Authors: Rob J. Hayes
Copyright © 2013 by Rob J. Hayes
Cover design © 2013 by Julio Real
All rights reserved.
This ebook may not be re-sold.
For Dave, proof that the best of friends can start out as the worst of enemies.
Other books by Rob J. Hayes
"The Ties That Bind" series
Book 1 - The Heresy Within
Book 2 - The Colour of Vengeance
Not for the first time in recent memory Thanquil awoke to find himself tied to the bed. He let out a laugh and tried to blink away the sleep from his eyes. Jezzet sat at the end of the bed watching him, a wry smile tugging at the right corner of her mouth. He watched her for a while, letting his eyes soak in the sight of her long red hair, her dark olive skin, her ethereal red glow.
“Wait,” Thanquil said shaking his head. “You’re not Jez. Who the hell are you? And… why are you glowing?”
The ghostly woman at the end of the bed let out a low, throaty laugh, gracefully stood from her perch and walked closer. Thanquil glanced around the room to find he was still in the inn, the same room he’d purchased the night before, the door still looked locked and the window closed. Quite how the woman had managed to enter was more than a little vexing but he currently had more pressing issues to deal with.
“Is this a dream?” he asked the woman. “Because if so you might want to…”
“I’m not physically here, Arbiter,” she said sitting down on the bed beside his chest. Her voice was warm and honeyed and her eyes sparkled like the sun glinting off a dagger, blinding and dangerous.
“Then how did you tie my hands?” Thanquil craned his head to look at his right hand. The wood of the bed post had grown outwards and had encased half of his arm. “Oh… I see.”
“I have no wish to harm you, Arbiter,” the apparition said as it trailed a ghostly hand down his chest. He felt a tingling sensation where the soft red glow touched his skin.
“Um… who are you?”
She laughed. “I’m the woman you’re chasing.”
“The witch,” Thanquil breathed. “Well I guess that makes sense.” He struggled against the bonds that held fast his hands but there was no give. His feet were free but with his arms pinned he was still well and truly stuck. “What is it you want?”
The witch smiled, she had a strange beauty about her and it wasn’t just in her face. Her body was made of curves that were accentuated with her every movement. Her hair was a bright red the colour of heated steel and her eyes were deep and grey like an angry cloud. The soft red glow that surrounded her only served to increase her beauty, lending her a dangerous air. If there was one thing Thanquil had learned in the past two years it was that he had a thing for dangerous women.
“What do I want?” she repeated. “I want to let you go unharmed, Arbiter. I want you to stop chasing me.”
Thanquil snorted. “Can’t do that.”
“Well… you’re a witch, I’m a witch hunter. This is kind of what I do.”
“I didn’t think you people liked the term
,” she said. The smile still graced the witch’s lips but it didn’t reach as far as her eyes.
“In this particular situation,” Thanquil said, “it applies.”
The apparition drew in a deep breath, her bosom rising, her cleavage clearly visible. Thanquil swallowed and tried to think of something else, anything else. He failed. Then the witch sighed.
“Then I would ask a different boon of you, Arbiter.”
“Well it’s a slight imposition but I suppose I can find the time to hear you out.”
The witch looked at him, her face darkening and filling with loathing. “I want you to burn!” Then she was gone, vanished as if she were never there.
Thanquil breathed in and sighed out a ragged breath. She certainly wasn’t the first witch he had hunted but she was quickly turning into the most troublesome. Just two days ago his horse had stumbled and broken a leg, not an unheard of event by any stretch of the imagination but it was his third horse to do so in as many weeks. Twice the weather, despite being relatively mild this time of year in the Dragon Empire, had taken a sudden and apparently unprecedented turn for the worse. The first had been a rain-less thunderstorm so bad that lightning strikes had scorched the surrounding ground black and set fire to the barn Thanquil had been staying in. But even the thunderstorm paled in comparison to the second weather phenomenon; the wind had whipped itself into such a frenzy that it actually formed into funnel of spinning, churning air that touched the ground tearing up buildings and earth and anything else that happened to get in its way. Some of the folk in the nearby village had nodded and claimed it happened from time to time but never this time of year and never so suddenly. Thanquil knew better, he recognised the signs of magic use when he saw it.
Lying on the bed Thanquil shifted his weight to brace himself and tried to pull his arms free from their bonds, there was still no give. He wondered what type of magic could control dead wood to grow and twist its shape like that but it was something he would need to discover later.
A sharp, acrid smell reached his nose and it took him only a moment to realise what it was. Being an Arbiter, Thanquil knew the smell of burning flesh better than most. He lifted his head to look towards the door to his room. Dark grey smoke drifted in through the gap underneath. He strained his ears and he could just about hear the familiar sounds of someone screaming in pain, the sort of pain that only came from being burned alive.
Thanquil sighed. Everywhere he went someone had to get set on fire and he was so rarely the one holding the torch. Again he struggled against his bonds and began whispering a blessing of strength. A normal Arbiter could near double their strength with a well-rehearsed blessing but Thanquil was no normal Arbiter; he excelled at both blessings and curses. For a brief moment he felt the magic swell into him, augmenting his own strength and the wood holding his hands tight started to creak. Then the words failed him and that same magic fled from his body leaving him feeling deflated and light headed.
He shook his head and focused his mind and again started up the chant. Again the blessing filled him with magic and he felt his strength grow. Again the words failed him. To say he felt embarrassed was one thing, he had never before had such performance problems, but the amount of smoke drifting through the crack beneath the door was growing and he was pretty certain it was starting to get warmer in his little room. Thanquil began to panic.
He could see a faint orange glow coming from the other side of the door and the
of fire. Arbiters were taught early on to use fire as a means of purging heretics, there was, after all, a cleansing power to the flames but Thanquil had been burned. His right arm had been set on fire only a year past and it had never healed quite right; the skin remained twisted and tight and sensitive to both hot and cold, not to mention the pain… The last thing Thanquil wanted was to be burnt again and especially not burnt to death.
He struggled against his bonds, pulling and pushing his arms to no avail, he kicked his feet and twisted his whole body but he was stuck fast. Eventually he tried the blessing of strength again and again the correct words fled his mind. The smoke in the room was thickening and Thanquil couldn’t help but cough as he struggled impotently. He lifted his head to look at the door and that’s when he saw it, a small strip of paper attached to his chest just below his navel. There was a charm that Arbiters liked to use; a small strip of paper that, when attached to a person’s skin, blocked out the memory of magic, it literally stopped the affected person from remembering how to use magic and he had one such charm stuck to his skin. To make matters worse he recognised the writing on the charm; it was his own. The damned witch was trying to kill him with his own magic. A part of him was glad Jezzet wasn’t there to see his embarrassment, another part of him wished she’d turn up and save him as she had a habit of doing.
Thanquil took a deep breath and struggled against the urge to cough. “HEEEEELLLLPPPPP!” he screamed at the very limits of his voice. There was no answer. No reply at all apart from the hungry fire on the other side of the door. Again he screamed for help and again there was nothing.
Drenched in sweat with his eyes stinging from the smoke and tears, Thanquil coughed and resigned himself to dying a slow and painful death by burning in this piss poor excuse for an inn located somewhere in the arse end of the Dragon Empire. It was then he realised his biggest regret would be never seeing Jezzet again. Never again would see her beautiful smile, never again would he hear her mocking voice so full of masked affection, never again would he feel her lithe body beneath him as she moaned softly in his ear.
Thanquil let out a wordless scream of rage and looked around the room for anything close by. “I am NOT going to die here!” he promised himself aloud.
Discarded just a few feet away to his right on the clothes chest was his coat. An Arbiter coat was a uniform for members of the Inquisition; it had a distinct look that all recognised as belonging to the order of witch hunters. But more importantly right now, it contained a multitude of hidden pockets for Arbiters to store their charms and runes and other things they needed for their vocation.
Thanquil swung his legs left and then flung his whole body right. The bed jumped a little, edging close to his coat. Another couple of jumps like that and he could reach his coat with his feet. Again he swung left then flung himself right and again the bed jumped. Coughing and spluttering from the smoke and sweating from the heat Thanquil once more swung his legs left before flinging his whole body right. The bed jumped, tipped and teetered for a moment on its side before tipping over. Thanquil found the floor rushing up to meet him. In a moment of panic he kicked out at his coat and felt something snap beneath his bare feet just before the bed crashed down with him underneath it.
Even Thanquil had to admit the situation would have been comical if it wasn’t for his life being very firmly on the line. The fire was licking the other side of the door, he could even make out flames through the crack and the whole building was starting to creak. Not to mention the heat… Thanquil paused in his struggles. The room wasn’t hot any more; it had in fact taken on a distinct chill. Then he heard the chains; a distant rattle of giant metal links holding back something terrible and beyond powerful.
Thanquil couldn’t see the demon, trapped underneath the bed as he was but he could feel it. The creature’s evil presence tugged at every nerve he had as it entered his realm, summoned there from its home in the void.
“Arbiter Darkheart,” the demon said its voice a harsh sound that blasted the room with frozen air. It laughed and the floorboards rumbled along with the noise.
Thanquil felt his skin prickle, being so close to a demon was ever an uncomfortable feeling. “Help,” he squeaked his voice breaking as the words left his lips.
There was no response from the demon but Thanquil could hear the creature breathing and feel it watching him. “Get me out of here!” he ordered again mustering all the command he could.
The demon growled low in its throat before responding. “We obey.”
The wooden bed exploded into splinters, shards of wood flying in every direction and more than many sticking into Thanquil’s bared skin causing a not insignificant amount of pain. He shoved aside his agony and forced himself to his feet amidst the smoke filled room before glancing at the ruins of the bed. Thanquil had never known a bound demon to possess so much power in this realm. The creature’s head, the only bit of it that had manifested, was as long as he was tall and its yellow eyes glowed fiercely from the patch of midnight black that was its face. Thanquil had met many demons in his years as an Arbiter and though they differed in size all looked the same yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen this one before.
They faced off, staring at each other for what seemed to stretch into minutes before the demon tilted its head slightly to glance at the entrance to the room. Thanquil followed its gaze and found not only the door well and truly on fire but a fair portion of the wall as well. The heat would likely have been unbearable if it wasn’t for the otherworldly presence of the demon chilling the nearby air.
Thanquil snatched up his coat, shoes and belt and turned one last time to the demon. “Go back to the void.”
Again the demon laughed causing the room to shake. “We obey.”
As the demon’s face faded back into nothing Thanquil launched himself through the single shuttered window. The wood splintered outwards and he found himself sailing through the air as the ground rushed up to meet him.
Despite himself Thanquil was not prepared for the impact of jumping from the first story of the inn. His feet hit the hard packed ground awkwardly and, in his attempt to collapse into a roll, he tripped and his left shoulder struck the ground. He felt the joint pop and a wave of pain and nausea washed over him. His world receded to a small tunnel of red pain and the uncomfortable heat from the fire. Then hands were pulling him away from the burning building, dragging him through the dust.
As soon as the hands were gone Thanquil rolled onto his right side and launched into a well-deserved coughing fit. The splinters in his back were agony and the popped shoulder was something far, far worse. He was just about to consider opening his eyes when he felt yet more hands on his skin. These were softer and gentle and probed at the splinter wounds on his back with practised skill, plucking the worst of the wooden shards out.
He heard a woman’s voice, thick and commanding. “Some of these will need to be sewn, others will heal on their own but none are urgent. The shoulder…” the hands moved to his left shoulder and Thanquil cried out in pain, he still hadn’t summoned the effort to open his eyes, “will need to be set before we move him. You, you, hold him!”
Thanquil felt big arms wrap around his chest and more around his feet, then the skilful hands took hold of his arm and began to lift it.
“WAIT!” he screamed, his eyes opening just in time to see to see the burning inn collapse in on itself in a gout of flame and ash. Then something wrenched on his arm and somewhere amidst the sea of agony that washed over him he passed out.
The first thing Thanquil noticed when he woke was the lack of pain. He had a very vivid memory of jumping out of a burning building and dislocating his shoulder, he also had a very vivid memory of someone popping that same shoulder back into its joint, a process that always seemed to hurt more than popping it out.