The only thing the little girl could see was fire. She whimpered, trying to drag the unconscious body of an old man out of the burning teahouse.
“Wake up!” She cried. Her eyes were stinging with the heat and her throat burned from breathing smoke. “Benaz! Wake up!”
It hadn’t been her intention to do this. It was their fault, the men who tried to attack them, who had forced Benaz to fight them even though he was tired and injured. It had been days since he slipped down the ravine to save her from falling, and he refused to let her heal him. And then these bounty hunters had recognized them and tried to take her in broad daylight.
“Please… I can’t…” She coughed. She wasn’t strong enough to take him out of the building, each pull only dragging him a couple of inches. She cried out of impotence. It was the end all over again.
– o –
The landscape of the Dreamlands varies from witness to witness; it is a malleable place where strong wills contend for the land’s shape with the spirits that made their homes there. Right now, the landscape looked exactly like She wanted it to look, for no will was stronger than Hers.
The demons scurried around the rocks that slowed their flight, but they had to climb over them and, when they did, they were pierced and destroyed by the vengeful arrows of Ker’zei, Goddess of Righteous Revenge, who was leading her elite army of furies in the Dreamlands while her worshippers hunted the demons’ physical manifestations in the mortal world.
It was slaughter, but it was nothing less than the fiends deserved, and Ker’zei was there to mete out their punishment.
The Demon War had officially ended the previous year, when mortal heroes closed the Hellpit while Zuze’en, Goddess of Dawn struck the final blow against the last remaining Demon Prince. But many demons stayed behind, and it was the lesser gods and greater spirits who still hunted them while the greater deities rebuilt the torn heavens. Ker’zei had heard that Zuze’en’s mandate was secured by support of the Five Dragon Gods of the Middle World, and many gods confirmed the allegiance They had sworn temporarily to fight the Demon Princes.
Ker’zei had not bothered to travel to the Bay of Dawn, where Zuze’en held Her throne of gold, jade and sunfire. There were demons to hunt and Her father, Ker’xotz of the August Mantle, God of Justice, would surely speak for His whole clan and army of truth, honor and punishment.
Ker’zei was the greater of the Sisters of Vengeance, spawned from Ker’xotz’s fury to bring punishment in equal measure to those who caused pain, be them mortals, demons or even gods, and She was busy.
The furious flame that was Her hair flickered and flared when the last demon was destroyed. She dismissed her furies back into the fabric of the Dreamlands and allowed the land to recover its original shape. She felt the gentle tug in her heart that meant her worshippers were praying to her, and felt the influx of power as they made their offerings.
And then… cold. A stabbing pain froze Her heart and She gasped. She looked beyond the wall between worlds and stared in horror as her followers lay dead amidst the corpses of the demonspawn they had killed. Their mortal bodies were full of arrows… mortal-made arrows.
Another stab of pain pushed her back to the Dreamlands, She was losing the power to stay in this place… Her battlefield shrines were being torn and desecrated one by one, cutting Her off from this part of the mortal world. She cried for Her sisters’s help and only silence echoed. The goddess shifted her location to Her youngest sister’s temple and she found only death.
Flames licked the altar were the body of Ker’zu, Goddess of Grievance was already starting to fade, Her chest torn open, Her heart missing. Ker’zei panicked… the gods swore that none would attack another during the war, who had struck first and right as Zuze’en was establishing the pantheon?
She called her furies to warn Her other sisters, but the spirits did not appear. The goddess tried to stay calm but if her servants from the Outer Heavens did not attend her summons…
Ker’zei willed herself back to her temple, Her only temple as She depended on battle shrines to hear the voices of Her worshippers. She found it burning as well. Still, this was the center of Her power in the mortal realm and here Her strength was at its peak. She tore the barrier open and saw Her warrior monks defending the main altar chamber from an organized army.
“Take heart, our Goddess is with us!” The high priest shouted even as his arm lay limp and bloody at his side.
Ker’zei shouted in rage at this sacrilege and let Her power flow towards Her priests as She descended upon the mortals who dared attack Her temple.
Her first arrow vanished in midair. Ker’zei looked dumbfounded as a priest rose from the attackers’ ranks, and with horror She recognized who was granting this mortal protection from Her divine wrath. These were the Righteous Hunters of Ker’xotz. Her own father was destroying Her temple… He was devouring His daughters…
– o –
The little girl shouted a primal scream of anger and frustration. He should have let her heal him; he shouldn’t have stood between the bounty hunters and her. The idiot had gotten them in this situation.
“Is anybody in here?!” She heard a shout from beyond the flames.
“Help!” She shouted, even as much as it hurt her pride to do so. “Help me!”
She tried pulling the old man again with the same results and suddenly she was hoisted up in a strong embrace.
“It’s okay, kid! Let’s get out of here!” Her rescuer said.
“No!” She struggled. “We can’t leave him!”
“There’s no time!”
“NO!” The little girl bit hard on the man’s arm and he let her go with a curse. “I’m fine! Take him!”
The man, a soldier from the local castle for the looks of him, stared at her.
“Take him! I command it!” Her voice echoed with the flames as the gusts of hot air spread her deep-black hair around her. The soldier blinked and leaned down to pick Benaz up. She followed close, trying not to breathe any more smoke.
– o –
“Flee!” Ker’zei shouted into the minds of Her priests. “If you would defend me, you must live!”
But the priests were cut off by the Hunters and were being systematically murdered. Each loss Ker’zei felt deep in Her soul, for each loss meant one less link to her worshippers, one less channel of power from the mortal world.
She knew She was lost. Once Her temple was in ruins and Her altar desecrated, Her father would come and tear Her heart from her chest and eat it even before She vanished, to absorb Her back, to claim Her power.
Her anger flared. This was a great crime, a grave injustice, and if there was something She would do before she vanished, it was to take revenge for Herself and Her devoured sisters. But for that She had to survive.
It was a legend even amongst the gods that one of their number could cut off his or her presence from the Dreamlands, condensing the divine spark into a mortal body to hide. Such gods were called errants, and were seen as cowards, but Ker’zei was desperate and there was no other choice. She felt a snap deep inside as she created a body out of nothing and encased Herself within it. It was like losing her sense of touch in the middle of a beautiful sunny day, losing her taste in the middle of a banquet.
“You!” She yelled with a quiet, mortal voice at a young man, a temple guard running to join the battle. “We must escape!”
“What are you doing here?” He stopped cold and ran to her to grab her arm. Her flesh was of a rich coppery tone and it hurt when he gripped her. “All temple maidens are hiding in the vault! Why are you…?”
“Unhand me!” Ker’zei snapped her arm from his grip. “Don’t you know who I am?!”
“You are…?” He blinked and then stared at her in shock, his eyes reflected the divine spark he saw in hers. “My… goddess…?”
“The Temple is doomed. They will not let anyone live.” She explained calmly. “We must escape before my father comes.”
“Your… father…?” The young man stared, still awed by being in the physical presence of his goddess. Ker’zei sensed the threads of destiny at having chosen this young warrior to escort her, for the light of wisdom was already strong in his eyes. It only took him a few seconds of contemplation to realize what was happening and regain his wits. “Milady, we must recover your relics, if they are destroyed…”
Ker’zei nodded but a loud explosion interrupted her. It came from the temple’s vaults.
“Too late…” He cursed and quite unceremoniously took Ker’zei’s hand to drag her towards a side corridor. “Stay behind me, milady. I will die before I let them harm you.”
Ker’zei smiled. Even in this diminished form she was a thousand times more powerful than any mortal. She didn’t need him for protection; she only needed his devotion, and this simple gesture filled her with power.
– o –
A crowd had gathered outside of the burning teahouse, some helping to fight the flames, other tending to the wounded, yet others just standing to watch the show. The little girl was kneeling by the old man’s side, holding his hand. Her face was stained with soot and grime.
“Is he your grandfather?” An injured soldier asked her. He had hurt his arm rescuing someone else and was now helpng the wounded.
“Why, of…” The little girl glared, then she pressed her eyes shut and nodded.
“People say some bandits were trying to get you; do you remember what happened?”
The little girl shook her head, lying, but nobody would doubt or pressure her under the circumstances.
“Well, you have nothing to fear now.” The soldier gave her a nice, but failed attempt at a reassuring smile. “The bandits were killed in the fire, they won’t bother you again.”
The girl sighed and nodded, also trying, and also failing to smile back.
Of course they were killed. That had been her intent.
– o –
The young temple guard was skilled and smart. Ker’zei noted with sadness that he would have eventually become the chief warrior amongst her mortal servants, but now both their futures were uncertain. He avoided battles he could not win even if having a goddess on his side would certainly spell victory, both of them knew that using her power would alert Ker’xotz’s hunters of her location.
They reached the outer yard having faced no battle. Behind them, the temple was burning in its entirety, despite the many mortals still alive inside.
“The scouring flames…” She whispered as she watched her house of worship fall. “My family commands the scouring flames of vengeance but… this is…”
“Milady, we should not delay.” He whispered. Now that the urgency was gone he’d realized his impudence and let go of her hand. “They will be guarding the entrance to finish off anyone who tries to escape, but there’s a hidden way.”
“Hidden?” Ker’zei frowned. “Nothing should be hidden in my temple.”
“Welll… ah…” The warrior actually blushed. “The trainees use it to sneak out and drink in the village.”
“That’s preposterous! They should be punished for…”
“Milady… I doubt any of them survived.” The warrior sighed, and the goddess closed her eyes, knowing this to be true. Her cult was being stamped out of existence. He gave her another moment before he beckoned her to follow. Her temple’s gardens were modest, but the hedges allowed them some measure of cover from vigilant eyes until they reached the outer wall.
The young man pried loose a few stones that left handholds to scale the wall. On the other side the treeline stood at just a few meters.
“Can you climb, milady?” He looked at her. The errant goddess scoffed and simply pushed herself with her feet, clearing the wall with a single leap. He caught up with her a few moments later by more traditional means.
“Do not forget who I am, warrior.” She said when they were together. “Your name is… Benaz, you were left at the temple’s door by your mother when you were a baby, trusting that I would exact revenge on the man who conceived you and left her.”
“That’s…” The man coughed. “I… didn’t know that.”
“Worry not.” She smirked. “Your father was punished for his irresponsibility.”
“And I didn’t want to know that.” He chuckled. “We should visit your shrines, milady; to warn all your other priests.”
“It’s no use.” Ker’zei shook her head. “They are dead; I can sense it. My father is nothing if not meticulous. He must have been planning this for a long time.”
“Well… then…” Benaz frowned in thought. “In that case we should still put distance between us and the temple. Can Lord Ker’xotz sense you in this manifestation?”
“This is no manifestation.” The goddess said. “This is me… I have become errant. And to answer your question: no. Any god or spirit will see me as a mortal unless I use my powers.”
“Then running will actually serve a purpose.” He nodded. “Let’s go, my goddess.”
– o –
It was night when the old man came to himself inside a small makeshift tent. The soldiers had helped the people build a temporary camp for the healers to tend to the wounded and the teahouse’s guests to rest for the night while they tried to recover any belongings that might have survived the fire.
“Ungh… I’m too old for this…” He croaked, his voice waking up the little girl who had nodded off by his side.
“You idiot!” She berated him, but there was relief in her voice. “What were you thinking? Facing those bounty hunters in the state you’re in!”
“You’re telling me I should shirk my duty after a century and a half?” He smirked and sat up, examining the bandages across his arm and chest.
“Benaz… I can’t sustain us anymore.” The girl sighed and looked aside. “I can still grant you the gift of fast recovery, but…”
“Don’t strain yourself, Ker’zei.” He smiled and put a hand on her head, which she shirked off quickly. “Mortals have healed on their own since the beginning of time. I’m sure my body hasn’t forgotten how to do it.”
“Fool.” She muttered. “I’m going to sleep now. Fetch me something to eat before I lay down.”
“Certainly, milady.” He smiled and got up. His body was aged, but still strong and supple if not for his injuries. Ker’zei looked after him as he went towards the area were food was being dispensed.
She crumpled her dress with her small hands, gritting her teeth. Only when she was sure nobody could hear her she let out a sob and allowed herself to cry.
– o –
“It’s… cold…” The goddess said as she and her temple guard sat in front of a campfire. She had chosen to give herself clothes similar to her celestial regalia, which were, admittedly, quite revealing. She now understood her mistake and wished she had created a more modest and warm attire, like the ones that many household goddesses chose to wear.
The young warrior said nothing as he removed his shirt and offered it to her. She hesitated but her need was greater than her indignation and she slipped the oversized garment over her torso.
The burning temple was visible in the distance, a smoldering rose against a field of night. She was beginning to feel a little sick. Fatigue and hunger were something entirely new to her, only slightly compensated by the novelty of tasting cooked meat that Benaz hunted.
“The Hunters took the false trail.” Benaz said. “We will be safe for a couple of days until they realize their mistake and try to find our tracks. We should travel to the North or the West; there’s still a lot of fighting over there and we can get lost in the chaos. And, milady, we should find you less… ah… noticeable clothes.”
“I was the most beautiful of my sisters.” Ker’zei frowned, staring at the fire. “Why should I hide it?”
“Well, milady…” He cleared his throat. “It’s precisely because your beauty is impossible to forget that we should keep it from eyes that would serve your father.”
“You are wise for your age, Benaz.” The goddess looked at him, which made him flinch and turn his attention to the fire. “How come you were not a novice priest?”
“I’m merely practical, milady.” He said. “And my… dubious birth kept the priests from accepting me into their ranks.”
“That’s nonsense.” She answered. “Your birth was a wrong that required vengeance. What better priest for me?”
He smiled at her and shrugged.
“I will need a priest, in any case.” She sighed. “If I am to manifest my power in the mortal world in a way that will not alert my father immediately, I will have to do it through your faith. Do you have faith in me, Benaz?”
“My faith is undying, my goddess.” He spoke softly and kowtowed gently. “Every day I would see the injustice in the world and rest assured that you were there so that the guilty would someday pay for the grief they caused. Even now, I am sure that this injustice visited upon you will be avenged.”
“Then raise your face, temple guard.” Ker’zei knelt in front of him, her hands cupping his face and bringing it close to hers. “You are now my last and my only priest. My power is yours as long as your soul is mine. My favor is yours alone as long as your faith belongs to me and to none other. Let your arms be the instrument of righteous revenge, let your eyes burn with the fire of holy outrage that burns away the petty sins of mortals.”
He nodded, enraptured by her words and her promise. She leaned and kissed his forehead, sealing the pact between deity and worshipper.
“It is done, my priest, my servant.” Ker’zei smiled fiercely, feeling the power of his faith filling her, nourishing her still bright divinity. “It may take us an eternity, but we will have our revenge.”
– o –
“I hate being hungry.” Ker’zei ate quickly from the bowl of soup Benaz brought to her. “I hate being mortal!”
“Hush…” The old man whispered. They were alone in the tent but the little girl’s outburst may have attracted undue attention. “Do not lose hope, Ker’zei…”
“Hope? In what?” The girl slammed the wooden bowl on the ground when she was done. “Nobody remembers me… nobody remembers there were once the Sisters of Vengeance protecting these… monkeys from each other.”
“You still have me, milady.” The old man kneeled in front of her, parting her hair from her face. “My faith in you is as strong now as it was then.”
“And it’s the only reason I have not become an infant and your bones are not dust.” She sighed, leaning her face against the callused hand. “But I cannot keep you immortal anymore, Benaz… your body… it’s been decades since I couldn’t maintain your youth… you have to be more careful… if you die…”
“Hush.” Benaz repeated, but much more gently now. “I will not die as long as my heart is yours. Now rest, my goddess… The new magistrates will arrive tomorrow to question us, and that little display of power back there will have raised some alarms on the other side. We must go before dawn.”
“Go… go where?” Ker’zei sighed but lay down, letting Benaz tuck her in and lay beside her, covering her protectively.
“Eternity, of course.” He smiled and whispered, kissing the top of her head gently before she fell asleep.