"Rogello, I can't believe I let you talk me into this," said Wendy, pulling her blade from the body of another goblin. The foul little creatures were truly infesting the old labyrithine catacombs beneath Vilders.
The wiry young man who had brought her here smiled at her, his face streaked with green blood. "You love it, and you know it," he said. With a grunt, he rolled over another body, looking down at the misshapen face. "Ugly little buggers, aren't they?"
The young lady nodded, cleaning her sword on the hem of her cloak. "If they were any brighter, though, we'd be in trouble," she said.
Goblins were almost sentient, she knew, close enough that they could use clubs and wore something akin to clothes. However, they operated mostly on instinct. That instinct drove them to kill and eat pretty much anything that did not kill and eat them.
They had been prowling the catacombs for hours. Unlike the catacombs under most cities, Vilders' was devoid of most corpses. It was formed by the sinking action of the city upon the rather marshy land it was built upon. As the city sank, new structures were built atop the old, and the old ones were abandoned. The process took centuries, and Wendy had no idea how deep they were now, nor how old these places they were exploring were.
Beside the constant threat of cave-ins, they had to watch out for the denizens of this subterranean maze. Goblins, for one. Another possibility was rumored to be orcs. Those caused her much more pause. Orcs were dangerous in a fight, unlike the insane, but weak, goblins.
Wendy knelt and slit the right ear off the goblin she had just slain. That was the money maker, she knew. She dropped the lobe into a pouch containing nearly a half dozen others. That made for three marks so far, not a bad haul, but more would be better.
At seventeen, Wendy was one of the youngest spelunker of the Varminter's Guild of Vilders. There were many sub-guilds of the Varminters, but her branch was the one who specialized in relatively dangerous vermin, short of actual monsters. Those were a truly specialized crowd, whose ranks she wished to join eventually.
Rogello liked working with Wendy, she was petite, and could get into tight places with ease. She was also virtually fearless, he had watched her recklessly charge five goblins at one time. By the time green arms and legs quit flying, she had slain them all before he could even get there. Her light brown hair was matted with dirt and goblin blood, but she was still quite sexy to his eyes, as well. In truth, it was her attractiveness that led him to want to work with her more than anything else.
She turned her blue eyes toward him. "You wish to keep going?" she asked, obviously wanting to, herself.
He looked at his pouch of four ears. "Hell, yes," he said, grinning. We've not even taken a wound yet, and what good is a dive if you don't have a harrowing story to tell of?"
The young woman stood up and cinched her belt. She picked up the light-bar from the ledge on the wall. The chamber they were in looked to be an old section of streetfront, many small doorways led off into side chambers or even whole sunken homes. Rogello recovered his bar and aimed it down the long axis of the chamber, where it receded into the distance. "Not many open areas this big down here," he said into the echoing darkness, his light piercing a ways, but not to the end of the long room.
Rogello was three years her senior, and her senior in the guild as well. He was very nearly a master varminter, whereas Wendy was barely a journeyman. A distant yammering came to their ears, telling them that more goblins were about, and more than one.
"So, why do you think this was a bad idea?" asked Rogello.
She shrugged. "I could be drinking right now, and eyeing that new dancer at the Wench," she said. Wendy spoke of the Wanton Wench, a tavern specializing in dancing girls and otherlandish music. That Wendy liked the company of both men and women was known to Rogello, having benefitted from her penchant more than once.
"It takes you so long to let a girl know you're interested, Wendy," he said. "She'll be an old maid by the time you approach her."
Wendy batted his arm with her light-bar. "I can't help it I'm shy," she said. Her voice dropped off and she murmured. "Being demur isn't easy, you know."
Rogello laughed. "Shy, yes, demur, I seriously doubt," he said. "Remember, I saw you headbutt that Coghlander last week. I've never seen anyone climb someone else to do that."
"He pinched my rump, HARD," she said, grinning. "I was just defending my honor."
The pair began walking down the old street, toward the sound of the goblins. As they came to a corner, where the street proceeded ahead, but another street came in from the right side, they were nearly surprised by a small band of the filthy creatures.
Six of them came charging out of the shadows of some pillars. Only three had clubs, but one managed to land a blow on Rogello's arm, and he dropped his short sword from fingers struck numb by the injury.
"Damn," he yelled, swinging his light bar at the goblin. It connected, but did little harm to the creature, and bent the light-bar in the bargain. The alchemical mixture within sprayed out in a fountain of bright, glowing fluid.
Wendy sliced one nearly in half, watching Rogello's situation from the corner of her eye. The creature squawked and fell to the floor. With only one light bar now working, she could not afford to risk dropping hers, nor breaking it. One day she would invest in one of those elven light-stones, as they were more reliable, but they cost a small fortune.
Two goblins jumped on Rogello's back, and one grabbed his uninjured arm. Wendy still had two to deal with, both wielding clubs. "Hang on Rogello," she said, her voice now tinged with worry.
The older spelunker smashed his numb fist into one of the creatures, and it stumbled back, yammering curses in it's primitive language and spitting blood.
The two she was fighting sprang at her, by sheer coincidence, timing their attack perfectly. She batted one club aside, but the other hit her hand, the one holding the light bar.
With a terrible, sinking feeling, she watched the bar fall to the chamber floor and snap open. A moment later, they were in pitch darkness. A heartbeat after that, she saw a flare of stars before her eyes, and then remembered nothing.
Wendy awoke with a throbbing headache and the smell of incense in her nose. Her eyes pried themselves open painfully and she regarded a ornately-painted ceiling over her head. The light was very dim, almost not enough to allow vision.
"Don't try to move," said a mild, masculine voice from the direction of her feet. Naturally, she tried to lift her head to look that direction. She was rewarded for this effort by a spike of intense agony through her skull. Her head fell back and she moaned.
An edge of humor came to the voice. "Why do folk always do that?" he asked.
The young woman's voice sounded dry and sandy as she croaked out, "Where am I?"
"You're in my home," said the soft voice of the man. "I managed to rescue you from the goblins before they could make a dinner of you."
"Rogello?" she asked, suddenly very worried.
There was a telling pause, then the man said, "He didn't make it, I fear, they set upon him first, thinking the male the more serious threat."
Tears sprang to Wendy's dry eyes. She was not in love with Rogello, but he was a friend.
"He died fighting, if that helps any," said the mild-voiced man.
Wendy shrugged. "A little, I suppose," she said.
A shape moved into her vision, cloaked and hooded. "Here, drink this," the mild voice said and she felt a cup touch her lips. She drank. It was wine, and burned a little on her dry throat, but also moistened it. "You almost had your brains dashed out, I fear your skull was cracked a bit."
"Thank you for helping," said Wendy. "My name is Wendy."
The man lifted the empty cup from her and she thought she saw a smile within the hood. "I am Neritos," he said.
Wendy wondered about the hood, but decided not to question someone who saved her life so soon after finding out that life was still available. Her hands moved down her sides, and she realized she had no clothes on. "You stripped me?" she asked, suddenly full of more pressing questions.
The man drew back a little at the accusing tone in her voice. "Your clothes were filthy, and that is MY bed," said the man, putting some defense in his voice. "I took no liberties, I swear it."
She nodded, another motion she soon regretted. "I'm sorry, I should not accuse one who rescued me. I owe you my life," she said. Her hand moved to her hair, which had been washed and combed. "You cleaned me, thank you."
The man nodded. "It was the least I could do, I had plenty of time," he said. "You've been unconscious for four days."
She blinked at that. "So long?" she said.
"I feared you would die," said Neritos. "And you are far from well, even now."
"I can tell," she said, wincing as she found the wound on her head. It felt massively swollen, and was incredibly painful to touch.
"You are a very tough young woman," he said, nodding.
Wendy smiled at that. "I have to be," she said. "Spelunking isn't for everyone."
"Even spelunkers, as you have found," said Neritos, another smile flashing from beneath his hood.
"You never answered my question as to where I am, though," said Wendy.
"I said my home," said Neritos, "under the city, near where the goblins attacked you."
"We're still underground?" asked Wendy.
The man moved out of her vision again, and she heard his voice draw distant. "Indeed, we are, for I live here."
"You live in the catacombs?" she asked, realizing she was asking a lot of questions.
"I like it here, Wendy, it is quiet and people do not bother me," he said. "It allows me to practice my art."
"I will stop interrogating you, sir," said Wendy. "Though my mind fills with questions."
He chuckled from the far side of the chamber. "You wish to know what my art is?" he asked.
"Well, yes," she replied, a weak smile forming on her lips. "It's a thing that begs a question."
He walked up to her. "I sculpt," he said. "When you're fit to rise, I will show you, for now, thought, rest, and I will go practice more."
He walked out of her vision and she stared at the ceiling for a long moment before she finally slept again.
She awoke with the sensation of warmth on her breast. Her eyes snapped open and she looked down, again driving a spike of pain through her head. She felt the warmth move over her skin and realized it was a warm rag, he was bathing her. Wendy was not sure she liked being bathed by a man she was not intimate with, but had little choice at the moment. She felt weak all over, and her head still throbbed agonizingly.
He lifted the cloth from her belly. "You wish me to stop?" he asked, his calm and soothing voice causing her to chastise herself for growing so concerned with the matter.
"No," said Wendy. "I know it needs to be done."
"I understand being uncomfortable with someone touching your personally," he said. "I will try to make it fast."
He moved with more speed now, washing her all over, even her privates. He washed to her feet, then returned to her upper half. Gently, he turned her on her side, and washed her back and the backs of her legs, then rump. "Sorry to be so picky, but filth will lead to further troubles for you," he said.
Wendy smiled at him. "It's not really so bad being bathed," she said. "Actually, it's sort of pampering."
A smile emerged from the darkened hood. "Stay with that thought," he said. "I would rather it be something pleasant for you than something to be disliked but tolerated. There is good news for you, though. The swelling of your head is down. You may be fit to rise come the morrow."
Wendy grinned. "That would be good," she said. "My family surely worries for me."
"It may be a couple of more days before you're fit to travel back to the surface, Wendy," said Neritos. Subtle currents in the air told her she was still uncovered. Her hands moved down to find the coverlet, but it was near her feet.
Neritos started and said, "I'm sorry, I have been tending you so long, I didn't notice." He lifted the coverlet over her, and she smiled.
"I hate feeling so helpless," said Wendy. "I wish I could repay you."
He smiled. "You can, pretty Wendy," he said.
A brief flash of resentment went through her mind before being squelched by gratitude. "I've little money, as you well know," she said, "What is it you desire?"
He smiled beneath his hood. "Not what you think," he said. "Only that you sit as a model for me to sculpt."
Wendy blinked at that. "Really?"
"Really," he confirmed. "Am I correct in thinking you would give more?"
She blushed. "I would, if you asked it, for it is due you," said Wendy.
"It will suffice my needs, Wendy," said Neritos. "I would not foist my disfigured self upon you for more personal repayment. So a sitting is my request."
"Very well," she said. "I will pose for you to sculpt, though I do not know how."
He laughed. "You don't know how to simply sit and be beautiful?" he asked. "I find that to be a bald lie, Wendy, for you're beautiful even as you lie in hurt."
"You flatter me, sir," said Wendy. "But, why do you say disfigured?"
He looked at her from beneath the hood. "I would only show you if you insisted," he said.
Wendy thought for a moment. "I understand," she said.
The day passed slowly. Neritos fed her, by spoon, from a bowl of broth. She mostly laid there thinking as he was out of the room much of the time.
"Good morrow," said Neritos the next day as she awoke. He was holding a bucket and cloth. "Time for your bath," he said.
She smiled up at him. "Good morning," she replied. "You said I may be fit to rise today."
He nodded at her. "I did," he confirmed. "You wish to try?"
Wendy lifted her head. The pain was less now, but still strong. She sat up, lifting the coverlet, then swung her slender legs from the bed to the cool stones of the floor. A stretch overcame her, from days of idleness. She slowly stretched herself, utterly unconscious of the man watching her.
With a start, she remembered him, she turned, lowering her arms before her exposed breasts. He had been watching her intently. "May I have my shirt?" she asked.
He tore his eyes from her, with obvious effort and walked to a shelf. He handed her the shirt, folded and laundered. "I didn't mean to stare," he said. "You're form is flawless, and I wanted to memorize the muscles."
She blushed under the compliment. "Flawless, I seriously doubt," said Wendy, giving him a smile.
Neritos' voice grew mockingly stern. "Am I not the sculptor?" he asked.
"Yes," confirmed Wendy.
He looked down at her body as she draped the shirt over herself. "Then I would like to reserve the right to call you beautiful."
Wendy smiled at him, another flush of pink rising in her cheeks. "You're very sweet, Neritos," she said. "One might wonder if you don't have ulterior motives."
"Only those most men have, Wendy," he said. "But I wish to sculpt you more than lie with you."
A wicked grin formed on her generous lips. "I'm not sure that's truly a complement," she said.
Neritos held out a hand. She noted scarring on his wrist as the sleeve moved up from the extended hand. "Is that your disfigurement that you spoke of?" she asked. "You were burned."
The man nodded. "Yes, I was burned, by magical fire," he said. "It cannot be simply mended."
"I'm sorry," said Wendy. "I will not pry further."
The man stood up and went to the shelf again. "You have hunger, I am certain," he said. "Do you like meat pie?"
Wendy nodded, ignoring the flash of pain that motion sent forth. "I love meat pie," she said. She noted that the room was nearly devoid of furnishings, except the bed. A small table and a single chair were the only other items in here, save the few small shelves on the opposite wall.
He led her from the room to an adjoining chamber. There was a small table here, too, with two chairs. He helpfully sat her in one and left the room by another doorway. A moment later, he returned with a steaming pie and platters, as well as two-tined forks. Wine was already sitting on the table, with two wooden cups.
The meat pie was excellent, she declared happily as she ate. He simply smiled from within his hood and watched her. It was a bit disconcerting for Wendy, to be observed so closely in all that she did.
"I would like to see your other works," said Wendy.
"Of course," replied Neritos, "I will give you a tour of my gallery when you have finished eating."
Wendy ate heartily, being very hungry and without real food for six days. She ate over half the pie, while Neritos picked at a single piece, without eating more than two or three bites.
They rose from the table, and Neritos cleared up the dishes. He refilled the wine cups and handed one to Wendy. Then he escorted her through several corridors to a long, vaulted chamber with alcoves on either side. Within each of those alcoves was a statue of a woman.
Wendy was stunned at the perfection of the sculptures. Each was flawless in its execution. The women were all beautiful. They were nude, which surprised her not in the least, but they were also amazing to behold. The stone they were carved of varied, some marble, some granite, and other stones she did not recognize.
Some of the poses made her blush slightly, as they were rather erotic, the women giving looks of lust and longing, and posed in wanton angles. She sighed as she looked at one. "She makes even me want her," said Wendy, turning to smile at Neritos. "Did you use models for all of them?"
"No," said Neritos, shaking his head. "You will be the first."
They had come to the end of the long rows of statues, and there, before them, stood a massive block of almost purely white marble. Incredibly faint blue veins lay in it, barely to be seen, even up close.
"Will this become me?" asked Wendy, stroking the smooth side of the stone with her fingertips. It was cold, and ultimately smooth.
Neritos paused for a long moment, something had bothered him, she knew. "Yes," he said. "That will become you."
"When do we start?" asked Wendy, suddenly rather eager to see herself carven of stone.
The faint smile formed inside the dark hood. "Whenever you wish to begin sitting. It will take several hours, I wish to warn you."
Wendy looked at a relatively well-lit area near the block. "Over there?" she asked.
Neritos nodded. She walked to that area and began untying the clasps that held her shirt shut. "Nude, as the others?"
As she removed the shirt, he said, "Yes, please."
"How should I pose?" she asked.
His smile grew forced. "As if you wanted me," he said.
Wendy blinked. "I'm not sure I know how to do that," she said.
"You've never desired a man before?" asked Neritos.
"I've never seen myself doing it," replied Wendy. "I fear I will look foolish." A bright red rose to her cheeks and she covered her eyes. "I'm sorry."
He walked up and sat beside her. "Try to pretend to desire me," he said. "Or anyone else for that matter."
"I've never been much of an actress," said Wendy. "Can you not simply make it up, as you did those others, they are perfect."
He shook his head. "No," he said, with a tone of finality. "It has to be your expression of lust, or it won't be right."
"Kiss me," said Wendy, with startling suddenness.
She could almost feel the stunned expression on his face. "What?" he asked.
"I said, kiss me," she repeated. "You want me to look lustful, then give me cause."
"I. I cannot do that," said Neritos. "We agreed, only the posing."
A broad smile formed on Wendy's lips. "This is part of the posing," she said. "I cannot lust without cause, at least a little cause. Now, kiss me, else you will have to sculpt a consternated Wendy."
He led her to a low bench near the bright area and sat her upon it. Taking a seat beside her, he turned toward her.
"You'll have to lower your cowl," she said.
He shook his head. "No," he said.
"I will close my eyes, if that suits you," said Wendy. "But I refuse to feel like I am kissing death."
He chuckled at that. "You may well prefer his blessing kiss than to receive mine," said Neritos. "Very well, close your eyes."
She closed her eyes, and turned toward him, lifting her head upward a little.
He drew very close to her, she could feel the warmth of his skin almost touching hers. Then she felt his lips touch hers. They were soft and supple, and she liked the feel of them. A small moan escaped her as they pressed more firmly together. One of her hands moved to his cheek, touching it gently. It was smooth, but oddly textured. He had been burned badly, she thought.
He fingertips moved back, and felt where his ear should be, and there was only a stub of an ear there, the barest hint. She pushed her tongue toward him, and parted his lips with it. He opened his mouth slightly and Wendy moved her tongue inside.
The back of his head was equally scarred, her fingertips told her. The mottled texture and lack of hair attesting to the horrific scars that he must bear. Surprisingly, even for her, she did not feel disgust, though, only a bit of pity.
His tongue now explored her mouth, and she sucked gently upon it, welcoming him. His fingers were now touching her face, they touched with a obvious purpose, though, and they explored every tiny curve, and crease. They pressed firmly here, and brushed lightly there. They were truly memorizing her, and the muscles beneath. They even brushed over her eyelids, stroking her long lashes.
She lifted his hood, and pulled it over his head again, even as they still kissed, then she pulled back.
Wendy grinned up at his darkened cowl. "Well, that was enlightening," she said, rather breathlessly.
He nodded, choosing to not speak at all. "I was unsure whether to let you touch my head," he said.
Her grin softened to a gentle smile. "I'm glad you did," she said.
"I think I am too," he replied.
"Does it help to touch my face?" she asked.
Neritos nodded. "I know now how your muscles work when you move your features in various ways," he said. He blinked inside his hood for a moment, then asked, "Can you look lustful now?"
Wendy nodded. "I can at least try now," she said. "Though you'll need to encourage me, yet, I think."
She rose and he watched her nude form move to the light again. He watched her muscles play beneath her skin. Wendy never felt so - looked at - before in her life. "How did you come to be mage-burned," she asked as she turned to face him. He was approaching the stone.
"It was my own doing, Wendy," he said. "I am an elementalist." His hands dipped into the stone as if it were water. Ripples flowed out across the marble, causing it to waver in Wendy's vision.