Tag Archives: Kheshiri

15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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15 – 32

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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 – 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this time, he stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had never been in control of her.

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

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

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook paused, blinking twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

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

“That isn’t shutting up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 26

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“You see what she’s done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The felled succubus began shuddering with silent laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The succubus went still, eyes widening.

“What did you do?” Xyraadi demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, shit.

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A dragon?”

“Yes.”

“Merde.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no you fucking don’t, you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But this was more urgent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she hurt you?” she asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 25

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Natchua considered it a sign of great personal growth that she did none of the six things that immediately occurred to her. Any of them would have solved the problem of a succubus holding a knife on her, at the cost of creating considerable complications starting pretty much instantly, given that they were in public.

Instead, she opted to talk…for the moment.

“You’re bluffing,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Would you like to try again? And this time, be aware you are talking to someone who knows what a desperate corner you are backed into.”

The pressure of the dagger increased subtly, and its angle shifted as Kheshiri moved to bodily steer her toward the stairs. Still, she wore that warm smile and those almost sleepy eyes.

“Okay, then. Call my bluff, since we both know you’re the one with the firepower here. You’ll feel pretty foolish when that spells an end to your charming companion. To say nothing of whatever else you might feel… The way you two were dancing, I imagine she’s worth more to you than a mere servant. Or, we could simply have a little chat before either of us goes and does anything rash.”

Natchua wasn’t about to fall for that—at least not under ordinary circumstances. There were standard practices for engaging with hostile Vanislaads, and the core principle involved was not to. They were sly and fiendishly creative, infamously able to cobble together surprising solutions from the slightest resources, and particularly clever with their tongues. Simply by listening to a child of Vanislaas one ceded them an advantage. You had to hit them with overwhelming force, hopefully before they knew you were there.

However, she had already taken the precaution of reaching out mentally along the lines of binding and spellcraft that linked her to Hesthri, and found nothing.

That could mean several things, potentially: their connection might have been severed, or it might have been interfered with by a rival caster, or Hesthri might be dead or simply removed to a distance too great for the fairly weak link between them to be perceptible. Natchua rapidly sorted through the options, doing her best to ride out the surge of worry and anger this brought without succumbing to it. Just perceiving that slight bond, much less breaking or obscuring it, would have taken a warlock as skilled as she, of which there were very few in existence and no succubi anywhere among their number. Likewise, it was very unlikely Kheshiri had any craft available that would have killed a hethelax demon; that required the kind of divine magic that would have fried her just for trying to carry it.

Which meant that the incredibly unlikely prospect that Kheshiri had ambushed, abducted, and spirited Hesthri out of Second Chances, despite Xyraadi actively laying ward traps at every possible exit, in the handful of seconds since Natchua had seen her last… Was somehow, still, the least impossible of the possibilities.

She was beginning to see firsthand why people made such a big deal about this succubus in particular.

“Now, now, don’t make that face at me,” the demon chided her, grinning. “You wouldn’t begrudge a girl a little insurance, would you? It’s not as if most people are happy to see me. Maybe you can relate, hmmmm?”

Okay, she wasn’t outmaneuvered yet. Whatever Kheshiri had done, she’d had a very limited time to prepare. Natchua just had to buy a little time of her own while she figured out a countermeasure.

She inclined her head, put on a sardonic expression, and gestured slowly—mindful of the dagger at her waist—toward the upper tier with its deep seating alcoves.

Kheshiri slunk around her far too close, like an affectionate cat, a maneuver which allowed her to position herself behind Natchua while both keeping the tip of the blade pressed against her and concealing it from the easy view of those around them. Interesting—despite her leverage in holding Hesthri hostage and the acknowledged power disparity between them, she still saw some advantage in maintaining a physical threat against Natchua. What advantage, exactly, was a question that was unfortunately over her head; Natchua, as she was painfully aware, was not schooled in these subtle machinations.

She let the demon prod her along through the crowd, ignoring their continuing speculative stares—nobody seemed to look below chest level, to judge by the lack of outcry about the blade—trying to focus on something more relevant to her situation than what Kheshiri wanted. It was more difficult with the succubus behind her, as eye contact helped to focus, but at that range she could sense her presence easily by concentrating.

Even without looking directly, there was a clear resemblance to the revenant she had charmed at the entrance. Clear, but superficial. As good a warlock as Mortimer Agasti apparently was, his handiwork was nothing compared to that of Prince Vanislaas. The basic structure may have been the same, a lattice of infernomancy and shadow magic surrounding a captured soul and binding it to a body, but apart from that simple template they were wholly different categories of being.

“Aw, how fortuitous, a spot,” Kheshiri simpered directly into her ear, nudging Natchua into an unoccupied booth where a convenient plus loveseat awaited, handily shaded from view except from directly in front. “It’s so rare to get a little nook to ourselves in such a busy place! It must be providence. Let’s take it as a good omen to start a long and lovely friendship, shall we?”

Natchua settled onto one end of the short sofa in silence, now watching the succubus closely. Her eyes told her nothing more, save that the demon was wearing the form of Hesthri’s recent human disguise, but at this range and with visual contact she could peer more deeply into the magic animating her. She remained silent and focused as Kheshiri slid onto the couch as well, oozing right up against Natchua till she was practically in her lap, and conveniently keeping that knife pressed against her side, now almost completely hidden behind them in a position that actually pinned her arm under Natchua’s body.

“You know, these conversations work better if both people participate,” Kheshiri admonished, smirking. “But I don’t mind starting us off, if you’re a little shy. So! I had gathered rumors about the other new warlock Agasti was keeping around, but you are a surprise. People would have mentioned there was a drow, if you’d been here much before. Shall I take it you are also a recent arrival?”

There would be no slipping her will into that tight lattice of spellcraft the way she had with the revenant. At least, not in a situation like this. She had managed some modifications to Melaxyna, but those had been additions, not alterations. The distinction was important; deliberately or not, Vanislaas had designed his children such that they could absorb new powers and abilities easily. He didn’t go giving them any, and most warlocks knew better, nor could the Vanislaads perform infernomancy well enough to manage themselves. But it was just circumstance that prevented it; the possibility existed. Actually tampering with a succubus would take far, far more effort, and probably require the subject to be immobilized for an extended period. Kheshiri was very unlikely to cooperate with this, and forcing her down right here in public would cause no end of trouble. Could she add something like she had to Melaxyna, something the demon’s composition would recognize as a boon, that served to actually hamper or control her? Ironically, that kind of creative thinking within limited options was more Kheshiri’s strength than Natchua’s.

“Hellooo?” Kheshiri prompted softly. “Cat got your tongue? Goodness, I’ve rarely been stared at so fixedly. If you grew up around elves, I know I’m not the prettiest face you’ve ever seen. Well, not this one, anyway. Come, there’s a rhythm to these things. I’ve said something, now you say something.”

Wait… Natchua narrowed her eyes, leaning forward slightly. There was something else, something that didn’t seem to be part of the original lattice. Most of the magic comprising the succubus’s being was a flawlessly taut symphony of power and purpose, but something peeked through all over that felt out of place, and did not remind her of anything she knew of their kind from the package of information Elilial had poured into her skull, nor recognized from examining Melaxyna.

Shadow magic. Not incorporated into the spellwork, but…filling the cracks, clinging to every filament of innate power. If Kheshiri’s basic makeup could be understood as a tapestry, a thing woven of countless threads of magic, the shadow craft added to her was like a layer of oil poured onto and soaked into the weave. It coated every strand in a way that, she saw, would have caused external effects to slip off without finding purchase.

So that was how she had slipped the reliquary. It was still bound to her, but even that binding was sort of draped over her magical essence, now, not gripping her soul as it needed to in order to function. Natchua had to marvel at the brilliance of it, not least because it was such a simple and so very basic application of shadow magic—crude, even—that worked because it was unconventional, not because it was powerful. The Wreath could have prevented this, but they hadn’t thought of it. This was something she could have built up over the last two years of her spare time…or less. How long had she been following that Eserite goon around, with him having no actual control over her?

It came with a cost, though. She could do a lot more with shadow magic than Kheshiri, and the fact that the succubus had worked this power so deep into her own soul opened the prospect of Natchua imposing tighter and deeper controls on her than the Wreath had ever dreamed, using the very mechanism she had created to escape them. But that, too, would require time and quiet in which to concentrate. Even if she could immobilize the succubus to do it, there was no telling where or in how much danger Hesthri was, or how long she could afford to be left there.

“So far, this exchange is a lot less interesting than I had hoped,” Kheshiri said, following a further silence in which Natchua studied her without saying anything. “Are you just trying to get me to talk? Okay, I can oblige you a bit. Your friend is safe, at least for the moment. I put her someplace out of the way so you’ll sit down and chat with me like civilized people; I certainly don’t want to spoil our burgeoning friendship by harming her, unless you really force my hand. I dunno about you, cutie, but I came here looking for aid and resources, not because I want more enemies. Maybe you’re after something similar, hmm? Nice, neutral warlock, well-connected and rich; he’s an attractive prospect, isn’t he? So! Let’s talk about what we can do for each other. I see no reason everybody can’t benefit from this, ultimately. That’s the best way to do business, don’t you think?”

“With anyone but a child of Vanislaad, sure,” Natchua replied.

Kheshiri grinned. “She speaks!”

“In this case, I have a better idea,” Natchua continued. “You return my friend, unharmed, and I remove you from a position to cause me any further trouble. In return you get nothing, because I am not stupid enough to bargain with one of your kind.”

The succubus pursed her lips. “Sweetie, you’re glossing over the fact that your friend is in my possession. That’s not how this works.”

“Let me start over.” At that range, the visual effect of shadow-jumping a small object over a short distance made a display like a flow of smoke, which resolved itself into Kheshiri’s dagger resting in Natchua’s hand. “My name is Natchua, and I don’t do things the way they work.”

“Okay, now see, you’re still proceeding on a few bad assumptions,” the succubus lectured, seeming unperturbed by both the loss of her weapon and the display of infernal power that as far as she should have believed was impossible. “I knew going in that you’re an extremely skilled warlock; demonstrating it changes nothing. If you were able to retrieve your pretty companion just like that, you’d do it instead of listening to me. So we’re in the same situation, and if anything you’ve undercut your credibility by grandstanding when we both know you’ve got no actual podium. But I’ll tell you what: I like you, so I’m gonna let you try again. I think you’ve got potential—you just need the right guidance!” She winked, grinning lopsidedly in a roguishly charming expression. “Bet I could provide you that, and a lot more besides.”

Reaching out with her will, Natchua found the nearest nexus of subtle magic laced into the walls of Second Chances that comprised its passive ward network. Wrapping her concentration around this, she yanked, distending the structure of the network itself without activating it. That should get Xyraadi’s attention good and quick.

“In my whole life,” she said quietly, turning the dagger over and stabbing it point-down into the armrest of the sofa, “I have had only one role model to speak of. She taught me that the only true evil in the world is stupidity—that if people will just think, and act with care, most of the problems caused by sentient beings wouldn’t manifest in the first place. But she also taught me that when one possesses overwhelming power, there is no need to cede any advantage by dealing with a schemer on their own level. Even the most adept manipulator can’t weave a web of intrigue when their hair is on fire.”

“Oh, pumpkin,” Kheshiri said, frowning in an expression of gentle, almost maternal reproach. “Who’s been filling your head with that balderdash?”

Natchua flicked the fingers which had just relinquished the dagger, and a chain of living fire sprang from them. It struck faster than a snake, and just like one wound around Kheshiri’s arm all the way up to her shoulder just as it did likewise to Natchua’s, leaving them connected arm-to-arm by links of glowing orange that appeared forged out of flame itself. Less obviously but more importantly, that spell sank its invisible hooks deep into Kheshiri’s aura, piercing the shadowy goo that filled and protected her from hostile effects, wrapping around a million tiny aspects of her being until it couldn’t be dislodged without tearing her apart. No complex working could have bypassed both her inherent protections and the additional layer of shadow magic she’d added without disintegrating under the strain. But this? This was nothing but a chain. All it did was ensure the succubus wasn’t going to get more than two feet physically away from Natchua until she decided to let her go. That was the innate advantage of simple spells, and simple measures in general: if they had enough pure force to strike home, all the intricacy in the world wouldn’t stop them.

There were several gasps and raised voices from nearby; evidently the two of them were still the object of curious observation by whoever was still close enough to observe. Kheshiri, however, just turned her wrist over to examine her new accoutrement with a dispassionate little smile, as if deciding whether she liked the way a bracelet looked on her.

“Her name,” Natchua said, grinning, “is Tellwyrn.”

At that, Kheshiri’s eyes snapped back to her face, and her smile finally vanished.

Then, in a swell of shadows, they both vanished.

The darkness of the shadow-jump receded to blast them with cold moonlight and even colder wind. They had an incredible view, even in the darkness: forested hills yielding to the Great Plains to the west, while directly beneath them, stretching away north and south, were the snowy crags of the Stalrange, dotted here and there with stands of scrappy pines. The two of them plummeted straight down from a height of over a mile.

Natchua took some satisfaction in having finally wrenched an uncontrolled reaction from Kheshiri. The succubus screeched in wordless agitation, her disguise melting away to reveal her pale complexion and spiny wings. These she immediately spread, and just as immediately had them snapped out straight behind her by the force of the air. Humanoids just weren’t aerodynamic enough to fly; the flight of Vanislaads was at least party magical, and carrying passengers wasn’t included in it.

With Natchua dangling beneath her, swinging gaily this way and that in the buffeting winds, Kheshiri fought desperately to control their descent. At best, she managed an awkward, intermittent glide, continually having to force her delicate wings to open again as they were repeatedly pushed out of a flying configuration by the fierce air currents, the added weight of the passenger chained to her arm, and the unworkable position caused by the fact that Natchua’s weight tugged one of her shoulders downward, making it impossible for her to even order her body correctly to maintain that glide.

Kheshiri glared down at her in naked spite, now; her lips moved, but whatever she said was snatched away by the wind. Her free hand, though, plunged into a pocket of her vest which had been concealed by her illusion previously.

Natchua didn’t see what she pulled out, and didn’t bother to. The indignant squawk she heard about the howling wind as it shadow-jumped neatly into her own hand was deeply satisfying.

She found herself holding a palm-sized disc of perforated metal, forming the shape of two thorny wreaths attached together. Of course, a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. That neatly explained how Kheshiri had so swiftly removed Hesthri from the club and returned without tripping one of Xyraadi’s traps. As she had just been reflecting, simple plans had a way of neatly slipping past complex ones. This also, however, meant Hesthri could be virtually anywhere. She tucked it safely into her own pocket for now.

Kheshiri struggled to control their fall for a few more seconds before trying her next trick. Natchua hadn’t expected her to give up that easily, but even she was surprised at the act of desperation which ensued. The knife Kheshiri whipped out of her pocket next was substantially bigger than the one she’d held in the club, almost a short sword, and clearly enchanted to judge by the damage it did. This time, Kheshiri struck in the same lightning-fast motion that she’d used to draw it from her pocket of holding (obviously of holding, as there was no way it would have fit in that tight vest otherwise). Even so, elven reflexes were quicker and Natchua could have stopped her, had the angle of the strike not telescrolled where it was going.

Kheshiri sliced off her own right arm at the shoulder, detaching herself bodily from the fiery chain that bound them together. It spun away on the wind, already crumbling to charcoal, and inky blood gushed from the stump, quickly dissolving into black mist in the fierce currents of air.

The chain simply shifted to wrap around her torso.

The maimed succubus let out a screech of sheer frustration, and Natchua indulged herself in a long cackle of laughter.

Snarling, Kheshiri beat her wings again, this time diving straight downward at Natchua with the blade extended. Even at point-blank range the drow was still faster, and the succubus plowed straight into a concussive spell that sent her body reeling and the blade tumbling off into the sky.

Kheshiri managed to straighten out her descent just enough to face Natchua once more, now snarling in animal fury, and pulled out a wand.

Natchua hit it with a surgically precise shadowbolt that sent it flying away in pieces, along with several charred fingers.

The succubus closed down her expression, glaring pure fury down at Natchua, then deliberately folded her wings flat against her back, leaving the two of them to plummet toward the jagged mountain peaks unhindered.

For Natchua, elven agility made it a proverbial (and literal) breeze to keep her own balance even against the unpredictable air currents. She calmly folded her hands behind her head and crossed her ankles, plummeting downward with her back to the onrushing earth as if she were lazing on a cushy feather bed back in her own dorm at Last Rock. The position kept Kheshiri chained barely at arm’s length above her, glaring down into Natchua’s broadest, shit-eatingest grin.

This game of chicken lasted nearly half a minute before Kheshiri finally broke their locked stares to look past Natchua at the onrushing ground. Her shriek of rage was as good as a white flag.

Fanning her wings desperately, the succubus struggled against gravity and the wind to level out their descent. Natchua’s weight made true flight impossible, but by beating them frantically she was at least able to shift the angle of their fall to a more horizontal one as they plummeted into the side of a mountain.

Natchua finally deigned to glance behind her. Kheshiri was sailing them right into the upper branches of a snow-dusted pine forest. Shifting her weight about, she dangled by her arm and reoriented her body into a vertical position, facing the impact head-on.

And, because she had limned herself in a subtle corona of sheer destructive energy that would incinerate any wood she impacted—and just to be an asshole—she began swinging about, flinging her weight unpredictably from side to side and reveling in the screeches of protest from above.

It was a much less pleasant trip for one of them than for the other.

While Natchua scythed through branches like a hot knife through butter, Kheshiri was bashed from one treetop to the next. Luckily for the succubus, that didn’t last long; luckily for the drow, the repeated, vicious impacts soaked up most of the inertia of their flight. In moments they had staggered to a forward stop and simply plunged to the knee-deep snow below.

Natchua, with classic elvish grace and skilled infernal protection, hit the ground in a roll that was no less deft for being chained to the beleaguered demon, snow hissing away into steam on contact with her. She stood up and took a moment to straighten her coat and carefully smooth her windblown hair back down with her free hand, maintaining a slow burn of infernal energy to ward off the chill of the wintry mountains, before turning to survey her handiwork.

Kheshiri was bruised, bloodied, and scraped all to hell. Both her wings appeared to be broken, one with its sail shredded. She was missing her right arm still, though the shoulder had already stopped bleeding, and her left hand looked mangled beyond repair. A broken-off length of pine branch impaled her thigh. There she law, awkwardly flopped on one side and apparently completely dazed, covered in green needles and flecks of bark and oozing black blood that hissed angrily against the snow.

“You,” Natchua enunciated into the crisp mountain silence, “Get. Nothing.”

Kheshiri twitched and shuddered. If she was capable of answering, she didn’t bother.

Natchua focused her attention on the bundle of energy she was still holding with her mind. Pouring enough power into it to keep it steady despite being stretched halfway across the continent had been the tricky part, but it had worked; she was still mentally connected to the ward network back in Ninkabi.

She gave the thing a vigorous joggle, causing a perceptible but harmless shockwave of motion down its length. Presumably, by that point, Xyraadi and/or Agasti were studying the strained network in detail; they couldn’t possibly miss that signal.

The response was impressively quick, in fact. The energy that pulsed down the connection from the other side was clearly Xyraadi’s; no mortal warlock could have matched a khelminash’s ability to pour that kind of power and sophistication into such an off-the-cuff piece of spellwork. Natchua gave the taut bundle of magic a quick examination to suss out what it did, then deliberately fed some of her own into it. A divinatory spell using infernomancy was more than she herself could have cast, but she understood its structure and it was easy enough to assist Xyraadi in getting a view of the situation around her.

The magical probe snuffed itself out, and moments later, shadows swelled upon the snow.

Xyraadi shivered once in the cold before putting up a cloak of heat like Natchua’s. The khelminash studied Kheshiri’s crumpled and twitching body for a few seconds, then looked up at the swath of broken and charred branches that marked the path of their descent.

“That is one way to do it, n’est-ce pas? Let me guess: she forced your hand with some clever piece of work that neatly bypassed all my careful traps.”

“She had this.” Natchua pulled the Wreath talisman from the pocket where she had stowed it; Xyraadi took one look and nodded, clearly recognizing the device. “She has Hesthri somewhere beyond my ability to sense her.”

“Well, shadow-jumping would account for that,” Xyraadi acknowledged, frowning in annoyance at the mangled succubus. “Merde alors. Taking Hesthri is good leverage; I see why you felt the need to do…this. I do hope, however, you are aware that torturing such as she is wasted time. Pleasure and pain are the same category of experience to their kind. You might just as well make love to her for all the deterrent it is.”

“I am aware, and believe me, this is not my idea of foreplay. I decided we needed to begin with a vivid demonstration of who would be jerking whom around in this relationship. No indeed, she doesn’t fear pain. But I think I know what she does fear.”

Natchua stepped over to the felled succubus and crouched in the snow, flicking the fiery chain that still bound them together. “And dear Kheshiri been just a little too clever. She’s provided me exactly what I need to make her worst nightmare a reality.”

“I almost fear to ask,” Xyraadi said dryly.

“It’s like you pointed out; they are what they are. They have different needs than beings like you or me. Fewer vulnerabilities, perhaps, but at least one very central compulsion. Have you ever wondered what an itch would do to someone’s mind, if they could not scratch it?”

Kheshiri shifted awkwardly in the slush around her, rolling her head just enough that one crystalline eye could look up at Natchua—finally, with naked fear.

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15 – 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elilial,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

“Pourquoi?” the demon whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a certain point, the pack hunters came out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are boring,” she informed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on where?”

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

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

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

“You can dance!” both said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that all, then?” she asked dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful,” Natchua said, releasing her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.

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

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

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15 – 20

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“Warlocks?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How specifically inconvenient,” Syrinx sneered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Second time,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

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

Shook lay back and tried to look sleepy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And our core mission?” Khadizroth asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh oh.”

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

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

“Oh, shit. Shit. Motherfucker.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Shook croaked in spite of himself.

“Why would I not?”

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

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

“Uh huh,” Shook prompted warily.

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

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

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

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

“Sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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