Fates Be Damned
By R. K. MacPherson
Havelock looked around, fingers clutching his bow. The violent quaking that rocked the small tavern ended-only a couple of minor aftershocks jostled the few unbroken cups and bowls. The tendrils of lightning that had surrounded each Castanic were gone now, though the air carried a foul tang. He hurried over to Calastra to check for her pulse. It was there, faint but definite. He noticed the long burn marks in her garments. Wisps of smoke rose from her flesh. Had the lightning caused this?
Every Castanic in the inn lay sprawled where they'd fallen. Several bodies still twitched. Only he and the Amani cook, Zulfikar, were still on their feet.
"Kaia's blazing blade! What happened here, human?" The cook roared. "One minute Secundus was chopping roots for the stew, the next he was quivering on the floor with lightning coursing over him."
Havelock shook his head, his eyes narrowed in thought. "I'm not sure. Check everyone, will you? If they're hurt, do what you can to aid them. I'm going to see how the rest of the village fared."
The cook snorted and shook his horns. "This smells of dark magic."
Havelock stepped out of the smoke-filled tavern and into the night air.
The village of Glevum, a settlement of five score, lay north of Deva Victrix, the free city of renegade Devas. Several generations prior, the Castanic clan had fled the bloodthirsty Devan Empire, and their dark goddess, Zuras. They wandered the continent of Shara and petitioned the demon-god, Lok, for his patronage. Lok had taken them under his wing, partially for their skill as renowned artisans, and partially to annoy Zuras.
Havelock's business took him to Deva Victrix, but he was fond of Glevum-and the warm company of Calastra. Concerned for her, and for all of the settlement's inhabitants, he stepped into the darkened thorp to investigate. Several bodies lay still in the square. The arcane red lights common to Castanic towns were extinguished. Aside from a sharp breeze, the air was deadly silent.
An iron-belted door swung open and a priest stumbled out of the small temple. His robes were torn and hung around his waist. Strange scars, reminiscent of lightning bolts, traced up his chest and over his shoulders. The smell of charred flesh turned Havelock's stomach, but he hurried over to the weakened priest.
"At your ease, man!" Havelock urged. "You're wounded!"
The priest winced as he shook his head. His great horns held long white locks out of his eyes. "You don't understand. Something terrible has happened. We're betrayed!"
An hour later, villagers crowded the square. The red lights were still out, but lanterns and torches illuminated the gathering. Many were in obvious pain from their burns. Zulfikar, the cook, stood next to Havelock, idly grooming his fangs with his claws. Havelock steadied Calastra, lest she sway and fall. The diminutive sorcerer slumped against him, but her eyes burned fiercely.
Crius, the priest, stood at the square's center. He wore new robes and leaned heavily on his staff. "Balder is dead."
Everyone gasped, even the two outsiders. Balder, one of Tera's many gods, was revered by both mortals and deities.
"Lok took the Crown of Phanes to Balder, the very crown we forged to cure him. Lok hoped to relieve Balder of his burden, but the crown was not a cure-it was a trap. We poured our skill, magic-our very blood-into that artifact for nothing. Nothing! Balder weakened, and something terrible happened. That's what shook the world, and that's why we have suffered for forging the crown." Crius paused to silently endure a spasm of pain.
"Lok yet lives?" A woman asked.
Crius nodded. "He does, though he fears this betrayal will mean his death."
"Who...who betrayed Lok?" Calastra managed to ask.
Crius shook his head. "I wish I knew."
"What now?" Zulfikar growled. "It's not like the Castanics have many friends. You're in danger."
Crius's lips tightened. "I've received word from my order. There will be a conclave at Deva Victrix in two days. We'll choose our path there, together."
Murmurs and whispers replaced the silence as the crowd dispersed. Some stayed to interrogate Crius further, while others spoke with their neighbors and kin.
Havelock leaned toward Calastra. "Balder's burden?"
Calastra arched an eyebrow at him. "Noticed that, did you? The priest won't tell you much, but he's talking about a fabulous treasure of immense power. While we were forging the crown, I overheard two priests talking about it. Lok's magnanimity goes only so far, after all. With the treasure at his command, he could ascend to the primacy among the gods."
Havelock snorted. "That sounds more like him."
"Being a demon-god is hard work," Calastra murmured. "What interests me is why none of the children were affected, only the adults. Nearly all of us contributed blood or power to the forging of the crown. My daughter, Jocasta, is fine. She was frightened but suffered nothing."
Havelock frowned. "How old is she? Ten?"
"Eleven," Calastra replied. "And she was among those who dripped their blood into the forge."
"Small favors, dear Calastra," Havelock said with a shrug. "Don't question her good fortune. Rejoice in it."
Calastra gripped his hand. "These burns, these scars-if they're a punishment, I doubt my daughter will escape its toll. I fear the price she pays may be higher."
Havelock sensed her fear, and understood it. He loved her all the more for her concern, though he'd never insult her by saying so. "As a wise Castanic woman once told me, 'Try to relax and enjoy the crisis.'" He grinned and winked.
The dark mood broke, and Calastra laughed.