Sarlene's Touch Ch. 12byFuinimel©
Author's Note: This particular episode includes (virtually) no sex. Instead, it serves only to move the plot along. Hopefully, you've been following the story so far, but if not, and you're looking for erotica, you'll probably want to skip this one and wait for Ch. 13.
The Emir's palace stood near the centre of the city, its three golden domes as distinctive as the minarets of the grander temples. From here, the rulers of Haredil administered the city, and claimed fealty from the more sparsely settled lands around. The palace fronted onto a great plaza, close to the market that was the city's lifeblood. No visitor could fail to be impressed, the Emir and his government making a clear statement about the wealth and power of their domain.
Lady Tarissa had been here many times before, but this time she had to admit that she felt a little trepidation. From what Almandar and Calleslyn had discovered at the Wizards' College, the threat mentioned in the ancient documents was very real. The College made no direct mention of events, which doubtless explained why this aspect of history was so unknown, but it corroborated much that the old parchments said. They referred, in part, to a time when demonic influence in the city had been strong, and then faded away suddenly for no apparent reason, dismissed as little more than the natural waxing and waning of the infernal powers.
And perhaps it was so; with no direct evidence to back up the tale of the old adventurers, it was difficult to know for sure. But Tarissa doubted that now, and was inclined to accept them as genuine. At the very least, it was now imperative to begin their exploration of the ancient tunnels beneath the city. If by some chance, it was all a fable, that would soon become clear -- but there was just too much coming together now for her to believe that was at all likely.
Which brought her to her current doubts. Supposedly, the infernal force in the depths -- whatever it was, exactly -- would begin to influence the leaders of the city in attempt to re-assert its hold. Some of those would be the people behind the scenes, who could achieve their aims with a quiet nod here and there, but some would no doubt be the visible leaders. That was, after all, why the adventurers who penned the original documents had supposedly had to flee the city without leaving a clearer warning.
So who here, could she trust? Had guild leaders been influenced, or temple priests? What about the noble families, the bureaucratic and military leaders, or the Emir himself? Yet here she was, answering an invitation to a reception at the palace, precisely where these people would also be.
She was glad to see, as she climbed the low steps to the great colonnaded front of the building, some of the few people she knew she could trust. Not only were Sir Larinor and Father Humboldt her friends, they were also followers of Pardror, the god of chivalry, just as she was. Pardror's powers, gifted to his paladins and clerics, made it much easier for them to detect and resist infernal magics. If a demonic being of some kind wanted to take over the city, it would be far easier to stay away from the priests of Pardror, avoiding the risk of early detection. In the long run, no doubt, it would want to marginalise them, or even deal with them overtly, but they would be enemies not pawns.
Sir Larinor was about her own age, a paladin as she was, although local, not from the southern islands. She had known him a long time, almost since her arrival in the city, and he had been a long and constant friend, although her days spent adventuring meant that she saw him less than she would like. He was dressed now, as she was, in expensive clothing, not in the armour of his office, but the rich velvet of his doublet could not disguise the breadth of his shoulders, or the trim muscularity of his body. He was handsome, too, with finely chiselled features and straight dark hair, and brown eyes that betrayed a steely determination to fight for justice and honour.
Many women, she felt sure, had fallen under his charms, but his vows as a paladin would have left them disappointed. The code of their order did not impose celibacy as such, but neither did it encourage licentiousness. Carnal desires were to be fulfilled through marriage, or, at the very least, long-term commitments and strict monogamy. Were it not for their shared ideals of romantic love, she suspected that the churches of Pardror and Sarlene would constantly be at loggerheads; as it was, relationships were little more than polite cordiality.
Of course, she was a paladin herself, and had taken the same vows, maintaining her virginity as she did so. As she greeted Larinor and the others, and they stepped into the main foyer of the palace, she felt almost a twinge of regret at that. She was not like Almandar or Calleslyn, whose numerous brief liaisons seemed to follow the morals of their elvish kin -- more so, it seemed to her, with Almandar, despite his half-human heritage. Vardala she did not know about; perhaps she was just more discrete, although it seemed unlikely that the rogue would be too concerned with conventional morality.
But for her, the paladins' code was of vital importance, defining her role, not just in the party, but in the world at large. Paladins fought injustice and the forces of evil. In return, they made sacrifices for the greater good. But that small voice of regret still said that she would like to know Larinor better, as more than just a friend. She was, after all, a woman, with a woman's desires, no matter the outer mask she showed to the world. Who could not fail to be attracted to man so handsome and so honourable, she thought? But she would not be who she was if she could not suppress those thoughts and turn her mind to higher things. Honour was, after all, often about making personal sacrifices...
Father Hemboldt, the young cleric, she knew less well, as he had only been ordained a couple of years before. But if he was a close friend of Larinor's, he had to be a brave and upstanding member of the church, something he had never given her cause to doubt. At this formal occasion, he wore the robes of his rank, the sword and helm emblem of Pardror prominent above his heart.
The final member of the trio she had first met when she invited the other two down to the villa a few nights ago. Ansreal was Larinor's latest squire, a young elven woman yet to take her vows as a full paladin. It was fairly unusual for elves to take such a path, but it was by no means unknown, for their kind had important traditions of chivalry, if not necessarily of constancy. She hoped the young woman had the strength for the path ahead, but trusted to the others to guide her properly.
"Tarissa!" said Larinor, smiling, "I am glad to see you could make it. You said when we last met that there was some matter coming up that might return you to the adventurers' path soon?"
"Yes, that is still true," she conceded, as they walked together into the palace, Father Hemboldt showing their invitation to the guards, "but I am afraid that I cannot talk further about it here. Although I can tell you that we may need your assistance in time. I wish I did not have to be so discrete, but this is really not the place."
He nodded, although clearly he did not quite understand. It seemed, however, that he at least trusted her judgement, and that would have to be enough for now.
Inside, there were a number of guests milling in the hall, as musicians played in the background, and servants bustled about with food and drinks. Such receptions were common place, for the Emir wanted to show off his influence to the other nobles and senior officials of the city as often as possible. This one was in honour of some dignitary or other from the Jalibian Confederation to the north, but it seemed that almost any excuse would do.
Indeed, there were certainly a number of Jalibians among the guests, easily distinguished from the locals, and even those guests from the neighbouring cities, by their ebony skin and tightly curled hair. Like everyone else here, they wore their best finery, and she suspected their business here was mainly trade, for the Jalibians were wealthy, and the extent of the wild lands between their home and Haredil meant that they had few things to quarrel over.
"Ah, a priest of Pardror! It is good to see that such people are honoured here," said a nearby voice. Tarissa turned to see a Jalabian man, white teeth smiling, and beckoning Father Hemboldt over.
"We work hard here for the cause of honour and chivalry," agreed the priest, as they headed over to join the knot of people already chatting with the visitor. "It is a battle that needs fighting the world over."
The two paladins and their squire joined the group, and there were soon introductions all round. The Jalabian man with an interest in Pardror was a merchant named Tolamb, middle-aged and a little portly. He was accompanied by a man who could only be a bodyguard, over six feet tall, and with bulging muscles on his bare arms. There were two locals with them; a balding merchant who Tarissa knew only vaguely, and a young woman named Quintillia, who she knew to be a member of one of the noble houses.
There was a third local, too, a younger man that she did not recognise, but it was unclear whether he was truly in the group or not, for he hung back from the others, lounging against a trestle table, and knocking back a flagon of wine. He already looked slightly drunk, and it was still early in the evening. Tarissa looked at him disapprovingly, but he did not seem to notice, his gaze instead being focussed on the curve of Quintillia's ass.
"So you are paladins?" asked Tolamb, "I have not been to Haredil before, and I know your customs are different to ours. I have heard of paladins... they are much like our own Leopard Warriors, I believe?"
"From what I understand," said Hemboldt, "that is correct. Paladins are holy warriors, able to bring the light of Pardror into people's lives, and I gather that your Leopard Warriors are different only in a few of their customs."
"I had heard that there were few female knights in Haredil, but I see this is not so," said Tolamb, bowing slightly to Tarissa. "Or is it that you are a visitor here yourself?"
"I was born further south," admitted Tarissa. She knew that her blonde hair and blue eyes were not those of Haredil native, although the truth was that city was a cosmopolitan one, with a very mixed population. "But Haredil is a free city, and there are many female warriors. I have lived here for many years, and it is perhaps not as unusual as you have been led to believe."
At that, the tipsy young man seemed to perk up, perhaps not having noticed before that there was another woman with the group. He looked in her direction, making little attempt to hide the fact that he was mentally undressing her. She glared back at him, but it seemed that he did not much like what he saw, and turned his attention back to Quintillia. The young noble was raven-haired and slender, and perhaps that was more to his taste.
Tolomb, fortunately, did not seem to have noticed her glare, or, if he did, was too polite to mention it. He continued smoothly with his conversation, "women may become warriors in my home, too, although it is not so common as with men. If one hears the call, it should not be ignored."
"But it is," broke in Quintillia, speaking for the first time, "a little unseemly for a woman to fight is it not?" Her aristocratic tones were unmistakable, and her expression haughty. She was evidently a person who spent a lot of time looking down on those of lower station than herself. "Fighting and aggression are surely the purview of men? Not, of course," she added hurriedly, "that it is quite the same with paladins... their vows put them a cut above the common warrior. But for regular soldiers? It seems inappropriate to me."
"In my homeland..." began Tolomb, but before he could finish, the drunken young man rudely butted in.
"Oh, they don't have Pardror in Jalabia, too?" he said, a tone of evident disgust in his voice. "He is so terribly boring. All 'you can't do this', and 'you can't do that'... one wonders how they ever manage to breed. If one has soldiers, one hardly needs paladins! Let them stay out in the wilds, if they must, with the rangers. At least then, they won't bother anyone."
Everyone turned to look at him, and it actually seemed that Tolomb was the angriest of the group, more offended for his guests than they were for themselves. But, surprisingly, it was Quintillia who spoke first, staring down her nose at the young man.
"I am hardly surprised that you have so little understanding of the importance of honour," she said, "And I rather think the wine is going to your head, Astelan. I really can't say what has got into you lately, but if the worship of Pardror so offends you, perhaps you should find somewhere else to drink?"
"I'm fine where I am," he said, his eyes fixed firmly on her breasts, and not glancing up at all her face.
"No, I do not think so" said the bodyguard, stepping forward as he did so. His accent was thick, much stronger than Tolomb's, but he managed to fill the monosyllabic sentence with a degree of menace.
"Or what?" said Astelan with derision. "I have every right to be where I wish."
The bodyguard took another step forward, and Larinor started to say something to try and defuse the situation. But, at that moment, another man stepped over and grabbed Astelan's arm, whispering something in his ear. The young man glared at him, and looked about to protest, but the newcomer looked insistent, and pulled him away from the table.
"I am sorry for that," said the man, "I will ensure he does not trouble you again." Tarissa recognised him as a wizard by the name of Valmor, someone high up in the College. Perhaps Almandar and Calleslyn knew him. Either way, he was soon gone, and they were able to return to more polite conversation.
"Have you seen Quintillia anywhere?"
The questioner was a noble from the same house as the young woman. An uncle or some such, Tarissa thought. She confessed that she had not seen the aristocrat for some time, although they had been talking earlier.
"It is most vexatious," continued the nobleman, "I just cannot find her anywhere..."
Tarissa sighed. "I could look to see if she is powdering her nose," she offered. The man did seem to be quite flustered, although she did not see how there could be a real problem, not here in the palace. From what she knew of Quintillia, she was quite independently minded, but not the sort to do anything untoward or foolish.
Making her excuses to the menfolk, she headed to the back corridors, and soon satisfied herself that the missing noblewoman was not there. She was just about to head back and tell the relative as much, when she heard a crash from down a side corridor. Nobody seemed to be there, including guards designed to keep people out -- as there naturally were in many of the more private areas -- and she frowned, suddenly suspicious.
She took a few steps down the corridor, but there was nothing to see save doors leading off, and the occasional vase or other decoration. "Is anybody there?" she called out.
This time there was no mistaking the sound. In response to her call, there was a muffled scream from behind one of the doors. Someone was clearly in distress. Tarissa instinctively reached for her sword, before remembering that she was, of course, not carrying any weapons. Silently cursing, she reached for the door, and tried to open it.
It would not budge, but the way it moved suggested to her that it was not locked, but rather that some magic spell had been used to seal it. She had encountered such things on her adventuring career, and the subtle way that they fixed the door to the frame was quite distinct from the action of a simple lock.
There appeared to be some sounds of struggle from within, but no further words. Resigning herself to the need, Tarissa took a few steps back and shoulder-charged the door. On the second attempt, it gave, crashing open to reveal a small drawing room beyond, and the presence of both Quntillia and the drunken young man from earlier, Astelan. A chair lay on its side, evidently the source of the sound she had heard earlier.
Astelan was holding the noblewoman up against one wall, one hand over her mouth, and the other holding a flailing arm. His trews were around his ankles, and Quintillia's dress was torn open across the top, exposing a naked breast. Her carefully coiffured hair was mussed, and it was very clear from her terrified expression and the tears starting to form in her eyes that she was anything but a willing participant in the act. Fortunately, her skirts were still in place, so Astelan had obviously not got far.
He turned to look at Tarissa as she entered the room, his face leering, and his hard-on jutting out from beneath his shirt. "Come to join us?" he said, "a bit meaty for me, but you've got nice tits, and I reckon I could still do you after I've fucked this little bitch."
The paladin took a couple of steps across the room and smashed him in the face with her fist.
Astelan dropped like a stone, falling hard against the floor, his cock rapidly softening. Quintillia back off, sobbing, and trying to cover her modesty with the shreds of her dress. Shaking his head to clear it, Astelan tried to rise to a sitting position, and glared angrily at the paladin, blood starting to drip from his lip.
"How dare you..." he began, and that instant Tarissa sensed it. There was a demonic presence here, something her paladin's powers could detect. Somehow, Astelan was possessed. Perhaps she had not sensed it earlier because the presence was not so strong and active then, since she doubted it could be something that had only just happened. As she stood there, her fists ready in case he tried anything else, her thoughts went back to what Almandar and Calleslyn had discovered.
A rise of demonic possessions in the city. Was it starting now?
There was a hubbub behind her. Her smashing the door open had evidently alerted other guests, and now they were beginning to flock down the little corridor, curious and alarmed. As they gathered in the doorway and took in the tableau, there were gasps of horror. Given Quintillia's state there could be little doubt about what had happened, and it seemed that nobody believed the gabbled excuses that Astelan was beginning to offer even now.
The influence of Quintillia's family would see to it that this was one less possessed man on the streets. Likely, the demon would soon leave, unable to fulfil its desires from within a prison cell. But how many more were there out there?
As palace guards entered the room to grab a protesting Astelan, Tarissa saw Valmor out in the corridor, behind the others. He looked disappointed, but not, she would have said, shocked...