Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

Chapter 4 – Sebasten

Posted by jpbrassard on April 2, 2009

No matter how long he might have before his time Beyond the Pale; no matter how many times he had seen it with his own eyes; no matter that he knew the mechanisms at work: Sebasten Mol would never grow accustomed to the sight of man being flayed by . . . well, nothing.

It was a favorite glamour of Kaliks’s, he knew from long experience, and a particularly tricky one to cast — which, Sebasten realized, was probably the reason the old Adept favored it. Even in a situation like this, where his powers and attention were distracted by the need to maintain wards to defend them from bolts and arrows, Kaliks would, given the choice, use this spell above all others when the need arose to kill, as if to prove his superiority by its use. Look at what I have wrought! Others have naught the skill as I!

Sebasten Mol felt something for the old man he had never felt, in all his years with the Order: a semblance of pity. What does he try to prove? he thought idly, mostly blocking out the screams of the man Kaliks had just skinned alive. For what shortcoming, perceived or otherwise, does he try to overcome?

He did not know the answer to these larger questions, most likely never would. But he did know that, ever since he had regained his strength after the disturbingly powerful ripple in the MindSea — even a failed initiate like Sebasten had felt it, a momentary disembodied pressure on the back of his skull, almost pleasurable in a way — had sent him reeling, Kaliks had been wielding his magic like a man possessed. Like a slave boss, upbraided by his master, exacting his vengeance on the slaves beneath him.

Like a child, Sebasten thought sourly, as the Way Mage turned his sorcery on yet another hapless victim, eyes bright with feral glee, his thin, wrinkled lips intoning the Argots silently. Like a spoiled brat, throwing a fit when a favorite toy is taken away. Bile threatened to surge up his throat as another Rûhni guard — a young man who could not have yet seen his twentieth nameday — was caught up in the web of Kaliks’s glamour. Sebasten could feel the Way Mage gathering his might, the MindSea thrumming in the back of his head like a plucked mandolin string. The guard was lifted off the floor by unseen hands — Sebasten found himself wondering just what it was the lad was seeing; whatever it was, it terrified the guard, judging by the wideness of his eyes, the growing wetness at the crotch of his breeches — and then Kaliks completed the Argots, the final words coming out of his mouth as a barely audible hiss. At the same time, the old man slashed one hand down in a ripping gesture.

In one terrible instant, the guard’s flesh, from head to toes, was peeled from his body, exposing glistening muscle, sinew and bone. The resulting slough dropped to the floor unceremoniously, making a wet, flopping sound that incongruously reminded Sebasten of his mother doing laundry. A moment later it disintegrated into ash, as if consumed from within by unseen fire.

The boy hung silent in the air for a moment, leaking blood and plasma, his skinless head lolling to one side, lidless eyes unable to close against the pain. Then he screamed, an awful, anguished howl rising from the pit of his being, scraping raw from his ravaged, lipless mouth, and whatever pity Sebasten Mol had felt for Kaliks disappeared beneath the accusation in that wail.

I am a part of this, he thought with disgust as the boy’s scream somehow grew louder. I am a part of this horror.

He looked at Kaliks, whose feverish eyes were watching the skinned guard with a hunger that bordered on sexual arousal, and knew that the old man delighted in this torture. Killing wasn’t a necessary evil for Kaliks, as it was for a lifelong soldier like Mol; no, killing was a pastime, the most intoxicating of entertainments, and if the killing was more painful than it had to be, all the better.

As he watched, Kaliks’s lips peeled back from his teeth in a rictus grin, his wrinkled chin and jowls quivering orgasmically. Nausea swept over Sebasten in a wave, until he could bear it no longer. Turning, he raised his crossbow, took quick, sure aim, and fired.

The bolt took the guard through the throat, cutting off the horrible scream, killing him. An act of mercy.

Kaliks let out a guttural growl and whipped around to face Mol. The naked fury in his piercing eyes caused Sebasten to take an involuntary step backward.

“I was not yet finished!” the old Way Mage spat.

Refusing to think about the many ways Kaliks could kill him without lifting a finger, Sebasten replied firmly, “He was as good as dead already. I merely quickened the process.”

“It was not your place, Mol,” Kaliks replied, the anger and frustration in his voice making him sound like a man interrupted in the middle of coitus. “You forget yourself.”

In spite of himself, Sebasten felt his own ire rising. “Not my place?” he repeated incredulously. “I am a soldier; death is my business. No, you forget yourself, Kaliks. We are not here to torture lowly guards.

“We are not here simply for your pleasure.”

This last was meant to cut to the pith, despite the inherent danger in provoking Kaliks’s wrath, and Sebasten saw with muted satisfaction that he had found the mark. The Way Mage’s eyes narrowed until they were barely slits camouflaged in the wrinkles of his face, and he pressed his thin lips together so firmly that they disappeared into a barely discernible white line. Lonely, almost perfectly-round splotches of color appeared high on his cheeks, lurid against his otherwise grayish skin. His liver-spotted hands, arthritic knuckles bulbously swollen, curled into claws — the closest the old man could come to making fists.

He raised a palsied hand and Sebasten had a sickening moment to wonder if he had underestimated Kaliks’s temper — or overestimated his own importance to the mission — and was about to pay the ultimate price for the barb. How would the old bastard do it? Would he flay Sebasten like the Rûhni guard? Or would it be something even more gruesome, something that would draw out the pain for excruciatingly long moments?

Sebasten had only ever had the Way unleashed on him once, not long after he had joined the Order as an Initiate to see if his own latent ability with the MindSea could be harnessed, and it was not an experience he was ever likely to forget. The thing that Ty’vendech — the ancient Siil Adept who was Ar-Phostaeron of the Secthi Order and had been (it was often joked) since before there had even been a Secthi Order — manipulated into existence from the MindSea for his first true test as an Initiate had been a nightmare given corporeal form, a slavering creature with as many eyes as limbs (and it had had a great many limbs). His task had been a relatively simple one: to cast an effective ward of protection, known colloquially among the Initiates as “the Blanket” for its uncomplicated function, enveloping the caster in a nimbus of MindSea unreality, so that all who looked upon him would think him a number of steps from his actual position. The easiest of the defensive wards — really, the easiest of any of the glamours taught by the Order’s phostaers — but, of course, Sebasten’s throat froze closed at the sight of the creature (a creature only he could see, for Ty’vendech had cast it for him and him alone) and he had been unable to utter the Argots, the ritualized Old Tekamic words that gave access to the Way. Ty’vendech had been forced to intercede, muttering the Argots of the counter with contemptuous ease, and the creature had winked out of existence. Though, Sebasten knew, it had never really been there in the first place.

He had, of course, failed his first — and last — test as an Initiate.

The recollection of that night was so vivid, the non-existent creature so ghastly in his remembrance, that his mind shied away from the image still, nearly two decades later. As if the mere thought of it would bring it back.

In his most secret heart, Sebasten Mol believed that this just might be true.

He was brought back to the present by the sound of Kaliks’s voice. “Your impertenance will not go . . . unrewarded,” the mage said icily, pointing a rheumy finger at him. “For now, you are still needed.”

Sebasten breathed an inward sigh of relief. Like any lifelong soldier, he had a fondness for wagers — he didn’t know how many turns of the glass he had wasted throwing the bones, losing more often than winning. He did not, however, make a habit of wagering his life on the temper of a capricious and clearly sadistic old phostaer, especially one as demonstrably powerful as Kaliks. That he had cast his bones and won — or, at the very least, managed a draw — was nothing short of miraculous.

This night, at least, he appeared to be in a mood to gamble haphazardly. “Then let’s stop playing around and get on with this,” Sebasten said, turning away from the mage to survey the scene before him. He, Kaliks, and the three newest members of his squad that he’d held back with him for Kaliks’s protection — which seemed, on its face, patently absurd, considering how powerful he was in the Art of the Way, but the old man had insisted — were on a raised, stepped dais at the north end of the hall, which Kaliks had called “Monir” (named, he presumed, for something depicted in the bas relief images carved on the doors he had noticed earlier). All of the other men, with Uffo in the lead, were engaged in close combat at the southern end by an ever-increasing number of Rûhni guards and — so it appeared from Sebasten’s vantage point, in the guttering half-light of inconsistent torches — by Keep nobles, as well. They were quickly going to be outnumbered two-to-one, Sebasten realized. Already, they had lost five men, and Uffo was being forced to give ground as the Rûhni’s numbers kept growing.

They’d been set upon as they made their way through the audience chamber, the first of the Keep’s defenders — undoubtedly alerted by the servant boy with the bolt in his head who, annoyingly, hadn’t died quickly enough — bursting through the doors in the southeast corner of the hall just as Mol and Uffo were approaching. There had been three of them, Sebasten remembered. The first guard through the door Sebasten had dispatched easily enough, lopping the head from his shoulders in one sure, thoughtless motion; the second had been felled almost as quickly by Uffo, unleashing one of his favored djik, the infamous Baramundi six-pointed throwing star, burying it with unerring accuracy in the man’s throat.

The third, however, had immediately recognized what he and his now-deceased companions had discovered, and he’d stumbled backwards, tripping on his own feet after a couple of steps and tumbling to the tiled floor of the hallway outside. His clumsiness had saved him from Uffo’s second djik, which he’d drawn and thrown almost before the first star had left his nimble fingers; the gleaming six-pointed weapon had sailed a hair’s breadth over the Rûhni’s head, to embed itself in the hallway wall opposite, some ten arm-lengths away.

“Second time tonight, friend,” Sebasten had remarked with a grim smile, to which Uffo had not deigned to reply.

The man had loudly started calling for assistance then, shouting in Middle Barish, the guttural-sounding tongue of Rûhn (as well as the once-mighty city-states of the Barren Coast, across the sea to the north and east, whose ancestors had first come to Rûhn centuries earlier), all the while fumbling with his sword, which had become entangled between his legs and in the ridiculous cape he wore. Sebasten figured he was a guard captain, or whatever the Rûhni used for the equivalent rank, and one who had gained his position by virtue of a patron in the higher echelons, not by the merit of his own service: no self-respecting soldier would dare adorn himself with such a potential encumbrance while on duty.

When Uffo’s third djik found the mark, tearing into the man’s throat and cutting off his shouts with a gurgling yelp, Sebasten had spit on the floor at the man’s feet, to show his disgust.

Then the other Rûhni started to arrive and they had to fall back into the audience hall. They’d not been able to get any closer to the royal apartments, which had been their goal. They were bogged down here and would soon become hopelessly trapped if they couldn’t either find a way around their current impasse or beat a hasty retreat and pray they could make it back to their boats without being slaughtered. Kaliks’s Usurpation had failed, Sebasten knew, and they were wasting time while he exacted his petty vengeance on ultimately unimportant guards.

“We’ll die here this night,” he said now, still looking away from Kaliks to the growing battle down the hall. He made a vague gesture with the hand not holding his sword, a movement that seemed to encompass the entire room and all within it, friend and foe alike. “All of us will die here this night — if we do not move soon.” Now he turned to face the old Way Mage and, not without considerable difficulty, looked him square in the eyes. “Stop playing games, Kaliks. It is time and past time for us to figure out a way to get this bitch’s whelp and leave this damned island.”

Kaliks’s clear eyes hardened with renewed anger. He opened his mouth, no doubt to issue another not-so-subtle threat.

He did not say a word, however. His eyebrows shot up in surprise and his open mouth formed a shocked O. Curious — a man like Kaliks did not easily let such a vulnerable expression grace his features — Sebasten turned to look behind him, to find the source of such outrageousness.

There, like a prayer answered, like a curse consummated, stood an older woman, dressed in nightclothes of plain, uncolored wool.

With a gift in her arms.

 

<< Chapter 3 – Rafella — Main — Chaper 5 – Rafella >>

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