It was another nightmare. Atarah was used to nightmares; frequent disturbers of sleep with various half-formed scenes of tragedy and horror, only emotion and flashes of imagery remaining.
The faces, sometimes, felt familiar, or like she should know them, the villages, the dangers involved. Like they were something she could fix, but there was never enough to go on.
Sometimes the dreams lingered, but far more likely they burned off in the morning sun and physical exertion of adventuring.
This one… this one felt different. Realer, crisper, every face and environment picked out in detail.
She stood shoulder to shoulder with her brother – brothers, both, Aelius to one side, grim and dark, and Ravik, grown to manhood on the other. She held a round shield in one hand and a battleaxe in the other, dressed in heavy furs and leathers against the mountain winter.
Behind her, she knew, was her family… and Natalia’s family, and other families – people she couldn’t name but knew she loved fiercely, in the strange logic of dreams.
There was an army bearing down on them. Hulking grey-green brutes with too much muscle to be real, fire like blood in their eyes, in armor just as mismatched as their bodies. At their vanguard was a pair in full plate, determination in their gaze behind the mask-like faceplates of their helms. The female of the pair blazed in sunlight, harsh and glaring, so hot she could feel it from where she stood with her brothers beneath the sheltering stone entrance of the Temple.
“Wipe them out,” came the voices of the pair in unison, a double discordance of judgment passed with no room for mercy or negotiation.
“Brace!” yelled the shield wall, but there was no time.
The armored female gestured and light, brightly sharp like ice knives, flicked over them. Atarah was struck in place, the strange sensation of movement sapped from her limbs – a vivid memory of the spider demon’s venom coursing through her – and paralyzed, she could not avoid the strike as the horde crashed through their lines. Steel bit into her side and she fell, cold.
“Stop-” Atarah gasped out with the last of the breath in her lungs. The horde overran the shieldwall as her brothers fell in the same stiff agony beside her, their eyes already glazed over, unseeing. Better for them, because Atarah was still watching when the horde reached Mama.
She was still watching when her sisters were ripped from Mama’s protection and flung against the stone walls to fall broken to the floor. She was still watching, helpless and growing colder by the heartbeat as the fire in her veins drained from her, when Mama and the other families further into the hall were cut down and left in heaps.
Atarah growled and tried to shake off the paralysis, her fingers inching forward towards the haft of her axe. An armored boot stepped onto the axe, pinning it in place, and Atarah looked up at the armored female. A sword descended – her sword, Arbiter, wreathed in angry red flame -
Atarah woke gasping, freezing cold, in the pitch black of the yurt she shared with Natalia. She hugged the fur blanket to her, casting a cantrip on the copper pendant around her neck until it shone with a gentle pearly dawn light.
“Papa?” she whispered.
Summerheart glittered, barely visible, an outline of gold and ember, sitting at the edge of her pallet. He said nothing, just patted her knee and vanished. Dawn, true dawn, was breaking outside, the light seeping in from the smoke hole at the top of the structure and cracks around the door. Atarah rummaged for her gear.
The Temple wasn’t far off now. After days, moving slowly to keep pace with Korotir’s people, they were finally within striking distance of the place. While Atarah had become no more convinced of the wisdom of the plan she had in mind, the certainty that it was what she must do had only grown. She glanced down at the length of pale fabric knotted around her waist for the purpose, and squared her shoulders.
Atarah summoned Rivka with a word, swinging up onto the great cat’s saddle and turning her head towards the Temple. She paused by the vanguard formed by Korotir and the rest of the party.
“There’s… there’s something I have to do. Wait a little while. If you don’t hear from me by sunset… then, then attack. But give me a chance, first. Tranled. Brother, will you come with me?” She held a hand out to the tiefling, ready to help him mount behind her if he’d go.
Then, she turned Rivka’s head, loping off into the cold gray day.