“You’re sure you’ve got everything you need?” Ciara’s father asked for the tenth time that day.
“I’m sure,” Ciara said, hefting her small traveling bag. “I just don’t have that much stuff.”
That was true, but it also wasn’t the reason she had packed so light for her trip to the Valvezian capital. What she hadn’t told her father was that Stella was going to be carrying Ciara’s bag on their trek through the woods while Ciara was stuck with Stella’s much larger one. She hadn’t realized just how much stuff one person could pack when she asked the other girl to accompany her to the capital, or that she would end up being the one to carry it. Though, in retrospect maybe she should have.
“And you have all your sacrifices?”
“Yes,” she lied. She had packed most of them, of course, she would need objects with spiritual energy to trade for whatever currency they used in Valvezia, not to mention to appease her own gods, but she had stashed a small fortune in potential sacrifices in the cellar where her father wouldn’t find them until after she was gone. She wanted to make sure he was taken care of once she left.
“Okay,” he said, coming to stand in front of her and pulling her into a fierce hug. “I’m proud of you.”
Though Ciara was tall and broad shouldered, she looked almost petite next to her father, and he wrapped her tight in his embrace. She was struck by the thought that this would be the last hug she would receive from him for a very long time, and suddenly the journey to Valvezia she had been so looking forward to felt bittersweet.
She blinked the beginnings of tears out of her eyes and cleared her throat as her father let her go. “Ah, Dad. There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”
Ciara gritted her teeth. This is it. Just tell him.
“Ah. It’s . . . it’s nothing. I just wanted to say thank you for supporting my choice to leave the village.”
Her father nodded. “Truth be told, I don’t. I’d rather you stayed here. But you can take care of yourself and I trust your judgement. And I’m glad Stella will be there to help.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for understanding.”
“Of course,” he said, emotion starting to choke his voice now that she was actually leaving. “You had better go or you’ll be late.”
“Right,” she said, shouldering her bag and heading out the door. By mutual agreement, they had decided to say their goodbyes in private. Ciara didn’t need any gawkers present for her private moments.
You didn’t tell him, Alix said from inside her head.
“Didn’t want to spoil the moment,” Ciara muttered. “He’d be a lot less proud if he knew his daughter was sly.”
Ignas has been a staunch supporter. It is not appropriate to repay that with deceit.
“We already talked about this. You said it wasn’t a betrayal to keep secrets from allies.”
No, not a betrayal. I won’t be withdrawing my Blessings. It’s just . . . distasteful to deceive them about who you are.
“I can be more open about it once we get to the city,” Ciara said, though whether she was trying to convince Alix or herself, she wasn’t sure. “But the villagers here would cast me out if they knew what I was.”
That might be difficult for them. They seem to think rather highly of you. Look.
As Ciara approached the edge of the village where she was to meet the Valvezians, she saw that half the village had gathered to see them off. That wasn’t so strange, the Valvezian procession was plenty impressive with its gleaming armor and black-and-orange banners. What was strange was that they cheered when they saw Ciara coming, and she saw a couple of parents restraining children from running up to her.
Ciara waved sheepishly. She still didn’t know how to respond to treatment like this. Between her showing in the tournament, killing a Death Dealer, and giving the village a way to appease the horrific god that prowled the surrounding forest, she had been mobbed every other time she left the house. It was all a bit bizarre.
A child broke free of his mother and ran up to Ciara.
“Miss, miss,” he said excitedly. “Do you think I can be a Champion like you when I grow up?”
“Sure,” Ciara said. “But it’s hard work. You better start training now by doing all your chores.”
The kid looked stricken. “Chores? I don’t wanna do chores, I wanna be the Champion of a forest monster like you are.”
Please don’t, Ciara thought to the only god he could be referring to.
The god didn’t listen.
One moment it had just been Ciara and the kid standing there, while his mother walked toward them to retrieve her son. The next there was another figure standing with them, though not one that anyone would mistake for a human.
Vor, Teeth in the Darkness, stood at just over seven feet tall with its back hunched, and its pale skin was wrapped in rings of black thorns. It had long arms and legs that bent the wrong way. It wore no clothes and had no hair, just too-pale flesh. It had no eyes or ears, but what it did have was an enormous lipless mouth filled with teeth the size of a man’s thumb.
The terrifying god bent down to examine the child and spoke in a voice drier than the Shining Desert. “You would do well to learn respect when speaking of a god.”
The child ran off screaming and the crowd started to disperse in a hurry. They were excited to offer Vor sacrifices in exchange for safety in the forest, but that didn’t make the god any less disturbing.
Did you have to do that? Ciara asked. He wanted to be your disciple someday.
Then it is best he learns respect now. The whelp called me a monster. Were he to do that when pledging himself to me, I would have no choice but to break him in half and suck the marrow from his bones.
You know, this is why you didn’t have any disciples before me.
She got the impression of smug agreement from the god and she was sure that it hadn’t understood her point.
She spotted Stella lugging a massive bag and hurried over to her.
“Hi,” Stella said brightly. She was looking radiant as usual with her fiery hair and brilliant green eyes. She wore simple clothes and a green traveler’s cloak, but she somehow made it look like a daring choice of fashion. “Are you sure that’s all you’re bringing?”
Ciara handed over her little bag and took Stella’s enormous one in exchange. “It’s got everything I need. What about you? Are you sure you didn’t need to pack a chest of drawers in here? Maybe some bricks?”
“I just wanted to be prepared to help you with your new Faith. I might have overpacked a little. Are you sure you don’t mind carrying it? I’ve been chatting with one of the new soldiers and he said he wouldn’t mind taking a turn with it.”
“I could use the strength training,” Ciara said. “But I might take you up on that later in the trip.”
“Just say the word. Thanks again for letting me come with you. Especially after . . . you know.”
After you lied to me about how you felt and tried to marry me for my position? Ciara thought. But outwardly she just smiled and said, “Don’t mention it.”
They met up with the Valvezians and started into the woods. As they walked, Commander Demos went over travel procedures. There would always be at least one scout on the lookout for an enemy ambush or attack from wild creatures and they would give word in time for everyone to prepare one of several possible defensive options. Ciara did her best to pay attention, since it was pretty clear Demos was explaining this for her, Stella, and Allister’s benefit, but it took long enough that her mind started to wander.
She was daydreaming about the kinds of sacrifices she could find in the deeper woods when Adessa stepped up beside her and Stella. Adessa was beautiful, with an effortless grace to her movements, and cheekbones that looked like they could cut glass. She wore traveling clothes all in black and a cloak with a silver lining. The lack of color highlighted her purple hair, which she wore short, sitting just over her ears, and her purple eyes, which shone with intelligence and mischief.
“You won’t mind if I steal the young disciple away for a moment?” she asked, addressing Stella but looking at Ciara.
“Of course not, ah, Your Highness,” Stella said.
“I’ve said before I don’t like that. Ciara’s my friend and you’re hers; I hope that means we can at least dispense with the titles. If that is agreeable with you, High Priestess?”
Stella looked a bit flummoxed at that. While the title was technically accurate, she was priestess of a Faith that had exactly two members. She was still coming up with an appropriate response when the pair left her to walk out of earshot of the rest of the group.
“You do that on purpose,” Ciara said, suppressing a smile.
Adessa suppressed nothing and grinned wickedly. “Of course. You think my wit and charm come by happenstance? She’s too concerned with propriety. She needs to loosen up. She could take a page from your book.”
Gods help me that’s a good smile, Ciara thought.
What help does that require? Alix asked in Ciara’s mind.
Ciara sighed inwardly. She had meant to say that just to herself.
“There are those who would say I am not concerned enough with propriety,” she said before the conversation could stall.
“There are those who would see a cow and call it a unicorn, but it doesn’t make it so. Besides, your blatant disregard for proper protocol is a big part of why we’re friends. It’s so much harder to have a decent conversation with people when they’re always kneeling.”
“I thought it’s because I‘m the only one who isn’t afraid of you,” Ciara said. She had meant it as a joke but as soon as it was out of her mouth, she realized her mistake.
A small shadow passed over Adessa’s face. “That too.”
A silence began to stretch between them, and Ciara rushed to fill it. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“The Death Dealer you killed.”
“Okay, what about it?” That had been the most physically and emotionally draining thing Ciara had ever done in her life, and she had once fought a bear while her leg was broken. If Allister hadn’t arrived when he did, she would surely be dead, and it had taken literal divine intervention for her to recover from her injuries.
“It was a weak one,” Adessa said.
“I’m not trying to diminish your achievement. Beating any of those nightmares is an accomplishment worthy of that Orange Star Demos gave you. Even the weakest of them would be considered too much to handle for any of our soldiers who don’t have their own Remade bodies. But yes, from what I’ve heard, your Dealer was significantly weaker than the others that attacked. Probably a disciple that had only recently received their third Blessing and hadn’t had much chance to feed yet. That’s why it was trying to avoid any of the actual combat and just murder civilians.”
“Ah, okay,” Ciara said. “Why are you just now telling me this?”
“Couldn’t very well shake your confidence before the tournament, could I? And then all your villagers were so impressed and I didn’t want to lessen your accomplishment in their eyes. But it’s important you know before we get to the capital. There’s a lot to be gained through duels. That’s how a lot of disciples make a name for themselves and their god. But some of the disciples in the capital are more powerful than any you’ve seen before. I’ll point out which Faiths to avoid. I just don’t want you picking any fights that will get you killed when I’ve got my back turned, okay?”
“I think I can manage that.”
“Good. I’m going to take a turn scouting; I’ll talk to you when we make camp for the night.”
Ciara thanked her for her advice and went back to walk with Stella. The two chatted while they walked, discussing what they thought the city would be like and how awkward things were with Allister.
Allister, for his part, was walking with the group too. He wore simple traveling clothes: a tunic, trousers, and a traveler’s cloak, though Allister’s looked of better quality than Ciara’s and showed greater wear than Stella’s. His pack bristled with weapons, so much so that he would be in danger of skewering himself should he trip. He kept to himself and hadn’t said a word to either of them that day.
That annoyed Ciara. She could understand him being disappointed that she didn’t feel the same way about him that he did about her, but she was in much the same situation with Stella and she wasn’t sulking about it. It wasn’t like she expected them to be great friends, but a wave or a hello surely wasn’t too much to ask.
They walked like that for a long while. The scouts never spotted anything of note, so the journey was uneventful. Between venturing deeper into the woods than Ciara had gone before and chatting with Stella, it was really rather pleasant. The only things dragging it down were Allister’s sullen silence and the pack on Ciara’s back that she was convinced was filled with half of Stella’s bedroom. She had needed to use the Desperate Strength Blessing for most of the day just to lug the thing around and by the time Demos called the group to stop and set up camp in a small clearing, she felt like she was ready to collapse.
She heaved the bag off her back as the Valvezians went about setting up camp with efficiency and grace.
“Do you have a tent?” Stella asked, handing Ciara back her own, much more modest, bag.
“No,” Ciara said irritably. Because then you would have to carry it. Desperate Strength had a side effect of shortening her temper, and lugging around sixty or so pounds of crap through the woods all day did nothing to help matters.
“Would you like to use the one I packed for you then?”
That brought Ciara up short. “You packed me a tent?”
“Of course. It’s in the bag you’ve been carrying.”
“Oh. Well, thanks. Yeah, I’d like that. Do you know how to set it up?”
“No, but I’m sure we can get some pointers from the Valvezians.”
Neither of them had ever had cause to need a tent, as sleeping in the forest without an armed escort had been suicide up until very recently. But, with a few pointers from one of the soldiers, they got two modest tents of a thick blue fabric set up near the center of the camp.
“I would have gone for your black-and-rainbow colors,” Stella said. “But there just wasn’t time. I had to get these from a couple of guys from Vashford who had a thing for me, and even then they drove a hard bargain.”
Ciara could picture boys having a crush on Stella very easily; she had a lot more trouble picturing them negotiating aggressively with her.
But bringing another tent along was a nice gesture and it went a long way to soothing Ciara’s grouchiness at agreeing to carry Stella’s bag. They ate together, a simple meal of stew that the soldiers cooked and some hard bread Stella had packed. When they were finished, Ciara had a look around for Adessa. She wasn’t back from scouting yet, but none of the soldiers seemed in the least worried. Ciara wanted to talk more with her, and not just because she had thought of half a hundred questions about how dueling worked in the capital, but she was also tired. So, she retired to her tent to talk to her gods and then get some sleep.
She was feeling a bit bad that she had spent the whole day talking to Stella and hadn’t gathered any sacrifices for her gods, but they were deeper into the woods than she had ever been before. Deep enough that the people who came this way wouldn’t be stopping to look for sacrifices. She could find some real treasures if Alix helped her look as she walked the next day, and she sent a prayer to him requesting as much.
“About that,” Alix said, appearing beside her in her tent as if he had been there all along. “If you keep making sacrifices to Vor at the rate you’ve been going, you’re going to get a third Blessing. And that will be a disaster.”
“Why wouldn’t I want a third Blessing?” Ciara asked. “That sounds like exactly what I want.”
“You’d think so,” Alix said. “But no. See, the thing is that once you receive a third Blessing, your body will be shaped in the image of your god. A lot of people, your new countrymen included, call it being Remade. For most people, that’s no problem. They get a better body, longer life span, all sorts of perks. The problem for you is that if you receive a third Blessing from any of your other gods, your body will be Remade again and you’ll lose everything you gained from when it happened the first time.”
“Right,” Ciara said. “And I’m assuming you have some kind of plan to prevent that from happening?”
“Of course. If you receive a third Blessing from me before any of your other gods, then I can adjust your body to accept multiple third Blessings.”
Ciara chewed on that for a moment. “What does that mean?”
“That’s up to you. You’ll either be able to switch between different Remade bodies, or you can layer Blessings on top of each other. There are costs and benefits to either approach, and that will be a choice you will need to make as Champion.”
“We can walk that path when we get to it,” Ciara said. “First thing’s first, how do I get two more Blessings from you?”
“Same as most gods: glory and sacrifice.”
“Okay, so I start sacrificing to you instead of Vor and Favinar for a while.”
“Unfortunately, that won’t work,” Alix said. “I can’t take sacrifices directly from my disciples. I can only take a portion of the sacrifices given to the other members of our little coalition. It’s one of the drawbacks of my particular remit. The best thing to do, short of Conquering a compatible Faith, is bring glory to my name in the capital. A nice big temple, a few heroic deeds or epic duels. That sort of thing.”
“Conquering a Faith?”
“Hm? Oh, sometimes I forget how far from everything you live. Conquest is one of the ways one god Assimilates another. It’s not really—”
But whatever Conquest wasn’t was cut off by the howls of several wolves. Howls that sounded far too close for Ciara’s liking.
Ciara bolted from her tent, Desperate Strength already coursing through her. Alix vanished before she had to knock him out of the way, for which she would be grateful later. She burst into the camp in time to see several of the Valvezians gathering weapons. Stella poked her head out from within her own tent and Ciara hurried her over to the large fire the Valvezians had burning in the center of the camp.
“Keep your back to that so they can’t come up behind you,” she said; then she directed her thoughts to Vor. Any advice for fighting wolves?
Don’t run, came the rasp of her terrifying god. Wolves live for the chase. They will tear at your legs so you fall, take you to the ground, and rip at your flesh.
Thanks, Ciara thought drily, not enjoying the mental picture.
Of course, Vor said, a hint of amusement in its tone. That wasn’t wolves.
A chill ran down Ciara’s spine and she spun around, trying to get a glimpse of whatever she had heard howling.
The Valvezians were all at attention with weapons at the ready, and all seemed to be scanning the area the same as she was.
A wolf’s head attached to an impossibly long neck surged out from the trees and snapped its jaws shut on one of the soldier’s arms. The soldier in question let out a sound equal parts pain and surprise that then became a scream as the head pulled back, dragging him into the darkness with terrifying speed.
The scream abruptly cut off.
“Wolfhydra!” Demos shouted. “Backs against cover! Those who don’t have Flowing Dance, stay close to those who do!”
The Valvezian soldiers carried out Demos’s orders with speed and efficiency, the newer recruits positioning themselves by the older ones and everyone getting their backs to something solid. One of the soldiers stepped up beside Ciara and Stella and stood with a sickle-sword at the ready.
Allister stepped up on the other side, holding a weighted fighting staff called a quinble and looking every bit the legendary warrior. He nodded to Ciara and the awkwardness between them seemed to evaporate. Ciara found it much easier to fight alongside Allister than talk to him.
Ciara scanned the woods, looking for any sign of movement. The soldiers around her were doing the same.
Nothing happened for a long moment and the fire at Ciara’s back began to get uncomfortably hot. She yearned to shift position, but she didn’t dare move, afraid to break the silent tension that hung in the air.
One of the Valvezians turned, perhaps seeing something move in the darkness. That was all the warning they got.
Furred muscles surged, yellow teeth flashed, and a massive wolf head was bearing down on a young man who looked barely old enough for soldiering.
But the Valvezians knew their business, and this time they were ready for it. While the younger man was caught off guard, another man standing next to him wasn’t, and he drove his sickle-sword straight into the jaws of the wolfhydra as it attacked, shattering teeth, cleaving tongue, and making a bloody mess of its mouth.
The creature made a noise that might have been a snarl, but came out mangled and wrong, whipping its head back and leaving a bloody trail back into the woods. Before it was even out of sight, another head shot through the camp straight at Ciara.
She barely had time to move, and her first instinct was to stumble back. She started to do it before the heat at her back reminded her of how bad an idea that would be. All she managed was a tiny jerk before the hydra was upon her.
Either her assigned solider wasn’t quite as quick as the other had been or the wolfhydra was being more careful, because while he swiped at it with his sickle-sword, he only succeeded in forcing it to rear back for a moment before striking.
But that was enough for Allister to make his move. The moment the beast let up, he moved in, swinging his quinble and cracking one of the heavy metal weights down on its head.
Ciara’s mind caught up with the situation, and she rushed forward, grabbing hold of the hydra’s neck while it was stunned. She wrapped both arms around the enormous neck and wrenched for all she was worth, using the full power of the Blessing of Desperate Strength.
The creature’s neck broke with a sound like splitting wood and its head lolled grotesquely at the end, flopping this way and that as the neck writhed in agony.
Then the soldier next to Ciara darted forward and struck the head clean off with one swing of his sword.
Ciara looked at him stricken. “What did you just do?”
He looked dumbfounded. “I killed it.”
“It’s a hydra, you idiot!” Ciara practically screamed, turning back to the fire and looking for a log she could take without burning herself too badly. She spotted one and pulled it from the fire, feeling her skin blister as she did, then turned back to cauterize the severed neck.
She was too late. She turned around to see two more heads erupt from the wound complete with wet, unfurred necks that spilled out of the creature as though they had been in there all along.
Ciara thrust her burning log at one of them as it twisted in her direction, placing herself between it and Stella. Allister caught it with a glancing blow as it twisted away. But the other head darted in and only the Valvezian’s Flowing Dance Blessing—which let the Valvezians anticipate their enemies’ movements—allowed the soldier to deflect its attack with his sword.
Both heads drew back, seemingly focused on Ciara, and darted in at her in a pincer motion that she was pretty sure would end with her being ripped in half . . .
If it weren’t for the Blessing of Wind Walking.
The two heads came in and Ciara leapt, tucking her legs and then pushing off the air midjump to get even greater height. She threw herself back wholly over the fire, and the wolfhydra hit nothing but dirt.
* * *
Stella was frozen with terror. A great demon wolf was attacking the camp and she wished she had stayed at home. More than that, she wished the solider protecting her and Ciara had the brains the gods gave a turnip, because he had chopped off the thing’s head and it had immediately grown two more. Which, given someone had called it a hydra, seemed like something anyone would have known would happen.
Now both heads reared up, focused on Ciara, and crashed down on her.
Ciara had nowhere to run. She was boxed in by people and had a fire to her back. And Allister and the Valvezian looked too far away to save her.
Stella wanted to close her eyes, but that felt like a betrayal, so she kept them open and watched as the creature lunged at her friend.
Apparently, no one had told Ciara she had nowhere to run, because she jumped straight up and then pushed off the air and jumped again, sailing completely over the fire behind her and causing the hydra’s heads to crash into the ground instead.
Allister came in swinging his staff and hit the monster in the neck. The Valvezian swung his sword at one of the heads too, but he was too slow and barely got out of the way of the creature swinging its head at him. The head that Allister had struck got ahold of his staff and he struggled to hold on to it, while the other one came around and focused on Stella.
Everything seemed to slow down. The eyes of the sickening creature burned brightly in its slick, rubbery face. Its jaws opened wide and rows of sharp teeth rushed toward Stella.
Which is when Ciara dropped out of the sky and shoved a burning branch into the thing’s face.
Both heads went crazy at that, screeching and thrashing, and the other Valvezians arrived and made short work of them, brutally stabbing them to death without ever severing the head from the neck.
The heads didn’t regrow from that, and no more attacks came.
* * *
Sometime later, Ciara was sitting by the fire with Stella and Allister, not wanting to go back to sleep lest more monsters attack. Most of the Valvezians had done the same and were huddled around in small groups, casting suspicious gazes at the woods around them. Though Demos had declared the danger passed and gone back to bed, only the most grizzled soldiers had followed his lead.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Stella asked for the tenth time.
“I will be,” Ciara said, flexing her hand and then wincing at the pain that shot through it. It was badly blistered from where she had grabbed that burning log, but she had eaten a few spiritual objects and the Blessing of Depraved Appetite was already repairing the damage.
“Cutting off a hydra’s head,” Allister muttered darkly for at least the fifteenth time. “What was he thinking?”
Ciara nodded in agreement. Demos had shouted down the man for idiocy, pointing out that everyone knows not to cut off a hydra’s head and he may as well have tried to set light to a dragon. That soldier was likely to find himself on latrine-digging duty for an awfully long time.
The three of them sat like that for a while, just staring around them and making the odd comment. No one was really in the mood to talk, so it was quiet enough that everyone heard something shuffling through the forest toward the camp.
Hands went to swords and mouths went to grimaces. All eyes were on the figure that emerged from the woods.
Naked, caked with blood, and dragging a mangled left leg that reformed even as she walked on it, Princess Adessa shuffled into camp.
Ciara didn’t know if there was a god of bloody death, but if there was, she thought they would probably look something like Adessa did then. But Ciara couldn’t help notice that she also looked remarkably good. She did her best to focus on the girl’s face, rather than the rest of her.
Adessa met the stares with one of her own, gestured at herself, and said, “Could someone find me some clothes? A wolfhydra seems to have eaten mine.”
Soldiers snapped into action, realizing they were staring at their princess naked, and clothes were produced so quickly Ciara almost suspected a Blessing was involved. The soldiers filled Adessa in on what had happened, and she listened intently, nodding along.
“I didn’t realize there was another one. I should have been here to help you. You have my apologies for that and so will Apros’s family. If there is a bright side here, it is that both the creatures will make excellent sacrifices to Valvez. Absolutely brimming with spiritual energy as I understand these things.”
That put the soldiers in a much better mood, and they all started talking about how much this sacrifice would help them on their way to another Blessing. Adessa promised she would retrieve her kill in the morning and then excused herself to get cleaned up.
Ciara sidled over to her as the soldiers were discussing how best to burn the wolfhydras.
“How many did you actually fight?” she asked.
Adessa gave her the shadow of a grin. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
“I mean I’ve sparred against you and there’s no way you got that beat-up only fighting one of those things. I figure you just told them that because you didn’t want to freak them out. So, how many of them did you actually fight?”
Adessa’s shadow-grin became a small smile. “In that case, six.”