Natchua considered it a sign of great personal growth that she did none of the six things that immediately occurred to her. Any of them would have solved the problem of a succubus holding a knife on her, at the cost of creating considerable complications starting pretty much instantly, given that they were in public.
Instead, she opted to talk…for the moment.
“You’re bluffing,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Would you like to try again? And this time, be aware you are talking to someone who knows what a desperate corner you are backed into.”
The pressure of the dagger increased subtly, and its angle shifted as Kheshiri moved to bodily steer her toward the stairs. Still, she wore that warm smile and those almost sleepy eyes.
“Okay, then. Call my bluff, since we both know you’re the one with the firepower here. You’ll feel pretty foolish when that spells an end to your charming companion. To say nothing of whatever else you might feel… The way you two were dancing, I imagine she’s worth more to you than a mere servant. Or, we could simply have a little chat before either of us goes and does anything rash.”
Natchua wasn’t about to fall for that—at least not under ordinary circumstances. There were standard practices for engaging with hostile Vanislaads, and the core principle involved was not to. They were sly and fiendishly creative, infamously able to cobble together surprising solutions from the slightest resources, and particularly clever with their tongues. Simply by listening to a child of Vanislaas one ceded them an advantage. You had to hit them with overwhelming force, hopefully before they knew you were there.
However, she had already taken the precaution of reaching out mentally along the lines of binding and spellcraft that linked her to Hesthri, and found nothing.
That could mean several things, potentially: their connection might have been severed, or it might have been interfered with by a rival caster, or Hesthri might be dead or simply removed to a distance too great for the fairly weak link between them to be perceptible. Natchua rapidly sorted through the options, doing her best to ride out the surge of worry and anger this brought without succumbing to it. Just perceiving that slight bond, much less breaking or obscuring it, would have taken a warlock as skilled as she, of which there were very few in existence and no succubi anywhere among their number. Likewise, it was very unlikely Kheshiri had any craft available that would have killed a hethelax demon; that required the kind of divine magic that would have fried her just for trying to carry it.
Which meant that the incredibly unlikely prospect that Kheshiri had ambushed, abducted, and spirited Hesthri out of Second Chances, despite Xyraadi actively laying ward traps at every possible exit, in the handful of seconds since Natchua had seen her last… Was somehow, still, the least impossible of the possibilities.
She was beginning to see firsthand why people made such a big deal about this succubus in particular.
“Now, now, don’t make that face at me,” the demon chided her, grinning. “You wouldn’t begrudge a girl a little insurance, would you? It’s not as if most people are happy to see me. Maybe you can relate, hmmmm?”
Okay, she wasn’t outmaneuvered yet. Whatever Kheshiri had done, she’d had a very limited time to prepare. Natchua just had to buy a little time of her own while she figured out a countermeasure.
She inclined her head, put on a sardonic expression, and gestured slowly—mindful of the dagger at her waist—toward the upper tier with its deep seating alcoves.
Kheshiri slunk around her far too close, like an affectionate cat, a maneuver which allowed her to position herself behind Natchua while both keeping the tip of the blade pressed against her and concealing it from the easy view of those around them. Interesting—despite her leverage in holding Hesthri hostage and the acknowledged power disparity between them, she still saw some advantage in maintaining a physical threat against Natchua. What advantage, exactly, was a question that was unfortunately over her head; Natchua, as she was painfully aware, was not schooled in these subtle machinations.
She let the demon prod her along through the crowd, ignoring their continuing speculative stares—nobody seemed to look below chest level, to judge by the lack of outcry about the blade—trying to focus on something more relevant to her situation than what Kheshiri wanted. It was more difficult with the succubus behind her, as eye contact helped to focus, but at that range she could sense her presence easily by concentrating.
Even without looking directly, there was a clear resemblance to the revenant she had charmed at the entrance. Clear, but superficial. As good a warlock as Mortimer Agasti apparently was, his handiwork was nothing compared to that of Prince Vanislaas. The basic structure may have been the same, a lattice of infernomancy and shadow magic surrounding a captured soul and binding it to a body, but apart from that simple template they were wholly different categories of being.
“Aw, how fortuitous, a spot,” Kheshiri simpered directly into her ear, nudging Natchua into an unoccupied booth where a convenient plus loveseat awaited, handily shaded from view except from directly in front. “It’s so rare to get a little nook to ourselves in such a busy place! It must be providence. Let’s take it as a good omen to start a long and lovely friendship, shall we?”
Natchua settled onto one end of the short sofa in silence, now watching the succubus closely. Her eyes told her nothing more, save that the demon was wearing the form of Hesthri’s recent human disguise, but at this range and with visual contact she could peer more deeply into the magic animating her. She remained silent and focused as Kheshiri slid onto the couch as well, oozing right up against Natchua till she was practically in her lap, and conveniently keeping that knife pressed against her side, now almost completely hidden behind them in a position that actually pinned her arm under Natchua’s body.
“You know, these conversations work better if both people participate,” Kheshiri admonished, smirking. “But I don’t mind starting us off, if you’re a little shy. So! I had gathered rumors about the other new warlock Agasti was keeping around, but you are a surprise. People would have mentioned there was a drow, if you’d been here much before. Shall I take it you are also a recent arrival?”
There would be no slipping her will into that tight lattice of spellcraft the way she had with the revenant. At least, not in a situation like this. She had managed some modifications to Melaxyna, but those had been additions, not alterations. The distinction was important; deliberately or not, Vanislaas had designed his children such that they could absorb new powers and abilities easily. He didn’t go giving them any, and most warlocks knew better, nor could the Vanislaads perform infernomancy well enough to manage themselves. But it was just circumstance that prevented it; the possibility existed. Actually tampering with a succubus would take far, far more effort, and probably require the subject to be immobilized for an extended period. Kheshiri was very unlikely to cooperate with this, and forcing her down right here in public would cause no end of trouble. Could she add something like she had to Melaxyna, something the demon’s composition would recognize as a boon, that served to actually hamper or control her? Ironically, that kind of creative thinking within limited options was more Kheshiri’s strength than Natchua’s.
“Hellooo?” Kheshiri prompted softly. “Cat got your tongue? Goodness, I’ve rarely been stared at so fixedly. If you grew up around elves, I know I’m not the prettiest face you’ve ever seen. Well, not this one, anyway. Come, there’s a rhythm to these things. I’ve said something, now you say something.”
Wait… Natchua narrowed her eyes, leaning forward slightly. There was something else, something that didn’t seem to be part of the original lattice. Most of the magic comprising the succubus’s being was a flawlessly taut symphony of power and purpose, but something peeked through all over that felt out of place, and did not remind her of anything she knew of their kind from the package of information Elilial had poured into her skull, nor recognized from examining Melaxyna.
Shadow magic. Not incorporated into the spellwork, but…filling the cracks, clinging to every filament of innate power. If Kheshiri’s basic makeup could be understood as a tapestry, a thing woven of countless threads of magic, the shadow craft added to her was like a layer of oil poured onto and soaked into the weave. It coated every strand in a way that, she saw, would have caused external effects to slip off without finding purchase.
So that was how she had slipped the reliquary. It was still bound to her, but even that binding was sort of draped over her magical essence, now, not gripping her soul as it needed to in order to function. Natchua had to marvel at the brilliance of it, not least because it was such a simple and so very basic application of shadow magic—crude, even—that worked because it was unconventional, not because it was powerful. The Wreath could have prevented this, but they hadn’t thought of it. This was something she could have built up over the last two years of her spare time…or less. How long had she been following that Eserite goon around, with him having no actual control over her?
It came with a cost, though. She could do a lot more with shadow magic than Kheshiri, and the fact that the succubus had worked this power so deep into her own soul opened the prospect of Natchua imposing tighter and deeper controls on her than the Wreath had ever dreamed, using the very mechanism she had created to escape them. But that, too, would require time and quiet in which to concentrate. Even if she could immobilize the succubus to do it, there was no telling where or in how much danger Hesthri was, or how long she could afford to be left there.
“So far, this exchange is a lot less interesting than I had hoped,” Kheshiri said, following a further silence in which Natchua studied her without saying anything. “Are you just trying to get me to talk? Okay, I can oblige you a bit. Your friend is safe, at least for the moment. I put her someplace out of the way so you’ll sit down and chat with me like civilized people; I certainly don’t want to spoil our burgeoning friendship by harming her, unless you really force my hand. I dunno about you, cutie, but I came here looking for aid and resources, not because I want more enemies. Maybe you’re after something similar, hmm? Nice, neutral warlock, well-connected and rich; he’s an attractive prospect, isn’t he? So! Let’s talk about what we can do for each other. I see no reason everybody can’t benefit from this, ultimately. That’s the best way to do business, don’t you think?”
“With anyone but a child of Vanislaad, sure,” Natchua replied.
Kheshiri grinned. “She speaks!”
“In this case, I have a better idea,” Natchua continued. “You return my friend, unharmed, and I remove you from a position to cause me any further trouble. In return you get nothing, because I am not stupid enough to bargain with one of your kind.”
The succubus pursed her lips. “Sweetie, you’re glossing over the fact that your friend is in my possession. That’s not how this works.”
“Let me start over.” At that range, the visual effect of shadow-jumping a small object over a short distance made a display like a flow of smoke, which resolved itself into Kheshiri’s dagger resting in Natchua’s hand. “My name is Natchua, and I don’t do things the way they work.”
“Okay, now see, you’re still proceeding on a few bad assumptions,” the succubus lectured, seeming unperturbed by both the loss of her weapon and the display of infernal power that as far as she should have believed was impossible. “I knew going in that you’re an extremely skilled warlock; demonstrating it changes nothing. If you were able to retrieve your pretty companion just like that, you’d do it instead of listening to me. So we’re in the same situation, and if anything you’ve undercut your credibility by grandstanding when we both know you’ve got no actual podium. But I’ll tell you what: I like you, so I’m gonna let you try again. I think you’ve got potential—you just need the right guidance!” She winked, grinning lopsidedly in a roguishly charming expression. “Bet I could provide you that, and a lot more besides.”
Reaching out with her will, Natchua found the nearest nexus of subtle magic laced into the walls of Second Chances that comprised its passive ward network. Wrapping her concentration around this, she yanked, distending the structure of the network itself without activating it. That should get Xyraadi’s attention good and quick.
“In my whole life,” she said quietly, turning the dagger over and stabbing it point-down into the armrest of the sofa, “I have had only one role model to speak of. She taught me that the only true evil in the world is stupidity—that if people will just think, and act with care, most of the problems caused by sentient beings wouldn’t manifest in the first place. But she also taught me that when one possesses overwhelming power, there is no need to cede any advantage by dealing with a schemer on their own level. Even the most adept manipulator can’t weave a web of intrigue when their hair is on fire.”
“Oh, pumpkin,” Kheshiri said, frowning in an expression of gentle, almost maternal reproach. “Who’s been filling your head with that balderdash?”
Natchua flicked the fingers which had just relinquished the dagger, and a chain of living fire sprang from them. It struck faster than a snake, and just like one wound around Kheshiri’s arm all the way up to her shoulder just as it did likewise to Natchua’s, leaving them connected arm-to-arm by links of glowing orange that appeared forged out of flame itself. Less obviously but more importantly, that spell sank its invisible hooks deep into Kheshiri’s aura, piercing the shadowy goo that filled and protected her from hostile effects, wrapping around a million tiny aspects of her being until it couldn’t be dislodged without tearing her apart. No complex working could have bypassed both her inherent protections and the additional layer of shadow magic she’d added without disintegrating under the strain. But this? This was nothing but a chain. All it did was ensure the succubus wasn’t going to get more than two feet physically away from Natchua until she decided to let her go. That was the innate advantage of simple spells, and simple measures in general: if they had enough pure force to strike home, all the intricacy in the world wouldn’t stop them.
There were several gasps and raised voices from nearby; evidently the two of them were still the object of curious observation by whoever was still close enough to observe. Kheshiri, however, just turned her wrist over to examine her new accoutrement with a dispassionate little smile, as if deciding whether she liked the way a bracelet looked on her.
“Her name,” Natchua said, grinning, “is Tellwyrn.”
At that, Kheshiri’s eyes snapped back to her face, and her smile finally vanished.
Then, in a swell of shadows, they both vanished.
The darkness of the shadow-jump receded to blast them with cold moonlight and even colder wind. They had an incredible view, even in the darkness: forested hills yielding to the Great Plains to the west, while directly beneath them, stretching away north and south, were the snowy crags of the Stalrange, dotted here and there with stands of scrappy pines. The two of them plummeted straight down from a height of over a mile.
Natchua took some satisfaction in having finally wrenched an uncontrolled reaction from Kheshiri. The succubus screeched in wordless agitation, her disguise melting away to reveal her pale complexion and spiny wings. These she immediately spread, and just as immediately had them snapped out straight behind her by the force of the air. Humanoids just weren’t aerodynamic enough to fly; the flight of Vanislaads was at least party magical, and carrying passengers wasn’t included in it.
With Natchua dangling beneath her, swinging gaily this way and that in the buffeting winds, Kheshiri fought desperately to control their descent. At best, she managed an awkward, intermittent glide, continually having to force her delicate wings to open again as they were repeatedly pushed out of a flying configuration by the fierce air currents, the added weight of the passenger chained to her arm, and the unworkable position caused by the fact that Natchua’s weight tugged one of her shoulders downward, making it impossible for her to even order her body correctly to maintain that glide.
Kheshiri glared down at her in naked spite, now; her lips moved, but whatever she said was snatched away by the wind. Her free hand, though, plunged into a pocket of her vest which had been concealed by her illusion previously.
Natchua didn’t see what she pulled out, and didn’t bother to. The indignant squawk she heard about the howling wind as it shadow-jumped neatly into her own hand was deeply satisfying.
She found herself holding a palm-sized disc of perforated metal, forming the shape of two thorny wreaths attached together. Of course, a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. That neatly explained how Kheshiri had so swiftly removed Hesthri from the club and returned without tripping one of Xyraadi’s traps. As she had just been reflecting, simple plans had a way of neatly slipping past complex ones. This also, however, meant Hesthri could be virtually anywhere. She tucked it safely into her own pocket for now.
Kheshiri struggled to control their fall for a few more seconds before trying her next trick. Natchua hadn’t expected her to give up that easily, but even she was surprised at the act of desperation which ensued. The knife Kheshiri whipped out of her pocket next was substantially bigger than the one she’d held in the club, almost a short sword, and clearly enchanted to judge by the damage it did. This time, Kheshiri struck in the same lightning-fast motion that she’d used to draw it from her pocket of holding (obviously of holding, as there was no way it would have fit in that tight vest otherwise). Even so, elven reflexes were quicker and Natchua could have stopped her, had the angle of the strike not telescrolled where it was going.
Kheshiri sliced off her own right arm at the shoulder, detaching herself bodily from the fiery chain that bound them together. It spun away on the wind, already crumbling to charcoal, and inky blood gushed from the stump, quickly dissolving into black mist in the fierce currents of air.
The chain simply shifted to wrap around her torso.
The maimed succubus let out a screech of sheer frustration, and Natchua indulged herself in a long cackle of laughter.
Snarling, Kheshiri beat her wings again, this time diving straight downward at Natchua with the blade extended. Even at point-blank range the drow was still faster, and the succubus plowed straight into a concussive spell that sent her body reeling and the blade tumbling off into the sky.
Kheshiri managed to straighten out her descent just enough to face Natchua once more, now snarling in animal fury, and pulled out a wand.
Natchua hit it with a surgically precise shadowbolt that sent it flying away in pieces, along with several charred fingers.
The succubus closed down her expression, glaring pure fury down at Natchua, then deliberately folded her wings flat against her back, leaving the two of them to plummet toward the jagged mountain peaks unhindered.
For Natchua, elven agility made it a proverbial (and literal) breeze to keep her own balance even against the unpredictable air currents. She calmly folded her hands behind her head and crossed her ankles, plummeting downward with her back to the onrushing earth as if she were lazing on a cushy feather bed back in her own dorm at Last Rock. The position kept Kheshiri chained barely at arm’s length above her, glaring down into Natchua’s broadest, shit-eatingest grin.
This game of chicken lasted nearly half a minute before Kheshiri finally broke their locked stares to look past Natchua at the onrushing ground. Her shriek of rage was as good as a white flag.
Fanning her wings desperately, the succubus struggled against gravity and the wind to level out their descent. Natchua’s weight made true flight impossible, but by beating them frantically she was at least able to shift the angle of their fall to a more horizontal one as they plummeted into the side of a mountain.
Natchua finally deigned to glance behind her. Kheshiri was sailing them right into the upper branches of a snow-dusted pine forest. Shifting her weight about, she dangled by her arm and reoriented her body into a vertical position, facing the impact head-on.
And, because she had limned herself in a subtle corona of sheer destructive energy that would incinerate any wood she impacted—and just to be an asshole—she began swinging about, flinging her weight unpredictably from side to side and reveling in the screeches of protest from above.
It was a much less pleasant trip for one of them than for the other.
While Natchua scythed through branches like a hot knife through butter, Kheshiri was bashed from one treetop to the next. Luckily for the succubus, that didn’t last long; luckily for the drow, the repeated, vicious impacts soaked up most of the inertia of their flight. In moments they had staggered to a forward stop and simply plunged to the knee-deep snow below.
Natchua, with classic elvish grace and skilled infernal protection, hit the ground in a roll that was no less deft for being chained to the beleaguered demon, snow hissing away into steam on contact with her. She stood up and took a moment to straighten her coat and carefully smooth her windblown hair back down with her free hand, maintaining a slow burn of infernal energy to ward off the chill of the wintry mountains, before turning to survey her handiwork.
Kheshiri was bruised, bloodied, and scraped all to hell. Both her wings appeared to be broken, one with its sail shredded. She was missing her right arm still, though the shoulder had already stopped bleeding, and her left hand looked mangled beyond repair. A broken-off length of pine branch impaled her thigh. There she law, awkwardly flopped on one side and apparently completely dazed, covered in green needles and flecks of bark and oozing black blood that hissed angrily against the snow.
“You,” Natchua enunciated into the crisp mountain silence, “Get. Nothing.”
Kheshiri twitched and shuddered. If she was capable of answering, she didn’t bother.
Natchua focused her attention on the bundle of energy she was still holding with her mind. Pouring enough power into it to keep it steady despite being stretched halfway across the continent had been the tricky part, but it had worked; she was still mentally connected to the ward network back in Ninkabi.
She gave the thing a vigorous joggle, causing a perceptible but harmless shockwave of motion down its length. Presumably, by that point, Xyraadi and/or Agasti were studying the strained network in detail; they couldn’t possibly miss that signal.
The response was impressively quick, in fact. The energy that pulsed down the connection from the other side was clearly Xyraadi’s; no mortal warlock could have matched a khelminash’s ability to pour that kind of power and sophistication into such an off-the-cuff piece of spellwork. Natchua gave the taut bundle of magic a quick examination to suss out what it did, then deliberately fed some of her own into it. A divinatory spell using infernomancy was more than she herself could have cast, but she understood its structure and it was easy enough to assist Xyraadi in getting a view of the situation around her.
The magical probe snuffed itself out, and moments later, shadows swelled upon the snow.
Xyraadi shivered once in the cold before putting up a cloak of heat like Natchua’s. The khelminash studied Kheshiri’s crumpled and twitching body for a few seconds, then looked up at the swath of broken and charred branches that marked the path of their descent.
“That is one way to do it, n’est-ce pas? Let me guess: she forced your hand with some clever piece of work that neatly bypassed all my careful traps.”
“She had this.” Natchua pulled the Wreath talisman from the pocket where she had stowed it; Xyraadi took one look and nodded, clearly recognizing the device. “She has Hesthri somewhere beyond my ability to sense her.”
“Well, shadow-jumping would account for that,” Xyraadi acknowledged, frowning in annoyance at the mangled succubus. “Merde alors. Taking Hesthri is good leverage; I see why you felt the need to do…this. I do hope, however, you are aware that torturing such as she is wasted time. Pleasure and pain are the same category of experience to their kind. You might just as well make love to her for all the deterrent it is.”
“I am aware, and believe me, this is not my idea of foreplay. I decided we needed to begin with a vivid demonstration of who would be jerking whom around in this relationship. No indeed, she doesn’t fear pain. But I think I know what she does fear.”
Natchua stepped over to the felled succubus and crouched in the snow, flicking the fiery chain that still bound them together. “And dear Kheshiri been just a little too clever. She’s provided me exactly what I need to make her worst nightmare a reality.”
“I almost fear to ask,” Xyraadi said dryly.
“It’s like you pointed out; they are what they are. They have different needs than beings like you or me. Fewer vulnerabilities, perhaps, but at least one very central compulsion. Have you ever wondered what an itch would do to someone’s mind, if they could not scratch it?”
Kheshiri shifted awkwardly in the slush around her, rolling her head just enough that one crystalline eye could look up at Natchua—finally, with naked fear.