize something important.  If I was the true threat, she would’ve killed me out right.  There was something she wanted from me.  Or, rather, something her benefactor needed.  She told me that she planned to travel to the temple again.  They needed more sacrifices.  They were so close to freeing the dark one that her dreams were filled with his yearning.

Of course, I will tell you, she feared that as well.  It is my opinion that the girl who first entered the temple yearned for someone to right her wrongs.  It was only a tiny sliver, but her consumption of my diary pages was the final clue for me.  The way she asked her questions, the things she focused on, all told me she desired redemption.

Which is exactly what I offered her on our last visit.  She had given up the knives, the pleasure of it bitter on her tongue.  She had grown tired of all the depravity and only her fear of her destiny and her love for Reginald kept her on her appointed path.

See, there it is again.  Love.  Could you imagine someone as vile and broken as Eronel loving anything?  It baffles my mind.  But she loved that broken, twisted warrior who led the raids and kept her bed warm.

The ritual to bring forth the vile one was nearly complete.  It seems that we had managed to delay them in our mad rush to stop the raiders from returning with their captives.  Well Sasha and the Quietus stopped them, we just ran in their wake.

Eronel and Reginald were going to the temple once more, so Eronel could get last instructions.  Then they were gathering sacrifices from their network of bully boys on the way back to the compound.  They would be gone several days each way and she looked forward to returning to me.  I would be the pinnacle of her breaking.  I would be the final bloodletting that would open the threshold and usher in her great dark lord.  Lucky me.

Oh, and it is at this point that I must mention another player.  While Lilith and Sparkle were truly one body, Eronel had not been wrong in her suspicions.  There was indeed another who roamed these halls, hunting for us.

Do you recall me mentioning Brindle the dog?  Yes.  I do not know why I had forgotten the noble beast.  In the pursuit of the raiders, I had let the poor animal slip my mind.  But he had not forgotten Liz.  With his old master dead, the great beast had followed in our wake, hunting for she who had treated him with kindness.

Imagine my surprise when, after Eronel had left for the better part of two days, that the dog Brindle would saunter into my prison, my mace clasped in his jaws.

It’s the little surprises.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Thirty Seven




I have learned many hard lessons which I have tried to recount in this journal, Father Mulcahy.  I would be eschewing your wise counsel if I had not pointed those things out.  I have come to realize that my perceptions at any given situation may be filtered through a lens of both my emotional and physical state.  I have done my level best to remain objective in this endeavor to allow the chaos of my days to settle in my mind before committing pen to vellum.  I truly invest the best of me in this exercise.

As luck would have it, I had put aside the bulk of the journals to-date in that pocket closet that Lilith had acquired from Wizard Tim.  The ability to stash items in a relatively safe place relieved one of the main stresses that have weighed on my mind.  So it was that when Eronel rifled my pack and began to go through my items, she did not find all my treasures.  Though she did find the fresh journal I had started when we left the blighted lands and began of our adventure into the Tranquil Valley.

Yes, I named it that.

You’re welcome, Bob.

Eronel discarded the maps and the trinkets I carried, focusing her attention on the journal.  What of my magnificent mace, you may be thinking?  What indeed.  It turns out that my mace lay in the officer’s quarters where I had left it when I was captured.  After three different people died trying to pick it up, they decided to leave it lay.  Someone put a box over it and they stepped around it for the next five days.  I have observed that the longer I wield the artifact and the more experience I garner, the more powerful it grows.

Eronel read each of my journal pages aloud in my presence, mocking my word choice, correcting my grammar and generally making a hash out of the emotional content I documented.  I’ve had harsh criticism before, but none as brutal as Eronel and her knives.

If the blistering critique was not enough, after she read each page aloud, she tore it into six strips, then tore each strip into six individual pieces.  Once the page had been rendered down to thirty-six distinct parts, she whispered an incantation over a single piece and held it to a tallow candle.  The incantation called forth the power of my words, and she inhaled the white that rose from the flames.

Apparently as I wrote this journal, I put a bit of myself in each pen stroke.  What she gained from this cannibalistic exercise was never clear to me, but if I were to hazard a guess, I believe that she was experiencing the emotions I had felt upon writing the words.  Was she so depraved that she had no emotions of her own, or was she so broken that she could not feel certain things any longer.  Oh, the exercise was also to cause me pain.  She was a sadist of the first order and any pain inflicted thrilled her.

While the words she read obviously told of my undying love for Liz and my fondness for Lilith, she did not act on that knowledge as far as I was able to discern.  I had mentioned Sparkle in those passages as well, so she believed I had another ally somewhere in her compound, hiding and biding their time before they could rescue me.  She told me this much as she carved symbols into my flesh.

Perhaps consuming the power from my burning journal had made her giddy or drunk, or perhaps she yearned to confess her decades of sin.  Eronel was a conflicted individual, young and pretty, which confused me for a bit when I realized that she was a peer of Sasha who had grown old.  It was the sacrifices and the blood magic that kept Eronel so young, I determined.  That and the connection she had to her otherworldly benefactor.

Whatever the ultimate reason, she took an hour or so to share just how much she disliked my refusal to explain where I had come from, and where I had come by my armor.  One of the things I kept in my mind as I faded in and out from the pain of her knives, was that, gods willing, I could heal anything she did to me.  If I lived, of course.

The fact I wore Kithri’s armor seemed to terrify her.  Oh she was a master of control and repressing her more human-like emotions, but the consumption of my journal had left her ragged.  I learned from the witch that those in the valley had heard legends of the Order of Kithri’s Fists, paladins of light and truth, though she did not know what to call them.  Of course the order had fallen one by one to the vile blackguards, the Hand of the One True God, who were also an enemy of the Quietus.  While the hand folks pretended to be of stout hearts and kind disposition, they were in fact bullies of the basest order.  I can see how their deprivations could have been jumbled with the memories of the paladin order.

The Quietus were neither good nor evil, according to her justifications.  They served the wheel, keeping the balance.  Those who wore my armor hunted the assassins, driving them into secluded places.  Of course, that had been during the cataclysm years and years before recorded history and much was lost to the dust of time.  This isolated and forgotten valley was considered to be the last of the human population in the entirety of the world.  Eronel believed that all outside the valley had perished in the Cataclysm.

Funny thing was, even as she vented her anger upon my flesh, I never doubted that I would survive her and see her and this cult defeated.  Faith of that sort can be dangerous in the mind and heart of a madman, and perhaps at that point I may very well have been mad.  But I also had resolve and a fortitude that baffled the witch.

Cleric Journal: Three Hundred and Thirty Six



When Sparkle is mad, a lot of people die.  The compound was just the façade of the true charnel house.  There were a half a dozen guards on the walls and Sparkle had killed all of them by the time I’d managed to get passed the wall.  They didn’t really expect anyone to be climbing into the compound, turns out.  Mostly it was a nod to security, something to intimidate the locals, but serving not much true purpose.  Liz let me catch up to her before we delved deeper into the compound and we always seemed a half a step behind Sparkle and her righteous anger.  Every room we entered contained one or more dead bodies.  Some she killed before they were able to get out of their beds.

Only twice did I hear any real clash of arms.  These ruffians were seriously outclassed by Sparkles skills and anger.  Liz and I did have to fight off three different attackers, but they were pathetic.  The real fight began once we entered the tunnel into the hill.

Inside were a cadre of hardened men and women, more of the speed of the men-at-arms that had accompanied the raider wagons.  These slowed Sparkle down.  Not that any of them were a match for her, gods know three of them at one time may have stood an even chance, but they came in dozens.

Later she said she let us catch up so we could help.  She didn’t want to have all the fun.  But by the look in her face, her idea of fun included being covered in other people’s blood and viscera.  I had read tales of warriors who are overcome with blood lust, usually at the behest of one god or another.  These berserkers often were unable to tell friend from foe, and killed indiscriminately until they were killed or just collapsed from exhaustion.  Some of the northern barbarian tribes were known to have berserkers among them, but as I’d never been anywhere but these wastelands, I had no real world experience.

That is the closest I could think of to describe Sparkle.  She was a whirlwind of pain and death.  Liz and I joined her and together we killed dozens of the men-at-arms until finally their leaders joined the fray and things got even harder.  Now we were sorely tested one on one.  We had delved deeper and deeper into the hill side, always circling down.  Again, I wish Bob were here.  Oh, it would be fun to snuggle and maybe worship with him if we had a free moment, but mainly I wanted to know how deep we were going into this hill.  What was the downward slant?  I will be sure to tell him how much that thought comes to me now, and how little I had cared about such things in my previous existence.  I’m sure he’ll get a good laugh at my consternation.

We were exhausted when we climbed the walls, and keeping up with Sparkle was starting to be a problem.  Finally, after hours of wandering through body filled halls, we could go no further and found ourselves in a set of barracks with an officer wing off to one side.

Here we barricaded the doors and tried to camp.  There was no one left alive on the level we had just rampaged through, we made sure of that — barring any secret doors, that is.  Sparkle didn’t even ask for the plan.  She face planted into one of the officer beds and I pulled the door closed to give her some peace.  There were four rooms off a main antechamber and we had insured that all were empty.  Their original occupants were dead in the main barracks, having fallen trying to rally their terrorized troops.

I lost count of the total dead after the number hit three figures.  I alone killed twenty-seven, Liz claims forty-three and I did not ask Sparkle, but I believe her tally to exceed both Liz and mine combined.  Quite the butcher’s bill.

Liz took the first watch and I found a bed to get lost in for a few hours.  Turns out that sleep turned into six days of hell.  Pain brought me up from my slumber and I bolted upright to find a shaggy man nearly twice my size punching me in the face and sending me back to the land of nod.

I didn’t see Liz nor Sparkle until we were broken free so I will regale you with the parts I knew at this time.

The witch, Eronel, was both crafty and paranoid.  Apparently when your life is dedicated to opening the way for the return of a truly horrible ancient god, you made enemies.  Now that I am fully aware of her depravity and her madness, I have no misunderstandings of the general distrust in the world for those who cast magic of any ilk.  And those in this tranquil valley more than most.

The entire time we were killing her minions, Eronel and her lover, Reginald, had been assisting in yet another of their increasingly more frequent mass killings.  She was one to toy with those she would kill, allowing the prettiest to live a while in her bed before flaying them alive.  Some she shared with Reginald and some she kept for her own private pleasures.  But in the end, they all succumbed to the knives.

And I hope you can guess the knives she used: Heart Biter and Throat Ripper.  Those names applied to the style of knife and the properties of their special magic.  Eronel had been one of the Quietus, one of Sasha’s blade sisters until she had returned to the defiled lizard folk temple from Liz’s tales.  Again, I slip into knowledge I do not have yet, but the context is so very important.

Eronel, being an insecure monster, had schemes buried within schemes.  Every member of her army, her priests, and even her most intimate confidants were watched by some other whose sole purpose it was to protect Eronel.

The shaggy man who punched me in the face had been a local leader who had been driven mad by being forced to watch every child in his village tortured and killed slowly, the pieces of their bodies fed to the ever burning flames that called to the nameless horror that Eronel worshiped.

I woke when someone dashed a bucket of water upon me, alerting me to the fact I was chained in a totally dark cell.  It was so dark I could not imagine the light other than those that pulsed and flashed in my eyes.  Every day someone came to me, dashed water over me, then left.  No questions were asked.  No further torture accosted me, but I was never fed.  They had found it difficult to restrain me, funny enough, since I had only the one hand.  The shackles that bound my feet and one hand were of a nature that inhibited magic of any kind from being cast.

What they did not realize was that with my right arm free, I could reach over and touch a wall hewn from the bedrock of this hill and in touching that, call upon a new power.  One I had never attempted to reach before.  When all other avenues were blocked to me; Kithri, Semaunzilla (may she be so kind as to strengthen our bond), and even The Green Lady.  This last allowed me the tiniest fraction of green sight, more like watching the world through frost tinted glass.  But it proved to be just enough to keep my mind from roaming into dark places.

The pulse of earth magic, a more russet energy that tasted of bitter ale and smoke, was not strong by any means.  The fact I could tap into the power of the dwarven god, Thunder Jack was a miracle unto itself.  With it I was able to withstand the lack of food and water, the earth itself sending nourishing energy into my body.

Of course, power is power, and someone paranoid will eventually discover even the merest trickle I was able to draw via my touch of the bedrock.  Eronel explained to me just how happy that made her with branding irons and burning coals.

Those were not happy times.

Cleric Journal: Day Three Hundred and Thirty Five




It was Lilith, frankly.  She had gone from angry to enraged at the sight of the dead kids.  Just flipped and from one moment to the next her eyes switched colors and Sparkle Glitterblade stood there.  Lilith, as I’ve told you before, has a good heart.  Sparkle is great fun and loves to worship at the drop of a hat, but that girl has a mean streak in her a league wide.  And she was in high form when she arrived.

Liz was watching the compound for bad guys to show up while we tended to the children.  Lilith had ridden her horse over and hitched it to the shattered wagon before transitioning to Sparkle, which is what gave us almost two minutes to formulate a plan.  She was going over the wall as soon as it was dark, and Liz and I were to take the kids and the horses and ride back to the nearest town.

Sasha turned to Liz and warned her that the locals were too cowed and would not protect the children to which Sparkle spat at her feet, called her a coward and told her that she was late for her grave.

The air got very cold in that moment, so much I looked around for a specter or wraith, but it was just the tension between Sparkle and Sasha.  Sparkle was not known to the stalkers, though they had observed Lilith for some time as she rode back and forth in front of the wall.  Now that she was here and in our faces, Sasha was not impressed so much.  Her mate, Bernard, was in his early nineties, but looked to be a formidable opponent.  He stood back, speaking with the young women, but I saw he had an ear cocked to the angry rhetoric from Sparkle.

All the alarms were going off in my head.  I needed to deescalate this situation.  We could not turn on one another.  I thought to intervene by introducing Sparkle, but she laughed at me and informed Liz and I that she didn’t care about the old woman’ s name.  She said they were of an order that had been all but forgotten and that they would be better remaining in the dust of lost myths.

This shut Sasha right up.  Her eyes grew hard for a moment, but she took a step back drawing a blanket of calm over her visage.  She took three quiet breaths and the alarms settled once more.

“Our order is ancient, but we are no more myths than your lizard girl there,” she said, pointing.

I reached out and took Liz’s hand, feeling the need to connect with her.  There was something primal here that had me on edge and I could not place what it was exactly.  Some ritual was in motion and I didn’t like it one bit.

“You are the disavowed,” Sparkle said, gesturing to Sasha’s knives.  “You carry Heart Biter and Throat Ripper –”

I swear I could hear the capital letters when she named the blades.

“– and you dance the Quietus, the art of Quenching, the Thirst that is never Sated.”

Bernard looked up at this and Sasha caught his eyes for a fleeting second and then she returned her gaze to Liz.

“You have proven worthy allies,” Sasha said, directing her comments only to Liz.  “We thank you for the help here.  But we must take this lot to safety.”

Sparkle growled.  “There is no safety when your order steps from the shadows after all these generations,” she went on as if the old woman had been talking to her.  “Your kind died out in my grandfather’s generation and his knives were thrown into the sea.”

Bernard gasped at that final as if he had been punched in the gut.  Sasha stiffened for a moment, her shoulders a knot, then she turned her gaze to Sparkle.

“I do not know what order you speak of,” she said, her face and voice stern.  “We are those who hunt from the shadows.  We are vengeance in the night.  We are reckoning and righteousness.”

Sparkle laughed.  “You are arrogant and prideful.  So it has been for all in your order.”  She pointed at Sasha.  “I bet you and your mate are the last two in your archaic cabal, am I right?”

Sasha turned to Liz and smiled a half smile.  “I am sorry we must part on such animosity, but I fear your friend here is full of rage.  She is not welcome in our sanctuary.   We would have extended guest privileges to you and your –” she glanced at me, a puzzled look on her face, “mate, perhaps?  He suits you with the abomination of his magic, and your visage so like the forsaken temple I discovered in my youthful wanderings.”

She held out a hand to Liz, who took it and shook.

“Do not linger here,” Sasha said to us.  There are more powerful people beyond that compound and they will be here afore long.  You will want to be far from here when they arrive.”  She turned then, held a hand out to Bernard and they took each of the captives and loaded them on horses; the smallest children riding double with the two young women, and with Bernard and Sasha themselves.  They left us the rest of the horses and rode north and west toward the sea.

“Good riddance,” Sparkle said, her voice full of malice.  She turned to us and caught us watching her.

“They follow a code,” she said, her voice tight.  “And to hell with mercy or compassion.  They mete justice as they see fit and none but the gods can sway them from their course once it is set in motion.”

“Assassins?” Liz asked.

Sparkle nodded, her face an amalgam of horror and awe.  “I did not lie when I said my grandfather was of their ilk.  He had been hunted down by the order for daring to protect our village.  They came for him in the night, cut him down, and threw his blades into the sea, the vilest punishment for one of their own.”

“Why?” I asked, more curious than I had expected.  Assassins sounded generally like bad people.

“Their blades absorb the blood of their victims, but that is not all.  They also take a bit of the spirit of the slain, imbuing the daggers with power beyond normal steel and allowing for a magic of sorts to be practiced by the ones who wield them.  It makes them harder to detect, allows them to practically disappear from an open field, and adds strength and vitality beyond what they would have under normal circumstances.  They are powerful weapons which cannot be wielded by any but the owner, or one who is bequeathed them upon the termination of their training.”

“And tossing the blades into the sea?” Liz asked.

“The sea leaches away the accumulated power, destroys the steel and eradicates generation up generation of combined power passed down through the ages.”  She drew a heavy sigh, her eyes glowing with tears.  “It is their final death, the destruction and erasure of the wielder’s entire existence.”

I looked after the riders as they disappeared in a dust cloud and glanced back to Liz.  Most of what Sparkle said had lined up to Liz’s own experiences.  And I did not have any qualms about them killing the raiders.  I guess the real question came from who decided who the next victim should be.

Playing at godhood, choosing life or death — that is tricky business, and something we do nearly every day.  But I feel like we only fight and kill when provoked.  It sounds like these assassins had different criteria.  Something I’d love to investigate more.  But in the next moment, Sparkle left us, vanished into the shadows and went into the compound.

Liz swore and followed.  What was I supposed to do.  I couldn’t abandon them.