She already knew he was nobody’s fool, but even under the shock this scene had to have inflicted upon him, Jonathan put the entire chain of events together in about a second and a half. By that stage in their acquaintance, Natchua was familiar enough with his face that she could practically see him processing every step back to the point when she had first approached him in a bar, one millisecond at a time.
And then he fixed his gaze back on her, his face twisting in a snarl of unbridled fury that was entirely out of his usual character. The mere sight of that caused her a pang right in the chest—a much sharper one than she was expecting. Fortunately, she didn’t have long to dwell on it, as Jonathan immediately raised the wand to point at her.
“You little monster.”
Natchua barely had to gesture. A tiny rift opened to his left, out of which lashed a lithe tendril of tangible shadow as rapidly as a frog snatching up a fly. It ripped the wand out of his hand and back into the void, and then deposited it right in hers.
That seemed to shake some of the rage out of him. Jonathan looked down at his now-empty hand in surprise, then back up at her. “What the hell was that?”
“Something very few warlocks could have done,” Melaxyna interjected. “Something a lot harder than simply killing you, which you should take into account when weighing exactly how much of a monster the girl is.”
Behind them, Hesthri’s voice was flat and hollow with her own recent shock, but it clearly did not dull her acerbic tongue. “You know, having the slithering sex demon vouch for your character is pretty counterproductive.”
“Really more of an empathy demon, if you think about it,” Melaxyna muttered, folding her arms.
Natchua heaved a sigh, disregarding the byplay. Her own gaze hadn’t left Jonathan. As painfully awkward as it was to meet his eyes, a part of her felt she didn’t deserve the meager comfort of not facing it. Another part was just too prideful to look shifty or otherwise guilty, no matter how fairly caught she was.
“Well,” she said finally, “it’s…exactly what it looks like. How did you even find this place?”
“I followed you,” he replied. “You never snuck out before. I just— Wait just a goddamn minute, why am I explaining myself to you?!”
“Snuck out?” Hesthri said quietly, then with rapidly mounting volume. “Snuck. Out. You mean she— Oh, you twisted, evil little trollop!”
Melaxyna examined her own fingernails with a supercilious air. “Tut tut. These non-sex demons are so prudish about some things.”
“Shut up, Mel,” Natchua growled.
“Why would you do this?” Jonathan roared, taking a step into the room.
Natchua drew in another deep breath to steady herself. “Please shut the door and keep your voice down, Jonathan. I do have neighbors, and I don’t think any of us wants to explain this scene to them.”
For a moment she really thought he was going to charge across the room and attack her physically. But then, rather to her surprise, he instead stepped fully into the basement apartment and pushed the door carefully shut behind him. The latch clicked quietly into place in a controlled movement, without even a hint of a slam.
The silence stretched out.
“Well?” he prompted at last.
“She said she wants to protect Gabriel,” Hesthri answered, to Natchua’s relief; she did not have a plan prepared for this turn of events and was still struggling to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t steer the whole thing even further out of her control. “Something about needing trustworthy demons to help her fight Elilial.”
Jonathan rounded on Natchua so abruptly she instinctively backed away.
“What do you know about my son?” he demanded, clenching his fists.
“He’s a friend from school!” she blurted, the truth spilling out in surprised reflex.
Jonathan halted, staring at her with wide eyes. Then, suddenly, he covered his eyes with a hand and began laughing.
“Huh,” Melaxyna grunted. “Usually when I’ve watched a man’s sanity unraveling it was some asshole I did it to because he had it coming. This is actually sort of distasteful. For shame, kid.”
“Amen,” Hesthri agreed.
“Shut up,” Natchua snapped.
“I thought you were older than me,” Jonathan said, lowering his hand to look at her again, his momentary amusement vanishing as suddenly as it had come on. “It’s just so ironic. Given all the lies you’ve apparently been piling on me, that’s got to be one of the smallest. Funny, how it feels sleazier than all the rest of it to me.”
“I’ve never had to lie to you,” Natchua said, hearing the defensiveness in her voice and hating herself for it, but unable to put on a better face. “You just never asked about…anything. And why would you assume anything about my age?”
“You’re young enough you probably haven’t realized yet how disconcerting agelessness is to humans,” Melaxyna explained. “They’re used to looking at each other and discerning that point of data; it’s customary. When it’s absent, they get nervous and sometimes make strange assumptions.”
“Let’s just move on from that one before I have to feel any filthier about all this,” Jonathan said wearily. “So, you’re a warlock, and you know Gabriel. And you want…to take his side against Elilial? Then what is this about?” He pointed at Hesthri, who shrugged. “How can you know how to summon a hethelax and not realize they aren’t—” He broke off suddenly, again looking at Hesthri with a more uncertain expression.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” she said in a fond tone, “my feelings aren’t hurt. And you’re right, anyway.”
“Johnny?” Natchua exclaimed in surprised derision.
“Got a problem with that, girl?” the hethelax demanded.
“You’re kidding, right? How could you give him a cute, diminutive nickname?”
She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I? We were involved, you know. Or do I need to sit you down and explain where half-demons come from?”
“It’s just ridiculous! I’ve never met a man who so obviously deserved respect, why would—”
“If I had to guess,” Hesthri shot back, “I’d say that to me, he’s not a replacement father figure!”
Another heavy silence descended. Natchua and Hesthri were glaring at one another, but both their eyes widened in simultaneous realization and they book looked away. Jonathan was already determinedly not looking at anyone; unlike the drow and demon, his skin tone betrayed the rush of blood to his face.
“This is better than a night at the opera,” Melaxyna cackled.
“Shut up!” all three of them shouted. She only laughed harder.
“What are you doing with that creature, anyway?” Jonathan demanded. “That’s a succubus. You can’t possibly think you have her under control! Especially if you’re actually planning some kind of attack on Elilial!”
“Of course I don’t,” Natchua retorted. “If she were under control she would be plotting to ruin my whole life, and I don’t need to get in that kind of pissing contest with a Vanislaad. Melaxyna is here as…an exchange of favors. I rescued her from…a prison, and in payment of that, she is helping me to get established with a more stable support system. She’ll be long gone and somebody else’s problem before I go anywhere near the Black Wreath.”
“Prison…” He narrowed his eyes suddenly. “Wait, is this the succubus Professor Tellwyrn was keeping in the Crawl?”
“Aww,” Melaxyna squealed, “so little Gabriel does write home! What a good boy.”
“Wait, you know Gabriel?” Hesthri exclaimed, whirling to glare at her.
“In passing,” the succubus said offhandedly. “Truth be told, he always struck me as kind of a nitwit, but the kid seemed to have a good heart. His friends clearly liked him, and that counts for something. Believe me, I was as surprised as anybody to learn about this paladin thing.”
“Paladin thing?” Hesthri screeched, lunging forward until she rebounded physically off the boundary of the containment circle, causing ripples of light in the air. “What happened to my son?”
“He’s fine, Hes,” Jonathan said soothingly. “No paladins attacked Gabriel.”
Natchua started to correct him but clamped her mouth shut instead. Fortunately, Jonathan continued speaking.
“The truth is…” He paused, drawing in a breath. “Hesthri, Gabriel is a paladin.”
She shivered, staring at his eyes with an expression both stricken and desperately hopeful. “He…what? What are you talking about?”
“Vidius finally called a Hand, after all these centuries,” Jonathan said, holding her gaze. “And he picked our son. He’s the first Hand of Vidius. The first half-demon paladin, ever. Gabe’s best friend growing up was called as the Hand of Omnu when they were both seventeen, and not long after, he got to know the Hand of Avei at that school. And then…this.”
Hesthri could only stare at him for a few long moments after he ran out of things to say, and Jonathan just stood in silence, watching her back. Even now, on opposite sides of a spell circle and after not having seen one another for who knew how many years, they could just…be together, apparently communicating with only a look, finding no discomfort in the silence.
The stab of jealousy helpfully warned Natchua that she was in big trouble here.
“I know this is a lot,” Jonathan finally said in a softer voice. “Believe me, I know. I’m not quite used to it yet, either. I probably won’t ever completely—”
“I’ll do it.”
Jonathan broke off and Natchua turned to Hesthri in surprise. The hethelax was staring at her, not at him.
“I’ll do it, warlock. I’m in.”
“Hesthri,” Jonathan said plaintively.
“If he’s a paladin,” the demon said, “then he’s a target for Elilial. And despite how completely insane this entire situation is… The drow isn’t entirely wrong. There’s no out-scheming the Dark Lady, and whatever setbacks she’s suffered, no actual power is going to threaten her. The only thing that will trip her up is an unexpected attack on one of her precious schemes, and for that, it doesn’t have to be powerful. It just has to be a surprise, to come at the right time, and to be carried out by people willing to pay the price.” Holding Natchua’s eyes, she nodded slowly. “I will help you. If it will help Gabriel, I’ll do anything. I will die for this.”
“Everyone involved will assuredly die for this,” Natchua said quietly. “You’re right, Hesthri. If we succeed in throwing off whatever plan she is unfolding, Elilial’s revenge will be terrible. All of us—”
“All of us except Melaxyna,” she corrected patiently, “had better go into this expecting the worst.”
“That’s your perspective?” Jonathan’s voice was barely above a whisper; at least the quizzical expression with which he now regarded her was easier to bear than his previous look of hurt and anger. “You are that committed to this, Natchua?”
“It’s a long story,” she said curtly. “Short version is, after my last encounter with Elilial, I’m not really looking forward to a long lifespan anyway, and I intend to make sure she pays, if I manage nothing else before the end.”
His lips thinned, drawing sideways in that pained grimace he always made when confronted with someone else’s pain. Jonathan Arquin rarely so much as twitched when he himself was injured, but the suffering of others never failed to move him.
“All right,” he said finally, with a single decisive nod. “Then I’m in, too. Whatever it is you are planning, I’m coming with you.”
Oh, no. Natchua did not need the confusing jumble of hope and terror that welled up in her to remind her that this was a terrible idea. It was already well past time she cut her ties with him for good; it was only going to get messier, the longer he stayed around.
“That is not on the table,” she said rigidly. “This is no job for—”
“For a seasoned veteran?” Melaxyna interrupted in a sickeningly innocent tone. “What ever are you on about, Natchua? Your whole criterion for this scheme was to surround yourself with people who will be loyal to it. This guy could be the president of the Save Gabriel At All Costs club, and let’s be honest with ourselves, a strong fellow with a battlestaff has at least as much tactical use as a hethelax demon. No offense, Hesthri darling.”
“None taken, you’re entirely right, and don’t ever call me ‘darling’ again, you smirking creep.”
“I’m afraid the children of Vanislaas are just as unpopular in Hell as we are here,” the succubus informed Natchua with patently feigned sorrow.
“No!” she snapped, making a slashing motion with one hand. “Out of the question. I’m a warlock, I can sustain demons at need, and so that is what I’m recruiting. I can’t be responsible for—”
“Excuse me, Natchua, but you’re mistaken if you think I was asking your permission,” Jonathan retorted, and to her own surprise the iron in his voice cut her off. He stepped forward, holding her gaze, until he was within arm’s reach. At that proximity, he loomed distractingly over her. “Everything that applies to Hesthri, here, applies to me. I will do anything to protect my son, even go up against Elilial and the Wreath. And after all the shit you have pulled today, you don’t get to give me orders. I am joining this campaign, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“Excuse me?” she said icily. “You can’t begin to imagine the things I could do to you, human.”
“So do them, then,” he replied.
“Johnny!” Hesthri protested, but he held up a hand toward her.
Natchua’s mouth had fallen open as she fumbled for a reply. Having her bluff immediately called had not been what she expected. In fact, she wasn’t at all sure what she had expected, but that wasn’t it.
“Yeah, I know you can shadow-jump right out of here any second and ditch me wherever you like,” Jonathan continued, his eyes boring into hers. “But unless I can keep my eyes on you and help rein in what I can already see has been a pattern of terrible ideas on your part, I’m not going to trust you with any part of this, Natchua. So the moment you leave me behind, I will turn this over to someone more capable. I have cultivated useful contacts in a variety of places from which you don’t want intervention. Tellwyrn, the Church, the Army, Imperial Intelligence, the Sisterhood, the Collegium… It is amazingly easy to get in touch with powerful people when you’re the parent of a half-demon paladin. Either I supervise this scheme of yours, or I will get someone else to. Those are the terms.”
“I am not somebody you want to threaten,” she grated.
“That’s right,” he said evenly. “You’re the big warlock, here, you can kill me in a dozen ways with your little finger. Then do it if you’re going to.”
“Don’t!” Hesthri shouted, hammering both fists on the invisible barrier around her. “Please!”
Her pleading was unnecessary. Natchua was just staring up at Jonathan’s implacable face, fumbling uselessly for a way to regain control of this situation. The seconds dragged out until finally, he sighed, and shook his head.
“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. “You’re not a monster, are you?”
“You—I—you don’t know that,” she stammered, and immediately wanted to kick herself. What did that even mean?
He just shook his head again. “You’re just a dumb, confused kid who can’t figure out what the right thing to do is. You have to be seriously unbalanced to have tried this, Natchua, not to mention wildly thoughtless. But this plan of yours is nothing if not brave. Well.” He straightened his back, squaring his shoulders, and she profoundly despised herself for the unbidden memories of being in his arms that came welling up. “As of now, you have my help, like it or not.”
Natchua opened her mouth, closed it, then finally looked away from him. Unfortunately that brought Melaxyna into her field of view; the succubus was grinning insanely and waggling her eyebrows up and down. She cut her gaze back the other way, this time accidentally meeting Hesthri’s eyes. The hethelax’s expression was indecipherable, and for some reason, that was even worse.
“…fine,” Natchua said at last, raising her chin and defiantly meeting Jonathan’s stare again. “Have it your way, Mr. Arquin. You can supervise, if you want to call it that. But this is my plan, my operation, and I am in charge. You’ll either do as I say, or I’ll find someplace to put you where you won’t be a threat to anybody. Understand?”
Slowly, he lifted his own chin, now looking at her down his nose. “Something tells me we’ll be revisiting this topic in detail in the days to come. For now, I guess we have an agreement.”
“This,” said Hesthri, “is the strangest damn way I could possibly find myself getting everything I ever wanted. But you know what, I’ll take it. Unhinged brat of a drow warlock and all.”
Natchua scowled at her, but Jonathan had the gall to chuckle.
“Well,” he said, “I have a lot to catch you up on, Hes. Would you mind?” The last was directed in a much cooler tone to Natchua.
She would rather have died than admit even to herself how much that cut her. Putting on her best effort at a disdainful expression, she deliberately scrubbed her foot across a few lines of the spell circle, and the whole thing went dark, the barrier around Hesthri collapsing invisibly. Before either of them could say anything, she turned and stalked away to the corner of the room where she had set up a ratty old chair and a small shelf of secondhand books.
Natchua’s basement apartment in the cheapest area of Mathenon was far from luxurious, but it at least had enough space for two groups of people to hold hushed conversations on opposite ends without disturbing each other. She was an elf, of course, and could hear every word of the discussion that began when Jonathan and Hesthri sat side-by-side on her narrow bed against the opposite wall. It consisted, so far, of him trying to summarize twenty years of current events. Natchua turned her back to them, as much to block out the sight of their clasped hands as to shield her own lips from their view before speaking. Melaxyna, at least, had sashayed over to this corner without needing to be prompted. Dangerous and generally annoying as her kind were, Vanislaads were nothing if not sensitive to mood.
“This is not going to work,” she muttered as soon as the succubus was close enough. “I can’t have him underfoot if we’re going to do this. I need your help, Mel; find me a reason and a way to get rid of him.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Melaxyna said brightly, though thankfully also in a low voice the others wouldn’t overhear. “You heard the man: just kill his ass dead and this whole problem sorts itself out.”
“We are not killing him,” Natchua hissed. “I want him out of my hair, not harmed in any way!”
“You know, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You can never do anything the simple way.”
“Do not test me on this, you simpering lizard! You agreed to help me accomplish my plan. Well, this is what I need. Help me.”
“Aw,” the succubus said with saccharine faux sympathy. “Finding yourself a little more…involved than you expected?”
“Oh, you think you’re just so clever,” Natchua spat. “I am sorry to spoil your fun, Mel, but you don’t get to dangle this over my head. I know very well that my own emotional attachment here is the problem, and that’s the specific thing I need you to help me fix!”
“You may understand the problem, yes,” Melaxyna said more somberly, “but as usual, you jumped right to the most harebrained possible way of addressing it. Come on, Natch, have you considered that maybe this is a good thing?”
“You can’t be serious.”
She shrugged. “I don’t mean to downplay how uncomfortable it clearly is for you, but speaking as your official empathy demon thrall: this could be very good for you in the long run. Both on a personal level and especially because a smart, morally upright, level-headed man with military training might be the very exact thing this crazy operation needs to stay grounded and have a prayer of accomplishing anything remotely worthwhile. I’m not teasing you about this, Natchua. Give it a chance.”
Natchua bared her teeth. “Nnnngghhhh.”
“And hey,” the succubus said lightly, “if it doesn’t work out, odds are good he’ll get sick of you and leave on his own! Win/win, right?”
“Gods, I hate you.”
“Aw, no ya don’t,” Melaxyna replied fondly. “You just resent hearing sense when you’ve committed yourself to nonsense, which is always. It’s seriously amazing you survived as long as you did under Arachne’s tutelage. You’ve gotta roll with the punches, kiddo. This may look like a mess right now, but it’s also an opportunity.”
She snuck a glance over her shoulder. Jonathan had his arm around Hesthri; she was leaning against him. Natchua immediately jerked her gaze back forward where she didn’t have to see that.
“None of this was supposed to happen,” she whispered plaintively.
“I know, honey,” Melaxyna said sympathetically, reaching out to pat her shoulder. “All you did was hunt down a man twice your age, seduce him under a mile-high stack of false pretenses, and extract the name of his ex so you could yank her across the planar divide and conscript her into your private crusade against the Queen of Demons. Who could have guessed that would blow up in your face?”
Natchua conjured a ball of purple fire, which did not seem to perturb the succubus in the slightest.
“And hey, it’s like I said! You have to look for the opportunities that come with these little setbacks. All this has demonstrated what may be Elilial’s fatal weakness: she is very, very smart. Nobody whose brain runs on any semblance of sense or logic will see you coming.”
“Be silent, Melaxyna.”
The demon grinned widely at her. “As my mistress commands.”