Tag Archives: Hesthri

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When the knock came at her door Natchua thought very seriously about yelling at whoever it was to go the hell away. Seriously, but briefly, and not with any real intent. Everyone in this place had reason to be on edge and they were all here because of her, after all. Well, all except Sherwin, but he had as much cause as anyone to seek her out.

And so she paused, looked longingly at the bed she had just turned down, then double-checked that her loose sleeping robe was buttoned, and was pleased at the calm of the tone with which she called, “Yes?”

The door opened just enough for Hesthri to lean her head and one shoulder into view. The demon’s gaze immediately flicked past Natchua to where the expensive Glassian designer outfit she’d just imported was thrown carelessly over a rickety old wooden chair that had not been entirely cleared of dust first. Just for a moment, though, and she did not let the pause drag on before speaking.

“Good, I was afraid I’d wake you.”

“I only came upstairs a few minutes ago, Hes.”

“Yes, but you’re as exhausted and tense as I’ve ever seen a person,” Hesthri replied, slipping the rest of the way inside and gently closing the door. “And you have cause, after all. I didn’t want to interrupt a needed rest.”

“I’m fine,” Natchua said shortly. “Not really that tired. Elves have a great deal more stamina than most demons.”

“Physically, sure. That’s not really the type of stress we’ve all been under, though, is it?”

She drew in a breath for patience before answering. “What do you need, Hesthri?”

Hesthri drew closer in small, diffident steps, her hands clasped behind her back, keeping her eyes below the level of Natchua’s; khelminash etiquette was not part of the infernal knowledge Elilial had given her, but Natchua was from a caste society herself and recognized a formal posture of submission. Which meant the hethelax was likely to smirk and start ribbing her any moment, to judge by her established pattern.

“Things are going better than I honestly expected downstairs,” Hesthri reported. “No one is giving Kheshiri any wiggle room. Xyraadi treats her like a servant, Melaxyna is running interference when she tries to pry at anyone, and the hobs appear to be terrified of her. Jonathan and Sherwin are both refusing to engage her, too. I was a little worried about the humans, but it seems they’re properly wary.”

“Well, Jonathan has no shortage of sense,” Natchua pointed out, “and has had plenty of time and reason to educate himself about trickster demons.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed with a fond little smile which caused a heavy knot of some uncomfortable emotion in Natchua’s stomach. “I was worried about Sherwin, though. A man who wants a succubus around, well…”

“Yes, I can see the concern. Sherwin had some of his ideas about women and demonology pretty roughly corrected a while ago, however. And he’s got Melaxyna to keep him happy for now.”

Hesthri nodded. “Xyraadi has been polite to everyone else. She…appears unimpressed by this manor. It’s better accommodations than I’m used to, but khelminash are all nobility in their own societies. I’m a little concerned she may lose patience with roughing it like this.”

“Give Xyraadi a little credit, Hes. She’s used to Agasti’s lavish style now, but she has spent most of her life adventuring in the old style, in the Glassian highlands, in a much more primitive time. I highly doubt she’s that insistent on creature comforts. In any case, the hobgoblins will be fixing this place up as quick as possible. I think I’ll take her to see Malivette’s place first thing in the morning, though,” she added, rubbing at her forehead. “I wasn’t in a hurry, but you have a point. Having a proper noble to hobnob with will probably do her good. And I bet those two will hit it off swimmingly.”

“Do you… Forgive me, but is it necessarily wise to inform Lady Dufresne about this?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it’s moot. Keeping her informed of details such as what demons I’ve brought here is part of the deal we struck that keeps her from handing us over to the Empire or tearing this place down her own damn self. Besides, I’m actually looking forward to briefing her on Kheshiri. My contract with that… With her prevents me from deliberately sending harm her direction, but Malivette could be severely dangerous to Kheshiri if she chose. If she decides to claim noble privilege and deal with her, that solves one of my biggest headaches.”

“If Kheshiri dies,” Hesthri said softly, “she’ll return to Hell right at Prince Vanislaas’s citadel. I don’t know how willing she’ll be to cooperate with him, but by the rumors I’ve heard, his children can’t keep secrets from him.”

“Yes, because nothing can ever be simple.” With a heavy sigh, Natchua sat down on the edge of her four-poster bed, making the old thing creak. She’d already had to prop up its short leg with two sad little blocks that had been books before years of exposure ravaged them. Now, she let her hands dangle listlessly between her knees, unable to prevent her shoulders from slumping. “I’ll tell Vette the full situation, see what she thinks. At the very least, we know she keeps an eye on this place. If I fail to turn up and report on this, she might… Well, we don’t want to learn what she might do, let’s put it that way.”

“Fair,” Hesthri agreed, nodding. She had stopped creeping forward about a yard away, just out of arm’s reach. “Please excuse me if I overstep, but I wanted to ask about the details of that contract. I was…occupied while you hammered it out.”

“It’s not overstepping, Hes, I think you’re entitled to know.” Natchua tried to make her tone gentle; as frustrating as it was when Hesthri treated her like a temperamental noble, she was well aware that getting snappy about it would only make it worse. “She basically doesn’t want to be harmed, killed, returned to Hell, or imprisoned, and the contract bars me from doing any of that, or encouraging anyone else to do it, or allowing it to happen if I have a reasonable chance of preventing it. In return, she is required to be personally loyal to me.”

Hesthri narrowed her eyes, her expression growing intent. It was a timely reminder that despite her intermittent posture of servitude, she had a sharp mind. “That’s it? Just loyal?”

“It is actually the best practice in dealing with Vanislaads. Trying to dictate their actions both provokes them to resist you and gives them rules in which to sniff out loopholes. It’s basically inviting them to play a game at which they are better, for the highest stakes. That’s the mistake that Eserite clown Shook made in trying to control her. No, the better avenue is to dictate their motivations. She’s bound to look out for my best interests above all, which keeps all her creativity working for me rather than against me. In theory, anyway. Of course, because it is the established best practice and she’s Kheshiri, I’ve no doubt she’s already got some way around it, or if not is working on finding one.” Natchua scrubbed at her face again. “Gods. I really, truly did not need this pain in the ass.”

“And this happened because of me,” Hesthri almost whispered.

“It is not your fault, Hes,” Natchua said sharply, then carefully moderated her tone. “Look, I won’t hesitate to call you down if you actually screw something up, all right? But getting grabbed from behind and shadow-jumped… Well, there just aren’t many defenses against that, and hethelaxi have none of them. If anything, you being imprisoned like that is my fault for letting my eyes off you when I knew there was a succubus around.”

“I don’t think I’d know where to begin establishing actual fault,” Hesthri said, looking up with a small smile. “All I know is that I don’t blame you, and I can’t help feeling guilty.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Natchua said with another sigh. “Feelings…very inconvenient in general.”

The silence hung there.

“Oh,” Hesthri said suddenly, straightening up and bringing her hands around from behind her back. “Look what Xyraadi gave me!”

“Your gloves!” Natchua said in surprise. They were apparently of supple leather, a few shades paler than Hesthri’s own complexion and without her patterns of scales that decorated her skin; the fingertips were a little bulkier where some inner structure fitted over her blunt claws and rounded them out to softer shapes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had time…”

“Oh, that’s all right!” Hesthri said hastily, raising her gloved hands. “It hasn’t been long, and it’s not like you haven’t had more important things to do. I just wanted to show you and withdraw my request, as it’s now moot.”

“Wait,” Natchua said, frowning. “Where did she get those, exactly?”

“She said she summoned them.”

“Summoned…” She scowled. “Which means they came from somewhere. Which means someone in Hell will notice they’re missing. It’s not as if resources are common there, isn’t that the whole point of the place?”

“A khelminash city is a reasonably well-equipped haven,” Hesthri explained, stepping closer. “I did ask about that, and Xyraadi insisted she knew what she was doing. I saw no reason to doubt her, but if you want to ask her more detailed questions, that might be smart.”

“Yeah, I think it would,” Natchua grumbled. She got as far as tensing her legs to rise, then slumped again. “…tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow is plenty of time,” Hesthri agreed, coming up to the edge of the bed now. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked tired and stressed. Actually…that was the other reason I came. There’s something I wanted to show you.”

“Something you—hey, what’s the big ideeeeeaaauughh…” Natchua started to shy away when Hesthri reached out to grasp her shoulder, but then her forefinger and thumb had pressed into the stiff tendons of her neck in just the right spot and she found her entire upper body practically melting. Warm ribbons of bliss radiated out from where the demon’s fingers pressed. “Where…the hell…did you learn…”

“In fact, I was trained in this specifically,” Hesthri replied with audible satisfaction. She climbed onto the bed and sidled around behind Natchua, and the drow once again started to protest, but then both hands were on her shoulders, pressing right where the tension accumulated, and all she produced was an awkward burbling sound. “You see why these gloves are so important, hmm? Hethelax fingers never cramp or tire. And those of us trained as personal servants are expected to massage khelminash, who are all built like Xyraadi. Even more gangly than elves. I know exactly where every spot is.”

“I…um…ooooh.” Natchua’s head lolled bonelessly forward as Hesthri knelt behind her kneading right at the spot where her neck and shoulders melt. As hard as she was pressing it seemed like it ought to hurt, but it was a tremendously satisfying almost-pain. “Not sure if…nngh! I don’t really…like being…”

“Of course, I’ll stop if you’re not enjoying it,” Hesthri said in a whisper, practically right in her ear. “You’re the mistress. It’s just that… I can’t do much for you, but I can do this. I can at least thank you, Natchua. For coming for me.”

She slid her hands into the collar of Natchua’s robe, pulling it looser to gain access to her shoulders, and for a moment the drow tensed again. Just as quickly she relaxed, the unique sensation of bone-hard fingertips under a layer of padded leather pressing insistently into every spot where the rigid pain was and soothing it away.

Something in the back of her mind told her this might be a bad idea, but she couldn’t quite say why. Much more prevalent in her thoughts was that nobody had ever touched her this way.

“I…ffmmmnn. What the hell. Lower.”


“And this is the jewel of the collection, almost literally,” the smiling woman said, gliding into position next to the large display case in which stood a heavily begemmed golden gauntlet, upright on a model hand behind glass marked with alarm runes. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is our Arcane Fist! And I mean the original, not the comic book hero. What you see here is one of only two still in existence, the other being Empress Theasia’s personal weapon which is now on display in the Imperial Palace in Tiraas.”

Shook found himself drifting closer as she spoke, her tour group clustering in front to gawk at the jewel-studded metal glove. He’d been drifting basically since leaving the Inquisition’s piddly excuse for a headquarters, wandering into the museum merely out of idle surprise at finding it still open at this hour, wandering into the historical weaponry exhibit as it was the only collection that really interested him, and now wandering to join the tour group mostly because it was there. This surely had to be the last one of the day, but the docent seemed as bright and alert as if fresh from her morning tea. Then again, that was probably a requirement of her job.

“You can see the large gemstones incorporated into the gauntlet, and the large amount of gold,” she nattered on. “Those aren’t just affectations, but are essential to its function. The enchantments are designed around those materials specifically. An Arcane Fist fires a charge of electricity about fifty times the power of a modern battlestaff shot, at close range, and includes charms to protect its wearer from the blast. This little beauty delivers a blow that can shatter any magical shield known to exist, right up to the personal defense of a paladin or archmage. The Arcane Fists were created as part of Theasia’s initial push to develop better enchantments for the military, and used briefly by Imperial Intelligence. In fact, they emerged in the same generation as a number of big innovations we still use—shielding charms, telescrolls, the Rails, and mag cannons all came out of Theasia’s push for newer, better enchantments.”

“Is that thing still usable?” one of the tour group asked.

“Well, it’s behind unbreakable alarmed glass for more reasons than that it’s valuable,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re in the business of preserving artifacts here, and truly disabling the Fist would damage it significantly. In theory, sure, it could be charged up and used again. Obviously we don’t keep weapons like this sitting around carrying an arcane charge. Right now, its chief use as a weapon is that it’s heavy. You would not want to be punched by someone wearing a glove of solid gold.”

Shook meandered closer till he was at the very edge of the group as a titter rippled through them, eyes on the gauntlet. He wondered how many in this gaggle of rubberneckers knew that those old-fashioned powered gems couldn’t be drained of their charge, unlike modern enchanting crystals. Then again, they’d naturally lose charge over time. After sitting in that case for fifty-odd years it probably didn’t hold enough power to light a fairy lamp.

“How come they stopped using these?” he asked.

He wasn’t part of the tour group, but the docent gave him a warm smile, seemingly pleased at the question. “As with a lot of things, it was a combination of factors. What those factors added up to is that it simply isn’t practical. The necessary materials are wildly expensive, as you can plainly see—and it is, as I just mentioned, heavy enough to be hard to use for such a small device. The expense is made worse because they tend not to be reusable; when one of these has been fired more than a couple of times it’s all but destroyed by its own energy, and while gold can be melted down and re-cast, there’s not a lot you can do with shattered gemstones except make earrings. There were also a couple of very embarrassing cases when a Fist’s grounding charms failed, frying its wielder instead of their target. At least some of these problems likely could have been overcome with time and refinement, but that still leaves the fundamental fact that if you’re going to shoot lightning at someone, it’s a much better idea to do so from a distance than close enough to slug them.

“Which, in turn, led to political problems that pressured Theasia’s government to abandon the Arcane Fist as a field weapon. You see, anything it can do in terms of inflicting damage on an enemy can be done with more control and at a safer range by a wand or battlestaff. The Fist’s primary utility is as a shield-breaker, and it’s just plain inconvenient to have to get right up close to someone in order to beat their magical shield down. Besides which, it’s massive overkill for use against any conventional shielding charm. Remember, this all took place in the period early in Theasia’s reign, before the paladins disappeared for ten years, after Magnan the Enchanter was long dead and while Arachne Tellwyrn was missing and thought also dead.” She grinned and winked. “Can you guess who would’ve been the most likely target of a weapon that’s mostly used to break the strongest magical shields?”

“Wait, you mean Imperial Intelligence used this on paladins?” one of the onlookers asked, aghast.

“Believe me, you’d have learned about it in school if they ever had,” the docent replied. “But you’re right on the money, regardless. The Universal Church and especially the cult of Avei started asking extremely loud questions about why Imperial Intelligence needed a paladin-killer in particular. And so, the Empire quietly discontinued the Arcane Fist and scrapped those still in existence—except for the two which, luckily for us, slipped through the cracks. There are actually some pretty famous pieces of jewelry made from the remains of this weapon’s siblings. In the end, it ended up being an object lesson for the great age of magical innovation: just because you suddenly have the ability to do some exciting new thing doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea!”

“Good advice for everybody,” Shook mused aloud.

The docent nodded at him. “And that’s exactly how history works: the lessons are repeated until they’re learned, and the winners are those who learn them fastest. And speaking of that! Next we’ll be going backward in time a few more decades, thanks to an exhibition on loan to us from Mathenon. Here in the West we were spared the depredations of Horsebutt the Enemy and his hordes, so this is a rare treat for Ninkabi. This collection of weapons and armaments is significant for a number of reasons: in addition to being the last military offensive of the traditional Stalweiss archers, it was the first to begin incorporating modern enchantment—the beginning of a new military tradition that will never get to grow to maturity. History, as they say, is written by the victors. Which doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the losers!”

She glanced curiously at Shook while shepherding her flock off to the next exhibit, but he stayed where he was, staring at the old gauntlet. Something about the thing was strangely arresting. So much sheer wealth had gone into its creation, and for what? He had the uneasy feeling that there were lessons here that he wasn’t getting, truths only hinted at by the docent’s brief introduction. Shook had never been one for intellectual pursuits as a rule. The effort of pondering on things which held no immediate utility for him was frustrating and annoying. He felt exhausted, though, and oddly numb, and so stood there studying Theasia’s gauntlet while the sounds of the tour group faded as they rounded a corner into another gallery.

“Hope you’re not getting any ideas, old boy. A museum must be a veritable candy store for an Eserite, but that thing would be practically impossible to fence. Or so I’d assume!”

Shook was just too tired to react with overt surprise. He glanced to the left at the man who had stepped up beside him, also apparently studying the Arcane Fist behind its layer of protective glass. A lean fellow a few inches shorter than himself, his skin a few shades darker than the Jendi average, wearing a white suit and a wide-brimmed straw boater tipped at an angle that concealed his eyes.

“Embras Mogul,” Shook said, then let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “Well, I mean, sure. Why not? Yeah, this is the correct ending for this fucking day. Now I’m embarrassed I didn’t actually see it coming.”

“You have had quite the day, so I understand,” Mogul said lightly. “Mind you, I’ve only caught the high notes. No offense, my friend, but you don’t rate among the things I make sure to keep a close watch upon. Still! What a charming coincidence, us all running across one another in this exotic locale. Eh?”

“I see you still talk too much,” Shook grunted. “And I’m not enough of a hick to think a major Imperial metropolis is ‘exotic.’”

“It’s called polite conversation, Thumper old boy. Honestly, what do they teach you at that Guild?”

Shook glanced around. No one else was near them, at least not visibly. “So, what’s next? You here to even the score?”

“Now, now,” Embras demurred, raising both hands and shifting to he was angled more toward Shook. They studied each other’s reflections in the glass, rather than directly. “Let’s give one another a modicum of credit, shall we? I have no beef with you, old top. I did not set Kheshiri loose on the mortal plane without expecting to get bitten on the ass by it at some point, and I’m man enough to recognize when I’ve pushed a fellow hard enough to deserve a slug across the jaw. After that spanking you and your buddies handed to me and mine back in Tiraas, I would say the score is about as even as we could reasonably ask. Don’t you think?”

Shook snorted quietly. “Right. So this is, what? A social call? You just wanna catch up on old times?”

“Oh, you know how it is, one hates to be all business all the time. But still, it seems there’s plenty of current events you and I could chat about without dredging up ancient history, Thumper.”

“Yeah,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Whatever. Didn’t get everything you wanted from me already, then? If you’re gonna use your infernal bullshit to fuck with a man’s memory you might wanna make sure you finish picking his brain first. Or were you just so anxious to get Shiri back under control you couldn’t be arsed?”

Mogul tilted his head back enough that his eyes, or at least their reflection, were visible. He studied Shook’s image in silence for several seconds.

“Infernal bullshit,” he finally repeated slowly, “to fuck with a man’s memory.”

His face betrayed nothing. Shook narrowed his own eyes, staring back.

“If you were anyone else,” he said after another tense pause, “I might think you didn’t know what I was talking about. But you’re you. I figure looking like you know less than you do has to be half your religion, right?”

“Well, now, you’ve got me there,” Embras agreed. “I am assuredly not in the habit of handing out tidbits of useful information to people who’s as soon shank my ass as look at me. So I’ll just limit my commentary to common facts you could learn from the Topaz College, then, shall I? Using infernal magic to erase memories would be so incredibly useful to my cult in particular that if we could do that, believe me, everyone would know it by now. Which isn’t to say I’ve never heard of such craft. A few of the more exotic caster demons can allegedly do such a thing. Some of the red dragons, perhaps. May I infer from context, Jeremiah, that this incident is the reason you are no longer in possession of that bauble I gave you?”

Shook studied him out of the corner of his eye. “You trying to sell me that there’s some other master warlock sticking their nose into our business in Ninkabi?”

“You see why I am concerned. The only other warlock in Ninkabi I consider to be worthy of note is Mortimer Agasti, and I’ll eat my hat if he’d do such at thing—or even could.”

“So what’re you following me around for, if this is the first you’re actually seeking me out?”

“There’s some real shit going down in Ninkabi,” Mogul said in a much flatter tone. “There was before you and your little posse showed up, and with the greatest possible respect, Mr. Shook, you are not fucking helping. I have established already that ex-Bishop Syrinx is hunting the oh-so-mysterious cult which attacked the Emperor in Tiraas recently. That woman is maybe twenty percent as sly as she thinks she is at the top of her game—and she is very far from the top of her game these days. So that explains her, and you. But I do not know what game Bishop Snowe is playing, or what Justinian is up to in sending the lot of you to dig up a mystery we all know damn well he is behind. And after your knife-eared friend’s little performance today, I’m starting to think I cannot afford to let you lot wander around unsupervised any longer.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, slowly. “Knife-eared… Right. Vannae only wishes he was interesting enough to piss you off. What the fuck has that giggling freakjob done now?”

“Oh, is he not under your control, either?” Mogul’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well, I can’t say what specifically he is trying to accomplish by murdering seven police officers in the course of one day, but as a Thieves’ Guild veteran, I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you what the result of that will be.”

Very slowly, Shook reached up to grind his thumbs into both his temples. Only the fact that the glass in front of him was visibly marked with alarm runes spared it from being punched.

“News to you as well, then?” Mogul said lightly. “It may interest you to know that Syrinx is not here on a mockingjay hunt. My people have been trying to pin down Justinian’s mystery cult for weeks. What they’re up to is… Ah, but excuse me, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I was wondering exactly how your group would fit into this whole mess, but now I learn that not only do none of you seem to know what any of the rest of you are doing, but there’s yet another interested party who can do shit with infernomancy that I’ve barely heard of and now have custody of Kheshiri. I say this as someone for whom the last two years have been a nearly unbroken sequence of disasters, Thumper: I don’t know what’s happening in Ninkabi, but it’s looking like it might shape up to be the biggest mess I have ever seen.”

“Right,” Shook growled. “On a scale of one to the hellgate, how bad are we thinkin’, here?”

“Try twenty hellgates,” Mogul said quietly. “In an urban area. I am after these guys for a reason, Thumper. I do not need you and your out-of-control friends getting underfoot, and neither does this city.”

Shook finally turned to stare at him fully. Mogul kept his own gaze on the Arcane Fist behind the glass.

“Thanks to you,” he said at last, “I’ve had some pretty vivid object lessons lately in the dangers of trusting people who I know are too slippery to even talk with.”

“Smart,” Mogul replied. “And from where I’m sitting, everyone in your current address book is either in the same category or too crazy to be reasoned with. So rest assured, when I take the gamble of assuming you just might be desperate enough to talk with me anyway… Well, you’re not the only one.”

Shook shifted again, glancing back at the exit from the museum gallery. A bored-looking security guard stood there, glancing at the two of them intermittently. One other patron was in this wing, ambling through the Horsebutt exhibit. At this hour, the place was quiet; it had to be near closing time. It was public enough to be semi-safe. A good place to talk business.

If he was willing to risk talking. Events had proven he hadn’t been a match for Kheshiri; he was not nearly dumb enough to think himself a match for the high priest of the goddess of cunning.

Of course, not having options made a lot of things much simpler.

“I’m listening.”

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15 – 27

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“And now, not only have we lost a major asset, that thing is on the loose in Ninkabi with knowledge of our plans! I want every warm body in this place out there until we catch that filthy—”

“Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said loudly, the deferential attitude with which he tried to address Syrinx finally buckling under the strain. “City-wide manhunts never succeed in catching a Vanislaad, even when one has the manpower necessary to mount one—of which we have here only the tiniest fraction. All this would accomplish would be to tip our hand and stir the pot irrevocably.”

Silence fell. Leaning against the wall outside the conference room, well out of view of the door, Shook turned his head to face it more directly. He had the hallway to himself for the moment, lit only by a single fairy lamp and no guards or servants in sight. The conversation on which he was eavesdropping was, so far, not going terribly well. Part of him wondered exactly how bad it would be if Syrinx poked her head out and caught him there. A larger part didn’t much care anymore.

“I hope you will excuse me for speaking out of turn, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth finally said into the chilled silence. “I only meant—”

“No,” Syrinx interrupted, the scowl audible in her voice. “No, you’re right. That was a knee-jerk reaction on my part and no good could have come of it. Well, the fact remains, we are still in this mess. In an amazingly short time, this operation has careened off the Rail and is heading for a truly unrecoverable disaster. I don’t think any of us are in a position to rebound from squandering his Holiness’s support. Or do you disagree?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” the dragon said quietly. “The matter before us, then, is how to salvage…something from these events.”

“Well,” she grunted, “while we’re trimming the fat around here, we may as well acknowledge that this debacle has cost us two agents, in a manner of speaking. Honestly, what use does that fool Shook even have, if not for holding the succubus’s leash? With her gone, he may as well be stashed in a closet. Or hurled into the canyon.”

Shook clenched his fists so hard they vibrated. He could feel the pressure rising up through him, the familiar pounding in his head, the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

And this time, he stopped.

Mind on the on the job, not on the insult, Alan Vandro’s distant voice reminded him. They’ll try to make you mad to throw you off your game. Bottle up that anger and use it. Rage is a good weapon, so long as you don’t let it control your actions.

You’ve got to let things go, Sweet had told him, back when he was Boss. Remember the broader situation, not just what’s right in front of you. If some fool shows in front of a Guild enforcer that they need an ass-kicking, they’re going to get one. But at the proper time and place, administered with a cool head and an eye for strategy. A good enforcer doesn’t just break knees, he controls the circumstances so that they practically break themselves.

Breathe in, breathe out, and keep doing so, Khadizroth’s more recent advice whispered. Be present, be conscious, be aware. Emotions are things that pass by; they do not require a reaction. A child is ruled by them. A man rules himself.

He had mostly humored Khadizroth by listening, and not just because the dragon could have obliterated him with one swipe of his claws. He liked Khadizroth, for all that mystical mumbo-jumbo was not to his own tastes. But how long had it been since he’d remembered his old Guild sponsor’s teachings? Webs had let him down hard in Onkawa, but Thumper had only ever benefited from practicing what the old conman preached. And Sweet… As much as he was to blame for Shook’s present situation, none of that had come about until long after he had tried to offer him guidance. Of course he’d sided with Keys. She played the game, like he’d tried to teach Shook to do.

And Kheshiri… Shook’s breathing stilled, his eyes widening slightly, as the connections began to form. She was always needling at him. Throwing up little reminders of the various people who’d wronged him, coaxing him to rant about how he’d even the score. She gave every indication of enjoying being treated violently, responded avidly when he displayed his temper. Always bringing him drinks, providing such a constant stream of blisteringly heated sex that even his appetites began to flag under the exertion.

Training him, he realized, now that it was too late. It was subtle, but in hindsight, the pattern was there. Everything Thumper had ever achieved had been through the control his various teachers had drilled into him, the conquest of the anger that had driven his entire life. Kheshiri had carefully undone years of work, provoking outbursts of passion and rewarding them, evincing boredom and disinterest when he controlled himself, discouraging restraint and promoting indulgence of all kinds. And the very fact that she had worked at it so subtly said worlds about her intentions, in comparison with those of the men who had patiently explained to him how to better himself.

A knot twisted in his gut. In Onkawa… Even looking back, the whole scene was tainted by a haze of fury and betrayal, but in the end, hadn’t that final showdown been dueling displays of spectacle by Webs and Kheshiri? Because of course, he’d shown her that he had a powerful, well-connected patron who actually cared about him, and she couldn’t have that if she was going to keep him under control. Gods, had Webs actually betrayed him? What was there in all their years together that hinted he even might do such a thing?

And he had bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Shook slumped back against the wall, almost losing his balance. For once, the understanding of how he had been played and thoroughly defeated didn’t make him angry. He couldn’t have put a name to what it felt like.

Khadizroth had been completely right. He was better off with that bitch out of his life. She’d done this to him in only two years; gods only knew what he might have been reduced to if she’d kept her claws in his psyche much longer.

He had never been in control of her.

While Jeremiah Shook was reeling from personal epiphanies in the hall, the conversation in the conference room had continued. His attention focused back upon it just in time to catch up on matters very relevant to his interests.

“…as great a loss as it first seems, anyway. I have been working with this group for some time now, and I can assure you that everything you’ve been warned about children of Vanislaas is true of that one. She is strategically useful, yes, but I have never been wholly satisfied that the benefits outweigh the constant trouble of keeping her in line. If anything, I believe Mr. Shook will be more helpful now that he is freed of that burden.”

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

“Alas, I have never been a humorous person,” Khadizroth said wryly. “It’s a real shortcoming; a well-timed joke can do a lot to improve morale. No, Inquisitor, I still speak out of familiarity with the parties involved. Thumper is a Thieves’ Guild enforcer, personally trained by one of Eserion’s most esteemed servants, as I understand it. He is far more than merely muscle under any circumstances. With respect, I would remind you that we are now engaged in surreptitious maneuvers in an urban setting; his skills are particularly relevant to our situation.” The dragon paused, then continued in a quieter volume. “And on the subject of our situation, can we really afford to divest ourselves of any more assets?”

A silence hung briefly. Then there were footsteps heading toward the door. Shook straightened up belatedly, preparing to face the music, but no one emerged. Instead, the conference room door swung shut with a decisive bang.

“Whew,” the Jackal giggled right next to his ear. “I see it’s been a hell of a day here!”

“Goddammit!” Shook barely held onto enough restraint to keep his voice low as he jumped away from the grinning elf; that door was thick, but shouting would be heard through it. Planting himself across the hall, he bared his teeth at the Jackal. “Where the fuck have you been all day?”

“Me?” The assassin put on a wounded expression, placing a hand theatrically over his heart. “I am affronted by the doubts implied in your question, Jerry old man. Really, after all we’ve meant to each other! I’ve been out doing my job. You know, carefully stirring up trouble as only I can. The work is begun, not finished, but I believe I can attest with fair certainty that there will be an increased police presence in the area around Agasti’s club in the days to come.”

“I should really demand what specifically that means,” Shook growled, “but fuck it, I’m pretty sure I don’t even wanna know right now. Here’s what I already know: we’re down a person, our whole mission here might be fucked, and it’s taking all of Big K’s smooth talking to keep that cunt Syrinx from losing every last ounce of her shit and sending what’s left of this whole mess straight to hell with all of us strapped to it. So this is not a good time for you to be haring off on your own!”

“Hmm.” The Jackal struck a pose, rubbing at his chin and screwing up his face in an expression of deep thought. “Hummmmmm. No, my man, I do believe this is an excellent time to go haring off on my own. Think about it: the options are being stuck in an enclosed space with Basra Syrinx while her extremely delicate self-control is being tested to its limits, or doing anything else.”

Shook paused, blinking twice.

“There, see?” the elf said, once again grinning cheekily. “That’s why they pay me the extra-shiny coins. I consider these angles.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not sayin’ it wouldn’t be good to clear my head, but…”

“Oh, don’t mistake me, ol’ top,” the Jackal breezed, turning and sashaying away up the hall. “You do what you like, I wouldn’t want you getting the impression I care. I’m outta here. I’ll be back when the boss bitch has had time to cool down and be grateful to see me again.”

“I don’t really think that’s how her mind works,” Shook said, trailing off as the elf suddenly turned, threw open the nearest window, and launched himself out.

That window opened onto a cliff wall overlooking the canyon about halfway down it. But then…he was the Jackal.

Shook stood there, chewing on the inside of his cheek, for a good five minutes before saying aloud, “Fuck it.”

He strode off toward the front door of the Inquisition’s small offices. There would be a Holy Legion guard on duty, but he could probably bluff his way past by claiming to be on official business. And if not, he was a Guild enforcer and those clowns were little more than living accessories. Either way, he was getting some goddamn fresh air.


“There, see? All that’s settled and everybody’s friends. We can finally all one big family!”

Kheshiri beamed at the room at large, spreading her arms as if expecting a hug. Everyone glared at her.

“Are you sure,” Natchua began, turning to Agasti, but he was already shaking his head.

“I apologize for being so mercenary, my dear,” the old man said sincerely, “but I quite simply do not need the headache. Speaking as your attorney with regard to this matter, the contract we just drew up places you in the best situation relative to her that you could reasonably expect. I’m afraid that will have to suffice for reassurance. She’s your problem now.”

“Well, I have to say, I appreciate your forthrightness,” she replied, smiling in spite of herself. “Where I’m from, that would’ve been a flowery ‘fuck you’ shrouded in tedious layers of false courtesy.”

“Yes, I’ve been told by several of my colleagues in the legal profession that they get on surprisingly well with Narisians as a matter of course,” he said, smiling back. “Besides, it doesn’t do to indulge in sly doublespeak in front of the succubus. She’s inherently better at it, and I don’t care to give her the satisfaction.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, followed by a sullen mutter. “Why do I always have to have the satisfaction?”

“Yes, you are very put upon,” Melaxyna deadpanned. “Obviously you’ve brought absolutely none of this situation on yourself.”

“Mel,” Natchua said shortly, “do I look like I’m in the mood?”

“So, you’re with her and not him, right?” Kheshiri inquired, regarding Melaxyna inquisitively. “I’ve met the hethelax and the khelminash. What’s your story?”

Melaxyna stared back at her for a long moment, then glanced at Natchua. Then, her human disguise melted away to reveal her alabaster skin, crystalline eyes, wings, and tail.

Kheshiri’s own smile melted just as quickly, leaving her glowering morosely at the other succubus. “Oh. Goody.”

“I believe that’s my line, sugar tits,” Melaxyna drawled.

“Let me be explicitly clear on this up front,” Natchua stated. “There will be a maximum of zero demon catfighting. Am I clear?”

“Hey, you know me,” Melaxyna said cryptically.

“You command, and I obey,” Kheshiri declaimed, sweeping an elegant bow in her direction. “I live to serve you, my mistress.”

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. The troubling thing was, as best as she could suss out from her newfound skill at analyzing the succubus’s emotions directly, she appeared to be sincere about that. It wasn’t as simple as detecting truth from lies; emotions, even when read through any attempted dissembling, were just more complex than that. But she could see as plain as written words what Kheshiri felt toward her, and while that was also complex, it was disturbingly positive. Downright avid, in fact. She wouldn’t go so far as to say the succubus was in love—and thank all the gods for that—but she was at the very least utterly fascinated and delighted by Natchua, without a hint of the predatory instinct or malice that such attraction usually meant from her kind.

Whatever this would mean, in the long run, it was a safe bet that she’d not heard the last of it by far.

She had already found that this ability worked on Melaxyna, too, now that she knew the method. It didn’t work as well; the shadow magic suffusing Kheshiri’s body and aura helped a lot once Natchua had detected it, but just having the method down provided the insight. She could read Melaxyna plainly with a bit more focus and concentration, and even interpret things about the other succubus’s magical structure to which she had been blind before. The new insight told her Melaxyna wasn’t very happy about their current situation, obviously. But she was also surprisingly fond toward Natchua, regarding her with a layered mat of feelings which she interpreted, belatedly and with some surprise, as protectiveness.

Natchua wasn’t much for scientific research, but even she was not blind to the possibilities here. Considering that all her current plans were leading toward her own inevitable death, she really ought to relay this to someone else, perhaps someone like Agasti. It would be an invaluable tool for warlocks to counter the predations of Vanislaads. Of course, once it was known, Vanislaas himself and all his children would begin developing countermeasures, which was why she had decided to keep this to herself for the moment, even with Agasti and Xyraadi both right there. For now, it would be a priceless strategic asset if she encountered any more of their kind, which was not unlikely considering what she was about. In fact, with a bit more study and experimentation, she thought she might be able to develop a way to see through their invisibility and shapeshifting at a glance.

But she currently had to cut short her ruminations, as Kheshiri had fixed her attention on Hesthri.

“I really am sorry about all that, you know,” she said earnestly. “It wasn’t personal, for whatever that’s worth. I suspect you know what it’s like to be backed into a corner and desperate for some leverage to survive. But we’re on the same side now! I’m sure I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

“Speak to your owner or not at all,” Hesthri said curtly. “You and I have nothing to discuss. I’m sure no one else wants to talk to you, either.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Well, at the very least, it seems you and I can discuss how no one else wants to talk to me! Any point is a starting point, don’t you—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

The succubus bowed again, as courtly and grandiose as before. “As you command, mistress, I—”

“That isn’t shutting up!”

This time Kheshiri did indeed fall silent, but proceeded with a grotesquely detailed pantomime of sewing her lips shut which she had to have practiced.

Natchua, Hesthri, and Melaxyna all grimaced and averted their eyes. Fortunately, there were other things to behold, as Xyraadi had taken the opportunity presented by the sudden quiet to approach Agasti.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mortimer, for your hospitality and your kindness these last weeks,” she said, gently taking one of his hands in both of her own and smiling warmly.

Agasti lightly squeezed her slender fingers. “My dear, you owe me no consideration; your presence here has been just the breath of fresh air I needed. My prayers have heavily featured gratitude for you and those three young heroes coming here to kick some life back into these old bones. Are you…resolved to do this, then?”

“I know it is sudden,” she said, nodding, “but I am indeed. I feel, above all else, certain that this is right.”

The old warlock sighed, lowering his eyes. “I can’t pretend I’m glad to see you go, considering…what you are going toward.”

Slowly, Xyraadi shook her head, her expression growing distant. “I am sorry for that, Mortimer, truly. I hate to make a friend watch. But the truth is…” She turned her head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “I am not afraid. I don’t rush headlong toward death, but its inevitability does nothing to dissuade me. This world has changed beyond recognition while I was imprisoned. And I… It has not been six hundred years for me. I have very old wounds that are still very fresh. I lost my friends, my cause, my love.” The demon closed her eyes, and Agasti again gave her hands a comforting little squeeze. “What this drow is suggesting may be madness, but it’s exactly the madness I wished for when I asked the Sisterhood to imprison me in that crystal. Elilial must be made to answer for all she has done. And who better to make her than those who are willing to give everything to it?” She opened her eyes again, still facing Natchua, and her stare hardened. “She stepped on me once, too. Very recently.”

“Wait.” Kheshiri appeared to have forgotten the order to shut up; right now, the expression of concern on her face matched what Natchua saw in her aura. “What…exactly…are you lot trying to do?”

“Oh, it’s a rollicking good tale,” Melaxyna said in her driest tone. “We’ll catch you up on what you’ve signed on for, don’t you worry. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“Remember that I am only a shadow-jump away,” Agasti said softly. “I hope you’ll visit again, Xyraadi. Before… Well, when you can.”

“I encourage that,” Natchua added. “If nothing else, this place is a lot more comfortable. Our current base of operations is, well… A work in progress.”

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

“I guess we might want to invest in a Glassian dictionary, then,” Melaxyna added to Natchua.

“Excuse me,” Xyraadi retorted haughtily, “but you are complaining about having a little culture injected into your lives. You speak of a language which is an ongoing work of beauty and inherently superior for any purpose except counting to seventy.”

Agasti cleared his throat, releasing Xyraadi’s hands, and reached behind himself to pick up Kheshiri’s reliquary, which had been hidden against the back of his chair by his body. “Well, then. I suppose the only remaining business is for you to retain custody of this, Natchua.”

He held it out to her. Kheshiri’s eyes fixed on the reliquary and her tail lashed twice. Natchua, though, tilted her head, making no move to take it.

“Upon consideration,” she said pensively, “no, thank you.”

“Point of order,” Kheshiri interjected. “By the contract we just signed, you’re not to imprison me in that thing or give it to someone who might.”

“Yes,” Natchua said, turning a flat grin on her, “that was worded very precisely. Once I have it again I’ll definitely be bound by those provisions. But I can’t exactly give away something that’s not in my possession, now can I?”

Kheshiri smirked wryly at her. “Well, well. I knew you were a smart cookie, mistress, but you continue to impress.”

Her blasé attitude stood in marked contrast to the surge of fury that pulsed through her aura. Natchua’s grin widened as she held the succubus’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to the lawyer, who was smiling at her with patrician approval.

“Now, make no mistake,” he cautioned, “based on your description of how she slipped its control, it is very unlikely I would be able to restore the reliquary’s function by working on it alone. The problem is not with it, but with her.”

Natchua shook her head. “You’ve been tremendously helpful already, Mr. Agasti, I won’t expect you to solve any of my problems for me. Don’t worry about that, I’ll deal with Kheshiri.” She tried to ignore the sly amusement that radiated from the demon in question, who was at least still keeping her expression even. “To my knowledge, this kind of Black Wreath spellcraft is rarely available for Pantheon-aligned warlocks to study; I’m certain it will be of at least some value to you, even if not for its intended purpose. And if nothing else, do you recall what I said I’d planned to do with it in the first place?”

“I do,” he said slowly. “That might be a bit trickier for me than for you; I have no personal connection…there.”

“You are courteous and professional,” she assured him with a smile. “Despite her reputation, that’s really all you need.”

Kheshiri remained outwardly calm, but her increasing curiosity and alarm was deeply satisfying. Melaxyna was grinning openly.

Hesthri snorted. “If you ever do manage to get her back in that bottle, just do us all a favor and drop it in the ocean.”

“Never drop one of those in the ocean,” Melaxyna retorted, her smile vanishing. “Rookie mistake. If the water’s deep enough, the pressure will crush it and release the demon. If it’s not, mermaids will find it; they’re drawn to magical objects.”

“You’re awfully free with your advice,” Kheshiri commented. “Pretty confident you’ll never be stuck in one of those, are you?”

Melaxyna shrugged. “It looks like a more comfortable prison than the last one I was in. If I never taste bacon and mushrooms again it’ll be far too soon…”

Natchua just sighed. “Well, I believe we have caused enough trouble here for one night.”

“Oh, come now, it’s scarcely an hour past dark! The night is—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri. Gather in, everyone. The sooner we get home, the sooner we get the next round of awkward explanations over with.”

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15 – 26

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“You see what she’s done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The felled succubus began shuddering with silent laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The succubus went still, eyes widening.

“What did you do?” Xyraadi demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, shit.

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A dragon?”

“Yes.”

“Merde.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no you fucking don’t, you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But this was more urgent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she hurt you?” she asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elilial,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

“Pourquoi?” the demon whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a certain point, the pack hunters came out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are boring,” she informed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on where?”

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

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

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

“You can dance!” both said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that all, then?” she asked dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful,” Natchua said, releasing her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.

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

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

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15 – 23

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“Kheshiri.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She is not incorrect,” Xyraadi admitted.

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

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

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

“Natch, I don’t think—”

“Do it, Mel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of leverage?” Xyraadi asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mortimer,” Xyraadi warned.

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

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

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

“I meant—”

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

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

“Mmm,” Melaxyna hummed, frowning.

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

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

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15 – 22

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

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

“Buried treasure,” Natchua said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Natchua said curtly.

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

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

His grin faltered. “Uh, I don’t…”

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

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

She turned without another word and continued.

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

“Actually boil them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bozo incoming,” Hesthri murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

“What succubus?” Natchua asked coolly.

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

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

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

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

The other three shifted to stare at her in silence.

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

The music played over them for three tense seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All four of them stared at it in silence.

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

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

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

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

“Someone please share the joke?” Xyraadi exclaimed.

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

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15 – 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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