The Children of Stron – part 49

Table of Contents (spoilers)

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Unger did not allow them to linger long outside the Old Mill tower. He had Aaron and Munn carry Knuckle straight back to their compound. Choke followed them, piggybacking Peep. Unger took up the rear and covered them with his warbow. As they passed the original ambush spot, Unger paused to pick up Knuckle’s greatsword.

Back at the farm compound, the women did what they could for Knuckle. Unger’s wife, Nimara rinsed his spider bite wounds with vinegar and water, while Aaron’s wife, Janice, worked on removing the ettercap webs from him. He remained unconscious, breathing shallowly. This was probably a blessing.

Peep had been right: the spiders’ toxins had begun melting his flesh, essentially predigesting it for the creatures. Surprisingly, the ettercap’s poison bite on his neck was not the worst of this. The puncture wounds were certainly not pretty, but did not have much of the liquifying effect that Peep had seen in Pinch’s bite from the monstrous spider outside the tower. However, the apple-sized spiders from the ettercap’s body that had been crawling all over Knuckle had done terrible things to him. With only his neck and face exposed, they had feasted where they could. Knuckle’s face was swelling horribly from multiple bulging bites, each with a crater of liquifying skin and flesh at its center.

While Nimara and Janice worked on Knuckle, Unger set Peep’s broken ankle in a tight splint. Munn went to his woodpile and made her a good crutch. With that done, and with Pinch already tended to and laid up in bed, there was nothing for Peep and the menfolk to do but get drunk. This, they set to doing with fierce determination.

“So…” Unger said after they all had a few ales and a pipe of good weed in them. “Giant spiders, was it?”

“No, man,” Peep answered, her voice distant. “Or, yeah. Outside it was. But the boss… that was something different. Worse.”

“Worse than giant spiders?”

“Oh, fuck yeah. It was some kinda spider man. Man-shaped spider body, all hairy and purple and shit. Two arms. Two legs. Spider head, with all the fucking eyes. And it talked.”

“It spoke?”

“Yeah. It called us murderers for killing the giant spiders. How fucked up is that, huh? Like we’re the bad guys. Motherfucker,” Peep said.

“Who killed it?” Munn asked quietly.

“I dunno. Guess we all did. Stron mostly, though, I guess. With the fire,” Peep answered.

Choke, Unger, Aaron, Munn, and the assembled children listening all traced the Wheel of Stron over their breasts. As an afterthought, Peep did as well before continuing:

“I mean, we all shot it up a bit. Then it jacked us on the steps in the tower and I backstabbed it good. Then I lit it up with holy flame, like I did the one outside. I think that nearly did it in. Choke finished it up with his sword. But that flame: that’s what saved our asses. So, Stron’s the one, I guess,” said Peep matter-of-factly.

Once again, everyone traced the Wheel with, murmurs of, “praise Stron.”

After some more silent drinking, Munn again pushed for more, his voice quiet and deeply reverential:

“Otilla. Ye produced the Holy Flame? From yar hands, like? From the marks of Stron?”

“Yeah,” Peep said, holding her right palm out in front of her as she massaged the Wheel scar with her left thumb.

“Praise Stron,” Munn said. “I seen that once before, ye know. On a campaign. A Knight of the Holy Sword, Sir Manfred, he lit up a troll with fire from his hands. Torched it real good. It’s a blessing that Stron bestows on his favored bloodletters.”

“Good to know,” Peep said.

By this time, Nimara and Janice had finished doing what they could for Knuckle. Besides all the spider bites and venom, he had been badly smashed in his plunge into the wall. His left collarbone and upper arm were both broken. As well, his left elbow seemed badly damaged, and his left hip was swelling with a terrible bruise that indicated all was not well down there either. All the same, he was alive and hanging on. All they could do was pray that Father Nate would come to heal him properly soon.

For all of the events of the morning, which for the participants seemed to have lasted for eons, it was barely past lunchtime. Nimara took a flank and leg of venison off ice from her cellar and she and Janice put on a fine feed. By the time everyone was finishing that up, the pack of hunting dogs went crazy at the gate to herald Father Nate’s arrival.

Father Nate, three of his soldiers, and the lad, Chris, rode on in. Father Nate went immediately to Knuckle, where he clucked at the state of him. The cleric expended all of the heavy cure spells he had into him, as well as neutralizing the poison that was still paralyzing and digesting him. All this largely repaired Knuckle’s broken bones and let him relax into a less coma-like sleep.

“I am sorry, Otilla, yar ankle will have to wait until tomorrow,” Father Nate said as he sat down behind the plate and tankard of ale that Nimara set for him.

“Not a problem, Father!” Peep exclaimed happily as she drunkenly waved her tankard his way.

The afternoon and evening was spent with Peep, Choke, and Unger relating their ordeal to Father Nate and his men (as best they could in their diminished capacity). It was a fine time that went some way to assuaging the horror that still pressed on them.

***

The next morning, Father Nate healed Pinch and finished healing up Knuckle before sitting down with Peep and Choke outside under the awning. He removed Choke’s bandages and looked over his stitched-up wounds with an approving eye.

“Ye have a fine touch for healing, Otilla. If ye weren’t so much better at its opposite, I might even go so far as to say that ye’ve missed a calling with it,” Father Nate said.

Peep shrugged.

“So ye say that yesterday ye healed Nikolas of his spider bite and its venom by laying hands upon him. D’ye think ye could do that again today?” Father Nate asked, gesturing to the nasty cuts on Choke’s arms and leg.

Peep clasped her palms together and closed her eyes to contemplate what energy their scars might contain this day. Then she nodded.

“Stron, heal this man,” she said plainly as she laid her palms on Choke’s forearms.

As with the previous time with Pinch, her hands glowed with a healing blue light that seemed to seep into Choke. And so, his wounds were largely healed. The cuts all looked as though they had been healing naturally for over a week without complication. In fact, they looked as though the stitches were almost ready to be taken out. However, it was clear that the wounds would be leaving scars.

“Huh,” Peep said, looking at Choke’s arms closely. “So there will be scars. Is it the same when ye do yar healing, Father?”

“Indeed it is, Otilla. If ye want scarless healing, ye need to have a priest of Altas do it for ye. Stron is a god of war. And as such, wounds earned in battle are a badge of honor for a warrior. And Stron would not deprive his soldiers of that.”

“Huh. Cool!” Peep said. “So, d’ye have a spell that’ll help me with this fuckin hangover?”

Father Nate laughed. “As a matter of fact, I do. Neutralize poison always works a treat for that. But, I don’t feel it appropriate to ask Stron to intercede in what is a well-deserved consequence of overindulgence.”

“Uh-huh. I saw the way ye were laying into the booze at Amia’s wedding, Father. Are ye honestly gonna tell me that ye’ve never tapped yarself with that one on a rough morning after?”

Father Nate blinked at Peep’s impudence, but soon laughed again as he clapped her on the shoulder.

“Well, ye have me there, child! Ye have me there. And perhaps I would let ye have a spell, if only to avoid next being called hypocrite by ye. But I thought that this afternoon we should go and see what needs attending in the tower there. And there’s no telling what else we might find, so I am loath to use a spell now for your hangover that might save a life later. Yes?”

“Well, alright, Father. But what about this ankle?”

“That is something I can help ye with. If only a little. I already used most of my heavy cure spells on Theodas and Nikolas this morning. But I have a little something left that should have ye on yar way. Then, tomorrow, I’ll have ye right as rain. Here, let’s have a look at it.”

With a light cure spell and the ankle still splinted, Peep found she could hobble along on it well enough if she used the crutch Munn had made to take some of her weight off it. Then Father Nate had Choke and Peep tell him in sober detail everything from the day before. During this debriefing, Pinch came out of the farmhouse and took a seat with them.

Physically, Pinch was fully healed, but he moved like a frightened child filled with self-loathing at his weakness. He kept his eyes downcast and said nothing as Choke and Peep finished their tale.

“And how are you this fine morning, Nikolas?” Father Nate asked Pinch.

“I don’t know. I mean, I’m well, Father. Thank you, and Stron, for the healing,” Pinch answered.

“But…” Father Nate elicited.

“No, it’s just… I’m sorry is all. I’m sorry, Peep. Choke,” Pinch’s voice cracked as he almost broke down.

“Sorry for what? That ye shit yarself?” Peep asked, bemused. “True, that wasn’t the nicest thing to be smelling, but it aint the first time I’ve had to suffer yar stink, now is it?”

“Nikolas. Pinch,” Father Nate said seriously, looking him dead in the eye as he laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. Ye stood tall, soldier. Ye did yar part, from start to finish. Didn’t he?” Father Nate asked Choke and Peep.

“Yes he did,” Choke answered, before saying directly to Pinch: “You did.”

“Yeah. Fuckin rights,” Peep said. “And ye know me, if I thought ye didn’t do yar part, I’d be the first one to tell ye.”

“You see, son?” Father Nate continued. “There is no shame in being afraid. For only the mad, or those touched by the hand of a god, know no fear,” he glanced Peep’s way at this. “To rise above the fear and act in defiance of it, as you did; that is courage. And where true honor is found. Ye done good, soldier. Ye done good. Rest easy in that.”

With this, Pinch left to take a walk so that he could have a good cry in private. No one said anything of it. Father Nate looked pensive for a while before he again spoke:

“While we are dealing with these matters of wounds of spirit, and trauma, seen or not. I think we should have a word about Theodas.”

“Knuckle? What about him?” Peep asked.

“Well, as ye know, he suffered a horrible ordeal at the hands of the monster, did he not? Ye saw what the spiders did to his face, yes? And Stron’s healing being what it is…” Father Nate’s voice trailed off significantly.

“Oh shit!” Peep exclaimed. “Is he all fucked up still? Is his face all melted and shit?”

Father Nate winced.

“I think, Otilla, if ye could manage a little more sensitivity in this matter, that would be most helpful.”

“Sensitivity now? For that asshole? Yeah, because he’s shown so much for everyone else, right?”

“Well, if a little kindness is too much to ask, then might I suggest ye go easy on him? For prudence’s sake, if nothing else. From the little he said to me this morning, I suspect he feels hard done by, perhaps even abandoned,” said Father Nate seriously.

“Abandoned? See? Asshole!” Peep yelled.

“Well, you know him better than I. And I am not saying his feelings are justified. But remember that he has just suffered terrible trauma and helplessness. That is a lot for anyone to bear. And he doesn’t seem the type to internalize his feelings. His kind tends to be explosive. Do you understand?”

“No. Unless all that means that he’s an asshole,” Peep said.

“Well, I suppose it does, in a way,” Father Nate conceded.

“Well, he’d better not come at me with any bullshit about it. He got took. That was his bad luck. Nothing we could do about it. Then, as soon as we could, we saved him. Anyone half as awesome as we are woulda fucked off in terror and left him in there to be sucked dry. But not us. We went in that evil place, and killed that motherfucker to get him back. If the asshole’s too fuckin stupid and ungrateful to know that, then he don’t deserve to ride with us. That’s it. I’ve said my piece on it. That’s it,” Peep said with hard finality as she stood up and hobbled off on her crutch, leaving Choke and Father Nate alone.

It was silent for some time before Choke spoke up:

“How do you think I should handle this, Father?”

“I’m not sure ye’ll have to. Although, I think it would be best to keep the two of them away from each other for today. As well, perhaps we should leave Theodas alone for a bit. Maybe try to have a word with him tonight, if he seems okay. Just you, though,” Father Nate said.

“Understood. Thank you, Father.”

“Think nothing of it, my son. This is what we do. The heroic ballads leave all this nasty messiness out, don’t they? The heroes slay the monster and ride off into a sunset of wine, song, and women. None of these scars and wounds to the soul that cripple men as surely as a severed spine. But time heals. Not all wounds, surely. But it does heal.”

Father Nate fell silent then, his eyes now transfixed into a middle distance where the yet-unknown horrors of events to come lurked. When next he spoke, his voice was quiet and dark:

“Time does heal. I just hope that the four of you shall have enough of it.”

***

Father Nate gave everyone about an hour to let things settle. Then he got right back to work. Leaving Peep, Pinch, and Knuckle to do what they may, he gathered everyone else in the yard between the farmhouse and Munn’s workshop. There was Choke, the whole Unger bunch, plus Father Nate’s three men-at-arms, and the lad, Chris.

“Right!” Father Nate boomed at them cheerfully. “Our heroes here have slain whatever spider horror was lurking in the Old Mill! And good on them for it! But, there’s more to be done in there. We need to fetch the monster’s body out and see what it was, exactly. Then, I would see the place properly cleansed.”

“To that end, Father,” Unger interjected. “Yesterday I had Aaron and Munn bring a cask of rapeseed oil to the place, and it’s still there. There’s a bunch of… uh… filth on the main floor, and I reckoned we might wanna burn it.”

“Excellent! A cleansing by fire is exactly what I had in mind. So, if all the men could come with me, I think we shall have things put right in no time.”

There was some consternation among the wives, Nimara and Janice, and the children at the prospect of missing out on seeing the Old Mill cleansed by fire. But Father Nate and Unger were quite firm on it: the area had not been properly cleared and there was no telling how many monstrous spiders, entrapping webs, or other horrors might be lurking about the place. However, after Unger’s ten-year-old son, Jagg, pitched an impassioned tantrum that bordered on the profane, it was decided that he could come along if he swore to not once leave Father Nate’s side.

With this settled, the men loaded up with rope and woodcutting tools. It was also decided to bring along a pair of mules. While everyone was preparing and getting armored up, Peep and Pinch each found their own way back. Peep was over her earlier spleen and eagerly hopped up onto one of the mules. Pinch hesitated, looking deeply worried, before he kitted up to come along. There was no sign of Knuckle anywhere, and no one mentioned him.

The party went back to the Old Mill tower on the same roundabout trail they had used the day before. It was just as they had left it. Everyone gathered around the scorched and slashed remains of the first monstrous spider that Peep had killed outside. It was decided to be worthy of bringing back to town to display as a trophy kill, so one of the men-at-arms trussed it up in rope so it could be dragged without having to touch it.

Father Nate and the others who had not yet been there took their turns peeking into the tower at the horror that was the ettercap’s lair.

“That’s the beast back there, is it?” Father Nate asked Peep, pointing out the ettercap in the detritus of its victim’s corpses and the rotten planks and beams from the fallen flooring.

“Yeah. Right where it fell. I was able to clamber over to it to get my sword back. It’s not too bad,” Peep said.

“Right. Well, we want to be getting it out of there. Do I have any volunteers to go in and get a rope around it?”

Unger raised his hand, but Father Nate dismissed this:

“Not you, Unger. Yar not here as a soldier. Plus, yar the best shot of all of us. Whoever goes in will want ye covering him, in case there’s something else terrible lurking in there. Do I have any other volunteer?” Father Nate asked, looking over his three men-at-arms pointedly.

The three men drew straws to see would have to do it. The lucky winner went in with two ropes: one to tie to the ettercap, and the other tied around his own waist, so he could be hauled out if anything went wrong. The other end of the safety line was tethered to the two mules now in side-by-side harness.

Father Nate, Jagg, Chris, Choke, and Peep stayed out with the mules while Unger, Aaron, and Munn took up position with their longbows at the tower entrance. The other two men-at-arms, both in leather armor and armed simply with roundshields and spears, hung back to either side of the doorway.

Moving ponderously slow and gingerly, Father Nate’s man was able to crunch his way through the many animal carcasses to the ettercap. With many a yelp or scream and fits of flailing as airborne whisps of spiderweb kicked up by his passage brushed his skin, the man did his duty. He looped the rope around both the ettercap’s legs, roughly at what approximated its knees. When he tightened the loop to tie it off, the legs were drawn together with the disgusting crackling sounds of the monster’s rigor mortised remains protesting.

His duty done, the man turned and ran towards the exit. However, his haste was his undoing. He got tripped up, either in the rope he trailed or the many web-encrusted carcasses he moved through, and fell down. The man screamed in horror as he thrashed about in the filth he had been seeking to escape.

At the other end of the line, signaled by Munn, Father Nate clucked at the mules and had them drag his man out into the sunshine. The poor fellow came out with a long-dead deer stuck to him by the webbing that encased it. As the soldier flailed about screaming in horror, everyone saw that he was also thoroughly coated with dust and webs, as well as a nasty collection of bugs. Their habitat disturbed, normal-sized spiders, beetles, and centipedes crawled about on the soldier in their displeasure.

However, the man was safe, and none of these torments were anything that would cause him any lasting harm. The assembled company relieved their tension by having a good laugh at his expense while Father Nate and Unger helped disentangle and brush him off.

“Good man! Good man,” Father Nate said, patting him on the back to send up a cloud of horrible dust. “Ye’ve earned yarself a jug from my private stock for that, Denny! Well-earned, I’d say!”

While the suffering man crawled away to throw up, the others composed themselves and got on with the task of the day. They backed the mules up to the tower entrance and hitched them to the ettercap rope. Then they dragged the monster’s corpse out into the light of day.

A day spent convalescing in the remains of its victims had not made the creature any less dreadful. Everyone had a good look at it as they yelled and bantered in varying degrees of horror and disgust. This took them some time.

“What is it, Father? D’ye have any idea?” Unger asked when everyone had settled down enough.

“I have never heard of such a monstrosity; I’ll have to admit. We shall have to send word to the Church in Strana of it. Perhaps they’ll send someone to study it. But, I do recall that Father Jeb said that when he and the last squad of adventurers took out the evil druid witch that occupied this place, she attacked them with a swarm of biting and stinging insects. So perhaps the seeds for this horror were planted by her wickedness all those years ago. At any rate, whatever it was, it is dead now.”

Peep gestured up towards the tower roof.

“By the way, there’s another bigass spider up there. Dead too.”

Father Nate looked upwards thoughtfully.

“Is it any different than the one over there?” he asked.

“Nah. Just about the same,” Peep answered.

“I think, then, that taking just the one back to town is enough. I don’t imagine anyone is that keen to go all the way up there just to retrieve it. If it’s all the same to you, Otilla, I’d just as soon leave it up there to rot.”

“That’s fine by me.”

Father Nate then directed that the stand of mature pine trees be felled. They had served as a hiding place for the monstrous spiders’ initial ambush of the squad, so no good could come from leaving them be. Munn and Aaron chopped the trees down with great vigor, supported and helped by the others. Within an hour they had the big pine trees down, limbed, and bucked into logs that two men could lift. Munn declared the wood trash for bow or arrow making, so it was decided it could all be used as fuel for the cleansing fire.

One of the men-at-arms went back into the tower with the cask of rapeseed oil and doused as much of the detritus as he could reach with it. Then they hauled all of the bushy tree tops and smaller limbs into the tower, taking them up the stairs before dropping them to get a good even spread. Following this came the logs, in the same manner. When they were finished, what looked like the world’s biggest campfire spread out all across the first floor, taller than a man, was ready to be lit.

“Them logs are pretty green. D’ye think they’ll burn?” one of the men-at-arms asked.

Munn scoffed. “With all that kindling and a whole cask of rapeseed oil under it? They’ll go. Get enough heat under that pitch and it’ll go up better than oil. Trees like these near explode in a forest fire, green or not.”

“So the only question remains, who shall have the honors?” Father Nate said. “I think Otilla, it should be you, since Stron has seen fit to bless ye with his fire in yar hands, and since it’s yar and yar team’s kill, ye should be the one to set it alight.”

“Yeah, for sure!” Peep said, her eyes gleaming. Then she hesitated. “Shame that the womenfolk and kids can’t be here to see it though. I mean, we aint run into anything. And if we bring them in and out the same trail we been using, then there can’t be any harm in it. So long as they keep the little ones close. Right?”

“Otilla, I think you are quite right. That’s very thoughtful. What do you think, Unger? Aaron? They are your families, after all,” Father Nate said.

It was decided that everyone should be in attendance for what was sure to be a very special event to be entered into the lore of the whole community. Unger and Aaron went back to the compound with Jagg to bring their families. They took the mules with them, dragging the corpses of the ettercap and monstrous spider behind.

As they left, Father Nate gave Choke a tap and pulled him aside.

“I think, Bartholomew, that there might be someone else who would be upset to miss out on a chance to see this evil mess burn. Don’t you?”

“Ah. Of course. Thank you, Father,” Choke said.

Choke followed along behind Unger and the others back to the farm compound. There was a predictably noisy reaction to the dead monsters from the women and children. Unger and Aaron were immediately distracted answering the barrage of disorganized questions that came at them about what exactly the creatures were, how they had come to exist, what they might have been eating to get so big, why the big one had only four limbs, where their treasure was, if there were any more around, why they were burned, how they had been killed, where their webs came from, what the webs looked like, how could the bigger one have learned to speak Gerant, and so on.

Seeing that the men were likely to be waylaid for some time by this, Choke took the mules into the compound and put them away properly in their stalls. Then he set about finding Knuckle.

It took Choke about ten minutes, but he eventually did locate his friend sitting in the long grass beside the brook, almost a hundred meters away from the compound. Knuckle glanced up from the burbling water as Choke sat down with him.

Having prepared himself for the worst, Choke was relieved to see that Knuckle’s scars were not quite as bad as Father Nate had led him to believe. Even so, they were not good.

Knuckle’s face had already been carved up by the bandit Goldy’s throwing axe, which had left a big, looping horseshoe scar across his cheek. Now he had a series of puckered scars all across his face and neck. The smallest of them were no bigger than a pea, but most were the size of coins. The fresh scar tissue within the craters was waxy looking. As well, most of Knuckle’s left ear was gone, with what remained being a lumpy, deformed mess around the ear hole.

“How are you, Knuckle?” Choke asked gently.

Knuckle sat in silence for a long time before he answered:

“What, ye can’t see for yarself?”

“Yes, it’s bad. I’m sorry. It is a terrible thing that happened to you. I would have been to see you sooner, but Father Nate thought it best to leave you alone for a little while,” Choke said.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“I understand you are upset by what the monster did to you. It is understandable. But you need to know that your scars are battle-earned marks of valor. They will be regarded as such.”

“Really? Ye think? How many women are gonna wanna be with someone who looks like me?” Knuckle yelled.

Choke sighed. “That’s what’s concerning you? Really? How many women have wanted to be with you anyway? With any of us? I mean; besides the ones you’ve been paying to pretend they want you. If your intentions are decent, I think any good woman of sense will welcome a union with an honorable, strong man who has fought for the safety of her community. Get your head right, and stop viewing women as a disposable thing in which to dump your debauched need, and I think you’ll find that they will surprise you.”

“Oh yeah? And what d’ye know about it?”

“Next to nothing. But more than you, I suspect. Anyway, Theodas, you can sit here and wallow in self-pity if you want. Or you can come along and join in a celebration with the community that you valiantly fought to protect as we burn that foul monster’s lair. It is your choice,” Choke said, his tone now becoming sharp.

Knuckle sat in silence, glaring at the brook.

“And whatever you might be feeling about what happened,” Choke went on, “you need to understand that we did everything we could for you, in very difficult circumstances. We were all fighting for our lives. You were the unlucky one to be taken. And we went into that place to fight and kill that thing that took you. And we got you back. We did the best we could. Peep even broke her ankle rescuing you. So you had best remember that before you come to rejoin us.”

Choke sat in silence and let Knuckle think on that for a while. Then he continued:

“And don’t make any mistake about it, man. Peep was the one that led the charge to save you. She was the one that killed the thing. And she was the one that climbed out into its web to get you back. And while you’re thinking on that, you may also want to reflect on how you have behaved towards her up until now. Have you done anything to warrant that degree of loyalty from her?”

Choke let that hang in the air for a while.

“I’m not telling you what to think, Knuckle. I’m not even telling you how to act. But, I think, for your sake, you need to get yourself correct before you say anything to Peep. Because she has no reason to tolerate any bullshit from you. Okay, that’s it. We’ll be at the tower, watching that shit inside burn. You do what you feel.”

With that, Choke gave Knuckle a friendly clap on the shoulder and left him on the brook’s bank. Knuckle waited just a minute before he followed him.

***

It took another thirty minutes for the families at the Unger compound to depart on the expedition to the Old Mill to watch the burning of the spider monster’s lair. When Knuckle joined them, the adults and older kids were all respectful in their response to seeing his scars, although he did make some of the little ones cry. Everyone, Knuckle included, weathered this awkwardness with aplomb.

Nimara and Janice had quite rightly decided that such a monumental occasion warranted a proper celebration. They loaded the menfolk down with picnic blankets; cured meat, loaves of bread, and a wheel of cheese for a late lunch; jugs of blackberry wine for the grownups; and watered-down wine for the kids.

It was quite a merry procession through the forest to the Old Mill.

At the Old Mill’s clearing, Nimara and Janice took control of the scene. They first made a hard and fast perimeter by trampling down the long grass a good three meters inside the surrounding trees and bushes. Everyone cheerfully joined in getting this done. Nimara and Janice then declared that no children would set foot within arm’s reach of the tall grass left standing. The boundary set, Nimara and Janice then laid out the blankets and distributed wooden cups for everyone to have a drink, slapping away any hands that strayed too near the food as they did.

When everyone was sufficiently refreshed and relaxed, Father Nate stepped away and raised his hand for attention.

“Everyone! Everyone! We are here today to see this place, the Old Mill, that has so long been a place of death and evil, finally cleansed by the Holy Fire of Stron! Thanks to Otilla of the Holy Fire, and these men, Bartholomew, Theodas, and Nikolas, the evil that dwelled here has been slain. And so we rejoice! Hallelujah! Praise to Stron for this victory of his agents!”

“Hallelujah! Praise Stron!” everyone cheered.

“And so, let us pray,” Father Nate said, gesturing for his flock to kneel. Once they had, he traced the sign of the Wheel overtop them all.

“Holy Father, Altas, and Stron, His son, look upon the glorious deeds that led us to this moment. We thank you for yar blessings in this victory. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone intoned.

Father Nate then went to the tower’s entrance and traced the Wheel once more.

“Holy Father, Altas, and Stron, His son, bless this fire that we are about to set. Let it cleanse this place of evil, and serve as funeral pyre for any and all unfortunate souls that may have fallen victim to the creatures that dwelled here. Take their souls into your arms for judgment. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone followed again.

“Otilla!” Father Nate boomed with a wide grin. “It is time! Set the pyre alight, so that we might rejoice at this evil place’s cleansing!”

With everyone clustered expectantly behind her, Peep approached the tower’s entrance. Still on a crutch and limping with her lower leg in a splint, she nonetheless moved with a strong inner force and intention that made her formidable. It was as though waves of energy were radiating from her, like heat distortion over sunbaked stones.

“Stron, burn this evil!” Otilla of the Holy Fire screamed, letting her crutch fall as she extended both palms forward into the tower with her fingers splayed wide.

The flames that shot from the Wheel brands in her flesh were at a whole new level. Like a dragon’s breath, the Holy Fire roared from her to completely envelop the huge pile of fuel in the tower.

The fire Peep had produced the day before in combat had been consistent and limited. Potent, surely, but only within a range of about three meters and for a duration of a few seconds. This Holy Fire was in no way so constrained. It continued to roar from her, rolling over the logs as it flared up into the vast chimney that the empty tower had now become.

Otilla of the Holy Fire laughed. Her eyes alight with a maniacal gleam, she laughed in ecstasy. Unlike the laugh that had come from her during her baptism in fire, which had been a mingling of her spirit with that of the Fire that possessed her, this was all Peep. This was the unleashed laugh of a woman experiencing the miracle of a rebirth; the miracle of her god-given power. She laughed and laughed, and when she closed her hands to end the Fire, she was a new person. She was now, heart and soul, Otilla of the Holy Fire.

Framed in the Old Mill’s entrance, with the flames of the pyre behind her roaring like an enormous forge, Otilla of the Holy Fire turned back towards her audience.

“Oh my,” Father Nate said as he beheld her visage.

read part 50

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