Tag Archives: Sherwin Leduc

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Trissiny hammered on the door for the third time. “Last chance,” she said flatly.

“I think if he was gonna come to the door, he’d have done it when we rang the bell,” said Gabriel. “Or at least the second time we rang the bell.”

“I believe his reticence is understandable,” said Shaeine. “After our previous visit, he doubtless has some idea what to expect.”

“I’m not sure I like the idea of barging in on a warlock who’s expecting it,” Ruda commented.

“I very much doubt this guy has anything to throw at us that we can’t handle,” said Trissiny, drawing her sword. “And as of now he has officially had his chance.” She wedged the tip of the blade behind one of the door’s iron hinges and began levering at it. Like most of Leduc Manor, the wood was rotted and the fixtures loose; progress wasn’t fast, but it began working free almost immediately.

“Um, I’m not sure you should be doing that,” Toby said hesitantly.

“An ax or crowbar would be better,” Trissiny grunted, “but at least I know this won’t break.”

A fiery glow washed over the manor’s ragged courtyard as Vadrieny emerged. The archdemon cleared her throat politely.

“Trissiny, if I may?”

The paladin yanked her sword free and stepped aside, allowing her up to the door. Vadrieny calmly sank her claws into the wood around its old iron latch, then ripped the entire thing free and tossed it aside. Immediately, the door sagged inward.

“Ah,” Trissiny said in satisfaction. “Thank you, Vadrieny.”

“My pleasure.”

She shoved through the door and into the ruinous entry hall, pausing to peer around.

“You feel it, I assume,” Toby murmured, coming in behind her.

She nodded. “No surprise. Even if Lord Sherwin hasn’t laid traps, this was home to a family of diabolists for who knows how many years.”

“Pshaw, bring ’em on!” Fross chimed, swooping in above their heads. “We took on a hellgate!”

“What do you think you’re doing!?” bellowed a reedy voice from the back of the hall. In the darkest, most distant corner behind the stairs, a door flew open and Sherwin Leduc himself stomped out, glaring furiously. “How dare you burst in here! Do you have any idea who—”

“Shut up,” Trissiny ordered. “We’re here to release your prisoner. Are you going to be helpful, or are you going to get hurt?”

“This is your doing!” he raged, pointing a trembling finger at Vadrieny. “I should never have let you in!”

“I’m done with you, little man,” she said disdainfully. “Now you deal with the paladins.”

“Through that door, then?” Gabriel said, circling around the rest of the group and stepping with care on the decayed floorboards. “Well, if he’s not gonna lead the way, I trust you two remember?”

“It is not far,” said Shaeine.

“Absolutely not!” Leduc shouted. “You thugs are not messing with my work! I have spent too much time and effort and money arranging this to have it all undone by a bunch of kids. I don’t care who you are!”

“You probably should,” Juniper remarked. She had removed her ring outside and now showed her normal coloring, not that it seemed to make much impression on him.

“Enough,” Trissiny said curtly, stalking forward. “Get out of the way.”

“You think you’re going to invade Leduc Manor without consequences, little girl?” he snarled. “I have means of dealing with interlopers. Don’t you dare take another step! You don’t have the authority—”

“I am the Hand of Avei!” Trissiny roared, flaring alight. Golden wings sprang forth from behind her, stretching into the cavernous emptiness of the hall and filling every corner with Avei’s radiance.

The entire building groaned as if its very stones were trying to fall down. There came cascades of sparks from across the walls and ceiling, and flashes of flame as invisible demonic wards combusted in midair around the room. Toby and Gabriel added their own blazing auras, accelerating the reaction of the manor’s defenses, and soon the whole place was filled with a haze of sulfur-scented fog. The sounds of splintering wood and breaking glass continued to echo from distant rooms.

The whole time, Trissiny didn’t so much as pause.

“You are keeping a woman imprisoned for purposes that don’t even bear mentioning!” she snarled, continuing on toward the suddenly ashen-faced Lord Leduc. “My authority ends where you muster the power to stop me, which I think you will find is nowhere!”

She casually slammed her shield into him, shoving him aside, and stalked right past. Leduc caught himself against the wall, staring in apparent stupefaction as the rest of the party trooped after Trissiny. Most gave him disdainful looks in passing. Only Fross dallied a few extra moments in the hall, conjuring up a cold wind to clear out the smoke.

“This way,” said Shaeine, slipping into the lead in the kitchen apartment and showing the others to the rear door that concealed the staircase. Vadrieny had to fold her wings in tightly to pass through, but did not retreat back into Teal. The three paladins dimmed their glows at a pointed look from the archdemon.

Moments later, the group was spreading out in the dark hall at the base of the stairs. It branched off to either side, but the room converted into Leduc’s elaborate prison stood almost across from the stairwell. Vadrieny stepped up to the door and spoke a few harsh syllables.

The others clustered around, craning their necks to peer within. The cage’s occupant had sprung upright, grasping the bars, and now stared eagerly through them at the archdemon, babbling rapidly in the same rasping tongue.

After a momentary exchange, Vadrieny nodded and withdrew, leaving only Teal, who glanced behind her at the others. “Watch your step,” she cautioned. “I don’t think the sigils on the floor will hurt any of us, but I’m not sure I wanna learn what happens when you break a holy sigil with this many demon-blooded people in the vicinity.”

“Well,” said Fross, coming to hover above her, “depending on the circumstances and the deity in question—”

“It was rhetorical, Fross,” said Ruda.

“Oh.”

“Get away from there!” Leduc howled, barreling out of the stairwell behind them. “Don’t touch her! You can’t just come in here and do this! She’s mine, I can do whatever I like with her! I know the law—succubi have no legal standing under—”

“You unbelievable imbecile, that isn’t a succubus!” Gabriel exclaimed. “Are you daft or just blind? Look at her!”

“They’re shape-shifters, you twit!” Leduc snarled right back. “She’s just being obstreperous. I have this in hand, and you will not—”

“That should have been the thing that clued you in,” Toby interrupted, staring severely at him. “A succubus wouldn’t have told you ‘no.’ They essentially never do. She’d have accepted your advances and any terms you offered and immediately begun manipulating you and working around them. You’re a diabolist; you should know that, or you have no business trying to summon one.”

“He has no business trying to summon a child of Vanislaas under any circumstances,” Trissiny snorted. “No one does.”

“Oh, so here’s the big Avenist to make sure nobody has any fun,” Leduc sneered at her. “You can talk about justice all you like, we all know you just hate the thought of a man not needing women. What are you without that control? Just a whore priced out of the market!”

Trissiny whirled and stalked right at him at a pace barely short of a run, bringing up her sword.

“Trissiny!” Shaeine said firmly. “Justice.”

The paladin came to a stop, glaring at Leduc through slitted eyes; he had staggered backward against the wall, apparently realizing only belatedly what he’d said, to judge by the horrified look on his face. After a moment she drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long hiss through her teeth. “Right. You’re correct. Thank you, Shaeine.”

“I do believe,” Ariel commented, “this man is the dumbest nominally sentient being I have ever encountered.”

“And she hangs out with Gabe! That’s sayin’ something.”

“Thank you, Ruda, for your input.”

“Oh, don’t give me that look, Arquin. Difference is, you learn. Eventually.”

Juniper cleared her throat and took Leduc by the upper arm. “Hey, can I have a word with you upstairs?”

“June,” Toby warned.

“I’m not gonna hurt him,” the dryad reassured them. “I just want to talk. C’mon, this way.” She pulled Sherwin back into the stairwell, so abruptly he nearly lost balance.

“Hey—let go of me! I won’t want—”

“Yeah, I don’t really care. You can feel free to hex me all you want, if it makes you feel better.”

His protesting voice gradually diminished as they ascended the stairs.

“I…am gonna go keep an eye on that,” Fross said, fluttering over to the stairwell. “If you need my help with anything down here, just shout.”

“Will do,” Gabriel promised, then glanced at the stairs with a frown. “And Fross? Same goes.”

“Yeah,” the pixie agreed, then zipped through the door and up the stairs.

“All right,” Toby said, turning and stepping carefully into the prison room. “What’s the plan, here?”

The rest of them followed him in, and paused, the group stretched out along the walkway of planks leading to the cage. Within, the demon now stared at them in silence, still clutching the bars.

Trissiny slowly pivoted in place, studying the room. It was practically papered in holy symbols, interrupted only where the lights were hung and the fairy altars set up.

“Well, we can’t bring her out with all this here, she’d just burn,” said Teal. “I guess…step one should be taking down those altars? They’re feeding power into the sigils. From there… I dunno. Breaking them seems like a bad idea.”

“It is,” Trissiny agreed. “Gabe, Toby… Do either of you happen to know the ritual of deconsecration?”

“Wait, you can de a consecration?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Man…I am so far behind.”

“Not in this case,” said Toby, frowning. “I’ve never even heard of that.”

“I hadn’t either,” Trissiny murmured. “It wasn’t part of my education. After that demonblood shopkeeper in Tiraas gave me an earful last winter, I looked it up. I know the ritual to purge a blessing from an Avenist sigil. But if you don’t…”

“Merely deconsecrating the golden eagles in this room is unlikely to make a substantial difference, even considering Avei’s primacy of place within the Pantheon,” said Shaeine. “Even if Toby and Gabriel can do the same with their own sigils. That would leave most still active.”

“It’s a universal ritual,” said Trissiny. “Should work on anything. But…”

“Uh, yeah,” Toby said worriedly. “I don’t know what would happen if three paladins scrubbed the blessings off a bunch of sigils of every god, but I doubt it would be much better than just breaking all these.”

“Azh’khthash mavhtchaar!” the demon said impatiently.

“Oh, keep your pants on, we’re working on it,” Gabriel retorted.

“She’s not wearin’ pants,” Ruda said helpfully.

“Look,” he snapped, rounding on her, “if you want actually do something useful, what about that sword of yours? Mithril blocks magic—it could neutralize the sigils.”

“You want me to go through this room individually poking every one of these goddamn things?” she said dryly. “That’s great, Arquin. Sure, why not. I didn’t have anything else planned for this fucking year.”

“It probably wouldn’t take more than a few hours,” said Teal, rubbing her chin. “And…well, our other option is to carefully and respectfully move each of these out of the room.”

Trissiny shook her head. “I have to say this is a dilemma I never expected to face.”

“Okay, hang on,” said Gabriel, closing his eyes.

“Uh, hey,” Ruda said, “can you nap on your own—”

“Ruda, be silent,” Shaeine said flatly. Ruda blinked and turned to her in surprise. “He’s reaching out to his deity. At this point, we should welcome any option.”

“Right,” Gabriel said, heaving a sigh and opening his eyes. “Okay. Got a solution. I can shadow-jump her out of the cage and into the hall. It was safe for Vadrieny outside the room, so she should be fine.”

The others stared at him, Trissiny and Shaeine having to crane around their classmates to see.

“You can shadow-jump?” Trissiny finally demanded. “Since when?”

“Gabe,” Toby said, frowning, “you haven’t been studying infernal magic, have you?”

“Little known fact,” said Gabriel, “but shadow-jumping isn’t actually infernal magic. It’s a kind of shadow magic, which can in theory be done by any of the four schools, but the infernal is easiest. Anyway, no, I can’t just do it at will. But it’s something Vidius does upon request for his most…uh, senior priests. If he considers the reason worthwhile.”

“And he considers this worthwhile?” Trissiny frowned, turning back to peer at the caged demon. “I have to say I’m…surprised.”

“Hey, if you want to know why a god does something, I can’t help you,” Gabriel said wryly. “He did say last spring that he was interested in seeing if demons are worth more than just target practice. And, I mean, he’s no Avei, but the guy has a basic sense of fairness. This shit right here would be unacceptable even if she was an aggressor. Considering she was basically kidnapped…”

“All right,” said Teal, “I’d better try to explain it to her. Excuse me…”

She very carefully edged past Toby and Trissiny to the front, approaching the cage. The demon watched her flatly. That close, the contrast with Teal made it obvious what a physically powerful specimen the prisoner was—she towered head and shoulders above the bard, and was far more muscular of build than any woman any of them had seen before. Aside from the spiked iron bracers, her only garment was a leather wrap that encased her from just below her arms to just above her knees—it left a lot of her skin on display, and every inch of that was laid over bulging muscle.

“Hhthrazhkin duon,” Teal said carefully. “Vreskin hrazth ag szhagsnad.”

The demon, incongruously, grinned widely and snickered. Teal sighed heavily, running a hand over her face.

“Are you telling her jokes?” Ruda demanded.

“No,” Teal said in irritation. “It’s just… Vadrieny’s feeding me the words, but they’re hard to form. My pronunciation…isn’t great. If I could just let her out to do this it’d be a lot easier, but last time the sigils…”

“You’re lucky you have that Talisman of Absolution,” said Toby. “Or you both could have been seriously harmed.”

“Yeah,” Teal agreed, turning back to the demon. “Talk amongst yourselves, I’m gonna try to explain things. It could take a bit to get it right.”

“I’m not surprised,” Ruda said in a quieter tone as Teal carried on rasping at the demon. “That whole fucking language sounds like a cat horking something up.”

“I’ve always wondered about that,” Gabriel murmured. “It seems weird. Most demons have the same basic kind of vocal apparatus we do, right? I mean, the sentient ones.”

“They do,” said Trissiny, “and it’s neither weird nor a coincidence. Demonic is a constructed language; it was designed by Scyllith. The goddess of cruelty.”

“It’s not just the pronunciation,” Shaeine added. “The Scyllithene dialect of elvish is influenced by demonic. The accent is only subtly different, but grammar and word order is all turned around, and not in a pattern that seems consistent. Admittedly, though, our exchanges with our Scyllithene cousins are rarely verbal.”

They all turned to watch for a moment as Teal fell silent and the demon began speaking; her voice was deep and made the guttural tongue seem to fill the room. Several of the sigils rattled very softly against each other.

“So, about shadow-jumping,” Toby said quietly. “Care to go into a little more detail on that, Gabe?”

“All right, well…” Gabriel scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I know you guys have only taken Yornhaldt’s basic classes, but in the actual arcane degree program….uh. Let me think how to put it. Fross is better at explaining these things…”

“Allow me?” Ariel suggested. “Shadow magic refers to any classification of spell that does not belong to one of the four schools on the Circle of Interaction. There are few such, but they do exist—for example, the source of vampires. Shadow-jumping is one such type of spell. Its magic cannot be accessed directly by our methods, and requires an intermediary use of Circle-compliant magic. Doubtless it was easier to access before the Elder War, but many of the rules were changed with the fall of the Elder Gods and the creation of the divine and arcane energy fields.

“In essence, it is an issue of power. Infernal magic has a naturally corrosive effect on physical reality, and so when manipulated in the right way is useful for boring a hole between two places, which is the essence of what shadow-jumping is, and activates the effect. With the other three schools, there is just not enough energy. An arcanist can simply teleport far more cheaply; a cleric could not handle the requisite amount of divine power without being incinerated by it. And by the time a witch gathered up enough totems of power and fairy allies to perform such a feat, she could have just walked there. Thus, shadow-jumping is commonly only done by diabolists. The only exception is when a deity intervenes to do it for a follower, as is apparently the case with Vidius and his senior priests and now Hand. I didn’t know that either,” she added somewhat petulantly.

“You’re a pretty good lecturer, Ariel,” Toby said, grinning. “You could almost teach a class yourself.”

“I have often thought so. Not that Professor Ekoi sets the bar very high.”

“Hey, I like Ekoi,” Gabriel protested. “I mean, when she’s not sticking her claws in me. She’s funny. Sly, I mean, not goofy like Rafe.”

“Okay,” Teal called. “I think we’ve reached an understanding here. Gabriel, you need to touch her, right?”

“Right.”

“She’ll allow it, as long as you’re respectful.”

“Dear gods in the sky,” he said, wide-eyed, “I just need a grip on her arm. I’m not gonna grope her.”

“I understand that, Gabe,” the bard said patiently, “but you need to consider where she’s been and what Leduc’s been trying to get her to do. Her tolerance is understandably low.”

“Ah… Yeah, point taken.”

He carefully eased past the others to join Teal at the bars.

“Schkhurrankh, vzash’ke Gabriel,” Teal said. “Gabriel, meet Schkhurrankh. Don’t try to say it; I’m having a hard enough time, and the slightest mispronunciation of someone’s name is basically demanding a duel in her culture.”

“How the hell are they not all dead?” he marveled. “Uh, hi there…ma’am. Nice to meet you. I’m Gabe; I’m a friend, promise.” He gingerly slipped one hand through the bars, holding it up toward her face. Schkhurrankh peered at it, then tilted her head, frowning down at him.

“Gabriel, she is hardly going to sniff your fingers,” said Ariel, “and I dearly hope she doesn’t understand the implication.”

“Uh, right!” he said, quickly lowering his arm and gesturing toward one of hers.

“Let’s be moving back toward the hall,” suggested Trissiny. “Leave them space to arrive, but…”

“But it’s best if we’re around when she’s out of that cage,” Teal agreed. “I think it’s best if Vadrieny’s there, in fact.”

As they filed out the door, the demon finally took Gabriel’s arm, wrapping her enormous clawed fingers around his wrist and leaving him to do the same with hers.

“Vladskhaar n’zud, tzukhlunth,” she warned.

“Somehow, I don’t even need that translated,” he said. “All right, hold on to your… Uh, you know what, never mind. Here we go.”

In that brightly-lit room, the swelling up of shadows around the cage was so visually wrong it was disconcerting; the simultaneous deepening of the darkness in the already-dim hall outside seemed much more appropriate. Gabriel and Schkhurrankh re-materialized in the center of the hall, just as Trissiny stepped out of the prison room, the last to arrive. In the next moment, Vadrieny emerged from within Teal, adding her orange glow to the dimness.

Schkhurrankh drew in a deep breath, her powerful chest swelling, then let it out as a deafening roar, whirled and began slamming her fists into the stone wall. Craters formed immediately; dust shook from the ceiling and more and more fragments of stone were sent flying, prompting Shaeine to shield herself and Ruda behind silver spheres. Toby held up a hand to protect his eyes; Trissiny was armored and Gabriel durable, and added no magical effects. All three paladins were reluctant to flash any divine magic at the towering demon. She was grinning in exultation as she systematically pummeled the stonework, as if punishing the manor itself for daring to have imprisoned her.

“Um,” said Toby, “not that she doesn’t have every right to be pent-up, but I have no idea whether this is a load-bearing wall…”

“Ashask zsakhar!” Vadrieny snapped, and Schkhurrankh immediately stopped, turning and bowing low to the archdemon.

“Well, then!” Gabriel said, wiping his palms against his coat. “I guess that’s the hard part taken care of.”

“Think so, do you?” asked Ariel.


 

Leduc’s apartment was still unoccupied. They finally found their reluctant host and the fairies all the way out in the collapsing entrance hall, where Fross was slowly drifting around the ceiling, laying patches of ice here and there for some reason. Juniper and Sherwin were seated side by side on the bottom of the once-grand staircase. Strangely, he was slumped forward with his face in his hands, and she had an arm draped around his shoulders.

Before anyone could even ask, Schkhurrankh let out a furious roar and charged at them.

Vadrieny lunged, but was a hair too slow. Juniper, however, managed to stand and place herself in front of Leduc; she caught the charging demon with one outstretched hand and very calmly threw her back.

Schkhurrankh went flying across the room, slamming against a the far wall. Beside her, the boards that had been covering the window collapsed, along with a good chunk of the stone wall itself. The demon sat there, blinking in astonishment.

“Oh,” Juniper said, wincing, “oops. She’s not as heavy as she looks. Is she okay? I really didn’t mean to hurt—”

The demon brayed again in wordless outrage, bounding to her clawed feet and beginning to lunge forward again.

This time, Vadrieny got there first, seizing Schkhurranh by the throat and whirling her around the slam her back against the wall. An entire segment of it collapsed, showering both demons with falling masonry; the whole building groaned in protest, part of the roof caving dangerously toward the new depression.

Sherwin and the students, with a chorus of yells, skittered away to the opposite side of the room, with the exception of Fross, who dived at the collapsing section, spraying out water that instantly froze. In seconds, she had propped up the falling masonry with ice, temporarily halting the collapse. It was hardly a permanent solution, however; aside from the fact that it wouldn’t last long, the ice added more weight to the already beleaguered masonry.

The two demons paid this no mind, any more than they did to the stone and rotted timber that had smashed down on top of them; both were yelling at each other in demonic. It was a peculiar sight; despite Vadrieny’s impressive mane and wings of fire, she was physically a good bit smaller than Schkhurrankh. Despite this, she held the bigger demon in place without apparent effort. In fact, the Rhaazke didn’t seem to dare struggle against her, contenting herself with words.

“I…I should go apologize to her,” Leduc said miserably, wringing his hands.

“That would be an incredibly bad idea,” Toby said firmly.

“That appears to be the only kind he has,” Ariel commented.

“Now you want to apologize?” Trissiny demanded, rounding on Leduc. He flinched back from her, hunching in on himself and dropping his gaze.

“We’ve been having a talk,” Juniper explained. “I think I made him understand why what he did was wrong. Sherwin isn’t malicious; he’s just naïve, entitled, repressed and was in denial about all the rest of it. We worked through that and made a real breakthrough!”

“That,” Shaeine said carefully, “is so impressive as to defy believability. Mental healers work with patients for years to make that kind of progress, Juniper. He is quite possibly scamming you.”

“Nah, he’s not quick-witted enough to do that.”

“Hey!” Leduc protested weakly.

“Well, you’re not,” the dryad said reasonably. “Remember what we discussed about acknowledging your faults? Anyhow, Shaeine, most mental healers can’t tell every detail about a person’s sexual identity and desires by their scent. Since this whole messy business is bound up in his sexuality, that pretty much told me everything. Also, most mental healers don’t physically restrain their patients from leaving until they listen. Even so, the poor guy really does mean well, he just—”

“The poor guy?!” Trissiny shouted, practically spitting with rage. Leduc gulped loudly and edged behind Juniper.

“Yeah, the poor guy,” the dryad said firmly, meeting Trissiny’s gaze unflinchingly. “He should be held responsible for this, Trissiny, I am not arguing that. But come on… I refuse to believe that mentally healthy people do things like this to each other. At the root of all evil is pain, or ignorance. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean we don’t see justice done.”

“W-wait,” Lord Leduc said tremulously. “I-I thought…”

“Sherwin,” Juniper said in exasperation, “you kidnapped somebody, imprisoned and tortured her, and were going to rape her eventually. Now, I’ve got more empathy than most for somebody who did something that awful out of ignorance, but come on. There have gotta be consequences. You may not believe it now, but I promise you need to face them if you’re ever gonna straighten yourself out. I’ve been there.”

Leduc let out a soft squeak and seemed to wilt in on himself even further.

Across the room, Schkhurrankh’s tone had become pleading rather than enraged. Vadrieny was no longer gripping her by the throat, but had her clawed hands on each of the larger demon’s shoulders, and seemed more to be holding her up than holding her back.

“Excuse me,” said Ariel, “but why are we restraining her? Letting the sexually deviant warlock be killed by the demon he abused seems both efficient and equitable. Poetic, even.”

“That is not what we do,” Shaeine said firmly. “We will have justice, not more senseless violence.”

“Not all violence is necessarily senseless,” Trissiny said darkly, “but you’re right. Justice is all the more important when it is tempting to just dispatch the criminal.” She glared at Leduc, who had peeked around from behind Juniper at her. He squeaked again and ducked back into hiding.

“Excuse me, I hate to rush what’s obviously an important moment,” Fross chimed from above, “but you two are standing right under the part of the room that’s gonna collapse and this really is not going to hold it up much longer. Do I need to build a bigger ice brace, here, or can we move all this outside?”

Vadrieny looked up at her, then back at Schkhurrankh, and said quietly, “Thatznha. Shlvakhshka rhe. Zhtzi?”

The Rhaazke drew in a deep breath, bared her fangs for a moment, but then nodded. “Tzkhorsa lkhai.”

“I believe we are done,” Vadrieny said, finally releasing Schkhurrankh and stepping back. “Let’s get out of here before it all comes down.”

“That language is really interesting,” Fross said brightly, descending toward them. “That whole time I don’t think I actually heard you repeat a syllable. It doesn’t actually have grammar, does it? Kinda like the gnomish Patter, but with—”

“Fross!” Ruda exclaimed.

“Oh. Right. Escaping, yes, got it.”

They made their slow and wary way toward the broken door, keeping a careful eye not only on the damaged roof and rotten floor, but also on Schkhurrankh and Leduc, who had locked eyes from across the room. After a moment, he mumbled something, turned and scurried off into the darkness down another side hall. The demon snorted loudly and stalked the rest of the way to the door, not minding how the wood crunched under her talons. The rest of them followed much more carefully, but also quickly.

Outside, they regrouped in the courtyard, and apparently not a moment too soon. Behind them, half of the entry hall collapsed, the tinkle of shattering ice added to the roar of broken stone and fallen beams. It went on for long moments before stilling.

“D’you think he’s okay?” Juniper asked, frowning.

“That fucker has never been okay in his life,” Ruda snorted.

“Whether he is or not, this isn’t over,” Trissiny said firmly. “He has yet to face any meaningful consequences for what he did.”

“You mean, apart from collapsing half his house?”

“Ruda,” she said impatiently, “if he cared about that, the house wouldn’t have been in this state to begin with.”

“Also, it wasn’t half the house,” Fross added. “Pretty much just the front room. Still looks solid behind that.”

Schkhurrankh growled loudly and punched the crumbling remains of a gargoyle perched beside the manor’s front steps. It dissolved into a spray of gravel.

“Brilliant,” said Ariel. “Look what we get to babysit now. I hope everyone is pleased.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Trissiny said wearily. “The problem now is getting her back to Dufresne Manor. Obviously, taking her through Veilgrad is not even a prospect. Gabriel…?”

“No dice, I already asked,” he said shaking his head. “Getting the imprisoned victim out of the cage was apparently worth divine intervention; facilitating convenient travel, not so much.”

“Deities generally prefer not to be called upon lightly,” Shaiene noted.

“Also,” said Ruda, “we came right here from Veilgrad, which means Malivette has no idea we’re bringing her another houseguest from an unreachable sub-Hell who doesn’t speak a word of Tanglish. So, that’s gonna be an interesting conversation.”

“So much for the hard part being over,” Toby said wryly, looking at Gabriel.

Gabe sighed heavily. “Come on, guys. What is it gonna take for you to stop listening when I talk?”

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Teal tugged the rope a second time; once again, they heard the bell chime distantly within the manor.

“Maybe no one’s home?” Teal suggested, stepping back from the door and craning her neck back to peer up at the towering face of the house.

“Grusser said he never leaves the house,” Sheaine replied. “I inquired further of Pearl this morning, who concurred. It’s apparently common knowledge in the city. Lord Sherwin has accounts with local merchants and gets his supplies delivered.”

“Mm. He surely doesn’t live in there all alone.”

“From here,” Shaeine said tactfully, “it looks as if he might. Malivette’s house suffers somewhat from having only four servants to look after it. This seems like it could result from a residence of this size having none.”

Leduc Manor was less isolated from the city than the Dufresne residence, but still lay outside its walls, and occupied a defensible position in the mountains overlooking Veilgrad. In fact, the grounds were on a broad ledge, its rim now secured behind a towering wall, reached by a single wide trail which switchbacked twice on the way up. It had a stunning, if somewhat vertigo-inducing, view of the city and the prairie beyond. The plot of land might have been an acre or two; it was difficult to tell due to the walls and structures therein.

The manor itself was of a similar general style to Dufresne Manor, with its intricate carving and steeply tilted roof, though its plan appeared to be more rambling and less square. The primary difference between the two was that Leduc Manor was falling apart. One entire wing, off to their left, had a collapsed roof, and to judge by the sky visible through its glassless windows, a missing wall on the opposite side. In fact, the only windows which had any glass left in them were cracked or broken panes which opened onto dark rooms. It seemed that only the central part of the house was still inhabited; there, at least, the windows had been boarded up against the fierce Stalrange winters. The grounds were overgrown with weeds, vines, and several enormous thorny bushes, and strewn with a variety of trash. Piles of masonry were left here and there, both broken rubbish that had clearly fallen off the house and newer-looking specimens that appeared to have been slated for repairs before the idea was abandoned. An entire carriage—old-fashioned, not a modern horseless one—sat broken and decaying with a scraggly bush growing up through it.

Still, there was no sign of the lord of the manor.

Teal pulled the bell rope a third time. Then, after a long moment, she banged her fist against the door.

“It is not necessarily suspicious that he won’t come out,” Shaeine observed. “This behavior suits the harmless recluse people seem to believe him to be. However…”

“Yeah,” Teal said, nodding. “It also suits some less harmless possibilities.” She turned to peer back the way they had come.

The outer gates of the manor had long collapsed; the grounds could be easily entered, and the doors reached by way of an overgrown path which still held pieces of paving stones amid the weeds.

“Can you hear anyone nearby?” Teal asked.

Shaeine shook her head. She had lowered her cowl when they passed into the Leduc grounds, exposing her face to the cool air. They had decided unanimously not to subject the people of Veilgrad to the sight of a drow if it could be avoided. “There is nothing living in the vicinity that I can detect. In fact, that is rather odd. An abandoned building this size, even if only partially abandoned, would normally be teeming with small animals.”

“I guess that depends on who lives there,” Teal said with a grimace. “All right, well… I don’t like to be pushy, but we’re going to have to deal with this guy, one way or another. In the long run I think digging him out of his hole for a talk will be less intrusive than having to come back here with Trissiny and Ruda.”

“What do you intend?” Shaeine asked quietly.

“Just a little something that I suspect will get a warlock’s attention.”

She took a step back from the door, glanced suspiciously over her shoulder again at the empty gates and the city far below, and shifted.

Vadrieny stretched her wings once, then wrinkled her nose, glancing around. “What a dump.”

“That’s hardly polite, love,” Shaeine said with a small smile.

The archdemon grinned at her, the expression warm and fond despite the fangs it displayed. “I promise not to say it to his face. In fact…best I don’t talk with him at all, don’t you think?”

Shaeine tilted her head. “Doesn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”

“If it comes down to terrorizing him, sure. I think we’ll get better—calmer—results from making him wonder what it was he sensed out here.”

“Ah.” The drow nodded, smiling approvingly. “A very good thought, strategic and considerate.”

“Teal’s idea,” Vadrieny said, stepping forward. She raised one hand, formed a loose fist—her claws weren’t retractable, and prevented a clenched one—and hammered hard on the door. It rattled violently in its frame, the wood splintering slightly on the last blow, and fragments of dust were shaken loose from the entire door frame. A single screw popped out of one of the heavy iron hinges.

“Ah,” Shaeine said a moment later, “someone is coming.”

“Good,” Vadrieny said smugly. “See you in a while, then.”

The drow forestalled her with a gentle hand on her arm. When Vadrieny paused, looking down at her in surprise, Shaeine stepped forward, craning her head up to kiss her on the cheek.

Vadrieny was still smiling as she withdrew, leaving Teal to inherit the grin. She mastered her expression, however, as the footsteps approaching the door grew loud enough for her ears to detect.

There came a rattling as locks were undone from within—several of them—and finally the door jerked open. Unusually for such an apparently defensible structure (at least it had been, when it was built), the door opened inward.

“What the hell do you gah!” Sherwin Leduc actually jumped backward at catching sight of Shaeine. He was a physically unimpressive sight: short and slight of build, his sandy hair in need of a trim and wearing three days’ growth of beard. A pair of round spectacles perched on his nose, the lenses lightly scratched in a few places. He appeared to be in his pajamas, with a threadbare robe thrown on over them.

“Have I the pleasure of addressing Lord Leduc?” Shaeine asked, bowing.

He stepped back again, keeping one arm fully extended to retain his grip on the door, and squinted suspiciously at her. “Who wants to know? See here, I have nothing to offer Scyllith and I don’t want anything from her.”

“Excuse me, you are mistaken,” Shaeine said, the faintest note of warning entering her tone. “I am a priestess of Themynra. My people have spilled lakes of our blood over the millennia to ensure that Scyllith’s agents do not darken your lands.”

“Well, that exhausts my only theory for what a drow would want here,” he said, eying her up and down, and then turning to peer skeptically at Teal.

“I am Shaeine nur Ashale d’zin Awarrion of Tar’naris; this is Teal Falconer. We are not here in any official capacity related to my home, but visiting from the University at Last Rock.”

Leduc’s expression collapsed into a scowl. “Oh. Come to finish what the last group of Tellwyrn’s students started here?”

“We actually don’t know anybody who’s been here before,” Teal said quickly. “Whatever happened then, it’s got nothing to do with us.”

“What happened is… Well, no, sorry, I’m being irrational.” Leduc sighed, scrubbing a hand through his shaggy hair. “House Leduc killed itself; Malivette’s University friends just ended up being the weapon. Still. Having you show up here out of the blue is a little disturbing.” He resumed staring suspiciously at them. “What do you want?”

“Well, hopefully we won’t have to bother you any further after today,” Teal said. “We’re just eliminating possibilities. How much do you know about what’s happening in Veilgrad?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” he said bluntly. “I stay up here, people leave me alone. I’m happier, town’s happier, everybody wins.”

“Have you heard the howling in the mountains at night?” Shaeine asked quietly.

At that, he grinned unpleasantly. “Oh, sure. They don’t come here, though. Let ’em try; I’m not helpless.”

“Well, that’s basically the issue,” Teal said. “The city is slowly but surely falling apart; something is stirring up dangerous elements on all sides. The werewolves are just part of it.”

“Oh just let me guess,” Leduc said, rolling his eyes. “And you are here to get to the bottom of it.”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“Well, I’m not at the bottom,” he snapped. “Or the top, or anywhere in between. I am not involved. You hear me? The Leducs don’t rule Veilgrad anymore, and never will again. In fact, this is it: you’re looking at the last of the line, and good riddance to it. Malivette can have the title and may it bite her harder than the thing that turned her. I stay on my property, I bother nobody, and when I die no one will notice for months. That’s how I like it. Good day.”

He started to close the door; Shaeine deftly inserted herself into the gap. “If you’ll consider the matter from our perspective,” she said smoothly, “surely you understand why that doesn’t really address any of our concerns?”

“Did I stutter?” he exclaimed. “I don’t care about your concerns. Now go away!”

“We really just want a few minutes of your time, Lord Sherwin,” Teal said. “Just to get your perspective on things, so we can go back and tell the others you’re not a factor here. That’s all we’re doing, eliminating possibilities.”

At that, he hesitated. “Others?”

“Indeed,” Shaeine said placidly. “We are traveling with, among others, all three current paladins. And a dryad.”

Leduc sucked in a long, slow breath through his teeth. “So,” he said tightly, “I can talk to you, or I can talk to them, is that it?”

“People are in danger,” Teal said softly. “Believe me, we’re not normally this pushy, but the problems in Veilgrad are escalating. If you could just help us rule you out as a factor, that would be tremendously helpful, and then you’ll never have to hear from any of us again.”

The young lord sighed heavily, and more than a touch melodramatically. “Ugh, fine, if that’s what will make you go away. You might as well come in, I guess.” He turned his back on them and stalked into the manor, leaving the door standing open.

They followed, Teal pausing to gently push the door shut behind them. The great hall into which they stepped was a panorama of ruined grandeur; unlike Malivette’s, it had not been cleared out, its opulent furnishings simply left to decay. In fact, the degree of decay was startling, considering it had taken place within a span of a relatively few years. Finely carved end tables were partially collapsed, shards of broken porcelain lying amid their ruins. On marble bust of a woman lay face-up, missing half its head. Tapestries were ragged and torn in addition to rotting; oil paintings appeared to have been slashed, those that hadn’t fallen to the ground, their frames splintered by impact. In one corner, the walls black with mold, a large crop of toadstools was growing. The centerpiece of the whole sad display was an enormous wrought iron chandelier, still containing the burned-down stubs of candles, lying broken in the very middle of the hall where it had fallen. The floorboards beneath it had cracked and buckled severely.

The smell was indescribable.

Leduc led the way along one side of the hall, where tracks had been worn into the dust—and into the carpet—a safe distance from the ruptured floor beneath the chandelier. His path avoided the grand double staircase at the opposite end of the room, leading straight to an unobtrusive door hidden beneath it.

Teal and Shaeine drew closer together as they followed him into the dim hall beyond, pressing the backs of their hands against each other. Even here, Narisian modesty prevailed, but it was a place that made them instinctively reach for comfort.

The corridor was dark, dusty and smelled of mildew, though less severely than the once-grand entry hall, but it blessedly wasn’t terribly long. After only a minute, they turned a corner and shortly emerged into a warm and brightly lit space, a very pleasant sight after the one which had preceded it.

It was a kitchen, a long, stone-walled space large enough to have served the fully-inhabited manor in its heyday. The whole thing had been heavily altered, though. A warm fire burned in the hearth, which bore the fixtures of an old roasting spit, long since removed. There was also an oven with a stove top, and a currently dark cast iron stove with a pipe leading out through a hastily-cut hole in the ceiling. Firewood had been stacked along one wall. A modern enchanted cold box stood next to the fridge, alongside a faucet and sink attached to a water-conjuration apparatus—difficult and very expensive work, seldom used because it was generally cheaper and easier just to install indoor plumbing.

The rest of the room, however, had been cleared of any kitchen-related paraphernalia and converted into an obvious living space. Laden bookshelves lined the walls, a single bed was tucked into a corner—unmade, of course—and there was a heavy armchair dragged up near the fireplace, with a small end table beside it on which sat a mug of beer.

It was cluttered, but in the way of a casually maintained bachelor pad—clothes were tossed about the sleeping area, books were stacked on the floor by their shelves somewhat haphazardly, and there was a pile of dishes on the counter by the sink. The whole place could have used a good sweeping and dusting. It was a lived-in state of disorder, though, quite unlike the filthy decay of the rest of the house.

“All right, here you are,” Leduc said with poor grace, stalking across to his armchair and flopping down in it. “So, let’s have it. What do you want to know so badly?”

“The pattern of incidents growing in Veilgrad have no immediately discernible root,” Shaeine said, gliding over to stand in front of him, a few yards away. “In addition to the werewolves, there has been a recent proliferation of minor chaos cults, several incidents of necromancy, and a Shaathist offshoot cult that has taken to harassing the local Huntsmen. More than that, violent crime and violence in general are rising, as if the general populace is becoming more prone to acting that way. There was an actual mob attack upon Malivette’s property.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer person,” he sneered. “Though I’m not sure that word still applies to good ol’ Vette.”

“I found her rather nice,” said Teal. “In her own way. Not that she isn’t eccentric.”

“That isn’t the word I meant.”

“It has been pointed out to us,” said Shaeine, “that one possible root cause of generalized aggression is a great deal of loose infernal magic. Clearly, thus, it is advantageous that we speak to you.”

Leduc frowned thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “Hm. Yeah, infernal magic does have that effect… That really can’t be it, though.”

“Why not?” Shaeine inquired.

“All kinds of reasons. For one thing, that’s only one of its effects; if there were widespread infernal corruption going on, people would be getting sick, plants would be alternately dying or growing thorns where they didn’t use to have them, any animals born would be mutated… Apart from that, people would notice infernal energy loose in the streets. The Shaathists don’t actually have more than a couple of priests, I don’t think, but there’s a sizable Omnist temple here, and a grand old Universal Church chapel. Plus, the Empire keeps an eye and has means to notice such things. Hell, I would’ve noticed, and something like that I would have to respond to. Ninety percent of being a warlock is control; you just cannot have infernal magic running loose.”

“I see,” Shaeine mused. “That certainly seems reasonable. I suppose it only leaves the question of what it is you actually do up here alone.”

“None of your business,” he snapped.

“Lord Sherwin,” she said solemnly, “I come from a culture which prizes discretion and personal privacy. I assure you, the last thing I wish is to intrude upon yours. I would not dream of coming here to ask such prying questions were there not an immediate need.”

“The problem in a nutshell,” Teal added, “is we don’t know what is causing all this to happen, which means any major unanswered questions look more suspicious than they otherwise would. With all respect, my lord, it’s very unusual for a person to live alone and shun all contact.”

“If you’ve made any inquiries into the recent history of Veilgrad,” he grated, “you might understand why my own life has been somewhat traumatic, and why I’m not inclined to give a damn what happens to that town or the people in it.”

“That sentiment,” said Shaeine, “is somewhat more ominous in light of the town’s troubles, not less.”

“What we really want,” said Teal, “is to be able to go back to the others and assure them you’re not an issue. You get left alone that way, and we write off one more avenue of investigation. It helps us both. But if we have to leave with no hint as to how you spend your time, or why you need so much privacy or to practice infernal magic… Well, if we can’t find any other promising leads, we’re probably gonna come back to the warlock on the hill. You see what I mean?”

“This is bullying,” he complained, grimacing.

“I am sorry that it seems that way to you,” Shaeine replied calmly. “If you insist, we will go. Hopefully something else will turn up and we will not need to come back. I’m afraid not all of our associates are as patient…”

“Bullying and threats,” he grumbled. “All right, fine. Look. I’m not a bad person, okay? I just want… I want to be left alone, to not have to deal with any of the bullshit of the nobility or the damn city, and… What I mean is, I don’t need people getting into my business, or stories circulating about me. That is… Well, if I tell you anything, I’m concerned about who it might get back to, all right?”

“I assure you,” said Shaeine, “we have already intruded upon you more than is comfortable. We would only share anything you’ve revealed with others if there were an immediate need, pertaining to the safety of the city.”

“The thing about safety,” he began.

“Can I just interrupt you there?” said Teal. “I bet I know the speeches you’ve heard about infernal magic, and most of them weren’t wrong, but with all due respect, we don’t much care what you do with yourself. If you end up cursed or sick or exploded, well, that’s your business.”

Leduc actually grinned at her. “Now I’m curious why you’d have heard those speeches. Well, anyway, fine. It’s…it’s people I don’t much like or trust, get it? Growing up the way I did, I’ve repeatedly observed that demons are pretty predictable, and actually pretty understandable if you take into account where they come from, but people are just… A person might do anything. Any damn thing at all, and half the things they do are just mean for no good reason. So… Well, it is a little lonely up here, and I have the means to, erm… Create my own company, as it were.”

“We assumed there was a certain amount of demon-summoning involved in being a practicing warlock,” said Shaeine. “At issue is what you do with anything you summon.”

“Really, that’s it?” he said, surprised. “No speeches about how demons aren’t good company?”

“It depends on the demon, doesn’t it?” Teal said quietly.

Leduc frowned at her. “Why did you two get the job to come talk to me?”

“That is neither here nor there,” Shaeine said smoothly. “Can you perhaps be a little bit more specific? Many kinds of demons are no great threat if properly contained.”

“Can’t I keep a little bit of privacy?” he complained.

“You can keep most of it,” Shaeine assured him. “We only want some assurance that you’re not doing anything dangerous to the town.”

Leduc sighed heavily. “It’s… Well, just… You’ll judge me. I hate that. It’s half the reason I don’t like talking to people.”

“Without going into too much detail,” Teal said wryly, “none of us are in a position to be judgmental. And whatever you’re up to, I’m willing to bet we’ve heard worse.”

He sighed again, heavily, and gulped down the rest of the beer in his mug. “I… It’s… Well, a person does have some needs, you know, even if… And, I, what I mean…” He trailed off, glaring into the bottom of the mug.

After a few moments, Shaeine opened her mouth to speak, but before she could he burst out. “I summoned a succubus, all right? Are you happy now?”

Teal’s eyes widened and she took a step back.

“Not particularly, no,” Shaeine said quietly. “That is not the kind of harmless thing we can ignore, Lord Sherwin. Children of Vanislaas are incredibly dangerous.”

“If you let them run around loose, yeah!” he exclaimed. “I know what I’m doing! What did I tell you? Ninety percent control! Trust me, my containment systems are absolutely foolproof.”

“Famous last words,” Teal said.

“Oh, what would you know?” he scoffed. “You wanna know what I’ve been doing up here for years? That! I’m not an idiot, I know how dangerous Vanislaads can be, so I’ve spent my time devising a proper facility to hold one. Years! And believe you me, it works! She can’t get out or she would have long before now. And my training program hasn’t really had time to work fully, but I’m already loosening her up a bit. She’s difficult, yeah, but in no time…”

He trailed off again, finally noticing the way they were looking at him.

“Let me see if I understand you,” Shaeine said in deadly quiet. “You are keeping a woman locked in a cage for the purpose of breaking her will so you can sexually exploit her?”

“A demon,” he said, more than a hint of whine in his voice. “Not a woman. I think you’ll find it’s perfectly legal to treat demons any way you like.”

“Not a woman, huh,” Teal said, barely keeping her own outrage in check. Her fists were clenched at her sides. “So, an incubus would’ve been just as good for your purposes?”

“Oh, please,” he said disdainfully. “I’m a loner and a warlock, not a pervert. Everyone has lines they won’t cross.”

“You disgusting little—”

“There! See!” He pointed accusingly at her. “Judging! I’ve had just about enough of you two. Get out of my house!”

“I think we had better see this…containment system,” Shaeine said coldly.

Leduc folded his arms and slumped back into his chair, adopting a mulish expression. “Not happening.”


 

“This is a serious imposition,” Leduc griped five minutes later, grudgingly inserting a key into the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase from his kitchen apartment. “I’m in the middle of an isolation phase. She’s not supposed to have any company for another couple of days; you’re setting back my program by who knows how much…”

“You know what?” Teal said tightly. “It might be best if you just didn’t say any more.”

“Open the door, please,” Shaeine said quietly.

Leduc sighed dramatically, but turned the key and pushed it open, stepping through. They followed right on his heels.

The basement room was completely covered in charms and sigils. They practically plastered the walls and ceiling, and even the floor; a raised path of wooden planks led from the door to the huge apparatus in the room’s center. Icons of every conceivable deity were present, pressed against each other and in some cases overlapping. The entire Pantheon was represented, even the trident and hurricane sigils associated with Naphthene and Ouvis, who lacked organized cults. In several places, the balance scale emblem of Themynra began to shine subtly at Shaeine’s presence. The icons were of a variety of metals, wood and stone, some even formed of clay. There had to be thousands of them.

Other things had been built up in the chamber: fairy lamps occupied each of the corners, filling it with a cold, white light. There were also stands interspersed along the walls that resembled small altars, displaying a variety of natural objects: shells, rocks, crystals, branches and a variety of dried plants, even the bones of small animals. Each had an inscrutable array of modern enchanting paraphernalia built up onto it.

Predominating the space, in the center, was an enormous cube of metal, also decorated with holy sigils, and also with pipes, wires and crystals of arcane enchantment bordering its corners. More mundane systems of gears and pulleys connected it to a metal structure bolted to the ceiling directly above; a little examination revealed its obvious purpose of lifting the sheets of steel that formed the sides of the box.

He clearly hadn’t boasted; this setup must have taken years to construct, especially if he had worked on it alone.

“This is probably the most holy place in Veilgrad,” Lord Leduc said smugly, seemingly oblivious to his guests’ expressions. “Sure, you don’t get as much power per sigil with the god in question not actively blessing it, but basically all the cults sell holy icons. Oh, they don’t call it selling, but you make a donation and get one. Religious people can never just call something what it is. Now, those altars, there? Those are also important; I had them designed by an expert witch to produce pure fae magic. That’s the trickiest part of the whole thing, ‘cos I have to re-charge them from time to time, which means gathering up more sacred fairy crap to put on them. It’s expensive, too, but I have people who work on that for me. The altars themselves have enchantments designed to convert that fairy power into the divine, which adds more juice to the sigils. Well, not convert it directly, you need an actual magic user consciously doing that, but if you’re willing to accept a power loss of over ninety percent, you can rig it so the divine magic tends to naturally feed on the fae. It’s enough to make a completely demon-proof barrier. I could hold an archdemon in this room.”

“Wanna bet?” Teal asked softly.

Leduc nattered on, ignoring her, apparently pleased to have an audience to whom to boast about his project, despite their clear antipathy. “The enchantments over the cage itself are the most complex part; obviously I have to have some protection for my demon or she’d just be incinerated in this room, right? So that’s what that is. You see the sigils suspended outside the superstructure, there? Those are actually keyed into an infernal spell matrix, a kind of reverse blessing that counteracts all the loose divine energy in here. So, yeah, she probably can get out of that cage, but she’d regret it. Briefly.” He snickered. “I made sure to demonstrate this before leaving her alone, of course.”

“Open the cage,” Shaeine said quietly.

“Whoah, now, I agreed to show you my containment system,” Leduc said. “Seriously, you are going to mess up my training program if you go any further, all right? She’s sitting in the dark thinking about what she did, and going to for a few more—”

He broke off as Shaeine turned to face him fully. She was as still and superficially calm as always, but whatever he saw in her face made him take a step backward, eyes widening.

“Open it,” she ordered.

Leduc opened his mouth, shut it, grimaced, and swallowed heavily. Muttering sullenly to himself, he stepped to one side of the door, carefully picking his way between the holy sigils laid into the floor, and tugged on a large lever attached to a system of chains and pulleys that ran to the cage via the ceiling.

With a loud rasp of metal, the sheets of steel blocking off the sides of the box slid smoothly and quickly upward, revealing the rather mundane iron cage within. There was nothing in there with the inhabitant except a few bowls and buckets of obvious purpose.

She sat on the floor with her back to them. Her skin was pale, oddly mottled and striated with patterns of black and purple. Short, spiky hair was surmounted by a pair of barbed horns sweeping back from her hairline over her skull, rather like the ones Elilial was often depicted with. Her tail lay limply upon the floor of her cage, tipped in a wicked stinger. Aside from spiked bracers of beaten iron, all she wore was a simple wrap of some kind of leather. Her shoulders were broad, her arms thickly corded with powerful muscle, but despite the intimidating figure she made, she hunched in on herself at the loss of the barriers between her and her captor.

“You fool,” Shaeine hissed, “that is not a—”

Teal erupted in hellfire as Vadrieny burst forth with a furious howl. Leduc barely had time to stagger backward from her when the entire basement erupted in light. A tone like a struck gong resonated through the air, and Teal collapsed to the plank path, human again and unconscious. All around the room, sigils smoked, several of them now visibly cracked, but the light faded as quickly as it had come.

Shaeine was instantly on her knees at Teal’s side, ignoring Leduc as he ranted above them.

“What the hell? Why didn’t you tell me your friend was possessed? Do you know the kind of risk you took, bringing her in here? And why would she try to—I just said this room is demon proof, I even told you how it works! Omnu’s balls, does she have a death wish? Gods above and below, this is not my fault, you have to…”

He carried on babbling, while Shaeine gently took Teal’s face in her hands, closing her eyes in concentration.

Behind them, the demon had turned, and now clutched the bars of her cage with clawed fingers, her slitted eyes staring intently at Teal. None of them were looking, but her expression was intent, ardent, and alight with sudden hope.

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