Tags: [Nightmare] [Kindness and doing Shallya's Work] [More Story]
Weakness had taken a hold of her limbs. Her breathing came in sobbing gasps. Vesper’s body was shaking, exhaustion tearing at the edges of her fraying mind as she stumbled through the pitch-black, cursed woods. Her best friend’s death was imprinted on her mind. All the unsteady initiate could think about was the pleading look that Amelia had given her when she had realized, in the last possible moment, what was happening. Perhaps worst of all, Vesper was no longer sure if the look had been a cry for help, or simply a plea for it all to end.
The pale, lurching initiate finally sank to her knees, her breathing ragged. Every fiber of her being screamed in pain, but still, she carried on. She had to get away from that horrible place. With even with her vision flagging, Vesper continued to move forward, crawling along the forest floor in a precarious haze. Abrasions had started appearing on her hands as she ungracefully planted her palms against rocks, fallen branches and the raw earth. Her arms failed her, finally, though her fingers still clawed at the earth. A frustrated, desperate sob pierced the silent woods, the girl giving in and sinking down against the ground entirely, rolling slowly to her side, only to fall the rest of the way onto her back. For a moment, her mind screamed at her to continue, but the darkness of sleep descended mercilessly.
She crashed against the floor, impossibly wide blue eyes darting around the dark room as she frantically crawled and clawed her way into a corner between the next bed over and the wall. For a few short moments, her eyes were glassy, her sweat-covered body sliding against the polished, worn floor as she attempted to squeeze herself further and further into the corner.
Vesper’s ragged breathing stopped, her body prickling with what felt like icy needles as she saw a vague form descend and land lightly on the planks, quite close to her. Her heels continued to slide over the floor, her breathing snapping back into existence, coming in fast bursts interspersed with hacking sobs. The figure reached both its thin arms out, palms lifted to show that it had no aggressive intentions.
Suddenly, as if it had just broken water, Amelia’s head pierced the darkness around Vesper, her hands landing on the terrified girl’s shoulders, and then sliding up to her cheeks in a gentle, slow caress. Amelia, Vesper’s best friend in the orphanage, was used to her friend’s nightmares. She kneeled in front of Vesper, who was now slowly calming down, realizing that her nightmare had been just that.
Amelia embraced her panicked friend, positioning her head against her own shoulder. The two leaned against each other lightly, shaking as one with Vesper’s muted, subsiding sobs. After what felt like an hour, she sniffled heavily, reached her small right hand up to her eyes to wipe her tears, though she still had wet streaks down her cheeks.
Amelia was stronger, braver and much further ahead in her studies than Vesper. Despite her being only fourteen, Vesper felt certain that Amelia could do her ordainment ritual the next morning and pass, if she had been allowed. Vesper smiled weakly at her friend, and planted a hand on the railing of the empty bunk she had been leaning halfway against. Amelia got up slowly, taking Vesper’s left hand, pulling her up by it.
With a burst of hot air, the initiate jolted and opened her eyes. It was morning. The wind carried the scent of beginning rot with it into the forest, still only a trace in the gentle morning breeze. Vesper exhaled tiredly. Her body was still tense after the dream, and even more so, she ached and tingled from the amount of strain put on it the night before. With a weak gasp, the initiate blew hair out of her face and rolled to her side.
She bit her lower lip gently upon setting her palms down against the ground, dragging her legs under herself to sit on her heels. Vesper looked down at her palms. They were scabbed and sore, yet somehow quite cool. She had trouble remembering how her hands had taken all those small cuts, though the cool feeling had stuck with her since waking up in the forest the night before. Had it not been for the marauding band of chaos-worshippers, she would have been a priestess now. The Mercy’s Light temple would have been standing, and Amelia…
Vesper shook her head in a vain attempt to clear her mind of the images that came flooding back, clasping her palms to the sides of her head. She took a deep breath, silently mouthing the words for a prayer. For the first time since last night, she called upon Shallya’s power. As it always was when she did, the calming presence of her goddess became clearer and more present than ever. Calmness washed over her, flushed her worries away and hid the horrific images from the previous night. For now, at least. The initiate exhaled, her breathing coming much easier now.
Her body felt lighter, as if she had had a full night’s sleep and a good meal already. The scabs on her hands peeled off by themselves, revealing fresh, lively pink skin below. Normally, the order refrained from calling upon their goddess for such small injuries, but Vesper felt this to be a special case. Placing a hand against the ground again she pushed off, getting up on her feet again. She looked out from between the thinning tress at the edge of the forest, her eyes fastening on the charcoal walls of what had been her home for the past twenty years.
The smoking ruin of burned wood and smoldering stone seemed quite surreal as it was, on top of a small hill covered in swaying, green grass. In the morning light, the path that the chaos warband had taken away from the temple was obvious enough. The ground was trampled, torn and much of the vegetation dead in an almost completely straight line from the burning ruin and into the forest some hundred steps to Vesper’s side.
The white-robed initiate stayed still, staring at her ruined home. She had placed the palm of her left hand against the bark of a tree to her left, pressing gently against it as faint memories of what had transpired the night before in the temple courtyard fought to surface. She offered no resistance, but for now, the blessing she had cast kept her mind at ease. There was no one else left. Not the abbess, none of the guards, not a single sister. She had been unable to save her only friend.
With a heavy sigh, Vesper bowed her head. Despite having been deemed worthy of becoming a priestess, she knew very well that she was, in many ways, still an apprentice. A novice. Without a temple to call home, without her teachers, she would simply have to build up the knowledge that they had had, herself. A fitting penance it was, too. She would wander the world to learn what it was to live a life that pleased Shallya. She would help the sick and suffering.
Vesper sank to her knees slowly. Her eyes were fastened on the swirly lines of smoke rising from the abandoned temple as she once more mouthed a quiet prayer. This time, there was no magic involved. It was merely a show of dedication to the daughter of mercy, followed by a short oath. The kneeling, blue-eyed novice swore to Shallya, her goddess, that the next five years of her life would be spent wandering the empire, helping those in need, relieving suffering wherever she could find it.
She kept still and silent for a long while after finishing her prayers, her eyes slowly scanning all that remained of the buildings on the small hill in front of her. Not until noon came did she stand up to walk away, a timid sort of determination in her steps. The spell would keep her in control for the rest of the day, at least.
It took Vesper the rest of the day to wander eastwards to the small delta of rivers that ran into Ostermark from the river Stir. She camped by the riverside just before the point where it split into smaller streams, eating what she could find of berries and plants, keeping warm with a cover of fallen branches and grass. Exhausted after the day of wandering, she woke up only once, barely even remembering her nightmare by the time she became aware.
On the second, sunny day, she crossed the river. She had seen a map of Ostermark only a year ago, and remembered reasonably clearly that if she wandered east, she would eventually reach a town lying along the main road north.
Getting across the river was no easy task, but nevertheless, she managed without too many complications. It did, however, leave her and her clothes utterly soaked. Wringing her hair was easy enough, at least to a point. It had always been wild and curly, so the wild bath was hardly noticeable in how her tresses fell down over her shoulders. The robe, however, was another matter. The area she was in was wilderness, clear and simple. Even so, parading around naked did not seem like a good idea, much less a proper thing to do.
In the end, she compromised by taking a one-hour break in a secluded little meadow, sunning herself while her robe dried almost entirely. She was hungry, but knew that she was not too far from the town of Burgenhof either. And so, well before noon, the initiate anxiously stepped into the town.
Having no idea of what to expect, she timidly approached the first citizen she saw, asking for directions to the temple of Shallya. What came to pass next would end up becoming a common occurrence for her. The town had no temple to Shallya, merely a shrine in another temple. As a follower of Shallya, Vesper was introduced to the resident priest, and allowed to tend to the shrine of her goddess.
There was barely time to remove a few old offerings before the first supplicant approached her. Even in a small town, there were plenty of sick and hurt people. Many were mentally unstable, and even more suffered in their daily life, living under horrible conditions that Vesper was quite shocked to hear of. She ended up staying in the town for a week, before feeling the need to travel onwards, following the road north. The town’s desperate need had been sated, and she did not want to get bogged down in one place.
For the next three months, Vesper Adalie travelled north along the Bechafen-Kadrin road. Soon, she found that travelling merchants and peddlers had spread the word of her impending visit to a town much ahead of time. It would often be hard for her to enter a settlement to find its shrine before she was swarmed with the needy. Festering wounds and boils had become a part of everyday life. Crushed souls and minds were mended almost every day. And, when treatment was over, the patient would without fail thank her, take her hands and remark how soothing and cooling her touch was. It seemed almost as if Shallya had blessed her in particular. No matter if she used bandages or prayer, the result was the same. Laying her hands on the patient always soothed them. Calmed them.
Along with the awareness of her pilgrimage came an unforeseen circumstance for Vesper. She started receiving gifts. The inhabitants of every single town she had visited had gladly given her of their food, but the gifts grew more lavish the closer she came to the province’s capital, Bechafen. At first, she occasionally received a few pieces of copper.
Vesper had never needed nor handled money before. The people of the land freely gave her what she needed to live, and so, it seemed only natural that she gave the money she received back to those who needed it far more than her. She would go to bed hungry some nights, having shared what food she had with a beggar. She lived the best life she possibly could, keeping the tenets taught to her in her heart.
And still, with all the good she brought, all the suffering she relieved, she could not rest easy. Seeing weapons made her queasy, bringing back horrible imagery from the night the temple was attacked. She awoke often during the night, screaming from nightmares she was too tired or hungry to remember. Whenever she first came to a new town, the people always feared the worst, only to find out of her nightmares.
Eventually, Vesper built up somewhat of a reputation in the rural, dark province. A reputation of someone so preoccupied with helping all of the suffering that what she saw came back to haunt her in the night. It became commonplace for Vesper to find sleeping forms outside of the shrine when she came to in the morning. When she questioned them, they all said the same. They had been praying for her, so that she might continue her work.
On the last night in the last town before she reached Ostermark’s capital of Bechafen, Vesper was gifted a silver-filigree symbol of a heart and a single drop of blood. The creator, a smith whose wife the young initiate had nursed back to health, approached her and spoke to her as if she was otherworldly, a habit that people had fallen into worryingly much when addressing her. She had come to appreciate the hooded robe more and more, so that she might have a chance of not being recognized immediately upon entering new settlements.
This state of things, however, was to change soon.