Finally, after days of preparation and waiting, he twisted the cap.
Greenish smoke hissed out of hidden apertures at the end of the reliquary, but didn’t act as smoke should; sliding to the floor in a sinuous stream, it coiled and rose like a rearing serpent, expanding and taking shape. Color blurred into the misty translucence, and finally the succubus emerged.
She tilted her head inquisitively to one side, darting a quick glance around the room before fixing her eyes on Shook. A sly smile tugged at one side of her mouth.
“Well. This is a—”
Her obedience was instant; if she resented it, no sign showed on her face. She simply watched him, her expression open and patient.
He kept her waiting. Plenty of time presently to explain her new situation; for now, he wanted to get a good look at his acquisition. Pacing around her in a slow circle, he did just that, from every angle.
The obviously inhuman touches were noted, analyzed and dismissed in moments. Spiny, bat-like wings sprang from her back; currently folded (squirreled away as they were in his basement room, they had no space to spread) they looked like they’d have a span of eight or nine feet once unfurled. That didn’t seem big enough to support her in flight—but then again, she wasn’t a purely physical creature. Physics only applied so far, probably. Her tail began just above the cleft of her buttocks, too wide at the base for him to encircle with his forefinger and thumb—he tested—tapering to a finger’s width before flaring out into a spade shape, just long enough to drag along the floor except that she kept the end curled upward.
There were subtler differences, too. Her hair fell to mid-back in waves, gathered up between her wings; appearing a simple yet lustrous black at first glance, he noted something shifty about its color upon closer inspection. As the light hit it just so, he could swear its highlights were a reddish purple, but the effect seemed to vanish as he tried to focus on it. Her skin, too, was like porcelain, and not in he sense that the comparison was usually used. It didn’t quite look like skin: milk-white, faintly glossy, and completely uniform in color, with no hints of blood beneath. Silky and soft to the touch, though. Her eyes were an exotic violet. He’d half expected slitted pupils or some such, but they were normal in that regard, except that they appeared distinctly crystalline in the way they caught and refracted the light, like bowls of carved amethyst.
Shook didn’t restrict himself to looking with his eyes—and why should he?—as he took in her more humanlike assets, which were plenty striking in their own right.
It was no surprise that she was stunningly lovely; succubi were just like that, everyone knew it. She had a gorgeous, heart-shaped face, with pouty lips and an impish little nose, but Shook had never found women’s faces to be among their more interesting features, provided they weren’t dog-like enough to put him out of the mood. The succubus wore a stained, torn dress that had originally been suited for a prostitute: low-cut, high-hemmed and backless (which accommodated her wings), giving him excellent access. He made a second circuit around her, taking in details visually, running his hand along her shoulders, down her arm, up the curve of her waist. Buxom, wasp-waisted, with generously curvy hips and long legs that practically undulated… She looked like a woman should, if the gods had intended the world to be fair. He cupped a hand around her breast, then slid it down to heft it from beneath, testing its weight. It was all her flesh, no hidden augmentations in that dress. She sighed softly and subtly arched her back, pressing herself into his hand, and he smiled.
Finally Shook stepped back, having come around to stand in front of her again.
“My name is Jeremiah Shook,” he said. “Also known as Thumper among the Thieves’ Guild. And you, Kheshiri, belong to me.” He bounced her reliquary in the palm of his hand, noting the way her eyes snapped to it. “You were…a gift. From someone intending to trip me up, figuring I’d come to grief trying to handle you. I’m an enforcer, you see, a man who lives by asserting his will physically. People who live by schemes are always thinking they’re smarter than me. Annoying as that is, I’ve come to enjoy the looks on their faces when they learn otherwise.”
She smiled at that, an expression of malicious delight, and he found himself warming up to her a bit.
“It wasn’t a bad idea,” he went on, “or wouldn’t have been fifty years ago. That’s the way it’s always been, after all: mundane people meddling with magic always came to sticky ends, right?” He smiled, slowly, and waggled the reliquary at her. “Well, that was then, and this is now. You’ll have noticed some of the modifications to this. The extra chain binds it to my life force; you’re not going to get out from under my sway by having it stolen or lost. That’s a commercially available enchantment, these days. Lots of people wanting better control over their bespelled heirloom doodads. For someone who knows the right back-alley enchanters to ask, it’s easy enough to have some of the safety features lifted—like the clause that breaks the enchantment when said life force is terminated, for example. I die, Kheshiri, and you’re the slave of a corpse. You go right back in the bottle and you fucking stay there—for eternity. It’s in your best interests to ensure that I don’t die. Also,” he added, smiling and tossing the reliquary from hand to hand, “my guy didn’t think it was smart to try modifying the spells on your leash, here, but apparently adding to them was child’s play. Hence the extra runed bands around the end, as you see. You will not lie to me; you will not harm me; you will not act against my wishes. Those aren’t orders, little girl, they are statements of the facts of your life, now. And here’s another one: I have not told you all the extra features I’ve added, nor will I. Only way you’ll find them is if you go poking around for ways to work against me—and believe me, I will know if that happens. Then, I’ll be annoyed.” He stepped forward and reached out to caress her cheek; keeping her eyes fixed on his, she leaned into his touch like a petted cat. “I see no reason we can’t get along perfectly well, Kheshiri. If I get annoyed, though, we—by which I mean you—will have a problem.” He let his hand fall, but held her gaze. “This is an order: you will remember your place, and show me the proper respect at all times. You are to address me as Master, or Sir, if we’re in public and don’t want to draw attention. Do you understand?”
She stared up at him through her lashes, her violet eyes limpid. Silence stretched out, and Shook felt fury beginning to grow in him. Already a challenge? He was going to have to— Then realization hit, and he had to smile. Well, well. It seemed she did take direction, after all.
“You may speak,” he amended.
“I understand, master,” Kheshiri said immediately. Her voice was delightful, a sulty alto. Just the kind he liked. So many fool women thought it was attractive to affect a childish, breathy timbre.
“Good girl,” he said condescendingly. “And as long as you stay a good girl, I’ll take good care of you. We’ll have plenty to do to keep your wits exercised. And you can bet I’ll be sure you stay fed.”
“I don’t need to eat,” she said, then blinked, and smiled. “Oh, did you mean…? That’s a misconception, master. We don’t need sex to live.” Tail waving behind her, she underwent a kind of slow-motion, full-body wriggle. “We just really, really like it. Who doesn’t?”
Shook laughed, chucking her gently under the chin. “I think I like you already. We have work, my dear: you were given to me for the purpose of finding and apprehending someone who’s caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people. Me, especially. We need to bring her in alive…but not necessarily unharmed. And who knows, maybe we’ll have time to have a little fun with her before handing her over.”
“That sounds delightful,” the demon purred, fluttering her eyelashes up at him.
“All that’s in the future, though,” he said, his voice growing rougher. He reached up to cup her face in both hands, then slid them slowly down her throat, over her upper chest, and squeezed her breasts, before lifting one again to the top of her head and using it to push her downward. “On your knees, bitch.”
Kheshiri giggled, dropping almost eagerly, and reached for his belt buckle without further prompting. Finally, a woman who knew her place without needing to be told, or kicking up a fuss about it.
He let out a long sigh and leaned his head back as she got to work, already modifying plans in the back of his mind. After dealing with Principia, he just might decide to keep this one. After all, it wasn’t every day you found the perfect woman.
A thick fog hung over Puna Dara, which was about the only thing that could shut the city down. Though they knew better than to risk their precious ships in bad weather, the Punaji themselves had a positive affinity with storms, staying out in the streets as long as they possibly could when the wind and lightning raged. The city had mostly flat, stone roofs, and it was a tradition that a newly married couple hadn’t properly blessed their new home until having made love on the roof in a storm.
Fog, though, was a different matter. Storms could make a person feel alive; fog was just inconvenient and depressing. Better than anything else, it reliably drove the Punaji indoors to their fires. Thus, Lakshmi had the docks mostly to herself.
Light blazed from the windows of the Mermaid’s Tail, three piers down; the distance was just enough to mute the noise of laughter and music from within, though it was still audible in the quiet of the night. The soft lapping of waves against the pier was more immediate, which was fine. It was also more soothing, and she needed a little relief from tension.
“You’re gonna fall in one of these days.”
Lakshmi squawked and flailed in startlement, slipping off her perch on the barrel she’d commandeered as a seat and windmilling her arms at the very edge of the pier, desperately trying not to prove the voice’s prediction. A hand grasped her firmly by the collar and tugged her backward to safety.
“Damn it!” she scolded, whirling to glare at her laughing rescuer. “Fucking elf! Stop doing that! You scared the hell out of me!”
“Oh, calm yourself,” Principia said, grinning. “I wouldn’t’ve let you fall—”
She broke off as Lakshmi lunged forward and threw her arms around her.
“I didn’t mean that, jackass,” she said fiercely. “Do you know how worried I’ve been? Weeks with no word! And if something had gone wrong, it’d be my fault, since I’m the one who sent that message to the Guild. I should know better than to get dragged into your crazy schemes…”
“You should know my crazy schemes always work,” Prin chided gently, hugging the girl back before extracting herself. “And, as usual, it did. You did perfect, Peepers. The Guild got word I’d turned on them, they set Shook loose to come after me—that was the only part I was a little worried about, but in the end it was too good a ploy for Tricks to pass up—and then I got them the truth, once Thumper was out of sight. Now the Boss feels guilty and I’ve dropped down the priority list. He’ll be a lot more accommodating once I do decide to go home, and that turd Thumper is well on his way to getting what’s coming to him. Just takes a little patience and caution from here on out.” She spread her arms wide, grinning. “Everything’s coming up Prin.”
“Except that Thumper is still after you,” Lakshmi retorted, scowling. “If half what you’ve told me about that asshole is true, that’s not a small thing!”
“Oh, sure it is,” Prin said, waving a hand dismissively. “He hasn’t a chance in hell of actually finding me. And if by some miracle he does, he’ll have used up all the luck he’d need to catch me. Everything I needed is in motion, hon. Thanks for playing your part so well.”
Lakshmi shook her head. “I dunno. Yes, you’re a professional, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Yeah? Maybe this’ll make you feel better,” Principia replied, handing her a folded slip of paper.
“You memorize that, then you destroy it,” Prin said firmly. “It’s the access details of an account with Heath & Farousi. They’re not one of the biggest banks, but they’re about the most widely-spread; you can get into that account from just about anywhere in the Empire.”
“What account?” Lakshmi said curiously.
Principia grinned rakishly, bobbing up on the balls of her feet. “My account. That’s the product of two centuries of running cons up and down every inch of this continent and beyond. Congratulations, you are now stupidly rich.”
Lakshmi’s eyes went wide and she tried to thrust the paper back at the elf. “Prin, no! I can’t! Are you crazy, this is your whole life’s work!”
“No,” Principia said firmly, thrusting a finger of admonishment into the girl’s face. “The work was my life’s work. You know what I’ve done with that money, Lakshmi? Let it sit, gathering dust and interest, mostly. Once in a while I’ve needed to dip in to extract myself from one of my rare blunders, but for the most part…” She shrugged. “It’s not about the money, hon. It can’t be; don’t let it be. An account full of liquid assets is a wind in your sails; a house full of luxuries is an anchor chain around your neck.”
“Oh, a nautical metaphor. I do believe I’m being pandered to.”
“Watch it, squirt. Just because your grandfather’s not around to paddle your butt anymore doesn’t mean you’re too big.” Prin aimed a halfhearted swat at Lakshmi’s head, grinning. “Look, the fact is, a thief doesn’t need riches. I don’t need that money, and right now, you do. I want you to get out of Puna Dara. This is not a good city for thieves.”
“Oh, not this again,” Lakshmi groaned. “The Punaji way of life is the closest thing to the Guild’s philosophy—”
“Yeah, I know. And doesn’t that make it seem odd that the Guild has such a small presence here?” Prin shook her head. “It’s because you’re ruled by pirates, and pirates do not like competition. Quite apart from the fact that Eserites aren’t wanted here, we aren’t needed. Blackbeard’s laws keep the idle rich humble and on their toes, and he doesn’t rob from his own people. There’s just not much to do here. I want you to go to Tiraas, get yourself set up with a place. Something modest, you don’t want to draw attention. Thanks to my little scheme, you’ve got some rep with the Guild now; you’re the girl who unmasked a traitor, remember?”
“You did this on purpose,” Lakshmi accused.
Principia grinned. “Come on, now, any action that serves only one purpose isn’t an efficient use of your time. Yes, I made an opening for you. Take Sanjay and go. Tiraas is a melting pot; for the gods’ sakes, there’s a whole district full of drow. Anybody can make it there. You’re an information girl, Peepers; try to get in with Sweet, he’s the master of that craft. He doesn’t take apprentices, so don’t go for that angle, but he’s fair-minded and has a soft spot for younglings. Do some good work in his field and make sure he sees it.”
“Prin, where is all this coming from?” she demanded. “You show up out of nowhere after leaving me to stew for weeks, and now you’re insisting we both uproot our lives?”
The elf sighed, glancing out over the bay. A few ships’ lights were visible, but for the most part, the fog made it a featureless blur. “It’ll be a while before I see you again, ‘Shmi. Where I’m going next, I won’t have any need for money. And Shook won’t be able to get at me no matter what he does. Hell, I sort of hope he tries.”
“Prin, you’re scaring me.”
“Hey, don’t worry,” she said more gently, stepping forward and taking both of Lakshmi’s hands, the paper crumpling in their combined grip. “I’m not about to do anything desperate. I think I may be entering the most safe and rational phase my life has ever had. It’s just…unfamiliar territory for me. And since I’m likely to be out of pocket for a while, I want to make sure you and Sanjay will be all right before I go. I promised the old man I’d keep an eye on you as I had time. Go to Tiraas, Lakshmi. Only use the money when you need it; live on your wits. I know you’ve got enough to do so. Promise me.”
“I can’t just—”
Lakshmi swallowed heavily. “I promise. You promise you’re going to be okay.”
“Aw, honey, nobody can guarantee that about anybody. I give you my word, though, I’ll be taking care of myself as best I can. And I’ll be back in touch just as soon as the opportunity comes up. I’ll expect to find you in Tiraas, clambering up the ranks in the Guild, you hear me?”
She drew in a deep breath and let it out, then managed a weak grin. “Are you kidding? Look who you’re talking to. Hell, once I get out of this backwater to a place where there’s opportunity, I’ll be running it by this time next year.”
“That’s my girl.” Principia grinned and gently patted her on the cheek. “He’d have been so damn proud of you, y’know.” She stepped back, then again, tendrils of fog beginning to swirl around and obscure her from sight. “Live free, Peepers.”
“Live well, Keys.” The lump rose again in Lakshmi’s throat, nearly cutting off the traditional Eserite farewell. By the time she finished it, the fog had closed in around the slender figure of the elf, leaving her alone on the docks, holding the crumpled key to a fortune.
Flickering torchlight nearly overshadowed the sickly glow of the spell circle. The corners of the chamber were lost to shadow, but there wasn’t much to see aside from cobwebs and mildew. The sewers of Tiraas had many such private nooks, their original purpose now unknown; those who traversed the dark tunnels knew well enough to stay away from any secluded spot where there was light and voices.
It wasn’t like summoning the sshitherosz demon had been. The basics of the circle were the same, enchanted glyphs standing in for the presence of summoners, the reason this could be done by someone who knew no infernal magic. There were differences in the runes and structure of the circle, of course, and the final product didn’t look the same at all. Where the sshitherosz had clambered up from below, the incubus sort of congealed out of the air, collecting scraps of shadow and sparks into a form.
He flicked his tail idly, peering about. You could always tell whether an incubus or succubus had been recently on the mortal plane by their attire. They liked pretty things, fancy things, but there just wasn’t much to wear in Hell except the skins of things one had killed. This one wore nothing but a ragged fur loincloth hanging to his knees, secured by a wide belt with a hammered pewter buckle.
Naturally, he was ridiculously good-looking. Once you got past the tail and wings, of course, and the garnet-colored eyes. The demon’s face was long and flawlessly formed, somehow combining a rugged handsomeness with an effete pretty-boy look that didn’t seem like they should go together at all, much less as well as they did. He had the lean musculature of a swimmer, and those perfect muscles shifted beneath his exposed alabaster skin with even the slightest motion as he turned this way and that, studying his new environs. Darling had never been interested in men, but he’d also never been this close to an incubus before. It was hard not to admire the sheer artistry of the demon’s perfect body.
“Haha!” he bellowed, throwing up his arms in an over-the-top gesture of theatrical triumph. “Behold your doom, creature of the pits! I have called you forth, and it shall be I who is your undoing!”
“Do I know you?” the demon asked languidly, his expression sardonic.
Darling was dressed in a stained and ragged robe of the sort worn by Omnist monks, though the monks of course kept their attire in much better repair. The right touches of makeup had made his eyes and cheeks hollow, his hair dirty and unkempt. The rest was all mannerisms. In total, he made the perfect image of a deranged religious fanatic, if he did say so himself. Which he had.
“Spare me your blandishments, fiend!” he screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “I heed only the voice! The voice commands and I carry forth its will! Yes, one by one I shall call you, one by one I shall strike you down! The voice knows the way! The pits of hell shall be emptied by my hand!”
“Oh, honestly,” the incubus said in disgust, looking him up and down. “Why do I always get the crazy ones? Useless, the lot of you; one can’t even have proper revenge on a madman. It’s like whipping the wolf that killed your dog. It takes some sanity to truly suffer properly.”
“Be silent, unclean thing!” Darling bellowed, his voice cracking. “You need not speak, you need only die!” A nimbus of golden light sprang up around him; the demon flinched back, sparking where he impacted the cylinder of magic thrown up by the summoning circle. “Yes, now you see your doom!” Darling cackled. “Now you know its face! Repent with your last breath, worm!”
“What the hell are you even doing?” the demon demanded, shielding his eyes. “You’re going to summon demons one by one and kill them? Do you know how many eons that would take? And anyway, the Black Wreath will be on you within days.” A honeyed tone entered his voice. “Look, if it’s dead demons you want, perhaps we can be of service to each other. Between you and me, I can’t stand most of—”
“SILENCE!” he screamed, frothing with mad rage, and called up more light than he ever had in his life, enough that he could feel the burning in his fingertips. Enough that the infernal runes holding the circle steady exploded, winking out and dissolving the demon’s prison. As they had been designed to do.
The incubus snorted, gave one pump of his wings and lunged backward out of the range of Darling’s aura. “Nice move,” he said, chuckling. “Well, I guess this is it, then. Thanks for the lift, friend! I’d been looking for a way back to this plane for years. Ta ta!”
Turning, he darted down the long tunnel into the sewers, fading into invisibility as he went.
“NOOO!” Darling howled behind him, raging and stomping up and down. “This cannot be! The voice promised! This is the way! Reveal yourself, monster!” Throwing his hands out hither and yon, he sent aimless bolts of holy power in all directions, splashing against the walls of the chamber and shooting down the corridor. That kind of thing was well outside his areas of expertise; they wouldn’t have done much against a demon of that caliber, but even the incubus wouldn’t have been able to remain invisible if hit by one. All he succeeded in doing was establishing that the creature was long gone.
Finally, he fell still, then permitted himself a grin. “All right, girls, show’s over. You can come out now.”
From the two back corners of the room, shadows deepened, then fell apart, revealing the forms of the two elves. They stepped forward carefully, eying him as though concerned for his health.
“That,” Flora said, “was a hell of a thing.”
“Care to let us in on the joke, finally?” Fauna added with a touch of asperity.
“Gladly!” Turning to face them, Darling tucked his thumbs in the ragged cord currently serving as his belt. “I don’t know how it is for elves, ladies, but when a human dies, if they weren’t a faithful enough follower for any god to claim their soul, it becomes a concern for Vidius. He’s a pretty easygoing chap; you can be a filthy agnostic your whole life, but if you made a solid effort to be a decent person, you’re still likely to end up on the divine plane. It’s not as much a certainty as if you followed a god faithfully, but there it is. For the rest, though…they get sent to Hell. What goes on down there we don’t much know, but we do know that some of them take to it.”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction the demon had fled. “That was an incubus, a demon…sort of. Incubi and succubi are the souls of humans who were, first, so wicked in life that they warranted infernal punishment, and second, so clever and strong-willed even in death that they managed to survive and advance themselves in the infernal realms, where basically everything is stronger than they are and wants to destroy them. Those who make it long enough or do well enough come to the attention of Prince Vanislaas, the first incubus, and are reborn as…that. Human soul, so corrupted with stabilized infernal magic that they are almost unrecognizable. Not well liked in Hell, and down to the last one, obsessed with getting back to the mortal plane to spread their corruption among their own former species.”
He grinned broadly. “Their powers include shape changing, invisibility, all manner of illusion and flight. They’re cunning almost beyond belief; they live to seduce and corrupt. A nasty piece of work, in other words, and not easy to take down. And, in at least a metaphysical sense, human. Best of all, there is absolutely no question that they need to be destroyed. So!” His grin broadened. “Think that’s enough of a challenge to satisfy your spirits?”
They stared at him, and then as one, delighted grins blossomed on their faces.
“I think that would do very nicely,” Fauna breathed.
“Well, then, you’ve given the bastard a sporting head start. I’d say the hunt is on.”
She dashed past him without another word. Flora paused only to lean in and peck him on the cheek.
“World’s best boss,” she whispered, then dashed off down the tunnel after her sister. They were gone in seconds.
Darling let the cheerful expression drop from his face, leaving him haggard and exhausted. He stepped backward until he came to the rear wall of the chamber and slumped against it. Momentarily he’d need to clear up all this detritus and then bless the space; one couldn’t be too careful when it came to demonology. He just needed a moment, first, to gather himself.
It was the best solution he could think of; the girls had certainly seemed to think it a good one. The incubus was crafty, but not nearly a match for one headhunter in terms of magical firepower, let alone two. The only question would be whether they could catch it… But no, they’d managed to pierce the secrecy around a vault sealed by the Church and the cult of Nemitoth without even trying. They could run this thing down, it would just give them a workout in the process. Of course, he had just set loose a devious corrupter demon in Tiraas. Yeah, there was absolutely no way this could end badly.
But no. They could do it. He just had to have faith in his little monsters.
Darling straightened up and began cleaning up the room, hoping, not for the first time recently, that he wasn’t in over his head.