Side by side, Azvida and Jeneth entered the temple together. They closed off the entrance behind them and then descended into the sacred chamber, moving silently through a small crowd as they sought a nice place to stop and commence their prayer and meditation.
Those who were already gathered there seemed to barely notice their arrival. People visited the temple as they pleased or needed; it seemed that there was nearly always someone coming or going through that entrance, and so no one paid much mind to the flow of visitors. Most of those who were present in the temple were furthermore too engrossed in their meditations to notice much else.
As the temple was presently not very heavily occupied, the couple soon found an empty spot near the front of the chamber and gladly set themselves down there. Before them, three tall, tapering spires of ice rose from the floor in a triangular formation, their intended purpose being to focus prayers unto the heavens and to channel divine energy into the worshipers. A solid, triple-diamond pattern was etched into a flattened facet on the front of each of these spires.
Azvida and Jeneth gazed upon the spires for a moment, then exchanged optimistic smiles before closing their eyes and opening their minds to the realm of the gods, doing nothing more for a while other than dwelling on the sacredness of this place. They then silently offered reverence and praise unto the gods, and they could virtually feel their wordless response. The couple sent their gratitude for their prior blessings and appealed to them for more, dearly hoping that their prayers for another child to come into their lives would be answered at last.
At the opposite end of the temple, the barrier at its entrance vanished and reappeared once again, this time admitting a rather larger group of new arrivals than usual. The people in the temple paid these newcomers no more mind than they had to the couple that had come in just before, not even those among them who were concluding their meditations. The newly arrived glalie moved into the crowd, one of them managing to make it up front to the altar, taking his place next to Azvida and Jeneth. Soon, all of them had gotten themselves situated, melding seamlessly into the tranquility of the scene as if they had always been there.
Then that tranquility met an abrupt end.
There was a sound like an enormous peal of thunder erupting within their midst—the signature of several concentrated bursts of raw elemental power released in unison. The worshipers were snapped violently out of their reveries, and their cries of shock and terror rose to join the echoes of the blasts as they saw that some among their number had been struck down to the floor. Just as quickly, the horrified crowd discovered that their nightmare had only just begun.
The first thing Azvida saw as she cast a panicked glance about in the wake of her shattered trance was Jeneth lying motionless by her side, seemingly unconscious. The next thing she saw, in nearly the same instant, was a gray-and-white blur that smashed into him from out of nowhere. She went reeling backward automatically with a wordless exclamation of surprise as it hurtled past her, driving her insensible mate along with it. There was a sickening crunch
as they met the wall, and her eyes darted toward the sound of the impact.
—had just struck her mate was nowhere in sight, but there was Jeneth, propped against the wall at an awkward angle. Oblivious in his unconsciousness to the crushing blow that he’d just been dealt, he wore an expression of peace… but the rapidly spreading pool of nearly colorless, evanescing blood that surrounded him conveyed quite the opposite.
A strangled wail of anguish escaped from Azvida as she rushed toward him, desperate to find some sign of hope, of life within him, but before she could reach him, his attacker swung back around to the scene, turning on her this time. She caught sight of the charging glalie in the corner of her eye, and she raised a protect aura and dodged out of the way a split-second before he could strike her, veering wildly toward the center of the chamber—but not into safety.
All at once, Azvida found herself in the midst of pure chaos. All around her, jaws snapped, horns slashed and stabbed, and bodies collided with brutal force. The sounds of shattering armor and attempted sheer cold strikes filled the air along with hisses of fury and cries of fear and agony.
Azvida regained her bearings and looked back toward where Jeneth lay, her heart catching sickeningly in her throat—she was certain now that he was no longer living. He wasn’t alone, either; several others had fallen: smashed against walls, gored, or both. Her eyes shielded themselves from the grim scene as a powerful wave of sorrow and confusion welled up within her. In all her time in Virc-Dho, she had never seen such violence among her people, and she couldn’t even begin to imagine why it was happening now. All that she was sure of was that it shouldn’t be. This once sacred place had become a killing field, desecrated with the blood of innocents, and more were still in great danger, herself included.
She was struck the moment her shield fell; she gave a shriek of pain as she felt something gouge a burning path across her back, smashing through the sparse armor there. From some long-dormant corner of her memory, a response came: she abruptly turned toward her assailant in a violent, wrenching motion, her left horn raking across his eyes. A scream exploded from his jaws, only to be silenced as Azvida rammed into him powerfully, knocking the breath out of him as he was shoved away.
Her eyes swept the chamber, anticipating another strike at any moment, from any direction. She saw as she did so just how one-sided the battle seemed to be. There were clear aggressors, glalie who attacked ruthlessly and relentlessly with expert strikes. Most of the rest, while earnestly fighting back the best that they could, were just painfully outclassed by the other side. Others, having realized that they were no real match for the enemy, didn’t fight at all and instead just tried to keep their protect shields up and avoid the onslaught.
The fact of the matter was that most of them had nothing in the way of battle experience beyond the matches conducted for sport and for the purpose of encouraging evolution, and there was quite a significant difference between merely sparring and actually fighting for one’s life. Azvida, on the other hand, knew the face of mortal combat all too well. She had hoped to never have to employ the deadly arts that she had learned so long ago during the days when she was forced to fight savagely for the entertainment and profit of humans, but she knew that those skills would be needed here today to help defend the less proficient fighters from these people who seemed to desire nothing less than to slaughter them.
With no further hesitation, she charged into the fray. Wherever she saw someone being overpowered by one of the aggressors, she aided them against the enemy; wherever she saw someone cornered or otherwise helpless against an oncoming threat, she rushed in to intercept the attacker. Knowing that even undiluted sheer cold blasts could not be depended upon in such a chaotic situation, especially against such clearly-skilled opponents, she instead relied upon purely physical strikes, her skull bashing into the enemies like a battering ram, her horns seeking the vulnerable eyes and the gaps in the armor of her targets.
Her enemies’ retaliatory strikes left gashes and punctures all over her hide whenever her protect aura failed, but she paid no mind to her own pain, focusing instead on restoring her armor wherever it took damage, glazing over her wounds with ice, and keeping up her defense of her fellow men and women as well as she could.
But the fact remained that the other side was composed entirely of fighters whose skill was least equal to her own. She alone could not truly provide an adequate defense against that kind of force; despite her best efforts, her people were still falling.
Still, Azvida was determined to help defend them as well as she could. She hurtled toward another enemy who was bearing down on a vulnerable, seemingly wounded glalie lying near the altar—only to pass right through the attacker. She cursed aloud as she realized that she’d just wasted her attack on a double team illusion, and a damned convincing one at that.
Immediately, she sought out its source, anticipating an ambush from whomever had cast the technique—but much to her shock, that ambush came from the “helpless” glalie whom she had moved to save, who grinned wickedly as she rose from the spot in an instant and fiercely headbutted Azvida. Another glalie, the one responsible for the illusion, struck Azvida from the other side in nearly the same instant, causing her to collide painfully with one of the altar’s spires; Azvida only just managed to recover herself and get away from the spire before a large chunk of it broke off and fell to the floor.
As she hurried away from the broken altar, shoving her way through the crowd, she saw that a couple of glalie had managed to slip away from the fight and had made their way to the exit. A small surge of hope awoke in her at the sight, hope that those people might be able to escape with their lives—and that better still, they might bring back help, reinforcements that might put an end to this attack and bring its perpetrators to justice.
But that hope was dashed almost immediately as the barrier warding the exit didn’t vanish at the unspoken command of those gathered before it. They then tried to simply bash through the wall of ice, but to no avail; as if alive, it automatically repaired any damage dealt to it.
“It won’t open!” one of them shouted. “Why won’t it open?!”
Azvida’s heart sank as an answer to that question came to her right away: the enemies must be exercising control over the barrier blocking the only way out, she figured. They now outnumbered the defenders, and so their power to keep it closed was greater than even the defenders’ combined efforts to open it would be.
If more glalie arrived at the other side of the barrier, however, they might well be able to overpower the enemy and gain access to the temple. Were the lair of the Security Guild not located on virtually the other side of the warren, such help would certainly have come already. At the very least, though, they could be summoned if anyone were to come near enough to the temple to hear the commotion within it, but so far it seemed that no one had.
And then a possibility came to Azvida’s mind. Among the skills that she’d obtained during her time in human custody lay a potential means to draw that badly needed attention—one unsubtle enough to be noticed not only by those near the temple but quite possibly by the entire warren. It had seemed impractical to her as a weapon in combat due to that very unsubtlety and thus had been pushed to the back of her mind in favor of fighting methods with less risk of collateral damage. Its potential beyond simple offense had not occurred to her; inwardly, she cursed herself for not thinking of this course of action sooner.
There was no real guarantee that her idea would work, she knew. Maybe no one would arrive in time; maybe not enough would. Maybe the wrong people would arrive first, though such might happen anyway. Perhaps, the terrible thought occurred to her, similar or even greater violence had erupted elsewhere in the warren, too, in which case the aid that they needed in the temple might be wrapped up in trouble elsewhere. But Azvida felt that she had to at least give it a try, that it might be the only hope left for the salvation of those trapped with her—or at least for those who had brought this misery upon them to be given what she felt that they deserved for it.
With no further delay, she brought up a protect shield once again so that no one and nothing could disrupt what she was about to do—and just in time, as the two glalie who’d tricked her came back around for another strike at her then, accompanied by a third this time.
“Everyone!” she then shouted as loudly as her partially spent strength would allow, unfazed as each of the three assailants’ attacks struck her shield. She knew that her next actions could potentially wreak serious harm on the already disadvantaged and overwhelmed innocents, and thus she wanted to give them adequate warning. “Protect or get as high off the ground as you can now
Before her, she saw deep blue light blossom around nearly every living person within the temple, while others pushed their levitation to the limit, rising as high up off of the floor as their heavy bodies could manage. The enemies also took such protective measures, and their attention was now directed squarely and entirely toward Azvida. It seemed that they knew that she was up to something and weren’t interested in letting her pull it off successfully. In a single moment, the enemies amassed and moved toward her in unison.
But just before they could reach her, she surged up into the air, well above her normal hovering height. She came crashing back down in nearly the same instant, and upon landing, she released a powerful discharge of ground-type energy into the floor beneath her, sending great shockwaves outward from the site of impact. The ice that glazed the walls, floor, and ceiling filled with fissures and then exploded from the stone surfaces in a burst of frozen shrapnel almost immediately; what remained of the altar was brought crashing down; and the barrier shattered, only to be restored in virtually the same instant. Her shield fell a split-second after the earthquake’s release, and as the attackers fell upon her, she could only hope that her call for help would be answered in time.
* * *