Maiden of pain, p.7

Maiden of Pain, page 7

 

Maiden of Pain
 



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  At the edge of the roof, he paused. It was a long drop down. Fortunately, Therescales had memorized one of his most powerful spells before coming to the meeting tonight. He pulled a small loop of leather from a pocket on the inside of his cloak and waved his hand over it while uttering a few Draconic words. Then he stepped off the roof …

  … and hovered in the air.

  With a thought, he lowered himself to the ground. He returned the loop to his pocket and quickly moved south down the street toward the palace of the Karanoks. He stuck to the shadows, darting into doorways and alleys whenever a guard patrol walked by. It was not that he had anything to fear; it was just that old habits died hard. As an apprentice to Master Haraxius, he had spent the past ten years avoiding the guards when he ran errands smuggling various components or items in and out of the city for the old mage. Unbidden, the memory of the last errand he had ever run for Haraxius pushed forward in his mind.

  A gull screamed, and Therescales flinched, nearly dropping the purse full of coin. He smiled sheepishly at the dockhand who snatched the purse from him and shoved the package into Therescales’ chest with a sneer then walked away. Therescales stood in the middle of the pier for a moment, clutching the soft bundle.

  “Is everything all right?”

  Therescales started at the voice. He turned toward the tap on his shoulder and came face to face with a pair of the harbormaster’s guards. Remembering the package clasped to his chest, he slipped it behind his back.

  “Oh, yes, officers. I was just on my way. Have a good evening.” He bobbed then strode off.

  The crowds on the wharf were starting to thin with the setting sun. Therescales hurried through the streets, anxiously looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. If he were caught with what was wrapped in the burlap he carried, it would mean his death. He was proud that Master Haraxius trusted him with these supply runs, but Therescales wondered if the risks were worth it. Why didn’t they just leave Luthcheq and go somewhere wizards were tolerated or even worshiped?

  Therescales tucked the package under his arm and picked up the pace. He was supposed to be back before dark. There was another meeting of the Mage Society tonight. This would be the second time Master Haraxius brought him along to the clandestine gatherings. Therescales had no idea there were so many practitioners of the Art in the city. He didn’t know who any of them were—they all went by animal names, and Master Haraxius said most of them used magic to disguise themselves. Therescales wondered what his name would be once he was fully initiated.

  A crowd was forming as Therescales approached the street Master Haraxius’s house was on. He shouldered his way through, intent on reaching the safety of home. However, when he was almost clear, he froze.

  A large group of men were leaving the building. The white K of House Karanok with a burning branch above it was emblazoned on their uniforms. They were led by a middle-aged man with black, curly hair that contrasted sharply with the pale skin of his square face. In their midst, bound and gagged, was Haraxius, barely able to keep his feet. One eye was swollen shut, and the side of his face was bloodied.

  Therescales backed into the crowd, a surge of panic-driven bile climbing up his throat. He barely made it to a side street before he pitched the contents of his stomach. He sat on the curb until the wave of nausea and dizziness passed, only to be replaced by despair. It was difficult to hold back sobs as he rested his head in his hands.

  How had this happened? Everyone knew that the Karanoks had started raiding the homes of suspected wizards, and Master Haraxius had always stressed the need for caution and secrecy. Yet it seemed the Karanoks had discovered Master Haraxius’s secret regardless of the precautions he had taken. Now they were dragging him off to be tried and executed.

  Therescales’ head was starting to clear, and the crowd was dispersing. He knew if he tried to enter the house now, someone would spot him and turn him in to the Karanoks. With nowhere to go and no idea what to do, Therescales started walking.

  Twilight fell while Therescales still wandered the streets aimlessly. He considered going to the Mage Society meeting by himself. Surely they had already heard of Master Haraxius’s capture and would help. He remembered the location of the warehouse where they met, but what would he do once there? He didn’t know any of the passwords. Master Haraxius had not yet shared those secrets with him. If only there were some way he could prove to them who he was, they would let him in.

  Perhaps he could show them something that only Master Haraxius would have. Yes, that was it. They would have to grant him entry then.

  With a plan firmly in mind, Therescales made his way back to Master Haraxius’s house. He clung to the shadows, dashing from doorway to alley while keeping an eye peeled for passing patrols. It was just after midnight when he finally reached the house. He stood across the street, watching for several minutes. There were no guards standing outside or movement inside. In the silence, his heart pounded like the hooves of horses at a chariot race. Knots began to form in Therescales’ stomach as fear and doubt ate away at his resolve.

  Finally, when waiting any longer meant never going, he darted across the street. He fumbled through his pockets for the key, but as his hand pressed against the knob, the door creaked open. At that moment, Therescales almost fled. Yet, with eyes wide and mouth dry, he stepped inside.

  Light from the waxing moon shone only a few feet past the entry, forcing Therescales to feel his way through the dark. He had lived in this house for the past two years, though, and Master Haraxius had kept everything in the same place since Therescales had first arrived. It would be a simple matter to navigate around any obstacles as he moved toward his mentor’s private study.

  Therescales turned to his left and entered the living room. It was sparsely furnished—Master Haraxius did not do a lot of entertaining—and Therescales took long, swift strides with confidence.

  Halfway through the room, something smacked Therescales in the shin and he grunted in pain.

  “Well, what do we have here?”

  A light flared in front of Therescales. He closed his eyes and brought up a hand to further protect them from the sudden brilliance.

  “Looks like Lord Jaerios was right.” A new voice answered the first from behind Therescales. “The ’prentice ’as returned to ’is master’s ’ouse.”

  Squinting in the light, Therescales could make out a figure sitting in a chair to his right. He held a lantern in one hand, and his legs were propped up on an ottoman. A spear lay across his lap. Therescales had run into the outstretched shaft of the weapon.

  Panicking, Therescales dashed for the front door but was grabbed from behind. He struggled but could not break the grip of the arms encircling him. The man in the chair got up and stood in front of him, leering. Something struck Therescales in the stomach, and all the air whooshed out of his lungs. He looked up in time to see the shaft of the spear streaking toward the side of his face.

  Therescales awoke stiff and sore. The side of his face throbbed where he had been struck by the spear shaft. His shoulders ached, and he could feel something biting into his wrists. He tried to move his hands, hoping to lessen the pain, only to discover they were bound. Awareness began to creep back through the fog of his mind. He realized he was on his knees, leaning forward with his arms pulled behind him and wrapped around a wooden pole. With effort, he rocked back onto the balls of his feet and tried to rise. His footing was unstable—he was standing on a pile of chopped logs—and it took a few attempts before he was standing. He leaned back against the pole, drawing ragged breaths as a result of the exertion.

  “Ah, our other guest has finally joined us.”

  The resonant voice drew Therescales’ eyes up and across the room to a balcony where five figures stood, three men and two women. They all wore sleeveless robes of white and gold circlets in their hair.

  “Where am I?” Therescales, still a little groggy, asked no one in particular.

  “You stand in
the Burning Room.” The same voice that had first spoken answered. Therescales could see that it belonged to a middle-aged man on the right, the same man he had seen escorting Master Haraxius. It had to be Lord Jaerios Karanok. “You have been found guilty of vile acts of wizardry.”

  “Bah,” spat someone to Therescales’ right. He turned to see his master, Haraxius, standing next to him, bound to another pole. “There is nothing vile about the Art. Rather, it is you and this—” A guard strode up onto the small stone platform on which Therescales and Haraxius were held and punched the old man in the mouth with a mailed fist, silencing the outburst.

  “The sentence for this crime,” Lord Jaerios continued, “is death by burning. Guards, bring in the witchweed.” Two pairs of guards each carried in a basket of dried leaves between them and began dumping the contents on top of the wood piles then spreading them around the feet of the prisoners.

  Therescales struggled against his bonds, desperate to be free, but it was no use. This couldn’t be happening to him! His mind raced wildly to find some way of escape, some solution that would save him.

  “Wait!” He screamed. “Don’t do this. I don’t want to die!”

  All five faces were as compassionate as stone. “You should have thought of that before you became involved with the arcane, young man.”

  “If you let me live, I will tell you everything I know!”

  “We want nothing to do with your filthy knowledge.”

  “But I know of a secret group of wizards that meets here in the city!” Therescales blurted out.

  “No!” Haraxius gasped, horror on his face. “Don’t do it, boy.” Therescales ignored him.

  The elderly man in the center of the group whispered something to Jaerios. He seemed resistant to the old one’s counsel but finally relented with a nod.

  “Do you swear to renounce all that is arcane?”

  Therescales nodded vigorously, but Jaerios did not appear to notice or care what the answer was. Two guards moved forward and released Therescales then led him away.

  “You treacherous snake!” Haraxius screamed as Therescales exited. The crackling of flames joined his old master’s shrieks and coughs; then all was consumed in a roaring bonfire.

  Jaerios Karanok sat in the plush, high-backed chair behind his desk, his fingers drumming on the polished wood of the chair’s arm and a scowl darkening his face. Therescales was late. It was bad enough Jaerios had to associate himself with a wizard, but to be kept waiting by one was unacceptable. He shifted in his velvet night robe and let his eyes wander around the study once more: the dark wood-paneled walls, the shelves lined with books containing treatises on various subjects, the lit candelabra that cast a soft yellow glow onto the marble bust sculpted in his likeness. Perhaps the worm needed a reminder of his fate should he fail.

  A knock at the door announced the arrival of the spy.

  “Come in.”

  The door swung in, and Therescales entered the study. Jaerios remained silent, sternly staring at Therescales. The man didn’t even flinch but moved casually over to the bust, ran his finger along the nose, and pretended to find dust on it.

  “Have a seat,” Jaerios offered, his voice full of impatience. Normally, he enjoyed these little sparring matches, but today had been a long day, and Jaerios wanted nothing more than to retire to his bedchamber. Perhaps Therescales detected the difference; he quickly accepted one of the two chairs in front of the desk. “You have news? Something good, I hope. Perhaps the identities of the other members of your little society?”

  “Now, now, let’s not let our greed rush things,” Therescales smiled roguishly and waggled his finger. Jaerios snarled. He was in no mood to play. “I thought we agreed that taking them all in one fell swoop would expend fewer resources. Remember the plan?”

  “Yes, your plan.” Jaerios edged his voice with a hint of warning. He didn’t like being reminded that he had agreed to a plan Therescales had come up with. “Have you convinced your friends that they should seek help? Or are they still arguing over the risk of exposing themselves? Such a timid bunch.”

  “Actually.…” Therescales paused, and Jaerios narrowed his eyes at the hesitation. The man was trying to figure out what to say next. Was he hiding something or simply afraid? “It seems they have taken it upon themselves to seek aid. One of the Three has already made contact with a wizard who is willing to help.”

  “How is this good news?” Jaerios roared. Anger flared red-hot inside of him. Jaerios wanted to reach across the table and throttle the incompetent fool, but the thought of touching something defiled by contact with the arcane was too revolting. “I don’t know why I’ve kept you around. Perhaps I should have the guards prepare the Burning Room.” Jaerios fixed Therescales with a look that promised death.

  “I thought you might feel that way.” Therescales sat there, unmoved by the threat. Was that a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth? “You’re overreacting. We can still salvage the situation.”

  “You presume too much!” Jaerios exploded. He would not be talked to in this way by a wizard! “I have not waited this long, endured this abomination, only to throw it all away because of your ineptitude.” Jaerios made his way around the desk to stand over Therescales. “Now I will be forced to raid your society’s little hideout, profaning the city with the magic that they will inevitably use in defense.”

  “I assure you, Lord Jaerios, that will not be necessary.” Therescales no longer slouched in the chair but sat upright against the back, the smug smile gone from his face. Jaerios smirked and leaned back on the edge of his desk. This was how these meetings should go.

  “We can still proceed with the trap, my lord,” Therescales continued. “It seems that this ally wishes to remain anonymous. Contact was made through a third party. As you mentioned, many of the members are leery of someone they do not know. I can still come forward with my—our fake meeting.” Therescales visibly relaxed as he finished. Jaerios had to admit the plan still appeared feasible. Damn! He wasn’t sure it wouldn’t have been more satisfying to finally just burn the treacherous wizard at the stake.

  “Very well. I can’t say as I’m pleased with your handling of this, though.” Jaerios watched Therescales for some sign of doubt or fear. The man was becoming too sure of himself. “Should you fail me again, I will see you burn.” Therescales winced and tried to cover it with a small bow. He stood and moved to the study’s door but paused before opening it.

  “Oh, by the way, there is an informant in the palace. You might want to keep your eye on anyone who’s been asking questions about Saestra’s nocturnal activities.” Flashing a roguish grin, Therescales slipped out of the room.

  Jaerios ground his teeth. The man had the nerve to toss that information out as though it were a trifle that had just occurred to him. Jaerios knocked the chair Therescales had been sitting in onto its back.

  “By Entropy, how long must I suffer the taint of these mages!” A wave of rage crashed over Jaerios, and he allowed himself to be swept up in it. There was power in such anger, such righteous anger. It was a gift from Entropy for faithful service. That was what his daughter had said when the priests first began to perform wonders and signs during their worship services. He remained skeptical, even after his own ability appeared.

  The power continued to build within him. The sensation was still so new. He exalted in it but was frightened as well. It was too much like magic, and he had sworn long ago that he would not replace one form of corruption with another. The ends did not justify the means.

  Jaerios’s blood boiled in his veins. Pain threatened to eclipse anger. He focused on the tipped chair, envisioning Therescales still sitting in it. A loud, ringing noise filled the room, and the chair shattered into tiny splinters. Jaerios sagged against the desk. His bodyguard peeked his head in but, seeing his master unhurt, quickly ducked back out.

  Sighing, Jaerios stood up and brushed the wood flakes from his robe. Feeling somewhat satisfied, he hoped he could
now get a good night’s sleep. As he left the study, he instructed his bodyguard to fetch a servant to clean up the mess then headed down the hall toward his bedchamber. The rest of it would wait until tomorrow.

  CHAPTER 4

  The knock on the door startled Ythnel. It was late. Her birthday party had lasted longer than expected, but some of the older sisters finally paired off with their male counterparts after most of the wine had been consumed, signaling the end of the public festivities. Ythnel had retreated to her room and prepared for bed. She wasn’t expecting any visitors.

  Pushing herself up from the kneeling position she had assumed, Ythnel walked the three steps from her bed to the door and opened it up just enough to peek outside. When she saw who it was, she quickly swung it open the rest of the way.

  “Headmistress, I thought you were with … I’m sorry, I was just beginning my evening prayers,” Ythnel stammered, her face flushing.

  “Follow me,” Headmistress Yenael simply said then turned and walked back down the hall. Ythnel wavered for a moment but realized there was no time to put on something over her linen shift and hurried after.

  As they passed the closed doors of the other initiates’ quarters, Ythnel’s mind wandered with the possibilities of where they were going and what would happen once they got there. She was pretty sure she hadn’t done anything wrong or at least nothing serious enough to warrant a late-night visit from the headmistress herself.

  Maybe this is a surprise birthday present, she thought. Or maybe she was being taken to the ceremony that would ordain her as a handmaiden. It would make her the youngest initiate the manor had ever raised to the position. It was not a likely possibility, given how much Headmistress Yenael was always hounding her, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. In fact, now that she thought about it, perhaps the headmistress merely saw her potential and was trying to push her toward it as quickly as possible.

 

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