Maiden of Pain, page 2
“Of course not.” He still wore that broad smile Saestra remembered from the party. “You ever been to the Crypts before?”
“No,” Saestra answered, unable to think of anything but his beautiful, round face. She had been here before, when they laid her mother to rest. That was during the day, though. She’d never been here at night.
“I should show you our family’s mausoleum, then.” He clasped her hand in his and led her into the cemetery. They strolled past sepulchers of various shapes and sizes. Some were decorated with celestial figures escorting departed souls to their final resting places. Others were adorned with grotesque visages of stone meant to ward off evil spirits.
Saestra paid them little heed. Her mind was focused on the connection formed by Augustus’s hand wrapped around hers. Were her palms too sweaty? Could he feel her rapid heartbeat through the tips of her fingers?
“Hey, is that door open?” Augustus had stopped at the edge of a gravel path that wound its way up to a slant-roofed mausoleum. Saestra could see that the door, framed by a pair of Ionic pillars, was slightly ajar.
“Is that your family’s?” she asked.
“No, but let’s go check it out. Maybe there’s grave robbers inside.” He started forward but turned back when Saestra didn’t budge. “I was only kidding. Besides, I’d protect you. I’m sure there’s nothing inside there bigger than a rat. Come on.” He flashed that smile, and Saestra let herself be dragged along reluctantly.
When they reached the entrance of the mausoleum, Augustus motioned for Saestra to wait while he took a look inside. She hugged one of the columns as he disappeared into the darkness, putting the mass of marble between her and the open doorway. Time crawled while she chewed on her lower lip, waiting. It was eerily quiet. Then something moved inside the tomb, the faint sound of shuffling feet drifting out. Saestra tried to hide behind the column, but could not pull her eyes from the doorway. A shape appeared at the threshold, just beyond the edge of the moonlight.
Augustus stepped out, and Saestra let her breath go with an audible sigh.
“Don’t do that,” she scolded, moving out from behind the pillar to meet him.
“What?” The mischievous grin on his face belied the innocence in his voice. “It’s empty inside, except for a couple of sarcophagi. Which are closed,” he quickly added. “Come in with me.”
Saestra bit her lip, hesitating for a moment before nodding her consent. Just inside the doorway was a small landing. They stood there for a few minutes, letting their eyes adjust, before descending a short flight of steps. By the faint traces of moonlight that barely pierced the darkness beyond the door, Saestra could make out two large, rectangular objects that occupied the center of the chamber. The thought of somebody’s decaying remains still being inside the sarcophagi, just a few feet away, made her shiver.
“Are you cold?” asked Augustus.
He came up behind Saestra and held her to his chest. His arms were strong, and she felt secure with them wrapped around her. She turned in his embrace and looked up, meeting his gaze. Slowly, he leaned in. Saestra wet her lips with her tongue and closed her eyes.
A harsh, grinding noise immediately drew their attention to the thick stone door of the mausoleum. Someone was pulling it shut! Augustus bounded up the stairs but was too late. The last sliver of moonlight was cut off, and the pair was plunged into darkness as the door sealed with a solid thud.
“Hey! Open the door! Let us out!” Augustus shouted, vainly pounding the slab of marble.
“Are the young lovers scared?” a familiar voice taunted. “Enjoy your first night together. See you two in the morning.”
“Naeros, I hate you!” Saestra’s scream was met with muffled laughter.
“This isn’t funny, Naeros. Let us out,” Augustus demanded. There was only silence in reply. Saestra heard Augustus come back down the stairs, but she still jumped when he touched her.
“I’m going to look around,” Augustus said, his voice just above a whisper. “My uncle always told me that a lot of these mausoleums had hidden rooms and were connected by catacombs that led to the city sewers. I bet we can find a way out.”
Saestra nodded, even though they couldn’t see each other in the dark. When he pulled away, however, she reached out and grabbed him, suddenly overcome with fear.
“It’s all right, Saestra. Nothing’s going to happen.”
She let him go and huddled against one of the sarcophagi, hugging her fur-lined wrap to herself. It didn’t keep her from shivering as a chill settled into her bones. Her ears picked up the sounds of Augustus moving along the walls of the chamber. Saestra imagined his hands moving over the surface, looking for some trigger or mechanism that would reveal a secret door. She’d heard the same stories he had, but even if they were true, the chances of finding something in total darkness was close to impossible. More than likely, they would end up spending the night inside this creepy room together.
They were all alone—by themselves. It wasn’t such a bad thing, now that she thought about it. She was just about to suggest that Augustus give up his search when he cried out in discovery, accompanied by the grating of stone against stone. Saestra looked in the direction of the sound and could see an area of dark gray interrupting the blackness that surrounded them.
“There’s some kind of light down there,” Augustus said.
Saestra saw his silhouette separate from the darkness to stand in the center of the gray area. She moved toward him, her arms outstretched in front of her searching for anything that might be in her way.
“Where does it go?” she asked when she reached him.
“Looks like some stairs leading down to another room. Hold on to me,” he said as he started forward.
“Be careful. Go slow.”
She thought his silhouette nodded. They crept down the stairs, hugging the wall and each other. The gray began to lighten as they descended, and Saestra caught a hint of smoke in the air. When they came to the bottom of the steps, they found themselves at a dead end. There were no doors on the landing.
“There has to be a door here,” Augustus said, his voice thick with frustration.
Saestra glanced around but noticed nothing that looked as if it would grant entrance. Then a faint yellow glow flickered out along the edge where the wall on her right met the floor. It disappeared so quickly she wasn’t sure she actually saw it.
“Over here,” she said. “I just saw some light through a crack.”
Saestra began to push on the wall, looking for a knob or release that would give them access. She could hear Augustus doing the same beside her. This time, it was her turn to find the catch.
The wall slid open to reveal another chamber lit by a solitary torch set in a sconce a few feet away from the stairs on the left wall of the room. Shadows danced across demonic faces carved into the stone, their hungry leers eternally frozen. Saestra gasped.
“What is this place? Waukeen, protect us,” Augustus hissed.
Saestra followed his stare to the middle of the room where another sarcophagus lay, its lid pushed open. Next to the stone box, a figure hunched over something, its back to the pair. A cold wave of fear washed over Saestra, and she trembled uncontrollably, rooted to the spot.
The figure turned, finally aware of the presence of intruders. Torchlight revealed taut skin, so white it was almost translucent, stretched across a ghastly face with red eyes that seemed to burn Saestra’s soul as they fastened upon her. Wild, wiry strands of hair sprouted in random places from its scalp, and blood dripped from its fanged mouth. One clawed hand was wrapped in the hair of its victim, a woman who now hung like a rag doll from the monster’s grip, her life flowing out of a wound on her neck.
“Saestra,” Augustus shouted at her, trying to break her paralysis.
He took a step, perhaps to put himself between her and the creature, but the thing intercepted him, moving faster than Saestra could blink. One instant it was by the sarcophagus; the next it was at August
“I’m sorry. Did I frighten you?” A raspy voice, like dry leaves rubbing together, issued from between the monster’s bloodstained lips. It focused its beady red pupils on Saestra and smiled. “Where are my manners? I haven’t had dinner guests in such a long time, I’ve forgotten to even introduce myself. My name is Posius.”
Posius drifted over in front of Saestra and gently took her chin in his hand. She tried to recoil at his cold touch, but his grip was inescapable.
“My, my, aren’t you a pretty one. I think I’ll keep you.”
His gaze captured Saestra, and she felt some inner part of her falling into his soulless eyes. She offered no resistance when he tilted her head to the side, and only a slight shudder as he embraced her.
The Year of Rogue Dragons
Summer in Bezantur was known by the locals as the Reeking Heat. Piles of refuse scattered throughout the city had slowly grown through the year, and now baked in the sun, their ripe stench carried about the city by stiff winds that blew in off the Sea of Fallen Stars. The citizens of Bezantur dealt with the Reeking Heat in their own ways, most of them ineffectual in actually providing any sort of sustained relief. Even those who resided in the Central Citadel, the home of the city’s ruler, resorted to an archaic method involving cauldrons of incense and fans.
Fortunately, the master of the Central Citadel had other means available to him. Aznar Thrul, tharchion of the Priador and zulkir of the school of Evocation, warded himself from the heat and the stench with his magic. Crisp air from some faraway mountaintop filled his nostrils and flowed over his skin, the result of a simple invocation he had learned when he was just an apprentice.
Regardless, it was not helping his mood, but that had more to do with who he was meeting, not the weather.
Aznar sat tapping his fingers on the ornately carved oak table that stretched out before him. While most audiences were held in the throne room, the conference chamber had been selected for this particular meeting. It was one of several concessions Aznar was forced to make in order to get Samas Kul, master of the Guild of Foreign Trade, to come to him. He had also forgone the normal rule that all visitors entered his presence naked. It was worth the risk to his person not to be subjected to the sight of Kul’s fleshy rolls jiggling before his eyes.
The doors to the conference room swung open, and Aznar’s chamberlain entered.
“O, Mighty Tharchion, Mightier Zulkir, I present Samas Kul, Master of the Guild of Foreign Trade.” The sticklike servant bowed and stepped to the side to reveal a corpulent mass in red silk and leather. A red skullcap rested atop Kul’s shaved head, which was so lumpy it appeared the man was having some sort of allergic reaction to multiple bee stings. The high, flaring collar of his tunic tried unsuccessfully to hide the layers of excess skin that flapped under his chin. Leather shoulder pads studded with gems struggled vainly to add any sort of form to Kul’s upper body. The sleeves of his tunic ended in leather bracers that covered his forearms. His fat fingers swelled around the thick bands of gold that adorned each hand. Brown hosiery and knee-high leather boots completed the outfit.
Samas waddled in and dropped his bulk into the chair at the opposite end of the table from Aznar. At a nod from his liege, the chamberlain bowed once more and stepped out of the room, closing the doors behind himself.
“Thank you for coming, Guildmaster Kul.”
“I must admit, I was rather surprised to hear from you.” Kul’s voice was a wet rattle in the back of his throat. “My past requests for your time always seemed to … conflict with other pressing matters of state.”
It was obvious Kul knew Aznar was simply avoiding him.
“I would be remiss in my duties as tharchion if I did not keep abreast of all that happened within my city.” The statement was meant more as a subtle reminder to Kul of Aznar’s position above him. It was infuriating that he even had to provide such a reminder. The man was an accomplished transmuter, but nowhere near a match for the Zulkir of Evocation. It was Kul’s political clout that kept Aznar from crushing him like a fly. Samas Kul controlled the Guild of Foreign Trade, the vast, bureaucratic body that oversaw the running of every Thayan enclave around Faerûn. Aznar had to be careful. If he wanted to keep control of this meeting, he could not tip his hand too soon. “So, tell me how things fare with the guild?”
“Exceedingly well, as I am sure you know.” Kul’s fleshy lips parted in a toothy smile. “The coffers overflow with coin from the enclaves. Their success is more than anyone imagined, I dare say.”
Aznar clenched his jaw to keep from rising to the bait. Kul knew of his stance against the enclaves when the idea was first proposed. He knew what a thorn in Aznar’s side it was to have all that gold sitting in his city, yet be unable to touch but the barest portion of it through tariffs and municipal fees. That was going to change.
“That is good to hear,” Aznar said, leaning forward, “because it is time I started seeing more coin from the guild.”
“And how do you propose to make that happen?” Kul seemed unfazed.
“I was thinking the guild’s increasing usage of the city’s port facilities wasn’t accurately reflected in the leasing fee it pays.”
“I see. That would certainly net you a few more coins, once the fees cleared all those layers of bureaucracy.”
Aznar’s eyes widened, and his nostrils flared. Was that a threat? No, he reasoned, it was the simple truth. Aznar held no illusions about the corruption within his city’s government. After all the bribes and skimming off the top, he really wouldn’t see that much of an increase.
“If I may suggest an alternative that would be mutually beneficial?” Kul was watching him closely. Aznar nodded for him to continue.
“Were you to sponsor a few enclaves of your own, you would receive a direct cut of the profits. No intervening agencies to bother with, just straight to your own purse.”
Aznar sat quietly, letting the silence draw out. So, it came back to this. It was not the first time Kul had approached him about sponsoring an enclave. The idea was a bitter pill to swallow, considering how vocal his criticism had been.
“I assume you’ve cut similar deals with the other zulkirs?” Aznar already knew the answer to that.
“It’s just business, you understand.”
“Of course. I will think more on your … suggestion. Thank you for coming, Master Kul.” Aznar smiled politely while silently signaling for his chamberlain. Kul stood and followed the man out of the chamber.
As soon as the master of the Guild of Foreign Trade left, Aznar Thrul’s smile twisted into a snarl. The obese mound of flesh tested his patience, speaking to Aznar as though he were an equal. Regardless of the wealth the guild generated, Aznar was a zulkir and tharchion, and Bezantur was his city. Perhaps it was time to show Samas Kul exactly where he stood.
Unfortunately, Aznar needed Kul and the guild. The admission made him grimace. He had opposed the enclaves at their inception, ridiculing the notion that Thay could gain power by selling magic rather than taking what it wanted by force. He had been proven wrong, and now had little share of the enormous profits that flowed through the guild’s coffers. Not that Aznar lacked resources, but he would not stand idly by while the purses of the other zulkirs grew at an alarming rate.
However, his demands of a greater portion had been politely refused by Kul time and again. The guild-master’s audacity to repeatedly suggest that Aznar perhaps sponsor the opening of more enclaves, thereby increasing his cut, was maddening.
Aznar slammed his fist on the table and stood up from his chair. As angry as it made him, Kul was right. Aznar was not so inflexible as to ignore the recommendation. The question, then, was where. There were already enclaves in almost ninety percent of Faerûn’s major cities, but sponsoring one in someplace smaller th
That left cities in nations that opposed either the Red Wizards or the arcane in general. Aznar quickly eliminated Aglarond, Rashemen and Mulhorand as possibilities. There was too much bloodshed by Thayan hands in those places, and there was no one of any significance Aznar had a hold over.
Then it came to him.
Aznar strode down the hall toward his study, a predatory grin on his face revealing the triumph he felt as the pieces of his plan began mentally falling into place. The last question to resolve was what catalyst would be used to set things in motion. It could not be himself, or any of his underlings. No, the agent had to have nothing to do with the Art at all if this were to succeed.
When he reached his study, Aznar grabbed several sheets of parchment and sat at his desk. There were many people who owed him favors but only one he could think of with the resources and competence to accomplish this task. They had met more than twenty years ago, before he became zulkir of Evocation. They had been introduced, really, at one of the many socialite parties thrown by some minor noble, where everyone scurried from circle to circle with hopes of elevating their own status. He still remembered it quite clearly.
Mylra, headmistress of Loviatar’s Manor, sidled up to Aznar as he stood in a circle of fellow students from the school of Evocation. She wore a flowing gown with long sleeves and an empire waist. The green silk matched the tattoos that covered her shaved scalp. Thick lines of kohl circled her eyes, rouge powder coated her cheeks, and her lips had been painted a dark red, all in a vain attempt to hide her age. Aznar watched her approach from the corner of his eye. It had been like this all night, people coming to offer their congratulations or praise for his accomplishments in the Art.
This is the price of being a rising star, he sighed to himself. Aznar turned to greet Mylra, and saw she was with another woman, about twenty years old, standing quietly at her side.
“Master Thrul, don’t you look.…” The rest of what Mylra had to say was little more than buzzing in Aznar’s ear. He smiled politely and nodded, but his gaze was fixed on the woman with Mylra. She was nearly as tall as Aznar, her head shaved except for a single stripe of long, braided hair that ran from her forehead back to her shoulders. She wore a simple dress of white, belted at the waist with a gold braid. What intrigued Aznar the most was her unwavering, dark eyes that seemed to drink in his soul.