She realized, as she plodded along behind the woman, half-listening to her endless, self-important tirade, that acting humble to this pompous ass of a scar-faced woman bothered her just as little as showing her naked body to the guards had done.
Examining her feelings, she found that she simple did not care what any of them thought of her.
That those guards probably figured she was a slut, that Chabat had her pegged as a servile, not-too-bright pawn.
Their thoughts and opinions concerned her as much as those of ants and birds.
And if acting servile could trick this bird into helping her find the seed she was looking for, well, that was what she’d do. Even as she made these considerations, she was partially paying attention to Chabat’s speech.
Though much of it was self-aggrandizing lies, bits and pieces of useful information about the way the temple and cult worked were hidden in it, and she carefully filtered those out, filing them away for later use.
She wasn’t entirely certain how long she had to keep passing for a cult-member, after all… so far, she’d managed to pull through with a bit of fast talk and the ‘clueless newbie’ act, but the fewer missteps she made, the less unwanted attention she’d attract. Suddenly, the tirade about ignorant people failing to notice her preeminent importance within the temple trailed off, and for the first time during the walk, Chabat actually addressed her directly with a question. “By the way, I’m not sure I have congratulated you on the… aplomb, with which you handled the ritual.
I do believe most women would have had some… trouble with that role.” Anitra licked her lips nervously.
Well, it was probably too much to hope that the scar-faced priestess had entirely failed to notice it.
Despite her earlier considerations of the subject, she decided that a simple lie would be better than a complicated half-truth in this case. “Well, I grew up on a remote farm…” she explained, hiding her face in the shadows of her hood, hoping that it would be interpreted as an attempt to hide embarrassment. “It can get really lonely out there for a growing girl, if you get my meaning.
So things like that don’t hardly bother me.” Chabat coughed, and gave a quick nod. “Ah, yes, I… see, I suppose.
No matter, really.
I was merely a touch curious.” It amused Anitra somewhat to see a blush creep up Chabat’s scarred cheeks, causing the zig-zag scars to stand out as clear, white lines.
She suddenly realized that the scars, far from being random, formed the design of stylized flames, licking up around her face.
A painful, but likely also effective, way to improve her connection to the demon-realm.
She’d have to be wary of this one.
She clearly shied away from nothing if it meant gaining greater power. Shortly afterwards, they reached a grand pair of double-doors.
They were covered in intricate carvings of demons and devils of every stripe, and banded with brass.
There were a few half-splintered indentations and charred patches on it, however, indicating that this door had survived the destruction of the temple at least once, only to be dug out of the rubble and put back to work again.
And not without reason – she could barely perceive the glow of protective enchantments covering it.
It was flanked on both sides by towering guards, clad in full armor instead of the customary robes, but wore no helmets – a fashion-statement in itself, which showed off a pair of short, pointy horns on both their heads, as well as a vaguely reddish skin-color, and strangely smoldering eyes.
Clearly, men with just a bit of demon-blood in them… such people were quite rare, but it was no surprise that they’d gravitate towards this place.
Chabat bowed slightly to the infernal-looking guards and Anitra quickly followed suit.
The guards nodded gravely, and then pushed the door open for them, allowing them entry into the cavernous chamber beyond. Clearly, these were the chambers of the cult’s leader, the Lucifex Maximus.
The room they were standing in could only be called a throne-room – through the two black altars that flanked the room spoke mutely of certain ceremonial uses as well.
At the back, a demonic throne rose on a dais – carved from black basalt, it took the shape of human bones and skulls, so artfully that it seemed as if it was actually just glued together from black bones.
The only splotch of color on it was the thick, red velvet pillow on the seat, a mute reminder that in the end, a throne is just a really uncomfortable chair.
Sitting on that throne was the cult’s leader, wearing robes as black as a moonless midnight, skeletal hands clutching the skull-like armrests.
A long, white beard snaked down his chest from the shadows of his hood, testament to age and wisdom… or at least knowledge, since nobody who was really wise would be caught dead in a place like this. Standing right behind the throne was a figure in a simple, red robe – she was not entirely certain, but it seemed to be the same person that Chabat had spoken with back in the ritual-chamber.
From this angle, however, she could see his face – he had sharply angular features, which could be easily considered handsome, were it not for the arrogant smirk that covered it, and wore a short-cropped and rather neat goatee.
His eyes burned with intelligence and ambition.
As they approached the throne, he bent down to whisper something into the ear of the Lucifex… and when the Lucifex responded by raising his head, giving Anitra her first good look at his face, she suddenly understood… It was a flash of reasoning brought on by the sight of the Lucifex’s eyes.
They were tired, clouded by age, and lacked the spark of cruel ambition that would be expected from someone who had risen to such a height in a merciless cult like this one.
Looking at the eyes of the man who stood behind the throne, it all fell into place… every time a group of adventurers sacked the temple, they went to great lengths to make sure they killed the leader.
And apparently, the cult simply responded by promoting one of the surviving cult elders to be the next Lucifex, and everything went on as normal.
The explanation was simple – the real power came from the man BEHIND the throne – the Lucifex was merely a figurehead.
No doubt, at first sign of trouble, this goateed man behind the throne would slip out a secret exit and make good his escape – only to return and ‘advise’ the next Lucifex. Chabat kneeled before the throne, bowing her head, and Anitra quickly followed suit. “Rise, my dark children…” an aged voice wheezed from the throne, and they got to their feet again. “Most Honored Elder, I have brought before you a new initiate to the Inner Circle.
She has proven her loyalty and usefulness to our great cause…” Chabat intoned ceremonially, head held high.
The old man on the throne nodded absently, his aged eyes seeking Anitra’s face. “I see, I see… I will leave the customary questioning to my assistant, Sharanama.” The old man lowered his head again, and Anitra suddenly realized that he’d probably been napping when they entered, and now returned to it. Sharanama descended from the dais to get a better look at Anitra, visibly licking his lips at the beauty of her face. “So new, and already rising to the higher ranks, eh? Well, it just proves that you came to the right place, my child.
Here, all that matters is talent, and the willingness to do whatever it takes.
You have demonstrated both.” His eyes twinkled, and his smile grew lopsided. “You understand, I assume, that you will be required to continue performing your duties in rituals similar to the one you just underwent?” Anitra nodded shyly – at least, she HOPED it looked shy. “Indeed – it’s no big deal to me.” The goateed cultist chuckled. “I see, I see… maybe I’ll preside over the next such ritual myself.
I think I’d like to see your… talents, for myself.” Grinning inwards at the obviousness of his intention, she merely stated, obediently, “I’d be honored…” Sharanama’s smile changed somewhat, and he rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. “Would you, now? I see, I see… anyway, there is nothing else I need to ask.
Where you were and what you did before coming here is of no consequence, and can be all-too-easily lied about anyway.
Is there anything you would like to know before our Most Honored Lucifex pronounces your initiation into the Inner Circle?” Deciding to seize the opportunity, Anitra nodded. “There is, Great Sharanama – albeit, it is merely a point of some curiosity to me.” Sharanama lifted an eyebrow. “Curiosity is good, my child.
It leads us to greater knowledge, and thus greater power.
Ask away.” She nodded again, somewhat nervously – with no need to fake it, this time.
This one was smart – if she gave him any reason to be suspicious, it could get really dangerous, really quickly. “Well, I have heard it said that foolish adventurers have, on several occasions in the past, attacked this most holy temple, stealing and killing without care for our great purpose… considering such past predation, however, it is whispered that there remains certain artifacts of great antiquity within the Inner Circle.” Sharanama’s eyes grew momentarily guarded, but then he chuckled. “You have an interest in artifacts of power, do you? I would advise against that.
Such objects can bring you power, swiftly and easily, but it is a power that can be just as easily lost or stolen.
True power comes from within.
Still, you asked, and I shall answer…” He gestured for her to follow, and walked towards a cloth-covered doorway in the left wall of the room.
Remembering the curtained entrance of the ritual-room, a sudden realization made her grin.
A cloth enchanted to contain demonic forces could more easily be taken down and brought along in the event of an attack than a wooden door designed to do the same… — “Oh, that’s nice to know…” With a gentle smile, she walked past them, reaching out her hand as she passed.
The hellhounds, having instinctively understood her ‘alpha’ status from the behavior of the Cerberus, licked her hand and whined submissively.
Then she waved back at the Cerberus, who nodded his large heads in reply, and pushed through the magical curtain. …and suddenly found herself face-to-face with the Lucifex Maximus.
He was standing directly in front of the curtain, as if he’d been waiting for her.
He didn’t look absent-minded or senile, like he had during the day.
He was standing up straight – and was quite tall, she noticed – and his eyes had a devilish fire burning in them.
The same fire, she realized, that she had seen for a moment during her induction-rite.
A self-assured sneer was on his face, and his voice was sarcastic to the point of being caustic. “Well, well.
You certainly don’t waste any time, do you, young lady?” Things clicked into place in her mind.
She wasn’t sure how she’d reached a conclusion so quickly, but it all fitted together neatly.
Rather than reaching for her sword, she merely returned his sneer with a lopsided smile of her own. “Neither do you, it seems.
Are you sure you shouldn’t watch me for a bit longer before revealing your hand? I COULD be a plant from Sharanama, you know.” His eyebrows went up by the slightest bit, but he hid his surprise well – as could be expected of such a clearly consummate actor. “And quick on the uptake, too… yes, yes, I suppose that IS a possibility, but the odds were low, and I won’t get anywhere without taking SOME chances.” Then his eyes narrowed. “But since you’re so clever, why don’t you tell me what you’ve figured out about the situation here, hmm?” She shrugged. “I don’t usually like showing off, but if it’ll make you happy… Sharanama is the power behind the throne.
He always picks weak-minded people to be the ‘leader’, so that he can easily play them like puppets, and then leave them to take the fall next time a group of righteously crusading adventurers show up.
But he screwed up on you, somehow – you’re much smarter than you appear.
So now you want to turn the tables on him – wipe him out so that all the power will be yours in name AND in effect.” He nodded, and his sneer become more of a smile. “You ARE clever… well, assuming you’re not a plant, as you suggested before.
Well, it’s too late to back out now.
As you’ve no doubt figured out as well, I can’t overthrow Sharanama alone.
And I can’t trust anyone here – it’s impossible to tell who’s on his side – or which side the ones still on the fence will leap to if I challenge him openly.
My best bet, therefore, is to collude with a new arrival – someone he hasn’t had the chance to bring into his fold yet.
Preferably someone skilled.
You got past those guard-dogs somehow, without setting off the alarms.
I don’t know what you did, but you’ve clearly got skills.
An adventurer of some stripe, yes? Albeit, one with a more flexible moral code than most…” His eyes scanned over her robes, though it did not seem to be the ‘undressing with the eyes’ scan she was used to getting from most men and some women. “You do not seem to have picked anything up, despite reaching out main treasure-trove.
I HAD planned to request your aid in return for letting you leave with whatever you came for… but you apparently didn’t find it.
And since you didn’t even touch any of the gold stored in there, you’re clearly looking for something very specific.” She nodded. “Very perceptive.
Indeed, I’m looking for a specific treasure that was left in the hands of this cult a long time ago.
And if you can get it for me, I’m willing to help you kill Sharanama.” The old man stroked his beard. “A fair deal.
If it’s not in there, then it’s probably something with little perceived value – to us, anyway.
I am well aware that one man’s junk can be another man’s treasure.
Ceremonial though my current position is, I am well-versed in the lore of our group, and have access to most of our secrets… what is it that you seek?” “It is a fragment of a stone tablet, with strange writing upon it.
It has powerful preservative magic upon it, but otherwise would appear quite unassuming to the casual observer.” The Lucifex seemed to search his memory, stroking his beard as he did so. “A tablet-fragment… a tablet-fragment… hmm… I believe I’ve read of an object of that description, in one of the old scrolls.
If it’s the one you seek… it’s in one of the underground vaults.” He pointed downwards, at the black obsidian floor. “The ground underneath this temple is filled with tunnels – some of them natural, the remnant of old lava-flows, others dug out by the members of this church over the years… as escape-routes, hidey-holes or secret storage.
There’s several vaults where object of possible importance are held – stuff that might come in handy eventually, but doesn’t need to be immediately available.” His smile grew broader. “It’s a labyrinth, really.
Finding the right vault would take a lifetime if you don’t know where it is.
And if you start blasting down walls down there, it’s liable to collapse on your head, and bury the object you’re looking for under a thousand tons of volcanic rock.” Anitra sighed, rolling her eyes. “I could’ve almost guessed the last part.
So, I help you with your little coup d’état, and you dig up the artifact I need.
Deal?” He nodded. “Indeed, and a better deal than I’d have expected… especially since you’ll now have to work EXTRA-hard to keep me alive.
I’m probably the only one alive who knows where to find it – Sharanama never concerned himself with the old vaults, dismissing them as being filled with rusty junk.
So if I die… you’d have to dig through several tons of musty old scrolls to find the location.
Assuming you even know how to read Olde Mitelrich.” Anitra just rolled her eyes again. “Whatever.
Shall we get this show on the road?” He nodded, eyes burning brighter than ever. “Indeed! I have been working on an intricate plot to destroy Sharanama for years – in fact, I’ve merely waited for the final pawn to arrive before putting it to work… the first part is-“ She cut him off. “Stop right there.
Years? You’re overcomplicating things.
Just summon him to your throne-room – you can do that, right? – and when he comes in, I run him through with my sword, from behind.
It can penetrate any magical or mundane barrier.
Problem solved.” The Lucifex made a sour face. “I suppose it was too much to hope for that I’d meet an adventurer with enough intellect to appreciate my plan for the beauty that it is.
Your… ‘plan’ has a certain direct charm to it as well, I suppose.
And I suppose such a direct method is the last thing Sharanama expects.” Standing behind one of the obsidian pillars that held up the domed ceiling, Anitra discarded her cultist robe – for good this time, she figured.
Sharanama wouldn’t be able to see her immediately when he entered, and she’d be able to circle around behind him without being seen.
Then it was just one jab, end of story.
All in all, one of the simpler tablet-pieces to acquire.
She’d already contacted Blake and informed him of the state of matters.
He was standing by as close to the temple as he dared, so if things didn’t turn out as planned, he’d be able to smash his way in and lend assistance as necessary.
It was a nice feeling, knowing that he was near – that for once, she didn’t fight alone.
She tried not to think about how things had turned out last time they’d fought together.
This was a completely different situation, after all.
At that time, they had been ambushed.
This time, they WERE the ambush. The doors creaked open.
The Lucifex – she never HAD thought to ask for his real name – was sitting on his black throne, having used one of its minor enchantments to summon Sharanama.
The lank, pale-skinned cultist seemed grumpy, as he strode into the chamber – having been, to his knowledge, roused from his bed in the middle of the night to answer to the senile whim of a puppet ruler.
Angry people made mistakes, and sleepy people weren’t very aware of their surroundings.
The Lucifex was playing his role to the hilt, for the last time – sunken into his oversized throne, he seemed half-asleep, mumbling to himself.
As Sharanama approached the throne, Anitra inched around the pillar, her sandals making no sound on the smooth stone floor.
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