The woman fell when pushed, her hands outthrust to take the brunt of the impact with the flagstones. She raised her head and tossed black hair back from her face to glare at the man atop the dais.
“You’re making a terrible mistake.”
The man smiled, mirthlessly. One missing tooth marred the white perfection. He moved confidently from between the four pillars at the center of the temple. He descended the four steps with measured tread and calmly swung a backhand at her face. Her hands came up, caught his wrist, and she spun, one leg kicking to topple him to the floor. In an instant, she had her bound wrists around his neck, squeezing and twisting, but the guardsmen fell on her and pried her away.
Choking, gasping, no longer smiling, he crawled to the steps and forced himself to his feet while the guards beat the woman.
“Enough!” he wheezed, and they dragged her back to her place, holding her there. She bled from a split lip and one nostril, but her eyes were still clear and bright. The man straightened his purplish-blue tunic and adjusted the wide ribbon running from shoulder to hip. He glared at the woman.
“State your name,” he ordered, brisk and businesslike.
Her suggestion he perform a sexual act with a cactus was not well-received. There was a brief period of beating and a broken finger. Once complete, he began again.
“State your name.”
“Leisel of Lucard.”
“You are of the House?”
“I am sworn to serve the House of Lucard.”
“You admit this freely?”
“Yes,” she replied, and smiled up at him again. It was a predatory, dangerous smile, fit for frightening other predators. It was all teeth and glittering eyes. It was knowledge and confidence and hate and it took him aback. “I admit it, Seronian Chey, Priest of the Sight, because I see more clearly than you.”
“Insolence and blasphemy,” Seronian observed, calmly. “It shall be so noted.”
“It won’t matter.”
“You’re still making a terrible mistake.”
“You serve a demon,” Seronian pointed out. “It has spread the heresy of darkness and defies the order of the gods. It brings chaos to the people of that valley, teaching them ways antithetical to our own. It is a seed of chaos in a world of order, ready to burst and send its roots writhing into the heart of the Empire. It must be destroyed. And you will be the instrument of its destruction,” he finished. She shook her head, slowly and painfully, whether in disagreement or in pity it was hard to say.
“You really are mistaken,” she insisted, softly, intently.
“You think you know better?”
“I know I do,” Leisel replied, and spat blood. She looked at it for a moment, but it did not move. “I know him better than you. In some ways, I know him better than he knows himself. You think he will come here to rescue me, don’t you?”
“You are the commander of his forces. He values you. We cannot take him in his place of power, but we could take you. He will come.”
“Oh, he’ll come, all right,” Leisel agreed, “and that is your mistake.”
“It is not. When he arrives, he will be purged from the world by all the colors of life.”
“You already tried to kill him with the sanctified sacrifice,” Leisel pointed out. “It didn’t work.”
“He cannot stand against the will of the gods!” Seronian snapped. His hand lashed out, but only to point a finger. “He is a demon and will be destroyed as a demon!”
“A demon,” she replied, “would not bother to rescue me. What you hope for is a man you can destroy.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not a demon. He’s a man. And you’re hoping he’s a man you can kill, because if he really is a demon, this tactic of hostage-taking is pointless. You’re a hypocrite and a coward and you have no idea how much danger you’ve put yourself and this whole city in.”
“Hmph,” dismissed the priest. “This from a warrior. What do you know of demons and gods?”
“I told you, I know him better than he knows himself. I can even tell you, in general terms, what he’s going to do.”
“Speak, then, if you would redeem your soul for the next incarnation.”
“I’ll speak, but not because I think you have any say over my soul. No, it’s because he taught me to value life more than I used to.”
“Speak,” Seronian grated.
“When he comes—and about that, you are regrettably correct: He will come—it will not be to rescue, but to punish. I have seen the earth rise at his command. Thunder and lightning and all the powers of the air dance when he waves his hands. Water works his will. And fire! Fire is the element he masters completely. Walls of earth and stone will rise. Waters will recede, fleeing from his wrath. The whirlwind will dance among his enemies, shedding lightning and bodies. And the fires will rise like the sun from the sea, but out of the land itself, spreading until all things displeasing to him are consumed. You will discover what it is to face wrath—not the wrath of men, but pure, primal wrath, drawn from the depths like a diamond from the deepest mine, hard and cold and bright. Death will walk unfettered and anything—everything—that stands before him will fall to dust and ashes. No snake shall slither nor insect crawl. Even the bones of men will be crushed to powder and blown away, never to be known or remembered.”
“If fortune smiles on this city, and if he holds hard to his desire to spare the innocent, the force of wrath to fall will land only on the temple. You are responsible for this, not the people, so I think he will try to spare the city. But he wants you. He knows who you are by now, where we are, what you have done, and he will stop at nothing—nothing!—to have you in his hands. And, if he has to eradicate all life in this city, in the Empire, on the face of the world, there is no one and nothing that can stop him.”
Seronian went white as Leisel spoke. Now, through gritted teeth, he snarled.
“Your words are sacrilege! No demon can challenge the—”
The wind outside, rising for some time, now penetrated Seronian’s self-absorption with a wild howling, a scream of air around the stonework of the temple. The sun, bright in the late afternoon, dimmed visibly as dust and clouds gathered. The ground shifted queasily, like butter on a hot pan. The temple shivered in sympathy.
“What is happening!” Seronian screamed, in fear or in order to be heard.
“This is his warning!” Leisel shouted back. “This is his warning! I didn’t think he’d bother to give you a chance! I thought he’d just do it and be done with it! I didn’t expect him to be this mild!”
“The wind is shaking the temple!”
“No, it’s not!” she countered. “It’s a whirlwind to suck up anyone foolish enough to go outside! The ground is shaking as he destroys the temple foundations! He’ll bring the building down on everyone! Anything left alive, he’ll burn!”
“How do we stop it!?” Seronian demanded, descending to Leisel’s level and seizing her by the collar. “How!”
“You can’t!” she screamed into his face. “You’ve taken me from him, and he knows I’m prepared to die in his service! My life doesn’t matter—yours does. He wants you dead, no matter the cost! Look! See the way the wind is still rising? Feel the tremors grow? He’s showing restraint, but he’s coming for you!”
“Guards!” Seronian shrieked. “Fling this out into the storm! If she is prepared to die, then let her die by the power of her dark master!”
The guards unbarred the great doors and the wind blew them in, banging, booming open, flapping even their mighty timbers in their frame. Outside, the world was a dark wall of dust and vapor, black and brown and rust. With a guard on either side, they lifted Leisel and hurled her into the screaming wind.
The wind snatched her before she went three feet, tossing her aside and up, whirling her around. She saw, dimly, the whole of the city laid out below like a maze of streets and houses. Tiny people hurried indoors or hurried out, depending on their individual evaluation of events. Horses panicked, livestock stampeded through the streets, and debris of all sorts swept through the city.
And she fell. Out the top of the whirling storm of wind, up into the sky, and down, plummeting like a rock, watching the ground rise up and up.
A figure all in black, cloak flaring independent of the wind, rode a beast of metal and fire as though out of the mouth of Hell. It angled toward where she would hit, speeding unnaturally fast to beat her to the landing point.
Leisel wondered if he would arrive in time.