(Two years ago)
My blood boils with indignation, anger transmuting into mana at my fingertips that point at the thoroughly-beaten halfling before me. “Why did you kill them?!” I screamed. Outside the wreckage of the room, the city burns as Al and the others struggle to put the fires out. “Go to hell.” The warmonger flashes a bloody grin and spits at me. I kick the bastard in the face, then plant my foot on his chest. I level my hand at his face, a thought away from undoing his existence.
“Sasha. Stop.” Aerin’s hand steadies mine.
“Ah elf, your people know better than this. Do us a favor and show her how REAL peace is enforced.” The halfling commands, arrogant to the last.
Tyrant. Dictator. Warmonger. Liar.
“If anyone deserves to die, it’s him!”
“Do it. You know you want to.” The general lifts his head to my glowing hand.
“Take a breath, princess, a deep, slow breath-“
“Yes, ‘princess‘, be the bigger person, whore your existence to being a good puppet thinking it’ll get you somewhere. I see you: a pitiful, deluded girl with daddy issues-“
I thought I’d be feeling relieved, but I’m left more bitter than ever.
Aerin sighs. She takes the halfling’s bloody cape off and covers him with it. I cringe.
“He got what he deserved.”
“You know better than this, no?”
The elf looks at our surroundings, anywhere but at me.
“Hey, I did what needed to be done. What you couldn’t do-“
“Have you seen my daddy?”
I freeze. A little girl, barely taller than my waist runs toward us as Nika escorts a middle-aged lady, a young boy, and a girl about my age into the room. The countess rushes to our side, eyes wide with recognition.
Father. Lover. Husband. Mentor.
“Apologies, my lady. We… could not save him in the chaos.”
“Did you see who did it?”
It’s one of those moments where time slows to a crawl. The burnt tapestry sagging to the ground. Debris scattered where walls and windows used to exist. A soft drizzle pouring from where the roof used to be. My breath freezes in my lungs. The mortified look on the children’s faces as they cover their youngest sibling’s eyes. Nika’s raised eyebrows as she exchanges a glance with Aerin. As the sweat on me doubles in weight-
Aerin points toward the open window. Her jaw tightens.
“No. Whoever did it escaped too quickly. My apologies, Lady Nacht.”
I crumple to my knees. Despite single-handedly ending the conflict, I feel like anything but a hero.
Aerin lies on my lap. The floor’s soaked in crimson, and so are my pants. Arrested by the city guard the moment he’s on his feet, Aldor was taken away before I could protest, leaving us behind in the hall. Around us, the survivors rest and mourn what they lost.
“WHERE ARE YOUR CLERICS? I NEED HELP!”I yell at a nearby squire, who salutes before running off.
“You’re going to alright, we’re getting-” I steady Aerin’s head as she breathes raggedly. Her blue eyes, all glazed over, stare blankly at my face, tears flowing as she coughs raggedly. There’s blood oozing from under her armor. She’s pale, and there’s a nefarious purple-red patch on her left side spreading up to her neck. Hard-knock? Bruising? Hemorrhage? Internal bleeding? I’m no medical expert, and out of potions-
“Sash-” she coughs up more blood. “I’m here, ‘Rin-” I grab her hand.
‘Uncle, I need a spell!‘ I shout telepathically. ‘This should prevent the symptoms from getting worse, little one. Until then, I’ll-‘ I cut him off with a quick thanks as knowledge of a simple cantrip used by clerics fills my mind, used to spare the dying. My left hand shimmers as I touch Aerin’s forehead. She howls as the effects take hold, her body going into convulsions-
“Over here, sir!” rings the squire’s voice, and a group of clerics burst into the hall.
“You’re going to be-” The words barely escape my mouth as two clerics/healers drag me away. I make for my friend, only for a gauntlet to bar my way. “Leave this to us.” the man says grimly.
“Get that plate mail off her-“
“Ricta, stretcher. Dani, start with restoration-”
“Sir, that’s one ugly curse-“
“Gary, holy water!”
“Barnum, get a room, set a magic circle!”
“Consider it done.”
“You… stay.” And I’m left hanging.
“Thanks for stabilizing her, we’ll take it from here.” their elderly leader reassures me as the group spirits Aerin into the guestrooms upstairs, slamming the door behind them.
Hollow on the inside, I find a seat and bury my face in a mug of ale.
“Mommy, have you seen daddy?”
The funeral was held outside the wrecked castle. Dressed in grey, the family stands across us as Nika and the priests conducted the final rites. The countess stands next to me, a solemn figure frozen with numbness. The son is missing. The younger daughter, Katie looks around, still searching for her father, while Lily, the older sister, weeps.
“Mommy, have you seen daddy?”
The countess ignores her daughter. Lily embraces her sister instead.
“Daddy’s taking a nap right now, alright?”
She points at the coffin.
“Because he’s gone to heaven.”
“Because people have to take a nap when they go to heaven.”
“When’s he coming back? I want play ball with him.”
“I can’t say, but right now he’s in a better place-“
“Can we go to heaven too?”
“I don’t know, Katie-“
I know what I did was for the greater good, and yet the verdict in my heart was anything but.
I’m the reason she’s bawling her eyes out and lying to her sister. The reason why Aerin’s lying to the Countess and the local lords about the incident. The reason why the kids will grow up without a father, and why the gnawing pit of remorse in my stomach hurts the longer I wait. I want to comfort her, apologize for my mistake, only to for Aerin to bar my way. “What is done is done.” “But-” I whisper. She shoots me a sympathetic look. I grit my teeth in frustration, understanding the repercussions that we had to live with.
“Valen Nacht, son of Deacan, steadfast steward of our people. Great prosperity you have brought to our people, many were the lives that you have improved. Your legacy shines as bright as the moon tonight, and the hearts of your people burn right in the light. We salute you.” Nika exits the final stance of her prayer ritual, her eyes flashing a brilliant white. In a benevolent yet booming voice, she announces: “Valen Nacht, the Goddess of Peace welcomes you to the heavens. May you find peace in the afterlife.”
The sound of a lone violin fills the silence, followed by the appearance of an iridescent flower petal drifting from above onto the open coffin. Nika gestures to the open sky, hands glowing a brilliant white. I finally understand my remorse; I see myself in Lily and Katie, and I’m mourning for us.
“See you later, daddy.”
A solemn note cuts through the room. As the halfling’s body bursts into a beautiful flutter of countless petals that take to the heavens, the look of wonder on little Katie’s face is something I’ll never forget.
The table’s wet, but I keep my face down, pretending to take a nap. My eyes are sore, my right ankle’s killing me, and my body feels like someone else’s. Sun’s setting. I think I’ve been here for hours. Nika and the High Lady are off doing Gods-know-what. The city’s a damned mess, I’m depleted from dragging Aerin into Twilight Hall and stuck doing nothing. Doesn’t help that the paladins/clerics that barred me from visiting her are being annoyingly loud. I’m out of potions and craving something sweet. Right as I say think that, my right leg goes numb.
A hand pats me on the left shoulder. “Fuck off, I’m sleeping.” I mumble.
“Well, least ya’ weren’t hard to find.” Nika sighs, taking a seat next to me.
I groan unintelligibly. Nika pokes me in the side.
“Ow.” I croak, firing a dirty look at my mentor. She continues.
“Al’s stol’n somethin’ from da dragon. An artifact er’ shapeshifting, from what it’s told us.”
“You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding.”
“Til’ we ascertain Aldor’s not an impostor, he stays behind bars.”
Just like that, everything that was right went fucking wrong in the space of a single day.
“You gotta let me speak to him. Maybe this whole thing’s a big misunderstanding!”
“Sorry, lassie, rules ‘r rules.” Nika grimaces.
“It’s stupid and you know it.”
“Sasha, yer’ know as well as I do; that no one can be too careful where Al’s concerned.”
“C’mon, Nika, at least let me help with the interrogation?”
“I’ll put ‘er word with Cylyria to keep ya’ in the loop, but I can’t make any guarantees.”
My insides clench, but I hold the words back. There had to be something else I could do.
“What about Aerin, is she alright?”
Nika’s expression hardens. “It’s bad, Sasha.”
I perk up. “What do you mean? Aren’t they supposed to be the experts?” I point at the obnoxious, tone-deaf, ‘holy’ folk drowning their sorrows away.
“We tried, Sasha. Even with Cylyria’s final Wish spell from ‘er ring, we can’t break the attunement.” I feel something inside me wither, crumbling under the frustrations of the day.
Even with the miraculous power of the High Lady’s ring, the Unmaker’s* curse still held.
“Impossible. There HAS be a way to remove it.” My body floods with adrenaline as I frantically scan my memories for knowledge on curses. “I’m sorry.” Nika’s expression saddens. It can’t be true! No way! If Nika and the clerics can’t do it, surely Uncle William must know something about it. “HELP ME, UNCLE!” I yell telepathically, and hear nothing. I yell again at the incorporeal inhabitant in my lamp, but his silence infuriates me. “SCREW YOU! I’LL DO IT MYSELF!” I scream, throwing the empty mug at the wall. I bust out my grimoire. Through years of knowledge I flip, tossing loose notes onto the floor, ignoring my rapidly blurring vision and my aching heart. Even with the power I had, I’ve never felt this helpless. I refuse to believe-
“What about your Goddess, Nika? Can’t you ask Eldath to remove the curse?!”
Nika puts a hand on my shoulder. Her expression’s sympathetic.
“There has to be something the Goddess can do, right?”
Nika says nothing.
Her expression softens.
I plant my feet on the chair and yell at the dwarf.
“WHAT’S THE POINT OF PRAYING TO A GODDESS OF PEACE THAT NEVER SHOWS HERSELF?! ONE WHO ALLOWS FUCKED-UP THINGS LIKE THIS TO EXIST IN THIS FUCKED-UP WORLD?! TELL ME!!”
Nika doesn’t flinch.
“Tell me: why did every-fucking-body here have to lose loved ones today?!”
Her expression gives way to a gentle smile as my mentor embraces me.
“WHYYYY?” I wail mournfully.
“Sasha, there ain’t a moment today where I don’t wish things turn’d out differently.” I release my pent-up sadness into her shoulders as she pats me. In my mentor’s arms, I felt like I’m spirited away to a place further than the universe, away from all troubles, a warm, loving, peaceful space that needed no explanation. Inexplicably, it felt like mother’s embrace.
“When I realized we had fail’d, I curs’d Eldath.” Nika admits. “I ask’d the Goddess o’er and o’er again; ‘Why not help her? What wrong did Aerin do? She’s brought peace and joy to folks. She’s nary hurt an innocent soul, dedicated ‘er life to breakin’ the Unmak’r. Surely she’s worthy of ya help, right?'”
“I don’t have an answer. Didn’t get one.” A tear flows into my shoulder as Nika pats my back. “And frankly, I was furious at the Goddess.”
We break our embrace. Nika pats me on the shoulders, steadying me. Though this was the first I’ve seen my mentor being furious at her Goddess, yet I still feel safe and at peace.
“I mean, wouldn’t she get mad and you know…?” I gesticulate.
“Sasha, my faith may be about the Goddess, but it’s for me.”
“Know this; that the Gods get their power from our devotion.”
“Does that mean…?”
“Every time I vent at the folks above, I take solace dat there’s a high’er power at work than I. Thru’ dat act of trust, it puts me at peace with myself.”
“Cos’ it’s reassurin’ to know someone’s hearin’ but can’t help right now than to have nobody listenin’ at all.”
I’m not a faithful person, but that last sentence… that was true no matter who you are.
“Who knows, maybe tomorrow the Goddess might figure somethin’ better, eh?”
Nika hands me a key and nods to the guestrooms upstairs.
A glimmer of hope warms my bosom as the pain in my right ankle becomes a distant memory.
If anything, it’s good reason to have a little faith.
*Unmaker: Refers to Hjärnel, the mythical spear that Aerin wields, soul-bound to her.