If you follow the gutters through RhyDin, they lead southward, trailing down into the most wretched part of the town … silent and fetid by day, the sputtering roars of motorcycle engines echo through the night, and bodies rot in the alleys … the cobbled streets are blood-stained and reek of cheap rotgut … the buildings hang haggardly on their frames, like aged and weary harlots, painted many times over to mask their age, but clutching desperately, embarrassingly, at the last vestiges of glory before falling away into decay…

On one corner, the gas lamp lighting the street was knocked over long ago, but burning through the hazy darkness, deceptively welcoming, its green and blue light casting eerie shadows over the face of a body laying in the doorframe, is a garish, glowing sign … "Turk's Tattoo Pit" …

With the exception of the small, roped-off area where the chairs sit side-by-side, next to a table covered with ink bottles and odd-looking needles, every surface in the shop is covered with grime and rust … the walls are papered with layered, peeling sheets of vellum displaying faded drawings, from convoluted mandalas to mythical creatures, in a rainbow of tawdry color. Along the length of one wall is a glass tank … the glass is smudged, but visible through the filth are the writhing figures of several large boa constrictors, a few the length of a man's body, and some longer. One of the smaller ones curls upward, its head seeking the light, its scaly underside pressed against the glass, and hangs there a moment before falling away, landing in a tangle with its companions.

Turk, the shop's proprietor, spins slowly in his creaking barber-style chair, one of two in the place. The tattoo artist is a burly man, with a long, gnarled beard, but a gleaming pate, in a leather jerkin that reveals his arms, the natural color of his skin no longer recognizable beneath the faded colors and designs there. He gives a familiar nod, the Maori markings across his nose and cheeks contorting in a grim smile.

"So…," Turk wheezes, heaving his frame from the chair with a grunt, "…ready to finish those collars?"

Brand X.

"Submit to the present evil, lest a greater one befall you."
Phaedrus, Book 1; Fable 2, 31

"Life is what you make of it, Turk," Schönen chuckled, through a mouthful of grapes.

"Bah... life is a bleedin' dirty dung heap," was the burly tattoo artist's retort, each word punctuated by a puff of thick cigar smoke and the flapping of his massive jowls. "Nothin' bu' misery."

Schönen just shook her head and swivelled in her creaky barber chair, reaching for another handful of fruit from the bowl between them. At that moment, the Maori markings dotting and outlining the contours of her partner's shaved head resembled nothing so much as a target, and with a moment's thoughtful precision, she took aim and plinked one of the grapes against the side of his skull.

Turk's response was unexpected - he simply snarled at her and lifted his massive bulk from his own protesting chair, pushing away and clomping into the back room to smoke his cigars in peace.

Schönen slumped back into her seat with a sigh. Business hadn't been good at Turk's for some time now. The local slavers had all but forgotten about the place, it seemed, and since Kain Blake had disappeared, there was no money coming in from other avenues. Even for Turk's charmed tattoos, the market in Rhy'Din had seemed to dry up, overnight... but she was hoping to change all that, to bring new life to a waning industry. Of course, even if she didn't succeed, what little work she had there was certainly worth the wait...

As though on cue, the lopsided bell over the doorway suddenly rang out the arrival of a new customer. Swinging around in her chair and lacing her fingertips over her slender midriff, she made a quick study of the pair of visitors.

One was a slaver, slim and well-groomed, with a casual, aristocratic air about him that bespoke an unwillingness to get his own hands dirty. This was a man who was accustomed to having things done for him, but she could read from his slender, gem-laden fingertips and the lazy blinking of his eyes that it was only the privelege of wealth that gave him such authority, as he bore no true sense of command.

His occupation, in fact, was only given away by the chain he held in one hand, and the frail creature at the end of it. It was a delicate young boy, with ringlets of angelic gold and somewhat androgynous features, but attired in all that might mark him as a grown man - leather chaps, black motorcycle boots that hugged his calves, and a sleeveless shirt of what appeared to be neoprene, judging by its spongy semi-gloss. He stood just behind his master, hands clasped at his back, his chin lifted proudly to display the circlet of riveted platinum that bound his neck.

Though she could not see his eyes, Schönen sensed some measure of defiance in the boy, some refusal to let his spirit be broken that both irritated and intrigued her. With a subtle smirk, she pushed out of her chair and wound across the room towards them.

"What can I do for you today?" she asked, addressing the gentleman slaver with a purr as smooth as curdled cream. "Tattoo? Piercing?"

With an arrogant sniff, the man withdrew a lace handkerchief from his inside breast pocket and began to dab at his temple, as though the natural filth of Turk's shop were too much for him to bear, or perhaps the long trip down here, through the worst of Rhy'Din's slums, had done him in. The gesture, no matter how understandable, was so prissy that it made her stomach curl and roil with disgust.

She waited for a long moment, her sneer growing increasingly difficult to hide as she perused the gentleman's trappings of velvet and silk, until, at long last, he broke the silence.

"I ... I understand that you also do ... brandings?"

Schönen's attention was suddenly riveted, and a slow grin began to spread across her doll-like features.

The man, for all his vile qualities, had just redeemed himself.


Following a succulent pause, Schönen turned towards one of the display cases at the front of the shop, her excitement barely contained beneath a facade of regal calm.

"Right over here," she chirped, thrumming her fingertips along the top of the glass. "These are some of my recent designs, although, if you want something custom, it'll take a few days... "

"A few days?" the gentleman gasped, his features drawing down into a long scowl.

"Yes, a few days." Suddenly, the bliss was gone again from her demeanor. She coiled back, like a cobra preparing to strike, and the rapping against the glass took on an impatient tone. "It takes time to cut these patterns..."

"Oh, I didn't realize," he sniffed, and again, that lace handkerchief rose to his temple.

Of course you didn't, you ignorant fop, she muttered inwardly. Doing her best to maintain a pleasant composure, she waved her hand aside, to usher him towards the array of brands. Beneath the pane of glass, spread out on a bed of rich mahogany velvet, were myriad intricate designs - suns and moons, tribal thorns and chains, angels' wings and spider webs - all summoned to life from the same soulless galvanized steel.

Then, turning curtly on one heel, she swept towards the back room, slapping aside a heavy velvet curtain, and calling over her shoulder as she went, "Take a look at what I've got there, and let me know what you think."

Moments later, that curtain was parted again, by the nose of a stainless steel examination table, visibly cold and almost painfully sterile, and the clicking of her heels was overwhelmed by the rattle of a set of old wheels, badly in need of oil and tightening. As it creaked to a stop, her eyes strayed towards the slave boy, who, for the first time, was showing a sign of alarm - oh, his features were as solemn as ever they had been, but a tiny droplet of perspiration was beaded at the side of his forehead... and the room temperature of the shop was a reflection of the early autumn chill outside...

Amusement haunted her features, only to be erased an instant later, as her imperious customer jabbed his fingertip against the top of the glass.

"I like this one... the prickly stem thing..."

"Thorns," she muttered, her lips pressed tight to hold back the snarl that was fighting to get out. "They're thorns."

"Ah, yes... of course..."

The gentleman discarded his prissy mannerisms long enough to strip his own slave from the waist down, while Schönen set about unlocking the cabinet. As she removed the tray containing the stylized vine, the movement caused the pattern to shift from its neat array, revealing that the thorns were actually comprised of over twenty unique pieces of shaped metal. It would take more than twenty strikes to the skin to complete this brand, but then, that was why Schönen's designs were so ornate... no sense in sparing any misery when the creation of such sinister beauty was at stake...

The shards of metal took their place at the corner of the examining table, just adjacent to another plate, this one containing a propane torch, and a wide assortment of tin snips and pliers, all arranged side by side according to length, like a set of doctor's instruments.

"Given any thought to where you want the brand placed?" she asked, with just a tinge of sarcasm lacing the saccharine of her voice. As she reached to the counter, to pluck at a box of latex gloves, her eyes again drifted towards the slave boy. From what she could tell, he did not have any previous brands, but she could only see his torso. Did he know what was coming? she wondered. Would some of that impudent coldness be shocked from his eyes when the first piece of white-hot steel plunged into his flesh?

"About his neck, like a collar... a permanent collar," chirped the gentleman in reply, obviously delighted with the idea, as though it were his own original concept.

With her back turned to him, she rolled her eyes, and a tiny sigh of annoyance was muffled by the (snap) of latex as she slipped the first glove on.

The human neck, particularly that of the human male, with its odd protuberances, is a landscape of curves and angles, with barely a level surface between them, and located just beneath the skin are a number of vital arteries, veins, and glands - all of which, combined, was bound to make the process both painful and dangerous.

"Would you put him on the table please? And be sure to strap him down," was her only comment, her delighted musings on the risk involved safely buried beneath the matter-of-factness of her manner.

A tug and a snap, and the ring on her right index finger was off, and nudged carefully to the back of the counter, to make way for the second glove.

As she turned back, the slave was already spread out, staring blankly up at the webbing of water marks on the ceiling, while his owner fumbled with untangling the nylon straps that hung from the table's underbelly. Amusement stole into Schönen's eyes once more as she watched, and while her gaze drifted from the bumbling master to the slave still maintaining a mask of detached serenity, she reached for the torch...


She pressed the ignition button...


And three pairs of eyes widened suddenly, two with shock and surprise, and the third with something akin to arousal...


Were it not for the setting, she might have been a doctor about to perform some illicit surgery, or perhaps a mechanic, about to do some body work...

She was in charge for the moment, at play on the fields of a slave's body, gifted with free rein at the behest of his owner, and as the propane torch hissed to life, spewing its white-blue heat an ominous three inches from the barrel, she took full advantage of the position, lowering the flame dangerously close to the man-child's chest, a move that caused the gentleman owner to swoon a bit with anxiety.

But the only reaction in the slave's eyes was a stern, determined freezing, as though he were denying the heat of the torch and focusing directly on the ceiling lights overhead.

This barely detectible defiance only spurred Schönen on, eliciting a grin of sinister relish, and from then on, her eyes were locked with his, their molten lava depths a reflection of the flame spurting in her grasp.

This, it was clear, would be no ordinary job, but rather a delectable war of wills, at which she had the clear advantage.

Tearing her gaze away for only a moment, she reached to pick up a pair of insulated pliers, and snap up the first piece of the puzzle in their wiry jaws. Her amber lenses were immediately snapped back to focus on the slave, to be met with a chilling stare.

Oh, more defiance! This was too much... the flames of laughter in her eyes only leaped higher, reflective of the gushing heat from the torch. It mattered very little that his opposition was so resolute - so long as she held his vision captive, he was fodder for her mind games. In fact, as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and this slave's determination insured that his fall would be absolute by the time they were done.

As she lowered the first piece of metal into the propane flame, the galvanized steel crackled and hissed, and perhaps she should not have performed the operation so close to the bare skin of his chest, but the sparks that leapt from the steel were only enough to jolt his skin to awareness... not enough, thankfully, to leave permanent marks that would ruin the overall composition of the design...

This first sliver of steel was one of the smaller pieces of the pattern, and as it bathed in the heavenly glow of propane warmth, its tenor shifted rapidly from shrill silver to sunburst orange, and then to phosphorescent white. Bear in mind that her eyes were still trained on his, and as she noted the ardent glow in her peripheral vision, those amber orbs slid to the side, guiding his own gaze towards the blazing hot metal. Like a puppy dog, he followed, but still, not one jot of emotion registered in his features.

With an abrupt click of the ignition switch, the flame blinked out of existence, swallowed back into the torch, and with just a moment's pause to judge the proper angle and placement, she lowered the white-hot steel to his neck.

The sizzling and popping of skin startled even her, but it was a delighted, childish sort of surprise, as though she had just come running out on Christmas morning to find her first bicycle waiting under the tree. She knew all too well the agony the boy must be going through. A glance to the brand on her own chest was evidence enough of that. But for her, the pain had been intoxicating, a rite of passage that she had embraced in all its divinity.

Evidently, this slave felt no such rapture. His eyes remained frozen, but as the barely discernable fingers of smoke rose before them, something of desperation lurked there, a silent scream of agony in the place of a body that was too terrified to move, for fear of causing the pain to shift.

The steel was left in place long enough for the sickening odor of singed flesh to hit the air, and then lifted away, to be discarded with a metallic ringing in a pan at her side. As the charred aroma swam before all of their noses, Schönen glanced up in time to see the gentleman pale, and shortly thereafter, the sound of rummaging was heard from the back room - apparently, the smell had reached Turk, and he was on his way to join in the party.

Meanwhile, the slave remained still, locked into place by either fear or renewed spirit, and though his body complied easily to the burning, he seemed to remain unyielding... but no matter... there were nineteen more pieces to go...

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