The Artificer: The Adventure of the Golden Scarab
By Steven Lourie
Moleeka sat in her comfortable chair as if she had been casually flung into it, slouching, her right leg dangling over the arm rest on the same side, head tilted and resting in an open palm. She was past caring about how she appeared, so filled with frustration, rage and disappointment as she was. No fewer than half-a-dozen bounty hunters, cut throats and assassins had come to her estate to apply for the job she had in mind, but none had met her standards. Four of them were full of over-weaning pride and little else, not taking her warning about wasting her time seriously, and left her manor dragged by their feet to be fed upon by the vultures, their bodies twisted in horrid postures from the pain they experienced in their final moments. The fifth seemed competent enough, but balked when he heard that the target was an artificer, not so much because of this one in particular, but he had much work from them in the past and if word to get around he had taken a contract against one of their own, he would get no more work from them. The Mistress of the Alabaster Court reminded him that no mortal guild could hope to stand against the will of the gods, turning him into a glossy-shelled beetle and crushing him beneath her foot to prove the point. The last was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, much like the first four but had had the gall to propose a different sort of relationship between himself and her. His death would have been messier if hadn't stood in her personal library, Moleeka instead sucking all the moisture out of his flesh and transferring it to his lungs so that he may both drown and wither as he expired.
The last body had barely left her sight, her mind brooding over the steps she would apparently have to take herself to recover the golden scarab, something which she had avoided until now because it would draw far too much attention to her operations, something the local sultan, a devout follower of the very gods who had turned her patron mortal and allowed her to die, would take swift action against. Her chain of thought was broken as a member of her personal cult of zealots, his face and body swathed in black like all the others, appeared on her threshold, going down on one knee and bowing his head, as was the position of respect she demanded of all those who served her and her dark goddess when they spoke to her.
" Mistress, there is one more candidate... " the man began, hesitant because he knew what sort of foul mood she was in and she could just as easily slay him as look at him. Moleeka sighed, rolling her head back in a display of failing patience.
" Send him away, never to return on pain of death. We will have to retrieve the scarab ourselves, costing us lives and anonymity. "
" I understand your frustration, my queen, " the insolent thug continued, bowing his head lower as his persistence in speaking likely not endearing him to his leader, " but this one seems...different than the others. "
Moleeka rose from her chair in one swift motion, an imperious frown on her finely-sculpted features.
" Did you not hear my command, thrall? Send him off before I lose all of my fading patience with you! " she growled, placing her hands on her hips and staring down at the kneeling man. The man seemed about to say something else, or perhaps move to do her bidding but he never had a chance in either case. A large foot, wrapped in dark leathers rather than wearing boots to accommodate the long, yellow nails that sprung from the end of the toes, kicked him aside, sending him tumbling out of sight with a surprised yelp. The Mistress of the Alabaster Courts' frown deepened as this bounty hunter had obviously slipped past her other attendants and dared to come to her unbidden. He would learn a very short and painful lesson why it was unwise to cross her. The spell she was preparing slipped from her mind as the new arrival stepped fully into view, his massive dark figure filling the doorway. A voice, harsh and inhuman, chuckled before it spoke.
" Sorry, milady, but I don't think you know exactly who are you are dealing with, and I think it would benefit the two of us greatly to strike up a bargain, " it, no, he said, the voice so deep as to make no mistake of the gender except in the most extreme of cases. The stranger stooped somewhat to slide his bulk through the doorway, even hunched over slightly as he was his frame stood nearly eight feet tall, with disproportionately long limbs packed tight with muscle. Despite herself Moleeka took a step back as he entered the room completely, not out of fear so much but because she wanted to put a little space in between him and her, as well as the smell like sour milk that he seemed to exude.
Her nose wrinkled in disgust she looked up into his eyes, or what she could see of them from under the black hood he wore, and spoke, her voice still haughty and confident.
" Unless you be a god in some ill-fitting and malodorous disguise, I know I am dealing with a great fool who had better explain himself fast or find himself amongst the bodies of those others who had disappointed me this day, " she countered, tilting her head back and folding her arms under her expansive bosom as the sorceress awaited his reply.
" Hah! I may be proven a fool yet, but even they have their uses, and this particular fool knows of your quarry, of his habits, his companions, his weaknesses... " the giant listed off, his voice growing quieter with each item, until the last syllable issued out more as a confidential hiss than a word.
For the first time that day, Moleeka was uncertain as to how to deal with the stranger standing before her. There was something other-worldly about him, that much was for sure, and despite his massive size did not seem to be the brainless brute that one would assume such a being would be. She noticed once again that he wore dark leather wrappings around his hands, forearms, feet and shins rather than boots, likely impossible to find commonly available items of clothing that would fit his unusual size, and his skin looked as tough as shoe leather anyways, with a slight yellowish tinge that complimented his smell rather well. His upper legs and arms and his torso were clad in matte black leather as well, shaped and cut in such a way that it almost resembled the segmented armor of a centipede, or the scalloped hide of a crocodile. Steel metal studs where scattered across the surface of his armor as well, evenly spaced along the hems, further adding to its organic appearance. The armor bore many scrapes, cuts and gashes, but otherwise looked in good repair. Scarred too, was the giant's skin, some looking to be caused from wounds that would cripple a normal man, but there no stiffness or favoring of a particular side that would accompany normally such a lasting injury.
His face was again, hidden by a long and narrow hood that originated at the nape of his neck in a stiff point and, in the segmented fashion the rest of his attire was crafted, rose up from that location in what almost looked like the crest of some fanciful beast. A cloak that looked barely adequate for the task of concealing his long-limbed form hung from below the hood, framing his somewhat gangly body. The tip of a large, hooked nose protruded from under the cowl, the only part of his face she could see clearly, a black scarf of sorts piled high around his neck, concealing his lower face.
" See anything you like? " the man asked, his tone carrying a carefully measured amount of humor. Moleeka scowled but otherwise did not speak, noting, after a careful search, that she could see no visible weapons on him, though many an would-be opponent would be hesitant to engage such a huge person in any sort of physical conflict.
" You seem physically capable, and you have at least half a wit in your head to have avoided dying up to this point. So tell me, how do you know the artificer Draev, and how do you intend to over-come his protectors? "
Moleeka could not see, yet could feel the grin that the man spread across his face as he began to speak.
" My name is Seccus, my Lady of the Alabaster Court, and Draev and I go back all the way to when we were in the Academae Artifictora together. Of course, I didn't look the way I do now back then... " the giant began with a slight bow and a casual gesture, soon relating to her what she needed to hear.
Early morning found Draev and Saril laying curled under the blankets in the room's bed, dawn's gentle but unmistakable touch on the night sky turning it from utter black to a milky grey. The elf lay on her back, shoulder and hip pressing gently against the artificer's chest and groin, Draev's arm draped protectively over his lover and leg drawn up to rest against her rump. Saril had retired for the night in her usual jug which Draev had conjured forth from its small holding dimension before drifting off to sleep himself. The artificer's left eye opened a crack, glancing about the room but finally settling on the gentle rise and fall of Saril's chest beneath the sheets, of the tiny squirms of her body and facial twitches her unconscious mind thought were necessary to allow her to continue sleeping comfortably. Draev watched her for a time, his hand sliding down to her well-muscled belly and gently stroking it, smiling lightly as the elven warrior let out a small, pleased murmur as he did so.
He was content to do this for some time, enjoying the closeness, the tranquility of the moment. It was hard to sort out, in his head sometimes, exactly how deep his feelings for her went, or how much she felt for him. It was a great deal of emotion on both sides to be sure, but still.... Draev supposed he could ask Daa what sort of place he had in Saril's heart, but when dealing with matters like this, going to a third party seemed somehow wrong to him. There was that, and the elf was perceptive enough to know that a sudden leap in his understanding of her emotions was likely from his silent conversations with the slimbiote who spends almost as much time in her mind as she does. That was not the path to take for this, not for something as potentially life-altering as true and honest love.
It seemed such a juxtaposition to him, to be thinking on such matters on the very morning that they would be fleeing the city because his actions had put them both in danger. It wasn't like his profession hadn't exposed them to such hazards before, but this time Draev knew that he had hurtled them rather blindly into a situation which could have become very lethal. Regardless of whether Draev could quantify his emotional bond with Saril as love or not, he knew that if she had died defending him after such a lapse in judgment he would be unable to forgive himself.
The artificer got up swiftly but carefully so not to disturb Saril overmuch. His thought process had disturbed him enough that it had spoiled the moment of quiet he had been enjoying previously and he figured he might as well fetch some breakfast for them. A sweep of his hand and he was clothed again, not bothering with the almost imperceptible stubble on his face. His outfit was composed of dun-colored leather leggings and a matching vest, a faded white shirt and an almost shapeless wide-brimmed hat, providing him with a good deal of protection from the rising sun and keep his face in shadows. His belt and boots were dark brown enough to be mistaken for black, the whole of his attire looking very low-key, which was its purpose. Draev made sure his golden necklace was tucked under his shirt so that only a glint of gold could be seen. Simple working folk could not afford such things and wearing it ostentatiously would destroy the illusion he was going for. Moleeka likely couldn't predict that he would have found another ship to leave so quickly, but nevertheless she would have her minions out in force until his little band was found, and someone with power like hers had a lot of minions.
By the time Draev had returned with simple fare of flat bread, shredded meat he hoped was beef, and a bowl of fresh figs Saril was once again merged with Daa, the slimbiote putting the finishing touches on her outfit for the day. While there was precious little variation that the intelligent ooze could do with the arms and legs, today Saril's top cradled her breasts, pressing them tightly together and leaving a large tear-drop shaped opening in the middle, all of which was supported by a thin collar of substance around the elf warrior's neck.
" A hat like that would certainly garner attention, Saril. Leave it here, I will conjure you a silk cloak with a hood before we go, " Draev suggested, noting the warrior toying with the wide-brimmed hat she had picked up only the day previous. The elf sighed, tossing the head-piece on the bed and slinking over to sit beside the artificer, who had seated himself and arrayed the food upon the low eating table.
" Despite your teasing I was growing fond of it. You will buy me another when we make it to a decently-sized port, is this understood? " she replied curtly, looking at Draev from the corner of her eye.
" I would buy you ten such hats if you wished, each a feathery reminder that I should listen to the far wiser words of my bodyguard rather than the baseless self-assurances I myself am capable of. I cannot apologize enough, " he said with a sigh of frustration as he poured them both water to drink before starting the meal.
" You may not have said it enough, but I am finished with hearing it. I forgive you, Draev. Now eat, the thought of seeing that witch again before we leave makes my skin crawl, " the elven woman stated firmly, tearing a small piece of fig off with her front teeth and chewing.
Draev nodded his head in silent agreement as he began to pile meat upon a piece of bread. Moleeka Sik'darbi was a beautiful, powerful woman, the equal of whom his mind was hard-pressed to think of, but he sincerely wished that he would never come within viewing range of her ever again. The two of them ate their fill in a silence that was neither awkward nor comfortable, each ruminating over what had been done and what there was yet to do.
Half of an hour later found Saril'daa and Draev entering into the rapidly warming Tulain day, the bodyguard draped heavily in a silken cloak the color of slate, hood drawn over her distinctly elven features. The artificer had planned the route out upon his return trip from the docks, keeping to out-of-the-way side-streets and alleys where there was little traffic and where many assailants would not be able to use their numbers to great advantage. Draev naturally took the lead, pausing just long enough for a quick scan on both sides before proceeding at each intersection, Saril'daa right on his heels, the fingers of her simulated left hand curled around the sheath of her sword. Blocks passed by with no incident, the tang of sea air becoming more pronounced with each row of buildings behind them.
' Saril tells me to tell you that she feels like we're being watched, possibly followed, ' Daa informed him, human, or rather, elf nuance affecting her telepathic message so that it sounded like a whisper.
' I get the same feeling, Daa, but even if we weren't I would still have that sensation. Being self-conscious and hesitant in our movements will alert any minions to us more quickly. We will stay the course until something definitive occurs. '
' And then....? ' she asked, probing his thoughts, concerned.
' And then I think of something while we run, ' Draev admitted to her, a tight, rueful grin on his lips. The artificer got the distinct impression that this hadn't comforted her, but she said nothing further.
The next street passed between the front wall of one large home and the rear wall of another, a single arched opening leading into the courtyard. The walls were mud brick covered with crumbling plaster, roughly eight feet tall and smooth along the tops. Draev had chosen this alley because attack was possible only from the two ends of the street, or possibly by someone loitering around in the courtyard. Still, while it covered a good distance where there would be very few eyes on them, for some reason Draev was feeling very apprehensive about that doorway now. Walking quietly along the left wall, the one into which the doorway was fashioned, the artificer strained to hear anything abnormal as the pair of them closed the distance. He had cast his translating spell prior to leaving the inn, knowing that he would need it to not only speak with the ship's captain, but that he perhaps could catch some whispers of conversation that would give them advance warning of an impending attack.
Draev cast his eyes back to Saril'daa, who had easily picked up on his change in body language and strained their senses as well to try and figure out what had made him suddenly become so edgy.
' It's just a bad feeling, nerves getting the best of me, I guess, " he admitted to the slimbiote mentally, coming to a stop just before the opening in the wall.
' Neither Saril or myself sense anything out of the ordinary, Master. Though... ' the slimbiote began, suddenly trailing off as she received new sensory input from her partner, Saril. " What's that smell? " the elf said quietly to him, " it's like...Draev! "
' Master! ' Daa cried out mentally to him as both of their warnings reached his mind and ears at the same moment in time. The wall, half a foot thick, suddenly erupted in a shower of chunks and dust, the artificer's reactionary fall to the right to avoid the debris only partially successful as the long, dark arm that slithered through the newly formed hole grasped his skull firmly and yanked him roughly through it. Saril'daa's elven blade was in her hand an instant later with barely a sound, charging around the corner, her hood slipping from her head as she moved.
Their assailant stood in the middle of the deserted court yard now, his black armor coated in tan brick dust, Draev thrashing weakly in his grasp, his kicking feet suspended several inches above the sand-laden stone floor. This man, or whatever it was, was huge, standing somewhere between the tallest elf and a smaller-than-average troll, his armor looking like the plates of some insect yet fashioned from black leather. She was not the giant's primary concern right now, she found out quite quickly, as he had swiveled his head to regard Draev's expression.
" Hello old chum! How have you been keeping these past, oh what has it been, five years? " the attacker's inhuman voice asked cheerily, the feigned nonchalance only adding to his sinister aura. " Release him at once! " Saril yelled, sword held lightly before her, her left hand ripping the voluminous cloak from her shoulders and sending it to land in a crumpled heap behind her. The giant's head swiveled to regard her, glittering eyes peering over a long, hooked nose, drinking in every detail.
" And in such splendid company too, I just knew you'd do well for yourself after the academy, " he growled, giving the artificer's head a squeeze, eliciting a pained gasp from the trapped man.
" I said...! " the elven warrior began again, taking a few more cautious steps forward, ready to sever the limb that held her charge if necessary. Her command was cut short as one of Draev's hands grasped the arm that held him, blue, brilliant electricity suddenly erupting forth from it and coursing over the body of the attacker. The giant grunted and huffed, his entire body twitching uncontrollably, but with a concentrated effort lifted his left arm up and, drawing it back, punched the artificer solidly in the torso, the right arm releasing the man so that he could sail about five feet through the air to slam painfully into one of the outer walls. The spell ended once Draev's hand broke contact, the giant standing a little unsteadily at first but, with a rapidly shake of his head and a body-wide shiver, seemed to recover.
" Most refreshing first thing in the morning, thanks friend, " the darkly garbed assailant remarked, still carrying on with his sarcastic tone. Draev lay curled on his side, unmoving, the force of both impacts having blasted the air from his lungs and making his vision swim before his eyes.
Saril'daa edged closer towards Draev, trying to place herself between the attacker and him. Her experienced eyes quickly noted he wore no obvious weapons and, while he seemed prodigiously strong, how strong someone was had no bearing on how easily her elven blade could part flesh. She could not help but remark about the giant's smell, it was something pungent and bitter, perhaps a by-product of his leathery, yellowish skin. The attacker's attention was on her now, letting her get closer to Draev while he edged towards the only easy escape, the gate. His hands were up in loose fists, his posture showing he was ready for anything she could throw at him, though Saril doubted he had every fought anyone like her before.
" The tales of Draev's bodyguard did not exaggerate, you are a fine looking elf, " that deep voice commented, not bothering to conceal where his eyes lingered. Already scowling Saril's face twisted into a mask of disgust at his comment, her movements calm and measured as she moved in closer for a strike.
" Let's dance then, sweetie. Winner take all, " he laughed, seeming to be enjoying himself immensely.
Saril'daa lashed out a few times with her sword, getting a feel for his reflexes. His lean body seemed well-suited for sudden lurches and twists, her blade cutting nothing but air. The unknown attacker hunched over low, bringing his eyes almost into line with hers, though he was far more interested in parts of her other than her eyes. The warrior dashed forward suddenly, stabbing rapidly at the part of his body he couldn't move quite so quickly, the torso. His response surprised her, the assailant, rather than dodging back like she had expected him too instead met the tip of her sword with his right palm, the tempered steel easily parting the flesh as it slid in up to the narrow hilt. Blood oozed from around the wound, and the large man did indeed hiss in pain as the blow struck, but otherwise he seemed unbothered. What's more, he began to twist his hand, making the hilt shift in her grip.
A look of shock on her face the elven bodyguard, realizing that he could disarm her quite easily right now, withdrew the sword quickly, breasts wobbling excessively at the rapid motion, but rather than back further away she attacked again. This time her blow was a strong horizontal sweep aimed at the abdomen, Daa nearly compressing her substance to the rigidity of metal to help power the swing. The blow struck true, cutting a large, long gash across the assailant's belly, opening him up with a spray of blood and the grotesque slithering of his intestines to the dusty ground. He wouldn't die right away, but it was a fatal wound nonetheless.
" Arrogant... " Saril spat, looking to the ground and cleansing her sword of his blood with a flick of her wrist.
The giant staggered but did not fall, looking to the horrid wound across his belly and then to the cut on his hand, almost bemused.
' Saril, look, ' Daa urged her, causing the elf's head to snap up to regard the fatally wounded man.
The warrior's shock deepened as she watched the cut through the giant's hand seal up with not a trace that it had been injured at all. More disturbingly, however, the wound in his abdomen began to seal up as well, the oozing cut slurping up his spilled viscera like some bloody, lipless mouth. He was healing, no, regenerating.
" Only trolls can do that, " Saril whispered aloud, more to herself than to the others. Her comment prompted the giant to laugh and Draev, who had just staggered to his feet, to speak.
" Or trollkin, " the artificer added, teeth bared against the pain as he straightened up. Seeing Saril's look of confusion, Draev explained. The giant seemed content to remain still for now, perhaps enjoying the prospect that she would soon fully understand what she faced.
" Trollkin are normal humans who have had all of the blood in their bodies replaced with a mixture of troll's blood and other alchemical agents, mostly stabilizers. The result is the body changes to become a mix of human and troll, with many physical aspects of the troll manifesting, including increased size and the ability to regenerate just about any wound. "
The giant clapped his hands together lightly, saying; " Text book description, Draev, though you left out the parts of how painful and how expensive it is to get it done. "
" Which is why only the most obsessed and wealthy even bother to undergo the procedure. I'm beginning to get a clear picture in my mind of perhaps the only person I've ever encountered with both those traits who would be here right now. " " Come on, say it Draev. Label your doom before I take away everything from you that you care about like you did to me, " the trollkin urged, taking a step towards the artificer and staring at him intently. Straightening up to his full height Dreav returned the giant's gaze, his expression neutral, sending his thoughts Daa's way.
' Daa, tell Saril that he will have limited regeneration with his bones. I don't know how that will help her, but tell her to be careful. I couldn't bear to lose her to this beast. '
' I will Master, be careful yourself. '
" Seccus, the failure. "
" What?! " the giant roared, his fingers curling into claws, entire body tense, " you dare to insult me when I could tear you apart like a straw doll? "
" I figured you'd just pay people more competent than you to do that for you, like back at the academy! " the artificer shouted back, bracing himself for the inevitable assault.
It didn't really matter what skilled profession or trade you went into, there was always a final test of everything you had learned, and regardless of the profession or trade, they were always nerve-wracking.
At least, they were to whose work was honest and ran the possibility of failure. This was why Draev stood by his display pedestal with is palms sweating and his jaw clenched while Seccus, off to Draev's left, had an easy smile on his face while he preened his golden blonde hair and chatted casually with several of his female admirers. This was the culmination of seven years of study and labor, where each of the students spent months abroad with a small cadre of overseers, hunting down rumors of artifacts, unearthing them, and then determining its functions. Only after thoroughly examining the item could it be put up for sale, partially for the buyer's protection against accidents, partially to determine how much the item should be sold for.
As future artificers they were supposed to be above concerns such as what purpose the artifact could be used for after it is purchased, so if the item produced endless amounts of wine or sucked the souls out of people, they would still be sold to the highest bidder. Many kingdoms considered this practice immoral, and henceforth banned the sale of artifacts and the travel of artificers within their lands outwardly, but when an invading army came knocking, discreet sales to said kingdoms rose dramatically. Many a ruler passed this off as 'secret weapons' held in reserve for such an occasion when questioned as to the origin of the newly acquired items. Entire kingdoms had risen and fallen with the purchase of some of the more potent artifacts, sometimes a war coming down to a bidding match between the two generals.
As a result, the artificer guild had become immensely rich and influential, owed favors from various rulers and government officials, owned tracts of land, herds of livestock, mines, quarries and just about anything else of value that could be given instead of gold coin. Writs and bonds bearing the official artificer mark were used by its agents instead of actual coin and were accepted anywhere artificers were allowed to travel and trade freely. The guild did nothing to prevent its agents from traveling through countries that did not allow the sale of artifacts, but an agent was pretty much on his own once there, making it risky, but often profitable.
All of the skills that an artificer would need in the field were tested, those going with them merely observers and their attendants. Tracing rumors and legends to actual sites; interacting with local authorities and populace to garner additional help or information; exploring the ruins for the item in question and extracting it; then determining its abilities; and finally locating a potential buyer. The last part of the test was really finding a senior artificer within the area who had put word out that he was looking for an artifact similar to the one the apprentice was investigating. Once the "buyer” had been located the entire group returned to the sprawling guild hall in Tolune, a city-kingdom nestled against, and partially within, the Edgescar Mountain range. It was here, within the Halls of Appraisal, that the "sale” would be made to an instructor with many years of experience. Afterwards, the apprentice would have to wait for roughly a week while the observers notes were reviewed, and, coupled with the presentation here, a final grade would be rendered.
Draev was nervous, not only for his own project, but because something else would be happening at this inspection, something highly unorthodox, something he was a part of. The students did not have to wait long, the senior appraiser entering the room with only a curt nod to all those present in greeting. The students muttered welcomes to him as well as he passed them, the aged man in elegant blue robes making his way swiftly to the front of the room and wheeling about sharply, casting his piercing eyes over all those gathered. His gaze fell upon Seccus and his female companions, and with a hard glare the two girls got the hint rather swiftly and left his side.
" Welcome, senior students, " the instructor began, sweeping his hand over all those assembled, " to what, for some of you, will be the last time you will walk the guild halls as an apprentice. I can assure you not all of you will pass, and it is not family heritage, personality, looks, or gender that affects any of my decisions today. It is my duty and privilege to select only those who make the highest grade to become full artificers, not those whom I dislike less than the others. "
Some students shifted uncomfortably as he said this, getting the distinct impression that a hard-ass like this man was chosen to give the final grade because he genuinely didn't care if they passed or failed.
" I will begin the inspections very shortly, make any final preparations you need to immediately, as you will have no time whatsoever to do so once I have engaged you in conversation, " the instructor added tersely, two attendants with their heads bowed humbly coming to flank him, each laden with scrolls and papers that contained past information on each student and the item or items brought forward today. Draev had but one item, a large cluster of faintly glowing blue crystals that, with proper commands spoken, could illuminate an entire banquet hall without becoming blinding, and also create haunting, ethereal melodies by resonating the crystals at various pitches and frequencies. It would be a luxury item used as part of a chandelier or table centerpiece for a wealthy noble or ruler, not exactly the most exciting and powerful artifact ever recovered, but could still command a fair price.
Across from him Seccus had a veritable trove of items, seven in all, some of them fairly powerful as well, if Draev understood their histories correctly. His demeanor was one of disinterest, as if simply by having the most items his graduation was guaranteed. The first student's interview got underway shortly, she was obviously nervous, and stammered a few times, but it seemed to go relatively well. Draev tried to take deep, calming breaths as the senior appraiser finished with her, moving along to Seccus next. It was almost time.
" Seccus Aldencourt, of the Aldencourt merchant family out of Whiteport? " the instructor queried, reading over one of the sheaves that his attendant had handed him.
" Yes, first born son of the owners of the most expansive business empire on the eastern coast, with over... " Seccus began, chest puffing out with pride as he spoke of his lineage, but was quickly cut off by the instructor.
" I don't give a shit if your parents own half the world, they aren't here now, and your name means nothing to me except to confirm it for the records. "
Seccus nearly choked as the older man said this, his face becoming hard and disdainful.
He was not someone who was used to being spoken to in such a manner, and likely would find some way to get back at the man later, after he had safely graduated.
The instructor looked over the items, his expression neutral.
" Quite the haul, Mister Aldencourt. I haven't seen this many artifacts collected within a month in all my time here at the guild hall. "
Seccus shrugged, an easy grin once again coming to his face.
" You've never had an Aldencourt attending the academy before. Some are just born with the knack for it, while others, " he continued, casting his eyes over to Draev, " do not. "
" I see, " the senior appraiser nodded once, his tone flat. " So you collected all of these without any outside assistance whatsoever? "
Seccus shrugged, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. " Ask the supervisors who went with me, if you don't trust my word. "
" Your reports seem very straight-forward, saying you went from site to site with surprising swiftness, however I did not ask them, I asked you. Did you collect these artifacts by yourself, without any help from family retainers or hirelings? " the instructor pressed, staring at Seccus directly. The younger man, a sour look crossing his handsome face, crossed his arms across his chest, understanding quite clearly the implications that were being suggested.
" Yes. I collected these all myself. I thought that you had observers sent with the students to ensure this sort of thing, and I'd wager you don't ask every student so pointedly if he cheated or not. "
" We've never had an Aldencourt attending the academy before, " the appraiser repeated, looking over to Draev, drawing a confused look from Seccus. " There are those who disagree with your statement, however, Mister Aldencourt. There are those who bring some pretty heavy accusations to the table today, leveled against you. "
Seccus looked from the appraiser to Draev and back again, his expression a mixture of outrage and confusion.
" Well, out with it then! " the spoiled merchant's son protested, scowling at Draev.
"While following a lead of my own we, my observers and myself, encountered a man in a tavern in Barthlow who was quite drunk and with plenty of money to blow. It seems that he was paid an exorbitant amount of gold coin to meet with a young artificer in training to tell him of a supposed local legend about an item of wondrous power in a remote keep long since stripped clean of anything of value, " Draev began, arms loosely folded across his abdomen as he spoke.
" There is no proof of this but in your words, Draev Vel'marat! Do not lay accusations against your betters without more convincing evidence, " Seccus growled.
" Ignoring that the observers with me can testify to my words, of course, I have no definitive proof from that particular incident. However, when a message was sent to the artificer guild with our suspicions, they did a little digging around and found that four of the seven items you have with you right now were catalogued and sold to the Aldencourt family as far back as twenty years ago, " Draev added, gesturing with his head to the senior appraiser. The elder man reached back blindly, several pieces of paper pushed into his hand to be brought to the fore.
" You do recognize the seal of your father by now, I hope, " the instructor said, holding the papers up for Seccus's inspection, " even if the other three artifacts were found the honest way this invalidates your entire final examination. The artifacts will be seized as per our laws and you will be expelled for a year, only to return upon written approval from the ruling council. "
Seccus gaped at him, unbelieving. When it became abundantly clear that the instructor was done with him by walking away from his display and attendants approached to remove the artifacts to the guild vault, Seccus rapidly came to realize the truth. His face now a mask of utter hatred, Seccus approached Draev before storming from the room.
" It seems I have a new project of sorts to occupy my time. Nobody crosses an Aldencourt and gets away with it, Draev Vel'marat. You will one day wish you had minded your own business and stayed out of mine. "
Draev had later found out that his father, a self-made merchant lord who had been hoping that going to the Academae Artifictora would help his eldest son learn the meaning of honest work, was even less pleased by what Seccus had done than the instructor had been. For having attempted to cheat his way through a business dealing as well as taking relics from his families various holdings without their permission Seccus saw his stake in the family fortune dwindle considerably, forced to live in a tiny estate far from the major centers of commerce. What's more, his younger brother was being groomed to succeed his father as head of the empire, Seccus's entire future put into jeopardy because of one incident. Draev, knowing that vindictiveness and lots of money and free time were a dangerous mixture, did fear a reprisal for some while, but as the years slipped by he thought less and less about that spoiled brat merchant's son and his angry threat. That all changed today, when it became clear exactly how far Seccus was willing to take his vengeance on those who and wronged him.
Seccus charged forward, his patronizing humor gone, large hands leading the way towards Draev. Saril'daa managed to get in a deep cut along his torso as he passed them, but it didn't even seem to slow the giant's dash forward. The artificer braced himself as the trollkin closed the distance rapidly with his large stride and at the last possible moment threw himself to the right, Seccus's momentum such that he could not stop and crashed head-long into the already crumbling wall of the uninhabited house. Clay bricks and mortar crumbled to dust as the trollkin's body collapsed the wall, partially burying the giant but that would only delay him for a very short while. Draev took up a position beside Saril'daa, ready to support her in any way he could.
With a roar of anger Seccus thrashed his way free of the crumbled wall, tossing bricks about and stirring up yet more dust. His armor was coated in a fine film of it now and the condescending attitude seemed to have shattered like the masonry. Lurching to his feet, breathing heavily the trollkin kicked the last of the debris away as he paced forward, eyes switching between the two of them.
" Try and sever a leg, or part of one. It will give us some time to flee, " Draev whispered to his bodyguard. She just nodded, not taking her eyes off of the advance of the trollkin assailant.
Seccus's next lunge forward was hindered as Draev conjured a rapid succession of blinding lights right in front of him, the flashes severely dulled from the artificer's side so that he did not suffer from the same temporary blindness as his foe did. Staggering back and shielding his eyes with his hands, Seccus became an easy target for Saril'daa's blade, bloody gashes forming in the sword's wake as it traveled across his lower torso and legs. With one titanic effort Saril delivered a brutal downwards chop, severing the trollkin's right leg from the knee down, sending the giant toppling to the blood-soaked sand. Seccus let out a choking gasp of pain as he fell, even his toughened form unable to fully compensate against such a grievous wound. Reversing her grip on her blade with a lightning fast twisting of her simulated arms Saril'daa speared the trollkin through the heart, piercing through to the other side of the armored giant. Almost reflexively Seccus's right arm reached out and gripped Saril'daa around her right ankle as his body shuddered violent as his supernatural healing tried to keep up with all the damage he was sustaining so quickly.
" Let's be gone! " Draev shouted to her as the elf, with some satisfaction, twisted the blade in the giant's heart before withdrawing it. Kicking her leg free of the trollkin's grip the bodyguard wheeled about and began to walk swiftly away from Seccus, but then suddenly paused, Saril's face screwing up in a look of introspective confusion.
Frowning as well, the source of the warrior's concern became clear to Draev in a matter of seconds.
" Master! When the trollkin grabbed my leg there was something in his palm, something that forced its way inside my form, I feel his will commanding me to stop, " Daa explained hurriedly to him, for the first time since he had known her what sounded like fear in her telepathic voice.
A pulse of violet energy, originating from a bright spot within Saril's simulated calf muscle, rippled along the slimbiote's body, spidery lines like veins appearing against her ebony form for a brief moment. There was another pulse, the channels of energy coursing further up the black legs. Draev took a few steps forward, his hands out in a gesture of assistance but quickly had to jump back as Saril's blade slashed clumsily at him.
" Master, please, no closer! I can't control my actions any more and I've lost all connection to Saril's mind. I've never felt like this before, it's...scary. "
Meanwhile the elf squirmed against what was now a walking prison to her body, gritting her teeth in an effort to struggle free, or reconnect her telepathic link to Daa.
Over the quiet drama unfolding Seccus's quiet laugh could be heard as he held the severed portion of his leg against the oozing stump, the muscle and skin quickly reconnecting, all while the other wounds he had suffered were sealing closed. The bone was another matter, it would take some time to heal, but meanwhile he would still be able to hobble about fairly easily.
" I know all about your little band, Draev. I've prepared for it all. You didn't think I would plot revenge for seven years and not have at least a good idea of how to overcome your defenses, did you? "
A little shakily Seccus got to his feet, testing his weight on his injured leg while Saril'daa remained stock still with her back to him. The elf tried to see behind her, twisting her head around, her nerves understandably shaken from the new direction the fight had taken.
" No, no, " the trollkin answered for him, coming to a stop right behind the helpless elven warrior, his hand coming down to slide over her shoulder and fall to her breast, where it kneaded it casually, " I have it all figured out. "
Draev scowled and took a half-step forward, fists closed tightly in impotent rage while Saril squirmed under his rough touch, her breath hissing out from between clenched teeth.
" Go Draev, save yourself! " the elf woman shouted, realizing that her torment would be increased many times over if she were forced to watch Seccus pummel the artificer to death right before her eyes.
" As much as it would please me to see the high-and-mighty Draev run like a scared child away from the woman he's undoubtedly bedded so many times, he cannot go yet. He has something I need, something a very persuasive and eventually grateful lady wants, " the trollkin purred, lowering his head until his chin almost rested on Saril's shoulder.
So this wasn't completely about his revenge, Draev thought to himself, she's involved as well.
" If it's the scarab you want you can have it, or anything else you want, except her, " the artificer shouted, opening the dimensional pocket that the religious icon was held in and drawing it forth, the disk-shaped artifact gleaming in the early sun. Seccus smiled pleasantly at the sight of the item, appearing as little other than a narrowing of his eyes from behind the mask he wore. " I suspected you would become quite complacent when I threatened to destroy this happy little paradise of a life you have crafted for yourself. It hurts when your future is put in jeopardy, doesn't it? When you've done nothing to deserve your ill fate but earn the disdain of one other person. Don't think this little token makes us even, Draev my friend. Not even a drop in the bucket, " Seccus went on to say, gesturing to the golden disk in the artificer's hands.
" Your vengeance will satisfy only for a moment, and it won't take back all the suffering you've endured, or the monster you've allowed yourself to become, " Saril hissed at the trollkin looming over her shoulder, turning her head to regard the profile of his face.
" A moment? I'm afraid not, my supple little elf. I will ensure that Draev suffers for as long as I have, if not longer. As for you, I think you've abused your right to speak long enough. We'll see what else your mouth is good for a little later... " the giant chuckled darkly.
The string of elven profanities that exited the bodyguard's mouth was cut short as the black ooze that surrounded and cradled her limbless body moved upward, coursing over her elegant neck, and despite her shaking her head in protest and denial, covered over her mouth. The slime sealed her lips shut, her tirade reduced to a series of angry grunts. The rest of her "outfit” began to shift as well, ooze slipping away from her torso until only a thin vertical strip of blackness covered each breast, originating from her collar and following the contours of her body down to the front of her pelvis. The inky blackness that covered her hips shifted as well, retreating away until she was left with nothing else but a tiny thong of the substance, a thin strip passing between her nether lips, between her legs, and joining up with the frail-looking strip that encircled her waist.
While her torso was being uncovered the ooze slipped up further along her face, covering her head except for a strip along her eyes, and pushed her hair along until it all sprouted from only one spot at the crown of her head. Sheathing her curved sword Saril's simulated arms withdrew as well, leaving her a torso sitting atop two ebony legs. Draev noticed Saril's distress readily as Seccus's mental commands to Daa had not permitted the slimbiote to keep her nostrils clear. The helpless elf squirmed freely in her prison, unfettered breasts jostling freely, eyes wide with panic. The artificer could only gape, horrified, at the scene unfolding before him.
" Stop it! You can have anything you want, " Draev yelled, tossing the scarab to the sandy ground, " just take it and leave her alone! "
" Oh but Draev, " the trollkin sneered, seemingly oblivious to the distress the elf beside him was in, " I am getting what I want. Suffer, suffer and know there is nothing you can do to stop this. "
Enraged and frustrated beyond belief Draev's mind frantically searched for a method to over-come this foe from his past. No enemy he had ever faced before knew precisely the nature of Saril'daa, nor had the artificer even heard of magicks capable of subverting the bond between a slimbiote and their chosen humanoid. His mind stumbled upon a possible solution, and quickly retrieving Jegna's lamp from another micro-dimension the brass lamp appeared in his hands. Seccus did not move, but did let Daa free Saril's nostrils so that the elf would be able to appreciate what was going to happen next. With the familiar swirl of billowing blue energy dancing with luminescent sparkles the djinn took shape, stretching her arms and yawning mightly.
" What? Want more again so soon? " the blue-skinned elemental smirked, her expression changing from bemused to deadly serious as swiftly as a bolt of lightning as she became aware of the situation. Her golden eyes scoured Draev's dusty and bruised form, the rest of what happened easily coming clear to her. The air then grew thick with static electricity, the sky above the courtyard darkening as if thunderclouds had suddenly rolled in. Jegna's eyes positively blazed with anger and power as she turned her focus upon the trollkin, who in a matter of moments no longer towered over the genie, but was rather dwarfed by her as she grew in size. A silent command to the enslaved Daa had the captive elf woman walk stiffly away from in front of Seccus, who looked up at the raging elemental, tense but not afraid.
" You hurt my Draev? If you've damaged any of the bits I like I'll have dust devils slowly rip the flesh from your bones. If not, I'll just reduce you to a pile of ash with lightning! " she bellowed, fingers curling into claws and white forks of energy crackling between her two hands.
" I have just the thing for a raging genie like yourself, I did say I knew all about your little band, didn't I Draev? " Seccus said, looking to the artificer while his right arm moved around behind his back, apparently retrieving something. The trollkin's calm demeanor and words sent new waves of anxiety through the artificer, suddenly, for all her power and fury, fearing for Jegna now. " Jegna! Let's grab Saril and leave, he's a dangerous opponent, we don't know what other tricks he has up his sleeve! " Draev shouted towards the djinn, shielding his eyes from the dust being kicked up by her anger.
" Nonsense! Nothing short of a godling can equal my power, and this rank-smelling fool is no such being. He'll be dust in a matter of moments and..., " the genie argued, her words dying down to a whisper as her eyes grew wide and her head turned back to face Seccus.
The giant stood as he had before, except this time his right arm was extended, and a dark chunk of matter was held in his open palm. Draev squinted to make out what it was, getting little else other than it looked like a small piece of rock, dark brown in color and flecked with tiny reflective crystals. To Jegna though, it was obviously something far worse, as she backed away a step from the trollkin, arms up as if to defend herself, her form shrinking in size.
" No! How could you have gotten something like that...? " she asked in a harsh whisper, her voice full of confusion and dread.
Seccus, unfazed, took a leisurely step forward, causing the genie to scamper back another few paces, human sized once again and looking as threatening as a mortal woman with no special powers. " What? What is it? " Draev pressed, looking between the advancing giant and the cowering elemental, unable to contain his befuddlement any longer.
" Tsk, Draev, I would have figured you'd clue into something as simple as basic metaphysics. Water is to fire as earth is to... "
" Air, " the artificer finished, realization finally dawning on him.
" What I hold in my hot little hand, old chum, is a chunk of elemental earth, ripped from the very meta-plane itself. It is anathema to beings of air, like this blue-skinned harlot here. She grows weak merely from its presence, and if I were to touch her with it for long enough... " Seccus threatened, suddenly taking a short hop forward. Jegna let out a shrill scream and pressed herself against the far wall of the deserted courtyard, barely-clothed body trembling in fear.
Draev now understood completely. Jegna would be of no use to him in this situation, in fact, becoming as vulnerable as Saril was. Another tool to be used by Seccus against him.
" I'm...I'm sorry Draev, but I can't help you. Forgive...me, " the djinn stammered, crystal tears trickling down her face as she looked sorrowfully at him, her body dematerializing into a sparkling blue cloud and fleeing swiftly into the spout of her lamp until nothing was left. Draev watched her go with a look of bleak hopelessness on his face. He was undone. Seccus was holding all the cards, and there was nothing Draev could do or say to make him stop.
The trollkin had barely slipped the piece of earth away when the artificer, suddenly seized with an overwhelming rage charged the towering man, hands alight with more of the electrical energy he had tried to use on Seccus when he had grabbed him before.
" Damn you! " Draev roared, the aches and pains of his body unfelt as he covered the distance between the two of them in a matter of seconds. Seccus wheeled around to meet his attack squarely, then, with alarming deftness, side-stepped the artificer's reckless charge, bringing his right knee up to connect solidly with Draev's sternum. All air left his lungs as his body impacted the mass of bone and muscle, a few strained efforts to draw a breath all he could manage before darkness swiftly crept over his vision.
" Your torment has only begun, Draev my old friend. I've been saving something very special just for you, " the giant said with a gleeful coldness in his voice, a burning, searing pain on the back of Draev's neck the last thing he felt before he lost consciousness.