Kira watched Uriel across the crackling fire. Flame and doubt flickered over the Bahmi's face. Careful to stay on Kira's side of the fire, Shiyesa Wohab turned the spitted rabbit. Smoke rose from the meat, thick with temptation.
Uriel sat staring into the bonfire. At last she looked up and said, "Do you think it's true? That he only sent me on this mission to see if I'd join the Abyssal?"
"Are you?" asked Kira, drawing a whetstone across the edge of her dagger.
"Ask those dead cultists how tempted I was," snapped Uriel.
"You fought the Endless Court before you tried to join them, remember?"
Uriel hugged her knees tighter and turned away from the fire.
Wohab tended the meat sheepishly, and when she took the spit from the flame, she offered it to Uriel first. "Perhaps I was wrong," said the Eth woman. "The Abyssal tortured me, and I panicked. Given your reputation... I should not have sown dissent while we are in danger."
"It's alright." Uriel waved the roast rabbit away. "Kira knows I'm not a danger."
"I hope so," said Wohab, turning to offer Kira the rabbit. She was a tiny thing, still shivering from the near-drowning as her huge maple eyes peeked out from her hood. "Perhaps Uriel is on this mission because she has the Faceless Man's trust."
But Kira shook her head slowly. "You were closer the first time. It's more like him to throw someone into temptation and see if they succumb. Up here alone in the mountains, a Mage hungry for power could easily betray her companions and go off to join the Abyssal."
"That witch Mulia had been tempting me for months!" Uriel protested. "I'm not even interested in Water magic."
Wohab's delicate wrist trembled from holding up the spitted animal, so Kira lightened the burden by cutting off a leg with her dagger, and said, "Not that I know of."
Uriel jumped to her feet, towering over the fire. "You really think I'm going to betray you? After everything we've been through?"
"Which includes you betraying me. Or did you forget?" Kira said, and dug into her meat.
"How could I? No one will let me," Uriel said, and stomped away through the snow.
Behind her, Uriel could swear she still saw Shiyesa Wohab's eyes staring fearfully at her back. Her accusation ate its way through Uriel's guts like a worm, but she had only spoken out of fear. Even a low-level informant would know what Uriel had done. Students in Meridian knew. Her father...
Trudging from the little overhang Wohab had found, Uriel could hear Mulia the witch croaking just under the howling gale.
She saw herself, those months ago, poised before a helpless Kira.You want your damn power? Then come kill me.
Uriel had been so close, the ritual almost complete. One Kelari's beating heart was all that stood between Uriel and power, so much power, black and infinite like the sleep of death. She had meant it when she answered Kira's challenge:With pleasure.
Head bowed, Uriel shivered, remembering that deep hunger. She wished she could pretend she'd fought the corruption all along, but she would have gladly cut out Kira's heart between beats if the Ascended had not intervened. Now she had all the mistrust of betrayal with none of the power. In her darkest moments, Uriel thought she may as well have completed the ceremony, to live among the hollow dead instead of the hateful living.
Just... not by killing Kira. That shamed her more than anything. Every time she thought about the cults, and what they offered, she whispered to herself quietly, "They always want too much."
The Endless Court demands you kill the person dearest to you. The Elves of House Aelfwar agreed to sacrifice their beloved forest for Greenscale's primordial jungle. She could never join the Abyssal! You have to let them drown you...
Uriel gasped as the realization hit like shards of ice, and she turned back the way she'd come. Rushing snow hid the overhang - the overhang where Shiyesa Wohab, sopping wet and gasping for air, had promised they'd be safe.
Kira spun away from the dying sobek, its blood spraying from her daggers. Three of the scaly wretches lay dead at her feet, a fresh wave trapping the two Defiant under the overhang. Shiyesa Wohab trembled against the wall behind Kira. The Kelari struck again, teleporting behind a crocodile-man and severing its spine with a slash, then spilling the guts of another.
An arrow grazed Kira's shoulder. Far behind the sobeks stood a line of Abyssal archers, their blue robes swirling with the wind, aiming despite their eyeless golden masks. Kira stumbled to one knee. But it's just a scratch, she thought. Kira's head swam, her vision doubled. Her belly boiled. She screamed Uriel's name.
And when she did, three of the bowmen began to convulse in agony, engulfed in arcane auras. "Kira!" she heard Uriel shout. "Don't-" and then the blizzard swallowed her cry.
Kira sprang to her feet as more sobeks moved in, driving one dagger up through a crocodile maw, pinning it shut, the other into a slitted eye. But her arms felt like lead, heavy and full of poison. Kira looked around, but saw no sign of Shiyesa.
She saw Uriel though, finishing off the Abyssal archers. The last died screaming, mad, frothing at the mouth. Uriel broke into a run toward Kira.
Tentacles slithered from atop the overhang, bearing the weight of a slope-backed being in a robe-a cephalon-its flabby fish lips mouthing obscene words.
It waved at Uriel and the snow swerved toward her, covering her entirely before turning to ice with a horrible cracking sound. At a gesture from the cephalon, the ice descended, dragging a frozen Uriel down beneath the powder. "Snow is water," it rasped. "Water is ice."
"Uriel!" Kira shouted, or tried to. She was vomiting, staining the snow with black bile. She clutched at her belt for an antidote, but the cephalon slapped the bottle out of her hand with an idle flick of one tentacle. Kira fell facedown into white emptiness.
"I have answered your summons," whispered the creature to Shiyesa Wohab, who crept out from around the cave mouth. "Now tell me, aspirant of the Abyss, the true name of the traitor called the Faceless Man."