Shivering in the crisp breeze, Yinell ascended the steep, rocky hill, following the trail that twisted around the pines and maples. She gritted her teeth as the straps on her heavy pack dug painfully into her shoulders and stepped onto a rock, which slipped out from under her. She tumbled back, cutting her calf on a sharp stone, and cried out. As she cursed her luck, she knelt and rolled up her sable trousers, so the blood wouldn't stain them. She set her pack on the ground and rubbed her sore shoulders. Pulling some bandages out of the pack, she wrapped them around her wound.
Yinell stood and smoothed the wrinkles out her baggy, blue sweater. She gazed across the hilly forest and moaned, irritated she was still days away from Hunab. When she bent to pick the pack up, a hand clamped around her mouth. She was dragged into the nearby bushes. Yinell sank her teeth into the hand, tasting warm, salty blood, and was slammed into a tree. She shook her black hair out of her eyes and saw her attacker was a soiled, balding man. He drew a knife out of his pants and held it to her throat. Sweat coursing down her forehead, Yinell feared she had released her final breath.
"She looks no richer than a beggar," her attacker complained.
A stout, bearded man in only breeches stepped out from behind a tree. His narrow eyes looked Yinell up and down, and his brow furrowed. "Then, hurry up and kill her."
Yinell's attacker suddenly lurched, his weapon nicking her jaw, and stumbled back. "What hit me?" he demanded and swiped at a red spike lodged in his neck.
Another spike raced out of the shadows and into the second bandit's shoulder. He howled and yanked it out.
A tall tan woman emerged from the shadow of a tree. Her sleeveless shirt and pants were the same green of the leaves. The bear tattoo on her neck was partially concealed by her chestnut hair. The long, red spikes that coated her well-toned arms and scalp were raised and alert. Her amber eyes seemed to say there was no escape.
"A Denkross!" the first thief yelled. "We've been poisoned!" Faces pale, the thieves fled but tripped and rolled down the steep hill until they crashed into an upright boulder.
Yinell ducked behind an oak and chewed her lower lip nervously, hoping the Denkross hadn't seen her.
For a few minutes, the bruised men attempted to stand, but their legs, weakened by the poison, kept caving out from under them. Finally they were no longer able to move and gasped for two minutes before they died.
The Denkross circled Yinell's tree until she could see the terrified girl. "Are you all right?"
Yinell froze. She knew there was no hope of out running the Denkross's spikes. Her only chance was to obtain the creature's favor. Trembling, she dropped to her knees and bowed until her face was in the mud. She prayed to the Two Holies, Quanik and Lurias, that this Denkross didn't loathe humans for driving her spiky kind off their fertile land and into the frigid western mountains a century ago. "Thank you for saving my life."
"You don't have to act like a terrified slave," the Denkross laughed and lowered her spikes.
Yinell scrambled to her feet and wiped the mud off her face. She watched the Denkross's spikes anxiously.
"Why are you looking at me like I'm a demon?" the Denkross demanded as her eyes narrowed.
Yinell jumped. "No, no!" she blurted out. "I'm just shocked I'm alive. I thought I was as good as dead."
"Don't worry. It's all right now. What are you doing in this forest alone? This is the cutthroat capital of the world."
"I had a bodyguard, but we were ambushed the other day," Yinell whispered. "He was killed, but I escaped." She shivered as she remembered the gruesome event.
The Denkross shook her head. "That's too bad. Where are you going?"
"I'm returning to my family in Hunab."
"I'm Koris," the Denkross said. Yinell bit her lip when Koris removed a knife and two rags from her pants.
The Denkross descended the hill to the thieves and knelt beside them. She stabbed them in the chest and dabbed the rags in their blood.
Slipping the knife into her pants, Koris climbed back up to Yinell, pulled a whistle on a chain out of her shirt, and blew, yet no sound filled the air. Yinell looked over her shoulder and spotted a four-legged beast, white stripes flowing down its silver back, trotting up the hill. It took an unusually large bridle to fit over the creature's wide cranium that held six elegantly spiraling horns. The animal halted at Koris's side.
"Good, Ranu," Koris praised and massaged the beast's blunt muzzle. Ranu's huge claws curled in pleasure.
"I've never seen a creature like that," Yinell said, enchanted by Ranu's deep onyx eyes.
"She's an Illax. They live deep in the mountains." Koris opened one of Ranu's saddlebags, which was filled with other bloody rags, and tucked the two newest rags inside.
Why would a Denkross collect blood like that? Yinell asked herself. From what she knew, there was no Denkross ritual that required the gathering of blood. They were mainly a nomadic species who worshipped their god Xeok with their flutes.
Koris guided Ranu to the trail. "Are you coming or waiting for the next cutthroat?"
"You want me to come with you?" Yinell said, surprised. "Why?"
"I'd like to talk."
Yinell feared a no would anger the Denkross, and she'd end up like the two bandits. She snatched her pack and scurried after the spiky woman.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to be your bodyguard until you get to Hunab."
Yinell wondered if the thieves had drugged her without her knowledge. Here was a Denkross who had rescued her when most Denkross would've killed her and was now offering her protection. Surely she wasn't thinking straight. "I'd like that," she replied, not wanting to displease Koris in any way.
"But you have to do something for me. You have to let me use you as bait for other cutthroats."
Yinell blinked in confusion. "But you just said you wanted to protect me."
"And I will, but I need you to help me find some cutthroats."
Yinell was even more baffled. Normally when a Denkross went on a killing spree, he slaughtered any human he could find. He didn't go after a specific group of people. "Why? How come you're looking for thieves?"
"Because I'm trying to convert to the Triquon faith."
"That's a human religion. I thought Denkross follow the god Xeok." Yinell hurried to keep up with Koris's quick pace.
"I used to believe in Xeok, but I learned he's a lie," Koris answered, a hint of scorn in her tone.
"What made you stop believing in Xeok?"
"Not too long ago I cornered a Triquon priest and shot a spike at him."
I knew you were one of those murderous monsters, Yinell thought; however, she sort of understood the Denkross's hatred. Their stolen land was the only true valuable they ever had. She'd despise anyone who robbed her family of their land.
"Then the Two Holies' Jade Fire came out of the ground and burned the spike to ash. It blew around me and disappeared. When I looked, the priest was gone. I couldn't believe it. That was when I realized your goddesses are real."
Yinell's eyes widened with wonder. "A miracle..." She imagined the priest being carried away to safety by brilliant green flames. It was her dream to one day see the power of Quanik and Lurias.
"The more I thought about it the more I realized Xeok wasn't even real. Whenever my people worshipped him, Xeok never gave us any sign that he was paying attention. Nobody ever saw miracles or anything like that."
"Then, why did your kind start worshipping Xeok?" Yinell asked.
"No one knows for sure. The ancients didn't write down a lot of their history. Whatever the reason, I'm tired of following a god that doesn't exist."
"Have you gone to a Triquon temple and said the oaths?"
"No, I can't go yet," Koris said and averted her eyes. "I still have too many unforgiven sins. I hunted you humans. The Triquon text says I have to atone by doing the opposite of my sins and bring proof of it to the High Triquon Temple in Hunab. Hopefully your goddesses will forgive me and not send me to the Punishment when I die."
"What have you been doing?"
"I've been hunting cutthroats. My proof is the blood I've been collecting." Koris patted the saddlebag filled with rags on Ranu's back.
"So that's what those rags are for," Yinell said.
"My offering still isn't big enough. That's why I need you. No offense, but with that scrawny body, you look like easy prey for those cutthroats."
"Hey, I'm not that helpless!" Yinell claimed. "I'm pretty good with a bow. I had one, but those thieves who killed my bodyguard took it."
"With your help, my offering will be big enough by the time we reach Hunab. So, how about it?"
Uneasy, Yinell looked at her feet, her black hair falling in her face. "It's dangerous. What if you don't shoot them in time?"
"They'll never touch you. I'm a good shot."
"I don't know..." Yinell mumbled nervously.
"You'll be dead before sunrise if I leave you," Koris said. Her spikes rose slightly, which Yinell interpreted as a sign of irritation.
"It's a deal," Yinell agreed, quaking. She trailed after Koris and wondered if she was following her bodyguard or her captor.
Yinell strolled down the path, delighted the forest's hills had leveled out over the past couple days. The trees seemed to be taller and more vibrant since the ground wasn't as rocky.
A shaggy man in a brown tunic sprang out from behind a maple and pointed a sword at her. "Stop!"
Yinell gasped and backed away.
Spikes flew out of the trees and into the man's shoulder. Dropping his sword, he screamed and gripped his shoulder. He winced as he plucked the venomous vessels out and stared at them.
"Those are Denkross spikes," Yinell informed him.
His jaw dropped, and the color drained from his face. "Please help me!" he coughed and fell on one knee.
"You wanted to kill me!"
"May the Two Holies damn you to the Punishment," he hissed and charged Yinell but collapsed. He reached out and dug his fingers into the dirt. His arms shook as he tried to pull his sweaty body forward, but he made no progress.
Yinell wondered how much he was suffering.
He fell limp and closed his eyes.
Yinell clamped her hand over her mouth to keep the vomit inside and turned away.
"Why do you look so sick?" Koris asked as she jumped out of a nearby tree, pulling her knife and a clean rag out of her green pants. "Death doesn't bother you, does it? You didn't look this bad when I killed those two men." She sliced the thief's arm and soaked the rag in the blood.
"I'm fine," Yinell claimed. Did we do what was right or did we murder him? she questioned as she chewed her lip nervously. The law says a person should only be executed if he murdered someone and won't repent. If this man was just a small time thief, then that'd make me a murderer. No, no! I didn't kill him. Koris did. I'm just a prisoner.
Ranu stepped out from behind a huge pine and approached Koris. Koris stuffed the rag into Ranu's saddlebag, and they continued down the path.
"Yinell..." Koris said timidly after a while. "What are my chances that your goddesses will let me become a Triquon being that I'm a Denkross and not a human? Has there ever been a Triquon Denkross?"
"No, not to my knowledge," Yinell said. "The Two Holies never said a Denkross can't be a follower. Anyone can be a Triquon as long as he's sincere about following the laws."
"I am. I'm not interested in going to the Punishment."
Yinell glared at the Denkross. You're not sincere. You just want to be a Triquon to save yourself. The Two Holies won't accept you.
"The text says the righteous go to your goddesses' palace in the earth when they die, but it doesn't say anything else. What do the dead do at the palace?"
"They swim in the rivers of Jade Fire," Yinell answered. "There's no pleasure on earth that can equal the feeling one gets from being in the Jade Fire."
"That's very different from the lies I believed."
"What do Denkross believe?"
"My kind thinks the souls go to Xeok, and he judges them. If a person served his tribe well, then Xeok will turn him into a star to give his family light at night. The evil are frozen in the mountain ice."
Soon a fork appeared in the path, and Yinell took the left trail.
"Where are you going?" Koris asked.
Stopping, Yinell turned around and spotted Koris and Ranu on the right path. "This is the way to Hunab," Yinell told her.
"So is this trail."
"But the left path is shorter."
"The right trail goes by a river, so there'll be more cutthroats living there," Koris explained.
"But there are thieves this way too."
Koris's eyes narrowed, and her long spikes rose a couple inches.
Yinell trembled. "I'm sorry, your way's fine." She fell into step behind her captor.
Yinell gazed through the canopy at the noon sun while she filled her water skin in the river by the trail. She examined the scratches she had received during the past few days when thieves had chased her through low hanging branches. It astounded her how quickly Koris had shot them and ended the pursuits.
"Show me what's in the pack!" a shrill voice ordered.
Startled, Yinell twisted around and sighted an acne-scarred man with a drawn bow. She fumbled with her pack tie and spilled the pack's contents onto the dirt.
The archer frowned. "Don't you have any money?"
Yinell shook her head and tossed her pack at his feet in case he wanted to look himself.
The bow creaked as the thief drew the bowstring back farther. He yelled when a spike pierced his temple and released the arrow, which plowed into the soil at Yinell's feet. She jumped.
He staggered and fell on all fours. Eyes bulging, he grabbed his head and screamed as the spike released the poison directly into his brain.
After a minute, his cries faded, and he fell face down in the pine needles.
Koris and Ranu emerged from behind a cluster of pines, and the Denkross kicked the body.
"That arrow could've hit me," Yinell snapped. "Why didn't you shoot him sooner?"
"I couldn't get a clear shot," Koris said.
Suddenly she cried out and almost tripped. Spooked, Ranu leaped to the side and bolted into the forest.
"What's wrong?" Yinell shouted.
"Something hit me!" Spikes alert, Koris turned and peered up the trail.
"You've a dart in your back!" Yinell told her.
Koris reached over her shoulder and brushed the dart out. "Whoever did that is dead!" She ran up the trail, scanning the bushes for her attacker.
"Koris, come back! We have to get you some help!"
"I'm fine. Denkross are naturally immune to most poisons."
Yinell knew she needed to get Koris to a safer location, but it wasn't wise to approach an aggravated Denkross.
After rummaging through the brush for a while, Koris leaned against a tree, her spikes drooping slightly.
"Are you feeling all right?" Yinell asked.
Koris answered by falling on her side unconscious.
As Yinell started toward Koris, there was a rustle in the shrubs behind the Denkross. Yinell halted and backed to the archer's side. She scooped up his bow and quiver, which held only two arrows, and dashed behind a tree.
Two men appeared on the path.
A short, blond bandit in a long gray coat poked Koris with his wooden blowgun. "I have to give it to those Denkross. That drug would've put a human to sleep in half that time."
A bald, burly thief drew a dagger out of his red trousers. "Let me slice her throat. Then we'll take her to the magistrate. They pay good money for a dead Denkross."
"Don't, Sarric!" the shorter man said and grabbed the dagger's hilt. "Denkross venom is very lethal. Let me milk her spikes a little, so I can put the venom in my darts. Denkross have to be alive in order to milk them. Then we'll kill her."
"That's a good idea."
Yinell considered shooting the thieves, but there were too many pines in the way. She needed to wait for a better opportunity.
Sarric approached Yinell's supplies, gathered them into her pack, and swung it over his shoulder.
Although he was close enough to Yinell that she could smell his sweaty odor, she still didn't want to shoot him for fear he'd hear the bow creak and attack before she could.
"Take the Denkross back to camp, Nas," Sarric said. "I'm going to see if I can find the girl."
Yinell bit her lip and silently crawled away. Once the men were out of sight, she stood and ran as if she was being chased by an enraged bull. When she was out of breath, she ducked behind a maple. She peered out from behind the tree and saw no one.
Hoping she had lost Sarric, she headed back to the river, constantly looking around for the man. She returned to the spot where the bandits had first emerged and saw they had disappeared. Even the archer's body was gone.
She breathed a sigh of relief and knelt by the river, splashing water on her face.
I've got to help her, she thought. Although Koris had kidnapped her, Yinell would be dead by now if it wasn't for the poisonous woman.
She searched in the forest for any sign of the kidnappers, but after hiking for miles, she found nothing. Concluding she wasn't making any progress, she went back to the river at sunset and slept under a bush.
Before dawn, she woke and again hunted for the kidnappers but without success. As dusk drew near, she wondered if the Two Holies were punishing Koris and didn't want her to find the Denkross. Perhaps Koris had accumulated too many sins for the goddesses to tolerate.
Yinell stretched out under her bush and decided she would continue on tomorrow.
Yinell was awakened in the night by something tickling her arm. She opened her eyes and saw Ranu nudging her arm. Surprised the Illax trusted her enough to come her when Koris wasn't around, Yinell pushed herself to her feet. The beast lay down and watched her.
She must think I know where Koris is, Yinell figured. "I'm sorry, but Koris is gone," she said and scratched the animal's white striped back.
Ranu perked her ears forward and gazed into the forest.
Yinell grinned. "You must be hearing Koris's whistle. She must still be alive." Maybe the Two Holies haven't sentenced her yet. She mounted Ranu, and the Illax rose and trotted into the forest.
Yinell soon sighted a tent and fire in between the trees. "Stop."
Yinell dismounted and guided Ranu to a thick tree to conceal the beast. "Stay here," she whispered. She doubted the animal would obey, but she didn't want to tie Ranu to the tree in case the Illax needed to flee in an emergency.
Yinell crept closer and saw the two thieves by the fire as well as Koris lying on her back, blindfolded, hands and feet bound. Darts were scattered around the Denkross.
Nas knelt beside Koris and pressed a knife against her throat. "Fill it up," he ordered and placed a bottle under one of her spikes. Koris stirred, and venom dripped from the spike and into the bottle.
"How much longer are you going to keep her alive?" Sarric asked.
"I'll kill her tonight. I'm running out of sleeping darts."
Soon Sarric retired into the tent while Nas remained by the fire.
Yinell crawled wide around the camp, so Nas wouldn't see her. She sneaked to the bush beside Koris, drew her arrows, and waited for the thief to look away. Finally he got up and tossed a few logs on the fire, releasing a cascade of sparks. Yinell scooted closer to Koris and rubbed the tips of the arrows on a broken spike. Koris never moved or seemed to notice. As the venom leaked onto the arrowheads, Yinell studied Koris's numerous wounds and blood blotches on her ragged green shirt. Yinell backed into the bush as the thief faced Koris and approached the bound woman, knife in hand.
Yinell set one arrow on the ground but placed the other on the bow's string and slowly drew it back, so the bow wouldn't creak as much. Horror filled her as she fully realized what she was about to do. I'm not murdering him. I'm saving a life.
Nas lifted his knife, and Yinell fired the arrow. The projectile plowed into the man's chest. He screamed and fell.
The tent flap flew back and out stomped Sarric. He gaped when he spotted Nas and ran to his wounded partner's side.
"Forget me," Nas choked and pointed at Yinell's bush. "Get her."
Yinell quickly fired her last arrow at Sarric. Sarric shifted at the last moment, and the arrow grazed his arm. He yelled and gripped his arm.
She slipped the bow over her shoulder and bolted. Sarric pulled a sword out of the tent and pursued her. Yinell hurriedly climbed a pine, for she knew she couldn't outrun the muscled man.
Sarric raced to the tree. "You're not that smart if you think you can escape by climbing a tree!" He shoved his sword into his belt and pulled himself onto a branch, but the limb broke. Yinell smiled slightly as he fell. He found a thicker branch and heaved himself onto it.
Yinell climbed until the limbs groaned under her weight.
The kidnapper started to huff as he mounted the next branch, sweat coating his face, legs trembling. When he was a few feet under Yinell, he drew his sword and gritted his teeth as he raised it over his shoulder. Yinell scampered farther up the pine, but the branches snapped. She fell a few yards before she caught a limb. Sarric sprang and slashed Yinell's leg. She cried out and released her hold, but she grasped the next branch that she passed as she dropped. He grabbed her leg.
"You're going to die now," he sneered.
Yinell glanced down and noticed Sarric gripped her leg with one hand and held his sword with the other. His only support was the branches he stood on. She pulled the bow off her shoulder and stabbed the tip of it in his eye. Howling, Sarric grabbed his eye with his sword hand. Yinell bashed him in the head with her bow. He lost his balance and plunged, taking her with him. She crashed through several branches before she seized one and halted her fall. Sarric plummeted to the ground and rolled away from the pine.
Blood dripping from the wounds she had received from the branches, Yinell pulled herself onto the limb and watched Sarric.
After several minutes, he never moved, so she concluded he was dead. She shivered as the knowledge that she had almost fallen to her death sunk in. Once she regained her composure, she climbed down from the pine. She ripped off a shred of cloth from the bottom of her sable trousers and wrapped it around the large gash on her leg.
She picked up the sword and used it as a cane to help her limp back to the camp. She crawled inside the tent and retrieved her pack as well as some bandages and a bag of herbs. Limping to Koris, she reached inside the Denkross's shirt collar, brought out the whistle, and blew.
Ranu trotted up to Koris's side and nudged her master who didn't respond. The beast whined for a moment.
"Can you get down?" Yinell asked, and Ranu obeyed. Yinell pulled a blanket out of a saddlebag and cast it over Ranu's back. She lifted the Denkross onto the Illax, and the beast stood. Yinell took one of Ranu's spiraling horns and slowly guided the animal into the night.
While Yinell dressed her wounds with fresh bandages, Koris stirred and opened her eyes. It amazed Yinell that Koris was able to sit up.
"Drink?" Yinell said and handed Koris a cup of water. "We're only a day away from Hunab."
Koris quaffed the water as if she hadn't seen it for a decade, trembling hands sending most of it down her face.
"It's okay. We're safe."
"They were going to kill me," Koris whispered, quaking. "I've never been so terrified."
"It's all right now." Yinell wanted to place a reassuring hand on Koris's shoulder, but that wouldn't be prudent.
"I've killed so many people. I knew they were scared right before I killed them, but I never knew it was that paralyzing." Koris buried her face in her hands.
Maybe the Two Holies will accept you, Yinell thought.
"Your goddesses will never forgive me for causing so much pain."
"Don't say that. You still have a chance."
Koris shook her head. "No, not after all I've done."
"You're still going to the temple, aren't you?"
Koris nodded. "I can't be forgiven, but there's still something I can do to keep from being damned to the Punishment."
"What are you going to do?"
Koris simply stared at the ground.
"It's Hunab!" Yinell cheered and pointed down the hill at the walled city.
Koris dismounted and unbuckled Ranu's saddlebags.
"We gave her a rest not too long ago," Yinell reminded and followed the Denkross's example.
"I'm letting her go," Koris choked and squeezed her amber eyes shut. She drew a long sheet out of a saddlebag.
Yinell jumped. "You're setting her free! Why?"
"Once I go to the temple, I won't be able to take care of her anymore." Koris wrapped the sheet around the Illax's eyes.
"Koris, even if you're accepted as a Triquon, I doubt the people will happily let you live among them. You're a Denkross. You should keep Ranu for company."
Koris took Ranu's horns and led her blindfolded mount to the edge of the forest. "The sheet will snag on a branch and fall off by the time we're gone. She knows the way to the mountains." While Ranu poked around and bumped into trees, Koris and Yinell picked up the saddlebags and started down the hill.
Before they entered the city, Koris concealed herself in a hooded robe. They passed through the wall's large, iron gates and journeyed down the main road, which was crammed with stands and buyers. The road led them to the High Triquon Temple, a domed monument resting on a brick mound, and they ascended a flight of stairs to the temple's entrance. They stopped before a priest who wore lavender trousers and a sash with the names of the goddesses stitched into it.
"Welcome, followers," the priest greeted and bowed his long face. "Why have you come?"
"My sister suffers from a horrible disease," Yinell said. "She has hideous blotches and is always in pain. She's afraid to go out in public because she fears people will mistake her for a monster. She wants to be cured." It sickened her she had lied to a holy man, but Denkross were as about as welcome as meat left in pig slop for three months.
"Do you have an offering?"
"It's in this bag." Yinell patted the saddlebag that contained the clothes.
"You may go. I pray the Two Holies will help you."
Leaving the saddlebags except the one with the offering in the care of the priest, Koris and Yinell entered the temple through two mammoth, wooden doors, engraved with an image of a garden. The rivers of Jade Fire that coursed through the garden were outlined with sparkling green stones.
Yinell covered her nose to fend off the nauseous, cinnamon incense, which was used to mask the musky air of the windowless temple. They traveled down a hall to a huge, domed chamber. Torches mounted on pedestals stood along the wall. In the center of the chamber was a pyramid with a pit at the top, and another priest stood before the pyramid.
"What's your business here?" the priest asked.
"My sister wants to be healed," Yinell said, releasing her nose since the smell wasn't as strong in here.
"She must throw her offering into the pit and pray."
Yinell waited by the chamber's entrance while Koris carried the saddlebag up the stairs chiseled into the pyramid and tossed it into the pit. Yinell prayed the rags would plunge to the goddesses' palace. "With my sins, I deserve the Punishment, but please remember your promise," Koris prayed. "You said that if a sinner brought a good enough offering he could ask for his soul's destruction so that he'd no longer exist and not have to suffer the Punishment."
"No!" Yinell yelled and charged the stairs, but the priest grabbed her arms.
"You shouldn't interrupt a prayer to the Two Holies!" the priest said. "It's her decision."
"Ask them to forgive you!" Yinell shouted.
"I'm sorry, Yinell," Koris apologized. "There's no hope for me."
"I didn't bring you all the way here, so you could kill yourself, Koris!"
"Koris?" the priest said. "That's a Denkross name. There's a Denkross in the temple!" Two of his brethren appeared in a narrow door near the main entrance of the chamber.
The devout men started up the steps.
"Stay back!" Koris warned and ripped off her robe, spikes alert.
The priests halted and backed down the stairs.
"Someone get a bow!" one of the priests ordered.
The chamber trembled as Jade Fire erupted from the pit and flared into the ceiling, but the monument was never charred.
Yinell gaped at the flames. The inferno was as every bit as magnificent as she had imagined, but the wonder quickly vanished when she remembered the reason for the Jade Fire's presence. The Two Holies! They do want her dead! "Koris, don't!" she screamed as the Denkross headed into the blaze.
A boy armed with a crossbow burst through the narrow door, but he froze and stared at the flames.
Don't kill her, Two Holies, Yinell pleaded. Please forgive her. She climbed the stairs to the pit's edge and stared into the flames, wondering if Koris was suffering as her soul was shredded apart. She felt no heat from the Jade Fire.
The fire vomited Koris, and she landed beside Yinell.
"The Two Holies have rejected the Denkross!" the first priest shouted. "Shoot her!"
The boy aimed the crossbow at Koris. A fireball raced out of the Jade Fire and hit the weapon. The boy cried out and hurled it to the ground. He fled.
"Don't touch her!" a female voice boomed. The temple quaked violently enough to make one of the priests stumble. "I am Lurias, and I command you to leave her alone. She is a missionary. Let her leave to do her work."
"Hello, Yinell, I'm Quanik," Yinell heard a sweet voice in her right ear.
"Quanik!" Yinell gasped. She fell onto her knees and quickly bowed, banging her forehead into the stone floor. "Please speak."
The goddess whispered to Yinell, who paled as she listened.
"I understand," Yinell said. "I'll do it." She chewed her lower lip until it bled, stunned she had been so wrong.
The flames ceased, and the temple stilled.
Yinell grasped Koris's hand and pulled the Denkross to her feet. A glittering green flame now tattooed on her cheek, Koris slipped her robe over her shoulders as they strode toward the temple's entrance, leaving a chamber of dumbfounded priests.
Yinell scooped up the saddlebags, and they descended the stairs. "What happened in the Jade Fire?" she asked once they were out of sight of the temple. "Why did the Two Holies spare you?"
"They said I didn't need to be destroyed because I finally understood I was wrong to kill those people," Koris explained.
"Why did they make you a missionary?"
"They told me there are too many people who want to destroy their souls, and they're tired of it. A soul's hard to make. They want me to find those people and tell them if they're truly sorry then they'll be forgiven. The idea is if the Two Holies can forgive someone as wicked as me then anyone has a chance."
"That's a big job."
"Thanks for all your help. I guess you can go home now."
Yinell sighed. "I can't do that."
"What?" Koris said, a baffled expression on her face.
"Quanik spoke to me. I don't know if you heard her or not."
"I didn't hear a thing. What did she say to you?"
Yinell squeezed her eyes shut. "Apparently I'm a murderer too."
Koris jumped. "The only people you killed were those two men, but you did it to save me. That doesn't make you a murderer."
"She was talking about the other people we killed. Some of them had never killed before, so we had no right to take their lives. I'm just as guilty of murder as you are because I helped you. Quanik said I could pay for my sins by being your guide in the human lands. We're going to be stuck together for a long time."
Jena Highkin is currently attending college and plans to graduate this spring. When she is not overwhelmed with assignments and exams, she likes to write short stories. Jena's work has appeared in Shadowkeep.
Published by permission of the author.