The Awakening of Baron Kier

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Consciousness returned slowly, with a slow and terrible inevitability. First, there was pain; a throbbing ache in his neck, chest and shoulders, a pounding in his head, a more raw sensation in his wrists and ankles.. Then the smells of incense, brimstone, blood, and other nameless and intoxicating perfumes. Cold air on his skin. Sounds began to filter in: the soft clinking of chains, a flapping sound – like the wings of a large bird – murmured voices, and a woman's laugh, incongruously light and musical. It was the laugh that stirred him awake, and urged his bleary eyes open at last.

At length the room swam into focus, lit by eerily flickering magical torchlight. He lifted his head – so very heavy – and craned his neck to take in his surroundings. His pulse quickened as he realized the source of his bodily aches: he was hanging, stretched taut, from the ceiling of the darkened room, suspended by his manacled wrists from heavy chains that disappeared into the gloom above. His feet were anchored to the stone floor but unable to support his weight, his legs spread eagle. A large mirror hung on the wall in front of him, giving him a full view of his naked helplessness.

Memories began to filter back now... The weeks of careful maneuvering to suss out a contact in the undercity, then more weeks waiting for word that there was someone who could help get the child out of Andusk, and finally, the message last night, calling him to meet with the movers. Was it only last night? He couldn't be sure... He'd gathered all the coin he'd managed to scrape together over the past few months without his wife noticing – a few imperials here and there, she never looked at the account books anyway – and slipped out. Then, disaster. The men from below had been jumpy from the start, almost as though they had an inkling of what was to come. When the guards had flooded into the alley, they had disappeared down a sewer quick as rats. He had tried to follow but, floundering in the bewildering filthy labyrinth, he was quickly taken. The last thing he remembered was a sap hitting the back of his skull. He shivered and swallowed hard as he began to understand where he was, and what was about to happen. What happened to all traitors.

Beside the mirror, two women sat at a small table, drinking wine from crystal flutes, sampling fruit and chocolates from a heavily laden plate, and talking amiably. The woman facing him was human, full-blooded by the look of her, or near enough as made no difference, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. The other was turned away from him – he could see only her long black curls, tumbling untamed down her half-naked back. The first woman seemed focused on her companion, but something must have alerted her to his awakening, because her eyes flicked over to him, and she inclined her head slightly in his direction. The raven-haired woman rose and turned to face him, with a smile that chilled him through.

She was beautiful, as he had always heard she was. Her body was lithe, catlike, and she moved with sensuous grace as she glided toward him. She was clad in a filmy black gown that hung loosely off her right shoulder, exposing her breast and caressing her curves, while her left arm was all but concealed in a lightly billowing sleeve. Her smooth, dusky skin was curiously free of the piercings and tattoos so popular with the Shadar-kai and their associates. Coal-black curls framed a delicately-featured face with full lips, and almond shaped eyes. Her eyes... the strange blue glow made them seem unfocused, or as though she was simply staring through them. He knew her, although they had never met. Everyone knew of her. The Mad Countess. The Kizers' witch. Phéria Kesset.

All at once there was something black flapping in his face, and something unpleasantly soft probing at his chest. He tried to jerk back, but the chains that bound him would yield no slack. The flapping thing dropped lower, and suddenly there was a sharp, hot, tearing sensation in his belly. He looked down, horrified, to behold a ghastly birdlike thing ripping at his exposed stomach with its razor sharp beak. Its wings beating against him felt strangely oily, and it slapped wetly at his chest with wormlike tentacles that seemed to lap up his blood. A strangled cry escaped his lips. This was not like any of the shadow birds that haunted Andusk. His mind struggled to comprehend its anatomy, and recoiled from its impossibility. Phéria laughed again, the same uncanny, musical sound he'd heard before. She waved her hand lazily in the air and the winged horror flew off to perch on her shoulder, snaking its fleshy pseudopods around her neck as it chewed on a ragged piece of flesh.

“I am so sorry...” she crooned, her voice light and breathy. “Hali is impatient for her dinner. She forgets her manners.” She stepped closer, smiling still. He felt ill. All he could hope for was that it would be quick... and that seemed unlikely. The Countess extended her right arm toward him slowly, deliberately. He screwed his eyes shut against the pain as she inserted two fingers into the wound in his abdomen, fingering it like a lover's slit. He felt a tear escape, rolling down the creases that lined his face.

“I'm so happy you could come tonight, Baron...” she purred. “You're going to be part of a very special research project...!” He whimpered as she pushed in further, and hooked her fingers to claw at his insides with her nails.

“Oh, you're right, we shouldn't waste time...! We have an engagement later this evening, don't we, Triana?” She looked over at the other woman, now standing slightly behind her, who smiled hungrily as she moved off into the shadows behind him where he couldn't see. Abruptly, Phéria yanked her hand out of his stomach, bloody to the wrist. She ran her fingers through her hair, wiping off some of the gore. He couldn't bear to look down, but felt something hot and wet flopping against his lower abdomen. Panic rose, choking out reason. He groped for a lifeline, something that would end the pain before... before... he did not know what. People spoke in hushed whispers of the things the Countess did, and what she consorted with; but none of her victims were around to describe the experience fully. Maybe he could beg, or just tell her everything. Offer her money, anything... his family had a few enchanted items, if...

“Shall we begin...?” It was too late. She spoke a word he did not understand, though it seemed to burn in his ears, and he began to choke – no, drown! His lungs were filling with water. His instinct was to try to hold his breath, but it was futile – the fluid was coming from within. He spasmed as he struggled instead to cough it out, but his cruciform position made it nearly impossible... His lungs ached with the effort of it. Phéria watched with detached interest. He realized, his stomach turning, that she hadn't even asked him any questions yet.

“W...what...” was all he managed to sputter out before the waters rose inside his chest again. As he fought to clear his lungs, he was vaguely aware of the bird-thing flapping at him again, tearing at his exposed bowels. He felt something hot and wet running down his legs, and realized that he had pissed himself. It didn't really seem to matter.

Three more times – or was it four? - he fought off the magical waters that threatened to choke him. He wished, almost, that he could just let go and pass into unconsciousness, but his body's reflex to expel the liquid was too strong. His throat felt raw, and his chest felt as though he'd been trampled. Drained, he sagged against his chains, and looked with hopeless pleading at his tormentor – but she stared past him into the darkness and nodded once, presumably at her assistant. There was a creaking, clanking sound, and he felt his hips and shoulders being ripped apart as the chains were pulled even tighter. He heard something tear, and fire ripped through the muscles of his chest. He screamed, the sound itself painful in his abused throat. Then, suddenly, Phéria's face was inches from his, her warm, soft body pressed against his in a way that might otherwise have stirred his loins. He cringed away from her, but Triana came from behind him and clamped his head still between her hands. Phéria smiled with terrifying, manic glee as she began to chant.

He had never known such agony. The flesh on his hands and face bubbled and split, oozing bloody fluid that burned as it seeped out. His blood seemed to want to boil out of his body – he could feel it rising in his eyes, blinding him – had they burst? He twitched powerlessly against his chains and the Countess' body. He opened his mouth to scream again, but something soft and putrid stifled his cry – a foul spongy member forcing itself down his throat! At the same time, he could feel something in his head, as though the unnatural thing were forcing itself into his mind as well as his body. Choking, still wracked by Phéria's arcane torture, he prayed to whoever was listening, for death and release. No one heard.

It seemed an age before his vision returned and the pain faded. The thing, whatever it was, pulled free of his mouth, and he could breathe again, if in halting, broken sobs Triana released her grip on his temples. His body shaking, it was all he could do to lift his head to look at the beautiful monster before him. With an almost motherly touch, she brushed his sweat-drenched hair away from his face, still smiling, like a satisfied cat. Her cheeks were slightly flushed.

“Please...” he moaned pitifully. “I'll tell you everything. Anything. Please.”

“Oh sweetling...” she crooned, as a slick slimy tentacle coiled around his shoulders. “You already have....!” She laughed again and danced away from him, her thin garment clinging to her where it was wet with his various fluids. The noisome thing slipped from his body, and he realized with horror that it was attached to her – it withdrew into her sleeve, flexing and twisting repulsively as she moved. Behind her, Triana had gone to pick up a leather-bound book from the table, and was writing something in its pages. Phéria turned to face him again.

“Now this is the important part...” She spoke slowly, and with exaggerated enthusiasm, as though trying to convince a particularly stupid child. “So do please pay attention...!” She beckoned to Triana, who moved to her side, holding the book and quill and staring at him expectantly. “I want you to really think about this experience. Tell me everything you feel, as it occurs to you...!” Her glowing eyes seemed somehow earnest. His lips parted and a piteous moan sounded in his ears. He wasn't sure he even recognized his own voice, but he supposed it must have come from him. Triana made a quick note in her book. “Interesting...!”

The two woman stepped back toward the table as the countess began to murmur incomprehensible arcane words, waving her hands in fluid, hypnotic movements. A nameless dread gripped him: What could be next? What detestable nightmare could surpass the last? Why, why, why wouldn't it end? If she knew it all anyway... Why? Triana was casting now as well, her movements smaller and more subtle...

The air in front of the mirror began to twist and distort, giving him a sensation of stomach-turning vertigo. Abruptly, the space before him was torn asunder, with a sound like ripping meat. The thing that stepped forth from the rift was so complete an abomination of known forms that he could not bear to look at it, but only glimpse it from certain angles – his mind rebelled against its existence. He knew of devils of course, but this...

It slouched forward with the sound of clinking, scraping chains, deafeningly loud. Putrid, pale, offensive flesh melded with the metal in places, seeped out from around it in writhing, reaching tendrils. Where its face might have been there was only a mouth – a wide gaping slit torn from side to side across its head, filled with row upon row of fangs, dripping with abhorrent slaver. He thought he might have seen an eye somewhere in the mess of chains, leather and flesh, but it might have been another mouth. The execrable thing shrieked once as it emerged, a short piercing sound that rent the air. The noxious sound seemed to echo interminably off the stone walls. Then with a flick of its hateful body, a flood of barbed iron chains whipped towards him, hungry for his flesh. A thousand tiny teeth sunk into him, seeking, tearing, pulling him against the mundane links that held his body fast. The thing's head flipped backward as though hinged, and it seemed to bark out a hideous laugh. The sound triggered a primal fear, more intense and overpowering than anything in his limited human experience. Somewhere inside the Baron's mind, something pulled sharply, threatening to tear apart. But it was not the creature that caused his mind to fracture, horrified, into numberless shards. It was the space beyond it.

Through the rift from whence it had come he espied such remote, impossible alien vistas his feeble mind could not bear to accept. Pallid fungoid creatures buzzed and clicked. Formless spawn of nameless elder gods flopped abhorrently, their noisome bodies ever shifting. Beyond that, the presence, the terrible inevitability of their masters, the things his tormentors served. It was too much. Under the oppressive weight of their existence, and the realization of his own utter insignificance in the face of such awful splendour, his mind crumbled... and suddenly, he was free. He could feel no more pain. The world around him shrank into a tiny point of light, and then was gone as he sank blissfully into oblivion.

Somewhere he heard a man laughing, or screaming, or both at once – gibbering unintelligibly. It seemed a thousand leagues away. A woman sighed heavily, disappointed.

“Oh dear, Triana. We're going to need another one.”