Mari’s gaze turned back toward Androkles, her eyes shining red, ferocious and bestial. Hungry. She reached for him, and he tried to twist away, but couldn’t escape the animals’ teeth; instead he gasped in pain as their fangs ground on his bones. She gripped the front of his robe, and suddenly it fell away like wet papyrus, collapsing to the ground. He was used to being nude in public, but even in his loincloth he felt exposed and shamed under her gaze. She reached for his face, and he tried to bite her fingers. She gripped his chin and held his head firmly, looking him in the eyes.
“You will make a fine meal. Your bones are heavy with meat.” And then she pressed her killing intent upon him. He found himself unable to move, barely even able to think. The immense pressure on his soul left him shaking in terror. It seemed his thoughts themselves were fleeing from her. He had no way to resist but try to summon his own intent from an empty store, which he did, unsuccessfully. None came.
She laughed at his efforts, and her intent multiplied stronger than before; he could feel himself grow rigid and paralyzed. The pain of his injuries seemed ever more potent, and he began to fear he’d lose his water. He was terrified. Humbled utterly.
“That is how a human should act. Tremble. Cower. I am Mari,” she whispered viciously into his ear. Her fingertips were knives, giving him long, shallow cuts as she traced the contours of his chest and stomach. Then she took a bite of the skin of his chest, pulling her teeth away to make it rip instead of cutting it cleanly. He gasped as he felt the bitterness of the injury and the cold air against exposed muscle.
She stepped back, chewing, triumph and satisfaction in her eyes. He looked down and saw that he was missing a two-by-two-inch patch of skin. Injuries like that would fester if not bound immediately, and so close to his heart …
Mari traced her finger through the blood dripping from the wound, then licked it clean. She smiled, her teeth red with his blood, and said, “You are not first. The girl is first, the one my husband caught for me. You will watch me eat her.”
The thought horrified him afresh and he found enough courage to shout, “No!” and squirm against the bears and wolves. He couldn’t get free; they had him too firmly. He could feel their teeth tearing his muscle. He made a sound very much like a whimper, brought on by desperation and pain.
Mari laughed again. “You still defy me? Why do you not beg like the others? Tremble, plead, and beg. You are a human. I am Mari.”
Her intent was still on him, stealing his breath, but his mind grew clearer as he focused and found defiance. He scowled at her and said, “Get taken by crows!”
Mari simply laughed at him again, slid her finger through his wound, and licked it clean. Her sharp teeth shone in the light of the fire as she smiled. Behind the goddess he noticed a black shape, smaller than a wolf and nearly invisible in the shadows, hovering over Garbi. It picked her up, and although it seemed to struggle under the weight, it carried her off into the shadows. That was it for her, then. Some animal was going to eat her.
Mari slapped him in the face again, on the same side as before. He thought he could hear bones cracking, and the pain made his eyes water and nausea gather in his stomach. He struggled against the beasts again, but they held him firmly. It was agony worse than surgery.
The goddess turned and walked over to where Garbi had been. Then she whirled around to face Androkles. She covered the distance in a single step, then slapped him yet again, this time on the other cheek. The pain nearly drove him senseless. His face was beginning to swell, and soon he’d be unable to see out of his left eye. His neck felt like something had torn from the force of her strike.
“Where has she gone?” demanded Mari. Androkles, gathering the last of his courage and defiance, spat at her face. His spittle was mostly blood. She glided effortlessly aside, untouched by it. She gripped his chin, holding his head up, and looked into his eyes. Then she said, “You do not know. I will find her.”
Wolves and bears immediately raced through the ruined village, darting in and out of the shadows. They howled and snarled as they searched inside each remaining house. The goddess grew frantic, screaming in frustration, a sound like thousands of pots shattering at once.
His head throbbed, and the nausea caused by his pain grew worse. He would vomit soon; the agony was too much for him; the animals’ teeth grinding on his bones, holding him up; the broken bones in his face; the open, oozing wound on his chest; the injured tendon in his neck … it took all his willpower to even hold his head up.
The goddess would get Garbi back soon from whatever had dragged her off, he was certain. And then he would watch the little girl be eaten. If any god could have heard him, he would have prayed that she stayed broken, and didn’t wake up to scream and suffer with each bite.
At this, Androkles finally knew himself completely defeated. His resistance vanished, and the clarity of abandonment filled his mind. He would not go in terror. He gave up his fear and waited for death.
Once, Nikon had said that he wanted to die at the hand of a jealous god after sleeping with his wife. This was sort of like that, Androkles thought, too sore to smirk. Killed by a jealous goddess after stabbing her husband up the asshole. He wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t move. What better way to die, than with bitterness and dark soldier’s humor in his heart? It was the only fitting end to his life. Killed in barbarian lands, last of his line and friends, never to be remembered. Raphos Corpse-eater would claim him soon.
He hung his head in weariness and waited. The weight of his head pulled his arms forward, and the animals bit him more tightly to keep him in place, making him grimace in pain.
Then, as if it were wafting incense, he heard a pure, innocent voice singing a gentle melody over the ravages of fire and beasts. It sang in a tongue he couldn’t understand, and the tune was completely foreign to him as well. It sounded like Flower, and it touched his heart deeply. Tears came to his eyes and he struggled to keep from sobbing, because to his ears, the song sounded like all the things that could have been. It sounded like green fields of growing barley, the sounds of his children laughing nearby as they played in the wind. Fresh bread baking, fresh wine, good oil. His wife meeting with her friends in their chambers, incense and laughter carried out the windows for all to enjoy. Sunset meals with his workers. His daughter crawling into his bed during a thunderstorm. His boys with their butts in the air, tails swishing, as they try to make bugs race on a hot afternoon. His wife resting her head on his chest while they hugged after a stressful day at market. His friends banging on his door, late at night, with full pots of wine.
All and each of them things he would never have. It filled him with a longing he could not begin to describe, a longing more painful than his injuries, as it tore apart his dignity. This vision at the end of his life was too cruel by far, and it was more than he could bear. His tears ran hotly down his cheeks, and he shook with quiet sobs.
The last vision of the song was of himself, Androkles, as he always wanted to be. Bold, noble, and mighty, hoplon and spear held proudly as he stood on the edge of his land, between his loved home and the desolation of war. His family and servants safe behind him, destruction and bloodshed ahead of him, never to pass by. The army had been the walls of the whole Glories together, by law and tradition. He, Androkles, was the walls of his household. His polished bronze armor shone with resplendence in the sunlight, and his enemies cowered when they heard his name. Nothing could pass by him. Not a single grain of wheat would be lost. He was Androkles.
The song ended and the voice fell quiet. He gasped as the strength of that vision faded, causing him to quake with the memory. A powerful emotion filled him to take its place, one that seemed both familiar and new to him. It was not rage, nor fear, nor regret, nor pride. It had no name that he knew; it was simply the way things deserved to be. The way things had been meant to happen. It felt stronger than his rage had ever been. White as sunlight. Pure. Just.
His pain never faded, but neither did it trouble him any longer. This is how he would die, then. This would be an acceptable end, if this was what he felt in his last moments. He opened his eyes again to face the goddess and watch her wickedness unblinking and unafraid, bearing witness to her corruption.
Atop a nearby roof, one which had been spared fire for whatever reason, he imagined he saw a vision of the dead. He saw Wolfscar glowing brightly, eyes closed in concentration. Under him waited Flower and Pepper, hands clasped as if in prayer. Between them stood Agurne, holding aloft a shining jewel in one hand and holding Garbi over her shoulder with the other arm. So Garbi was already gone, then. He nodded, accepting.
Then Agurne met his gaze and shouted, “Bring out your evil, you stupid asshole! I’ll shield ’em!”
For a moment he blinked, uncomprehending, and then he realized it was not over yet. It was no vision—Agurne had saved them somehow. They were all still alive.
Mari screamed and scratched at the ball of light surrounding them, unable to get through. Her animals, too many to count, circled the hut as they screamed and snarled. Hundreds of them, almost like a living carpet of fur and claws.
The visions of the song endured in his mind, and the emotions they had brought. If they lived, he must save them. Remembering the Androkles from the vision, he squared his jaw and furrowed his brow as he dug deeply for his killing intent.
This time, he found it. It came fiery and white, hotter than flame. It filled him from head to toe and radiated broadly, sending shockwaves through the beasts. He fed it all his hope and his determination, and it grew ever stronger. It was pure resolution to do violence on the wicked, to see them cut down and trampled beneath his feet like rotted grain. He could feel it radiating in ferocious waves from his body. Androkles was a killer more certain than time; his will to destroy his enemies was absolute. The bears and wolves holding him up released him and fled, whimpering.
He rose to his feet, forcing his intent ever stronger. His pain did not diminish, but neither did it touch his soul anymore to shake his courage; it was purely in the body. Mari turned to face him with an elongated, bestial face, snarling with long, gleaming teeth. Her fingers were claws, and her fair skin had turned rocky like gravel. The blood pools of her eyes radiated red light like focused lanterns, casting gleams in the smoke. He knew that had he seen her like this in the inn, he would never have dared resist.
He strode to his spear and picked it up, then his shield. The injuries in his arms limited his strength, but he was determined not to falter while he still drew breath.
“You really get on my nerves, you know that, Mari? You really do. I think I’m going to kill you.”
His nausea grew worse as the loss of blood made him lightheaded. Blood poured down his arms and ankles from dozens of puncture wounds, but he strode toward her with purpose in his footsteps. The animals near her parted to let him pass, most of them fleeing from his killing intent. He focused on thoughts of skewering her with the spear over and over again, and his intent grew stronger. The bears cowered and the wolves jumped over each other to escape him.
Mari grew in size, skin turning to rock and chafing into sand when she moved. She was half again his height, looking less human with each step. Androkles charged and jumped, putting all his weight into the tip of his spear; she moved to the side, but her size and heavy skin slowed her. His thrust scored her stomach, hissing and leaving sand pouring from an open hole. She screamed, a low, ferocious sound, almost like the tartalo had sounded.
Thorns erupted from the uneven ground, twisting forward to entangle him, but he jumped away and charged her again, stabbing at her legs. This time he aimed true, and his spear pierced her thigh, leaving an open wound from which sand poured like a broken pot. She swept down and caught him, picking him up by one leg instead of reacting to the injury. The blood made the spear slip out of his hand as she held him overhead and tried to bite him in half.
His xiphos slid from his belt, and he caught it in the air and stabbed at her face with grace as though he’d planned it beforehand. She moved her head, and the blade was harmlessly deflected from her cheek. When she straightened her head to attempt another bite, he was ready for her, and jammed the xiphos deep into her eye.
She cried out loudly in pain, sounding like a dozen angry bulls, and dropped him. He tried to grab hold of her to keep from falling, but his hands only slid on the sheer rock surface of her skin. He tumbled to the ground gracelessly and heard a loud pop when he met the dirt. The goddess stomped to crush him, but he rolled and rolled again to evade her. Each time, a fresh jolt of pain shot through his body from his left shoulder, which he knew had been dislocated or worse. He rose to his feet, panting, left arm dangling uselessly, and picked up his spear again.
The goddess glared at him from her good eye, trying to overpower him with her intent. Thorny vines erupted again from the ground, but he stepped away from them easily; she was faltering.
“You’re getting weaker, you hideous castoff of a gorgon!” he shouted, sounding a bit wan himself.
She hissed at him and pulled his xiphos from her eye, tossing it aside. Water poured from the wound, running down her in rivulets.
“I am Mari. You are human. You are a river that oversteps its bounds. You are a wind that blows down a door, a fire that escapes a pit. You are chaos. I am divine. If I fall, other gods will destroy you utterly. Your soul will burn upon the first flame and you will be annihilated. Your name and memory will vanish forever. You will never have been. I am Mari.”
She fell to all fours and took the shape of a wolf, half again as tall as him at her shoulder, wounds now dripping blood instead of sand or water. Her claws and teeth grew longer and sharper and became metal, and her growls now sounded genuinely like a wolf, although much deeper. The vines receded into the ground, and the miasma in the air weakened as Mari herself grew larger and stronger.
Androkles’s killing intent gave him some strange awareness of what was happening: Mari was withdrawing her influence on the land to become wholly real, wholly immanent in the world. She was risking herself in truth in order to kill him.
He squatted down, panting and out of breath. He was losing too much blood; he could feel his face constricting and his thoughts fade. He looked up at his little family, illuminated by Wolfscar’s light. Agurne’s face was sheened with sweat and her eyes were closed in concentration. The kits clutched each other’s robes, faces scrunched up with worry as they watched him. He must look terrible, he realized. He was leaving bloody footprints everywhere. He gave them a dark grin, then stood up straight. He redoubled his killing intent, giving it all the power he could.
Then Mari was upon him, leaping through the air to pin him. He knelt and braced the spear against the ground, and she fell onto the point face-first, spearhead driving through her mouth and into her brain. The wound hissed and smoked, and she lunged back, shaking her head, pawing at her face to remove the spear.
He nearly fell, sure it was finally over; she would twitch and die. Then she jumped at him again, swiping with claws longer than his forearms. He dove toward her, safe under her belly, then darted away, looking for his xiphos. He found it and picked it up, whirling around to face her. He slashed at her paws as she tried to swipe him again, cutting into the soft flesh of the pads. She snarled again, still shaking her head to free the spear, but it stayed put.
She swiped at him with the other paw. He stepped back to avoid it, then rushed in, stabbing upward at her neck. The point of the blade dug deep, and a spurt of blood followed it away. He stabbed upward again, but she jumped away.
Mari shuddered and shook, pawing at the ground and turning in a circle. Then she glared again at Androkles, focusing her anger on him.
“I cannot change. The spear holds me. You should not have it.” Her pronunciation made it hard to determine her words. The spear held her wolf-tongue down, and she was using her mouth to speak, unlike before.
“Come over here and I’ll pull it out,” he said.
She growled ferociously at him, and fresh spurts of blood poured from her neck. Androkles was lightheaded and losing his vision; his wounds had stopped bleeding entirely, indicating he was empty. He would die, but so would she, and the children would live.
Gathering the last of his strength, he charged her again, ducking away from her paw. He slashed and slashed at her belly, stabbing and cutting as much as he could before he passed out. She screamed and went rigid, and he took the chance to gut her properly, stabbing at an angle, then pulling down with all his weight to open her up.
Blood and viscera poured from the wound, and he slipped and fell, losing hold of the xiphos. Mari took a few wobbling steps to the side then slipped on her own entrails and fell over, panting heavily. Blood stopped pouring from her belly, replaced by a strange smoke that howled and made the shapes of dozens of faces as it escaped her. It looked like the souls of hundreds of people were escaping her, taking human form and vanishing with a cry. He looked on in amazement, and somehow managed to stay conscious.
After but a moment, all was quiet. He collapsed to lay flat on his back in a pool of the goddess’s blood, his breathing shallow and rapid. He gazed up at the sky as the fire dimmed, no longer fed by fresh thorns. This was it for him, but he’d saved them. He’d planted his shield between them and death, and he was comforted by the thought that it had meant something. The kits, the girl, the fairy, and Agurne. They’d tell his story, and he’d be remembered, his name redeemed, if not his household. It would have to do.