The sun filtered through the leaves of the trees that lined the road, the cheery, dancing light dappling the muddy track. The trees were thinner here, large hardwoods evenly spaced along the side of the road, far enough apart that the fields and the forest proper were easily seen. There were just enough trees with just enough new leaves on them to shade the road against the sun, who was doing a poor job of combating the dark, casting just enough light to throw the shadows into sharp contrast while failing to really illuminate anything.
What time of day was it? The question struggled through the fog of Maeka’s thoughts, through the dull pain inside of her head and the sharp pain on top of it. The wound on her scalp had stopped bleeding, but it had left her hair and the right side of her face caked with blood and it twinged every time she moved her head. Or maybe it wasn’t the wound; maybe it was her hair, unbound as it was, getting caught in the gaps in her armor, pulled by the grasping lamellar. She was surprised that they had left her in the armor, though she supposed it wasn’t much good without weapons to back it up.
The feeble light glinted off her armor, but was it the fading light of twilight or the growing light of dawn? Maeka lifted her eyes from the ground, where they had been fixed on her feet, to glance at the sky. Behind her was Katun, a nervous hive of activity, in front of her was the forest, grim and silent, and around her were three of Katun’s aldermen: Merdyn, Vyrit, and Jenry. They were a frightened bunch, none of them soldiers despite the arms they bore. Maeka could have killed all them, easily, if they had given her the rhomphaia that Jenry carried. She probably could have killed Vyrit, back at the River Blossom, when he had taken her captive; the idea had flashed through her mind, her training instinctively identifying the vulnerable points on his body, the punch she could have delivered to his throat, the knee to the groin or the kick to the stomach.
But she hadn’t resisted him then, despite her instincts, and she wasn’t going to do it now – there wasn’t any point. She was going to die, they were going to die, and the entire town was going to die with them. It was all going to happen tonight, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Katun would die, burned in the demon’s fire, whether she stayed, fought, or ran away, whether she was a protector or a sacrificial lamb. But the fools around her wouldn’t listen to her, couldn’t bear to see that everything they had was going to perish in flames.
It was all going to happen tonight. How did she know it was night? Maeka had been out for an unknown period of time, beaten and kicked into unconsciousness, though she didn’t feel it. She rarely did, rarely let pain bother her. Had she always been this way, or had her master gifted it to her? He had given her so much in the course of his efforts to improve her, to make her a better soldier, a better person, that it was difficult to tell where her natural gifts ended and his began. Even the early parts of her life, the life she had lived by herself before she knew him, were distant and difficult to recollect. Maeka had dim memories of a childhood spent in town not unlike Katun, a mother and a father who were seldom together, a family that had been all but extinguished in a needless war. That had been, what, fifteen, twenty years ago? The war against Thorns had changed her life and led her to embrace the fires that burned her to this day, but it seemed so distant, so meaningless.
The forest was silent. The birds were silent. The thought dashed through Maeka’s head, past the jumbled recollections, flashing clear and bright like a bolt of lightning. That’s how she knew it was evening; the birds were quiet. If it had been morning, the grey time just after dawn, the forest would have been alive with the sounds of all of the little squabbles and self-promotion that greeted every day.
Merdyn pulled on the rope that bound her wrists together, halting her on the road just before the forest.
“Well, where are they?” the senior alderman asked.
“I don’t know,” Vyrit replied, squinting towards the trees. “They should know we’re here.”
“And why do you think that?” Jenry asked.
“They’ve been watching the town and they’ve been looking for her.” Vyrit nodded towards Maeka. “They must have seen us leave Katun.”
“What a rubbish idea,” Jenry said sourly. “You don’t know who these people are or what, if anything, Maeka means to them. So now you’re hoping to sacrifice her, or something, to save your own skin.”
“To save Katun!” Vyrit snapped, wheeling about to face the apothecary. “You saw what was in the forest; you know how dangerous it is. And there’s no doubt that she’s involved with them; everything we know about her, everything that you saw, tells us that.”
“Really? You’re the one telling me that she’s a demon-worshipper, or whatever the nonsense idea is that you’re claiming is true. What I saw tells me that trying to placate this thing, this demon, is madness. We should be listening to her, not dragging her out here to be some sort of sacrifice.”
“Then why didn’t you say something back in town, oh wise and all-knowing medicine man?” Vyrit’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Because you’re a stubborn ass and I knew you wouldn’t change your mind in front of the town. I hoped I could make you see reason out here, where there was no one to embarrass yourself in front of.”
“Reason? Don’t you see that she’s one of them? That’s why they’re here, for her. All we need to do is turn over one trouble-maker and all of our problems go away. Surely you can see the reason in that. Or have you suddenly found affection for this dumb cow?”
“I don’t care for her,” Jenry admitted, “but she’s not wicked. We’re not going to save the town by handing over an innocent woman to these demon-kin.”
“Innocent,” Vyrit snorted. “That’s rich. Look: if you don’t like this, go back to the town. Merdyn and I can parlay with them.”
“Now…now…I don’t know…” Merdyn stammered. “We don’t know what these people are all about…”
“What’s to know?” Vyrit said. “They worship demons, and she’s one of them. We get rid of her, they go away. Is that clear enough for you?”
“I don’t know…”
“Oh, don’t be yellow,” Vyrit said dismissively.
As Vyrit talked to Merdyn, Jenry slowly edged his way over to Maeka, taking the rope out of Merdyn’s hands.
“If I can’t get him to give this up,” Jenry whispered, “I’m going to free you. There’s going to be a loud noise and a lot of light; when that happens, I want you to run. Do you understand?”
Maeka stood there, silent, numb.
“Do you understand?” Jenry whispered insistently.
“It doesn’t matter,” Maeka mumbled.
“Just be ready to run, back to the town.”
“We won’t make it.”
“Eh?” Vyrit looked at them. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” Jenry replied. “She’s just going on again.”
“He thirsts for souls,” Maeka said. “That’s what he does. He uses them as fuel. For his forge.”
“Is that what you do?” Vyrit demanded. “Gather fuel for demon master?”
“Yes. No. He’s not…not my master.”
“Then why do you carry his mark? You’re his slave, you treacherous bitch.”
Maeka shuddered, her skin crawling as the memory came back, the memory of the flames that had enveloped her, bonding her to monster in her skin. But that wasn’t her, not anymore. Her past had been written over, replaced by something holy and glorious, something pure. It was the light that filled her, that gave her purpose.
“No,” she said, louder this time.
“Shut up, cow.”
Vyrit raised his sword to strike her with the flat of the blade, but the motion was arrested when Merdyn cried out, pointing towards the edge of the forest. There were people there, Maeka could see, people coming out from under the trees, dressed in red, bearing weapons of iron and brass.
“Oh, hell,” Vyrit muttered. “Looks like they’re here. You two stay here and watch her; I’ll go to speak to them.”
He sheathed his sword, in order to make his approach look more like a mission of peace, and walked down the road, shouting out to the followers of the demon prince. Merdyn shifted back and forth on his feet, nervously, while Jenry stepped up close behind Maeka. One hand held on to the rope that bound her while the other worked a knife against the knots.
“He’s a fool,” Jenry said quietly, “but he’s a brave fool. I’ll give him that much.”
Vyrit wasn’t meeting with any success. He had paused about a hundred feet from the cultists, loudly announcing his intent to parlay. They were ignoring him, marching in a ragged line over the fields towards Katun, several dozen in all. Worse, an large group demons, erymanthoi for the most part, had emerged from the woods as well, loping behind the mortal cultists, their foul scent carrying on the wind. As the cultists neared Vyrit began to backpedal down the road, still calling out in Woodtongue and Riverspeak, trying to get someone, anyone, to talk with him. Frantically, he turned back to Merdyn.
“Bring her here,” Vyrit called out. “Let them see we have her.”
He was too late. The rope fell away from Maeka’s wrists as Merdyn took a hesitant step towards her, Jenry’s small knife finally doing the trick. Merdyn recoiled as Maeka raised her hands to massage the feeling back into them.
“Jenry…what…how?” The senior alderman’s face was a mask of total confusion.
“Back off, Merdyn,” Jenry said sternly. “We’re going back to Katun. You should come with us.”
“But, we have to give her to them.” Merdyn gestured lamely towards the approaching cultists.
“No, we don’t. We’re going now.”
Jenry tugged on Maeka’s arm, pulling her down the road. As he did so his free hand reached into his jacket and pulled out a curious little ceramic pot.
“Jenry!” Vyrit shouted. “Jenry! Stop it! Bring her back!”
Urging Maeka to move faster, Jenry positioned himself in front of the approaching Vyrit and the still baffled Merdyn.
“No closer,” Jenry warned.
“You bastard,” Vyrit growled, drawing his sword. “How could you?”
“No closer, Vyrit.” Jenry raised the pot.
Vyrit ignored him, stalking towards them, his eyes reflecting the glint of his sword as it caught the last rays of the day’s light. With a little sigh Jenry tossed the pot, landing it right in front of Vyrit’s feet. The pot exploded with a burst of flame and a veritable thunderclap, sending Vyrit sprawling backwards and Merdyn tumbling off the raised mound of the road. Evem Maeka felt her ears ring and her body shake, and she was several yards away.
“Run!” Jenry shouted over the ringing. Or maybe it was under the ringing. Maeka was confused.
Either way, she let Jenry pull her down the road to Katun. She felt her boots beat against the dirt more than she heard them, and sparks flashed in her eyes. Something was sticking into her chest; she wondered for a moment if she should stop before realizing that it was Jenry, trying to give her back the rhomphaia. Her legs kept on moving as her arms reached out on their own and took the weapon, slinging the harness over her shoulder. Jenry said something and looked behind them. Maeka followed his gaze to see Vyrit and Merdyn beset by the demons. They didn’t last long.
Maeka was glad she couldn’t hear their screams.
When the neared the stockade Jenry said something again and put a hand on Maeka’s arm to slow her down. Together they approached the gate, where Hulen and group of militiamen stood, scared and hesitant. Jenry started to shout at them and Maeka could decipher about half of the words as the apothecary shooed the villagers away from the gate. Some of them looked at her suspiciously, but most of them were too involved with either pushing the gate into place or watching nervously for approaching demons to give her any trouble.
Things slowly came back into focus as she stood there by the gate and the militiamen rushed to and fro. She was still alive, which she hadn’t expected, and she was armed thanks to Jenry. But fighting was still pointless; flight was the only option against Teth-ahn-Sedurh.
Her hand reached up, over her shoulder, to the hilt of the rhomphaia, the worn leather band a comforting presence, a reminder of what she could still do. There was no need to panic, like she had when she’d heard of the arrival of the demon prince. To lose the ability to think in a situation like this was fatal, so keeping a clear head was essential. It was time to think through what options she had and what she could do with them. She was physically fit, more or less, and the effects of Jenry’s firebomb were fading. She could see now, and hear, the acuity of her senses matching the acuity of her mind. Someone was talking to her.
Maeka blinked. Lyris was there next her, saying something. The gods only knew how long she had been talking, but she was becoming quite animated.
“…and thank goodness you’re alive,” Lyris gushed, her hold on Maeka’s arm tightening. “I thought you were in so much trouble but Jenry was so brave just like I knew he would be and so smart too with that firedust and I don’t even know what else and I hope Vyrit didn’t hurt you but – ohmygosh look at your poor head! There’s so much blood!” She straightened up and put a hand, gently, on Maeka’s scalp. “Does it hurt?”
“No.” Maeka twisted around, looking for Jenry, but it was too dark and there was too much action, too many people in the way.
“Of course it does,” Lyris insisted. “You’re just saying that because you’re brave. Well, don’t be brave right now. Come with me and I’ll clean the wound and maybe we can get Jenry to look it.”
“No. We’re leaving.” Maeka twisted Lyris around, grabbing her by the wrist. Jenry would have to take of himself.
“What? Don’t be silly. You’re hurt and you have to rest. Besides, we have to talk to Jenry and see what he thinks we should do. He knows all kinds of things, you know.”
Maeka frowned and began walking down the River road towards the square, pulling the Lyris behind her. She couldn’t see Jenry and there was no time to waste.
“Hey!” the whore protested. “What are you doing? Let go!”
“We’re going to the docks,” Maeka said grimly, not bothering to turn to look at Lyris. “I don’t think they’ll be on the river yet, and maybe we can get a boat. Do you know how to sail?”
“What? No. And wait up; we’re not going anywhere!”
“Yes we are. If we wait any longer we’re dead.” They were past the square now, the western gate and the docks right in front of them.
“Dead? But…but they’re not here, not yet. And there are two gates and all of the militia and everything else. We have plenty of time and you’re hurt, right? Right? Let go. Let go of me now! Ooof!”
Lyris stumbled, off balance, as Maeka released her arm.
“What are you doing?” Lyris said, propping herself up against a warehouse door.
“Hush,” Maeka said, slowly drawing her sword, scanning the darkness ahead of them. If the militiamen by the gate tried to stop her she would need to be prepared to fight her way out.
There were no lanterns at this gate, and the high walls of the warehouses cast the area into deep shadow. The sun was gone and only faint contrails of light remained in the small patches of purple sky visible through the gaps in the clouds. Maeka couldn’t clearly make out the guards as they shuffled back and forth by the stockade but she could tell there was something wrong with them. The angles were off, as if they didn’t know how to stand upright or move in a straight line, and there was something slow and bestial about their movements.
Maeka glanced over at Lyris, who was silent for a moment, crouched against the warehouse. In wall next to her was a black spike, a couple of feet long. Maeka could see now that the ‘militiamen’ on patrol had similar spikes protruding from their backs.
“Firmin,” she whispered. Demons. Not the brightest or most dangerous of foes, but too many for her to fight.
“Go back to the square,” she whispered to Lyris. “Quietly.”
“What is it?” Lyris whispered back. “We’re not leaving. I knew you wouldn’t leave.”
As they snuck away a quick glance over her shoulder told Maeka that the firmin were still skulking by the gate, so they had a little time. She flinched at an unexpected touch, but it was just Lyris grabbing her hand again. They were going to die, now that their only route of escape was cut off, so maybe it would be better to kill the whore now and save her from whatever torments might await her? Maeka mulled it over, slowly shifting her sword around.
There was a sudden flash of light from over by the east gate, where Jenry was, drawing all eyes to it by the instant illumination of the glowing dark. At first Maeka thought the apothecary had ignited another one of his firebombs, but the strange light and the screams coming from the gate soon told her otherwise. One of the cultists was using sorcery, then, or possibly a demon was the sorcerer, maybe even Teth-ahn-Sedurh himself. The demons would follow up soon, passing through the stockade in their immaterial forms before descending on the townsfolk and slaughtering them wholesale. They were running out of time.
“Lyris, look at me,” Maeka said, an idea occurring to her. “You have a temple here, in town?” She stepped to the side for a second, snapping a few branches off a nearby bush and scooping some water from a public trough into her empty canteen.
“What?” Lyris didn’t look away from the scene at the far gate, at the carnage that was about to come.
“A temple,” Maeka said urgently, tucking the branches into her harness and pulling Lyris close. “Where is it?”
“Down…down the street.” Lyris pointed feebly across the square, to the Forest road. “There, just past the meeting hall.”
The two women ran across the square, past those few people who weren’t by the stockade or hiding in their homes. Lyris had stopped resisting Maeka’s orders, for which she was thankful: it gave her time to think. The fog of fear that had enveloped her earlier was completely gone, the situation was clear, and a plan had presented itself. It was desperate, it was dangerous, but it wasn’t entirely hopeless. They could certainly make a fight out of it and, at the very least, Maeka would be able to take a few of the Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s slaves with her.
The temple was empty and dark when they got there, its oaken door closed but not locked. It squeaked slightly on its hinges as it opened and Maeka urged Lyris to follow her between the sandstone columns, into the portico. In the cella, the main room of the temple, a few rods of incense were burning, providing dim light. Maeka grabbed the nearest rods and knocked the hot ends off. Then she started to mash them up on the smooth stone floor, mixing in the leaves from the bush and a handful of dirt she had scraped up outside, softening the whole mixture with the water from the canteen.
“Get away from the door,” Maeka called out, softly, to Lyris. “Close it and come over here.”
With a last, nervous glance, Lyris pushed the door shut against its protesting hinges. “What are you doing? Why aren’t we helping them?”
“We’re going to ward the temple against the demons,” Maeka explained “I need you to go to the far wall and make this symbol on every second stone.” She demonstrated on one of the nearby stones, using the mashed-up paste to draw a few straight lines connected by oblique curves. “Do you understand?”
“Yes. But, we should be helping people, shouldn’t we? I mean, what about Jenry? What about everyone else?” The concern was evident on her face, even in the near dark.
“We need to make sure we’re safe first,” Maeka said. “Then we can help the others.”
Lyris seemed to accept that and, taking a handful of the paste, began to draw the symbol around the periphery of the temple. Maeka followed her, half her mind on the formula that she muttered over every symbol to empower it, the other half on the door and what lay on the other side. The temple should be easy to ward, much easier than a normal building, due to the blessings and consecrations of the local spirits, and it Maeka knew she could make the ward strong enough to prevent casual intrusion by the demons. If their mortal masters ordered them to enter the ward wouldn’t help, but she was gambling on the fact that Teth-ahn-Sedurh hated and feared the Unconquered Sun. Hopefully the gods presence would repel the demon prince, which was thin reed to lay her survival on, but it was all that she had.
“That’s good,” Maeka said to Lyris when the final symbol was laid. “Help me move that.” She gestured into the naos, at the bronze disk with the Sun’s symbol on it.
They gently took the disk off the wall and, as quietly as they could, rolled it over to the door. A quick glance outside revealed a scene of pure chaos, of homes burning and people screaming, of demons howling and blood running in the streets. With a grunt Maeka hung the disk on doorknob and then awkwardly swung the door shut as far as it would go. As wards went it was a feeble thing but, again, her options were limited.
“What now?” Lyris asked, trying to peer around Maeka to look outside, while Maeka tried to position herself to block Lyris’s view.
“Take this.” Maeka pulled out her long dagger and placed it in Lyris’s hands. “Go to the back of the temple and wait there. If anything comes in through the window, if you see anything at all, shout.”
Lyris looked wide-eyed at the dagger. “How do I use it?”
“Hold it in two hands and stab, with the point up. Aim for the belly.”
“But aren’t we…can’t we…” Lyris looked at the door, jammed open just a crack by the disk.
“No.” Maeka shook her head. “I’ll do what I can. You need to go to the back. I’ll be here.”
Lyris hesitated. She turned away but just as quickly turned back, leaning into Maeka and embracing her. “Be okay,” she said, her voice muffled. “Just say you’ll be okay.”
Maeka coughed, embarrassed, trying to keep her sword away from Lyris and disentangle herself from the girl at the same time. “I’ll be fine. Now, go to the back of the temple.”
“I just want you to be safe, that’s all.”
“We’re not going to make it,” Lyris sighed. “You were right all along. I should have run away with you this morning.”
“Right. Well, um, thank you for rescuing me.”
“That was all Jenry’s doing. He did it on his own; I didn’t even need to encourage him like I thought I would. He’s a great guy.” Lyris looked up, her face streaked with tears. “We should try to help him, find him. We can’t leave him out there!”
Maeka shook her head. “No, it’s all we can do to look after ourselves. Now, go to the back of the temple and wait. I’ll keep watch here.”
“Okay,” Lyris sniffled. “Just be safe.”
The girl let go and slipped back into the darkness, away from the flickering light of the fires that traced an unsteady path through the door. Maeka took up a position to the side of the door so that she would be behind it when it opened, to make it easier to surprise anyone who entered. The position also meant that she couldn’t look out on the murder of Katun, at all of the deaths she was responsible for, even if she could hear the screams of pain and rage that echoed down the two pathetic streets. Innocent lives taken because of her greed, her cowardice, her thirst for power, but she couldn’t do anything about it. She had assured their deaths when she had accepted the mark of the demon prince and opened the path for him, showing him the way into Creation. She was a wicked, wicked thing, no better than the erymanthoi rampaging outside and just as deserving of a swift, painful death.
No! Her temples throbbed and her ears rang, blocking out the sounds of slaughter. She was a glorious weapon, an instrument of righteousness, a weapon against the darkness. With her sword she would redeem this world and cast the wicked things back into their prisons. She had erred, once, she had sinned, but she had been shown the path to the light. The taint of evil had been scoured from her, body and soul, by her illuminated master, and she had been reforged. She was a servant of the Sun Himself, a lover of virtue, full and upright in His eyes, acting at the behest of the most holy of His Chosen. By giving herself wholly, completely to the righteous cause she had cast aside the sins of her old life and been born anew.
Her hands hurt. She was gripping the hilt of the rhomphaia so tightly that her knuckles were white and her palms hurt from the imprint of the leather binding. Breathing deeply, she loosened her grasp, suppressing the impulses inside her for a little while longer. She needed to calm down, she needed to be focused and alert. Someone was coming.
There were voices at the door, the sharp sound of Riverspeak. Maeka held her breath as the emblem of the sun clattered and the door squeaked open, slowly. The cultists were entering, boots and blades bloody, but although their swords were unsheathed their manner was relaxed, casual. They weren’t expecting trouble in the temple; they were just looking for something to loot. Maeka closed her eyes for a moment as she cleansed her mind of thought, tapping into the complex weaves of essence that made up the core of her being, that made up the core of everything. She was one with everything, one with Creation, a light against the darkness. Not a candle held in her master’s hand but a light that glowed with its own power, a soul that paced its own path. The light was armor, and a weapon. A shield, and a purpose. With nothing more than a supreme exercise of will it was done; her essence was free and she was ready.
Maeka counted silently behind the open door – one, two, three, four. A bad number, even worse than three, but she had all of the advantages she would need. Two of them had stopped in the portico, in front of the carved pillars, the third was walking to other side of the temple, away from Maeka, while the fourth was still in the doorway. None of them could see very well, their eyes still adjusting from the lights of the fires to the dim darkness of the temple.
With a grunt Maeka kicked the door as hard as she could. It slammed into the cultist, sending him sprawling, then a second kick smashed him between the door and the post, breaking ribs with an audible crack. The motion prompted the other cultists to turn around, but Maeka was faster and she delivered a two-handed swing before they were ready. She was stronger than them! Die!
The blade was stuck in the second one’s skull. Idiot! She’d swung too hard! With a shriek she wrenched the rhomphaia free, taking most of the head with it and laying a clumsy blow into the third one. It was sloppy, but it was enough to force him back. Recover? No, attack! Kick, smash, headbutt! He’s falling; out of the fight? No, just stunned. Where’s the fourth?
To the right, near the door, ready to fight. Maeka sliced at his ribs – parried. Push in, resisted. Go with it, run the rhomphaia up the his blade, up to the hilt. Wind and bind and push. Push! She was stronger, damn it! Stonger!
He cried out as the sword was torn away and he tried to escape. Don’t let him. Swing to the collarbone, it snaps, blood everywhere. Draw cut, out and away. A second swing finishes him. Back to the third one, still on the ground? No, he’s up, but unsteady. Kill! More yelling, but he can’t stop her. His hand’s cut at the wrist, almost severed. A cut to his belly, but that’s a bad blow, not fatal. The throat! Yes! More blood. He’s done.
Maeka whipped around at the sound of the opening door. The first one was escaping, out into the street, calling for help, and the shouts of his fellow cultists and the grunts of the demons responded. How much time did she have? Not much.
A firmin was already at the door, sniffing and growling, reluctant to enter. Lunging out of the dark the rhomphaia glowed with sudden power, catching the demon under the chin and sending it hurling back with a sharp crack. It tumbled down the short stairwell, almost knocking down the blood ape that was the next to attack. Outside the black of night was filled with the glow of fires, as the meager wealth of Katun burned in devotion to a fallen god. There were people out here, in the streets, some of them dead, murdered by the demons, but more of them bound a beaten, fuel gathered for the forge of Teth-ahn-Sedurh, innocent victims to be sacrificed. Maeka ignored them; her only concern was her enemies, the demons gathering around the temple, the blood ape attacking her. She stepped into the doorway to meet it, parrying its first blow, twisting the crude club to the side.
Duck! The demon’s fist smashed into the doorway, sending out a spray of sandstone. Again! Again! It’s closing in, negating the length of the rhomphaia. The foul, rancid breath. Hit! It’s too weak, no damage. The light is a shield, a purpose. Step back, draw it on, swing! Swing! Kill!
The light exploded from the demon. It howled, a sound echoed by the other demons by the temple as the fire coursed from one to another. The light is a weapon! Maeka cut it again and again and it tumbled down the steps. There’s the wounded Firmin, finish it, then back up the steps.
The voice was horrible, a grind and scream and a chorus and an orchestra. It could not be denied.
“What dost thou doest?”
Maeka’s head turned, against her will, to look on Teth-ahn-Sedurh, in the still burning cadaver of a house across the street. The demon prince’s iron armor wept rust, and the steam from the molten brass seeped between the plates. The face – the awful, handsome, perfect face – smiled.
“I know thee, do I not?”
She was frozen, on the bottom step. Half a dozen more would take her to the temple, to a better battleground, but she couldn’t. He wouldn’t allow it.
“Thou art my priestess, yes?” Teth-ahn-Sedurh moved closer, and she could feel the heat now, radiating from the forge that was his soul.
“N-n-no,” Maeka stammered. She had to fight, run, something. Anything!
“Yes. It was by thine beckoning that I was called forth, Aikiri Maeka. And for that, I thank thee.” The mocking smile made her weep in agony. “Of course, such things are, by their nature, transitory, and thine summoning faded. No small labor by thine fellows was needed to call me forth again, but it was labor well done, was it not?”
“A fine thing, one that I shall further reinforce with the vital energies of these mortal playthings. A fine thing. Yet thou were not there for my arrival, and I have not heard thine prayers for some time now. Tell me, hast thou turned against me?”
A step, just one step. Do it! Maeka backed up the stairs, away from the demon prince.
“I am told thou hadst. That thou hadst fallen in with mine enemies and turned against me.” Teth-ahn-Sedurh sighed, the gasp of the bellows. “For that, you shall be chastised most severely.”
Another half step away.
“Unless,” he said with sickening empathy, “thou wouldst rather surrender? Admit thine wrongdoing, plead for my forgiveness, and I shall take thee back into my good graces. It is a fair thing that I offer you, is it not?”
“I won’t,” Maeka whispered.
“But thou must.”
“I won’t. Not again. You can’t make me.” The light was a shield and a purpose.
“I will not require thee to do anything. All things done shall be of thine own choosing, as they always have.” Even though he was at the bottom of the stairs his face was level with hers, and his massive feet scorched a marking into the squealing stone.
“You can…” The light was armor and a weapon. The light was…oh, what did it matter? She was going to die anyway.
Kill! The blow was aimed at Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s head, right at that smile made of molten brass. The rhomphaia cut a trail of fire through the air, but the demon’s sword swung out in a lazy arc to block it and it shattered. Maeka’s hands went numb with pain as the white-hot fragments of her weapon ricocheted off the steps, broken by the demon’s mastery, the useless hilt tumbling from her fingers as the force of the parry knocked her off her feet. She fell back, but she didn’t fall. Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s gauntlet shot out, grabbing both of her forearms, and he lifted her up into the air. The pressure was unbearable, and Maeka could feel her bones shatter and her flesh burn.
“I had forgotten thee, Aikiri Maeka,” the demon hissed. “I made no mark of thine transgressions, carried no ire against thee. But I am happy that chance brought me here, that I may punish thine arrogance.”
His words resonated inside of her with terrible finality, a symphony of malice. There was another sound, too, an awful, soul-wrenching scream of agony, that Maeka could hear over the burning of the village, over the depredations of the demons, even over Teth-ahn-Sedurh. Some small, distant corner of her mind recognized that the scream was hers.
“If thou hast forsaken my patronage to be with the treacherous gods, then go! See what succor they have to offer, dog!”
He tightened his grip, grinding her hands into a pulp, mashing her arms into mangled nothingness. The fire spread from his hands and coursed down her body, suffusing it with agony, making muscles spasm and joints protest. Then, with a contemptuous snort, the demon prince flung her into the door of the temple, splintering the wood and smashing the disk of sun, before she finally collided with the columns of the portico and tumbled to the ground.
It was dark inside, with only a little light from burning Katun. She couldn’t move, but she was moving. She was so cold, so warm, and she was moving, back into the temple, away from the fire. The only thing she could feel was her heartbeat, a faint, halting thrum that made her body shriek in time, even as it grew weaker and faded away. Everything was dark around her, but it was getting lighter, a golden glow that spread everywhere.
Outside, the sun was rising, and the birds were singing.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey