The temple was spattered with body matter. Priests lay dead on the steps, their claws cut off, their finery torn away. Hatchlings had crawled into the teeth of the temple mouth to hide. Their eyes glittered down on Eriphet as he kicked one of the bodies. It was the surly one, the one with the beautiful teeth, but his lower jaw had been cut away. If by some miracle the Mituants did not come, that jaw would probably be fashioned into an elaborate doorknob or weapon rack. Maybe he'd see it again someday, and he'd-
"Excuse me." The voice was silvery and clear; a beautiful sound, strange in the chaos. He turned and saw a Phyrnosian the color of the sand at sunset. She had distinctive horns, which turned in delicate spirals towards the sky, like the oldest minarets of Phyrnos. Her white robe was heavy with blood. It looked as though it had lain a long time in dirt.
"Excuse me," she said again, although it wasn't clear what she wanted. She stared flatly.
"You may pass, countess," he said. "I won't harm you. I am weary."
"As you wish."
"I would never have believed so much death could have come from you, Isela Greithing. How many of our people died on Maiden because of your actions with the skin-sacs? Oh yes. I know all about it." He circled her, pointedly keeping his tail far from hers. "Of course, what does it matter now?" he said.
"Nothing matters now," she said, quietly. "Perhaps it never has."
"But what would the count think?"
"The count is dead," she said, "and so am I."
"I pray you may die again, many times over." He bowed.
Isela Greithing walked into the temple. Eriphet sighed and looked up at the hatchlings.
One of the smallest shrieked and lost her footing; she began to slide down the slippery tooth. Her brother reached for her but too late. She fell.
Eriphet caught her lightly. She was very small, her tail no more than a thread. The bumps of her young horns were tender and raw. She looked at him and mewed plaintively, holding her thin arms up in surrender. He held her tightly, smelling her horns.
"It's okay," he lied. "It's going to be okay. The rest of you, come down from there. Anyone in the street can see you. You'll be eaten."
They fell quiet, looking from one to another. Her brother spoke quickly, his wedge-shaped head turned accusingly at Eriphet. "Why should we listen to you?"
"I don't know," Eriphet said, softly. "But I'm going to save your sister." He went into the temple carrying her.
The hall was dark and silent. Wherever Isela Greithing had gone, she'd disappeared: he would have to be careful. To think of the blood cult the countess had fallen into. These were end days indeed. He heard the other hatchlings drop softly to the ground behind him. They ran inside, stopping only when they were a safe distance from his tail. Eriphet did not turn.
"Stay close," he said. Tiny hands grabbed his tail. "Hold tighter," he said. They wrapped their small arms more tightly and then he swept up the narrow stairs, the hatchlets holding so hard their feet did not even touch the ground. He ran past the door that led to the mindbox of the temple; climbed a stairwell and followed it to the temple Eyes.
"Phado," he said. "I've come back." He stepped over a fallen priestess. Where was Isela?
Behind the door of the left Eye, something hummed.
He dragged the dead priestess to a corner. Mounded her a little, to make a hiding space for the hatchlings. He placed the girl hatchling in the corner. Her eyes were dark in her small, narrowly fluted face. She did not question him.
"Wait here," he said. "Whatever you do, don't leave this spot until I return. Whatever happens in that room, you stay here. Unless you're sure I'm not coming back. Then go out that window," he pointed. "Try to get on the roof. Okay?"
She bobbed her head. Her brothers circled protectively around her, staring up at the Valkyrie. The one with the wedge-face cocked an eyebrow at the commander.
"Come back for us," he said.
Eriphet straightened and pushed open the door.