“Thank you again, Captain, for indulging an old woman’s affectations. Though she’s my only acolyte, she’s incredibly gifted, and I wouldn’t be able to rest properly without knowing she was in your capable hands. I hope it’s not much trouble.”
“The honor is mine, Elder Mother. Her safety is my utmost concern, and coincidentally I already have,” the dragonborn paused, flicking his tongue over his nostrils, “further business in the city at that. The Regent has denied my request to augment and resupply our garrison. He seems to believe that proximity to his own holdings dictates need. However,” he spat, “I’d like to hear him say it to my own face instead of palming the duty off to an enlisted man.”
“Our timeless vow is one quickly forgotten by the transitory bureaucrats. I trust you will remind him of his duty to the greater good.”
“That I shall.”
The ancient sage glanced aside at her pupil. “Stop fretting, my dear. Your gifts are real; I have witnessed them time and again. This is a mere formality of the Covenant, if only to assure them that I’ve not yet grown senile.”
The acolyte smiled nervously, only somewhat relieved. “Thank you, Elder Mother. I hope to not disappoint you.”
“You won’t. Believe in yourself as I believe in you.”
Having been relieved of duty by his second-in-command, the Captain and his charge exited the gates of the compound, receiving little fanfare beyond the sentinels at the wall holding salute until they were out of sight. They traveled toward the city, the journey shortened considerably by the swiftness of their mounts. Safety in this remote region was often a matter of speed more than brute strength, and this trip was pleasantly unremarkable.
Despite initial skepticism and a battery of tests of will and faith, the Covenant’s representatives begrudgingly conceded that the power of the gods flowed freely and powerfully though the chosen acolyte, and they unanimously confirmed her appointment as a Shrine Guardian.
The Captain’s appeal to the Regent was rebuffed at every level by bureaucrats, bootlicks, and blandly banal busybodies, but his calm persistence infuriated his thwarters in every way that they intended to infuriate him. After patiently enduring every torture devised by the governance, he gained audience with the Regent, and during a very small window of opportunity was able to make such a convincing case for adherence to the ancient pact that he not only secured a respectable increase in manpower, but a considerable increase in upkeep as well. As he left the offices, the Regent could only shake his head in befuddled admiration.
The return trip was equally uneventful, though both riders were in high spirits on account of their successes. It was only upon approaching the sanctuary that the seeds of unease were planted. Though they were unable to consciously pinpoint the source of their discomfort, the forest seemed unnaturally still. Animals did not scurry, birds did not cry. As they broached the border of the shrine’s perimeter they remained unhailed by the guard, and their unrest compounded, and as it did they drove their mounts on, from an open traveling trot to a near breakneck gallop. When the walls of the compound appeared, they halted their mounts as their hearts likewise stopped. The gates were open and the walls were unwatched. They rode forward, heedless.
Inside, a scene of carnage awaited them. The bodies of soldiers and monks littered the courtyard, each corpse a collection of horrific wounds. Vicious rents and tears, severed limbs, and deep, placid pools of blood and ichor spotted the once-tranquil garden. Archers lay with their quivers empty, swords clenched in hands, each face a visage of horror. But even a single trace of their slayers there was none. Not a single corpse or remainder of the foes they had fought desperately against.
The Captain, mindful of his charge, cautiously approached the temple proper. The doors had been breached by some inhuman force, shattering the stone of the portal and dismembering the sentinels who kept the gate. The Captain’s attentiveness to duty demanded that he somehow secure the acolyte’s safety… but he quickly ascertained there was no safety here at all, save by his side. They descended the long stairway of the temple, eyes darting over the remaining few guards who had fallen in desperate service. At the heart of the shrine, the sanctified doors were rent wide.
In the middle of the garden lay the still body of the Elder Mother. The Captain was caught off-guard and could not prevent the acolyte from rushing to her fallen master’s side. The body was cool and lifeless, the soul long since departed. Beyond her corpse lay the empty altar. Undisturbed for generations, the very air of the absent artifact was alien and incomprehensible. The Captain sank to his knees while the acolyte wept over the remains of her mentor.
“All is lost,” uttered the Captain.
They combed the silent shrine for any tale of the assaulters, but there was none to be found. Room to room, floor to floor, they found cold corpses and silent mouths. As they entered the refectory, they were greeted by still more despair. One in particular commanded the captain’s mournful gaze. “Gods above, they even slew the cook’s apprentice.” Knowing no martial skill or religious devotion, the young girl lay in a pool of blood, her eyes transfixed in unknowing bewilderment at her now-absent slayer.
Without an enemy to track, or even to know, he found himself without direction. Even without a way to focus his vengeance, he was of the highest pragmatic mind. The captain immediately busied himself in collecting the dead and preparing them for burial. Scantly after he began, the acolyte was at his side, dazed, yet eager for something of purpose. They spent all the hours until nightfall methodically yet compassionately arranging the fallen. Their comrades. Their friends.
At last they made camp in the courtyard, the breached gates barred as best as could be managed. The fire grew dim as their resigned terror gave way to exhaustion, and they each fell into troubled sleep. The Captain dreamed of images of nightmare, his charges being torn asunder, unable to fight, and failing alone, each in turn, because he had not been there to guide them. This was all his fault. His head filled with screams and he could smell nothing but blood and horror.
The captain awoke with the hot splash of visceral fluid across his cheek. Above him swayed the uncomprehending face of a cultist assassin, the knife in his hand falling forgotten to the floor as his claws grasped dumbly at the tip of an impossibly wide blade sprouting from his chest. It suddenly receded, and his vitals spilled forth steaming to the brickwork, scant inches from him. Behind his collapsed corpse stood the chef’s assistant, eyes unfocused toward nothing.
Suddenly the acolyte screamed, the Captain turning in time to see another cultist assassin raising a wicked blade for the killing thrust. He barked a command, and instinctively the acolyte obeyed, rolling away even as from the shadowy corner behind the killer appeared the cook’s apprentice, and with an almost imperceptible slash deftly beheaded and disarmed the assailant. The Captain glanced furtively to his rear, if only to convince himself that the apprentice must still be as she stood a bare moment before. But of course she was not.
The scene was silent for an interminably long time. The twitches of the assassin’s corpse subsided, and neither the cook’s assistant nor the acolyte moved from where they stood transfixed. At length, the Captain regained his composure.
“It’s… Ellie, right? You were the cook’s assistant?” The girl did not respond. The Captain stood and approached her hesitantly, but with noble confidence placed his hand on the young girl’s shoulder. It was warm and yielding. “You’re… you’re alive? I could have sworn you were… that you’d…” He shrugged in resignation.
Suddenly, realization dawned on him. “If you’re alive, you witnessed what happened here! You can tell us who did this!” The young girl hesitated, and then nodded almost imperceptibly, her eyes still unfocused and staring at the ground. Her hand left the hilt of the massive sword and slowly rose, finger pointing northward. As she did so, a cold fire settled in the Captain’s eyes.
“Then we haven’t a moment to lose.”