15 – 26

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“You see what she’s done?”

“Yes,” Xyraadi murmured, leaning close as if the proximity improved her view of Kheshiri’s magical structure. “Look at that mess! That’s exactly the kind of shadow magic I’d expect a succubus to be able to handle—unfocused, crude, all but unusable by itself. But she’s saturated herself with it! She wouldn’t have been able to channel but a trickle at a time. This, at a guess, must have taken over a year of steady work.”

“Subtle work, too,” Natchua agreed. “She was doing it practically under the nose of a dragon. Shadow magic would be the only kind she even might be able to slip past a creature like that. And most impressively of all, it actually worked! You saw the reliquary fail to function.”

Kheshiri twitched at that, darting a sharp look rapidly between them; Natchua could almost see the connections forming behind her eyes. Right; this would be her first hint of who had possession of her reliquary at the moment. Barely a second later her expression shifted back to the tremulous and cowed face she’d been showing them. There was, she reminded herself, little point in trying to judge what a creature like this was feeling based on what her face betrayed.

“And,” Natchua continued, smiling, “you see what I mean. Unlike revenants, Vanislaads are such tightly constructed pieces of spellcraft they’re as functionally un-alterable as ‘natural’ demons. Unless one has gone and created a handy backdoor into her own inner workings.”

“I suppose I can see why it seemed a worthwhile risk, given the existence of that reliquary,” Xyraadi said, her own face crossed by a pensive frown. “Very few warlocks on this plane would be able to perceive this—and I think I would not have noticed, had you not called my attention to it. Yes, Natchua, I see your meaning, but be careful.” She turned a concered expression on the drow. “If you go tampering with the innermost workings of one of his pets, you’ll draw the ire of none less than Prince Vanislaas.”

“Oh? And when was the last time he dared show his face on earth? This bitch has my friend in some dark hole, Xyraadi. I don’t have time to be afraid of boogeymen.”

Kheshiri surprised them both by laughing. It was a hoarse sound, befitting her battered condition, but she raised her head again, now grinning openly up at Natchua.

“Boogeymen aren’t real,” she rasped. “You’ve managed to make your point very emphatically, Natchua. Don’t undercut it by taunting powers you know could crush you with a thought.”

Natchua stepped forward and knelt in the melting snow next to Kheshiri’s head, allowing the glowing chain that still bound them together to pool on the ground.

“You’ve probably seen enough now to intuit that I am not a typical warlock,” she said quietly. “I gained power in an unconventional way. An accidental one, in fact. But I’m not the only warlock like this in the world. The other devoured one of your kind. Destroyed their soul entirely to take on their gifts. As far as I know, that might be the only time a Vanislaad has ever been truly annihilated, instead of bound or returned to Hell. If your precious Prince decides to come to this plane and avenge his creations, he won’t start with me. And yet…where is he? There’s been no sign he knows anything of the condition of his wayward pets. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care.”

“You’re not special, either,” Kheshiri whispered, still smirking. “Your kind love to embrace deadly risks. And that’s the thing about deadly risks: you’ll win right up until you suddenly don’t.”

Natchua flicked the chain, making her wince. “Call your Prince down here if you can, Kheshiri. I’ll put his ass on a leash, too.”

The succubus shifted on the ground to look up at Xyraadi. “I bet you’ve known enough warlocks to recognize the early signs of the insanity. That god complex is always where it starts, isn’t it?”

“Don’t speak to me, dead thing,” Xyraadi said disdainfully. “I must acknowledge, Natchua, she has a point. Obviously I know nothing of your history, or this other warlock you speak of, but I am aware of incidents of mortal warlocks trying to tamper with a child of Vanislaas. He is known to intervene directly in such cases.”

“When he learns of them,” Natchua said, straightening up. “He hasn’t gone after Chase. Vanislaas is one of Elilial’s favored pets, and spends much of his time crouched at her feet like a good dog. His only personal source of information on the comings and goings of this world are reports brought to him by incubi and succubi freshly killed here. Even less is he able to maneuver, at least in this day and age. No, I agree, it’s not a negligible risk, but I’m already operating on a short timetable. It’ll all be moot before he can do anything, and likely before he learns of it.”

“Still, there are safer and easier avenues that can be pursued before you embrace that particular risk. May I see that, please?” She directed her gaze to the Wreath shadow-jumper still dangling from Natchua’s fingers.

She paused for only half a second before tossing it lightly to the khelminash. The twisted double ring drifted to a stop in midair as Xyraadi held up her hands, finally coming to rest between them. An intricate circle of runes in white and violet appeared between her fingers around the talisman.

“These things are crafted by my people,” she said, watching the runes shift about like the calculations of an abacus. “The Dark Lady trusts the Wreath only up to a point; they are not told everything about the functions of their tools. If one knows how, one can track where a talisman has…been…” She trailed off, narrowed her eyes in suspicion, and then turned a downright incredulous stare on Kheshiri.

The felled succubus began shuddering with silent laughter.

“Oh, don’t tell me,” Natchua exclaimed.

“One can also erase its history quite easily,” Xyraadi said in open annoyance, “if one knows how, which no humans and surely none of her kind should! Who taught you this trick, you insufferable creature?”

Kheshiri pressed her forehead into the ground, still chuckling weakly. “Natchua, my dear, would you kindly remind your associate that I am under her orders not to speak to her?”

“Well, still,” Xyraadi grunted. “I can do things with this that she simply cannot, whatever secrets she has poked her nose into. There are still traces…faint, but extricable. Give me but a few moments, and I can at least track it to the last two, possibly three places it has been. That will mean Second Chances, and then wherever she stashed Hesthri.”

“That’s an exotic name, Hesthri,” Kheshiri murmured. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say it sounds…khelminash.”

Natchua stared coolly down at her while Xyraadi fiddled with the talisman. So Kheshiri hadn’t known her victim was a disguised demon. If she was telling the truth and had placed Hesthri somewhere safe for a human, the hethelax was almost certainly in no danger. Unless…no, Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to take her somewhere saturated with divine magic.

“I have it,” Xyraadi announced, grinning in triumph. “Un moment, Natchua. I shall be back shortly, with our missing friend.” So saying, she vanished in a swell of shadows, still clutching the talisman but not twisting it to activate.

Kheshiri began struggling up to her knees. “Well,” she said somewhat hoarsely, “since we’ve established that I’m not going anywhere until you say so, I trust you won’t begrudge a girl a little self-care.”

Natchua continued staring at her; the succubus turned to give her a questioning look, which she did not acknowledge. She wasn’t interested in making small talk or even eye contact with the demon, but in continuing to analyze her interior structure. True, Kheshiri appeared far too blasé for someone whose last scrap of leverage was about to be taken from her, but she was also a master of appearances and had clear evidence from the last few minutes that a show of fear earned neither sympathy nor lax attention from her captor.

She had not bothered to examine Melaxyna this closely, though in retrospect, Natchua realized it probably wouldn’t have been as easy. Kheshiri’s inner coating of shadow magic was all but undetectable save to a practitioner of considerable knowledge, who happened to be analyzing her quite closely, but once those conditions were met it actually served to make her own magical structure more amenable to analysis. Magic was not perceived directly with the eyes, but some of the principles were similar. The searing threads of bright infernal power stood out the more clearly against a thick backdrop of murky darkness.

Natchua had the stray thought that, given sufficient time to study Kheshiri in detail, she could reproduce this work. Not as a revenant or similar half-measure, but an actual succubus of her own—and possibly better, for what she could examine and understand to that extent, she could improve upon. Not that she had any use for such a thing, nor any intention of acquiring a soul upon which to base one. One succubus was as much as she wanted to handle, and that was with Melaxyna evidently feeling positively toward her.

Whether she meant to or not, Kheshiri more than obliged Natchua’s examination. Perhaps she didn’t know what the drow was doing, or counted on what she did next to startle her into losing concentration. If that was the goal, it didn’t work; Natchua focused all the more closely, but it was a startling thing to behold.

Kheshiri’s body rippled, squirmed, and began to shift. Not into a new form, though; she started with her left hand, flexing the mangled appendage. The color of its skin flickered through several shades, then a few configurations, changing swiftly from the maimed hand of a deft painter to the maimed hand of a muscled and calloused laborer. And amazingly, as she did so, her fingers grew back into place.

That was something to see. According to what she knew of the children of Vanislaas, injuries they took could be healed by a warlock, but they couldn’t do it themselves; anything severe enough that could not be healed would afflict every form they took on until they were destroyed and received a new body on returning to Hell.

Natchua was briefly frustrated when Kheshiri paused to yank the piece of branch out of her thigh with a grunt of pain. The succubus set about healing that, too, which wasn’t as impressive in terms of the physical achievement, but still fascinating. And still supposed to be impossible.

She focused closely as Kheshiri, now almost seeming to preen under the attention, went to work on her severed right arm, regrowing it a fraction of an inch at a time through a series of rapid transformations. The healing of the comparatively minor leg wound had been an entirely other matter, a clever craft of exploiting her own inner workings—now laid bare to Natchua’s intent study. The inhibitions on her shapeshifting ability interfered with the healing, but were not meant to bar it specifically, and Kheshiri had found just the tiniest bit of wiggle room in her component spells using the inherently transitional nature of her physical body. It would have required an immensely focused self-examination and a great deal of practice even to discover this. Most Vanislaads, afflicted with that itch of theirs, couldn’t fix their minds on such a tiny task for so long, nor would it have occurred to them to try. Hell, most mortals couldn’t do it; this was the work of someone trained in deep meditation. Another thing that should have been beyond the reach of a succubus.

The work of regenerating limbs was still impressive, but a more brute-forced measure. While she should have been forced to shift into another form with the same injury, it seemed she could adjust the extent of the stump by infinitesimal amounts with each shapeshift. That explained why she had been so blithely willing to hack off her own arm to escape a trap; even Natchua had been impressed by the guts that took, especially given how quickly and without hesitation Kheshiri resorted to it. That effect was somewhat lessened by this discovery, but it was really no surprise. A Vanislaad would always rely on some hidden trick above anything that required physical bravery.

Kheshiri had painstakingly restored her upper arm and was working on rebuilding her elbow—which, to judge by her grimacing, was more difficult—when the shadows shifted again and Xyraadi returned.

The khelminash had nothing with her but the shadow-jumper and an aggravated scowl.

“I cannot believe what this creat— Zut alors! What is she doing now?”

“Showing off,” Natchua replied, trying to suppress the swell of emotions that came with this new lack of Hesthri’s reappearance. She had been too focused on one thing and another to wallow in worry, but at having this new hope dashed it surged upward to the point of threatening her concentration.

She could reject her heritage all she liked, but Natchua had been raised Narisian. If there was one thing she could manage, it was to master her emotions. Her face and tone were both cold when she ventured to speak again.

“Have you ever known one of her kind who could do this?”

“I have taken pains not to associate with them,” Xyraadi sniffed. “Yet still… No. This is something none of them should be able to do.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Kheshiri trilled. She appeared to be a lot less beaten-down in general than she had moments ago, and not just due to the restoration of her arm, which had extended into the forearm now.

“I gather your trip was unsuccessful,” Natchua said, turning to Xyraadi. Fascinating as it was to watch Kheshiri work, she had seen the method now. Still, she kept the succubus in the corner of her eye in case something else of interest developed.

“Again, we run afoul of the old maxim: the best tricks are simple tricks.” Xyraadi handed the talisman back over, glaring down at Kheshiri. “This abominable pest took the time to lay a false trail! After Second Chances, the next destination was a mountaintop so high the air was scarcely breathable. I managed to pry one more destination out of it, and that was a ruined fortress in the middle of some desert. Hesthri was nowhere in the vicinity of either. I can locate a hethelax by proximity, with little effort, and nothing this one can do would interfere with that craft. She simply went elsewhere after ditching Hesthri. At least twice!”

“A hethelax,” Kheshiri said in surprise, still focused on her arm. “Hah, I was right! It is a khelminash name—those critters have no culture of their own. So, is she the demon’s pet, then, or is that just happenstance?”

“She was barely out of my sight for thirty seconds before you poked me with that dagger,” Natchua exclaimed.

Kheshiri actually paused in her work to look up at her with an obnoxious simper. “You’re not the only one here who’s the best there is at what you do, poppet.”

“It is not inconceivable,” Xyraadi said reluctantly, “that if she already knew how to erase the talisman’s tracking function, she would know that a khelminash sorceress would be able to pry traces from it still. What baffles me is why she bothered. She did not know what kind of being I am before entering Second Chances, of that at least I am certain. That information is known only to those who live there, and the three paladins.”

“Paladins, huh,” Kheshiri murmured. “What interesting lives we all lead, n’est-ce pas?”

Xyraadi took one aggressive step toward her, forestalled by Natchua’s hand on her arm. “She also claimed to be surprised at my presence. Assuming that you’re right, and that that wasn’t a lie… It suggests this is someone so accustomed to playing against people who think three steps ahead in every encounter that she just does so habitually.”

“This really has turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant outing,” Kheshiri hummed, once again re-growing her arm. She had it almost down to the wrist now. “Fresh mountain air and all the flattery I could possibly ask for!”

“Thank you for trying, Xyraadi,” Natchua said. “It was a good idea, and would have made all of this much simpler. I guess now we have to proceed with my original plan.”

Kheshiri shot her a sidelong glance, her expression going still.

“You think you can…what? Alter her composition such that she must tell you the truth?”

“That’s an incredibly sophisticated piece of tampering,” Natchua mused, peering closely at the succubus, who was now watching her back with her full attention, right hand still missing. “Prince Vanislaas could do that… I might be able to, after weeks or months of study. Hesthri doesn’t have that kind of time, though. I can only deal with simple, comparatively brutish measures.”

“Or,” Kheshiri suggested, “you can make a deal with me. All I want in this world is my life and my freedom. I can’t see a single reason why that should be so much as an inconvenience to either of you. Especially since we’re not even in your city anymore!”

The two warlocks exchanged a glance, and did not need to exchange a word. Even assuming they had both been willing to unleash what they now understood was probably the most dangerous Vanislaad in existence on the world with no one able to contain her, there was the fact that Kheshiri had seen and heard a great deal by this point, and if nothing else, was certain to remember the two of them—and Hesthri—as individuals who had severely inconvenienced her in the past. Whatever else resulted from this encounter, she could absolutely not be allowed to go free.

“I can’t make her speak, directly,” Natchua said, reaching out with her mind to touch the strands of magic animating the woman crouched in the snow before her. “But to my eyes, she is chock full of interesting features. Dials I can turn, levers and strings to pull…now that I know how.”

“I warned you,” Xyraadi said warily, “inflicting pain on her will not coerce her to do anything.”

“Oh, of course, I’m aware of that. She doesn’t fear pain, or any sensation. What she fears is the lack of it.”

Natchua clenched her mental grip around the relevant pieces of Kheshiri’s component magic and pulled.

The succubus went still, eyes widening.

“What did you do?” Xyraadi demanded.

“I shut off her physical sensations,” Natchua said with more than a little satisfaction. She raised her hand, a whip of pure infernal fire appearing in her grasp.

Kheshiri reflexively raised her good arm to block the blow; the whip struck her with a brutal crack before Natchua discarded it back into nothingness. The succubus lowered her arm, dispassionately studying the still-smoking line that had been seared across it.

“She feels…nothing?” Xyraadi breathed. “Mes dieux. That, now…that is the only true torture to one of her kind.”

“It would be more correct to say that she feels whatever I decide she feels,” Natchua said grimly, part of her enjoying the growing concern in Kheshiri’s expression. “I believe I can also shut off…yes.”

The succubus’s face went entirely blank. She blinked languidly at them, then poked disinterestedly at the fresh scar across her forearm with the stump of her opposite wrist.

“Even her emotions?” Xyraadi said, clearly impressed. “Ah, mais non. You will not compel a creature of pure calculation—she must have fear to be properly…persuasive.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” Natchua agreed, restoring Kheshiri’s emotional state to its default. The demon’s expression did not change, which didn’t fool her; having had her very fingers in them, so to speak, she could sense Kheshiri’s feelings as clearly as she could read a written page, and as usual her face betrayed little. Now, though, Natchua could see her fear.

She was a little discomfited to find that Kheshiri’s fear for her own well-being was dwarfed by burning determination. And behind that, a blaze of analytical curiosity that seemed like nothing ever shut it off. Unfortunately, she could only see these things; actually tweaking specific emotions in the succubus would require a great deal of time and study that Hesthri could not spare. For now, all she could do was turn the whole apparatus on or off.

Discerning that the physical sensations were far less sophisticated, Natchua decided to change tactics. “Alternatively, perhaps we can apply the carrot as well as the stick.”

Here, too, her ability to achieve specific results was limited. Sensations were simpler things than emotions, relatively simple knots of data as opposed to vast networks spread through the succubus’s entire consciousness. They were only relatively simple, though; their complexity would not afford her any degree of fine control. In fact, all Natchua could really discern in particular came from examining the mental apparatus that made Vanislaads equally responsive to pleasure and pain. That required the matrix of spells animating her to specify those two values in terms she could reproduce.

Which she did.

Kheshiri abruptly heaved upright and then over backwards onto her broken wings, arching her back. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she thrashed in insensate ecstasy, squealing.

Natchua immediately released her grip, and Kheshiri slumped back to the ground, gasping for breath. That was a little harder than she’d intended to push… No, she had to acknowledge, a lot. A sudden burst of sourceless pleasure like that might have neurologically damaged an elf or human.

“Whoops,” she said lightly. “Let me see if I can’t even that out for you a bit.”

This time, she applied a lighter touch when pushing in the other direction. Not too light; Kheshiri immediately jerked, and then turned over on her side, curling up around herself in steadily increasing agony that wracked every nerve in her body. Natchua pushed it harder, in small and steady increments, as Kheshiri began spasming violently and only released her with blood began to spray from her lips.

Again, the succubus flopped against the ground, struggling to breathe through the sheer exhaustion of what she had just been through.

“This,” Xyraadi said very evenly, “is distasteful.”

“I don’t disagree,” Natchua acknowledged. “What about it, Kheshiri? Are you about ready to start cooperating?”

Shakily, and with apparent effort, Kheshiri rolled back over onto her side, slowly raising her head.

The expression on her face was absolutely avid; her eyes practically seemed to glow.

“Where,” she slurred drunkenly, gazing up at Natchua with something very like adoration, “have you been all my life?”

Natchua stepped back in surprise, incidentally causing the fiery chain between them to go taut. She took the precaution of focusing on the magical data that betrayed Kheshiri’s real emotional state, and her own worry began to increase. The fear was still there, but diminished. The determination and curiosity had not diminished, and to them was now added a sense that Natchua could only parse as eager fascination with a newly-revealed realm of possibilities.

Well, shit.

“All right,” she said grimly. “With a relatively little bit of time and effort, I’m quite positive I can isolate the itch function. If none of this is making an impression, ramping that to maximum and denying her any possibility of satisfying it will surely do so.”

The fear rose sharply. As did all the others, suddenly accompanied by a kind of…giddiness.

Shit.

Kheshiri began crawling through the half-melted snow toward Natchua’s feet, provoking her to back away.

“Oh, you have such potential,” the succubus cooed, and Natchua was distinctly alarmed by the very sincere fondness that had begun to bloom in the demon’s mind. Could she possibly be faking emotions inside her own head? Could anyone do that? She was probably clever enough to realize that if Natchua could inflict them, she perceived them on some level… “You’re so close, you know? The instinct is there, but you have no technique, no control.”

“Excuse me?” Natchua snapped. “I have no control? Who’s the one crawling on the ground like a dog at my feet?”

“It was a good effort!” Kheshiri said sincerely, rising up to her knees and beaming up at her. “For an amateur. But consider: you’ve put me in a position where you have all the power, and all I have is my leverage. You know, now, exactly how much abuse I can take—which is to say, everything you’re capable of dishing out, and more. You know I can’t give you my only card just like that. You know you can’t force me to. So this is where we are: if you want your friend back, you are going to have to provide me with some…assurances.”

Natchua stared down at her, eyes slitted. Kheshiri gazed back, but the drow was hardly seeing her. She was examining, not the woman kneeling in the snow, but the bundle of magic that formed her, and what information she could interpret from the plainly written emotional state behind those crystalline eyes.

Kheshiri remained silent for nearly a minute while Natchua looked, and frantically thought, and finally was forced to the bitter conclusion that nothing in her arsenal was going to overcome this infernal creature’s power of will.

Xyraadi cleared her throat. “In my day, there was a great adventure over the creation of an artifact which could apply perfect control to a Vanislaad demon. If it could be found…”

It was a forlorn hope, even in the best case scenario; Xyraadi was grasping at straws, even disregarding what Natchua had to tell her now.

“Yes, a collar, I encountered word of it when I was pumping my contracted djinn for potential resources. It’s in the possession of Razzavinax the Red now.”

“A dragon?”

“Yes.”

“Merde.”

That was all the discussion there need be of that. Parting a dragon from one of his treasures required nothing less than a crusade.

Natchua clenched her teeth, seething, and finally acknowledged defeat. “What is it you want, Kheshiri?”

Satisfaction surged in the succubus, but she had the good taste not to betray it on her features. Natchua had no intention of relaxing this awareness of the demon’s emotions now that she’d discovered how to detect them, but at moments like this it was more annoying than useful.

“Freedom,” Kheshiri answered promptly, “and security. Those are all I was after in the first place; I will require that you guarantee them on oath before the eyes of your contracted djinn.”

That was no surprise; it was a standard provision of infernal contracts. A vow witnessed by the djinn carried serious consequences if it was broken. The djinn in question would immediately know of it, and a warlock considered forsworn would never get cooperation from any other demon or warlock again. Worse, they were likely to become the target of persistent predation, both by certain demons who took it upon themselves to punish such transgressions, and more opportunistic figures who would seek to take anything useful or valuable in their possession, secure in the knowledge that no one on hell or earth would defend them. A forsworn warlock was pitifully easy to find; the djinn were gleefully happy to send everyone who asked (and some who didn’t) right to them.

“But now,” Kheshiri crooned just as Natchua opened her mouth to answer, “I have an additional requirement.”

Natchua heaved an annoyed sigh as the succubus paused, apparently for effect. “Well?”

Kheshiri’s tail began whipping back and forth behind her, very much like an ecstatic dog’s. “I like you, Natchua. You are just so…fascinating. So very full of possibility!”

“Oh, no you fucking don’t, you—”

“That is the deal, dearest. I’m going with you. Whatever it is you’re up to, I am in.”

“I will see you damned first,” Natchua stated. “Again. Harder.”

Kheshiri grinned broadly. “You’ll come to value me in good time, my love. But for now… Do you, or do you not, want to see your dear Hesthri again?”

She stared down at the succubus, and through her, and saw an intractable wall she had no way of getting past.

“I told you not to torture a Vanislaad,” Xyraadi said wearily. “Congratulations, you have discovered the worst case scenario.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Natchua exclaimed, her voice rising in agitation. “Not now, and not in the future! I simply can’t ride herd on this creature while I deal with— With everything else.”

“Ahh,” Kheshiri breathed, still looking up at Natchua like a starving woman might look at a steak. “But don’t you see? What you’ve showed me is so much more than ways to hurt me or mess me up. You can do things for me…thing I would not have believed possible. I don’t care if you’re aiming to topple Elilial herself. Whatever you’re up to, I’m certain I have done madder things just to see if I could. I’ll earn that trust, my dearest.”

Natchua scowled at her. For just a moment, there, only the knowledge that killing her would be the same as throwing a gauntlet at the feet of Prince Vanislaas himself kept Kheshiri from being blasted off the mortal plane entirely.

“And there is still the short term,” Kheshiri added after a pause, smirking. “Dear Hesthri is not in any danger…immediately. She has plenty of air, at least I’m pretty sure. You probably want to resolve this before there’s a flood, though.”

A flood… Some cavern at the waterline below Ninkabi? No, too obvious; Wreath shadow-jumpers had no limit on the distance they could travel, and something like two thirds of the planet was covered by water.

“So,” Natchua said finally. “Guarantees of freedom, security…” She twisted her lips bitterly. “…and participation. Those are your terms?”

“You won’t regret this,” Kheshiri promised, and somehow the fact that she was absolutely sincere, as far as Natchua could tell from perusing her emotions directly, was not reassuring.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Natchua held up a hand. “We have a starting point, not a deal. Invoking a djinn will have to be done in a secure environment, and before that…” She turned to the other demon present. “Xyraadi, does Mr. Agasti still actively practice contract law?”

“For this,” Xyraadi said with grim approval, “I believe he will gladly step out of retirement.”

Natchua found, at least, a little satisfaction in the abrupt disappearance of Kheshiri’s smile.


It turned out her hunch was right; it was a cavern at the base of the canyon below Ninkabi after all. The place was dark, dank, and filled with the sound of rushing water, but at least it was somewhat upstream of the city and thus didn’t reek of sewage.

The cave had evidently been abandoned for a long time, to judge by the rotted state of the old barrels and crates that remained, but it looked to have been used as a smuggler’s den at some point. Natchua was rather curious how Kheshiri had found the place so quickly when she had apparently only been in Ninkabi for a short few days and spent almost none of it unsupervised or outside the Inquisition’s headquarters. If the wretched woman could be trusted in the slightest, she might well turn out to be more useful even than Melaxyna, but that was a comically huge “if.” At minimum, she could be pumped for a lot of information, which Natchua meant to be about as soon as possible.

But this was more urgent.

Hesthri had not been sitting on her claws like some damsel in distress. The old tunnel entrance to the cave had been boarded, bolted, and barred, but despite having been down there less than an hour and in pitch blackness, she had almost gotten it open. The half-rotted boards were now lying about in shreds, and finding the iron door itself rusted shut, she had begun laboriously bashing into the surrounding stone with her blunt claws.

Now Hesthri spun, crouching and raising those claws in a threatening pose even as she squinted against the glare of the hovering flame Natchua had conjured over her shoulder.

“It’s me,” Natchua said, stopping and waiting for Hesthri’s eyes to adjust. The hethelax was still in her fancy costume, now soaking wet, but had removed her disguise ring at some point to reveal her armor plates and claws. “Hes, I’m so sorry this took so long. I was forced to negotiate with that damned succubus. Are you—”

She broke off and started to rear back as Hesthri abruptly charged her. Natchua was by far the quicker of the two, but on simple instinct she did not evade the rush as she could have. Maybe she deserved a punch across the jaw, after all.

None such came. Instead, Hesthri nearly toppled them both over, wrapping her arms around Natchua in a desperate embrace and burying her face against the drow’s collarbone.

Natchua had to struggle to keep them both balanced upright for a moment, but then found herself wrapping her own arms around the demon in turn.

“Did she hurt you?” she asked quietly.

Chitin armor chafed her skin slightly as Hesthri shook her head. “I wasn’t… I’m sorry, Natch. I just wasn’t sure you’d come.”

“Of course I came,” Natchua said sharply, then tried to inject a little feeble levity into the situation. “After all the trouble I went to, to summon you?”

That only brought to mind exactly what trouble that had been…which hadn’t seemed like a lot of trouble at the time, but was definitely troubling her now. This was the second time that night she’d had Hesthri’s arms around her. The first person who had touched her with any kind of affection since…since Jonathan. Who had been the first since Juniper had put an polite end to their occasional fooling around over a year ago. There hadn’t been much in the way of warmth or closeness in House Dalmiss. This, now, was warm, and comforting, and safe, and oh shit she was in trouble.

“After all,” Hesthri said, emitting an exhausted little chuckle of her own, “aren’t we all in this to die?”

“Not like this,” Natchua said fiercely. “Not alone in the dark. We may die, but we won’t be abandoned or forgotten. Nobody gets left behind.”

Hesthri clutched her tighter for a few long moments, before finally pulling back. Her expression, as she stared closely at Natchua’s face in the firelight, was intensely curious. As if she were studying a puzzle she couldn’t quite work out.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Well. Mission accomplished, after a fashion. We’ve got what we came for, but there have been some new complications I’ll have to bring you up to speed on. For now, let’s get the hell out of here.”

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15 – 25

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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.

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15 – 24

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“The whole complex is larger than the club and Mortimer’s apartment, of course,” Xyraadi said as they stepped out of the stairs back into the hall behind Second Chances. “There are storerooms and the kitchen on the same level as the nightclub, and passages throughout to connect them. On the level below are apartments for the revenants.”

Natchua came to a stop; a few more yards and they’d be back in the club and unable to speak as freely. She could already hear the music. “I don’t suppose the front door is the only door?”

Xyraadi shook her head. “Not hardly, I am afraid. The main kitchen has a door onto a small tunnel-alley, there are two discreet exits onto side streets on the lowest level… They are, in theory, bolted shut, but they can be opened. Mortimer said both were at one time when the local Eserites decided to visit and make some kind of point, as Eserites do. There is also a door in one of the storerooms which opens onto a chamber in the next property over, left from when the two were combined. That one is sealed, plastered over, and has crates piled in front of it on our side. But it is still, in a sense, a door. There are also windows on several of the hallways on this level and most of the apartments below. They overlook a practically unclimbable drop into the canyon, but of course that will not deter a Vanislaad.”

“Hnn.” Natchua chewed her lip in annoyance. “I don’t suppose your ward network told you where she came in, or you wouldn’t have listed them all.”

“Just so,” Xyraadi admitted. “And it should have. I believe whatever method she is using to counter the wards works by distributing the signal generated by her presence across them evenly. This also makes it impossible to locate her.”

“Crafty,” Natchua said with grudging admiration. “And impressive for someone who can barely focus long enough to do magic.”

“It is impressive chiefly because it does not rely overmuch on magical skill,” said the khelminash. “Provided one has an understanding of how ward networks operate, I can think of several ways it could be done with enchanting supplies which, I am given to understand, are now available in shops.”

“Of course, there’s a simple counter to it…”

“Bien sur,” Xyraadi said with a cold smile. “It will not work on individual, localized wards.”

“Wouldn’t you have to set those up individually, though?” Hesthri asked. “And…she’s already here. I’m not sure what good that does us now.”

“Well…it depends on how urgent the danger is,” Natchua mused. “What chokepoints would she absolutely have to pass through?”

“Assuming, as we have, that she will seek audience with Mortimer, only the one on the stairwell to his apartments. That is warded, as are all of his windows. Warded not just to alarm, but to repel.”

“And we can’t assume she’s foolish enough to stumble into that,” Natchua said, eyes narrowed in concentration. “So she needs to either defeat the wards or render them irrelevant. Hmmmmmm. These storerooms you mentioned, what’s in them?”

“Everything necessary to run a public house in this day and age, which is much. Foodstuffs, wines and spirits, tools, supplies. Also many substances made from and for alchemy, and enchanting. I regret that I understand little of their use and nature as yet; when I was last on this plane such crafts were the province of a very few well-educated specialists.”

“That is a smorgasboard for someone as inventive as Kheshiri,” Natchua said, grimacing.

“There is also the club itself, filled with the trendy, rich, and beautiful of this city,” Xyraadi added. “I understand this Kheshiri is considered an extraordinary threat due to her diverse skills, but we should not forget that the children of Vanislaas are inherently at their best when maneuvering socially.”

“Um…” They both turned to Hesthri at her hesitant voice. “I…assume the both of you could identify a disguised Vanislaad in person, if you were close enough?”

“Provided I knew to look for one, yes.”

“You saw my method; it is not difficult, but would create quite a scene if performed in public.”

“Okay, so…maybe we work with that?” the hethelax suggested. “If she knows she’s being hunted, she’ll bolt. Or…possibly get aggressive, but that’s not really a Vanislaad’s first choice of action, ever. It’s more likely she’ll play to her strengths.”

“Getting her out of the club would be the kind of small victory that could lead to a large defeat,” Xyraadi replied, shaking her head. “Even if we are to disavow responsibility for whatever she does to the city—or wherever else she goes—it is just as likely she will only try again, later, and better prepared.”

“Right,” Hesthri said with a little impatience, “but I assume you could place individual wards on all the doors and windows a lot faster than you could build a whole maze of them to cover the entire place.”

“Oh, I like that,” Natchua breathed. “You know how to make a ward trap that will snare a succubus?”

“And disguise it so it is indistinguishable from the existing ward network,” Xyraadi replied, her own voice growing eager. “Then we have only to make a show of being on her tail, and she will flee right into a trap. Well done, Hesthri!”

“You’d better take care of that,” Natchua added. “I don’t know my way around here and no matter how careful I am, I could cause a problem trying to add to an established ward network.”

“Agreed. I will see to this, whilst you two try to locate our quarry. Once I have changed the locks, so to speak, we can make a more overt show of our presence. It should be possible to reveal ourselves to a creature as canny as Kheshiri without frightening the patrons. Your means of detecting Vanislaads, it is different from mine?”

The drow nodded. “Heavily reliant on proximity, though. Right now all I can say with certainty is that she’s not here in this hall with us. Beyond that… To find her, I’ll have to stumble across her while actively focusing.”

“There’s a good chance she’s in the club somewhere, looking for a patsy she can use to get at Mortimer somehow,” Hesthri suggested. “If you go in there and circulate, well, that looks pretty normal. That’s what people do in clubs. If you started pacing the back halls and storerooms and she sees you doing so, that’ll tip her off, so it’s best not to do that until we have the trap set. If you do happen to spot her before Xyraadi is done, we’ll be able to finish this faster, but if not, it shouldn’t damage the plan.”

“And what will your role be?” Xyraadi asked. “I mean no offense, Hesthri. But you can neither attune wards nor, I presume, see through a succubus’s camouflage.”

“On the contrary.” Natchua stepped past the hethelax and reached out to rest her palm on Hesthri’s forehead. Despite the disguise charm, she could feel the hard shell protecting her skull as clearly as she could the threads of infernal magic woven through her aura and her very genes. Closing her eyes, she fixed upon these, isolating the thin but important stings binding Hesthri to herself. She had not imposed rigid conditions on the hethelax, but they were warlock and demon, and had a contract.

“This is her favorite trick,” Hesthri explained to Xyraadi in a disgruntled voice, though she kept obediently still while Natchua worked. “Modifying demons on the fly. She keeps giving Melaxyna new tricks which a succubus should probably not have. I guess it’s my turn, now.”

“Indeed,” Natchua said, opening her eyes and stepping back. “There; you’re not modified, I simply connected my perception spell to you. I’ll be able to sense Kheshiri’s presence if you get near her, too. And you should be able to recognize her the same way.”

“Uh, how?” Hesthri asked skeptically. “I’ve been involved in more magical experiments than I like, and I’m here to tell you that if you give somebody an entirely new suite of senses you shouldn’t expect them to do anything useful with them before getting some practice.”

“And that’s exactly why the standard best practice is to piggyback them onto existing senses,” Natchua replied in a dry tone. “If you see someone surrounded by a bright red aura, that’s our mark.”

“And it follows logically that you’ll be able to find me with this, as well?”

“Of course.” She hesitated before continuing. “It’s not permanent, Hes. I can locate you anyway, if I need to, it’d just take some concentration. I don’t want you to feel like you’re being put on a leash.”

Unexpectedly, the demon gave her a warm smile. Natchua, not knowing quite how to react to that, fell back on Narisian blankness to conceal her own confusion. Getting a grip on Hesthri’s personality was proving to be an ongoing challenge; she was shyly submissive one moment and maternally sassy then next, and then there would be surprising little glimpses like this one. It had only been a few days, but Natchua was no closer to getting a sense of what the woman thought or felt about anything.

Breaking away from Hesthri’s unaccustomed smile, she found Xyraadi gazing at her with an expression of concentration and concern.

“What is it you are doing, in the end?” the khelminash asked softly.

“I assume you mean beyond chasing down our succubus?”

“You said you planned to meet your own death; it sounded as if you meant it to be soon. You spoke of using your powers against an enemy most would not dare challenge. I wonder, now, what prompts such a young woman to become such a skilled warlock, and then expend her life to destroy another. Who are you trying to kill?”

Natchua hesitated again. This wasn’t the time or place to have this discussion… But this was exactly the entire reason she had come here and sought out Xyraadi. Brushing it off seemed like a bad idea, and dissembling a worse one. Her whole plan hinged on the khelminash understanding what she was about, and hopefully agreeing with her.

Well, hell with it. So far she’d done well at dealing with each new crisis as it came and putting off the blowback till the unknown future.

“Elilial,” she said simply.

Xyraadi actually cringed, as if the idea physically pained her. “Oh, ma petite, no. Many warlocks have sought to turn the Dark Lady’s power against her. You only place yourself at her mercy, by doing this.”

“Hell, I know that,” Natchua said, controlling her irritation but not troubling to expunge it from her face as a good Narisian should. “I know of only two ways to kill a god, and since I’m not Tellwyrn and don’t know how to make an Enchanter’s Bane, that’s out. Elilial won’t die by my hand, or probably anyone’s. But she can be hurt.”

“Not by the likes of you or I,” Xyraadi said bitterly.

“You are wrong,” Natchua replied, not having to force the intensity that filled her voice. “Six years ago, she had the Black Wreath summon her seven daughters to this plane, to inhabit human hosts and infiltrate mortal society as part of her master plan. Someone interfered, the summons went awry, and six of the archdemons were destroyed. The seventh is… Actually, I know her, and she’s quite personable. Her memory was obliterated and she’s nothing at all like the Vadrieny of history. Elilial can be hurt, and hurt badly, by the intervention of we pitiful mortals. It’s not about how much power you have, or what kind of power, but about striking precisely at a vulnerable point. Well, she’s in one of those. She’s gearing up toward what looks to be her ultimate plan against the Pantheon and the whole thing is in a shambles. The archdemons are lost, the Black Wreath has been reduced to a fraction of its strength by unlucky encounters with the Empire, various adventurers, and a kitsune who used to teach magic at my school. Now is the time, Xyraadi, and there will never be a better. I mean to be in position and prepared, and I expect it to cost me everything. But when the moment comes, I’ll be there to yank the rug out from under whatever the old bitch is doing.”

“Pourquoi?” the demon whispered.

“Could you cut that out?” Natchua said irritably. “I don’t speak any Glassian beyond ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘shit.’”

One corner of Xyraadi’s mouth twitched sideways in an abortive little smile. “Désolée,” she quipped, then her expression sobered again. “Why would you do this? You are so young. There is so much good you could do in the world that will not cut short all the potential of your life, Natchua.”

“Why?” Natchua hissed. “That’s really the question, isn’t it? Why should she get to do this? Elilial’s every recorded interaction with anyone has consisted of her whining about how unfair the Pantheon has been and how she only wants justice, or justifications about how her Wreath protects the mortal world from demons. I call bullshit. Scyllith being worse doesn’t make her justified. The fact that there hasn’t been a Hellwar in thousands of years doesn’t absolve her of flooding the world with slaughter-crazed demons! The Wreath is psychotically cruel even to its own people, to say nothing of anyone else who gets in their way. And what about the demons, hmm? Even assuming for the sake of argument that she can’t undo all of Scyllith’s handiwork, Elilial has all the knowledge and powers of a god, and what has she done to help the denizens of Hell? Your people, the Rhaazke, a few others have benefited from her reign—so long as they bend the knee and obey. And since you went to a lot of trouble to leave and take up arms against her cause, I assume I don’t have to tell you about the drawbacks. She could have done something to heal or protect at least some of the demons, but no, that would mean she loses reliable weapons to throw at the Pantheon’s servants in her obsessive crusade. Elilial thinks her grudge entitles her to plant her hooves on whoever’s face she wants. You ask why? That’s what I want to know. Why should we take it?”

By that point, Natchua’s fingers had balled into fists and she was baring her teeth. Hesthri stared at her, wide-eyed, while Xyraadi’s face had shut down into the blank expression of someone experiencing a powerful emotion she didn’t want to share.

“No, I’m not going to kill her—I do know my limits, despite how it can appear. But she can be hurt, and I am going to hurt her. And when I do, she’s going to know exactly why. Elilial can have the rest of her eternal life, but she’s going to spend it with my face hanging in her memory to remind her that there is a price.”

Xyraadi inhaled slowly, then blinked her eyes once. “Well, then. Back to the matter at hand. Hesthri, I apologize for asking it, but I believe this will work best if Natchua and I use you to coordinate. She can locate and reach you at need; may I have your permission to invoke your presence when I finish the wards, or if I need to send Natchua a message earlier?”

Natchua looked at Hesthri’s suddenly unhappy expression, then back at Xyraadi. “What? Invoke her presence? What are you talking about?”

“It’s not infernal craft, strictly speaking,” Hesthri said quietly. “Just something the khelminash can do, inherently. Works on hethlaxi, khaladesh and horogki. They can sense our presence if they concentrate on it. Those of a high enough bloodline can focus on a ‘lesser’ demon and call them. Not summon like you would across the dimensions, it’s more like a persistent itch that gets worse if we don’t go to them. And…I don’t mind,” she added directly to Xyraadi, “in this one case. Because there’s a clear need, and because you’re the first of your kind to offer me a choice in the matter.”

Xyraadi smiled and inclined her head deeply. “We are all of us exiles in this land, after all. It behooves us to show respect to each other, oui?”

“Okay, we have a plan,” said Natchua. “And I think we’ve given her more than enough of a head start. Unless you have more to add?”

“We could fine-tune it forever, but this is enough to begin,” said Xyraadi, nodding. “I agree, it is now time for haste. Be discreet, s’il vous plait.”

She inclined her head toward them again, then turned, and glided the rest of the way down the hall. Her appearance shimmered back into the form of a human woman and she rounded the corner into the club itself.

“The Glassian isn’t going to stop any time soon, is it,” Natchua grumbled.

“I don’t think she’s doing it to be difficult, or pretentious,” Hesthri said softly. “It means something to her. When she first came to this plane, it was in Glassiere, yes? And isn’t that where she had her old adventuring career? I’d think you could relate, Natchua. Cutting ties with the culture you came from and forging a new identity of your own choosing.”

“You’re a lot more perceptive than I was expecting,” Natchua said frankly as they made for the end of the hall themselves. “What else do you think about her?”

“I think you have her on the hook,” Hesthri replied. “She tried to shut down her face, but you really struck a chord with that little speech. And not just for her,” she added under her breath.

Natchua glanced at her, and then they had stepped out into the dimmer light of the club floor. She had to lean closer to be heard over the music and conversation.

“I’m going to meander around the edges of the room. I’ll stick out here, no matter what; you can blend a bit better, so try to do a few passes through the dancers and whatnot, see if anybody sets off your perceptions. If you find her, try to stay near her if you can do so without spooking her. I’ll be coming right toward you if that happens.”

Hesthri nodded to her, then turned and slipped away, swiftly managing to fade into the crowd.

The large nightclub itself could be understood as a series of ripples expanding from the stage, she decided while slowly pacing around the uppermost tier and sweeping her eyes across the whole space. Directly in front of the stage on which the small band of revenant instrumentalists were playing was the dance floor, a broad space whose floor was completely hidden by a layer of artificial mist. It was quite crowded at the moment, the dancing energetic as befit the upbeat music currently being performed. That mist could be dangerous, Natchua privately thought; any tripping hazard dropped in there would be invisible. Agasti probably knew what he was about, though.

Beyond that was a ring of tables, mostly small to accommodate groups of three or four at the most, on the same level as the dance floor and providing an easy flow between them; dancers would retire to the tables to catch their breath as others relinquished their seats to answer the call of the music. There was another tier of tables about three feet up out of the mist, reached by short flights of steps in four different places. These tables were larger, with more comfortable chairs, several in booths with deep couches backed up against the low wall that separated them from the uppermost level.

That tier circled the room on the three sides which did not contain the stage. Directly across from the performers on the uppermost level was the bar; to the left of that was the steps down from the front door. Opposite the door sat a general-purpose area which consisted of mostly standing room near the banister separating it from the next tier down. There were armchairs and couches tucked into dim recesses along the back walls created by the artificial stonework designed to make the club resemble a cave—canoodling spaces, several of them currently in use.

Natchua made a slow pass from the hidden door back to the entrance, then back past the bar and across the seating area beyond it, then back. She made no attempt to disguise the fact that she was studying people as she passed them, most of whom studied her back, though she curtly rebuffed the few approaches she deigned to acknowledge at all.

On her second pass she stopped at the bar to buy a cocktail; the other clubbers she couldn’t care less about, but the bartender and bouncer were both watching her closely. They hadn’t had the chance to be appraised of the situation, and this whole mess could get suddenly a lot more complicated if she managed to get on the bad side of the staff.

Natchua had spent most of her time on the surface on a dry campus, and knew very little of cocktails save a few names she’d heard in passing. Picking one at random, she discovered that a Punaji Sunrise was a layered drink which cost far too damn much, and also, she didn’t care for sweet liquour.

It served well enough as camouflage, though, and she carried her regrettable choice of drink back toward the seating area and took up a position at the rail, overlooking the whole club, where she occupied herself people-watching and taking occasional tiny sips.

Nothing set off her senses. She was acutely aware of the latent infernal magic in the walls, Agasti’s very careful ward network, and of course the revenants were like beacons. But that was it; no hint of a disguised succubus in her vicinity.

She, however, was rapidly becoming the subject of more interest than the band; people all over the club were looking at her with various degrees of surreptitiousness. At this point, after she’d been pacing about for a good ten minutes, almost everyone not fully engaged in their own conversations was gawking at the drow, many of them whispering to each other.

The first two people to approach her she refused to acknowledge entirely, giving them just enough sidelong focus to be certain they weren’t disguised Vanislaads; the first retreated with good grace, the second muttering curses at her under his breath. The third was a pale, red-haired woman who stood out in Ninkabi nearly as much as Natchua did and also wouldn’t leave her alone until she casually held up a palm and conjured a ball of black fire.

After a certain point, the pack hunters came out.

“So,” drawled the boy in the lead of a group of four who actually surrounded her. “Is it true all dark elf women are lesbians?”

Natchua took another tiny sip of her drink, repressing a grimace. She was still facing the rail, but the formation had ringed her to the point that young men were in her peripheral vision on both sides. For a moment she considered disregarding them like all the rest, but this time felt moved to administer an admonishment. She, obviously, did not feel in any danger here, but that might not be true for most women finding themselves penned in by a group of men.

Slowly, she turned around to meet the eyes of the ringleader who had spoken. Young, well-dressed…not bad looking, but he didn’t look to be even college-aged, if she was any judge. She was actually surprised the doorman had let him in. In silence, she studied each of his companions in turn, finding them to be more of the same, before finally returning her focus to him.

“As far as any of you are concerned, it’s true.”

Two of them scowled, one grinned, and the alpha male laughed aloud. “Well, I bet I could change your mind!”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve rendered countless women entirely celibate.”

“So, what brings you to Ninkabi, gorgeous?”

“You are boring,” she informed him.

“Hey, now,” he protested, finally beginning to look a little annoyed, “I’m just being friendly, here. Why come to a nightclub if you’re gonna brush everybody off, huh? You don’t seem to be with anybody.”

“She’s with me,” Hesthri announced, slipping between two of them with surprising deftness and taking Natchua by the hand. “And she owes me a dance. Scuze us, gentlemen.”

Natchua allowed herself to be led away, handing her mostly-full drink to one of her admirers in passing. Hesthri tugged her down a flight of steps and then another until they were on the bottom level, lurking against the rail. Only then did the hethelax turn to face her, looking distinctly put out.

“Be honest, Natch: how close were you to making a big, violent spectacle that would blow this whole thing apart?”

“Do you honestly think I have no more self-control than a child?” Natchua retorted. “I wasn’t going to do anything to them. And they weren’t going to do anything to me, despite what they may have thought.”

“That’s your whole problem, you just do things. Never a thought for how they’ll—” She broke off, glancing to the side. “Never mind, I’m sorry. I didn’t seek you out to lecture you. Of course, then I saw you apparently doing your best to be the center of attention!”

“I was just standing there,” Natchua complained. “Do you know how much effort I put into being sullen and hostile to try to impress people when I was younger and even stupider? Then it mostly just annoyed everyone. Now that I actually want to be left alone, being standoffish apparently makes me catnip. Humans are completely inscrutable.”

“Context is everything, my dear,” Hesthri said, looking in equal parts fond and exasperated. “This is a nightclub, not a school for adventurers.” She paused, glancing about; this close to the stage their low conversation was probably not easy to overhear even by the people at the nearest tables, but several of those were nakedly watching them. “Speaking of which, we’re still on display, here. Come on.”

“Come on where?”

“To the closest thing to privacy on offer,” Hesthri said, again taking her hand and pulling. Natchua resisted her for a moment when she registered that she was being tugged toward the dance floor, but then gave in on consideration. Hesthri was right; staying close together and on the move, practically adjacent to the musicians, was their best bet for having a private conversation.

And so, seconds later, she was stepping into the crowd of moving bodies, slipping her arms around Hesthri, and swirling away together.

The first thing they did was stare at each other in surprise from inches away.

“You can dance!” both said in unison.

“Hey, I was a college student,” Natchua said defensively. “I’ve had plenty of opportunities to socialize, Imperial-style. What’s your explanation?”

Hesthri glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I’m quite fond of the simple pleasures in life. Where I’m from, they’re the only ones available.” She hesitated before continuing, so quietly Natchua could barely hear her over the music. “Jonathan taught me.”

“Oh.” It was a very strange contrast: the silence that fell between them was distinctly strained, and yet they both moved together smoothly, bodies pressed close and easily in step with one another. Natchua, of course, led, and on reflection it made sense that Hesthri would be responsive and a good follower, in this as she probably was in everything. When she chose to be.

Natchua had never gone dancing with Jonathan. This was the first she’d learned about him even being able to. He didn’t seem like the type.

“At some point, we’re going to have to talk about that, aren’t we,” she said with a resigned sigh.

Hesthri raised her eyes finally, meeting Natchua’s gaze. Her expression was strangely soft, and as usual difficult to parse. “If you want to talk about anything, I will listen. But, Natchua, that doesn’t need to be a…a whole thing. I’m sorry for screeching at you about it at first, it was a hell of a thing to drop on me on top of summoning me across…” She paused, glancing about; they were gliding together through the throng of fellow dancers, nobody staying close long enough to be an eavesdropping risk. “It is what it is. It…was what it was. I understand what you did and why. Honestly, I think I understand a lot more than you realize. I think it was generally poor judgment on your part at every step, but I don’t blame you. I think we would be better off figuring out what there is between us rather than obsessing over how he fits into it.”

That, Natchua thought, was an odd way to put it. And she rather wished Hesthri hadn’t chosen this moment with them pressed face-to-face and rhythmically swaying together to do so. The demon actually had a point and it might be a good idea to approach their situation from that angle, but at this particular moment the phrasing made her abruptly conscious that Hesthri was very warm, agile, and slightly more buxom than she.

Natchua had to clear her throat before speaking again. “Anyway, I assume you didn’t come chasing after me to bring that up, either? You made it sound like something was afoot.”

“Ah, yes,” Hesthri said, again looking aside. Natchua could have sworn she suddenly felt just as flustered. “Xyraadi called me over. She was about half-done warding the windows and expected to be finished… Actually, that was a few minutes ago. At the rate she’s going, she might be done by now.”

“Fast work,” Natchua murmured. She wasn’t certain she could have put together powerful wards that fast. Of course, part of what made khelminash such dangerous warlocks was their ability to channel tremendous torrents of infernal energy to brute-force solutions that required great intricacy and care for anyone else. She could almost feel sorry for Kheshiri.

“Also,” Hesthri added, “she’s been pulling aside every revenant she encountered and told them to be aware that the drow is currently working on something for Mr. Agasti. They’re passing it on to one another. In theory, should the worst case scenario break out, the revenants will come to your aid rather than dogpiling you.”

“That’s handy,” Natchua said, though privately she doubted the usefulness of revenants for…anything, really. They were a paltry shadow of succubi and incubi, made with the same hideous method and given none of the powers that made Vanislaads actually dangerous. “Good thinking, I was just wondering how much worse this would get if I annoyed the staff.”

“Yes, some tail-covering was urgently necessary,” Hesthri said seriously. “Any plan that hinges on you not annoying people is just doomed.”

And there it was again. Natchua had known plenty of snarky people—she suspected Tellwyrn might recruit at least partially on that basis—but most of them were just like that, all the time. Hesthri seemed to turn it off and on like a switch.

“Is that all, then?” she asked dryly.

The switch flipped yet again. “You actually do care for him, don’t you?” Hesthri asked softly, gazing into her eyes with a painfully earnest expression. “You may have set out just to use him, at first, but…you do.”

Natchua had to draw in a slow breath to steady herself before answering, and in fact brought them to a stop. They stayed in one spot, still clasped together, while other dancers swirled around them. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that. If you changed your mind, is this really the time?”

“Sorry,” Hesthri said, smiling and lowering her eyes. “No, you’re right, of course. I just found it… Well. He lost his military career because of me, you know. I guess I’m glad at least someone wasn’t too put off by the fact that he once bedded a demon to care for him. That does tend to put people off, but Jonathan deserves to have someone. Even a surly drow.”

“Yeah, well. I’ve had sex with a dryad, which is a whole order of magnitude more dangerous than you. And that’s just the beginning of the reasons I’m in no position to judge.”

Hesthri gave her an inquisitive look. “Now, that story I want to hear. Later, though; Xyraadi is summoning again. Hopefully this is the endgame.”

“Be careful,” Natchua said, releasing her.

Hesthri stepped back, smiled, and disappeared once more into the crowd. And Natchua found herself suddenly feeling oddly lonely. Just a few short days ago she’d had a lover, albeit under false pretenses. The time since had been spent with the expectation of not experiencing that intimacy again, possibly until she died. Just the warmth of holding another person…

Abruptly she whirled and stalked off toward the stairs in the other direction, disregarding the dancers who had to get awkwardly out of her way as she glared at nothing, muttering to herself.

“Oh, good. That’s great, Natch, best idea yet. That’s exactly what you need right now, more personal drama in the midst of all this demon horseshit. Damn it, all I wanted to do was wage war on the queen of demons. When the fuck did this go and get so complicated?”

Natchua reached the stairs to the second level just as a familiar hand took her by the elbow. She turned her head to find Hesthri again slipping up to her, and frowned.

“What is it? I thought you were… Oh, did you find—”

The sharp prod against her midsection made her break off and drop her eyes to the place where Hesthri was holding a dagger pressed against her coat. Actually, she could feel the pressure, not the point, thanks to the substantial architecture hidden under the fabric, but the built-in corset was not designed to deflect blades, and would doubtless be a lot less impressive if put to that use.

She raised her eyes back to the woman’s face, finding it smirking at her with half-lidded eyes. At some point during that frustrating and confusing dance, Natchua had stopped concentrating. Doing so now was pretty much an afterthought, but she focused anyway on the subtle signs that would betray Vanislaad shapeshifting to her.

Yep.

“You want to put it against the throat,” she advised. “Gut wounds take a very long time to kill. Not a smart thing to do to someone with twice your reflex speed who can incinerate you with a thought.”

“Oh, but I don’t want to kill you, darling,” Kheshiri cooed with Hesthri’s voice. “And you certainly don’t want to incinerate me—at least, not if you ever want to see your pretty friend whose face I borrowed again. Now, let’s go find a quiet place to snuggle, cutie pie. We’ve got some business to talk.”

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15 – 23

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“Kheshiri.”

Mortimer Agasti made an impressive figure despite his age, even when sitting down and hunched slightly forward to lean upon the cane planted between his feet. Those dark eyes remained piercing beneath his short frizz of white hair, as if he could unearth Natchua’s secrets simply by staring her down. Of course, the surroundings helped; facing him in his own expensively furnished apartment emphasized who had control, here. He had two more of his revenants flanking him from behind, with Xyraadi off to the side, now in her true form and deliberately positioning herself to emphasize whose side she was on. Natchua couldn’t help feeling a tad less impressive, even with her own escort and all three of them in their dashing finery.

“It would alarm me simply to learn that Kheshiri is once again active in the world,” Agasti continued after a momentary pause in which he grimly stared at each of them in turn. “Imagine how pleased I am to learn she is in my club. If, that is, we are certain it’s that bad. Xyraadi, my dear, you are sure this one did not trip the wards?”

“Quite,” Xyraadi confirmed. “I have examined her with such care as I could manage, when so pressed by the circumstances. I would not swear the craft used to conceal her is something even I could do. This Natchua is a practitioner of exceeding skill,” she added, directing a significant look at the old man.

Agasti met her eyes and nodded. “I hope, as established warlocks one and all, we can agree to eschew any violence, despite the various provocations already rendered here. Such engagements are always more expensive than they are worth, and with Kheshiri on the prowl, we cannot afford to be distracted.”

“Agreed,” Natchua replied, nodding deeply. “And again, I am very sorry for the trouble. We truly did come here with friendly intentions.”

“And you expressed these intentions by unleashing Kheshiri in my backyard?” Agasti retorted, now with a hard edge in his tone.

“I certainly did not,” she said firmly. “I simply…did not take the first opportunity to button her up again. And, as it turns out, that wouldn’t have helped anyway. She did not figure out how to circumvent a Black Wreath soul vessel in one afternoon; even one of us would have been hard pressed to match that feat. She has had, at my best guess, almost two years to work at it.”

“But if you had at least tried, you could have been forewarned,” he said sharply. “Ironic; that would have given you a ready-made pretext to come here and earn favor with me. I would be extremely interested to learn that she was off her leash in my neighborhood. Would you indulge an old man and explain why you, clearly someone who understands the danger a Vanislaad poses in an urban environment, did not immediately act to button her up when you had the power right in your hands?”

“Because you also have the Black Wreath and a new incarnation of the Inquisition prowling around this neighborhood,” Natchua replied. “It seemed to me that between them, they would provide enough pressure to hamper her—and she would give them both trouble.”

“Young lady,” he said, and while she loathed being scolded in that patrician tone she couldn’t quite blame him in this instance, “what could possibly have made you think that was a good idea?”

“I don’t have good ideas,” Natchua snapped, ignoring the shuffling of the two revenants and Xyraadi’s frown at her belligerent tone. “Circumstances have left me wielding powers no sane person would touch against foes no smart person would challenge. There are no good courses of action available to me! I stay one step ahead of my enemies solely by doing whatever mad thing they don’t expect, usually because they can’t conceive of it. And yes, this mostly leads to an endless succession of crises and messes, which I always clean up, and in the process am one step ahead of the Wreath, the Church, and whoever else, moving in a direction they haven’t even thought to look! It’s not pretty, but it works, and I can’t afford to be picky.”

“That’s no way to live,” he said quietly. “By the time you slip up and die, you will be so exhausted you might just welcome it. And at this rate, that will be tragically soon.”

“That is specifically the end toward which I am planning,” she said flatly.

Agasti closed his eyes and shook his head. Xyraadi was still frowning at Natchua, but now more in apparent puzzlement than reproach.

Hesthri cleared her throat discreetly. “Are you sure it’s wise to trust this man to this extent? The khelminash is one thing, since we came here for her specifically…”

“Xyraadi,” Natchua corrected. “Let’s not make this worse by being rude, Hes. Or would you like it if she called you ‘the hethelax?’”

“That’s exactly how most of her kind speak to mine,” Hesthri retorted, narrowing her eyes.

“She is not incorrect,” Xyraadi admitted.

“Anyway,” Natchua continued, her eyes now on Agasti’s, “we came here to ask for trust, and have already gotten off firmly on the wrong foot. Wise or not, I do intend to offer trust in turn. We’re in no position to refuse to.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Agasti said in a deceptively mild tone. “And on the note of trust, may I know whom, specifically, I have the honor of hosting?”

“Ladies,” Natchua ordered, “disguises off.”

“Natch, I don’t think—”

“Do it, Mel.”

The succubus sighed with ill grace, but shifted, and in the next moment was flexing her wings. Hesthri slipped off her disguise ring, revealing her blunt claws and patches of chitinous armor—another reason it had been necessary to give her the loosest clothes.

“These are my friends,” Natchua said simply, “Hesthri and Melaxyna.”

Agasti’s eyebrows shot upward. “You continue to drop the most surprising names, Natchua. Is Professor Tellwyrn aware you’ve liberated one of her captive Vanislaads?”

“Three things I know Tellwyrn can do,” Natchua replied, “are notice that Melaxyna is no longer in the Crawl, figure out who is responsible, and find me. It would seem she feels Mel has served her time. Silence, as they say, gives assent.”

“Mm.” He shifted his gaze to the other demon, expression inscrutable. “Yours is an even more surprising name, Hesthri.”

“You’ve heard of me?” she squawked. “Don’t tell me I’m famous!”

“I’m going to be very put out if that’s so,” Natchua growled, “given how hard it was for me to get your name.”

“Oh yes,” Hesthri spat, “we all know exactly what trouble you went to and what was hard about it!”

“On the contrary,” Agasti interjected as they rounded on each other, both clenching fists, “I highly doubt more than ten people in the Empire know your name, all sworn to confidentiality. But I am both an attorney and a warlock, and privy to a small amount of rather shady Imperial business. Your…anomalous case, Hesthri, is one about which I never expected to hear another word. Usually, unless one is dealing with a child of Vanislaas, when a demon is banished back to Hell, that’s the end of it.”

“Well…good,” Hesthri muttered. In contrast to her aggressive pose of seconds ago, she now appeared to be trying to edge behind Natchua. “I think I’d rather not be as recognizable as this Kheshiri.”

“That is unlikely in the extreme,” he said, “more because of her case than yours. Kheshiri is a figure of historical significance in this part of the world. Specifically, during the Enchanter Wars, she wriggled her way into a position as the unofficial spymaster for House Turombi, where her actions played a major role in shaping the world as it still is today.”

“Oh?” Natchua tilted her head. “This I hadn’t heard.”

“Provinces were rising up in revolt, thanks to the Veskers,” Agasti explained. “I doubt most Imperial citizens would have cared much what happened to the orcs otherwise, but when every bard is pushing for a specific goal, that is typically what happens—especially in the court of public opinion. That is exactly why the Bardic College all but never does this; no government would allow them to move freely, were they in the habit of toppling thrones. But with the whole Empire a feuding patchwork of rebels and loyalists, almost no governing body could maintain order. The exception was here in the Western provinces, thanks to House Turombi carving out a substantial power block by playing both sides against each other and making its own propaganda push to encourage people to embrace a cultural identity that was both Western and Imperial.”

“And all of this…was thanks to Kheshiri?” Natchua said, frowning. She’d been taught this history, of course, but not from this angle.

Agasti nodded. “That is not widely known, of course. But matters became dire indeed when Tiraas fell to the rebels and the Emperor was slain. Lord Turombi proclaimed the capital lost, the Western provinces the true Tiraan Empire, Onkawa the new seat of power, and himself Emperor. Thanks to Kheshiri’s groundwork, these claims were mostly embraced throughout Onkawa, Thakar, and N’Jendo. And not even he knew that a succubus was the power behind his would-be throne. She was that close to being the implicit ruler of her own empire.”

“According to Mel, here,” said Natchua, “by the time she was caught she had replaced the leader of the Black Wreath and taken over the cult. It apparently took Elilial herself to collar her.”

His eyes widened. “Now that is news to me. It is…frighteningly plausible.”

“That’s insanity,” Hesthri protested. “She couldn’t possibly have gotten away with all that. The Pantheon themselves would have intervened if she’d managed to become an actual ruler!”

“And that is why people react the way they do to Kheshiri’s name,” Melaxyna said quietly. “There’s a certain pattern with most of our kind: they cause what trouble they can, and move on when things look like they’re getting too heated. Most would rather abandon their schemes than risk a return to Hell, and most have no real attachment to those schemes anyway. Kheshiri, though, likes to push the envelope. You’re right, she couldn’t have won. But she’d have wanted to see how close she could get, how much she could achieve, and what was finally necessary to bring her down. The fact that it took the Dark Lady in person probably means she counts it as a total victory. I’d been wondering what she could possibly have been doing for two years under the nominal control of some Eserite goon who’s not even a warlock, but I think this Inquisition explains it. It’s rare that she’d have the chance to work under a green dragon and who knows how many priests of multiple cults. This has been a chance for her to practice operating under tremendous pressure and evading notice from powerful foes at close range. And based on the fact that she won’t go back in her bottle, it’s clearly paid off.”

“Natchua,” Agasti said flatly, “I have some sympathy for your position. As little as I understand directly, I can infer much of the rest. This, however, was an extraordinarily foolish thing to do. A creature like that is not a weapon you can wield, but a universal hazard on a scale that threatens whole kingdoms.”

“Once again,” Natchua snapped, “I didn’t release her, and—no. This argument is pointless and we don’t have time for it. You’ve convinced me she needs to be caught, and I’ll acknowledge some responsibility in this, let’s leave it at that. Now we need a course of action.”

“She is somewhere on the premises,” Xyraadi said. “The wards barely reacted to her and cannot pinpoint her; she is clearly employing some manner of stealth beyond their usual type. But the wards were tripped when she entered and continue to faintly register her presence, which means she has not yet left.”

“What is she doing?” Hesthri asked. “Why come here?”

“It is a logical move,” Agasti murmured. “A child of Vanislaas, freshly at liberty, and caught between the Wreath and the Church. Seeking the aid of a neutral party adept at navigating these political currents, and inclined to be receptive toward infernal beings, is a sensible approach. I have been sought out by a number of rogue demons and warlocks over the years.”

“Yes…that fits,” Natchua said, nodding and narrowing her eyes in thought. “By the same token, she’ll be seeking a friendly approach—like we were. The last thing she’ll want is to make an enemy of you.”

“Kheshiri does not think the way you do,” said Melaxyna. “And I say that acknowledging that your squirrelly idea of strategy is about as close to the Vanislaad approach as I’ve ever seen from a mortal, Natch, all madcap improvisation and inscrutable sideways anti-logic. But you, fundamentally, have ethics and a regard for other people, which she does not. So yes, she’ll make a friendly approach to Agasti, but not without leverage.”

“What kind of leverage?” Xyraadi asked quietly.

“Dunno,” Melaxyna replied in a grim tone. “She’s probably looking to pick something up on the fly. The longer she’s loose in this club, the more progress she’ll be making toward that. It’ll take her time to figure out the angles and form a plan, but I really don’t recommend sitting here waiting for her to come knocking. She will, but if you wait till she’s ready, somebody will suffer for it. You’ve got your own revenants to care for, not to mention a whole crowd of customers, and that’s just listing the obvious targets.”

“Then she must be intercepted before she is ready,” Agasti said with a heavy sigh. “Xyraadi, I must lean heavily upon you for aid in this matter. I am sorry to so burden a guest in my home…”

“It is nothing, Mortimer,” she said, turning a warm smile upon him. “You are a true friend and I would not leave you in need. Besides, I have missed this! And to think, when the paladins left, I thought I was done with adventures.”

“The paladins were here?” Hesthri said sharply, almost shoving Natchua aside in her haste to scramble to the front of the group. “Which ones? When?”

“You needn’t worry, they are gone,” Xyraadi assured her.

“That, I think, is not her concern,” Agasti said softly. “All three, Hesthri, just this last summer. I am not averse to discussing it with you, but we have more urgent problems first. As I see it, we must do two things: find Kheshiri, quickly, and find a way to contain her again. This brings us to a potential point of conflict.” He fixed his gaze on Natchua. “Since, I assume, you will insist upon being the one to work on her reliquary.”

She frowned. “Why is that… Oh, yes, I see. You obviously would prefer to stay here; I know you don’t like to go out. No, in fact, that seems to me a perfect division of labor. Xyraadi, Mel, and I are probably more useful on the hunt, while you have the luxury of time to crack this.”

Natchua stepped forward till she was within arm’s reach of him, ignoring the way his three demon companions tensed, and held out the reliquary.

“I suspect what she has done is focused on herself rather than the artifact; I don’t think she had much direct access to it. In short, nothing can ever be the easy way. But hopefully a practitioner of your skill can get some results, with it in hand.”

He stared up at her in silence for a few seconds. Then, carefully reached out and grasped the other end of the reliquary. Natchua released it and stepped back.

“Your good faith is noted,” Agasti said at last. “And what do you intend to do with this once Kheshiri is back inside it?

“If you have a plan, I’m inclined to trust you,” she said frankly. “If you’d rather not be burdened with that, you can give it back. I was just going to take it to Professor Tellwyrn. According to some of the other faculty at Last Rock, she’s good at making dangerous artifacts disappear.”

“Last Rock,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I might have known. You…really do mean well, don’t you?”

Natchua let a bitter little grin flicker across her face. “Well. The ill I mean is strictly directed at those who royally deserve it. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt in the process, if it can be avoided.”

“That being the case,” he said wryly, “failing to immediately act against a succubus on the loose is an…interesting choice of approach.”

“Did you catch the part where she said she has no good ideas?” Melaxyna said sweetly. “Because you really have no idea how true that actually is.”

Natchua sighed. “I’m surrounded by ingrates, as usual. All right, Xyraadi, can you give us any hints? I’ll understand if you don’t want to give me access to the ward structure, but without it I’m as blind as anyone, here.”

“Just a moment,” Agasti interrupted even as Xyraadi opened her mouth. “While the trust offered thus far is appreciated, there is a limit to how far it goes. I’m afraid having a second child of Vanislaas loose in my club is beyond that limit.”

“Oh, come on,” Melaxyna protested. “Who better to hunt a succubus than another succubus?”

“Mortimer is a kind and very courteous man,” Xyraadi said pleasantly, “so it falls to me to be blunt. That your warlock friend seemingly trusts you means nothing to us, especially as her judgment is very much in question here. I quite agree; having a second Vanislaad running around loose is not acceptable. However,” she added, turning a small frown upon Agasti, “I am also not so sure about leaving her alone with you, Mortimer.”

“I’m hardly alone,” he said, shifting in his chair to smile at one of the revenants. The other reached forward and patted his shoulder.

“Still,” she said skeptically. “Provided the creature is sufficiently contained—”

“I should clarify something at this juncture,” Natchua interrupted. “If you insist on Mel staying here, that’s reasonable and I’ll agree to it—”

“Oh, come on!” Melaxyna repeated, this time in a shrill whine.

“—but I will specify that she is not my thrall or servant. She is my friend, and if she is bound, dispatched to Hell, or in any way mistreated, I will take massive offense. If you think I’m irrational when—”

She broke off with a grunt as Hesthri jabbed her from behind with a fist. “Okay, your point is made, this is all tense enough without anybody making threats.”

“The essence of compromise,” Agasti said gravely, “is that every party gets something they desire, but no party gets everything they ask. I do insist that Melaxyna remain under my own supervision, but I am willing, upon your word that her intentions are not malign, to leave her outside of a binding circle.”

“Mortimer,” Xyraadi warned.

“So long as it is understood,” he clarified, “that I will take any and all actions necessary to protect myself, my employees, and my property should I find a demon in my presence suddenly behaving in a threatening manner.”

Natchua nodded, then turned to Melaxyna. “Is that agreeable, Mel?”

The succubus threw up her hands. “It’s stupid! You seriously want to try hunting down Kheshiri in this place without my help?”

“I meant—”

“Well, of course I’m not going to try to hurt him! I know what we’re here for, and it’s not like I need any new enemies of my own. Hell, if you put a succubus and a warlock alone in an apartment, it’s not the warlock who’s in the more physical danger. Especially when he’s brought his own muscle,” she added, scowling at the revenants. They smiled in unison.

“It’s not strictly a waste of talent,” Natchua pointed out. “Remember, we’re acting on the assumption that Kheshiri is going to come for Mr. Agasti himself at some point. If we can’t manage to nab her before that happens, I’ll feel better if he’s got some extra backup. She won’t have made a move on Second Chances without doing some research and having some idea what to expect, but Kheshiri has no way of knowing there’s another Vanislaad here. In the worst case scenario, you’re still an ace in the hole.”

“Mmm,” Melaxyna hummed, frowning.

“There is also that,” Agasti agreed. “Though of course I shall hope not to have to rely on her. Now, Natchua, much as I am looking forward to having a very detailed conversation with you, I fear we have already spent too much time at this. Helping me contain this mess will go a long way toward proving your good intentions to me. Xyraadi, I leave the matter in your charge. Please direct our guests as you see fit.”

The Khelminash turned to him and executed an old-fashioned curtsy. “Consider it done. Come, ladies, the hunt awaits.”

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15 – 22

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“Okay, but I still wanna know how you’re funding all this, especially since you swing from being such a penny-pinching tightwad to apparently making a day trip to freaking Glassiere for the highest of high fashion.”

“This is high fashion?” Hesthri muttered, plucking at the gilded lapels of her crimson velvet longcoat.

“Buried treasure,” Natchua said.

Melaxyna rolled her eyes. “You know, boss, if you don’t wanna answer a question you can just say so. Nobody needs to sit through your amateur league sarcasm.”

“My sarcasm is more skilled than your sex appeal,” Natchua sneered.

“Oh, burn,” Hesthri crooned, grinning and earning a sidelong scowl from the disguised succubus.

“And I was being entirely serious,” Natchua continued in a low voice, her eyes constantly moving. The three of them were naturally acquiring glances as they navigated through the surprisingly crowded streets of Ninkabi after dark, but no one lingered to try to talk to them or listen in and the pace at which they moved would have made it difficult for anyone to eavesdrop. “I got the idea from Tellwyrn. She funded the University that way: use magical means to locate buried treasure, then go fetch it. Simple. Being Tellwyrn and unable to do anything half-way, she uprooted no less than four abandoned dragon hoards. Even after building the school, the old bitch is probably richer than the Sultana of Calderaas, not that she bothers to care. My needs and aspirations are much humbler. After thousands of years of various adventures this whole continent is riddled with forgotten treasure troves. I just had Qadira point a few of them out to me.”

“Risky, getting directions that explicit from a djinn,” Hesthri murmured. “There’s always a sting in the tail.”

“In this case, it’s that nobody is the only one contracted to any djinn at any one time, and information like that which is universally interesting to anyone who likes money—so, everyone—gets immediately broadcast to everybody they feel the urge to share it with. Which, being djinn, is whoever they consider most likely to ruin your day. I spent some of my downtime in Mathenon jumping to various patches of wilderness and then annihilating some other warlock Qadira either disliked or thought could take me. I’m assuming the first option, since none of them were especially challenging. I picked up a couple of useful knickknacks from them along the way, even.”

“Right, so, basically then, you have functionally unlimited access to money and your whingeing about my requests for supplies is just you being a drama queen,” Melaxyna said sweetly.

“Wealth is not an excuse for profligacy,” Natchua snapped.

“On general principles,” Hesthri agreed, “and also because throwing money around draws attention. It’s the funniest thing,” she added, glancing speculatively at Natchua, “how I keep finding reasons to like you, despite everything and you generally being so…well, yourself.”

“No, the funniest thing is how you keep zig-zagging between groveling submissiveness and needling at me,” Natchua retorted. “Is this some long-term plot to keep me off-balance or do you just have an unstable personality?”

“Bit of both,” Hesthri mumbled, now avoiding her eyes. “It’s… Some of the habits of survival in…where I’m from…translate poorly to…well, anywhere else. I do appreciate your patience with me, mistr—”

“Don’t.”

That harsh syllable put an end to the conversation, at least temporarily, and the three strode through the crowd in silence, letting its noise wash around them. Natchua had done nothing to change her appearance save dressing up for an evening at a trendy nightclub. Drow were merely exotic in these parts; it was the two demons who had to be heavily disguised. She had tried to limit the amount of infernal magic used toward that purpose, having performed a similar spell upon Hesthri as the one on Melaxyna that let her pass undetected through demon wards…in theory. A divine ward would still go off explosively if they blundered into it, but Natchua was confident in her spellwork against any other warlock’s, and anticipated no trouble in slipping the pair of them into Agasti’s club. Beyond the magic suppression, Melaxyna had exercised her native shapeshifting ability to assume the appearance of a brown-skinned Jendi woman with her hair up in a profusion of thin braids, while Hesthri wore a conventional arcane disguise charm that made her look like a human of Tiraan extraction.

Altogether they made something of a spectacle, just walking down the street, and not least because of their formation. The necessity of people getting out of their way—while, in many cases, slowing to gawk at the well-dressed drow and her companions—was limiting their movement speed.

“You know,” Natchua said, glancing to both sides at the pair of them, “this would probably be easier if you two would follow me in single file.”

“Ah, ah,” Melaxyna chided. “The whole approach here is to use the sheer power of making an impression to get access to the club and then Xyraadi, yes? I had assumed that was your purpose in choosing us in particular to come along. Please tell me you actually do know what you’re about and that wasn’t just a coincidental whim.”

“I always know what I’m about, but I don’t necessarily know what you are talking about. As usual.”

“Two is the optimal number of hench-wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch,” Hesthri recited, one corner of her mouth drawing up in a little smirk. “This is universal across cultures and time periods. One, no matter how obedient, is just a friend you’re dragging along; three or more create positioning issues for threat displays, and introduce progressive complications in maintaining control. Girls are pack hunters, Natchua. For every additional female in the pride, the risk of one making a power play on the queen increases exponentially. You have the best possible position with us flanking you.”

“Mel,” Natchua said quietly, “was that spiel anywhere near as accurate as it was creepy?”

Melaxyna leaned forward subtly to look past Natchua at Hesthri, who was now striding along with her eyes forward and a smug little smile hovering about her mouth. “Well, I could argue with every one of the details, but honestly I’m impressed that she has even that solid a grasp on the dynamics. I had to pause for a moment and remind myself which of us was which species of…wench.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted. “What exactly did you do for your previous employer, Hesthri?”

Her expression closed down. “Unspecified servant work. Her demands varied widely with the situation. I learned to pay close attention and understand as much as possible while presuming as little as possible.”

“There’s a sweet spot,” Natchua said in a near whisper, “when working under a noble. You want to be close enough to the currents of power to catch enough loose favor that you don’t starve, but far enough not to get swept up in their schemes. It’s an impossible balance.”

Again, Hesthri glanced at her sidelong, a look as laden with thought as it was fleeting. “You really do get the most surprising things.”

“Tar’naris is a lot like Hell. I suspect the difference is one of degree.”

“No, it isn’t,” Melaxyna said immediately. “You know a phenomenal amount for someone your age, Natch. I recommend keeping your mouth shut about things you specifically don’t know.”

The drow’s jaw tightened momentarily, but the brief hint of anger faded as fast as it had come. “That’s fair. And good advice. I suppose I should be glad to find myself surrounded with so much unending sass that I don’t risk getting a big head.”

“Yes,” Hesthri said in complete seriousness, contrasting Natchua’s light tone. “You should. That is a very real danger for people in your position.”

“The consequences can be fatal or worse,” Melaxyna agreed, drifting closer to tuck one hand through Natchua’s elbow. “We do care, kiddo. I for one would prefer to see as many of us as possible survive whatever the hell is coming next.”

“Don’t call me kiddo,” Natchua grumbled, causing both of them to giggle and Hesthri to likewise step closer and take her other arm.

They turned the corner into the tunnel street which lead straight to the entrance of Second Chances. Once beneath its arch, the more general crowd shifted in composition to knots of strolling and chatting young people in fancy clothes, the mismatched uniforms of those with too much spending money out for a night on the town. It seemed that Agasti’s place was truly the spot to be seen in Ninkabi, to judge by how far back the general crowd morphed into the line waiting to get in.

Natchua and company reached the end of the line and kept going right past it, heading down the center of the street toward the door and ignoring the unfriendly stares they were accumulating along the way. Quite apart from the line-jumping, they were the best-dressed people here—at least, in her opinion. Glassian fashions did tend to lead the world, but they did not tend to reach the Tiraan Empire until a year or so after they peaked in their homeland. Natchua wasn’t personally very sensitive to the dictates of fashion, but quite incidentally what had been described to her as “l’aventure chic” was very much to her own taste, and she had not hesitated to dress her two companions in it as well, despite Hesthri’s skepticism.

She herself wore black, as was her longstanding habit—black and a shade of nearly-black green that, though she hadn’t realized it until belatedly, was the same as that corduroy greatcoat Gabriel Arquin was always wearing. That deep green was the shade of her baggy velvet trousers and the narrow scarf wrapped once around her neck and trailing down her back. Her trench coat was black, and fitted closely to her figure—not to mention equipped with a hidden interior support structure which was very necessary, as its highest button was low enough to clearly reveal that she had nothing on under it. Natchua didn’t usually show off cleavage but it would’ve been a shame to waste the ingenious engineering underneath. Her supple black boots might have passed for Punaji stompers if not for their pointed toes.

As she had been alone on her visit to Glassiere, only her own garments were cut to fit her—or close to it, as she hadn’t time for a proper fitting and alterations and had to settle for the closest thing available to a match for her measurements. The most forgivingly-cut outfit had gone to Hesthri, by necessity; Melaxyna, thanks to her shapeshifting, could all but literally pour herself into any garments she chose. She could also have used it to mock up any clothing she wanted but Natchua was in no mood to deal with the caterwauling that would ensue if she came back from Glassiere with stylish new clothes for everyone but the succubus.

Thus, Melaxyna was garbed in something that might have passed for a low-cut black evening dress if not for its profusion of unnecessary leather belts, gleaming steel buckles, and strategic sprays of raven feathers. It came with leather bracers which bristled with actual spikes, and the most ludicrous shoes Natchua had ever seen. They were described to her as “stiletto heels” and she had bought them mostly just to torment Melaxyna. To her annoyance, the succubus balanced on the absurd things with impossible agility, proving that among them she was the least in need of the strut they added to her walk.

Hesthri’s coat was red velvet, trimmed in gold, and far looser in cut. Her scoop-necked peasant blouse and leather trousers didn’t make much of an impression on their own, but the coat really sold it. The result wasn’t as vampish as the other two, but she looked quite dashing. Privately, Natchua thought that better suited the hethelax’s personality.

They came to a stop alongside the front of the line, before the door to Second Chances and the flat, fiery stares of two revenant demons.

“Do they not have lines in the Underworld?” the female revenant asked in a particularly dry tone. “If you’d like, I have time to explain to you how they work while you’re standing here, not getting in.”

“We’re on the list,” Natchua announced.

The male demon’s expression was openly skeptical, but he did prop his clipboard on his forearm and rest his fingertips upon it as if preparing to leaf through the pages. “And your name is…?”

“I don’t think you understand,” Natchua said pleasantly, raising her chin. “This is a nightclub. We are three amazingly hot young women, one wildly exotic, and all in outfits that each cost more than the reagents for summoning and binding the both of you. We are, by default, on every list.”

“I don’t think you understand, darling,” he replied, lowering the clipboard. “This isn’t a nightclub, it is the nightclub. If you don’t have a name and it isn’t written down on my paper, you get to be grateful that our entrance is out of the wind. Those oh-so-expensive outfits look pretty drafty.”

There were a couple of snickers from waiting club-goers at the head of the line, which Natchua ignored. All her attention was focused on the two revenants. They weren’t true demons, but elaborate constructs of magic around a wisp of a soul—in theory, the same general type of creature as Melaxyna. The succubus, though, was the handiwork of Prince Vanislaas and thus orders of magnitude beyond the capabilities of any mortal warlock. These were like open books to someone who could both read and understand the amazingly complex web of spells and charms of which they were composed.

Natchua could read and understand them as easily as a journal. A journal, specifically, at which she held her own pen.

Nudging their consciousness required the daintiest of touches, not even necessitating any gesticulation or outward sign that she was casting; she barely had to bother shielding her tiny flow of power in a shroud of concealment.

“We,” she enunciated clearly, “are on the list.”

The man—his name was Drake, it was written on his soul—blinked his fiery eyes once, then again raised his clipboard, lifted a page, and scanned whatever was written there. “Ah…so you are. Welcome, ladies. Enjoy our hospitality.”

“Why, thank you,” Natchua said sweetly, already striding past him to where the other revenant—Celeste—was already opening the door for them.

“Oh, come on,” protested a young man in the line behind them.

“You wanna start over at the rear, handsome?” Drake asked him, cutting off the complaints. That was all Natchua heard of the world outside as she and her two companions swept into the interior of the nightclub.

“Please,” Hesthri muttered, just barely audible over the swell of peculiar, syncopated music within, “tell me she didn’t just—”

“Find a way to antagonize our host literally before we got in the door?” Melaxyna murmured back. “Of course she did. It’s Natchua, have you met her?”

“They’re fine,” Natchua said brusquely. “It was just the tiniest—”

She was more surprised than pained when Hesthri jabbed her knuckles into her ribs, though the blow hadn’t been playful. The support framework under her coat was really something else. Natchua turned a surprised frown on Hesthri, who was openly glaring at her. The anger in her eyes wasn’t the least bit diminished by her human disguise.

“That is one of the things I was talking about,” she hissed. “Those were sapient demons. People. Sticking your tricky little fingers into their brains is crossing a line.”

Natchua drew in a breath and let it out slowly, then nodded. “I…don’t disagree. You’re right, Hes. Thank you.”

She seemed surprised by the admission, but it quickly passed, and then she nodded back. “Okay. What’s done is done. Just don’t do it again.”

“Not unless I absolutely have to,” Natchua agreed.

The demon’s expression hardened again. “Natchua.”

“If it’s some hypothetical scenario where the choices are pushing a revanant’s mind or you get maimed or killed or something, I won’t hesitate. But, you’re right, that kind of thing isn’t for casual use. I won’t use it to get us into private with Agasti, I promise.”

“Almost a shame,” Melaxyna commented, perusing the dimly-lit interior of Second Chances. “You could find all kinds of uses for that trick in here, of all places.”

They had drifted to the side, out of the way of traffic, though no one else had yet been admitted through the door behind them. The reason for the line was clear; the club was loud and quite crowded, with every table filled and people twirling about on the dance floor, and even most of the stools at the bar occupied. Second Chances was made up to look like an underground cave, with the bar and stage where the musicians played elevated and a knee-deep sea of fog obscuring the floor. The three were already accumulating some speculative glances—mostly Natchua, actually—but it was a different matter in here. It was dim, the music and noise of the crowd was distracted, and people were generally too occupied with their own revelry to eyeball new arrivals.

Melaxyna’s comment was a reference to the fact that all the staff—servers, bartender, musicians, bouncer—were revenant demons.

“Unbelievable,” Hesthri muttered. “I assume there’s an amazing story behind why the Empire doesn’t shut this place down.”

“I’ll tell you later, if you want,” Natchua offered, leading them past the bar toward a dark corner with a good vantage over the floor. “For now, business.”

“Well, hello there, ladies,” said a young man at the bar as they passed, turning to grin at them. “I must say, you’re a—”

“No,” Natchua said curtly.

“Now, don’t be that way!” he replied, his grin widening. “Let me treat you girls to a round. If you’re half as interesting as you are lovely, I couldn’t possibly find a better use for my time.”

Natchua came to a stop and stared at him. “Do you know the temperature at which human blood boils?”

His grin faltered. “Uh, I don’t…”

She held up one hand and blue-black flamed flickered across her fingers. “Want to?”

He actually edged backward against the bar. “…well, all right then. Enjoy your evening, ladies.”

She turned without another word and continued.

“Oh, Natchua,” Melaxyna said despairingly. “Honestly, we can’t take you anywhere. If that’s how you treat boys who just say hello, what the hell will you do to the ones who’re actually boorish?”

“Actually boil them.”

“You really aren’t much for socializing, are you?” Hesthri asked.

“I assume that was rhetorical. Do I need to remind you that we’re not here to socialize? This clubbing business was a front to get us in. We’re in; now we need to find Agasti, or ideally, Xyraadi herself.”

“Uh huh,” Melaxyna said with a grin as they slipped into their targeted alcove over the dance floor. “Annnd…since you could apparently get us in with your little mind trick, why did you need to jump all the way to the fashion capital of the world and drop a fortune on these costumes?”

Natchua scowled at her. “I was hoping that would be enough. Hes isn’t wrong; messing with people’s heads is not a nice thing to do, and never my first choice of action. For your information, this is literally the first time I’ve been denied entry to any kind of bar or club. Being an attractive dark elf is usually all it takes in the Empire.”

Hesthri rested a hand gently on her upper back, and leaned in close to murmur barely above the noise when Natchua turned to her in surprise, “You know, if you just want to buy and wear pretty clothes, you’re allowed. Being on some suicidal crusade doesn’t mean you can’t find a little joy for yourself along the way. If anything, the opposite.”

Natchua scowled and averted her eyes. “No time for that. All right, it doesn’t seem likely our quarry is just going to come to us. Now that I’m inside the wards, I can probably zero in on a khelminash demon regardless of what protection she has up, but I’ll need to focus. You two run interference with any more bozos who try to pester us.”

“You’re going to quickly wear out our welcome by lurking in the corner muttering to yourself,” Melaxyna said. “Places like this exist to make a profit; providing a venue for the likes of us to flaunt our cleavage is a means to that end. Gimme some doubloons so I can buy us some drinks before you end up having to hypnotize the bouncer.”

“Bozo incoming,” Hesthri murmured.

“The feminine form of ‘bozo’ is ‘bimbo,’ darling,” Melaxyna replied sweetly, and that was all the time they had before a young woman stepped within earshot of them. Given the noise in the club, within earshot was more than close enough to touch.

She was tall, slender of build, and local to judge by her coloring. Unlike everyone else here, staff and guests alike, she was not dressed to be in a nightclub, wearing a sweeping robe that more resembled old-fashioned wizard’s attire than any modern fashion. The new arrival just stood there, uncomfortably close, studying each of their faces in turn.

“And hello to you, too,” Melaxyna said pointedly.

“Bonsoir, mes petites,” she replied, suddenly grinning. “So! Which of you is the succubus, and which the warlock who had the unspeakable gall to tamper with members of the staff? Ah, ah!” As all three stiffened, she held up both hands, graceful fingers splayed as if playing a game of cat’s cradle. Nearly invisible lines of orange fire flickered between her fingertips, though, some deadly spell held on the verge of being unleashed. “Let us not go and do anything which might disrupt anyone else’s pleasant evening. We can perhaps settle this ourselves, without involving law enforcement or bodily harm to anyone, yes?”

“Well,” Hesthri commented, “that was fast.”

“What succubus?” Natchua asked coolly.

The woman’s smile broadened a deadly half inch. “Ah, so that is only a partial admission. We are making progress, then! The protections upon you three…yes, very subtle, very powerful. But not perfect. Warlocks never fail to overestimate themselves, non?”

“Ah.” Natchua inclined her head. “Well, that was much easier than I expected! Good evening, Xyraadi. We came a long way to meet you.”

That grin instantly vanished. “You are…increasingly interesting, cherie. That may be a good thing, for you. Or it may not.”

“Okay, wait a moment,” Melaxyna said, raising both her hands. “Let me just pose a question, here.”

The other three shifted to stare at her in silence.

“Why in the hell,” she demanded, “would a centuries-old khelminash demon have a Glassian accent?”

The music played over them for three tense seconds.

“Let’s try to focus, shall we?” Natchua suggested. “That’s not relevant here. I apologize for the tampering; I’ll try to make it up to the establishment, if you wish. In all seriousness, I am not looking for trouble, here, and I mean no harm. I very much desire to have a conversation with you, Xyraadi.”

“Perhaps,” Xyraadi said evenly, “we should indeed continue our pleasant little chat in a quieter setting.”

Natchua glanced past her; from their position they could make out an opening adjacent to the bar, where the cleverly placed stonework almost concealed a door that led out of the main club area. She slowly raised one hand to indicate it, moving deliberately as if to avoid spooking a flighty animal. “May we?”

Xyraadi studied her a moment longer, then suddenly smiled again, took a step back, and also gestured languidly in the direction of the door. “Mais oui.”

She let them pass, bringing up the rear as if to prevent them from bolting, which none attempted to do. The four slipped quietly through the back, finding themselves in a well-lit hall running behind the bar.

There, Natchua suddenly stopped, causing the rest to do likewise.

“Just ahead, if you please,” Xyraadi prompted pleasantly.

“Of course,” Natchua replied, studying the walls. “Just as soon as you explain to me what this exceedingly complex ward network does.”

“What, you can’t just eyeball it for all the answers?” Hesthri muttered.

“Now, now, give credit where it is due,” Xyraadi admonished. “That she can even see that is impressive. To answer, ma petite, that is a little safety measure which will ensure any child of Vanislaas who steps within does not step back out until I choose to allow it. And since you have none with you, there is no harm, is there? Be so good as to proceed.”

Natchua rounded on her, baring her teeth in a snarl and causing Hesthri and Melaxyna to rear back in surprise.

“I haven’t come all this way to be caught like a rat by the likes of you,” the drow spat, and dark wings blossomed from her shoulders.

“Alors,” Xyraadi said disdainfully, gesturing flippantly with one hand. Circles of white and scarlet fire materialized in the air around Natchua. “Your kind, always so dramatic. Well, that settles that!”

“Yes, it does,” Natchua agreed, calm again. She made a slashing motion of her own, and the spell circles disintegrated, causing Xyraadi to stiffen in surprise. Her shadowy wings had disintegrated before she even got that far. “That was a very neat Vanislaad trap. And the fact that you used it on me means you don’t know which of us is the succubus.”

“And that means there is one among you!” the disguised khelminash snapped.

“I’m actually amazed you fell for that,” said Hesthri. “Any warlock should know Vanislaads can only shapeshift into human forms. The elf in the group is never the disguised succubus.”

“And thank you for chiming in,” Xyraadi said smugly, gesturing again. The circles re-formed, this time around Hesthri.

The khelminash’s smile instantly vanished when the hethelax stepped right through them, grimacing. “That feels weird. Tingly. Is that really all it takes to snare one of them?”

“Well. This is not my finest hour,” Xyraadi grumbled, turning a scowl on Melaxyna.

The actual succubus just raised her hands. “Y’know, at this point, you might as well not even bother.”

“Let’s focus, please,” Natchua snapped. “You said there was a succubus here, so you detected one on the premises. You did not penetrate my concealment to identify Mel, and I know you are too good a warlock to be easily fooled. That means…”

“That means…there is another one,” Xyraadi breathed. “Merde alors.”

“Okay, just so you know,” said Melaxyna, “nobody just drops bits of a foreign language into conversation unless they’re trying to be pretentious. If you think that’s charming, you’re mistaken. Anyway,” she added, glaring at Natchua, “this is all easily resolved, since we not only know who else is running around loose, but why, and by the way, everyone told you so!”

“Yes, yes,” Natchua sighed, holding out a hand. In a brief swell of shadow, Kheshiri’s reliquary appeared in her palm. “Fair enough, I suppose it was too much to hope that anything useful might come of that idea. And we definitely don’t need her getting under our feet.”

“Is that what I believe it is?” Xyraadi demanded.

“Yes, with my apologies,” Natchua replied. “The solution to your Vanislaad problem. Let me just square this away and then we can actually have that talk.”

She grasped the reliquary by both ends and twisted the cap.

All four of them stared at it in silence.

“Well?” Xyraadi prompted after a short pause. “I gather you were expecting something to happen?”

“Melaxyna,” Natchua said in a very even tone, “if I remember right… Did you happen to mention that Kheshiri is a practitioner of both infernal and arcane magic?”

“Yes, I did,” Melaxyna said in exasperation, “and wow, look how fast that backfired! This has to be a record even for you.”

“Oh, do not tell me,” Hesthri groaned.

“Someone please share the joke?” Xyraadi exclaimed.

“Hum.” Natchua actually winced. “We may…have a problem.”

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15 – 21

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It might have been the most peaceful place she had ever seen.

Peace hung in the air like the warm scent of bark, like the silvery-green leaves which occasionally fluttered down and danced around the ancient pitted courtyard on tiny gusts, like the shafts of coppery sunlight that crossed the open space at an angle from the west. It was a familiar sensation, one she had experienced in Toby’s presence, especially when he was filled with his god’s power. Peace as a tangible quality, something not felt by any of the physical senses for which there were names, but clearly experienced and understood just as well.

This was the first time she had felt that peace just existing, though. When it happened at Omnu’s behest, that was an act of will. An exertion of power, an attempt to deny the brutal nature of life and impose something better. In the week since they’d returned to school, she had begun to suspect Toby finally understood that fact; there was a directness in him beneath his serenity that hadn’t been there before, an unyielding oak behind the bending willow. The three paladins had been cagey about their experiences over the summer, but she was coming around to the opinion that some answers needed to be dragged out of them, one way or another. If nothing else, she very much wanted to know what had pounded some understanding into Toby.

He wasn’t the only one who still needed to absorb that lesson.

Teal’s consciousness shivered unhappily within her, and Vadrieny paused, taking a moment just to be with her counterpart, to acknowledge the love between them. It was love strained with growing tension, a complex state of emotions that, like the peace beneath the Great Tree, could not have easily been spoken but could absolutely not be denied.

The fortress was physically defined by the roots of the tree now supporting it as much as by its own shape. Apart from the cataclysmic battle that had wrecked it to its foundations, three thousand years atop a mountain had reduced worked stone to weathered shapes that might just as well have been so many boulders. It seemed as if the tree itself had made an effort to preserve what there was of the old fortress.

That might have been the literal case. Between gods, the Crawl, and the Golden Sea, she was well aware that a consciousness too diffuse to carry on a conversation could still have an agenda and the means to enact it.

Vadrieny climbed carefully up the roots to the trunk, balancing on each step without allowing her talons to dig into the wood. The colossal trunk was vertically flat on this side, enormous roots fanning out to embrace the ancient courtyard and leaving a towering, arched surface against the rear. In shape, it actually very much resembled a gate. There was no hellgate here, though, not even the distinctive prickle of infernal magic at work. This might be the least magically corrupted place she had ever visited; even the Temple of Avei had a martial harshness to its ambient energies, never mind that her Talisman of Absolution was meant to protect her from them.

The archdemon rested one clawed hand against the living wooden surface where, long ago, there had been a gate to Hell. One she had passed through in both directions.

Nothing here sparked even a hint of memory.

Wings folded, she climbed back down just as carefully and made a slow circuit of the courtyard on foot, gazing across every feature of the wood and stone encircling it.

Nothing.

Her eye was caught by a depression in the ground, slightly off-center from the gate. Vadrieny paced around it in a full circle, then stepped down into it and carefully stretched herself out.

Its walls were gently sloped after millennia of erosion, but with her wings spread behind her and limbs spread, it was almost like the base of the crater, over a yard down, was shaped like a person of about her dimensions. As if something had made a Vadrieny-shaped hole in the ground.

Then again, it was probably just the wind-carved remains of some forgotten artillery strike. Professor Tellwyrn had covered in detail the propensity of the sapient mind to find patterns that weren’t there and attach significance to things that had none.

She still lay there, though, staring up at the branches of the tree. The sheer size of the thing made it hard to get a sense of perspective; a tree that big was outside her frame of reference, and the sight messed with her instinctive sense of spatial relationships. But that, too, would be corrected with time and exposure, if they stayed here long enough.

It was funny, how you couldn’t really trust your own mind. Funny, and horrifying. Tellwyrn said the best you could do was to be aware of the ways it tended to go wrong, and try to account and compensate for them.

A lot of them could benefit from some practice at that art.

The distant yapping noise made Vadrieny clamber back out of the hole, snapping her wings once to dislodge dust, leaves, and stray bits of gravel. She turned toward the tumbled gap at the front of the courtyard that had once been its gates, pacing forward to meet what was coming.

He emerged over a low ridge of fallen rocks, bounding toward her in comical little leaps each punctuated by a yip. Vadrieny couldn’t help but smile as she met the young hellhound partway. F’thaan flopped over on his side upon reaching her, panting furiously, his tail beating an excited pulse against the dirt despite his obvious fatigue.

“Aw, buddy,” she murmured, ruffling his ears. He licked at her claws. “Poor guy, that was quite a hike, wasn’t it? And what did you do with Shaeine? You know you’re not supposed to run off on your own.”

F’thaan, unrepentant, struggled back upright and began pawing at her leg.

When the others caught up, they found Vadrieny sitting on a root, slowly stroking the half-grown pup draped over her lap, already sound asleep.

Shaeine quickened her pace, crossing the broken ground with that almost liquid glide of hers and nonetheless moving as fast as a human in a sprint. Vadrieny smiled, watching her approach. Just the sight of the drow—their wife, though neither of them was truly accustomed to the thought yet—was enough to make both her and Teal feel physically warmer, a blend of pure adoration and carnal hunger, neither of which showed signs of fading with familiarity. She was such a vision, a sleek, dainty specter of beauty and danger constrained by the serenity of her own will, those garnet eyes glittering with promises for no one else to interpret.

Shaeine slipped onto the root next to her and Vadrieny draped an arm and wing around her slim shoulders. For a moment the drow hesitated, stiffening barely perceptibly, then relaxed into the embrace. She took no offense; this was a public space, and those distinctions were drilled into her with a severity that went beyond culture and religion. The drow of Tar’naris couldn’t function without their rigid distinctions and hierarchies. Shaeine relaxing in public wasn’t a simple matter of coaxing her out of her shell. Even now, the bare extent to which she was willing to relax and show feeling around others was offered only to the handful of people now joining them.

The rest of the class of 1182 crossed the old courtyard more sedately, gazing around at the scenery now that they were satisfied Vadrieny didn’t need any immediate help.

“Well,” Ruda said aloud after they had assembled in a loose cluster near Vadrieny and Shaeine, the pirate tilting her head back with fists on hips to stare up at the swaying branches high above. “Whaddaya think of that?”

“I never thought I would say this,” Juniper murmured, “but this tree…makes me uneasy.”

“How’s that, Juno?” Gabriel asked.

“It feels…it smells…” The dryad shook her head, absently running a hand over the beak of her little bird-thing companion. “It’s not exactly the same, but the feeling I get from this tree makes me think…sister. And my knee-jerk reaction is that no, Mother would never do something like that. Then comes everything I’ve learned and I realize that yes, of course she would.”

Sniff leaned against her leg in silent support. Vadrieny would never have said so aloud, but she already liked the proto-bird better than Juniper’s last pet. Even with his training apparently just begun, Sniff behaved himself in public and actually performed useful tasks, two feats Jack had never managed.

“Nothing about this suggests sentience to me,” Fross buzzed, circling lazily above their heads. “I’ve never felt an instinctive kinship with dryads or other fairies, though. With the way pixies are raised, that really…wouldn’t work.”

Trissiny sat down on Vadrieny’s other side on the root, of course not nearly as close as Shaeine. “I don’t understand the magic at work here,” the paladin mused, also staring up at the tree, “but I could get used to it. This place feels…safe.”

“Yeah,” Vadrieny agreed, gently squeezing Shaeine’s shoulder, ever mindful of her talons. “For me, even. Safe, and unfamiliar.”

Trissiny looked at her, inquisitive but not pushing.

“I was worried,” the archdemon admitted. “You know I’ve had flashes before, little bits that rise to the surface. After what Tellwyrn said, I thought maybe a place like this would…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I wanted to face it alone at first, just in case. But no, nothing. Not a twinge.”

Shaeine mutely rested a hand atop the claws that were slowly stroking F’thaan’s dark fur.

“I’m sorry, Vadrieny,” Toby said simply.

“No, it’s for the best. Like I said, I was worried, not hopeful. I think Trissiny put it best, back when we visited the Temple of Avei. My history is not a good one to have. However it came about, I got a blank slate, and… Some things about my existence now might be a little awkward, but whose life is perfect? I have everything anybody could reasonably desire.”

She shifted to press a brief kiss to Shaeine’s hair. Again, a fleeting stiffness passed through the drow’s body, instinctive discomfort with the display in front of others. It brought a responding pang from both Vadrieny and Teal, equally fleeting and then gone. Their relationship was necessarily complex, but all three of them understood it. Love soothed over many affronts, so long as it was nurtured.

Trissiny was gazing up at the tree again, her expression far away. “It’s so easy to forget that Elilial is a person. Was once, anyway. The choices she made were the ones that seemed best to her at the time, under circumstances I doubt any of us could even imagine living through. She was a friend to the Pantheon. I can’t help but wonder what could possibly have been going through her mind.”

“Sympathy for the Dark Lady, now,” Ruda said incredulously. “What the fuck did those thieves do to you, Boots?”

“Oh, it’s not just them,” Trissiny said with a passing grin. “And it’s not sympathy, just…understanding. Or an effort at understanding, anyway. The enemy you refuse to understand is the one who’ll defeat you.”

“Careful with that, though,” Gabriel murmured, also staring up at the tree. “What you understand too deeply, you become. If you’re not practiced at taking that mask off when you’re done with it, you might find it stuck in place.”

“I can’t conjure up any sympathy for…my mother,” Vadrieny said quietly. “Whatever the reasons for her choices, she made them. I can’t imagine anything that justifies the harm she’s done to the world and everyone on it. Thinking about the fact that I used to be a willing part of that… The sensation is like vertigo. But,” she added in a softer tone, “I do wish I could have known my sisters.”

Shaeine deliberately leaned her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder, nodding once to rub her cheek against her.

“It must be hard to disentangle those things, huh,” Fross said, fluttering down to hover in front of the archdemon. “I feel like I don’t get to hear your perspective very much, Vadrieny. I’m sorry to just be hearing about this now.”

“It’s fine,” she said, smiling. “And it’s not so very hard to reconcile. All I have to do is remember that, in the end, Elilial and her schemes are the reason I don’t have sisters.”

“Vadrieny,” Trissiny said seriously, turning again to face her, “I don’t really know if I can call you sister. I mean, whether that closeness has been earned. But after the last two years I can say that I would be honored to.”

“How is that done?” Shaeine asked suddenly. “In your Sisterhood, that is. I assume there is some rite of adoption that links sisters in arms?”

“Well, not…explicitly,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown. “There are formalities in joining either the Legions or the clergy, of course. And within those groups there’s a very strong sense of sorority. But then, the doctrine of the faith teaches that there is a universal sisterhood among women. It’s…well, it’s vague, Shaeine. I, uh, guess it’s all very un-Narisian. All feelings and personal judgment and working things out organically, how matters stand between any two particular women.”

“I see,” Shaeine murmured. “I have been… More and more, lately, I struggle to reconcile the different parts of my life. I will never be anything but Narisian, nor do I desire to. But I feel I have become sufficiently Imperial that… That the very barriers I must keep up to protect my own identity have begun to pain me. There are people I no longer wish to keep on the other side of them…people for whom adoption into my House is simply not a prospect.”

“Aw, honey,” Ruda said, grinning as usual, but with sincere compassion now. “We all love you, too.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added. “Ruda even declined to punch you, that’s gotta show how serious she is. Remember that time she—”

“Fucking stabbed you,” all eight of them chorused, Ariel included. F’thaan raised his head, peering sleepily around at them.

“I just want to make sure everyone remembers,” Gabriel said primly.

“The record time elapsed between you making sure we remember is one week,” Fross informed him. “I have kept track.”

“Course you have, Fross.”

“I have a question,” Vadrieny said suddenly, “for Toby and Trissiny. And Gabriel, I suppose. The Pantheon-trained among us.”

“Oh?” Toby asked.

Vadrieny drew a deep breath, seeking to still the emotional clamor rising up in her. Most of it wasn’t hers. “What is it that defines a bard?”

A beat of silence passed. The first hints of tension gathered in it.

“Based on that lead-in,” Trissiny said in a careful tone, “I assume you’re not interested in an easy definition covering musical ability or membership in the Vesker cult.”

“Sort of? My knowledge of the Vesker cult is thirdhand, at best. We’ve had a conversation with Vesk himself, and yet…”

“Control,” Toby said quietly.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“The world isn’t made of stories,” he said, “it’s made of math. But the way people perceive the world is made of stories. Thought is narrative, that’s the heart of Vesker doctrine. Every cult, every tradition, ever mortal pursuit, is an attempt at control through some method or other. If you think of the core actions of Avenists, of Eserites, of Elilinists or Omnists or anyone, it all comes down to a belief about what the world should be and a set of actions intended to make it so. Including, necessarily, a means of imposing your will on the people who have a different vision. Veskers…bards…do it by stepping into the story and controlling how it develops. You can’t change the physical world that way, but you can certainly change the way people perceive what’s happening to them. And therefore, what they decide to do about it. At least,” he added with a self-conscious little shrug, “that’s the theory.”

“That…is really well-put,” Vadrieny said slowly. “Thank you, Toby. That tracks perfectly with everything I’ve learned from Teal. When she would read adventure stories as a girl, it was always the bards she admired because they got done what they needed to without resorting to force, or even trickery a lot of the times. It was like they just… Knew how people worked, and got the results they needed from that.” She nodded, gently squeezing Shaeine. “Teal never laid it out in those terms, but that’s what it was. Skillful, passive control.”

In the quiet, there was only the breath of wind across the courtyard, the sound of air through leaves so high above them and in so vast a spread of branches that it was like the sound of a nearby sea.

“This is an awkward silence,” Fross stated at last. “The thing we are all carefully not saying is how Teal does absolutely none of any of that.”

All of them lowered their eyes, Gabriel and Trissiny sighing softly. Shaeine once again pressed her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder.

“I don’t know if I could even tell you how hard it is to have to do this,” Vadrieny whispered, “but by myself, I can’t make her… It’s getting to be too much. She depends on Shaeine to make any arrangements to ward off conflict, and on me to smash down whatever else slips through. And if Teal was weak, or stupid, I could accept that. There’s nothing I would not do to protect her, and my love for her isn’t contingent on anything she does. But she doesn’t need this. She’s so smart, and so gifted, and so averse to proving it! And so, so afraid of her own capacity to do anything that she…doesn’t. As if exerting any energy onto the world were an act of violence.”

“I recently received a stern lecture about confusing pacifism with passivity,” Toby said with a sigh. “I think Teal could’ve benefited from hearing it, too.”

“Okay, I need to interject something here.” Ruda stepped forward, and then crouched on her heels in front of Vadrieny so that she was looking up at the seated archdemon from a lower position. “I really feel like we don’t get to talk with you nearly enough, Sparky, and I really hate the thought of asking you to go back inside so we can talk to Teal instead. But the fact is we’re now criticizing a friend behind her back and that really sits badly with me.”

“Teal is fully conscious of this conversation,” Trissiny pointed out, her forehead creased in a worried frown.

“Yeah,” Ruda retorted, scowling back, “but she’s not able to have her say in it!”

“Teal does not need to have her say,” Shaeine whispered. All of them turned to stare at her in naked surprise. The priestess squeezed her eyes shut, visibly struggling for control, then turned and wrapped both arms around Vadrieny, pressing herself close. “My beloved, light of my universe… There is nothing I would not do for you. I have broached this gently, and in private, and you don’t hear. I cannot fail to serve you as you need from your mate…and if that means I must shame you before our friends, I will not flinch from it. I will abase myself in whatever manner I must to earn your forgiveness again, but they are right. You need to shut up and hear this.”

She buried her face in Vadrieny’s collarbone, shoulders quivering with barely-repressed sobs. The demon swept a glowing wing around Shaeine, all but hiding her from view and cradling her head with one clawed hand.

“Love,” Toby said in a soft cadence as if reciting something, “means placing another’s needs before your own. And sometimes, what a loved one needs is a swift kick in the ass.”

“There will be no abasing,” Vadrieny murmured, caressing Shaeine’s hair with careful talons. “She adores the air you breathe, aithrin. And she knows we’re right about this. These are family. There’s nothing to forgive.”

“Man, this is really uncomfortable,” Ruda grumbled, standing back up and beginning to pace. “Putting all my instincts against each other, here. You gotta have straight talk between friends, but you can’t do it at somebody who can’t talk back…but fuck if this isn’t overdue. Teal, you’re the sweetest human being alive and I love you like my own blood, but Naphthene’s tits, girl! It kills me how you refuse to deserve the respect I know you’re capable of earning. Aw, fuck me running, now you assholes’ve got me doing it.”

She savagely kicked a chunk of masonry from its millennia-old resting place.

“So…yeah,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “This here is a whole set of issues, isn’t it? I, uh, I’m pretty out of my element, too. Just like to add that I also love Teal and I dunno what to do about any of this, but if somebody does you can count on me.”

“Growth can’t really happen without pain,” Juniper murmured, chewing at her bottom lip. “Sometimes… I guess sometimes you have to try to cut in the right place, so it heals the right way.”

“Growth, like healing, is a process,” Toby added, nodding. “What’s important is that we will be here for each other. There are no magic solutions to things like this.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Actually…”

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15 – 20

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“Warlocks?”

“Or, in theory, demons,” Khadizroth answered, still resting one hand upon Shook’s shoulder. The enforcer lay on the narrow bed in his room at the Inquisition’s improvised headquarters, blinking groggily at everyone around him—which was basically everyone else here, save the Church-assigned guards and servants. In addition to the dragon, Kheshiri knelt by his side, holding his hand against her bosom, and Vannae was lurking in one of the room’s corners, unobtrusive as only he could be. Syrinx stood at the foot of the bed with her arms folded belligerently, scowling at Shook as if she held him personally to blame for his situation. Which was likely the case.

“In theory,” Syrinx repeated with heavy sarcasm, her eyes cutting to Khadizroth.

“It bears mentioning, since we know so little,” the dragon replied in his customary calm. He seemed to make a game of not rising to her constant needling. “What we know is that the attack was magical and infernal in nature, thus a demon is a possibility. I am inclined to suspect warlocks, however. They are the most likely to be found lurking in human cities.”

Syrinx grunted, turned, and began pacing back and forth. Her caged lion routine appeared to be just a sign that she was deep in thought; apparently the woman couldn’t do anything without looking like she wanted to kill somebody. Shook suspected that she existed in a constant state of wanting to kill somebody, anybody, or everybody. For as brief a time as he’d known Basra Syrinx, he already fully understood why Bishop Snowe would go behind her boss’s back and secretly sneak off halfway across the continent to try and get rid of Syrinx for good.

“And you say you’ve never heard of this magic before.”

“I said I have never seen it before,” Khadizroth corrected gently. “I’ve heard of such spells, but only in rumors, ancient tomes of infernal magic, and the boasting of red dragons. Allegedly, Elilial’s wraiths employed some such craft during the last Hellwar, though I did not encounter it personally. This is exceedingly advanced infernomancy, Inquisitor. There are few warlocks who even might have the capability.”

“So,” she murmured, still pacing with her eyes now narrowed to slits. “Wreath.”

“Those fucking…” Shook started to struggle upright, but Khadizroth exerted slight pressure on his shoulder—a message, not enough to physically hold him down.

“It is normal to feel foggy after what you have been through, Jeremiah, even with the most thorough cleansing I could give you. Your mind will clear quickly, but do not push yourself before it does.”

Shook settled back down, squinting up at the dragon, who was looking at Syrinx. Actually, by that point he felt fine; pretty well-rested and alert, considering the amount of fae healing that had been done on him in the last few minutes. Further, he would have bet Khadizroth knew that perfectly well. He made a show of squeezing his eyes shut and then blinking rapidly, letting them go out of focus in an imitation of his own natural state just moments ago.

Jeremiah Shook knew a subtle signal from a teammate when he saw one, and all other things being equal, he trusted Khadizroth to know what he was about. And Syrinx’s very presence automatically validated any measures to pull the wool over her eyes.

“What of our actual targets?” Khadizroth asked, watching Basra stalk up and down the narrow room. “We are, after all, pursuing a mysterious cult with mysterious powers. Among other things, we know for a fact that they have prodigious skill in necromancy.”

“Necromancy isn’t infernomancy,” she snorted, giving him a scathing look in passing.

“Of course,” he said politely. “But there is a saying: when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses before zebras.”

Syrinx slammed to a halt so abruptly that Shook twitched in bed, then made a show of lolling his head drunkenly to one side. She didn’t appear even to notice him, though, fixing her attention fully on the dragon.

“Khadizroth, perhaps you can clear something up for me,” the Inquisitor said in an alarmingly calm tone. “What in the hell is a zebra?”

If Khadizroth was taken aback by the intensity with which she delivered this apparently innocuous question, he gave no overt sign of it.

“Zebras are a rare species of equine which are found only on the Arkanian sub-continent,” he explained. “They greatly resemble horses, aside from their coloration, which consists of black and white vertical stripes. Unfortunately, they are not domesticable, being notoriously ill-tempered and aggressive.”

“Oh,” she said pensively, looking off to the side. Incongruously, she smiled. “Oh, I get it. Good one.”

“It’s a somewhat obscure aphorism, but I can’t claim original credit,” Khadizroth said, still showing no surprise at this turn of the conversation. “I merely meant that given our mission here, it might be premature to posit the intervention of a hypothetical third party when we are already after dangerous prey of uncertain capabilities. These cultists have not been seen using infernomancy, that we know of, but we specifically do not know their identity or motivation, or the origin of their powers. The necromancy they were seen performing was very impressive, as I understand it, and the spell used on Jeremiah something nearly unheard of.”

“That works the other way, too,” she snorted, turning aside and starting to pace once more. “If it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and uses infernal spells like a duck, no reason to assume it’s a mysterious doomsday cult when the Black Wreath are known to be belligerent and active.”

“Actually, they have been notably quiet since the debacle in Tiraas,” Khadizroth countered. “The last I’ve heard of them popping up since was the announcement that Tellwyrn actually invited them to her school in Last Rock. And again, this is a particular kind of spell which they have never been known to use—strange, if they had the ability this whole time, especially as it would be fantastically suited to their goals in particular. And chaos cults are nothing if not unpredictable in their methods.”

Syrinx stopped again, turning to frown at him. “Chaos? Where are you getting that?”

“A theory, as yet unsupported by the evidence,” he admitted, releasing Shook’s shoulder to fold his hands at his waist. “Necromancy is the only firm lead we have on these people. It was also highly characteristic of the chaos cult which attacked Veilgrad not so long ago. And these people did pop up in the middle of Tiraas with no prior hint of their existence, and then disappeared without a trace.”

“Nothing I’ve been told suggests chaos is a factor here,” she said, then leveled a finger at him. “And don’t you go borrowing that kind of trouble unless we have good and sufficient evidence that it needs to be considered. The Veilgrad cultists were necromancers out of expediency; they were operating out of the catacombs where all the corpses were. No, everything points to a warlock attack, so that is what we will assume. And that leads to the question of why the hell our boy was ambushed by warlocks and then ditched in an alley!” She turned the full force of her glare on Shook. “I don’t suppose you have remembered anything slightly useful, yet?”

“It is possible some few of his memories will return in time,” said Khadizroth. “But definitely not so soon after the event. He is unlikely to be fully lucid—”

“Excuse me, dragon,” Syrinx said very evenly, “but was someone talking to you?”

He bowed, and took a step back away from her. “My apologies, Inquisitor.”

“I went to the cafe,” Shook said, not faking the slowness of his speech or the faraway expression in his eyes; it was difficult to dredge up the images from his memory. It no longer hurt, but he well remembered the singe of hostile magic attacking his mind, and the recollection of it was like a curtain over his thoughts, growing thicker and hazier the more he tried to focus on what he needed to know. “That’s… That was the last time it was clear. I think I talked to somebody. Yeah, yeah, I remember that much. A man.”

“His name?” Syrinx said flatly. “Description?”

He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, boss. Whole thing kinda trails off into sparks after that. Whoever these assholes were, they knew what they were doing. I get some flashes of what came later…” He squinted, concentrating on what few flickers remained. “A dark place… I think that was just the alley where K found me. Beams of light—yeah, wandshots, I’m pretty sure. I dunno who fired or at who.”

“One of your wands was on the ground,” Khadizroth said, reaching out to touch the shaft of dark wood where it lay on his nightstand. “I retrieved it. Unfortunately, it carries no trace of the magics used in its vicinity. Occasionally one can extract such hints from enchanted objects, but in this case it was a forlorn hope.”

“How specifically inconvenient,” Syrinx sneered.

Shook started to shoot back at her, remembered Khadizroth wanted him to play possum, and winced, placing a hand on his forehead. He slumped back against the pillow, growling deep in his throat, a noise which came quite naturally.

“Rest, master,” Kheshiri murmured, caressing his hand and then tucking it right into her cleavage. “We’ll get them for this.”

Syrinx gave the succubus a look of utter contempt, then rolled her eyes and turned to resume pacing yet again. “Then the question becomes: why did Thumper get rolled by the Wreath, in particular?”

“Also significant is that whoever attacked him used esoteric spellcraft to wipe his memory and leave him for us to find,” Khadizroth murmured. “Killing him would have been far easier.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Shook muttered.

“One damn thing at a time!” Syrinx barked. “Our mission, our very presence here is secret. No one should even know of the Inquisition’s existence! And yet, the first time I send you louts out on a simple information-gathering assignment, one manages to come under attack by the Black Wreath.”

“Second time,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“What I want to know,” Syrinx snarled, “is which of you idiots have been jabbering!”

Shook lay back and tried to look sleepy.

“To whom would any of us talk?” Khadizroth asked. “Aside from being somewhat inherently unsociable, each of us is currently working for the Church because we have a need for protection, and nowhere else to go.”

“I haven’t even been outside this birdcage of yours since we got here,” Kheshiri pointed out.

“Another old saying springs to mind,” Khadizroth added. “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. We are not the only people involved in this.”

“That’s a point,” Shook said absently, groping at Kheshiri’s chest, less for the inherent pleasure of it than because the looks Syrinx was giving them were increasingly entertaining. “You’ve got at least one servant, guards… And obviously this whole Inquisition of yours has more to it than what’s just here. There are personnel in Tiraas, at least, right?”

“The Wreath’s whole method is infiltration,” said Kheshiri, puffing out her chest into his hand. The two of them shared a sense of humor when it came to winding up the likes of Basra. “Especially of low-ranking people who tend to get ignored.”

“Everyone here has been thoroughly vetted,” Syrinx said through gritted teeth, pointedly turning away from the pair of them. “But your point is taken. If our security has been compromised, there’s no reason to assume it had to come from you in particular. I suppose now I have to go round and interrogate the entire bloody staff. If there’s even still a point, since there’s no telling what Shook revealed to his attackers. I’ll have to assume it was everything.”

“How much do I even know?” he asked pointedly. “Who and where we are, what we’re doing. It ain’t like we got some great master plan in the works, anyway.”

Syrinx rubbed at her eyes in frustration. “Where in hell is that sniggering elf?”

“Presumably still following leads,” Khadizroth murmured. “Hopefully, the fact that he is taking this long means he is having better luck than the rest of us.”

“Well, as soon as his scrawny ass is back here, it’s not leaving again,” Syrinx stated curtly. “This operation is locked down until I figure out exactly how much damage has been done by this breach. We must assume our location has been betrayed, and while I doubt even the Wreath would attack a Church facility openly and in force, it doesn’t pay to make assumptions with the likes of them. We’ll be moving ASAP. I have to arrange a suitable alternate base first…” Her scowl deepened. “And verify, again, that none of the base staff are corrupted.”

“If we may be of assistance in any way, you have only to ask,” Khadizroth said gravely.

“Yeah!” Kheshiri simpered. “We live to serve!”

“You freaks have ‘helped’ enough for one day, I think. Everyone is confined to the safe house until further notice, and while I realize this isn’t exactly a sprawling estate, I would appreciate it if you lot would try not to get underfoot while I’m cleaning up this mess.”

“And our core mission?” Khadizroth asked.

Her scowl was a fearsome thing to behold. “Our mission…is effectively halted. If this is our quarry striking back at us, our whole strategy will need to change. Though I don’t know how they could even know we are here unless several of you have been more grotesquely incompetent than is even possible. More likely the Black Wreath has discovered a secret Church operation and decided to meddle, in which case the entire thing might have to be scrapped. I probably don’t need to tell you this,” she added, glaring at each of them in turn, “but this does not look good, for any of us. And we are none of us in a position where we can afford not to look good.”

“Well,” Khadizroth said gravely, “for now, we will simply have to rely upon your guidance, Inquisitor. We will be here when you have tasks for us again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, waving him off. “Everybody out, then. Let Shook rest up; if you recover any fragment of memory from that missing period, Shook, you come to me with it immediately. I don’t care how inconsequential it seems. I will be the judge of what’s relevant.”

“Can do, boss,” he said, saluting haphazardly.

“That means everybody get out and let the man rest,” Syrinx added acidly when nobody moved.

“The Inquisitor is right,” said Khadizroth. “I can work a minor craft that will help you sleep, Jeremiah. I do not know a specific counter to this specific spell, but if you are willing to indulge me I can induce a dreamless state that is generally recuperative for the mind. It may yield results, if the memories are still there to be recovered.”

“Uh… Not tryin’ to be difficult, K, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m not excited about having more hoodoo done to my head right now.”

“I will not force the issue, of course. I merely offer, for your good and that of the mission. Rest assured, I am extremely competent.”

“Omnu’s breath, let him help,” Syrinx said irritably, pausing in the doorway after shooing Kheshiri and Vannae out. “Did you not hear me say we need every possible scrap you can recover? If the dragon doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one does.”

“Yeah…all right, fine,” Shook said with a sigh.

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said politely, bowing to her. “Would you kindly close the door? The quieter, the better. This should not take long; should you need me after—”

“No one leaves the house,” she ordered curtly. “If and when I want you, I’ll find you.”

Syrinx shut the door behind her, harder than was called for upon a room for which quiet had just been requested.

Khadizroth stepped silently over to it and rested his fingertips against the wood, closing his eyes and for a few long seconds just standing there. Shook watched him curiously until the dragon inhaled deeply and lowered his hand.

“We are alone. Good, we must have a quick discussion during what little privacy we are afforded.”

“So that sleep thing was a crock of bull,” Shook said, grinning. “Had a feeling.”

“Actually, that offer was quite real, and I still strongly suggest it. I don’t think well of the odds of recovering any more memories, I must inform you, but attacks upon the mind are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Your brain needs rest and rejuvenation.”

“Yeah, fair enough,” Shook agreed with a worried frown. He didn’t feel brain-damaged, at least not anymore, but the dragon was right; that was not an area with which risks should be taken. “You not gonna do your ward thing on the room?”

“It is a mistake to over-rely upon magic. For furtive conversations such as this, it is more likely to attract attention than to deflect it. On the subject of deflections, I rather think Syrinx is correct that the Wreath has caught wind of us hunting them. Any further attempts by me to deflect her interest back to this mystery cult would have prompted her to wonder about my motives.”

“Thought that was your angle,” Shook said, nodding. “How’s that gonna affect our game?”

“The range of possibilities narrows if this turns explicitly into the Inquisition versus the Wreath; the lack of that other cult in the mix deprives us of a convenient patsy. I believe we can still work it to our advantage, but too much is unknown and up in the air to lay firm plans just yet. There is a much more immediate problem, Jeremiah; brace yourself.”

“Uh oh.”

“I am accustomed to sensing the presence of a specific, very significant infernal artifact upon your person—one tweaked with arcane charms and linked to your own life force. I have not intruded upon your privacy, but the nature of such a thing is impossible for a being like my self not to notice simply by being in a room with it. Jeremiah, when I found you in that alley, it was missing.”

Shook went pale. He already knew the dragon was right; it had escaped his notice amid all the pain and subsequent healing, but on having his attention called to it, he keenly felt the absence of the reliquary’s familiar weight inside his coat. Still, he clutched at the spot where it normally lay out of useless reflex.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Motherfucker.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth urged, again laying a hand on his shoulder. The dragon’s voice was soothing but firm, a tone that practically commanded calm. “The soul vessel is lost, and unless we are able to learn the identity of your attacker, we have little chance of retrieving it. In the meantime, this provides clues. Obviously your assailant was an infernomancer; the interest of such a being in a Vanislaad soul vessel is obvious. And yet, Kheshiri is still here, neither recalled to it nor given contradicting orders. She shows, so far, no sign of being aware it is gone. Either the thief does not understand how to make use of it—unlikely, given the caliber of infernomancy they have already demonstrated—or for their own purposes saw fit to leave her at liberty. I do not yet know what meaning to attach to these possibilities, but they cannot but be significant.”

“I had it bound to me,” Shook said weakly, his eyes wide and darting about frantically. “They wouldn’t just be able to…”

“I must inform you, Jeremiah, that any skilled warlock would be able to dismantle arcane charms laid after-the-fact upon such a device. It is of Black Wreath craft; its core magics are quite impervious to tampering. All you can do is add bindings, which can then be removed far more easily than they were applied. Even an arcane enchanter would be able to do so. The lack of a reaction so far suggests they may still be working upon that task. Regardless, this is the reality we must now accept: very shortly, Kheshiri will be either gone, or suddenly working against us. Or possibly even left entirely to her own devices, which for practical purposes is the same.”

“I…she’ll listen to me,” Shook said frantically, starting to rise from the bed. “I know my girl, after two years. She—”

“Jeremiah.” Khadizroth placed a hand against his chest and pushed him inexorably back into the bed. “That creature is not your girl. You have, through cleverness and strength of will, kept nominal control of her for a time—longer than most men can claim to have done, even most warlocks. But that time was always limited. Children of Vanislaas are not pets, and leashes do not hold them. Be grateful that this ending has come without worse loss to you than even this; you have suffered less for it than most who underestimate their kind. Now, it’s over. Let her go.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shook snarled, grabbing his wrist and shoving it aside. “Everybody says that, but I did it. She’s mine, and I’m not giving up my property to anyone!”

“You have held Kheshiri this long in part because she chose to allow it,” Khadizroth said mercilessly, holding his gaze. “I have watched you and the demon carefully, seen her working at your mind. Even with your hand on her chain, it was she leading more often than being led, and more so the longer you were linked. It is for the best that you are separated before you ended up fully subservient and ignorant of it.”

“I am no one’s servant!” Shook roared, surging up off the bed. He managed to sit upright, but Khadizroth was standing too close for him to even swing his legs over the side, and he immediately had to sit back down, to his further outrage.

“Of course you are,” the dragon retorted, still calm. “Right now, you should be worrying about what Syrinx will do when she learns you no longer control the asset that earned you a place here. That moment is coming very quickly.”

“Fuck Syrinx and fuck you. Get out of my way, I’m going to get my fucking property back!”

“Jeremiah Shook.” Khadizroth’s voice pushed down on him more firmly than his hand had, pressing him inexorably back against the cushion. He was still in a well-lit bedroom with a thin elvish man who had green eyes, or so his senses told him, but now another impression began to be layered over the top of this perception. The image of the room in his mind wavered, dreamlike, imposing the mundane room with the towering form of a dragon, great wings and sinuous neck arched menacingly above and blazing emerald eyes boring into his very soul. “Do you imagine it pleases me to bow my head to that vicious little shell of a woman whom I could annihilate with one snap of my jaws? Do you think I seek to impose any greater humility upon you than I have embraced for myself? I am a creature beyond your understanding, blessed and burdened with pride greater than you could imagine. And even I am not too proud to bend my neck, when the situation calls for strategy above force. You are an enforcer, one of Eserion’s chosen. You understand this—or did, before that slinking demoness worked her fingers into your mind, stroking your ego and teasing away your restraint. I am not trying to subdue you.”

The second perception faded away, the room swimming back into simple focus, and once more he was simply there, in a bed, with a green-eyed man standing over him wearing a sad little smile.

“Right now, I am the closest thing in this world you have to a friend,” Khadizroth said gently. “I am trying to free you.”

“Why?” Shook croaked in spite of himself.

“Why would I not?”

“Nobody does anything just…to be nice. Everybody’s got an angle.”

“Oh, Jeremiah.” Slowly, Khadizroth turned and sat down on the foot of the bed; Shook retreated, tucking his knees against his chest. The dragon just gazed wearily at the wall, offering no further hint of aggression. “Some philosophers argue that there is no such thing as a truly good action, because there are no truly unselfish actions. Because it is inherently, viscerally satisfying to be good to others. You’re wise to be mindful of schemers, but if you disregard the very possibility of altruism, you are blind to a vast swath of the motivations of people. But…if it helps you…I am not without ulterior motive.”

“Uh huh,” Shook prompted warily.

“You’re a flawed creature, make no mistake,” Khadizroth said with a wry note in his voice, turning to regard him directly, “but in everything that is detestable in you, I see what I detest in myself. The reflection of my own sins, and the prospect of further. If I turned up my nose at you, I would be the most craven hypocrite. And I find, upon reflection, that while I have been worse than a hypocrite, I am unwilling to add that to my failures. We are here—you, me, Vannae. The demon is as good as gone. It is only a matter of time before the Jackal either turns on us or we simply lose control of him; I am somewhat surprised it has taken this long. And Syrinx is a lesser version of him; all the same flaws with less self-mastery. I would not have advised growing attached to her, even if we didn’t specifically intend to remove her from our list of troubles. Like you, I do not have so many friends left that I can afford to mistreat those who remain.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, unable to keep it from shuddering. “Well… What the fuck do we do now?”

“In the near future we will have to think very fast, and react just as quickly. There is simply too much unknown for us to plan that far in advance. But now, all we can do is make ourselves ready. So for the time being, you need to rest. You will need every iota of your strength very soon, my young friend. Lie back.”

He found himself obeying without protest, settling back down into the pillows and straightening out his legs as Khadizroth stood and stepped over to stand by his head. The dragon laid one graceful hand against his forehead, and that was it: nothing that looked or felt like magic. Just the light pressure, the warmth of his skin, and a single word:

“Sleep.”

Shook’s eyes closed in a second and his breathing evened out swiftly as he sank below consciousness. Khadizroth kept a hand upon his brow, still speaking softly.

“What is lost is gone; we heal not by restoring the old but by growing the new. I give you a dream, my friend, to aid you in rebuilding yourself. You are freed of one demon, and you must master the other with which you struggle. Rage.”

Shook’s sleeping face twisted in a scowl and he clenched his fists against the quilt.

“Feel the anger,” Khadizroth murmured. “Let it flow through you. Let it pass you by, Jeremiah, and understand that it is only a thing. You are not your anger. You have it; it does not have you. Learn to let it pass.”

Slowly, the human’s body began to relax, and his expression evened out. He breathed in slowly and back out, eyes darting behind their lids.

Khadizroth released him and stepped back. The dragon gazed thoughtfully down at the enforcer for several protracted seconds. Then, suddenly, he lifted his head and turned toward the door.

In a flash he had stepped across the room and yanked it open.

A few yards down the hall, Kheshiri turned to meet his eyes, perched in the sill of the window whose bars she had just somehow finished working loose. By this point, he knew the range of her senses; that was close enough to have overheard a great deal, if not everything. The succubus winked, and launched herself out over the ravine.

Khadizorth tore across the hall in a near-instantaneous glide, but even moving faster than an elf, he was barely in time to catch sight of Kheshiri vanishing into invisibility as she soared away.

“…clever girl,” he acknowledged, pulling himself back in out of sight. The dragon lingered for a moment, gazing thoughtfully out into space. Then he returned momentarily to the bedroom to pull the door softly closed, and departed up the hall, already planning how to manage this new crisis.

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