The clergywoman led on.
Narse didn't like the imagery and carvings in this part of the temple. There were pictograms depicting a Divinekind here. At first they spoke of one who guided the people of this world in light and development. She saw cities and populations rise up under his symbolic hand. But now that they were in the heart of the temple, moving to secret rooms, she saw imagery of individuals brought before the Divinekind. Given to him.
The clergywoman brought them down into a dimly lit lower chamber. There were few modern amenities here. Narse suspected it was intended that way. The stone here was natural, cut from darker granite. It left the room in shadows that danced with artificial lights simulating torch glow. It flickered and danced around the walls as though fire burned here.
In the center of the new chamber, a single table stood made from the same black rock. It held a bowl shape in the top. Narse almost wondered if it was a bath of sorts. A place for ritualistic cleansing. But there were chains and shackles cut into the sides. And as Narse looked into the bowl, she realized that there were drains in four points—four lower points that shaped distinctly like arms and legs.
Narse hesitated. "What is this place?"
The clergywoman turned, frowning. "The place of giving to the One of the Throne. Why do you ask these questions?"
Narse bit her lip. Something was wrong. This did not feel like She-of-Divinekind. Why would she craft a secret, dark room like this? The temple from above seemed so natural for one of her kind. But this place…this place felt like something else.
"Is she down here?" Narse ventured. "Can I talk to her?"
"Her?" The clergywoman shrugged. "I don't understand. Have you forgotten the toll that must be paid?"
Toll. Narse wanted to yell. She knew all about tolls. She knew the price she paid to get here. The lives she ate up to fuel her Vitality. She had paid her toll. What more was there to pay?
When she didn't immediately answer, the clergywoman approached the table basin. She reached into a hidden cleft under the lip, producing something long and narrow, and then hoisted herself on top. When she lay on her back, Narse could see what she already guessed: the table was designed to hold a body lying down. The clergywoman raised the hidden tool; a ceremonial knife.
Narse gasped as she pulled the blade across her wrists and then once across her neck. The poor girl groaned, then gagged and gurgled on her own blood. It gushed all around her, initially filling the basin—and then draining.
Human sacrifice. This was not She-of-Divinekind. She would never require this.
"No. She wouldn't; but I would."
The darkened room began to fill with light. Narse watched as an aperture deep within the folds opened, spilling light into the real world. A figure stepped out, bathed in such brilliant Vitality that it filled the whole of the darkened chamber. The clergywoman in the basin heaved on her last breaths, looking with longing eyes to her Divinekind. She even smiled.
Then Narse watched her miniscule Vitality slip from her dead body and into the grasp of the new Divinekind. Its body was awash with such Vitality that Narse had to squint to look at it. Such power. She could scarcely take it in. It made her power feel like a pale shadow by comparison.
The Divinekind raised a hand. The body of the young woman dissolved in the basin, until only the black stone remained. Not a drop of her precious blood stained the table.
Narse couldn't contain her disgust. "What do these people think when you take them like this?"
The Divinekind spoke, the voice a rushing wind. It was hard to differentiate a tone or gender. "I don't really care what they think. Some obviously know it's nothing short of murder. But others believe I take them home to a heaven or what have you. Honestly, nothing so childish as your own faith."
Narse gaped, taking a step back. "How dare you!"
"How dare I what? Poor, pathetic Narsemum. Looking for a benevolent mother god to wipe away tears." The Divinekind laughed. "Did you honestly think you'd find atonement? You have as much blood on your hands as I do."
Narse felt tears streak down her cheeks. This was wrong. "She called me…she led me here…"
"Oh, child. You only heard what you wanted. What was your dear friend's name? Amber? Yes, that's right. Such a feisty one. Always getting into fights. She didn't have a drop of Vitality to her name. Those crimelords who carved her up did it for their own deprived tastes. But you thought you could resurrect her. Bring her back with enough precious Vitality.
"So you latched onto whatever ounce of belief you could muster and came out to our realm to make it count. As if a goddess above cared about your little plight. Laid bread crumbs across Eternity to bring you and your friend salvation. You murdered and you stole—as much power as you could get in hopes that this thread would bring you some sort of salvation. But guess what? It only led you to me."
Narse wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I don't need to listen to you. You or this corruption you brought on these poor people. I know She-of-Divinekind is real. She called me."
The Divinekind laughed. No, cackled. It was such a menacing and perverted sound. It got under Narse's skin. Made her nerves crawl.
"I know She isn't real," it said, "because she never called you. I called you. I laid that pathetic thread you call a destinystrand. I led you here."
No. Impossible. Narse couldn't believe it. Wouldn't believe it. She answered the call of angels. This was a devil; a monster no better than the ones she killed to get her Vitality.
"And why would you call me?" she yelled. "So that you could judge my sins?"
"No. It's so much more simpler than that. I called you so I could take your power."
Narse stepped back into the first fold and ran. Light poured into the washed out space and she screamed.
The creature hid itself behind a cloud of white light. But it was a lie. How could she believe his damning lies about setting this destinystrand? How could she trust him to speak truthfully about such matters? All lies. A father of lies, cloaked in false divinity. He wasn't Divinekind. Narse wouldn't believe it.
But his Vitality was real. The immense, raw power from centuries of consuming it from these poor people. It made Narse's short years of hunting crime lords appear miniscule in comparison. She may not have called him Divinekind, but he had the power of Divinekind.
And when he lashed out with startling strength, his Vitality laid her flat in the third fold. She watched previous globules of metallic green light escape her. Fizzling out as she recovered from the assault. And there he was, towering over and gathering around her with such strength. Narse was startled to see the way his Vitality extended from his inner self; forming tendrils and threads that surrounded her.
He was going to finish her.
Her strength briefly restored, Narse pushed back all the way. Into the deepest of folds, shoving off from the grasp of this world. It cost her dearly. She watched nearly half of her reserves deplete as she set out into the void again. Out here she was weaker. But out here she wasn't trapped. There was only one thing that could save her now.
She-of-Divinekind. I need you. You, the light of my childhood faith. You who I serve. You who holds the keys of life and death. Maybe this wasn't your path, but I still believe in you.
"You can keep running." The monster followed her into the void. "But you waste precious energy that should be mine. Eventually you'll lose too much to run. And then I'll take what's left."
By divinity! He was everywhere! Was there any world out here where she was safe?
Narse was exhausted. Her Vitality was strong—enough to keep her alive in the darkness. But it wasn't enough to sense out the way she had before. And the golden destinystrand was nowhere to be found. Lost or blocked by the dark creature, all she could see were the folds separating her from the world below.
Then the void cracked, and Narse landed on her back. She squeaked in pain, wincing from the light. She was in a new fold—one that looked starkly different.
Here the ground beneath her was crystal white and silver, stretching endlessly in all directions. To her side, she beheld the whole of the world where the monster ruled. She saw the kingdoms, all bent to worship and sacrifice themselves for his consumption. Above and around her, white skies and brilliant light stretched into eternity.
The creature appeared nearby. How strange. In this fold, he looked like a simple man. Maybe close to her age, though his dark hair was thinning. He was shorter, too, with stout arms and legs. His dark eyes burned with irritation, and the way he carried himself reminded Narse of the thugs she used to kill.
"Finally." He licked his lips. "Don't worry, Narsemum. If you wondered if your victims ever felt pain, I can assure you they didn't." Then he paused. "Well, only the pain of losing the power of gods. But it was never yours to keep."
He stood over her. For all of the heavens around her, he looked little more than an arrogant fool. He held no blunt or mortal weapons. But Narse felt as he began calling in her Vitality. Felt it flee from her body, draining her of life and energy.
Then the sky rent, and a new light burst upon her. Narse was too weak to shy away from it. But she saw the creature cower. He staggered back, thrusting up both hands to shade his face. He stopped draining her.
Narse took in a sharp breath. She hadn't realized how close to death she was fading. With a remaining ounce of strength, she glanced over at the new force. A feminine figure, outlined in light, stood upon the crystal surface.