He looked out at the devastation from his vantage point at the top of the hill, the routine of his monthly visit to the village now forgotten. “Curse those Thavaton priests, and damn them to the deepest pits of hell,” he swore.Half the village had been leveled. The disgusting altar used for their evil worship services was now nothing but a smoldering crater. What he had dismissed as thunder the night before became apparent before him now. Shrugging his pack up further onto his shoulder, he quickened his pace. He held his walking staff up off the ground so it wouldn’t drag.
He began coming to this village when he started his missionary trips twenty years ago. He had been young then. At least young compared to now. He had thought that simply visiting and proclaiming the truth of Aliyah would be enough to convince all who heard. His brow furrowed. He had been wrong. The priests of Thavatos had slunk in while he was away. They poisoned the villagers with their wickedness and destruction. Death offerings and drunkenness. Monthly orgies of unrestraint. His stomach twisted in disgust. Only a small group remained faithful to Aliyah here now. He came as often as he could to minister to them, help them remain strong in the face of the evil that slithered through the streets at night.
The blackened cinders of the buildings still glowed red in places. Charred bodies trapped under the remains of timbers. Tears stung at his eyes, thankfully blurring his vision from the carnage around him. He pressed on toward the far side of the village. Aliyah, guide me and offer protection for the one I seek.
As he passed the center of town, he skirted around the blackened, smoldering pit that had once held the font of vileness. Evil still hung in the air, oozing into his pores. He performed the invocation clumsily as he tried to balance the pack on his back and the staff in his left hand. Not slowing his pace, he turned his back to the remains and continued forward.
Ahead, just past what used to be the general goods store stood what was once Teritha’s house. The store was heavily damaged, but had not collapsed. Vinroch and his wife ran the store. They turned from Aliyah, but had not fully embraced Thavatos. They were still cordial to him, and every month before he left, he would stop in to purchase some sweet water and seasoned malamuk jerky. Vinroch refused to share the recipe no matter how many times and ways he asked for it. They would discuss theology as he ate, and then he would leave.
The store had protected Teritha’s house from most of the blast. Half of the structure was still standing. He could her sounds coming from inside. Crying, wailing, pitiful sounds faintly drifted through the door. Closing his eyes, unable to even form the words of prayer for what he might find beyond it, he pushed the door open.
“Thank the Goddess,” Teritha’s cried out to him, her voice weak. A roof timber had collapsed, pinning her underneath. “The children are in the back.”
Following the sound, he came to a doorway that had been partially blocked by rubble. “How long have they been back there?”
“Their parents dropped them off before the ritual. I put ’em back there to play yesterday evening. When the explosion occurred, the roof fell in. I haven’t been able to get to ’em.” Her eyes were red and puffy as she stared up at him.
He picked his way to her, stooping to take hold of the timber that kept her captive. “Ready?” he asked. When she nodded, he crouched, bending his knees and straightening his back. Lifting with everything he had, he strained against the weight of the timber and attached building.
At first, nothing moved. His hands became slick with sweat, and beads appeared on his forehead. Releasing his breath, he sucked in another lungfull and redoubled his efforts. Then, barely, it moved. A groan escaped his throat as he felt the timber shifting slightly. Maybe enough. He cracked an eye open and looked down. Teritha was shifting, squirming, struggling to free her legs.
Another gasp of air, another strain on his legs. Sweat dripped into his eye, stinging. He dared not wipe it away though. Teritha pushed against the timber, adding to the load.
“I’m out,” she called. With a rush of air, he released both his breath and the timber. Both of them clambered up and over, pushing through the debris in the doorway.
Inside the back room were eight children. Tears welled and spilled openly this time. Three of them had not survived the blast, their tiny bodies twisted grotesquely on the floor. Of the five remaining, two were wailing their unhappiness. Bending down, each of them retrieved one of the distraught children. Holding the small girl to his shoulder, he patted her back, stroked her hair, and whispered into her ear. Her little dress was soaked wet. He set her down and retrieved a cloth from his pack. Wrapping it around her, he tucked and folded, improvising a wrapping for her to replace the clothing she had soiled.
Holding her close again, he did his best to calm her. Teritha quickly got the other four children changed and calmed. Finally, the little girl he held stopped crying, reduced to whimpering and gasps of breath. Her head lay on his shoulder, and he continued stroking her hair, calming her sadness.
“Teritha,” he began. “Where will you go? Do you have family somewhere else?”
Teritha shook her head. “I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m guessing their parents were killed, or they would have been here to check on them.” She looked sadly at the small group in front of her. ” I don’t know what I’ll do,” she repeated.
He shifted the child he held, looking her in the face. Little hands reached up, slapping his cheek, then grasping and pulling on his bottom lip. “You will come with me. All six of you. There is room at the temple, and I am sure we can find work for you in the kitchen. The children can stay at the temple until they are adopted.”
Teritha watched as his face was poked, prodded, and jabbed by tiny fingers. “Aliyah bless you, Brother Neijen. It looks like little Mirian has taken a liking to you. I’ll gather what little we have left here, and we can leave whenever you like.”