Tag Archives: Natchua

15 – 51

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Having been expecting it, Natchua ignored the outbursts from the crowd which resulted from her abrupt arrival. She also was careful not to react overtly to the soldiers at the edges of the platform who spun to level weapons at her, though she did of course mentally prepare a proper defense against lightning bolts. It was such universal knowledge that infernal magic had no defensive application that the several she knew, advanced though they were, she was able to have prepared without need to mask the effect. Nearby priests or other warlocks might have been able to tell she was doing something, but not what. Besides, such spells were fiendishly complex even without the extra effort of concealing them; just that much concentration distracted her momentarily, long enough for Grusser to step away from the podium and take her by the arm.

“Natchua, what are you doing?” he demanded in a low tone, angling his face away from the voice projection charm on the podium.

“Preventing this from becoming a bigger mess than it already is,” she replied, equally quiet. “At least, hopefully.”

“I do not need—”

“Mr. Grusser, you’re one more minute of waffling from a riot and you know it.”

“And you are trained in public speaking?”

Not thoroughly, but yes. She didn’t bother getting into that, though. “We don’t have time for this. Seconds are precious and this is about to explode. Let me help.”

He pressed his lips together into a disapproving line, clearly unhappy with her attempted appropriation of his job and about to put up an argument. Natchua chanced a sidelong glance at the crowd, not that it was needed as her ears already told her the shock of her appearance was wearing off and rapidly turning into more anger. She simply did not have time to reason Grusser down the way he’d futilely been trying to do with an incipient mob.

Unfortunately, while Natchua had countless ways of removing obstreperous people from her path, employing any of them here would magnify her problems exponentially, starting with kicking off the very riot she was trying to prevent.

For just a moment, she thought this particular action might have been a little too hasty.

“If you don’t know me,” a new voice boomed across the square, “I’m Agatha Svanwen, founder and president of Svanwen Unlimited. My company came here from Stavulheim to oversee the renovation of the catacombs, and train local laborers in our specialty of underground masonry. At a guess, I’d say there are a fair handful of folk in this crowd who have a job because of me, and when I’m gone, will have a skilled trade they can put to work anywhere in the Empire.”

Grusser turned back toward the podium and Natchua subtly leaned around him to see.

The thing had not been designed with dwarves in mind; Svanwen had had to climb precariously onto the fortunately sturdy structure, bracing her feet on a conveniently placed shelf near its base and gripping both its sides for balance. It left her head just barely above the top, with the protruding projection charm closer to her eye level than her mouth. Still, she seemed to make do, with not a hint of strain from holding herself up entering her voice.

“A lot of you likely heard about the recent problem we had with drow; let me just assure everyone that she wasn’t part of it. This is Natchua, a friend of Duchess Dufresne’s from Last Rock. And in fact, she’s the one who chased off the Narisians so my company could get back to work. So if anyone here is drawing a paycheck with my name printed on it, you can thank her that you’re still getting yours.”

Natchua could actually see the moment Lars Grusser decided to swim with the current instead of against it. While the crowd murmured at that pronouncement, he turned to face them, raised his hands, and clapped them together repeatedly. The response was hesitant at first and never spread far, but there were apparently a good few Svanwen employees in the square. Applause and a few cheers rang out. It wasn’t much, but it helped to shift the mood, at least a little.

“And more immediately,” the dwarf continued, turning her head slightly to give Natchua a sidelong look, “when there’s weirdness afoot, Natchua is someone I think we should listen to.”

With that, she hopped down and stepped to the side in clear invitation. Natchua hesitated only to glance at Grusser; his eyes expressed a silent warning, but then he took a step backward, clearing her path to the podium.

Almost immediately, she found herself gripping its sides nearly as hard as Svanwen had. This was a lot of expectant faces. For a moment, Natchua found herself envying the relative bluntness of human senses; to Grusser and Svanwen this crowd would have been largely a blur past a certain distance. She could clearly discern every puzzled and irate frown clear to the other side of the square, and it was an entirely new kind of pressure.

The murmuring rose again, and she realized she had been standing there in silence for several seconds. She realized, then, that she didn’t actually have any specific thing to say.

But she had to say something. Well, hell, winging it hadn’t actually gotten her killed yet.

“Well, you heard them,” Natchua stated. Fortunately the charm picked up her voice and carried it across the square, but in it she heard its faltering quality. From the diaphram, as she’d learned in that one class on oratory. She tightened her midsection and when she continued, her voice was a lot firmer than she felt. “I’m afraid I haven’t much to add. What I know, you now know: the howling of wolves, dreams and portents coming to those sensitive to the fae. It’s happening all over the Empire, possibly all over the world. No one knows why, or what it means.”

The murmuring swelled again, taking on an angry note. She could pick out every individual muttered complaint. This, so far, was not going much better than Grusser’s attempt.

A frown settled over Natchua’s features and she heard her magically enhanced voice say, in a biting tone, “I must say, I find myself disappointed.”

Quiet fell. Not absolute quiet, but those who still muttered now did so mostly in confusion. Natchua pressed on, still not sure herself exactly where she was going with this but feeling she had slipped into a groove somehow.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger here,” she stated. “And to that I say: good. Whatever is going on, getting mad about it is better than buckling to fear. You had better make damn sure your anger is direction to the right place, though, and that’s at who or whatever is attacking everyone’s dreams. And since we don’t yet know who that is, you need to control yourselves.”

She had to push on over a surge of more irate voices, but did not falter; between her projecting and the vocal charm, there was little chance of anyone drowning out her voice. “Where I come from, in an event like this the Queen and matriarchs would loudly demand blind trust from everyone and send guards out to clobber anyone who wasn’t fast enough to offer it. That would be the practice in most countries in this world; I guarantee it is what’s happening right now in some parts of this Empire. Not, however, in Veilgrad. Here, you have a mayor who has led this city well, and is willing to stand before you and take the greatest risk there is in politics: admitting he does not know something.” She half-turned to shoot Grusser a long look. “A lot of politicians would have told Lars Grusser it was not wise to do this. I, however, will tell you why he did.”

Natchua turned her head back forward, and swept her stare around the assembled crowd. Somewhat to her surprise, they were even quieter now, most faces intent upon her. Apparently those public speaking techniques actually did work. It might have been wise to verify that outside a classroom and before inserting herself into this situation, but oh well.

“Because this is Veilgrad, and you have earned that respect.”

Another surge of murmuring rose, this one softer—and for the first time since she had arrived to watch the proceedings here, approving.

“If there is one place in the world where people can handle this kind of thing, it is here,” she declared, to louder noises of approbation. Repetition, her professor had said, building to a climax; Natchua rapidly cast about for examples prior to the big one on everyone’s mind. “This is the Empire’s acknowledged capital of spooky nonsense; you all live with fear and mystery, and despite that constant pressure, Veilgrad still stands. This is the place where the civilizations of Stalwar, Calderaas and Tiraas clashed for centuries, and finally found a union. That is the kind of history that destroys cities, but Veilgrad still stands!” This time, she got a smattering of cheers. “This is the city where people listen to the howls of werewolves in the mountains at every full moon, and the next day get up and go back about their business. Where not a month goes by without some new word of a disappearance or monster or unexplained event in the forests just outside, and yet here you all are still! Despite the best efforts of every specter and spook on this half of the continent, Veilgrad stands!” More cheering; her own voice was rising in pitch and volume, and it was not fully a facade anymore. Once she got going, this was gratifying. “No matter what lurks in the forests, or in the catacombs, Veilgrad stands! And when it all came to a head, when this city was tested like no other before—when the dead rose, when demons filled the skies, when monsters breached the walls and chaos itself intruded on this reality, you were pushed to the very breaking point. The forces of darkness threw everything at you, more than enough to break the spines of a lesser breed of people. They hit Veilgrad with every foul trick they had, certain it would finish you off for good. And yet?!”

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” a thousand voices roared back at her, hundreds of fists brandished in the air.

For just an instant Natchua was almost overcome by the sheer power of it all; it was heady, like a drug, like nothing else she had ever experienced. That passed immediately, though, because she was, after all, a warlock. And looking out at the mighty surge of energy animating this beast made of hundreds upon hundreds of souls, she recognized how very much like demonology this was. She held the leash of a monster that she did not control. She had only persuaded it, for now, not to turn on her. One wrong move, and it still might.

“In the days to come,” she said, loudly and firmly but with deliberately less emotion, “we’ll all know more. The Tiraan Empire is devoting every resource it has to this crisis,” or so she presumed, anyway, “and has the finest mages in existence.” Debatable, between Syralon and the high elves, but this was no time for careful attention to facts. “They will find answers. That’s what governments and leaders are for: to take care of issues that everyone else can’t while still going on about their lives. And that’s exactly the duty that falls to the rest of us now. Each and every one of you is the leading expert in one thing: going about your business. Now, while leaders, soldiers, and mages deal with whatever power is at work in the world, the call goes out for each of us to perform that ordinary task while under the most extraordinary pressure. Because life must continue, or all our struggles are meaningless. All of our lives have the worth we give them, and that’s never more clear than when danger looms over us. Around the Empire, all around the world, people are summoning the necessary courage to keep their heads down and carry on, while not knowing what’s happening. But not here. In Veilgrad, you’ve faced worse than this, and come out the stronger for it. No matter who else falls, Veilgrad stands!”

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” they shouted back. Still enthused, but less exuberant now, just as planned. Following Rafe’s instruction, she had taken hold of their emotions and was now carefully, a bit at a time, leading them back toward calm.

“Each of you must know someone who has been affected, even if you have not. If you don’t, you’ll be able to find someone. For now, this is what we all have to do: take care of each other. Everyone has a role to play in keeping the city running, and as you have time and energy left, watch for chances to help your fellow citizens. Reach out to other people in case they need a helping hand, and never be too proud to ask for one yourself. The temples and churches will be able to direct you to where you can do the most good. Because right now, this is the crisis, and that is the task: find where you can help.”

Natchua paused, looking again across the crowd. They were quieter, calmer. Her job here was almost done; with every necessary point made, it was time to wrap this up. And not a moment too soon, as she was beginning to feel a weak tingling sensation in her limbs, as if from exhaustion. Or more likely, adrenaline fading away.

“None of us knows what will happen in the future, but no one ever knows that. And we don’t need to. What we know is how to keep living. And here, in this city, we’ll keep living no matter what throws itself at us. I don’t need to tell you why.” She held her hands out in a silent invitation.

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” hundreds chorused.

“Veilgrad stands,” Natchua agreed. “Because every one of you stands, and no one stands alone. So long as you remember that, it always will.”

Nerves and fatigue had suddenly started to wear on her after the unaccustomed effort of putting on such a face for so many people; she just didn’t have much left to give. Fortunately no more was needed, as this crowd knew a stopping point when they heard one. Natchua probably couldn’t have kept going over the cheers that now broke out, anyway, and so didn’t try to.

She considered, for a bare moment, trying to surreptitiously mend fences with Grusser, but thought better of it. She needed a strategic retreat, and her performance her called for a dramatic exit.

Shadows gathered, and a moment later she was back in the tower.

Natchua blew out a breath in one gust, her cheeks puffing with the effort, and Jonathan laughed at her even as he wrapped her in his arms. She melted gratefully into his sturdy chest, closing her eyes and just letting him hold her up.

This was nice. Last night had been an experience she was still trying to parse, but this? This was really just incredibly nice. Natchua hadn’t realized how much she’d craved such simple comforts. She still was not at all sure she deserved them.

“You just never cease to surprise,” Jonathan chuckled, resting his chin on her head and stroking her hair. “I had no idea you were good at public speaking. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d be into.”

“Had a semester of it,” she mumbled. “Oratory is an elective at Last Rock, taught by Professor Rafe.”

“Rafe,” he murmured. “Wait, isn’t that the one who…”

“Yep, that’s him.”

“You didn’t let me finish.”

“Unless the rest of that sentence was ‘is known for his good taste and restraint,’ the answer is always Rafe.”

He laughed again, and subtly twisted his body back and forth, rocking her. Natchua permitted herself a sigh, snuggling closer. Gods, this was just so nice… It just needed Hesthri to be perfect.

Outside, the chants of “Veilgrad stands!” had sprung up again. No doubt Grusser, politician that he was, had seized the chance to step in front of that and put his face on it. Well, she was inclined to let him, so long as the man didn’t get himself pelted with produce like he’d been about to.

“Well, I can’t say you didn’t pull it off,” Jonathan stated after a pause. “I’ll admit I was worried, when you vanished. No offense.”

“None taken, Jonathan, I’ve met me. It was a hasty thing to do, but I wouldn’t have tried it if I hadn’t had at least a little coaching in the art. Grusser was doing everything all wrong, trying to reason calmly with a crowd like that. Rafe said something in class that’s always stuck with me: if you ask a crowd of people to be brave, or calm, or intelligent, or anything with an ounce of virtue, they’ll probably lynch you. But if you convince them they already are those things, they’ll love you for it, and then if you give them an opportunity to prove it, they probably will.”

“Cynical,” he murmured.

Natchua nodded wearily, rubbing her cheek against his shirt. “Well, you know me. Cynical reasoning is more likely to appeal to me than idealism. Based on how that went down, it seems he was right.”

“Do you really believe that?” Jonathan asked softly, stilling his rocking of her. “That people can’t be reasoned with?”

“They absolutely can’t. A person can be reasoned with. I have to believe that, whether or not it’s true, or the sheer despair would drive me bonkers.” He chuckled, and she couldn’t help smiling in response. “People, though? The way Professor Rafe explained it… People are social animals. Get them in groups and they’ll always look to each other to see what they should be doing instead of thinking it over themselves. So you have to treat a crowd like an excitable child, because a crowd always ends up reflecting the outbursts of the most emotional person in it. It doesn’t mean people are stupid, or unreasonable, it’s just a reflection of how they think. How we all think. We can’t really help what we are.”

“Hm. I have to say, that makes a troubling amount of sense,” he mused. “Explains a lot of stuff I’ve seen, too.”

Natchua stiffened suddenly, pulling back to look around the small tower room. “Wait. Where the hell is Kheshiri?”

“She went back to Malivette,” he assured her, “muttering something about damage control. I’m none too sure about letting that creature run around loose, but I was even less sure of my ability to contain her.”

“No, that’s…yeah, you made the right call, there. I can always count on you to do that, Jonathan.”

He gazed seriously down at her, gently brushing a lock of white hair back out of her face with one big, callused hand. “On the subject of things that’ll have to be dealt with, Natch… You just shadow-jumped, twice, in public. In the most public kind of public you could possibly have arranged. Unregistered warlocks in the Tiraan Empire tend to attract attention from the government.”

“The government’s pretty busy right now,” she pointed out with a little smile.

He gave her a look.

“It’s okay, Jonathan,” she reassured him. “I think. I’d planned to make a point of how I was working for Malivette, but as it happened, Ms. Svanwen went and did it for me, bless her. Nobles can get away with a lot, including having pet warlocks in their employ. Believe me, I read up on that; it’s part of why I decided to attach myself to Sherwin. If anybody comes ’round asking questions I can point to the backing of both local Houses.”

“Malivette isn’t likely to appreciate that,” he pointed out.

Natchua smiled darkly. “Malivette should maybe have thought more carefully before she decided to try fitting a leash on me.”

He sighed. “So you ended up vying with her for political power, after all. Exactly like Kheshiri wanted you too.”

“I know, Jon, I know. The fact is…she wasn’t wrong. That may well be the best way to keep from ending up as Vette’s lackey. At least, I couldn’t think of a better one. And hey, it also worked to prevent that crowd from turning into a riot.”

“Grusser does seem to be doing a better job of leading them now,” Jonathan agreed, glancing to the iron-barred windows. The chanting was trailing off, but the ambient sounds of the crowd weren’t angry anymore, and that was still an improvement over how it had started. “I just worry. Succubi… I’m still not sanguine about Melaxyna, and Kheshiri makes my skin crawl.”

“Good,” she said frankly. “Embrace that, it’s your intuition being extremely right. We can’t cease to think, though. Just because Kheshiri suggests something doesn’t automatically make it wrong; that’s it’s own trap, and a quick way for us to drive ourselves nuts, besides.”

He pulled her back in for another hug, and she willingly let him, resting her head on his shoulder and letting her eyes close once more.

“What’s our next move, then?” Jonathan asked.

“This fae business is way outside my wheelhouse,” Natchua muttered. “Still. It would be utterly daft to just ignore it and hope it goes away. First I’ll see if Xyraadi has any ideas; the khelminash know secrets even I don’t. Failing that, I have other avenues of investigation. I don’t like turning to Qadira; djinn are as tricky as Vanislaads. Just checking on how willing she is to talk can provide hints as to how serious the matter is, though. At some point soon, I’d also like to jump back to Ninkabi to talk to Mr. Agasti. Even if he has no hard data—which is possible, he’s pretty connected in that city—he’s a smart fellow.”

“Mmkay,” he said. “And…generally?”

“This is a nice excuse to deal with something that probably doesn’t concern us directly,” Natchua admitted. “Good chance to…settle in. Let the hobs work on the house, let Mel work on Sherwin. Let us…”

His breath was warm on her ear; she trembled in spite of herself when he bent to lightly kiss its pointed tip. “Yes?”

Natchua grinned into his shoulder, wrapping both arms around him to squeeze as hard as she was able. “Let’s go home. We really shouldn’t leave Hes out of the loop.”


The narrow slats between the blinds which covered the windows of the town hall’s uppermost room served much the same function as the decorative ironwork in the tower’s windows. Someone standing there could see everything in the square below while being functionally invisible to anyone looking up at the house.

Nonetheless, Malivette stood well back from the blinds, and the sunlight peeking through them. That small amount of sunlight wouldn’t have been any worse than a discomfort for her, but it would be a discomfort with no purpose. She didn’t need to see out to know what was happening. Every word of Natchua’s speech had been perfectly audible to her, as was the crowd, still chanting their new slogan.

Kheshiri slithered up behind her, wrapping first her arms and then her wings around the vampire’s gaunt form and resting her warm chin on Malivette’s bony shoulder.

“You see what I mean, though,” the succubus cooed in her ear. “Right, m’lady? She has…such potential.”

Malivette stood rigid as a gargoyle, not about to indulge the demon’s flirtatious insinuations. Her crimson eyes narrowed to slits as she gazed pensively at the window.

“Hmmmm.”

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15 – 50

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“Really, that’s your concern?” Captain Antevid asked in a tone just a hair too polite to be openly sardonic. “The world being rocked by what can only be called an apocalypse, and you’re most worried about whether the Empire will use it against you?”

“Thou speakest in haste, as is ever the wont of thy kin,” Shiraki intoned solemnly in his archaic Tanglish. “In the passing of our ages, we have observed many upsets such as this. They harkened not the end of our world, and nor will the current travail. And yet, however dire the portents and deep the suffering, ever do the thrones of mankind scheme toward their own advantage. Wherefore, then, should we blindly offer trust amid this tumult?”

By and large, the strike team were doing an excellent job of keeping pace with the three elves as they navigated through the Jendi forest. It showed an uncommon degree of agility for humans, but perhaps not unexpected of the Empire’s finest. Now, the captain proved he was adroit enough to cast meaningful looks at each member of his team and then another on Sheyann, all while traipsing through waist-high brush and without slowing his pace.

“Is he really going to do that all day?” Antevid inquired.

“You must forgive Elder Shiraki, Captain,” Sheyann replied with a wry expression. “He makes it a point of pride to be out of touch.”

Shiraki, of course, had absolutely no difficulty navigating the forest at a brisk walking speed, which he now demonstrated by bowing while in motion, as if he had just been paid a compliment.

“Every hospital is filled to capacity,” Antevid said abruptly, eyes ahead now. “Religious, private, government…all of them. And there’s just not much they can do for persistent nightmares and vision comas. Temples are being swamped and police forces barely keeping a lid on the agitated public. There were riots in Shaathvar overnight, and apparently it came very close to that point in Veilgrad and Leineth. ImCom is inundated with pleas for help from every corner of the Empire. And that’s just what we were briefed on before being deployed this morning before dawn. This is a crisis. The Emperor has decreed that we’re to go to war footing. Every unit of the Army is activated and are being spread across every inhabited region of Tiraan territory. By this time tomorrow there will be at least some military presence in any town in the Empire with a population of more than a hundred souls.”

The team’s cleric cleared her throat. “Lance, should you really be briefing the elves…?”

“I’m going to assume that anything they could read in today’s papers isn’t classified, Rosa,” he replied. “If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll owe Lord Vex an apology.”

“And what can soldiers do against dreams?” Sheyann asked quietly.

“As little as your tone implies, Elder,” Antevid replied in a nearly identical tone. “But their presence will reassure people that they are being protected, and that the government has not abandoned them. Also, soldiers with battlestaves will be more than capable of repelling incursions by wild wolves. Even if they come in impossible numbers out of the elemental planes in random locations, which ImCom is treating as a serious possibility.”

“Highly unlikely,” Sheyann murmured.

“Impossible?”

“Unlikely,” she repeated. “I only wish I could say what is not possible on this day.”

“War footing is about logistics and infrastructure as much as military deployment,” Tellwyrn mused, pensively tapping her lips with a fingertip. “It means suspending civilian access to the Rails and telescroll network, and clearing non-Imperial traffic from the highways. That’ll slow the spread of rumor and refugees, which will help preserve stability. It also activates the House guard of every House that has one and places them under the command of the Throne; in addition to having the extra troops, any nobles inclined to stir up trouble will be deprived of one of their biggest stirring spoons. And while the Throne can’t command the cults directly, under the Third Covenant they will all be mobilized as well, coordinating under the Universal Church to assist the public according to their specific talents. With the soldiers heading out, a lot of peacekeeping duties will be taken over by the Silver Legions…” She glanced sidelong at the strike team, who continued to walk alongside the elves with a few feet of space between the two groups. “War footing would usually mean military forces being concentrated along borders and frontiers.”

“If you’re worried about your school being occupied, relax,” Captain Antevid replied, winking at her. “The Golden Sea frontier hasn’t been a military concern since Sarsamon’s day. Last Rock will get the same token Army presence as every other tiny town, and there’s no reason any Imperial personnel would set foot on University grounds. Anyway, as I said, troops are being dispersed as evenly as possible across the Empire. Which is basically the worst possible deployment in military terms, but the threat is evenly dispersed, everywhere, and so that’s where the response has to go.”

Tellwyrn nodded, apparently mollified. “Politically speaking, this is serious business indeed, Sheyann. The Emperor didn’t even go to war footing during the hellgate crisis. It’s a good move, but only in the very short term. The longer this goes on, the more pressure it’s going to put on every sector of the economy and on the public’s patience, not to mention that the very term war footing will make people think the Empire is under attack, even if that’s not explicitly the case. Sharidan is gambling with very high stakes that he can identify and end this threat quickly. It’s a bold strategy. Pretty risky, though.”

“The next time I see his Majesty I will relay your concerns, Professor,” Antevid said solemnly. “I’m sure he’s kicking himself for not consulting you. My point is, Elders, this is a hazard of unprecedented scale. The idea of seizing control of…whatever’s going on, while it may alarm you, is not even a factor in the Empire’s response. If I were handed a golden opportunity to take control of a conveniently pocket-sized fae weapon, gift-wrapped and served on a silver platter and garnished with a handy instruction manual, then yeah, sure, I’d take the opportunity. That falls under my general mandate as a servant of the Silver Throne. But I consider that possibility too remote to be arsed about. My orders are to find out what is happening and shut it down with extreme prejudice. Secondary objectives are to gather enough intelligence to prevent this from happening again, and keep other interested parties from interfering, to the extent that those goals can be pursued without compromising the core mission. So I assure you, the Empire is not regarding this as an opportunity.”

“Do the elves need to know the full details of our mission?” Lieutenant Mahmenaad asked in a strained voice.

“Rosa is very concerned about operational security,” Antevid confided, winking again. “It’s a laudable trait in a soldier. But, again, so long as I’m in command I will exercise judgment concerning what we’ll do about whom. If three elves want to help put a stop to all this and not take control of it themselves, I will gladly accept their help. You can’t do much better than grove Elders when it comes to handling fairy nonsense.”

“Have you had to deal with many other concerned parties here?” Sheyann asked.

“Most of the personnel now combing this stretch of N’Jendo are Imperial,” he replied. “The Azure Corps is out here in force, as well as multiple strike teams. We’ve not met anyone else personally, but evidently other teams have removed personnel from Syralon and Rodvenheim to Tiraas for a remedial lesson in the sovereignty of national borders. We were just the few lucky enough to run across your charming selves.” He gave them a sunny smile.

“Lance Antevid,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “Of House Antevid, in Vrandis?”

“Indeed! My great-aunt attended your school.”

“Telora, yes, I remember. What an insufferable pest of a girl. I quite liked her.”

“We shall reach the lodge anon,” Shiraki noted. “I have seen no sign of Huntsmen on the watch ’round their home—another troubling portent.”

“This will have upset them more than most,” the team’s witch noted. Though clean-shaven in contrast with Shaathist sensibilities, he was a blond man of clearly Stalweiss origin, complete with a heavy mountain accent that only came from deep in the remotest reaches of the Stalrange.

“Well, our new friends have brought us the first solid lead all day,” said Antevid. “As soon as we find out what there is to be found at the lodge, we’ll need to report in. You three stay with the elves while I ‘port to field command and back.”

“I will shadow-jump to deliver the report,” Lieutenant Agasti replied impassively.

“Maehe sometimes forgets she’s not in command of this team,” Antevid commented, giving Tellwyrn a conspiratorial smile.

“Lance sometimes forgets he’s not a storybook wizard with three sidekicks,” the warlock retorted in a sharper tone. Unusually for a Tiraan soldier, she was a Tidestrider woman, complete with braids and facial tattoos. “This is a fae threat; my magic is all but useless here. I will handle rapid transport while you conserve mana for whatever more aggressive measures are needed, as protocol dictates.”

“You know she’s right,” Lieutenant Mahmenaad added. “If you wanna be a hero, Lance, at least be sensible.”

“Verily, ’tis a passing strange turn,” Shiraki observed, “that amongst the Emperor’s retainers, ’tis the warlocks who speak sense. Hark, now, we approach.”

“Yes, better hark if we’re close,” Antevid added solemnly. “Rolf, what’re we walking into?”

“The lodge is at the top of this rise, just over the ridge,” his witch reported. “There are people present. Agitated people, some with fae gifts… I’m sorry, Captain, that’s the best I can do right here and now. This whole forest is practically swimming with agitated spirits. I’m only able to do that much because the Elders are exerting a calming presence.” He half-turned while walking to nod deeply to the elves.

Sheyann nodded back. “Listening to the whispers of the spirits, I feel the fear and anger of the Huntsmen and their families even from here. They appear fully focused inward, not even keeping their customary watch. And…I believe there is an elf among them, a shaman. This, it would seem, is the place.”

“Form up,” Antevid said quietly, his expression completely serious now. The strike team smoothly shifted to a square formation with himself and Mahmenaad in the front, positioned to meet any fae threat with divine and arcane magic. Shiraki gave them a sidelong look, but kept his face expressionless.

The forest was mostly flat, coming quite abruptly to the foot of the rise upon which the lodge was hidden. The paired groups emerged from the treeline several yards from an obvious trail leading up to the top, and without speaking strode over to that before ascending. There was still no visible sign of anyone’s presence, though by that point the distant conversations atop the ridge were audible to the elves, at least.

Only upon reaching the top were they met. Cresting the rise, they found the lodge itself, a classic Shaathist longhouse of modest size, positioned against a higher hill at the rear with a long yard stretching out before. The whole flat top of the ridge was surrounded by a low lip of earth and several pines, helping to obscure its presence from sight below. People were clustered around the fire pit before the longhouse, one of whom was just striding toward them as they arrived.

He was a Huntsman, clearly, a man with graying hair and rather sunken eyes, likely due to the sleepless night he and everyone else here would have just spent.

“I apologize,” he said curtly, “but the lodge is not open to visitors this day.”

“Well, it’s about to be,” Captain Antevid replied with a pleasant smile. “We need to have a word with you about the recent events I’m sure you’re aware of.”

The Huntsman scowled more deeply. “I don’t wish to be rude—”

“Let me spare you the trouble,” Antevid interrupted. “We, if you can’t tell from the uniforms, are from the Imperial Strike Corps. That means I have the legal authority to go wherever my mission requires on Imperial territory, the physical capacity to flatten this entire lodge, and the legal authority to also do that. Whatever you people just did has had repercussions all across the Empire, and I do not have time for Shaathist standoffishness right now.”

“The Captain, though pushy, isn’t without a point,” Tellwyrn added. “Fortunately, my friends here are extremely well-versed in fae magic and can probably help. Since we all know,” she amended with a significant look at Antevid, “you lot didn’t have the magical wherewithal to do this.”

“Do we?” Antevid demanded. “Do we really know that?”

“Lodgemaster,” the Huntsman said, turning to another man who approached them. “Imperial soldiers. And elves, who say they want to help.”

“Oh, really,” the new arrival stated sourly. “I am Arjuni, and I lead here. I’ll ask your forgiveness for the state of my lodge’s hospitality, but we have had about as much help from elves as we can survive today.”

“So you’re in charge here, then?” Antevid inquired. “Right. What do you know about what’s happened here?”

“Oh, let them help!” piped up a new voice. “Please, I should think you know very well that we need any and all help we can get.”

“And this is what I meant,” Arjuni said with a heavy scowl, turning his head to glare at the man who approached him from the lodge. This one was an elf, with upright ears and black hair. “Huntsmen are always inclined to greet Naiya’s children with respect, but that was before I learned of your role in this gigantic mess, Rainwood. And now, more of them? Are these at least better elves?”

“Well, I dunno from better, but these know their way around a disaster,” Rainwood said bluntly. “All three fought in the Third Hellwar and that one’s Tellwyrn, if that helps you any.”

“Indeed.” The look Arjuni turned back on them was thoughtful, and more respectful.

“Rainwood,” Shiraki said with heavy disapproval. “I confess, thy presence and involvement in this disappoints me. Wandering vagrant though thou art, I had for thine intellect more respect than this, ere this day.”

“And I see Elder Shiraki is still doing that,” Rainwood said disparagingly. “Look, Arjuni, it’s not my general habit to roll out the welcome mat for Imperial troops and I definitely don’t care for the airs grove Elders like to put on, but I wasn’t kidding. Any competent help here will be important. Please let them in.”

“Rainwood,” Tellwyrn interjected, “what in the hell did you do?”

“Well,” he hedged, “it is a bit of a story. If you’d—”

“He tried to replicate a Shadow Hunter ritual,” Arjuni said, “for communion with wolves. Except he didn’t know how it was done and used fae spirits to stand in for the alchemy they use. He did this to a mixed party of younglings from my lodge and more from the local Shadow Hunters, as well as a group of apostates led by Brother Ingvar from Tiraas.”

“There’s a bit more backstory that explains—”

Once again, Arjuni pressed on over Rainwood’s attempted explanations. “You would know better than I exactly how ill-advised that was, but even Rainwood acknowledges that he failed to account for the effect of the existing disturbance among the spirits on his ritual. And further,” he added, shooting Rainwood a hostile look, “for the effect of casting this upon a group which included the dryad Aspen. I did not even know that dryads have a latent transformative ability, but he appears to have triggered that, as well as her deep connection to her mother’s magic. As a result, an entire group of people and a pack of wolves have been transformed into some sort of spirit beasts, which are now heading right toward Ninkabi, and apparently calling out as they go to everyone who has the slightest sensitivity to fae magic, everywhere.”

There was a momentary silence in which everyone stared at Rainwood. He chewed sullenly on the inside of his cheek, saying nothing.

“Aspen,” Sheyann said at last. “Why did it have to be Aspen? We just un-transformed her. It is so very like you to wreck someone else’s hard work, Rainwood.”

“He’s one of Kuriwa’s get,” Tellwyrn mused. “She’ll be seven shades of pissy if we kill him.”

“Oh, everything’s murder with you,” Sheyann retorted. “This is not one of those situations that will be neatly solved by striking down the person responsible, Arachne.”

“I think,” Antevid stated, still staring at Rainwood, “we had better listen to the long version before we do anything else. And then make with the doing as soon as we have a plan of action. The Elder is right, you can be dealt with after your mess is cleaned up.”

“Oh, good,” Arjuni said, scowling. “Excellent. More help.”


One face of the sprawling castle-like structure which served as the city hall and governor’s residence in Veilgrad faced the city’s largest square. Not the side on which it had its entrances; along the wall here was a permanent dais intended for public addresses.

Currently, the square was filled by an alarmingly restless crowd, and the no less than a dozen staff-carrying Imperial soldiers barring access to the dais were themselves beginning to look quite tense. Lars Grusser currently stood at the podium, his voice projected by an arcane charm as he alternated pleas for calm with attempted explanations of what had been happening. Given that his explanations thus far had consisted mostly of admissions of ignorance and platitudes to the effect of the Empire having everything under control, he did not appear to be having much of an effect on the clearly riled populace. Behind him stood several other city and provincial leaders, who as the address went on had begun to display increasing nervousness themselves by clustering closer together under the crowd’s angry stares.

One tower at the corner of the city hall held an excellent vantage over both the dais and the square, and further had its windows covered by elaborate wrought ironwork which left just enough of a gap that those in the space behind could clearly see out, while being completely obscured from view from below.

“This looks bad,” Jonathan murmured, staring down. “I realize that’s probably unnecessary to point out, but I’ve seen a few riots; I don’t know if you two have. If not, you may not appreciate exactly how bad this could get. That guy means well but he clearly has no idea how to handle a riled-up crowd.”

“Oh, I’ve seen more than a few,” Kheshiri cooed. “Ranging in scale from bar brawls to full-sized revolutions. You’re right, this has all the hallmarks of a situation which is not under anyone’s control. That Grusser fellow will be lucky if the worst thing that happens is that the Empire replaces him with somebody who can actually placate the rabble.”

“Who’s that dwarf on the dais?” he asked.

“She heads the company from the Dwarnskolds that was brought in to restore the catacombs,” Natchua said. “I met her the other day.”

Jonathan leaned back from the window, shooting Kheshiri a sidelong look. “I may regret asking, but I don’t suppose your particular gifts could help calm this down…”

“Sorry, handsome, but de-escalation isn’t part of the succubus toolbox. Now, if you want this turned into a riot, gimme two minutes and a kiss for luck.” She shrugged, grinning. “I can give a pretty good speech, but I’d need both a way to get to the dais and an excuse for being there, both of which are tricky.”

“Jonathan, we don’t ask Kheshiri to help,” Natchua said pointedly. “Her talents are properly used skulking around backstage collecting information. Speaking of which, why exactly did Malivette want you to show us this?”

“It wasn’t so much that she wanted you to see it, per se, as she gave me permission to show you,” the succubus said sweetly.

Natchua grunted. “So she wanted you out from underfoot. How much of that was due to the situation itself and how much to you needling at her?”

“See, that’s why I adore you, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered. “You’re nowhere near as daft as you like to act. It’s a classic grift, but a respectable one.”

“Kheshiri,” the drow warned.

“I didn’t have a specific end in mind,” Kheshiri said, immediately growing serious. “But it’s always my base assumption that you’ll want to know what’s happening so you can make your own plans. You don’t strike me as the kind of person to sit back and let things just happen to you. Whatever’s happening, it is clearly going to have wide-ranging repercussions that have only just started to be felt. If nothing else, we’re based just outside this city, and the last time there were riots in Veilgrad a mob went right after Manor Leduc.”

“Great,” Jonathan muttered.

“What do you know about what’s happening?” Natchua asked.

“Very little,” Kheshiri shrugged again, “but I insist that’s no reflection on me; I know as much as anyone does, which is still almost nothing. Unseen wolves howling all night, and constant nightmares about wolves for everyone sensitive to dream magic. This isn’t just here, either, it’s happening at least all over the Empire, and the leading assumption last I heard was that the event is worldwide. The government is scrambling to figure out what’s going on and deal with it, as is everyone else who fancies themselves a player, but they’ve barely had time to start, and nobody has any answers. At least, no answers that are going to calm down that crowd. Apparently Shaathvar’s already had to be fully occupied by Imperial troops to restore order. It may come to that here.”

“Veilgrad is not a good place for this, Natch,” Jonathan said, turning to her. “It’s always been known for mysteries and wild magic, which is the only reason this isn’t already worse, but that chaos crisis a year ago left a mark on the city and the minds of everyone here. These people are entirely out of patience with magical crap.”

“Mm.” Natchua stared down at the increasingly angry crowd, absently rubbing her thumb across her fingertips. “Why, Kheshiri, did you want me to see this?”

“Why, mistress, as I told you—” There was a sharp snap as if a very small firecracker had gone off in the room and the succubus broke off with a yelp, seizing the tip of her tail.

“I’m not in the mood,” Natchua stated.

“Nobody appreciates my flair for subtext,” Kheshiri complained. “All right, fine, this is all part and parcel of what you asked me to do with Malivette. She wants to control you; you don’t want her to. It would be inconvenient to leave Veilgrad and disastrous to try to challenge her directly, and having me trip her up is at best a holding action. The best course of action to thwart her, mistress, is to seize the initiative. She wants you to work as some kind of fixer and problem-solver for Veilgrad? Perfect, start solving problems before she asks you to. The more known, liked, and respected you are around here, the less ability Malivette has to keep a leash on you.”

“I hardly want to challenge Malivette for control of the province,” Natchua said scathingly.

“Well, that’s the age-old dilemma, mistress,” said the succubus. “Power is freedom. Hermits and recluses aren’t truly free, they’ve only chosen the nature of their prison. Being free from the influence of others means having influence of your own.”

“She’s talking plain sense, Natchua,” Jonathan warned. “That means she’s trying to manipulate you.”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua murmured, squeezing his hand. “Put that idea right out of your head, Kheshiri. I want a peaceful coexistence with Malivette, not a feud.”

“Okay,” Kheshiri said with another shrug. “Just think about what conditions will have to be met before she lets you have one.”

“I think your original idea is best, love,” Jonathan murmured, placing a hand against Natchua’s lower back and leaning in toward her ear. “We’re better off staying out of sight, in the background.”

“I agree,” she said with a soft sigh, momentarily leaning against him, “but it may be too late for that, after the production I made of the last favor Malivette asked of me. And if there’s one thing I’m good at doing, it’s coping with the consequences of my mistakes.”

“I believe that,” he said frankly.

She grinned at him. “You have to lean into the fall, Jonathan. Freezing up or trying to abruptly change course will only make it worse. I’m already the local warlock who loudly cuts through complicated problems… And this situation right here is clearly not under anyone’s control. If something isn’t done very quickly it’s going to get ugly beyond belief. We definitely can’t afford for Veilgrad to be entirely upended.”

“Natch,” he said delicately, rubbing her back in a soothing motion, “you know I respect your ability, but I think it’s worth considering how applicable your particular skills—”

Suddenly he was caressing shadows, and then nothing. From below there came a general outcry from across the square as Natchua materialized abruptly on the dais.

Jonathan heaved a sigh. “And there she goes.”

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The Shaathists were the last to arrive.

Ingvar had known in advance there would be three; the awareness was a constant tingle in the back of his mind, something to which he was not accustomed. There were six in his own party, and three Rangers had showed up. His learned sense of social and political rhythms combined with instinctive understanding of the balance inherent in nature, and a growing intuition he didn’t quite comprehend yet, to forewarn him of the shape of the thing forming before his eyes. Six of his own followers, six skeptical seekers, and the final party Rainwood had quietly told him was coming—also, he expected, six.

They were in the realm of the spirits, now. These things didn’t just happen. Ingvar was no shaman, could not speak directly to any invisible fae, but there was definitely something guiding him along.

Dimbi had brought two fellow Rangers, both older than she. So far, both Sha and Intima, as they had been introduced, had opted to remain silent and watch, leaving their more garrulous junior to do the speaking. Sha had kept the hood of the Ranger cloak up and clutched her longbow in front of herself as if for comfort, while Intima simply regarded everyone impassively, his broad features schooled into almost meditative stillness. Huge man that he was, a head taller than Ingvar and correspondingly broad, even that was vaguely menacing, but none of them had offered the slightest hostility. They were, after all, here. Had Dimbi or anyone she spoke to wished harm upon this endeavor, they could have just taken the story directly to their leader. Ingvar had to trust that they had come out of sincere curiosity, if only because suspiciously grilling them would just undercut what he was trying to accomplish.

Their location was not difficult to find for anyone remotely skilled in tracking; of the six of them, only Rainwood might have been hard to follow. Specifically wanting to be found, Ingvar had not troubled to walk with care once their daily hunting for necessary food was done, and they had left a veritable highway to this clearing. Now, in the center, there glowed a most unusual bonfire, created by the shaman’s craft from living branches piled with their still-green leaves emerging. The flame was white and put off no heat, but a steady glow not unlike the moon. Rather than the flickering glow of fire, it was as intense and even as a fairy lamp. The quiet blaze produced numerous little dancing lights, which one moment resembled nothing more than the sparks put off by any campfire except in clean white, and the next looked more like glowing butterflied fluttering under their own impetus, but fading from existence before they could be observed closely.

Shortly after full dusk, a lull had fallen, the Rangers exhibiting patience even as their expressions remained cynical; Ingvar had asked them to wait for the last arrivals before commencing the true purpose of this gathering. There was quiet, then, when the Shaathists emerged from the shadows of the trees.

Two of them Ingvar recognized as the youths who had accompanied three full Huntsmen previously, the Tiraan boy Samaan and another whose name he hadn’t heard. It was no surprise that it would be the young who were most curious and adventurous. Unexpectedly, though, they followed a man who was genuinely old, his hair fully white and his posture slightly stooped. He was a full Huntsman, though, carrying a blessed longbow and wearing both a bearskin cape and a bronze wolf’s head pin. Lean, wiry and still tall despite his aged hunch, he stepped fully into the clearing, sweeping a quick stare around all those assembled.

“Well, well,” the old man said aloud, his voice creaking slightly with age but still strong and clear. “It seems we’re expected!”

“Welcome,” Ingvar replied, nodding to him. “You are, indeed. All of us are some degree of surprised to find ourselves here; I simply have the benefit of a little more time to being ushered along by forces I cannot see.”

“And that would make you the famous Brother Ingvar,” the elder Huntsman said, eyeing him critically up and down.

“I suppose I’ll have to get used to being the famous Brother Ingvar,” he replied with a sigh.

“I imagined someone taller,” the old man grunted, then grinned. “But then, that’s exactly what I say every time I pass a mirror.”

“What are you of all people doing sniffing around this apostate, Dantu?” Sha demanded in a growl. “Going to switch sides yet again?”

“Brother Dantu has a bit of a history,” the second Shaathist apprentice, the local boy whose name Ingvar didn’t know, interjected with a wry smile, stepping closer to the eerie firelight and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “He left the lodge in his youth to join the Shadow Hunters, and years later returned to the true path.”

“True path,” Dimbi repeated, her tone precariously heavy with sarcasm.

“That must be a long and remarkable story,” said Ingvar in a deliberately calm tone before more hostility could emerge.

“Right and wrong are usually not as simple as true and false,” Dantu said with a more sober expression. “Sometimes they aren’t even as simple as right and wrong, and that’s when you really have to watch your step. We tend to paint ourselves into intractable moral dilemmas by trying to make things simpler than they are. The Huntsmen say one thing, the Rangers another, and leave nuance to the fairies. Something tells me, Famous Brother Ingvar, you’ve come to make all our lives good and complicated again. I’ve come to see whether the upset you bright might be a solution, or just more problems. The boys, here, tell me you put on quite a show.”

“Oh, he does at that,” Taka agreed. “I’m still not sure how into all this mystic hunter business I am, but I’ve gotta say Ingvar’s never boring.”

“Glad to see you two again,” Ingvar said, making eye contact with each of the lads. “Samaan, and…?”

“How’d you know that?” Samaan demanded, one hand falling to the tomahawk hanging at his waist.

“Easy, there, Sam,” the other urged, smiling faintly. “Last time, you made Djinti call you down by name, remember? I’m Kanatu,” he added, nodding deeply to Ingvar, “the one who remembers details.”

“Oh, shut up,” Samaan grunted. “Very well, you expected us to come looking for you, we’re all impressed. Obviously you’ve gone to some trouble to set all this up. Let’s hear what you have to say, then.”

Ingvar looked over at Rainwood, who nodded to him.

“I have little enough to say,” Ingvar answered. “If it were that simple, all of this would be unnecessary. I’ve warned both of your groups, respectively, that I bring you painful, disruptive truths, and that I’m only a messenger; this business won’t leave you in peace if you drive me off. I wouldn’t have listened to the truth when it was first shown to me. That’s why it had to be shown.”

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Kanatu said with a shrug, glancing warily over at the three quiet Rangers in their gray-green cloaks. “Say, show, whatever it is, whip it out.”

“Several of you are already well acquainted with this,” Ingvar said, now looking at the Rangers himself. Sha nodded and Dimbi quirked an ironic little smile, though Intima remained impassive as a tree. He made eye contact with Dantu, whose previously animated features had gone inscrutable. Ingvar had known several men like this one during his time with the Huntsmen, free thinkers who skirted the boundaries of tradition, never quite transgressing enough to be called down by the lodgemaster but subtly thumbing their noses at everyone. They were always the most willing to entertain unconventional ideas. Now, he had to wonder how many of those men had learned shocking truths and yet chosen the comfort of faith and community over harsh reality, as Dantu evidently had. “In fact, this is a pivotal moment for those following me, as well. Tholi in particular has been more than patient with my vague hints up till now.”

He paused, feeling the weight of everyone’s expectant stares, and turning his eyes to the mysterious white flame.

“For some of you, this will be a repetition of an old revelation. For others, merely…trivia. But for some, it will be a shock that may strip away everything you understand about the world. I have known tribulation in my time, as you can only imagine. Not every lodge is equally welcoming of a man in my position, and my career with the Huntsmen has been an often painful balance between the path to which I was called and a community that sometimes despised me. Yet I will warn you now that what you are about to see was the thing that hurt me the most. There is no pain quite like having your beliefs carved away. If any of you choose to walk away rather than face this, I will not name them coward.”

The Rangers didn’t react at all; Dantu’s thin shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. Kanatu just folded his arms.

“I’m not afraid of anything you have to show me,” Samaan snorted. “Let’s see you impress, Ingvar.”

Ingvar was positioned near the middle of the row of his own party, lined up along one side of the fire; he now glanced to both sides, taking in their expressions. Rainwood and Aspen both smiled encouragingly, while Tholi looked downright eager. Taka was going out of her way to appear as skeptical as the Rangers, and November just looked reserved. He suspected she was grappling with her own questions about why Avei had sent her into the middle of this business.

“Then I’ll ask you to please be respectful and hold your peace while the last members of this gathering arrive.”

“Who the hell else is coming to this?” Samaan muttered.

“Lad, when you’ll find out just the same whether or not you ask, it’s always better to keep quiet,” Dantu advised.

Ingvar was watching Rainwood sidelong. The elf had closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. He could not feel shamanism at work, at least not explicitly or directly, but that sense was there. Of pressure, of potential, something vast in motion and not related to him but certain to determine the course of his next actions. It was, he reflected, very much like the sense of a thunderstorm rolling forward.

Then they arrived, and he swept all of that from his mind.

Where before only the single female had answered the call, now Rainwood’s entreaties via the spirits had successfully summoned the whole pack. The whole family.

There were six of them, rounding out the formation. Six of Ingvar’s party to start, the three Rangers and three Shaathists making six more, even more obviously now as they shifted away from the new arrivals with gasps and muffled exclamations, forgetting the tension between them to make way for the pack of wild wolves who stepped out of the darkness and up to the firelight.

“The Rangers have a rite for this purpose,” Ingvar said while the assembled group stared in mingled awe and fear at the predators joining them in the firelight. “I lack access to their secrets, and so this is not that. Rainwood has lent us his talents and the aid of his spirit guides to ask these guests for their guidance. In the faith of Shaath, there is no creature more sacred than the wolf. It is their ways which are held up as the ideal of living. The crux of the problem with the Huntsmen today is that they believe things about wolves which are purely untrue. Now, tonight, these honored guests, with the aid of the fae spirits all around us, will show us the truth of their lives. Please, sit.”

He folded himself smoothly to the ground, sitting cross-legged. One by one, the rest followed suit, several obviously reluctant to adopt a less defensible stance in the presence of so many of nature’s perfect hunters. It helped that the wolves appeared to hear his request and themselves sat down in a loose arc around their edge of the fire, all six gazing impassively at the humans with their ears up and alert. One by one, the rest of the party sank to the earth.

“This may be disorienting in its first moments,” Ingvar said quietly, accompanied by an intensifying glow from the white fire. “Rest assured that you are safe here. We meet under a pact of peace; these are friends and companions. What now unfolds is the craft of a master shaman. Still your unease, and trust the process as it comes to completion.”

The fire continued to glow while he spoke, its light beginning to waver almost like a natural fire’s, and mist poured out from its base to wash gently across the clearing in a luminous white carpet. The wolves showed no reaction to this, though several of the two-legged participants in the ritual shifted uncertainly, eyes darting.

Ingvar breathed in and out, deliberately following his own advice. He had checked again with Rainwood before beginning this; the shaman said that the spirits in the world were still agitated, but it was nothing to do with them and should have no impact.

The “should” was worrying. But they were here at the behest of those same spirits, as well as the gods themselves. At a certain point, a person simply had to have faith, and keep going.

In unison, the six seated wolves raised their noses skyward and cried aloud, their mournful howling echoing across the forest. It was a stunning music, and a truly astonishing thing to experience so close. Also, at that proximity, incredibly loud.

This time, none of those gathered made any noises in response, but Ingvar could tell just by glancing across them that they felt what he felt. The howl of a wolf was a call to family, a summons. It stirred, tugged at something inside himself placed there by the magic in which they had all partaken.

The mist rose around each of them, drifting upward in twelve little banks to wash smoothly over them, and then each began to take shape. Around every person, the shadow of a wolf cast in white moonlight formed, raising its head to cry mutely in answer to the call.

Of their own volition, he felt his eyes closing. By the time they had fully shut, the spirits and the wolves had supplanted his vision.


They were a large pack, and an uncertain one, still growing used to one another. They trusted him, though, and he honored that trust, devoting himself to leading them as best he could. He looked after is family, and they did after him. It was not a matter of asserting his will, but simply of the love between them, the same force that bound all living things. If it ever came to be that one of the younger ones would become stronger and a better leader, he would encourage that one to take the role. For now, they lived in an uncertain world, and he was the one with the knowledge and the confidence to guide them through it.

He missed his brothers, at times. The wise, canny older brother with the golden pelt, and the younger, darker one with his piercingly analytical mind. Not only because they were brothers and he wished to be alongside family, as was only natural, but because both were smart, and there were many strange smells in the air. He could have used their support. But what was, was. He was leader, now, and had his own family to look after.

They lived, were conscious, at a fixed point within a spectrum of memory, with the awareness of their lives in this forest stretching away both behind and ahead. It was a strange thing…and yet, not. This was just the world and what it was like to be alive within it, and yet he had the sense, sometimes, that there was something else. That things were supposed to be different. But he put that aside and dealt with the now. It was a good land, and a good life. They hunted in the darkness, and never went hungry. They played together in the shadowy times between day and night, curling up to share warmth and closeness during the sleepy sunlight hours. Games of chasing and scuffling were ways for him to teach the younger ones about the struggles of living.

And yet, there was that scent again. One of those troubling smells, wafting down from the mountains. He paused, raising his head. What was it? It was not food, or friend. Was his family in danger? The smell was new, impossible to place. It was…uneasy. Something about the world that was not what it should be.

No, Ingvar, that’s not the lesson.

He growled softly. Words were just noise, and the more troubling because he could not tell where they were coming from.

Don’t follow that scent. Listen to me, Ingvar. Trust the spirit of the wolf, not the other spirits.

Responding as always to his uncertainty, she stepped up beside him, leaning her bulk against his own in affection and support. His longtime partner, the one most special of all his beloved family, with her wild green eyes and the golden pattern like leaves dappling her pale coat. Her scent always reminded him as much of trees as of family. She raised her head to smell it as well. Beautiful and proud, and no less precious because she was rather unpredictable.

She bared her teeth in displeasure, echoing his soft growl.

Aspen, no! Don’t get involved in that, you’re too—

He snapped his jaws in anger. That was worse. Whatever that smell was, it was pushing at them. Pushing at her. At his family.

As one, they wheeled and gathered up the pack. Something menacing lurked in the wilds, and it was time for them to go. He raised his voice to howl, calling the rest together.

Please, Ingvar, remember peace. Don’t…

She howled alongside him, and her voice echoed through the forests, across the mountains, across the world beyond.

Aspen, NO!

The scent swirled violently, a storm gathering where there was no storm. Suddenly frantic, the whole family howled to one another, gathering together, turning to flee from the tumult. He led them away. He did not know where safety was, or what kind of threat encroached, but they trusted and followed him. They were his responsibility. He would let nothing harm his family.

The pack dashed away from the mountains, seeking safer ground. As they went they called out to one another, making sure no one was lost. The strange scent in the wind followed them, and called back.

And in the distance, on all sides, other wolves answered.


“Twenty-three,” Branwen said with a sigh, making a notation on her map. “I thought he said twenty hellgates?”

“If these people have even the most basic sense, they will have built themselves the most generous margin of error possible,” Khadizroth said absently, his attention focused on the diorama he had built on her dining room table. Assembled from dust he had called seemingly from the air itself, it formed a monochrome scale model of Ninkabi, with swirls of colored light dashing this way and that through its streets and canyons like errant gusts of wind. “Not all of these sites will produce viable hellgates, and they must be planning on at least some being discovered beforehand. It is a good strategy, but it means we must be unfailingly diligent.”

“Yes, the one we miss will be the worst,” she agreed wryly. “Isn’t that always the way… Any sign from your spirit guides of how many of these ritual sites are left to find?”

“As with much fae craft, it unfolds like relentless nature herself,” the dragon replied, giving her a sidelong smile. “It will be done when it is done. For now—”

“My lord!” Vannae said suddenly, shooting upright out of his seat.

“I sense it too,” Khadizroth replied, frowning now in alarm. “What on earth is…”

The entire model of the city shattered into a cloud, swirling chaotically until it formed a new shape.

Now, suddenly, it had made a moving statue of a wolf. The creature raised its head toward the ceiling, and emitted a howl as vivid and loud as if the living animal were right there in the room.

The door burst open and Shook staggered in, disheveled with sleep but brandishing a wand. “The fuck is that?! Everybody okay?”

Khadizroth was staring at the wolf in an unaccustomed expression of shock and disbelief.

“Ingvar,” he whispered. “What have you done?”


It seemed he’d barely had time to drift off to sleep, despite his intention to get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s plans, but Darling shot bolt upright in bed to find both his apprentices at his sides, clutching his arms.

“Wha,” he burbled, “whazzat, I thought…”

The bedroom door burst open and Price appeared, her eyes sweeping the room.

“It’s okay!” Fauna said quickly. “He snapped out of it.”

“What happened?” the Butler demanded. “I have never heard such a sound. So help me, if you two are keeping a pet coyote…”

“That wasn’t us,” Flora objected. “It was him.”

“I had this dream…” Darling scrubbed a hand across his face. “I swear it was somewhere I’ve been before.”

“There was some serious fairy fuckery clustering around you out of nowhere,” said Fauna. “Seems to have dissipated, though.”

“We got here just before you started howling,” Flora added. “Are you okay, Sweet?”

He blinked twice. “Excuse me, I started what?”


The darkness of unconsciousness faded from his vision, replaced by Mary’s face, her eyes wide with uncharacteristic worry. He was breathing heavily as if he’d just run a mile, he realized, and almost toppled over, spared only by the grip of her slender hands on his cheeks. She was surprisingly strong, for an elf.

“Joseph, it’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re safe. Are you back with us?”

“I…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, shaking his head. “What happened? I feel like I was just…somewhere else.”

“Damn, son, you scared the life outta me,” said McGraw, looming over him.

“Aye, that was a right wake up an’ no mistake,” Billie agreed, popping up at his side. “I never heard a human throat make a sound like that.”

“A sound like…what?” he asked weakly.

All around their little campsite, the Golden Sea stretched in every direction, seemingly infinite. Out of the darkness, suddenly from every direction there rose distant howls. They reminded him of the familiar voices of coyotes he’d often heard growing up in Sarasio. But…not. Their cries were longer, deeper…

Even more familiar.

“Like that,” said Weaver, standing a few yards distant with his back to the group, gazing at the dark horizon.


He was awakened by Hesthri climbing across him to the other side of the bed. The room was cool, its one window open to admit the evening breeze.

That, and sudden, surprising music from the hills all around Veilgrad.

Natchua already stood at the window, moonlight forming a gleaming corona on the darkness of her skin. Jonathan swung his legs over the side of the bed and followed Hesthri to join her.

“Aren’t there supposed to be werewolves in this area?” he asked, setting one arm across the drow’s slender shoulders while Hesthri laid a hand against her upper back.

“That,” Natchua said quietly, “and the normal kind of wolves. But not so many.”

It was true, he realized. Those howls were seemingly coming from every direction, repetitive and so unrelenting that he could hardly discern where one ended and the next began.

“It’s so beautiful,” Hesthri whispered. “What kinds of creatures are these?”

“Dangerous ones,” Jonathan said, stepping closer and taking advantage of the long reach of his arm to tug both of them against his side, gently squishing Natchua between them. “Though normal wolves hardly ever bother people unless starving or severely provoked. Werewolves are another matter.”

“This is another matter,” Natchua whispered. “I can’t tell what magic is at work here, but…it’s something big. Something in the world just changed.”


Andros Varanus took the risk of barging into the Grandmaster’s quarters without knocking.

Fortunately, the whole household was assembled, and awake, though still in sleeping clothes. Both of Veisroi’s wives turned on him with scowls at this sudden intrusion into their domain, but the Grandmaster himself raised a hand in a mute order for silence before either could upbraid him.

“You too, then, Brother Andros?” he asked, turning away from the fireplace into which he had been gazing.

“And not just me,” Andros rumbled. “Every man in this lodge is awake, due to the same dream. Every man but one. Hrathvin is in a trance from which his apprentice cannot stir him.”

Veisroi’s chest expanded with a long, deep breath. “Give him time. I named him shaman of this lodge for a reason; the man knows what he’s about. If he has not roused by dawn, we will send to the Emerald College for help.”

Andros nodded. “And the dream? You know this can only mean one thing, Grandmaster.”

“In the context of the telescroll I just received from N’Jendo…yes, I do,” the old man said, turning back to the flames. “Damn it all, Andros. I had such high hopes for Ingvar. When he set out on his quest from Shaath himself, I dared to think…”

“Ingvar also knows what he is about. He has more than earned our trust, Veisroi.”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had word from him? And now, just on the heels of warning that he is preaching apostasy in the West…this.” The Grandmaster clenched his jaw. “I hate to do it, Andros, you know I do. But a man does what he must, even when he does not wish to. Right now, do what you can to calm the men, make sure they’re seeing to their wives. It’s always the women who are most upset by things like this. In the immediate turn we will make sure Hrathvin is well. And when that is dealt with, for good or ill…”

“I protest, Grandmaster,” Andros said, as insistently as he could without making it a direct challenge.

“And that is your prerogative, Brother,” Veisroi replied without looking up from the fire. “But protest or not, tomorrow I will summon a Wild Hunt.”


Atop his watchtower on the ancient walls of Shaathvar, Roth stood with his back to the brazier’s warmth, staring out at the cold darkness. All around rose the pine-clad peaks encircling the valley directly below the city itself. And from all sides came the relentless howling.

“How can there be so many?” one of the two younglings assigned to join his watch asked, eyes wide. “Surely there can’t be that many wolves in the valley!”

“There aren’t that many wolves in the whole of the Stalrange,” Roth replied, his voice flat. A man did not flinch even in the face of…whatever this was. “I will keep the watch here; go rouse the captain. And you,” he added to the other, “fetch the barracks shaman. Keep your minds on the task before you, lads. This is a dire omen of something, but omens are a shaman’s work. Don’t borrow trouble for yourself until this has been interpreted by men who know the craft.”

“Yes, Brother,” they chorused, and both dashed off down opposite staircases toward the walls.

Roth just gazed out over the frigid, howling wilderness, wondering what had just happened to the world.


“This is not our business,” Arkhosh insisted, glaring at Mother Raghann. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the ceaseless howling of wolves which split the night all around. “People are agitated enough by this without you riling them up worse. Let the kitsune handle Sifan’s affairs and calm your own people, shaman.”

“This is not the kitsune’s business, either,” the old woman retorted, implacable as always. “These are ripples from a mountain dropped in the ocean, not a pebble in a pool. It began far from Sifan and extends farther still. The agitation of the spirits sings of a world in the grip of tumult, Arkhosh. And that makes it their business, and ours, and everyone’s.”

The other orc blew out a snort of irritation. “We are in no position to worry about the world, woman, or even Sifan as a whole. And we certainly owe the world no favors. It is the kitsune who are our hosts, and Tsurikura which is our business. If action is needed on our part, they’ll ask us for it. For now, we should tend to the walls. I can’t speak for spirits, but I know agitated wolves when I hear them.”

“Have you ever heard this many wolves?” she asked dryly. “What do you think our village walls would do if they took a notion to come here?”

“What say you, Aresk?” Arkhosh demanded, turning to his son, the only other orc gathered with them outside the gate. “Do they howl to us?”

The last and first priest of Khar stared out into the darkness, listening to the cries of wolves. The faintest glow of golden-white light limned him as he attuned to the faded power of their distant god. “Nothing in this tells me it pertains to us directly. But Mother Raghann is still right,” he added, turning to meet his father’s eyes. “We exist in the world, father. I agree that we should not meddle in what is not our business, or exert ourselves to aid those who would not do the same in turn. But waiting around to be told what to do by the kitsune is weakness. And just ignoring the world in the hope that nothing bad will happen is madness.”

Both of them bared tusks at him. Very recently, Aresk would have instinctively yielded to the displeasure of either of his elders, let alone both. But things changed, and he changed with them. It was that, or die.

“I suggest a middle ground. I won’t agree to our shamans rushing out to try to placate…whatever this is. But they should at least do what they can to learn what is happening. Whatever the spirits will tell us. With more information, we can better decide what to do. We should protect and support them in whatever rituals will best accomplish this.”

Raghann grunted. “Well. I can’t say the boy doesn’t talk sense. Very well, it’s at least a start.”

“A good compromise,” Arkhosh agreed, reaching out to squeeze his son’s shoulder. “Very well, Aresk, I concur with your council. We will start there. And then…” He looked sourly at Mother Raghann, and then out into the howling darkness. “…we shall see.”


“Elder?” the young woman asked, creeping up to the mouth of the cave just behind him. “What does it mean?”

The old lizardfolk shaman glanced back at her, and then at the rest of the tribe taking shelter, their eyes glowing in the dimness as they watched the cave mouth for danger.

He turned back around, facing outward and listening to the howls of the wolves, far too many wolves to actually live in this desolate land.

“It’s as I told you: a great doom is coming. This is only the beginning.”


Hamelin Hargrave stood in the open door of his cottage, gazing out at the normally peaceful hills of Viridill, listening to them. The spirits were so agitated he could glean nothing through the Craft; whatever was happening was clearly way over his head.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would make the trip to Vrin Shai and seek help. But not tonight. Magical or not, no matter how civilized an era it was, you didn’t set out on the roads after dark when the wolves were in a frenzy.


“Urusai,” Maru whined, curled up in the fetal position and clutching his head. “Urusai, urusai, urusai!”

“What’s that he’s chanting?” Professor Yornhaldt asked, craning his neck forward to peer as closely as he could without getting in Taowi’s way. She had a sharp tongue for people who interfered while she was tending to a patient.

“It means ‘loud,’” said Tellwyrn, herself standing on the other side of her currently crowded office, but watching closely as the campus healer tended to her prone secretary.

“Really?” asked Rafe. “I thought it meant ‘shut up.’ Kaisa used to say that to me all the time.”

“Language reflects culture,” Tellwyrn said absently. “To the Sifanese mindset, commenting that something is noisy suffices to demand that it stop. Taowi, please tell me that’s not what it smells like.”

“It’s exactly what it smells like, Arachne,” she said impatiently, still coaxing Maru to put the shriveled object she held in his mouth. “It’s worked on the others affected thus far.”

Tellwyrn took an aggressive step forward. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been feeding glittershrooms to my students?!”

“To your students and to Stew,” Taowi Sunrunner replied, undaunted by the archmage’s ire. “There you go, Maru, don’t forget to chew. It’s affecting everyone fae-attuned, Arachne. What in the hell did you get me dried glittershrooms for if you didn’t think I was going to use them medicinally?”

Tellwyrn snorted. “I figured you’ve been an exemplary healer and as long as it didn’t interfere with your work I wasn’t going to begrudge you whatever you needed to relax.”

Maru was weakly chewing the wedge of dried glittershroom; Taowi took her eyes off him for a moment to give Tellwyrn a blistering look. “The principle harm done by this is simply stress. For most things I would simply apply a sedative, but this is clearly fae in nature and affecting people through the dreamscape somehow. Putting someone to sleep would just trap them in it. You’ll notice I asked you to procure a supply of shrooms right after that clever little fool Madouri did exactly that to herself by combining Nightmare’s Dream potion with the Sleeper curse. Glittershrooms induce euphoria without causing sleepiness; it’s the best spot treatment. Once everyone is stabilized I mean to switch them to sevenleaf oil, but considering how bad some of the reactions are, I advise the potency of shrooms to take the edge off.”

“How is everyone faring?” Tellwyrn asked more quietly.

“It hits fairies worse than witches,” Taowi said absently, her focus again on Maru as she soothingly stroked his fur while waiting for the glittershroom to take effect. “Stew was nearly this bad. Oak says she’s getting the same visions, but they don’t bother her, which makes me feel less worried about Juniper and Fross. Dryads are generally under different rules. With the students…it varies. Most of them welcomed a bit of shroom, but Iris declined. She wants to stay lucid to help keep watch over the others, and frankly I’m grateful for the assistance. She seems to be suffering the least from the effect.”

“And it’s the same for all of them?”

“They report the same visions.” Taowi looked up to meet her eyes. “Wolves howling. More than just the noise, this is hitting them right in the emotional center, as fae magic does. They’ve all said they feel they’re being called to something, but they can’t understand what, much less answer it, and that’s what’s causing the acute stress. This is some kind of compulsion which can’t be fulfilled. There are few things more psychologically excruciating.”

“We unfortunately lack a fae specialist,” Rafe said, turning to Professor Tellwyrn, “since Liari retired and Kaisa buggered off mid-semester.”

“And isn’t that the long and the short of it,” Tellwyrn said, shoving both fists under her spectacles to rub at her eyes. “It’s the area of magic I’m least equipped to analyze, but the geas on this mountain would at least warn me if the effect were targeted here. If it’s a general effect over a wide area, then wherever it’s coming from, we’re not the only ones feeling it. All right. Alaric, keep order here as best you can. Admestus, help Taowi with the afflicted.”

“You have an idea?” Yornhaldt asked.

She grimaced readjusting her glasses. “The only idea I have is begging for help. I’m going to Sarasio to see if Sheyann and Chucky know anything about this. Hold the fort, everyone.”


Rainwood stumbled backward with nothing like an elf’s usual grace, staring at the wolves in the clearing around his snuffed-out faefire.

They were beautiful, but nothing about them appeared natural. Patterns were set in their fur that looked dyed, geometric and clearly designed, and most strikingly, they glowed. Each a different pattern in a subtly different color. Their eyes were glowing wells of power without pupils; even their fur seemed to put off a gentle aura of moonlight.

In the spot where Ingvar had sat, the largest wolf turned to bare fangs at Rainwood, his pure white fur marked with sigils in luminous green and blue on the shoulders and forehead. He raised his head and howled once, and loud as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the metaphysical shockwave it sent out.

Rainwood actually fell backward, landing on his rump and gaping.

The pack gathered themselves and loped off into the trees, heading west toward the sea—though they would reach Ninkabi long before they got to the coast. Seventeen enormous, glowing, unprecedented creatures departed from the wilderness on a collision course with civilization, leaving behind a magical storm that roared outward in every direction, dwarfing the disturbance which had rocked the fae up in the Wyrnrange the previous day.

This one would be felt across every inch of the planet.

“Kuriwa’s going to kill me,” he said aloud, staring after the departed pack. “Literally, this time.”

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15 – 40

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Natchua indulged in a slower approach on the way home to Leduc Manor, shadow-jumping only enough to avoid people or a trip that would have taken much of the day. She did enjoy a little time spent walking in the mountains, and approaching the half-ruined mansion from its switchbacking access road gave her a few minutes both to savor the view, and to think.

Melaxyna was out in front in a simple human guise, her own customary features with a less eerie coloration and her wings and tail hidden, whittling a chunk of wood with a rusty-looking knife.

“That took a good few hours,” she observed as soon as Natchua came into view. “I was on the verge of getting worried.”

She kept walking up the path. The succubus had called out once Natchua was within the range of elven hearing; she opted to approach closer rather than try to have a discussion while shouting back and forth. It was a small thing, and she didn’t regard Melaxyna as hostile, but it did not escape her notice that this placed Mel in control of the conversation’s dynamic. Holding her peace until she arrived at a position of her choosing was another small thing that served a similar purpose. She would probably never come to enjoy thinking in terms like this, but it was an unfortunately important habit to acquire, and Natchua was starting from behind.

“I had a really peculiar moment today,” Natchua said as soon as she was close enough to do so without raising her voice. “Kind of an epiphany. There was this one point during the…generally pretty difficult discussions I had to have, where suddenly these two incredibly clever, powerful women I was trying to wheedle just visibly dismissed me as a concern and focused on verbally fencing with each other instead. Like I obviously wasn’t smart enough, or important enough, to be a player in that game. And what made it so strange was that I was pleased by it. That’s usually…enraging.”

“Reputation is a powerful thing,” Melaxyna said sagely. “No matter what it’s a reputation for, there’s always some way to leverage it. And being thought of as less smart than you are is always crazy useful, I’ve gotten great mileage out of that one over the years. So, how’re our girls getting along?”

“They’ll keep each other busy for a while, that much I’m confident in. I’m going to have to separate them again before too long,” Natchua continued with a contemplative frown. “If Kheshiri actually messes up Malivette’s situation it’ll mean major problems for me, and likely everyone in the province. And if Vette decisively wins that… Well, actually, that would solve the Kheshiri problem neatly, but then I’m right back to needing to do something about her, and it might be better to still have Kheshiri around to help with that. Well, anyway, hopefully this’ll buy me a few days without either of ’em underfoot, and a chance to see what they both do under pressure.” She paused, then drew in a breath to steady herself. “How’s it looking on the home front? Awful quiet in there…”

“Most of the others are over in the north wing,” Melaxyna said, turning to nod in the direction of the half-ruined arm of the house. “The hobs have pretty well reached the end of what they can do in the front hall, here, without a lot of materiel and supplies, so they’re surveying the damage in the next section. They seem to be getting along well with Xyraadi, now. She’s surprisingly down to earth when she’s trying to make an impression; I was expecting more snobbery, what with all the gratuitous Glassian, but nope! Sweet girl, really. Probably due to her history with adventurers. The chapbooks lie, Natchua. Adventurers were usually filthy hobos who went off to kill things in dungeons because they couldn’t hack it in actual society. Classy, they were not.”

“Right,” Natchua said impatient. “And…?”

Melaxyna gave her a knowing little smile, which she repressed the urge to slap. It was in the nature of a succubus to needle, and she was beginning to think this one in particular was deliberately training her in self-control.

“Jonathan seems steadier with something to do with his hands. We took a stroll down to the nearest lumber camp. They don’t actually cut the trees around here, I think their roots are what keeps the mountainside from sliding down on Veilgrad, but there’s a lot of logging in the province and there are a couple of sawmills pretty close by. We got some price estimates on what the girls will need, and picked up a few bits and bobs. He’s currently up in my little improvised kitchenette, fixing it to be a tad less improvised. I do appreciate a man who’s handy around the house,” she added, putting on one of those little succubus smiles that was a hair’s breadth in every direction from becoming a smirk. “What with one thing and another, I never had the chance for a cozy domestic life.”

“A cozy domestic life would drive you gibbering insane,” Natchua said flatly. She knew too well how right Mel was, though. Jonathan liked working with his hands; having a project would do a lot to settle his mind. “Right, well then… I guess I’d better go deal with this while I have a reprieve from Kheshiri sticking her nose into it.”

She swept up the stairs to the ruined doorway, or tried to. Melaxyna reached out to stop her with a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a flawed person, Natchua, and this is going to hurt,” the demon said softly. “Don’t be afraid of either. You will be okay. Getting there may be a bitch, but you’ll be okay.”

Natchua could only stare at her for a moment, finding no ready reply to that. She reached up to squeeze Melaxyna’s hand, then gently removed it and continued through the doorway.

With the space defined by the broken remains of its outer walls, the once-grand front hall of Manor Leduc was effectively a courtyard, now, with a gaping hole in its floor leading to a basement. There was certainly little in the way of privacy separating it from the front steps, ensuring that her conversation outside had been audible to the shattered room’s sole occupant. Natchua had, of course, known she was there, having reached out to locate her unique infernal signature along the faint lines of magic that connected them, and being aware of her presence, it was easy to hear her breathing.

Hesthri was perched at the edge of the room, near the doorway opening onto the corridor to Sherwin’s kitchen apartment, squatting on her heels in the way hethlaxi often did. The way the armor plating covered their joints made it more comfortable to adopt a slouch, but they were quite capable of standing up fully straight, as Hesthri now demonstrated on Natchua’s arrival. She rose smoothly to her full height, putting her head up, shoulders back, and chest out. The posture served to accentuate her figure, and by this point Natchua was certain she did that quite deliberately. Hesthri watched her approach for a moment before stepping forward to meet her, holding out her hands in a position that sought Natchua’s own.

She, however, kept them at her sides, maintaining her own straight-backed posture and drawing the cloak of Narisian reserve back over herself. Hesthri stood right in the middle of the narrow lip of navigable space between the wall and the hole; an elf was more than agile enough to slip past her, but Natchua didn’t intend to evade this discussion.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, coming to a stop and projecting calm. “I take it Xyraadi and the horogki are getting on well enough that—hey, what are…”

Natchua having failed to reach out to take Hesthri’s hands, the hethelax instead raised them to gently cup the drow’s cheeks. Natchua started to pull away from her, but didn’t try very hard or very fast, and failed to escape before Hesthri stepped closer, raised her own face, and kissed her.

She stopped trying to move. It was barely two more seconds before she stopped pretending to be stiff. The breath leaked from her, mingling with Hesthri’s own, and her eyes drifted shut.

Hard and soft, just like Hesthri’s rapidly switching behavior. Her strategic plates of natural armor were as smooth and cool as iron, as if to emphasize what an otherworldly creature this was in Natchua’s arms. Elsewhere, though, she simply felt like a woman, at least in shape. She was so very warm; it was like embracing the coziness of a hearth. Her skin, where not armored, had an unusual but pleasing texture not unlike a snake’s scales. And her lips were just…

Natchua was the one to pull back, slightly, eventually, though by that point she had lost her grasp of how much time had passed. Her forehead rested against the unyielding armor of Hesthri’s, their breath still mingling. The hethelax’s blunt claws still cradled her face in a tender grasp, but Natchua found that she had at some point pulled the demon close and wrapped both arms around her.

Melaxyna, she now understood, had been entirely right. Her weakness wasn’t about a desire for sex, at least except as a means to an end. It was just the closeness, the warmth, the addictive feeling of another person touching her with tenderness, so sharply sweet it was nearly painful, like the first taste of candy on an unprepared tongue. She was just so unaccustomed to being loved that even the pretense melted her like butter in the sun. This was something she absolutely needed to fix, somehow. Kheshiri would make easy pickings of such a vulnerability, and after Melaxyna’s warnings Natchua well understood that even seeing her coming wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

“I don’t know you that well,” she said aloud, her voice rough, but soft. Hesthri’s eyes opened, regarding her own from inches away. “I don’t…truly know what it is you want.”

The demon’s smile was warm, and sad. “I want what’s best for you, Natchua. And I’m hardly surprised you’re wary, given how much I tend to disagree with you about what that is. Luckily for you, our pact requires my loyalty rather than obedience. I can’t decide if you’re the cleverest fool I’ve ever known, or the other way round.”

Natchua had to smile back at that, if somewhat bitterly. “What’s best for me, is it? Even at the expense of what’s best for you? Or Jonathan?” She hesitated, then pressed. “Or Gabriel?”

“I can’t say how I would handle it if you brought those loyalties into conflict,” Hesthri murmured, sliding her hands slowly down Natchua’s neck to her shoulders and making her entire spine tingle as if she were standing too close to an arcane spell matrix. “It hasn’t come up, Natch. If you and Jonathan will just stop being difficult about it, there’s no reason at all this cannot work out equally well for everyone.”

“Difficult,” she huffed, finally pulling back. “No reason to put yourself out, if it’s—”

“Of course there is. I love you.”

It hurt to hear. It was so unexpectedly blissful that it actually hurt. Gods, she was in so much trouble.

Natchua drew in another steadying breath, only belatedly noting that her reserve was long since in tatters. “Hesthri… It’s been days. We don’t actually know each other.”

“Intimacy takes time, and work.” Hesthri agreed. “But falling in love is easier than falling down the stairs. Faster, harder to do on purpose, and usually makes even less sense. Haven’t you studied any martial arts, Natchua? You lean into a fall. You get hurt by trying to fight it. Dear heart, I wouldn’t compel you even if it was within my power. If you truly want to struggle against this every step of the way instead of trying to see if we can make something good of it… Well, do you?”

Natchua backed up fully, out of her grip, and roughly dry-scrubbed her face with both hands. “I can’t decide whether we should have this out between the two of us first, or just go get Jonathan and see how much of a spectacle we can make of ourselves all at once.”

“Second one,” Hesthri said immediately. “This is a mess for everybody involved, and the three of us need to resolve it. It’s not fair to come at him as a united front. Jonathan deserves to be treated as an equal in this.”

“Your relentless logic is beginning to annoy me,” Natchua grumbled. Hesthri smiled at her with simple affection, and leaned forward to press a light kiss to the corner of her mouth. Natchua, despite her better judgment, let her.

“Come on, then. Let’s not put it off any further.”

Sherwin must have been off with Xyraadi and the hobgoblins; at least, there was no sign of him in his apartment, for which Natchua was grateful. She needed the entire walk through that space and up the stairs to the landing in which Melaxyna had cobbled together her little kitchen to settle her own mind. Despite what Hesthri claimed to intend, she had her own thoughts on how this situation needed to be settled. The sound of hammering grew louder as they climbed, each blow tightening the knot in her stomach, but at least the approach gave her the opportunity to pull back ahead of Hesthri and compose her features again.

Jonathan was kneeling with his back to them, pounding what looked like the last nail into a counter he had assembled along one wall of unfinished planks. The whole thing looked rough, but less so than Melaxyna’s arrangement of boxes and mismatched old furniture.

Their footfalls weren’t particularly heavy and it wasn’t as if he had elven ears, but regardless, he stilled as soon as the two of them emerged from the stairwell.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said quietly.

Finally, he turned around, straightening upright and laying the hammer down alongside a handful of spare nails atop the surface he had just assembled. He was, Natchua found herself suddenly reminded, really tall, and much broader across the chest and shoulders than any elf. And, with his previous anger under control, dignified in a way that contained an emotional intensity, which she had always seen as more worthy of respect than the cold aloofness she had been taught in Tar’naris.

“So,” he said after a pause, looking back and forth between the two of them. “I guess we’re doing this, then.”

Steeling herself and clinging to every shred of her reserve, Natchua stepped forward before Hesthri could say anything.

“It’s time for you to go, Jonathan.”

His eyebrows shot upward. “Go? Excuse me, but—”

“Yes, yes, I know, you figured you were good and blackmailed into this, and at the time I was flustered enough to let you get away with it. But you aren’t really going to set the Empire and the Church and whoever else after Hesthri, are you? No matter how mad you are at me. And now that would drag Xyraadi into this, not to mention the three hobgoblins, who you know don’t deserve that trouble. So that’s enough of this, Jonathan. You’re going—”

A sharp blow to the back of her head made her stagger. Natchua caught her balance, whirling to glare at Hesthri, who was scowling right back and lowering her hand.

“I can’t decide which of you is more ridiculous,” the hethelax snapped. “Honestly. All of this could be so easy!”

“I can’t see any damn way it possibly could,” Jonathan exclaimed. “She’s right about one thing, this entire business is built on lies, blackmail, and infernomancy. Nothing about it is easy in any respect!”

“Because you make it hard! The both of you!”

“I am trying to make it easy!” Natchua shouted. “I don’t know how you’ve got this worked around in your head, but he has no business here and he’s just going to get killed.”

“I thought we all were,” Jonathan retorted. “Wasn’t that the entire plan, Natchua?”

“It doesn’t need to include you!” she yelled back. “Goddammit, haven’t I done enough to you? Would you just let me protect you?! Can’t I do one good thing?”

“Oh, Natchua,” Hesthri sighed. Jonathan was staring at her in something akin to shock, blinking rapidly.

He rallied, though, squaring his shoulders. “You should know I’m not afraid of death or pain, especially not when the end goal is to help my son. Because you weren’t totally wrong, Natch, despite being so amazingly wrong-headed about every detail in between here and your ultimate conclusion. You are in a unique position to mess up whatever Elilial is planning and that will be a way to protect Gabriel. Considering the kinds of powers he has to contend with now, it’s about all I can do. So, no, I’m not leaving. We are doing this stupid bullshit scheme of yours. Especially since, somehow, you’re actually making it work.”

“You do know if I decide to just send you somewhere, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

“I think you’d be surprised what I can do,” he retorted, stepping toward her. “Do you think I got tangled up with a hethelax demon and protected her on this plane long enough to have Gabriel without being pretty damn resourceful? Has she told you the full story yet?”

“Oh, vrasksha sknithal!” Hesthri shouted, throwing both her hands in the air. “Enough! Get in the room, both of you. Come on!”

She grabbed each of them by an arm and harried the pair across the hall to the nearest accessible doorway, which luckily was to Natchua’s bedroom. Jonathan and Natchua exchanged a look past Hesthri even as she was dragging them, mutually deciding to submit to this with good grace rather than engaging in a pointless scuffle with her. Anyway, she was right; there were a number of ways the rest of this discussion could go, and they were all better done in privacy.

Hesthri didn’t give either of them a chance to start in again, however, whirling on them the instant she had shut the door behind.

“All right, we could hold an entire lecture series on everything Natchua has done wrong here, but by all the gods, Jonathan, she’s twenty.”

“Twenty-one—” Hesthri reached out and clamped a clawed hand over her mouth, by which Natchua was so astonished that she allowed it to happen.

“But you,” the hethelax continued, pointing accusingly at him, “are being purely thoughtless and selfish about this, and it’s beneath you. I expect better.”

“Selfish!” Jonathan’s voice, uncharacteristically, climbed an octave and a half, along with his eyebrows. Natchua finally pulled Hesthri’s hand off her face as he turned his incredulous stare on her. “Did you put her up to this?”

“Don’t look at me, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Natchua protested. “Come on, Hes, he’s the only one of us who makes any sense. That’s why I want him away from all this!”

“Natchua, shut up a minute,” Hesthri said with a sigh. “And Jonathan, stop making all of this about yourself, because none of it is. Despite how Natchua mistreated you in the process, the truth is you were caught up in the edge of something that was never meant to involve you, by a combination of chance, her terrible ideas and your own damn stubbornness. Yes, she used and lied to you, but ever since she’s been trying to protect you. And she did all of this to protect Gabriel in the first place!”

“Thank you!” Natchua explained.

“You shut your mouth,” Hesthri shot back. “I know you’re trying your best, but you seduced and deceived the man so you could recruit his own former lover into your suicidal crusade. Never mind facing off with Elilial at the end of all this, between that and your general pattern of decisions it’s astonishing you’re not dead yet! Can the pair of you honestly not see how badly you need each other? Jonathan, you were moldering away in Mathenon while Gabriel is out risking his life for the Pantheon, and I know that was eating away at you. It’s not like you to accept your own helplessness that way. Say what you will, Natchua’s nonsense has gotten you back moving, working, and helping, and you love it. And you!” She tried to swat Natchua’s head again, but this time the drow saw it coming and ducked away. That did nothing to stop Hesthri’s tirade. “Why is every idea you have just convoluted and outlandish enough to be completely unworkable? Are you honestly under the impression you can outmaneuver the goddess of cunning with the power of sheer daffy nonsense? That will work right up until she actually notices you. Natchua, Jonathan Arquin is the best thing that’s ever happened to you and the way you keep trying to get rid of him is the dumbest thing you’ve done yet. That is really saying something.”

They both stared at her in shock.

Hesthri sighed heavily. “You need her energy. You badly need his steadiness. She inspires and pushes you; it’s her influence that’s returning you to the vital, driven man I knew and fell in love with. He has so much to teach you about life, and love, and his influence is so exactly what you need to even you out. This man is exactly the one who can help you grow into the enormous potential I see in you. You’re a charming enough kid, Natch, but it’s the woman you are trying to become…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it and continued. “…that I fell in love with. You need each other. It’s time to forgive, let go, and take the risk. Yes, we’re all going to get hurt. But if we’re together, we’ll get over it. That’s what people do.”

Another few seconds of silence passed between them before Jonathan cleared his throat roughly. “And…are you suggesting… How exactly do you fit into this, Hes?”

“In all the spaces between you,” Hesthri said, smiling now. “I’ve been a servant my whole life, Johnny. I am comfortable letting others take the lead. It’s… What I’ve never had is someone I respected, someone I loved, to dedicate myself to. Somehow, the three of us are a ridiculous, perfect couple. That is, if you two clowns will stop fighting it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t…that’s just too weird, even for—”

“Selfish,” she interrupted, but more gently this time. “We represent three different cultures here, Jonathan, and yours is the only one where it’s not completely normal to have multiple partners.”

“I don’t have a culture,” Natchua muttered. “Narisian anything is a vicious nightmare.”

“Even better, then,” Hesthri replied, taking her by the arm and pulling her forward. “This will just continue to be a wreck if we keep trying to be where we’re from. Can’t we just be who we are, instead? Everyone in this room is stupidly in love with everyone else. I’m not trying to claim this will be magical, or easy, or not prone to dramatic episodes like this. But it can work. And even if it doesn’t, it’s worth trying. Life is short, and often bitter, my darlings. You have to embrace whatever warmth and sweetness you can find. Even if it fails, take a chance on love. Even in Hell we know that.”

“It’s not that…” Jonathan swallowed painfully. “That wasn’t easy to get over, Hesthri. The way she—”

“Stop,” Hesthri ordered. “Say it to her, not to me.”

His expression turned wry for a moment, but he complied, shifting his eyes to Natchua’s. “It hurt me, Natch. It wasn’t just…being conned by some smooth operator. I know we didn’t talk about where any of this was going, in Mathenon, and I was content to just let things develop as they would, but…but she’s right. I loved you.” He hesitated, breathed in and out once, and corrected himself. “I love you. And you betrayed me.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was ragged, but she had to say it anyway. “I know that…that’s not enough, nothing is. It’s all I can say, Jonathan. I knew it was going to hurt you, and I hated myself for it, but I did it anyway. I thought…it was important enough. I didn’t have a better idea. I’m just sorry.” She had to stop talking, mostly because the lump in her throat was too painful, but partly because trying to babble out her feelings wasn’t getting her anywhere.

Tears, she noticed belatedly, were running down her face. This was a bad day for Narisian reserve.

“Look at her, Jonathan,” Hesthri all but whispered, stepping next to Natchua and wrapping one arm around her waist, leading her gently but inexorably toward him. “Isn’t that just Natchua in a nutshell? It was stupid and hurtful, but she didn’t have a better idea. She did what she could think of, because it was important, and it doesn’t really matter to her whether she gets hurt. Look at your girl. Your brave, selfless, reckless, beautiful, dumb, clever girl. What the hell is she going to do without you?”

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Natchua mumbled, looking away.

“That’s for damn sure,” Jonathan sighed.

“Exactly. You’re better off hating me.”

“Oh…hell.” He sighed heavily. “Never once did I hate you. I was… Goddammit, Natch, it’s hard even to stay angry at you, no matter how much you deserve it. At times I downright resent how hard you try to do better. I’m just…I’m not even mad, anymore. It just still hurts.”

His callused fingers took her chin, gently moving her face back toward him. She let him, finding he had stepped close enough to embrace.

“You are not getting rid of me, Natchua. So all that leaves is…how are you planning to make it up to me?”

She opened her mouth, producing exactly as much useful commentary as a fish.

“You’re so focused on everything you do wrong all the time,” Hesthri said softly, gently stroking her back, “I don’t think you’ve ever even noticed how you bring people alive around you, Natchua. Everyone in this house is a better person because you lit a fire under them. People are loyal to you, even after knowing you for just a few days. It’s not because you have any particular idea what you’re doing, and you know it. It’s because your stubborn effort to be better, to accomplish something with the limited and horrible tools you’ve got, inspires people. You showed me the importance of my own potential. And Natchua, you’ve brought my love, the father of my child, back to life. He needs you, too.”

“This…is crazy,” she whispered. “I’m just going to fuck it all up again.”

Jonathan’s hand was still on her chin, and now shifted to caress her cheek. “Yeah…I’m pretty sure you will. You’re kind of a dumbass. Natchua…the hell with it. Hesthri is right, anything breakable is still fixable. I have no idea how this is going to work out, I really don’t. But doesn’t it beat the alternative?”

“I…I don’t…” She could barely breathe out the words; there were no more thoughts forming behind them. Just his face looming right above her, gazing down at her with that gentle expression she had fully expected never to hear again. Everything inside her was cracking under the weight of it.

Hesthri shifted to position herself between them, wrapping an arm around each to push them closer. One clawed hand took each of them by the back of the neck, pushing them the last few inches together.

If not for the both of them holding her up, Natchua probably would have collapsed when he finally kissed her. She slumped against his broad chest, barely held in place by one of his arms and one of Hesthri’s binding her to him. It felt as if she were molten, a warm jelly of sunshine wanting to dissolve into their embrace.

Hesthri nuzzled her cheek when they came up for air. Then the demon lifted her chin as the embrace around them shifted, to be the three holding each other in a circle more than Hesthri pulling them together. Jonathan’s lips met Hesthri’s, and Natchua watched from close enough to taste their shared breath. She looked for jealousy inside herself, and found nothing. She was too close, too much a part of this.

Jonathan pulled them both against his frame, his big hands caressing up and down both their backs, gazing down at them avidly as Natchua and Hesthri kissed deeply in his arms.

Hesthri was the first to hook a claw in Natchua’s robe, insistently tugging the garment aside and slipping in, blunt claws tracing over the soft shape of her. Hands caressed bodies, touching light brown skin and slate gray skin and chitin plates over snakelike scales, catching in the edges of fabric and pulling clumsily.

They shuffled backward, Jonathan’s knees coming to the edge of the bed, and Natchua wasn’t sure which of them giggled as they staggered down onto it.

It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and at moments embarrassing, and somehow, it all worked.

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15 – 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe. Let it go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

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

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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15 – 36

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“It’s not going to be like the last time,” Natchua insisted. “I’m not going to just set her loose. You’re right, that was reckless. Look, I was serious when I told Malivette I wanted to talk with her about this; she’s my likeliest chance of getting rid of Kheshiri. All that’s changed is that if it doesn’t work, I might still gain some benefit by having Kheshiri disrupt her activities…whatever those are. The beauty of it is I don’t need to deceive anyone. I can tell Malivette the truth that I’m bound by contract not to deliberately rid myself of Kheshiri, but I won’t shed a tear if somebody powerful and clever enough makes her vanish. I can tell the demon that I’m somewhat dependent on Vette’s goodwill and don’t want anything too awful to happen to her, but she’s apparently decided to be clever at my expense and it would be swell if somebody gave her something more urgent to worry about. Which is also true. Vette will probably be happier with the succubus under her eyes than mine, and Kheshiri needs something dangerous and cunning to chew on to keep her engaged. It’s perfect.”

“You’re learning fast,” Melaxyna said with a hint of approval. “The best deceptions are not lies, but truths carefully framed. You can rely on people to act toward their own interests, irrespective of yours. Control what someone knows and you control what they’ll do. Good lessons, all. But you’re still committing the very major blunder of trying to play this game against people you know are better at it than you.”

“This isn’t the final play of this game,” Natchua murmured, her eyes narrowing as her gaze turned inward in thought. “Unless… Maybe if Malivette abruptly does something extremely final to Kheshiri, but I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, she knows better than to kill a child of Vanislaas and there’s no reason she would know how to make a soul jar. No, there’s not really a win condition for me if I let that keep playing out, is there? Keshiri is unlikely to overthrow Vette and will only make a big mess for me if she has a serious go at it. Plus, the longer they’re in contact, the greater the chance of them mutually deciding they like each other more than they like me, and that could be no end of trouble. I suspect something awkward will happen pretty soon, but even if it doesn’t, I’ll find an excuse to draw Kheshiri back here and keep them separated. I don’t understand either of them nearly well enough, is my problem. Forcing them into contact and seeing what they do when both are off-balance will be…illuminating.”

“Ah, the potential,” Melaxyna sighed.

“You agree, then, it will work?”

“I mean you. For such a ham-fisted little galoot, you do have a mind in there. Given time, practice, and some guidance, you could become something really…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “Well, keeping our eyes on the here and now, let me illuminate something important that you haven’t figured out.”

“I’d be grateful for the advice,” Natchua said in all sincerity.

Melaxyna turned to face her directly. “You should be more open with Kheshiri.”

The wind whistled softly between them while they regarded each other in silence. The half-crumbled tower rooftop of Manor Leduc on which they stood offered several advantages in terms of privacy, not least of which was that it was inaccessible without the benefit of wings or shadow-jumping, but rising above the treetops as it did, the constant wind streaming down from the mountains made for an ever-present threat of a tumble. Not that an elf and a succubus were likely to lose their balance.

“I know what you’re doing, you know,” Natchua said at last. “A statement like that obviously requires an explanation. You’re not getting the satisfaction of hearing me beg for it.”

“You really do learn,” Melaxyna murmured. A pleased smiled bloomed on her features, but just as quickly withered. “Think in terms of motivations, not your own prejudices. Yes, it’s always wise to be wary of children of Vanislaas, but that becomes a weakness if you think of us as boogeymen who must be tiptoed around in constant terror. Believe me, we get excellent mileage out of that. You need to consider what Kheshiri is and what she wants. Right now, you’ve got her cooped up in one place with nothing to do except talk to your other followers, which is a nightmare waiting for an excuse. Natch, your mad crusade against the Dark Lady has been a hard sell to everyone so far, I know, but Kheshiri? Her entire shtick is testing her talents against the most dangerous foes she can, with no regard for her own well-being, just to see how far she can push it. And Elilial, don’t forget, is personally responsible for her being in that reliquary for a century. I respect the impulse to keep her at arm’s length, but I think it would be better to brief her fully. Odds are she will love this whole insane scheme of yours. And she can sure as hell contribute a lot to it.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, turning to gaze out at the stunning view their vantage gave them of Veilgrad and the Great Plains beyond.

“And more immediately,” Melaxyna continued, “that will give her something to focus on besides you. She’s tricky to read, even for the likes of me, but I have a strong sense that she’s actually quite enamored of you. If you can’t distract her with something good and juicy, well, she has nothing better to do than squirm her way into your affections.”

“I am not going to take that creature to bed,” Natchua said acidly. “I realize I’ve earned some skepticism, myself, but I’m not that stupid.”

Melaxyna gazed at her in silence for a moment before answering in a softer tone. “The only person who cannot be seduced is a person who’s perfectly content. Does that describe you, Natch? In the slightest?”

“Oh, what are you on about—”

“That really is the most elementary mistake, you know. Love and hate aren’t opposite things. They are two aspects of one phenomenon: infatuation. The emotional fixation on another person which precludes all rational thought. Their mutual opposite is apathy. Someone whom you despise can seduce you far more easily than someone in whom you have no interest at all, so long as they know the technique. I assure you, Natchua, there are few techniques Kheshiri doesn’t know.”

“I am skeptical.”

“Did you know hostages have a tendency to fall in love with their kidnappers?”

“If anything, she’s the hostage in this scenario.”

“But you’re the emotionally agitated one, and that’s what matters. A hostage has to watch an abductor closely for their own survival; they must learn their moods and methods, avoid provoking them, learn how to earn little kindnesses. Understanding someone begets empathy; empathy and an emotional charge is the recipe for passion, and what emotion specifically is used in the brew matters far less than most people think. To seduce someone, the last thing you want them to feel is safe.

“She’ll continue playing pranks like that business with the milk this morning. Anything to keep you annoyed and off-balance. She’ll gradually, the smallest bit at a time, reveal little vulnerabilities—and they’ll be real ones, things you could use to actually hurt her. She will prove this by giving you some ammunition she knows you’ll use, wittingly or not, to cause her real pain. You’ll be watching her for trouble this whole time, tense and on edge, and growing gradually more intimately acquainted. It will build, and blossom, and then all she has to do is wait till it’s built enough and then find the right moment, something that has emotions running high enough to crowd out rational thought. The aftermath of some kind of battle is perfect for that, and in a group like this, one of those is never too far off. I realize you like to think you’d never fall for it, but…so does everyone. That’s why it works. It’s not weakness on your part, Natchua, it’s just arithmetic for someone who knows all the variables.”

Natchua chewed on her bottom lip. “I…respect your insight, Melaxyna, but come on. That all sounds kind of far-fetched.”

“Oh, yeah?” The succubus tilted her head back, arching an eyebrow. “That’s pretty rich, considering Hesthri just pulled that exact routine on you. Quite successfully.”

The drow froze, then closed her eyes. “So…you know about…”

“Oh, honey, I’m an empathy demon. Of course I do.”

“Then…”

“Yes, I guarantee Kheshiri knows, too. What she’ll do with that information precisely remains to be seen.”

Natchua covered her face in both hands. “Fuck. That is exactly what she did, isn’t it? Fuck. Why am I such a horny idiot? I never was before.”

“Oh, child.” Melaxyna stepped close and wrapped an arm around Natchua’s shoulders, folding one spiny wing around her protectively. “An overactive libido has never been your problem.”

“Sure looks like it,” Natchua said dully.

“Mm. So, you hate your mother, your House, and your entire home culture. It’s not much of a stretch to guess you did not have a warm and caring childhood.”

“I don’t want to discuss that,” Natchua snapped, trying to pull away. To her surprise, Melaxyna’s grip tightened, clinging stubbornly to her.

“Then, at the University… Well, why exactly did you stop fooling around with Juniper? Even I know she’d happily open her arms to just about anyone, and I only saw her twice a year at most.”

“That…she…” Natchua swallowed, giving up on her attempted escape to concentrate on controlling the unpleasant lump of emotion trying to climb up her throat. “That was fine, it was a good thing anyway. Juniper felt I was growing too attached, and wasn’t comfortable having a close emotional… Which, I mean, it’s good that she drew the line before I got in over my head. Falling in love with a dryad would be an utter disaster.”

“Mm hm.” Melaxyna rubbed her shoulder soothingly with the hand around her. “And why was Chase Masterson your closest friend on campus?”

“I did not sleep with Chase!”

“Okay. But he’s the one you hung around with the most, am I right?”

“My fucking classmates gossip too much,” Natchua growled.

“At a guess? That surly, hostile act you were putting on to protect yourself drove everyone else away; most people will quickly get tired of being snapped at, and even born therapists like Toby Caine will eventually figure out when their help isn’t actually helping. But Chase, being the twisted little shit he was, remained undeterred by punishment and lived to have fun. He stuck by you, no matter how much of a snot you were to him about it, and always had something to do that kept you entertained. Right?”

“What the hell is your point?” Natchua snapped. She still didn’t pull away again, though.

The demon folded her wing tighter, hugging her close. “Natchua, honey, people need to be loved. It is as essential to life as food, if not as urgent. Deprive a person of all social contact and they’ll start going insane within mere days; deprive them of love, and the damage is slower to build, but still severe. It’s not weakness on your part that you melt for anyone who shows you genuine affection. As starved for it as you are? It’s like waving a sausage in front of someone who hasn’t eaten in a week.”

They were silent for several full minutes. Natchua eventually let herself lean against Melaxyna, who continued to gently rub her upper arm.

“Kheshiri will have no trouble figuring that out, will she,” Natchua finally whispered.

“And using it,” Melaxyna said, nodding.

“What am I going to do?”

“Well, first of all, I recommend you let Hesthri continue with what she’s doing.”

“Oh, gods.” Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again. “Are you barking mad? There was enough of a mess between me and Jonathan, and between her and Jonathan, before that. Now, this is a whole order of magnitude more… I don’t know what the hell she was thinking.”

“Exactly. Filling in the third line is the most stable solution to the problem of a love triangle. Unfortunately it’s not an option in most cases; most people get too jealous to carry on a relationship like that. Someone usually ends up feeling neglected and hurt. But if the option exists? Absolutely go for it.”

Natchua leaned away slightly to frown at her. “What?”

“You three aren’t just any three randos, y’know. Well, two of you aren’t. One’s a self-effacing submissive brought up and conditioned to slavery who seems to draw her only joy from satisfying the people she cares about. Trust me on this; empathy demon, remember? Then, one’s an aggressive, over-emotional young tyrant who needs, above all else, a support system. If anything, Jonathan’s the sticking point here, being the most…forgive the word…normal of the lot of you. But I rather think if you continue to let Hesthri work on it, she’ll bring him around. It really shouldn’t be all that hard. He’s busy castigating himself for loving two women; I quite think the prospect of being able to have both will be extremely persuasive.”

Natchua just stared at her. “You’re…actually suggesting…”

“I am,” Melaxyna said seriously, meeting her eyes. “Come on, who are you to get hung up on what’s conventional? I’m telling you, Natchua, as your friend, this would be the best thing for you if you can make it work. You need some comfort, and safety, and love more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. The fact that both of them are twice your age is, if anything, the best part. You can definitely use four times the maturity to help balance you out.”

“Why is it even when you’re being sweet it comes out insulting?”

“Well, be fair,” Melaxyna said, grinning. “I’m a demon, and you’re a mess. I’m serious, though. I know these things aren’t your strong suit, but Hesthri is capable of arranging such intimate details. My advice to you is to let her.”

Natchua rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Not to repress tears, as none were coming, but just because the pressure and flashing lights it caused in her vision were a welcome distraction from the roiling turbulence inside her head.

“On the other hand,” Melaxyna said solemnly, “this is all gonna be hysterically awkward if you ever do link up with Gabriel again.”

The laughter that burst out of her was a simple release of pressure. Melaxyna just held her, even as it built to near hysteria, helping balance them both against the wind and sheltering the drow within her wing for the several minutes it took her to calm herself back down somewhat.

“Remember, too,” the succubus said at last, “with Kheshiri slinking about, tending to your own happiness is a strategic necessity. Your martyr complex doesn’t change the fact that she can wreck your entire psyche unless you position yourself such that it’s too difficult for her to manage. Support system, Natchua. Let the people willing to love you do so, as long as they’re all alive to do it.”

Still hiccuping, Natchua nodded weakly, brushing tears out of her lashes. Melaxyna squeezed her again.

“I want to make sure you’re as…all right as can reasonably be arranged, before I go.”

At that, Natchua stiffened, turning to stare at her. “Wait, what? Go?”

“We had a deal,” the succubus said, quietly but implacably. “Remember? In exchange for my freedom from the Crawl, my help to set yourself up with the assets and crew you need for your campaign. But you promised I would be released once I was no longer needed, before you get too close to drawing Elilial’s ire. Look around, Natch. You have a secure base, and what amounts to a staff working to build it up. Xyraadi is a major tactical asset, a warlock close to as knowledgeable as you and able to actually do a lot of those really dicey infernal spells that you can’t without incinerating yourself. And…without any false modesty…anything I can do tactically, Kheshiri can do better. You just need to get her aimed in the right direction and be certain she’s working with rather than against you—which is more feasible, I assure you, than it may look. I told you, it’s all about providing what she really wants, which you’re uniquely positioned to do.” Melaxyna gave her a gentle shake. “You’re there, Natch. You have what you need to watch for that opening you were talking about taking against Elilial. Or, at the very least, to continue building your position and assets. The truth is, you don’t need me anymore.”

“It’s…that’s not what…” Natchua swallowed painfully, refusing to meet her eyes now. “You’re not just an asset anymore, Mel. I don’t…want to lose…a friend.”

The succubus was silent, until she could no longer bear the strain and finally raised her face to meet her gaze. Melaxyna’s expression, though, was soft, a sad smile lingering on her lips.

“Friends don’t drag friends into suicidal crusades when they’ve explicitly promised not to.”

Natchua had to lower her eyes again. But she nodded, acknowledging the point, and not trusting herself to speak.

“Hey, I’m not gonna flitter off right this minute,” Melaxyna said more lightly, giving her another affectionate little jostle. “Or this week. I do want to stick around till you resolve this thing with Hesthri and Jonathan, and help with it if I can. I’m also making some good progress with Sherwin that I don’t want to abandon; he’s got potential in him under all the…well, Sherwin-ness. Nobody’s ever encouraged him to be something more. I’m still doing stuff, is what I’m saying, and not looking to cut this too short. I just wanted you to be aware, it’s coming. I won’t be around a lot longer.”

Natchua nodded again, drawing in a succession of deep breaths to steady herself.

“Thank you, Melaxyna. For…all of this. You’re a good asset, after all. And thank you for being a friend. I know you didn’t have to.”

“Well, now, the truth is I sort of did,” the succubus replied with a rueful chuckle. “Maybe another child of Vanislaas in my position wouldn’t have to, but hell. I gotta be me.”

Natchua hesitated before speaking again. “I…have been examining Kheshiri. Not in detail, yet, though I do intend to find time to study her closely. I’m learning things about how Vanislaads are put together… Mel, if it’s possible to cure you of the itch, would you want me to?”

Melaxyna stiffened slightly. “Natchua, that’s my outlet. It’s what lets us process the infernal corruption. If you cut that off, there’s no telling what madness and decay you’d be condemning me to.”

“Possibly, yes; I know that’s what everyone believes. But I’ve been looking, Mel, and I’m really not so sure anymore. It’s easier for me to study Kheshiri, due to her being contracted to me and all the shadow magic inside her, but I can see it in you, as well. You’re a framework of infernomancy around a captive soul. But the thing is, that’s a stable framework. It’s perfectly balanced, not drawing any excess power. You can do that with infernal magic, it’s just hard. It’s not outside the skill of a creature like Vanislaas, though. I can see the mechanism of the itch, even if I don’t understand it very well yet. It’s woven through the connections between your soul and the magic that provides your body and powers, right where it’s hooked up to your emotions. And… I’m not absolutely positive yet, and I definitely won’t tamper with anything unless I am. But looking at it… I think it may not be necessary. It doesn’t seem to do anything but cause that emotional effect. It’s not siphoning off any excess power. There is no excess.”

Melaxyna was dead silent; Natchua turned to watch her for a moment, finding her face uncharacteristically lacking expression.

“It just seems to me,” the drow said quietly after a pause, “if I were going to create creatures like succubi and incubi, I’d want some mechanism of keeping them doing what I wanted them to do, rather than integrating into mortal society to build lives of their own, free from my influence.”

“Son of a bitch,” Melaxyna whispered.

“I’m not certain,” Natchua repeated hastily. “It needs more study, and I may still be wrong. I just… Well. If I have an answer by the time you’re ready to go, Mel, I… It may not be in your contract, but you are a friend. I also want to make as sure as I can that you’ll be okay out there. Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

Now it was Melaxyna’s turn to draw in a deep, steadying breath. “Well. There’s some time yet, after all. If you learn anything more, before… Keep me posted.”

“I will,” Natchua promised.

They were quiet again after that. Just standing there, now, leaning against each other and against the wind. There wasn’t much time before the next trial would have to be faced, but there was a little.

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15 – 33

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“I realize I’m repeating myself,” Jonathan said as the carriage eased up to the curb by the governor’s mansion in the center of Veilgrad, “but it bears repeating. This is a trap, Natchua. There’s no reason—”

“Jonathan,” she interrupted, “enough. It would be pointless for Malivette to maneuver me into a trap, given the number of daggers she’s got over my head. She’s already tight with Imperial Intelligence; it would take her one telescroll to ruin my day good and proper. Back me up, Mel,” she added, turning to the carriage’s other occupant. “Whether or not you can trust someone, you can rely on them to act logically toward their goals, and base your plans around that. Right?”

“Almost,” the succubus said with an amused little smile, already shifted into a human disguise—a local woman of Stalweiss coloring this time. “You can very rarely rely on people to act logically, at all. A better word would be ‘predictably.’ But yes, in this case, I agree with your assessment of Dufresne.”

“Back me up, Mel,” Jonathan said sharply. “This is at the very least a hostile move! She shows up out of the blue, demanding you do things, and now you’re being sent into the gods know what and refused to explain it!”

“I think,” Melaxyna said pensively, turning her head to look at the doors of the mansion through the carriage’s window, “you’re half right. This is a sneak attack, not a trap, and we aren’t the target. Consider: Malivette is about to drop Natchua into a situation she doesn’t understand and probably won’t like. It smells to me like the lady governor intends harm to somebody in there, not to us.”

“That tracks,” Natchua said irritably. “Our deal hinged on me being available to do her favors as long as I’m keeping my menagerie of demons in Veilgrad. Malivette Dufresne has all the scalpels she needs, and doesn’t dare wield herself as a hammer despite all the power at her disposal. She had mobs at her manor during the chaos crisis, and she wasn’t even behind that; everybody’s eager enough to blame the local vampire without her swooping around terrorizing people. No, for someone in Vette’s position, I can see how it would be very handy to have an unpredictable warlock she can just kick into the middle of things and then claim she wasn’t involved.”

“Oh, gods,” he grunted, rubbing at his face.

The carriage door was finally opened from the outside by Ruby, who peeked inquisitively in at them. “Everything all right?”

“Yep,” Natchua replied, sliding off her seat and clambering out as the vampire’s handmaid stepped back. “Just a little last-second strategizing. Come on, you two, let’s go see what this rhubarb is about.”

Jade was not in evidence, despite having accompanied Ruby on the driver’s seat. Ruby, with that vague little smile all four of Malivette’s attendants cultivated (a shade more sly than the Narisian average, just enough to be subtly threatening), opened the door to the governor’s mansion and led them inside, leaving the carriage unattended on the street outside, its undead horses standing motionless as tombstones. There was scant possibility of anyone in Veilgrad messing with it.

Natchua let her eyes wander as they passed through the corridors, though there wasn’t much to see as she was not a connoisseur of gothic architecture. This wasn’t her first visit to Veilgrad, but previous class trips had not brought her to this manor. Supposedly it was from here that the city and all of Lower Stalwar Province were actually run, but based on the lack of activity she heard in midmorning on a weekday, she had her doubts. Stretching out her senses, Natchua detected movement and conversation in multiple places throughout the manor, but not nearly the bustle the rule of such a region would generate. More likely administrative tasks were handled at the city hall and nearby structures, while the acting governor Mr. Grusser used the residence for the backroom dealings that kept Veilgrad under control. This city was a cultural nexus where Tiraan, Calderaan and Stalweiss sensibilities collided and often failed to blend; the friction between the heavily Shaathist Stalweiss and the heavily Avenist Calderaan kept local politics at a constant simmer, to say nothing of the Empire’s interest in keeping its fingers in this resource-rich area. Natchua was not a fan of surreptitious dealings that ran other people’s lives, but in fairness, it probably took a fair amount of constant cloak-and-dagger just to keep Veilgrad from exploding politically even when it wasn’t doing so literally, as had happened last time the paladins and their classmates were here.

It would be just her luck if she ended up creating a mess that topped even that. The prospect was regrettably believable.

“Just follow my lead,” she said quietly, but not so much so that the two flanking her one step behind would fail to hear. Ruby could also hear, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. Natchua had brought these two along because they blended best; even Hesthri in a disguise ring had some odd mannerisms that might pass in a crowded nightclub but would invite closer scrutiny in quieter circumstances. And she had wanted at least two to back her up. “Remember: don’t hesitate to interject if you think I need…to be reminded of restraint. Otherwise, try not to draw attention.”

“I do admire a lady who knows her weak points,” Jonathan said, tension warring with amusement in his tone. Melaxyna just reached out to pat her shoulder.

Ruby half-turned as she walked to give her a coy little glance, unperturbed by Natchua’s answering cold stare.

Fortunately, the next door through which Ruby guided them appeared to be their destination. Beyond it was a snug little sitting area with doors set in three walls; waiting for them were Jade and Lars Grusser, Malivette’s steward and the man who did the actual governing of the province. Natchua had met him once before, in passing. He was the perfect foil for Malivette: the living portrait of a bland, inconspicuous bureaucrat, to the point that it took her a couple of seconds of staring and the forewarning of whom they had come to meet to confirm it. She would not have sworn under oath that he was the same human.

Evidently the disinterest was not mutual.

“Why, it’s Natchua, isn’t it?” Grusser said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

“Nope,” she replied, deadpan, “I’m one of the other green-haired drow. Common mistake.”

“You’re doing the thing, Natch,” Jonathan murmured behind her. Annoyance warred in her with guilty acknowledgment that he was right, as well as…another source of distraction. He had leaned in close enough that his warm breath was far too tingly on her sensitive ear.

“Ah…hah,” Grusser said, nonplussed. “Well! Jade tells me Malivette has sent us a negotiator to help resolve this little stand-off.”

Natchua blinked. “…did you say negotiator?”

Melaxyna made a noise that was too perfectly a strifled laugh to have been anything but premeditated.

“Well, I’ve learned to trust Vette’s judgment, and I’ll confess at this point I’m grateful for any help,” Grusser said, running a hand over his hair in frustration. “This is the second day of no progress being made, and quite frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t come to violence already. I’m confident that if something miraculous doesn’t unfold, it will before another sunset.”

“So, no pressure,” she sighed. “Summarize the situation for me, please?”

“Vette didn’t…? Oh. Well, then, in brief, it’s to do with the reconstruction. Most of the rebuilding of the city is either done or nearing completion, after the chaos crisis, but the catacombs were a major source of the problem. They provided a very convenient hiding place for cultists, and also are mostly emptied out now, after the…use to which the ancient burials were put.”

“That’s a very polite way to describe a skeleton army,” Jonathan commented.

Grusser sighed, nodding. “Well, the rebuilding started off later because the whole maze had to be crawled over by exorcists and archaologists first, but it’s now underway. We’re updating the city’s sewer system while we’re down there, and essentially retrofitting the upper levels of the entire catacomb system to be more…well, habitable, and more importantly, controllable. It’s an ambitious project that will effectively add an entire subterranean layer to the city. And for this, the city and the Empire have brought in dwarven contractors, since there’s a lack of domestic specialists in underground construction. We’ve never needed any, with the dwarves being as happy as they are to rent out their services. And of course, they do excellent work. The sewers of Tiraas are dwarven work; before that, the city flooded some three times in an average year.”

“Sounds like the matter is well in hand, then,” Natchua said impatiently. “Why do you need a negotiator?”

He grimaced. “As it turns out, there is another party interested in joining the work, also skilled in underground construction. We have no real need of them, and our existing contractors object strongly to their involvement. But, it turns out they have an official prerogative to put in at least a bid, and since we neglected to offer them the opportunity, they are now insisting on being assigned a share of the work. Unfortunately it’s over my head, and even Malivette’s. There is…an international treaty involved.”

Natchua closed her eyes. “Oh, bloody brilliant.” No wonder Malivette had called her in for this. Damn vampire was probably laughing herself sick right now.

“I don’t suppose,” Grusser said cautiously, “you have some standing that gives you…”

He trailed off at her bark of harsh, contemptuous laughter.

“Oh, pretty much the opposite, m’lord steward. But…I will see what I can do.”

“Ah, right,” he said warily, then turned and picked up a thick folder from the room’s sole desk, which he then held out to her. “I’ve prepared a set of documents you’ll find applicable. Established plans, reports on the work done thus far, a copy of the treaty in question with the relevant sections underlined, copies of the formal petitions and complaints submitted by the parties involved. If you’d like to take some time to study…”

“Thank you,” she said, immediately handing the folder off to Jonathan, “but I think I’d rather get right to work, as it were. Lead the way.”

“They’re assembled in the conference room just through here, actually,” he said, indicating one of the doors.

Natchua frowned. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Indeed, you wouldn’t. We’re prepared for elven guests; I situated the discussion in the Silent Room. The door enchantments ensure absolute privacy.”

“You sealed them off where they can’t be heard?” she said skeptically. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re already dead.”

“I rather hope not,” he said. “The paperwork alone…”

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Natchua grunted, striding toward the indicated door.

“You think you can just get a delicate negotiation over with?” Jonathan demanded. “I don’t think that’s how that works, Natch.”

“Jonathan, Jonathan, when are you going to learn? As I had to explain to someone recently, I don’t do things the way they work.”

She yanked open the door, causing the sound of an argument in progress to billow out, and strode through it. The discussion broke off at her entry, and there was silence until Jonathan and Melaxyna had trailed in after her, the latter shutting the door.

“What’s this, then?” demanded one of the dwarves. “More of you?”

Three dwarves were seated along one side of the long table, a woman and two men. The woman wore an avuncular suit with gold cufflinks, while her companions were both attired in sturdy denim, cotton, and leather suited to physical laborers. All were glaring across the table with open hostility at the two impassive drow women who had now turned to regard Natchua and her companions, no sign of surprise crossing their features.

“I’m not with them,” Natchua said briskly. “The Duchess felt this discussion could use a neutral perspective.”

“Neutral?” the dwarf woman exploded, rising from her chair.. “And so she sends another drow! I’ll not have this blatant—”

“Sit your ass down!” Natchua barked.

Total silence descended. The dwarf did not sit down, but blinked at her in bemusement. If she’d spent the last two days contending with typical Narisian reserve and expected more of the same, that had to have been startling.

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” one of the drow said quietly. “I confess, I am astonished to find you, of all people, here. And you are in the employ of Lady Dufresne?”

Oh, lovely. Now everyone in Tar’naris who might care where she was would know by the time a telescroll could be sent to Fort Vaspian. Fucking Malivette… Mastering her irritation, she kept her own voice even and soft. “Yil and y’nad, is it. My, my, the old bitch must’ve been royally torqued off.”

Both drow stiffened slightly, indulging in reproachful frowns.

“Come again?” Jonathan inquired.

“Apparently my mother had my honorifics changed,” she explained. “You don’t often hear those; usually anybody who offends their House that badly is just kicked out of it. Somebody must really want to have a claim to shove me in a spider box.”

“You know, I would honestly like to see someone try that,” Melaxyna said in a fascinated tone. Natchua gave her a filthy look, then turned back to the two bemused Narisians.

“Anyway. You may report to whoever it is you curry favor with that it is just Natchua. I renounce House Dalmiss, Tar’naris, and in particular my bloodless wendigo of a mother, and anyone who attempts to come collect me will be mailed home in a soul jar. Now!” She grinned broadly, and modified her tone to a sugary simper. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

A moment of silence answered her.

“I’m Agatha Svanwen,” the dwarf woman said finally, “and it’s my company that’s been performing the underground renovations in Veilgrad. To, I want it noted, nothing but praise from the local government.”

“I am Alrith nor Alvenn n’rin Vyendir,” one of the drow said, inclining her head fractionally toward Natchua, “here to represent my House’s claim to the opportunity we are owed by Tar’naris’s treaty with the Tiraan Empire.”

“I am Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion,” said the other, also nodding slightly. She had been the one to name Natchua. “I have been tasked by my matriarch with the honor of assisting in making the necessary arrangements to the satisfaction of all involved.”

“Not ruddy likely, that,” one of the dwarf men sneered. Neither male had offered names, and Narisian sensibilities being what they were, neither Natchua nor the other two felt it necessary to ask.

“An Awarrion,” she said, sighing softly. “Well. I suppose that buys you a smidge of favor. Ashaele is the only matriarch in that nest of vipers I even slightly respect, and I owe one of her daughters.”

“Excuse me,” Svanwen said sharply, “but I imagine you understand why I’m not happy to hear our supposedly neutral negotiator open by acknowledging a bias in favor of my enemy, here?”

“Let me add some context,” Natchua said with another wide grin. “The favor that buys her is not being summarily kicked in the throat for misnaming me. Now, then!” She stepped up to one narrow end of the table and leaned forward, planting her fists upon it. “Kindly state your positions, as succinctly as you can.”

Shinar and Ms. Svanwen’s eyes met, and for a wonder they both seemed more bemused than hostile. After a tense pause, Shinar nodded politely and gestured the dwarf to proceed.

“There’s not much to tell,” Svanwen said shortly, finally sitting back down, “and forgive me if I’ve grown a little sick of going over it. We were hired to do a job, we came to do a job, we’ve been doing our job—and doing it well, I might add. There was no problem here of any kind until these—” She broke off, looking warily at Natchua, then continued in a more careful manner. “…people showed up and involved themselves. Now work has been stopped, I’m paying skilled laborers to sit on their thumbs, the entire shebang is falling behind schedule and nobody is happy. Nor will be, until these interlopers butt out!”

“Tar’naris, in accordance with its treaty with the Empire,” Shinar said smoothly, “is granted the right to submit an offer to participate in certain types of infrastructural activity relevant to our specific skills as a culture, including subterranean construction. House Vyendir has already been denied that by what I feel certain was an accidental omission, and not a malicious breach of treaty. This has been an awkward situation for all involved, and it has always been our position to seek a compromise, rather than assert sole right to the work in question. Ms. Svanwen has, thus far, declined even the slightest measure to meet us partway.”

“And why the bloody hell should I?” Svanwen demanded. “Your treaty isn’t my problem. I have a contract, and it includes nothing to do with fucking drow!” She caught herself again, glancing at Natchua with a subtle wince.

“All right, then,” Natchua said, straightening back up. “Do either of you contest the facts of the other’s position, as stated?”

Shinar shook her head. “I understand and sympathize with Ms. Svanwen’s position, and give her full credit for not attempting to deceive us, or you, at any point.”

“Those who’re right have no need to deceive—”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

Svanwen drew in a breath and let it out in a huff, scowling. “Yes, fine. I’m no expert on your treaty, but she accurately described her attempts to insert her people into my business.”

“Very good,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Now, Shinar, I would like to hear you answer Ms. Svanwen’s question. Why the bloody hell should she stir herself to meet you halfway on this?”

Another moment of silence passed, marred slightly but a muffled chuckle from Melaxyna.

“Because,” Shinar said finally, her voice quieter now, “that is what civilized people do. Ms. Svanwen is not at fault for this situation, but it is what it is. We have our rights. A person who is in an uncomfortable situation has the option of making an accommodation with it, or being swept aside.”

“Well said,” Natchua concurred. “So! Since we all agree that you aren’t needed or wanted here and are only delaying this task by your presence, have you considered voluntarily withdrawing your claim?”

“That is not on the table,” Alrith said with an audible edge to her tone. Evidently two days of being shouted at by dwarves could fray even a Narisian’s reserve, if they weren’t an Awarrion and trained for such stress.

“I think,” Natchua replied pleasantly, “you should seriously consider putting it on the table.”

“Excuse me,” Shinar said in deadly calm, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I am certain that was not your intent. Would you like to clarify?”

“Do you think I’m out of line, here?” Natchua asked, turning back to her own companions.

“Nope,” Jonathan said immediately. He had the folder open and was leafing slowly through it, perusing pages with a practiced eye. “Been a while since I was in construction on this scale, but these work logs are impressive. These dwarves have put in fine work thus far. Everything’s been ahead of schedule, under budget and up to standards. Basically what we’ve got here is honest folks doing good work and bureaucrats mucking it up by trying to profit from what they’ve no business being involved in.”

“We have our rights!” Alrith insisted.

“What you don’t have is a three-way dilemma,” Natchua retorted. “This is not you against the dwarves against the province. Everything was fine and everyone getting along swimmingly before you showed up. This matter consists of Lady Dufresne’s government and Ms. Svanwen’s company doing just fine until you and your rights came blustering in from nowhere to make a godawful pest of yourselves. A veteran negotiator such as Shinar must surely be well aware of this shaky position.”

“In fact,” Shinar replied, “we have a very firm position, as laid out by treaty.”

“A firm position that gives you absolutely no prospect of winning,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Your best case scenario is to have a lot of innocent House Vyendir laborers stranded in a city where everyone hates them and resents their presence. I don’t know if you’re up on local history, but Veilgrad isn’t kind to the vulnerable and unwanted. Or, you could write all this off as a bad job, go home to your dank spider hole, and cease making an abominable nuisance of yourselves.”

The dwarves were now watching this exchange as avidly as children gawking at a parade.

“Are you acquainted with recent Imperial history, Natchua?” Shinar countered. “It was not very long ago that the previous Duke of House Madouri was executed for treason against the Silver Throne—for, among other things, deliberately intervening in the relations between Tar’naris and Tiraas. Perhaps Duchess Dufresne should be reminded of these events before sending her agents to…negotiate.”

“Excuse me,” Natchua whispered, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I’m sure you couldn’t possibly be that fucking stupid.”

“I intend only the best for all parties involved,” Shinar said with a placid little smile, her eyes half-lidded and knowing. “I firmly believe that no situation is so uncomfortable that a compromise cannot be reached.”

Natchua stepped around the table and began to slowly pace back and forth behind the drow. Alrith stiffened noticeably.

“One,” Natchua said softly, and the fairy lamps in the room dimmed. The dwarves glanced nervously at them. “The previous head of House Madouri was a corrupt, incompetent fool who mismanaged his province into the ground and sought to undermine the Emperor at every opportunity. His daughter, who was instrumental in getting rid of him, has single-handedly resuscitated the economy of Tiraan Province in less than a year, and that while ruling it remotely from Last Rock. She is also closely aligned with House Tirasian. Ravana’s a friend of mine,” she added in a confidential tone, leaning down toward Shinar from behind as she passed. An exaggeration—Ravana was a megalomaniacal little creep with whom Natchua was just as happy being on politely distant terms—but there was no reason Shinar needed to know that. “Now, can you guess which of those two options better describes Malivette Dufresne?”

She continued pacing for several more steps, letting that sink in. The lamps had continued to dim; now, the shadows in the corners of the room were deeper and darker than they had any reason to be, even with the light running low.

“Two,” Natchua said suddenly, just when Alrith had been about to crack and break the silence. “Malivette Dufresne is not here. I am not affiliated with her in any formal capacity. I’m just here as a favor to an acquaintance; I’m not even a citizen of Veilgrad. So if your intention is to run crying to the Empire about how I was mean to you…well, knock your little self out, precious. The only living person who cares less than I is Duchess Dufresne.”

The whispering had begun at the very edge of hearing, even for elves; with Natchua talking over it, the words would have been barely audible even to the Narisians. It swelled, though, smoothly but quickly, until even the dwarves could hear the faint breath of voices from the ever-darker corners of the room. Even Jonathan had backed up against the door, now, eyes wide in unease. Melaxyna just stood placidly with her arms folded; she had somehow contrived to position herself so that the fading light cast her face in a series of ominous shadows. There was still no real meaning in the whispers, just disjointed snatches of gibberish and occasional demonic.

Natchua placed a hand on Shinar’s shoulder and leaned forward between the two drow. “Three,” she said, herself barely above a whisper. “If you’ve been here a few days, you’ll have begun to notice. This is a place where chaos and cultists rise out of the catacombs, bringing undead and worse. Where cemeteries come alive, and werewolves howl in the mountains at night. Those who travel the forests do so in groups, if they want to come back. The last nobility of Veilgrad are a vampire and a warlock. Of all the rumors that swirl through the streets, only the least wild are made up.” She added a second hand to Arlith’s shoulder, grinning when the woman flinched. “People disappear in Veilgrad.”

She held them in silence for a moment. By that point, the fairy lamps were sullen reddish patches in a dim room, which did nothing to explain the writhing shadows which shifted across the walls. Natchua only belatedly noticed that both male dwarves had lit up with golden divine auras, which were doing nothing to push back the darkness.

She clapped both drow women on the shoulder once, and straightened up. “Some people should think about disappearing voluntarily, while they still have that option.”

Shinar rose abruptly but smoothly, shoving aside her chair and pivoting in place to stare at Natchua, icy anger plain on her features now.

“I speak for Tar’naris,” she hissed, “and I will not be bullied by a selfish, disrespectful brat.”

“Oh, no,” Natchua whispered, “it’s happening already.”

The darkness swelled, congealed, rose, and when it was gone, so was Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion.

“What?!” Arlith squawked, her reserve shattering, and tried to scrabble away only to freeze when she almost fell out of her chair. “Where is she?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine, don’t worry,” Natchua said, strolling around her and back toward the door. “Veilgrad’s cathedral spire is very tall, but elves are quite agile. She should be able to get down pretty easily. And who better than an Awarrion to explain to the police what she was doing monkeying about on a protected landmark?”

“It’s a very sunny day, you know,” Melaxyna said in a sepulchural voice from one dark corner. “I understand drow eyes are…vulnerable, in the sunlight.”

Natchua made a show of hesitating in thought, then turned to the succubus and raised one chiding finger. “Now, now, that’s a negotiator of Tar’naris you’re talking about. Have a little faith.”

“You can’t…” Arlith choked off when Natchua turned back toward her.

The woman flinched again when she reached out to gently take her by the shoulder.

“Go home,” she said in a soft, kind tone, as if soothing a child. “Tell your House what you found. There’s no profit for you in Veilgrad. There’s nothing here for you but evil.”

Arlith stared up at her like a frozen rabbit.

“Go!” Natchua snarled, her voice cracking through the small conference room.

Arlith exploded out of her chair in a panicked dash and raced to the door with all the speed an elf could muster; Jonathan barely got out of the way in time for her to claw it open and scramble out, leaving it ajar. He gently pushed it shut behind her.

Just like that, the whispering and shadows cut off and the darkness vanished, leaving the room as pleasantly lit as ever.

Natchua turned back to the dwarves, finding all three had backed their chairs up against the far wall and were staring at her as if at a monster. Which…was fair.

“I’m sure the Duchess appreciates all the good work you’ve put in so far,” she said brightly. “Lars Grusser is a capable administrator, but…these things happen. If anything else comes up that he can’t seem to deal with, feel free to reach out to Malivette directly. All right, then!” She clapped her hands together, guiltily enjoying it a little when the dwarves all twitched in reaction to the sound. “Another successful negotiation, resolved. Let’s run along, now, these fine people have plenty of work to catch up on.”

She led the way back into the sitting room outside, pausing to let the others catch up. After looking back through the door, Melaxyna pulled it closed behind her; evidently the dwarves weren’t in a hurry to join them. Dwarves, after all, were famously reasonable folk.

Neither Grusser nor Malivette’s handmaids were in evidence. Of course; they wouldn’t have reasonably expected anything to be resolved in such a short time. Arlith, of course, was long gone.

“So that’s her play,” Melaxyna mused aloud.

Natchua turned back to her, drawing in a breath. Shapeshifting aside, this was the main reason she had brought the succubus along. She herself was painfully out of her depth when being maneuvered about by aristocrats, and fully knew it. Melaxyna was another matter. “You have a thought?”

“A whole host of people are about to know exactly where you are, and what kind of power you’re messing around with,” Melaxyna said seriously, holding her gaze. “Those drow will go squealing to both their Houses, and even if they don’t reach out to the Empire directly, House Awarrion absolutely will. They’ll also inform House Dalmiss.”

“I’m not worried about anything my mother or Ezrakhai might be able to send after me,” Natchua said dismissively. “You think Malivette’s trying to get me in trouble with the Empire? That still doesn’t make sense, she wouldn’t have to go to such an effort. All she has to do is tell them. I haven’t specifically done anything to cheese off Imperial Intelligence but I can’t imagine they’d be happy about anything I’m involved in.”

“I thought it was fishy you were able to talk Malivette down at all,” Melaxyna admitted. “Considering what you showed up with and what her position was. Letting you establish a base in Veilgrad was just…weird. The fact that she wants to use you as some kind of fixer makes it more clear, but this completes the pattern. If she tells the Empire or anyone else you’re here making trouble, she becomes your enemy. But! If she puts you in positions where you can’t avoid attracting their attention, then she can use her clout to prevent them from taking you away.”

“Shit,” Jonathan said feelingly. “She’s right. That vampire isn’t trying to destroy you, she’s trying to control you. If she becomes your only protector from the Empire or the Church or whoever else…”

“Then she gets her fixer,” Natchua finished, her face twisting into a scowl. “And she gets to keep her. Oh, well fucking played, Vette.”

“How much does she know about…what you’re actually trying to do?” Jonathan asked.

“Malivette is under the impression that I’m on a campaign to hunt down remaining Black Wreath cells. Which isn’t inaccurate, just…less than complete. After all, she has reason to empathize with that, considering the Wreath’s involvement with the chaos crisis.”

“We can always leave,” Melaxyna pointed out. “It would mean sacrificing your investment with Sherwin and the horogki…”

“More than that,” Natchua said, shaking her head. “Sherwin gives us access to resources, not just a leaky roof over our head. We wouldn’t have any of that hiding out in some ruin in the wilderness. House Leduc also has a veneer of legitimacy and a history with diabolism. No, that’s the perfect position for us to take as a base. That’s why Vette is doing this, she knows I won’t abandon it easily.”

She paused, frowning deeply in thought. Then, suddenly, her expression shifted, a smile curling across her mouth.

“Ohhh, hell,” Jonathan groaned. “I know that look. That’s the look that happens right before one of your trademark lunatic schemes.”

“Well, after all,” Natchua said reasonably, “Malivette likes to surround herself with pretty girls. And oh, look! I have one whom I was just fretting over what to do with.”

Melaxyna clapped a hand over her eyes. “Natchua, no.”

“Stop it, this could not be more perfect. Malivette and Kheshiri both like to play mind games, right? Well, let them chew on each other for a while. No matter which loses, I win.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said, “because that’s always how it ends up, isn’t it.”

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