sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
So this arc needed to be divided into three parts because I kept not finding a stopping point.
Updated 12/10/11


Previous

Three days later, they found themselves standing in one of the fields left fallow to regain soil nutrients.  Petra had drawn two large concentric circles on the ground and was carefully writing something in the space in between.

“Seems a bit small,” Carmen said.

“Count yourselves lucky I am not making you hold hands,” Odette told her.  “The further apart people are, the more energy I have to put into doing this.”

“I thought the orb was doing the work,” Tae said, reaching a gloved hand down to scratch Snow's ears where he sat between her and Athena.  Athena had said she was not certain the wolf really understood teleporting.  Folding the land had come across just as regular walking to him, but this sort of transportation seemed to be beyond his ken.  Tae had told her to give up on the argument with the wolf and just let him sort the smells out when they arrived.

“The orb is supplying use of the spell itself- it is not a teleportation spell I know how to use.  Mine is personal and only for much smaller distances to locations I have already seen.  I will be supplying the power.  I would rather not be left completely useless while we are there, if that is all right with you, Carmen.”

Carmen coughed quietly into her hand, a somewhat sheepish look on her face.

“We did want you to just transport four,” Gethin offered, no hint of reproach in his voice.

Odette glanced in his direction.  “Yes, but then I would also teleport us back here to return to my friends.”

“I appreciate you allowing us to choose the return destination,” Yseult said.  “Are your preparations complete?”

Odette looked the group over and then over to where Petra worked.  “It does not need every little detail,” she told the squatting elf, who was still busy drawing runes inside the double set of lines.

“Just because you're cheating the system using an artifact doesn't mean you should get sloppy,” the redhead said without looking up.  “That bracer you wear does the calculations for you when you do your leaps.  I'd rather not arrive with Tae's arms and Carmen's feet if it's all the same to you.”

“It may be a few more minutes,” Odette said, turning back to Yseult.

“What is she doing?” Gethin asked.

“Teleportation requires descriptors,” Odette said.  “For wizards like Petra anyway.  My sorcery is more intuitive, going by my visual observations and mental perceptions.  I think you are the person who is being teleported and so you are the person who arrives.  Using a stored spell like the one in the orb is much the same way, but Petra apparently would feel safer if the circle had our descriptions in it as a redundancy feature.  The usual mishap with teleportation is arriving in somebody else's clothes, but we did meet someone in our travels once with two left hands.”

Barrett looked like he was about to say something, but Gethin nudged him gently as a reminder to hush.  He had not ingratiated himself to any of the women.  Tae was just relieved he had not mouthed off in front of Carmen.  She had an even shorter temper than Petra's and had the physical strength for a lengthy brawl.  Petra had merely mouthed off right back at the man- though her threat had not been an idle one.  Carmen would go straight for punching him in the face should he insult her ability to fight.

It had not been as pleasant a break as they had originally been looking forward to when Tae had first informed them they would have to delay travels to let the two woodswomen rest and regain their energies.

“What did you put my weight down as?” Tae asked, peering down at Petra's handiwork.  She was not really surprised to find she could not read it.  Knowledge of arcane languages was not something Tae had needed for her duties.  It was enough that she could manage Kelathyl without the horrendous accent she had learned at her mother's knee until her aunt had finally coaxed her out of pronouncing every letter so flatly. Petra still flinched half the time she spoke, but the little elf was overly picky about trills.

“Your armor counts too, Tae,” she huffed.  “Wait, how did you even know I was doing you?”

“I may not be able to read it, but I have seen you write my name this way a number of times.  I guessed about the weight.”

Petra grinned as she continued her scrawl.  “I should mark you as three kilograms heavier just to see what would happen.”

“Who do you have left to do?” Carmen asked.

“Impatient much?” Petra said, no bark in her voice.  “Tae's the last.  I had to do a bunch of modifiers for the sun-knights,” she gestured with her free hand, “but I figure Yseult carting around the orb for however long it’s been will have kind of seeped her descriptors into it a bit.”

“Sounds sloppy,” Carmen said with a grin.

“I hate you,” Petra grumbled.

“I'm a completely lovable person,” Carmen said archly.  “Everyone here agrees.”

Athena giggled.

“All set,” Petra said, hopping up and dusting her hands off on her pants.

“And we do not have to hold hands?” Yseult questioned.

Odette smiled.  “Stand together as closely as possible, but I would prefer you not to be touching.”  She moved to stand directly in the center of the circle.  “Please do not step on the lines, I am using them as a frame of reference.”

Yseult handed her a small pink orb from out of the pouch at her side.  “Please be careful with this.  I do not wish to walk out of Telubra's mountains.  It has only been done once in recent history and I am not packed for such a trek.”

“That be true for the rest of us,” Carmen murmured as she followed the others into the circle. She wondered at Barrett’s limp, but one look at Petra’s smirk as she watched the man told her she was better off not asking.

----

They arrived at the steps of a small temple.  It was built in the oldest of styles- a small rectangular building whose side walls extended well past the doorway to form a small shadowed courtyard.  Tae thought it had only one room. The temple was surrounded by columnar supports placed a metre from the walls. The columns had been sanded flat, not fluted as was common in classical religious architecture. The morning sun highlighted all the pits erosion and time had worn into them.

Tae found it remarkably plain for a temple.  Judging by the frown on Petra's face as she stared at the building, hands dug into her pockets, she felt something similar.  Odette seemed to be too busy clearing her head to pay close attention to the building, and the sun-knights were already moving up the steps, intent on their mission.

“Seems abandoned,” Carmen finally said.  Snow whined softly.

“Seems creepy,” Petra added.  “Want to check it out?”

“I suppose they might need help finding where the wards are located,” Athena said, unsure whether or not she actually wanted to go inside.

“Have they decided whether they will reapply the wards, or remove them to banish whatever it holds?” Carmen asked.  “Only Tae would be able to help fix them.”

“They'll probably take them down and get rid of it so this won't happen again,” Petra said, heading up the steps.

The other women followed her inside.

She had thought rightly.  There was just the single large room inside.  It was empty, its only decoration two rows of pillars lining the room.  Strangely, they looked just as eroded as the ones outside.  The only people inside of it were the three sun-knights.

"This place is really creepy," Petra said as they entered the empty naos. Rather unnecessarily, Tae thought. She and Odette were the only ones here that did not channel divine energies, and the rest of the party were even more ill at ease than the tiny elf.

"The ancient one that was bound to this place sleeps fitfully," Yseult said from where she stood at the east wall, inspecting it for something. Both men looked as if they had swallowed something sour, but she had the calm, serene features of a woman who knew she was an extension of her god's arm.  Tae hated her a little for it- she knew her face was showing how disturbed she felt and she wished she had the same control over her expressions.  "We could find no records of which priest it was who bound him here, or who he is, but this is definitely the center of the disturbances. We must find the anchor wards and see what they can tell us about the prisoner. There should be a holy symbol of Jadus marked somewhere in here.  It was his priests who originally bound the sleeper."

The others spread out to help search the empty naos. Feeling ill at ease in the temple, Tae returned to the portico they had entered through. There was something that felt hugely wrong about the place.  The less time they spent here, the better.

"The frieze is unadorned."

Tae jumped, spinning awkwardly around to see who had snuck up on her. Petra grabbed one of her arms before she finished overbalancing, taking a step forward as Tae's greater weight tugged her off-balance as well. Petra grinned at her glare, and Tae rolled her eyes, knowing the redhead could not help being silent on her feet.

"The frieze?" she repeated, deciding against snapping at Petra. The tiny elf took delight in catching people unawares and would only feel complimented by Tae's irritation.

Petra pointed directly upwards. "You see the band of stone across the top of the columns that circles the building that the roof sits on? That's the entablature. The frieze is the decorative middle part. Religious architecture usually has reliefs with the god's supposed feats sculpted in. Or at least his holy symbol. Even cultists pretty up their sad little altar rooms. There's absolutely nothing anywhere. It's as if-" Petra stopped, frowning in thought. She walked further outside, heading down the entrance steps. Tae tagged along noisily behind her, almost running into her as the elf stopped at the foot of the steps and spun back around to look at the front of the column-encircled building. "Do you see anything in that triangle up there at top of the building?"

She followed Petra's gaze. It was a rectangular building made of a light gray stone. Six columns stood at the front of the temple, more lining the sides. Shadowed behind them were the actual walls of the temple. Atop the columns rested the entablature Petra had spoken of; from this distance, it would be simple to make out any detail of the decoration, had there been any. The roof rose in from the sides in a slant, peaking in the middle of the building to form a large triangle with the entablature as a base.

Tae recalled seeing an ancient temple of Khory built similarly. And the triangle had been filled with an intricately detailed high relief of the earth goddess' dance of creation. There was nothing to this building. It was as if the imprisoned being had been completely erased from the very architecture of its own temple.

And yet Tae could feel the pulse of evil, madness, and hatred pouring out of every centimetre of the building. She looked away, shivering.

"I noticed something off about it right away.  And the interior is wrong too.  There's something here," Petra said, gaze moving downwards to the shadowed entrance. "Hidden away. Something is wrong, and it's not just fading wards." Petra jogged back up the stairs, disappearing back into the naos.

Tae stayed where she was, staring at the pedimental triangle. It wavered slightly, like water rippling after a pebble was tossed in. It had to be an illusion. She clenched her hand around the holy symbol around her neck and frowned, willing herself to see the underneath.

The entire building rippled, and she could see the building shake as a wave of magic spread out of it, and then snapped back in. The aura of evil intensified, almost choking her.

She stared as fluting appeared on the now almost pristine white columns. The frieze became a tile pattern, alternating between black triglyphs and deep purple tiles with a curlicue spiral in low relief carved into them. The walls were the same pristine white as the columns, and the roof was now black. The great triangle had colorful sculptures of a great battle of gods and spirits. She did not recognize many. And those she did recognize seemed much diminished, or possibly just young, before they came into their power. At each corner of the roof were deep purple sculptures of strange tentacled monsters. At the apex was a sculpture of an inverted two-tiered black step pyramid. She frowned, a frisson of fear running down her spine. She had seen that symbol before, in an ancient scroll where the author had called the opposing force 'the heretics.'  Petra had said that the dates were wrong, that it predated known human civilization on this land-

Screams came from inside the building. Tae stormed up the stairs, metal-clad feet making her sound like an entire army company.

The inside of the temple was just as changed as the exterior. A great black altar stood in the center of the room in the same shape as the roof's major sculpture outside- an inverted ziggurat.  Purple floor tiles spiraled outwards around it. The columns that had lined the room had turned a deep purple and sculpted into them were the likenesses of layered multitudes of pain-filled faces, their mouths open in silent screams of agony. The three sun-knights of Jadus stood in the center, backs to the altar, their weapons drawn as their eyes darted around the room. Carmen held an unconscious owl huddled to her chest, Athena fluttering worriedly at her side.  Snow was cowering at her feet, obviously terrified. Petra stood in front of one of the pillars, a look of horror on her face as she reached a hand towards it, but holding herself back from actually touching the disgusting thing.

Odette was nowhere in sight.

"By all that is bright, where did that come from?" Yseult asked. "There is no one here but us."

"Where is Odette?" Tae asked, almost afraid of the answer.

Carmen looked up from the owl. The familiar was still, and Tae could not tell if Mantha was breathing. "Gone," she said brokenly. "I don't understand-" she stopped as Petra started swearing in an unfamiliar language.

All three sun-knights turned to face the irate elf. Barrett was already making a motion of dismissal. "Control yourself, trickster," he commanded. "That is an unholy tongue."

Petra's fists clenched. "I shouldn't have told her- should have warned her that illusions always cover traps- hells, she knew that, what was she thinking? And who would use such a powerful destructive spell as a defensive precaution? It's monstrous."

Tae realized what must have happened. Petra had approached Odette to discuss the illusion that covered the temple. Always one to be helpful, the sorceress had immediately tried to dispel it. And when she succeeded, she had triggered something hidden underneath the illusion. And it had completely destroyed her- body and soul. Tae's eyes snapped to the owl. Maybe not completely; Mantha was an extension of Odette and if he still existed, the spell could not have utterly annihilated her- something of her spirit had to remain.

"We must still find the wards," Yseult said, sheathing her sword and motioning for the men to do the same. "It is a shame about the sorceress-"

"She is the one who teleported us here," Athena spoke up angrily. The blonde half-elf continued, "We cannot leave here by other means. And I refuse to take part in a ritual of cleansing here without some means of escape. 'Tis a wicked place."

"And what can we do about it?" Yseult said in a calm voice. "Your priestess cannot return her from beyond without a body to place her in."

"But I can," Athena replied, a determined look on her face. "I cannot do it here in the temple confines, ‘tis nothing of life in here to draw upon, but ‘tis energy enough outside to let me create a body.”

“Athena, no,” Tae said, her voice soft but commanding.  “You are not yet recovered enough for a working of such size.  And this is not one you could lead Carmen through to help you.  It is beyond her abilities.”

“‘Tis why I said I would use the natural energies of the valley.  I can do this, cousin.” Her voice was strong and determined.  Tae knew there was no changing her mind on this.  And she knew better than her woodswise cousin how difficult the task Athena had set before herself.  And how dangerous.  “But I cannot summon her soul from wherever it has been banished to."

“I can,” Tae sighed.  “And if I cannot convince you not to do this-”

“Odette was the only person who could use the teleportation orb.  And she is our friend, cousin.  ‘Tis the right thing to do.”

“Then I will do what I can to make certain you succeed.”

"Do what you will,” Yseult spoke, “but Gethin, Barrett, and I must find the wards. The disturbances will grow worse with the disruption of the illusion. I doubt the original gaolers left it here, but whoever was here after them placed it as an extra security measure and with it, further bindings on the imprisoned sleeper. Likely they placed the trap as well. Better to slay someone who comes across this place than to chance them releasing the sleeper."

"That's horrible," Carmen said, passing the owl into Athena's arms.

"Do you not recognize the symbols here, woodswoman?  Is this terrible one unknown in your land?" The tall woman asked in a cold voice. "This is a temple of the Eater of Worlds. Better to cast a thousand innocent souls to the very depths of the Nine Hells than to break a single chain that binds the Nameless One. I had planned to release the sleeper that we might destroy the source of the blight, but this is no forgotten demigod. It must be an avatar of the Eater of Worlds bound here, and we would need an army to destroy it."

Carmen's eyes flashed angrily, but she did not continue the argument.  Sun-knights rarely changed their minds, and Tae was not certain Yseult's argument was wrong. Petra did not have the ability, but if she did, she could imagine the elf putting a similar trap up against such a thing. Better one dead innocent than the release of an avatar of the god of eternal darkness, the ender of all things. Tae knew she could not make that sort of decision; she tended to the here and now and worried less about consequences further down the road.

"If you are done wasting our time, we must find the wards. Do not disturb our work," Yseult said. She motioned for the two men to spread out. All three were very careful not to touch the pillars or altar.

Carmen glowered at them from where she stood near the entrance. "Remind me again, why did we come here?"

"Because we did not trust them with Odette," Tae said.

"Fine job we did of guarding her," Petra said bitterly as she joined them.

"Provided we can find where the spell sent her soul, we can still get her back," Tae said gently. "And with Mantha as a focus, the job is less difficult. Athena, perhaps you should start preparation for your ritual."

"You realize 'tis little chance I can find enough energy to return her to her proper human form, yes?" The blonde passed the owl to her cousin. Tae was relieved to feel his slow breathing.

"Alive as a bugbear beats dead," Carmen said.

"Maybe not as a bugbear," Petra said sourly, but with a half-hearted grin. "Maybe she'll get lucky and come back as an elf. Superior species, after all."

"Just find what's left of her," the taller woman replied. "And we can complain about Athena's chancy working later. Let's get started, shall we?" Both woodswomen left the temple and Tae listened to their footsteps disappear down the stairs to the edge of the grounds.

"Her soul didn't go anywhere," Petra said, watching the sun-knights slowly search the room. Yseult stood near the altar, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer. The two men, on the opposite side of the naos, held their sunburst holy symbols before them, sweeping back and forth like water-dowsers. The anchors they were looking for probably felt less evil than the rest of the temple. Even with her abilities suppressed as much as she could, Tae could feel the pervading stink of evil. She made certain to avoid looking at the worst offenders: the black altar and the grotesque pillars. The altar radiated with the dark tang of blood sacrifice, making it easy to avoid looking at.

The pillars, though.

The pillars drew you in, trapping your gaze in the terror-filled faces of its carvings.

Tae had to fight to keep her eyes off them.

"What do you mean?"

Petra motioned to one of the pillars. Tae thought it might have been the one she had been standing in front of when the priestess had first entered the changed temple. "She was standing right in front of me. And when she triggered that trap, I saw what happened. The spell destroyed her body, and that pillar sucked her soul in. Those carvings," the redhead stopped, her eyes meeting Tae's. They looked hollow. "They're not carvings. At least, not entirely."

Tae let her eyes be drawn to the pillar Petra had pointed towards. The agonized faces were extremely detailed. No two even came close to looking similar. She thought she understood the horrible idea Petra was working towards. "They are previous sacrifices," she said, one hand raising unconsciously to grasp at her amulet. "Every time someone was killed here, they were imprisoned here as well."

"That's what it looks like," Petra said flatly. "And I'm going to have to metaphysically make my way through all of that to find her. Hope your nerves are up for this." She moved closer to the pillar, a determined look on her face.

Tae closed her eyes and said a soft prayer of guidance, relaxing into the view of the magical overlay of the world, seeing the ley lines around them warped by the slow manipulations of the temple's prisoner. She felt close by for the faint energy that kept Mantha breathing. A silvery-blue ribbon threaded from the owl and in the direction of the pillar they stood before. The pillar itself churned in her sight, as if it could sense her unseeing gaze upon it. She resisted the urge to open her eyes to stop from viewing the coiling mass of evil. "I found the cord. Are you ready? Odette will not be the only soul trapped there and only a few of them will passively let you by. She should still be close though."

Petra grabbed her free hand firmly.  Silvery-green light blended with Tae's own rich purple energies where their hands were clasped. "No choice." Tae heard her slap her other hand against the column and watched as a silvery-green streak raced along the cord into the churning mass, leaving a faint trail glowing behind it. Petra's hand clenched hers tightly, but the elf did not speak, nor draw back out.

Time stopped as they stood there, her connecting Mantha to Odette, leaving just enough of a leak through for Petra to sense and follow. They could not leave their minds wide open, no matter how much easier it would make finding Odette. There was no guarantee the morass could not cut them off. And then Petra would be lost with no trail back, and Tae would be left reeling by magical backlash.

And then she could feel Petra stop, some force blocking her.

"Something has hold of her. It knows we're trying to free her and it never releases its victims," Petra spoke in a soft, far-away voice."It's dragged her in to the center with it."

Tae refocused her closed gaze, trying to see into the swirling mass of energies between them. She could make out a malevolent pulse of deep purple energy at the center of the storm, drawing in the others in the slow, inexorable way of something that knew it had centuries to process its meal. It must have felt her link Mantha to Odette. And it had pulled Odette deep within the maelstrom away from them. Either to finish her off before rescue, or to draw the two rescuers in to eat as well. And the only thing keeping Petra from falling in as well was her tight grip on Tae's hand.

"We all know how good you are at stealing things," Tae said, trying to infuse a lightness into her words that she did not feel. Through the strange four-way connection, she could feel the awful presence that Petra had stopped at. Not one of the countless victims, but neither was it the actual god- its presence was far too weak for that. She could feel the not-inconsiderable power it bent towards them, demanding surrender. Demanding worship and blood and death.

Tae wished she had a free hand to grab her amulet. It was a security blanket she had not been able to give up. But the thought of the holy symbol gave her an idea.  And while touching it for focus was usual, it was not actually necessary. Not for what she would have to do. She took a deep breath, and reached inwards for the Protector's presence within herself, careful not to lose focus on her link with Mantha, careful not to withdraw too far from Petra's narrowed energies.

"I am the sword that protects, the flame lit against the hungry dark," she whispered. They needed help. And who better to ask than the Protector?  But the division of her energies left her dizzy, and she had to fight to continue her benediction. "I fear no foe, for I am the will of my god. Let my blow be his and let him drive back the evil that threatens."

"Please," came Petra's almost silent whisper, adding her voice to Tae's prayer. “I do not ask for aid for myself, but for one who I have hurt in my folly." Tae could hear the struggle in her voice, each word a battle of wills from the depths as the terrible strength of the bodiless maw crushed down on Odette and, through her, upon them as well.

There was a strange shift and she felt, more than heard, an answer. It was not whom she expected, though.

'Pardon me, cousin.'

The presence that approached was not the warm, somewhat remote love she felt from the Protector.  Nor was it as crushing a presence as when the Protector had first spoken to her heart.  It was wilder, merrier, and somehow lonelier.  Some demigod of the Protector's Court she had never had contact with before.  And while her thoughts still dwelt on who it might be, it nudged her out of place and spoke through her.

“Do you know what you ask, child?” Tae could hear the echo in her voice, the sound of whoever of the Court had come. It was an odd sensation, still being able to feel her body and yet have no power over it. Very- disconnected. “It is not within my power to simply free her. There must be an exchange.”

"I know that better than most, my lord."  Petra's voice was still far-away, but no longer gasping out each word like there was no breath in her lungs.  "But I will also pay for my mistakes."

He- and it was a he, she could feel the dichotomous nature of herself feminine and him masculine inhabiting one place- was going to swap Petra's and Odette's places.  This was not a rescue.

Tae wanted to tug her hand free of Petra’s, force her to break out. There was no guarantee Athena could create something to house Odette's soul and then they would lose both of them.  She could feel herself going in circles, breaking apart, not wanting to hear this awful choice. It was not a choice; self-centered though Petra often was, her loyalty given was a life placed before her own.  And she felt the presence pat her patronizingly on the head and she was no longer falling apart anymore, she was angry, and she tugged-

And whichever of the Court he was, he swatted her away like she was a flea and she was trapped with only her ears and her other sense of vision to passively view the world.  And never did the flavor of his presence change from amusement and all she could do was sit and stew in her anger, trapped within herself.

"Her fate shall be yours, young petitioner," he spoke through her mouth, that odd echo still there.  A great arrow of power zapped through her, to her hand clasped in Petra's, along Petra's arm into the morass, and everything exploded and her vision went white.  The presence withdrew out of her, pinched her bottom merrily, and disappeared away.

She collapsed at the sudden release and felt Petra fall next to her.  She drew herself on up shaky hands and knees, only dimly noticing the awful pillars breaking all around the room.  She could not remember what happened to Mantha.  Her eyes sought out Petra.

She lay small and still on her back, eyes closed.  Tae breathed a sigh of relief at the rise and fall of her chest.  Her eyes suddenly snapped open and she shot straight up, slamming forcefully into Tae. Already unsteady, Tae fell loudly on her side.  She watched through unfocused eyes as Petra shot a hand out to her side and lightning arced across the room, its crackling energies crashing into the dark altar and through it into the trio of sun-knights who had gathered just beyond it.  She collapsed backwards, eyes rolling up her head.  So did the sun-knights.

Tae had no time to wonder at what Petra had done, or why the knights had gathered, or whether Yseult, Gethin, and Barrett still lived.  More bolts of silvery-blue lightning raced into the room through the crumbling entranceway to slam into the altar's remains.  The entire room seemed to explode into dust and breaking stone.

Tae barely had time to throw herself over Petra's unprotected body before the roof fell on them.  She felt something hit her head, and there was a flash of blue before the pain knocked her out.

----

Athena sat on her knees, frowning in concentration as she wove her fingers together like she was a child playing cat’s cradle with string.  On the opposite end of the bedroll Carmen had laid out for her, Snow sat on his haunches, ears perked forward with interest.  Carmen couldn’t see the ley lines the half-elf was manipulating, but she could feel the low throb of energy pulsing throughout the valley with each twitch of Athena’s nimble fingers.

If she was honest, she didn’t think this plan could work.  Athena was too drained to perform the ritual correctly and the shortcut she was taking- using the energy of the flora and fauna of the valley- seemed dubious at best.  Using her own energy barely guaranteed a humanoid form for a body, the addition of the natural world could mean Odette would be brought back as a tree.  Athena didn’t seem worried about the matter and Carmen had bowed to her superior knowledge, but she had her doubts.

Was it really wise to use the energy of life that had grown in the shadow of a temple housing an immeasurable evil?  Who was to say it hadn’t warped its environs in the unknown amount of time it had been leaking its dark energies out?

She consoled herself by standing watch over the murmuring half-elf, constantly scanning the surroundings for any sign of movement.  But the animals were silent and still, hidden away in their burrows and nests.  There was no wind to move the air, leaving her wondering what caused the faint tremors in the branches of the scrubby brush that filled the area.   With every slow breath Athena took, she could feel a low thrum of anticipation coursing through the valley.

Valley didn’t really seem the word for the location, Carmen thought as she looked at the tall cliffs rising in the distance.  Valleys were mountain folds, going along in mostly one direction like a child's scribble of a road.  This area was basically circular, perhaps a kilometre at its widest. There were no exits that Carmen could spot- its walls were steep cliffs rising high up with no visible caves.  From the air, it must look like someone had punched a very big fist into the mountains.  Of course, there were no actual mountains visible above the valley’s walls. So she could not be certain their location was truly the mountains of northern Telubra.

She turned her gaze back to Athena.  The energy the half-elf was weaving together had moved to the bedroll.  It was basically formless, but had gained enough power that Carmen could actually see it swirling as Athena wove more in, and she was not as inclined to see magic as the other women she traveled with.

It wasn’t taking up much room on the bedroll.  Half of it, if she was generous.

“Shouldn’t it be taking a form?” Carmen asked, resting her arms behind her back to keep down the urge to poke at the mass.

“Odette’s soul is the final requirement,” Athena replied in a tired voice as she looked up to Carmen.  Her fingers never stopped moving.  “The combination of energies will decide upon the shape once everything is in place.”

The hairs on the back of Carmen's neck rose as a great rush of energy came darting out of the temple directly towards them.  Carmen wasn't really one for metaphysical discussion, but she was pretty certain Odette's soul wasn't that large, no matter how good her heart.

“What in the world?” Whatever else Athena was going to say was lost by the sudden crash of the invading energies into Athena's carefully woven working and her vision went white.  She shook her head, trying to clear the glare from her eyes.  There was a ruffle of a hand on top of her head and whatever that energy had been disappeared as quickly as it came. The sudden stillness was oppressive.

Her vision took longer to recover.  Too worried about tripping into Athena's working with her blind stumbling, she merely sat down where she had been standing to wait it out.

She could hear two other people breathing.  Whatever else had happened, Athena had managed to pull of the improbable- creating a working that drew just as much from the surroundings as it did one's self for a ritual that was only supposed to work using personal energy.

As her vision came back, she could see Athena leaning heavily against Snow's flank, the wolf cautiously nosing the still body on the bedroll.  She hadn't even heard him move.

On the bedroll was a small humanoid form.  Basically human, really.  Brown hair almost as dark as Odette's had originally been, the skin paler than her original olive hue, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, and likely ten toes.  Carmen couldn't actually tell, since Odette was still wearing the same clothes, if smaller, that she had been when she- disappeared.  The serious difference was the height.  Odette had been a few centimetres shy of two metres.  Now she looked half that.  The face was different, but there was something of the old Odette still in the rounded cheek bones and nose.  The ears were entirely different- cutting back away from her skull even longer and sharper than Petra's pointed ones.

“Ye be all right?” she asked Athena.  The half-elf looked just as gray and wan as she had three days ago.  Worse, actually.  Snow seemed to be the only thing keeping her upright.

She slowly turned her head out of Snow's fur.  “No,” she managed to say.  “No.”  

Athena was actually looking a little wild around the eyes.  Carmen rose up to her feet, circling around the still body to approach her.  She spared a moment of thought to wonder how long Odette would be unconscious before kneeling on the other side of the blonde.

Anything the two of them were planning on saying was thrown completely out of their thoughts as a loud crack rang out from the temple.  Carmen fell back onto her rear end at the sudden noise.  Athena merely made a discontented grumbling noise, too tired to turn her head to check it out.

Carmen had a firm a grip on her reflexes when the next surprise happened.

Odette shot straight up, energy crackling all around her, a pale nimbus of lavenders and pinks. A small part of her noted how strong it was, to let someone as magic-blind as her be able to see it.  Athena winced as some of it flailed too closely to her.  Odette stared wildly around her, barely taking note of the two women at her side.  Carmen watched her hands move in a familiar fashion and the crackling energy snapped back into the sorceress and then shot forward through her hands into the temple as lightning.

The cracking noise from inside the temple became the roar of tumbling rock and Carmen watched in horror as the building collapsed on Tae, Petra, and three rather annoying sun-knights. She turned her gaze back to Odette, mouth open to snap at her- what was she thinking, was she even thinking?  But the sorceress had already collapsed backwards, apparently unconscious again.

What in the nine hells was going on?

“Were those wings?”  Athena tiredly mumbled, her eyes on Odette's once again still form.

----

She was woken from unconsciousness by movement and slowly took stock of the situation.

She was trapped under heavy stone- the ceiling, of course.  Her head was aching, more likely from magical expenditure than from anything physical, for she had managed to somehow duck her head out of the way.  Her back seemed to be bearing most of the weight, leaving her breathing in short, painful gasps.  She could only hope the weight had spread enough to not break anything. As it was, she was not certain she could feel her legs over the agony her lower spine was in.  Her hands felt free to move, which was something.

She slowly turned her head to the side and watched Petra's eyes blink slowly open.  Tae thought she saw a flash of blue before Petra turned bright green eyes to her, a question in them she could not seem to find a voice for.

Likely because Tae, or more specifically her armor, was crushing the air out of her lungs.

"The temple collapsed," Tae said softly.  "Anything broken?" The cut across Petra's forehead was apparent, after all.

The sour look on Petra's face said that was either the wrong answer or an obvious question.  Tae was not certain which.  "Det?" Petra managed to gasp out.

Tae had answered the wrong question then.  Their current circumstances were of less interest than Odette's fate.  She wished she had actual news.  "I do not know. But if we did manage to save her, at least they were performing the ritual outside."

The snort and half-grin she got in return said if Petra did have any injuries, they were not life-threatening. Tae would have let out a breath of relief if she had any.

"I can feel stones shifting.  I think they are digging around trying to find us.  Which is good, because whatever is pinning me down seems to have cut off all feeling to my legs and I do not know if I am bleeding to death."

Her attempt at levity was a bit macabre for her taste, but Petra seemed to appreciate it.  She closed her eyes, tilting her head back. "Why'd temple collapse?" she slurred out. She shifted minutely, trying to get enough room to better breathe.

"What do you remember?" Tae sidestepped.  It seemed more important.

"Fuzzy," the redhead replied, brow furrowing.  Tae did not know how to reply and silently watched blood seep slowly down Petra's forehead from her oozing cut. "All mushed about. Got stuck somewhere. Asked Elisar fer help."

Elisar Ibryiil, she thought sourly. Of course. The Lonely Trickster, patron god of rogues and mischief and one of the greater powers of the Protector's Court.  It would explain the complete ease with which he had slapped her down when Tae had tried to force him out.  With the Protector as her patron, it would have been far more difficult for the demigod she had assumed him to be.  The upper echelon of the Court had more liberties than the demigods that usually answered requests such as hers.  Why had he shown up? Presently though, it did not matter.

"Your patron," Tae said cuttingly, "goosed me."

Had Petra any air, Tae knew, she would have burst into happy, amused laughter. As it was, she gave a short delighted squeal.

"And I think he put a doom on you." Petra sobered up instantly, eyes snapping open to stare at her intently.  "He said Odette's fate would be yours.  I thought he meant to exchange you-" Tae trailed off.

“Never tha' easy or obvious,” the small woman murmured.

Neither of them seemed to know what to say next.  In the silence, debris trickled down around them and she could hear the sound of someone working above.

"Prisoner had somethin' else in mind f’r Odette," Petra finally said, looking past Tae, eyes unfocused, as if she was trying to see through the stone to the workers above. “S’gonna be a problem."

"I really don't know how we can fix it."

Petra frowned. "Can feel somethin' else here. But,” she paused to regain her breath.  “May not notice changes m'self. You'll have t' keep an eye on me."

It was perhaps the most serious the cheeky elf had ever been.  Tae could not read her usually expressive eyes and felt a soft thrum of dread.  "What are you talking about?"

"Whole lotta souls it had.” She paused to look up at the rubble above her.  “Never been here in m' life, but can remember helpin' build this place."

Ice ran down Tae's back as she took the information in. And remembered the flash of blue. Petra had made it out of the morass of undigested souls, but the evil at the center of it- either the bound god's avatar or one of its lesser creations- had apparently attached a rider to her.  One of its first victims, perhaps, killed during the evil temple's construction.

"When we get out of here- after we return the sun-knights- we need to perform an exorcism on you."  Tae had no idea if it would work. But it would have to be done as soon as possible.  Two souls inhabiting one body; given enough time, either the stronger would kick the weaker out, or they would merge. Either way, Petra would not come out of the experience still herself.

Petra latched onto the non sequitur. "Knights?"

"I think they are dead," Tae replied, glad for the change in subject.  The less Petra thought about the things she would have to go through to try and get rid of her unwelcome passenger, the better.  "The only reason the ceiling did not completely crush us is because of your strong survival instinct."

Petra blinked at her, her confusion very evident.  "Wasn' awake fer tha' part," she said with a frown.  "I mean, I woke up f’r a bit- sorta remember bashin' inta yer chin-"

Tae huffed in laughter, darkly.  "They were, perhaps, not entirely your instincts. Where do you think your arms are?"  She had not noticed it at first, herself. She had thought she had ducked in time.  She could not feel Petra's arms, not through her armor, their light weight not noticeable compared to the great mass of the ceiling pressing down on her lower back and likely her legs.  But before passing out from pain, she had felt something on her head- not stone falling, as she had thought at the time, but arms wrapping protectively around it.  And then that flash of blue.

The same blue Petra's eyes had flashed when she had first opened them.

The same blue that the lightning had been.

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