Maiden of pain, p.24

Maiden of Pain, page 24

 

Maiden of Pain
 


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  “So, Mistress, what is it you need of me, if I might ask?”

  Ythnel started, not realizing she had paused while her mind wandered. The question was one she had been avoiding. She knew what she needed, but wasn’t sure that the clerical robe alone would be enough to come straight out and ask without raising suspicion. However, she hadn’t come up with another way.

  “Preparations need to be made to move the witchweed. The stockpiles at the palace and Lord Naeros’s tower have been sabotaged, so extra measures are being taken to protect what remains.”

  Iuna let a frown wrinkle her brow for a moment, but it vanished when she saw Ythnel looking at her. “Wouldn’t that be a task better suited for one of the men, or at least someone bigger than—?”

  “Are you questioning me?” Ythnel snapped, though she smiled inside at Iuna’s moment of resistance. The girl had not been broken after all. “Consider this penance for your earlier rudeness. Do not make me add to it.”

  “Yes, Mistress,” Iuna said meekly. She stood there, and Ythnel realized she was waiting to follow her.

  “Well, get moving. We don’t have all night.”

  Iuna jumped and nearly sprinted down the hall away from the entrance to the nave. Surprised at the girl’s fleet-footedness, Ythnel took a moment to follow. When she caught up, Iuna stood before another door. Ythnel unlocked it with the same key from her key ring and pulled it open to reveal a spiral staircase leading down. She motioned for Iuna to go first. The girl grabbed one of the small, lit lanterns that hung in the hall and descended, Ythnel following a few steps behind. At the bottom, a cavernous room spread out before them, easily one hundred feet long and half that length across. Crates, barrels, and sacks were stacked neatly, almost to the ceiling in some cases, divided into areas by the category of goods they contained. There were various dried goods, foodstuffs, drinks, and temple sundries. Iuna wound through the maze without hesitation, and Ythnel did her best to keep up. She was struck with déjà vu as she recalled the day in the marketplace when Iuna had plowed through the crowd on the way to the dressmaker, Ythnel fighting to stay within sight.

  Rounding a corner, Ythnel nearly knocked over Iuna, who had stopped before several pallets of burlap sacks stacked against the wall. She didn’t need to ask what was inside.

  “Go fetch some lantern oil,” she commanded. Iuna ran off, the light she carried bobbing in and out of view, marking her progress. In minutes, she was back with a couple of flasks in her hand.

  “What do you need these for? There’s plenty of—”

  “Quiet! It is not your place to ask what I need. Now stand back.” Ythnel took the two flasks, removed the stopper and dumped their contents over the front of the pallets; the dry burlap quickly absorbed the liquid. “Now give me the lantern.” She held her hand out expectantly. Iuna hesitated, but Ythnel put her fist on her hip, and the young girl reluctantly produced the lantern. Ythnel smashed the glass encasing the flame on the corner of a nearby crate then held the naked fire to the soaked burlap. It caught quickly, the blaze leaping across the stacks, hungrily devouring the oil and dry materials. Ythnel stepped back and smiled.

  Iuna screamed.

  Ythnel grabbed the girl before she could dart away and clamped a hand over her mouth. Iuna struggled, but Ythnel had her tightly. Tears were forming in her eyes, which were wide and panicked, the pupils fully dilated.

  “It’s all right,” Ythnel tried to soothe, but the girl shook her head frantically. “I can explain everything. If I remove my hand, do you promise not to scream?”

  Iuna looked at her for a moment then slowly nodded. Ythnel withdrew her hand, but held it ready to slap back in place if necessary.

  “Mistress Kaestra will kill me if she finds out about this,” Iuna whimpered.

  “No, she won’t. She won’t be doing anything to you anymore because you’re leaving this place. You’re coming with me.”

  Iuna looked straight at Ythnel, her brow furrowed in obvious puzzlement as she tried to make out the face in the shadow of the cowl. With a deep breath, Ythnel removed the hood, bathing her face in the light of the growing fire. She searched Iuna’s eyes for some sign of recognition. Would the girl remember her? Would she fear her? Or would the hate return? Would she blame Ythnel for all that had happened and betray her once more to the Karanoks?

  “Ythnel?” The question was one of many contained within Iuna’s hopeful face. Ythnel nodded. Iuna jumped toward Ythnel, wrapping her arms around the Loviatan’s neck in a hug any mother would envy. Then the girl broke down sobbing, clinging to Ythnel’s neck. Ythnel embraced her back and lifted her up. It was time for them to leave.

  Ythnel hurried back the way they had come. The fire now covered the entire stock of witchweed and threatened to leap onto the surrounding piles of stored goods. It provided more than enough light for Ythnel to maneuver through the room, and she soon reached the edge of the stacks.

  Before she could cross to the stairway, however, a pair of clerics appeared at the foot of the steps. They stopped whatever conversation they had been involved in to take in Ythnel, Iuna, and the roaring blaze.

  “What is going on here?” One of them demanded. Ythnel didn’t bother to answer. She pulled her medallion out from under her breastplate and channeled divine energy, directing it at the clerics with a shouted command. The two threw up their arms in a startled effort to protect themselves, but Ythnel’s target had not really been them. The base of the stairs was suddenly engulfed in impenetrable shadow, extending out far enough to catch Ythnel at its edge. She retreated a few steps and was once again able to see. The clerics inside cried out to each other, lost and sightless within the darkness.

  Ythnel backtracked to the middle of the storeroom. Even as far away from the blaze as they were, she could still feel the heat from the fire. She set Iuna down, and looked around frantically.

  “Is there another way out of here, Iuna?” She barely got the question out before a fit of coughing took her. Smoke was starting to fill the room, making breathing difficult. She tore a large chunk of fabric from the hem of her robe, ripped that in half, and gave part to Iuna. “Hold this over your mouth and nose,” she said, showing the girl what she meant by doing so with her own piece.

  Iuna covered her face with the cloth then tugged at Ythnel’s sleeve, pulling her farther into the storeroom. Ythnel walked in a crouch, trying to keep her head below the rising smoke. They reached the far side of the room, and Iuna pointed to another stairwell. Ythnel gave Iuna a shove forward, and they both charged up the steps. The door at the top was locked, but Ythnel was able to open it with her keys. Once they were out, Ythnel slammed the door shut. They lowered themselves to the floor, gasping for breath. Ythnel let them sit there for a few moments before picking herself up. She shed the smoke-stained, torn robe in favor of the guard’s armor underneath and picked up the spear she had leaned against the wall.

  “Come on. We’re not out of here yet.” They raced back down the service hall, Ythnel in the lead this time. A door in the wall that was shared with the nave opened as they rounded the corner, and Kaestra Karanok stepped out. Ythnel saw her, but had no time to stop. They both went down in a tangle of limbs.

  Kaestra was the first to recover, disengaging herself from the jumble and getting unsteadily to her feet. Ythnel looked up from where she sat on the floor to see the high priestess staring down at her, her mouth agape.

  “You! I don’t know how you survived Adder Swamp, but it was foolish to come back here. What did you hope to accomplish?” Kaestra finally noticed Iuna, and her eyes narrowed. “Did you come for the child? How pathetic. She’s certainly not worth throwing your life away. And be assured, I will see you dead this time.” Kaestra started an incantation, her fingers weaving patterns in the air. Ythnel struggled to get up, to throw herself at Kaestra in an attempt to disrupt the casting, but her limbs suddenly began to stiffen. She instantly recognized the enchantment and fought against its compulsion with all her will. Slowly, she lifted her
self off her knees and straightened. Kaestra’s eyes widened in horror as Ythnel threw off the effects of the spell with a sinister grin. She took one step toward Kaestra, and the Entropist turned and fled back into the nave.

  Ythnel gave chase, shouting for Iuna to follow. She could not afford to let Kaestra get away. It appeared, however, that escape had not really been the priestess’s intention. Kaestra stood on the far side of the dais, next to the sphere of Entropy.

  “Did you think me so easily defeated? That was but one of the minor powers Entropy has bestowed upon me. Now you shall see the real power at my command.” Kaestra began to chant once more. She was too far away to reach in time by running, and Ythnel did not want to throw away the only weapon she had, so she readied herself for whatever was coming. Then she remembered Iuna.

  “Run, child,” she ordered. “I will meet you outside when this is over. Now run.” From the corner of her eye, Ythnel saw Iuna sprint down the nave and disappear through the arches.

  Kaestra completed the incantation and waited expectantly. Ythnel glanced around, wondering if she was about to be struck by a blast of divine fire or suddenly transported to some nether plane, but nothing happened. Had Kaestra somehow failed to properly execute the necessary ritual? The triumphant look on her face said no. Ythnel took a hesitant step forward then another and another until she was at the base of the dais directly below the sphere.

  A dull white, scaled claw emerged from the sphere, followed by a similarly colored, clawed foot. A bony, devilish face appeared next. The top of the skull was divided into three ridges, with a pair of pointy ears on the sides that lay flat and angled toward the back of the head. Its large, slanted eyes were without pupils and glowed red. A flat nose extended forward to merge with a slight muzzle that snapped open and shut to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth.

  “Behold your death, Loviatan,” Kaestra cackled. The summoned devil stepped fully from the sphere, revealing a pair of batlike wings protruding from its back and a thin, barbed tail that whipped about its body constantly, as though it were a living, sentient being all its own. “Kill her,” Kaestra commanded, pointing at Ythnel. The infernal creature stared at its mistress for a moment, hissing, then locked its gaze upon Ythnel. It took a step down the dais toward her, and she moved backward to match it.

  “Loviatar, protect me,” she breathed, clutching her medallion. The words were more than a simple plea. Ythnel drew upon the Power, shaping it into a ward against the extra-planar being approaching her. Sensing the barrier, the devil hissed but continued its advance.

  Your puny shield will not stop me, fleshling. The serpentine voice echoed in Ythnel’s head. I will take your soul back with me to Baator and torture it in ways your goddess could not imagine. It halted within three feet of Ythnel, its forked tongue flicking around the teeth exposed by its malicious grin. She found herself drawn to the deep, red pools that were its eyes. Unable to break the gaze, she was suddenly in yet another contest of wills as fear grasped for her heart. She fought again, as she had against Kaestra, and the fear receded, though Ythnel was shaken up by the contact.

  Another hiss was all the warning she got before the devil’s tail streaked out at her. She knew it was too late to dodge and prayed the ward would hold. The tail’s barb connected, slicing Ythnel’s left arm open from bicep to shoulder. An intense chill seeped in through the wound, and Ythnel looked down to see frost forming around the gash. She staggered back a step, her arm hanging limp at her side.

  You are mine.

  In desperation, Ythnel stabbed at the abishai. That was what it was called, she remembered, chuckling to herself. Of all the information stored somewhere in the recesses of her mind from lessons on outsiders, all she could come up with was what the damned devil was called.

  The spearhead connected with the abishai’s scaly hide but failed to penetrate. At that same instant, Ythnel sensed her ward fail. She cursed herself for the tactical error. She backed away, hoping to put more distance between her and the devil and buy some time in the bargain. Feeling was coming back to her arm, but it would be several minutes before she could make any use of it.

  Your weapon is useless.

  “Drop!” The command came from the abishai’s mouth, rather than inside her head. It sounded like a knife scraping against a whetstone, and so surprised Ythnel that her mental defenses were caught unprepared. She felt her hand release the spear and heard the weapon clatter to the ground.

  If Ythnel had been a warrior who relied only upon steel and strength, she likely would have fled at that point. As it was, those things were only minor tools in her armory. Her greatest weapons were the link to her goddess and the Power she could call up through it. Matching the abishai step for step in an effort to keep it from closing the distance between them, Ythnel summoned the Power to her. It responded in a rush of exhilarating pain, the familiar sting of a thousand tiny lashes. Ythnel rose above the pain, shaping the Power into a manifestation of pure force. The air before her shimmered, and the Power coalesced in the form of a nine-tailed scourge tipped with wicked-looking, inch-long barbs. The weapon hovered there between the abishai and Ythnel, awaiting her command.

  Your spirit weapon cannot harm me. The taunt lacked the confidence that had been behind the previous ones. It was as though uncertainty had crept into the devil’s mind. And perhaps a little fear had edged in as well.

  Ythnel sent the scourge whirling toward the abishai. The strike caught the infernal creature across the chest, and the weapon’s barbs dug deep, tearing off scales as they raked the demon’s hide to leave ichorous paths in their wake. The abishai hopped backward beyond the scourge’s reach and crouched there. It seemed to be waiting for something, but nothing happened. It gingerly touched the open wounds on its torso with a claw, bringing the bloody tips up to stare at them in apparent surprise.

  With a hiss of rage, it leaped in the air. Ythnel sent the scourge up to meet it, the tails whipping across the devil’s face to leave oozing stripes of ichor. The abishai landed off balance, and Ythnel pressed her advantage. The scourge hurtled toward the abishai. It brought its wings around to shield its body, and the weapon dissipated upon contact.

  Ythnel gasped in horror. The abishai slowly unfurled its wings, letting out a low, hissing laugh as it realized what had happened.

  “Enough of this!” Kaestra screamed from the dais. “I command you to kill her now!”

  The abishai glared at its mistress but obeyed, leaping into the air once more. Ythnel dived forward as it came down on top of her. Its claws scored on her back nonetheless, and she grunted as the nerves of her rent flesh burned with pain and froze at the same time from the chill of the strike. The maneuver worked though, as she now lay within reach of her pitchfork. Behind her, the sound of the abishai’s wings flapping told her it had risen again for another attack. Grasping the weapon in the crook of her good arm, she swung around and propped herself up into a sitting position, the butt of the shaft braced against the floor at a forty-five degree angle.

  Once more, Ythnel called upon the link to her goddess, called upon all the Power she could channel. Crying out for vengeance, she focused all the pain that had been visited upon her, the suffering that demanded retribution, into the spear she held. It began to glow an angry red that pulsed faster and harder as Ythnel pushed every last thought of punishment she could conjure into the wood and metal weapon.

  The abishai, thinking its victim finished, was already hurtling toward Ythnel when she brought the spear to bear. Unable to stop its descent, it slammed into the glowing weapon. The monster’s momentum carried it down the shaft, the spearhead piercing internal organs and breaking through the scales of the abishai’s back. In a final pulse of red energy, the spear and the devil exploded, showering Ythnel in gore and splinters.

  “Run, child,” Ythnel ordered. “I will meet you outside when this is over. Now run.” Iuna sprinted down the nave but paused at the doors that led out of the temple and turned back to look one more time. Mist
ress Kaestra had completed her spell and stood at the top of the dais grinning in triumph while Ythnel approached warily.

  Then the monster appeared out of the midst of Entropy and Iuna decided it was time to leave. She slipped out the door and closed it behind her. Her heart was racing with fear as she leaned up against the door.

  What should she do now? Ythnel had told her to wait, but Iuna wasn’t sure the woman would survive. If she was killed, Iuna would be left to fend for herself. Not a very promising prospect, Iuna admitted to herself. More than likely, she would be recaptured and be severely beaten, if not worse.

  “She has to win,” Iuna whispered to herself. “She promised she would take me away from here.” Tears started to well up, and she scrubbed at her eyes defiantly. She was not going to cry. She was going to be strong—like Ythnel. If she could suffer all that she had and still come back to challenge Mistress Kaestra, then Iuna could, too.

  Iuna decided to move a little ways down the portico and tripped over the body of the priest who had answered the door for Ythnel. When she realized what it was, Iuna screamed, but quickly clamped her own hand over her mouth to cut herself off. Ythnel was in there fighting for their lives, and she didn’t need Iuna alerting anyone else that something was wrong at the Temple of Entropy.

  “No!” Kaestra screamed. Her face was a mask of fury. “I will not be denied this victory.” She strode down the steps of the dais, her right hand raised in a clenched fist, a black haze forming around it. Ythnel scrambled away, pushing herself to her feet and turning to face Kaestra. The Entropist struck out with her hand, and Ythnel staggered backward, barely avoiding the blow. Enraged, Kaestra lunged, her hand outstretched. The move was sloppy, and Ythnel dodged aside easily. The momentum carried Kaestra past Ythnel, and Ythnel stuck her leg out, hooking the Entropist’s ankle with her own foot. Kaestra tumbled to the floor face-first. As she struggled to get up, Ythnel kicked her in the ribs, putting plenty of force behind the greaves of her armor, and heard bone crunch. Kaestra groaned and tried to get up again, but Ythnel stomped on her arm just below the triceps, snapping the bone. Kaestra cried out, clutched her broken arm, and rolled onto her back to face Ythnel.

 
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