Maiden of pain, p.25

Maiden of Pain, page 25

 

Maiden of Pain
 


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  “Consider yourself denied,” Ythnel panted.

  Kaestra’s lip curled in a snarl. “I am not through yet.”

  “No, I think you’re quite finished.”

  “Think again.” Kaestra raised her good arm. Ythnel leaped back, mistaking the gesture as some sort of attack. Then she heard a rumbling behind her and turned to see the dark sphere of Entropy moving through the air toward her.

  “Let’s see how you fare against a god,” Kaestra cackled. The sphere advanced inexorably through the nave. It came into contact with the front row of pews, and the wooden benches disappeared, their forms twisting and distorting as they were sucked into the sphere.

  Ythnel gasped, eliciting another laugh from Kaestra. The high priestess sat up and motioned again. Entropy picked up speed, coming straight for Ythnel. She dived to the floor, and the sphere passed over her by inches, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Ythnel tried to crawl away, but Kaestra sent the sphere after her. She rolled to the side, and Entropy flew past her into the near wall, leaving a gaping hole. The wall trembled then collapsed in a shower of stone and mortar. Ythnel managed to hide among the ruins of the wall before the dust cleared enough for the high priestess to see her.

  There was no way she could defeat Entropy, Ythnel knew. Neither could she keep dodging its charges. She was tiring and would eventually make a mistake or react too slowly. If she couldn’t beat the sphere, though, she could finish off Kaestra. It appeared that Entropy was responding to the high priestess’s directions. Without her guidance, perhaps it would return to its former stasis.

  “You cannot hide, Loviatan!” Kaestra called out. “I will destroy this whole temple if I have to.”

  Ythnel believed her. She cast about for something to use as a weapon. A glint caught her eye, and she saw the steel tip of her spear resting not far from her on the floor. However, reaching it meant moving from the small cover she was hiding behind. Deciding to risk it, she darted for the spearhead.

  Kaestra spotted Ythnel and immediately sent Entropy after her. Ythnel grabbed the short length of shaft still attached to the spearhead and stood, swiveling to face Kaestra.

  “I’ve had just about enough of you and your god,” Ythnel said and hurled the spearhead at Kaestra. The high priestess opened her mouth in surprise, and her eyes widened as the makeshift weapon flew true, burying itself in her breast. Blood blossomed across Kaestra’s white tabard, and her eyes fluttered. Her mouth worked in an effort to say something, but all that came out was a trickle of blood. She sagged back against the end of a pew and died.

  Ythnel let out a sigh of relief then remembered Entropy. She looked to her left and saw the sphere hovering motionless less than a foot beside her. “That was closer than I would have liked.”

  With one last look around the nave, Ythnel staggered out of the temple and into the night. She leaned heavily against one of the columns outside to catch her breath and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. The air was chill, and she felt gooseflesh rise along her arms and legs.

  “Ythnel!”

  The shout brought Ythnel’s head up, and she saw Iuna coming toward her from the shadows of the portico. Ythnel pushed herself up off the column and embraced the girl with her good arm.

  “It’s snowing, Ythnel. I’ve never seen snow before.”

  Ythnel looked out into the night to see flakes of white coming down in a steady flurry. The ground was already covered in a light dusting.

  “I’ve never seen snow before, either.” She smiled down at Iuna. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” They walked out under the snow toward the waiting street. Ythnel wasn’t sure how they would get out of the city, but she was too tired and sore to think about that now.

  A black carriage pulled up to the gap between the walls surrounding the temple, blocking access to the street. Ythnel halted as soon as she saw it, shoving Iuna protectively behind her. Between the snow and the shadows, she couldn’t identify who was driving.

  “Get inside. We don’t have all night. Or would you rather walk?” Kestus hopped down from the driver’s seat of the carriage, a welcoming grin splitting his face. Ythnel breathed a sigh of relief and jogged to the carriage, pulling Iuna along behind her. Kestus helped them both inside, closed the door behind them, and climbed back up to take the reins. Then the carriage took off once more into the night, heading toward the South Gate and out of Luthcheq.

  EPILOGUE

  Aznar Thrul sat at his dining table, sipping the bowl of soup before him with disinterest. He really wasn’t hungry. Well, at least he was not hungry for food. There was time to kill, however, so he went through the motions of taking his evening meal. When Aznar had nearly finished half the bowl, his chamberlain appeared to announce that his guest had arrived and was waiting in the bedchamber. Aznar nodded his acknowledgment and continued with the meal. When the last of the soup had been drained, he dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clink, pushed back from the table, and rose.

  He forced himself to maintain a leisurely pace as he strode down the hall to his chambers. Tonight’s meeting had occupied his thoughts all day. It was a long time coming, and the possibilities excited him. This would not be just another conquest. It would be the start of something bigger.

  At the door to his room, Aznar paused to compose himself. It was important that he remained in control, and letting too much emotion show could jeopardize that. Satisfied that his face revealed nothing more than he wanted it to, he opened the door and step inside.

  Headmistress Yenael sat on the bed, her body half-turned toward the door. As was customary for all visitors to the zulkir’s chambers, whatever clothes she had worn to the Citadel had been left in the care of his chamberlain. In their place, Yenael was given a sheer white gown. The practice was for security reasons, of course, but Aznar certainly didn’t mind the additional benefits it occasionally presented him. Even after twenty years, Yenael’s body was still firm and quite attractive. He didn’t bother to hide a smile of pleasure as he walked to the center of the room.

  “So, do you have something to report, or was this visit simply a social call.” He watched her from the corner of his eye. She had made no pretenses at modesty when he entered, and he had expected none. That was the other purpose of the gown. Being naked in the presence of others who were dressed was often unsettling enough for people that they let their guard down and gave away things they hadn’t intended to. Yenael’s face was placid, and her body language said she was perfectly comfortable. Aznar wondered why that didn’t anger him.

  “My agent was successful, O Mighty Tharchion, Mightier Zulkir.” She used the proper address, but her tone of voice did not hold any acknowledgment of the weight behind those titles. “I’m sure your own intelligence sources have already informed you that Mordulkin’s forces are on the move.”

  Aznar nodded and moved over to an end table that held a tray with a decanter of Thayan brandy and two glasses. He offered one to Yenael, but she shook her head, so he poured for himself and set the decanter down. Picking up the glass, he turned to Yenael and took a sip.

  “So, the question now is whether Mordulkin will remember its promise once Luthcheq falls.”

  “I would not worry about it, O Mighty Tharchion, Mightier Zulkir. Hercubes is a man of his word. He will honor the agreement. The city will stand, as much as it chafes him. And you will be allowed to establish an enclave by whomever is installed as governor.”

  “A governor I will have chosen,” Aznar laughed, “though Hercubes will think it was his own decision.”

  “Of course,” Yenael agreed.

  Aznar downed the remainder of his brandy and returned the glass to its place on the end table. He was almost giddy over the success of his plan. The enclave would be the first of many he’d sponsor. No longer would he have to worry about his rival zulkirs gaining some advantage over him through this enterprise. As a bonus, he would be ridding Faerûn of the fanatical Karanok family and their insane dream of purging the world of wizard
s. It was certainly a cause for celebration if ever there was one, and he said as much out loud.

  “Did you have something particular in mind, O Mighty Tharchion, Mightier Zulkir?” Yenael asked, her eyebrow arched.

  “It has been a while since I was last subject to your ministrations,” Aznar mused. “I’d be interested in seeing how much your skills have progressed.”

  Yenael smiled and patted the top of the bed next to her.

  Saestra Karanok leaned against the back of the chaise lounge with her right arm folded under her breasts while she played absently with the dagger in her left hand. She wore a backless lace blouse with frilly sleeves that matched her violet eyes, tucked into a black, mid-thigh-length leather skirt. The skirt was practically indecent, but she enjoyed it. A pair of French doors leading to a balcony in the wall behind her had been swung open, allowing the light of the full moon and the occasional wintry gust of wind to enter the room. She watched as a wisp of cloud crossed the face of Selûne and sighed.

  Things were starting to unravel in Luthcheq. Kaestra, her twin sister, had been found dead in the Temple of Entropy, the black sphere itself hovering just a few feet from her. There were rumors and whispers that the god had killed its high priestess in displeasure for the church’s crusade against the Art. These were reinforced by the alleged “wizard attacks” this past Midwinter and the reports that the forces of Mordulkin were now on the move against the city.

  To make things worse, with the removal of the Mage Society, Saestra’s father, Jaerios, no longer ordered witch hunts within the walls of Luthcheq, effectively eliminating the story she used to cover up her nightly forages. She desperately needed to find a new means of discarding the bodies and misdirecting any inquiries made about their disappearances.

  The creaking of old wood brought Saestra’s attention back to her room. Against the left wall stood two matching sarcophagi of darkly stained wood. Stylized images of a Mulhorandi pharaoh and queen were carved into the covers of each. Saestra had imported them a while ago to decorate her apartments, though the pharaoh’s sarcophagus had been in storage until recently.

  Its cover now swung open, revealing the body of Naeros Karanok in a stately repose. Saestra smiled, her tongue playing over her fangs.

  “I wondered when you were going to wake up.”

  Naeros’s eyes fluttered open, and he glided forward, the cover of the sarcophagus closing behind him. Slowly his feet settled to the stone floor, and his arms unfolded. “Good evening, Mistress,” he said, turning to look at Saestra. “What is your will?”

  “Yes, yes.” She stood up and wandered over to the balcony. The nights were still quite chilly, but Saestra was unaffected by such things. She glanced wistfully out across the stair-step skyline of the city.

  “Do you think we should leave, dear brother?”

  “Why would we have to leave?”

  “Because things are becoming too risky to remain here for much longer. With each feeding, we move closer to discovery.”

  “Who cares?” Naeros snarled. “They cannot hurt us. We should just kill them all.”

  Saestra frowned. She thought turning Naeros into a spawn would be a wickedly cruel revenge at first, but he was just as much a bore undead as he had been while alive. Violence was always his answer, without any consideration of the consequences. She wished now that she had just killed him along with his thugs.

  “And what about Father? Should we welcome him into our new family, or just kill him with the rest.” Saestra didn’t bother to keep the irritation and sarcasm from her voice, though it was wasted on Naeros anyway. She did not wait for his answer. “Never mind. I’ll think of something.” She walked back into the room and came over to Naeros.

  “I bet you’re hungry after sleeping for so long.” She petted his head as she would a lost puppy. He nodded eagerly, a wide grin revealing his own set of fangs.

  “Why don’t we go find something to eat then, hmm?”

  Iuna, Kestus, Kohtakah, Muctos, and Ythnel all sat around the table in the dining room of the Flaming Griffon. War was the topic of most hushed conversations amongst the inn’s patrons; the city buzzed with preparations. Even without an official declaration, the signs were impossible to miss. Mordulkin was moving against Luthcheq.

  The companions were making an effort not to talk about it. Everyone buried themselves in their meals, avoiding eye contact as they ate, struggling for something to say that had no connection to war during the awkward moments when everyone looked up at once.

  “The leg looks nice,” Ythnel said to Kohtakah after finishing her bowl of five-bean soup.

  Kohtakah looked up, realizing she was speaking to him. “Yes. Thank you. Lord Jedea put up the coin for one of the local temples to regenerate it. In return, I agreed to join … the army.…” His voice faded as he realized he had spoken about the taboo subject. They all sat in relative silence for a while, their attention back on what was left of their meals.

  “How are things over at the academy?” Kestus asked Muctos a few minutes later. Muctos had been appointed as an adjunct to the Jedea Academy while Kestus and Ythnel had been away.

  “Oh, I’m really enjoying the work. I find teaching to be very fulfilling. My only complaint is the increase in class sizes due to how many professors … have enlisted.…” Muctos smiled apologetically.

  “Why are you all so afraid to talk about the war?” Iuna blurted out. The four companions looked at each other and at Iuna, shocked by the question. Then they burst out laughing.

  “Because some people think that if they don’t talk about something, it’s not really happening,” Ythnel said, smiling fondly at the girl.

  “That’s stupid,” Iuna replied.

  “Yes, it is.” Ythnel drew in a deep breath and met Kestus’s gaze. “So when are you leaving?”

  “Not for a few more days. The vanguard is already on the move, but there is still some planning to do before the main force marches. In fact, I have another intelligence meeting to attend in a couple of hours.” Kestus had been asked by King Hercubes to help lead part of the assault against Luthcheq because of his intimate knowledge of the city. “What about you?”

  Ythnel drained her ale tankard and sat back in her seat, a warm feeling of satisfaction washing over her. It was good to be among people who accepted her again, people who she could call friends. That she would be leaving them behind was painful, but Loviatar taught that life was full of pain and only the weak tried to avoid it.

  “There is a ship leaving for Bezantur on the morrow. I’ve purchased passage for Iuna and myself aboard it. This will be our last night in Mordulkin.” The others nodded, and a comfortable silence settled over the group. A serving girl came by, and they ordered another round of drinks.

  They spent the rest of their time together reminiscing over their tankards. Finally Kestus stood up from the table and shook hands with Kohtakah and Muctos, saying he would see them in a day or so. When he turned to Ythnel, he paused. She could see the question in his eyes. It was the same question that had been growing in her heart since their return from Luthcheq, but she had no answer. Their paths were diverging, and the charge Ythnel had been given over Iuna was not something she would lay down for anyone.

  “May Loviatar bless your endeavors,” she whispered in Kestus’s ear as they embraced warmly. Muctos cleared his throat and the two pulled apart.

  “Good night, everyone.” Kestus nodded and smiled then left.

  “We should be going, too,” Muctos said, standing. “Take care of this one,” he said to Iuna while motioning to Ythnel. “She needs a lot of looking after.”

  He winked at her, and she smiled back. Kohtakah said his good-byes, and the two men left. Ythnel stared at the entrance of the Flaming Griffon for a few moments after they disappeared. She sat back down in her chair and gazed at the empty seats around the table. It was hard to believe this was it. Tomorrow they would be leaving. Tomorrow they would be returning home. Ythnel couldn’t wait to see the face
s of her sisters, to be back in the halls of the manor once more. She hoped Iuna felt as excited as she did.

  “Well, I guess that leaves just us,” Ythnel said, looking over at her young ward. “Why don’t we head upstairs and get ready for bed. We have an early rise in the morning.”

  “Yes, Mistress Ythnel.”

  An excerpt

  The Fighters

  MASTER OF CHAINS

  JESS LEBOW

  Ryder ran his hand over Samira’s soft black hair. He felt her arms tighten around his middle.

  “Don’t go,” she said.

  He returned her squeeze. “I must.”

  Samira looked up at him, her beautiful brown eyes filling with tears. “Then promise me you’ll return. Promise me that you’re not going to get yourself killed doing something foolish.”

  Ryder smiled. She loved him. She loved him dearly, but knowing that only strengthened his resolve.

  “I promise you, Samira, I will return to you.” Though it pained him to do so, he pushed her gently away. “I will be back before nightfall.” Then, grabbing his belt and sheath from the table, Ryder kissed his wife good-bye and stepped out the door into the afternoon sunshine.

  “Close the bar behind me, and don’t let anyone in until I get back,” he said over his shoulder.

  He could hear the extra-heavy crossbeam slide into place behind him as he crossed the dirt road. On the other side, Liam was leaning against a heavy tree, his arms across his chest.

  Ryder slapped him on the arm as he approached. “You ready, little brother?”

  Liam tapped the hilt of the sword dangling from his belt. “Ready.”

 
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