tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 41

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 41


Zarenis sat on the bed in her tiny apartment room, thick curtains drawn against the morning light outside. She had handed over the censer to Lady Amloth -- or at least, to her manservant, for she felt reluctant to meet the drow herself now. She had been invited in, which indicated that she was expected, but had declined the offer. She had fulfilled her mission, and was now rid of the infernal artefact that she had been hired to collect. In return, she had a large payment of gold coins, enough to keep her in relative comfort for a while.

So it should all have been over. That was it, mission accomplished, her part in Lady Amloth's schemes completed. Except, of course, that it wasn't.

She looked at the sceptre she held in her hands. It was made of a bluish-black metal, either crafted with some sort of pigment worked into it, or perhaps made of a substance she could not identify. Its tip bore a set of three sharp spikes, arching around a clear crystal with a slight tinge of yellow. Those spikes had proved deadly when she had used the thing as a weapon, making it almost as much a spear as a sceptre, although it was a little cumbersome to be used as a true weapon of war. The shaft was hexagonal, engraved with writing in what she could only assume was an infernal script unknown to her.

The sceptre had much the same effect on her as the censer, or perhaps the latter's effect had not faded. Either way, while she had the transformation under control, it took an effort of will to maintain her normal form, keeping herself from being more noticeable among normal humans than she already was. In that form, she looked even more demonic than her father had, and the tainted blood had run stronger in his veins than it did in hers. She wasn't comfortable with it, preferring to vanish into the background... but the problem was, the sceptre spoke to her.

Not in words, as such, it was simply the impressions of the Presence in her head, nudging her in its planned direction. Lady Amloth was its chief servant in Haredil, that much Zarenis knew, and she wondered why the drow apparently knew nothing of the sceptre. Perhaps she did, and was keeping it quiet, but she sensed that that was unlikely. Perhaps the Presence's plans were more complicated than its own followers realised.

The Presence wanted her to anoint the sceptre with her blood. She didn't know why, although clearly it had something to do with her specifically, since the Celestial's blood had clearly had no particular effect -- and the sceptre had been coated in that until it burned away. But Zarenis was beginning to feel doubt. She had followed the Presence's prior instructions, acquiring the sceptre in the first place, but that had almost got her killed, with only Nyvara's opportune distraction saving her life.

So should she do this? And, if she did, what would be the result? She didn't know.

She was tired now, and would have to reflect on it more the following night, after a good day's sleep. It would be, she believed, her last chance, for the night after that something happened. Something that was special about that night, although, yet again, she did not know what it might be. The moons were both full, she knew that much, but that happened almost every year, and this had to be something more significant than that. She supposed that, either way, in two nights' time, she would find out.

She put the sceptre down, gingerly, on the battered old dresser opposite her bed. It could wait, at least for now. Then she undressed, and climbed into bed, wrapping the sheets around herself as she succumbed to sleep.

On the dresser, the crystal at the sceptre's tip glimmered, briefly, a dull greenish light flickering over it. The Presence did not intend for Zarenis' sleep to be dreamless...


Age seven

Zarenis sighed as she bent over the broom, pausing just for a moment in her efforts to clean the floor. It was tiring work, but she had to keep the house clean for when Daddy came home. He would be angry if she did not, and it was scary when Daddy got angry. But he was all she had, all she had ever had, and, besides, what else could she do?

He had never talked about her mother, and the one time she had asked him he had shouted at her, told her that it didn't matter. She hadn't asked again. Her mother, she supposed, must be a normal human, like everyone else who lived in the houses nearby, because otherwise her horns would be long, like Daddy's, and her eyes would be blood-red too, not their actual garnet hue.

Would that be a good thing, she wondered? Then perhaps she would be scary, and the other children wouldn't tease her. Or would they be worse, because her heritage would be that much more obvious? But surely nobody had ever teased Daddy, had they?

But she looked the way she looked, and that was why she didn't mind staying in the house, keeping it clean, preparing her own food, as she had done ever since she was old enough to make the attempt. If you stayed indoors, you didn't have to face the other children, and they weren't nice to her. Especially the older ones, who sometimes kicked her, or pulled her hair. But even the ones her own age called her names, making fun of her horns, of her demonic heritage. The big children did that too, of course, but she didn't understand some of the words they used, although she knew they had to be bad.

So she stayed in here, away from people, away from the cruel world that only ever seemed to want to hurt her. At least, when Daddy was out, she could play games in her own mind, imagine a different world, in which she was a princess, or a powerful magician that nobody dared cross.

She finished up her work, and pulled some bread from a cupboard, tucking into it hungrily. She hadn't eaten all day, and Daddy had forgotten to go shopping again, so there wasn't anything else to eat, and she had been saving this until her work was done, even if it was going a bit stale now. She had to eat, after all.

The door slammed open, and Daddy staggered into the room from the darkened street beyond. He was drunk, again, red eyes bleary, unsteady on his feet. He glared at her.

"Lazy little girl," he snapped, "just sitting there, stuffing your face! I don't know why I fucking had you."

She scrambled back off the table, just managing to cram the last of the bread into her mouth. He didn't mean it, and he would be different in the morning, when he was sober. Then it would be all right.

"Fucking useless little... where's my food? What you made for me, huh?"

She hadn't made him anything, of course. There wasn't anything, and he had, in all probability, had whatever he was going to eat at the tavern, before he started drinking. But now he was hungry again, and angry with her. Which was never good.

She ducked out of the way as he aimed a slap at her, but fortunately he was too drunk to get anywhere near.

"You're a fucking waste, that's what you are!" He snarled, then seemed to give in trying to catch her, "oh, never mind. I'll just get something tomorrow, like I always have to. Because you are so fucking lazy, and I'm the only one who does any work around here. Go to your bed. Out of my sight, waste-of-space girl!"

She ran into what passed for her room, although it was really just a cupboard -- the house, frankly, wasn't big enough for much more. Slamming the door, Zarenis dived into her bed, one that was already too small for her, and pulled the sheets over her head, trying to drown out the banging and cursing from the next room.

Perhaps things would be better tomorrow.


Age fourteen

Zarenis stepped into the dark alley, casting her eyes about to make sure she was not being observed. The minor moon was almost full, casting its light -- fainter, and slightly more golden than that of the major moon, now below the horizon -- across the streets, but there was a patch here where two buildings came close together that was deep in shadow. No windows looked into this part of the alley, so, while it was far from ideal, it would do.

After all, she had to sleep somewhere.

She had walked out on her father just a few days ago, at last unable to put up with his abuse. Perhaps she should have done it years before, but she had been too young, and even now it was proving harder than she had imagined. She was desperately hungry, a gnawing chasm in her belly, and had barely managed to snatch a drink from some rainwater in a cistern earlier today.

She was nothing, she was nobody, a lost teenage girl wandering the streets with no means of support, and no roof over her head, owning nothing but the clothes she stood up in, and a kitchen knife she had taken for protection. She prayed she wouldn't have to use it.

She crouched down in the patch of darkness beneath the wall, and wrapped herself in the blanket she had managed to steal from a washing line the day before. For all that Haredil was hot through the day, it could get bitterly cold at night, the warmth rapidly vanishing into the cloudless, starry, sky.

She huddled down, long, ragged hair falling down over her face, and tried to sleep.

Her fitful doze was broken by the sound of footsteps, and she instinctively tried to push herself back into the wall, hoping she would not be seen. Too late, though, for the footsteps had stopped in front of her, and a man's silhouette was blocking the moonlight.

"Are you all right, my child?"

She didn't answer, kept her head bowed so that he couldn't see her face.

"Have you nowhere to go? There is an orphanage not far from here, somewhere you can get a little food. It isn't much, but it must be better than here. There will be other people like you there."

She still said nothing. She did not trust him, did not trust anyone. Why would he offer her help, when no one else ever had?

"You are frightened, I see that. But let me help you. You will be with others, safe and warm, at least. You can always leave if you change your mind. Why not try it, just for a night?"

She looked up at him, then, garnet eyes wide, hair falling back slightly from her face, trying to explain that other people her own age had never been safe for her to associate with. But she needn't have bothered, for he made her own argument for her.

He gasped as he saw her. "What?" he said, a steely note creeping into his voice, "let me see you!"

He reached out for her, and she saw the holy symbol of the Sun God on a cord about his neck. He grabbed her shoulder, and pulled her fringe to one side, exposing her forehead -- and the two miniature horns that sprouted there. They must just have become visible as she looked up towards him.

"I thought so! Demon-spawn! Tiefling!" He slapped her, hard, across the face, almost knocking her to the ground. "What obscene lusts spawned your creation, monstrous wretch?"

"I..." she began, but he would not let her continue.

"You think you can trick me? You think you can deceive me by pretending to be lost, and vulnerable? You want to get into the orphanage don't you? So you can corrupt the innocent with your demonic bile? Your filthy, evil, creed? Hell-spawned monster!"

He raised a walking stick, which she had not even noticed until now, and brought it down across her shoulders, striking her over and over. She tried her best not to scream, tried to huddle into a foetal ball, but tears welled up in her eyes despite her best intentions. At last, she could take no more.

"Stop it!" she shouted, turning on him, trying to grab the flailing stick, tears of pain and anguish pouring down her cheeks.

"Let go of me, you... thing!"

They tussled for control of the stick, but he wrenched it from her grasp and raised it over her head once more. In desperation, she lashed out with the kitchen knife hidden beneath her skirts, slashing up to ward off the blow, not even looking to see where it landed.

The knife hit something yielding, and warm liquid sprayed across her hand. Zarenis yanked it back, stifling a scream, and watched through blurry eyes as the man fell to his knees, and then flat onto his back. She crawled over to him, body still aching from his blows, and saw blood fountaining up from his neck.

His mouth was working, trying to form words, but he could not make any sound. His limbs thrashed, a random spasm as his face filled with an expression of fearful horror. After a while, he stopped moving, and his head lolled to one side. His eyes were still staring wide towards her, but he could no longer see.

Zarenis threw up, or tried to, nothing but painful acid burning her mouth as she dry heaved beside the cooling corpse. The enormity of what she had done began to sink in, and her body trembled with the horror of it.

But she had to survive, had to get away before he was found. Nobody would protect her if she did not protect herself. Once her stomach had settled itself she rubbed a dirty sleeve across her eyes, wiping away the tears as best she could. She grabbed the knife, clutching it to herself despite the warm blood still miring its blade.

And then she ran; alone, into the night.


Age eighteen

They were leading her through a tunnel, that much she could be sure of. She even had a vague idea where they were, although she wasn't going to tell them that. But, with the black bag over her head, she could see nothing and allowed them to lead her onwards.

Her hands were secured in front of her by a leather strap, although it was not tight enough to be painful. She wondered if that was to intimidate her, to stop her lashing out, or just to prevent her from pulling off the sack so that she could see where they were going. On reflection, it was probably all three.

At last, one of them broke the silence. "She don't look too bad with a bag over her head."

"Shut up," said the other one, "we got a job to do."

"Nah, but, be fair. Bit stringy, but not that bad."

"Give it a rest. You kinky for tieflings or something? Besides, we're almost there."

"Just saying..." muttered the first speaker, and then they lapsed into silence again.

They climbed up some steps, she managing to do admirably well, considering she couldn't see them, and then stepped into what was, from the sound of the echoes, some kind of stone-lined room. The bag was unceremoniously pulled from her head.

A man sat across from her, behind a low table with a hooded lantern sat on it, casting light in her direction, but not in his. She assumed it was supposed to be intimidating, but, with her unnatural night vision, it was probably less effective than the man hoped.

There were four others in the room with them; the two who had brought her in, and two standing behind the man across from her, one large and muscular, the other a gnome. The man himself had rich clothing underneath a plain cloak, and thinning hair swept back across his head. He was heavy-set, but more of that was fat than muscle. For a long time, he did not speak, simply looking over her, as if making an appraisal.

"Do you know who I am?" he said, after a while.

"Yes," she replied, "you're Ber..."

"Not my name!" he snapped, "my position!"

"You're the head of the Thieves' Guild."

"Exactly. How the fuck do you know my name, anyway? The people standing behind you don't know my bloody name!"

"I keep informed."

"She keeps informed," he said, to no one in particular. "She's a fucking teenager, and she keeps informed. Well, Miss Zarenis, you have doubtless been informed of what that means, of what the Guild is. And you, Miss Zarenis, have been stepping on our turf."

"I take what I need to survive."

"Do I look like I give a shit what your reasons are? But see, I'm a generous man, and, besides, we always need recruits. So you have got a choice, which I think you'll agree is remarkably kind of me, seeing as to how much you've been 'informed' about me."

"You can work for us," he went on, "or not. The 'not' tends to involve you lying dead in an alley somewhere if you carry on the way you are doing, and don't leave the city. So I'd recommend the first, but it's your choice."

There wasn't much to think about, really. "I'll join."

"Good! See, that was easy. I see potential for you, if you play your cards right. You got skill, at a young age, and, while, let's face it, you do kind of stand out in a crowd, we can always use skill. You're going to get real money, not just living hand to mouth like you have been. Just remember to always give us a cut, or it'll be the worse for you."

"And you come when we call, you do what we ask, when we ask it, and you don't argue when that happens. There's no being independent in this city. You're ours now, for always."


A few years ago

All things considered, the room wasn't in that bad a state. True, there were a couple of corpses being dragged into it, bodyguards that they'd had to eliminate after she'd helped them break in. Past, it had to be said, quite an impressive array of traps. But otherwise, the rich furniture and decorative artwork had hardly been disturbed. She could tell that the head of the Thieves' Guild lived in high style.

He, of course, was now kneeling in the middle of the room, ropes wrapped around his bulging torso and a wide gag over his mouth. He looked, she reflected, more angry than scared, dark eyes glaring at the people around him, defiant in the face of their treachery. His wife and teenage son, trussed up beside him, looked far more worried. As well they might be.

A newcomer stepped into the room, ducking his head under the doorway because of his height.

"Good evening, Berat," said the Rake. Berat looked at him with disgust. "No last words? Never mind. It was always going to come to an end eventually. You did know that, right? Nobody lasts forever in your position. Although, frankly, now that it's mine, I'm going to give it my best shot."

Nobody else said anything, letting the Rake speak. He was head of the Thieves' Guild now, not Berat. There would be adjustments after the coup, but they, at least, were on the right side of it. Zarenis herself was just the assistant, one of the crew that had helped them get in, although she expected a few considerations in return. But many of the others would be rewarded with senior positions in the new order, as Berat's more loyal lieutenants were, even now, being cleared away elsewhere.

"You have to admit, you haven't done too badly out of it so far," the Rake continued, waving his hand towards some of the artwork. "it's a nice place. But now that I am you -- as it were -- there is the small question of what we do with you. Although I imagine you have already guessed the general plan."

Berat stared at the traitor, his composure still not broken. But then, as one of the soon-to-be Guild lieutenants pulled his wife to her feet, at last some more fearful expression began to cross his face. The woman let out a terrified whimper, and the son cowered, too frightened to even look in his mother's direction.

"What are you doing, Scaggs?" asked the Rake.

"Takin' 'er upstairs; I don't want everyone else watching while I fuck her, do I? Though the rest of yer is welcome to form a queue outside the room, if yer like."

The woman let out a small scream behind the gag, and her legs trembled, so that she would have fallen had Scaggs not been holding onto her. Zarenis clutched her fists, helplessly. She had guessed this might happen, but even though she had come here prepared to kill, to do this as well seemed... somehow less clean.

"We don't have time," said the Rake.

"It won't take long." Somebody snorted at that, and Scaggs looked around in annoyance.

"I said: we don't have time." The Rake's voice was level, but full of menace, and Scaggs reluctantly pushed the woman back onto the floor. "Does anyone else want to ignore what I tell them?"

"Oh, good. Because now I am the head of this organisation. I got you here, and I will reward those who helped me, but woe betide anyone who thinks they can cross me. The man in front of you tried to cross me, and he was in a good deal stronger position than any of you are. Make no mistake, I am in charge now."

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