Kara woke, choking and coughing. She hated all this nearly drowning, and how hard it was to move with her clothes wet and heavy. Part of the heaviness, she realized, adjusting to her situation, was in the form of dead bodysnatchers.
There was a dome above, a small one that had once had windows but was now buried under earth. Rounded tunnels, some blocked with grates, led off in every direction, and the floor lay in tiers of steps, down into water. All the tiers were littered with coffins and bodies, some older, some very fresh. The men in black robes gathered here were the only ones alive.
Kara coughed up more than water, and pushed the nearest bodies away with her boots. The men in robes did not advance, just waited, all watching her. One of them, wearing a silver pendant, bowed.
“Welcome back to waking, Lady. They who attacked you are all slain.”
Kara backed up and nearly tripped over a coffin.
They didn’t move, only watched her, dark eyes bright under hoods. The spokesman’s voice had a familiar accent. Corestemarian. His pendant had the symbol of Vashiel the Sky Lord, the most powerful incarnation of the highest god of the Corestemarian pantheon.
“What do you want?” Kara asked, trying to see without touching if any of the bodies belonged to Seilu or anyone else she knew.
“Only to do as we are asked by him that has sent us to you. We will protect you.”
The floor was slippery with blood, and looking down to find her steps made Kara want to choke again, so she just shuffled carefully toward the closest passage. “What if I ask you to go away?”
“We have orders. You are precious and must be protected.” The man spread his hands, revealing a silver knife in one. “None may hurt you while we keep watch. You have nothing to fear. Your enemies are our enemies.”
Kara swallowed hard. One of the corpses on the other side of the room, carelessly draped over several others, was beginning to move. It fell silently to the blood-slicked floor and fumbled to rise, troubled by a pile of glass bottles.
“I’d prefer to fight my own battles,” Kara said. “I want you all to stay away from me.”
“You have not yet grown into your full strength and glory,” the man with the knife said, his voice soft. “There is much still for you to learn. You are vulnerable without our master’s wisdom.”
The body behind them lurched fully upright, hair and blood half obscuring its face. It wasn’t rotting, though. It was a familiar corpse—Tallis.
“I’m not going to any school, or any cult or crazy temple. I’m going to do what I want,” Kara said, edging another step toward the tunnel. She tried not to look at Tallis, or call attention to him. If you aren’t a demon, run. Get out.
“And so wherever you wander, there we will be, to protect your steps until they turn inevitably towards him.”
“I’d poison myself first,” Kara hissed at them.
“Do you not know? The child of our master cannot be poisoned.” The man opened his arms and stepped toward Kara. The rest did the same.
“That is very handy to know,” said Tallis, picking up and throwing one glass bottle after another. “Neither can I.”
The liquid from the shattered bottles let loose an awful smell, and clouds of gas. Men in robes slumped near each impact. “Stop him!” the man with the knife cried, wrapping his hood around his lower face.
Men swarmed at Tallis, while Kara swore and grabbed up a dropped club from the ground. “Leave him alone!” she yelled at them. “That’s an order.”
The cultists ignored her and chased after Tallis as he backed away, ducking and throwing the rest of bottles as he went. Several more men slumped, and the last were stopped by the sudden wall of flame that sprang up when Tallis threw something from his pocket into a pool of the liquid.
The remaining men made the sign against evil, meant to protect one from demons. Kara could see why, looking at Tallis, bone white and skeletal, through a wall of sickly flame. None of the men seemed eager to try to come through it and instead split up, trying to creep round and flank him. Kara whacked a few of them with her club when they passed near her on their way.
“Get out!” she shouted at Tallis.
“I think we should leave together, if you don’t mind the company,” Tallis said, reaching a bony, long-nailed hand toward her, even as the man with the knife crept round behind him.
“Look out!” Kara yelled.
It was too late. Tallis fell forward with the knife in his back. Cultists wobbled in the fumes, but six still stood, including their leader.
Scrambling footsteps behind her only briefly panicked Kara, before she felt Djaren’s mind there too.
“Bloody hell!” Lory exclaimed. There was the sound of someone being sick.
Eljiah, pale and almost luminous in the dim room, came up beside Kara, armed with an antique sword. Isakoa strode up on her other side, hefting a war club.
“I have guards,” Kara snarled at the cultists. “And if you kill my friends I will hunt you down to the last.”
“I will bear this message,” the man with the pendant said, at last backing a step away. “Is there anything else you would have me say to your—”
“Shut up! Shut up forever and get out!” Kara yelled, throwing her club at him.
The cultists withdrew, and Eljiah ran forward to Tallis.
“Should we let them leave?” Djaren asked Isakoa, grabbing one of Kara’s hands in his. The question became moot as the retreating cultists ran right up against the bowl-helmeted Dameara men just coming in.
“These men are murdering criminals.” Lory took charge, pointing out the cultists. “Apprehend them at once.”
“And mind everyone avoid the formaldehyde and chloroform pools!” Djaren said. He took Kara’s other hand and looked at her worriedly. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
She shook her head and looked more closely at him. “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
He reddened. “I’ll explain later. Look, we found Seilu dropped with a pile of dead snatchers a little ways off. Eljiah thinks he’s only concussed, and should come round.”
“Tallis,” Kara said, nodding toward where Eljiah knelt, not sure what else to say.
Djaren pulled her along toward Tallis, ignoring the arrests happening across the room.
Eljiah had taken out the knife, and was staunching what seemed like very little blood with a cloth. “Tallis. Tallis, breathe,” he said.
“Oh, thank you. Yes. Sorry,” Tallis said, in an ordinary tone of voice, still face down on the floor. “I didn’t mean to worry any of you.”
“You aren’t right,” Kara said, half in a sob, collapsing down beside him.
He turned his head to fix her with a glassy eye. “We are not what we made from, but what we make of ourselves,” he said softly. “Remember that, even if you forget all else.”
“What was that?” asked Djaren.
“Not for you,” Tallis said. “Eljiah, help me up. There’s something on you, Djaren. I don’t think it’s good.”