“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—”
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.”