With outraged me in this once holy place,
Where Wisdom was a favoured guest and hunted
Truth was harbored out of danger,
He bulks enthroned, a lewd, an insupportable stranger!
I would have sworn, indeed I swore it:
The hills may shift, the waters may decline,
Winter may twist the stem from the twig that bore it,
But never your love from me, your hand from mine.
Now goes under the sun, and I watch it go under.
Farewell, sweet light, great wonder!
You, too, farewell, -- but fare not well enough to dream
You have done wisely to invite the night before the darkness came.
— EDNA SAINT VINCENT-MILLAY, "TO A FRIEND ESTRANGED FROM ME"
CHAPTER ONE: VINSETH
Fuck it. I'm pouring ammonia on her plants, Vinseth Roth decided as he watched his partner raise her arms for another spell.
If Bella Mythen hadn't noticed by now that five-foot dandelions — even hideous, man-eating, five-foot dandelions with teeth — were useless against the target, then she never would. This obviously called for a pointed reminder, delivered with cleaning fluids, that you couldn't count on flora to kill something that had everybody around you scared shitless. Particularly if everybody around you was scared of spontaneously catching on fire.
He growled words so old they had lost all meaning as, for the third time that hour, Mythen drew the demon's attention. A flicker of power, a mental plea to his god, and the black asphalt around his partner began to ripple. He mumbled more nonsense words and watched the rippling pavement stand up, creating a primitive shield.
Mythen ignored the shield, eyes drifting closed as she turned her face toward the sun.
Within moments, the world around them seemed brighter. Roth heard the unmistakable sound of plants accruing thirty years worth of untended growth in about ten seconds.
He bit back several curses. She'd summoned her dandelions, or maybe creeping vines of foot-long thorns. Again. Knowing they'd only be set ablaze by the demon. It was idiotic bordering on suicidal. If she'd given up, they could have retreated. But no, she had to have one last desperate charge into danger. It was ridiculous.
Only not so ridiculous, because the tangled, crawling, creeping vines were a green so dark they were nearly black. And the flowers that grew along those vines were pale, so pale they were nearly translucent, and they had faces in their centres. The faces of beautiful, enraged women.
And every blossom was screaming.
Mandrake, also known as Mandragora. Specifically Mandragora arcanus, subtype sirenus. He'd seen her summon it only twice before.
As had happened the previous two times, the mandragora tore through the pavement. Each flower was practically chewing the blacktop.
He had to admit, as the demon put its hands on its ears and shrieked, that when Bella decided to pull out the big guns, she pulled out the biggest ones she had. And they were usually big enough to fire lots of lethal holes in whatever had managed to piss her off.
But still, if she didn't improve her gods-be-damned timing, he would personally teach her beloved plants the meaning of "bleached leaves."
The demon probably didn't even register what type of plant was menacing it. The grey, bony body shivered as it howled in pain. The fire-starting little nasty would probably start bleeding from the ears if the mandragora kept up its noise much longer.
Now that it wasn't moving anymore, Vinseth was reasonably sure it was a she. Tiny body, twiggy limbs, long, tangled black hair.
And the dress. Mustn't forget the dress. It was a black-and-white chequered tatter, really, with one sleeve completely gone and most of the skirt gone as well, but it was a dress. And stained with suspicious rusty splotches.
The demoness began to sob. Her too-human face twisted into something that looked like genuine agony. Mandragora was always hardest on its chosen victim; Roth could barely hear the crazed rants of the flower-women.
Vinseth Roth, as a sworn Dragoon, should have felt satisfaction.
But the part of him that had been raised as priest to an evil god, the part that still made sacrifices to Zintzne and bargained with demons, felt guilty. Hell had its own ecosystem, and this pathetic little demoness was probably one of the bottom feeders.
Not that it had prevented her from setting three civilians on fire and driving seven more insane.
"Back that thing off a little," he said, the shouted rants of each bloom growing louder in his ears.
Mythen looked like she was ready to send the mandrake after him for daring to disparage her precious plant. But, slowly, the mandrake vines fell silent. They began to twist away, slithering along the hot road.
The demoness sniffled: "J-just trying to talk — didn't mean to hurt anything — didn't want any fires."
That was new, but not entirely. Truly minor powers, like this one, often survived by being useful in petty ways. Such as delivering messages to mortals. And maybe a little mayhem, as well. Powerless as they might be in Hell, humans were still as cockroaches to them.
"And what did you have to say?" Mythen put her hands on her hips. Already slinking to the curb of the ravaged sidewalk, the mandragora began to perk up again.
"K-Koresth wanted me to deliver a m-m-message to," it paused to wheeze, "the Priest of Zintzne in Je Bardeau."
Koresth. A name he hadn't heard in a while. He remembered pale skin, pointed teeth, dark eyes, and a face that was frequently hidden under the veiled hat worn by desert travellers who did not cover their entire bodies.
Korseth was a ghoul. Neither human nor demon; in fact, he was completely unconnected to either. He'd only recently, from what Vinseth knew, settled down and had children — the final mark of adulthood for ghouls. Then again, being three hundred years old, Koresth thought the last century was recent. (Things in the last decade were all "yesterday" to him.)
Mythen took a step forward. Her tone was flat, devoid of interest. "What did he tell you to say?"
Vinseth's lips drew into a grim, hard line. Mythen knew who Koresth was. She'd met him or heard of him. It was obvious from the oh-so-careful disinterest in her tone. From the fact that she hadn't asked.
Where would Bella Mythen, half-Vabren priestess of Kailo, have met a ghoul? They rarely strayed from the ruins half-buried in the desert. And if you weren't perfectly polite to them, they thought you little better than an animal. And then they ate you. Usually uncooked.
"I-I can't tell you. He ma-made me promise." A sob that contorted her shoulders. "No telling anybody — a-a-anybody — b-but the Blackest priest in Je Bardeau."
The mandragora, which had started moving, began to creep along the ground. Vinseth managed not to wince as he heard the whispering of flowers blooming.
Kailo's priestesses. Given power over marriage, love, fertility, and the wilder winds, they thought the demonic arts were child's play. They always did. As if a demon couldn't be bound as fiercely as a god could be.
"I'll take it from here," he murmured.
Mythen looked at him, the mad power in her eyes already retreating. She waved one hand in a dismissive gesture.
The demoness watched with obvious interest as the mandragora stilled its progress.
Black ribbons cascaded from his wrists as he called forth the authority of a priest of Zintzne. Granted, he'd anointed himself, but with the sponsorship of several demons, and full knowledge of Zintzne's (admittedly few) clerical laws.
"Hail to thee in the name of Zintzne, sister."
The words were a formal recognition of all the unique social trappings of Hell. Officially, he'd already greeted her when she'd tried to set him on fire. But nowhere in Zintzne's demesne did attempts to throttle each other — or incinerate each other — translate as, "Good afternoon."
"And hail to thee, brother." The demoness looked at her feet. "I am Iyohet Fire-Bringer. Iyohet Ghoul-Spawn."
"Vinseth Roth, First Priest."
A pause. The demoness scuffed one foot along the road. Pavement melted under her feet, going smoother than black glass. An idle, unwitting gesture, or a deliberate statement?
Iyohet's voice softened to little more than a whisper. "My uncle needs you to help his son."
Mythen beat him to the question: "Your uncle?"
Iyohet looked up. That unkempt dark hair twitched and tossed as she cast a near-contemptuous glance at the priestess.
Vinseth bit back mindless anger. His partner could handle herself — in fact, she already was handling herself; she'd tossed an equally contemptuous glare right back at the Fire-Bringer — and the demoness wouldn't listen to human authority. Dark creatures could be captured, cajoled, questioned, convinced, but never compelled.
Mythen's heel ground against the pavement with a scarping sound. The way her hands clenched at her sides told him all he needed to know about her mood. But her control over the mandragora didn't break.
"Help how?" Vinseth asked.
Iyohet shook her head. "That was all he said."
"And how am I supposed to learn more?"
The ghost of a smile appeared on the demon's face. It was an almost shy expression, the way her eyes peered at him from under her sparse eyelashes. "I suppose you'll have to visit."
The scraping of Mythen's stiletto heel against the pavement grew much slower, much more deliberate. She was driving the sharp, threatening-looking point of that heel deeper into the ground. Much deeper.
Iyohet looked over at her, an eyebrow so thin it looked pencilled on lifting in surprise. She moistened her lips with a thin tongue, looked pointedly at Vinseth. "As recompense for the Blood-Hallowed Ground, my uncle charges you to call on him."
And then Iyohet vanished. The only signs that she had been there were the glassy spots on the tarmac and the scorch marks all over the city's sidewalks.
Vinseth looked to his partner. She stared right back. Her mouth, he was relieved to find, was just as wide open as he'd feared his own was. It was a rare slip, for her. Her expression — one of slightly mocking interest, as if she was trying to hide distaste or disdain — almost never changed.
He closed his mouth and forced a smirk. "Visit to the desert?"
The left side of her lip curled upward. The eyebrows she plucked and waxed to a perfect arch hooked downward even as she tilted her head up.
And now she was moving past him. Drifting past him, more like.
With his car keys. Somehow. Damn it, how had that happened?
The boundary between city and desert never snuck up on him. He knew exactly where Je Bardeau's land ended and the Vabren's began. The highway traffic thinned. The car jerked and jostled hard enough to slosh water out of open bottles.
And then the road vanished altogether.
Looking at the sand, you'd think nothing grew there. But that was a lie. He'd grown up in that arid land. He'd seen the too-brief wet seasons.
When it rained, everything grew there. Cacti flowered and bore fruit. Vines blossomed. Bushes of berries seemed to pop up in a matter of minutes. And the mushrooms. Valleys of mushrooms.
Roth looked over at Mythen. Her dark hair glimmered under the red mesh veils. She'd gone all-out with the traditional dress of a mage-priestess of Kailo. It was disconcerting to see her in the softer curves of a mesh skirt and tied-on dress. The beads, feathers, coins, and bits of bone didn't help. Just two hours ago, she'd been in a button-down blouse and slacks.
She was watching the sand dunes, he realized.
"From here," he smirked, lifting the cowl of his saffron cloak, "I'll drive."
Before she could object, he grabbed her wrist and murmured an ancient, near-meaningless praise to Zintzne.
Black ribbons danced from his fingertips. Shadows massed in circles at his feet. Soon enough, dark, flickering fire would envelop them.
Mythen screamed. She always did.
Darkness. Pulling, tugging shadows. The caress of black ink.
And then an ancient staircase, surrounded by sand. Above them, the time worn and cracking walls of a ruined city. Beneath them, crumbling stairs. Everywhere else, dry, scorched earth and whispering sand.
These were the largest ruins in the Vabren desert. The city was so old that nobody who hadn't lived (or un-lived) there even knew its name, or which gods it had worshipped. The smart money said it had worshipped the Balreqiean gods, and for that unpardonable sin, the Vabren gods had destroyed it. Blighted its lands. Siphoned away its water.
And then re-peopled it with the denizens of Hell.
Speaking of the Dark crowd, Vinseth noticed the strange, faintly distorted shadow that had spread across the stairs.
He looked up.
His first impression was of pale skin and gauze. On a closer glance, he saw perfect cupid's bow lips, eyes wide and shapely enough to make the women in his home village weep. Long, perfectly tended dark hair.
"I bid thee welcome, Vinseth Roth, Dyaivaztra," said a voice that, while musical, was obviously male.
Vinseth opened his mouth to respond, but Koresth cut him off. He tilted his wide-brimmed hat slightly, causing its veil to flutter. "And I welcome thee, as well."
A pause. But, again, before Roth could say anything, Koresth spoke again. This time, though, he seemed to say the words slowly. Almost as if he was rolling them around in his mouth. "Bellona Mythen, Dyaivo of Kailo."
Finally allowed to speak, Vinseth grinned. "I thank thee for it, Koresth, Wind-Waker." His voice lost some of its warmth as he added, "And I see that thou knowest already my partner."
Mythen looked over at him. Her expression — beakish nose wrinkling, eyebrows arching up, lips pursed — asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. But she didn't say anything. She didn't have to.
She simply took a step forward, multiple gauzy layers of clothing quivering, and bowed. "It is an honour and pleasure to see thee again, Koresth."
Koresth returned the bow and then took off his hat. His face slackened into a non-expression Vinseth hadn't seen in at least fifteen years. He'd only worn that look, Roth remembered, when something had him truly worried.
"I thank you for coming. But I have much to tell you and little time." The ghoul was already turning around as he finished the first sentence. He moved slightly unsteadily up the stairs, as if he would be more comfortable moving sideways.
Mythen followed him, trailing her left hand on the wall as she went up.
Vinseth took one last look around before joining them.
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