ruby

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



Fair warning, dear readers, as this chapter is probably one of the more appropriate I could submit in time for All Hallow’s Eve, and appropriately, it is 13 Lit pages long.



We meet some darkness from the Surface face-to-face in this chapter, only previously hinted at before. As always, I hope you enjoy.




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Chapter 8



The concept of poaching was straightforward among Drow females; I always thought this. It was the female’s action, her choice to poach, and, to the insulted party, her fault and hers alone.



Poaching—that was coaxing or commanding a male to mate against the wishes of his mother, sister, or mistress— was one of the few times we could publicly choose to forgive a male his actions if it suited us and we would not be seen as weak, as we all knew a male could not say no if asked. The female selected her sire when she wanted to attempt to conceive, she selected her playmates when she was bored….



…she selected her insults when she seduced an otherwise claimed male.



At least, it was hard but to assume otherwise. The desires and intents of the male did not come up for intense discussion, most of the time, but instead the debate was how well a jealous female protected what was hers. What happened between the male and his matron or mistress behind closed doors later need not be a concern.



It was an excellent way to force a rivalry on quick, basic terms, although it was not a way to force blood connection between Houses, since the mother’s line was forever and always the dominant blood and the only acknowledged name given to any offspring.



I had spent some small bit of time recently, after Sarilis had told me about Human bastards, considering that for this reason, pregnancy resulting from poaching was far less of a concern for the Drow when compared to Humans. It happened for us rarely enough as it was, it was welcome more often than not, and even better a pregnancy afforded protection from extreme retaliation when the insult was freshest.



No, bastards still did not really exist where I came from. Instead it was the seducer persuading the male to take some action against the insulted female, or whisper some of her secrets—be she mother, sister, Matron, or mate—that was a much more imminent consequence.



No one in their sane mind would try to poach from a queen, but… unknowingly, I had. And, true to the perceived dignity of my own culture, it did not occur to me to blame Cris-ri-phon despite his own trickery and select use of force. Such power games were normal, he’d played very well, and I had said yes.



My making excuses for it now would only make me look weak, which never impressed a potential rival.



The regal Drow still reclined on her couch had said it plainly: I was the Red Sister who had fucked her husband. I knew enough by now to know a “husband” was a claimed male even beyond what I might consider claimed back home…although he was also the survivor and had been living without his wife—and bearing children with other females, from the evidence that was Amelda—for a long time now. I did not know how seriously either would reasonably take those territorial urges.



I offered a small bow as a hot-cold sensation diffused from my heart down to my very toes. I tried to ignore the feeling as much as I simply had to ignore my confusion of where I was, what had happened as I’d been standing to Gavin in a disused cellar what seemed a moment before. For the time being, I couldn’t ask. There was a more immediate concern.



“Is your husband Cris-ri-Phon, Matron?”



She nodded once, slowly. “Once. He was the Sorcerer General to my armies, and sire to all my children.”



I lifted my brows in surprise. “All of them, your grace? No others?”



“If you knew Human Men, Red Sister, you would know the most ambitious of them focus best when they have pride and trust in their primary mate.”



Trust? Tamuril had brought that up once…but between “friends,” not mates.



She smiled at my expression, and it was beautiful. “You do not understand yet. That is well enough. I have answered most generously. Now you answer.”



I bowed again, dropping my gaze briefly but not for long. “I am she, your grace. Your husband speaks of you highly, even while mounted on another.” I smiled slightly, trying to portray wry admiration. “I daresay you leave an indelible impression spanning millennia.”



The elegant, reclining Drow smirked without changing her position. “Millennia. Has it been that long? I grant you look very strange to me. Much about you is strange.”



She stopped speaking as her deep, red eyes appraised me further, and I stood with deliberate patience. Her question about how long it had been did not seem to require an answer, and I did not know it for certain anyway beyond what the sorcerer had said, and he claimed there were times he had forgotten.



The former queen remained still and in thought for a long time, her eyes never leaving me though they moved about, and I found myself breathing with similar as if I prepared to drift into the meditation just prior to reverie. As when the Sisterhood had collected me, I could only wait, as questioning where and why would not help the answers come any faster.



Cris’s queen sat up smoothly, her grace extraordinary even among Drow, and came to her bare feet to step down the one step that separated us. I noticed a single, golden toe ring on the first foot forward, and that her hair was loose and reached down to her backside. Her aura throbbed in a manner similar to both Cris and the Valsharess as she approached.



She lifted her arm, her hand outstretched as if to take my bare arm while I concentrated on taking in enough air.



Her hand hovered, stopped just short of touching me, and I imagined for an irrational moment that my skin would begin to crisp if she did. I was already tense, and I forced a single step back so we wouldn’t be standing so close, though I could not look away from the classic beauty of her face.



The more I studied, the more I could see a resemblance between her and the Valsharess. The age lines and golden hair of the latter obscured it somewhat, but the forehead, nose, and the regal way her jaw, chin, and mouth all came together were the same. The eyes were different in color and shape, but the ears were the more similar between the two queens than either of them was to mine—a little shorter and broader than my narrower and more pointed ones.



She appeared so much younger compared to the queen in the Underdark, I would be tempted in other circumstances to wonder of her being a great-granddaughter somewhere along the line. I would wonder, that is, if it not for the sheer, alien depth of her gaze.



A much older consciousness stared out at me from the eyes of a striking visage in its prime. Unlike Cris-ri-phon, I hazarded to guess, but like the Valsharess, she had not had periods of forgetfulness or the distraction of setting up and reliving a new life many, many times, something that may lessen the weight of immense, aged memory.



She frowned as her hand lowered back to her side; she was displeased about something… perhaps at my stepping back? Again several thoughts seemed to cross her eyes, faster than I could read them, as she stepped to the side to look over my body appraisingly. She did not try to touch me again.



Just as quickly as she seemed displeased, her face softened and she smiled, her voice matching the odd tenderness on her lips.



“Ah, I see the new aura. Truly this is fate. You are with child.”



My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth for a moment; I nodded once and said, “Yes, your grace.”



“And it is too far along to be his, yes?”



“His, Matron?”



“Cris-ri-phon.”



The calculated, thoughtful way she said the name now, I could suppose she was not very jealous in that moment—if at all—that I had coupled with him.



“Correct, your grace. I caught this child well before I fell into his company.”



“Excellent. My Cris will not be able to stud himself on you and track you that way, yet it may be early enough to fool him into thinking it so he does not try something else. We may yet be able to leave his realm.”



We.



Something cold prickled down my back.



“We, your grace?”



She frowned a bit at me. “You are here because you commune with my judgment, my dagger. You plan to keep such an illustrious gift, do you not? Both Cris and I approve you to be the carrier.”



I hadn’t planned much beyond using it against the Warpstone Cult, to be honest, but… Could I then not say “no” to either husband or wife? I wanted to be able to weigh the admittedly limited options, not to have them decided for me.



Against my preferences, I felt my age once again. Curious that it was four times the age of Gavin or Kurn and yet felt so inadequate by those who had changed the world well before my birth. Perhaps in some way, my birth and my life ultimately came from the choices of these two and of this…what had Sarilis said? Marriage?



It made me wonder, if I survived long enough, might I do the same with my own choices? Or would they be too small for any to notice?



“You imply,” I began through a damnably annoying, fear-constricted throat, “that leaving his ‘realm’ will be difficult, your grace, though he has said he will allow me to leave.”



The queen smiled widely, and it was disturbing. “Young one…his desires will consume you if you stay. You may have been born with the will, but you have not had the time among Humans to know how to stand for long before such a Man. He will not truly let you go, not without a way to find you again. He is possessive…a trait that served me well so long as I mated only him.



“As a queen, it was a restriction that made me goddess-like among all others, untouchable, and I could use that to our people’s advantage far beyond what one like you could possibly do. All you would be is a prized possession, though he may call it something else for a time.”



A perfect breeze, not warm yet not too cool, moved past us and the soul within the dagger closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again.



“I want us to leave his power without his being able to interfere in our journey,” she said firmly. “I will help you do it. You only must keep the Soul Drinker with you.”



“Are not you and the Soul Drinker one and the same?” I asked.



“No, child. I am merely the strongest of the souls that the dagger has trapped here. Strong enough to mold the image of the land you see, strong enough to rule the other souls here, but I am not the dagger.”



“Then where is here, your grace?”



“Who, what, and where, I see,” she commented with a charming, playful lilt to her voice. Then she seemed to consider, looking out at the blue horizon. “One of the many ‘elsewhere’ that focused essence can go. I am not sure you would understand much beyond that.”



My eyes flicked briefly away from hers to think of Gavin before returning. “Are we anywhere near the Greylands?”



The former queen narrowed her red eyes at me; she looked surprised, which hinted of some limits somewhere. “No, we are not…if we were, I would have attempted the crossing long ago, the same that Cris did. Unfortunately the power of Soul Drinker, the fear of it in its time, was that there was no way to return.”



She saw the fear on my face and laughed musically. “Peace, daughter, you are not really here. I have learned to touch the mind of the carrier. Goddess knows I have had the time to practice.” She considered me curiously again. “You are easier to reach than most. I do not understand why, but I have received more images of the world through your brief possession of my blade than I have in the last score of carriers.”



The queen had spoken as she’d been appraising my flat belly through the white silk, but now she looked up at my face.



“Show me the sire you chose for your child.”



I blinked, and only the fact that I had not actually *chosen* the sire led my mind to go blank at that moment. It gave me that sliver of time needed to think better of it.



She received “images” of the world and had known of my title and of my coupling with her husband; what else did she know? While I’d been holding the blade, all moments or just some? I was not ready to have another powerful female flip through my thoughts as if they were her personal book of secrets.



“Come. I am curious,” she said, a thread of impatience entering her voice as she watched me intently. “Do not become stubborn.”



“Your grace,” I said, deliberately blacking my mind of all but her face, “he is of no importance.”



She frowned at me. “He is just a breeder? No status?”



“Correct, your grace.”



“And your status?”



“You called me Red Sister.”



“Because that is how you identified yourself,” she replied.



“When, Your grace?”



“While you carried the Soul Drinker. I can hear the loudest thoughts of the carrier at times, more so when the blade is drawn.”



“You do not know what a Red Sister is?”



“Something my sister created, I must assume.” Cris’s queen’s gaze became sharp as shards of glass. “You hold yourself as one of the upper crust and as a warrior. You were able to stand against my husband and not be overwhelmed immediately. He is impressed by you. You are no sorceress, but also no foot soldier, yet you claim a sire of no importance for your unborn? What is your place in my sister’s domain?”



“My place is as a Red Sister, Matron.”



The quip was certainly a cheeky one, coming full circle, a truthful answer without answering the question, and for a moment I saw the temptation to strike me on her face. She discarded the thought a moment later. It was very telling; I would not have been shocked at all if she’d struck me.



I already knew she wouldn’t kill me, unless she wanted to become exactly what her sister had become, and be trapped here for another two thousand years until another Drow picked up Soul Drinker.



“You are evading,” she stated flatly.



“I am, your grace.”



“You are in my domain, child.”



I bowed without breaking eye contact. “I am, your grace. Your dagger is in my hands. You wish my help, but a Red Sister is trained not to make deals against the Valsharess.”



The royal headband, somewhat more ornate than mine with several, tiny, polished amethysts set within it, seemed to flash in Moonlight as the long-dead queen’s face actually darkened in rage. I had to step back from her aura again as it swelled, being the closest I’d been to the edge of the step leading down to the next.



“Valsharess?” she hissed at me. “She takes and twists my title that way?”



“I know not, your grace, but you assume much. How useful is a servant who is persuaded to treason so easily?”



“You acknowledge me as your queen.”



“I acknowledge a past queen who died as a queen, your grace. I still serve the one I was trained to serve.”



“Even knowing now my sister is on the throne only for having broken the sanctions of the unborn in the most reprehensible way!”



“And yet Lolth sees her fit to remain on the throne for millennia, your grace.”



There was such a reaction to that, such a flare of her power that I did step down to the next step of the pyramid, looking up at her in terrible awe. Her long hair seemed to float as energy buoyed her form and I half expected her to levitate off the ground.



“Lolth,” she repeated with such acid, I thought her spit might dissolve the stone we stood upon. “I see. Your ignorance is the only thing that forgives you your disrespect. Otherwise I would see you never able to touch my dagger again and left with such nightmares as to never forget what you could have possessed!”



I frowned; a worthwhile threat but like my dropping the black vial in the inn, not something this queen would do lightly, given how long she had waited for a Drow to come into possession of it again.



“Again, your grace, how useful is a servant who trades sides in a mere conversation? Would you truly want me that way?”



Her aura tightened down as if she was trying to regain control of it; her blazing, scarlet eyes narrowed and she considered me longer, her gaze at least once lingering on my lower belly.



She sneered. “We will talk another time, Red Sister. Get out of my realm.”



*****



Soul Drinker clattered to the floor in its sheath, and I stumbled backward, my body suddenly heavy and my skull seemingly ready to crack and split open like a nut.



I felt a cool hand grasp my upper arm, and only for that reason did I remain upright on my feet. At first I thought only Kurn or Brom could have strong enough to hold me up like that and I tensed, but I blinked and recognized Gavin’s face with his stare of ink and ice. He released my arm as soon as I regained my feet.



“Your aura is unbalanced again,” he said. “What happened just now?”



“H-how long…?” I asked, needing to catch my breath.



“Only a few moments, but long enough for me to see your mind was elsewhere.”



The accuracy of that statement could not have been intentional…could it? I swallowed and he spoke again.



“You triggered the magic of the dagger?”



“Perhaps,” I managed, feeling some delayed tremors begin to come over me. My voice shook a little. “I… met the sentience of the blade.”



“Without fully drawing it?” he asked, both curious and skeptical. “Am I to take that it is…coherent?”



I nodded, swallowing hard against a lump in my throat. “And…Drow.”



“Interesting. Part of the sorcerer’s intent, I must think.”



Was it? The queen had said she wanted to leave, did not want him to interfere. Surely if he knew of her presence, that would be impossible. Would she really have never reached out to Brom in all this time? She could have sought his aid, they could have worked together to seek vengeance. Why hadn’t they?



What did it say about him, or her, that the late queen would remain silent and waiting this long…for someone else other than her husband to take the blade?



“Or possibly…” I said, “he is not aware of that aspect of it.”



“Indeed? Unaware? Oh my.” Gavin considered. “And what of your intent?”



I shook my head, an odd nausea roiling my stomach and moisture coming too quickly to my eyes as my throat constricted. “I…I do not know yet.”



“Would you leave it here?”



It struck me that all of Gavin’s questions thus far did not have a suggestion behind them, though they could have. He did not sound to have an opinion; he was simply asking, perhaps so that he knew better what to expect or how to adapt. Perhaps.



All the same, his guidance helped me focus when too many possibilities were surging up in my head to see them all.



“She does not wish to be left behind,” I murmured.



“And? What else?”



“To be taken away from Brom, for one,” I said. “What else beyond…I hesitate to guess.”



To be returned to the Drow in the Underdark? Did she wish me to take action against her sister on the throne? What kind? I did not even know. I could not imagine she did not want revenge against the Valsharess…but how would she try to get it through me, as the wielder of the dagger? What would it cost me? Was Cris-ri-phon really ignorant of his wife’s presence, or was he just as good at scheming and misdirection as any Drow?



Were they working together to possess me?



I felt the moisture in my eyes begin to slide down my cheeks and my throat hurt more as I trembled. I did not want to pick up the sheathed dagger at my feet. I had to suck in a breath as I tried desperately to withhold a sob.



“Overwhelming,” Gavin said, observing me. “To meet such elder beings face-to-face.”



It prompted me to wipe the tears away and take a deeper breath, to still the shakes as much as I could. “You sound like you know.”

One corner of his mouth twitched. “I did not have your time and your experience the first time I met my Patroness, Sirana. Perhaps you might imagine how a human child responded to such a burden.”



I thought of a Man-child such as Layne, unable to know what Gavin looked like at that age. But I had seen Gavin sleep, or try do, as he suffered troubling dreams. “I could only imagine one…wailing with insanity or pain.”



“My father did think me possessed, yes,” he mused blandly, with very little emotion. “You seem to be recovering well, though it is interesting to see a dark Elf can indeed weep.”



The statement helped me regain my self-control better than any other, it seemed. I felt myself frown and took a few more deep breaths, wiping my eyes. “We do not often.”



“I am not surprised. It speaks for the power of that relic, Sirana. Leaving it with Brom while both he and the blade itself want you to carry it might have an unfortunate backlash.”



“Would it be worse than drawing it, I wonder?”



“Indeed, that is the question.”



And I already knew the answer, whether I would admit it or not. Even a raging queen had said we would speak again, and that was after I had knowingly challenged her. She would not kill me even in a temper; another part of one of Auslan’s earliest dreams made immediate sense.



The one protected inside my body would protect me from her…



It was a limited amount of time in which to work, but no less than the decisions I already must make within the next twenty months anyway. I had time…provided I could escape Brom’s Inn.



Provided he could not track me back to the Underdark, or anywhere else. I may indeed need the previous queen’s help with that…if I could believe her.



I would take Soul Drinker with me, but with great caution. Perhaps I would need to strap it to my pack? Or exchange its place with one of my fighting daggers at my hip?



I left it near my feet for the time being; it was silent and making no high-pitched noise.



“We should speak of something else,” I said.



“The original reason you came down here?” Gavin asked.



“Remind me.”



He gestured toward the stack of armor, clothing, weapons, and tools. “The Witch Hunter possessions.”



Ah. Of course.



I nodded. “You…said, I believe, that my Darkness spell was the best tactic I could have taken, given what else they carried.”



“Yes. They did not know the form or the size, or even that there was flesh to seize. Tactics were inconsistent, given their choices.”



“What do you mean, Gavin?”



The necromancer smiled to show his black teeth; I was unused to him smiling at all, but I had to think he had gone through his own changes returning from the Greylands. “A mixture of items that might actually work as intended, provided they know better what their target is, and others gleaned from peasant superstitions and old myths.”



“Give me specifics.”



Gavin indicated some of the weapons laid out. “Swords, crossbows, throwing knives, daggers of specific metals, a maul, a hearth poker for branding, pliers, chains, manacles, sharpened stakes of various types of wood…basic implements against flesh. They will work no matter the reasoning, and I have heard Bishops talk of the reasoning against female demons especially.”



I was tempted to remind him I was somewhat familiar with weapons, but the gender slant helped me gather my patience to continue listening. I was glad that I did.



“They may even get lucky with one or two against the right creature, but I doubt they know which.”



My eyes landed on the dagger that had killed Gavin. “They used one made of pure silver against you.”



“A dagger is a dagger once embedded in a human heart, Sirana. The fact that it was silver did not kill me.”



“But your Patroness could not touch it. She needed me, or you would not have passed on her thanks.”



Gavin sighed and nodded. “Lucky inspiration, perhaps with a vague connection to some legend. I recall a tale in the monastery, a place that was surely the Greylands although they no longer called it such or knew its true purpose.



“It was a place of limbo or holding, punishment to wait an indeterminate amount of time before being allowed to pass on to Musanlo’s light. Silver has some magical uses here, but in the Greylands it is anathema. It wreaks havoc with the flow of essence in that land and its inhabitants.”



“Necromancers have vulnerability to silver?” I asked. “Does Sarilis?”



Gavin shook his head. “No. Practicing death magic does not make one vulnerable to silver. What happened here was that it disrupted my Patroness’s magic and her bond with me.”



“Meaning,” I began slowly, “not all necromancers serve a Grey Lord.”



“Correct. I might think few do, but I have not met any others besides Sarilis.”



“And you?” I asked. “You have changed, but at the allowance of your Patroness.”



He grunted. “I will say I am glad you chose to toss the blade onto the pile with the others when you expressed your regret. It would have brought many questions to mind if my ally slept with a silver dagger beneath her pillow, so to speak.”



I reflected that most any Drow would have called me stupid for that gesture… “A weakness inherited from your mistress, then?”



He gave me an odd look at the word, but pursed his mouth as his eyes seemed to shine with a pulse to his aura. “Power demands a price. Should one try to use it against me, I may see it being the last action they take before sending them to the Grey Maiden herself.”



I could not help but smile. “Threat heard and understood, Gavin. I do not believe you are bluffing after seeing those rents in your flesh close up so quickly. You know of one or two of my weaknesses. It is balanced. You do not share mine with others, then neither shall I share yours.”



He grunted, and we both seemed content with that.



“Tell me of the other items they carry,” I prompted and he nodded once.



“Compare the more practical to these,” he said, and we moved closer to one of the shelves holding odd and random items. “Incense balls worn around the neck, intended to ward off plague though they will do no such thing. An assortment of herbs, good in cooking or teas, but not likely to bring more than a sneeze to most that inhale it. Holy scripture in a book written by men, it fulfills the need for a battle cry, I suppose. Holy symbols to shout their allegiance to the world, but not anything that would pain another to look at.”



I eyes scanned the well-thumbed, ratty book, the pouches and the scented herbs and crude, metal jewelry, and I nodded. Gavin indicated small, corked bottles next.



“Vials of water, likely blessed by a priest and intended to be like acid against evil creatures, but again…they would have to be exceedingly lucky to hit the right creature. Also such a vial would need to be from a priest of actual magical power, not a buffoon that muttered an old prayer and loudly proclaims his faith.”



I snickered and nodded. Like my late sister and her attempts to reinforce her view of her divine blessings with self-delusion, combined with the very real harm that she did to me. I understood well.



“Now these…would work in their favor more often than not, but whether they understood why is a different matter,” he said, and again it was a small collection of tiny, wooden boxes, corked bottles, and pouches of powder.



“Poison such as you use, hallucinogens either to see spirits or commune with their god or perhaps to whip them up into a ‘holy fervor’ in combat. I have seen Witch Hunters take such things and not feel their injuries for hours. Other components they may take for various reasons, but all would have a predictable physical effect on their body, like alcohol, and it is not magic except how they wish it to be.”



I shook my head now. “I do not understand. How can such a half-formed, ill-understood religion have such powerful Priests that we are going to them to soil a true magical source that Sarilis wishes to usurp?”



“My understanding is that they have taken all sons who become known to have any affinity for true magic and locked them away in the temple to serve Musanlo. Repetitive rhetoric, punishments, and peer pressure would do the rest. The most powerful become ruling Priests. They keep all their true magic in one place and the rest of the people uneducated.”



I blinked at the similarity to the Wizard’s Tower back home. “Hm. What of the daughters?”



“Burned as witches, I would hazard to guess. There are no women in the Priesthood, or in any monastery.”



I felt myself frowning. “So magical sons are god-touched, but magical daughters are demon-touched?”



“Devil-touched, actually. And that is my understanding, yes.” Gavin looked down at me. “It did always seem a waste to me.”



“Why were you not taken to the temple?” I asked, and he tensed. It was a direct, personal question.



“My Ma’ab heritage,” he reminded me. “I was tainted.”



“Was your father magical?”



Gavin sneered. “No.”



“So it came from your mother.”



“It is as you guessed to Kurn and the others, though I did not know her. I was told she died giving birth to me.”



“How could it be that a Musanlo monk would mate with an enemy, a self-proclaimed witch, and keep her spawn?” I asked with a bit of frustration, and Gavin’s eyes started to darken completely as he took a step back from me.



“Enough! That is not open to discussion. Do you want to know more of what you face at Manalar or not?”



I refrained from a retort that understanding the twisted motivations of his father would help me see what I faced more than anything, as I could see the result of such a life right before me. Gavin’s aura was building and I’d become much more sensitive to such changes lately as warnings. I went silent on the subject instead and nodded.



“I wish to know more.”



The necromancer nodded as well and returned his focus on the belongings of the Witch Hunters. He took a few moments to recollect his thoughts and dampen his anger back to that level of indifference where he seemed comfortable. “They possess a few images of wanted heretics—none I recognize—and a transcript bearing the personal seal of a Priest I must assume is well recognized this far out from their holy city.”



“What does it say?”



“It gives them unrestricted power to act on their own discretion in pursuit of ‘justice.’”



“They need written excuse?”



“They need their people to believe in their authority.”



I pondered that, and the particular word Gavin had said it with a wrinkle to his nose, “justice.” Brom had said, when the group claimed it was a “witch” who had made me appear as I am, that the enforcers of Manalar would love a description of that witch so they could “seek justice” on my behalf…



“Do you mean vengeance?”



“Vengeance implies wrong doing, either personal or political,” Gavin said. “Justice is…” He thought for some time. “A ‘divine’ decree that some things are inherently good and must be defended for all against that which is inherently evil. Though in the Witch Hunters’ case, they seek out the evil tirelessly, sometimes before it happens.”



My brow creased a bit. “Is not that self-delusion? They want to hunt and cull challenges to their power.”



An unwilling smile seemed to hover at the corners of his mouth and Gavin finally had to shake his head. “I cannot explain it better for I simply don’t understand such thoughts myself. You might ask the Godblood, if you have the chance. He is sure to have a steady grasp of the concept, even above the Hunters.”



I watched Gavin for a moment, amazed. Was he…?



He *was* trying not to grin!



“Somehow I do not think the Godblood would speak with me as you do, Gavin,” I said with an answering smile, although I could give a mental sigh at never having that opportunity. “He may understand what I am as well as you, a rarity in itself, but the chances are that he will be tempted for vengeance as much as justice.”



“Interesting,” Gavin said. “Why do you say so? You said he may arrive at Manalar as well. What do you know of him?”



I pondered how to explain, then decided what I’d told Cris already was good enough. “The Noldor champion him in some way, they have presented themselves to him on more than one occasion.”



“Ah,” Gavin nodded. “Then as the Noldor are rivals of yours, he would be set against you just by association.”



I nodded, decided not to go into the fact that the Godblood’s young son had died of infection because Tamuril had been attacked by my Sisters on the borders of the Underdark, and thus made the blond Elf incapable to bring back the spell component she needed. A spell component I had traded away to her. I could wait to see if any of that was as important to Gavin’s understanding as my knowing a bit about his father was to mine.



I gestured back at the transcript. “What is the Priest’s name?”



Gavin reached to open the hard leather tube, sliding the parchment out to unroll it. I could not read one stroke of what was written there and considered myself very fortunate that my ally could. I doubted even Castis could.



“ArchBishop Keros,” he murmured.



“Do you know anything of him?”



Gavin shrugged. “No, though I have heard the name. He never visited the monastery, and I did not care for the politics of the church when there were other texts to read.”



Understandable.



“How much time were you given to read those texts?” I asked.



Gavin looked at me suspiciously. “Some.”



“Mm-hm, meaning they want every monk to have the skill, even one with a taint. Why?”



“To be able to read the word of Musanlo, of course.”



“And the other texts?”



Gavin shrugged irritably. “Spoils of war, taken from heretics and locked away from the populace.”



I grinned, catching a scent. “Ah. Is that how you knew of jungles and deserts and scorpions?”



“Obviously.”



“The texts were not burned.”



He paused.



“Should they have been?”



He hesitated, and I could see the temptation to lie. I interrupted.



“That is yes. Why were they not?”



“I do not know.”



“Yes, you do. I can read your reluctance as you can read my aura, Gavin.”



He scowled. “Then I do not want to tell you.”



“Meaning it has something to do with your sire and dam.”



“Stop pushing it, Drow.”



“I will trade, apprentice. Tell me, and you may ask me something.”



“I *cannot* trade that. My Patroness holds claim on the pain of my past.”



I nearly laughed, nearly taunted him, said that he was lying only to try to wriggle out of a tempting deal—many male Drow did that, shifting responsibility from themselves to whatever superior female they could blame for their own reluctance.



I reigned back on those words as I watched him try very hard to suppress his emotion, and I considered that it could very well be so for him. Regardless.



It had been the case for Auslan when I’d pushed him, when I’d literally cornered him against the wall…and, unlike Gavin, Auslan had actually wanted me. He still refused me.



Oddly, I felt the Consort’s absence keenly in that moment as well; the first few moments of waking up in his bed became unsettlingly clear, and a sense of yearning that seemed to rise up out of a black abyss in my head and make my chest hurt. There was pain there, a lot of pain, and something else from which I wanted to shy away.



I certainly wouldn’t share it with Gavin if that’s what he might ask for trade. Yet it would be a fair exchange if he did, if he knew to ask.



So. Gavin had a mistress who knew his secrets, why then could she not be jealous of them?



“You cannot speak of your past?” I asked with more curiosity but far less pressure.



“I can. I only will not relive the worst of it for you.”



“Eloquent.”



And something we had in common.



I could expect, whenever I pushed him toward a hard-won reaction as I liked to do, he would always slam and bar the door at the last minute. He was not adept at seeing it coming, but he recognized his own swell of reaction early enough to throw up a barricade. And he claimed to do it in service of his “true master.”



It was not only the abuse beneath his father’s hand that made him this way, then. Just as much it was from the early burden and demands of an “elder being,” as he’d called them. And all I had to do was watch him as he adjusted to his mistress’s gift, as I noted the more apparent costs.



I could consider it a parallel warning for the relic that still lay at my feet… if the glove fit. It was sobering.



I nodded. “Forgive my ignorance, Gavin, I did not know. Please continue to speak of relevant events, without reliving them. I have noticed the tactic. It suits.”



He grumbled something I couldn’t quite make out. “I should like to return to my work, Sirana. If you discover more of the sorcerer or your relic, or know how we are to leave this place, then do come back and inform me.”



I nodded.



And so I tentatively plucked up Soul Drinker, silent as could be, and left Gavin pouting somewhat as I had been when I had left the sorcerer’s bedroom.



*****



I decided next that I would check on Mathias’s progress with the final Witch Hunter, as Cris has suggested I do. Whether I offered my opinion to him or not, we would see.



I climbed out of the cellar and passed Cameron and Ian with them staring at me.



“Any snakes down there, m’lady?” the bright redhead was bold enough to ask.



I arched a brow at him. “No. Why do you ask?”



“We heard a lot of hissing.”



Or whispering? Or perhaps Gavin had his own kind of ward in his private little cellar… Satisfying to think they had overheard nothing at all.



“Ah. Well, rest easy. There are no snakes, but there is a death mage with corpses for company.”



They each nodded stiffly, perhaps not enjoying their assignment so much, and I left so as not to be delayed longer. Once out in the hall, I took a moment to tie Soul Drinker to the left side of my pack; if she…if she could hear strong thoughts just from my holding it, then I wanted the privacy for now.



I followed the hall warily back to the great room and turned to take the second hall on the main floor. It would lead me to the back door where the outbuilding would be, but it might also lead me past wherever Kurn and Castis had gone with Amelda. The “practice room,” if they were still there.



The answer to that came quickly, as at the very rear of the main building and to the right, there was indeed a larger room with double doors. Through it I could clearly hear Kurn practicing, and a delighted, female laugh and exclamation. I stopped by the door, and felt there was no ward on it; it took very little to simply listen, and I could almost imagine what it must look like inside.



Amelda was at rest to the right near a wall, Kurn in the middle of the room with very little around him. His boots moved over an expanse of dense, wooden floor, as they had when I’d spied on him in the forest, and I heard the same grunts and swinging of his weapon.



Cris’s daughter sounded entertained, although there was a quality to her laugh I did not understand. It reminded me of a child’s laugh, or a higher, tittering version of the satisfied, smooth chuckle from a Matron back home. It did not become a grown female.



I did not hear a third body. Where was Castis?



Kurn began speaking after a brief time, still swinging, though the question was in Ma’ab and I could not understand it. Amelda answered fluently and in kind. Though he kept up his demonstration for her, they were in a conversation that felt continued. My common sense and familiarity with intrigue led me to think they were likely discussing me, or me and Amelda’s father, and coming to an understanding between themselves. I did not, however, hear any proper names used to confirm that.



Nonetheless, I knew Kurn’s tones of voice well by now, and the hatred was unmistakable. Amelda was either advising him or persuading him toward some action, but I had no way to get a translation. I would have to wait for whatever action they might take. It did not sound as if they had come to an agreement yet; Kurn was reluctant.

Amelda, however, knew what she wanted, and that made me wary. The only hint I had was that she had been frowning at me before she smiled at her father when he turned to look at her. She felt a dislike of his distraction by me, perhaps; I had seen it before among the Nobles, when a child thought their Matron was not attentive enough to other matters soon after gaining a new consort.



Usually it was ill-advised to seek harm against the favored mate of the moment if the Matron was not tolerant of such petty disruption in her pleasures, but I did not know Cris’s level of such tolerance. Perhaps he would be entertained by such conflict between me and his daughter, although I could not imagine he would allow it to escalate to physical harm.



The conversation and the sword play continued for a time but at one point I heard Amelda shifting in her seat and the sound of cloth sliding against flesh caught my ear the same as her crooning tone. Kurn responded in a gruff, derisive tone but it was very like the lewd speak from when I’d watched him stroke himself before, and Amelda laughed then purred a few more words.



It grew quiet for a few moments and I had to strain to hear anything at all; Kurn was standing still, and at most, the sorcerer’s daughter smoothed her hand over bare skin or through her hair. It was very subtle.



Next, I heard Kurn’s boots as he tromped across the spacious floor to her, sheathing his sword, which nixed the idea that he meant to behead her. I heard him grab hold of her as he growled something undeniably crude; I heard the lust bordering on violence. She yelped briefly, shifting in her seat, but laughed again and said something defiant in return.



There was a brief scuffle, and within seconds Kurn had mounted her; I heard the urgency as his thighs slapped hard against her flesh, as he grunted both in derision and stark relief. She was moaning and encouraging him, and only laughed when I heard him strike her with open palm.



*Better not to damage her too much, Hellhound, her sire is still in the inn…* I reflected only with anger at the thought of him doing such to me.



However, I would not interfere. Amelda was working on something, she had Kurn’s measure just as I did, and if it turned out badly for her, well…it would make it easier for me if they were indeed plotting against me. Kurn would pay a price just as she would. It was very Drow-like, and sometimes one did lose control of the balance of violence and lust. It was one of the risks of playing the game.



I would have to reconsider how much I could push Cris that way as long as I was pregnant. It could not escalate much. What had his wife said…it was early enough to make him think he was the sire? That would change his behavior toward me, undoubtedly, but I did not believe that was for the better.



Wouldn’t that only make him more determined to find me later, making such a plan a temporary solution at best? How would he respond to the realization that he in fact could not track me through my offspring? If he ever caught up with me again regardless, what would he do?



Such a plan had not been fully explored before my bond with the dagger had been broken, but I already wanted to reject it wholly. It did not seem sound. There had to be another way.



The steps of another approaching the hallway, where I stood pretty much in plain view, urged me to leave my eavesdropping then—even with my hood up, any who knew of my presence would be able to guess who stood listening at the practice room. I moved quickly to slip out of the backdoor.



The Sunlight was harsh and painful in a way I had almost forgotten in the darkness of the shuttered inn; I was fortunate enough to be beneath some trees that stood near the building, but the shade was not dense by any description. The Sun had not even reached its midpoint yet, and my head—already tender from my connection with Soul Drinker—protested the intensity to the point I had to cover my eyes with my forearm and lean against the outer wall of the inn for a few moments.



During that time, my ears picked up the innumerable insects and birds surrounding us as well as the drifting noise of the settlement farther down the road toward the river; my nose recognized all the lingering scents of a soaking storm, like the first time I’d seen the Surface but much warmer, the air stickier.



I could sense the sorcerer’s ward as well, but it was a at least four long strides out to each side of me and not in front of me at all. I had to take the time to adjust to being in an open area as the patterns of sound and echo changed again, but it did not take me long. I could not see but I could be sure of walking forward, so long as I placed my feet carefully.



The earth was soft and muddy, uneven, with large puddles I found difficult to avoid out in the open without my eyes. On the whole, I just had to keep moving, as stopping to consider each puddle I stepped in would only give it the chance to seep through. It was a little noisier than I would have wished, though.



Nearing the wall of an outer building, using the wards as guides, I knew it to be the right place because I recognized the same qualities of a dungeon; sour sweat, lingering fear and pain, very muffled sounds of despair and rage. I would know what to expect.



In theory.



The wooden door was barred from the inside, and upon listening close I could hear a bit of shuffling and a groan, but I also knew that—unlike Kurn and Amelda—those inside knew that another stood outside the door.



“Skin hunter,” I said quietly, thinking better than to use his name and thinking Brom’s name for him had more impact.



The balance between interrogator and prisoner could be quite delicate during such times, and one never gave away too much “normal” information about the one in control. It lessened the tension significantly for a time, gave the prisoner renewed strength; I understood well enough.



Just the name and my voice was enough to tell Mathias all he needed to know; I wanted to see what he would do with it.



After a considered pause, he approached, unbarred, and opened the door.



The scent that wafted out was very strong, of two Human males and a great deal of stress. I stepped inside out of the Sun and Mathias closed the door and barred it again without saying a word. It was very dim inside, with thin slivers of light leaking in through imperfections in the structure’s walls, and I could finally open my eyes even as I kept my hood up. Mathias’s face became visible, but it was curiously without expression even though his body language suggested welcome.



“Lady,” he said with a tiny bow, and in a voice that was much different than his practical, educated, or curious ones that he’d used on the journey thus far. It was low and utterly calm, content….and almost indistinct, giving me the vague impression of a disembodied voice drifting out from a dark corner of a room.



What had Mathias been when I first met him and Gavin on the road to the Tower? A normal, scruffy Human Man on a brown horse, warning me more than once that where he headed was no place for young girls. Sarilis had called him “sir Mathais” and “Lord Briar,” alternately, and had sent a “missive” and his apprentice to meet the bounty hunter in the supply town. Sarilis had asked for Mathias specifically, and for Gavin to bring him back.



Now there was a link to Brom as well, as a former employer. Did that mean there was a stronger link or further knowledge between the ancient sorcerer and the master necromancer in the Tower? Would Brom report anything back to Sarilis about this? Would Mathias?



I was irritated with myself for not thinking to ask Gavin about that before coming here, but I had already pushed far enough with him for now. I would simply have to observe what I could here and now.



“Young Lord,” I answered back with a nod, and he smiled a very small bit.



His brown eyes seemed more…empty, compared to previous, relatively limited moments on our journey when I caught him looking at me.



“You mock virtuous women, devil worshipper,” rasped Mathias’s prisoner. “No ‘Lady’ would be allowed in to see this place. Is she your harlot, then, come to suck your cock as you try in vain to make me turn from Musanlo?”



Mathias did not reply and did not look away from me, but he did hold out his hand, palm up, with surprisingly elegant grace. He murmured, “Your hand, my Lady.”



I had my moment to consider whether to play along.



Lifting my gloved hand slowly, I placed it in the interrogator’s bare one. Mathias closed his hand with a softness that shocked me and he lifted it slowly to his lips, bowing down just a little with his back straight. The previous practice was as apparent as Kurn’s sword swings.



I watched as the bounty hunter pressed a soft, slow kiss to the leather covering my knuckles.



My first guess was that Mathias had only done this because of what his prisoner had said about “harlots” and Ladies, to be contrary or to mock him as one would at Court. Had the Witch Hunter remained silent, he would not have thought of it. Any pleasure Mathias got out of bowing to kiss my hand—which I could recognize as a cultural signal of the upper class—was in his prisoner’s reaction to it, not because it was my particular hand that he kissed.



“Come in,” Mathias invited, releasing my hand and gesturing in welcome.



My eyes quickly noted more details of this most rustic interrogation room and its central inhabitant. A blond Man, stripped to the waist and about Mathias’s age, stood with his arms lifted, held up with wrist manacles attached to heavy hooks embedded in the ceiling; there were similar manacles on his ankles that attached by way of longer chains to poles buried deep in the ground that bore no weight of the roof. His feet were bare.



There was room to walk all the way around the prisoner, upon a hard-packed dirt floor spread lightly with straw. The fact that the Witch Hunter remained on his feet at this moment told me Mathias had not been overtly damaging; the Hunter was not hanging by his arms with the full weight of his body. It would happen eventually, though, if for no other reason than exhaustion. His arms likely ached by now.



There was another place in the back of the room for Mathias to go when the Man could no longer hold himself up: a pair of thick wooden beams crossed to support the frame of a body spread-eagled, bolted permanently to a large stone and tilted midway between flat and vertical.



Along the far wall was a table with recently-placed metal tools not all too different from what Gavin had shown me down in the cellar: pliers, pokers, blades…but also included were multiple forms of whips, lashes, and switches.



Odd that I had not seen any of those among their equipment in the cellar, I thought at first, but then I counted and realized they were all well-used, and there were exactly nine of them.



“Did you collect all their lashing weapons from the apprentice, skin hunter?” I asked.



Mathias chuckled softly. “I did, Lady. They each have a favored one that they use upon themselves as often as they do their victims. You can see the healed marks on his back.”



“Does your arm tire already, pain drinker?” the Witch Hunter taunted. “Is that why you’ve summoned the witch? You need a devil’s slut to carry the brand for you?”



His voice possessed a distinct, recognizable hoarseness from yelling or shrieking. Why hadn’t I heard anything like that as I approached this small outbuilding? Surely it would have reached the inn itself. I could only think that there must be something swallowing the sound before it reached the outside.



“He may enjoy that a bit too much if you do it,” Mathias murmured to me with a smirk that was unfamiliar on his face, eyes sliding toward his victim as an ambush predator might, patient and observant.



Perhaps that was why he went silent and waited for either me or the Witch Hunter to speak next. I could wait.



“If you use them on me, harlot, you only cleanse me!” the Witch Hunter blurted defiantly, addressing my cloaked form directly for the first time. “They are all blessed by Priests of the clergy! It will burn into your palm with the purity of Musanlo’s light!”



I weighed briefly the advantage of proving him wrong by lifting what was certainly a very ordinary whip…or letting him believe I actively avoided touching them. It was an interesting choice, but not one I felt strongly enough for to get in Mathias’s way.



I noted minimal bruising and cuts on the pale skin of the prisoner’s torso, along with coarse hair—darker than the blond hair on his head—growing in all the usual spots on Human males. Any damage would have been plain to see and there was very little, yet the skin was slick and covered in sour sweat as if he’d been enduring endless pain.



The Hunter’s face was twisted into a permanent snarl, yellowed teeth gnashing like a beast, a damp, golden forelock falling forward to cover most of his brow and obscure part of his light brown eyes, beneath which there were dark shadows as if he’d been denied sleep for days.



Overall, it was impressive for the few hours Mathias had had him.



“What is his name?” I asked.



“Jacob,” Mathias answered readily.



Quite impressive.



“Has he told you anything useful to us?”



Mathias nodded. “He has not realized it.”



“You lie!” the Witch Hunter cried. “I have told you nothing, and by Musanlo’s strength, I will tell you nothing!”



Certainly he wouldn’t when his voice gave out.



“I would have more time, Lady,” Mathias said.



“I am not rushing you,” I replied, both of us ignoring the prisoner’s growl of some slur between a prayer and a curse. “I would watch for a time, if you will it. The innkeeper recommended most highly.”



“Master Brom!” the Witch Hunter shouted. “Had we known that man was kith and kin to such foulness, we’d have taken him and all his hellfire minions by order of the Bishop long ago!”



That mental image brought out of me an unexpected bubble of laughter. It would have gone even more poorly for them had they tried to break into Brom’s room…



“You laugh, and you ask to stay! You are a filthy whore whose cunt needs the cleansing brand of God’s Chosen, you disrespectful slut!”



Mathias looked pleased as he watched me and finally nodded once. His voice went to a whisper which Jacob likely could not hear. “You may stay for a short time, on one condition. You allow me to take your hood down.”



I did not think for long; it would likely only help Mathias’s techniques, give him more to work with. I nodded. “Agreed.”



The skin hunter beckoned me to follow him closer to the prisoner. “Jacob. Have you ever seen a true witch?”



The Witch Hunter ground his teeth. “My brothers and I have brought twenty-three devil’s whores to justice in the past year. They try to hide from us and cast against us, but we find them and we see that they beg for Musanlo’s forgiveness for the misuse of his magic!”



Mathias nodded. “What of devils? Have you faced those?”



Jacob stayed focused on Mathias and refused to look at me. “Such creatures lurk in the shadows, afraid of showing their true faces in the light of Musanlo, and they don’t have the strength to break our blessed circles.”



The scout-turned-torturer stepped behind me so that Jacob would have to shift his gaze to me. I noticed the blond Man’s eyes drop oddly to my ankles and turn to the depth of my hood in one leap without stopping.



“Allow me to present to you a Lady of the Underdark,” Mathias said as his fingers very, very lightly touched the edge of my hood to pull it back.



Jacob’s eyes had long since adjusted to the dimness, so he could make out my white hair, my large, angled eyes, and my pointed ears immediately. My skin must have looked to bleed straight into shadow for how terrified the Witch Hunter appeared to be for that first moment. I could believe I was the strangest race he had ever seen outside of his dreams.



The next moment there followed a surge of violent anger and disgust that reminded me strongly of Kurn as he’d watched me bathing beneath the waterfall.



“So now you’ve come, Maris! You’ve returned from your exile at last for your revenge!” Jacob shouted. “You’ve been burned black in the fires of Hell, now you’ve become this wretched form! What filth did you have to swallow to get out of your prison, you diseased slut?”



I tilted my head slightly and kept my face placid; for the moment, I resisted glancing back at Mathias, who watched in silence over my shoulder. The Witch Hunter did not see, as Brom did, a Drow making her way across the frontier of her known world.



He saw something else…someone else…and it was highly personal.



On inspiration, I smiled with gentle pleasure. “It is good to see you as well, Jacob.”



“Whore!” he bellowed. “May the rotting eggs of Fierna foul your diseased cunt so that *any* man can see the pus and filth running down your legs!”



Well. That was certainly…visceral.



“Am I to take it you did not see that filth the first time, Jacob?” I asked curiously.



“Your illusions kept you looking pure,” he hissed. “Now your appearance matches the corruption in your soul.”



“Indeed. Are you diseased, Jacob?”



“I’ve been cleansed and blessed by the ArchBishop himself after he sentenced you! But you tricked me, you sodomized whore, and you shall suffer for it again!”



“He dreams of illusions in a healthy pink, I suspect,” Mathais murmured in that odd, disembodied voice again. “Did she taste sweet, Jacob? What of the color of her thatch?”



The Witch Hunter’s face screwed up. If he had ever considered sniffing and tasting pussy, it was not with simple desire to enjoy it.



“Such filthy gashes need purification through holy consecration and the blessing of childbirth to control their temptation. Those who do not receive it deserve damnation and the ruination of her one gift to mankind, so she may not misuse it again in the eyes of her god!”



I felt a heated response pass through my core at the reduction of the power of being female to that of a brood mare for violent, hateful males—not altogether unlike Lana’s fate with the Duergar, but at least that was straightforward slavery. However I did not give Jacob the same cues in my face that he was giving me in multitudes. Why such hate and distrust of his Women? Did they fight back or were they cowed by such irrational consequences? I thought I knew the answer.



“You are being oblique, Jacob,” Mathias commented in that penetrating voice, walking from behind me to lift his hand slowly and caress the hair above my ear.



I quirked a brow but allowed it as part of an act.



My travel companion smiled easily. “I wonder, Jacob. Is there a difference between ‘holy consecration’ and ‘ruination’ of a breeding woman?”



“The purity of one man’s seed versus the soiling and mixing of many in her cunt?” Jacob rasped with teeth bared. “You are a fool, pain drinker, not to see the difference.”



“And you and your brothers administer the ruination?”



“It is justice for those she tempted, and apt punishment for her lust!”



“Ahhh, I see. She wants two men, so she must want them all, hm?”



“It’s a betrayal of a sacred pact! A chaste woman has nothing to fear from Musanlo’s enforcers. The witches, however, who tempt the good from divinity and cause strife amongst us…they shall have that evil purged in a whore’s own language. She will see the error of splaying herself open or may she stand the rest of eternity in Fierna’s pit sucking oozing syrup directly from a devil’s arse!”



“He seems to enjoy those images,” I commented, indicating the small rise at the crotch of his trousers, and Mathias chuckled.



All the same, I understood what Gavin and Brom had both said about the fanaticism we faced in the Witch Hunters, and more of Gavin’s comment about my “choice of cover” being perfect at the time; essentially they did not know it was a female, alien race who attacked them. What kind of religious fervor would that have brought to their struggle had they seen my true form clearly?

They easily may have abandoned Gavin entirely and turned on me as one, and I may not have been able to get enough distance in that small room.



“How many souls did you claim for Fierna upstairs, Lady Maris?”



*Maris?* I realized that Mathias was talking to me when I looked at him, and we held eye contact for a few moments. He was still putting on that performance, for both our benefit.



I smiled. “I took all five Men that dared enter the apprentice’s room. Though they may be with another entity in limbo by now.”



“Indeed, I saw them, Lady,” Mathias said. “Throats torn out, guts punctured, one bloated with poison, turning green. It was glorious, the pain they suffered on Jacob’s account. And they will never reach Musanlo’s light now thanks to you, they are lost in the grey.”



The Witch Hunter’s face crumbled for half a moment before he started trembling in rage, all his muscles straining and pulsing just before, with a powerful yell, he tried one tremendous pull as if to bring down the entire roof. The support beams did not budge, though the lash of the chains going taut as his feet left the dirt floor battered my ears, followed by his bellow in the small space.



I could also tell that the sound stopped traveling at the wall, and it was not drifting outside.



“So that is your revenge, you putrid slut!” the last Witch Hunter shouted at me, red-faced, the whites of his eyes pink and tendons standing up on his neck. “I did what was right turning you in, and you know it! It was for your own good to save your soul! But you wouldn’t allow your pact with the devil to be broken, wouldn’t allow yourself to be saved, even as all you had to do was confess! Your black bitterness in the afterlife offends Musanlo’s light! What did you have to trade for such power? Are you some devil’s gaping, soiled arsehole, parting your cheeks whenever he asks?”



“Is it more than you ever got from her?” Mathias asked, and Jacob tried to spit on him but it fell just a bit short.



“Damn you, castrated servant of the Underdark!”



So he had been listening.



I was not sure I wanted to continue to engage such vitriol directly. I was not a true interrogator by training or leaning, though I knew of some Drow back home who would have taken on this Human with glee and made it last for months, years if the Human was strong enough.



For me, there was no pleasure once we started going in mental circles, and the only way I knew to break that was to start wearing down the body. Certainly my encounter with Kurn showed me a time when reason played no part in a debate.



Mathias was using me to his advantage, though, and letting me watch—if not fully understand—the male attitude of where we were going. I could not expect females living there to have any more status than the Drow males in my own City. Potentially, these Women had even less if it was widespread that any independence on her part resulted in punishment to keep her compliant, and if those born with magic were culled.



I could not see how a city could function if all within its borders were like Jacob, however. It seemed to me that the Priest-mages may have sent these Witch Hunters away to roam and live outside the city because they were so disruptive to daily business. If their rhetoric was “blessed,” and they had that letter of approval…then it made sense for the Priests to send them out only to spread fear and control in the surrounding area.



But the true magic users of Manalar sent these Men without any true magic of their own, likely so they wouldn’t burn the whole Surface down in their misjudgments.



I could not say that the actions of many Drow females were much better than this—though at least the male magical ability was not squandered but harnessed. I could say that, except for the Consorts and the mystical divinity that surrounded them, every matron knew it was simply because they did not want to share the power and had the ability to keep it that their males stayed in their subservient role.



The reasoning may have something to do with the ability to give birth—that it made us the superior sex according to our Goddess—but it was nearly a side note in our culture these days when compared to Jacob and this external, twisted, convoluted fear of everything; that those like this Witch Hunter viewed the submissive gender as the actual threat to which they reacted with compulsive over-indulgence, with little self-control.



Males like Shyntre and Auslan could be admired and prized for their strengths, even being submissive possessions to more powerful females like Rausery and Wilsira. Our ability to encourage and strengthen our males’ talents while still maintaining control of them reflected well on our understanding of balance and using what scarce resources we had in the Underdark.



This was completely lacking in Jacob’s spouts of dogma. It made me wonder as to the source of the hostility. In some ways, these particular Human males—these Witch Hunters—made the entirety of their existence dependent upon the power that the female had over their minds, the power that they gave her, whether she wanted that it or not.



Whether she asked for it, or “deserved” it…or not.



Something about the scale of that kind of lack of control and balance was unsettling to me. I’d already met Human Men with much more mental ability and intelligence; I knew this was not normal for the male gender of this race. In my society, an animal acting this far out of its nature would be slaughtered for the well-being of the population… yet this religion was organized to reward this behavior for power and control of neighboring lands.



This must be how it was spreading and why there were adversaries like the Guild. It could not hold this way indefinitely; something had to change, and the Godblood and Tamuril somehow were connected to this.



According the Gavin, the Godblood’s arrival at Manalar might very well be that change. Yet Jael…my Sister…she was searching to find and to kill this Man for our queen, and she approached this male-dominant, extremely religious city without knowing what she faced.



Rausery had been certain Jael would die, and she had been to Manalar once. Somehow, that very journey was what had drawn Cris-ri-phon to this area to wait for us. Our own Elder had known to what the queen had sentenced Jael, but she had said nothing. Perhaps because it would not do any good.



I felt flat denial at that thought now. No.



I had to get out of Brom’s inn, somehow; I needed to find Jael, to prevent her from bearing the full brunt of this sickened, rotting Man’s city.



“Stay a while, Lady Maris,” Mathias said now. “allow me to entertain you and fulfill the final part of your vengeance.”



I nodded slowly. I would stay; I needed to see all I could, and Brom was right in that this Man was best suited to show me.



I removed my pack and setting it on the floor at my feet before leaning against the wall. I let the skin hunter take his lead as he demonstrated the best ways to get beneath Jacob’s skin. For a while, my direct participation was not needed and my presence was enough.



I watched in fascination as Mathias’s creative taunts and well-chosen mental imagery—much as Jacob liked to use himself but without the holy fervor— combined with strikes using the Hunters’ own switches and whips… actually seemed to be arousing the Witch Hunter.



*crack!*



“Nomilu sancji!” Jacob cried with face lifted to the ceiling.



“Tinirus gothii,” Mathias chuckled.



“SILENCE, HERETIC!”



*CRACK!*



Every moment for Mathias was cool and calm in the face of Jacob’s riotous bile and nearly ecstatic cries. The skill of lashing in general, I could see, was obviously familiar to both Men.



More interesting was that Jacob was denying his erection, fighting that arousal every time he remembered I stood in the room. I would have started bending by now, accepting it. I already had, many times.



The trap was well-set and inescapable, and Mathias did not hurry as the prey had nowhere to go, not even inside the privacy of his own head. Jacob had given far too much of himself away and Mathias wielded the offered length of rope and Jacob’s own whips with the same confidence he handled his bow and other hunting tools.



I had never seen Mathias so happy.



My body eventually responded to the struggle and firmly guided resistance unfolding before me, and I did not think much of smoothing the pads of my fingers over the leather of my crotch, rather as I had while watching Kurn fight so hard against his desires as well.



Mathias almost seemed to be watching for that as his eyes found my hand between my legs quickly. He straightened and circled to stand before the other sagging, heaving Man; he inhaled the close, moist air in the outbuilding with relish.



“Lady Maris,” he said, “please, grace Jacob with a view of your infernal temptation. Show him that it has remained as hellfire hot and lustful despite what his brothers may have done to you to try to quench that flame. His weakness is theirs, it was his doubt that broke their power of protection when they broke that door to take your servant… isn’t that so, Jacob?”



“NO!” he bellowed at both of us. “You lie!”



“She did, Jacob. She killed them all, and she could because your lingering desire for her weakened the faith of every one of you. It brought your downfall in that inn.”



“Not true! She made a pact against me!”



“A pact more powerful than Musanlo, apparently.”



“Blasphemous bastard!”



*CRACK!* That one had been across the front of Jacob’s sweating chest.



“Lady,” Mathias said quietly on an exhale. “Please, I beg you. Show him.”



Hm.



I detached my fighting daggers first, then lifted my belt a bit and began unlacing the ties at my left hip, much to Jacob’s baying dismay. Mathias immediately went to retrieve a simple wooden chair for me, set it down next to me, and watched with what I could consider appreciation as I slowly pushed my leathers down my thighs to rest just atop my knees.



The interrogator’s appreciation more for the action itself and what it meant for the atmosphere and the tension, rather than the blunt desire of Brom or Kurn.



Without speaking, I had agreed to assist him.



I did not sit immediately, and Jacob growled like a wounded animal as Mathias kneeled down before me, stroking the whiteness of my fur delicately with his gloved fingertips. It felt pleasant.



The Witch Hunter looked down at the floor and stubbornly refused to watch, squeezing his eyes shut and chanting a mantra I’d already heard multiple times by now, over and over again. Mathias chuckled and leaned to give me a bewilderingly light kiss right on my mound before he stood back up and motioned for me to sit.



“Get comfortable, Lady Maris, spread your legs so he can see that white crowning your woman’s flower. Pure as fresh snow.”



“It is false! Mold growing atop blackened rot!”



Mathias grinned wider. “Touch yourself if you wish, Lady. This is justice as you would have it.”



Time passed easily as I watched Jacob’s responses to painful and pleasurable repetition begin to change. More than once, the Witch Hunter was brought to the very edge of his control and Mathias stopped him from losing it. Jacob responded well to the sharp pains of the lash, seemed to become deliriously high on it, but then Mathias would change that pain with a hard blow to the kidney or something similar to send him crashing down.



Then they would start over.



I did touch myself. Mathias made for an extraordinary trainer; it occurred to me to wonder if he possessed the skill to break mounts for riding.



“Now… watch me worship her cunt as it is supposed to be worshiped, Jacob. Watch me.”



I drew in my breath slowly as Mathias kneeled down by me and placed a hot palm on my bare thigh; his other hand slowly reached to join my own between my legs. He concentrated on brushing my fingers only, stroking them a couple times as my fingers still pressed to my netherlips; he glanced over his shoulder at Jacob, who had turned his face away and was muttering prayers.



The interrogator chuckled and got back up again to leave my side, returning all his attention to softening his target’s will to resist. Within a quarter hour I heard the second bleat of weakness from Jacob’s mouth that had prompted Mathias to kneel and touch my fingers between my legs in the first place.



Sure enough, Mathias made the same command—to watch as he worshipped my cunt—and returned to my side again. His palm was again on my thigh, and his left hand sliding along my inner thigh; a muscle twitched involuntarily.



Finally Mathias looked up to meet my gaze. He was gauging my response as much as Jacob’s.



I licked my lips briefly and drew my hand back, shifting my hips forward a bit so that my soft, slick flesh touched the pads of his fingers. He smiled at the added layer I’d granted.



“Oh,” I said softly as the skin hunter touched me very lightly, and that made Jacob look at me.



The Witch Hunter sucked in a breath as his eyes widened, his face flushing a deep red, and he shut his eyes again and looked down, chanting much more loudly now. Again, Mathias laughed softly and stood up again to return to Jacob to torment him some more, all without once making him bleed.



This process was repeated again and again; how many times, I had lost count, but somehow I had the patience to observe a master at work even as my sex began to ache fiercely as I was teased as well. Each time, Mathias grew more bold in how intimately he touched me, how deeply he slide his fingers inside. He encouraged my sounds of pleasure, took the time to learn how to pleasure me, and I knew that my heated scent also helped; they were tools for free use in this place.



“Watch, Jacob,” the interrogator commanded yet again, setting down his whip once again, kneeling again at my frustrated sex, seeming almost tireless in this game.



I widened my thighs for him, tilted my hips to make myself more accessible, with a deep breath of my own as I anticipated his fingers.



Jacob lifted his head slowly then, unexpectedly, and I made eye contact with the Witch Hunter at last, holding that hateful gaze—exactly as Mathias’s tongue flicked out and caressed my netherlips, his broad hands gripping beneath my splayed thighs.



I gasped and cried out. “Yes! Oh, Goddess!”



“SLUT! Festering cunt, cuckolding WHORE!” Jacob screamed, struggling against his chains. “May the devil ram a red hot poker in and cauterize that oozing gash closed!”



My bare fingers embedded themselves in the skin hunter’s thick brown hair as I felt two thick fingers pushing readily into my very receptive channel, as gentle tongue and lips caressed me, his teeth nipping me lightly. The breath of his exhale was hot as it ruffled my fur, as he thrust fingers in and out, firm but relaxed…slow. He allowed me to cover his other hand on my thigh with my own so that I always knew where it was.



Jacob’s eyes were still wide open, but Mathias’s were closed in concentration; I could bet he heard every shift in the room. I chuckled and cooed at the top of his head as he licked and sucked me. I had to admit being charmed and impressed, enough to feel that I could climax from being serviced with such exquisite timing, watched by such a helpless, hateful prisoner.



It was almost as if Mathias had been tutored by the Drow, though he may not have realized it. Still, there had to be a reason Brom had spoken with such pride of his talents; surely the sorcerer had had something to do with Mathias’s training and development of his tastes.



“Ohhh,” I breathed again, moving my hips and pressing my mound harder to his mouth, bringing me closer to the edge.



I was long aware of Mathias’s lack of weapons—he’d removed them all and kept them far from his prisoner—and his utter focus was on me and on every shuffle, jerk, and foul word that Jacob roared in his weakened, gravelly voice.



I felt safe enough to cum.



I broke eye contact with Jacob when the large swell of sensation washed over me, as I felt my pussy clutch and flex around Mathias’s slowly twisting fingers, and my thighs tightened on the interrogator. I let enough voice through as I tilted my head back for both Men to know the depth of my pleasure.



“REVOLTING BITCH!”



I gasped almost desperately for air as I laughed and came down.



When Mathias straightened up and smiled at me, I wondered for a moment if he would try to settle his cock between my legs—and I wondered whether I would allow it?—but he only shifted out of the way so that Jacob could see my tingling slit unobstructed. Then Mathias reached with one hand to gently part my lips with his fingers.



The Witch Hunter stared transfixed at the deep, wet pink of my pussy.



“Nomilu sancji,” Jacob muttered, his bottom lip trembling as tears became visible, the sweat on his body thick as ever.



Mathais took his hand from between my thighs and pushed himself easily to his feet. I could well imagine the taunt in every breath and scent when the skin hunter next stood face-to-face with the Witch Hunter. Mathias hadn’t even wiped his face clean of my juices, but he put one of his wet fingers into his mouth, sucked it clean, and wiped the rest of his hand off in Jacob’s hair.



“DON’T TOUCH M—”



Mathias clasped Jacob’s face in both hands and the blond man was too stunned to respond at first as his torturer forced their mouths together. This resulted in such thrashing from Jacob, in such a loud, spewing tantrum as to be…truly astounding to me. Jacob made it clear what he thought of another Man sharing female slickness on their lips…or perhaps any fluids he’d deem “unclean.”



I stared at them with my mouth open.



Possibly because of the circumstances, of power and control, because Mathias understood the nuances so well…I did not think that it had looked any different than any number of wet kisses shared between the Red Sisters in the cloister, although I had not given much thought to males in general kissing each other before.



The memory of Shyntre pushing Auslan in the garden of House Itlaun came back then, and I remembered that first time realizing that they knew each other fairly well, of how I’d wanted it to go further. I had wanted to see them fight and wrestle, as my Sisters did. Different but the same. The fantasy had aroused me even as I had not gone toward kisses and other uses of the mouth before….it wouldn’t be a far leap to do so.



Laughing in profound delight, Mathias with his intense situational awareness noted when I had moved to tug up my leathers as my afterglow waned naturally. He quickly retrieved a clean, if coarse, linen cloth from his tools and handed it out to me.



“Here, clean up with this and hand it back to me, if you please.”



I hesitated at first then reminded myself that everyone had pretty much agreed that Mathias did not use magic—Gavin had even said he only had the one life aura about him.



“You will not tell Brom?” I asked, being vague on purpose.



Mathias immediately shook his head. “No. What happens here is mine alone, Lady. He will not know unless you tell him.”



I was happy to hear that. I obliged, wiping the cooling wetness away thoroughly and giving it to the interrogator to add to his tool kit. Then I stood up to set my leathers, belt, and weapons to rights.



“Were you entertained, my Lady?” he asked quietly, with a small smirk on his face.



“I was,” I admitted.



“Would you give me more time?”



“Of course.”



He bowed his head. “I thank you for your assistance, Lady.”



I knew to take my leave of my host then, ignoring Jacob’s final threats and insults at “Lady Maris, the Demon Slut” as I waited for Mathias to unbar the door and let me back outside.



I looked forward to seeing how different Jacob was the next time I saw him. Mathias used all his own weaknesses against him, and he had not even gotten to any true physical torture yet. I wondered if he would need it? What would we discover of Manalar proper when Jacob began talking?

The Sun had passed its zenith while I’d been inside and was a fair bit lower in the Sky; we had perhaps three or four hours of daylight left. Had I been in there that long?



My growling stomach said undeniably that, yes, I had.



I was able to avoid the puddles this time, as I could manage well enough with my eyes open. The ward guided me straight back to the rear door of the inn, but unlike when I had gone out, someone stood just inside the solid, windowless door. I paused warily and listened for more beyond the subtle boot scuff that had warned me, deciding after another few moments that it must be one of Brom’s men.



I tapped on the door.



After a hesitant pause, a young man’s voice asked, “Who is it?”



“Do you jest?” I asked in flat disbelief. Of course the Man knew for whom he was watching; the fact that I had surprised him with the timing did not change that.



The dark-haired Human opened the door readily enough with a half-embarrassed smirk. “Welcome back, milady.”



“Thank you.” I stepped in out of the thin shade and warm Sun, into the cooler, darker inn once again. I had no better idea of how to leave now than I had went I’d left to eat before, although I did have some fascinating insight into the minds of Men.



Elana was only a bit surprised to see me, again, based on the timing.



“You missed th’ midday meal, M’Lady,” she said, but immediately started gathering leftovers, some of which was still warm.



“Was I the only to miss?”



The cook hesitated a moment to think about it and shook her head. “Nay, Mathias missed as well, and your servant who refused to exit the cellar, though he accepted a plate handed down by Ian.”



“You remember Mathias from before?” I asked as I began to eat.



She swallowed, but nodded. “Never knew much about him ‘cept that he spoke as from wealth, unlike most of those here. He came and went here over the six years I’ve been working here, been here ‘fore that, they say.”



“Is it unusual for him to show up now?”



Elana shrugged. “I suppose not. Once he stayed on retention fer nearly a year, been gone for ’bout as long. He is a restless one.”



“Hm,” I acknowledged, focusing on pushing more food into me before I got too distracted by the intrigue inside the inn.



“Th’ big Ma’ab asked about you,” Elana offered.



Of course he did.



“Did Lord Brom and Amelda eat with everyone?” I asked.



“Amelda, yes, she seems taken with the big man. Of her kind, so it makes sense. Lord Brom, no, he took his lunch in his quarters.”



I nodded. None of this was unexpected.



“C’n I tell her what I heard, mama?”



I looked over to see Layne with his golden hair easing into the kitchen, looking to his dam for permission but fairly bursting with the need to speak.



Elana pursed her lips while wiping her hands in a cloth. “I told you not t’spy.”



I looked at Layne and felt amused, then looked to his mother. “I would like to hear, since he knows it anyway.”



“He doesn’t know what he heard,” she responded nervously. “He thinks he understan’s Ma’ab from Amelda.”



“She taught me some!” Layne insisted. “I know they were talkin’ of the demoness.”



“Shh!” his mother scolded, and in this case I agreed as I focused my hearing on the door to the kitchen.



Nothing I could hear.



I turned on my stool to look at the boy and nodded in agreement. “Best to keep your voice quiet when you offer secrets.”



Layne nodded with surprising seriousness and licked his lips. “I’m sorry, mama.”



The cook waved her hand nervously and shook her head. “Then tell her, but no more spyin’, Layne, d’you understand me? The Ma’ab’re cruel people.”



Again he nodded and approached me slowly, his warm brown eyes seemed to want to take in every detail he could while close up. Perhaps that was the trade he wanted for the information.



“Amelda will getta red stone that belonged to th’ big man and use it ‘gainst you, as he did not have the…um…”



*The balls?* I wondered.



“Didn’t have knowledge t’ use it,” the boy finished carefully, as if he was translating in his head.



The ruby. Of course, Brom had been wearing it earlier, and chances were high Kurn may have recognized it, or sensed it. He must be pretty angry; he must think I had given the sorcerer his necklace willingly. In all truth, I had forgotten about it in light of everything else.



“Was the smaller Ma’ab there as well?” I asked.



Layne shook his head. “He took a room upstairs before an’ after lunch. He doesn’t like Amelda.”



Interesting.



“Any more you understood?”



The boy looked regretful. “No. More said, but I…I dint know th’ words.”



It was more than I’d gotten from spying, aside from the knowledge of an alliance between the two. If Amelda meant to somehow get the ruby from her father, what would be the goal? My life? My will? My health?



“Are you a demoness?” the boy asked me then.



“Layne!”



I felt my mouth tugging into a smile. “No.”



“What are you? Where you from?”



Ah. There was the real trade. The boy had not insisted upon a trade of information at the start, which he probably should have…but if he knew some of Kurn’s language and had a curious and bold spirit to listen on my behalf due to simple fascination… then now was not the time to teach him that particular lesson.



There also seemed to be much less reason to keep the Surface stories of us vague, now that Cris-ri-phon had caught up. From the Valsharess’s perspective, it should have been unavoidable anyway. We had returned to the Surface long ago; that’s how the sorcerer knew to come here.



“I am a Drow. From the underground.”



“Like…caves?”



“Tunnels. Caverns. Very large ones, very deep.”



Layne nodded, his eyes remaining wide and unblinking. “How do you see?”



“I see shapes in the dark. And I hear very well.”



“That why you dress in grey an’ black? Blends in?”



I smirked and nodded a “yes” for simplicity.



“An’… yer a dark girl with weapons, that don’t marry.”



“Layne, enough,” Elana warned, but I lifted my gloved hand in a signal to wait a moment, and the cook stood up straight in response to that, though she looked no less worried for or protective of her son.



“True,” I said. “What do you think of that, Layne?”



He swallowed, tearing eyes from me at last to look at the kitchen table, to think, before looking tentatively back at my belt, my daggers, and finally my face. “I want t’see you fight th’ big man.”



Elana brought her apron to her mouth, aghast.



I started laughing aloud.



*****



Lingering in the kitchen after eating my fill would only be procrastination; I had a few obvious choices what to do next, things that had to be done, but my hesitation was a bad sign. My choices had no room for doubt.



I could seek the sorcerer again; we could discuss Mathias and the Witch Hunters. I could guess that Mathias had learned some of his techniques from the innkeeper, who in turn had learned from the Drow of his day. Maybe.



Then he would likely want me in his bed again. I was confident I could handle it as long as I gave no reason for him to use powerful spells. But the only true reluctance on my part was my early pregnancy and not knowing just how much stress, physical and magical, that my body could take before it might reject what was undoubtedly a measurable drain on its resources.



I wished more than ever I had been able to talk to a mother who knew about carrying a baby before leaving the Underdark…but it had to remain a secret and D’Shea had barely spoken to me after I’d flatly refused to abort and had essentially had become Rausery’s Red Sister, for all intents and purposes.



Back to the sorcerer, with Cris’s defenses fully up now, I did not see where I would get very far in learning more than he fed to me on a spoon, though I could always watch for such openings. Sooner or later, the sorcerer would want to ask for or suggest something else.



I only was not sure I had the patience for it; not right now. And if I was not sure, I should not do it.



Next possibility, I could draw Soul Drinker and try to stand before the strongest soul inside, the one who still remembered what she’d been. She had been angry that I had not gone to one knee immediately for her, but even she had said we would talk again. Perhaps my instigating that revisit would be a good thing, if I was ready to face her, unlike the first time.



A great many questions had arisen that I had yet to sort, not the least of which was how she might prove she was indeed who she claimed and not some illusion or a demonic soul using Cris’s more persuasive story to misguide me.



If this being had absorbed the knowledge from a time Cris had been handling the blade, but now claimed the sorcerer-general did not know of her presence…it was strange. What was more, she did not want me to tell him, she just wanted us to trick him into thinking he’d impregnated me and to finally leave his inn with blade in hand…perhaps take her back to the Underdark…



By comparison, the blatant enemy of my queen wearing altered forms was the more transparent schemer and straightforward bargainer.



The other options—see about the ruby, maybe try to speak with Amelda, see Gavin again—were less risky, perhaps, but it would not aid or change the major players who sought my attention, and it would give them all—Kurn, Amelda, Brom, Castis, Soul Drinker— more time to plot. The ones I had less care for—Gavin, Rithal, and Mathias—all still had their own plans as well, just not overtly interfering in mine.



This was worse than the Court; there was barely any room to breathe. I could understand why Gavin had refused to leave the cellar and took his lunch down with his work. It may not be generally wise to ignore all that was going on around, but at least one had some quiet and lack of drama when one did not want to play.



And to think I used to live for those Court games, when it was all I had. Now I could not stop thinking of how all this only interfered with my finding Gaelan and Jael, or threatened my baby and my own missions.



Missions I had wanted to fulfill in order to be able to return and be welcomed back by my Elders. Now…how could I look at anything below the same ever again? Yet what would I do with such knowledge in my current, questionable position? It was a trap of the mind, to pretend only long enough until another realized what I knew and the queen either sent the Sisters or the Drider mistress after me, or dealt with me Herself…



I huffed a quiet breath that was supposed to be a laugh at myself. I had to survive the Surface first. Bringing down Manalar still had its appeal, especially after meeting Jacob; something tilting that far out of balance should be given that last shove it needed to come toppling down.



I knew, even from my own circumstances, that only select opportunities ever arose to make it happen among certain players on the board. If a player passed and took no action, that player would eventually have no further bearing and the world would wait for new players to take the stage.



The destruction of Manalar was not true my purpose, though; I was not the sentencer and executioner of Human cities; in most cases, I would not care…but Sarilis, Gavin, and several Humans more intimately involved had given me reason to help with this one.



Especially if the zealous mage-Priests hurt Jael in any way.



What about the half-breed linked to the Guild? I would drop that mission if I could…it was too unrelated to everything else and would only delay me…but I noticed my head begin to ache as I sat at Elana’s table and contemplated giving up on that one.



The Valsharess’s compulsion wouldn’t allow it. It would haunt me until I fulfilled that one; another reason I may have to return to the Underdark regardless. Damn her.



Sarilis, though…but for Gavin’s sake and his mysterious purpose with his mistress in wanting to take over that Tower, I wondered about the risk versus reward on that one. Especially if it would not guarantee my return to the Sisterhood.



I glanced away from my now-empty plate at my pack on the floor, next to the kitchen table, and at Soul Drinker strapped to it. That was the closest, more immediate challenge now, the one less easily ignored or contemplated with more knowledge.



I did have to speak with her again.



“My thanks for the food, Elana,” I said, shifting off the stool and collecting my pack.



“Ah…yer welcome, M’Lady. There will be an’ evening meal as well.”



I nodded, and she and Layne did not move in their spots as they watched me leave. My purpose was to sneak to the upper floor and take one of the rooms for a short time; I did not want to run into anyone else, nor did I want to have to ask.



As soon as I eased into the great room and peered up the stairs, listening, I realized that would not quite work, as Brom’s men were largely impossible to avoid. They stood in twos at various points in both hallways. I could guess that Rithal and Castis were likely up there, possibly Kurn and Amelda as well although I would not know unless I did more spying. Being unable to do so without observation from Brom’s watchmen in plain sight seemed pointless.



*Very well,* I thought, and moved quietly up the stairs, aiming for the first guest room in the second hallway, closest to the balcony. I would only have to pass two Men and I would be closer to sounds of any gathering at the inn. If I could not do this in absolute secret somewhere in the far back, then I might as well keep a finger on the pulse of any up front.



One of the Men I approached was Lief, and he stared hard at me with those vibrant green eyes, even as his hair was as earth-brown as Mathias’s. I took his expression merely that he remembered feeling true fear the last time he blocked my path; I had been able to smell it.



Would he block me now?



No, he bowed slightly instead. “Can we assist, Lady?”



Some kind of word had certainly spread among them.



“I would like one of the guest rooms to rest,” I said, and indicated the one closest to him and the balcony. “That one.”



“As you wish.”



I barred the door from the inside as I had upon first arriving here, though I now knew that a heavy male body or two could break in if they wanted. At most it would give me warning, but that was all.



The room was identical to the one I’d shared briefly with Gavin; I set my pack upon one of the beds—that one farthest from the door and next to the warded, shuttered window—and sat straight up on the edge of the bed with my feet on the floor. I kept everything on me as I normally carried it, although my fighting daggers at my hips needed adjusting—and then I checked to make sure everything was present and familiar. I released my three famished pets from their pouch, giving them the opportunity to hunt for a meal as well as protect me from outside threats.



Then I contemplated my next move. It was simple, really.



I breathed in and out a few times, trying to center myself as I might when preparing to break a ward, snipe someone, or disable a trap. Focus, strengthen the will, choose the moment.



I reached for Soul Drinker, felt the magic seem to liven up as my left hand clutched the scabbard and my right wrapped around the hilt.



I freed the blade in one, smooth pull.



That first time I saw the scarlet runes etched into the shining metal, they seemed to lash across my eyes like Mathias’s whip, burning into my head in a way similar to those I had seen in my braces while finding the dissonance to undo a magical ward. My entire arm seemed set afire and my hand clenched so tightly to it, I thought my palm bruised by the wrapped handle.



*Will you?* challenged an unknown voice, both hostile and ecstatic. *Oh… will you?*



*I will,* I responded.



It was the truth, or I would not have drawn.



*You will?!* it shrieked. *So easily?!*



Something hard thumped against my chest and shocked my heart into skipping a beat. I had my eyes open though my vision of the room had darkened before the scarlet runes. After a faded moment, I saw the angle of my wrist—unnatural and painful—and the pommel of the dagger aimed at my chest.



The pommel, not the point. Had I failed some intangible test, I would be gone now.



I did not dare consider this further. I had passed. That was all I needed.



*YES!* I shouted back inside my head as I trembled, turning my wrist back to its normal position by sheer stubbornness. *SO EASILY!*



*Yes…! Yes, yesss, yessss…* the voice hissed and receded away into nothing, seeming to cross a vast distance that I could not see.



Soul Drinker throbbed in my palm, the metal light in mass but the power writhing in my grip, lashing itself about like an Underdark serpent. A bit at a time, it seemed to come more under my control, but I found myself searching the room for someone to use it on, or if not in here, out there? Perhaps Brom’s men standing guard by the balcony…



So thirsty…



*No.*



I imagined the blue-light desert and the pyramid, recalled what I could of her classical face.



*I would speak with her.*



The dagger seemed to want to block me; the edges of my mental image started crumbling, dissolving, and I revived it multiple times as my face flushed very hot and Soul Drinker seemed to become heavy to hold up with my arm.



I relaxed, let the image fade and my arm to lower down, but just for a moment. Whatever presence had been pressing on my mind, rather like the Duergar in the Underdark, shifted at my yielding, and I focused a small, tight thought straight forward and through it, as when I’d been mind-linked with D’Shea.



It was amusing to think that one could feint with a thought.



“Desert queen!”



She spun around, still wearing her alluring, white dress, her feet bare on smooth, warm stone set below a clear, star-filled night Sky. Her face showed equal parts surprise and irritation in the Moonlight, and she looked over me carefully as if she’d never seen me before.



I knew why. I was not dressed like her, but as a Red Sister in full, under-City uniform.



“Yes, my warrior, why have you come?”



“To prove that I could.”



The Valsharress’s sister relaxed her expression then and smiled with elegance. “For certain, you liven up a dull eternity, and add a nice flare of color, too.”



“Acknowledged without the flattery, your grace.”



The queen chuckled. “Have you changed your mind, Sirana?”



“Have you changed yours?”



She tilted her head slightly. “On what, my child?”



“How you would bargain for my service, and to what extent I offer it.”



The older Drow did not respond immediately, but she seemed to contemplate, gazing at the sand dune horizon for a few moments. She did not look at me when she next spoke. “You draw Soul Drinker with success, now you feel empowered to bargain with me.”



“For proof of your identity, yes. You have said you can hear the thoughts of the carrier at times. Perhaps you show me only what you learned from Cris-ri-phon, and you are but an illusion using his story to gain my compliance.”



Bright, scarlet eyes narrowed at me. “Perhaps. Yet I have no such proof here, Sirana, particularly if you know nothing of times past. Do you not believe my husband?”



“Does he know you are here?” I asked bluntly. “Would you wish me to tell him?”



Her eyes widened slightly and she turned to face me full on, her eyes locking onto mine. “Do not be foolish, Sirana, and do not undo centuries of careful effort on my part with your youthful challenge.”



“Why should he not know? He would have helped you get revenge on the Valsharess years ago.”



“His time is past!” the queen retorted heatedly. “We are allies no longer, all our children slaughtered; he has moved on, died, and returned again as I have been helpless here to stop him from becoming what he is. Once, his blood was worthy and I trained him well, but he has warped too far from where he began with me. His interference in the affairs of the Drow after so long will only bring about the same fate for us that befell the Noldor. I will not have an immortal king seize control of our race! I would rather my sister remain untouched and wither to dust on her throne!”

I was silent in the face of her passionate statements and could not help but see her point, just from what little I knew of the innkeeper, the Sorcerer General, the Phoenix…



“What befell the Noldor?” I asked. “Even Cris-ri-phon said he did not know what happened after the war, why they withdrew from Surface affairs. How could you?”



The ancient queen scowled at me. “That I do not know, either, Soul Drinker has never been drawn by one of the pale ones. But I do know of the immortal male who was the true power behind the Noldor queen in my last centuries, and may still be, for all I know. He was the reason I needed male allies to defend our place, one at least who thought like him and had great potential for magic. That was Cris.”



“Defend?” I was skeptical. “Would not we have been the aggressors at some time?”



“Certainly once threatened. I do not tolerate such things lightly.”



“And why were we threatened?”



Her lip curled. “Because he decided he would claim two queens, he was not satisfied with one. Cris would be the same, he has changed too much.”



“It is what he wants?” I murmured. “Not to avenge you, but to find your sister nonetheless.”



“He believes he wants revenge. But what do you think would happen when a human general performs a coup?” she hissed. “That vengeance alone would satisfy him? When the power void is there for the plucking? He cannot find precisely where you came from, Sirana, you must do all you can to prevent it. You must take me with you. Keep this within our own race, do not involve others, until we are strong again. The rule will remain true. Swear to me as truth due to a queen, if not your queen, that you will not tell Cris you commune with me. Swear.”



I stared at her for a few moments, realizing that an oath would mean something to her, even without the power and the structure to back it up and make it worth following—as my oath to the Sisterhood truly was, at its core. Its strength was in direct correlation to proximity…which was why I stood here considering many things I would have deemed too dangerous to consider back in the City.



It was probably why I left Sarilis’s Tower in the first place.



This would be an oath for no reason than a proclamation that it was better for my race as a whole, more an agreed-upon secret to protect our autonomy as a Matriarchy. Assuming she was right, and she could be…if she was the Valsharess’s sister.



Still. That one action of revealing her presence to Cris would only limit options; I could not argue with that.



“I will not tell your former husband, for the time being,” I said. “Though your claimed identity is still in question, and he cannot help verify.”



Temper flared across her face. “A skillful demon I am, indeed, to have such an intricate lie you heard from Cris first, and more detail besides!”



I shrugged. “A skillful demon tricked a Priestess recently back home, and all our divine mages are expected to come into contact with one at least once. I know of the danger.”



The show of temper receded and she looked disturbed before demanding, “Why? Why are they expected?”



“It is how Lolth grants her favor to the Priesthood,” I said.



She paused. “How?”



I felt a wary chill creep up my back. How? “A… ritual that brings a full-blood demon to our plane, to couple with a new Priestess. The halfbreed born later provides immense power through a symbiotic bond, while he lives.”



As well as provided a built-in power ceiling should the Valsharess ever feel threatened.



The long-dead queen took a small step back but nodded. “I am not surprised my sister agreed to such a pact. I would guess your Priestesses believe it necessary to achieve their full power and status.”



I blinked. Well… “Isn’t it?”



The queen scoffed. “I never dealt so with Lolth, child, I knew better. And we had no priestesses like that of which you speak. At best, they were scholars or healers and did not get directly involved in the governance. What does that tell you?”



I swallowed as my mouth went dry. “But you know who Lolth is. Readily.”



“Yes, as an interested entity, one of many of which to be wary when working deals of power in the time before the fall.”



“You never worshipped her as a goddess?”



“Oh? Is she a goddess now?” The queen looked both weakened and haunted for a moment before she shook her head.



I hesitated. “I…that is what I’m told.”



“With so many followers, she must be.” She turned slightly from me, and I saw both her hands clench. “Damn you, Ishuna…so foolish…you should be here, not me…”



“Ishuna,” I repeated.



“Your Valsharess,” came the bitter sneer. “Ishuna Au’renthil.”



The name itself did not shock as much as visualizing it attached to the elder Drow wrapped in dark purple and gold of the finest silk, with Her pale, tawny eyes and fine age lines, crowned by pure, golden hair…to think that She actually had a name…and a sister.



“And your name, your grace?” I asked.



“Innathi Au’renthina,” she said with much less ire but a touch of added arrogance.



I felt two shocks at once. The first name… Cris had said “Innathi” more than once as he bred me…and the second, the song of it finally struck me.



Jael.



“Who is she?” Innathi asked curiously. “I saw my sister as she is now in your thoughts, and I believe how many years it has been since the fall. This other, this child, why think of her?”



I swallowed, regretting the slip profoundly; however, my curiosity for the similarity in name kept me truthful. “Jael of House Aurenthin.”



Innathi blinked slowly, tilting her head. “Ishuna’s great granddaughter, perhaps?”



“I don’t know,” I admitted. “The Valsharess has no surviving direct children. I do not know if she ever had any.”



Twisting her mouth a bit at my habitual name for her sister, Innathi nodded once. “Cousins, perhaps…but still of the royal lineage. This House was not culled.”



“No…just kept powerless among the Nobles.” I was so tempted to run through every detail I’d ever heard or read about the politics of that House as I’d been watching Jael for recruitment…but I dared not, not right now. Maybe later, when I wasn’t touching the dagger.



Innathi watched me, intent, fully intrigued. She smiled a bit, and I saw the family resemblance in Jael as well, removed but undeniable in the brow, the eyes, the jaw, and the ears especially.



“Where is this child?”



I didn’t want to answer. I shook my head. “I don’t know exactly. I search for her now.”



“Another reason to escape Cris’s trap.”



I could nod at that.



“I suggest you encourage him to breed you fully, Sirana, including the surge of wild magic from him,” Innathi said. “Stop resisting, make him believe he was persuaded you to be a willing ally. We can use your pregnancy now to our advantage.”



“No, your grace.”



She frowned at me. I did not blink or look away.



I said, “I do not know what a ‘surge of wild magic’ will do to my unborn.”



“Nothing will be done,” she said, a bit impatient. “I have done so while with child; it is a marvelous feeling. Do you think I would knowingly harm my own?”



“You were a sorceress, were you not?” I asked.



“Among other things.”



“Well, I am no mage.”



The former queen breathed out to collect herself. “You can take my word.”



“No.”



“Sirana—”



“My body, my child,” I said. “I decide. There must be another way.”



“There is not. Either Cris will plant a mind compulsion somehow or he will breed you. I suggest the latter and don’t tempt him to become fixated on the former.”



I felt stuck at those two options. “Even the trick is not good for me in the long term, Innathi. What will your former husband do when he discovers he cannot track his offspring, because it is not his offspring? You said he is possessive. Will he not only be more determined if a Drow that you said yourself would be a ‘prized possession’ to him, one so far below his power, outwits him and escapes?”



“You will have to outwit him somehow,” Innathi seethed, ignoring my questions. “I have given you an option that will work.”



“I will not risk it.”



“Then I leave you to your own devices, Red Sister,” she said with a curl of her lip. “I will act as advisor, if you wish, and will bear in mind my good fortune that—despite the spiders somehow serving you—it is not a Priestess of Lolth who first drew this dagger after two millennia.”



I blinked, frowned, and wondered how could she have known of my guardians…? I had not thought of them.



The next second, it became clear.



They were calling me with the simplest, most instinctive of thoughts.



Danger.



*****



The advantage of surprise, and how far it stretches, is all in the timing of a pre-planned action. Kurn’s action would have been fair; direct, sudden, the effects short and unlikely, in the end, to prevent being bitten or stabbed in the back.



Amelda, on the other hand, displayed a mage’s tactics with two back-to-back spells that prevented their immediate deaths. First was a broad, magical shield that divided the room and kept my spiders and me on opposite sides. Second, a flash-bang that, in the small space, was worse than the lightning storm on the midway.



I did not scream simply from lifelong habit, though the pain pierced my brain with staggering intensity; my eyes and ears were numbed and useless for as long as it took Kurn to strike my hand holding Soul Drinker with something hard and blunt. There I did cry out as a bone snapped under his full swing; he did not hold back. Once I’d dropped it, he seized hold of my wrists and crossed them behind my back, pressing me down to the bed.



My hand quickly overtook any primary claim to pain as I blinked my eyes and strained to hear anything at all, my body twisted awkwardly and still with Kurn’s weight holding me down. His knee pressed hard and painful into my thigh, though it still paled in comparison as my right hand trembled and started to swell.



Making it worse, my entire chest began to ache belatedly from the deep bruising that Soul Drinker’s pommel had left when I’d drawn it, and I had trouble taking a full breath.



My own voice sounded muffled in my ears but I wheezed, “Your father will be displeased you if you kill me, First Daughter.”



I heard Amelda laugh derisively but still couldn’t hear well enough to discern what she said. Spots floated frantically as small bits of my vision returned.



“He’s been planning the arrival of a Drow for half a century,” I said aloud. “Imagine his irritation, Amelda.”



“Half…-tury? He’s n-…that old,” she said, her voice fuzzy to my ears, though I could detect just enough consideration in her tone despite the fact that she apparently didn’t know—perhaps she had seen something before that made her wonder about “Lord Brom.”



What had he said? That Amelda had spent the first part of her life with her mother among the Ma’ab…



“No? And you know all his secrets, do you?” I forced a chuckle even under the considerable strain. “Did he collect you as a foundling after your mother fell assassinated?”



“How did…know?”



“Because you doubt me, so you must be new to his House. Do not kill Drow beneath his roof, Amelda. The warning is very real.”



Kurn was busy trying to figure out how to get my belt off as I spoke to Brom’s daughter. I didn’t make it easy for the Hellhound, rolling my hips as necessary to block him, although really, I knew it was inevitable. All he had to do was abuse my broken hand and my focus on defense suffered as much as the bone.



Sweat started to break out on my forehead and I felt nauseous as he finally squeezed it and held the pressure, my teeth gritted down over a groan, part of my face pressed to the hay-stuffed mattress.



“Ah, but we won’t kill, whore,” Kurn hissed from above me, easier to hear as he was close and enunciated each word for my benefit. He finally yanked my belt and fighting daggers away. My cloak followed shortly after. “Don’t listen, Amelda. Her kind are all tricks and lies.”



“And temptation,” I added with a smirk. “You lose your true focus, Kurn.”



“You challenged me to try. Don’t complain when I win.”



“You should follow your own words, hound. I recall you can be milked fairly well on your knees.”



He tried to do something to me other than hold my hands—I believed he may have wanted to grab at my crotch in some way, and I nearly got loose right then. The Ma’ab Man abandoned the attempt, however, and recaptured me again, and made it hurt to get me back under control. By the slight shake in his breath, he realized how much that had almost cost him, at the same time the Woman had cried for him to hold me still.



“Good,” Amelda said, taking effort to calm her moment of fright. “Now…he is right, demoness, we do not come to kill you. I want your influence on my father to stop before it becomes more.”



Jealous and possessive; I was not surprised. She came by it honestly.



“And you could not ask me first?” I muttered.



“You disrupt Kurn’s plans, and I know Father doesn’t care for sharing a woman with another man in the same house. All I want is for you to take Ma’ab seed, and for Father to know. You need not be hurt any further.”



I could grant that probably would get me out of servicing Cris further on his terms… but it also had a high cost in the dominance struggle within our travel group, and in the possible loss of information I might get in the sorcerer’s bed.



I also wasn’t ready to submit to Kurn quite yet. He hadn’t earned it; Amelda had played the greater role in catching me this way.



“Shall I?” Amelda asked Kurn, pulling out the ruby that the Hellhound had been wearing around his neck before I took it.



So Cris had given it to her. I wondered as to his reasoning…unless she somehow stole it, which seemed unlikely.



“I want her fully aware of me mounting her,” Kurn growled.



I noted that his scent was the same as when he’d hunted me before, only more sour.



“That is much higher risk,” Amelda reasoned. “We agreed. Better she becomes aware later and sees the state of herself after I’ve shown Father.”



“You should listen to her, Ma’ab, females do know better tactics,” I said. “As Gavin said, you know them well.”



Kurn did not reply verbally although he dug his knee harder into my thigh with a growl.



“She is inventing taunts to delay,” Amelda warned. “You said she tricks and lies!”



“Not inventing.” I forced a smile through more pain. “Your Hellhound takes his dagger hilt deeply inside him… and with great enjoyment.”



Kurn actually head-butted me, struck the back of my head with the front of his, and nearly shouted directly in my ear, “Whore!”



I laughed even as I winced. “He sprayed all over his belly. It was amusing.”



Another hit, but he still didn’t let go of my hands. Damn it.



“We’ll turn that back around to *proper* form, as it should be! My aer will split you and make you bleed, k’us.”



“I doubt your ‘aer’ has the same talent as your dagger’s hilt, and at least I spit on you to make you wet like a k’us,” I said. “A pity you didn’t keep the dagger, at least that never goes limp.”



I looked at dark-haired, pale-skinned Amelda in her blue dress, when she finally came into my view and I chuckled. She looked absolutely shocked at the details, or perhaps at our language.



“Demonic slut,” he hissed, his grip tight and quivering now. I felt some of his spittle land on my hair, despite the flash of light in my vision as he again squeezed my injured hand. He remembered not to try to grab me anywhere else lest I get loose again.



“Demon…devil…what is the difference?” I gasped with a moan that pleased him enough to allow me to talk again. “You must be a long-lost brother to the Manalar Witch Hunter in the out building with Mathias. No wonder you target them…easy to overrun and absorb a people who think the same as you.”



He emitted a derisive scoff at the comparison.



As long as we were talking, there was more chance some of Brom’s men, or Brom himself, would become aware of this—although I was ready to handle whatever came regardless. I would not break as easily as Kurn had, I would kill them if I had the chance but I swore at least I would keep breathing.



My eyes drifted to see a shimmering wall of magic a few feet away, and my spiders hopping and scrabbling desperately to go around, climb up or under it. They could not get through and they were trying harder than any natural spider could even attempt.



“Now she invents,” Amelda said, trying to shake off the distraction of what she’d just heard.



I hummed. “There is always a kernel of truth with the Drow, First Daughter.”



“Consider the source,” she sneered.



“I noticed Kurn did not deign to lick you earlier. Just thrust into your hole, still sweaty from his show, without even a complimentary pat.”



“Spying on me again?!” Kurn barked, squeezing his hands harder—I sort of wondered why neither had gagged me yet. “You filthy annath shubis!”



Amelda huffed a breath as she attempted to turn her genuine surprise and unease into something more dignified. “I did not ask it of him.”



“Yes, it was rather quick. Would you have enjoyed a pat and a lick?” I asked. “Would you like me to teach him how it is done?”



This pushed her surprise even more and she was mute for the moment that Kurn spent imagining it, judging by his sudden stillness.



“I might have known you were a k’us-raule,” he rumbled, shifting until he was rubbing his erection over my leather-clad buttock; I could feel the heat of it seeping through to my skin. “Teasing cocks all day but reserving your real effort for your own side. Makes much more sense. So you want Amelda, do you? Shall I watch your technique from above and behind, balls deep inside your back hole?”



“Sounds good,” I grunted. “I’d much prefer her taste to yours, smelly hound. I need my arms back to brace, or you will push my teeth right into her k’us.”



“Hah. We are not that stupid.”



“Then undress me, Hellhound. Get started.”



He paused as he realized that he would have to release one of my hands to do so. They did not have restraints ready; they had been planning on me not being able to resist at all—my will or awareness taken by magic. The dead moment nearly made me laugh aloud, but I made due with a smile.



Amelda said something in Ma’ab that sounded very contrary, lifting the ruby around her neck, probably as a reminder of their earlier plan.



Kurn responded in the negative, and based purely on the tone, made some kind of demand of her. She refused, placing her hands protectively in front of her as if to make further barrier to her sex with her hands, and the Hellhound growled some more, trying to intimidate her. By the way she flinched when he got loud, it seemed to be working.



I was actually glad that Amelda was susceptible to male intimidation, even though it was pitiful to see in a First Daughter. I was glad because she had the better idea to use magic to make me unaware and unable to resist—essentially the ruby could be the equivalent to the drug I’d pushed up Kurn’s ass.



But then, the Hellhound had considered that “cheating” and under-handed when I’d done it, and my being aware of his rape held much more appeal to him, despite what Amelda may have originally planned with him.



While they argued, I took stock of my body and situation.



I would be further aroused by the exchange than I was now if not for the deep bruising in my chest and my broken hand, but the effects of the flash-bang had had enough time to fade with only a faint, lingering tenderness in my head. I had already turned my mind and my pride to be willing to use anything and everything given to me to survive, even Kurn mounting me, and my sex would not be stone-dry if he did—although my ass would be.



My pack was against the wall on the bed where I’d left it, and they were ignoring it for the time being. My belt, long daggers, and cloak were on the floor. During our argument, I had confirmed with my good hand my reach of a short, flat blade beneath one bracer, but Kurn’s grip at the moment prevented my drawing it.

I did not see Soul Drinker or its scabbard, and could only assume it was on the floor or had skidded beneath the bed. My spiders had not given up trying to get around the shield, but I could not rely on them while Amelda was aware and holding her shield spell.



The two Ma’ab debated and negotiated for a long time; I wished I could have been involved more, but I did not know the specifics of what they were saying. One time Kurn sounded aggressively aroused, though, as if he had just described something sexual, and Amelda straightened her back and tightened her fist in response. I arched my back and pressed my ass into Kurn’s crotch, to encourage that desire a bit more.



Anything to delay finding out personally the ways that ruby was really used by a mage who knew how.



“See, you do want me. You just need to be taken, don’t you? You need it that way, can’t just give in,” Kurn chuckled, leaning over me and biting the tip of my left ear.



“Argh!” I grunted—that hurt very much—but my ass came up again and in response he ground his erection harder along my crack with a shudder.



“Get the rope out of her pack, sorceress,” he demanded. “I want to watch her tongue lash your proper, pretty k’us as I break open her pucker. I will hear her scream, not be some dazed, limp fish. Then we can do the rest your way.”



Amelda purse her lips but complied, if reluctantly, and came over to the bed to reach for my pack. I felt a flush of adrenalin as her weight compressed more of the mattress and the angle shifted. Her skirts were brushing the top of my head and I lifted my face to nuzzle her thigh through the velvety material. She paused in what she was doing, looking down at me perhaps in bewilderment, and I purred, looking up at her with a smile and a wink.



“Come, hurry,” I said. “Lift your skirts for me. Let me taste.”



Kurn chuckled, “Not so quick. Amelda, before the rope, untie the laces at her hips and push it down so that she is ready for us. In fact, touch her, put your fingers in her.”



“Kurn, I do not want—!”



“Do it, latha!”



“Yes, Amelda,” I gasped, the side of my face still pressed to the mattress, my broken hand relentlessly throbbing, yet still I writhed my hips. “Do that. I will enjoy it.”



“Just needed to find your hot button, eh, demoness?” Kurn chortled, humping me slowly, to which Amelda hissed something at him in Ma’ab as if she was either jealous or found it distasteful. Or both.



After a low growl that I was willing to bet was a threat, Kurn shifted so that Amelda could tug resentfully at the laces that secured my leathers, and I waited. I even made it easier for her, shifting so that my pants were soon bunched at my upper thighs, stopped only my Kurn’s knee between my legs. I could feel the Hellhound’s eyes on my exposed backside and on the hollow between my thighs. He murmured something lewd and anticipatory.



“So touch her. I’ll hold her down.”



“Kurn!” She made another attempt to remind him of their plan in Ma’ab, but he cut her off.



“Touch the black k’us! Now!”



I shivered as if in response to his voice and drew a good—if painful—bit of breath, reaching my good hand to touch the tiny, flat blade beneath my bracer again. My chest still ached, my injured hand had numbed a bit from lack of circulation, and I wondered how soon I might get the chance I needed. Patience…even feeling him push into me wouldn’t be the end of things unless I lost my mind in denial like Kurn had in the canyon.



Amelda’s hand between my legs was reluctant and not curious in the least. Resentful, she did the equivalent of making a single swipe at a saddle she’d been told to clean. I made a sound of disappointment.



“Is that all?” I asked.



“I told you, fingers in, Amelda.”



“No. And I don’t want her to lick my latha, either.”



“Oh, come now, lift your skirt!” I said loudly. “You have seen mine, allow me a sight of yours, pretty pale sorceress.”



“Silence, you whore! I shall not!”



“Don’t make me strap you down,” Kurn growled at the Ma’ab woman.



“Well, then, forget the rope to tie down the Drow!” she belted back.



“You will. You want me to seed her.”



“I’ll open your trousers as well while you hold her,” she said, fairly seizing at his turgid crotch. “You are ready, just take her while you can!”



Truer words were never spoken. Kurn tried to jerk his hips away and growl another demand as Amelda tugged forcefully at his belt. The physical interference weakened his grip on me for just a moment.



I freed the flat blade beneath my bracer with my good hand and I whispered the command word for Callitro’s ring, feeling it warm on my hand. I couldn’t afford to miss.



Neither had time to react as I broke free and twisted, ignoring all distraction, and jammed the short knife into the hollow of Kurn’s throat. Amelda screamed in shock as his black eyes went wide, his body still, blood pouring down the front of his half-plate. It had taken less than two seconds.



The First Daughter’s first choice, as I struggled madly to get out from beneath the Hellhound, was an interesting one. She ignored me and dived straight for Kurn, clutching at the blade around which he was trying to breath.



I let her, only able to raise my leathers part way so I wouldn’t trip but could do no more with my hand broken. Nonetheless, I took the extra moment to grab my pack and belt and cloak…Lolth, dammit, where was Soul Drinker?



The next moment, I realized I could not carry everything, nor put anything on properly due to my injury. If I left now, I would have to leave something behind. A bad option.



“Uhmashi tuon, Kurn!” Amelda cried as the Hellhound fell over partway onto his back, and she drew my dagger out, blood splashing her hand as she covered the hole and immediately started chanting, a glow coming to her palm.



Very interesting.



I kneeled to set everything down again and took a pinch of knock-out power from the pouch at my belt.



I could wait a bit longer.



As soon as Kurn coughed, gargled, and gasped a new breath—the ugly, deep wound gone almost as soon as I had made it—I flicked a bit of my powder onto his face and grabbed Amelda by the hair with my good hand. I threw her shrieking onto the ground and landed on top of her.



“No! Shicarshivil!” she screamed, and I found out quickly that she was completely untrained in any grappling or hand-to-hand combat. It took nothing to straddle her.



Kneeling with my pants still undone and halfway down my hips, exposing part of my white bush to her, I struck her across her cheeks with my good fist three times, until the magic shield finally started to fade.



Kurn remained unmoving on the bed, and my babies joined me immediately, jumping onto me with joy, though I bid them wait… *Do not bite, wait*…as I looked down at the sorceress. She stared back, bruises already forming on her delicate, pale jaw, tears of pain in her fearful, black eyes. She focused on the three large, black spiders crouched on my shoulders and screamed when one shifted suddenly, preparing to strike.



“Silence,” I hissed, though with a smile. “You will scare them. Now, I will have some of that healing, Amelda, clean and quick as you just did for Kurn, and you will do it properly. Unless you want to swell up like a bloated corpse in less time than it takes to piss yourself, after my pets sink their fangs into your pretty skin.”



She shook her head, muttering something I did not understand.



“Are you refusing me, witch?”



One of my spiders began crawling down my good arm, and she nearly lost her ability to think.



“No! No, please, don’t let it touch me! Don’t…”



I took that added moment to yank the ruby off of her neck, breaking the cord, and she winced as it bit into her skin. I stuffed it into my boot and remained straddling her as if we were still in foreplay, though truthfully, neither of us felt horny in the least right then.



“Amelda, you have three seconds to heal me.”



Her trembling, bloody hands shot out to take my curled, broken one and I hissed at the spread of white-hot pain up my arm. The next moment she was chanting and the same glow began, and as with Cris, I started feeling the cool, soothing spread as flesh and bone weaved back together. It was not a localized spell, it seemed, as the ease of splintered bone also spread to my bruised chest, my bitten ear, battered thighs, and that lingering headache.



“There!” she gasped, sweat on her forehead from effort and fear. “Now let me go, my father will not be pleased if you kill me!”



I grinned, feeling so much better right then and hearing her same reasoning that I’d used. “I might wonder which he might save, if he had to save only one of us.”



That comment seemed to hurt somehow, as she fought against some doubt in her mind, and I was glad.



“Tell me what you know of the ruby,” I demanded softly, “and I will let you go.”



“The sound ward has dropped!” she cried. “My father’s men can hear us now!”



I slapped her. “Is it only for demons?”



“No,” she answered, trying to raise a hand to her stinging face, but I knocked it away.



“What is its nature?”



She screwed up her face, baring her teeth in defiance, but I struck her again. She bellowed and kicked her heels against the wooden floor in a tantrum, and now…she was right, I could hear Brom’s men finally start to respond to the disturbance in this room.



It had taken them long enough.



I gripped and twisted her nipple through her dress, hard enough to leave a bruise for later. “It’s nature! Now!”



“W-will bending!” she wailed.



I let go of her nipple and rose off of her to my feet, my spiders keening again and again to be given leave to jump her though I held them back as she scrabbled to her feet. She charged for the door, throwing it open only to run right into the embrace of Lief and the other man.



“Lady Amelda! What’s happened?!”



“Get my father!” she cried, starting to weep openly, her breath soon coming in sobs. “This creature abused me!”



I had righted my leathers and was donning my belt and daggers by this time, my spiders having retreated sulkily back into their pouch.



“By all means,” I said, waving a gloved hand casually. “Informing Lord Brom at this point is required, is it not?”



Lief’s eyes were sharp as he scanned what he could of the room, noting Kurn unconscious on the bed, the blood on the Hellhound and Amelda’s hands though it was harder to see on my black leathers. He tried to make sense of what had happened inside, but nodded toward the second man in silent command. As the designated messenger left, Lief kept his arms around Amelda as she cried and shivered; an image I found almost ludicrously funny. I suppose it worked only because Lief was physically larger than Amelda, her own frame more frail by comparison.



They watched me as I collected my cloak and located Soul Drinker with its sheath beneath the bed then quickly brought the two together before looping it at my side. I finally picked up my bracer flat-blade, still covered in Kurn’s blood, and my pack, and smiled at them.



Apparently they did not intend to interfere and I was glad for the time to right myself. On an inspiration, I retrieved the same cloth scrap I’d used to collect Kurn’s semen and now wiped his blood from the blade on it as well, before tucking both back into their place.



Clearly Lief and Amelda both believed me to be a demon in truth, watching my deliberate actions, though they could not know what the other stains on that cloth were.



It did not take long for Brom to arrive with two more men, though I was surprised to see Rithal and Castis accompanying as well…although perhaps I should not have been. They could no doubt hear the boots and voices as well after Amelda’s yelling.



“What’s happened?” the Ma’ab mage demanded, and Brom extended his arm to block him from squeezing his way into the room and toward me. Rithal, however, was short enough to get by on the other side, once he turned to the side to be a little less broad.



With a better view, the dwarf looked at me, looked at Kurn long enough to see that he was breathing, and sighed deeply with a slow shake of his head. “Again, Elf?”



I smirked. “Whatever do you mean ‘again,’ dwarf?”



“Don’ try tah be cute. Blood’s on ye as well as on them.”



I flicked a glance at our host when I heard him chuckle. Cris-ri-phon was looking out through Brom’s eyes, and by the smile on his face in that moment, it almost looked like he wanted to mount me right then and there in that room, especially as he noted Soul Drinker still at my side.



“Father!”



Amelda traded Lief’s embrace for Brom’s, which he allowed, putting strong arms around her more delicate shoulders, rubbing her back comfortingly. She had made the effort not to smear either of them with her hands, keeping them curled in toward her bodice.



“Ah, my dear, you tremble so. What has happened?”



I wanted to hear this; I stood quietly, keeping my awareness on all the small movements of the others around me in case one of them turned against me. Surely Castis was ready to hurl another fireball at me, and Gavin wasn’t here to sputter it out. Fortunately, Brom was.



“I…” Amelda glanced at me.



I quirked my brow in response. *Yes?*



“You have bruises on your face,” Brom said, not without some concern. “Has the Hellhound been misusing my hospitality?”



I could see the Ma’ab woman weigh throwing Kurn beneath the cart, tempted to shift blame and come up with another story other than failure since he was passed out, but I smiled and withdrew the ruby from my boot, holding it up. The ancient sorcerer’s eyes fell on it.



“I struck her face, Lord Brom,” I said. Upon seeing Lief’s expression of disgust—and Castis’s slightly happier one—I added, “If that seems untoward to you, young Man, I am used to settling matters with my own gender when they mean me harm. You do not call for help from a female in a challenge between males, yes?”



Lief and the other Men blinked and glanced at each other, pondering that.



I smiled. “Of course, it is curious that you heard nothing at all, Lief, close as you were guarding the hall. I even wonder how the door was unbarred from the inside as I slept.”



Brom smirked, and Amelda’s pale face flushed pink, almost like Tamuril’s did, and she looked up pleadingly at her sire. He cut her off before she could begin.



“We will speak later, Amelda,” he said. “Retire to your quarters and don’t come out until we do.”



“Fath—”



“Now, daughter.”



“The ruby?”



“Spoils to the victor, I would say.”



“But you said—”



“You were foolish in your choice of target, my dear. Go. If you do not tap the bloodstone in your room within the next thirty seconds, then we may consider a more public punishment now. I’m sure my men would enjoy watching.”



Amelda’s face darkened further to red, as I’d seen Kurn’s do in a rage, and she left quickly, her skirts rustling quite a lot as she hurried down the stairs and toward the hallway that led to Brom’s quarters. Our host waited the full thirty seconds in silence, his eyes unfocused, and then—when we all heard a door slam shut in a temper—he nodded in satisfaction.



In the end, Brom did not seem to want to go over the minute details right then while standing in the room, and even Rithal and Castis seemed certain of what basically had happened.



“Dead or alive?” our host asked me, indicating the Hellhound on the bed. “Your choice, Sirana, my daughter you’ll spare but the Hellhound can pay for their attack on you.”



“NO!” Castis shouted, clenching his fists and turning on Brom—though without any magic coming to light, I noticed. “That’s not what happened!”



“Oh, but it is,” the innkeeper said calmly, turning an amused gaze on the Ma’ab mage. “I saw Sirana go into this room alone in Lief’s and Chance’s minds. They tell me they did not hear or see anything until Amelda was screaming, and I can taste their truth. Amelda has been getting better at her spells and wards, sneaking trollop that she is. I know my daughter, young mage, and you know your brother had a stiff one for Sirana. So. The Drow has won. In my inn, the victor gets to choose the fate of the defeated.”



“Nae,” Rithal broke in, glaring at me. “He’ll be remainin’ breathin’, Lord Brom.”



The sorcerer chuckled. “Oh?”



“We still need ‘im.”



“If you need a Ma’ab, surely you can do with just Castis.”



Rithal shook his head as the young mage looked to the dwarf, clearly glad for firm support. “Not negotiable, innkeeper. Ye don’ kill ‘im, regardless of what he pulled. Ye see Sirana is fine.”



Only because I’d forced Amelda to heal me.



I thought Brom looked very amused, but I did not know how long he might dangle the point before he made it clear that he did not have to negotiate, if he did not wish. The dwarf was putting up a stubborn front, though; it was difficult to tell if he was aware that Brom was indulging him.



“I’ll have my choice, all the same,” I spoke up, the males all looking at me. “You actually suggest I let him live to try for a third attempt on my life, Rithal?”



“Third?” Castis barked sharply. “So you did do something to him at the canyon!”



“He chased me, Castis,” I sighed. “Had he slept until dawn and minded his own business, it would not have happened.”



“You were the one who came along despite knowing his opinion of you!”



“Now the blame is mine that he attacked me?”



“For all I know, you attacked him first! What did you do to him that he returned half naked?!”



Brom was trying not to chuckle too loudly, and his men just watched, equally entertained by us.



“More important, mage, she left ‘im alive,” Rithal interrupted, speaking deliberately to Castis, though he shifted pale, blue eyes to me next. “Ye di’n't kill ‘im then, Elf. Had tah be a reason.”



“Because it likely would have meant killing all of you, if you responded so stupidly as you do now,” I replied, meeting his stare. “And that would make it difficult for me. I still aim to topple Manalar.”



My saying that aloud calmed Rithal much more quickly than it did Castis, who was still only being held back in using his magic by Brom’s presence.



“An’ we still need ‘im to do that,” the dward said, trying now to reason. “Alive.”



“Alive,” I repeated yet again, “but now, only for an exchange, Rithal. I let it lie before, but I want payment for the risk this time, or you can see if you can prevent Brom from gutting Kurn right now.”



Brom scratched his cheek casually and grinned, his shoulders leveling out as he took on a predator’s stance. He was willing to play; perhaps he had a guess what I wanted.



Rithal pursed his lips deep within his fiery beard, noting the change in demeanor of the sorcerer and his men. “What exchange?” he asked suspiciously.



“A side quest, just north of here,” I said. “Before we go to Manalar, you all will help me in payment for sparing this dog’s life.”



“Ah,” Rithal rumbled, “Now we discover why you truly came along, do we?”



I smiled. “Lord Brom needs a band of Warpstone cannibals culled from his forest. We will perform this task for him. Then continue on to Manalar.”



I’d managed to surprise Rithal completely.



“How does that help ye?” he demanded, his voice rising.



“None of your concern. You will convince Kurn of our change in plans when he wakes up, and we will slaughter those man-beasts in the forest, every one of them, before continuing on.”



“And you would have my deepest gratitude for doing this, sir dwarf,” Brom interjected, smiling happily.



“Warpstone!” Castis cried, finally overcoming his shock. “Are you insane?!”



“Gratitude don’ fill bellies,” Rithal grumbled, not having the same reaction to the name that the mage did—also nearly ignoring him. He was listening to the negotiations because he wanted to come to a compromise.



“I never asked it to be free.” The innkeeper withdrew a small pouch that seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Then take this as a token of my seriousness in this matter, even to help you on your journey.”

Brom tilted the mostly-flat, plain brown pouch and let a large, bright metal coin slide into his palm; he held it up for Rithal to see, and I watched the dwarf’s eyes widen significantly.



Then the sorcerer flipped the coin to me, and I caught it reflexively. It was as white as silver but very heavy for its size, and imprinted with the vague shape of a dragon’s head.



“A platinum drake,” Brom said. “Enough weight to serve as a checkpoint pass for Nobility in Manalar. If you have some way of disguising your own Noble Lady, here—and I will make such a potion for you, if you wish—the Drow could lead you past Witch Hunters with the right phrase. She has the grace and ability, and I wager Mathias can get that knowledge for you. In addition, you will receive eight gold coins upon leaving, and again the same should you return in this direction and the cannibals no longer squat in my forest. That offer does not expire, master dwarf.”



Rithal did look nearly convinced; the platinum drake in my gloved palm was a boon to our plan, removing several unknowns from our discussion at the Tower if it did as he said it did. I glanced at Castis, and even he looked curious if that might increase our chances of getting inside the temple.



“Jus’ a pure fight,” the dwarf said now. “Kill ‘em all. Right?”



Brom nodded. “Magic will work best against them, they are chaos-touched.”



The dwarf nodded sagely. “I know. Warpstone.”



“Indeed.”



“An’ the Drow agrees you need ‘em culled?”



“I do,” I answered, though he had been addressing Brom.



Rithal gave me a suspicious look, familiar by now. But he grumped and sighed. “So do I. Alright, Elf. Ye leave Kurn breathin’ now, I’ll convince him we take the side job ‘fore movin’ on.”



I smiled. “Agreed.”



Brom looked very much like he would invite me into his room again, and I felt better for being closer to getting out sometime soon and finding my Sister.



Now I just had to understand how Cris-ri-phon expected to find me again once I left.



******



Castis stayed to watch over Kurn until he awoke, closing the door against all of us, and we started dispersing from the hallway.



Brom signed with subtlety as we descended the stairs. *Will you?*



I hadn’t seen that particular slant very much, but I understood it. A male Drow expressing interest in a specific female’s attention, if she was in the mood to indulge him. Clever.



*Do not be coy,* I signed with a sarcastic glance.



He grinned, unrepentant. *Still displeased with me?*



*Still want me to catch?*



*Not unless you wish it.*



*Why would I?*



He did not respond, from the shift of his eyes in favor of not forming a pattern for his men to notice. But then he quirked a chestnut-brown brow and looked in the direction of his quarters and back at me.



I smiled. Amelda’s healing at removed all the bruises from the fight and previous soreness from her father. I was good as new and feeling high on victory, though I still had some questions to which I wanted answers.



As Cris set the ward to his door and dropped his illusion to reveal his snow-white hair and dark tan skin, I removed my pack and cloak. I set the first down on the floor next to the same familiar chair, draped my cloak, and finally set Soul Drinker on top of the cloak. I kept the rest of my tools on.



“Why did you give my ruby to your daughter?” I asked, turning to face him.



The sorcerer looked delighted at the start of the conversation. “Your ruby? Odd. I believe you took it from the Hellhound.”



“And how would you know that?”



“Kurn told Amelda, who in turn told me.”



Of course.



“But, you took it from me, so why give it to her?”



“This is where you may be a bit frustrated with me, Sirana. Simply told, I wanted to see what she chose to do with it.”



I could be “a bit” frustrated, sure, but given the actual outcome, I could also reflect on what this said about him rather than get distracted by the more negative possibilities that fortunately hadn’t happened. Clearly he would fit rather well into the City down below…



“Did you have a preference? Or a wish what would happen?” I asked.



Cris tilted his head, his darker skin and white hair making the gesture appear very Drowish. “Yes. I’d hoped she’d prove her loyalty to me. She did not. Her jealousy over my attention to you blinded her.”



And did that come more from his side of the heritage than the Ma’ab? I wondered.



“She is possessive,” I said.



“An unfortunate trait to act upon when one is little more than an apprentice. I cannot be more pleased that you frightened her so, my dark assassin. It will do her good and perhaps make her more wary when I invite a woman into my quarters.”



If she’s smart.



“Do you do so often?”



“If she is interesting, though none in the last several centuries have unmasked me as you did.”



I tilted my head as well. “Would you have let me leave believing you were a mere innkeeper?”



Cris-ri-phon actually looked a bit annoyed for a moment, but it was a very quick one. Then he chuckled. “Some things may have been easier that way, but being more direct works as well.”



I poked at that a bit. “You have been improvising.”



“And it has been a most enjoyable battle of wills with you, my dear.”



He saw this as much a game as anything; I couldn’t fault him for that. The sorcerer could be evidence that the Drow had not changed too much from one queen to the next…though Innathi had said he had changed from where he started, enough that she would not ally with him again, and they had not worshipped Lolth then. Perhaps, instead, this was more a quality of the long-lived and powerful? Wouldn’t that make Innathi the same…?



“Did you have any knowledge of the ruby’s nature when you gave it to her?” I asked.



“I did. Pull it out, I’ll show you something,” Cris offered.



I gave him a wry look. “The ruby?”



He grinned. “For now.”



I removed the gem pendant from my belt pouch, not offering it to him but holding it close to me. “What am I looking for?”



“The back of the stone, and its gold setting.”



Upon closer inspection, I did see the symbols I had missed before. “Inscription or sigil?”



“Both. The ruby belonged to a Ma’ab Noblewoman and sorceress, probably with political ties or perhaps military.”



“But it does have a magical use as well,” I said. “Will bending.”



“It does. It can bend the will, but it depends on the strength of the user versus the target. I would say both Kurn and Amelda have overestimated their will compared to yours.”



That was obvious. I was thinking more about who had the ruby before the Hellhound… “Kurn confessed to me of killing a woman before he left the Hellhounds.”



Cris actually looked surprised. “A very dangerous thing to confess, especially to you. Why would he?”



“I drugged him. He babbled.”



The sorcerer chuckled, nodded, then considered the ruby, following my train of thought. “Perhaps he took this from his victim, then. I wonder why he would keep such evidence. Even the Hellhounds would turn him and the ruby over to the family for judgment.”



My lips quirked as I put the ruby into a pouch. “And there may be Hellhounds at Manalar at some point soon.”



Cris shook his head with a sudden frown, shifting his weight as we both stayed standing. “Mm. I would avoid direct contact with them, if I were you, Sirana. Pass the ruby to them somehow if you must, do so for a ransom through the Guild if you wish, but do not engage directly.”



“Through the Guild?”



Cris nodded smoothly. “They have contact with all groups of power; I would not be surprised if they knew one or two Ma’ab officials as well. You could even find out if there is a price on Kurn’s head.”



Huh. That was interesting in its possibilities. “Use the Guild as the middle ground…”



“Yes. The Hellhounds as a group are far more formidable than one such as Kurn might indicate.”



My change in stance showed my skepticism. “Even for short-lived Humans?”



“Especially so. Like the Witch Hunters, they are greatly feared by common folk for a good reason, a basic lack of restraint when they’ve focused on a target. Unlike the Witch Hunters, opposing armies fear them as well because they are fully trained in penetrative group tactics, not just torture, and are motivated by service to their generals and experience on the battlefield, not merely a personal demon.”



My brows climbed toward my hairline. “Kurn was not just boasting?”



Cris shook his head. “I’ve seen them set loose upon a city. Their methods are almost…inspiring, if I wanted to see the whole of this land razed by my hand in less than a year.”



I knew I looked bewildered. “Then…why is Kurn so…?”



“Unimpressive?” The sorcerer shrugged. “It seems he is not all that he claims.”



“You have not mind-scraped him?”



“I know what motivates him in this moment; that is enough. I do not dig deeply very often, Sirana, I find it unpleasant and it takes time to recover. It is not a natural talent but spellcraft on my part which took time to master.”



That was an interesting self-limitation. Unpleasant? Too long to recover? It made me wonder about D’Shea mind-linking with me, and the queen and Cris both being wary of pushing past that “noise” that seemed to protect my thoughts….even without having the sapphire with me this whole time.



“A natural talent,” I repeated. “You mean psionic like the…”



There were two races of which I was well-aware, but both were a moot point in this discussion being so deep belowground. What had Rausery said, about the Surface ones that sounded like my Elder’s given name?



“…like the Var-ah-sah?”



My host looked impressed. “Yes. The Varasa. Quite the reclusive group, even I am not sure where they’ve gone. Rather like your queen and her followers.”



“But you do know, sorcerer. Underground.”



“Indeed.” I could sense his focus tightening our conversation, seeming to speed it up somehow. “So how do you know of the Varasa, Sirana?”



I shook my head. “Another Drow heard a story of mind-talents in Humans, likely around the time you heard stories of her being in this area. That is all.”



“And she is still alive to have told you for some reason,” Cris said with a shrewd look.



“The subject comes to little. We have never seen a Varasa.”



“And they likely have never seen you. Mythical creatures, both one to the other. I am not even sure all would be human. Do you search for them?”



I shook my head. “No.”



“You search for the Warpstone cult, the Guild, and Musanlo’s gem city…but not the Varasa,” he said skeptically.



I smiled. “Nor the Noldor. Not so much the Guild anymore, either, unless I want to pass them the ruby. I have met you instead, and we have a Witch Hunter captive to tell me ways of entering Manalar. But learning about powers on the Surface from those who live here still seems wise, even if I never see them. I only have so much time for my missions.”



“Oh? What is your limiting factor, Sirana?”



Fortunate for me there were several.



“The Ma’ab reaching Manalar will soon close the window for the main goal.”



He huffed with a nod of his head. “And you may not survive if you are present when the clash happens.”



“Yet your actions say you want me to try,” I said. “You offered Soul Drinker, and the platinum drake, and a disguise potion to help me, along with the coming confessions of a Witch Hunter. Do you offer more to assure my success?”



The corners of his mouth rose up. “Perhaps. First tell me if you mean to return to your underground city after Manalar.”



“Yes.”



“Oh? You said you were exiled.”



“No, I did not. You assumed.”



“Or you lied.”



“Not really. Perhaps I will be exiled if I do not complete my missions.”



“You want to return underground, then.”



“Yes.”



“Even with what you know? Even with Soul Drinker?”



I took a breath. “Yes.”



Cris blinked and seemed to lean back slightly, crossing his arms in thought. His grey eyes never left my face after that, and I kept from picturing anything specific in my mind, just in case.



“Have you drawn Soul Drinker, Sirana?”



“I have. That was what I was doing when Kurn and Amelda interrupted.”



He smirked. “Were you tempted to use it on them?”



“I did not have the chance. Kurn broke my hand with a club upon entering the room, but after Amelda healed Kurn, I convinced her to heal my hand as well.”



The sorcerer took a moment to consider those details, but remained focused on the dagger. “And neither wished to pick it up. They ignored it.”



I thought about it, but nodded.



“A good sign. What happened between Kurn breaking your hand and Amelda healing it? That’s a rather large gap.”



I shrugged. “They argued over exactly how to soil me for you, which I encouraged until I could get a hand loose. Kurn took my blade into his throat instead.”



Cris-ri-phon looked very pleased. “That is sure to haunt him.”



I waved that away. “So why is them ignoring Soul Drinker a good sign?”



The sorcerer looked me over in a familiar way, as Gavin often did when he was studying my aura; it made me a touch nervous. “Well…pick it up now, and I will tell you. You do not have to draw it.”



I glanced where I had set it on my cloak, then back at him without moving.



He waited, then said, “Please.”



“Why?”



“Your aura will change a certain way if it is safe to carry with you for a length of time. I would be sure of this before you leave with it, Sirana. You are too valuable for me not to check, now that you have drawn it.”



A good enough reason, assuming he was being truthful. I did as he asked, clasping the black sheath with inlaid strokes of red; my other hand automatically went to the hilt as if to draw, but I consciously held it together in both hands.



There was a subtle, underlying sound, like a breath expelled over the ceiling of a cavern from very high up. The breath gave me…pleasure…along the edge of my consciousness. Unlike the first time, when it had tried to hurt.



“Excellent,” I heard Cris breathe. “The dagger accepts you. While you are the chosen carrier, it will dissuade others from taking it from you, in various ways. Sometimes they simply will forget it was there, as the Ma’ab and my daughter did.”



I felt a heightened, flushed sense of pride at this, and it did not seem entirely like me. I balanced it with the thought that, “while I was the chosen,” was an important distinction because Soul Drinker could change its mind anytime.



“What would you have me do with it?” I asked curiously but quietly, still somewhat distracted by the mental buzz.



“Use it to help on your missions, keep it in trust for the Drow…”



“What of taking it underground?”



“No, return to me before you go underground again,” he said insistently. “Based on what you have learned while using it, I will be able to assist you more. We can discuss all your options after your first successes. All of them, Sirana. You are ready, but only for the first phase. You must return to me, as I will have more to teach you.”



His voice had turned very persuasive, very seductive, as I felt him watching me with genuine desire, easily rekindled from our sign-play in the hallway.



I nodded an affirmative, my eyes still on Soul Drinker, wondering if that gold and red shimmer was the aura that Gavin had mentioned…? It was only the thinnest layer but surrounding the entire blade, the bright metal and red runes, as if wrapped in a magical shield.



I realized next that I was looking at the naked blade. When had I drawn it?



“Will you return to me, Sirana?”



*Do not speak of me,* the disembodied voice of Innathi whispered from the “elsewhere.” *Keep my secret.*



I felt my will being tested on two fronts at once. It was purely pleasurable to hold the blade drawn, and I listened hard for her voice again, looked for the blue sand. I did not see it, but for a moment I felt silk moving in a breeze against my body, warm air against my bare arms…



At the same time, Cris-ri-phon murmured his ancient language in my ear, his hand enclosed tightly on my wrist so as to have some control over Soul Drinker. At some point, my belt and weapons had been removed, but for all I knew, I’d assisted with that. I abruptly became aware of the heat build between my legs as he pressed his erection into my leather-clad backside, and my eyes glimpsed the sparkle of a large, red stone as the sorcerer settled it around my neck.



My grip on Soul Drinker tightened; I started to resist the ruby, as I had before.



*Stop fighting him,* Innathi urged, disrupting my concentration as the power of her voice shocked my mind. *You shall not win that way. You only win if we leave together and he does not follow. Promise him anything, I can help make so it will not come to pass, he cannot leave a mental command that I cannot help undo…*



“Return here after you perform your task at Manalar, Sirana.”



How had I understood that? It was not in Drow or the Surface Common language…but it seemed to seep deep into my ears, spreading over my mind as if the words were viscous. I knew that I trembled as I stared at the red runes on the dagger which seemed to be reacting to the ruby around my neck. The pleasure/pain of being trapped between them seemed a fire that was being fanned on both sides.



*Promise him! Submit, my chosen, you cannot win by your stubbornness now.*



Not exactly “leaving me to my own devices,” was she?



*N-no…my baby…*



*At greater risk if he must use greater power to persuade you. He has limited time now, and does not know you are with child. That is important! Your earlier resistance helped dissuade him from spending the necessary time on a spell. My husband has made a critical error, and that error is the only way in which you can win. It is too late for anything else.*



Fuck…



The other, deeply masculine voice repeated, “Return here, Sirana, I will be waiting for you.*



I knew I still trembled, but I nodded deliberately. “That…is a good plan, C-Cris…I will.”



“You will what?”



“I will…return to you.”



“Good, good. If you have had enough answers for now,” he said, his voice sounding rather far away for the moment, “I should like to see you nude once again, my dark goddess…”



Cris had had the time somehow to patiently remove my leather armor and bracers with one hand, and his large, free hand now touched me through my clothing, cupping a tender breast as his other hand still held my wrist, pressing both my gloved fist and the relic to the table, using his formidable strength to keep it there. The ruby swung around my neck in a familiar weight, so similar to the sapphire that I hoped Mathias still had.



When the powerful sorcerer tugged open my leathers again, similar to the first time in slipping his fingers inside, smooth along my butt, touching my naked sex from behind… what I felt was a magnitude stronger than the sensation that had simply made me gasp before.



I whimpered, trembling, when he removed his hand and he took my other wrist. Innathi had gone quiet, though the sentient dagger still hummed with power and encouragement. It wanted me to try taking a life, to see—to feel—what happened then.



There was only one life other than mine on which I might try.



“Show me you can sheath Soul Drinker, my assassin, even now. Show me you are strong enough to leave my inn.”



I gritted my teeth, wanting him to use me, myself wanting to use the dagger… knowing I couldn’t have both. Innathi had gone. Soul Drinker’s wordless surges were a pure, simple desire to kill, to feed, to drink. It was hungry.



So, too, was Cris-ri-phon. He was very hungry.



I could only feed one and hope to be free.



Cris’s hands never left my wrists, but as I actively worked to line up the sharp point of the relic with its scabbard, I did not feel as much direct pressure from him. He was testing me, but protecting himself at the same time.

As the tip of the dagger barely disappeared inside the sheath, the mental image of the ritual that I’d endured twice, Lolth’s Theshold, came to the fore of my mind. I thought of a naked blade being held at the entrance of my body, as I was expected to take it like a phallus. Hazy, old memories of the first, failed ritual—mostly blood and pain, fear and ignorance—shifted quickly enough to the second ritual where I was overwhelmed, deconstructed and remade, reborn within the Sisterhood.



Lelinahdara, my Elder’s ally in the Priesthood, had slide her ceremonial blade partway inside me, the edges dulled by a blue shell of magic, and had held it there until I’d had the courage to complete the ritual by willingly taking the rest, all the way to the hilt, and letting the divine magic flood my womb…healing it, making it fertile again.



I gasped with effort as I pushed Soul Drinker into its sheath at last, and Cris quickly released one hand and knocked the relic away onto the floor. I was using the table for support, dizzy, as he stripped me the rest of the way down to my skin, leaving only the ruby pendant. I felt as helpless and drunk now, as I had on the altar…perhaps I tried to stop him or protest, but I wasn’t sure. I made some sound, uttered a moan or a slurred word, at even his lightest caress.



Soon I was staring up at the wooden ceiling of his room, blinking blearily, the hard table against my back and my hips, my legs parted and held wide as the sorcerer’s searing, hot body stood between them. I could be on an altar again…



He leaned over me, his aura the strongest it had ever felt to me, and softly kissed my breasts on either side of the red stone, his breath trembling, hot and moist on my skin.



“You are indeed a fertile one, then,” he panted, almost talking to himself, one hand between us as he lined himself up to my dripping cunt. “Your elders healed you. Very good. A barren female had a very low status in my day …”



He pushed inside me and I cried out at the sheer pleasure of it, hooking my ankles behind his back as he went in deep. He laughed low, satisfied with my inability to focus on his face.



“I am honored to… once again help with your numbers… little fighter…”



My own lethargy as he bred me atop the table was not dissimilar to Wilsira’s incense, and I wondered vaguely if this was the wild magic or the ruby making me feel this way?



I discovered my answer fairly soon after the thought, when Cris climaxed the first time. The surge of magic was so stark and strange as he pumped his seed into me that I could not breathe, my mouth open with no sound coming out as the ecstasy held me in thrall for far too long.



I was gasping desperately for air as I struggled to understand why I was moving, floating, why the room was spinning?



…Someone was supporting my body, carrying me away in his arms…I couldn’t move at all…no, no, I could not be bound like this, not again!



I managed to kick and was nearly dropped, a small victory, but the sorcerer caught me, righted up, and continued over to his bed.



The rest of it was almost as it had been in the wilderness during my trial, as lust overtook all my senses, all my choice, all my judgment. The sorcerer indulged me in more of my own climaxes than I could count, and I indulged him in as many of his own that he wanted. He wanted completion inside my sex, again and again. After a while, I did not know how much of the wetness coating my thighs was his, leaking back out after he’d spurted it in, or mine.



At one point, I knew I was on all fours, my necklace swinging between my breasts, and knew that I had the breeder male mounted on me again, seated and ready to fill my womb, with my encouragement… yet I also felt another phallus pressing into my netherhole at the same time, spreading it wide.



*But he doesn’t like to share…*



Dazed, I looked over my shoulder; I saw only the one sorcerer, but he had a tool, a smooth, false phallus with a handle, only a bit smaller than he was, and my pussy became a much tighter fit for him as I took that into my body as well, up into my backside, as he started fucking me with both.



“Ohhh, goddess, yes!”



“Aia Innathi… squirt for me again.”



I obliged very soon, as I’d only done once before…



…with Shyntre….in the Tower…



*Oh, goddess, make it stop…*



Twitching, sweating, coming down, I felt the sorcerer’s cock pulse as it shot its cream to coat my cunt again, as he pulled out and removed the tool from my ass in quick succession. Then I felt his powerful thrust as he quickly buried his erection into my netherhole for the first time since we’d started. I was more than ready and I screamed as he started reaming my back passage with a vicious tempo, delirious with the sensation.



“You truly do…enjoy this,” he gasped, pounding me, though…was his vigor waning at last?



“Yes…” I arched my back, allowing full and deep access.



“I will spare my last spending… solely for your pleasure, then… my goddess.”



My rectum milked him as I peaked one last time, knowing I was exceedingly sore in both holes, much more in my pussy, and I should have stopped long ago but I could not. Then I felt him throb and pulse inside me as well. Finally, he was done. He was pulling out of me.



I collapsed, shaking uncontrollably as I felt him gather me up in his arms, sweaty lips kissing my sweaty temple. He was breathing as hard as I was, and the bed was soaked with our fluids.



“Rest…rest now….trust me. Relax. Sleep.”



******



I hadn’t been outside the one small room in weeks. In months. I was trapped. Kept. Used.



I could not make my own choices, except one small defiance.



And even that had its inevitable conclusion, as he asked me for the ring.



I could only apologize for keeping it in my pocket and not on my hand.



“We understand… you did not have the strength to do it yourself.”



He took my left hand and slipped the golden Phoenix ring on my third finger…



I would never get it off.



I thought I cried out for him to stop, or I screamed, or ran away.



I was running. I ran into someone.



I was caught by familiar hands in a pitch-black hallway. They weren’t large or rough or strong; they were warm, smooth, and soft.



Soft.



He cupped my face in his hands and kissed me, and as the familiar scent filled my nose, I felt a tear escape down my cheek. I was mortified that it might wet his fingers and he’d know.



“You will return to him,” a voice whispered, and I was not sure if it belonged to the one who had kissed me or not. “You have to. You can’t get the ring to come off any other way.”



******



I rose abruptly out of reverie clutching my fingers. I did feel a ring…but it was Callitro’s. Even in the dark, I would have known if there was a firebird form on it. My ring was on the correct hand and finger, and it was smooth. It was familiar.



Next I felt around my neck, and found Kurn’s ruby twisted about its mended thread in an uncomfortable way. I clutched at it and tried too hard, too quickly to rip it off; I only ended up causing a mild rope burn around my neck. When it didn’t give the first time, I left it there, my heart pounding in my ears as I forced myself to think, and think clearly, not just react.



What had happened?



The next moment I felt the immediate burn of anger and humiliation in the pit of my stomach as well, telling me not all was well. After three deep breaths, I did remember, even if most of it was from the view of someone seriously impaired by several kinds of mushrooms.



Cris-ri-phon must have used the Ma’ab ruby in exactly the way that Kurn and Amelda had both intended; he demonstrated how it should be done, although at least without those two watching…thank Lolth for small favors.



The sorcerer had used wild magic on me, I was sure, forcing me to breed with him.



*Oh, no…*



How could my unborn have survived such powerful, overwhelming magic?



I touched gingerly between my thighs in the completely dark room, simultaneously becoming aware of a large male sleeping next to me, breathing deeply. I inhaled slowly, identifying Cris but afraid that I would smell too much blood as well, the only possible source being from my womb…



I didn’t. I smelled no blood at all. Nor any fluids of mating. I was clean and dry between my legs, and so was the bedding; I was not lying in a giant wet spot as when I’d fallen into desperate reverie. I dared to think the bedding were replacements. My pussy—which should have been raw from the forceful, multiple couplings—felt well and normal. As if I had not had sex in the last week. As it had felt after Amelda had healed me.



My fingers and palm next went to my abdomen, and I prodded myself very gently, trying to feel for tender spots or cramps around that warm place deep inside, which I’d noticed was getting just a little firmer as time passed. No pain as I pressed in; it felt about the same.



He must have healed me, but selectively, very localized; my netherhole certainly felt like it had been fucked, and very roughly. It throbbed when I shifted, and I wondered at first how many times it had been used to hurt so. I only remembered the one time at the end. Perhaps he’d substituted repetition with pure force, thinking I couldn’t tell the difference.



I sat up, muscles a bit sore from sustained sex—funny enough, I did know what that felt like before now—and I discovered, as a bit of wetness escaped my back hole, that Cris had left his last spending where he knew that I would feel it, and where I wouldn’t panic to have his seed inside my body.



I had already begun to suspect what he planned say to me when he woke up. But that wasn’t what had happened, was it?



Upon letting my eyes become accustomed to my surroundings, recognizable shapes which I had already seen in candlelight came into being in the dark: the table and chairs, the many shelves with their objects of art and magic, the stands and chests and desk.



I saw where my belongings had been piled near the table. I knew where the water and towels were as well, and I got up silently with a thought to clean myself. The water would not be heated so pleasantly, it would be cold, but I could still finish up the small bit of cleaning left to be done.



Before I did anything else, though, I went to where my belt had been discarded, let my babies out—with firm instructions to stay with my armor and items—and swallowed one of Shyntre’s wellness pellets dry. I told myself I could use the boost, I supposed, because I did not know what else to do to protect my womb. Without blood, I would not take one of my actual quick-healing draughts, as I only had two of those. And now there were sixteen of Shyntre’s pellets left.



I cleaned between my buttocks next, the cool cloth soothing my raw ring, as I listened to Cris’s breathing remain even. He should be exhausted after what he did; no breeding male performed as he had without strong magic, and that always had a price. I would not assume that Cris had fallen asleep next to an assassin without some kind of touch-ward to protect him—in case I foolishly tried to kill him in his sleep— but he had to be in a deep repose.



I did not know how many times he had climaxed, though; the evidence was gone, except for one large deposit in my ass.



I had begun dressing quickly, realizing my stomach had been empty for far too long, when I spied Soul Drinker on the floor back and behind the table, half beneath one of the chests. That was where Cris had swatted it out of my hands after I’d managed at last to sheath it by my own will…



…and after he’d seen the Drow ritual in my head, and knew of my regained fertility.



Was I supposed to remember events this clearly?



From what Amelda had said, I should only have the evidence on my body and in the room what had happened to me, and that also matched what Kurn had first threatened at Sarilis’s Tower, that I would not be able to help but “serve” him. Perhaps, like Kurn drugged in the canyon, memories should be blank at first, spotty at best, and perhaps return only slowly.



But I remembered…so much. Even as I had not been able to control my own body, even as I watched myself seem to enjoy being used, so powerless.



Powerless. I had been so before when Kerse had had control of me, the Illthid had called me a “thrall aware”…



I shied away from the memory once again, pressing a palm to my forehead and biting my lip. I thought instead about Innathi encouraging my surrender, and how Cris had not wanted to touch Soul Drinker after I had claimed it. I could probably leave it here while I ate and it would still be there when I came back…and I wanted to leave it here. I did not want to talk to her.



Or rather, I wanted to leave the dagger… if I could get past the ward on the door.



Damn.



I frowned at the notion of having to wake him, of having to speak to him this soon. I felt… ill… and angry. My resentment started to boil as I thought of and discarded ways I might leave without having to wake him.



Yet… if this had all happened regardless of my wishes, then what had been the purpose? The purpose had been to have him believe I was a “willing ally” now, that I was enchanted by him…to have him believe I carried his offspring, and would return to him. If I was openly angry or accusatory, if I still fought even now…then the risk already done to my unborn would be for nothing.



I had to pretend that I didn’t remember.



Sighing softly, I finished dressing, deliberately removed and stuffed the Ma’ab ruby into a pouch yet again, and walked back over to Cris’s bed. I sat down gently and reached to touch his face with a much lighter touch than he deserved.



“Cris?”



He shifted heavily with a mutter, and nothing happened with a touch-ward, perhaps because like with Shyntre before, I did not intend to harm.



“Cris.” I shook his shoulder.



“Mmm?” he mumbled.



“Lower the ward on the door, please, I have to eat.”



On cue, my stomach growled, and in the dark I could still tell the general shape of his face; I knew that he had smiled. He reached out for me, touched my forearm, and found my bracers.



“Dressed already,” he said sleepily.



“I am very hungry,” I repeated, trying to hold on to my fraying patience.



He lifted himself up just enough to catch my shoulders and pull me down into a kiss. I did not fight, but I leaned back up as soon as reasonable.



“You have sated my hunger, deft, little fighter.”



I quelled my irritation and offered a small chuckle. “Yes, my backside thanks you for the enthusiasm.”



“Given your reluctance for the more conventional sex, I am most grateful you enjoy being ridden so.”



I kept my smile, as if satisfied with many orgasms. Which I supposed I indeed was. “I thank you for keeping your word.”



“Of course.” He reached out and caressed my hand; I squeezed back.



“Come, Cris, I am still hungry…”



“I suppose you must be famished,” he yawned. “You missed dinner. Very well. Will you be back soon?”



“I would check on my servant and Mathias with his prisoner, if it pleases.”



As if I needed his permission not to come straight back to bed.



“Mm. It cannot wait?”



“I do not sleep as long as you. I would be bored cooped up here watching you sleep.”



He chuckled. “The ward is down, my goddess. Touch Soul Drinker to the door if you wish to be let back in before dawn. Feed well. Wake Elana if necessary.”



“Thank you.”



I collected my pack, my spiders, and my cloak. In keeping with my ruse of not wanting to flay his skin and pin him by its strips to the wall, I attached Soul Drinker to my pack as well, just to keep it with me. It would seem odd of me to leave it behind, especially after he made it my key to come back in.



Though I would avoid returning here again, if at all possible. Sleeping in the sorcerer’s private chambers was as dangerous as if I’d chosen to sleep in Kurn’s guest room while he was present.



I verified that the ward was down and I let myself out; I felt it set itself again within moments of my latching the door.



Coming around the corner from the short hall, I nearly stepped on someone’s hand before it not only moved suddenly, but started crawling away frantically on its fingers. The hand lacked an arm, a torso, an entire body, but my yelp from, fortunately, was caught in my throat, and I watched the thing move toward the kitchen.



Probably toward the cellar.



Gavin.



I moved quickly to catch up, feeling like I was chasing a rodent, but at least I needed no light. Odd that I had not smelled anything dead in the hall, but…if it was a Witch Hunter’s hand hovering near Brom’s door, I would know little of what Gavin had done to it to make it move on its own like it had intelligence.



My reticent ally met me in the kitchen, standing calmly in the dark with his hood up hiding the nuances of his face. As the severed hand made its way to him, he bent to lift it and placed it on a counter beside him, where it went dead still.



“You live,” he commented quietly.



I swallowed; certainly I was hungry, and that was a good sign, but his comment brought another thought to mind. He could see me in the dark in a specific way that I could not see him. The necromancer could answer that burning question for me; he was an objective source I could trust.



“Can you see my auras?” I asked.



“Well…perhaps,” he said in mild amusement, as if it was an understatement. “They are…dancing…more than usual, as if you’ve used quite a lot of magic recently.”



One point for him.



I moved a bit closer to whisper. “What about my unborn’s life aura?”



His hood moved as if he was looking down and I gave him the time he needed to focus on my abdomen, though I stood tensely.



“Strengthening, as always,” he said at last.



“It…hasn’t changed?” I asked. “Become…smaller than before?”



He tilted his head slightly. “Mm. No. I don’t believe it works that way. It fades, or winks out, but it does not shrink yet remain bright if it is healthy.”



“And it is bright?”



He nodded. “As I said, strengthening.”



I wanted to expel a large breath of relief, but I nodded as well. “Thank you, Gavin.”



Now I needed to eat. Right this instant. I foraged, finding the leftover evening meal and helping myself. Gavin did not seem overly eager to begin a conversation as he watched me sit and fill my stomach, though perhaps he was only waiting for when I might be able to give him better concentration.



He chose to speak when I seemed to be losing momentum. “Quite a lot of activity since you last left my company.”



“For me or for you?”



“Certainly for you and Kurn. He came looking for you down in my cellar.”



I looked him over; even in the dark, I could tell he wasn’t missing limbs. “How did that fare for you?”



“Amusing. He lost to you again, I gathered, when he started making demands of what I knew of a ‘Warpstone cult’ we’ve been conscripted into exterminating because of it.”



I nodded, actually able to feel amused as well for a moment. “And what did you tell him, compared to what you know?”



A slight shrug. “I spoke what I knew, but it wasn’t much more than Castis. Chaos-touched individuals, infused with a power I do not think any mortal creature can wield, at least with a deliberation that would make any sense to us.”



“The sorcerer told me magic helps dissipate it further.”



“Indeed. The power of chaos is never stable and a focused will is the only means to hold it here, or to give it that push to unravel fully. Spells are focused will manifested, in a way, so it’s an obvious conclusion to make. It makes pockets of warpstone more an annoyance as long as one has a mage of sufficient ability to deal with them.”



I smirked, finishing my last bite. “Not something Manalar is helping to maintain.”



“Not the female flavor, anyway. Though considering the teachings the Hunters preach, it may be that few priests know the difference between any form of magic not their own.” Gavin turned his head briefly toward the rear of the inn. “Since you bring it up, Mathias broke the Witch Hunter a few hours ago. He’s been questioning him, but if you have anything specific you wish to ask, you’d best do it soon.”

I felt surprise. “Hm. Has Mathias even slept?”



“My understanding is he has not.”



“How is that possible?”



Gavin shrugged. “You would have to ask him.”



“Have you been to see the Witch Hunter?”



“I have, briefly, when I searched for you and sought to make sure he would be alive for my use when Mathias finished with him. I figured you had not been keeping to one place for the day and part of this night it has been since I saw you.”



I shook my head, rubbing my forehead as a hollow ache returned. “Are you asking?”



“It might be good to know the basics of our recent movements, but perhaps we can go outside between the buildings to talk? It is still dark out.”



I nodded, glancing toward the short hall leading to his cellar. “What of the Men watching?”



“Fell asleep. It is very late.”



That was all that Gavin would say until we relocated outside the inn, his third hand slipped into a deep pouch on his waist, and out into that small section of soft dirt and thin trees between buildings. It was much cooler, pleasant if still a bit humid, and I had missed seeing the Stars and Moons while being trapped. The air was fresh and I inhaled deeply, feeling my head clear a bit in doing so.



“So, where have you been, Sirana?” Gavin prompted, his robe moving in the open air as he shifted beneath the branches of a tree, the shadows helping to break up his form for any who could not see in the dark as well as I could.



“I went to see Mathias earlier, after I left the cellar,” I recalled. It seemed longer ago than it was. “I saw some of his technique for a few hours, although the Witch Hunter was still full of fire then. Late in the afternoon, I went into a guest room to draw the Drow relic in safety, and I spoke to the soul again…though that was interrupted by Kurn and Amelda.”



Gavin nodded. “And after that spat, no one saw you again. In Brom’s room the entire time?”



I nodded slowly.



“And something happened to soak you in magic and make you worry for your unborn babe.”



“Yes. The sorcerer can do as he wishes with us while we are here. We need to leave soon as we can.”



Gavin nodded in agreement and did not ask for details. “What did the soul say before you were interrupted?”



“First tell me what you’ve been doing, Gavin.”



“Very well. I got a great deal of work done, and came up shortly after Kurn’s tantrum in my cellar—he did not stay long, he did not care for our company. I visited Mathias, among other things. I eventually determined you to be in our host’s room again, but assumed it to be voluntary. At least, until our Lord Brom emerged to have a late supper and would only tell me that you were ‘resting.’”



I felt the heat settle in my chest again thinking about that; the sorcerer would have left me as I was, then, naked, exhausted, sopping with his seed, though he would have cleaned himself up to leave the room. At some point he had cleaned me up and partially healed me as well, changing the bedding.



He could have had food and fresh bedding brought to him instead, though; he did not have to leave to get either from his loyal servants.



“He must have had goals to come out at all,” I said.



“To speak to his unruly daughter, for one,” Gavin told me helpfully. “And to Kurn, for another. Both times, Brom was speaking in Ma’ab, so unfortunately I do not have specifics. My ear to the ground says he put both in their place, though. Our host is firmly in command, as always.”



I nodded. Unfortunately. “What would you say was Kurn’s demeanor?”



That did not seem to be something to which Gavin had given much thought before now, and he may not have been able to understand nuances in tone like I sometimes could, but he made the attempt, which I took for what it was worth.



“Bravado…stubbornness, of course, but…perhaps more cautious, at last. He did not try to bellow or tower over our host. His voice sounded a bit different, rougher, but the difference was not something I could place.”



I felt myself smile for the first time since leaving Brom’s quarters. “Ah. That may have been my dagger punch to the throat. Amelda healed him, but he would still remember the shock. It severed his windpipe. I am sure Brom would use it against him in their discussion.”



“So now the Drow is finally being vicious.”



It nearly sounded like Gavin was teasing me, and I tried to look at his face inside the hood; I would say that he was smiling.



“Vicious? He broke my hand,” I said in a reasonable tone. “It could only escalate from there.”



Gavin looked at my gloved hands. “They seem normal.”



“Amelda knows some healing and is afraid of spiders.”



The necromancer chuckled. “I am almost sorry I missed it.”



“Would you have just watched the conflict?” I asked with a smirk.



“Likely not.”



“Likely?”



He nodded, but said nothing more, still seeming amused. I decided not to push it, though I rolled my eyes.



“So what else with you?” I asked.



“After my check in with Mathias,” the young necromancer said, “I left something behind. Fortunately Brom did not notice when he visited our interrogator as well, and they chose to speak Common.”



I perked up significantly. “What did Mathias and Brom discuss?”



“His progress, which was significant at that point. I don’t think Jacob was aware of much.”



“No?”



“Brom did not seem to want a piece of the Hunter himself. He was too interested in what Mathias planned before, during, and after Manalar.”



A tingle went down my spine. “And Mathias said?”



Gavin was very succinct. “He came because he hoped for an opportunity to capture and break a Witch Hunter, and he got that. He is now less motivated to risk the temple itself. He would still follow Brom, and this scenario was perfect for him; he agreed with the sorcerer that the time with Jacob was a gift worthy of a future exchange of information.”



I pursed my lips. “Brom will have eyes in our group.”



“Yes, he will.”



Damn it… “Do you know if Mathias is a middle mouth between Sarilis and Brom?”



Gavin seemed surprised to hear that at first, but contemplated. “I see where that connection can be made, but I doubt the two—if they know of each other—are cooperating much. But I do not know for certain.”



“Then why were you sent for Mathias? How does Sarilis know him?”



Gavin rubbed his jaw, his hand—like his face—partially obscured by night-blue shadow inside his hood. “Well. That may have more to do with Sarilis’s prior service to a particular landowner than Brom the innkeeper. Mathias is a son of Sarilis’s former lord, from what I gathered, before the old goat found his abandoned Tower. This previous lord may have had some…morbid tastes, shall we say, apparently passed on to his restless son.”



That did make sense, but I marveled at the happenstance at first. Though, Elana had said Mathias passed through here frequently, probably served Brom because he was tolerant of—even encouraged—his taste for torture, and Gavin said now that he had wanted a Witch Hunter specifically on this quest. He would have been going back and forth between his homeland and Manalar’s territory for years now, for reasons of his own.



If Mathias’s sire, who was of some wealth, had his own “dark mage” ally in Sarilis… was that really a surprise in a Surface land that encouraged only private, solitary magic outside of Manalar’s temple? Quiet alliances and the use of magic in trade for wealth and indulgence…there would likely be connections between every mage of ability and those currently in power or with strong desires or ambition. This would be a pattern across the entire land.



Just as it was in my City, these connections were not simple luck. In the grand picture, it made sense as power was ever flowing. Just as Gavin, now proving his own ability, had connections with both Ma’ab and Manalar—like Brom—as well as connections to the Drow of the Underdark, like Sarilis…



Who else besides Brom could be connected to the Guild, I wondered? That could be tougher to determine.



I brought my attention back to my informative ally. “Did Brom speak anything specific about me?”



Gavin seemed to have been waiting for that. “Yes. He wants Mathias to support you over Kurn, even protect you if needed. Another quick agreement, Mathias said he thought you would be amenable. I believe Mathias will only go to the temple now to keep an eye on you, perhaps loot something, and I consider it sheer luck that your sapphire did not come up in their discussion. Perhaps Mathias has forgotten he carries it in his enjoyment of his current task.”



Well…that was the only good thing about this so far. I was still glad to know of Brom’s instruction to Mathias; better to know than to only suspect. Likewise, it did not seem that Mathias had said anything to Brom about the particular tactic he’d used with me, “worshipping” me to learn more of his prey’s weak spots. I could not really ask without giving that hint to Gavin, though; I would have to assume for now that Mathias had been truthful about no one knowing of our play if I did not speak it myself.



The Grey Maiden’s apprentice then looked toward the outbuilding, seeming to focus on it well beyond looking at it. Then he turned back to me. “I think we should visit them now, while we can.”



I nodded and led the way toward the door of the smaller building. Like before, I could smell strongly of what was inside, and it had changed enough for me to fill in more of the time since I’d been here last. The sweat was mixed with several other fluids, the fear and sharp tang of resistance condensed down into despair and simpler suffering.



I tapped on the door again, exactly as I had before but without speaking. It seemed to be enough; Mathias came to the door readily and peeked out.



“Both of you,” he observed.



“Gavin just told me we had limited time. I’d like the opportunity for you to ask a few of my questions.”



Mathias nodded deliberately and opened the door wider for us to step in. He was stripped to the waist now, similar to his prisoner before though he kept his boots, and he was badly in need of a bath, his hair flattened from regular perspiration. The temperature inside was very warm and humid, as the place had been shuttered up with little ventilation since the interrogation had begun.



The skin hunter’s face remained calm, and his eyes oddly empty as they had been before. There was evidence that he’d been brought food and water, at least, but if he had not slept—and neither had Jacob—then I thought it must be magic or substance keeping them both conscious. I noticed some black, soot-like coloring and smears on the fingers of his right hand.



“Come in,” our host gestured after securing the door. “I’ve already asked about alternate ways into the city and the temple. I have details of their dungeon—he was very familiar with that—and the temple’s and inner city’s layout as it is within the past two years. Also known check-points, though those can change easily, he said. Approximate number of guards at each one, in what places around the temple. You can see my sketches, they are rolled up in the leather, but you may have to ask about the shorthand.”



I didn’t point out that I couldn’t read it at all, but would have to rely on Gavin’s observations as we both looked at it. Mathias was quiet and relaxed, drinking from a skin and watching us, as Gavin plucked the rolled parchment from the leather carrier and unrolled each of the three in succession, his blue-black eyes scanning them after he set one of the lanterns behind him to read.



I was interested in the layout and notes, surely, but Gavin needed a bit of time and I could use that time to observe a few details of Jacob. He was no longer standing in the middle of the room with wrists chained to the ceiling; he had been repositioned onto the tilted wooden cross bolted to the wall at an angle, and lashed to that on his back. He was completely nude by this point, spread-eagled, and there were more whip marks now on his front, a few burns and other wounds, but somehow Mathias had broken the Witch Hunter without real disfigurement…fingers, toes, ears…nothing was missing.



Except for most of his body hair. Mathias had shorn short what would have been around his groin, and severely shortened what blonde hair had been on his head. The chest and armpit hair was reduced as well. The skin hunter had probably done all of it with a very sharp, but small, knife, and he’d been patient.



Jacob chanted softly in his own language and seemed partially conscious still, his head rolling from one side to the other as he looked upward. I heard “Musanlo” many times, but instead of being spoken with pride or threat…I thought he was beseeching.



There was another scent to the room as well, one with which I was very familiar, especially recently. As my eyes noted the details on the Witch Hunter that I fully expected to find, I unexpectedly I made the comparison that I had been left in a similar state as Jacob just a few hours before…though on a much more comfortable, if still quite soiled, bed. I was not pleased with the commonality between us, especially as my netherhole was still sorer than even my breasts, enough to remind me of my helplessness.



Rather than dwell on the event, however, I considered how this tactic—something I had gone through for much longer in my initiation into the Sisterhood, and that even Brom could not use in full to force my cooperation—this had broken a Witch Hunter, had left him whole in body but willing to betray his own brotherhood in a mere day and a half. D’Shea and the Sisterhood had been right about being brittle rather than bendable, when immediate death was not the goal.



I would have to admit that I did not know every tactic Mathias might have used, seeing as there were no obvious injuries that detailed anything besides the whipping, but that which the Sisterhood used on our target in the City had definitely been used here.



Unwilling penetration did frighten even Drow Nobles at times, when it went very far against what they might prefer, given the choice. Or if, in their pride, they enjoyed it more than they wanted to grant to their new dominator, but could not hide it. Some had more difficulty accepting defeat than others.



It was interesting to think of a male like Mathias being quite comfortable with the Sisterhood in methods of wearing down a target regardless of gender.



As Gavin finished up studying the notes, I did ask Mathias one question.



“Was it because of your past, or specifically his, that you enjoyed him so?”



The skin hunter looked at me, took another drink, and looked at his prisoner. He just smiled at me and did not answer.



Gavin cleared his throat to get my attention and pointed to something on the map. “Multiple ways to get inside the temple once we are within the walls of the city. It is getting inside those walls which may be challenging. There is the undercroft, which he says is flooded and magically protected, and there is the main gate.”



“That he knows of,” Mathias murmured.



I considered and dug into one pouch for the platinum drake and held it for both to see; similar to Rithal, they seemed surprised to see it.



“Where did you get that?” Gavin asked.



“Lord Brom,” I said. “He said we might be able to use it to get past checkpoints, if we are disguised and have current pass phrases.”



The skin hunter grinned and got to his feet, setting down the waterskin. “Excellent.”



Mathias wasted no time walking to Jacob’s side and patting his face to get his attention. The taller Human did not have to lean over much at all to be face-to-face with his victim. “Enough praying, sweetmeat, time to talk again.”



Jacob squeezed his eyes more tightly, turning his head away from the interrogator and muttering more loudly in his chant. Mathias just smiled and reached to insert his thumb into the other’s mouth, gripping him as if he were lifting a fish out of the water, pulling the head back over to face him. It would seem that his thumb also depressed the Witch Hunter’s tongue as well as blocked the lips from forming sounds, making the chanting even more indistinct, until it was mostly a vocal moan.



“Now you remember, no biting,” Mathias grinned, squeezing the soft part of the jaw in a way I knew to be quite painful—and indeed, the other Man obeyed and did not bite, though his body went tense. “You going to listen and answer truthfully, or do we start over again?”



Jacob shook and shuddered once, and went quiet, his eyes opening, and he seemed to be waiting for Mathias to speak. Very impressive.



“Give me current pass phrases for your Nobility to pass check points without being searched,” Mathias demanded lowly, gradually removing his thumb and his hand from Jacob’s jaw, who smacked his lips and swallowed before answering. He answered in Manalar.



“Which means what?”



“Sun-scorched eternity for all,” Gavin spoke up. “And ‘Lightbearer bless the Archbishop.’”



Mathias glanced the necromancer’s way and nodded before looking back at Jacob. “Appropriate at what points?”



“A-any… e-except the main gate.”



“And the main gate?”



Jacob made a very brief attempt to resist again, to not answer, but it was almost meaningless at this point. Perhaps he was only testing if Mathias would still pay attention to him or if he was bored now. All it took was a somewhat threatening cupping of his genitals and Jacob yelped as if it had hurt quite a bit, jerking against his bonds.



“No, no, pray not…!”



“The main gate.”



He answered with a bad stutter.



Gavin smirked hearing it. “The Morningstar comes.”



“And you can teach us the pronunciation,” Mathias said, to which the gaunt apprentice nodded. “Excellent. Anything else?”



“I would ask something,” I said.



“Let me ask it for you.”



I shook my head. “For his ears only.”



The skin hunter frowned over at me but considered, then gestured for me to come closer. Mathias’s gaze never left Jacob as the Witch Hunter became slowly aware of me standing next to his interrogator. There was an instant flash of hatred in his light brown eyes as he recognized me, but it did not last long as Jacob nervously glanced at Mathias.



If my intuition was correct, there seemed to be some kind of association here. It would not surprise me if Mathias had found out more specifics of Witch Hunter punishments on females in general and had turned them back around on him. Certainly, it provided balance.



“You will answer her as you have answered me, or she gets to watch the next time,” Mathias said.



Somehow more sweat seemed to pop up on Jacob’s forehead and he nodded defeatedly. Mathias stepped away, and Jacob kept his eyes down, frowning and refusing to look at me, but all I needed was for him to answer not make eye contact.



“Answer yes or no only,” I whispered as I stepped closer and leaned very near his round ear. He smelled quite rank. “Answer any other way, and I call the skin hunter to dispense your punishment for my enjoyment. Do you understand?”



“Yes,” he said, his voice sounding as though crushed by gravel. He did not even nod his head.



“Very good. Do you see me clearly, white hair and black skin with pointed ears?”



His eyes flicked to me very briefly and his face reddened but he nodded, then quickly corrected, “Yes.”



“Have you ever seen this coloring before?”



“No.”



“Have you ever heard of this coloring before?”



“…Yes.”



“You pause. Only half true?”



He swallowed. “Yes.”



“Which part is true, the black skin?”



“Yes.”



“White hair?”



“No.”



“Pointed ears?”



“Yes.”



I thought about that. “You heard this from whom, your ArchBishop?”



“Yes.”



“Anyone else?”



“Yes.”



“Your Witch Hunter brothers?”



“Yes.”



“Anyone else?”



“No.”



“The hair is not true. Is the hair a natural color?”



“Yes.”



I had an immediate thought. “Black hair?”

He nodded. “Yes.”



“Male?” I asked.



He hesitated, then answered, “Yes…?”



“If not male, then not clearly female like me,” I refined.



He answered quickly. “Yes.”



The half-blood mercenary; it had to be. And I could also be reasonably certain Jacob’s group had neither glimpsed nor heard of one of my Sisters roaming around this forest recently. Both parts were good news.



“Whisper a full answer now, true and useful,” I instructed, my mouth still forming very quiet instructions near his ear. “Tell me what you have heard from your ArchBishop and fellow Witch Hunters about this?”



I rose up to make eye contact, my face very close to his; I would be smelling his breath as he spoke, but I would have to tolerate it if I wanted him quiet. I would also be able to read if he meant to shout instead…



….and immediately it looks as though he considered it. I pressed a nerve point in his arm and he gasped, his eyes going wide and pleading as his will to resist immediately collapsed. Tears formed in his eyes and Jacob shook his head.



“I-I’ll wh-whisper,” he breathed, and I eased the pressure and let him catch a breath before leaning close, expectant.



“He…he is a devil who harasses our duties, interferes with the punishment of witches,” Jacob murmured. “He has existed for decades, but strikes when least expected. When he strikes…when he breaches our holy circle at night…he tears into us all and makes one watch as he eats the hearts. It is said he leaves that one survivor to tell the ArchBishop, to taunt him. We have not yet found a way to banish him back to the Nine Hells, but the ArchBishop has sworn he will find the most deserving way.”



Hm. I liked the male half-breed already. I wondered if this was the most accurate story I had heard to date? Possible exaggerations notwithstanding.



“And you have been warned to be wary, but have never seen this devil.”



“Yes.”



“When was the last time you lost Witch Hunters to this devil?”



Jacob shook his head slightly, mouth pursing. “Less than ten years…seven. He is an infernal beast lurking in the night.”



Recent enough for me to know the mercenary likely still lived, but not recent enough to be useful in finding him now. Then again, the Valsharess had said I was not to engage him, only discover what I could about him.



I had another thought to ask. “What color, do they say, are his eyes?”



Jacob licked perspiring lips, his jaw quivering briefly. “They glow evil in the darkness. Shining gold that can pierce a man’s soul.”



Yellow eyes. My memory of Kerse game to the fore as I frowned in thought. It could not be the Draegloth the Ma’ab had captured along with his mother-Priestess, could it? The Valsharess had claimed they were not one and the same, but this description…



*Someone has done something unforgiveable, and We will know who it is…*



The Valsharess had said that. Could someone else outside the Priesthood have coupled with a demon on her own? A different demon from the Abyss, a competitor to those favored by the Priestesses, perhaps? It might explain the black hair, instead of the Drow-white hair possessed by all other Draegloth I’d seen before.



While I asked a few more questions to probe what else Jacob knew of any Drow-related stories, I found that he was at the limit of reliable knowledge—even the general size of the “devil” might be like a Draegloth, but it was dark and stories were stories in which the beast was always bigger in hindsight. The size could easily vary in memory or retelling; Tamuril had proven this, speaking what she remembered of Jaunda’s attack on her. I had to be satisfied with what I had.



And I was satisfied, actually very pleased. This much more than I had had before. My mercenary liked to cull Witch Hunters when they crossed paths, leaving one to spread horror stories of him. He likely showed them his real face. The ArchBishop Keros would know the most about it, but that was a very ambitious target at this time.



“Are you finished?” Gavin asked.



I nodded. “I am.”



Gavin then looked at Mathias, who was relaxing again, rehydrating himself. “And you?”



The skin hunter sighed as if with regret, but then grinned. “I suppose.”



Gavin looked at me with a steady, oddly eager gaze for one whose expression had not changed much from the dour slump which was normal for him. “Then may I have him? He can be of one final use to us. You may find it interesting.”



Mathias and I both nodded in agreement.



We had always intended to kill Jacob; there was no releasing him for any advantage. Even Jacob had known that before, why he was so defiant, ready to die telling us nothing at the beginning. Mathias had changed that slowly but inevitably, and now the Witch Hunter quickly recalled where he’d begun more than a day ago.



Jacob struggled and started shouting with ravaged voice in his native tongue when Gavin finished securing the notes Mathias had taken and stood up to hand them to me as we traded places. The lanterns within the dim room made for plenty of dancing shows on the wooden walls as we moved.



“I require a bucket of clean water and a cloth first,” Gavin said, ignoring whatever threats the Witch Hunter was making to him in a language they both understood.



“Barrel of rain water just outside the inn,” Mathias observed. “Completely full.”



“Would you care to get the water?” I asked.



The skin hunter sniffed an armpit and chuckled. “Could use a sluice myself. Don’t lock the door behind me.”



“Of course not.”



Mathias grabbed an available bucket already filled with soiled water from earlier and I heard the splash as he dumped it out just as he closed the door.



“He won’t be long,” Gavin said, finally lowering his hood and turning to let Jacob get a full, long look at his pale, gaunt face; the dry, more leathery skin; and not only his general ugliness but the unsettling, unnatural color of his eyes, his black teeth and fingernails.



The Witch Hunter’s eyes went doubly wide, his mouth blessedly silent.



Gavin said something with a very small smile, and Jacob shook his head in mute denial. I wished I understood the comment, but it made me more curious what Gavin himself might choose to do with a one very much like the holy Men who’d abused him as a child. If Gavin would not share those details lightly because of his pact with his mistress, then I could perhaps learn much by observing this.



I was surprised to see Gavin partly disrobe; his pack, his robe, his worn, leather armor and finally his long shirt; he removed each deliberately and with care, setting them well aside, next removing his surgical kit to place on one of the chairs. He was very focused on his motions; with how thoroughly he ignored me and Jacob both as he did this, keeping his front toward us, I had to think it was purely practical that Gavin remove any clothing at all.



Gavin kept his braies and boots on only, his ribs were showing on a hairless torso and his muscle seemed ropey attached to the long bones of his gaunt frame. He did not look nearly as strong as Kurn or even Mathias, and yet…hadn’t I watched him turn a dead Man of Brom’s size over onto his back with little effort?



Mathias returned then with the bucket of clean water, re-secured the room, and set it down near Gavin, pointing out where he’d left Jacob’s clothing, that the shirt was still fairly clean. It was clear that Mathias had poured water over himself as well; his hair was very damp and his scent not quite as strong.



“Thank you,” Gavin said flatly and got to work, immediately and impersonally wiping dirt and stains from Jacob’s skin.



Mathias had joined me and leaned against the wall, tilting toward me to whisper, “Cleaning the slate, perhaps?”



I nodded. Probably. It did not take long.



All three of us had a definite reaction when Gavin set the bucket aside and turned to retrieve something additional from his pack, the first time any of us had seen his back. He had nearly as many lash scars as Jacob had, though I knew they were much older with the way they stretched at the edges, as if the skin had grown quite a lot since they were made. But something else drew our attention as well.



Jacob’s voice broke when he bellowed something—a single word at first—then what I would have guessed was an attempt at a roaring challenge, though his voice was too damaged to sound powerful.



I watched for Gavin’s response, if any, even as I stared at the raised, stylized Sun-brand on his back, high in between his shoulder blades. It looked to have been burned there with white-hot metal half his lifetime ago.



“It is no mark of pride, fool,” Gavin murmured, choosing to answer Jacob in Common. “I’ve never made an oath to Musanlo to betray him.”



“Only priests have such a mark!” Jacob barked back like a wounded dog.



“My father did.” Gavin turned back around with the small vial in his hand, and smiled without showing his teeth. “He thought it would work to cleanse me of my dreams, somehow. He intended me to be a priest, regardless, so what was it to his god if it was a bit early to brand his son?”



*Trying to overcome the ‘Ma’ab witch’ taint, no doubt,* I thought, never mind that such magic was Gavin’s birthright and could not simply be burned out with hot iron to the skin.



“Your father whored with a witch, it is plain to me!” Jacob squeaked, though trying to sound forceful. “He could not have been wed! Your bastard blood could never be priestly, so you sold your soul to the devil! Will you now sacrifice Musanlo’s purified crusader for more power?”



“In a manner of speaking,” Gavin smiled, showing his teeth this time. “Though I would not be able to use you as I plan if you were as pure as you claim, Hunter. Remember that.”



Gavin requested Mathias’s help at that point to get Jacob to swallow what was in the vial, which was a small show in itself as I pondered the possible effects. Very soon I watched the Witch Hunter seem to itch all over, very badly, for a short time before his eyes lost focus and he stopped struggling or trying to talk.



Apparently Gavin did not want his subject to continue questioning him about his brand or his father, or resisting in his last moments. It was a rest on my battered ears, I could admit, although it would seem this tantalizing bit of history was all I would get from Gavin in this round.



The preparation seemed almost as methodical as Gavin’s earlier sorting and arranging of all the Witch Hunters and their belongings down in the cellar; I could have said that it calmed him as he demonstrated extraordinary focus now that Jacob wasn’t yelling at him. Unrolling his kit, he selected a small scalpel and made precise cuts in Jacob’s skin at multiple points on his body with careful, long-fingered hands; it took me a bit of time to discern where the pattern might lie.



I determined that the necromancer was avoiding major arteries or going too deeply in his cuts, anything that might threaten to bleed him too quickly, and while I could not read them in the slightest, the marks did resemble runes or glyphs somewhat as I’d seen the Drow mages and Priestesses use. Mathias and I remained absolutely quiet, watching; the skin hunter did not seem discomforted in the least, he was numb.



When Gavin was finished with his scalpel, he traded it for a tiny, hand-held basting brush. Or maybe it was a paint brush? His tools mixing culinary with his particular art could make these things hard for me to tell. However, he dipped the brush into the blood of each glyph separately, painting a mirrored glyph in the same location on his own pale body before moving onto the next.



I heard an unsettling whisper that seemed to bounce strangely off the wall and I jerked my head toward the door, saw nothing, then realized that the whisper was from Gavin; he was intoning very low words in that nightmare language of his. A noticeable chill seemed to seep into the room from the direction of the door. I heard Mathias draw in a breath and when I looked over, his more tanned flesh had innumerable tiny bumps as he shivered; he felt the cold as well, and he quickly reached for his shirt to put it on, even if he was still damp from his impromptu bath.



I quickly put my attention back on Gavin, watching as he moved to reach once again into another Man’s chest cavity, as he had the arsonist Witch Hunter from before. But this one was still alive and breathing. Would it work the same?



My jaw slackened somewhat when it did, when Gavin’s hand seemed to become incorporeal and slip into Jacob’s chest, pale skin surrounded by bloody glyphs. Then the necromancer began withdrawing his hand, a firm grasp on something that had to be all or part of Jacob’s essence. While the previous Witch Hunter’s essence had been pale and hazy, almost like fog, this vapor possessed vibrant colors, all manner of them, but also an oddly harsh, serpentine void that lacked any color at all, and it moved within the rest like a worm in loose sludge.



Jacob seemed to come awake as Gavin began drawing his hand back, his mouth opening in a silent scream as his body began seizing, having fits, the restraints fortunately strong enough to keep him in place. His eyes were open but he did not seem to be seeing anything around him. Blood from his cuts mixed with the clutch of colors Gavin held in his hand, as if the essence were trying to flow backward out of the necromancer’s palm and into the wounds, back into the body.



Gavin spoke more words of power, and I felt a low shudder pass beneath our feet, below the ground somehow, that I became nervous for the first time, unthinkingly covering my womb with my hand as I shifted a few steps toward the door. I didn’t know how much risk being close to this ritual was to me or my baby. I actually had the thought to leave…



“Afraid?” Mathias whispered, moving closer to my side, and my cloak masked my movement as I slowly dropped my hand from my abdomen.



“Cautious,” I replied, my jaw firming as I closed my cloak against the chill. “Did you not feel it?”



“Feel what?”



“Underneath us. Like an earth tremor.”



The Human shook his head slightly. “I didn’t.”



“I did.”



“Huh.” Mathias looked above up at the support beams and braces. “First crack and we’re out?”



I nodded, glad at least to have the excuse.



It was becoming even colder inside the small building; Mathias moved to collect his cloak when we began to see our breath. The living vapor in Gavin’s now-trembling hand had begun to take the shape of a Man, I saw Jacob’s likeness, and the blood now seemed to eat away at the gossamer threads that held so tenuously to the body. When the first one snapped like a spider’s silk, Jacob’s struggling body went slack, the face frozen in a terrified death mask, and at last the necromancer held Jacob’s soul wholly in his grasp.



The colors turned chaotic as the essence writhed and twisted like an animal trying to escape the jaws of a predator, and the black void seemed to grow, to wash out the rest of the colors until Jacob’s soul was pure black, darker than the space between Stars. It still seemed to me, though, that it fought and refused the inevitable, railing against its fate, blurring and roiling as Gavin’s glowing, blue eyes stared straight into that darkness.



The death mage spoke once again, and it became frigid in the small room; I covered my tingling ears with my gloved hands, closing my mouth and pursing my lips against the biting cold that made my teeth ache. I noticed bits of frost forming on Mathias’s damp hair as he wrapped his cloak tighter around himself. How far would this go? We may yet have to leave if we could not keep warm…



Then I became aware that the warmest part of my body was my center, lower down. As it had when I’d first woken up beside Auslan, my womb seemed abnormally hot once again, and it was pushing its heat out against the cold. I felt myself relax a bit, comforted. If I’d needed further proof that my unborn had survived Cris’s assault, I had it.



I felt certain somehow: Auslan’s divine magic, life magic diametrically opposed to Gavin’s, was still working inside me, and it was strengthening me against the powerful aura in his ritual. I had stopped shivering, I felt better, more calm, though I kept my ears covered.



The black soul’s movements had become sharper and more punctuated, restrained, as if it was throwing itself against an invisible wall; one time, it had darted out directly toward me, but again it stopped abruptly, its space seeming to shrink, to close in on itself, as every attempt to escape left it less and less slack on the leash in Gavin’s hand.



Even colorless black seemed to bubble and swirl in a way I could see, and soon I realized that Gavin held a crystal in his palm. A black, crystalline shard not quite as long as his hand was wide. It was sharp on both ends, and he used one end to slice deeply just beneath Jacob’s sternum, reaching again inside the other man’s chest with his other hand, this time quite literally.



In a move I had actually seen before from the Priestesses in a few public sacrifices, Gavin jerked, twisted, and finally removed Jacob’s heart, gripping the slippery organ tightly. He brought it to his mouth, neither hesitating nor seeming to consider much of biting into it. I heard a small, though restrained, grunt of disapproval from Mathias, and I glanced at him, surprised at the reaction compared to everything else he’d seen, and done himself. The skin hunter just shrugged and kept his mouth shut.



Gavin ate almost too quickly, and the moment he was finished the ritual seemed to end as the chill rapidly left the room. He knelt by the bucket to clean off the black shard and his hands, face, and torso before dressing. Mathias shifted his weight but both of us remained quiet as the necromancer righted himself. We watched as he rolled the shard into a scrap of leather and slipped it into a pouch.



“So, what is it for?” Mathias asked before I could, the instant the scalpel and brush were back in place and Gavin was rolling up his kit. “How will it be of use to us?”



Gavin didn’t answer as he noticed me turning my head toward the door. “Who is coming?”



“Brom,” I said.



“Hm. At least he waited until afterward.”



“Better let him in.” Mathias moved to the door and neither I nor Gavin protested. Our bounty hunter gave a small bow as he opened up without the innkeeper having to knock on his own door. “We’ve just finished the interrogation, Lord Brom. I thank you again for your hospitality and generosity.”



The older man nodded once, placing a heavy hand briefly on Mathias’s shoulder—some kind of greeting or gesture of approval or acknowledgement, I had to think—and he stepped into the outbuilding as Mathias closed the door without securing it.



Brom’s grey eyes seemed to scrape up every detail in one sweep and he quickly focused on me, his gaze flickering down to my middle subtly enough that I would have missed it if I didn’t already know what he’d tried…and what he expected to see now.



“You are well, my Lady?”



“Quite well, thank you.”



He smiled, his shoulders relaxing just a smallest bit as he looked over me again and seemed convinced. “You must be. You look…radiant.”



I frowned somewhat, not understanding whether this was meant as a polite comment on someone beautiful, or if he was making an abstract reference to my aura. He didn’t give me time to ask; he looked at Gavin.



“That was an impressive swell, young apprentice. I thought perhaps you’d lost control for a moment.”



Gavin snorted softly, mildly insulted. “I did not.”



“A very good thing. I’d have been most concerned had you hurt your mistress in some way.”



The younger mage looked briefly confused, perhaps thinking about his Patroness—as I had called his Grey Maiden “mistress” myself, once—then seemed to remember what he was supposed to be to me. “Oh. I would have suggested she gain distance if there was great risk.”

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