The Cursed Axe
Sabela started up the steep path. They had gone too far this time: there was no going back. Soon they would think it was all right to do it all the time, and the villagers would just let them. Everyone was too afraid of what would happen if they fought back.
Mercenaries. They were really bandits with a little bit of military training and some halfway decent weapons. Not that it made much difference to Sabela what they called themselves; they could say they were saints for all she cared. She knew what they were: thugs, murderers, and thieves. And it was past time something was done about them.
A sickening memory started to rise, and even though she fought it, she couldn’t push it down. Poor Viatrix… She hadn’t even done anything the bandits considered “wrong.” But one of them had thought she was pretty and easy prey. He’d been halfway right—she was pretty. He’d tried to have his way with her and she’d fought him. For a while. Until he called his equally sickening friends in to help. Then he’d played with her for a long time. Sabela had only seen the end of it, but it had been enough. More than enough. Viatrix could no longer stand to have a man touch her, not even Thales, the man she loved.
Sabela’s chest constricted. Yes, it was past time for them to be stopped. There was only one way she knew of that would work, and it was madness. But she had to try. She didn’t care what happened to her—not anymore. No one should have to go through what Viatrix did. These scum wouldn’t touch another woman, not if Sabela had anything to say about it.
Severinus had said the Cursed Axe was evil. The druid was probably right. But do two wrongs make a right? In this case it may. He would think she was mad.
Sabela closed her eyes. I’m sorry, Severinus. I know I said I wouldn’t do this…
But she’d had to lie to him. He would have either tried to stop her or take the Cursed Axe himself. She definitely couldn’t let him do the latter—the town needed him far more than it needed her.
Her throat tightened. She’d never told him how she felt.
It’s better this way. He’ll just feel guilty if I tell him.
Especially since he couldn’t possibly feel the same way. What would a druid want with the girl with no parents?
The Cursed Axe was enshrined on the hill she was climbing. No one had come to claim it in a long time, so long that Sabela guessed its legends had faded into obscurity. But everyone in Rivermill knew the truth. It drove its bearers insane with an insatiable lust for bloodshed. That was all right; Sabela wanted blood to flow. And she knew Rivermill would be safe. It had wards against the Cursed Axe—even if she lost herself, she wouldn’t hurt the people she loved. But those bandits would pay the blood price.
Gasping slightly from the steep grade, Sabela continued on. The hill wasn’t anything special, but she thought that was deliberate. Tufts of hardy grasses clung to its side, rocks jutted out of the makeshift path, and a juniper bush crouched on its summit where the shrine stood. The shrine was also unremarkable, but Sabela understood that. Drawing attention to a weapon that drove any who held it mad was very dangerous.
She stubbed her toe on a rock and cursed as she crested the hill. Swallowing, Sabela stepped toward the juniper. A stone plaque placed under the bush read: “Here lies the Cursed Axe. Woe be unto him who takes it from its cradle.”
She knelt beside the case and touched the side of the stone with her fingers. A strange sensation passed over her, almost a tingling feeling. But there was a darkness under it, like something sinister was watching her from the shadows. She shivered and pulled her hand back. She had to be insane. None of the tales involving the Cursed Axe ended well. Anyone who had borne the weapon had committed suicide after killing everyone they loved.
Sabela glanced back at Rivermill, at the houses tucked between the foothills and the White River. She balled her hands into fists so tightly her knuckles cracked. The bastards would die for what had happened to Viatrix. Every last one of them.
She gripped the side of the stone slab and pulled. With a squeak of rusty hinges, the top of the plaque opened. And there it lay, the Cursed Axe. It was a plain weapon, looking rather like the hatchet her uncle used to cut wood, though it was bladed on either end. The only interesting thing about it was that it still sparkled in the sunlight after having been buried for centuries.
“Sabela…” A voice like the hissing of a snake sounded from inside her head.
Sabela wanted to jerk back, but there was a hypnotic quality to the sound that prevented her from moving.
“You crave what I offer,” it continued. “What will you give me in return?”
“The lives of all the bandits that plague my town,” Sabela said. “And my own life.”
“You offer me blood. Excellent. I have not yet been forgotten. I will accept your trade. They will be gone, as you wish, and I will get their blood. Now, take me in hand.”
Sabela slowly reached down and wrapped her fingers around the haft of the Axe. A surge of power filled her like a black tide. Anything that had ever hurt her or made her angry rushed into her mind, blotting out everything else. Rage burned through her like hellfire; grief shocked her system like she had been dropped in ice; fear surged through her like lightning; and hate…hate surged over her like a tide of acid.
They would die. Every. Single. One.
A wild scream ripped out of her throat, but in the small part of her mind that could still reason, she thought she heard laughter. Laughter like that of a hissing snake.
* * *
Sabela prowled down the hill, feeling as fluid as a mountain lion. The edges of her vision kept turning red, but it didn’t affect her. All that mattered was destroying the bandits; there was nothing else.
She moved silently through the valley below the Cursed Axe’s hill, heading toward their settlement. All the townsfolk knew where the scum lived, but none dared to go there. Except her. And she would be their very last visitor. A smile spread across her face. This would indeed be worthwhile.
Climbing up the hill they lived on was as easy as walking through the valley. The steep slope, treacherous stones, and faulty footholds might as well have not been there. The power of the Axe continued to surge through her, and it made easy what was before an impossibility.
Soon she saw the makeshift fence the bandits had built around their settlement. It was made of wood that the people of Rivermill had cut and cured. Red filled her vision again and she strode toward the gate, baring her teeth. All the work that had gone into those boards wasted. Wasted on these filthy thieves.
The man at the gate stepped out and eyed her. “Did you come up here to entertain the boys?” he asked, a greedy look on his face. He saw the Axe in her hands and his expression changed to one of puzzlement, then amusement. “You can’t be serious.”
Sabela growled, “Oh, I’m very serious. And I’m sure I’ll be very entertaining.”
Then she sprang toward him, faster than she thought was possible to move. He squawked in fear, then she slammed her foot into his chest.
The man fell to the ground and she landed on him, feeling his ribs breaking. Ignoring his body, she kicked the gate. The board split and the latch gave way. It swung open and smashed into the side of the fence with a loud crack.
About a score of men were waiting for her, their weapons at the ready.
“How pitiful,” the Axe commented.
Sabela bared her teeth again and charged them. The first man barely flinched before she was on him, smashing the flat of the Cursed Axe against his head. A faint cracking sound reached her ears, then he collapsed, his blood spilling onto the ground.
“Perfect…” the Axe purred. “More…you promised me more!”
Sabela spun and slashed at her nearest enemy’s weapon hand. He shrieked in pain as his sword fell to the ground and he tried to staunch the bleeding in his wrist. The others looked frightened now, but one of them still charged her. She jumped to the side, swinging the Axe into his back. The force of her blow knocked him to the ground, then she removed his head.
The man’s blood coated the Cursed Axe and it made pleased sound, then began to pulse a deep red color. The rest of her assailants started to flee, but Sabela ran after them. They seemed to move pitifully slow, and she caught the slowest one in a few strides. She sliced at his leg, causing him to scream and tumble to the ground. She didn’t give him time to plead for his life before she took it.
The others darted around behind a dwelling and Sabela took the most direct route to them: through the building. She smashed the wall with the flat of the Axe, causing it to crack like thin ice. She hit it again, knocking a hole in the side. Smiling darkly, she dashed through the hole, then kicked the door off its hinges. Most of the bandits were farther down the street, but a couple had stopped to gawk at her, shaking in fear.
They were too easy to kill. At least the ones that ran took a small amount of effort. She dashed after them, catching them before they exited the settlement. One screamed in terror before she smashed his skull with the Axe’s blade. Another dropped to his knees to beg for mercy, but she took his head off his shoulders before pouncing on the next.
When all the ones who had run were slain, she headed back into the town, searching for anyone who was hiding. She found one coward who had hidden in his house and terrified him a bit, enjoying the panicked look in his eye. Then she killed him and moved on.
“There is more,” the Cursed Axe whispered. “You promised me all their blood.”
Sabela nodded, then raced through the town, searching for any more signs of life. Every structure she came to she destroyed, and every living thing she found she slaughtered—she had promised the Axe as much. Each death filled her with strength and the blood on her hands made her feel almost godlike.
When the entire settlement lay in ruins, she returned to where the gate had been and knelt.
“You have kept your promise,” the Cursed Axe sounded almost surprised.
Sabela gasped as all of her anger, grief, fear, and hate drained away. The memories flashed through her mind. What had she done? She’d killed all the men, as she’d wanted. But the women and children, livestock and pets? And then she’d laid waste to the whole settlement.
Shaking with a horrible sense of dread, she turned back toward what used to be the bandits’ town. Blood, timbers, rubble. That was all there was. Nothing stirred, nothing breathed. Gasping as tears poured down her face and her stomach rebelled, Sabela collapsed onto her hands and knees.
Nearly blind with tears, she searched for the Cursed Axe’s handle. Gripping it tightly, she lifted it. She had promised it one more thing, and she wasn’t reluctant to give it. She had become a monster. How was what she did any better than what the bandits had done? She had slaughtered them all, even those who were defenseless. And enjoyed it.
“No, Sabela,” the Cursed Axe said. “I do not want your life.”
“What?” Sabela whispered. “What do you mean?”
It paused. “I will not take that which is willingly given to me.”
Sabela wiped at her eyes, trying to regain her vision. She felt the slickness of blood against her skin and looked down at herself. She was covered in gore. Feeling sick again, she lay face down on the ground.
“So you won’t take me because I want to die?” she managed to say.
It chuckled, but the sound was not at all reassuring. “You paint me far too simply. Begone, Sabela. Release me.”
Sabela stood up slowly, fighting nausea. “But I promised you one more thing.”
“Sabela!” a male voice shouted.
She jerked her gaze to the side to see Druid Severinus hurrying up the hill. His robes were blowing in the wind, giving him an appearance that the spirits were with him right at that moment. But his expression was one of shock and horror.
“No, no. You didn’t, Sabela. You promised me,” his voice cracked.
She closed her eyes briefly. “I lied.”
He looked away from her for an instant, then quickly looked back, as if he didn’t want to let her out of his sight. Considering the fact that she held the Cursed Axe, that made sense. She was entirely unpredictable.
“Ah, you,” the Axe said to him, dislike in its voice. Then it turned its attention back to her. “Let me go, Sabela. I do not want your life.”
“What?” Sabela looked at the Cursed Axe. “But I promised you my blood!”
Panic seized her. How could she continue to live now? With what she’d done? The horror of it would be with her forever. She had enjoyed killing. And if the Cursed Axe backed out of the bargain, did that mean it would seek vengeance?
Severinus’ eyes widened. “You did what? Not only did you get the Cursed Axe, but you planned to kill yourself?”
“I…it would drive me insane. I thought it would be better.”
He took a step toward her. “You are insane, Sabela. Do you realize what you’ve done?”
She stared at him. Of course she realized what she’d done—she’d rid the village of bandits with herself as the only sacrifice.
“Either let me go or take your life,” the Cursed Axe sounded irritated. “I do not wish to remain here any longer.”
Startled, Sabela dropped it. The weapon vanished as soon as it left her hands. She stared down at where it had been, unable to comprehend what her eyes were telling her. Then she blinked and looked down at herself. No blood. All of the gore had vanished. She turned to look back at the settlement she’d annihilated and her mouth fell open.
There was nothing. As if it had never been.
That was impossible. She glanced around, wondering if she’d somehow been moved, but she was still on the hill where the bandits’ stronghold had been. Had it really happened, then?
Of course it had. She knew there had been bandits. The Cursed Axe is a magical artifact, it…it…
“Oh, spirits,” Severinus whispered.
Sabela turned to him. “What…just happened?”
“It spared you,” he said, then shook his head.
Sabela rubbed her eyes, trying to focus on something other than what she’d just done. “But I’ve never heard any stories where it spared its bearer.”
“It’s rare, but so far as I can tell, people who actually give it what they promise, it doesn’t kill or drive insane. Those who either break their promise to it, or use it merely for self-gain, it punishes in the worst way possible. Madness, then death.”
“But how come I’ve never heard of this?”
He scoffed. “It’s not something we want to encourage.”
“’We?’ Who is we?”
He sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now,” he said quietly. “The druids of Rivermill have long kept watch over the Cursed Axe. Why do you think the town is warded against its power?”
“I…never really thought about it,” she admitted. “But wait. You can protect the town against the power of the Cursed Axe, but not against a ragtag group of bandits?”
Severinus looked affronted. “That is an entirely different kind of ward. The one against the Cursed Axe took many generations to build. There’s no base for a ward against physical attack, it would take me many years to construct. The power we druids are gifted with is subtle—I can’t just build a ward anywhere I wish.”
Sabela glanced away. “I’m sorry, I just…” she shook her head. “But what now? Do I just go home and pretend nothing happened?”
A pained expression flashed across his face. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Rivermill is closed to you.”
Sabela sank to her knees, tears stinging her eyes. “You…you’re banishing me?”
He slashed the air with his hand. “I have no choice! Even if I decided that because of the reason you took the Axe you should be exempt from the law, your aura has absorbed some of its tainted power, and the wards would never allow you through.”
A sense of heaviness settled itself on Sabela, as if she had donned a lead cloak. “You mean that I can physically never come back?”
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “Not until…” he sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve never encountered anyone else who survived the Cursed Axe.”
Sabela shook her head slowly. She knew that what she had done would carry a price. Somehow, though, never seeing the people she loved again while she was still alive seemed a harder burden to bear than death.
She closed her eyes. I suppose this punishment is more appropriate.
The village remained intact, but it was lost to her; its people were lost to her; her life was lost to her.
Woodenly, she climbed to her feet. “Can someone bring me my belongings before I go?”
Severinus tossed her a small pack. Sabela opened it to see that everything she would have chosen to take was already packed.
“You…” she began.
“I had a premonition,” he explained. “I sensed you would be going on a journey soon. I just…I just never thought this would be the reason.”
“I’m sorry, Severinus. I…”
“There is no choice, Sabela.”
She drew in a shaky breath. “Just get it over with it,” she said.
He drew a rune in the air and chanted something under this breath. “You are cast out of this valley, but your deeds shall not be forgotten,” he let out a breath. “It is done.”
A tear ran down her cheek as Sabela turned away. “Yes, it is.”