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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 – 13

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“Goooood morning!” Melaxyna sang, bracing the huge mixing bowl on her hip and continuing to stir batter even as she waved. “Pull up a seat! First batch of pancakes will be up in two shakes.”

Natchua crept closer, warily examining the area. Last night this had been a second-floor landing where the servant’s stairs from Sherwin’s kitchen apartment had terminated in an open area featuring a now-boarded window. A hallway extended off from it, lined with doors behind which lay the small bedrooms the group had taken over.

Melaxyna had been a very busy demon.

She had dragged in two relatively un-rotted desks from the surrounding rooms and arranged them back-to-back against one wall to form a makeshift table, and acquired three mismatched chairs and a stool to finish the setting. Whether the nails driven into the walls were new or had been there the night before Natchua could not say, but now they had a selection of pots and pans hanging from them. Another desk had been pushed into the corner to serve as a countertop, its surface positively glowing from the thorough cleaning and polishing it had recently received. Next to this stood a barrel of water and the centerpiece of the whole makeshift kitchen: a dented old arcane range upon which batter was sizzling away in a pan.

“I can’t thank you enough for this thing, boss,” Melaxyna nattered on cheerfully, turning back to her cooking with the bowl still braced against her hip. The succubus was, somehow, wearing a frilled apron, which Natchua strongly suspected was more to sell the look she was going for than because she feared splatters. “I had my doubts, but this is better than even a proper wood stove! Do they make something like this that works as an oven?”

“I assume so,” Natchua replied, slowly taking a seat at the table. “I mean, that thing’s not exactly state of the art, Mel. I got it on the cheap from a pawn shop in Vrin Shai. It’s old, doesn’t even have proper heating charms. Just a couple of burners hooked up to power crystals, basically. I’d keep anything flammable clear of it.”

Melaxyna glanced over her shoulder, just far enough that Natchua could see her raised eyebrow. “This was yesterday, after we got back from the vampire’s? What the hell were you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“You asked for something on which to cook. Calderaas is the place for enchanted appliances, but Vrin Shai is the closest major city to Tar’naris. I figured a drow wouldn’t stand out as much there.”

“That stripe in your hair kind of makes that redundant, honey bun. Why don’t you just get a disguise charm?”

“I kept my hood up, and I’m not made of money,” Natchua said irritably. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be buying appliances in junk shops. Is that tea?”

“Self-serve, doll, I’ve got my hands full.”

There was already most of a platter of pancakes on the counter next to the range, with a chipped teapot beside it emitting fragrant steam. Natchua had to retrieve a cup—also chipped—from the nearby crate in which sat a mismatched assortment of crockery. It looked clean enough, and she decided not to quibble about its origins.

“I almost hesitate to point this out,” she said, returning to her seat at the “table” with a cup of what smelled like strong black tea, “but a working kitchen is the one thing this place already had.”

“There is a kitchen, but Sherwin lives there,” Melaxyna replied cheerfully. “Just cos the cold box and fireplace are there doesn’t mean it’s any less his personal apartment. We’re already putting quite a lot of stimulation on a boy who’s been effectively a shut-in for years. You’d better believe I’m making it worth his while,” she said, turning to smirk and wink, “but let’s leave his personal space alone as much as possible. All this is just making do until your own little side project has more of this place shipshape again, but what I could really use, next time you go shopping, is a sink. I’ve heard of an apparatus that conjures water and then banishes the run-off down a portable hole?”

“Those exist and cost more than a modest house, and that’s just to buy. The power that kind of magic consumes requires mag cannon-grade crystals.”

“Honestly, Natch,” the succubus said in exasperation, “I don’t know where this penny-pinching comes from. I know this wreck of a house isn’t the reason you made an ally of Sherwin Leduc, of all people. If you can’t get him to shell out some money for equipment, you just let me know. I guarantee the man whose bed I warm will bankrupt himself to buy me the moon if that’s what I want.”

“See if you can sound more smug when you say that,” Natchua grumbled. “How did you set all this up without anybody hearing?”

“The stealth was the only hard part! I have to amuse myself somehow, y’know—what’s the point of doing something constructive if you’re not putting one over on everybody in the process? First batch is up!”

She moved the steaming platter of pancakes to the table, then bustled about supplying Natchua with a plate and silverware, followed by cracked dishes of butter and jam.

“Sweets for breakfast,” Natchua murmured, generously slathering a pancake with both. “I love the surface.”

“So!” Melaxyna poured herself into the chair across from her and planted an elbow on the desk so she could lean forward, chin in hand. “You didn’t sleep well.”

“I slept fine,” Natchua said curtly. “Mind your business.”

“Oh, pumpkin, please. You’re talking to the succubus who spent the night surreptitiously building a kitchen. I promise you I was very aware what everybody in this house was doing. Monitoring your perimeter is essential for any kind of skulduggery.”

“You are supposed to be entertaining Sherwin.”

“You may rest assured my given tasks are attended to. I entertained his brains out. Twice! And held off more because after that point I was worried I might accidentally kill him. Poor guy, he hasn’t had much in the way of physical activity in a while, has he? We’ll work on building up that stamina.”

“Melaxyna, I don’t want to hear details of Sherwin’s sex life unless they’re specifically relevant to my own business. And I’m only giving you that proviso for the sake of thoroughness, since I can’t honestly think how they ever would be.”

“Relevant to your interests, got it,” the demon said solemnly. “Then I assume you’re already aware that Jonathan and Hesthri slept in the same room.”

Natchua barely managed not to choke on a sip of tea. She did not succeed in suppressing the venom from the stare she directed at Melaxyna. “Everyone is welcome to sleep wherever they like. I’m not anybody’s mother.”

The succubus had the gall to innocently bat her eyelashes. “So you don’t care that all they did was sleep, then? Well, after a long boring talk about their relationship and that peabrained kid of theirs.”

She set down the teacup so hard it sloshed over. “That’s correct, I don’t. And I think I’ve already made clear where I stand on hearing the sordid details of other people’s personal lives.”

Melaxyna gazed at her with a benign smile.

“He was a means to an end, that’s all,” Natchua snapped. “And now, a nuisance. I don’t care.” She stuffed a heaping bite of pancake into her mouth and began chomping on it vindictively.

“Aw, honey,” Melaxyna said kindly, very nearly earning a shadowbolt to the face. “If I weren’t such a nice, cuddly demon, I’d string you along until you were desperate enough to beg for my help. But I’m me, so I’m offering. You gotta talk to somebody about this.”

“I don’t gotta do anything. There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t even know what you’re on about. Just shut up!”

“Natchua, you are seriously the worst possible personality type to take on the kind of surreptitious mission you’ve assigned yourself,” Melaxyna retorted, an undercurrent of frustration threading her tone. “I thought you Narisians were supposed to be composed above all. How do you always manage to make your feelings so glaringly obvious?”

“I never exactly fit in with my own people,” she muttered, viciously sawing off more pancake. “Tar’naris is a festering pit and drow culture in general would best serve the world by exterminating itself. Um. By obvious, you…just mean to someone as perceptive as a succubus. Right?”

Melaxyna sighed, leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms under her bosom. “Oh, honey.”

“Stop that!” Natchua snarled, hurling her fork down. It bounced off the table and then to the floor, leaving behind a thin trail of jam.

The succubus quietly stood, fetched another fork from the crate, and laid it gently beside her plate. Natchua rested both elbows on either side of her half-eaten pancaked and pressed her face into her hands.

“…I don’t have time for this.”

“Nobody ever does, sweetie,” Melaxyna said softly, sitting back down. “That’s just how it works. You’ve gotta find a way to deal, somehow, until you can resolve it one way or another.”

“I’d have to be an idiot to open up to a child of Vanislaas about personal issues.”

“We have a contract, remember? I can’t harm your interests while in your service or after you release me from it. Not to sound ungrateful, Natch, but you have nothing more to offer me. You already got me out of the Crawl; so long as you keep your promise to send me off before you charge into Elilial’s line of sight, I can’t gain anything else from manipulating you.” She paused, then huffed softly. “Besides, you know how the Vanislaad curse works, probably better than anybody who’s not one of us. I’m a person, not some kind of unreasoning mischief machine. Compulsions aside, I have the full range of feelings and capacities. I like you; I’m allowed to do that. I can and have fallen in love, even in my present state. My heart is as subject to breaking as anyone’s. That I can tell you from experience.”

“No, this is foolish anyway. It’s not like anything can happen.” She straightened, resolutely picking up the new fork. “I just need to ignore the whole thing. It’ll get easier with practice.”

“Yes, it will. But easy enough? You’re losing sleep, your temper is fraying, and your every interaction with at least two of the people with whom you’ve locked yourself in a very cramped situation is going to make it worse. How long before this pushes you into a severe mistake?”

Natchua stared down at her pancakes, fork poised over them but not moving. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“Cope.” Melaxyna reached across the table to gently grasp her free wrist. “I know you have issues with your upbringing, but you have the mental training to compartmentalize feelings and still yourself against them. You’ve learned that stuff from the cradle. I’m sorry to say it, I know how big a deal it is for you to have separated yourself from Tar’naris, but step one is going to be calling on the skills you already have to get this thing back under control before it causes you to make a fatal blunder.”

Natchua heaved a heavy sigh. “And step two?”

“Step two is to think about this. You are avoiding it, pretending it doesn’t exist, and that won’t work. You need to really sit down and examine yourself, and Jonathan, and Hesthri. Decide what it is you want from each of them. And then, only then, you’ll be able to decide what to do about it. Which is where the hard part begins that you’re not even in a position to begin planning for, yet.”

“Seems easier than that,” Natchua said dully. “I already told you, nothing can happen.”

“That isn’t even slightly true,” Melaxyna said in a particularly wry tone, “and I’m very much afraid you know it. Haven’t I already told you that denial is only going to make this worse?”

“We’ll all be going up in smoke soon enough, so what does it matter! Besides…he’s too old for me.”

“Aw, hon.” Melaxyna squeezed her wrist, then let it go. “You really don’t grasp why the age thing is an issue, do you?”

“Honestly, no, I don’t,” she snapped. “I figured it’s a human thing. We—they don’t have that concern in Tar’naris.”

“Well, you know how Arachne has an inviolable rule against teachers at her school consorting romantically with students?”

“Never understood that, either.”

“And that is because your frame of reference is Narisian. Because to the Narisian way of thinking, everything comes down to power. That may be workable, even necessary, for a society struggling to survive under the pressures they face, but everywhere else it is a horribly bad idea and the inevitable cause of abuse.”

“Abuse describes most Narisian relationships,” Natchua admitted.

The succubus nodded, folding her arms again. “The age thing is about power dynamics. An older person is wiser, usually more materially secure, and often in a position of relatively greater authority. When they get into a romantic relationship with someone who has none of those advantages… Well, there’s no getting around the fact that the dynamic is imbalanced. Age differences by themselves mean very little; it’s the stuff that comes with them.”

Natchua frowned. “But…none of that…”

“Exactly!” Melaxyna said, smiling. “Jonathan Arquin has no authority over you. He doesn’t have your education or resources, he’s paced himself demonstrably under your power just by being here, and there is the ever-looming fact that with a wave of your hand you can transpose his face with his butt and then melt both. The fact that he’s twice your age is not relevant to the power dynamic in your relationship. Honestly, honey, I hope you didn’t take Hesthri’s little jab too much to heart. Him being a paternal figure to you is one of the more wholesome things about your relationship. You are clearly in need of one of those.”

“And how is that not a power issue?”

Melaxyna beamed. “By itself, it totally is. In context? The scales still tip in your favor. It works out not being abusive in the other direction because you look up to him on some level.”

Natchua leaned her head against one hand, scratching her hairline. “Okay, fine. So what is it you’re trying to get me to do about this, then?”

“Not do, just understand. You clearly have it in your mind that this whole thing is hopeless and pointless, and it’s just not. You do have the potential for some happiness with the man. I guarantee he feels exactly as besotted with you, and exactly as conflicted about it, albeit for different reasons.”

“Well, it’s not as if it’s that simple…”

“Oh, indeed, there’s the ex whom you’ve placed right smack in the middle of this whole thing. And since the whole point of all this was to get access to her, it’s not as if you can just get rid of her.” Melaxyna shifted in her seat, her grin widening. “If you decide you want to make a play for your man, you just let me know. I can definitely teach you how to do that. But remember, first things first: you need to take some time and ponder this. Decide what you truly want and be sure before you upend the whole apple cart.”

Natchua blew out another slow breath, frowning at nothing past Melaxyna’s shoulder. In the next moment, though, she straightened up, turning to look behind her. Melaxyna tilted her head and opened her mouth, but Natchua held up a hand.

It was a few more seconds before the sound of hesitant feet on the moldy carpet were audible to non-elven ears, but moments after that, Hesthri appeared around the corner from the hallway, where she stopped to peer around at Melaxyna’s set-up with wide eyes.

“Morning, sunshine!” the succubus said brightly, hopping back to her feet. “Lemme get you a plate. It’s simple fare today, but if you’ve been on Hell rations for years it’ll be a feast. Me, I was just on mushrooms and pork for a while, and I’m still not over the delightful novelty of sugar.”

“I…was a servant in Ankhravtha-Shakhnavrid,” Hesthri said hesitantly, creeping closer. “The conditions weren’t terrible. Well, spartan by the standards of this plane, but I lived comfortably compared to most in Hell.”

“Ah, good,” Melaxyna replied, setting a plate of pancakes in front of the chair next to Natchua. “These are fairly sweet by themselves; try one to see how it affects your tongue before experimenting with the jam, that’s my recommendation.”

“Thank you, Melaxyna,” she murmured, creeping into the chair with a wary look at Natchua.

“Good morning, Hesthri,” she said, putting on a polite little Narisian smile. And hating herself for it, but Melaxyna had been right; the mindset from which she had been running ever since she came to the surface was immediately useful in her current circumstances. “How’s your finger?”

“Oh! You were right, the claw is already growing back.” Hesthri held up the digit in question.

“Good. I’m sorry to have sprung that on you; I had planned to approach the matter with more warning, but circumstances forced my hand. And, aheh, yours.”

“Um.” Hesthri placed her clawed hands on both sides of her plate, not yet reaching for the food. She stared down at it, though, while speaking. “Mistress, if it pleases you, I have a humble request.”

“Where did all this come from?” Natchua asked, frowning quizzically. “When I first summoned you, you had a mouth like a dispeptic dragon.”

Hesthri hunched her shoulders slightly. “That was before I was your servant. I don’t wish to overstep my bounds.”

“Well…please relax a little bit. I’m not comfortable having people bow and scrape at me.”

“You can just sass her the way I do,” Melaxyna suggested, smirking. “She snarls and complains but this one won’t whip or shadowbolt you for speaking out of turn.”

Natchua groaned, rubbing her forehead. “You needed something, Hesthri? And please, my name is Natchua. None of this mistress stuff.”

“Um…understood,” the hethelax said, still peering warily at her but appearing to unclench slightly. “I wonder if you could please obtain hvanthris gloves for me.”

Natchua frowned. “I don’t know that word. You must have found a gap in the knowledge Elilial jammed in my head.”

“Perhaps not, m—Natchua. It is fairly specialized and not really relevant to infernomancy. Some breeds of hethelaxi have permanent, un-retractable claws.” She held up one hand. “Like mine. Hvanthris gloves are made from a kvanvraranth’s hide to fit over them. They give us a tough and soft surface with gripping power very similar to human skin, so we can do delicate work without scratching everything we touch. Many hethelax servants in khelminash society are issued them for various tasks. I…would like to be as useful as possible, while I am here.”

“I see,” Natchua mused. “That sounds like a reasonable request; things on this plane are generally more fragile and less in need of clawing than in Hell. All right, I’ll work on that, though I’m not sure off the top of my head how to do it. If nothing else, I suppose I could summon a kvanvraranth and then a horogki from a bloodline with leatherworking skills…”

“Or,” Melaxyna interrupted, “since you live on a plane of existence with far more abundant and diverse resources, just get her some gloves! Sounds like you’d need some really particular ones that might have to be custom-made, but I’ll eat my tail if something like that isn’t a lot easier to get up here than down there.”

“That’s a point,” Natchua agreed. “I’ll look into this, Hesthri.”

“Thank you very much, m—Natchua.” She swallowed nervously and then finally picked up one of the pancakes on her plate, not bothering with the fork.

Natchua drew in a steadying breath. “Was Jonathan with you last night? I want to check in with him.”

The hethelax visibly flinched. “He is already up and downstairs…Natchua. He said he wanted to get a start on work?”

“Work? What possible—oh, Omnu’s taint.” Natchua shoved abruptly back from the table and stalked into the stairwell.

There were only so many places anyone could go in Manor Leduc. When she found Jonathan, she also found everyone else.

“Yeah, but seriously, what in the name of crap happened to this place?” one of the hobgoblins was demanding as Natchua stepped into the pulverized ruins of the once-grand front hall. The open sky loomed above; barely enough of the outer walls remained to define the shape of the room. Sherwin and Jonathan stood against one of the walls nearest the hallway to Sherwin’s little kitchen apartment, on one of the very few sections of floor that was still both solid and not buried by rubble. The three hobgoblins were clambering around the mess of fallen stone and roof timbers, one of them perched on a broken beam that put her near the two humans and just above their eye level.

“Several years of neglect,” Sherwin said evasively, crossing his arms.

“Neglect?” The horogki straightened up and turned in a full circle, staring with wide eyes around the room. “Man, you neglected the fuck outta this place, boss. Just several years? It woulda took you full-time neglect with a sledgehammer and no potty breaks to do this in a couple years.”

“A sledgehammer and big-ass claws,” added one of the others, holding up a brick with deep, visible scratches.

“Yes, well, after the neglect, there was a sort of…brawl. Between an archdemon and a Rhaazke.”

Broken shingles sprayed as one of the other hobgoblins burst up from beneath the wreckage. She spat out a mouthful of bent nails before grinning at him. “Well, that sounds a bit more like it! Future reference, handsome, when we need to know what happened to something it saves time to lead with the pertinent information.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Sherwin muttered.

“Waugh!” The second hobgoblin had rapidly clambered all the way to the top of the wall before unwisely stepping out onto the upper edge of an empty window frame. It shattered, sending her plunging down into a heap of rotted boards. Jonathan immediately straightened up, taking a step forward, but in two seconds a little red arm emerged from the rubble, waving. “I’m okay!”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

“Hey, Natchua!” Sherwin said, turning to her with a grin. “Sleep well?”

“Melaxyna has somehow set up a second kitchen in the upstairs hall,” she said, ignoring that. “And made breakfast.”

“The succubus can cook?” Jonathan asked skeptically.

“In the Crawl, she ran a marketplace and tavern of sorts for years. Level 2 wasn’t exactly high tea with the Empress, but considering what she had to work with it was actually pretty impressive. I do recommend the pancakes. Anyhow, I see you lot have already gotten to work. I admire your initiative, Jonathan, though it’s not clear to me how you intend to contribute.”

“I’ve worked on more than a few construction sites in my day,” he replied. “I’m not as strong or skilled as the girls, here, but being three times as tall has its advantages, too.”

“Four pairs of hands are better than three!” agreed the hobgoblin balanced on the beam in front of him with a cheery grin. Her teeth looked like those of a shark in urgent need of dental care.

“This really was an inspired idea, Natchua,” Sherwin added. “Sorry we didn’t wait for you, but…everybody was up, they were getting antsy, and, well, you know how it is. Oh! May I introduce Staccato, Pizzicato, and Glissando!”

“You named them?” she said incredulously.

“Why’s that such a startling prospect?” Jonathan asked with an edge in his voice. “They’re sapient beings. Don’t they deserve names?”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped. “That was exactly my point. Didn’t they already have names?”

“Actually, we didn’t,” said Pizzicato—according to where Sherwin had been pointing when giving that name—who was the one perched in front of them. “Where we come from, you earn a name by not dying long enough to be important to the bosses! Gotta say, none of us were really expecting to get there.”

“I see,” Natchua said, frowning. “What language is that? It’s not demonic and doesn’t sound like Glassian.”

“Actually, nobody knows!” he said, grinning. Sherwin in general looked happier and more energetic than she had ever seen him; evidently a night in the arms of a succubus did wonders for the disposition. “It doesn’t conform to any known language and the terms have existed longer than Tanglish by far. It’s musical terminology! They’ve been preserved by the Vesker cult since time immemorial. Bards never explain their business, but some theologians think they’re sacred words devised by Vesk himself.”

“Kinda doubt it!” Glissando said cheerfully, clambering up onto a heap of crushed masonry. “We’re demons, buttercup. If you’d named us sacred god-terms I figure we woulda burst into flames.”

“Wait a sec,” Staccato added, scowling suddenly. “You mean you thought those were sacred god-terms an’ you went and did it anyway?”

“Um.” Sherwin’s smile slipped. “Well, I mean, obviously…it all worked out?”

Jonathan and Natchua sighed in unison, then looked at each other, and then swiftly away.

“Well, anyway,” she said brusquely. “It’s your house, Sherwin, so I assume you can supervise this. Jonathan, acknowledging that you’ve horned your way into this whole affair through blackmail, are you still interested in making yourself useful?”

“I think we’ve established that’s literally what I came in here to do,” he retorted. “But it sounds like you have something specific in mind.”

“Yes, I do: a field trip. I mentioned yesterday that I have a line on another prospect to recruit—my only other promising lead so far, so until I feel more ready to start sniffing after the Black Wreath’s trail, this is our first and presently only priority.”

“By lead,” Sherwin said hesitantly, “you mean…”

“A demon who I have reason to think will be amenable to our cause. According to my sources, a certain khelminash sorceress who has served the Pantheon in the past has resurfaced recently in Ninkabi.”

“Khelminash, hm,” Sherwin mused, frowning. “It’s a pretty big deal for one of those to be on the mortal plane at all. They’re unsummonable; she must’ve come through a hellgate.”

“You can’t summon this species of demon?” Jonathan asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, I mean, in theory,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “Just like you can theoretically shoot the Sarasio Kid. Khelminash are the best warlocks in Elilial’s service, and also among the very few demons who usually don’t want to leave Hell. Trying to reach across the planes and grab one is a bad idea. The attempt is basically suicide. Even the Topaz College has never managed to capture a khelminash warlock.”

“Here’s the thing,” Natchua continued. “This one is fairly legendary; she’s actually mentioned in one of the later cantos of the Aveniad. And yes, that makes the timing suspicious, to say the least. Xyraadi supposedly died six hundred years ago.”

“Mm.” Jonathan narrowed his eyes. “What are the chances of these mysterious sources of yours deliberately setting you up for a trap?”

“Not likely, but,” she conceded, “not impossible. That’s something you must always be wary of when getting information from any demonic agent. So this must be approached carefully. Before charging in I want to do some delicate reconnaissance, which means not the full group. Myself, obviously. Melaxyna is the best we have at sneaking around in general. And since we’re going to a major human city, a regular joe like yourself could potentially be useful.”

“I see,” he mused, then nodded. “All right, beats waiting around here. I’m in. Sorry, girls, I’ll have to help you out later.”

“Aww,” Staccato said with a leer. “And here I was lookin’ forward to seeing you with your shirt off.”

He frowned. “Well, that wasn’t about to happen, anyway.”

“Oh, then, never mind,” she said curtly, waving him off and hopping down to the floor. “Do what you want, I yieee!”

The broken floorboards gave out, sending her plunging into whatever space lay below to land on something that crunched loudly.

“I’m okay!” Staccato’s voice floated up to them, followed by a second crash. “…almost completely okay! Who’s got a rope?”

“Right, so,” Natchua said with a sigh, “go get some breakfast and grab your wand. We’re not rushing off in haste, but I want to get started as quickly as possible. The only thing I can be certain of at this juncture is that there’s something fishy going on in Ninkabi.”

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15 – 11

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“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

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15 – 10

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“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

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15 – 9

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“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.

The carriage went over a bump, jostling them all and causing Natchua to growl wordlessly as she had to scramble to sustain the plate-sized spell circle she was crafting in midair between them out of lines of fire.

“A vampire is an apex shadow magic creation,” Melaxyna replied. Unlike the rest of them, she appeared perfectly relaxed, having spun around on the carriage bench to lean her back against Sherwin’s shoulder, with one leg extended to brace a bare foot against the door. “The only monsters of any significant power that don’t derive their nature from any of the four primary schools of magic. It’s…a lot to go over, actually, what’s immediately relevant is that most of them are not to be trifled with. There are different blood lineages with different powers, as I understand it. Malivette Dufresne is a pretty heavy hitter.”

“Uh…huh,” Hesthri said slowly, wide-eyed. “And why are we just passively going along to her house, then?”

“Because she demanded it,” Sherwin said bitterly. “Which she can only sort of do, legally, but it’s the vampire part that concerns me more than the Imperial governor part.”

“Is it?” Jonathan grunted. “I’m a bit more concerned that a vampire is an Imperial governor.”

“Makes sense to me!” Melaxyna said lightly. “You want a governor who won’t be pushed around, right? And if she’s also an object of fear and revulsion, you don’t have to worry about her building a power base and leading a rebellion. Maybe all the Imperial governors should be vampires!”

“I wouldn’t make suggestions like that in front of Vette,” Sherwin advised. “The vampire who gave her the curse also wiped out her entire family.”

A strained quiet fell, in which they stared at each other and listened to the grinding of the carriage’s wheels and the clopping of hooves that pulled it along.

“Okay,” Hesthri said at last. “New question, then. How are we going to fight her?”

“No fighting!” Sherwin insisted, actually shrugging Melaxyna off to straighten up with an alarmed expression. “You may’ve got the wrong impression from that ‘heavy hitter’ talk—Malivette isn’t a thing like me or Natchua, or Mel, or you. She is off the Circle of Interaction entirely, which means there’s no easy counter to her powers. And her powers are just ridiculous to begin with. I’m frankly not sure the whole group of us could take her down in a fight, if it was her alone. But she’ll have her whole gaggle of thralls around, so that’s not even slightly possible.”

“Oh,” the hethelax said in a very small voice, leaning forward to look at Jonathan. The two of them were separated by Natchua on the bench. He shifted to meet Hesthri’s eyes, and started to reach across to take her hand, which brought his own close to the circle Natchua was creating in the air.

“Out of the way!” she barked.

“It’s not exactly all bad,” Sherwin added, almost grudgingly. “Vette probably won’t do anything too violent to us, for the other reason we shouldn’t try it on her.”

“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.

“Imperial governor, remember?” Melaxyna prompted with a grin.

Sherwin nodded in sour agreement. “Even if we could take her, there’d be hell to pay. Likewise, she can’t just up and murder a bunch of people.”

“Why not?” Jonathan asked in his driest tone. “Aristocrats do that all the time. Who the hell cares about us?”

“I am the last member and nominal Head of House Leduc,” Sherwin said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not exactly a conventional situation up here, but Houses Leduc and Dufresne have been feuding and struggling over the control of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province for generations. Only thing that kept it from getting nasty was the rest of the Houses watching the situation. The Empire wouldn’t give a crap about anything that happened to me, but if the vampire aristocrat was even implicated in my demise, the other Houses would raise a stink until the Silver Throne had to come down on her. They can’t have her bumping off competition, especially since nothing in any of their arsenals would even slow Vette down. Nobles reliably freak out about anything that even smells like a threat to their power, so she can’t afford to be anything but a model citizen. Fucking politics,” he added in a sullen grumble, crossing his arms and leaning his head against Melaxyna’s. “This crap is why I never leave the house.”

“Oh,” Jonathan said neutrally, “is that why.”

Sherwin narrowed his eyes at him, while Melaxyna grinned. Jonathan, meanwhile, shifted his attention to Natchua.

“Do you really have to do that right here and now? I’d at least like to know how much cancer we can all expect to get from being this close to hasty infernomancy.”

“Nothing I ever do will be so uncontained as to cause splash effects,” Natchua sneered.

“She’s right, that spell is fully inert beyond its boundaries,” Sherwin added. “Very tight confinement work. That’s the most important skill a warlock can have, you know. Which is not to say I can tell what she’s doing; I’ve never seen anything remotely like that.”

“The Black Wreath would make anybody they caught doing this disappear,” Natchua said, eyes on her spell. “Since the whole plan is to go after them before they even think to come after us, worrying about that would seem somewhat redundant. And no, Jonathan, I would rather not be doing this here and now. Handling it in a moving carriage makes it orders of magnitude more difficult. Circumstances have kind of forced my hand, though. There.” She lowered her hands, and the glowing runic circle remained in midair, rotating slowly and remaining perfectly in position relative to the carriage. Natchua snapped her fingers and opened her palm, and a dagger dropped from the empty air into her grasp, a short knife with a wickedly sinuously blade whose cutting edge glowed as if red-hot.

“Whoah, now,” Melaxyna said, finally looking somewhat perturbed.

“Hesthri, give me your hand,” Natchua ordered.

Hesthri immediately scooted away from her against the side of the carriage, tucking her hands against her chest and frowning. “What? Why? What are you going to do?”

“There is not time to go into it!” Natchua snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you; I didn’t go to the considerable trouble of tracking you down to treat you wastefully. But you also weren’t called here for a vacation! You agreed to follow my orders on this campaign, and if you’ve decided you’re not going to do that, you may as well go right back where you were.”

“Hey,” Jonathan said sharply, “don’t talk to her like that!”

“Hush, boy,” Melaxyna drawled. “Every word she just said was right. This whole scheme is crazy, but we did all agree to follow the drow, and by implication, trust her. Anybody who’s having second thoughts urgently needs to fuck off.”

Hesthri drew in a sharp breath as if anticipating pain, but then extended her hand to Natchua, albeit with some hesitation.

The drow seized her index finger with her left hand, and with her right, very carefully began trimming away the claw on her fingertip. Hesthri winced, watching, but did not twitch.

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, peering at this in fascination. “I thought hethelax armor was completely invulnerable.”

“Not to that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, her eyes now locked on the dagger. “How did you get your hands on one without tipping off the Wreath? I thought they hid all of those away.”

“They did,” Natchua said absently, focusing on her work. “I made this one myself. There we go.” She released Hesthri’s hand and the hethelax immediately snatched it back, retreating again to the edge of the bench. “That should grow back on its own, Hesthri. If it hasn’t started in a couple of days, let me know and I’ll fix it. Are you okay? That wasn’t supposed to hurt.”

“No,” Hesthri said, grimacing and holding up her declawed finger. “I mean, yes. I mean—I’m fine, it doesn’t hurt. Just feels weird.”

Natchua carefully dropped the trimmed claw into the circle of glowing lines, where it immediately snapped to the center and hung there. “Your turn, Mel. Hand.”

“What?” Melaxyna squealed, abruptly scrabbling away from Sherwin. “Me? Why?!”

“Hush, girl,” Jonathan said solemnly. “We’re doing as the nice warlock orders, remember?”

“Jonathan Arquin,” Natchua growled, “we have established that you’re here explicitly because I don’t have the heart to kill or disappear you. If you’re going to do shit like that, my mind can change. If the succubus can refrain from needling everybody, you have no excuse. Mel, we don’t have time for this, we’re getting closer to the vampire’s lair by the second. Give me your hand.”

Melaxyna whined like a kicked dog and made gruesome faces, but obeyed, even more hesitantly than Hesthri had. Natchua had to reach out, seize her wrist, and haul her hand closer, but the actual procedure was much quicker: she simply jabbed the succubus’s fingertip with the knife’s point, causing an entirely excessive squeal of pain.

A single drop of black blood welled up. Natchua released Melaxyna, who yanked her arm back, but the droplet remained behind. The warlock gestured and it drifted through the air to join the slice of hethelax claw.

Instantly the entire circle snapped inward, forming a tiny ball of fire around the two joined specimens. That burned out in half a second, emitting a puff of acrid smoke and leaving behind a blob of viscous black substance with an oily sheen on its rippling surface. It undulated and squirmed in midair.

“If that’s what I think it is,” Sherwin said warily, “I can see why the Black Wreath wouldn’t want you doing it. Or anyone, for that matter.”

“And…what do you think it is?” Jonathan asked in the same tone.

Natchua simply took the wriggling thing between her thumb and forefinger; it squirmed but failed to escape. “All right, Mel, other hand.”

“Whyyyyy,” Melaxyna whined. “Come on, I already donated! It’s her turn again!”

This time, Natchua simply pointed at her with the hand not holding the blob, and chain of orange fire lashed out of her fingertip, twined around one of the succubus’s arms, and dragged it closer. Before Melaxyna could react further, she dropped the blob right into her palm.

It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.

“What did you do?!” Melaxyna squalled, struggling so violently the carriage rocked. “Get it out! What is that? So help me, you knife-eared little darkling freak, if you’ve—”

She broke off suddenly, as the other hand which she’d raised in a fist was suddenly encased in a black gauntlet with spikes protruding from the knuckles.

“Oh, no,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, what have you done?”

“Good,” Natchua said approvingly, ignoring him. She let go of the glowing dagger and it vanished, freeing her hand to pull out her mundane belt knife. “It’s made with your own blood, so it should sync directly with your native shapeshifting and give you full intuitive control. Make a gauntlet on your other hand.”

The other hand was still imprisoned by the chain, which did not prevent Melaxyna from obeying. A second gauntlet formed over her skin.

Natchua lashed out with elven speed, stabbing the blade right at the center of Melaxyna’s palm. It impacted the armor with an impotent clink, snapping off its tip. The gauntlet was not so much as scratched.

Melaxyna’s expression morphed to one of incredulous delight. “Best. Boss. Ever.”

“D-did you just give hethelax invulnerability to a succubus?” Jonathan breathed. “Natchua, no!”

“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.

“Pardon me while I just double-check that the wards in here are actually preventing those thralls from hearing this,” Sherwin muttered.

“It’s not total invulnerability,” Natchua explained, finally dismissing the fiery chain and releasing Melaxyna’s arm. “Your shapeshifting has been, in a word, upgraded: you can now create armor which, yes, inherits hethelax invulnerability. That means it’s vulnerable to all the things you already are, like divine magic and valkyrie scythes. The theory is you should be able to alter the appearance as you see fit; you can make ordinary-looking clothes that will stop a wandshot, or a full suit of armor. Whatever you like. And the point of all this,” she added more loudly as three people drew breath to begin protesting, “is to have an ace up our sleeves! Just because Malivette Dufresne is generally disinclined to murder us all does not mean she can’t, and in case I need to remind you lot, we have a notable lack of legal standing, here. Of all four schools, infernal users are least equipped to deal with a vampire, or with undead in general. I want to go in there with at least something Dufresne isn’t expecting and won’t have a convenient way to handle, just in case, and this is the only idea I had prepared.”

“Well,” Hesthri said after a short silence, “you’ve absolutely just created a crisis for somebody somewhere down the line, but that’s the future. I guess right now we’d better concentrate on dealing with the vampire. So if we can’t fight her or run away, what the hell are we going to tell her?”

“I was counting on our presence here being a secret,” Natchua said, giving Sherwin a look.

“Oh, don’t scowl at me,” he snapped. “If you didn’t know her vampire senses would spot you landing here, how the hell would I?”

“The point is, I didn’t plan for this! I don’t have a story that would explain this group and I don’t know how fast I can cobble one together.”

“I dunno if you even can,” said Jonathan. “Unless you actually work for the Empire, the Church, or the Topaz College, summoning sapient demons is pretty damn illegal. Summoning a Vanislaad is the kind of illegal that gets you locked up for life!”

“Well, everybody’s clear, there,” Melaxyna said absently while changing the appearance of both her armored gloves and admiring them. “Natch didn’t summon me, I was already on this plane. Arachne can vouch for that, if it comes down to it.”

“That’s true,” Sherwin agreed, “and merely consorting with a Vanislaad isn’t a crime. The presumption of the law is that anybody entangled with them is probably a victim of their manipulation.”

“That’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” Hesthri scoffed.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Sherwin grumbled. “House Leduc called in a lot of favors to get Empress Theasia to institute that one. Gods, am I glad my whole family is dead. Legally speaking, we’re in trouble, here, but not mortal trouble. The hethelax is a relatively minor threat…”

“This hethelax in particular is going to create waves if the Empire identifies her,” Jonathan said grimly, “which they might from my presence alone.”

“Vette isn’t the Empire,” Sherwin offered. “And she has her own reasons for not wanting attention called to her business. We can spin this, hopefully in a way she’ll go along with, but… Honestly, Natchua, we may have to just tell her what’s going on.”

The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.

“Time’s up,” Natchua said fatalistically. “Looks like we play it by ear.”

Further discussion was precluded by the opening of the carriage door.

“Welcome,” Ruby said pleasantly, stepping back and gesturing them out with a graceful bow. “Please, honored guests, this way.”

They disembarked one by one, feet crunching on the gravel drive. The gravel, at least, looked relatively fresh, unlike the waist-high weeds which choked the surrounding lawn. Before them, the manor house itself was largely covered by climbing ivy.

“Do the nobles here just not bother taking care of their property?” Melaxyna muttered. “At least this place looks better than yours, Sherwin.”

“The nobles here don’t want company,” he said pointedly.

“How’s she govern the province, then?” Hesthri asked, equally pointedly.

“The actual administration is done by her steward, Grusser, down in the city,” Sherwin explained, already shuffling toward the mansion’s front door. Natchua caught up in two long strides and then held back to glide along at his shoulder. The rest followed more warily, Jonathan pausing to peer at the stone obelisk which stood in the middle of the circle drive.

The manor’s front doors opened before the reached the steps, and two more women emerged, also wearing striking evening gowns. So far all of Malivette’s attendants were beautiful young women of local Stalweiss extraction, and all were uniformed in extravagant dresses that were identical apart from being color-coded. Ruby and Jade had driven them in the carriage, garbed in red and green respectively: these were in white and blue.

“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.

“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.

“Welcome,” said Sapphire courteously. “Please, step this—”

“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Sherwin interrupted her, stomping up the front stairs. “Nobody but you has the energy to pretend this is a polite social call. Let’s get this bullshit over with.”

“He’s not used to being around people,” Melaxyna said apologetically.

“We’re familiar with Lord Leduc,” Pearl replied with a smile. “We wouldn’t dream of disturbing his solitude except at great need.”

“Ladies,” Jonathan said far more politely, bowing to each of them before entering.

“If any of you were thinking of trying something, let me just repeat: do not.” Inside the remarkably bare front hall of Manor Dufresne, Sherwin paused to turn a warning look on the rest of his party. “Vampire thralls are as strong as a human in good shape, and as fast and agile as elves. They’re basically Butlers, functionally. In fact, my pet theory is that’s literally what Butlers are, since nobody’s seen whoever leads the Service Society in the eighty-odd years since it was founded.”

“Good guess, but no!”

They all jumped at the voice which came from the top of the staircase before them. A moment ago no one had been there, but now at the head stood a young woman in a black dress, smiling cheerfully down at them. She had the gaunt look of someone who habitually didn’t get enough rest or food, not to mention an unhealthily pale complexion. Even so, she might have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.

Malivette Dufresne descended the stairs with mincing little steps, trailing her fingertips along one of the banisters on the way down. “I’ve been around Butlers; believe me, I would know if they were even vampire-adjacent. My pet theory is it’s done with alchemy. You know, like how the Silver Legion can turn elves into specimens with basically human strength.”

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, “well that’s disappointing. Alchemy? There’s no romance in that.”

“Tragic, I know,” Malivette agreed, alighting at the base of the stairs. “I welcome you, Lord of House Leduc, to my home in the spirit of mutual interest and the long respect which has stood between our great Houses. In honor of that friendship, and with the deepest apology for disturbing your much-cherished quiet, I must make a most humble inquiry.” She swept an arm in a wide gesture to indicate the whole group, and abruptly her tone and expression changed to one of sheer exasperation. “What the hell, man?!”

“Me?” he exclaimed. “Which of us is sending their goons to drag the other one outside on no notice, huh?”

“Sherwin!” Malivette pressed the heels of both her hands against her eyes. “How many times have—look, I seriously am not trying to start something here. You know I don’t have a problem with you. Heck, in another life, you and I might have found ourselves joined in a loveless political marriage, and I assure you the revulsion I feel at that prospect is purely general, not personal.”

“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.

“But, for the last time, you cannot have a succubus!” Malivette pointed dramatically at the demon in question, glaring at Sherwin. “I was willing to overlook this when you built the world’s most excessive Vanislaad cage, but I know for a fact you’ve had that thing dismantled and now here’s this creature traipsing around my province unattended, and holy shit, Melaxyna?”

“Hi, Vette!” Melaxyna said cheerfully, waving. “You’re looking terrible. But less so than the last time I saw you, so… I guess you’re doing well?”

“Still always hungry, but less pissy about it,” Malivette replied, tilting her head quizzically. “And here you are, out of the Crawl. Did Professor Tellwyrn finally let you go, then?”

“Well, Arachne hasn’t come storming out here to haul me back, and that’s well within her capability,” the succubus said thoughtfully, “so I take that as notice that my services are no longer required.”

“You two…are acquainted?” Natchua said pointedly.

“I did go to that cockamamie school, you know,” Malivette replied. “Crawl expeditions and everything. Mel’s been an institution down there since long before you enrolled, and by the way, hello, Natchua. I’m so glad you’ve stopped wearing your hair up in that ridiculous spiky number, the green stripe is actually quite fetching when you let it lie flat. Drow have such lovely hair.”

“You two are acquainted?” Melaxyna asked, blinking.

“Most years there’s at least one field trip per class to Veilgrad,” Natchua explained, eyes locked with Malivette’s. “This city is prone to the kind of weird nonsense that makes for Tellwyrn’s idea of a useful class exercise, and also the governor is an alumna. It’s a handy little arrangement. I will point out for the record that my class excursion wasn’t the one that unleashed a zombie horde in the city.”

“I do say when I was warned of a succubus and a drow warlock I was not expecting either to be a familiar face, much less both.” Malivette turned her quizzical look on Jonathan and Hesthri. “Don’t tell me… Nope, you two aren’t ringing any bells. Well, then again, I don’t know any hethelax demons.”

“Yeah, about that,” Sherwin said belligerently, “we need to have a talk about whatever means you’re using to monitor my estate!”

“You just go ahead and hold your breath waiting for that,” Malivette retorted. “Look, here it is: I don’t know what all this is about, I’m glad Sherwin is finally making friends—truly—and I am nothing if not sympathetic to someone operating with what amounts to an illness that compels them to be dangerous to others. I probably relate to a succubus better than anybody who’s not one. But the fact remains, Mel, you are what you are and you cannot be running around loose in my city!”

Natchua stepped between the vampire and the succubus. “Then let’s talk about this.”

“Oh, we’re going to talk about this,” Malivette agreed, “but we’re going to do it once I’m certain she is taken care of.”

“I see old times don’t count for anything,” Melaxyna muttered.

Natchua continued matching Malivette’s stare. “You’re not touching her.”

“Young lady,” the vampire said, smiling in a way that displayed her elongated canines to great effectiveness, “would you like me to explain in detail why every part of that sentence was more wrong than the preceding, or shall I save time and demonstrate?”

“She is with me,” Natchua said coldly. “You take one of my people, and I’ll take one of yours.”

There was a moment of absolute silence.

“Okay,” Jonathan said finally, “however all this shakes out, can we establish a rule that Natchua doesn’t handle negotiations from now on?”

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