Maia stood tied by straps to a rough, splintered stake in the middle of a burning pyre. Her back was arched. The straps pulled her arms back until she thought her shoulders would break. Her hands were numb, all the blood draining out of them, the circulation cut off by her bonds.
She had stopped struggling. She had given up crying.
No more tears would come. Her eyes were puffy and difficult to open. She could try but if she opened them she knew all she would see was pain. Her only hope, her friends, lay dying all around her. Her only light was the flames that any second now would burn at her bare flesh, causing the skin to peel away. That would signal the beginning of unending agony. She longed to take a breath, a real breath, but the acrid smoke stung her nostrils and made her swollen eyes weep. Her mouth was blistered and bulging. The taste in her mouth was bitter, the taste of defeat.
She listened for her mother’s voice, which would mean the end was very near, but all she heard was the raucous, chilling laughter of the demons. They were baying for blood. Her blood. “Maia, Maia!” they chanted as they danced on the bodies of her friends. Alice, Ben and her dear beloved Altair lay broken and twisted, crushed by the cruel talons which tore their limbs to pieces like meat hooks.
A sudden movement in the crowd made her raise her head. It was as if an angel appeared in the throng of madness. Did she imagine it? But no, there it was again. The flash of hazel green eyes, a lock of golden curl, hidden beneath a cowl, that soft olive skin. The beautiful curve of her neck, the full luscious mouth, a cute button nose. Maia turned her head so that she could see more clearly. The flames were almost upon her. She was sweating. Beads of perspiration dropped from her forehead onto her lips. It tasted salty, like the ocean. Her jeans were patchy and soiled, her thin blouse no protection against the lecherous eyes surrounding her, greedily feeding on her young body.
Her blouse had been ripped by the violence of the demons so that one breast was almost laid bare. If she moved her hips she could just swivel enough to make the blouse fall to hide her nakedness and then she was facing her mother.
Gabrielle took a step out from the crowd. The demons parted as if they recognized one of their own but this could not be true. Maia must be delirious, overcome by the smoke and fumes.
A splinter in the rough wood of the stake jabbed into the small of her back, forcing her to arch involuntarily for a moment.
She realized her mistake. The blouse fell away, baring her breast as her mother stepped forward onto the smouldering wood.
The straps tightened. Her hands went numb again.
Her body was contorted, her left breast exposed, her heart vulnerable and beating fresh blood in front of the demons.
Her mother whispered to her in angel tongue.
Maia was not afraid. She met her mother’s eyes with a wall of rage but said nothing.
From underneath her robe, her mother drew the dagger.
Not since Altair’s body gave up its last breath had Maia ever felt so helpless.
Then she felt the fear as the rage subsided and her body trembled.
She tried to remember the words of protection in the ancient tongue but all she could think about was Altair.
Her one true love.
Maia couldn’t breathe.
The dagger sliced through her skin, then through layers of muscle and tissue, passing through her rib cage before piercing her beating heart.
A paralyzing pain shot through her body.
She could no longer hold herself up. Her knees buckled.
Her last sensation was a shock of red as if her heart had bled directly into her brain and burst both her eyeballs.
Then a glowing flash of white light.
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