A Wish for Hope
I rode in awe of Duchess Jelnaya. She had only been a name. I had seen things, but had learned that there were those that feared her. I ran screaming her name, pleading for her to come, although never knowing more than she had been the one to stop the curse that had come upon me and my people. The problem was that there were others seeking to fill the vacuum that had been created, and I saw others who had raised me, who I had grown up with, who I had a close relationship with, die. Jelnaya was the only name I knew of someone who might rescue me. Meeting her had been rather unimpressive. While she had a commanding nature that I felt was right, it was not until today that I truly understood just how fabulous Honored Duchess Jelnaya truly was.
What I also started to comprehend was where she fit in the grand scheme of things. She was not someone who could change me back. Honored Duchess Jelnaya could certainly have stopped the Privileged. She had the ability to move between worlds, and the skills to stop horrible, powerful evils. The way she took to killing monsters larger than herself, one with the ability to fly, more than proved her deadliness to me. What I however also began to see was that she was only a cog in a much greater machine. The power she had actually was not her own. She was merely entrusted with it. While she acted with the might and authority that made me feel correct in seeking her, I began to comprehend that she was part of a much larger framework that I had not considered to truly exist.
Even though I pushed my brain where I wanted to scream with agony, I could not think of any knowledge of the gods. I considered them stories told by others. My power, my glory, I wanted to claim only for myself. My mentality, my history, had me seeing Honored Duchess Jelnaya as someone having more power and more glory than most had amassed, but, like wealth, I could work to accumulate my own. What I found myself able to comprehend was that what she had could not be obtained, but could only be given. Even though I pushed my brain to understand what she was capable of, I could not imagine the steps to gaining the knowledge to do what she did.
I listened as she gave a sermon to those around her. Actually, she only had an audience of two. She might have assumed the young prince to be conscious, but I did not see him make any indication of being awake. The way she moved while she gave the sermon had me believe she suspected the bodyguard or lieutenant to turn on her.
Horns sounded and there were indications of people moving as we approached a walled city. There was a stench of something horrible being burnt, and I had to assume it was bodies. I saw soldiers and worried that the lady that had killed the people would be forced to kill more. All the locals however genuflected as she rode toward them.
She did not speak as we moved through the town. No one voiced any praise or accusation. They knelt and in silence we rode on through the community.
The church was a massive structure of granite with the outer surface carved in various designs. In front of it were a number of people in armor. As we approached, one who appeared to be covered in heavy pieces of thick metal stepped up.
“Jelnaya,” he said with his words sounding strong even through the sturdy covering on his head, “we were told not to enter.”
The lady dropped to the ground to say, “Something about this situation has had Fergush really quiet. Usually he would be telling me who you are.”
He held out a hand while saying, “No reason we can’t handle our own introductions. I’m Shospeck, divine champion. Fergush hasn’t been as nice to me as he has to you, but I can’t complain.”
I saw the eyes of Honored Duchess Jelnaya move about before saying, “All I see are devotees to Fergush.”
“You give us the word, and we will clean up Samayer’s house. I would suggest that you cover your face, because it is probably really rank inside.”
“Have you been told what we found in what is now my castle?”
The man answered the question without any statement of her changing the topic. “No, Jelnaya.”
“Something really wrong happened, Shospeck. Cleaning the church might not be the best option.”
“It’s mostly stone, Jelnaya. Can’t burn it down.”
She patted the man on his metal covered chest while saying, “I will be more than willing to talk about things, Shospeck. Something horrible happened.”
I dismounted to move up with the lady, and was glad she spoke to another. “All right, Vulge, you stay out here.”
I noticed that the heavily armored man was barely the height of the one much more lightly attired who replied, “Princess, I –“
“This is not for you, Vulge. These are my gods.”
Shospeck asked, “He does have your honor, Jelnaya?”
She kept her eyes on Vulge even as she replied, “He’s a good man. He however is just my chaperone, not my bodyguard.”
Vulge declared, “I went with you down below your castle, Duchess.”
“That was my home, Vulge. You are free to travel about there. This is a church to Samayer, which has nothing to do with Munulva. You stay out here.” I saw the man look to me, but before he could speak Honored Duchess Jelnaya did. “Esgalia is looking for answers, Vulge. He might not worship the gods of this world either, but I told him he needed to stay in the fight. Who knows, maybe he can find something that applies to him. In any event, he has his own fight and I will not stop him from seeking it out. You, Vulge, have the fight out here. Any of these men out here might be seeking my hand.”
Shospeck looked about as he said, “Now, that would be a challenge to brag about. You’re as pretty as I was told, Jelnaya.”
“Thank you, but I got work to do. You coming, Esgalia?”
Honored Duchess Jelnaya did not wear a helmet. She however went to her saddle and pulled out a red cloth along with a yellow one. She put the red one around her face while handing the other to me.
There was no door, but we passed through a separation of thick stone only to turn toward another opening I could only make out due to its being very black, which had me ask, “How are we to see?”
Jelnaya replied, “There is usually light. There are breaks in the roof sections as well. Still, you are right, we need to see.”
I did not see her cast a spell, but suddenly everything lit up around me. Inside were blocks of decorated stone of various heights. Bodies covered some with many more simply lying on the floor. I really did not need Honored Duchess Jelnaya to explain the reason for the death, although was glad to hear her speak.
“This is a place of rest, of healing. This should definitely not be a place of death. This place is to She-Who-Survives, and they did not.”
I went to one corpse, and found an object of roughly carved rock hanging from a hemp cord around the body’s neck. Jelnaya wore a suit of crystal with items of precious metals and stones added to it. Some I saw on her person even when without her armor. Looking about the building, I saw other objects of polished stone or precious materials. I held the object I took out to Jelnaya while asking a question.
“What is the symbol of Samayer?”
She pointed to various objects as she answered, “Baby under an open coffin. Yes, the image is usually highly stylized, but there are a number around here that gives a detailed representation.” She took from me what I was showing to her, then went to the body I had removed it from. “That man should not have been wearing anything like this.”
The fact that she put her focus back on the object and kept it there had me ask, “Do you know anything about it?”
“No, and I probably should feel bad about it. I did not grow up on this world, so the things one would tell a child about the gods I never heard. I have read some books, but most of the stories I have from growing up are from other worlds. Honestly, though, I cannot say my children will have it much better. I still move between worlds, have family on other worlds, so there is no telling what my children will be told.”
I watched as she moved about checking other bodies. Jelnaya did remove some more objects from the necks of people who I could tell were otherwise dressed as worshippers of Samayer. I watched as she compared a number of objects to each other, then waited for what she might say.
“I however know enough to say this isn’t a demon acting on its own. Demons only cause trouble. What I cannot believe is that we have something like the Privileged. They were corrupted by a demon, but even at the source there was no attempt at any organized presentation. What we found were the things used to summon the demon, and not things inspired by the demon itself.”
I had to ask, “If not a demon then what?”
“How were you transformed? It wasn’t all magic, was it?”
I almost told her that I could not remember, but then images came to me and I found myself able to answer. “No. There was a device. I don’t know where they got all the foxes from, but they would take a fox from a set of cages, force one of us into a cylindrical chamber, and then it happened. I watched as they turned dials and did other things, but I was mostly scared.”
She showed off the objects while saying, “This is something a human would do. They would try to build some unity. They would make things like this, using whatever they had on hand, to try and get some cooperation.”
“Are you saying that a person caused this?”
“Yes. I am thinking that I might have what I feared when I was going after the Privileged. You have to understand that because of my past I have heard stories that those of this world have not. Further, I have met Terdeskollit. I know evil deities do exist. While what I have heard speaks against them having divine champions, I was thinking I could be facing one previously, and I am fearing the same now.”
The strangest feeling came over me. I found myself able to think. Jelnaya allowed me to take the objects from her, and I looked at them with a clarity that enabled me to make some sense of my surrounding. It however was in looking at Honored Duchess Jelnaya that I truly found myself able to make a decision.
“I agree this was a human, but not a divine champion. You, Honored Neselle, and that man outside are all proud figures representing their deity. Whoever did this is not standing out.”
“Okay. So, come on. Let’s see if I can find here what I found when I went after the Privileged.”
It was odd being able to enjoy Honored Duchess Jelnaya as she went about reenacting her steps in killing the people. She was a lovely lady, so just watching her was a pleasure. While I was now a fox person, it filled me with joy to find my mind accept her as what a female should look like. What I could also do was mentally mark off each body as she spoke of how she killed the person. Following her became fun as I watched her move going through various motions, although it was odd when she stopped against a wall.
She said, “I went through here.”
Having seen a lot of solid stone, I could not believe that anything could move. Everything had me believe it had been constructed with a certain design, and had stayed that way since the room had been erected. Duchess Jelnaya however cut away a section of cloth from one corpse, then used it to wipe away at the scum I assumed were splotches of blood upon the wall. Seeing her working hard at one section, I moved up to see what had gained her attention. She looked at me, then paused her activity to show me a gilded symbol of Samayer except with a lady beneath the coffin. She then worked a little more before placing her fingers in a certain way, and I noticed a section of solid stone rotate.
She said, “Honestly, Esgalia, you’re not to pass through here, but I doubt you are the first man to do so. Come on.”
Stepping through the opening, I saw the stone covered by a layer of cloth. There were designs in places, sections of lace, although for the most part the color was primarily of yellow. There were bodies here, although solely of women. Jelnaya went back to stepping through her actions, although stopped seeing one section of carved stone.
She called me over asking what I saw. By now I had seen the symbol of Samayer a large number of times. I however used my fingers to assure that the coffin had been recently worked to show it broken, and where the baby usually was they had worked a circular depression. There were also signs that the gold foil had been worked free, so I considered a circle of the metal suspicious. When I found I could remove it to see a hole, I had to ask Jelnaya what it was.
She however looked up do demand, “Explain yourself, Samayer.”
While there had been a radiance enabling us to see, I felt the room to become extremely bright as a lady appeared who said, “It’s part of the sewage system, Jelnaya. At least that was its purpose. Women, have problems, and some babies are better off if they do not survive. This was for removing such wastes.”
“Are you saying you did not know?”
“Jelnaya, that is not our ways. Fergush is not He-Who-Rights-Wrongs and I am not She-Who-Justifies. Sometimes the side you fight on is simply the side that asked, or asked first, or some other condition that has no bearing on who is the most righteous. Sometimes who I allow to survive is simply one who has a strong will to survive. Also, there are supposed to be those who rise up to face the challenges. That is who you were, Jelnaya. You were doing some wonderful things before my husband claimed you. There are also supposed to be those who worked to help others to survive. That is what failed, Jelnaya. You are not here to right the wrong, but because I needed someone to remove the wrong. They failed here, Jelnaya. Everyone failed here. Not just those who supported this evil, but everyone else who found out about it, who heard about it, who suspected it, who told rumors about it, and those who listened to those rumors. Jelnaya, my husband does not brag on what you do for him, but on what you do. You represent him boldly even when you are doing things that have nothing to do with him. Here we are however on our world where people know our ways and what we demand, and no one did anything. You are not ruling this land because I believe you will be an excellent ruler, but because I know you will be active declaring certain ways and acting as an example of those ways.”
Honored Duchess Jelnaya genuflected, then said, “I guess that answered my question, all except one.”
“It does still exist, Jelnaya. You will need to go after it.”
“Of course.” She looked at the carving, then moved to the hole to ask, “To the sewer system.”
“Yes, Jelnaya. To the sewer system.”
The honored duchess looked to me, then said, “You might not want to go with me there.”
Before I could respond, the goddess said, “Jelnaya, he has survived. While he might not be of my world, he does happen to represent my aspect. You might want to keep Esgalia with you.”
I could not help but mumble, “That is not a good thing.”
“No, Esgalia, that is not a good thing.” It surprised me to have the goddess speak to me, but I saw her fading as I looked at her and only barely heard her say, “You see, Esgalia, survival is not your true problem.”
I had to admit, “No. Survival is not presently my problem, but how I am going to continue to live.” I turned to Honored Duchess Jelnaya to ask, “Is there a god here that I might turn to?”
She replied, “No. That was the goddess Samayer, She-Who-Survives. You know I represent Fergush, He-Who-Fights. The others are He-Who-Assigns, He-Who-Teaches, She-Who-Loves, and She-Who-Serves. All four would probably have you accept who you are and learn from those experiences that made you as you are.”
“Then I guess we go to the sewers.”
And to the sewers they go.