Maiden of Pain, page 21
So, always trying to stay one step ahead of the madman, Therescales decided to make his exit. Tonight, under the cover of the citywide festival, was the perfect opportunity. There were just a few things to pick up from his home first.
He climbed the steps to the front door of the house once owned by his former mentor. The irony of the choice to live here after Haraxius was executed by the Karanoks had always amused Therescales, though in hindsight, he was surprised it had never aroused suspicion among the society. With a shrug of his shoulders, Therescales unlocked his door and walked inside. It was nothing he had to worry about anymore.
Lighting a candle at the entryway, Therescales headed down the hall to his bedroom. He grabbed a couple of changes of clothing and shoved them in a pack. He went to the kitchen next and stuffed some bread and dried meat into an empty sack. All that was left were a few items to gather from the study. He crossed the living room and spoke the command that opened a secret panel in the wall.
“Hello, Brother Asp.”
Therescales whirled back to the living room, searching for the source of the voice, but no one was there. Then he heard chanting, and a figure appeared before him. He reached for his dagger, but his limbs felt like lead. In seconds, he was unable to move except to breathe, paralyzed by the intruder’s spell. Forced to look straight ahead, he studied the man who now stood before him. The face, with brown hair, a square jaw, and intense, dark eyes, was unfamiliar. He wore a gray, undecorated tabard over a robe of purple. Most striking, however, was the gray tint to the man’s skin. Whoever he was, he had to be a mage. That was the only way he could have known Therescales’ secret identity.
“I doubt you recognize me,” the man said, “but you know what I am, don’t you.” He walked toward Therescales as he spoke. Therescales could see the hatred, the vengeance, burning in his eyes. Realizing this man meant to kill him, Therescales struggled in his mind to overcome the enchantment that held him.
“How could you betray us to the Karanoks?” The man circled Therescales, his arms folded into the sleeves of his robe. “Were the rumors true? Did you turn in Haraxius as well? No, it does not matter. There is still the blood of the society on your hands. I am here to see that the cries of those who died because of you are answered.”
The mage stopped and brought up his hands. He began to weave a pattern in the air with them, his voice intoning Draconic syllables. Therescales recognized the incantation, and his adrenaline surged. By sheer force of will, he broke the spell that held him and in one motion, grabbed his dagger and flung it at the spellcaster. The mage didn’t even flinch as the blade struck him in the chest with the chink of metal against stone and bounced harmlessly away. A ball of fire began to grow in the air between the man’s hands. Therescales crouched, searching for some way to avoid the coming attack. The mage finished his spell and sent the growing fireball hurtling toward Therescales. At the last moment, Therescales leaped backward, and the fireball rushed over his diving form, singeing the front of his clothes as it passed. Seconds later, it impacted on the far wall of the living room, exploding in a shower of flames and creating a hole big enough for a man to walk through to the outside.
Dazed and his ears ringing, Therescales scrambled to his feet, bracing for another arcane blow, but the shockwave of the explosion had knocked the mage prone as well, and the man was just now struggling to get up. Taking his chance, Therescales dashed through the still-burning hole in the wall and out into the street, running for all he was worth and not looking back.
Kestus stood and cursed. The man was as slippery as his Mage Society namesake. Through the flames licking the far wall, he could see Therescales fleeing down the street and knew the man had too great of a head start.
That wasn’t about to stop him.
From a pouch on his belt, Kestus produced a licorice root. He had hoped to save this spell as a means of escape should things have gone bad, but now it was his only hope of catching Therescales. Reciting the incantation, he waved his other hand over the root before tossing it into his mouth. It dissolved on his tongue instantly. Then Kestus took off running.
The feeling was exhilarating. Crisp winter air rushed passed him as he sped after Therescales. Once again, the magic made him feel alive. He laughed with the pure joy of it.
Therescales must have heard him, for the man looked over his shoulder and gave a startled cry when he saw the mage closing the gap between them. He darted down a lane to their left, but Kestus followed right behind. Kestus rounded the corner and found himself at the edge of a sea of revelers. Therescales had already waded in and was about halfway through.
Not about to give up now, Kestus shoved his way through, earning sour looks from those he jostled. He didn’t bother to apologize. By the time he broke through, Therescales had reached the end of the street. Kestus growled in frustration. He could feel the magic that granted him the extra speed starting to dissipate. If he didn’t catch up quickly, he would lose Therescales for good.
That’s when a patrol of city guards appeared from the cross-street Therescales was nearing. Upon spotting them, the rogue shouted at them and began pointing back down the street at Kestus. The guards looked his way and began marching toward him. Therescales once more ran off into the night without looking back.
“Azuth’s beard,” Kestus swore. Several nearby citizens gave him odd looks at the mention of the patron of mages. When they noted his stony skin, they gasped and backed away. “If they think that’s bad,” he muttered, “wait until they see this.” Pulling some dried bat guano and a pinch of sulfur from his pouch, Kestus began casting the same spell he had used in Therescales’ home. The ball of fire formed in the air before him, and he sent it hurtling toward the approaching guards. The crowd behind Kestus gasped when it exploded as it reached the patrol. When the smoke cleared, four charred bodies lay in the middle of the street.
“It’s a wizard,” someone cried, which brought several screams from individuals in the crowd. The reaction was not unexpected, but it still caused Kestus’s heart to ache. Why couldn’t they realize what he already knew? On an impulse, he decided to show them. He turned to the crowd.
“Don’t be afraid,” he called out to them. “Magic is not evil. That is a lie propagated by the Karanoks. It is a tool, like a smith’s hammer or a carpenter’s saw. It can create beautiful things.” Kestus evoked a cantrip he had learned long ago and sent a dazzling flare of light high up into the night sky where it burst like a falling star. Murmurs of appreciation rose from the crowd.
“I was born and raised in this city,” Kestus continued, drawing the crowd’s attention back to him. “I have been persecuted by the Karanoks because of my ability, my craft.” He was working them now. A glance at the buildings around him had reminded Kestus that he was practically in the center of the merchant district of Luthcheq. Sister Rat’s report on the tension between the city’s business class and the Karanoks sprang to mind. Perhaps he could get the anger seething just under the surface to finally erupt.
“I am tired of that persecution, and I’m making a stand. The Karanoks can no longer impose their tyrannical will on me. And you should stand up to them as well.”
“Why?” someone shouted. “We’re not wizards.” That brought a few nervous chuckles from the crowd.
“No, but you are oppressed just the same. The Karanoks have increased the taxes they levy against you in order to fund this crusade of theirs. They fear magic, and they are desperate to be rid of it. If we got rid of them, however, not only would those taxes be lifted, but it would no longer be illegal to use magic or trade with those who do.”
Kestus could hear the gathered citizens start to talk amongst themselves. His heart raced. Had he gotten through to them? Were they going to follow him against the Karanoks? He held his breath.
The tromping of metal-shod feet echoed from down the street. Kestus turned to see a large contingent of city guards appear, bristling with crossbows and spears. Swept up by the idea of leading a re
“Now is our chance to rise up and throw off the chains the Karanoks have wrapped around our necks. Are you with me?”
A couple of errant crossbow bolts whizzed over the heads of the crowd and bounced off nearby buildings. As one, the crowd screamed and ran the other way. Kestus swore. He looked back to the approaching guards. There were too many to take out before they reached him. Kestus sprinted after the crowd, his speed back to normal now that the spell had worn off. He made it back to the street where Therescales’ house was and paused, trying to decide what to do. He wondered how Ythnel was faring. Even though his personal quest for vengeance had failed, perhaps he could find her and help her still.
First he would need to lose the guards. Word of a wizard loose on foot in the city would spread quickly. He needed a better way to get around.
He spotted an unattended carriage parked by the curb another block up.
The sounds of celebration spilled from the building as Kestus approached. No one was standing around outside, so he climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins in hand. As he slapped the horses into motion, a man stepped from the alley next to the building, frantically lacing up the front of his britches.
“Hey, stop! Where are you going with that carriage?”
“Consider it your Midwinter present to me!” Kestus hollered over his shoulder as he sped down the street.
“And these are my chambers.” Naeros swung the ornate, wooden door inward, revealing a large, four-poster bed draped in silk sheets of dark red. He let Reary enter in front of him, pausing in the doorway to watch her as her eyes swept across the room. He smiled at the thought of how undoubtedly impressed she had to be with his collection of handcrafted furniture; a matching armoire and desk completed the set he had had imported from the forests of the Great Dale. He closed the door behind himself with a soft click and came up behind Reary, putting his hands on her now-bare shoulders. Her creamy white skin was smooth and warm to his touch. He leaned in to inhale the fragrance of her hair, but she pulled away, striding over to one of the stone walls.
“What’s this?” She asked, examining a loop of braided leather attached to a six-inch handle hanging on the wall. Every few inches along the braid, a metal bead was embedded.
“That is whip. I collect them,” he said proudly, sweeping his arm out to encompass the room. He studied Reary for a reaction as she noticed for the first time the various whips hanging at intervals on the walls of the chamber. “It’s a hobby of mine.”
“I never realized there were so many different kinds.” There was genuine surprise in her voice. And something else was there as well—interest. Her face registered no shock, however.
“Well, that concludes the tour.” Naeros put on a sly smile and once more approached Reary. “What do you think?”
“You are a very interesting man, Lord Naeros,” Reary breathed. She turned to face him, draping her arms around his neck. The puffy, diaphanous material of her sleeves tickled his neck when her hands slid up to lock behind his head. Naeros ran his fingers along the tops of her arms, following the sleeves to where they ended at a pair of straps connecting them to the bodice of her blouse. Then he stroked her hair with his right hand while his left moved down to her waist. “Do you bring all the girls up here?”
“Yes.” Naeros grinned and pulled her to him, kissing her savagely. She returned the embrace with equal force. He swept her up and carried her to the bed, falling on top of her. She ripped off his shirt, laughing, and he could feel desire burst into flame within him. They rolled on top of the sheets, kissing and grappling with abandon. Reary maneuvered herself to a straddling position atop Naeros then pulled away, breathing heavily.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired already,” Naeros chided.
“Hardly.” Reary smiled wickedly and lunged for him. As they kissed, she grabbed his lip between her teeth and bit hard. Naeros tasted something coppery in his mouth and shoved her back. He touched his finger to his mouth and came away with blood.
“What the …” he snarled, sitting up. Reary laughed, and Naeros felt his face flush. He backhanded her across the cheek, and her head snapped to the side with the impact, the long tresses of her blonde hair whipping around to cover her face. She sat there silently for a moment, her head hanging within the shrouds of her hair.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Naeros’s brow furrowed, frustrated by this strange woman.
“So you’re the only one who gets to play rough, then?” Reary still hadn’t moved, and there was something different about her voice. “That’s rather selfish, don’t you think.” Naeros’s eyes widened as Reary’s blonde hair shimmered and darkened, the locks on the left side of her head disappearing to reveal a serpent tattoo stretched across her bare scalp.
“In fact, I’m willing to bet you’re as much a child in bed as you are in your little torture chamber.” Reary’s head swung around, and Naeros’s jaw dropped when he saw two familiar scars running down the right side of her face.
The Loviatan he had once held prisoner in his dungeon laughed again and raised her right hand. Naeros glanced at it and saw it was surrounded by a dark halo of energy. He cried out as she slammed it into his chest. He could feel the energy disperse throughout his body, causing his muscles to convulse. With his last ounce of control, he shoved the cleric off of him, sending her to the floor at the foot of the bed. Then he collapsed back onto the bed, his muscles quivering like jelly.
The Loviatan rose like a specter from the floor to gaze down on him with eyes that promised retribution. She turned and moved quickly to stand before a wooden-handled instrument with a single, thick braid of rope almost two feet long that tapered before flaring out in an oval knot at the tip. She removed it from its hook and held it in her right hand, letting the leather fringe where the rope fastened to the handle play across her fingers as she rolled her wrist back and forth, testing the weapon’s balance.
“You don’t see nagaikas much anymore,” the cleric said, walking casually back to the bed. “Some genius thought they might make a good riding whip, but they’re a little heavy. You could really hurt an animal if you didn’t know how to use it just right.” Her smile was cruel and mocking. “No, they’re much better suited for doling out punishment.”
Naeros pushed himself up. He felt exhausted, as if every muscle had been taxed to its limit and there was nothing left. The Loviatan lashed out with the nagaika, striking him solidly in the cheek. He reeled with the blow but was unable to catch himself and rolled off the far side of the bed. His face throbbed where the knot struck; any harder and his jaw might have broken.
“Where are you going, Lord Naeros? Surely you’re not tired already.”
“I’m going to kill you, whore.” Naeros struggled to raise himself up on all fours, his limbs trembling.
“Oh, I doubt that.” The cleric rounded the corner of the bed, her slippered feet coming into Naeros’s view. “It looks like you can barely hold yourself up.” He raised his head in time to see the nagaika descend, and he flinched defensively, but instead of the knot slamming into him, he felt a sudden sting on his shoulder. It came again and again across his exposed back, until his flesh burned and Naeros could feel trickles of warm wetness running down his sides. He moaned and collapsed to the cool stone of the floor.
“I should have known you could dish it out but not take it,” the Loviatan sneered. “If I had the time, I’d see just how far I could take you. There are other things I have to attend to, however. Fortunately, they’ll likely bring you as much suffering as any beating I could administer.” She bent down, raised his chin with her fingers, and kissed him hard, breaking his lip once more between her teeth as she pulled away. Then she stood, walked to the wall, exchanged the nagaika for a bullwhip, and left the room without looking back.
Naeros lay there panting until the sound of the cleric’s footfalls had long faded. When strength began to flow back int
“My, my, what have we here?”
Naeros’s eyes sprang open at the sultry voice, his heart beating wildly with fear that the Loviatan had returned. When he turned to look, he let his breath out and sagged back against the bed. It was only his sister, Saestra, dressed in a black, lacy gown that flared at the wrists and ankles.
“Go away, Saestra. I’m not in the mood for your games right now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did your conquest not go well tonight?”
“That’s none of your damn business. Besides, what are you doing here anyway?” Naeros let his frustration edge his voice. His sister leaned against the door frame, staring at him with a wild look in her eyes. “Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to help me?” He frowned and shifted, uncomfortable under Saestra’s gaze.
“Help you?” She laughed. “How delightful. Dear brother, where were you when I needed help?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Have you forgotten so quickly? It wasn’t that long ago. A sister follows the advice of her older brother and meets her young lover in The Crypts for a late-night tryst. The pair investigates an open mausoleum, only to be locked inside by the older brother. When they cry for help, they are answered with cruel laughter. Surely you remember all that?
“What you don’t know is that while seeking a way out, the two lovers found a secret passage that led to a hidden chamber below the tomb. Within that chamber, they came face-to-face with its undead resident. The creature savagely killed the sister’s lover and made her its servant.” Saestra shivered, and her eyes, which had been looking somewhere far off, came riveting back to lock on Naeros. He shrank back at the feral death he saw within them.