A hero’s flame

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It was eerily quiet. The sirens had stopped some time ago, and the bombs no longer shook the bunker. Brava clung to her daughter as the toddler whimpered in the dark.

“Brava, hush that brat before she gets us captured,” someone hissed. Brava couldn’t tell who it was.

“Have you ever tried to quiet a frightened child this young?” Brava snapped back, her voice a mere whisper. “It’s nearly impossible.”

“She’s not loud enough for the sniffers to find us anyway,” someone else whispered. “Leave Kayin alone.”

Someone grumbled but no one spoke again. Kayin soon went limp, a sign she’d cried herself to sleep. Brava pulled her closer, resting her chin on the top of Kayin’s head. A few people shifted in the dark, easing the awkwardness and pain of the positions they’d held for the past 24 hours.

Finally, Brava heard a peculiar sound and then the snap of a match striking something. Two lamps flashed into light. People cried out softly as their eyes, accustomed to the dark, were burned by the dim light.

Durai, the old man who’d hustled the townies into the bunker, looked solemnly at the group. “I think we can all accept the fact that our homes have been destroyed.” He paused. “I also think the bombs have stopped because there is no one left to drop them.”

“What do you mean?” someone asked. It was still dark enough Brava couldn’t see the speaker.

“I recognized the sound of the final bomb. It was the same type that destroyed my homeworld when I was a young man,” Durai said. “It is what drove me to this land. Now I feel it too has been devastated.”

“What do we do now?” someone else asked. Brava recognized this person. It was Rin, a young man who’d made several passes at Brava in the past. She didn’t like him but had to admit he’d been a brave soldier until a mine took out his leg.

“We check the air scan and then, if it is as I fear, we work on turning this network of rooms and tunnels into our new home. We will be here – not for a few years – but for a few generations,” Durai said.

“So long?” This was Leilani, a young woman who was in the early months of an unexpected pregnancy. She’d gotten pregnant just before her husband left to fight the Kilkani. He’d been killed and she’d never gotten a chance to tell him.

“Only if the air is as I suspect,” Durai said.

Borivoj, another soldier who’d returned too injured to continue fighting, went to the device next to the door. He started swearing. “The air is one thousand parts calinaris radiation.”

“That would be lethal within three seconds if we opened the door even half an inch,” Rin said. He looked ill.

Durai sighed. “It is as I thought. Riya, Gili, bring your soft lights. We need to map out these tunnels and bunkers. Brava, lay Kayin on my pallet and start cataloging how much food we have. Laird, check the seed collection. See what’s food and what’s ornamental.”

Brava set her daughter down and got to work. She wiped tears from her cheeks. Dieter, Kayin’s father and the man Brava planned to marry though she wasn’t sure she loved him, was dead. With the kind of radiation in the air outside there was no way he could have survived. Kayin would be devastated to learn her beloved “dada” was gone for good.

She closed her eyes for a moment before diving into the sorting. She wouldn’t betray his memory by being weak. She would be strong for Dieter, be strong for Kayin. She would be a hero for those she loved and those she now stood beside. It was the least she could do for all of them.

A roll of the dice

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Onni laid down his cards. “Tescanto. I think I win again.”

His table mates groaned. “That’s the sixth game, Human,” the dark skinned Kishnari said with a growl. His wire like hair stood on end. “Are you sure you’re not cheating?”

“He’s not,” the psionic Aladon said. “I’ve been watching him for the past hour. He’s really this good.”

“His luck has to change. No Human can play Tescanto so well and keep winning,” the red skinned Valenian said with a grimace.

“My father won his fortune playing Tescanto and winning almost all of his games,” Onni said, grinning. “It seems I’ve inherited his luck and skill.”

The Kishnari said something in his own language that Onni took to be unflattering, though he didn’t yet know enough of the other race’s language to be sure. “I’m not going to sit here and be beaten by a lesser life form.” He uncoiled himself from the pillar he’d wrapped his serpent’s tail around and slithered away.

“It appears that, unless we can coax someone else away from their drinking, our match is over,” the Aladon said. She folded her six arms across her abdomen. “Perhaps you should allow yourself to lose once in a while, Human. It would make you a more popular guest at our tables.”

“Maybe,” Onni said. He stood and stretched. “Thank you for the match. I very much appreciate the honor of playing with all three of you, though he did not wait to hear my thanks.” He bowed to the two remaining beings and headed off.

Onni sighed. The Aladon was right. He needed to remember to lose once in a while. That was why his father became so popular. He didn’t always sweep the table. But it was so hard not to get caught up in the game.

As Onni made his way towards the door, a shadowy figure beckoned to him. Onni, ever curious, walked over to see what it was. He didn’t recognize the being in front of him. It was black, with eyes the color of jade and a mouth full of jagged teeth. It had four long arms that ended in three fingered hands and eight long legs. It reminded Onni a little of a spider. He shuddered.

“I hear you like games of chance,” it said, it’s voice neither masculine nor feminine.

“Sometimes,” Onni said warily.

The being pulled out four blood colored dice. “Care to make a wager?”

“What’s the bet?” Onni asked.

The being showed him an absolutely exquisite ring that would be the perfect size for Onni’s fiancee Xiang. “This ring for you, if I lose.”

“And if I lose?” Onni asked.

The being’s mouth stretched in what Onni could only guess was a smile. “Your left hand.”

That gave Onni a moment’s pause. “Let me see the dice.” The being willingly handed them over. Onni shook them, weighing them. He held them up to the light. They weren’t weighted and there was no sign of tampering. It would be a game of pure chance. He smiled. These kinds of games he never lost. “All right. I’ll take your bet. What are the winning conditions?”

The being hissed and expressed some pleasure. “You must get at least two sixes to win.” Onni nodded his acceptance of the rule. They went over to an alcove where private wagers were often made and dealt with. “Do you wish to roll the dice? Or shall I?”

“I’ll roll,” Onni said. He still held the dice. He ran them through his fingers a few times before casting them onto the table. They bounced several times before landing. He stared at the pips. One six. He turned white.

The being hissed again. “I win.” He drew out a long, curved knife. The edge was crusted in blood. Onni tried to run, but a quick motion from the being held him in place. “You lost in a fair toss. It’s time to pay your debt.” Onni whimpered as the knife descended towards his wrist.

Delivering your own death

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Matthaus rummaged through the small basket of metal bars. His fingers ran across the raised letters, seeking the right words. “Matthaus, is that plate ready?” The voice of his master, Hermann Lauritz, sounded irritated.

Matthaus put the final bar in place and locked everything in. “Yes Master Lauritz.”

“Then bring it here,” Hermann said, waving his hand.

“Yes Master,” Matthaus said. He stood and carried the heavy tray over to the printing press.

Hermann snatched it from his hands and set it in the machine. He tightened all the gears and secured it in place before slathering it with ink and slapping a large piece of parchment on top. He turned the great wheel and the heavy weight lowered on top of the parchment. He continued turning the wheel until it couldn’t move anymore. He let it sit for a few seconds before lifting it back up.

He pulled the parchment off of the press and scanned it. “At least you didn’t misspell any words this time,” Hermann said with a grunt. “Take this to Journeyman Benedikt for copying. Tell him we need one hundred copies.” He gestured to the leather pouch on the side table. “That’s his payment.”

“Yes Master Lauritz.” Matthaus set the parchment down well away from everything as he took off his apron and hung it up. He tucked the scroll in an oiled leather case, pulled on his winter gear, and headed out. He was at the citadel housing the Mage Guild within the hour.

He tapped lightly on the gatekeeper’s door. A wizened old fellow with one eye and gnarled hands opened the top half of the green split door. “What do you want?” he rasped.

“I am an apprentice of Master Hermann Lauritz,” Matthaus said. “I’ve come to hire Journeyman Benedikt for a particular job.”

The old man wheezed. “He’s Inquisitor Geiszler now. But he might be willing to do the work, since your master has long been a good client of his. I’ll send him the message.”

It took almost an hour for a blond muscular man in the crimson robes of an Inquisitor appeared. “Matthaus, how are you?” Benedikt asked.

“I’ve been better,” Matthaus said, shivering beneath the cloak.

Benedikt frowned. “Didn’t Gottfried invite you into the gatehouse?”

“No he didn’t,” Matthaus said.

“I’ll have a word with him about that. If someone is waiting for one of us they’re supposed to be treated as a guest,” Benedikt said. “I suppose he still considers me a journeyman at times.” He smiled and motioned with his hand. “Please, come inside out of the cold and we’ll talk about what that bastard master of yours wants from me this time.”

Matthaus followed the mage into the citadel and made his way to what appeared to be a newly furnished study. Benedikt pointed and Matthaus sat down. “Master Lauritz needs a hundred copies made of this broadsheet,” Matthaus said.

“I’m sure he does. What is it, another one of his political diatribes?” Benedikt asked, taking the scroll case from Matthaus. As he skimmed it, he frowned. “Matthaus, do you know what this says?”

Matthaus shook his head. “I can’t read.”

“How can you work in a print shop without knowing how to read?” Benedikt asked sharply.

“By touch and general appearance. Master Lauritz showed me the shapes and taught me what certain things feel like so I could help him but I never learned what any of it all meant,” Matthaus said.

“Did he send my payment?” Benedikt asked. Matthaus nodded and handed the mage the pouch Hermann had given him. Benedikt opened it. He stared at its contents for several moments before setting it to the side. “Matthaus, I’m going to be honest with you here. This document is a request for me to kill you, and what’s in the pouch is enough money to cover your execution.”

“Why would he do that? What have I done?” Matthaus’ voice cracked and he noticed it had gone up a few octaves.

“I don’t know. He doesn’t say,” Benedikt said. “I’m conflicted. As an Inquisitor, I should be looking into this. It’s illegal, after all. But as your master is a long time client, I am obligated to honor his wishes.”

Matthaus got up and bolted for the door. It slammed in his face. He started pounding on it. “Let me go,” he screamed.

“Be quiet. There are mages studying and I don’t want to listen to their complaints about noise from my rooms,” Benedikt said. A slow smile spread across his face. “I know how to resolve this. I’ll ask him for more information as to why he wants you dead, and still kill you anyway.”

“How are you going to do that without getting caught?” Matthaus asked, still looking for an escape.

Benedikt’s smile broadened. “I’ll make you into an experiment. You’ll die eventually, and I’ll get valuable information on how certain magics affect human flesh.” The mage made several gestures with his hands. Matthaus whimpered as he slowly fell to the ground, his world going dark.

Cookies and vengeance

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Artur could smell them as soon as he walked into the house. They almost masked the scent of decay he was growing used to. “Mom, did you bake cookies?” Tamara Harper shambled out of the kitchen, her gray skin showing her bones in even more places. She smiled, unable to speak since her jaw had long ago locked into place. “They smell wonderful.”

She pointed one rotting hand to the plate. Artur went over, dreading what he’d see. The chocolate chip delicacies were surprisingly free of flesh, muscle, hair, and bone. He turned to look at her. She pointed again, this time to a pair of long gloves, an apron, and a shower cap.

“Good thinking,” Artur said. He picked up one of the cookies and took a bite. “You definitely haven’t lost your touch.” He paused. “Where’s dad?”

Tamara looked sad as she pointed out the back door. Artur shook his head. Would the man never learn? Artur finished his cookie before heading out to the backyard.

Gil Harper was digging a grave under the apple tree. He looked up from his work and scowled at his son. “You ever going to let us go?” His words were slurred. His tongue was half rotted and his lower jaw was beginning to fall off.

“Why should I?” Artur asked. “After what you all did to me?”

The bitterness was still there. Tamara, Gil, and Artur’s younger sister Cassie had turned on him when he came out as both gay and desirous of a college education. Gil had already picked out the trade school he was supposed to go to so Artur could become an electrician like his father, just as Gil had become one like his father.

His family were also devout Christians who believed Artur was an abomination before the sight of God. They took them to their pastor, who tried to “pray the gay away.” When that didn’t work, they locked him in the basement and tortured him for months until Artur’s then-boyfriend Dario and a few others had broken into the house and rescued him.

Tamara, Gil, and Cassie had died in a car accident a year before, and Artur took his revenge. He and his now-husband Dario were skilled necromancers and had raised them from the dead as sentient zombies. Tamara accepted her fate first. Gil still struggled. Cassie went mad and was currently locked in her room, fed raw ground beef and chicken by Dario every few days so she wouldn’t starve. They could release her, of course, but Artur wanted her to suffer a little longer.

“You can’t escape me that way, Dad,” Artur said, putting the scorn he felt into the last word. “You bury yourself, Dario and I will just force you back to the surface. You almost killed me. In fact, I think that was your intention. So now you can rot in this house. When I’m done with you, I’ll release you and burn your rotting corpses with the house. I think that’s a fitting punishment for these scars.” He gestured to the remnants of the third degree burns on his arms and face.

“You are a demon,” Gil said.

“I am what you made me,” Artur said. “You are responsible for all of this.” He turned and walked away, leaving his father spluttering behind him. Dario was standing in the doorway, smiling, a cookie in his hand.

Music lingers in the memory

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Johanne sat at her desk, the sheet music spread out in front of her. She stared at the black dots and bars on the pure white paper for several minutes before burying her face in her hands.

The composition wasn’t good enough. She was supposed to be presenting it to the Emperor in three days, but she knew it wouldn’t be ready. She slid her chair back and wept, not wanting to get her tears on the ink even though she was considering burning the entire thing.

Someone knocked on her door. She looked up, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She frowned. Very few people knew where she lived, and she’d told all of them to leave her in peace so she could work.

She stood and walked over to the door. She unlatched the top half and swung it open. The sun was setting and the ancient forest she lived at the edge of cast long shadows onto her garden. She only had a moment to admire the beauty before her eyes were drawn to her visitor.

He was tall and thin in an unnatural way, with wide midnight blue eyes and delicately pointed ears. His hair was the color of ice and fell in two braids. She could only see to his waist, and the braids went down below that. He was dressed all in black and silver, and there was a quirk to his lips, as if he were amused by her disheveled appearance.

“Can I help you?” Johanne asked, eyeing him warily.

“It is I who can aid you, Johanne of Tal Istar,” the creature said. The odd inflection in his voice gave the name of her old home a strange lilt.

“I am not of Tal Istar. Not anymore. And what can you do for me that I can’t do for myself?” Johanne asked in spite of her misgivings.

“You are still of Tal Istar, even though they no longer claim you,” the creature said. “As for what I can do to assist you, I can grant you the ability to compose that which you struggle with now.” He smiled broadly. Johanne shivered. “You will bring tears to the eyes of the Imperial family, draw the nobility to their feet, and command the attention of all those who hear the melody.”

“Yes, and what do you want for your aid?” Johanne asked.

The creature shrugged. “Nothing that much. A lock of your hair and a few drops of your blood. That’s a small price to pay for the fame that would come from this, don’t you think?”

Johanne snorted. “And give you complete control over me whenever you wish? Your ‘help’ comes at too high a price. Leave my home now. You are not welcome here.” She closed the top half of the door and made sure both were bolted. She returned to her desk and ignored the sounds outside.

She picked up her pen again, but something the creature had said stayed with her. He’d called her Johanne of Tal Istar. She hadn’t thought of her home in years. Being driven out at the point of sword and spear for choosing to marry a man not of her people made it so she never wanted to remember where she came from.

Johanne frowned as a trickle of melody filtered into her mind. She took the sheets of already written on composition paper and set them to the side. She took fresh paper and set her pen on the first bar. She closed her eyes and thought of her olive skinned husband – dead these last five years- with his strong fingers intertwined with her pale ones as she defied the Council of Sisters. She heard the lullabies she’d sung to her children, the same ones her mother had sung to her and her siblings.

She opened her eyes. Memories flowed onto the page in the form of musical notes. She would give the Emperor a glimpse of her people, her home. This was something no one in this isolated kingdom would ever see, other than the merchants. This was her life, her passion, and now she could share a part of it that had long lain forgotten. She smiled and continued working. This would be her finest work yet.

The breath of the dead

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Ameka stalked out of the manor, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. She’d had another fight with her stepmother. She was tired of Lady Raylene and her constant belittling. Ameka’s father did nothing to stop it. It seemed he encouraged it at times. It frustrated her to no end and she wondered what she’d done to earn both of their scorn.

She followed the garden paths without looking. Her body knew the way to her favorite spot even though her mind was far from her surroundings. The strong scent of spice and citrus drew her out of her thoughts for a moment and a smile flitted across her face. Her mother’s rose garden was her favorite place on the estate. It reminded her of Lady Kiran, a gentle and compassionate woman who’d died when Amika was a child.

Ameka sat down on the ornate padded wooden bench and returned to her ruminations. Her brothers didn’t come in for the same harassment she did from their stepmother, and her two half sisters were favored above her. She supposed it was because they were Raylene’s daughters, which didn’t surprise her. True born daughters of stepparents were often treated better than the stepchildren. Or so her best friend Oisin had told her before her father sent him away.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. Her mother, Oisin, her older sister Hella. Everyone who’d ever cared about her was gone. She stared down at her hands, noticing the clear drops as they fell.

She reached out and picked one of the red roses hanging near her hand. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the scent. It reminded her of her mother’s perfume. She curled in on herself as she remembered the smell of it burning, when her father destroyed everything that had belonged to her mother on the eve of his marriage to Lady Raylene.

Dosia, one of Ameka’s half sisters, found her in the rose garden a few hours later. “Our father wishes to speak to you,” she said, smirking. “Perhaps it is due to your disrespect for my mother.”

“I showed her no disrespect, though she deserves all she gets,” Ameka said. She brushed past the younger girl, who gaped at her, and returned to the manor.

Her father was in his study. “Ameka, when I summon you I expect you to come immediately,” Lord Ulises said, glaring at her.

“Considering I just received word of the summons, Father, I can hardly be tardy,” Ameka said.

“I required your presence two hours ago,” Lord Ulises said.

“Then blame Dosia, or whoever else you sent to look for me. You should know by now that after speaking to that woman I retreat to mother’s garden,” Ameka said.

“That’s one thing you and I need to discuss,” Lord Ulises said. “Or rather, you will listen and I will tell you what I’ve decided.” A cold lump settled in the pit of Ameka’s stomach. “Your mother’s rose garden will be uprooted so Raylene can put in an orchard. She enjoys peaches and plums, and you know how expensive they are. The mages will see to it that they produce immediately, and will keep them producing so we always have them.”

“You bastard,” Ameka snarled. Lord Ulises looked at her in shock. “You’d steal from me the last thing I have of her? You destroyed her belongings, even though as her daughters Hella and I should have gotten them. You took down her pictures and refused to let us keep the lockets she’d given us so we could remember her. It’s as if you wish to erase her very existence, though you swore to her on her deathbed that you wouldn’t do that. You’d let her memory live on with us.”

“Yes, well, I only said that to give your mother the peace she needed to pass into the next world and not come back to haunt us as a vengeful spirit,” Lord Ulises said. “Now, you will curb your attitude and hold your tongue. I should have done this long ago, but I’ve been holding off to give you some time to change your position with Raylene. Since you haven’t, I’m sending you away.”

“Where?” Ameka asked.

“To the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Lord Ulises said. “Since you and Oisin were so close, I’m sure the Sisters there will understand.”

“You’re saying I’m not a virgin? Call in one of your mages. They’ll confirm Oisin and I never did what you’re accusing us of,” Ameka said.

“Oh, it’s not what you and Oisin did,” Lord Ulises said. “It’s the fact that the two of you are closer than you imagine.” Ameka stared at him. “You and Oisin are brother and sister. Well, half brother and half sister.”

“What do you mean?” Ameka asked.

“Kiran was not a faithful wife at all,” Lord Ulises said. “Both you and Hella were sired by the Horsemaster.”

“Squire Gerulf is our father?” Ameka asked.

“So your mother claimed, once she learned she was dying,” Lord Ulises said.

“So why not send me to him?” Ameka asked.

“Because I don’t want him to know,” Lord Ulises said. “Kiran said she didn’t tell him, and I have no intention of doing that either. So, you will go to the Temple. I’ve already found a husband for Hella, so she’ll be well out of my hair.”

“If you send me away, I’ll use the powers of the Goddess and call mother’s spirit back. I’ll tell her what you’ve done. Her vengeful spirit will kill Lady Raylene and her daughters by the year’s end,” Ameka said.

“You can try,” Lord Ulises said. “I doubt you have the willpower to do that.”

Ameka turned and ran from the room, sobbing as she went. She dashed into the small chapel and slammed the door behind her. The entrance to the crypt was locked, but she slid the bolt out of its housing and descended into the darkness.

She knew where her mother’s stone coffin was. She’d spent a lot of time sitting at its feet when she was a child. She threw herself against it now, weeping and begging her mother for help. “Mother, he’s betrayed us all,” she sobbed. “Please, bring your curse on this house. Destroy his happiness as he has taken mine and Hella’s away from us.”

There was a cold breeze against her face and the smell of decaying roses filled the air. “It shall be as you wish, my lovely daughter.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it was her mother’s voice. “His new wife and their children will be dead within the week. Your brothers will die before the harvest. He will die before Midwinter.”

“Why my brothers?” Ameka asked. “They have done nothing to harm me.”

“I was not the only one to seek solace in the arms of another,” Lady Kiran said. A faint glow surrounded her coffin. “Your brothers are the sons of the Horsemaster’s first wife. Ulises killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the secret to me, but I already knew. I claimed them as mine and raised them, but chose to have daughters with the Horsemaster because I knew he was a better father than Ulises.”

“What am I to do now? He would send me to the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Ameka said.

A ghostly caress brushed across her cheek. “Run to the stables. Speak to your true father. He knows who you are. He will help you.” The light faded and the smell was gone. Ameka didn’t stop to think. She ran for the stables, and her real father. She hoped he could help her. The thought of spending even one day in a place where torture was the routine of the day frightened her even more than death.

A statue speaks

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Sila knelt before the altar, hands clasped at her chest. Her eyes were closed as she sent her silent plea to her goddess. Mother of All Nations, please hear my prayer. Do not let my father give me in marriage to Tam. It would be bondage, not marriage.

Tam was a wealthy merchant that had a lot of influence in her village. He came through twice a year, bringing with him news of the world and many beautiful things that most couldn’t buy. He’d taken an interest in the pale blond girl who now begged her goddess for protection two years earlier. Her father had put him off for those two years because she wasn’t of marriageable age. Now that she was, Tam was pressing his suit hard.

Minali, Sila’s older sister – who was as of yet unmarried herself – entered the temple. “Sila, father is looking for you. Tam is with him.” Sila burst into tears. Minali came and knelt beside her. “I know you don’t want to marry him, but it might not be as bad as you think.”

“Yes it will be. He’s said as much. I am to stand there and look pretty while he sells his wares in order to entice his customers. I might be called on to perform other duties when male customers express an interest. You know what that means,” Sila said.

Minali sighed. “Yes, and so does father. But I have a feeling Tam is offering a large sum of money for you. You know how much we need the silver.”

A moment later her mother appeared. “Sila, your father is calling for you. Why are you here? You should be home, attending to your duty to your family.”

“I’d rather die,” Sila said fiercely through her tears.

Her mother took a step back. “What do you mean by that?”

“Father is going to give me to Tam, isn’t he?” Sila asked.

“His suit has been accepted,” her mother said.

“I’ll be used as an object to get people to buy his wares, sold to men to be raped whenever he feels like giving me to them, and who knows what else,” Sila said. “Father would force me into that kind of slavery?”

“You’re overreacting, Sila. Such duties are far from onerous, and think of the pleasure you could get from the men you lie with,” her mother said.

“It will be rape. I will be forced into being a whore, just so Tam can make a profit,” Sila said.

“This is forbidden,” a soft voice said. All three women looked up. An aging priestess stood near the altar. “No woman is to be sent into a marriage where it is known she will be forced into a degrading position, and forced prostitution is one such thing.”

“You stay out of it,” her mother snapped. “The temple has done nothing for my family except try to steal my daughters at every turn.”

Two more priestesses appeared. These were younger women, and both were armed. “You heard Mother Helena,” one of them said. “If she wishes, we will protect her from this atrocity.”

Sila thought for a moment. “I do want to be protected. I won’t marry Tam. I won’t be forced into slavery just because my father wants the money Tam offers.”

Mother Helena nodded. “Then step forward, my child.”

“I too claim this protection,” Minali said. “For if Sila is out of his reach, he’ll try to take me instead.”

“Then you as well may enter,” Mother Helena said, smiling at both young women.

“I forbid it.” Sila’s father strode in, Tam hot on his heels. “My daughters are required by law to submit to my will, and you cannot interfere.”

“There are provisions in the laws to protect them from violation, and what the man you have selected offers is nothing less than that,” Mother Helena said. Three more armed priestesses appeared. “Step back or face the wrath of the goddess.”

“Your goddess has no power over me,” Tam said, smirking. “My god is far more powerful than her feeble attempts at interfering in my life.”

“Do you truly believe so?” Mother Helena asked. She gestured with one age spotted hand. “Behold the power of the Mother of All Nations.”

The statue behind the altar shifted, as if it were a flesh and blood. The seated female rose to her feet, towering over them all. You dare claim I have no power? Here, of all places? You are a small man of even lesser status. Leave my daughters alone, or face my wrath.

“What can you do? My god protects me,” Tam said.

And who is your god?

“The God of the Night,” Tam said.

The statue laughed, a sound like stone grating on stone mixed with music. He is weak here. These are not his lands. You are at my mercy. Leave. Now.

Tam scowled. “I’ll be back for Sila.” He stormed out.

No, you won’t, the goddess said softly. You are cursed. Your business will fail.  Your luck is gone. You will lose your fortune. You will die a pauper and your god will not be able to save you. She turned her attention to Sila’s parents. You too shall face my wrath.

“Forgive us,” Sila’s father said, his voice shaking.

No. You do not deserve that forgiveness. The statue fell silent, staring down at them with white marble eyes. You will never enter my realm. I cast you into eternal darkness. You shall wail with the wraiths who have defied me, always knowing your crime and never being able to atone for it. The statue returned to its place and once again became still.

“Leave now or we will remove you,” one of the armed priestesses said.

Mother Helena held out her hands to Sila and Minali. “Come forward, my daughters, and embrace the love of the goddess.” Sila and Minali walked towards the priestess while their parents fled the temple sobbing.