It was midnight and cold rain lingered in the air and soil, draining any warmth. The entire troop was immobilized, trapped between the stormy river, bursting with the torrential rains from the afternoon, and a large hostile camp of mercenaries. They had been waiting for the moonless night to swallow sound and movement before any escape could be attempted.
Their captain had sent them to investigate the movements of, supposedly, just a handful of ravagers. He never bothered with planning, he actioned, he threw people into the fray and counted the survivors after.
Cursing, taut with tension, head ranger Alda Hagard was motioning to her brethren to ready themselves. Spring rains had flooded the shallow river, cutting off the huddle of rangers from the hidden route they’d used to cross the knee-deep waters. The captain had insisted they use the secret path to divert any suspicion of where their forces lay to the southeast across the water, objections be damned.
Now the only way back was circling around the hostile encampment to the nearest sturdy river crossing, half a day on foot to the east. The troop consisted of twenty lightly armored rangers, shivering from the cold and wet from the afternoon storm; nowhere near enough to match the fifty or so heavily armored mercenaries.
But Alda knew the land better than anyone. For she was of the North, born and raised in the Black mountains, and the no-man's land was home territory. There was hope they’d make it out in one piece.
The troop would sneak their way in the dead of night, while she and two other rangers created a diversion by fire and lose any pursuers on stolen mounts, through the thickest part of the Temple wood to the west. The forest was named after an ancient, crumbling temple that was supposedly cursed. Curse or no, the place was hard to navigate even for the locals and notorious for swallowing the occasional lost traveler. Finally, the saboteurs would circle back to the western crossing and intercept the rest of the troop.
The plan almost worked. The troop did sneak undetected but Alda and the other two rangers failed to disappear in the forest quick enough.
Alda didn't slow, didn't turn back when she heard the arrows find their marks, didn't stop to peer at the faces of her comrades, as they tumbled to the ground. She rode for an hour before she dismounted and continued on foot to a secluded clearing, where she made camp for the night.
The forest was thick enough to hide any signs of a campfire but she didn't risk it. Even though Alda was wet from sweat and rain, shivering and cold. Mercifully, the stolen steed had a thick tarp strapped to the saddle, her only source of protection tonight. As she settled on a moss bed behind huge ash trees, Alda folded in on herself, cursing and wishing tears to flow.
It was getting harder and harder to see death. Those were good, brave boys, she thought, and both were of the few who actually tolerated her. Alda wasn't everyone's favorite because she was bitter and stubborn, and picked verbal fights with anyone who'd looked at her wrong. But she was also sharp and witty, and could outdrink almost everyone, and company always came with drink.
Each time a mate went down, she'd lie awake deep into the night, heart aching, waiting for tears to come. They never did. She'd stopped crying, because there were no more tears, all spent the day her home went up in flames.
The War had swallowed her from the very start and had consistently showed her a parade of death. Her home was among the first ones to be destroyed – pillaged by raiders and mercenaries, her uncle and aunt scorched to a crisp.
She'd managed to escape with her cousin, both burned and injured, limping through the hills until they'd been found by soldiers and dropped at a healers' tent. With nowhere else to go, they'd lingered in the wretched army outpost for a month. Melandra was engulfed in grief, Alda was consumed by rage. Mely remained to help the healers and Aly signed up in the infantry, one of many volunteers.
Thinking about the past brought a dull ache within Alda, sharpened by the fresh loss. At dawn, she'd picked up a trail that led her closest to the cursed temple, hoping the tall tales of the place would keep away any pursuers. It was all nonsense, she knew, because there was just a dilapidated complex of roofless buildings and obscure passageways. She would trek the windy paths to the temple with the kids from her village and they would dare each other to enter. That … was over three years ago, almost a lifetime ago.
Alda rode slowly, drowning in the past and the losses of the present. She didn't notice the unnatural tremors from the northwest until the horse started fidgeting. Caught off guard at first, she realized the vibrations were coming from the temple grounds. She was almost in view of road leading to the old ruin when her sharp eyes caught movement and color ahead. She decided to follow, investigate who had snuck so far in no man's land.
Hidden under the canopy, she left the steed and snuck closer to the first vestiges of the old complex. With a rush of adrenaline, she recognized the purple-robed young men, un-war-like and out of place.
Acolytes of the cursed order, the guilty for all the war and destruction! Half a dozen of them, keeping to the horses, as if waiting for someone, guarding. Two of them were in a heated argument, pointing to the entrance of the main temple building. Someone was there, someone of importance. She had to see who was there, figure out what were they up to. Information was her trade as a ranger, she couldn't let this opportunity slip.
She slinked through the buildings, hoisted herself into a low-branched tree near the southern side of the main temple, landing softly on the roof. The place was so old she could look for a hole through the stone roof and glide down. The high rampart obscured her from enemy view until she found a fissure big enough for to slip through.
In the patchy gloom, Alda could make out the long hall, the multitude of columns... and a tall male figure facing the wall opposite the only entrance. Faint mumbling, then a loud crack and the figure disappeared. Hiding in the shadows, she reached the spot where the stranger had been and studied the wall behind.
A giant eye symbol was painted on it- no, carved! and blackened with tar. The…eye was encased in a concave rhomboid, sharp at the edges, as if it was a tabletop spinning, balancing.
Alda motioned to touch the wall, wondering if there was some spell needed to open the door. Her hand fell through air, she stumbled forth and caught herself before she crashed into a wall. She found herself in a shallow corridor, flanked by the walls of the room behind. An optical illusion, she observed, that opened into a sloping passage on the left.
She followed with cat-like footsteps. The end of the passage opened left again and revealed a long, black hall, ending in a candlelit altar. Her heart stopped at the sight of the illuminated face by the candle glow.
The High mage! The man, who'd started the damned war, destroyed her home, her life- many peoples' lives!
Shaking with adrenaline, an insane idea threatened to make her do something foolish... It took every piece of willpower not to lunge at the loathsome figure. She must be smarter than this!, this man could evaporate her from a distance. They all knew what he had done, what he was capable of.
Suddenly a sensation of pulling formed in her core, a subdued tugging at her mind and heart, just as the High mage began mumbling some incantation.
Like one voice unto many, a cacophony of screams, filled her head.
It whispered of power, of how good it would feel to have it… Images flashed before her open yes – of her destroyed family, friends she lost, her dead ranger mate…The pain was still so raw… Raw from her musings last night, raw from the fresh deaths at her back… Power did not interest her now. It did not sway or tempt her. Not power. Not now.
The voices shifted. They dug deeper. They found her place of rage and hid there, stirring, reveling in it.
It worked. Hate and vengeance welled up, engulfed her. She wanted to feel the High mage's blood on her hands. How good that would feel… How rewarding… How just…
She stepped quietly trough the hall, each step turning her rage into a palpable, physical thing.
There was a Pull. It was gentle, it promised retribution, it coaxed at her bloodlust, made her desire death above all – death of the man before her.
She craved it so much now she began seeing blood. No, it was real blood. It dripped from her eyes, as if crying for the first time since her life was uprooted and crushed.
Alda was now on a collision course, her body not entirely moving on its own. Something had made its way into her, moving her, causing her body to resist this violation.
Why resist it, she wondered even as her body was twitching with strain, it promised her payment in blood...
Like a strike of a whip, the sensation ceased. Alda had reached the altar.
The High mage whipped around, noticing the intrusion with bemused shock. Then, throwing his head back with roaring laughter, he addressed the room "Is this to be your freedom fighter? Pathetic!"
For a moment, he studied the girl’s face in the darkness, the uniform, and the coal-like eyes. Then a flick of a hand and a blast hurled from his fingers.
Instincts moved her. She dodged, her long knife drawn, dagger still hid in her boot.
The mage raised a shimmering shield as he continued to throw more ethera at her. But Alda couldn’t dodge endlessly. The only way was forward. With a lunge she rolled forward, passing the shield, as if it were paper.
She didn’t stop to wonder how that could be, momentum carrying her she slashed at a face, once, twice. Then maneuvered to the torso, looking to strike something vital. The man staggered back with shock at the onslaught, panic replacing the arrogant glee he greeted her with.
Alda was poised to land a lethal blow when her long knife rang as if clashing with glass. Almost pressed to the wall the High mage had been forced to draw out an ethera weapon. She glimpsed for a second a thin, long blade, shimmering like gold in the candlelight. A glass sword. No matter, she thought, payment in blood is what she craved most and she would get it.
Her knife sang with each clash. The mage was experienced, stronger, but also slower and out of practice. His blows quivered and his steps faltered. Her swordplay was just adequate, but she was deadly precise with close-range blades.
Soon she managed to grant her adversary a few shallow cuts on the wrists and a deep gash on the face. With a desperate shout, the mage pounced blindly at her. She swerved and kicked low, sending him thundering down on the altar, the glass sword slipping from his hand. She was posed to leap and slam him down with the killing blow-
Her limbs froze as the ghostly chorus of voices came again, this time stronger, as if they nested in her very bones.
They were loud, screaming through her head, through the hall. They weaved a wild plan, a splendid way for her to get revenge, to torment the man who'd taken away everything from her, repayment in blood.
She stood still, arms slightly outstretched, knife in hand, waiting, beckoning...
The High mage didn't seem to hear the voices that instructed her, steadied her. He stumbled, got to his feet, snatched the sword, and speared the girl right through the middle of her.
There was no pain, no blood spilled out. There was only a pleasant hum from the phantom voices and a low pulse where the sword had dug inside her.
The impact made her bend forward. So she feigned hurt, folding over low and slipping out the dagger from her boot. The mage was still smiling wildly as he savored what he thought was victory.
She whipped up her head, taking in for a heartbeat the man's shock. Bracing the knife and the dagger against the glass, she twisted sharply. Tension snapped glass with a high-pitched sound. A palm's length of the tip shattered and dug itself into her flesh.
Rumbling pulses thumped through the air, the earth. The High mage's eyes went wide with fear. He dropped the shattered blade with a shout, now – too heavy and hostile for him to bear. He stumbled, fell to his knees.
The girl picked up the sword. To her it was light and warm, and welcoming. Looking at the hilt, the same rhomboid eye stared back at her. Was it the source of the promises – of revenge and blood, which reverberated in her very cells?
Stiff with dread, the man could only stare down his death. She reached him slowly, lifted the sword and cut him down in one swift motion.
The world exploded a heartbeat later.
Torrents of shadows oozed from every wall. Tendrils of spiked darkness overwhelmed the hall, grabbing her, entrapping her. They surrounded her, the temple, the woods.
In the distance, she heard screams of men, whinnying of horses. Then the shadows threw her off the destroyed body and drained whatever remaining life force was in it.
Sensing someone staring at her, she stood up, turned and saw the eye symbol. It had appeared on the wall behind the altar, woven out of shadows, alive and aware of what had just occurred.
Whatever it was, it had promised revenge and blood, and it had delivered. She looked to the sword in her hand and it all clicked.
She had to fulfill her end of the bargain.
Poised ceremonially, she laid the blade on her hands and offered it back. The glass sword was lifted, hovered in front of the eye and she watched it reassemble itself, the broken end attaching itself to the edge.
The invisible wound at her stomach opened. Pain engulfed her. Amidst the death agony, she saw the sword disappearing in the darkness.
She'd accepted it. Accepted to sacrifice herself, if it meant the High mage was dead. Maybe it would help end the war, maybe their filthy order would scatter, maybe they’d all be destroyed, maybe there would be peace. Maybe...
А thousand screams mingled with her own.
Whiteness, nothingness swallowed her. She felt being pulled, black claws clinging to her, dragging her through what felt like gravel and stone.
It felt like she was stabbed again, in the same gaping wound inflicted by the mage. It tore open and spilled blood.
Blood and whiteness and nothingness.
And a voice? And there was forest air filling her lungs again! Was she really dead?
Alda heard footsteps, motion, someone was speaking but it was muffled and far away. She dreamed of looking up at a pair of blue gems in a stony face, and then drifted off as strange speech filled her ears. A strange language that she’d never heard.
She was falling back to the darkness as agony tore at her every fiber, mind and soul.