He staggered out of the Avatar's hall, determined not to lean against the walls for support.
It wasn't due to pride; those things were filthy. He wasn't sure if the monks decorated with blood, they liked the rust-red murals, or it was a mere side effect of worshipping a blood-dripping tusk-covered giant.
Either way, he wasn't going anywhere near them.
Grim was subdued with his directions, but thankfully all the fighting seemed to have relocated outside the temple proper. He was surprised nonetheless when they emerged from the building into late afternoon sunlight and a virtually silent battlefield.
"That felt far longer...." He shook his head and braced himself against the main doorframe. "Right. Grim? The map." His free hand went to the book, which obligingly spit out the Temple map. "I think if we're here, we left Sasha somewhere...."
"Down the leftmost corridor, two rights, a left, then sort of left at the small courtyard, halfway down." While the Mage was staring at his book in bemusement, wondering again how Grim could 'read' the map, the book ruffled his pages in the equivalent of a shrug. "But it doesn't matter, since she's right over there."
The Mage's head snapped up and he stared.
The courtyard was a mess of yellow and red – mostly red of various shades. All the Monks and Sangur in sight were clearly dead, with a few of the bolder swamp creatures moving and feasting amongst the carnage. Near the center path away from the Temple's entrance, Sasha was sitting on a bench and looking about bemusedly. The Orren was about the only blood-free – relatively speaking – thing in the temple. Even the nasty wound the Patasola was clean, leaving only a torn tunic as any evidence that misfortune had occurred.
He raised a hand and waved to her, watching carefully as she raised a hand back. He was fairly certain the Avatar's boon had worked, but if she had somehow changed over a Patasola -
"Stormsblood, I hope this worked."
"That makes two of us."
By the time he jogged over to Sasha, she'd stood a little unsteadily and was looking at him as if taken Grim up on the idea of jumping and singing a bawdy song. "What the hell happened to you? Did one of them explode on you?"
That... didn't sound like something an evil spirit would say to lure him into anything. He looked down and blanched. "Gods. No, I found the Avatar. She drips."
"A lot, apparently. You look like you went swimming in blood."
"Thank you for that lovely image," Grim sighed. "We actually did fairly well for ourselves, Blood Goddesses aside, thank you for asking."
The Mage thumped Grim lightly on the cover. "How are you doing?"
"I'm... a little peeved that you just sauntered over like everything's fine, to be honest." Sasha glanced aside, a strange expression tightening lines around her eyes. "Though I think I'm better?"
He allowed himself a fist clench in victory. "Something happened a little bit ago, didn't it?"
It was strange, how Sasha flinched, then eyed him a little askance. "Yes." She nodded and sat down, leaving him staring at her wolf helm's eyes instead of hers. "I was... fighting the Patasola, when everyone still living – not too many of those – just fell over. I was trying to understand what was going on and why they all died when every last drop of blood nearby lifted up, swarmed me, and then... exploded away. I've no idea why I don't look worse than you do."
"I... see. Good – you're alright, then?" He felt dizzy, sick.
Everyone in sight was dead. Not wounded, not lying down, dead.
He'd killed every last one of them.
"Yes. I take it that was your doing?"
"I got a boon-"
"Two boons!" Grim piped up from far away.
"-two boons from Heodan." He took in a deep breath, redolent of meat and swamp rot. "She – killed them?!" He shook his head. "I wanted her to bring peace! I said I wanted peace between the Sangur and the Hedocet! The only peace here is rising up from the grave!"
"Mage. Stop." Sasha, like Ridley, somehow could make her voice hiss like a whipcrack. It was just as effective at grabbing his attention. He stared over at the Orren, who was stern but pale. "Do not blame yourself. Most of the dead here slaughtered each other. The very fact that they were still at it when the Goddess stopped them shows the madness – neither side asked nor gave quarter."
It helped that he knew she was as much a fighter as he. Neither of them hesitated to use force – gods, hadn't Master Ridley complained about that enough times?! - but a slaughter of this magnitude, when both groups apparently wanted the same thing in the end – it wasn't just madness, it was stupid. He sat down slowly, shakily, gritting his teeth as he glared around at this senseless butchery. "I wouldn't have minded stopping them in battle. Taking Rorja down – Under less dire circumstances, I would have enjoyed that. But like this...." He shook his head. "Blast it, I should go back in and demand she set things right!"
"Primal blood goddess," Grim pointed out quietly. "If she were an Abyssal or Ethereal blood goddess – both of which sound absolutely terrifying, by the way – you might have a chance, but the best possible outcome is you get drenched in blood and she laughs at you. And you get corpse bits thrown at you. And - "
"Enough, Grim." Sasha sighed and rested her hand on the Mage's shoulder for a moment. "Not every Sangur or Hedocet were here. They couldn't have all been caught in range of her boon. Only those who were dedicated to this... insanity. We stopped a war, a battle that could have spilled out of the swamp and recreated horrors that haven't been seen in years. The methods were regrettable. Like your Master Ridley, let us learn the lesson and move on."
For awhile, he chewed on the notion. Finally – reluctantly – he signed and nodded.
"So. Rorja. She's dead then?" When he nodded, Sasha's feral grin was humorless. "Good. I'm glad it was you who took care of her. Listen. Wishes are dangerous, slippery things. If you had spent longwinded minutes, word-crafting like some legal expert, perhaps you would have gotten the wish you wanted rather than the wish you made. Gods – are not like we mortals. They are the distilled essence of their domain, and Heodan is a Primal Blood goddess. Blood and destruction are what she desires, what she is made of."
He glared away, pretending some baby Vodyanoi roaming amongst the corpses was of interest. "Remind me to invest in Primal resources next time I need to – ow! What was that for?"
Sasha's glare was almost as debilitating as her cuff upside his head. "Didn't your Master teach you anything? There are at least three sides to any coin!"
"What coins are you spending?" Grim murmured, only to earn his own baleful gaze.
"The kind that have an edge to balance upon. All magics have opposing natures. Primal magic is blood and violence, like that which can lead to death or birth." The withering look was transferred back to the Mage. "Or did you think women bring little ones into the world quietly?" His startled scoff seemed to placate her a little. "Abyssal magics deal with death and shadows, but they can soothe or raise the dead, and those shadows need light to be seen. Ethereal magics heal and grow, but they can -" Her voice caught strangely, and once again her eyes dipped away. "They recreate, forcibly remake the world around them."
His hand clenched tight on Grim's carrying strap, Weatherly and the Gate's warping magic still fresh on his mind. "The Patasola was Ethereal, wasn't it." Grim's voice was equally subdued, but it still made Sasha flinch. Then she lifted her chin and met the Mage's eyes.
Words had never been his strong point. He fished for something, anything to day say, wishing that Grim hadn't chosen this moment to be silent. "You're Orren. Was that - "
"Painful. Very painful." Her lips quirked into another humorless grin. "Thankfully, you saved the day." She carefully stood, then started walking. "I'm fine now. And we should leave. I doubt Heodan's boon stretched too far beyond Her temple, and there are bound to be survivors who will come looking to see what happened."
He flinched a little at that, but felt a tiny bit relieved that Sasha gave him an approving look for the fact that it was only a little. "Well." He tried to sound casual, to strive towards something almost normal as they left the Temple grounds – from the front gate, this time. "Let's get moving, then. There was an inn near where we met – unless you wanted to visit your family?"
"Hah! Hardly. They haven't lived here in years. I was born near here, but we left when I was a child."
"To the inn, then!" Grim cheered. It was somewhat sad, really, how he was trying so hard. "Perhaps a marching song is in order, then?" Or perhaps Grim really had recovered already; he could hear the sly glee coming from the book. "I know this great one about a wizard's staff-"
"NO." The Mage shook his head. "I don't know where you learned that, but the Council swore the next time you sang it, I was to toss you in a river!"
It took rather longer than he'd expected to shut Grim up – as much as the book was ever quiet – and that was in no small part thanks to Sasha egging them on, trading quips with both as they dodged a few monks and some of the local wildlife. It was only when they were safely at the inn – a small place with a bunch of locals eying them suspiciously – that he dared to ask.
"You've been a lot more... vocal since the Temple."
Sasha snorted and peered down into her pint. "I usually leave the talking to Grim, you mean?"
The smile she gave him was wry, but thankfully somewhat normal. "Words – words are good right now. They... aren't something the Patasola had." She stared off into the fire, then sighed. "I am grateful to you. The physical transformation... was almost complete. I was fighting the mental changes more. All that Ethereal Magic, and a... a hunger. Only hunger. I owe you." The Orren finally glanced over and met his eyes. "I have already promised my aid when you confront Ulfrane - " She smirked. "If you confront Ulfrane, excuse me." An eye-roll indicated just how ridiculous she thought the pretense that he would leave the monster for the Council to deal with. "- but if you ever need my aid, call."
"You know you only have to do the same."
She grinned. "Next time, though, let's leave the blood-drinkers elsewhere."
"This calls for a song in celebration! AAAAAAAA WIZARD'S STAFF HAS -"
"Oh Gods. GRIM!!!!!"
It was worth the argument with Grim, and the horrified looks from the rest of the inn, just to be able to laugh. Sasha's delight in their antics and the resulting quiet snickers – the equivalent of uproarious laughter to anyone else – were odd, but felt like a good step back towards normal.
And best of all, no one seemed to want to kill them that night. Even with Grim's quite dubious singing.