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EXCRUTIATING PAIN LANCED through Sera from neck to spine to toes, like someone had driven hooks into her bones. Like those hooks were pulling her apart. She couldn’t see, couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe.
Her soul was lost to the Underside.
She would never see Byn again, never see her world again. Yet if damnation was the cost of saving those she loved from this eternity, Sera would do it again in a heartbeat. Byn was alive, Kara was too, and that made this agony bearable for a moment.
Sera remembered sitting with her father on their wide back porch, staring at the stars. She remembered Byn brushing her hair from her forehead. She remembered laughing with Kara as they wrestled in Solyr, yet no moment, no memory, stopped the pain splitting her bones.
These metal hooks murdered good memories. They ripped her open to her soul. A bone-deep agony was wrecking her, killing her, except she could not die.
Sera forced open eyelids that were not hers. This was not her body. Extruded bone sprouted from this body’s shoulders and ringed the metal pole above her, suspending the flesh that kept her trapped.
Whatever she was now hung on a metal rod by her extruded shoulder bones. Dozens more bodies hung on either side of her, faceless, formless sacks of flesh. None breathed and none moved.
Countless hanging bodies hung from other metal poles, hundreds mounted inside a towering pyramid of black walls. Sera closed her eyes and tried to take the dream world, but her efforts yielded inky black. She had no power here.
The pole descended with a lurch that sent agony racing through her bones. Sera opened her eyes and trembled inside her own mind. A demon waited below, standing on a floor of alternating white and black tiles.
This Mavoureen had four spiked, angular legs, and a large body that closely resembled a giant tick. A torso that was almost human rose from that tick body, with disturbingly long arms covered in coal-black scales. The demon’s bull-shaped head had horns to match.
Its mouth could easily encircle her head, and its bared teeth were longer than her fingers. Its four yellow eyes glowed in the dusky light. One sharpened leg tip ticked rhythmically on tile, like a traveler impatient for a late carriage.
This demon would be her first torturer. Yet no matter how much these demons hurt her, Sera would not relinquish her grip on hope or sanity. At least … not all at once.
The pole lurched to a stop. Her extruded shoulder bones shattered. Sera’s arms flailed and her legs did too.
She broke her fall with shaking hands and trembling knees. She pushed up through muscles that ached as if she’d been rowing for days. Then agony dropped her once more, and this time, writhing, she felt her body change.
Bone snapped and muscle twisted. Skin stretched and folded. Teeth burst bloody from her gums.
The changes stopped. Sera breathed, treasuring a few moments without pain. Such respite, she suspected, would be all too brief in the eternity she now faced.
No one pulled her to her feet, so Sera gathered the strength to stand. She gathered the strength to speak. She glared at the demon before her.
“I.” Her tongue felt heavy as stone. “Won’t.” She pictured Byn’s smiling face. “Forget them.” She had come here to save those she loved, and that would keep her sane.
Sera stepped toward the four-legged demon. It did not move to strike her, so she took the opportunity to look down at the body … her body, now. She finally understood how this fleshy cage must work.
This doppelganger body had changed itself to approximate her mortal form. This must be how the Mavoureen tortured people. They shoved souls into bodies and tore those bodies apart, over, and over, and over.
“Well?” Sera looked up. “What happens next?”
The four-legged Mavoureen inclined its horned head like a tutor greeting a student. “I am Jorumand.” Its voice was pleasant, honestly. “I am not here to hurt you.”
“Really?” Sera trembled and told herself it was because of cold, not fear. “Why are you here, then?”
“To welcome you, honored guest, to Hecata’s kingdom.”
Sera remembered bone shifting and snapping inside her. “This isn’t a welcome I’d recommend to anyone.” She might have felt embarrassed by her nakedness, in other circumstances, but this wasn’t really her body.
“You have adapted to your husk quicker than most. My mistress was correct to transition you so rapidly. You will come with me now.”
“Why in the Six Seas would I do that?”
“You would prefer to remain in the body temple? You will become lonely.”
“No matter what you do to me,” Sera said, each breath burning in her strange lungs, “I’ll never serve you like Cantrall did. I swear on the Five. I swear on my soul.”
“Both lost to you. No, Miss Valence, you would break if we gave you endless pain. Your limited mortal mind would shatter with your body. If you truly think yourself unique, my mistress made a poor choice in saving you.”
“Saving me?” The longer Sera kept this demon talking, the longer she had to regain her strength. “You tricked me, stole my soul, and shoved me into a corpse!”
“So tell me, demon. How did your mistress save me?”
A crack of light beyond Jorumand suggested an exit from this pyramid and possibly, freedom. Even if freedom was nothing more than leaping into a purple void and falling for eternity, Sera would take that over being tortured to death, repeatedly.
Jorumand chittered softly. “Mistress Hecata will explain everything.”
Sera recognized that name. Hecata was a demon goddess, queen of the Underside, and more ruthless than even her husband: Paymon the Patriarch. Sera wondered if Paymon was going to torture her, too.
“Who do you think brought you to us, Miss Valence?” Jorumand asked. “Who do you think claimed your soul?”
Sera remembered a seductive female voice speaking inside her head, soothing her, teaching her, tricking her. She had known it was a Mavoureen and known it meant her ill. Yet she had never imagined the demon was Hecata.
“Your mistress claimed my soul?” Sera asked. “Why?”
“That is what my mistress wishes to explain. It is why you will come with me, now, to speak with her.”
Sera could think of no reason to trust this demon, yet what choice did she have? She had no clothing, no weapons, and no blood glyphs. She would find no escape in this pyramid, but she might find it elsewhere.
“Fine,” Sera said. “Let’s go visit your mistress.”
Jorumand bowed, forelegs bending like those of a horse. “Follow me.” It rose and skittered away.
They emerged from the temple beneath a sky of roiling purple clouds, crackling with lightning. The coppery smell of blood suffused the Underside’s air, mixed with the lingering miasma of smoke and ash. Sera felt no wind, yet the chill of this place seeped through her.
What passed for sky here somewhat resembled that of the Unsettled Lands. Had Torn channeled some part of the Underside into his last great song? Yet unlike that sky, the sky in this place was other.
Charred black ground surrounded the temple and dropped off into nothing not far from its walls. They stood on an island, a huge one, and Sera suspected it floated like the others Kara had told her about. Did anything exist below, or was this whole realm void?
Sera looked up at the black pyramid, or body temple, as Jorumand had called it. Lines of glowing yellow flowed constantly up its walls, inching along the sleek surface like worms. A beacon of yellow crackled at the pyramid’s apex, bright as a tiny sun.
Sera squinted. “What do the yellow lines on the temple mean?” If she was to spend eternity here, she should learn how eternity worked.
Jorumand kept walking. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” Sera strode after him. “Aren’t you the master of this place?”
“I am no one’s master. I am a servant of Hecata, like you.”
“I am not Hecata’s servant.”
Jorumand chittered in response. That must be its demonic equivalent of a chuckle. Sera hated the sound of it.
Once they reached the edge of the island, they found a bridge of bones stretching out across the purple void. Each bone was far too large to be human. What terror of a creature had bones so large?
Sera followed Jorumand onto bones lined up sideways, like those of a makeshift raft. As they walked, she remembered another detail of Kara’s story. Mavoureen turned into spiky balls and zipped about.
Sera looked to the sky. “You demons fly, don’t you?”
“Some of us,” Jorumand agreed.
“Why do you need bridges?”
“You need bridges.”
Naturally. The Mavoureen would never create flesh puppets that could fly. These bridges were designed to march bodies like hers from slaughter to slaughter.
Sera dropped her gaze to the rails. There was enough space between these bones that a small woman might wriggle through, if she pushed herself. Should she push herself?
“You think to escape by jumping.” Jorumand turned to her, leg tips clicking on bone.
Sera met its glowing eyes. “Do I?”
“I would not recommend it.”
“Because it would be very painful, and you would return soon enough.” Before she could do anything else, it lifted her in vice-like hands.
“Stop that!” Sera kicked her dangling feet as her heart pounded. “Jorumand!”
“You seem the type who enjoys learning. Learn, Miss Valence.”
The demon tossed her over the boney rails.