Maiden of Pain, page 16
Mulkammu was seething, and Kestus was sure the werecrocodile would hit him, or worse.
“My lord, please.” Kohtakah stepped between them, his back to Kestus. He steered Mulkammu out of the vault, where the two spoke in hushed voices. After a few moments of heated discussion, Mulkammu approached, Kohtakah in tow.
“It seems my Royal Sorcerer has spent too much time amongst you,” Mulkammu sneered with disgust “He feels some sort of loyalty toward you and has prevailed upon me to consider an … alternate form of persuasion.
“If you succeed in discovering the secrets of our artifacts, I will let each of you choose one of them, though I can veto any choice. Would that be satisfactory?”
Kestus could tell it was struggle for Mulkammu to speak those words. “Those terms are agreeable.” In fact, the situation was more than Kestus could hope for.
“I’ll leave you to get started, then. Kohtakah will aid you. Someone will come down to check on your progress every few hours. Should you fail, however, know that I will kill you and eat you myself.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a raid to plan. Good night.” With a flourish of his cape, Mulkammu spun around and strode back up the stairs, leaving the three alone.
“How do we get out of this?” Muctos finally asked after moments of stunned silence.
“We do what he says,” Kestus replied. He moved around the table to stand in front of the black orb.
“What? You said it yourself. We don’t have any means of researching, by magic or tome. Our spells are exhausted, and without spellbooks, we’re not going to get very far.”
“I may be able to help with that,” Kohtakah said.
The two mages looked at their former brother. Kestus had almost forgotten about him.
“Why should we trust you?”
“You have no reason. But know this, if you fail, if we fail, Mulkammu will kill me as well.”
Kestus let the revelation hang in the air. The hurt of Kohtakah’s betrayal ran deep, and he was not ready to let go of it so quickly. He would be a fool, however, to refuse any aid.
“How can you help?” he asked finally.
“I have some old tomes, passed down by my predecessors. Their knowledge of the Art is written within those pages. There are many spells recorded in them, some of which may be of use to us. Unfortunately, because of the innate nature of my abilities, I have not been able to learn all of them. I imagine the same would not hold true for you.”
“Where are these books?” Kestus could not keep the excitement from his voice.
“They are in my quarters. I will go fetch them.” Kohtakah turned to leave but paused. He must have seen the look of doubt on Kestus’s face because he said, “Trust me, Brother Hawk. I will return.” Kestus nodded, and Kohtakah bounded up the stairs then disappeared.
Ythnel sat in the hovel she had been escorted to by the wererats after her meal with Torgyn, their leader. Night had fallen, the half-moon obscured by building clouds, but Ythnel could still see the silhouette of her “escort” through the gaps in the walls. For all the smiles and reassurances Torgyn offered, Ythnel knew she was more prisoner than guest in the wererats’ camp.
She performed her evening prayers with a leather strap acquired from her guard, finding comfort in the familiar chants and the slaps on her skin. It was the only stability she had left, a last link to her former life now buried by the chaos of these past few days. The memories of the events that had swallowed her up since arriving in Luthcheq tried to break through her mediation and shatter the peace she had surrounded herself with, but her focus was too great, her connection with her goddess too strong, and they were forced back to the shadowy corners of her mind.
When her prayers were finished, Ythnel rocked back on her heels and brushed the mud off her knees. She stood and stretched, her cramped and aching muscles protesting the activity with painful reminders that they were still quite sore and bruised. Restless, Ythnel paced the small interior but had to stop as the constant turning threatened to dizzy her. She leaned against the one corner of the hovel’s walls that wasn’t missing any bricks and stared out into the darkening night.
The memories crowded their way to the front of her mind.
Ythnel let them come but on her terms, channeling them like the waters of a rushing river, controlling the speed and direction by which they traveled as she sifted through them. She held no anger toward Prisus or Iuna, and she felt no guilt over what had happened to them. Nor did she wallow in self-pity as she remembered the betrayal and abuse she had suffered. She had gone through those fires and come out tempered steel, a finely honed weapon. Those images, those experiences, now served to strengthen her resolve. It was time to wield her sharpened edges in retribution.
Perhaps that was why she had really been sent to Luthcheq. Ythnel recalled the dream she had just the other night in the swamp. If nothing else, she knew it was a portent of revenge against the Karanoks. There was more to it, though, but what that was, was unclear to Ythnel.
She continued to muse over the idea of paying back the Karanoks for all that had been done to her. However, she kept coming back to the reasons she had come to Luthcheq. If she were meant to take down the ruling family, why have her placed as a governess to a middle-class merchant? Why not have her inserted into the palace or some other noble house? Why not have her make contact immediately with the Mage Society? The only reason that made any sense was because she was meant to meet Prisus Saelis.
Or she was meant to meet Iuna.
Ythnel nearly gasped as the thought occurred to her. Why hadn’t she made the connection before? Even though it had been Yenael standing next to Naeros in her dream, handing her the scourge, it had been Iuna’s voice that asked her to show her. It had been Iuna who she was originally sent to teach. Iuna was the young girl who had lost her mother—a mother who had once been a Loviatan.
The impact of the revelation jolted Ythnel and threatened to overwhelm her. She was meant not just to help raise Iuna, but to bring the girl into the faith. She had been put in the perfect position to do so but had failed. The fact that Iuna was ultimately the source of all the troubles Ythnel now found herself in did little to console her. After all, she was an adult and a handmaiden. She should have had more control of the situation.
Ythnel nearly fell to her knees to beg for forgiveness, but she realized that was not what Loviatar wanted, nor was it what she expected. No, what was needed was for Ythnel to figure out some way to fix what had happened, to find Iuna again and fulfill the purpose for which she had been sent.
That meant her first order of business was to get away from the wererats. Ythnel peered outside again. The wind was picking up, and the stars and moon were almost completely hidden by a roiling blackness that Ythnel guessed were storm clouds. Movement in the shadows across from her hut revealed the location of her keeper. She wasn’t sure if wererats could see in the dark better than normal humans, but that really didn’t matter. She had another plan for escaping.
Kneeling down in the mud, Ythnel began to inscribe the symbol of her faith, drawing a scourge in the wet, earthen floor. The prayer she was going to incant required the use of a focus in order to call the Power she needed from Loviatar. Ythnel moved her hands over the symbol in time with the chant. The air above the symbol shimmered, and Ythnel could feel the Power flowing into her. She closed her eyes in concentration and directed the divine energy into the space between her hands, shaping it with her will until it conformed to the purpose for which she had summoned it. When Ythnel opened her eyes, a ghostly scourge hovered in the air before her.
She stood and moved to the doorway of the hut. She stuck her head out and called to the wererat that was assigned to guard her. However, the wind had picked up enough that Ythnel’s words were carried away. She raised her voice and tried again. The wererat must have heard her this time because Ythnel saw a form detach itself from the shadows and approach. She tensed, prepared to send her spirit
When the wererat was only twenty feet away, a sinister hiss issued from the darkness nearby, and both Ythnel and the wererat turned their heads together in an effort find the source of the sound. The action was unnecessary. A twenty-foot-long mass of scales, claws, and teeth hurtled out of the night, tackling the wererat and carrying the pair of combatants back into the night with its momentum. Ythnel heard the rustling of their struggle and cries of pain. Then she realized she could hear similar cries echoing through the night, punctuated by the howls of the rising wind.
Thick drops of rain splattering against her face freed Ythnel from her shock at the unexpectedness and speed of the attack. Her first instinct was to take advantage of the situation and run off into the night, but she quickly realized that would not be the best solution. Where would she go? She had no idea where she was or where to go. Left to her own devices, it was more than likely she would just wander in circles or stumble into yet another hazard. She needed a guide.
She needed Kestus.
It was the obvious answer. Not only could he help her get out of the swamp, but he would also surely return with her to Luthcheq. He had his own reasons for wanting revenge on the Karanoks. She just hoped he was still alive.
No, she knew he was still alive. Brother Crocodile had indicated that the werecrocodiles needed the wizards. It was just a matter of finding them and freeing them.
Torgyn had said the werecrocodiles inhabited the north side of the island. Unfortunately, Ythnel had no idea which way north was.
There was movement in the shadows at the edge of Ythnel’s vision, and she realized she could no longer afford to stand in one place. She slinked out of the hut and was bathed in a pale blue light. Startled, she turned to see the spirit scourge hovering behind her. As much as the illumination helped her to see, it was also a beacon pinpointing her location for anyone interested. With a thought, she dismissed the weapon and was swallowed by the darkness.
While her eyes adjusted, Ythnel considered her options. It took less time to list her choices than her eyes needed to get accustomed to the darkness. She needed to leave the wererats and make her way to the werecrocodiles’ side of the island. The only way to do that was to follow somebody, and as there were werecrocodiles close by, they would be the likely candidates. However, that meant finding one of the many pockets of fighting without getting caught. She hoped the werecrocodiles would eventually break off the attack to return home, and she could trail behind far enough that they wouldn’t detect her but close enough that she wouldn’t lose sight of them.
Ythnel nearly laughed at the ludicrous idea. It was an impossible task. She was no thief who could creep stealthily about the shadows, avoiding notice. There had to be another way. She decided to wait it out. This was likely one of the many raids Torgyn talked about. Ythnel wasn’t surprised the werecrocodiles performed them as well. Perhaps with her missing, the wererats might think she was taken by the werecrocodiles. Torgyn would probably order a counterattack, desperate to get her back, and when the camp emptied out, she could leave. It would then be a simple matter to make her way to the shore of the island and work her way around until she came to the area controlled by the werecrocodiles.
She crept into another ruin only a few buildings away from her original holding place and crouched down. The sounds of fighting still rang out in the night, but with the rain and wind, it was impossible to tell how close they were or from which direction they came. Eventually, though, the frequency of the clashes Ythnel heard lessened. Then they ceased all together.
Voices and lights approached moments later. Ythnel pressed herself against the wall and tried to breathe as quietly as possible. Her heart was pounding in her chest, throat, and ears. One of the voices she was able to identify easily.
“Do we know for certain that they took her?” Torgyn demanded.
“We found Saumbeth a few yards away. He was killed by a werecrocodile. I think it’s pretty obvious they were after her.”
“I don’t care what you think,” Torgyn snarled. “For all we know, she could have slipped away while they fought.”
“I guess that’s possible,” the other voice offered meekly, “but there’s no way to know for sure. The rain has obliterated any tracks.” There was a stretch of uncomfortable silence. Ythnel was afraid that they had started searching the surrounding buildings for her, but the quiet was broken finally by Torgyn swearing.
“I suppose there is no choice but to go after the werecrocodiles. We can’t chance that they have taken her. Gather everyone together. We will get our wizard back, or we will kill her before the werecrocodiles can make use of her!”
Several cheers rose in response; then Ythnel heard several pairs of feet sloshing off in the mud, and the lights faded away. She waited several more minutes and was rewarded by another great shout that erupted somewhere off in the night, signaling the departure of the wererat forces. After a few more minutes, Ythnel eased herself from her hiding place. She stood in the crumbling doorway of the building and strained her senses, but it was impossible separate anything from the gusting winds and heavy downpour that filled the night.
In that instant of realization, Ythnel changed her mind. There was no chance she could hope to find her way in these conditions. It could take her several hours of wandering before she found the shoreline, and she still would have to guess which direction to follow. The wererat attack that she hoped to use as a diversion would likely be over long before she could reach the ruins inhabited by the werecrocodiles, let alone find the mages.
She decided she would follow the wererats instead.
Ythnel headed in the direction she thought she heard the last shouts from the wererats. She dashed from building to building, relying on the weather to hide her sufficiently from any eyes that might still be watching. When she could finally see the bobbing torches carried by the wererats, she slowed, careful to keep well back from any rearguard.
Between the hypnotic dance of the distant torchlight weaving through the unending ruins that covered the island, lack of sleep, and the cold rain that had soaked Ythnel to the bone, the trek became mind-numbing. She was moving without thinking, mentally asleep. So it was that Ythnel continued for several steps before she noticed that the points of light ahead of her were quickly winking out one by one. She froze as the last one vanished, plunging the area back into total darkness. Her first thought was that they had spotted her. Panic washed over her as she imagined the wererats circling around in the pitch black to surround her. She didn’t dare move, afraid the slightest sound would give her location away.
Then the clash of arms sounded somewhere ahead, followed by cries of alarm, and Ythnel realized that she hadn’t been discovered. The wererats had put out their lights because they were close to the werecrocodiles’ settlement and hadn’t wanted to give themselves away to any sentries that might be posted. Ythnel let go of the breath she had not noticed she was holding. She could follow the sounds of battle easily enough now to find her way. The hard part would be finding the mages and getting back out.
Iuna’s brisk pace slowed considerably as she neared the door. She stood before the plain, brass-banded wood door and hesitated. Mistress Kaestra would be angry if she were late, but she desperately wanted to be anywhere besides here. Last night was still fresh in her mind, aided by the bruises and welts she still felt, which had been given to her by Mistress Kaestra for her disobedience. Iuna shivered before reaching up to knock on the door.
“Come in,” the stern voice she’d already begun to fear called from the other side. Iuna opened the door, entered timidly, and gave a curtsy.
“Where are your manners, child? Close the door.”
Iuna jumped and turned back to the door, closing it. Tonight was already starting off badly.
“Come over here.” Mistress Kaestra sat at her desk, scribing something. She wore a sleeveless gown of simple white, with a small black circle over her lef
“I’m finished with my meal. You may remove the dishes.” Mistress Kaestra indicated a platter set on a nearby chair. Iuna could see a half-eaten serving of meat and vegetables covering the thick, ceramic plate that rested there. “When you’re done with that,” Mistress Kaestra continued, “you can start moving the piles of finished parchment back to the library, and bring me some more blank pages.
“And need I remind you,” she added as Iuna started to walk away, “to be very careful? These writings are to become the tenets of our faith. I was chosen by Entropy to pen them. It is the reason she has blessed me with the powers I have: a testimony to the validity of the words I record.” Iuna nodded solemnly, noting the strange gleam that flashed in Mistress Kaestra’s eyes as she spoke.
Mistress Kaestra went back to her writing, seemingly dismissing Iuna from her thoughts as though she were no longer there. Iuna approached the chair with the platter and bent over to grasp it. Made of wrought silver with delicately inscribed lines that called to mind blooming flowers, it reminded Iuna of the tableware Libia used to carry from the kitchen to the dining room back home.
Distracted by memories, Iuna paid little heed to where she was stepping, and her foot caught on the base of one of the stacks of books as she turned. Iuna hopped forward, trying to regain her balance, but she was unable to compensate for the additional weight of the platter and fell forward. When she crashed to the ground, the dishes went flying off the silver tray with a clatter. The ceramic plate flipped end over end, spraying the remnants of food it held across a pile of freshly inked parchment.
“You clumsy imbecile!” Mistress Kaestra shrieked. She stood up behind her desk, bristling, her face a mask of unrestrained rage.