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The Cost of Betrayal

David Dalglish

Prologue

T he room was dark and plain, a strange combination for a supposed holy place.

“Take my hand, child,” Aresh said. He stood inside the doorway, the noisy streets of Veldaren behind him. His polished armor shone bright, and the chainmail beneath the large sections of plate clinked from the movement of his outstretched arm.

“I’m no child,” the woman said, refusing his hand but entering anyway. On either side of the wood walls were hard oak benches covered with thin blankets, stitched golden mountains across their lengths. There were no windows, and only the one door. She knew she should be worried, a girl trapped alone with a strange man. But he was a priest of Ashhur, and she was no normal girl.

She smiled at the priest. He was middle-aged, with thinning hair around his ears and a nose much too large for his face to be attractive. He smiled back, his lips parting to reveal clean, straight teeth.

“We use this room for confession and difficult talk,” Aresh said as he closed the door. His voice sounded weak in the empty air, and a bit eager. “Many are not comfortable voicing their fears where others may hear. There are matters that demand privacy, even secrecy.”

“Of course,” she said.

“What about you, Tessanna? Is there anything you want to confess?”

She noticed he had taken off the bulkier part of his armor and set it aside. A part of her, deep in the back of her conscience, told her to be wary.

She wasn’t.

“I’ve done plenty,” she said, her voice still soft and shy, sounding much younger than her eighteen years. “But I wouldn’t ever confess. That implies I think it was bad, or don’t want to do it again. I like the bad stuff I’ve done. I liked it a lot.”

Aresh’s breathing had grown a bit louder, and Tessanna held in a laugh.

“That is because you are sick,” he said. “Your mind is broken, Tessanna, shattered into pieces. I have discussed this with my fellow priests, even our high priest Calan, and we all agree. Your mind is like a puzzle. Someone must put the pieces back in the right order.”

“And that someone is you?” she asked. The bench was cold and uncomfortable when she sat on it. She crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a knowing wink. “Can you put me back together?”

She noticed how smooth he was, even with her direct approach. He was not smooth enough, however, to hide the fact that he had loosened the belt at his waist.

“Ashhur’s grace is something we must all receive,” he said. “The glory of his light heals all wounds, and it would be blasphemous to believe that you are beyond healing, as some have said. You are a beautiful girl, Tess.”

She lay on her back, her arms stretched over her head. She was slender, her skin milky white and smooth as polished stone. Her long black hair curled about her waist. Her eyes pierced Aresh’s attraction, stirring a bit of guilt and worry. Her irises were solid black, so that her eyes were giant black orbs with hints of white at the edges, and under her gaze he felt naked. His smooth words seemed like childish lies, unneeded and unconvincing.

“Can you fix me?” she asked, a smirk touching the corners of her mouth.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “And do not be afraid. I will give you my healing. Ashhur has blessed man and woman, and through his blessing, I will make you whole.”

With her eyes closed, she listened as his armor and belt hit the floor. She felt a part of her retreating inward, toward the center, while the childish, frightened girl remained on the outside, passive and gullible. When he climbed on top of her, she dared believe it might work.

Because she wasn’t whole. She was many, she was sick, and she had killed more people than Aresh would believe.

He grunted and moaned, and his jerky movements only elicited a tighter clenching of her eyes. His hands fumbled across her breasts. He tried to be gentle, but she didn’t care. The pieces twirling in her mind waited and waited, but they felt nothing.

“Ashhur’s salvation,” Aresh said before kissing her.

Those words ignited something inside her, something opposite what he intended.

“Salvation,” she said, opening her eyes and looking at him with a cold stare that shriveled his stomach. “This is your salvation? This is what Ashhur can offer me?”

He rolled off her, short of breath and seeming small and weak without his armor and white tunic. She giggled, and the sound froze him where he stood.

“I should have known,” she said. “I didn’t want to know, I tried not to know, but you lied to me. You shoved lies down my throat and kissed me to keep them down.”

Aresh pulled up his pants, feeling a chill race up and down his spine. Tessanna slid off the bench and approached. All childishness had left her, vanishing as if it had never been. It seemed an entirely new creature stalked him, cruel and angry. He towered over her by a full foot, but still he felt terrified.

“I have made you whole,” he said, his voice quivering.

“You filled a hole,” she said. “And you did a poor job at that.”

She grabbed his wrist. He couldn’t tear away. She weighed next to nothing, she was so rail thin and bony. Why could he not pull away? The muscles in his arm tensed, then relaxed. He felt a strange presence, like a worm crawling in his brain. When she spoke, there was no trace of a smile, no hint of shyness.

“How many girls have you taken here?” she asked. Her hair lifted as if a strong wind blew through the room, but Aresh felt nothing, only the icy grip of her hand and the digging, squirming sensation behind his eyes.

“I’ve never…you don’t…let go of me child. I have done Ashhur’s work.”

Tessanna laughed, but there was not a shred of joy in it.

“If you do Ashhur’s work, then let me do Karak’s,” she said.

Aresh took a step back. Those eyes, he thought. Why can I not look away from those damn eyes?

“You don’t want to do Karak’s work,” he said. “Karak is evil and darkness. Those who worship him will spend eternity in the fires of the abyss.”

“Is that true?” Tessanna said. “Let’s find out.”

He had no chance to scream before fire burst from Tessanna’s fingers. She bathed him in flame, and when he finally did scream, she laughed.

“Praise be to Ashhur,” she shouted. “Bathe in his light!”

The light from her hands seared his flesh, and when he was nothing but ash and bone, a strong wind blew open the door and scattered his remains.

As the wind died, Tessanna knelt, her hands clasped against her chest.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Her cold anger was gone. She was the shy, young girl once more. “You said you could fix me. You lied. You hurt me. I’ve been hurt enough. I won’t let anyone hurt me anymore.”

Mind still broken, she walked out into the streets of Veldaren, unworried about her hiked up dress and exposed left breast. When an old lady finally commented, Tessanna smiled, thanked her, and fixed her dress.

“Not a care in the world,” the lady muttered as Tessanna walked on.

1

Qurrah was the last to wake. The sun was high in the sky, dawn several hours past. He kept his eyes closed and his body still. Every muscle ached from the battle of Woodhaven the day before. He thought of his escape with

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