The wicked heroine, p.49
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.49

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Four hundred years ago

  The arrogance!

  She had stolen into the ancient, abandoned temple on the scrubby, red-soiled slopes of the volcano to the northeast of the city, on information that led her to expect she would find the usual type of gathering: a few dissident speakers, a rather larger group of blind followers, and somewhere, a mastermind, whom she was to remove from play.

  Oh, how wrong she had been.

  Queen’s Agent Jacasta Triserren had been captured by the secretive gathering known as the Cult of Dzur i’Oth, and it was her own fault. She had neglected to surveil her surroundings and targets thoroughly before entering the crypts below the ancient Dragon Temple, and had been rendered unconscious without even seeing her attacker. The ease with which she had been taken frightened her.

  Who were these people?

  In the pitch-blackness of her prison room, she had lost track of how many hours she had been incarcerated.

  The frigid water of the pool she was standing in rippled against her bare ankles. The short chain from her manacled wrists was anchored below the waterline. She could either lay down in the water and die of hypothermia, or stand up, hour after hour, racked with exhaustion.

  Eventually, she heard a heavy door open. After a moment of sleep-deprived thought, she turned her head toward the sound. A single candle lit the way for the two hooded figures who entered. They approached and paused at the edge of her pool. She wryly noted that they were both wearing warm-looking boots.

  After a long moment of silence, the taller one intoned in a deep, masculine voice, “The Synod of Eleven summons you. Prepare to meet your doom, lifeslave.”

  Jacasta frowned, but did not reply. The hooded people waded out and unlocked her chains, then each grasped one of her wrists and began to force her out of the pool.

  However, there was nothing to be gained by fighting to escape, she realized. Her feet were entirely numb, and she stumbled often, cutting her toes on the edge of the shale steps that led up to a pair of doors.

  The doors opened, revealing a black-walled chamber, lit by green torches every few feet. Eleven black-robed men and women stood around the outer edge of the room, each inside a six-foot ring of gemstones in the floor. One circle in the center of the room was unoccupied except for another set of manacles, chained to the floor by a handful of links.

  Near the door, centered opposite the body of cultists, stood an ornately carved obsidian lectern. A large book with a soft black leather cover lay facing the rest of the room. Odd drawings and strange text danced across its visible pages.

  The waiting people were silent and still as the two attendants forced Jacasta to kneel and locked her hands inside the grip of the manacles. The book was behind her, the people in front. No one spoke. The two attendants left as silently as they had entered, and shut and barred the doors behind them.

  The green flames hissed quietly. Their odd light winked off the gemstones inset in the black stone floor.

  “You have been sent to us, Jacasta Triserren, because you are worthy to be our lifeslave,” the man directly ahead of her said.

  Jacasta craned her neck to look the man in the eye. “I was ordered here to kill you,” she said coldly.

  The man only smiled at her. “That is what we instructed Queen Anzadi to tell you. Now, your life belongs to us. Any last words, before we make use of it?” he asked.

  Jacasta pushed herself up with her hands as straight as she could, and took in a measured breath through her nose. “Mark my words. Though you may take my life, you are all doomed. I am Oathbound now.”

  A puzzled murmur passed through the standing cultists, and the man spoke over them sharply. “Silence! It matters not. We do not know this oath-binding of which you speak. Nothing can stand against the terrible power of the Great and Dire Tome of Ages! Once this ritual is complete, all the determination of the queen’s forces will be as the wind against a mountain. We will become eternal beings, to die no more, nor suffer hurt. Let the ritual begin!”

  The certainty in his voice shook Jacasta. For the first time, she was truly afraid; she realized she had no idea what these cultists were capable of. She’d never sensed anything like that book in her life. Where had they gotten such a dark artifact? Why weren’t the Ochre Masks handling this? Why had she not been warned? Could Queen Anzadi truly be in league with this cult? And if she was, what did that bode for Shanal? Jacasta felt like she was suddenly on the edge of an enormous precipice, looking down with vertigo, unable to stop herself from plunging off into nothingness.

  The cultists raised their arms as one and began a lilting chant. Green fire danced through the air, alighting on each cultist like a flaming crown. It arched from each of them out to Jacasta, all at once, encasing her in a green sphere that met the gemstone ring on the floor.

  Jacasta squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for the end to come quickly. She had no idea how pernicious fate could be.

  Suddenly the fiery green trail between Jacasta and the cultist who had spoken to her turned a violent, eye-stabbing shade of pink and began vibrating madly in the air.

  “Something is–” the man began.

  Jacasta’s sphere turned the same color, nearly blinding her through her eyelids.

  “—wrong with the—”

  The other fiery links blazed pink. Three of the cultists collapsed to the floor. Their trails of flame zapped around the room like loose jags of lightning.

  “—ritual! Close—”

  The room became one massive vibration, and Jacasta felt like her lungs were trying to breathe sound. She exhaled in panic and pressed her face against her hands, waiting to die.

  “—the Tome!”

  The vibrations peaked, then there was no more sound at all; no more were there fiery crowns or trails through the air. No more sphere of pink fire. Only the green torches burned, but Jacasta couldn’t hear them with her burst eardrums. She screamed into her hands, feeling only the vibration of her voice within her body. It took several tries for reason to reach through her pain.

  She looked up. The cultists were dead, their forms twisted in agony or collapsed in boneless heaps. She waited to see if she was still going to die, but after several more minutes, decided that she was not.

  At least, not from the ritual. She was still manacled to the floor. She’d already been without food or water for at least two days. If her Oathen could not find her soon…

  After yanking her wrists bloody against the manacles, she gave up and lay down in exhaustion. Sleep overtook her in moments.

  Hours later, she heard the sound of the door being unbarred. The realization that she could hear again, already, was followed by a growing awareness that she felt no pain at all. Even her wrists felt completely uninjured. She sat up and shifted to face the doors, perfectly sure who would enter the green-lit room. A smiling sob of relief spread across her features.

  A male figure bearing a bright torch and a naked, deadly blade burst in, shouting her name.

  “‘Ware the book!” she called in warning, rattling her chains in an attempt to point to it. The man looked at it briefly, then ran to her side, dropping the torch to the black stone floor a few feet from her. He knelt and touched her manacled hands, then her face.

  “Jacasta,” he breathed. “I brought others; we’ll get you free.” He turned and shouted back toward the doors, and faint footsteps ran in their direction. “We’ve killed as many as we could, but many escaped or weren’t here to begin with.”

  Jacasta huddled against her husband’s warmth. “I knew the Oath would hold. I knew you’d find me, Arisson.”

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