One of the baron’s guardsmen grunted and pressed a candle into her hand. No sooner had she grasped it than another shoved her through the shadowed doorway. The door slammed behind her, snuffing the candle, and its iron bar thudded into place.
“Jackwits,” Morrigan snapped under her breath. The garments they’d given her, such as they were, were ridiculously inadequate in the keep’s dank catacombs, and the door-gust had chilled her skin to gooseflesh. She closed her eyes and calmed her thoughts, focusing on the aether around her. A heartbeat later, she summoned her grim-cloak from it, sighing as the sleek fabric settled around her like a living shadow. Then she held out her hands, tossing the candle aside, and called her arc-staff.
The bronze-banded shaft materialized in her palms, and light, pale and blue as a winter sky, blazed from its crystalline spike. Worn stairs began a few strides ahead of her, twisting downward. She dimmed the staff’s light to that of a candle and began the descent.
Presently the stairs ended in a short corridor. A door stood open at the far end, occupying the corner of a torchlit room. She could not see inside, but she guessed what, or rather whom, she’d find. The queen had dispatched her after the niece of a prominent sword-captain vanished from the baron’s keep en route to her wedding in Mavonry. The baron’s steward had sworn to the otherwise sensible girl’s entourage that the girl had renounced her betrothal and fled southward on the new highway with a stolen horse; but when pursuing riders met a reputable merchant on the highway the next afternoon, he reported no sign of the girl.
Now Morrigan knew better. She’d arrived in the guise of a courtesan, escaping some debacle at court, and her conversations with the keep’s scullions and maidservants — an unrefined and skittish bunch — raised the specter of ten to twelve vanished women since the autumnal equinox. Two evenings later, after avoiding or transmuting several goblets of laced wine, she’d blithely gone alone for a moonlit walk on the ramparts — interrupted by three guardsmen, whom she allowed to seize her and drag her inside.
She gripped the staff and stalked toward the room. Already she imagined the leering faces of the baron, his steward, and his wine-sodden cohorts, arranged around a makeshift pile of cloaks or pillows. She crossed the threshold.
She was wrong.
The baron, his steward, and five other men were indeed present, but their faces were sober and twisted with something more than lust. Each bore a smeared mark on his brow, and they knelt in a line before the farthest wall, facing her, and made no attempt to rise at her entrance.
Instead, as she took a second step into the room, dozens of crude runes on the floor began to pulse with the darkest radiance that could exist and yet be light. Morrigan braced her staff before her in a defensive position, clenching her teeth against a wave of nausea.
With a stench of charred flesh and a defiant howl, the demon appeared—no pustulant minion, but a Dread Punisher, a tower of mottled scarlet fur and rippling muscle. The eyes of its wolfish head smoldered with malice.
“An Aetherian,” it purred, cocking its head and glancing at the baron. “What a delicious surprise! Think not to share the taste of her death throes, however. This one is mine.” It licked its long, black fangs.
The men’s faces darkened, and the baron tried to stand before the steward grabbed his shoulders. “You—you are bound!” the baron yelled. “By our bloody pact!”
“I am the pact!” the punisher barked. “You are curs beneath my table, and the savor of this one’s soul, even the crumbs, belongs to me.” It turned and strode toward Morrigan. Her staff dimmed as the demon’s aura began suppressing its arcane energy, but from it she fired a bolt of absolute cold — which shrank even as it streaked toward the demon. The demon hissed, and a patch of frost coated one of its chest muscles, blackening the fur around it.
Damnation, I’m outranked, she thought. Images of her sister and her friends in the Order — and Royce — cascaded through her mind. With a shout, she whirled and swung the staff, lunging at the last instant to jab its spike into the fiend’s throat.
Instead, one of its clawed hands caught the staff in mid-swing and yanked it from her grasp. Instantly the staff dissolved into the aether, and the punisher yipped with pleasure.
“Bitch! Now I’ll ravish you, devour your heart, and let you live until the last!” It lunged and grabbed for her arm, but her cloak shifted, and the punisher’s claws glanced from the fabric. Morrigan leapt and drove her bare foot into the side of the demon’s knee, with no more effect than if she’d kicked a cornerstone. As she stumbled back, the demon snarled and hurled itself upon her. Together, they crashed to the floor.
Her cloak absorbed the impact to her head and spine, and the fabric shifted constantly, denying the punisher’s raking claws. The demon’s weight and power were undeniable, though, and a burning droplet of saliva kissed her cheek.
But as the demon fought to part her cloak, she placed her open hands to either side of its throat and called her arc-staff. It appeared between them, and the punisher gave a strangled cry as the shaft impaled its throat. Fetid blood sprayed from the wounds, and she released the staff with one hand and pulled with the other, jerking the crystalline spike to the wound. Into it she drew as much raw energy as she could. Seven men screamed, and the punisher shivered violently, limbs pummeling her cloak, until at last it stilled.
She dismissed her staff and squirmed free of the corpse, glancing at the other seven on the floor, their brows smoking.
“Jackwits, you deserved no less.” She shook her head and sighed. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly in the darkness—a moment for herself before she assumed control, for the time, of a barony and composed a letter, truthful yet tactful, for the eyes of her young and pure-hearted queen.
Morrigan © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “Blue” by Anders Finér
Author’s note: Morrigan and I had no prior relationship until I happened upon this amazing work of art by Anders Finér while hunting for other images for this series. I wrote the piece entirely from the image, attempting to answer questions about the woman and her possessions and circumstances. I hope you’ve had as much fun reading something with an “old-school sword-and-sorcery” flavor as I had writing it. RR