Tag Archives: Xyraadi

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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 – 60

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The fully detailed model of Ninkabi, from minarets to canyon depths, hovered in the center of Mortimer Agasti’s study, wrought of pale orange light that was too steady to truly resemble fire, though the dozens of points of purple light scattered throughout it did flicker and pulse. At a gesture from Xyraadi, the model began to slowly rotate in place, giving them all a view of the miniature city from every angle.

“Of course,” Xyraadi said after a weighted pause, “I will have to jump to one of these to be sure, but I can find no error in my analysis of the spells. Mortimer?”

“No, your work is perfect,” the old laywer said, slowly shaking his head, eyes fixed on the model. “I understand why you were confused at first; it’s not like any other portal spell I’ve ever seen. Clearly unconventional methods. But ultimately the effect of a dimensional warp is obvious. The only natural parallel is the gravitational field of the earth itself, or the sun. None of these have found a matching indentation on the other side and so can’t bridge the dimensional barrier, yet, but what they are is unmistakeable. Gods be merciful,” he added in a near whisper. “There must be almost forty of them.”

“According to Kheshiri,” said Natchua, “this is most likely the work of a shadow cult called the Tide, surreptitiously orchestrated by Archpope Justinian. She has a theory about what those actually are.”

All three warlocks turned to look at the succubus, who smiled as if pleased by the attention.

“I still don’t think the intention is to open any actual hellgates,” she said. “Mind you, it is just a theory, but I’m confident in my reasoning. Have I ever told you, Mistress, about the Belosiphon affair?”

Agasti straightened up, his eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Did you say Belosiphon?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied with relish, her tail beginning to sway. “In point of fact, his skull. Justinian sent me and the rest of his little adventuring party to retrieve it from its resting place up in the Badlands, and quite deftly manipulated Bishop Darling into doing likewise with a rival team he was financing. There was a lot of guerrilla-style back-and-forth, and though I missed out on the final showdown, I understand it was quite the spectacle. Flattened most of a town.”

“Are you saying the Archpope has his hands on the skull of Belosiphon the Black?” Agasti demanded.

“Oh, yes, but as it turns out, he always did, it was never seriously contested, and that is my point. The damn thing was in Veilgrad the whole time—that was why it had that chaos crisis—and he was just using the oracular portent that business kicked off to test two groups of fighters against each other to see how we performed, possibly thin our numbers a bit, and experiment with how well he could plant information to lead Darling on a mockingjay hunt. That is what Justinian does.”

“You suspect these gates are a ruse,” Agasti said thoughtfully.

She nodded. “Justinian likes to control every detail from behind the scenes. A demon invasion is something he couldn’t possibly control. But the appearance that one might be imminent? I mean, Xyraadi may be an exceptional warlock, but she detected this from the other side of the Empire. Others must have spotted it, not least the Inquisition, who are specifically looking. Having the Tide create a credible threat and manipulating several rival factions to move in and destroy them, and probably ‘accidentally’ erase any trace that could link the Tide directly to him? Now, that would be a classic Justinian plan.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Well. Your reasoning seems consistent, but considering the potential stakes, I am not inclined to dismiss the possibility of at least some of these gates being activated.”

“Especially not at the word of a succubus?” she retorted with a wry smirk.

“Correct,” Agasti replied, unfazed. “Also, a person does not attain and hold a position like Archpope while pulling off the sort of schemes you describe by being predictable. Trust me, I speak as an old man who has avoided the long list of people who’ve wanted to knock me down a peg for a good few decades. Never assume a clever man will continue doing the same things he’s done before. Often enough, the point of establishing a pattern is purely to feint one’s enemies into a misstep.”

“True enough,” she conceded lightly. Natchua glanced sidelong at the succubus, noting the surge of sheer irritation that pulsed through her aura. That particular emotion could be in response to any number of things; without having insight into Kheshiri’s actual thoughts, it didn’t reveal much.

“Then the only obvious course I can see is to shadow-jump to each of these sites and try to destroy the portals, one at a time,” Xyraadi said, frowning. “With so few of us, that may be…impractical.”

“Not least because somebody is skulking about in alleys making these things,” Natchua added. “I’m confident you or I are more than a match for whatever bargain-basement warlockery is at play, here, but getting into a magical fight with any rival infernomancer raises its own risks. I doubt very much that you would be able to talk your way out of being apprehended by cult or Imperial personnel, Xyraadi.”

“By the same token, it’s not as if we can report this to the authorities,” the khelminash replied.

Kheshiri cleared her throat. “Cut off the head, and the serpent dies. I can tell you where Syrinx and my old crew are hiding out. They may have gathered more intelligence in the last couple of days, maybe even on where this group is based.”

“What would you say are the odds of that?” Natchua asked.

The succubus smiled, an expression full of malicious amusement. “Frankly, slim. Syrinx is a cornered animal and the rest are alternately falling apart from internal pressure and busy playing political games between Syrinx and Snowe.”

“If we are willing to risk a fight,” said Xyraadi, “apprehending one of the cultists creating these portals could yield results.”

“Unlikely,” Kheshiri retorted. “The Tide in Tiraas weren’t much for talking. The shadow-jumping leaders were a little more coherent but the lot of them were dosed up with something that kept them almost pathologically focused.”

“Well, we have to do something!” Natchua exclaimed.

Agasti inhaled slowly through his nose, staring at the model of the city with both hands clasped atop the crystal head of his cane. He let out the indrawn breath in a single muffled burst of a sigh.

“There is already a hellgate in Ninkabi.”

All three turned to stare at him.

“Excuse me, did you say in?” Natchua asked. “That can’t— Cities have been abandoned due to having one of those too close, let alone inside the walls!”

“This is a secret of the highest order,” he said solemnly, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of those secrets kept in part because it is so old. And that, as it happens, is how I happened upon it. My rather unique career has led me to comb through suppressed and nearly forgotten archives of lore with a particular bent for anything pertaining to infernomancy as it is dealt with in history and law. N’Jendo has a long-abandoned but very interesting historical association with the warlock’s craft that almost no one knows about anymore. But yes, Natchua, this gate is within the city proper—and in fact, is part of the reason there is a city here. You may have noticed that ‘across a pair of canyons’ is an odd and awkward place to build a metropolis.”

“Go on,” she said warily.

“Centuries ago,” Agasti narrated, his gaze growing unfocused, “N’Jendo was a land pressed on all sides by enemies. The orcs regularly attacked in force from Athan’Khar, Tidestriders raided from the coasts, there were constant border skirmishes with the tribes in Thakar, and even the Deep Wild occasionally coughed up some fairy madness. Occasional help came through the passes from Viridill, but the Sisterhood then was also pressured by Athan’Khar and Tar’naris, and even the Tira Valley in those days was a morass of warring city-states that demanded their attention. Our distant ancestors turned to dark bargains and desperate measures to protect themselves. In small ways at first, but as the early, careful warlocks met with some success, they eventually moved on to creating a gate, deep within an island plateau separated from the rest of the land by the river canyons. A fortress-temple complex was erected over it, and then, given its secure location, the local amenities necessary to service something like that. Then teaching and training facilities to which other tribes would send warriors and magicians…” He smiled humorlessly, still staring at the floating model without seeming to really see it. “The actual tribal dialect is long extinct, but in my research I encountered mention that the name Ninkabi originally meant something like ‘necropolis.’”

“City of death,” said Kheshiri. “I like it!”

“Of course you do,” Natchua muttered.

Agasti sighed again, and lifted his head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “Well, I’m sure the full history was very interesting; even the surviving fragments I was able to dig up were quite the ride. But it’s not germane to our concerns, so I’ll summarize, and I suspect you can guess how it goes anyway. The ancient Jendi initially had great success in destroying their enemies; that is the lion’s share of what infernomancy is good for, after all. And then, once it was good and too late, they began to learn the costs. The resolution involved an entire crusade from Viridill, with concurrent missions by the Omnists up in Onkawa. Of course, as you’re aware, an established hellgate cannot simply be closed, and it was decided that trying to seal off and bury the portal would lead to disaster, positioned as it was in a highly defensible position that a demon horde would love to get their claws on. The fortress complex remained inhabited and used, and eventually, the same process occurred; the devastated city was rebuilt in order to provide for its needs. And ultimately, as the secret of what was hidden under it was deliberately suppressed, it evolved into a typical modern city, albeit one with somewhat fanciful architecture owing to its position.”

“I don’t see how something like that could be forgotten, even if established powers tried to make it so,” Xyraadi protested. “Minor hellgates can often be dismissed with a cursory watch, if they are not easily accessible from the other side, but something like what you describe? If factions in Hell knew there was a valuable position on the mortal end they would never cease pressing to retake it. The Sisterhood would practically have to establish a permanent war front around it.”

“In this case,” he said, “the gate itself was…plugged, somehow, by the then Hand of Salyrene. I have not been able to find any record of the method used, and believe me, I looked. Alas, my investigations were hampered by the need not to tip off the Nemitites what I was digging up. In the course of my career I have several times found it necessary not to reveal how much I know; being aware of certain dangerous secrets would give certain entrenched powers the excuse they’ve longed for to land on me. But yes, the gate is…not sealed, I don’t think, but subject to some magical effect that prevents it being a prospect from the other side. Apparently something that required that singularly powerful spellcaster to accomplish, as it hasn’t become standard practice in shutting down hellgates elsewhere. And even so, the site is not buried or abandoned. Its oversight was jointly administered by secretive elements within the Avenist and Salyrite cults. The most recent documentation I found of the gate’s existence was from nearly three hundred years ago, when its administration was handed off to the Universal Church.” He hesitated. “That was when Ninkabi’s central cathedral was built.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Natchua groaned.

Agasti nodded. “Right on top of it.”

“Hmm hm humm hm hmmmm,” Kheshiri murmured, half-stifling a grin by chewing on her lower lip. “You know, just for the sake of argument, if I were going to train and house a super-secret cabal of drugged-up disposable shock troops who know some basic infernomancy, an ancient hidden underground fortress around a secured hellgate would be—”

“Yes, we get it, thank you,” Natchua snapped. “Well, great. That sounds like an incredibly promising lead, but what the hell are we going to do about it? It’s not like any of us can even walk into a Universal Church cathedral, much less root around in its basement looking for a secret and no doubt heavily fortified door to Hell. Something like that would be as close to warlock-proof as anything in the world could possibly be.”

“We are back to needing allies,” said Xyraadi.

“Well, there’s the Inquisition,” said Kheshiri, “but in my opinion that would be a major roll of the dice. Khadizroth and the gang would move on such a facility if they could, but Syrinx is working for Justinian, after all. And I strongly suspect the purpose of putting her in charge of that group is to see how many of them die as a result. I wouldn’t swear she’s actually assigned to do what she claims to be, and I definitely would not assume she’s interested in doing what Justinian wants rather than using him as a cover for her own antics.”

Natchua absently dragged her fingers through her hair, turning away to begin pacing in thought. “Nobody in any position of authority would listen to us. Mortimer, surely you have connections in the government?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “A fellow in my position could never survive without them. But those are strings not easily pulled. It would take some doing to get any action initiated—and more importantly, time.” He turned his eyes back to the model of Ninkabi, with its dozens of incipient hellgate sites flickering angrily. “I hesitate to assume we have enough time. Unfortunately I don’t have a better idea.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know of an ancient secret back way into this hidden fortress?” Kheshiri chirped. Agasti just gave her a sardonic look.

“Merde alors,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh. “All right… Natchua, you are either going to like this very much or not in the least little bit. I know just who we can call on for help.”


The safehouse wasn’t much less tense for being less crowded. After Bradshaw had shadow-jumped back to Branwen’s Izarite-supplied borrowed residence with Schwartz, Grip, and Jenell in tow, another Wreath agent had been dispatched to serve as the point of contact with the Eserite holdout. Vanessa was less overtly displeased to be there than Bradshaw had been, but she elevated aloofness to an art form, blithely rebuffing even Branwen’s attempts to strike up a conversation. The warlock simply lounged in the most comfortable chair in the front room of the townhouse, reading a penny dreadful and seemingly ignoring the rest of them.

Flora and Fauna lurked in the same room, ostensibly keeping a surreptitious watch out the front windows but making no real effort to conceal that they were taking turns keeping an eye on Vanessa, who continued to ignore them. Shook paced through the house’s rooms and corridors very much like the caged animal he felt like. Branwen, after striking out with Vanessa, had set herself up in the kitchen and begun baking cookies, of all things, filling the room with soft humming and the clatter of utensils against mixing bowls. Sweet just wandered about with a lot less nervous energy than Shook, making idle chitchat with whoever was nearby and even including Vanessa in some of his jokes. She ignored that, too.

There had been a brief period in the early afternoon when it was quiet in the townhouse, as Sweet and his apprentices had gone to the local Guild headquarters to bring the Underboss up to speed on the situation and Shook had hidden himself in a bedroom, disliking Vanessa’s chilly company and not trusting Branwen to make small talk without adding layers of skillful manipulation which he knew himself ill-equipped to outwit.

Now, though, the tension was beginning to simmer, and neither Branwen’s homey act nor Sweet’s lighthearted banter were doing much to diminish it. Any time they were in proximity, the mutual dislike between Shook, Vanessa, and the two elves was like a tangible weight in the air, not lessened by their refusal to engage in overt backbiting.

It was a combination of desperation and boredom that drove Shook to meander over next to Vanessa’s chair and speak to her. “Can I ask you a question?”

She looked up from her book at him and raised one eyebrow, and already that was not going the way he’d expected. The woman had given Branwen a single snide comment and Sweet a couple of disinterested grunts before ceasing to react to them at all; he had honestly not anticipated any response.

“No,” she said evenly before he could speak again, “I will not retrieve your succubus for you.”

Shook grimaced reflexively at the very unpleasant mix of emotions that idea brought up. Unpleasant not least because a part of him still desperately wanted Kheshiri, and no amount of knowing better and despising his own weakness made that little whining voice shut up.

“That is absolutely the last thing I want, thanks,” he said quickly.

“No, I will not summon you another succubus.”

“I don’t want a fucking succubus!” he exclaimed. “I’m lucky I survived the last one!”

“No,” she drawled, “I will not go to bed with you.”

He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and deliberately breathed in and out. “Look, lady, if the answer is ‘fuck off, I don’t wanna talk to you,’ that’s fine. Understandable, even. You can just say so, no need to make a production of it.”

She stared at him inscrutably for two more heartbeats, and then, to his surprise, closed her book. “What’s on your mind, Thumper?”

Well, shit, he hadn’t actually thought this conversation would be allowed to happen. Shook straightened his lapels unnecessarily, hating himself for being nervous and awkward like some damn teenage virgin, but having come this far he wasn’t about to compound his weakness by running away.

“Hypothetically,” he said, looking at the front window rather than her face, “as a woman, I mean… If some guy had been, uh, checkin’ you out and you didn’t really appreciate it, would… I mean, if you hadn’t even noticed. Would you feel better if he apologized, or wouldja rather just not know?”

The silence stretched out. A moment later, Shook had to look away from the window because the two elves stationed there had turned to stare incredulously at him. He brought his gaze back to Vanessa’s face, which he found chillingly devoid of expression.

She let the awkwardness hang for another handful of seconds before speaking.

“Are you drunk?”

“I wish,” he muttered. “Sorry to bother you.”

Shook jammed his hands in his pockets and turned to retreat. To his chagrin, Sweet was now in the room, standing just inside the door from the kitchen munching on one of Branwen’s fresh cookies. He was holding another, which he offered as Shook slouched over to join him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting it. Still warm; Shook didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but you couldn’t turn down fresh homemade cookies right out of the oven. “Y’know, talking to women is a lot easier when it doesn’t matter what they think.”

Flora and Fauna both turned to look at him again; he’d kept his voice deliberately low, but they were elves. Shook hid his expression behind a big bite of cookie. It was some kind of citrus and spice confection, surprisingly delicious. He couldn’t decide whether it was incongruous or incredibly appropriate that Branwen Snowe could make great desserts.

Sweet shrugged and swallowed the bite he was chewing. “You do realize where you’re getting tripped up is thinking that talking to women isn’t exactly like talking to everyone else.”

Shook pondered that while chewing. He finally swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. With that in mind, I stand by my observation.”

A faint smile of amusement flickered across Sweet’s mouth. “Still an enforcer at heart.”

“Yup.” Shook nodded slowly, staring at the front door but not really seeing it. “And will be til I die.”

Sweet studied him sidelong, nibbling a bit more of his cookie before speaking again. “Apropos of nothing, Thumper, when you were last hanging out with Khadizroth, did he do any significant magic at you?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, anything,” he said, shrugging. “Just curious.”

“Well…” Shook hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason to dissemble. “There was that night right after I was attacked and lost the reliquary. He used fae magic on me for cleansing, which I figure’s a damn good deal when you’ve been fucked up by warlock shit.”

Vanessa glanced at him sidelong before returning to her book.

“And,” Shook added, frowning in recollection, “I think after that… Yeah, he did a little something to help me sleep. I was pretty worked up, which I think is understandable. K gave me some mojo for calm and rest.”

“I see,” Sweet mused.

Shook frowned at him. “But seriously, why do you ask?”

“Well… When somebody’s had powerful fae magic done at ‘em and then starts showing surprisingly rapid shifts in—”

“Hey, Sweet,” Flora interrupted, turning from the window, “I think we’ve got trouble.”

Sweet immediately straightened and strode across to them; Vanessa set down her book, watching. “What kind of trouble?” the Bishop asked.

Fauna had leaned over to press her ear against the curtained window; Flora took a step away, speaking just quietly enough to be plainly heard. “Large groups of people moving into the buildings opposite us, and both sides of the street out of view of the windows. We figured that was the troops Syrinx was going to bring us… But then, they started talking.”

“It is the troops Syrinx was bringing,” Fauna reported. “Local police, Imperial Army, Holy Legion. She went all out. And…the officers are giving last-minute orders to take this place by force.”

Vanessa shot to her feet, tossing the book aside. “Exactly how much can elves hear?”

“It’s less about what sounds they can detect than how well they can pick out individual noises from the background, especially in a city,” Sweet said, apparently calmly. “You sure, girls?”

“It’s a bit garbled at this distance,” Flora replied. “But…”

“Yeah,” Fauna said, turning from the window to give him a grim look. “We’re sure. They’re primed to storm a Wreath stronghold, specifically.”

“Oh, look,” Branwen said bitterly from the doorway behind him. “Basra helped.”

“Yep,” Sweet chuckled. “That was a bad call on my part. Well, ladies, battle stations, if you please.”

Flora grabbed the fairy lamp fixture by the door and yanked it sideways, causing a loud THUNK to echo through the room as heavy bars hidden in the door frame slid out from above and below into slots in the steel-reinforced door itself, securing it in place. Fauna gave the curtain cord two short tugs and then a carefully measured three-second pull, and a low hum of arcane magic rose in the room, shielding charms in the window frames buzzing to life to reinforce the glass.

A Guild safehouse’s defenses were designed along a “don’t see” philosophy; with the door and window precautions engaged, the fastest way in would be to break down unguarded sections of the walls. Nearly all attackers would waste time trying to force open what were usually the weakest parts of a house’s outer walls.

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sweet,” said Shook. “Your decision made sense at the time. I thought so, and I’m otherwise totally down for the ‘kill Syrinx’ plan.”

“Of course it did,” Branwen said wearily. “This is what she does. In the moment, in that situation, while she was being calm and controlled and her skills were useful, it made perfect sense to let her help. And then this happens.”

“Well, spilled milk,” Sweet said cheerfully. “Vanessa, how many people can you shadow-jump at a time?”

Vanessa was already frowning heavily. “I…can’t, Darling. My shadow-jumping is blocked. That requires some major magical intervention.”

“Why, Basra, you sly minx,” he murmured. “That’s it, I’m definitely killing her next time I have eyes on her, I don’t care if it’s in a room with Justinian himself. But that’s then; this is now! Any measures that block shadow-jumping are pretty targeted, as the large-scale ones like we used in Tiraas a couple years back tend to draw a lot of attention. We just need to get you some distance from this spot. Come along, folks!”

“You want to…hide in the basement?” Vanessa asked warily, even as she trooped along in his wake with everyone else down the kitchen stairs.

“Don’t forget, this is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse!” Sweet replied, still with evident good humor. “Just let me…ah, I believe this is it.”

In the wine cellar, he crossed directly to the far wall, flicked a small fairy lamp on and then back off, and pulled one dusty bottle off a rack.

Immediately, the section of brick wall to which the rack was attached slid backward with a low rumble, leaving a dark gap with another staircase descending into the unknown.

“How did you know that?” Branwen exclaimed. “How much time do you spend in this city, Antonio?”

“Some features are standardized up to a point,” he said, winking. “Come along, down we go. It’ll take them a while to get into the house once they’re ready to move, so we should have a bit of a head start. By the by, on that subject, I don’t suppose any of you happen to hail originally from Ninkabi?”

“Are you serious?” Shook demanded. “Sweet, you’re talkin’ to two elves and the four palest people on this side a’ the mountains.”

“Hey, you never know! We’re all one big happy Empire, after all. I suppose,” he added wryly, “that means none of you happen to know your way around the tunnel system under this city.”

They all stared at him in silence.

From above there came a percussive crash as a lightning weapon was fired at the heavily reinforced front door.

“Welp!” Sweet said brightly, ducking into the tunnel, “I guess this’ll be an adventure.”

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15 – 59

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“Schneider says the spirits are still severely agitated,” said Captain Antevid.

“My witch reports the same,” Major Luger said more stiffly, shifting her focus to the two serene-faced Elders. “Considering that, as well as all the developments we’ve seen here, you’ll excuse me if I’m not ready to consider this entire matter settled.”

“For each matter settled this day,” Shiraki replied solemnly, “seven more shall arise in the days to come. Thy wariness serves thee well, soldier-priestess. But there are matters, and then there are matters.”

“What he means,” Sheyann interjected as the Major’s eyebrows lowered precipitously, “is that it’s likely to be a long time before there is an overall settling. The fae spirits through which power and information are channeled are living, feeling things. But not, in all circumstances, thinking things. Given the stress to which they’ve been subjected, they will be agitated for some time to come. The situation is less like ripples from a stone dropped in water than… A large flock of birds whose nesting tree had been struck by lightning.”

“Evocative,” Antevid said approvingly.

Sheyann glanced at him before returning her attention to Luger. “With all due respect to your respective witches, whose competence I have no reason to doubt, Shiraki and I have practiced our craft longer than the traditions in which you trained have existed. We can assure you that the source of this disruption has been pacified. In time, the spirits will reach a new equilibrium.”

“Didn’t sound a hundred percent pacified to me,” Luger grunted. “Now we have no less than the assurance of a god that he means to keep doing this specific thing.”

“A more specific thing, in fact,” Sheyann clarified. “He means to subject devoted Shaathists to visions of wolf pack behavior, like the Ranger ritual to do the same. Every night in their dreams. While I’m sure there will be vast repercussions from that, it is an entirely different class of event from insistent howling from everywhere in the world every night, accompanied by agonizing spiritual urges in everyone connected to the fae. This is now explicitly a Shaathist problem; everyone else may breathe easily again.”

Luger pursed her lips, glancing to the side. The group of elves and Imperials had remained under the shade of the trees, with the exception of Rainwood, who had joined the group of Ingvar’s new pack. In addition to the recently-transformed group of people he had brought with him, there were the remaining spirit wolves, who showed remarkable equanimity in the presence of so many humanoids. The Shaathists and Rangers were sitting around Ingvar on the grass, their numbers now mixing together instead of remaining separated by faction as they had been before, while he spoke and answered questions in a quiet voice which forced them to listen closely.

“It is, of course, your privilege to proceed in whatever manner you think best,” Sheyann added in a tone of gentle reproof, “but I cannot imagine what reason you think I might have to deceive you, Major.”

“Don’t henpeck, Sheyann,” said Tellwyrn. “Not that I don’t have my issues with stuffy military types, but not blithely accepting the dictates of foreign nationals on a mission’s status is just a case of being good at her job.”

“Appreciate the validation, Professor,” Luger said sardonically.

“For my part,” Tellwyrn continued, “I do accept your recommendation. Gods know I have plenty of personal observation that you’re both the best out there at what you do. If what’s been injuring my students and staff is done, I need to get back to them.”

“Yes, of course,” Sheyann agreed, nodding deeply to her. “By the same token, we should return to our grove. Even with the source pacified, these events placed great stress upon our shaman, especially the young learners. Our guidance will be needed.”

Tellwyrn smiled lopsidedly, raising an eyebrow. “Well, then! Can I offer you a lift home?”

“The offer is, as always, appreciated, Arachne,” Sheyann said with wry fondness. “But as this is no longer an actual crisis, I believe we can do without having our molecules dismantled again. With our own blessings we can be home by tomorrow. I judge that, now, to be sufficient haste.”

“Don’t be absurd, you don’t disconnect the molecules,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “That’d never work, you’d rematerialize as so much mud. The entire package is converted to data and moved via fundamental entanglement.”

“Thank you,” Sheyann said, affecting deep and solemn gravity, “for correcting me.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glanced one last time over at Ingvar and his various wolves, and just like that was gone, leaving behind only a faint puff of air filling the space she had been.

“Well, there she goes,” Antevid said lightly. “Before you also vanish, Elders, the Empire appreciates all your help. I’ll make sure ImCom knows the elves from Sarasio are good neighbors when the need arises.”

She inclined her head politely to him before turning to Shiraki, who was facing the clearing now. “Well, then, shall we?”

He answered softly in elvish, still watching Ingvar’s impromptu teaching session. “The restorative work should be minor; mostly, everyone will just need rest. Would you forgive me if I left it for you to handle, Sheyann?”

Sheyann turned fully to face him, replying in the same language. “You are right, and I would. What are you thinking, Shiraki?”

“I think,” he said, slowly and pensively, “I would like to stay, for a while, with this Ingvar and his…pack.”

“We are in the midst of a great general upheaval,” she reminded him. “As much as we butt heads, times of transition are when traditions and the conservative voices who speak for them are most important. This is an awkward moment for you to go tauhanwe.”

He gave her a sidelong smile. “A wise shaman bends with the wind; a fool demands that it part around him. I have made my case against involving ourselves with the world and others with our business, but that time has passed. And in truth, events have shown me that I was misguided.” Shiraki returned his focus to the group in the glade; Ingvar had beckoned one of the luminous spirit wolves to his side, and now had an arm around the creature’s neck in a light embrace, continuing to talk to his followers both established and new. “It is fatal to ignore what is happening in the wider world. And this, Sheyann, is happening. Someone should be watching where it goes. Not to mention that these puppies could perhaps benefit from the perspective of an Elder. Or do you really want Brother Ingvar to forge a new Shaathism with Rainwood as his only source of shamanic wisdom?”

That brought a soft laugh from her.

“I don’t suppose you speak elvish?” Lugar asked Antevid.

“It’s on my to-do list,” he said.

“Spirits gather,” Shiraki said abruptly in Tanglish. “Attend, something is—”

Ingvar had stepped away from the wolf next to him, and a pale glow coalesced upon him of light drawn seemingly from nowhere; it resembled the visible effect of shadow-jumping, but with moonlight instead of darkness. Like a shadow-jump, it dissipated immediately, leaving behind the great form of a white spirit wolf bearing an arrow mark on his face where the hunter had stood.

“What?” Antevid exclaimed, though softly. The rest of his team stepped forward to stare. “We just fixed that!”

Shiraki glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. “We?”

There was a similar reaction from the onlookers closer to the action, with many of the assembled humans scrambling backward. The other spirit wolves were unperturbed, however, and the rest of those who had previously been transformed all straightened up in unison, frowning as if suddenly considering a surprising new thought. Rainwood had bounded to his feet, and was now peering rapidly between Ingvar and the others in confusion.

The white wolf himself raised his head, turning to face the west with his ears alert. While the humans muttered among themselves, the wolves watched him closely.

Shiraki lightly touched Sheyann’s upper arm once, then walked forward into the glade at a serene pace.

Before he reached the group, the light coalesced again and left Ingvar once more restored to human form. He stood upright, still facing west with his eyes narrowed in concentration, but after a second jerked backward in surprise, blinking. The Huntsman turned to look at Aspen.

“Did I just…?”

“Yeah,” the dryad replied. “What I wanna know is how you did that?”

“Yeah, me too,” Rainwood added.

“Do you think we can all…?” November trailed off, turning to Rainwood, who shrugged.

“Sure am glad we’ve got this shaman here to share his understanding of the currents of magic,” Taka said solemnly.

“A transformation which cometh without will or warning is one triggered by outside effect,” said Shiraki as he paced into the group. Everyone turned to regard him, the gathered Rangers and Huntsmen shuffling aside to clear a path for the elf to Ingvar, who had fixed his full attention on him immediately. “The magic, it is clear, lies within thee, only the reaction was to another source. It may be that thou canst gain conscious control, but then, it may not. Thy circumstance is mingled of the powers of gods and fae, young hunter. Thou shalt learn more as must we all: through time and experience.”

“That’s very helpful, Elder, thank you,” Rainwood drawled.

Shiraki paused, turned to him, and spoke calmly in elvish. “I am neither Kuriwa nor the Elders of your home grove who tried to douse your spirit, young man. If you cannot direct your petulance elsewhere, please keep it leashed while we are trying to sort out matters of life and death.”

He returned his gaze to the now-bemused Ingvar, switching back to his archaic Tanglish. “Recall thy mind in the moments before it came over thee, Brother Ingvar. I saw no craft at work in this place, felt only the spirits around thee responding to a call from within.”

“You think if we can identify what caused it, we can learn whether it can be controlled?” Ingvar nodded slowly, his expression pensive.

“Perhaps,” said Shiraki. “Tis the first step, regardless. Though the Huntsmen are no ascetic creed, thou art trained at least somewhat in the arts of the mind. Still thy thoughts, feel thy breath, and seek back within to that moment, ere the memory fades.”

Ingvar nodded again and his expression turned inward, though he did not close his eyes. Everyone around grew still as well, watching him closely; Rainwood followed suit after a last, lingering scowl at Shiraki. The Elder, for his part, kept his gaze fixed on the contemplative Huntsman, though he did not fail to take note of the demeanor of this group of mixed Huntsmen and Rangers, the way they hung on his every word and now even on his silence, waiting for him to unravel another mystery for him. Though Shiraki had not spent overmuch time among humans in a handful of centuries, he had seen no shortage of heralds, prophets, teachers and charismatic troublemakers during his long life. They were a significant part of why he had not encouraged human visitors to his home grove.

What followed this, if it did not fizzle out abruptly, would affect the course of the world for great good or ill. Another reason it needed a guiding hand. If his people could no longer afford to ignore human progress, perhaps they should take part in shaping it.

“There was…a scent,” Ingvar said slowly, his eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “Except…not a scent. I feel,” he added, focusing on Shiraki’s face, “like the sensation was partly an effect of my mind trying to parse something for which it did not have terms or context.”

Shiraki nodded. “Thus is ever the way of those who reach beyond their ken; when not done in recklessness, tis a valued tool by which the shaman man perceive more of the world. Didst thy mind sense an ineffable touch whilst in the form of the wolf, tis likely ‘twould reach thee as a smell.”

“Then…you think it was a remembered scent, Elder?” he asked. “Something that would bring back the form of the wolf?”

“Scent is a powerful key to memory,” Shiraki agreed, nodding, “and memory a powerful key to an altered state, if it be one thou hast attained ere now. Mind, also, that thy powers are now granted at the behest of they god. If more gifts art thou granted, ’twill be for use in his service. Canst thou give a name to this smell?”

“Evil,” said Aspen before Ingvar could answer. “I remember it. While we were first in the wolf dream, that was the part where it started to go wrong.”

“I remember, too,” said Rainwood, frowning. “That was the tipping point. I was guiding their vision, but something reared up and sent them into a fury.”

“Well, that’s a little reassuring, I guess,” Tholi noted. “Here I was thinking you’d just done the ritual wrong.” Rainwood turned a scowl on him, but Dimbi barked a laugh.

“Peace,” Ingvar said, his voice firmly cutting off the burgeoning byplay. “I thank you, Elder, for your insight. This all makes perfect sense. While we must contend with the corruption existing within the cult of Shaath, that is simply a thing to be dealt with, not the reason we are called together. These events, this quest, cannot all have been for the sake of making politicians of us. Servants of the wild god are called to protect his realm. And something threatens it. As if…”

He raised his head again, narrowing his eyes in concentration, and the light gathered again. This time, Ingvar’s transformation into the white wolf brought murmurs from his audience, but no further panic.

The outcries began again, though, when there ensued another flash and where November had been sitting there was suddenly a golden spirit wolf with wing marks on her shoulders. The other members of the pack, those who had been normal gray wolves before the transformation and not changed back, stood and paced forward to join her and Ingvar; all of them were staring away to the southwest.

Ingvar growled once, and took a single step in that direction.

Swiftly but smoothly, Shiraki glided forward to block his path. “Patience, young wolf,” the Elder remonstrated. Ingvar straightened up, his ears perking forward in attention. “If evil rises, it must be answered, and shall be. Yet thou must not yield thy mind to instinct. Only with time will mastery come, but thou must gain a basic understanding of this gift before thou canst use it in the hunt. Rainwood and I shall lend our craft to thy aid. Attend, now.”

Some yards distant, under the trees, Major Luger turned to her fellow team leader while Shiraki continued calmly instructing the mingled wolves and humans. “Did you notice he was pointed in the same direction they were going when they got here?”

“Mm hm,” Antevid murmured, nodding. “Right at Ninkabi. Maehe’s from there.” Lieutenant Agasti pressed her lips into a thin line but offered no comment.

Luger nodded once in return. “I’m going to report all of this to field command while there’s a lull. I’d like you to stay on this group, Captain. This all looks calmer, but…not settled.”

“Do you actually think they can smell evil from halfway across the province?”

“These things are brand new, Antevid; we have no frame of reference for what they can do. All we know is they were set this way by a god of the Pantheon. And on that subject, ‘evil’ in the context of paladins and such usually refers to either demons or undead.”

“Ah, I think I follow you, Major. If they are going after a real target, not only is it important to verify their capabilities, but it’ll be a good idea to have some troops present in event of…evil.”

“I was more thinking I’ll feel better about this pack of madness charging into an Imperial city if they have a military escort.”

“That, too,” he said sagely.

“Thank you again, Elder, for your help,” Luger said politely to Sheyann. “Fall in, and take us out.”

Shadows coalesced around them, and they were gone.

While Antevid gathered his own team together, Sheyann continued to watch and listen as Shiraki walked Shaath’s new pack through the basics of a blessing that might unlock whatever potential their god had granted them.


“Natchua, un moment, s’il vous plait?”

“Sure,” Natchua said agreeably, then her eyebrows drew together. “Oh. Did you mean in private?”

Xyraadi hesitated, glancing rapidly around at the others. Though Sherwin and Melaxyna were absent, most of the household was in the manor’s broken great hall, where Jonathan and the hobgoblins were installing new floorboards. Natchua was perched on what remained of the stairs, watching, while Hesthri sat above and behind, gently kneading her shoulders with the fortified gloves covering her claws. Even Kheshiri was there, perched atop a ruined column with her wings spread to ruffle in the breeze, watching everyone as superciliously as a cat.

“No, I don’t think it will be a problem,” Xyraadi finally answered. “I am sorry to distract you, that’s all.”

Natchua smiled and leaned back against Hesthri, who in response shifted forward, pausing her massage to drape one arm around the drow’s neck and shoulders from behind. “No worries. What’s on your mind?”

“I would like to make a quick jump back to Ninkabi,” Xyraadi said seriously. “There’s something important I want to discuss with Mortimer.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “Well. Thank you for letting me know, but you don’t require my permission, Xyraadi. Just be careful. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what’ll happen if somebody spots a khelminash wandering about.”

“I hardly plan to wander,” she retorted with a wry smile. “Actually, I wished to inform you before going because I think this may be important. One of my wards near Second Chances was triggered, and I sent a pulse through it to see what happened. Natchua, I clearly detected the dimensional warping caused by a one-sided casting of an incipient hellgate in four places near the club.”

Natchua straightened up, as did Hesthri. Jonathan turned from the horogki to watch them, frowning and letting the hammer dangle from his hand.

“How certain are you?” Natchua asked.

“I am very confident of my spellwork, but this result is so…so very strange, I will not assume anything until I have looked more closely. You know as well as I that our infernal methods of divination are deeply imperfect. But Natchua, it is worse than that. To verify, I pulsed every ward of mine still intact around the neighborhood. I found no less than twelve such sites in Ninkabi, just in the relatively small area I was watching over. If these are hellgates, and if they are in the same concentration everywhere, there is nearly one per city block. Just waiting for someone on the other side to activate them.”

Natchua stood, gently caressing Hesthri’s arm while removing it. “Kheshiri, get down here.”

The succubus immediately launched herself into space, swooping down to land gracefully on the floor nearby. Jonathan also wandered over, and even the horogki paused in their work, watching the conversation unfold.

“Your team in Ninkabi was pursuing some kind of necromantic cult, right?” Natchua asked.

“Every word of that carries an implied ‘allegedly,’ but yes,” Kheshiri replied with a little smirk. “I know nothing of any hellgates, but the Tide did use shadow-jumping when we encountered them in Tiraas. They also summoned a few highly sophisticated undead constructs, and most of them were hopped up out of their gourds on some kind of alchemy. It seemed like mostly a horde of disposables under the command of a few people with magical skill.”

“Some of which, at least, was infernal,” said Natchua.

The succubus shrugged. “Shadow-jumping and dimensional mechanics are wildly different fields of study. Although…”

“Yes?” Natchua prompted impatiently when she trailed off.

“Well, this is conjecture, but both are only infernal-adjacent.”

“She is correct about that,” Xyraadi agreed. “Shadow-jumping uses only minor infernal craft in conjunction with shadow magic, and a dimensional portal of any kind is made through universal principles that are far easier to make with arcane than infernal methods.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes. “So…a mystery cult whose magical approach consists of dabbling in multiple fields could well be capable of both.”

“Conjecture,” Kheshiri repeated, “but yes, sure. Honestly, not to question Xyraadi’s skill, which I’m sure is impressive, I highly doubt whatever she detected were actually hellgates.”

“Ah, oui?” Xyraadi folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You have some deeper insight than I, after all?”

“Down, girl,” Kheshiri said, raising her hands in surrender even as she grinned. “My specialty is people, not magic, and the Tide are Justinian’s.”

“You’re sure of that?” Jonathan demanded.

“Well, the evidence is circumstantial, but pretty overwhelming. There is no record or trace of these assholes anywhere, which means they were trained in total isolation. Doing that with a drugged-up, highly equipped, well-disciplined secret cult capable of the kinds of maneuvers they’ve pulled would require a lot of resources. In the Empire, basically the only bodies capable of pulling that off are the Church, or the Empire itself, and last time I actually saw these guys, they were trying to assassinate the Emperor. So yeah, that’s Justinian. He’s not gonna open a bunch of hellgates in a major city.”

“If something like that happened,” Melaxyna said, emerging from the shadowed doorway to the hall, “not only would the Silver Throne lose an enormous amount of credibility for its failure to prevent it, but the cults and the Church would gain a great deal of position as they would definitely be called on to counter a demon invasion. Historically, Archpopes are a mixed bag, and I’m pretty recently free of Arachne’s charming little oubliette. Is this Justinian ruthless enough to do such a thing?”

A chilled silence fell.

“He’s… Well, yeah,” Kheshiri finally answered, speaking slowly as if contemplating while she talked. “Justinian is admirably unencumbered by scruples. But it’s not his style. Trust me, I’ve been working for this guy for the last two years, and he’s all about control. Every detail just so, with himself pulling every string from out of sight. A bunch of hellgates is the opposite of a controlled situation.”

“So you see,” said Xyraadi, turning back to Natchua, “I must go to Ninkabi. To do my own investigation, to ask Mortimer if he knows anything of this, and warn him if he does not.”

“Yes, quite right,” Natchua said briskly. “I’d like to come along, if you don’t mind.”

Bien sûr.”

“Actually,” Natchua added, “and I can already feel myself regretting this… Kheshiri, you know the situation on the ground. You come, too.”

The succubus grinned, and the explosion of delight in her aura was convincing. Not so much that Natchua didn’t feel the need to add a warning.

“My patience for antics from you is zero,” she stated, leveling a finger at Kheshiri’s face. “One wrong move…”

“Mistress, it’s me,” she purred. “I don’t make wrong moves. I guarantee you will be nothing but pleased with my performance in action.”

Again, the currents of emotion Natchua could read in the spells that made up her body and aura seemed to agree; there was eagerness, fondness, and a thin spike of ambition. It altogether felt more like happiness at the prospect of climbing in Natchua’s estimation than anticipation of some trickery. That did not mean she could relax her guard around the demon, though.

She glanced sidelong at Melaxyna, who she could likewise read, though not so clearly. She hadn’t spent nearly as much time examining those currents of magic, and besides, her pact with Mel was less formal and less coercive, which seemed to have an effect. At the moment, Melaxyna’s aura appeared wary, as it always did around the other succubus, though her expression was calm.

“All right. Xyraadi, if you would handle the jump, please? You are more familiar with the city than I.”

“Not by much—it is not as if I went sight-seeing. But I shall be glad to.” Xyraadi smiled and raised both hands in one of the grand but unnecessary gestures she liked to make when spellcasting. “Brace yourselves, ladies.”

“Be careful,” Jonathan said quickly as they clustered together.

“We’ll look after everything here,” Hesthri added.

Natchua gave them both a warm smile, then shadows swelled and they were gone.


It was hidden away in a culvert, where the constant damp had done the arrangement of bones and already-rotting meat no favors. The whole construction looked on the verge of collapse, or would have had there been anyone to see it. This supremely out of the way location served its purpose, however; the altar had not been found by anyone since being placed there. This close to the waterline, with Ninkabi itself rearing up from the top of the canyon high above, no one would even come here except city maintenance crews, and not only were none scheduled, their activities had been significantly scaled back due to a serial killer being loose in the city.

As such, there was also no one to see the faint trembling in the prominent rib bones poking upward from the construct, or the subtle flexing of nothing in the air above it, as though something were making an indentation upon reality itself.

The altar shivered.

A pale blue glow gathered in reflections upon the inside of the culvert, accompanied by the rapidly approaching sound of slapping feet upon the walkway outside. She skidded around the corner, the arcane bolt already formed around her hand; one abrupt gesture hurled it forward.

The bolt was overkill for this particular task; the altar was reduced to fragments and droplets by the impact, and a jagged hole blasted through the culvert itself.

She almost doubled over, panting, and then sank to the damp ground, letting her ax handle clatter on the stone as she leaned back against the wall to catch her breath. Running had not done her already disheveled appearance any favors; the homeless girl’s hair was plastered down with sweat.

Soon enough, in fact before she fully recovered her breath, she straightened, picked up the shaft of wood, and made a swirling gesture with her free hand. A wisp of green light sparked to life above it, bobbing in space for a moment before zipping off around the corner.

The girl sighed, but immediately set off after the wisp as it led the way to the next one.

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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 – 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this time, he stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had never been in control of her.

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

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

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook paused, blinking twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

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

“That isn’t shutting up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 26

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“You see what she’s done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The felled succubus began shuddering with silent laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The succubus went still, eyes widening.

“What did you do?” Xyraadi demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, shit.

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A dragon?”

“Yes.”

“Merde.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no you fucking don’t, you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But this was more urgent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she hurt you?” she asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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