The dust rose from under creaking wagon wheels and plodding hooves to indiscriminately coat human and beast alike. Valoria took as deep a breath as she dared and shifted restlessly in her saddle, reminding herself sternly that a Inquisitor's daughter did not complain about such things.
She concentrated on appearing cool and forbidding, picturing Sardonia in her mind. The very thought of the woman aided her efforts and she shivered despite the dry heat. She was everything a priestess of Taath should be; Tall, graceful, dark and sinister. Her gaze proclaimed a familiarity with power and terrible secrets, and to draw
her attention was to feel their whisper across your flesh. In short the woman who was her sponsor was everything Valoria was not.
As was the usual progression of her thoughts, her mind proceeded to mull over what was an enigma to. Her father was such a contrast to her tutor. She could not think of someone being more atypical of a Taathian, at least in her eyes. Thraxon Sworddancer was tall and golden with an easy grace and a likable way about him. It confused her that those of her Clan, and even those of outlying tribes seemed to fear him.
The crystal blue eyes she'd inherited from her father grew thoughtful. She was
close to him in a way peculiar to only children--more so perhaps as he was her only
parent and she his little girl. It somehow made her more uncomfortable than proud to
overhear campfire tales of his power and the Dark Lord's favor. Yet still she pictured him
far from the 'perfect Taathian'--he was not dark or brooding...she did not see anything in
him to fear.
She blushed slightly, suddenly glad for the dust upon her skin as the thought
crystallized. Her father was an Inquisitor of Taath, a powerful priest of great power,
yet she found him lacking because he did not fit her 13 year old romantic ideals. She who
was not even a novitiate follower yet--who knew little of her clan's religion.
She was ashamed of her betraying thoughts and tossed her head in rejection of
them, long coppery locks swaying in response to her irate gesture. She was unaware of
the envious looks cast her way by several of the women, and would not have understood
the content of male eyes that found her slender mounted figure. That they hastily looked
elsewhere as naked fear closed upon their faces would have confused her further.
Not for the first time Valoria felt the ache of sadness as she wished for her
mother. Not even the thought that such childish yearning was inappropriate for one soon
to be Dedicated dampened her longing. Her mother would have understood. She would
have held her, or brushed the long coppery curls so like her own as she listened to her
daughter pour out her heart. And somehow as she finished, her spirit would be soothed
and everything would be right with the world. Valoria furrowed her brow slightly as she
remembered the night her mother had disappeared, now almost three years past.
She’d been agitated, a strange emotion in her eyes when Valoria had come into
their tent that night. Instantly alarmed, she'd gone to her mother, knowing something was
very wrong. She remembered how her mother had looked at her with tear-filled eyes, the
thin white shift on her tiny form making her appear little more than a child herself. As
she always did when they were alone, Valoria had reached out a hand to touch the white
dove that glowed on her mothers pale skin.
Flinching as if the gesture had pained her, her mother had gathered her tightly in
her arms, trapping Valoria against her trembling body. Crying now from the sense of
something being horribly wrong, Valoria held her mother close, inhaling the perfume of
her soft skin, listening in growing confusion to her mother's words.
"Tonight, my dear one, we must leave this place. You are in terrible danger-- I've
been such a fool--blind for so long. Not everyone can be saved through love. Sweet
goddess I was warned--Rinanni forgive me for taking so long to admit it. And now I have
endangered you with my vanity."
Valoria had been suddenly thrust away from her mother’s warmth and held at
arms length. The beloved green eyes were intent as they looked into her daughters, a
shadow falling across her face as the eyes of her husband stared from her daughter's face.
"Say nothing--upon your life...nay your very soul--say nothing. Do not even pack,
else they will know. They watch me already. I must go to him now, but will return when
he sleeps. My temple is not to far from this camp, and Rinanni willing, by morning..."
Her mother had crushed her close once more, saying softly, "They shall not have
you...", then released her so quickly, Valoria had staggered back against the tent pole.
With wide eyes she had watched her mother grab a cloak and disappear into the night
toward her fathers tent. Though she’d waited all evening and into the next morning, she had
not returned. Instead, Sardonia had come for her that day and told her in precise terms,
that Valoria was to learn her role as daughter of the new Inquisitor. Her father had gained
the favor of Taath with an example of great devotion. Any questions about her mother
had gone unanswered, at the most evoking strange looks or muttered words from her
In frustration she sought her father, only to be repeatedly told he was too busy to
see her. Finally her persistence paid off, and she had been allowed an audience. Careless of
her mother's warning, she told him everything. He’d listened to her quietly, not looking at
her, his eyes chips of ice, until she faltered, suddenly fearful. Then he’d glanced at her and
smiled, abruptly warm and sunny again, though allowing a touch of sadness to color his
"I would not speak to you of this in length. All you need to know is that your
mother decided to leave us. She did not agree with my plans for you, but has seen she
will not take you from me. You my princess, will be dedicated to Our Lord and follow
my path three years hence. It has been pre-ordained. I have been granted a vision of you and the power you shall wield."
He had hugged her tightly and told her not to mention her mother again. And she
hadn’t for something in his words had chilled her and penetrated even the haze of hero
worship through which she beheld her father.
Now, three years had passed, and she rode with her clan to the gathering. There,
she and several others would receive the Dark One’s mark, and begin in His service. A
sudden chill grazed her skin at the thought, a fear her tutor Sardonia said was fitting and
even desirable when one thought of their Lord. This evening the ceremony would
commence, and she would do everything in her power to make her father proud.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sardonia finished the prayer of preparation and blinked slowly as her eyes came
back into focus. She studied her charge calmly, her gaze holding no warmth. Valoria
hardly dared breathe lest she disturb some intricate part of the ritual.
Sardonia turned away after a final appraising glance, putting the oils and herbs
back into the black dragon skin case. Thankful for the brief respite, Valoria dared a
glance at the silver mirror standing at the far end of the tent. She blinked, hardly
A red satin gown licked like a flame at the newly developing curves of her young
body, the neck slashed revealingly down to her navel, the back dipping to the curve of her
buttocks. A gold chain served as a collar and sole ornamentation, carved onyx runes
spaced along its length. Alabaster skin glowed under scented oils and perfumes, and fiery
hair was gathered in a silken braid that fell further even than the plunging neckline down
her back. A slight movement of her hips parted the slit in her dress to reveal a graceful
length of leg, and golden, onyx beaded slippers. She was an offering worthy of the Dark
One, and would be so this night.
She glanced away from her reflection only to find herself again under the scrutiny
of her tutor. Blushing slightly in embarrassment, Valoria braced herself for the cruel
words that were never far from Sardonia’s lips. Instead there was silence, only the clatter
of armor and complaint of horses providing counterpoint to the sounds of a camp gearing
for festival. Surprised, Valoria timidly raised her gaze, only to recoil from the naked
hatred she saw there. In marked contrast to her usual colorless tone, the
priestess spoke words filled with poison.
"Even in that gown, you are so much like your mother. Innocent, trusting...", she
spat the words, her fingers curving into claws as her eyes narrowed.
"He refused to have you Awakened according to tradition. No...you are to be a
'Special gift', to go to Him innocent of the Torturer's skills," Sardonia sneered at Valoria.
"The others are dedicated in fear and pain...and you remain unscathed. You who
are less than any of us, whose blood is tainted by the Dove."
Sardonia moved swiftly, grasping Valoria cruelly by the jaw, long crimson nails
glittering threateningly against pale skin. Something dark and rotting and insane moved
deep in the black eyes, and she spoke softly.
"You weaken him. You make him soft and cloud his judgment. Like she did. But
let me give you a final lesson, shall I? Let me tell you what became of your mother.
Yes...you will go to Him in pain like the others. I will see to it..."
In an odd parody of the affection Valoria had always craved from the woman,
Sardonia gently caressed Valoria’s cheek with her other hand, eyes avidly devouring every emotion that flitted across her young charge’s face. Sardonia smiled, a gesture that froze Valoria’s blood, and trapped her like a terrified rabbit beneath the approaching talons of a stooping hawk.
"Your father, my dear... know you how he gained his favor? With his own knife
he cut out her heart, redeeming himself--taking me while her body was still warm and her
dead eyes watched. I gloried in her blood upon my skin and the dark radiance bequeathed
your father at such an offering."
Valoria was suddenly unable to breathe, an invisible fist squeezed her chest as the
truth of the words struck deep, shattering something within her and changing her life
forever. Yet still her mind thought to deny the truth which her heart beheld, grasping in
vain at the shelter of childhood ripped away too soon. Shock blanketed her senses, and
she welcomed its enveloping numbness, clinging to it as her pain overflowed her spirit in
a soul wrenching scream and she crumpled to the richly carpeted tent floor. Sardonia
watched with interest, the creature that gazed from thin concealment behind her eyes
feasting upon the waves of agony flowing from Valoria’s wounded psyche.
A bell tolled in deep resonance, shattering the tableau, and Sardonia suddenly
blinked, the darkness leaving her eyes as it returned to its roost in her soul. Once again
cool and unemotional, she drug the listless, unresponsive girl to her feet, and pushed her
through the tent flap.
The camp had quieted and was absent of all moonlight. Even the stars hid
themselves behind a thick cloak of low lying clouds, as if to spare themselves the sight of
what unfolded below.
Dazed, her motions automatic, directed by her tutor, Valoria took her place with
the other girls inside the obsidian temple’s antechamber. Her shocked, pale face found
reflection in the others who had been “Awakened” this night. Innocence was not valued
by the Lord of Demons, and for these girls, its ending had been as abrupt and painful as
possible--a gift to He to whom they would Dedicate this night.
The bell rang again, its deep, somber voice echoing through bodies and Temple
alike. The black armored knights and wild eyed berzerkers moved their charges through
the archway and down the aisle toward the altar. Many of the girls cowered in terror as
the sinister spirit of the temple encroached upon them, eager for the residue of pain they
carried. It was a living thing, lapping at their bruised spirits, caressing them with
shadowy claws to heighten their terror and deepen the flavor. Those that fainted were
summarily drug the rest of the way, then abandoned at the altar to the priests and
priestesses who gathered there.
The clansmen and women also gathered to witness the dedication, robed as one in
unrelieved black. Unmoved, they watched their daughters, sisters, and granddaughters as
they were herded to the altar, fanatical fervor burning in their eyes.
Valoria stood emotionless, her eyes blank, her slight form unmoving, but back
rigid among her companions who cried out or lay in supplication and terror on the cold
stone floor. Before the altar stood her father resplendent in crimson black and gold, his
blue eyes afire through the holes in his obsidian mask. He glowed with an unholy light,
nearly crackling with power, strong, tall and handsome.
His voice rose to fill the temple as his lips spoke ancient words, somehow no
longer his own. She moved closer to the altar upon which rested an ornate sacrificial
dagger. In her mind she saw the cruel blade plunging into her mother's body as her cries were viscously silenced by the man she had loved with all her heart. Her soul cried out, and darkness crept into the void of pain as her hand moved towards it. All attention was upon her father, and none saw as she took the blade in hand,
hiding it in the deep sleeve of her robe. She watched as her father turned his attention to each girl in turn,
as each was guided through the ceremony, the words of devotion spoken through fearful
lips. As they spoke the words, shadows came upon them, piercing their skin, causing
them to writhe on the cold stone floor as the mark of Taath rose upon their skin. When it
was over, and the next girls' induction had begun, they were helped to their feet, and taken
away by a priestess to reunite with kin as newly accepted adults.
Slowly the temple emptied as families went to welcome the young women. One
by one the newly devoted were helped away, until only Valoria remained. She stood
unmoving, an alabaster and crimson statue carved by a master, even the shadows shying
from her stillness. Her eyes never left her father's face, and he paused as he looked over
her, his expression hidden by his mask.
He gestured at the priests and priestesses who remained, and with unthinking
obedience, they bowed, and departed the sanctuary. The warriors who had escorted the
dedicants nodded, and moved back down the aisle, leaving their Inquisitor and his
When they had all gone, Thraxon removed his hideous demon mask, and placed it
on the black stone altar. He smiled at her proudly, and took her unresponsive hand in his.
"Today my daughter, you will come to Taath like no other. You will be a bride to
him as the others are merely servants. To you I bequeath the leadership of our clan when I
am gone. You shall lead them as a priestess and queen, and our enemies will fall before
you like ripe wheat." He smiled at her, a father's pride mingled with something darker in
He raised up his hands, and once again the ancient words resounded in the
blackness, and when her turn came to speak the words of acceptance he looked at her
Deliberately, unblinking, she spat upon the enormous altar. With satisfaction, she watched as her father paled and
staggered back, as if felled by a tremendous blow. In that moment she was on him, the
dagger flashing in the darkness. She screamed in rage and grief, a soul in torment as the
blade sunk into her fathers flesh. He fell before her onslaught, his hands raised
defensively, blood bright upon his robes. Sobbing in exhaustion, she fell to her knees at his
side, her spirit bowed by agony and horror at what she’d done, a dangerous lassitude creeping into her.
Weakly at first, then with growing strength, her father began to laugh. Startled
from her stupor, she raised a disbelieving gaze to his. Hands covering deep wounds, he
lay against the altar, and laughed harder at her expression, blood flecking his lips. In
dread she watched as his wounds began to close, and something inhuman rose in his eyes, eyes that were so like her own. He stood, still laughing at her, no longer recognizable as her father,
shadows flocking to his side, nightmares twisting in the corners of her eyes. A voice no
longer human, spoke.
"You look just like your mother did that night. She looked at me the same way as
I cut her heart from her body and held it out for her to see..."
He smiled a terrible smile, his mouth stretching impossibly wide, his teeth small
and sharp, his eyes slanting as he shed his humanity, something palpably evil transforming his body.
A primitive instinct brought her to her feet and propelled her back and away. She
stumbled against a stone bench, unaware of the sharp pain, her eyes transfixed on the man
she’d known and loved as a father. Still he laughed as he watched her.
"You have made me proud as I knew you would. The Dove's blood does not tell.
Come, my fierce little one...come and take your place at my side...! Your hatred and rage
are His gift to you...you are favored....come...."
He beckoned to her with a clawed hand, his face elongating into a snout, back
hunching as his spine curved. Hypnotically she took a step forward, the voices in her mind screaming
at her to run growing fainter. Then it happened.
Valoria looked up at her father and was caught by his eyes. Her eyes. Looking at
her from the face of a monster. She blinked, the spell broken, her mind shedding the paralyzing blanket of shock and fear.
"Never. I renounce you and everything you stand for. I will not become what you
She took several steps back, shaking her head in denial. She cringed as a crash of
thunder shook the walls of the temple, an agonized howl issuing from the thing that had
been her father. The voice of self preservation shouted in her mind again, she turned and fled from all she had ever known.
She saw nothing in the darkness, and could not say how long she ran, or how
many times she fell and cut herself upon sharp stones, or how many thorns tore at her as
she raced from the looming Temple and the army of campfires where her people celebrated. Her only thought was escape. Escape from what she’d done, from who she was,
from the truth of her mother's death.
When she fell, and could go no further, they found her. There were five of them--
five men of her fathers guard who came upon her in the desolate wilderness, five men
who mocked her and tore what remained of her clothing, who beat her, and inflicted upon her body every manner of torture and humiliation that thier lives had taught them.
As the last began his assault upon her something broke free deep inside of her.
Something wild and dark, something that wanted blood and death and pain...that made
her oblivious of all but the need to strike out and kill.
Her untutored hand claimed a sword carelessly cast aside in their sport, and she
swung, the darkness inside her giving her inhuman strength. The man fell, his shock wide
in his eyes as blood spewed from a severed neck, his hand clutching helplessly at the
gaping wound. Without pausing she turned to the next, and the next, hacking and slashing
mindlessly, her eyes wide and staring, teeth gnashing, foam bubbling from her mouth, her
lips stretched in a rictus of hate and rage. blood coated her nude figure more intimately than had
the crimson gown, the gore of death her only ornamentation.
But the last two were ready now, her luck had run out. Though she traded blows
with each, and one fell and the other was wounded, her strength left her and the blackness
receded, leaving her aware of only pain and the approach of her own death.
Her last opponent spat on her as he bound his wounds, taunting her as she lay
dying, refusing to stop her agony with a merciful blow. He left her there instead, beneath
the wide open sky on the red stained earth as the first touch of dawn filtered through the
Still she clung to life, passing in and out of conscousness, though she wanted only
to die. She woke at one point to find her father and several priests standing over her.
Though she had thought it impossible to feel any more pain, it burst afresh upon her as
she saw the cold contempt on his face. He crouched over her, and for a moment she felt
hope that he’d come to save her, to heal her pain. She tried to tell him she was
wrong--that she would come to Taath now, that she was sorry. But she was too weak for
the words. Instead he reached down with a dagger and cut the long, blood matted braid from her
head, then stood once more. He stared at her, speaking the ritual words of tribal death in a tone far removed from that of a father for his little girl.
"No longer are you my daughter or member of clan. I cut from you your birthright
so you shall die nameless and roam alone for eternity in the Void. The ancestors turn from you, and the Great Wolf shall feast upon your spirit, sundering it from this world. You are dead."
And with that he turned and walked away without a backwards glance, her
severed braid clutched tightly in his hand as the priests closed around him and were gone in a flash of red light.
The pain in her heart burned brighter than the pain of her flesh, and she lay still,
closing her eyes, welcoming the oblivion that flooded her. She breathed once more, then
The morning brightened, and the clouds scudded away in the gentle wind. The
golden meadow grasses swayed and small birds trilled from their depths. The blood dried
on the dead girl who lay like a broken doll left by a careless child. Those she had killed
had been left behind, and ironically seemed to guard her now in death. Her tiny hand
remained clutched around the sword by which she’d cut the strings of their life, mute
testimony to what had taken place.
From a scrub forest to the east came a party of mounted figures. Their voices were
carried in snatches by the wind, their laughter proclaiming them friends before their
features were even visible. Light danced from snowy white and silvery armor, a golden
eagle glaring proudly from shields and embroidered cloaks. One of the party abruptly
reigned his mount to a halt. The others responded in kind, their voices stilling, hands
going to their blades as they looked askance at him from the corners of their eyes. The
first figure raised furred hands to the hood that cloaked his features, removing it as
catlike eyes scanned the area, nostrils flaring as he tested the wind. Amber eyes
narrowed as he stared at the place where the grasses were oddly flattened. At the same
moment, another of the party, a delicately built female with pointed ears and upslanted
eyes, swore softly her eyes catching the first glimpse of a delicate ankle and blood
sprayed grasses. She quickly dismounted and made for the scene.
A powerfully built man with white hair and long drooping mustaches called out to
her sharply and dismounted with surprising agility in one so heavily armored. He needn’t
have worried however, for it seems the woman’s shadow was a hulking creature of low
brow and deep set eyes that carried an enormous axe like a child’s toy.
The others followed their example, and also dismounted, an oddly featured human
gently nudging a lump on his shoulder. The lump moved of its own accord, blinking tiny
red eyes, and smiling sweetly from the first as it saw the one who carried it so carefully. It
nuzzled the cloaked figure and stretched slowly. Gossamer wings unfurled and it rose into
the air, hovering quietly as it looked around questioningly. Without saying a word, the
human-like figure with a reptilian cast to his features pointed toward the carnage. With a
small cry, the secian darted after the elven female, her draco cursing quietly and following
after her, sword drawn.
They approached cautiously, ready for an ambush. The elven female stood in the
center of the slaughter, eyes thoughtful as she read the story of tracks and battle. Her gaze
rested sympathetically on the young girl, as she turned to the others and gave words to
what she was able to read. They stood quietly as they listened, the little secian trying in
vain to wash the blood from the delicate featured human child, her tiny tears tracing a
path through the dried blood as her draco stood helplessly behind her.
The single word spoken by the white haired knight encompassed all the disgust
and suspicion and centuries of enmity which lay between their two temples.
A middle aged man in white robes knelt next to the girl, an odd expression upon
his face as he looked closely at her. His eyes became distant, as if for a moment he was
elsewhere, then he looked up sharply at the others.
“Quickly. It is not yet too late. Gather round and lend your prayers to mine.”
The human knight looked at the man carefully even as he moved closer, speaking with
deference, and obvious reluctance.
"First Warder. I would not question you...but she is of their blood...we would be
doing her no favors in any case...."
His glance took in what was left of her ceremonial robes and the broken Taathian
The First Warder returned his Champion's look chidingly, causing the other to
blush and shift uncomfortably like a school boy.
"Look you closely Drathor--she does not bear the Vile Ones mark, and she died in
battle fighting those that do. Think you that one is Taathian from birth? Nay...it is a
choice as is any other. Obviously she did not choose it."
He furrowed his brow slightly then as he looked at the knicked blade clenched in
the dead hand and spoke softly, "And besides...Odarous calls to this one...."
The others glanced at each other in surprise, only the draco distancing himself, stepping back towards the horses, but
still looking on with a clinical interest. They knelt in close circle, the secian gently brushing the
girl's close cropped hair from her pale face. The First Warder bent over the girl, laying his
hands gently upon her cold flesh, and spoke ancient words of power, a blinding light
washing over girl and priest as the others spoke prayers of devotion and praise, different
races united by a burning devotion to their God, the power of faith shining from their eyes.
The brightness increased and the secian glanced worriedly at the lines of fatigue
that deepened on the First Warders face, tiny hands moving in intricate patterns as cool blue light flowed from her, renewing the Priest's energies. Softly the little one spoke into the girl's ear,
calling to her, soothing the battered spirit that cried out in fear and loneliness and pain, the empathy that was a part of her being taking on the child's anguish. A
breath came sharply from between blue lips, released with a cry, then another, and warmth
returned to the cold skin, and brilliant blue eyes flew open, filled with torment. The First
Warder released the power, ignoring his fatigue as he watched the girl. The elf maiden
opened her eyes as the words of power faded, then hastily removed her white cloak and covered the girl with it.
Wordlessly Valoria looked up at the faces that surrounded her, still lost to the
memory of pain and death, confused by the gentle encouragement coming from these
strangers. With a dry croak she spoke the one thought that repeated over and over in her
"I am dead."
They glanced at each other, then shook their heads in denial. The older man who knelt closest
to her smiled.
"No longer. You have been raised by the power of Odarous, Lord of Battle, Honor
and Law. He would see you live longer child, so you have rejoined us."
Again she repeated the words, anguish and despair trembling in her raw voice.
"I AM DEAD!"
The little secian female murmured comfortingly as she caressed Valoria's cheek,
and the First Warder frowned slightly. The hulking Thugian stepped forward, dispelling with his movement what similarities he had otherwise had with distant mountains, his
deep voice rumbling.
"Da girl know she life now. She ded nuther way. Clan def." He peered closely at
Valoria’s cropped head then at the wolfs head emblem on the dead soldiers tunics. He
moved forward slowly, as if approaching a wild animal.
"You in better clan now. You in our clan. Da eagle clan. We make you strong
'gain." He nodded solemnly.
Valoria watched them with eyes much older than her 13 years, still and quiet, the
horrors locked away for the moment. She looked down at the sword in her hand, and
released it, slowly sitting up, the grey haired man moving to help her, the secian doing her
best to help also. She stared at the dead men that lay cold around her, then down at the
"Your God is god of Battle?" she asked quietly.
"Yes. But that is not the least among Honor and devotion to upholding Law",
replied the First Warder.
Valoria looked directly at him, her eyes eerily calm. "I am tainted by battle rage. I
sought to kill my father. You know not who I am. You should have left me to death."
The tall knight in silvery armor frowned at her slightly upon hearing her words,
but the First Warder returned her calm look.
"Our Lord would have you to his service, if you so choose. I would not question
what he sees in you, child."
The hulking thugian beamed at her. "Da Lord like doz wid da zerk. We strong and
kill many bad tings. It 'cause He touch us when we id in da mama's belly. It present to us,
nod whud you say--nod taint."
Drathor glanced at the Thug and rolled his eyes slightly, then
smiled gently at Valoria. "Though he has an interesting perspective, our friend here
means there is no dishonor in being touched with battle rage. That will not bar you from
service to Our Lord." He glanced at the First Warder who nodded agreement.
The elf maiden stepped forward briskly. "With respect, First Warder...I
believe she has time to learn of Odarous....later. She has endured much and needs rest."
The First Warder blinked, and actually looked embarrassed for a moment before
he stood, helping Valoria to her feet.
Valoria paused, and looked down at the sword which had fallen across an
oddly clean tunic emblazoned with the snarling wolf's head. She reached down and picked up
the blade. An odd look crossed her face and she bent to retrieve the tunic as well,
clutching it tightly to her.
"This is who I am. I will not forget. They haven’t the right to take it from me."
Her companions nodded solemnly at her, the draco watching her with interest, the
Thugian grinning broadly at her.
"Den youz have two clanz now. Da Eagle and da Wolf."
The First Warder watched her closely, his eyes once again distant, his head slightly tilted as if listening to something far off.
"Nay. She will be His Wolf." He smiled then, once more seeming just a simple if grizzled veteran of many battles. He took her arm gently, guiding her as the others closed about her protectively and returned to their
horses. Drathor offered the girl his mount, and they turned back the way they had
come, returning to the temple and distant city they called home. Valoria rode straight and tall, her eyes fixed on a distant light, while high above them, an eagle soared as if in benediction.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Time passed for the young woman. Those of the city, and even some of her beloved Temple looked upon her as an oddity, refering to her as 'that red haired barbarian lass'. And indeed, there was something in her that remained wild and remembered the ways of her people. She grew in strength and skill, and was taught the ways of Odarous, willingly taking His mark and heeding His call once she came to know Him. Raised equally in the Holy Temple itself and the wild lands beyond city gates, the time came for her to strike out on her own. Though she loved her God with all the innate passion of her spirit, her heart bore the shame of what she thought of as her Taathian birthright, her father's final gift to her. The battle rage consumed her when sorely pressed, and animal rage would possess her muscles and mind and she became intent on destroying her foe at any cost.
Waking from a dream one night as she camped beneath an ancient oak, she saw a huge white wolf watching her from across the glade. She followed the snowy wolf for days, eventually finding herself at the gates of a city called Spur, far from her homeland.
It was in this enormous city she finally found her home. Another refugee from the harsh battles of life, she became one among many, and those of the city judged her soley on her own merits. She developed friendships, even as her fear of what was within her made her enemies within the Taathian temple of the city.
Then darkness again came with all its destructive force into her life, changing once more the path she followed. Plague came to the land, an evil said to be unleashed by Moloch himself. Death found many, and thier Gods called them home even as others suddenly forgot all they knew and became again as they had been as children. She left the city, as many did, making her way to her homeland. Feverish and weak, she collapsed into the arms of those who had first saved her.
For many months she lay ill, nursed by those who loved her. Then in what seemed her final hour, a radiant eagle flew in her window and perched upon her bed, awaking her with a piercing cry. Her illness loosed its hold on her and with it the shadow that had lingered in her heart. The berzerkers curse had left her, and instead she felt a wondrous power filling her.
"Heal my Temple," she heard in her heart, and the eagle was gone in a flash of light.
The tall, red haired woman returned to Spur, a wolf at her side. But this time she knew in her heart she was what her father had seen and feared it not. She was indeed a priestess of her God, and moved within the grace of His power and love.