DESPITE THE rune-etched manacles about her wrists, Flame grabbed her sister's arm. Her fiery fingers passed through her sibling's thin skin, blended with the fires underneath, and made them for a moment, one. Her sister's voice rippled through the touch, her tenor calm and confident.
Don't worry, little ember. I will end this.
Relinquishing her hold if not her fears, Flame shrank back into line.
In the adjoining pews, the pure hue of the priests' white silks matched the warriors' strapped breastplates and feathery wings. Golems gleamed along the nave's perimeter, standing like columns with runic sashes aglow, eye-slits dark and empty.
Each stared at the altar with ravenous admiration, polished desire, or a single-minded drive.
On the altar at the feet of Weaver's statue, the bonfire crackled, the air wavering above the hewed marble block. The blaze, however, licked against the altar's invisible confines, a prison crafted of words and faith, and as restricting as the iron encircling Flame's wrists.
She shivered at the sight but the inquisitor marching at her heels strengthened his spell, cinching the lasso around her mind. Flame resumed the procession down the temple's aisle until the inquisitor commanded her to halt before the stairs leading to the dais.
The High Priest rounded the altar, tattooed baldpate and robes of pristine white reflecting the fire's shades of amber and orange. Standing on the top tread, he perused them with a penetrating glare.
Flame's inner fires squirmed and the marble tiles felt cool against her soles. Her arms hung slack, the irons heavy, the metal and incantations pinning her in place. The High Priest pointed a finger and she followed the gesture to her sister, standing stiff at her side.
"This one will be next."
At murmur from the inquisitor, her sister ascended the steps and lay upon the altar.
Priests assembled at the High Priest's next command. They formed a half circle around the slab and added their voices in chant. Angelic warriors joined them, wings outstretched and slowly flapping, stirring up winds and stoking the fires.
The High Priest turned to the throng. "This child of fire has been chosen as another host for Weaver's cause."
The crowd hushed. The air thickened.
Raising his arms, the High Priest called out to the rose window on the opposite side of the nave. "Will this one be judged worthy? Will this one be embraced? Will this one be bound to our purpose? Be another blessed weapon in our march to victory?"
The bonfire roared. Bursts of light illuminated the High Priest's robes, the warriors' feathers, and the altar's stone. Heat shot through Flame's body, carrying with it a high-pitched shriek.
Flame stepped forward, chained hands outstretched, but the inquisitor's incantations prevented her next stride. The cries of agony faded and Flame trembled in the growing quiet.
Upon the altar, her sister writhed. She thrashed against blaze, against the foreign fires penetrating her skin, against another's will seeking to command her flesh.
Her sister's efforts cast a murmur through the nave and the High Priest scowled. A jerk of his head summoned a line of already enslaved elementals from beside the dais.
They neared the platform in lock step, fiery flesh flickering with the same current, their gazes as empty as the golems. Together, they focused on the altar where Flame's sister waged a war against invasion. Under the call of the enslaved, the fires bloomed. Tongues of flame licked the invisible sides of the marble's confines and paled to brilliant white.
Her sister screamed again, a call only those of their kind could hear.
Flame looked to her brethren, searching for a spark of mercy, a heed to her sister's plea.
None of the enslaved shifted their gazes. None seemed to realize the pain they caused to one of their own. None held back their encouragement of the altar's conflagration.
The High Priest stared along with them, sweat streaming his clean-shaven face. Within the crowd, murmurs grew worried, gauntlets gripped hilts, golems stirred.
At the High Priest's command, the enslaved caused the fires to dwindle, revealing her sister's last throes. Her flesh twisted, the fires beneath her thin skin warping into a new form.
The High Priest nodded once. He faced the pews and Flame quivered at the satisfaction on his face.
"A valuable addition to Weaver's host."
The whispers of the crowd shifted to approval and a few victorious bellows.
Her sister stood for them, her inner fires warping into arms and legs, face and torso in mirror image of the statue of Weaver watching over them all.
Flame searched her sister's eyes for a fleck of individuality, but like the elementals, no hint of life filled her sockets, like the golems only darkness remained.
Lifting his hands, the High Priest reclaimed the throng's attention. "We welcome the newest force of fire and cleansing power into Weaver's fold."
"Let Her will be done," said her sister.
The crowd replied in kind, the vow spoken in unison and with a single breath.
Flame looked away when two armored warriors guided the newly enslaved elemental, her former sister, her once kin, from the altar, and past the line of other fiery beings of the same shape and mindlessness. As they departed, the priests began another round of chanting, their cheeks glistening, the collars of their robes soaked.
The High Priest pointed and Flame found herself trapped by his glare. "This one will be next."
Her sister's shriek twined with her failed promise and, despite the inquisitor's command, Flame held her ground. "No."
Without taking her eyes from the High Priest's glower, Flame gathered the vestiges of heat, of fire, of being the inquisitors' shackles and spells had imprisoned. She added the echoes of her sister's last cry, the knowledge of similar suffering for all those who had come before, and her terror of finally becoming one of them. Defiance scorched her mind as her inborn powers erupted, charring the inquisitor's control and melting the bindings at her wrists.
In the pews, the throng retreated with gasps. They raised sleeves and tattooed forearms to protect their bared skin. Some took to the air, swords on the edge of being drawn, bowstrings thrumming with a taut pull. The golems too waited for instruction, of where their encased mass of air and metal bulk might be added to the fray.
The High Priest's fury reddened his features. "Seize it!
Flame flicked her wrists, casting spawns into the nave. The extensions of her being shared her shape and absorbed the initial brunt of arrows, fists, and warriors' blades released by the High Priest's command.
While battle cries flooded her ears, Flame flung herself over the charging golems and down the aisle. The double doors to Weaver's Temple had closed but Flame created another spawn at the threshold where winged warriors blocked her path. Jumping upon her creation, Flame leapt to the sill of the rose window, the stained glass tainting sunlight ruby and gold.
She laid her hand on the rune-etched panes as enchanted arrows flew. One tip pierced her shoulder, another nicked her leg, but none shattered the warded glass.
Gusts foretold winged warriors soaring near, the fletching on their next round of arrows fluttering.
Drawing her remaining spawns within her body, Flame healed the scrapes and punctures. She poured more heat into her hands and cast a wave out of her back, warding off the warriors' aerial approach and melting their fired shafts.
Below, golems assembled, their plod shaking the temple's walls, and the inquisitors flung orders to the enslaved.
The fires at her feet quivered and Flame willed the panes' runes to lose their power, to crack enough to let her free, to let her gather the others and unshackle those already claimed.
From the torches, spawns sprang. They landed on the sill, each matching the statue of Weaver and each moving with a single-minded drive.
"Please." Flame closed her eyes and whispered to the kin she could feel upon the dais. Remember yourselves.
Had the elementals below been free, had they been dancing within their home's molten rock, Flame knew they would have heard her plea. Her voice, however, rebounded against the emptiness they had become.
Their spawns trudged through her radiating halo, the nearest grasping her as tightly as the manacles she had destroyed. Another seized her ankle, the next her forearm. None blinked. None slowed. None hesitated. Their fingers passed through her skin, blending with her flesh, and their combined whisper flared in her ears, the thought spoken by a chorus of the same voice.
Flame brightened her body's conflagration, casting it out from her in all directions. "Leave. Me. Be."
Centering on the windowpanes, Flame willed the ruby to streak, the gold to drip, the iron to dissolve.
As a caress of fresh air chilled her palm, an incantation snared her mind. Before she could squeeze through, before she could flee into the open sky, dart across the rocky plains Weaver's followers had conquered, and return to the sanctuary of lava and rage of her home's elemental plane, a command to calm, to surrender pressed upon Flame's thoughts.
Additional inquisitors added their incantations, their words as restraining as the spawns weighing down her limbs. While the spawns bore through her flesh, the inquisitors pierced her mind and the gusts of winged warriors snuffed her fires. Flame grew cold, grew still, her thoughts of escape and freedom doused.
With an impotent whimper, she fell from the window. Spawns caught her, bearing her in their collective embrace. The windowpane with its small hole dwindled as they lowered her to the temple's floor. They carried her along the aisle, a delayed but inevitable resumption the day's procession.
All Flame could do was stare at the ribbed ceiling passing overhead.
A minor jostle indicated their ascent of the dais's steps. Her view spun as enslaved elementals took their spawns place, hefted her frozen body, and laid her within the altar's bonfire.
Flame didn't struggle, but still they held her down. Their fingers meshed with her arms and legs. Heat penetrated her back and the downcast gaze of Weaver became the sole image in her sights, her round visage haloed in fire.
In her mind, the inquisitors' incantations ceased, and the High Priest replaced their drone.
"Will this one be judged worthy? Will this one be embraced? Will this one be bound to our purpose? Be another blessed weapon in our march to victory?"
Additional murmurs of loyalty, words of binding, words inspiring love and fidelity whispered by the horde of priests further tempered the inferno within Flame's skin. Her fires matched the flutter of the altar's tongues, the current within the encircling elementals matched the beat of the spell.
The rhythm extinguished Flame's contrary thoughts, recollections of her sister, of her home, and even the memory of her attempt to flee. A drumming timbre seized her mind, instead, the fiery crackle claiming the essence of her being, and linking her body with those holding her fast and her spirit to the deity watching on.
Her features strained, seeking to match the marble statute and Flame encouraged her skin to shift. She willed her limbs to lengthen, for her torso to blossom, and a mane of flame to emerge and mimic Weaver's locks. A soothing sense of oneness consumed her as she saw her new self reflected in the surrounding elementals, each an extension of the statue overhead, each a sister in thought and flesh.
Their combined presence stoked a new fire within her, one hotter than their plane's molten sea, hotter than the altar's fire, hot enough to purge the infidels who dared bring disorder to the universe and thwart the purity of Weaver's command.
That thought kindled something deeper and Flame gasped at the purpose, at the need requiring her life and sacrifice.
At the High Priest's command, the fires dwindled and her sister elementals released their grasps. At another motion, Flame rose.
"A valuable addition to Weaver's host," said the High Priest.
Sunlight colored his robes and those of the congregation. The torches, the bonfire, her kin, and her own being warmed their faces, each ardent and satisfied, their purpose, now her own.
The High Priest lifted his hands and spoke to the crowd. "We welcome the newest force of fire and cleansing power into Weaver's fold."
Flame gazed at him, at them, her fists of fire clenched. "Let Her will be done."
< Previous Chapter | Next Chapter >
TITANS TACTICS: THE GAMES BEGIN. Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen A. Magner and Imbalanced Games, LLC.