The goddess’s pained cries screeched out of the tent and up to the heavens, as they did every night. The wounds of a war the holy priest Volgrum had never witnessed still plagued her. But he knew every story there was to know about her. Many Queens and Pharaohs had thrived and lived long lives at her blessing. History said those who dedicated themselves to her in this life were given the positions they rightfully deserved and granted eternal bliss once the physical existence came to an end.
So when he had come upon her the first time, trapped at the bottom of a crater emanating fitful moans, he knew he had to help her.
And every night for a century, he had stood by her grand bedside as she wailed through the shadows and darkness. Volgrum, as her utmost priest, saw it as his sacred duty to bear witness to the pain that must be borne by her. He had spent most of his life trying to correct the cosmic injustice. He had led her holy army from one heathen shore to another, marching boots along unsanctified roads and flying griffins above cities full of unsaved filth. Salvation for his goddess needed to be found, and she had been doing her best to help guide him to it.
“Freedom is in the east!” she had cried. At that direction, he took the army to the grand halls of a golden metropolis, but nothing to heal her could be found there.
“My heart is buried in ashes.” With that, he led her forces to the great volcanic islands where all the rivers were clogged with ash and flowers floating in magma fed the villages. Nothing to help her could be found.
“The heathens! They hide it! They ruin it!”
She had made that proclamation many times, and he had rained war on many cities of heretical character. None of the screaming, broken masses yielded what he sought. They wailed at him that no healing for his goddess would be found within their walls, but who could believe a heathen? No, by magic and blade he had gutted each place until satisfied.
By the goddess’s blessing, some of the fools found faith and turned to her miraculous visage. But such treasures were only fruits and not the tree. The tree would find his goddess free of the misery inflicted upon her by her kin.
“Damn the Twelve Heavens!”
Volgrum looked down on his goddess, full of sadness. He would have thought himself dull to the pain by now, but her cries always broke his heart. He rested a slender hand against her forehead and wiped the sweat away from her forehead. She was a vision of beauty, unblemished dark skin and her afro a statement of utmost divinity. The enchanted sapphire necklaces draping her kept most of the pain at bay, but little could be done to stave off a crack in someone’s very essence. A crack caused by a vile, ungrateful lover.
Cold candles bursting with blue flames kept the tent at a near polar temperature, just as she desired. In her more lucid moments, she told him that the Twelve Heavens were brutal in their icy touch but all the more beautiful for it. She said a sweet, lavender miasma clung close to the floor of her celestial halls and he could never smell its fragrance because such potency killed mortals. He so often wanted to tell her he would revel in such an end. But he was her priest, and she relied on him to be her salvation. Selfish desires would do her no good.
“Burn them all!” The command had not come in a lucid moment. But he recognized the passion and necessity all the same.
He moved to the entrance of the tent and peeled back its flap to look upon the city shining in the night only a few miles from them.
“We will my goddess. We most certainly will.”
Volgrum bit back his disgust the next morning as he viewed the city of Aigall in the daylight. He swore he could smell the heresy wafting on the air from it. Thick green clouds rose from the smokestacks of rumbling factories working Mantis steel. The altered sky marked their preparation for his arrival. They knew righteous wrath lurked in wait of the right moment.
Three days Volgrum had made the army wait, and he had started to wonder why no envoy had yet come to parlay with him. Aigall prided itself on stuffy procedure and their manners in regards to war. Volgrum found the idea of manners when performing violence a laughably absurd concept. War was war. Right was right.
And the people of Aigall had made a gravely flawed decision in choosing to worship a vile god. The same god that had ruined his divine master. That alone made the city worthy of being burnt to the ground. But he kept his anger in check for one reason and one reason alone.
This place was where the tree was planted and an elixir concocted from its small offering of sap. Here he would find his goddess’s salvation. The sap would be in the care of a mage, as Volgrum doubted any other could manipulate its power. But why did it have to be Aigall where this exceptional power resided? The city’s vile and vulgar practices spit in the face of the goddess. They allowed the Mantis Folk to live amongst them, and not because of their prowess in battle but simply because they chose to regard them as equals. The thought chilled Volgrum. Those green, bug-eyed monsters were meant to be servants and nothing more. They were put on this world as a punishment, and to see them as anything more was an appalling affront to decency. He imagined them drinking alongside normal people, raising glasses in cheer, laughing and loving with their betters. Putrid.
Then they hung wards of white stone called The Alabaster Denial above their doors, casting aside all truth about the rock’s true nature. The white stone was birthed from the bile of his goddess’s foolish lover, Sygallus, who had thought to leave her. And after she gutted him in proper brutal fashion, the fool languished pitifully in the bile, the actual remnants of his life force. But the damage had been done, and his twisted magic broke her. For they had agreed to be eternally bound, their individual totalities made one. So when he died, he did not go without leaving her gravely wounded.
These people dishonored the goddess by calling upon Sygallus’s essence to protect them. Volgrum’s heart raced at the idea of his holy army having to pass these homes and stare upon such sacrilege.
But worst of all, a horror beyond horrors, they allowed their children to choose the god or goddess they wished to worship. If not for the precious treasure within that city, that offense would have been more than enough cause to ruin it with acid and fire. What kind of reckless, irreverent people would sanction such chaos? Volgrum clutched at the small sapphire gem hanging at the end of a long silver necklace gifted him by the goddess. He cherished it for its ability to soothe him. He would need to hold it many more times to be able to wade amongst these heretics.
He hoped that the citizens of Aigall could see him atop this hill, the highest outside their borders. A strong wind blew the hill’s tall grass towards the city, and Volgrum wanted them to believe it was an omen of the doom he would bring.
“Volgrum, Voice of the Goddess.”
He pushed away his thoughts of revulsion and waved forward General Bok, a believer of fervent dedication to match his own. “General. I had hoped you would find me on this beautiful morning.”
“And may the goddess always make it so,” Bok said. She was short and her skin a pale purple. Pimples dotted her face, some hard and others looking ready to burst with pus. Her lips had all but vanished. Repulsive in appearance, much like himself. It came from the Kiss of the Goddess. Beauty detracted from worship. You could not look upon the face of divinity and keep foolish physical concerns. He was glad for the alterations brought upon him by their goddess, and he knew she was too. They both shared eyes that were too big and teeth that had become black and sharpened. But Volgrum’s skin was a ghastly gray and fingers unnaturally long, each nail thick and yellow.
Silver-feathered birds cawed at them from the surrounding trees in what Volgrum took as a sign of approval. They hugged under the early morning sun, each happy to see the torn, ugly visage of the other. Volgrum at first had found it hard to accept the General. He relished being the only blessed child of the goddess, and having to share the light with another bothered him at first. It made him feel less, but the goddess, in a moment of lucidity, had chided him for it. “My holy children should know no jealousy. Your vanity is robbed for the greater glory of my purpose. Leave behind your selfish mortal concerns and love only me.”
The words resonated now, and Volgrum endeavored to accept the general. And now, a true, genuine friendship existed between them. Friendship, when rooted in unyielding respect, could birth a thousand acts of courage and as many much-needed whispers of truth. General Bok had steadied him across many a conquest and showed him the way of caution when his dedication to the goddess sometimes stoked him to unbridled, righteous passion.
The general clucked her teeth. “Who would have ever thought Aigall would be where we would find the answer? You’re sure the elixir is there?”
Volgrum didn’t dignify the question with an answer. She knew his power. “You sound as if you have history with this heathen city.”
“Before I knew the kiss of the goddess, I dwelt in that city. It is as horrible as you think. Full of defilers and practitioners of magic obscene to the goddess. Their leader is the Alabaster Defender, a mage dedicated to the vile lover.”
She moved her lips to one side of her face, stringy hair being blown into them by the wind. Her hands rested atop her sword planted into the ground.
“It will not be easily taken, priest. Though they have no great walls, they have a fanatical population determined to cling to their heresies. We will lose many believers in the battle to come.”
Volgrum nodded, having already made his mind up in regard to such matters. “All believers should be rejoicing in giving their life to the goddess. We already have. Let them follow our example.”
“As you say Volgrum, but you know as I do how violence can shatter conviction.”
He agreed. The conviction of the flesh weakened when that flesh was hacked away. Conducting a thousand interrogations of his own taught him that. Belief came easily in times of comfort. Contemplation and reflection were petty offerings to the goddess when weighed against the truth of how her glory needed to spread. People did not know what they needed until you forced them to see it. And sometimes they were particularly stubborn in the process.
“Promise me one thing, General Bok.” Volgrum grimaced and clasped his hands to give the appearance of prayer. “Any of our faithful who turn and run will suffer at your hands. This is too important for us to lose here. Our goddess can secure salvation and return to her true glory.”
“I promise. But I’ll leave them alive long enough for the goddess, once returned to stature, to decide their true fate.”
“Fate will have no say in it. Only we will.”
On their seventh night outside of the city, the goddess wailed louder than ever. Seven was her divine number, and it served as a call to battle. Volgrum floated over the heads of the believers as they raced towards Aigall, a city with a thousand torches now lit and all moving towards him like a wave of fire. General Bok said the night would bring them the swiftest victory. The word of the goddess claimed that a heretic loved the night and feared the day because the night gave all their dark wickedness refuge. But blades and spells won wars, not scripture. So he had allowed the general to release the believers.
Besides, Volgrum had only one goal he needed to focus on. All his intent and will needed to be poured into finding the mage soldier that possessed the elixir. That heretic must have been a formidable warrior to be able to wield something capable of healing a goddess. A rush of fury went through him at the audacity of this defiler, to think themselves worthy to carry what had been born from the divine. If Aigall deserved to die for nothing else, it would be for housing such an arrogant, foolish creature.
Volgrum knew he could see the approaching army better than any of the other faithful. He was, after all, blessed by the kiss of the goddess. He spied the Mantis Folk moving amongst the approaching army and clasped at his necklace. They were graceful monstrosities, leaping and dodging through the torches like crickets through weeds. Their abominable race’s natural inclination to fighting would prove the most difficult challenge for General Bok and the believers.
Unlike most of the hesitant officers, General Bok stood at the front of the army of believers and charged first into the force Aigall presented. Screams rose at the first clank of weapons and frightened all the birds away from the surrounding trees. Nature had enough sense to recoil and surrender when war began. Volgrum listened through the clashes of steel and flesh, trying to focus his way past that cacophony and find the one noise he needed to pinpoint. Weeks had been spent trying to learn the sound, so small and precise. He doubted that even the mage carrying the elixir could hear it. But the goddess had showed him, and night after night he had prepared for this moment. He would not fail her now.
A Mantis Folk leapt out at him from the torches and swords. Their face protruded, long and unpleasing. Large green chitin blades erupted from atop their forearms. The abomination dived towards Volgrum. He waved a hand through the air, and the Mantis Folk collided with a blistering blue shield. They screamed as azure flames consumed their body. Volgrum felt the tiniest bit of satisfaction from the deed, but it had ruined his concentration.
And it seemed the heathen gods did not want him to restore it as another contingent of Aigall soldiers pointed their arrows up at Volgrum and let the shafts loose. They bounced off of his crackling shield as easily as the Mantis Folk had. He didn’t want to keep up a defense indefinitely. He needed the elixir. If it was hiding somewhere in the chaos of war below, then it was in danger of destruction. He would not allow that.
The goddess screamed, back in her tent, and it shook the ground beneath the warring soldiers.
Her pain nearly moved Volgrum to tears, but unnecessary emotion wouldn’t help her. Her cure moved somewhere amidst the blood and filth below.
He was working to hear again the sweet noise of divine salvation when the next wave of soldiers swarming out of Aigall wrecked his concentration again. Instead of soldiers with swords and chitin skin, these were mages, lobbing balls of ice, rock, and fire at General Bok and the believers. Volgrum wasn’t sure how he didn’t realize it before. Perhaps it had been the fury of battle, but there had been no mages present on the field. That explained why he hadn’t heard anything. The source wasn’t near him. But this arrival of mages would not make his concentration flow any easier.
He clasped his hands together, and vines burst out of the ground across the battlefield. They moved fast as a rushing river and wrapped around the enemies of his goddess. Black and taut, the vines crushed warriors’ throats and wrists with ease, adding more to the screams. But it forced the mages to move closer to the battle in order to save their comrades. The blades of Mantis Folk could only cut down so many of his believers. Volgrum watched the violence with disinterest, concentrating solely on what he needed to hear.
But without trying, he heard it. The sound of the elixir chimed in his ear, low and humming. He sharpened his eyes with the fury of a falcon hunting and spotted the mage at the front of his people, engaged in combat with General Bok.
It was the Alabaster Defender, his title made obvious by his stark white hair and long, pale leather jacket. Rings of white stone shimmered around his thumbs. Had General Bok seen what hung from the mage’s neck? Or was she too furious at his heresy to realize it? The jewel-shaped vial held everything precious, and with every rattle of it at the mage’s neck, Volgrum feared all hope for his goddess might be lost. A single blow from a stray arrow or General Bok’s sword could be the end of all their plans.
The goddess cried out again.
Volgrum made his decision and clasped his hands together again, forcing a vine wide as a tree trunk to erupt between the general and the Alabaster Defender. In the resulting commotion, Volgrum flew downward with a hand outstretched towards the necklace. The heretic mages were too busy trying to burn away the vine to even notice him coming. Salvation was nearly his. The goddess would be forever grateful to him and bless him more for it. Her love for him would be sung about across all of creation. Just a few more inches and...
The Alabaster Defender looked up at Volgrum with violent, heathen eyes and erected a wall of fire that forced him back. He practically hissed at the mage for his defiance. “Heretic!”
Anger roiled through Volgrum as he called upon the other powers granted to him by the goddess. A dark miasma came out of small mouths in his palms and blanketed the Aigall army, but the Alabaster Defender remained untouched. The soldiers gagged and choked as the miasma turned their organs to mush. Thousands collapsed dead with a single blow, but Volgrum felt the great fatigue of what he had done. Many believers would be spared, but the power had cost him.
He floated down to the ground not far from the bewildered mage. “Give it to me, or it will be your city I slaughter next.”
The Alabaster Defender looked confused for a moment and then snapped his fingers, orange light sparking at his fingertips. “I have nothing to give you and your monstrous goddess!”
Volgrum stepped back at the sound of such vicious words. He would feed this mage the tongues of his heretic comrades for such blasphemous tripe. “You would dare?!”
The Alabaster Defender didn’t know what he possessed. It didn’t seem possible, but his confusion looked genuine. Volgrum took a step towards him and stumbled. Had he used too much power dealing with the soldiers? He refused to fall, so close to glory.
A smile. The heretic smiled as magic ran across his black fingers. “Your goddess’s crimes ring out across the world. You’re the worst of her lackeys, you limp pustule. Insulting her is the least I can do.”
He charged at Volgrum and thrust his hands out, causing a reverberating wave of light to slam into Volgrum’s chest. It propelled him backwards into a group of believers now sweeping towards Aigall. They thought they were here to cleanse the city. The true purpose of this battle had been left to only Bok and Volgrum because they alone deserved to stand at the goddess’s side when she rose from her pain. But for now, the believers could serve.
“Him! Take the necklace from him! Now!” Volgrum roared, pointing at the Alabaster Defender, who offered them a wink and a flip of luscious hair. The sheer insult set him to rage, but he could feel his power ebbing. How could this be? Was it the proximity to one so insulting to the goddess?
The believers ran at the Alabaster Defender. He stepped back and spread his arms wide as a net of orange energy came from his fingertips. With a thrust, it flew forward and wrapped around the believers. It cut through their flesh like hot blades, and they were left in meaty chunks before they could even manage a scream.
Volgrum dug his fingers into the dirt and mustered his reserves. It would not end like this.
He took advantage of the believers’ noble sacrifice and caused a dozen vines to burst from the ground. They wrapped around the Alabaster Defender. And for every vine the heretics cut down, Volgrum made two more appear. He called upon his faith like never before, to create what could contain such an obvious power.
The vines consumed the Alabaster Defender until only his head and neck were left exposed. He gave Volgrum a hateful stare. Such looks belonged to heretics that did not know the blessings of the goddess. Volgrum delighted at how the world would change once she was set loose upon it. All the noble things that would come to pass.
He staggered to the mage and snatched the necklace from him. The effort nearly made him faint from exhaustion right then. But the elixir was finally his. When it touched his flesh, its soft song became a joyous chorus. It knew where it needed to be. Gently, he placed a long finger under the mage’s chin. “You should be thankful. Of all the heretics in this useless battle, you will be the only one remembered.”
And as if in perfect synchronicity, explosions began to rock the city of Aigall. Victory was at hand for the believers. Volgrum smiled and blew his miasma into the face of the Alabaster Defender. He walked away, clutching his prize as the now-worthless mage shared a cry of pain with the goddess.
“I am coming most holy. I am coming.”
General Bok somehow found him outside the tent of the goddess. Admittedly, he had wanted to savor this moment alone. It had been he who had found and taken the elixir. Why should he not have the sole privilege of bestowing it upon the goddess? He had discovered her in agony and knew not to pity but to worship. General Bok had come afterward and yet somehow stood beside him.
“Can’t believe we finally did it.” The General smiled, showing a mouth full of black teeth. “The goddess will be free and know no pain.”
Volgrum nodded, working hard to keep back his own elation. They were kissed by the goddess, and believers were beginning to gather around them outside her tent. It would be beneath him to display such exuberance. He stiffened his back to those who had followed him across a hundred battles and stepped into the tent. The General at least had the decency to come in behind him.
The goddess laid on the bed, buoyed by luxurious sheets that Volgrum had beheaded kings and governors to get. But the expensive fabric did little to stop the pain. It only hid the sweat of her agony. Her beautiful dark skin sheened with it, giving her an even more divine glow. Volgrum fell to his knees. He felt entirely unworthy in her presence. Nothing he had ever done in his life qualified him to deserve her blessing.
“My goddess, my ultimate truth, I come to you with healing.” Volgrum undid the lid holding in the elixir and tipped it towards her most holy lips. The green liquid touched grateful lips, and she licked up every last drop of it. Volgrum finally allowed himself to feel the jubilation he had been beating back. He could not remember a time ever feeling so full. The world made absolute sense.
“Foooo—” the goddess’s lips trembled. Her eyes seemed contemptuous. “Fooo...” She struggled as her fingers twitched. “Fool. Damned fool.”
Volgrum shook his head, bewildered by the words. “My goddess? Have I done something to disappoint you?”
She gripped her stomach and sat up in her bed. “Well, you’ve certainly never done anything to please me.”
The words rang in his ears, and the General’s mouth fell open. Poison. The elixir must have been poison. That was the only reason the goddess could be speaking to him in such a brusque manner. She knew how deep his dedication to her ran. She wouldn’t say such a thing on her own. But a small, growing part of Volgrum doubted that explanation. He looked to the General and saw the same look of growing horror in her eyes.
“You never listened,” the goddess said, placing her feet on the ground for the first time in years and burying her face in her hands. “And you had the audacity to call yourself my voice.”
“I don’t understand,” Volgrum mumbled.
The goddess dug her fingers into her hair and groaned. “Sickness and fever. I thought I was talking to my divine siblings.”
“But you guided us,” Volgrum said. You told me where to go to find your healing.” He thought of all the cities he had crushed for her. He had taken such pride in it...
“’Freedom in the east’ meant I wanted to return to my childhood home. ‘My heart in ashes’ was my disgust at what you’ve done.” Stars, fierce and painful, began to shine in her afro. “You are the only heathens that have ever ruined anything of mine. You mired the true purpose of my followers with your fanaticism.”
Volgrum gulped hard, unable to turn his eyes away from the stars in her afro. They were beautiful and cried out to be touched.
“I’ve been delirious for a century, and you actually thought my ramblings were some kind of gospel to follow?” She looked up at them with what could only be hate in her eyes. “You’ve made my name despised across the world.”
“No.” Volgrum barely spoke above a whisper. “You had lucid moments. I saw them.”
General Bok stepped forward. “We only ever did as you asked. As you wanted.”
“Hardly.” The goddess stood up. This should have been a moment when Volgrum fell to his knees, but his world felt too out of balance. “The two of you are idiots. Even if I was telling you what to do, who would listen to someone obviously delirious? How many nations did you let my fevered speeches ruin?”
She took a step closer to them. “And you think what I did to either of you a blessing? Look at you! This wasn’t a blessing. I was too sick to ever give that. I ruined your bodies, and you were too stupid to see it.”
Volgrum felt like he had stepped in shattered glass. His head started to spin, the power that he thought a blessing now weighing him down. Night after night he had tried to make sense of her blessing. He had long ago forsaken the need for physical aesthetic, but now all those insecurities came flooding back.
“Why would you do this to us?” he asked. “We have been nothing but faithful.”
The goddess shook her head. “Faithful to delirium. Nothing more.”
“Then kill us,” General Bok pleaded. Agony twisted her face. “We have lived our lives in dedication to you. I don’t know what our existence is without that. Show us mercy and end it.”
The goddess laughed, horrible and terrible in its condescension. Gathered believers outside must have heard the utter contempt. Volgrum could barely stand it. “There will be no death for either of you. Wander the world like the foul things you are, and pray someone strikes you down for the evil you’ve done.”
Volgrum would not accept that. “No! You will be what we thought you were. You said yourself, the world hates you because of us. You claiming delirium won’t fix it.”
The goddess paused. “My life does not depend on worship. It does not depend on love. Consider how long I have been alive. I have known every emotion, every sensation. Your threats are useless banter on the wind. I will live long after my name is forgotten. And I shall enjoy watching you two monsters writhe till the last of your days.”
He watched her walk out of the tent. Neither he nor the General could muster violence against her. Too much reverence remained in their hearts. They had been fools of a grand kind, he realized, desperate to cling to something beyond themselves. Neither spoke to each other for days, sitting in the tent in a stupor.
The believers they had assembled over many holy conquests waited, at first. They were patient and hopeful that Volgrum and Bok could provide them guidance about what to do next. He couldn’t bring himself to care about a single one of them. Everything they had fought for was ashes. His faith had been rewarded with blistering vitriol. One by one, the believers went their separate ways. Some dropped their weapons right where they stood, but others preached a new word. A violent word that declared Volgrum and Bok unfaithful and unwilling to do what needed to be done to bring the goddess back.
As they marched off to attend to their own foolish ends, Volgrum knew one thing with immense certainty.
She had ruined him. He had given her endless devotion and love. He had buried all else about himself to love her, and the only reward she had provided were words that tasted like carrion. What good was devotion if it could be so easily turned aside? Shouldn’t the goddess have seen his love, even if it had been delivered in a manner unpleasing?
Her words echoed in his mind. She was a goddess and knew all and saw all. Surely...
“It is a test of faith,” Volgrum finally said, still kneeling on the floor of the tent. “She wants us to serve her in her times of strength as much as we did in her time of weakness.”
The General smiled and wiped away crusted tears. “Of course, of course. What fools we were to have ever doubted her.”
They stood up, and Volgrum believed.