A/N: I've had to take a bit of a break, because of college work and exams. Now, hopefully the chapters will start coming a bit more regularly, although I can't make any guarantees (my muse shares many of her qualities with my ex-girlfriend: flighty, erratic, and I suspect sometimes very inebriated). That having been said, this chapter is a bit different. It shows Astaroth and those loyal to him (forgive me, I'm introducing two new characters, these should be the last major characters for a while) in a bit of a good light. I decided that I really didn't want to make this a story of simple good vs. evil, since things are never that simple. Villains don't think that they're evil, they think that they are justified in what they do. They think that they are the good guys, and those trying to stop them are evil. In summation, both sides will have their protagonists, and I'm going to try and shape Astaroth into a more three-dimensional character instead of the stereotypical "badass evil dude". This chapter shows a very different side of him. We are approaching the climax of the first book, which will focus mainly on Triad City and Azuran's group underground (coming back to that next chapter). Jaalek's pursuit of Roxanne will be detailed in the second book. Comments, questions, insults, etc. are welcome, feel free to leave a review or e-mail me. Enjoy!
Ditea crouched in her niche by the wall, and checked again to make sure that she was concealed. Most of the windows on the floor had their curtains opened to the bright sunlight, but the window that she was pressed up against, and the four to the left of her, opened only on the back of a sanitation building, and so everyone usually left the curtains closed on all five. The niche that she occupied, however, was situated right next to the room where the three Prodigies of the Academy Triad were meeting, and it gave her an excellent spot to eavesdrop. Ditea paused, and then re-adjusted the maid outfit that she wore. The damned frills around the neck kept on twisting and choking her. But she dared not tear the stupid things off, otherwise the disguise would be ruined. Even after all the time she spent in this outfit, the frills continued to vex her.
As far as she could understand, the Prodigies that she spied on and occasionally made contact with never said anything all that revealing, yet her master had commanded her to memorize everything that they said. She had asked once why he didn't want her to spy on the Headmasters, rather than the geek, the bitch, and the thick-necked warrior that looked as if a cow could put him to shame in a test of wits.
He had looked at her, and she could never figure out what expression his face held behind his lacquered white mask, the mask that she found most frustrating and most endearing at the same time. "The reason, Ditea, is that there are three Headmasters, and only one of you."
"But there are three Prodigies too-"
"Yes, and they meet once a week and tell each other everything. They are friends, of sorts; the Headmasters are not. The Headmasters all have their own personal agendas, and when they meet they tell each other nothing of importance. And these students that you mock so wittily may play a bigger role than you think. That, however, is but a mere possibility; the main point is that they serve their purpose for now." She thought that she understood, but it didn't make the task any less boring.
Now, though, she thought that for the first time she was hearing something interesting. She took careful notes in her mind, and also tried to understand what it meant. She also remembered that she was not the only one listening to the conversation, and wondered who the amateur hiding in the closet was. The three Prodigies were inattentive and overconfident, but Ditea had heard and noticed as the warrior had felt her up. She also intended to find out who it was and take care of the other spy. She doubted that it was someone friendly to her or her master; she had never disappointed him and he had no reason to send anyone else. She checked the sleeve of her overly decorative blouse to make sure that the concealed knife was still there. She had had to silence others before. Some had seen her spying, or had noticed something odd about her. One bastard had even tried to rape her, and she had enjoyed sticking the blade through his throat.
But she would take care of whoever was in the closet after the Prodigies had left. Now, she listened intently as the geek explained about the book he had found, and how he couldn't read any of it. Then she heard the word "Nocturne", and smiled. Her master would definitely want to know about this. She raised an eyebrow as the warrior, the dim-witted bull of a young man, offered to translate it. So perhaps he wasn't quite as stupid as she had thought. She remembered her master's words about the three possibly playing a bigger role, and began to understand what he had meant. For all their faults, these three were the cream of the Academy Triad's crop, and if anyone would play a role in determining the loyalties of the schools, these three would. They were not just students; they were assistants, confidantes, and advisors to the Headmasters, and they had even more responsibilities than most of the teachers. And, she thought with a grin, the warrior had a fondness for her. She could use that to her advantage.
Ditea had been born and raised on the Pleasure Isles, as a slave girl who would eventually be sold into some rich man's harem. Once the Pleasure Isles had been a school set in a tropical paradise; a place where Aphrodite herself had taught students of both genders the art of passion, seduction, and love. Ditea was supposedly a distant relative of Aphrodite herself, it was where the "-dite" part of her name came from. But that counted for little in the current times. Aphrodite had sided with Jove in the second Lightning War, and the Isles had been sacked, the male students killed and the female students raped and taken as slaves. Now, the Pleasure Isles were still a school of sorts, but it was a school where comely slaves of both genders were trained to pleasure the rich fat men and bored, spoiled women who came to buy consorts. She clenched her fists at the memories as she waited for the meeting to end, memorizing their words even while reminiscing.
Finally, she heard the chairs scrape as the occupants in the room next to her niche stood up. She heard Torrun leave the room, but the geek and the bitch did not leave immediately. She wondered idly if there were something more than friendship between those two, but quickly dismissed the idea. The girl was still in love with the dim-witted warrior, and the geek was too in love with his books. Then she heard Corian mention a noise in the closet, and wondered if the unknown spy was about to be caught. If it were someone not friendly to her master, then it would benefit them, as relations would sour between her master's enemies and the Academy Triad. Their alliance would come easier.
But no, the mage girl made a joke, and the geek laughed. She heard their footsteps as they left the room, and then walked past her niche. She waited thirty seconds and heard their footsteps recede and then leave her range of hearing. The she carefully peered out from behind the curtain, to make sure there were no passing students or teachers. The coast was clear. She slipped out from her niche silently and gracefully, and then quickly entered the room that the Prodigies had left, still staying silent. She tiptoed over to where the closet was, and stood still, to the right side of the door. About fifteen seconds after she had taken her position, the door began to creak slowly open. She waited until the opening was wide enough for her to fit through; then she slid in and pushed the figure behind it back, simultaneously flicking her wrist so that the hidden knife slid out into her hand. Within half a second, the other spy was against the back wall with Ditea's knife at his throat.
The light source in the closet was an orb of glass that would be activated by touch. These devices ran off of a spell that had to be renewed every so often, and most rooms without enough windows to utilize the light of the sun that never set simply used torches. Some rooms however, contained objects that could easily catch fire, such as the storage closet that Ditea now held her captive at knifepoint in.
Ditea brushed the fingers of her left hand across the surface of the orb, and the little room was illuminated. A young man in the silver tunic of the Academy of the Sword was pressed against the back wall, trying to put as much distance between Ditea's knife and his throat. He was smaller than most of the students that attended, but he was lean and looked fast. His eyes twitched from side to side as he searched for a way to run.
"Don't even try it, I'll cut you down before you get two paces." She squinted. He wasn't ugly exactly, but there was something unpleasantly weasel-like about his face. His hair was lank and dark brown, adding to the weasel look. "Who are you, and why were you spying on the Prodigies?" He remained silent, so she brought the knife closer to his skin. He began to sweat. She pressed the sharp tip up against the flesh, drawing a drop of blood.
"All right! My name is Hyran, I'm from the Academy of the Sword." He was past adolescence, maybe about sixteen or seventeen years of age by the look of him, yet his voice was high and had a whiny twang to it.
"And why were you spying on them?"
"How did you know, anyway? I thought I was being silent. They didn't catch me," he sulked.
Ditea smiled coldly, and lowered the knife to her side. She watched him carefully though, and knew that she would be twice as fast should he either attack or run. "I'm the one with the knife, so I'm the one asking the questions. But I will answer you this time. You are a horrible spy, and you made enough noise to wake bloody Cerberus. The geek was too preoccupied with his precious book, the dim-witted bull was too busy with me, and the bitch was too busy mooning over the bull. And after I left, the bull and the bitch were too busy fighting with each other, and the geek was too busy moderating. Had you been spying on anyone halfway intelligent, you'd be dead. Now, why were you spying on them?"
"They're…they're going to expel me. I heard them say it."
Ditea's mouth twisted into a grin. "You're the pyromaniac that they were talking about! The one that set a girl's cat on fire 'cause she wouldn't go out with him?"
"I didn't mean to set it on fire! It just sort of happened, I don't know…"
"Well, did you take a torch and set fire to it? There's really no way you could not mean to do it and still do it."
"No, that's not what happened. She humiliated me in front of everyone, and then I couldn't meet their eyes so I stared down at where the cat was twining around her legs. Then I started to get angry, and then the cat just…ignited." He looked down at the ground again.
Ditea's eyes widened as she realized the implications of what he had told her. "You're a pyromancer, aren't you? One who can start fires with his thoughts. It's a pretty rare skill; in fact, I thought that it was just a myth. So you were spying on the Prodigies because you wanted to see whether or not they would expel you. Did you want to attack them?"
"I don't know…maybe. I'm not sure if I'd mind getting expelled. Everyone here thinks that they have the right to be better than me because I'm smaller. They hate me more every time I dodge their blades, or slip my own blade in to win a sparring match. They always start fights with me after classes." He lifted his head as he thought of something. "Hey, the way you talked about the Prodigies, calling them the geek, the bitch, and the bull…you don't like them very much either, do you? But you were flirting with Torrun."
"I do what I have to." Ditea responded offhandedly. She was thinking. A pyromancer could be useful, and her master would want him on their side. "Hyran, is that your name?" He nodded. "You have two choices. You can swear yourself to the service of my master, and perhaps he will find some use for you. Don't think that you can betray him either; he will know. If he finds you worthy, your life will not be unpleasant."
The boy gulped. "What's my other choice?" Ditea brought her knife up toward his throat pointedly. He got the message "All right! I'll join your master, whoever he is. Who is he, and who are you?"
Ditea sighed. "What did I tell you about asking questions, Hyran? Ask a question at the wrong time to my master, and he'll make you scream an hour for every second of his time that you waste." She sighed again. The boy looked terrified; this wouldn't do. "Just let me do the talking, okay?" He nodded. "My name is Ditea, and my master is Astaroth, Lord of Prevailing Darkness and Enforcer of the Realm." Hyran looked about to faint. "Come on, I have better things to do than stand in a closet with a cowardly little dipshit like you. Now listen, we're going to walk out of this room together, and everyone will just think I've been a naughty little girl again." Her mouth twisted up in an expression that was half ironic smile and half grimace. "Although even I've got standards, and you definitely don't meet them. After we leave the room, you're going to go to your room and make yourself presentable. I'll be doing the same. When the bell rings for the change of classes, wait for me down at the entrance, like you're waiting for a carriage. I'll meet you, and we'll start talking idly. Mention my name or my master's name in public and I will personally kill you. A certain carriage will arrive, and I will offer to share it with you. One we are inside the carriage and the doors are closed, then we can talk privately. Got it?"
"Uh…yeah. Yeah, I got it."
Ditea smirked. "Cheer up, when we walk out of here you'll get to put your arm around me. For the first time in your life you'll get to touch a girl without having her recoil in disgust." Hyran blushed, and Ditea rolled her eyes.
"You've got to look a bit more confidant than that. Play your part. Remember, you just got laid. Look happy."
Hyran grinned a little. "If you want, we don't have to just act-"
Ditea clenched her teeth and gave him a look of disdain. "Remember that I still have the knife, and you'll be useful to my master with or without your minuscule manhood." Hyran shut up quickly. "All right, now smile. Look cocky and confident, like you're on top of the world. All right, now put your arm around my waist."
Hyran looked at her suspiciously. "You're not going to castrate me, are you?"
"Not if you're careful to put your hands only where I tell you to put them, got it?" He nodded meekly.
"All right then." She felt a little sympathetic. He was so easy to intimidate, and she just couldn't resist. She suddenly frowned. Such compliance would be useful, but only to an extent. He would be terrified of her master, and obedient. But Astaroth did not employ meek servants, and Hyran would have to learn some courage in order to act on his own when necessary.
The other problem that nagged at her was less tangible. Hyran's ability had only just begun to manifest, and as yet he seemed untouched. But Ditea had heard myths of the pyromancers that had existed through the ages. Pyromancy was still an uncertain art, unlike most aspects of sorcery. Pyromancy was not even considered to be sorcery, as it worked much different than the basic principles of the arcane. One side effect of pyromancy was the affliction known only as "fire-madness". The illness was unique for each pyromancer, and as such it could never be properly understood. Not every pyromancer succumbed to it, but many did. The legends spoke of both Jove and Dark Chaos employing powerful pyromancers in their war. Some said that it had been a pyromancer that leveled the City of Thunder. However, some believed that the pyromancer had actually been loyal to Jove, and many blamed the fire-madness for the destruction of the pyromancer's own city.
Finally, she had gotten Hyran to adopt a proper expression of triumph and conquest. She hung on his arm convincingly, and signaled for him to start moving. The sooner this was over, the better. Once she delivered him to her master, Hyran would become Astaroth's problem. Doubtless, he would be able to handle the sniveling runt and turn him into a man.
Later, as she strode toward him standing in the sunlit courtyard that the three schools surrounded, she grudgingly admitted that he at least looked a little better. He was dressed a bit more formally, with a collared shirt, pressed slacks, and well-tailored jacket. His hair had been combed back and parted, so that it did not hang limply in front of his face. No one would ever call him handsome, but for the most part he had lost his rodent qualities.
She reached him, and greeted him. He feigned surprise at seeing her, and then greeted her in turn. They acted as if they knew each other, since some of the people that had seen her on his arm could be here now, but they also acted as if they hadn't expected to see each other again. Ditea kept a small quirk to her mouth that others would interpret as concealed desire, and Hyran had a hungry gleam in his eye that probably wasn't feigned. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her carriage arrive, complete with exhausted demidragon. Ditea offered to share her carriage with Hyran, who readily agreed. In an unexpected display of chivalry, he opened the door for her, and then got inside.
The driver turned to look at her. He was one of Astaroth's trusted servants, named Kron. He was a hard-faced man, with broad shoulders and a thick neck. He was both an obedient servant and a formidable bodyguard for her, when she wasn't playing her part as a spy. Right now he was sizing up Hyran. "What took you so long, mistress? I was beginning to worry."
"I brought a present for master. This is Hyran. He's a living, breathing pyromancer. That's if what he says is true, of course. If he lies, then he'll serve as a stable hand, if he survives the master's ire." She grinned mischievously at Hyran, who had gone several shades paler. She was really going to have to stop tormenting him so much.
Kron didn't smile; he only nodded and turned back toward the windshield of the carriage, and snapped the reins attached to the demidragon. Ditea was glad that the windows were tinted; otherwise Hyran's nervous, sweat-drenched face would have drawn attention. She sighed, again feeling pity for him. "I know you weren't lying, Hyran. Just by looking at you, I can tell that you're a terrible liar. Even if you were an excellent liar, I would know. Astaroth taught me how to discern lies from truth a long time ago."
Hyran relaxed a little bit. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then asked, "Is it all right to ask a question?"
Ditea rolled her eyes. "Did you not just ask one?" Hyran looked horrified. "It's all right, you can ask questions. Whether or not I will answer or tell the truth depends on the question, but you may ask without repercussion."
"How did- how did you come to serve Astaroth? You don't look anything like the Prevailing Darkness cultists."
"That's because I'm above the cultists. And you are too, if Astaroth accepts you." She hesitated to answer his question, searching for the right words. In truth, she didn't quite know herself. "Master…freed me. I was a slave in the Pleasure Isles, and he took me away."
"He bought you?"
"No!" Her answer was sharp, but she softened her voice. "I offered my service to him freely. I refer to him as 'master' because I am still an apprentice, not as a slave to an owner." She felt her eyes begin to water at the memory, and blinked back her tears. The last thing Hyran needed to see was her crying. "How could I not offer my life to him, when he saved it?"
After that, she fell silent, but Hyran's words brought her back. She remembered her life before Astaroth saved her. Her mother had been a slave from the Pleasure Isles, consort to a rich, obese, wastrel of a man who lay about in his penthouse at Gateway City, or bet money frivolously at the coliseums. Ditea refused to believe that he had been her father, but she would never know for sure. Ditea's mother died giving birth to her, and she died before the owner's debt was completely paid. So now the man found himself paying for a dead woman, and in possession of a baby that he didn't want. The people who dealt in the Pleasure Isles business forsaw this dilemma soon after they began their business, however, and so worked a clause into their contracts. If the "merchandise"died, and before the merchandise had been completely purchased, the customer may give the merchandise's child back to the Pleasure Isles to remove a portion of the debt remaining. How large that portion was depended on the baby in question. Male babies fetched lower portions than females, and some babies seemed more promising than others.
Ditea had been worth a sizeable portion when she was sold back to the Pleasure Isles, a thought that gave her little consolation. Children born of Pleasure Isles slaves were considered indentured, and had a chance to buy their freedom. Indentured people were also afforded more rights than outright slaves. However, indentured infants sold back to the Pleasure Isles became slaves again. Ditea, who had for the briefest of times something resembling free status, became a slave almost immediately. The man didn't hesitate to sell her back to the Pleasure Isles and forfeit her rights.
There were two types of slaves in the Pleasure Isles: pleasure slaves and servants. Neither position was desirable, but the comelier slaves were taught in the ways of ancient Aphrodite, and the rest were nothing but common servants. When younger, Ditea wished only to be a servant, and wanted none of the attention she got as a pleasure slave. Rarely was that attention positive. The servants seemed to be able to slink away and make themselves scarce, whereas Ditea was constantly drawing reprimands and occasional beatings. They only beat her in areas that would heal quickly, and where the bruises would not be seen. They would never actually injure her, because that would be damaging valuable merchandise. But they were skilled at their art, and Ditea's pain was oftentimes just as physical as it was emotional.
She resented her status as a pleasure slave only until she learned of the servants' extra duties. The male pleasure slaves and the female pleasure slaves were kept separate from each other almost all the time, since it was in the best interest for the females to be kept as "fresh" as possible. The males, however, were to be sold to rich women, and needed practical experience in order to become desirable. That was where the female servants came in. The female pleasure slaves were too valuable and delicate for such tasks, but the female servants were seen as expendable. After their normal serving duties had been performed, they were commanded to attend to the male pleasure slaves.
Ditea became very bitter after learning of that. Not all of the female servants disliked their extra duties; Ditea heard one story of a male pleasure slave who had fallen in love with the female servant that attended him, and they had escaped the horrid isles together. But to Ditea, the servant's extra duties were still disgusting. After she learned the truth of the servants, she became increasingly defiant of the authorities on the Pleasure Isles. She would willfully disobey commands, and would even talk back to her captors. When beaten, she would do everything possible to fight back, and they soon had to get her unconscious in order to chastise her, a feat that she saw as a grim triumph. She was not aware that as her willfulness increased, her value decreased. No wealthy aristocrat wanted a disobedient slave girl, even one as beautiful as her. Only one type of place would take a girl like her: a brothel.
She would have ended up at one if Astaroth had not come and changed everything. He had come to the Pleasure Isles, resplendent in his pearl white mask, cascade of golden hair, and fine tailored clothes. He had no need of the armored cloak he wore into battle and in other areas, although he still wore his sword at his waist. The mask, however, always adorned his face, and no one had ever seen what lay beneath it. One day, Ditea hoped that he would trust her enough to reveal himself to her fully.
Ditea and the other female pleasure slaves were marched out of the buildings and across the hot sand to line up in front of one of the most powerful men in the world. Astaroth approached, his expression indiscernible behind his mask. Ditea had never been easy to impress, either before or after she found out about how the female servants were treated. None of the so-called "teachers" had been able to completely cow her, but this tall, silent man did. Without him saying a word, without him even looking at her or being near her, she felt at his mercy.
A fat teacher named Feld accompanied Astaroth, giving him all the information on the girls that were lined up in front of him. To Ditea, he looked like an ugly, nervous little dog yipping at its master's heels. Astaroth neither encouraged nor silenced him; he only moved along at his own pace in disdainful silence.
Inspection was nothing new, and Ditea had been presented before potential customers multiple times. Always, they had been deterred by her defiant stare. They could see that she refused to be servile. Now, she did not feel defiant. In fact, as Astaroth and Feld got closer, she became increasingly nervous. She suddenly realized that she wanted to make a good impression on Astaroth. It was a feeling she had never had before. She absently moved a hand to her hair, and patted it to make sure it was still in place.
Then the masked man and the fat teacher were standing in front of her, and she found herself staring into the eyes of Astaroth, Leader of the Cult of Prevailing Darkness and Enforcer of the Realm. She didn't even hear Feld prattling on and on about her as she stared at Astaroth. In fact, she didn't even see the revolting little man there until he stepped in front of both Astaroth and her, and ripped her thin shirt open. Ditea let out a gasp of shock as he grinned, seized her left breast, and displayed it crudely to Astaroth, kneading it in his hands. Ditea was too shocked at this unexpected barbarity to struggle. Never before had this been done, to her or any of the others as far she knew.
Then Astaroth was between them. He backhanded the little man casually, but with enough force to send him sprawling into the sand. He stood there as Ditea tried in vain to cover herself with the torn scraps of her tunic, and waited for Feld to stand up. He did, groaning, and with a confused but fearful look on his face. Astaroth backhanded him again, this time with more force. He followed up with a savage kick to the man's midsection. Then, he pulled out his sword, and pointed it at Feld's throat. He turned to meet Ditea's eyes. He was waiting for her approval, she realized. She nodded fiercely, and Astaroth turned back to skewer Feld's throat on his blade.
He walked back to where she was standing, and held out his arm for her to take. She took it numbly. They walked to where several teachers had begun to assemble, responding to Feld's cry of pain. For the first time, Astaroth spoke. "I think I will be taking this one with me today," he spoke matter-of-factly to the others. His voice was deep, but warm and melodious. He pointed to the foremost teacher. "Take off your shirt and give it to her. Your associate ruined hers." The man hurriedly tugged his shirt off and handed it to her. She didn't care that it was drenched in sweat, and that the man probably hadn't bathed in a week. It was a gift from Astaroth, and so it was dear to her. She put it on over the remains of her original shirt and wore it proudly.
They got into the carriage that waited at the gates of the dismal place, and the driver started the demidragon moving toward the island port where Astaroth's ship awaited. Suddenly, he seemed almost uncomfortable. He turned to speak to her. "You're not a slave anymore. I despise slavery, especially this type. It is necessary though, unfortunately." He sat for a moment in silence. "You're not a slave, and I don't claim to own you. I give you the choice to stay with me, or you can name a city or town in this world and I will send you there."
She responded without hesitation. "I would be honored to stay with you." She realized that it was true. No one else had ever shown her as much kindness in her entire life as he had just done in the last fifteen minutes.
"What is your name?"
"My name is Ditea." She hesitated. She wanted to ask him something…but she didn't know whether she should. He said she wasn't a slave anymore, but still, the idea of asking her question made her nervous. "Why-Why did you do all that for me?"
He paused, considering her question. "There was something about you that reminded me of her, and there still is." He was looking at her intensely now, although his stare was not menacing. "You have potential; I could see it in your eyes. I was drawn to you."
She wanted to ask who she was, but restrained herself. If he had wanted to tell her, he would have, and from the way he changed the subject, she could tell that he wasn't comfortable talking about it. She didn't remember the rest of their conversation.
She was jolted out of her memories by the halting of the carriage. She looked out the window to see that they had arrived at the hotel. Hyran was nervously twisting his hands together in his lap. This wouldn't do, she thought. She turned to him. "Calm down. Appearances are everything, and you now represent Astaroth, Leader of the Cult of Prevailing Darkness. Whether he accepts you as an apprentice or not, you belong to him now. You have no reason to be nervous. He will not punish you unless you displease him."
"What if I displease him?"
"Don't," she responded. Kron opened the door for her, and she stepped out into the sunlight. Hyran wiped the sweat from his face and forced a calm expression, then stepped out as well. Kron stood between them, his face completely devoid of emotion. Ditea wondered idly whether the man simply repressed his emotions in her presence, or if he truly had such a lack of interest in the world. She had never seen him smile, nor had she ever seen him angry. She was letting her mind wander again, she realized. In truth, she was a bit apprehensive of presenting Hyran to Astaroth. He really didn't look like much, and, although Ditea felt nothing but disdain for Hyran, she really didn't want to see him killed.
The three of them walked through the grand entrance of the Crystalline Citadel luxury hotel, Ditea in the lead. Each time she entered this place, she was always dazzled by the glittering crystal sculptures that adorned the main hallway. Each sculpture stood in front of a window, and each window had been positioned to catch just the right amount of light from the stationary sun. The windows were also made of a special substance that could transform the light into a color or even a combination of colors. The rays of color then shone through the sculptures, illuminating each detail in a rippling, shimmering display. The sculptures themselves were masterpieces even without the added lighting effects, and depicted multiple objects, buildings, and people. Immediately to the left as one walked in, there was a table sized miniature scale model of the entirety of Triad city, from the immense Academy buildings at the center to the lowliest shanty cluster on the outskirts, done entirely in crystal and glass. It had been done several years ago and was now out of date, but it was still an unequaled marvel.
Ditea kept her face expressionless and blank, with only a very small smile that many would interpret as a sneer of disdain. She slowed her pace to a casual, confident stride, to add a few extra seconds to her time among the crystals. She felt herself calmed in the array of light and beauty. Only Astaroth knew of her fascination with the displays, and Ditea wondered if the reason he always chose this hotel to stay at during his visits was because of that.
Past the crystal display were the elevators that led up to each of the various levels of the building. The walls of these elevators were clear, and could be set to ascend slowly in order to appreciate the view. Ditea, Hyran, and Kron, however, had neither the time nor the desire to do so, and Ditea set the elevator to the highest speed possible. She then inserted the key into the special slot that would give her access to the penthouse room. As these elevators ran on arcane principles, they were far faster than the mechanical ones of the Waking World. Almost instantaneously, they were at the top floor.
The elevator opened onto a hallway, with the door to the actual rooms at the end. As they reached the door, Ditea commanded Kron to wait outside. She glanced at Hyran. He was sweating again. Hopefully Astaroth would understand that he would need some training. He would need to reach a stability of mind in order to make use of his skill in pyromancy, and Ditea could see that he was not very stable. She uneasily recalled the legends of Jove's pyromancer who had unwitting decimated his own city. Perhaps bringing Hyran to be trained by Astaroth had not been as good of an idea as she had thought.
She opened the door quietly. He would already have known that she was here, and if he wished not to be disturbed then the door would have been locked. Others had been turned away, but Ditea had never found the door locked to her, and it was not now. She entered, and realized that Hyran had frozen at the entrance. With a sigh, she grabbed his arm and yanked him inside.
The rooms were pleasant and open, but not overly luxurious. Some guests in this room requested every bit of luxury that the hotel offered, but Astaroth had never cared about such things. There were ample windows to allow sunlight in, and those windows were tinted to only allow one to look out, but not in. Several privacy enchantments were also in effect, and Astaroth had cast a few of his in addition to those of the hotel. The room was scented with a strange herb that smelled heavily of cinnamon with an underlying scent of apple.
He was in the sitting room, as he always was when she visited him here. She could see his form in the chair, staring out the grand window that overlooked much of the city. She relaxed at this sudden reinforcement of normalcy, and even managed to smile a little. She dragged Hyran forward to where Astaroth awaited them. Hyran was trembling now. Well, she had done all she could. Some men were just cowards at the core.
Ditea bowed before him. "Master, I have returned from the Academy Triad. I have a full report ready for your hearing." Hyran still stood nervously. She glared at him meaningfully. He suddenly got the message, and bowed quickly but deeply. She hoped Astaroth wouldn't be too hard on the guy.
"It is good to see you, Ditea." She sensed him smiling behind his mask. "Your report can wait for a little while. We have…other things to attend to, do we not?" Ditea quirked her lips into a grin. She new just what those other matters were. Astaroth turned to the terrified Hyran. "And who might I ask, is this?"
"This is Hyran, a student of the Academy of the Sword. He has also exhibited signs of being a pyromancer. I caught him spying on the Prodigies. They're going to expel him for setting someone's pet on fire. They said that he also liked to set mice on fire." Ditea heard Hyran's sudden intake of breath, and both she and Astaroth turned to look at him.
"Speak," Astaroth commanded him.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, it's just that what she said about the mice…I didn't mean to set them on fire, if I did. I used to feed them when I could, and when I started finding them dead I thought that the others were killing them. I was never allowed to have pets at home, my father thought it would make me soft. So I sort of kept them as pets." He looked sheepish.
"Ditea, I am glad that you brought him here, before our enemies could get hold of him. But understand that he is both a blessing and a curse. Pyromancy is a very tricky art, and this boy seems to have even less control over his skill than most." He paused, considering, and then turned to face the trembling young man. "You will swear your loyalty to Ditea, me, and above all to Dark Chaos. If any come to you and try to sway you to their cause, report to me. If they make you an offer, come to me and I will see that you get what they offered and more. Above all, never obey any order given by a man named Jaalek. He is a traitor to us and to Dark Chaos, although he claims allegiance to our side. For this loyalty, I will teach you how too control and hone your skill with fire. If you become adept at it, you will have an exalted position in the world."
Ditea could see that something had changed in Hyran. He seemed calmed by Astaroth's speech, and she wondered if he woven some subtle, undetectable enchantment into his words. Hyran met Astaroth's eyes. "I do so swear my loyalty to you, Astaroth, to your apprentice Ditea, and to our master above, Dark Chaos. I await your orders."
Ditea sensed that Astaroth was smiling with satisfaction behind his mask. "Your first task is to make sure that you do not get expelled from the Academy of the Sword. Apologize, or buy a new pet to replace the one you burned, or whatever it takes to keep you there."
Hyran looked uncertain. "I heard Torrun say that he was going to put in the petition for my expulsion tomorrow. He doesn't like me much, and I don't think I can convince him to let me stay."
Astaroth was silent for a moment. "Do you have any arcane talent?"
Hyran thought for a moment. "Besides pyromancy? When I was younger, I had some."
"Perhaps you can be transferred to the Academy of the Staff. Their mental exercises and focus on meditation will aid both your arcane and pyromantic talents, and it will give you some necessary stability. You'll have to enter as a new student though, as their curriculum is entirely different from your current school."
"My father won't like that." Hyran looked sorrowful, but there was also a gleam of eagerness in his eyes. Astaroth didn't miss it.
Behind his mask, Astaroth made a noise that could have been a laugh. He met Hyran's gaze squarely. "I don't care what your father likes." He paused. "And neither should you." There was a strange tone to his voice, but in an instant it was gone. "Hyran. You will not be expelled from the Academy Triad. The Headmaster of the Sword will realize that your talents will better serve elsewhere, perhaps at the Academy of the Staff. The Headmaster of the Staff will receive some letters of recommendation from a few of the most renowned mages in the land. Take it as a demonstration of my influence, although I prefer not to get involved. Puppets tend to get nervous when they realize just how much they are being controlled, and the less they are reminded, the better. I will give you books to read on pyromancy, and how to focus your mind into a proper state. Pyromancy is dangerous, much more so than normal sorcery. A mage may simply stop casting a spell, and it will have no effect. Or the mage can simply not cast the spell in the first place. Pyromancy doesn't work in this way. I can't explain it any better than that, it is something you will experience yourself. They say every pyromancer's experience is unique. You must be strong enough to deal with it."
"I look forward to learning both the arcane and the art of pyromancy, Master. I will learn to control it." He hesitated. "I used to practice the arcane in secret, back at home. I was beaten whenever I was caught, but it didn't stop me from trying. Finally, my father started me training with weapons so much that I was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. I hated the weapons training, but I used that hatred to fuel my drive during practice. My blade would heat up, and once it even began to glow red with heat." Astaroth only nodded. Ditea wondered what compelled Hyran to reveal that piece of information.
"Ditea. I want you to keep in close contact with him, and share any information that might be pertinent to him. Hyran, you are to do likewise." Astaroth fixed Ditea with his gaze. She imagined that he had looked amused behind his mask. "I understand that you pretended to be having a tryst in order to avoid suspicion?" Ditea blushed. "I think you should continue that guise." As he looked at her, she saw hunger gleam in his eyes. "Hyran, you are dismissed. Kron will take you back to the Academy Triad."
As soon as Hyran exited, Ditea stepped closer to Astaroth. "Why do you so love to have me play the part of harlot, Master?" She asked teasingly.
"Perhaps its because you play the part so well?" Ditea mock-sulked. She sensed that behind his mask, Astaroth was smiling. "Because one with your beauty is admired and lusted after by many. That admiration and lust allows you to get to places you would otherwise never be admitted to. Consider the day's events. It was your act as a flirtatious serving girl that allowed you access to the room where the three Prodigies met, and coincidentally led to you discovering Hyran. It is your easiest role, because of your upbringing in the Pleasure Isles. You and I know that your true self is much different from the personas you enact, however." He paused. "All of us must wear masks, to some degree."
Ditea thought of something. "Master…Hyran lusts after me too, not just as an act but in truth."
Behind his mask, Astaroth actually laughed. "I'd be a bit worried about him if he didn't."
"I don't want him to confuse our act with reality. His grasp on reality is fragile as it is, and may become more so as he learns more of pyromancy."
"You'll both be reporting to me frequently, as long as I am here. I had intended to leave soon, but I will stay until I feel Hyran is competent. He is more intelligent and resourceful than you give him credit for, and I think he'll do fine. You'll need to help him, though." He sighed. "But in answer to your question, just be firm that you do not harbor any real feelings for him. I think he will become more psychologically balanced once he transfers to the Academy of the Staff."
"I hope so. Perhaps once he learns some self confidence, he'll change."
Astaroth seemed troubled for a moment. Then he came over to Ditea and picked her up in his arms. "I've been waiting all day for your visit, you know."
She relaxed in his arms. "So have I," she replied.