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Chapter 29

Eventually, the punishment ceased. The monster lay on its side, its flanks heaving, still trying to beg for mercy. The effort was pointless, since Chernobog had crushed its throat. But the monster knew from experience that so long as it was in the strange, gray-mist casket-world, its wounds would heal quickly. Any wounds, even mortal ones—and it wanted to be pleading for forgiveness as soon as any word at all could issue from its throat. Else Chernobog might renew the chastisement.

In the end, the monster's fears proved groundless. By the time the first croaking words issued from its healing throat—quavering with pain, those words, since healing was almost as painful as punishment—the master's rage had subsided. Chernobog was deep into cold contemplation. The monster could sense his dark form in the surrounding mist, hunched with thought.

Be silent, beast. Lest I return you to the place from which you came.

The thought brought a fierce yearning to the monster. To roam free again—!

But the urge was fleeting. Chernobog possessed the monster's soul, still. The monster had no illusions that the master would return it—nor that it would be cast back into its homeland uninjured. Chernobog would surely rend the monster before he set it free. And, outside of the casket-world, mortal wounds were genuinely mortal. The monster would simply bleed to death, disemboweled in a forest, leaving its soul to be chewed by Chernobog for eternity.

Besides . . .

The pain was receding now, as it always did. And the monster was able to remember the pleasures as well as the agonies of serving Chernobog. It would feed again, soon enough. That knowledge brought relief—relief from frustration, this time, not pain. The monster had not been able to devour the prey's soul because of that cursed priest. It was hungry.

Eventually, Chernobog ceased his ruminations. The monster could sense the dark form shifting somewhere in the surrounding grayness. As if some huge beast, roused from torpor, were stirring again.

It will have to be the burning again. At least for a time. I cannot risk another premature encounter. Especially not now, with the Shadow stirring in slumber.

The monster had to struggle not to cry out a protest. It was, in the end, a creature of the forest and the lakes and the mountains, who much preferred the corporeal rending of flesh in its beast-form to less fleshly methods. But the struggle was brief, very brief. There was a certain pleasure in burning also. More ethereal perhaps, but not without its own rewards.

Yes. The burning again. And soon. The monster sensed Chernobog's form seething with anger, but knew the anger was directed elsewhere.

Lest my enemies think a mere priest, with a common holy symbol, can bring them surcease. Their growing terror must be fanned, like flames in a forest, until all of the city burns.

Yes. The burning, again.

The monster's wounds were almost completely healed by now. Enough, certainly, to enable it to utter words of obeisance and submission. And if the tone of those words contained a trace of regret, there was not enough to reawaken the master's displeasure.

Again, the monster sensed the great form swirling, a darkness in the mist, as if an enormous arm was moving in a gesture of command. In an instant, its body began to shrivel and shrink. Soon enough, the beast-body with its talons and teeth and clawing suckers had vanished, replaced by something which bore a vague resemblance to a salamander.

As always, the monster's regrets vanished with the change of form. There was no room in that salamanderlike body for anything but salamander thoughts.

Burning soon. Hungry!


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