Fedel City-State; Rule of the Tenth Magus, 1542
Flames reflected off stone walls, dancing in the sconces placed at perfect intervals along the sanctuary walls. An unseen choir of monks chanted from deep in the cathedral, away from the dangerous and arcane rites.
Kristabelle walked around the prisoner, placing crystals at the five key points of his body. Concentration was absolute. Mistakes were unacceptable. Lives hung in the balance if she did not perform to the clerics' specifications.
Her gaze found Balaris'. Panic turned his eyes to a pinpoint of dark against green irises. "No, Kristabelle. Please, don't do this. I beg you. What will happen to my wife and children?"
Her heart ached. Bled for him.
There was nothing to be done to save him.
She gave him an imperceptible shake of her head. He'd spoken out against the church, the clerics and his dissention fell on the wrong ears. Punishments for such offenses were swift and final.
It hadn't always been so, only since the clerics returned to the once-abandoned cathedral with a taste to rebuild. With each new phase of construction, the Portamere clerics gained a greater foothold over the village of Tengamont and indeed the entire valley. The clerics wanted nothing short of absolute rule. To break every last person under their rule.
Kristabelle's hand shook as she painted a sign of protection over Balaris' forehead. The last piece of the stained glass waited to be moved into place, locking Balaris' soul inside the colorful art that would soon become one of the cathedral windows.
Even now, dozens of souls hung trapped above her head. The delicate glass already moved into place as construction of the main sanctuary continued. What would be her atonement for the heinous acts she was forced to play out on a regular basis?
Daily, the clerics received word of another villager rising up to challenge the church's authority. No one had been safe from their twisted interpretations of church doctrine. Least of all Kristabelle.
Since the clerics discovered her talent for etherealmancing, she'd been imprisoned at the cathedral and forced to entrap the church's enemies in the delicate stained glass she created for the new sanctuary. More than once she'd cursed the pride in her artistic talent that exposed her to the clerics' notice. If they hadn't known of her beautiful stained glass designs, they never would have been close enough to discover her other magical talents.
Her clever designs had caught their attention when they first came to Portamere. She made the pictures in sections that were set one behind another. When light poured through the glass all parts would create a separate whole in shadow, painted on the floor or adjacent wall.
They had told her they wanted those same types of designs in the new cathedral.
Now, Balaris was the latest one to suffer the consequences of her vanity. The very idea anyone should suffer at her hands nearly crushed her spirit. But she couldn't allow it. To do so meant the clerics won. If she held on, perhaps she'd find a way to defeat them. Or at least keep her family safe.
They had threatened her family with burning at the stake for producing a heretic--one who practiced magic. Hadn't the church been founded on the Gods' granting divine powers to mankind? Why didn't the Magus intervene? Had the village of Tengamont been left to fend for itself as unimportant in the grand scheme of Fedel?
The questions did an intricate dance in her head without finding answers. There were none. The clerics thought it beneath them to speak with her unless it was to instruct her to perform another rite, or bully her into prayers to redeem her soul.
The Gods had never found fault with her soul before, why did they do so now? If not for the clerics her soul would be clean.
Kristabelle lifted a few drops of a tisane meant to lull the victim into slumber to her finger. She'd lied to the clerics telling them it was a necessary step in the process. All the potion did was calm the subject and grant them peace as their souls crossed over into a half-life; a place of distinct darkness and void of sound.
"Drink this," she whispered to Balaris. "Know I send you to sleep with a heavy heart and burdened soul. I'll care for your family the best I can."
Balaris took the liquid and spit it back in her face.
Kristabelle backed away, wiping the offering from her eyes. His reaction wasn't unexpected. It was deserved. Her just due for turning on people she'd known since birth. But it wasn't her fault. Coercion was a strong motivator when backed by the threat to the lives of one's family.
Strong hands on her upper arms guided her back to the ritual altar. Heat seeped through the vermillion silk of her sheer sleeves at his touch. She turned to look over her shoulder at the guard she knew only as Darius.
"Finish." He picked up the final glass panel from the table and placed it in her left hand. "Quickly."
The guard's mouth was set in a determined line. Jaw hard and unmoving. An irrational desire to touch him, to see if he was as hard and unfeeling as he looked, surged through her veins.
She thought not. Sometimes she caught him watching her with hot eyes and clenched fists. Desire emanated from him, sweet on the air. Her heart answered in kind.
Kristabelle's fingers lingered on Darius' as she took the vivid blue glass from his grasp. His gaze slammed into hers for half a heartbeat before he stepped back with a gruff command to get on with the task.
With her hand shaking, Kristabelle returned to Balaris. She unfocused her vision. Strands of the ethereal swam around her in whispery strands seen only with the mind and heart. Forming a cup with her right hand she reached through the cords covering Balaris' heart and scooped the strands out, attaching them to the back of the glass like a mason with a trowel.
Balaris' once frightened eyes dimmed. His soul lost to the hand of an etherealmancer. Carefully, she placed the plate on the clear glass that served as a backing to ensure the souls remained trapped forever--or as long as the glass remained intact.
Over the long months since she'd been held by the clerics of Portamere she'd wondered where the souls would go if released and the bodies ceased to exist. Would they ascend to the heavens? Or were the clerics correct and the words spoken by the villagers were heresy?
Deep in her heart she knew the clerics were wrong. Her neighbors were no different than herself. All they asked for was a humble living and healthy crops. To sustain life in a world where magic had become anathema--outlawed--and people forced to work by manual labor.
It was unnatural. The Gods had given man gifts to work in harmony with nature, not against it. Using her sacred talent to steal the souls of the innocent was condemnable under the eyes of the Gods, and yet the clerics forced such an arrangement. That was not the way the doctrines had been taught by the former clerics who served Tengamont.
Her talent had been given to heal restless souls and grant peace. Not torture.
The blue glass piece clicked into place. She poured the molten metal into the seams, locking the soul inside.
Kristabelle spared a glance for Balaris' still form. "Forgive me," she whispered before turning and fleeing the sanctuary.
Tears filled her eyes as she stumbled blindly down the darkened corridors to her cell. Footsteps sounded at a sedate pace behind her. No doubt Darius followed her to ensure she was locked in for the night. As if the constant threat of her family's deaths wasn't enough to keep her compliant.
It was custom for her to remain in the sanctuary until Darius cleared away the body and returned for her afterwards. The clerics believed the time surrounded by holy relics might deliver her from the evil talent she performed for them. Kristabelle believed their pious request had more to do with her watching her guard cart away the bodies and return empty handed, only to walk her in solemn silence to her tiny cell. They manipulated her cooperation at every turn.
The only thing the clerics had no dominion over were her tears. Those she savored for herself. Shed in private, she never wanted the clerics to see how close they were to breaking her. How every moment in the cathedral pushed her closer to her limit. But she held fast, hoping one day she found a way out of her predicament and save her village from destruction.
She stopped before her cell as a trained pony stood before its stall, waiting for a groom to let it inside.
Darius leaned in, pressing his muscular body against her back. He turned the key in the lock and swung the door open. "I will return to check on you when I've finished."
"Do not bother with such things. I'll be here as I always am once you lock the door." Kristabelle stepped inside, careful to keep her face from view.
Her workbench was littered with tools of others' destruction. For an art she'd once used to express her joy, the making of her beloved stained glass had become a torment. She hated to even look at the tools of her craft. Each one taking on a sinister purpose now the clerics had made her a murderess.
Darius moved closer, the sleeve of his acolyte's robe brushed against her. He raised his hand, moving her hair from her face. The touch both comforted and excited. Desire arced between them.
Kristabelle sucked in a breath. He'd never touched her quite so intimately before. Dare she move away and spoil the moment, or see how many liberties he'd take? The decision was taken from her hands, when he ran his bare knuckle down her cheek, catching a glistening tear on his finger.
She stared at the evidence of her weakness, waiting for his condemnation.
It never came.
He moved closer, until the only space between them was filled with the warm wash of his breath over her cheek, and the solid press of his body against hers. "Regardless, I will return."
Then like a wraith in the ancient forest tales, he was gone, leaving a cold loneliness in his absence.
Kristabelle reached out with her right hand, snatching the few strands of his essence he'd left behind. She raised her palm to her face, breathing in the sensual residue of his life-force.
An odd tingle began in her lungs, spreading out along her veins. Her nipples stood erect behind the thin silk gown. Desire rose, weakening her knees. She moved to sit on the cot, feeling the unmistakable wet slide of arousal between her legs.
What kind of wretched creature had she become to lust after her jailor? The fact she even felt such a potent emotion so soon after performing an etherealmancing rite proved beyond a doubt her tentative hold on her mind had slipped.
Her hand curled into a fist.
She must fight the madness at all cost.
But how was that possible when the only salvation from her personal hell came in the depths of her guard's compassionate gaze.
Darius hurriedly disposed of the body.
The fundamental element in clearing the bodies from the sanctuary was to have everything prepared ahead of time. Over the months of his assignment, he'd become expert at diversion and subversion.
It was essential to survival.
As he climbed the levels from the catacombs, he brushed the cobwebs and dirt from his robes. The keys at his belt jangled with each step. His soft boots made hardly a sound on the stone steps.
Noise from above made him lift the lantern to see up the long staircase. Father Benedict waited for him at the landing. The stern expression and soulless dark eyes appeared even more evil in the dim light.
There were dark forces at work in the monsignor just as the Magus had warned.
"Is the body gone?"
Darius walked the last few stairs and bowed in feigned respect. "Returned to the dust."
"I did not see the heretic in the sanctuary. What have you done with her?"
Darius stalled a step that appeared more of a stumble. Better the senior cleric found him slightly inept than to always be perfect and make the man suspicious. It was all part of a clever deception. "Locked in her cell."
"Why was she not in the sanctuary praying?"
"She fell ill after the rite. I returned her to the cell before disposing of the villager." Always the questions. Never could Darius perform his tasks without having to answer an entire list of questions. He'd learned to have some answers readily available and to stay as close to the truth as possible. Assistance was too far away if he should fail in this mission.
He'd be the one strapped to the altar, having his soul removed by Kristabelle's delicate hand.
The thought of her alone made his cock stiffen under the folds of his acolyte's robes. She smelled of exotic dreams and honeyed kisses. There wasn't a curve or valley on her golden body he didn't want to pay homage to. At length, under a sky full of stars.
"Ensure she makes it to morning prayers."
"Yes, Father Benedict."
Darius bowed once more and started away. The less time spent in that man's company the better. All the evidence Darius needed to collect he could without being in close confines with the man any more than necessary.
The way to Kristabelle's cell was dark. Most of the torches along the way had been doused. Hardly anyone ventured down this way at night. The brothers in residence at the cathedral feared her powers too much to come near. For his part, Darius pretended to show a certain level of respectful hesitancy in her presence, but it was all for appearance.
Desire swam through his blood in a hot river as he reached her door. What was it about this particular woman that tied him into knots worthy of a sailor? Darius had been with many women since he'd reached his maturity. All were special in their own way, though some had been lost to time in the far reaches of memory.
The fact was simple: Darius loved women. In the mantle of his acolyte's robes he dare not indulge his hedonistic side. Exploring the flesh of a tavern whore was strictly forbidden. Not that he made it into the village to frequent the tavern. Since taking this assignment, his only sexual gratification had come from the stroke of his own calloused hand.
He fit the key into the lock and turned, taking care to make as little sound as possible. Even if the corridor was uninhabited, sound carried a long way down the stone and mortar passageways. Getting caught inside her cell might jeopardize the mission. Or it might move things along. It was a chance Darius was willing to take to spend a few moments alone with her. If he understood the methodology in which her powers worked, there was a good chance he and the other magi could use her to break the brothers' hold over the village. Stop the spread of their vile, dogmatic cancer. Lessen the threat to the Magus and the Citadel.
The Gods reigned for all mankind, not a few privileged individuals who believed in bludgeoning their followers with the word. Twisted and vile words at that.
Darius shook his head, trying to free his thoughts before he pushed open the door. Kristabelle lay on her side, facing the door. Her arm was folded up under her face. The other tucked up close beside her heart. The long folds of her vermillion gown swirled around her in a vibrant cloud.
He set the lantern on the floor and closed the door. Hopefully, anyone wandering down the hall would see all doors pulled closed and not make thorough rounds. When he turned back, Kristabelle's eyes were open and she watched him with a measured gaze.
When she looked at him like that, he wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and devour her whole.
He cleared the lump that formed in his throat.
"I need your help."