Dark Vengeance II: Mark of the Zombie

Li

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Shardin’s voice was tremulous, an unnatural quaver in the deep organic world of the swamps.

“The only thing I’m sure of right now,” growled Skrall, swiveling to face the wizard, his tusked face drawn up into a snarl of authority, “is that I’m going to throw overboard the next whining little homunculus who starts questioning my orders.”

Predictably, it shut Shardin up, and the thin sorcerer instead turned his attention to the dark and twisted landscape that now slid by on either side of the Conqueror, encroaching more and more with each passing league.

Nearby, an eerily beautiful creature stood, listening. She resembled a harmonious combination of woman and tiger, with soft orange fur, striped with black, shading to white along her belly and between her rounded breasts. She was naked, save for a belt that held twin curved swords, one at each hip, but this seemed a natural state for a creature of such grace and savage beauty. A striped tail hung behind her, motionless. Her face was feline, though she sported a rich mane of dark red hair that tumbled around her shoulders. She was a Kaitian, and possibly the most fearsome warrior in a dozen leagues.

Shu Li looked at the wizard with no small amount of sympathy. Shardin had only put voice to the question that was on everyone’s minds. Had Skrall sailed Conqueror into a swampy maze from which there was no escape? The ship was not small by any means, and the channels in Necrotia were notorious for closing up, silting, or vanishing entirely in a matter of days or hours. Even now, they sailed against the current, the feeble breeze and the wizard’s spells impelling the ship forward.

Skrall was drawn here on the promise of treasure, both material and magical, she thought. The humans say that that’s the only reason anyone goes to Necrotia at all.

What had Wulf told her? Li tried to remember his words, spoken so long ago.

It’s not a healthy part of the world, especially for one as addicted to the comforts of civilization as I am. Necrotia is one big swamp, alive with mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, leeches, and even less pleasant creatures, and is the exclusive domain of the zombie masters, half-mad necromancers who are the real power in the land... Further south, the land turns arid and sandy, and the Desert Men rule with a scimitar in one hand and a bag of money in the other. If you’re a sensible person like me, you’ll avoid the place like the plague. If you love snakes, demented sorcerers, shambling undead monsters, thirst, torture, revenge, warfare and deprivation, however, the region is the perfect little vacation spot for you and your family.

Vintage Wulf, of course. Cynical to the last, and always warning people away from places that he had already visited repeatedly. As it turned out, his description of the region was largely correct, though he didn’t mention the rumors of ancient treasures lost in the swamp, and of piles of gold lying just beneath the still waters, waiting for brave explorers to find them.

There was a tower here, Skrall had said. An ancient tower that stood, moldering, above the swamplands below. Here, an ancient sorcerer (or shadow na’gon, as the locals fearfully called them) had dwelled and raised armies of walking dead, intent on conquering the entire region and turning it into his private mausoleum. Fortunately for the living, the conflict known as the Zombie Wars had ended the threat of this now-nameless necromancer, and the location of his lair — stuffed, of course, with gold and magical artifacts — had since been lost, or kept secret. Skrall claimed to have found its location in an ancient book, but Li doubted it, as books were not Skrall’s favorite companions. He has turned aside all inquiries about the source and nature of the book, to the point where many crew were beginning to doubt it had ever existed.

Still, the piratical pickings had been slim of late, and Conqueror’s crew was in need of adventure. Li gazed around the deck, and saw that the entire complement was on deck, nervously watching the encroaching walls of grey-green as they moved closer and closer.

Squitter, the ratling, clung to the rigging. He was dressed in ragged breeches and a leather harness from which daggers and a number of other nasty instruments hung. He was possibly the most loyal and brave of the crew, though none would ever think it to look at him — like all his kind, he resembled an upright rat, no more than four feet in height. He usually walked hunched over, making him even smaller. His bright eyes met Li’s and he grinned.

“Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t wanna live here, Kitten,” he squeaked. “I can smell some pretty rank crap back in the jungle, though. Want to go investigate later?”

“We’ll see.” Li had smelled the same thing, but unlike Squitter, her first instinct wasn’t to go see if it was edible.

Tanu the tamer, a grim grey-furred Wolfen, stood protectively close to Li. She technically “owned” him, but after a few months the burdens of mistress-hood had become too great, and Li generally let the beast do as he pleased. He was a handsome creature, with soft eyes and a great grey mane plaited with beads, bangles, leather thongs. He didn’t wear much more than Squitter, but he was considerably more pleasant to look at, his muscular chest covered in grey and white fur, his arms strong and corded. He wore a pair of dark blue silk breeches and bore a cutlass at one hip — he had taken to the life of a pirate quite well.

Li sighed. Tanu was sweet and she loved him in her own way — his only remaining duty to her was of an intimate nature, one of which he was quite fond. Li’s mind wandered back to a scene three nights previously when she had lain under him, feeling him slip inside her, feeling his strong arms holding her, listening to the sweet music of his snarls and howls.

I’ve come so far from home, Li thought. She still searched for her sister, taken by the human slaver Dulak, but the trail had grown cold and she often despaired of ever finding her lost sibling. Now, she served as mate aboard a pirate ship commanded by an orc, and counted as her lovers a Wolfen — member of a species that was sworn enemy to her own, and an elf woman — a princess who had shunned her own people and now sailed as a rootless adventuress.

The elf in question, Theanna, stood at the stern, watching the muddy wake left by the Conqueror’s passage. She was beautiful, of course — elves were never ugly, a fact of which they constantly reminded the rest of the world. Her people were at war now; rumors reached the ship but rarely, but what news they received was grim. The elves had invaded the human nation of Litharna, determined to wipe out or enslave the humans there, then turn their wrath upon the White Empire, after which few human nations would have the resources to fight them. Theanna listened to such tidings with little emotion, though Li felt her lover’s heavy heart each time she gazed east, toward the Elven Isles and home.

She was here because she could not bear the life of a princess, nor could she understand her own people. She was voluptuous for an elf — most of the “fair folk” were tall and willowy, while Theanna was shorter, with softer curves and an expressive, almost human face. Rumors in her homeland suggested that Theanna was the result of a dalliance between her mother, the Silver Lady, and a human, but such comments were always confined to whispers, and always uttered when Theanna’s back was turned. She heard them, all the same, and now wanted nothing to do with them.

The Conqueror had once been a flagship — commanded by the dark elf sorcerer who called himself The Stormking, and had tried to invade the Elven Realms. Theanna had thwarted his plans and shown herself to be both brave and loyal. They’d gotten help from Wulf, Livia, and others, but Theanna had had the singular experience of impaling the Stormking on a broken spar and watching him die. It had not proved the cathartic experience that she had expected, but at least it had put one of her most persistent demons to rest.

Now, they all sailed together, seeking adventure and plunder in the usual piratical manner, and also hoping to find clues about Li’s sister. In recent months, as war raged across the face of Thystra, cities burned and refugees fled, there had been less and less of any of these things, and now Skrall had sailed them into the labyrinthine waters of interior Necrotia, searching for a treasure that probably did not exist.

“My lady is troubled,” rumbled Tanu. “Would sharing your fears help ease them?”

Li sighed. “Sometimes you see far too much, my love,” she replied, putting an arm around the Wolfen and stroking his fur. “I doubt that I fear anything different from what the rest of our crew fears... That this is a fool’s errand and that we shall all die out here, far from our homes.”

“This is home,” Tanu said. “Wherever you go, that is my home.”

Li looked at him in some surprise, uncertain how to respond to his declaration.

“I thought you served me just because I broke your taming, Wolf,” she said. “Now you seem to feel differently.”

“Feelings change, Lady. I loved you when I tamed you. I loved you more when you tamed me. Now, I serve you in all things.”

Li sighed — a human habit that she’d picked up. “You needn’t serve if you don’t want to. Your people take slaves, not mine, and we’re not bound by your thick-skulled codes of honor.”

Tanu took the rebuke in stride. “You have your honor, Lady. We have ours. Our law says I serve you, and serve you I will until my life is over.”

“Ancestors.” Li felt her hair rise and her tail swish in annoyance. “What if I don’t need a lifetime servant?”

Tanu looked puzzled. “Why would you not want that, Lady? I follow and serve. You need not worry. If you do not want my presence, I will leave until you need me again. I am here, and I serve.”

Li growled. They’d had similar conversations, and she had never been able to make headway. Once more, for neither the first nor the last time, she let the matter drop.

“How much further do you think he’ll go before he gives up?” she asked.

“Skrall is stubborn, even for an orc,” replied Tanu, who seemed to have a great deal of insight into the captain and his thought patterns. Not for the first time, Li wondered exactly how close the two males were. Another matter to let drop for now, she thought.

“He will probably keep sailing until we run aground, then insist we all jump overboard with tow lines and pull the ship free by swimming,” Tanu continued.

“Let us hope it does not come to that,” Li said. “I’m not fond of swimming, especially in that soup we’re sailing through.”

From the crow’s nest overhead a shout echoed in the still, hot air.

“Ahoy! Something coming up on the sta’brd bow!”

Skrall glared upward in annoyance, yellow eyes flashing. “What do you mean by ‘something,’ you damned lubber?” he demanded.

“It’s a stone marker of some kind!” came the reply. “On an island in the middle of the stream. I don’t know if there’s safe passage around it!”

Skrall’s face suddenly lit up. “Stone marker!” He rushed to the bow.

Li followed him, slowly, padding along the polished deck.

Indeed, slowly emerging around a right hand curve in the river, was an island, elliptical, carved by the current. Unlike most of the terrain in Necrotia, the island must have been there for some time, as it bore a weathered stone stela, its carvings still visible, portraying what seemed to be a nest of wriggling serpents or worms. Great cypresses hung overhead, shielding the place from the sun, and its shore was choked with spidery mangroves. On the island’s soil itself, however, nothing grew. Shu Li shuddered and felt her ears flatten. A scent wafted from the place, tickling her nostrils and making her want to gag.

“That’s it!” Skrall declared, turning and barking at the crew. “We take the starboard channel! All hands to stations! Now!”

Li looked down at the green water flowing past the island. The lookout was correct — the channel was too shallow for Conqueror to pass. It was an error that a captain as experienced as Skrall was not likely to make.

“Captain!” she cried, bounding up beside him. “The passage is too small! We will run aground for certain!”

Skrall glared at her.

“You obey my orders, or over the side you go, cat-girl!” he snarled. “Now get hauling!”

Li bristled, but stepped back, knowing that to challenge the captain would only bring disaster. She joined Tanu on a ratline and prepared to pull it down, shifting the vessel’s sails at the critical moment.

“Ready!” Skrall shouted from the bow. Looking as chipper as ever, Squitter stood at the wheel, bright eyes glittering.

“Mainsail haul!” the orc bellowed. “Ten degrees to starboard!”

With a groan, the great ship moved as yards of canvas shifted, catching the feeble winds, and Squitter spun the wheel, moving the mighty rudder.

“Steady as she goes!” Skrall’s voice rang out, echoing among the cypress and mangrove. Nearby, startled by the noise, a pair of crocodiles splashed into the water.

Conqueror bore down on the channel with surprising speed. Behind Li, she heard Theanna chanting and felt the tingling sensation of magic. The elf was using her spells to move the ship along. A moment later, Shardin’s voice joined Theanna’s, and the vessel shot forward still faster.

“Nowwwwwww...” said Skrall as the island and its disturbing monument slipped past to port. “Re-lease!”

The two wizards’ chanting grew louder, and a sudden gust of wind tore at the ship, catching tree branches and whipping the water into whitecaps. Belowdecks, a fearful grinding sound echoed as Conqueror raced through the channel, barreling over sand bars and through silt by sheer momentum.

Then it was over. The island receded behind them, and Conqueror moved steadily down the now-widening river.

“I will be damned,” muttered Tanu. “The blasted greenskin did it.”

Li had no time to wonder at the Wolfen’s uncharacteristic speech before Skrall turned, grinning broadly and laughing.

“You fish-fucking scum!” he bellowed, happily. “I love you all! Extra ration of grog tonight, for all!”

The crew replied with a hearty cheer, and Conqueror continued down river, deeper into the wilderness of Necrotia.

Livia

“If there’s a lower pit in all of Thystra than Shark Harbor, then I’d love to see it,” muttered Livia as she stepped gingerly down a muddy street that flowed with all manner of human refuse.

“I don’t know, lover,” Narisha replied, with a broad grin that flashed her fangs. “I rather like it here, myself.”

“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Livia asked as they approached a long structure built of weathered, unpainted wood. On the second floor a trio of women stood, leaning over a balcony, grinning and shouting at those who passed below.

“Demoness!” cried one, a pale human female with long black hair. “Come up, sister! We’ll entertain women as well as men!”

“Don’t tempt me,” Narisha replied, and licked her black lips. “I doubt you could keep up with me!”

“That’s a challenge if ever I heard one!” the woman shouted back as Narisha and Livia entered the building. “Come up and we’ll see who comes out on top!”

Livia looked uncharacteristically serious. She was dressed in utilitarian clothes and wrapped in a tan cloak, now splashed with mud and less savory substances. Even in her present grim mood, her face was still bright, with short blonde hair framing a freckled, blue-eyed countenance, and she moved with grace and confidence, entering the teeming room without hesitation.

Narisha cast a brief, regretful glance upward as they entered the tavern then sighed and squared herself for serious work. She was a demon, crimson-skinned, raven-haired and yellow-eyed. She too was wrapped in a cloak, but beneath it she was clad in traditional demon garb, which was to say as little as possible. Black tattoos covered her red skin, a leather halter barely contained her large breasts, and a long breech cloth hung from a chain that left her hips and legs totally bare. She wore sandals, laced up nearly to her knees, and mud clung to her as well, though she didn’t seem to mind terribly.

“That potseller said that a ship commanded by an orc was in port a week ago, and that the captain went to this bar,” Livia said. “He spoke to a man with black and white hair and an eyepatch, then left immediately, sailing upriver.”

“Hope the bastard is still here,” Narisha said.

Waterfront taverns weren’t the safest and most healthy of places on Thystra, and this one seemed less safe and healthy than most. The dregs of a dozen nations crowded together, drinking, shouting, eating, scuffling and casting glances at Livia and Narisha that were variously hostile, curious or lustful.

Livia ignored them, although Narisha returned a few smoldering come-hither glances of her own. The men who met her eyes, however, saw something beyond the sensual gaze of a lushly beautiful woman, and looked rapidly away, staring into their drinks, or scanning the floor nervously.

“See anyone who fits the description?” Livia asked as they sat at an unoccupied table in a dark corner.

Narisha scanned the room. “Not yet,” she said. “Still looking, though.”

A barmaid bustled up to the table, tray laden with jacks of ale and less savory beverages. She was buxom and dark-haired, with a pretty if somewhat harried-looking face.

“Two ales, love,” Livia said, sliding a gold coin toward the woman. “And I have a request of you.”

The barmaid frowned. “It’s upstairs you want for that sort of thing. I don’t usually go for women. No offense.”

“None taken,” said Narisha. “And under other circumstances I’d be the first to try to persuade you otherwise. We need to know if you know of a man with black and white hair and an eye patch. Does anyone like that come in here?”

“Sounds like Old Narbo,” the woman said. “He’s a drunken sot who’d sell his soul for a pint of rotgut. What the hell do you want with him?”

“That’s private,” Livia said. “Please do let us know if he comes in tonight, however.”

The woman took the gold and dropped it into her bodice, between two ample bosoms.

“I will, dear. This is more than I make in a week.”

Then she was back to work, moving from table to table, deftly avoiding the drunken groping of the patrons.

“Well, we’ve done all we can do,” Livia said. “Just keep an eye out.”

“That I will,” the demoness replied. “In the meantime we can see if any of these patrons are worth bedding.”

Livia sighed. She had felt a certain uncomfortable ennui since leaving Xesh, as the thought of the distant war, the danger to her loved ones, and an unidentified longing deep inside her pushed all other considerations aside. The notion of bedding anyone in this room besides Narisha filled her with indifference.

Besides, no one other than their waitress interested her in the slightest.

“Any word on the war?” she asked at last, hoping to distract herself from her unfamiliar self-examination.

Narisha sighed. “What I’ve been able to gather indicates that the elves and their undead are marching into the Litharnan heartland and have smashed every army sent against them. It seems that King Otto the Imbecile has lived up to his nickname.”

“Well, that certainly doesn’t make me feel any better,” Livia admitted, taking a drink of her ale. “I think they dilute this stuff with swamp water; what do you think?”

“Tastes like piss,” Narisha agreed.

“How the hell would you know?” Livia demanded.

“Figure of speech only. Actually, it tastes like troll come,” Narisha said. “Oh, well, if it gets you drunk...”

“I don’t need you drunk just yet, lover,” Livia said. “We need to stay alert until our quarry shows up.”

“I may want to be drunk later, however,” Narisha said. “I’m thinking of taking those whores up on their challenge.”

“So I gather. I wish you the best of luck.”

“There was a day, Livia, when you would have been bounding up those stairs ahead of me. What the hell is wrong?”

“Nothing, really. I’m just lost in thought for the moment.”

“Well if you ever get un-lost, the door to my bedroom is open, sweetest. Meanwhile, I have an appointment upstairs once we’re done down here.”

The buxom waitress threaded her way through the crowd, and spoke quickly to Narisha.

“He’s here, sitting at the bar. I’ll see to it that the stools beside him are unoccupied.”

Livia fumbled in a pouch and tossed the woman a silver coin.

“For luck, dear,” she said. “You’ve made our lives much easier.”

Livia and Narisha shouldered along, toward the bar, where what appeared to be an untidy bundle of rags slouched beside a jack of beer. The stools on either side of the bundle were upturned, legs pointing toward the ceiling.

Narisha quickly uprighted the stools and the women sat on either side of the bundle which, after a moment, moved and transformed itself into a rumpled, tangle-haired man with an untidy beard and a black eye patch.

“Mmpf?” he said, thickly. A waft of beer-scented breath washed across Livia... This was apparently not the first tavern he had visited tonight.

“Narbo?” Narisha asked, leaning close and touching his shoulder. “I think we need to talk?”

“Yes,” Livia said, similarly pressing him from the other side. “You know some things we’d like to discuss.”

“Hm... Wha...?” Narbo seemed confused. “I’ve only got a couple coppers left, ladies... Can’t afford either of ya...”

“First they think we’re customers, then they think we’re whores,” Livia muttered. “We just can’t win.”

“Nothing like that, you lovely man,” Narisha said. “We need some information, and if you give it, well, we would be ever so grateful.”

At this, she let her cloak fall open, revealing the luxuriant expanse of crimson flesh beneath.

“Uhhh...” Narbo’s eyes widened. “Whadda I got to tell you, ladies?”

Livia smiled as seductively as she knew how (which, she thought to herself, was damned seductive).

“You had drinks with an orc ship captain named Skrall a few days ago. Remember?”

Narbo looked uncomfortable. “Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. Can’t really say, you know...”

Narisha rolled her eyes, then grabbed one of Narbo’s hands.

“The things I do for Thystra,” she muttered, squarely placing Narbo’s hand on the softness of one ripe breast.

“Does that refresh your memory, lover?” she purred.

“Uh, well, maybe we did have drinks, but it was a long time ago, and... Well, I don’t remember much...”

Livia sighed, pried Narbo’s hand off his tankard and placed it on her own breast.

“Now you’re helpless, beautiful,” she said. “Now can you tell us what you talked about, you and this orc?”

Narbo swallowed and looked uncomfortable, but reluctant to move his hands.

“We talked... About... things...”

“What things?” Narisha whispered into his ear.

“A lot of... Things... “

“Anything in particular?” Livia asked in his other ear.

“Maybe...”

“He left immediately after talking to you,” Narisha said. “Any idea why?”

“Uhhhhh, well, as a matter of fact... Maybe it was the map...”

“The map?” Livia asked.

“Yeah. A map.”

“What kind of map?” Narisha whispered huskily.

“A... Well, a treasure map I guess...”

“You guess?” Livia licked his ear and hoped that he didn’t have anything contagious. “Don’t you know?”

“Well, the elf who told me to sell it to the orc said it was a treasure map. He said I could keep all the money the orc gave me, though.”

“An elf?” Narisha asked. “An elf told you to sell Skrall the map?”

“Yeah... Funny lookin’ elf, too.”

“Funny looking how?” Livia asked.

“Wellll.... He was just funny lookin’.”

Narisha’s hand wandered down below the bar and between Narbo’s legs. The old man suddenly tensed, his eyes bulging.

“Now, Narbo, you gorgeous hunk of man,” she said, softly, “tell us how this fucking elf was funny looking or Mister Happy will be taking a swim in the swamp. Sound reasonable?”

Narbo swallowed hard and shuddered. “He was white. You know. Pale. White hair. White skin. Black eyes. Funny lookin’, you know?”

“That’s better,” said Narisha. “Now did he happen to give you a name?”

Narbo shook his head. “Nope. I’ve seen him around sometimes, but I never got his name or nothin’. Just gave me the map and told me to go have drinks with the orc, get drunk, and sell it to him.”

“That’s it, then.” Narisha stood, swirling her cloak around her as Narbo stared in surprise. “You have our deepest gratitude, Narbo.”

Livia followed suit, stepping down leaving the man gaping. “Yes. We’re very grateful to you, Narbo.” She flipped him a coin. “Very grateful.”

With that they turned, leaving Narbo sitting on his stool, jaw flapping, looking alternately from them to the coin in his hand.

“I think we’ve gotten everything we can,” Livia said. “I suspect we’re going to have to investigate this albino elf first thing in the morning.”

“Are you heading back for the ship?” Narisha asked, casting another wistful glance upstairs.

Livia sighed. “Yes, but you don’t have to come. You can stay here and amuse yourself any way you want.”

Narisha grinned. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”

“Some other time,” Livia replied. “For some reason I’m not really in the mood.”

The demoness looked suddenly concerned. “Are you feeling ill, Livia?”

Livia shrugged. “No, not ill. Tired. Worried. Afraid. Thoughtful. But not ill.”

Narisha snorted. “Humans. All their emotions mixed up and indistinguishable. I’m as worried and fearful as you are, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want a good shagging every now and then.”

“If you’re implying that I don’t, I resent it,” Livia replied with a thin smile. “Perhaps demons can keep their feeling separate, and can fuck like animals while their castle is being stormed, but I admit to some human weakness. I’m tired, Narisha. I’m worried about the war, and I’m worried about Wulf.”

“So at last the truth comes out. You miss him, don’t you?”

“You do, too. Admit it. When he was with us we enjoyed playing aloof, pretending that we didn’t need him, going off to our cabins and fucking wildly while he stood watch... it was fun then, especially when we knew how he felt, and that he’d be even more passionate next time we were together. But we still loved him, we still wanted him. Dammit all, I needed him. I haven’t admitted it in so long, but now he’s gone I can’t say it to his face.”

Narisha looked impressed. “You’ve been doing a lot of thinking, haven’t you?”

“I suppose you should, too, Narisha. And I suppose next time you intend to go up and boink with a roomful of whores, I’ll join you. For now, I’m going to bed.”

“Sleep well, dearest,” Narisha said. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Maybe we can stop here on the way back. I hope I’ll be feeling better by then.”

“So do I, lover. Keep this up and I might start feeling as depressed as you are.”

“That just wouldn’t do,” Livia said, turning to leave. “Not at all. Have a good night.”

Narisha bared fangs once again and strode toward the stairs.

“That,” she said, “is my intention.”

II

Narisha

The upper floor of the tavern extended for the length of the building, with a broad central hall, and small rooms along either side. The hall apparently served double duty as a waiting room and as overflow for the women, as it boasted a small bar, couches and a large bed at one end.

There were five women there, and all looked up in some surprise as Narisha entered.

“Demoness!” said the dark-haired woman. Her face was angular, with a maturity of character that also showed considerable grace and beauty. Her eyes were dark as her hair, but reflected the lamplight brightly. “You’ve come to join us!”

Narisha nodded and bared her fangs good-naturedly.

“You set me a challenge, woman! I don’t take such things lightly.”

“Ah,” the woman replied. She was clad in a simple white shift that was ever so slightly small for her voluptuous frame; two large breasts strained at the cloth, and beneath it Narisha saw the faint outline of substantial areola. She felt her breath quicken slightly.

“I’m Terei,” she said. “I suppose that I’m the chief whore here, since I’m the oldest.”

“Narisha. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The demoness stepped forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, allowing the women to drink in her tall, crimson-skinned body. Let them see what they’re up against, she thought. “So I take it we have a deal?”

“That depends on the deal,” Terei replied. “Have a seat and I’ll introduce you to my girls. And we can discuss things. The men won’t start arriving for a while yet.”

Narisha glided onto a couch, between a dark-skinned veldt woman and a pale blonde northerner, her hair in a thick braid down her back. They both regarded her with looks that were curious, and not a little bit apprehensive.

“The woman on your right is Quandal,” Terei said, indicating the veldt-woman, “and on your left is Frega, who just arrived from Cold Island a month or so ago.”

Narisha accepted each woman’s proffered hand, and gently raised them to her lips. Quandal smiled shyly, while Frega seemed uncertain how to respond.

“Forgive Frega,” Terei said. “She’s shy as yet.”

“It’s all right,” Narisha said, purposely meeting Frega’s gaze and holding it tightly. “I like shy women.”

Frega looked away, suppressing a giggle.

Terei beckoned, and the other three women approached.

“Hilare is our resident redhead,” Terei said, indicating a short, well-built woman with green eyes and a mischievous expression. “I’m afraid that she confirms all the stories about her kind.”

“And I think we match well, your skin and my hair,” Hilare commented as Narisha took her hand and kissed it, then gasped suddenly as Narisha pressed it to her breast.

“And I,” Narisha said, “live up to all the stories about my kind, as well.”

“I’m eager to learn more,” Hilare said, wickedly, casting Narisha a saucy wink, then stepping back.

The last woman was a human, short and sandy-haired, with an impish, triangular face and large brown eyes. She held out her hand gravely, looking even more apprehensive than Frega.

“Chali is shy,” Terei said. “She seems to love her work, however. Don’t you, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Chali replied, stepping back.

“Chali’s never been with another woman,” Terei said. “I think you make her nervous.”

Narisha grinned again. “She needn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do, but I think I can make it worth her while. What do you say, my dear?”

Chali looked down shyly and didn’t reply.

“Despite her shyness, I think she could probably out-fuck any of us,” Terei said. “You may find her to be intensely competitive.”

Narisha lay back. “Surrounded by beautiful women, about to fuck hordes of men,” she sighed. “It’s been far too long since I’ve been in such a situation.”

“So,” said Terei, “what do you think we should do? The men will be arriving soon.”

“You threw down the gauntlet,” Narisha said. “You tell me what you want. I’ll accept whatever challenge you want to give.”

“There is,” Quandal said quietly, “the matter of payment.”

Narisha laughed. “No worry there, my lovely. I’ll pay you all for a full night’s work. More if you can defeat me.”

All the women looked happy at this, even Chali, who looked up and smiled tentatively at Narisha.

“Defeat you how?” Terei asked. “We’re as open to suggestion as you are?”

Narisha considered this. Her heart had already started to beat faster, and she felt her nipples begin to swell beneath her leather halter.

“Perhaps a series of contests,” she said. “Suggested by you and your girls. We play for honor, not gold, of course... I’d not rob you of your livelihood. Despite what many say, whoring is an honorable profession. I’ve considered it on occasion myself.”

“You’d do very well at it,” Chali said, softly. “You’re very pretty.”

“Why thank you, little one,” Narisha replied. “Perhaps you aren’t as shy as your mistress claims.”

“Very well,” Terei said. “We’ll nominate one or more of us to go against you, and we’ll decide how to score the contest. Let’s say that the winner determines her reward.”

“I like that,” Narisha said. “And I say we get to business quickly before I explode. I want to see all of you getting fucked.”

Terei grinned. “And I think we feel the same way about you.”

Narisha narrowed her eyes, and gazed at each woman in turn.

“I’ve a contest to suggest before we begin,” she said, voice dropping to a predatory whisper. She reached behind her neck and began to loosen her halter. “Want to see what I look like naked?”

A chorus of replies answered her, from a shy nod by Chali to an enthusiastic “YES!” from Hilare.

Of course, Narisha didn’t care... She was ready in any event. She quickly removed her halter and flung it aside, reveling in the hungry stares that the women cast at her large, shapely crimson breasts and the single black gem that winked and sparkled on her pierced nipple. She stepped out of her breechcloth, but left her sandals on — partial nudity always seemed to appeal to her partners. She reclined on the couch, head on Quandal’s lap, legs draped across Frega.

“Lovely,” said Terei. “Would you like to see us, as well?”

“That,” Narisha said, voice rising to a commanding tone, “is a silly question. Strip, all of you. I can’t wait any longer.”

Moments later, all seven women were naked, reclining on the couch or in chairs. Terei stepped toward Narisha and crouched on the floor beside her. She was every bit as lush and voluptuous as her silhouette had suggested — breasts as large as Narisha’s, belly rounded, hips wide and inviting, legs firm and columnar. Her hair fell around her like a cloak.

“What contest did you have in mind, demoness?” she asked. “We’re eager to begin, as well.”

Narisha closed her eyes and sighed, snuggling down against Quandal, who stroked her hair.

“Who of you can come the fastest? The most?” she asked. “I’m so excited now I really must touch myself just to break the tension.”

Terei stood, looking at Narisha proudly. “I think I can claim that title, mistress,” she said. “Besides, as the oldest, I’d claim the right to be your first opponent.”

“Excellent,” Narisha said, rising to face Terei. Her hands encircled the woman’s waist, touching her soft flesh gently. “We sit in chairs facing one another and see who can make herself come first. Then, I suppose we could see who can come the most. That will prime us for the men. And,” she added, wickedly, “for each other.”

“Accepted,” Terei said. “Chali, Hilare, move the chairs.”

The two women complied, sliding a pair of overstuffed chairs into the center of the hallway.

“It’s not fair you get her first,” Hilare complained. “I can come as fast as you can.”

“Silence, youngster,” Terei said, sternly. “I’m oldest and I go first. Any more complaints and you’ll get the belt.”

Hilare grinned. “Oh, do you promise, my love?”

Terei ignored her. 

*** 

The two women sat facing each other, naked, eyes locked, legs splayed apart. Their knees touched, each pushing on the other’s as Narisha and Terei slipped fingers into the moistness between their thighs.

“Lovely,” Terei gasped, lips moist, breath coming faster. Her breasts rose and fell faster and faster as she went, nipples swelling. “You’re so lovely.”

“Hardly fair,” Narisha replied, her own voice strained with oncoming orgasm. “Hardly fair that you excite yourself by looking at me.”

“Can’t help it,” Terei replied. “You can’t help being the way you are.” She bit her lip. “Those big, lovely breasts... Oh, gods...”

Narisha grinned in response and cupped one breast in her hand, squeezing it and presenting her nipple to Terei.

“Like it?” she asked. “Like this big, soft breast?”

Terei nodded, breathing harder.

The demoness squeezed her nipple and slid her finger into the ring that pierced it.

“Like to suck on it?” Narisha asked.

I’m probably completely destroying my chances of winning, she thought, but it’s so damned much fun.

“Yes...” Terei’s voice was almost pleading. “Yes, I’d love to suck on it.”

Narisha tugged on the ring, stretching out her nipple, and gasped briefly.

“Hurts so wonderfully,” she said. “I love it.”

Behind Terei, the other women were watching intently, variously shy, in the case of little Chali to openly lustful in the case of the redheaded Hilare, who gaped with wide eyes and stroked her own breasts with light, delicate fingers.

“Guess what I’m thinking about?” Narisha asked.

“I don’t know,” Terei replied, fingers moving faster and faster against the ripe pink flesh between her thighs. “I’m thinking about you.”

“That makes us even,” Narisha said, her own fingers glistening crimson stroking the blue-black of her cunt. “I’m thinking about you, too. I’m thinking of what you’re going to look like when you’re getting fucked.”

Terei’s only reply was a deep gasp.

“What you’ll look like as a big cock slides into your cunt.”

“You...” The other woman’s eyelids fluttered as she stroked herself. “You’re going to...”

“Maybe if you’re sucking a cock while you get fucked from behind...” The demoness spoke in a low, insistent voice, still tugging at her pierced nipple. “Don’t you love coming while there’s a big cock in your mouth?”

“You’re going to... lose...” Terei gasped.

“I don’t mind,” Narisha said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t mind making you come without even touching you.”

“Ohhhhhhhh.” Terei’s body tensed, her stomach knotting, shoulders flexing. “Ohhhh...”

“And I’m thinking of... Oh...” Now, Narisha’s voice broke as the first tremors of her own orgasm began to shake through her. “Thinking of... How sweet... you... taste...”

Simultaneously, both women’s voices rose to a crescendo and they convulsed, hair flying, breasts bobbing. Behind Terei, Hilare could contain herself no longer and stepped behind her mistress, hands encircling her large, soft breasts, stroking and pinching at her erect nipples as she came.

“That’s it,” Narisha whispered, still stroking herself and feeling another wave of climaxes come over her. “Stroke her well, woman. Help her come.”

“Mmmm.” Hilare nuzzled at Terei’s neck, then began to bite.

“Hilare...” Terei gasped. “Oh, sweetness...”

“I’m coming again,” Narisha said, words tightly controlled. “Was the bet for speed or quantity?”

“I don’t...” Terei replied, head thrown back, abandoning herself to Hillary’s touch. The redheaded woman’s hands were still busy at her breasts, stroking and squeezing. “I don’t... remember... Ohhhhhh... OHHHHHHHHH!” She bucked and writhed against Hilare, who held her tight and continued to busy herself at the dark-haired woman’s neck and ear, and pinched her nipples tightly, distorting the pink flesh between her fingers.

“Another...?” Narisha asked, still stroking. “I must keep up... Yes...” She fixed her gaze on Frega, the shy northerner, who watched the process, transfixed. “She’s getting help... I want it, too... You, get over here and help me.”

Frega jumped at the words, but hastened to obey them, gliding forward obediently. She was tall, firm-bodied, with a single white-blonde braid down her back. She regarded Narisha with wide blue eyes above high cheekbones and a strong jaw.

“What should I do?” she asked, standing uncertainly before Narisha.

“Whatever I say,” Narisha replied. “Suckle me, woman. Suck my nipples while I touch myself.”

Frega kneeled down and looked somewhat dubiously at Narisha’s heaving crimson orbs, each topped with a swollen blue-black nipple.

“Lick, woman,” Narisha said in a voice that demanded obedience. “Take one in your mouth and lick it. Bite it, too. As hard as you wish. I love that.”

The northerner hastened to comply, taking one large breast in both hands and encircling its nipple with her lips. In a moment, she was sucking enthusiastically, and one hand crept toward Narisha’s other breast, this one with the pierced nipple.

“Ahhhhh,” Narisha sighed. “So very good, woman. Yessss...”

Then she gazed over at where Terei sat in her chair, leaning back, legs splayed. Hilare’s red-haired head bobbed between them, and as Narisha watched, the Lastlander pulled back, a strand of gleaming spittle stretching from Terei’s moist cunt lips to her tongue.

“Bitch,” Narisha said, not unkindly. “You’re getting too much help.”

Terei’s eyes met hers. They were wide and glassy, those of a woman drunk on pleasure.

“You’re free to accept help, as well,” she said. “Oh, Hilare...”

“Then we’re onto another wager,” Narisha told her. “Who can come the most from the attentions of these lovely women’s tongues?”

“Done,” Terei breathed. “And who won the last wager?”

“I didn’t pay attention,” Narisha said. “I think it was a draw.”

“Fine. Oh, lick me, Hilare. Lick my cunt.”

Hilare, who seemed completely absorbed in her task, nodded and looked up at Terei.

“I’ll lick your cunt, dearest,” she said. “Lick you until you come.”

Narisha reached out and took Frega’s braid in one hand, drawing her close. The northerner gasped, then sighed, moving in unison with Narisha’s urgings, as if giving herself up totally to the demoness’ will.

“You like to lick pussy?” Narisha demanded, holding the blonde woman’s face close to hers.

Frega nodded. “Yes.”

“Then lick,” Narisha said, pressing her head down. “Put your face between my thighs and lick.”

It was as if all of Frega’s reluctance had vanished, replaced by a quiet determination to serve regardless of command as she pushed Narisha’s thighs apart and gazed lovingly on her hairless black cunt lips.

“Spread them apart,” Narisha ordered. She cradled her own breasts in her hands, teasing at her nipples, still moist from Frega’s attentions. “Spread them with your fingers and lick.”

Frega complied, opening up the soft flesh to reveal the rich pinkness of their interior, like a tropical flower in bloom. Slowly, then with increasing force, she licked at them, sliding her tongue between Narisha’s inner lips, lapping up the moisture that poured from her, then attacked the demoness’ swelling clitoris with pointed tongue and gentle lips.

“Where did you find this one?” Narisha demanded, alternately stroking Frega’s hair and caressing her own nipples. Sweat beaded her forehead and ran from her breasts now, as she felt yet another orgasm approaching. “She knows more than she lets on.”

“Same place as I found this one,” Terei replied, indicating Hilare, totally lost in her attentions between the older woman’s thighs. “I think that licking pussy is a natural talent for some women. They just... Oh, gods, Hilare... They just don’t always... Always know it... Yesssssssss...” She settled back, stroking her breasts.

Narisha felt a soft touch against one shoulder and looked up. Standing beside her, face a mixture of shyness and open desire, was Chali, gloriously naked, radiating a warmth that Narisha could almost literally feel.

“Demoness,” she said. “I’ve... I’ve never touched a woman before. Could I please kiss your breasts?”

Narisha grinned. Her fangs were fully out now; she wondered if her face was showing stripes yet.

“Take it, then. Suckle to your heart’s content.”

Now, the Veldt-woman, Quandal, had settled beside Terei, and was kissing and caressing her, even as Hilare continued to intently lick and suck between her thighs.

Chali’s tongue and lips embraced Narisha’s swelling nipples, flicking at her piercing, then softly licking and teasing the other.

“Is this how it is done, mistress?” Chali said, softly. “I so want to please you.”

“You are wonderful,” Narisha assured her. “Perfect.” She sighed, giving herself up to the attentions of the two women.

The pressure of Frega’s mouth grew unbearable, as the northerner alternated between lapping at Narisha’s clitoris and thrusting inside her with a stiffened tongue. When Frega slid two fingers into Narisha’s tight canal, she felt an inexorable wave of oncoming orgasm rush over her.

“Yes,” she gasped, pressing Chali’s head against her breast with one hand, and Frega’s face against her cunt with the other. “Yes, darling... Oh, gods and devils... Yesssssss...”

Then the wave hit, almost literally, and she felt a rush of fluids gush from her cunt, spewing across Frega’s face and splashing onto the floor. Surprised at first, the northerner took the flood with enthusiasm, swallowing as much as she could and rubbing her face in what remained.

“Gods,” Terei said, wonderingly. “You come like a man.”

Narisha did not reply, deep in the throes of orgasm, feeling yet another wave rush out of her, drenching Frega’s face and hair.

“Ohhhh,” Terei sighed, watching with wide eyes. “I’m going to come for you.”

“Come... then...” Narisha grunted, body tense, holding the two women’s heads tightly against her. “Come... now...”

“Yessssssssss...” Terei cried out, clutching a breast in one hand and biting at the other. “I’m coming for you, Narisha... Ohhhhhhhhhhhh...”

She writhed for almost a minute, orgasms rising and falling, until finally collapsing into a heap with the other two women.

Narisha now lay on the floor, her chair overturned in the violence of her orgasm. Chali lay with her head pillowed on the demoness’ large, soft breast, and Frega lounged happily between her thighs, licking up the last of her sweet juices.

“So lovely,” Terei sighed, stroking Quandal and Hilare’s heads and faces. “You have brought such pleasure with you, demoness...”

Narisha grinned. “Now, shall we bring in the men?” 

*** 

“This is your lucky night,” Narisha said, grinning broadly as the first group of men entered the room. There were about a dozen, and they were a mixed bag, ranging from the handsome to the homely, from a muscular, scarred mercenary to a somewhat soft-looking merchant with a bag full of coins.

The mercenary looked her up and down. He was a tough-looking man with an ugly scar disfiguring an otherwise handsome face.

“Demon?” he said, wonderingly. “I never thought to see your kind here. What do you mean that this is our lucky night?”

Narisha met his gaze. He would certainly do for at least one of their contests -- possibly more if he had the stamina.

“It’s all free tonight,” she said. “I’m picking up the tab. You men just have to cooperate in our little contest.”

The mercenary frowned, while several of the men behind him broke into grins.

“What’s the catch, demoness?” he asked. “Nothing in this world is free.”

Narisha shrugged. “You have to fuck us all,” she said, voice lascivious. “And you have to do it the way we want you to. Think of yourselves as game tokens on a gambling board.”

The mercenary seemed satisfied at that. “That,” he said, “is how I’m usually treated. Perhaps I can make a few side-bets myself.”

“That’s the spirit,” Narisha said. “Now, for our first game, Frega insists that she can make a man come before I do. Who wants to volunteer?” 

*** 

“This is an easy one,” Terei said. “Hilare has volunteered to be the first to face Narisha.”

The red-haired woman grinned. She stood beside Narisha, flaming red ringlets half way down her back. Her green eyes continued to hold a mischievous spark, bright against the pale expanse of her flesh. Her breasts were medium-sized, with prominent nipples. Narisha looked at them approvingly; they were erect, nearly the length of the first joint of Narisha’s little finger.

“Such sweet nipples you have, sister,” she commented. “I’d be honored if you’d let me suck on them later.”

Hilare snorted with laughter. “Demoness, I’m counting on it. But for now we’ve a contest to attend to.”

“Yes,” Terei said, and turned to the crowd of men who variously sat and stood about the room. They ranged from short, balding merchants who had obviously enjoyed far too much rich food, to grim scarred mercenaries and sailors. These last were Narisha’s favorites, but she was willing to be flexible this evening.

“We are holding a series of contests tonight,” Terei continued. “The first is to see which of these two women can make their man come first. Any volunteers?”

There was no shortage. Several men stepped forward, among them a one-eyed mercenary with a prominent scar across one side of his face. Narisha’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of him -- she had a weakness for the type, though in the past none had ever managed to remain with her for more than three nights running.

“You, sir,” she said, stepping up to him. He was clad in a loincloth, vambraces, greaves and sandals. Slipping an arm around his shoulders, Narisha felt glorious in her nakedness as the warrior’s one good eye took in the lushness of her body. “You wish to help us?”

The man nodded. “I’ve been gone a while,” he said in a deep voice. “I’ve missed a woman’s touch.”

Narisha looked at him. “Are you sure you want to be the one I get off first? I can make it last all night if you wish.”

He shook his head. “I’m willing. Perhaps later, we can do more, if my body cooperates.”

The demoness flashed fangs and a fierce expression. “I hope it does.” 

*** 

Hilare had chosen a young blonde sailor with a shy grin. Perhaps, Narisha thought, kneeling down before the mercenary, who was now naked, too, his body an intriguing landscape of scars and sculpted muscles, she hopes he’s young and will come quickly. And, she added to herself, that he can get it up again right away.

“Any restrictions on what we can do?” Hilare asked, standing behind the man, stroking his muscular chest. “I’ve so many tricks for this.” The blonde man rolled his eyes and grinned again, but said nothing.

“None at all,” Narisha said, encircling the mercenary’s cock in one hand. “Fuck him any way you want so long as he comes. And,” she continued, watching the flaccid organ begin to swell to thick tumescence, “I suggest you get a move on.”

Hilare laughed and winked, pushing the young man down onto a low couch. All around them, the men and women watched, alternately smiling or staring, slack-jawed. Little Chali crouched at the feet of a portly merchant, stroking his groin as he watched.

Sure enough, the blonde sailor was erect before Hilare even touched him, his cock springing up like a tree brought to sudden life by a druid. Looking for all the world like a young woman at a delicious meal, her freckle-spattered face lit up with enthusiasm, Hilare seized the organ and ran her tongue up and down it, eliciting a deep moan from the man.

“I suppose we should hurry up, don’t you think?” Narisha said.

“If you want to win, we do,” the mercenary replied. “What you’re doing is an excellent start, however.”

Narisha nodded and bent herself to her task. The man’s cock was good-sized, thick and filled her hands solidly. She tugged at it with both hands, feeling the skin grow warm.

“Such a smooth cock to go with such a hard and scar-covered body,” she whispered, then ran her tongue around its knobbed head. “I can hardly wait to taste you.”

The mercenary groaned, and she knew she was going in the right direction.

“Taste your come in my mouth,” Narisha hissed. “I love to taste it... Every man is different...”

With that, she enveloped the hard organ, fitting her lips carefully over its head, and without preamble, sliding it deep into her mouth. All around her, the audience gasped its approval, and some began to kiss and touch. Chali had already gotten the merchant’s cock out and was kissing it with gentle lips. The sight made Narisha even more excited and determined to make the mercenary come.

Hilare now stroked the sailor’s cock across her breasts, leaving gleaming trails of her spittle. She teased it with the protruding tip of one nipple, then moved atop him, pale thighs straddling his hips.

“Want to fuck me,” she whispered, looking down at the man, her hands stroking his chest.

“Yes,” the sailor replied with deep sincerity.

“Well you’ve got to come,” Hilare told him. “You can only fuck me if you come.”

“I’m not worried about that,” the man assured her.

Narisha redoubled her effort, cradling the mercenary’s dangling testicles in one hand and stroking his chest with the other. The heat from the big cock was growing by the second, and she was certain he was approaching the verge of orgasm.

“I want...” she said, then swallowed him again. “I want you to...” Again. “I want you to come in my mouth.”

“Yes,” the mercenary gasped. “I will... I will...”

Now Hilare was bouncing up and down on the sailor, his cock sliding in and out of the wet pink portal between her thighs. Holding herself up with one hand, she twisted at a long nipple with the other. She was as close to orgasm as the man.

“Come,” Narisha demanded. “Come now.”

“Yesssss...” The mercenary threw his head back, holding Narisha’s head and thrusting into her.

She released his cock letting a rush of semen splatter across her lips and tongue.

“Oh, yes,” she whispered as another jet of fluid struck her, this time splashing her breasts. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” the mercenary said, gratefully. “It has...”

Moments later, both Hilare and her sailor cried out in the throes of orgasm. The red-haired woman leaned back, pulling on her nipples. Narisha watched with growing excitement.

I’ll have those, she thought. I’ll suck on them and make her fuck me with them. Yes.

Hilare looked at Narisha. Her expression was bright, but her eyes were glazed with the drugged look of orgasm.

“It seems you won by a nose, sister,” she said. “I think I owe you a good cunt-licking later.”

“That and more,” Narisha sighed. “But a fine job nevertheless.”

Hilare flopped onto her back, hair flying. If possible, it seemed as if her nipples were even longer. “It is nice to be appreciated every now and them,” she sighed. “Now what next?” 

*** 

Chali looked down at Narisha as she reclined on the couch. The human woman was covered in a light sheen of sweat, and her eyes were still slightly glazed from a half-dozen orgasms. Short, with a pert face that reflected a deep innocence she didn’t really have, Chali seemed a mass of contradictory appearances -- a whore with the face of an angel.

“Mistress Narisha,” she said, softly. “You know I’ve never been with another woman before.”

Narisha nodded. “So you’ve told me. Yet you suckled at my breasts well enough.”

“Yes, mistress. They were so beautiful, I couldn’t help myself. I’m so shy with women, mistress, but I want them nevertheless.”

“I see. You are shy with women, but you’ve no qualms about fucking total strangers.”

Chali looked embarrassed. “I know, Mistress. I do love it so, but I don’t really know why.”

The demoness nodded sagely. She was still naked, streaked with sweat and semen, but it only seemed to enhance her savage beauty. Her hair was in disarray, framing her face like a blue-black thicket, and her yellow eyes burned with desire as she looked the younger woman up and down.

“You do it for love, not money,” she said. “The money is good, of course, but it’s really the fucking that you love.”

Chali nodded shyly. “I suppose, Mistress.” She kneeled down beside the couch. “I love the men. I love the way they feel and the way they touch me. Sometimes I come just from thinking about it.”

Behind her, the other women were busy with customers, variously fucking and sucking in twos and threes. For their part, the men were being men, and making the most of the opportunity presented by Narisha’s generosity. For the moment, the wager was suspended, and all were left to their own devices.

Narisha reached out to languorously stroke Chali’s straight, sandy hair. It was soft, like Chali herself. Deep in the human woman’s gaze, however, Narisha saw a flowing font of desire and passion that might if released put her own to shame. It excited her, and her heart began to beat faster at the thought.

“What do you wish of me, little one?” Narisha asked, now stroking Chali’s cheek. The woman responded like a cat, moving her head slowly up and down in rhythm with Narisha’s caresses.

“The other women have offered to take me and teach me new ways of loving,” she said softly. “But until now I haven’t been able to do it. I’ve wanted to, yes. And I’ve no problem letting all the men take me any way they wish. But the thought of another woman... Mistress, it makes me so excited, yet so fearful...”

“I understand, little one,” Narisha replied. “My people have no such qualms. We make love to whomever we wish whenever we wish. Males, females, other species... It doesn’t matter. We live for pleasure, wherever we find it. I know that such thoughts are strange to humans and elves and the other lesser races...” (Narisha couldn’t help but let some of her ancient prejudices show through, but Chali, lost in the sensation of the demoness’ hands on her, didn’t seem to notice.) “...but I am a willing teacher, and a patient mistress.”

“Oh, Mistress,” Chali sighed. “Would you show me how to make love with a woman? I’ve wanted you since I first saw you.”

“That long?” Narisha said, amused. “Of course, my little pet. Anything to advance the cause of enlightenment. Will you do whatever I tell you?”

Chali nodded, eagerly. “Yes, mistress. Anything.”

Narisha sighed. “The perfect pupil. An eager virgin.”

Chali’s eyes met hers. “It has been long since I was a virgin, mistress. Now, with you, I am one once more.”

“So sweet, my little darling,” the demoness said. Her heart was hammering now, a persistent throb spreading through her loins. This youngster presented a mixture of innocence and desire, of submissiveness and power, as she had not experienced in years. She reminded Narisha in many ways of Livia.

And that thought excited her, too. To have taken Livia back when she was an innocent, a wide-eyed girl in the bloom of womanhood... Gods and ancestors, such a notion...

She moved to a sitting position and patted the couch beside her.

“Come, child. Sit.”

Dutifully, the young woman sat beside her. She was a small woman, young-looking but obviously old enough to know what she was doing. Her breasts were slightly larger than would have been aesthetic for her frame, but this seemed only one more of her many contradictions. Narisha knew that this was no innocent -- she’d taken on at least a half-dozen men so far, and seemed eager for more.

Narisha reached out and gently touched her face. Chali’s eyes locked with hers at the graze of Narisha’s fingers, and a faint moan escaped her pale lips. A pointed pink tongue licked her lips briefly, and Narisha saw a the two ripe breasts begin to rise and fall faster.

“A friend of mine once told me a story,” Narisha said, conversationally. “It was about another woman he’d known -- a noblewoman from an old family. She had wanted to know the passions of the flesh, but her family ignored her. At last she sought solace with her own sister, who, once asked, proved only too happy to initiate her into those pleasures.”

Chali sighed. “Oh, Mistress. Truly? With her own sister?”

Narisha smiled. “The same. I loved the story. So wrong and forbidden. Yet so beautiful. I brought myself off several times thinking on it. In the end I did meet the woman, but never her sister.”

“And did you...?”

Narisha shook her head. “I was in a very strange place at that time, housing a goddess inside me and managing the passions of two other women. It’s a long story.”

“Tell it to me some time.”

“I shall. In the meantime, however, I’m thinking of the story, of how much it excited me to deflower another woman, to take her innocence in my hand and gently violate it. To be the first.”

“And that’s what you are thinking of now?”

“It is, child, it is.” Narisha took a handful of Chali’s hair and held it, firmly but not painfully. “Why do you want me, child? What would you like of me?”

Chali’s eyelids fluttered, as if she was experiencing a waking dream and wasn’t sure if it would end or not.

“Oh, mistress,” she said, softly. “I’ve so often watched the other women while they were fucking with men. I’ve wanted to go be with them while they did so, to touch them, and taste them. I love to watch men’s cocks slide inside them, into their cunts, or their mouths. I love the way the men come, and how their seed splatters all over everything. But I love watching the women come most of all... The way their bodies tense, the way their faces twist, their eyes close. A woman coming is one of the most beautiful things in the world, Mistress. I always wanted to be like a man, to make a woman come, and see that beautiful expression on her face, and know that it was me who did it, me who made them so beautiful.”

Chali paused and moved closer. Her eyes began to burn with the same intensity as Narisha’s, reflecting a lascivious calenture -- a fever whose only surcease was the passionate touch of another as lost to her own lusts as Chali herself. Fortunately for Chali, Narisha was just such an individual.

“I love men, of course,” the young woman continued. Now she began to stroke at Narisha’s face, and it was the demoness’ turn to sigh and moan softly. “I love their cocks; I love how hard they get, and I love that it’s for me. That they want me so, that they’re so hard and willing to do anything to please me, so that I will please them. I like to put them in my mouth and suck them almost until they come, then stop and tell them to touch me and pleasure me before I’ll continue. They always do. None ever seem to complain, not even the cruelest soldier or the most thoughtless mariner. I always want to come before they do. It’s like I’m giving them a reward, the right to come. And the better I come, the better I make them come. If they’re good, they can come on my breasts. If they’re very good, they can come in my mouth. If they’re very, very good, they can fuck me and come inside me. And if they’re very, very, very good, and I want them to, I let them fuck my ass and come that way. I don’t do that often, however. Only if I truly like them.”

“Do you like it?” Narisha asked, voice tight. “Being fucked in the ass?”

“Sometimes,” Chali replied. “I think Hilare likes it more, though.”

“What do you like about women?” Narisha whispered. Their faces were only a hairsbreadth apart, lips almost brushing as the demoness spoke. “What do you want to do to them? What do you want them to do to you?”

Chali took two deep, quavering breaths before responding.

“I want to touch them. I want to feel that smooth, soft skin. Touch them all over. I love to watch their breasts rise and fall and bounce up and down while they’re fucking. I like the way their breasts swing forward and back when they’re on their knees getting fucked from behind. I love the smooth, soft skin on their bellies, and their thighs. I love to look at their cunts, all open and soft and pink, especially when they’re being eaten. Sometimes they eat each other, or a woman comes and pays to do so. I love that the most. That soft, pink tongue inside that soft pink cunt... Oh, gods...” Chali’s eyes rolled up in her head and she sighed deeply once more. “Once, I watched Hilare and Frega with Terei. They took turns sucking her, eating her. Then they did it together, both of their tongues together inside her. Gods, I want that... Gods... I wished I could do it, but I couldn’t. I was... I was afraid. As if I wouldn’t be good enough.”

“I think you’ve nothing to fear on that score,” Narisha said. “I’m almost coming just listening to you talk.”

Chali smiled shyly. “Thank you, mistress.” She looked over to where Quandal was busy sucking a man’s cock. “And I think of them, and of fucking them, and I come without even trying. What I’d like most of all is to lie on top of one of them -- Terei or Hilare maybe -- and let a man fuck me from behind while she licks my cunt. To feel a cock inside me, and a woman’s tongue on my clit... Perhaps stopping to suck him sometimes, to lick my juices off his big, fat, hard, cock... Gods, that would be beautiful...”

Narisha shuddered briefly, then once more locked gazes with the younger woman.

“Enough, you little tease,” she said. “Kiss me now. I’ll show you how a woman makes love to another woman, and you’ll never need fear again.”

“Oh, mistress...” Chali’s voice overflowed with desire, and an instant later the two women’s lips met, tongues intertwining, arms enfolding each other, their naked bodies held tightly together.

“I’m going to be fucked by a beautiful woman,” Chali whispered, lips against Narisha’s. “I’m so lucky...”

“And I’m going to fuck a sweet little flower who’s never felt a woman’s touch before,” Narisha replied. “Which of us is luckier?”

*** 

Now Narisha lay facing Chali, and the young woman kneeled between her legs, stroking the soft crimson flesh of her thighs.

“Touch me,” Narisha breathed. She cradled a breast in her hands, stroking her nipple as it swelled to heavy prominence. “Touch my cunt. Just on the outside. Run your fingers along it.”

Chali obeyed, her fingers tracing the outline of Narisha’s hairless, blue-black cunt lips. They were moist, swollen from her exertions. Chali stroked more firmly, then drew her finger to her lips and licked at it.

“It tastes like you,” she said, softly. “It’s so sweet.”

“Sweet for you, darling,” Narisha said, lazily, head lolling on a pillow of thick black hair. “The sweetest nectar in the universe is the juice of a beautiful woman.”

Chali sighed. “You are so beautiful, mistress.” Gently, she teased Narisha’s cunt lips apart, gazing longingly at the pink flesh within.

“Like it?” Narisha asked. “Do you like how I look inside? I’m wet for you, you know.”

“Mistress...” Chali whispered. “May I lick it? Please?”

“Lick it,” Narisha commanded, reaching a hand down to take the back of Chali’s head. “Taste your first cunt, little one.”

Then Chali was between her thighs, face buried in moist flesh, tongue running eagerly up and down Narisha’s open cunt. She moaned softly.

“You taste so sweet,” she said, voice muffled against Narisha’s wet flesh. The demoness’ juices gleamed on Chali’s face.

“Ahhhh,” Narisha sighed. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

Chali lapped with a stiff tongue, flicking it across Narisha’s sensitive clitoris.

“No, mistress, I haven’t,” she said, “but I’ve watched.” She enveloped Narisha’s lips with her mouth and sucked, swallowing the sweet overflow from the demoness’ cunt, then released her, making the demoness gasp again. “I’ve watched the other women.”

“Did you...” Narisha began, then broke off as Chali began to stroke with two fingers. “Did you touch yourself?”

Chali nodded, and flicked her tongue across Narisha’s clit again.

“I played with myself and made myself come. I imagined that they were licking me while I did it.”

“You little liar,” Narisha said, teasingly. “You’ve done this before, admit it... Ohhhh... No one can lick pussy like that the first time.”

Chali grinned. “Truly, mistress? Do I lick your cunt so well?”

“Oh, gods, yes,” Narisha replied, stroking her nipples lightly. “You lick cunt very, very well, little one.”

“Enough to make you come?” The question, asked in a tone of perfect innocence and curiosity, made Narisha’s heart beat faster.

“Y... Yesss, enough to make me come.” And the heat was rising, far faster than Narisha had expected, an inward focus of the lust and wickedness she felt as she watched Chali’s sweet lips embrace her, and her tongue graze the wet, swelling prominence of her clit.

“Do you like this?” Chali asked, then softly began to lick and suck at Narisha’s cunt lips, gently taking them between her teeth and working her way up and down.

“Oh, yes,” Narisha replied. “I do. Yes.”

Gods, it was happening again... The demonic mistress held captive by the sweet innocent... Visions of Livia flashed through Narisha’s mind, and thoughts of the way her lover had changed... Narisha wasn’t sure she liked what she saw, and pushed them to the back of her mind, concentrating instead on the sweet young face between her thighs... Gods, she was going to come again...

“Oh, darling,” Narisha sighed. “Oh, you beautiful child... Have you... Have you ever...” Words came with difficulty now, as she squeezed at her own breasts and felt her nipples distend with growing intensity. “Have you ever been licked? Ever felt a woman’s tongue inside you?”

“No, mistress,” Chali replied, then licked some more, and began to slide her fingers into Narisha’s tight, wet canal, triggering a sharp moan. “I’ve wanted it so, but I’ve never done it. Would you be the first?”

Narisha nodded, looking down at her with an expression that was close to desperation. “Yes, darling. I want to be the first woman to taste your sweet, sweet cunt. Yes.”

“Gods,” Chali sighed. “I’m sucking you.” She took Narisha’s entire mound in her mouth. “I’m sucking this beautiful cunt.”

“Yesssssss,” Narisha sighed. “Yes, suck me... Suck my cunt... Godddsss...”

Then Chali’s lips enveloped her clitoris tightly, sucking hard, tongue flicking across it. Narisha’s eyes widened as a new rush of sensations passed over her.

“Oh, you can’t be... You can’t never have done this... Oh... Oh...” The heat of orgasm finally rushed through her, like the rush of hot air from a roaring fire. “OH, sweet little one.... AHHHHHHHHHH...”

Narisha’s back arched, and her thighs locked around Chali’s neck, holding her tight against the sopping pubic mound. Chali didn’t stop, but kept licking, and sliding fingers into her, moaning with her own excitement as she did so. The contractions went on for almost a minute until they at last subsided, leaving Narisha limp and trembling.

“Gods,” she whispered. “And the night is still young.” 

*** 

Now it was Chali’s turn, and the young woman responded to Narisha with unbridled enthusiasm, lying on the couch, holding her wide-splayed legs by the ankles, head tossing back and forth, eyes closed, biting her lip. Narisha licked at the open pink lips, lapping up the sweetness that dripped from them, imagining herself sucking at the sweetest honey imaginable.

No, she thought. Sweeter than honey. Sweeter because it is mine, and sweeter because I am the first to taste it...

“Oh...” Chali’s voice rose in a squeak. “Oh, mistress... Please... Please, would you put your fingers in me?”

Narisha looked up at her, across what seemed like leagues of sweet pink flesh. She deliberately took a long, painstaking lick at Chali’s cunt and clitoris, then began to stroke her with one, then two fingers.

“That’s it,” Chali sighed, eyes closed, gripping a pillow with white-knuckled fists. “That feels so good...”

“It will feel better, I guarantee it,” Narisha said, sliding her middle finger into Chali, feeling the tightness there. “Gods, woman. How many men have you fucked tonight?”

“Mmmm... I don’t really know, mistress,” Chali sighed. Now she stroked a pink nipple with one hand, and the other crept down toward her thighs. “I never keep track...”

“You’re still tight as a drum, my dear,” Narisha told her. “I’m amazed.”

“All the others say that I amaze them too,” Chali said. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“Quite,” Narisha replied, and began to apply her tongue to Chali’s clit. “Quite wonderful.”

Then Chali’s finger joined Narisha’s tongue against the swollen nub of flesh. Two, now three of Narisha’s fingers filled the younger woman up, and for long minutes they lay locked in embrace. Chali’s voice rose up, in pitch and volume, and she rocked against Narisha’s tongue, pressing herself harder and harder, then...

“Mistress...” Chali gasped sharply. “I’m coming...”

Narisha met her gaze again, her face still buried in the dark thatch between Chali’s thighs. She pressed back, devouring the sweetness of the young pink cunt, feeling a sudden contraction close around her fingers. Still, she kept thrusting and licking, driving Chali to another wave of orgasm, then another.

“Oh, mistress...” Chali sighed. “Please... Please... stop... enough... I can’t stand any more...”

With that, Narisha released her, and they both lay panting for a time, gathering their strength in the fading glow of climax.

“Mistress...” Chali said, voice slurred as if she had been drugged. “Oh, mistress, it’s as I’d always dreamed.”

Narisha grinned. “Always happy to serve the desires of the young and the beautiful,” she said. “In short, it was my pleasure.” 

*** 

“The bet,” Narisha said, reclining on a velvet chaise, legs draped on either side, “is who can suck off the most men in a given period of time. Who will be timing?”

Terei raised her hand. Beside her was a large hourglass, borrowed from the bar below. “I will keep time, and Chali will keep score,” she said. “The one who has brought more men off in the allotted time will be the victor.”

“That,” said Quandal, with no small trace of pride, “would be me.” The black woman lay on a chaise beside Narisha, her sleek ebony skin gleaming in the torchlight.

“We shall see,” Narisha replied. “I’ve been told I’ve a fair amount of skill in that area, and I suspect I’ve been at it longer than you.”

Quandal returned her gaze evenly. “We’ll have no cheating, either,” she said. “We’ve got to see the man come.”

“To that, I have no objection,” Narisha said, with a feral grin. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing that hot, white come all over your lovely black skin.”

“I’ve thought the same thing,” Quandal said. “I’ve been hoping to see a man splatter his seed all over your beautiful red face and soft black lips.”

Narisha shuddered briefly and pleasurably. “I’ll offer you a prize should you win, Veldt-woman. Should you bring more men to orgasm in the time, I’ll lick your lovely black body clean.”

Quandal smiled and looked down at herself. “That will be a fine prize. Should you win, I will do the same for you.”

“Then I cannot lose,” Narisha said, dreamily. She looked over at Frega, who stood near the stairs. “Bring a couple of men over. I can scarcely wait to begin.” 

***

 

Narisha lay on her back, head over the edge of the couch, a long, thick cock distending her lips. She could have taken someone smaller, but her competitive spirit was up and she wasn’t about to do the easy thing. She scarcely noticed what the man looked like, only that he had a big cock and hadn’t come yet. In and out the big organ slid, slick and hot, and as its heat grew, Narisha knew that he was close.

With one hand, she tickled the man’s balls, feeling him grow tense as she did so. She released him and ran her tongue along the cock’s underside.

“What are you waiting for?” she whispered. “Aren’t you going to come yet?”

He did, stroking himself to orgasm -- strictly speaking, she wasn’t making him come, but no one seemed to notice. A spurt of hot white semen spat across her, splashing all the way to the heaving surface of her sweat-streaked breasts, then trailing off across her neck and face. Narisha eagerly licked up the last few droplets, letting them drip across her lips, then looked to see another man. She didn’t have to wait long, as a second candidate stepped forward. This cock was smaller, but it was already hard, so she suspected she wouldn’t have to work as hard.

Then she spared a glance over at Quandal. Three men stood before her, and she sucked at each one in turn. All three looked close, and as Narisha watched, the first loosed his load across the Veldt-woman’s ebony face and black hair. An instant later the second came, decorating Quandal’s skin with still more hot white fluid. It dribbled off her chin and dropped down onto her heavy breasts, stringy white hanging from one erect nipple.

“You’re ahead, woman,” Narisha commented, taking her second man’s cock in her hand. “I may get to taste all of that soon.”

That seemed to please the third of Quandal’s men, who splashed more semen onto her face and shoulders. The black woman grinned at Narisha. Her face was streaked with come, but as Narisha watched, three more men stepped forward.

“Better hurry, sister,” Quandal said. “Time is passing.”

Narisha sniffed, and looked at the men who were still waiting. There were five of them that she could see, and others in the shadows beyond, fucking the other whores.

“All of you,” she said, beckoning. “When I’m done with this one, come and get it. I’ll take you all at once.”

 

***

 

I’ve not done something like this in years, Narisha thought as wave after wave of warm pleasure washed over her. Come to think of it, have I EVER done anything like this?

She wasn’t sure. And she wasn’t in any position to talk about it. She lay on her back on the chaise, a hard cock in each hand, another thrusting intensely between her breasts as the man pushed them together and stroked her nipples, and a fourth in her cunt, sliding with feverish intensity. Her legs were thrown over the fourth man’s shoulders, and his hips slapped heavily against her buttocks as he fucked her.

Narisha’s head hung over the edge of the chaise, and the fifth and final cock was in her mouth, slick with spit, fucking her with the same passion as the one in her pussy.

She didn’t remember what the men looked like; by this time, fucked repeatedly and covered in the fluids of a dozen others, she no longer cared. Narisha lay in the middle of a fleshy nexus, connected to but separate from every other woman in the room, experiencing the near-spiritual comradeship of human desire.

She had a vision of herself as a being of pure sex, pure lust-driven rutting with no further purpose than pleasure, or any existence beyond the sheer animal release of orgasm. And in that vision, she saw liberation, as if all the cares beyond the walls -- the ship, her crew, the quest for the Conqueror, the terrible war that raged on and on -- none mattered, and none could intrude.

This sensation, this movement, these thoughts... They were more powerful than any force Narisha could imagine, from magic to the great ships and siege engines of the warring armies and navies. If only it could be released, be shared... The tattered and weary world might be healed, and its pains forgotten...

Orgasm struck as suddenly as lighting, and Narisha tensed, crying out, muffled by the cock in her mouth. The man inside her thrust again, and she felt her cunt grasp him as it contracted. With a cry, he came, come filling her then pulled out, unleashing the rest of his load across her thighs and belly.

The rest came like a chain reaction. The man at her breasts exploded a gush of semen across her flesh, joined a moment later by the two she was jacking off, and at last the cock in her mouth let loose with a final, unstoppable flood of hot come, which dribbled from her mouth, across her cheeks and into her hair.

“Go,” she commanded, feeling her voice rise into a bestial snarl. “Leave me.”

Urged on by the force of her words, the men stepped back, leaving Narisha to lie, panting on the couch, drenched in semen, small clusters of orgasm still rumbling through her body.

“Gods,” she whispered. “Gods and ancestors...” The image still burned fiercely inside her, of the sacred prostitute, serving the world and healing its wounds through the purity of her sex. Her heart hammered, and a final orgasm racked her.

Narisha opened her eyes, to see Quandal sitting on the edge of her couch, eyes concerned. Her face, neck, shoulders and breasts were streaked with semen.

“You win, sister,” she said. “Chali says you had seven. I only managed five.”

“No,” Narisha replied, feeling her old spark return with even greater energy. “You win. The contest was to suck them off. I fucked them, so I’m disqualified.”

Quandal’s face broke into a grin. “And so...”

Narisha slid off the couch like a stalking cat and crawled toward the black woman.

“And so...” Narisha rose slowly to her knees, facing Quandal. “And so, this...”

Narisha’s lips embraced those of the black woman, tongues thrusting.

“You taste like come,” Narisha whispered.

“So do you,” Quandal replied. “I taste even better further down.”

As a reply, Narisha began to kiss her way down the black woman’s white-streaked neck, licking at her flesh, lapping up the remnants of five men’s passions.

When she reached Quandal’s breasts, she paused, looking at them with a fascinated expression.

“Lovely,” she said. “You like to have them come on your breasts, don’t you?”

Quandal nodded. “I like how it feels.”

Narisha stroked at the two breasts, rubbing the streaked semen into the dark skin.

“Lovely,” she repeated, and ran her tongue around one nipple, then the other. Quandal shuddered.

Now, with broad strokes of her tongue, Narisha laved at the veldt woman’s breasts, feeling her stiffen with each touch.

“Haven’t had enough, have you?” Narisha hissed, suddenly forceful. “Want more, do you?”

Quandal nodded with jarring enthusiasm. “Yes. More. I want more.”

“You want me to eat you, dearest?” Narisha felt a sudden rush of power. “Like I’ve eaten all the others? I won’t stop until I’ve had all of you, you know that don’t you?”

“Then,” Quandal said, dreamily, lying back on the chaise, “have me now. And don’t forget the rest of that come.”

“Gladly.” Narisha slid up onto the couch between Quandal’s thighs. “I think I missed a spot.”

Moments later, after licking up the last of the copious semen from Quandal’s face and shoulders, Narisha slid her face between the woman’s twin ebony thighs, enfolding her swollen black lips with her own.

Gods... The taste was indescribably... Perhaps her moments with Chali had heightened her taste and desire for the sweetness of a woman’s cunt, but the taste of Quandal was a heady one, filling Narisha with more energy and the almost unbearable need to take the veldt-woman, make her beg, and give herself completely up.

When Narisha’s tongue grazed the black woman’s swelling clitoris, she seemed to get her wish, for Quandal’s entire body convulsed, and she seized Narisha’s head, pressing against her, thighs scissoring open and closed with the rhythm of the demoness’ touch. The clit swelled more in Narisha’s mouth, growing in size until she felt as if she held a small penis, an erect member that could be sucked and licked and teased.

For long minutes, Narisha did so, sliding the dark woman’s clit in and out of her mouth as if she was sucking a man. Quandal said nothing, but her moans communicated her needs implicitly, rising with each touch, falling as Narisha let her go, then rising even louder as she sucked again.

Nearby, the other whores were busy again, the men excited by the tableau before them. Frega had two of them, one fucking her from behind, the other in her mouth. As Narisha spared them a glance, one of the men pulled out and spurted semen across the blonde woman’s thighs.
Hilare was busy giving oral pleasure to three men, first a few sucks at one, then more at the second and more at the third. Again, as Narisha watched, one of the men came, unleashing his seed into the red-haired woman’s mouth. Hilare swallowed, but a single dribble of white fluid dripped out, down her chin. With a grin, she went on to the next man.

Even as she continued to suck at Quandal’s clit, and felt the black woman tense with oncoming orgasm, Narisha sought out Chali, and saw her nearby. She crouched between Terei’s thighs, and was busily licking at the woman’s slick cunt. Terei caught Narisha’s gaze and smiled, nodding in gratitude.

Then Quandal came, face contorted in something that would otherwise have been considered pain. She tugged at one nipple with one hand and stroked Narisha’s blue-black tresses with the other, her voice rising above the moans and sighs of the room’s other occupants.

Then she fell back, panting.

“Oh, demoness,” she sighed. “We’re so glad you decided to join us.” 

*** 

Terei, Frega and Quandal lay in variously exhausted poses, panting heavily or staring into space. Hilare and Chali were nowhere to be seen, but Narisha, on the other hand, was feeling more randy than she had in decades. It was as if sexual excess energized her demon’s soul rather than exhausting it.

“Oh, poor dears,” she said, standing, hands on hips before the weary quintet. “Had enough, have you? Ready to concede defeat?”

“Hardly,” Terei said, weakly. “We’re just getting our second wind.”

“I’ve never lost my first wind,” Narisha said. “All this only serves to make me want you more. Do you wish to continue?”

Terei nodded. “I’m game if you are. What contest would you propose now?”

Narisha looked at Quandal. “You have the men with the biggest cocks all ready for us?” she asked.

Quandal nodded. “I think that Hilare and Chali are busy keeping them hard for the next round.”

Narisha whistled. “Impressive girls, both of them. Tell them not to let them come, though. We’ve more work to do.”

“And what,” Terei asked, voice tired but edged with anticipation, “kind of work would that be?”

“Which of you,” Narisha said, grinning wickedly, “likes to take cocks up the ass most?”

A voice piped up from the stairwell.

“That would be me,” Hilare said, stepping onto the landing. She was as sweat-soaked and tired-looking as the rest, but a glint of determination still shone in her eyes. “And I will take you on any day of the week.”

Narisha nodded. “I thought you’d be the one. Shall we?”

“Biggest wins?” Hilare asked.

Narisha nodded again. “Sounds good to me.” 

*** 

They each had three men, all of whom were rock-hard and looked likely to remain that way. Narisha noted with a smile that one of her men was the mercenary she’s sucked off, standing with a relaxed, neutral expression, his cock standing to attention like a good soldier.

He was the smallest of her three, but he was still big. As for the other two, Narisha barely saw faces, only thick organs ready to give her what she needed. She positioned herself on the couch, on hands and knees, buttocks thrust up toward the men. Beside her, Hilare did the same, thighs tense, buttocks presented aggressively. She rocked back and forth softly, stroking her nipples on the velour surface of the chaise.

The red-haired woman looked at Narisha.

“I knew you liked to take it in the ass,” she said. “I saw it in your eyes the moment you walked in. I was right, wasn’t I?”

Narisha nodded. Behind her, the mercenary stepped forward. Dutifully, Frega stroked oil from a small pot onto his cock.

“I always come when I get fucked in the ass,” Hilare whispered. A man, his cock about the same size as the mercenary’s, stepped up behind her, and Chali applied oil like a priestess anointing a sacred idol. “Don’t you?”

“I come just thinking about it,” Narisha replied. “But then, I come thinking of just about anything.”

Wordlessly, the mercenary fitted his cock to the puckered orifice between Narisha’s ass cheeks. She tensed as she felt the big organ slip inside, tight against her. Further it slid, slowly but persistently. The warm sensation passed through Narisha and she felt herself beginning to melt.

“Oh, my,” she whispered. “You’re very good... You’ve done this before?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “The whores in the Wild Lands preferred it this way; they didn’t want to be got with child.”

“Very... Oh, yes, that’s it... Very sensible,” Narisha gasped, feeling the cock slide deliciously home, then slide out and begin to bore in again.

“This one is good, too,” Hilare said. Her man was almost all the way inside her as well. “I like a man who knows how to fuck up the ass... They’re the best, you know?”

“You,” Narisha replied, voice tight, “are a talkative little minx, and after this is all finished I expect you to talk to me in great detail.”

“Mmmmm, promise,” Hilare replied. The man pulled out and thrust in again, faster this time. “And you said you’d... mmmm... suck my nipples, didn’t you? I’ve been keeping them hard for you...”

Narisha sighed. The mercenary was working faster now, as she relaxed and gave him more unrestricted access to her asshole. Her fingers crept between her thighs and began to massage her clit. How many times had she come tonight? It was well beyond counting...

Hilare fixed the mercenary with an intense stare.

“Fuck her,” she commanded, voice hard. “Fuck her ass really hard. She loves it that way.”

The mercenary’s strokes came faster, more intent. Narisha looked at the man fucking Hilare, and gave back in kind.

“Shove it into her,” Narisha hissed. “Make her come. She wants it.”

Dutifully, both men fucked faster, and Narisha felt her hips move involuntarily to meet the mercenary’s thrusts. Faster now, almost as if he was fucking her cunt. Her fingers moved faster, too, stroking her clit with single-minded intensity.

“I’m coming,” Hilare announced, pressing her face against the chaise, staring at Narisha, mouth held open in an “o” of concentration. “Ahhhhhhhhh...”

With that, her man pulled out and launched his come across her buttocks and back, a burgeoning fountain of released desire. A moment later, as the second man -- his cock bull-thick and dark -- stepped behind Hilare, the mercenary cried out and came, splashing his own load across Narisha’s crimson skin.

They kept pace through the second pair, each with larger cocks, straining the two women’s orifices. Narisha’s was less gentle than the mercenary, but at least he came quickly, his semen joining the first man’s on the flesh of her buttocks and thighs.

The last two men were epically hung, like living statues... However, Narisha thought, he’s got nothing on dear Wulf when he’s that lion-man. A sudden rush of loss and sorrow passed through her, and she realized how much she missed the man.

He’s all right, she told herself as the third and biggest cock began to slip, hairsbreadth-by-hairsbreadth, into her anus. He’d love to know what I’m doing. He says he doesn’t want to know, but he loves it, the dear... Thoughts of what she’d do to Wulf next time she saw him invaded Narisha’s mind, and she moved enthusiastically to envelop the massive organ that buried itself into her ass.

“Oh, yes!” Hilare was already coming again, and the third man wasn’t even half-way inside her. “Oh, gods, I love big cocks...”

“That’s the spirit,” Narisha replied. “Oh, my...” She teased her clit once more, and in a moment she was close to orgasm as well. “Oh, yes, they’re lovely, aren’t they?”

“Especially when they’re up your ass,” Hilare’s eyelids fluttered. “Especially... Ohhhh...”

The big man’s cock was all the way inside her now, and the man’s hands gripped her buttocks tightly.

“Oh, gods.” Hilare looked behind at the man. “I’ve never had such a big cock in my ass. Never. Fuck it for me. Fuck it hard.”

Now both men started to fuck in earnest, and Narisha felt the unbearable heat of pleasure/pain that she always felt when being fucked this way. Again, she moved to meet the man, despite the strain that the huge cock was putting on her. She stroked her clit, feeling her own juices bathing her thighs, and moving swiftly toward another mind-numbing explosion of release.

“Yeeeeeesssssssssssss...” Hilare was coming again. “Come!” she ordered the man. “Pull out and come so I can see it!”

The big cock slipped out and the man stroked himself to orgasm, adding a third mass of semen to Hilare’s pale white flesh.

Narisha’s man didn’t last much longer at the sight, but when he pulled out, she swiftly turned to face him, just in time to accept a stream of semen, splashing across the gap between the man’s big cock and her welcoming lips, splashing onto her outstretched tongue.

“Yes,” she sighed, accepting the last of the man’s come into her hand, then licking it off slowly and lasciviously.

Hilare lay on her stomach, gazing lazily at Narisha. Semen covered her ass cheeks, thighs and the small of her back.

“Who won?” she asked. “I wasn’t keeping track.”

“I think you did,” Narisha said. “You made the last one come first. But since they were all about the same size, maybe it was a draw. I don’t care.”

“Mmmmm.” Hilare licked a semen-covered finger. “I don’t think I do either.”

After a few minutes, lying and listening to the moans and cries of the other whores and their customers, Hilare rolled onto her back, heedless of the seed covering it. Her nipples were hard and long, her breasts and face flushed.

“You promised something,” she said, teasingly. “And I don’t think I have the strength to resist if you were to force yourself on me.”

Never one to deny a challenge, Narisha rose and moved quickly to the couch. She flung herself onto Hilare, eliciting a brief, excited cry from the red-haired whore.

Narisha lay atop Hilare, feeling the softness of the sweet body beneath her.

“Now,” she whispered, “I think I’ll just force myself on you.”

Hilare shuddered, arms sliding around Narisha’s back and holding her close.

“You must,” Hilare replied. “I’d be terribly disappointed if you didn’t.” 

*** 

Hilare came at least once simply from Narisha sucking at her nipples. They were as sweet as Narisha had imagined, and she had sucked them as if they were small cocks. The results were about the same, though less messy than with a man, which Narisha reflected was both a good thing and a bad thing.

Now they lay together like dragons locked in battle, each of their faces buried in the other’s sex. Hilare’s cunt was alive with juices, and the attentions of both men and women. It was the opposite end of the spectrum from her moment with Chali -- now, Narisha felt grateful to be the last in a long line of lovers, the one who gave the red-haired woman her final, most mind-shattering orgasm of the night.

And Hilare’s technique was almost flawless, as well; she alternated nibbling and biting softly at Narisha’s clit, then licking at her cunt-lips and toying at them with her fingers. Narisha came after only a few moments of Hilare’s attention, and was by now well along the way to a second (she had long since lost count of how many she’d had during the course of the evening).

Most of the men were gone by now; a few die-hard observers, already exhausted by orgasm and the attentions of the other whores, watched with some sparks of interest -- the one-eyed mercenary was there, Narisha noted gratefully. The other women seemed barely able to bestir themselves, yet they continued to watch as Hilare and Narisha, deeply engrossed in each other, seemed to merge into a single crimson-and-white creature.

Like in the jungle, Narisha thought. Like the Goddess... As she felt Hilare tense above her, and felt the woman’s moans reverberate through her body, and as Narisha redoubled the pace of her licking and teasing, the memory of her moments inhabiting the body of a goddess back in Xesh returned to her...

It is like that always, came the thunderstruck realization. When we make love, and create a world unto ourselves, away from the horror and violence out there, we are like the gods themselves.

Ancestors, she thought as Hilare came, screaming fit to wake the dead. We are gods...

And as Narisha herself came, her cries joining Hilare’s, and the watchers once more stared in blank amazement, she felt a sense that endless power and contentment was within her grasp...

She sighed as they slid apart, then enfolded Hilare in her arms and kissed her, tasting herself on the other woman’s tongue.

“If only you knew,” she said, softly, “the gift that you have given me.” 

*** 

The revels were ended, the men had gone. Morning approached, and even the most enthusiastic of the whores lay in semi-slumber around Narisha. Gods and ancestors, even she was feeling tired.

“You’re all so lovely,” Narisha said. “I will have dreams about you.”

“And we of you,” Terei said. “So who won our contest?”

Narisha shrugged. “It was all just a sham on my part,” she said. “I wanted a chance to fuck you all.”

“There’s no subterfuge necessary for that,” said Hilare. “We’d have fucked you for free.”

“Not fair,” Narisha said. She rummaged in her belongings. “I’ve paid for all the men who’ve been here, but I think you’ve earned yourselves a fine bonus.” She pulled out a bag of coins. “Imperial suns and dragons,” she continued. “Spend them wisely.”

Terei stared.

“Thank you, demoness,” she said in wonderment. “Thank you so.”

“No,” Narisha said. “Thank you.”

*** 

The sky was gray with oncoming dawn, the moons and stars were fading as Narisha strode unsteadily from the tavern. In the harbor was the Skate and a return to the deadly cares of the world, to quests and blood and war and danger.

She looked behind her briefly. The women stood on the balcony, all looking weary but satisfied, clad in their white shifts, and all waved happily. The gold Narisha had left them was equal to a month’s income, and every one had urged her to return. Chali, in fact, had begged Narisha to stay and join with them, at least for a while. There was a spark of something more than simple lust in the young woman’s eyes, and a plea that was deeper than mere desire in her voice.

In the end, Narisha had refused, not without reluctance. There was work to be done, and perils to face, and she was not about to allow Livia or any of the others to face it without her.

Yet, deep in her mind, there was a seed planted, a thought that Narisha knew could be nurtured to full, glorious bloom.

Just wait, Narisha thought, returning the women’s waves as she walked down the muddy, deserted street. I may be back sooner than you expect.

III

Li

Twin moons rose, one after the other, Big Sister’s waxing crescent casting an orange-silver glow, and Little Sister’s smaller disc reflecting silver-blue. The light glimmered across the still river, and illuminated the thick vegetation beyond, and in the distance, a moldering finger of stone, overgrown with vines.

“That’s our destination,” Skrall said in a satisfied voice, gazing over the railing as behind him the crew shouted and sang, fired up by the contents of a large rum keg. Several braziers had been set up, and fish caught from the river sizzled and cooked, the odor wafting across the ship. Li felt her mouth begin to water, but she ignored it.

“Let us hope,” Li said softly, “that the crew is in condition to reach it by morning.”

“They will be,” Skrall replied, “or I’ll want to know the reason why. Any sailor who can’t haul a line when he’s hung-over isn’t worth the effort to chuck him over the side. They’ll sail tomorrow, no doubt o’ that.”

Li sighed. Her captain seemed excessively determined to reach the tower — obsessed almost. It wasn’t a familiar state for the normally even-tempered orc, and she was concerned for him.

But there were other concerns. The celebration behind her was loud and raucous, and Li thought it best to remain on watch, along with the few crewmembers who had volunteered to forsake their extra grog ration and keep an eye out for enemies.

So far, no enemies had shown themselves, and Li was tempted to go join Tanu and Theanna, who were busily laughing as they watched another crewman attempt a drunken hornpipe. All the same, the ship came first, and Li was willing to delay her enjoyment for a time. She left Skrall gazing at the tower and began to walk the deck.

“Hey, Kitty girl!” squeaked a familiar voice, and a diminutive creature with a pointed, rat-like face, gleaming black eyes and quivering whiskers scuttled down the shrouds beside her.

“Squitter.” Li inclined her head. “It’s so good to see you’re over your fear of cats.”

“Only the fear of you, princess,” declared the ratling, bounding onto the deck and falling in step beside her, darting instinctively from shadow to shadow. “I know you’d never eat me. At least not in the bad way.”

“I’m unlikely to do so in the good way, either,” replied Li. “Even if I do love outside my species.”

Squitter’s nose wrinkled. “Just kidding, anyway, miss. You may be an okay cat, but I don’t think a relationship would ever work. Religious differences and all that crap.”

With that the ratling vanished, melting silently into the darkness. Li smiled. Squitter was one friend she’d not trade for all of the gold and treasure Skrall hoped to find.

The night passed slowly and Li found herself gazing longingly at her friends. Tanu and Theanna lay together now, gently touching one another. Li had a good idea where that was going, and ached to join them.

Skrall’s broad-shouldered form appeared from the shadows.

“You’ve done enough,” he said softly. “I’ll take the rest of your watch.”

Li blinked with surprise. “You’re my captain,” she said. “Walking the watch like a common seaman? Are you certain that the crew will not lose respect for you?”

“They’ll respect me or I’ll beat it out of them,” Skrall shot back. “I won’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself; now get the hell out of here before I change my mind.”

Li smiled again. “Thank you, captain.”

“Now don’t say I never did anything for you,” the orc growled.

Li turned and took a step toward Tanu and Theanna.

“Hello,” she said, softly. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Quite the contrary,” Tanu assured her, looking up at her. “We were hoping you’d join us.”

Theanna’s breasts were bare, pale against the dark deck, and they gleamed where Tanu had been licking at them.

“Well, then I’m glad I thought of it,” Li said, crouching down beside them. “Oh, my. You’re both naked, aren’t you?

“Observant as ever, my dear,” Theanna said, grinning. “What do you intend to do about it?”

“That,” Li said, reaching out and stroking the soft expanse of Theanna’s breast, “is a silly question.”

Theanna sighed as Tanu’s hand slid up one thigh.

“My most beloved companions,” the elf woman sighed. “So lovely to be with you...”

Tanu growled appreciatively, gently running a gleaming tongue along Theanna’s haunch.

“So warm,” she said, softly. “So very warm and wet.”

“Like you, my dear,” Tanu replied, his fingers caressing between her thighs. “So much like you.”

Li stroked harder at Theanna’s breast, rubbing her pink nipple with her palm, lightly grazing it with extended claws, squeezing and watching it thicken and swell.

“Keep telling her that, Tanu,” she said. “I don’t think she truly believes it.”

“I’ll make her believe,” Tanu replied. “It is one of my talents, after all.”

“Mmmm,” said Theanna. “One of many.”

Tanu’s fingers stroked more insistently between Theanna’s thighs.

“Your mistress thinks you don’t believe you’re beautiful,” said Tanu. “You are beautiful. Don’t you know that?”

“Mmmm,” Theanna repeated. “Don’t stop. Please.”

“Tell me that you’re beautiful,” Tanu insisted. “Tell me.”

Theanna only moaned and did not respond. Her hips began to move, rotating, pressing against Tanu’s persistent fingers.

“He told you to say something,” Li said. She licked lightly at Theanna’s nipple, feeling the elf woman shudder at the touch of her bristly tongue. “Say it.”

“Ohhhh,” Theanna replied. Her eyes were half-closed, her lips parted, gleaming. “Say what? I’ll say anything, darling. What do you want me to say?”

“Say you’re beautiful,” Li urged. “Say it.”

The words crawled reluctantly from Theanna.

“I’m... I’m beautiful.”

“Say it again,” said Tanu. Two of his fingers were inside her now, and she rode up and down on them. “Say it.”

“I’m beautiful,” Theanna sighed. “I’m so beautiful for you. I’m beautiful when I’m with you.”

“That’s it,” said Tanu. “That is what we tamers love to hear.”

He began to pump his fingers in and out of Theanna, moving faster and with more precision. The soft pink of her cunt lips enveloped him, leaving the wolfen’s fingers moist and sticky with her passion.

“Very good, my lovely elf,” Li said. “So good that you know now.”

“You are so beautiful, too,” Theanna declared, stroking Li’s hair, pressing down, urging her on. “Lick me. Suck at me, my beautiful cat.”

“Rrrrwwlll,” Li replied. “I am your beautiful tigress, elf princess. Let us make love to you.” She sucked at one nipple, then the other, feeling Theanna’s fingers twine in her hair, pulling her from one breast to another. “Our princess is becoming demanding, is she not, Tanu?”

“As befits her station,” Tanu said, still sliding fingers in and out of Theanna’s moist inner recesses. “I think it comes to her naturally.”

“Stop teasing me,” Theanna said, a trace of petulance slipping into her voice. “Make love to me without commentary.”

“Ahhhh, that’s the spirit, princess,” Tanu said. “Give us orders. We live to serve.”

“Then serve, wolfen!” Theanna said. “Lick me with that lovely long tongue.”

Li suppressed a shudder of pleasure as she watched Tanu dutifully slide between the elf woman’s thighs, pressing them apart with his large hands, exposing the pink flesh of her cunt, already sopping from the attentions of his fingers.

“Lick here, princess?” he asked.

“Of course, you great lummox,” Theanna said. “Stop playing stupid — you know what I want.”

“I admit I do.”

Li couldn’t keep her eyes away even as she attended to Theanna’s nipples. Tanu’s tongue was certainly long and flexible — she’d been a recipient of its attentions on enough occasions. Theanna always seemed to prefer her in that capacity, but now Li felt a strange elation at her desire — no, her demand — that Tanu pleasure her this way.

“Ohhhh, yesss,” Theanna sighed. “So long and sweet...”

Tanu growled. In the shadows, Li saw that the wolfen’s organ was swelling to prominence, gleaming, pink and slightly curved. More like the organs of Li’s people than Theanna was used to, but she seemed to like it well enough. As Li watched, the elf woman encircled the tumescent cock with one hand and began to stroke it.

Theanna’s fingers tightened, yanking Li’s head down, forcing her to concentrate on the elf-woman’s breasts. They were as lovely as the rest of her, Li thought, feeling the sensual combination of smooth skin and fur as they rubbed slowly and languorously together.

“Harder, princess,” she hissed. “Ohhh... Yrrr... Pull my hair harder... Grrrllll...”

Theanna, lost in the sensations of the wolfen’s tongue bathing her cunt in hot moisture and supple flesh, dug in harder, mashing Li’s face against her breast, letting it overflow the Kaitian’s mouth, groaning as Li’s pink tongue an teeth nibbled softly at her now fully-turgid nipples.

“Oh, yes!” Theanna’s voice was high, almost to the breaking point. “Put yourself in me, Tanu... Put your manhood in me, I beg you.”

“Beg me?” Tanu asked. “That’s not how it should be done.”

“I command you, then. I order you. Put it inside me, make me come for you and for my sweet cat-woman.”

“I obey,” Tanu said. “You command your servant well.”

It grew a bit more complex then, as Tanu slid forward, rising up, Theanna’s legs about his neck, and fitted the long, pink cock against the portal of her cunt. Li kept her lips pressed against Theanna’s breast, feeling the swollen cylinder of her fleshy nipple between her teeth, but a moment later, Theanna’s hand was joined by Tanu’s and together they moved Li forcibly from one breast to the other.

Li sighed inwardly, feeling the pleasurable sensations that she had felt with Tanu, when she was his property, broken and tamed, performing every pleasure at his whim. It was strangely exciting to her, especially knowing that she could stop at any time.

Tanu’s voice transformed into a savage growl as he thrust into Theanna, eliciting loud cries of delight from the elf. Li realized that she was no longer forming intelligible words, either, but snarled and yowled like a mating tiger.

Am I an animal? she thought. Are these elves and humans somehow different from Tanu and me? We resemble the beasts, the predators, the hunters, and they resemble something different? Apes, perhaps, or dragons, or other creatures far more removed from their descendants... We lie so close to the beast, it is only just beneath the surface, and when we make love, or when we fight, or when we kill, the beast rises in us.

And now the beast rose in her as she bit down on Theanna’s nipples, feeling flesh give way before her teeth, almost drawing blood but not quite... Theanna cried out, but they were cries of pleasure, not pain, as Tanu’s snarls continued, and Li’s own yowls grew in pitch as she felt Tanu’s hand creep down the small of her back, past the base of her tail, between her thighs and to the moist depths of her own cunt.

“Ohhh,” she cried, forcing herself to form words. “Oh, darling Tanu, darling Theanna... Oh, love... Yrrrr... Nnnnnn... Yarwwwwwww.... Oh, yesss...” What was the word the humans used, the one that her beloved Wulf barked on occasion while making love to her? “Oh, fuck. Yes.... Yrrrllll... Ngrrrrr... Fuck me, darlings... Fuck... meeeeeee...”

Orgasm wasn’t terribly difficult, after watching Theanna and Tanu together. The wolfen’s fingers only finished things... Shudders ran through her body, and she fell down, against the sweet softness of Theanna’s heaving breasts.

“Oh, you came, darling, you came,” Theanna said. “I’m going to... come... now... Oh, Tanu...”

Theanna’s cries rose to new heights, and under other circumstances Li might have been concerned about her waking up the crew, but now she didn’t really care. Tanu’s growls rose similarly, until they joined in an almost hellish cacophony, reaching an orgasmic crescendo that made Li’s teeth vibrate.

At last, the three collapsed, lying panting together as the final reverberations of their climaxes died away.

“Sweet, sweet lovers,” Theanna sighed. “You make me feel so beautiful.”

“My pleasure,” said Li. “You do the same for me.”

For a moment, Li thought, all was at peace and perfect.

Then, the warm afterglow of their lovemaking was broken when, from a nearby coil of rope appeared the grisly apparition of Squitter’s oversized, rat-like head.

“Are you guys through yet?” he demanded, indignantly. “Crap, come and join the fuckin’ party!”

“Squitter,” Li said, wearily, “remind me why I gave up eating rodents again?” 

*** 

The celebration continued with no one other than Squitter taking note of the grappling threesome; Li looked up to see a number of crewfolk singing as they danced around a brazier that glowed with hot coals. One in particular seemed quite animated, whirling and shouting, his robe flaring out and flapping, as if in a heavy breeze.

Li frowned. It was Shardin, the normally sedate and shy wizard. She herself did not drink to excess, but she had heard of how liquor could affect humans. Was this truly Shardin’s inner self, she thought, as he bellowed and leaped, capering like an acrobat, to the surprise and amusement of the other dancers.

Then, abruptly, Shardin stopped, standing wide-legged, arms spread out, facing the brazier. His eyes were wild, his lips parted as he panted heavily. Then he reached down into the brazier and withdrew a handful of glowing coals, holding them in his bare hands without apparent effect.

“Ratuka!!” he shouted, his voice echoing across the swamps. He crushed the coals into masses of swirling orange sparks. “Ratuka demands tribute!”

Li surged to her feet, along with her companions, gaping in amazement at the mild-mannered wizard.

“What in the name of Grunk’s right testicle are you bellowing about?” demanded Skrall, striding toward the wizard. “You want to alert every gods-damned cannibal in a thousand leagues that we’re here?”

Shardin whirled to face the oncoming orc. It seemed an unequal contest — a frail human mage facing a muscular, shirtless orc, but the sorcerer’s gaze was steady.

“Had a bit too much of the grog, have we?” Skrall said. “Maybe a few hours belowdecks will...”

Without waiting for Skrall to finish, Shardin stepped forward and struck the captain in the chest with his fist.

The results were astonishing. Skrall flew through the air and fetched up against the railing, looking both angry and surprised.

Squitter scuttled out of the ropes beside Li.

“Holy crap,” he squeaked, gazing at the scene with beady black eyes. “Shardo’s gonna get it.”

“You’ll spend time in the brig for that, bucko!” Skrall snarled, rising to his feet.

“Ratuka demands tribute!” shouted Shardin again. “Pay Ratuka tribute or he takes this body as his sokor!

“What the green fucking hell are you talking about?” Skrall said, and gestured to a knot of crewmen who were watching the exchange. “You there! Clap Mister Shardin in irons and hold him below until he sobers up!”

The crewmen, not terribly sober themselves, stepped toward Shardin, variously amused, serious or confused-looking. When he looked toward them, Shardin’s gaze was anything but drunken.

“Ratuka takes this body!” he shouted. “Ratuka will keep this body until he receives fitting tribute and contrition!” With that, he opened his mouth, wider than Li would have guessed possible, and seemed to shout.

But no sound came out. Instead, a rush of glistening, wriggling silver bodies shot forth, enveloping the advancing crewmen. They fell to the deck amid the flapping silvery forms.

“Well feed me to the crocodiles,” said Squitter wonderingly. “I think he just spat fish at them.”

Indeed he had. The advancing crewmen now lay in a pile of medium-sized fish, all flapping and writhing, gasping in the air. When a crewman tried to stand, he slipped in the pile and fell again.

“Wish I could do that,” Squitter said. “I’d never go hungry again.”

Shardin turned, and his face was almost totally unfamiliar, glaring and angry.

“You all suffer Ratuka’s wrath until he is satisfied!” the wizard barked. “Now he goes and takes his sokor with him!”

The wizard strode deliberately toward the railing, clambered over it, and unceremoniously jumped into the dark water below, disappearing with a splash.

“He is not himself tonight, is he?” Squitter commented.

“Gods damn him!” Skrall roared. “Search party! Take a boat and find that idiot!”

“Come on,” Li said, gesturing to her friends, who rapidly dressed in what few clothes they’d been wearing. “Let’s find him and see what happened.”

“The ratling is right,” Tanu commented as they helped unload a ship’s boat. “The wizard did not seem himself.”

“Perhaps,” replied Theanna, thoughtfully, “he wasn’t.”

IV

Livia

A dark mist rose from the water as the sun rose and Narisha staggered onto the Skate, looking worse for the wear, but smiling broadly.

Livia was just emerging from her cabin as Narisha walked up the boarding plank.

“Glad you could make it,” she said. “I take it you had a good time?”

Narisha nodded. “I’m a mess, though. I think I need a bath and about a day’s sleep.”

“You can have the first but not the second,” Livia told her. “We’re heading out to find an albino elf today.”

Narisha sighed heavily. “The price I pay for my pleasure. Well, I’ll take my bath — I’m covered with spit, sweat and both kinds of come.”

Livia sighed. “Thanks for sharing, love. Tell me more about it later, won’t you?”

“Oh, I will,” Narisha said, vanishing belowdecks. “Every last detail.” 

*** 

The problem, Livia mused, was that they were in a strange city, full of strange people, searching for an even stranger person. Who should they ask? And how?

Shark Harbor was like a seedy waterfront district grown to the size of a large city. With the elves on a rampage, it was crammed with refugees and travelers of every race and description. The locals, a motley mixture of pale northerners and swarthy Desertlanders and Veldt-dwellers, adapted to the hordes of outsiders with enthusiasm, increasing prices and otherwise squeezing every last copper groat or tin bit out of their guests. The place was jammed to the gills, making a ship in the harbor the best place to stay, but the enormous crowds and bustling confusion made any attempts to track down the mysterious albino elf even more difficult.

Hake Street, the city’s main avenue, was a muddy mess, packed with desperate refugees, shouting vendors, clattering carts crammed with goods, richly-clad merchants bullying their way ahead, and Shark Harbor’s city watch struggling in a futile attempt to maintain order. After several hours on the street, Livia and Narisha were no closer to their goal.

“Any suggestions?” Livia demanded over the cacophony. “Want to go pretend to seduce Narbo again?”

Narisha still looked tired, and looked at the crowd with disdain.

“I think I’d rather eat a dead rat,” she said. “Besides, I don’t think he knows anything else.”

“I’m not interested in dead rats,” Livia replied, “but we’ll need to get something to eat soon or I’ll fall over and be trampled.”

“And I’m the one who spent all night fucking,” Narisha replied. “Weakling.”

“Wait until I’m feeling better, you red-skinned bitch,” Livia replied, a trace of her old spark returning. “Then you’ll see what a weakling I am.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Narisha pointed. “That place looks to have an open table.”

They waded through the throng to the opposite side of the street to a small inn. Beneath a green-striped awning, a half-barrel and two half-casks served as a table and chairs. Narisha snarled at a spindly goblin who had been eyeing the chair then seated herself. The greenskin vanished into the crowd with a petulant look.

The food and drink were plain, relatively clean, and grotesquely expensive. The server was a surly, bearded human male who was nowhere near as attractive as the barmaid from the night before.

“This is pointless,” Livia complained. “We’re looking for a needle in a stack of needles.”

“I can’t think of any alternative,” Narisha said. “I’m as weary of this as you are. More so, in fact.”

“Well, you’ve no one to blame but yourself for that, dear. You should have just cuddled up with me and slept all night.”

“While that has its good points, it wasn’t what I was in the mood for, sweetness. In any event, the only connection we’ve got with the Conqueror is that elf and his map. If we don’t find the bastard, we’re pretty much out of —”

She broke off. Livia was frozen, eyes wide, with a bite of stew half-way to her mouth. Narisha followed her gaze and saw through the inn’s doors, among the crowd filling the main dining room, a striking figure with long, pure white hair and pale white skin.

“You were saying?” Livia asked.

“I’ll be damned,” Narisha whispered.

“It looks as if we’ve got some following to do,” Livia said. “You remembered to bring those mouse amulets, didn’t you?” 

*** 

Sunny morning had changed to cloudy afternoon by the time the elf once more came to ground. He had spent a while at the inn, engaged in heated conversation with the owner; Livia assumed that he was carrying out some kind of protection racket, since he left the place with a bag full of coins.

The rest of the morning had been similar, with the elf going from place to place, shaking down the owner then departing with assorted coinage. By the time he fought through the crowd and settled down for a meal at a more rundown than normal tavern, the elf had amassed a small fortune. He seemed unconcerned, casually leaving the bag of loot on the floor by his feet. He didn’t seem to notice them trailing him, either, hopefully due to the effects of Narisha’s amulets, which made wearers less apparent to observers.

He looked capable of taking care of himself, Livia thought, watching him from the shadows of the tavern. Under other circumstances, he might even have been attractive — but, of course, ALL elves were attractive, which was one of the things that made them so insufferable. His eyes were vivid black, his lips thin and cruel-looking. He was dressed in black fighting leathers, high boots which seemed to have attracted very little mud, and bore a fancifully-hilted rapier on one hip. His cloak was black, trimmed with silver, held shut with a clasp in the form of twin snarling wolf-heads.

“Not your average happy-go-lucky elf, wouldn’t you say?” Livia asked.

“I’d say not,” Narisha agreed. “So shall we find out who the hell he is and why he can leave a bag full of gold at his feet and not be worried in the least?”

Livia nodded and hailed a barmaid.

Sliding her a silver coin, she whispered, “Who is that gorgeous elf in the corner? He looks rich, and my friend and I were wondering if he was single.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “You don’t know how many women ask that, sister. That’s Raleph, and he’d probably take you to bed if you asked nicely. Then he’d probably kill you just for the hell of it and use your body in some kind of weird ritual. He’s an enforcer for the Slaerthists — does their collections and kills people they don’t like. He’s killed more men than I’ve been to bed with, and that’s saying something.”

“Thanks,” Livia said, realistically miming a shudder. “I think we’ll pass then.”

After the barmaid had left, they sat in silence for a few moments, observing their quarry. He ordered a large roast, vegetables, soup and expensive wine, and ate delicately, in stark contrast to the filthy surroundings.

“So the Slaerthists are involved,” Livia said. “I should have known.”

“Fucking daemon-worshippers,” Narisha added, carefully inflecting the word “daemon.” “And thugs for hire. They were running some kind of scam on Skrall.”

“Skrall is brave and a good sailor, but no one ever accused him of being a genius,” Livia said. “He probably fell for it like a champion.”

“Well, Conqueror shipped out after he bought the map,” Narisha said. “Now all we have to do is find out what was on it and where he’s gone. Oh, yes, and face down the hordes of Slaerth in the process.”

“How do you propose getting the information?” Livia asked. “No, wait. Don’t tell me. I think I know.”

Narisha grinned. “I’d do it, but I’m still tired after last night. Are you still being sensitive, or do you want to do the honors while I back you up from the shadows?”

Livia sighed. “I’ll set aside my self-examination for one evening. However, if he is as dangerous as that woman said, I may need some help.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Narisha said. “Besides, the fucker looks like he needs to get taken down a notch or two.” 

*** 

“So I’ve been told that you’re one of the most feared men in town,” said Livia, brightly, as she sat beside Raleph.

“So what if I am?” the elf asked, basking in the attention.

“I like dangerous men,” Livia continued. “I’ve found that they’re good in bed.”

Raleph chuckled knowingly, as if he got this kind of proposition all the time. “And for just a few crowns, you’ll be happy to find out, I suppose?”

Livia shook her head. “I’m not a whore. Well, not a whore of the traditional kind.”

Raleph’s voice all-too-easily took on an edge of cruelty. “What kind of whore are you, then?”

“A horny one,” Livia said. “Just the type willing to give you a night you’ll never forget just for the experience of sleeping with the most dangerous man in Shark Harbor.” Slowly, she slid her hand up his thigh.

“You’ll be the one to get a night you won’t forget.” Raleph’s arrogance was already grating on Livia, but she forced it away.

“Then shall we go?” she asked. “I’m having a hard time not ripping your clothes off and doing you right here.”

Raleph smiled, but it was a cruel, selfish smile.

“Well, you little slut, you’re just going to have to be patient.”

“I’ll try,” Livia said, “but I can’t make any guarantees.” 

*** 

More than once, Livia wondered at how easily Raleph had fallen for her charade. Perhaps women did, indeed, approach him in this manner... He was handsome and wealthy and powerful, if dangerous and potentially violent. Then again, perhaps his ego couldn’t possibly entertain the thought that she and Narisha were anything less than sincere. He was, she thought, one of the most repulsive men she’d ever met, despite his elvish good looks and his exotic white skin and hair.

But you’ve fucked men just as repulsive just for the experience, something deep inside her whispered, and for a moment it sounded like Wulf. Remember Arlis? Remember all the men and women you fucked then threw out of bed and ignored? How are you different from this bastard?

Livia had work to do. Self-doubt could wait. For the moment, she busied herself with happily escorting Raleph from the inn to his domicile, a pleasant white-walled villa nearby. After the requisite small-talk, they prepared to the bedroom, and Raleph’s ego made itself known even more vividly.

“So what kind of slut follows a total stranger up to his room, huh?” Raleph said abruptly. “What kind of little fuck slut would come up to me in a bar and say she wanted to fuck me?”

“I think,” Livia replied, forcing down a sudden rush of distaste and reminding herself that Narisha was just outside the door, “I already told you that.”

Raleph’s eyes flashed. “Did I say you could talk to me like that? Bitch?”

Oh, we’re going to play that way, Livia thought.

“No, sir,” she said softly. “You didn’t.”

“That’s better,” Raleph said. He sat on the edge of the bed and cast a harsh gaze at her. “Now let’s see what you’ve got.”

Another elf who learned too much from humans, Livia thought, trying to pout prettily while loosening her tunic. Shouldn’t you be living in a gumdrop house with a gingerbread man or something?

“Nice,” Raleph said as Livia pulled off her tunic, feeling her breasts bounce as the warm air touched them. “Very nice. You’re just a little fuck-slut, aren’t you?”

“I’m a very nice little fuck-slut,” Livia agreed. How many times had she said that, she wondered? How many times had she said the words not realizing what they might mean? How many times had she asked someone else to say them? How was she different from this arrogant, pale-skinned elf sitting on the bed, gazing at her as if she was a particularly fine piece of plunder.

She began to unlace her trousers. She smiled up at Raleph and noticed a prominent bulge at his groin.

“Enjoying the show?” she asked. “Sir?”

“Yeah, I’m enjoying the show, you little whore,” Raleph replied. “You’re going to like what I’ve got for you.”

Livia sighed an began to pull down her trousers.

“No,” Raleph said. “Get on your hands and knees. Show me your ass.”

Livia suppressed an annoyed sigh. Usually she was giving the orders.

She turned and slowly dropped to her knees, facing away from him.

“You like my ass?” she said. “You like the way it looks?”

“Fucking right I do,” said Raleph. “You got me hard as a rock right now, looking at that ass.”

Livia dropped to hands and knees and with one hand began to pull the trousers down, revealing the pale curve of her buttocks to Raleph’s lustful gaze.

“Fuck,” Raleph said. “You’re my kind of girl. Just met me and you’re showing me that tight little ass of yours. You little whore.”

“I’m your whore,” Livia said. “Use me like your whore.”

There was a certain excitement to it, a certain exhilaration. But she didn’t want to say it to Raleph. He didn’t care that she was offering herself, reaching inside and pulling out lusts and desires that she normally kept hidden. She wanted to say it to Narisha, or to...

Or to Wulf... The thought came upon her suddenly — memories of the waterfall, of the moments in her cabin, of Wulf and Narisha and Daedora, and all those she...

Say it. Her buttocks were totally exposed now, and she stepped out of her trousers, displaying herself naked for the elf. Yet her mind was a thousand leagues away.

Say it.

...All those she loved. The word had come to her lips so many times before, but now she knew it. She did love Wulf, and Narisha, and Daedora... Others, too, but she hadn’t realized it.

Now, here, displayed for a stranger, preparing to fuck a man she despised, simply to gain information, now at last the terrible realization came upon her.

Livia gasped sharply.

“Getting turned on?” Raleph asked. She looked back at him, blinking back a sudden desire to burst into tears. He was pulling off his own leggings, and now approached her, like a statue carved of ice, his cock hard and projecting like a besieger’s battering ram.

Livia swallowed. The thoughts faded to the back of her mind, but they were still there, swirling and percolating... They would come back, but for now she had work to do.

“Yeah,” she said, hoping that her broken tone would sound passionate instead of sad. “I’m getting really turned on. I can hardly wait to feel your cock in my mouth.”

Raleph chuckled. “You women are all alike. One look and you want to suck it. Okay, bitch. You can suck it.”

He stood above her, cock rigid, straight out from his body. He was beautiful, that was true... Elven delicacy combined with a muscular physique, decorated here and there by scars. His eyes were wrong, however... Filled with lust and anger and uncaring desire.

His eyes made him the ugliest creature on the planet, Livia realized.

But business was business...

She rose to her knees, taking the rigid cock in her hands, squeezing and stroking. She pressed it between her breasts, and pressed them together. Though the organ looked as if it had been sculpted out of snow, it nonetheless radiated heat, growing hotter and harder as she slid it between her breasts. She released Raleph’s cock, held her breast in one hand and ran her nipple along its sensitive underside.

Enjoy it, you bastard, she said to herself. You’re going to be very unhappy very shortly.

“That’s it, slut,” Raleph growled. “Rub those hot tits on my cock. Like it, bitch?”

Livia nodded, looking up at him with what she hoped were big, innocent eyes.

“Say it, whore,” Raleph spat. “Say you like my cock between your tits.”

“I love your cock between my tits,” Livia sighed, prettily. “I want to suck it now.”

“Then suck, cunt,” Raleph said. “Suck it good.”

Context, context, the thoughts ran through Livia’s head even as she tongued Raleph’s shaft about its knobbed head, and gently bit her way down its length. If this were with someone I cared about it would be turning me on so much... but this, this is nothing but... hydraulics.

Even so, Livia’s exercise in basic hydraulics seemed to have totally convinced Raleph. She encircled his cock with her lips and slowly began to slide it in.

“That the biggest cock you’ve ever had, slut?” he demanded. “That the biggest cock you’ve ever stuck in that slutty hot mouth?”

No, as a matter of fact it isn’t, asshole, she thought, but only looked up and nodded, the thick organ half way buried in her mouth.

“I thought so. That’s the biggest cock you’ve ever seen.”

Arrogant son of a bitch...

Suppressing the urge to bite down, very hard, Livia slid Raleph’s cock the rest of the way into her mouth.

“You swallowed it all,” Raleph said, unable to keep at least a trace of admiration from his tone. “Very good. Not many sluts can swallow that whole big cock.”

I can swallow this toothpick in my sleep... Now Arlis, that was a cock. And Chuma, of course...

Or rather, Wulf.

But Wulf’s cock wasn’t anything to write home about, at least in terms of size... Nothing like Arlis, or Wulf-as-Chuma, or even this idiot...

But I wish this was Wulf’s cock. I wish he was saying these things to me, because after it was all over, he’d hold me and tell me he loved me, and make sure that I understood that he didn’t really mean all those things, that he didn’t think I was a whore, or a slut, or a bitch...

Except, I suppose, in a good way, Livia mused. I want to be a slut, but for the people I love. Not for fools like this one...

“Suck that cock, bitch!” Raleph’s harsh words interrupted Livia’s reverie. “Suck it hard.”

“Mmmmm...” she said, returning to her work. It was almost as if the cock was now a separate entity, severed from its owner... Raleph’s commentary seemed less and less relevant as Livia bent to sucking the long, hard organ, stroking it with her fingers, then sucking again.

“Suck my balls, you slut,” Raleph ordered.

She complied, licking and sucking at Raleph’s testicles, noting their almost total absence of hair. It would have been a pleasant sensation, had it been anyone besides this.

Perhaps I can persuade Wulf to shave when...

There was a sudden catch in her throat, and she stopped sucking for a moment.

...when he gets back.

If, she thought. If he gets back.

“Don’t stop, you little whore,” Raleph said, grabbing her hair and yanking her back against his cock. “Don’t you fucking stop.”

“I want to get fucked,” Livia gasped. “I want you to fuck me.”

“You do, huh?” Raleph’s tone was even harsher. “Okay, I’ll fuck you. You ever been fucked up the ass?”

By men and women who are ten times the man you’ll ever be, she wanted to say. But she knew what he wanted.

“No,” she said, forcing a fearful quaver into her voice. “I’ve never been fucked up the ass.”

“Well, good. This’ll be your first time. Nice virgin ass for me to fuck. Nice hot little virgin whore’s ass.”

Gods, will you PLEASE SHUT UP???

With that, he urged her, none too gently, toward the bed, and maneuvered her onto the edge, buttocks exposed, legs over the edge.

Good thing I’ve done this before. He’s as subtle as a charging behemoth.

“Look at that ass,” Raleph said. “Look at that fucking ass. What kind of slut would let me just fuck her ass like this?”

Livia sighed inwardly.

“A horny one,” she said, hoping that the boredom and contempt didn’t bleed into her voice.

Apparently it didn’t. Raleph spread her cheeks apart and spat copiously, spraying saliva across her skin.

“Hang on, slut,” he growled. “You’ll love this.”

He pulled open a drawer in a bedside table and withdrew a thick, cylindrical dildo.

“Suck it,” he said. “Suck it while I fuck you.”

Livia rolled her eyes (he couldn’t see her), but obediently let him place the dildo in front of her, and began to suck it as Raleph spit between her buttocks again and moved to penetrate her.

He was anything but gentle, but then Livia suspected he didn’t know the meaning of the word. The thick head of his cock thrust harshly against her anus, then slowly began to slide in.

“Ohhhhhhh,” she moaned, faking it only partially. She truly loved this — the fact that was pressed, face down, onto the bed, and didn’t have to look at Raleph helped things enormously.

It’s Narisha, fucking me with a dildo, she thought. Or she’s making me suck a dildo. Or I’m sucking Chuma. Or it’s Wulf. Gods help me, it might even be that brick-head Arlis.

“Yesss, fuck my ass,” she moaned, letting the dildo fall out onto the bed. “Push it in.”

“You love it, don’t you?” the hateful voice continued. “Say you love it, whore.”

“I love it,” Livia gasped. He didn’t know that she wasn’t even speaking to him. She was speaking to Narisha, who hovered just beyond the door (probably listening and playing with herself, knowing her), to Daedora, sleeping soundly on the Skate, or to Wulf, far away and in another body...

Please be alive, Wulf. Please come back to me so I can tell you how I really feel...

“Fuck you,” Raleph snarled. “Fuck you, whore. Take it all.”

And she did, feeling the long organ slide the rest of the way inside her. She couldn’t suppress a deep groan, and involuntarily she slid her fingers between her thighs to tease at her clitoris. Fortunately, Raleph didn’t notice.

“Take it all, bitch,” he barked, pulling out and thrusting in again with little concern for Livia’s discomfort. “Take that big cock up your ass.”

Too bad I’m not thinking about you, idiot. Too bad I’m thinking of a man who’s on the other side of the world, or a woman who’s waiting outside your door waiting for her chance at you.

“Mmmmm, yes,” she cried, feeling heat building as her busy fingers flicked and squeezed at her swelling clit. She was soaked, of course, but it was because of her thoughts of other people, not Raleph. Not that that would have mattered to the elf, of course.

“Shut up, whore,” Raleph spat. “Shut up while I fuck you.”

You stupid fucker. You stupid, stupid fucker.

“I’m gonna come,” the elf said, urgently. “Take it in the face, bitch. Take it in your face...”

Oh, the things I do for you, Livia thought, letting the engorged cock slide out of her ass, and turning to face Raleph. The things I do for all of you...

Raleph stroked his cock rubbing it against Livia’s face.

“You whores love to take it in the face, don’t you?” he demanded. “Don’t you?”

“I’m your whore and I love to take it in the face,” she said, agreeably. “Come in my face, please.”

“Beg for it, bitch. Beg for it.”

“Please,” Livia said again. “Please come in my face.”

“Open wide, bitch,” he groaned. “I’m gonna...”

And that was it. A massive explosion of semen burst across Livia’s cheeks and lips, and across her extended tongue.

It’s what they love... And I suppose it’s what I love, under the right circumstances.

“Blow bubbles, bitch,” Raleph demanded. “Blow fucking bubbles.”

Oh, for the gods’ fucking sake, what are you fucking talking about?

Dutifully, Livia spat up some of Raleph’s seed, letting it bubble between her lips.

“Like it?” Raleph demanded. “How’s it taste?”

“Wonderful,” she said. “Delicious. I love your come.”

“Yeah.” Raleph seemed very pleased with himself. “That the biggest load you ever took?”

Wrong again, asshole.

“Yes,” she said. “No one’s ever come like that before...”

“Good, slut. Very good.” Raleph grinned, rubbing his cock against her face, spreading sticky semen further. “You’re such a hot slut. You got any girlfriends that’d like to fuck me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Livia said, “I do.”

Raleph glowed, convinced, Livia was certain, that he was an invincible sex god.

“Really? Maybe you should have her come over here some time. I’ll fuck you both.”

“Or we’ll fuck you,” Livia replied, and spat. “And you can see what it feels like.”

Raleph looked suddenly confused, as if his façade of sexual prowess had unexpectedly cracked.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Livia stood. Raleph was sitting now, naked, his eyes glazed in post-orgasmic languor. He was unlikely to be able to put up a fight.

“I’ll show you,” Livia replied. “Now, Narisha.”

The door exploded inward and Narisha bounded through... But it didn’t look like Narisha. Now, a great crimson, red-striped tiger burst into the room, yellow eyes filled with anger, leaping atop the surprised and suddenly terrified Raleph. Pinned by the beast’s great claws, Raleph screamed, but the cry was cut short when Livia thrust a pillow into his mouth.

“Shut up or you’re a dead elf,” she hissed. “Got it, bitch?” 

*** 

Narisha was her old self again — red-skinned, voluptuous, scantily clad in chain and leather, a thick dildo projecting from her loins. A trace of tigerish ferocity still lingered on her face, but that was understandable given circumstances.

Now Raleph was on his hands and knees, bound up by leather straps and restraints — Narisha was never without her toys. His expression was now anything but arrogant, since Narisha was behind him, the heavy dildo thrust between his buttocks. Still, some small degree of anger flashed in his eyes, but Livia doubted it would last long.

“Got a response yet, bitch?” Narisha demanded, bearing down and eliciting a squeal from the elf. “You and your daemon-worshipping buddies have any more copies of that fucking map?”

“Fuck off, whore,” Raleph spat back, though by now his defiance was starting to wear thin.

“Who are you calling whore, whore?” Livia asked, grabbing Raleph’s chin in her hands. “I mean, you’ve just met us. What kind of man lets a woman he just met fuck him in the ass?”

“Fuck you,” came the reply.

“Your responses are starting to get repetitive,” Narisha said. “But don’t worry. I’m enjoying this. We’re keeping it up until you give us what we want. Right, dearest?”

“Right, sweetheart,” Livia said. “And Mister ‘shut up, whore’ can just lie back and think of elfland.”

“Gods damn you,” Raleph growled, then cried out again as Narisha began her ministrations once more. “Damn you both.”

“I’m shaking, white boy,” Narisha replied, plunging away with relish, grinning broadly. “Believe me, we’ve faced down better than you and laughed about it. We’ve fucked with the type that would make you lose control of your bodily functions.”

Livia reached down, then thrust Raleph’s dildo in his face.

“Suck it, bitch,” she hissed. “You know you want it, don’t you?”

Raleph’s façade was in full retreat now. He winced as Narisha thrust into him again and looked fearfully at the dildo.

Livia shouted now. Anger shot through her, anger at Raleph and herself. “DON’T YOU, YOU FUCKING WHORE?”

“No, I don’t,” he said, softly. “I don’t want it.”

“Gods dammit,” Livia said, harshly. “I thought all you sluts loved to suck cock. What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I don’t want to, that’s all.”

“Well, I was supposed to, wasn’t I?” Livia threw the dildo down, her face contorted into a snarl. “I was supposed to beg for you to come all over me, wasn’t I? I was supposed to be your fucking little slut, wasn’t I?”

Raleph grimaced at her words, but said nothing.

A flash of uncontrollable rage sparked in Livia’s eyes and she slapped Raleph across the face, sending his hair flying.

“You just wanted to use me like you use all those other women, didn’t you? I was just your little fuck-toy, wasn’t I? Your little fuck-slut who lived to suck your cock and let you fuck me in any hole you wanted! Well, what’s it feel like, fucker? What’s it feel like now?”

“I don’t think it feels too good to judge from his reaction,” Narisha said, thrusting between Raleph’s buttocks again. “But then maybe for Raleph, ‘No’ means ‘Yes’. Is that it, Raleph? Are you just a little fuck-slut who loves to get fucked in the ass and only says ‘No’ because she wants more?”

“No!” Raleph cried, his defiance now in total retreat. “No, I don’t. Please, I didn’t mean it... Please stop...”

“I don’t imagine begging worked for any of the women you’ve shoved your cock into, did it?” Livia demanded. “Just use them and fuck them and then throw them out, and you don’t give a ratling’s ass about whether they were happy or not, or whether they felt like shit the next morning, and wanted to die rather than have someone like you touch them ever again... You got your jollies, didn’t you? You got to stick your dick anywhere it fit, and come all over them, and listen to them whine and beg and cry... Use ‘em and throw ‘em away, right, Raleph? RIGHT?”

“Right,” Raleph gasped hurriedly. “I just used them. I fucked them and threw them out. I didn’t care about them, just myself.”

“Well that’s fucking WRONG, isn’t it?” Livia demanded, slapping his face once more. “Fucking WRONG!”

Suddenly she stood and turned, stomping angrily from the room, wrapping herself in a robe and slamming the balcony door.

“You’d better tell us what we want before she comes back, fuck-toy,” Narisha said. “Or do you want another few thrusts before we’re done?”

“No.” Raleph collapsed, unable to move or resist further. “No more. Take the fucking things. We made a bunch of copies in case the first scam didn’t work out. They’re downstairs under a loose hearthstone. You can have all the fucking things.” He moaned. “Are you satisfied now?”

“Oh, we’re not finished yet, lover.” Narisha withdrew and let the elf lie, exhausted. She unstrapped her harness and started to get dressed. “This wasn’t a Slaerthist thing, was it? Your type are just thugs, not scam artists. Who hired you bastards to give the map to Narbo?”

“Some dark elves,” he said. “They didn’t say who they were. They just gave me a thousand crowns if I could persuade someone to go out and get the treasure.”

“Always out for easy gold, aren’t you? And you called her a whore.”

“Stop it,” Raleph complained. “Haven’t you done enough for one night?”

“Hardly,” Narisha said. “We’ve still got to steal all your gold and leave you to explain it.”

Raleph looked genuinely alarmed, but said nothing.

“Dark elves,” Narisha said, contemplatively. “Why does this not surprise me?”

“That’s all I know, you bitch,” Raleph said, voice weak and cracked. “Now will you go away?”

“Well, yes,” Narisha said, selecting a small sack filled with lead weights from her belt, “I’ll be happy to go away. But after what we’ve been through, I doubt you’ll be able to get it up quite so easily. Just think of me next time you want to rough a woman up and call her a whore, and then — poof! — your little friend will desert you.”

Raleph only panted heavily and groaned softly.

“You can keep all the restraints and things,” Narisha said. “A present from me. But if I hear you’ve been using them on any more of those little fuck-sluts you’re so fond of, I’ll be back and I won’t be so gentle.”

Raleph’s moans took on a desperate edge.

“And oh, yes. I don’t envy you the task of telling to your Slaerthist friends how your entire bag of protection money ended up stolen while you were tied to the bed.”

Raleph made a helpless, inarticulate noise, and closed his eyes.

“That, I think, is all I have to say on the topic.” With that, she took careful aim and smacked the sack across the back of Raleph’s head. He twitched once, then lay still. 

*** 

“I don’t hear him whining anymore,” Livia said as they stood together on the balcony, looking down at the filthy street below. “Did you...”

Narisha waved a hand. “Perish the thought, my dear. Letting him live with his humiliation is a much better punishment than simply killing him, don’t you think?”

“More compassionate, I’d say,” Livia said. “He’s a foul little animal, isn’t he?”

“I found your exchange kind of exciting,” Narisha admitted. “I listened to the whole thing. I came a couple of times.”

“Unsurprising,” Livia said. “But I think I’ve realized a few things that I didn’t know before. I suppose I owe the filthy little fuck a debt of gratitude for putting things into perspective.”

Narisha was silent for a moment, then spoke with uncharacteristic care.

“I’d say, my dear Livia, that some of the things you said weren’t necessarily aimed at Raleph, were they?”

“What do you mean?”

“Screaming at him for using people then casting them aside, treating lovers like whores, and thinking only of himself? Who else do we know is like that?”

“I don’t know,” Livia said, smirking. “You?”

“Perhaps,” Narisha replied, “but I’m a demon, and that’s my nature. I was thinking of someone else. Someone who perhaps regrets the excesses and uncaring conduct of her life so far?”

Livia didn’t reply immediately.

“Someone who thinks that maybe she should be a little more caring and thoughtful and shouldn’t take her lovers so much for granted,” she said at last. “Someone who misses her friends and wishes that this fucking war would end so we could all be together and happy.”

“Sounds like an interesting person. I might like to meet her.”

“She’s been hiding,” Livia replied. “Hiding for years, ever since her father beat her, and her husband raped her and all of her lovers abandoned her, and she decided that she didn’t care for love anymore, and would just take all the pleasure she could from the world, since it had been so unfair to her.” She sighed. “Enough about this imaginary woman. I’ll think more on her later. Did you get the map?”

Narisha nodded. “Downstairs. Let’s get them and let sleeping beauty recover from her night of passion.”

Livia sighed. “Back to work, eh?” 

*** 

The hearth yielded a half-dozen copies of the map, and minutes later the two women were out of the house, leaving the unconscious elf behind, with neither clothes, map nor the day’s haul of protection money. Narisha carried the bag of loot with no perceptible effort.

“I suggest we leave town and quickly,” Narisha said. “I imagine Raleph will go whining to his Slaerthist friends first thing in the morning. If they let him live for losing this gold, he’s sure to be after us with a vengeance.”

“Agreed,” Livia said. “Besides, I need some sleep. Get me to my cabin and take Skate downriver.”

“Follow the map?”

“Follow the map. I suspect that if the dark elves are involved in this mess, Skrall will be needing all the help he can get.”

“Your logic is impeccable as always, my dear.”

They walked in silence for a time. Then Livia spoke up.

“Narisha?”

“Yes?”

“When this is all over, I think I want you to spank the living hell out of me and call me a bitch.”

Narisha cocked an eyebrow. “You do? Why is that?”

Livia shrugged. “Because I love you.”

Narisha continued walking for a few moments before responding.

“Livia,” she said, slowly. “Sometimes you puzzle the hell out of me.”

Livia sighed. “Just take my word for it. It’s a very long and complex story.”

Narisha shrugged. “Your wish is my command, as always.”

The pair vanished into the darkness and night-smokes as the twin moons rode low in the sky.

Two hooded and cloaked figures followed, none too closely.

V

Li

Morning was grey and grim over the swamp; a few birds screamed in the distance, but the overall mood was quiet and reserved. Shardin was gone; none of the search parties had found any trace of the wayward sorcerer, and the sad possibility that she would never see her friend again filled Li with sadness.

“Fool must have been taken by a croc or some such idiocy,” Skrall snarled angrily as the last boat returned. “Damn that wizard. Damn him to hell.”

It was, of course, Skrall’s way of expressing sorrow and loss, and she let him rant about Shardin’s foolishness for a time.

“He was a damned fine crewman. For a human,” Skrall finally admitted. He looked over at Theanna. “You know any prayers or anything? I doubt Shardin’d want me praying to Grunk on his behalf.”

Theanna looked sad, too. She had liked the wizard, despite his uncertainty and shyness.

“Very well,” she said. “Everyone to the side.”

When the crew had gathered, silent, along the railings, looking out over the grey-green waters, Theanna took her place near the bow. She was clad in a long white robe, and her unplaited hair hung down below her waist. Li marveled at the beauty of the sight, and felt sorrow that it was present at such a solemn moment.

“Galdaeus, the embodiment of sorcery and white magic,” she began, “looks down upon us all. Some of my fellow elves believe that the Twelve do not notice humans, and that the lesser races are not part of the All. I used to believe such, but I now know them to be false. The All is just that — the All. We All live in it, and are All part of it, and the Twelve, those forces that govern us and watch over us, are there for All living things, not just for my people. I ask the All and Galdaeus to watch over our friend Shardin, and guide his spirit to the next world, where I ask that he receives all the love and friendship that he received here, and more. We here will always carry Shardin in our hearts, but we know that he lives still, and has gone on to a greater and more sublime world than anything we can imagine. So let it be.”

Several crewmen mumbled “So let it be,” in response, while others said silent prayers to their own gods. Li sneaked a glance at Skrall, to see the great hairless green head lowered, as Skrall muttered to a small clay charm in the palm of his hand. She rapidly looked away.

After a few moments of silence, Skrall spoke.

“Well, that’s that. We need to get underway — daylight’s burning.”

With heavy hearts, the crew raised anchor and set sail. Theanna took her place in the stern, calling up the winds, alone and forlorn.

 *** 

Conqueror threaded its way through narrow streams and tributaries for the rest of the morning, coming to rest at last in a shallow lagoon, perhaps a half league from the tower. Closer, the tower was grey-brown in color, and its weathered surface had once been covered with bas-reliefs, now badly eroded by the elements. To Li, they looked uncomfortably like the writhing worm-snake images on the stela.

“Shore party!” Skrall shouted. He’d been in bad temper all day, concealing the sorrow he obviously felt at Shardin’s loss. “Both boats! Bring provisions, shelters, weapons! We may not make it before dark!”

Li at least felt some small amount of comfort as she stepped into the longboat with her customary companions. Tanu was his usual stoic self, naked save for a loincloth and his elaborate bone and stone decorations, dagger and short stabbing sword. Theanna had changed into more appropriate garb — trousers, boots and a loose shirt. She carried a wand with her, as well as dagger and short bow slung across her shoulders. Li remembered that Shardin usually accompanied them on such ventures, and her sadness redoubled. Squitter scrambled into the longboat at the last possible moment, just as the crew began to lower away.

“Boy. Almost missed out, didn’t I?” he asked, brightly. “I just can’t stay away from my pretty elf girl and her cat and doggie friends.”

He seemed unaffected by Shardin’s death, but Li thought to herself that it was probably suitable to his character — ratlings probably died by the score, and their companions were obligated to get on with their lives. As to what they did with the bodies, Li didn’t want to speculate.

The others just grunted or said nothing, but it did little to dampen the ratling’s enthusiasm.

“Smells great out here, huh? Not that you humans can smell anything. I bet you can smell it, huh, cat-lady?”

Indeed she could. Li turned her nose to the wind and didn’t like what she smelled. There was death here, and unnatural things that she could not identify, but which she knew to be wrong all the same.

“I’m surprised you find the smells so appealing, rat,” she said in a low voice. “There were evil things done here once, and their scent never dies.”

“Hm? Evil? All I smell is a big fat swamp with lots of fruit and rotting stuff. And to a ratling, that’s pure paradise.”

Li sighed. It was probably best to have at least one enthusiastic member of the party.

They made what passed for landfall a few moments later. The ground was soft, and a tangle of mangrove roots barred access to the more solid land beyond. Both boats disgorged their cargo of struggling corsairs, who sloshed through the sucking mud toward the roots. Li bounced lightly across the soft ground, reluctant to get herself dirty — it was one disadvantage of going naked, but she had pretty much lost her fondness for clothes while in the Stormking’s service. Squitter, never terribly concerned with appearance, scuttled after, and they were the first two to reach the mangrove roots, the rest of the party struggling gamely behind.

“Gods damn it all,” snarled Skrall, leading a party of ten sailors of mixed size, shape, race and sex. “Can’t you do something to make this ground more solid, elf?”

“I could,” Theanna replied, stepping with difficulty through knee-deep muck, “but that would be wasting magical energies best used later, don’t you think?”

Skrall only grumbled and fought his way to the trees.

Li and Squitter perched atop the root-maze, looking down on their comrades with amusement.

“Hell, guys, you need to go faster,” Squitter said, helpfully. “That way the mud don’t have time to stick!”

“Leave them be, rat,” Li replied, stretching and enjoying the effect it had on the toiling males below. “They can’t help it if they’re not as swift and delicate as we are.”

At length the rest of the crew had reached the mangroves, and began climbing through and over the obstruction. More swearing and taunting followed, and by the time all twenty corsairs had reached the shaded and relatively firm ground beyond the trees, their temperaments had all begun to return to normal. Shardin’s death left a hole in most of them, but each filled it in his or her own way.

Vegetation here varied from towering swamp cypresses to tangled undergrowth alive with insects and reptiles. As Li looked, a pair of black snakes slithered away from the advancing party. She was acutely aware that she wore no boots, but hoped that her fur would help ward off any snakebites. Tanu had carefully wrapped his jacklegs with leather. Smart wolf, she thought. Smarter than his mistress, anyway.

“Squit!” Skrall shouted, and on the instant the little ratling scampered over to him.

“What’s up, boss? Got a damsel in distress for me to rescue?”

“Hardly,” Skrall replied. “Get up one of those trees and reconnoiter. I want to see how far that tower is and in what direction.”

“Will do, boss.” With that, Squit leaped into the lower branches of a cypress and vanished, toiling upward.

“You said you smelled something wrong?” Theanna said, sidling up next to Li and slipping an arm around her waist.

“I did, little one. I still do.” Li felt a strange sense of wariness, as if at any moment the trees around them would explode into hundreds of hostile warriors.

“You’re right. I feel it, too, but it’s magic. Bad magic.”

Tanu smelled the air, as well. “There is something out of place here. I like it not.”

“We’re not here to like it,” commented Li. “I’m afraid we’re here to follow orders. Wait until Squitter comes back and we’ll know more.”

The ratling returned a few moments later, covered in leaves and sap, and smelling aromatic.

“Filthy stuff,” he complained, licking at his resin-covered arm. “Get it off me.”

“What did you see?” Skrall demanded. “Which way to the tower.”

Squit pointed. “That way. But I don’t think we’ll make it any time soon. The whole place is crisscrossed with streams and ponds, and the ground don’t look too solid, ‘specially for a lummox like you, pardon my language. And there’s lots of those stone things — like that thing on the island. Hundreds of ‘em it looks like. They might have been in a circle around the tower once, but most of ‘em have fallen and the ground’s shifted under ‘em.”

Skrall frowned. “Yeah, right. I understand.” He looked at Theanna. “With that useless Shardin gone, we’ll need you, lady. Yeah, it’ll use mana, but I don’t see any other way... Can you help us get across faster?”

Theanna nodded gravely. “I can solidify the mud, raise the ground temporarily, redirect streams. It will be difficult — despite your comments, Shardin was better at such things than I am.”

Skrall’s gaze softened for a moment. “Do what you can, elf. It’s all I ask of anyone.”

Theanna looked stoic. “I will try, Captain.” 

***

Night had fallen, and they were still at least a half-day’s journey from the tower. They made camp on a small island surrounded by another phalanx of mangrove trees as the moons rose and the cries of night-hunting predators rose around them. Swarms of insects swirled around them in the dusk, and Theanna was too exhausted to do anything but wave them away. Not for the first time, Li was grateful for her thick fur, which kept most of her safe from attack. The rest of the party angrily swore and slapped, and covered themselves with blankets in vain attempts to hold the enemy at bay.

The insect attacks grew less intense as the night wore on, and exhausted sailors slept, snoring loudly, or sat talking quietly by the fire.

Li remained restless. The day had been a hard one for Theanna, with the elf forced to cast spell after spell, drying up mud or diverting water as the party advanced. The spells’ durations became less and less, and more than once sailors had fallen into waist-deep mud that had been hard soil only moments before. Now, Li’s lover slept soundly, with Tanu lying beside her, his weapons close at hand.

I’ve had hardly any sleep, Li thought. Something keeps me awake, something nags at me. Something here that is not right. We all know it now, but hardly anyone dares mention it out loud.

The crack of a branch riveted Li’s attention, and she fell to a crouch, swords sliding noiselessly from their sheaths. Something was nearby, creeping through the tangle of mangrove roots toward the sleeping sailors. The fire cast weird, flickering shadows, making the roots seem to move and writhe like snakes.

“Skrall!” Li hissed. “Something is coming!”

The orc was bolt upright in an instant, rolling out of his blankets and grabbing a heavy axe.

“What is it?” he demanded. “Should I wake the others?”

“Wait,” Li said. “It doesn’t sound...”

Then it came, rising up out of the shadows, a man-like figure sculpted out of mud and swamp plants, roots hanging from where its face should have been, and fingers like stings of corruption.

“To arms!” Skrall shouted, brandishing his weapons even as Li bounded toward the apparition, swords whirling. “Enemy attacking! To arms!”

Li swept through the air, covering the distance between herself and the monster in seconds, and poised for a deadly blow at its midsection...

“Li?” said a voice. “Is it really you?”

The voice threw Li’s mind in to confusion, and for a moment she hesitated, and instead of slashing the creature in two she fell in a heap at its muddy feet which, on closer inspection, proved to be human feet in sandals, covered in muck and debris. She looked up in surprise, to see a slime-covered face grinning down at her. A face that was familiar, despite its decorations.

Behind them, the crew had stumbled out of their bed rolls and surged forward, in various stages of undress, weapons at the ready.

“Shardin?” Li asked, wonderingly. “You’re not...”

“Not dead, Li,” he replied, and the voice grew warmly familiar. “Close to it, but not dead.”

Skrall rushed forward, dropping his axe, and swept the wizard up into a bone-crushing embrace.

“Gods,” he cried, voice breaking with emotion. “We missed you, you damned spell-mumbler!” 

*** 

Shardin sat beside the fire, clad in miscellaneous pieces of clothing from various crewmen. His face was still dirty and his hair caked with mud, but he was obviously the wizard that had jumped overboard the night before.

“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “I remember dancing and drinking and thinking that I was finally having a good time, when... Well... When I suddenly found myself washed up on shore, miles away from the Conqueror.

“You don’t remember picking up the hot coals, or saying that you demanded tribute?” Theanna asked.

“Or spitting fish?” Squitter demanded. “That was great. I wish you could remember how to do it again.”

“Spitting fish?” Shardin asked, aghast. “I don’t even like fish. Mind you, I eat it because there’s usually nothing else, but...”

“Look at me,” Theanna said, grabbing Shardin’s chin. “Look straight at me.”

“What the hell is she...” Skrall began.

“Sh!” Theanna said sharply. “I think I know what happened.” Her eyes were dark-rimmed and she looked weary, but nevertheless, she made a quick gesture at Shardin and muttered a few words.

“Who is in there?” she asked. “Who has taken possession of Shardin?”

The wizard’s face went blank for a moment, then he spoke in a deep, resonant voice.

“I am Ratuka,” he replied. “Lord of the Fishes. You took of my bounty and did not offer tribute. I took your companion in exchange. Now I return him with a message. Give me the tribute I am owed, and I will reward you. Fail and you will be punished.”

Theanna looked up, her face bright despite her weariness.

“Of course. We’ve offended one of the local gods,” she said.

“They’re called boku, I think,” said Skrall. “Piddly little backwater gods, all of them.”

“Call them what you will, they have power here,” Theanna told him. “We took fish from the river without offering tribute. It’s not surprising this Ratuka is upset. We should count ourselves lucky that we offended one of the friendlier gods.”

“My cousins would have destroyed you,” Shardin/Ratuka replied. “They are angry, vengeful boku who use their sokor for evil. I bring good fortune to my worshippers — big fish, good fortune, prosperous lives. I do not take vengeance with blood.”

Sokor?” Theanna asked. “What is a sokor?

“A horse,” came the reply. “A horse which we boku ride for a time, then return to his people. Sokor are particularly blessed.”

“Ahhhhh,” Theanna said, with a tone of understanding. “You took Shardin as your horse so you could tell us that we owed you tribute for fishing in your rivers.”

“I did. And now I return him.”

Skrall stepped forward.

“Uh, as you can see I’m a simple sea captain,” he said, “and a damned rough-talking one at that. If we offended you in any way, I’m sorry. What need we do to make it up to you?”

Shardin’s face relaxed somewhat, and he spoke in a normal tone. “You are a good captain, Skrall. You sail down rivers that have not seen ships in ages. You put food in the river. Food for my fishes, that they may grow fat and strong, and feed my people.”

Skrall nodded. “We will do that, Ratuka. And we will do that whenever we return to this place.”

Shardin/Ratuka smiled. “You are good people; do this thing and Ratuka reward you. You need help any time, you call Ratuka, and Ratuka comes. You must do it in sight of water, though. Can’t help you otherwise.”

Theanna stood and bowed. “Thank you, Lord Ratuka.”

“Thanks to all you,” replied the god. “And hear my warning. This is bad place, home to bad sorcery. There is great treasure here, and terrible curses. You beware those who bear the Mark of the Zombie. You be careful what you disturb.”

“We will, Lord Ratuka,” said Theanna. “We will.”

“Good. I go now. Your friend return.”

Shardin’s head suddenly fell forward, then snapped up again, and he looked around in confusion.

“What the blazes happened?” he demanded. “I must have drifted off for a moment.”

“It’s all right,” Theanna said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all over now.” 

*** 

Before moving on the following morning, the corsairs tossed a good portion of their food into the water as Theanna chanted an elven prayer of obeisance, with the All’s name replaced by Ratuka. It must have worked, for the day’s journey was quicker, and fewer streams crossed their path.

Marching quickly, they reached the tower by mid-day. With Ratuka’s words still echoing in her mind, Li found herself wishing that they had turned back, but it was too late now.

Closer, the tower was even more foreboding. The weathered reliefs seemed to writhe and shift unless Li looked directly at them. The top had once been slightly larger than the rest of the tower, giving the thing an unpleasantly phallic appearance. The base was totally overgrown with vines and creepers, so she could not see if there was an entrance.

Skrall motioned forward. “Get to work on those vines! I want ‘em completely cleared out!”

As the sun rose high and the sweltering heat increased, rolling in waves off the swampy tangle of rivers, the crew set to hacking at the fortress of vegetation that had surrounded the tower. Li joined in, while Theanna and Shardin, acting for all the world like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time, cast spells to turn aside the plants.

Li used a heavy chopping axe for the work; her swords were far too delicate for such labors, and she feared that she might damage the blades if she struck a piece of stone. They had hacked at the green wall for nearly an hour when a cry of surprise and fear from the far side of the tower brought her running.

Three crewmen — two humans and a goblin — struggled in the grip of a monstrous plant. The thing was orange, striped with black, with a nest of thick tendrils surrounding it. As Li watched in horror, the little goblin was dragged toward one of three gaping mouth-like flowers.

After a moment of shock, the crew went into action, wading into the mass of ropy tendrils, hacking with swords, axes and cleavers, or bashing with clubs and maces. Li raced for the center, where they thing’s feeding tentacles seemed to originate, and took a swing at the heavy member holding the goblin. The plant’s flesh was stringy and tough, and she barely scored its surface. Another hack and a gash appeared, weeping clear sticky fluid.

Then a smaller tentacle wrapped about Li’s legs, pulling itself tight and hauling her into the air. With barely an instant’s hesitation, she pulled forth one of her curved swords and swung at the tentacle. It was thinner than the one she’d first attacked, and her sword was honed to a razor’s edge. The smaller feeding tendril was chopped nearly in two, and Li fell back to the ground, rolling and moving once more to slash at the plant, this time with her two swords.

The goblin had almost been dragged to the plant’s mouth, and he screamed in terror. Another swing with her war-sword, and the tentacle slacked, splitting and pouring forth more clear sap. Finally, Li severed the entire member, and the goblin scrambled away, shouting curses at the plant as he went.

A flash of brown fur zipped past Li and, looking, she saw Squitter, holding tightly to a thick green tendril, furiously gnawing with his teeth. He had worn away a substantial hole, and was soaked in the sticky plant fluid, but kept biting nonetheless, a squeaky snarl issuing from his throat.

Well, the rat can take care of himself, Li thought, returning to the attack and slicing down three smaller tendrils that blocked her way to the central mouth-flowers. Once she had fought to the center of the plant, the going was easier — these things were its vulnerable spot, tough enough to resist a thrashing victim, but not enough to ward off her repeated sword-blows. The plant writhed as she cut away orange and black petals, then finally chopped her way to the flowers’ base, severing all three of them in as many blows.

Abruptly, the plant shivered, and all the tendrils went limp, collapsing on the ground like dead snakes.

“That’s got it!” Skrall shouted, waving his cleaver in triumph. “You kicked its ass, Li!”

She looked down. “Does a plant even have one?” she asked.

VI

Li

It was mid-afternoon by the time they finally cleared the last of the vegetation from the tower. No more tiger-plants had made their presence known, and the one they’d killed had thankfully remained still.

There was a single entrance to the tower, perhaps six feet off the ground. It was a heavy stone portal, carved with more writhing worms, surmounted by a lintel that bore a single, reptilian eye in a sunburst.

“Why is it so high off the ground?” Shardin asked. “I imagine it would cause problems if you wanted to get inside quickly.”

“That,” said Skrall, “is exactly the idea. There was probably a ladder or a set of wooden steps that you could pull in after you. Old orcish trick — great for withstanding attack from outside. If they can’t even get to the door, they’re not likely to cause you much harm, are they?”

“Unless they pull the tower down,” Li said, cautiously. “I doubt anything in this swamp could do that.”

“Not without magic,” Theanna said, inspecting the stones. “These were enchanted once. Some kind of protective ward.”

“It seems our N’agon had enemies, or at least felt a need to protect himself,” Li continued. “Perhaps there is something worth investigating inside.”

“Let’s get a look at the door,” Skrall said. “Squit, get up there!.”

The ratling scuttled up the rough rock and looked at the door.

“No locks, boss, and no latches, no keyhole,” he said. “Damned wizards and their secret doors.”

“All right, folks, Skrall barked. “Get ready to smash it down!”

Theanna stopped him with a raised hand. “There may be subtler ways of doing this. Shardin, could you help me?”

The wizard smiled and stepped up beside her.

“It is good to have you alive again,” Theanna said. “I forgot how much help you are to me.”

Shardin glowed.

Together, the two wizards began to cast a spell, waving their arms and muttering in their usual fashion. With both performing the ritual, it went well, and a warm yellow glow began to spread across the surface of the stone door.

“It’s well-sealed,” Theanna said, gesturing toward the door with a determined expression. “As if...” She broke off with a pained grunt, then began to gesture and mutter again.

“As if what?” Skrall demanded. “What was she talking about?”

“Sh!” Li told him. “She needs to concentrate.”

“As... if...” Theanna said, through clenched teeth. “As... if... it... was... sealed...”

“From the outside?” Shardin asked, also grunting with effort.

Suddenly, the glow flared to blinding white, and then vanished. The door remained closed as the flash faded, but Li saw that it was opening slowly.

“Look,” she said, “it’s...”

Then the door exploded outward with enormous force, slamming itself against the stone frame and shattering into dusty fragments. A great billow of air rushed from the now-open portal, swirling black ash, dust, and sparkling gemlike fragments, striking Theanna and Shardin with enough force to knock them both to the ground. The scent that accompanied the wind was horrible, and reminded Li of dead things long forgotten. Beside her, Tanu flattened his ears. He had smelled it, too.

“Well,” said Shardin, clambering back onto his feet and brushing off the sooty filth that covered him, “that’s that.” 

*** 

A makeshift pile of stones and logs gave access to the doorway; it was still a bit of a scramble to get inside, but nimble crew like Li and Squit made short work of it. The bulkier one like Skrall and Tanu were slower, but at length, as outside the shadows lengthened and cold, angry-looking clouds gathered in the sky, they were all inside.

“Yeuch, it stinks in here,” Squitter complained, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head.

“And that from the one who thinks rotting cabbage is fragrant,” said Skrall. “Let’s hope this is worth all the effort.”

Li agreed with him, but said nothing as she took stock of her companions and handed out torches. Herself, Skrall, Tanu, Theanna and Squitter. Six alone to find whatever lay inside. Skrall had ordered Shardin to stay outside and help the crew set camp, make a fire, and defend them against anything unpleasant — he had seemed quite relieved at not exploring the forbidding tower.

Theanna gestured and a bright globe of magelight appeared over her head.

“The torches are for emergencies,” she said. “Otherwise, I will provide what light we need.”

“Thanks,” Li said, casting a smile at her lover. “The soot from torches is bad for my fur.”

“Enough,” Skrall said irritably. “Let’s get moving. If we’re lucky we can get out of here before sundown.”

“Yeah, right,” Squitter squeaked. “And my mom is High Priestess of Kybor.”

“Remind me to have the rat flogged for insubordination when we get back,” Skrall said. “Now come on.”

The tower seemed larger on the inside than out, but that came as no surprise. The ground floor was littered with rubble and unidentifiable detritus. A spiral staircase wound up into the musty darkness above, while a round stone plug occupied the center of the floor. It had not endured the wrath of the elements like the reliefs outside, and portrayed a demonic face, its jaws grasping a heavy iron ring.

“Trap door?” Li speculated.

“Not a door,” suggested Theanna. “A seal. There’s no easy way to open it, save to remove it entirely, and that would probably take a great deal of effort.”

Skrall looked nervous for the first time. “Then I think we should go up. I’ve read enough cheap Litharnan thrillers to know that you don’t open up crap like that without being really, really careful.”

Li bit back the urge to suggest that they simply leave the tower altogether, then reminded herself that she was a corsair and a crew member, and her captain gave orders.

Damn you, Shu Li, she thought, growing conventional in your old age, are you?

Skrall led the way up the stairs, Theanna’s globe darting over his head, with Li and Tanu close behind. The second floor was much like the first, a tangle of broken stone and dust. The ceiling had fallen in places, and a yawning hole in the wall let through the early-evening light. Li looked out, to see the rest of the crew setting up tents and a cooking fire. Skrall obviously intended to stay here for a while.

“Gods fuck it all!” Skrall barked. “This place is a fucking tomb!

“It may well be, Captain,” Tanu said. “It looks as if it was attacked from outside, however.”

“No doubt,” grumbled the orc, stepping carefully onto the next flight of stairs. “No fucking doubt.”

There were even fewer doubts on the third floor. It was plain that a battle had been fought here, with rusted metal and weapons littering the floor. A few moldering skeletons lay here too — humans and what looked like apes, save for the fact that some of them wore armor.

“Throgs?” Theanna said softly, inspecting one of the ape-skulls, this one wearing an ancient iron helmet. “Orcs, perhaps?”

“Bite your tongue, missy!” Skrall snapped. “These ain’t no orc skulls, believe you me.”

The darkness here seemed somehow deeper, more silent and threatening, and closed in around the magelight, casting grim shadows, and making Li shiver.

“I feel it too, mistress,” Tanu said. “It is as I said — evil things transpired here once, long ago.”

“This place was founded by exiled Veldtsmen,” Theanna said. “Sent from their homeland for practicing black magic.”

“I’d say they ended up outdoing their ancestors,” Li said. “If this tower is any indication.”

“Crap, it stinks even worse up here!” chittered Squit. “Can’t you guys smell it?”

And on they went. Each level was much the same — signs of violence, rusted weapons and armor, occasional skeletons, thankfully un-animated. Walls were scarred and burned, stone fractured, old weapons bent and melted, bones broken by terrible force.

“Someone fought his way up the stairs,” said Skrall, grimly. “They lost a lot of troops doing it, too.”

They reached the topmost floor as, outside, the sun had begun to set. The light of the mageglobe now seemed weak and feeble, and the shadows almost tangible in their hostility. Not that there was much to hide. The entire floor had been scourged clean, and the stones themselves seemed distorted.

“Melted like wax,” noted Theanna. “Powerful magics were cast here. I can still feel their residue.”

“And still no fucking treasure,” Skrall growled. He gestured. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here. We can sort through these piles of crap tomorrow and see if there’s anything worth taking.”

They trudged back down the stairs with substantial relief, all glad to leave the charnel house behind. The insects had returned by the time they got outside again, but now the little beasts were seemed almost like old friends. At least they were substantial and real, and stayed dead when slain.

Skrall was in a foul mood that night as the party bedded down, or stayed awake by the fire. Two sailors were to be kept on watch, nervously scanning the glimmering, moonlit swamp water and listening to the disquieting calls of nightbirds and predators.

After three sleepless nights, Li at last felt compelled to crawl into her tent and sleep, with the flap closed against the stinging and biting insects. Tanu stood, watchful, his sword drawn, nearby.

“You need rest as much as I do Tanu,” Li said. “It won’t do to have both of us dead from lack of sleep.”

“I cannot sleep, mistress,” Tanu said. “Could you, if you knew that a beast with slavering jaws lay just outside your tent?”

Li winced. “My thanks for the lovely image,” she said. “Now it will haunt my dreams.”

“It need not,” Tanu said, “so long as I am here.”

Just the same, Li slept fitfully, and was haunted by strange visions. 

*** 

Morning brought little respite. The sun shone only feebly through dank river-fog as Li crawled from her tent, twitching and shaking from the annoying moisture.

Shouts from the center of the camp drew her attention. She hurried toward the place, Tanu (who had apparently not slept at all and seemed none the worse for it) moving quickly in step behind her.

Skrall was there, growling angrily while two other crewmen spoke to him earnestly.

“They were in their tents,” said the first, a grey-bearded dwarf. “No one saw them leave. But this morning they were gone.”

“Gone?” Skrall roared, his anger and frustration obvious. “Gone where? Where can you go in this forsaken hole?”

“Into the swamp, maybe?” said the second crewman, a long-faced human. “Maybe they had to go take a leak and a croc got ‘em?”

“That,” said Skrall, “is the stupidest thing you have ever said, Gummo, and that is saying a whole fucking lot.”

“Thanks, sir.” Gummo grinned, showing a mouthful of missing teeth.

“Ah, shit.” Skrall waved a hand. “Today we check out the basement, then we get the fuck outa here as soon as possible. Get some chow and let’s go!”

Li saw Theanna, standing apart, looking troubled.

“What happened?” she asked. “Is someone missing?”

Theanna nodded. “Terl and Kapo. Not in their tents. Vanished in the night and no one saw them go.” She turned to Li with large, frightened eyes. “Something is here, Li. Something bad. I haven’t felt anything like this since I was with the Stormking. And at least he was real. Solid. He could be killed.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She means,” rumbled Tanu, “that whatever is here is nothing mortal. Nothing that can be slain with mortal weapons. This was the dwelling place of a powerful sorcerer; perhaps his spirit still lingers and seeks vengeance against the living.”

“That’s an encouraging assessment, Wolfen,” Li growled. “What do you propose we do?”

“I propose we leave immediately, Lady, though I suspect our captain’s pride will not allow him to do so without first plumbing the depths of that tower. I would advise him not to, but I don’t think he will listen.”

“We can but try,” Li said. “Let’s eat first. We may need our strength.”

“I agree, “Tanu said. “The evil here has reached out to claim us. Already it has taken two of us, and it wants the rest.”

“And Skrall wants to open that damned thing up?” squeaked a voice from the gloom. “Shit-fire, man. What a loser.”

“Belay that, Squit,” Li warned. “He’s our captain and deserves our respect. Even if he is acting like a fool.”

“You said it, kitty-girl. You said it.” Squitter bit down on a dried apricot, made a face, then swallowed it whole. “How do you people eat this crap?” 

*** 

Skrall was no thick-skulled orc, no matter how stubborn he seemed. He’d had the crew rig a block and tackle, depending from spikes pounded into the ceiling of the ground floor, and ropes bound to the ring in the floor-seal. It was mid-morning, and the fog had yet to dissipate, but Skrall was determined.

“All right, swabs!” he shouted. “Get on the ropes and pull! No different than a mainsail haul!”

Li stood beside him, watching crewmen seize the ropes and prepare to pull.

“Skrall, I do not like this,” she said. “That seal was placed there for a reason, and we all now know that something unwholesome dwells in this place. The missing crewmen...”

“Probably wandered off and fell in the swamp,” Skrall said. “Off to take a leak or something.”

“But you just said that was the stupidest —”

“Haul!” the orc bellowed, drowning out Li’s protests. “Haul like sonsabitches!”

Reluctantly, Li took her place with the crew and helped pull the ropes. At first, for all the movement that resulted, they might as well have been trying to tow the Dragonsback Mountains behind the Conqueror. After a few minutes of tugging, grunting and sweating, however, Li felt the faintest of shifting.

“It’s coming!” Skrall cried. He had the rope over his shoulder and hauled like an ox drawing a plow. “Keep up the pressure! It’s coming!”

A deep grinding, groaning noise sounded from the seal. Li sniffed even as she pulled. The stench of death grew stronger.

“It’s coming!” Skrall repeated.

It came with sudden violence. The seal broke free, and rocketed upward, slamming into the ceiling with a resounding BOOM! A rush of musty, death-scented air billowed forth.

“Yes!” Skrall bellowed. “Let it down! Easy now!”

They lowered the seal back to the floor, and the crew collapsed, panting, nursing overwhelmed muscles.

“It’s open,” Li commented. “Is what was inside now free?”

“I feel nothing,” Theanna said. “It’s as if anything that might have been in there is long dead.”

“Let us hope that is the case,” rumbled Tanu.

“Yeah, what he said,” chirped Squitter.

Skrall peered into the darkness. Although Theanna still insisted that she felt nothing unnatural, the darkness seemed nearly tangible, like the shadows in the upper floors of the tower.

“Okay, who’s coming down?” the orc growled. “I’ll guarantee volunteers first pick. Well, first pick right after me.”

Li sighed. Riches and particularly magical treasure held little interest for her. But the notion of sitting idle while Skrall and the crew vanished into the darkness below was too much to bear.

“I’ll come,” she said. “As long as Theanna stays here.”

Theanna frowned, but seemed relieved. “You needn’t be so concerned for my safety.”

“No,” said Li, “and I needn’t love you, but I do. So accept my concern and be happy.”

Theanna managed a smile as Tanu, Squitter, and several other crew prepared to descend — preparing torches, checking weapons, securing equipment.

“You ready?” Skrall demanded, coiling up rope.

“I was born ready, chief,” said Squit. “Now lead the way and we’ll follow.”

Skrall looked annoyed. “As always. Captain leads the way and the rest of you follow to loot the body.”

“Chief!” Squitter snapped indignantly. “I’m shocked you’d even think something that crass.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Skrall, handing the rope to Gummo. “Now you bastards hold this tight and don’t let go, or my ghost’ll come back and fuck you up bad.”

“Right!” Gummo declared, uncoiling the rope and doling it out to several other crewmen. “You can count on us, cap’n.”

“That’s what worries me,” Skrall grunted, grabbing the rope and preparing to descend. 

*** 

The chamber extended all around them. Painstakingly carved from the hard rock shelf that lay below the island, massive buttresses and columns rose from the floor to the ceiling, and the dim light from the opening above illuminated only a portion of the vast chamber.

“This is old,” said Theanna. “Older than the tower. I can feel it.”

“I don’t feel anything but greed right now,” Skrall said. “I’m curious what’s in all those chests.”

Arranged in concentric circles around the center of the chamber were dozens of heavy coffers, each identical, crafted of dark hardwood and bound with iron.

“Maybe,” Skrall went on, stepping forward, Theanna’s magelight darting after him, “this was all worthwhile after all.”

Li darted a quick look at Theanna. The elf looked uncomfortable, eyes wide, face paler than usual.

“What is wrong?” Li asked, cautious, watching as Skrall kneeled in front of the chest.

“I don’t know,” Theanna replied. “But things like this always go wrong in stories.”

“This,” grunted Skrall, wedging a dagger under the lid of the chest, “is no story.”

With a crack, the lid sprang open, revealing the gleam of gold inside.

Theanna let out a sudden gasp, then slipped, limp, to the floor. The magelight vanished, plunging the chamber into darkness, illuminated only by the feeble light from the opening above.

“Gods dammit!” Skrall barked. “Bloody elves, fainting at shadows! No wonder they’re losing the war!”

“Torches!” Li cried, kneeling beside Theanna’s dim form and feeling for a pulse. She was alive, but in a dead faint. Behind her, the others began to light brands, and in a few moments the chamber was lit up in flickering orange.

“Get her back up topside!” Skrall ordered. “Shardin can see to her. Let’s get these chests out of here and get out of this place!”

There were far more chests than the party could possibly manage — a few were opened, revealing gold, gems, weapons, and esoteric items whose nature Li could only guess at. Even the amount they hauled out was enough to make every one of them rich for life.

“Ha!” Skrall bellowed, strutting around the pile of chests and loot. “We’ll seal the damned place up and come back with a bigger ship and more crew next year! We’ll be able to buy and sell the White Emperor with all this!”

By this time, Theanna was standing, steadying herself between Li and Shardin.

“I don’t know what it was,” she said. “It was as if when Skrall opened the chest, something passed through me. Something cold. It’s gone now, but I don’t know what it was.”

“Another one of those blasted swamp-gods, probably,” Shardin said. “Like that fish-man that possessed me. Damn, it felt strange being a fish.”

“I imagine it did.” Theanna smiled. “But this was no fish.”

It was evening by the time the haul was finished, and in the gathering gloom, Skrall oversaw the replacement of the seal.

“Not giving anyone an easy time of it if they find the place,” he said. “Every man-jack here has to take the secret of this tower to their graves, mark my words!”

There was silent assent among the crew — the thought of the vast chamber of gold and gems being plundered by a rival crew was far too much for any to bear.

Li and Tanu stood quietly as Skrall assigned watches to the loot and headed off for the campfire, bottle in hand.

“Too easy?” Li asked.

“Far too easy, mistress,” Tanu replied.

Li shivered, even as the day’s heat rose from the island and into the air.

“I should not be worried,” she said. “Tomorrow we leave, and the treasure is ours, just as the captain said it would be. Yet, still I’m worried. Fearful.”

“I understand,” the wolfen said. “The unknown can be fearful.”

Li slid her arms around Tanu and put her face against the warmth of his chest.

“Make love to me tonight,” she said softly. “Not as a slave, but as a lover. Do what you wish and treat me as an equal.”

It seemed to surprise him, but he looked down tenderly and stroked her hair.

“As my mistress wishes.” 

*** 

The tent was hot and cramped; once more Li reflected that her decision to dispatch with clothing was a good one... even the lightest garments would have been intolerable. Right now, of course, she and Tanu were generating even more heat, but she didn’t particularly care.

The wolfen was behaving like an equal quite admirably, his long tongue busy between Li’s legs, near the hairless reaches of her labia. He held the pink lips apart with his large, gentle fingers, and lapped at the moistness with ever-increasing pressure.

“Oh, dear wolf,” Li sighed, knowing how ironic she sounded. Tanu knew about Wulf, though the two barely knew each other. True to his status, he voiced no objection to Li’s other lovers, and happily allowed her whatever freedoms she wished. Of course, when they were together, she was the sole object of his attentions.

Such as now...

“Is this what you like, Li?” Tanu whispered. Her name sounded strange coming from him; usually he called her “mistress.” “Do you think our peoples would approve of what we’re doing?”

“Not in the least,” Li replied, stroking Tanu’s long black hair, twining her fingers into the leather things, talismans and fetishes that were braided there. “As a loyal Kaitian subject, it’s my duty to kill wolfen, not make love to them.”

“And I’m to take Kaitian slaves,” Tanu said. He applied another series of wet kisses to Li’s mons, sending hot waves of excitement through her body. “I find this far more interesting and rewarding, however.”

“As do I,” Li replied. “Now please, please, please keep doing it.”

“As my miss... As you wish, Li.”

Tanu slid his hands firmly around Li’s buttocks, the bare skin of his palms sliding sensuously against her tawny orange fur. The touch of his hands combined with the caress of his tongue upon the swelling prominence of her outer lips and clit, sending shivers through her body. Li shook, feeling her arms vibrate and her breasts quiver. Ancestors, it felt delicious.

“That’s good, Tanu,” she whispered. “Rrrrllll... So... very.... Grrrrlll... very good...”

“Thank you, Li,” Tanu said, a hint of a growl in his voice. “I live to serve.”

“Enough of that foolishness, wolf,” Li replied. “You do not serve me.” She swallowed. “You don’t serve me, you complete me.”

Tanu paused for a moment, looking up in surprise.

“The wolfen who violated you, bound you, tamed you, tried to make you a slave? He completes you?”

“Also the wolfen who has stood and fought beside me, Tanu. Please, dearest... Lick me more. I can’t discuss the depths of my inner feelings anymore... Lick me, then let me lick you.”

“Yes, Li. I will,” Tanu replied, and once more the endless pink softness of his tongue enfolded Li’s cunt.

“Ohhhh, Rrrrrr... Yess... Oh, my sweet...” Li’s words came faster now, interspersed with the snarls of ecstasy that always overcame her as orgasm approached. “Nnnnnn.... rrrrrwwww... Oh. yes... Oh... Arrrrrr...”

Tanu growled deeply, his tongue lapping harder and harder, curling and twisting, as if to embrace and envelop her clit, pressure building almost unbearably, then lessening, then returning even harder. With one hand, Li pressed Tanu’s head against her, feeling the intense pressure of his tongue, his snout, the heavy ridge of his jaw, his hands beneath her ass, drawing her to him... With her other, Li massaged her nipples, twisting one, then the other, feeling the pleasure/pain that she so adored...

“Ohhh, Tanu!” Li’s voice rose to a desperate howl. “I’m... Yrrrrrr... Make me... Rrrrrrrrr.... OH, TANU!”

“Come for me, Li,” Tanu said. “Come for your lover.”

She was already coming, but his words urged her on, fed the fire that raged inside her, and her cries rose to a drawn-out screech.

TAAAAAAANNNNNUUUUUU!

Li collapsed, falling away from Tanu, feeling the pressure of his lips and tongue finally recede. She panted, growling and purring at the same time, unable to form words or even coherent thoughts.

Beasts, we are all beasts was all that ran through her mind. We kill like beasts, we eat like beasts, we rut like beasts...

“Gods fuckin’ dammit!” squeaked an annoyingly familiar voice from outside the tent. “Wouldja keep it down, please? Some of us are tryin’ to sleep, fer cryin’ out loud!”

“When I get my strength back,” Li growled, “I am going to turn that little vermin into a belt pouch.”

Tanu grinned. “Don’t worry about him. I promise to keep the noise down when you make me come.”

Li frowned. “What? I’m as limp as a mainsail in the doldrums.” She was very proud of the nautical terms that she’d picked up over the past months. “You expect me to...”

“As equals, dearest,” Tanu said, teasingly. He lounged on his back, leaning against a large bundle of supplies. “I’m as stiff as a bowsprit, and you’ve already come. My turn now.”

“You are learning, my dear,” Li whispered, feeling a sudden spurt of energy. She rolled onto all fours and crawled toward the recumbent wolfen. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Hm,” Tanu replied, then sighed as Li slid her hand around the firm shaft protruding from his thighs.

“Keeping it ready for me,” I see, Li said. “And I thought wolfen were only good at killing non-wolfen.”

“We have,” Tanu said, voice tight as Li began to squeeze and stroke, “many talents you’re not aware of.”

“And some we are,” Li said. She rubbed her face against the wolfen’s cock like a cat marking territory, whiskers grazing the sensitive skin, eliciting a moan from deep in Tanu’s chest.

“Oh.” Tanu’s breath came in huffy pants as she again stroked the heavy member against her face. “Oh, Kaitian... Li...”

“Keep your passions in check, lover,” Li whispered. “We’ve a long road to travel before I finally release you.”

Perhaps, she thought, I’m departing a little bit from this “make love as equals” idea, but he seems to like it.

“Ohhhh,” Tanu moaned, then rumbled in his throat. “Cats making love to dogs... My elders would call it sinful and unnatural.”

“And all the more exciting for it,” Li said. “You’ve been with elves and humans and Kaitians and gods only know what else, and only now you’re worried about it being unnatural.”

“Not really, no,” Tanu replied, then pressed her head toward his cock. “It was an idle comment.”

“I see what my wolfen wants,” Li said. “So impatient you are.”

“Impatient when I’m with you, dearest. Impatient to show you all the passion I feel.”

“Well, I should give you the opportunity, then,” Li said, and with that began to lick and bite her way down the wolfen’s long organ. “Mmmmm, so hard you are, my love. How can it be, to be so hard and long and passionate for a woman who is of the enemy’s species?”

“Love and passion break down all divisions,” Tanu said. “I wish I could share my joy with all my people. Our races would never fight again, only make love forever.”

“A lovely thought, my sweet brave wolfen,” Li said. “A lovely thought indeed.”

Slowly and purposefully, Li began to tongue Tanu’s cock, starting at the top, teasing at the opening, then licking down the shining pink shaft. Tanu sighed and leaned back, giving himself up to her attentions.

“You males,” Li muttered. “You’re the same, no matter what the species.”

“Are we now?” Tanu said. “How many species have you had?”

“Since leaving my homeland? That,” Li said, licking Tanu’s organ from base to tip, “is my secret.”

“Mmm,” Tanu replied, then yipped in surprise as Li’s mouth encircled his cock and slid down its length. She let it fill her mouth and wrapped her tongue around it for a long moment.

“Your tongue,” Tanu growled through clenched teeth, “is very rough.”

Li’s only reply was to slide the thick member in and out of her mouth, her tongue lightly grazing its sensitive flesh.

“Your tongue,” Tanu said, his tone slightly lighter and more excited, “is very rough.”

Li released the shaft with a pop, holding it upright with both hands.

“That is not a complaint, I hope,” she said. “I’m quite enjoying myself.”

“No complaint,” Tanu said, hastily. “No complaints at all.”

“Strange humans,” Li said, wonderingly, looking down at Tanu’s penis, now totally rigid between her hands. “They call this thing a ‘rooster’ for some reason. It doesn’t look much like a rooster to me.”

“Give the humans their quirks,” Tanu said. “They do run the world, after all.”

“I fear they do for now,” Li replied. She sucked at Tanu’s cock again, then released him.

“Like that?”

“Of course I do, Li.”

“Good.” She stared up at Tanu through narrowed golden eyes. “How would you like to come?”

Tanu looked puzzled, as if struggling with the concept. “What do you mean?”

“Would you like to come in my mouth, or on my breasts, or in my face, or in my hands? I’ve found you males all have your favorites.”

“What is yours?” Tanu asked. “Forgive me that I haven’t found that out after all this time.”

“Anything you want,” Li replied. “I’ve discovered that pleasure is greater when it’s shared. Tell me what you want.”

“You learned much from that human of yours, didn’t you?” Tanu asked. “What was his name again?”

“You mean Wolf?” Li asked in mock astonishment. “How could you of all people forget that name?”

Tanu growled. “Enough. I want you to make me come, and I want you to decide how.”

“Very well,” Li said. “As my mas... Excuse me. As my Tanu wishes.”

With that she began to suck at Tanu’s stiff cock again, sliding it back into her mouth, tonguing it, nibbling and then enveloping it again.

“Ahhhh....” Tanu gasped. “Whatever my Kaitian wants... Anything.”

“Rrrrwwwwlll...” Li growled deep in her throat, and began to suck faster, sliding the slick rod deeper into her mouth each time.

“Yes,” Tanu said, excitement and desire building in his voice. “Yes, my dearest... Yes, make me...”

Li looked up at him, eyes wild and determined.

“Yes,” the wolfen said again. “Yes, now...”

Li released the long pink shaft, and pressed it close, into the white-furred cleft between her breasts.

“Come,” she said, urgently. “Come, my wolf.”

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh....” Tanu tensed, and his cock gushed forth, spilling hot white seed across Li’s breasts, sopping and dripping across them, splashing across her nipples.

“It’s so warm,” Li said. “It feels wonderful.”

“You feel wonderful,” Tanu said.

Li leaned down, holding one breast and licked the white semen from one nipple.

“You like that?” she asked. “Most males seem to.”

“Your damned human lover again?” Tanu asked. “Did he teach you that?”

“He had a role,” Li admitted, licking semen from her fingers. “He wondered how our kind deal with a man’s seed spilled across fur.”

“And how do you deal with it?” Tanu asked.

“You’re watching it now,” Li replied, still licking. “You taste so good, my wolf. So very good.”

Tanu inhaled, then released a deep, contented breath.

“You complete me, too, Kaitian,” he said. “I love you.”

Li paused for a moment, then returned his gaze with equal passion.

“I love you too. It has proven to be one of my most versatile emotions.”

Tanu only smiled.

Theanna

Despite Theanna’s collapse, sleep was slow in coming, and when it did come, it was a dream of darkness and despair. She wandered in an endless blasted wilderness, surrounded by the shades of those she had known, from her lover Lady Lothaera to the evil Stormking, whom she had herself slain, to dozens of others who had died in the war to overthrow her mother. In the distance, Theanna heard a voice, dark and ominous, calling to her.

“Elven woman! You are what I need, what I desire! To capture an immortal, I must take the life of an immortal! You are to be the vessel of the greatest of boku, bent to my will to kill and conquer!”

Theanna awoke with a start, the light of twin moons lighting the interior of her tent with an eerie glow. Shouts echoed from nearby, and she swiftly crawled out, looking for the source of the commotion.

A fog had once more rolled in from the swamp, dense and cloying, and once more the moonlight made the mist seem to glow.

Shardin was nearby, swiftly clambering to his feet. With a start, Theanna realized that the mage had been sitting there since she had retired.

“Gone? What the hell do you mean gone? My people don’t just vanish! You mean they’re gone like Terl and Kapo. Great Grunk’s flaming testicles, can’t I turn my back for one fucking second...”

It was Skrall, of course, bellowing at the ragged crowd of crewmen who had gathered near the pile of plunder. There were fewer of them, Theanna noted. Perhaps a third of their number were missing — only a dozen or so stood around Skrall, looking variously alarmed, frightened and angry.

Li and Tanu stood nearby, both pictures of worry and consternation.

“More crew gone?” Theanna asked.

Li nodded. “Six more. Two full shifts.”

“We’ve got to get out of here!” shouted a gap-toothed human sailor. “This treasure isn’t worth it if we’re all to die!”

“We’ll never make it out before dawn!” Skrall shot back. “And I’ll be damned if I leave this behind! Whatever took my crew can show itself, and then I’ll see if it bleeds or not! Otherwise, we all stay awake until sunrise, then we pack this shit out of here.”

There was a moment of silence as the fearful crew considered their captain’s words.

Then, a sound, faint and distant at first, but growing louder, began to filter into the crew’s consciousness — a steady dripping or bubbling sound, as if the swamp all around them was breathing slowly.

“You wish me to show myself, orc,” said a voice, echoing from the swamp, invisible but horribly tangible. “I will do as you wish, but I’m sure you won’t like it.”

The figure that emerged from the mist, walking casually on the water as if it was solid land, was not outwardly a frightening one. A short, dusky-skinned man in black robes, a hood drawn over his head, the figure stopped perhaps twenty paces from the gaping crew of the Conqueror, his eyes gleaming unnaturally.

“I am the N’agon Baron Khamani,” said the man politely. “I slept in that tower, surrounded and imprisoned by my objects of wealth and power. It was an interesting spell they cast on me, actually, keeping me under the ground, alive but without death, unable to leave the gold and treasures which I had gathered throughout my life. I suspect they considered it a form of poetic justice. In any event, you have finally broken the spell and set me free. For that, if nothing else, I am grateful.”

“Fucking spell-mumbling bastard!” Skrall barked. “We eat weaklings like you for breakfast! What have you done with my crew?”

“They serve me now,” replied Khamani. “It is not your affair.”

“I’ll make it my fucking affair, you bastard,” Skrall shot back. “They’re my gods-damned crew, and they don’t serve anyone else without my fucking permission! Hell, they don’t die without my fucking permission!”

“They’re not entirely dead, I assure you,” Khamani said, slowly moving closer. The bubbling sound from the swamp water grew louder. “As you can see, they’re quite content with their present terms of service.”

Slowly, from the water, dripping figures rose up from the swamp, flanking the sorcerer.

“Oh, fuck,” growled Skrall.

The eight missing crewmen now stood, motionless, upon the surface of the water. They were covered with swamp slime, their faces were slack and emotionless, their eyes pure white without a trace of color.

“What have you done to them?” demanded Li. “Release them now!”

Khamani looked at the Kaitian as if noticing her for the first time.

“A Kaitian,” he said. “How very unusual. I have always admired your race for their learning and sorcerous skill. I regret that I have never been able to study your spellcasting techniques.”

“Your sentiments are appreciated, but not your actions,” Li replied. “Now release our companions and we will go in peace.”

“I fear I cannot do that,” Khamani replied. “They are sokor, possessed by the boku — the gods themselves. You see, they called me a zombie-master, but they were wrong. My servants are not mere corpses; they are zombies, true, but far more — living men and women possessed by boku. They are powerful warriors and serve me as I serve them. It was with an army of such beings that I tried to conquer Necrotia many years ago.”

Shardin blanched, and Theanna knew he was recalling his recent experiences with the fish-god.

“And I fear that you also have several items which belong to me,” Khamani went on. “Even my bitterest enemies agreed that I was nothing if not generous, sir Orc, and I am more than willing to allow you and your crew to keep the gold if you will return all the other items to me.” He paused, contemplatively. “And... One other item that I require.”

Skrall looked back at the sorcerer with a cynical gaze. “Ah, yes. At last we get to the moment of truth. Assuming I agreed to all this, exactly what is it that you want?”

Khamani looked mildly toward where Li stood protectively in front of Theanna.

“The elf woman,” he said. “Give me the elf woman.”

Li

Skrall seemed nonplussed.

“You already got eight of my crew,” he complained. “What in hell do you want another one for?”

“It’s quite complex,” said Khamani. “I doubt you would understand. Suffice to say that an immortal is an ideal vessel for the boku, and if transformed into a bokor, she would be among the most powerful. Keep my gold, orc. Just give me my enchanted treasures and the elf woman.”

Li’s twin swords were in her hands before she realized it, their metallic ringing echoing across the swamp. Theanna stepped backward, eyes wide.

“You want her, you’ll have to kill me first,” she said, standing on guard.

“And me,” said Tanu, stepping up beside her.

“Yeah!” snapped Squitter, joining the trio. “What they said!”

“And m—” Shardin began, but Skrall interrupted.

“Enough of the theatrics,” he said, rolling his eyes and pulling a jag-edged cleaver from his belt. “You get the idea, fuck-face. You’ll have to kill us all if you want her.”

Khamani sighed and shrugged. “As you wish.” He gestured at the possessed crewmen. “Take them.”

The possessed crew were no ordinary zombies; Li had fought such before. These moved with unnatural swiftness, racing across the surface of the water, drawing swords and attacking without hesitation. Two crewmen went down instantly, and then the fight exploded into a whirl of steel and blood.

Three of the sokor launched themselves at Li. One had once been a human female named Sigura, the second was a human she recognized as the quartermaster’s mate, Eduno, and the third was a sailor whose name she had forgotten. She felt a moment of regret at this, then the three were on her.

They were skilled, but there was nothing subtle in their skill. They attacked with straightforward sword-strokes, trying for a quick kill.

But Kaitians did not die easily. Li twisted lithely away from the first attack, blocking with one sword, and stabbing down sharply with the other.

Eye of the Crane.

The sword thrust smoothly into the sokor’s neck, and blood gushed feebly, pumped by a heart that barely beat. Yet, powered by an evil god, it still came on. Li pulled the sword free and whirled, slashing with one sword, then the other.

Holy Whirlwind.

The thing’s neck was nearly severed, a deep gash across its belly, entrails spilling out. And still it attacked. Li hacked down with both swords, striking one of the thing’s arms, then the other.

Twin Blows of Heaven.

One arm fell, the other hung by a thread. At last, the thing slowed, and collapsed to the ground.

There was no respite; a second sokor came at her... This was Eduno. She slashed again, warding off the thing’s unthinkably fast blows, feeling herself move in a whirl of orange and black, tail spinning, eyes glaring, mouth open, fangs gleaming... Again and again... Endless attacks and defenses, the images of her katas and training and a thousand battles flashing through her mind.

Dragon’s Claw, Leaping Dolphin, Snake’s Return, Forked Lightning, Thousand Strikes of Vengeance...

Despite the storm of attacks and blocks, the sokor’s strikes began to tire her, began to penetrate the web of steel that the Kaitian wove about her... A blade grazed her shoulder, she barely avoided a decapitating stroke, thrusting up to impale the god-inhabited creature...

But it wasn’t enough... She would tire... The thing would wear her down. And there were more...

A voice sliced through the mist of blood and motion, echoing through the swamps... Li realized that it was Theanna.

Ratuka!” the elf woman cried. “Ratuka aid us!”

Li could barely see what happened, but nearby Shardin, who had been in the midst of casting a spell, suddenly went rigid, and his eyes seemed to catch fire with a silvery light.

Khamani!” cried the echoing voice of the fish-god. “N’agon! Ancient enemy!”

From across the swamp, Khamani’s voice responded.

“So the Lord of the Fishes has come to aid the mortals?” he demanded. “I will crush you as I crushed your brothers so long ago! You will inhabit one of my sokor, and be my servant!”

“Never!” Ratuka’s voice was almost deafening. “Feel my wrath, Shadow N’agon!”

Li lost track of what happened after that... The sokor who had once been Edundo launched another flurry of attacks, and she summoned resources from deep within her, to reply to the blows. At last, the zombie-thing faltered, and she swung again...

Forked Lighting.

The sokor stumbled, and she brought her sword down on its exposed neck.

Gods’ Hammer.

Savage fury flashed through Li. The rage of the tiger, the ferocity of the hunter.

“Die!” she snarled, the word barely audible through her snarls.

The sokor’s head tumbled into the mud.

Then, a flood of silvery bodies overwhelmed her — flapping, thrashing fish, a torrent of slippery bodies swirling around her, enveloping her and the other combatants. She felt herself seized around the waist and saw that it was the last sokor, trying desperately to defeat her even as the fish-god’s attack surrounded them. Li stabbed upward, impaling the thing, her sword point entering its abdomen and thrusting up through its chest and neck, finally stabbing upward to impale its brain.

Li rolled free of the last creature. The pale eyes slowly faded to their normal human hue, and the crewman whose name she did not recall looked up at her plaintively.

“I’m sorry,” he said, then the light faded and he fell back to the muddy ground. Hundreds of fish flapped feebly around them.

“Runis,” Li said, softly. “I remember now. Your name is Runis.”

A shriek from the swamp nearby broke Li’s reverie. She looked up in horror, to see Theanna vanishing beneath the swamp water, dragged down by the iron grip of one of Khamani’s sokor.

Li rose, feeling her legs weak beneath her, and limped toward the water’s edge, sword in one hand.

“Theanna!” she cried, but it was too late. The muddy waters were still now, and red flashes obscured her vision. After a moment, they grew overpowering, and Li collapsed in the shallow water, still crying out Theanna’s name. 

*** 

Shardin’s voice echoed in the darkness, overlaid by the basso tones of the boku Rokuta.

“She will live,” he said. Slowly, above Li, the sorcerer’s face swam into focus. His eyes were different, and she felt an aura of power radiating from him. He was still a sokor, ridden by a god.

“Theanna,” Li said, sitting up painfully. “Where is she?”

“The sorcerer,” said Tanu growled. The wolfen was battered as well, blood clotting his grey fur, but he seemed relatively intact. “His creatures took her.”

“Fuckers,” spat Squitter. He had a gash across his face, and one of his beady black eyes was swollen shut. “We’ve still got his fuckin’ treasure, though, damn him.”

“It will do you little good,” Shardin said, “when Khamani returns with his army of sokor. There are powerful enchanted items among the treasure, but it will take much time to unlock their secrets — time you do not have.”

“I don’t need any gods-damned enchanted items to beat that pile of scum,” said Skrall, sitting nearby, bandaged and wounded but still defiant.

Li looked around. Perhaps a dozen of the Conqueror’s crew remained alive, and most of these were wounded. The possessed Shardin was busily bending over each in turn and touching their foreheads. Soon all of the survivors were on their feet, worse for the wear, but at least alive.

Skrall looked enormously annoyed. He had sustained several horrific wounds, but seemed unconcerned.

“Scum-sucking no good bastard wiped out half my crew and took one of my wizards, gods damn him. He’s going to pay, mark my fucking words.”

“How can he pay?” Squitter asked, half-heartedly grooming his face. “We don’t even know where the fucker went.”

“I know,” said Shardin. “He has gone from this place, but he is creating more of his sokor warriors. There are villages which still Khamani and revere his memory. He is in one of those.”

“Izzat so?” Skrall asked. “Which one?”

“I don’t know for certain yet. I feel him; he’s not far, but it will take some time for me to sense his exact position.”

“In the meantime,” Li said, “can you tell us what direction he went.”

Shardin pointed west. “That way. Deeper into the swamp, to places where the city dwellers never go. Follow me and I will lead you there. We will drive out the dark boku and finish the evil one once and for all.”

“Gee, sounds like fun,” Squitter said with little enthusiasm. “Count me in.”

Livia

Skate threaded its way through the narrow, twisting Necrotian riverlands. The crew was alert to the overhanging branches and vines, any of which might impede their progress or, worse, conceal some jungle beast ready to leap onto the deck and carry off whatever it could find.

“Are we still on course?” Livia asked, scanning the surrounding vegetation with concern.

“If you ask me that one more time I’m going to kick the fucking map into the river,” Narisha replied. “Don’t worry. I know right where we are.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Livia muttered, turning and striding toward the bow. The river only seemed to grow narrower here; it was a wonder that a ship the size of the Conqueror could have gotten this far.

Memories of that last night in Shark Harbor still nagged at her. Not that Raleph’s treatment had bothered her all that much; it had happened before and she’d simply shrugged it off. That, she had so often told herself, was how men were.

Was it, she wondered, how she had been as well? Did the tyranny of the genitals extend to both sexes... Simply because she was a woman, was it right for her to treat others as she had so often been treated?

Who do I love, she thought? Besides myself, that is?

She loved Narisha, and she had done so many things with her — things that didn’t differ in any significant way to what Raleph had done. Narisha had called her whore, called her slut, used her like a toy and cast her aside... Why was it different?

Because, she thought, despite the words, despite the treatment, despite all of the things Narisha said and did to her, they did love each other. Beneath it all, beneath everything, Narisha loved her and would die to defend her. And Livia felt the same way about Narisha. They both knew it.

Daedora, too. In spite of her uninhibited sexual nature, the dark elf was an innocent, desiring harm to no one, save those who had slain her family and betrayed her. She was more elf than those who even now laid waste to Litharna. And Livia loved her.

But one that she loved, as much as the others, was gone now, risking his life in an effort to save those he had never met, those who so often despised him, or thought him beneath their notice. He loved her, and he had loved her since they had first met, since they had first stood side by side and fought to save themselves and each other. And she had made love to him under the waterfall, offered him something that she had offered so many others... Yet, unlike so many others, he valued what she offered and believed that it truly meant something.

And then she had held it from him, ignored him, teased him, made him feel less than a man... When at last she finally acknowledged her feelings toward him, she constantly misused him, and kept playing games, playing him like a fish, still teasing and taking for granted.

Raleph’s words came back to her. Cruel, thoughtless, selfish words. The words themselves made little difference to Livia... She was as far above animals like Raleph as she was above the beasts that lived and died in this dismal swamp. He had paid for his arrogance; Raleph would not soon forget her or Narisha.

But another question nagged her, as the dark water parted and Skate slid farther and farther from civilization, from the war, from the blood, from Wulf. It continued to echo in Livia’s mind, and she had no easy answers.

Am I really any different from Raleph? 

*** 

Livia’s gloom lifted as Skate sailed majestically into the lagoon, and the black hull of the Conqueror appeared, moored nearby. As the black ship’s crew hurried to the rails, Livia hastened to the bow, waving and shouting as loud as she could.

“Friends! We’re friends! We need to see your captain, and Lady Theanna!”

Expressions of alarm and suspicion on the faces of the corsairs melted into grins of friendship as they recognized Skate, and within a few moments the two vessels were moored side-by-side.

When Kwy, the feathered mruti in temporary command of Conqueror came aboard and told them of Skrall’s absence, Narisha swore and Livia rolled her eyes.

“Not more zombies,” Livia complained. “We’ve had our fill of those things since Xesh.”

“Gods fucking damn it all,” Narisha said, kicking a coil of rope in frustration. “We’ve spent weeks trying to find Skrall and Theanna and now you tell me they’re gone?”

“Worse than gone,” Kwy said. He was a somewhat scruffy looking bird-man, but he spoke in a lilting, cultured tone. “Lady Theanna was taken by the sorcerer. They left in pursuit several days ago, and we haven’t heard from them since. I remain here on post as I was ordered, however.”

“Knowing Skrall he probably told you to stay here until he returned or until your hull rots,” Livia said.

“That is the gist of his orders, yes?”

“Do you know where they went?” Narisha asked. “I suspect if they’re fighting this bastard and his zombies they’ll need all the help they can get.”

“West, I think he said. The wizard Shardin seems to be acting oddly and says he knows where the enemy is.”

Livia sighed heavily. “I suppose I should start casting some tracking spells?”

“That seems like a decent start,” Narisha agreed.

Unknown to anyone on the ships, a number of dark, cloaked figures lurked in the vegetation beyond the lagoon, waiting and watching with inhuman stealth and patience.

VII

Li

“He is close now,” Shardin said, his voice cutting through the whine of insects. “Perhaps one league that way. I feel him.”

Li felt weary, but the thought of Theanna in the hands of the sorcerer drove her onward.

“Is she with him?”

Shardin nodded. “She is alive, but I sense that Khamani’s powers are growing in strength. If he is not stopped soon, his army of boku will be invincible.”

“Great,” Skrall said. “I’m at my best under pressure.”

“That,” said Li, “is what Livia told me. I hope you have lost none of your edge.”

“Edge? Fuck it, lady, the only edge I need is on this fuckin’ cleaver. Lead on, Shardin. We’ll give that human bastard a party he won’t forget.”

“No,” Shardin said. “I must leave you. There is other work I must do.”

The orc looked surprised, then angry.

“What the fuck are you talking about, wizard? We need you and you’re backing out on us?”

“No. I am with you. But there is someone else here... Someone is following us, and I think they may want to help us. I cannot be certain this far away, however.”

“Gods dammit, I told those idiots on the ship to stay put,” Skrall grumbled. “I’ll flog the life out of them.”

“Not crew,” Shardin said. “Someone else.”

“Who then? You’re really starting to piss me off, wizard, or whatever the fuck you are.”

“Don’t worry,” Shardin said. “I will return. If they are, indeed, allies, I will find them and lead them to help you.”

Skrall glowered. “This has all the markings of a major con-job, Shardin, or Ratuka or whoever you are. I don’t entirely trust you, no matter how much help you’ve been.”

“I believe him, captain,” said Li. “Besides, we can’t stop him from leaving if he wishes.”

“Aw, fuck.” Skrall rubbed his eyes. “I’m getting too old for this crap. All right then. You say the village is that way?”

“Yes,” said Shardin. “Its inhabitants worship Khamani as a god, and the village is well guarded. Tiger plants surround it; you need to be on your guard.”

“I imagine we do,” Skrall said. “All right then, get going. And come back the minute you know what’s going on.”

“I will,” Shardin replied. “Good bye for now, and good luck.”

Then he was gone, and the company stood in silence for a few moments.

“Do you think he’ll be back?” asked Squit with uncharacteristic concern.

“He’d better be,” Skrall said, “cuz god or not, if he isn’t, I’ll find him and rip his lungs out.” 

*** 

The Necrotian swamplands pressed in claustrophobically, the song of the insects rising and falling in weird rhythm with the drums and chanting from the Shadow N’agon’s village.

“You ready back there?” hissed Skrall, holding his cleaver in a tight fist, his face looking surprisingly nervous and uncertain for a veteran orcish warrior.

“I was born ready, boss,” replied the ratling Squitter, crouching in the shadow of a giant alocacia. He held two needle-sharp daggers and had a third blade strapped to the end of his tail.

Li nodded briefly, tensing for the coming fight.

They are apes, as I am cat, she thought. Now is the time that we reveal the savagery of our true natures.

“I, too am ready,” said Tanu. “Give the word and I will fight.”

The remaining crew of the Conqueror, a dozen veteran sailors of varying races, all nodded in silence.

“Do you see her?” Li demanded, softly as the drumming and chanting rose in pitch.

“Not yet,” Skrall hissed back. “Come on, now.”

Slowly, the band crept forward through the dense undergrowth. Footing was treacherous – this was one of few bits of solid land in the area; surrounded by the sucking swamp and its attendant dangers, it was a natural lair for the Shadow N’agon and his minions. And it was here that their friend and shipmate had been taken.

They reached a low crest, great chup trees and banana plants soaring overhead, and down a shallow slope lay Khamani’s village. The sight was not an encouraging one.

A huddle of crude huts lay in the green gloom. The Shadow N’agon was there in full regalia, a great skull-mask obscuring his face, long black feathers rising like a dark sunburst around it. He wore bone ornaments, his arms and legs were covered in ivory, metal and beaded bracelets. He gestured with a short staff, rattling and shaking it as he chanted. All around him stood dozens of powerful-looking men, all armed with swords, spears and clubs, wearing similar outfits  — skull-faced masks, bracelets, capes crafted from the skins of jungle cats.

“It’s Khamani’s much-vaunted army of sokor,” said Li, softly. “Possessed warriors.”

Skrall rolled his eyes. “Great. We get to rescue the damned tree-hugger from an army of daemons.”

“Daemons bleed the same as lesser beings,” said Tanu. “And I think we should hurry, as it seems that the ceremony is ending.”

Indeed, the crowd parted, revealing a low stone altar, upon which lay Theanna — naked, chained and motionless, her skin daubed with arcane symbols.

It was too much for Li.

“Theanna!”

Crying her lover’s name and snarling, the tiger-woman bounded down the slope, swords whirling.

“Gods damn!” Skrall barked, then waved the crew forward. “Charge!”

It was scarcely the stealthy attack they’d planned, but now they were committed. A crowd of shouting, sword-swinging corsairs rushed down the shallow slope toward the N’agon’s village.

Khamani looked up in surprise, turning away from his victim. His paralysis was short-lived however, for after a moment he threw aside his mask, revealing a leering, visage with piercing bloodshot brown eyes and angry white teeth — he’d grown more savage and ferocious looking since his resurrection, Li noted. He motioned toward the advancing corsairs with his staff and shouted orders.

Instantly, his warriors spurred into action, moving with inhuman swiftness toward the attackers.

Skrall traded blows with one. The gleaming ebony human stabbed at him with a steel-headed spear, ripping his shirt and scoring his ribs. He winced in pain but shot back, trapping the spear against the ground with his foot and aiming a blow at the warrior’s head with his cleaver. The bright steel bit flesh, but it was like tough leather. The blow would have killed an ordinary man, but this thing shrugged it off as if it were an insect bite.

Elsewhere, the Conqueror crew fared less well. Several fell to the warriors’ initial charge, but others fought gamely. Tanu ripped into one with teeth and claws, rending the monster into bloody chunks within a few moments, then snarled, eyes wild, searching for another opponent. Squitter darted nimbly around the feet of combatants, stabbing with his daggers, hamstringing and slicing wherever he could.

Li had little stomach for the n’agon’s delaying tactics, and bounded gracefully over the heads of the advancing sokor, then streaking toward Khamani, who looked on in renewed astonishment.

“Let her go, corpse-master!” she shouted, racing along with one sword held forward, the other back, ready to slice the Necrotian into sections.

Khamani moved backwards rapidly, his eyes still fixed on the advancing Kaitian. He shook his staff menacingly, chanting slowly and deliberately under his breath.

“Silence, bastard!” Li bellowed, crouching, then leaping, swords extended. “No more wizard’s tricks, you…”

She didn’t finish her insult, for as she landed, the ground beneath her split open, revealing a grinning skull, its empty sockets burning with greenish-yellow flame. The rest of the skeleton emerged, seizing her legs as she hit the ground. Two blows from the swords and the thing was a pile of dusty bones, but all over the clearing, the same thing was happening, the ground opening up to vomit forth animated corpses. They fell upon the attacking pirates, and soon the screams of the wounded and the dying echoed louder than the tropical birds in the trees overhead.

Three more fleshless adversaries came at Li. She fought well, but after shattering one, the remaining two overbore her, carrying her to the ground. One held her arms while the other lay atop her, bony hands encircling her throat.

The Shadow N’agon stood over his fallen foe, looking down with a mixture of amusement and vindictiveness.

“You come to save your friend,” he said, softly. “Yet you become my servant. It is funny, isn’t it?”

Li only snarled through bared teeth, struggling to throw off the two skeletons. Too late — more shambled along, piling atop her.

Khamani gazed across the village where his undead and possessed warriors were overwhelming the attacking corsairs.

“Leave some alive!” he shouted, gesturing with his staff. “They will make fine sokor, like the elf-woman!”

But his words hung on empty air, and the struggle continued. It was as if the Shadow N’agon’s commands made no difference to his minions. He was about to shout again, when his eyes widened in shock once more.

The nearest group of skeletons fell like tenpins, tumbling to the ground, overwhelmed by what looked like a pile of silver, wriggling fish. Elsewhere, the skeletons disintegrated as well, broken and devoured by the flapping silver bodies, leaving his sokor alone against the enemy. Beside Khamani, Li shook off the dry remnants of her opponents, and leaped to her feet, swords poised.

Khamani stepped back, hands held up defensively.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “My legions... My sokor...

As if in response, one of the spirit-possessed warriors nearby burst into flames and collapsed, twitching feebly. A streak of violet magical energy shot from the forest, burning a second, then a third.

The Shadow N’agon stared in abject fear and horror as, from the forest, a second band of attackers emerged. Leading them was a strapping, crimson-skinned woman with a great black iron sword, and beside her strode a smaller woman in white robes, bearing a skull-topped staff. Beside them, gesturing forward, eyes blazing with the fire of the god within him, strode Shardin the sorcerer.

“We heard there was a party,” bellowed the demoness.

“Hope we’re not too late for the fun!” continued the sorceress.

“You betray the boku, n’agon,” said Shardin, his voice echoing across the swamps.

Khamani’s eyes widened and he turned to run.

Li flung aside her swords and leaped like a coiled spring, claws slashing at the retreating sorcerer’s back. Together they tumbled into the swamp in an explosion of water, blood and flesh.

Beneath her, Khamani twisted, his hands reaching up with amazing strength, encircling Li’s neck even as she tore at him with tooth and claw. She wanted to speak, but no words came to mind — only the ferocity and bloodlust of the hunt, the desire to kill and survive...

Primal savagery, yes, Li’s mind told her. The gods know nothing... They think they can control us, they think they are our masters, but we belong to no one but ourselves. We create our own destinies.

Even as Khamani’s fingers tightened around Li’s throat, she unleashed a brutal cry of rage, and her claws tore into flesh. Deadly, powerful, possibly deathless, the necromancer still bled, staining the water black. His body grew warm and began to shimmer as he desperately choked out a spell, but a slash across his face silenced him.

In a few moments, it was over.

“So die all who trouble the Kaitians,” Li snarled, feeling the rage and desire for blood swirling inside her, then at last fading away.

Li collapsed, gasping, in the water beside the lifeless body of the ancient sorcerer.

“Theanna,” she said, softly. 

*** 

The village was a shambles, huts smashed, bodies strewn everywhere. Of the Conqueror’s crew, only a handful survived — including, she noted with relief, Tanu and Squitter. The captain, as ill-tempered as ever, was sitting on a dead sokor, allowing one of Livia’s crewmen to splint and bandage his broken arm. His face bore an ugly slash, and one eye was swollen shut. Shardin/Ratuka was busy healing the wounded, while the rest of the two crews stood around, dazed looking.

On the altar, Livia sat beside Theanna, who had been wrapped in a cloak. The elf woman was alive, but her gaze was blank, as if she had been driven to the edge of endurance.

As Li approached, she heard Livia talking softly to Theanna.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You’re alive, and the bastards are all dead. Face it, that’s usually how our enemies end up in any event.”

Theanna favored Livia with a smile.

“I regret so many had to die,” she said.

“Unfortunately, people are dying by the thousand even as we speak,” Livia said. “That it’s in a noble cause is scant comfort. We can only thank the gods that we live, and honor the memory of lost loved ones.”

“You seem to have discovered compassion since last we met, sorceress,” Li said. “You have my deepest gratitude.”

Livia looked up. This, Li thought, was the cold and calculating expression she had seen years ago, in the wake of the battle with the Stormking.

“I accept that gratefully,” Livia said. “I’ve had a hell of a time finding you. If it hadn’t been for that damned second-rate sorcerer of yours, we might have gotten totally lost in the swamp.”

“I’m grateful to you and to him. I suspect that the god inhabiting him will be leaving us soon, but he’s been an incredible help to all of us. I never thought I would say it, sorceress, but it’s good to see you.”

“Call me Livia. All my friends do. Those that don’t call me ‘cold-hearted bitch’.” Livia smiled. “Your friend appears to be all right, despite the human sacrifice ceremony.”

“It was worse than that,” Theanna said. “I was to house the spirit of one of his foul gods. Elves are favored mounts for the things, it seems. I would have been consumed, transformed into an almost invincible sokor.”

“Well, he won’t be getting this one.” Li sat down opposite Livia, with Theanna between them. “In fact, since I just left his body on the shore, I don’t think he will be getting anyone again.”

“I realize that this is a somewhat inopportune moment,” Livia said, stroking Theanna’s hair, “but we didn’t come here just to rescue you.”

Li felt a trace of her old antipathy.

“So you have something you want from us, then? Perhaps you haven’t changed all that much.”

“I deserve that,” Livia said. “But I’m not here for selfish reasons, believe me.”

“Why are you here?” Theanna asked, suddenly concerned. “Is it about my mother?”

“Among other things, yes,” Livia said. “We need to have a very serious talk, all of us.”

VIII

Livia

“Are you sure you’re well enough to talk?” Livia asked as Theanna walked unsteadily into Skate’s officer’s mess, leaning on Li for support.

“I don’t care,” Theanna said. “You’ve important business to discuss and I will discuss it.”

Livia felt a sudden surge of sympathy and admiration for the elf woman. It was a strangely elating sensation.

Concern for others, she thought. I feel like a child seeing the ocean for the first time.

“Very well,” she said. “In the interest of getting you into bed and under a healer’s care, I’ll get to the point. You know that your people have declared war on the rest of the world, manipulated by agents of the dark elf ruler Thae’lynn. Xesh has fallen, but we helped the Xeshites drive the elves out. Your Marshal Feanor now leads an army into Litharna. He’s allied with some ancient elvish sorcerer named Ezikhan and has a few legions of undead following along. They’ve already defeated the humans in two battles, and I doubt that the humans can survive another thrashing.”

Theanna listened, her expression unreadable.

“I know of Feanor’s campaign,” she said. “He is an angry man, Livia. Angry at humans, at dwarves, at orcs, at other elves — angry at the world. He felt that the Stormking’s rebellion was proof of the rot at the heart of our realm, and wanted to return to the old ways, when we rode dragons and ruled the world. Now, urged on by our ancient enemies, he is trying to put his twisted beliefs into practice, and I fear a terrible disaster.”

Livia nodded. “The disaster is already in progress, Princess Theanna. It’s like watching a flood from a great distance and being unable to save anyone in its path. We plan to sail for Litharna, use the gold and weapons we’ve taken from Khamani to raise an army, and help the humans defeat Feanor. Will you help? Use your influence to persuade Feanor’s warriors not to fight?”

Theanna nodded without hesitation. “As before, I will try to rescue my people from the folly of fools and traitors. Feanor will face the same fate as the Stormking.”

Remembering how the Stormking died, gutted at Theanna’s hands, staring into her enraged eyes as he passed on, Livia suppressed a shudder.

A gruff voice spoke up from the back of the room.

“I’ll help you too, girlie,” rumbled Skrall. The orc was a mess, covered in bandages, one arm in a sling, one eye swollen shut, but his good eye gleamed with determination. “I’ve got friends who owe me. A quick message and I’ll have an army of a thousand orc skull-fuckers at your command.”

Livia frowned. “You’re volunteering orcs to save Litharna?”

Skrall nodded. “You see, I figure that we’re the only ones who can wail on those fucking pinkskins. And the blackskins and the yellowskins and the brownskins, for that matter. Those shit-brained tree-huggers are muscling in on our territory. If they wipe out the humans, who the fuck is next? Us? And with the pinkies gone, who the fuck is gonna give us a decent fight?”

“I can’t say that I agree with your logic, Skrall, but at this point any help is appreciated,” Livia said. “Now, as for —”

An untidy ball of brown fur leaped onto the table, scattering glasses and platters.

“Not so fast, Cap’n!” Squitter barked. “I got friends, too!”

Narisha unleashed a snort of laughter. “The ratlings are volunteering? Now I’ve seen everything. Where are all these noble rodents going to come from? The sewers?”

“You betcha, babe,” Squitter replied. “Thousands upon thousands of ‘em. You don’t know how many of us are hiding in your drainage systems.”

“Let’s not go into too much detail on that matter,” Livia said. “All right, we can count on an army of orcs and an army of ratlings to help us. Anyone else care to add to that?”

“Grrr, kill elves,” grunted Udo, lounging in back, feet on the table, taking a huge swig of ale from a tankard and wiping the foam from his beard. “Hillcleavers’ll help me. They think I’m some kinda freak, but if I call, they gotta come! Hillcleavers are all over the place in Litharna! I’ll call ‘em, and they’ll come with axes and hammers. ‘Specially if there’s elves to kill. We like killin’ ‘em elves more’n we love killin’ dem orc-boys.”

Skrall cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

“Uhhh, not you, though. You’s a good guy.”

“Gee thanks,” replied Skrall. “You don’t know what that means to me.”

“Enough of the mutual admiration society,” Narisha said. “It’s giving me a headache. All right, are there any other armies that people want to pull out of their ears?”

“The lizard king told me that he was thinking of sending some of his warriors into the battle,” Daedora piped up, her voice sounding almost hesitant.

“Fucking hells,” Narisha snapped. “Humans. Orcs. Ratlings. Jarreks. Dwarves. I guess all it took was an enemy we all despise. We may not need to fight those fucking elves at all. We’ll have so damned many troops we can just walk right over them.” 

*** 

The sun sank among purple, red and gold clouds, as Little Sister began to glow with silvery light. The night-sounds had begun — the roars of hunting cats, the drone of insects, the chatter of nightbirds.

“Li,” Livia said softly, approaching the Kaitian out of the gathering gloom. “I think we need to talk.”

Li’s expression was not hostile; neither was it terribly friendly. Livia didn’t blame her terribly, given their meeting after the battle with the Stormking.

“So you said,” Li replied.

“So can we talk?”

“That depends,” Li said, her delicate accent wafting through the night air, speaking of distant cities and exotic peoples.

“On what?” Livia stepped closer and took it as a good sign that the tiger-woman did not unsheathe her claws and attack.

“On what you want to talk about,” Li said. “You seem different to me now, Lady. Almost more... human. Or perhaps more Kaitian, which is a good thing.”

“Your Imperial has improved considerably,” Livia said. “And you’re as beautiful as I remember you.”

Li seemed a little nonplussed. “I hope you did not come to renew your sexual propositions. I told you that I would not consider them until you had improved your own thoughts and actions.”

Livia shook her head. “Nothing like that. It’s not that I don’t desire you, but I can’t make love to someone who doesn’t care for me. Not anymore. I suppose I want to offer... an apology. A reconciliation. Whatever you wish to call it.”

Now Li looked truly surprised. “You offer apologies, sorceress? I don’t know if the world is ready for such a change.”

“I understand your feelings,” Livia admitted. “But if you’re willing to listen, I just wanted to tell you that you were right. You said that I needed to learn of love, and that if I hurt Wulf again, you’d cut me to pieces.”

“So I did. I hope you took my advice to heart.”

“In my own twisted way, I did,” she said. “You know Wulf and I have been lovers for the past five years?”

“It comes as no surprise. He is a good man, isn’t he?”

“He is. He’s a fool, and a maddening bastard sometimes, but he’s a good man. I just want you to know that I’m sorry for what I did to him, and for how I’ve treated him. I’d say it to him, but he is too far away. He’s disguised as an n’doro and has infiltrated the enemy’s forces. He may not survive. I suppose I’m saying it to you in his place, hoping that he returns safe and alive.”

To Livia’s surprise, the Kaitian actually laughed at this.

“So he’s one of the lion-folk now. He’s at least closer to my species now.”

“And hung like a damned warhorse, might I add,” Livia said. “I suppose it’s proof that we love the person inside, rather than his outward appearance.”

“A surprisingly philosophical statement coming from such a sybarite as you.”

Now it was Livia’s turn to laugh. “Sybarite? You have been improving your Imperial. What does that mean? A woman who lives for sex but rarely enjoys it? Or someone who finally sees that she was using sex as vengeance against people who will never know about it? Against fathers and lovers and husbands and all those who hurt her, and whom she can never pay back personally?”

“You have been on quite a personal voyage, haven’t you, sorceress?”

“I have. I thought that given your feelings toward Wulf you should be one of the first I could tell.”

Li leaned against the railing, crossing her arms under her breasts, making them bulge out alluringly. Her nipples were growing hard in the gathering coolness.

“I am very flattered by that, sorceress,” she said. “I knew there was something buried deep inside you that needed to be shown. Perhaps it’s that soul that you humans are so obsessed with.”

“Hm.” Livia considered this. “I’m being told how to be a better human being by a walking tiger. Why am I not surprised?”

“I am somewhat surprised at your conversion,” Li said, “but I admit that it is a pleasant surprise, sorceress.”

Livia smiled, and felt something stirring inside her that she had not felt in some time.

“Remember what I asked you, Li,” she said. “Since we’re friends now, I’d rather you called me Livia.”

“Very well.” The alluring tiger-mouth stretched into a toothy grin. “Very well, Livia.”

Livia scanned Li up and down. Yes, it was still there, and growing stronger.

“Any chance I can interest you in that terribly crude and offensive offer I made once before? I thought it might be good to share some time with someone I truly care about.”

Li looked taken aback once more, a very human-appearing expression of surprise in her eyes. “You say you care for me, Livia? After I threatened to kill you?”

“Possibly because you threatened to kill me. It was over someone we both love, and someone I need to make amends to. If I can apologize to Wulf through you, perhaps, well, perhaps I can make love to him, too. And to you as well, of course. My bed might get a little crowded, but it wouldn’t be the first time.”

“What of your red-skinned mistress?” Li asked, somewhat coyly. “And your black-skinned lover? And all the others?”

“All what others?” Livia said. “The last person I was with treated me like a whore. I’d much rather be treated as a...”

“As what?” Li asked. Her tone bespoke interest, which Livia actually found surprising.

“As a human.”

“I think,” Li said, “that can be arranged. Are you sure it’s all right with Narisha?”

“I think Narisha is with your wolf right now, dear. I told her it was a slight breach of protocol not to ask you first.”

Li didn’t seem to mind. “Well, I’m reasonably generous about sharing my possessions. She can apologize to me later.”

“When dealing with Narisha, that is a dangerous statement to make,” Livia said. “I look forward to introducing the two of you formally. And as for your other question, I think Daedora is sleeping. And Theanna is recovering from her recent ordeal, poor dear. No one else to amuse ourselves with.”

“And you assume that, like yourself, I wish to follow up a vicious fight for survival and the near-death of my lover with a few hours of mindless sex?”

Livia shrugged. “It’s always worked for me. I may be more aware of my own faults, but I’m not dead. Not yet, anyway. And I need to make up for lost time, and see what it’s like to really care for someone besides myself.”

Li regarded Livia through wickedly narrowed eyes, leaving her with the impression of being measured up as the tiger-woman’s next meal.

“You make a good argument,” Li said, then after a pause added, “Livia.” 

*** 

Livia’s cabin was cool and pleasant, in stark contrast to the sticky heat and humidity outside. Comfort and coolness radiated from a series of blue gems mounted on the walls — when they sailed to colder climates, she traded the blue gems for red ones to provide heat.

Now, of course, it was a welcome respite, a refuge from the muggy swamp. Livia shed her clothes almost instantaneously; Li was fortunate in that she didn’t have to.

“Care to bathe?” Livia asked. “I suspect that after all this time you could use it.”

“Mmmm, sounds lovely,” Li replied. “But where...”

“You’re dealing with a sorceress, remember?” Livia waved a hand, and with a shimmer, a marble depression appeared in the floor, filling with swirling blue, aromatic water. “Stored in a nearby convenient parallel dimension. Very simple once you get the knack.”

Li sighed, shuddering pleasurably at the sight of the water.

“It has been so long since I have had a civilized bath,” she purred. “I take it we can share it?”

“I was hoping you would say that,” Livia said. “Far be it for me to force myself on someone.”

Li rolled her eyes. “Perhaps you are becoming too considerate, Lady. Come join me. We can get each other cleaner that way.”

The water was warm, instantly dissolving the grime and filth of the swamp, and carrying it away, gods only knew where.

Livia idly worried about what beings in an alternate dimension would think of being suddenly drenched with dirty bathwater, then decided it wasn’t worth worrying about.

“Like it?” she asked, sinking down into the water, relaxing in the languid warmth, letting it fill her up and overflow her senses.

“I love it,” replied Li, looking less like a drowned cat than Livia had expected. Her fur was soaked, clinging to like a second skin. “The Conqueror has no such facilities.” She sighed. “I feel clean for the first time in months.”

“Pleasure to oblige,” Livia replied.

Li’s eyes narrowed again. “I want to touch you, Livia.”

Livia lay back and closed her eyes. “Then touch me, Li. I’ve wanted you to touch me for years.”

“And part of me has wanted to touch you,” Li replied. “I simply had a few issues with your outlook and personality.”

Li moved closer, hands gliding around Livia’s shoulders.

“So glad you’ve decided I’m worth touching,” Livia said, then sighed. “Your hands feel good.”

“Your skin feels good,” Li said. She stroked Livia’s face with the back of her hand. “Do you like this?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Livia replied, smiling, eyes still closed. “Touch my breasts please.”

“My sweet human,” Li purred. “I’m glad that you’ve learned civilized behavior.”

“Now why am I not angry at that?” Livia sighed as she spread her legs apart to let Li move in front of her, and felt the firm, insistent touch of the Kaitian’s fingers.

“Because you think you might truly care for me, and so I can say things to you that no one else can?”

Livia nodded, feeling sensations spread from her stiffening nipples as Livia stroked and gently pinched them.

“That sounds about right,” she said, voice tight.

Li chuckled, moving closer, letting the water support her as she held Livia close. The firm warmth of Li’s breasts pressed against hers; Li took her head in her hands, and spoke, their lips grazing lightly.

“Make love to me, Lady,” Li whispered. “And I will make love to you. For absent friends. For each other.”

“Of course,” Livia replied, and slid her hands behind Li’s head, pulling her close, lips embracing. Li’s tongue thrust insistently; Livia thrust back, and their two tongues intertwined.

“Suck my nipples, please,” Livia whispered, interrupting herself to kiss and bite at Li’s whiskered face. “Lick them with that lovely bristly tongue.”

“Mmmm,” Li said. “Happy to oblige.”

Li slid further down in the water, and began to slowly lap at Livia’s partially-submerged breasts. Beneath the firm ministrations of the Kaitian’s tongue, Livia’s nipples began to harden.

Livia sighed.

“That’s what I like, Li.” She paused, head back, stroking Li’s hair. “I’ve fantasized about this. Did you know that, Li?”

“Truly?” Li asked, and licked at one nipple, making Livia stiffen and shudder. “You’ve thought of me in that way?”

Livia breathed huskily. “I played with myself while I thought of you.”

Li grinned wickedly. “You touched yourself?”

“Yes.” Livia’s words were feverish now. “Just like I’m touching myself now.”

“Ohhh, yes,” Li said. “Touch yourself while I suck on you.”

“Mmmm, yessss,” Livia sighed, sliding her hand between her thighs, stroking at her mons, opening her cunt lips, exposing her inner reaches and her swelling clit to the warm water. “I’m touching myself for you.”

“Rrrrrrlll,” Li replied, slipping her hands behind Livia’s back and pulling her still closer, opening her mouth to envelop as much of each breast as possible, moving from one to the other as Livia’s hand moved faster and faster between her thighs.

“Oh, Li...” Livia cried out, head back, wet hair flipping back against the floor. “Oh, Li, you’re making me come.”

“Good,” Li hissed back. “I like that.” She bit one of Livia’s nipples hard. Livia cried out.

“OH, LI! YES!” She bucked, water splashing. “I’m coming, Li...”

Li held tightly as Livia convulsed and heaved against her. After long moments, Livia collapsed in the water, clinging lovingly to Li.

“Oh, Li,” she said, softly. “Lovely, sweet Li.”

“Such words,” Li mused. “Such lovely words from you, Lady. I never thought to hear them.”

“I never thought to say them,” Livia replied. “Especially to you.” 

*** 

They prepared to the bed after that; Livia wasn’t finished by a long road.

“You taste so sweet,” Livia whispered, lips against Li’s mons, then licked, splitting the pink, hairless cleft. “So sweet.”

“Rwwwwllll, yes,” Li replied, purring loudly, massaging her breasts, stroking her own nipples, and the white fur surrounding them. “Yes, very sweet.”

Livia widened her attention, licking past the moistness of Li’s inner lips, tonguing her clit, then licking all the way down, tasting the Kaitian’s freely-flowing juices.

“I wonder,” she whispered, “what Wulf would do if he saw us like this?”

“Want to join in?” Li guessed. “Perhaps we should make him sit in a chair and watch.”

“No,” Livia said. “I’ve done that to him too much. We should let him help.”

“Truly,” Li agreed. “Rrrrlll... Grrrrrrrrllll... Oh, such a tongue you have, lady. What would you like Wulf to do?”

“I’d like him to fuck you,” Livia said, without hesitation. “I’d like him to fuck you while I licked you. I’d like to lick his cock as it slides in and out of you.”

The thought send shivers through Li.

“Oh, yes. That would be... rrrllll... Nrrrrrr... lovely...”

“Wouldn’t it now?” Livia asked, and buried her face between Li’s pink labia, licking, then sucking at her clit. “That lovely cock in your cunt, filling you up, while I lapped at your sweet little clit. That makes me want to come just thinking of it.”

“Then do,” Li said. “Make yourself come again.”

Livia slid her fingers once more between her thighs, stroking herself back toward orgasm.

“That turns me on so,” she hissed. “Think of it. My tongue, Wulf’s cock? Who would make you come first?”

“No idea, Livia... I suppose... Nrrrrrrwwwwwwllll... I suppose I would come for both of you.”

“You’d like that?”

“I would, Lady. I would very much.”

“Then think of it while I eat you, dearest. Think of Wulf’s cock inside you.”

“I’m thinking of it.”

Livia continued to stroke herself, but with her other hand she spread Li’s lips apart again and slid a single finger inside her.

“Oh, Livia... Yrrrllll.”

A second finger... She licked as she moved her fingers in and out, faster and faster. Between her thighs, the heat was building again. Just a few moments now... Li’s cries urged her on, and her excitement rose, her heart hammering, all sensations swirling to the center, where she stroked at her own clit, dragging herself closer and closer...

“Oh, Livia... Oh, Wulf... Grrrrrrnnnnn.... Yrrrrrrrr... Ahhh... Ahhhhhhhh....

Li squeezed her breasts together, claws sliding from their sheathes, gently grazing her own nipples.

At the sight, Livia’s desire burst and she felt orgasms streak through her.

“Yes, sweetheart,” she groaned. “I’m coming for you.”

“Let me come,” Li gasped. “Let me come for you.”

Even as orgasm continued to wrack her, Livia licked faster, pointing her tongue to tease Li’s clit, then thrusting it into her, alongside her sopping fingers. The Kaitian shook, hips trembling against her. Her legs crossed behind Livia’s head and squeezed, urging her on. It only excited the human woman more, and another cluster of orgasm exploded from her.

“You are so beautiful,” Li gasped. “As beautiful inside as out. I know that... Yrrrllll... I knew that before... Now I... Now I see... Yrrrrrrrwwwwwwwwwlllllll...”

“Come,” Livia said, face wet and shiny with Li’s juices. She slid a third finger inside the Kaitian, feeling the sweetness of her cunt contract around them. “Come now. I’m still coming for you.”

“AHHHHH... Yes! YRRRRRRRLLLLLL!” Li’s cries rose to their familiar animal howl as she heaved and writhed, squeezing Livia’s head between her thighs.

“Come, my sweet,” Livia urged, voice muffled by the soft flesh. “Come for me. Come for Wulf. Come for us all.”

YESSSSS! GRRRRllllllllll! Yes, sweetest Livia...” Li convulsed against her again, again, again... It seemed as if her orgasm lasted for hours, but at last the explosions subsided, and she was still.

“Livia,” Li whispered. “Sweet Livia. You’re human now.”

“Thank you,” Livia replied, and meant it. “Thank you so much.”

When it was over, they lay together, languid in the afterglow.

“I love it,” Livia said. “I love this.”

“As do I,” Li replied, stroking Livia’s hair. “We must do this for Wulf when he returns. Tell him not to change back to a human right away, though.”

“Count on it,” Livia said. “I love him no matter what he looks like, but that cock... Amazing.”

Li heaved a deep breath. “I hoped you would learn that, Lady. That you loved him, and loved others as well.”

Livia made a helpless gesture and looked downcast.

“I’ve loved so many people, but I couldn’t tell them,” she said. “Or I said it and didn’t realize that I meant it. Or I realized it too late. Or I pushed them out of bed and they never came back.” She stopped, and her voice dropped to a sad whisper. “I spent the first part of my life letting others make me miserable. I spent the second making myself miserable.”

Li looked at Livia, her eyes filled with infinite kindness and sympathy.

“We can be unhappy for years, Lady,” she said. “We can be miserable for ages, but one moment of happiness is all that it takes to set it all right. A thousand people can betray us, but one person who cares can erase a lifetime of pain.”

Livia felt the tears start and couldn’t hold them back. She held Li close and cried against the soft fur of her shoulder.

“So since you’re being so perceptive lately, Li,” she said, softly, voice breaking. “Tell me why it’s taken me so long to understand that?”

Tanu

Narisha’s sultry tone echoed from behind the wooden door. “Step inside, wolf-man. I suspect you will like what you see.”

What Tanu felt was more significant when he opened the door and a rush of hot, steamy air rushed over him. Not as if they hadn’t had enough of muggy, humid weather, now the demoness wanted him to join her in a steam-bath.

Ah, well, Tanu mused, it’s become my lot in life and I am happy with it.

Narisha lay, naked on a low bench near where an iron cage full of hot stones sizzled and spat. Steam still rose from the rocks, only partially obscuring her voluptuous body.

She was on her stomach, a smooth, endless highway of crimson flesh, gleaming with moisture, from curled toes to heavy thighs, shapely buttocks and long, graceful back. Beneath her, Narisha’s two large breasts bulged out alluringly. Her tattoos were quite lovely, almost black with the moisture. Two hungry yellow eyes met his.

“Welcome,” she purred, raising herself onto her elbows, breasts swinging free. “I’m so glad you could take advantage of my invitation.”

“When an invitation is phrased like an ultimatum, I hasten to comply, Lady.”

“You’ve been well trained, then.”

“This is a well-equipped vessel,” Tanu noted, gazing about at the interior of the sauna.

“And you’re looking at a well-equipped first mate,” Narisha purred. “Come closer and inspect her.”

Tanu stepped toward her. “In any event,” he said, “I have learned that I enjoy following the wishes of females. It is a far less difficult calling than my last one.”

“You were a tamer, weren’t you? Tamed that hot little tiger-woman?”

“Then she tamed me, Lady. I don’t follow that particular path anymore.”

Narisha sighed. “Such a pity. So rare to find a man who knows how to truly tame a woman. You wouldn’t like to practice your craft on me, would you?”

“If that is what my Lady wishes.”

Narisha rolled her eyes. “Irony of ironies. I have to dominate you in order for you to dominate me. But that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? Men want to take us, own us, control us, but in the end they are the ones who are taken, owned and controlled. So strange, but I do love it so.”

“I’m not sure I follow my Lady’s reasoning.”

“Then don’t bother; it’s probably too complicated for you. Now come over here and give me a backrub. It will help... improve my flexibility.”

Shrugging off the effects of the steamy air, Tanu stepped closer.

“I think,” he said, stroking Narisha’s back and admiring the lovely consistency of her crimson flesh, “that would be an excellent idea.”

With that, he stepped astride her, the soft-furred expanses of his inner thighs gripping at her waist. Two strong hands encircled her neck and began to stroke, lubricated by the thin film of sweat and steam that covered Narisha’s body.

“MmmmmMMMM, Tanu,” she sighed. “Have you considered doing this professionally? I’d keep you in utter absolute luxury if you agreed to massage me whenever I needed it.”

“Only massage, Lady?”

Narisha snorted. “Of course not. You also have to be available for fucking every orifice I feel like offering up. Does that sound like hard work?”

“I’m afraid it does, Lady. Besides, I am promised to Lady Li.”

“Who is, I think, busy licking Livia’s sweet little cunt right at this moment. What kind of loyalty is that?”

“I do not interfere with her choice of lovers. I approve wholeheartedly, and aid her whenever she asks. She extends the same courtesy to me.”

“Oh, so that sweet little kitty is a slut just like me and Livia?” Narisha laughed. “We should get along just fine.”

“‘Slut’ doesn’t seem appropriate,” said Tanu. “I would prefer the term ‘free spirit.’ she is, after all, my mistress.”

“Oh, you’re one of those stiff-collars who thinks ‘slut’ is a bad word. Like that idiot elf in Shark Harbor. He used ‘slut’ like an insult. I wear it like a badge of honor. I’m a slut, and I love it. Rub harder, you bastard... I’m starting to get turned on.”

“Hm.” Tanu’s voice was contemplative. He massaged her shoulders with broad, full-palmed strokes. “Is this all it takes?”

“Usually it takes considerably less,” Narisha said. “I got wet just looking at you. But then I get wet looking at most individuals, male or female.”

“I’d heard such of demons,” Tanu admitted, “but I’d never truly experienced it.”

“We seek pleasure in all forms,” Narisha said. “Sensation — pleasure, pain, lust, love, desire... It’s all the same to us. Now, as I told you, rub harder! I think I can feel your cock getting hard against my ass.”

Indeed it was. Tanu’s organ was fully extended, gleaming pink, sliding into the cleft between Narisha’s buttocks as he stroked her back.

“Very, very hard,” Narisha said. “And very big. I like that.” She turned her head, looking up at him from the corner of her eye. “You like ass-fucking, wolfen?”

Tanu considered it, still stroking and thrusting between her buttocks.

“I like what my mistresses like. If it gives them pleasure, it gives me pleasure.”

“I see. That is a diplomatic answer.” She paused, reveling in his touch. She tensed against him, and raised her hips to meet his thrusts, pressing her breasts hard against the wooden platform beneath her. “So if I told you to shove that huge cock all the way up my ass, all at once without stopping, you’d do it.”

A growl of excitement greeted her words. “I would, Lady.”

Narisha rose up onto her knees, bearing the surprised wolfen up with her.

“Then do it,” she hissed, urgently. “Shove it up my ass. All the way. Don’t stop.”

“As my mistress wishes.”

Tanu slid off Narisha’s hips and stood on his knees behind her. With one hand he spread her ass cheeks apart, and with the other guided his long cock toward her sphincter.

“Ready, Lady?” he asked.

“No questions, bastard. Fuck me. Shove it in. Now.”

Tanu shrugged and fitted his cock against the puckered opening, then pressed forward, Narisha’s nether portal opening before him.

“MMMMMMM, YES!” Narisha cried. “Oh, gods and ancestors... Oh, yes, it’s big and it hurts... Yes.” She licked her lips and pressed her face against the wooden slats. “It hurts and I love it. Yesssssss....”

Tanu’s big hands grabbed Narisha’s fleshy hips and pulled her closer. His cock vanished inside her.

“AHHHHHH! FUCK!” Narisha’s face was contorted, eyes closed, black lips stretched into a grimace. “Hurt me. Make it hurt. Yes.”

Dutifully, Tanu pulled his cock out, and thrust in again, and Narisha’s entire body heaved.

“FUCK my ass. FUCK it hard!” Her voice was commanding, even though mixed with an edge of resistance. “Don’t worry about me, just FUCK it.”

Tanu grunted with effort, pulling out and thrusting in again. “As... My... Mistress... Wishes...”

“That’s it.” Narisha gasped, eyes tightly closed, a single tear squeezed out and running down her face. “Fuck it hard. I like it. I like it when you fuck me hard in the ass.”

“Yes,” Tanu said, and his thrusts came faster. “I can feel that you do.”

“Mmmm... yes,” she cried. Her hands were clenched into fists, her long nails digging into her palms. “Keep fucking my ass until I come. Keep it up, you wolfen bastard.” Her voice rose and fell with the rhythm of Tanu’s thrusts. “Keep FUCKING my ASS as HARD as you CAN!”

“Yes, Lady. I will.”

He was pounding in and out now, moving as fast and hard as if fucking her normally. Narisha’s capacity seemed limitless, as the long pink cock filled her completely.

“Ahhh, yes, you fucking wolfen,” Narisha cried. “I’m on the edge now. I’m feeling your cock inside my ass.... It’s going to make me come in a moment...”

Tanu brought an open palm down on the crimson flesh of Narisha’s ass with a loud crack.

YEAH!” Narisha screamed. “Slap me! Slap my ass while you’re fucking it! Harder, you fuck. Harder.”

Tanu cast about the room for a moment, still thrusting in and out of Narisha’s ass. Beside the hot rocks lay a metal poker. He reached out for it and laid it against Narisha’s buttocks.

“This?” he asked. “Do you want this?”

Narisha looked back and her eyes widened with excitement. “Yes, you fucker. Beat my ass with that as you fuck me. I can take it. Beat it hard.”

“You can take it?” he asked, voice suddenly concerned. “You’re not just saying that?”

Narisha’s voice took on a tone of impatient annoyance. “I’m a fucking demon! You can run us through with swords and we’ll just laugh at you! Now beat me with the damned poker!”

Tanu shrugged again. “Very well.”

He cocked his arm back, and as he thrust his cock into Narisha again, brought the poker down across the soft flesh of her buttocks.

Her reaction was astonishing.

“AHHHHHH!” Her voice rose to a scream. “YESSSS! FUCK it all! Hit me, fucker. Hit me again. I LOVE it!”

Tanu belabored Narisha’s ass, first one cheek, then the other, always thrusting into her, harder each time.

“That’s it. Fuck, I’m going to come so hard.” Narisha’s normally commanding voice took on a pleading quality. “Make me come hard, you fucker. Make me come hard.”

Now Tanu struck Narisha with the poker each time he thrust in. It was as fast and as hard as he could go... The demon woman had pushed him to his limit, a feat few females had ever achieved.

“YES!” she cried with each stroke, each blow. “YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! OH, YES! I’M GONNA COME.... YESSSSS!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Narisha shoved her ass backwards to meet Tanu’s thrusts and to absorb his blows. He’d never seen a woman so driven before, but he kept thrusting and striking. Her cries rose to a crescendo, and became a series of short, wracking cries.

“AH! AH! AH! COM...! COMING... NOW...! NOWWWWW!”

At last the gleaming, sweat-covered demon woman collapsed beneath him, falling onto her face, writhing and groaning.

“Yeah, that’s it, you gods-damned ass-fucking wolf...” She gasped heavily. Her hair was a sweat-soaked mess, clinging to her face and back.

Tanu was still inside her, and he began to thrust slowly as she lay, gasping beneath him.

“Get yourself off,” she said. “Keep fucking me ‘til you come. I’m your toy now, fucker. Your little cum-slut. Your little ass-fucked tramp-slut... Yeahhhhhhh...”

Strange woman, Tanu thought. But it give her pleasure.

He thrust slowly into her, feeling the tightness of her ass still clamping down on his cock.

“That’s the way,” she breathed. “Just fuck me ‘til I’m alllllllll used up... I love it. I love it so much...”

Faster now, lying full length against her, his muzzle buried in the sopping depths of her black tresses.

“You are such an animal, you fucker,” she gasped, starting to move beneath him again. “Such a big fucking animal asshole-fucking bastard cocksucker wolf animal fucker.”

It was almost a litany; something chanted in some strange church of endless, mindless sex. If such were the case, Tanu suspected that the crimson-skinned woman would be its high priestess.

“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck my asshole, you gods-damned sonofabitch motherfucking asshole-reaming big-pricked cocksman. You fuck. You sweet, hot, hard-fucking animal. My hot, furry fuck-master...”

And on it went, until the words lost their meaning. Narisha began to move faster, grinding her hips and buttocks against Tanu. Faster and faster he thrust, until he was once more pounding into the red-skinned woman with total fervor and determination.

Now her cries changed, and she urged him on, begging him to climax.

“It hurts so much, but I love it,” she gasped. “Hurt me, you fucking wolf... Come for me... Come all over my ass. Pull it out and shoot that hot jism all over me... Do it, fucker. Do it. Do it. Do it.” Again, her cries rose in sympathy to his thrust. “DO it. DO it. DO it. FUCK me. DO it. COME on my ASS!”

Orgasm pulsed through Tanu, and he pulled his cock forth, letting his semen spurt across the wet crimson skin.

“Oh, yeah, you fuck! That’s it!” Narisha reached back and rubbed the hot fluid across her flesh. “You sure as fuck know how to fuck a woman up the ass, you bastard. I love it. I fucking love it.”

“You,” Tanu said in a flash of sudden honesty, “are a very strange women.”

Narisha rolled over, heedless of the mass of semen coating her back and buttocks. “You don’t know very many demons, do you?”

“I admit that I do not,” Tanu said. “Are they all like you?”

“Nah,” Narisha said, wriggling sensuously beneath him. “Some of ‘em are much worse.” She paused, and rubbed at her nipples, the black stone in her piercing glittering faintly. “How many times can you get it up in an evening, wolf-boy? I’ll be ready to go again any minute now.”

Tanu sighed.

Duty is duty, he thought. 

*** 

It was perhaps three hours, and at least a dozen of Narisha’s orgasms later that the two of them lay, exhausted but sated, in her large bed. Narisha slept soundly while Tanu dozed, images of the crimson-skinned woman contorting into a thousand positions dancing before his eyes.

Strange woman, he mused. But so entertaining. He was busily wondering what he could come up with that she had never done before, when a shout from the deck above seized his attention and sent him rocketing out of bed, spilling the naked Narisha to the ground.

“ALARM! Awake! Intruders! Intruders!

Narisha was out of the room before Tanu could even find his sword.

Livia

Narisha and Li were on deck first, by simple dint of the fact that neither of them had bothered to put on armor or, for that matter, clothing. Each held a sword, however, and the first two dark elves to clamber over the side of the Conqueror died messily.

Livia and Tanu, along with the rest of the exhausted crews, were slower. Three more dark elves fell to blows from the crew or were blasted by Livia’s magic before the assault subsided and the attackers vanished back into the darkness.

“What the fuck is going on?” Narisha demanded, casting about for more enemies to kill. The moonlight revealed no more dark elves, but Livia felt the distant presence of many of them, hiding just beyond view.

As if in reply to her question, a voice echoed out of the darkness, accented and exotic.

“You on the ships,” it said. “We outnumber you and can kill you if we wish. You are to throw out the treasure and the enchanted items from the necromancer’s tower, then we will allow you to leave.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Narisha said, sarcastically. “Don’t you?”

“What are the bastards up to?” Skrall demanded, hurriedly letting a crewman help him into a chain shirt. “Where did they come from?”

“Dark elf land, I’d say,” Livia commented. “Either that or hell.”

“And they want the treasure? How the hell did they know about it?”

“They were behind the Slaerthists and their map scheme,” Livia said. “It’s an old trick. The dragon horde scam.”

“The what?”

“Popular with canny but inexperienced adventurers. A dragon has a horde, and you’re too weak to kill the dragon. So, knowing that the dragon is dangerous and likely to kill anyone who attacks it, you sell the map to a band of powerful adventurers, then follow at a discreet distance as they journey to the dragon’s lair. You following me so far?”

Skrall nodded impatiently. “Get to the point while we’re still young, though, okay?”

Livia ignored him. “You wait outside the lair to see who wins. No matter what, the loser will be dead and the winners will be so beaten up they’ll be easy meat. If the dragon wins, you go in and polish off the wounded dragon and take his horde. If the adventurers win, you pick them off as they come out of the lair and take the horde. If the winner still seems too powerful, you call off the scheme and figure that at least you’re alive and gave it a good shot.”

“Sounds as if you pulled that scam a time or two yourself,” Narisha said, grinning.

“That’s a trade secret. Now it seems we’re the victims... The dark elves paid the Slaerthists to give the map to Narbo. Narbo gave the map to you, you went inland, killed the necromancer and took his horde. Now, the dark elves are moving in for the kill.”

“Think they’re working for Thae’lynn?” Narisha asked.

“I’ll warrant. I’d heard that she was gathering up magical items by the score. This horde will be very valuable to her.”

“More valuable to the Litharnans in their fight with Feanor and his friends,” Theanna said, clambering up from belowdecks. She looked weary but determined. “I’ll die before I let those things fall into the dark ones’ hands.”

“That’s the spirit, elf-girl!” Squitter declared. “I knew I liked you.”

Theanna favored him with a smile. “The feeling is mutual.”

Daedora appeared, sliding like a patch of darker darkness.

“Thae’lynn’s toadies, you say? I’ll see them all in hell.”

“Then I presume we reject their ultimatum and fight?” Livia asked.

“Gods-damned right we do,” Skrall said, holding a falchion in his good hand. “I’ve got one more scrap in me before I collapse completely.”

“Me too,” Narisha said. “Bring the bastards on!”

Livia turned and shouted into the darkness.

“You want the treasure?” she demanded. “Come and take it! I’ll guarantee that a damnsight more of you leave this swamp than entered it!”

There was no reply, but moments later, bright trails of flame, like enraged fireflies, arced up from the surrounding thicket.

“Flame arrows,” Narisha said. “Burn us to the waterline then just pull the treasure up from the bottom of the lagoon.”

“Crude,” Livia said. “And pointless.” She waved a hand and a halo of silvery light expanded from her. When it touched the descending arrows, they were extinguished to fall harmlessly onto the ships’ decks, or into the still water.

“You can do better than that, can’t you?” Narisha taunted. “I thought you dark ones were more resourceful!”

“In a word,” echoed the voice. “We are.”

Instantly, the deck was alive with dark figures, darting and slashing this way and that.

“Cloaked, the bastards!” Livia spat. “Damn me, I should have seen them.”

“Tut tut,” Narisha said. “No sense crying over spilled beer. Now follow me.”

The night exploded into blood and violence. 

*** 

Dawn saw the two ships’ decks littered with corpses, dark elves and corsairs. Fortunately for us, Livia thought, most of them are dark elves. Crew from both vessels were busy cleaning up the mess and tossing enemy bodies over the side. In the water, the crocodiles seemed quite happy.

“The problem with the dragon’s horde scam,” she told Li as the tiger woman painstakingly groomed her blood-stained fur, “is that it only works if the enemy ends up weaker than you are.”

“I see that, as always, the dark ones underestimated you,” Li said.

“They underestimated all of us. And they’ll pay the price for it.”

Li’s ears twitched in annoyance. “I look forward to making them pay.”

“So what’s your plan, oh woman who is finally my lover?” Livia asked. “Continue the search for your sister, or help us?”

“Honor and duty often drag one in opposite directions,” Li said. “Now I feel the pull of vengeance less and the pull of justice more. I will come with you to Litharna. I will help you fight these elves and their undead allies. Then, who knows? I think that our mutual duty lies with Wulf in his quest to overthrow Thae’lynn and her toadies.”

The sun had just begun to creep over the trees surrounding the lagoon when they hauled anchor and began to make their way back toward the coast.

Again, Livia stood at the prow of the Skate, and for once in her life, her thoughts were clear and unequivocal.

We have the treasure, the enchanted items, the elven princess. The enemy now marches through the lands of free people, seeking to enflame the world with his madness. But a greater army than he imagines awaits him... An army of peoples banded together by defiance and love of freedom. But he is not the real enemy. That enemy lies to the south. Once we have dealt with the lesser of our two enemies, we will turn our attention to her. And she will rue the day she ever heard of us.

Newfound determination swelled within Livia. For years she had thought she was happy, thought she was content, when in reality it all meant nothing.

Li’s words still echoed in her mind.

A thousand people can betray us, but one person who cares can erase a lifetime of pain.

Something had changed, Livia realized. Something deep inside. Some things would never be the same.

Stay alive and stay free, Wulf, Livia thought. We are coming. I love you.

 

— END —