Killing rites, p.20
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       Killing Rites, p.20

         Part #4 of The Black Suns Daughter series by M. L. N. Hanover
Page 20


  I felt it fall away. There was space between us. The rite was going to work. It was going to be cast out. It was going to die.

  The mixture of elation and regret was the last thing I felt before the new attack came.

  I smelled sewage again. Something touched my belly, wet and soft, and I wasn’t sure if it was in the desert or on the brick floor. I tried to sit up, but then I wasn’t anywhere. The rider screamed, but it didn’t use my throat. No one else could hear it.

  Something foul slid into my mouth. Not my real mouth, but mine all the same. It tasted like salt and rot. The outhouse stench was overpowering. I choked, and the thing pushed deeper into my throat. It wasn’t just the two of us. There was something else.

  Something else was in there with us.

  Another rider.

  “Stop!” I shouted. I did, with my own flesh. Chapin ignored me. The desert spasmed, and the other me was falling away, her hand out toward me. “I said stop! It’s me! Jayné! Something’s wrong!”

  “I adjure you, ancient serpent—

  em"eight="0em" width="1em">“I said something’s wrong! You have to stop!”

  The thing in my throat thickened, pulsed once. I couldn’t speak. My throat froze open, and I heard myself retching. It was shutting me off, silencing me. With my real eyes, I looked up at Ex. His palms were toward me like he was taking heat from a campfire. Look at me, I thought. See what’s happening. Save me.

  He didn’t. A sense of Novocain-like numbness was spreading from my mouth out through my body. For a strange moment, I was in control of my arms and legs, but not my breath or neck. The other thing—the invader— pushed out, trying to fill me. I felt a sense of triumph, deep and powerful and unfamiliar and threatening as a strange man’s cough in my bedroom.

  I reached out to the desert, to my other self. I felt my rider grab on to me, and I pulled her in with all my strength. The numbness faded. The foul smell receded. In my real body again, I rolled onto my side and vomited. The cold, hard bricks under me felt as comfortable as a feather bed. It took me a while to realize that no one was shouting in English or Latin. I looked up. They were all around me. The sunlight pushing in around the window shades glowed gold and red. Sunset colors. We’d been going at this hammer and tongs for hours. No wonder I felt like this. I tried to talk, coughed, and tried again.

  “Different rider. It was trying to get in me while the other one got pushed out. ”

  “No, Miss Jayné,” Chapin said. His voice was almost as weary as mine. “There was not. Satan has a thousand tricks. We were making great progress. We might very well have succeeded, had your will not broken. ”

  I forced myself up to sitting. My muscles ached and trembled. I was cold.

  “Didn’t break,” I said. “There was another one. ”

  “Not actually possible,” Carsey said. “You’re in a circle of exorcists, in a consecrated building, and you’ve got the Mark of St. Francis of the Desert clapped up against your arm. You’re in more danger of being eaten by an alligator than being attacked by a demon you didn’t bring in here yourself. ”

  I hung my head. My ribs hurt when I breathed too deeply. One of the scabs on my feet had ripped open during the rite; my right leg from knee to ankle was red with blood. What he said made sense. Of course there couldn’t be another rider. Of course the thing inside me would do anything it could to keep its grip on me, to survive. Of course Satan had a thousand tricks.

  And yet …

  “It’s okay,” Ex said. “We’ll get it next time. ”

  “Yes,” Chapin said, with a long sigh. “We will take a few minutes to recover ourselves. Then we will begin again. ”

  “We won’t,” I said. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. Until I’ve got a handle on it, we’re stepping back. ”

  “That isn’t an option,” Chapin said.

  “Really is,” I said.

  He knelt by me. His eyes were calm and iplacable. He put his hand on mine, and he felt icy.

  “The beast inside you, Miss Jayné? It is a Prince of Hell. That the Black Sun has spawned at all is of great significance. And that you have brought its larva to me is, I am certain, the benign hand of God. If you had come to me when it was fully mature, I might not have been able to help you. ”

  I wiped a thread of puke off my lips and tried to find the words to say I wasn’t feeling particularly helped just at the moment, but I couldn’t string the sentence together. And there was some point I wanted to make that flickered in and out of my mind too quickly to quite hold on to. Something about the sewer stench.

  “You must not let yourself be tricked by it,” Chapin went on. “You must gather up your will and reject Satan. ”

  “I can reject Satan just as much as the next guy,” I said. “There’s something else going on here. ”

  “There is not. It is trying to distract you. You must not let it. ”

  “Be strong,” Tamblen said from behind me.

  “Jayné. Please,” Ex said. He really was begging. That, more than any of the God-and-Satan talk, made me want to keep going. I didn’t want to let Ex down, embarrass him in front of his friends. I stood up, Chapin helping me to my feet. The white ceremonial shift looked as if I’d rolled through a bar’s parking lot after closing. They were all around me, silent and expectant. Waiting for me. I found Ex. His ponytail was coming loose, white-blond locks of hair draping to his shoulder. I wondered whether Isabel had been in love with him.

  I was about to say okay. I was about to start it all up again when the memory flitting around the back of my head clicked into place. I’d been kneeling in the courtyard, gathering the little girl—Dolores—up. She’d said something. There was a bad ghost. It smelled bad. It tried to get inside me.

  It had happened before.

  “No,” I said. “We’re done here. ”

  Chapin sighed, his head sinking toward his chest like a defeated warrior. Ex looked pale and stricken. I wanted to touch his arm or hug him or something. I wanted to tell him it was going to be all right.

  “I’m sorry, Ex,” was the best I could manage.

  “Xavier assured us that your will was strong, but even so, we knew this was a possibility,” Chapin said. “A likelihood, even. I had hoped …”

  “Don’t put this on Ex,” I said. “This is my choice. ”

  “No,” Tomás murmured in his beautiful whiskey voice. “There’s no choice here. ”

  My throat went tight and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

  “When your mind is your own again, you will thank us for this,” Chapin said.

  A thick arm wrapped around my throat. Tamblen’s, I thought. The Mark of St. Francis of the Desert, still bound to my arm, flared hot. I tried to twist around, but there were other hands on me, snatching at my arms and legs. Someone grabbed my waist, lifting me off the ground. I thrashed and tried to scream, tried to kick out. The charm on my skin felt like the surface of the sun, and I expected to smell my skin burning.

  “It’s going to be okay,” Ex said. “I’m right here, Jayné. I’m right here with you. ”

  I got a leg free for a second. I hit someone with it, but it was less a kick and more an unfriendly bump. I was one woman who’d just been through the wringer. They were six men. If my rider had been at full strength—not assaulted and bound by magic—I might have stood a chance.

  They carried me outside, into the courtyard. The late afternoon air felt like a freezer. Their feet crunched in the snow as if they were walking through Styrofoam. I heard the rattling of a chain, and the creaking of hinges. The cellar doors. They were taking me underground. The wild, irrational certainty that they were going to bury me alive rushed through me, and I fought back with all the strength I had.

  I might as well not have bothered.

  They carried me down into the musty, cold darkness. I’d never seen the room before, but everythin
g about it was familiar. A wide concrete slab with a wide steel ring set in it. Chains were attached to the ring. I’d helped Ex build something like this before. A prison for the possessed. They put me down, belly to the ground, and Tamblen shoved his knee into the small of my back, pinning me. Someone else—Carsey, maybe—had my elbow locked, bending it back until it hurt. I felt the manacles close around my wrists and ankles. There was power in them that didn’t have anything to do with the strength of the metal.

  Ex was beside me, holding my arm steady while someone else fastened the locks. His eyes were hard, his lips a line so thin they could have been drawn on his face with a pen. His eyes flickered up at me and then away. Behind him, I saw the bare earth walls, pale as bone, with a single bulb hanging from a wire in the corner. The concrete slab under me was icy. The steel chains clicked and slid, link over link. The soft, rolling, final sound of the padlocks closing on my restraints was like a nail hammered into a coffin lid. The priests stepped back from me all at once, like it was something they’d rehearsed. They probably had.

  Light the gray of twilight spilled down the concrete steps. I could see a bright line where the cellar doors stood open, the white of the sky. The crows called to one another. I lay on the floor, stunned. Chapin stood beside the bulb, hard shadows marking his face.

  “You will wait here, beast,” he said. “We will return with rites less pleasant than those we have employed until now. This woman will not be lost to you. ”

  I swallowed. I wanted to say they were wrong, that it was me and not the rider, to for Christ’s sake let me go.

  “Ex,” I said. “You have to trust me. ”

  He crouched down, his head on the same level as mine. Distress was drawing lines in his face. Carving him.

  “This is how they work, Jayné,” he said. “This is how they trick you into fighting on their side. Against us. Against me. ”

  “Why?” I could hear the whine in my voice, and I hated it. ?Why don’t you believe me?”
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