power struggle

Author’s Notes: This story is erotic fantasy written by Etaski. I reserve the right to be listed as the author of this story, wherever it is posted. If found posted anywhere except Literotica.com with this note attached, this story is posted without my permission. (c) Etaski 2013



The bridge which leads to answers which leads to questions. :)




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Chapter 7



My short time being the youngest Red Sister had taught me many things, or reinforced lessons learned from my family. One of them was that lying out of fear, with far less knowledge of a situation than the one to whom I am lying, never worked in my favor. A successful lie, as with any bluff, worked best from a position of strength—or the outward illusion of strength.



I did not have either in Brom’s room.



I stood without weapons or armor, with my hands braced against a chest of drawers near a Human-sized bed. I was still looking at the firebird design of the gold ring in front of me, a decorated echo to the simpler magical ring I wore on my right hand.



The large Man loomed over my back—an allowance which had started out a playful curiosity on my part but shifted quickly to one of threat and vulnerability when I recognized his ring. He had his left arm hooked around my torso, palming my right breast and pressing fingers firmly into my side through my black shirt. My feet were bare, but he wore thick, hard-soled boots that could crush my toes quite easily.



There was no space between my back and his chest; the building and aggressive heat was notable and I kept my hands in full view for survival—for both me and my unborn. Brom seemed to note my intent, and his large, right hand moved back from near my own on the chest to brush my hair to the side, take the cord of Kurn’s ruby pendant and to lift that over my head. He flung it far behind us; I heard it land and likely slide beneath a piece of furniture. Next he slid that hand down to squeeze my right buttock through my black leathers.



Despite that first, unpleasant, cold wave that had passed through me in those moments when I realized I had been completely fooled and led into a trap where I may not walk out, I understood what was unsaid now and almost felt better for a moment.



Thanks to my Sisters, being bested and forced to couple on male-dominant terms was not an additional fear or anger to lump on top of the rest. In my experience, that it would be fighting the wrong battle. Some of my tension now softened, just a little, because the fact that Brom still wanted to mount me most likely meant I would not be killed immediately.



He had squeezed my flesh firmly, but it had not hurt. Time would tell if this would be only to pleasure himself or to torture and injure me as a surrogate for vengeance against the Valsharess. If the latter, my battle would not be sex; it would be either straight killing or pure endurance. One of the two. The sex was the least important part in that scenario.



I still had time; I could still talk, which meant I still had a chance.



“I do not know who you are, Brom,” I murmured. “I was never supposed to know of the ring or the mage who wore it. Perhaps my queen once searched for him, but I do not know when this was, or if it is still the case… or even if the target was you. You do not match the description.”



The innkeeper—which was probably the least accurate name of many—listened as I answered his questions, even the one that had been more threat to intimidate me and make clear his stance with the queen.



“Not in this form,” he said, and he placed his right hand back beside mine where I could see it, and I watched as the magic shimmer and show one reality passing to the next.



The hand aged, it had more wrinkles but did not lack in strength from the moment before. The light brown hair that had lightly coated his wrist and the back of his hand turned to silver with touches of black and grey. The hand matched exactly what I had seen in Rausery’s memory, even neither wearing the ring nor holding the red-rune dagger.



“Look up,” he commanded.



I raised my eyes to the small mirror atop the chest of drawers, and he shifted slightly so that we could make eye contact without turning my head. I’d never seen the face before, but it looked like an older, more venerable version of what he had been at the start of the evening. The bone structure remained the same, still different from the pale Men around him in the tavern though it was hard for me to say exactly why. His eyes were the same intense, slate grey; he possessed more creases around those eyes and the corners of his mouth, but again, he had not lost any strength showing me what lay beneath the illusion. He was still a big Man.



Most striking to me was how his hair had become pure white, like mine, and that his skin was now quite a bit darker brown than it had been before. His coloring was more Drow than not, even if I saw a purely Human form in every other way. It seemed to combat the age lines in my view, and he looked mature and experienced, even attractive to me. His aura throbbed with power and he possessed an unnamed presence, truly appearing like a male counterpoint to the Valsharess.



How old was he?



He eyes narrowed at me in the mirror, one brow quirked, and he grunted, “Hm. You don’t know my face.”



“No,” I confirmed.



“And my name?”



“If it is not Brom, then no.”



One corner of his mouth drew up. “How old are you, Sirana? You can’t be far into your second century.”



I tamped down the temptation to be embarrassed or irritated about that, I could not change my youth after all, but I did believe—somehow—that this Human was much older than me. Only a strongly magical being might ever have the chance to extend his life beyond the natural span for his race.



Magical, and with strong ambition and the motivation.



“I am that,” I answered.



“Perhaps that is why it was so easy,” he murmured, his lips close to my hair. “It must be your first time on the surface in all your life. You have never seen the sunrise before this journey, have you?”



He waited and stared at me in the mirror.



“True,” I answered, trying to keep my face and my tone neutral.



He didn’t say more at first, he just stared in the mirror and I felt the pads of his fingers against my ribs begin to rub my skin through the shirt as his palm moved in slow circles against my breast. Quite unbidden, my nipple hardened and I felt the sensitivity again, that edge of pleasure-pain as my breasts felt more swollen and tender than they had when Rausery had touched them atop the mountain under the Moons.



More than this, some part of my own aura was being manipulated by his, I was sure. I’d long since stopped suppressing it and he would have my pitiable measure by comparison. The uneven flush of energy would arouse me, I already knew, because that was how I’d learned to respond to a challenge for dominance. I could submit and be used quite thoroughly, or I could best the other and top them; looking toward either result did not change the somatic response to a challenge. I grew hot between my legs regardless.



“Many things I want to know from you, now that we’re both unmasked,” Brom said, inhaling near my neck, his right hand disappearing again and I felt him tugging at the leather thongs at my hip. “But I will better be able to concentrate once we’ve finished what we started. Will you be foolish and try to deny me?”



The unique feeling of someone else loosening my leathers encouraged blood flow to my sex and I felt my netherlips swelling; soon my sex ached. I was not with Jaunda or another of my Sisters, and I was long out of a training scenario. This Man could very well try to kill me as he mated me, but…if he meant what he just said, that he had questions for me for afterward, then I did not think he would unless he lost control in a big way.



I had yet to observe the sorcerer lose any control yet.



He had switched his grip around my torso to untie the thong at my left hip next, loosening my pants considerably but not so they’d slip down. Before I’d even decided if that last question was worth an answer, he slipped his hand down the back—not unlike I’d done to Kurn very recently to drug him—and, with his calloused palm cupping my backside, his two middle fingers slid between my cheeks and thighs, and ran over the slick glaze already gracing my sex.



I bit back a gasp at the surge of pleasure—long weeks without sex for me worked in his favor as well—and I saw him smile in the mirror. He could still tell I’d liked it even without sound as my body tensed and I arched my back just slightly, pressing my rump into his hand. What was more interesting to me was that he shivered, his eyes closing for a moment as some sort of intense feeling had swept through him as well and I felt him push his erection into my left hip.



It was the first time he’d taken his eyes off me.



“Yes,” he said thickly as he looked back in the mirror, “you will take me however I like. You are young, but not stupid enough to fight at this point.”



True, not at this point. There were many ways to fight, but as soon as I had closed and secured the doors to his den myself, that had made it certain that—should he so choose— I would discover how Human cock varied from Drow or Draegloth, or even Duergar.



“Have you met many stupid Drow?” I asked without attitude, more curiosity, as his right hand finally released my breast and he used both hands to push my leathers down to mid-thigh. I could feel the air cooling the moisture on my lips and my sex tingled in anticipation of being filled.



Brom ran his hands across my bare backside, along my hips and flanks then my ribs, pushing my shirt up to bunch at my shoulders while exploring my skin. He paused when he saw the healing cuts on my back; the small bandages Gavin had used had already been removed much earlier when they’d gotten soaked in the rain.



“You may let go of the chest long enough to remove your shirt.”



I released the finely-carved, wooden chest to draw my shirt over my head and strip it off, tossing to the right. I placed my hands back afterward, now wearing nothing but my leather pants bunched just above my knees. He grunted at my cooperation and I felt him touch the new scabs on my back. I tensed, he whispered, and I felt the distinct warmth of healing energy spreading across my injuries. They itched a little, but I knew they were closing, the scabs falling off.



It only took a moment, and Brom smoothed his palm over the new skin before again reaching to cup my tender breasts in both hands, squeezing them before running one down my still-flat stomach to play with my mound fur. He stroked my naked netherlips with an oddly light touch for his size. Hot lips kissed my bare shoulder and he pressed the ridge of his erection, still trapped beneath his trousers, against my bare ass.



I could not keep my breath even, and I had nearly forgotten to expect a response to my question when he spoke something quietly that sent tremors down my spine.



“Yulansho ignithi Drowh bregna,” he murmured in my native language.



The accent not so much odd as it was…old.



There was the classic beauty of the Valsharess and some of the older Houses, like Jael’s House Aurenthin, varying in appearance from the majority after all the time spent in the Underdark breeding to maintain our place and grow our power. Unlike House Aurenthin, however, the queen—and perhaps the Prime—also had a slightly different manner of speech than those of us so much younger than them. Perhaps because they kept themselves apart more often, or seemed to remember so much more.



This Man had spoken to me in Drow, with a nearly flawless lilt very similar to my queen. That astonished me far more than what he’d actually said, which was: “No Drow child is born stupid but can be tempted to act so.”



If the pronunciation and tone both had been poor, I’d have thought he was simply insulting me directly, but they weren’t. His voice had the controlled, underlying, second tone that meant the words were double-edged at least. He may be poking at my pride on how easy it had been to get me in this position, but he meant something else with that answer.



This darker-skinned, white-haired Man understood my race very well, and he’d been waiting for one of us to cross paths with him again. I had to accept that. I was fleetingly glad that it hadn’t been Gaelan to run into him, and any other flitting thought of mine that wanted to deny this could even be possible was banished as it would only hold me back. I’d already frozen up once; I would not do so again.



It eventually dawned on me—as Brom enjoyed my skin, squeezing and stroking and kissing just about every part of me he could reach from thighs to ears—that my lack of direct participation, my passiveness, did not antagonize him. It did not tempt him to show his contempt by treating me more harshly to force a stronger reaction from me. Many Drow I knew would have reacted that way to my standing here being touched, and so would have Kurn.



Speaking of him, Brom soon found the bite on my inner thigh during his exploration. He caressed that as well, his magic soothing as he asked, “Any others?”



“No,” I said.



His voice was slightly more threatening when he next spoke. “Which of them did this? This is only two or three days old.”



It was newer than that—barely a day—but Shyntre’s pellets helped.



“One of the Ma’ab,” I answered readily enough. “Kurn.”



“Ah. The big one that called you a whore?”



“Yes.”



“Of course.” He paused, stroking my healed, smooth, inner thigh. “Unwilling?”



I smiled slightly. “I do not care for bites that hard, Brom. But that was the worst he managed from trying, nothing more. I did worse to him.”



He chuckled darkly. “I shall remember that.”



The innkeeper straightened up and raised his hands off me only long enough to unthread his own belt, loosen his trousers, and push them down with a shush of familiar sound. He pressed a hot, hard, and thick member to my naked skin, his hands again on my flawless skin as he rubbed himself over my ass at first and then between my cheeks.



I could feel the wiry hair of his bush, but also the hair on his thighs and testicles as well on my backside and upper thighs. I wasn’t sure what to think of that; it was different.



Nonetheless, I moved my hips to enhance the feeling for both of us and he seemed to purr deep in his chest. He took hold of the back of my neck with one large hand, gripping harder as if to test if I would begin to fight now—I stubbornly stuffed down the urge to do so—and his other hand adjusted his rod to point downward until the head glided over my wet sex instead of up between my buttocks.



“You’ll allow this from me, Sirana?” he growled hotly in my ear, returning to Common. “Or are you waiting until the last moment to play hard to get, as you must have with Kurn? You are about to run out of time to try with me.”



“I agreed to mutual pleasure with the innkeeper,” I answered. “I still do not know who else you may be, sorcerer, but this is pleasurable enough. Thank you for the healing.”



He laughed low. “It must be convenient for you to keep the bargain, or you know you can’t alter it.”



He forced me to adjust the tilt of my hips because it wasn’t quite right for him to take me, and I knew how I presented to him, my ass thrust out and tilted up as my back arched. I felt him finally press his large knob into the softest and wettest spot between my legs, and he gripped my neck harder, seizing my right hip with his other hand as he pushed hard to fill me.



My eyes widened as I realized how broad he was. I’d taken as wide before in the various Feldeus, or even more so as in the case of Kerse’s knot, but all those were widest at the base. Brom had only begun, and the way he thrust in, letting my body wet his dry cock before withdrawing some and then trusting again, sinking deeper each time, I knew without looking that the breadth was nearly uniform all the way down.



His hairy skin soon pressed up against mine; he was fully seated, my body wrapped snug around him. I felt the tip nudging uncomfortably at my womb before he withdrew slowly and then sank in again to bottom out. He held still, holding my neck and hip and keeping my sex spread wide open and clutching reflexively at his whenever we shifted any weight. I shivered from the tension; I wanted more movement, and yet I wondered if the depth or further roughness was safe for my unborn.



“Aia Innathi,” he whispered, as if out of breath, and these words I didn’t recognize at all, though I thought it was with the same reverence as if someone was calling on a deity in prayer.



Brom swallowed and continued in Common, “Do you know of magical conception, Sirana?”



He gave us a few long strokes and I sucked in air before answering; it felt very intense. I thought it better to play on my younger age.



“The…Priestesses use it to aid those favored by the queen,” I said, trying not to give any specifics about Draegloth or Lolth rituals or Consorts.



He grunted and fucked me harder for a few strokes; I winced at one that struck my womb and I squirmed a bit against the hold on my neck.



“Not so deep,” I gasped.



He did not acknowledge that directly, but he did not punish with intent immediately afterward, even as he kept thrusting. “The more magical the creature, Sirana… the greater the possibility to breed with another race entirely. I know this to be fact.”



My eyes rolled upward at a particularly nice thrust as Brom continued reaming my pussy, and a magical surge seeming to enhance it. I shook my head, trying to focus past it. “How…?”



He slipped easily into my native tongue. “When you return, do you think your queen would appreciate a gift from me, for old time’s sake? She always did like new sources of magic.”



I felt my sex clamp down on him as if I had any chance of expelling him once I caught his meaning. My mind whirled as I tried to think through the lust and the way his aura battered at me as his excitement grew. I wasn’t sure whether his magic could even edge this coupling in that direction at all if I was already pregnant. Could arcane magic overcome divine magic somehow? Would it have to? What was done was done…



It couldn’t be…something like that could only be bloody and damaging to every part of me, like Kerse and his ritual had been. It couldn’t be an instant effect; to oust one babe and replace it with another in an instant. I used this very thought to snuff that stubborn, irrational swell of fear inside me, to remind myself that I had time.



*Calm down…*



Regardless of the magic, however, I did not want him to know that he was too late in being able to seed my womb. He had said “when” I return. He meant to see me leave alive, at least at this moment.



“No, don’t,” I said aloud, shifting my hands to different spots on the chest, as if I meant to turn and look back at him. “Don’t put your seed in me, Brom. She doesn’t allow half-bloods to breed, if they are even allowed to live past birth.”



Brom’s breath shuddered excitedly with my words, and he leaned to force more of his weight onto me through his hand on my neck. It pushed my arms down and forced me again to look at the gold ring that had begun this battle of wills.



“She would have a law like that now,” he growled and now started stabbing into me harder, using me as that surrogate I had suspected he wanted from the start. I pushed past the discomfort to focus on what he was saying. He was still speaking in Drow, low and aggressive as he rammed into me.



“She always did loathe any of my lineage… regardless that her sister chose me first. She *chose* to bear me heirs. What does the demon-worshipper tell her followers these days, that I somehow forced my wife stay with me? As if even the power of *my* bloodline could bend such an extraordinary will for so long!”

I wasn’t sure I could even fathom that tirade quickly enough before Brom slowed his pace, keeping a tight hold on me even as I wasn’t trying to get away. He huffed a short, bitter laugh when I looked up, as he read my face in the mirror quite accurately.



“She doesn’t say anything at all, does she?”



I swallowed, feeling an ache deep inside me, and every full, slow stroke as the interrogation continued. I kept my voice neutral. “I am not in Her confidence, sorcerer. I do not know what She says.”



“But it is not part of your lore, is it?”



“Why would it be?”



He sounded insulted. “Do you know what came before your current queen? Anything at all?”



I hesitated, but shook my head slightly. “No. Nothing.”



Brom pulled out quickly, startling me, and grabbed me painfully by the hair to force my back straight again. His strength was considerable. He spun me around by the shoulders and stared down directly into my eyes.



His expression barely contained his fury, and I could still feel the heat bleeding off him. His wet cock trailed my own juices along my hip and belly as he stood close enough to press it against me, looking down.



“On the whole,” he murmured dangerously, “I am not surprised. Given how long it took to find out where she had gone, and even longer after that to locate an area where the nearest portal might be, based only on gossip and vague legendary tales… I knew there had to be a reason I have seen none of you in millennia. You don’t remember this world anymore.”



I asked a question before my mind could seize up at this. “Are…are you certain my queen is the same Drow as your dead mate’s sister, sorcerer? Perhaps she is long dead and another has taken her place.”



Brom narrowed his eyes at me, then smiled slightly in acknowledgment. “What is your queen’s name?”



I pursed my lips briefly. “No one knows. She is the Valsharess.”



“Let me look at a memory of her face. I will tell you.”



I shook my head warily.



“I can break into your mind if you force me to,” he whispered, leaning closer. “I am giving you a choice, young one.”



“It is no choice. You will take more.”



“Let the memory come to the fore, focus only on that. I only need a glimpse and I will not take more because I think you more valuable as you are than as a puppet stripped of her will…which is what will happen if I have to take what I want by force. You were the one to bring up the possibility, Sirana, and you could be right. Now give me some way to confirm it.”



Even my not allowing another thought cross “the fore”— that he could find unexpected challenge in trying to read me against my will—I still did not want to test it against someone who might be as old as my queen…if he was telling the truth…if he wasn’t just insane and living a very elaborate illusion.



Then again, how could he speak my language so perfectly and sound so much like my queen doing it? And he was right about the general population now living underground knowing nothing of what came before. Whether he knew what came before or not was beside the point; we still didn’t know.



I nodded and focused on my last memory of the queen, standing in what was to be Shyntre’s new quarters, as Her fingernail had punctured my tongue and my mouth filled with blood.



There were no memories of the exact words said at that moment, they were gone, but I remembered and saw clearly Her aged beauty, felt her Her terrifying, oppressive aura that made it hard to breathe. I remembered hating Her for everything She had taken by force and demand. For benefit or detriment, She the first reason I was even in this place, held within the power of this centuries-old Human mage who did not fear my kind in the least.



A bluish sheen of magic seemed to shine over Brom’s eyes as he concentrated on me; most of his erection had gone and he remained in thought as he finally released whatever spell he was using and lifted his gaze up. I was glad to be free of it. The queen and the sorcerer had this in common.



I realized then that we both still stood with our pants around our thighs. It bothered me now to have the physical distraction and restraint during such an exchange as this, and I stepped back slowly to strip the rest of the way so I could be fully naked.



The sorcerer blinked as he focused on me, chuckled then took my lead—after a fashion. He sat on the bed and indicated with a silent gesture—a Drow gesture— that I should remove his boots for him.



I felt a flash of irritation and insult, but his smile—chillingly easy for me to read on a different race—promised something in return, something that I wanted, if I did as he asked. Otherwise, our conversation would not continue for a while.



I yanked the boots off with hard jerks that made him laugh a bit louder; I took it the next step to strip his dark brown trousers as well without his asking. He was leaning back on his hands and when his legs were free, they widened as he relaxed on the mattress, his genitals deeply flushed, red, and sticky between his very dark, brown thighs.



At last he nodded. “It is she, your queen. The one I remember. And she has erased your heritage prior to her coming into power.” He gave me an odd look and a smile. “But you are not wholly loyal to her, are you? You only fear her for what she can do, and what others might do to protect the balance of power. Did you run away? Is that why you are up here?”



I shook my head. “No. I was sent by Her. I am still going to Manalar.”



I waited to see if his opinion varied on that; he did not say one way or another.



Brom reached for me instead, catching my waist and one wrist and pulling me onto his bed with him. My bruised pride thought for a moment that I should fight harder, resist more, but really what would that do more than waste energy and focus? Nothing, unless I wanted to act in a certain way to deceive him, but I already knew that Brom would be very difficult for me to fool. Especially now.



He pressed me onto my back and leaned over me to kiss my mouth; his eyes closed briefly as mine remained open, and the softened edge made me wary. It was the same as the first time, when he’d been playing at being a forty-year-old Man eager and almost begging to bed an independent Woman he greatly admired.



How quickly that had changed…though it was better this way. Had I not seen that ring, he would still be playing me like an instrument. More than he was now, with me still fully believing that I was the one tricking him.



His tongue tasted my lips and the inside of my mouth before drawing harder and making that distinct sucking noise, and he inhaled at the same time. I enjoyed kissing for the same reasons, being able to explore the sensitive orifice of another body at my pleasure, to use all my senses doing so, while the other did not usually dare to bite—like Auslan, restrained, accepting, submitting.



Brom lifted his head and breathed out as he shifted down to start nuzzling and licking my tingling nipples, the flat of his hand sliding down my abdomen and settling at my inner thigh. I was not relaxed and my thighs closed on his hand by reflex; he lifted his head to make eye contact again with a sigh of exasperation.



“I would rather you be more engaged, young one. I remember much more bold and confident Drow in my day, not passive virgins more afraid of the act despite their scent of invitation.”



I stared coldly at him. “If you dare compare me to a long-dead mate, Brom, then a stiff body would be closer to the reality, would it not?”



The anger that seized his face and the aggressive pulse of his aura I fully expected; the ferocity of my own response, not quite so.



I lashed out and struck his larynx in a hard jab, though I avoided crushing it; it took his voice and his breath but broke neither. I followed up with a paralyzing blow to a nerve bundle at the junction of his right arm; the numbness should last for several minutes at least and spread all the way from shoulder to fingertips.



A naked mage without his voice or his hands was only a Human male, even an old one.



Following through, I rolled and rammed his chest with my shoulder to send him onto his back, leaping to kneel with my full weight on his chest. After striking the companion nerves of his left arm, I watched his face turn a dark shade of red, as red as his cock had been just after he’d fucked me. He now struggled to draw in any air at all between the pain in his throat and my knees digging into his pectoral muscle, my body compressing his ribs. His hands trembled but he could not raise his arms yet.



I slapped him across the face and it got his attention very quickly despite the other sources of distraction.



“I am engaged now, Ree Fon,” I hissed in Drow, using the echo of the name I heard in Rausery’s mind. “Is this better, mage? You ask, you shall receive.”



I slid back somewhat and reached behind me to grasp his male member…which to my surprise had become like iron as I’d mishandled him. I caressed the hot, broad meat and he almost choked as he finally managed to inhale once. The red faded a little from his face and his eyes had lost the panicked, pinkish look as he had been suffocating.



His arms still wouldn’t work properly but would recover soon, sooner than expected. I would receive some payback soon, but for now I knocked his reaching hands to the side once more and slid yet further down his body.



Straddling one of his well-muscled thighs, my knee in perfect position to crush his testicles if necessary, I reclaimed his erection and put it straight into my mouth, sucking on it and servicing it with as much enthusiasm as I had many a Feldeu, able to use my hand in tandem with my mouth. I tasted my own sex as I worked as much saliva as I could over his entire length, until it started dripping onto his balls.



The sorcerer groaned hoarsely first, acknowledging the pleasure, but it grew in volume to an injured, frustrated roar as he sat up and tried to seize me with both hands. He could not manage fine gestures to cast a spell, but his hands were still big, and they could grasp now.



I drew my mouth off him quickly and punched him in the jaw on his way up, sending him half-way back down. It had not been hard not enough to fracture bone—I doubted I had the strength on him without magical enhancement—but it had shocked him again and gave me enough time to laugh aloud so I knew for certain that he heard it.



This only incensed him; he would chase me about the room if necessary, but I did not really want that—my spit making his cock glisten now would dry out if I did that. I played at some evasion on the bed when he rose up faster this time, to make him work for it, but within two lunges he got a very good hold on me and used his much greater reach and weight to every advantage. He grappled me, yanked my arms behind my back and pressed me face-down, smothering my nose and mouth as he made sure he could keep my legs apart and my hands secured.



One of his large hands held both my wrists crossed at the small of my back, and the other gripped the back of my head, pushing my face hard into the bedding; there was still a small tremor there in his arms from the fading numbness. His legs were braced wide inside of mine, holding them open.



I went still and arched my bottom up to brush his scrotum and the underside of his erection. After a full ten seconds, he finally allowed me to breathe unfettered, taking his hand off of my head so I could turn it to the side and inhale fully.



We each breathed heavily for several, quiet moments. Without a word passed between us, he pressed the spit-slick head of his cock up against my back hole. I widened my eyes so that he could see it clearly, sucked in a breath for effect—and in encouragement, whether he realized it or not. I suppressed my urge to smile completely, even as I relaxed to allow the large, mushroom-shaped head of his cock to open me up and pop inside more easily as he leaned in. I groaned, feeling a bit of a sting as his Human rod spread my tight ring wider than it had been in quite a while.



He felt even broader in this hole than he had in my pussy, but I knew the pain wouldn’t last long as my netherlips were already beginning to tingle in excitement as he lunged ever deeper in regular thrusts, grunting a few times in pleasure. I braced my knees well as I could to hold my ass up to receive him, thinking that only Kerse’s knot had been wider. Eventually I felt his hairy testicles pressed against my cunt, his hips flush against my buttocks. He was in deeper than should be comfortable, but I didn’t care.



“Your netherhole trembles around my staff, my deft, little fighter,” he murmured in flawless Drow over my back. “Is it in pain or pleasure? Or a bit of both?”



His throat was still bruised, I could tell it in his voice, but he sounded in control once again. In fact, he sounded quite “engaged.”



“Don’t just plug it, merchant,” I hissed in my native tongue. “Fuck it and find out.”



I was certain Brom trembled in response.



He rode me in leisured strokes at first, going at his own pace and perhaps trying to read my signs. I made more sound than I had up to this point, mewls, grunts, and moans that helped focus my pleasure even as I made the appearance like it hurt with every stroke, in and out. Interestingly he did not use this as reason to thrust more savagely, as I’d expected, though he continued to enjoy my clutching hole regardless and even either added more of his saliva or scooped lubricant from my pussy when it began to get dry.



It gave me time and a consistency of stimulation at a rate I was not really used to, and it felt as if I would rise to climax whether I made the effort or not. I wanted to, but I also often worked for it, for the timing, either making myself come sooner or later than my dominant partner planned.



Here, it seemed to be rising sooner, and the more I relaxed, the more the swelling flush of sensation invited the floodgates to open wide. It was odd being ridden this way, rather unlike my Sisters, but still felt very, very good. At last, I could no longer hold it back.



*Oh, Lolth…fuck…fuck, yes…*



When my breath stopped for a moment and Brom felt the first, rippling squeezes around his cock, he released my hands and reached beneath my hips to press the pads of his fingers right on my swollen lips and the tiny nub hidden within. I squealed at the added, intense sensation piled atop my orgasm and felt my ass clutch him harder as I rode the rushes of pleasure in higher, sharper waves.



I moaned in a long breath, the side of my face pressed to the mattress, the sound becoming a pleasurable growl when Brom thrust harder at last. Now he quite reminded me of Jaunda as he removed his hand from my sex, grabbed my hips, and fairly pounded my quivering hole. I used my new freedom of movement to brace myself on my forearms, fully giving him my ass. I felt no shock or insult, no distracting anger being plundered this way by a non-Drow male, though I felt plenty of aggression and pleasure and challenge.



I had long felt I understood what the Sisterhood had done to me. Now I had the proof that I did; I could apply it both to protect myself and to use what I learned for a later time.



“Innathi gru…” he grunted in that other language, gasping and on the very cusp of climax, I knew it. “Lo’wicova—”



His voice cut off as he barked something unintelligible and slammed in deep, holding himself there to spill his seed deep inside my body. I felt a secondary spasm of pleasure sweep through me as his cock pulsed in my back passage and I even fancied that I could feel the thick, white ropes of fluid erupting and spreading warmth inside me.



A thought fleeted across my mind that, as often as I’d taken a phallus in my rear since joining the Sisterhood, not that often was there to be male spunk leaking out later. There had been Shyntre, Kerse, and that unnamed soldier from my trials. Two of the three were dead.



Now there was this ageless Human, as he pulled his thick member back out with a mutual groan from both of us. My netherhole twitched as it shrank back down, a touch of male fluid smearing and cooling on the hot, raw rim of my anus, soothing it.



It had been more than worth it. Perhaps Brom had meant that only that if a Drow female was ready to breed, not already breeding, then he could impregnate her, and maybe he was even lying about that… but without knowing more or understanding better how powerful of a mage he was, I would not accept any such magical threat to my first baby.



I’d much rather take it in my ass, and peak in pleasure doing it. He’d been just as content to do it that way as well, after I’d fought him. I felt better having been correct on something, like I could understand part of how he responded in lust.



Brom’s skin was moist, on his face, shoulders, and back especially, and his scent much stronger as he got off the bed. I watched him stand at the pot on the far, more discreet side of the bed, and he urinated into it, bracing himself with one arm against the wooden wall, his head down. His back was fully to me and I figured it possibly overconfident but more likely that he was tempting me just to see what I’d do.



I hadn’t forgotten that I was still trapped in his den and his aura was on par with our strongest female mages. I sat upright on the bed—which was decidedly not stuffed with hay but something much softer and silent—and made myself and my throbbing netherhole more comfortable watching him.



When he had finished, he motioned to the pot, still speaking in Drow. “If you need. I’ll get the warm wash and cloths.”



That was only a good idea because it was inevitable anyway.



I got up and squatted over the waste pot with my back to the wall, facing the rest of the room, not only emptying my bladder but squeezing out some of that spunk he’d just deposited. Brom cast a spell with a careful gesture that heated the water inside a second, metal pitcher set aside from the one with the drinking water; in a short time I could see the steam gently rising up. The mage poured that into a wash basin and added a viscous liquid from a small bottle that developed suds in the water with a little agitation.



“You wash first,” he said without looking at me, and it didn’t sound like a request.



I padded over to him, silent on bare feet and strong board, I knew, because he looked over at last to make sure I wasn’t doing something else. I smirked and gladly took one well-woven washcloth, dipping it into water that was just shy of scalding. Wringing it out, I used it to gently cleanse my sticky flesh and sore orifices. The heat seeping into my tender slit and netherhole was pure luxury as I felt them relax, soon nice and clean as I patted at my skin.



While I did this, Brom washed his thighs, cock, and scrotum thoroughly as well and then, after setting that cloth back aside, he took a second cloth, dipped that, and used it to wipe down his face, neck, chest and pits, which smelled strongest to my nose. I watched with some fascination before he handed me a fresh cloth, and I did the same. The ritual was practical but deliberate, solely for purpose of hygiene, especially following what we’d done…but from what I had been told, most Humans did not bother.



Kurn and Gavin and the others went days without washing, from what I could smell. Maybe it was just harder to follow on the road, Brom had his own quarters and amenities to hand, but somehow I did not think so.



The sorcerer wordlessly and efficiently gathered up those amenities when we were finished, setting the washcloths by the door to be taken later. After unlatching a smallish, sliding metal panel that seemed to have some sort of chute built inside, he dumped first the waste pot, used the soapy water to rinse it out, and dumped the rest of the used water out before closing up the panel again. I stared the entire time as he set the vessels back in their places.

It was notable that he seemed to have similar standards to the Nobility of the City in how he kept his room and himself clean and nicely scented. Any consort to a powerful Drow would have done the same to please her, and that was what this Man was claiming to have been, once. The sire of multiple Drow children.



Where were those children, if that was the case? Had any of the survived as long as the sire? Or maybe they had never existed.



I was not going to break the silence first. The “innkeeper” was reworking his plans; this was plain on his face. He hadn’t firmly chosen a path for after impulsively trying to bully me when I’d realized he had been fooling me. When next he looked directly at me after fucking me, a smile seemed to spread almost unwillingly and he chuckled with a shake of his head.



“Ah,” he breathed ruefully. “Sirana.”



“Oh. You recall a name with a face?” I asked with a cocked brow.



“Or a name with a very enticing ass,” he returned in playful taunt.



Before I could respond, the smirk faded and he touched his sore throat, then briefly rubbed the left side of his jaw. I became aware he was using some of that same healing magic on himself.



“A nice ass, and a precise strike. Impressive enough. Not quite what I expected when you were being so compliant…though I should have, especially when you goaded me.”



I didn’t have to say anything in return; I just smiled.



He walked over to where the cheese, roots, and fruit still lay, popping several pieces into his mouth and chewing. “I left you your ring. Why didn’t you use it?”



I glanced at Callitro’s ring and shrugged. “You’re a mage. As well, I didn’t need to. You did not try to kill me.”



“You’re too valuable to me to kill you lightly,” he said. “I’ll note you did not attempt permanent damage to me, either, though I suspect you could have.”



“You gave away my value much earlier, when I uncovered your ploy.”



He shrugged in a bit of irritation. “You recognized the phoenix.”



“Phoenix? Is that what it is? You said quite a lot else besides that.”



His frown deepened at my tone, but then softened just before he grinned unexpectedly. “Heh. I believe I have actually missed this game… Many old memories I thought I’d forgotten returned as I saw your image in the minds of the others, Sirana, when they first arrived at the inn. I have not spoken this language is a very long time. I shall take my various missteps in exchange for the clarity I have now, having bedded you.”



I did not take that as a compliment. It sounded to me almost the same as if someone had just nudged a sleeping dragon awake.



He considered my nudity for a moment, seeming to enjoy it, before he looked back to my face. “I also have the feeling that even knowing what little I’ve told you would mean execution before your queen, should you report this. For you, and any others you may tell.”



I did not respond to that; I hadn’t explicitly thought it yet, but knew he was right. I wasn’t in a good place between this Man and my queen.



“You called me ‘Ree Fon,’” he said next. “Why?”



“Is it your name?”



“Answer my question first.”



I expelled a breath and considered how to explain as the sorcerer cleaned the platter of all remaining food. “I saw the ring on your hand in a mind-read spell, like you did me to see the Valsharess’s face, and I heard a whisper that sounded like those words. But it was only a brief flash, an accident.”



“Accident,” he repeated skeptically. “And whoever knew even those two details just accepted it to happen?”



“She didn’t know, and I will tell you no more,” I said stubbornly, adding, “Shall I call you Ree Fon?”



He smirked as he poured himself some of the remaining wine in his goblet. “Cris-ri-phon. Cris, if you wish, although any at this inn today will not recognize that name if you should blurt it out. I am Brom. It suites the land and the present time better.”



“How old are you, then?”



An odd expression passed across his face at that and he didn’t answer. He looked toward the door leading to the hall, his attention clearly somewhere else for several seconds.



“What?” I asked.



“The enforcers from Manalar are awake rather early,” he said blithely as he took a sip of the deep red liquid. “Perhaps they feel they have self-appointed business this morning before breakfast.”



Brom was watching me for a reaction, and I tried to decide what it should be. I was missing some link but…



He said, “Your ‘servant,’ if that’s what he is, seemed to be having a restless sleep just before you came down to the kitchen.”



“How would you know that?”



“He stopped suppressing his aura. I wager if it continued during our visit, even the Witch Hunters could feel it eventually. If they are awake now, they will have done some preparation and planning. They hate necromancers.”



I fully understood the threat now and I felt my eyes widen in genuine alarm. Brom chuckled as I moved toward the bed to collect my shirt and leathers, slipping into them efficiently and barely holding back the haste that would waste my motions as I quickly braided my hair.



The sorcerer did not block me as I continued on to don boots, armor, and tools, but he kept talking in an easy, calm voice.



“You are safe in here, Sirana, they aren’t powerful enough to feel you even without the wards and likely don’t even know you are here. You could let them take care of your travel companions and be on their way. I could even offer an illusion spell they can’t penetrate, and introduce you to them. You could get much better information on where you wish to go.”



How tempting, making it sound like he would just let me go.



As for the details, it was a potentially useful plan, and one that could help me locate Jael much faster, possibly with the sorcerer’s more direct help. But not only did that put Jael in unknown danger from him, but it also conflicted with the other two plans: the Warpstone Cult and Gaelan, and Sarilis set up in his Tower. I had wanted Gavin’s help sensing an aura that might be Gaelan’s in this area, and I still had the agreement with him to help him take down his master.



My blind need to destroy Sarilis had drastically changed now that I knew a very dangerous secret of the Valsharess—putting into question whether I would ever be able to return to the Underdark—but it was still too large of a secret of which I knew too little about to be able to say right at this moment. Certainly not in the little time I had to decide.



If I let Gavin be taken or killed by the Witch Hunters this morning—trading him and Gaelan for Jael and Brom—then I would have regret for that choice. I knew it.



Brom would wait, as he has been, and Jael may still be traveling toward her goal. Gavin and Gaelan were the two in the greater, more imminent danger. Especially Gavin. Losing him meant I lost several options all at once.



“I need the necromancer,” I said bluntly as I finished securing my torso piece and set upon my bracers.



“I’m surprised,” the sorcerer said. “The Drow I knew loathed the very existence of the undead.”



“Things change with millennia, Cris-ri-phon,” I enunciated the name with some exaggeration, cinching the last buckle on my left bracer and lifting my tool belt.



“So I see,” he commented sarcastically, and a bit cryptically. He paused. “What if I do not wish to let you put yourself in harm’s way? Witch Hunters are among the most fanatical of the Malanar faith.”



I snatched up my cloak in a tight grip as I focused my scowl on him. We held eye contact as I put it on, and then I reached for something on my belt. He tensed and I felt his magic gathering to prepare. I lifted up the small, black vial that Sarilis had given me.



“This is intended for Manalar. If I am not to leave now to protect own my plans, I will use it here, just to spite you for wrecking them.”



It was partial bluff, not something I truly wished to do but something I could certainly be pushed toward doing. Brom could tell this and focused on the vial, as if trying to read what was inside it. He could try to snatch it or destroy it, or even shift it somewhere else entirely with his magic, so I added:



“There are a few more in your inn, and my companions could easily drop one during an attack in close quarters.”



The sorcerer was subtle about showing any wariness on his face, but the fact that his aura dampened and I felt a ward on the door dispel itself before I had even known was there was enough for me.



“Be very careful with that, Sirana. Go, if you must. See if you can stop them from taking your half-dead boy the rest of the way to the Greylands.”



I secured the vial and surged toward the door; it unlatched and opened under my hand without a whisper of protest. I sprinted out into the dimly lit hall and passed the kitchen and the common room in short order. The sound of many boots, armor, and weapons on the upper level was clear to me as I hit the stairs and took them two at a time.



The sound of a door splintering under a heavy force lashed at my ears as I changed direction to come around the back way from the second hall. Witch Hunters were standing at Kurn’s door as well, blocking the way I’d come down.



They were already inside Gavin’s room.



*****



It seemed odd that no one opened their doors; as I passed, I could tell other guests were just coming awake but they were not coming out. Perhaps they did not want to get involved and hoped the Witch Hunters would not break down their own door.



I noted three open doors, empty rooms that smelled of metal and heavy mixes of herbs and oil. There would be at least six, if two to a room, but given my glimpse of the four at Kurn’s door, that would have to mean only two were attacking Gavin.



It did not sound like just two. At least one of them had brought a torch by which to see; I could see the light flickering inside as vague shadows were thrown upon the wall.



One Witch Hunter crouched on the ground directly blocking the broken doorway, gloved hands covering a ruined, bleeding face. He wore a helmet that protected his head, but it would appear Gavin had aimed straight for the face with something that slashed at him as he entered. The Man was shouting angrily and in pain.



“Nomilu sancji!” one inside the room bellowed. “Get him, hold the devil-worshipper!”



Another Man screeched in surprise as I heard a hard scrape of metal on metal; if I had to guess, Gavin was using his spade in desperate melee—and that was likely what caused the deep gouge in the face of the Witch Hunter on the ground.



“Curse you, desecrator!



“Grave robber!”



More struggle as a lower voice chanted, “Our Lord, we beseech your aid cleansing this blight upon your world!”



I was still counting. There were four inside, and the one injured at the door. Four going after the Ma’ab. Nine total. Interesting that they chose to send more after Gavin than Kurn and Castis combined.



More noise filled the hall as Kurn simply opened his door and shouted gleefully, “Tired of holing up an’ shivering, huh?! Come get it!”



He was going to have a lovely time getting full swings in that room without hitting Castis. I didn’t have time to roll my eyes or get distracted; the others had to see to themselves. Gavin didn’t have a chance for survival once he ran out of space to cast anything in the small room. I had a loosened pouch in one hand and a fighting dagger in the other as my ball of Darkness came upon the injured one now trying to stagger to his feet. He just barely saw it coming.



“Devil! Devil swallowing the light!” he screamed, mostly as a warning to the others but there was terror as well as he disappeared from anyone’s view.



It was almost too easy; I could tell exactly where his bare throat was just from his shouting. He didn’t know enough to silence himself where I would have more chance of missing with my blade.



I didn’t waste the powder on him; the point of my dagger entered his throat first, my momentum sending the rest through to lay open his windpipe and begin the blood spurting with force, spraying across the walls. I jumped over his body as it slumped, and I continued into the room.



My swell of magical darkness filled over half the space and enveloped two of the four Witch Hunters. These next two I did fling powder into their eyes, using a controlled arc that dusted each face with a small amount. One choked and started coughing immediately before shrieking in pain as his eyes began to suffer greatly.



The other had better reflexes and, based on his voice, something thick covering his nose and mouth; perhaps he had even squeezed his eyes closed at the right moment. He shifted back quickly to squeak a fast, forced warning through his aching throat. “Summoned! Brothers, he’s s-summoned a d-devil to s-save him!”



“Holy light dispel the darkness! Cleanse damned flesh with your fire!”



I heard both a hiss and Gavin’s hoarse cry; I smelled the particular combination of burning oil and meat that meant the flesh was still living. From the sound of it, they were doing all they could to cause him added pain in addition to the burn; stomping their boots, striking him, anything to break his mage’s concentration, to dispel the magic, to make me go away.



I made no sound but thought of Gavin’s curse. *Worms rot your belly…*



I knew perfectly well that mages were in no position to focus and cast their magic when they were being physically mauled, and the only “ranged” weapon I had that wouldn’t have a chance of hitting Gavin by mistake was one of my spiders. I loosened my pouch, called one of my babies out and tossed it toward the Witch Hunter on the right side, the one holding the hot metal.



*Bite twice under the armor.*



It landed on the armored leg and would take a moment for the spider to reach the exposed flesh, but it gave me time to dispose of the two choking. They were not giving up easily and were fumbling for things at their belts; one flung something that splashed into my face, croaking a few foreign words, but it had no more effect on me than water.



In fact, I thought it might have been just water though I refrained from licking my lips, just in case.



I didn’t know what else to expect, however, and couldn’t have them at my back before going for the last hale one. As I engaged them, the one who’d burned Gavin screamed and slapped at himself when my spider got him, the tiny body protected by his own half plate as my guardian arachnid bit a second time and hid out there until I could call it back again. The Witch Hunter stumbled, wailing in horror and anger at what he began to feel: the unstoppable wave of toxic destruction of his own living flesh.



“D-didn’t work! K-kill him! S-stop his evil….arrghh!” The spider-damned Witch Hunter threw himself into the darkness with me, not knowing at all what he faced but was yet another block I had to get out of the way as the other two finally dropped permanently, gushing blood across the floor. I hissed in exasperation being held back yet longer.



*Lolth damn you, just die!*



Gavin and the last Witch Hunter were fighting hard with each other from the sound of it; it only lasted a few short seconds, but they were desperate ones. It took me just a moment too long to slip my blade point into the inguinal gap in the armor of the swelling, poisoned Hunter and to dodge around his massive body as he finally crashed writhing to the floor. In that moment, Gavin had been struck so hard I heard his breath stop completely and the two collapsed to the floor.



“For Musanlo!”



The subtle sound of sharpened metal sliding home into flesh was distinct and Gavin’s entire body jerked, his heels striking the wooden floor. I knew it had been a solid, well-aimed thrust between the ribs.



Pure heat and a killing need gripped me as I came upon the last Witch Hunter, enveloping him in darkness and grabbing his armor from behind to haul him up to his knees. I had time to draw my blade forward and back again, twice directly across his covered face, slicing cloth and very sensitive flesh; cheeks, nose, lips.



He screamed and finally could be pulled to the side away from my mage.



*Too late…damn you…*



In pure frustration, I made that last one suffer, giving him numerous cuts across face, neck, arms, legs, knees, and a few vicious jabs in the gut just above his crotch, all before he actually collapsed to the ground. He shook and shivered against the floor, murmuring prayers through bloody lips and making some attempt to get up.



“Stay down, dog,” I hissed, and ruined his throat as I had the first one outside the door.



As soon as he stopped moving and the other poisoned one finally stopped thrashing, I heard Kurn, Castis, and Rithal—minus Mathias, that was interesting—still engaged with the other Witch Hunters, but they seemed to be having a good time somehow. I didn’t care at all to come help them. I was not having a good time, and I kicked the last body another time before rolling it so it wouldn’t crowd me and stain my boots further as I stood next to Gavin.



I dispelled the Darkness and turned to look at the apprentice’s body, for some brief moment actually thinking that it wouldn’t be to my eyes what I knew it to be by my ears.



*Don’t be stupid,* I told myself. *They killed him.*



Gavin lay on his side with his back to the wall, one arm outstretched, his eyes closed; when he’d landed on the ground, the Witch Hunter had had the apprentice pinned between him and the wall. The long shirt in which Gavin had been sleeping still covered him to the knees, but the garment was now slowly being soaked in dark red blood, spreading outward from his chest due to a small, ornate silver dagger completely lodged in his chest, driven in all the way to the hilt and through his heart.



His feet and shins were damaged and bleeding from his attackers’ boots, and he had a large burn welt at his neck and collar bone that looked like a smith’s red-hot poker had been pressed there, the flesh in the middle white while the skin around it was blistered red. The edge of his linen undergarment was singed black.



I looked around, numbly curious, and saw what I thought would explain it—a straight, iron rod with two ties in the middle, one rounded end, and a leather grip. The torch they’d brought had been hastily dropped in our ceramic water pitcher nearby, now extinguished, but if the iron bar had been tied to the torch leading up to the attack, one end of it would have been hot enough to cause the burn. I noted Gavin’s blood-stained spade as well, lying next to the table that held the pitcher and torch.



Tremors passed through my right hand as I gripped my blooded dagger hard, barely having the presence of mind to call my one spider back to me from the body it had killed. It did so with a slowness that suggested exhaustion, but I could at least have that tool back.



Next I stepped forward to check for a pulse or a breath on the apprentice, simply to be thorough, and because I didn’t know what else to do at that moment.



He had neither.



*Damn it!*



Not only to lose him, as I hadn’t wanted to, as I’d agreed to help keep him alive on this journey so he could help me with Sarilis…now he couldn’t help with Gaelan, either, and I didn’t even have the option of taking Brom up on his offer of introducing me to the Witch Hunters to learn more of Manalar, because I’d just killed most of them trying to prevent this…



I shook my head slowly twice, putting stained, gloved fingertips on my forehead as my head pounded alongside my heart much harder for a few moments. I drew in shivering breaths and tried to calm down, to slow the rush that only told me I hated being powerless, which I already knew but dwelling on it was useless now. It would not help me; it certainly wouldn’t make Gavin breathe again.



Now I had to face Brom and Kurn and Sarilis…and I was starting over in allies. I was alone again. All that effort wasted due to some harried enforcers who took it upon themselves to break into our room.

I stood up, wiped off my dagger on the pant leg of a body and sheathed it. I went to the splintered door frame, looking out carefully though I could hear that there was further activity down in the common room beyond Kurn’s crowing. There were more Men, and I could hear Brom’s voice giving commands. Was the Ma’ab not done yet? What was he doing, drawing it out? He should have had them down by now.



*Bah.*



I was about to step outside to take the back hallway again to meet up with Brom—what else could I do?—when it felt as though a dribble of some near-frozen mountain stream was being poured down my back. The small hairs on the back of my neck stood up and some heavy, dark shade seemed to tease at the edge of my mind as if I would soon have another waking nightmare.



*No…no,* I stubbornly told myself. I couldn’t lose time right now; I knew better. *Not here, not now. Just look at Gavin if you need reason to see why you have to remain aware…*



My eyes did slide toward his body again, as if to reinforce the reason, and something kept me staring at him for longer than necessary.



What was it, what was different? Something was, though he hadn’t moved and was still as he’d fallen. A faint amount of light that allowed me to see a bit of color now spilled in from torches farther down the hall.



I stepped back into the room to get away from the door frame as I scanned the room. Nothing was moving; there were just the five bodies I’d slain, and the one they had before I could stop them.



Yet something tingled in the back of my head, like the ley lines, like at the Tower, but yet not. I looked at Gavin again but consciously tried to relax and paid more attention to my peripheral vision around him, waiting for a few moments. It was a common skill for those in the Underdark; if something seemed to move but one couldn’t detect it while looking right at it…well, then, just do not look right at it.



There seemed to be dark shadows in the far end of the room, not of my making, not the sphere of magical Darkness that no light could penetrate. More like tendrils of long hair moving, waving slowly underwater. They were deeper than any natural shadow had any business being on the Surface, even at night. Yet I still wasn’t sure if I actually saw what I thought I saw.



Swallowing in unease, I shifted my gaze to Gavin’s still, pale face, my periphery following the way the tendrils seemed to be coalescing around the silver blade in his chest but being repelled as the metal looked all the brighter next to them, a dim halo of light pushing out against the dark.



Was this another dream? Was I actually in reverie this whole time?



No. I could not doubt my sanity that much. Brom had happened. The attack had happened. Gavin was dead.



I couldn’t leave the room, though. Not much time had passed, I was sure, though it seemed to slow down as if I was still in some moment of intense focus. There was no battle that involved me anymore, but…



My heart tripped and my next breath was almost painful when I thought I saw a shrouded, female silhouette—very briefly—against the wall above Gavin’s body. It looked as though she should have been standing right in front of him with a candle set at her back, casting her wavering shadow upon the wall. But all I could see was the curves of a charcoal grey form.



*Oh Lolth…*



Were my reveries becoming real somehow? The silhouette had always been in white before, wearing a white gown and standing with the Sun behind her on red dunes…this wasn’t the same form, was it?



Before the shape faded, I watched as she kneeled down and reached as if to take hold of the dagger’s hilt. The shadow pulled back—like the tendrils, also repelled. Then she disappeared from my periphery entirely.



*Take the dagger out?*



The thought only occurred to me now to do so. I didn’t see what good that might do, unless I just wanted to add a somewhat inferiorly-crafted dagger to my collection… but would it do any harm?



I stepped over one of the Witch Hunters on my way back to Gavin’s body, considering that the blood had stopped flowing as the necromancer’s heart had ceased beating; he hadn’t bled nearly as much as his attackers. I lowered myself to one knee before him, in the same spot that the shrouded female would have been if she’d been physical.



Without thinking overly much on what I was about to do, I placed one hand on his shoulder to brace his torso as I took hold of the hilt, pulling firmly to get the blade out of his heart in one, slow, smooth draw. There was the usual resistance of metal in flesh, and a bit of blood followed but not much. As I looked at the soiled blade, I saw the bit of tarnish on the bar and realized it was probably made of pure silver.



Gavin’s shoulder seemed to become colder for a moment, the fading life-heat being sucked away much faster somehow, and I jerked my gloved hand back in pure fright, if I was honest. When his eyelids twitched, I just about drove the silver dagger back in, just from the instinct that kicked in as my heart surged and fear rushed through me.



I stumbled back with less than my usual grace instead of stabbing him, putting some distance between myself and his body as I watched his large, bony hand flex. Then he drew an actual breath; I heard it with my own ears. Gavin’s body had drawn air into lungs!



Trembling, I listened hard, and caught the distinct lub-lub of a heart beating when it hadn’t been before. As it did, I noticed a darker, more viscous fluid ooze out of both his chest wound and the corner of his mouth. It could have been blood, but I wasn’t sure…the scent was different somehow. His gaunt face had never had much color, but now it seemed to dry a bit and lose even the bit of flesh color it had had.



What was happening to his body? What had I just done?



Gavin opened his eyes next, and I did not recognize them at all. That inky blackness that had seeped into the whites of his eyes whenever he called his magic had returned, but the deep, almost black irises of his Ma’ab heritage here gone. Now they were a pale, icy blue—a bit like Rithal’s, except now they seemed to glow in the dark room.



I would have attacked, would have tried to destroy the creature with the silver blade again out of sheer desperation than I’d lose my one chance—but he spoke. A mix of bright red and near-black blood came out in a cough right before he croaked a question.



“Are the Hunters dead?”



The voice was the same, perfect in the tone and inflection I’d become familiar with over the weeks of travel. Surely something else from the “Greylands” that might want to possess a newly dead body wouldn’t have had it so convincing in the very first words?



Maybe…



“Yes,” I answered warily. “But…who are you?”



A very familiar expression crossed his face, even lying on his side and waiting to gain more strength before sitting up. It was that same eloquent expression of before, a skeptical, raised brow and twist of his broad mouth when he thought I was trying to play him or tease him.



Except now I wasn’t.



“Sirana, did you take a blow to the head?”



“Tell me your name,” I insisted stubbornly.



He acquiesced. “It’s Gavin.”



I blinked and tamped down the maddening urge to actually feel uplifted, hopeful… it was so inappropriate and I was still trembling.



“….Gavin?”



“Yes.”



“You…you were dead.” I lifted the naked, blooded dagger slightly. “This was lodged in your heart.”



His new, black and ice blue eyes fell on the dagger and he showed me a hint of a smile. “Told you I had talents. Although—”



He carefully placed his palm down to help push himself up to sit, leaning against the wall with a grunt and a groan. He took another breath, and if I didn’t know better, I would have said that the deep wound in his chest wasn’t oozing any blood anymore.



“—this is one I would rather have not used,” he finished.



That was the moment when I noticed that his teeth, his fingernails, and toenails had all turned black, but not as though they were rotting. There was no smell of that nature and they looked strong enough. Solid.



But they were black.



“What did you do?” I whispered. “How…how could you return…why…?”



Gavin seemed to take a few moments to decide which of my unfocused selection of half-questions he wanted to answer. “I wanted it, I suppose. My Patroness granted it.”



I tilted one pointed ear toward him. “…’Patroness’?”



If I broke that down into parts and translated literally, I thought it meant “male head of family who was female.” I didn’t understand it at all and he could read that on my face.



“My…” He hesitated, trying for a different word or phrase. “My true master. She’s taught me much of what I know, or guided me toward that knowledge. She offers her gratitude for your help, by the way.”



I was stunned. Gavin had a “true” master besides Sarilis? She? The dark grey shade that had appeared female, and the elegant tendrils waving like silk… that made some strange kind of sense now.



Gavin had a mistress.



I drew in breath to speak even though I didn’t know what to ask, but stopped the moment I heard Brom’s voice. I had to strain to hear the words.



“Secure the upstairs. Amelda, gather all the guests in the common room and see that they drink the tea.”



“Shit,” I whispered, standing quickly. “Get up. Gavin, the innkeeper isn’t what he appears to be. He knows what I am. Whatever happens, do not attack him.”



Gavin arched a brow—looking somehow the same and yet so different now—but didn’t say anything. He looked over and leaned to reach for his spade, long fingers barely touching to tug it closer to him. He was able to get a grip on it and he used it to brace himself as he got to his feet. The bloody rents on his feet and legs were more blackish than bright red now, I noticed, and they were closing at an unnatural rate.



Gavin was somewhat more than Human now.



I couldn’t dwell on it right now, though; I was surrounded by many more Human Men that I did not truly know what any of them intended for me, if not to kill or possess me. I moved toward the shutters, thinking I could exit out the window, but stepped back the moment I felt the pain of a ward in touching it.



The sorcerer had blocked that way out already; he might have done so even before I’d gone into reverie, but then wouldn’t Gavin have felt it? I might have been able to break it now by sheer force of will, if not for the real possibility that it might also start my womb bleeding from the stress.



Only if I was sure I would die otherwise…



I wasn’t sure. Cris-ri-phon had said I was too valuable to kill lightly, and I had reason to believe him, even if it was still a threat to my purpose.



I heard more voices, a mix of Men who sounded like those with martial discipline and those of the guests who had been trembling in their rooms.



“Gather your things.”



“Wh-what’s happened…?”



“Who attacked—?”



“It’s over now. Please gather your possessions and come downstairs.”



“Father?”



“Where is Brom? I demand an explanation for this!”



“Downstairs, sir. Master Brom will join us shortly. All will be taken care of.”



The swell of voices almost covered his footsteps, but I caught the movement of shadow as our host approached the broken door. He inspected the damage briefly and stepped over the body of the first Witch Hunter, scanning and noting the others dead.



Cris-ri-phon had returned entirely to Brom the innkeeper in his appearance. His skin was much lighter though still tan, his hair a lustrous, chestnut brown, and an easy two or three decades of time had been melted off of his face. He was dressed the same as when he’d first greeted us out of the storm, except now I noted a stout blade at his hip as well as a necklace he hadn’t been wearing earlier tucked beneath his white shirt.



When he smiled at me without showing his teeth, grey eyes looking over me as if to determine if I was injured but also in appreciation, I abruptly became aware of my nether regions, poorly timed as it was. I was still sore in both holes.



His gaze next landed on Gavin, and he stopped abruptly to stand with two bodies behind him and three between him and us. Brom and I both caught Gavin’s gaze flicking down to the bodies of the Witch Hunters, as if he considered what it would take to raise them as a blockade. Brom’s eyes narrowed in response and raked the other mage, and I became aware of the old sorcerer’s pulsing aura again.



Surely it had become something Gavin could see. I sneaked a glance at my ally.



Oh yes. My newly-risen necromancer could see the sorcerer’s aura alright. Gavin flinched as if he’d been looking directly at a lightning flash when it cut the Sky.



Brom smiled to show very white teeth then, still focused more on Gavin than me, though he also noted the silver dagger I held with Gavin’s lifeblood on it. He chuckled very softly. “My, my… I see someone else has been exploring some limits tonight. Did you enjoy your journey, Master Gavin?”



“A bit chilly, but revealing,” the necromancer responded.



Brom nodded, his manner turning gracious and remaining every bit the host he had started out to be. “I admire any who have the guts to try, even if the results vary somewhat. I must apologize for the violation of your privacy, young apprentice. Had I not gotten so…deeply in discussion with our lady, here, I would have seen it coming sooner. I see your underclothes are unsalvageable. I shall have Cheri find you replacements soon as practical, if you will accept?”



Gavin glanced at me with his new, unsettling eyes, and my answering shrug was very slight. I had no objection.



He looked back at Brom and nodded. “Please.”



The sorcerer was both encouraged and amused. “I also have a spare cellar not being used for much at the moment. Once our business is properly seen to, I could have the bodies collected down there for your use. You should have some time where you can be left alone. Would you care to accept, apprentice? It is a gracious offer, and not one I make lightly but for the pleasure of your companion.”



Gavin and I both shifted warily. We knew that Brom had nailed not only my ally’s general introverted nature, offering the opportunity and the means to recover and even practice his birthright and his sole ambition after such a stark shift in his existence, but the sorcerer had also made it clear that he offered such an invitation only because of me.



I understood that Brom wouldn’t kill Gavin right off; that would be too hasty. He’d keep him around as a host’s gesture, at minimum, while he and I further explored our “business,” which was far from finished.



My apprentice seemed to look carefully around the room, especially the windows where I’d felt the ward, and back at Brom, where he pursed his lips at whatever it was that he saw. Finally he nodded.



“Yes. I would accept.”



My breath eased out as I was glad to be certain that Gavin grasped what I did: Brom was too powerful to match in a mage’s duel like the brief one with Castis. My ally may not have dazzling social experience or much love of intrigue, but he was intelligent enough to understand a dagger wrapped in velvet when presented with one.



Brom smiled widely at this. “Excellent.”



A blond Man well-equipped with the basics of melee poked his head in. “Sir?”



“Yes, Cameron.”



“All the guests are downstairs and have enjoyed your hospitality. Amelda awaits further instruction.”



“Tell her just to keep the bodies out of the way, let the guests eat breakfast and leave soon as possible. Has the sun risen?”



“Not quite, my lord, but the sky lightens.”



“Good.”



“And these, sir?” Cameron indicated my kills on the floor.



“Leave them here for now, they are out of the way.”



A second Man with light brown hair and light eyes showed up next. “Sir. Something in one of the Witch Hunter’s rooms you should see. We didn’t want to move the body yet.”



Brom frowned slightly but glanced at me and Gavin. “Care to come with me? We have a bit of time as people shuffle out, it seems.”



He turned to step again over the bodies and in to the hall. After another glance at each other, Gavin and I followed with Brom’s men at our backs. Knowing not what else to do with it, I quickly wiped the silver blade off and knotted it loosely to my belt by the hilt.



We took the second hallway where I’d come through before, passing the empty rooms of the enforcers of Manalar on my way to help Gavin.



Or that I had thought had been empty.



The master of the inn stepped inside the third room from the balcony, the door currently guarded by two other Men, making a total of four warily surrounding Gavin and myself.



I could tell they were confused and even a little afraid—they weren’t sure what they were looking at in either of us, the corpse-like apprentice still being covered in blood and dressed in just a soiled, natural linen longshirt, and me just being me, of course—but their responses seemed muted compared to someone who’d perhaps never seen or expected to see anything non-Human.



I made as if to step in as well, but one of them actually blocked me with his taller body; my eyes were level with the hard leather armor protecting his torso from a hard stab straight on. I looked up with a faintly threatening scowl and I could see his eyes respond, pupils constricting, and his scent seemed to sour just a bit in fear. But he didn’t move.



“Master Brom?” I asked aloud, still holding the soldier’s green eyes.



“Actually, let her in, Leif. I would have her opinion on this.”



The Men let me slide by but still kept Gavin where he was and surrounded him; my apprentice was wary but seemed like he could handle this bit of pressure. I came forward into a room very similar to the one we’d slept in, except in the corner had a scorched spot and a body.



I noted details as I approached. A fire had begun eating the wooden table and had barely spread to the wall behind it; I smelled acrid, smoking oil and herbs. The table had been covered with a blanket and the room’s ceramic pitcher that had contained any water now lay on its side on the floor, its entire contents spilled uselessly across the wood.



Whoever had done that had known the water would not douse an oil fire and had used a blanket to smother it instead. That one had not been the Witch Hunter, who laid face-down, limp with his spine partly twisted.



It was clear to me that the body had been dead well before hitting the floor; I knew if I looked, I could find the bumps and abrasions on the head, arms, possibly hands that showed no attempt had been made to catch himself. I saw two clean insertion points in his back, one at each kidney.



“Did you kill this one, Sirana?” Brom asked.



“No,” I answered. “I was busy when this one died.”



He nodded, believing me. “May I have your thoughts, then, my lady?”



He had a small smile as he stood up to give me more room around the body, but yet I would almost have said that he seemed irritated or otherwise unhappy with what was before him.



I noted general details first, from a few angles, prior to kneeling and inspecting the body’s injuries. It was interesting to me, and I could guess now why Brom wasn’t happy. There wasn’t anyone in our party besides me who had the weapons and skill to backstab someone this way.



“Two daggers, angled upward through the side gaps,” I said. “Pierced both kidneys and lungs at the same time, may have struck the heart as well, there is not much blood.” I focused on the right hand. “And he’s missing his third finger; it’s been severed.”



“Trophy?” Brom asked.



I shrugged. “Perhaps.”



“Clearly an assassin, and yet it was not you.”



I smiled playfully. “And you dislike not knowing who else in your inn had these skills without your knowledge. Whoever it was prevented this Hunter from starting a blaze we likely would have been too late to stop.”

Brom was still frowning but exhaled with some tension leaving his shoulders. Next he contemplated Gavin still standing just outside. “Is it within your skills to interrogate the newly dead, apprentice?”



Brom’s men shifted uneasily at the question and I was able to get a clear line of sight on my ally’s face. Gavin seemed dryly amused both at the inquiry and the nervousness of his guards.



“Indeed it is. You’d have to have your questions prepared.”



“I want to know if he saw his killer’s face,” Brom said readily. “If not, I wish to know if he or any in his group had a bounty on their head.”



Looking at the placement of the wounds again, and their precision, I doubted that the arsonist would have seen anything other than the fire he’d been starting, but…given that I knew nothing about this aspect of Gavin’s nature, and Brom did seem to know more, I was content to remain an observer.



Gavin said, “If I may have the garment replacement you offered and can clean up just a bit, I will need to gather my things first. We should not take too long, spirits do not linger forever.”



I suppressed my smile but thought Gavin’s timing was excellent in this case. Brom wanted something from him, so he’d have to help the apprentice collect himself quickly if that’s what it took. The sorcerer knew this, too, choosing not to try to force what he wanted in a dominance of will, like his choice not to “break” my mind when he wanted to see what the Valsharess looked like.



Brom stepped forward to one of the Men, saying low, “Ask Cheri for a tall man’s longshirt and some soap and water. Bring it up to the back room for her, don’t let her see this man or the bodies, and don’t speak to anyone.”



The guard nodded and left. Meanwhile, Gavin was escorted back to the room with two of the three remaining guards, and I waited patiently with Brom next to the body. The sorcerer watched me carefully and seemed more than once to reminisce for a moment what I looked like naked; his smile possessed an arrogant, suggestive quality that relayed his satisfaction at the outcome in his bed.



Odd to think I’d seen the same expression often on Jaunda’s face.



“My lord.”



Yet another Man arrived to report. This one had reddish-orange hair of a brightness that surprised me; I’d never seen the like on any except Rithal, and I thought it had been a dwarven thing for some odd reason. How many colors were there in Humans? Did the two races share blood?



Brom sighed quietly, covering his annoyance at being interrupted once again from his thoughts. “Yes, Ian?”



“The party you asked us to sequester is threatening to get riotous. They want to see you. Mathias, especially.”



“Of course,” Brom said. “Bring them up. Just as well that they see this little show. How long before the guests leave?”



“They are doing so now.”



“And they don’t look directly at the damage or the bodies?”



“No, lord, they’re oblivious.”



“Good. Go get the others.”



Ian bowed and left.



I quirked a brow at Brom, feeling in my gut a familiar, uncoiling surge of realization I felt whenever I made a new connection. “Mathias ‘especially’?”



The sorcerer smiled widely at me. “The skin hunter has a few friends here from previous years, Ian knows him. Mathias used to work for me. How do you suppose he found this place in the middle of yesterday’s storm?”



My face hardened. “He already knew it to be here.”



“And that it was safe for outcasts like him,” Brom added. “Do not blame him, Sirana. I had to nudge quite strongly to get him to go back out to find you, to bring you here to me. He didn’t know why he felt compelled to do so just after drying off, but the dwarf offered to accompany him.”



That explained much better why Mathias was so firm in wanting me to ride with him on his horse. Gavin’s mare may indeed have become lame with continued stress, but regardless, Mathias had direct control over following Brom’s “suggestion.” And to say he had already made a deal to “include” me…I really should have been more wary.



I considered this and something he’d said before. “Skin hunter? Not bounty hunter?”



“One of the Witch Hunters is still alive, though neutralized,” the sorcerer replied. “You’ll likely have opportunity to see what I mean. I have rather missed his skills when he left us. I’d like to see what you think.”



I could hear the others tromping up the stairs and crossing the balcony. Kurn was muttering threats to Ian as he led them in. It was a tight squeeze overall, Brom’s Men clustered about and blocking the hallway off, my associates just stepping in to crowd the door, the one stepping forward being the Hellhound.



Kurn barely noted anything in the room except for me and Brom, and in an action so foolish I simply could not fathom it, he strode up to the innkeeper and puffed up, using his slight bit of height on the older man to stand chest-to-chest, clearly trying to intimidate him. He looked as though he had donned his armor in haste, but it had afforded the protection needed in a fight.



“What are you doing in here with her, magician?” the Hellhound demanded loudly. “And why is everyone downstairs acting like they don’t see us?”



Brom smiled, partly showing his amusement but it also reminded me of a wolf showing his fangs. His grey eyes seemed to flash as he met Kurn’s glare head-on. “Because they do not see you, Ma’ab. Nor do they hear you. I’ve set an illusion and a ward on my property.”



The Hellhound tried to speak again but the sorcerer cut him off to look at the rest of us. “We shall not receive any new guests today. If anyone approaches, it will cross their mind that they have other errands to attend to rather than come here. You may accept the hospitality and the privacy I shall afford you by sheer generosity.”



Generosity, indeed… It was in Brom’s interest that everyone not involved in this confrontation simply leave with a small case of amnesia, and that no one new interrupted something he had been waiting a long time to see happen.



It also meant no one remaining inside would leave unless or until it suited him. Even someone not able to see his aura should have understood the threat of what they faced just on this evidence alone. Kurn did not, or simply chose not to believe it, even as he understood the innkeeper was also a magic user.



“You can’t keep us here,” he said now. “We have a mission.”



“It will wait,” Brom replied evenly.



“No. It won’t.”



“Then I suggest you cooperate and do not obstruct, Ma’ab, we will be finished with business sooner. Now stand back from me, I dislike you fouling my air.”



“I’ll foul your guts if you do not release us.”



“Everything in due time.”



“Kurn,” Castis said with worry from the door; he could clearly see at least some of Brom’s aura. “Stand down, brother.”



The Hellhound didn’t so do quite yet, and a certain cool air seemed to drop over Brom as his eyes narrowed.



Kurn gestured at me. “You didn’t answer. What are you doing with her?”



The sorcerer tilted his head slightly and smiled with amusement. “I am thoroughly enjoying her company. She assists me at my request, as does her servant. I believe I hear him now. Make room for him, men.”



Kurn didn’t have time to do more than shoot me an odd, hateful look that I wasn’t quite sure I could interpret before Gavin made his way into the room.



Just about everyone shrank away from my ally, almost unconsciously, as if not wanting him to even brush them. He had wiped the blood and mystery fluids away, was fully dressed in his usual, tattered, grey robe and worn boots, though I knew he’d have his added protection on beneath as well. He had gathered his entire bundle, all his possessions from the room, but could set it down now while still carrying a smaller kit in one hand.



“Welcome back, Master Gavin,” Brom said cordially, giving a subtle chin-nod.



I watched as my travel companions all absorbed the changes: the blanched, dry, parchment quality of his skin and his cold gaze like an icy pit, the skeletal hands with the black fingernails. Castis muttered something in the Ma’ab tongue that may have been an oath, and Kurn had a look of disgust twisting his nose and mouth as he finally moved back from Brom. Rithal and Mathias were openly staring.



Doing something generally out of character, Gavin smiled—or rather, simply drew back his lips. Mathais gasped at seeing the black teeth. I had the sneaking suspicion that Gavin had finally looked at his appearance in a mirror as he had been collecting himself.



“By what Hell…?” Mathias murmured.



“If you’ll all keep your questions for later,” Brom said sternly, “I have need of the necromancer’s skills right now. We are wasting time. Gavin, if you please. You know my questions.”



I watched with a degree of wary fascination as Gavin nodded and moved to roll the body onto its back without asking anyone’s help. It seemed to be fairly easy for him to do, though the Witch Hunter was not a slight Man. Gavin kneeled beside the body, putting his back to the wall so that he faced the rest of the room. I did not get the impression that it was because he wanted an audience as he just simply did not want to be performing his magic with a whole group of armed men at his back.



It still turned out that we were his audience as we watched him in near silence. Gavin removed the helmet to reveal the dead Man’s blond head and drew out a pinky-sized bit of material from his kit. He used it to draw a precise symbol on the pale, clammy forehead in black grease—waterproof, I realized—then exchanged that for a small scalpel he used to cut the pad of his own left index finger.



Very dark, thick blood welled up and Gavin smeared his finger across the corpse’s lips, muttering very quietly; as I focused harder to hear, I knew it to be the same language he’d been speaking in his last nightmare. The one with the unsettling undertone, perhaps the one in which he communed with his otherworldly “Patroness.”



Thinking of that other world, I felt the temperature in the room dropping, becoming cooler, even with as many bodies as we had crammed in here. I was not the only one to notice. The Ma’ab brothers muttered something to each other in their native tongue, and several sets of boots shifted. Brom stood firmly between Gavin and the others, watching every detail while letting him work.



Breathing in slowly and in deep concentration, Gavin reached with his long-fingered hand as if he meant to dig into the chest cavity of the body. I felt my jaw loosen when his hand somehow passed through into it, bloodless and causing no damage, his wrist flexing as he closed his hand into a fist out of sight. As he drew his hand back out, a vaporous, dripping, pale glow surrounded his hand in a haze.



At first it was only a ball of…something…wavering about Gavin’s curled hand like a flame on a candlewick, but after a few moments it began to take the vague, transparent form of the Man lying dead on his back. It was still tenuously connected to the body, but Gavin clearly controlled the form in his grip.



It was difficult to rip my eyes away from the spectacle, but I did so to glance at Brom, who was smiling and looking very pleased.



Gavin’s eerie, vaguely glowing eyes looked straight at the spirit. There were no pleasantries, no introduction.



“Did you see the face of your killer?” he asked.



The ghost’s mouth moved, but there was a death rattle at the back of the corpse’s throat that drew all our attention as air escaped. I took a step back as Mathias uttered a sound of alarm.



“No…” The word to pass through the dead’s actual mouth was hollow, flat, and drawn out as if under great strain to speak even that one word.



Gavin narrowed his eyes as I saw an odd pulse at his temple. He squeezed the apparition, closing his hand as if around something solid. “What qualities can you say to describe your killer?”



There was a short pause as the throat and jaw strained to form a word once again. “Quiet…”



“Nothing else?”



“None…”



It was about as I expected, though Brom was frowning at the lack of a useful answer. He reminded Gavin, “A bounty?”



A subtle nod, and he asked, “Who holds any contracts on you or your brotherhood?”



The corpse continued to strain, but the spirit’s mouth moved more this time as its words passed through the body.



“Our enemies…hire…the Guild…as vengeance for those…heretics…condemned or…cleansed.”



Gavin and the solidity of the ghost both seemed to be weakening as more fluttering pulses rose at the necromancer’s temple and a tremor passed through him. Still, he clenched his hand again and asked, “What was on your right, third finger?”



“Bishop’s…ring…”



Brom nodded. “That is enough for now, Master Gavin. Do not lose control.”



The apprentice exhaled out in a slow, deep release, lowering his hand closer to the corpse, and the coalescence of vapor dispelled quickly, disappearing completely from our view. Gavin touched his temple and took a deep breath before tucking up his kit and standing to add it to his things.



“Useful, then, Master Brom?” Mathias asked, and the innkeeper nodded with a smile.



“Enough so. The summoned dead do not knowingly lie. What they say is always true to their knowledge.”



My first thought to this was that I couldn’t imagine the Valsharess allowing any necromancer to exist in the City. If death was practiced as being the final silencing of an enemy or opponent even beyond a compulsion, and the final victory, how would things change to have a mage who could call back sure, lost knowledge like that?



Among other things, that might be one reason for Brom’s comment about the Drow he knew hating a death mage’s very existence. It unbalanced the Game, and I could imagine many of us fighting over possession of such a weapon. The fact that this particular mage was male would only make that part worse, just as we would fight over a Consort like Auslan who received visions.



It was curious for me now to consider Gavin’s Ma’ab mother then, and what she may have been like?



The thought led me to glance at Kurn and Castis who—apart from Brom—did indeed look the least unsettled by Gavin’s talents, as if they could have seen it before or perhaps just heard of it, knew it to be possible. Mathias and Rithal and all of Brom’s men showed varying levels of utter disbelief and horror, as if it couldn’t be real—it even overshadowed my alien presence for the moment.



“What is the Guild?” I asked bluntly.



Brom looked at me with a subtle, teasing twitch to his mouth. His men remembered I was there and at least one kept his focus on me as the others watched the rest.



“Probably Manalar’s largest competition by organization, influence, and reach over multiple cities.”



“Until the Ma’ab army shows up at their doorstep,” Kurn growled.



The innkeeper shrugged, unimpressed. “Even if the Ma’ab wins that battle, warrior, I wager they don’t have the slightest idea how to contend with the Guild next. You can’t make them cede their territory easily. They have no temples and no political boundaries to take by force. They are a shadow organization within all the current fiefdoms, and if it takes them years to strategically assassinate your most powerful leaders and see your infant empire crumbling down, they will. It is how they came to be in the first place.”



There was a pause as nobody said anything to that. Kurn and Castis were both glaring.



“You sound to know much,” the Hellhound replied with plain suspicion. “Crowing their strengths. Are you part of the Guild, ‘innkeeper’?”



I watched Brom’s face carefully; it was too direct of a question to be very effective, certainly no surprise, but still, it wasn’t outside of possibility. Kurn had a point.



“I do business with them from time to time,” Brom answered easily enough, not seeming to care that he said so in front of many people. “Trade information mostly, I pay no dues and take no tasks. That puts me on the outside.”



But he would know how to contact them. Sarilis had been talking about the “eastern taskers” as ones he had no dealings with but who filled the same niche near Manalar as “the Guild.” They had to be one and the same if they were of any size and power, as he claimed.



The ancient sorcerer overall wasn’t happy that a likely Guild member had gotten inside his inn—and possibly back out—without his knowledge, but that same assassin had stopped his place from being damaged by a potentially uncontrollable oil fire set by the Manalar fanatics. Surely it was a sign that the Guild considered this innkeeper an ally, at the very least.



I had yet to discover whether dealing with this Man, even in order to find the Guild connected to a half-Drow, could even be worth it. Brom had been Rausery’s task, not mine, and she had centuries of experience over me and likely knowledge of him that I didn’t. Simply my being hesitant to break any of his wards put me at a severe disadvantage, never mind what his possible responses might be to learning the reason why I was hesitant. I was not in a good bargaining position unless I could learn something more, something useful.



“Have all the guests left, Leif?” he said now.



“Aye, my lord.”



“And the surviving zealot?”



“Awaiting your pleasure, lord.”



“Gather the bodies in the back room and bring them down, along with this one, collect them together and sort their belongings.”



“Yes, my lord.”



Brom gestured to the rest of us and smiled. “If you will, come with me down to the great room. I believe we have deals of our own to work out.”



******



Brom was gone from us briefly as he swept his own inn, perhaps to check for the Guild assassin, if he was still here.



Standing in the great room, I noted that the entire place was shuttered and closed; no daylight was getting in despite the dawn, and the place was lit with oil lamps. No one would be able to look in, it closed out the outside world, and it would happen to be much more comfortable for me. I wondered if Cris did that on purpose or if it was just a side-effect of the privacy he wanted?



In the more familiar glow, I saw plenty of evidence that my travel companions had led their four Witch Hunters down to the main floor to fight them, and they had broken quite a bit of the inn’s furniture.



Three bodies had been lined up and stripped of weapons; I did not see the fourth, presuming him to be the prisoner. By the look of it, each had taken one opponent; I saw one with a scorched face, another with several deep sword wounds, and the last with an axe strike to the chest that had actually caved in the armor.



I had to suppose that they had been drawing it out longer than necessary; they were not injured badly at all, almost as if the Witch Hunters had had no magical offense themselves. I hadn’t seen the zealots use anything that implied it in Gavin’s room either; one had thrown water on me and another had burned Gavin with a hot iron. Otherwise, it was all straight martial fighting.



I wondered what that might mean about the level of magic in general at Manalar? They had some, obviously, or we wouldn’t be off to spoil their holy pool, but to not offer any to their “enforcers”? Curious.



“So what did you do while the Witch Hunters came for us?” Kurn asked me, low and through clenched teeth. “Watch me fight and finger your cunt, as always?”



I raised a brow but did smile, flicking my eyes up where Brom’s men were bringing down the rest of the Witch Hunters from upstairs. I did not need to say anything as five bodies eventually appeared, in addition to the sixth from the previous room, all lined up next to the first three.



The Hellhound grunted, frowning. “And how many of Brom’s men did you need to help overcome all those in one small room?”



“None,” I answered.



“She is quite efficient,” Gavin spoke up, surprising me as he’d never done so before. “Taking them from behind before they could offer resistance. I’m sure you’re familiar with such things, Kurn.”

The big man’s face changed color, paling before turning three shades darker, and he somehow seemed to grow in size as he turned on Gavin with a snarl, making him back up by getting too close. Really, it was only Kurn’s response that helped me catch that double-meaning in Common, though by Gavin’s surprise, I genuinely thought that the apprentice hadn’t meant it in but the one way.



Even if he was right about both.



“Tactics,” I said clearly, circling to get behind Gavin and pull him back by the shoulders quite a few more steps, so that I could move in front and not be chest-to-chest with Kurn. Fortunately, Gavin didn’t fight me and moved well out of the way.



I looked up at the Hellhound’s black eyes as he focused on me, having actually put myself between him and my apprentice, as I said I would not do. “He meant you are familiar with such tactics, Kurn. Correct?”



“Only in a cowardly backstabber such as yourself,” he growled, the scent of his breath and skin similar to when we’d clashed, but more sour.



“Oh? Are you starting to remember?” I asked.



He showed me gritted teeth, grinding them and very much wanting to break my neck with his bare hands… but he wrenched his eyes from mine to look at Gavin behind me. “And what happened to you, eunuch? You look like a possessed corpse now.”



It was Castis that spoke this time. “His aura’s changed. He’s…part…I don’t know—”



“Undead?” Gavin asked, showing his own black teeth just for effect.



Castis wrinkled his nose slightly. “Yes.”



“Close. It’s not that simple, of course. Unlike an undead, I do hunger and thirst. My flesh still tires. For now, at least.”



*That sounds ambitious,* I thought.



“What triggered this kind of transformation?” Castis asked with grudging—I dared to think professional—curiosity.



His Ma’ab brother’s shift in topic also gave Kurn the opportunity to calm himself further and step back rather than accuse in front of everyone that I had violated him, or give me the opportunity to say what had happened, to taunt him with it. I could see that he was willing to drop it, but only until later.



He would be thinking afresh of the canyon trap now, as I was.



Gavin did not answer, just watched the other mage. I took his lead and said nothing. Not only was it a sting to my pride that I had failed to prevent his death, as was my goal—regardless that he had come back from it somehow— but besides that, these males still had many odd times where they simply wouldn’t ask me directly what they wanted to know. Even if they knew I had been a witness, they assumed I would not answer. This was one of those times.



“So what else can ye do?” Rithal asked the apprentice in a low rumble, no longer indifferent toward Gavin’s presence as he’d been before. Now his tone was slightly hostile, even as he’d watched each of us and made no comment until now. “Other than wrench souls outta bodies an’ force them tah speak?”



Gavin surely understood the change in tone; his response was flat and unhelpful. “I suppose we shall both find out, won’t we?”



“We shall find out a lot of things,” Brom said in a strong voice that filled the room as he returned. “First, I will know more of your actual mission, Ma’ab. You go to Manalar, that is true. But why? And why do you have such an eclectic band to carry it out?”



“You will spread it back to the Guild, innkeeper,” Kurn said. “We’ll not tell you.”



Brom quirked one brow then looked around his inn quite deliberately. “Very well. You may try to leave by way of the front door.”



Kurn and Castis shared a doubtful glance.



“You set a ward,” Castis said.



“That’s right, I did.”



“So release it,” Kurn said.



“No.” Brom looked at Rithal next. “What about you, dwarf? You carry one of the black vials as well.”



Rithal looked toward me briefly in accusation; he was right about it being me who told him of those, but wouldn’t know at the time I’d been threatening the innkeeper with it. He thought I was cooperating with Brom.



The dwarf cleared his throat slightly and, oddly, did not answer with his usual directness. “The Guild would like tah see the theocracy gutted from the inside, I think.”



The sorcerer nodded once, very elegantly. “Indeed, I wager they would. You are helping the Ma’ab horde?”



“No,” Rithal said. “They’re on their own, tah win er lose. I am returning judgment in kind on the Priesthood. Tha’s all.”



“I see.” Brom looked at me and smiled. “And you. Do any of your companions know why you are here?”



“No,” I said flatly. “And neither do you.”



“Not from lack of trying, my dear. Your discipline is outstanding, even under interrogation.” Brom winked, then looked back at Kurn, who looked like he wanted to slit my throat before breaking my neck. “And you, Kurn, you want back into the good graces of the Hellhounds. Do you even think that’s possible?”



The big Ma’ab’s face turned deep red very quickly. His voice was harsh. “Yes. To win a battle large as this for them and strengthen our connection to our gods? To set and accomplish a goal that few can? Yes!”



Brom’s grey eyes slipped straight over Castis to Mathias, who had been just about as inconspicuous as he could possibly be. I took a moment to note that the quiet Man still wore my sapphire pendant beneath his shirt.



“And you, Mathias? What has changed since I saw you last? Do you have any better control now?”



Everyone else I our party reacted as I had not long ago.



“You traitor!” Castis spat. “You brought us into this trap?!”



Mathias raised his hands, palms out. “It was only the storm! We needed shelter and I knew we’d be safe here. Lord Brom agreed—”



“‘Lord’ Brom?” Kurn blurted, turning his snarl on the innkeeper. “Who are you, magician? What are you?”



“Someone Mathias was right not to cross back in the day,” the older man answered with a casual scratch to his jaw. “Where I you, I wouldn’t harm him now, Ma’ab, it would be pointless. He meant you no harm, and he’s one of the finest interrogators of the living I have known recently. He can pull as much information as you want out of the last zealot.”



Most of our party’s expressions were doubtful, including mine. Quiet, unassuming Mathias? A confessor? Our scout and game finder?



“Fanatics are hard to break and still be useful,” I commented quietly and Brom nodded in agreement.



“Yes, I know. Mathias can do it. I think you might find it particularly interesting, Sirana. He doesn’t like to work on women much, I think it’s the pitch of their screams, but men always start babbling to him like he’s their priest, sooner or later.”



Mathias’s face was deeply flushed and he had lowered his eyes; I couldn’t believe it, he was blushing under Brom’s praise.



“With your direction to the questions,” Brom said to me, almost intimately, as he took a few steps closer, “he wouldn’t miss anything you wanted to know. Whatever you’re searching for, you’d be closer to it after talking with the enforcer.”



He was trying to persuade me. Why? It did not seem like this needed any kind persuasion; of course we should question the living Witch Hunter, the same as we did the dead one. If Gavin had looked better recovered, I would have asked him to speak to the rest of them…but I’d seen enough to know the questions had to be specific, and it took extraordinary concentration and power to keep that connection to another plane of existence. Gavin had only recently risen himself; he was not yet up to that task.



The time available to question the dead was finite, and as with all magic there were limitations. Mathias didn’t use magic, though. There would only be the physical, spiritual, and mental limitations. Taking the proper time in that case was required.



I watched the “skin hunter” for a few moments, and realized that he was looking to me as if for permission. He already responded quite naturally to Brom’s command, whether he still worked for him officially or not, but Brom was passing that authority on to me, standing next to me, advising me on how best to use this Man’s skills.



I nodded. “A good idea.”



Kurn interjected with a grunt. “How fast to soften the Witch Hunter, Mathias?”



Those medium brown eyes, which I had thought unremarkable overall in his unremarkable face, brightened with such interest and love of a challenge as to surprise me. He looked from me to Kurn and back indecisively.



“How much time do you need, Mathias?” I rephrased, and he focused on me.



“I’m not sure, it depends, Sirana, but I would ask you give me half a day to start. I would report to you,” he glanced quickly at the Ma’ab and Rithal, “all of you, of course, regularly. When he’s ready, you’ll know.”



I hadn’t thought our bounty hunter capable of highs or lows, but I could see clearly now that I’d been wrong. He was capable of passionate interest, he just had a very specific switch that needed to be thrown.



Brom had just shown it to me.



“Excellent,” the innkeeper said now. “Then please consider my hospitality extended for the duration, along with the previous agreement of your best guests’ behavior. The entire inn is yours, and my staff will set up fresh rooms for you.” The sorcerer looked at Gavin. “Would you like that cellar space, now, as well, apprentice?”



Gavin glanced at most of us in short order, a bit longer at me, but in light of the fact that we would remain here for the time being, he would ultimately choose the same as Mathias: his true interest. I nodded very slightly in agreement; Gavin would need time to strengthen his new form anyway, and probably communicate somehow with his mistress.



He said, “Yes, please. I should make good use of it.”



“Cameron, Ian, help the necromancer with that, and in moving the bodies. Lief, assist Mathias in setting up our prisoner in his favorite spot.”



It was about then that I noticed a small team of female Humans entering the great room, keeping a wide berth and slipping upstairs with supplies and linens in their arms. They were amazingly quiet and behaved just as I would expect servants to act…



…except for one. She still stood at the hallway that led to the kitchen; she wasn’t carrying anything like the other girls though appeared a similar young age. She was dressed a bit better than the others, her dress a rich blue instead of some muted earth tone. Her features were lighter, more delicate—not nearly as heavy as the Men—and her face was smooth as mine in seeming to grow no hair. Her hair was thick, black, and with a wave and bounce that was unfamiliar to me, although I thought if Brom let his hair grow that long, it might behave the same way.



She also had the same shape of the sorcerer’s eyes, I realized with a start, except they were Ma’ab black. She looked a bit displeased as she regarded me.



“Amelda,” Brom said fondly, and her frown shifted quickly to a smile.



“Yes, father.”



I remembered the name. She was the one who made the tea for the guests, and apparently a daughter who “awaited instructions” from her sire. An interesting thought.



“See to the Ma’ab personally, if you would.”



She nodded once and walked forward with a sway to her hips that Kurn definitely noticed, though Castis made to ignore. Both of them looked fascinated by her face, though, in some fashion. I figured they could see the Ma’ab blood in her—even I could see it— and she was familiar to them, even calming after a long time in foreign lands.



So this was a Human Woman. Rithal shook his head once and scowled more deeply, looking at me and his host, but interestingly, he said nothing.



“You have a Ma’ab daughter, Brom?” Castis asked, though Kurn was silent, still looking at her.



“Surely, I do. Her mother was an extraordinary witch, you might be curious of Amelda’s talents, Castis. So now you see why I wish to know more about your quest for your empire, blood warriors? But we have time to talk later. Relax for now.”



“Come, let me show you our practice room,” Amelda crooned, and I felt an odd air hovering in the room as she lightly touched Kurn’s bracer and kept going down the second hall opposite from the kitchen, common room, and Brom’s quarters. After a bizarre moment where the air seemed to become heavy enough to press us to the ground, both Ma’ab finally shuffled off hesitantly to follow her and the feeling lifted.



“Is that a good idea?” I murmured to the sorcerer, thinking of the Hellhound’s general opinion of females.



“She’s curious,” was all Brom would murmur back.



“And what trick or offer have ye to try an’ tempt me, sorcerer?” Rithal growled, the thick leather of his glove squeaking as he fisted his right hand and faced us directly. “An’ is the Elf helpin’ yeh?”



I rolled my eyes upward; my speaking very little as I watched every detail in the room seemed to make even Rithal forget that he could just ask me.



“I am as surprised as you, dwarf.”



He blinked and looked straight at me, and I frowned back at him. Rithal made an obvious attempt to read me and Brom waited to see what he decided about my truthfulness.



“Perhaps,” he granted, “but he wants something from ye, Sirana.”



“True,” Brom said with easy, forthright calm, “but it’s only a matter of time before I release your party to continue your mission, master dwarf. Or at least you and the Ma’ab, as I believe in the simplicity of your motives and would even like to see you succeed. Be patient for now, cause no trouble, and there will be no trouble from me. Help yourself to food and ale, just ask for Elana in the kitchen, while Sirana and I discuss a few things.”



Rithal’s beard and brows moved with his thoughts as he weighed the larger Man’s words. There wasn’t a lot to respond to with such directness; either the dwarf accepted—even under protest—or he resisted. He knew that.



With a low, rumbling sigh, the dward nodded reluctantly. “I’ll take the offer of ale while I wait.”



“All that you want,” the innkeeper said graciously and with a very broad smile and before long, my last travel companion vanished from view.



Cris-ri-phon had separated us all quite efficiently, and now he and I were alone. He smiled down at me.



“Now, if you’ve finally aided your apprentice to your full satisfaction, and you no longer plan to desecrate my inn or destroy yourself with your black vial…perhaps we may continue our conversation in peace within my room, Blue Eyes.”



********



The sorcerer did not wait long after securing his bedroom to trap my face again in his large hands and press another kiss onto my mouth. His illusion faded once again to show me his pure white hair and darker, more weathered skin.



“I think I should enjoy having you again,” he breathed against my cheek, forcibly shoving me up against the wall next to one of his displays of boxes and art, “after seeing what you did. A single Drow against so many Witch Hunters. Your race has not lost their taste for blood or their skill, I see.”



I struggled because I didn’t like this from him, being given no space, moved around and handled like a sack of supplies. It was with intense dislike that I was not able to keep track of his hands as they took liberty to touch my armor far too near my belt and weapons for my liking.



He was too large and too strong, his aura too distracting; I couldn’t get free, I couldn’t get away.



The helpless frustration of thinking I had lost Gavin, of knowing I was in a bad place regardless, all of it had not truly settled, there had been no time, and I felt it rise again as Cris-ri-phon mashed my tender breast through my armor with his palm. My training overtook my wariness and my forethought for a moment as I reached to release my spiders.



Cris gripped my wrist and slammed it hard against the wall; I had to swallow my cry at the painful jolt top my hand.



“No,” he hissed. “Don’t do that, my dark assassin. We shall both regret it.”



“Then get back from me,” I demanded. “Don’t hold me against the wall. I hate this!”



Heat was pouring out of him like before when he was aroused, and he frowned dangerously for a moment as he considered simply continuing this way. I tensed, preparing to respond to whatever he chose. It would be a long time of him trying to force my weapons away from me, a piece at a time, unless he just wanted to make me completely unresponsive in some way and fuck me while unconscious.



That was as possible as any other outcome, but the natural consequences of this path would be rebellion at every turn later on, no matter how long it continued. He would not get cooperation nor as much information, and he would have to be on constant guard unless he just wanted to break me and, by his own words, lessen my value to him.



Drow did not tire easily when set on revenge for some action taken against them.



Cris seemed to realize this through his haze of desire and, perhaps after considering the intriguing challenge for a moment, he ultimately discarded it in favor of something more far-seeing. He stepped back from me, giving me space and I shifted away, more toward the middle of the room where I could maneuver.



“Will you disarm yourself completely?” he asked.



“What of the ‘conversation’ you mentioned?”



“After I’ve bedded you again. I will have you, then we will talk.”



I could take the trade or I could completely decline. If I declined, then what? Try to overcome him as he had just chosen not to do with me? If I tried, even if I succeeded, I would not get that same cooperation and information trade, and I would have to watch my back for the next time as things escalated as I still may not be able to leave. I had no doubt Cris-ri-phon would respond exactly as my own race would to being thwarted.



So. It was a yes. Yes, I would trade and I would fuck him, albeit under threat.



Now I could either slowly, resentfully remove my things, or I could strip naked with confidence. This wasn’t unlike my earliest months as a Red Sister novice—once trapped, it was going to happen eventually, why waste time and effort that would be better spent on the sating, even overwhelming, his physical demands?



Cris perked up as I swiftly flipped off my blood-spattered cloak, tossing it over the back of the chair in which I’d sat at the beginning of our meeting, then loosened my bracers in a few short movements and tossed them onto the seat. I scowled at him as I did this, but it was in a manner of inviting him to meet a confrontation rather than any throat-showing bitterness at submitting.



“If you’re not ‘disarmed’ as well by the time I am done,” I said, efficient but not reckless in removing my weapons and tools, “I make no apologies for damage done to your clothing.”



He grinned broadly and began to strip.



It was a contest to see who finished first—I’d gotten a small headstart, but had the more elaborate outfit—and he was stepping toward me nude as I flipped my shirt and final piece over my head. The necklace he had donned after I went to help Gavin turned out to be Kurn’s ruby. Great.



The next moment I decided to test how difficult it was to get behind him.



He reacted quickly to my tumble to his right; only a lucky strike to his wrist with my momentum fully behind it prevented him from catching good hold on me, and I came up in a crouch to hit a moderately painful nerve point in his side, but not the kidney as I’d planned—he’s spun too much and protected his back.



His fingers dug into me as they snapped onto my upper arm the next moment, but I took hold of that wrist and used his own body to brace as I thrust my heel up into his hard gut, intentionally avoiding his erection—and he realized it.



Still, air rushed from his lungs and he looked surprised enough as I twisted free, but his recovery was quick as he attacked with a barehanded, offensive style with which I was not familiar. I could only dodge a strike or guide it to the side with a slap; I could not block them directly or it would hurt too much.

Cris grunted a laugh as he struggled to get the rest of his wind back, his face darker flushed than it should be for the amount of effort so far, had I not spent his wind in the second move. Still, he seemed very pleased, enjoying the chase and sure that he would catch me eventually.



He was correct, of course, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t choose when to be caught, to some extent.



I never did get behind him in those few, intense moments, but I did manage a feint that opened him up long enough for me to jump straight onto his torso—as I had with Kerse what seemed quite long ago. One of Cris’s broad hands clapped and gripped directly onto my ass, supporting me as my legs went around his waist, and his other arm encircled my back to hold my breasts pressed to the wiry, grey-and-black mix of hair on his chest.



Our lips met at the same time, though not from lack of trying to force the kiss on the other. It was pure force and aggression—not sensual but plenty of sensation and power exchange in it. He sucked too hard of course and I bit him when I got the chance; we separated briefly then dove in again with battling tongues, heavy, moist breaths, and wet, slurping sounds.



The sorcerer growled, his chest vibrating, as he carried me over to his bed and tried to toss me onto it. His problem was that I wouldn’t let go so easily; my ankles were locked at the small of his back, as were my wrists behind his thick neck and one fist was in his white hair. I growled back and he laughed, his arm around my back tightening as his hand on my ass slid to press one finger straight into my back portal without any lubricant.



I sucked in a breath and automatically relaxed my anus at both the fresh burn and older soreness from a few hours ago, my training actually working against me as it also relaxed my legs just enough for Cris to break my hold. Once my lower body was loose, I did not have any good way to continue and I let go, landing naked on the bed.



The sorcerer’s eyes were bright and cutting as he looked down at me, his mottled, dark red cock standing out straight and leaking clear fluid at the tip. His hands shot out to seize me again and I got in close, struck out in return to land a hard jab to the meat of his neck—avoiding the windpipe this time—since some instinct told me what was coming next.



He made some satisfying grunt at being struck, but it didn’t stop him from gripping my braid at the base of my neck and hauling my head closer until my mouth hovered over his rod. I already had my mouth open—the coy pursing of lips as the wet head was pressed and smeared over the face wasn’t a step I tended to indulge much… unless Jaunda wanted to play at it.



Cris forced his meat between my lips and pushed my head down, holding me very tightly as his Human cock nudged at the back of my throat.



“Don’t bite,” he rasped, tremors from the fighting and lust coursing through his body.



Oh, how easily it would be to stop the game right now…. A simple command from him wasn’t enough to stop me from doing just that, but my own training demanded that I would have to be sure of a follow-up move to kill him outright if I wanted to take that step. I didn’t have such a follow-up.



I still disobeyed, though.



I closed my lips tightly around him and used my tongue along the underside of his member—more or less as my Lead liked it—and he groaned aloud. His free hand clutched and smoothed and stroked the skin of my back and shoulder as he held my hair, moving his hips more than his hand was moving my head. I gently rested my teeth on him so he could feel it and his hand tightened in warning.



“Do not…” he whispered, pure violence bleeding into his tone.



I flicked my tongue again in answer, rested my teeth again, and squeezed gently with my jaw, applying pressure on his shaft but making no effort to cut into it.



He paused, warily curious, and when I did the same sequence again, he hummed, moved his cock in and out between my lips a few times, and pressed it back in so I could mouth him that way again, adding a little more pressure and holding a little longer each time. He groaned and let me continue quite a few times.



“Bite a little harder,” he dared to say once, and it made me want to chuckle as I complied.



I was indeed “biting” him, but gently, squeezing down and holding for gradually longer periods, so pressure would build in the head of his penis and his breath hissed in pleasure as I would just as slowly release to let the blood surge into his cock again. I knew it to be intense, and something my Lead had always enjoyed. She was the one who taught me.



Cris enjoyed my skills, willing to let the pure force of our encounter back down as I became much more familiar with the musky scent of his bush. He did not release my hair, however, and my hands resting on his hips could feel the muscles flex and twitch as he got closer to his peak.



I slid one hand to caress his testicles but he did not allow that much risk—his available hand trapped mine and he began to thrust much harder into my mouth, trying to get over that rapidly approaching edge before I did something to disrupt it.



His cock swelled between my lips and he was truly trembling as he gasped another of his foreign phrases, and then, just when I had expected to taste jets of male seed spreading across my tongue, he jerked my head back and had to release my hand to grip his own erection. He stroked twice and the first pulse of hot semen shot across my lips and cheeks.



I struggled despite the pain of his grip, digging my fingernails into his thigh deep enough to break skin. He growled both in release and pain as I growled in anger. He tried not to be too distracted by my fingers but was unable to stop me as I rose up higher on my knees, arching my back against his hold on my scruff. I felt the rest of his ejaculation marking my throat and collar bone, and sprinkling onto my violet-tipped breasts as I leaned back from him as much as I could.



Marking my face was probably one thing Jaunda would have done aplenty had she been able to, simply because I wouldn’t have been able to stop her, but I had never considered semen in the eye an enjoyable thing in the least. It stung, and the first time it had happened, I had done it to myself not knowing quite what to expect as I stroked the young male Drow off for the first time.



Cris could paint my skin with his male fluid if he felt the need, but I did not have to accept it in my eyes. They hurt enough already just being on the Surface, even in a windowless, Sunless room lit with lamps.



When he’d finished, he used his grip to toss me back from him as he gasped heavily and I landed on my back with my legs open. He looked down on me, his pearly cum glistening on my dark skin, across my lips and part of my cheeks, my throat, a little farther down in artfully arrayed droplets. He was smiling and looked quite satisfied.



“Lick your lips,” he ordered, watching intently.



“No. You taste instead,” I returned with a smile.



He huffed a short laugh, one knee hitting the mattress between my thighs as he lunged for my forearms, preventing me from wiping away his seed from my face. Next he braced his elbows at my thighs and held me wide open. I thought it similar to the way I’d held both Jael and Shyntre when I’d wanted to give them oral sex, whether they accepted or not.



“Indeed, I shall taste,” he said thickly, yanking my backside closer to the edge so he could kneel comfortably from the floor instead of being ass-up on the bed.



I tensed and couldn’t suppress a shiver as his tongue slid once, teasingly, along my puffy, purple netherlips. He inhaled the scent of my white bush and licked a bit of sweat from my inner thigh—right about where Kurn had bitten me—before exhaling in supreme pleasure.



“Zenebreva ithir jih,” he muttered with a drunken smile, and I heard and understood the tone, if not the exact meaning. What language was this?



Cris started sucking hungrily on my slit, and the way that he held me immobile, using his weight to keep me both down and open with his large hands closed on my forearms, I could do little but grip his forearms in kind and at least brace to shift my hips as needed to pleasure myself.



He feasted with a very firm touch; he lacked subtlety while he was this excited. His tongue took turns slapping at my nub and piercing my hole to stroke me on the inside; his teeth nipped playfully at my netherlips before bathing them with his whole mouth.



This was more for his own satisfaction than learning my own responses to see what truly caused me to writhe. But given that this play had begun as a purely physical test and not one of memory like the first time, I was hot enough still to approach the edge this way. Several of my Sisters had been like this, too.



My breath caught and surged, I shifted my hips frequently, what little bit that I could. Cris encouraged me with vibrating hums and growls, entirely focused on forcing me to climax. All signs suggested he would not stop before I’d reached my pleasure, though some part of me almost expected that he might leave me wanting.



I worked for the proper angle and stimulation, feeling my core begin to tighten up as I got closer. Little warning surges rose and fell in my lower regions as my pussy seemed to open and flutter, as if promising ecstasy to any phallus willing to serve my yearning need as it became engorged in blood.



“Ah…!” I cried softly at first, the intensity of the sensation hurting as much as it pleased as his tongue pressed directly on my nub. “N-ngh—!”



Cris released both my arms at once, using one hand to hike one of my legs higher, holding behind the knee. The other he used to replaced his tongue, laying his thumb across my pleasure spot and pressing down. The new angle and pressure not only kept my orgasm coming but allowed him to lean down and thrust his slick tongue between my cheeks, piercing my half-raw netherhole.



I gasped and shrieked; it was all I needed to feel the first waves spreading through my sex and my body as the tension finally began to unravel. The fact that I knew he could feel my backside clenching down over and over again on his rimming tongue made it even better. “Yes, ah, goddess! Ah!”



Cris let me ride most of the way down before crawling up on the bed and bodily shifting me upward to make room for him. I was still groggy and coasting, my heart pounding, but the next moment I felt him push his cock into my snug and very welcoming pussy.



He shifted to lift my hips off the bed and leave me looking up at him with my body braced on my upper back, my legs wide and him thrusting between them. I could already feel the crack of my ass becoming wet from the movement of our coupling, and my eyes landed on Kurn’s ruby around his neck. It glowed subtly with power.



“Aia Innathi,” he said hoarsely and held my hips, fucking me with such enthusiasm… more than Kerse, I would have said. “So…you feel so…”



He growled something I couldn’t make out; he kept switching languages.



The first time I felt him strike my womb, though, I lifted one leg and struck him with the heel of my foot. It jolted him out of a near-trance and his eyes seemed to flash in irritation.



“Stop,” I gasped. “Not so deep.”



He smirked and shifted quickly, lowering my hips back to the mattress but taking my wrists instead to pin them out away from my body. As I tensed to do something, I hadn’t chosen yet, he lay atop me entirely, using almost his full weight. He continued humping me but, as I’d demanded, not so deep that he was hurting me.



The new problem was that I had a fair amount of trouble breathing; his weight compressed my ribs and pressed my entire body into the mattress as I lay in a form-fitting dent. Whenever I tried to speak, he pushed his weight heavier and cut off my breath as he thrust harder into my body. I squirmed and gasped, not feeling much pleasure as this angle did not reach any of my sensitive spots. I could do little but punish him with some light bruises on his calves from the heels of my feet; I could not escape. He just kept thrusting into me, over and over and over.



It was very clear he intended to seed my sex this time and was trying to keep me under control for long enough for him to peak a second time. He was smart to keep his face outside of biting range and did not try to kiss me. My mute expression of impotent rage met his laughing eyes and lust-slackened mouth as he moaned, preparing to spill his cream inside me.



“No…” I managed an aborted croak on one gasp, my head beginning to throb at my temples from the lack of regular air even as I strained against him.



I felt cold fear mix with the afterglow in my belly. Such an unknown risk to me, to the unborn I wanted to keep. Could Cris-ri-phon force my present pregnancy to end, to start over? Did he mean to keep me trapped here until he’d studded himself on me as he claimed to have done with some long-dead Drow?



“N-no, Cris—” I forced out, and he seemed to sense my panic.



“Don’t worry, little fighter,” he gasped, thrusting faster, harder. “It rarely… happens… without a surge of… wild magic.”



His expression shifted oddly between a smile and a grimace right before he gasped and cried out, and I felt is cock throb within my tightly clutching channel as he finished at last inside me. I flexed and struggled but I could no more stop his deposit between my legs than I could get a full breath. He collapsed atop me completely and I was smothered, unable to make a sound as my lungs ached for air.



I bit at his cheek immediately when he’d lowered his head to enjoy the afterglow. He reacted quickly and jerked away, rising partially up, his angry expression softening somewhat when I sucked in my first full breath in quite a while.



“Get off me!” I cried.



He chuckled but pushed himself up on his arms and withdrew from my sopping, ruffled slit, moving to the side as I rolled out of the divot in the mattress. My inner thighs were stiff as I brought my legs back together, having been held wide and apart for so long. It had taken Cris a while to climax that second time, and our skin was sticky for having been pressed together so long; we’d smeared the seed from his first spending all over ourselves.



The fresh semen oozing out now as I sat and discreetly bore down, right on his blanket just for spite, did not feel like just a little bit. Somehow he was still a breeding male, despite his apparent age.



I also noticed the receding pressure of his aura and my head cleared a bit faster as I breathed. I had to suppress the rise of heat in my gut and the urge to attack him, attack to kill. That wouldn’t be smart, even if I had hated the last part of that coupling.



Now I had to admit I feared an evident truth as well. The longer I stayed here, the more dangerous it would be for my freedom and the safety of my baby. I had to get out of this shuttered inn, and in a way that would not set this…this…”magician”—which was not even powerful enough of a word—to tracking or following me. I could not simply escape; I had to negotiate with him.



The thought seemed overwhelming at that moment. I did not know enough about him. I still did not know for certain what he wanted, other than to mate his first Drow in a long time.



I could imagine Jaunda’s response to my hesitation. *Don’t know, huh? So find out.*



Yes, he had promised a talk afterward. Yet…in what ways would discovering what I needed to know change everything for me? Would I ever be able to go back to the Sisterhood?



*Everything changed for me the moment the Illithid got loose. I am following the natural course, the consequences of that.*



I would be for years to come; I only just realized it in that moment. If I remained alive, it would not be, for me, unlike the Man sitting on the bed… who still remembered what the Valsharess had done to him long ago.



“Feel better?” Cris asked, and I looked at him. He had been watching me very carefully in those few moments of quiet.



I nodded. “I am not…used to mating that way.”



“In what way?”



“Male on top, controlling everything.”



“I could tell.”



“Very little pleasure in that position.”



“Duly noted.” He leaned to brush the back of his hand against my shoulder. “Unfortunately one does not simply let the assassin kneel astride you the first time. Or the first few times.” He smiled in admiring amusement. “As stunning of a view as I’m sure that is.”



I absorbed that. “Meaning you allow it at times.”



“At times,” he repeated. “It depends how dangerous the female is.” He grinned. “I have a penchant for dangerous females.”



“Would a Ma’ab witch be considered dangerous, then?” I asked with a quirk of an eyebrow.



“You are thinking of Amelda’s mother. Yes, she was a dangerous one.”



“How did you find such a one if they are far away now?”



“They’ve been nosing around for decades, and the Ma’ab women are a breath of fresh air for how willful they can be,” he replied. “Unlike most powers in this area right now, the Ma’ab women can actually wield true power in their politics and religion. It’s a pity the military is starting to rebel against their decisions.”



“How do you know that?”



He smiled. “Amelda spent the first part of her life with her mother before she was killed. Kurn seems to support that change happening.” He shrugged. “I’d thought they might have the potential to become an empire like mine, but they are squabbling around the wrong things too soon.”



“Like yours,” I seized. “When? Where?”



He tilted his head almost coyly. “Are you certain you want to know that, Sirana? I shall be happy to tell you, as it is part of your heritage, but then you have put yourself in quite a quandary concerning your own place with your queen and your race’s history.”



I was already in a quandary.



“Meaning, what?” I said. “You would wish me to return to tell the tale?”



“I think telling the tale at this point will only get you executed. But you would have other options.”



I did not like the way he looked at me when he said that. One of those options, no doubt in my mind, was staying willingly with him, protected and dependent on him for resources and contacts on the Surface. I would be away from all my Sisters, and I would be assumed to be either a demoness or the submissive sex, every day. It would also mean I very well might give birth on the Surface and any magic and history my child might learn would primarily come from Cris-ri-phon. He might wish me to breed with me as well.



I knew did not match well in such a place; it was not my nature. I may yet be able to do better.



And choosing to learn no more than what he’d said before? This would not put me back to the time before the Man with the phoenix ring had his arms around me and told me that my queen had killed her own sister… before he claimed that a Drow had chosen a non-Drow to sire her children.



It was too late for that.



I nodded. “I am certain. I want to know your history with my race, what my queen has done, if you say She is the same as your wife’s sister.”



Cris looked content with my answer but did not start speaking immediately. He looked around his quarters first, scanning, although what he was seeing, I did not know. His white brows drew down and he frowned as he focused on something.



“A moment,” he said, and if I had thought it a tease at first, or a bait and switch, I changed my mind when I saw him approach one of his many displays.



Something elongated and wrapped in a finely decorated black silk was hanging halfway over the edge and seemed about to fall to the floor. Cris shifted it back onto its stand where it was secure.



Once satisfied with that, the Human sorcerer returned to the bed and sat with a low breath, comfortable being nude and sticky or perhaps thinking of some place or some time far away. Eventually he looked at me. “Where to start?”

I shrugged. “How many children did you sire with your Drow ‘wife.’”



“An odd place to start.”



“But a one-word answer that tells me more than just that.”



He started to smile, his grey eyes brightening in humor. “Eleven.”



My jaw dropped open and he laughed aloud.



“I will add that we cheated a bit with magic, they were not all natural Elfish conceptions, which I trust are still spaced out several decades at least?”



I barely nodded.



He nodded as well. “And we discovered that a human hybrid develops a little faster than the full-blooded cousins.”



It seemed quite clear and obvious, then, why our queen would have acted against her sister. She was changing the Drow race every bit as much as Wilsira had been caught doing.



“So you are Human, then.”



“In a manner of speaking. There hasn’t been one of my bloodline as potent ever since the fall, nor will there ever be again.”



I hesitated in which direction to take this. Bloodline? The fall? I resisted the tangent, wanting to stay focused on his mate, on my race and the Valsharess.



“Even still,” I said, “how long did that take, to bear so many with her?”



He tried to think, perhaps not remembering so clearly anymore. “A few centuries, perhaps.”



“Do any still live?”



His expression darkened quickly. “No. Not a one. But not from the theoretical shortened lifespan, being ‘only’ half-Drow. Your queen had them collected and killed the same day she attacked her sister giving birth to what would have been our twelfth child.”



I felt a cold rush pass through me as my eyes widened. “She…what? During birth?”



Cris nodded, watching me with simmering anger.



“How do you know? Where were you?”



Most of his face seemed to harden into granite and I felt his aura pulse. “Away. Leading the armies. When I returned, I found her and the rest rotting. Most of the servants, too. Enough evidence had been left that I’d thought it had been my brother performing a coup against me, so I went after him. I killed him even as he shouted his innocence. I… did not think it could have been her sister, not during that specific time.”



His eyes focused on me and I had the strong urge to shrink back from what I saw in them. “Wasn’t that one of the few sanctions that all of Elvish kind followed?”



I could only nod. We did, even now.



Or…had.



“How do you know?” I asked again.



“All the items I had seen present at my wife’s birthing before had been left there as a taunt, and the babe had been ripped out of her body.”



I felt nausea and could not hide it; Cris seemed satisfied at my reaction.



“Why would the V-…why would She do that?”



“Why do you think she did it? She’s queen now, Sirana, and has been for over two thousand years with control over all of you, even your memory.”



I stared and started to shake my head, then stopped. And swallowed. “Wait… your wife had… had been queen?”



He nodded once. “Wise enough to know that she needed allies to stand against the Noldor, even powerful as she was. She chose me as her primary general, and only sire, and I served her well for a long time. When she was murdered, the alliances broke apart and the Noldor and their allies succeeded in driving the Drow away and breaking the back of my empire. I did not know where my queen’s sister had fled and I could not follow. I had my own banishment to survive. I swore to find a way back no matter how long it took.”



I could see such a tale unfolding in my mind, but…but how could I know that it was true? To be fooled as I had been so once again… Why would Lolth allow the Valsharess to remain on the throne if she had done such a thing?



He watched me and added quietly, “My memory has not always been with me, as clear as it is now. But I see before me an exotic youth of my greatest allies to prove that you still exist.”



I did not have ready questions for a revelation this big, so I found myself focusing on the smallest word that made the least amount of sense in that statement. “Exotic?”



“You do not look as I remember, and it was the Noldor who often had blue or green eyes. You are still Drow, I can see that clearly, but you have changed…adapted to the underground, I must think.”



That, and we used some Priestess ritual to create the Consorts, who probably changed the appearance of the Nobility in much less time than it should have taken by natural breeding. Why would the Valsharess have wanted that, if She was so against change? Or maybe it wasn’t change, but only magical half-breeds She did not want. Or maybe Her visions had told Her something else…?



“I would ask a more specific question about you, Sirana,” he said. “A return for what I’ve shared of me.”



I blinked and focused on him with a nod. “I’m listening.”



“It’s an odd thing to ask, perhaps, but…our first coupling, I know you wanted to avoid taking my seed in your womb, to the point you were willing to have me mount your back portal instead. At the time, I was intent on proving to you I could take you however I wanted regardless of how you fought. But after my head cleared I saw how you manipulated me.”



I kept watching and waiting for the question.



Cris shook his head slightly. “It should have hurt you much more, even as I had no intent to be brutal. The ease of it, the pleasure you received despite my size, and actually peaking…?” He huffed a laugh. “You undid me and I could not hold back at that. I can only assume you are very familiar with such penetration.”



“Is that your question?”



He shook his head. “I know the answer is yes. But the female Drow I knew, as a whole, would not have that familiarity. Mostly as it was seen as intended for males, since they get more pleasure from the pressure to their sex gland anyway. Only a female either with a very specific leaning or trained for it would behave as you did. Which is it, and why?”



I had experimented once I’d discovered males, of course, and enjoyed it prior to the Sisterhood, but it was definitely the training that gave it such a fine edge for me now. But how to explain? It would show more of our current culture, with the Red Sisters’ appetites being generally feared by the Nobles, than I had realized. And this occurs to him just seeing how I enjoyed having my netherhole reamed?



It was a odd question, but quite perceptive.



“Trained,” I granted, trying to simplify so hopefully he would ask no deeper questions, “though I suppose I always had the penchant. As an…assassin…it makes me resilient to male dominance with enemies if I am captured. As you discovered.”



He smirked briefly but it didn’t hold. “Implying there are males being used to train you in such a way.”



“Yes, a few.” I wasn’t going to talk about the Feldeu.



“Interesting,” he said. “I did not sense any horror or denial at my using you the way I did. You met me half way, held fast against me.”



“It would have changed had you begun bleeding me, Cris.”



“No doubt. A useful tactic against males too sure of their own power while using their cocks, and a good reminder for me.” The sorcerer grinned. “Oddly specific training for your being from a matriarchy so far away, though. You reacted worse to being pinned and receiving no pleasure yourself as I smothered you.”



I shrugged with a slight frown, unsure how much to say. I’d been held down and given no pleasure before, but usually at least two or three other females, not one big male.



Though mostly, I had just been afraid of his claimed fertility magic.



“You were forcing your seed into my womb, Cris, despite my protest…like you wanted me to catch.”



He smiled. “The idea is enticing.”



My frown grew with my anger. “I cannot afford a pregnancy now.”



“Then your queen should have provided the means to remain infertile while on this ‘mission.’”



I felt a hotter flash, at both of them. “I understood it would not be possible with Humans or dwarves, and you said yourself it required a surge of ‘wild magic.’ Far away from male Drow, it shouldn’t happen.”



“Not often,” he granted. “But still possible. The more magical, the more likely.”



Lolth dammit…and the Valsharess would have known that since She witnessed her own sister conceive. She knew Cris-ri-phon still existed as well, or Rausery wouldn’t have been compelled to search for him. Perhaps She had not seen that I would meet him, but yes, it was Her fault if She had played the odds every time some of us had been sent to the Surface. What would She do if we actually caught from a magical male not of our race?



“And now?” I asked. “Did you put me at risk?”



His smile had an arrogant slant. “If I had, you’d have known it. You’d still be drunk on the magic.”



Again Cris-ri-phon looked up at the room to frown at something that distracted him; I held my tongue as I watched carefully when he got up again. Angry as I felt, at least I could believe that he truly did not know I was already pregnant and he did not put my own at risk just now, so I considered that the larger win over his imperious disrespect.



My pride aside, all I truly needed was to be allowed to leave this inn, to continue to seek Gaelan and Jael, and I would have won this challenge.



I watched as the sorcerer went to the same display as before; the wrapped item had once again been spun and was hanging halfway over the edge of the shelf. This time, instead of putting it back as it had been, Cris lifted it down carefully.



My trained eye realized even before he pulled the ribbon holding it closed that it was either a long dagger or a short sword in that wrapping. Like when Gavin’s “mistress” had seemed to fill the room upstairs after he’d died, I felt the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A hot tingle instead of a cold trickle flowed down my back.



“I had wondered if it could sense you. Now I know,” the immortal Man said now, unveiling a familiar red and black hilt. “Of course it would. Your race made this.”



*Oh, goddess…* I lifted my hand in an instinctive, defensive gesture, but put it back down before he turned to me.



Cris-ri-phon stepped forward to bring the dagger from my dreams toward me, as the silhouette had, though at least he was not brandishing it.



“It was imbued with magic from the start but has developed some level of sentience over the centuries. I think it is as happy as I am to see one of you again.”



I’d never seen the scabbard before, I realized, but it matched the colors and style of the hilt, lining up in a single design. As thin strokes of bright red curved around the mostly-black hilt, so too did lines of fire cut through darkness along the length of the sheath to the tip. I considered that only a magical blade could have somehow kept its hard leather sheath in nearly new condition for as long as the blade remained sharp.



“The first time it is drawn by anyone, there is a contest of wills,” Cris-ri-phon said. “The dagger must accept being wielded by its carrier. One can have no self-doubt in that moment.”



He joined me back on the bed and placed the blade down on the blanket between us, a very small smile on his mouth.



“I do not doubt you have the necessary will, Sirana, and if you should want to claim it back for your race…well, it has made it clear to me that it wants you to try. Don’t think it won’t test you, though.”



I tried to decide just what this dagger’s place had been in my dreams. Threatening, but only when the wielder was threatening. On its own, it simply drew my attention to it. What Cris said now made sense, but…I did not think weapons such as this were common now. Had they ever been?



“How many like this did we make, when you knew us?” I asked.



“Very few,” he said readily. “And they can be undone by a wizard powerful enough to dispel whatever the source happens to be.”



“Source. Such as?”



Cris shrugged. “Something imprisoned or bonded to it, such as a spirit, devil, or demon…a telepathic share with some shade or impression that is drawn from the user…or a link to the elsewhere. Whatever the source, it is very difficult to stabilize, and very dangerous. This one had been passed through others a few times since I lost track of it after the fall, but I recaptured it eventually, as I did the others. A few I had to dispel, they’d become unstable in other hands.”



I pursed my lips. “But you did not want to ‘dispel’ this one.”



He half-smiled, wryness tinged with…something. Regret? “It was a reminder. It was proof it had not been some extended delusion on my part. It belonged to my wife, the previous queen.”



A weapon companion to a Matriarch. I felt just enough doubt then that I knew I would not touch it at that moment.



“What happens if one fails the test of will?” I asked.



“It varies,” he said. “I’ve seen simple rejection; the would-be carrier can’t touch it without thinking themselves in pain. I’ve seen a push toward madness, an inability to release one’s grip or control where it was swung. In one or two cases, I watched the drawer die after being forced to stab himself. Which brings me to the particular source of this blade’s power.”



I watched and waited, paying full attention as his smile took on a darker edge.



“You saw the spirit that Master Gavin tugged from the newly dead, correct?”



I nodded.



“The dagger draws on that, takes it in, sends it elsewhere. The power exchange rejuvenates the magic of the blade. It was designed as an eternal punishment for when my queen thought it warranted. She did not have to use it often because it was so feared, though sometimes it was simply needed to sate its thirst. It had a name…but the closest translation I can give you is ‘Soul Drinker.’”



Against I felt some strange feeling creep up my back. “And…you would see me take this blade…?”



He shook his head. “This blade wants to you to draw it. Only do so when you’ve decided to claim it back for the Drow.”



I narrowed my eyes in suspicion and he laughed aloud.



“Sirana, if you might think this would be an overt plan for vengeance against your queen, only know that Soul Drinker is as willful as my queen was. Not only that, but as much as I might like the image of that murdering linshok being drawn into the elsewhere against her will, if she has remained alive this long then I think one as young and inexperienced as you would not have the opportunity to sink a dagger between her ribs in the first place. This is simply my passing on what I know of your heritage, and leaving it to you what you think of it.”



Indeed, what I thought of it…all of it. Maddeningly, I did not know what to think. I should have more questions, and yet I did not know where to start. My mind felt muddled, it may have been his aura doing that or it may have been the odd, high pitch that seemed to be humming in the background whenever I looked at “Soul Drinker.”



Cris’s tale had a huge gap in time between then and now…I could try to go farther back, the beginning of the war, perhaps? What would it matter to me now, in this inn?



“Do you mean to let me go, then?” I asked. “Whether or not I take this heritage piece with me?”



“Tell me why you are so keen to go.”



“I don’t like being kept.”



He chuckled. “Fair. And your goals? That black vial at Manalar?”



“To be dropped into their holy pool.”



His white brows rose up and he looked thoughtful…then absolutely gleeful. He purred, “I should be able to feel that even from here…” He leaned back and laughed out loud. “Oh, most tempting on that alone. But you will be lucky to survive that, Sirana. You do realize, yes?”



“Of course. But I have been lucky thus far.”



He shook his head skeptically. “To be given such a task, and you would you follow through with it showing all the determination of someone who expects to live? Either you are supremely unrealistic, or there is much you are not saying, young one.”



“Very well, I do seek the Guild. Where can I find them?”



If my head did not seem as clear around him or this dagger to be subtle, then it was time to put more cards on the table for trade.



He blinked grey eyes in surprise. “Hm. Well. I believe there is a presence in Augran, west of here, but it is out of the way for Manalar, which is more south. Just as the cannibals are out of the way as well, you must go further north for them.”



It was my turn to blink.



“I haven’t forgotten, Sirana. You are interested in the Warpstone Cult, too. I would still give you the means to break them and pay you, if you wish. I do want them gone. Soul Drinker would be especially harmful to them—it disrupts focused will and those creatures barely have one upon which to act—as well, your necromancer and the Ma’ab caster can focus energy upon them which would be devastating. Kurn, Mathias, and the dwarf would be little more than body shields, but you are still the first group I have met who could complete the task. I warn against getting the cannibal’s fluids in the eyes, mouth, or an open wound…they are contagious to a degree.”



“Why haven’t you taken care of the cult?” I asked, listening to the advice but unable to ignore this part. “You are powerful enough.”



He smiled. “I am, but it would require quite a lot of energy from a single mage. My particular brand of magic would draw unwanted attention from… interested parties, shall we say, which would force me to leave this place quite soon. I was not ready to leave, I was waiting for you. Now you are here…and you have a curious interest as well. You can get what you wish, I will help you, and I may remain here a little longer.”



“And that earlier comment about forbidding me to put myself in harm’s way?”



“We had not yet had opportunity to talk as we are now, and I wanted to see if it would work on you. It did not, and I am not surprised.”



I felt uneasy about this cooperation somehow. He did not seem like the kind to back up and take back shows of dominance, and I truly did not know what he planned next now that he had found a single Drow after searching for so long.



But then, he knew I had told him very little of why I was here as well and, like the Valshress, he had not yet discovered a way to lift ready thoughts from my mind. He may be taking the same course as me, trying to gain enough insight to get what he wanted.



So he was acting more as he was before, as Brom, the admiring, respectful innkeeper not obstructive to my goals… despite the force and control he’d used both times we had coupled.



“Did you discover anything of the other assassin?” I asked, turned the direction sharply again.



Cris narrowed his eyes a bit, surprising me with his answer. “I’ll keep that to myself for now, Sirana.”



I felt a bubble of a laugh as a thought struck me, though I did not voice it. “I would guess that means your ward was set at the time the oil fire was smothered.”



He frowned.



“And she, or he, got out. So that one is magical.”



Cris hissed a breath, admitting defeat on that one point. “Not necessarily. A magical tool could allow the same result, and I know the Guild possesses such items.”



I smiled a bit. “A touch on the pride?”



“I dislike any uninvited, arriving or leaving, and if it was the Guild, they should know better.”



“If it was the Guild,” I repeated.



He smiled, and swapped the fact that he did not find anything in his search for turning focus around on me again. “And you want to contact them in Augran. Why? Want to offer your services, perhaps? You are not planning to die in a suicide mission but I have made it more difficult to return. Are you looking to earn resources in exile?”



“Do you think they would be interested?” I asked, feeling a bit more on my game, if only for the moment. I got more comfortable sitting cross-legged. “They have probably not seen my kind before.”



“True,” Cris granted. “Though there are a few Noldor here and there, so perhaps it is not a good idea.”



His answer was a two-for-one that, fortunately, my utter surprise and shock was the natural and appropriate response. First, Cris did not know of the half-Drow I sought, even though Sarilis had been able to make a connection based on the stories of the shadow-walker. This made sense, because if Cris ever had, he no doubt would have gone searching for him with the same tenacity and stubbornness he had sat here waiting for one of us to cross the midway again.

Second… *There are pale elves in the Guild, too?!*



How could that be?



“They…must not recognize you,” I said, my voice a bit soft.



“I have not given them the chance to recognize me,” he said with a wolfish smile.



I let my shoulder slump a bit. “I suppose perhaps it is not a good idea to offer my services, then.”



“Indeed, not. But if you seek a place to stay in safety after completing your tasks, Sirana, I would always welcome you.”



And there verbalized the offer than had been plain on his face earlier.



I nodded. “I will have to rethink some things. It would seem I am not heading to Augran after all.”



This mage had never made a connection with the stories and the race he sought. How could that be? Sarilis had mentioned tales of a planar mage, or a pet demon, or someone who walked through walls. Nothing pointed directly at the Drow, there were many others known in his magical world and long life that could accomplish the same. Sarilia had only made the connection because I had actually said I sought a demon within the organization, and he had already discussed it with Rausery. Even back then it had probably been a lucky guess.



For the first time, I wondered if Sarilis and Rausery were wrong about a half-Drow in the Guild. The Valsharess would have to be wrong as well, going straightly on Rausery’s word. Would one of Her visions have confirmed it for Her?



*Must be. She had a physical description of him. He exists, I have to go on that.*



Unlike with Sarilis, however, I had avoided asking directly about that individual, and that was for the better with this particular Man. I would have to forego further knowledge from him about the Guild or I would trade very little for his inevitable interference. I could not see Cris-ri-phon failing to hunt that particular male.



“What do you see in the vial?” I asked him. “I already knew to be very careful before you told me, I know it will disrupt their god connection and transform those drawing their magic from the sacred pool into berserkers.”



Cris-ri-phon half-smiled. “It will certainly do that. It was not your servant who made it, is it?”



“No, his master.”



“Why?”



“Because he is plotting with the Ma’ab and the dwarf against Manalar. He does not wish their religion to spread.”



“Hm. If he cares that much then he must not have crossed back over from the Greylands yet. Powerful to have created as foul a thing as you carry on you in the first place, but I dare say his apprentice now has his own advantage from hard-won experience.” Cris smiled a bit, as if oddly proud of the young Human.



It struck me then how often Sarilis had mentioned his age and his mortality, how he had questioned me intently on my race and our lifespan; it was certainly on his mind in a way that it was not in Cris-ri-phon. Gavin was even beginning to show signs of…I wasn’t sure, perhaps something like the “unbreakable” mentality when a warrior survived the impossible once, whether by luck or design. I would have to watch him closely that he did not get reckless.



But Sarilis feared aging and dying; ironic that he was surrounded by only the dead.



Certainly he was searching for a way to continue on, as Cris had…



“I think we are at the same place, Sirana,” Cris said. “There is no way this master necromancer told you the complete consequences of dropping that vial into the pool.”



“Would you know any more?” I asked, and he shook his head.



“No. I am sorry, but while it is not only necromancers who may cross that particular boundary, my magic has far too much in common with Elvish. For obvious reasons. You could ask your Master Gavin, however. It may be beyond his training to make at this time, but given enough time—and he just bought himself a notable amount of it— that boy can likely learning anything of the craft. He has potential and I’ll be curious how he fares over the next few decades, provided he doesn’t get ‘cleansed’ with holy fire at Manalar.”



Cris definitely had my attention. “I suppose you have read his aura then?”



He nodded. “Much more powerful than Castis, never mind they are different schools of training. I can offer that the last I’ve run into a similar one has been perhaps…thirty, forty years? A few in every generation of Humans are especially bright, but not all find the training they need. These days especially they must avoid being killed out of superstition and fear before they are able to act on their ambition to find a teacher. It was not always this way. We used to seek out and recruit them, to mold them as we needed…” He trailed off and sighed.



“When did that change?” I asked.



“It began changing after the war, when your kind disappeared and the Noldor enjoyed victory but did not follow up on their goals. Further wars following soon after destroyed a lot of schools, libraries, and archives. I’ve heard a few of your pale cousins say Humans brought it on themselves, these dark times; I have never understood exactly how they came to that conclusion given that they won and should have maintained the power they had fought and died for. Something changed for them as well, but I do not know what.



“I was one of their greatest enemies once, and it is largely that fact that I have endless ‘champions’ backed by the pale Elves coming after me. The pale ones do not face me themselves but hope a moderately magical Human will succeed in finally making me go away.”



I blinked my way out of was seemed a hypnotic voice as I listened to him, and something came to mind. Champion. “Have you heard of someone being called the ‘Godblood’? Might he be after you?”



Cris’s grey eyes narrowed and he considered too long for me to think it so. He shrugged. “This is somewhat new, I take it?”



I nodded. “Within the last decade. A holy warrior of Manalar faith, if I understand the story correctly.”



The sorcerer snorted in derision. “Ah. Well. I’m sure he would not take kindly to my presence if he knew I was here, but no, I have not heard much on this. Perhaps I will need to change that. I take it he is known to the Noldor somehow?”



I nodded. “They champion him.”



Cris gave me an odd look. “And he is Manalar? The Manalar take anything not human and try to burn it, Sirana. That includes the Noldor.”



“Well…” I hesitated. “Perhaps I get the story wrong. He travels to Manalar to test them, so it goes, and they likely will not welcome his coming word.”



Wasn’t that about what Gavin had said of the monastery teachings?



“Hm. Interesting.” Cris did indeed look intrigued. “And that is all you know? How did this come up?”



“Your mentioning Noldor sending ‘champions’ after you. He is one of theirs—” My words stopped and my attention was drawn away from the sorcerer sitting across from me when I felt something cold touch my knee. I looked down and gasped softly.



Soul Drinker’s red-rune pommel was touching me; it had pivoted just enough so as not to be lying straight between us anymore like some sort of border, but with its grip toward me and the point toward Cris-ri-phon. The high pitch was still there as if it wanted to talk to me but I was not listening with the correct ears.



I looked up at him, feeling tiny bumps spread across my shoulders.



“I did not do that,” he said flatly. “You have seen the dagger pivot on the shelf.”



“No, I haven’t,” I said. “I only see the end result, and I know magic moves items with force of will. Surely you can do that.”



He shrugged. “I can. But I did not with this dagger, on this day. Make of it what you will.”



I got up off the bed and made my way toward his wash basin; all of the sweat and fluids had long since dried on my skin. Suddenly I wanted to be clean.



“Would you like me to warm it for you, Sirana?” he asked quietly from the bed.



“Please,” I answered, not looking behind me, just then beginning to feel the swiftly-approaching emptiness in my belly as well. I would need to eat soon.



He whispered his chant and soon the fresh water in one of the pitchers was steaming gently. I began washing myself as I had the first time, unsettled more so than I had been then. I wanted to be dressed, and I needed to do something to clear my head.



“I would suggest checking on Mathias,” he said as if he understood that I needed to leave the room. “He is in an outbuilding, apart and behind the inn, the ward will allow you to go that far. I am serious in that I would like to hear your thoughts on him.”



Because it would tell him something of the Drow now, I figured, but I nodded all the same as I begin to dress in silence.



“I see more benefit in releasing you than keeping you, Sirana,” he said plainly. “Be assured of that. But I am not finished with our visit yet.”



*And if I am?* I thought, but did not bother to say it aloud. He would be host until he tired of it, or I could persuade him otherwise, that was clear. How long, though? Days? Weeks?



“We have further conversation yet. And further pleasures, if you want them.”



I heard the smile enter his tone.



“And if I do not?” I asked.



“Surely you are not pouting, Sirana.”



“You offered the choice, Cris, do you not mean it?”



“I do, but do not make it while angry with me.”



“Difficult when you threaten to force a child on me just to spite the queen.”



He grunted. “You want an agreement otherwise?”



“You expect pleasure otherwise?”



“I suppose not. Very well, Sirana, I agree.”



I nodded once. “I also have no interest in repeating your last position. There was no pleasure there.”



“Unused to being bested by someone so much bigger, little fighter?”



I expelled a breath. I had been bested many times, but mostly by my Sisters… It did feel different with a Human male, the size difference, but perhaps…I was forgetting my lessons.



I sighed next, intentionally relaxing, letting the tension drain from my shoulders. “I will take pleasure if that is what you offer. Being crushed and unable to breathe, being thrust into from that angle, was not pleasurable in the least. That is all I will say of it.”



“Then I shall not repeat it. Perhaps you would like to be on top?”



“We’ll see.”



“I look forward to it. Take Soul Drinker with you. You do not have to draw it, but I will get no peace if you do not.”



I looked at him and narrowed my eyes; he was smiling but did not seem to be joking. The dagger’s pommel had already begun to spin toward me again like some lodestone. I had wanted peace as well to eat; I wanted to get away from this Man’s aura and clear my head, not have it replaced by a supposedly intelligent dagger as old as he was….



And yet…if I had not seen it in my dreams, if my first dream had not shown me what it must feel like to be stabbed by it, to have one’s essence drawn out into the “elsewhere” that made me fear it…would I not be curious about such a powerful new tool? Especially given that I was now in an impossible position with the Valsharess regardless? He had also said that it would be powerful against the Warpstone cult, which would help Gaelan…



I sighed quietly and finished dressing as Cris got up to wash as well, then I walked back to the bed where Soul Drinker was hovering partly off the edge of the mattress.



*Very well.*



I reached out to take hold of it by the decorated scabbard, and the moment my gloved hand closed around it…the subtle, high pitch stopped. My hand seemed to tingle even through my glove, but nothing else happened.



“Oh, thank you,” Cris-ri-phon sighed, rubbing the cloth over his face. “That has been going on for almost two hours now.”



The dagger was a bit shorter than my fighting daggers, but not by much despite that it was also much lighter than it appeared it should be. I was not sure where I would put it; I would already have to dispose of the Witch Hunter’s dagger somewhere, I could not have it flopping on my belt all the time, which was really quite full…



I would hold Soul Drinker in my fist for the time being; it seemed content with that.



I felt the ward on the door dispel as I approached it, and I let myself out to get some distance from the sorcerer, even if I would not get distance from his tale as I held a large piece of it in my hand.



*****



Rithal had left the kitchen while I’d been sequestered in Brom’s room, though “Elana” was still there, working busily with the two children I’d seen sleeping by the hearth last night. They were preparing for the next big meal that had to feed no fewer than twenty large men and five or six women.



Elana looked older than Amelda, her skin weathered, lightly brown, her hair a muted blonde simply plaited. She wore a sturdy, modest dress of deep green with a well-used, practical, natural linen cloth tied around her somewhat plump waist. Her boots were practical and well-worked. Compared to the pink, tender hands of the young Humans taking her direction, her own hands were aged and calloused.



Elana saw me first and gasped aloud, badly startling the young ones who were frozen and wide-eyed the next moment, but stammered out a greeting. “M’lady….h-how may I serve?”



“Just food,” I said. “Like the dwarf.”



She nodded, eyes glancing at the dagger in my hand but she seemed more concerned about me. “And ale?”



“No.”



“Care more for meat or plant? Bean or grain?”



I smiled a bit; she wasn’t assuming that she knew how to feed me. I kind of liked that about her. “Bit of all. I will try anything.”



“An’ where will you eat?”



I indicated the work table inside the kitchen. “Here. I shan’t linger.”



Elana nodded and collected a gathering of cheese, fruit, and vegetable rather like Cris’s self-chosen platter last night, but also a chunk of bread, some of the same paste as I’d pilfered before but with softer shreds of dried meat with different seasonings.



It was cold, but it was fast. I sat, setting the Soul Drinker blade down atop the table where it would be visible at all times, and dug right in.



The three kept busy but kept sneaking looks, which I ignored. They wanted to say something, probably many things, but were too afraid. I decided, after looking up at the two children who froze in place again when we made brief eye contact, that these might be one male and one female child, but I had no idea of the age. The boy had hair blonde like honey and was a little taller but as soft-faced as the red-blonde girl, and neither had traits that would suggest they were nearing breeding age yet.



“How many years are those two?” I asked Elana, indicating the children.



Her dull blue eyes blinked and she glanced warily at them before back at me, wiping her hands on the cloth around her waist. “Ah…Layne is nine years, m’Lady,” she indicated the male child, “and Imara is seven.”



I tilted my head. They did look just a little older than a Drow child around the same age, but knowing the changes these Humans would undergo well before they reached twenty years was what struck me most. The first decade was fast growth for Drow, seeming almost to match these Human children—as if they knew they had to develop to be capable as quickly as possible—but things slowed down significantly from there.



The slow transition from puberty to the full adult took at least fifty more years, sometimes a little longer, and trying to breed one under sixty was not only pointless but distasteful as well. It was similar for the Draegloth, who I knew now to be arrested in their growth at right around that sixth decade.



During that time, whatever magic would develop in the child did so, as they learned their preferences and specialties, and they had some time to learn proficiencies before mating became another factor. The physical change was constant but minute, almost unnoticeable until it had been more than half a century.



And yet…by the time a Drow was finally ready to mate, most Humans would be ready to die, if not dead already. If my child was birthed and survived, she or he would be an eternal youth to these two young Humans, for the whole of their lives.



It gave me something to think about with how the Godblood might view Tamuril.



“They are your breed?” I asked.



Elana blushed a very bright red, and at first I thought she was angered. The next moment I saw that she wasn’t. Was that shame? Embarrassment? For what? I noted that her son seemed to loosen up and responded with a frown as well; he was no longer frozen.



“Yes, m’Lady.” The cook didn’t know what else to add to that; neither did I.



I nodded and chewed more meat.



“You sayin’ we should have a da, an’ mum a husband?” Layne said with spirit, showing some of the anger I’d thought his mother had had.



“Shh, Layne!” Elana scolded him.



I quirked my eyebrow and swallowed. “Husband?”



The Woman blinked at me with some astonishment. “You…don’ know what ’tis, m’Lady? A husband?”



I shook my head. “You are the mother, that is all I asked.”



“Not hintin’ our mum’s a bad name for having us, then?” Layne challenged while Imara shrunk somewhat behind him.



“Layne!”



“No…” I drew the word out, confused but amused at the dynamic. Frustrated tutors and sires often spoke to Noble daughters that way, unable to actually strike them as the birth mother might.



I made eye contact with the boy; interesting to see he was so much more spirited than his silent, cowering sister. “Tell me, what is ‘bad’ in breeding new youth?”



Layne looked frustrated and looked at his mother for direction, clearly confused as I was. What was I missing…?



Sarilis’s little lesson back at the Tower returned to me, about Human “bastards” and Gavin’s upbringing, and I thought I understood. Elana had chosen her sire, or sires, but she was not the primary female to either of them. There was no agreement or partnership or inherited wealth, and other Humans considered her a drain on resources because of it, or perhaps a would-be usurper to another Woman?



I did not see it here, in that Elana earned her keep, as did her children. Not unlike a servant or a merchant.



“You…do not marry?” Elana asked me, tentatively, as if she would not be surprised if I did not respond.



“No,” I answered. “I count children through the mother. Sires come and go.”



Elana smiled just a little bit and Layne’s face softened somewhat as Imara stopped shrinking and looked more curious.



“That they do,” the mother sighed. I would have said with some regret, except that she reached out to embrace her two children, who clutched back at her as if seeking comfort.



I pursed my lips, unsure whether to think such a display of vulnerability in front of me was foolish for this Human, but watched with curiosity all the same.



“Our Lord Brom treats you as an honored guest,” Elana said to me after releasing the two youths and gesturing for them to return to their duties. “I am grateful to him that he lets us remain here to work for him. He does not seem to judge me, either.”



“Judge you?”



“For not being a wife to anyone, but having children.”



Wife…that word I knew from Cris. His queen, his mate; they had shared power, built an empire. Did that make him a ‘husband,’ then? I chewed in thought, but quickly realized I’d just finished the food before me.



“More?” she asked.



Actually…



“Yes, if you please.”



“Weapons and appetite both like a man,” she seemed to tease with a smile, but placed more food in front of me—on the far side of the black and red blade—and did not ask me any further questions.



******



After I was well-sated, I left the busy and fire-heated kitchen but did not head toward the back exit of the inn down the second hallway, as Cris had suggested. I wanted to check on Gavin; not only to gauge him a little more after such a shift in his existence, but because he had all the bodies of the Witch Hunters, except for one living one.



I’d said as we’d dried off last night that I might have wondered about Gavin’s specific collection of items if I did not already know of his interests. Anyone looking over my possessions would learn much of my function as well. I wanted to know what the Witch Hunters carried on them before I ever spoke with a living one.

So I had asked Elana which way to the “spare” cellar. She told me of a floor panel and stairway, in the storeroom down a short hall to the left of the kitchen; her pantry and main cellar were to the right.



It meant she would have watched Cameron and Ian dragging bodies briefly through her domain. Given both her and the youths’ demeanors, I did not think they had gotten a good look at Gavin, who had likely covered himself up, or they would have had more response to my asking where he had gone.



It also said something interesting about how often they might see dead bodies “disappearing” at this inn.



I found Cameron and Ian standing inside the stone storeroom that felt—like the Tower—constructed partially belowground. The door I sought was already lifted open with wooden stairs leading down into darkness, and I heard subtle movement and shifting down below.



From the way the two young Men looked at me, I would have said that they had overheard some of my conversation with Elana and the children. They showed the respect and courtesy that their employer expected, but they were truly baffled by me, as well as quite nervous as eyes flicked at the long dagger in my fist; not drawn, but it may still seem I intended to use it.



“What is your business here, m’Lady?”



“I will see my servant,” I stated flatly.



They gave me no further challenge, just bowed their heads slightly and made a bit more room for me to pass. So “Lord Brom” had not explicitly forbid this; that was good for our getting along more easily. I did not like the idea that they could shut and bar the cellar door behind me, but felt the risk fairly low at this point, and if nothing else, it would be an opportunity to test Gavin in a way that had not come up before.



I stepped silently down the wooden stairs, which was quite a feat but unnecessary as Gavin clearly knew I was coming. If he hadn’t heard the voices—unlikely—then my aura would be flickering to his sight even before I stepped into his modest light from three carefully set lamps set on dusty shelves.



There was a fair amount of floor space available—a good thing as nine bodies were down here with the necromancer—as well as a single table upon which one of the bodies lay mostly naked. A few chairs had been shifted out of the way, and several wash basins of varying shades of liquid—from clear to red to black—lay lined up along one side with the bodies. The apprentice had quickly converted one of the many sets of shelves to a makeshift workbench upon which his tools were arranged.



Estimating how long I’d been with Cris, I realized Gavin had had enough time to prepare each of the nine bodies similarly: armor, bracers, and boots were stacked in one less convenient corner, clothes next to that. Weapons had been lined up on one standing shelf fixed to the wall, and all the other odd-shaped possessions placed upon the one next to that. That side of the room looked a little like one of the supply and armor rooms in the cloister back home.



The other side of the room showed the other eight, recently washed and naked corpses with the wash basins. I had not walked in on any active plans for the moment; this all felt like preparation.



“You’ve been busy,” Gavin said, and I blinked in surprise.



“I was about to say the same.”



“I always keep busy.”



“Why do I look so?”



He nodded to the blade in my hand. He kept his voice low, accustomed by now to me being able to hear him just fine with a mutter. “That is new… and powerful. I wager Brom would not easily part with it unless you were busy doing what you do. Though I do hope it did not involve sleight of hand, or poison and blade.”



I smiled slightly, if a bit wryly. “No, it did not.”



Although the comment did make me wonder how much time it would take for such an opening in different circumstances, ones in which the sorcerer had no interest to give me gifts. How often did the sorcerer let down his guard?



Gavin stood in deep shadow cast by the lamps; his hood was up and most of him was covered except for his pale hands, which were only lightly stained in a few streaks of blood. I was aware of the stale scent of a little-used room, but the chill was bizarre in that it seemed there had been no warm bodies in here until I arrived, even with Gavin working.



“Hmm,” he mused. “Closer to determining his interest in you?”



“A bit.”



I glanced over my shoulder toward the open door at the top of the stairs and Gavin nodded. He waited for me to speak.



“I am curious to see the Witch Hunters’ possessions,” I said a bit more loudly.



The necromancer did not seem much annoyed at being interrupted or delayed in whatever he was to do with the bodies; perhaps he had his own inquiries to make of me, although I was not sure what I would say. Like before, however, Gavin responded well to being asked to share knowledge that was not personal. It was a good place to start again with him, and it was information I needed regardless.



He beckoned to me and stepped over to the corner with the armor and weapons first; daggers of various metals, swords, clubs, and the usual bracers, shin guards, helmets, and the rest. He kept his voice low enough that I did not think the Humans above could hear him, perhaps a low drone at best.



“The most predictable and boring of the pieces, you knew these just engaging them. Although picking through their other things, I would count your choice of cover to be the best you could have done. A spell of yours, that black sphere?”



I nodded. “I told you once I did not need my eyes to fight.”



“A rare compliment between both magic and martial skills,” he commented, his tone approaching appreciation.



My eyes spotted a silver dagger, and it not only reminded me of the one on my belt, which I removed now, but also of my failure which rose afresh with a bitter sting. Gavin had said he would rather have not used whatever “talent” had brought him back in a black-eyed form, and I would not be surprised if he harbored some grudge or resentment.



I did not really want to continue as if nothing had happened without bringing it up myself, even if Gavin not only seemed his usual self but also…motivated. Perhaps in the end, it was a means to get to where he wanted to be, but I would not assume that if it meant my only ally was no longer an ally.



I looked over at Gavin and lifted the silver dagger that had once been buried in his chest. It was flat in my gloved palm, naked but non-threatening. Still, he regarded it with an entirely closed face even as I sensed him tense.



I added that silver dagger to the rest of the Witch Hunter weapons as I spoke. “It was our agreement I would do what I could to defend you against physical attacks, as you have for me against magical. I…regret failing to stop them, Gavin.”



He quirked a black eyebrow and shrugged very slightly. “There were quite a few of them for only one of you, and in a small space,” he said, all reason without emotion. “Prevention may have been the only chance to succeed there.”



I pursed my lips. “Do you imply some curiosity on your part exactly where I was, that prevention was not an option?”



“If you bring it up,” he said blandly.



At my hesitation, Gavin let out a quiet breath, his new, blue and black eyes quite eerie in the dim lamplight. “I remember getting up to lock the door behind you as you left but then returned to sleep. I admit I did not hear them until they began throwing themselves against the door. I’d foolishly left my spell components with my robe to dry. A strike with my spade after they shattered the wood was all I could manage.”



“Troubling dreams, then?” I asked. “They must have continued after I left.”



“They always do. I wonder at my need for sleep when it is never restful.”



I could see that; he often looked tired and irritable even as he constantly worked. “Brom said he could tell when you stopped suppressing your aura in your sleep, but he did not mention it to me until he knew the Witch Hunters had left their rooms for ours.”



Gavin’s mouth twitched a little in thought. “Suggesting a test from Brom. You left abruptly to catch up to them.”



I nodded. “Though I had to threaten him with the black vial first.”



“Ah. So that’s how he knew. Amusing to imagine. You are saying, then, that the innkeeper kept you, and that was why you were too late to keep them from breaking in to capture me.”



I hated hearing it spoken like that…yet it was true. My confusion and hesitations when near the sorcerer, and my wariness of his connection to my race, would not help in anticipating any fight coming from other directions. That was proven.



I nodded once, displeased that I could not really tell if I was offering a reason or an excuse. Part of it depended on how the necromancer took it. I had chosen to leave Brom and come help him, for whatever that was worth, But Gavin did not even need to believe that.



He pondered in silence for a while and I let him be as I waited for him to respond. He did eventually after staring off into the shadows for a while.



“What did Brom want? I can’t imagine you discovered nothing.”



“He offered a paid task first,” I said. “To convince the rest of you to cull a group of cannibals just north of here.”



“Odd that he did not make the offer to Kurn, as our brave leader.”



I smirked at the irony in his tone, but sighed. “Indeed. It was his way of convincing me that he did not think me a ‘whore.’ He wanted to bed me, but offered a different task first along with conversation before making his real motive clear.”



Gavin’s expression was slanted, but after a moment he nodded. “I might imagine you are quite attractive to those with enough power to fear very little. What was your answer?”



I shrugged. “I thought it a good thing to have an ally at this inn, a sanctuary should we need it coming back from Manalar. I agreed.”



The necromancer seemed to find some amusement in that. “We?”



“Yes. You and I returning to your false master’s Tower.”



“Indeed. So you were coupling as the Witch Hunters plotted. Sounds very pleasant.”



I frowned at him. “Then tell me why I would need to threaten Brom to let me come to your aid?”



It did not take him long. “I figure because in your intimacy, you discovered just how powerful he is. Was it his idea?”



“No.”



“You unmasked him?”



I nodded, feeling tension come into my shoulders again.



“Mm-hm,” he mused. “And by your expression, I might guess that, unlike with Kurn, he was the one in control of your encounter.”



I exhaled but nodded again.



“Interesting to witness some limits, Sirana. If you are admitting this to ask me where I stand, then I still consider us allies despite my death. Indeed, it has brought me closer to my Patroness, and even those of the Greylands can express gratitude. She told me it was not simple luck that you thought to remove the silver dagger from my heart. You saw her, even for the briefest of moments, and understood.”



His smile did not show his black teeth but still seemed otherworldly in the deep shadow of his hood.



I felt that chill up my spine again. “Gavin…who exactly is your ‘Patroness’?”



Gavin tilted his head in thought. “What do you know of the Greylands?”



I shook my head. “Only that you and Sarilis and Brom consider it a place of power that has some clear effect on skewing your natural longevity.”



“Curious description. Anyone I know would refer to it as the spirit world.”



“There is no such place in my race’s lore.”



“Interesting. There are no stories where your consciousness or your life force exists beyond your body?”



“No. We live long already and practice no necromancy. There are other planes of existence…the Abyss, for example, but they are…out.” I shrugged. “I was thinking the Greylands as the same.”



“Not too far, I suppose,” he mused. “More that it is the natural pathway through which souls migrate. Like a bridge between ours and the various other planes. One does not have to take the bridge to cross a river, but it is often the more chosen and easier path.”



As when he’d spoken of the Godblood, I listened with a strong degree of fascination as he continued.



“One’s body or soul can enter the Greylands and return out, though not easily. The Lords of the Greylands have made pacts over the millennia with deities to help their followers, to guide their souls to those other planes. But not all races have such a pact. I would have to assume Elves do not, as I’ve seen nothing to suggest they have anything to do with the Greylands. I suppose I might learn more if I were to see one die.”



I blinked with an unwelcome discomfort at that last comment, though I had to remind myself to consider the source. At Court, or with Shyntre at one time, I would have taken that as threat and intent; it would have meant that the speaker indeed still held a grudge and might try to make it happen.



In Gavin…it seemed more simple, academic curiosity. He might not seek my death specifically to answer that puzzle, but he would not let the opportunity go to waste should an Elf die near him, regardless whether it was me or not.



I had begun to believe it was important that I grasp these distinctions between mages. More recently, I was being introduced to the life magic, such as Tamuril’s and Auslan’s, and the death magic that was Sarilis, Gavin, and his mistress.



I needed to understand to accomplish my own mission, and Gavin’s frightening yet non-threatening comment was just further evidence that we were not that different at times. Certainly it offered reason never to underestimate a necromancer, just for what they might like to discover about one’s body and essence when one wasn’t breathing anymore….surely that was as horrible a fate as the Driders?



I nodded slowly, pondering the rest. “Power exchange. That is how some deities gain their power.”



“And maintain it,” he added. “Most, if not all. The Grey Lords are merchants in trade for that power.”



“And your Patroness?”



“She is called the Grey Maiden, and she is one of those Lords.”



“And she offers to teach you more than Sarilis.”



“She taught me long before Sarilis,” he corrected. “Led me to the Tower over time.”



“Which you still want.”



“Yes.”



“What does she want?”



Gavin paused. “Faithful service.”



Of course she did. I gave him one of his own skeptical expressions back at him.



“Her motives are not entirely clear,” he granted. “I cannot even begin to understand the mentality of one that has existed as long as she has, any more than I can fully grasp the mind and motives of a Drow assassin.”



That was nice to hear if only for the fact that Gavin did not like intrigue all that much, so he was not trying to flatter me.



He also had a point. This “Grey Maiden” did not sound to be doing anything that Lolth did not do as well…except perhaps for bringing followers back from the dead.



“What does she think of this journey you are on?” I asked. “It was Sarilis’s idea, you did not want to go.”



Gavin lifted his chin a bit and looked upward for a moment. “She is for it. And given your goal to destroy the old goat for your queen, so am I. Though I still recall that you search for more of your—”



I hissed, “Shh!”



I hesitated, glanced back toward where Brom’s men would be, before leaning close to whisper near his face. I noted his scent had diminished, and it was not my imagination; the apprentice was just not giving off as much body heat as he used to, nor was he perspiring.



“Brom can’t know there are other Drow on the Surface, and he can’t know I carry a child, either. Do not be careless with what you know, do not think about it around him if you still wish to protect our agreement to gain you your Tower.”



He blinked slowly, nonplussed. “I am aware he can glean surface thoughts from the others if he wishes. My connection to the grave affords some small protection as my mind is often wandering in whispers that others either cannot hear or cannot make sense of.” He tilted his head. “And you somehow coupled with him without that particular latter thought coming up even once?”



My face hardened. “I have been trained to be resistant.”



Maybe. Although given how it had been a major fear and did indeed come up often…I had to suppose whatever psionic “noise” had protected me from D’Shea before and from the Valsharess finding that secret now also protected me from Cris-ri-phon. I could only consider myself exceedingly lucky.



Was this the very reason why Auslan had said in his vision that it was necessary that I catch before going to the Surface? That it would somehow help me survive? I would not breed a half-blood of my own by this former consort of the Drow, but…no, that did not seem enough. If I did return to the Underdark, the queen would only spare me until I birthed the full-blood and then very well might execute me for treason, for my knowing that she had only come to power by doing what we all had been forbidden to do.



Cris’s fertility alone can’t have been the reason for Auslan’s vision.



“Impressive,” Gavin commented. “Care to offer a bit more reason why we should keep the sorcerer in the dark?”



The burden of that knowledge was such that, at first, I did not know where to start…but I knew that he would be content with something true, even if it was not the whole, just as I did not know the whole of his own history or future.



“He has been searching for Drow for many years,” I said. “He is old enough to remember us and the Noldor once being more common.”



Gavin blinked his pale blue eyes but nodded without saying anything at first as he pondered. I was familiar enough with the expression that I could well guess; the apprentice had seen enough in the sorcerer’s aura to somehow support such a claim.



“What does he intend to do now that he has found one?” he asked.



I shook my head. “He has not made it clear. He hints that he will release me, but I do not know when nor what he wants from me before he does.”



“And if he is willing to release one of us but not both?”



“I will not stay,” I whispered with more vehemence than I would have thought wise. “And I must leave before he senses my unborn.”



Gavin nodded.



“And you would not stay, yes?” I asked. “You have a mistress and a goal, you would not be tempted by him.”



“True.”



I felt better that he said this with such calm certainty. The “Grey Maiden” did have prior claim on him and he would not turn his back on her easily. He need not have any bond to me beyond the shared goal, but knowing where his true loyalty lay—and that it was strong—was just as valuable to me.



Gavin motioned toward my right hand, which still held a quiet Soul Drinker. The blade was not between us, but on the outside, and that was probably a good thing.



“This is likely part of his reasoning, Sirana. If you did not steal it or kill him for it, then he gave it to you.”



I shook my head. “More offered me the opportunity to pick it up. He says it was made my by race a long time ago.”



“I might believe that. It has an aura almost like a living body, though not quite.”



“He said it had gained some sentience due to the magic.”



“Not unheard of, if exceedingly rare. Quite the relic you have.” Gavin tilted his head curiously. “Have you drawn it?”



I shook my head. “No. I am…wary to do so.”



Gavin grunted. “But you picked it up. That means you will eventually.”



I didn’t reply, but lifted up and forward to hold with both hands. My eyes trailed down the red curves and edgings that wasn’t script but seemed to imply one. In my dreams, the scarlet runes had been on the bright metal blade itself, glowing low in threat.



*Odd that it would be bright metal that would flash and reflect the light,* I thought. All of my Underdark blades were matte black so as not to give myself away by bouncing any light at all.

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