(contains violence and sexual elements)
Caught between love and duty, can she make an impossible choice?
Five years ago, Aera was called away from everything she had ever known: her home, family, and Coram, the boy she was growing to love. She was given no choice. As the only living lava-shifter—able to transform her body into molten rock—she is destined to serve the volcano god as his fire priestess. Now, before she takes her ordained role, she must face her final test. Execute a criminal sentenced to death for the most unforgivable of all sins. Blasphemy.
She’s shocked to discover it’s no anonymous law-breaker waiting chained at the center of the labyrinth. It’s Coram. For the crime of being a gargoyle, a winged stone-shifter. A gift akin to hers…except his gift is unsanctioned by the temple, his powers proclaimed unholy.
If she refuses the test she will betray her god and condemn her family to dishonor. To pass it she must kill the boy she used to love…the man she still does.
She quickened her pace around the last tight coils of the labyrinth, and daylight sprang up before her, as bright as direct sun after the darkness she’d been travelling in. She had to pause for a moment, wait for the dazzle to die down, for the winking sunspots to disappear from her vision, before she could see clearly enough to notice the final portcullis in front of her, its teeth sunk deep into the floor.
Beyond it lay the eye of the labyrinth, a coldsteel-lined shaft wide enough to build a house in, and high enough to fit five houses. At noon, when the sun rose overhead, it would flash silver, unbearably bright. Now, in the waning afternoon light, it drowned in soft silver-grey shadows, the scant daylight filtered still further by the ceiling grille far overhead.
The grille, like the portcullis, was customary. Both were easy enough to open from outside. But from within the eye… Once she had passed this final portcullis it, like the others, would slide shut, trapping her. The grille was set to open automatically, driven by clockwork, but not until dawn, ready for her to ride the lava-flood up through the shaft and out to her new life.
Grille, portcullises…more than enough to keep a prisoner confined. It seemed, however, that this prisoner needed more.
A dome of coldsteel rose from the centre of the floor, a silver pupil in a silver eye. Chains, the dull grey of iron rather than the gleam of coldsteel, snaked from it to the huddle of dust-brown cloak that showed where the criminal lay.
Chains, as well. Huge chains, at that, as thick as her wrist. The little cold claw returned to tickle her spine. They feared him, then. Did he have gifts of his own? Unholy gifts, which had condemned him? A shifter, maybe. The gift that aped hers, but which forced people to turn animal, abandoning their true, god-given forms, rather than changing them into the purity of molten flame. It would explain the chains; shifters were strong.
But I am stronger.
She pulled the lever that put the portcullis mechanism in motion, waited till it rose, screeching painfully against the walls, then went forward, the lava remnants scratching her feet, full of a rising awareness of power, like song, within her.
The criminal lay still, one arm shielding his head so she could not see his face. She would have felt uncertain—he should be waiting for her, on his feet to face his death with dignity—but she had ritual words to say, and they gave her the confidence, the sureness, of a well-rehearsed performer.
“I come in the name of the god.” She pitched her voice to carry over the screech of the portcullis as the clockwork went into action, bringing it sliding back down. “I come to bring you the mercy of justice.”
He raised his head. The folds of cloth fell back, and from across the space that separated them, his dark eyes fixed on her. She met them with a jolt—executioner, looking into the eyes of her victim—but she had been warned about that too. She drew the ritual about her like a cloak, like a shield, resisting the deceptive pull that said I don’t deserve to die. Spare me. Give me the mercy I want, not that I deserve.
“Rise,” she said. “Stand to meet your god.”
He laughed. Meeting his eyes had jolted her, but his laughter shook through her whole body as if the ground had quaked. In the face of death, he was laughing.
“And are you my god?” he said, and if the laughter had not been enough, his voice mocked, mocked her, his fate and his salvation.
“I come in the power of the god—” For the first time her voice faltered and she checked, appalled at how easily she was thrown off course.
“To kill me. Yes, of course. Then I think I’ll not stand, if it’s all the same to you.”
“It’s not all the same—” She checked again. A priestess did not argue with the victim. By the god himself, she could well believe this one was a blasphemer.
Anger lent ease to her transformation. She drew on it, let the heat rise through her, burning in her hands, her wrists, blazing through her belly, making her quiver, building and building…
She went towards him, knowing what she looked like, half god herself, something from the pit of the volcano, limbs glowing through the fabric of her dress, her hair turning from black to rust to incandescent gold. In a moment flames would lick out from her eyes, her hair and body would become molten, blazing too bright to look at. He would look at her, and know her, and die.
He did so now. She saw herself in his eyes, a tiny fiery figure, and she reached out to give him the mercy he did not want but would nevertheless receive.
From out of nowhere, his leg struck out, swinging around to slam into her ankles, knocking them out from under her. Caught in the beginning of the shift, she had no time to react, no time to save herself. She fell, hearing his chains clank and scrape as he threw himself back against the wall—fell hard, on hip and elbow, parts of her that were still unchanged, still ordinary, sensitive flesh.
She gasped, an unpriestesslike, undignified noise, almost a shriek, trying to orient herself, trying to get back up, and he leaned over her, dragging the chains with him. No, oh no! Shock and fear jabbed through her, wiping out what she knew so well, that no one but a madman would try to rape a lava-shifter. He is truly a blasphemer—the worst kind, the kind that would try to defile the priestess-elect herself!
He didn’t grab at her. All he did was drag one of the heavy lengths of chain over her fully shifted arm. The metal sizzled, spitting instantly molten flecks over her unshifted flesh, spattering her with points of razor-sharp pain. The chain melted like butter. He was—he was using her to free himself.
She really shrieked now, a shriek of fury that left no room for fear, and whipped her hand up, fingers clawed, at his face, at his eyes. This is my test—you will not make me fail!
He jerked back, back and away, springing to a standing crouch, and she saw that although a chain fastened his ankles, and a longer chain ran from that to the centre dome, now his hands hung free. The broken ends of the chains that had bound them, still red hot, brushed the hem of his short toga-tunic, swung against his thighs, and he drew in a hiss of breath, flinching away, holding his hands out to the sides, away from his body.
She came back to her feet, boiling with rage. “You—how can you think to resist the god? Do you want your crimes condemning you to darkness forever? This is the only way through to holiness!”
“Holiness.” Incredibly, he laughed again. “No. I’m done with believing that. You can call it justice if you like. I’m calling it murder—and I’m going to make you fight for it.”
Although her hands had not—quite—touched him, they’d come close enough to scorch his face. Marks sprang up on the flesh now, raw and vivid. There were bruises all down his arms, too—of course he’d resisted arrest, as he was resisting execution. He could carry on fighting, but he was doomed, and he knew it. Still he stood defiant, arms holding the scalding chains out away from his body, legs astride—
Memory flashed up before her, so clear that for a moment it blocked out the present. Her next breath stuck in her throat, as if she’d turned to not molten but solid stone. She went cold, as cold as seawater, as cold as grief.