Chapter 4: Placate

“What, my delectable meal, are you?” Cassandra chuckled and looked down in wonder at the huge animal at her feet. It strongly resembled a very large wolf—it had a wolf’s long, rangy legs, pointed ears, and a beautiful silver and sable coat. Unlike a normal wolf, however, its muzzle was shorter, its fangs longer, and its hips were oversized—not surprising, since it had been almost as comfortable both on all fours as standing upright. Its paws were also elongated, with a fifth flange set slightly back and above the normal four. One further difference of note was that it was well over five hundred pounds.

The wolf-beast’s breath was coming fast and shallow and sounded hoarse. It also twitched occasionally, but was otherwise still. Cassandra sat down on her haunches and looked at it more closely, pulling up its muzzle to expose the full length of the long, vicious teeth with bits of its last meal still stuck between them. Cassandra sniffed at the bits. Human. Interesting.

She had never seen the like of this beast before, and though she had drunk from its veins until she was full almost to bursting, still she could not drain it. The creature’s lifeblood surged through her, filling her with an intoxicating sense of power that was still growing. Her eyes were glazed and a dreamy, satisfied smile played about her lips.

Cassandra began to survey her surroundings as she felt her body healing, filling out, growing stronger. The skeletal form that had emerged from Earth’s womb was gone, replaced by full, feminine curves. She had finger-brushed most of the caked dirt out of her hair, which had become much fuller and had turned from brown straw into spun titanium. There were only a few tattered scraps of old cloth covering her body, and the pale skin that showed over most of her body, though dirty from her time underground, was lustrous, silky, and seemed to glow in the moonlight. The strap over her right shoulder had somehow survived, leaving one full, perfect breast exposed. The ragged bottom of the remains of her dress ended above her knees, with numerous large holes that revealed much more than it concealed. Her calves and feet were bare. She had large eyes, violet like the sky at twilight, full lips, a small, slightly upturned nose, high, prominent cheekbones, and a narrow, slightly pointed chin. She was absolutely beautiful.

She became aware of a familiar presence and glided over to the disturbed earth where she had emerged a short while ago. She could feel him just beneath her feet, and her perfect mouth turned into a wicked smile.

Arise, Indian.

Cassandra felt the ground beneath her feet begin to push upward, but she made no move to step aside. As a long-fingered hand broke through the surface of the ground, Cassandra reached down, wrapped her own fingers around the skin-and-bones just above the earth’s surface and with a firm squeeze calmly broke every bone in the hand. Though the hand tried to jerk away, she held fast and stood up straight, yanking the arm and the body attached to the other end brutally up through the hard packed dirt.

The…man…appeared to be extremely tall—his legs were still sunk into the earth to mid-thigh, in spite of the fact that Cassandra was holding his broken hand over her head. He was as skeletally thin as was Cassandra when she first forced her way up through the dirt. His clothing was in the same condition as hers: a collar remained around his neck and a shirt cuff around one wrist, but his chest and arms were bare, displaying in stark relief his ribs, spine, shoulders, arms with bulges for elbows—every bone in his torso. There were a few wisps of long, iron-gray hair still tethered to his scalp, but the skin on his skull was drawn inward into a frightening caricature of a face. One eye socket gaped empty, and the wrinkled gray remnant of an eye twitched in the other. His nose was a pair of holes in below his eyes, and his lips were shrunk far back from his teeth, leaving his overlarge canines exposed and obvious. He reached out to Cassandra with his free hand and tried to pull her towards him. He managed only to rip away more of her brittle dress, exposing her stomach.

Cassandra grabbed the man around his neck, dropping his broken hand, and took a couple of steps backward to pull him the rest of the way out of the ground. All the while, his arms flailed weakly as he tried to grasp at her. Cassandra met his gaze and stood motionless for a moment watching his wide, staring eye and the working of his mouth. She smiled slowly as he began to struggle harder, the vacant, animal hunger in his one ruined eye beginning to color with the light of incomprehension, and then anger, and then rage.

She slowly and deliberately pulled the man toward her until his struggled thrashing brought their lips less than an inch apart. She smiled toothily, flashing her fangs and bit down into her full lower lip, drawing two large drops of blood. The man’s motions ceased and he stared at Cassandra with inhuman stillness as she slowly licked the blood from her lower lip and then used her tongue to rub the blood over her upper lip. She cocked her head to the side and looked at the man with mock concern, her lips red with her own blood. “Hungry?”

The man’s head rocked to one side and then the other as Cassandra’s hand flashed back and forth faster than a human eye could follow. The taut skin of his cheeks was not split, revealing that she had broken one of his cheekbones. “Is there something you want from me?” Cassandra’s face had twisted into an ugly rictus of hate. “Something, perhaps, you need from me?” she hissed. The man looked back at Cassandra with fear, dread—and the Hunger.

She flung him across the small clearing and into the bole of a tree. The satisfying crackling of several more bones breaking brought a new smile to Cassandra’s lips. It quickly faded.

“Crawl,” she spat at his crumpled form. “Crawl back to me. Crawl with your broken hand, your weak, desiccated body. Crawl!” she screeched, voice rising to a scream, “with your face in the dirt!” The man looked up at her with Hunger…and naked hatred. “Crawl to me, worm!” Cassandra shouted, so enraged that her words were barely intelligible.

The man crawled over to her, pulling his broken body across the ground, and once he was close, she kicked him in the head. “Now,” she said calmly, “you will kiss my feet.” The man turned his head to look up at her, and Cassandra stomped down on him, harder, cracking his collarbone. “You will not look me in the face from this day forward unless I command it.

“You will now do as I commanded.”

Cassandra smiled wistfully as she felt his teeth press through his tough, dry lips making a semblance of kissing motions against her foot. Her lips stretched further into an inhuman grin. She was no longer beholden to him. “You may prick a vein of one foot and lick the blood that I allow to well up. If you attempt to take more blood than I offer you, I will destroy you.”

She felt the pinprick of his fangs on her instep and allowed a small and glacially slow welling of her own blood to seep from the cuts.

For three hundred years, progeny of his unholy curse, she had been slave to his will. She had helplessly complied with his cruel, deviant whims—degraded herself before him and in front of everyone she had known—and hundreds they’d encountered since—performed degrading acts with countless men, women, even animals. She had even murdered her own family at his sadistic command. She was his toy, his plaything.

Cassandra looked down at the top of his head, watching his hair darken and become fuller as he suckled the trickle of blood she allowed to escape from her foot. She brutally kicked him away, breaking several teeth in the process. “Lick the wound closed.”

He looked up at her from the ground. His head was now sparsely covered with back length black hair, and two eyes now stared at her chest—he was not permitted to look her in the face—though his cheekbone was still broken, and two of his front teeth were now broken in half. He knelt over her foot and she felt his still-dry tongue rasp over the prick he had made in the skin there. When he sat back away from her, his eyes looked feverish with hunger, and his tongue flicked over his broken teeth.

“Speak the first words of Binding,” she said.

His eyes snapped up to hers and he glared black hatred at her.

She stepped toward him, and he snarled at her and grabbed at her hips and lunged, trying for the artery that ran down her inner thigh. She grabbed him under his chin and flung him heels over head over heels. He spun into the trunk of the same tree were he had landed before, his head cracking loudly against it.

Her movements were precise and confident, her face was composed, unruffled, almost bored. Though the Indian knew that Cassandra had thrown him and, earlier, that she had struck him, he could not see the motion between one position and another. She just moved too, too fast. Where had she acquired such speed? How? When? Was he still so weak?

Cassandra’s left hand was suddenly on the Indian’s throat, her small, delicate-looking fingers dug deep into his flesh, her nails grating against the bones in his neck. She had seemingly appeared next to him without crossing the space between them. The Indian raked at Cassandra’s face and he clawed out her eyes, but the only apparent effect was to cause her to smile, broad and malevolent. The bloody grooves in her face rippled and settled back into perfect, unblemished skin, while her gouged eyes quickly reappeared, beautiful and penetrating, and trained directly on his own wide, dry eyes. Two sharp cracks, and both the Indian’s upper arms were crushed. Cassandra’s eyes never left his, their emotion did not change, and once again he could not see the motion of her body even as she completely disabled him.

Cassandra pinned the Indian’s neck against the tree at her eye level, leaving the Indian’s long legs folded and twitching beneath him. One final crack and the tips of Cassandra’s fingers were between the ribs of the Indian’s chest. Then with a slow, steady motion, she pushed her hand into the Indian’s chest cavity and wrapped her fingers around his ancient, still-beating heart, and closed her hand into a fist.

The Indian’s eyes rolled back into his skull, his tongue lolled from his mouth, his legs kicked, and his shattered arms swung uselessly at his sides. Cassandra’s grin faded to a satisfied smile. She once again pierced her bottom lip with her fangs, but this time, she spat the blood between the Indian’s gaping lips. She relaxed the grip of her right hand around the Indian’s heart, but did not release it.

“Look into my eyes, you who were Master, and Bind yourself to me. You will speak the words that Bind you to my will until the end of days, or I will hold you helpless and in misery at the very edge of death for as long as I walk this world.”

With those words, Cassandra relaxed her left hand enough to allow the Indian to swallow her blood and spittle. Cassandra could feel the Indian’s breath scrape through his windpipe, and when he began to speak, his heart throbbed with power. At first a thready tingle, it grew as his ruined throat ground out the ancient words, formed in a language that had not been used by human beings in millenia, until Cassandra felt power begin to surge up her arm, through her own chest, and into the root of her body. She allowed her eyes to half close and her breath to catch as a pleasurable rapture filled her.

As the Words faded from the air, she released her grip on his heart and throat and let him drop to the ground. She made a wriggling, waving motion with her fingers, and less than a minute later, a raccoon lumbered clumsily from the underbrush. Cassandra’s eyes were closed and her breathing quick and shallow, but she pointed at the Indian behind her. The Indian fell upon the raccoon as it obediently scooted up to him, his face buried in its fur, without the use of arms to hold himself up. If Cassandra heard the messy crunching, slurping sounds behind her, she gave no notice.

Cassandra returned to the huge wolflike beast whom she had called earlier. She sat beside the beast and pulled its enormous head into her lap. She closed her eyes and entwined her fingers into its fur, scratching its ears as if it were a great pet. She forced one of its eyes open with a thumb and forefinger and stared into it, unblinking. The only motion was the beast’s chest rising and falling in an ever more regular rhythm. Cassandra’s body was completely still; she did not sway, she did not breathe, she did not blink.

After many minutes, her eyes narrowed and a subtle frown pursed her lips. Then, her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and lips set in an “o” of surprise. “Mon Dieu!” She threw her head back and filled the small clearing with light, musical laughter that rang from the trees around them and echoed back to drift around a dirty, bedraggled, beautiful woman wearing decaying rags with the head of a five hundred pound wolf in her lap. “A powerful and delicious treasure have I found in you,” she laughed. “You shall be my servant, my protector, and my companion.” By this time, the beast had awakened, and Cassandra pulled its head up to look into both its eyes. “You. Are. Mine.”

Cassandra grinned like a schoolgirl over at the tall man propped against a tree across from her, struggling to breathe normally. “I’ve just Bound a werewolf!” she exclaimed excitedly.

More laughter tittered through the clearing, though none of its mirth dulled the hatred burning from the eyes of the skeletal-looking man.

Moira shivered with Power. Every breath caressed her lungs and throat like an adoring lover. Her heart did not beat within her chest—it danced. Bubbling brooks flowed through her arteries, her cells sipping the nectar of the life that coursed through her. The sighs of her cells’ afterglow made their languid way back along her veins to rejoin the dance within her throbbing chest.

Eyes closed, translucent figures showed through her eyelids. Opening her eyes presented a world she would never have imagined possible. Her entire life, she had been blind! Everything that passed within her sight was perfectly visible, no matter how dark, and in more detail than she had ever imagined possible. Moira took a few tentative steps forward. Each movement was effortless grace, in perfect balance, every muscle strong and fresh. She raised her entire body motionless over a single toe, and then smoothly cartwheeled up to hold herself straight and still over just the little finger of her left hand.

Moira, poised artfully upon her pinky finger atop the altar Diana had occupied just a short time ago. Several of the robed figures who had occupied the daïs around the altar appeared to be making similar discoveries to Moira, along with a small number below the daïs, scattered throughout the cavern. These enraptured two dozen or so cut a sharp contrast to the crumbled and molten crumbled rock, the air pierced by the wailing and screaming of the broken, mutilated, burning bodies of the greater number of those who had occupied the cavern.

Though Moira was fully aware of the tumult around her, it could touch her. The heat, the dusk, the smoke—the screams—all drifted around but away from her, unable to touch her skin. She held her free hand in font of her face; after-images of blue and yellow sparks danced between her fingers drew her full attention. She righted herself and stood atop the altar with her hands a bare inch apart, engrossed in the sparks that flashed back and forth between the fingers of her hands. Moira barely took note that the normally stoic Art was doing much the same just below her at the head of the altar.

She heard Art gasp, and then a shadow fell across her perceptions. The new senses were not dulled, then were…overcome. The Other stood before her.

Its broad, handsome face with its enchanting blue eyes and short, dark hair was superimposed by her newly heightened senses into a true nightmare. Too many black and green eyes with no whites and no pupils swam in slimy ooze, banked by flaking, scaly ridges. His hair was a shock of twisted horns. When it opened its mouth to speak, a hundred needle-fangs quivered within a pointed beak, ready to eviscerate and swallow her.

The euphoria and wonder scrambled away; well-being fled. Only horror remained. Moira maintained her outward composure, but only by looking away from the vision of Hell before her.

You enjoy the Breath, yes? The Power? It spoke directly into her mind. Just like the duality of its face, there were two tones, one deep and resonant, relaxing yet sexy. The other voice—its real voice—was a chorus of screams through broken throats.

That was your purchase. I await my Price.

"We paid your price!" Moira's voice sounded to her own ears like a terrified, desperate little girl.

It raised one perfectly manicured hand (superimposed with a black claw, dripping oily ichor). It looked at the open hand (barbed tentacles waved from the center of the claw!). It raised the other hand (pincers dripping ooze); made a show of studying it for a beat, then left both hands (claws!) upheld and turned the palms toward Moira, and met her gaze.

See you Payment?

“No, but she—”

In another of your centuries, its outer voice calmly walked overtop her words, while its inner screeching silenced her, you would not have been able to have mustered even the pitiful modicum of essence within your world to reopen the Way. Moira’s cringe was a full body shudder as it placed an arm around Moira’s shoulders, having crossed the space between them without seeming to move. So I exerted myself. And find no meet to our bargain. So, it pulled Moira close, its lips, its fetid beak right against her ear, I remain unsatisfied, yet none of you suit my tastes.

Again, without the perception of movement, the Other wrapped her arms in its tentacles, pincers, and claws that looked like hands, and its needle-filled maw engulfed her in knives, acid, fire, despair, and the Abyss of Eternity.

Moira tried to scream, but she could not draw a breath. Every nerve in her body was on fire and ice and sliding across hot serrated knives. Her eyes left their sockets, razors slicer her privates, and the skin flayed from her fingers and between her toes. The pain was continuous, excruciating, and imaginative. Her limbs were severed, her bowels set aflame, and dozens more atrocities, every one of them unbearable—and yet she did not die, never lost consciousness, never lost sensation, no matter how many times every piece of her body was severed, burned, crushed, and recut.

As abruptly as it began, it ceased. Nothing in the room had changed. Her body was whole and unmarred. Art still stared at the Other with exactly the same terrified expression as before.

The number of acts committed on her, the length, the duration, the… She had spent at least two days of unimaginable torture, yet no time had passed here.

But don’t, rumbled the Other, think that your unsuitability exempts you from retribution. That small taste will become your Eternity should you fail to fulfill our bargain.

Moira nodded. Or wanted to. She was desperate to do anything to placate the demon before her, but her entire body was shaking uncontrollably. Her cheeks were wet. So were her thighs. When she finally drew a breath, it came as a wracking sob.

It released her, and she fell to her elbows and knees. She choked on her own saliva and swallowed bile that threatened to bring more. “I—” she forced between chattering teeth. Tears and snot streamed from her face, but she could not lift a hand to wipe them away. Moira recalled Diana in this very same state—was it really just a few minutes ago? She forced herself to continue. “I…will not…fail.”

Now, it grinned, I do believe that was a truth. It continued to smile as Moira began to retch helplessly onto her own hands.