Maiden of pain, p.10

Maiden of Pain, page 10

 

Maiden of Pain
 


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  “But I didn’t do anything wrong,” Iuna wailed. “I tried to tell Daddy to get rid of her, and … and I turned her in. It’s not fair.”

  Maelos Karanok leaned forward in his seat and whispered something to his son, who nodded.

  “You are correct, child. You did your best to root out this disease and should be rewarded. For your efforts, I will spare your life. You shall be made a slave to the Temple of Entropy, and attend to my daughter personally.”

  Kaestra beamed.

  Lord Jaerios stood and helped his father down the dais, signaling the hearing was over. Naeros followed them out while Kaestra gave instructions to the guards to deliver Iuna. Master Saelis was brought alongside Ythnel, and the two of them were escorted back out of the chamber. They passed by Lord Jaerios in the hall, who had stopped to talk with a palace servant.

  “Find Therescales, and bring him to my study,” he told the young boy. “Tell him I have a change in the plan that should take care of the mages once and for all.” The servant scampered off out of Ythnel’s sight as the guards led her and Master Saelis back down into the dungeon.

  There was a young woman behind the desk when Therescales entered the warehouse this time. There were no antiques either. In their place were racks of weapons: swords, maces, axes, and some exotic-looking things that Therescales wasn’t even sure how to use, though he imagined it would probably be quite painful if he found himself on the wrong end of one of them. They all appeared to be of fine craftsmanship, many with intricately decorated hilts. One particular dagger, with a gem embedded in its pommel, caught Therescales’ eye, but he was not here to shop.

  “A fine piece of steel, imported all the way from the Moonshaes. I’m sure you’ll find its balance to be near perfect.” The young woman had come up on Therescales unaware—a sign of how nervous he was. One misstep and he could burn at the stake—or worse if he gave himself away to the mages.

  “Actually, I’m interested in a black staff. It was once owned by a shadowy sage who carved symbols all over it.”

  The hungry light in the woman’s eyes dimmed, and her shoulders slumped as she realized she would not be making a sale.

  “Yes, of course. If you’ll follow me, I believe you’ll find what you’re looking for over here.” She led him to the door behind her desk and unlocked it with a key from her belt pouch. Therescales strode through as soon as it was open.

  The illusionary box was in the same place. Therescales descended into the secret passage and inscribed the burning rune to open the hidden door. The others were already filing in to the meeting area, so Therescales slipped into place at the rear of the line.

  “It’s about time you showed up,” the mage in front of him whispered over her shoulder. The hood she wore hid her profile. “Especially considering you were the one who called this meeting.”

  He ignored the comment as the mages took their seats around the table. Therescales was pleased to see everyone present. An expectant silence hung over the room until Brother Hawk cleared his throat.

  “You called the gathering, Brother Asp. Please tell us what was so urgent that you risked our discovery with another meeting so soon after our last.”

  Therescales blinked at the lack of formality, unsure of what it meant. He glanced at the faces around him, trying to detect if he had somehow been found out. It was rare that councils were ever held this close together, but every member had the right to request one at any time.

  Should they be on to him, though, he was ready. He had procured a scroll of invisibility and cast the spell on his dagger, which now hung unseen on his belt. He had also imbibed a potion just before entering the warehouse that would protect his mind from controlling enchantments.

  Unfortunately, the various disguises made it almost impossible to accurately read anyone’s expression. With no recourse but to press on, Therescales stood. He had rehearsed what to say a thousand times before tonight. He sent a silent prayer to Cyric that they would believe him.

  “Brothers, I apologize for the inconvenience, but know that I would not have done so if I did not think the news I have to share was of vital importance.” He paused for a moment to be sure he had everyone’s attention. “I have learned from a source in the palace that the wizard Brother Hawk was prepared to meet with has been captured and will be publicly executed at dawn, two days hence.” Murmurs and gasps sprung up as soon as he finished.

  “I’ve heard nothing of the sort from my contact,” Brother Frog bellowed, springing up immediately.

  “I’m not surprised, seeing as how your contact couldn’t even confirm whether or not the victims of Saestra Karanok were even wizards.” Therescales raised an eyebrow, and Frog frowned but sat down.

  “How do you know it’s even Brother Hawk’s ally?” Sister Rat’s voice trembled. Therescales turned his head slightly to look at her but watched Brother Hawk from the corner of his eye. This was the catch in the plan. No one knew where Hawk’s wizard was from, except maybe Hawk himself. Therescales had been forced to make an educated guess, hope that Hawk did know, and that the guess was right. If he was wrong, at best Hawk would simply reveal that the Karanoks had the wrong person, and the bait would be impotent. Then Therescales would have to find some way to keep Jaerios from burning him at the stake.

  Or Hawk could suspect Therescales, and he would find himself at the mercy of the mages.

  Therescales trusted he held the right cards, however. There were only so many wizards with the resources and motivation to aid an overthrow of the Karanoks. It was time to play his hand.

  “My informant told me that a squad of House Karanok guards had stumbled upon the wizard’s camp while patrolling the road up to Mordulkin. It appeared that the wizard had been on his way down from there and was waiting to meet someone.” From the periphery, Therescales saw Brother Hawk’s shoulder’s sag. He forced himself not to smile as triumph welled in his chest.

  Therescales took his seat, and everyone looked to Brother Hawk. The leader of the mages stood slowly and leaned on the table.

  “Brothers, it appears that Brother Asp’s information is correct.” The concession was met with more murmurs and gasps. “Please, I’m not finished.” Brother Hawk motioned for silence. “In light of this development, we need to immediately begin planning a rescue.”

  Cries of protest and shock erupted. Therescales was not surprised. He knew the bait wouldn’t be taken readily by all. He waited to see how Brother Hawk would do his work for him.

  “Order, order! You will be quiet,” Brother Crocodile roared.

  “I know this isn’t how we planned things to progress, but if we can’t be flexible, then we’re no better than the Karanoks.”

  “Flexible has nothing to do with it,” Brother Fox retorted. “Attacking the Karanoks is suicide.”

  “It would not be a full-fledged assault. We could hit them on the way to the execution yards. Please, you must see that this is the only way. If we do not at least try, how can we show future allies that we are even worth supporting?” Stone silence met Brother Hawk’s plea, and he sat back with a sigh. Therescales decided to risk a little push.

  “I call for a vote.”

  “A vote has been called,” Brother Boar declared in his slurred voice. “According to our bylaws, a majority is required to act upon the proposal before us. As arbiter of the vote, I am not allowed to cast my own ballot unless a tie must be broken. I will call out your name, and you will answer ‘aye’ if in favor of a rescue attempt or ‘nay’ if against. I will start to my right. Brother Hawk?”

  “Aye.”

  “Brother Crocodile?”

  “Aye.”

  “Brother Chameleon?”

  “Nay.”

  “Brother Fox?”

  “Nay.”

  “Brother Frog?”

  “Aye.”

  “Sister Rat?”

  “Nay.”

  “Brother Tortoise?”

  “Nay.”

  “Brother Raven?”
r />   “Aye.”

  “Brother Asp?”

  Therescales couldn’t help the grin this time. “Aye.”

  “The ‘ayes’ have it.”

  “Yes!” Brother Hawk shouted, pounding the table with his fist. He stood once again. “I know that those who voted against this action will act honorably and fully support your comrades. Now here is what I suggest.” He nodded to Therescales as he began to outline his plan for the rescue. Therescales just sat back and carefully took note of it all.

  CHAPTER 6

  Heralds from House Karanok had made the rounds through the city yesterday, proclaiming a public execution the following dawn of a foreign wizard. Even though the winter sky was still the gray of diffused morning light, crowds lined the boulevard that ran from Karanok Palace to the execution yards, squeezed together as much for warmth as for the hope of a better view. As the first rays of sun bounced off the marble dome of the palace, a drum roll cadence echoed down the grand staircase that led from the two great bronze doors to the courtyard. Gasps from the crowd announced the appearance of two guards in ceremonial bronze breastplates, shields, and helmets with horsehair plumes, all buffed to a mirror shine. They stood stiff and silent at the top of the stairs then rapped the butts of their spears against the floor before making their way down.

  The guards were followed by a pair of clerics dressed in flowing robes of white, swinging censers from which wafted brownish green smoke. Behind the clerics came two pairs of guards dressed in similar ceremonial armor. Shackled between each pair were the condemned: a woman in rags, her dark hair shaved on one side, her face swollen and bruised; and a skinny man with thin, blond hair, his eyes staring off somewhere distant as he stumbled along. Another set of censer-bearing clerics created a buffer between the prisoners and a series of enclosed sedan chairs that undoubtedly carried the members of the Karanok family behind their lowered curtains. Bringing up the rear of the procession were a dozen crossbow-wielding guards, scanning the crowd as they moved out of the courtyard and down the boulevard.

  Brother Hawk frowned. Already they encountered a variable they hadn’t planned for. Which of the two was the wizard? Brother Frog’s contact in the palace had been killed before a description could be obtained.

  Brow furrowed, Hawk pushed his way through the crowd, trying to keep pace with the parade. The five other mages followed him, weaving through the rear ranks of spectators. They all wore heavy, hooded cloaks of drab wool pulled tight about them. No one gave them a second glance. The chill air was reason enough to bundle up; being able to hide your face was an added bonus. It had been decided not to use magic for disguises, as the spells would be a beacon announcing their presence to any divinations. That also meant no wands, rings, or staves. So they were left with the spells each had spent the past day preparing. It was an all-or-nothing gamble with the odds stacked high against them. Now with two prisoners to rescue, those odds doubled. There was no way around it, however. They could not take the chance of grabbing the wrong one.

  The mages reached the ruins of the Old Wizard’s Tower ahead of the parade. No one remembered the name of the former tenant, or at least no one ever spoke it aloud. The tumbled stone, now covered with creepers and other overgrowth, was once a great, white tower that rivaled the current residence of Naeros Karanok. It was also the site of the first enforcement of the Karanoks’ law against magic. In the middle of the night, guards from House Karanok had invaded the tower. Explosions echoed across the city, and flashes lit the darkness as various wards and protections were triggered, but the Karanoks had numbers on their side. Outmanned and overwhelmed, the owner of the tower chose to destroy the structure and all the secrets held within rather than turn it over to the rulers of Luthcheq. The rubble was left untouched as a reminder of the fate awaiting those who practiced the forbidden.

  Brother Hawk scanned the surrounding buildings as his comrades took their places scattered amongst the crowd. The remaining mages should have been in position since the night before. He peered into dark windows and studied rooftops, trying to catch a glimpse of movement, a sign that all was ready. The rooftops were still, and the windows peered back like the empty sockets of a skull.

  Nothing to do but wait, Brother Hawk told himself.

  Sections of the crowd were heckling the prisoners as they neared. Rotten vegetables pelted the pair sporadically. Hawk stood on his toes and craned his neck. They were just a few yards away now. He recalled the arcane words that would trigger his spell, holding them until the attack began.

  The clerics at the front of the procession had drawn even with Brother Hawk’s position. He started to cough as smoke from the swinging censers drifted past him. Brother Hawk put his hand over his face to keep from drawing attention then panicked as he felt the spell slipping from his memory. He closed his eyes to concentrate and fixed the incantation firmly in his mind.

  When he opened his eyes, the prisoners had already gone past.

  Fear gripped Brother Hawk. Why hadn’t the hidden mages attacked? He looked around and met the scared and confused faces of his co-conspirators on the ground. Quickly, they all congregated at the rear of the crowd.

  “What’s going on, Brother Hawk?” Sister Rat’s eyes were darting wildly.

  “I don’t know. Something’s happened.”

  “Yeah, something bad,” Brother Frog retorted. “We’ve failed. I say we call this thing off.”

  “No!” Brother Hawk nearly shouted. “No, we can’t give up yet. There’s still a chance to save them. If we don’t, we can forget about anyone else offering to help overthrow the Karanoks.”

  “Do you have a plan?” Brother Crocodile asked. Brother Hawk was relieved that not everyone was ready to run.

  “I’ll think of something.” Brother Hawk moved off before the others could protest. He didn’t bother to look over his shoulder as he tailed the procession. Even if they didn’t follow, he was going to see this through. He was tired of living in fear in the city he grew up in. He was tired of talking about doing something. It was time to change things.

  The sun had finally crested the east city wall when they reached the execution yard. It was rumored that the yard had once been a beautiful public garden with rare flora that drew visitors from around the Realms. The Karanoks changed that in their quest to rid Luthcheq of magic.

  The crowd filed in behind the procession, under the watchful gaze of two round towers that guarded an opening in the twenty-foot-high inner wall that separated the city from the triangular field of trampled dirt. On the west and south side, the yard was fenced in by the thirty-five-foot-high walls that surrounded the entire city. At each point of the triangle were the larger towers that flanked the sections of the outer walls. Armed guards patrolled the battlements.

  A large, undecorated stone platform ran the length of the south wall. Here the procession diverged with the prisoners and their escort moving to the left, while the Karanoks in their sedan chairs veered to the right. Both groups climbed the stairs at either end of the platform. As the prisoners were bound by their shackles to two wooden poles that rose from a great log pyre built in the center of the platform, the sedan chairs were lowered and the curtains pulled back.

  With a sharp intake of breath, Brother Hawk froze in the middle of the milling throng. Gathered together on the platform were the four most powerful members of House Karanok: old Maelos, the family patriarch; Jaerios, true ruler of the city; his son, Naeros; and Kaestra, high priestess of Entropy. With one well-placed fireball, Brother Hawk could reduce the family’s control over the city to a pile of ash.

  The inner struggle lasted for only a moment. It was tempting, but Brother Hawk knew there were enough Karanok cousins spread across the land that the vacuum would be quickly filled.

  “There’s no more time.” Brother Crocodile touched Brother Hawk on the shoulder. “What do we do?”

  “We need a diversion.”

  Ythnel sagged against the wooden pole, closed her eyes, and let the wearin
ess wash over her. The din of the gathering spectators faded as her consciousness drifted in the darkness of her mind. She had endured all that the Karanoks had put her through for naught. There had been no point to her suffering, no greater purpose. That had been the hardest blow.

  Now she was going to die, and she didn’t care. If there was no reason for all that she had gone through, then nothing mattered.

  Something brushed lightly against her feet. From the rustling sound that accompanied the touch, Ythnel guessed it was witchweed leaves. Even though they knew she was not a wizard, they still went through with the charade. It was pointless.

  A voice cried out from somewhere to Ythnel’s right, and the crowd grew silent.

  “Citizens of Luthcheq, your presence here is a testimony to your zeal in the war against the corruption that is sown by the use of magic. Entropy is pleased.” It was the cold, hard voice of Kaestra Karanok. Cheers met her declaration, but they seemed halfhearted at best.

  A scream from the crowd snapped Ythnel’s eyes open. Across the yard by the two towers guarding the entrance, a large, black globe, perhaps ten feet in diameter, materialized out of the air; arcs of deep purple energy cascaded across its surface. All heads turned; all eyes fixed upon it.

  “You see.” Kaestra’s voice was filled with fervor. “Entropy has come to witness the death of this witch and her servant. Bring the torches.” Two guards started forward, burning brands in their hands.

  The brands sputtered then erupted in huge clouds of billowing smoke.

  A ball of fire streaked from the back of the crowd, blossoming as it neared the platform and exploding upon impact amidst the gathered Karanok crossbow-men. Several small darts of different-colored energy flew from various parts of the crowd to strike the guards now spilling out of the towers and send them tumbling over the battlements to the ground below.

  Ythnel squinted, trying to peer through the smoke from burning bodies and sputtering brands, but her eyes were full of tears. From what little she did see, it appeared the yard was in utter chaos. The panicked crowd was running about like stampeding cattle, caught between the burning platform and the manifestation of Entropy. The Karanoks and their remaining entourage were fleeing the platform, only to get pushed back by the press of trapped spectators.

 
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