Luna observed the narrow cleft in front of her with squinted eyes. The walls were smooth, and the cleft’s hundred feet of length lacked any natural cover. At its start, the tracks they had been following up to this point turned from a disorganized mess into two clear trails. “This looks like a perfect place for an ambush,” she said.
The young man standing next to her nodded. Willem was a mage who had joined the Order’s Navy at the same time Luna did. With his finger, he traced an arcane symbol into the air, and his eyes turned white.
The spell gave Luna the feeling of unwelcomed eyes staring at her back. No matter how many times she had felt like this, she had yet to get used to it.
“Four people above the sides,” he said after a moment. “You are right.”
Luna allowed herself a slight smirk and drew in with her nose. “I smell nothing demonic, so they aren’t from demon princes’ armies. Can you tell if they’re aether wielders?”
“If yes, then they aren’t good enough to react to my spell.” Willem’s eyes turned back to normal. “And there’s no good way to go around this.”
This was the last section of the Frozen Heights they had yet to scout. So far, they had found one food stockpile of the former demon prince’s armies. And the tracks on the ground leading through the cleft gave promise of finding another stockpile further ahead.
Luna untied the leather strap that held her mud brown hair in the ponytail, hoping free-flowing hair would look less threatening. For the same reason, she hunched her back and slumped her shoulders. In a world plagued by demons, anything of unnatural proportions was potentially dangerous. With her seven feet of height, narrow shoulders and hips, Luna was anything but of common proportions.
And she was not an exception to the rule.
Willem understood the move and arranged his uniform. He slicked back his short brown hair and said, “Want to lead the negotiation?”
“Might as well.” Luna shrugged. “Neither of us is good at talking.” She licked her lips, wiped the sweat off her palms and stepped forward.
Luna and Willem, the monster and the mage, entered the cleft.
When they were halfway through, a rough voice shouted from above, “Don’t move and drop your weapons!”
A stout man towered above the cleft. He wore a breastplate beneath heavy furs and held a large bow, aiming at them. A helmet with horns sat above his bearded face.
From the other side, three teenagers appeared, two boys and a girl, all wielding bows. They wore clothes similar in style to the first man, but not uniforms.
By the non-formal armor, they weren’t from the armies of the demon princes. They were likely from a mountain village. To fight them would had been a pointless slaughter, so Luna conjured an amiable smile. “Hi. I’m Junior Petty Officer Lunariel Laen’Ash of the Holy Order of Palai. We are scouts, and we mean you no harm.”
“Drop your weapons and kick them away,” the man shouted.
Luna sighed, drew her short sword and tossed it aside. Willem followed her lead and put the shield down from his back. Then he threw away his crossbow, his longsword, and his arming sword. Luna looked back at the man. “Look, we are only looking here for food stockpiles the demon princes’ forces left behind. We don’t want to harm you, but we will if forced to.”
“Do you think we are fools?”
Yes, definitely. Luna kept her tone pleasant though, hoping he would be reasonable about this. “What do you mean?”
“The black uniform you wear is from Order’s Special Forces, and you both wear the navy’s insignia. You two are no soldiers.”
How did he know the black meant Special Forces without being aware of how dangerous it made her? She exchanged a glance with Willem. Otherwise, yes, they were from the navy and hundreds of miles away from the sea, which was indeed suspicious. If Willem had any idea how to talk their way through this, he gave no hint.
Luna pivoted her gaze back to the man. “I know what it looks like. We are from the 47th Company of the 4th Legion, and yes, our ship isn’t present. But we have a mission here, and this will become very bloody if you don’t calm down.”
“Don’t talk to them, Bjorn. We should shoot them,” one of the boys shouted.
“I agree,” the girl added. The last boy nodded in agreement.
Bjorn glared at the youngsters. “Hilde, Sven, calm down.”
Luna rolled her eyes. “Look, we are strong aether wielders, so if you have a death wish… go for it.”
“Anyone could say that,” Hilde shouted.
Apparently, they needed a demonstration. Luna reached inside herself, pulling on her aether. The energy, which was the source of all magic, flowed through her, filling all her muscles and armor, strengthening them. The feeling of power intoxicated her mind, making her nearly forget where she was. She stepped forward. “All right, shoot me.”
Hilde and Sven released their arrows. They bounced off Luna’s brigandine. Bjorn shouted at them to stop. Sven and the other boy put down their bows, but Hilde drew another arrow, focused and shot. This arrow pierced Luna’s throat.
With a grunt of pain, Luna broke the arrow and pulled it out in a fountain of blood. Her flesh reformed itself, veins restored and skin re-stretched, returning everything to perfect function. She didn’t expect these villagers to be capable of using magic. But that arrow had to be imbued with the girl’s aether. All right, they weren’t completely weak. But Luna didn’t feel like acknowledging that. She turned toward the girl. “Got a plan C?”
Hilde stared at her, speechless.
Bjorn stepped to the girl and wrestled the bow from her hands. “We will talk about this later, Hildegarde.”
She lowered her gaze toward the ground.
Bjorn scratched his beard and gave Luna an awkward smile. “How about we all calm down and talk this through?”
Luna shrugged and withdrew her aether back into her heart. No need to waste any more strength as Bjorn finally understood the situation. Healing anything with aether was exceedingly difficult, so Luna’s regeneration was more than a rare aether manifestation. “We aren’t shooting arrows at unarmed people.”
Bjorn gathered his group to lead them down into the cleft while Luna and Willem picked up their weapons.
Willem whispered. “Are you all right?”
Luna nodded, her neck hurting. Though her flesh had regenerated, her mind still believed the tissue was damaged. The phantom pain was not pleasant. “I didn’t think they could use aether.”
Bjorn and his company descended into the cleft, their weapons sheathed while holding their helmets in their hands. “I’m Bjorn Torvald, and these are my apprentices, Hildegarde, Sven, and Eyvelf.”
Luna measured them with a calm stare. Their armor was a mixture of steel and boiled leather. The rest of their clothing was mostly made of furs. They carried swords, bows, and round shields on their backs. Their hair was shaved on the sides of their heads with runic tattoos covering the bare areas.
“We didn’t lie about who we are,” Willem said.
Bjorn kept a calm expression, though beads of sweat rolled down his brow. “May I offer a mug of mead for an apology?”
A mug of mead for shooting me? Fair enough. Luna straightened. Bjorn was tall, six feet five or six, by her estimate. But that made her half a foot taller than him.
He gulped, paling by a shade.
Luna smiled. This never got old. She motioned him to lead, and he did.
They followed Bjorn deeper into the mountains. They passed the cleft, walked through a narrow passage by a tall peak and headed toward an opening in the mountain. On the ground, Luna noticed marks of many footsteps. Almost all were smaller, lighter. Bjorn had to have a lot more students.
She glanced at Willem, and when he was looking, she blinked three times. He tensed and straightened. The blinking was the signal for caution. If Bjorn was leading them into a trap, this would end up being an absolute massacre. Order’s scouting units usually had five to ten people. Luna and Willem were sent out as a couple because they needed no extra hands.
Ahead, an opening into the mountain presented itself. A dim fireplace lay by its side, and the sound of scraping stones echoed through the air. Bjorn led them toward the fire, where he sat down on a log.
Luna and Willem also took their seats, but couldn’t help but glance into the cavern. Inside, dozens of youngsters dressed in armor were working with wood and stone. Luna didn’t catch what exactly they were doing.
Eyvelf fed the flames with wood and Sven brought a barrel of mead, from which he squeezed out half a mug for Luna and Willem before tossing it aside.
Bjorn took the word. “Once again, I apologize for the earlier incident.”
Luna sipped the mead, enjoying the heat in her throat. “Apology accepted. But what are you doing here? We’ve been scouring the mountains for days and met no one other than deserters from the demon princes’ armies.”
“We lived in a village not far from here,” Bjorn said.
“Lived?” Willem asked.
Bjorn’s face slackened, and his tone dropped. “About two months ago, bird demons appeared in the mountains. They ignored us at first but then started hunting us for the sport after a few weeks. We defended our homes. Yet they were too many, and so we’ve been hiding ever since.”
Luna offered him a smile, motioning over her back toward the valley of Snowhaven. “I know it will sound like I’m bragging, but we killed those demons a week ago.”
Bjorn did not cheer up, scratching the back of his neck. “While we are indeed grateful for that, it doesn’t solve our problem.”
Luna chuckled. “Can’t be worse than the demons.”
Willem cleared his throat while piercing her with a glare. “What my colleague meant was that we would be happy to provide whatever assistance you need, within limits of reason.”
Luna pursed her lips, and her insides froze. To chuckle at people clearly in trouble wasn’t her brightest move. She stared into the cup of mead and wished there was more of it.
Bjorn nodded. “Yes, there is something. I have little to offer in exchange though.”
“You can’t trust them so easily!” Hilde snapped.
“So you would have me do nothing?” Bjorn thundered.
Hilde shut up and aimed her eyes toward the ground.
Bjorn turned back to Willem. “Sorry.”
“Why don’t you show us the problem?” Willem asked.
Bjorn rose and motioned them to follow him. Luna and Willem downed the mead and did. Bjorn led them into the cavern. Inside, over two dozen people were split between guarding the entrance and working with wood and stone. Luna kept her eyes down, ignoring the awkward stares and Bjorn led them further. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the people were mostly boys, barely adult. They all wore weapons and armor similar to Bjorn’s.
From the main hall, only one corridor led deeper into the mountain. A scowl took over Luna’s face. Outside were no supplies present aside from the one barrel of mead they finished. And here, she saw no barrels or crates either, but a lot of hungry mouths.
Bjorn led them into the tunnel. Piles of dirt and stone besieged the walls of the tunnels. The wooden pillars supporting the ceiling turned from ancient to new and provisory. She wasn’t sure how to interpret it, but Willem’s darkening expression told her it wasn’t good.
The pathway narrowed to the width of one person. The walls turned from the natural cavern into freshly fallen stones and rubble. They clearly walked through a recent collapse, where Bjorn and his students dug a path. They were stopped by the new wall of rocks, where in a wider pocket, four boys were trying to pry rocks from the blockade.
Bjorn stopped where the collapse blocked the path. “To hide from the demons, we retreated into these caves. Since most of our warriors had fallen on our way here, it was me and my students who went out to hunt. The rest of our village, about three hundred mostly women and children, are down behind this collapsed corridor. We have been trying to dig through for a week, but we have yet to reach our families. And we are running out of supplies.”
Luna stood frozen in place while her heart nearly stopped beating. She was likely a large part of the reason the tunnel collapsed. During the battle of Snowhaven, one demon princess escaped by collapsing behind herself a similar cavern, using an aether bomb. She obtained that bomb because of Luna.
Yes, it could had been a coincidence, but she doubted it. When bad things happened in Luna’s vicinity, they were usually her fault, directly or not.
Her eyes darted to Willem, hoping he was about to say how they would save those people. She had no idea what to do. The grim expression on his sweat-covered face did not bring her hope. It took a bit of staring to make him speak.
“We will look at it,” Willem said.
Bjorn motioned the boys to stop working on the blockade and make space.
Luna stared at the rocks. If she had an indestructible pickaxe and a month of time, she was sure she could had dug through that. She had neither. Bjorn’s people would have been using pickaxes if they had any and Luna was to leave to rejoin the navy in two days. Her time to go back was the next day’s noon. She pretended to examine the stones as if investigating, hoping she didn’t look utterly ridiculous. Next to her, Willem kept running his fingers by the blockade, tracing one arcane symbol after another.
After one of the longest half hours of Luna’s life, Willem leaned to her, whispering so Bjorn couldn’t hear them. “I’ve searched it with my aether. This collapse is two hundred feet long. I can’t do anything about this.”
Luna gulped, her mouth and throat dry. “Are the people inside still alive?”
To her terror, he nodded. “The place was designed as a last refuge, a hiding place, so it has air shafts, and they must have had some supplies. I can detect about two hundred twenty living people though. By the size of the place, this wasn’t designed for more than fifty people, so if they had supplies for fifty people for a week, well… they were out yesterday. Bjorn said they were three hundred, so eighty have died already, most likely from dehydration, and the rest has no more than a day or two before they meet the same fate. Do you see a way to clear this?”
If she used all her aether and every bit of her strength, she probably could clear thirty to fifty feet of the blockade. But then she would be backlashing from the overuse of aether, being useless, for the next two days. And two hundred feet were a lot more than fifty. “The air shafts, could they be used to get in water?” she asked.
“No… They were made by magic, angled so they start upward before reaching down so rain cannot fall into them. We don’t have any way to pump water upward.”
She pursed her lips into a thin line and shook her head.
He nodded grimly, keeping his voice low. He still stuttered. “I’ve got an idea, but it’s so bad I’m not sure I should even say it.”
Luna measured the young mage. The two of them had been in the army for less than a year, but they already went through putting two towns to torch, dozens of skirmishes and one massive battle against the army of the demon princes. Whatever humanity they both once possessed was beaten down and hiding in the deepest corners of their souls, desperately trying to survive this campaign. So Willem was not supposed to stutter. “You are the smartest person around, so give it a try,” she said.
Willem’s eyes darted around, apparently to verify nobody stood in hearing range. “Technically, the people beyond the blockade are as good as dead and shouldn’t be our concern. With that in mind, the only one we can help are Bjorn and his students.”
Luna stared at him, petrified. She wished he wasn’t right. “I don’t think they will like our help.”
“No, they won’t.” Willem sighed. “But they have little choice. Bjorn may not had said it out loud, but they have no supplies left. The mountains are littered with renegade demons, and the lands below are already starving and full of refugees. All he has is himself, a fighter, and his students, also fighters. I don’t think anyone from them knows how to hunt, much less how to care for crops.”
That fit Luna’s assessment. If left alone, they had no hope to survive. And even if they did, they would have to move away from here and stop wasting strength on an impossible dig. “Well, our company is down seventy men, so we could use recruits,” she said.
“We don’t have the authority to even propose that. Imagine we bring them, and the lieutenant says no. I mean, we would bring thirty hungry mouths instead of the food supplies we’ve been searching for.”
She did not like the image but saw no alternative. “Let’s assume he says yes. And, even if it ends up being a no, Bjorn and his apprentices have no hope without leaving this place.”
“In that case…” His voice faded, and his face paled. “I can collapse the cleared part of the tunnel, so it appears as if it happened naturally. With a bit of aiming, it might block their air shafts and grant the trapped people a decent death.”
Suffocation was indeed better than dehydration. Faster, cleaner, and didn’t include cannibalism. She still didn’t like it. But what were they supposed to do? They could walk away, sure, but that meant the people down in the cavern would die anyway and, subsequently, Bjorn and his apprentices would fall to starvation or demons.
But she didn’t want Willem to be doing this. He was a good man, a red-diploma graduate for the Mage College of Xona. Among the two of them, she was the beast, the human-killing monster. Luna put her hand on his shoulder. “You are not that type of man. Just tell me where to collapse this tunnel to block the air shaft, and go distract Bjorn.”
“You can’t keep taking things like this upon yourself,” he whispered.
“Someone has to.”
He stared at her for a bit, then exhaled and told her what to do. Afterward, he went to Bjorn and convinced him he had found a possible air pocket in the side of the mountain. In a smooth tale, he told him that there might be a way to dig through that toward the bottom cavern.
Luna felt sorry for Bjorn, for the happiness that shone in his eyes. They gave him false hope hidden behind a lie. Excited, he took all his apprentices with him, leaving Luna unsupervised.
The beast within her stirred. Volk, the ancient wolf spirit that was connected to her very soul and shared her body spoke into her mind, ‘Would you stop doing things like this?’
And what would you have me do? Luna thought, knowing the beast would hear everything that passed through her mind.
‘Something that won’t give you nightmares and depression. You used to have ideals and wanted to become a hero. What happened to that?’
I’ve grown old enough to learn it’s impossible to help everyone. Luna banished the beast from her mind. She may had not been able to help everyone, but she had a way to help Bjorn and his students. She walked to the barricade, strengthened her body with aether and prolonged her fingertips into ten-inch claws.
With emptiness devouring her insides, she started with the furthest supporting pillars, carving holes into them to destabilize them. She proceeded through the tunnel, weakening every pillar and supporting construction there was. It shouldn’t had been this easy. Killing should had needed more than to turn off one’s mind and do what needed to be done.
Once she finished, Luna went outside to rejoin Willem, Bjorn and everyone else. They were digging into the side of the mountain with whatever leftover tools they had.
She helped them, knowing there was no air pocket, no secret corridor, and no hope. By the time the sun turned red, they had hit a wall of solid stone they had no way to break through. Defeated, they returned to the cave.
Bjorn’s people shared with them the last rations they had, making for a tiny, but pleasant meal. When the moon peeked over the horizon, the entire cavern trembled as dust blew in from the tunnel. The ceiling collapsed. The hundred feet of blockade Bjorn and his apprentices cleared were gone.
Luna steeled herself to ignore as much of the crying, wailing, lamenting and cursing the gods as she could.
The students ran to the tunnel, shouting for their sisters and mothers. Bjorn tried to stop them not to risk a further collapse claiming any more souls.
Luna watched, tears sliding down her face. She knew how it felt to lose people she cared about. She did, all too recently. It took hours before the panic vanished, replaced by resignation and despair.
Willem did his best to stay next to her, to make her feel better. It didn’t help. She only hoped the new blockade would stop air, allowing the people trapped inside the caverns the quick death of suffocation. That would take hours, not days as dehydration would.
When the moon was high in the sky, she and Willem walked to Bjorn. After a bit of resistance, the man went with them to a side.
Willem straightened his back, offering the grieving warrior a sad smile. “We are sorry for your loss. I apologize for being so direct, but do you have any way to survive in the mountains with your apprentices?”
He wavered but kept his voice steady. “With our supplies gone, our village destroyed, and the mountains hunted out, all we can do is to hunt renegade demons for food. I admit it probably won’t work for long though since we have neither any hunters nor farmers among us.”
“Have you ever considered joining the Order’s army?”
Bjorn stared at him for a moment, eyes wide.
Luna cleared her throat to draw attention. “I will be honest. Our company, the 47th, started this campaign with a hundred men. We are down to thirty, and the war isn’t over. If you join, you won’t all survive this, but you will get the chance to help with the killing of the demons who were behind the destruction of your village. This entire war was caused by Storm Pirates, and it won’t end until they all die. If you make it to the end, you will end up far away from here with enough gold to start a new life.”
Bjorn turned his gaze toward the ground. “I will need to talk this through with the others.”
Luna watched him leave, his shoulders slumped. He had a horrible decision ahead of him. She glanced at Willem. “I will go catch some sleep.” Luna spun and strolled by the side of the mountain. Bjorn was out of options, so he was bound to accept.
Once Luna found a shielded spot, she sagged by a rock. She pulled out a strip of leather, rolled it and gagged herself. She knew she would have nightmares and figured the last thing the others needed was to hear her scream from sleep while she flailed around. With two strings of rope, she tied her legs together and then her arms. Tonight, she did not fear the nightmares. She earned them.
You can find the book on Amazon – Goddess of Lies.