Sarlene's Touch Ch. 37byFuinimel©
"Let's..." said Tarissa, just as the corridor plunged into blackness, "...go!"
Her words vanished into the void as she felt herself being spun around, losing all sense of direction. The whirling stopped, but the light did not return. She steadied her breath, sword still held out in front of her, although how she would use it if she could not see anything she did not know.
"Is everyone here? Light!" she called out.
There was no response, and the way her voice echoed off the walls told her that the corridor was now empty. If it was even the same corridor, which she doubted. Whatever magic had extinguished the lights had also whisked them away to different parts of the complex, separating them, and making it difficult to find their way back together again – at least without giving away their location to their enemies.
The demon itself, she felt sure, would not be inconvenienced by anything as minor as the absence of light. The members of the harem should be as blind as she, though... assuming, of course, that Sashjant had not thought to equip them with some sort of magical item. The adventurers were at very much of a disadvantage, caught in a maze of corridors they did not know and could not even see. But how big could that maze be? There was no obvious limit, but surely magic could hide only so much?
She reached out, touched the wall. She was still in some sort of corridor, then. All she could do was keep moving forward, and perhaps she would find somewhere there was light. Or the demon would find her, which would at least give her the chance of doing something. She stepped forward, taking measured steps, trailing her left hand along the wall, holding her sword out in front of her, as if menacing the inky blackness ahead.
Her ears caught the sound of fighting. One of her companions, probably Dolrim, had found something, but she was not there to help. She picked up her pace, hoping to find some turning in the corridor that led in the right direction. Her hand found the wooden surface of a door. It was a little too regular to be real wood, even she could tell that, but it led in the direction of the sounds, no longer of fighting, but of muffled words she could not quite catch. That was not a good sign.
She yanked the door open, but there was only more blackness beyond. She stepped inside, waving her sword about but found nothing. Taking a few steps forward, the tip of her blade hit something soft. No sound though, no indications of movement. She stretched out her free hand, found what appeared to be a bale of cloth blocking her way. Soon she established that she had found nothing more exciting than a small storeroom, with no other exit. She bit back a curse of frustration, and stepped back out into the corridor. There could be dozens of rooms in here, and it would take long enough to search them all if she could see, let alone under these conditions.
Silence had descended once again. Had Dolrim been victorious? If he had faced the demon alone, that seemed doubtful, but it was by no means certain that he had. In addition to Sashjant hjmself, there should be four women in here. One of them was a warrior, a tall brunette who dressed in barbaric leathers, but the other three had seemed harmless enough, merely captives he had taken along the way, chosen for looks, not fighting prowess. A harem was, after all, not intended for personal defence, especially not for something that probably believed itself to be largely invulnerable in the first place.
She found another door; nothing but silent blackness beyond once again. There was no point in exploring that, then; it would be better to stay with the corridor. If Sashjant and the barbarian were prowling about looking for intruders, that was where they would be. At most she might find one of the other women cowering in a room, and she could not see how that would be useful. They would just give her position away, and she had no means of freeing them from their slavery.
She continued walking. Then, just as she turned a corner, her foot bumped into something soft. She knelt, feeling about with her hand. A woman, unconscious. It had to be the redhead, still under the effects of Almandar's spell. At least she knew she was close to the entrance now.
There was a soft sound behind her, and she span, still in a half-crouch, sword levelled as something whirred through the air towards her. It hit her, knocking her back, but not with great force. Too late, she realised that the thing was a net, with cords that magically wrapped themselves around her. Something tore, she could hear the sound, but could not tell what it was. She tried to stand, tried to throw the net off herself, but it was like fighting a creature with a dozen tentacles.
Even as she moved, the cords of the net tightened, forcing her legs into a kneeling position, thighs pinioned to her calves. They yanked her left arm into her side, and she sensed that only her gorget stopped them from strangling her. She could still move her sword arm... it must have been one of the cords she had heard tearing, cutting itself on the sharp blade. Which meant that she had a chance to cut herself free.
If only she could do so in time.
She grunted with exertion as the cords bit tighter, forcing her into an uncomfortable position, even the upper part of her sword arm bound to her chest, only free from the elbow down. She tried to pull it against the cords across her chest, hoping to free her other arm, or perhaps even both.
"Oh, I don't think so," said a voice, masculine and silky smooth. Her sword was pulled from her grasp, thrown away to clatter on the floor. She lashed out with her fist, for that at least was still free, but only caught her assailant a glancing blow. He laughed, cruelly. "That too, will avail you little. You are my prisoner, accept it. You have failed." Before she could reach for her dagger, he had pulled that loose, too. Evidently he could see perfectly well in the blackness, just as she had suspected.
She tried to pull herself up with her free arm, and grabbed at the cords around her body. Pulling them had no effect, it just made them constrict tighter. There was nothing she could do now, she realised, but wait and conserve her strength. Perhaps she would get a better opportunity later. Her companions were, after all, still out there – or so she hoped.
She heard the sound of a muttered spell, saw a flash of bluish light that somehow failed to illuminate anything around it, and then heard a woman groaning. Sashjant had obviously woken up the redhead.
"How many of them are there?" he asked, voice calm yet urgent.
"Four... I think... I only caught a brief glimpse. There might be more."
"Hah!" snorted Sashjant with a self-satisfied sound, "and four I have captured. You see, warrior woman," Tarissa could sense he had turned back to her now, "you have failed. Utterly, as do all who challenge me."
Four, thought the paladin. The woman had only seen four of them. She had missed one, most likely Vardala, with her small size, and at least one of them was free in the complex. Even if only one remained free, perhaps he or she could rescue the others. It was a thought worth holding on to. All was not yet lost, no matter what Sashjant believed.
"I can't be certain," said the woman's voice, "it was only a moment."
"Then let us take this captive to the throne room, and be sure." Sashjant grabbed at Tarissa's free arm, and began to drag her along the floor. He was clearly strong, she had to give him that, but what else could you expect from a demon?
"But I can't see!" wailed the redhead.
"It is a magical protection, part of the wards on this place. Follow the sound, Kara, you do not need me to help you."
Tarissa felt herself being unceremoniously pulled along a series of twisting corridors, moving deeper into the maze. She grit her teeth and put up with the indignity – there was nothing much to be achieved by complaining.
In fact, it was not long before she heard some doors being opened, and then light spilled across her face. She was dragged into a well-lit room, and then half-thrown, half-pulled against a series of scatter cushions.
The room was sumptuously decorated, and from her position on the floor she could see a number of chairs and low tables, one of the chairs high and gilded, which indeed fitted the description of a throne. There were statues here, too, of many-armed demons, prowling cats, and near-naked dancing girls. From her vantage point, she could just make out platters, pitchers, and bowls on the table tops, some of them brimming with rich food.
Sashjant stood back from her, looking down at his prize. He looked fully human, although of exotic extraction. His skin was dark, a rich brown colour, similar to that of many Jalibians, although his facial features were more akin to those of Haredil natives. He had long black hair that fell in a mane around his shoulders, a short, pointed beard, and midnight-black eyes that glowered with disdainful cruelty.
He had on a wrap-around robe of what appeared to be purple silk, trimmed in gold. Unlike the robes of Haredil wizards, it reached to just below his knees, and she could see he was wearing matching silk trousers and white slippers decorated with silver thread, A wide, golden belt circled his waist, tightening the robe to show off the power of his shoulders and muscular chest beneath the silk.
"You brought the sword?" he asked, evidently speaking to Kara, who had just entered the room, blinking in the sudden light. "Never mind. Put it on the table, it is of no use to her. Now, close the door, there is something I must do."
The redhead acted obediently, as Sashjant moved to sit on his throne. There was an orb set into the right arm-rest, a black glossy sphere over which the demon moved his hand. "There," he said, a moment later, "now we will not be interrupted."
"You see," he said, standing up and walking over to the captive paladin, "just in case there are any more of you, I have shielded this room with a disorientation spell. Even if anyone could find it in the darkness, they will lose all sense of direction, and be turned away from the door. Only my own followers are safe from the effect. I believe I have captured all of your companions, but even if I have not, nobody is coming to save you."
She tried not to let the disappointment show. There was always a chance, so long as she remained alive, no matter how small it might be becoming.
"But let us see. Open your mind to me, mortal woman, and tell me what you know."
He leaned closer, dark eyes wide, a hypnotic gaze that she could sense boring into her soul. She sent a hurried, silent, prayer to Pardror and then closed her mind of all thoughts. It was part of the spiritual training of her order, a part of the mental discipline required of paladins. She locked eyes with the demon, imagining a solid wall in her mind's eye, Her other thoughts she pushed to the back of her mind, out of reach of the demon's probing mental fingers. She could feel those fingers, testing the imaginary wall, jabbing and searching for a way in, a most unpleasant sensation in her head, yet one she steadfastly refused to overwhelm her.
Sashjant snarled and pulled back, baring his teeth, and banging a table in frustration. "She has had some training to resist this... some method that keeps me out! I can sense her thoughts, but not read them. Curse you, human – do not think that this will stop me."
He visibly calmed himself down, stroking his robe, although it was not really ruffled, and turned back to Kara, standing dutifully by the side of the room. "You said there were four of them. What did they look like?"
"A dwarf, a man, and a woman – and her, of course," she indicated Tarissa, "the man had dark hair, that was all I had time to see. Oh, and he was not wearing armour."
"The dwarf I have captured myself," said Sashjant proudly, "Geska has him captive. She hates dwarves, you know," he added conversationally to the paladin, "now that I know I don't need him, I suppose I will let her kill him, if she wishes. Gut'rul has the man, she sent me a message," Tarissa wondered how she had done that; perhaps it was part of the magical hold he had over them, "so he need not concern us, either."
He paused, cocking his head to one side, as if listening. "The woman... yes, someone has entered Rupinder's study, that must be her. Well, if she is not captured, we can still neutralise her." He stepped back to the throne, and placed his hand on the orb once more. "The door to the study is now locked. Only Rupinder and I can open it. So, if this stranger overcomes my woman, she will be trapped inside. But, if Rupinder overcomes her... then, we have no problem,"
"All defeated," he added with a grin, stepping back from the throne. "Now it only remains to discover how they got in, and seal the gap. And to find what happened to Mei-Xing." He turned towards Tarissa, looking down at her trussed up form. "Have you killed her? She does not answer my sendings, and she has not come back. So she is either dead, or held captive somewhere I cannot reach. Which is it?"
The paladin, naturally, said nothing.
"No, I thought you would require more persuasion to tell me. Of course, I could read the mind of one of your companions; they cannot all be as shielded as you. But there is another possibility."
"You strike me, warrior, as a woman of honour and principle," he spat the words, as if they were a curse, "the sort that feels the need to help others. Perhaps you wanted to 'rescue' my followers, not realising that they enjoy my company, and serve my superior majesty as all mortals should. But, yes, protect the weak, all that crap, never allow the innocent to suffer needlessly."
"Well, what else are the innocent for? They aren't much use for anything, now are they? So I'll tell you what I am going to do. The two men are of little interest, and I know they are captive, but the other woman. Ah, now, she may be trapped, but Rupinder is not too strong, so how do I know what has happened? I will go there, and make certain that she is captured, if she is not already. It is a pity I cannot use the net, but it seems to be busy with you at the moment, and it is not as if I have no other powers. Either way, I shall capture her, and bring her here."
"Then, I shall torture and rape her while you watch. Every time you answer a question of mine honestly, I shall spare her one little bit of pain. How does that sound?"
The paladin glared at him, struggling not to allow the hatred and anger to overcome her emotions. If he was somehow able to actually carry through on his threat, that might become impossible, but for now she just managed to keep a check on her rage. This creature was truly a monster.
Sashjant grinned, a flash of amusement. "Well, we shall see, shan't we?" he asked, his voice almost gleeful.
"This is the sort of thing you enjoy?" she said, keeping her voice steady. She did not want to rise to the bait, but the longer she could keep him talking, the more chance she might have. "You think you are justified in what you do? Do the feelings of others matter so little to you? Your philosophy, if I can even call it such, is empty and barren."
"Oh, I think not," replied the demon, "if the weak do not wish to be dominated, they should not be weak. Yes, I am more powerful than any mere mortal, but that is because I have supernatural power in my veins, it would be an insult for me not to use it. It is my right and my destiny to rule over humans."
"And it is pleasurable, let me assure you. The strong rule over the weak, because that is the way of the universe. Without it, we would all be dragged down by the pathetic mewling sops of gutter humanity. Lessened, cheapened, by their gutless, worthless, lives. There would be mere anarchy, and anarchy of the most debased kind."
"Do you believe we should help people? That we should protect the innocent? Let them protect themselves, if they can! It is not for us to waste our energy doing their work for them. The weak disgust me, the innocent disgust me, for they do not have the courage to do as they should. And those who disgust me... they are lucky if I let them live. I am power, and majesty, and a superior intellect that cows mere mortals before me. I will not debase myself with their craven stupidity."
"Your beliefs are a weakness, and I shall show it to you. I shall show it to when I rape your friend in front of you, and you know that you are powerless to stop it. You will either tell me what I want to know, thus proving your inferiority, or you will betray your ridiculous rules of honour. Either way, I will have proven myself right, and proven you wrong in your beliefs."
"And all the while, as I torment your friend, you will be quaking in fear, because you know that, once I have finished with her, it shall be your body that I defile next. Think on that, human!"
He strode towards the door, clearly uninterested in any further conversation, but it opened before he even got there. A woman strode into the room; Tarissa instantly recognised her as one of the harem, the dark-skinned one who had appeared to be a secretary or clerk of some kind.
"Ah, Rupinder," said Sashjant, "I see that you must have..."
"You bastard!" screamed the woman, hurling a dagger in the demon's direction.
He was so surprised that he did not even try to dodge, standing there open-mouthed as the knife thudded into his chest. He looked down at it, uncomprehending, and then up at Rupinder.
"I don't understand..." he said, pulling the knife out casually. Even from where she was lying, Tarissa could see that the wound closed up almost instantly, leaving no sign of injury through the slash in Sashjant's robe.
From the blackness through the doorway came a stream of glowing white magical missiles, and this time, the demon did move, although he could not avoid them all, and bursts of light showered around him, causing him to shout in anger and apparent pain, as his hands moved in a blur to cast his own spells.
Even as he did so, Sashjant's skin rippled, his body warping and transforming as he took on his true form. Orange and black fur sprouted over his head and hands, and a whiter patch on the exposed parts of his chest, where the robe had been slashed and come partly open. His shape changed little, save for developing an even more powerful muscular physique, but his face was stretching out into an animal-like snout.
It took only a brief moment, and then Sashjant's true form was revealed. A tall, athletic humanoid, furred, and with a striped head that, colouration aside, looked rather like that of a lion, albeit without the mane. Strong and sharp teeth glistened as he growled, an inhuman snarl from the back of his throat.
It came as no surprise to Tarissa to see Calleslyn rushing into the room, a magical ward raised in front of her, and already preparing to cast another spell. But where was Almandar? Sashjant had implied that he had been captured, and, so far, there was no sign that Calleslyn had been able to free him. Would the elven magician be able to take down the demon on her own?
The red-headed woman – Kara – ran across the room, reaching out for what appeared to be a wand laid on one of the tables. It was unclear whether she intended to use it herself or pass it to Sashjant, although her intention to protect her master was undoubted. But she never reached the table, for Rupinder caught her in a flying tackle, knocking her to the floor, where the pair struggled violently.
Tarissa fumed at her helplessness as bolts of magical energy began to fly across the room. Sashjant had raised a shield that deflected spells, but he still had not managed to land any decisive blow on his assailant. So far the battle was even, but there was nothing the paladin could do to help out.