Kelsea had often wondered, in the waning years of her life as a mortal, if she would ever find her place in the world.

Not that she had ever expected great things to come of herself. She was not some grand heroine in a fairy tale; no songs would be sung of her and her meagre exploits. She never expected to fall in love with a nobleman, nor to be swept away to a glamorous life of opulence and luxury.

For all her mother's admonishments, Kelsea was never so foolish as to dream beyond the scope of a whore's daughter. A full belly, a warm hearth, and a satisfying life, that was more than enough to sate the modest ambitions of a girl who had spent her childhood underfoot in a lice-ridden brothel in the slums.

She had once - for a brief, adolescent time - fancied herself a mage in the making. Such occurrences were not unheard of in a place like Arjal: the story of a gutter-born orphan, who rose to become Grandmaster of the great, secretive Tower of Mages had been a tale told more than once over the course of the city's tumultuous history.

But Kelsea possessed no true connection to the Helspires, the mystic realms of power that tied the godsplane to mortal existence. The fact that the Tower had never deigned to dispatch one of their faceless Seekers to induct her into their arcane ranks (despite Kelsea's most ardent prayers) spoke to that dream's particular potency.

It was thus a profound irony that she had only discovered her 'talent' in casting humanity's inner fire years later, through her involuntary transformation into her new, libidinous shape. For all of Gosvin's might, he had never blessed Kelsea with the ability to call upon the element that so defined his children. It was only through Huzra's hedonistic touch that a spark as dim as hers could kindle to blue balefire.

But truth be told, Kelsea had never borne the kind of passionate ember that burned in the chest of those seized by a particular calling in life. She was as content as anywhere when it came to finding a home, earning a living, and seeking contentment. It was not the goal she sought, so much as a road to walk.

And now, here she sat: staring at one of the uglier consequences of the winding path she had taken. Perhaps her mother's final parting words to her were true: perhaps she had made a grave mistake.

Carl Hale, the once cocky, blonde bowman, lay in a stupor in front of her, sheltered in the open-air church of Blessed Sphanor. They were alone in this particular area - the wounded and the dead had been cleared enough in recent days to allow those who remained their own patches to convalesce. Despite exposure to the elements, some strange magic of the wind god protected the church from the freezing cold outside. The gentle breeze that wafted through the overhanging sheets of fabric was soft and warm.

Covered in a thick, wool blanket, only Carl's head was visible... though Kelsea could well imagine the wiry shape of his body lying beneath. The ruined half of his face was mercifully covered by a wettened scrap of cloth, a paltry attempt to spare those who passed the sight of the grisly injury. Despite the priestess' best efforts to cover it, Kelsea could see the cracked and reddish skin peeking out past the edges. The balefire had burned him terribly, and even Almyra's healing magics had only just begun to mend it to stiff scar tissue.

She dabbed at his brow with a wetted cloth, worrying at her inability to feel for a fever. Her own infernal skin was so hot that determining normal body temperature was at best a vague guessing game. He'd lain in an unconscious stupor since he'd first arrived, borne on the backs of the very mercenaries Roland had gone to meet with.

Well... them, and that witch.

Kelsea's stomach twinged with pain and discomfort at the memory of the Elven priestess. She could recall with fear the terrible memory of the rider in the night, stalking her in the snow like an animal. The hex was still inside her. Whatever strange curse that fey creature had inflicted on her dwelled there still, muffled but growing.

"Mmh," Her patient groaned, shifting back and forth under the blanket.

"Carl!" Kelsea exclaimed, bending forward in a rush. His one good eye peeked open, looking up at her with a dim incousiance.

They stared at one another for a long moment, wordless dialogue passing between them as Carl took in his surroundings.

"Ah." He whispered, his dry lips cracking open. A ragged sigh issued forth from his tired lungs. "So we won, then."

Kelsea choked out a laugh. Despite their quarrels, despite his incessant hostility and tireless jabs at her expense, she had strangely missed him. To hear him speak again was a great relief to her conscience. The Demon took a nearby water skin in hand and lifted it to his lips. Carl eagerly accepted it, bending his head off the pillow as he sipped at the thing. A long minute passed in silence as he swallowed.

Spent, he leaned back, letting out a second, more contented sigh. His lone eye blinked, and Kelsea saw the light of intelligence spring into it once more. Carl looked around, his gaze trailing across the Inner Cloister and the remaining wounded lying a ways away beneath the rippling sheets of fabric.

"...How bad?" He asked, staring at something past Kelsea's shoulder.

"Most of the Outer Cloister was destroyed in the attack. The inner walls held, but only barely." Kelsea suppressed a shiver at the recollection. "This is basically all that's left."

"I meant my face, you scurrilous creature." Carl groaned, reaching up with a feeble hand to caress the top of the wetted cloth. "Feels like my entire right side's been scraped across a grindstone."

Kelsea felt a sinking pit in her stomach. "...It will mend. But it's going to take some time."

Carl croaked with laughter. "Yeah, that's the tone of a whore who's telling the truth."

"Almyra swore to me you would recover," Kelsea said, her hackles rising. How easy it was for him to goad her. "...There may be some scars, but-"

Carl chuckled again. "You just can't bring yourself to be the bearer of bad news, eh?" He shook his head back and forth. "No need to spin a sweeter tale, Succubus. I'm as helpless as a lamb and as frail as a kitten. You no longer have any cause to fear my fury."

"I never feared you, Carl." Kelsea retorted, trying but failing to keep the hint of hostility from her voice. Why was he so good at prickling at her frayed edges? "I just... you didn't deserve this."

"Which part, Succubus?" Carl's one eye matched hers in sharp focus. "The face-burning, or the friend-killing?"

"Either." Kelsea said, keeping her expression level. That seemed to only amuse Carl further. He smirked and shifted beneath the covers.

"Just as well." He said, settling into his blanket as if he intended to sleep once more. "Gods only know what strange fate keeps me bound to you and that ginger-haired cunt." His eye opened once more, peeking at her out of the corner. "...How does he fare?"

"Roland lives." She replied.

"So he's well, then." Carl said. "Else you'd have gotten that doleful look in your eyes and glanced away." He smiled without humor when she blushed in embarrassment. "I've been learning your little heartstrings tricks, Succubus. They aren't half as endearing as you think them to be."

"It's Kelsea." The Succubus said in a quiet tone. A chill wind rippled in the godly canvas above them.

Carl stared at her a moment. "Kelsea then. Fine. Cling to the pretension if you must."

"It's not a pretense, Carl." Kelsea said, feeling already weary of their conversation. She toyed with her hands.

"Delusion, pretension, call it what you like." The blonde bowman said. "I take it the villagers haven't figured out what you are, yet? That, or I'm merely the most pathetic of your servants you still need to tend to at this poi-"

"Gods, would you just stop?" Kelsea said, her frustration boiling over. "Why must you provoke me like this at every turn? Have you no wits to see that I'm not the beast you make me out to be? I would love nothing better than to be rid of you, and for you to be rid of us!"

Carl tilted his head to the left, turning to face her. She could see the shadow of his ruined features through the wetted cloth. Her eyes darted away to avoid the uncomfortable sight. Carl's mouth parted, the scabbed skin at the corner of his lips stretching and contorting beneath.

"Heal me, then." He said. For once, there was no mockery in his voice. "Turn me loose, and I'll trouble you no more."

Kelsea's shoulders sagged. "I... can't. Not yet."

Carl expelled a humored huff of air from his nose. He smiled and tilted his head upward to stare at the tarp. "Ah, of course."

"You don't understand, Carl." She said, "If I did, the Helstriders would-"

"Helstriders?" Carl inhaled sharply, letting out a rasping cough as he took in too much air too fast. "The Helstriders? That band of loons? They're here?"

Kelsea nodded, dabbing at his forehead with the cloth. "They only just arrived yesterday."

He shook his head back and forth, staring up at the tarp with a bemused look. "Gosvin be good, who would have guessed it. Could have used their axes a few days ago, eh?" Carl said, flashing a glimpse of his old, cocky grin. "Mayhaps I'd have tattled on you in time to spare myself the balefire."

"I tried to save you." She whispered.

Carl scoffed. "Yeah? And how'd that turn out?"

Kelsea's brow lowered. "...You're still around to mock me, aren't you?"

Carl wheezed out a laugh, his breath coming out in fitful bursts. "There. Now that's the fire I'm looking for. You're such a dreary little raincloud, sometimes."

"My apologies for the honest concern." She spat back. Carl simply chuckled again. Kelsea stared down at him, at his rigid smirk and clenched expression. He was good at hiding the pain, but she could see it all the same.

"How are you? Truthfully?" She reached out and placed her hand atop his own.

Carl jerked his hand back under the blanket. "Fine. Don't touch me."

Kelsea let out an emotional sigh. The long silence between them was like an unbridgeable gulf she had no idea how to cross. After a moment of hesitation, she leaned forward, drawing back the veil upon the right side of his face and planting her lips upon his injured cheek.

Carl tensed up. "What are you-"

"Just a little," She said, licking at the wound. "Just enough to ease the pain."

For all his harsh words, Carl made no effort to stop her. It took only a short time for him to relax back against the ground. She could not risk corrupting him with a complete recovery, but at least she could give him this.

The sound of her quiet licks filled the air. After a short while, she heard Carl let out a sigh of relief.

"Gods." He murmured, his voice drained of tension. "I feel like I can breathe again."

Kelsea sat up, wiping at her lips, feeling like a whore. Her eyes hovered over his ragged, burned features, looking into the hollow cavity of his empty eye socket. She carefully placed the cloth back over it.

The words spilled from her lips before she could stop herself. "I'm... I'm sorry, Carl."

Carl huffed. "Bit late for apologies, Succubus." He said, closing his eye. "Bit late by half."

"I still have to say it." She replied. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "...I want to do right by you."

"Then finish your licking, or fuck off." He said, though there was no heart in the words.

With slow, deliberate movements, the Demon drew Carl's hand back from under the blanket, clasping it against her chest as she looked at him. She did her best to ignore the quickening of his pulse when her fingers tightened against his palm.

"What is this?" He asked, his voice dropping softly in pitch. Kelsea couldn't tell if he sounded annoyed or afraid.

"I've wronged you." She said, "I cannot give back what I've taken from you, Carl. I can only try to make amends. The battle on the High Road was not your fight, but I-" She trailed off, her shoulders sagged. "I shouldn't have treated you as I did... as I have... as I still am."

"Gods damn you," Carl said, his teeth gritting. "If this is another one of your tricks-"

"It's not." Kelsea said in a firm tone. "I am sorry, truly I am. I have done terrible things, things I can't take back. Things that-" She hesitated. She'd been about to say things I would have once been horrified by.

"You... you used me." Carl rasped, his voice trembling. Freed from their little game of tit-for-tat, it all rose up to the surface at once.

"I know." Kelsea said, leaning forward, her face less than a foot from his own. Her fingers trailed across the smoothness of his unburned cheek. "I treated you like a beast of burden, ordering you about like an animal. You didn't deserve that; no one does."

He said nothing, his body shivering at the mere touch of her. Kelsea shook her head. "I won't lie and say I regret defending Roland from your friends; I'm done lying to you, Carl. But I do regret making you take part. It was wrong. It was... cruel."

"You're not my enemy, Carl. You never have been." Kelsea spoke, her voice gaining a soft, candy-sweet quality to it without her even noticing. His body instinctively relaxed at her touch. "I'm tired of playing games. I'm tired of fighting."

She squeezed his hand. "I don't want to hurt you anymore. You have suffered enough on my account."

"Some suffering s-still to come, I'd expect." He said, his shaky smile belying the desperation in his voice. "What even is this? What do you want from me?"

"A truce." She said. "I swear to you: the moment I am able, I will deliver on my promise. I will heal you, give you whatever you need to start over. You can go, be free, and we will never see each other again. I just need you to be patient." And to keep silent around the Helstriders. She thought worriedly to herself, but Carl was a clever enough man to not need to be told.

She squeezed his hand a final time, bringing it to her heart.

"Please, Carl? For me?"

Carl glared at her through the film of water in his uncovered eye. He tried to maintain a scowl, but it collapsed alongside his exhausted expression.

He leaned his head back against the pillow he'd been resting on. His wavering eye slid shut.

"I'm tired. Let me sleep."

"Of course." Kelsea sighed and let go of his hand, pulling the blanket gently over him as she set the water skin within hand's reach.

She supposed she shouldn't have expected anything better. Kelsea stood up, the cool wind of the church ruffling her pale robes. She stared down at her minion's calm expression, before turning away again. "Be well, Carl."

"Yeah, you too Kelsea." He murmured. Kelsea stopped at the precipice of the church's overhang. She nearly turned back to look at him, but managed to resist the urge.

A church bell was tolling in the distance, calling the faithful to prayer.

"Hold the burning ember in your palm, and speak the Catechesis of Flame."

"Yes, Father." Kelsea answered, repeating the first part of the ritual's call-and-response. She extended her cupped palms out to receive the ember, but Almyra drew it back from her grasp, as was tradition.

"I am not the Father." The Priestess said in a solemn, ministerial tone. "None may bear that title, save he who forged our inner spark." Flames danced between the two women as they stood across each other from the smoking, iron brazier. "We are his sons and daughters. Equals. I sit no closer than you do to his fire, but he sits always at the center."

Kelsea bowed her head in contrition. "Then let me bear his ember, Sister. Let me take my rightful place next to you around his warmth." Upon speaking the words, Kelsea bared her upper body down to the shoulders, pulling her robe open to expose the pale skin of her human form. She scrunched her shoulders to avoid exposing herself further.

Almyra smiled, extending her reach across the flames. "So be it, Sister."

The burning ember dropped into Kelsea's hands. She clenched her palms around it, holding its heat tight between her fingers. Such pain was meant to be a trial, an ordeal to prove one's devotion and concentration to their God. To Kelsea, it was but a mild inconvenience.

Almyra's voice took on the low intonation of a stern parent. "Now answer me thus: who hath made us in the light of creation, who hath kindled warmth, ignited love, and granted us our sacred dignity?"

"The Father." Kelsea intoned.

"And what is his name?"

Kelsea took a deep breath, worrying the burning brand back and forth between her palms. "Gosvin. Lord of All. Master of the Seven. Genitor of the Fire. The Forge, the Maker, the Spark."

"What are we to him?"

"We are his kin and kindling, the fuel of his inferno, and the instrument of his ascension." The great hall of the church was silent. Only the crackling of the brazier could be heard. Her voice made an uncomfortable echo as she spoke. "Through his love, we are engulfed. Through his forgiving touch, we rise ever higher."

"To what purpose did he make us?" Almyra's copper colored eyes held to Kelsea's own with unwavering intensity.

"To..." Kelsea paused, "T-to glorify him, and to spread his influence to all corners of the earth."

Almyra tilted her head, feigning confusion. "How are we, mere mortals to accomplish such a task?"

"With love, and with mercy."

"And if love and mercy fails?"

Kelsea swallowed. She had never liked this part of the catechesis. "With fire... and with sword."

"How can we succeed with love and mercy?"

"We embrace with love those who will listen to his word, and shelter with mercy those who will not."

Almyra's thin eyebrow arched. "How might we triumph with fire and sword?"

The ember was finally beginning to burn a little. "If love is destroyed and mercy trampled, only then will Gosvin's righteous fury rise to defend his children."

Almyra nodded. "What is his sacred gift?"

"Heat. The means by which his children flourish. That which he gives freely to all races."

"-And what is his profane gift?"

"Steel. The means by which his children rule. That which he gave only to mankind."

"Which of these gifts does he prefer to give?"

"Heat. For Gosvin loves the warmth of life above all else."

Almyra smiled. "And where lies your heat, Sister?"

Kelsea took the ember and lifted it to her chest. She pressed the orange glow against a spot just above her heart. The parishioners sitting in the pews let out gasps of appreciation as steam rose from the skin. This most painful part of the ritual was rarely followed to completion.


Almyra smiled. She reached out, gently peeling open Kelsea's trembling fingers. The Demon felt a depraved urge fill her mind as she stared at the Priestess' form-fitting red dress, her almond-shaped eyes and her pristine crown of braided black hair. How regal she looked, how hauntingly lurid the image of bending her over in front of the congregation, lifting up her robes and burying her face in her-

Almyra took the dying ember from her grasp. She held it high above the crackling flames between them, then cast it into the brazier. With a flick of her wrist and a whisper on her lips, a thin pillar of fire rose nearly to the ceiling, before descending back down again.

"Let this small flame join the rest, and with our help grow brighter in the communal fire. We add another ember to the Father's sacred blaze." Almyra clasped her hands together and lowered her head. "Gosvin be good."

"Gosvin be good." Chanted the assorted cultists. Kelsea bent her head low, her voice joining the tumult.

The ritual completed, Almyra stuck her arm directly into the brazier, wading around inside of it without the slightest concern. Her hand emerged from its core smoking, covered in ash, but unscathed. She placed her finger upon the Demon's right cheek, and with three swift marks she drew the flaming sigil of Gosvin on her.

Pub: Dec 29 2020 07:26 UTC
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