So, having worked up an idea for a different kind of End Times story, I've started building on the tale of the unnamed sorceress from this story
Plenty more to follow, but for now, here's part one of the short story "Soulbreaker" (name is WIP).
Comments, suggestions and questions/notes about things that weren't clear are welcome.
-----Part 1: The Prisoner
A shaft of cold moonlight speared through a high, barred window in the cavernous chamber. It was the only light for the dungeon’s occupants, but it was more than enough for the work conducted there. A pale, shivering figure hung limply against one wall, wrists manacled and arms held above her head by cold iron chains. There was no trace of the finery she had worn at the time of her incarceration. Shreds of fine cloth and half-healed wounds marked the manner of their loss. These were themselves mementoes of the first of the prisoner’s punishments in this place. Her head hung low, spilling her long black hair forward. Red marks surrounded her throat, legacies of other efforts to break and demean the prisoner.
By contrast, her gaoler was dressed in the finery of one of Ghrond’s elites. The torturer’s tools in his belt seemed odd companions to his robes of crimson and gold, but matched his severe features and shaved head. Around his neck hung a black stone talisman, a necessity for anyone who would interrogate a spellcaster. Despite the protection of his obsidian lodestone, he had never uttered a word in all the time that the prisoner had been in his care. With a deliberate care bordering on reverence, he stood before his captive and ran his fingers over her aching shoulders. The prisoner shuddered, remembering how earlier caresses had played lightly on her skin, seeking points of reaction on her body, before transforming into piercing shards of agony as the torturer worked his trade.
Behind the gaoler, a heavy wooden door opened on creaking hinges. Warm light flooded the lower levels of the room, and three figures stepped into the chamber. The gaoler turned and immediately bowed his head in deference, but the prisoner did not stir herself yet. The two on each side were clearly warriors, pictures of menace in grey-black plate armour even with their swords sheathed. Between them stood an incongruous and breathtaking embodiment of elven beauty, bedecked in all the trappings of Morathi’s court and bearing a scroll. Long black hair, pinned back by a glittering silver tiara, spilled over alabaster skin and past graceful shoulders. Blue-shadowed eyes and blood-red lips stood out amongst delicate features worthy of sculpture. Only her hard stare and cold smile marred the messenger’s loveliness as she unfurled her missive and addressed the prisoner.
“Malys of Ghrond. For your crimes, her most illustrious majesty, the lady Morathi, commands that you be brought before her for punishment immediately. Should you wish to beg for mercy, her majesty informs you that only her amusement will shorten your suffering.”
The gaoler turned back to his prisoner, a grin on his face as he freed her wrists from their manacles. Released, Malys fell to her hands and knees. There was no strength in her arms, and they held her weight only because of the stiffness of muscles held unnaturally for too long. Breathing in ragged gasps, fighting through the sudden pain in her palms and knees, the sorceress barely noticed as her tormentor knelt beside her and whispered softly into her right ear.
“Do not mistake this for deliverance, Malys. Her majesty prefers to take her time with those who disappoint her, and she has an artist’s flair for punishment. Within minutes, you will plead to be returned to my care.”There is no hope to be found in Morathi’s cells,
Malys reflected bitterly.
The two guards half-carried, half-dragged Malys from the dungeons to the throne room of Ghrond. After weeks spent in timeless darkness, Malys was disoriented, but it made the journey seem mercifully shorter. Her feet struggled to keep pace, and her knees and toes were soon scraped raw from stumbles only partially averted by the rough grip of the two warriors. For her part, the messenger strode in front of Malys, never sparing a word or a glance in her direction. There were no conversations, and no further abuses at the hands of her escorts. This did not instil confidence in Malys. Their forbearance would be no kindness if the Hag Sorceress intended to punish her personally.
As they travelled, Malys noted her surroundings. I was in the upper dungeons, she realised. They were only a short distance from the royal chambers. From experience in the court of Ghrond, Malys knew that prisoners in those cells were typically subject to Morathi’s specific attentions during their confinement. Why was I different? Does she know the truth of how I passed the final trials of the sorceress? Or was it fear of the secrets into which I had delved before her agents took me, fear that I might still be able to use them against her even in chains?
As the questions blurred through her mind, Malys felt part of her former self return. Her steps became steadier, and the burning ache in her shoulders began to lessen. Finally, the small party reached the great doors to the royal court.
Twice the height of an elf, the polished Naggarond marble was lined with silver and gold, a striking counterpoint to the shining black stone with its green and white veins. Two great statues of armoured serpent-creatures flanked the entry, their heads turning slowly to regard the approaching group. The messenger raised her left hand, revealing an intricate tattoo symbolising the goddesses Hekarti and Atharti. The statutes recoiled, assuming their original positions, and the enormous portal into the heart of Ghrond slowly opened to admit Malys and her captors.
The inlaid marble doors swung ponderously, gradually revealing a scene of unbridled decadence and luxury. Except by the express orders of the queen of Ghrond, the audience chambers were as far as any male elves were permitted to go. Such edicts only increased the allure of those destinations. If the opulence of the throne room was any measure, even the elven imagination would struggle to comprehend the pleasures to be found in the forbidden areas of the palace. A vast circular room slowly appeared through the widening gap, a grand chamber for the Hag Sorceress and her favourites. Around the walls were exquisitely carved tables and pillow-laden couches. The former were laden with exotic foods, decanters of wines from across the known world, and decorative centrepieces cast in shining silver and laden with gems pulled from the mines below the city. The latter were largely unoccupied, although some contained Morathi’s lasciviously-sprawling handmaidens and playthings. Eight jet-black columns stretched to the ceiling high above, forming an inner ring in which globes of soft, magical light hung suspended in mid-air. At its heart was an ascending dais, its rising circles arranged to place its highest point halfway between the centre of the room and the circle of colonnades. Occupying that summit was an intricate throne of Nagarythe blackwood and Ghrondian rubies, crafted by sorcerous artisans thousands of years ago.
Reclining gracefully in that seat of power, barely garbed despite the cold, was the Hag Sorceress. She lounged against the cushioned back of the throne, a delicate flute of crimson wine held aloft in her right hand. Her gaze lingered on the glass, assessing the play of the chamber’s witch-lights on the liquid within. For long moments, the only sounds were the laughs and soft moans of the throne room’s other occupants. The messenger finally cleared her throat to announce the party’s arrival, but Morathi raised one graceful finger of her left hand to demand silence. Turning her head slowly, a warm smile illuminated the exquisite features of the queen of Ghrond before she addressed the newcomers in a voice like silk on polished stone.
“Whatever shall we do with you, Malys?” asked the Hag Sorceress, absently turning the wineglass in her upraised hand.This will be a game, and my sufferings a reflection of her moods,
Malys realised. She bit her tongue reflexively to still it and kept her head bowed. Her place in this drama was as an object, not an actor. A word out of place could easily be fatal, to say nothing of a reaction that would betray her thoughts. There were few who could read the minutiae of responses so well or so quickly as the queen of Ghrond.
“There are precious few things that are forbidden in our domain, Malys, whether sorcerous or mundane,” Morathi stated imperiously. “As we recall, you have been the beneficiary of that lack of restraint for many years. Such limitations serve both the proper order of Ghrond and our own amusements. Nevertheless, there are some things we cannot allow to pass. As a fully-fledged sister of the Dark Convent, you were well aware that delving into the arts of undeath was one of only two forms of magical research that we do not permit.”And I also know the reasons why,
Malys thought. Just get on with it, you preening witch. All this chatter is for the benefit of your servants and the education of those who seek your favours.
Her hair still covered her face, but Malys was careful not to let her defiance or her impatience show.
“Still, in these times, we are not inclined to waste talented sorceresses. For all your many faults, you have always overcome the obstacles in your path. You surpassed even your gifted sister, Illys. We had high hopes for that one. Perhaps our attentions should have lingered on the more determined sibling, hmm?”She doesn’t know,
Malys realised. Or at least, she doesn’t know the truth of how I stole my sister’s prowess and married it to my own.
Malys kept her head bowed, hoping to keep that small advantage from the Hag Sorceress. The courtiers had fallen silent, either fixed on the theatre before them or declining to disturb their patron’s performance. Still draped over her throne, Morathi continued.
“It happens that we may even have a use for you. One that would merit keeping you alive, with certain precautions to ensure your... good conduct, of course. Does that perhaps pique your interest, Malys?”
“Y – yes, your grace,” Malys stammered without lifting her head. She crafted her voice and words to be as servile as possible, a slight tremor across her shoulders added to betray her hope and fear. That artifice did not work. Morathi raised one eyebrow and whispered a single word, and searing agony flooded through every fibre of Malys’s being. Collapsing to the ornate floor of the chamber, Malys screamed for what felt like minutes. Finally, the pain ceased. Gasping for breath, and with tears in her eyes, Malys struggled to focus on the Hag Sorceress’s next words. There was a hard edge to her tone which signalled that the time for theatrics was over.
“We did not give you our leave to address our court, Malys. All that happens in Ghrond occurs because we allow it. You will be permitted to live only to serve us, but your defiance of our commands shows you to be too dangerous to survive unchained. Happily, we have a solution for that.”
A glance and one brief flourish from Morathi’s left hand brought one of the chamber’s other occupants forward. Amid the excesses of the throne room, he looked almost shabby. He was garbed in fine-cut but simple black courtly attire, with a golden brooch over his heart. In the middle of the brooch was a small mirror – a tradition for the noble fighters of Ghrond, who thought it apt for a defeated enemy to see their own failure reflected back at them as the last blow fell. A warrior’s belt, shot through with streaks of gold and silver, held a scabbard on each side of his waist. Thrown back over his left shoulder to drape over the sheathes of his weapons was a thick cloak of reddish-brown sea dragon hide, fastened at the throat with an iron clasp fashioned with the likeness of a medusa. His black hair was pulled up into a topknot, which was fastened at the crown of his head with a plain golden band. He stepped to three sword-lengths of his queen, then closer as she beckoned him forward without so much as a glance. Turning her head and favouring him with a slight smile, Morathi plucked the brooch from his chest and tossed it gently into the air in front of Malys. It hung there, suspended by a cantrip. Gifted with witch-sight as she was, Malys could see the strands of magical energy slowly curling around the trinket.
“Your actions have cost you the confidence we reposed in you, Malys. Our loyal servant Kaeroth, on the other hand, is only too eager to prove worthy of our trust.”
A spark of magical light, burning swiftly as all colours and then turning black as charcoal, burst into being in Morathi’s left hand. As the Hag Sorceress extended her hand, thin streaks of grey and violet light began to swirl and dance around her fingers, before lazily breaking away to circle Malys’s prone form. The gasps of the courtiers told Malys that the build-up of magic was now visible to everyone, but she was too weak to begin a counter-charm. Even if she had possessed the strength to counter or disperse Morathi’s spell, she was helpless on the ground. This pet of hers, Kaeroth, would drive his blades through her body in a heartbeat if he thought his queen would reward him for it. There was nothing to do but wait for her punishment to descend, and to find a way to survive it.
With a terrible suddenness, the grey and purple arcs of magic struck down into Malys. She screamed again, with greater force and pain than before. Her body arched on the floor of the chamber as bands of magical energy lifted her and spears of light shot up and through her chest from beneath. Her body was unharmed, but Malys felt a great wrenching and tearing sensation, and a spreading sense of coldness even though her every nerve was afire. Forcing her eyes open against the pain, she saw a spectral form drawing out of her and into the brooch hanging in the air above her. Morathi’s eyes gleamed, and her left hand was hooked into a claw. With a final flick of her graceful wrist, the Hag Sorceress pulled Malys’s soul free from her body and forced it into Kaeroth’s trinket.
The pain ceased immediately, and Malys dropped back to the floor of the chamber with a shudder. She was breathing heavily, feeling a shifting, burning ache somewhere deep within and a persistent sense of chill. The brooch floated back into Morathi’s hand, who pinned it back onto Kaeroth without ceremony. For his part, despite the austerity of his garb, Kaeroth looked like a child who had just been granted all of his greatest wishes at once.
“We require certain items to address the recent incursions by the northern savages, Malys. You will accompany Kaeroth to the edifice those primitive barbarians refer to as the Altar of Ultimate Darkness and use your magics to preserve his forces. You will do as he requires of you without question, as if his directions to you were our own words. You will do all of this without complaint or hesitation, because we have given Kaeroth the power to destroy you and feed your soul to the Dark Gods if you do not.”
Turning to Kaeroth, Morathi addressed her admirer.
“You have a small task to perform for us, and this one should be of some use to you. She is yours to do with as we see fit, Kaeroth. We will have her cleaned up and brought to your chamber before your forces are mobilised. Dangerous though she is, you have only to shatter the mirror in that brooch, and her soul will be released into the ether.” The queen of Ghrond smiled. “Of course, we know your task is a dangerous one. It would be unfortunate if some accident or lucky blow of the enemy caused it to be broken, but we would not think any less of you should that occur.”
With an imperious gesture, Morathi dismissed Malys and Kaeroth. The guards reached down and wrenched Malys to her knees, dragging her from the audience chamber to the laughter of the courtiers.I am humbled, but alive,
thought Malys, and that is all that matters. I have survived the Desolate Walk and every other trial set before me, and I will survive this.