tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 21

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 21

byFuinimel©

Zarenis tightened the cords on the leather jerkin she had put on over her regular clothes. If she got into a fight with the adventurers, it would make very little difference, but against anyone else it might at least help a little. And hopefully, she would not be facing the adventurers themselves at all. In and out, as quickly as possible, while they were away from the villa – that was the plan.

She pulled a chest out from under her bed. Made of a plain dark wood, it was exceptionally sturdy, the place to keep her most important possessions. It took a little while to disarm the traps and open the locks she kept on it, but soon she opened it and removed the items she would need for the mission.

First came a pair of boots made from a pure black, felt-like material. She pulled them on, savouring the softness against her skin, wiggling her toes against the fabric for a second. Comfort was not the purpose of the boots, of course... but that didn't stop them from feeling good. She pulled a pair of fingerless gloves on next; they were made of especially supple leather, and their contact made her fingers tingle for a moment as they adapted to her hands, working their magic.

Then there were two rings, looking much like regular jewellery, although they were anything but. Onto her right ring finger went a band of silver clasping a small sapphire, and onto the other hand a plain, but slightly heavier, golden ring. A small ceramic vial went into a pouch at her belt, along with the greyish wand that she had recently bought from Nyvara. Neither was a regular part of her equipment, but both would be needed for the approach she had in mind.

The scabbard holding her shortsword had an additional strap to tie it tight to her thigh, making it harder to draw but also keeping it from bumping about – silence and stealth were more important than anything else, and the sword was really only there as a last resort. Finally, there was the long hooded coat, made of a dark, shimmering material that blended in with the shadows of her small garret room, making her outline indistinct. When she raised the hood later, it would shade her face, magically obscuring the details and making her harder to identify. Although, if everything went well, no one would see her at all.

She stood still for a moment, feeling charged up, ready to go, everything prepared and in place for the break-in at the adventurers' villa. In that respect, she was probably a little like them; with all her magic and equipment in place, she felt powerful, able to take on the world – or at least a little corner of it.

Glancing in the mirror, she riffled her fingers through her thick brown hair, hiding the tiny horns on her forehead from view. She was ready.

──◊──

That sense of kinship with the adventurers was brought home forcefully just a couple of hours later, as she stood in the dawn light, close to the villa. Unexpectedly, the gate to the walled compound at the front of the building opened, and she quickly darted round a corner, pressing herself against a wall to make herself inconspicuous – fortunately, there were few other people around yet to see her – and then peering around carefully to watch.

There they were; all five of them. And, just like Zarenis herself, they were obviously fully tooled up. Lady Tarissa was taking the lead, resplendent in full plate armour, with a white cloak and the emblems of her deity adorning her costume. She was every inch the valorous paladin, out to right the wrongs of the world by force of arms. Dolrim too, was heavily armed and armoured, a war axe slung over his shoulder whose edge gleamed with a shine that surely had to indicate some kind of magical enchantment. The two wizards wore more practical clothing over their robes, and surely Almandar's graven staff was merely the most visible of the magic items they carried. Only the gnome, Vardala, looked close to normal, and even she had leather armour on under her cloak.

They were clearly prepared for something, something that required the full panoply of their adventuring equipment – although not, seemingly, their horses. They were setting out after dawn, whereas she had left just before, but the idea was surely much the same, and it looked that they would be gone a long time. Zarenis had expected to have to wait for some hours before finding a good opportunity to break in, but her luck was obviously with her. Only the manservant, Horvan, should be in, and that gave her the perfect chance.

The adventurers, somewhat to her surprise, headed into the city, rather than out towards the countryside. However, exactly what they were doing, and where, was hardly her concern. All that mattered was that they were not at home.

As soon as they had gone out of sight, and Horvan had closed the gates to the compound, Zarenis made her move, walking quickly to the back of the villa. She pulled her hood up, and glanced around to make sure she was not observed.

As she had noted earlier, all the windows on the ground floor had solid grills over them that would not open, while the wall was sheer enough that there was no way to climb up to an upper window or onto the roof. Getting in over the compound wall and in through the front door could not be done surreptitiously, and the only rear door looked to be close to the kitchens – precisely the area of the villa that Horvan was most likely to be. The adventurers had planned well; there was no easy way in for a regular thief.

Zarenis, of course, was anything but a regular thief.

She pulled the ceramic vial from her pouch, unstoppering it and taking a taking a quick gulp of the liquid inside. It was cool, and almost tasteless, yet remarkably refreshing, like a sudden breeze of cold air on a stuffy day. It immediately sent a surge through her body, making her feel light as a feather. She bent her knees, and jumped.

A split second later, she was on the roof, crouching low and moving swiftly across the flat surface. There was a door here, leading down into the building, set into a small projection just large enough to hold the top of a stairway. This, she suspected, would not be as well watched as those on the ground floor, and made a much better way in.

She pulled out her picks, and went to work on the lock. It was a simpler one than she had expected, and she barely needed the magically enhanced deftness and tactile sensation that the gloves provided her fingers. Mere seconds later, she had the door open, and stepped inside, closing it behind her. She was in the villa – now to find the item she had come to steal.

The narrow stairway led down to a corridor between what had to be the adventurers' bedrooms. It was unlikely that what she needed would be here, but even so, she raised her right hand, spreading her fingers and examining the blue gem on her ring. There was a faint glow, barely flickering as she moved her hand lower, towards the floor. As expected, she had to go down,

She crept along the corridor, her magical boots making her footfalls absolutely silent. She knew that even the floorboards would not creak under her weight unless they were remarkably loose, which seemed unlikely. But even with her cloak, she would be highly visible if anyone should happen to come along, so she still moved slowly and cautiously.

Eventually, she came to a balcony overlooking what had to be the entrance hall. She froze, hearing the sound of footsteps below. Horvan was down there somewhere, doing whatever he did around the house. As long as he did not come upstairs, she should be safe...

She grimaced as she heard the sound of the servant's feet on the stairs. She had just moments before he would reach the balcony and see her. She stepped back into the corridor, and looked about once again, selecting her options. Horvan had to be heading for one of the rooms – perhaps he made the beds there, or was bringing up fresh laundry. There was no way to know which room he was headed for, but surely he would not head up to the roof.

Zarenis ran back down the corridor, something that without the boots, she could not possibly have disguised, and ducked into the stairway leading back to the roof, crouching down as far as she could at the top. Even if he went to the very last room, opposite the stairs, he probably would not see her. Probably.

In the event, he did not go so far, instead heading into one of the rooms further down the corridor. She waited for him to emerge again, heading to one of the other rooms, or back downstairs, but the wait dragged on. The tiefling briefly considered risking it and running back down the corridor in the hope of reaching safety before he came back out. But, no, there was no need for such a gamble.

The time continued to drag, for much longer than she had expected. What was he doing in there? He didn't even, so far as she could hear, appear to be moving about. His quarters were most likely on the ground floor, if the villa was arranged like most others, and, in any event, it was rather early for him to be heading back to bed. Zarenis gritted her teeth, waiting for him to finish with whatever un-guessable task it was.

It seemed like ages later that he finally left, heading straight back downstairs. He had only been interested in one room, and after a moment's reflection on her previous observations of the villa at night, Zarenis decided that it was Vardala's bedroom. Not that it mattered, of course.

Once she reached the balcony again, she stopped and listened, making sure that, this time, Horvan was well away elsewhere in the building. That certainly seemed to be the case, so she made her move, swiftly stepping down the staircase into the hallway. She glanced at her ring, sweeping her hand about. Ahead somewhere, and closer to the doorway on the right than that on the left.

She glanced through it; empty, with no windows until the far end. It probably led to the servants' area, where Horvan was most likely to be. But what she sought was not likely to be in the kitchens, so the side doors would be a better bet. Nonetheless, she would probably have to be quick.

She raised her hand to each door in turn, watching for any glimmer from the ring. At the third attempt, she saw something, and opened the door as quietly as she could, grateful for the enhanced tactile sensation that the gloves gave her. Beyond it, there was a stone stairway leading down to a cellar. A good place to secure treasure, she reflected.

Closing the door behind her, she moved down the stone steps. Horvan was not here, and she should be safe for a while, if he was busy in the main house. In fact, the cellar was pitch black, and only her demon-gifted vision allowed her to see down here. That, at least, was something she needed no magical items to provide.

The cellar contained stored food and wine, as she would expect, but there was also a door on the far side, and, from the metal bars securing it and the warding glyphs painted on the surface, she did not need the ring to tell her that this was where the treasure was kept. The glyph, of course, would be the biggest problem, but it was something she had anticipated.

She pulled out the grey wand, its lacquered surface cool beneath her fingertips, and pointed it towards the glyph. She muttered the activating word, almost the first audible sound she had made since entering the villa. A faint silvery glow gleamed at the tip, casting a tiny amount of light into the room. The glyph flickered, and then faded to a paler colour than it had been before. If Nyvara was right, the magic that it contained had been nullified by the wand, along with any other protections on the doorway. Now she just had to get through the locks.

There were three of them, all much more complex than that on the roof entrance. But here she could rely on her natural skill, albeit boosted by the gloves, and needed no trickery to get past them. It took her some time, but she could work patiently, hearing no sound of anyone approaching, and eventually she had them all open.

Beyond the door lay a small underground chamber, with wooden shelves against the walls. Some of the shelves held chests, and others items of all kinds. There were wand boxes and scroll cases, a pair of gauntlets, even a horn of some kind. There was a full suit of mail armour, beautifully decorated, and a selection of swords and other weapons. The sapphire on her ring was glowing bright blue now, flaring when she brought it close to some items, but ignoring others that had to be simple jewellery or chests of coins.

Zarenis allowed a small smile to play across her lips; this was something special. Many of these items would be remarkably valuable, perhaps worth even more than she was being paid to be here. But, she reflected, many were too big to carry out, and those truly worthwhile would be easily identifiable if she tried to sell them, allowing the adventurers the chance to try and track back to find her identity. Under the circumstances, it was all too risky, she thought with regret.

Of course, if she were to keep something, rather than sell it, that would be a different matter. After all, they would already know someone had been here, so she would not be giving anything away by removing an item. It just had to be something she could use.

In the end, she pocketed an amulet that her ring told her was enchanted. She had no idea what it did, but there was a good chance it was something useful – why else would someone make a magical item?

But it was not, of course, what she had come for. She looked around again, not seeing it at first, but found her eyes irresistibly drawn to a bottom shelf at the back of the room. There it was, a censer made of black metal, a heavy link chain enabling it to be swung from the hand. It was close to spherical in shape, with strange projections from its upper surface and ornately shaped holes. It seemed to be calling out to her, and a sudden urge rose in her to touch it, to pick it up, as if it belonged to her now.

Under any other circumstances, such a strange compulsion would have given her pause for thought. There was something odd about this censer, something that made it seem almost alive, a pull that drew her towards it. Yet she was here precisely to steal this thing, to take it with her, and the compelling drive to do just that did not seem so odd under the circumstances. It was, after all, why she was here.

She reached out, noting the carvings of demonic beings on the surface. They were, in all honesty, just the sort of thing Lady Amloth might like. She touched the censer with her bare fingers.

It felt like an explosion.

For a split second, she saw a silent burst of flame erupt before her eyes and felt a wave of heat pass through her body. Her vision cleared, to reveal no signs of any damage to the room, but the burning sensation did not stop, overwhelming her and making her drop to the floor.

It felt as if her whole body was on fire, a raging heat that consumed her utterly, leaving her barely able to think of anything else. Yet there was no fire in the room, not even any real light. The fire was inside her, as if she was burning up from within. She clamped her mouth shut, struggling not to let out any sounds, and looked at her hands, almost expecting to see the flame within them, but they looked normal.

She could hear something now, a beating, pulsing sound, coming from all around. Or was the sound actually in her own head, her own heartbeat somehow amplified as the blood rushed through her ears? The incapacitation from the pain seemed to be ebbing now, but it too was pulsing, in time with the sound. No... in time with her own heartbeat.

The fire was in her blood, she realised. In her demon-tainted blood, as if its infernal nature was seeking to wash away her human side, or at least subjugate it. She tried to climb to her feet, but her head felt heavy, strange, and her legs were weak, so that she only reached her knees before stopping, feeling dizzy. The room seemed brighter, more alive, colours previously hidden even from her enhanced vision springing into life. Was her demonic sight somehow improving?

She tried to shake her head to clear it, but it still felt strange, the movements slow and cumbersome, not quite natural. She remembered seeing something that could help, and looked along the shelf for it – a metal shield, polished bright enough to use as a mirror. She looked into it, and recoiled from the shock, gasping despite herself.

She barely recognised the face that looked back at her from the reflection. Her horns, normally tiny nubs no more than an inch in length, had grown to enormous proportions. They were heavy and curved, like those of a large ram, meeting together in the centre of her forehead to create beetling brow ridges. Beneath those horns, her eyes were a brilliant, fiery red, no pupils or whites visible, positively seeming to glow from within. Even her skin had changed to a dull reddish tinge, and her lips were black and glossy.

She had become, at least in appearance, a demon, or something much like one. A horror that could never live in normal society, doomed to be outcast forever. Her dark heritage, that curse borne through her ancestor's blood from the time of her infernal great-grandfather, had taken possession of her body. This was what had been inside her all along, merely hidden by her almost-human flesh.

Zarenis looked back to the thing that had caused this, the censer. Was its power to reveal somebody's true self? No, it seemed more likely, from the engravings on the surface, that it was something hellish, something that had specifically affected her, because of her heritage. That was why it had done nothing to the adventurers, who were all normal members of their respective races.

The fire in her veins seemed to be subsiding now, merely a dull ache, although still present. The pulsing in her ears had faded, too, but now she could hear a different, yet similar, sound. Another heartbeat, but this time, coming from beneath the floor. She remembered her vivid dream, of how, seeing her father as a child, she had heard that same heartbeat. One that belonged to something waiting beneath the city. Waiting, she was sure, for her.

And now it had found her.

The censer was calling out to her, begging to be lifted again, to be taken away from this place. Barely knowing what she was doing, Zarenis picked it up, holding it in her hands, examining it as if to see any hint of its purpose. It was no longer trying to transform her, that deed already completed. Instead, it brought visions to her brain, sudden flashes that she knew were glimpses of a possible future. A future of grandeur beyond anything she had ever expected could be hers.

There was the city, much as it was now, but with its existing temples blasted into ruins. In their place stood a great tower, rearing into the sky, a baleful red flame at its summit. In the streets toiled human, dwarven, and gnomish slaves, overseen by dark-robed priests and decadent nobles.

There was the plaza in front of the Emir's palace, thronged with people, genuflecting towards a great altar as the priests chanted out some name she could not hear.

She saw a winged and dog-headed demon, openly stalking the streets in search of vulnerable prey.

And then a chamber that she knew was inside the high tower. Demons and humans alike gathered around a huge pit from which roared a towering pillar of fire. Shapes formed in that fire, some humanoid, others less readily identifiable as anything from this world.

And there was Zarenis herself, sprawled on a throne, raising a bejewelled golden goblet to her lips as cowering nobles prostrated themselves before her. She had regained some of her former appearance, she saw, her skin having returned to its normal hue, her horns still visible, yet not so large as they were now. Yet her eyes were blood-red, and a spiked tail swished across the cushions behind her.

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