This story contains graphic sexuality and in this very chapter includes scenes of (non-sexual) violence. If such things offend you, feel free to direct your browser elsewhere.
So maybe I spoke too soon. I said the next chapter would be up quickly and it’s taken me several weeks instead. My bad. I’m finding that wrapping up a story this intricate takes a bit more doing and editing is it’s own barrel of monkeys. There will be a few more sections than originally anticipated which means more time with some of your favorite characters (and maybe a slightly longer wait for the endgame). Either way, enjoy!
If you like the story, hate the story, or want to plead for more sex: find me at troublemonkee at gmail dot com. Feel free to stop by: Theeroticledger.blogspot.com for more info and terrible sketches. OR follow me at: @eroticledger [so many ways to get in touch!]
Adventure School, Episode Three:
It is physically impossible to traipse through foot deep snow.
"You mustn't think of me as a boor. I'm quite a refined gentleman once you get to know me. It's just...well, I find that without guidance, young men end up becoming so...errant."
Zophir grit his teeth, pressing them together as hard as he could, trying to concentrate on the feeling, the pressure building in his jaw. He could use the pressure to concentrate, to focus, just a little.
"I know, I know. I can do a bit of spell-casting myself, you know. But more importantly I know how magi work. I've been breaking your kind since before you knew what to do with that sapling between your legs."
Zophir’s abdomen burned with the stretch as he tried to keep himself upright against the chains pinning his hands above his head and his toes reaching futilely for the floor. Every muscle on his lithe body strained and sweat trickled down every crease and crevice. The torturer flicked a careless finger across one of Zophir’s taut, swollen nipples and the magus knew to be afraid.
The psychic blow preceded the physical one and all of Zophir's careful marshaling of his strength went skittering out in a hasty, misdirected hex that was meant to blow a chunk out of the torturer. Instead the spell diffused harmlessly.
"You must be enormously talented to still be casting."
Zophir growled, his voice was raw with yelling. "I'm not here to track the Templars. I'm an adventurer from Obsidian. My name is..."
"Zophir. Yes, I'm familiar with you and your abilities. After all, it was your handiwork that started all of this. Your spell that knitted the book back together. That transferred the consciousness into your classmate. It was your magic that the djinn feed on, slowly draining you, and filling itself like a blood bellied tick. It was your fault that the djinn's brood-mates attacked Obsidian and killed all those people."
"What?" Zophir's voice broke further. "No. I — A djinn? No. The book is..."
The Templar slapped Zophir hard across the face and the magus reeled from the blow, but then the man came close and spoke with his lips pressed up against Zophir’s ear. His lips were soft and his voice deep and satisfied. Zophir stirred at the intimacy of it despite himself.
"Just a child, playing at godhood. Mugging for attention. Your arrogance has caused better men that you to die. How does that feel?"
Another blow. Zophir felt sick, but his body hurt viciously and there was nothing left to expel. "I'm here to help. I want..."
Suddenly the Templar burst into laughter. Zophir raised his head to look. The laughter was full of derisive without malice. It was cold mockery. Zophir contemplated reaching deep and trying another spell.
"It's true that this timetable is a result of your actions, but don't feel too bad about it. If you hadn't pieced the book together then we would have. We've been readying this camp for several years, slowly collecting all the pieces necessary to kill these things. It would have been easier if you and your coterie hadn't assembled the book it was trapped in. We would have handled that. We were going to gather all three of the djinn here and kill them all at once, but you've complicated things for us.
"When you woke Janin, you drew the attention of the other two. You brought them running before we could finish our preparations. If only you had just stayed the fuck out of the way like a good boy."
Zophir tried to think. He tried to examine all of the possibilities. Something was bothering him.
"How do you know so much about me? About what I've done?"
"Oh and ruin the surprise? I couldn't possibly." The Templar grinned widely. "No. You're going to stay in this cage until everything is ready and then maybe you can make some amends by joining with the magi corps we're going to use to blow these fucking things out of this plane and any others they've got their twisted fingers in.
Skip just regarded the three men with a bovine stare. "You're telling me that the djinn are real."
Gavric gave an amused chuck. Jus gave a non-committal shrug. The copper skinned boy just nodded.
"I've learned the makeup and weaknesses of 220 distinct creatures in my training at Obsidian, you're telling me that they just forgot to mention the djinn?"
"I can give you a better answer, archer," Jus said, "your school doesn't know they exist. No one does. We Templar have made it our holy mission to eradicate every trace of the djinn from the world. All records we could find have been purged, warded like hell, or they belong to us AND are warded like hell. They are why we exist. We hunt them.
"Of course we do other things, we have a crusade now and then to keep up with appearances, but our holy purpose is to rid the world of the djinn."
"And I'm supposed to believe that?"
Jus sat up. His tattoos shifted around him like a painted cowl.
"No. But if you have another explanation for monsters made out of cloth, killing trained killers as easily as you or I could skewer a domesticated pig, I'd love to hear it."
"Don't you dare talk about what happened at Obsidian."
"Or what, kid? You gonna' kill me?"
Skip reached for his bow and suddenly it was gone. He didn't even notice the weight of it leaving his body. It was just gone.
The copper skinned boy was holding Skip's bow.
"I told you that knowledge without seeking is less than dust. Are you ready to learn what I couldn't tell you that day?"
"Give me back my bow and we'll talk."
The bow was back on Skip's shoulder as if it never left.
"My name is Iblis. I am a djinn."
Skip looked over at Jus, then at Gavric, and then back at Iblis. The first two seemed amused, but sincere. Iblis looked absolutely serious. Skip narrowed his eyes at the Templars.
"So it's your sacred duty to eliminate the djinn unless they're working with you?" He spat. "Is that what's going on here?"
Gavric sighed. "What a disappointingly common response. Some people have no vision."
"Says the man reclining in silks next to a demon." Skip shot back.
Jus grinned. "I don't seem to recall you being quite so opinionated when your cock was in that demon's mouth."
Skip flinched at that.
"Oh yes, archer, we know about your dalliance with our pet here. Who do you think sent him to you? He told you that his masters were impressed with your work. That would be us, friend."
Skip took a long look at the djinn standing before him. There was no way he could have known. Nothing that marked the handsome youth's sun-kissed skin and inquisitive eyes as otherwordly.
"I am fourth of the quartet. The others are less...moderate in their disdain for humans."
Skip looked at Iblis for a long time. His mind reeled with possibilities. If this was a ruse, he didn't understand what the Templars had to gain by lying. A coldness crept into his stomach. He addressed the djinn.
"Your friends killed a lot of mine. Good people."
Iblis didn't flinch. "Surely you mean trained killers? Murderers for hire? Good people seems a stretch, golden archer."
Skip's fingers reached back to tickle his bow and Jus shook his head. Gavric grinned obscenely and commented, "I wouldn't if I were you, Skip. Iblis's patience is not to be tested."
But the heat radiating out of Skip's cheeks and the tightness in his chest and throat would not let up. He was looking at a djinn. He was in the midst of people who had knowledge of these creatures, knowledge that could have saved lives at Obsidian. He thought of the magus dropped from fifty feet in the air. How her body imploded on impact...
Skip drew his bow. He knew how fast he was and was willing to bet he could be faster than anyone in the room would think him capable of. Even if they’d been watched him, they hadn’t seen everything. In three seconds flat he had an arrow nocked and aimed at Iblis. Or, where Iblis had been. Before Skip could even sight the djinn, the creature was at his right side pressing the point of a long, thin needle up under his ribs. It had happened in less than seconds. Nothing human could move that fast. Nothing Skip had ever seen could move that fast.
The whites of the djinn’s eyes had become entirely gold and the pupil's narrowed to blood-red points. His face was the same, but different, obscured as though through haze shimmering above a fire. The implicit humanity of his features had fled. Skip shivered and held his bow steady at any empty spot in the room.
We are older than prayers, creature-of-a-lesser-place. We are harder than anger. You will never defeat my brethren with fury alone.
It spoke directly into his skin. He could feel it reverberating against his chestbone. He knew, in that moment, that though the djinn did not mean him harm it could destroy him without thought. Skip felt his insignificance. He loosened the string on his bow.
"There's a good boy," responded Gavric in a sugary tone.
Iblis removed the needle from under Skip's rib and in doing so, shifted back into his more human form.
Jus stood and cleared his throat.
"Now that we've gotten the plesantries out of the way, let's discuss the particulars. Let me explain to you why you're here, archer."
The SS Isidore hovered above the rocky prominence on which the last Machina lead site was dismantled. Cliff stood on the lowered observation deck and looked at it, just a few dozen feet below and pulled his seal skin jacket a little closer. He had never felt cold like northern cold. He had never imagined such cold was possible. It hurt to breathe, even through the thick fur muffler covering his mouth and neck.
The site, even from a distance, was clearly attacked by a group of people. Machina officers lay dead and frozen on the ground. Clif turned to Vitto.
"Is the exploratory force ready?"
"Yes, sir. We have a forensic mechanist and a hemoempath. Both will canvas the site and offer their impressions as soon as we touch down."
Cliff fell silent again as he looked at the bodies littering the ground.
"Who would openly attack a Machina site? Who would so throughly slaughter everyone in it? No quarter was given here." Cliff murmured to himself.
Because the Isidore was a smaller airborne vessel, it had to contend mightily with the whipping winds gusting through the mountains and it took three-quarters of an hour before the pilot could attempt a landing and even then, there was only enough time to let the exploratory force out of the ship and onto the ground. Then the Isidore, along with the rest of her crew, had to the take to the air again or risk running aground.
The ground crew that Cliff and Vitto had decided on was based purely on logistics. Aside from the mission commander and his first officer, they had brought along officer Pratt, a talented hemoempath whose record of blood-reading was sterling. Upon reading the blood samples at the site she could tell numerous things about what had happened by identifying the levels of various humours in the blood: she could glean how surprised the officers were during the attack, how long they had been dead, the order they had died in, and other information vital to establishing the scenario. She would also be able to track the empathic residue of the ISA lead, which could very well lead them right to the thieves they were looking for.
The forensic mechanist, Ferio, employed a number of newfangled gadgets in order to examine more esoteric aspects of the scene. The other two members of the ground team were experienced riflemen, tasked to keep the team safe should the worst happen.
The six of them disembarked at the site and instantly went to work. Vitto and the two riflemen established a perimeter while Pratt and Ferio went about their business without direction. Pratt went to the closest body and crouched on the snowy ground. With her hands to the dead man's chest, she began slipping into a reading trance. Ferio had retrieved a set of two-pronged spikes and set to work jabbing them into the first body he happened across. Cliff forced himself to watch both officers work, as gruesomely methodical as it was. He felt he owed it to his fallen comrades.
As they worked, Cliff felt his mind wandering. He thought of his days as a 'captive' of Obsidian. He thought of the strange dreams he'd had. Or perhaps, he thought, I should refer to them as visitations. He was thinking this when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to the rifleman.
"You can see me, sir?"
"Of course, I can...are you feeling alright, officer?"
He didn't look alright. The blood had drained from his face and his eyes were unfocused. Cliff had heard that the cold could take a man with weak humors by surprise, but he never imagined that only a few minutes could so thoroughly wreck a man's constitution. It took another minute before he noticed the gaping wound in the man's chest.
"What— Are we under attack?" Cliff looked around. There was no one else on the prominence. It was empty. Only him and the near dead rifleman, "Where...is this?"
The rifleman began talking, his voice cracking with relief and sadness.
"They came in the night. Two men. One with a bow and one with a sword. They killed us all."
Cliff looked at the dead man.
"How..." He began to ask, but the question died in his throat. He hadn't taken a pill in weeks. The spectral visitor in his dreams: Baal Shiron, had called him a medium. A bridge between planes. He hadn't believed.
Cliff's voice broke when he asked the next question. "Who were they? The men who killed you."
The dead man shook his head. He didn't know and among the little that Cliff knew about the dead was that they could not lie. Or was that an old wives' tale? His stomach roiled hard and he began to realize how out of his depth he was.
"They came in the night. Two men. One with a bow —"
Cliff took a deep breath. Girding himself against the impossibility of his next demand.
In the next instant it was snowing. Quiet. There were three men sitting on stacks of crates passing around a flask of spirits and joking about losing their cocks to the cold. The dead man was alive and cleaning a service pistol despite the bitter cold. Someone dropped a piece of rolled tobacco into the snow and cursed.
A moment later they came over the ridge. Two of them. One with a bow and one with a sword. Cliff's mouth was agape. He recognized the archer. The bowman putting arrows in his comrades was the same man who Cliff had helped, along with his magus friend, piece the grimoire together. He was killing Machina officers in cold blood.
The other man was unknown to Cliff, but it didn't take him long to recognize the green markings on his forehead. The forked trident of an elite order of the Templar Knights.
Cliff forced himself to watch as the two slaughtered the rest of the men and came upon the last of them. The dead man. They interrogated him briefly and he gave them the location of the ISA lead. Even in the dead man's memory it shimmered and vibrated subtly. Then they killed him and the vision went dark.
He staggered out of the vision, out of the visitation, like a drunk from a tavern. There was a white hot pain lancing through his forehead and forked through his entire head. He tried to open his eyes, but even the diffused northern sunlight coming through the heavy clouds was too much. He wished he had brought his pills.
"I know who did this," he muttered and tried to open his eyes, "I know who killed off our soldiers."
"What a coincidence. So do we."
Cliff forced his eyes open at the unfamiliar voice. A thin man in ragged clothing was standing over Vitto with a thin stilleto pointed at the officer's neck. The riflemen were already dead and the hemoempath and mechanist were both on one knee with their arms tied behind them. Eight armed Templars had the perimeter covered and the SS Isidore was nowhere in sight.
Trell looked at the jagged black stitches in his arm and grunted. It wouldn't heal prettily, but — he flexed the arm and winced at the sharp pain that rose up from the wound in response — he would live. He took a quarter inch piece of Aryial root from a pouch at his waist and placed it under his tongue. The root was indescribably bitter and he resisted the urge to spit it out as saliva filled his mouth. It was only after he took a hard swallow of spit that he removed the root and placed it back in its pouch. The root, named after Saint Aryial the benevolent, was used to dull the aches of the critically wounded. It was native to the Tipari jungle and notoriously poisonous. Trell and his classmates had spent ten years building up a resistance to it. A few in his year had died of it.
He closed his eyes and ignored the strange geometric shapes floating in the darkness. The hallucinogenic effects were the first to go. When he opened his eyes again, the world had lost all color. That would take a little longer to wear off, but it didn't much matter in the white wastes of the north.
Whatever had been done to Zophir and himself had moved them hundreds of miles in an instant. Once he was finished being sick, Trell realized that Zophir was not with him and went into survival mode. He had arrived in a forest of petrified trees. Trell sought out the lowest ground he could and implanted himself in a snow covered burrow to see to his wounds before anything else. He wasn't the healer that Ix was nor did he have Prana's careful fingers, but his wound was adequately sewn and his blood loss was at a minimum. The injury to his arm hadn't affected his motor skills, which meant that nothing integral had been damaged in the attack. He knew how lucky he was. A hammerman without the full use of his fingers was not a great asset.
From another pouch at his waist, Trell took a pinch of dust and rubbed it into both his hands. He raised his hands to eye level and then began blowing softly on them. The dust, fragments of crushed petals, danced in the air, coaxed by his gentle breaths. They fluttered, suspended for a few moments and Trell whispered into them. The dust drifted to the southeast briefly and then suddenly became inert. The behavior of the dust meant two things: the first was that Zophir was somewhere to the southeast of Trell's location and the second was that he was being warded — powerfully.
The dust was a clever piece of work that had earned Ix the praise of the Basalt Signatori. It worked as a kind of navigational enchantment. Trell wished he had acquired more of it before he had left on this crazy mission, but it was too late for such considerations. He looked down at his left arm and flexed it again. The pain was more distant and slower to rise. He would live.
He brought himself up into a crouch and crawled to the edge of the burrow. Using his hands he dug himself out of the burrow and climbed out onto his stomach. Once he was clear, he turned back to retrieve his hammer. Fully armed, he set out to the southeast.
He moved cautiously through the eerie, dead wood with both eyes keen for any possible combatants. His assumption was simple. If Zophir was being warded, considering the exhaustion that Trell had witnessed in him, it was probably not by his own means. He was probably being held and if the magus was in Templar custody then it was best to be exceedingly cautious.
The sparsely branched trees jutted dozens of feet into the air and provided decent cover as Trell made his way. He was incredibly cold, having dressed for the desert, with only a light cape packed as an afterthought thrown over his shoulders. He repressed one shiver after another, knowing that once he began shaking he would probably stop only when he drew a final breath. He kept moving, slowly, to the direction pointed out by the dust and hoped that Ix's magic was as infallible as the magus believed.
He also kept a watch for the creatures that stalked these lonely, abandoned places. White wolves and grey-eyed spooks. Things-with-no-names and rock snakes. It was difficult to separate the mythology from actual knowledge, but if anything untoward appeared from the snow and ice, Trell would have at least an idea of how to kill it.
However the first thing he ran into was a man of flesh and blood. He grinned. He certainly knew how to kill those.
It was a magus, prowling the forest with a badly-chipped blue sapphire on a long silver chain dangling from his hand. Trell bit his lip and looked up at the trees. Sure enough there was a web of silver overhead, threaded through the branches of the trees. He had wandered into them and missed them against the overcast sky. Interspersed among the silver thread were little blue sapphire chips. Little blue eyes.
The magus looked up with surprise in Trell's direction. He couldn't see the hammerman, of course, who was hidden behind a tree, but his eyes in the trees reflected their sight into mother crystal they were broken from. The magus rose a shrill cry that sounded like a bird's call. It was magic, no doubt. Trell felt it in his teeth. That meant he didn't have much time before others came running.
He moved from behind the tree and took off running in the general direction of the magus. He snuck a look at the spellcaster and caught sight of a tuft of blue flame coming in his direction. He jumped and crashed into a pile of snow behind a nearby tree as the flame seared the air behind him. He forced himself to stand and move again, running to another tree, closer to the magus, as he called again in his bird-like shriek and raised another volley of flame. Trell once again avoided it, this time feeling it close enough to singe his left ear.
The magus was standing his ground. He could see Trell at many angles when he glanced at his crystal, but every look cost him a few seconds and made his conjured fire just a second too late to burn the intruder where he stood. The magus was readying another round of blue fire when he caught something moving in his crystal, he turned to throw his fire and realized a moment too late what he had glimpsed. It was too late to call the fire back and it leapt from his fingers into the hammer spinning toward him. The hammer caught flame and the magus tried to dodge out of the way. If he had fallen on his back, the hammer would have sailed over head, but instead the hammer's flaming head caught him square in the chest and ended his final shriek prematurely.
Trell ambled over to the fallen magus to reclaim his hammer which had quickly outed once the magus could no longer control the blue flames. The hammerman stood over him and looked hard at his face. He was an older man. Blood pooled in his mouth, the hammer had likely crushed his lungs, he was not long for the world. Trell did him the mercy of crushing his skull and then he found somewhere to hide and wait until the others came to avenge him.
Selim slipped into the antechamber of Dean Drago's study just before sunrise and unexpectedly found Cadict standing watch at the Dean's door with two blades drawn. The shock in his expression was mirrored by his lover's.
"Selim? What are you doing here?" The swordsman asked in genuine, and uncommon, surprise.
"I'm on the Dean's business. Why are —"
Cadict slowly shook his head and said: "The same." The gesture effectively said, no more questions, and Selim nodded carefully in reply.
"Is he in? May I see him?"
"He has not slept in some time. He has warned me —"
The Dean's study doors opened and Drago stepped out. He nodded brusquely to Selim and patted Cadict's shoulder gently. The gesture was not lost on Selim.
"It's alright, Cadict. Selim and I have business to discuss. Take a moment to refresh yourself as we speak inside."
Cadict gave a short gesture of acknowledgement and turned to Selim to give a more tender look. The swordsman of seasons looked nearly as tired as the Dean himself. Selim wondered what he had been doing in Drago's service to exhaust him so, but before he could think further on it, Cadict left the room and Drago ushered the younger magus into his study. Once the doors closed behind them, the Dean waved a hand and sealed the room to all external influences. It was a remarkably complex spell to be tossing off at a moment’s notice and suggested that the salamander was operating at a level far beyond the average spellcaster. It was no wonder he seemed so drained.
Drago dropped himself onto a long, velvet couch in the corner of his study and gestured for Selim to sit by him. Once Selim was seated, the Dean began: "Well?"
"I've been looking into the matter as you requested." Selim began carefully.
"And no one knows? No one at all. You didn't let slip, even to Zophir."
"Especially to Zophir."
"Good. Very good. I am...relieved. What have you discovered?" The Dean rubbed at his furrowed brows.
"A method of unravelling enchantments. Master level enchantments. As you asked."
"Explain it to me."
"It required a dismantling of a spell found in the White papers on cosmetic enchantments. I stripped it to its bare essentials and then —"
"The White methodology won't work. It requires too much preparation, too much visibility. I need something more subtle."
"Dean. I've been —"
"Working tirelessly. I understand, Selim, I do. We have all been run ragged of late, but that doesn't change the fact," his lizard eye narrowed, "that your method will not work."
"Dean. If you could explain a bit more about what the necessity is..."
"Wishing for an easier task, Selim?" Drago casually flicked his spinning emerald earring. Selim started to speak and then did not.
"Of course not, Dean. I will continue my research."
"Excellent. Come back when you have something else to show me.”
The Dean stood up and walked over to the desk. “Oh and on your way out, let Cadict know I have need of him."