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Friday, May 29, 2015

Orchid's Quest

“Leave me alone!” Orchid shouted angrily to her older brother.
“I'm just teasing,” he replied defensively, wiggling a hand into her armpit.
“You know I don't like to be tickled, Borias!” Orchid cried out.
“But it's so much fun to irritate you,” Borias pouted, trying to slip his other hand under her defensive stance to tickle her side.
Feeling far more enraged than she should – she was usually very mild mannered and hard to upset – Orchid glared at her brother and pushed him to the ground. He stared up at her in astonishment, not because she was mad at him (which really was rare) but because her glaring seemed to make his blood boil. He stared at his hands at they started to shake, and gulped apprehensively when he realized that his nose was streaming blood onto his clean shirt.
“Orchid...” he murmured, shocked to realize that he could barely speak.
Orchid! Stop!” Their mother shouted in a tone that meant that she expected obedience that second! There was also a hint of fear in her voice.
Startled, Orchid looked over at her mother. “Stop what?”
Borias gasped for breath, and then panted in relief. Orchid looked at him curiously, not understanding what was going on. Their mother came over, grabbed Orchid by the arms, and shook her.
You are never to do that again, do you hear me? You almost killed him!”
What?” Orchid whispered, her face going white.
You are 16 years old! You should know better than to use your magic on anyone!” Her mother continued to scold.
Magic?!” Orchid gasped incredulously. “What?!”
We've told you and told you that magic is a heavy responsibility, and...” the lecture went on and on until Orchid lost her patience once again.
Stop! I don't know what you are talking about! What magic?” Orchid demanded.
By this time, their father had come over to see what was going on – along with their younger siblings. He sighed gravely. “This is probably our fault,” he said as he put a hand on his wife's shoulder. “We've done everything we can to ensure that she never had a reason to be upset. We've done everything we can to avoid her using her power, so it might very well be that she doesn't even know she has it.”
Orchid's mother released her grip on Orchid with a long-suffering sigh. “You're probably right...”
What are you talking about?” Orchid asked, looking from her mother to her father in concern.
You were always such a happy baby...” her mother began. “We had no indication that anything was wrong. We had no reason to suspect the awful truth...”
Her father took over. “One day, when you were about two or three, a rabid dog tried to attack you...”
And then when you were about five, some boys were bullying you...” her mother added, her breath catching in her throat.
That's when we found out that your anger is deadly...” her father finished grimly.
We had an oracle take a look at you, and...” her mother was on the verge of tears and buried her face in her husband's chest. He put an arm around his wife to comfort her.
You must know this... No matter what, we will always love you,” her father insisted.
Orchid was more confused than ever. “You keep hinting that something is wrong with me, but you won't come out and say it! What are you talking about?!”
Her father steeled himself to tell her what she needed to know. “According to the oracle, you were born with an abundance of magic, but unlike normal magic that can be used to do almost anything, yours is...”
Yours is...” her mother added, weeping quietly now.
Is...” her father tried to say it again, but faltered.
WHAT?!” Borias demanded, dying of curiosity himself now. “What kind of magic does she have?!” He thought back to all the times his parents had told them tales of great magic and the responsibility it burdened its user with. He used to always think that they were fairy tales to teach them morals and lessons, but now... He realized that they were trying to warn Orchid...
Death...” their mother whispered so softly that no one was quite sure they heard her.
Death?” Orchid asked, utterly confused.
Yes,” her father confirmed grimly. “So far, it has only ever happened when you were seriously upset, but when you use your magic, any living creature dies.”
Orchid thought about this quietly. Biting her lip, she realized that she had always known where every creature – human or animal – around her was located. It was like their heartbeats formed colored lights that she could see and sometimes hear. Looking around, these lights – softly glowing red dots – filled her vision for about a hundred yards. Glancing at Borias for one moment, she could see that his red glow had been dimmed with a soft blackness.
Looking at her hands, she now saw that the faint black outline that she never really paid attention to was now floating around her like a mist. “Oh...” she murmured as her knees gave way and she sat down. Hard!
Orchid's got magic?” Her younger siblings asked, looking at each other in surprise.
What am I supposed to do?” Orchid whispered, her body was now shaking from a nameless fear. If the Gods had given her such a power, they must intend for her to use it. The very thought made her sick to her stomach. Without warning, she leaned over and vomited.
Her father stroked her hair. “That is up to you...”

***

It took Orchid a few weeks to think about her magic before she finally accepted that she really had it and that it was dangerous to those that she loved. Most of the time, she was a very sweet girl. So it was hard to believe that she had such a deadly power. It took a lot to provoke her temper, so she almost decided that she could ignore her power and pretend that she didn't have it, but before she made that decision, she wanted to be certain.
Riding out into the forest all by herself one day (with only her horse for company), she adjusted her voluminous and fluffy multi-layered skirt so that she could sit comfortably on the ground. At first, she procrastinated, spending a great many long minutes braiding dandelions into an elaborate crown to wear. As she did so, a strange sense of calm came over her. Even as her fingers kept working, her mind seemed to go blank.
Once she realized that there was a strange humming in her head, Orchid closed her eyes to focus on it. As clearly as if she was looking around, she saw red dots pulsing. Some of the dots were very small – and turned out to be rabbits, mice, and other small animals. Whereas some of the dots were big.
Focusing on one such big dot, it slowly branched out until she could see lines of red – some bright, some darker. Those lines confused Orchid, so she scrunched up her brows and willed those lines to come closer. They seemed to fight her, but closer they came. As they did so, the lines got bigger and easier to see.
Next, she was startled to see bones. Gasping, she almost lost her concentration, but she kept willing the red lines and the bones closer. Now that she had a better picture, it started to make sense. It looked very much like what the inside of an animal must look like! Judging by the shape, she would guess the animal was a deer.
When the deer was about 50 feet from where she was sitting, Orchid realized that she also saw a sort of white-gray set of lines that ran through the animal just like the red lines did. These lines baffled her. She had absolutely no idea what they could be! The brighter and darker red lines were probably blood vessels, but these...
Frowning because she didn't like not knowing, she focused solely on those grayish-white lines. Dimly, she heard an odd squealing sound as she willed the lines to come ever closer to her, but she wasn't really paying any attention to the sound. Strangely, the whitish lines darkened slightly as the animal seemed to wobble and go to it's knees.
Frustrated with the white lines, Orchid returned her attention to the red ones. These were close enough now – at only about 20 feet away – that she could see how energy moved through them. In surprise, she realized that she was seeing the blood move through them! When she really focused on the blood, she could see that it was made up of thousands of tiny disks that were carried along by a fluid.
Biting her lip in concentration, Orchid tried to see if she could examine just a few of the tiny disks. As she did so, they started spinning as if excited. Suddenly, all of the blood went dark, as if a massively pregnant storm cloud had just overshadowed the entire area.
Opening her eyes and blinking several times to adjust to the brightly sunny day, Orchid looked over at the animal with her eyes rather than her senses. To her sadness, the deer had died. It looked as if it had simply lay down and went to sleep, but blood oozed from it in a way that left no doubt that it was dead.
Getting to her feet, she walked over to the deer and rubbed its soft fur. “I'm so sorry... I didn't know that I was killing you...”
The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she knew better than to waste anything. So – even though she wasn't dressed for it in the slightest – she pulled a sharp hunting knife out of her saddlebag and began the long process of securing the carcass to her horse with rope so that she could drag it home.
All the way home, her head spun with thoughts. She could no longer deny that she had magic. Worse! She now knew that she didn't have to be angry at something in order to kill it. She had not been upset in the slightest at the deer, but still, her power caused its death.
With such a terrible power inside her, she was afraid that it was only a matter of time before she hurt one of her loved ones. Simply tickling her had nearly caused her to murder her older brother! She couldn't imagine what would happen if one of her younger siblings managed to anger her.
It was clear that for their safety, she needed to leave. Only after she was certain that she could control her power no matter what would she ever feel safe around her family. With a heavy heart, she watched her family watch her return home.
With a tiny smirk of surprise, her father ordered their servants to come deal with her unexpected catch. He came closer to ask his daughter how she had managed to hunt with no weapons and in a fancy dress, but her expression stopped him. Looking at her, he felt sadness and the certainty that she had made plans for her future.
Father...” she murmured gravely. “I've made up my mind... I'm leaving.”
Knowing that nothing he said would be able to persuade her otherwise – and he wasn't quite brave enough to see what would happen if he tried to tell her no – he nodded.
Leaving?!” Her mother gasped, having come close enough to hear the conversation. “But why? Where? Wh – !” She stammered, clearly upset by this news.
Orchid tried to smile and reassure them. “Don't worry. I've decided that I'm going to the Temple of the Gods. They're the ones who gave me this power, so they're the ones who need to tell me why!”
Her mother sighed in profound relief. “Oh! Don't scare me like that! I thought you were planning to run away with no destination in mind. The Temple is only across town. That's not so bad.”
Orchid smirked, amused by her mother's assumption. “No... We have temples across town that are dedicated to various Gods. I am talking about the Temple of the Gods.”
Her mother stammered again. “Bu-bu-but!”
Borias had come close enough to hear her. With a frown, he bit his lip and thought this over. “Why there?”
Because... the Temple of the Gods is where they live. If they are going to talk to me, I need to go to them. I need to make the Great Pilgrimage...”
Feeling as if his heart was being torn in two, her father helped her down off her horse and held her close. “I wish you a successful journey. We'll make sure you have everything you could possibly need.”
Thank you,” Orchid sighed in relief, burying her face in his chest to hide the childish tears she shed. I don't really want to leave! She thought emotionally. But I have no choice. Unless I want to hurt those I love, I need to find out why the Gods gave me this power.

***

Orchid stepped off the boat with a smile. True to her father's word, she had everything she needed to make a pilgrimage. Mostly, this meant plenty of money and an official letter of credit so that should could get more if she ran out or was robbed. More than that though, she also had her horse and saddlebags full of things she would need as she traveled.
For the most part, until now, her journey was a safe one. She only traveled during the day, stayed in respectable inns at night, and used only modes of transportation that could offer some guarantee of protection. Now, however, that was no longer possible.
Aside from this large port city, the rest of her journey was going to be the very definition of dangerous. Between her and the Temple of the Gods was a desert and a vast mountain range. Making a pilgrimage was not so unusual – so she might have some company – but for the most part, she was going to be on her own. This would leave her vulnerable to all sorts of bed people who might wish her harm. Even so, she wasn't worried.
As she made her way to the inn she planned to spend the night in, she practiced her most basic measure of self preservation... She cast her senses out as far as she could and made absolutely certain that she knew where everyone around her was. If any of the bright red dots suddenly came her way, especially if they tried to sneak up on her, she had a nasty surprise waiting for them. All she needed to do was to picture herself grabbing the dot and throwing it away and the person or persons found themselves tripping. They would land on the ground and suffer some serious pain until she was far enough away from them to no longer be a target.
She hated causing anyone such pain, but the alternative was worse. Just a few days after she had left home, she hadn't know that she needed to be wary of thieves, and so one caught her unawares. He had grabbed her from behind, scaring her so completely that she had killed him before she knew what was going on. The witnesses and watchmen who had responded to her terrified screams had assured her that the thief had simply succumbed to heart failure at the most opportune time for her, but she knew the truth. From that moment on, she practiced vigilance and doled out pain rather than take a chance that her magic would kill again to protect her.
Her stomach growled, prompting her to seek out a food stall before doing anything else. Luckily, all along the route recommended to her by both passengers and crew of the ship she had just disembarked, there was food carts and shops to cater to every possible taste. It all smelled so good! Orchid was positive the fantastic smells were what had prompted her stomach to demand food so loudly.
Stopping at a food stall that smelled simply divine, Orchid watched as a man cooked a large amount of vegetables and rice on what looked to be a huge flat stone over a roaring fire. Craning her head for a better look, she wondered how he managed to cook like that day after day without burning his legs clean off! He saw her questioning look and laughed.
In clear Universal – a language used almost everywhere because long ago a greedy empire had conquered nearly the entire world and forced everyone to learn their language – the man asked Orchid what she wanted. “What would you like? Shrimp? Conch? Scallops? Calamari?”
Orchid looked at all the wooden plates covered by huge banana leaves sitting in front of the other customers until she figured out which one produced the smell that enticed her. Pointing, she shrugged. “I don't know which is which, but I want that one.”
The man grinned at her. “Calamari! Good choice!” He made room on his stone by shoving the rice to one side and the vegetables to the other. After that, he pulled the lid off of a large crock and used a big ladle with many holes in it to scoop out something from inside. “I have my sons buy this fresh every morning and then pound it thoroughly before chopping it up and setting it in a flavorful brine to steep until needed. Once I've cooked it for you, it will be so tender and delicious that you will wish I wasn't already happily married!”
Orchid giggled at his boasting, sitting on the bench where his other customers made room for her. Part of her wished that she wasn't wearing such a delicate lace-trimmed blouse under her sensible traveling jacket and accompanying skirt, but she knew that if she was very careful, she'd be able to eat without getting it dirty. A moan escaped her as the smell grew ever more wonderful.
A boy of about 12 set a rectangular bamboo plate in front of her, and then placed a large banana leaf over it. Also in Universal, he told her the price of her meal, and then asked her if she wanted to try their specially brewed Kombucha. Orchid was glad that she had a small purse on hand to pay with. It was a trick that she had learned from a fellow traveler. The small purse held very little coin in it – perhaps enough for a couple of meals – but not enough to interest most thieves. Even if she emptied it all out into her palm to count out the right amount, it wouldn't tempt anyone to steal it from her.
The rest of her money was then rolled up in a long cloth to prevent it from jingling, stuffed in a bigger purse, and hung from a sturdy chain wrapped around her waist under her skirt. Honestly, the trick was well known enough among thieves that her little purse probably didn't fool anyone, but there was no sense in flaunting all her money if she didn't have to.
Also, she knew that the quality of her clothes spoke more about how much money she likely had on her than anything, but a thief couldn't steal her big purse while she was sitting, and since she had an effective way to defend herself when walking, she wasn't too worried.
Shaking off her thoughts of money – now that she had paid the boy and food was steadily being scooped onto her plate – Orchid had to subtly wipe drool from her mouth. She was sorely tempted to eat it with her hands! Containing herself, she looked around for a fork or spoon, but the only thing she could find was a pair of sticks.
Confused, she looked around and noticed that everyone else was using the sticks to eat. Not sure how they managed it, she picked up the sticks and examined them closely. Next, she tried to imitate her neighbor, but her hands practically refused to cooperate.
Laughing impertinently at her predicament, the boy came over and showed her what to do. It took her a few tries, but soon she was pinching vegetables between the sticks and shoving them in her mouth. A friendly woman on another bench grinned at her encouragingly.
See? Not so hard! You're lucky that you're learning on broccoli... Just wait until you decide to try the rice!”
Everyone laughed at that. Orchid squinted as she tried to pick up a piece of the calamari. It was just slippery enough to give her trouble, but she soon learned that if she didn't squeeze it too hard, it stayed in the grip of her sticks. Exclaiming in triumph, Orchid stuck the morsel in her mouth and promptly chewed on it. A moan escaped her before she could stifle it.
Good, huh?” The man who had cooked it asked her with a grin.
Mmmhmm!” Orchid agreed after she shoved another large piece in her mouth. Manners forced her to chew it thoroughly and swallow before saying anything else. “This is fabulous!”
He grinned at her in delight for a moment before his expression turned slightly strange.
What?” Orchid asked, curious and slightly suspicious.
The man shook his head and refused to say anything. It was his son who answered her question, laughing. “He's just not used to foreigners liking squid so easily!”
Squid?” Orchid asked, her lips and brows puckering in a puzzled frown.
Calamari is foreign word for squid,” the boy explained with a shrug. “Not too many travelers will even dare to try squid, but when we say calamari, they are curious enough to give it a taste.”
Orchid returned the boy's shrug, a smile spreading across her lips. “I don't care what it is! Anything that tastes this wonderful is considered a delicacy in my book!”
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a man flip a coin to another man, who caught it with a joyous grin. “You just won me a bet, little girl!”
Orchid looked over at him warily. Seeing her justifiable caution, he chuckled. Waving his hands and shaking his head, he assured her that he intended her no harm.
It's just that my friend here bet me that you would spit it out the moment you learned what it was that you were actually eating!”
Orchid giggled softly. “I'm sure that he usually wins that bet, which is sad, because this is something I could eat every day!”
Talk was pleasant around the stall as people wondered where she was from and where she was going, She answered politely by reminding them that it wasn't exactly safe for her to tell everyone where she was going. They understood and offered her places to stay if she needed it.
Soon, she had a minor dilemma on her hands. “I can't possibly eat all of this!” Which was true even though she had tried to keep eating. She didn't want to waste any of it, but she was barely half done and her stomach felt ready to burst!
With a laugh, the 12 year old boy came over and showed her how to bundle the leftovers in the banana leaf and tie it. “You see? This way, it won't leak all over your belongings.”
That's brilliant!” Orchid exclaimed, impressed.
Soon, Orchid gave her thanks to the food vendor, tossed a coin to the boy as a tip, and then waved goodbye. She sensed the man who had won a bet off her get up and follow her discretely. After passing two alleyways, she growled in frustration that so many men found it acceptable to prey upon women and girls who traveled alone.
Marching back over to him, she put her hands on her hips and stared him down. “If you think to catch me unawares, I assure you that I have the ability to defend myself!”
He blushed and looked to the ground as he stammered. “N-n-no! You misunderstand! I was merely concerned for your safety! There's far too many dishonest folk about...”
Orchid stared at him for a moment longer before deciding to believe him. “If what you say is true, then I thank you for your concern.”
He shrugged, looking down as he scuffed a toe on the ground. “I have a sister about your age and I wouldn't feel right if I saw her traveling all alone in new land.”
Orchid gave him a tiny but appreciative smile. “I have a brother about your age, and I am not entirely certain that he would be so chivalrous.”
Her magic pulsed suddenly, showing her that a group of people – likely youngish men – were trying to sneak up on her. “Or maybe you are trying to fool me after all...” she murmured to him just as several screams erupted from the alley at her back.
What in the world?!” Her possible protector exclaimed as he rushed to see what was going on. In the alley, he found a gang of men rolling around on the ground. They all moaned in pain, holding their heads or their stomachs. He took a step back.
Orchid took a moment to check her surroundings. If there were any more men stalking her, she wanted to know now. To her relief, there wasn't anyone suspicious around. Instead, a few watchmen were making a beeline towards the commotion.
Do you suppose they were in a brawl?” Her companion asked her in a whisper. He took another step back. “They look like a gang of some sort...”
They are!” A watchman confirmed in Universal. “Did either of you see what happened?”
Both Orchid and the man about the same age as her brother shook their heads.
Another watchman frowned and pointed. “See how a few of them clutch their bellies? I'll bet they ate something that disagreed with them.”
Serves them right!” The first watchman exclaimed.
May I be excused?” Orchid asked in the tone of a well-bred lady. She had been raised by wealthy merchant parents and so had been exposed to ladies all her life. She knew that often, the tone cultivated by a gentile woman could procure miracles.
The watchmen both looked her over and noticed that she looked queasy. In truth, the sight of such suffering and knowing that she was the cause of it was more than enough to turn her stomach. She was afraid that she might lose her excellent meal if she stayed for much longer!
Of course,” they both murmured.
With a polite bow that she had seen many people in this country perform as a general sign of respect, Orchid took her leave. Her companion walked with her for the next three blocks, but then she stopped walking once more.
This is the Wandering Dragon Inn, where I plan to stay. I thank you again for your concern, but you can be on your way now.”
He actually sighed in relief. “You know, it occurred to me that those men could have very well been after you. If so, I would have been no match for them! I am grateful to see that you have a place to stay where you will be well cared for. I wish you health and good luck in your travels,” he stated with a bow of respect, and then left.
Sighing in relief herself now that she was fairly certain he was not a bad man, Orchid waved goodbye to him before turning to face the inn. “If I'm lucky, the captain of the ship will have delivered my horse by now.”
Squaring her shoulders, she entered the Wandering Dragon.
Greetings Traveler!” The Innkeeper welcomed her with a broad smile. “I trust you are the young woman who belongs to the horse currently in my care?”
With another sigh of relief, Orchid grinned and nodded her head. “Yes. Did the Captain – or more likely one of his men – explain that I will need a room for the night?”
Certainly!” The Innkeeper stated, and then beckoned to her. “Right this way. Your luggage arrived too, such as it is...”
By this, Orchid could tell that the Innkeeper was dismayed that a young woman traveling all on her own had only what would fit in a pair of big saddlebags. Granted they were as large as they could possibly be, but still, someone of her class was supposed to travel with several huge trunks and an entire entourage. She smiled softly at his concern.
Arriving at her room, Orchid could tell that it was empty. After nearly being jumped by a gang, she had the odd expectation that someone would be hiding in her room to rob her. She shook her head and called herself silly for such thoughts.
Taking a deep breath, she decided to ask the Innkeeper a few questions. “First of all, can I have a bath?”
Only if you go across the street to the bath house,” he answered with an apologetic shrug.
I see,” Orchid murmured, then shrugged in return. “Well then, in the morning, I plan to leave on my pilgrimage to the Temple of the Gods. Would you happen to know where the road of beginnings is?”
According to everyone she talked to, somewhere outside this city lay a road paved with bricks that led to the desert. It could only go so far before the desert obliterated it, but it was a clear way to mark the beginning of the trip into the desert.
A God Quest...” the Innkeeper murmured reverently. “Ah... much makes sense now. Do you have a good compass and silks to cover your horse's eyes? I know a man who makes water skins that can almost keep the water as crisp and cool as it is when it's first drawn from the well.”
Orchid bit her lip in thought. “It seems I haven't quite planned for everything. I do have a good compass and well made water skins, but I don't have silks for my horse.”
The Innkeeper waved his hand as if brushing aside her concerns. “Do not worry. I'll send you to old Aza in the morning and she will make sure you are well prepared for your journey. That said... you may wish to stay another night. By the time you are done with Aza, you likely won't be able to reach the next stop by nightfall. Staying another night would save you much hassle.”
Understanding that he was more than likely right, Orchid nodded in agreement. Without another word, she checked to make sure her belongings were in her room, selected something to change into after her bath, and then sorted through her money. The Innkeeper – who had left her alone – would not insist that she pay him until she left, but she preferred to pay ahead of time. That way, if someone did manage to rob her, she wouldn't have to worry about paying for her stay.
Selecting two gold coins, Orchid hid the big purse containing the rest of her money in the empty chamber pot. She had learned from her mother before leaving that if she put the money in the chamber pot, but then set it carefully where the empty chamber pot usually was – under the dresser, but clearly visible so that the guests didn't have to go looking for it – most thieves would not even think to look inside it for money. Plus, the maids would have no reason to touch the pot until after it had been used and set near the door for emptying.
Making her way back to the Innkeeper, Orchid held out her hand. “Here's my payment for the room and care of my horse. I'd like the rest to be broken into change please.”
Impressed that she preferred to take care of that now, the Innkeeper nodded and did as asked. He gave her a large handful of lesser coins – both silver and copper – and watched with the air of a protective father as she slipped them into her smaller purse. They each bowed to the other respectfully, and then Orchid left to go to the bathhouse.
It took her a few minutes to work up the courage – once inside the bathhouse, after paying for the service – to actually undress. She was used to all sorts of bathing customs by now, but it still unnerved her to know that she was about to sit in a tub full of strangers of both sexes. Growing up, she bathed with her entire family, and then on her journey, the majority of the bathhouses had the option of separate gender bathing, but somewhere between a third and half of the time, the bathhouses were simply one big tub for everyone.
Setting her clothes in a cubby where they would remain dry, Orchid closed her eyes for a moment to try something she had done before but wasn't quite sure if it worked or not. Gathering her magic, she imagined a solid barrier shaped like a cocoon that extended about a foot all around her. Except for under her feet. Once the cocoon was shaped, she willed it to be impossible to penetrate. None of the pulsing red dots and lines (as close as they were to her here, they were always large networks of lines) would be allowed to pass through her magic. Or so she hoped.
In theory it should work. After all, her magic seemed to control the blood (and bones and nerves – she had learned what the grayish-white lines were called), therefore, if she didn't want any of them to enter her cocoon, they shouldn't be able to. Right?
Feeling better, she filled a bucket with clean water from a barrel kept warm, scrubbed herself clean with her favorite orchid-scented soap, and then rinsed off with the water from the bucket. She refilled the bucket and repeated the process on her hair. Finally, she slipped into the hot water of the communal tub and found an empty spot. With a long sigh of pleasure, she relaxed into the tub and nearly fell asleep.
Don't get too comfortable!” An older man warned her. “Travelers especially tend to forget how easy it is to get overheated in a tub like this.”
Orchid nodded absently, not really paying any attention to him. Her long brown hair – which was a soft amber-like shade when dry – was a dead give away that she was foreign. Around here, most people had black hair. In fact, around the world, the majority of people had black hair. Orchid had not traveled quite so extensively to see them all for herself, but she had come across travelers from nearly every where in the world, and most of them had black hair and black or brown eyes.
In addition to her hair, her creamy white skin was foreign too. It was rather funny to her that people around the world had the same color hair and eyes, but had an astonishing variety of shades to their skin. From golden yellow to red to brown to the darkest black, skin was unique and beautiful in all its hues. But not so for those that could be called white folks. Their skin was always more or less a shade of the same color, but it was their hair and eyes that came in a wide variety! It was enough to boggle the mind...
Orchid was pulled from her thoughts when someone swore. She opened her eyes to look at a middle-aged woman staring at her hands. The woman looked at Orchid and held out a hand as if afraid to touch something in front of her.
I only wanted to wake you so that you didn't overheat, but...” she trailed off, trying to push her hand through the invisible cocoon surrounding Orchid.
I'm sorry,” Orchid murmured with a smile, sitting up straighter. She shrugged as a good explanation came to mind. “I'm on a God Quest and so – apparently – they have decided to give me protection on my journey.”
Oh!” The woman exhaled in profound relief. With a smile, she nodded. “Yes, those on a God Quest almost always have protective gifts from the Gods. I wish you well in your journey.”
Thank you,” Orchid stated with a smile.
Even so,” a man in his mid twenties added. “It might be wise to hide such gifts. Not everyone understands what it means to be on a God Quest.”
Orchid nodded in understanding. Deciding the time was right, she stood to exit the tub. The man whistled softly in appreciation.
I must admit, I find myself very disappointed that the Gods have made you untouchable,” he informed her. “I would love to invite you to share a bed with me tonight!”
Orchid both blushed and smiled, covering her face with one hand. Curious about something, she forced herself to look him in the eye.
What if I wasn't untouchable but still declined your invitation?” She asked with a light tone of challenge.
He held up a hand as if making a vow to his Gods. “I am not the type to force a woman. I know that you are a young woman traveling on your own, it seems. Therefore you must be wary and cautious. It also appears to you as if every man has the urge to force a woman on his mind, but I hope you understand that this is not true. Yes some men do, but the vast majority of us are decent men. Perhaps that is something else you will learn on your God Quest.”
There was a little more than a dozen people in the tub, and they were fairly evenly split between the genders, ranging from the old man on down to a babe in arms. Of the men, all of them but one nodded their heads in agreement. The one sent her a dark look that made her shiver in apprehension.
Most of the women nodded in agreement too, but the middle aged well-wisher added. “While what he says is true, I feel I should point out that his dubious compliment was highly inappropriate for a public bath and you were right to challenge him. How can any of us women ever feel safe from forced encounters if men like him think it is acceptable to talk to us as if we were nothing more than a potential bed partner?”
He had the grace to blush at that. “I apologize. My mother is forever telling me to think two or three times more before I speak!”
Orchid decided to be gracious and smile at him. With a light bow of respect, she looked at him one last time. “I thank you for your dubious compliment and trust that your heart was in the right place, even if your sentiment was inappropriate.”
With nothing else to say, except to bid everyone a good night and pleasant dreams, Orchid finished exiting the tub and dried off before getting dressed. Others followed suit, making the dressing area feel a bit crowded. The young mother growled in frustration as her babe decided that she didn't like the sudden cold and fought against her swaddling.
So abruptly that Orchid fell on her rump, the man who sent her a dark look earlier tried to grab her. His hands felt all around her cocoon as if looking for a way in. Orchid wasn't sure what to do. Obviously he couldn't hurt her, but neither was she comfortable with him so close to her. Just as she was deciding to expand her cocoon, he snorted a chuckle.
So it's true! I'm sorry if I startled you, but I simply couldn't believe that the woman over there was telling the truth.” He bowed to her with deep respect. “And now I look like an attacker. I apologize. If you want to feel a bit better, though, take a look around. Everyone here is ready to come to your defense if necessary.”
A quick glance around the room proved that he was telling the truth. Even the little girl of maybe eight years looked ready to bash his head in if she could just find something to use. Orchid let out a shaky laugh.
I see...”

***

A mere two days into the desert and Orchid was already beyond grateful that old Aza had equipped her with everything she would need to survive. Her horse looked like he was also sending up a prayer of thanks to his Gods that he had a sheer silk wrapped around his head to protect his eyes from the sand the went flying in all directions with no rhyme or reason.
As for Orchid, she wore the very best – and soft – white cotton that money could buy. Knowing that part of the journey required a trek through a desert, her mother had insisted on commissioning a dress that would cover her skin from chin to foot. It was cotton to absorb any sweat, white to reflect as much heat away as possible, and full length to protect her skin from the harsh sun.
The inner part of the dress hugged her while the outer part of the dress hung a bit loose. She had matching pantilettes under her skirt also made out of cotton and trimmed in lace. On her hand were gloves and on her head was a very wide brimmed hat that kept the sun off her face and out of her eyes. Old Aza had been impressed by Orchid's mother's attention to detail, but then added a sheer silk scarf to be tied around both Orchid's hat and her neck in a way that provided a screen to keep out the sand.
In this dress, Orchid almost felt like she could be a Priestess in the service of the Goddess of Chastity. Those Priestesses always wore a fully covering, dual layered dress called a habit, but they didn't wear a hat and had large strings of wooden beads that they fretted when praying. The image of her as such a Priestess made her laugh, until she realized that she might very well be on her way to take exactly those vows and enter the service of the Gods.
The thought was so depressing that she didn't pay any attention at all to where her horse was going for several minutes. Suddenly, a light flashed blindingly off to her right. Her first instinct was to cover her eyes, and then – after the bright light faded – she looked to see what caused it.
To her astonishment, sand was falling from a small hill in a way that seemed to be a door opening. It was unnerving because the sand on the top of the hill stayed put even though there was nothing to hold it up as the sand in the front fell away to reveal a hollow core. Orchid looked and looked, but could not find a thing that held the shell of the hill in place.
She and her horse remained immobile from the lingering shock for so long that the hill itself seemed to sigh in frustration. Belatedly, it occurred to Orchid that the hollow was the exact size needed for her and her horse to enter. However, it was exceedingly dark inside the hill, and Orchid wasn't entirely certain that it would be wise to go inside it.
A stinging sensation filled Orchid's nose until she couldn't fight the urge to sneeze any longer. The action brought moisture to her eyes which she blinked away. A gasp escaped her when she realized that she could now see a very faint woman standing in the entrance to the hill.
This must be what a ghost looks like...” Orchid muttered to herself. Another look proved that the woman was there, albeit it so transparent that most people would probably dismiss it as a trick of the sun on the sand.
The woman shook her head in response to Orchid's statement, and then reached out a hand and beckoned Orchid to follow her. Orchid squinted her eyes distrustfully. “How do I know this isn't some sort of trap?”
The woman shrugged, spreading her hands wide. She beckoned again, and then held one hand up as if she was carrying a lantern. A moment later, a soft glow appeared exactly where a light would be if she was carrying a lantern.
With a sigh, Orchid called herself at least 10 different kinds of fool as she nudged her horse forward. The moment both horse and rider were inside the hill, the entrance disappeared, sand rising to cover it once again. The next moment, the horse screamed in terror even as Orchid gasped and clung tightly to its neck. As far as she could tell, they were falling!!!
Their fall lasted a very long time. Long enough that even her horse had time to calm down and stop trying to find something to stand on. The woman seemed to float next to them as they fell, but she smiled in a soft and sympathetic way. Orchid hoped that if this actually was her end, the woman would let her know it by smirking evilly with triumph.
Almost as abruptly as they started to fall, they stopped. It took them by surprise because there was no impact. They seemed to land on the ground as softly as if they were a downy feather. The woman held up the nonexistent lantern allowing the light to show them a large cave filled with golden treasure.
Orchid frowned in confusion as she looked around. “Why have you brought me here?”
Unlike a child who had been raised in the streets, she had never felt like she lacked money. Her parents had always given her everything she wanted – not that she had wanted much – so she had no urgent desire for riches. In fact...
I couldn't possibly carry all that! Not even my horse could pull a wagon loaded with all this treasure! And besides, I already have all the money I need. I'm on my way to the Temple of the Gods, and unless they send me on a mission somewhere, I am just going to be stuck there for the rest of my life. What good would this treasure do me there?”
Orchid bit her lip in thought. “Wait... is there something in here that I'm supposed to bring to the Temple?”
The transparent woman nodded slowly, a kind smile on her lips. She pointed to a ball made out of gold that pulsed faintly as if it had a beating heart. Curious to see if it really did have a heart inside it, Orchid dismounted and walked over to the ball. It fit perfectly in the palm of her hand, but would need both her hands to cover it if she needed to hide it. It was far heavier than it should be – considering that it was apparently made out of solid gold – but yet at the same time, it felt light in Orchid's hands. She was able to roll it back and forth as if it weighed no more than a ball made out of glass.
Will you agree to bring that to the Temple of the Gods?” A voice from nowhere asked her, making her squeak in surprise and nearly drop the ball. She looked to the transparent woman, who shook her head and grinned. She pointed to one of the piles of gold.
Slowly, something slithered down the side of the pile. It stopped once it reached the ground and looked up at Orchid. Its head slowly swayed back and forth.
Orchid fought the urge to scream and run! Snake!
Thinking that perhaps Orchid had forgotten the question, the snake asked the question again. “Will you agree to bring the Gods' Orb to the Temple of the Gods?”
Now, Orchid could see that the golden snake wasn't actually talking to her with its mouth, but rather it was somehow projecting its voice into her head. Still trembling from squeamishness over having a snake so near, she nodded.
Y...yes... I will bring the Orb to the Temple...” Orchid agreed hesitantly. She had no idea if this would place some sort of burden on her, but she felt that she probably had no choice in the matter. They could keep her wherever this was for the rest of eternity, and should couldn't do a thing about it. Neither the snake nor the woman had blood!
Good!” A voice stated from a different pile of gold. “We are its guardians, so we shall accompany you.”
Orchid watched as a second snake made of gold slithered to the ground and looked up at her. Both snakes were only approximately 2 feet long, but both had flat heads reminiscent of cobras. She tried very hard to suppress a shudder of fear.
What if you bite me?” Orchid asked.
Then you die,” both snakes replied as if this was the only possible answer. “But try not to worry, we won't bite you.”
Why should I trust you?” Orchid wondered, unconsciously taking a step back from them.
Because our Goddess stands next to you,” the first snake – which sounded feminine – replied.
She has charged us with guarding the Orb, and so we must guard you if you still agree to carry the Orb,” the second snake added. This one sounded male.
Both finished by making her a promise in unison. “So long as you guard the Orb, we guard you.”
Orchid didn't feel anywhere near as reassured as they hoped she would, but the transparent woman – their Goddess – gave her a patient and kind smile that made her feel warm inside. Something occurred to her to make her curious. She lightly shook her finger toward the Goddess a couple of times.
Wait, if this is a Goddess, then why doesn't she talk?” I mean, not one but two golden snakes are talking to me even though actual snakes can't talk, but this Goddess can't speak. How does that make sense?
This is only a shadow of our Goddess,” the male snake stated as if this should be obvious.
Her true self is still at home in the Temple,” the female snake added.
Deciding that she didn't want to procrastinate any more, Orchid sighed. “Well, I'm going to the Temple anyways. I really don't see any reason why I shouldn't bring the Orb with me.”
Good,” both snakes stated as they slithered closer to her. She tried to take a step back, but her horse was in the way.
I am Orro,” the female snake introduced herself as she slithered up Orchid's dress. “And that is my mate Eck.” Eck also slithered up her dress, which made her whimper. A thought interrupted her apprehension and made her stand up straighter.
Wait, if I am already imbued with a deadly power, why do I need you two to guard me?” She asked.
By this point, the snakes had reached her hands. Each wrapped around one of her wrists, and then paused to look at her. Their expressions were quite serious, considering that snakes didn't have the ability to smile or frown.
It's true that you can kill anything and everything within a 100 yards, and thus do not need us to guard your life, but you do not yet understand the effect the Orb will have on you. Just carrying it will increase your power a hundredfold,” Eck explained.
You will need us to help focus your power and protect your mind from from the influence of the Orb. It holds the power of a God and it can easily drive you insane,” Orro informed her. “We will be able to warn you if the Orb is affecting you badly.”
Not to mention, not even you can be vigilant all the time,” Eck added. “We can watch over you when you sleep.”
Orchid nodded in understanding, actually feeling better about her pilgrimage than she had since she stepped foot in the desert. Orro and Eck resumed their slithering, traveling up her arms. When they were done, they settled so that their tails were wrapped around her arms outside her under dress. Their bodies rested under her overdress, laying across her collar bone and shoulders. Orro was on her right and draped across her front while Eck was on her left and draped across her back. Each bit the other lightly, and then flattened until they looked like nothing more than an unusual necklace – or at least the parts of them that emerged from her overdress and could be seen by others looked like a necklace.
Orchid could feel them as a mildly warm and soothing weight against her neck, but since her under dress covered her skin up to her chin, she couldn't tell what they felt like. No longer scared of them, and now intensely curious, she reached up her hands and stroked the snakes. They felt smooth and polished like gold. As if pleased by her touch, they flexed their scales a few times so that she could feel their bumpiness, but then settled down once more.
Orchid moved her arms and shoulders to see if they restricted her movement in any way, but they didn't. Suddenly, she realized that the Orb was no longer in her hand. She looked around to see where it was, thinking that maybe the Goddess had taken it from her so that she wouldn't lose it, but a shake of the transparent head assured her that she hadn't.
Nearly panicking, Orchid turned in circles to examine the many piles of gold. The Orb didn't appear to be anywhere. Only soft giggling stopped her from crying over her failure to guard the Orb. The snakes seemingly knew something that she didn't.
Startled, she craned her head to try to look at Eck's face. Gradually, she felt the soft pulsing that she had originally thought was the Orb's heartbeat. A simple pat of the hand proved that she had simply slipped it into her pocket at some point. Sighing in relief, she grumbled at the snakes.
You could have told me...”
Why?” Eck asked, sounding like he was laughing. “It was more fun to feel you panic!”
Thanks,” Orchid muttered unappreciatively. Having nothing better to do, she mounted her horse and looked around for and exit.
Cover your eyes!” Orro warned urgently.
What?” Orchid wondered, her hand obeying the order even though her mind hadn't told it to.
A moment later, she slowly uncovered her eyes. Extremely bright light nearly blinded her until she grew accustomed to it, and then she realized that it was sunlight. Looking around, Orchid noticed that they were right next to the hill of sand where she started.
Was it all a dream?” She asked herself in a whisper, but a quick glance at the tails wrapped around her arms assured her that it wasn't.

***

Trying to navigate a desert – even with a good compass – was frustrating. Everything started to look the same after a while, and it was hard to keep her bearings. When a semi permanent travelers' camp appeared about two weeks later, Orchid was so relieved that she almost vowed to stay there forever and give up on her quest. Even though it was only midday, Orchid flopped to the ground inside a small stone structure and went right to sleep. Not even her need to eat and refill her water skins could keep her awake a moment longer!
The extreme heat of the day slowly faded. Orchid almost enjoyed the coolness – despite being sound asleep. Sleeping noises of pleasure escaped her. But all too soon, her enjoyment ended and she started to shiver. The cruelest part about the desert was that the days were far too hot while the nights were practically freezing.
Orchid!” Orro snapped when the sun was only a crescent above the horizon. “Wake up!”
Orchid was still so very tired that she had a hard time regaining consciousness. In her mind, she wondered why she had to do anything at all, much less wake up.
People are approaching!” Eck informed her urgently.
Oh, is that all?” Orchid asked, still too much asleep to care. She imagined herself surrounded by a thick cocoon of power that would prevent anyone from touching her. As a bonus, it would also keep her warm since she didn't have the energy to grab her thick fur blanket from her saddlebags. For a split second, the fate of her poor horse made her worry, but a large network of red lines right next to her assured her that her horse was just fine.
And she didn't think she would need our protection,” Eck grumbled.
If anyone dares try to steal from her, I swear I will bite them all!” Orro stated fiercely. Even just two weeks of companionship had been enough for the two snakes to fall completely in love with their charge. Both felt that they would gladly give up their lives for her if need be. Thankfully, that scenario was very unlikely.
The travelers' camp had been deserted when Orchid had arrived, so the newcomers didn't notice her at first. They chose a different – slightly bigger – shelter, and then busied themselves hauling up a bucket of water from the well. It was a miraculous stone structure that had somehow defied the desert sands to remain unburied and intact. A tight fitting lid also protected the water from the sand. Even so, the well had to be unimaginably deep in order to reach the water, and so it took quite some time and effort to haul the bucket back up once it had reached the water line.
Too bad this isn't an oasis,” a woman muttered, mostly to herself. “I would love a bath!”
Can't argue with that,” a man murmured.
Why ever did we come here?!” A boy roared in frustration. “This place is hot and there's nothing living for miles around!”
You know why,” the woman reminded him gently.
I know,” he growled, clearly still frustrated.
A girl tried her best to be cheerful. “Maybe I can help. There's part of a barrel in here. It should be enough to sit in... If it can still hold water.”
It'll hold water if I have anything to say about it!” The woman stated fiercely.
After each of them had had a good drink of the water from the bucket, the girl stuck her hand in the remaining water and closed her eyes.
Ah!” She sighed, sounding blissful. “So much better! Why the Gods have to live on the other side of a desert is beyond me!”
The water abruptly flew out of the bucket and circled the half barrel as if searching for something. The girl nodded in satisfaction.
There is a leak near the top, but that won't affect anything. The rest of the barrel will hold water just fine!” With that announcement, the girl waved her hand towards the well. The water flew down the well to join with the rest of the water for a moment before quite a bit of it flew back up the well. Once the barrel was full, the girl made a gesture with her hands as if she was pulling something apart. The water split in two – that in the barrel and that not. Some of the water then flew into the bucket, and then the rest went back into the well.
It's cold, but it'll do,” the woman pronounced. “Thank you Ishta.”
The girl – Ishta – blushed. “My pleasure...”
Now if only there were some plants,” the boy grumbled.
Oh Orrin,” Ishta murmured sympathetically. “It's strange how hard you are taking our journey through the desert when I am the one who gets sick without water.”
Maybe that's because we carry water with us and find it from time to time – like now – but we haven't come across plants at all!” Orrin complained. “I feel like I am missing half my soul!”
That's because you are,” the woman stated softly, patting him on the shoulder. “Unlike me, your magic comes from plants – just like Ishta's comes from water.”
I know that!” Orrin roared. “Reminding me of it just makes me feel worse, Mara!”
I'm sorry,” Mara apologized with a sigh. She slipped out of the last of her clothes and shivered lightly before stepping into the cold water. “I can't imagine how you must feel.”
The man chuckled wryly. “At times like this, I can't help but wonder if it would be better or worse for me to have magic too.” He gestured to Mara. “Do you want me to help you scrub up or do you plan to take your time?”
As much as I would love to take my time, it's getting too cold out to linger.” She handed him a scrap of soap and a wash cloth, then leaned forward in the barrel. It was barely tall enough to cover her hips, but it was vastly better than a mostly ineffective sponge bath.
Orrin snorted before answering the first question. “It would definitely be better if you had magic, Desu! Especially if you had sand magic!”
Desu laughed. “You're probably right about that!”
Hey! There's a girl in here!” Ishta called out. “She's older than me... She looks to be about Orrin's age.”
Is she hurt?” Was Orrin's first question. As someone whose magic was fueled by plants, he had learned how to heal almost everything in his 16 short years.
I don't know,” Ishta stated, not certain because she was only 12 and not trained in the healing arts beyond the basic assisting she had done for Orrin. “I think she's just sleeping.”
Foolish girl!” Desu grumbled as he finished scrubbing Mara's back and used the cloth to rinse the soap away. “Does she think she's safe simply because she's all the way out here in the desert? She's lucky we found her and not one of the desert tribesmen. He'd snatch and make her his wife before she could wake up enough to know she was in danger!”
I'm not going to wake her,” Ishta said, coming out of Orchid's shelter. “She seems to be unhurt and must need her sleep badly if we haven't managed to wake her yet.”
Orrin took a moment to peek inside the shelter. He watched the small movements of her breathing in silence for a few moments, and then sighed in relief. Just as silently, he walked away.
Yes, I don't think she's hurt at all. Her breathing is normal.”
I suppose we can guard her so that she can rest,” Mara murmured. “If we've found it hard to cross the desert with each other for company and support, just imagine what it must have been like for her all on her own!” She stood and shivered in the dry desert air for a few moments. It was so dry that the moisture disappeared from her completely in the little bit of time it took for her to step out of the tub and shake her feet.
My turn!” Ishta announced possessively.
Aw Ishta!” Orrin groaned. “If we let you in there first, it'll be morning before we can coax you back out!”
I agree!” Desu responded. “Since I'm already half undressed, I'm going next!”
Orrin still grumbled, but he accepted this because he knew that Desu wouldn't take a moment longer than absolutely necessary to get clean. Ishta decided to help speed things along by scrubbing Desu up and rinsing him off. Her power made it very easy for him to get clean in practically no time at all.
She gestured to Orrin, who responded by shedding his clothes and stepping into the tub. Like Desu, he opted not to sit in the water, since it was downright frigid. He shivered as his teeth chattered.
What, is there ice beneath all this hot sand?!”
Ishta giggled. “I don't think so. Surely I would sense it if there were!”
When she was done with him, Orrin offered to help her scrub up in return. She nodded in acceptance, even though the coldness of the water didn't really bother her and she planned to sit in the tub long after they were finished. She sighed happily when she was able to simply relax.
Thanks Orrin. You're like the best big brother I never had!”
Orrin laughed and ruffled her damp hair. “I feel the same way... little sister.”
Mara chuckled softly. “So what does that make me? Your mother?”
Desu roared with laughter and waved his hands in front of him. “Oh no! If you're their honorary mother, then that would make me their honorary father, and I am far too young for that!” At only 25, he would have had to be shockingly young during the conception of Ishta, and even younger to have fathered Orrin.
Mara sighed, slightly morose. “I'm only 30, but that still makes me just barely old enough to be your mother... if you'd like...”
Ishta hugged her tightly. “I'd love it if you were! As least I trust that you will never sell me!” Her parents had sold her to a bad master when she was just 5 years old. But at least she had escaped him before she was old enough to interest him as a bed toy. Her gift of water magic had come in handy then... After that, she had survived more or less on her own in a forest until Desu had found her and convinced her to join him in his quest about 4 months ago.
Or force me to steal to put food on your plate,” Orrin added darkly. He had grown up on the streets of a dirty city, never knowing that he was constantly sickly because he needed to be surrounded by plants. A farmer had caught him trying to steal food during a trip to the city, and rather than turn him in, had decided to take him home and teach him to farm. That was when Orrin realized that he had plant magic and that the farmer was just using his power to increase his profit.
Mara had found him about six months ago when he had decided to run away. She had been summoned to the Temple of the Gods – being a Priestess dedicated to protect and serve it. For several years before her summons, she had been on a mission to wander the world and do as the Gods willed. Now – although she didn't quite know why – they needed her to come home.
Desu's quest was not a God Quest. He was actually searching for a long lost friend rumored to be a Priest serving in the Temple of the Gods. Even so, they were all going to the same place and had decided to travel together after meeting up about 2-3 months ago. This had turned out to be for the best after one too many groups of bandits had tried to attack them and they had discovered that they worked really well together. Desu's skill as a warrior was perfectly complimented by the others' powerful magic.
Having settled the minor issue of whether or not they were family, the four of them lay down in a pile to keep warm in the shelter they had chosen. Mara lay in between Ishta and Orrin while Desu lay on Ishta's other side. They had long grown used to depending on each other, and were especially grateful that Mara was able to encircle the entire travelers' camp with a protective barrier so that they could all sleep in peace.

The next morning, Mara decided to look in on their sleeping companion and swore colorfully.
What's wrong?” Ishta and Orrin asked as they came running.
This girl's surrounded by powerful magic!” Mara announced. “It's a good thing none of us tried to check her pulse or cover her with a blanket. I'm almost certain that her magic would have sent us flying!”
Are you sure?” Desu asked. Magic was still more or less new to him since he didn't have any. He knew that there were plenty of people in the world that did have it, but it was rare enough that he had never met another magic user before finding Ishta. It seemed strange to him that practically everyone he met after that had magic.
Yes!” Mara blurted out emphatically. “Think of it this way, if you made a line of the first 10 magic users you met – other than us – chances are that I would be at least twice as powerful as any of them. I think that in their own way, each Ishta and Orrin have about the same amount of magic as I do. It's hard to determine exactly because their power comes from something outside of them. For example, with no water around, Ishta would be a regular person, but if you dropped her in a river, she'd probably be able to astonish you with her power.
“Now, with that in mind, picture that my magic is enough to fill that barrel we used as our tub last night,” Mara encouraged, pointing to the barrel.
Yeah...” Desu murmured, wondering where she was going with this.
Compared to my power, this girl is like an entire sea! Possibly an ocean!” Mara exclaimed, not one to exaggerate.
Wow...” Desu drawled, wondering how anyone could have so much power and not burn up from it. “How do you know this?”
Mara shrugged. “I can see magic. When a person has it, it's like a soft glow nestled deep inside them. For Ishta and Orrin, I see more than just a glow – or at least I do when they are around that which gives them power. I see in them small fires, much like the ones we create at night when we camp. This girl is shining like the sun!”
Am I really?” Orchid asked as she sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She then yawned and stretched. “I had no idea... I mean I knew I had magic, but I didn't know I had so much of it.”
Orchid tilted her head to the side so she could hear Eck whisper. “You didn't, but remember, we told you that the Orb would change you.”
Oh...” Orchid mumbled. “That's right, I'd forgotten.” She looked at her hands, squinting her eyes to try to see her own power, but quickly gave up. “I don't feel all that powerful.”
You should try to pull as much of your power inside you as you can so that you don't blind that poor woman,” Orro whispered. She felt kindly toward the strangers because they hadn't even tried to mess with her charge. Plus, she had heard them express concern for her health and safety.
Good idea,” Orchid agreed before closing her eyes and imagining her cocoon of power shrinking until it was just a tiny ball inside her. To this ball, she added a layer of darkness until it was completely hidden. Then she gasped. “Wait a minute! You said that I shine like the sun! Whenever I try to use my magic, it always looks dark to me.” Aside from the cocoon, which she pictured as white.
Mara shrugged indifferently. “Whatever it is that you just did, I could see both light and dark shifting around inside you. I'm betting that you have the ability to use both...”
Both?!” Orchid questioned, feeling breathless with the possibility. “Is she right?”
Orro and Eck both seemed to shrug before whispering. “Only the Gods know.”
With a sigh, Orchid slouched in disappointment. “I was afraid you'd say that.”
Licking her mouth a few times, Orchid discovered that it was unbearably dry. This made her wonder how she hadn't turned to sand and blown away. Then she smacked herself on the side of her head. “Stupid stupid Orchid! How could I have been so mean?!”
She crawled to her horse and stroked his mane. “How are you doing? Did I accidentally kill you in my stupidity and exhaustion?”
To her relief, the horse opened his eyes and looked at her. He was laying down as a way to keep her warm and protect her every bit as much as it was to keep himself warm. He also had been exhausted, and now sincerely wished that he had something to eat. He tried to lick her but his tongue was so dry that it stuck to the roof of his mouth at first.
She pulled a thin water bag out of the saddlebags and held it to his mouth. “I know it's not much, but hopefully it'll help...”
Ishta gasped when she realized that this poor girl and her horse were probably on the verge of dehydration. Trying to make her feel at ease, Ishta smacked herself on the side of her head. “Stupid stupid Ishta! Of course they need me to get them water!”
Don't trouble yourself,” Orchid protested softly as she got to her feet. “I can get it myself.”
Orrin rushed to steady her. “I'm sure you can, but Ishta utterly adores water. I bet she would resent you for cheating her out of the chance to play with it.”
You bet I would!” Ishta agreed cheerfully, practically dancing in front of them as Orrin and Desu helped Orchid out to their campfire in front of the well. It had died down by this point, but still held a tiny bit of warmth. The sun was showing about a third of its head over the horizon, so it was rapidly getting warmer out, but the air still held on to a breath-fogging chill.
Still dancing, Ishta waved her hands over the water that remained in the bucket from last night. The water rose up into the air and traveled down the well. Ishta turned to her new companion while she waited for it to reach the bottom and come back up again.
You see, my magic comes from the water itself. I can manipulate it however I want, but only if I have some water on hand to begin with. I cannot summon it from thin air. Therefore, if I want to call up the water from the bottom of the well, I have to send my power down to it. Once my power gets down there, I could summon up every drop if I wanted to, but – Oh! Here it comes!”
Mara held Orchid's water skin at the ready. With astonishing precision, Ishta filled the skin and then directed the water to the skins that Desu held out. Each traveler was wise to carry at least two water skins, so it took some time to fill them all. Long enough for Mara to return to Orchid's horse – with permission – and fetch the other empty skins. Orchid actually had a total of four since she needed to have enough for her horse too.
Working together, Orrin and Desu dumped out the dirty bathwater, and then wobbled the barrel rhythmically as Ishta rinsed it out. After that, the barrel was refilled. Ishta grinned at Orchid proudly.
There, your horse can drink from that as much as he wants, and when he's done, you can take a bath if you'd like. If not, we still need to wash our clothes.”
Orchid felt humbled by their kindness. “How can I ever repay you?” She knew she could probably just give them some gold coins, but somehow gold didn't seem like an appropriate answer in this situation.
Do you have anything to eat?” Mara asked, covering her rumbling stomach with one hand.
Orchid shrugged. “Just pemmican... and oats for my horse.” She sighed in mild depression. “And not enough of those. I brought as much as he could carry, but still I am almost out. I fear that he will end up starving to death long before I make it to the mountain of the Gods.”
I might be able to help you with that,” Mara offered with a sympathetic smile. “My magic is like most normal magic. Rather than rely on an external force – such as water – my magic can do anything I ask of it. I happen to know a spell that can turn some of this sand to soil...”
Orchid frowned in confusion. “What good will that do?”
Orrin gasped in sudden elation. “I can grow them!!!” He danced a jig, overjoyed to finally be able to get his hands on some plants. “My magic comes from plants,” he explained when he noticed Orchid staring at him as if he had just gone crazy.
He can grow full-sized plants from just a handful of seeds, and then he can make them keep on growing until they go to seed – and so on until your saddlebags are full again!” Ishta added with a grin. “And better still, I'll get to help by keeping them watered!”
Desu sighed because he felt useless. “Meanwhile I get to sit and twiddle my thumbs! Perhaps I should try to hunt...”
Fat lot of good that'll do you!” Orrin snorted derisively. “There's nothing out here to hunt.”
Orchid smirked mysteriously. “Oh... you'd be surprised...” She closed her eyes and focused on finding red dots. She really didn't have to send her power out far, murmuring to herself as she worked. “Let's see... one or two each? I suppose two is probably better, which makes ten.”
After making sure that there were plenty of dots all around her so that she didn't devastate the entire population, Orchid literally pointed to 10 of the dots as if counting stars. Once she mentally tagged them with her power, she made a motion with her hand as if she was gathering them all up into her now closed fist.
Unlike her very first experiment with the deer, these dots came to her almost as quickly as if they were flying. Opening her eyes, she smiled to see 10 lizards staring back at her. They were each about a foot long – not including their tails – and were plump enough that they should be able to feed her and her companions for at least two meals altogether. Her smiled faded as she regarded them sadly.
I'm sorry.” Closing her eyes again and turning her head as if looking away, she squeezed her fist and imagined those red dots turning black with her power. She didn't even need to look to see that they were all dead now. Pasting a cheerful smile on her face, she looked around at her companions. “I hope you like roasted lizard. I'll cook...”
Whoa...” Orrin whistled softly in appreciation. He looked like he was more than half in love with Orchid for a moment before shaking his head. “Hi, I'm Orrin. I just realized that I forgot to introduce myself!”
Hi Orrin,” Orchid returned the greeting with little smile. “I'm Orchid.”
I'm Mara.”
I'm Desu.”
And I'm Ishta,” the girl stated, grinning at Orchid. “Are you also headed to the Temple of the Gods? Or maybe you're on your way back from it already...”
Orchid gave a tiny chuckle. “No, I'm still on my pilgrimage. I need to visit the Gods and ask them why they gave me my strange and terrifying power.”
You're afraid of your power?” Mara asked, frowning in concern.
Yes,” Orchid confirmed, busy preparing the lizards for cooking. “I nearly killed my brother with it...”
How?” Mara wondered, thinking that perhaps she had used her magic for an experiment that failed or her brother had interrupted. To her, magical spells were generally safe enough, unless someone literally walked into them or they were intended to cause harm.
Orchid shrugged and looked away. “I got upset and glared at him. I didn't even know I had magic until then, but then my mother and father explained it to me. So I decided to go to the Temple of the Gods. I figure that I can't hurt them if I'm not there...”
Mara smirked in genuine amusement. “Normally, I would accuse you of being overly dramatic, but considering how much power you seem to have, I'm sure you are right to worry.”
Orchid simply gave her a sad smile. She fervently prayed that her Quest would be successful and that she could return home without fearing her power any longer. All she wanted in life was to be with her family until she found a suitable husband and got married.
It didn't take her long to build up the fire and then arrange the freshly skewered lizards so they could roast. She tended to the fire absently for a while before looking over at the barrel. It seemed to shimmer enticingly.
“A bath would be nice...” she murmured longingly. Making up her mind with a nod, she stood and started to strip.
“I'll help you scrub, if you want,” Ishta offered helpfully.
“Thank you,” Orchid murmured with a smile. By this point, she had removed her over dress and now frowned thoughtfully at her golden snakes. She wasn't sure how to get them off her without revealing that they were alive.
“Whoa!” Ishta exclaimed in awe. “Those are gorgeous!” She stroked the golden snakes several times with her entire hands as opposed to just her fingers.
“Thank you,” Orchid murmured with a pleased blush. Suddenly, something tugged on the very edge of her extended senses, making her bite her lip curiously. “Double dots? Orro, what kind of creature has two hearts?”
Orrin scratched his head, wondering if she was talking to him. “Huh? Who's Orro?”
“She's Eck's mate,” Orchid stated absently.
“Riders,” Orro stated, although no one could hear her but Orchid.
“Riders?” Orchid wondered, closing her eyes and focusing. Sure enough, the way each of the double hearts moved, they had to be people riding on top of animals. “But why would there be a group of 20 or 30 riders in the desert?”
“Bandits!” Desu exclaimed, sure of the answer despite wondering how she could sense the group that he couldn't even see or hear yet.
“Who's Eck?” Orrin blurted out at the same time as Desu's exclamation.
“He's Orro's mate,” Orchid stated with a shrug.
“Don't worry, we'll be safe inside the barrier,” Mara assured them.
Five minutes passed in uncomfortable tension before their barrier was surrounded by approximately 30 soldiers. Mara and Desu muttered a discussion as they kept a wary eye on the soldiers.
“Those aren't bandits...”
“They look like foreign soldiers.”
“Why would they be here?”
Their conversation was interrupted by a ferocious shout in thickly accented Universal. “Don't think you be safe in there! Our magic users will have your barrier broken in no time!”
“What do you want with us?” Desu asked defensively.
The leader scoffed as if it should be obvious. “You're travelers in the desert. We have orders to capture anyone trying to get to the Temple of the Gods!”
“This isn't good,” Mara muttered needlessly.
“Lower your barrier and surrender! If we have to break it, it'll go 10 times worse for you!”
Mara shook her head and assured her companions. “We'll be safe inside my barrier.”
“What do you plan to do if you capture us?” Orchid asked pleasantly. She sounded as if she had just asked how many scoops of sugar they wanted in their tea.
“Interrogate you, of course!” The leader growled menacingly.
“He means torture...” Desu whispered softly, shuddering.
“Why? What's going on?” Orchid wondered. “I'm just a girl on a God Quest...”
“Exactly! We cannot allow anyone to get to the Temple of the Gods! The Temple is under siege by us and will continue to be so until we either control it or destroy it!”
“That's sacrilege!” Mara protested angrily.
The Leader roared in outrage. “Anyone who dares to have a Temple dedicated to Gods other than ours is guilty of sacrilege!” He gestured to a couple of his men, who stepped forward and began to magically assault their protective barrier. Mara grunted in pain a couple of times, but otherwise held her ground.
Orrin placed a hand on her shoulder in concern. She shook her head. “Don't worry about me, I can hold out all day if I have to.”
“We don't have all day,” Orchid muttered. She closed her eyes and focused on the hearts that surrounded her. She made extra sure not to target any of the innocent horses, but mentally tagged every single soldier. Once they were all within her grasp, she squeezed her eyes extra tightly closed.
“I'm so sorry...” she murmured before taking a deep breath. Lifting her hands up, she made absolutely certain that none of the horses were involved, and then slapped her hands together. The large spots at the center of networks of lines abruptly went dark, and then fell to the ground.
Still keeping her eyes closed because she didn't want to see what she had done, Orchid slumped to her knees. “I'm so sorry,” she mumbled over and over as she rocked back and forth. The absolute worst part was that her magic was singing happily in her blood; rejoicing that she had used it for its intended purpose.
Her new companions all stared at her in shock and horror for a few long moments before any of them thought to close their mouths. Desu finally knelt next to her and pulled her into a comforting embrace. He stroked her back as he made soothing sounds.
“I know,” he murmured sympathetically. “I know how horrible it is to take a life, but please try to remember, if you hadn't, they would have tortured and killed us...”
Slowly, Orchid calmed down. As she did so, a new thought entered her mind. His arms are so warm around me. I wonder what it would be like to have his arms around me at night... Her thought made her blush, which she hid by snuggling her face deeper into his chest.
Eck hissed jealously in her mind. “Stop thinking about this pathetic human like that!”
Orro laughed and teased him. “Why? It's not like you can mate with her!”
Eck simply growled. When Orchid pretended to be horrified still even though her mind was wondering what sort of girl Desu liked, Eck decided to take matters into his own hands. So to speak. He lifted his head off Orchid's shoulder and hissed at Desu.
“I'll bite him, I swear it!” Eck informed Orchid.
Orro lifted her head to hiss at Eck. “Stop being so jealous, or I'm going to bite you!”
Desu practically dropped Orchid in his haste to scramble backwards. “What the hell?!”
Orchid giggled softly. “I'm sorry they frightened you. Eck, stop that! Both of you, slither on down and do something to amuse yourselves for a while – without biting anyone! – so that I can take my bath.
Eck was still in a bad mood, so he had to force himself to obey. “Fine,” he grumbled. “But I'm going to go play with those horses!”
Orro giggled herself, finding it funny how much her mate dislike Orchid's lustful thoughts. “Ooo! Playing with the horses sounds fun!”
Orchid watched them slither down her dress and then waved to them with an air of good riddance as they exited the barrier as if it wasn't even there. She then patted her pocket to reassure herself that everything was right where it should be. She squinted her eyes at her companions suspiciously, even as their eyes darted back and forth between her and her snakes.
“I am sure I don't have to say this, but I have a very special item in my pocket that you absolutely cannot touch, no matter what! If you even try, Eck and Orro – those snakes over there that guard it – will bite you and you'll fall dead instantly. Just a warning...”
All eyes looked at her pocket for a moment before flying to the snakes. That pair was now busily chasing the abandoned horses around in circles. Shivering as they pictured being bitten, all eyes returned to her to nod in understanding.
Orchid smiled softly. “Other than that, they are really very friendly,” she assured them as she removed her dress and then stepped into the makeshift tub. “Ah, cold!”
Ishta recovered first, stepping closer as Orchid settled comfortably in the barrel. “Wow! Real live snakes made out of gold! Wherever did you get them?”
Orchid shrugged. “I really couldn't describe it to you. They just appeared to me from a cave made out of sand.”
Mara shook off the feeling that made her shiver as if a bucket of cold water was dumped on her head, and then sat down next to the barrel so that she could talk to Orchid. Desu and Orrin followed suit, placing themselves behind Orchid so that she wouldn't feel as if they were staring at her rudely while she bathed.
“I get the feeling that you should tell us everything, starting at the beginning,” Mara said as Ishta scrubbed Orchid's back.
“Well...” Orchid began. “It all started when...

***

After the oppressing heat of the desert, the frigid, snow-laden cold of the mountain was almost a fate worse than death. Orchid thanked her mother for insisting that she bring along a super expensive fur coat to wear, along with heavy leather and fur clothes. With these and her magic, she might have been able to survive the mountain all on her own. As it was, huddling in a pile with her companions at night made the cold only slightly tolerable. It was only in the morning – after they had all managed to warm each other up – that any of them felt a state that might be described as comfortable.
Knowing that the Temple of the Gods was under siege, they approached it from the highest peak they could, and then gasped at the sight below. For as far as the eye could see, there were enemy soldiers stacked up like dried sardines.
“How are we ever going to get to the Temple now?” Orchid wondered in despair. A soft sound off to her left caught her attention just before Orro and Eck started giggling.
To the amazement of the travelers, a part of the solid mountain began to fall away to reveal a hallow cave. A woman stepped out to smile at them.
“Orchid...” she murmured in greeting.
“You can talk this time!” Orchid gasped in astonishment.
“Of course!” The Goddess blurted out, confused as to why this should be a surprise. “You are here at my home. Why wouldn't I be able to talk?”
Orchid simply shrugged. She abruptly reached into her pocket and pulled out the Orb. “Here. I've brought this to you as you asked.
The Goddess took it and cradled it to her chest lovingly. She purred as if humming to a child or small animal. “With this, we can defend our home until the end of time. However...”
Orchid stepped closer to her, and then dropped to her knees. “Yes, my Goddess?”
“You came here because you wanted to know why we gave you such a terrible power, well... Look around. We knew this day would come, and this is why we gave you the power of life and death,” the Goddess explained.
“Life and death,” Orchid whispered softly, then frowned. “Wait, life and death? Both?”
“Yes,” the Goddess assured her with a smile. “You have the ability to kill everything in your path, or you can heal the sick and injured and bring life to a barren womb.”
Orchid was so overwhelmed with relief, that she fell onto her rump. “Oh thank the Gods! I'm not meant only for killing!”
“Well,” the Goddess smirked apologetically. “Yes, but not today...” She pointed into the dark cave. “Come, we have much to do before you can rest.” The Goddess beckoned for Orchid and her companions to follow.
They followed the glowing Goddess in silence for a long time, her light the only light to see by. She led them into what seemed to be the very heart of the mountain, and then – quite abruptly – an exit appeared. They stepped through it and found themselves inside the Temple to the Gods.
Mara immediately rushed to hug friends she hadn't seen since she left the temple, and Desu rushed to his missing friend in relief. At this point, he had been afraid his friend might have been captured by the enemy soldiers! Only Orrin and Ishta looked uncomfortable and mildly bored since they had no one here to greet.
The Goddess graciously allowed Mara time to greet everyone, and then gained her attention. “Mara... As one of the High Protectors of the Temple, and the one with the best defensive magic, I give you this and charge you with maintaining the barrier until the battle is over.”
Mara took the orb the Goddess offered her with an expression of deep awe. “Me?”
“Yes,” the Goddess confirmed simply. Then she turned to Desu. “You are a warrior of great renown, so I charge you with leading our small squad of Temple Guardians.”
“It will be done,” Desu assured her with a deeply respectful bow.
She placed a hand on each Orrin's and Ishta's shoulders. “You two will be needed after the battle is over, but for now, you may rest and try to relax.”
“Yes, my Goddess,” they both whispered, overawed by her presence.
“As for you,” the Goddess stated as she focused on Orchid once more. “We ask that you use your power of death on the battlefield as a Holy Warrior.”
Orchid took a breath so deep that her lungs felt like they were going to burst and spots formed in her eyes. Holding the breath as long as she could, Orchid came to a decision. She exhaled with a long suffering sigh. “Yes... my Goddess...”
The Goddess exhaled in relief. “Thank you! You don't understand how our power works. We may give it to others to defend us, but we may not defend ourselves with it directly, otherwise we would never ask this of you....”
Orchid nodded as if this made complete sense, but Ishta frowned in confusion. “Why not?”
Mara put an arm around her shoulder. “Because the Gods only have power because people worship them. If no one is willing to defend the Gods, then they have lost all their followers, and thus, all their power. It's a give and take relationship.”
“Oh...” Ishta murmured, not fully understanding even though it made a kind of sense.
Nodding in agreement, the Goddess focused on Orchid once more, waving her hand as if playing with a butterfly dancing before her. A moment later, a flash of light nearly blinded everyone, followed by a gasp of astonishment. Orchid looked at her clothing with wide eyes.
A tentative touch assured her that she wasn't just seeing things. She really was wearing a light and gossamer dress made out of white silk and gold trimming. It felt like she was wearing nothing at all even as she was now perfectly warm and comfortable.
“This is your celestial armor,” the Goddess stated, and then walked away to make sure that the Temple Guardians were ready for battle. They wore actual leather and steel armor, but it was strengthened by divine power. The Goddess even helped Desu finish securing his armor so that he would be ready to go too.
When she was done helping him, she cupped his chin in her hand. “You do not need or even truly want magic of your own, so I will not give it to you. However, in exchange for helping us in our hour of need, I will bestow on you the gifts of speed, agility, and rapid healing. I'll even throw in an extra touch of strength just to be safe!”
After saying that, she kissed him so thoroughly that everyone eventually blushed and turned their heads away in embarrassment. After several long moments, the kiss ended, and Desu cleared his throat a couple of times to regain his composure.
“Ah, um, uh, th-th-thank you, my Goddess,” Desu said, blushing profusely himself despite being a veteran with the ladies.
The Goddess nodded at him, and then turned her attention to Orrin and Ishta. “Come. Let me whisper secrets in your head while the adults get busy with defeating the enemy.” The two nodded apprehensively, visibly shaking as they followed the Goddess into a different room.
Orchid drifted to an eternally open door as if drawn to it, and then stared out in shock. Even though the door was open – but protected by an impenetrable barrier – no cold came in. She could see mountains and snow for as far as the eye could go, and also soldiers. They must number in the tens of thousands!
Temple Guardians gathered behind her, waiting for Desu to lead them into battle. Desu – in turn – instinctively waited for Orchid to lead him into battle. She somehow knew this and squared her shoulders. The Temple had stairs leading all the way down to a huge flat area, and all she needed to do was simply walk down the stairs.
The first step was the hardest emotionally, but after that, she was able to keep going. Her power was surprisingly easy to use, despite there being an unimaginable amount of dots in front of her. All she had to do was pretend to gather up handfuls of dots, and then picture them exploding. Enemy soldiers screamed in pain and terror just before their blood sprayed everywhere.
The Temple Guardians spread out at Desu's command to protect Orchid. If all went well, then all they really needed to do was make sure that no one escaped her power long enough to kill her. Even though it sounded easy, there were a large number of soldiers rushing towards them. They just kept coming and coming, despite tripping over dead bodies.
Orchid was grateful that she couldn't actually see any faces. Her entire vision was taken over by red, and all she needed to do was grab a handful and exert her power over it. She sent up a long and grateful prayer of thanks that the armor her guards were wearing made them safe from her power, otherwise she may well have killed them all accidentally!
Over and over, Orchid made hearts explode. She eventually got overwhelmed by the sheer number of soldiers rushing towards her, and so started flinging handfuls of dots away before making them explode. She imagined her shiny white cocoon expanding to push them away from her, which gave her a little bit of room to breath, but did not stop them from rushing as close as they could get.
Both her hands were now flinging large groups of dots like they were stones that she was trying to skip across a pond. She almost felt like she was dancing since it was impossible to keep her body straight when her arms were waving about so wildly. Only dimly was she aware that her guards were running around killing people as fast as they could too.
Hours passed like this. One by one, her guards fell. Only the briefest of glances assured her that they weren't dead, simply exhausted and injured. Her power eventually ran low, but she had to continue. The lower her power got, the worse she felt. It felt like she was on fire. Pain seared through her, making her wish she could stop, but the enemy kept coming.
Just when she was sure she was going to die if she used her power any more, the enemy finally realized that they could not win. They sounded a retreat and the last few thousand soldiers ran. It took Orchid a minute to realize that she could stop, but the moment she did, she collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
“Orchid!!!” Desu shouted as he ran to her. He was afraid that someone had managed to kill her after all. He gathered her in his arms and held her close as he tried to find a pulse.
“Desu,” Orchid whispered weakly, trying to reassure him that she was still alive.
“Thank the Gods!” He cried out in relief, hugging her tight. “I thought you had left me!”
“Left you?” Orchid asked in confusion.
Desu decided to clarify his meaning by kissing her. She responded by tangling the fingers of one hand in his hair. As much as she would love to continue this until it got very interesting, she was simply too exhausted. She fell asleep even before the kiss ended.

As she slept, Orrin and Ishta worked together to repair the damage to the many fields that the soldiers had destroyed. They were low enough in the valley of the mountain that it was warm and sunny there despite the snow at the Temple. As they worked, dedicates who had not participated in the battle combed the carnage to look for any survivors. Orchid had left none, but the Temple Guardians had. Not to mention that they needed medical attention themselves.
By the time that Orchid was fully rested enough to wake up, even the severely battered victims of torture that the enemy had abandoned were gathered up and brought to the temple for healing. Most were men, but one was a woman who huddled in a corner and refused to let anyone come near her.
Despite being wobbly and weak, Orchid felt the need to try to comfort the woman. She crawled over to her and began to croon sympathetically. The woman eyed Orchid warily, but didn't protest. The way Orchid was crawling, she assumed that Orchid must have been tortured too.
Orchid eventually pulled the naked woman – who clutched a blanket to her – into a tender embrace and stroked her hair as she continued to croon. As she comforted the woman, she wished that she had the power to heal her. It was only then that she realized that her hands were glowing with a softly golden light.
The woman sighed almost happily, and then stretched out so that Orchid could massage her thoroughly. The massage took away the pain and healed all the many cuts, bruises, and open wounds. When Orchid was done, she pulled the woman into another comforting embrace, and was shocked when the woman kissed her with surprising passion.
Desu cleared his throat in the background, trying to decide whether or not he should protest. With a soft chuckle, the Goddess came over to Orchid and placed and hand on the victim's head.
“I give you the gift of language, so that you may communicate with your beloved.”
Before Orchid could fully process this information – the kiss still had her reeling from shock – the Goddess turned her attention to Orchid and grinned.
“You see? We would not have given you this fearsome power if we were not absolutely certain that you could control it.”
“But!” Orchid protested. “I almost killed my brother!”
The Goddess smirked. “Yes... but that was before you knew you had a power you needed to control. I know that it would not happen now.”
“Oh...” Orchid exhaled softly in hope. “I can go home now...”
“Home?” Her would-be lover asked, clearly eager to go too.
Orchid stared at this woman as she tried to decide what to do. Her lips twitched into a soft smile. “Yes... home. Would you like to come with me?”
“Yes!”
“Wait a minute!” Desu roared in protest. “What about me?”
“What about you?” Orchid wondered curiously.
Desu blushed and scuffed a toe on the ground as he refused to look at her. If she preferred a female lover, he would be hurt, but he wouldn't try to keep her against her will.
Ishta had an astonishing ability to read the situation, and hugged Desu. “I'm going to miss you, but thank you for bringing me here. I know where I belong now.”
“Me too,” Orrin murmured, slinging an arm around Mara's waist.
Desu kissed Ishta's brow. “I'm glad to hear that.”

It was many long months before Orchid finally reached her home. All in all, her pilgrimage had lasted almost a full year. She stopped in front of the gates to her parents house and fussed with her horse's mane.
“What's wrong?” Desu asked, glancing at Mai. Mai returned his glance and shrugged.
“What if they've forgotten me?” Orchid whispered.
“Don't be silly! How could they have?” Desu roared incredulously.
Mai scoffed bitterly. “Unlike my parents,” she paused to mutter under her breath: “Who beat me almost as bad as that Gods' cursed army!” She took a breath and calmed down. “Your parents love you! Of course they still remember you!”
“What if they don't want me to come home if I still have my terrible power?” Orchid whined, not entirely sure why she was shaking so badly.
Mai reached over and squeezed her hand. “I don't mind if we go somewhere else. We could find a place to live and each get jobs...”
Desu nodded in agreement. “I could easily hire on as a town guard and support us.”
Orchid smiled at each of them in appreciation. “Thanks...” Taking a deep breath, she nudged her horse to keep going. The gate was open – as expected – and happy sounds announced that her younger siblings were chasing each other around the yard. Her horse whinnied loudly, gaining their attention.
“Orchid's home!” They shouted joyously.
Her mother, ever a lady despite not having an official title, came running flat out at this news. She reached Orchid just as the travelers arrived in front of the stables.
“Oh my baby, my baby!” She pulled Orchid off the horse so enthusiastically that Orchid nearly fell on the ground. Thankfully, her father was there to catch her. Both parents enveloped their daughter in a tightly squeezing hug. Younger siblings ran around happily, squealing and shrieking loudly.
“About time you came home!” Came a loud roar.
“Borias!” Orchid cried out, pulling free of her parents embrace so that she could fling herself into his arms. He swung her around in a circle, and then kissed her on the cheek as he returned her to her feet.
“Hey!” Mai growled angrily, pulling Orchid out of the unknown-to-her man's embrace. She positioned herself in front of Orchid protectively. “My woman!”
Orchid laughed and kissed Mai on the cheek. “It's alright, Mai! This is my brother.”
Your woman?” Borias asked incredulously. His mouth gaping almost to the ground as he examined the gorgeous foreign woman. Her black hair and almond shaped eyes were so delicate that he blushed when he realized that he was half in love with her already.
Our woman,” Desu clarified, mostly to remind Mai not to be so jealous. He then cleared his throat and studied the ground as he realized that he probably shouldn't have blurted that out in front of her parents.
Orchid giggled, linking one arm through Mai's and her other arm through Desu's. “Orro and Eck would like me to remind you that I am their woman! Now hush, I have a whole year's worth of stories to tell my family.”
Both Mai and Desu eyed the golden snakes encircling Orchid's arms and neck, and sighed in defeat. Desu looked over at Mai. “Say, how would you like to spar with me while we wait?”
“Why not?” Mai answered with an indifferent shrug. “One day, I may even know how to defend myself.”
The two of them each kissed Orchid on the cheek before grabbing swords from their horses to spar with. With a happy grin, Orchid turned her head to look at her right shoulder.
“Orro?” She purred softly.
Orro stopped biting Eck's body and lifted her head to look at Orchid. Orchid kissed her, and then turned to look at her other shoulder. “Eck?”
Eck eagerly lifted his head so that he could claim a kiss too.
“Would the two of you mind entertaining the smaller children for a while?”
“I supposed,” both replied, sighing wearily as if they were being asked to do something onerous.
“Thank you,” Orchid praised them, and then added: “And no biting!”
They were already slithering down her arms and stopped to look back at her indignantly. “Like we need you to tell us that!” They scoffed, and then finished lowering to the ground.
The younger children all fell silent, staring at the snakes made of gold in awe and fear. None of them were sure whether to draw closer or run away. The bravest of them reached out a hand. When his mother gasped in dismay, it made him want to touch the snake even more. The snake rubbed against his hand much like a cat would.
Satisfied that the children would be entertained for quite some time, Orchid linked arms with her parents and grinned at them. “Boy! Do I ever have a story to tell you!”
Borias was still staring at Mai and Desu. He muttered to himself in awe: “Hey wait, that's the legendary swordsman Desu!”
Orchid laughed merrily. “I guess you won't mind when I marry him then!”
“WHAT?!?!” Her brother roared. “Marry?!”
“When was this decided?” Her father asked, thinking that she might just be playing a prank on her brother.
“Right after we defeated the entire Imperial Army belonging to the Mourin Empire and saved the Temple of the Gods from invasion,” Orchid stated with a mischievous smirk.
“What?!” Her mother gasped.
Desu chuckled as he leapt up onto a bucket that was overturned in the yard for no apparent reason. His faux epic battle with Mai on hold for the moment. He spread his hands wide. “It was a sight to behold! As far as the eye could see, enemy soldiers surrounded the Temple. Their roars of battle were deafening! Their stench was overbearing! Charged with the sacred duty of defending the Temple, the unparalleled beauty Orchid stood ready to lead us into battle. The Temple Guardians and I vowed to protect her with our very lives if need be. We -”
Orchid burst out laughing. “Oh Desu! You make it sound like a Ballad from the Divine Bards!
Mai pushed him off the bucket, and then stepped onto it herself. “You forgot to mention: The Imperial Army started out roaring with confidence, but soon, the tents where we captured and tortured victims were held shook with their squeals of terror! Nearly 100,000 men commanded by the Emperor himself tested their might against the Gods' Chosen Protector, but none could could go up against her and survive!”
“Um Mai...” Orchid interrupted uncomfortably. “The way you say that is a little too bloodthirsty...”
“What? You don't want me to be happy they were defeated? After what they did to me, I'm only sorry that their deaths were so quick and painless!” Mai stated with a harrumph as she crossed her arms.
Orchid sighed as if dealing with a small child. She knew that Mai had every right to be upset, but she was letting the memories of the past get out of hand. Using her power, Orchid grasped the red dot that represented Mai in her magical vision and raised her hand. Carefully, she picked Mai up and set her on a branch in a tree.
“Sit there until you calm down!”
Mai sighed in defeat and settled herself in the tree to be comfortable until she regained control of her emotions. She grumbled continuously under her breath. Orchid waved to her before leading her parents inside where they might find a comfortable chair.
“Love you!” Orchid called out to Mai as she walked away, reminding Mai that she had a real family now.
“Love you too!” Mai replied automatically, suddenly a whole lot happier than she had been.
Orchid stopped to look around, and then smiled. Even though she'd had to do a terrible thing to protect her Gods, this was her reward. She had a loving family and two lovers who filled her with happiness. Life could not get better if it tried! Kissing her parents each on the cheek, she giggled.
“I'm so blessed!”
Despite their concerns about her chosen lifestyle, they each wanted her to be happy. Seeing the bliss on her face, they decided that how she lived her life was none of their business. Hugging her tight, they returned her kisses.
“That's all we ever wanted.”

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