She was as broken as the world we lived in, but even so — she stood as a goddess among mortals, beautiful in her destruction.
“Come on Lena, tell the story!”
“Again, Kinley? I’ve told it four times already,” Lena complained.
“It’s my favorite,” the little girl pleaded. “Come on. One more time.”
“I’d like to hear the story too,” a voice chimed in from the side. Lena turned and let her freckled face stretch into a grin at the green-eyed stranger. She didn’t want to recount the story for Kinley who made her tell it a thousand times a day, but she had no problem entertaining a stranger.
“Okay,” Lena conceded, reaching to pull the younger girl, who was already half asleep, into her lap, “but this is it. And only because our guest asked so nicely. So, go to bed after this.”
“Okay,” Kinley said, squirming around to pull a nearby blanket on top of them. Lena rolled her eyes at the theatrics, but waited with patience as her sister got comfortable on her lap. She settled down and closed her brown eyes before forcing them open again to look up at her sister. “Go.”
Lena chuckled as Kinley closed her eyes again, but started the story nonetheless.
“Long, long ago,” she began, her voice soft, “when the planet was new and the master of all time had yet to send his apprentice to move us forward, there existed a goddess.”
“A beautiful goddess,” Kinley corrected.
“Quiet, you. Or I won’t tell the story,” Lena warned.
“Sorry,” Kinley whispered.
Lena smiled and smoothed her sister’s brown curls before continuing. “But yes, the goddess was very beautiful and kind. She was also very powerful. She was born of the soil and the trees, the flowers and all the plants that cover our world. Her name was Freya and with a single drop of her own blood mixed in the earth, she created the animals, the birds, and the fish. And with her breath, she blew life into all things.” Lena paused to blow past her sister’s ear and the girl giggled before snuggling deeper into her blankets.
“There were also four gods. Rothe, Lindl, Carna, and Asari. They were as different as different would allow, but they all had one thing in common.”
“It’s the goddess,” Kinley whispered to the stranger, her sleepy eyes clashing with her grin and rosy cheeks.
Lena bopped her head with a gentle hand to remind her of her promise to stay quiet and Kinley pressed a finger to her lips before hiding a yawn behind her tiny hand.
“And one by one,” Lena continued, laughter hidden beneath her soft tones, “they all fell in love with the goddess. Rothe was the first to ever meet her. At the time, she was trying to tame a dangerous and rebellious creature of the night.”
“The shaders,” Kinley mumbled.
“That’s right,” Lena nodded, satisfied with the girls slowed words and drooping eyes. “It had no eyes and fur blacker than the darkness they were in, but the goddess was unafraid. She rode the creature without fear, but when Rothe appeared, the creature was startled and threw her from his back. Rothe rushed to her aid, catching her before she could hit the ground. Once he found her unharmed, he suggested they kill the beast, but the goddess became angry with him. She told him that life was precious and not to be taken lightly. Her passion lit a spark in him and his love for her birthed the sun, bathing them and all her creations in light.”
Sensing her sister drifting, Lena glanced at the stranger, who had taken up residence in the lone wing chair opposite them, and nodded in her sister’s direction. The stranger returned the nod in understanding, knowing the rest of the story would be truncated to satisfy the little girl and put her to bed.
“Soon after, the other three gods also fell in love with the goddess, Freya,” Lena continued, her voice even softer now than the glow of the fire. “Lindl, who gave us the ocean when he realized Freya’s compassion ran deeper than his seas; Carna, who gave us the sky when he opened his heart to all of Freya’s love; and Asari, who gave us the moon so he could be Freya’s light when she needed it most. The gods loved Freya and she loved them back. In return, she gave Asari the stars; Carna, the birds of the sky; Lindl, the fish and creatures of the sea; and to Rothe, she gave her heart. We are all their children, descendants of the descendants of gods. And to this day they watch over us, protecting us, and giving us their blessings until the end of time.”
Kinley said nothing in return, her soft breaths shifting to snores as her sister was careful to lift her. Lena smiled at the stranger and offered a nod before disappearing up the stairs to carry her sister to bed. Their mother watched them go and leaned across the counter to speak to the stranger as she too stood to her feet.
“My girls have always loved that story,” she said, her voice as soft as her daughters but with a huskiness to it they hadn’t grown into yet, “thank you for listening to it.”
“The story is a favorite of mine as well,” the stranger said, making their way toward the long hallway, just to the right of the stairs, that led to the guest rooms. “Thank you again for the lodging. I appreciate it.”
“Ah,” the innkeeper grinned, “it’s no problem. I’m glad we had the space for you. You heading to bed?”
The stranger nodded. “I’ve a long ride ahead of me.”
The innkeeper nodded in understanding. It was the nature of running an inn. People came and people went. Some were interesting and told stories of their lives and what brought them to the outskirts, but others — like the stranger before her — kept their own secrets and she didn’t pry. She knew better than to try and mind business that wasn’t her own.
“There’ll be a hot breakfast come morning,” she said, sitting back down behind the counter. “Checkout is after that. If you need to leave before then, hand off your key to me or my oldest, Lena — she was the one telling the story. And should you need to leave in the middle of the night, just leave the key in your room, we’ll find it — and be sure to close the front door behind you.”
“May Asari keep your night,” the woman said, already turning back to her paperwork.
“And bless your dreams,” the stranger returned before disappearing down the hall and into her room.
Three hours later and the inn was as quiet as it would get. The only sounds that filtered through the walls were snores, moans, and the sighs of an old building as it settled into its foundation a bit more. Brandi had already locked her door and bid the proprietress that Asari watch over her. She’d offered the blessing half-heartedly, but knew that her words carried more weight than the strangers the woman was probably accustomed to offering them to.
She’d probably never even spoken to someone who had been actually blessed by a god.
Brandi smirked beneath her cloak and mask at the thought of what the woman now dreamed of. Whatever they were, they’d be the best dreams of her life. Considering what she was about to do, allowing the woman pleasant dreams for a night was the least she could do. She didn’t take pity on many people, but living on the outskirts was no easy task, especially with two girls to protect and an inn full of strangers. But the woman at the Starry Inn carried the weight of her responsibilities well. She would simply have to continue doing that, even as Brandi increased the weight she’d have to bear.
It wasn’t until Brandi heard footsteps on the path, that she sat up straight. She’d resigned herself to waiting another hour for the man to come strolling down the path, but she was relieved to know that it wouldn’t take as long as she’d anticipated. The waiting was always the worst part for.
“Bless me, for I am the wrath of the gods,” she whispered into the night. She grinned as she felt the warm double pulse of magic saturate her blood and tickle her spine. Her bow manifested in her hand, as weightless as always, heat rising within it at the pace of her own heartbeat. No matter how many times she did this, it always excited her. Without thinking, she pulled back on the string of her bow, knowing that the arrow would be there as she swept through the motions — knowing that if she let go, her arrow would fly as far as it needed to hit her mark.
But it was too soon.
The order had been to get information from this man before sending him to account for his actions before the gods. She thought it in poor taste to play with her targets before ending them, but this time her interest had been piqued. Joyson Meys was a researcher of the gods, though he wasn’t rumored to be a particularly religious man himself. But he had an obsession for the lore, the myths, the obscure stories time had forgotten. Like most who grow up outside the protected barriers of a god’s domain, he married local. Meela Meys was the daughter of an innkeeper and had inherited the business — so, as most saw it, Joyson married up, evident in the fact he gained a family name through his wife.
He was a rather unextraordinary man, and Brandi didn’t care to remember all the details about him, but he had the misfortune of garnering the attention of some powerful people when he’d started proposing there was another god — one that had been left out of the stories and forgotten to time. Within a week’s time of his public lecture, Brandi had gotten the request. She had no reason to refuse.
As he neared, Brandi stepped from her hiding spot onto the path in front of the man. Before he had time to scream, she’d circled his body and looped the scarf hanging around his neck around his head twice — once to cover his mouth, and the other to cover his eyes. With the scarf secured and his hands trapped in her iron grip, she led him to the clearing just beyond the tree line.
“Walk with me,” she said, her voice gentle. “It’s not far.”
He tripped over his own feet and whimpered the entire time, but Brandi had expected that. The fear coursing through him made his whole body quake. The fact he hadn’t pissed himself actually impressed her a bit.
When they’d walked a short distance and she was positive that even if he tried to run, he’d never make it back to the main road, she released him.
“Who are you?”
Brandi rolled her eyes. That was everyone’s favorite question. It’s why she hated jobs where she had to get information first. She was more of a shoot first kind of person, but a job was a job.
“We both know the answer to that,” she responded.
“I’ll scream,” he threatened.
“No one will hear you. No one will care. But in case you doubt me and want to try something,” she shrugged. “I can always make sure Lena and Kinley replace you.”
Even in the pale light of the moon, she could see that the man was near to shitting himself. Another reason she hated these jobs. They were always messy.
“Your research,” Brandi shrugged. “You seem to have blasphemed against the origin of the gods.”
“I haven’t!” Brandi tilted her head and he lowered his voice. “I-I haven’t,” he repeated, voice lowered and nerves shaking his voice. “I just believe we’ve overlooked another being.”
“Why do you think that? I’m curious.”
“W-well, the basic idea of something coming from nothing is absurd. So, my-my theory is that our gods govern this world. That there are more worlds with different gods and a s-s-supreme being who watches over them all — who brings them all into existence. My research suggests that we’ve forgotten the supreme being.”
“That is interesting,” Brandi conceded, “But there was no other being, Joyson. Only the gods.”
“Your girls seem to know their history,” Brandi interrupted him. “I listened to Lena recount the story to Kinley tonight. You know the one, right? Where all the gods fall in love with Freya and live as one big happy family?”
“I-I know it.”
“Then tell me, Joyson,” Brandi said, “why is that they don’t know the whole story?”
“About the other god?”
Brandi narrowed her eyes. “There was no other being, Joyson. Keep up!”
“Y-yes! Then you mean…?”
“What the gods actually do.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Brandi sighed. “No one seems to, but I’d hoped you would at least be on the right track. But you’d rather ramble on about some non-existent supreme being,” she shook her head. “What you know and taught your daughters is only half the truth. Yes, Rothe gave us the sun and Lindl the sea, Carna the sky and Asari the moon,” she gestured to the sky where a full moon shone down on them. “But Asari has a darkness to him, one that thrives on the pain of mortals, so he strikes them with blindness and disease. Lindl is irritable, irrational and jealous so drowns humans in his fits of rage,” she explained, stepping forward. “Carna is detached and cruel, ignoring every prayer from those who beg for his protection. And Rothe is the embodiment of pride and destruction — he would let the fire of his sun burn these lands just to remind the people that he alone can withstand it and is a god.”
“You blaspheme against them.”
Brandi smirked. “They love me.”
“Who…” he whispered, backing away, “who are you?”
“The executioner of the gods. Or did your research not tell you that?” Brandi questioned, letting her prayer slip beneath her breath. And as before — as always — her bow appeared in her hands and she relished the heat of her blessing coursing through her veins. Her green eyes — the color of the earth her goddess was born from — finally registered with Joyson as she stood before him, ready to end his life.
“You’re blessed by Freya,” he whispered, shaking his head. “That’s impossible. Freya doesn’t give out blessings.”
“Seems you wasted your research, Joyson.” Brandi pulled her bow back, the arrow humming beneath her fingers, ready to be released. She’d expected him to run, most who saw her like this tried, but he seemed stuck on the fact of what he was seeing. A true researcher of the gods until the very end.
“When you stand before the gods, tell them Brandi sent you.”
His life was gone before his body hit the ground.