Sigrun always does right. But when it means ignoring a little girl's cry for help...?
|The cool, gentle wind brought violet-scented air over the soft grass of their forest campsite.
That, measured against the screams of distant people crying for her help—somewhere beyond her hearing—stopped her from enjoying the rest that duty demanded she take. She had to add to her own stores, for if she were to burn herself out, she would be ashen when the angels finally carried the innocent's distress over the rustling leaves. She groaned softly, and rolled onto her side, smiling at the sting of her wounded arm, a foolish penance for a well-earned indulgence.
A stranger stomped through the dew-soaked underbrush, wailing, sobbing and swatting the forest with his mace. He marched past the covered wagon right toward the place she slept.
Her spirit calmed. She brushed the hood of her cloak out of her eyes and rolled onto the bandaged elbow, injured by the last person she had rescued. The spike of his weapon sailed inches past her nose. "What's wrong?"
"Traveling I was, to the fair with my daughter, Lorelei. I met with wily brigands." The stranger covered his face as he forced out another sob. An eye-watering stench of onion rained down on her as he towered over him. "Only, no mere robbers were they."
Who talks like that? Actors? Not good ones. The stranger looked, not like an actor, but a bandit—some nasty kind of criminal. She ignored the eye-watering stench of onion that came from the stranger. "What do you mean?"
"They boasted of plans that would unravel the world, and before that, they would butcher my fair daughter in a —" The sobbing choked off his voice.
Helplessness washed over her. Her own Aunt and Uncle had been murdered before her eyes. She gritted her teeth and affixed her sword to her belt before rolling onto one knee. "I will not allow that. Tell me everything."
"I am to bring the 'Whisper of Victory' or Lorelei will be... will be...." The stranger howled and punched the tree. "What does that even mean?"
They had taken the poor girl to get at Sigrun. "This is my name. I am 'Sigrun.' It means...."
"Can thee help her, Victoria?" He put his fist to his mouth. "No, do not speak; they mean to kill you, surely. Lorelei's already dead, of that you can be sure."
Her heart went cold as she looked at him. Tell the truth. You probably invited them to your home. None of that mattered; the man had lost his child. Trying to reconcile his need with the soot on his soul, she stared.
"Trouble yourself not; I will avenge her."
"I will not lie. She may be dead, but until I know better, I will trade my life for hers."
The stranger danced on his toes. "Thee will? I can't pay thee much, but ..." He fumbled for the money hanging from his belt.
Sigrun waved him down, moving toward her horse. "Forget money. It's your daughter that counts."
Oliver, a plump young man in a long blue robe with matching trousers peeking below, walked up to the man and offered him a seat on their wagon. He pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Your gift would be welcome, of course. We just don't demand payment, so much."
Perrin snorted from within the shadows of the wagon. "Yes, we know, Oliver. Money is good and all. Keeps you fed, for one." He poked his pig-snouted face out where it could be seen.
"Urgan blackguard!" Erick jumped up and stepped back, his mask of fear ending in a flash of violent thrill.
Perrin bared his tusks in pride at the rude human and nodded. "Now stop wasting Sigrun's time, Oliver. Find out where these thorga—sorry, human—thugs live."
"Don't worry, my friend. You're more than far enough from him." Oliver shook his head and patted the urgan man on the shoulder. Oliver's silver ring clanged on Perrin's rusted shoulder guards. "Pigface Perrin's only dangerous when you sneak up on him. Just stay out of his arm swing."
"Strange company! The mercenary refuses money, and the pig works for good!" He hid his face in his hands. "But you have offered to help. I have no place to complain."
Perrin's steps shook the wagon. "Right, ya glass-helmeted thorga. Shut up and point us down the path."
Sigrun hooked the horse up to the wagon, and told Perrin, "Should be easy to follow his trail through the mud."
The man sniffed, frowned and nodded. "All the way I was sinking an inch or two. Never thought about being tracked?" He smiled at the trail, then covered his happiness with another frown.
Oliver offered the man a quill and parchment. "Did you see any identifying marks, strange symbols, or...."
He shook his head. "Sorry, Wizard. I'm a simple farmer. I know nothing of arcane marks."
"They know us, Oliver." Perrin oinked and rolled his eyes. "Not going to give up their secrets."
Oliver frowned and dug in the bag of snacks at his waist. "Sorry to interrupt, with you asking so many useful questions."
Disgusted with the stranger, Sigrun stepped in front of him. "Can you go home?" Sigrun lay her hand on the man's shoulder. She searched the pale gray pinpoints of his eyes for a few seconds, hoping to feel his plight.
He sneered at her.
She met nothing human in the stranger's gaze. As she wiped the grease of his soul off her hands, she found herself pretending that she was Lorelei's father, feeling for the helpless daughter what a father should. "Wait for us there. Lorelei will show us the way."
"And, if she is dead? I want to know."
Oliver chuckled and bit down a scrap of chicken meat. "Dead show the way that much faster."
The stranger calmly tilted his head at Oliver. "I don't understand."
Oliver threw his plate-blond hair back and smiled. "I am a wizard. You're not supposed to understand."
Perrin grabbed Oliver's elbow and pulled him away. "That pompous stuff? Don't play right."
Oliver shrugged with a grin. "No doubt, when I get older!"
Perrin snorted and shook his tusks. "No. Then either. You'll be the white-bearded elf steals the rich boys toys and gives them to the good ones. "
"What, San Nikklau?" Oliver laughed, climbing at the wagon's back gate. "I should think he's retired, if he ever lived."
Perrin nodded at that.
The man gestured with his mace. "But, mayhap I can help?"
"Very much help. By stay out of fight." Perrin picked Oliver up with one hand and set him on the wagon, before hopping on himself.
Oliver tossed the man a folded-up, bird-shaped piece of paper that flapped its wings toward the man and landed on his shoulder. "If we have anything worth telling, my good man, we shall find you."
At that, Sigrun shook the reigns, and they sped off.
Just over the hill, the path led to a ruined windmill. The last good blade swept slow across the sky, like a giant sword spun by an evil giant, cursing the heavens. The place stank of ale and foul incense. The trail led, not to the scene of an ambush, but here, to this stronghold of their enemy. Though no explanation for this presented itself, Sigrun and her friends got out of the wagon.
"Were I seeking to stage a gate to the planes of malevolence..." Oliver wiped the seat from his forehead, and pulled on his cone hat. "...this surely would be the place. I typically don't subscribe to such base observations, but—"
"Bury it, Oll." Perrin jumped down, swinging a pin-pointed hammer that weighed more than Oliver. "They lead us here to worse-than-kill us. Sigrun, my girl, do we truly want to wear the bells for the date?"
Inwardly, she cried for her friends, for soft hearted Olliver and noble Perrin. No matter the cost, someone had to answer the cry of the innocent. She would have told them to fall back, but she had to keep going. She could not face this world if she did not know that somebody at least tried. If she refused the call, if she fell back, she would never stop running. "Do you see any choice?" The place before her filled her with dread. This came from something darker than foolish cultists: inspired evil. Her friends' grim expressions agreed.
Oliver grimaced, and spoke sarcastically. "Suppose we just knock on the door, then." As Oliver tugged at his collar, he appeared to Sigrun as he had since they were twelve.
"Would be rude to do otherwise!" Sigrun smiled and cringed at the oily brown plank of a door. "Even evil deserves some respect."
The stench rolled over her. She hesitated, and offered a disgusted look to her friends. Oliver's wide open eyes showed fear, and Perrin danced about as if whipped to a frenzy. Though they felt its effects, the curse did not turn their stomach as it did hers.
Can't believe they don't smell that! She took a kerchief from a pocket and held it over her nose before knocking on the door, but it did not block out the corruption in the air. "How can you abide that odor?"
The others glared and shrugged. She proceeded to knock at the door, echoing through the sodden halls of the blasted tower. Perrin and Oliver shivered, and Sigrun's empty stomach squeezed. No voice or footsteps answered.
"Hello! Can you help me? I am trapped."
The voice came from above. A pretty little girl looked down through a barred window.
"Yes, Lorelei. That is why we have come. Are you well?"
"I am not. It—that disgusting thing wants to rip my soul from this body!"
Sigrun stared into her soul, to detect the thing that she most prized—that spark of innocence. The fog of evil blocked everything. Either that, she admitted, or the little girl had more evil in her than her father. The cruel thought made her growl at herself. "I have come to protect you, little girl."
"That is—" Lorelei sneered. "Very kind. You know, you shouldn't do that. It will—you will be made to regret it."
"I will be okay no matter what they do to my body." Sigrun shook her head. "Though it is noble to say so."
The little girl smirked down her nose at Sigrun. "Always, I have been a bit above my station, good lady knight. But, I fear I cannot reward you in the manner to which you are accustomed."
Oliver shivered as the little girl spoke. "I don't like her. Reminds me of Dust, she does." He turned and pulled a book from the wagon, started flipping pages.
Lorelei looked as evil as Dust on his worst day, to be sure, but Sigrun could not chance it. "I don't come for reward. You just have to hold on." Sigrun looked about for a way to break down the door.
"Oh, but I am such a naughty girl. It's like there's a demon inside me lately. I don't deserve your help."
"Move aside, huma." Perrin carried a hammer from the wagon, shaped like a giant black egg on a stick. He bragged, "This what Circe made Urga for."
Sigrun considered responding to the girl, but the crashing of the hammer shattered her thoughts. Perrin swung the three-foot-thick hammer as if it were empty eggshell, striking at the door again and again until it shattered.
The little girl above laughed. "Look at the pig! He's so funny."
Perrin smiled. The mirth complimented him, Sigrun knew—humans rarely found him funny—and the insult pleased his urgan pride.
Sigrun wretched, barely able to keep her stomach stable. "Well, let's go."
Each step of Sigrun's feet left sparks on the ground. Oliver shook like a leaf until he recited a spell. Perrin rushed about, moving faster the worse it got.
A huge shadow fell upon them. Sigrun doubled over and tried to vomit as a slug-bodied man-thing presented a huge symbol. In a second she turned and scrambled, on hands and knees, slipping and crawling away from the dungeon.
Whether minutes or hours passed before she awoke on the road, it could not be certain. A cloud of darkness enveloped the tower now. Sorcerer's graffiti, runes of fire and blood, littered the landscape. The taste of vomit sat upon Sigrun's tongue as she struggled for air and consciousness.
A familiar face looked down upon her, that of her personal angel from the pits of evil: Viviancarla, demon or devil as the case may be. She smiled with pity on her 'friend' and client. "Barbaric, I know. Not all the branches of the forces of darkness play by the rules." She offered her hand to Sigrun.
Sigrun disdained it and rose to her knees though her half-dead body shook with the effort. "I care nothing for your rules, Vivianca."
"Ooh, careful. Painfully close to my true name."
"So you say." Sigrun scouted the area with her eyes. "How did I get here?"
"Quite readily. You fled."
"I..." Her head swam, as she tried to imagine such a thing. Forget the oath of valor; she could never abandon a stranger, let alone her friends.
"Oh, don't worry about your precious honor. You fled, not in fright, but only disgust. In short, the soul of the place nearly exorcized you from your body."
Her emotional dizziness distracted her as she waved her arms, hoping to keep the cobblestones beneath her feet. She had no time to think how petty her argument was: "Places don't have souls."
"The proper word lie beyond your vocabulary, but the spiritual character of a place is palpable." Vivianca sneered. "Your trainers have been terribly, terribly remiss."
"I don't have trainers." She had sworn never to speak to Vivianca again. She covered her mouth, stumbled toward the tower. Both of her friends lie unconscious in the hallway, near the entrance. "How could I?"
"That place desecrated your body. Your soul would have nothing of it."
"Poppycock." Oliver's coach would tell her that she should forget everything Vivianca said. Of course, she should — but even wizards could not manage such a thing. Sigrun had to rely on her sense of moral direction and hope for the best.
"I am telling the truth. The demon of the tower will not be defeated, not without my help."
"And why would you help me?"
"First and foremost, because we deplore the chaos of the rampant souls." Vivianca sneered down at Sigrun, and brushed her golden hair away back to show her horns, blackened purple thorns. "Your crusades serve us in our Inquisition."
Vivianca's games galled Sigrun. The devil-woman wanted Sigrun to remember exactly who she spoke to, implying that she had a choice. Same old same old, and true enough. She needed help, not only for Lorelei, but also her friends. Sigrun never meant for anybody else to get hurt. "But the real reason you are helping me, I mean, offering?"
"It is my purpose: to convert you, as I propose."
A chill hit Sigrun's spine. This truth stood on its own, pure and simple. "Why would I allow—"
"If you cannot tolerate the taint of that place, you will not have any influence in it."
"I will not tolerate evil." Sigrun ran to the wagon. She rummaged through a few of Oliver's things and began to read from a scroll. "This will protect me from whatever black magic exists."
Vivianca laughed. "Don't you think I know your petty protections? I would not pull such a simple trick on you."
"You have tried, many times."
"We have progressed beyond that level in our relationship." She sneered, the cold fires of her own personal, devil pit reflected in her expression.
Sigrun fumbled a few times before saying the words correctly, but the spell had been written so that any person could call the magic down. A chill, protective shadow fell around her.
"Please, Sigrun! You don't understand: this is not some curse. It's desecration, an anti-sacrament. By going there, you actually call upon...." Vivianca sighed as Sigrun ignored her.
Moments later Sigrun emerged. Her skin, covered in hives, cracked and bled as she crawled from the tower. Dry heaves followed pained groans.
Vivianca smirked down at her. "Believe me now?"
"No." She returned to her wagon and brought out a shawl. Blessed by Corielle, it had holiness. She could feel it soothe the itch in her skin, the ache in her bones. Sigrun recited a prayer, asking for special protection, and returned to the scene of desecration. "I do not."
A few steps into the place and Sigrun floated into the air.
She looked down at her feet, shocked to see her body, twitching and breathless, three feet beneath her.
A friendly face, that of her Uncle Mack, looked down on her. "She's telling the truth, you know—this time. You shouldn't keep trying to go in that place."
"I have to. That little girl needs—"
"Some things are out of your control, Sigrun. Your duty is to do everything you can, and not one bit more."
"I cannot stop, even if there isn't anything I can do."
"There is nothing for you, none that you can save here. Save yourself."
"I'll be the judge of that, Uncle Mack."
"I know, and I'm sorry." Mack smiled, rested his hand on her shoulder. "Don't be so determined to follow in our footsteps."
Next thing, Sigrun found herself on the roadway, shaking to life.
"How did I get out here again? Did I flee while I was unconscious?"
"I acted above my authority--if you must know. Empowered a ghost to move a few things."
Sigrun shivered as her feet touched the ground, not understanding the difference between ghosts and rampants. "How nice."
"Your body was dead, twice over. It's really easy to possess the empty shell of a theal."
Whatever that means. She looked around. "I see you didn't rescue my friends."
"It means you're practically undead, child. No matter how holier-than-thou you get, that gives me significant leeway." Vivianca stuck her nose up close to Sigrun's face, almost close enough to scratch her with the purple point of her horn. "Still plenty of time for your friends. I want you to have some motivation, in case your vaunted 'devotion to innocents' falls short."
"Well, nice isn't the word for that." Sigrun brushed herself off. "At least you've told me the truth, though."
"And I continue to tell you the truth. For example, you would be better off letting this one go."
Sigrun took a deep breath. "That's what I don't understand. Mack said the same."
Sigrun's arm shook as she waited for Vivianca's response. "I don't like it when you agree."
"Well, I don't, precisely, agree. In the interest of trust, however, I do have to admit that from your point of view, you will regret this mission sorely. Unless, of course...." Viv shrugged and smirked.
"Unless I admit you are right, change sides and adopt your improved, efficient methods of demon control."
"Ah, no. Demons are not to be controlled; that is a different thing. It is the rampant which we reign in."
Sigrun rolled her eyes. "Evil spirits inflicting harm on humanity are all the same."
"No, actually..." Vivianca paused, for effect, and sneered again when Sigrun wasn't looking. "But this is an argument, a lecture for a more relaxed moment, not the life-changing negotiation we are about to do."
"So what do you propose?"
"Your soul has not acclimated to common ways." Vivianca thumbed through an invisible book. "It has no intention of clinging to a body so contaminated as you intend to do to yours. In short, your soul will not abide in that chamber of horrors, in its current state."
"So, it would rather return to heaven than stay in a polluted body? I am that different from my fellows?"
Vivianca smiled. "More than that, my dear."
"Tell me your plan, so I can better reject it."
"Only that you allow me to help you in that regard. I could lower your natural level of being, make you a peasant, a normal human."
Sigrun sighed. "Now I see it. You reduce me, destroy an enemy and open me to temptation."
"We would guide you in the greatest ways of goodness. Your soul will never be one of ours. Simply, you would not be quite so haughty, that's all."
"I thought you weren't going to lie to me."
"I am not, exactly, lying. Of course, much would depend upon you." She sneered and strutted. "That's the offer, take it or leave it."
"I'll leave it. I will save her on my own, or die trying."
"You would still be on your own. You would just have a chance of success. Don't forget your friends, either."
Sigrun grabbed the bridge of her nose. She would give anything to help her friends, no matter the cost. "Very well. How do you intend to do it?"
"I have to contaminate you. First, I would ask you to designate a victim, someone to be injured, with no deserving, at your behest."
"I will do no such thing."
"It is not that we will harm them! That would require their consent. Then, we will perform a corresponding strike on someone you designate. Only when you say the word."
"So, you're not going to hurt them unless I say so. Very well, if I need to use your destructive power, I designate myself as the victim."
"But you mustn't...." Vivianca sighed, and moved an invisible quill on her unseen book. "Very well. You passed that test, unfortunately for us. We'll leave the slot 'undesignated.'"
"This isn't moving very fast."
"You're not cooperating. Next, we fraternize." Vivianca offered her hand to shake.
Sigrun squirmed as she took it, almost jumped away, then reluctantly grasped the demon's sultry talons.
"Has the stench reduced?"
"It's grown worse," Sigrun said, running to wash her hands.
"Obviously, your intentions are too pure. How about, true fraternization? And, for..."
Sigrun looked up from the muddy waters and frowned. "You want to go to bed with me?"
"Nothing so base. A kiss would do nicely, if the passion were there."
"Sorry, I have no love for you."
"Ah, that is not true. But lust is what we need, and it is lust you lack. I can, however, access the faces of your dreams."
Sigrun squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip. "What?"
Sigrun looked back with horror to see the bright blue eyes of Dust looking down upon her, as in a statue. She grabbed her sword, and rushed toward him, before realizing that it was only a mask upon the face of Vivianca.
She pulled herself short, holding the sword to Dust's throat, trying not to admire the gleaming white flesh, the golden hair, and the world-quality armor. It always troubled her that a young man so violent had not one single scar. "Very clever, but do you really think I feel anything for Dust?"
"The man is the only one who could possibly be your equal. Battle lust and sexual lust are very well tied in you, my dear."
"And if I kiss this abomination, you think this will darken me enough to enter the altar room and free the child?"
"It will," Vivianca proclaimed, then cleared her throat. "Bring you one step closer, at least. You must enjoy it, however."
Sigrun took a deep breath, tracing his shoulder line. "It would not be such a bad thing. Just an indulgence."
"That's the ticket, my child. You must rationalize, first."
"Do you always have to be so obvious?"
"No, most people are much further along. I need to coax you, educate you in the basics." Vivianca shrugged. "It hurts, actually, to see a creature of nobility and duty—so much like myself—step down, as you are about to do."
"I am sure you weep to see me fall."
"It's not without satisfaction as well, just a weltschmerz sort of satisfaction."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's meant to distract you, truly." Vivianca dusted her hands and sighed brightly. "Just an incredibly complex way of saying juvenile, romantic regret."
"I'm getting tired of looking at this boy," Sigrun said. "If I have to kiss him, let's be done with it."
"That is no way to romance, Sigrun. Tell me, Sigrun! Tell me how you feel."
A fire burned in her chest as she thought of the thousands of innocent urgans burned in Dust's games. Men like Perrin, with fathers and children. Good men, however brutish. "You ignorant, deviant beast." She walked toward him.
Vivianca's sneer fit perfectly on this young boy emperor. She spoke with the young man's voice. "I knew exactly what I was doing, you simpleton, for their own good. They stank up the planet."
"That wasn't for you to decide! They were peaceful urgans."
Dust strode a step further, until their noses were almost brushing. "You know pure well! No waking urgan ever did peaceful. Even in their sleep, they menace themselves as much as us."
"I wish I could beat the living daylights out of you!"
He laughed, delight in his voice. "You should try, you ignorant simpleton!"
Then, she reached her nose to the left and kissed the boy, deep and sweet and passionate.
Dust quivered and moaned. "You know more about kissing than I thought." Vivianca drew back for a moment and reverted to her normal form. She blushed bruisy purple down to the golden toenails sticking out of her sandals.
Sigrun blew purplish black smoke out of her lungs, and coughed. "The stink still hangs in the air."
"Will nothing ever stick to you?"
"Are you losing hope?"
"I am fallen; hope is beyond me."
Sigrun's cheeks burned. "I think you enjoyed that more than I did."
"I only choose those who are attractive to me."
"Sounds like that will be your downfall."
"It was, in another life history." She looked wistful for a moment. "I have even tried to tempt that soul, that came from me, all to no avail."
"I'm sure that you were adamant, having risen."
"Yes, quite. Admirable, really, the way Vivianca sacrificed everything."
Sigrun snorted. "But this is getting you nowhere. Time is wasting. If I decide that the girl is lost, I will abandon this mission and your foolish scheme."
"There is but one more way. You could consume me. If I possess you, I will stand between you and the darkness, hold all other influences away from your body, and allow you to be free of the taint."
"What would I be? At your mercy, with you able to perform any evil in my name?"
"I would do your bidding in all things, no matter. My mind will be open to you, even perhaps, a bit of my knowledge."
"In a binding contract?"
"More sure than that, actually. My goal is to dampen your sensitivities, see that you adapt to this world the way you should have if Old Man Wolf and Father Highly had not intervened."
"What are you talking about?"
"I wish to set right an old wrong, to put you where you belong. This will do that, yet allow you still to be the goodly soldier of the Gods that you strive to be."
"I thought there was but one supreme being."
Vivianca smirked, violet thorns at her hairline swelling.
Sigrun's sigh finished in a groan. "How do I take you in?"
Vivianca put out her hands, and an apple grew between them. "An old symbol, not the way it really happened, but potent enough." She cringed, as she offered the fruit.
"I don't want you to bite into my flesh, to suck me down into your being."
Sigrun held the apple, aware that this was part of the woman before her. "This was your idea."
"That doesn't mean I relish it." Vivianca sniffed and sneered. "As much as I admire you, I do not want to become like you, any more than you want to be like me."
Read on! "Windmill part II"