I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.
There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.
Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.
The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.
An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.
It’s already started. I’m too late.
A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.
With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them. I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.
“Leave him alone!”
The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.
They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.
The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.
“I’ll get you out of here.”
I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.
“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”
The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.
A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.
That could’ve been me.
I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”
They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”
“Where do I know you from?”
They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.
“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”
She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”
“She was supposed to kill me.”
“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”
I had no answer she would find acceptable.
“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”
She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.
She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.
I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.
She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.
Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”
The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.
Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”
Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“
“That’s none of his concern, mother!”
I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.
She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”
Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”
A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.
She nodded and beckoned me to follow.
The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.
I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.
I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.
When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.