Chapter 1:

Justice!

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


No one told me what to do while being possessed by the spirit of a pickle goddess. Sure, I was told all about how to wear flowers in my hair properly as a girl. My Grandmother could talk for hours about the ratio of water to flour for a proper flatbread. My boss had nearly endless advice about running a business- even though I never once asked for it.

But when it came to fighting it out with a cranky spirit, suddenly I was on my own. I stumbled back in the water, the voice shouting at me again as I doused my head in the river. It was a small river, more of a creek really- but we pretended to greatness out here. If that meant calling the little dribble we washed our britches in a river, we would endure it.

I’m not afraid of a little water, girlie! I was a thought before this world cooled enough for anything to condense!

“Stop it!” I said. I spit out more water. “I don’t even pray to you!” Well, maybe once in a while. Fermentation was useful. I liked a little sour cabbage on the side of my boiled potatoes. Alcohol, certainly. But the fertility side of things- no. Absolutely not.

You are the one I’ve chosen. My head rattled with a strange gonging noise. This is a gift.

“I was doing just fine until you showed up,” I hissed. Why couldn’t it have been another god? I rather liked the horse god, with his twin axes and eyes of flame. Maybe I could have gotten a sword out of the deal.

Another searing pain in my head, and I stumbled back to fall in the creek. I could see my laundry sprawled out on the bank, lying askew. Some of it would already be drying wrinkled. I’d have to re-dampen it.

In front of me rose a shimmering vision. She had two sets of stag’s horns, branching out so high I could barely make out the sun behind her. She wore a crown of flowers and live bees, ever-crawling. In one hand was a jar of mead. In another was a staff. She was incomprehensible. She was the goddess of fertility. The goddess of fermentation.

The goddess of pickles. Andrena.

I turned and spat more creek water out of my mouth. “I thought you didn’t do house calls?”

She was famously also a goddess of the hearth. The home. As in, not the creek I was ankle-deep in, a good five minutes walk away from my village and a much longer distance from the palace of the gods, deep in the core of the earth. I was fairly certain she was married, or at least had a child somewhere- someone she ought to be minding.

The inter-relations of the gods got a bit fuzzy to me, I had to admit. It was all a bit incestuous.

I have need of a mortal instrument, she said. Her mouth still didn’t move. Her voice echoed strangely, buzzing through my skull, rattling my teeth. I couldn’t help but shudder. It might have been the temperature of the water. I couldn’t tell if I was afraid or just going into shock.

“Find someone else,” I said. “I’m busy tonight.” Arguably not true. I needed to hang up the clothing to dry. After that, my schedule was open. The inn didn’t serve anyone on Ebbelsdays, so I had the time blissfully to myself. I’d been hoping to lose myself in a drunk haze at the local pub once darkness fell- although after this exchange I didn’t think I’d be consuming anything fermented for a long while.

The shimmering vision of the goddess blinked. I got the impression she had to think to do it, an intentional act. You jest.

“You clearly found the wrong person. I’m just a half-rate cook that only goes to temple on holidays.”

If you choose to reject my mercy, you will surely die.

I scrabbled to my feet, stunned into silence, and checked behind my shoulder for anyone else who might be in blasting radius. I had let my mouth run off with me again. Andrena was supposed to be a nurturing goddess, the one that kept the home. I hadn’t expected her to actually kill me outright.

“I, uh-” I bowed. My wet hair slipped over my shoulder. “I apologize for my impertinence.”

A spectral bee spun its lazy way across my vision. It bobbled up, down, before landing upon my nose. I had the strongest urge to sneeze. I held it in. I didn’t rise from my bow. Now you’ve done it, Elysia. Made it past thirty just to mouth off and get smited. Maybe my Ma hadn’t meant this when she’d said I’d go down in flames, but it certainly seemed accurate about now.

Earlier today, you consumed a pickle.

I looked up in surprise. The bee flew off my nose, leaving a little trickle of astral dust behind. “….Yes?” It hadn’t been a very good pickle. I’d been testing it for done-ness after a week or so of fermentation, but something had gone wrong in the initial boil. No snap; not enough dill. And that idiot trainee they’d stuck me with had added sugar instead of salt. Who ate sweet pickles?

It was done badly, the goddess said. Not your work, I think, she added. I tried to maintain my haughty air of earned rage, but I couldn’t help but let the edge of my mouth quirk up at that. I did make good pickles. There was something else growing in the batch, she intoned. If I do not bless you, you will die by the end of the week.

“No.” I felt the back of my neck chilling, and it wasn’t from the wind rolling through. “I checked the top. There was no film, no fuzziness. It smelled right.” But it hadn’t tasted right, had it? And the barest amount of light had come through a crack in the boards I set up in the basement. I ran a hand over my face. “None of the others ate it?”

I’d re-closed the jar. It had only been an early test. But if Duran took a bite to see his progress for himself… Not likely. He wouldn’t walk on his own if someone else could manage it for him.

No one else. Only you would perish.  And the visitors of the inn would suffer sub-par pickles in perpetuity… or at least until my boss sobered up enough to find a replacement for me. I swallowed. It wasn’t much of a legacy.

“What exactly do you want me to do?”

A mistake. As soon as I invited her in instead of barring her out, my mind was barraged by images. I fell to my knees in the creek again, cold stones bringing me back to the present even as the thoughts flashed by.

Children running out of flames. Women cradling their bellies, weeping. A wind sweeping through, leaving nothing but blackened ruins.

“Where is that?” I said. I scrabbled at my head. It was throbbing.

My central temple. The capital.

“And I was really…. All that you could manage?”

An external investigation is needed, said the goddess. She slammed her staff down, once, twice. It twisted as if with living wood. The bees moved and swirled upon her brow. Justice must be had. You will see it right again.

I looked down at myself. I was a tubby thirty-five year old cook on the edge of the country- tucked away in a town not even big enough for a post office- whose sole claim to a job was making pickles which had, as of this morning, killed me. “What do you mean by right again?”

You will do this?

I didn’t want to die. If that meant going to the capital, and looking at some burned buildings, well…

I swallowed. “You don’t happen to give out swords, do you?”

She blinked once, eyes flaming up to burn golden-warm like mead, and then she was gone. I was left sopping wet. My mouth tasted faintly of pickles.

“Well,” I said. I stood up. My legs were shaking.

I had to re-do my laundry. That was a good first step.

Destrab
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