He was perfect.
She could feel it at once; he was a priest, junior but respected, middle-aged, quiet, polite. He had been a shop-keep once, and had risen through his trade as a polisher, using dusts and slurries to smooth the imperfections in gemstones cut by more expert men. She felt the wearing residue of his long-practised skills in the skin of his hands – rough, calloused, toughened by centuries of work. He was muscular, too, despite his advanced years; long hours leaning over the stone and the wheel had given him a wrestler’s shoulders and a strangler’s hands. These had served him well in the exercise of his baser appetites.
The ancient, lofty city of Starmeadow, the site of elven greatness and glory since Tîor had first laid stone upon stone in the long-distant past, was a place of gilt splendour, shining like a jewel in the light of the Lantern, reflecting its glory back at the sky, as a mirror reflects the image of the vain, primping beauty seated before it. There were those who held that the great city shone brighter than the sun, and that the golden eye in the sky above was nothing more than a reflection of its eternal and unchanging glory. Such overweening pride, such casual blasphemy, were all too common in the capital. Starmeadow taught its inhabitants many things, but humility was not one of them. The Anari were revered, to be sure; but so too were the oldest of all Kindred gods: pride, ambition, and appetite. The priest-polisher was an avid worshipper of them all.
Even the most beauteous of gems has flaws; and what distinguishes the great gem from the truly magnificent one is not the absence of defects, but whether they are visible. Starmeadow was a great gem, perhaps the greatest gem in all of Anuru, and its flaws were equally great; but the ancient city had become adept at concealing them. Its inhabitants overlooked its manifest faults, seeing without noticing, without understanding what it was that they saw.
In shadowed alleys, in dark corners; in the depths of the gardens and groves, along the riverbank beneath the adamant spines of Xîardath’s ancient walls; in back rooms and bedrooms, between the rows of books in the libraries, behind curtains in the public houses, and even in the gloomy nooks of the great mansions, the small evils lurked. Like spiders, they wove webs of malice and despair; in their contempt for the contented, self-satisfied pride and narcissism of the great city, they exuded their stench. To some, dissatisfied with what the lights and brightness of Starmeadow offered, the perfume of vice was so very sweet...
She had followed the polisher-priest for more than a week, certain that she had found her quarry, that he was the one she sought. She could smell it on him; she could taste his need, feel the warped and roiling desire that lurked within his heart of hearts, struggling, shrieking for release. The roil of his sielu did not astonish her; she had preyed upon the Kindred for eons, and knew well what lay within the deepest wells of their innermost thoughts. Most of her kind dreamed only of ravening and destruction; few, very few, understood how much could be accomplished by giving, by satisfying the urges she observed, rather than simply taking.
It was Bræa’s fault, after all; the Golden Hag had made the mortals, had infused their essence with the same unconstrained, ravening desires that animated all of the beings that had their roots in the Void. The Kindred were weak; but they were many. And in the seething turmoil of their unbridled spirits, she had found the only kin she would ever know.
The thing that surprised her, astonished her, was how oblivious the others of their kind were to signs that seemed to obvious to her. The instant she had touched the priest, she had known what he was. But none of his countrymen had ever seemed to sense it. Not even those privileged, damned few to whom he had shown his true face.
Not even the girl, a wan and empty-eyed thing that he approached now, near a dockside tavern, in the shadowed lee of one of the ancient watchtowers.
The mechanics were of no interest to her; she hung back, maintaining her contact with the priest with only the lightest of feather-touches, mind-to-mind, as with blushing fumbles he negotiated a price, showing the chit a heavy purse that clinked most enticingly. The girl made a wry comment about the silver medallion he wore about his neck; engraved with a stylized black tree, she had regarded it with loathing, for it stymied her, and she longed for him to take it off.
Her hope was realized. The girl said something about tumbling priests, and the man obligingly doffed his talisman. She was so delighted by this sudden development that she paid their banter no heed as the girl, with an air of experience belying her years, led him down an alley to a shadowed place, a hutch that had once been a shed, and that smelled of tar and rope and smoked fish, and old, mildewed wood. There, on a pile of discarded sacking covered by a thin, dusty blanket, the agreed exchange was effected. The mechanics of that act, too, were of little interest to her; she had been observing mortals for hundreds of their generations, and there was nothing of their tastes or desires that she had not witnessed and did not understand.
When the polisher’s fingers went to the girl’s throat, though, she came forward, feeling with careful tendrils of thought for the currents of sensation that arose in his spirit. The medallion no longer blocked her perceptions, and she longed to taste what he felt. This was joy; this was ecstasy; the apotheosis of his being, the only thing he truly longed for, truly enjoyed, the only bright spot in all the long, dreary centuries of his mortal existence. A few moments only it lasted; but in those moments he was a lord, a king, a god holding within the span of his calloused hands the struggling, twitching spark of life itself, squeezing and squeezing until, like the last ember of a smothered fire, it went out.
At the culminating moment, she was there with him; an invisible, intangible passenger riding the currents of his lust like a boatman negotiating a torrent, or a horseman breaking a new mount. At the shining heights of his passion, his spirit was laid bare to her; and like a kite, she dove down upon it, seizing the cords and ligatures of his thought, insinuating herself into and between the sparks of his being, setting the teeth of her soul into his own with speed and skill born of long practice.
As she did so, her control nearly failed, for she had not anticipated the strength of will and purpose that rose up in him at this, the very moment that his greatest dreams and glories were realized. The force of his reaction to her presence nearly expelled her. Had she fought, will to will, she would have failed; but she was too canny a rider to attempt to meet strength with strength. Instead of struggling against his outrage and lust, she fed them, with images of greater conquests, greater glories to come; with the taste, touch, smell and sensation of endless delights, which, with the powers she could grant him, were now within his reach.
In the end he agreed, ceding her the tiller of his soul, just as she had known he would. His struggles to expel her ceased, and he accepted the gifts she offered. As he left the hovel, walking with newfound purpose and confidence, he spoke a single word; and behind him, a gout of black, ravening fire exploded, igniting the sacking and dry timber, and consuming the cooling distaff flesh that he had left, sprawled and ruined, in his wake.
No rider, now. A passenger, a fellow traveler, she worked her way into the interstices of his sielu, learning everything about him, reading in full things of which she had hitherto only scented the surface, tasting the delicious, dark glory of the full litany of his past and squirming in ecstasy at the memories she found. He was an old hand at murder, and she gloried in the remembered thrill of crimes long past. His mind, too, was a labyrinth of purpose and mystery; with his willing connivance, she could hide there, tucked into the folds of his consciousness, and none would descry her.
He was her chance; her chance for power, and aggrandizement, and most of all, ascension to the heights of glory longed for by all of her sisters; that acme of advancement for her kind, that eternal glorification that had eluded her for millennia. The polisher-priest was her road to greatness. The others she had touched at the temple had had their peccadilloes, their little hatreds and sins and transgressions; but these had been but a wine-cup of water next to the deep and delicious ocean of her new ally’s catalogue of perversion, lust and evil. He stood low in their hierarchy, true; but with her knowledge and her powers, that would soon change. She could give him that which he lacked; and with her aid, he would soon surpass the others.
And if her skill did not suffice to remove those others from their shared path...why, then, she reasoned gleefully, there were always his talented fingers...
Breygon tore his hand out of Kalena’s grasp. He had felt his own fingers close about the dying girl’s slender throat, and they were cramped and slick with sweat. He felt a mild stinging in his palm, and was unsurprised to see that the wizard’s nails had dug shallow half-moons into his skin.
They were standing side-by-side in the stables that fronted Domus Casia. With Karrick’s aid, the ranger had tugged the flat-bed cart containing the ghastly, staring demon’s head into the shallow barn, disappointing the crowd that had come to stare at the horrid thing, and closing and barring the heavy wooden doors behind them. There he had prevailed upon Kalena to work her divinations upon the grim thing; and with obvious reluctance, she had agreed.
She had one hand flat on the thing’s slimy, scarred forehead, between the two horns that curled up and inwards, and just above its wide, staring eyes. Even in death, those orbs leeched a terrible power of compulsion into the air, and Breygon had found himself gulping in an attempt to control a suddenly rebellious gorge. The stench of decay and foulness was overpowering; Karrick had been forced to lead the horses away, and was watching them in the alley next to the house.
The spell, once begun, had immediately assaulted the wizard’s senses; she’d recoiled from the overwhelming power of the images flooding into her. She’d flailed for support, and Breygon had provided it, clenching her slender hand in his; and, with the same skill she’d shown in an obscure jeweller’s shop in Joyous Light, had allowed a little of what she saw to seep through the link. That little had smitten him like a mace to the brow.
“Hold!” she commanded. Her eyes were still clenched shut; but tears were leaking from beneath the lids, cutting tracks down her cheeks. “Hold, man! You must...must see...”
She held out her hand, beckoning insistently. At that instant he would rather have grasped a viper than touch her fingers and feel again the things that she had shown him. You asked for this, fool, he raged inwardly.
Shoulders quivering with anticipation, he reached out, steeled himself, and took her ha –
They came; in their hundreds, their thousands, they came. Deadened by the bland and leaden preaching of the other priests and priestesses of the Forest Gods, downtrodden by heavy taxes and capricious lords, wearied by the sneers and jibes and the innumerable, petty harassments of life in the stratified and rigid society of the great city, they came. They came for different reasons; for comfort, or release, or understanding, or assurance that they eyes of the Anari were upon them. Some came for healing, or for atonement; or to seal vows, or name children. Always, they came with hope in their eyes, words of praise on their lips, and secret desires in their hearts.
Hidden deep within the recesses of her new ally’s mind, using his tongue, his influence, and her ancient craft, she touched them all. With a twisted phrase, weariness became exhaustion; a gentle, understanding bit of counsel turned frustration to rage; a few honeyed words made discontent slide towards hatred, hatred towards rebellion, and – in a few memorable, delicious cases – rebellion towards murder. Some responded readily to the advice and blandishments she administered with her ally’s tongue, and with her powers, she turned them swiftly and unerringly towards malice and evil. Those, she embraced.
In the still, silent shadows of the old temple she whispered to them, touched them, granted them a portion of her power; weakening herself, yes, but gaining from each small sacrifice a willing, ready slave, one eager to do her bidding. Such new allies were few, oh so very few, in the first months; for the masses of the temple’s parishioners were, by and large, folk of good character, and some recoiled at the thought of the things she, through her mouthpiece, suggested. At least at first. When she met resistance, she withdrew at once, assuaging alarm with nimble speech and tiny gifts. It nearly always worked; and when it did not, she simply closed the doors and drew the curtains; and her ally had new flesh upon which to sate his dark desires.
With the power she leant him, he rose swiftly through the ranks of the hierarchy; his matchless piety, it seemed, was accompanied by great knowledge, great wisdom, and great strength of spirit. The common folk heeded his words, and came in vast throngs to listen when he spoke, and be blessed by his touch. The elders took note of this; and soon he was given opportunities that others were denied. He always made good; for the strength of his secret friend, she who whispered to him in the cold stillness of the night, was proof against all ills, and sufficient to all of his needs. At first he feared and adored her; but in time the fear disappeared, and only the adoration remained.
Her lore aided him, too, in his depredations; for her power did not sate the desires that drove him to seek new, supple flesh. If anything, her presence sharpened his tastes. She became a willing participant in his crimes, as eager as he to savour the life that seeped from those he took in violence. The powers she leant him made it easy, all too easy, so that soon the thrill of the chase palled; and so, drawing upon eons of knowledge, of the horrors of the deepest pits of corruption of the dark places whence she had come, she educated him in the boundless depravity of her kind. His crimes, though perhaps less frequent than before, took on a new, innovative character. He came and went like a ghost, leaving behind him twisted, violated bodies, rooms sponged black with blood, limbs bent into unnatural shapes – or severed entirely, and arranged into configurations that pleased him (and her), but that drove more than one unlucky passerby to madness.
He, though…he did not go mad. Not entirely. He had made an accommodation with his ally, and madness was his bedfellow. She gave him her strength, and he allowed her to feed upon the stinking offal of his lusts. They were perfectly matched, the priest and his secret friend. Together in the day, they worked to climb the tower of ambition, to seek ever new heights, striving for the mastery of the temple; and together in the night, they haunted the side-streets and shadows of the greatest city in the world, tasting its degeneracy, revelling in its despair, plumbing the depths of suffering and dismay, drinking deep of its wantonness and vice, and painting its ancient stones with terror, blood and screams. So his life ran, and he was content.
Until the girl came – and everything changed.
“That’s her!” Breygon gasped, shaking with the effort of maintaining his concentration. “Younger, but...but I’m almost certain...”
“Silence!” Kalena hissed. “Concentrate! I cannot maintain this link much longer!”
The ranger shuddered and tried to still the quivering of his limbs. The Hîarsk woman was so slight, so slender, so bookish; and yet there was a strength in her that in many ways surpassed his own. It was not will, exactly, but he recognized it nonetheless. It was poise; a sure and certain trust in her own skill and knowledge, the confidence that her wit and power would see her through this trial, or any other.
He had no such strength. He was content to stand toe-to-toe with the demon, plying his bow and blades, and trusting to his strength and skill to spare him from death; but these arcane workings were beyond him. His body was not at risk, now; instead, his mind, his sielu, were drowning beneath the tsunami of hideous impression that washed through the thought-link like a flood of refuse, lust and gore. It was a thing wholly beyond his ken, a horror out of all reckoning, and he feared it. He feared that he would be lost beneath a tide of filth and decay.
At the last possible instant, when his heart and mind were foundering, the green came to his rescue. He felt the warmth, the native strength, of the earth beneath his feet; through it, he felt the tender shoots of kesatuan, grasping them in the fist of his spirit, and drawing strength and focus from them. He was no wizard; no shaper of forces unseen. He was neither elf nor man. He was Lewat, and he would not be cowed by this evil, or any other. He was Lewat, and the strength of kesatuan buttressed the essence of his being, and upheld him, and exalted him.
He was Lewat, and he would endure.
“I am Shaivaun,” the girl said, her voice crisp and clean, resonant with promise. Oh, his fingers ached, ached for her throat; but his secret friend would have none of it. She saw, with eyes far more ancient and knowing than his, what it was that knelt before them; a vision of perfection, of loveliness, of pure and untainted faith, of devoted service to the green, and to kesatuan, and to the glory of the White Fire.
“I come to serve,” she continued placidly, and his hands twitched with involuntary desire; but his dark ally had ridden him now for a ten-year, and held his reins firmly. She denied him.
As his sieulu quaked and quivered with longing she came forth, as she almost never did anymore, smothering his will with her own, and bringing her own potent spirit and strength to the fore. His own feeble spirit retreated, wailing and gnashing its teeth, to the depths of his intellect. No longer a mere rider, she was mistress now. His body was her body; his hands, her hands.
“Welcome, Shaivaun,” she said – gently, oh so gently. She took the girl’s hand and raised her up, saying, “I see your strength, daughter of Istravenya, and the potency of your will. Apply yourself, and learn our rites, and you will prosper; for the time is coming when others will stand aside, and cede you their places, and you will stand high in the service of the White Fire.”
And the girl was exalted by the high priest’s praise, and gloried in the touch of the high priest’s hand; and she went forth from the high priest’s presence a changed woman, invigorated, confident, and ambitious. And she never new that the high priest that she so trusted and admired was in truth a fiend in mortal guise.
Years passed. The girl Shaivaun grew in power, while the high priest grew old. His ally had withdrawn a portion of her power from him, and was using it instead to shape the girl’s ascendancy. It was difficult, to aid her without possessing her; but the dark one had a feeling, deep in the dimmest recesses of the viscid pit of slime that served as her soul: this girl was different. She could not escape the notion that, properly raised and assisted and instructed, this girl might one day become a willing and potent acolyte, bringing power and glory to them both. That would bring greater fame to the dark ally than any other conquest, and greater power, too.
As the years passed, their numbers grew. The White Fire had always been a narrow sect, confined to worship by happenstance, centred among the Torvae. The high priest, controlled almost entirely now by his shadowy passenger, worked to change that, making the White Fire an exclusively High Elven phenomenon; barring from the priesthood all but pure-blooded scions of the Third House, and condemning all others as unclean and unfit for holy office. The girl Shaivaun played a part in that. Her fame spread wide ‘round the realm; her beauty and the strength of her words were all the talk of high tables and of low. All came to lay their troubles at her feet, and receive her blessing and the blessing of the high priest. To some, the dark ally granted gifts; to others, strength; still others begged for children, and got them. And if these children were a little feral, or a little dire, what mattered that? None so desperate as to plead for increase would scruple at birthing a whelp that was healthy, even if it cried incessantly, or struck the other children, or harmed livestock, so as to suckle at the blood that flowed from seeping wounds.
With numbers came influence, and with influence, wealth. The temples of Istravenya had always been a refuge for the rural folk, or the commoners in the great cities; but now, for the first time, the nobility flocked to hear the words of the White Fire. The dark ally had to tread softly, now; for the highest of the elven houses counted among their number many subtle children of Hara: mighty lords, great ladies, stern warriors and cunning wizards, any of whom might have seen through her mask, penetrating her guise, descrying her true nature and intent, to the ruin of all her carefully laid plans. As it happened, though, she needn’t have worried; the nobility were as beguiled by her words, as besotted by the girl Shaivaun’s beauty, as were the common folk, and the nobles were as wearied and as jaded as any. It was only their distractions that differed. Indeed, she found many among their number to be easier converts to her own extreme tastes and desires than the commoners she had worked so hard to seduce. The scions of the Duodeci, the storied houses of the Divine Twelve, proved to be readier clay to her wheel than the subjects that served them.
Soon, sooner than she had ever thought possible, the time was right. The priest, the one-time stone-shaper, was no more. His body was still there, to be sure; but it was hers, now. She had held the reins for so long that his mind had fled, leaving the shell of his mortal existence in her claws. She was tired of his form; it was old and spavined, wracked with the consequences of the dual life he had led. Ravished by iniquity, the meat had failed her time and time again, and she had been forced to restore it repeatedly through magic. Soon her repairs would become visible, too obvious to hide through any means.
But it no longer mattered. The time was right. Her parishioners, seduced by her words, drunk on the glory of her voice, thronged to the old temple. On Slaughter’s-Eve, the most auspicious of nights for the worshippers of the
Forest Gods, she
spoke, and the temple was filled to bursting.
The nobles in their finery occupied the comfortable chairs near the
front of the hall, the better to be seen by their peers, while the commoners
stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind them, filling the old stone nave from front
to back, and from wall to wall. In the
very forefront of the crowd stood her own clergy – both those she had duped,
and those who were her willing subjects, full of lust and hate and venom and
profane knowledge. At the forefront of
all were the acolytes; and in their midst stood the girl Shaivaun, untouched
and pure; a thing of glory and glamour, radiant with promise.
As the moons sank to their nadir she spoke, and her words seized and captivated them all. The spell spread, and sharp voices cried out in the night. Casting aside now all restraint, all artifice, all concealment, she wove her magic, working the art as only one of her ancient wiles could do. In moments, all within reach of her voice were enraptured by the glory of the White Fire; and when she called upon them to worship ‘in the old way’, there was only the briefest instant of hesitation before garments and inhibitions were flung aside, and the whole of the ancient, sacred place had become a vast, heaving, throbbing mass of flesh, caressing and carousing, shrieking with madness, worshipping their twisted vision of the goddess with cries of agony and ecstasy.
The moons sank below the horizon. With a word she sealed the great doors; with another, the windows; and with a third, she cast off the last lingering shreds of her disguise. The old priest’s withered body, the husk that had confined her for so long, burst like an infected pustule, showering nearby revellers with corrupted blood and stinking yellow ichor. Like a serpent shedding its skin, she tore away the tatters of ruined meat and assumed her true shape: a being of white flesh and wonder, fully six feet tall, with a body forged of delight and dreams, a fair and beauteous visage; long, golden hair, slender ebon horns, a curling tail, and vast, leathery wings.
To the centre of the hall she strode, treading on the writhing bodies of her worshippers, her talons ripping through flesh, snapping bones, hauling entrails behind her like some gruesome bridal train. Shouts of ecstasy and pleasure turned to screams of horror and fear; and they fled from her.
“Too late!” she thundered, using for the first time her true voice. “Too late, vermin!”
Slicked by lust and gore, the people shrank from her, giving her a wide berth in the centre of the temple. That suited her immensely.
“Welcome!” she roared, and flames jetted from betwixt black lips. “Welcome, fools, to the service of the Mistress of the Rod! Welcome to the worship of the Worm! Welcome all, to Slaughter’s-Eve!
Spreading her wings to the walls, and opening her hand and heart to the darkest depths of the outer world, she screamed a foul prayer of fulfilment. And to the cries of fear and terror that surrounded her, she laughed, “Now, mortals…taste my sacrament!”
And with those words, she opened a portal to the fires below. And the true rite of Slaughter began.
Breygon woke gasping from the vision. His hands were shaking. “She burned them!” he whispered. “She burned them to death! All of them! Hundreds!”
“Six hundred at least,” Kalena agreed, white-faced. “Maybe more.” She coughed suddenly, doubled-over, her shoulders quaking; and to the ranger’s horror, a wisp of smoke issued from betwixt her lips. When she looked up again, her eyes were red.
“Why?” he whispered.
“She was a demon,” the wizard shuddered. “Is not murder its own justification, for their kind?” She clenched her fists spasmodically in an effort to still their tremoring.
“There must be some other reason,” Breygon mused. “She had built up an enormous following. That means power, here. Why throw it all away?”
Kalena stared at him. She looked fatigued, spent…even broken. “Do you really wish to know?” she sighed heavily.
“We have to know.”
“Very well.” She took a deep breath. “Prepare yourself.”
Before he could protest, she placed two fingers of her left hand against his forehead, and put her right hand back on the demon’s brow…and the world exploded into –
Scorching, savage flame poured from the portal at her feet, flooding into the temple like a tide of conflagration. All around her, screaming worshippers burst into flames, their bodies sizzling and crackling like roasting pork. The otherworldly flame was hotter than any of the fires of the mortal realm, and it burnt not only bodies, but souls, eating through the bonds of the spirit, destroying everything in its ravening hunger. The stones themselves caught and burned, flaring and melting and running like water. Overhead the beams exploded and collapsed, and a shower of embers and roof-tiles thundered down, crushing and killing those few who had miraculously escaped the flames.
In the middle of it all, she stood stock-still, immersed in and mesmerized by her glorification. The fire burned her, too, consuming her flesh, and searing her soul. But because she had worked the ritual in the correct wise, assembling the necessary number of followers, ensnaring and corrupting and sacrificing them in the fires of the Great Pit, the flames did not destroy her.
Fire, after all, not only consumed and destroyed; it also changed.
In the forge-flame of screams and death, she felt the transformation begin. First to go were her wings; the fire ate through the membranes, burning the aillelles down to ragged stumps jutting from her shoulders. The agony was penetrating and exquisite, but she endured it, revelled in it, for she knew what it portended. Fire licked at her flesh, consuming the last shreds of imperfection; and what had once seemed a divine, otherworldly beauty was enhanced tenfold. Golden tresses changed to red, the red of the blood and the flame that had altered them; and her horns shrank, becoming little more than nubbins protruding from her brow. Her nails toughened and became claws; and talons burst from her toes. Her tail was eaten away by the unholy fire; and from her ribs, just beneath her heavy breasts, four long, fang-tipped tentacles exploded in a welter of viscid pus and gore. She could smell the venom oozing from them, and despite the tearing agony of the change, she smiled.
As the fire and shrieks spiralled to a crescendo and the culmination approached, she felt the blood rise in her – true blood, mortal blood, the blood of all those that she had slain in achieving her apotheosis. Their blood empowered her, filled her, filled her to bursting…and as the last of the screams was silenced she gasped into the void, howling an unearthly shriek of her own. Fountains of blood burst from her eyes, exploded from her nostrils and mouths, ran freely from beneath her nails and her gums and her fangs, poured like a damning benediction from every gap and orifice in her body. She inhaled the blood, tasted it, bathed in it; luxuriated in it, running her hands over her new, altered form, shuddering in the delight and the power and the finality of the transformation.
And at last, as the fires were dying, she turned to the girl.
The unholy deflagration had taken everything else; there was nothing left in the temple but scorched stone and charred chunks of bone. But in the midst of it all, the girl Shaivaun stood untouched. Before beginning the ritual, the dark ally had woven a web of protection around her acolyte, and it had held. In the face of all of the unbridled might of the Abyss, it had held. That Shaivaun still lived was proof of her mistress’ newfound power.
Blood streaming from her, dribbling from her eyes and nostrils and lips, she strode toward the girl, who was standing stock-still, paralyzed both by magic and by the shock and horror of all that she had witness. With a flicker of thought, the demon released the arcane web, and the girl staggered and nearly fell.
She seized the girl by the arms and held her upright, talons digging into fair flesh, the residual apocalyptic heat of the sacrifice raising blisters, and causing the thin cloth of her vestments to smoke.
She put her face close to Shaivaun’s. The girl shied instinctively away from the blood-streaked visage, the gleaming scarlet eyes overflowing with gore. “We shall forge a new beginning, we two,” the demon husked. “Together.”
Her fangs shone bright and bloody in the dying firelight; and her breath washed over the girl, foetid and stinking of burnt flesh, and blood, and the rot of the grave. “You are mine. My ally. My cloak. My face, and my mouth, and my tongue.”
The girl, shaking in mortal terror, said nothing.
The demon grinned horribly, and whispered, “Taste my sacrament.”
At this the girl opened her mouth to scream. In an instant the demon was upon her, pressing her backwards to the floor, burning her flesh against the still-hot flagstones, tasting her terror and drinking it in like wine; vomiting her blood-soaked, corrupted essence into unspoiled flesh, filling the girl, becoming one with her; owning her, as completely and thoroughly as she had ever owned the stone-polisher. But this was no aging, failed relic of a man. This was a new form, new flesh. Such youth, such innate strength, such potential!
It was, in every sense of the word, a new beginning.
“Arrgk!” On his knees, the ranger vomited, purging himself again and again. He could taste the blood, smell the burnt flesh. It was all he could do not to claw at his tongue with his fingernails. He had felt the demon slither into him, seeking the byways of his body and spirit, insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of his being. It was a violation far more intimate and horrid than any rape, and he felt weak and sickened from having experienced even the tenth part of the girl Shaivaun’s ordeal.
Kalena had managed to control her gorge, although just barely; she was green and groaning, clutching at her staff for support like a drowning man reaching for a lifeline. “Your pardon,” she whispered plaintively. “Your pardon!”
Breygon waved her apologies away. Struggling to his feet he spat to clear his mouth, and spat again. When he could trust his stomach once more, he said bleakly, “I asked, you answered.”
She seemed about to expostulate, and he cut her off. This was not time for an argument. Forcing a grin, he said, “This should teach me to listen when mages tell me that I really don’t want to know something.”
The wizard shook her head wearily. “I am glad we learned it all. The last mystery, explained.”
“The demon was a pleasure-fiend, expert in the ways of seduction and domination,” Kalena murmured. “One with some skill at the divine arts. Such fiends can rise to the heights of power through the corruption and sacrifice of the worshippers of the Anari. When they do, they lose their wings, gain new limbs of prehensile flesh, and become immensely more beautiful and potent. They are called lilitii; the Corrupters of the Flesh.”
“That’s what happened at the old temple, is it?” Breygon asked. “A…a succubus, yes? She possessed an old priest, built a following, cultivated Shaivaun as a young acolyte...and then slaughtered all those people to secure her own advancement?”
“And it worked. All know the tale,” the wizard shrugged. “How Shaivaun Shabat, though only an acolyte, rose to the heights of the hierarchy because she was the only survivor of the great fire a ten-year ago, the blaze that killed all of the worshippers who had gathered at the old temple on Slaughter’s-Eve. She alone was found, alive and all but unharmed, in the burnt wreckage of the place.” She snorted. “It was assumed that she owed her life to divine intervention.”
“She did,” Breygon said tonelessly. “She certainly did.” He put his face in his hands.
“What is wrong?” Kalena asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Other than the obvious, of course?”
“She was an innocent,” the ranger sighed. He lifted his head again and ran the back of one shaking hand across his brow. “An innocent victim of a demon. Shaivaun, I mean. I destroyed her possessor…but I – we, I mean – we killed her, too.”
“Stop there,” the wizard snapped. “Possession is the mightiest power available to the denizens of the Abyss. Once they have established control and long held it, it is all but impossible to pry them out of a host. Nor would the wronged one wish it. Better to slay the creature outright; then, if you so desire and it is possible, you may have the innocent one returned to life. Death, in such circumstances, is a boon; it not only destroys the possessor, but also erases the taint and corruption of the act itself.”
She shuddered. “Even then, it is not always a kindness to call back the spirit of one so wronged from the ease of the world beyond the world. Unless the mind is…altered…the memory of what was done to the host, what tortures and blandishments were applied, can be nigh unbearable.”
“You’re adept at altering memories,” Breygon said softly. “Or so I’ve heard.”
The wizard’s lip twitched. “I am,” she acknowledged. “And if you see fit to return Shaivaun to life, then I promise you, I will help to undo the…the memories that we just witnessed.” She shook slightly. “But I repeat – I do not think she would thank you if you returned her to the world. Some taints cannot be expunged save by the Powers themselves. Perhaps in Hara’s care, her sielu will be healed.”
“I’ll think about it,” the ranger murmured. “What…what’s to keep the same thing from happening again?”
“How could it?” Kalena asked, taken aback. “You did not merely banish the creature; you destroyed it. It cannot now return. Not for many years.”
“Then we’re done. Problem solved,” Breygon chuckled weakly.
The wizard stared at him in disbelief.
“What is it?” he asked.
“How, solved?” she exclaimed, aghast. “Have your grandmother’s shrine and temple been purged of all vestiges of the evil done there? The murders committed in the name of the dark powers have tainted the earth itself, perhaps for all time!
“Have the Lustroares been found and defeated? Have their supporters among the nobility been identified and chastised? For that matter, have you rooted out the last of Shaivaun’s willing acolytes – those who knew her for what she was, and enjoyed a share of her power?”
“Er…no,” the ranger admitted.
“Then you still have some way to go before you can declare this matter ‘solved’,” she said primly.
Breygon shook his head. “You remind me of Qaramyn,” he sighed.
Kalena stared. “I assure you,” she said coldly, “that I would happily accept death before I would chance the Ars Anecros in search of damned immortality.”
“That’s you,” the ranger laughed weakly. “Believe it or not, becoming a skeletal abomination of unlife is not the most odd or annoying thing Qaramyn’s ever done.”