- Roleplaying Previews
- Shades of Earth: History
- Shades of Earth: Classes
- Victoriana: Science & Steam Power
- Victoriana: Wescot’s Folly
- Star Ace
- Brimstone and Treason
Brimstone and Treason
Chapter One: The Set Up
Anja had never heard Damian say anything quite so unconsidered. Normally all his comments seemed to spring from the Suave and Sophisticated Handsome Man’s Handbook. It was a particular shame that he chose this moment to let his lyrical manners slip, as it looked as if ‘Oops!’ might be the last thing he ever said. What an end to such a distinguished career, she thought dispassionately. Damian will hate to be remembered for ineptitude and banality.
She also wondered why her mind was sounding so calm and more than a little pretentious. Perhaps this is how everyone feels facing death… Or perhaps I’m just lacking in sensitivity. Oh, well, it isn’t going to matter now…
She looked out of very wide, blue eyes at the problem confronting her.
Standing before them, clothed in odorous splendour, was a twenty-foot tall green demon. It was, Anja noted, male enough to cause an underwear designer a severe construction challenge. She tried hard not to stare, while her disobedient mind thought how awards could be won with a solution to contain that. Slowly, she dragged her eyes to its face. The demon was smiling. Damian, she couldn’t help but notice, wasn’t.
The Empire’s leading mage staggered backwards, almost pushing Anja out of the circle. ‘That,’ he whispered earnestly, ‘wasn’t meant to happen.’
‘I-er-er,’ stammered Anja. What on earth does he expect me to do? she thought. I shouldn’t even be here! She’d been in a state of perpetual surprise since Damian personally asked her to assist him in a major warding. She’d stuttered over the elemental stations; something she hadn’t done since she was ten years old. Normally he’d have used a fully ranked mage, not an apprentice who had yet to complete her first test. The latest developments were well beyond her abilities, even on a good day.
‘What do you want me to do?’ she hissed back. ‘Sir!’
Damian appeared very rattled. His clothing was disordered and the permanent spell he used to keep his blond locks in order had vanished. A small, cynical part of Anja’s shocked mind noted how glad he must be there would be no witnesses to their unstylish deaths. She felt this must be a great consolation to Damian, but it wasn’t really doing much for her.
Anja glanced round wildly. It seemed as if Damian had temporally lost his wits. She didn’t know many spells, certainly no fast combat magic. There was nothing magical she could do.
The double doors behind her were firmly bolted and six inches thick. The window was on the other side of the room and, besides, this was the top floor. No-one would hear the screams that were building up inside her. She was going to die and Damian with her.
Their only chance was that door. Perhaps some of the other mages could get here before it was all over. If nothing else, the demon rending her limb from limb should get Damian’s attention. It wasn’t a very comforting thought, but it was either that or have both their souls carried off to Hell for eternity.
Anja turned, readied herself and sprang into the air. She never made it to the door.
Faster than a merchant grabbing paper money from a burning strongbox, Damian became a whirlwind. He lashed out and caught her around the waist, grabbing her in mid-air before her feet even hit the ground.
Gasping for breath and painfully winded, Anja was just about able to appreciate Damian’s incredible talent for lightning spell casting. No mortal man could have stopped her.
He held her fast against him. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ his voice was acid in her ears. ‘Has your training taught you nothing? Outside this circle you are dead… or do you doubt my ability to protect you?’
Anja bit back the stinging retort that sprang to mind about his recent similarity to a startled rabbit. He might take it the wrong way and offer her to the demon as an incentive to depart. She also suddenly, and with much confusion, realised how much, in other circumstances, she might enjoy Damian’s embrace. As it was, he was bruising her stomach.
Abruptly he let her go, pushing her behind him, and faced the demon. The room rang with his commanding voice: ‘So, Lord of the Nether Realms, we meet again.’
So great mages really do have to deliver formal lines, thought Anja ruefully. She’d heard once that it was terribly dangerous to say anything original to a demon, but she’d always thought it was some kind of in-joke.
Apparently the inhabitants of Hell could trap you through your words and vice versa, judging from the demon’s incredibly corny response. It thundered back:
‘Indeed pitiful mortal, bow down before me or make peace with your gods and prepare to die.’
‘Never!’ cried Damian.
Personally, Anja felt Damian was delivering the better lines, but the demon seemed in no way discomposed. It grinned. ‘Offer up to me your virgin or I shall lay waste to your city. Your petty bindings are useless against me.’
And to prove it he knocked over two of the four braziers that surrounded the circle, sending burning coals tumbling over Damian’s Eastern knotted silk carpet. Fortunately they were magical coals and knew better than to burn a hole in a mage’s floor covering. Anja, however, was completely oblivious to the burning rocks that cascaded across the floor, a hairsbreadth from her feet. She was burning red all on her own under Damian’s astonished gaze.
‘Virgin?’ he said in tones of utter disbelief. ‘Why the f-f-f-flaming hell didn’t you tell me? No wonder the whole bloody thing went wrong.’
Anja, forgetting the impending demonic peril for the present, turned beetroot red. She had imagined telling Damian about her sexual purity, but in circumstances quite different to these. Circumstances, in fact, in which he would have treated her confidence with tenderness, respect, admiration and heightened desire. Exasperation had not been a response she pictured in her wildest day dreams. Clearly he was angry, but that he assumed her morals were as loose as his own, embarrassed and affronted her. Her face was flaming painfully and she wished she was dead.
Damian’s face stared unrelentingly into hers. She could smell his after-shave… Thrust. She tried to meet his gaze and failed. Why was he so mad?
‘I didn’t know that it…’ she began.
‘Didn’t know!’ screamed Damian interrupting her. ‘How can you not know whether or not you’re a virgin?’
Anja faced up to him, her fists balled angrily. ‘I didn’t know that,’ she yelled back, ‘it mattered!’
‘O Heavens grant me patience!’ cried Damian shaking his fists above his head, ‘and protect me from foolish women.’
‘You’ll need a lot of protection,’ muttered Anja.
Damian stared hard at her and continued, ‘You must have realised it would be dangerous, Anja. Do you know any other mages, or even novices, who have kept their virginity? You’re prime demon-fodder, you stupid girl. Why didn’t you tell me? I could have solved the problem for you. Haven’t you even read the Novices’ Handbook? I know it wasn’t written with girls in mind, but you must have noticed the emphasis placed on seduction magicks?’
‘Look, excuse me, old fellow,’ broke in the demon in a soft and gentlemanly accent, ‘much as I hate to interrupt your tirade, but we do have some business to attend to..’
‘Oh yes, um…’ Damian composed himself and spoke commandingly once more, ‘Be gone foul fiend of Hell and .. and…’
‘Trespass upon our lives no longer,’ whispered Anja.
‘AND TRESPASS UPON OUR LIVES NO LONGER,’ cried Damian. ‘Hmm, not bad, from the Handbook of Stinka Corpus, isn’t it?’ he whispered back.
The demon sat down and cocked his head on one side. ‘Off the record?’ he asked hopefully.
Damian sighed. ‘Off the record,’ he said in a tired voice. ‘What do you want, Gilbert?’
The demon winced slightly at the use of its private name. There were some things for which you can never forgive your mother.
‘Look,’ it said reasonably, ‘I didn’t want to come here. I don’t want to lay waste to this city. It would be an awful hassle. I was quite prepared to let you go ahead and do your little warding rite. I wouldn’t have noticed a thing if it hadn’t been for your little virgin here.’ He leered at Anja. ‘My boss would really go for her. Bit thin, but with the right seasonings…’
Damian gave Gilbert the oddest look.
Gilbert, almost imperceptibly, winked.
‘Yes, yes, but I’m not giving her up.’
‘You know the rules, Damian.’
‘Better than you. I’ll pay the forfeit.’
The demon was startled. Anja could tell by the way its eyebrows exchanged places. It bent forward and breathed sulphur over them in a concerned manner. ‘Are you sure about this?’ it asked. ‘I mean really sure, Dee?’
Damian sprawled across several cushions, taking up two thirds of the circle. He and the demon were laughing, probably about her.
Anja shifted uncomfortably and hunched up even more as an elegant, black tasselled boot swung within inches of her nose. Damian wouldn’t let her leave the circle or give her a cushion. She’d stopped being frightened and was being bored instead. Damian and the demon had been chattering for hours in a language that hadn’t been spoken in the Empire since the last Ice Age in Hell.
And then quite suddenly the smiles stopped and Damian turned to her, looking very unhappy. ‘It seems the penance I have to pay is transmogrification and you are going to be the one to rescue me.’
The demon grinned at her. ‘I thought it would be better for Damian’s ego if we kept it between the three of us. Dee’ll give the details, but basically I’m going to turn him into something and you have to get him out of it. Within fourteen days. Or I eat his soul.’
‘Oh,’ said Anja.
‘Um,’ said Anja.
‘Exactly,’ said Damian, ‘and while transmogrified I will have terribly limited occult powers. Think of it this way, Anja; fix me and I’ll sponsor you to third rank within the year. Fail, and I’ve told Gilbert he can have your soul too.’
The demon almost simpered, ‘Dee believes in sharing his misfortune. Now all that remains is to choose a new style for Dee. I really think it should be something appropriate as a virgin’s companion. The classical option, I think.’
‘THE WHAT!’ roared Damian, vanishing in a puff of violet smoke.
All twenty foot of green demon giggled. Where once had stood the Empire’s greatest mage now stood a pure white, neatly bearded, four legged unicorn with the most magnificent golden horn.
‘Oh, he’s beautiful,’ exclaimed Anja impulsively, reaching out to stroke the silken mane.
The Unicorn reared backwards, scuffing part of the circle.
The demon grinned, revealing several miles of razor sharp, blood spattered teeth and advanced upon them.
‘On my back!’ shouted the Unicorn.
Without thinking Anja jumped up. The back of the beast was too smooth. She’d never stay on. She wound her hands in its mane. The beast bucked with pain and charged for the window.
Anja closed her eyes. They were four stories up. She could feel the demon’s breath hot on her neck. We’re going to die – again, thought Anja as Damian tensed for the leap.
‘You’re going to have to do the flight spell,’ remarked the unicorn conversationally, ‘I can’t.’
He’s forgotten some of us need time to cast a spell, she thought.
Then the world shattered into a thousand fragments of glass and they began to fall.
Anja closed her eyes. She tried. She thought her spell as only Damian could. She felt the mage-knot in her mind, but there wasn’t enough time.
Several seconds later there still hadn’t been a bump.
‘Well done,’ said the Unicorn. ‘I didn’t think you could do it. I say, do you have to hold on so tightly? I won’t drop you.’
The girl opened her eyes. The city was a small patched carpet beneath them. Anja flung her arms around Damian’s neck and screamed.