Escrutus stood over the fallen stone of the shrine of Astrea. He felt powerful in his gleaming bronze armor with his bull helm. The altars of the weaker gods were so easy to take. This Astrea could not match the power of Ashur. He personally toppled the altar and sacrificed a goat to claim this land. He had yelled prayers to his Lord and the soldiers responded in kind. This was now their land.
As Escrutus started remove his mighty bull helm a yell came from the sentry outside. He stepped out of his tent into a rain of black feathers, as if thousands of birds had molted over the camp. He reached out to catch one and it burst into flames, leaving an indecipherable scrawl on his palm. Screams followed as hundreds were hit by the flaming feathers. Some ran into the tents to hide while the black storm continued unabated. It took only seconds before the flames ate into the tents burning the helpless invaders in a conflagration of death.
Escrutus grunted when another feather hit his exposed neck. He refused to give power to the weak gods of this land. Then his helmet began to sear his flesh, and he ripped it from his head, taking patches of hair and hunks of blistered flesh with it. Holding up his shield he screamed at his Vizier “Call Ashur to save us! The Gods of this land are weak, they will easily break.”
The holy man, who was trying to put out his flaming robe, blinked and shook his head. He gave out a cry and spoke in tongues then pulled his silver dagger from his belt and plunged it into the heart of a nearby warrior. There was a rush of wind and the feathers were gone. What little remained was covered by the same message as the one on his hand.
Escrutus frowned as he looked over his camp. People were covered with burns and half the tents were gone. Several wagons and chariots had burned, destroying many supplies that would be difficult to replace. Everywhere were the words burned into flesh, written in ash and covering armor and weapons.
He approached the Vizier. The man had ripped off the burning robe and stood in his underclothes trying to stamp away the flames. Escrutus growled at the man. “You said this Astrea was a weak god, who would have no power to harm us. Explain this,” he waved his arm across the shambles that remained of the camp. He held his palm in the man’s face “And this! What does it mean?”
“Restore this place or suffer my wrath” the man said after looking at it for a moment. “This makes no sense. Astrea is a Goddess of justice and is peaceful. I have never heard of her performing acts of vengeance.”
“There’s a first time for everything, apparently. Ashur will be angry if we abandoned the temple we claimed for him. What would you have me do?” He grabbed the man by the neck and the Vizier’s eyes went wide.
“Cut down the sacred grove, steal the olives and make shelter from the wood. Show Ashur you will keep his land.”
Escrutus grinned at the idea. “Men, we will not be intimidated by some lesser Goddess! Ashur wishes us to hold this land in his name. Go forth and gather olives to replenish our supplies and cut the grove bare and make shelters from the wood. We will tame this Goddess in Ashur’s name!” He threw a fist in the air and the men let forth a roar that echoed across the land.
Men grabbed blankets and sticks, and went into the grove to knock the olives from the trees. As the trees were emptied, men came with axes to chop the trees for wood. Whispers in the language of the Greek heathens suddenly echoed through the woods. Then the screams began.
Escrutus charged into the woods, and recoiled in horror. Men trying to chop trees had their strikes leave marks in their flesh, and Assyrian blood poured freely. If a man felled a tree, they would drop to their knees, screaming in agony as flesh became wooden and their bodies warped until they became a tree as mighty as the one they dropped, with the man’s rictus of horror burned into the wood.
“Stop now!” he screamed, a futile gesture since no man dared to strike the sacred grove. “Vizier! Call Ashur! We need to protect our men!”
The Vizier chanted loudly and slashed his flesh. After a time smoke flowed from his mouth and nose. It filled the air with a giant skull. The Vizier collapsed and lay still. Escrutus ran to the man “There’s something else” the holy man said “Ashur did not respond. He leaves us to our own devices.”
Escrutus frowned and rose. Every instinct told him to leave, but he would not give this Astrea power over his Lord. “We stay! If we can hold for the night Ashur will claim this land and the foreign demons will be defeated. Take what we gathered and make shelter as you can. Gather all the olives. We will feast on the Goddess’s own food.”
The cheers were sporadic. He was losing his men and he could not do that. “I will slay any cowards with my own hands! Now let forth a yell for Ashur!”
The roar was loud, but lacked enthusiasm. Scowling, he decided that the men needed to eat. A little food would bring back their fighting spirit. The gathering took a few hours and they soon had a mound of olives, and they cooked the oxen who’s wagons were destroyed. The Goddess’s threat went throughout the beasts and the slices of meat carried the dire warning The men dove into the food and in a short time all men were satiated. The sacred olives seemed filling, and a handful would fill a man’s stomach.
Whispers echoed again and a burning, rotting smell washed over the camp. People gagged and looked in horror at the remaining olives, now black and dripping with ichor. The men began yelling, and discipline broke down. Escrutus stood to address the men when a man doubled over and screamed in pain. He then heaved and black slime flew from his mouth, covering nearby men. A growl came from his guts and he charged away to the latrine.
The contagion spread and the army exploded in a riot of black bile and dysentery. Escrutus felt the effects but denied Astrea her vengeance. He prayed to Ashur to help him defeat the foe that plagued them. Escrutus felt power flow through him. He was Ashur’s tool.
“Face me Astrea! I will destroy you with Ashur’s might!” He spun around, arms spread, sword in hand. Everywhere he looked men were covered in black slime. The few who could still move were running into the darkness. Escrutus charged after the deserters and stuck them down. Then behind him he heard a flapping of wings.
Spinning he saw a beautiful women with black hair and wings. She held a bloodstained spear and looked at the commander with disdain. “You assume Astrea caused your grief, but it is beyond her. I will have vengeance for her. I am Nemesis.”
“I care not what Goddess plagues me! I will destroy you! I have Ashur’s power within me!” He swung his blade at the Divine Being. Righteous fury filled him as the blade slashed at her. He stood unbelieving as Nemesis caught the blade with two fingers. Tugging swiftly, she threw the blade aside, ripping from his hands as if he were a child.
Pain filled Escrutus’s chest and his limbs began to crack and warp. His legs became goatlike with cloven hooves. He shrunk and twisted, screaming in pain. He heard the Vizier scream as well. Escrutus looked at the Vizier and saw them man had twisted into an old man, leaning on a cane, with a golden knife at his side.
“You are not in Ashur’s land. You will repair this place, tend the grove and welcome pilgrims. Every night your Vizier will sacrifice you in Astrea’s name and you will spend the night in the halls of Hades, only to awake and continue your toils. You will do this for as many years as men you led to this place. On the day that ends you will die and never return. Your army had 10,000 men, so you will be here for a very long time.”
Escrutus tried to reply but could only bleat. A desire to care for the land filled him. He acted against his will and he began washing the blood from the desecrated altar. Nemesis smiled mirthlessly and left the wretched beast to his eternal task.