The Strix [Bag of Tricks 1]
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by Katalina Leon, Amber Skyze
Category: Erotica/Paranormal Erotica/Fantasy
Description: Genre: Vampire Paranormal
A cursed amber amulet unearthed in Pompeii flings Arcona into a past life of witchcraft, bloodshed, revenge, and sexual slavery to the cruel Master of a gladiatorial school. This violent parallel world is populated with "Slayers," blood-drinking immortals devoted to the gods of war and mayhem.
As a Strix, or malignant witch, Arcona once used sex and blood rituals to create a race of immortal warriors to unleash on Rome. Now it's time to pay.
The gladiator Tyr was one desperately lonely lover she betrayed. Against his will, she turned him into Upir Likhyi, a foul vampire. For two millennia he's lived a grim existence as a Slayer, in constant sexual arousal yet denied release; now, he's pissed off and wants revenge. He kidnaps Arcona, planning to drink her dry and break the curse.
Along the way Arcona and Tyr relive their sexual slavery at the hands of Rome and blood sport in the arena, but the real magic is they forgive and fall in love.
Too bad another Slayer wants them dead.
Publisher's Note: This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language, and material that some readers may find objectionable: anal play/intercourse, dubious consent, female/female sexual practices.
eBook Publisher: Loose Id, LLC, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [372 KB]
Reading time: 238-334 min.
"Are you familiar with the legend of the Strix?"
"No." Arcona shook her head, noting that the amulet was warming almost too quickly in her cool palm.
"You won't find this myth in many books; few know or speak of the Strix. The Strix was a compilation of all ancient Rome's guilty fears about the so-called barbarians they enslaved, punished, and brought under their own roofs as domestics, lovers, and lethal entertainment. The Strix combined fearful barbarian lore and Roman superstitions in a single horrific creature that traveled the night as a grotesque bird of prey, sucking the blood from innocent people and turning them against Rome.
"The Strix might start life as a worshipper of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and necromancy. She could be born Roman or Celtic and work as a healer, witch, or midwife, but somewhere along the way, hatred and the need for revenge against the oppressor corrupted the witch's capacity for doing good. Rage and destruction took the place of healing acts. Stray witches made bargains with dark forces in exchange for the power to grant invincibility in battle to others, who in turn would walk the earth in violent wrath."
Arcona grimaced. "The Strix sounds absolutely repulsive."
"She isn't, and by the way the Strix is always a she. The essence of Venus imbued the Strix with the power to seduce and sexually torment any young man she approached. She sought out strong, battle-worthy men. Her victims were powerless to refuse. At the climax of the sexual act, she'd drink their blood and send them into a violent rage. During these unnatural couplings, rarely but sometimes a male, Upir Likhyi, was created."
Arcona was almost afraid to ask. "What's an Upir Likhyi?" She struggled to pronounce the unwieldy words.
"It's an old pagan Baltic term for wicked or foul vampire. It is a revenant, or undead soul, that seeks the thrill of blood sport and warfare. In ancient times many were recruited to secretly serve Mars."
A shiver trembled up her spine. "We certainly don't need any more of those violent, bloodsucking sorts hanging around, that's for sure." She laughed with nervous self-consciousness until she noticed Dame Bishop's serious face. It was apparent she did not share the dismissive attitude.
Arcona struggled to compose herself. "I don't mean to sound so disrespectful, because I love mythology too. It's had a huge influence over human history, but myths are just a way to explain human desires and behavior. I'm a bit puzzled that you're talking about the Strix as if it's a real entity."
Dame Bishop blanched. "It is a real entity. Make no mistake; every myth carries a grain of truth within. There are realms loosely tethered to this one far stranger than anything you can imagine. To say these realms are less real than ours is to profess the Earth is flat. It is a statement only the ignorant can speak freely."
"I'm sorry." Damn, she really put her foot in it. Arcona gently lowered the amulet back into its box. "Thank you for sharing this with me. It's fascinating."
She gazed at the skeletal bronze birds and strange craftsmanship one last time. "How exactly did you come across this? A rare artifact of this age seems like it should be safely stashed in a museum."
"I agree." Dame Bishop's expression brightened. "Some associates of mine at the Universita di Roma know my interest in such things and were kind enough to allow me to examine the amulet."
"I'm familiar with the University of Rome! My ex-husband once taught there. Who are your contacts; perhaps I know them?"
"I highly doubt it." Dame Bishop's mouth drew tense. "My colleagues are very private people." Her gaze dropped toward the amulet. "Tomorrow it's headed to the Smithsonian in an armored car. I just wanted to share it with one last soul before it continued on its journey to lie locked away in some sterile vault until the curators can figure out what to do with it."
A heightened gleam shone in Dame Bishop's eyes as she lifted the amulet from the box and held it toward Arcona. "Why don't you try it on? Just to see what it feels like." A sly smile crossed her lips. "This is a bit of living history. You may never get an opportunity like this again."
Something about the amber riveted Arcona's attention. The center of the amulet was translucent and glowed like a fiery ember. Against her better judgment about carelessly handling antiquities and possibly ill-gotten property, she reached for the leather thong and looped it around her neck.
The amulet hung heavy and prominent atop her breasts. Arcona glanced downward. This was a big, bold piece of ornamentation obviously meant to immediately identify its wearer as a witch who had wandered over to the dark side.
A loud knock pounded on the front door of the shop.
"Excuse me." Dame Bishop pulled the curtain to the back room aside. "Let me see who's at the door."
Arcona was left alone in the back room to gaze down at the amulet and decided that in spite of the somewhat disturbing bronze motifs it was actually very beautiful and must have made a strong impression in its day.
The warm, subtle scent of amber resin reached her nose. She sniffed again in disbelief, knowing there was no way this ancient piece of fossilized amber could possibly be emitting a scent.
She inhaled the mystery fragrance, and sure enough, the rich scent of earthy amber was filling the air. She glanced around curious to know if there was anything near that could possibly be the source of the aroma and saw nothing she could hold to account.
She glanced toward the curtain. What was Dame Bishop up to? She didn't hear anything going on in the front of the shop. All was silent.
She turned to leave the back room, and her knees buckled. A moment of extreme dizziness knocked her off balance and sent her flailing toward the dusty countertop in a scrambling attempt to keep from falling to the floor.
She blinked in shock as she doubled over the countertop. God, it was getting warm in here. Her skin felt burning hot. She gasped and tugged her coat away from her body, but it didn't help.
A terrifying sensation of thousands of vicious needle jabs prickled the tender soles of her feet and spread upward. She struggled to kick her tall leather boots free of her feet but couldn't. The burning sensations licked higher up her legs. She gulped air, fighting rising panic. Her skin felt crispy as if it were being cooked. The pain escalated until it was unendurable. "Help!"
The curtain of the back room was thrown open, and Dame Bishop appeared. "What's wrong, dear?"
Arcona pulled herself upright. Suddenly nothing was wrong, except the sleeves of her trench coat were covered in dust up to the elbows from writhing against the countertop. The horrid burning sensation left as swiftly as it had arrived. "Dear God, that was weird. For a moment it felt like I was on fire."
"Really?" Dame Bishop didn't look the least bit surprised.
"Really. I think this amulet is cursed. Wearing it feels awful."
"Cursed?" Dame Bishop balked. "I thought you were a skeptic?"
"I'm still a skeptic, but I'm telling you there is something unwholesome about this piece of jewelry. Perhaps it should be kept in a sterile museum vault."
"Hold on a minute. Don't be so quick to judge." Dame Bishop wagged an admonishing finger in the air. "You were the one who was burning. Maybe we should concentrate on that."
"Are you implying that what just happened to me was my fault? I put the amulet on and immediately felt like I was on fire. That never happens to me. Does that sort of thing happen to you? It's kind of weird. I think I'm entitled to blame the amulet." She half listened to herself, cringing at the childish tone of her argument.
Arcona took told of the leather thong and tried to yank the amulet over her head, but it tangled in her long auburn hair. She grasped the bronze setting and tried to untangle the thong. The setting hooked onto her sweater and clung like a bur. "Look at this thing!" She tugged at the amulet in exasperation. "It's like an octopus grapping me."
"Leave it alone," Dame Bishop said tersely. "Don't provoke it."
"What?" Arcona frowned. "I want it off."
"It's not coming off, at least not until it's ready."
"No way." Arcona grabbed the thong and gave it a sharp upward yank. A hellish burning sensation reminiscent of having cooked skin peeled from her bones racked her. "Oh my God!" she wailed.
She let go of the amulet, and the pain stopped in an instant.
Dame Bishop's brow creased with serious concern.
"You didn't know this would happen, did you?" Arcona fought a rising sense of panic. "Please take it off me. I don't want it near me, and I'm afraid to touch it."
"I wouldn't dare." Dame Bishop took a cautious step backward. "I can't take it off you. You're the only one who can free yourself."
"There must be something we can do? It hurts too much if I try to remove it, and I can't walk around wearing something the Smithsonian is waiting to receive. I'm supposed to be at the airport bright and early tomorrow morning! What can I do?"
"You're not leaving Salem with the amulet. That is unacceptable and cannot happen."
Arcona huffed. "I don't want your amulet. I'd love to take it off and hand it back to you; please just tell me how to do it."
"It's not my amulet. I'm just a caretaker." Dame Bishop's gaze was piercing as she spoke calmly. "You're the only one who knows how to break the curse. I'm not the Strix--you are."
"Whoa, wait a minute, this is nonsense. Is this a Halloween joke?" Arcona glanced around. "Is this being filmed? Are you having fun jerking a tourist around? Because I'm not enjoying it. Whatever you've rigged up to this amulet is causing real pain. If this is a prank, it's getting abusive."
Dame Bishop gently shook her head. "I'm not doing anything to exploit or harm you; I swear it. It hurts because you're in the process of remembering your most regretful deeds. Take note that you came to me. I saw you were in need, but I let you go, and you quickly returned to the shop of your own volition."
"I was lost."
"Yes, you were, but a clear path has opened to you, and I heartily encourage you to use this brief opportunity on the eve of All Souls' Day to walk the path and set your wrong deeds right."
Arcona's temper and deepest fears flared. "I don't know what you're talking about. What is it exactly that you think I've done? I know I'm not perfect, but honestly my misdeeds in this life have been petty. I have no idea how you would know any of this, but if you're talking about the potato I shoved in Principal Ross's tailpipe in middle school, I apologized profusely for that. I had no idea a potato could do that kind of damage to a car, a plank fence, or a plate-glass window."
Dame Bishop closed her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her face, almost as if she were absorbed in prayer. "I'm not talking about projectile potatoes, and I'm not referring to this life. I'm talking about the deeds of the past that have come full circle."
A sickening and sad feeling gripped her. "I just want to leave. Please tell me how to safely get this amulet back in the box so I can go back to my hotel," she pleaded.
"I can't tell you how to free yourself from the amulet because I don't know the secrets of the Strix."
Hearing Dame Bishop pronounce her a Strix caused a wave of melancholy to wash over her. At that moment Arcona wanted to go home so badly, though her little bungalow near the beach was practically empty and there was nothing waiting for her there, not even a pet. "How do I know if any of this is true? I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation, let alone any of the rest of this wild tale."
"Everything in the universe recycles itself. You can see it with your own eyes. A human being is a single soul with many facets that returns to life again and again to polish itself. Would you like a chance to look back at one of those facets?"
"Can you do that?" Arcona's mood lifted. "Will it help?"
Dame Bishop motioned for Arcona to follow her into the front of the shop. "It might help to know what you're dealing with."
They returned to the cozy, firelit shop. Dame Bishop walked toward the front window and tugged the velvet curtain aside. A blaring red sunset glowed in the west. "It's already nightfall." She bent forward and retrieved a Romanesque bronze dagger from the front window display and turned with the polished blade clutched in her hand.
Arcona gazed warily at the elegant but dangerous-looking blade pointed at her. "What are you going to do with that?"
"We are going to do some scrying, my dear." Dame Bishop closed the curtains and invited Arcona to sit at a small table.
"I don't know what that is."
"Scrying is the ancient art of divination. Using any reflective surface, one can look forward or back in time and catch a glimpse of the eternal moment. Some scryers sprinkle ashes on water, some read scattered tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, and of course a crystal ball is a classic scrying tool. I prefer to match my reflective surfaces with my clients."
"Am I your client?" Arcona dreaded debt or further entanglement with this strange woman. "What am I going to owe for this?"
Dame Bishop held a dismissive palm to the air. "I'll be repaid; don't worry about it."
Arcona pulled a ladder-backed chair from the table and sat. She remembered the disruptive knock at the front door and wondered if she could or should trust Dame Bishop. This whole thing had gotten weird fast. "Who was here earlier?"
"It was a mistake." Dame Bishop sat opposite Arcona and placed the dagger in the middle of the table. "It was an agitated young man who mistook my shop for the bar next door."
"Are people accustomed to knocking on bar doors in Salem? It doesn't sound very welcoming or good for business."
Dame Bishop picked a long wooden match from its box and struck it against the side. A tall flame flared blue before dying down to a pale yellow flicker. She lit a drippy-looking tallow candle jammed into a brass holder. The candle flared to life, accompanied by a delicate swirl of black smoke. "Next door is a very unusual bar; Slayers is not open to the public. It's a private affair and more of a closed club."
"A gentlemen's club?" Arcona muttered as she stared at the faint trace of black smoke twisting in the air.
"Yes and no. It's not what you're thinking. Slayers is an unusual sort of gentlemen's club." Dame Bishop picked up the dagger and handed it to Arcona. "If you're curious about what goes on inside Slayers, I'm sure you'd be welcome." A broad smile dimpled her pretty face. "Hold the blade to eye level, please."
Arcona raised the dagger in front of her. The hilt was richly tooled with a wolf's-head motif embedded with garnets that resembled tiny droplets of blood. The polished bronze blade dully reflected her wind-tousled auburn hair and wide catlike green eyes, but other than those striking features she looked rather pale and plain.
"What do you see?" Dame Bishop's voice carried a touch of confrontation.
She smirked at her reflection with a rising sense of discomfort. "Nothing special."
"That's not how another might see you." Dame Bishop reached forward, took the dagger from her hands, and tipped the blade over the smoldering candle. The fatty candle wax sputtered and released a steady plume of sinuous black smoke spiraling around the blade. It was almost hypnotic to watch the twisting stream of smoke flow upward.
Arcona found her thoughts turning inward as she gazed at the dagger. What kind of man would wield a blade like that?
Arcona closed her eyes as a vivid image complete with extreme sensory details filled her mind. The zealous roar of a crazed crowd rang in her ears.
The crowd screamed condemnations and hurled garbled curses into the air. The hateful rage that rang in a thousand united voices curdled her blood.
Where was she? The dank, dark passageway where she stood was filthy and reeked of butchery and death. The man standing beside her wept in somber silence. Another retched and pissed down his leg, adding to the misery of the place. Her knees trembled. A horn blew a loud, shrill note.
The ominous clatter of a hand-cranked lift thumped behind her. She turned just as an iron cage packed with hissing leopards appeared at the top of the lift. An attendant opened the cage and cracked a whip in the air.
The terrified leopards bolted past the bars, down the passageway, and into the sunlit arena beyond. The leopards were met with hysterical screams of approval. The startled animals were quick to slink toward the perimeters of the arena in an attempt to hide, but a hail of arrows aimed at the surprised leopards drove the fierce cats away from the walls and brought the cheering crowd to its feet.
The leopards that escaped the initial volley of arrows pounced on the fallen and wounded men already lying in the sand and the screaming started in earnest.
The man standing beside her quaked and muttered, "We're going to die."
"Not me." She was surprised to hear the rumble of a deep male voice coming from her lips. "I'm already dead."
"Look at this." Dame Bishop interrupted the vision.
Arcona blinked and looked at the sooty blade of the dagger, feeling a moment of complete disorientation. What the hell was that about?
"Do you see it?" Dame Bishop inquired with a sweet tone.
Arcona nodded. The smoke clung to the bronze blade in uneven spiraling patterns. One of the sooty swirls was the exact semblance a snake, an Ouroboros, biting its own tail. "Do you mean the circular whirl?"
"Yes. Where were your thoughts just now? You looked far away."
"I don't really know," she lied.
"I think the scrying marks are trying to tell you some aspect of yourself has come full circle." Dame Bishop paused. "Are you sure you don't know where your thoughts took you? For a moment I thought I caught a whiff of blood."
Arcona started. "You saw what I saw?"
Dame Bishop shook her head. "No, not quite. The vision was strictly for you. I was just eavesdropping."
"What I saw," she softly admitted, "had nothing at all to do with the amulet. I can't possibly see how this was helpful to my current situation. In fact it seemed like some sort of delusional nightmare, and on top of it all, I was seeing the world through the eyes of a man."
"Oh my, that is unusual." Dame Bishop looked delighted with this odd bit of information. "Can you tell me more? Any details would be helpful."
The stench of death immediately came to mind along with blood-clotted sand and the piteous screams of animal and man. Dear God, had she ever willingly promoted or participated in anything so horrible? "I'm sorry I don't remember any more," she lied.
"Are you sure?" Dame Bishop glanced at her sideways. "You look a bit remorseful."
"It's disturbing." She shifted uneasily. "And I'm still not clear about what's going on and how much of this I should believe."
"Can I tell you something?" Dame Bishop set the dagger on the tabletop. "I scry for a living. It's my service to the community. I see and hear sad stories every day. When I sit down with someone, I know one of two things is going to happen. The first, which is far more common, is that a difficult situation is raised where a person has been traumatized, betrayed, or terribly wronged.
"For a number of reasons it's much easier to accept the role of the victim. The people I perform scryings for readily embrace the pain of the past that was inflicted on them by others. For most people, believing they were victims causes no conflict. They expect to be the victim."
Tension clutched Arcona's gut. "And the second group?"
"The second group has different issues. They tend to resist the truth. As you might suspect it's not easy to shoulder responsibility for being the perpetrator."
"Oh." The breath whistled out of her. A sinking guilty feeling settled over her. "Are we done?" She desperately needed to get out of here and breathe fresh air.
The shop's phone rang.
She flinched. The loud ringtone was unnerving.
Dame Bishop bolted upright from the chair. "Excuse me. I'm expecting an important call." She blew out the candle and hurried across the floor toward an old-fashioned telephone with a tangled extension cord. She lifted the mouthpiece off the rocker. "Hello, Silver Moon Scrying Shoppe." She pressed the phone to her ear as a somber expression crossed her face. "Yes, that's true..."
Arcona watched the candle smolder until finally the tiny red ember at the top of the wick flickered out and the blackened wick curled forward as it cooled. Only the faintest scent of smoke hung in the air. She couldn't resist dipping a finger in a molten puddle of wax. The hot wax scorched her fingertip and instantly hardened and clung like a tiny cap.
"Yes." Dame Bishop sounded concerned. "How would that be helpful? You do realize I've sworn to harm none..." She turned her back on Arcona and whispered inaudible words into the phone.
Arcona took hold of the amulet and decided to see if she could possibly free herself from the invasive object while Dame Bishop was distracted. She tugged at the thong, but the bronze setting grabbed at her sweater and held tight. She took direct hold of the setting and jerked it away from her.
A searing rush of heat, as if someone had poured boiling water across her chest, caused an explosion of pain. "Ooww!" She instantly released the amulet.
"Stop that foolishness." Dame Bishop swung toward her. "You can't simply lift the amulet over your head and be done with it. If the amulet has chosen you, it's because it has an important lesson to teach. You can't cheat your way out of it."
"This is crazy." Arcona slapped the tabletop as she stood. "I didn't ask for any of this. I'm leaving."
Dame Bishop covered the phone with her palm. "Where are you going?"
"My hotel, the airport, home..."
"No, you can't leave with the amulet. It's too valuable. You'll have to stay while we figure things out."
Her spine stiffened. "I don't have to do anything. From my point of view, you pushed the amulet on me and caused the problem. When you figure out how to get it off me without causing pain, the Smithsonian can keep it, but for now I'm leaving."
"Wait!" Dame Bishop pointed her finger in the air and twirled it in a wide circle like an invisible lasso. "So long as you wear the amulet, I forbid you to leave Salem!"
"What?" Arcona's jaw dropped at the theatrics. "You can't do that."
"I just did." Dame Bishop returned to her phone caller and whispered, "I'll be there in a few minutes." She hung up the phone and addressed Arcona with a firm, calm voice. "I must leave the shop. I have a pressing errand I cannot avoid. It will take about an hour, perhaps a little longer. I'll be back as soon as I can with some supper. We'll deal with the amulet then."
Dame Bishop reached for a red-hooded cloak hanging from a brass hook behind the front counter and gracefully glided into it. She tugged on a pair of tight black gloves and grabbed a velvet purse, strode toward the front door, pulled the curtain aside, and drew the latch. "Lock the door behind me," she commanded. "Open the door for no one but me."
Arcona hurried to join her. "You're going to walk away, and you expect me to stay?"
"Yep." Dame Bishop gently pushed Arcona back into the shop and closed the front door in her face. She pantomimed locking the door from beyond the window. The wind furiously whipped her red cape into the air as she turned and walked away.
Arcona drew the latch on the door and let the curtain fall into place. "Too bad for you, Dame Bishop," she mumbled. "I have no idea how you'll get in the front door, since I'll be leaving through the back."
She rushed through the back room, stepped past the stuffed goat, and pressed the release bar on the emergency exit. The door swung open, and she strode outside the shop.
A blast of cold wind swirled around her legs as she peered into an unlit alleyway. Her eyes strained to adjust to the blackness. Damn, when did it get so dark? The temperature had dropped too. She let go of the door handle to draw her coat tightly around her.
The brisk wind grabbed the back door of the shop and slammed it shut. The door locked behind her with a distinct click, and she was left stranded in a very dark alley.
She glanced up and down the alley, seeing only brick walls, wind-scuttled leaves, and shadowy corners, but no clear opening facing a street.
"Terrific," she grumbled. It was going to be a tense, spooky walk in whichever direction she chose, and she still had no idea where she was. She stood frozen on the back step, wondering what to do.
"You look lost." A deep male voice purred beside her.
She jolted when she realized a tall man with a broad build was standing in the shadows an arm's length away.