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Ascent Chapter 3 – The Faithful

Updated: May 1

Two months seemed like an eternity to wait for Ariadna to recover, but none of the girls were surprised… they had all been through it themselves. The goddess’ magic had suffered along with her health, and weeks spent not eating, not sleeping, and being raped by hundreds had taken a toll of her. Amellisan knew that it would take her time to recover… she had been put through a nightmare, and she was going to need her strength for what was coming – not just a portion of it, but all of it. They were going to need to oppose the followers of Karn… and if she was going to go up against her brother and his servants again, she’d need to be at the peak of her health.

At the end of their panicked flight from Baruck, they had immediately changed direction at the end of the first night and rode straight north, heading for a small roadside inn just outside of Parna that Kaya and Jaymes had made arrangements with before… an owner that was good at forgetting about people, so long as he was paid. As soon as they got there, they began the process of disappearing as thoroughly as possible. People were going to be looking for them, but Amellisan knew that moving Ariadna during the first couple of weeks would be risky for her and slow her recovery – she was still weak from the savagery of the villagers of Baruck.

Amellisan had needed to argue with both Jaymes and Kaya to convince them to stay in one place for no longer… neither of the Guardians liked the idea one bit. It was a risky move for certain, but it was the way to help her recover as quickly as possible. In the end, the risk proved to work out in the favor – They pushed their stay in Parna to the last possible second. When the followers of Karn and their spies were beginning to practically overflow the city two weeks later, they made their plan to escape from under their noses.

By then the goddess, while still weak, was able to walk normally and assist in her own flight. They bought a covered wagon and, using what was just about the last of Amellisan’s funds, they purchased reams open reams of fabric and silk as trade goods, hiding their weapons and the goddess among them until they were safely out of the city undetected and on the open road. Amellisan felt no small amount of pride that she had been able to help… her wealth and her very life she owed to the goddess… it felt good to give back everything she could to protect her in turn.

While on the road, Amellisan took the duty on herself to care for Ariadna as best as she could. The poor woman had been through so much. Lost so much. Amellisan hadn’t suffered through a tenth of what the blond woman had, but even with all of this loss, the pain, the realization that she was mortal now… she couldn’t help but notice that there was still hope glowing in the woman’s eyes. The noblewoman could tell that the strength of her soul still burned brightly inside her, the strong spirit of an indomitable force for good.

That was the goddess who had always inspired her… Ariadna would do anything she could to protect the people of this world from Karn. Even as a child, back when Ariadna was still in the heaven above, Amellisan had never had difficulty feeling that genuine connection and care from her. That she cared about them. That she listened to her followers and wanted to provide for them. Now that she was mortal, her connection to them had only become stronger… she could see it in her gaze, in the tiny winces as she moved her sore body. She understood more of what they went through. The trials. The tribulations. The heartaches and the pains of having to exist in a cruel world.

It had made her better… and it made Amellisan burn inside. A great dishonor had been thrust upon Ariadna by having her here, trapped in the world of man. It had strengthened her, made her closer to those she cared about… but only at the cost of her innocence. Something that should have been preserved and cherished, in Amellisan’s opinion. This world wasn’t good enough for her.

Right then, Amellisan swore that she would change that. If Ariadna was to be cast down into this world, then she would make this world worthy of her. Nothing else was tolerable. Her family owed its very life to Ariadna’s salvation, and she owed her nothing less in return. Amellisan refused to let such a debt go unpaid. She would help the goddess in any way that she knew how.

During her recovery, Ariadna had plenty of opportunity to speak to them. After the first week, she had had related the whole plot that had lead to her fall from the heavens. Karn’s betrayal, the theft of the Scroll of Destiny, the shattering of Taelin’s law. That was when it had all started… the fall of the temple, Karn’s followers becoming increasingly violent and aggressive. The Scroll of Destiny was the key, Amellisan was sure. Taelin had written a new set of laws according to her goddess, but the original, stolen scroll must surely exist… and while Amellisan couldn’t imagine that a priestess of Ariadna had truly stolen it, she had certainly be framed when it went missing.

With that scroll recovered, the laws could once again be bent. If it were recovered, Amellisan hoped that they might be able to restore Ariadna to her birthright and reset the balance. Even if it could only be proved that it had been stolen by someone else, it might be enough for the goddess to use to regain her position. Seeking it out had been Amellisan’s idea, but it grew like a contagious disease throughout Ariadna’s recovery until even the goddess was excited about the idea. That was why over the course of their recovery they had wandered close to the city of Alistar.

Alistar was ancient, a city of sandy stone and blasted clay built into the sides of the the cliffs to shelter it from the pounding sun of the far west of the Empire. It was difficult to get farther away from Tabharos without leaving the former Empire entirely, but that was only a peripheral reason to recommend the city to them… the main reason was the city’s Great Library. It was one of the oldest cities in the world, and unlike most of the others it had escaped all of the destruction of the Empire’s collapse. From what Amellisan knew, it was probably the largest collection of scrolls and parchments of knowledge to ever exist in the realm, and almost certainly the largest that still remained intact. If anywhere had a record of where the Scroll of Destiny had come to rest after Taelin had forged the world, it would be here.

The only issue, of course, was that they could comb through scrolls and books and tablets for years and find nothing at all. The library was impossible vast and could swallow an army of scholars – much less the 6 of them – but what choice did they have?

The group managed to get into the city of Alistar with no problems since it was more of a peaceful town. There were followers of Karn present here, of course – especially in the wake of him becoming the solitary god of fate, he had worshippers everywhere – but they weren’t in great number or great power, and there was no priest. The city prided itself on maintaining the peace and resolved to keep unruly troublemakers from staying in the city for too long.

Thankfully, Nira proved to have a silver tongue. She actually managed to sell their goods at a profit, getting them back enough funds that Amellisan was easily able to become a patron of the library and gain access to it for a travelling noblewoman and her ‘attendants,’ and even gain the assistance of some researchers to aid their generous, wealthy patron. She wondered how they would feel if they knew that the donation she so casually made represented most of her remaining estate.

That had been weeks ago.

Eagerness had given way to determination had given way to sheer stubbornness as they looked from a crumb of a clue in the maze of written words. Amellisan and Ariadna busied themselves with pulling random scrolls and parchments, looking for anything related to religious history or ancient cities to search for a clue as to the scroll’s location. The first they had found a clue, they had been excited, sure the mystery would unlock soon. The thirtieth time they found one that got them no closer to a location, they felt significantly more numb to the discovery. So the scroll had been found by the first Emperor, that much was clear… but after that, record of what had been done with the artifact grew mysterious and cold. By now, their assistants had left. Even Kaya and Jaymes had no longer been able to assist… the longer they were here, the more nervous they got that the followers of Karn would discover them. Most of the time, they keep watch by the doors, ready to alert the others if there was trouble. The Weeping Siren, likewise, had taken to spending most of the night listening for rumors and trying to make sure they weren’t being exposed.

Rolling out a scroll on the research table, Amellisan glanced through the writing, but it felt like the scrawled symbols and letters were blurring together. She had to reread a sentence four times before she realized that she still had no idea what she had just read. The noblewoman shook her head to clear it and sighed. “There is just so much here…” she whispered. It is going to take ages to look through all of it.”

Ariadna smiled kindly, brushing her fingers back through her golden locks of hair. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure will find what we are looking for in due time.”

The incredible part was that she seemed to mean it. Amellisan’s own patience had been strained to the limit, and this had been her idea. Ariadna really did seem to have perfect faith in the idea, though… she believed it in, and in her. Her faith was… inspiring. It filled the dark haired woman with a fresh wave of determination, and she turned her attention back to the table. There were stacks upon stacks of scrolls and parchments lined up on the table… so many of them that it seemed like an impossible task. Amellisan tried not to think about that and instead focus on the many, many stacks they had already gone through and the hints they had already found. She sighed softly as she combed through the scrolls one by one, brushing an errant lock of hair out of her face. “It’s thanks to you that I’m here today at all,” she blurted out. She hadn’t meant to speak… it just came out. Once the words began, however, he found that she couldn’t stop them. “My family was cursed. I wasn’t supposed to even be born… but you protected my parents, and me.”

Ariadna shuffled the parchment she was looking at to the side and smiled across the table at Amellisan. “I remember,” she said wistfully. “I wouldn’t let anyone that truly needed my help come to harm. I only wish I were able to bring that kind of relief to more of my people. They are hurting… they need me.”

Amellisan nodded. She kept herself from blurting the question that she did not want to know the answer to just as badly as she did – how long did she have before the curse killed her, too? Living her life well was what mattered… no matter when it ended.

“That is why this is so important,” Ariadna continued. “I’m grateful you were here when I was saved. If it were not for you, it may have taken much longer for me to recover.”

Amellisan turned her head to see Nira leaned up against one of the large pillars in the library. The priestess was not alone though. Leila was right there with here. The redheaded woman looked exhausted from her nightly excursions, but she was still trying just as hard as the rest of them to seek the Scroll of Destiny. The assassin had her hand on the pillar near Nira’s head, leaning into it as she spoke. Amellisan could not make out what they were saying. She did see Nira turn her head away at one point and then look back to lock eyes with Leila. Whatever they were talking about, it made Nira smile. That was a good thing. The priestess had been so morose ever since Amellisan had met her… she needed someone to cheer her up.

She was looking for distractions again. With a sigh, she forced her gaze back down to the parchment.

Hours passed by with Amellisan and Ariadna pouring over scrolls and parchments. The sunlight from outside had faded, to be replaced with the flickering, weak light of the covered metal lanterns that were the only fire that the library would allow inside its walls. “This is starting to feel like an impossible task,” she whispered sadly. “For all we know, we’ve already found everything there is to find here. We could just be wasting our time here while Karn’s followers grow ever closer.”

Ariadna placed her hand over top of Amellisan’s hand. “Don’t worry. We don’t have a better idea of where to look. If we are not thorough here, we might miss it if there is something to be found… and if there is nothing, then at least we’ll know we exhausted the possibility.”

Exasperated with the task of reading through so many scrolls, Amellisan huffed. She pushed a group of scrolls to the side a little harder than she had intended, and despite her attempts to catch them, he rolled and tumbled off the table and down onto the floor. She rolled her eyes, standing up to start picking them up… and noticed something unusual. A small piece of parchment that had been folded up had fallen out of the group of scrolls. She picked it up and unfolded it.

She really was tired, and her eyes were blurry as she tried to read through it… but quickly, they brightened as she looked at the note scrawled onto the paper, an inventory of tithes paid to various churches in the Empire. Sitting down, she spread the parchment out to show Ariadna. “Look! Look! It’s what we were looking for!” She pointed to the parchment excitedly.

Ariadna blinked, grabbed the parchment and looked at it curiously. “The ruins outside of Lamire? Surely it wasn’t that simple. That is where the scroll had been placed?”

Amellisan nodded. “Think about it. The ruins have been relatively unexplored for centuries. No one goes in there because of the dangers that they may face. People don’t go there willingly as many die try to explore the ruins. Whoever hid it there must have done so because they knew how difficult it would be to obtain the scroll. They didn’t want it in the wrong hands. They hid it in the only place they knew it would be safe and hid this parchment here in case anyone needed to find it.” She smiled. “How lucky we found it…”

Ariadna gave a tiny smile. “Fortune hasn’t abandoned me entirely,” she whispered in approval. Then she nodded.

With the location of the scroll located, Amellisan turned to the group. “Pack up! We are headed to Lamire!”

The journey to the ruins of Lamire, ancient ruins that had fallen before the Raegis had even become the seat of the empire, was more two week’s travel. Unfortunately, it also meant moving closer to Karn’s sphere of influence… a long and unpleasant trip, but worth if it meant that Ariadna was restored to her place in the heavens. Kaya and Jaymes made the preparations for their departure from the ancient city had had hosted them through their long search.

Obtaining rations for their group was no monumental task, but it was time consuming. Kaya hated to be tied down in one place for so long… ever since her band of rebels had been captured, she had Jaymes had never slept in the same place for more than few days before they had rescued Arianda. The longer she was here, the more she felt like there were eyes on her… but the delay to purchase supplies was a necessary one. The risk was better than being stranded or without food, and they had no idea what awaited them in the ruins.

Kaya had to make sure to get cured meats and cheeses along with bread so they would have the strength to keep moving. Several skins of wined water had to be obtained for their group as they did not know if they would pass through another village before reaching Lamire. She needed everything. It had to be perfect.

She would not fail the goddess again.

During the Fall, Kaya had been just a squire to a true Guardian, learning the ways under his uncle. He had died fighting. Nearly all of them had died fighting… and the priestesses they had sworn to protect had been taken anyway. She should have died with them rather than allow a single one of them to slip into slavery. She knew that that was irrational… that she could do far more for them free now than she could dead pointlessly, but she felt it anyway. It was like she had betrayed a sacred trust laid down by her family generations ago. She would never fail again.

Kaya would be prepared for any eventuality. She got ropes and metal pikes with hammers to use in case they needed to scale any walls or caverns, bags to seal up food with the prevent water from reaching it, replacement parts for the wagon and feed for the horses. No matter how much she though about it, she always thought of another thing that could go wrong, another thing they needed to prepare for.

Jaymes was a reassurance to her most days but sometimes, like now as they prepared for their trip, they were apart. Those were the times that she dwellled on her lowest moments. Her rape, and the fall of her band, the recapture of the priestesses she had saved. The times they had gotten to a place too late to save the captive priestesses. The way her uncle’s temple had been overrun when she was still just a girl, during the fall. The way he had died fighting. The way he had knocked her out beforehand so she wouldn’t fight.

She hadn’t fought. She had laid out cold in a basement while just about everyone she had known fought and died or was enslaved.

As a Guardian of the Church of Ariadna, the carnage that lead to the capture and death of many priestesses was her responsibility. She was at fault for not doing a better job. She blamed herself heavily for her misgivings and inability to be prepared for every single night that had passed when she had failed, each one of them a stain on her soul that it seemed like everyone could see. She could not, would not, let the goddess down again.

With the purchased supplies in a sack, Kaya slung it over one shoulder before she took the bundle of rope that she had acquired and put it over her other shoulder. Kaya looked around the bustling city as she walked back to the inn where her other compatriots were waiting for her.

If they had been in any other city, there might not be such supplies available. If it wasn’t the trade season, they might not have been able to afford the things that were necessary. Was fortune smiling down upon them? Was the tide of evil that swept over the land about to change?

Kaya could only hope that was the case. She longed for the days of peace once more. She recalled how things used to be. Cities and villages were safer. Children were free to play in the street. Jaymes and she had talked about the possibility of children one day, but both of them knew that they had sworn an oath to the goddess. Even if Kaya wanted to leave all of this behind, she couldn’t. She couldn’t turn her back on the people or the goddess now that she knew she was alive and here. Maybe when things had settled down she would be able to start a family with the man she loved.

If she survived.

Kaya saw the inn in the distance, with Nira and Amellisan loading the wagon and preparing to leave. Jaymes and Leila were outside, preparing the horses for their departure. They had the horses hooked up to a wagon to pull it now… It looked less conspicuous if they could once again manage to pass themselves off as traders. If the need arose, they could unhook the horses quickly and flee quicker than the wagon could manage, but camouflage would serve them better than speed to begin.

Stopping at the back of the wagon, Kaya lifted the sack with the last of the supplies into the carriage, sliding the supplies in before dropping the rope off her arm and slinging it over the edge of the wagon. Kaya glanced over, catching the sight of Ariadna by the horses. The goddess fed apples to them one by one as she stroked the sides of their faces, whispering words too quiet for anyone to hear, and it made Kaya smile. Even in these trying times, Ariadna remained the kindest and most caring soul she could imagine. She had been through an unbelievable suffering that would break most, and yet she still had it in her to care about all things, from her worshipers to every animal of the land.

It was moments like this that Kaya felt sure that even among all the various gods and goddesses that watched over this world she had picked the one most worthy of worship and respect. Ariadna truly belonged back in the heavens. They day that she ascended would be the most glorious day of Kaya’s life… it would make the way the world was set back to right. People would feel safe again. The land would be whole once more… and Kaya would serve in any way she could to make it happen.

Kaya approached Jaymes where he stood by the horses. One of them was always with any group. If Kaya went into the market, Jaymes was with the goddess… no one was left unprotected. “Everyone good? Are we ready to go?”

Her husband gave an approving nod. “Yeah, we’re about done here. Let’s go.” He put his foot into the stirrup of his saddle, swinging his leg over to mount the horse. Jaymes and Kaya rode on horseback as an escort for the wagon. Nira and Leila were on the wagon, dressed as commoners that would pass as traders if they were questioned, with Amellisan riding in the back to keep them company. The only other person that rode separately on horseback was Ariadna. She had changed into duller brown color clothing to hide her from the prying eyes of others. Combined with the cloaked hood, no one would be able to tell who she was unless they both looked closely and knew who they were looking for. Slowly, the group began to roll out of Alistar toward the ruins of Lamire.

Being the only two women on horseback, Kaya should have expected that Ariadna would approach her individually at some point. She didn’t know what to say to her. What did you say to a goddess you had failed as utterly as she had failed Ariadna? I’m sorry? I’ll do better? It all seemed so utterly insufficient… Kaya had found it better to avoid speaking and just making herself as useful as she could be. Nevertheless, there was no escaping now… the guardian could do little but watch as the goddess maneuvered her horse closer to her and kept pace with them.

The sound of the horse’s hooves on the road way echoed with the loud clopping, offset by the chorus of the wagon wheels on uneven stone, so they needed to be close to speak. Even so, Ariadna grew closer still than Kaya expected… and then just rode in silence. Kaya felt herself growing tense… was she supposed to say something? What was the proper thing to say? She had prepared for everything but this… she felt like she would never be prepared for this. At last, she turned her head to look at her goddess “We have a long way to go… goddess. It is at least two week’s journey to get to Lamire. Longer if the roads or the weather turn bad.”

Ariadna shrugged her shoulders and gave a serene little smile. “No matter. Time is one thing that may be on our side. The search for us doubtless grows more diffuse with time. As long as my brother’s Inquisition is not treading on our cloaks with each step, I think we will be fine.”

“You may be right, um… ah.” Kaya swallowed awkwardly. “I’m sorry to say I’m at a loss. I’m not sure what the proper form of address for a goddess is, I never expected to speak with one.”

“I rather hoped we could not pick one,” Ariadna said, her smile slipping just a little. “Anyone who saves my life has more than earned the right to use my name. I’d prefer you called me by it.” Her smile broadened again. “And you’ve spoken with me many times, Kaya… every day since you were six.”

“That’s different,” she insisted quietly. “I didn’t have you answering me back. I wasn’t able to look into your face.” I didn’t have to remember how I failed you, she thought.

“Then this is only an improvement,” Ariadna said easily. “The length of our trip doesn’t concern me. My only worry is how my brother’s temple has devastated the countryside. They rape and pillage as they please. As times passes, things have only gotten worse. While we may have time to accomplish our goal, time is against the rest of my people. I worry for them.”

Kaya sighed as she listened to the wise words from her goddess, bowing her head and looking at her hands that held the reins. She inhaled deeply before she looked back at the Ariadna. “I feel that a lot of the suffering that your people have undergone has been part of my fault. They shouldn’t be suffering this much. We failed you… all of us that still live. The dead…” she hesitated a moment before continuing. “They have already given everything they could. I haven’t. I should have been better prepared to defend the temple. I should never have let it fall.”

The blonde reached her hand over to gently touch to Kaya’s arm. She shook her head several times. “Oh, dear heavens no. You can’t blame yourself for what has happened. None of this was your fault… any of your faults.” She closed her eyes and tilted her head up to the sky. “It was I that was unprepared. When my brother moved against me, I didn’t see it coming. Before I knew it, I’d been framed for the missing scroll and cast out, leaving you all defenseless. This was an elaborate plan by Karn that none of you could have foreseen. Even if you had known about it, you probably would not have been any more prepared for the carnage that ensued. Everything happened so fast.”

The horses continued their current gait while the two women talked. No matter what her goddess promised, Kaya silently felt remorse for her failure – for her inability to help the priestesses. The deaths and enslavements weighed heavily on her heart and soul. How could she forgive herself when so many suffered and she was alive, and free, and married, and… happy? She didn’t deserve to have happiness. How could the goddess be so forgiving of her? “I don’t deserve to be a Guardian, godd- Arianda. I could have done more. I could have saved more of your priestesses. Defended them until my last breath. They died because of me. Karn took them captive because of me.” She hadn’t realized she had started crying, but the fat tears dripped down her cheeks. “I could have done so much more…” Kaya’s heart bore the burden of a thousand lifetimes of sorrow, one for each priestess she had failed to save. Regrets for her failures, for her inactions, for her helplessness. She didn’t know how to make things right.

She reached her hand up to brush the tear away, not wanting to show weakness at a time like this… and Ariadna smiled at her.

The goddess didn’t say anything else. She only smiled, and lay one hand on her arm. That smile, that touch, was more than enough. It was full of hope and determination… blazing like a beacon of light in the bleak despair of the world. It was a spark of the soul, an ignition of a lantern burning bright in the night. Kaya felt that if everyone could see a flame like that, it would grow to encompass the world in glory and holiness… It would burn away the evil of this fallen world and shine into the hearts of all. At that moment, Kaya felt her heart touched like the goddess had reached into her chest a laid a hand right on it… pushing hope directly into her soul.

Kaya couldn’t change the past.

But she could change the future.

She would never fail this woman again.

After a hard day’s ride, Jaymes felt the weariness of travel begin to set on him as he scanned the area. They were between two hills that would serve as windbreaks and shield their fire. There was grass for the horses, and clear area between the trees for the wagon. This was as good of a shelter as they could ask for on the road, he figured. The horses needed a break, and they needed rest as well.

The guardian drew the reins tight to indicate for his horse to slow down and come to a stop. He turned to the rest of his traveling companions. “I think this will make a good place to camp for the evening.”

As others began to stretch and Leila drove the wagon off the road, Jaymes dismounted from his horse. With a stifled yawn, he proceeded to unhook his saddle and pull it off so the horse could get relief from it. He patted the horse’s mane and nose. He was a good animal. Distantly, he missed Tomlin… the horse he had needed to leave in Chaza. Tomlin had been a loyal companion for years… but he never would have survived the ride back to rescue Ariadna. Idly, he wondered if he would ever see his friend again. Nevertheless, this still-nameless horse served well, and just because it wasn’t Tomlin didn’t mean it didn’t deserve his respect and thanks. “Good job today,” he told it as he stroked its side before heading to the wagon to retrieve feed for it and the others.

As he walked by the wagon, Jaymes caught a glimpse of Leila and Nira sitting on the wagon, talking quietly. Unless he was mistaken, he thought he might have seen Leila’s hand resting on top of Nira’s leg. He wondered what they had been discussing during the journey so far.

Retrieving a feed bag from the wagon, Jaymes carried it over to hook it over the horses mouth so that it could eat the grain inside. The animals taken care of, he then gathered up a bundle of firewood from the back of the wagon, placing it into a central pile in the lee of the wagon and two of the tree. A few loose strands of straw served as the kindling that would ignite the fire, and Jaymes tucked them in well before he pulled out his knife and struck it against a flint to spark their fire.

It was just a few minutes before the warm glow of the fire radiated out into the air. The sun had already started to set on the horizon… by the time smoke started to get thick, the sun would be down. Leaning back, Jaymes shrugged his armor off of his shoulders and set it aside. Protection certainly had its benefits but its weight made a long journey feel even longer. The guardian had grown used to it over the years to the point he hardly noticed it, but his aching shoulders proved that his body still felt the burden anyway.

Reaching his hand up to rub his shoulder, Jaymes slid down in front of the fire and gazed into the flame as it warmed his arching muscles. The crackle of the wood could be heard in the silent night surroundings. The flames licked up, dancing in the night air as the bright red and yellow light casting its hue over the camp site. Exhaustion distracted him enough that he only noticed her goddess when she was already spreading out her blanket next to the fire, sitting almost besides Jaymes. She glanced back over to where Kaya was tending to her own horse. “I spoke with your wife on the ride here,” she said gently. “She is a very good person.”

“The best,” Jaymes agreed.

“She blames herself for what happened during the fall. I tried to assure her that the fault wasn’t hers, but it still seems to weigh heavily on her.” She looked at him. “Do you feel the same?”

Jaymes could only shrug. “Of course, goddess,” he said. “I imagine every other Guardian who still lives does as well… those of us left, anyway.”

Ariadna sighed. “I feared as much. That’s foolish. The fault is far more mine than yours.”

“No,” Jaymes disagreed. “The fault is Karn’s, and his follower’s.” He shook his head. “I know I am blameless… and so are you. But I feel responsible anyway for failing to protect more from their evil.”

Ariadna stared into the flame. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I only hoped that talking about it did your wife some good.”

Jaymes stretched his legs out and pressed his hands together, leaning toward the fire. “Kaya is the strongest person I know, goddess. She just… always wants to be prepared. She’s turned her guilt into drive to save others. It’s her nature to always want to do more. There are worse ways she could channel her feelings.” He smirked. “She enjoyed serving people. Protecting them. She’d have become a priestess if it wouldn’t have driven her mad, I think… she’s the type that has to speak through her actions.”

The goddess nodded her head as she reached into her bag, producing an apple and tossing it at Jaymes. The burly man caught the offered fruit, bringing it to his lips. He bit down into the luscious red skin to taste the sweetness inside. “Please, call me Ariadna,” she insisted.

Jaymes took another bite. “Kaya is a kind-hearted soul, Ariadna,” he continued after swallowing. “She does what she can to save people… always. I can appreciate that. I don’t think she should be so hard on herself… but that is her decision. I’d have better luck changing when the sun dawns than I would changing my wife… and in the end, all I’d do is make a less beautiful sunrise.”

Ariadna reached into her bag to pull out another apple. She took a bite of it, lowering her hand to rest it on her knee. “I can see that she really cared about what happened to everyone after the fall. I can only hope that I am worthy of such devotion.”

Jaymes leaned back from the fire and nodded his head to the goddess. “That is also her decision,” he said with a small smirk. “We all do what we can.”

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, Ariadna shifted on the blanket to lay down next to the fire, her back to the warmth. Her eyes closed so she could go to sleep. Jaymes took some meat from his bag to roast it over the open fire.

“Something smells good,” his wife said after a few minutes. The scent of cooking food must have attracted Kaya, because she stood just behind Jaymes now. Kaya had taken off her armor and looked about as tired as he felt after the days travel. She sat down on the ground next to Jaymes. She had a blanket in her hand that she spread out on the ground behind Jaymes and her. “Do you think that I can get some of that?” She motioned to the cooked meat that Jaymes turned on a stick over the crackling fire.

Smirking to himself, Jaymes pulled the stick forward and tested the bit of meat. It had been cooked through, so he offered a piece of it to Kaya. She took the offered meat, tearing it in two before returning half of what was offered to her husband. She took a bite from the smoky flavored meat as she leaned up against Jaymes. Her head tilted to the side to rest on his shoulder.

“Do you think the scroll is really where it is supposed to be? Will we find it in Lamire?”

Jaymes was unsure of a lot of things. He only knew that they they had to try to get things back to normal. He put his arm around Kaya, rubbing her side. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “If it is not, we’ll keep searching. It is our duty, yeah?”

Kaya shifted her head to look at Jaymes. She stared directly into his eyes, her own seeming to glow with such admiration. Then she leaned in to kiss him on the lips. Jaymes froze, not moving… as still as a startled hare, afraid to frighten her away. “Kaya…” he whispered. “Are you sure?”

Her lips were trembling as she kissed him again… but she kissed him again, harder. They hadn’t been… not since… “Please…” she whispered against his lips, pressing into a third kiss.

Jaymes responded by wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her softly down onto the blanket with him. Lifting from his wife, Jaymes grabbed his tunic to peel it over his head, revealing his toned chest and abs. He shifted on the blanket to move his hands onto Kaya’s hips. Her fingers were already there, hooked into the top of her breeches, and he helped her pull them down her legs… her long, beautiful, strong legs, painted in warm shades by the firelight in the darkness.

Jaymes tried to stop worrying, but he was still careful to be gentle. He loved her so much. He leaned back in to kiss her legs tenderly. He lips gliding along her inner leg to kiss from her knee and upward toward her thigh. He bypassed her sex to kiss along her navel. She tasted like salt and sweat and hard work… she tasted like his wife. Pushing her tunic up, he marveled at beautiful skin… his fingers spread over her bare stomach before wandering high, his fingers cupped lightly over her breasts. He squeezed them gently for the first time in years, causing her to let out a small moan.

More eager than Jaymes had ever dared hope she would feel again, Kaya pressed her own hands down over his hips. Her fingers dragged his pants down until his stiffened member popped free from its confines. Jaymes shifted upward, sliding his erect cock between her spread legs. The blunt tip found her delicate folds, spreading them apart. Jaymes groaned with pleasure when he felt her warmth surrounding his cock. Leaning over her, Jaymes thrust forward. His cock sinking deeper into her. Their eyes locked in a strong gaze that conveyed their emotions for each other.

For the longest time, they had not been able to intimate with each other. They had tried, a few times… but Kaya had panicked, and it had left her feeling pathetic and awful and ashamed, and Jaymes would have preferred to never touch her again than make her feel like that for even a second. It was easier to lose themselves in the constant need to defend the priestesses of Ariadna, or traveling to escape Karn’s followers. They couldn’t relax… it wouldn’t be responsible. They needed to be on constant guard for fear that they would be attacked. Now, feeling his wife’s body conforming to his in familiar, well-beloved ways, Jaymes felt a weight off his chest, and he lost himself in Kaya’s eyes.

The only other noise that could be heard by the couple was the crackle of the fire. The soft yellow glow of the fire lit up their bodies. Kaya had the better view. She was able to look up to see the loving face of her husband and a million twinkling stars. It was a magical night. One that she would not soon forget.

Jaymes leaned forward, grinding his hips through her silky wet depths. His bare chest brushing across her nipples forced a moan of delight out of Kaya as she let herself relax into the long-avoided intimacy. Her legs slid around Jaymes, pulling him in deeper. She moaned as she was brought to the pinnacle of pleasure. Her tight folds squeezed on Jaymes, contracting around his shaft.

Thrusting forward to put his full length into her, Jaymes released the pent up desire for his wife he had been holding onto for years. The warm trickle of cum flooding out to bath her insides with the results of their love. Jaymes pressed down into Kaya, kissing her on the lips. Their arms entwined together, holding each other close. Neither of them had the heart to do more than pull a blanket over them before they drifted off to sleep under the stars.

The feeling of movement awoke Leila from her slumber.

Her eyes opened immediately, shocked fully awake in a second. It was a habit of years alone… years of being a wanted criminal, of knowing that Karn’s followers would kill her given the slightest opportunity. It wasn’t needed here… but The Weeping Siren could not more let go of it than she could her memories. Both were a part of her now, for better and worse.

She had elected to sleep in the wagon with Nira. The night had proved colder without the fire than either had guessed, so with only a blanket to keep warm it had lead to an interesting result, the first thing she noticed when she woke… The movement had been the priestess. Leila found that Nira had curled up next to her during the night… most of her body was pressed against Leila’s. Slowly, gently, the red-haired girl sat up in the wagon, stretching her arms over her head. The priestess had obviously sought warmth during the night and had placed herself close to her.

Leila admired the figure of the beautiful woman as she slept. Her face looked content and happy. It was one of the few times that she had seen Nira look that way… she remembered each and every one of them. Leila seemed to recall that she would smile when they talked, but… this look was different though. Whenever she smiled before, the priestess had looked uncertain. Like she didn’t know how to smile, or felt awkward doing it. Now, in her sleep, she had no such problem… the smile on her face was wide and genuine, even if it was only in her slumber.

Not wanting to wake the priestess from whatever pleasant dream she was having, Leila slipped out from the blanket so she could exit the wagon, sliding down to the ground and following her nose to the aroma of cooking meat. She gravitated over to the campfire in the early predawn light, finding a cooking pan with breakfast meat and some eggs resting on a stand over the low flame… a welcome sight. The assassin couldn’t recall how long it had been since she had a warm breakfast.

Sliding down next to the fire, she pointed to the pan. “Is that for me?” A bright smile on her face conveyed the hope that it was meant for everyone.

Jaymes snorted briefly before he offered the pan to Leila. She took it from him and immediately dug into the food… she couldn’t remember ever eating anything so delicious. The savory taste of eggs and meat burst in her mouth. As the Weeping Siren, she couldn’t stay in the same place for long… people were always looking for her. Even if they weren’t, she was always either travelling to her next target, or escaping from her last one. It meant that most of what she had eaten over the last decade had been whatever she could scavenge… and the taste of a fresh cooked meal seemed foreign. It was, however, greatly appreciated. It only took her a minute to finish everything, offering the pan back to Jaymes. He took it back to only start cooking more meat and eggs.

She felt like she should say something. “…Thank you,” she said hoarsely. The words felt unfamiliar and strange on her tongue. She wondered how long it had been since she said them. “I’ll… I’ll go get the horses prepared.” She walked over to the horses for the wagon first. Her hand gently gliding across their smooth coated fur. It brought back memories. Her father and mother had worked in the temple stables. She had grown up around these animals, even if she hadn’t been able to afford to take care of one herself… her travels had always been on foot or hitching on the back of a wagon. Gently, she guided the horses over to the wagon and began getting them ready again for another hard days ride. The motions were surprisingly familiar… even as they seemed to come from another lifetime. She had to straighten out the bit and tackle from the night before and position it correctly, and the whole task might have taken much longer for her to accomplish were it not for Ariadna coming over to help.

The beautiful goddess fell into the rhythm of caring for the horses as easily as Leila did herself, keeping them calm while Leila handled the hardware. They worked in silence for a minute before Leila spoke. “I always knew it was you,” Leila admitted. She didn’t look up as she hooked the horse to the reins for the wagon.

Ariadna didn’t know what was being referenced from the confusion on her face. “What do you mean?”

“I was young that day during the Fall… just a girl in the temple… but I saw you when you climbed out of the fountain. Even then… I knew. Everyone else treated you like you were another priestess… They were so sure, I let them convince me I was wrong, but… I knew.” She tightened the straps of bit so it wouldn’t chafe the horse. “You were there for us, even then. You got us out the back. I didn’t understand then, what you did… how you sacrificed yourself… but I didn’t stay eight forever.”

Leila circled around to the other horse to work on his bit and collar. “I figured it out, though… thank you. We’d have all been killed or worse without you. My mother… she didn’t last long, but she died with a prayer to you on her lips. She believed to the end… and so do I.”

Ariadna’s hands had frozen… and slowly started trembling slightly. “Is that why you became… this?” she asked quietly.

Leila nodded. “One by one, Karn’s priests were going to hunt us all down. I decided I was going to get them first. Worked out pretty well for a few years too… until I got too confident and fell into a trap.” She smiled softly. “But you know all about that, don’t you? The moment I heard your voice… I knew. I knew I had been right, a decade ago. And you saved me again.”

Ariadna rested her hands in a horse’s mane to still their trembling. “It’s… it’s the least I could do for you.” Her voice wasn’t as confident or as comfortable as Leila had expected, and the assassin couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong. “Without being in my proper place, I can only offer assistance to those that are immediately around me.” She took a deep breath. “I… can’t approve your methods entirely,” Ariadna warned softly, “but… I understand. I suppose… you were just trying to protect people, in the way you could. If anything can be done to ease the suffering of the people and my followers, I would take that over no action at all.”

Leila finished up with the horses by getting the reins situated. She dragged them up to the wagon to set them there. That is when Nira emerged from the front of the wagon. She gave a kind smile to Leila. There was something about the way the priestess looked at her that caused her heart to lift. If gazing upon Ariadna gave her hope, then what she experienced with Nira could only be described as joy.

Turning to look at Ariadna, Leila nodded approvingly. “We all do what we can, goddess.” She looked over at the wagon, where Nira was preparing to get up on the front to grab the reins. They were ready to finish their trek to Lamire. ‘You were just trying to protect people. Anything to ease the suffering of the people and my followers…’ Leila really wasn’t doing everything, was she?

Before she realized what she was doing, she was standing besides Kaya’s horse as the woman finished grooming him. The Guardian looked at her curiously, one eyebrow raised, and for the first time in years Leila felt… awkward. “Yes?” Kaya asked.

Leila swallowed. “I…” Why was this so hard? “Can you… train me to be a Guardian too?”

“It’s not difficult,” Eve said slowly, enunciating her words carefully like she was speaking to a slow child. “I want you to tell me everything they said… and where they are going.”

Aliza wept brokenly on the stone floor. “Please…” she whispered, her voice barely understandable through the sobbing. “Please, mistress, please… I already told you everything, I swear! It was Lamire! It was Lamire! They said-”

“Lamire,” Eve repeated, her foot on the neck of the research assistant. “Yes, I know, you’ve said… but that’s all you’ve said. You’ve been a good girl, haven’t you?”

She tried to nod her head frantically, but it was hard with a boot on her throat… mostly she just sort of flopped. It had all gone wrong so quickly… the Master of the library had simply said that two Inquisitors of Karn wanted to speak with one of the research assistants who had helped the visiting noblewoman’s group a few weeks ago, and that she could be excused from her duties to meet them in the back room. She had expected to be asked to find information… that was what everyone always wanted from her, to find information in the grand library. No one had ever held her against one of the bookshelves, ripped her clothing off and tied her hands behind her back, and sank her nails into the girl’s breasts until she gave them everything she knew about the last people she had helped.

“But here’s the problem, sweetie,” the blonde woman said as she looked down at the sobbing researching. “I don’t believe you.” Aliza tried to blubber but she simply ground her boot down harder. “Shhhh,” she said, smiling as she held one finger up to her lips. “No, no… none of that. You listen now. I don’t believe you. You could be lying. You could be sending us off the edge of the kingdom, and you’d be long, long gone before we realized you were a liar.” Eve punctuated her last words by grinding her foot down and holding it there, choking the poor, tanned researcher for long seconds before releasing her again.

“Maybe we should just take you with us,” Eve purred. “Maybe we take you to Lamire with us and… ask… you more questions along the way? Then, when we find you’re lying to us, we can ask you again… very… nicely…” She practically hummed with her words. “How do you like that?”

Alize sobbed. “Please… no! I’ve… I’ve told you everything!” She had! She really had! She didn’t know those were worshippers of Ariadna! If she had, she would have… she would have… well, if she had know she would be getting a visit from an Inquisitor afterward, she at least would have gone to them after the noblewoman was gone, at the very least.

Eve pleasantly smiled at the man in the room. “What do you think, Master?” she said, voice soft as a kiss.

The blonde man stepped forward. “I think… I think we should see what she says after she gets a taste of what it looks like when we ask less politely.”

Eve made a low, hungry moan deep in her throat. “I was hoping you’d say that.” Holding her foot down, she looked around the shelves in the workshop of the backroom, searching for something… and smiling when her eyes settled on a wooden box. Lifting it off the shelf, she opened it and Aliza saw the delight in her eyes as she looked at what it held. “Perfect…” she purred, pulling out one of the things inside… a long sewing needle, more than an inch long and wickedly sharp. Sewing together bindings for old leather was hard, and required a sharp needle… requiring them to keep hundreds of the things on hand.

“This is what we’re going to do, love…” Eve whispered. “We’re going to sit down together… and then we’re going to see how many of these it takes before I cum.” The woman began stripping out of her dress, revealing a body that would have been flawless without the scars… lash scars, like she had seen on criminal in chain gangs. Eve grinned as she saw Aliza looking at them, showing teeth. “Would you like me to give you matching ones, love?” Aliza shut her eyes and didn’t look at them anymore.

Karrus came over and stepped on one of Aliza’s ankles, then kicked her legs open and stood on the other one… it didn’t matter. Aliza didn’t have the strength or courage to struggle. “Please…” she whispered again, tears running down her face, her nose leaking. “You don’t… you don’t have t-”

Her words were cut off as Eve sank down onto her face, straddling her head and facing towards the rest of her spread out body. Aliza recoiled in disgust as her pussy killed against her lips, but there was nowhere to go, no way to escape it. Her thighs locked the researcher’s head in place, keeping her from even jerking away as as moaned and gently ground her cunt against the womans nose and lips, using her face as little more than a sex toy.

“Let’s begin,” she said. Aliza gasped as the woman on top of her reached down and pinched her clit… gently. It was almost like she was touching herself in bed, but a little bit rougher… hard enough to hold it in place, but not so hard that it hurts. It didn’t last. Sharp and immediate, sudden pain flared like fire and Aliza screamed, her sounds muffed by the thousands of books and the heavy doors and the carpeted workroom but mostly by Eve’s cunt as the inquisitor slowly pressed the first needle into her clit. It her worse than she could have imagined, and each second the pain seemed to grow… not reaching a peak and receding but seeming to grow more and more and more with each second, spiking with each beat of her laboring heart. The needles were razor sharp but not thin… there designed to make holes for cord to bind books. Instead of piercing cleanly, they tore their way through Aliza’s flesh.

The girl screamed and screamed and screamed until she was breathless, feeling Eve’s pussy slide gently over her face and shudder and leak with each of her screams… but the pain in her own pussy never went away as it seemed like the inquisitor shoved hundreds of needles into her tiny clit. She screamed until her throat felt raw and she saw crimson.

Then, for just a second, she didn’t feel hands on her pussy anymore. And Eve said “That’s one.”

The Inquisitor placed another needle against her clit and slowly pushed. If anything, the second was even more painful… pressing against the first. Alize screamed and screamed until Eve’s cunt as she felt the pressure build and build until the sharp point broke through her skin and slide through intimate flesh. The needle, she knew, was over an inch long, and Eve wasn’t in a hurry. She took her time. Then, when she was finished, she went for another. And another. And another.

Each one was different. Some slid in easily. Others she had to really work to force them into place. Some hit another needle partway through and had to shift. All of them were agonizing. Aliza wasn’t even aware of anything else but the pain, her mind lost. She screamed into her rapist’s pussy. Then she whimpered. Before long she was just sobbing and breathing hard on it… and always it kept grinding. She lay there, helpless, making pathetic sounds with each new needle as Eve ground her face.

Finished with her clit… at least for now… the next needle pierced the center of her left nipple. She had no breath left to scream with, but she tried anyway… and tried again and again as another one was pressed in at an angle. Eve followed the same pattern on her right nipple. By the time Eve finished, her grinding had become frantic, and she was gasping for breath. Aliza’s tongue had been working at her slit since before she finished her clit, understanding that this wasn’t going to be over until the inquisitor came… self preservation obliterating pride. She didn’t know what she was doing in the least, but it gave her something more to press against as she felt the Inquisitor’s body writhing on top of her in ecstasy.

Then Eve cupped her needle covered breasts with her hands and squeezed cruelly, grinding all of them deeper at the same time. A scream she didn’t think she had the strength for ripped its way from her throat, shaking against her new mistress. Eve froze, pussy covering Alize’s mouth, her whole body twitching in rapture. Releasing one breast, her newly free hand abruptly slapped down between Aliza’s legs sharply. At the sudden spike of agony, the poor, abused girl’s screamed peaked.

Somewhere that seemed far, far, far away from the Aliza, Eve screamed with her. Her screams are filled with pleasure, while Aliza’s were sheer agony… but Eve’s were far louder as she shook and squirmed and came before she collapsed on top of the researcher, her body trembling, shaking heavily. After a long moment, she finally relaxed, breathing heavily. Aliza felt… honestly, true gratitude to the woman for coming. She barely even noticed the liquid coating her face… The scent of Eve’s musk. Fear and pain had pushed her past concerns like that, wiped it away.

Then Eve sat up and shifted so that she could look down and see Aliza’s face, look down at the blubbering, crying, cunt-soaked face of the woman she had just cum on. “If you’re curious,” she said softly, “it took 73 needles. I wonder how many the next one will take?”

Then, before Aliza could even process the cruelty of that statement, Eve dropped back in place atop her mouth, and the slow grind began again. Aliza hadn’t thought she had any screams left in her. She soon learned that she was wrong.

Eve pulled one of her pussy lips straight and tight, out and away from her body before she slowly forced a needle through her labia. She didn’t piece the thin width by coming it from the side… Instead, Eve went the other way, working the needle through the entire length of flesh. It was a whole new level of torture as it pressed its way through sensitive nerve ending after sensitive nerve ending. Like before, the pain built with the initial pressure and just kept building but this time there was no release at all… It just kept growing and growing and growing until the needle was fully embedded her labia. And then Eve went for a second needle. And a third.

Aliza could no longer even attempt to use her tongue to bring her torturer pleasure… she wasn’t strong enough to even think. She was mindless in the agony. Another needle. A long helpless scream, followed by a few gasping moments of something almost like relief during the precious moments where the pain didn’t recede but at least stopped growing, moments that ended abruptly end when the next needle reached my flesh. Screaming agony, followed by a blissful instants of what felt like peace in the storm.

By the time she came the second time, both of Aliza’s labia were stretched tight, filled with so many needles that even during the few moments it took for the Inquisitor to retrieve the next one her breath was coming in ragged gasps. Only then did her body lock, trembling in ecstasy, to then collapse onto her needle-skewered tits, blissfully squirming, driving hundreds of needs deeper. Aliza whimpered in anguished pain and swallowed her wetness in desperate, hopeless submission until Eve’s lusty breathing finally slowed.

Eventually, Eve slide off her, leaving Aliza too weak to move, laying still as a doll on the floor. Her eyes roamed over the pretty young girl’s exposed body, now shining with sweat and the light reflected off the exposed tips of needles. “So, here are they going?” she asked again. Eve smiled broadly down at her, seeing the state she was in. “You can nod, I understand. Is it Lamire?”

Slowly, afraid to move fast and hurt herself more, Aliza sodded.

“And you understand that if you lie to us,” Eve said as she stroked some of the needles just for fun, making Aliza writhe beneath her in misery, “that we’ll be back… and you’re long for memories as sweet at this one?”

Aliza nodded again.

Eve lowered her lips to the researcher’s ear… and licked it once. “I… believe… you…” she whispered before nibbling on its edge. he didn’t make a sound anymore… she had nothing left to give. Not even another tear.

She didn’t even cry when Eve helped Karrus flip her over and guided her lover eagerly into Aliza’s virgin ass.

Eventually, their caravan reached the forgotten city of Lamire. No one knew precisely why the city had been abandoned in the days of the old empire. From what Nira could remember reading, most people thought it was the lack of trade that had caused people to leave for more prosperous cities, along with the growth of Raegis as the city moved towards becoming the Imperial capital. Others blamed a plague, and still others a storm that had lasted a full year over the city. Some local legends blamed the specters of the dead. Whatever had happened, Lamire had become a ghost town. Long abandoned, the stone pillars and bricks that made up the walls and homes were now worn away by the sand and wind. Not a single structure still stood untouched, but the most intact where the old, abandoned temples… lots of temples. Temples to dozens of gods… including to Ariadna and Karn. Worn down with the passage of time, their old grandeur and power was still plain to see.

It would be in one of these… somehow, Nira just knew it. Jaymes and Kaya acted as protection and guards for the group, but Nira felt confident that there would be no one here in this desolate city. Most stories spoke of it as a doomed, desolate place… warning to keep away from it. Perhaps those rumors had been started as protection for the very scroll they now sought. Either way, Nira meant to find out.

One by one, they searched the temples. It made her feel uncomfortable, venturing into the territories of other gods and seeming to desecrate their domain with her search, but no specters rose to confront her, no temple guardians haunted these long-abandoned stones. They hadn’t seen a single soul since arriving. The wind, however, whistled through the pillars and the hollowed-out buildings with a wailing noise… probably the source of many of the superstitious legends. Steeling herself, Nira stepped through the temples, searching over the course of several days… and finding nothing.

At last, on the fourth day, she stood before Ariadna’s temple. The steps leading into it had started to smooth from the constant abrasion of the elements. To her surprise, however, she wasn’t alone. Ariadna herself stood on those steps, looking up into it with distant eyes.

“Are you well, Go- Ariadna?” Nira asked.

With a sigh, Ariadna lowered her gaze. “Just remembering times long gone,” she said softly. “We can search together today, I think.”

Nira certainly had no objection to that. Alongside her goddess, she entered the temple that, according to legend, had been the first built in her name on this world. The insides, however, were just as desolate as the outside, a fact that weighed on her more and more as time passed. “I hate to see a temple of yours in such disrepair, my lady.” Nira admitted as they left one chamber and headed into another to search. “I don’t think it should have ever come to this.” Nira placed her hand against the wall, feeling the smooth stone.

“Don’t be too upset Nira,” the goddess answered, her hand tracing over the wall. “It is just a place. It’s people moved on long ago, found happiness and blessings elsewhere. Such is the cycle of life.” She breathed in the dry air of the forgotten temple. “Things are born… and things die. Places are the same way. When their usefulness has been completed, people move on from them. That is the way.”

Nira let out a soft sigh. She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t’ know if that is the way that it should be. Life should be eternal, especially for places.” She began searching the walls… Temples of Ariadna often included secret chambers, and Ariadna had already warned that her knowledge of such places was unreliable… things looked quite different from the heavens, it seemed. “It broke my heart when your temple fell in Danessa,” Nira admitted. “I couldn’t believe even for a second that you weren’t still out there… I never believed it when the followers of Karn swore you had been slain. But… people stopped believing. I couldn’t let them just stop believing in you… you need them as much as they need you!” the words started coming out in a rush. “I…” she swallowed. “I always wanted to be a priestess more than anything. Even though I was never officially indoctrinated, I took up the robes. I faked it to give people hope.” Nira sighed. “What a disaster that turned out to be. Without you, I’d be dead… and so would every else who had helped me.”

Ariadna placed a hand onto Nira’s shoulder, giving it a gentle caress. “You cannot blame yourself. Hope is what the people needed at that time. You provided that to them. You call it a false hope, but if the people believed in it, then it was a true hope.”

The priestess let out an exasperated breath as she looked through the dusty halls of the temple. “It didn’t feel like true hope when they exposed how I was faking the blessings. I’m sure that I let many people down… made more of them sure that you were gone. People died because they relied on those blessings.”

“No, they didn’t,” Ariadna said firmly. “That was Karn’s priest… not your blessings. You cannot blame yourself for his actions.” She met Nira’s eyes. “When I was able to help my priestesses, when I was there, it didn’t take faith to serve me. I didn’t see that at a time, but I see it clearly now. What you did, however, took more unwavering faith – faith that even if I could not answer that I was still there, that I still cared. To maintain faith when the miracles and blessings dry up. That takes a true act of compassion and kindness. A hope for a better tomorrow that only a few can provide.” Ariadna smiled at Nira. “You may be the most loyal priestess that I have ever had in my ranks,” she insisted. “You truly deserve the title.”

It was kind of the goddess to say so, but Nira had to disagree. It didn’t seem to her that trickery and deceit were the proper ways to achieve that title. Nira, thankfully, was spared from needing to answer where Ariadna looked around and sighed. “Sorry. I don’t really know my way around the temples like I should. You seem more experienced in that regards.”

Bringing herself out of the haze of thoughts about her past, Nira motioned toward one hallway. “Come, this way. I think that if they were going to hide a very important artifact, it would be this way.” While each temple had its own secrets, one was fairly consistent. Nira was intimately familiar with it… after all, she had smuggled priestesses and followers through it before… it was created to provide a hiding place and shelter for worshippers, but it would serve well to protect an artifact like the Scroll of Destiny.

Nira showed Ariadna toward the area where the secret room would be located… right next to the main audience chamber. Nira looked around for the hallway with the dead end, then pointed down the long one that she saw that seemed appropriate. There were only one door off to the side of the hall.

“Do you mean that it is in that room?” Ariadna walked down the hall to glance into the room.

Nira shook her head. “No, it is at the end of the hall. A secret latch on the wall will release it.” She took a deep breath. “If it’s hidden here… it’s where I would hide it.”

Ariadna held her breath in anticipation. She knew this was it… she could feel it. The final moments before she would be restored to power. Surrounded by friends and followers… the people that cared about her the most. The people that cared about what happened to the world. People that wanted to see the world changed back to the way they were before. They wanted to see the world become better.

Good people.

They had all fought for this one goal. The final step in getting the carnage done by Karn to be undone. Ariadna found herself holding her breath as Nira pressed her hand against a loose brick in the wall, and there was a loud rumbling as the sound of stone grating against stone echoed through the hallway. The door opening up to reveal a room that was dark.

Nira stepped into the room first, holding her torch high before she pressed it into a sconce along the wall. The light from the torch lit up the room so they could see their surroundings.

The floor appeared dusty with no signs that anyone had been through the area. The only thing that was present in the room was a single stone altar. A pedestal where something would be placed.

Ariadna approached the alter, going up to it and wiping the dust away from the alter. It was… empty. She did not see any sign of the scroll. In desperation, she searched the altar for another hidden switch but there was none. The only indication that the scroll should have been here was an indentation in the stone. It was perfectly shaped to hold a scroll or scroll case. There just wasn’t any scroll on it, anymore.

Ariadna’s heart raced. Her hope had been high before they had entered into the room… she had desperately hoped that there had been a mistake made. That the Scroll hadn’t really gone missing. Now it was truly gone, and she felt defeated. This was the last known location of the scroll… but if it had been stolen from here to start the chain of events that had lead to the Fall, there wouldn’t be a record of where it was taken… it could have been thrown in the sea for all she knew. The fallen goddess had dared to hope her journey would be over… that torture and distress would be finished. She slid down onto the floor. On her knees, she placed her hands onto her face and sobbed.

It was here at one point, but now it was gone. This had been their last chance to get the scroll and right the wrongs of Karn. What were they to do now? Where was the scroll? Who had taken it?

Ariadna felt a hand on her right shoulder… Nira’s hand. She knelt down next to Ariadna, giving her a hug. Her hands rubbed across her back to comfort her. “We’ll find it, Ariadna… this isn’t where the story ends, its just the beginning.” She nodded firmly. “We know the scroll was here. We only need to find out who took it and why… and most importantly, where they hid it.

Ariadna couldn’t help the flood of emotions she was feeling. She wiped the tears from her face. She took a deep breath, nodding her head. She did her best to compose herself. “There is still a chance that it might be here somewhere, that it didn’t leave the city. We should search the rest of the Lamire, just to be sure.

Holding out hope that the thief hadn’t made it out of the city was difficult, but the goddess did her best. The group of followers split up to search… Ariadna couldn’t bring herself to join them. She felt utterly defeated… not since she had laid pinned beneath her brother for the first time had she felt this low. She just didn’t feel like she had it in her to move. She sat on the floor with her back against the stone altar.

She did not know where to go from here.

Bowing her head to place her forehead against her knees, Ariadna awaited the return of her friends. To imagine that the scroll had been left in such a place. Unguarded. It may have been here for centuries. Longer. Only one of her priestesses would have know about this location… isn’t that what Nira had said? This sanctum was kept secret from everyone else. Who would have knowledge of where the scroll had been located? Why would they steal it?

Slowly, her followers filtered back in. Jaymes and Kaya returned after searching to announce that they did not find anything. Nira and Leila came back with similar news. The only person that had not come back was Amellisan. She was searching by herself. Ariadna didn’t hold out too much hope. She stood up from the floor, recomposing herself. Shortly afterward, Amellisan returned to state that she had not found anything, either. Letting out a sigh of despair, Ariadna looked back at the altar. Pointless. No matter how much she stared at the empty stone surface, the scroll was not going to appear.

It wasn’t here.

Taking a deep breath, Ariadna firmed herself. It wasn’t here. She steadied herself to be the symbol of hope that everyone looked to her to be. “So. The scroll is not here.” She pointed at the altar. “We know it was here at one time… before it was stolen. Framing me for that theft caused all of this. We just need to find where it is. If we can even find out who took it, we might have an idea where it is located.” She met their eyes, one by one. “Thank you all for your efforts so far. The journey is not over yet. It looks like we still have a long way to go.”

She paused. “I… know it may be a difficult road ahead of us. I understand if any of you want to return to your lives. I am in all your debt… you don’t owe me anything.”

Not one of them hesitated. “I’m in,” Leila said.

“Same,” Kaya said, less than a heartbeat later. Jaymes and Amellisan nodded.

“I would never abandon you,” Nira swore with a smile.

Ariadna couldn’t help but feel a little cheered. They were all with her… all the way to the end. None of them would give up until Ariadna’s name had been cleared.

Leila looked at Ariadna, putting her hands onto her own hips. “I think I speak for everyone here that we would follow you to the ends of the world if it meant that this chaos ends. We can’t let Karn continue to run rampant and cause havoc on the lives of good people. This world needs hope. She looked around at the others, seeing agreement on their faces, then continued. “You bring hope where ever you travel in this world. You need to be someplace where you can bring hope to the entire world. There is only one way to do that. Find that scroll.”

The support of her followers… her friends… almost brought Ariadna back to tears. She walked out of the temple with them to return to their horses. She had no idea where they were going, but it suddenly didn’t seem to matter as much. Their search would begin again… no matter how long it took.

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