Tag Archives: Jonathan Arquin

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Full dawn found Natchua pacing amid the ruins of Manor Leduc’s front hall.

The progress made by the hobgoblins in just one day was astonishing to eyes unfamiliar with their kind—or, like Natchua’s, acquainted only with the theory and lore. They had fully cleaned what had been a jumble of smashed stones, timbers, and shingles, with all the debris carefully sorted into piles on the lawn outside, including several neat stacks of wood and masonry they considered reusable. The now-cleared floor still had a large jagged hole in the center and dangerously buckling floorboards, forcing her to confine her pacing to the edges, but it now looked like a room, rather than a hopeless ruin. In horogki, the aggression of the infernal taint was channeled into preternatural physical strength and frenetic energy, causing them to be enormously efficient laborers when kept on task and disastrously erratic when not. No wonder Jonathan had been so tired last night, after a day of supervising those three.

Jonathan. Natchua grimaced and rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Gods, what a mess. Why was she always such a mess?

She had already fallen hard on old habits this morning, starting with a deft escape from Hesthri’s embrace enabled by elven agility and compounded by throwing on the only readily available garment in her room that wouldn’t require buckles, laces, or any such time-consuming fiddling: a loose Narisian style robe that she only kept for sleeping. The hour since she had spent mostly relying on her hearing to be certain of where everyone was in the manor. It wasn’t exactly a breach of principle, merely a disheartening set of reminders. Natchua had not entirely gotten over her rebellious phase, and relying on these things rankled. She had no problem with being an elf, as such, though she resented being defined by it. Anything Narisian grated on her, though.

Regardless, her keen senses had enabled her to avoid everyone else in the manor during that last gray hour of the night. Jonathan had been lightly snoring in his room, Sherwin and Melaxyna likewise in the kitchen apartment. Their night, like the previous one, had been busy, but apparently Sherwin was tired out from the exertion by that hour. Another tidbit of Vanislaad lore that was not widely known and which Natchua wasn’t about to reveal to Mel that she did know was their differing need for sleep. They could do it more or less at will, and used dreaming as a mechanism to sublimate the itch to cause chaos for a while. A sleeping child of Vanislaas was basically engaged in a hallucinatory meditation, no less aware of their surroundings and able to come fully alert instantly. They didn’t strictly need to do it, but tended to become rather somnolent when bored to take the edge off. By contrast, when engaged in some scheme, they could be up for weeks at a time working at it. All things considered it was probably a good sign that Melaxyna was sleeping, no matter why she was doing it.

Kheshiri sure wasn’t. Per Natchua’s orders she hadn’t left the house, but had been prowling around silently from the moment Natchua fixed on her location, and probably the whole night prior. She couldn’t actually hear Kheshiri moving, but after having isolated her infernal signature yesterday could detect her position and general status nonetheless. At the moment she was evidently exploring the Manor’s shuttered basement rooms—far from the corner in which the three hobgoblins had made their nest, ironically in the now-empty room where Sherwin had once caged Scorn.

Xyraadi was so quiet that Natchua had to actually stand outside her door to detect her breathing. She suspected the khelminash might be meditating rather than sleeping. They definitely practiced the art, and if Natchua understood the timeline correctly, Xyraadi was still feeling very fresh wounds from the loss of loved ones six hundred years ago right before she had been sealed away. She was certainly composed in public, but it made sense that she’d prefer the control of meditation to what dreams might show her.

Hesthri, it turned out, was a heavy sleeper. Fortunately.

Natchua had given herself a quick and very cursory washing at the outdoor pump in the chill pre-dawn; her hair and a patch of her robe below her neck were still wet. While she was doing that, people had begun to stir, and now she was out here in large part to avoid everyone else. Voices and the muted clatter of cookware echoed from the kitchen apartment, accompanied by a muffled argument between the two succubi. Apparently breakfast was being prepared there, rather than in Melaxyna’s improvised kitchen on the second floor. Natchua wasn’t particularly soothed by the discovery that Kheshiri wanted to participate in domestic tasks, but for the moment she was glad to leave Melaxyna to foil her. It gave her the chance to turn her thoughts inward.

There was nothing in there that she particularly wanted to face, but would have to nonetheless, and the sooner, the better. This fine new situation wasn’t going to go away if she ignored it. Her utter lack of self-control had landed her in the center of a trashy romance novel, exactly what she did not need following on the heels of having a particularly dubious child of Vanislaas dropped into her already precarious web of haphazard espionage and infernomancy. Gods, just three days ago she’d been peacefully in Mathenon, shadow-jumping away for the odd bout of research or treasure-hunting in and around her primary task of…dating someone under false pretenses.

She had botched that, too, unable to keep her damn feelings out of it. Women and men alike had been coldly using sex to get what they wanted in every society for millennia; in Tar’naris it was practically an art form. What the hell was her problem? Jonathan Arquin wasn’t even all that interesting by any objective standpoint, his mysterious demon-adjacent past notwithstanding. All he was…was decent. On reflection, that made him exceptional among the people she knew. Everyone in Tar’naris was some type and degree of evil, in Natchua’s mind. Tellwyrn had a core of kindness within her, but her entire personality was violently unstable by design, and she largely recruited staff with the same general mindset. There had been a few people at the University, like Professor Yornhaldt and Toby Caine, who were just plain good, altruistic and respectful for no particular reason except that that was how they were, and Natchua had deliberately avoided getting close to any of them. She’d not trusted that. Not, at least, until she got close enough to Jonathan to realize that there weren’t hidden depths to the man. Put into words that made him sound like the most boring individual alive, but when experienced firsthand it had made him a solid pillar of support she had helplessly found herself clinging to, and then lost herself in. Right up until she’d betrayed him.

Hesthri…was something else. Natchua didn’t consider it an excuse for her own lack of restraint—she owned her choices, at the very least—but Hesthri had unquestioningly been the aggressor last night. That Natchua hadn’t tried very hard not to melt under her surprisingly skillful touch didn’t make it any less an obviously deliberate seduction on the hethelax’s part. And Hesthri unquestionably had hidden depths. Natchua as yet could barely guess what lay in them, but they certainly existed. She had been willing to take the contract and had, after all, sprung at the chance to join a campaign which she was told up front was almost certain to end with her death, all in the hope that it might help Gabriel. Her intentions were, on some level, good. But what else was she after?

Natchua grimaced and halted her pacing, scrubbing at her face with both hands. Ugh, Gabriel. Well, it wasn’t like she had ever been close to him before, and there was a solid chance she’d never actually see him again. That might be more comfortable, in fact. As of last night, there was no possible conversation the two of them could have that wouldn’t be excruciatingly awkward. Hell, the way things were going, they’d probably accidntally wind up in bed. Gods knew he’d always been a horny goat when it came to women, and Natchua was discovering this week that she herself was evidently a degenerate idiot with less self-control than those hobgoblins she’d summoned. Why not complete the trifecta?

“Morning.”

She jumped violently, spinning. Jonathan had frozen in place, staring at her uncertainly.

“Uh,” she croaked. “Good…morning, Jonathan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Actually, the thought that I even could sneak up on an elf never crossed my mind.”

She grimaced, running a hand over her damp hair. “Not one who’s paying attention. Don’t worry about it, I was just up my own butt.”

A faint smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. She loved it when he did that, when that little streak of mischief cracked through his resolute steadiness and oh, gods, she wanted to scoop out her brain and replace it with one that damn well worked.

“Yeah, I guess you’ve got plenty to think about,” he agreed. “Anyhow. Just letting you know, most of the group is up and straggling into Sherwin’s kitchen. The succubi made breakfast. Omnu’s breath, is that a sentence I never imagined I’d say.”

Natchua had to smile slightly at that, despite everything. “Thanks. I’ll…be along in a bit.”

He nodded, half-turned, paused, and shifted his face back to her, forehead creased in the tiniest frown.

“Anything else?” Natchua prompted after a tense little silence.

“Well…” Jonathan turned back to face her again across the three yards or so between them. “Like I said, you clearly have a lot to think about, and apparently more with everything that happens. Do…you want to talk about it?”

She really, really did, Natchua realized to her shame. She kept all of that away from her face, though. “Do we really have the kind of relationship where we talk about our feelings, Jonathan?”

His face lengthened, and the unspoken anymore hung in the air between them.

“It’s a pretty central question, isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “I won’t lie, I’ve spent a fair few hours in the last couple of days grappling with an overarching desire to punch you in the mouth. But—”

“Embrace that,” she said, her voice heavy with a harshness that wasn’t directed at him, though of course he couldn’t know that. “You should’ve just stayed in Mathenon instead of jumping aboard this doomed ship. With every passing day I learn more about what a weak, stupid, selfish creature I am. Fuck, I don’t even want to explain why, and that’s also selfish. I just don’t want you to…” Catching herself babbling, she broke off and drew in a ragged breath. “Never mind. The hell with it, even if I don’t manage to even dent Elilial, splattering myself across her defenses is probably what’s best for the world anyway.”

She couldn’t have said what she expected him to reply to that, but it definitely wasn’t what he actually did.

“You really think that, don’t you,” Jonathan murmured, staring at her as if piecing together a puzzle.

“Don’t you?” she demanded, then held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I’m just fishing for validation, and I don’t need or deserve any. Look, Jonathan, since you’re here, the best thing you can do is focus on getting yourself through whatever comes next alive. Try to save whoever else you can. Several of these demons are much better people than I am.”

His chest swelled with a deep indrawing of breath, and he stepped forward. Natchua wanted to retreat, but refused to, even as he came within arm’s length, close enough that she had to tilt her face up to meet his eyes.

“I’ve had some time to think about my various disappointments at your hands,” he said quietly.

“You were supposed to be watching the hobgoblins,” she retorted, a desperate attempt to misdirect him from whatever unbearable awkwardness he was planning to voice.

Again, his mouth quirked up in that damnable little half-smile. “Hell, they’re one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. Those girls just need a reminder now and again when they get distracted, and the rest of the time they’re on task and making progress at an unbelievable rate. As you can see all around you. So yeah, I have had time to think, and I can’t escape the conclusion that while you have the most terrible judgment of any person I have ever known, you are struggling in your unbelievably mixed-up way to do what you think is right.”

“…best,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows mutely.

“I don’t deal in right or wrong. I’m not sure I believe in them. I just try to do…the best I can, with the ridiculous toolbox of destruction that’s all I have to work with.”

Jonathan sighed again. “And damn if that isn’t exactly what I mean. Augh… Look, the situation is what it is. You’ve made a damn mess, here. You sure as hell hurt me good and proper.” She flinched, physically enough for him to see, and immediately wanted to stab herself right through the heart. “But a few hours of thought and some insight from Hesthri and Melaxyna has pretty much taken away my ability to blame you. And with that, hurt or not, I’m finding it hard to still be angry.”

“Hesthri and Melaxyna should mind their own damn business,” she muttered sullenly, and he had the audacity to chuckle.

“Look,” he said gently, reaching out to take her by the shoulders.

“No!” Natchua jerked back out of his grasp. She raised her hands to cover her eyes, blocking out the sight of his expression. “Don’t. Can’t you please just stop being a good person for one damn minute?”

“Sure I can,” he said softly. “It’s scary easy. I refuse to.”

“Just…quit being gentle with me,” she croaked. “You don’t understand, I messed up again, and it’s just going to keep… I am a mess, Jonathan. Keep your distance and just let me do what I need to!”

“Hey.” She lowered her hands to find him taking a step closer, but he didn’t reach for her again. Of course; aggrieved party or not, Jonathan Arquin would never under any circumstances lay his hands on a woman who had told him not to. At that moment she resented it. Natchua wanted nothing more than for him to grab her in his strong, callused grip, even knowing how much objectively better it was for them both and the whole situation that he wouldn’t. At least one of them could managed to be an adult. “…okay.”

In spite of herself, Natchua straightened up in surprise. “Okay?”

“I’m not endorsing this, any more than any of the rest of your antics,” he said more seriously. “You really need to relax and accept some comfort before you twist yourself into an unfixable knot.”

“I know for an objective fact that is the literal last thing I need to do,” she said dully.

He just shook his head. “Well, the offer is on the table if you choose to take advantage. But that aside, in the here and now… You’re the boss, here, Natchua. You need to project steadiness to these people. And especially that Kheshiri; she’s going to have an eye out for any crack she can work a finger into.”

Natchua closed her eyes. He was dead right, of course.

“I am serious about opening up to somebody and dealing with your stress instead of choking yourself on it, even if that’s not me. If you trust Melaxyna enough, well…that sure wouldn’t be the most reckless thing you’ve done recently. But right now you need to put on the mask. Look… I know you hate anything to do with your upbringing in Tar’naris.” He did know that, didn’t he? He knew…her. Gods, this was a disaster. Jonathan continued in a softer tone. “But that did give you a skill you specifically need here. When you’re dealing with turmoil and you have people counting on you to be steady, you have to fake it. And nobody can do that like a Narisian.”

Word after word of relentless good sense. The asshole just wouldn’t stop being right. He had it pegged exactly: Tar’naris and its culture were as detestable as anything produced by Hell as far as she was concerned, but the drow had developed their ways in response to harsh practicality. Narisian reserve wasn’t simply custom, it had specific, strategic use.

And three measly years of trying to distance herself weren’t enough to eliminate the habits of upbringing. It came back with disheartening ease. She straightened her spine, tension in her posture fading away to linger in her gut where it belonged. All expression leaked from her features, leaving behind only her public face. The poise was meditative. A sublimation of everything that was her, put behind the facade of what she needed to be right now.

It didn’t make her the creature her mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai had tried to forge, she told herself. It just enabled her to be what the situation demanded.

Natchua opened her eyes and regarded Jonathan in icy calm.

He nodded once, approving. “Again, though. This isn’t good for you in the long term. When you can—”

“Enough, Jonathan,” she said in a chill tone that brooked no debate. He fell silent. And when she swept past him for the corridor into the kitchen, he fell into step behind her.

Xyraadi had yet to appear, but everyone else had gathered by that point. The three horogki were huddled in the corner around a pot of porridge, slurping noisily—for heaven’s sake, they’d managed to splatter the walls with it. Sherwin’s table had been cleared of his books and personal effects, which were now piled upon the unmade bed, and laid out with his mismatched collection of crockery now holding muffins, bacon, eggs, and tea.

“Help yourself, I have a powerful dislike of bacon,” Melaxyna was saying upon their entry. “Hey, you found her!”

“Good morning, Natchua,” Hesthri said to her with a neutral smile.

The stab of sheer emotion pulled her in half a dozen directions simultaneous, which she ignored. “Morning, Hes,” Natchua said briskly, striding over to the table and taking a seat. Enough chairs had been brought for everyone save the horogki; to judge by their dusty state, they had been pillaged from disused rooms in the residential wing. “Thanks for saving seats. Whom do I have to thank for this spread? I mean, aside from our host who’s paying for it,” she added, nodding to Sherwin.

His mouth was full of half a muffin, but he waved the other half at her in acknowledgment.

“I am taking care of the cooking,” Melaxyna said firmly. “This one kept trying to assist, but you’ll be glad to know I managed to remain in control of the proceedings and can thus guarantee that none of my food is poisoned.”

“Oh, honestly, you’re such a drama queen,” Kheshiri scoffed. “What could I possibly gain from poisoning everyone?”

“In your case, a cheap laugh,” Xyraadi replied, gliding into the room. “Bonjour, mes amis. Ah, this is what I smelled? May I?”

“Of course, you’re as much a guest here as anyone,” Sherwin said gallantly, somewhat to Natchua’s relief. In private conversation with Natchua the previous night, he had strained her already bedraggled patience trying to ascertain whether Xyraadi was the kind of khelminash woman who had a penis. She had ended that discussion by challenging him to predict a scenario in which that would matter to anyone but Xyraadi.

“Well, despite Miss Fusspot’s campaign of wet blanketry, I can assure you I do pull my weight,” Kheshiri said smugly. “I have provided milk for the tea.”

Hesthri, who had just poured some of said milk into her tea, froze.

Melaxyna narrowed her eyes. “We were out of milk.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua growled, “you were told to remain in the house.”

“But mistress, how can you think I would disobey you? I’ve not set one toe outside!”

“I know I am going to regret learning,” Natchua said, “but how did you get milk here without leaving the Manor?” Jonathan had pulled the milk pitcher over to himself and was sniffing it suspiciously.

“It’s fresh-squeezed,” Kheshiri said proudly, shaking her shoulders back and forth. She was still wearing the outfit in which they’d first found her, a suitably succubesque bustier that supported amply and concealed little; the motion did interesting things to her chest. “The very freshest.”

Silence fell, in which everyone looked at Kheshiri’s smug expression, then at her bosom, then at the milk picture, and then back at her face.

“I am something of an expert at finely controlled shapeshifting,” the succubus said, beaming with pride. By contrast, the emotion pulsing through her aura was pure, malicious glee. “I can do things with my body chemistry you can hardly imagine! Don’t you worry, it’s completely free from infernal taint. You can feel free to check.”

In their corner, Staccato, Glissando, and Pizzicato burst into howls of laughter, falling over each other. Hesthri twisted away from the table, retching. Jonathan, curling his lip, pushed the milk pitcher away from himself. Sherwin immediately grabbed it, raising it to sniff, and Melaxyna just as immediately took it away from him.

“Repulsive creature,” Xyraadi sneered, delicately buttering a muffin.

“Right,” Natchua said, open annoyance leaking through her put-on reserve. “That’s my fault, I haven’t set down ground rules for you. To begin with—”

“And that would be the point,” Melaxyna interrupted. “Juvenile gross-out pranks are far beneath her level of scheming and, I suspect, not really to her taste. A system of rules favors whoever is best skilled at manipulating loopholes; anarchy favors whoever has the most power. Setting down rules for her cedes her much more of an advantage than if she has to devote that big brain to finding ways to stay on your good side.”

“Now, that is verging on the kind of behavior I should tattle to Prince Vanislaas about next time I see him,” Kheshiri said, scowling at the other succubus. “Laying out a sister’s angles in front of mixed company? Bad form, Melaxyna.”

“Oh, please,” Melaxyna grinned back at her. “You love it. After weaseling your way around Archpope Justinian and Khadizroth the Green for years on end, I’m the only thing keeping you from going completely stir-crazy here.”

Kheshiri stared her down for another beat, then a grin broke across her own features. “My, my. It’s been so long since I played with someone with a knack for proper foreplay.”

“I say,” Sherwin began.

“No,” Natchua declared, pointing at a corner not occupied by messy hobgoblins. “Kheshiri, go do one hundred sit-ups.”

Kheshiri’s expression flattened, and based on what went pulsing through her aura, her displeasure was real. Physical exercise was not the kind of thing that scratched her kind’s characteristic itch; they disliked tiring themselves out doing things that didn’t satisfy them. “Oh, but mistress—”

“Followed by one hundred push-ups. And then one hundred squats.”

The succubus put on a calm, very mildly piqued expression, while her aura seethed with resentment and offended pride. Good; at some point Natchua needed to refine her ability to manipulate Kheshiri’s aura directly, including managing her compulsion and emotions, but for now this would suffice to impose consequences.

“It was just a harmless little—”

“You have been given an order, and you will obey it.”

The succubus executed a bow that managed to be as mocking as it was obsequious, and then sashayed over to the indicated corner. Natchua remained twisted around in her chair to watch until she ascertained, to her grim satisfaction, that there was not a sexy way to do sit-ups, before turning back to her breakfast.

In a way, it seemed downright appropriate when the kitchen’s outside door burst abruptly open, admitting beams of garish sunlight and a vampire.

“Knock, knock!” Malivette Dufresne sang ironically. “Oh, good, everyone’s just sitting down for breakfast! None for me, thanks, I have a rule against snacking on neighbors.”

“Good fucking morning, Vette,” Sherwin grumbled. “Won’t you just come the hell on in.”

“I shall, thank you, but only because you were so gracious!”

“So…” Jonathan said warily, “that thing about vampires not being able to enter a house unless invited…”

“Complete myth,” Malivette said brightly, gliding into the room. “I am also not allergic to garlic! In fact, it adds a very nice texture to that is a khelminash demon. And…another succubus.” She stared at Kheshiri for a moment, and if she had any opinion about the unusual sight of a trickster demon grunting through a set of sit-ups, she offered no comment on it. Instead, her crimson eyes actually began to glow subtly as she turned them upon the group’s leader. “Natchua.”

“You knew I was looking for Xyraadi,” Natchua said irritably. “I told you that. Quit being melodramatic, I get more than enough of it from these freaks. That aside, Vette, you have good timing. I want to have a talk with you about these developments in particular.”

“Ah, so?” the vampire said, arching an eyebrow. “That has the ring of the fleeing deadbeat saying ‘I was just looking for you!’ to the thugs cornering him to collect what he owes.”

“I really couldn’t say, being that getting in debt to loan sharks is about the only dumbass thing I haven’t managed to do this week,” Natchua replied, marshaling her calm face again. “If you’re surprised to see the new arrival, I gather she’s not what you came here about. Before we discuss that, what is it you need?”

“Ah, yes. What I need.” Malivette gave a lingering, unfriendly look to Kheshiri, who was too busy exercising to acknowledge her, then redirected her attention to Natchua. “I’m sure you have not already forgotten our agreement, and the certain services you have promised to render as a condition for finding welcome in my province, and not being summarily handed over to Imperial Intelligence as common sense suggests I ought to do.” She smiled brightly, displaying her fangs in a manner that couldn’t possibly have been accidental. “It’s time to start paying the rent, Natchua.”

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15 – 17

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“Pretty,” Jonathan said warily, dividing his attention between the reliquary in Natchua’s hand and Shook, who was still gasping heavily in pain but already trying to drag himself back up to his hands and knees. “And that is…?”

“It’s a Black Wreath reliquary,” Melaxyna said from behind them, making him twitch. “They use them to bind the souls of Vanislaads. That’s the only way to take one of us off the board entirely.”

“Seems like asking for trouble,” he said, frowning. “Anything bound can be unbound. If you want to eliminate something entirely, why not…eliminate it entirely?”

“Doesn’t work,” she said brusquely, her eyes still on the reliquary, which Natchua was now lightly bouncing in her hand. The succubus was still disguised as a human, but had her arms folded defensively and was frowning in naked unease. “If you kill a child of Vanislaas, they just to back to Hell, ready to be summoned again.”

“This craft is not widely known,” said Natchua. “They are exclusively of Black Wreath make. And that illustrates Jonathan’s point: any magical artifact which exists presents a risk of falling into the wrong hands. Like this guy’s, for example.”

“That…is…mine,” Shook snarled, pushing himself fully up to his knees and glaring balefully at her.

“Was yours,” she replied pitilessly. “Now it is mine. You’re an Eserite, I’m sure you understand how that works. However, I still want to know how you came to be in possession of such a thing. I’ve got the funniest feeling the answer to that will end up strangely relevant to my own interests. Ah ah!”

Shook’s wand was still lost in the shadows where he had dropped it, but he abruptly whipped out the lightning wand he had taken from Jonathan minutes ago, moving with a speed and agility which suggested his pained posture just before had been an act. Not that it helped him much, when the wand dissolved into shadow before he could bring to to bear and re-materialized in Natchua’s hand. She handed it back to Jonathan without taking her eyes off the downed enforcer.

He muttered a curse at that, but still seemed remarkably unintimidated, considering he was now cornered, on his knees, and facing an armed man and a warlock. Shook’s eyes flickered between Natchua and Jonathan, and then to Melaxyna, whose head was just visible over Natchua’s shoulder from behind. Then, unexpectedly, he smiled.

Raising his hands, he stood up in a deliberately slow and unthreatening motion.

“Well, how quickly the tables turn, huh? I guess my hunch was right, Jonathan. You do know a little something about the Black Wreath in this neighborhood, don’t you?”

“Wreath?” Jonathan blinked. “Is that what you were after? Sorry, Jeremiah, but you’re still barking up the wrong tree. Natchua here is an…free agent, I guess would be a term.”

“The Wreath is here?” Natchua demanded, clutching the reliquary suddenly. “That complicates…everything. Tell me what you know, Shook.”

His eyes dropped to the reliquary in her hand before returning to her face, and he smiled again. “Well, seems like we’ve got something to offer each other, don’t we? Yeah, the Wreath is here. They aren’t the only ones, either. Whoever you are, you’ve bumbled into more trouble than you can imagine. If you want to know how you can wiggle out of this intact, and maybe even profit from the chaos, you can start by giving me back my property.”

“I don’t care who’s bound in that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, “a demon is a person. That is a human soul who has already been through Hell, literally. They are not property.”

“Relax, Mel,” Natchua said, still staring at Shook. “We’re not going to cut a deal with this clod.”

“Y’know,” he said, his tone hardening, “if I yell for the guard, this here situation isn’t a good look on you three. People barely need a reason to assume a drow is up to no good.”

She hit him with another shadowbolt.

“Easy,” Jonathan protested as Shook went down once more. “Just because he’s a bastard doesn’t mean we need to be!”

“You’re right, Jonathan, that’s not why we need to be,” Natchua said curtly, turning and gesturing at the mouth of the alleway behind them. There was a momentary darkening of the sunlight, as if she had pulled a curtain across it. “There, we have some privacy. Now we need to have a conversation with our new friend.”

“You’ve already shown me some things today I did not know infernomancy could do,” Melaxyna said warily. “Don’t tell me you can cast a truth spell, too.”

“In fact, I do know a spell for that, but no. That’s in the category of infernomancy that only a demon can perform and not be instantly incinerated.” Natchua studied Shook pensively; he glared right back, now down on one knee and yet looking more like he was coiled to spring than beaten. “For us, a true truth effect would require either divine magic or alchemy. Sadly, I don’t even know the alchemical formula; it was one of those Professor Rafe was forbidden by Tellwyrn to teach us.”

“She forbade that?” Jonathan said incredulously. “His first vacation home, Gabe showed me how to use household cleaners and common enchanting dust to make fire that burns underwater.”

“It’s one of those rules that has to do with the number of nobles at that school,” she said with a thin smile. “Like segregating the dorms by sex. Oh, there was all kinds of alchemical mischief slipped into people’s drinks, but not truth serum. It’s all fun and games until somebody spills a family secret. No, a proper truth effect is beyond my ability, but I can…improvise.”

“You are not going to torture him,” Jonathan said firmly.

“Give me a little credit,” she retorted, shooting him an annoyed look. “I’m not that much of a monster, and anyway, you don’t torture people for information if you want your information to be accurate. Everybody knows that.”

Shook chose that moment of her distraction to lunge forward. He was instantly seized around all four limbs by tendrils of shadow that burst out of the ground around him, and yanked down to lie spread-eagled on the ground with his face against the alley’s dirty floor.

He turned his head to one side and spat. “Worth a shot.”

“I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried,” Natchua agreed. “All right, Mr. Shook, there are two paths open to us from here. One, I can cast a sort of…disinhibition spell. It will basically shut off your mental filter and befuddle you, causing you to babble constantly and lack the mental clarity to concoct a serviceable lie. I don’t want to do that because your stream of consciousness won’t be particularly helpful to me. You don’t want me to do that because we are literally talking about using infernal magic to damage—albeit slightly and temporarily—parts of your brain. Even if I do everything exactly right, which I assure you I will, that’s not good for you at all. The other option, of course, is that you answer my questions quickly and I graciously allow you to leave here unmolested.”

He had to twist his neck uncomfortably to meet her eyes, but he made the effort just to sneer at her.

“So I get fucked over either way? Then I’m sure as hell not going to choose the option that makes your life any easier, you smug darkling cunt. Lemme just take this last opportunity to say fuck you.”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Nobody can ever let me do anything the easy way.”


He hummed to himself as he hunted. It wasn’t generally a wise thing to do, for obvious reasons, but he just couldn’t help it. He had been cooped up and stifled for so damn long, it was positively exhilarating to be back on the chase, even if he wasn’t chasing anything that presented the slightest challenge. Whether one was hunting bunnies or bears, though, Ninkabi was the perfect city for the kind of rooftop-hopping he so enjoyed. It was all tiers, terraces, and spires, so full of interesting opportunities for acrobatics.

Unless, of course, one had to go after a specific target who very sensibly would hide somewhere in the majority of the city that was underground. Not that that would have saved anyone from the likes of him, either, but for now he had the luxury of picking the kind of trouble he was to cause, and naturally he indulged himself in picking trouble that permitted him to bounce around on the roofs.

The elf who these days called himself the Jackal perched atop a chimney, where he would be extremely obvious in his black suit in the morning sunlight to anybody who happened to be looking up. Not that he was concerned; aside from the fact that hardly anyone ever looked up, it well suited his purposes for rumors to circulate about a mysterious figure haunting the rooftops.

From his current spot he had a handy view down at an intersection where two streets crossed one another at a peculiar angle forced by the wedge-like prow of the tower directly across the square from him. So many people! Talking, walking, arguing, laughing, making all kinds of healthy ruckus. All those little bunnies, hopping along and ripe to be snared.

There would be the odd handful of immortals, magic users and aristocrats leavened among them, individuals who could claim to have some actual influence over the course of their lives. By and large, though, humanity existed for the benefit of their betters. Even their own societies were structured to enforce that. And yet, they always threw such a fit when reminded of that simple fact. He never got tired of it.

The Jackal spied what he was after and hopped down, sliding lightly along an angled roof to its edge and pacing along it silently. Below him a pair of city guards on patrol had just moved out of the square and along one of the main streets. He hummed softly as he followed them, skittering and bouncing along rooftops three stories above.

The street bent forty-five degrees once it reached the edge of the island, becoming one of the border avenues guarded on the cliff side by a waist-high wall atop which ran an even taller iron fence. That meant it was one of the major trafficked areas on this particular island, which made his job considerably harder. An opening wasn’t going to occur unless he made one.

Good. After staring at the walls for ages the last thing he wanted was an easy jaunt that’d be over quickly. And so the Jackal prowled, keeping pace with the two guards and delighting in the sense of mounting pressure; he didn’t know what kind of timetable he was under, how long their patrol was, when something might happen that would spoil his opportunity entirely. He just needed two variables to line up: a convenient alley and a lull in the foot traffic.

That confluence occurred almost half an hour later, just as he was beginning to become antsy. Half the street rose in a ramp to the next tier of the island and his targets didn’t follow it, instead going around and under to a quieter section that terminated in a little cul-de-sac against the cliff wall; it was quieter there by far, not to mention shadier.

He abandoned his careful pace to leap over a rooftop and into the yawning chasm of an alley just ahead of the patrolling guards, achieving a midair “landing” two stories above ground with his legs braced across the gap against each wall. Ears attuned to their approach, he waited until they were just before the alley’s mouth before calling out.

“Hello? Anybody! Help!”

Magic was useful, and he made ample use of it, but it did not pay to over-rely on such tools when so many others did. As magic became more and more common, so did counters to most available enchantments and spells. Thus, simple and practical skills became ever more valuable—such as the ability to throw one’s voice.

Hearing, as they thought, a young woman crying out from the far end of the alley, both guards put on a burst of speed and darted in, one igniting a pocket-sized arcane torch to banish the darkness.

From above, the Jackal watched with a wild grin as they slowed, carefully exploring the entirely empty alley. This one was a dead end with only a few doors along it, most having piles of trash and old crates near them. Only two had fairy lamps mounted above and neither was lit at this hour. He noted at the guards were thorough, testing every door—all locked—and pausing to investigate behind every refuse heap large enough to conceal a person before finally deciding there was nothing to find. Conscientious city watchers, that boded well. For the next stages of Khadizroth’s plan, of course, not for these two.

He was just formulating a plan for how to dive upon the pair when the man requested a little privacy. His partner scoffed, but turned and strolled back toward the mouth of the alley while he unbuttoned his trousers and faced the wall behind a stack of crates.

The Jackal almost pouted. That made things easier. It was just dreadfully inconsiderate of them, making it easy. City guards couldn’t be considered a challenge on their best day, and now they had to go and deprive him of an opportunity to apply some rapid problem-solving. It was just rude.

That made him perhaps a little extra vindictive when he lunged straight down at the female guard once she had passed beneath him. Being an elf he was light, lithe, and not particularly muscular, but deftly agile beyond the ability of any human. Even given his lack of weight, he made an impressively effective missile upon dropping two stories at a steep angle. He flexed his knees deeply upon impact of course, which helped absorb the force exerted on his own body but did little to soften the blow upon her back.

It drove the breath right out of her before she could cry out, which was really a redundant benefit for him—a side effect of using her as a cushion, not part of the plan. By the time she could have thought to yell, anyway, he had already reached around and driven his stiletto under her chin, all the way up into her brain.

The Jackal bounced off the twitching body even as she fell, already kicking off the walls in a back-and-forth trajectory deeper into the alley, the impacts he made soundless to human ears thanks to his light frame and especially his skill at this.

He stopped, though, waiting for the man to finish pissing. There were some courtesies guys observed between one another.

The guard was in the process of buttoning up his fly when an arm appeared over his shoulder and, faster than he could have reacted to, ripped a knife still stained with his partner’s blood right through his throat.

The elf swung the gurgling man around to impact against the wall, leaving them face-to-face.

“Shh, easy there,” he murmured solicitously while the man gaped at him and bled, impotently clutching at his throat. “Ah, ah, that won’t help you now. Here, lemme give you a hand.”

He deftly relieved the guard of the wand he’d been trying to bring up—impressive that he still had that much fight in him!—and gently helped ease him down to sit against the wall.

The Jackal retreated just out of reach, squatting on his heels across the alley from the dying man, and smiled benevolently at him as he watched the light fade from his eyes.

Of course he had to stop and savor one of his kills—who knew when he’d get another chance? And it had to be the man, as a matter of personal policy.

During lean seasons when there wasn’t much contract work, the Jackal had long entertained himself in human cities by hunting and slaying serial killers. At first it had been because he sought the challenge of hunting a fellow hunter, but after the very first one his motivation changed to expunging such pitiful filth from his noble profession. They were without exception obsessed, pathetic idiots entirely enslaved by their compulsions, an odd preponderance of them male, and the vast majority of those seemed to have some weird fixation on women. What was worse, they all seemed to think they were somehow getting revenge on the female sex for some imagined slight, failing to realize that their obsession made them more the slaves of womankind than the most henpecked housebroken husband. The whole thing had left the Jackal with a lingering distaste for mutilating or tormenting female targets. Business was business, but he resented anything that made him resemble the saddest, stupidest creeps he had ever encountered.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun once the woman was dead, of course.

Dragging the bodies toward the mouth of the alley was annoying work; humans were heavy. It would all be worth it, though, for the comedic effect. Unfortunately he couldn’t afford to linger and watch, but he could imagine it well enough! He propped them up just beyond the rim of the sunlight, where they made a peculiar hunched shape on the ground that would be just barely visible to a human passerby. They might not be disturbed by curious bystanders, even; it was an open question whether someone would come looking after they failed to report in before somebody else came out of one of those doors to throw more rubbish on the ground. Regardless, he didn’t dally, and barely two minutes later was standing back to admire his handiwork.

He set them up with their backs to the mouth of the alley, leaning against each other, and stuck their hands into each other’s pants, finishing off his little installation by painting smiles upon their faces in their own blood.

Time was wasting, but the Jackal indulged himself in a few minutes simply to giggle in delight. Of course, none of his audience would appreciate either his artistry or his sense of humor. That was what made it funny.

Then he was bounding up toward the rooftops again, kicking back and forth off the looming walls and already thinking ahead.

There were two kinds of city guards, for his purposes: craven bullies who would avoid the hint of any real danger to themselves like the plague, and the other kind. Killing a few of them was exactly how you found out which. Even now, a hundred years after Athan’Khar had ceased to be a danger and more than half that long since the Tidestriders had been pacified, N’Jendo had healthy vestiges of a warrior culture. He strongly suspected the reaction to this was going to be pure fury.

If the Black Wreath were indeed up to something in this area, their lives were about to get significantly more complicated. Along with everyone else’s.

Oh, this was gonna be such fun!


Sherwin yelled and flailed upon Natchua’s sudden entry into his kitchen apartment, actually tumbling off his bed in a heap of blankets.

“Aw, poor tiger,” Melaxyna cooed, slinking around the warlock and diving to coil herself about him. “Sorry we spoiled your nap! You had a busy night, I know.”

“Oh, that, I, uh…” He yawned hugely, rubbing at his eyes while the succubus pressed herself into him from behind. “Well, you’re back! What time is it?”

“It’s not noon yet,” Natchua said briskly, crossing to the kitchen’s other door. “I assume Hesthri is supervising the horogki?”

“Yeah, she offered after I kept yawning,” he mumbled. “Very nice lady, really polite for a demon. How was Ninkabi? Did you guys learn anything?”

“I’ll say,” Melaxyna replied. “Turns out our fearless leader can shadow-jump stuff right out of people’s pockets!”

That seemed to wake Sherwin up, and he turned a suddenly alert frown on Natchua. “What? Really?”

“Is that not normal?” Jonathan asked, shutting the outside door behind himself.

“Hell, no!” Sherwin exclaimed. “For shadow-jumping to work, you have to see your target, be familiar with your destination—and it shouldn’t be possible to shadow-jump an object besides yourself if you aren’t going along!”

“Nothing is impossible,” Natchua said, turning back to him with a thin smile. “Some things are just so difficult they are not worth bothering to try. Fewer things for me than for you. Well! Jonathan, would you please take over watching the hobgoblins? You have some construction experience, so you might be the best candidate for that work anyway.”

“I’m not sure how qualified I am to ride herd on a trio of demons,” he protested.

“Hobgoblins barely count as demons. Think of them as highly-skilled adolescents; they need monitoring because they’re unpredictable and energetic, not aggressive or highly magical. More to the point, a changing of the guard is necessary, based on what we discovered in Ninkabi. Agasti is not someone to be approached with hostile intent. Therefore, we will do the polite thing and show up at his club this evening when it opens. And, of course, the best choice of personnel to crash a nightclub is three hot women.”

Sherwin and Melaxyna exchanged a look, then said in unison, “Uhhh…”

“I’ve already taken steps to insure Mel will pass undetected through his wards,” Natchua said in an amused tone. “I can do the same for Hesthri, as well as disguise her to mundane senses. I do know what I’m doing.”

“Have you noticed this expression we all make every time you say that?” Jonathan demanded. She made a face at him.

“That’s not even the most important thing we discovered,” Melaxyna added for Sherwin’s benefit. “Somebody else is working in Ninkabi—we didn’t get much, but Natchua knows some horrifying brain-damaging spells that made this guy talk and then apparently erased his most recent few memories.”

“Guy?” Sherwin said in alarm. “Spell? Brain-damaging?”

“Evidently,” said Natchua, “the Universal Church has re-formed the Inquisition, and they are hunting the Black Wreath, whom they believe to be active in Ninkabi. We know nothing more than that, save that they are evidently working with a dragon, Khadizroth the Green. Much of what the man babbled was unhelpful, and we hadn’t the luxury of time to interrogate him at length.”

“Holy shit,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, that is bad news. Other warlocks is one thing—we are not equipped to fight the Church, especially if they’ve organized another Inquisition, and definitely not a green fucking dragon!”

“We’re not going to fight them,” she said patiently. “Our encounter with one of their lackeys proved useful. I left him lying in an alley reeking of infernal attack. We had to leave in a hurry as fae energies were starting to coalesce on us and you are correct, I absolutely don’t want to mix it up with a green dragon. I could maybe fend off a red or blue, but a green would demolish me. It worked out, though. A fae caster of that skill should be able to heal the man I injured, but not restore the memories I scoured out of his brain. He doesn’t know who attacked him. But they will know it was a warlock…and they’re already hunting the Black Wreath right there.”

“Set our enemies against each other,” Jonathan murmured. “It’s a good strategy. If it all works out the way you’re hoping.”

“I don’t hope, I plan,” she retorted. “There’s no telling how things will shake out in the long run, but this? Today’s events are under control. Shook, and soon Khadizroth and whatever other allies they have, know they crossed a warlock and will naturally turn to the ones they were already after. They will increase pressure upon the Wreath in that area, likely forcing them to make a mistake. And I will be watching Ninkabi to see what happens…and how we can take advantage.”

“Okay, that actually is a good plan,” Sherwin said. “Risky as hell, but, y’know…what isn’t?”

“Hn,” Jonathan grunted.

“It gets better.” Natchua held up her hand, and in a swell of shadow, the reliquary appeared. “Shook was carrying this.”

“Uh…who’s in that?” Sherwin asked warily.

“No one, at present,” Natchua replied with a malicious smile. “But it is attached to the succubus Kheshiri.”

“What?” he squawked. “Are you serious?”

“Has everybody but me heard of this woman?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Not hardly,” said Melaxyna with a worried frown, “but in certain very specific circles, she’s something of an underground legend. Children of Vanislaas tend to have, um…characteristic obsessions, let’s say. That guy Murgatroyd who’s doing security in Last Rock now? He’s the big name in coping mechanisms; his whole thing is finding ways to channel the itch into something useful that doesn’t make him hurt people. Wrangling Arachne’s students and research fellows should keep him good and occupied. Well, Kheshiri’s deal is…pushing the envelope. She’s all about exploring the outer reaches of what a child of Vanislaas can or can’t do, and then seeing how many ‘can’ts’ she can turn into ‘cans’.”

“What’d she do, that’s so impressive?” Jonathan asked.

“Well,” said Melaxyna, “for starters, she’s a magic user. Not a very skilled one, but Kheshiri has been known to dabble in both infernomancy and arcane enchantment.”

He frowned. “What, is that uncommon? I figured all of your kind would try to use magic.”

“Try, yes,” she said dryly.

“It’s their condition,” Sherwin explained, patting Melaxyna’s hand where it dangled over his chest. “Magic is very detail-oriented work that requires a lot of concentration. Vanislaads get jittery when they try to focus that tightly on anything that isn’t a person or an ongoing scheme.”

“So yes, it’s impressive that Kheshiri can cast spells at even a basic level,” Melaxyna said, nodding. “Also, the reason she’s bound to a reliquary is she assassinated the leader of the Black Wreath, impersonated her, and ran the cult for a couple of weeks back during the Enchanter Wars.”

“Ho…lee…shit,” Jonathan whispered.

“They didn’t even catch on,” Melaxyna added, grinning. “Elilial rumbled her in person. Here’s the thing, Natch: those charms that idiot put on the reliquary? They wouldn’t hold her, not for the two years he claims he’s held that thing. The fact he didn’t tell her what all the restraints were would buy him some more time, but after that long? The only reason she hasn’t weaseled out of his control is she wants to stay there. She is doing something with those people, something of her own design. Probably calculated to find out exactly what she can pull off with the likes of an Archpope and a green dragon looking over her shoulder. And remember, Kheshiri’s two favorite pastimes are setting unreasonably high goals and being underestimated.”

“Well,” Sherwin said slowly, “I guess I can see why someone like that would be an asset to the cause…”

“Oh, hell no,” Natchua said, immediately and firmly. “We are not involving this woman in our group. Mel is a friend, and also the entire roster of Vanislaads I’m willing to trust anywhere near me.”

“Good,” Melxyna said firmly. “I mean, thanks, that’s sweet, but also good. Now twist the cap and put her back in the bottle. That’s one less asset for both the Wreath and the Inquisition to call upon.”

“Will that work from here?” Jonathan asked. “We’re all the way across the continent from Ninkabi.”

“It’s not limited by space,” Melaxyna said. “It’d work from all the way across the world. Go on, Natch, chop chop.”

Natchua was still holding up the reliquary, and now staring at it as if in deep thought. “You know…”

“Oh, no,” Melaxyna groaned, burying her face in Sherwin’s shoulder.

“She doesn’t know what’s happened,” the drow mused, gazing at the rose suspended within the green glass. “Only that someone has her reliquary. Someone she must assume to be the Black Wreath. She has two possible courses of action: double down and hunt them ferociously, or betray her group and try to cut a deal with them. Either will draw them out.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said quietly, “Ninkabi is a city. People live there. That is not a place for a succubus, let alone one you’ve driven into a panic.”

“The Wreath are always careful not to involve bystanders, the Inquisition cannot afford to, and Kheshiri has not choice but to focus tightly on the obstacle before her. And the instant I don’t like something she does, I can put her away for good.” Natchua’s voice and expression had become faraway and vague, as if she were now talking to herself, or someone else not even in the room. “What was it she said? Ticking time bombs. Foxes with their tails afire, set loose in my enemies’ fields. Let’s see how you like it, you hypocritical old cow.”

She held up her other hand above the reliquary, and the chain dangling from its end lifted toward it as if drawn by a magnet. Then it began to rust right before their eyes…and then decay. The chain itself started to come apart in fragments as Natchua’s infernal magic ate away its arcane charms. In seconds it had entirely disintegrated. Next to go were the metal rings, their charms dying in a series of small sparks and the metal bound to them corroding away to dust in the space of a few moments, to leave the reliquary as it had been originally designed, fully stripped of the extra measures constraining Kheshiri’s actions.

Staring at it, Natchua bared her teeth in a vindictive grin.

“Fly, my little bird.”

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15 – 16

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A short bark of laughter burst from Jonathan, to his own slight surprise.

“I say something funny?” Jeremiah demanded. He still wore an attempt at an easygoing smile, though his eyes and voice had both gone hard.

“No, sorry,” Jonathan chuckled. “Your question just forced me to confront how ridiculous I am. Well, lemme put it this way: what’s the most likely reason for a man to find himself suddenly miles from where he belongs and floundering without properly understanding why?”

“Ahh.” The other man’s expression cleared, even growing into a knowing smile, and he nodded sagely. “A girl.”

Jonathan sighed. “Two of ’em, actually.”

“Hah!” Jeremiah snorted a terse laugh of his own, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nice, brother. That makes you either the luckiest son of a bitch in town, or just the opposite. Maybe both at once.”

“No…I’m leaning toward opposite,” Jonathan mused, staring at the wall behind the cafe’s counter. “The whole thing is altogether more complicated than I ever wanted out of life. Thought I’d found something straightforward and…pleasant. But she wasn’t what she seemed, and then dragged an old flame into it, and now I hardly know what’s going on anymore.”

“That’s how they getcha, y’know,” Jeremiah said sympathetically. “There’s not a damn thing complicated about it until some bitch comes along and makes it that way. Long as you’re all confused and turned around, they’re in control. That’s what it all comes down to: who’s in control.”

Jonathan looked at him sidelong. “That’s a pretty grim outlook on relationships.”

He shrugged, grinning wryly. “It’s a pretty grim world, my friend. Dunno if you’ve noticed.”

“Well, you’re not wrong about that…”

The shopkeeper had come back over, her expression now stonily blank, and Jonathan deliberately kept his own clear of the annoyance he felt. He disliked it on general principles when men were sexually aggressive toward women (and the reverse, though the Avenist sect who were the only women likely to do that in public were rare enough he’d only run across two in his life). This wasn’t just general principles, though; quite apart from interrupting his own information-gathering efforts, the well-dressed stranger had made a thoroughly bad impression, and now Jonathan was part of it. Even if Jeremiah left right now he might well be getting nothing further out of this woman today, or anyone in earshot for that matter.

“What’ll it be?” she asked the new arrival in the terse, toneless voice of merchants everywhere who had not yet decided to lose a sale over their personal dislike of a customer, but didn’t care who knew how close they were.

“I think I’ll have what my new friend here is having,” Jeremiah said with a smirk, slapping Jonathan’s shoulder again. “And what’ll it cost me for a smile from you?”

“More than you can afford,” she said evenly. “It’s ten pennies for a pasty and tea.”

He had already shifted on the stool to reach into his pocket, and now slapped a doubloon down on the counter. “Keep the change, darlin’.”

“I don’t think—”

“What?” he demanded, the hard edge creeping back into his voice. “You don’t appreciate my generosity?”

She glanced at the coin, then back up at his eyes, and took one deliberate step back from the counter. “Coming right up.”

“You’re not much of a people person, are you, Jeremiah?” Jonathan inquired, sipping his own tea.

The man’s eyes cut to him and his expression darkened further, but just for a moment. Then, deliberately, he relaxed, even chuckled softly. “Yeah, well, you’ve got me there. I’ve spent a lot of time cooped up lately with the same few assholes for company. That’s not great for anybody’s social skills, but I guess my current friends like to play rougher than the general population. I should do better at being nicer to honest, hard-working folks out and about. You forgive me, don’t you, honey?” he added to the shopkeeper, again with a broad smirk.

“Sure,” she grunted noncommittally, setting a meat pastry and cup in front of him, then turning to fetch the teapot.

Jonathan kept silent for the moment, nursing the last of his own tea. It would be ideal if he could get some answers for Natchua here, in the first place he looked. He had some slight experience with evading investigators from the first time Hesthri had been part of his life, and plenty since then at being part of a neighborhood, and knew very well that one guy appearing in several places in the same day asking questions about Agasti and Second Chances was likely to spark rumors which someone could follow. Well, if it came to that, he’d hopefully be shadow-jumped safely back to Veilgrad by tonight. Not to mention that sometimes, you just didn’t get the ideal outcome. Most of the time, in fact. Life was about making do with what you were given.

Still, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on this spot…which meant having a reason to stick around here until Jeremiah left. Another cup of tea would do for a start; he held his up in a mute request for a refill when the shopkeeper came by again with the pot for his neighbor, and was gratified that she poured it with a thin smile and no talk of payment. Someone running a business like this was probably sensitive enough to the moods of her customers to observe that he wasn’t enjoying Jeremiah’s company much more than she. A bit less with each passing moment; the man’s last comments had sounded to Jonathan a lot like a coy euphemism for having been in prison.

He gave the fellow a sidelong examination while he munched with apparent satisfaction on his breakfast pasty. The pinstriped suit was clean and fit him well, and while the slicked-back hair just looked shady to Jonathan, it was further evidence that the man cared about his appearance and had money to spend on it. He was neither scrawny nor flabby, unlike the majority of men who wore pricey suits in Jonathan’s experience. In fact, those hands were not only callused, but had an unusual number of scars…

He shifted his gaze back to the far wall, putting the sums together, and hid a grimace behind another sip of tea. Physically strong, moneyed, aggressive streak, signs of a violent past, apparently recently in jail… Great. And wasn’t there some kind of Eserite shrine in Ninkabi? Jonathan wasn’t much for organized religion but he was sure he’d read that somewhere.

“I gather you’re not from this neighborhood, either,” he offered. The shopkeeper had already retreated down to the other end of the counter, but glanced at him and made a face.

Fortunately, Jeremiah appeared not to notice that, pausing to wash down a bite of pasty with a sip. “Why, no, I’m just passing through myself. Looking to get the lay of the land, you know how it is. Never know what kind of information might be important. Though when I hear people chattering about demons, I damn well pay attention to that, as we were just discussing. Speaking of, sounds like I interrupted a very interesting conversation.” He smiled at Jonathan, then shifted his focus to their hostess. “Please, don’t let me stop you. What’s all this about something strange in the neighborhood?” He kept his eyes on her while filling his mouth with another bite of pasty. The man had an unblinking stare that seemed calculated to unsettle.

She had busied herself with a nonsense cleaning task at the far end of the counter; Jonathan opted to come to her rescue. “From what the young lady was telling me, there’s not much to tell. Folks around here seem to think well of Agasti and his club. That speaks well of anyone, but if he’s a warlock and has still managed to get on the neighborhood’s good side, the fella must be the most upstanding citizen in town.”

“Oh, for sure,” Jeremiah said agreeably. “But there’s no way he’s just…left alone to do his business. Guy like that must get checked up on by all kinds of interested parties. Topaz College, Silver Legions…” He still had his gaze pinned on the shopkeeper, and the expression was draining from his face, leaving a blank mask of focus like a prowling cat sighting a songbird. “Black Wreath. What about that, darlin’? How often do you get shifty-looking spellslingers coming through here, asking nosy questions?” A humorless grin cracked his lips. “Like these, for example.”

“This is a safe neighborhood,” she said shortly. “Trendy people come here to spend money, and the city guard keeps a very good presence. I’m sure the Empire keeps an eye on Mr. Agasti.”

“Not what I asked you, is it?” Jeremiah said tonelessly. His food and tea were lying suddenly forgotten on the counter, next to the doubloon she still had not picked up. The intensity of his stare couldn’t be taken for anything but a threat.

“I sell tea and pastries,” she snapped, picking up his hostility. “I don’t know anything about cults or warlocks. If you like gathering rumors, you might try being civil to people.”

“Oh, I get by, trust me,” Jeremiah said in a low tone, flicking his wrist as if adjusting his cuff. Another doubloon slid out of his sleeve, though, and he flipped it into the air, caught it on the backs of his fingers, and began slowly rolling it back and forth. “So let’s try this again, bitch. When I ask you a question, you give me an answer, and we both stay un-ruffled and on our respective sides of the counter.”

“That’s enough of that.” Jonathan was only slightly surprised it was his own voice which had spoken. He had just been thinking it was smarter to stay out of this, and yet he couldn’t muster any regret for intervening. Even though Jeremiah looked to have been about to extract exactly the intel he needed, there were some things that were just not to be tolerated.

The other man turned that flat stare on him, and Jonathan met it without flinching. His lack of fear caused a further tightening of the muscles around Jeremiah’s eyes.

“Friend,” the thug said in the tight voice of someone holding anger barely in check, “I think you wanna stay out of this.”

“I surely do,” Jonathan agreed. “I want to do a lot of things that I can’t. Unfortunately, the way I was raised, a man doesn’t act abusively toward a lady, or allow others to do so.”

Jeremiah curled his lip in a sneer. “Well, there’s your out. A lady isn’t going to be slinging tea in some hole-in-the-wall shop. Lucky for our little friend, here, since I never met an actual lady who didn’t urgently need a bite from a knuckle sandwich, just by default.”

One of the other patrons from the table in the back rose and hurriedly left the shop; the other two men he was with stayed where they were, eyes on their drinks but no longer speaking. Well, good; hopefully the guy could find a nearby guard. Jonathan saw Jeremiah see this, noted the aggravated flare of his nostrils, but he made no attempt to intervene. The man was, at least, professional enough not to cross a major legal line. So far, at least.

“I don’t concern myself with judging anyone else’s character,” he said, meeting Jeremiah’s strained fury with calm. “I concern myself with myself, and that’s all I recommend a man does. There are some kinds of mistakes that make you less of a man, friend. You’re very close to making one now.”

Jeremiah surged up from his stool, seizing Jonathan by the collar and dragging him forward; he kept his own seat, but barely, not struggling.

“Listen here,” the enforcer hissed, “you’re going the right way for an ass-kicking. Is that what you want?”

“No fighting in here!” the woman behind the counter ordered, her voice high-pitched with worry.

Jeremiah started to turn toward her, his expression promising worse than harsh words, so Jonathan moved quickly to recapture his attention.

“Okay, and then what?”

Jeremiah focused back on his face, narrowing his eyes. “What?”

“Let’s say you kick my ass,” Jonathan said evenly. “What comes after that?”

“Are you— What, you’re just gonna sit there and let it happen? You an Omnist or something?”

“I’ve never had much use for religion,” Jonathan admitted, allowing himself a small grin. “Fortunately for you; some Omnists are more dangerous to manhandle than a Sister of Avei. No, I fought in his Majesty’s Army and I’m not one to get pushed around by some punk in a cafe. But still,” he added as the arm holding his collar tightened further, “let’s be realistic. You’re, what, ten years younger than me? I haven’t been in a fight in at least that long; you look like this ain’t even your first one today. You’d probably win that. So, what then? There’s probably a guard heading this way already. Best case scenario, you miss out on the rest of your breakfast. And for what? It’s not like you gain anything from this.”

“Definitely not an Omnist,” Jeremiah sneered. “That’s the kind of limp-wristed pussy talk I’d expect from an Izarite. When someone pushes you, you push back. Sounds like your papa forgot to teach you something important. A man’s nothing if he can’t command respect.”

“So it’s about respect?” Jonathan said mildly. “I think you’re going about that the wrong way, friend. Nobody in here is going to respect you one bit more for roughing me up. They’ll respect you less for laying a hand on the girl. Hell, be honest with yourself. Would you respect yourself any more after that?”

Jeremiah hauled him forward until their noses were nearly touching, forcing Jonathan to grab the edge of the counter to avoid being pulled entirely off balance. “I don’t need life lessons from you, old man.”

“From who, then?” Jonathan countered. “If you’re after respect, son, you’re going about it the wrong way. Respect is earned mutually. All this’ll get you is fear, at best.”

The younger man’s expression was a vicious combination of a sneer and a grin. “Yeah? Well, I guess fear’s enough, for practical purposes.”

“Is it?” Jonathan asked quietly. “Don’t you think you deserve better?”

They were close enough he could feel his breath. Jonathan met his stare, waiting for the punch. He fully intended to give an accounting for himself, but he hadn’t dissembled; he was out of practice and anyway had been better trained with staff and wand than his own fists. He frankly would have bet on Jeremiah if it came to a brawl.

He was actually rather surprised when Jeremiah slowly eased back, relaxing his grip until he had released his collar entirely. Jonathan settled back on the stool, watching him closely still. Sucker-punching someone after faking them into dropping their guard was a classic trick.

The punch still didn’t come, though. Instead, Jeremiah took a full step back and straightened his lapels, then ran a hand over his hair, as if the little grooming ritual helped brush away his incipient rage.

“Y’know,” he said in a much milder tone after a moment, “you remind me of a friend of mine. You a shaman, by any chance?”

“Can’t say I am,” Jonathan replied, raising an eyebrow. “If you’re friends with a shaman, though, my advice would be to listen to him more often.”

“Yeah, that’s his advice, too,” he said wryly.

The shopkeeper cleared her throat. She was holding a full, steaming teapot as if thinking about throwing it or its contents. “All right, buddy, you need to leave.”

Jeremiah gave her a long, cool look, and Jonathan’s first thought was that this was all about to start up again.

Instead, the thug nodded politely to her. “Right you are, miss. Seems I’ve been entirely out of line.” He rapped twice on the countertop with his knuckles. “My apologies for the trouble. You folks enjoy your tea, now.”

Pausing only to give Jonathan a brief, considering look, he turned and sauntered out.

Everyone waited until he had passed beyond view of the front windows to relax. Then Jonathan blew out a heavy breath. “Whoof. Well! Least he’s less of a hothead than some punks that age. I thought for sure that guy was going to start breaking furniture.”

He turned back to the shop’s proprietress just in time to have another pastry slid in front of him, this one a puffy sweet piece dripping with honey and candied almonds.

“On the house,” she said with a warm smile. “I don’t get many white knights in here, and they’re exactly the kind of customers I want to come back.”

“Oh,” he said, actually feeling slightly flustered. “Well. I don’t think I can take a reward for doing the bare basics of the right thing…”

“In that case,” she said, picking up the doubloon Jeremiah had left behind, “your buddy there paid for you. Is that more acceptable?”

“Well, I guess he owes me,” Jonathan agreed with a grin, carefully picking up the sticky bun. “It’s socially incorrect to throttle somebody before dinner. I’m pretty sure I read that in an etiquette manual somewhere.”

She grinned back, leaning on the counter in front of him. “You know what, I think I can see how you ended up with two girls after you, mister.”

He sighed, the smile fading. “Yeah… And at half my present age I might’ve daydreamed about that a bit. Amazing how much pure trouble it turns out to be in practice. Well, anyway! Seems like we were discussing something a little more pleasant before all that noise, but I can’t for the life of me remember what?”

Jonathan took a bite of his free pastry, chewing contentedly and waiting for her to respond. Maybe this would work out after all.


He was lost in thought as he made his way back up the street, hands jammed in his pockets. The sun had risen most of the way toward its zenith and Ninkabi was fully alive, the avenue crowded with shoppers browsing the stores and vendor stalls set up along the sidewalk. A veteran urban dweller, Jonathan navigated through them without really noticing them.

There hadn’t been a lot more to learn about his quarry from the cafe, but he had whiled away most of an hour in far more pleasant conversation after the Eserite had left, both with the owner and a couple of other regulars. The discussion had touched upon Mortimer Agasti and his club a few more times, but did not linger there, and Jonathan hadn’t tried to steer it back. That would have been overplaying his hand, for one, and besides, all the cloak-and-dagger lately had left him missing ordinary chitchat with ordinary folks. It was a nice little reprieve. Who knew when the next chance would be?

Anyway, Natchua and Melaxyna were probably getting all the scuttlebutt they needed from the local magic shops. For his part, Jonathan planned to warn Natchua to lay off a little as soon as he found her again. Agasti was a rich man, a lawyer, and a warlock, three traits which by themselves made a man difficult for common people to like. That he was so well thought of by his neighbors meant he was probably one of the more aggressively decent people in the city. That, or a truly insidious villain, though in Jonathan’s experience people who could actually pull off that act were more likely to be found in chapbooks than real life.

Quite apart from the fact that Natchua and the rest could find themselves in a world of trouble if they riled up the whole city against them, it was starting to seem to him that the best approach in this case was the direct one. If Agasti was harboring this “friendly” khelminash demon, the two of them would probably respond better to an open invitation than to being stalked.

Something sharp jabbed the small of his back through his coat.

“Hello again,” Jeremiah’s voice said pleasantly from just behind Jonathan’s ear.

He came to a stop, slowly turning his head to regard the thug’s smiling face from, again, far too close for his liking.

“Morning,” Jonathan said calmly. “Fancy meeting you again.”

“It’s a smaller town than it seems,” Jeremiah replied. There was a slight tug at Jonathan’s belt as his wand was removed from behind. “Let’s walk and talk, Johnny boy. Just up ahead, alley on your left.”

For a moment, he pondered whether that was an actual wand poking him in the back.

“And what’ll you do if I just start yelling for the police?” he asked.

“Run like hell,” Jeremiah replied. “But it’ll be too late for you to appreciate it. Or, you can do what I fucking tell you, and get to go back to juggling your two girls at the end of the day. That’s the way I prefer, myself.”

“You have a persuasive argument, there,” Jonathan agreed, moving forward. The other man kept pace with him, uncomfortably close, no doubt to conceal from other passersby the fact that he was holding a weapon against him. It was just a few yards, and nobody intervened, nor appeared to notice. Considering a city guard never had showed up at the cafe after one of the other patrons had slipped out in search, he didn’t have high hopes of one coming to his rescue now.

Ninkabi’s alleys were as likely to be tunnels or crevices, in truth, and this was one of those; they were a level down from the uppermost tier of this island. It was even darker in here than in a similar space in Tiraas or Mathenon.

“If you’re just looking to get back at—”

“Oh, let me reassure you on that point.” Jeremiah gave him a sharp push between the shoulder blades. Jonathan staggered forward, but caught himself quickly and turned to face his assailant, hands still in view to his sides. He hadn’t actually been ordered to show them yet, but it was generally wiser to be extra soothing toward a twitchy person brandishing a wand. Which the fellow actually did have, he noted now, a sleek, powerful-looking model that likely cast deadly energy beams instead of arcs of electricity. Jeremiah held it at the waist rather than aiming properly, but at that range he would have to be truly incompetent to miss.

Jonathan didn’t suspect he was.

“No hard feelings,” the enforcer said, grinning. “I respect a man who can talk his way out of a beating. Not my own way, to be sure, but you gotta appreciate skill wherever you see it. Nah, this is just business.”

“Well, I admit I’m perplexed what business we even have.”

“The same, I think.” The man’s smile faded rapidly. “You were in there pumping the locals for information about the local warlock. I might have bought your random stumblebum act if you hadn’t then, as I said, talked our way out of a beating. Got my wheels turning; back where I’m from, they offer actual training in that particular ability. It’s very useful, in my line of work. And then it occurred to me you were sittin’ there chatting about demons, nonchalant as you please. So! Let’s start with who the fuck you are, who you work for and what you’re doing here. Then we’ll move on to whatever you learned from that feisty little piece slinging tea back there.”

Jonathan stared at him. And then, in spite of himself, laughed.

“Is this another one of those things where you just suddenly realized how ridiculous you are?” Jeremiah asked dryly.

“Exactly, yes. Would you believe I’m just a guy with a knack for diplomacy and an unfortunate history of getting tangled up in matters way above my pay grade?”

“Yeah, that’s surprisingly plausible,” Jeremiah agreed. “Are you gonna tell me now you’re not acting on behalf of a more significant player?”

“Well…as to that.”

“Yeah, I thought so. Let’s start with a name.”

“Let’s start with a discussion,” Jonathan countered. “It occurs to me once you get what you need, your incentives aren’t to let me walk out of here having seen your face. It doesn’t really serve me to hurry up and hand over what I know, then, does it?”

The flash of light was almost blinding in the dark alley, but it was constrained enough by the tight beam to leave Jonathan’s eyesight sufficiently intact to discern what had happened. It left a smoking line along the stone wall just to his left.

“That’s what I love about these wands,” Jeremiah said lightly. “Dead quiet. If I decide I’m tired of your crap, I can put a beam through your head at any moment and nobody’s gonna hear a thing. By the time they find your corpse, I’ll be long gone. So let me clarify your position, asshole: the guy with the wands is the guy making the decisions. You want to walk out of here, start by not convincing me you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“I’d be very surprised,” Jonathan said, in just as dry a tone, “if you’ve ever heard of who I’m with.”

“Oh, I get around. Try me.”

Shadows gathered.

They dispersed instantly, leaving Jonathan disoriented and in a new position, closer to the mouth of the alley and facing Jeremiah from behind. The enforcer was just spinning about in confusion, brandishing his wand, when a streak of bruise-colored energy slammed into him, sending him staggering to the dirty alley floor with his weapon clattering away across the pavement.

He immediately started pushing back upright, his teeth clenched in pain, and a second shadowbolt slammed him back to the ground. This time, he stayed there, gasping.

“In fact, he does know me,” Natchua said, lowering her arm. “His name’s Jeremiah Shook. He spent a week bumming around Last Rock a couple of years ago, till he incited some kind of adventurer riot and got hauled off to the capital in cuffs. I’m very curious what the hell he’s doing here, why he is pestering you, and most especially…”

She gracefully held out one hand, palm up, and darkness coalesced around it. The shadows dispersed to leave her holding a reliquary, an iron-bound tube of green glass with a single rose suspended in its center. It had a newer metal chain and several enchanted rings attached to one end that looked like they had been tacked on after the fact by a different artisan than its maker.

“…just what he is doing with this.”

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15 – 15

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“He is an Izarite, as a matter of fact.”

“Now I’ve truly heard everything,” Shook snorted.

The Jackal brayed his characteristic shrill laugh. “Sonny boy, if you haven’t learned better than to think that by now, you never will!”

“He sounds like an intriguing individual,” Khadizroth said to their hostess, ignoring the two of them.

Branwen Snowe nodded, smiling at the dragon. “Infernomancy is not esteemed by the cult, obviously, but Mr. Agasti has exercised his craft—both of them—in Izara’s service. He is among the few trusted with the creation of shatterstones, and has provided legal services to local temples at no charge. I can personally attest that being a person not widely liked by the Brethren does not preclude being of service to them.”

“Shatterstones,” the Jackal chortled. “That’s got to be the silliest idea anyone’s ever had for defense.”

“I assure you, those things are not to be taken lightly,” Khadizroth murmured.

“More to the point,” added Shook, “what the hell legal services would the Izarites ever need? What kind of asshole sues a temple of Izara?”

“Such things do happen, now and again,” Branwen said ruefully, “but it mostly comes down to the fact that the majority of lawyers look to Avei for patronage. Their faith is not fondly disposed toward ours as a rule.”

The enforcer nodded. “Well, Avenists making trouble is something I definitely understand.”

“You could say it is what brings us all together,” Khadizroth added with a small smile at Branwen.

“To give the Sisterhood credit, I think blaming Basra on them is excessively harsh,” the Bishop replied, smiling back. “Creatures such as she are adept at squirming into organizations and hollowing out a niche for themselves. And it was Avei’s own who drove her out. Really, it was inspiring the way young Trissiny descended upon her. I am not pleased by violence as a rule, but to see an avatar of Avei’s righteous vengeance in action, one cannot help but be impressed.”

Shook and the Jackal snorted in unison.

“I have several times had the same thought,” Khadizroth said to Branwen, continuing to ignore them. The dragon gave her a warm little smile before returning his attention to the city map laid out upon the room’s sole desk. “So. This pattern is suggestive, obviously. What would you say are the chances that this Mortimer Agasti is in league with the Black Wreath?”

“The entire menace of the Wreath is that one can never be certain of that, about anyone,” Branwen replied gravely. “But I am as confident in Agasti’s loyalties as in anyone’s.”

“I dunno this guy but I’m inclined to agree,” Shook added, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. “The one Izarite warlock? Seems a little on the nose. The Wreath never do the obvious thing, even when it would be the smarter thing in their position. I honestly wonder if over-complicating everything isn’t a commandment their religion.”

“Then there is another explanation for the distribution of these sites you have identified around his establishment, your Grace,” Khadizroth mused, studying the map. “May I ask how you acquired this intelligence?”

“These reports come from the Thieves’ Guild,” she said. “My own contact, not the Church’s. Eserites are generally disinclined to respect any central authority; coupled with the general Western distrust for the Universal Church, it is unsurprising that these reports weren’t made available to Basra. I am reasonably sure they won’t be, either, so you needn’t worry about her learning these are not reports of chaos cultist activity.”

“How come the Guild hasn’t moved against ’em, if they know where they are?” Shook asked, his attention more focused upon her.

“Each of these six sites was the source of a single sighting,” Branwen explained, smiling vaguely at him. She had a tendency to appear oddly vapid when not speaking directly to Khadizroth. “A demon sighting, summoning residue, in one case just people in gray robes. Nobody has been harmed, that I have heard of, which makes all the difference. The Guild and the Wreath mutually avoid one another; it gets gratuitously ugly when they fail to, as I have observed since one of my fellow Bishops keeps deliberately setting that up. So long as the Wreath are not actually harming the people of Ninkabi, I don’t expect Eserite intervention. And they likely won’t. Whatever they are up to, the Wreath seldom create civilian casualties, I have to give them that.”

“What’re you thinkin’, K?” Shook asked.

“The obvious possibility is that the Wreath have some designs upon this Mortimer Agasti,” the dragon said, straightening back up and turning to gaze pensively out the office’s window. Branwen had brought them to a nondescript space owned by the Izarite cult, a two-room apartment with a cozy office-like space in which they now stood and a small, adjoining bedroom. “But that, I feel, is the less likely one.”

“The obvious answer’s always the less likely one with these assholes,” the Jackal chuckled. “Jerry hit that nail on the head.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “they are using him as cover.”

“Trying to create ‘accidents’ to discredit Mortimer?” Branwen asked, her blue eyes sharp and alert once fixed on the dragon. “It occurred to me that this might be their goal. Their entire calling is to quell and contain demonic outbreaks. If they consider him a danger…”

“Possible, but I rather doubt it. Notably, the Black Wreath move to suppress lone warlocks, yes, but have historically been reluctant to face potential rivals. They go to great lengths to avoid the Topaz College, and flee from red dragons upon sight.”

“You may not’ve noticed, being cooped up with us the last year or so, but people fleeing from dragons ain’t just a Wreath thing,” Shook said dryly. The Jackal burst out laughing in near-hysterics; by this point, even Branwen knew to ignore him.

“Even so,” Khadizroth said, turning to face them again and folding his hands behind his back. “If Mortimer Agasti is a known and liked figure in the city, and closely involved with the Izarite cult, the Wreath are unlikely to have hostile designs upon him. Perhaps in years past they might have, but following their defeats at Tiraas and Veilgrad, their forces are considerably thinned. I cannot believe they would waste effort chasing mockingjays, which raises the question of what they are after in Ninkabi. What would be in character for them is using him as camouflage.”

“Yeah, I could see that,” the Jackal said, still grinning. “So long as they’re close to warlock boy, any miscellaneous demon shit that somebody reports is likely to get blamed on him.”

“The hole in that plan is the warlock himself,” said Shook. “Who better to hunt them down? If I was him, Wreath digging a burrow under my back porch would immediately become my first priority.”

“Mortimer is…quite reclusive,” Branwen said, frowning thoughtfully. “It is entirely possible he has not noticed any infernal presence nearby. Aside from his work on shatterstones, he has not done anything save look after his revenants within the walls of his club in years.”

“Do not forget, also, that the Wreath’s greatest weapon is their stealth,” Khadizroth added. “They can hide even from paladins, even from the gods, and that craft is Elilinist specifically, not merely infernal. A rival warlock might be one of the least likely parties to detect their presence.”

“Okay, so let’s say this theory’s right,” said Shook. “Wreath’s operating in that neighborhood, using this Agasti guy as a cover. What’s our play? Right off the bat I can tell you it’s not a good situation to wade into. Just the fact they were able to pick their own ground gives ’em the advantage. I like the Wreath better when they’re forced to meet on somebody else’s terms. Preferably mine.”

“Well spotted, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gravely, nodding. “Making targets of ourselves is not a winning move. As yet, it is unlikely the Wreath even know we are present and interested in them. That is our greatest advantage.”

“How’s about we make Basra a target?” the Jackal suggested, grinning as usual. “That’s where all this is leading up to anyway, isn’t it?”

“You know, that’s a pretty good idea,” Shook agreed. “If the whole objective here is cutting the legs out from under Basra, it’s a lot less likely to bite us on the ass if it’s somebody else who does it. Trick is setting that up.”

“It may be less tricky than you imagine,” Branwen said softly, “if approached in the right way. Simply introducing Basra to Black Wreath cultists directly will almost certainly result in some manner of explosion.”

“There’s no way she’s dumb enough to just lunge after bait like that,” Shook objected. “Nobody who’s lived that long and achieved what she has is that stupid.”

“Why, Thumper,” the Jackal cooed, “I didn’t know you thought so highly of our fearless leader! How long have you been nursing that crush?”

“First step in dealing with any asshole who needs a takedown is to give them full credit for their capabilities,” Shook said icily. “I made the mistake of not respecting one smarmy cunt once, and it’s the reason I’m stuck out here with you fuckers. I don’t mean to repeat my errors.”

“You may find it an amusing irony, Mr. Shook,” Branwen said lightly, “that Principia Locke has played a major role in cutting Basra Syrinx down to size on multiple occasions. She’s arguably the reason you are both out here.”

Shook went stiff as a plank, sucking in a long breath through his teeth. For a long few seconds, color rose in his face as if he were bout to burst a blood vessel.

Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed, and actually chuckled. “Y’know what? That actually is pretty funny.”

“Hmmm.” They all turned back to Khadizroth to find him smiling slightly, again looking down at the map. “I like this general line of thought. Rather than confront our enemies, let someone else exert pressure upon them. And ultimately, set them against one another without dirtying our own hands.”

“So, basically the thing Justinian does to everybody else,” the Jackal said lightly. “Hey, sounds good! Sure seems to work out okay for him.”

“We aren’t Justinian,” Shook pointed out. “And there’s a notable lack of a middle part in that plan. Pressure them how? And then, arrange that confrontation…how?”

“It is simply too early to lay out the final stages of such a campaign,” said Khadizroth. “The manner in which things develop will determine what pieces are in what position upon the board when the endgame approaches. It is a mistake to over-plan too far in advance, particularly when one knows as little as we do at the moment. Instead, we must seek to apply that pressure, and continue increasing it until an opportunity presents itself to move decisively.”

“What do you propose to do, Lord Khadizroth?” Branwen asked.

“Leverage the assets available to us, to begin with,” the dragon explained. “There are means within the mysteries of fae magic of laying triplines which may catch even the Wreath. I do not propose to set traps for them, but rather signals that will enable me to tell where they have been, and ideally, doing what. Unfortunately it is problematic for me to move about the city. Some things I can do from a distance, using only this map. For others, Vannae can travel more freely.”

“Somewhat,” Shook cautioned. “An elf will create less of an uproar, but they still aren’t common in cities. Especially out here in the West.”

“He can deflect some attention by adopting traditional costume rather than that suit he was wearing before,” Branwen suggested. “Many people cannot tell one elf from another, sadly. And city dwellers in general are somewhat jaded to novel sights. So long as he does not cross his own trail too frequently…”

“Elves can be pretty sneaky when they want to,” the Jackal drawled. “I mean, y’know, so I hear. Damn shifty elves, stealin’ our women and our jobs.”

“Great, more magic bullshit,” Shook grunted. “What’s that leave for us to do?”

“It would be tremendously foolish not to take advantage of the full range of talents available,” Khadizroth assured him. “To begin with, one thing we are equipped to do is draw official attention to this district and hamper the Wreath’s movements. In our own little cell are a Thieves’ Guild veteran, a succubus, and an assassin. If the three of you cannot create a stir that fills this neighborhood with police, no one can.”

“Oooh!” The Jackal sat bolt upright in the chair in which he had been sprawled, positively beaming. “Crime spree!”

“Now, hold on,” Shook interjected. “One of the few actually sacred sites to Eserites is in Ninkabi, and by Snowe’s account the local Guild is already aware of warlocks fucking around in this area. If anything resembling unauthorized crime starts happening consistently, the Guild will move into the neighborhood in force. And that will spook the Wreath into vanishing. Like the Bishop mentioned, they want none of that fight.”

“It will have to be a slow escalation,” Khadizroth agreed. “And ideally, of a nature that stirs up official presence in the entire city. The Wreath may be able to shift their focus away from Agasti’s local aegis, but that will only make them stand out more—and I think they will not leave Ninkabi entirely. There is, after all, a reason they are here.” He shifted to regard Branwen with a thin smile. “I have a theory about that, as it happens.”

“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“I hesitate to comment prematurely. With luck, my efforts with Vannae will yield answers soon.”

“It’s not kind to lead a lady on, Lord Khadizroth,” she said, smiling.

“I hope I shall soon be in a position to make it up to you, my dear.” Khadizroth held her eyes a moment longer before turning back to the others. “So. Given those criteria, what do you think?”

Shook heaved an irritated sigh. “I think that job needs either a much bigger crew or more magic fuckery. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Shiri can whip up something like that, which I got a feeling is why Syrinx doesn’t like me takin’ her out of the HQ. Me, though, I’m not the guy for large-scale manipulation.”

“So,” the Jackal said, his avid grin a sharp contrast to Shook’s dour expression, “crime that torques off the authorities…but slowly…and doesn’t rile the Thieves’ Guild. Oooh, it’s like a puzzle box! I love it! I’m gonna get started right away!”

“Get started on…what, exactly?” Branwen inquired delicately.

“I don’t know!” the Jackal exclaimed with wild glee. “But I have a good feeling about this!”

“Makes one of us,” Shook muttered.

“I apologize for relegating grunt work to you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said, drawing his eyebrows together in a slight frown, “but we must also be attentive to the need to placate the Inquisitor. My work and Vannae’s I can justify to her as hunting cultists, as that will be precisely what we are doing. We already need to concoct some manner of cover that will satisfy her as to what Jack and Kheshiri are up to. Someone needs to be following up on leads the old-fashioned way, if only to have something convincing to report to her.”

Shook heaved a sigh. “Yep, sounds about right. Well, hell, I haven’t made any of my choices with the aim of gettin’ to do the glamorous jobs. And you’re right, K, that bitch as as paranoid as a shaken can of mice. We’d better start digging up some bone to throw her or she’s never gonna let more than three of us at a time out of her sight.”

“Basra is paranoid,” Branwen offered, “but also possesses wide blind spots, and a tendency to get tunnel vision once her attention is fixed on a target. Certain important functions in her brain are just missing. In fact, what’s wrong with her is very similar to what’s wrong with him.” She nodded at the Jackal, who waved back. “If you have developed any skill at managing his antics in the last year, you will find it applicable in maneuvering around Basra.”

“That is good to know,” Shook said, and winked. “Thanks for the tip, B.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” the Jackal protested breezily. “The woman is one big clenched sphincter rolling along in a ball of ego. At least I know how to have fun.”

“Basra has her amusements,” Branwen said, unsmiling. “She is particularly fond of murder, and of sexually abusing her subordinates. I urge you to be careful in dealing with her.”

“That’s just unsporting, that is,” the Jackal opined. “If you’re gonna sexually abuse someone, it should be at least a rival, if not a superior. Otherwise where’s the satisfaction?”

“You’re a twisted little fuck, aren’cha,” Shook grunted, stepping over to the desk. Ignoring the Jackal making kissy faces at him, he leaned over the map, his eyes darting back and forth across it a few times before he pointed to a specific spot. “This one has a lot more notes next to it.”

“Ah, yes, that’s a little cafe where there have been multiple suspicious sightings,” Branwen said, craning her neck to follow his indicating finger. “Well, three, which is two more than at any other location on the list. But those were three of the earliest; there has been nothing there in months.”

“Eh, this is busywork anyhow,” he said with a shrug, and stepped back from the desk, straightening his lapels. “And that’s where Syrinx will screech at me for not going if I don’t go there, so that’s a handy answer to the question of where to start.”

“I will have familiar spirits watching you, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him, “in case you run into trouble. But remember: our ability to rush across the city to your aid is limited. Do be careful. This mission is not entirely a smokescreen, and there’s a real chance of the Black Wreath noticing someone dogging their heels.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shook said with a grin. “That, plus I need to avoid the actual Guild. Thanks for keepin’ an eye out, K, but this ain’t my first rodeo. You guys do your magic shit and…whatever the fuck he’s up to.” He jerked a nod toward the Jackal, then turned and pulled open the front door. “Let me worry about the grunt work. That’s where I shine.”


“I still don’t know if it’s a great idea to split up,” Jonathan protested.

“How much of what we’ve done would you characterize as a great idea?” Melaxyna replied.

“That’s my point exactly. Even relative to all this noise in general, this specific thing doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“It’s a question of dividing our forces most efficiently,” Natchua said quietly. “Melaxyna and I are going to canvas nearby magic shops and practitioners. That is my area of expertise, and let’s be honest, social skills are not. I’m more in need of backup from the manipulator demon.”

“Empathy demon,” Melaxyna corrected primly.

Jonathan sighed, distractedly running a hand through his hair. “Well. I won’t lie, it’s a little reassuring to know you’re consciously aware of that.”

Natchua’s expression soured slightly, but she made no comment on his observation. “The opposite is true of you, Jonathan. You’re better at talking to average, working-class people because you are one. You’re also likable and forthright, and frankly you don’t need supervision.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said a little wryly.

“I’m not sending out off alone without protection,” Natchua added in a softer voice, her expression growing more solemn. “I have ways of being alerted if you’re in danger, Jonathan. Believe me, I’ve taken steps.”

“Natchua, knowing infernomancy has been done at me is never going to make me feel safer.”

She pressed her lips into an irritated line. “Fine. Good. Don’t feel safe, because you aren’t; none of us are, that is the entire point of this. But either you trust me, or you don’t.”

He stared at her. “Trust? Do…we need to revisit how this all started with you lying to me for months?”

“We both know what happened,” she snapped. “And that I didn’t harm you, or let you be harmed. Either you trust me, or you don’t. It’s a choice, Jonathan. Sometimes the smart thing to do isn’t the right thing.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes. “Yeah, fair enough. I guess it’s sure as hell true that none of us are here to do the smart thing.”

Natchua cracked a smile in spite of herself, but just as quickly cleared her throat, smoothing her face. “Right, anyway. We’re off; you find some watering hole to gossip with the locals. Come on.”

She turned and strode to the mouth of the alley, both of them following. They emerged into the morning sun, earning a few curious glances from passersby.

“Yeah, good thing this isn’t suspicious,” Jonathan muttered. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the guy coming out of dark alleys with two—oof!”

Melaxyna flung herself forward, hugging him with her arms around her neck and her feet off the ground. “You be careful, Johnny! This isn’t Mathenon and you don’t know where anything is, and if you get lost we’re not gonna spend the whole day chasing you down! Got it?”

She dropped her heels back to the pavement and gave him a pointed stare from inches away. He stared right back, blinking in shock.

“Never try not to be noticed, that’s shifty as hell,” the disguised succubus muttered, barely moving her lips. “Be noticed doing something ordinary, nobody’ll remember that. All right, get outta here, y’big goon,” she added loudly, reaching up to ruffle his hair and then turning to flounce away.

This time Natchua was left to follow, herself looking bemused.

Jonathan smoothed his hair back into place while walking the other way, peering around. The business day was underway by that point, shops opening and people passing with increasing frequency. He surveyed each storefront in passing, just like any person new to the city and looking for a place to stop in…which was true, ulterior motives or not.

Passing the open door of a small tea shop, Jonathan slowed at the smell of bread and meat from within, suddenly reminded that he’d skipped breakfast, not trusting anything cooked by a succubus. And apparently they were going to be in this city until suitable hours for a nightclub to open…

That decided him. He stepped into the relative dimness, taking in the layout as his eyes adjusted. There were three other patrons sitting at a table in the back, and a young Jendi woman standing behind the counter, just putting a fresh pot of tea on an arcane stovetop.

“Morning, stranger,” she said with a smile as he slid onto a stool at the counter itself. “What’ll it be?”

“Cup of plain tea, please,” he said. “Whatever you’re brewing there is fine. And… Okay, I’m too hungry to be picky. What would you recommend for someone who’s unfamiliar with Jendi food but willing to be adventurous?”

“There’s no high cuisine here,” she replied, grinning. “If you want a good solid breakfast, my pasties are the same meat, cheese and cabbage in flatbread you can get anywhere in the Empire.”

“The same as anywhere in the Empire sounds perfect!”

“Then perfect is coming atcha,” she said, winking and reaching for one of the still-steaming pastries set below glass in the case next to the counter. “It’ll be ten pennies for that and the tea.”

Jonathan was already pulling out his coin pouch and counted out pennies without comment; that was steeper than what a similar meal would cost back in Tiraas, but he’d been living in Mathenon where everything was hellaciously expensive. It was downright refreshing not to be gouged, after living in a city of bankers.

He chewed and drank in silence for several minutes while she attended to another customer. A shopkeeper was the perfect person to pump for information, but Jonathan knew better than to be seen to be pumping; people mistrusted a nosy stranger. For the moment, the food was plenty distracting, considering how hungry he was. The pasty appeared to be full of goat, and spicier than he was used to, but still good. This was good, honest chow, the kind of thing a man needed to fuel a solid day’s work.

For a few minutes he just let himself sit there in a cafe and eat. Just a guy and his breakfast. It was strangely but deeply therapeutic after the repeated upheavals of the last few days. And the last twenty years.

And as luck would have it, the shopkeeper was the one to strike up the conversation, in the end.

“I get mostly people from the neighborhood in here,” she said, returning to Jonathan with a smile and topping off his tea unasked. “You’re a fresh face! And clearly not from nearby.”

“Aw, what gave me away?”

Her grin was a white flash in her dark face, a smile of good humor that warmed her brown eyes. “You just passing through, or settling in?”

“That kind of depends on my luck,” Jonathan said with a sigh, setting down his nearly-finished pastry on his napkin. “You know how it is, a guy’s gotta go where there’s work. I thought I had a job lined up this morning, but that turned out to be somebody playing some kind of prank on me.”

She frowned. “That’s a rough start to the day. What sort of prank?”

“Oh, sent me to a place that’s not even hiring, and frankly…” He frowned, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “It was weird. Kind of scary. You know about a place called Second Chances?”

The shopkeeper’s expression went flat. “They don’t hire, stranger.”

“Yeah, I sure as heck know that now. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I would swear it was a demon who answered the door. If I wasn’t passing by here and got distracted by the smell of your cooking I’d already be heading to the police.”

“If you’d met a demon who was afraid of being rumbled to the police, you wouldn’t have walked away,” she informed him. “That place is run by Mr. Agasti. Don’t you give him any trouble, he’s a good man.”

Slowly, Jonathan straightened up, setting down the teacup he had started lifting to his lips. “That so?”

“That’s so,” the woman replied, now meeting his gaze challengingly. “Yes, he’s a warlock, and yes, those are demons he’s got working his club. But Mr. Agasti has never hurt a soul, and done a lot of good for Ninkabi. You want to get by around here, you’d better not cause him any grief.”

Jonathan held her eyes for a moment, then nodded and raised his teacup again. “All right, that’s good enough for me.”

She looked slightly taken aback. “Is it?”

He shrugged, swallowed a sip of tea, and picked up his pasty again. “Sure, that hard to believe? I dunno the neighborhood, I’m new in town. It’s not the first neighborhood I’ve ever been to, though. If somebody rouses that kind of defense from the first random shopkeeper I meet, it almost always turns out they’re good people. I dunno how that works, him being a warlock and all, but there’s no reason I need to, is there? Everything’s better when folks mind their business.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.

The woman relaxed, and found a smile of her own. “Well, good. Sorry to get tetchy with you. It’s not always somebody new to the area is so down to earth about it.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Jonathan said wryly after swallowing. “Like I said, not my first day dealing with people.” He hesitated in the act of lifting his last bite to his mouth. “You mind indulging my curiosity, though? How’s a guy who summons demons get to be so well thought of by his neighbors? That’s something you don’t see every day.”

“No, that’s true enough,” she agreed, “Mr. Agasti is nothing if not special. Oh, hello there! Two Tiraan boys on the same morning, that’s new. You guys friends?”

Jonathan looked up, meeting the eyes of the man who had just stepped up to the counter from the door, whom he had never seen before. In fact, with one glance he was pretty sure this was not the sort of person with whom he was likely to become friends. The guy wore a suit about five times more expensive than Jonathan’s, had his hair slicked back with an excessive amount of oil, and in general projected a greasy quality he associated with aggressive salesmen.

“Not everybody from the home province is related, sweetheart,” the new arrival said condescendingly, then smiled, deliberately letting his eyes drop to her chest for a moment. “But maybe we can be friends, hmm?”

Her smile had already evaporated. “I’ll be right with you, sir,” she said curtly, then turned and strode off to check on the table at the back.

Jonathan chewed slowly on his last bite, stifling his annoyance. Quite aside from having his information-gathering interrupted right when it was about to pay off, now he was stuck next to the kind of man who urgently needed to have his face punched on general principles. It was enough to ruin the appetite.

The sleazy guy in the suit seated himself right beside Jonathan, regarding him with a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Funny conversation I just walked in on. What was all that about warlocks and demons?”

“Couldn’t really tell you,” Jonathan said noncommittally. “I was just about to find that out myself. I’m new to the area, too. If there’s demon stuff going on, that’s the kind of thing you want to find out about sooner than later, am I right?”

“Hell yes, and pun intended,” his new acquaintance agreed, extending a hand. “I’m Jeremiah.”

“Jonathan.” He grasped his hand and shook it firmly. Appropriately firmly, while Jeremiah stared into his eyes and squeezed hard enough he was clearly trying to hurt. One of those guys, if that hadn’t been obvious already. It wasn’t much of a hardship; the guy had decent grip strength, but Jonathan had spent his life working with his hands, and they showed it.

“So, Jonathan,” Jeremiah said in a tone that didn’t quite succeed at being nonchalant, “what brings you to town?”

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15 – 14

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“So…now what?” November asked the next morning.

The group stilled, all turning expectantly to Ingvar.

“With one path closed,” he said slowly, standing and beginning to kick dirt over the last embers of their campfire, “we would naturally move on to the next. Aspen and I have been traveling widely across the continent, seeking answers and wisdom among the elves and the Ranger enclaves. If we were to keep to that pattern, this would be the time to move on to find another of those.”

“There aren’t any groves west of the Wyrnrange,” Rainwood pointed out. “You might find a few pilgrims or hunters around the Deep Wild’s frontier, but this isn’t elf country.”

“There’s more Shadow Hunter lodges, though,” Taka added. “All the way up north along the mountain range, just like the temples I was talking about yesterday.”

“But,” Ingvar said patiently, “I believe it is time to pursue a new course of action. Something more purposeful.”

“Do we really need to?” Aspen asked. “I liked what we were doing.”

“So did I,” he said with a smile. “But the world turns. All living things must be aware of the season and act accordingly. Our circumstances are suddenly different, and I feel it’s time to take more direct action.”

“So,” November repeated, “what do we do now, then?”

“First,” said Ingvar, “we hunt.”

Tholi grinned and Taka grimaced.

“Well, good,” Aspen said irritably. “Since you lot have eaten all our food, I guess we sorta have to now.”

“It’s only right for companions to share,” Ingvar said. “Food for two stretched between six will naturally disappear quickly. It was freely offered, Aspen, so that’s the end of it. Never hold a favor over someone if you gave it without asking payment in the first place. Still, you are right; we weren’t expecting to provide for this many people, and with our stores depleted, we should restock.”

“You guys have any money?” Taka asked. “Because this is the backcountry, but it’s still in the Empire. There’s places where you can buy stuff; I know where most of them are.”

“We hunt,” Ingvar said again, firmly. “There is more at stake than a need for supplies. I am planning for our next steps beyond survival, for the fulfillment of this quest. Rainwood has offered some helpful advice toward that end. That, too, will require hunting. Both to seek out some things we will need, and to engage in the spiritual act of the hunt.”

November grimaced. “Spiritual act? You’re talking about hunting.”

“If you bothered to understand the slightest thing about Shaathist faith,” Tholi said, rolling his eyes, “you wouldn’t even think of asking such a question. To begin with—”

“Hey, I have an idea!” Aspen interjected. “How about Ingvar explains this part? Listening to you two screech at each other stopped being funny after the first five minutes.”

“Again, Aspen is right,” Ingvar said, not troubling to hide his amusement. The dryad preened visibly at the praise while he continued. “The hunt is sacred in Shaath’s faith because it is the ultimate act of participation in the wild. Hunting requires you to immerse yourself in nature, to know and respect it. Approached in the proper way, it encourages you to be grateful for what nature gives, and to give back to it.”

“I see,” November mused. “Fair enough. I’m actually sort of curious to learn more, now.”

“That’s what all of this is about,” Ingvar said, smiling. “And so, we hunt. Let’s head east, into the foothills.”

“All righty, then,” Taka said easily, rising to her feet and beginning to saunter in that direction. “What’re we hunting for, exactly?”

“Uh, we?” Aspen said, raising her eyebrows.

“I mean no offense, Taka,” Ingvar said more politely, “but…why are you still here? Obviously I wasn’t about to chase you off in the middle of the night, but you’ve fulfilled Brother Nandu’s request to guide us here. I thought you would be returning to your own temple.”

“Eh.” She shrugged, turning to lean against a tree. “The temple’s probably better off without me. I was just about to decide Omnism wasn’t for me, anyway.”

“You didn’t seem to fit in there,” November agreed.

“And you want to come with us?” Ingvar pressed, frowning. “I’m not sure you understand what we’re doing.”

“The broad strokes,” Taka said. “This is some kind of Shaathist reform thing you’re up to, right? I mean, I’ll leave if you don’t want me here, but if it’s okay I’d like to stick around, yeah. Maybe this isn’t the path I’m looking for. Then again, maybe it is.”

“We did find our way to her just as you were being guided to new allies,” Rainwood added. “Sometimes a chance encounter is just that. Sometimes it’s not.”

“That’s fantastically helpful, thank you,” Aspen said acidly. The shaman made a grandiose bow in her direction.

Ingvar hesitated a moment longer, thinking rapidly. Taka’s eyes were on him, but so were everyone else’s.

“Very well,” he said. “I can see no good reason to turn away a willing soul. I will ask for respect for our purpose and one another from everyone here, but…” He cast a quick glance over Tholi and November. “…it seems a little two-faced to turn you away based on that when we haven’t really established that respect among those of us already involved.” Both of them looked away, from each other and from him.

“I will do my best to rein in the attitude,” Taka promised solemnly. Ingvar hoped he was imagining the sarcasm behind it.

“Well…I guess we’re off, then,” Tholi said, lifting his bow. “It’s been a while since I hunted with younglings, and they were…well, young. I don’t expect this is going to go hugely well, with a whole bunch of amateurs along.”

“Again,” said Aspen, striding up alongside him as the group began moving off toward the mountains. “Elf, dryad, two Huntsmen. It’ll be fine. It’s just the girls who’ll need some hand-holding.”

Tholi nodded. “Well, Stark, I apologize in advance if I lose patience. Since it’s your first time I’ll handle your share of the cleaning. Taking a blade to a dead animal makes some people queasy, I understand.”

“Haven’t we already been over this?” she retorted. “I’ve been on wilderness excursions. Not to the extent you have, I’m sure, but the whole point was to go out there and not die. You know what there is to eat in the Golden Sea? Animals. That’s about it.”

“Really?” He gave her a legitimately interested look, falling back to walk beside her. “I haven’t had the privilege myself, yet. What sort of game is there in the Golden Sea?”

November looked at him askance, as if expecting a trick, but answered openly. “Mostly the kinds of game you find in the Great Plains in general. Rabbits, antelope, bison. Also coyotes and the odd lion, though those aren’t exactly game.”

“Predators aren’t good for eating,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “Good hunting, though, for trophies!”

“I don’t see the point of killing a living thing if you’re not planning to do anything with it.”

“The point is not to do so unless you have specific need,” he said seriously, and Ingvar marveled to see her turning her head to listen. “There are a number of practical reasons to hunt predators. If they grow too numerous they can wreck an entire ecosystem; Huntsmen develop a close relationship with the wilds in which we hunt, and sometimes protecting them involves recognizing when a species has gotten out of hand and culling a few. We’re also called in when a particularly dangerous specimen starts going after farm animals—or worse, people. That last is a necessity, but I always hate to do it. Big cats, for example, rarely take to attacking humans unless they’ve been maimed by humans and left unable to hunt their natural prey.”

“Not the cats that live on this continent, anyway,” Ingvar interjected. “Tigers have been known to take people.”

“Right,” Tholi agreed, nodding. “But of course, to fulfill that responsibility, Huntsmen have to be trained, and that means occasionally going after predators just to learn how. The trophies we take from those hunts are highly sacred, and are part of many of our rituals.”

“I see,” November said neutrally. “I guess…you lot do serve a purpose.”

“Everyone serves a purpose,” Tholi grunted.

“That isn’t even close to true,” Taka said wryly.

He chuckled. “All right, fair enough. I meant, all the cults. We have arguments between ours that I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve, but even Huntsmen won’t claim that priestesses of Avei are useless. Well…the Huntsmen I respect don’t say such things,” he added more pensively. “Unfortunately, that isn’t all of them… Well, anyway. I’ve heard stories of more exotic things that live in the Golden Sea, have you seen any?”

“Oh, yeah! There are some fae and magical animals out there. Unicorns, of course, but you don’t mess with those unless you wanna be up to your neck in angry plains elves. My class saw a roc, once, but not up close. We chased it off with spells before it could get any ideas. And there are extinct species, too; apparently the space-twisting nature of the Sea also twists time sometimes. Trissiny told me she saw a smilodon out there once—a really big lion with saber fangs, basically.”

“I know what a smilodon is. That’s a rare find! Did she kill it?”

“No, just scared it off. My class once saw a bird that I swear was twenty feet tall!”

“Right, you mentioned the roc.”

“No, this was a flightless bird, like an ostrich. Except ten times the size and pretty barrel-chested, with a mouthful of fangs instead of a beak.”

“Sounds like a tyran,” Rainwood said. “You’re lucky to have been within sight of one of those and lived to tell about it.”

“Yeah, they don’t like being pelted with arcane bolts any more than rocs do, as it turns out. Pretty much any mundane animal will flee from magic, modern or prehistoric.”

“Most animals,” Tholi corrected, grinning. “Don’t ever fire a wand at a honey badger.”

“What’s a honey badger?”

“They have those up in Onkawa,” Ingvar said. “Fortunately not this far south. They’re basically dog-sized rodents that don’t know the meaning of fear. It’s only in the age of modern science that they’re understood to be animals; for centuries people thought they were demons. That was the simplest explanation for that level of aggression.”

“Sooo,” Taka drawled, “what I’m hearing is, I’m the only one here with no hunting experience.”

Tholi turned his head to frown at her. “What? I thought you said you’ve spent your life traveling up and down this mountain range. How have you done that without knowing how to feed yourself?”

“I can feed myself just fine without hunting, thanks for your concern. Do work, get money, buy stuff. You know, like a normal person.”

“We’ll teach you,” Invar assured her, giving Tholi a look that caused the younger Huntsman to shut his mouth. “Knowing and learning the ways of the wild is going to be a central part of what we do as a group. For a while, I expect all our hunts to be at least half training exercises.”

“So basically,” Taka said, grinning, “we’re gonna starve.”

“If our beginners don’t have much luck,” he replied with a smile, “Tholi, Aspen and I will take care of finding game while the rest of you take a break. I promise we won’t reach the end of the day without fresh meat.”

“That was a joke, I wasn’t actually worried. Like Aspen said, more of this group than otherwise knows what they’re doing in the woods.”

“At least somebody listens to me,” Aspen muttered.

“And what about non-food?” Taka continued. “You said we were hunting for something else. Something you expect to find in the mountains.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said more seriously, nodding. “And thank you for mentioning it. Tholi, Aspen, Rainwood, I’d like you to keep your eyes open for signs, as well. As soon as we can, we need to find some wolves.”


The three of them walked down the broad, arched tunnel which passed for one of the city’s underground streets in silence, the noise of traffic and commerce being left far behind along with the sunlight. This, clearly, was a night spot; it being still early in the morning, nobody here was up and about.

“Always wanted to visit Ninkabi,” Jonathan mused. “The architecture is really something else, even more amazing in person than in the paintings I’ve seen. So naturally, first thing we do is go underground.”

Both women looked sidelong at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he said with a tiny grin. “We’re not here to sightsee, anyhow. The irony just jumped out at me. I’m finding myself a little more sensitive to those, these days.”

“Not necessary,” Natchua said. She was carrying her carved ebony staff, but holding it horizontally at her side rather than using it as a walking aid. “Remember, we’re here to gather information. A certain amount of sightseeing is implied in our mandate, so long as we don’t lose focus.”

“Well, good,” he said thoughtfully. “Much as I hate to do the tourist thing, I’d like to see if I can pick something up for Gabriel. I bet he’d love this place.”

“As long as it’s got girls, he would,” Natchua muttered. Suddenly she halted, raisin her staff up to bar their way.

“Problem?” Jonathan was instantly on the alert, one hand coming to rest on the wand holstered at his belt.

“An obstacle, not a problem,” she said tersely, narrowing her eyes as if studying something they could not see. “There are wards across this passage. Infernal wards…more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen. In fact… That’s amazing, I believe these are keyed into an arcane field. I can’t sense it directly, but the infernal magic intersecting with it…”

“What would be the point of that?” Melaxyna asked. The succubus wore the face of a Tiraan woman of average looks, having opted to match herself to Jonathan’s appearance rather than trying to pass for a local.

“Information processing. All magic is information processing, up to a point, but infernomancy is only so useful as an aid to calculations. Arcane magic is excellent for that, though.”

“This is a public street,” Jonathan protested, then glanced around. “Isn’t it?”

“I note that we’re standing even with the last doors on the side walls,” Melaxyna said. “Which means the wards are blocking off the door that’s at the end down there. Second Chances… Looks like some kind of bar.”

“Then that’s our destination,” Natchua observed. “You stay here, Mel, these wards will identify you instantly. And I can’t see the alarm function directly, but you don’t weave permanent wards of this quality and not have one.”

“Won’t they spot you?” the succubus protested.

Natchua grinned. “My presence, yes. Possibly that I’m an elf. But I know things about the craft of magical stealth that even the Black Wreath doesn’t. My magic will not be detected until I decide to make it so. Wait here, you two, and watch each other’s backs. I don’t anticipate trouble, but this is obviously another powerful warlock we’re dealing with, and those are nothing if not unpredictable.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jonathan grunted.

She gave him an unreadable look and then stepped forward, now carrying her staff upright and setting its butt down on the stone floor with every step. Natchua walked slowly, peering about as if taking in every detail of her surroundings.

“Welp, here we are, then,” Melaxyna muttered when the drow had advanced up ahead. “Am I the only one standing her waiting for her to commit the inevitable screw-up that’ll damn us all?”

“Isn’t that the theme of this entire hambrained quest? And I don’t know why you seem to think you’re talking behind her back. You know she can hear you.”

“I have a simple policy about elves,” Melaxyna said primly. “Never say anything behind their backs you wouldn’t say to their faces. Don’t get me wrong, I like the girl. Really, I do, she reminds me of pretty much every person I have liked, historically.”

He glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Natchua, who was now pacing along one of the walls and examining it closely. “Every person, huh.”

“I’m not really drawn to sly people,” she said, smirking. “It’s idealists who move my spirit. The ones who see an injustice in the world and are so furious at it that they never stop struggling to burn it down. Even if they have barely any plan and no real hope of succeeding, nothing ahead but the prospect of an early grave.” Her smile had faded as she spoke, and by that point she was gazing almost sadly at the drow. “Maybe it is narcissistic, in the end. I was like that, when I was alive the first time.”

“What changed your mind?” Jonathan asked quietly.

She snorted. “Nothing. That’s exactly why I spat on Vidius’s offer of paradise. Why I took Vanislaas’s bargain. I’d seen what the gods were about. You can’t fight gods, not realistically, it’s a hopeless prospect. But I couldn’t face the prospect of not fighting.”

“Mm.” Jonathan turned look back the way they had come, finding no one approaching them from the tunnel’s mouth. “Well, I guess I can’t say I know you all that well, but you don’t really strike me as the do-or-die type. Something must have changed.”

Melaxyna went still, staring ahead with a blank expression that hinted she wasn’t actually looking at anything.

“…maybe,” she answered at last. “We all change over time, even those of us not bound to powers beyond our scope. I guess spending a few centuries as a succubus is enough to warp anybody’s viewpoint. Heh. That also reminds me of our friend up there.”

He turned back to her, glancing at Natchua’s back again before meeting Melaxyna’s eyes. “Really.”

“Girl got burned by trying to use something she couldn’t control. Failed to understand or respect its power, and ended up the way any ignorant person does from playing around with dangerous tools whose use they weren’t schooled in.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jonathan muttered. “Nothing’s ever gonna make me comfortable with all this infernomancy. Frankly, I think my skepticism is pretty damn well warranted.”

“Infernomancy?” Melaxyna turned a wide-eyed gaze on him. “Oh, that’s what worries me least. Natchua can handle the magic, with the knowledge swimming in her head. That girl is the one warlock in the world I’d trust to avoid blowing us all to bits by mistake.” She shifted again to watch the drow, folding her arms and smiling faintly. “I was talking about sex.”

Jonathan found nothing to say in reply to that. As the silence stretched out, Melaxyna’s smile grew by tiny increments.

It vanished moments later, however, when Natchua brazenly stepped up to the closed door of Second Chances and tried the latch. When it didn’t budge, she rapped sharply upon it with her staff.

“What the hell are you doing,” the succubus hissed. “Kid, no. You are not good at conversational persuasion!”

“Give her a chance to work,” Jonathan murmured. “She’s more savvy than you give her credit for.”

Melaxyna huffed and crossed her arms, but made no response.

Natchua had to rap twice more before anybody answered. The door opened just a crack; whoever was on the other side was concealed by her body, but after a short conversation it clicked shut again and Natchua turned and strode back to them.

“That was illuminating,” she said, wearing a pleased little smile.

“I cannot believe you just knocked on the door,” Melaxyna exclaimed. “I thought we were being stealthy.”

“Too much creeping about is counterproductive,” Natchua replied. “Remember, we are trying to recruit Xyraadi, not ambush her, and definitely not scare her off. So yes, we do need to sniff out where she is hiding, but it’s leading up to approaching her. Something tells me that won’t go over so well if we just leap out of the shadows.”

“Well, you’re not wrong, there,” Jonathan agreed. “So what’d you find out?”

“Second Chances is a popular nightclub, which is closed at this hour. We can come back after sundown like everybody else. It is owned by a certain Mortimer Agasti, who I suspect may be the architect of these fascinating infernal wards all over the place. We’ve got the whole day to see what’s known about this chap here in town.”

“Did you learn anything about Xyraadi?” Melaxyna asked.

“Oh, yes,” Natchua said scathingly. “I walked up and asked if they were keeping a six-hundred-year-old khelminash sorceress squirreled away in the basement. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I can’t believe I was standing here defending your character a minute ago,” the succubus pouted.

“I can’t believe that’s how you would characterize that exchange. What was really fascinating is that this Agasti fellow has a revenant demon answering his door.”

“Ew.” Melaxyna curled her lip in disgust.

“Actually answering the door?” Jonathan demanded. “Those things are illegal as hell, pardon the pun.”

“One more thing about which to inquire whilst we peruse the local scuttlebutt,” Natchua said, now wearing a distinctly mischievous smile. “Jonathan, stand back, if you would.”

“Him stand back?” Melaxyna said warily. “What’re you up to now?”

“Hold still.” Before the succubus could render another opinion, Natchua gestured with her staff and a spell circle materialized on the floor around her. This one hovered an inch off the ground in roiling black lines which, after existing barely a second, dissolved into mist which swirled up and streamed straight into Melaxyna’s nose and mouth, causing her to double over coughing.

“Excuse me,” Jonathan said incredulously, “but aren’t we standing within a few yards of some incredibly powerful infernal wards?”

“Yes, quite,” Natchua said cheerily, taking Melaxyna by the arm and setting off back up the tunnel. “So let’s clear off before their owner comes to investigate. Now he knows we’re here and sniffing around.”

“Can’t—believe—you little—bitch,” Melaxyna rasped, still gasping.

“You wanna let the rest of us mere mortals in on the joke?” Jonathan demanded, trailing along after them.

“That will get Mel through the wards, when we come back. I’ve already told you,” she said patiently, “Xyraadi is in there, and we want her. But we want to talk with her, not seize her. That will mean some manner of frontal approach eventually, and that is far more likely to succeed if she is already curious about us. Really, despite what absolutely everyone seems to think, I do know what I’m doing.”

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15 – 13

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

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

Melaxyna had been a very busy demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are supposed to be entertaining Sherwin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melaxyna gazed at her with a benign smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I don’t have time for this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never understood that, either.”

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

“Abuse describes most Narisian relationships,” Natchua admitted.

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

Natchua frowned. “But…none of that…”

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

“And how is that not a power issue?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

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

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

“The succubus can cook?” Jonathan asked skeptically.

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

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

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

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

“You named them?” she said incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Hungry?”

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

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

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

“I didn’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. All of you.”

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

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

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