The bar was situated at the northern edge of dok Shibar, the bustling capitol of Lumarilla. The air inside the bar was dense and clammy, filled with smoke and the chatter of the bar's many patrons. The beams that held the roof were worn and weak. The roof itself sagged with age, for the bar was old. It had been in business since the reign of King Renault, nearly two hundred years before the reign of the present King, Wulonar.
In the many years that it had served the people of dok Shibar, the bar had become the most popular in the city. here were many reasons for its popularity: the best whores hung out there; it was the main headquarters for the black market of dok Shibar; and last, certainly the least: it served the tastiest mug of beer in the city. But, while the bar was the most popular among the people of the city, it was frowned upon by the law enforcers of dok Shibar, because murderers, cutthroats, and other seedy types often sought refuge in its dark corners.
The bar was named, ironically, "The Angel's Halo."
Ko Ying Varuk opened the heavy oak door of the bar and stepped inside. A cacaphony of noise, smoke and putrid smells assaulted his senses. Full-bodied whores immediately surrounded his masculine form, each vying to be the one to serve the ruggedly handsome stranger. He reluctantly shrugged them off and made his way to a table in a secluded, dark corner. The nubile wenches pouted after him for several moments and then moved on to other potential customers drifting in from the street.
Varuk was an outlander from the so-called "uncivilized" lands beyond the Ten Countries. He had just eluded the law of dok Shibar after a particularly tiring pursuit throught the city. He'd come into the Angel's Halo to rest for a while.
Apparently he had overstayed his welcome in dok Shibar.
He would hide out in the bar for a while and then move on to new adventures in another place. His life had been non-stop adventure ever since he had come over the mountains into the Ten Countries, and he loved it. Adventure was his life-blood.
The owner of the bar, a big man named Dylan Numidon, came over and stood in front of Varuk's table. "What will you have?" he asked.
"A tall mug of your best beer," Varuk replied, his voice soft but commanding. He'd worked hard to get rid of his accent.
Dylan nodded and walked away.
Varuk looked after the man for a moment, then unhooked his sword from his belt and laid it on the table, the sheath loose and unbuttoned.
Soon Dylan returned with the beer, setting it down on the table before Varuk, next to his sword. Dylan glared at the sword with distaste. Varuk flipped a coin into the air, Dylan snatched it up and left. Picking up the the drink, Varuk took a long swig then set it back onto the table and looked into it. The dark purple liquid reflected his handsome face. He studied his dark blond hair and his deep blue eyes, then the rest of his face: fine, pointed nose; thin, dark red lips; and the scar that ran from his right ear all the way to the corner of his lip. He had won that scar in battle with a thief ten years ago, in a small town in Remikxia. He had been only seventeen then, and had only just come over the Great Mountains. He was proud of that scar. He had another scar that ran from his groin up to his navel. He had acquired that one two years ago from an angry lover. That scar he wasn't so proud of.
"Excuse me, sir."
Ah, Varuk liked the sound of that voice!
He looked up.
And he definitely liked the body and face to which it belonged!
A slender, voluptuous young lady stood across the table. Her hair was light blond, her lips full and deeply crimson, with a slight pout that could bend even the hardest of hearts. The leather outfit she almost wore left her shapely arms and legs bare, and revealed a generous amount of cleavage. And those eyes, deep blue and piercing, so full of innocence! That innocence, conspiring with the tanned, luscious flesh, ripped Varuk's heart out, and ignited a hellish fire in his loins.
"What can I do for you?" he asked her, betraying no sign of his inner cravings.
"May I seat myself, sir?" she asked, her soft and lilting voice like music in his ears.
He gestured to the seat across from him, pushing it out with his foot. She settled herself onto it, and blushed under his steady gaze.
Varuk estimated her to be around twenty years old. She looked so soft, but he sensed an inner strength in her, which only added to her attraction.
"So?" he asked.
"I'll get right to the point," she said. "My fiance, Raol Lumi, has been kidnapped by a sorcerer who lives outside the city. I want you to rescue him for me."
Varuk smiled slightly. "What's in it for me?"
"Raol is the Record Keeper of dok Shibar. I saw you being chased today. Whatever it is you did, he could destroy the records of it and any other crimes you may have committed here. You would then be free to come and go as you like."
Varuk winced. Crimes and laws. One man's law was a restriction of another man's freedom. He was no criminal! But still, public records of his `crimes' were an inconvenience. If they were destroyed....
She sighed. "I'm sorry, but that's all I can offer. My family is not rich, and cannot afford to pay you an amount worth mentioning."
Varuk let his eyes roam her tender form. "You have something else more valuable that money," he said.
She gave him a shy smile. "You would rescue Raol for a night of passion with me?"
"That, and your first offer," he said. He reached out and touched her silky hair. "I would go to Hell and back for a night with you."
She gently pulled herself out of his reach. "But only after you rescue Raol."
"Very well. I shall leave late tonight." She smiled, and then, clearly having to force herself, she briefly caressed his leg beneath the table to show her good faith. "What shall I call you, sir?"
"Ko Ying Varuk. And you?"
"Yannah." She looked into his eyes for a moment, then down at her hands.
Varuk leaned back and crossed his arms on his massive chest, studying her. She was such a gorgeous young lady. A bit timid and aloof, but extremely attractive. He would enjoy bedding her.
Varuk took a room at an inn near the Angel's Halo and rested for the remainder of the afternoon. Shortly after midnight he arose and left for the house of the sorcerer who'd kidnapped Raol. During the five mile walk through the dark, moonless night, Varuk occupied himself with thoughts of the wild time he would shortly have with Yannah. He silently thanked the gods that the night was cold as well as dark, for the chill kept the lust from overwhelming him. He would need a clear head to steal Raol from the sorcerer.
Finally he saw a light in the center of a large field. Right where Yannah had told him the sorcerer's dwelling lay. He slowed his step and kept the sparse bushes between himself and the sorcerer's abode. As he drew close he concealed himself behind a large, lone oak tree. He was surprised to see that the sorcerer's home was a simple, small cottage made of brick and logs. The bricks were cracked and chipped, and the logs were rotting, covered with moss. Soft yellow light spilled through the three windows and seeped around the edges of the warped door. By this light Varuk saw that the crops in the fields surrounding the house were ill-tended, and the farming equipment scattered around the yard looked very old and worn out.
Not the house Varuk had expected for a sorcerer. None of the few sorcerers he had previously encountered had lived in such obvious poverty. And crops? Farming equipment? This was no sorcerer's house, it was the house of a poor farmer.
But this was the location Yannah had described to him. There could be no mistake.
Sorcery! Such an illusion! No doubt he actually stood before the gates of a enormous, forebidding castle.
Several yards from the house stood a small, delapidated shack. A small ribbon of water, ten feet across, surrounded it--a moat, apparently. The door was secured with a rusted iron padlock. An assortment of charms, large and small, were hung on the walls and the roof.
Varuk studied the shack for several long moments, perplexed as to its purpose. Surely it was not an outhouse or a storage shed. His impression was that it was some type of prison. But what a crude, ineffective prison it must be!
The shack seemed at odds with the illusion of a poverty-stricken farm. Why had the sorcerer integrated it into the illusion? It spoiled the desired effect.
The incongruity of the shack made Varuk think that perhaps this farm was no illusion; the sorcerer really did live in such decay and filth. Which meant this sorcerer was mightily secure in his power, and deviously cunning. Or it meant that the sorcerer was so weak he didn't command enough power to house himself in a more hospitable place.
Whichever was the case, the strange shack must be the place where Raol Lumi was sequestered.
Varuk cautiously crept forward, keeping to the shadows cast by the light from the house. He stopped at the edge of the pitiful moat and stood looking down at the water. It was utterly calm, a perfect, silvery mirror reflecting Varuk and the shack.
Was a trap concealed by the water? Varuk wondered. What magicks guarded the shack? How to proceed?
Varuk lithely leapt across the water, his passage sending waves across the calm surface. His sword smashed against the padlock, shattering it--he preferred the direct approach. There was no other way when dealing with magic.
But apparently no magicks guarded the shack. The water in the moat returned to its calm state, and the lock fell from the door and into the water with a dull PLOP. Varuk suffered no apparent ill consequences of his actions.
Before opening the door he studied the charms draping it. He recognized most of them as talismans to block the passage of evil spirits. But in this case were they meant to keep evil out of the shack, or trapped within? Raol Lumi, trapped within, was not an evil spirit, nor was Varuk. So why the charms?
This was a most perplexing sorcerer, Varuk thought to himself. With a brush of his sword he swept the charms from the doorway. Then he opened the door and peered inside.
A candle that had nearly burned itself down stood upon a narrow bench, casting a wan, flickering light in the room. And shackled to the wall of the small shack was a tall, muscualr man with unkempt hair and a wild look in his flame red eyes. Better looking than Varuk himself, that one noted with some chagrin. How would the man react when he learned the price Yannah had agreed to pay for his rescue? Varuk shrugged. It didn't matter.
"Raol Lumi?" Varuk asked softly.
The man nodded, looking up at Varuk with those disturbing, wild eyes. Varuk felt uneasy under that gaze. Something about the man didn't seem quite right.
Varuk struck off the chain tying the man to the wall. The man stood up and stretched langorously. The silver shackles on his wrists rattled loudly. Then he snarled gleefully, and faster than Varuk's eyes could follow, he darted past Varuk, leapt through the door and disappeared into the night.
Varuk turned in belated startlement and looked out the door. It had only been a few seconds, but already Raol had made it across the field and into the forest. How could any man move so swiftly?
Suddenly Varuk leapt out the door and whirled, bringing his sword up until its sharp point rested against the neck of a man, pinning him against the wall of the shack. The man pressed himself flat against the wall, trying to draw away from the sword. Varuk only pressed harder, showing his willingness to slit the man's throat, without hesitation. Never give a sorcerer even the slightest chance.
So why did Varuk hesitate now? he wondered.
It was because the man didn't look like a sorcerer, Varuk realized. The man was relatively young, perhaps in his early forties. And he had a kind, open face, one not twisted by the working of magic.
"Do you intend to kill me?" the man asked.
"You're no sorcerer," Varuk said. He had begun to realize that he'd somehow been duped.
"No, I'm a farmer."
Varuk lowered his sword.
"Why did you let him go?" the man said tersely, rubbing the small stream of blood trickling down his neck. "Do you realize what you've done?"
"A girl named Yannah told me the man was her fiance, and you were a sorcerer who'd kidnapped him."
The man shook his head. "Yannah is my daughter. That `man' has bewitched her: she'll tell any lie, do nearly anything, to get him back. He's a slurteen, an evil spirit cloaked in flesh."
Varuk cocked his head; he'd never heard of slurteens.
"Barbarian," the man muttered. Then: "They take human form to beguile virgin women. Drive them to commit various crimes, small and large. Eventually they deflower their victim and kill them immediately after." The man shook his head. "This one managed to bewitch my daughter while I was at the market in Remikxia. I returned and found Yannah in our house, dining with a strange young man. I recognized him for what he was. But feigning ignorance, I managed to catch him off guard and drugged his wine with ratwort. The amount I used would have killed ten human men, but it merely sedated the slurteen. Fending off my daughter, who was enraged by what I'd done, I dragged the man to this shack and shackled him with silver manacles, for silver weakens slurteens."
As they talked, the man had led Varuk to the house. They went inside, into the light. The man offered Varuk a glass of juice as he continued: "I'm no sorcerer, but I've dabbled lightly in the art magic. I know many charms and herbs. So I contructed charms and placed them on the shack, to trap the slurteen within. I then had my brother take Yannah to dok Shibar, until I could determine what to do. She was in a terrible state, cursing and lashing out, determined to get to the slurteen. This was yesterday." He looked up at Varuk. "Apparently she has escaped my brother."
"Why didn't you just kill it before it awakened?" Varuk asked as he drank the sweet nectar.
"Because he'd bewitched my daughter!" the man shouted. "Once a slurteen has a virgin in his power, a supernatural bond is formed. Killing him will kill her as well. To break his power over her, she must be deflowered before he gets to her. Due to the nature of the spell, she cannot be forced; her deflowerment must happen with her consent. But she now desires only the slurteen."
So, Varuk thought. She had no intention of keeping her bargain with me.
The farmer took a heavy gulp of his juice, and a sob, quickly suppressed, shook his body. "Forgive me. I love Yannah dearly, she is the sweetest girl, and talking about her this way sickens me." He sighed. "But it must be done, or she'll be dead within the week." He looked at Varuk. "Do you know, you look remarkably like the slurteen? In the dark...."
Varuk jogged swiftly through the dark night, back to dok Shibar. Irritation sat in his gut like spoiled milk. Yannah's father had made it seem that losing her virginity to Varuk was the most hideous thing imaginable. "But it must be done, otherwise she is lost," he'd said, as though he were making a great personal sacrifice by consenting to Varuk's ravishment of her. But Varuk had `ravished' many women in his time, and none had found the experience repulsive. Besides, he'd fulfilled his part of the bargain, made with a woman who'd deceived him and had had no intention of keeping her end of it. It didn't matter that she was bewitched. She owed him and he meant to collect, and to thoroughly enjoy himself in so doing.
It also satisfied Varuk's sense of honor that he was once again working for a good cause. That he would enjoy the favors of a beautiful woman as a necessary task in the fulfillment of that cause made it even more satisfying.
Varuk picked his pace up to a light run. He counted time to the sword slapping against his thigh. Time was of the essence. The slurteen would have begun searching for Yannah immediately after its release. It would be drawn to her like a moth to a flame. But, according to her father, the silver shackles which bound the slurteen's wrists would weaken it, confuse its senses, thus slowing it down. Hopefully Varuk would be able to find Yannah and deflower her, thus breaking the slurteen's power before it found her.
As he ran he wondered whether he could fool Yannah long enough to bed her. Even if he did somewhat resemble the slurteen and kept the candlelight low to enhance the illusion, wouldn't she be able to sense he wasn't the slurteen? Surely she would, if her father hadn't exaggerated the strength of the bond between her and the demon. An uncharacteristic apprehension ate at him as he ran.
As it turned out, he needn't have worried.
He passed through the outskirts of the town and entered into the narrow, winding alleyways of dok Shibar. The night was quiet; the only sound he heard was a creaking sound made by the wooden walkways which spanned the dirty stone buildings above ground level as they swayed in the light wind whistling through the canyon of the city.
At the end of a street, near the inn where Yannah had told him to meet her afterwords, a chill raced up his spine. Shadows seemed to race past him and he imagined he heard a loud roaring wind. He whirled and looked behind him, bracing himself for an attack. But none came, and as he blinked the shadows were only shadows again, and the night was silent. He attributed the incident to imagination and continued until he reached Yannah's door.
As he raised his fist to knock, the door was flung open. Soft arms reached out and led him inside. Yannah stood magnificently nude, the light of a dim, flickering oil lamp painting her skin golden. Varuk smiled, doing his best to imitate the feral smile which the slurteen had given him. A shadow crept through the doorway just as he was shutting it, but Varuk failed to notice. Yannah had reached past the waistband of his leather trousers. Her gentle caress transfixed him with lust. He quickly removed his clothing and pushed her insistently backward to the bed.
As he lay her down, positioning himself, listening to her lusty encouragements, it suddenly occured to him that perhaps she was responding to him so passionately because the slurteen was very close and that nearness had enflamed her. He looked up warily, cursing his foolishness. His eyes widened. The shadows near the door drew together and slowly coalesced, first taking on the vague shape of a man, then clarifying into the handsome, devilish features of the slurteen. Bloodlust and the need to defend himself almost deflated his desire for Yannah. But her expert fingers wouldn't allow that. Which saved his life.
As the slurteen gave a rageful howl and rushed toward the bed, its fingers elongating into razor-sharp talons, Yannah made union with Varuk. As she did so, she heard the enraged scream and took her eyes off Varuk. For half a second she saw the slurteen rushing at her and her heart filled with desire for it and she almost threw Varuk off her in rage. But the slurteen vanished almost as soon as she saw it, and she quickly forgot about it as she felt the satisfying weight of Varuk above her. She gave herself over to it.
Near midday Yannah fell asleep in his arms. Varuk roused himself and dressed. He bent over and kissed her on the forehead. She'd been everything he'd anticipated, and more. He strapped on his sword and quietly left the room and dok Shibar. He stopped by her father's farm briefly to tell him that Yannah was free and would shortly return home.
Then he set off up the road, and as the farm faded into the distance behind him, he wondered what adventures awaited him in the next city
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