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Trials of Ariana: The Princess And The Witch

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There are several Trials of Ariana stories to date, and this was the first. I considered keeping all of them in one thread, but they're 10,000 to 15,000 words each, and I fear that would get messy in a hurry. I hope having a thread for each story is all right.

The cover art was created some years ago, before I moved on to more modern tools.

SW_TOA_01_ThePrincessAndTheWitch.jpg
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
Trials of Ariana
The Princess And The Witch

by Servus Venandi


Copyright © Servus Venandi.
This document is a work of adult fiction. You can re-post it as long as you don't do any of the following: 1) change it, 2) make money with it, 3) lie about who wrote it, or 4) display it in an illegal manner. I would also appreciate you linking to my DeviantArt page if you post anything of mine elsewhere. Please attribute my work to "Servus Venandi" or "Syndicate Wars."

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1.

Dealing with monarchs and their kin was all shades of risky. A few were pleasant enough, but the majority were some combination of spoiled, narcissistic, sadistic, socially maladjusted and just plain crazy. They also tended to pay very well for established problem-solving talent, and so it was with some unease that Ariana strolled through the gates of Morningstar Castle. She had received the royal summons two days ago. After booking a seat on the first available skytrain, she'd made reluctant haste to Borra'jin. A night in a loud inn had left her with little sleep and a sore back, but word of her arrival would have spread through most channels by now, and she would not do well to keep the princess waiting any longer.

Just outside the public court, she was greeted by the head steward and two security guards in lightweight enchanted armor pulsing with the energy of a conjured barrier. Presenting her summons, Ariana waited for it to check out and was then taken to a small, magically-sealed holding area. A sorceress confiscated her sword and dagger, then used a sight spell to peer through her lavender pants and corset and black boots. Not being one with any intention of assassinating royalty today, Ariana passed the scan and was then escorted to a vertical transit tube and levitated to the upper floor. Gently knocking on the princess' door, the head steward announced, “Princess Janelle, Ariana of Dourheim has answered your summons.”

There was a brief delay, and then a pleasant female voice finally replied, “Allow her to enter. Thank you, Frederick.”

“Milady is too kind.”

He unlatched the heavy orichalcum door and waved his arm toward the opening.

The single chamber was roughly the size of Ariana's home on the other side of the continent, replete with a stone bathing pool, a bed large enough for a whole family, and a half-dozen male and female slaves, all nude except for their collars, ballgags and chastity belts. The redheaded Janelle Liandri herself stood patiently in a dressing area, tall and proud in her tight, low-cut, sleeveless blue dress, as two female bondservants finished affixing the last of her jewelry. When the ritual concluded, Janelle said to the slaves, “Return to your cage and assume the position until I send for you again.”

All six went to their knees, bowed deeply, and then stood up to scurry away.

Alone with the princess, Ariana remained just inside the doorway and waited for her host to make the first move. Lingering before a body mirror, Janelle made a few minor adjustments to her attire—a twist of the white flower in her hair, a cinch to the silken sash about her waist, and a comfort-motivated tug on the thin fabric covering her large, freckled breasts. At last, she turned away and beckoned.

“Step forward, bladedancer. I'm in no mood to bite—not right now, at least.”

Ariana bowed and complied, crossing the foyer and dodging the bathing pool and placing herself directly in front of the king's eldest daughter.

“Milady,” Ariana said with another bow.

Janelle nodded. “Thank you for coming. I realize your kind tend to dislike political entanglements, and my summons held no legal authority to bring you here. For these considerations, I appreciate your presence all the more.”

“I sensed urgency in the tone of your letter, Princess. It would have been unprofessional and unethical of me to ignore you, and I only hope that I can be of service.”

“As do I. Please, if you will, step out on my balcony and sit with me.”

“Of course, milady.”

The balcony provided a beautiful view of downtown Borra'jin—crystalline skyscrapers lost in clouds while streams of air traffic flowed endlessly in all directions. Beyond the city's boundary, the silver sands of the Borra Desert stretched to the horizon. Janelle seated herself at a round glass table, and Ariana took the chair directly across from her. The princess watched the urban splendor for a moment, beautiful as her red hair and pale skin absorbed the morning light, but she seemed troubled.

“I realize that bladedancers are more commonly monster hunters, not all-purpose mercenaries,” Janelle said.

“True,” Ariana confirmed, “but a significant minority of us are willing to accept bounties on various types of magi, and a few of us are, indeed, as all-purpose as we must be. Providing I am not asked to engage in banditry or political assassination, my own policies can be fairly accommodating.”

The princess smirked. “I know, which is why I summoned you as opposed to several other bladedancers much closer to Borra'jin.”

“What do you require of me, milady?”

“On pain of death, the words we exchange here will remain confidential.”

Ariana tried not to frown. “You have my utmost discretion, Princess.”

Janelle took a deep breath and finally pulled her eyes from the city. “I have been cursed by a witch. I need your aid in removing the curse—quietly—and then I want the witch dealt with. The catch is that you may not kill her.”

Not at all surprised, as powerful persons and their adversaries were constantly dabbling in sorcery to gain real or imagined advantages, Ariana sought to convey a happy medium between concern and professional detachment.

“What is the nature of the curse?” she asked.

“Lycanthropy,” Janelle replied.

Ariana's happy medium dissolved in a burst of surprise before she could stop it. “There are different varieties of lycanthropy. You are certain that this is the curse variety?”

“I have not been bitten by a werewolf, and I have had no contact with any blood at all, let alone any which might have been infected. Yes, I am certain it is a curse, for the witch who invoked it confessed to me directly. She is Princess Ashley, my younger sister.”

By all the gods, Ariana thought with a silent groan, how completely typical of royalty.

Regaining her composure, she explained, “A lycanthropy curse is removable, but it will require the capture of the magus who caused it. A vial of her blood is needed for the ritual, as well as a vial of your own. Once the mixture is prepared, the magus—the witch—must be branded while wearing an enchanted collar, and her screams will fuel the magic that completes the counterspell. It is . . . unpleasant, and it brings me great distress to even suggest that this be inflicted upon milady and her sister, but it is the only course of action that can cure you.”

“I do not care how much pain you inflict upon her,” Janelle said. “My only restriction is that you must spare her life. If she is to die in the future for this transgression, it will be by my hand, not yours.”

Reminder upon reminder piling up in her brain as to why she hated royal contracts, Ariana nodded. “I will spare her life even if I must retreat from the capture attempt.”

“That suits me fine, bladedancer, as long as you ultimately succeed. Now name your price.”

“One thousand gold, milady—five hundred now to cover my toil and expenses for the ritual preparations, and the remainder upon removing the curse and remanding your sister into your custody alive. I hope milady finds these terms fair and equitable.”

“I do. You work cheaply, as I would gladly pay ten times that to be rid of this animal that I have become.” Janelle stood up sharply. “Follow me. You will have your gold and directions to my sister's location, and I expect you to start immediately.”

Shortly after leaving Morningstar Castle, with her sword and dagger back on her belt where they belonged, Ariana found herself at the edge of the royal grounds when a hand snagged her elbow. She pulled away and whirled about to turn the assailant black and blue, but she hesitated at the sight of a hooded male figure holding out an envelope.

“His Majesty implores you to read and dispose in the strictest of confidence.”

Blinking once in the morning sun, Ariana reached out and received the letter. “Of course.”

“Thank you. Good day, bladedancer.”

The man turned and was gone as quickly as he'd appeared.

Ariana concealed the correspondence in a belt pouch and then hailed a levicar for the trip across town. She spent the remainder of the morning purchasing ritual ingredients at the outdoor Lynn'ra Market before taking a midday meal at a small bistro. From an isolated booth at the back of the dining room, she pressed her thumb to the magical seal and coaxed the envelope open. Most bladedancers were known to leave their arcane cypto-keys with prominent clients, including royalty, specifically for the purpose of private communication. Seldom, however, had Ariana received such a message that she'd not been expecting, let alone from a king.


<<>>

Bladedancer,

If you are reading this, it is because I have reason to believe my eldest daughter has procured your help in dealing with her problem. I bid you to carry on as requested, since it's no secret that revelations of a werewolf and a witch in the royal family could end with dire political consequences. There are already rumors, and I do not wish for them to become facts.

Janelle thinks she has hidden her affliction from me, but she is sorely mistaken. I have been biding my time until her next transformation to have the Malus’rett Inquisition seize her (much as it pains me to be forced into this unsavory course of action), but perhaps you will prove a less 'noisy' solution. I reward those who help my family without being noisy, though be advised that the inverse might also apply.

Take the enclosed injector. It contains a serum that I had developed years ago when I first learned that my youngest was a magus who might make my family susceptible to these kinds of accidents. One shot should successfully sedate a werewolf, vampire or any other unnatural abomination, and my clerics and chemists tell me that unconsciousness should force the transformation to temporarily revert long enough to subdue the subject.

I would prefer both of my daughters to be returned alive, if for no other reason than to receive proper discipline in my private whipping chamber. However, if you must severely injure or even kill them, I will not begrudge you this outcome, providing you can sufficiently justify it.

Be well, bladedancer. I await your return.

—King Allejorn Liandri III

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
2.

Ariana crumpled the letter, kept it closed inside her fist, and incinerated it with the quiet recitation of a simple spell.

It had seemed unlikely, from the first time Janelle had spoken the term 'lycanthropy,' that she could have hidden such an uncontrollable metamorphosis from the extensive surveillance resources of her father. To a bladedancer currently under terms with the spoiled princess, this was both an immense relief and a possibly significant boost to the final value of the contract.

After paying for her meal from the coin bag she'd received earlier, Ariana hailed another levicar and directed the driver out of town, to the Trail of Ghosts.

Decades ago a royal contractor had plowed up an ancient cemetery under orders to make the old ruins atop Mount Iyno more accessible to tourists. The end result had been a plague of specters and undead not witnessed in at least five generations. Even today restless spirits still manifested along the rocky abandoned path, with the occasional zombie clawing its way to the surface and shambling about in a single-minded pursuit to feed. These hazards were well known, and the levicar driver refused to go near the entrance to the Trail of Ghosts as a result.

Ariana paid him the full amount anyway and then hiked the final few kilometers. It was well into the afternoon when she reached the crumbling outer wall of the old graveyard, and the Borra sun was as relentless and unforgiving as ever. Scorpions and sand serpents scattered as she approached, and she knew far worse things lay ahead.

Checking her gear to ensure she was equipped for both the scorching desert here as well as the cold environment she would encounter at the Iyno summit, she found herself in order and committed to the job.

Warded and secure despite its thick coat of rust, the cemetery gate would not be unlocked by normal means. Instead, Ariana used a grappling hook to scale a sturdy section of the wall. As soon as her boots touched ground on the opposite side, a trio of spirits manifested directly in front of her near a weathered headstone. As they gained form, the air around them screamed in the typical fashion, attracting the attention of several nearby shamblers. Everything charged her at once.

Ideally, anyone traversing an area such as this would want to avoid provoking the undead, but the remains of the departed were often mad and aggressive, leaving no option but violence. Ariana took her sword into her right hand and her dagger into her left. Unencumbered by material concerns like rotting flesh, the ghosts reached her first and attacked in the usual swooping fashion. While the threat level varied by apparition, most lacked the ability to inflict serious physical damage. Dead magi who become ghosts sometimes retained minor elemental spells from their time among the living. For the most part, spirits were an airborne nuisance that often distracted an ill-prepared combatant from more serious foes, like bats in a cave fluttering about a panicky spelunker while a salivating troll lingered in the shadows.

Ghosts were also immune to physical attacks, so the only known methods of dealing with them were 1) spells or strikes with enchanted weapons, 2) performing a ritual to permanently disperse the entity, or 3) running away.

No proper bladedancer carried non-enchanted weapons, and Ariana's first spinning counter cut through two of the incorporeal pests, obliterating them in blasts of magical fire. They would reform in a few days, but their role in this fight was done. The third ghost withdrew briefly to try a different angle, but it 'died' in similar fashion upon pressing its attack.

Only the shamblers were left. Unlike their ghostly brethren, zombies could be physically decimated to the point of ineffectiveness and eventually 'killed,' but their disease-ridden strikes and bites were deadly. Fresh zombies—often called runners by those in the monster-hunting trade—could move with nearly the same speed and dexterity as a person, and this made them all the more dangerous.

These particular graveyard dwellers were long-dead hunks of rot that would eventually require a necromancer to strap their bones together if they were to continue in this mode of existence. With a running start, Ariana dove into their midst. Her dagger took the head off of one zombie while her sword penetrated the hollow abdominal cavity of another. The latter beast gurgled and howled and swiped above the length of her blade. When she ripped the weapon free, the wasted body collapsed in two pieces and twitched in the sand.

Other undead were moving in, and she had no doubt that she could stay here fighting them indefinitely, but she needed her energy for other tasks. Taking option three, she put away her blades and sprinted across the massive graveyard, onto the Trail of Ghosts on the other side, which would carry her to the peak of Mount Iyno.

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
3.


Five thousand years ago the Iyno ruins had been a grand place of worship for a now-extinct order of druids called the Tikkara'do. Despite the best efforts of royal dynasty after dynasty over many centuries, the magical energy still emanating from the site made it a suspect tourist destination on the best of the days. After the debacle with the cemetery and Trail of Ghosts, recent times had seen the place sealed off and forgotten except for the odd misguided treasure-seeker or outlaw in need of a refuge.

The sky had turned purple and red in the west by the time Ariana crossed the outer perimeter of the old sanctuary. The snow-capped mountain was cold enough in daylight, but the setting sun all but guaranteed a creeping bone-chill without a good fire. Most of the specter attacks had diminished at lower elevations, but just the climb itself had left her body spent. After securing the witch, a few hours of rest would have to take precedence over returning to fetch Janelle for the ritual.

Leaning against the remains of a sacrificial altar in the middle of a rock-strewn courtyard, Ariana sipped water and surveyed the dark surroundings. The main building lay straight ahead, at the pinnacle of a weathered, treacherous staircase, where it had once served as a public reception area and a gateway to the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers deep within mountain. Smaller buildings sat off to the sides, most having fallen to nothing but foundations and rubble. One structure that might have once been a stable, bathhouse or workshop seemed more intact than most, and she made a mental note to camp there later.

Something stirred in the dark space near the sanctuary door.

Ariana dropped her water bottle and readied her weapons, drawing strength from the magic that flowed into her hands, though the effect seemed less stimulating than normal. A girlish laugh rang from the top of the stairs, and seconds later a slender feminine figure in a dark robe emerged. She moved with highborn grace and discipline, her upper body barely moving as she made the difficult descent.

Trim along the edges of her clothing took on the yellow glow of one enchantment or another—perhaps in preparation for an attack, or perhaps simply to help the wearer see in the waning daylight.

Wary, Ariana put the altar between herself and the other woman, holding a quasi-defensive stance but keeping her weapons lowered. When the figure finally drew close and stopped a few meters short, the family resemblance was unmistakable.

“Princess Ashley?” Ariana said.

The girl smiled, maybe only a year or two younger than her sister. “Of course.”

“Your little hobby here..... Well, it seems you've cursed your sibling with lycanthropy, by accident or otherwise, and she has hired me to resolve the situation. What is your side in this story, milady?”

Another laugh. Ashley pushed back her hood and revealed red hair that just touched her collarbones.

“My side of the story, bladedancer, is that you've done exactly as I expected. Even better than I expected. I thought I would have to entice you into touching the enchanted altar, but you did me a favor by bumbling upon it almost as soon as you arrived.”

Ariana stole a nervous glance toward the artifact and noticed nothing untoward about it at first, but a moment of examination revealed the tiny symbol carved into the base of the stone.

“What have you done?” she wondered, gripping her weapons tighter but sensing a sudden lethargy in her fingers.

“A simple sleeping spell, adapted by me to trigger upon touch. You can feel it working already. I see it in your tired, lovely face. Throw down your weapons, and I'll treat you gently. Anger me, and I will torture you until you forget your own name.”

Sedation magic was common enough, usually preferred by burglars, kidnappers and other sordid types who needed living victims. Ariana knew counters to most of these tricks, but she felt this particular version taking her consciousness before she could form the proper spell. She wavered on her feet as the world blurred, unsure whether she should flee or attempt to take the witch down.

“Don't fight, bladedancer,” Ashley said. “There's no shame in defeat. You have such a greater purpose to fulfill here than a petty contract. Now go to your knees for me. Close your eyes.”

The girl's voice was hypnotic, and Ariana barely felt her sword and dagger leave her grip as she obeyed the haunting words without question.

“Go to your knees for me.”

No, no, no!—that was the obvious response, the proper one, but it was not to be.

“Down,” Ashley commanded, “down as if you need this sleep more than you need air in your lungs. Rest your head upon the stone, bladedancer, and give yourself to me.”

The world tipped sideways. Frozen rock and sandy grit pressed against Ariana's cheek. She struggled in her mind, but her body did not respond. At the edges of her vision, she saw the last vestiges of sunlight just before night took her.

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
4.


Oblivion ended with a violent spasm.

Ariana didn't know where she was at first, suspecting a dirty inn and the down side of a drunken night, but her last moments of awareness flooded back quickly enough. Trying to move, she found her body unresponsive and her head heavy. Her pulse thudded in her ears as though she'd spent too long hanging off a mattress.

When her eyes fluttered open and revealed an inverted candlelit room, she understood. She felt like she was upside down, because she was quite literally hanging that way. Chancing a glance up, she tilted her chin toward her chest, finding the motion impeded by some kind of collar, and discovered herself completely naked. Her ankles were bound together with rope and positioned to either side of a metal hook, and it was this object keeping her suspended—quite painfully, she now realized. Her big toes had also been tied with twine, and another rope above her knees ensured that her lower limbs, fit and strong as they might be, were helpless.

Further down, still more coils had been cinched about her waist with several stands running between her legs, splitting her groomed pussy and pulling tight between the halves of the very ass that had garnered her a decent share of compliments, both flattering and creepy, over the years. Her wrists were tied together behind her back and joined firmly to the crotch harness—not preventing her from struggling entirely, but making it an uncomfortable ordeal that would see her nether region rubbed raw before long.

The final length of rope had been wound around her upper body, above and below her breasts, and cinched down with a few well-placed strands that used the back of her neck as an anchor point. The bondage was tight enough to make her tits swell, and her nipples stood tall and hard in the cold chamber.

Moaning softly in frustration, Ariana discovered that she was also gagged. Working her teeth and lips against the invasive object for a moment led her to conclude that it was not a simple piece of cloth, leather or adhesive. Rather, she had been fitted with a large ballgag like those worn by slaves, and she now noticed the drool dribbling into her nose as she dangled upside down in space.

She had been defeated and tied up during jobs before, but never like this. Most of her previous opponents had used simple knots or irons, often even foolishly binding her hands in front. The few times she'd been gagged, her captors had used tape, a stocking or a strip torn from someone's clothing. A few situations had gotten sexual, but they'd always ended without her suffering more than a primal groping. No one, not even the gruffest scum in the world, had ever dared to render her naked and string her up like a slaughtered animal before the butcher.

Of course, no one had tricked her into putting herself to sleep until now, either. If she survived this situation, her counterspell training would have to be restructured to account for such stealthy, fast-acting magical traps.

“She wakes,” a female said.

Through the haze of those final moments, Ariana was fairly certain the voice belonged to Princess Ashley.

A young woman's blurry figure appeared, shapely curves backlit by dozens of candles and a bluish magical fire in the center of the stone room. Approaching at a measured pace, the trim of her robe glowing yellow, Ashley kept her face hidden beneath a hood. When the rogue magus stopped only an arm's length away, Ariana couldn't contain a soft whimper.

“You already understand that you are helpless,” Ashley murmured. “This is good.”

She reached forward and touched Ariana's right breast. A pinch seemed inevitable, but the cool fingers remained curious and delicate.

“I want to make her wear nipple clamps,” Ashley said, presumably to someone else. “This tender flesh is practically begging for it.”

She dragged her thumb across a stiff nipple, and Ariana mewled again, tugging against her bonds but accomplishing nothing besides hurting her tied toes and making the crotch rope dig into her sex.

“We will gradually increase the severity of the predicament,” another woman answered. “There will be time for all we desire. For now, she is uncomfortable and fearful enough. Let her hang there and contemplate the possibilities. Her own mind is the cruelest thing we can inflict on her right now.”

Princess Janelle!

Realizing that she had been duped in more ways than a simple sedation trap, Ariana flailed with renewed vigor, causing her bound body to swing to and fro. Every single rope caused her pain, but she didn't know what else to do. These spoiled royal bitches could have nothing good planned, and the need to fight outweighed almost any meager suffering she might endure in these restraints.

“The collar around your neck binds your magic and counter-magic,” Ashley explained. “The ropes bind your delectable body, and I have gagged you to avoid listening to your pleas and empty arguments. There is quite simply nothing for you to do. Thrashing about will only cause you to hurt more, either of your own accord or when we choose to punish you. Think about it, bladedancer.”

The other woman appeared from somewhere to the left. Ariana instantly recognized Janelle's large, freckled tits before she turned them out of the light. She joined her younger sister, and they ogled their naked captive together.

“Mmmph-mmmph,” Ariana groaned weakly as the momentum of her struggle faded.

Janelle crouched and placed her face even with Ariana's. Reaching forward, the princess touched her face with the soft hand of a monarch's pampered daughter.

“Your life will be spared if you submit to our plan,” Janelle explained. “The lycanthropy curse is effective, but it isn't exactly … controllable. In order to break the lunar connection and place the transformation directly under my control, we must perform a ritual. Not the ritual that I lured you here for, but a ritual nonetheless. And it requires the blood of a bladedancer—a lot of blood, unfortunately.”

Ariana groaned again, but she saw no point in trying to interrupt.

“Oh, don't be like that,” the eldest continued. “We won't take it all at once. We'll drain you a little at a time over the next few weeks. The famous regenerative properties of bladedancer flesh will come in handy for us here. When the next full moon arrives, we'll have enough for the ritual that will give me full command of this power.”

“In the meantime,” Ashley inserted, “there will be lots of boring days between bleeding sessions as we wait for your body to replenish its precious blood supply. So we need some way to liven things up in this cold, dark place—at least when we're here and not fiddling about with our royal duties in Borra'jin. That livening will take place in the form of breaking you. Not only do you serve the ultimate purpose, but this is also the start of your new life as a slave—our slave. When the ritual is complete, we will continue to train you as necessary, and you will eventually become our private bladedancer. You will capture and kill as commanded, and you will be our private enforcer when Janelle and I rule jointly upon our father's death. Your compliance with this slave training is the only way to guarantee that we spare your life. If you prefer to die, you have my word that your execution will be clean and swift at the ritual's conclusion. Do you want to die, Ariana of Dourheim?”

Tears in her eyes making her already cloudy vision even worse, Ariana shook her head.

“Then you must accept enslavement,” Ashley declared. “Do you submit to slave training and agree to surrender your person and liberty to us?”

It went against everything she believed. It was a nightmare. But what choice did she have? Perhaps she really would want to die in a few weeks, after being repeatedly bled and bound and treated like livestock, but she couldn't pronounce her own death right here and now. She was despondent but not suicidal. Not yet.

As best she could manage while hanging upside down, Ariana nodded in agreement.

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
5.

The weeks that followed rewrote any previous conception of torture that Ariana had ever held. By themselves, the bleeding sessions were enough to leave her trembling and silently scrambling to hold together the fragments of her psyche. Always, the sisters bound her in the same inverted suspension she had found herself in right after getting captured. After letting her hang awhile to pool blood in her upper reaches, they would slide a large metal bowl beneath her and then cut her neck with an enchanted dagger. The gushing would commence, and they kept a close watch on her during this process. When she became lethargic and slow to respond, Ashley would heal the wound with magic, and then they would work together to bring her down and return her to the small cage that had become her home.

She'd been naked the whole time. Just before the first bleeding on that first night, she had watched Janelle place her clothes, weapons and supplies in a storage chest near the undying magical fire. Neither sister had bothered to go through the gear or shown any interest in it whatsoever, presumably because they intended to return it at some future date when Ariana was broken and in their service.

They frequently left her alone for long periods, sometimes days at a time, while they returned to Borra'jin to live out their more civilized lives at the royal court. She was bound securely in her cage during these lonely stretches—thin rope on wrists, elbows, knees, ankles and toes, with the obligatory harnesses on her crotch and breasts, plus an extra rope connecting her ankles and wrists to prevent her from standing up. No food was provided, but they left her gag off and poured water into a bowl identical to the one that collected her blood. She'd tried screaming during the first and second abandonment, but it was futile. The girls hadn't minded leaving her with no gag, because being able to speak and scream was no real freedom here.

In a weird attempt to retain control of her mind, Ariana had meditated often on this fact. If being free of the gag was not any sort of meaningful freedom, then being forced to wear the gag was not any sort of meaningful captivity. They might deny her voice, hoping to humiliate her or just discourage her from making noise. But she knew this. And so it failed as humiliation. The intended effect was null and void.

They could not break her by gagging her.

In light of this, some of the actual 'training' sessions had been arguably worse than being bound and gagged. Ashley in particular was a sadistic little cunt who had finally gotten her wish of putting nipple clamps on Ariana. It had occurred just prior to a whipping, with the bladedancer on her toes with her arms tied overhead. Ashley had approached with the flogger and played with her captive's body awhile, per the usual, mainly finger-fucking both her pussy and ass, but also sucking and biting Ariana's erect nipples, until she elicited some manner of reaction. Usually, the response was an expression of pain or discomfort, but Ariana had caught herself on the verge of enjoyment a few times recently, and she was finding it harder and harder to convince herself that she was a strong, free woman who would fight her way out this.

This had never been more apparent than the day when the clamps finally bit into her areolas. She had screamed into her ballgag and struggled and screamed some more, and she'd screamed throughout the flogging that had followed—not because it hurt that much worse than anything else they'd done, but simply because it was the first time she'd felt like a slave. Everything else to that point could be dismissed as abuse and criminal activity inflicted upon her by deranged bitches. The clamps, however.....

Her earliest memory of the slave trade dated back to when she had gone to the Dourheim open market with her mother one summer morning. A group of pirates had been captured some weeks earlier, and this was the day they would be brought out for justice. Some would be hanged, others whipped to disfigurement and exiled, but most had been broken and prepared for sale. The first pirate brought onto the stage was a weeping middle-aged female—a Dourheim native with dark skin, small breasts, a toned fighter's body, short black hair and a shaved crotch. Her ebony flesh had been oiled to a shine, and her handlers had bound her wrists and elbows behind her with coarse rope, forcing her shoulders back and her tits forward. A short length of fiber ran between her feet, requiring her to take tiny steps. Between her lips a red ballgag kept her mouth open, and saliva poured down her chin over the decorative oil.

But most of all, Ariana recalled the metal clamps on the woman's nipples and the gentle stretching of her small breasts as her handler used the chain between them to pull her along. Where the clamps dictated, the woman went, like a beast obeying the irresistible commands of the bit.

Forward, forward, turn, forward, kneel here, spread your legs. Good girl.

From that day onward, nipple clamps had equated to slavery in Ariana's mind. And on the day when her own breasts finally felt the sting, she had harked back to that sobbing dark-skinned pirate-slave in bondage, and she had known that she herself was no different. Ariana was the pirate-slave now—no more need for vicarious reflection. She'd even considered telling the sisters that she submitted completely and belonged to them, that she would fuck them and wash their clothes and do murder in their name, if only they would stop hurting her and never make her wear the clamps again.

But she had not done this, and she would not as long as her mind was her own. She'd endured the gag and the ropes and the cutting, and she could endure the clamps, even if just barely. Ariana the bladedancer had not lost herself just yet.

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
6.


“We have enough,” Ashley declared as Ariana hung upside down above the bowl.

They'd taken more than usual this time, risking their slave's life to reach the last of the volume required by whatever ritual they intended.

“And not a moment too soon,” Janelle replied. “Tomorrow night, I turn.”

“It will take most of the day to prepare everything, but we will be ready. I promise.”

“Yes, but will the bladedancer be ready after this? Did we push her too far at last? She looks nearly dead.....”

“By the rising of the full moon, she will have regained sufficient strength for the task at hand.”

“Good. Let's clean up here and return home. After tomorrow everything will be different, and I for one couldn't be happier.”



7.


Ariana had lost consciousness at some point after being taken down. Dreams of a werewolf tearing her limbs off made her want to wake up desperately, but she couldn't will herself out of the reverie. When she finally opened her eyes, she was on her side in the cage, tied up in the usual configuration and with metal clamps digging into her sore nipples. As it always did, the realization killed just a little more of her resolve. One day she would call Janelle or Ashley 'Mistress' without even meaning to.

Gods, she had wanted to for some time now, and only bladedancer stubbornness and perhaps a little stupidity had prevented her from doing so. Weak from the bleeding but needing water, Ariana clambered onto her knees, shaking all the while.

Despite being fed well when the girls were here, the days of abandonment and lack of activity had caused her to lose weight anyway. Over time she had discovered some improvisational exercises that allowed her to engage various muscle groups while bound, and this effort had possibly kept her from wasting entirely. As of late, however, she had been able to summon the necessary energy less and less often.

Once upright in her cage, Ariana scooted on her knees across the straw floor until the bowl was within reach. Hogtied, with the slave chain weighing between her breasts and the anti-magic collar pressing against her throat, she leaned forward to the surface of the water and then lapped at the cool liquid like an animal. It tasted so good and felt so pleasant going down. She wondered if the sisters would give her more when they returned, if she thanked them for their generosity.

No. No! To the hells with those cunts. They only want me alive so I can obey them. I am not a slave!

This was becoming routine. Slave-thoughts would break through, and she would viciously reject them for a time until falling back into despair, only to do the same thing over again. Sooner or later the slave-thoughts would be irrefutable, she knew.

Having gotten her fill of water, Ariana turned her attention to a piece of bread and some dried fruit the sisters had left. Recently, they had begun giving her a little food when they left, perhaps realizing that her weight was steadily dropping and that a weak slave would be of little use. The bread was stale, but she nibbled away about half of it anyway. Then, leaning forward, she fished a few fruit pieces out of the straw with her teeth. Most of these she left for later.

Not exactly full but satisfied, she leaned against the bars at the back of her home. A fleeting instinct in the back of her breaking mind urged her to struggle in her bondage, but these days she couldn't be bothered. Struggling hurt a lot. Being good didn't hurt near as much. Besides, she'd been unable to loosen the ropes even when she'd been angry and strong. This shadow of herself was tied up to stay, and she accepted it.

No! I. Am. Not. A. Slave!

---
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
8.


The sisters returned sooner than usual and in a flurry of excitement. Ariana remembered pieces of a discussion after the last bleeding, and this coupled with her captors' demeanor led her to assume it was finally ritual day. She had all but ceased to care about the lycanthropy curse and the contract. Gods, that day on Janelle's balcony seemed like something from another life. At this point Ariana just hoped that she had progressed enough in her training for the girls to keep their promise to spare her life. Either there was the faintest ember of fight left in her, or she'd been broken to the point of evaluating her own worth as a slave, not as a sovereign individual. In either case, she didn't want to die yet.

Still very weak, she assisted as much as she was able when they hauled her out of the cage. Leaving her in the wrist bonds and collar, they removed the rest of her restraints and helped her hobble over to a wash basin. On her knees, hardly able to remain upright, she blink away tears as the young women gave her an intimate bath that placed her in a state of simultaneous shame and arousal.

“Time to shave her again,” Ashley remarked as she rubbed a rag over Ariana's pubic stubble.

“Tomorrow,” Janelle replied. “She's clean enough for tonight.”

They took her back to the cage, where they re-tied her ankles and strapped the ballgag between her teeth, but they seemed in too much of a hurry to do much else. Once the door closed, Ariana used her relative freedom to curl into an almost comfortable position and sleep.

When she awoke, the sanctuary was different. A cauldron had been suspended over the magical fire in the middle of the chamber, and the enchanted glass bottles that had stored Ariana's blood over these weeks lay discarded and empty to one side. Whatever mixture had been prepared for the ritual boiled within the big pot and released a thick green smoke that dispersed into a haze throughout the room.

A hook like the one she dangled from during bleeding sessions had been positioned above the cauldron, and the implication made Ariana shiver.

Both sisters were standing outside the cage, and she now saw that the door was open. The witch wore her usual robe, but Janelle was completely naked except for some dark symbols that had been painted on her chest, arms and thighs. With several coils of rope in her hands, the eldest pointed to a spot on the floor directly in front of herself.

“Out, slave. On your knees before me. Move quickly.”

Nodding in compliance, unsure how else she might act, Ariana coaxed her trembling body into a crouch. All weight on her toes, she awkwardly crept forward with her bound feet. For a moment she thought they would force her to go the entire distance in this manner, and she didn't think she had the strength. Fortunately, Ashley took her arms as she cleared the cage door and helped her into the proper position in front of her mistress.

Captor. Kidnapper. I have no mistress.

Bowing her head, Ariana limply endured the binding of her elbows and tits. When her globes were nice and hard under the rope, Ashley moved around and knelt before her, taking each nipple into her mouth for a lick and playful bite before grinning as she applied the hated clamps. With the slave chain between her breasts again, Ariana whimpered against her ballgag but otherwise did not resist. Lastly, they stood her up and lashed the crotch rope around her middle, cinching it against her vulva and ass so tightly that her eyes watered. Her wrists were then connected to the harness, rendering her arms even more useless than they already were.

With one sister gripping each arm, they forced her to hop across the room. She fell twice, but they never let her hit the ground. Once near the cauldron, they placed her on the floor. While Ashley moved away to winch down the hanging hook, Janelle finished off the bondage by tying Ariana's legs above the knees and binding her big toes together with the twine. The hook arrived just in time, and the princess placed it between Ariana's ankles.

“Up!” Janelle instructed. “It's nearly time.”

The winch clanked and squeaked, and Ariana couldn't hold in the sobs as she was hoisted up above the cauldron, directly in the path of the rising smoke. She tilted her head back once to observe the boiling concoction beneath her, but it was all bubbles, black goo and the oppressive aroma of hot blood and poisonous herbs.

Strung up yet again, Ariana tried to enter a meditative state. There was nothing here she needed to experience, but her bladedancer discipline failed under the stress of the impending ritual. She could only dangle helplessly and await the pain.

Reaching through the smoke, Janelle unbuckled the gag and slowly pulled it from between Ariana's lips. A line of drool followed it until breaking and plopping against her nose.

“I'll let you have your voice just this once,” the princess said, “but only because I need you to scream. You can have your gag back once you've done as I require. Okay?”

Ariana nodded again, as if it was an entirely sensible offer that she wanted to accept at any cost. Perhaps she did. If the gag was removed in order for her to scream, then whatever caused the scream should end with the gag's return. Getting gagged again seemed like something to aspire to, and she hoped she would do well enough to earn it.

In the warmth of the blue flames and foul mixture below, Janelle leaned forward and softly kissed Ariana's lips.

“Your submission is beautiful and will be rewarded, but the pain must come first.”

“I understand,” Ariana whispered.

Another kiss, Janelle's eager tongue brushing against hers, and then the princess faded back through the smoke.

“I need you in the rune circle,” Ashley said. “We must begin.”

“I am ready, sister,” Janelle replied.

The buxom eldest stepped onto a small wooden platform adorned with flat glowing stones arranged in a circle, each bearing a single carving similar to the figures painted on the woman's nude body. Janelle placed herself in the center, spread her legs wide, and then lifted her gaze. Straining to look up herself, squinting through the stifling toxic cloud, Ariana noticed a hole in the ceiling high above—not an incidental bit of crumbling within the old structure, but something symmetrical that had been cut out on purpose, and recently. About half of the full moon was visible through the opening.

In a monotone voice, Ashley began to recite phrases in the High Nivaren. Her diction was quite good, a sign of her lofty upbringing. Ariana recognized some of the words, but the spell or spells remained indecipherable.

The effects, however, were more apparent. Less than a meter from her head as she hung above the cauldron, the fetid contents boiled faster and faster. Smoke poured upward heavier than ever, shifting in hue from green to blue to red. She coughed as the vapors burned her eyes, throat and lungs, and she struggled in some irrational bid to free herself.

Hoping this would be the worst of it, Ariana's hopes were dashed when Ashley emerged through the unnatural fog. Still reciting the spell, her eyes glowing yellow along with the trim of her robe, she approached with a red-hot branding iron in her right hand.

“No,” Ariana groaned. “Please don't. Please.....”

Ashley ignored her.

Branding was a component of many rituals, but it was almost always done to the person having an effect applied or removed, or to the individual who had cast the enchantment or curse. Removing the lycanthropy curse, for instance, would have demanded the branding of Ashley. In this twisted turn of events, the sisters apparently needed to brand the blood sacrifice.

Ariana strained against her bondage again, but it was no less secure than at any time before.

“Please,” she repeated.

The iron was in the shape of a simple X, probably a common livestock implement that could have been acquired anywhere. Never missing a syllable of her recitation, Ashley seized Ariana's crotch harness and spun her about until her bottom was exposed to the heated metal. Then, with not a hint of ceremony or empathy or remorse, the witch drove the device into her slave's left buttock, drawing out the telling hiss and odor of seared meat.

Ariana obeyed her mistress—not on purpose, but because there was no other possible response to having her bare ass cooked while she was conscious to feel it. She screamed as loud as her weary lungs and dry throat could manage. The pain nearly knocked her out, and she tried to let it happen, but the sensory assault would not let her rest.

“Oh, by the gods!” Janelle cried. “It's happening! I feel it! Make her scream again! More, more, more!”

The second strike landed on the other side of Ariana's bottom, and she erupted in another fit of pain, flopping with all her might and fearing her voice would never work properly again. The collar around her neck grew warm, and she sensed a red glow from it. At the same time, a feeling that she could only assume was death itself took over from the inside out, forcing a shiver from her naked body that rattled the chain between her breasts. Her teeth clenched. She was being burned and frozen at the same time.

Ethereal blue tendrils that looked like liquid and moved like vapor seeped from the collar, plunging downward from Ariana's suspended body and into one side of the cauldron. The concoction roiled faster yet, changing from black to luminous crimson. When the tendrils emerged seconds later, they had changed from blue to red. As if of their own accord, they climbed out of the container and then drifted across the floor toward Janelle, who was now trembling herself within the rune circle.

The ritual was a type of soul siphon, Ariana realized. She had not only been duped into coming here and duped into putting herself to sleep with the enchanted altar, but she had agreed to be enslaved with absolutely no inkling that the sisters intended to take her soul, the very essence of her being. She would indeed be a slave in the purest sense—a mindless, unfeeling sex object and killing machine, not unlike the undead shamblers she had slain in the cemetery. In fact, it was worse than death or undeath, and even worse than the slavery she had intended to agree to.

The brands on her ass now a secondary concern, and with Janelle's erotic cries and Ashley's monotonous spell chant echoing through the ancient sanctuary, Ariana felt herself disintegrating from her mind outward, and she took the only action her crumbling intellect could manage.

“I am Ariana of Dourheim!” she cried hoarsely. “I am a woman, and I am a bladedancer, and I am not a slave! You scheme to deny me who and what I am, but the gods know the truth even as you defy them and seek to deceive everyone alive! Gods take both of you for your crimes against nature and my sovereignty over self! I will resist until I am dead! I am not your slave!”

Ashley's speech faltered. She recovered and resumed directly, but it was too late.

Her legs spread and a breast in each hand, her face skyward and bathed in moonlight, Janelle cried,

“Ashley! Ashley, something's wrong! I'm transforming! I can't control it!”

Ashley stuttered again, then shook her head and backed away from the cauldron.

“The spell,” she replied, her voice again girlish and perhaps even fearful. “I misquoted the spell! The ritual is ruined!”

“Gods damn it, no! You stupid bitch! Ahhhhhhhhh!”


...
 

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
...

The curse asserted itself in classic fashion. Janelle's skull seemed to burst open, and long red hair sprouted thick across most of her body. Her entire physique changed from curvy woman to ripped bipedal monster, and inhuman screams erupted from her tortured throat. When the brief change concluded and she stood upright, the only recognizable aspect of her form was the pair of freckled breasts still hanging from the chest.

“Sister,” Ashley said warily as she continued backing away, “please stay calm. I can fix this. Please.....”

Of course, any seasoned monster hunter would know that trying to reason with a lycanthrope is a complete waste of time. The younger princess was just an amateur magus with way too much time on her hands, and her measured plea did nothing but draw attention to herself.

Janelle lunged out of the rune circle with animal swiftness and went right for the younger sibling. Crying out, Ashley flung the hot branding iron at the charging predator and then turned to break for the sanctuary door.

She took only two steps before being caught from behind. The lycanthrope seized her by the neck and threw her in one quick, vicious motion. She screamed until colliding with the winch handle, which released it.

The hook from which she was suspended no longer locked in place, Ariana plummeted toward the cauldron full of her blood as the last wisps of her soul returned to her body through the collar. Somewhat prepared for the descent even though her bound limbs made reacting a nigh impossible chore, she angled herself just enough to land face-down on the lip of the pot. She earned burns on her belly and thighs, but this was preferable to landing headfirst in the boiling goo.

Knowing the lycanthrope would turn on her in seconds, Ariana evaluated her options. There really weren't any with her legs and toes tied. If she could make it to the cage, it might be possible to lock herself in and keep out of Janelle's reach until the beast form reverted. Of course, then she would still be weak and with little chance of escape. Even if she got a head-start just as the lycanthrope began to change back, Janelle would catch her easily as she descended the mountain, and she would be brought back here and bound and tortured anew. At this point she would prefer to simply have her throat torn out.

Then she saw it.

The chest where the sisters had put her equipment, sitting right where it had been all these weeks.

With a glimmer of hope, Ariana worked her feet free of the hook, then she scooted away from the cauldron on her branded bottom. The pain was so great, and she wondered if her body would ever be the same, but at least her soul was safe.

She made it to the container while Janelle still milled about in the shadows, lingering over her sister's unmoving body, perhaps still just human enough to fight the urge to feed. Improvising in her current state, Ariana rolled over and clumsily located the latch behind her. It took some trial and error, but she finally devised the correct motion.

The mechanism released with a loud thump that instantly got the werewolf's attention.

Only a few heartbeats sitting between her and death, Ariana tucked her knees and rolled forward into a crouch. This gave her the leverage she needed to dig her heels in and shove the lid up and open. Her clothing and supplies lay on top of the weapons, and she saw no way of quickly getting to them with her wrists and elbows tied behind her back. In a final desperate attempt to stay alive, she propelled herself over into the chest and jammed her hands into her pack. Her numb fingers closed around a cylinder-shaped object just as the werewolf reached her.

The beast drove headlong into her, spittle flying from open jaws just before latching onto her right shoulder. Fangs pierced her flesh and went to the bone. The chest fell over from the impact, and Ariana skidded a meter or more with the monster clinging to her upper arm. Blood dribbled along her collarbone and neck, gliding under her collar and eventually down between her breasts—blood she could not afford to lose only a day removed from her last draining session.

Knowing she would soon be incapacitated and would only get one chance, Ariana drew on her training and knowledge of lycanthropes, waiting for that split second when the predator would release its prey just long enough to gain a more fatal grip. It was hardly a sure bet, and she would bleed out anyway if Janelle held on too long, but it was all she had.

And the move came quickly.

Mere seconds after crashing into the chest and pinning Ariana to the floor, the transformed princess loosened her bite in an all-out bid for the jugular. Rolling in the direction of the attack, Ariana evaded it and wound up on her belly. Immediately, two paws slammed into her back, and massive wolf-like claws tore tissue from her ribs. She cried out as Janelle settled on top of her, pinning her down in preparation for the final strike at her neck.

When Ariana felt warm breath at the base of her skull, she summoned the last of her strength and thrust her arms up as hard as she could, right into the gut of the beast. The injector that had been supplied by King Allejorn's messenger breached the tough hide of the lycanthrope and pumped the elixir into the unnatural body.

For a moment Ariana feared that the princess would kill her before the drug could take hold, but she sighed in relief as the beast rose and staggered away. Swinging at nonexistent foes, it went one way then the other, ultimately stumbling into the cauldron and spilling the bloody mess across time-worn stone. With a final cry at the moon, the monster collapsed, instantly shed its red fur, and then returned to human form. Janelle's nude body twitched for several moments more before at last going still, save for the slow rhythm of sedated respiration.

Ariana must have lost consciousness on the floor, because she woke with a start and found the situation unchanged. In absurd pain and still tied up impossibly tight, she wormed her way to the spilled chest contents and found her sword. After a solid ten minutes of effort, she managed to get it unsheathed and cut away the ropes on her wrists and elbows. Once free in this regard, her dagger made short work of the leg restraints, crotch rope and breast harness. Last but certainly not least, she opened the nipple clamps and angrily attempted to cast them into the darkness, only to realize her shoulder was so badly damaged she couldn't move it.

Trying not to pass out again, she gathered herself and hobbled over to the wall-mounted winch. Surprisingly, Ashley was injured but still breathing. Ariana searched the girl's robe and found an enchanted key, when she inserted directly into the collar she had worn for so many weeks. It fit, and her final article of bondage fell away. The bladedancer magic within her stirred for the first time since her capture, and she nearly wept with joy as her mind broke the surface of a deep, murky place.

A quick search of the area uncovered a cache of ropes and various implements of torture that the girls had apparently collected over some time. After selecting a few sturdy fibers, Ariana returned to Ashley, stripped her completely, and then bound her in the standard Witch's Shame configuration—wrists tied behind her, fingers wrapped to render them useless, and each ankle crossed with the other and lashed to the opposite thigh. A final rope wrapped about the girl's breasts and linked to her ankles from behind, forcing her back into a rigid arch, which also separated her legs and displayed her vulva for all to see. Traditionally, a rod or plank would be affixed between the subject's knees to keep them open, though the standard tie was usually tight enough to discourage even the most limber captives from fighting the humiliation for long, as drawing the legs together was both strenuous and painful. Additional measures such as nipple and clitoral clamps, toe bindings, gags, blindfolds and collars were common, but such things were considered practical extensions rather than part of the art itself.

The restraint technique had been developed by ancient bladedancers for the purpose of trussing flirtatious, hex-happy witches and other troublesome female captives so they could be shaved and placed in chastity belts, but the style's security had eventually made it the preferred method of strict immobilization in the field. Variations had evolved to accommodate males also, using similar concepts to bind the penis and testicles in a manner that compelled submission. Regardless of sex, prisoners who cooperated were usually covered and cared for once the binding was complete. Those who continued to struggle were left exposed and hungry until they either submitted or drove their captors to use sedation magic.

In the current case, Ariana had no energy to search for anything beyond the basic ropes and gags she had already collected. A large ballgag finished off Ashley's arrangement, and a simple spoken line enchanted the fibers in a manner that would impede spellcasting, much like the collar Ariana had just removed from herself. Witch's Shame, indeed.

She repeated the process with Janelle, finding the elder's big freckled breasts even more suited for the Shame than those of her sister. Still, the werewolf problem would return unless the infected prisoner remained unconscious till sunrise. As such, Ariana saw only two ways to ensure her escape from this mountain: kill both sisters, or find it within herself to complete the ritual she had originally been paid to perform.

Limping back to where her belongings had been scattered, she opened her pack and took stock of the ingredients she'd purchased at the Borra'jin market so long ago. Everything was present. Also, being mostly powders, dried herbs and extracts, it should all still be usable.

Despite wanting nothing more than to flee the sanctuary and never think on it again, Ariana nonetheless sighed, meditated briefly, and then prepared to fulfill her contract.

---
 
Last edited:

Servus Venandi

Magistrate
Epilogue.


She came around to voices outside the sanctuary entrance. Sitting up near the wall where she'd fallen asleep after the ritual, Ariana glanced toward the hole in the ceiling and guessed that it was midday or early afternoon. Climbing to her feet, she checked the dressings on her shoulder and buttocks, and then hobbled halfway across the chamber before realizing she was still naked. She'd been denied clothing so long that it now felt normal.

Her corset, pants, belt and boots lay strewn around the spilled chest. After gathering the items, she worked her body back into the outfit for the first time since the day of her capture. The activity hurt but felt right, like taking another step toward recovering everything that had been stolen from her in this place.

Once dressed she walked over to check the cage. After removing the lycanthropy curse, she had left both sisters bound in the Witch's Shame position and used a small rolling cart to haul them over and lock them up. Ashley had been conscious at the time since Ariana had needed her screams to fuel the magic—screams she had happily elicited with a bit of nipple torture and a whip handle up the ass. No permanent harm to the fair royal flesh, of course. Janelle had regained consciousness shortly thereafter, and both girls had protested with muffled screams and clumsy struggles, but the gags and ropes had defeated them before long. It had been hours since the last whimper.

Leaving the girls to sleep, she collected her sword and dagger and then walked to the ancient door. The iron contraption groaned on its hinges, and blinding sunlight hit her square in the face. Disoriented, she covered her eyes and took a moment to get her bearings. As the shock tapered off, she noticed a large man standing before her—older but fit, wearing fine enchanted adamantium plate across his body and an ornate two-handed sword on his back. On his head rested the Crown of Borra.

Having expected a royal detachment to come looking for the girls, but not the monarch himself, Ariana started to kneel, only to have the man catch her by the good arm.

He said, “No need for formality, bladedancer. You look like death itself.”

“King Allejorn,” she answered, her voice little more than a vaguely feminine rasp.

“When my daughters never returned last night, I suspected either a miscalculation in their magical ambitions or a wily bladedancer finally getting the better of them.”

“Some of both, milord. Mostly the former.”

“Are they....?”

“I spared their lives and removed the curse, albeit at the risk of my own freedom, health and sanity. The youngest was knocked unconscious during the struggle with the lycanthrope, and I was compelled to inflict pain upon her later in order to complete the purification ritual, but they are otherwise unhurt. They are bound and gagged inside, awaiting your discipline.”

The king looked relieved and nodded once. “I may indeed step inside to begin what will be a very long disciplinary process. It will do them well to ride home with blistered bottoms and tits.”

“No doubt, milord.”

“Beyond that, bladedancer, I promise you that my girls will not get away with this. When I finally allow them to return to public view, they will be prim and proper and completely submissive—by which I mean collared. This manner of insolence cannot be tolerated. If they have even the slightest notion of what would befall them at the hands of Borra’s Malusian priests, then I daresay they should be grateful for what they get from me.”

Ariana rubbed her eyes with the only hand she could lift to her face. “So you had at least some idea what was going on in this terrible place?”

Allejorn shrugged. “Some idea. Few specifics. Spies overheard the girls discussing your incarceration a few times.”

“And you made no attempt at a rescue?”

He laughed. “What can I say? The idea of enslaving a bladedancer into royal service is one I regard quite fondly. My daughters' real error was in turning to lycanthropy and failing to notify me of their intentions. Foolish girls!”

“So … if they had brought the idea to you, then you would have helped them capture and torture me?”

“You and I have enough of a business history that I would require great persuasion in order to be convinced that an enslaved Ariana of Dourheim is more useful to me than a free one. Frankly, I'm happy to find you well—all things considered.”

Ariana sighed. “That is … somewhat of a comfort, I suppose. In any event, milord, thank you for the injector. It saved my life and perhaps your throne.”

“Think nothing of it, madam, and rest assured that your payment for services rendered will far exceed the original contract. I have a number of boons in mind, including your participation in this first disciplinary session, if you wish to exact a bit of retribution with your own hands.”

Ariana shook her head. “Milord, with no offense intended, I hope to simply be rid of this place.”

Allejorn squinted. “Not at all, Ariana. Will you be all right?” He pointed at her heavily bandaged shoulder. “We have a medic in the unit who can tend to this. Have you taken … precautions?”

“Princess Janelle drew blood from me in several places during our altercation,” Ariana explained. “When the situation was contained and the purifying ritual complete, I treated myself for lycanthropy infection with leftover ingredients. I will not follow your daughter in terrorizing the kingdom under full moons, but I will submit to a quarantine if milord deems it necessary.”

“I deem it nonsense,” the king retorted. “I trust you, Ariana. No quarantine. You've been locked up long enough.”

“Thank you, milord.”

She bowed at the waist, and the simple motion made her grimace.

Allejorn stepped back and placed a gentle hand against her good arm. “Forgive me, Ariana. You are in no condition to stand here listening to an old monarch yammer. Go with Sergeant Griscarn. He will show you to the medics. Pay no attention to the screams of justice that will shortly arise from within these hallowed walls. Afterward, we will return to Borra'jin, allow you to rest, and then finalize your payment for a job well done.”

Nodding, she whispered, “Thank you.”

Wavering but somehow staying upright, she put one foot in front of the other as she followed the sergeant across the courtyard, past the altar that had put her to sleep and started this nightmare, and finally through the crumbling pillars at the perimeter of the ruins. Lifting her head in the cold air, Ariana faced the vast expanse of desert and the sky-touching crystal towers of Borra'jin in the distance.

The world had never looked so inviting. After weeks of hopeless captivity, she could now proudly emerge as herself—a woman, a bladedancer, and still no one's slave.


***

:smilie-devil:


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