Pleasure – Jacquelyn Frank

The effects of the racially engineered poison coursing through his system were wide and varied, but he quickly lost track of his symptoms as one in particular overtook him. Hallucinations. Sagan could barely determine reality from the wild rushes of strange things that went hurrying through his feverish mind. The priest tried to fight it every step of the way by repeating even the most mundane facts to himself. Anything to keep himself grounded in the here and now instead of launching into raving waves of nightmarish unreality. I am Sagan. I am a penance priest, one of the five elite chosen ones of the gods. I hunt those who Sin and force them to repent for what they have done. I am a Shadowdweller, a Nightwalker, and my world is a nighttime realm of blessed blackness. I am going to die. Sagan actually took comfort in that truth, as well as all the others, because he knew they were valid. He knew he had lost a crucial battle against enemies of Sanctuary, the Shadowdwellers’ religious house, and the royal house of the Chancellery. The wicked k’ypruti Nicoya had dipped her weapons in the poison that now burned into him, and all it had taken was the smallest scratch for him to fall in defeat. Now she would go off unchallenged into the world to do more of her sinister evil as her mother, Acadian, had her lackeys drag him away to become her newest toy. Provided he survived that long.

And having seen Acadian’s handiwork on the scarred and tortured body of a friend—again, he took comfort in that possibility. After all, he was a man of deep faith and he had to believe Drenna would welcome him softly once he passed into the Beyond. Unfortunately, until then… The priest cried out as the poison scorched agony across every nerve in his body. One minute the pain was bracing and clarifying, but the next his mind became a zoo of wild images and screaming visions. One minute he thought he was in Shadowscape, running through the lightless dimension trying to escape a predator that chased him down, the next it was Dreamscape and he was the predator, hunting Sinner prey. Everything blended and rushed together in a fury until every corner of his mind lit up with activity, thought, and response. The nerves of his body and his brain went into overload, and like the massive malfunction of an entire electrical grid, everything shut down. Something wasn’t quite right. Valera knew it immediately as she stepped out into the blackness of the Alaskan morning. It was winter now, and there were so few hours of daylight that it was dark almost constantly.

It was dawn in other parts of the world, but in her little secluded part of central Alaska, nighttime skies would reign for quite some time yet. Valera was used to this. She was used to the deadly brace of the ultimate cold, too, as she stepped out of her cabin to face the mountainous woodlands. Even the constant wail of the wind and scouring of snow was perfectly in place. So what was out of place? She wasn’t accustomed to ignoring her intuition, but it was too cold to dwell on the problem while standing out in the snow like an idiot. She hurried to get the firewood she needed, making several trips from the pile to the inside entry where the snow would melt off it, making it ready for the cozy fireplace she kept going all season long. A couple of times she paused to look around, trying to puzzle what it was she sensed as being out of place. It was a ridiculous notion, really. Her closest neighbor was some kind of research station at least a hundred miles away and at a much higher elevation. And frankly, it was a long way off to borrow a cup of flour, so she’d never even seen the place.

She just knew it was there. She made her last trip for wood and then hurried out to the storage shed. She made certain there was plenty of fuel in the large generator and she decided to carry in some of the stored frozen meat she kept locked safely away in the heavy-duty building. As she stepped outside again, that was when she heard the strange scrabbling sound around the corner of the shed. A bear. Damn it, they never quit trying to get at her supplies. Oh, the food was safe from them, but Valera couldn’t be as confident about her own safety with that kind of wild potential just around the corner from her. She should go back into the shed and wait the creature out, but there was no heat there and she was already beyond her tolerance for the time she should be spending out in the deep freeze of winter. So, as quietly as she could she dropped the food she held, not wishing to make herself any more of a target than she already was, and she slowly moved toward the house. “Going somewhere?” Valera screamed.

It was such a girlie thing to do, but honestly, she lived on a remote mountainside with elk and bears for neighbors. She wasn’t used to being talked to. She turned sharply to face the voice and found two men had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She knew instantly that she was in big, big trouble. One woman, two men, and no cops or neighbors. It was easy math, and she just knew she was going to end up on the shitty side of the equation. Or at least that seemed to be their intention. She felt secure in that assumption as they closed in on her quickly. They were huge. Parkas and snow gear aside, they were both well over six feet tall and clearly built like brick houses.

“Well, well. Look at this. Davide, I do believe we’ve found ourselves a neighbor.” “I noticed that,” Davide responded, reaching out to attempt a tug at her muffler where it covered her face. Valera jerked back away from his reach. “Not very friendly, is she?” “Well, that’s because it’s cold out, idiot. Let’s get her inside where we can warm her up.” Valera would have to be a moron not to have caught the sinister entendre to that remark. Her heart shuddered harshly in the suddenly tight confines of her chest and her belly squirmed with anxiety. She didn’t say anything when Davide grabbed hold of her, then shoved her toward her cabin; she just paid careful and quiet attention.

“Morrigan, get the priest.” Priest? Okay, so what did that mean? Was she going to be a part of some twisted shotgun-wedding scenario? Out here in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness? The entire situation was becoming very surreal to Valera, even as her blood raced through her in acknowledgment of the danger closing in around her. Davide approached the cabin entrance and after a cautious movement that brought his back up against the outside wall, he thrust her in front of the door, the digging of his cruel fingers penetrating her parka and bruising her arm. “Now you listen to me very carefully. Open the door, go inside the first room, and turn off all the lights. Let’s make it nice and romantic, all right?” He smiled at her, the white of his teeth flashing in the darkness of the night. “And if you try anything tricky, I promise you’ll regret it. As of now, all we want is a place to rest for the day, some food, and a bit of comfort. Then we’ll be on our way and you can go back to your little life. But you try testing me, and this dynamic will change really fast.

Do you understand?” Valera nodded, an unavoidable tremor scurrying through her as her imaginative mind filled in all of the blanks he had left behind. She knew he had purposely not defined “comfort” in detail and she knew his promises were lies. These were powerful and dangerous men. They reeked of the trouble they brought with them. She tried to think. Tried to figure out why they wanted the lights off. Searching for an explanation kept her mind occupied and crowded out the fear that wanted to encroach on her. She needed to stay clear. Focused. Valera realized it was likely a tactic to preserve their anonymity.

Both men were very dark-skinned and all but blended into the blackness of the night, their features indistinguishable…although she made a concentrated effort not to look at either of them too long lest they think she was trying to memorize their identities so she could report them later. As long as they kept trying to hide their faces, it meant they expected to leave her alive when they went. Val walked into her cabin slowly and hit the first switch in the wood room. She wasn’t afraid of navigating her home in the darkness. She had done it many times when the generator had failed or run out of fuel. Sometimes circuits burned out or she simply needed to conserve fuel for whatever reason. She stepped up out of the front area and opened the door to the house within. The double doors were designed to let her haul in wood freely without worrying about flushing out all the heat in the whole house. That purpose was being defeated, of course, as her guest kept the door wide open and inched up behind her carefully, staying in the darkness and shadows. The living room opened up before her and it was already mostly dark.

Simple little lamps on two corner tables and the fireplace were all that lit the room. “Throw water on that fire while you’re at it,” came the gruff command behind her. It was almost funny how that order ruffled her feathers. Obviously she kept the cantankerous response to herself, but it was almost a personal insult to her and her home to demand the everburning fire be quenched. She took a breath and tried to remember the need to focus on the important issues. She shut off the lamps and fetched a pitcher of water from the kitchen. It would get much colder in the house without the fire, forcing the generator to work harder and burn fuel faster. Again, it was a worry for later. She’d just filled the tank and it would last hours. Just long enough for them to rape and kill me, she thought wryly.

Once the fire was doused, Davide hustled her through the rest of the house until there wasn’t a light on anywhere. He even jerked her digital clock’s plug out of the wall, blacking out the glowing red numbers. Davide then sent her back into her living room with a good shove, landing her on the nearest couch in the darkness. Val’s eyes were adjusting quickly since she didn’t keep the house overly bright to begin with, and she saw the man called Morrigan enter with a huge burden thrown over one shoulder. Obviously it wasn’t precious cargo because he dropped the burlap-wrapped thing to the floor with a shrug of his shoulder. It hit hard and solid on the wooden floor. She knew instantly that the burlap contained a body. Nausea rushed over her when the fall didn’t cause the body to utter a single sound in indication that it had felt pain or was alive in any way. Was this the priest they were talking about? What had they done to him? Why? Why were they even here? This was supposed to be that spot. The one where you went in order to get lost from all the rest of the human race.

For nine years it had been that spot. Not a soul did she see here. Only those who had labored to build the house knew where it was. People had a vague idea of it, they saw her and wondered about her when she came into town for her supplies, but none of them knew for sure. She wanted it that way. She had even carved out a little wooden sign as a private joke and had hung it on her door. It said Shangri-La. But now there were intruders in her secret haven who would destroy the balance and peace of the place. She could feel it in every screaming nerve ending and every trembling blood cell. Morrigan and Davide began to strip off their outer clothes, and she could already feel their eyes on her.

They exchanged looks and grins, trying to intimidate her with the evil intent she could feel emanating from them. Valera stood up slowly, her hands clenched into fists as anger rushed through her to mix with her fear. She felt the spark of it warming through her belly as she stared hard at the cause of it, no longer caring what they thought of her attentions. “You’re getting my floor wet,” she said softly. Both men stopped as if she’d pressed a pause button on her remote control. They looked at her as if she had lost her mind, and then Davide barked out a huge laugh of incredulity. “Sit the fuck down and shut up or I’ll show you a wet floor,” Morrigan snarled at her viciously. “I’ll cut your fucking throat and let you watch yourself bleed all over it.” “Just so long as we’re clear on where we stand,” Valera countered just as quietly as before. Slowly she crossed her arms over her chest, her fists shaking from the way she clenched her fingers tightly.

She drew in a slow breath and focused herself perfectly as strength bloomed up through the center of her body. Suddenly she thrust out her arms and her hands, sending that gathered strength into her palms as they furled open with a snap of rigid muscle. “Asparte inomus ancante mious!” The words were spoken fast and fiercely and blue fire exploded down her arms and into her hands, where it gathered into balls of crackling munitions. Both men screamed at a horrible pitch before she even threw the first ball, which puzzled her somewhere in the back of her mind. She threw her weapons and with her uncanny aim she hit them both perfectly. The spell was simple but powerful. Each brilliant ball of cobalt blue energy struck its mark and a bright, stunning field enveloped both men. It would send enough electrical shock through them to knock them out cold, and the stasis field would hold them in that state for as long as she let the spell run. Or that was the idea. To her shock and horror, though, the men were no sooner enveloped then they burst into flame in a harsh, fierce conflagration.

Blinded by the display, Valera shielded her burning eyes until it went suddenly dark again. With a gasp she rushed forward to where two piles of ash lay in the middle of her floor, the blue stasis fields keeping the charred lumps perfectly contained. “Oh no! No!” she cried, falling to her knees before them as she let the spell dissipate. Tears sprang into her eyes and raced down her cheeks. She hadn’t meant to kill them! She didn’t understand! It was just a simple incapacitation spell. It should never have done them so much harm! All she had wanted to do was to protect herself. She had a right to protect herself! But she had somehow screwed it up. Of course you did! You always do! This is why you are a danger to yourself and the rest of the damn world! Sobbing in hitches of dismay, fighting her nausea as she realized she had just killed two people, Valera curled over her own knees and covered her face. It wasn’t until she heard a soft sound, like a low grunt of pain, that she whipped herself up out of her position of abject misery. Swiping at her messy face with the sleeves of the parka she still had on, she hobbled over to the burlap-wrapped body as fast as her knees would carry her.

It was tied with heavy rope and also what had to be steel chains. “Penchant! Penchant, come here!” she yelled. Penchant came dashing into the room from the back of the house, his collar jingling as the silver pentacle charm that hung from it hit the bell that was also attached. The beautiful tiger-striped cat leaped onto Valera’s back and instantly found a path to wind over her shoulders and under her hair. “Come here,” she commanded him, tapping a long nail on the metal of the chain. “You know what to do. We have to help him.” Penchant stopped, sitting on her shoulder a moment as he decided if he really cared to help. He might be a good familiar, but he was just as often a typical cat. “Do it and I’ll give you a snack,” she coaxed him.

Tuna? “No. Not tuna. But I do have some of those crunchy treats you like.” Tuna would be better, he drawled in her mind. “And I can easily get a hacksaw from the shed, you little brat,” she countered sharply. Fine, fine, he sighed, sounding very put-upon. Penchant leapt onto the heavy bundle and she saw his tail quiver irritably. He’s ice cold! One lick and my tongue will stick to these chains! “Penchant,” she warned. Penchant gave her a halfhearted hiss and bent his nose to the chain. With a single lick, soft pink energy radiated along the entire length of steel, and with a twang like the plucking of a rubber band, it vanished into thin air.

Penchant did the same to the rope. “Oh, good kitty!” Valera cried, clapping her hands together. Penchant raised his head proudly and leapt into her arms for his due praise and quick ear scratches that made him purr. “Okay, I’ll give you your snack in a minute.” Valera set him down and hurried to peel off the burlap. Penchant was right. The coarse fabric and the man within were freezing cold. She had taken off her gloves to manipulate the light switches, so she felt it seep into her finger joints painfully until it made her shiver. She gasped in horror when the stiff body of a man dressed entirely in a strange violet uniform rolled free of the sacking. There was a thumping sound as an empty leather sheath from a sword of some kind, which was attached to a belt at his hips, hit the floor.

Because of the noise, it was the first thing she noticed. After that she sat a moment in stunned surprise to see an enchanted prince lying on her floor. Well, okay, so that was her imagination running away again, but it was the first thing that popped into her brain. After all, he was definitely tall, definitely dark, and… “Mercy,” she murmured as she stared at his fine features. Her prince fantasy had to be because of his lashes. He had the long thick lashes of a little boy, the softness of them resting peacefully against his cheeks. Even in the dark she could tell his skin was the color of chocolate crème. One of her favorite sinful desserts. He had thick black brows that gave dramatic accent to proud, elegant facial features and a broad expanse of forehead that led her gaze into long midnight hair, which spilled over her oak flooring in silky swirls that looked as if they would be so very soft. His hands were bound.

So were his feet. These facts jolted her out of her fantasy of the moment, and with a whispered curse, Valera reached for his throat. As she searched for a pulse she noticed his sleeve was torn and he was injured. It wasn’t too deep a cut, looking as if it were healing well… provided he was still alive. She couldn’t feel a pulse, but she could swear she had heard him make a sound. She laid a hand on his chest to see if he was breathing. He’s poisoned. Val jerked around to look at Penchant. “How do you know that?” I can smell it on him. Bad stuf , too.

But someone gave him an antidote already. Still, the damage was done. You’ll need to heal him. “No. No way,” she snapped at the cat. “I just killed two men trying to detain them. With my luck I’ll turn him into a gerbil.” There was nothing wrong with your magic. Rather the men themselves were wrong. Smelled wrong.

Looked wrong. Felt wrong. Rather than explain himself, Penchant trotted off to the bedroom with a musical jingle of his collar. However, since Penchant could see things she couldn’t most of the time, she gnawed at her lip and debated taking his word for it. Maybe he was right. Maybe she hadn’t screwed up. Perhaps if she healed this other man she could figure out what had been so wrong about those men…other than the obvious. Taking a deep breath, Valera laid her hands on the poisoned man’s chest. She leaned her weight forward onto him and immediately she could feel the extraordinary tension and power in the musculature beneath her fingers. “Holy cow, this guy’s built like a Mack truck.

” What kind of pacifist bore the body of a warrior? What kind of priest dressed this way? And why had such evil men wanted him as their victim? “You have a lot of questions to answer when you wake up,” she murmured. She took a breath and softly began to speak her healing spell.


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