Last Edited 4/28/19
No sex in this one. Pure plot and setup.
Ten Years After the Fall of Ariadna
Ari walked into Pantaglin with the dawn.
Getting used to being dirty had been an adjustment for her, but it was a lesson well learned – clean travelers attracted attention, while dirty ones did not. She wore her hair tied back and away from the dirt as much as possible, tucking it beneath the hood of her travel cloak, fabric neither too dark nor too bright. Ari had become an expert in avoiding notice the last decade – it was better that way, for everyone. These days, the followers she saved rarely saw her anymore – she was just a legend whispered off by believers and Inquisitors alike. Ariadna’s high priestess, walking the land and defending her goddess still.
Still, she carried her mask – though she rarely wore it anymore. It was growing increasingly risky to be seen with one – even as far east as Pantaglin, no longer than a hard days ride from Raegis and the Emperor’s dictates. She had it tucked inside her pack in a false bottom, buried beneath food and clothing and funds and all sorts of things the goddess had never needed to worry about a decade ago, and now couldn’t live without. The adjustment had been a hard one – she wasn’t used to the idea of needing to eat, needing to sleep, but within days of escaping from Tabharos even her divine strength and health had begun to fail her. Learning what the aching pain in her stomach meant, and the different between “edible” and “good to eat,” was not an experience she ever wished to have again.
Pantaglin’s city limits were walled, and even this early in the day there were already wagons lining up to enter the town, being looked over by the guards. While nothing she had to hide was something the guards were looking for, it was still best to avoid the suspicion that a lone traveler would bring, so she scanned the line, meeting the eyes of everyone she could until a farmer and his daughter caught her attention — this one.
She had gotten better at telling her worshipers apart from the crowd, learning to see them through mortal eyes. She didn’t know his name – she rarely knew the name of the one praying to her – but she knew his daughter’s name. She had been the one he was praying for.
The twelve-year-old girl was named Ana, and when her mother had taken a bad fall on her seventh month, the beautiful child had been born too soon. For four days and four nights, she had balanced on the edge of life or death as her parents had sought blessing after blessing, healer after healer until a whispered plea had found Ariadna’s ears. One of Ariadna’s wandering priestesses had come by and seen to the child for several days until she began to grow stronger – and her father had never forgotten it. Every day for the next two years until the Fall, he had offered her prayers daily.
This one was a good man.
Ari walked up to the wagon, smiling at the farmer as he looked back over to her and pulling back her hood enough to show that she was a woman. “Pardon me, sir… I was hoping I might ride the last bit with you? I am trying to get to the temple…”
The man looked somewhat curious about her, but the moment she mentioned the temple, his face lit up. “The temple? Then, you’re… you’re a priestess?” He took off his hat. “Please miss, my wagon is yours. I’m glad you made it as far as Pantaglin!”
She smiled at him and his daughter. “I am as well,” Ari said as she climbed into the wagon. She was – if not for the reason the farmer thought.
Yes, it would be best if she could avoid being seen as a priestess at all – but she didn’t think that was going to be an option here.
After the Empire had collapsed nearly a mortal lifetime ago, Imperial law had stopped meaning much. The Emperor technically forbade slavery, executions unless performed by an Imperial Justicar, warfare between the cities or the temples, and dozens of other crimes, but it no longer had to means to enforce those dictates much beyond its own city borders. Mad Emperor Tibalt had spent the coffers dry, and without the gold to pay his armies had lost the ability to tax more. Perhaps beneath a just Emperor, most of the cities would have stayed, would have accepted the letters of credit, but Tibalt had been a violent madman prone to fits of rage. Dozens of cities already unhappy with Imperial rule had seceded from the Empire within months, and more followed in the years to come. With every city he tried to hold onto, Tibalt – and his brother after he overthrew the madman – the Empire only lost more of its precious resources, until it found itself in its current sorry state.
Imperial law meant almost nothing outside of the walls of Raegis now. It was why Karn was so bold, why his priests were able to do as they pleased – after the fall of the central Empire, the only thing that the churches could agree on was that they would police their own followers. According to the dictates of Taelin, that now included Ariadna’s former church. Imperial law might forbid what they did, but Tabharos was far from Raegim.
Pantaglin, however, was not – and while the fabled legions of the Empire no longer existed, it had enough soldiers and Justicar’s to enforce much of its law here. Perhaps that was why the priestesses had thought they could get away with founding a new church here.
She had just wandered for most of the last decade, following her whims and trusting her luck – but when she had heard of a new temple being founded in her name in Pantaglin, her blood had run cold. She almost couldn’t believe it, but it made a certain kind of sense – she had certainly sent as many priestesses as she could closer to the Raegis because if they could make it there, they should be safe. One of Karn’s Inquisitors would have to be bold indeed to go after them there. Founding her new temple in the Imperial capital would be safest, but since it was forbidden to build a temple to any god in the Imperial capital one of the nearby cities would be the safest place, and it would expand the area of “safe” territory for worshipers of Ariadna.
Except that Ari was dreadfully sure that the priestess who had founded the temple had miscalculated. Karn couldn’t afford to let his sister get a foothold back towards divinity, and Jaras would naturally assume that the Archpriestess he hunted was behind its creation. They would come after it with everything they had – if she was going to save the well-meaning followers who had made this place, she needed to get there before Jaras walked in with another army.
But he hadn’t gotten here yet.
The temple was a fairly plain building, clearly one that had been built for another purpose and purchased. If Ariadna had to guess, perhaps it had been an auditorium, or perhaps a bank – nice enough, but not built for worship. She watched as people came and went, observing and going back and forth on whether or not she should wear her mask when she approached – would the priestess listen to her if she approached her as just Ari? Would she need to pretend to be the high priestess?
Sighing, Ari began to dig into her pack, finding the false pouch and pulling out the golden mask she had stolen long ago. It was scratched and tarnished now, despite her work cleaning it, but Ari had earned every scratch through hard lessons, learning to be human, escaping from her brother’s minions at every turn. She would no more replace it now than she would her own face. Slipping the mask’s band beneath her hair, she pulled it down to cover her features, hiding her.
Then she walked up to the temple, pulling her hood off her head entirely.
She didn’t even make it halfway up the stairs before another masked priestess came out of the doorway, flanked by a pair of guards. “Stop!” The priestess commanded. “Remove your mask.”
Ari didn’t move. “Why?” she asked.
“We need to know who you are,” the priestess said – her voice was kind, but firm, utterly unyielding. “We can’t allow an impostor into the temple.”
Ari lifted her hands slowly, though she knew she carried no weapons to reach for, and pulled off her scarred mask, letting the other priestess see her. “I am Ari, a priestess of Ariadna,” she lied smoothly, as she had been doing for years. “I seek shelter, and to speak to the founder of the temple.”
The guards and the priestess didn’t relax, but they seemed to become slightly less concerned. “Where were you a priestess before the fall?”
So, they intended to question her. To ensure she really was a priestess then. That was a potential problem. “I was at the siege at the temple,” she answered. “I escaped out the catacombs with several others.”
“Did you?” asked a voice from the shadows, inside the door — a woman voice. “Bring her inside,” the authority-filled voice said.
Ari stepped forward as the guards moved aside, but her comfort was fading quickly. Nothing that had happened was unexpected, but still…
There was something that was making her nervous. Nothing seemed wrong — even masked. Ariadna could see the priestess’ eyes. She knew this woman, knew her prayers – she had been an initiate during the Fall, not yet a full priestess. Exactly the sort of follower that might have slipped Jaras’s net. She could remember the woman’s devotion, her genuine heart…
But still, something felt wrong.
Ari passed through the door, entering a foyer and finding another priestess waiting for her, flanked by four more guards. Her golden mask was almost as beaten up as Ari’s was, but like her she stood with dignity anyway, unconcerned about the tarnish. She met the priestesses brilliant blue eyes and saw a glimpse of a soul she recognized. This woman was a priestess as well, only a few years older than the initiate had been during the fall. She had been devoted and true.
Then why did she still feel like something was rotten here?
The priestess looked into Ari’s face, tilting her head slightly. Then she took off her own mask. The woman was blonde, beautiful – perhaps as old as thirty but Ari doubted it. Her eyes glittered, and she was smiling. “You were at the Temple,” the priestess agreed. “But you didn’t escape through the catacombs, did you?” Her smile widened. “I saw you there. Do you recognize me, priestess?”
Ari narrowed her eyes, trying to remember. The woman was definitely familiar, but it had been so long ago – her memory had grown no less crisp, but a decade had changed the woman, turned her into someone else.
“I’ve been called many things,” the priestess said, a hint of laughter in her voice. A triumphant thrill of humor. “Most of them… unflattering. But my parents named me Eve. Do you recall meeting me, priestess?”
Ari shook her head. “I do not,” she whispered. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. This woman knew too much.
“You didn’t escape at the temple. You were brought to Tabharos, same as I was,” Eve said. “And there you stayed. Until you escaped that first night. Isn’t that right, High Priestess?”
Ari’s stomach sank down into her feet as she abruptly recognized the woman. She had been at the temple – she had been in the very room Ari had awakened in. She had been the one panicked, screaming that her goddess had abandoned them to die. And in Tabharos, when Jaras had asked who was ready to renounce their goddess and serve her brother, this priestess had been the first to step forward.
Eve smiled. “She’s the one we’ve been waiting for.” She raised her voice. “Take her!”
Eve backed up as her Master stepped into the room from the back, already raising his hand. Karrus was a handsome man, just a year her senior – the kind of man she had dreamed of as a naive child a lifetime ago. Tall and strong, he wore his blonde hair cropped short, and he wore a crimson cloak over his armor, covering the steel that protected him. She had been the Inquisitor’s since that first day, ten years ago – Jaras had given her to him on that first day in Tabharos.
Of course, much had changed since then.
Karrus strode forward confidently, his hand already raised. His will, the will of Karn himself, poured through the room and washed over the High Priestess – ordering her with sheer willpower to remain still, not to move. From around the room, three other guards raised their hands as well – Junior inquisitors under her Master, lesser priests of Karn.
Throughout the room people stared, unsure of what was happening. Some worshipers of Ariadna had also been caught in the trap, but Karn didn’t care about them – they were free to do as they wished. The other priestesses caught in the trap, however… while they hadn’t been the prey that Eve was baiting this trap for, they were going to be scooped up along with the High Priestess. Two of them froze, golden masks hiding what Eve was sure were terrified faces. On the stairs, the little priestess initiate, Kiree, tried to run and one of the guards punched her in the stomach, driving her to the ground.
With Ariadna gone, having betrayed them a decade ago, her priestesses were helpless before the might of Karn, as helpless as she had been once.
All of them but one.
Wave after wave of oppressive thought and willpower washed over the Archpriestess from every direction, attempting to Subjugate her – but Ari stood her ground. Eve could actually see the clashing willpower around her, the air shimmering with repressed power. This woman had burned a room of soldiers alive, had escaped from under the eyes of a dozen priests and a hundred soldiers over the years – they were taking no chances with her. However, despite the best efforts of four priests, one of which was her own Karrus, the priestess was holding them off. No soldier could approach her – that clashing mess of wills would all but tear them apart.
But Eve could.
Taking her old golden mask off, she tossed it aside like the filth it was and narrowed her eyes. “Ariadna is a whore,” she growled as she raised her own hand… and added her will to those of the other priests of Karn.
Karrus would probably punish her for this later – she wasn’t supposed to use her abilities without his permission. That was alright. She had earned that punishment honestly, deserved to be kept in check for her stupidity in worshiping Ariadna to begin with. Karrus was a kind master – he had shown her the way, and if he had needed to be brutal with her to make her understand her place from time to time, that was alright.
Eve knew of a few other Slave-Priestesses who had become worshipers of Karn in truth – but none of them had her position. None of them had been anointed as a full Priestess of the God of Fate. So far, it was only her.
“Ariadna is a betrayer,” she hissed as she stepped further forward, bending her will against the pretty blond high priestess. Around her, Karrus moved further to her right and Ephram to the left, forming a pentacle around the woman rather than a square as Eve joined their efforts. “She left her worshipers to die – she is unworthy of your devotion, or any devotion. She is a cock-sucking whore… and soon you will be too.” Kneel, she thought at the priestess as hard as she could. Kneel. Kneel. Kneel.
The commands from them formed a chorus that swirled around inside doomed high priestess’s soul. Kneel. Kneel. Kneel. Submit. Bow your head. Give in. Yield. Kneel. Kneel. Kneel. Five priests of Karn pushed at her… and still, she stood. Eve didn’t understand how it was possible. She knew perfectly were that Ariadna was dead and gone – she couldn’t grant blessings, and couldn’t give her strength to a priestess. This one should be powerless beneath them. Was she being protected by another god? Someone sympathetic to Ariadna? That made sense, but it enraged Eve all the more. Why hadn’t he granted his protection to the other captive priestesses? Why hadn’t be protected HER? She narrowed her eyes in rage and pushed hard. “Kneel before your god you fucking slut,” she cursed from between clenched teeth.
Eve wasn’t sure what happened. One second, they were pressing down on her. The next, there was a flash of light, and all five of them were laying on the floor, knocked sprawling by the blast of energy from their warring wills and magic. And the High Priestess was running. The guard on the stairs tried to stop her, but Ari grabbed his arm and flung him hard to the side, barely pausing a stride before she flew down the stairs in three long-legged steps and was fleeing.
Eve didn’t hesitate. She rushed after the High Priestess. This was her trap, her idea – she had been the one to suggest that she could impersonate a priestess of the Goddess to lure out the others, to create a situation that the High Priestess would try to save her from. She knew all the rituals, knew all the worlds – she could fake a devotion she had long abandoned to that whore-goddess. And the trap had worked, but now their prey was escaping? She couldn’t let that happen. She had promised Karrus this would work. He had believed in her.
Kiree lay on the stairs where the guard had hit her, and Eve was on her in a flash, a knife at her throat. “I’ll kill her!” she shouted. “I’ll slash this whores throat, you bitch!”
Ari took one more step… and stopped.
“That’s right,” Eve hissed. “Or are you going to abandon them alike your goddess did? I swear to you, I will kill them all before I let you get away from me.” Her blue eyes narrowed to slit. “Kneel. On. The fucking. Ground.”
And Ari fell to her knees.
The priests were not taking any chances with Ari. She had burned her way out of ropes before… this time, she wore iron.
Three different sets of manacles bound her arms behind her back: one at her wrists, one at her elbows and one nearly at her shoulders. The chain was attached from there down to three more shackles around her ankles, calves, and thighs, forcing her into a kneeling position. She was gagged, an open ring in her mouth, and her hair had a rope braided into it that held her head in place to the cuffs behind her.
Then they loaded her into an iron cage on a wagon’s back, and three more iron bands attached her to the side there. Jaras’ prize would not be escaping a second time.
Eve could feel Karrus’ hands on her back, his warmth against her. She pressed herself back against him, and his lips pressed against the back of her neck. “You did good today, lover,” Karrus said softly.
She looked up at him, craning her head to see behind her. He was more than a foot taller than she was. “You aren’t mad that I assisted?”
Karrus chuckled. “I told you… you’re anointed now. I lifted that prohibition on you two years ago.”
Eve shook her head. “It doesn’t feel right,” she protested. “I betrayed God by denying him what was his. I don’t deserve to serve to him properly, the way you do.”
The inquisitor laughed. “It appears that God disagrees. I felt your power alongside mine, lover… all that is left for my duty is to continue to care for your spiritual growth.”
Slowly, Eve lowered one hand to brush against his armored crotch. He couldn’t feel her hand through the plate, unfortunately, but he could feel the pressure as she pushed. “I do hope that isn’t all,” she said with a slow smile.
Karrus’ smile was wicked. “Of course not,” he said. “That is also an important part of your spiritual growth.”
Eve saw Ahri looking over at her. The high priestess’ bright eyes were sad… betrayed. “What are you looking at slut?” She chuckled, climbing into the wagon cage with her. “Don’t you judge me because I’m so much smarter than you, because I see the shape of the world.” Eve ran one hand along Ari’s cheek. “Don’t worry… Jaras will show you himself. You’ll be begging to suck Karn’s cock for him in a few years. He’s going to make you his personal project, Ari.”
Ari moaned, trying to say something, and Eve just laughed. Then she reached beneath her dress and pulling off her panties, stepping out of them before shoving the damp fabric into the high priestess’ mouth. “I’d love to take you myself – or maybe feed you to my man – but we aren’t taking any risks with you. You’re precious… you are going to be Karrus’ ticket to the head of the Inquisition.”
She jumped down, and Karrus slammed the door shut, locking the door. “No one goes in or out without at least two priests there,” Karrus ordered. “Next stop, Tabharos.”