AMANTE (DEITY, MEMBER OF the BEINISON PANTHEON)
Amante, once the god of love and beauty, kidnapped the goddess Alana out of selfish, unchecked desire and sparked a battle that raged through the heavens. Following his defeat, a tribunal of gods stripped Amante’s powers from him and appointed him god of criminals, executioners, and torturers as punishment for his treachery. Beinisonians commonly refer to Amante as the Masked God, for he hides his face to conceal a hideous wound struck by the flaming sword of Gow, Alana’s husband, during the battle to free her.
–Kebero of Heahun, from the tome “History of Beinison”
“Why have you brought me here, Skyler Gatney?”
Deep under the earth, in a cave whose ceiling hung low with fangs of glistening stone, a man and a woman sat upon a rock ledge, gazing upon a pool that stretched long and still before them. The water glowed faintly, shedding soft, blue light that sparkled on the rippled ceiling.
“I wanted to take you away from the castle,” Skyler whispered, looking down at his hands that were black with dirt. “I believe you should rethink your decision, Pythia.”
The woman’s face hid behind a white silk mask, laced with pearls that draped in bows down her cheeks. Ribbons were tied at the corners of the mask, one of which wrapped about a white, painted stick she held in her gloved hand. “Evelain always tells me that I think too much. Do you not think that an odd thing to say? Sometimes I think about the sky or about the grass. People are cruel to walk on it. What a grotesque practice to step on a thing whose only fault is to be cool and green.”
“I can only think of how cruel you are to me,” Skyler replied. “Haven’t we danced in the ballrooms where the servants do not go? Did I not take you outside on the night of the full moon, even though it is forbidden? I’ve given you much, my love.”
“Yes. Well. Of course you have given me much,” Pythia said abruptly, derisively. “You are a subject of the Castigales. It is your *duty* to serve us.” She was evidently disturbed by the man’s comments, however. With her free hand, Pythia absently twisted a strand of dark chestnut hair and rocked her body back and forth. “How else am I to feel towards our subjects?”
“I cannot help how I feel.”
“And I cannot help who I am.”
Skyler’s face blushed in embarrassment. A bead of moisture gathered at his temple and he raised his hand to it. His fingers came back red and wet and he found himself beset with a piercing headache. “I found a map,” he murmured, rubbing the blood between his digits. A wave of dizziness overcame him. “It led to these mountains. I thought to mine some gemstones and take you away from here. ”
Pythia laughed in astonishment. “You cannot take me away, Skyler.” She gathered the folds of her gown and stood up. Skyler, his temple throbbing and the pain in his head increasing, looked up at her and saw that she had grown to the size of the cavern. She towered above him, her frilled shawl billowing like a thousand pale serpents about her shoulders. The fangs on the ceiling sparkled. “I am far beyond your reach in position and prominence. You are a foolish man to attempt to court me.”
Skyler, his legs trembling, tried to stand but failed. He suddenly felt weak and sick, as if he had not eaten for days. His worn trousers ripped as he fell to his knees, gazing upwards at the dark beauty of Pythia Castigale. “What, is there another? A noble?” Skyler shouted. “I’ll challenge him, Pythia! I’ll call him out to the marches before all of Castigale and unarm him! I’ll break his shield with my bare hands and cast the remains of his coat of arms into the grass! I’ll let none come between you and I.”
The daughter of Castigale lowered her silken mask and startled him with a face hideously scarred and disfigured. Her flesh sagged under the right eye and looked melted, as if a great fire had laid a glancing blow to her cheek. “But he already has,” she whispered, raising a hand as if to strike him. The mask became a flaming sword that guttered and sparked in the cool, cave air.
Skyler Gatney’s eyes opened abruptly, the assault rousing him from sleep and his twisted dream. The pain flared quickly, a strike from a blunt staff spraying droplets of blood at his feet. His hands were bound above him to an iron ring driven into the bedrock. He had been stripped to the waist and sweat glistened on his scarred chest. A woman stood before him, dressed in a black cowl and cloak, her hand holding a staff with a bloodied end. She passed it back to a guard standing behind her.
“Please try to remain awake,” she said coolly, “or I will strike you again. I ask you one more time: who else knows of this cave and the gems you have stolen?”
Skyler tried moistening lips that were chapped and dry from several days of questioning. “I told you …” he croaked. “There are dozens in Myridon and Northern Hope. We have an ambassador on his way to the duke. If I do not return, they will come looking for me.”
The guard leaned forward and whispered something to the woman. She smiled patiently, as if hearing the answer she sought. “We are finished,” she said simply, looking directly at Skyler. Walking up to him, she placed a pale, ivory hand against his grime-ridden, blood-speckled face. Her fingers felt cool and soft to his bruised skin, and a brief scent of jasmine tickled his nose. “You are a clever man for a dirt-farmer, Skyler Gatney, but not clever enough. If there were others, they would be here, helping you. You expect me to believe that they would trust you, alone, with this treasure? And if the duke of Asbridge knew of your little discovery, he would seize it from your clumsy, callused hands.”
He rolled his head back, eyeing her suspiciously. “Do you speak for the duke?”
The woman’s smile narrowed to a smirk. “No,” she replied.
“Then I don’t give a fark about a woman’s opinions on the matter.”
She pulled her hand away as if stung. “So bitter,” she said, her voice pitying.
Skyler leapt forward at her, pulling against his restraints. The woman stood a hand’s breadth from his face. “Tell me,” he gritted. “You do a fine job of reading men’s hearts, whore-bitch. Is it taught to all your sex in the womb? To read a man and know how to destroy him?”
She did not flinch at his outburst but merely stood there, gazing into his eyes. From her robes she pulled out a laced handkerchief, wiping her hands delicately. “Only to those who listen carefully.” Her lips curled into a mocking smile. “Guard,” she called back, “when the time comes, take him with the others. We will use him this evening. ”
She then turned from Skyler and she and her formidable companion departed through one of the seven tunnels leading from the roughly-hewn, low-ceilinged cavern. Skyler and two other prisoners were manacled to a wall, a foul, flickering lamp their only source of light. The tunnels led to many, similarly interconnected chambers under this offshoot of the Darst mountains.
Mustering his strength, Skyler pulled again at the tightly wound cord that looped around the black ring. Dust fell from his effort, but nothing else. He sagged in resignation, certain that he would die here. His dark eyes darted over to the other prisoners in the chamber. They were two men, their clothes in tatters about their bodies. On occasion he saw them move, drink water that was given to them or relieve themselves where they sat, but never did they respond to his attempts at conversation. Nor did the lady ever seem interested in questioning them. He shook his head.
“Dead to the world,” he muttered, his glare focused on them. “Might as well get used to it, I s’ppose.” He did not know what the lady wanted to use him for that night, but felt certain it would be the end of him. Still idly looking about the room, Skyler spied the decaying remains of a mouse pressed against one of the irregular walls. The creature’s eyes were nothing but black sockets and half its minuscule face was torn away to reveal brown-white bone underneath. Saliva gathered in Skyler’s mouth, a testament to his hunger. He grinned.
“Did they torture you, too, little friend?” he asked the corpse. “Were you also here to find your fortune and escape Asbridge?” Skyler shifted his arms, trying to regain some feeling in them. “No doubt the lady did you in,” he said, perturbed. “Don’t trust their sex. They’ll betray you every time.”
To Skyler’s dismay, he thought he saw the little body convulse. Its claws seemed to jerk, as if roused by his words. He watched the thing for several long moments, trying to discern if he had really seen movement or if it was a trick of the uneven light. The body lay still. Finally shaking his head, he looked away, calming his quickened heart.
“I’m going mad,” he said, closing his eyes.
“Perhaps you are,” a small voice answered.
Skyler did not open his eyes immediately. Instead, he took a few long breaths and slowly opened one lid. At his feet sat the thin and emaciated corpse of the mouse, looking up at him with those dark sockets. Two sharp teeth gnashed the air at the front of its ruined face. Thin, soiled fur clung precariously to the creature’s head and body.
“Ol’s balls,” Skyler swore.
The mouse continued looking up at him patiently, its rib cage quite visible under its skin. Skyler tried making a sign against evil but his bound hands fumbled the gesture. Small, wheezing laughter escaped the mouse’s form. “That ward will do nothing against me, Skyler Gatney.”
“What, it wasn’t enough to be tortured by the living that I must now be tortured by the dead?” He kicked his legs at the creature, trying to shoo it away. The mouse jumped nimbly out of his reach. It paused to scratch at an ear, taking extra care not to remove any of its sagging fur.
“So defensive,” it said calmly. “Who is to say that I’m here to torture you?”
“Could there be any other reason?” Skyler exclaimed. “Are you a machination of the lady’s, you undead fiend? Trying to get more information out of me?”
“And so very paranoid,” the creature sighed. “No, Master Gatney, I believe she’s done with you. But do tell me, what happened to turn you so completely against their sex?”
Skyler narrowed his eyes. “Nothing a dead rodent would know of, of that I’m sure.”
“Ahh,” the mouse said, “you’ve had many opportunities to speak to dead rodents in your tenure as dirt farmer?” At his stunned silence, the creature continued. “Don’t be so surprised, Master Gatney. Being dead gives one plenty of time to listen to the living. I was able to learn much by just lying in my haphazard grave. You blurted out quite a bit in your dazed sessions with the lady. Let’s see,” the creature began counting off on its tiny hands, “you worked for the Castigales as groundskeeper when you could not make enough of a living on your own lands. Your brother, Cyrus, was murdered for having a deformed son –”
“Watch your words, mouse,” Skyler growled, his arms tensing the cords. “Gaergor was the sweetest child a father could hope for and, dead or no, don’t you say a thing to malign the boy.”
The mouse paused and wiggled its nose. “You did not answer my previous question. Why do you harbor a hatred towards all women?”
Skyler kept mum, staring at the creature at his feet. “Stubborn thing, aren’t you? Why don’t you answer some of my own questions?”
The mouse tilted its head. “What would you like to know?”
“Why are you here?”
“To free you, of course!”
Skyler snorted. “Out of the kindness of your unbeating heart?”
The creature’s skull seemed to grin at him. “One could say that,” it replied. The mouse hunched down on all fours and approached him, making as if to climb onto the man’s bare feet.
“What are you doing?” Skyler asked, alarmed.
The little creature leapt onto the ruined trousers and began scurrying up. “Bend to let me onto your shoulder.”
“I most certainly will not!”
“Would you rather I scrambled up your skin?”
Skyler frowned, imagining the creature digging its sharp, little claws into his bruised flesh. Cursing all the while, he did as he was told, lifting his knee and letting the rodent hop onto his shoulder. It smelled rank as it moved up his neck and onto his head, clawing through his hair. The sensation was almost too much for him. The mouse rose on spindly, hind legs and grasped the leather cords on Skyler’s arms, lowering its exposed teeth to the tough hide. The man felt the rodent gnawing on his bindings. After a short time, one of his hands came free, followed by the other.
The rush of blood into his lowered arms made them sting and he took a moment to rub them. The mouse jumped off his head and landed on the ground with a hollow thud. Picking itself up without a hint of pain, it started towards one of the tunnels that spawned from the room.
“What are you up to, mouse?”
“Follow me,” it called back to him. “I will show you a way out.”
Skyler shook his head in disbelief, laughing. “I’m grateful for my freedom, but I’m not so sure I should be following you deeper into these caves.”
His rescuer stopped and turned in its tracks. “Why?” it asked simply. “Do you still think me an apparition of your madness? Perhaps a trick of the lady’s? Of what significance is this? I might very well be the guide that leads you over the covered bridge to the otherworld or I might be a fanciful delusion that will pass the time until your death. Does it really matter? You will die soon in either case.”
Skyler stood there, thoughtful, examining the mouse’s logic. He looked over at the other prisoners who were still tied to the wall, having shown no reaction to the spectacle before them. He nodded in their direction. “What about them?”
The mouse raised its head as if sniffing the air and looked at the two ragged figures. “If you’d like, I will free them as well.”
Skyler paused a moment, thinking. “Let them find their own way out,” he finally muttered, turning from the men and walking to where the mouse waited. As he passed the lamp, Skyler picked up one of the raw nuggets of stone that had been lying next to it. The rock’s surface glittered with a thousand facets of unfinished gems. “Might as well take this, just in case I have to bribe the gatekeeper to the otherworld,” he quipped, pushing the stone into his pocket. The mouse shrugged and scampered down a dark passage, Skyler following in its fetid wake.
The creature led him down passages illuminated by various breaks in the rock. Some passages were narrow, barely allowing the dirt farmer from Castigale to squeeze through, others were cavernous, held up by stone columns a dozen times his height that grew from floor to ceiling. Infrequently, outside sunlight poured into the depths in shafts of brilliance that lit the passages in a warm, lazy glow. The deeper the two companions ventured, the fewer of these breaks they encountered until, at last, there were none. After that, Skyler climbed through tunnels dark and heavy with the mountain’s presence, the mouse’s tiny form glowing dimly to guide him. At one point, while pushing himself between two smooth columns like the fangs of some enormous, buried beast, Skyler thought he heard angry shouts far behind him, echoing in the crevices of the surrounding stone. They soon faded. Strangely enough, he felt secure with this undead creature that had come to his rescue.
After what seemed like a bell, the two came upon another vast chamber whose ceiling vaulted away into darkness. If mountains could have hearts, Skyler swore that they had stumbled upon one. The room had the feeling of a place of worship, so quiet and powerful was the presence that filled the air. Around him, he felt the weight of the stone bearing down upon the walls. A dozen man-sized alcoves dotted the walls, their entrances shimmering like the air that surrounds a burning fire. Behind the roiling walls of force lay immobile figures. Through the haze, he could make out men and women in various kinds of dress — some in fashions he had only seen in paintings in Castigale Keep, others dressed similarly to what he would have found in Myridon.
“Mouse?” Skyler asked a little sheepishly. “Where have you brought me?”
The undead creature made its way over to him, looking at what had caught his attention. “A holding area,” it replied, quietly. “The men you saw above have been prepared for the lady’s ritual. They were once here. These await preparation but their fate will be the same.”
“Ritual?” Skyler asked. Curiosity got the better of him and he wandered over to the alcoves, trying to get a better look at the inhabitants.
“Yes, ritual,” the mouse answered. “The lady and her husband seek something in these caverns greater than gold or gems. The ritual aids in their quest.”
“Haphazard graves seem to teach dead rodents much. Do you know what it is the lady seeks?” Skyler asked. When there was no response, he looked back and saw the creature sitting there on its haunches, waiting for him. “Mouse, I asked you if you knew what this treasure was?”
Again the creature did not answer but merely looked back at him from hollow sockets.
Skyler shrugged. “No matter,” he muttered. “It means nothing to …” As he came upon the last alcove, he let his voice trail into silence. Lying in the vertical grave, as if asleep, was a woman in a soiled and ruined dress. Her long, chestnut hair tumbled, disheveled, to her waist. Pale, blossom-white cheeks, free from the disfigurement of his dream, were streaked with dirt. Although her eyes lay closed, Skyler knew their color in his heart.
“Pythia …” he whispered, amazed. His hand went to the glowing barrier, as if to pass through and touch her.
“Do not break the barrier,” the mouse warned.
Skyler turned, his mind still astonished at his discovery. “How did Pythia Castigale come to be here?”
The mouse tilted its head. “Is this the Lord Castigale’s mad daughter?” it asked. Jumping over some small rocks, the undead guide made its way over to the alcove. “Hmm. I would’ve thought she’d be older. Or not as pretty. She *is* the mad one, correct? The lady’s men found her wandering the mountains, calling out for her lover.”
Skyler’s face tightened at his companion’s words. His dark eyes surveyed the shimmering alcove. “Stupid girl,” he said softly. There was no anger in his voice, only indifference.
The mouse tugged at his pant leg. “Is this the woman in your dreams?” it asked.
“What are my dreams to you?”
The creature was silent.
“I have no woman in my dreams, only a foolish memory.”
“So, she is the cause of your embitterment?”
It was Skyler’s turn to not answer.
The little creature laid a fragile paw on Skyler’s foot. “The exit is still far from here, Skyler Gatney. If you wish to escape, we should leave.”
“It would serve her right,” Skyler snorted, “to leave her here.” He backed away from the alcove, a numbness growing inside of him. Pythia was the last person he imagined to find buried under the mountain. Backing into a stone outcropping, he sat down, never taking his eyes from the alcove. The mouse continued staring at him quizzically.
“I was in love with her,” Skyler said aloud. “Does that answer your question?” He looked at his companion and smiled a sad smile. “I was in love with her upon my first glimpse of her bedraggled head in a tower window.” He recalled the moment clearly: tending the hedge bushes and catching the sight of a pale-skinned, wild-haired woman peering curiously at him from the north tower — the one forbidden to all visitors and most servants by order of Lord Castigale himself. “I had heard the rumors, of course. Pythia was the eldest daughter of the Castigales, gone mad after the death of her husband in the war with Beinison. Borroll, a groomsman, swore up and down that she had cursed his mare into bearing only dead foals. Some of the maids even claimed they had glimpsed her dancing naked on top of the tower in the light of the full moon.”
“Did she?” the rodent asked, its voice full of wonder.
“Dance? Perhaps. Curse? No,” Skyler snickered. He rubbed at his dirt-smeared arms, as if he could clean them. “This girl who talks to the air and loses her way in a closed room is not a witch. Only broken.” Another memory swelled in the man’s head. “She and I would dance together sometimes, in one of the shuttered halls in the north tower. She kept this one dress — cream-colored, with strands of pearls along its bodice –” Skyler’s hands sketched the air, as if drawing it for his companion. “She kept it secreted away and in fine condition. Most of her other clothes she ruined. It used to drive her personal maids to tears. But this one dress … it matched a ring her father had bought her in Dargon, before her troubles set in. She only wore that gown when we danced.”
Skyler could almost hear Pythia’s humming in the distance even now. He envisioned the tower’s ballroom: tall ceilings criss-crossed with lumber that shed dust when the wind blew too fiercely; several tables covered in linens to protect them from the passage of time. He and Pythia would light an old candelabra and sweep tracks in the floor with their steps. Only the two of them. The man remembered that sometimes she would put her head on his shoulder and he would smell the sweet scent of her unruly hair.
“And yet your love was somehow poisoned?” the mouse asked, this time with sadness in its voice.
Skyler sighed. “Lord Castigale,” he said wearily. Around him, in the shadows of the mountain cave, a night sky bloomed. It was near dusk and the scent of the apple blossoms lay heavily in the air. Involuntarily, Skyler’s fist tightened. “The lord came upon us one evening in the orchards. Pythia was forbidden to leave the castle, but I would sneak her out sometimes when no one was looking.” There was a shadow of a figure at the end of a row of apple trees, darker than the evening sky. A flurry of images followed: the lord’s angry face, the spit hurled at Skyler, the brawl that ensued. The dirt farmer swallowed. “The lord threatened to have the Lady Dagny drag me halfway across Asbridge, naked, to leave me dying in some ditch. He took Pythia away and I was left with no wor k.” He heard Pythia softly weeping, stumbling after her father through the trees. The vision ended.
“An unfortunate encounter,” the mouse said. “What did Pythia do?”
Skyler laughed harshly. He leaned back and shrugged. “Several nights later, I snuck back into the tower and tried to get her to run away with me. I promised to protect and provide for her — I told her that I had found a map … She said that I could not possibly care for someone of her stature. Her father had forbade her to ever see me again and so she could not go. To top it off, she said that if I didn’t leave her that instant, she’d call the guards! Stupid girl,” he echoed.
“Then good riddance to her!” the mouse exclaimed, twitching its tail. “You should be glad that the lady’s men found her and brought her here. Skyler Gatney, I must tell you again: if you wish to escape, we must leave immediately. Your captors could come upon us at any time.”
The dirt farmer from Castigale ignored his undead guide’s warning and looked long and hard at the woman in the alcove. For the first time in sennights, since he had left Castigale land, he felt his heart beating again. It ached within him, worse than the bruises or the cuts he had received at the hands of his captors. The Castigales were better off with Pythia’s death. Skyler would be better off with Pythia’s death. He stood up, ready to leave, and paused. In the alcove, she looked peaceful, asleep. He idly wondered what she would do when they pulled her from that place. How would she feel?
Skyler sighed, feeling emotion snag its hooks into his heart. “How do these barriers work, mouse? Something tells me that you know.”
The little creature cried out in exasperation. “Ah, the trials of the living! I am but a simple rodent, Master Gatney. I only know what I have seen and heard. I believe these alcoves are protected with barriers of sleep and warding. Should someone remove their contents then the barriers will break and those who raised them will know and come to investigate. They would arrive much more quickly than I could lead you out.”
Skyler scratched his stubbled chin. “That’s not acceptable, mouse.”
“I did not say that rescue was impossible,” the mouse replied. “To free Pythia Castigale, if that is truly your wish, then you must trade places with her.”
Skyler frowned at his companion’s statement. “What?” he asked. “You joke.”
“I am sorry, Skyler Gatney. I have only seen what the lady and her men have done. They only exchange prisoners, and once, when one of her men sought to take a beautiful woman for his own, the lady came to find him. Should you wish to free Pythia without alarming your captors, then you must pull her out of the barrier while you go in.”
Skyler’s heart sank. A part of him had imagined her expression when he freed her. Perhaps she would be elated? Then again, perhaps she would not even remember why she had come out to the mountains. “Will you lead her out if I free her?”
“Of course,” the mouse said quietly.
Skyler nodded in satisfaction. Gathering his courage, he reached out and took hold of Pythia’s shoulder. The barrier enveloped his arm with crawling tentacles of lightning, tingling his flesh like a thousand roaches probing his skin. He felt it drawing him in as he pulled the woman forward, the barrier wanting to claim him for its own. The entrance to the alcove was narrow, so Skyler brushed up against Pythia as they traded places. The smell of her hair almost caused him to stop, to hug her fiercely before he lost her, but he settled for a brief brushing of lips as the prickly feeling spread to his neck and his hair, across his chest and down his legs. And then he was in and she was out, and he closed his eyes, awaiting his fate.
Nothing happened. Skyler opened one eye. The shimmering barrier was gone and the cavern was dark. Even his guide’s glowing form had disappeared. Skyler tentatively poked his head out.
“Mouse?” Skyler whispered fervently. “Mouse, are you there? What’s happened?”
He heard his guide’s voice giggle, although it deepened as it broke into echoes. From the walls, Skyler saw something flit. A small, bright flash broke the darkness of the room, clear to the far off ceiling. The flash ran through thin veins lacing the stone walls, moving too fast for Skyler to see clearly. He was left with the distinct impression of a white cloak that trailed behind a man.
“I am here,” a voice boomed.
Skyler cringed as he emerged from the alcove, frightened by the loud voice. “Mouse, what is going on? What are you up to?”
“Skyler Gatney, you are not the first to enter my lair,” the voice answered, “but you will be the first to leave it. Despite your pain and bitterness, despite your anger and callousness towards life, you did not fall victim to vengeance and attempt to harm the one you loved, even though she did not return your affection. There is a part of you that still loves, and loves truly. That is a deed that not even I, a being far superior to you, was capable of accomplishing.”
“What? Who are you?” Skyler asked incredulously. “A demon? Devil? Where are Pythia and the others?”
Another laugh echoed in the empty space. “The Pythia you saw was an instrument of my judgment, Skyler Gatney. It was a figment to see if the bitterness that encompassed you was complete. I am no demon. Nor am I a god. I am a shadow left behind by an act of power.” Another flash leapt across the face of the rocks. Deep gashes in the walls were revealed, wounds that looked far too straight and square to be natural. “There were priests who cleaved this very rock for Amante’s worship. Before the god’s disgrace. They called upon him in this room and part of him remained after they left. Skyler Gatney, I am the memory of lost Amante, god of love and beauty.”
Skyler felt the blood drain from his face. Unconsciously, he stepped back towards the alcove, as if to hide from this strange power that crawled through the veins of rock.
“Do not fear me,” the voice assured him, as if reading his mind. “It is true that I am also a part of the Amante that is: the butcher, the thief, the assassin; he who would steal a mortal’s mind and warp it to his own end, but I do not share his lust for vengeance and blood.”
Skyler looked around. “Then this was a test?” he asked. “Pythia was never here?” He straightened his back. “What would have happened had I failed?”
The voice laughed. “I think you know the answer to that.” Around Skyler, the alcoves glowed briefly, although there was no one in their depths.
“Who were those people that captured me?” Skyler asked.
“They worship the true Amante,” the voice answered, “the god who has forgotten love under the layer of scars that enwrap his soul. I am the treasure they seek.
“The nugget of stone in your pocket, the one you stole from your captors? It will fetch you a duke’s ransom, and do not let any pawnbroker tell you otherwise. When you sell it, buy a home and health, both for you and Pythia for the rest of your short lives. Ride into Castigale Keep in hose and finery, on a white horse. Find Pythia and take her away from Asbridge, never to return or to speak to anyone of this place. Ever. While all my power is bent to prevent my dark self from finding me, I still have ways in which to exact revenge.”
“But Pythia,” Skyler said, taking the rock out of his pocket. “She has rejected me. I’m not even certain she will know me. If she did not truly come looking for me …”
“The ring that Pythia wears,” the voice said. “It is a corrupt ring forged by hands that found a shattered stone in an alley where a madman died. Pythia treasures it above all else because her father gave it to her, and yet it is the cause of her madness. Dispose of it and you will have your true love in all her health. In her lucidity, she will know you. Even now, though she will not admit it, I hear her dreams call out to you.”
Skyler felt his throat clench. He was astounded. His dreams were within his grasp. After so many years of hardship and pain, happiness seemed right before him. He swallowed heavily. “I do not know what to say.”
“Then say nothing and leave me to my hiding,” the voice replied, softly. “My light will lead you to the surface, away from the lady and her minions. Thank you, Skyler Gatney. You have given me hope for man. Hope that I have not had for millennia …”
“He is gone, milady.”
Nimieta, wife of Lord Curran of Dargon, held the desiccated remains of a mouse in her fist, gazing deeply into its hollow sockets as if they spoke to her, whispered of something she could just barely hear. There was something of power left in this fragile corpse of an animal. She and another guard stood in one of the many tunnels snaking through the mountain’s belly.
“Lord Curran will be displeased by this,” she said shortly, crushing the creature’s skull in her hand. It cracked into dust. “The guard who was charged with watching over the dirt farmer, has he been beaten for his laxity?”
“And has he been prepared for the ritual in place of Skyler Gatney?”
“Good,” she said watching the dust from her fist fall to the floor. “At least the noisome man is lost to the tunnels here. He will die a slow death, but at least a death it will be. Come, we have much work to do.” She started to lead the way out, the guard in tow, when she heard something. Nimieta turned where she stood, her eyes searching out the dark depths of the cave tunnel around them.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
“No, milady. What was it?”
“Nothing,” she said grimly, but in the back of her mind she thought she heard laughter, a deep laughter that mocked her from the darkness.