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Baiting the Serpent

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Sasuke shoves his hands in his pockets, hunching down to keep himself small and unnoticed as he pads quietly through the bustling market. He ignores the vendors hawking their wares at passers-by just as he ignores the press of the crowd around him. Sometimes it's easier to disappear with so many around compared to in the forest, here where he can pass as just one of hundreds of faces, one of scores of locals or dozens of foreigners all making their own way in the seaport city.

Someone jostles into him, but the boy - really, he hasn't been a boy for years, not after everything - resists the urge to whirl around and confront the offending drunk with a dagger in hand. His eyes narrow, though, when he glimpses a flash of dirty red hair weave through the crowd.. one of dozens of street urchins hard at work filching purses and badgering the weak-willed into handing over spare coppers. Nearby, an elf stops to pat at an empty loop dangling from his belt, then swears in a foreign tongue. Sasuke doesn't bother waiting to see if the mark realizes just who's stolen from him, or even which of the youths had managed to claim that prize.

He's only gone a little more than halfway across the market when the warm sea breeze seems to pick up and suddenly he hears her whisper in his ear.

"Have you made your decision, Sasuke?"

The hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he can't help but freeze where he is in the middle of the flow of traffic. Someone bumps into him from behind, curses, then pushes past, roughly shouldering him to the side and away from the press. Sasuke doesn't have to look around to know that the speaker is nowhere nearby.. and probably nowhere near the market itself. She could even be in a completely different city, so skilled is she with that whispering spell.

He grinds his teeth in frustration, then hunches down even more and moves away from the square's center.

"Or are you yet hesitating, wondering if the risk is worth what you will gain..?"

Sasuke swipes a hand irritably past his ear, mussing his hair and pushing long bangs back from his face. It doesn't matter, doesn't help, he knows. The breeze always comes whether or not he wills it - whether or not he hides himself outdoors or inside - and with it is that low voice he's grown to hate almost as much as Orochimaru. Almost as much as his brother. (Almost as much as himself.) It'll find him and tickle his ears, echoing words whispered upon the air itself so that no one else can hear them.

He hates that she uses it instead of any other way to speak to him. It always feels far too close, too personal, and it makes him see just how real his decision has become.

"The sword always has two edges, Sasuke.. but you know that too well already."

Hissing an oath between clenched teeth, the boy pulls out the small crystal amulet that he always wears beneath his shirt and clenches it so hard it nearly shatters. That familiar pulse of magic from within it warms his palm and spreads through his arm, his body, his mind, and suddenly the whispered conversations of those others using the telepathy device wash through the back of his mind. Sasuke ignores them. He focuses on one face, one presence out of the dozens in the area who've opened their minds, and pushes his very thoughts at her.

"Shut up."

At first only laughter reaches his ears. It's just a low chuckle carried on the sea breeze, and it feels mocking and cold and wrong. Sasuke keeps moving just as he keeps his eyes from meeting the gaze of anyone else pushing past. The last thing he wants right now is a longwinded lecture from the self-styled gleeman of the city that always seems to find time to loiter in the market, or from one of the many self-righteous priests and priestesses in service to the gods of Light.

For a long, blessed minute, no more whispers reach him and he manages to leave the market behind in peace. He half wonders that she's timed that intentionally - that perhaps she's been watching him all along, hidden somewhere in the shadows along the outskirts where the shops and inns press close together with irregular alleys weaving between them. Perhaps she's waiting just as intentionally for him to find somewhere quiet in the city that's away from prying eyes or ears.

Perhaps..

He glances south, toward the Esplanade and the canal dividing the city into two halves. He's always found a sense of irony in that visible separation, north and south, new and old, rich and poor, Liabo and Lornon.. light and dark. It seems too contrived, but even so he never lets anyone see his face whenever he dares cross the Baron's Bridge to venture into South Haven.

Turning his back on the dregs of the city, Sasuke seeks the privacy of one of the many docks jutting out into the bay. This one has a small lean-to at its end, and an old but serviceable boat lashed to the pilings nearby. The low din of the market is still audible in the distance, but the splash of waves and the forlorn cry of the gulls are louder. Sasuke ducks behind the lean-to to sit in its shadow and stare, unseeing, out at the bay.

"If it's the rite itself you're worried about.. well.." The wind carries her whisper with it, tickling at his ear anew as if her lips were but an inch away. He can almost imagine the way it'd feel, the warmth of her being close enough to breathe hushed words into his ear - close enough to press the edge of a dagger against his throat. "Perhaps you should be."

Sasuke closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He's being baited, he knows. But he also wants to know what stands before him. The saying of her brethren comes unbidden to him, and he mouths the words to himself. Knowledge is power.

Exhaling, he keeps his eyes shut as he focuses on her mind again. "Tell me about the ritual."

The pause that drags out seems almost too long. For a fleeting moment, he wonders if he's asked the wrong thing, or if he's just asked the right question too soon. But then he can hear her again, and he has to strain to fully understand her whispers over the incessant lapping waves.

"I could tell you to wait and see for yourself.. but, no. I think that you'd do better to know just what to expect. To know just what you must endure to acquire that which you seek." Another pause breaks her words, but this time it's shorter. "You're fortunate that it's Orochimaru who will induct you. He has a certain.. flair that some others of the Order lack, as well as an understanding of when to be succinct and when to draw out the inevitable."

Unlike you, Sasuke thinks, though he keeps his mind guarded lest he betray himself. You talk too much.

A faint chuckle reaches his ears, then, and for a heartbeat he thinks that she has overhead his thoughts. "You know of the temple already, surely.."

"Yes," he responds in turn. "Below the city. I've been there already." Or at least to its entrance. He doesn't offer yet that he's never been inside, that he's been turned away by metal doors that seem to possess a sentience of their own.

"Good.. yes, that's the one, through the twisting tunnels of South Haven. He'll probably tell you to go to the doors alone. You'll have to reach them undetected.. navigate them yourself, unaided.. I'd suggest bringing a lantern just in case."

Sasuke doesn't respond. He remembers the tunnels and how they'd twisted and turned back on themselves countless times over. They'd seemed a veritable maze of stone and shadow, littered here and there with the remains of those foolish enough to try to brave them alone - or foolish enough to try to challenge the guardians beneath. It'd been cold and damp, and even the torch had seemed ineffective against the gloom of the tunnels.

"You'll need to bring with you a token of your, ah, sincerity," the woman continues from afar. "Something to show your intended allegiance, no matter how fleeting it may be in the end." There almost seems to be a twist of humor to her words, right then, as if she's mocking him, or as if she's seen some irony in what he's facing that he hasn't yet grasped. "The Guardians will see into you and through you, and they will know you for who you are. I suggest being as honest with yourself as you can. Otherwise.. it may be, ah, unpleasant."

His eyes are still closed. Sasuke can easily picture those imposing doors in his mind's eye. Somehow they seem to tower within the caverns, the heavy bronze gleaming balefully from the scant torchlight. Dark emeralds flicker as if alive, and the wrought serpents seem to shift and writhe in the corners of his vision whenever he looks away. He can still hear their hiss.. the words of a damned door, from when he'd tried to draw near that very first time.

You bear not the ssssymbol of the Masssster. Thisssss place issss for the Masssster's sssservantssss only. Leave.

He tries to not shiver, but the breeze off of the bay has turned chill, and the shadow of the lean-to keeps the sun's warmth from reaching him.

"You haven't gone inside yet, have you."

It isn't a question, Sasuke knows. And he knows that she knows it's true, too, though he hasn't any clue as to how she has that knowledge. A part of him considers the practical aspect of it - that there has to be some sort of tracking system, some part of the door's wardings that register who enters and when. He pushes the thought away; he'll have time to think about it in detail later.

Later.

"No," the boy says aloud, then swears under his breath knowing that she has no way of hearing the spoken word. (Not unless she's skilled enough to track him to the seclusion of the dock, to listen unseen from other shadows.) "No," he repeats, the unnecessary answer echoing in his mind just as he knows it'll reach hers.

It's not laughter that reaches his ears next, but instead a low hum - one of those thoughtful sounds that he's heard the woman make before, mid conversation, as if she's trying to figure out just what to say. (Just what to leave out.) "It's much older than the other temples here," she finally offers. Sasuke opens his eyes a crack, staring out at the small waves without really seeing them. A cormorant dives at the water and brakes the surface with a splash, but he doesn't flinch at the sudden sound. "The first, truthfully, though it has a sister temple that was constructed shortly after. This was.. thousands of years before Solhaven was founded, before even the first keeps of Vornavis were built. Well before the dwarves named the Cascade of Tears."

His gaze flicks toward the north. The bay narrows there where the Cairnfang feeds it, but the waterfall isn't visible from this dock. He pulls one knee up to his chest and laces his fingers together, loosely holding it to him with both hands.

"The mana flows brought them, of course. Ever has this been a, ah, a place of power. Others of the Order like to say that it was for the temple that the city was built." Sasuke can hear the wry humor twisting in her voice again. He doesn't offer her any words - any thoughts - in return. He just focuses on what she says. How she says it. The whispers press close to his ear as if it were her own breath playing across his skin instead of that of the bay. "It's much larger than the caverns inside. Much taller. There are three great halls within, each to honor a separate facet - a separate path - of the Serpent. Ivory, Ebony, Emerald.. Truth, Death, Undeath.."

He shivers anew, then realizes with a start just how her words have already begun to lull him into complacency. He lets go of his knee and sits up straight, presses his back against the rough wood of the lean-to.

"Lies," he thinks abruptly at her. "Not Truth. Luukos is the god of Lies and Deceit."

"What are Lies but another face of Truth?" comes the whispered response. A light puff of air - perhaps another chuckle - follows. "What is Deceit but a fine weaving of the Truth of that which Is? What is Undeath but a mirror of Life? Just as Death is that mirror between the two states of existence, so, too, exists there a mirror between both Truth and Lie. They are the same concept bearing different faces and different names."

The rhetoric is more than he's willing to argue right then. Sasuke stares sullenly at the water and the way the afternoon sunlight plays off its surface. "You still haven't told me about the ritual."

The hum comes again. "You're right. I haven't." This time, there's a longer pause before she says anything more. "You'll want to dress simply. Your .. hunting clothes won't be suitable, and you'll need to leave your armor behind. A loose shirt, one that you aren't overly fond of, or none at all."

Sasuke feels his skin turn to gooseflesh just at the thought of going down there.. going inside the underground temple in nothing but his pants and sandals. Somehow baring his skin always makes him feel infinitely more vulnerable than just taking off his armor, no matter that he knows full well just how little the lightweight fabric would really protect him against any attack. He closes his eyes, tries hard not to imagine it.

"You'll die before it's over, of course," the whisper continues, and it's the sheer bluntness of her statement that truly gets to him. Sasuke's mouth feels dry. He licks his lips and tries to swallow, tries to suppress the next shiver as an errant wave strikes a piling at just the right angle to spray cool salt water against his cheek. "But you already knew that. God of Death, and all that.

Right.

The boy clenches his jaw tighter. The thought of dying doesn't bother him. He's done it before - he's been raised from a dead corpse by clerics, he's prayed to Lorminstra and given her offerings to keep his soul safely on the living side of the Ebon Gates. The thought of just how he was to die is much more sinister, though, since he'll be going as a willing lamb led to the slaughter and not as an untried squire in the heat of battle.

Sasuke closes his eyes and focuses his thoughts toward her. "What will I have to do?" Maybe if he just gets through it all at once - if he understands everything that he'll have to do - it'll be easier. Maybe.

"There will be words. There will probably be more than you feel is necessary, but such is the way of things. There will be a dedication to each of the Aspects and an acknowledgement of their meaning." The wind shifts subtly, and suddenly her voice whispers softly in his other ear. She sounds so close - too close. He lets out a tense breath. "You may be told to kneel upon the dais, before the altar and beneath a statue of the winged Serpent."

Though he's never been inside, Sasuke can still imagine what the hall must look like. It's even more cavernous than the tunnels, its ceiling so high that the scattered torches and candles have no hope of piercing the gloom above. The dais is surely centered within the heart of the largest chamber, a series of concentric steps leading up to the altar. There's blood, of course, and lots of it. Fresh blood, old blood, red and black and brown, and it cracks beneath his feet and feels slick when he kneels to press his fingers to the floor.

"Idiot," he hisses to himself. "Don't forget why you're doing this."

Shaking his head, Sasuke banishes himself from the imagined scene.. and steps back from where he'd been on the dais to see his brother kneeling there instead. The corners of his mouth twitch with the ghost of a smile. That feels much better. He likes how it looks, too, and suddenly is much more interested in what's about to happen. If Sasuke's going to force himself to go through with this, he'll gladly imagine seeing his brother having to face far worse.

Maybe he'll even do exactly that before he kills Itachi. Dragging out his revenge won't erase the sins that've been committed.. but it'll sure soothe some of the hatred burning inside.

"You will be marked with blood," continues the whisper, sea-borne breath brushing softly across his cheek, his ear. "Sigils will be painted upon your brow, across your face, down your neck and across your chest. Your hands will be marked, too, for they are as surely His instruments as is your tongue."

He can see, too, the priest dipping one long finger into a chalice full of thick, dark blood and then reaching forward to draw it across Itachi's face. Is it Orochimaru who's performing the ritual? Or is it another? (Or is it Sasuke himself?) Some lines are thick, like the band of dark crimson that spreads across Itachi's eyelids. Others are thin and intricate and formed of countless sigils that surely mean something important in some archaic language, a tongue forgotten to all save those who still give it worth. Thin rivulets trail down Itachi's cheeks like tears where the blood's been spread too thick.

Sasuke shifts his weight, suddenly uncomfortable and far too aware of the press of rough wooden planks against his legs and back, their edges digging into him through his clothes. "Then what?" he asks her before he realizes that he's given thought to the question.

"Then.." He closes his eyes tighter, imagining the scene unfold. "Then you will be told to rise to your feet, to go over to the altar and lay upon it of your own free will. There will be more words, more gestures toward each of the Aspects.."

Itachi's already lying on his back on the altar, though instead of some great ornamented monstrosity it's just a huge slab of roughly hewn stone. Somehow he's bound at his wrists and ankles, the dark lines holding him in place too thin to be rope, too solid to be wire. His hands are above his head, and Sasuke looks down at him from one side.

The bloody runes are still there painted across Itachi's face and chest - sometimes fresh and obscenely red, and other times made from an inky black ichor that seems to swim before his eyes. And that's the best part, Sasuke decides, and this time he really does smile at the look of horror on Itachi's face. It's the look he's always dreamed of, the one where he knows that his brother finally understands that he, Sasuke, has surpassed him and brought with him an impending doom that will be anything but swift. His hatred gives him strength and feeds his dreams, and suddenly the sigils he'd drawn across Itachi are carved deep into skin and muscle, and they leak fresh blood that pools across the altar's surface and pours from grooves that've been viciously cut into the stone.

"..with the knife--"

Sasuke realizes belatedly that she's been talking all along. His pulse is racing, but he'd still picked out that one word that he's been aching to hear. "Keep going."

"He will slit each of your wrists with the knife, in turn, left then right," she repeats, but instead of 'your' Sasuke hears 'his', and the dagger's in his hand as he draws it across his brother's wrists, the wound deep and savage as it cuts through tendons and nicks at the bone. Itachi jerks against his bonds, but there's nothing that he can do; he cries out against the cloth gagging his mouth, but there are no words that he can manage to say around it. Blood continues to pour down the sides of the altar and run in strange patterns across the dais that mirror the marks he'd carved into skin.

Sasuke clenches his fist, his knuckles whitening and fingernails digging into the flesh of his palm. He has to strain to focus on what she's saying next. "..not enough to kill, no, not yet. Just enough to bear the mark where you must. You will begin to truly see the statue, then, towering overhead.. It's an immense serpent, rearing up and poised with its mouth open directly over the dais, its massive wings spreading out and around the entire room."

He can see it clearly, but he doesn't care about that. He doesn't care about the statue, doesn't care about the temple, or even the stupid rite - he just wants to see Itachi suffer again and again, just like his family had. Just like he has time and time again. "I just want to know about the ritual," he shoots at her, and he doesn't even care that he can't hide the impatience in his thoughts or the sense of desperation that he must hear more of the actions themselves. It has to be nearly over, he can feel it; Itachi will die soon, and Sasuke wants to hear it, to see it.

"Mmm.. of course." A part of him wants to do the same to her when it's all over, too. To her, to Orochimaru, to Morvule, to all of them. Maybe he will. "The Serpent will bear witness, for the eyes of His statue see for Him there. The death is not clean, but it is ..reasonably swift. First the last mark is carved upon your breast, right over your heart. It is not complex, and the less you move, the easier it is to complete."

Itachi won't hold still in his mind. It's hard to complete, but that's just how he wants it. Sasuke slams the knife down on Itachi's chest again and again, hacking madly as cloth and skin tear and are covered in red. It covers Sasuke's hands, splatters across his face, his clothes, and it's hot and sticky and tastes coppery on his tongue, but still he hacks at his brother - and Itachi still thrashes on the stone, unable to defend himself or get away as more and more bright crimson washes over the entire room, the entire temple, the entire world covered now in blood..

"..and the final strike is swift and sure, right into the sigil's center, right between the ribs to pierce your heart and end your life. For a time."

Sasuke makes a soft noise in the back of his throat. It isn't enough - it's too soon for it to be over, too little for his brother to suffer. He tries to stop things, to back up to the part where he's first pulled out the dagger, but she won't stop talking and he can't focus on his vision and her words at the same time. He feels lightheaded.

"It won't take too long, but your spirit will remain with your corpse as He looks upon your soul to decide whether or not He accepts your sacrifice. I'm sure He will, of course.." Of course. Right. Why wouldn't he- "..and then when your body has been returned to the living and your spirit re-bound to it, the rite will be complete."

The silence that drags out afterward is almost too much. Sasuke doesn't dare open his eyes yet. His palm aches where his fingernails have dug into it, and his hand still shakes a bit. He forces his breath to steady and to slow into something more normal, and he's painfully aware of just how close the dock is to the market and all of the people there. The light breeze off of the bay feels cool on his face, and the cries of the gulls sound hollow and tinny and tiny in the wake of the whispers.

He swallows dryly. "That's it? Just a bunch of stupid stuff to be said, kneel here, lay there, get your wrists cut and die?"

The low chuckle carried on the wind tells him that she's only been waiting to hear his response before saying anything else. It'd been another bait, and he's taken it just as eagerly. "That's it, more or less. At least that's the basics of the rite as it must be performed for such a purpose. Orochimaru may add his own.. take on things, of course, but I can't imagine it being too involved. And you will receive the appropriate guidance after He has measured your worth, one way or another.."

"Right," Sasuke murmurs, then rubs his hands over his face, presses at his eyes and pushes his hair back from his forehead. "Right." That's it.

When he finally dares to look around him again, he sees that the shadows are already starting to lengthen. Sunset isn't too far away. There's still time to back out if he wants to, to ask for another day or another week to think it over more.

The thought of Itachi suffering in his dream is too fresh in his mind, though, and he knows that no other god - light or dark - will be willing to help him make that dream a reality. Even if it means trading away his soul, it'll be worth it so long as Sasuke gets what he wants out of the contract, too. He's gone through too much already to back out now, and he'll be damned before he gives up.

Perhaps literally.

"I'll leave you to, ah, prepare. Sasuke."

The sound of his name seems almost to echo with the sound of the waves as he pushes himself to his feet, still unsteady. Still determined. He doesn't see the shadow as it sweeps back from the dock and slips into an alley behind a tavern. He doesn't need to.

He hates her even more, then, just as he hates himself.