Tag Archives: Natchua

15 – 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

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

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

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

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

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

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group exchanged a round of glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 9

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“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of the way!” she barked.

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

“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.

“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good guess, but no!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a moment of absolute silence.

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

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15 – 8

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It took several hours for Sherwin to find her. Not that there were all that many places in Manor Leduc where one could safely go without risking a fall through the rotted floorboards; it simply took him that long to go looking. He had been very much preoccupied.

“Ah, there you are,” Natchua said as he stepped into the room, not looking up. She was inscribing runes on the floor in living fire with movements of her hands, not troubling with chalk and powder. “Upright and hale, I see. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and don’t let her blindfold or tie you up. Not that Melaxyna will do you any actual harm, but a Vanislaad’s idea of fun gets abruptly less fun for everyone else the second they have you completely in their power.”

“I’ll, ah, bear that in mind,” Sherwin mumbled, adjusting his untucked shirt self-consciously as he crept into the room. “This was my… That is, this particular basement chamber…”

“Yes, I know, it was described to me in detail,” she replied. “Sorry I didn’t get to see it with all the holy symbols still installed. That sounds like quite a feat of magical engineering.”

“Right, well… Natchua, why are you summoning hobgoblins in my house?”

“Horogki,” she corrected. “The common name is pretty misleading, they’re more closely related to gnomes than goblins. And not to quibble, but I am banishing one.”

“Was it something I said?” wheedled the specimen in the circle around which she was conjuring runes. He, as well as the two other hobgoblins standing in similar containment circles farther back in the room, was a creature about four feet tall with scaly crimson skin and large ears, as well as orange eyes that glowed around slitted black pupils. Apart from that, they did very much resemble gnomes in build and stature. “I can change! I’m a versatile kinda guy! For you, baby, I can be anything.”

“Yeah, boss, give ‘im a chance!” called one of the others. “Just look how cute he is!”

The male upon whom Natchua was working grinned ingratiatingly, displaying a double row of unevenly jagged shark-like teeth.

“Sorry, no dice,” she said dispassionately, finishing the last lines of the banishing circle and adding a languid flick of her wrist. The central circle in which the hobgoblin stood was consumed by a momentary column of white fire, and then the whole thing was gone, demon and all.

“Awwww,” complained both the remaining two in unison.

“They…speak Tanglish,” Sherwin marveled. “Huh, usually only the smarter demons know mortal languages before summoning. Based on my reading, hob—I mean, horogki are considered basically vermin.”

“Hey, buddy, we can hear you talkin’, ya know,” huffed one of the two remaining demons.

“Genetic memory,” Natchua explained, already inscribing another summoning circle. “I am summoning specifically from a bloodline with prized engineering skills. The Tanglish is a nice bonus, one I wasn’t actually expecting.”

“Engineering skills,” he said, scowling. “I see. Would I be right in guessing that answers my question as to why you are summoning horogki?”

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

“That is how I like it,” he said testily. “It ensures my privacy, which I should think you would particularly want while you’re staying here! You can’t just go fixing up a man’s ancestral home, Natchua.”

“I’m collecting three or four of them at most,” she said, then hesitated. “In fact, on reflection, just three. Believe me, I don’t intent to rebuild the whole place—that front entry hall that Scorn and Vadrieny smashed is probably going to have to stay that way. But honestly, Sherwin, aside from the little nest you’ve built in the kitchen, there’s nowhere in this manor that isn’t, at best, uncomfortably rugged. Most of it is actually dangerous. Horogki from a mechanically-inclined lineage are a better prospect than hiring contractors, in our particular situation.”

“Oooh!” One of the remaining horogki pressed herself forward against the barrier of her binding circle, not seeming to mind the way it sparked all over her. “That sounds like a challenge. Lemme at ‘er, boss!”

“Well, I suppose,” Sherwin muttered grudgingly. “What was wrong with that fellow, then?”

“He was male.”

“Uh…” He took a step backward, eyeing her warily. “Is this a drow thing, or…?”

“It’s the reason summoning them to this plane is so hazardous that even the Black Wreath won’t do it,” she said with a wry smile. “Two month gestation, four years to physical maturity, and genetic memory that ensures they’re born with a working knowledge of life, and a famously…excitable nature. At the rate they breed, horogki can overrun a kingdom in two decades. Hell is so dangerous that they die there at a phenomenal rate; on this plane, almost nothing can check their population except a deliberate and vigorous culling. They’ve been the cause of more Avenist crusades than Vanislaads. So, to ward off that particular problem, I am summoning only one sex.”

“You are no fun,” complained the other horogki. “You’re the living opposite of fun!”

“Get used to it,” Natchua said without sympathy.

“And, uh…any particular reason why females?” Sherwin asked.

“…huh.” She actually hesitated in her work for a second before continuing to scribe the summoning circle. “That is a drow thing, I suppose. Just the bias of my upbringing coming through. It shouldn’t make a difference which sex we use, practically speaking.”

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Sherwin said, grinning. “Y’know, often when a warlock goes out of their way to summon exclusively female demons, it’s because they have…intentions.”

She stopped again, this time turning to give him a long look over her shoulder. “Really, Sherwin?” Natchua turned back and made a show of eyeing the two hobgoblins over speculatively; one tilted her head in confusion while the other grinned and struck a pose. “Are you already bored with Melaxyna? Well, if they don’t mind, I guess I don’t.”

He flushed bright pink. “Now, that’s not what I—”

“I can’t say I would recommend it, though,” she added, resuming work on the circle. “We’re talking about creatures that have about four times a human’s upper body strength, teeth that can dent steel, and a notable lack of impulse control even when not in the throes of…anything that tends to lower the inhibitions. I didn’t take you for such a thrill-seeker.”

“I did not intend…” Sherwin broke off and cleared his throat, his face now fully red. “Uh, never mind that. What went wrong with your summons, then? I assume you didn’t intend to get a male that time.”

“Nothing went wrong, I expected to have to banish a few in the process; this is by nature a coin toss. I would expect you of all people to know that the only summoning spell with a gendered component is for Vanislaads. And really, even that one is only encoding information in the spell that tells them what kind of form to take to best beguile their prospective summoner.”

He blinked. “Wait, what? They’re male and female, aren’t they?”

“They’re shapeshifters, Sherwin,” she said, smirking. “With a noted tendency toward gender fluidity. It’s not known whether that results from the transformation process or Prince Vanislaas prefers to choose souls with that characteristic, but there it is.”

Sherwin blinked again, twice, and tilted his head in puzzlement. “Gender…fluidity? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she drawled. “It’s a surprisingly functional trait, in the case of Vanislaads. More than one has slipped the net because their pursuers failed to connect the incubus sighted in the next province over with the succubus they were chasing. It takes a nuanced understanding of stealth to properly leverage that, you know. What people don’t think to look for is just as invisible as what they literally cannot see.”

Sherwin swallowed heavily, his face now pale beneath its coat of stubble. “Um. Does that mean… That is, do you happen to know if Melaxyna…”

Natchua shrugged. “Does it really make a difference, for your purposes? You could ask her, if you’re awfully curious. I wouldn’t, personally. The children of Vanislaas are able to use that particular trait to their advantage because people don’t think about it. Might not be healthy to let one Vanislaad know you’ve been thinking along lines they would all rather you didn’t.”

“Hang on, now, you said you had her under control!”

She turned again to look at him.

“I mean…you know what I meant,” he exclaimed. “In the sense and to the extent that any succubus is ever under control.”

“Melaxyna won’t harm you, or anyone here,” Natchua assured him, turning back to her work. “But she won’t be here forever. Our contract prohibits her from setting anyone else after me or my allies once she’s dismissed, either. I can’t say for certain whether Vanislaad business qualifies under that protection if she decides a given warlock knows too much. They’re not very cooperative creatures as a rule, but…one never knows.”

“Omnu’s balls, you’re a troublesome houseguest,” he grumbled.

Natchua glanced back at him again, grinning. “Be honest, Sherwin. Am I really one whit more troublesome than you fully expected?”

He had to hesitate before answering that one, but then did so with a reluctant grin. “Okay, fair point.”

“So here’s where—hang on. What devilry are you up to this time, Natchua?” Jonathan Arquin demanded, stepping into the room and scowling at the two imprisoned hobgoblins.

“Hey there, cutie!” one called, waving exuberantly.

“It may not look it at first glance,” Sherwin said, “but apparently this is the first step in fixing this place up a little. How’re you settling in, Mr., uh…”

“Arquin,” he said, finally tearing his suspicious stare from the demons to his host. “Jonathan Arquin. It’s quite the, ah, charming home you have, Lord Leduc. I can tell it has a lot of historical value.”

“You can be frank with me, Mr. Arquin, I’m hard to offend,” Sherwin said with a rueful chuckle. “It’s a dump. Honestly, I like it that way. But then, I never expected to have company for any length of time, so…I suppose some repair is in order. Wouldn’t do for somebody to fall through the floor.”

“Okay, I’m getting really curious to poke around this place,” said one of the horogki.

“House Leduc were a rather infamous clan of warlocks, for a long time before being reduced to just Sherwin, here,” said Natchua. “This manor hid secrets of the most dangerous nature before falling into such disrepair that it may be unsafe to walk through. I’d advise against poking around, Jonathan.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

“I was looking for you two, not poking around, and Melaxyna told me exactly where to look. You’ve got another guest, Lord Leduc. Someone who is asking specifically for you and Natchua.”

Natchua broke off her scribing and whirled to stare at him. “What? Me? By name?”

“Not by name, no,” Jonathan shook his head. “The lady did ask for the drow warlock, though. That’s a little too on the nose to be a coincidence.”

She turned a scowl on Sherwin. “Nobody outside this house should have the faintest clue where I am, Sherwin, unless you told someone!”

“Come on, Natchua,” he protested. “I literally don’t talk to people. You lot are the first company I’ve had in years. Even my supply deliveries are just left in the stableyard!”

“Well, my shadow-jumps are too good to be tracked, I can guarantee that. The only way anybody would have even spotted us coming in is if… Actually, I can’t even think of a way! Can you imagine how someone would have been monitoring your grounds through means beyond the current magical state of the art?”

“Oh, ssshhhhiit,” he groaned, suddenly clapping a hand over his eyes. “…all right, I know what this is. Come on, we’d better go face the music. And be nice, Natchua. This isn’t gonna be a situation for slinging power around.”

“Most situations aren’t,” Jonathan grunted. Natchua just swept past him, following Sherwin out into the hall and up the stone stairs to the kitchen.

“So, I guess we’ll just wait here then, shall we?” called one of the imprisoned hobgoblins as the three of them departed.

In the kitchen above were two unfamiliar women, one of whom was recognizable on second glance as Melaxyna, minus the wings and tail and with her unnatural coloration swapped out for a stereotypical Tiraan palette. She was sitting on the edge of Sherwin’s rumpled bed with her hair disheveled and a blanket strategically draped over just enough of herself to make it clear she had nothing else on, as though to make a deliberate statement of what she had been doing for the last couple of hours.

The other was tall, young, and as pretty as Melaxyna, a local fair-haired Stalweiss woman clad in a crimson evening gown with a high collar. It made her look aggressively out of place in the converted kitchen apartment, with its stereotypical bachelor mess strewn over every surface. She had taken up a position in the center of the floor, as far as possible from anything which might touch her dress.

“Lord Sherwin,” the new arrival said with a diplomatic smile that did not touch her eyes, turning toward the door as the three of them filed in. “Felicitations; I see you have finally acquired a succubus. Who is not secured in that cage you so laboriously constructed. Do you require a lecture on the unspeakable danger this creature poses to the entire city?”

“Sherwin, honey,” Melaxyna cooed, angling her body toward him and letting the blanket slip a few calculated inches, “who is this person, and may I please kill her?”

“No!” he shouted, waving his hands. “Do not! Any of you, trust me, killing her is not on the table. Best case scenario you’ll end up looking foolish; if you actually managed to harm her we’d all be in deep shit. Now what the hell do you want, Ruby? Or actually, I guess I should ask what the hand up your butt wants, since we both know you haven’t got a mind of your own.”

Ruby finished giving Natchua a long, thorough visual inspection before turning to him with another meaningless smile. “This is some extremely interesting company you are suddenly keeping, Lord Sherwin. Of course, my Lady would under ordinary circumstances not dream of meddling in your business to even the slightest degree. All this begins to look ominous, however. Need I explain why this kind of activity is of immediate concern to the governor of this province?”

“Governor?” Jonathan’s eyebrows shot upward. “This is starting to sound a whole lot less discreet than you described it, Natchua.”

The drow heaved a sigh. “Oh. The governor. Trust me, Jonathan, she appreciates the value of discretion better than anybody.”

“You can assure Malivette that nothing happening here will spill beyond the walls of Manor Leduc,” Sherwin said testily. “Which makes it by definition none of her damn business. Now, if that is all…”

“You can assure her of that yourself, m’lord,” Ruby replied smoothly. “The Lady Dufresne has sent a carriage to convey you and your very fascinating new houseguests to her residence for a polite conversation. She has instructed me to emphasize that her intentions toward you are as always nothing less than friendly, in the spirit of the long detente which has reigned between your two great Houses, and also that this is not a request.”


Their guides had kept them moving well after the customary time for a lunch break, smiling politely but refusing to relent even despite Ruda and Gabriel’s complaints. The reason became clear in the early afternoon when the party reached their designated stopping place, which proved well worth both the wait and the hike.

Just off the winding mountain trail was a grotto where a waterfall plummeted in a series of steps from a high-up spring into a wide pool below, casting the entire tiny stone valley in a cooling mist. The group had broken for a belated meal, and then tarried to rest and rejuvenate themselves.

There wasn’t room in the grotto for anybody to get properly lost, and so they had each wandered to various corners to pass the time without getting out of sight of each other. Their two guides from the Order of the Light had so far been diffident to the point of standoffish, but Toby had finally occupied them both in conversation at the edge of the pool, along with the two Legionnaires. Gabriel and Juniper were engrossed in teaching Sniff to play fetch up and down the path leading from the main pass to this hidden alcove. Ruda had left her hat, coat, and sword on the ground near their supplies and was now playing a game with Fross which seemed to consist of her trying to ice-skate across the pool in her boots, while the pixie created a path of ice inches in front of her and vanished it immediately behind. Needless to say, she was utterly drenched, and laughing so exuberantly it was amazing she hadn’t managed to drown herself.

Trissiny finished climbing the long, winding path up the side of the grotto to one of the tiers of the waterfall, where a smaller pool lay against the cliff wall, some twenty feet up and with a perfect view of the rest of the valley and their relaxing classmates. Teal and Shaeine already sat on the rocks at the edge, trousers and robes respectively rolled up and with their shoes on the rock beside them, dangling their feet in the water while F’thaan splashed ecstatically around their legs, yipping and trying to chase puffs of spray.

“I’m not intruding, am I?” Trissiny asked, having to raise her voice a little due to the sound of the falls.

“Not at all,” Teal called back, waving. “Please, join us.”

She took a careful seat a few feet distant, perching her booted feet on the rim of the pool and resting her folded arms across her knees. Below, Principia glanced up at them and raised one hand in a perfunctory wave before quickly returning her attention to her own conversation. What with the roar of falling water, this was the first time all morning any of them had been within sight of the elf but not the range of her sharp hearing.

“Do you know anything about the Eserite doctrines of revenge?” Trissiny asked aloud.

“No, but I confess I am rather curious,” Shaeine replied. “My sister Nahil has offered some intriguing commentary about Eserites. The Guild’s codes seem quite opaque to outsiders.”

“Very little of it is actually secret,” said Trissiny, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug, “we just don’t talk much with outsiders about Guild business. But revenge… By Eserite lore, there are three criteria a situation has to meet before you should pursue vengeance upon someone: it has to be satisfying, strategic, and safe.”

“Oh?” Shaine smiled faintly, turning her face toward Trissiny. “How intriguing. In fact, it begins to sound similar to Narisian philosophy. Would you elaborate?”

“Revenge,” Trissiny said, gazing distantly at the scene below them, “is only satisfying if the target knows what is happening to them, at whose instigation, and why. Anonymous acts of retaliation can be amusing, but they’re just…not the same. Not really worth the effort, usually. That’s the part that makes it tricky to line up the other two requirements. For it to be strategic, it means there has to be a functional purpose in attacking someone. In the Guild’s case, that usually means a show of force that will dissuade them from causing further trouble. If you don’t arrange the situation carefully and make sure your act is the final one, all you’ll do is kick off an escalating cycle of retaliation. Which plays into the criterion of safe. In fact, I personally always thought it should just be folded into the second one. Basically, don’t seek revenge on anyone if they’re in a position to do it right back at you afterward. So, given how tricky it is to align all those criteria, Eserites—that is, good Eserites who keep to the codes—very rarely end up seeking personal revenge.”

Shaeine nodded slowly, still wearing that faint smile. “I see. We can address the subtext whenever you are ready, Trissiny. It’s not uncomfortable for me.”

Trissiny sighed, glancing up at her and then looking back down at the others. “The way you keep giving Principia a cold shoulder when she tries to apologize to you is honestly fine, Shaeine. That’s the least of what she has coming, and she knows it. Using your energy shields to trip or jostle her every time…might be less so. Whatever else she may be, Principia Locke is Eserite right down to her core. That means she knows when she’s in the wrong, and won’t begrudge you getting a little of your own back. If you push it to the point where she decides you’re the one being abusive, though, you may be courting more trouble than you comprehend. Don’t underestimate her.”

Shaeine studied her in silence for a moment, then turned her head to look at Teal.

“It’s Trissiny, loveling,” Teal said softly, barely audible through the sound of falling water. “We should be open with her.”

The drow closed her eyes and leaned over for a moment, briefly resting the crown of her forehead against Teal’s jaw, then turned back to Trissiny with a smile a few degrees warmer.

“Trissiny, I realize you have a complicated history with that woman, and less attachment to her than to the one who raised you. But these facts remain: she is your mother, you are my friend, and my culture is what it is. She would have to have done far worse to me than the, I admit, relatively minor offense she committed before I would willingly do her serious harm. Rest assured, I have no intention of acting toward her in a way that could reasonably be described as abusive.”

Trissiny nodded, turning an answering smile on her. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. I guess… I don’t really understand, then. I don’t mean any offense, Shaeine, but…this seems petty to me. And you’re one of the least petty people I’ve ever known. That tells me there’s something going on that I’m missing.”

“Oh, I can be a little petty,” Shaeine replied, now with an open if reserved grin. “From time to time. But you’re right, it is not quite so simple as that. Well, let me put it this way. In Tar’naris, we have a saying: the best revenge is to place someone in your power.”

Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “Then that really sounds like you may be asking for trouble.”

“I’m hardly going to try to enslave her, either,” said Shaeine. “But it’s just as you said, Trissiny: the situation matters. Principia has been nakedly angling to get closer to you as long as we have known her, and I don’t expect that has changed. Now, furthermore, she answers to your High Commander and is on some mission which, I surmise, involves getting on the good side of at least Tellwyrn and possibly all of us. In short, there is no situation in which it will be safe or strategic for her to retaliate against me. The moment she commits to such a feud, a huge swath of everything she wants will go up in smoke.”

“So you think you can mess with her with impunity?” Trissiny said warily. “Shaeine…”

“It’s not that,” Teal assured her. “Look, Triss, as mad as we both were at the time, that was two years ago. It was all remedied in minutes, and everybody is over it. There are no grudges being held here.”

“What there is,” Shaeine added, “is a clever, well-connected, potentially very useful person to know who now finds herself needing to worm her way back into my good graces. I have no intention of harming Principia in the least; I have no specific plans for her, either. What I do know is that my mother would be severely disappointed in me if I squandered an opportunity to leverage the debt of honor she owes House Awarrion for the sake of getting some trifling personal revenge. In short, my little pranks are intended simply to make it clear to Principia that she is not in favor with me.” A mild, self-satisfied smile settled over her features and she leaned back slightly, stretching out her legs and wiggling her toes above the surface of the water. “And then…we will see what she is willing to do to get there. And if I allow myself to enjoy the process just a little, well, the smirking polecat did creep into our home and drug us both.”

“So that’s your game,” Trissiny mused after a thoughtful pause, frowning faintly at the scene below them. Principia was still not looking in their direction.

“Trissiny.” Shaeine turned to her, straightening up and fully sobering her expression. “I meant what I said. This is a matter of seizing an opportunity; it’s not a vengeance I feel a particular need to pursue, nor does my House specifically want anything from Locke. More immediately, I care very much about your feelings, and what you think of me. If you request it, I will instantly drop the entire thing and make no further reference to it. As far as my own feelings go, I have forgiven her long since. A grudge is a heavy thing to carry, and seldom worth the labor.”

“No,” Trissiny said pensively, pausing to chew on her lower lip for a moment. “No, now that I understand what you’re doing… I have no objection to any of this. Sounds like you actually do know what you’re about, and I see no harm in it. With that said, now, I do have a request.”

“Name it.”

Trissiny turned to face her with a sudden grin. “I wanna play, too.”

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15 – 6

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The darkness receded, leaving them standing in sunlight and the fresh air of the mountains. The group, which had been clustered together in the Mathenon basement in which they had gathered for the shadow-jump, immediately moved a few feet apart. Mostly because several of them didn’t care for being in one another’s proximity, to judge by the grim stares Jonathan and Hesthri leveled at Melaxyna while stepping to the side.

The succubus was clearly unbothered. She rose up onto her toes, stretching her arms above her head and wings out to both sides, then relaxed with a pleased sigh. “Ah, that’s the stuff. Sun, breeze, and birdsong! I think I’ve had my fill of being indoors and/or underground for another lifetime.”

“Where are we?” Hesthri demanded, turning slowly in a circle to take in their surroundings.

“Veilgrad,” Jonathan answered, pointing at the city stretching away from the western foot of the mountainside upon which they now stood. “Or at least, the hills outside it. The city’s unmistakable. That, however, I don’t know about. A better question is: why are we here?”

He added the last with a frown of puzzlement, turning in the opposite direction. Above them at the pinnacle of the trail loomed the overgrown ruins of a manor house.

“That would’ve been a better question to ask before we jumped,” Melaxyna suggested with a simpering smile.

“Mel,” Natchua warned, “do not start picking at him. Or her, or me, or anyone. This group is already one person bigger than I had planned and we will all have plenty of time to get sick of each other in the days to come without professional help.”

“You know she used to wear her hair gelled up in a mohawk?” Melaxyna said, still in that innocently sweet tone. “It looked ridiculous. I’m glad she kept the green stripe, though, that’s actually rather dashing when it’s allowed to lie down properly.”

Jonathan glanced at her only momentarily before returning his focus to Natchua. “Right, well… Belated or not, the answer to my question…?”

Natchua turned and began walking up the road toward the gates of the manor grounds, giving them the option of following or being left behind. “I told you what I am looking for: demons who can be counted on to take action against Elilial, in spite of their own best interests. There are precious few of those, and it’s even harder to track them down since my primary means of doing so is to consult a djinn.”

“Safely, of course,” Melaxyna snickered. “Binding the djinn in question with a contract which prevents her from revealing anything about Natchua or her own plans to anyone. You can guess how much they enjoy that. I have never seen a djinn so piqued as Qadira el-Mafti after Natchua got done lawyering up at her. Of course, there’s no possible way that will ever come back to bite our fearless leader on the ass.”

“I don’t expect to still be alive by the time she finds an opportunity to make trouble,” Natchua said curtly. “Anyway, I have a lead on another prospect, but in the meantime, we are here to secure the other thing this mad little crusade will require: a safe base of operations.”

“Safe, huh,” Hesthri snorted. They had arrived at the head of the mountain road, where the gates still sort of stood. At least the stone pillars flanking them were still there; of the two wrought iron gates, one listed drunkenly from its hinges and the other lay flat on the path inside. Beyond, the spectacle of ruin was even worse than the glimpse visible from below had hinted. Both the long wings of the huge mansion were in terrible disrepair, with virtually every window either boarded up or reduced to a fringe of shattered glass, and the gabled roof was missing fully half its shingles and rent by yawning holes. That was nothing compared to the main entrance hall which stood between them. To judge by the size of its foundation and the height of the one standing corner, it must have been a grand edifice indeed at one point. Now it was merely a huge pile of rubble.

“For all intents and purposes?” Natchua snorted a mirthless little laugh. “Safe enough.”

“Was all this for dramatic effect?” Jonathan asked. “The whole wide approach, I mean. It’s not like there’s a lot to see, here, and it’s probably a better idea not to drop this group out in a public area where anybody might see us arrive. Wiser to bring us in closer to the building, if not inside it. Unless it’s even less safe than it looks, which would be saying something.”

“Nobody ever visits here, I assure you,” Natchua replied, leading them on a long path to the left of the smashed entrance, through the chest-high weeds and brambles which had overtaken the neglected garden. “And the grounds are protected by a very thorough set of infernal wards. Even I couldn’t shadow-jump jump onto the property itself without likely triggering some kind of trap.”

“Even you?” Hesthri drawled, shoving aside a bramble bush without reacting in the slightest to the thorns. “I thought we’d established you’re about the same age as my son. Infernal magic takes time to master, like any kind of magic. Any skill at all, for that matter. More time than you’ve been alive, girl.”

At the rear of the group, Melaxyna laughed aloud. Everyone else ignored her.

“I know very close to everything there is to know about infernal magic,” Natchua stated.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Look, Natchua, this may seem improbable, but we actually were your age at one point. It’s easy to feel like you know everything when you lack perspective on how much there is to know.”

“Do not talk down to me, Jonathan Arquin!” Natchua finally slammed to a halt at the corner of the manor, whirling to glare at him. The rest of the group stopped as well, Melaxyna lurking at the back with a malicious grin, and Hesthri clinging to Jonathan’s arm. That sight did nothing to improve Natchua’s humor. “When I say I know everything about infernal magic, I mean exactly that. Everything except whatever Elilial withheld to maintain some control, which is still more than any red dragon.”

He squinted in surprise. “Elilial…withheld?”

“Tell me, Jonathan, since you’re so old and wise and know so much,” she spat, “what do you think would happen if the goddess of demons cornered two teenage college students and stuffed their brains full of every detail of infernal lore? Do you think there is the slightest chance of them doing anything productive or responsible with that? With the entire school magic most suited to causing destruction and almost nothing else? And what lifespan would you give those two kids, at a guess?”

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. Hesthri was staring at her in pure horror, now.

“And the best part,” Natchua said with a bitter laugh, “is we were just tools. Professor Tellwyrn was a little too close to her plans, so Elilial introduced a pair of time bombs to her campus.”

“That hellgate,” Jonathan said, eyes widening.

“Yes, that was Chase,” she said. “You think I’m cruel, or unwise, or just weird? Fine, I’ll own that, but I was the success story. He is now in a cell in Tar’naris, drugged to the gills so House Awarrion can keep him pacified while the matriarch devises a suitable torment for his offenses against her and hers. Frankly, that’s a better end than he had any right to expect. It’s a better one than I expect. There’s no life or future for me, do you understand that? You can’t walk around having this kind of power and knowledge without it seeping out to affect every aspect of your life. And you can’t live using infernomancy without causing chaos and gathering enemies.”

She paused, and none of them found anything to say in reply. Even Melaxyna no longer looked like she was enjoying the conversation.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” Natchua said at last, the anger leaking from her in a long sigh. “I am avenging my murder, Jonathan. Sticking some pain to Elilial will be nice, but the real victory will be ensuring that Gabriel and the other paladins survive whatever she’s planning intact and positioned to keep giving her grief for a good long time. And gods, I wish you hadn’t butted in. I wasn’t planning to have to avenge your death as well.” She turned around finally, rounding the corner. “But if you insist on involving yourself, fine. By the time I’m done there’ll be enough vengeance to redress a lot of sins.”

The group followed her in silence the rest of the way, which fortunately was not far. Tucked around at the back of the house was a small side door opening onto a stableyard which was now the resting place of half a dozen disintegrating carriages, all so far gone it was impossible to tell whether they had been horse-drawn or enchanted. Natchua’s warning about wards on the property had apparently been apt; the little door opened when they were still a dozen yards away, and a man’s head poked out.

He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties but prematurely balding, his pale complexion marred by a three-day growth of stubble. Though the stableyard was shaded both by the house and the mountain behind it, he blinked in what sunlight there was as though it were a new experience for him.

“Hello, Sherwin,” Natchua said, waving. “Here they are, as promised.”

“What did you promise this guy, exactly?” Hesthri demanded.

The house’s occupant squinted at them, then pointed at Jonathan. “Who’s this, then? You said two demons, Natchua.”

“This is Jonathan Arquin, who has decided to forcibly insert himself into our business,” Natchua said, giving Jonathan an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Sorry to spring that on you; it was sprung on me. Still, he’s trustworthy and actually probably useful. And not to be snippy but it’s not like you don’t have the room.”

“Room, yes, but rooms…” Sherwin sighed, stepping fully out into the yard and distractedly running a hand over his messy hair. “I’ve cleared out three rooms for you in the south wing. They’re not contiguous, I had to select a few where the floor’s not rotted and there are no major holes in the roof. Oh, well, I’m sure there’s at least one more that can be made to serve. If you’ll vouch for him, I guess that’s fine.”

“Everyone,” Natchua said, stepping aside and gesturing between him and her group, “this is our host. May I present Lord Sherwin, high seat and last scion of House Leduc. He’s more personable than he appears, given time to warm up to you. I’ve been visiting all summer; it’s just a momentary shadow-jump from Mathenon, as you now know. Sherwin, this is the hethelax I told you of. Her name is Hesthri.”

“Delighted, madam,” the scruffy young man said with a perfunctory bow.

“Like…wise,” Hesthri replied warily, doing a very poor job of masking her dubiousness, if indeed she was even trying.

“And this,” Natchua added with a smug undertone, “is Melaxyna.”

“I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you,” the succubus positively purred, sashaying forward with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips that made Hesthri roll her eyes and Jonathan avert his. Sherwin could only gape at her, mouth slightly agape, even as she sashayed up and twined herself around his arm. “Natchua tells me the most delightful things, my lord. Why don’t you show me around your charming mansion?”

“Oh, well, uh,” he babbled, “that is, it’s really more of a wreck…” The rest was muffled as the succubus deftly maneuvered him back inside and swiftly out of earshot.

“As for what I promised him, Hesthri,” Natchua said, watching after them with a sardonic twist of her mouth. “In a word: her.”

“Huh,” Jonathan grunted. “Spy, warlock, crusader, and now pimp. Your resume just keeps getting longer.”

“Jonathan, have you ever tried to make a child of Vanislaas do something they didn’t want to?” Natchua demanded.

“I’m pretty sure you know I haven’t.”

“Oh? The only thing I know about your history with demons is that you clearly have one.” She shifted her eyes to look significantly at Hesthri. “But you’re not wrong: since you aren’t dead or consigned to an asylum, you probably haven’t run afoul of a Vanislaad. So let me just assure you that your concern for Melaxyna’s virtue, while noble, is misplaced. She is fine, and having exactly as much fun as she suggested. If she wasn’t interested in being a carrot for me to dangle in front of Sherwin, I wouldn’t add to my problems by pressing the issue. Anyway, since they will likely be busy for a while, come on in and let’s see if we can find those rooms he talked about. They’ll be the only three without bats and cobwebs, I bet. And since Mel will likely be doing her sleeping in Sherwin’s, three is really all we need.”

“Natchua,” Jonathan said in a firm tone. “Does this poor guy have any idea what he’s getting involved with, here?”

“More than you do,” she shot back. “Sherwin Leduc needs your pity even less than Melaxyna. Next time you write to Gabe, ask him to recount what he and his classmates caught this poor guy doing. Anyway, I assure you, he’s fine with all of this. I won him over by promising…well, in addition to a playful succubus…a worthy objective to fulfill, like-minded people with whom to talk, and at the end of this when Elilial is royally pissed off and everything inevitably backfires on us, death.” She turned a cold shoulder to him and strode into the door. “So, everything in the world he wants.”

The two of them stood in the yard for a few long moments after Natchua had vanished within.

“I am increasingly surrounded by liars, creeps, and perverts,” Jonathan finally said aloud. “So why is it the thought that keeps coming to mind is ‘gods, that poor kid’?”

Hesthri sighed, stepping closer and resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”

They followed the others into the crumbling house, since that was all they could do.


“I am going to kill that bitch.”

Shook delivered the threat in a tone which belied its viciousness; solemn and pensive, his forehead faintly creased as he stared off at the distance in deep thought. Still, even spoken in a relatively calm voice, it was a statement which earned him wary looks from a couple of passersby, not to mention his own companions.

“And what sticks out in my brain,” Shook continued in the same tone of contemplation, “is how immediate and obvious that fact was. Sixty seconds of listening to Basra Syrinx talk and I was all, ‘yep, I’m gonna kill this bitch.’ Which got me thinking along some additional lines, there. For one thing, it’s goddamn unbelievable that…our mutual employer…would put us and her in a small confined space and expect anything but bloodshed.”

“The same thought occurred to me,” Khadizroth agreed, pacing along beside him.

“Because that’s the other thing that jumps out at me,” Shook mused. “There’s no fucking way it isn’t mutual. Considering she’s a disgraced ex-Bishop of Avei, that’s gotta be exactly what she thinks about me, Shiri, and Jack. Plus possibly you, depending on what she knows about your history.”

“Should I feel honored to be omitted?” Vannae asked wryly.

Shook snorted. “Van, you’re about as offensive as milk and cookies. If she’s got a problem with you it means she’s racist on top of…whatever else. Not that a cunt like that needs it to be any less cuddly. Fuck are you looking at?”

The last was delivered in a far more aggressive tone to a passing woman who had turned to stare at their conversation. She immediately ducked her head and hurried on past.

“That is not exactly helping us to blend in, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said gently.

Shook barked a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry about that; blending in isn’t gonna happen. You two are basically a walking museum exhibit. Trust me, I know about invisibility, it’s either can’t see, don’t see, or won’t see. When you have no way of being actually hard to notice, the best you can do is make sure people know to mind their own fucking business.”

Vannae did rather stand out; elves weren’t exactly a common sight in Imperial cities, but most urban dwellers would see them fairly regularly, even if his choice of a human-style suit made him memorable. It was Khadizroth who inevitably drew attention. Taller than either of them, the dragon had been forced to conceal his identity through the use of mundane methods which were impossible not to notice: he wore the heavy robes of an Omnist monk, but with a hood pulled up and overhanging his face deeply enough that as long as he kept his chin down, the glow of his monochrome green eyes was not visible. Hardly anyone walked around wearing an all-concealing hood in modern times, unless they were obviously hiding their features.

“Well, fortunately, it should be less of a concern from here,” said the dragon, veering to their left. “Our route takes us this way, ever farther from the well-trod paths.”

They had been walking along one of the walled border roads that ran along the sides of Ninkabi’s central island, with a fall to the river below on their right and the opposite cliff wall beyond. This was already a less-traveled route, three levels down from the surface of the island above, but now Khadizroth led them into a tunnel road which seemed largely disused, with litter drifted in its gutters and no current signs of occupancy. Even the doors lining it were boarded up.

“This isn’t the first time this has given us trouble,” Shook commented. “You keep saying you can’t disguise yourself with magic and I’m damned if I know why. I thought dragons could do basically anything with magic.”

“Were that true, I would not still be confined by the Crow’s hex,” Khadizroth said evenly. “Dragons are powerful and versatile, yes, but with that come a few…seemingly arbitrary weaknesses. The eyes and hair that distinguish us from mortals at a glance, even in our smaller forms, are an example. It is a side effect of our ability to occupy two forms. That means only two forms, and neither can be obscured.”

Shook grunted. “Seems fishy, how the world’s most powerful spellcasters haven’t found a way around a limitation like that in thousands of years.”

“Ah, but that is it exactly,” the dragon replied with a note of humor now in his voice. “Any of my brethren who devoted themselves to that search would be set upon by the others. We are solitary by nature; the only thing which reliably draws dragons together is the prospect of one of our kind attempting to seize an advantage over the rest. In fact, there have been some who found ways around that petty restriction. Their fate is the reason I’ve never tried.”

“Hm. I wonder how long that’ll stand, with this Conclave of the Winds thing going.”

“A curious question indeed,” Khadizroth said gravely. “They have been…strangely quiet since forming. I surmise that the Conclave is either plotting something which they do not want known, or too paralyzed by infighting to function. Given the nature of dragons, either is believable. I must say,” he added with a sigh, “that functional or not, the Conclave is a more honorable and more strategically viable solution to the problem of ascending Tiraan power than that which I attempted. I only did not try to organize such a thing myself because I never imagined it could be remotely possible. I deeply regret not having the opportunity to be part of it.”

“Mm.” Shook drew one of his wands, glancing around. They were seemingly alone now in the dark tunnel, which had no light at the other end. The only illumination came from a ball of fire Vannae summoned and held above his palm. “Well. Now we’re here, should we address the issue of what obvious bullshit all this is?”

“Do you mean his Holiness setting us to hunt a mystery cult of which he is almost certainly the source?” Khadizroth said wryly. “Or more particularly this tip of Syrinx’s that we are sent to follow?”

“Y’know what, take one of each, I’m a generous kinda guy.” Shook grinned, his teeth flashing in the firelight. “But sure, let’s focus on the immediate. Syrinx’s reasons for splitting up our group are so fucking nonsense it’s downright insulting. I mean, sure, the Jackal tends to stick out, but Shiri is easily the best among us at blending in—and you’re the worst, like we were just talking about. Besides, those are the specific two who should not be confined to a few rooms unless the whole idea is to make them so stir-crazy they give her an excuse to bust out the sword.”

“Basra Syrinx is a noted blademaster,” Khadizroth mused, “but even in hand-to-hand combat I rather think she would not choose to confront the Jackal. His aptitudes too perfectly counter her own. I agree with you, Jeremiah, as to the general thrust of the game being played, but I fear it won’t be so simple as that. This much we can say with relative certainty: our entire mission in Ninkabi is a shallow pretext, and it is likely that the true purpose is to set us against our newly appointed leader.”

“So the question is,” Shook said slowly, “is Syrinx in on it, or were we all just shut in this box together because Justinian wants some of us killed off and doesn’t care which?”

“Well phrased,” the dragon agreed. “The answer to that question will do much to shape the actions we must take in response. Based on what I have learned of Syrinx’s recent history, the Archpope took a political risk in protecting her; it seems unlikely he would then throw her away so swiftly. On the other hand, we have seen that he is inexplicably more eager to cull his own agents than his enemies. What do you think, Vannae?”

“I think,” the elf said softly, “we might consider asking the person following us.”

All three of them stopped and turned, Shook raising his wand. They were deep enough in the darkened tunnel that both ends were lost in shadow; in the flickering light, the shape of another hooded figure approaching from the way they had come was partially obscured.

“That’s far enough,” Shook snapped, taking aim.

The approaching figure raised both hands and spoke in a low, feminine voice. “I mean no harm. I’m the person you were sent to meet. And you are quite right, gentlemen: your task here is a sham, and so is the tip Basra is acting on. She thinks it genuine, though. It was the most convenient way for me to arrange to meet you.”

“And you are?” Khadizroth asked politely.

“A loyal servant of his Holiness the Archpope,” she said, approaching slowly with her hands still up. “But I would draw the important distinction that loyal and obedient are not the same concept. His Holiness is…prone to overestimating his ability to control wild elements, and unfortunately willing to use agents whose involvement will only harm his interests. Sometimes, those of us who believe in his mission and care for his welfare must act…contrary to his wishes. I know who you are—all three of you, and the two who did not come. And I’m here to tell you that between your entire group and Basra Syrinx, it is she who urgently needs to be destroyed.”

Vannae kept his attention on her, fireball upraised; Shook’s wand did not waver, though he and Khadizroth exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Well, madam,” the dragon replied after the tense pause, “you have our attention.”

She finally moved her hands, lowering her own hood to reveal auburn hair and blue eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face.

“My name is Branwen. It’s well past time we had a talk.”

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15 – 3

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She already knew he was nobody’s fool, but even under the shock this scene had to have inflicted upon him, Jonathan put the entire chain of events together in about a second and a half. By that stage in their acquaintance, Natchua was familiar enough with his face that she could practically see him processing every step back to the point when she had first approached him in a bar, one millisecond at a time.

And then he fixed his gaze back on her, his face twisting in a snarl of unbridled fury that was entirely out of his usual character. The mere sight of that caused her a pang right in the chest—a much sharper one than she was expecting. Fortunately, she didn’t have long to dwell on it, as Jonathan immediately raised the wand to point at her.

“You little monster.”

Natchua barely had to gesture. A tiny rift opened to his left, out of which lashed a lithe tendril of tangible shadow as rapidly as a frog snatching up a fly. It ripped the wand out of his hand and back into the void, and then deposited it right in hers.

That seemed to shake some of the rage out of him. Jonathan looked down at his now-empty hand in surprise, then back up at her. “What the hell was that?”

“Something very few warlocks could have done,” Melaxyna interjected. “Something a lot harder than simply killing you, which you should take into account when weighing exactly how much of a monster the girl is.”

Behind them, Hesthri’s voice was flat and hollow with her own recent shock, but it clearly did not dull her acerbic tongue. “You know, having the slithering sex demon vouch for your character is pretty counterproductive.”

“Really more of an empathy demon, if you think about it,” Melaxyna muttered, folding her arms.

Natchua heaved a sigh, disregarding the byplay. Her own gaze hadn’t left Jonathan. As painfully awkward as it was to meet his eyes, a part of her felt she didn’t deserve the meager comfort of not facing it. Another part was just too prideful to look shifty or otherwise guilty, no matter how fairly caught she was.

“Well,” she said finally, “it’s…exactly what it looks like. How did you even find this place?”

“I followed you,” he replied. “You never snuck out before. I just— Wait just a goddamn minute, why am I explaining myself to you?!”

“Snuck out?” Hesthri said quietly, then with rapidly mounting volume. “Snuck. Out. You mean she— Oh, you twisted, evil little trollop!”

Melaxyna examined her own fingernails with a supercilious air. “Tut tut. These non-sex demons are so prudish about some things.”

“Shut up, Mel,” Natchua growled.

“Why would you do this?” Jonathan roared, taking a step into the room.

Natchua drew in another deep breath to steady herself. “Please shut the door and keep your voice down, Jonathan. I do have neighbors, and I don’t think any of us wants to explain this scene to them.”

For a moment she really thought he was going to charge across the room and attack her physically. But then, rather to her surprise, he instead stepped fully into the basement apartment and pushed the door carefully shut behind him. The latch clicked quietly into place in a controlled movement, without even a hint of a slam.

The silence stretched out.

“Well?” he prompted at last.

“She said she wants to protect Gabriel,” Hesthri answered, to Natchua’s relief; she did not have a plan prepared for this turn of events and was still struggling to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t steer the whole thing even further out of her control. “Something about needing trustworthy demons to help her fight Elilial.”

Jonathan rounded on Natchua so abruptly she instinctively backed away.

“What do you know about my son?” he demanded, clenching his fists.

“He’s a friend from school!” she blurted, the truth spilling out in surprised reflex.

Jonathan halted, staring at her with wide eyes. Then, suddenly, he covered his eyes with a hand and began laughing.

“Huh,” Melaxyna grunted. “Usually when I’ve watched a man’s sanity unraveling it was some asshole I did it to because he had it coming. This is actually sort of distasteful. For shame, kid.”

“Amen,” Hesthri agreed.

“Shut up,” Natchua snapped.

“I thought you were older than me,” Jonathan said, lowering his hand to look at her again, his momentary amusement vanishing as suddenly as it had come on. “It’s just so ironic. Given all the lies you’ve apparently been piling on me, that’s got to be one of the smallest. Funny, how it feels sleazier than all the rest of it to me.”

“I’ve never had to lie to you,” Natchua said, hearing the defensiveness in her voice and hating herself for it, but unable to put on a better face. “You just never asked about…anything. And why would you assume anything about my age?”

“You’re young enough you probably haven’t realized yet how disconcerting agelessness is to humans,” Melaxyna explained. “They’re used to looking at each other and discerning that point of data; it’s customary. When it’s absent, they get nervous and sometimes make strange assumptions.”

“Let’s just move on from that one before I have to feel any filthier about all this,” Jonathan said wearily. “So, you’re a warlock, and you know Gabriel. And you want…to take his side against Elilial? Then what is this about?” He pointed at Hesthri, who shrugged. “How can you know how to summon a hethelax and not realize they aren’t—” He broke off suddenly, again looking at Hesthri with a more uncertain expression.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” she said in a fond tone, “my feelings aren’t hurt. And you’re right, anyway.”

“Johnny?” Natchua exclaimed in surprised derision.

“Got a problem with that, girl?” the hethelax demanded.

“You’re kidding, right? How could you give him a cute, diminutive nickname?”

She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I? We were involved, you know. Or do I need to sit you down and explain where half-demons come from?”

“It’s just ridiculous! I’ve never met a man who so obviously deserved respect, why would—”

“If I had to guess,” Hesthri shot back, “I’d say that to me, he’s not a replacement father figure!”

Another heavy silence descended. Natchua and Hesthri were glaring at one another, but both their eyes widened in simultaneous realization and they book looked away. Jonathan was already determinedly not looking at anyone; unlike the drow and demon, his skin tone betrayed the rush of blood to his face.

“This is better than a night at the opera,” Melaxyna cackled.

“Shut up!” all three of them shouted. She only laughed harder.

“What are you doing with that creature, anyway?” Jonathan demanded. “That’s a succubus. You can’t possibly think you have her under control! Especially if you’re actually planning some kind of attack on Elilial!”

“Of course I don’t,” Natchua retorted. “If she were under control she would be plotting to ruin my whole life, and I don’t need to get in that kind of pissing contest with a Vanislaad. Melaxyna is here as…an exchange of favors. I rescued her from…a prison, and in payment of that, she is helping me to get established with a more stable support system. She’ll be long gone and somebody else’s problem before I go anywhere near the Black Wreath.”

“Prison…” He narrowed his eyes suddenly. “Wait, is this the succubus Professor Tellwyrn was keeping in the Crawl?”

“Aww,” Melaxyna squealed, “so little Gabriel does write home! What a good boy.”

“Wait, you know Gabriel?” Hesthri exclaimed, whirling to glare at her.

“In passing,” the succubus said offhandedly. “Truth be told, he always struck me as kind of a nitwit, but the kid seemed to have a good heart. His friends clearly liked him, and that counts for something. Believe me, I was as surprised as anybody to learn about this paladin thing.”

“Paladin thing?” Hesthri screeched, lunging forward until she rebounded physically off the boundary of the containment circle, causing ripples of light in the air. “What happened to my son?”

“He’s fine, Hes,” Jonathan said soothingly. “No paladins attacked Gabriel.”

Natchua started to correct him but clamped her mouth shut instead. Fortunately, Jonathan continued speaking.

“The truth is…” He paused, drawing in a breath. “Hesthri, Gabriel is a paladin.”

She shivered, staring at his eyes with an expression both stricken and desperately hopeful. “He…what? What are you talking about?”

“Vidius finally called a Hand, after all these centuries,” Jonathan said, holding her gaze. “And he picked our son. He’s the first Hand of Vidius. The first half-demon paladin, ever. Gabe’s best friend growing up was called as the Hand of Omnu when they were both seventeen, and not long after, he got to know the Hand of Avei at that school. And then…this.”

Hesthri could only stare at him for a few long moments after he ran out of things to say, and Jonathan just stood in silence, watching her back. Even now, on opposite sides of a spell circle and after not having seen one another for who knew how many years, they could just…be together, apparently communicating with only a look, finding no discomfort in the silence.

The stab of jealousy helpfully warned Natchua that she was in big trouble here.

“I know this is a lot,” Jonathan finally said in a softer voice. “Believe me, I know. I’m not quite used to it yet, either. I probably won’t ever completely—”

“I’ll do it.”

Jonathan broke off and Natchua turned to Hesthri in surprise. The hethelax was staring at her, not at him.

“I’ll do it, warlock. I’m in.”

“Hesthri,” Jonathan said plaintively.

“If he’s a paladin,” the demon said, “then he’s a target for Elilial. And despite how completely insane this entire situation is… The drow isn’t entirely wrong. There’s no out-scheming the Dark Lady, and whatever setbacks she’s suffered, no actual power is going to threaten her. The only thing that will trip her up is an unexpected attack on one of her precious schemes, and for that, it doesn’t have to be powerful. It just has to be a surprise, to come at the right time, and to be carried out by people willing to pay the price.” Holding Natchua’s eyes, she nodded slowly. “I will help you. If it will help Gabriel, I’ll do anything. I will die for this.”

“Everyone involved will assuredly die for this,” Natchua said quietly. “You’re right, Hesthri. If we succeed in throwing off whatever plan she is unfolding, Elilial’s revenge will be terrible. All of us—”

“A-hem.”

“All of us except Melaxyna,” she corrected patiently, “had better go into this expecting the worst.”

“That’s your perspective?” Jonathan’s voice was barely above a whisper; at least the quizzical expression with which he now regarded her was easier to bear than his previous look of hurt and anger. “You are that committed to this, Natchua?”

“It’s a long story,” she said curtly. “Short version is, after my last encounter with Elilial, I’m not really looking forward to a long lifespan anyway, and I intend to make sure she pays, if I manage nothing else before the end.”

His lips thinned, drawing sideways in that pained grimace he always made when confronted with someone else’s pain. Jonathan Arquin rarely so much as twitched when he himself was injured, but the suffering of others never failed to move him.

“All right,” he said finally, with a single decisive nod. “Then I’m in, too. Whatever it is you are planning, I’m coming with you.”

Oh, no. Natchua did not need the confusing jumble of hope and terror that welled up in her to remind her that this was a terrible idea. It was already well past time she cut her ties with him for good; it was only going to get messier, the longer he stayed around.

“That is not on the table,” she said rigidly. “This is no job for—”

“For a seasoned veteran?” Melaxyna interrupted in a sickeningly innocent tone. “What ever are you on about, Natchua? Your whole criterion for this scheme was to surround yourself with people who will be loyal to it. This guy could be the president of the Save Gabriel At All Costs club, and let’s be honest with ourselves, a strong fellow with a battlestaff has at least as much tactical use as a hethelax demon. No offense, Hesthri darling.”

“None taken, you’re entirely right, and don’t ever call me ‘darling’ again, you smirking creep.”

“I’m afraid the children of Vanislaas are just as unpopular in Hell as we are here,” the succubus informed Natchua with patently feigned sorrow.

“No!” she snapped, making a slashing motion with one hand. “Out of the question. I’m a warlock, I can sustain demons at need, and so that is what I’m recruiting. I can’t be responsible for—”

“Excuse me, Natchua, but you’re mistaken if you think I was asking your permission,” Jonathan retorted, and to her own surprise the iron in his voice cut her off. He stepped forward, holding her gaze, until he was within arm’s reach. At that proximity, he loomed distractingly over her. “Everything that applies to Hesthri, here, applies to me. I will do anything to protect my son, even go up against Elilial and the Wreath. And after all the shit you have pulled today, you don’t get to give me orders. I am joining this campaign, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“Excuse me?” she said icily. “You can’t begin to imagine the things I could do to you, human.”

“So do them, then,” he replied.

“Johnny!” Hesthri protested, but he held up a hand toward her.

Natchua’s mouth had fallen open as she fumbled for a reply. Having her bluff immediately called had not been what she expected. In fact, she wasn’t at all sure what she had expected, but that wasn’t it.

“Yeah, I know you can shadow-jump right out of here any second and ditch me wherever you like,” Jonathan continued, his eyes boring into hers. “But unless I can keep my eyes on you and help rein in what I can already see has been a pattern of terrible ideas on your part, I’m not going to trust you with any part of this, Natchua. So the moment you leave me behind, I will turn this over to someone more capable. I have cultivated useful contacts in a variety of places from which you don’t want intervention. Tellwyrn, the Church, the Army, Imperial Intelligence, the Sisterhood, the Collegium… It is amazingly easy to get in touch with powerful people when you’re the parent of a half-demon paladin. Either I supervise this scheme of yours, or I will get someone else to. Those are the terms.”

“I am not somebody you want to threaten,” she grated.

“That’s right,” he said evenly. “You’re the big warlock, here, you can kill me in a dozen ways with your little finger. Then do it if you’re going to.”

“Don’t!” Hesthri shouted, hammering both fists on the invisible barrier around her. “Please!”

Her pleading was unnecessary. Natchua was just staring up at Jonathan’s implacable face, fumbling uselessly for a way to regain control of this situation. The seconds dragged out until finally, he sighed, and shook his head.

“Gods,” Jonathan whispered. “You’re not a monster, are you?”

“You—I—you don’t know that,” she stammered, and immediately wanted to kick herself. What did that even mean?

He just shook his head again. “You’re just a dumb, confused kid who can’t figure out what the right thing to do is. You have to be seriously unbalanced to have tried this, Natchua, not to mention wildly thoughtless. But this plan of yours is nothing if not brave. Well.” He straightened his back, squaring his shoulders, and she profoundly despised herself for the unbidden memories of being in his arms that came welling up. “As of now, you have my help, like it or not.”

Natchua opened her mouth, closed it, then finally looked away from him. Unfortunately that brought Melaxyna into her field of view; the succubus was grinning insanely and waggling her eyebrows up and down. She cut her gaze back the other way, this time accidentally meeting Hesthri’s eyes. The hethelax’s expression was indecipherable, and for some reason, that was even worse.

“…fine,” Natchua said at last, raising her chin and defiantly meeting Jonathan’s stare again. “Have it your way, Mr. Arquin. You can supervise, if you want to call it that. But this is my plan, my operation, and I am in charge. You’ll either do as I say, or I’ll find someplace to put you where you won’t be a threat to anybody. Understand?”

Slowly, he lifted his own chin, now looking at her down his nose. “Something tells me we’ll be revisiting this topic in detail in the days to come. For now, I guess we have an agreement.”

“This,” said Hesthri, “is the strangest damn way I could possibly find myself getting everything I ever wanted. But you know what, I’ll take it. Unhinged brat of a drow warlock and all.”

Natchua scowled at her, but Jonathan had the gall to chuckle.

“Well,” he said, “I have a lot to catch you up on, Hes. Would you mind?” The last was directed in a much cooler tone to Natchua.

She would rather have died than admit even to herself how much that cut her. Putting on her best effort at a disdainful expression, she deliberately scrubbed her foot across a few lines of the spell circle, and the whole thing went dark, the barrier around Hesthri collapsing invisibly. Before either of them could say anything, she turned and stalked away to the corner of the room where she had set up a ratty old chair and a small shelf of secondhand books.

Natchua’s basement apartment in the cheapest area of Mathenon was far from luxurious, but it at least had enough space for two groups of people to hold hushed conversations on opposite ends without disturbing each other. She was an elf, of course, and could hear every word of the discussion that began when Jonathan and Hesthri sat side-by-side on her narrow bed against the opposite wall. It consisted, so far, of him trying to summarize twenty years of current events. Natchua turned her back to them, as much to block out the sight of their clasped hands as to shield her own lips from their view before speaking. Melaxyna, at least, had sashayed over to this corner without needing to be prompted. Dangerous and generally annoying as her kind were, Vanislaads were nothing if not sensitive to mood.

“This is not going to work,” she muttered as soon as the succubus was close enough. “I can’t have him underfoot if we’re going to do this. I need your help, Mel; find me a reason and a way to get rid of him.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Melaxyna said brightly, though thankfully also in a low voice the others wouldn’t overhear. “You heard the man: just kill his ass dead and this whole problem sorts itself out.”

“We are not killing him,” Natchua hissed. “I want him out of my hair, not harmed in any way!”

“You know, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You can never do anything the simple way.”

“Do not test me on this, you simpering lizard! You agreed to help me accomplish my plan. Well, this is what I need. Help me.”

“Aw,” the succubus said with saccharine faux sympathy. “Finding yourself a little more…involved than you expected?”

“Oh, you think you’re just so clever,” Natchua spat. “I am sorry to spoil your fun, Mel, but you don’t get to dangle this over my head. I know very well that my own emotional attachment here is the problem, and that’s the specific thing I need you to help me fix!”

“You may understand the problem, yes,” Melaxyna said more somberly, “but as usual, you jumped right to the most harebrained possible way of addressing it. Come on, Natch, have you considered that maybe this is a good thing?”

“You can’t be serious.”

She shrugged. “I don’t mean to downplay how uncomfortable it clearly is for you, but speaking as your official empathy demon thrall: this could be very good for you in the long run. Both on a personal level and especially because a smart, morally upright, level-headed man with military training might be the very exact thing this crazy operation needs to stay grounded and have a prayer of accomplishing anything remotely worthwhile. I’m not teasing you about this, Natchua. Give it a chance.”

Natchua bared her teeth. “Nnnngghhhh.”

“And hey,” the succubus said lightly, “if it doesn’t work out, odds are good he’ll get sick of you and leave on his own! Win/win, right?”

“Gods, I hate you.”

“Aw, no ya don’t,” Melaxyna replied fondly. “You just resent hearing sense when you’ve committed yourself to nonsense, which is always. It’s seriously amazing you survived as long as you did under Arachne’s tutelage. You’ve gotta roll with the punches, kiddo. This may look like a mess right now, but it’s also an opportunity.”

She snuck a glance over her shoulder. Jonathan had his arm around Hesthri; she was leaning against him. Natchua immediately jerked her gaze back forward where she didn’t have to see that.

“None of this was supposed to happen,” she whispered plaintively.

“I know, honey,” Melaxyna said sympathetically, reaching out to pat her shoulder. “All you did was hunt down a man twice your age, seduce him under a mile-high stack of false pretenses, and extract the name of his ex so you could yank her across the planar divide and conscript her into your private crusade against the Queen of Demons. Who could have guessed that would blow up in your face?”

Natchua conjured a ball of purple fire, which did not seem to perturb the succubus in the slightest.

“And hey, it’s like I said! You have to look for the opportunities that come with these little setbacks. All this has demonstrated what may be Elilial’s fatal weakness: she is very, very smart. Nobody whose brain runs on any semblance of sense or logic will see you coming.”

“Be silent, Melaxyna.”

The demon grinned widely at her. “As my mistress commands.”

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15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”


She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”


“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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13 – 53

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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