tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 50

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 50

byFuinimel©

The city was beginning to return to normal after the horrific recent events. Little, it seemed, could subdue the people of Haredil for long. Commerce was essential, and the city's inhabitants had lives to lead, even after the temporary inconvenience of a plague of zombies. The market was open again, sellers hawking their wares, and, for the most part, there had been very little structural damage.

And yet, if you knew the city as well as Almandar did, you could tell that it had not yet quite got over the shock. It had been only two days after all, and, if you looked carefully, you could see the haunted expressions on some of the faces, the nervous glances that tried to remain well-hidden. Trade might be going on, but it was a little less raucous than usual. Many had lost loved ones or friends, and much of the previous day had been spent cleaning bodies from the streets. That was something that nobody could forget in a hurry.

Of course, he was one of the few who had any idea what had really happened. For the rest, there was no clear indication that the undead would not return. Last night had been quiet indeed, everyone barricaded inside, lest it should all happen again. A few pointed to the double Lunar eclipse, saying that that had somehow magically caused the dead to rise, but others pointed out – quite rightly – that they didn't really know that. Nobody was even sure quite where the dead had risen from, and there was no good explanation as to why they had vanished so suddenly.

Almandar knew the truth, of course, but there was no way he could tell anyone. They would demand to know why he had not issued a warning, and the fact that he hadn't known the full details, or known the time of the crisis until it had happened wasn't something that would be likely to go down well. Emotions were running high, and he did not want to risk a confrontation. And he had never become an adventurer simply for the glory.

So it was with something of a sense of guilt that he now walked the streets of the city, one of many lost in their own thoughts, yet reassuring himself that it still stood. In the long run, nothing would change, the events would pass into history and folklore, as so many had before. Haredil would go on, because it always did.

"Please help me!"

A woman had grabbed his arm, holding on tightly. So lost had he been in his reverie, he had not even seen her approach. In fact, he was not sure entirely where he was... close to the merchant's quarter, perhaps, but he could not put an immediate name to the street he had wandered down.

"What's the matter?"

She was a youngish woman, slender with dark hair and a rather haunted expression, lines on a face that would otherwise have been pretty. Somehow, he felt that she had seen more in her life than anyone of that age should have had to. Her clothing was plain and simple, the sort favoured by servants or junior clerks. She was clearly distressed, and he could not help but feel that it might, in a way, be his own fault.

"Just come!" she said, pulling at his arm, her face turned away from him, looking towards the corner at the end of the street. Her voice seemed desperate, anxious.

It had to be something to do with the undead attack, surely? Some legacy of his failure to deal with the issue before it turned to bloodshed. The feeling of guilt spurred him on, allowed her to pull him forward.

"What's your name?" he asked, as they half ran down the street, turning onto a wider avenue that was more familiar to him, "what has happened?"

She didn't reply, and he didn't stop to wonder why she had picked him, when there had to have been a dozen people closer to the building they were now approaching. If this was something he had been responsible for, even if indirectly, he had to make amends. The woman almost pushed him towards the door, which was standing half open.

"Quickly!" she said, "please! He's at the back!"

He stepped inside, finding the corridor undecorated. There was a door at the far end, and another on the side, opposite a staircase that ran to the upper floor. There would likely be a kitchen at the back, but he still wasn't clear what the problem was. Deciding that, with the woman approaching hysteria, it was more useful to see what was happening than to quiz her, he hurried on down the passageway towards the door.

There was a sudden sting in his neck.

He stopped, reaching for the source of the pain. A small dart was stuck there, buried into the flesh. He looked in that direction: staircase. Looked up: a figure darting out of view.

He lunged for the stairs, but his legs felt suddenly weak, and he stumbled.

"I'm sorry... so sorry," said the woman, and he turned to see her looking mortified, in his direction, just before his legs gave way entirely.

Numbness was spreading through his body. It had to be some rapid acting poison! He cursed himself for his gullibility, but there was nothing he could do. How had he got himself into this, alone and unguarded?

"I'd run if I were you," said a woman's voice from upstairs, "I'd run as far from this city as you can, and never come back."

His captor took one last look in his direction, her dark eyes pools of regret, and, yes, her look said something of a deep, unspoken pain. Then she bolted out of the door. He wondered who she was, as mist filled his vision, and his eyes fluttered shut.

The last thing he heard was footsteps coming down the stairs.

──◊──

Almandar woke lying on his side on a wooden floor. At first, he was groggy, vision blurred and his limbs still refusing to move at his command. Somebody else was walking about in the room, soft leather soles making a distinctive, yet quiet, sound against the floorboards. He couldn't see them, not yet.

The footfalls stopped. "Ah, you're coming round," said a voice, the same one he had heard from the upper floor of the building.

"Wh... whhherrgh...." His tongue and lips were responding little better than any of the rest of him.

"Shouldn't be long now," the voice informed him, and he was able to turn his head fractionally in her direction. He could see a pair of leather boots, but nothing else. "I'd just wait, until you get some feeling back in your limbs. Drow drugs; they're really rather useful."

Even as she spoke, some feeling was returning. He realised that his hands were bound together, the cords digging tightly into his wrists. His legs didn't seem to be similarly restrained, but without his hands, he couldn't cast spells, and, whoever she was, she presumably knew that.

And just who could she be, anyway? Nobody else knew about his involvement with defeating the Presence, and, if anyone had known enough to target him, they would probably know enough to be at least grudgingly grateful. Drugging him and tying him up seemed a little extreme.

Unless the Presence still had allies, of course, he thought with a cold chill of fear. There had been thirteen people entering the Rotunda, according to Calleslyn and the others, and there had been twelve bodies by the time the night was over. They had been told that the thirteenth had fled, but what if that wasn't wholly accurate? That had been a woman, hadn't it? What if she'd changed her mind, and come back for revenge?

The thought was decidedly worrying, especially since nobody would have any idea where he was.

He felt a sharp tingling in his legs as the circulation began to return to normal, and he was able to force himself up onto his knees, arms still a little wobbly, but basically functional. He shook his head, finding his vision fully restored, and took a good look around.

He was in a large, windowless, room. Too large for the building he had just been in, unless it occupied the entire upper floor, which seemed unlikely. The floor was well polished, made of high quality wood, and the walls panelled with expensive engravings. There were some well upholstered chairs in the corners, but they weren't being used. The only light came from up above, a skylight, showing that it was still day outside.

His captor was standing in front of him. She was nobody he had ever seen before, a woman a little shorter than himself, dressed in tight leathers with a black hooded cloak. A shortsword hung in a scabbard from her belt, and the hilt of a short dagger peaked from the top of one high boot. He could tell, by the way she bore herself, that she was competent and adept, perhaps with as much experience of combat as he had.

Her hair, what he could see of it below the hood, was a rich brown, but her skin was pale, as if she rarely saw the sun – something quite difficult in Haredil, for all that she had no trace of an accent. Yet it was her eyes that immediately caught his attention. They were dark, hard and emotionless, fitting the calm yet determined expression on her face. More than that, they had a slightly odd colour, even in the shadow cast by her hood, a reddish glimmer in irises that it seemed should really have been brown.

They reminded him, vaguely, of garnets.

"Where am I?" Yes, it seemed he could speak properly now. That was something at least.

"The house of a merchant named Lady Amloth. She doesn't need it any more."

"Because she's dead," he pointed out, wondering what her reaction would be to his knowledge.

Her expression didn't even flicker. "I killed her," she said, matter-of-factly, before shrugging, "well, partly, she killed herself. But mainly it was me."

"The other woman... the one who took me into the house... who is she? Is she all right?"

His captor looked at him strangely. That question, at least, had caught her off guard. "She's gone," she said eventually, "she was a servant of Amloth's. If she knows what's good for her, she's running as fast as she can right now. But, either way, she doesn't matter."

"So," he said, seeing that she didn't seem about to speak again, and was just standing there, watching him, "I'll ask the obvious: who are you, and why am I here?"

"My name," she said simply, "is Zarenis. And you are here because you failed."

He didn't say anything to that. Clearly something had gone wrong, and surely it involved the Presence. But what?

"You destroyed the underground shrine," she said, after a pause, "blew it apart with a fireball. And, yes, it saw that, and it knows who you are. It could hardly fail to notice something so close. I imagine your plan was to prevent the Presence from coming through to this world, but, if it were really that simple, don't you think that the previous adventurers who tried to stop it would have done the same thing?"

"The Presence is not defeated as easily as that. You just delayed it a little. As it turns out, only a very, very little, considering how long it has had to wait."

She turned away, walking over to something hidden in the shadows at the corner of the room that he hadn't seen before. She picked it up, and stepped back towards the middle of the room, holding an ornate sceptre, ending in a large crystal surrounded by wickedly sharp prongs. Almandar had never seen it before, but he could guess what it was from the legend of Throndar.

"The Presence has come through," she said, almost reverently, "it has a living anchor to this world now. It is in my blood, and soon I will release it. Haredil will become the Hell-city, one end of a permanent bridge through which demons can enter this world. Its armies will be magnificent, its power unimaginable. And those armies will march at my command, they will bring me wealth and comfort, and all those other things that I could never have before."

"We'll keep mortals around, of course, because we'll always need slaves. Genocide really isn't very interesting, but being the physical avatar of the Presence, its voice here in the solid world... that should be good enough, don't you think?"

She seemed to have stopped her little speech, and Almandar examined her face for any sign of weakness. He wasn't finding one. "So why haven't you done it already?" he asked instead.

"Oh, that's where you come in. The Presence wants you to see it triumph. It feeds on that kind of emotion. It loves betrayal best, but horrified despair is pretty close. So we held back just long enough for you to know that you have lost, to see your plans come to nothing. It's a pity the others can't be here too, but, well, it reduces the chances of something going wrong, and you are the one that destroyed the shrine. So..." she shrugged again.

"What is it? The Presence, I mean."

She gave a short, barking laugh; he got the impression that laughter wasn't something she was particularly used to. "I can see why you're the magician. Always curious!"

"But it's a fair question," she continued, "what is the Presence? Let me see... it's a dead god, essentially. Apparently 'dead' is a relative term for beings of that sort of power. It wanted to manifest in our world, to rule things directly, which, as you know, is not something the gods have ever done. So they turned on it, killed it, imprisoned its remains in Hell. I don't think it is truly divine any more – being dead will do that to you, I suppose – but it's close enough."

"And if it does get a foothold in this world, none of the other gods will be able to stop it. Not any more. What can they do, point their worshippers in the right direction through hints and fortuitous discoveries? That's the best they can normally manage, and it's a bit late for that now."

"Who knows, maybe they've already tried, and failed," a thought evidently struck her as she spoke, and she looked at him curiously, "how did you know where the shrine was, or that you had to destroy it? Did a priest point you in the right direction, or did a favoured worshipper of some deity coincidentally come across a piece of valuable information at just the right time? Does your little group of adventurers have some patron deity, who might, perhaps, have been unusually generous towards you of late?"

He said nothing, but could not quite keep the realisation from his face.

"Thought so," she said, "well, you can tell whichever deity it is that they failed. Although they'll know soon enough, of course, so it's rather redundant."

She had let the servant woman run away, he realised. She could have killed the witness, but instead she let her run. It was a small mercy, but perhaps a real one. Was there a spark of morality in this woman after all, something he could appeal to? It seemed his only chance.

"Why do you want to do this?" he said, "bring about hell on Earth? There have got to be easier ways to achieve fame and fortune. You don't need to destroy everyone else along the path. The Presence is hardly an improvement on the world we have! It will spread misery and destruction, and you will be at the core of it. You're not Amloth... heck, you killed her. Why? Because you knew she was evil?"

"Do you want that?" he went on, "do you want to be Amloth? What has the city ever done to you that you would want to drag it down like this? What has the world ever done?"

It was the wrong thing to say, and he realised that as she took a few sudden steps towards him, face at last showing real anger.

"Look at me!" she shouted, throwing back the hood of her cloak. She jabbed her free hand towards her forehead, and he saw two small horns there, her garnet eyes suddenly very apparent. "Look at me! I'm a tiefling! I'm damned; I have the blood of demons in my veins."

"Everyone who sees me, all they ever see is this! The product of unnatural lusts, tainted by pure evil, a miscegenation spawned in the pits of Hell. That's what I am, that's what I'll always be, to everyone."

"You... you're a half-breed, like I am. But your non-human half is an elf. People like elves, even if they don't understand them. Elves are handsome, elves are good and helpful. You're probably a great hit with the ladies, am I right?"

"But me... no, I'm some foul offspring of horror. I see the disgust in people's eyes when they look at me, when they see my horns, my eyes, reminding them that the world is not a safe and happy place. I have nothing, nobody. I never have had. I'm deformed, not like you."

He flinched back at the force of her tirade. He hadn't thought she was deformed, even after seeing the horns.

"Perhaps you haven't met the right people," he said. "Some of us can see past that. I think you're an attractive woman, and perhaps you just need a chance."

"If it wasn't for these?" she spat, pointing again at her eyes and horns.

"I didn't say that. You're attractive, really. Why don't you want to believe that?"

"Because it's not true," she shouted, "and even if it were, it wouldn't bloody matter! What the fuck are you trying to do, Almandar? Seduce me, and turn me over to the side of light? Because if you are, you have seriously picked the wrong woman. While you've been whoring around town, or whatever the fuck you do, I've actually been working. That shit doesn't work on me."

"I will have respect! I will have power. I will never be loved, but I will be feared, and I will have more than I have ever had before. I will be the Demon Princess, and nobody, nobody, will ever look down on me again."

"Listen, I..." he began.

"Enough!" she barked, "be silent! Be silent, and witness your defeat like you're supposed to!"

She raised the sceptre, and the crystal at the tip burst into brilliant white light flooding the room. White fire seemed to wreathe the teifling's form, and then more flame burst around her, forming a blazing tornado.

It looked like an illusion – for one thing, it wasn't burning the floor. But he could feel the heat on his face. Instead of an illusion, it had to be something contained, magically stopped from spreading to its surroundings, yet just as deadly if you touched it. He scrambled backwards out of the way as it grew to engulf more of the room, Zarenis' own form now hidden behind the orange, roaring, wall.

He bit at the cord tying his wrists, but it was too well secured... and even if he could cast spells, what could he do against this? He had no idea.

And the Presence was coming.

──◊──

Zarenis found herself suspended in the middle of a vertical tube of fire, orange walls of flame spiralling around her, heading upwards to who knew what? She could feel the heat on her flesh, almost burning, and yet, for the time being almost comforting. She felt exultant, her emotions heightened, basking in a kind of euphoria that she felt was more than just the proximity of her final triumph.

She looked down. Her feet were suspended in the air, and below them she could see the great, hollow, corridor of fire stretching down for what she somehow felt had to be an almost unimaginably huge distance. Although, without any landmarks to measure it against, she could not say how she knew that.

Somewhere far beneath her was a roiling cloud of darkness, and, despite the distance, she sensed that it was rushing up towards her. Towards the physical world. Perhaps it was as clear a view of the Presence as she would ever get.

A voice sounded in her head, and she wondered if this was what Amloth had experienced. Yet it wasn't truly a voice, for she could not hear the sound of it, could not say whether it was deep or high-pitched, masculine or feminine. It was more as if words formed themselves within her head, a more detailed and clearer version of the way it had spoken to her before. She could not even say what language, if any, it was speaking in; she just knew the meaning of its words instinctively.

I COME, it said. I HAVE TRIUMPHED. THE PORTALS ARE OPEN, AND I ARRIVE. I AM THE OMEGA, THE HARBINGER OF THE ESCHATON, AND I BRING A NEW WORLD TO REPLACE THAT WHICH IS TO FALL. MY ENEMIES HAVE FAILED. I AM REBORN. I AM THE INEVITABLE OUTCOME OF FATE.

The sceptre blazed in her hand, white light drowning out even the glow from the fiery walls. She could hear the beating of a gigantic heart, and more than that, she could feel it resonating through her body, her own blood rushing through her ears in perfect time with the sound from below.

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