It took Morbrox a lot longer than his hunter's instincts should have allowed to realise that something was wrong.
He knelt in the mud, breathing raggedly, clutching Brix to him as though he feared that loosening his hold on her would cause her to disappear, waiting for the owners of the clamouring voices he could hear to come and open the portcullis.
But nobody came – and eventually something in the atmosphere pierced Morbrox's besieged mind.
He looked skywards, blinking through the deluge – angry coils of poisonous looking clouds looped around the sky, smothering the light that the coming dawn should have been spilling upon the land. Dawn … yet it was as black as midnight; a darkness solely relieved – if that was the right word – by the furious flash of forked tongues from the oppressive mass above. Almost subconsciously he tightened his grip on the somnolent woman in his arms, his mouth an empty cup to the raging elements; the rain flowed down his throat, ice-cold and yet scorching like acid, awaking some primordial terror within him that paralysed him, body and soul, so that he could not move, could not run … helpless to the raw power that threatened to choke his lungs, drown him where he knelt, despondent and defeated, in the shadow of the very place he had hoped would provide sanctuary!
He heard a deep rumble – the voice of some hidden monstrosity beyond his comprehension – then the sky exploded...
Screams rent the air, screams that echoed the horrified cry that tore from Morbrox's own throat as the spell upon him shattered and he threw himself prostrate on the ground, shielding Brix's waif-like form with his own body. The sky above was on fire. The tongues flicked out, hissing in the rain, and a new sound filled the darkness:
There was a creak, a groan followed by an ominous rumble and Morbrox looked up, only half-seeing, half-believing as the scenes he had witnessed at Damár-doun-barran repeated themselves.
The song of the bells had continued for a while, but their music had warped into a screeching cacophony as the gale-force breath of the storm overpowered them … now they rang their own death knell...
… The clouds uncoiled, lashed out with darting tongues and flashing fangs of fire and one of the bell towers, built of stone that had endured, unchallenged for centuries, groaned and crumpled beneath the onslaught, crashing into the walls of the erstwhile fortress amidst the scream of tortured stone and a plume of fire and dust.
"NO!" Morbrox heard the denial, roared in his own voice and yet somehow strangely detached as if it had issued from a great distance. He was on his feet in the next instant, leaving Brix in the dubious shelter in the lee of the gateway. He grappled with the portcullis, shaking it ineffectually and, when his yells – lost anyway in the furious roar of the storm – failed to summon any assistance he backed off and attempted, instead, to scale the walls of the former fort.
Here, at least, it was almost as though the storm sought to lend a helping hand. Lightening struck the battlements, reducing them to a pile of rubble that was more or less easy to climb. Morbrox scrambled over, cursing as his feet slipped on the wet stone and the iron tang of his own blood added to the charged atmosphere; one more factor to add to the sins of a day that was still dawning.
He had leaped down into the deserted, debris-strewn courtyard and paused to assess his options when a high, shrill laugh cut him to the bone..
How she had got past him he would never know; there was no way past the walls that he could see other than the way he had come and, even in the darkness, he should have noticed … but there she was, on the wrong side of the portcullis, almost as though she had phased right through the solid iron bars - a dainty, doll-like, improbable danger amidst all this destruction.
"Brix....?" it was more plea than question, as if he half hoped that entreaty would stop the demon in its tracks, make it loosen its hold on the woman he loved – but the old hopelessness stole over him, made even more bleak by the fact that they had been so close … a few more steps, one more iota of luck and things could have – should have been so very different.
The dark figure laughed, and the sound carried even amidst the sonorous booms of thunder overhead.
"Gone, gone, gone!" The demon sang in a voice that both was Brix's and chillingly unlike hers all at the same time, "lost to the storm, your cherished one!"
She skipped forward, the ragged remnants of Brix's trousers billowing around her slim legs like the pennants of a dress, clapping her hands like a starving child that had just set eyes upon a feast. Her teeth glinted in the firelight – for the Temple was now ablaze; flames licked greedily as if desperate to devour the owners of the screams that rent the air and the demon's eyes blazed, brighter than any flame, revelling in the carnage.
"STOP THIS!" Morbrox roared, "STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!"
"But it is so delicious! All this doom and despair … rage and torment on the air!" She had no need to raise her voice above the storm, for she was a part of it; an embodiment of pure rage and power, standing before him as if the stolen body she inhabited was and always had been her own. She inhaled deeply, as a starving man might before sinking his teeth into his favourite meal, closing her eyes in indecent delight.
"But this is a TEMPLE!" Morbrox cried, aghast. What could have happened here, of all places, to engender the kind of hopelessness and despair to engender a demon storm?
The demon shrugged.
"Only priests sympathise with priests sympathy, it seems. Even a priest will be dismayed with his neck beneath a Mori'ima blade!" she cackled, "these Mori'ima are a joy; they empower that which they seek to destroy!"
"The Mori'ima are here?"
Morbrox's heart sank, knowing the implications of that fact. Even if there were people here who wished to help Brix, they almost certainly would have been arrested or put to the sword … all a moot point, now, anyhow with the Temple in ruins and the demon storm raging overhead.
Then a thought occurred to him.
"What are you looking so smug about?" he asked the demon, "isn't your former host in there?"
Even though the demon was currently possessing Brix, it was still irrevocably bound to the young girl who had been its original host; only an arisharma could bind a demon to the physical world for any real length of time. If Malin perished then the arma would be cut loose – if not destroyed then at least cast for a while into the darkness until it could ensnare a new host.
The demon's eyes flashed. Her mouth curled back in a feral snarl and she took off, bounding towards the burning Temple at a speed that should not have been possible for Brix's all-too-frail body.
"HEY!" Morbrox panicked. He had meant for his comment to unsettle the demon, yes, but he had expected it to abandon Brix's body in order to reclaim its former host, not run into the fire and put Brix in harm's way! He should have guessed that it would not relinquish its hold on the young woman and risk isolating itself before it had established whether its former host still lived.
He saw her long dark hair, trailing like a battle-standard, highlighted by the flickering tongues as she stormed the building. He saw, also, the rolling, swirling bank of fog that surrounded her; a nebulous coalition of other demons rallying to her call, lured from their hosts by the excitement of the storm … an incorporeal horde marching upon a place of sanctity and worship that should have been impervious to their attack.
It was his duty to protect the world from arma … but a blade could do nothing against that wall of mist. So he was powerless to do anything but watch, paralysed, as the head demon rent the air with a scream that violated Brix's voice, screaming out with bloodthirsty delight...
...Then she and the roiling mist crashed upon the battered ruins...
Cori lay motionless, unsure whether he would ever be able to move again, for even his lungs seemed to have given up and ceased to function.
He expected that he was dead. It was too dark, too silent and cold for here to be a part of Rin's world. That would explain the numbness, for he could feel nothing, sense nothing, but the dark and the cold pressing in all around him like the chill breath of the Lady of Darkness Herself...
But gradually the silence changed; he heard little sounds, like crumbling rock striking the floor, the pitter-patter of tumbling debris and a pain-laden groan from someone nearby. Sensation returned to his body in a painful burst of pins-and-needles and he remembered to breathe, choking out a mouthful of dust.
Something warm wriggled underneath him and let out a frightened sob; Cori forced the leaden weights that his arms had become to move and sat up – carefully – before pulling Malin out of the rubble.
The child clung to him, terrified, her bright hair so clogged with dust that it looked like ash clinging to a fire – but apart from a few superficial scratches she seemed blessedly unharmed.
"It's OK, Makhienna," he soothed, "it's OK, we'll be OK...."
Thunder rumbled overhead and he became aware of the rain sizzling down around them, clanging on the great dark dome that loomed at his back with an unholy cacophony. Cori squinted through the darkness and water that clogged the air and recognised the curve of one of the Temple bells; it, and the tower that had once housed it had demolished part of the roof, the hall ceiling and part of the great stone staircase. He hoped there hadn't been too many people still sleeping upstairs – even if they had survived the initial collision their way to safety was now blocked … and fires raged everywhere, un-dampened by the rain, as though the storm only served to fuel their gluttony.
There was movement around him now; people pulled themselves and each other from the rubble – like corpses, Cori thought, crawling from the grave. He hoped that Malin had not noticed the ones who lay pale and still as marble, half buried beneath the debris, spared now at least from the growing panic and chaos.
A frantic scrabble from a nearby pile of rubble drew Cori's attention. He put Malin down – the child let out a panicked cry as though she feared abandonment and hugged his leg - and reached the remnants of the Temple roof just as a hand broke out from beneath it. He began digging, ignoring the protests of his battered arms as he hauled aside crumbling stone and smouldering timber, until he exposed the choking, bloodied body of the man trapped within.
"If this is the Temple's idea of a celebration, count me OUT!" Edaris groaned, spitting a mouthful of dust and blood on the ground. Blood frothed on his lips and his eyes glazed a bit – probably due to the gash on his temple – but he shook his head as though to clear it and, with some difficulty, got to his feet.
"Cori!" Malin wailed, pulling at what was left of her brother's sleeve, "Cori, I want to go. NOW!"
"That's not a bad idea," Edaris looked around, appraising the situation. Cori followed his gaze and noted with relief that Braeda was up and seemingly uninjured. She was directing the survivors towards a great rift in one of the walls; the door was blocked by a great pile of rubble – almost, a part of him suspected, by design rather than accident.
Something else bothered him; there didn't seem to be many children amongst the group.
Almost as if Braeda's mind was running along the same lines, she caught his eye and yelled:
"Where are the younger apprentices?"
Edaris swore loudly.
"They'll still be sleeping; they don't have to sit the overnight vigil like the initiates."
"Not upstairs!" Cori cried, horrified. He looked aghast at the ruined staircase. "We can't leave them!"
Somehow I knew you were going to say that!" Edaris sighed in a resigned sort of way.
Cori picked up Malin and handed her into Braeda's waiting arms – there was no need for words between them; they both knew what he, as a priest, was obligated to do now. The High Priestess gave him a brief nod, a slight touch on the arm, then turned to go.
Malin, however, protested vehemently.
"No, Cori! Don't leave me!"
"I have to go help the others," Cori gave her a quick hug, resting his lips briefly on the fire of her hair, "go with Braeda – I'll find you later."
"They were going to kill you, Cori!" the child sobbed. Cori knew what she meant, even if she didn't have the vocabulary to describe it – she had come close to seeing him executed and now, with danger all around, it looked as though he was leaving her anyway. He could not even reassure her, at least not with sincerity, for he knew himself that the likelihood of him getting out of the ruined Temple, with or without the trapped children, was low … he hated to think of what would happen to her if he did not return...
...But such thoughts were counter-productive and he pushed them to one side, tousled his sister's hair and turned away, feeling her anguished screams tear through his heart like a knife-blade as he ran to the recumbent form of the stricken bell.
Edaris was waiting for him. The young man knelt at his approach, offering first his cupped hands and then his shoulder as a boost up onto the heavy brass instrument – then Cori held out his hand to haul Edaris up and the two men picked their way carefully up the remnants of the staircase.
Fire dominated the upper floor. Thick black smoke roiled in malignant clouds, crackling with sparks as though they were children of the storm clouds without, flickering their own miniature tongues of lightning.
Cori followed Edaris, who was more intimate with the Temple's layout than he was, though he fancied that even High Priest Rindan might get lost amidst all this chaos; so much of the corridor was violated and destroyed that the way was barely recognisable.
"HEY!" Edaris yelled, his voice lost to the elements as wind, rain and fire pressed in all around them. The young man picked up a splintered piece of a ruined door-frame and started rapping on the remnants of the walls, "HEY! IF YOU'RE HERE, SHOUT OUT!"
A few figures, wraith-like beneath layers of ash, rushed past them – coughing, sputtering, driven so wild by the smoke and fire that Cori hoped they would be able to see the rents in the staircase and have enough sense to help each other over the bell … but they were adults, priests who had, for whatever reasons, been excused from the night vigils. There was still no sign of the children.
"Where are the dorms?" Cori shouted, struggling to be heard. Somewhere outside a bell screamed and rock groaned; he prayed that the three remaining bell-towers would hold up until the Temple had been evacuated.
"Down the end of this corridor – last two rooms on either side," Edaris pointed, "you take the right – I'll get the girls dorm on the left!"
They duly split up. Cori had to kick through the flaming remains of the door before he could enter the room and it took a while before he distinguished the jumble of beds amidst the debris and smoke. Happily, the damage her seemed minimal. Several frightened, ashy faces peered out from under the beds, behind columns – anywhere where the children thought was safe to hide. They had been trapped like rats, not knowing if what was breaking in through the door was salvation or something more sinister.
"Anyone hurt?" Cori coughed; the smoke was overwhelming – he didn't have a lot of time left to get the children out before they all started suffocating. Out in the corridor he heard shouting and the passage of many feet; Edaris, apparently, had had less trouble with the girl's dormitory door and already had his charges well on their way to the blockage at the stairs.
"He won't wake!" One of the boys cried; he was kneeling next to another boy, who lay motionless and white as alabaster. Cori crossed the room as fast as his protesting legs would allow and pulled the limp form over his shoulder; the poor boy had probably inhaled too much smoke, for there wasn't a mark on him – but he had no time to fully assess his condition until they were all out.
"Stay calm and close to the ground," Cori instructed, "follow me closely and watch out for anything falling."
He led them back to the stairs as fast as he dared. Edaris was already there, waiting by the fallen bell with his group, two girls unconscious over his shoulders.
"One of the Mori'ima guards is on the other side," Edaris said, "if you give me a leg up, you can pass the kids up to me, then I'll hand them down to him." he was laying his two passengers down as he spoke and Cori hurried to comply, though not without misgivings. Now wasn't the time to question offers of help, but he wasn't sure how far he could trust the Mori'ima.
"I've no intention of causing more trouble," the guard called, as if sensing his distrust, "there'll be time for questions and confrontations later, no one wants to see more blood-shed!"
Cori pushed his misgivings to one side, gave Edaris a leg-up and started passing the frightened children up to him, watching them disappear over the curve of the bell. After the three who had fallen victim to the smoke were safely over, the rest were easier; Cori only had to give the children a boost up and they could slither down the other side of the bell almost unaided. Even so, Cori was exhausted by the time Edaris's hand was reaching down for him and he was glad when he found that they were all heading down the corridor that led to the ward; he, Edaris and the guard all carried a child with the rest running alongside them.
It shocked him to see how much damage had been done. The ground was strewn with broken glass; what remained of the empty window arches crumbled into the remnants of the walls so that all that protected their heads from a ceiling that groaned and rained dust down upon them were a few precarious arches and pillars – essentially they were exposed to the elements and Cori felt the icy needles of rain pierce through his clothes, through his skin and into his very bones.
"The women..." Cori yelled over the storm, unable to curb his healer's instincts.
Edaris shook his head, his face grim. Cori knew that he was worrying about Aesca; the young man was utterly devoted to his brother's widow and baby Lirra … the only family, that Cori knew of, that Edaris had left.
"The women are unconscious, and most of the babies, too," the guard surprised him by saying, "one of the priests said that the room filled with smoke even before the storm broke and the fires started – smoke that came from..."
He broke off with a shudder, though Cori did not need him to elaborate; the memories of the night before Rindan and Edaris had brought him to the Temple was still fresh in his mind. If he let it, the memories of the demon's chant and the black vapour that streamed from the mouths of Malin and Xaran would haunt him until the end of his days.
"The demons have left their hosts," Cori explained, "they'll mass and attack the first settlement they can find."
"This is the nearest settlement!" Edaris pointed out.
"Exactly," Cori thought – which meant that they didn't have much time to get out before the arma organised themselves. Even then, he doubted that they could get away; people ran from demon storms and arma out of instinct, not because they had any actual hope of escape Even defending the Temple was not an option; how did one fight against a formless, invulnerable horde that could melt like mist through the smallest of cracks and call down the power of the elements on a whim.
Cori shook himself back into reality at the sound of Lyndra's voice, realising that his feet had brought him to the ward. A kind of organised chaos reigned here; those still on their feet were rapidly bundling up whatever they could lay their hands on, throwing the packages through an open window – the room seemed mercifully undamaged – and into the dark bulk of a cart that waited in the shadows outside. Alongside the windows beds had been piled to form make-shift steps, over which the sickeningly motionless, emaciated women were being lifted, from one carer's hands into another's, and into the waiting wagons beyond.
The women whose babies had already born stood waiting for their turn, sobbing quietly with ill-concealed fright, cradling tiny, blanket-wrapped bundles in their arms. Acolytes stood alongside them, holding onto other bundles whose mothers had not been fortunate enough to survive their birth.
Not one of the bundles moved or uttered so much as a whimper. Here, in the midst of chaos, it was eerily quiet.
"Thank the gods!" The Dendrí healer bustled up to him amidst a swarm of apprentices, who took charge of the ragged and frightened children. Edaris, freed of his burden, disappeared into the throng and Cori knew that he had gone to find Aesca … but that was noted on a subconscious level; the main part of his mind was focused on the utterly devastating expression that marred Lyndra's face.
"We couldn't stop her, Cori!" she wailed, her voice uncharacteristically wild and, even more disturbing, apologetic.
"Malin?" Cori felt his throat constrict so that he could barely utter that single word. He had been so worried about being hurt himself, of leaving her with no one to protect her, that he hadn't considered that Malin could come to harm. Surely Braeda had been able to keep her safe … surely nothing had happened to his sister in that short while where he'd entrusted her care to others.
Braeda was suddenly there, beside Lyndra and wearing the same devastating expression. Suddenly her composure and aura of authority had crumbled – she was only a diminutive, powerless woman wringing her hands with such a look of entreaty in her eyes that Cori felt his stomach lurch.
"We couldn't stop her," the Priestess echoed the Healer's words, "she was … inconsolable, Cori. She was certain you'd left her! I'm sorry, but we got so caught up caring for the others that she slipped past us in the chaos. I think she went looking for you!"
"You mean she's out there on here own?" he gestured back at the ruins, his face wild and anguished, starkly back-lit by the lightning.
"That's not all," Lyndra's composure unravelled altogether and she crumpled, sobbing into the torn hem of her dress, "High Priest Rindan is missing … I think he went back to his study. I think ..." she sobbed louder, "...I think he went to die!"