Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Though her body lay tossing restlessly in Willow's, sweat-slicked, her mind was elsewhere, adrift on the storm-tossed reaches of her fevered mind. In her dreams, she stood facing a broad plain of crosshatched fields, divided by ramshackle wooden fences. A few of the fields carried crops of wheat, barley or corn, but most were bare, nothing but dry, crumbling dirt.
It wasn't a scene that Tara consciously remembered, but in her dream state it somehow felt ... familiar, as if she had been there before. It was only when she turned, rotating on the spot without moving her legs, as if she stood atop a turntable, that Tara realized where she stood.
The farmhouse was as she remembered it. Seen through a child's eyes, you didn't notice the thinning thatch on the roof, the crumbling whitewash on the walls, or the broken shutters hanging crookedly from a single hinge, for want of the coin to repair it. You saw a home, a place of warmth and comfort.
Tara was a child again, her face pudgy with baby fat, her hair in golden ringlets. Above her, the sky was flickering, impossibly changing from sunny to stormy from second to second. Clouds zipped to and fro like shooting stars across the firmament.
The farmhouse's weathered front door swung open, and a figure was suddenly standing before her; her father. He spoke, but even though his mouth was moving, the words that came were out of sync with his lips. They were familiar words too, words that Tara had long ago consciously forgotten, but that had still haunted her dreams ever since she had first been sold into slavery.
"Tara ... this isn't what I wanted, you have to believe that. I never wanted this for you."
Then why are you doing this to me? Tara heard the words, spoken in her own voice, but her lips never moved.
"I don't have any choice, dear heart. This was the only thing I could do ... and you're strong, Tara. Stronger than you know. You can survive this, I know you can!"
No, I can't. I'm scared, so scared. I'm always scared.
"No matter what, dear heart, remember that we love you."
A howling wind blew in from behind her, cold, bitter and heavy with twenty years worth of anger and resentment. In the face of a gale of such potent fury, Tara's father never stood a chance; he blew away in an instant, exploding into a million swirling grains as if he had been transfigured into a pillar of salt.
The world spun as Tara slipped deeper into her delirium, and in the distance she heard sobbing that she vaguely recognized as belonging to her mother.
Rren sniffed in distaste as he grudging surveyed his surroundings. He stood in a low-roofed cellar, hunched slightly to avoid dashing out his brains on one of several thick bracing beams that lined the roof like the bones of a ribcage. Bundles of herbs, links of sausage and other, less savory items hung from hooks screwed into the roof, making the room an obstacle course to navigate. The only light sources were a single smoky torch hanging from a rusty iron bracket near the door, and the coals glowing slightly in a brazier at the other end of the room. Smoke, gloom and a foul-smelling incense alike conspired to limit his vision.
Through the swirling miasma that stood in for air in the room emerged a hunched figure, head wrapped in a filthy shawl and wearing a bulky overcoat that bulged in places that the human form was never meant to. A pipe protruded from the approximate location of their mouth, and a quick puff stoked a brief glow in its bowl that illuminated a wrinkled face and a single bulging eye.
Beside Rren, his timorous milksop of a lackey, Drew, squeaked pathetically. Rren glared briefly at his toady, secretly glad of the opportunity to hide his own alarm with a show of arrogant superiority.
"'Ello dearies!" cackled the old woman, grinning a two-toothed smile.
Rren cleared his throat, once, twice. "You are Mother Crankle, yes?"
Mother Crankle, sometimes known in the back alleys and slums of Devastapol as Old Mother Crone, smacked her nearly toothless gums together and nodded, chuckling disturbingly. Depending upon who in Devastapol you asked, Mother Crankle was a fraud or a wise woman, a hedge-witch or a nigh-peerless sorcerer. Some stories claimed she consorted carnally with demons, others that she was a demon herself, bound into human form so that she might more easily work her dark mischief.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the one thing that nearly everyone agreed upon was that, if you were willing to pay her price, Mother Crankle could give you your heart's desire.
"There's some that calls me that, dearie," the hag confirmed. "Now, are you just come a'courtin' lil' ol' me?" She lowered her head coquettishly, as if she were a blushing maiden faced with her first suitor, then cackled evilly, seizing the hem of her moth eaten skirt and hoisting it above her waist.
Rren recoiled in disgust, slamming his eyes together, desperate to avoid any chance of seeing Mother Crankle's time-ravaged nether regions. In his haste, he nearly knocked himself unconscious upon a nearby beam. Drew was not quite so lucky, and spilled himself to the earthen floor with a rising lump upon his brow. The hag laughed vindictively again, clapping delightedly at their display like a spiteful child.
Hand flying to the bejeweled hilt of his rapier, Rren was on the verge of baring steel at the insult to his overweening pride ... but the sudden cruel gleam in Mother Crankle's solitary eye gave him pause. She nodded slightly as Rren took his hand from his hilt, puffing contentedly on her pipe, and some obscure instinct told Rren that he had just saved his own life.
Beckoning for them to follow, the old woman turned and moved further into the gloom, leading them to a trio of rickety stools. Choosing the most substantial one for herself, Mother Crankle sat with all the grace of a sack of grain and indicated for her visitors to do likewise. Rren eventually did so, after Drew, prompted by a pointed glare, had covered his master's seat with a square of embroidered linen.
Fixing both men with a measuring stare, Mother Crankle sat in silent contemplation for a minute or two, occasionally blowing smoke rings into the already thick air of her abode. Finally, when Rren was on the verge of his own indignant verbal explosion, she spoke.
"Don't get persons of your ... obvious caliber hereabouts too much," she remarked, and Rren either chose to ignore the blatant sarcasm in her voice, or he was so wrapped up in his own sense of self-importance to notice it.
Instead, he sniffed in disdain, regarding his filthy surroundings with disgust. "I'm not surprised," he muttered to himself. "Mother Crankle," he continued in a more normal tone, "I have need of your services."
"But whatever need could one of the good and mighty of Devastapol have for my meager talents?" gasped the crone in a mocking, little-girl-lost tone. She leered. "Could his lordship be sheathing his weapon too early? Or does he have trouble even getting his sword ... up?"
Seemingly from out of nowhere, the crone raised an obscene polished black stick, shaped in the fashion of a rampant male member, thrusting it suggestively in Rren's direction from between her own thighs. She cackled again in degenerate delight at the expression on their faces.
Ignoring her, Rren forged on. "Something was stolen from me. A slave girl. I want the whore back, and I hear you can help me find where this thieving slut has taken my property."
Mother Crankle raised a single withered and patchy eyebrow. "Could it be that this little sweetling's honey-pot is so sweet as to be worth Mother Crankle's hire-price? Are the charms of her flesh so enticing? Perhaps Mother Crankle should keep this sweetmeat for herself then, hmm?" One of the hag's withered hands had disappeared beneath her skirt, and could be seen moving beneath it at the apex of her thighs.
Though his lips tightened, Rren did not take the bait. "My reasons are my own, old woman, and as such are none of your concern," he snapped. "Now, can you do this, or do I take my gold elsewhere."
"Oh, I can find your stolen songbird, dearie, no fear of that." A dark hunger grew in Mother Crankle's cyclopean gaze as she stared at Rren with hidden meaning. "But while gold has its glitter, indeed, Old Mother Crone has other, stronger appetites to sate."
"Your ... price will be paid, in full, old woman. All of it," confirmed Rren, with a look of distaste flitting across his features. Mother Crankle licked her lips, naked hunger abruptly visible upon her ancient face.
"Then pay it!" she demanded greedily.
Rren shook his head. "The gold first, the ... rest after the task is done."
Mother Crankle frowned, but finally spat in the dirt and nodded, holding out one hand. Reaching inside his silk coat, Rren withdrew a sizable purse, heavy with golden coins. Hesitating, Rren handed the purse to Drew instead, and indicated with a flick of his chin for his manservant to pay the witch.
Gulping, Drew did as he was instructed, reaching out to lay the purse in Mother Crankle's palm. As he released his burden, Mother Crankle snatched at him, catching Drew by the wrist and yanking him off balance with surprising strength. The purse fell to the ground, ignored. Drew yelped and cringed, trying to free his arm from the hag's iron grasp with no success. Instead, she dragged him ever closer, until she extended an unusually long tongue and licked a slobbering path the length of Drew's palm.
"You taste of fear," whispered Mother Crankle huskily, the voice a women usually reserved for the throes of passion. Drew whimpered, then yelped again when she released him just as abruptly as she'd grabbed him in the first place.
Moving with surprising haste for one so old, Mother Crankle stooped, snatching up the purse of gold and scuttling further into the gloom of her lair. With the gloom and smoke, it was nigh on impossible for Rren to see everything that she was doing. Instead, she faded in and out of sight, darting here and there, plucking items seemingly at random from shelves against the walls or hanging from ceiling beams. But even when she was gone from sight, he could still hear her, shuffling about in the darkness like an over sized, malevolent rat.
Left with no other choice, Rren and Drew waited, Drew rubbing his palm compulsively against his trousers in a vain attempt to remove the memory of Mother Crankle's saliva. The scritch-scratch sound of the hag's feet drew closer, and she burst forth from an especially thick bank of smoke.
"I need something of hers to anchor the spell," she brusquely demanded.
Rren nodded, waving at Drew. "I was told as such."
Drew reluctantly withdrew a small canvas sack from inside his coat. He began to hold it out to the witch, but thought better of it, and tossed it at her instead. Snatching it from the air with the vigor normally seen in a much younger person, Mother Crankle rummaged through the sack and withdrew a sweat-stained shift and a snaggle-toothed wooden comb that had once belonged to Tara. A number of golden hairs were still trapped between the teeth of the comb, Mother Crankle noted with a satisfied nod. Before she scuttled back into the gloom, she balled up the shift and held it to her nose, breathing deeply as if she were a bloodhound taking the scent.
And so they waited again, listening in horrified silence as Mother Crankle worked her unnatural arts in the gloom beyond their sights. Inexplicable sounds came at irregular intervals, shredding the tense silence, and leaving it all the deeper when they left. Eerie lights flashed, burned and pulsed, setting the basement alive with dancing, inhuman shadows that vanished as soon as they appeared. The air grew heavy and oppressive, as if a great, unseen storm were about to tear the room apart with its inexorable fury.
By the time that Mother Crankle drew near once more, Drew was cringing and on the verge of tears, while his master was sweating heavily, and maintaining a grip on his own thighs that threatened to leave bruises.
"It is done," Mother Crankle announced, holding out her hand. Dangling from it was a plain brass compass, hanging from a cheap iron chain.
Rren scowled at the compass, perhaps subconsciously protesting against the way he had been treated. "And what," he demanded sourly, "is that supposed to be?"
"Your stolen strumpet is at sea, dearie. So while I could tell you were she is now, she wouldn't be there when you got there to reclaim her, now would she?" cackled the hag. "Whereas yonder compass ... well, let's just say that you'll always know what direction to go in now."
Rren simultaneously smiled in triumph and adopted an arrogant smirk; it was an expression he'd been consciously practicing in front of a mirror, under the impression that it made him look superior. His underlings hadn't had the courage to inform their master that it only made him look constipated.
As he reached out to claim his prize, the crone seized his wrist in the same manner as she had Drew's. But rather than taunting, the look in her eyes was of a great and terrible hunger. "My payment," she demanded, the papery skin of her bony, age-spotted hand uncomfortably tight on Rren's wrist.
Rren jerked his head towards the exit. "Fetch it," he ordered, and Drew gratefully fled on scurrying feet. When he returned, it was with considerably less enthusiasm ... and he wasn't alone.
Dragged in Drew's wake was a young woman, perhaps fifteen or sixteen summers in age, clad in a plain, threadbare servant's dress. Like Tara had been, she was another of Rren's slaves, albeit one that worked in his kitchen rather than his bed. The girl was on the verge of tears, and terror was painted openly on her face. Servants' gossip had long insisted that a terrible fate awaited those dragged as payment into Mother Crankle's lair.
When Drew shoved her at the hag, Mother Crankle relinquished her hold on Rren in an instant in favor of the girl who was her payment. For her part, the slave girl froze in abject terror at the touch of Mother Crankle's hand, as the crone scuttled around her, circling like a hungry shark as she cooed in sinister delight beneath her breath.
While the witch was thusly distracted, Rren sneaked a peak inside his prize. Finding the needle within pointing firmly out to sea, creeping southwards with interminable slowness, he was satisfied that the compass would work as the witch claimed.
Turning to Drew, he issued an order to prepare the fastest ship in his small fleet to sail as soon as possible. A strangled shriek of fear and humiliation, accompanied by the sound of tearing cloth, drew his attention back to Mother Crankle. The witch had torn open the front of the slave girl's dress, baring her breasts for all to see. When she tried to cover her nakedness, Mother Crankle slapped the slave girl's hands away so that the witch could fondle their plump, firm weight herself.
Turning his back in disgust, Rren started for the door, calling his farewell over his shoulder. "I'll leave you to your .... business, shall I?"
The witch's voice, heavy with a previously unheard thread of iron command, brought Rren to an instant halt. It was as if something in her voice had bewitched him, left Rren unable to even do so much as raise his boots from the ground. But he could turn, and did so, looking back at the witch and her new victim.
Mother Crankle stood behind the slave girl now, her face somehow visible over the other girl's shoulder despite the fact that she should have been several feet shorter. Her arms reached around from behind, still cupping the slave girl's breasts, her fingers absently tweaking the nipples although there was no sign of lust or even arousal on the witch's face. The slave girl's expression was now slack and apathetic, the face of cattle on their way to the slaughter yard.
"The whelp may go," she intoned with nigh-ceremonial inflection, and with a final apologetic glance at his master, Drew fled as fast as his feet could carry him. "But you ..." she directed at Rren with sudden malicious delight, "You must stay, and watch your price be paid."
Rren tried to protest, but his lips refused to move, his tongue remaining sullenly still in his mouth like a dead garden slug.
Mother Crankle's tongue protruded from between her lips, slender, pointed, and far, far longer than any human tongue had any right to be. It flicked like a whip, and beneath that sharp tip the pale skin of the slave girl's throat parted in a thick, warm red wash of blood. Retracting that lethal, amphibian tongue, Mother Crankle set her withered lips to that pulsing gash and drank, her sharp gaze never wavering from Rren's appalled face.
The witch drank, throat working rhythmically as the slave girl's lifeblood spurted into her throat in time with the dying girl's faltering heartbeat. As she died, the slave girl made no noise, not even a gasp or whimper as her skin began to lose it's color from blood loss. The knowledge of her impending demise never showed in her languid eyes, drunk and bewitched by the crone's power, not even as her tender flesh grew cold and waxy.
And still the witch drank, long past the point where any blood flowed in her victim's veins. For she was drinking the doomed girl's life, her youth and vigor. She drank the possibility of the life her victim might once have had, she drank the very potential of the children that might, one day, have quickened within her womb. She drank her victim's soul.
And still, she drank.
She drank until the other girl's flesh was as hard and cold as stone, as blue and lifeless as ice, until minuscule cracks crazed the stone of her cheeks, and her hair was stiff and brittle as dried grass. Finally, Mother Crankle stopped, pulling back with a smack of her lips, lips that were now full and firm and pouting sensuously. Rren's eyes widened as he realized that she was staring at him with two gleaming eyes instead of one.
Mother Crankle, crone no more, swept majestically out from behind the slave girl's statue-corpse, trailing long, nimble fingers across the stone of her victim's shoulders. The tattered rags of her clothes fell away in her wake, leaving the witch naked as the day she'd been born, or hatched, or spawned.
This time, Rren did not recoil from the sight of her nudity; indeed, he wouldn't even if he could have. Freed from the ravages of time and sin alike by the young girl's sacrifice, Mother Crankle was breathtakingly beautiful. Her skin was a flawless expanse of alabaster perfection over a king's ransom of curves and taunt muscle that had Rren stiffening in his breeches despite the terror clawing at his soul like a trapped rat.
Terror, yes, for despite the decadent lushness of her body, those full, firm breasts with nipples that jutted like spear-tips in a state of permanent arousal, despite the cold beauty of her face, with chin bones so sharp it seemed as if they could be used to pare fruit, despite the lips that begged to steal passionate kisses, despite the dusky eyes that promised carnal delights previously undreamed of ...
Despite all of that, it was not a human beauty. It was the kind of beauty that drew you to the pinnacle of earthly delight, and beyond .... and then it consumed you whole. Somehow, Rren knew this, but that knowledge alone wouldn't have kept him from the pleasures of the witch's flesh. It was the knowledge that all of the power, all of the control that would exist in their coupling would not be his. It would be hers. And Rren's overweening ego would never allow a mere woman, no matter how inconceivably desirable, to lord it over him.
"Am I not beautiful, child of man?" asked Mother Crankle, her voice a symphony of desire that begged to gasp and moan in the carnal song of intercourse. Her hands trailed up over her bountiful curves to cup the perfection of her breasts. "Am I not ... desirable?"
In fear for his very soul, twisted and deformed though it might be, Rren squeezed his eyes shut. Mother Crankle laughed softly, and even that was a warm promise of ecstasy that Rren's innards cramped in desire. He sensed her drawing nearer, until the warmth of her breath tickled against his cheek.
"Our contract is fulfilled," whispered Mother Crankle sensuously, and as easy as that, Rren was restored to freedom. Without so much as opening his eyes before his back was turned, Rren fled, and Mother Crankle's mocking laughter chased him as he fled.
Tara floated naked in a great ocean, the bitterly cold water freezing her extremities as she bobbed above an endless chasm filled with the void of eternity. Her hair spread out in a great golden fan in the water about her head, providing the only dash of color in a word that seemed constructed of nothing but gray. Even Tara's skin was gray, sapped of vitality and youth.
Great predatory fish swam in the watery void beneath her, fish made up of a lifetime's worth of terrible memories. They circled her like the sharks they looked like, hungry and lusting for the taste of her pain, the blood of her anguish. Every now and then, one would dart in to tear and rip and worry at her naked flesh, and at the touch of their teeth, painful memories would assail her.
Over and over, Tara was forced to relive the worst moments of her life in vivid, nightmarish detail. In some cases, specific details were warped and twisted by her delirium to make these memories worse, driving the barbs even deeper. Her mother danced happily, and her father laughed as he counted the gold coins that spilled endlessly into his palm, as slavers stripped her naked in the background. Her former masters capered and japed as they subjected her to torment after torment, even those scant few who had shown her some modicum of kindness.
Tara saw again the great slave-house where she had been trained to pleasure her masters. She suffered again the strokes of the cane against the soles of her feet when she displeased her teachers. Again, she silently cried herself into a fitful sleep night after night in the mass dormitories.
She saw Embeth, a fellow slave with whom she had formed a tenuous friendship in the slave-house, and with whom she'd illicitly traded her very first kisses in the dark, when they thought everyone else asleep. She experienced again the terror of discovery, the heartbreak of being forced to watch Embeth being flogged until her blood flew freely. Once more, she experienced the loneliness when Embeth had been sold soon after, and vanished from Tara's life, never to be seen again.
All of these memories, and a thousand more bedeviled her, surrounding her, dragging her down, beating her body, breaking her spirit, telling her over and over that she was worthless, that she was nothing, less than nothing. A object that existed for nothing but the purpose of pleasuring whoever held her chains.
Tara had heard these words for almost longer than she could remember, heard them so often that she found herself muttering them herself, heard them so often that she believed them. When everyone you knew told you something, eventually, how could you believe anything different.
But not every part of Tara believed that. Deep down, buried so deep within herself that even Tara barely knew it was there, the faintest of embers still burned. The flame of self-belief, the sense of self-worth, of individuality, the idea that she was her own person, deserving of freedom and happiness. It still existed, it still refused to die, when every other trace of the carefree young girl Tara had once been had been beaten out of her, her spirit broken and crushed under foot.
This tiny guttering flame, this fragile ember was all that was keeping Tara alive. And it was threatening to go out.
The hood was plucked roughly from Trick's head, leaving him blinking at the sudden reversion from darkness to light. With a haughty sniff at the retreating roughneck who had removed his hood, Trick began straightening imaginary creases in his carefully planned outfit. In reality, such foppishness was just another part of his habitual disguise; he was actually surveying his surroundings with a keen and practiced eye.
Faith sat beside him, hands folded with deceptive demureness in her lap. Her head was bowed, as was the raven-haired beauty's habit. Trick had seen such a pose lure Faith's prey into a state of foolish complacency, time and again, even when her mark was someone who really should have know better.
The outfit she wore assisted the disguise. Forgoing her usual utilitarian and slightly mannish garb, Faith wore what was, in theory, a dress, although it constantly promised to show more of the lush beauty's flesh than it covered. The long skirt was slit all the way up to her thigh on both sides, and was of a gauzy, see-through material to boot. Her impressive bosom was on prominent display, lifted up and pressed together by the whalebone corset she wore beneath a low-necked, sleeveless blouse of black silk slashed through with crimson. Her bountiful raven curls were expertly gathered up at the back of Faith's head, held in place by a pair of long bone skewers. Black lace gloves that reached all the way up to mid bicep, and calf-high, stiletto heeled boots of gleaming black leather completed the outfit.
They were sitting on a pair of rough stools in the center of large room, the corners of which were still shrouded in shadow. The roof was high above them, and much of the walls were hidden by wooden crates stacked one atop another, which led Trick to the conclusion that they were in a warehouse somewhere.
That stood to reason, given who they were meeting. The criminal syndicate that called itself Arkady was a loose confederation of thieves that habitually plied the dock regions of the cities that they had infiltrated. Their usual business came from the extortion of protection monies from the owners of the innumerable commercial warehouses that lined the docks, and the theft of whatever valuable cargo caught their eyes.
They were also the usual middleman for any smuggling operations flowing in or out of Devastapol, which was why Trick had wrangled this meeting with the head of the local Arkady chapter. It hadn't been an easy thing to arrange; the thieves had made Trick leap through any number of hoops until they had finally satisfied themselves that he wasn't working for either the city watch, or a rival criminal organization.
There were a smattering of thieves surrounding them, seven in number, mostly strong-arm men and enforcers by the look of them. Most of them followed the same template; big, brawny and ugly, although one of their number was a hard-faced woman, long, lean and bony. Experience told Trick that in a fight, she would a more significant threat than many of her larger male compatriots; in such a male dominated field, a woman had to be twice as tough and three times as mean to succeed.
Just in front of the stools where Trick and Faith sat stood a solid oak table, the surface of which was notched and scarred by what, disturbingly, appeared to be the marks of knife, sword and axe. It was an unsubtle attempt at intimidation that was entirely wasted on both Trick and Faith; they'd both perpetrated far more violent acts than anything these back alley thugs had ever seen.
On the other side of that table, sat the man Trick had come to meet, the local Arkady master, colloquially known by his cronies and contemporaries alike as Willy the Weasel. As his moniker suggested, Willy was a scrawny little rodent of a man, with pinched features and slicked back hair. But given that he had risen to the top of a notoriously violent criminal syndicate, Trick knew that this 'Weasel' wouldn’t be a fool.
His survey completed, Trick finished his preening and let an unctuous, empty smile slip into place as he nodded in greeting, allowing his 'host' to have the first word.
If Trick expected to have such courtesy returned, he was due to be disappointed. "So what d'ya want?" Willy asked disinterestedly, plucking a date from a dish on the table and popping it in his mouth. "You're keeping me from my bed. And since my bed currently has a pair of excitable and exceptionally affectionate twin sisters in it, I'm sure you can understand my desire to get back."
"I have a business proposition for you," responded Trick urbanely.
Willy's response was blunt and immediate. "Nicked, or fenced?"
Trick raised a precisely trimmed eyebrow. "I beg pardon?"
"Do you want something nicked, which is to say stolen," Willy explained, speaking slowly, as if to a child or an especially dim minion. "Or fenced, which is to say you wanna sell me something you've nicked?"
Despite himself, Willy looked intrigued by Trick's response. "Well, what d'ya want from me then? Unless ya wanna pay me for protection?" Willy looked around at his flunkies in amusement. "It'd be nice if people started doing that of their own accord, wouldn't it. Usually, we have ta apply a little ... persuasion."
Willy's lackeys chuckled menacingly on cue.
"What I require from you, and the other members of your criminal fraternity," announced Trick, "is death."
There was a stir amongst the Arkady enforcers, an angry mumble that Willy silenced with a flick of his hand. "Ya would threaten us here, now? Stranger, I would call ya brave, but bravery has it's limits and ya have far overstepped 'em."
Trick smiled emptily, and spread his hands in apology. "The deaths I desire do not belong you, nor to any of your number, good sir. The life I require ended is that of a common smuggler, the captain of a vessel called the Wild Rose."
Willy frowned. "Ya want Willow dead?"
Trick's smile grew wider, and it was as cold and unforgiving as the gold that formed his teeth. "Her, and every last man, woman or child aboard her ship."
Tenting his fingers, Willy regarded Trick thoughtfully. "Willow works for me ... but then I think ya already knew that, didn't you?" Trick confirmed his suspicion with a slight nod. "The Wild Rose and her captain are a valuable asset to my business. Why ever would I wanna jeopardize such a profitable partnership?"
"I would, of course, provide a generous recompense to offset any hardships this would cause you," Trick countered. Moving slowly, he removed a heavy purse from inside his doublet and, once Willy had given his permission, tossed it onto the table in front of the thief.
Fishing the coin pouch from its resting place, Willy loosened the leather ties holding it closed and lazily inspected the contents. He snorted, and tossed it back atop the table. "That pittance? Willow earns me ten times that much. Inna single season."
"If more funds are required, that can be arranged," Trick began, but Willy bluntly cut him off.
"You hoighty-toighty types are all the same, ain't ya. Ya sniff, and sneer, and look down ya noses at the likes of us. Lemme tell ya this, toff. There is such a thing as honor among thieves, so you can go stick ya business where the sun don't shine." Willy looked down, pointedly, at the coin purse he'd discarded with such disdain. "That, I'll be keeping. For wasting so much of ma precious time." He glowered at Trick and Faith alike, daring them to protest.
"This is ... disappointing," Trick admitted heavily, before shrugging. "I had hoped we could do this neatly."
Willy's brow furrowed as he detected Trick's threat, but by that point it was already too late. The heel of Faith's boot was crushing the glass sphere she had surreptitiously placed there at the beginning of the meeting. Impenetrable darkness rushed out, thick and heavy, like a trapped animal released from a cage, and the killing began.
The makeup that Faith wore on her eyelids might have looked like kohl, but it served a much more utilitarian purpose; it let her see through the magical darkness she had unleashed. While Willy and all of his Arkady thugs were left floundering, blind, Faith could see as clear as day, albeit in a monochrome fashion.
The imbalance between combatants left a sour taste in her mouth. If it had been Faith's decision, she would have forgone the advantage, and faced her foes on a more level playing field. As far as it could be level, when you were talking about a conflict between relatively untrained thugs and an Master-Adept of the Nasherene. When these bravos would have been half-naked urchins, running, through the streets of Devastapol, Faith was learning the most efficient way of slitting a throat.
But such thoughts were an unearned frippery, for it wasn't Faith's decision. Very little in her life was. Instead, Faith concentrated on the task at hand.
Two of the smarter Arkady enforcers started forward even as the darkness enfolded the interior of the warehouse, weapons in their hands. Faith silently applauded their dedication to duty, even as she slipped the bone skewers from her hair, one in each hand, and stabbed each of the charging thieves through the left eye.
One skewer wedged itself in the bone of its victim's eye socket and was abandoned. The other skewer was withdrawn and thrown in a single smooth movement, finding purchase in the neck of the sole female enforcer. She toppled backwards, crimson spurting from the gash in her throat, the carotid artery severed.
Three dead in less than ten seconds. Acceptable, thought Faith.
One of the remaining thieves was unslinging a light crossbow, the weapon already loaded. If it had been in the hands of one of Faith's fellow Adepts, it might have posed a credible threat, fired blind or not. As it stood, Faith saw that crossbow as a possibility rather than a danger.
Taking two quick steps forward, moving on the tips of her toes to avoid the tap of her heels upon the floor, Faith dropped into a crouch, extended her leg, and rapped the heel of her shoe loudly on the ground. As she expected, the crossbow wielding thug, his nerves already frayed, spun and fired blindly in the direction of the sound. As Faith had planned, the quarrel took one of the crossbowman's comrades in the chest.
As he fumbled to load his weapon in the darkness, Faith charged, still moving on the tips of her toes, the leather of her shoes specially treated and softened to muffle the sound of her footsteps. Her target was still searching for a crossbow bolt when she reached him, and launched herself into the air.
At the pinnacle of her leap, Faith brought her knee sharply up under his jaw at the same time as she slammed her elbow into the crown of his head. The Arkady enforcer obediently folded like a rag doll, leaving Faith free to seek her next target.
From the sounds of violence occurring all around him in this thrice-cursed darkness, Willy rapidly came to the conclusion that it was time to beat a hasty retreat. Following the instincts that had earned him the sobriquet of "The Weasel", Willy dropped the floor and scurried for the far wall, where he knew the entrance to a hidden passage could be found.
A particularly blood-curdling scream tore through the murk like the call of a swooping raptor, accompanied by sounds too wet and fleshy to mean anything good. Loosing the last of his nerve, Willy decided to sacrifice stealth for speed, and bolted to his feet.
He only managed a handful of steps before something hammered into the back of his knees, and dumped him on his arse. Swearing in panic beneath his breath, Willy frantically attempted to rub feeling back into his stricken limbs, brushing what felt like a broken crossbow out of the way.
Another agonized shriek in the dark raised the hackles on his neck, and Willy whimpered. This really wasn't the way these sorts of things were supposed to go. As he staggered back to his feet, Willy realized that after his fall, and with the magical darkness, he had lost his bearings and no longer knew what direction his bolt hole lay in.
Something grabbed him by the collar, dragging him backwards with a startled yelp. Forced up onto tippy toes to avoid being strangled by the neck of his own shirt, Willy prayed to every god he could think of for salvation as he was pulled into the unknown. He didn't dare to struggle, not even when his unseen attacker slammed him face first into what felt like Willy's own table. Something steel-cold and razor sharp pricked at the back of his neck, sending a shiver down his spine as surely as if a cascade of ice water were running down it.
A faint point of light bloomed in the air before him. As Willy watched, pinned to the table as much by fear as the threat of the blade at his neck, that blossom of luminescence flowered and grew. It consumed the alien darkness a bit at a time, as if unraveling strands from a tapestry woven of solid shadow.
As the light grew, it revealed an ornately carved wooden box, small enough to fit handily in Trick's elegantly gloved hand, and then Trick himself. The ebony skinned man appeared as neat and dapper as when he had first been led into the warehouse. As the growing zone of visibility grew with every moment, Willy quickly saw that the same could not be said for his fellow Arkady members, who lay strew about the room in various states of both disarray and dismemberment. A quick, terrified roll of the eyes showed Willy that it was Trick's female companion who pinned him to the table, her face dispassionate and splashed with a gout of someone else's blood. Quite obviously, she was no mere strumpet.
The last of the ribbons of darkness slithered into the box Trick held, and the room was as it once was ... if you didn't count all of the corpses. With a seemingly casual caress of his thumb against its carved surface, the shadow box began folding in on itself, collapsing into a thin, rectangular disk. Slipping the artifact into a pocket of his doublet, Trick strolled over to where Willy lay pinned to the table by Faith, stepping over a corpse in his path with an expression of mild distaste.
Bending over so that his face was inches from Willy's, Trick favored him with an urbane, golden smile. "Now, what say we discuss my little business proposition anew, shall we?"
Disembodied heads circled Tara in the stygian abyss, each one belonging to a significant person from her past. Each of them spoke as they orbited Tara, mocking her fears, belittling her flaws, cutting her nigh non-existent self esteem with words like razors.
Tears dripped from her eyes to fall into nothingness as their words gouged her. Stupid. Worthless. Slave. Whore. All these words and more were thrown at her, verbal arrowheads piercing her tender, vulnerable flesh.
Cringing, Tara turned in on herself, curling into the fetal position, clenching her hands into fists beside her ears in an attempt to block out the words cutting at her. But they still came, an endless stream of invective, pounding down on her like a torrential rainstorm. Each word, each insult, drove Tara further in on herself, compressing her in the same manner that coal was compressed into a diamond.
And then, finally, when Tara could retreat no longer inside herself, the constant tide of abuse crashed into that diamond hard sliver of self that had allowed Tara to survive a life of abject misery. A sliver that would either finally shatter in the path of that tide, or throw it back.
A whisper of forbidden thought trickled through her.
I want to be free.
A traitorous fragment of her personality, one whelped from mistreatment and raised on anguish, answered her. You'll never be free.
She said I was free.
She lied. You'll never be free.
I deserve to be free.
You deserve nothing. You are nothing.
I'm ... I'm ... n..not
You are. A stuttering, stammering waste of flesh.
Why should I? We know it's true.
You are worthless. Pathetic. Weak. How could anyone ever love something like you?
That hidden little sliver of self caught alight, exploded into furious, livid flame. The swell of invective that had previously threatened to swamp Tara wholesale was incinerated in a second by the heat of her rage.
Tara rose, a fiery phoenix pushed just one step too far, empowered by decades of repressed emotion. Every tear that she had never shed, every cry of anguish never sounded, every refusal never uttered; Tara remembered them all. And now that this breaking point was behind her, Tara had only once choice.
Live or die, she would be free.
An outside voice intruded on her thoughts like a whisper on the wind. It was a voice that Tara found faintly familiar, though in her delirium she could not place it.
"Tara ..." breathed the voice, "Come back, Tara. Please. Come back."
Tara hesitated, lost within her own mind but cautious of surrendering any part of her newfound sense of freedom. But the voice called again, entreating, and something in Tara yearned to answer it. Slowly, but with increasing speed, Tara ascended, seeking whoever had called her.
Tara's eyelids fluttered like the wings of a butterfly, reluctant to open. But she persisted, and when she finally managed to keep her eyes open for more than a fraction of a second at a time, it was if lead weights were tied to her eyelashes. She felt as weak as new born kitten.
Confusion reigned for a minute as Tara wondered where she was. She was lying alone on a bed, with a great mass of blankets wrapped snugly about her, a plump feather pillow beneath her head. It was only when a familiar face appeared above her that Tara figured out where she was.
"Hi," murmured Willow, her eyes crinkled in relief. "Welcome back."