* * *
SERA TUMBLED, flailing, into a sky of purple clouds. Air ripped at her hair. Enormous thunderheads roiled below her, rising fast and crackling with energy.
As Sera plummeted into them, lightning impaled her from all directions. Blood boiled and bone split. Sera shrieked as her flesh cooked.
That horror ended in a flash that split her head open, and then Sera opened her eyes. New eyes. She hung once more among doppelganger husks.
Once more the pole descended, and once more her shoulder rings broke. An agony of twisting bone and flesh molded itself into a facsimile of Sera Valence. She stood, trembling, as Jorumand arrived.
“I despise you,” Sera whispered.
“Do come along, Miss Valence.” Jorumand hurried for the exit. “We’ve kept the mistress waiting long enough.”
Throwing herself off this island would lead only to death in charring clouds, but that didn’t mean there was no escape. Sera would try everything until she escaped. She would not let these demons steal her hope.
They exited the temple. They crossed the bridge of bone. They reached another island of charred black earth.
Slim forms burst from puffs of shadow. Each wore a cloak that stirred constantly, as if it were made of smoke. There were four figures, all children.
Sera trembled. She knew how these children came to be here. Demonkin mages tossed them into the Underside in exchange for defilers: demon servants. Only Hecata would offer such an unforgivable trade.
A single sob shook Sera’s body, for them, not her. “I’m so sorry.”
A short blond boy pulled back his hood. “Why sorry, miss? I’ve never had so much fun as I do down here!” He glanced at the tall, dark-haired girl to his left. “Fillet her? Please?”
“No filleting,” the girl said sternly. She was perhaps a year older than the boy, perhaps twelve.
“Aww.” The boy sagged his shoulders.
“My name is Constance, miss,” the tall, dark-haired girl said, “and I lead Queen Hecata’s court guards. So long as you remain our queen’s guest, we will protect you.” She narrowed her eyes at Jorumand. “From everyone.”
Jorumand chittered. “She must learn.”
“There are other ways to teach her. You do not harm our guests, steward.”
Sera barely heard their argument. She ached for these children, the blond boy most of all. These children’s souls were lost to everyone, now.
“Name’s Cutter, miss.” The boy grinned wide enough to show a cracked front tooth. “If anyone touches you, I’ll rip the guts right out of them!” He spun a knife before vanishing it into his cloak. “Why, just yesterday, I yanked the intestines out of such a cheerful man—”
“Cutter will be at your side at all times,” Constance interrupted, eyes fixed on Sera. “If you need anything, tell him. He’ll obtain it—”
“Bugger that!” Cutter protested.
“—or he’ll find someone who will.”
As tears crept unbidden down her cheeks, Sera realized her new body could cry. Of course it could cry. Such displays would please the Mavoureen.
Through years of manipulation, Hecata had stamped out any empathy these poor children once possessed. They were hardened, gleeful killers now. Nothing could ever make that right.
Another boy with black hair and a narrow face offered Sera a fluffy blue robe. She wrapped the robe around herself because she feared what the boy might do if she refused it. She wiped at her eyes with one soft sleeve.
If these demons wanted to hurt her, they could do worse than offering a fluffy blue robe. The warmth it offered was real. The fabric felt soft against her skin.
“Lero,” Constance said, “inform Mistress Hecata that her guest is on her way.”
The boy who had given Sera the robe vanished like a shadow in bright light. The only court guard whom Constance had not introduced was a young girl with skin dark as olives. Was she from Rillan?
“Who are you?” Sera had nothing to lose by asking. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Don’t have a name, miss,” the dark-skinned girl said. “Don’t really need one down here.” She stepped back and vanished like Lero had.
“Oh, that’s the Giggler, miss!” Cutter said eagerly.
Constance rolled her eyes. “You’re the only one who calls her that.”
“But it’s just so perfect for her!” Cutter clenched his fists like he was tugging on an invisible rope. “You’ve never heard anyone who kills the way she does. The way she cackles when she—”
“Enough!” Constance glared at him. “Honestly, Cutter, you could learn a thing from Lero.”
“Lero never says anything.”
“Point made.” Constance bowed to Sera. “Call if you need us, Miss Valence. One of us is always watching.”
Constance vanished, and Cutter bowed mockingly before vanishing as well. Sera hugged the robe about her and trembled with rage. No one should do that to a child.
Jorumand skittered on. “Hecata’s palace is—”
Sera launched herself at Jorumand’s legs. “How could she do that?” She screamed and scratched and kicked. “Those were children, Jorumand! Children!”
The demon snatched her up and held her at arm’s length. “Not for a long time now.”
Sera thrashed and shrieked, but nothing she did made Jorumand release her. Nothing she could do would make those children human again. Once she accepted that, the fight went out of her.
She would never escape. Souls banished to the Underside never escaped. Once she had suffered enough, she would become like those children … or perhaps, she would become something much worse.
Jorumand set her down and skittered back, head tilted, like a handler might examine a panicked animal. Sera slumped and massaged her stinging arms. She pushed back sobs for those lost children, for her damned soul, and for Byn, whom she would never see or hold again.
Perhaps, when she met Hecata, she would claw the demon queen’s eyes out.
Sera followed Jorumand to a group of squat black huts that might be made of chitin. Their round, hive-like shapes reminded Sera of Solyr’s Earther-built cafeteria. Five take her, did more enslaved souls cower inside?
“Who lives here?” Sera asked.
Jorumand reared back and chittered loudly. As Sera watched, dozens of people shambled from their hives. All trembled, but none looked at her or raised their heads.
Each wore little more than tattered gray robes, a pittance that offered no warmth against the Underside’s chill. How many times had the Mavoureen hurt them, killed them, only to shove them into a new body and torture them anew? Is that what they were waiting for right now?
As Sera followed Jorumand past a wrinkled old woman, her heart broke. What must be frostbite darkened the woman’s fingers and toes. Sera stripped off her robe.
“Please,” she whispered, offering her robe and ignoring the goosebumps on her own flesh. “Take it.”
The woman didn’t move, so Sera pressed the robe into her hands. The woman dropped to her knees. She covered her face with her blackened hands and sobbed.
The old woman did not take Sera’s robe. Perhaps she no longer understood that Sera was offering a robe. Perhaps she only understood that when attention was paid to her, she was to be tortured again.
Sera backed away as the woman’s sobs cut her like a cold knife. She wrapped the fluffy blue robe around herself — no one would dare take it, she knew now — and followed Jorumand. They left the damned behind.
Hecata’s demon steward led Sera across another bridge, to another island. This held an obsidian palace of such scale that it looked like some sort of fever dream. No structure could be so massive, yet this structure was.
Dozens of towers grew from the one giant wall Sera could see, each wide enough that it might hold all of Solyr inside it. Those towers vanished into purple cloud. Dark stone walls scraped the sky of the Underside, each brick larger than her father’s house in Cyan.
Sera felt like an ant staring up at the royal palace in Tarna, an insect waiting to be crushed beneath a boot. That was certainly Hecata’s intent, and Sera didn’t fight the troubling sensation. She only had so much fight left. Best save it for something important.
Jorumand reached the towering wall of huge black bricks and skittered straight through it. Sera slowed. The wall must be illusion, but it looked disturbingly solid. Her breath misted before her face.
Sera touched the wall, and then she couldn’t stop touching it, couldn’t move or gasp or scream. Clutching hands, tiny like those of babies, marched from the wall down her arms, across her shoulders, into her ears and along her cheeks. A weight like deep water closed in on her, heavy and unrelenting, as her whole world went dark.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe! Was suffocation beneath baby hands better than burning alive in clouds? The small part of her mind that wasn’t shrieking struggled with this question.
Light returned. Sera clutched her knees, gulping air. She stood inside Hecata’s massive palace, facing Jorumand.
A vast hallway of black bricks stretched away on either side of her, with regular arches of huge bone supporting it like ribs. It looked like the inside of some impossibly large snake.
“A summoning is required to enter Hecata’s palace,” Jorumand said. “None may harm you inside these walls.”
Sera shuddered. “Except Hecata.”
Jorumand chittered again. “This way.” Leg tips clicked on stone tiles.
Sera followed the demon past recessed alcoves, past spiked metal cages holding skeletal remains, past horrors she dared not examine for fear of ruining her mind. Eventually, they reached a set of wrought-iron doors that looked entirely unremarkable save for their impressive size. Such doors seemed shockingly normal for this hell.
Jorumand pressed its clawed hand to the metal seal that united the doors: a pale white rose, twisted and thorny. Lines of yellow energy, like those that flowed up the body temple, spread from the clasp in all directions. The clasp unclicked itself, and then the doors swung open to reveal paradise.
Longing drew Sera into a flowering garden of exquisite beauty. She scarcely noticed the doors closing behind her. The sky in here was wide and open and blue, even though a sky inside a fortress should be impossible.
Rings of concentric dirt and stone descended before her. A dozen wildflowers Sera recognized and dozens she did not dotted the cultivated rings. The fragrant air warmed her chilled face.
After the horrors of the Underside, clean air and blue sky demanded fresh tears. A narrow cobblestone path cut through the rings of flowers, and Sera followed Jorumand down that path because she feared he might cast her out otherwise. She could remain in this garden forever.
Yet couldn’t that be the point? Knowing this was here made what waited outside all the more horrific. These demons could show her paradise, then snatch it away.
A stone well rose in the garden’s center. What kind of water did it hold? Sera felt no thirst or hunger, so perhaps these doppelganger bodies did not need to eat or drink. Perhaps they existed only to be tortured.
A soft voice spoke from behind her. “Sweet child, did you think my Underside all bone and char?”
Sera turned slowly, as if in a dream, to find Hecata striding down the path toward her. The queen of the Underside was an imposing, full-figured woman in a sheer dress of crimson silk, and her bare white feet walked without sound. She could be human if not for her deathly pale skin, perfect in every possible way.
Raven-colored curls drifted in Hecata’s wake, but it was Hecata’s eyes that drew Sera’s focus. Those solid black eyes paralyzed her, ancient and knowing and irresistible. Sera had never loved anyone as she loved Byn, but she knew she could grow to love Hecata, given time.
That made her tremble all over again.
Hecata stopped a pace away and stroked Sera’s cheek. “When a mortal soul is drawn into the Underside, it suffers. Such unfettered souls decay over time, like the dead leaves of your sad little world.”
The touch of Hecata’s finger filled Sera with urges. To lust after a demon was wrong, fiendishly wrong, and she hated this feeling as much as she had ever hated anything. She hated that she wanted to be touched again.
“Before we could speak,” Hecata said, “I had to place your soul in a body, where it would be safe.”
“I understand.” Sera needed to know her voice still worked. It was now frustratingly husky.
“I apologize for the pain.”
“Your steward tossed me off a bridge.” Memories of lightning gave Sera the rage she needed to resist Hecata’s charms. “Your children threatened to fillet me.” As Sera remembered their smiles, she imagined raking her nails down Hecata’s perfect cheeks.
She didn’t. The power now standing before her was immutable, immeasurable. Such empty gestures would only amuse this demon queen.
“What do you want from me?” Sera whispered.
“Why Sera,” Hecata said, “I want you.”
Those words twisted Sera’s insides in ways she knew would haunt her for the rest of her days. “For what?”
“I want the god chained inside you. I want Ruin.”
Sera drove her fingernails into her own palms. “Ruin’s gone. Cantrall banished him beneath Terras.”
“My dear Sera, no mere man can banish the Five.”
Hecata wasn’t lying, and Sera knew she wasn’t lying because Hecata owned her soul. The hope that rose inside her terrified her because it could so easily be crushed again. She might still find escape.
“Ruin is inside me?” Sera whispered.
“He never left.”
“Then why…?” The trauma of Sera’s arrival washed over her anew, because if this was true, these horrors came with Ruin’s permission. “Why would he abandon me? I served him.” The words tasted like ash in her mouth.
“You all serve your Five, as they serve the one who made them.” Hecata offered a breathy sigh. “I could claim Ruin let this happen because he no longer loves you, but that would be heartless. Ruin had no say in the matter.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Cantrall chained your gods inside you with ancient Mavoureen glyphs. The Five are not gone, not lost to you, but slumbering.” Hecata strode past her to the small stone well. “Kara Honuron is going to wake them up.”
Sera followed Hecata to the well, a ring of stones that rose to her waist. She stared into it, expecting inky black. “You think you can defeat Ruin?”
Molten yellow churned inside the well. This yellow was the same color as that flowing up the pyramid of bodies. It glowed like Mavoureen eyes.
“I could defeat Ruin,” Hecata said, and with a flourish, she held a gorgeous purple flower in her hand, “but I wish to make him my ally, instead.”
Sera pushed all her hate into her face. “You think we’d serve you? You corrupt children.”
“I do not wish you to serve me. I need you strong, capable, and angry. I need you beside me as we face our common foe.”
What was Hecata hinting at? Who down here could possibly challenge her power? Who would Hecata need Ruin’s aid to destroy, except…
“Paymon,” Sera whispered.
“You know me so well, sweet child.” Hecata beamed at Sera as she tossed her flower into the well. “We’re going to murder my husband together.”
Her flower ignited in a brilliant yellow flame.