Tag Archives: Sherwin Leduc

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Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.

“Oh, please.”

The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.

“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”

Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.

“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”

“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.

“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.

Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.

“What have you done with—”

“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”

It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.

“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”

From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.

“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”

Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”

She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.

“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”

Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”

“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”

“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”

Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.

“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.

“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”

“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”

“How noble and self-effacing you are.”

“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”

“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”

“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”

“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”

The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.

Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”

“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”

Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.

“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.

“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”

She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.

“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”

“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.

“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”

“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”

For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.

Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.

“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”

She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.

“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”

For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.

Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.

“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”

“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.

“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”

Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”

“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”

The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.

“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.

“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”

Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”

Elilial’s grin widened.

“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”

The goddess raised one eyebrow.

Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.

“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”

“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”

“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.

Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”

“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”

Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”

“Wait!”

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.

“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”

“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.

She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”

“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”

“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”

Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.

“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”

The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.

Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.

Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.

“Natchua, no!”

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15 – 74

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Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”


The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

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15 – 61

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The darkness receded, leaving them in the more brightly-lit basement storeroom under Branwen’s borrowed townhouse. Immediately, weapons and spells were aimed at them, then just as quickly relaxed when those present saw who had arrived.

“All right, what happened?” Grip demanded in an exasperated tone.

“Now, why would you assume something happened?” Sweet retorted, grinning. “What, can’t six people abruptly shadow-jump in after deciding not to gather everyone here without y’all assuming something’s gone terribly wrong?”

“Well,” Khadizroth said evenly, “if you feel relaxed enough to joke, I gather the situation is not urgent.”

“You’d think that, but no,” Grip snorted. “Apprentice, this is an important piece of Guild lore: sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate to punch the Bishop in the nuts.”

“Basra happened,” Branwen interjected before Sweet could reply. “You know those soldiers she was going to gather and bring to our location? Well, she certainly did that, as we discovered when they began shooting down the door. They had also blocked shadow-jumping somehow; we escaped through a basement tunnel and came back here as soon as we were far enough from the effect for Vanessa to use her magic again. Are you all right?” she added solicitously to the warlock. “If it is anything like teleportation, moving this many people must be tiring.”

Vanessa just curled her lip slightly and stepped away to join Bradshaw against the far wall.

Meesie, for once not on Schwartz’s shoulder, came scampering out of the stone scale model of Ninkabi on which she was setting and arranging tiny glowing seeds, squealing and pointing accusingly at them.

“I trust I don’t need to interpret that?” Schwartz said dryly.

“Kid,” Grip replied in the same tone, “with all respect to your pet fire-mouse, you never need to interpret.”

“You’re both Bishops, which is more than can be said about Basra anymore,” Schwartz said, glancing at Grip but still facing the new arrivals. “It might have taken some doing, but surely you could have explained…”

“And that is why they opened with shooting,” Sweet said with his good cheer undiminished. “Not only do Bran and I have official standing, we’re both quite good at talking our way out of confrontations, and Basra knows this about us. Whatever she told the troops, they were in a ‘shoot first and ask questions never’ kinda mood. Flora and Fauna overheard some chatter about the Wreath. Mighta been awkward if they’d gotten close enough to see Vanessa’s robes.”

“Well,” Schwartz suggested, “maybe that’s an opportunity. If we can get word to the soldiers, and prove she lied, she’ll be vulnerable!”

“She won’t be with them,” Sweet said, ruefully shaking his head. “Remember, thanks to me, Basra is wanted by the Empire. I made damn sure the local authorities were notified of this, since I came here more than half expecting to find myself standing over her smoking corpse explaining it to the cops. No, she’ll have mobilized the Holy Legion and used them to plant a lever under the police and the military.”

“This is my fault,” Jenell whispered, clenching her fists. “If I hadn’t told you to…”

“Now, let’s have none of that, apprentice,” Sweet said, his smile finally fading. “I told you at the time, it’s not your responsibility. This is on me. Hell, I even instructed everybody to kill that twisted bitch on sight, and then I went and let her maneuver us again. I was right the first time, and if we do get a glimpse of her again, go right for the jugular. But for now, this is the situation we’re in.”

“Where is Embras?” Vanessa asked.

“At the secure space,” Bradshaw replied, “seeking to commune with the Dark Lady. Our magical work here is not done, but it is trending in such a direction that Embras thought playing that trump card had become a better use of his time than continuing to work here.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound promising,” Shook muttered.

“Bad, is it?” Sweet asked.

“Worse,” said Khadizroth, finally turning away from Flora and Fauna, who had been staring fixedly at him since their arrival. He made a soothing gesture in Vannae’s direction, prompting the shaman (who had looked like he wanted to charge them) to retreat to a corner of the room opposite the two warlocks. “Our additional avenues of inquiry have not borne fruit yet, but thanks to Mr. Schwartz’s knowledge of new developments in Salyrite practice that even I was not aware of, we have managed to refine the sophistication of our existing divinatory methods. So I cannot tell, exactly, how long it has been going on, but in examining these portal sites through this new lens, we have found that their energy output is rapidly increasing.”

“Not consistently or uniformly,” Schwartz added. “It’s quite fascinating, really! We have been trying to nail down a pattern, in case that might point us to a source, but so far it seems pretty random. We’re working with the idea that something on the other side is probing at them. It’s as if they’re wandering around, looking at all these nascent portals to find which ones will be easiest to pry open.”

“Excuse me,” Shook snapped, “but which part of that doesn’t sound like those fuckers are about to blow?!”

“That was the conclusion to which Mr. Mogul came,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Hence his departure. I begin to share his assessment. At this point, our time might be better spent on urgent damage control rather than investigation.”

“Yeah,” Shook said bitterly, “except the warm bodies we need to fuckin’ do that are out trying to murder our asses instead of looking for demon portals.”

“As to that,” the dragon mused, shifting his attention to Darling, “a thought occurs. Syrinx’s duplicity has, indeed, painted a large target on you—specifically, I should think, upon the Bishops. There are ways to leverage being a target.”

Sweet grinned broadly at him. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, K-man?”

Khadizroth nodded. “For once, Bishop, I believe so.”


“Ready,” Jonathan reported, stepping into the kitchen with Hesthri at his side. “As we’ll ever be, anyhow.”

Natchua smiled at them both even as she looked them over. “Wow. Where’d you get all that stuff?”

Both were carrying lightning weapons; in addition to Jonathan’s personal Army-issue staff which he’d brought from Mathenon, Hesthri had a battlestaff propped over her shoulder and both wore wand belts with, in addition to holstered wands, clipped-on shielding charms and enough extra power crystals for any conceivable firefight. Hesthri’s staff was a bit heavier than his, and looked fancy, with a rich mahogany varnish, a baroque silver-plated clicker mechanism and fanciful engraving around its handholds and butt end, complete with silver inlay.

“Ah, well, you know,” Sherwin answered modestly, “I just figured, they are sort of, if you squint at it sideways, in the employ of House Leduc. At least, I believe my lawyers can make that case in the very unlikely event that the Throne takes issue with me opening my House armory to civilians.”

“Oh,” Hesthri said worriedly, “is that…illegal?”

“Significantly less than you being here at all,” Jonathan said, leaning over to plant a kiss on her forehead plating.

“The reorganization after the Enchanter Wars included a lot of laws about who’s allowed to have what sort of soldiers,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “I can’t say I give a damn, I just try not to draw Sharidan’s attention. That ship may have sailed, though. I see you found enough that’s still in working order, Arquin? Like I said, it’s all been collecting dust for a good fifteen years.”

“Yes, and that took its toll, but fortunately your House armsmaster knew what he was doing, back when there was one,” Jonathan replied. “A lot’s pretty decayed but the only problems with this stuff was drained charges, and luckily there were plenty of power crystals still magnetically sealed. These are some nice shielding charms,” he added, producing another from a belt pouch that looked identical to the ones on his and Hesthri’s belts and tossing it to Natchua. “Not cutting edge anymore, but way better than what we had when I was in the service. Reactive shielding; you prime it by pressing the rune, there, and then it’ll ignite whenever any source of energy gets too close to you. Including kinetic energy, so it’ll block spears and arrows, too. These suckers even work in the rain.”

“Why aren’t they more commonly used, then?” Natchua mused, turning it over in her hands.

“Because even twenty years later they’re still expensive,” he said, grinning. “That’s why they’re so bulky, too; takes not only shielding magic but a detection array and some really sophisticated logic controllers. Intelligence and the Imperial Guard use ‘em, and some of the richer House guards, but they’re not practical for a whole army. Back when these were made they were worth more than a Falconer carriage.”

Sherwin shrugged. “Sounds about right. My family never kept many troops, but those they had always had to be the best of the best. More for showing off than for any actual fighting.”

“I don’t know why you think I need a shielding charm, anyway,” Hesthri said sardonically. “Or have you really gone all this time without noticing I’m a hethelax?”

“And as such,” he said firmly, “you are vulnerable to divine magic. An arcane shield is the best counter to that.”

“Neat!” Kheshiri said brightly from her chair by the fireplace. “Where’s mine?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Logistically speaking,” said Natchua, “you are a spy, not a brawler. If anybody ends up shooting at you at all, you’ve already failed. Are you planning to fail me, Kheshiri?”

“Why, that could never possibly happen, my mistress,” the succubus simpered. The muted amusement pulsing through her aura heightened slightly; evidently she was not truly worried.

The small sound of a throat being cleared interrupted Natchua’s pondering before she could wonder too much about Kheshiri’s motivations. All three of the hobgoblins had just crept into the kitchen; the other two seemed to be trying to hide behind Pizzicato, who herself appeared to be physically trembling. “Uh, so,” she squeaked, then paused to clear her throat again before continuing in a more normal (though still strained) tone, “scuze me if this is, y’know, presumptuous, but… Do we get fancy magic weapons, too?”

Natchua blinked. “What? You aren’t coming. There are likely to be hostile warlocks and demons, and who knows what else. You girls are here to fix the house, I’m not sending you into that bedlam.”

She froze in astonishment as they all rushed forward and embraced her legs from all sides, leaving her standing amid a waist-high hobgoblin huddle.

“Um?” Natchua asked.

Then they broke and scurried back out of the room in a tiny stampede, leaving her staring after them in confusion.

“What the hell was that about?”

“It was about Hell,” Hesthri said, stepping up next to Natchua and sliding an arm about her waist. The drow absently hugged her back, leaning against the demon’s warm frame while she listened. “In any tribe or colony or city-state or whatever that has horogki, whenever there’s a large-scale battle they get sent in first.”

Nathua frowned. “That’s bonkers. I can’t imagine hobgoblins are very effective shock troops.”

Hesthri shook her head. “They’re thought of more like…ammunition. Natch, you are far and away the best boss any of those young ladies ever dreamed they might have.”

“Doesn’t sound like that’s a high bar to clear,” she muttered. “All right…wait, where’s Mel?”

Sherwin cringed. “Oh, ah…yeah. She…asked me to tell you goodbye.”

Natchua instinctively squeezed Hesthri, who squeezed her back. Jonathan stepped over to them and rested a hand comfortingly on her shoulder.

“Just…goodbye?” she asked, forcibly keeping her tone even. “That’s it?”

He nodded. “I’m afraid…yeah. I don’t think she’s one for drawn-out farewells. I gave her an old heirloom of the House, a Wreath shadow-jumping talisman, so she could go whever she wants to be. Sorry if that was presumptuous, Natchua, I just felt… Well, hell, I owed her that much. I’m really gonna miss her,” he added with a dreamy sigh.

“Pathetic,” Kheshiri sneered. “What child of Vanislaas sneaks away right when things are about to get really interesting?”

“Most of them,” Natchua shot back, “and on that note, shut up.”

“I don’t want to make this worse,” Jonathan said quietly, “but we are talking about a succubus now on the loose in the world, with that magic armor you gave her and apparently now a jumper charm as well. That’s gonna be a nightmare for somebody down the line.”

“Melaxyna…is a friend,” Natchua said tightly. Both he and Hesthri squeezed in closer at her tone in silent comfort. “I’m under no illusions about what she is, but Sherwin’s right. I owe her that much.”

“Even though she left you?” Hesthri asked quietly.

“Our pact was very much up front. She was only going to stay with me until I could gather more allies and resources, and she was to be free to get away from any fighting before I launched any kind of attack on Hell’s forces. And now…here you all are, and here we are, heading into exactly that. Mel kept up her end, and even warned me not long ago that she would be leaving soon. She’s played fair. I just…wish I could’ve said goodbye.”

“Right, well,” Sherwin cleared his throat awkwardly. “I didn’t wanna ask, but… I notice you came back missing someone, as well.”

“Yes,” Natchua agreed briskly, gently disentangling her arms from around Jonathan and Hesthri. “Xyraadi is also getting us some help. There aren’t many people out there who even can storm the kind of citadel we may need to, but fortunately she knows just the ones.”

“Who does she know, apart from…” Jonathan trailed off, his eyes widening. “Oh.”


“The good news,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh, “is that they are not in this Last Rock.”

“That is good news,” Mortimer agreed, leaning over to study the diagram wrought in lines of shifting orange light atop the obsidian surface of the scrying table. “They may or may not have mentioned you to Tellwyrn, but even in the best case scenario a khelminash shadow-jumping into the vicinity of her school would be asking for an instant and lethal response.”

“C’est incroyable,” she muttered. “Arachne Tellwyrn, running a school. If I am unlucky enough to see this firsthand I think I will still not believe it. But that brings be directly to the bad news. This site, the location of the great hellgate that caused the Third Hellwar and the blessed tree…”

“The Desolate Gardens?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, dear.”

“I don’t suppose,” Xyraadi said, grimacing, “that this site is, in this century, administered by someone a bit more easygoing than the Order of the Light?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mortimer replied sympathetically. “The Order is not what it was in your day, though. Frankly it’s not much of anything anymore, in terms of its relevance to world events, but it is not dead and still looks after the Desolate Gardens. I believe it is a usually quiet place; they do not station any soldiers there anymore. Likely no more than a few priests.”

She heaved a sigh. “Merde alors. A few priests will be bad enough…”

“You have three paladins who remember and will speak for you, my dear,” he reassured her. “It is a bit outside my own effective radius, but if you will kindly handle the shadow-jumping, I shall be glad to—”

“Mortimer, no,” she said firmly but with a smile, turning to face him and placing a slender hand on his shoulder. “As far as such people as that will be concerned, you are just a warlock, no different from me in terms of telling friend from foe. It makes no sense at all for us both to risk the wrath of the Order. The danger is here, in Ninkabi; a warlock who knows the city as well as you may be exactly what it needs in the very near future.”

“I dislike leaving you to face such a risk on your own,” he said with a grimace, reaching up to pat her fingers. “But you are right. And as I said, if you can find Arquin, Avelea, and Caine, they will vouch for you.”

“Yes, that will be the real challenge, n’est-ce pas? All I have to do is shadow-jump into one of the most sacred places on earth, with a deep and dire history of demonic activity, administered by militant clerics who will attack me on sight with lethal intent and listen to nothing I have to say, and hope I can find the right holy people before being burned to ash.”

The old man closed his eyes, wincing. “I dearly wish I could say that was an overly dramatic assessment…”

“Oh, it is suitably dramatic, yes,” she said, smiling. “But not all bad. Very much like old times, in fact. Ah, I find I have missed the call of adventure! If I do not see you again, Mortimer, know that I have been deeply grateful for your friendship over these last weeks. It has made all the difference in the world to me.”

“And to me, as well,” he replied, smiling. “So let us decide here and now that this is not a goodbye. Whatever befalls, there and here, we have many more interesting conversations ahead of us.”

“It is a date.” The demon leaned forward gently to press a light kiss to his cheek, then stepped back and vanished in a swell of shadows.


They bounded across the landscape like silver gusts of wind, the wolves forming a tight arrowhead formation with their various human companions dashing alongside. Rangers and Huntsmen alike shared space, their numbers mingling without tension and without separating back into their distinct groups. Though they still wore the unique regalia of each order, an unspoken threshold had been crossed in their allegiance. They now followed Ingvar, right into the teeth of an evil for which they did not yet have a name, nor anything but his word that it lay ahead.

Even the Rangers’ animal companions kept up with the impossible pace set by the pack, all of them spurred on by the fae blessings laid over them. Across fields, through forests and over streams, the expanded pack moved faster than a diving falcon. Though they avoided any roads on which they could have proved it, they cleanly outpaced even the newest enchanted carriages; galloping horses could not have kept pace with them. Fae magic could do only so much to speed travel, and it was no shadow-jumping or teleporation, but they would reach their destination far sooner than unaided mortal legs could have achieved, whether those legs came in groups of two or four.

The pack slowed, following Ingvar’s lead, as they reached the apex of a ridge and that destination finally lay before them.

Wolf and human, elf and hound and lynx, they straggled to a halt, staring at the descending landscape ahead. The sea was out of sight in the distance, the river to their left, just beginning to flow deeper into its rocky bed in what would become the plummeting canyons and waterfalls of Ninkabi far ahead. The city itself stood at the very edge of view, its famed spires a jagged monument rising against the afternoon sky.

The wolf in the lead shifted to regard the elf who paced forward to stand next to him, then in a flash of light stood on two legs once more.

“This is a great gift, Elder Shiraki,” Ingvar said, nodding deeply to him.

Shiraki shook his head. “Twas within thee that the power dwelt, young hunter. I serve merely as a guide. Thou needst not my guidance to perform this work again; now that he has seen it done, Rainwood can awaken the blessing of speed, and extend it to thy brethren. With time and practice, mayhap thou canst learn to perform this feat without a shaman’s aid.”

Darkness swelled to their right, and the strike team materialized alongside them on the ridge.

“Dare I hope you’re only coincidentally heading in this general direction?” Captain Antevid asked in an even more sardonic tone than usual. “Because you lot are pointed right at an Imperial city of significant size.”

Ingvar raised his head; he did not sniff the air, though his face stilled in concentration.

“Ninkabi, yes,” he said quietly. “Whatever gathers there is evil of a depth I have never encountered before. It blemishes this land, and threatens the city and wild alike. We will suffer no desecration of this world,” he added, raising his voice. “We hunt!”

Wolves howled in response, and he was lunging forward even as he returned to a four-legged form in a flash of concentrated moonlight. They were off, dashing toward the distant city in league-eating bounds that carried them swiftly from sight.

“They hunt,” Antevid sighed. “Well, then! I guess you get to visit home a little earlier than planned, Lieutenant Agasti.”

Maehe clenched her jaw, then gestured with both hands, raising shadows around the team and whisking them away.


The small group materialized in a dingy space barely reached by the sunlight, strewn with old trash.

“Ah, home sweet home! If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all: filthy alleys, just like mama used to make,” Sweet said, inhaling deeply through his nose. Immediately he coughed and turned to scowl at the necromantic altar attracting flies against one wall. “Phew! That’s new, though. Guess we’re in the right place. Help me out, Vanessa, where are we relative to…anything?”

“The city’s most prominent square isn’t far in that direction,” she said, nodding at the stone wall next to them. “This is the back of the historic merchant guild hall along its north side. It’s the widest open space in Ninkabi, just inside the city’s main gates, and heavily trafficked. If you want attention, it won’t be hard to get from here. If you’re sure you are prepared for what the results of that attention will be,” she added skeptically, panning her eyes across the three of them.

“Our plan does rest upon assumptions not quite proven,” Khadizroth acknowledged, nodding to her. “One, that the soldiers will be wise enough not to attack a dragon on sight, and two, that if they are not so wise, their attempts to do so will be ineffective.”

“And three,” Branwen added, “that Antonio and I can talk some sense into them while they’re taken aback. If these soldiers have been told to look for warlock craft, showing them this should divert their attention.” She directed a displeased look at the reeking altar of bones.

Vanessa shrugged. “Well, your funeral. Just so there’s no ambiguity, if this turns into a shooting match I will be instantly leaving you all here.”

“You’re an absolute dear to be concerned,” Sweet said gallantly, “but don’t you fret on our behalf. Now, I believe we need to ask you for one final favor.”

“Yes, I remember the plan,” she said, stepping back and kneeling, chalk in hand, to begin drawing a summoning circle on the pavement. “I’m going to call up a katzil. That should be sufficient to draw attention.”

“Kind of small, aren’t they?” Branwen asked.

“Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of fellow demonologists,” Vanessa said acidly. “They’re only small when seen from below. Which is often, because they fly and spit green fire. Trust me, a katzil will draw eyes. If there’s already a legion of troopers in the city looking for demons to slay, this’ll bring them running.”

“Stop,” Khadizroth said suddenly, turning from his perusal of the altar to frown at her unfolding diagram.

“I thought we decided time was a factor, here,” Vanessa retorted, continuing to draw.

“Stop!” he repeated, stepping forward and smudging out part of her work with one foot. “Your circle is interacting with—”

A shockwave of heat blasted across them, sending old newspapers fluttering about the alley. A hole opened in the air above the bone altar, a shimmering space of uncertainty that seemed to overlook some fiery abyss. Above that, a single column of wavering fire shot skyward, taller than a minaret.

All three humans backed away, instinctively throwing up arms over their faces against the furnace-like heat, Branwen and Sweet snapping divine shields into place as well. Only Khadizroth stood against the blaze. With a single contemptuous gesture, he sent a torrent of floral-scented wind into the portal with the force of a hammer.

The altar was shattered, pieces spraying across the walls, and instantly the portal snapped shut, the flame and light disappearing.

“It seems,” Khadizroth commented in the ensuing stunned silence, “destroying the altar suffices to snuff out the portal even once it has opened. That makes sense. Hellgates can usually be closed if it is done before they have the chance to stabilize. This suggests that whatever holds them open on the other side is even more fragile than these, otherwise it would have to be closed from both ends. This slapdash infernomancy seems frail enough that the shock of a unilateral disruption does the trick.”

“Good to know,” Sweet said, tilting his head back and pointing. Though the alley’s shape cut off most of their view of the sky, they could see two more columns of fire beyond its ends, directly to the west and east. The distant hubbub of traffic and crowds audible from the other side of the old guild hall had suddenly begun to prominently feature screams. “I’m afraid that information is about to be very pertinent.”

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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 – 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…best,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows mutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natchua opened her eyes and regarded Jonathan in icy calm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I say,” Sherwin began.

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

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

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

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

“It was just a harmless little—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hit him with another shadowbolt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello? Anybody! Help!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, this was gonna be such fun!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hn,” Jonathan grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try, yes,” she said dryly.

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

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

“Ho…lee…shit,” Jonathan whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fly, my little bird.”

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15 – 13

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

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

Melaxyna had been a very busy demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are supposed to be entertaining Sherwin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melaxyna gazed at her with a benign smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I don’t have time for this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never understood that, either.”

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

“Abuse describes most Narisian relationships,” Natchua admitted.

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

Natchua frowned. “But…none of that…”

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

“And how is that not a power issue?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

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

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

“The succubus can cook?” Jonathan asked skeptically.

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

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

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

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

“You named them?” she said incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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