Chapter 10

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Máriabesnyő, Hungary


MAIEL CONTINUED EAST into the darkening evening. It took a good  measure of her remaining energy before she found the atman nestled in a village in northeastern Hungary. She recognized the architecture and some of the landmarks as she carved through the distance. It had been a long time since she was last there, but she was sure. Her sense of direction never failed her. Picking along a tree-lined field, she kept her eye on the light of a buttercup building in the distance. A breeze blew and it carried the soft scent of autumn and a deep-reaching chill.

The baron crept back into the dark far behind and would have quite the time tracking her, unless the hapless watchers decided to also follow and clue him in. Nonetheless, moving to a sanctuary where she could at last rest was imperative. Her energy waned dangerously. She couldn't hope to battle Morgentus successfully without all of her strength. Maiel lifted her arm. Her form was becoming flesh-bound. Soon, her wings would wither and she would be trapped there. Death would be the only way to open the gate home again—if she could ever find death. The fallen who didn't descend to Jahannam were cursed to linger in Samsara with unnaturally long lives, in  order to prove their virtue to Zion.

Mist crept along the forest floor. Maiel half-expected a deadly shade to jump out at her. Much of the time the shades would use their cunning to keep hidden from her senses. A rattle echoed among the tree trunks, affirming her mistrust. The long shadows of the trunks and branches hid whatever was out there. It sounded like a serpent, possibly a Bhogin. Probably just a rodent with a nut. Daring another step forward, she was met with another round of the rattling. A shadow dashed before her, quickly rounding behind.

Then it was gone. Maiel's nostrils became more sensitive; they caught the foul stench. Frowning, she flexed her fists to feel the articulated armor covering her fingers and to prepare herself for a fight. Whatever that was, it was more annoying than dangerous. A remarkably old hobgoblin.

Maiel stepped forward, hoping to bait the little blighter. Imps weren't imaginative creatures. Repetition was their creed. They had an entirely twisted sense of humor and an utter lack of skill. As she hoped, the rattling came again. She closed her eyes, immersing herself in her higher senses. The air parted as it moved close. Striking like a cat, she grabbed the imp by the throat and held it in a crushing grip. The imp struggled, unable to break free and quite regretful that it had bothered her. Maiel sneered, watching the coil of shadows that made its form. The imp was nearly a smoker, nearly a serpent. Very old indeed. Imps often became gremlin soldiers, completely unrelated to the races of Trailokya; they were their own aberration.

"Not your day," Maiel said.

The imp rattled again. The sound came from three bony slits in each side of its throat. Maiel eyed the creature, making note of every detail. The face was flat, round, and featureless. It stared at her from large, glassy black eyes. The skin was chameleon, shifting from greens to browns, to blues to black. Hair patched its body making it look somewhat like a fallen faun, but it had no horns and no hooves. Instead, it bore a pair of leathery wings and set of sharp fangs. A rather large pair of pointed ears framed its round head and a rat-like tail whipped the high grass. Of course, like all shades, it emitted smoke from its pores. It seemed to be mimicking every known shade in Jahannam, but that was the brilliance of its kind. They were formed of emotional energy and bore the print of every donor.

The imp pulled at her fingers, desperate to be free and hardly caring that it cut itself on the sharp claws of her gauntlets. The flesh bled dark blue on the shining metal. Maiel squeezed harder. One quick twist of her wrist and it would be dead.

"Relinquish," it hissed at her, demanding its release instead of pleading.

"Relinquish."

"No," Maiel said.

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