Chapter 2: The Desert
It surrounded her. On all sides, all the way to the dark horizon, there was desert. The dunes were orange, the shade of flames, as if the sand itself were ablaze. Above this vast, false image of fire, the black, starless skies were gleaming with the dark reddish and violet ghosts of lightning. Crimson rocks and cliffs protruded between dunes here and there, like the sceleton of some titanic creature, now buried under the sands. The only sounds to be heard were the ghostly howlings of restless winds and the distant roar of thunder.
And in the midst of the otherwise deserted landscape, Rhea wandered. Her black hair and white robes flowed behind her like the wings of ravens and doves. Her face was covered up with black cloth to protect her mouth and nostrils from the razorsharp waves of sand that would rise up from the dunes every now and then to sweep through the air, pricking her skin like a thousand needles. Her eyes squinted out from a small gap in the cloth. A crossbow was strapped onto her back, and a scimitar rested in the sheath at her hip.
The cloth covered up her ears, too, and even if she had been hearing clearly, the howling of the winds would have been loud enough to block out the sound of wings sweeping through the air.
But she saw the shadows.
Three of them, creeping across the sand slightly ahead of her. She spun around and took her crossbow from its straps, aiming it at the winged creatures.
'But … they're …'
They soared down towards her, their tattered Greek chitons fluttering in the wind as their pitchblack wings stretched out, and the cobwebs of scarlet veins that made up their eyes throbbed as they stared at their prey. The pale, hairless heads, the living cloak of snakes slithering across their bodies … There could be no mistake; Rhea had heard the rumours and descriptions from awe-inspired witnesses. These beings were the Furies.
Instantaneously, she pressed her hands against her ears. She knew what their screams could do to the unfortunate soul who heard them, and she knew that she didn't want to go through the same complete breakdown of her psyche. Of course, if they were to scream right now, she would still hear it. According to rumours, there is nothing as loud as a screaming Fury, but Rhea was hoping she could at least block the sound out enough to leave her mind only slightly scathed.
She started running.
Looking over her shoulder, she could see the Furies swoop closer and closer with each majestic stroke of their wings. After mere seconds, they had caught up with her, and Rhea felt cold fingers reaching out for her, razorsharp nails scraping against the back of her neck. In a clever move, she jumped backwards and flipped through the air, while the Furies kept soaring forwards. Having brought some much needed distance between her and the pursuers, Rhea raised her crossbow and fired five arrows in quick succession. The arrows hit their target – the middle Fury, Alecto – but barely slowed the creature down as she and her two sisters turned around in mid-air and flew towards Rhea once more.
As Rhea sprinted away again, she suddenly realized that she was no longer covering her ears with her hands. And yet, the Furies had still not screamed. It didn't make sense. None of this made any sense. The Furies always screamed.
Whatever the explanation could be, the fact that she didn't have to worry about the Furies screaming would make the fight a little easier for Rhea.
She ripped her broadsword from its sheath, swishing it up with the glint of a reflected lightning bolt dancing across the artfully curved blade. Still, the children of Nyx approached, and still they did not scream.
"Why are you hunting me?!" Rhea shouted, panicky. "I have never killed within my own bloodline!"
The Furies were silent save for their wings wooshing through the desert air and the snakes hissing as they curled up in travesties of wreaths around the three beings' hairless crowns. Megaera and Tisiphone soared out in a graceful dichotomy, while Alecto hovered directly in front of the woman on the ground. The Madnesses surrounded her now, forming the points of a dangerous triangle.
"I have never betrayed anyone!" Rhea went on. She spun around desperately, scanning the desert for some place of refuge, but there was nothing but dunes and the horizon and the Furies closing in on her. They could not have chosen a strategically better place to attack her; in this open environment, she could not take cover from their attacks, and there was no one here to help her. She was alone against three unfathomably powerful enemies.
"WHY?!" she screamed. "Why have you come for me? TELL ME WHY!"
The Furies did not speak, and their faces revealed nothing; they were as expressionless as statues, carved in the coldest and whitest of all marble. They swooped down towards her at once, and Rhea swung her weapon in a horizontal arc. Megaera simply reached out and gripped the tip of the sword in her bony, yet strong and relentless hand, clutching it even as the edge slowly started to glide into her palm. Rhea watched with wide, terrified eyes as not a single drop of blood dribbled from Megaera's hand, as she swiftly jerked the sword out of Rhea's weaker grip, as the weapon flew from their hands and landed in a dune.
And suddenly, Tisiphone and Alecto had hooked their fingers under her armpits from behind, and she felt her feet leave the sand. The Furies soared up as Rhea struggled to tear herself free from their grip, but when she looked down, the distance to the dunes below was already dizzying, and she could not possibly survive the fall. She gave up the struggle and let the Furies carry her through the thin air of these heights. Far beneath them, the desert slid by in a blur of dunes and the aged, furrowed faces of rusty-red cliffs. Rhea hung limply in the Furies' arms and contemplated the monotonous landscape.
"Where are you taking me?" she said softly. The wind did not howl at this height; it merely fluttered by in whispers and hisses. Thunder growled like a hostile dog somewhere in the horizon.
Finally, one of the Furies spoke. "To Astarte," Megaera said.
And Rhea understood. Astarte had ordered them to bring her the slayer of Baal, and she had ordered them not to scream when they found their target. Of course Astarte would want Rhea to be whole and unscathed, both physically and mentally, when she took her revenge – when she began to torture Rhea …
Beneath the flying trinity and their captive, an enormous cliff protruded from the desert. Hope formed in Rhea's mind, hope and a plan. She waited for the right moment, when they were above the highest plateau of the cliff.
Throwing her legs out in a spread eagle, she delivered two hard kicks to the sides of the Furies carrying her. Tisiphone and Alecto were caught by surprise, and Rhea slipped out of their bony fingers. She grabbed the ragged lengths of the chitons trailing behind the winged beings and used the clothing to slow down her fall as she slid down along the red fabric, letting go at the bottom, falling a few metres down before landing on the rock plateau. The Furies hissed in anger and were instantly swooping down to reclaim their captive, but Rhea had a good head start. She leapt onto the sloping side of the cliff and slid down across it like a surfer riding a wave. The wrathful trinity rushed through the air behind her. At the bottom, she jumped off the slope and spun around in mid-air to face her pursuers when she landed. She took her crossbow once more and raised it to take aim …
… but then, something strange caught her eye. Two shadows, thin figures' shadows on the ground, situated right at the base of the cliff between two foothills, long and easy to spot in the glare of distant lightning bolts. But there was no one there to cast those shadows.
The Furies came to a halt at the base of the cliff, near the shadows. They hovered in the air, staring at Rhea in expectancy of triumph, knowing that her little attempt at escape had been pointless. It was a mere matter of time before they'd have closed in on her again and taken her up into the skies to carry her back to Pandemonium and Astarte.
The left shadow moved.
And so did a part of the cliff. It simply stepped sideways as one of the Furies' wings brushed closely against it, as if the shadow-caster were trying to avoid the creature's touch. For a moment, a figure was visible against the rest of the rock surface, the colours within its contours matching the colour of the wall against which it had just stood. Then, after a few seconds, the figure began to transform like a chameleon until its skin once more blended seamlessly into the rusty-reddish colour of the cliff. It was a clever little illusion, but Rhea was not fooled.
Shifters. Of course the Temple was guarded by Shifters.
Rhea gave a little smile. The Furies furrowed their brows in confusion.
She ran towards them like some complete lunatic running into the embrace of Death itself, but just as they were reaching out to take her in their clutches, she ducked down and turned a somersault, slipping in between Megaera and Tisiphone. She rose to her feet and came up an inch from the surface of the cliff. She quickly reached out a hand and pressed it against the rock, into the rock, as its faded crimson surface flickered like a hologram, a simple trick of the Light. Her smile widened.
She stepped through the doorway.
On the other side, she fell onto the earthen floor of a hallway, broad and lit by torches at the walls, with Corinthian pillars supporting the arched ceiling. The air was cool and moist, making a sharp contrast to the desert outside. Rhea turned around and looked up at the sloped portion of the ceiling that she had fallen through. It was no longer a dissolvable pane of light; it had turned solid, becoming a smooth wall on this side and taking the shape of a cliff's jagged surface on the outside. Rhea could hear the Furies pounding against the now blocked doorway, but try as they might, the force of their bodies slamming into the cliff and their furious kicks could not break through to Rhea's sanctuary. They soon seemed to abandon the idea, for Rhea could hear their wings sweep through the air as they soared away.
And then there was silence.
Footsteps, behind her. Bare feet on the earthen floor. Rhea turned around to face an aged woman who stood a few yards down the hallway, contemplating the younger demoness warily. The old woman's face might once have been a beautiful sight – there was a certain symmetry and grace in the thin, hawk-like angle of her nose, her high cheekbones, her small, pitchblack eyes – but her skin was like rawhide and the colour of ashes. She wore a thick, brown rag that looked like it had gathered several years' worth of dust and filth. It was slung over her delicate frame like a toga in the triangular shape of a poncho. Her cobweb-grey hair fell to her waist.
"Who are you?" she said, and her voice sounded surprisingly young and soft.
"Rhea. I have come to the Temple of Light because I need to travel to Dampmine."
The woman nodded, slowly, knowingly. "I am Fata Morgana, the high priestess. Come with me."