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Quick warning: this chapter does have some one-sided violence. The bad guy who hunted Neoma does have Kaveri and Kieran captive and he is, ah, not a nice guy.

 It took a moment even for moonblood eyes to adjust to the light of a pair of oil lamps that were brought in and left on small shelves to either side of the door.

Considering the size and musculature of the two men who opened her cage, Kaveri expected little to come of physical resistance, but she fought anyway while they dragged her out. One had a scarcely-visible halo of aquamarine, the other of green-gold.

The way the coarse rope was looped tightly around her wrists suggested that no one cared whether it slipped even tighter and did serious damage. It wasn't much surprise, but it did make her distinctly nervous.

They bound her to one of the beams that crossed the room—they didn't look structural to her, might have been for hanging meat or other foods. They jerked it up so hard that she could keep her weight on the balls of her feet only with an uncomfortable amount of strain on her arms. She wondered how long it would take for that to exhaust her abdominal muscles and make it hard to breathe. If she lost her balance, or fatigue took hold, and more weight came down on her arms, that would only happen faster.

Did suffocation count as a death by anything of earth? she wondered. What if it was suffocation because of being bound with vegetable-fibre rope to a wooden beam in a mud-brick building? She wasn't in a hurry to test it.

A third man, who had lingered just inside the closed door while the other two made their preparations, said a single syllable, “Back.” The other two retreated instantly against the walls. Kieran snarled as one passed too close to his cage.

Oh, be silent, cur,” the third man said contemptuously. “You're an abomination. As is anyone whose blood comes from the Great Traitor through you.”

The man in front of her, sturdily built, his skin light and his short-cropped hair a sandy brown, had a faintly violet luminescence, which struck her as possibly the ultimate in ironic insults. She was at the probably non-existent mercy of a man whose blood was literally the same substance as her own. A knife in an elaborately-decorated sheath, the hilt imposing in its simplicity and the blade in its unassuming length, hung from an embossed and metal-studded leather belt.

Traitor?” Kaveri echoed. “That isn't what Lirit says.”

His backhanded slap made the room blur into starbursts-on-black for a few thudding heartbeats. Kieran snarled again, lips drawn back from long white teeth.

Everything you say and do, your very existence, is blasphemy. Once your entire bloodline has been removed, restoring purity, Talir will relent, and the five moons will guide us to victory.”

She flinched involuntarily when he drew the knife from its sheath. The blade reflected the light of the oil lamps like glass, dark and smooth. The blade was, she thought, probably no more than the length of her hand from heel to fingertips, and it was less than the width of three fingers, but that was sufficient to kill, and even more easily, to hurt.

Why are you doing this in the dark?” she asked. “If this is a punishment for heresy against the moons, shouldn't this be done where they can see?” In the moonlight, the ache in her arms and the ache in her head, both of which she was dismally sure were barely a warmup, would go away. And it would be much harder to catch and hold a raccoon.

Heretics forfeit the blessed light of the goddesses.”

You mean you, or at least those above you, know that the chance is always there that they'll refuse to play along with your sick games, like Talir with Neoma, and steal your victims before you think they've suffered enough. Because somehow you're a better judge than the moons themselves of who's sinful or innocent.

She bit her tongue on the thought, and said instead, “Do you honestly think Lirit wants one of her children to torture another of her children?”

Another slap with his free hand, snapping her head back and to the side so hard she wondered vaguely whether he'd break her neck. That wouldn't be so bad, it would unquestionably be death by moonlight, and Lirit would be waiting—but what about Kieran, left to face alone the people who had tortured his mother to death? Would Lirit, could Lirit, let Narcissa know she was gone, and prevent her other friends from putting themselves in danger for her?

Heresy must be purged and punished. By rights, you have the entire day to sit here in the dark and contemplate your sins and pray for your penance to be adequate and acceptable. Had you been properly initiated, I would leave you to it. Considering your ignorance, I want to make certain you understand and are prepared for the penance you must do.”

And I'm free after that? At least, if Lirit will heal me?” Something about that knife was nagging at her, but it was hard to focus past the growing physical discomfort and the conversation. This man was, she thought, one of the dogs Aithre had mentioned, and not likely to listen, though she had to try. It wasn't as though she had much to lose at this point.

No. You are the offspring of that vile thing over there. You must die. But you can and will go to Lirit cleansed by a sacred and consecrated blade, and we will be that much closer to a pure and peaceful world.” The perfectly calm tone was as chilling as the words.

I'd rather not. Maybe you could just kill us both without worrying if we're cleansed? I'd be happy to take my chances with Lirit's judgement afterwards, and I know Kieran would be just as happy taking his chances with Talir's.”

That would make me responsible for your sins. You need to atone for your own sins.”

Somehow I knew you were going to say something like that,” she sighed. Despite dying a number of times over the past quarter of a century, and some of those deaths being unpleasantly violent, being deliberately tortured in cold blood was going to be new. It wasn't an experience she'd ever been particularly eager for. Lirit would be waiting, of course, but the span between now and then was going to be bad.

The animal won't be killed tonight with you, however. It's been too much trouble and is too valuable as an example.”

Lucky him.” She wasn't at all sure Kieran was still rational, by this point. Some emotions could overwhelm his ability to reason in human fashion, and there were plenty of those right now. During a longer captivity, he would probably slide from one end to the other. In either state, he'd be miserable.

Perspective and logic became extremely difficult to hold onto, while he used the knife to demonstrate what she could look forward to after the sun set. She thought she screamed at least once, when the pain climbed past what she could process and tolerate.

Kieran, still caged, rattled the bars in an escalating frenzy of desperation to escape, plaintive whining alternating with growling and snapping.

The door opened; her tormentor spun to face it.

Yes? What? I gave orders...”

The man in the doorway ducked his head submissively in acknowledgement. “We have a... situation.”

Wira can handle it.”

He sent me to get you.”

Her tormentor said something Kaveri didn't recognize, but it sounded like a curse. “I believe I've made my point, so I suppose anything further is unnecessary and premature anyway. Put her back in the cage until sunset.”

Don't hurry on my account, Kaveri thought, with a rather delirious sense of amusement. I'll wait. No rush.

'Rel, Madoc, you've always been there when I most need you. Right now, I really need you. I desperately don't want to go through whatever he has in mind for later. Kieran and I are in serious trouble here. Please put that fox cleverness and that feline hunting skill into practice and do it fast...

The two who had been waiting in silence released the rope holding her up. She staggered, but one jerked her more or less upright with a hand under her arm. Pain flared anew in her abused shoulders, and she heard herself whimper. They hauled her bodily back to her cage, shoved her inside, and closed it. The lock didn't need a key, but it did require both hands, and from inside, there was going to be no way to reach it.

Kaveri's tormentor watched the whole manoeuvre, though half his attention was on cleaning the knife before sheathing it. They took the lamps with them and closed the door. She heard the sound of a key in a lock, metal on metal, then silence.

Kaveri slumped in the corner of her cage, conscious of sweat and blood and tears all slowly drying, of the lines of fire drawn by the knife and the dull throbbing of her muscles. Despite the certainty that all the rhetoric about sin and penance was ridiculous and that Lirit loved her, this was going to be difficult to endure, and it was going to leave its mark even though it couldn't leave scars.

The knife's blade... she'd seen it much too clearly, but she'd been distracted. The image kept intruding on her mind's eye, nagging at her that she was missing something.

She realized with sudden sick certainty what it was, and shivered.

That blade wasn't cast or molded, it had been flaked. Which meant it was stone.

Glassy and black. Not flint. That 'sacred and consecrated' knife was obsidian.

Kieran had told them that he'd lost someone to an obsidian knife despite Valeyan's gift—apparently according to whatever scale was used, it counted too much as fire, not enough as earth.

Which meant... if she and Kieran died under that knife, they were dead for good. Lirit and Talir could do nothing but mourn.

Oh dear gods. I am just not ready to die for real, and never like this. Please let the others come up with a way to get us out of this!