Smoke. That was the first thing she smelled. With a start, Isuelt sat bolt upright, her mind already racing. Get up! Grab clothes and boots! Sound the alarm! But she wasn?t in her bed. At least she didn?t think so, it was so dark. Blinking, she looked around and coughed a few times until the cloud of smoke that she was apparently laying in moved past. Her eyes were stinging and the back of her throat felt as if it were on fire. She got to a knee and looked around. She was outside, it was twilight. The first thought that came to mind is that she had been sleepwalking again. Ever since she?d been having these vivid dreams, ever since the Rage Virus, it had not been unusual for her to wake up in a place other than she went to sleep. There were far off noises?bangs? explosions? She couldn?t tell.
Standing up she looked around, feeling the wind come up and take the smoke from around her. Isuelt saw a landscape shaping before her; a sweeping hillside, dramatic mountains beyond, a meadow that swept away to a sea cliff and the ocean beyond? She knew this place: The Island of Shadow. She was home. But something was very wrong. The gentle scent of the ocean?s salt mixed with the fields of tropical lilies was missing. There were charred slopes where brightly colored fauna should be, there was smoke hovering around the once majestic skyline, marring the columns of the temples that had stood for millennia.
Isulet?s feet, which she realized were in sandals pushed off from the ground and she was running toward the main temple on the plateau that overlooked the southern beaches. She passed smoldering fires and destruction: toppled stone walls, the central training ground littered with bloodied bodies, arrows and dead horses. Her head ached, her body ached. This couldn?t be real, she told herself, it had to be another of her dreams. But her dreams were getting so real lately, so tangible. Her legs fought to come to a skidding stop after what seemed like forever. She was in front of the shamble of a temple that had once been the pride of the Scathachians; the main temple had housed the legendary goddess Scathach once upon a time. And now, its walls were all but rubble, thick black smoke rose from the dome and the High Priestess of the Scathachians lay at the foot of the stairs.
?Lenai!? Isuelt could feel her kneels scrape as they buckled beneath her weight and she landed next to her commander. ?Lenai? Please?? Isuelt gathered up the tall woman in her arms, she was still alive. ?Lenai, what happened here? What has befallen us?? Isuelt and Lenai had not always seen eye-to-eye; in fact, more times than not they were at perfect opposition to each other. Isuelt saw Lenai as little more than a practiced politician who cared for nothing more than her reputation and the reputation of her daughters. And Lenai viewed Isuelt as a fool-hardy rebel bent on pushing the limits of the rules. Lenai was Sheryl?s biological mother, though she had never acted like it, seeing Sheryl as evidence of one night?s indiscretion rather than a daughter. And Isuelt had never forgiven her for that.
Lenai coughed and renewed the blood trickle from her lips, ?He?s here?? Her strong body, which had always been a model of the Scathachian Empire felt small and weak in Isuelt?s arms. The High Priestess?s form stiffened as she gripped at Isuelt, who had come home like the prodigal daughter. And as she died, Lenai was able to point towards the Temple and utter one final word, ?Bhaal.?
Isuelt gently set down her High Priestess and stood up to look beyond the stairs to the still grand columns of the Main Temple. The seat of power in the Scathachian Empire, it was once the home of Scathach herself and now hosted the Scathachian governing body, The High Circle, and its High Priestess, the now deceased Lenai. It had stood in peace, as had this island, for generations, for millennia and now, Bhaal had come. The god of murder, the god of lies and the greatest enemy of the Scathachian nation. Mythology dictated that he was able to rise to power because Scathach had been locked in a never-ending battle with her sister, Aoife.
Isuelt could nearly feel her legs shaking as she took the marble steps one at a time, trying to wrap her head around what had happened. How could Bhaal be here? It was impossible. The Island?s location was a mystery to mortals and to gods, it was mercifully sheltered. At least, that was the myth. This was all too real for Isuelt?s taste.
By the time she reached the top of the stairs and ventured slowly out toward the dais, the putrid stench of charred flesh stung her nostrils. She rubbed her watering eyes to keep them from getting too blurry. ?Why, Mother?? She called softly aloud to Scathach as she raised her chin to look upon the larger than life statue of the war goddess that was the centerpiece of the temple. What she saw sent a jolt through her body and Isuelt found herself wailing as she fell to her knees. The three story-high statue of her beloved goddess was charred black from fire. And what was worse, she was decorated in the most grotesque way imaginable: the charred bodies of her Scathachian Sisters hung from the statue like ornaments on a May tree, their burned forms swaying slowly, the chains that they hung from clanking with a sickening melody. And what was worse, was that the once magnificent statue of Scathach now sported ram?s horns that looked to shine as pure gold. Isuelt?s screaming subsided into sobs before she heard it.
The low, rumbling laughter. Bhaal.
Catching her breath, she raised her head and saw him. He was made from shadow and brimstone. She knew it was him, there was no mistaking him. Her fingernails dug into her palms as her hands made fists and she got to her feel, nostrils flared, teeth gritted tightly. She saw herself as the lone Scathachian and if she couldn?t defeat Bhaal, then she would die on the battlefield with her Sisters. Isuelt took off after him, running as fast as she could, but she couldn?t catch him. He was ducking in and between columns, behind smoldering rubble and bodies. Then, finally, she saw an in; he was headed outside. Isuelt jumped up onto a slab of stone that presumably used to be a wall and vaulted through an archway to try and cut him off. She landed on the ground, a dust cloud rising around her briefly, but she did not see him. Bhaal had eluded her again. ?Damnit!? She spat as she spun around to look behind her.
Isuelt spun around to see who was talking to her. The bottom of her stomach dropped out when she saw who it was. Renna stood there in the black robes of Bhaal. The blood that was coursing through the Scathachian?s veins ran ice cold and her heart felt as if it would stop. ?Renna?? Isuelt nearly growled.
?Of course it is. You expected something different? Someone different? You really are that stupid aren?t you?? A smile slithered onto her face. ?I?d like to say you?ve got a nice home here, but it?s sort of a shabby s*** hole, isn?t it??
Isuelt was shaking her head, trying to put this together. It had to be a dream. It felt like a dream, but something in her made it feel as if it were so much more. ?Renna?how?? She couldn?t even formulate a sentence, a question, anything. Her dark eyes roamed to the harbor, the bodies of Scathachian Sisters shuffled about like mere insects to a sadistic child?s massacre.
?How what, Isuelt? How did all of this happen?? Renna took steps toward Isuelt, carefully, slowly. ?How did we get here?? She chuckled. ?You really are stupid. You are so incredibly self-involved that you didn?t see it. You, who prides herself on the ability to read people and see what?s coming.?
Isuelt shook her head, she still didn?t quite understand.
?Do you think that I would share my memories with you if there wasn?t something in it for me?? Renna?s expression was so cruel, so mocking that Isuelt winced. ?You knew the location of this place, so what did you think I was going to do? Just let it stay with you??
?You didn?t get the location of the Island from me.? Isuelt was astonished and frankly in denial.
?Oh, I didn?t? Then what do you think I did? How do you think I got it?? Renna teased.
?You couldn?t have. It?s impossible!? Though she had been thinking about this scenario for quite some time. It was one of her deepest fears. ?No, someone from the Temple of Bhaal??
?Yes, someone from the Temple of Bhaal. Me! I got it from you, you sanctimonious bitch!? Renna?s arms rose as if to mock her further, the long sleeves of the Bhaalite robes hung low in the graceful black fabric.
?YES!? Renna laughed as she continued, ?I thought it a particularly nice gesture on my part to share with the Bhaalites this little nugget of information.? All the while, Isuelt was slowly shaking her head and backing away. ?From the port town of Sarin on the island of Callonia, sail thirteen days south to the landmark known as Cadaver?s Rock. From there it?s a five day journey west to the primitive island called Riomeaha.? At this point, Isuelt had stopped moving altogether. This was impossible wasn?t it? Yet, here Renna was, repeating verbatim the centuries? old directions that every Scathachian knew. The way home. ?And from Riomeaha, the ship turns due south until the compass spins.? Jenna paused, sensing she had finally beaten Isuelt beyond her limits after all these years. She took special enjoyment in her next words. ?Weigh anchor for the night?? Isuelt?s face blanched. ?Await the mists that rise with the morning sun?? Isuelt felt as if she would be sick. ?Follow the mists and you will find the high peaks of Scathach?s Sanctuary piercing the fog from afar??
That was as far as Renna got, Isuelt couldn?t listen anymore. She lunged at Renna, her hands wrapping around her throat. The two women tumbled down the shallow hillside, battling for the upper hand. Isuelt landed a right cross, sending Renna?s chin jerking. Renna?s subsequent punch to Isuelt?s gut forced the air from her lungs.
As the women came to a stop at the hill?s bottom, Isuelt came up victorious, straddling Renna. Isuelt reached to her waist and found a small dagger there, she wanted nothing more than to bury it, hilt-deep, in Renna?s skull. Isuelt felt as if she had lost everything, and she would have asked How could you?
but she knew very well how Renna could. This was the ultimate spear to Isuelt?s side.
And as if she sensed her total victory, Renna uttered one word beneath the weight of the Scathachian, ?Checkmate.? Renna?s sleeves raised, but instead of her hands or even claws protruding from the cuffs to defend herself from Isuelt?s dagger, there were two snakes that lunged at Isuelt. Their mouths were open with fangs dripping with venom; they entwined themselves around Isuelt, one at her arm, the other at her leg. Isuelt managed to grab hold of the snake at her wrist and pull it across the dagger?s blade in her hand, sufficiently slicing it in two. The snake at her leg, however, plunged its fangs deeply into her thigh.
Isuelt screamed aloud from the pain while Renna, who had rolled away, began to laugh tauntingly. ?Oh, Isuelt! Issy! Issssssy!? Isuelt began to panic, her throat felt like it was closing up. The snake?it must be venomous. Isuelt clenched her eyes shut, the pain was almost too much to bear. She could hear Renna?s voice jeering her name over and over. ?Issy! ISSY!?
Isuelt?s eyes flew open, her thigh was on fire and she could barely breathe.
?ISSY! WAKE THE HELL UP!?
Isuelt was staring at Delphinea?s face. It was her voice that was ringing in Isuelt?s ears, just as it was Delphinea?s forearm that was forcefully resting across Isuelt?s throat, effectively pinning her back up against the wall of her room. Isuelt stopped moving and Phin?s arm slowly eased up, letting Isuelt stand on her own. Though that?s when the pain in her thigh hit her again; she winced. Delphinea stepped back only enough to let Isuelt see that Athena was just next to her. And beyond the two of them, Sheryl and Janie were by the door. They were all alive! Though Sheryl?s appearance jarred Isuelt; she had blood on her face and her shoulders. Isuelt was more than a little confused. Wasn?t it all just a dream? The pain in Isuelt?s thigh began to throb and she couldn?t ignore it anymore. She looked down and saw the hilt of a dagger protruding from her left thigh. The hilt had a sapphire in it. It was Scorp?s dagger, one he had given her decades ago and she slept with it beneath her pillows every night.
Slowly, Isuelt began to understand the scene around her. Mirage appeared at the door and handed Janie some bandages which she then used to wrap up Sheryl?s arm as they exited Isuelt?s room. Mirage then moved in further with a bowl of water, two towels and a needle and thread which she put down by Athena and Delphinea. Isuelt?s head was spinning, her leg was throbbing and she slowly slid down the wall, Phin and Athena?s hands making sure she didn?t hit the floor too roughly. While Isuelt was in a daze, Phin got to work threading the needle and readying a towel to pull the dagger free from Isuelt?s leg.
Athena pushed some sweat-soaked hair from Isuelt?s face, her expression was based in pity. ?These dreams are getting worse.? Isuelt wanted to agree with her old roommate, but the question was meant for Phin.
Delphinea glanced from her work up to Athena and grunted slightly, in complete and obvious agreement.
?You can?t keep on like this, Illea,? Athena was softly addressing Isuelt this time. ?You have these night terrors at least three times a week.? She held on to Isuelt?s hand as Phin wrapped the towel around the dagger and nodded. Athena gripped Isuelt as Delphinea ripped the dagger from Isuelt?s flesh.
Isuelt jolted against the wall, smacking the back of her head. Her eyes were shut and she heard the dagger hit the floor and felt the pressure of the towel on her leg. It was a moment before anyone said anything, Isuelt was first. ?I?I had?the Island. The Island was gone. On fire. It was the end of all things. Bhaal was there and Renna.? Her thoughts were piecing together as best they could the nightmare that had seemed so real. It was as if the dream had left a bad taste behind and she was trying to spit it out.
Isuelt heard both women sigh, but it was Athena who spoke. ?It was only a dream, Illea. Like the others.?
?No. No this was different.? She flinched as Delphinea began her sewing. ?Renna was there, she told them.?
?Illea, no one who is not a Scathachian knows the location of the Island, least of all Renna.?
Isuelt kept quiet. She had suspected Renna knew of many of her secrets for some time. Renna and Isuelt had shared memories almost four years ago which was why the revelation that Renna had joined with the Temple of Bhaal was so apocalyptic to her. It was only a matter of time before Renna shared that information; if she had it, and Isuelt was nearly convinced she did.