Eriyana flew over the Mountains of El. Thunder boomed in the distance and lightning illuminated her path, unleashed by the persistent storms that plagued her homeland. Ahead, the dark stone of the mighty mountain of Kaz’radan loomed.
Valkerion streaked toward the hidden entrance to Kaz’radan. He ignored the wind battering against him and showed no fear at the sound of thunder or the flashes of lightning. Of course, if he had shown such signs of weakness he would not be her shadow drake.
A cave became visible ahead and Eriyana steered Valkerion into it and landed.
Two dwarkain slaves approached and attached a clamp to the leg of Valkerion. Then they prostrated themselves on the rocky floor, heads down.
For the drake’s part, he endured the imprisonment with practiced patience. He had been chained from birth and was accustomed to it.
Eriyana dismounted. She paid the prostrate dwarkain no mind and strode toward the exit.
“Ah, the errant daughter returns,” a smug voice said from behind her.
Eriyana stopped and turned, groaning inside. She had hoped to avoid him. “Master Holst,” she replied coolly.
He walked hunched over to her. “Is Valkerion performing to your expectations?” he asked, eying the drake as it was led away to the aviary. His beady dark eyes turned back to her. He stroked his well-oiled mustache.
“He performed admirably at the Engrall fortress. He blended right in and they never saw us coming,” Eriyana said impatiently, a sneerplastered on her face. She did not have time for the Master of Drakes. His deformities disgusted her.
“Good, good,” the man said in his hiss-like voice. “You have grown much, child, into a beautiful young woman.”
Eriyana closed the distance between them and grabbed the broach of his cloak in one hand and put a knife to his throat with the other. “Flirt with me again, old man and the drakes will be feasting on your corpse.”
An angry roar erupted behind Eriyana and she felt something slam into her side. She flew through the air and would have landed and skid across the ground had she not bound herself to a shadow cast by a flash of lightning. She appeared upright across the chamber from the Master of Drakes.
At Master Holst’s side crouched his drake, Drakyrion. The monster would have dwarfed Valkerion. He snarled his teeth and glared at her.
“You forget yourself, princess. Kill me and my drakes shall take revenge, your father be damned.”
Eriyana sniffed. “I don’t have time for you.” She stormed out of the aviary and the dim, damp halls of Kaz’radan embraced her.
Master Holst’s laughter followed her.
How dare he speak to her like that? Her father would hear of his transgression. He would pay. Perhaps he would even let her wield the knife, to feel his blood running down her arm. After she made him beg for mercy.
She strode to the end of the corridor and descended the spiral stairs that led deeper into the mountain. She ignored the other assassins who passed her and exited on the next floor.
As she neared her father’s audience chamber the doors opened. Two men walked down the corridor, whispering as they went. They stopped when they saw her. The taller of the two, a bald man with tattoos all over his body eyed her lazily. “So the prodigal bitch returns.”
Why did everyone seek to antagonize her that night? She added another name silently to her list as she forced herself to keep from challenging the Master of Weapons. Only her clenched fists revealed her anger.
The move did not go unnoticed. “Did I hurt your feelings princess? Shall you run to your father and request the removal of my head again? How did it go last time you did such a thing?”
“I am older now, Master Matic. I will gut you myself, with his permission.” Or perhaps without it.
“Try me, little wolf, and my blades will taste your blood.” He touched the hilt of one of his short swords hanging at his side and licked his lips. “And then I shall follow.”
“And what of you, Master Vlakov? Shall you lend him the poison to coat his blades with?”
Master Victor Vlakov gave her a crooked, yellow smile. “You know me too well.” He bowed. “But do not worry. Only the most painless poisons for you.”
Eriyana snorted. “There is no such thing.”
“How little you have remembered,” he chastised.
“Or never learned in the first place,” Master Matic said. “You never did learn well.”
“Perhaps that reflects on the failing of the teachers,” Eriyana replied. “I have urgent business to attend to, so unless you have something of substance to say to me, move.” She strode toward them but let her hands slip to her knives. If they attacked her she would defend herself, consequences be damned.
No attack came. The masters separated and allowed her to pass between them.
She felt their eyes on her as she went.
“Enjoy your visit. We may be seeing you sooner than you expect,” Master Vlakov said cryptically.
Puzzled but not about to give the man the satisfaction of turning and showing her weakness, Eriyana pushed through the doors into her father’s throne room.
The room stood in stark contrast to the dim corridors pervading the rest of the mountain. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, torches stood like bright sentinels along the wall and the floor of glass reflected it all. At the far end of the room sat the throne of knives, a throne built from melted knives. Legend said the knives were those of his enemies - the ones who had tried to kill him. Eriyana did not know the veracity of those claims.
Her father sat on the throne, silhouetted by the storm raging behind him through the glass window. He watched her with cold blue eyes as she approached. His face was emotionless. He wore his customary cloak and no doubt wore his black armor beneath. He slept in it.
Eriyana did not expect her father to show emotion. He never had before. Why should killing the emperor bring him any more joy than her past successes? She stopped at the foot of his stairs and knelt, bowing her head. “Father.”
He did not speak.
Eriyana looked up. Why was he silent?
“Father?” she asked.
Her father stood, glaring down at her. He sneered. “I sent you to perform one task, child. One. And you failed.”
Eriyana blinked. “I killed the emperor, as you said.”
“I also told you to frame his bodyguard. What was his name?” He stroked his chin, then snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Oba.”
“I left him on the floor next to his dead emperor. He will take the blame and be executed.” Why was he recapping her actions in such a way? She had not failed.
“That is what you assumed,” her father said in a deadly tone, silencing her. “You assumed they would kill him and that he would not escape. A true assassin would not leave such things to chance. You were careless.”
“Oba has escaped,” her father interrupted, raising his voice. “He has escaped and is on his way as we speak to warn Prince Tirrin, the emperor’s eldest son. If he reaches him, if he tells him the truth, our plans could unravel. All of them.”
“Then I will go and kill Oba,” Eriyana said. She would please her father in this.
“Yes, you will. But first you must be punished. Failure cannot be left unpunished.”
Eriyana hung her head in shame. “Yes, Father.”
He clapped his hands and a door along the wall to Eriyana’s left opened. Mischa Gromyko, the Master of Slaves, emerged. Two Dwarkain followed him, each carrying a whip.
“Rise,” her father commanded.
Eriyana did as commanded. She knew what came next. The same punishment which had been doled out when she was six and ever since when she failed her father. She held her head high.
“Such pride in the face of punishment,” her father observed. “You think you know what you shall face,” he gave a devious smile, “but you are not as prepared as you think.” He gestured to Mischa. “Master of Slaves, kindly explain my daughter’s punishment.”
Mischa bowed to her father, then turned his calculating gaze upon her. “My slaves will whip you, as in the past, but there are some differences.” He smiled. “The whips are coated with a liquid, courtesy of Master Vlakov, which shall stop your body from going numb during the flogging. This will heighten the sensations.”
Eriyana shivered but said nothing, only glared at him.
“The second part is, in my opinion, the best. You shall be flogged through the halls of Kaz’radan on your way down to the dungeons. The whole guild shall know your weakness and see your shame.”
“As if I care of the opinions of the others,” Eriyana said, chest puffed out to put on a brave front.”
“No? Then you won’t mind them watching as you are tortured before their eyes.”
Eriyana turned her head to her father. “If you wish for me to kill Oba why are you wasting time torturing me?”
“The price of failure must be paid,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “Not even my own daughter can be above the law.”
Her father had always been a pragmatic man. She knew he took no joy in seeing her tortured, though she could not say the same for the masters.
“Remove your clothing,” Master Gromyko demanded. “All of it.” He licked his lips and looked her up and down.
Eriyana sneered at him. Voyeuristic pig, she thought. When I am Lady of the guild I will cut off your dick and feed it to you. She removed her clothing, eyes locked on the man. Let him watch, she wouldn’t let it bother her. She shivered once naked, but otherwise did not allow any other signs of discomfort to show.
“Walk,” he ordered, pointing toward the door she had entered moments earlier.
She turned and strode toward the door at a measured pace. She made it a few paces when Master Gromyko barked another command.
“Now, scum, whip her.”
The first whip struck her back and caused pain to arc up and down it. A second strike followed a moment later. Both Dwarkain, taking turns. Her back throbbed.
She knew she shouldn’t blame the Dwarkain, they were only doing their master’s bidding, but she cursed them silently. Anyone who had a hand in this would die…one day. She had to figure out a way to kill her father first.
The whips made contact again and the pain grew stronger. Her back burned for many moments after each strike. It must be the coating. The result was the pain caused by each strike lingered until the next. It magnified the effect.
Eriyana clenched her jaw. I will not succumb, I will not succumb, she repeated in her mind like a chant. Her knees threatened to give out as pain lanced down her spine into her legs, but she kept going. She focused her thoughts on each step.
She made it through the door and they drove her down the stairs with persistent whipping. She did not look back but imagined her father and Master Gromyko following, the latter with a huge smile on his face and the former with his usual dour expression.
They did not stop on every level but instead went to the ground level. There dozens of assassins were gathered like a crowd at a parade. They watched in silence as she passed.
Blood dripped down the back of her legs and made her feet wet and sticky. She caught herself twice almost falling. A trail of blood. I will bathe in their blood one day. The stones will be covered in a sea of blood.
She arrived at the great hall, the gathering place of the assassins. Even more men and women awaited her in this room, and she heard shuffling from behind as those from the hallway entered.
“Stop,” Master Gromyko said as she approached a wooden torture table. “Turn and face the crowd.”
Eriyana obeyed, turning to face her torturer. She looked past him to her father. He stared at her with indifference. There was no anger there, no hatred, only dispassionate observation. In his mind this was fair punishment for her crime, not torture.
An image rose in her mind of the time she was six years old. She had failed to defeat another student in combat. Her father had ordered her strung up from the ceiling, feet first, and flogged for hours. She had been cut down and left to lie on the bloody stones for days until thirst and hunger drove her to crawl out of the room. Afterward her father had acted as if the punishment never happened. When she asked him about it, he explained that there was no point dwelling on the past once the punishment was finished.
Her father’s voice brought her back to the present. “We are gathered today to witness the first punishment of my daughter as an adult.” He turned his head to survey the room. “Do any object to this?”
No one spoke. It was a test. Any who spoke would be cut down, probably by their own brethren, if not her father.
To the side stood the other four masters. Akelia Savin, the Mistress of Whisperers and the only female among the master assassins, was the only one who had not taunted her. Was it because they shared the same gender? Or was she saving her barbs for later?
“You may commence, Master of Slaves,” her father said after a moment of silence.
Master Gromyko bowed. “As you command, my lord.” He turned back to face Eriyana and snapped his fingers. “Lay on the table.”
The two Dwarkain who had whipped her stepped forward and grabbed her arms.
She pulled away at first. How dare filthy Dwarkain touch her. But they persisted and she cooperated by lying on the table.
The Dwarkain restrained her arms and legs with leather straps. A metal headband was placed over her head, hard pieces of metal poking into the flesh. What was this contraption?
“Behold the ultimate torture device,” Master Gromyko shouted. “Pull the crank.”
The two Dwarkain worked together to turn a crank. The table creaked and Eriyana felt it moving beneath her. Tension gripped her arms and legs at the same time panic entered her mind. Were they seriously going to draw and quarter her? Would her father watch as her arms and legs were pulled out of their sockets and she was torn limb from limb?
“That is only stage one,” Master Gromyko said distantly. “Here is stage two.” He clapped his hands and a clank sounded from beyond Eriyana’s line of sight. A hum rose.
Energy unlike anything she had ever felt shot through her head and surged down her body. She convulsed involuntarily as her blood seemed to burn inside her. A primordial scream echoed through the chamber and it took her a moment to realize it was her screaming at the top of her lungs. She couldn’t stop. On and on it went for what seemed like an eternity. At last the burning subsided and she was left with the relative painlessness of being drawn in four directions at once.
“We call it electricity!” Master Gromyko announced. “It is like harnessing lightning. A very effective torture method.”
A dull chatter broke out among the crowd. It sounded like they agreed.
The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled her nostrils. Tears ran down her face but she refused to beg for mercy. Instead she focused on her hatred. Father, Master Vlakov, Master Holst, Master Gromyko, Master Matic, Master Gromyko, she thought. She repeated it again, Father, Master Vlakov, Master Holst, Master Gromyko, Master Matic, Master Gromyko. Over and over she repeated the names of those who would one day die at her hands as she gritted her teeth and braced for another surge of electricity she knew would come.
The expected hum came, followed by the burning. She arched her back and gritted her teeth, determined not to scream. Instead her agony expressed itself as a loud groan. The pain overcame her and her vision faded to black.
Eriyana awoke an indeterminate amount of time later. She lay on stone, not the wood of the torture table, and it was dark. Pain wracked her body, but she welcomed it, as it meant she was not paralyzed or dead. She wiggled her toes and tried to roll over but when her wrist bent pain shot up her arm and she let out a tiny grunt of pain and flopped back onto her back, panting from the effort.
“Have you learned your lesson, child?” a fame voice asked from the corner.
Eriyana jerked in surprise at the presence of someone else in what she imagined was a dungeon cell. She recognized that voice. “Mistress Savin, I wondered when you would come to gloat,” she said in a ragged voice.
“I wanted to see the prodigal daughter fall before I showed myself. I quite enjoyed it.” Eriyana could hear the smile in her voice.
Mistress Savin, Eriyana thought, adding her name to the list. “You risk much coming in here with me unrestrained.” Even as she thought that she tried to draw upon her frost magic. Use of magic while being tortured would have been seen as a sign of weakness, but here…she could kill the smug woman if she wished.
A soft laugh came from Mistress Savin. “Oh, child, you are no threat to me in your…weakened state. In fact, even at full strength you would be hard pressed to kill me. Save your strength, rest. Your father sent me with a message for you.”
“Tell me and go, then.”
“He said you have a day to rest, then you must be on your way to kill the one named Oba. He wanted me to tell you that if you fail him again you will not be so lucky to fall unconscious the next time you are tortured.”
Eriyana shuddered but put steel into her voice. “Tell my father I will not fail him.”