The Tale of the Lagano Priestess
A Tale by Aaron Canton
Valara Durrash had to concede that negotiations with other lagano tribes were always a bit dangerous. Lagano were a fractious species in the best of times, and treaty discussions had a way of riling up even the most disciplined negotiators. In the best case, the aggravations could be resolved with some bickering at the negotiation table or perhaps a duel between the lead diplomats from opposing sides. In the worst case, the treaty signings could degenerate into declarations of war that would lay waste to both parties.
But treaty discussions also gave Valara a chance to dress in the most gorgeous vestments, so they weren’t all bad.
Valara hissed a merry laugh to herself as the diplomats from three nearby lagano tribes climbed into her rooms at the top of her temple. It was a magnificent structure—a stepped pyramid ten stories tall, its peak perpetually wreathed in holy fire that contrasted with the moat surrounding the building and isolating its sacred grounds from the profane markets and dwellings of Kerogane. The private sanctum of Valara, the resident high priestess, was easily the most glorious part of the temple. Her walls were covered in precious gems ranging in color from red rubies to bronze topaz, all set in undulating and flickering patterns reminiscent of the flames handed down by Hakar, the lagano god of fire that they worshipped. The altar in the center of the room featured a huge golden statue of ten priests worshipping Hakar; a dozen artisans had spent a year making it and Valara had personally overseen them as they carved and chiseled the appropriate robes onto each of the priests. Racks of chasubles and other ritual clothing, each more ornate and fancier than the last, lined both walls. In short, the room had everything that Valara Durrash, high priestess of Hakar, needed for her holy duties. Of course, everything needed to shock and awe any visitors into realizing the power she must be able to wield (on behalf of her god, of course) in order to obtain such luxuries.
“Welcome, welcome!” she hissed to the diplomats as she bade them towards a table along the north end of the room. It was large and carved entirely from a single massive block of wood, and the intricate depictions of scenes from lagano holy texts etched into its surface always made Valara feel a little more regal whenever she sat at it. “I am glad you all responded to the summons.”
“Of course,” said Sekro, the first diplomat. Deep blue scales lined his body—seen only in sea lagano tribes, and thick webbing connected his fingers. He wore clothes that were simple yet refined—a formal tunic and pants—and had a ritual necklace around his neck which denoted him as an elder chieftain of his tribe. He carried a simple staff which he used as a walking stick. “We would not want to offend the god Hakar.”
The second diplomat, Marak, snorted skeptically. His scales were darker—he was a marsh lagano whose tribe inhabited the swampy area on the other side of the mountains which stood between Kerogane and the sea—and his clothing was a little less respectful and a little more ragged. He had a chieftain’s necklace too, and additionally had tattoos on his arms indicating he had been victorious in four duels against challengers. “We’ll see,” Marak went on.
“See what?” Lashka, the final diplomat, asked in a contemptuous tone. She was the biggest of all of them, a massive jungle lagano who stood more than a full head taller than Valara and whose scales were an ugly deep green that verged towards brown in places. She represented a tribe of jungle lagano who lived in the mountains themselves. Her clothes were the bare minimum required for modesty, and she had a tattoo on her forehead denoting her allegiance to Nerot, the god of war. “What’s to see? Decadence and gold?”
Valara gave Lashka a polite look as the three other lagano were seated at the table. She waved a hand, flicking back the ornate robe she had put on for just this occasion in the process, and acolytes scurried from the sides of the room to pour tea and set a tray of delicious grilled fish on the table. “I am confident,” said Valara in a slightly pompous tone she found herself using whenever she was acting in a formal role, “you will agree that the treaty I am about to propose will contribute to the betterment of all your tribes.”
Sekro nodded, Marak leaned back in his chair, and Lashka let out a derisive ‘humph’ sound. None of them interrupted Valara, though, and she nodded at them before moving on.
“I don’t need to go into the history of conflict between your three tribes,” Valara went on. “How your sea lagano, Sekro, and your marsh lagano, Marak, have battled over who controls the coastlines and the mouths of the rivers flowing into Lustra. Or how the jungle lagano of the mountains have sent raiding parties into the inland marshes to seize territory and supplies. These battles have drained all three of your tribes’ resources, and more importantly, left countless lagano to die in border squabbles which have only grown more intense in recent months. We are here to forge a peace that will end these battles and allow all to prosper.”
Marak chuckled. “We can forge a peace quickly if these two surrender.”
“Never,” growled Lashka. “If you wish the bloodletting to stop, kneel to us and accept your place as our subjects.”
Valara shook her head. “No tribe will accept a role as the inferior of another,” she said. “That will not stop the bloodshed.”
Sekro shrugged. “Why is this a concern of yours?” he asked, his tone respectful but his eyes closely watching Valara. “None of us have offended against Hakar or stepped onto Kerogane soil. Why involve yourself in our affairs?”
“You may not have blasphemed against Hakar, but these pointless battles still oppose his interests,” Valara said. “Hakar is the god of fire, and we are to be his flames—but when flames burn against each other, each incinerating the fuel and air that its rivals would use, they will all reduce each other to ash. We must unite so that we can blaze together, stronger and brighter than ever, and with one purpose.”
Sekro nodded as he considered the point, but the other two diplomats didn’t seem interested, at least to Valara’s eye. “Unite?” Marak asked. “Like the humans do, with their treaties and their promises?” He shook his head. “You can’t mean that.”
“Oh, she does,” said Lashka as a cruel glint came to her features. “She’s been taken by civilization. Look at this.” She gestured at the ornate surroundings. “So besotted with luxuries that she’s forgotten how our people are supposed to live.”
Valara shook her head. “I don’t—”
“Lagano are warriors,” Lashka went on. “Able to sleep on stony ground, eat a mouthful of dried rations, and then rush into battle with nothing but a sword, a shield, and zeal for blood. But you’ve lost your way.” She pointed her finger at Valara. “You live in golden rooms and wear ridiculous robes that would be shredded in five seconds of combat. You are weak, drowning in luxury. And you think to tell us how to make our tribes stronger?”
The high priestess fought to keep a scowl from her face. Yes, she knew that lagano were warriors, but there was nothing wrong with being fancy—after all, wasn’t it the job of the high priestess to showcase her god’s power? And what was a better display of power than showing all the riches and trinkets her god’s servants had obtained? “The purpose of battle is not just to kill each other,” she said politely. “It is to accomplish something. What are your skirmishes designed to achieve, Marak?”
Marak hesitated. “What do you think? We want territory. Having the coast means we can get fish and shellfish more easily. Having the river mouths provides us with ports we can use to sail to other lands with trade goods so we can obtain better weapons. Sekro’s tribe won’t let us use them, so we fight.”
“We also desire ports,” said Sekro. “To get the things on land we can’t get underwater. We can’t just surrender those—”
“Of course not!” said Valara. She leaned back, enjoying how her gorgeous robe rippled with her scales. There were queens, she thought, who didn’t dress as finely as she did. “But if a treaty could be established in which you two shared those river mouths, then you both could get what you want.”
“Or we could just drive off Sekro’s tribe and take them.” Marak crossed his arms. “Without giving anything up.”
Valara slowly shook her head. “I am sure your tribe has many skilled warriors. But if you acted as you suggest, even if you won, you would still take casualties. The bulk of your warriors would be injured or killed.”
“Lagano are not cowards!” snapped Lashka. “We are not afraid to fight and die!”
“But it would weaken your tribes nonetheless.” Valara’s voice grew stern. “Isn’t that true?”
Marak was forced to nod. “Yes.”
“And isn’t it important that you protect your tribe’s strength, and the lives of your clan?” Valara went on. “If some other enemy did attack, one where no peace was possible, wouldn’t you want to have every warrior you could muster to drive that enemy off? Isn’t it dangerous to deplete your strength in unnecessary border skirmishes with Sekro’s tribe, in case you need that strength later?”
The marsh lagano didn’t answer, but his expression grew troubled.
“I agree,” said Sekro after a moment. “If a mutually agreeable treaty could really be created, giving us the access to the coasts and river mouths that we needed, I would be happy to stop the bloodshed—”
“Then you would wither and die,” growled Lashka. “If you just give up your territory without a fight, your warriors will lose their spirit. They will never be able to resist anyone. You will grow weak.”
Valara shook her head. “There are more types of strength than simple force of arms. Look around you.” She spread her arms to indicate the room. “You know how valuable these furnishings are, how much wealth the priesthood of Hakar and the city of Kerogane have accrued. You know how many bandits, rival tribes, even foreign kingdoms would love to seize that wealth for themselves. But they don’t. They are cowed by our strength—strength which we do not deplete by constantly warring with our neighbors. Strength which we build upon through negotiations. Trade. Diplomacy.” She locked eyes with Marak. “Wouldn’t you like to have this kind of strength?”
“We do not need gold furnishings,” said Marak. “We—”
“If there is a drought one year and you cannot find food in the marshes,” Valara interrupted, “wouldn’t you rather have the gold so you could buy food from traders at foreign ports? Wouldn’t you want the assurance that your tribe, your clan, your children would not go hungry? Isn’t that more important than picking unnecessary fights with other lagano?”
Sekro nodded. “It’s a fair point,” he told Marak. “Wouldn’t you say?”
Lashka growled. “It’s madness. Decadence.”
Marak hesitated. “It… I mean, yes, I can see your point, but…” He took a breath. “Well, I’ll—I’ll look at the treaty. If it really doesn’t hurt us, I suppose it wouldn’t be a problem to—”
Everyone turned to look at Lashka, who had stood up in a rage. “This is insanity,” she growled. “Sheer insanity. It’s—it’s a human way of thinking. Any lagano who agreed to this would only destroy himself and his tribe.”
“We will not be destroyed; we are strong—” began Valara.
Lashka snarled and then suddenly yelled and slammed her fist down onto the heavy wooden table. It shimmered with energy as she dropped it, and Valara had just enough time to realize the other lagano must have cast a spell before Lashka hit the table with a massive smashing sound. The table shuddered and cracked where Lashka had hit it, and both Sekro and Marak jumped back. “Are you mad?” Sekro demanded. “This is a holy relic of Hakar! He—”
“Judging by his priesthood, Hakar is not as powerful as he would like us to believe.” Lashka swiveled to face Valara. “Nor are you—little surprise, since you don’t worship a real god like Nerot. You are just a decadent fool who claims to lead our people but who abandons our traditions and strengths in favor of human vanity. It’s obvious you care more about dressing up and looking as fancy as a human princess than you care about the true essentials to lagano life—battle, combat, the strong defeating the weak and taking their rightful place above their lessers. Do you disagree?” Lashka raised her hands in a challenging gesture. When nobody moved, she snorted. “That’s what I thought.”
She turned on her heel and headed for the exit. “Consider this a declaration of war, Valara. If you’re really as weak as you sound, then my tribe should be able to conquer this place in a manner of weeks. But don’t worry.” As she left, she reached out and ripped up a fancy robe hung near the exit. “These stupid clothes will make excellent targets for my archers.”
And then she was gone, leaving Valara staring daggers behind her. “Well,” Sekro began. “I suppose us two can still get on with the treaty—”
“You two will excuse me until tomorrow,” said Valara. Her tone had lost its dainty politeness and was now stern; she was speaking in the voice of the herald of Hakar, the god of fire who burned all that got in his way. “I have a…duty…that will occupy me until then.”
* * *
Flames burned low upon dozens of special altars in the Temple of Hakar, and each was tinted a slightly different color from the holy incense Valara had sprinkled into their midst. The two before her were red and orange, the colors of blood, rage, and violence. The next two were different shades of green and blue, the colors of plants and water—the stuff of life, for which so many had fought, and killed, and died. Beyond them were two flames warped by incense into darker and lighter versions of black; they represented the domain of Cebrum, god of death, who was closely linked to Hakar in the same way that death was closely linked to blazing flames. And on and on they went, surrounding the large ritual room in a vast array of enchanting colors.
Valara sat exactly in the middle of the flames, head bowed in supplication. She had changed into a robe which she normally loved to wear; it had incredibly intricate relief images which rose up from the robe and depicted famous scenes from lagano religion, and the ‘recessed’ parts of the robe were specifically dyed to blend into Valara’s scales. The result was that, in the flickering firelight so often used during Hakar’s worship services, the images appeared to be floating around Valara’s body and literally wrapping her in the trappings of her faith. Under most circumstances she enjoyed the chance to wear the outfit, feel its intricate threadwork against her scales, and marvel at the beautiful images which seemed to hover around her as she chanted and swayed through the service. Now, though, her thoughts were elsewhere.
“Mistress,” said one of her acolytes. Most of the lagano in the room were tending the various flames, but one of them had moved near Valara and was gently smearing her cheeks with ritual ointment. “The flames are almost ready. We can begin the Ritual of the Burning Warrior whenever you wish.”
Valara managed a nod. Hakar had many strict rules for his priesthood, and one was that the priests were not generally supposed to involve themselves in battles. They were to spend their time worshipping their god, conveying his messages, and seeing that he be properly honored, not going and raiding some other colony for a few baskets of rice and a handful of precious stones. Even when dealing with blasphemers, the priests were generally supposed to let the temple guard handle punishing the transgressors.
But that was not to say that priests of Hakar could never get into fights. Under specific circumstances—to defend their faith, or save their people, or uphold the sacred honor of their god—they could do so. However, this was considered such a severe step that it was mandatory for priests to seek their god’s permission before doing such a thing. The method of asking was the Ritual of the Burning Warrior, and until and unless Valara completed the ritual and obtained Hakar’s sanction, she could not raise a hand against Lashka.
“Mistress?” repeated the acolyte. Her name was Ellora, Valara remembered. She was relatively new in the temple’s service; this was probably the first major ritual she had participated in. “Do you wish to start now? If not, we can bank the flames and—”
“No. I will begin.” Valara rose, then hesitated. “Just please give me one moment.”
“Of course.” Ellora bowed her head. “If you don’t mind me asking, what troubles you?”
Valara hesitated. “I… Did you hear what happened earlier?”
“Yes. I attended the diplomat Sekro as he paid obeisance to the idol of Hakar on the third floor. He mentioned that Lashka destroyed your table.”
“I was just thinking that if I had been…fiercer…she might have been too intimidated to do such a thing.” Valara shook her head. “That table was dedicated to Hakar. Letting it be damaged is the same as letting Lashka lay a hand on the god himself. I should not have—”
“It was not your fault,” said Ellora quickly. “Surely Hakar will not hold it against you.”
That was true. Hakar was powerful and fearsome but not unreasonable; unlike other gods, he did not demand his followers suffer and die because of some unfortunate twist of fate. But still…
“I never understood why,” mused Valara as Ellora helped her raise the hood of her robe over her head, “only humans and elves were supposed to wear nice things. Their leaders dress in incredible clothes and have beautiful furniture. We lagano are just as good as they are. Why should we have to live in caves or bearskin tents instead of decent homes and sit on rocks instead of real chairs? Why can’t we have clothes just as brilliant and beautiful as theirs?”
Ellora said nothing; of course, as an acolyte, she wasn’t supposed to make idle chatter with the high priestess. Valara glanced at her to see if she was still listening and then went on. “That’s one reason I worked so hard to make Kerogane a place where lagano can live like those other species, if they want. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But…maybe I let my own desires influence me too much.” She glanced down at her robe. “I like wearing clothes like these. I like looking regal. Perhaps I was too focused on what I liked and not focused enough on what lagano are supposed to focus on. Looking strong. Being strong.”
“Um.” Ellora cleared her throat. “Begging your pardon, mistress, but I think that if you were really just doing things because you liked them, you’d wear those fancy robes all the time. But you don’t. You only wear them when you’re performing rituals where Hakar requires it. Every time I’ve seen you when you weren’t carrying out your duties as the high priestess you were wearing simpler clothing.”
“It would be blasphemous to wear ritual outfits while undergoing profane tasks,” said Valara at once.
“Right, and that’s my point. You care about what Hakar wants, not just what you want…” Ellora paused and seemed to realize that she had gotten very personal. “…Please forgive me if I’ve been too forward, mistress. I apologize.”
Valara waved a hand. “No need,” she said as she mulled over Ellora’s point. The other lagano was right; Valara loved dressing in the fancy vestments needed for the most important rituals, but she would never wear them otherwise no matter how boring she found other clothes. It would be disrespectful to Hakar, after all. “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you like temple life?”
“It is everything I hoped for,” said Ellora at once. “And I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to serve such a mighty god.”
“I mean, how do you like the actual things you do here? Lighting candles, leading chants, performing maintenance work, things like that?” Valara glanced at the acolyte. “Do you ever wish you were back home? You were… I seem to recall you were one of the warriors of your tribe?”
Ellora inclined her head. “I was. But honestly, mistress, I wasn’t very good at it.” She gestured at her face. “I am nearsighted, mistress. It runs in my family. I was no good with a bow, and even when I held a spear or a sword in close-quarters combat, I had trouble.”
“Then why were you a warrior?” Valara asked.
“Because my tribe was small and surrounded by larger ones. Every claw was needed to defend us.” Ellora shuddered. “And every time there was a skirmish, I was worried that I wouldn’t come home. But then you convinced the tribes in our area to make peace with each other. I didn’t have to be a warrior anymore, because we were all aligned. I was able to leave that to lagano who liked fighting. I could do something else.” She paused. “So, I thought about what I wanted, and I realized that—if not for you—I’d probably have gotten killed sooner or later in some stupid border fight. And maybe lagano like Lashka think it’d be better for me to die ‘honorably’ than give up fighting in order to support a ‘decadent’ place like this, but I don’t agree. I think it’s good I’m still alive, and I want to help others like me. So, I decided to come here and assist you in your duties.”
Valara couldn’t quite suppress a warm, pleasant feeling at that. “I see. Well, I am glad you chose this path, Ellora. You have proven to be a very talented acolyte so far.”
The other lagano hissed in pleasure. “Are you feeling better, mistress?”
“I am, thank you.” Valara took a breath. “I am ready for the ritual now. Please excuse me.”
Ellora hurried back to the other lagano who were tending the flames, and Valara prostrated herself before an idol of Hakar set on the northern wall of the room. Then she began to chant and move her arms, running through the ritual she had painstakingly memorized so she could properly serve her deity. The words flowed out of her mouth, her hands and arms waved, her tail thumped—
And then the flames in the altars began to flicker and dance in time with Valara’s motions. Her heart pounded faster as she went through the next phase of the ritual. “I seek to take up spear, shield and even claw to defend you!” she proclaimed. “To ensure your honor is unmarred and your reputation unsullied, that they may continue to guide our people like a blazing torch! I act neither out of bloodlust, greed, nor pride, but seek to defeat the foe! I—”
The flames began to whip more wildly and Valara almost missed a line. Even after all her time as a high priestess it could still be intimidating to invoke her god so directly and ask permission to go kill someone. But as she rocked back just the slightest amount, she felt her robe settling over her scales, and that of all things helped calm her. The robe of the high priestess of Hakar fit her perfectly; it was comforting, familiar, and so beautiful it could always move her heart no matter how anxious or stressed she was—and it was hers. Hers by right, because she was the high priestess of Hakar, and if she was comfortable and at ease while wrapped in its intricate threads, then she was comfortable in her role as high priestess as well.
“I request your blessing, lord Hakar, knowing that if I have erred and sought an unjust battle, I deserve to be cast into the fire and burned!” cried Valara. Ellora tossed an ancient staff, gilded and embossed with precious metals, into the air, and Valara stuck her hand up. This was the point of no return; if Hakar approved and let the flames blast the staff into her grip, all was well; if not, Hakar would have the staff strike her elsewhere—her head, her tail, possibly her chest hard enough to crack her ribs or burst her heart—and she would be punished. “Let your judgement be known!”
A moment’s silence—
And then the staff flew smoothly into Valara’s palm, guided by a blast of fire coming up from an altar at just the right moment. Valara gripped it and prepared the next line. “I thank—”
But then the fires warped oddly, in a manner not prescribed by the ritual, and Valara could see the fear on her acolyte’s faces as the flames suddenly rose up and formed a solid dome just below the ceiling of the room. Distantly, Valara noted Ellora stopping a couple other acolytes from fleeing towards the door and the moat beyond it—wise, none could outrun the flames of Hakar—and helping them bow to the flames, the safest gesture. Valara followed suit, then looked up.
And saw the flickering image of Hakar.
Valara had been graced with holy visions only a few other times in her life; Hakar did not show himself often, even to his high priestess. But he did so now, the multicolored flames warping and weaving about each other to form his body.
And then Hakar spoke, his voice crackling like a mighty blaze. “Go with my blessing,” he intoned, his booming voice shaking the temple. “And worry yourself no longer. I know you act not out of any selfish interest but only to defend and glorify my works, and to protect my people.”
Hakar flicked a hand, and an ember soared from the darker of the black-tinted flames to land in the center of Valara’s forehead. It didn’t hurt, and Valara gasped as she felt what could only be described as a rush of power. Distantly she saw several of her acolytes staring at her and she rapidly motioned for them to get back to bowing towards Hakar. “I—I obey, lord.”
The god nodded, and then the flames suddenly died down. The lagano were alone in the ritual room. Valara sank back to the ground, feeling almost overwhelmed, and the acolytes began to chatter. “That was amazing!” one said. “We actually saw Hakar!”
“Mistress!” said Ellora at once. “Do you need anything?”
“No,” said Valara slowly. “And—wait, actually, yes. Please pack me some traveling clothes and find out where Lashka is staying.”
She took a breath, and when she next spoke, she couldn’t help but bare her sharp, reptilian teeth. “I think it is time she learned exactly what sort of strength is cultivated in the temple of Hakar.”
* * *
Conversations with a few of Valara’s regular parishioners revealed that Lashka and her delegation had been seen staying at Stone Bridge Inn. It was a rustic structure on the outskirts of Kerogane, with thick forests immediately to its east and a river, traversable by the bridge that the inn had been named for, to its west. It wasn’t one of Valara’s favorite inns, mostly on account of its rugged furnishings that would be more at home in a military encampment than a proper rest stop, and also the hunting trophies and archery equipment which lined the walls in lieu of paintings or any other sort of proper artwork. On the other claw, she supposed those same features were why Lashka liked it.
As Valara had expected, when she crossed the bridge, she saw a couple members of Lashka’s group standing guard outside the inn. Both had forehead tattoos proclaiming their allegiance to Nerot, though theirs were smaller than Lashka’s, and both were also armed with swords and bucklers. “Hey, it’s the priestess!” one called inside as Valara stepped off the bridge and crossed onto the inn’s property. “And you’re not going to believe what she’s wearing!”
Valara had dressed in her battle garb. Her joints—shoulders, elbows, and knees—were protected by magically enchanted golden plates whose bright yellow was the color of glorious fire and whose complex tints seemed to ebb and flow as she moved through the light, giving the impression of a fire raging just beneath the surface of the bands. More gold bands, which similarly looked as if they were made of or at least contained a blazing fire, were wrapped around parts of her arms and legs. She also had a loincloth dyed a deep purple, the shade human royalty often wore, tied around her waist. And atop her head was a brilliant golden headdress proclaiming her status as the high priestess of Hakar. As for weapons, she held in one hand the sacred Staff of Hakar, which topped with a glowing orb that contained a fragment of Hakar’s sacred flame inside its shell. In the other she held a book of spells.
Lashka’s two guards broke into bursts of hissing laughter as Valara approached them. “Get out of here, priestess!” one said. “You have no power here.”
“And we won’t think twice about ripping your head off,” added the other. “You’re barely wearing armor and don’t even have a sword. We—”
Valara pointed her staff at the second lagano and chanted a few words. The staff glowed, the orb pulsed—and then a jet of fire blasted out from the top of the staff and completely incinerated her target.
To the first guard’s credit, he only gaped for a moment before recovering and jumping at Valara even as he called, “We’re under attack!” His sword swept at the high priestess’s neck, but Valara easily ducked under it—the fire of Hakar pulsing in her veins, making her blood run quickly and her motions come easily—and tripped him with her tail. He fell and she planted the staff on his back before chanting another spell from the book. Then the lagano screamed as more fire shot from the staff, this time a much thinner jet, and burned a hole through the guard’s armor and torso. He gave a horrible cry and then fell still, and Valara took just a moment to briefly brush the ash off herself and her staff before advancing into the hotel.
Arrows shot at her the moment she entered, but she was ready with a fire shield spell, and a thin wall of flame formed around her. Arrows that streaked into it immediately turned to ash and crumbled away before touching her. She gestured with her staff at the nooks the arrows had come from and two massive fireballs shot out, blasting the hiding lagano archers to bits. Then she walked further into the inn as if nothing had happened. “Lashka,” she called. “Call off your guards. You must atone for your insult to Hakar…and your attempts to lead our people astray.”
She caught a glimpse of someone rushing down another hallway and turned just in time to see Lashka herself fleeing out a back door. That was a little more cowardly than she’d expected from the warrior lagano, and she wondered if it was a trap. Either way she had to pursue. And so, she rushed after the fleeing diplomat, chasing her out the door of the hotel and into the thick woods just behind it.
Lashka was fast, but Valara was strengthened by holy fire and was able to keep up with her as they traversed deeper into the woods and finally reached a clearing. Then Lashka abruptly stopped and Valara sighed to herself as ten more lagano warriors exited the foliage to stand by the diplomat’s side as Valara approached. So, this had been a trap after all. Still, she knew she could win.
“Send your troops home,” Valara instructed. “I would rather not have to kill them too.”
“What?” Lashka’s mouth opened in surprise. “You really think you can? You are weak, Valara. Shamefully so.”
“I have already killed four of your—”
“Four wet-behind-the-ears newcomers who had barely started wielding sword and shield before coming on this mission,” said Lashka. “They had no purpose besides forcing you to reveal your abilities.”
Valara could not help but stare at her opponent. “You sacrificed four of your tribe simply to test me?” she demanded.
“Better they fight and die as warriors than live a hundred years and die without ever winning honor,” growled Lashka. “When we defeat you, I will tell our tribe their deaths made it possible, and they will be remembered.”
For a moment Valara debated insisting that those four dead lagano could have done so many other things had Lashka not sacrificed them. They could have lived to serve their tribe in all kinds of ways, in industry or commerce or, yes, perhaps in battle—a necessary battle to save their tribe from an implacable foe, not a pointless skirmish Lashka herself had initiated. But she ultimately didn’t say those things, because she knew Lashka would never understand. “I am blessed by Hakar,” she said instead. “Your soldiers cannot defeat me. Dismiss them and spare their lives.”
“Blessed by Hakar?” Lashka lashed her tail against the ground. “All you have is his fire magic. Without that, what’s left of you? Your fashion sense? Hardly intimidating.” She raised an amulet which Valara recognized as dwarven-made; if she remembered her magical talismans right, the sigils on the amulet would attenuate any type of fire-based attack. “Especially when your magic has no effect. Now—”
Something moved above Valara’s head and she looked up just in time to see two more lagano leaping at her out of the treetops surrounding the clearing. She flinched back, but not before one of them grabbed her staff and wrenched it away from her while the other knocked down her book. One of the new attackers then stabbed at her with a spear and she barely managed to twist away while the other grabbed her dropped relics and hurled them deep into the woods. “Now kill her!” Lashka yelled. “Kill her, and then when my reinforcements get here, we will raze this corrupted city! We will build a shrine to Nerot, offer the heads of every priestess in the Temple of Hakar, and rule these weaklings as is our right!”
Valara’s eyes narrowed. Trying to kill her was one thing; as the high priestess of a god who had many rivals (including Nerot), that just came with the territory. But her acolytes? There was no need to kill them, and in fact it would be more of a triumph for Nerot if Lashka forced them to convert instead of killing them outright. This really wasn’t about religion for the other lagano, then. It was just about slaughter.
“Die!” screamed Lashka. One of the two ambushers rushed at the priestess and stabbed with his spear—
Only for Valara to vault over the weapon, twist behind the enemy lagano, pull him back so he was almost lying on her body—and then bite deep into his neck.
The enemy lagano screamed as Valara tore his throat out with her sharp, lizard-like teeth. Lashka gaped. But before anyone could react Valara had picked up the dead lagano’s spear and charged the other ambusher. “Know Hakar’s righteous flame! Burn!” Valara roared as she knocked aside the other lagano’s shield and stabbed him deep in the gut.
Lashka took a step back. “But—you hate battle, you—”
“I like being regal,” Valara admitted as she withdrew the spear she’d stolen. After a moment’s thought she picked up the second attacker’s sword in one hand while she held the spear in the other; she didn’t bother with any of the dropped shields. “But I can be vicious when I need to be. After all, Hakar does not wants his servants to wade into pointless fights… But when they do fight, either to protect his people or his honor, he wants them to win.”
Lashka’s bodyguards looked uneasy as Valara went on. “In order to become his high priestess, it was not only necessary to memorize his rituals, perform his services, and demonstrate my fealty. I was also required to train in battle. No lagano may attain my position without years of combat practice.” She had hated that part of her training—the pain, the anguished looks on the faces of other hopefuls when they suffered training accidents, the horrible way blood and flesh tasted in her mouth when she was forced to resort to biting an enemy—but she had persevered and completed it nonetheless. “You have dishonored my god. You seek to lead our people astray, to waste their lives in endless combat for no actual reason. Hakar commands you to be defeated, Lashka. And I do his will.” She pointed her spear at the enemy diplomat. “No matter what.”
The diplomat screamed a command and her guards charged Valara, who let the fire within her burn even more brightly as she leapt at them. And then—
It was a blur.
She felt herself parrying an enemy attack with her sword and then grabbing a second opponent, dragging him sideways to intercept the deadly sword swing of a third. Then she crashed into a fourth and expertly tripped him with her tail, ran him through with her spear, and withdrew it in time to block the blow from a fifth. That attacker staggered back and she whipped around, striking him in the face with her tail at the same time she murmured a spell—and the tip of her tail burst into holy flame which did not hurt her but torched everything else that it touched, causing the attacker to scream as she incinerated his face. He fell, screaming and writhing as he tried to put out the flames, but her flames were holy fire which could not be quenched except by magic, and unlike Lashka he had no amulet to protect him.
The sixth attacker, the biggest of all of them, jumped on her and grabbed her, but she fought wildly and clawed at his face even as she bit ferociously at an unarmored part of his wrist. He had both a height and weight advantage on her, but he clearly hadn’t anticipated such a vicious flurry of attacks and he was a trifle slow in defending himself. She roared with power as one of her fingers smashed into his eye, forcing him to fall back as he cried out in agony. But he couldn’t get away before she jumped on him and bit out his throat, spattering blood all over her gleaming armor and staining her loincloth.
Lashka broke and ran, this time with no traps in mind, taking only one guard with her while her remaining defenders desperately tried to stop Valara before they fell to her furious assaults. When they were dead, Valara looked disdainfully at the bodies and then summoned little bursts of holy fire to incinerate their corpses; if what they had sought was a legendary death on the battlefield that lagano would sing of for years, then they would be denied that; their bodies would turn to ash and there would be no evidence that they had fought at all. She then collected her staff and book before pursuing Lashka, still letting Hakar’s holy fire fuel her strength as she raced to catch the diplomat.
She finally overtook Lashka when the warrior stopped to catch her breath; the diplomat had stopped halfway between the banks and seemed to reason that the water might assist in diminishing any remnants of Valara’s holy fire that her amulet couldn’t deflect. Her last bodyguard was with her, carrying a massive battle axe even larger than Lashka’s broadsword and trying to look fierce, but Valara could see the fear in his eyes. “It is time to stop running, Lashka,” she said in an almost kind voice. “You cannot defeat me—not when Hakar backs me.”
“Will not help you. I know his ways, and he does not respect weakness. He will never assist a warrior whose soldiers are so pathetic that over a dozen of them were killed by one opponent.” Valara strode into the water as if she wasn’t worried about its effect on her fire at all. “Throw down your weapons.”
Lashka sneered at her, but she couldn’t hide the panic on her face. “And what, you let me surrender and get me to join your stupid alliance?”
“No.” Valara shook her head. “You have caused the deaths of over a dozen lagano today, and you have disrespected Hakar. You must be punished. But you need not increase that punishment. Give up, Lashka.”
The diplomat hesitated, then roared and swept forwards—but Valara parried Lashka’s broadsword with her staff, then swept in and slammed the butt of her staff against the diplomat’s chest. She recited a spell from her book before Lashka could react and the end of her staff glowed a fierce red. And then—
Then Lashka’s scales began to glow red as well, first in patches, then in huge clumps. And Lashka screamed. “It’s burning!” she yelled as she flung herself down into the water, to no avail. “What did you do to me?!”
“Hakar’s holy fire,” Valara answered. “Just a little…placed under your scales. It will burn forever, Lashka, and there is no way to extinguish it.”
Lashka screamed in horrible pain and rage as she clawed at the reddened spots on her scales, but in vain. Even when she slashed at them with a sword the fire did not come out; it just moved to another spot on her body. “Make it stop!”
Valara ignored her and turned to the last bodyguard, who was staring at her with terrified eyes. “Please return to your tribe and inform them of what has transpired,” she said.
“I… Yes, high priestess,” said the guard. “Um, are you demanding tribute, or…?”
“Oh, no,” said Valara primly. Her bloodlust receded, and she felt tired, wanting nothing more than to be back in her rooms with her exquisite clothes and brilliant furnishings. But there was still work to do. “That’s not necessary. After all, I’m sure that this…blasphemous attack…was not truly the desire of your tribe. I think we can all agree that Lashka was acting on her own when she rejected the alliance, broke the holy table, and wasted the lives of her delegation.”
“Right,” said the guard quickly. “Yeah, uh…nobody wanted that but her.”
Valara nodded. “I am glad to hear it. And if that’s true, then I’m sure you’ll send another delegate—this one much more…amenable…to the proposed treaty. Isn’t that right?”
“Of course, of course,” the guard babbled. “Anything you say high priestess.”
“Go,” ordered Valara, and the guard fled. Then she looked down at the writhing Lashka. After a moment she raised a hand as if to strike.
“Wait,” babbled Lashka. “Wait, I surrender. You said your god doesn’t want lagano lives to be wasted, right? Then don’t waste mine. Don’t kill me.”
Valara shook her head. “It is true that my god is not like yours. Hakar does not like lagano lives to be wasted,” she said. “Though he is the god of flame, he will not have you burned to death. But…”
She gave Lashka a look, and though she had mostly recovered her regal bearing, there was just a hint of vicious bloodlust left—in her flashing eyes, in the way her fingers were twitching like claws, in the tight way she gripped her staff as if ready to smite another enemy—and the diplomat quailed.
“But,” Valara went on. “I promise that you shall burn nonetheless.”
She struck Lashka with her staff, and the flames inside the diplomat seemed to grow even hotter. Valara watched while the other lagano’s thrashing increased. Then she knelt, slung the other lagano over her shoulders, and began walking out of the woods.
After all, there were rituals to perform. Lashka would not enjoy them; this Valara knew well. But Hakar demanded the heretic’s presence. And Valara would not fail her god.
* * *
“…and so, I am glad to see this peace treaty signed,” said Valara as the lagano representatives affixed their handprints to the documents she’d laid before them. She was once again wearing fancy regalia, and she wriggled a little to enjoy the feeling of the luxurious robes settling perfectly over her scales. “This will lead all our people toward an era of peace and prosperity. You have my thanks—and Hakar’s as well.”
“Of course.” Sekro nodded a little as he passed back his papers. “We are happy to see an end to these border skirmishes. Thank you in turn for your assistance, Valara.”
Marak also returned the papers. “Agreed,” he said. “You made a convincing case.” He turned back to Sekro. “And I too am glad to put the violence behind us. I look forward to working with your tribe to build connections between us.”
The new diplomat from Lashka’s tribe said nothing as she signed and slid the papers back as quickly as she could. She had not said one word of criticism to Valara since her arrival, only meekly giving Valara money to compensate the temple for Lashka’s vandalism and disrespect and then rushing through a series of profuse apologies for her predecessor’s actions. In fact, Valara thought the diplomat seemed to be worried that if she put a tail out of line than the wrath of Hakar would fall upon her. Valara, of course, was not quite so quick to anger… But she had decided not to tell the new diplomat that. It would be good, she figured, if her tribe had a taste of what it was like to be on the weaker side of a conflict. And, given her tribe’s actions, it would also be very well deserved.
“Wonderful,” Valara said as she collected the papers. “Messengers will deliver the good news to your tribes. Now, I understand the feast has already been laid out in the banquet hall, so I urge you to gather your parties and then enjoy. I will be down momentarily after I take care of one more duty.”
The diplomats left, eager for the food whose tantalizing scents had been wafting up for the past few minutes. Valara watched them go and then beckoned to Ellora, who had been attending the ceremony in case any of the diplomats or Valara herself needed a runner to fetch something. “Come with me,” she said. “I want to see our newest initiate.”
Ellora inclined her head. “Of course, mistress.”
Valara led Ellora all the way down the temple, from her rooms at the top down to its base and then further down a hidden staircase into an even deeper chamber. The scent of sulfur and the trapped heat from enclosed fires filled the space, but to servants of Hakar those were no impediments and neither lagano slowed as they reached the next room. Valara opened the door and looked in. “There she is.”
Lashka, groaning in agony, kneeled with a few dozen other lagano as a low-level initiate continued with her sermon. “The flames of Hakar bring pain, but they also cleanse,” the initiate was saying. “Let them burn your evil from you. Let them turn you to the path of a god worthy of worship.”
“How has she been doing?” Valara asked Ellora as they walked in. Except for a handful of initiates, all the lagano in the room had scales which glowed from Hakar’s fire; the lesser offenders only had flames burning a few spots of their body at a time, while the worst ones were almost entirely filled with flame and kept alive only through Hakar’s power. There were chains and shackles against the walls, but they were rarely needed; the prisoners were rendered helpless by pain and could not have escaped if they tried. “Has she been taking to her lessons?”
“Reluctantly, but she’s learned better than to refuse them,” Ellora said. “She—”
“You!” Everyone froze as Lashka, who had apparently heard Valara’s voice, turned and pointed at her. “End this torture! I did what you wanted; yesterday I publicly denounced Nerot and became an acolyte of Hakar. You were there; you know it happened! Put out the flames!”
Valara had overseen Lashka’s conversion personally, as she did the conversions of all captured enemies. After all, not only did Hakar prefer to turn enemies into live acolytes who could someday do some good instead of dead corpses that could never repent, but it was also a sign of Hakar’s power that even his fiercest opponents would bow before him in the end.
And, of course, Valara was able to wear the most amazing tiara during rituals to welcome captured enemies into the faith. She couldn’t forget that.
“I told you, and I’m sure the acolytes here did as well, that the flames can never be put out,” Valara said in a stern voice. “Not even I can remove them. They will stay with you forever, unchanging in intensity…unless you return to your old ways, in which case they will increase as needed.”
“Pain, however, is not the only reason you are here,” Valara went on. “Your task is not just to suffer, but also to learn. To let the flames sear in the knowledge of how evil only leads to pain and destruction…and to allow them to burn away your evil. After all, you will never fight in combat again. You are not capable of it.” She jabbed one of Lashka’s reddened scales and the lagano howled in pain. “But stripped of your former pleasures, with nothing to do but focus on your lessons, you will grow beyond who you are now. You will become capable of acting responsibly, not out of bloodlust or violent rage but out of duty towards your people.”
Lashka growled at her. “I can’t think about duty or anything else! I hurt—”
“Several of my acolytes were once in your position,” said Valara. She nodded at the one who was leading the sermon, and that acolyte lifted her robe to reveal a few reddened scales of her own. “And the pain does not go away, no matter how devout you become. But in time, as you grow deeper in Hakar’s service, as you learn to forget about yourself and act for others, you will become able to accept it and move past it as you attend to your duties. You will finally learn to serve Hakar and other lagano properly, without needless violence. And then you will not only find peace, but also the comfort of knowing that you are indeed helping your people as you always should have.
“But that will take time. For now, you have lessons to learn.” Valara let her gaze become a glare. “So, return to your sermon. Now.”
Lashka looked like she wanted to argue, but then her red scales blazed a little and she cried out before sinking back down. “Fine,” she said. “Fine, I’m doing it.”
Valara turned and led Ellora out, then paused as they crested the hidden staircase and reached the ground floor of the temple again. “By the way,” she said. “I appreciated your words earlier when I was having a moment of doubt. I wanted to thank you.”
“Me, mistress?” Ellora asked. “I—”
“I got you these.” Valara reached into a pocket in her robe and took out a pair of glasses with gold rims. “I obtained these from a merchant who came here all the way from Viscosa in Draconis. He was surprised that a lagano wanted them, but…as I said, I see no reason why fine things like this should be restricted to humans and elves.” She passed the glasses to her acolyte. “Please try them on.”
Ellora did so and then gasped. “Mistress I—I can see so much better!” She pointed out a window at some distant buildings across the moat. “I can see the market from here now; it’s not just a blur! Thank you!”
“Of course.” Valara inclined her head. “You deserve it. And now, I believe the feast is waiting.”
“Yes…but it should wait a few minutes longer, because we have to get you changed into your blue robe. It’s the one for celebrations, after all.” Ellora’s eyes twinkled. “I know you like that one. And I can help you get into it quickly.”
Valara laughed at that. She hadn’t even thought about that robe, but now that Ellora mentioned it, she saw it was both appropriate and would be wonderful to wear. The way it played off her scales, the elegant feeling of the silk texture on her body…
“That sounds perfect,” she said. “Let us go.”
The high priestess of Hakar headed back up the stairs, her friend behind her and her favorite clothes ahead of her, and she sighed to herself. Sometimes it was hard work serving Hakar, and she did sometimes have her doubts. But days like this one proved that it was all worth it.
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