The Demon Crown

So this current cycle ends at the beginning, with the story that I wrote as a lark, The Demon Crown. In a way I kind of outsmarted myself since I wanted the story to begin in media res and I wanted the character to be something of a cross between Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos and Bill Willingham’s Dave Dragovon, and the notion of a pre-existing location and cast of characters appealed to me. However, I’d dropped so many hints about past adventures and exploits that I had to write all the previous stories simply to explain everything.

The Demon Crown also introduces another fan favorite female, Narisha the daemoness. She’s partially inspired by the art of my associate Steve Crompton, author/artist of Demi the Demoness, among other things. It probably comes as no surprise to readers that she is a strapping, buxom, curve-hipped, crimson-skinned, raven-haired temptress with horns and a tail (I added these last two later and retconned this story to conform) who is aggressively sexual and enthusiastically sleeps with just about anything and anyone who strikes her fancy. Before you judge me, keep in mind that this is my fantasy and if I want all the major female characters to be bisexual horndogs, then they are. You don’t like it, write your own series of erotic sword and sorcery internet stories...

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Most people will tell you to steer clear of demons, especially in this business. Demons, they say, are treacherous, violent and unpredictable. They’ll screw you every time.

I must admit that I certainly did end up screwed after I met one particular demon. In several senses of the word.

But I get ahead of myself. You may have heard my spiel before, but I’ll repeat it anyway.

I’m a freelance by trade. From the two words “free,” meaning unfettered and unencumbered, and “lance,” meaning lancer, horseman, warrior, or soldier. In my case, I combine several talents — I’m a fighter, but not a great one, a thief but not a highly skilled one, an assassin but not a subtle one, a horseman but not an outstanding one, and a wizard but not an accomplished one. While none of my skills is first-rate, I am second-rate at enough things that I can work a variety of assignments at an economical rate, with holiday discounts.

I go by a variety of names — I’m not even sure which one I was born with. Dad didn’t hang around and mom died young. I prefer Wulf, because it conjures up an image of me as a grizzled, northern warrior standing at the prow of a longship, an axe in my hand and fire in my eyes.

It’s a nice image. Too bad it’s so far from the truth.

In reality, I’m tall and rangy, with about enough musculature to propel me out of trouble at high speed when the going gets tough. I can pull and eighty-pound bow with some difficulty, but I’m not up to swinging a Litharnan two-hander for more than a minute or two. My hair is naturally dark red, but it has a tendency to change, depending on who I’m running from, and what the current “wanted” poster looks like.

I was operating out of Stoneburg, the Free City, crossroads of the world, and home of the most corrupt and bribable civil officials known to man, elf, or any other species. My favorite haunt was an armpit better known as the Goblin’s Eye, although I had a few other safe houses scattered around the Thieves’ Quarter (some “quarter” — it takes up two-thirds of the city...).

It all started in the middle of a job. Tev the merchant had made more money than the rest of us thought seemly, and I was busy relieving him of some of it. Yes — after my days of wandering I had fallen back on my early training with the Godshome thieves’ guild.

Tev was certainly living well — his mansion was lined with marble hallways, granite pillars and a whole lot of valuable (and, just incidentally, hand portable) artwork. Most of this was penny- ante stuff; while I took a few pieces to stay in practice, the real prize lay in Tev’s crystal-roofed solarium, surrounded by alarms and traps, both magical and physical.

It was a lovely bit of work — a Xeshite erotic carving depicting a man, woman and tigress in an unlikely coupling which combined lyrical curves with skilled detail work. More than the aesthetic value of the piece, which was considerable, I wanted it because it was carved from a single chunk of eish, a normally black mineral which refracted light shone on it into a shimmering rainbow of colors, and emitted light for several hours in darkness.

I was busy using my rudimentary arcane skills to overcome a tricky pattern-spell, which wove an invisible network of magical lines all over the room, setting off alarms and pre-set missile spells if the lines were crossed. I was kneeling in the middle of an enchanted circle which I’d drawn with chalk, mumbling a counter-spell which would make the magical lines visible when I noticed a dim red glow in the air.

At first I thought I’d set off a trap, but then I realized that nothing was happening to me, and no alarms were jangling. Then, to my surprise, I discovered that all the magical traps had vanished, leaving the way to the carving free and clear. I was about to thank providence for the event when I noted the source of the red glow.

My heart leaped into my throat.

I’d traveled enough to know a demon when I saw one.

For the sake of the uneducated, I will now digress for a moment into a few paragraphs of exposition.

Demons don’t belong here. They showed up some centuries ago, having been thrown off their home plane and proceeded to make things really crummy for the rest of us who lived here. In fact, their name derives from the original misconception that they actually came from hell. The name sticks today, but “demons” as a race are considered distinct from “daemons,” malevolent creatures of infernal origin.

Some theorists even go so far as to suggest that the demons’ arrival was somehow related to the cataclysm which shattered the old continent, transforming it into the scatter of islands, sub-continents and small seas which we live in today. After a time, things stabilized, and the demon realms remained separate from the realms of men, elves, dwarves, and all the other nasty little creatures.

Although we’re all technically at war with the demon isles, no one really takes it seriously anymore. Occasionally, misunderstandings arise, people get killed, and our various moronic rulers plan grand campaigns and threaten bloody war, but it generally comes to nothing.

Contact between the realms is pretty much limited to the diplomatic level. I know that the White Emperor has several demon ambassadors at his court, but he’s crazy and probably under their control, so he doesn’t really count. Most of the rest of us never see demons, except maybe in erotic art.

The individual confronting me was a demon, do doubt of it. Demons are never ugly in the traditional sense. Instead, they are all exceptionally beautiful, but with a disturbing undercurrent of the perverse, the lustful, the cruel. Needless to say, most humans find them fascinating.

She was tall and voluptuous, all breasts and hips, with a swirl of night-black hair from which sprouted a pair of small spiraled horns. Almond-shaped yellow eyes gazed at me from a chiseled, heart-shaped face, and thick, pouty, black lips parted to reveal sharp canines and a flicking, almost snake-like tongue. Her skin was a vivid crimson, decorated with flickering blue tattoos. She said nothing, but walked slowly forward, her high, black heels clicking on the marble floor. Behind her I saw a sinuous tail curling. I continued kneeling, transfixed, in the center of my magic circle, unsure whether to fight, flee, or fall on my face and beg for mercy.

As demons are highly resistant to mortal weapons, clothing and armor are a question of taste and fashion. This one had taste, but it was tawdry at best. She wore a lurid mixture of black leather, silvery mail and lace as tenuous as spider webs, seemingly inadequate to the task of confining the dangerous swelling of her breasts, but doing so quite nicely, thank you. A variety of implements of death and torture hung from her belt, and I did not for a moment think that any were just for show.

“You’re Wulf,” she said, stating the fact with stark simplicity. Her voice was rich and sensuous, the type that would give the average human male a painful erection even if he was blindfolded.

I nodded, dumbly, realizing that with all my considerable preparations, I had forgotten to pack a holy weapon, one of the few items effective against demons and infernal guard-creatures. Shit.

“No heartcutter, either?” she said, smiling sweetly, using the demons’ name for holy weapons. “Shame, shame.”

She was reading my mind, too. Shit.

“Such language from such an innocent-looking man,” she continued, walking closer and squatting down at the edge of my circle.

Innocent? Phaedra’s tits... I’d show her innocent.

I finally found my tongue. “Who...” I swallowed. “Who are you calling innocent-looking?”

If a viper could grin, he would look just like my voluptuous demoness did just then. “No one. I was just being complimentary. Actually, you have sin written all over you. I like that.”

“You would.” I had pretty much given up on continued existence, so I was going to get in as many shots as possible beforehand. “So, are you going to kill me or what?”

As she rose and stepped back, the viper-smile did not waver. “Or what.”

“Exactly what does that mean? Do you mind if I get up?”

“Certainly, although I’ve always liked men on their knees.” The snake-tongue flicked across her thick lips once more. “And step out of that pathetic circle while you’re at it. I could break it, but I don’t feel like expending the effort.”

I believed her. My minimal protective spells had pretty much expired by this point in any event. I stood and stepped out.

“Hm.” She looked me up and down like a prospective horse buyer. “Not much meat on your bones.”

“Sorry to disappoint. I wouldn’t make much of a meal.” My heart raced furiously, but I kept up a bold front. “So, are you Tev’s watchdog, or what?”

She frowned. “Tev? Oh, you mean the master of the house. No, you won’t have to worry about him or his guards. They’ll be sleeping for quite a while. We’re all alone.” This last statement was punctuated with a lascivious glance through slitted yellow eyes. I shuddered.

“So you doped the entire household just to talk to me?” I asked. “I’m flattered.”

“You should be. You come highly recommended.”

“By who? I don’t have many customers who deal with your kind.”

“Her name is Livia,” she replied. “We’re quite... close.”

Gods... Livia. Sorceress, mercenary, fellow freelance with a moral code as flexible as a Xeshite python. I’d met her in Litharna, we’d worked together in a variety of circumstances, and had actually managed to do some rutting under a waterfall in Kenth. Since then, much to my chagrin, she’d ignored my pleas for a return engagement, treating me as that most dreaded of companions, a “friend.” I’d long ago come to the conclusion that my love and lust for her was doomed to remain unrequited. That she was keeping company with demons came as no real shock to me.

“How close?” I asked, suspiciously.

A giggle is a particularly ominous thing when it issues from a demon’s throat. This demon gave it a rather lascivious twist in addition. I got the picture.

“So.” I said. “Exactly what did the little minx recommend me for?”

“A job, among other things,” she said with another secret smile. “My name is Narisha, by the way. Daughter of Lord Cammon the Flayer.”

My heart sank. “Defiler of Mie? Destroyer of Yitan? Assassin of the Vendayan Adepts? That Cammon?”

“None other. Don’t worry. He’s not involved in all this. He doesn’t even know I’m here.”

“Better and better. And if he ever does find out, I burn in hellfire and you get sent to your room without supper, right?”

She rolled her eyes. “Such dramatics. You would think you’d never been approached by a prospective client before.”

Prospective client? I sat heavily down upon Tev’s overly gaudy and expensive couch. It was the last thing I’d expected.

“So what does a demon want with a human freelance?” I asked. “Not a well-known one, even.”

“Because it suits my purpose,” Narisha said. “The job is one that I don’t want other demons to know about, and I don’t want to attract the attention of hiring anyone famous.”

“Gee, thanks.” Praising with faint damns, this female was.

She stood in front of me, feet planted widely, pulled a black leather riding crop from her belt and brandished it meaningfully. “I’m not praising with faint damns, as much as you might think I am. You’re good. I know that. There is an item which I need retrieved, and you’re the freelance I want to do it.”

I cast a nervous glance at the crop. “What’s the item and where is it?”

“Do you accept the job?”

“I need more information.” I knew that I was skating on thin ice here, as demons have notoriously short fuses and distressingly final ways of ending arguments. “If you’re asking me to go steal the Gem of Ages from the Worldserpent’s horde I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse. If you want me to go knock over a beggar and take his cup, that’s another story entirely.”

She considered this for a moment. I considered the fact that the whip didn’t move to be a good sign. “Somewhere in between the extremes, if you must know.” Her expression changed, becoming almost pleading. Gods, this was a first.

“Yes!” she barked. “It is a first. I’ve never had to ask nicely for anything in my life. I lost something. Or, more accurately, something got stolen while it was in my care. Something that belonged to my father.”

“Go on.”

“We Only People — “ here, she used the demons’ term for themselves — “are nowhere near as united as you mortals think. We fight among ourselves constantly.”

“That much I know. I take it that a rival of your family took this ‘item’ and won’t give it back? And your father will tan your hide when he finds out?”

“Worse than that, I’m afraid,” she said. “I could be banished.”

“Heavy,” I replied. Banishment was a virtual death sentence, removing all family and racial protection from its victim, turning him out into a wide world full of enemies, both mortal and demonic.

“I know that this is not a normal situation,” Narisha said. “I’m at what you mortals call the end of my rope. I need help. I can pay.” She reached into a pouch which hung at her belt between a coiled bullwhip and what appeared to be a pair of leather manacles, then held out her hand to me. My jaw dropped. There, nestled in her crimson palm, was a matched pair of ghost-gems, each worth an princeling’s horde. It was said that the demons distilled the gems from souls in torment, but that was only a rumor. “One of these now. The other — plus five more — upon completion.”

I was astonished. I couldn’t help myself.

“Fuck me,” I whispered.

She giggled again, putting the gems away. “That could be arranged, too,” she said, “but I was thinking of it only as a fringe benefit.”

With that, she stepped back, loosening the silver skull-buckle of her belt. The leather-and-mail tunic parted, revealing an expanse of crimson flesh, screened by black spider-web lace. She bore a variety of abstract blue tattoos, all of which flickered in the half-light.

Demons also have the ability to inspire various emotions in lesser creatures. I wasn’t sure whether the heart-hammering lust which swept through me was of magical or natural origin, and I didn’t care. My breeches were feeling remarkably tight, but I my business sense still hung on like grim death.

“What’s the item?” I asked, panting as she slid her jacket off, exposing her magnificent breasts, large and ripe-looking, with prominent nipples the color of dried blood.

“Oh, just a silly little crown,” she continued. Long-nailed fingers tugged at the lacing of her breeches. They were cunningly designed, capable of being removed without first taking off the black, knee-high boots she wore. A sinuous dragon flickered and writhed along her smooth, red haunch. You have to give those demons credit; what they don’t know about sex isn’t worth knowing.

“And...” I muttered. Her hands pulled open my jerkin, effortlessly snapping the fastenings, and glided across my naked skin beneath. Her nails were long, black, and very sharp. “And...” I gritted my teeth. “...And who has this ‘silly little crown’?”

“Duke Janus, my father’s rival,” she whispered. “It’s at his fortress in Hellmouth. Simple job, really...”

She stood back, her exploring hands withdrawing. She was clad only in lace and her boots, inadequately covered with thin black spider webs. “So, do you accept?”

I was breathing heavily, so I was barely able to choke out, “Sure, what the hell?”

She grinned, revealing her sharp white teeth again. Red fire gleamed in her eyes. Then she dug her black nails into the lace between her breasts and pulled it apart. The twin prominences swung free. I noticed that her left nipple bore a twinkling green gem, set in a tiny gold circle.

“Like your ring,” I said, pulling my jerkin off. “Didn’t that hurt?”

“It certainly did,” she hissed, relieving herself of the last of the lace. “It hurt terribly. That’s why I did it. Ever seen one like it?”

I thought of the multiply-pierced Duchess Thae’lynn and wondered where the hell she’d ended up.

“Yeah,” I replied. “A few.”

Naked now save for those damned boots, her black hair cascading down her back like a dark waterfall, she slid to her knees, and set to pulling down my breeches. I helped as best I could, finally allowing my now-engorged member to breathe free.

“Oh...” she seemed enchanted with it, encircling the organ with her sharp-nailed fingers. She ran a claw up and down its length, barely breaking the skin.

“We’ve elevated pain to an art, human,” she whispered, hungrily. “There’s such a fine line between pain and pleasure. We cross it with abandon. Eventually, we can’t tell the difference.”

Gods, I’d seen this attitude before, in both Thae’lynn and the perverse Countess Xylara, both of whom I remembered with a mixture of fear, loathing and uncontrollable lust. I groaned incoherently at the thought of once more dealing with such a female. There really wasn’t much else to say.

The snake-tongue flicked out, lapping my shaft. The dagger-like white teeth were just a fraction of an inch from my erect, painfully straining flesh. Fear mixed with ecstasy now.

“Ahhhh...” she breathed. “You feel it now, don’t you? Agony and longing together? You want it, don’t you? You want to feel my lips embrace your proud stallion?”

“Yessss,” was about the only thing I could say at that point, although, in retrospect, I realize that her choice of metaphors was pretty appalling. For all the lust and desire which raced through my veins like boiling lead, however, there was also an edge of fear... fear of those sharp white teeth and razor-like claws. And the fear fed my lust. I knew then what it was to love a demon.

“Feel it, then...” her lips, black and shining, encircled the head of my cock, and the long tongue caressed it as she slid her mouth down, down, down...

Perhaps it was demonic sex-magic. Perhaps it was my fear continuing to drive me. Perhaps it was simply the exotic novelty of the situation... whatever it was, it was like nothing else I had ever experienced. Not with Livia, when we came together beneath the silver-white waterfalls of Kenth, not with Sarra the elf-druid in her grove at midnight, not with the lion women of the Veldt Lands, Ushandra the warrioress, or any one of a dozen others — gods and demons, what she made me feel...

Her spittle was like fire, covering my organ with burning pleasure, spreading through my entire body, wrapping around my heart and my brain, transporting me to another place, beyond the moonlit recesses of Tev’s solarium.

The demoness and I seemed to inhabit a tiny universe all our own, floating endlessly in a void where pleasure and pain chased each other round and round, mixing and combining until they were indistinguishable.

I no longer feared the teeth, the claws... rather, I wanted them. I wanted to feel her nails score my flesh, and shed my hot blood. I wanted her teeth to bite deep and drink in the gushing fluids... I wanted pain from her, and — almost — I no longer cared if I lived or died beneath her lashing tongue and sucking lips.

Almost... Almost I no longer cared.

Fortunately for me, I have a tendency to retain a small, calm corner of my brain where reason and logic still function, even in the face of the most mindless passion. There, deep in the cobwebby recesses of my mind, where little mice nibbled at my random thoughts and memories, I realized that I did care whether I lived or died.

I pulled myself back to earth along the rope which that thought formed. Back to where the naked demoness still devoured my hot, desiring flesh. Her mouth released me at that moment, and my cock, still slick with her burning juice, slipped between her heavy, sweating breasts.

“Yesss...” Now it was her turn. “There, my little human... Spill your seed there for me...”

Her nails clutched at the flesh of her breasts and nipples, digging furrows which oozed black blood. The blood mixed with her sweat and spittle, further lubricating the slippery tunnel between her mammoth breasts. So like her burning mouth... so like...

Final passion swept over me like a crushing landslide. I groaned deeply and felt it spew out of me, splashing white upon the dark red flesh of her breasts. I continued to thrust between them, mixing all our fluids together as her even as her own sighs combined with my moans. Gods...

I heard her mumbling something in her own language, chanting rhythmically as my climax went on and on, beyond the limits of what I knew was normal. Her tongue flickered out to lick up the hot seed and sweat and demon blood between her breasts. Then she leaned forward, grasping my head in both hands, thrusting it into the deep valley of her chest.

“Drink, child,” she whispered feverishly. “Share with me.”

A brief brush of apprehension was swept away by a new tide of lust, and our tongues met, sharing the different fluids that ran and mixed there. Fiery sensations chased each other down my throat and through my chest... I felt drunk. Gods...

“Now, my darling human,” her voice was hushed, full of emotion which I could not describe. “Now we are as one, you and I.”

I was too exhausted to inquire further. I slipped to the cold, marble floor and felt her smooth, sweating body slip down on top of me. I either fell asleep quite quickly at that point or — as is more likely — fainted, plunging down into moist, welcoming darkness, where Narisha’s claws still caressed and tormented me.

I woke some hours later to find that my dream had translated back into reality, and a more leisurely coupling with my lusty demoness ensued. I don’t remember much of it, however, so I won’t relate its details here. Suffice to say, when I staggered home an hour before dawn (with the Xeshite carving, might I add — I wasn’t completely befuddled by Narisha’s charms), I collapsed heavily and slept.

“Now we are one, you and I.” Little was I to know how important those words were to become.

* * *

Life is full of rude awakenings, but this one was ruder than most. Being rousted out of bed by a pair of ogres in ill-fitting constabulary uniforms is not my idea of a pleasant morning experience, especially after the previous night’s debaucheries. And especially when their chosen method of awakening me was to kick my physically from under the covers.

I was still half-asleep when I hit the floor, dreams of Narisha still swirling in and out of the mists. Before I could wake up completely, one of the ogres grabbed me, yanking me roughly to my feet, pinning my arms behind me. When at last I opened my eyes fully, I wished I had kept them closed.

Ogre number two stood in front of me, looking ridiculous in his undersized blue and yellow jerkin, but didn’t bother me. What was standing next to him did.

“Scrutator Niall,” I said with all the ill-grace I could muster that early in the morning. “Nice of you to drop in. Why aren’t you out in the forest somewhere, making merry?”

Niall chuckled, spitting out the spear of wood he had been chewing on. He was a short, odious little elf, thin and frail-looking, his thin hair swept up in a greasy pony-tail behind. The overall impression he left was one of a puddle of vile slime which had somehow taken on humanoid characteristics. As you may have guessed, I was very fond of him.

“Spare me the banter, Wulf-breath,” he growled. “Someone knocked out Margal Tev and his entire household with magic and robbed him blind last night — I don’t suppose you know anything about it?”

I rolled my eyes. Far from being robbed blind, Tev probably didn’t even know what was missing. “Sure I do, constable. I met the demon who did it while I was robbing Tev’s house. She zapped him and his guards, then she sucked me off right in Tev’s solarium.”

“Don’t get wise with me, footpad.” Niall shoved his face directly into mine, eyes staring. “I’m a servant of the council.”

“You’re a servant of whoever bribes you the most,” I shot back. “The only reason you and your goons are here is because I won’t pay protection. How much did Tev pay you to shake me down, anyway?”

Niall was silent for a moment, then turned around and walked over to the single, sooty window, which provided a magnificent view of the adjoining brick wall.

“I’m not an unreasonable man, Wulf,” he said in a quiet, cultured tone. “Under other circumstances, we might have been friends.”

“That would be the day, wouldn’t it?” I met the gaze of Niall’s guard ogre, an unpleasantly pale specimen covered with brownish-green liver spots. “What are you looking at, Chim-Chim? I’m fresh out of bananas.”

The ogre looked perplexed. “Huh...”

“Never mind. You’d have to be higher up on the food chain to get it. Did you know you were awfully short for an elf, Niall?”

Niall grunted. “Such a sense of humor. Was that what got you kicked out of the academy?”

“That, and the fact that I had scruples.”

“Scruples?” The word seemed alien to Niall. “Hell, Wulf-boy, you wouldn’t know scruples if they snuck up and bit you in the ass! Tev says that several valuable items were missing from his house. You have any idea where they are?”

“Not a clue, scrutator,” I replied. “Isn’t that your job?”

Not that they were around here, either. I had had enough sense to secrete the items in a safe-house on the way home.

Niall smiled. It was not a nice smile.

“I was hoping you’d say that, my lad.” He motioned to the ogre beside him. “Grud, search the place. Don’t leave any cranny unexplored.”

“Duh, ya boss,” said Grud with ogreish enthusiasm, turning to immediately start ripping my writing desk apart.

“Skab,” Niall continued to the ogre who held me. “Take Mr. Wulf out back and do the same to him.”

“Duh, ya boss.” Skab nodded dumbly, a sadistic look gleaming in his eyes. He pulled me, not gently, toward the door and the steps down to the alley.

“Oh, yes,” Niall called just as we started down. “Leave him alive, please, Skab. I may want to charge him later.”

“Ya, boss,” Skab said with a trace of disappointment.

Well, despite the fact that I was not about to be killed, the notion of a beating from an ogre was not a pleasant one. To Skab, “leave him alive” could easily mean “reduce him to a crippled vegetable, but make sure that he still has vital signs.” In fact, that would suit Niall just fine, as I could not then speak up in my own defense. Therefore, as the ogre alternately shoved and pushed me down the rickety stairs, I ran over various escape plans in my mind. Much to my regret, none of them involved escape from a psychopathic ogre with orders to beat me into a bloody pulp.

However, as I’m fond of saying, fortune favors the lucky. The rickety steps were never designed to accommodate the 400-pound frame of a fully grown male ogre, and they’d been substantially weakened when Niall and the no-brain twins had traversed them earlier. A lurch, a splintering sound and a grunt of surprise from Skab indicated to me that something was wrong. In the instant that Skab suddenly plunged through a broken step, howling with agony as a nail-studded piece of wood pierced his tough hide, I twisted away, tumbling down the remaining steps to the street.

I leapt upright (realizing as I did so that I was still shirtless, and my best boots were upstairs with Niall and JoJo the Caveboy) and cast a glance back.

Skab’s struggles had loosened the supports beneath the stairs, and in a moment the entire affair splintered and crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust and broken wood. Of Skab, I could see nothing immediately, nor did I care to. Heedless of my bare feet against the gritty cobblestones, I turned and ran, catching one last glimpse of Niall’s red and angry face appearing at my doorway, twenty feet above the street, and heard his hoarse shouts of rage. Then I was gone.

Within an hour I had visited one of my safe-places and obtained clothes and serviceable weapons. I then retrieved last night’s loot and — with the exception of the ghost gems, of course — fenced it for far less than it was worth. Most of the resulting cash I spent on bribes to Niall’s superiors to get him assigned to the sewer patrol for a few days, and consequently off my ass temporarily. All things considered, a completely wasted morning.

I spent the afternoon in a funk, hiding out in one of my rooms at a dive called the Red Shark. I cast about desperately for someone to be angry at and, much to my regret, came up empty.

I wasn’t really angry at Niall. His kind are as inevitable as rats and roaches. He may have been a wart on the collective posterior of humanoid society, but even I had to admit that he was just doing his job.

As for Narisha, all she was interested in was hiring a no-name freelance for a difficult job. Besides, much to my intense regret, when I thought of her, I felt an emotion somewhat deeper than mere lust. Damn, what the hell what happening to me?

How about Livia? She had recommended me — probably in the heat of passion, the way Narisha described it, but that was irrelevant. Hell, she probably thought she was doing me a favor. Besides, despite her changeable and somewhat dangerous nature, I actually harbored some degree of fondness for the little vixen.

After an hour or two of reflection, I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t have much reason to be angry about anything. I was just starting to wonder when I’d see Narisha again (and wondering exactly what we’d do to each other) when a faint scratching at the door grabbed my attention.

“Narisha?” I asked, not thinking, swiveling my head to look toward the door.

It wasn’t Narisha. The rickety door burst in abruptly, showering me with fragments of wood. As I sprang to my feet, fumbling for a weapon, I was confronted with a nightmarish vision.

The thing looked like a sickly pink amalgam of man, crab and spider. A pair of snapping claws extended from an obese, fleshy body, which sprouted manlike legs and was topped off with a hairy, eight-eyed “head.”

A hunting beast. The demons use them to track down criminals, escaped slaves and particularly hated enemies. They came in a variety of shapes and colors, and I recognized this one as a heavy-duty customer.

I was on the second floor, but a fall from that height was nothing compared to death — or worse — at the claws of the hissing, clacking monstrosity which lunged at me. I turned for the window, only to see a second thing — this one looking like some kind of bat-scorpion crossbreed — shattering the glass and clambering in after me. It, too, hissed, opening a fanged maw, and sending a sticky, pink, spike-studded tongue shooting out right at my face.

I ducked, yelling for help, and the tongue instead wrapped around one of the bed’s corner posts. I fell flat and rolled beneath the bed. The spider-thing scuttled after, grabbed the bedframe and heaved it over. Fortunately for me, it struck the bat-thing, sending it sprawling.

My weapons went skidding across the floor. I ducked and grabbed desperately, reaching for a black-hilted dagger. My hand fell upon the grip and I pulled the dagger free.

The bat-demon had recovered and was dragging itself across the floor at me, its long, stinger-tipped tail waving ominously. I sidestepped, seizing the tail in one hand, slicing with the other.

A heartcutter, Narisha had called it. Demons have such a way with words. We call them holy blades or demonslayers. Whatever you call them, they do the job.

Demon-flesh parted. The bat-thing was sliced stem to stern, rotten bone, black blood and writhing entrails bursting out. With a second stroke I severed the demon’s tail — no sense in being struck by the thing while it flailed about.

Hunting beasts have no mind to speak of — they are simply set in motion and follow their orders until destroyed. They don’t follow logic, they can’t be reasoned with, and they don’t feel fear. I knew that, of me and the surviving beast, only one of us was leaving this room in one piece.

The spider-beast rushed at me, hissing with single-minded malevolence. A claw grazed my shoulder, ripping cloth, sending pain burning through my entire arm. I staggered, fell back...

It leaped, limbs spread out, seeking to crush me beneath it. To my horror, I saw a yawning pink mouth open up in its midsection, fanged with backward-pointing teeth. Desperately, I thrust up with my dagger.

My arm shot down into the creatures’ mouth, dagger pointed up. The thing’s momentum carried it down on top of me, driving the dagger deep through its maw, into its vitals, and, with an explosion of foul, black ichor, out through its back.

The demon was dead, but it didn’t know it yet. Its crushing weight bore down on me, and I could feel its maw gnaw away at my arm, its tiny teeth cutting into my flesh like needles. I moved my arm, cutting again, slicing upward through its body, seeking its head. Demon flesh parted before the dagger, slicing cleanly and falling away.

Then, I saw a human face, suspended above me. Then another. It was the Trus the innkeeper and his bouncer, Gralz. The bouncer’s arm swung back and I saw a sword — not a holy blade, but adequate for the task at hand. Gralz thrust down, driving the sword down into the beast’s head. More ichor poured out, burning me. The thing twitched once, twice, then lay still.

Trus and Gralz pulled the steaming corpse off me, and dragged me out, panting and retching. The acidic blood had disintegrated most of my clothing, and was burning away at my skin. Trus doused me with a bucket of water, leaving me sitting, coughing, pink-fleshed and nearly naked for the second time today.

“Gods!” Trus swore. “Gralz, get him some clothes. You all right, Wulf?”

I looked up. “I don’t understand,” I said with as jaunty a grin as I could muster. “You told me you just sprayed for demons.”

* * *

I at least had the presence of mind to slip Trus and Gralz some coins and instruct them to spread a story of how I’d been rent limb from limb before they could kill the beasts. That at least might keep pustules like Niall off my case for a while longer. My next move was to go see the only person I could think of who might be able to make sense of this mess.

Livia maintained a neat little manor near the east wall, living a comparatively frugal life while she salted away the fruits of her arcane labors and mercenary work. She paid off the right guild officials, cast some tricky magical wards to keep her safe from unscrupulous individuals such as myself, and had largely turned herself into a pillar of the community in the Thieves’ Quarter. You know the type — kind to animals, generous with beggars, and always saw to it that the attractive young men and women of the region had a warm place to sleep at night. Or any time, for that matter.

To give her credit, she showed more concern for my wellbeing than I thought she would. As I alternated between recounting my tale of woe and taking huge mouthfuls of food at her dinner table (I hadn’t eaten all day), she gazed at me with wide blue eyes and made sympathetic noises at all the right moments. Gods only know why she cared — as a friend and lover I was no prize, and I knew it.

“Gods,” she muttered, picking up a silver knife, inspecting it for a moment, then slamming it back down on the table, clearly agitated. “What a day. Are you all right, Wulf?”

I took a huge bite of bird (what sort of bird, I really didn’t care). “All things considered, I’m better than I should be. Now that I’ve eaten, I’m even better.”

“Damn that woman.”

I stopped in mid-chew. “You mean Narisha?” I asked, my mouth full.

She nodded. “I’m sorry I got you involved in all this?”

I swallowed, frowning. “Not to pry, love, but exactly how did my name come up? I mean, were circumstances —”

“Intimate?” She nodded. “I’m afraid so. You still want to hear about it?”

“It’s never stopped you before. Give me the bad news.”

Livia

Livia’s recommendation of Wulf as a suitable agent for the demoness Narisha’s mission had actually been the result of mixed feelings. On one hand, she wanted to get him work. On the other, there had been times when Livia had wished Wulf dead and burning in hell, which, given Narisha’s requirements, was not terribly unlikely.

There was, of course, one other possibility, and that revolved around the exact moment at which Livia had given the recommendation.

Narisha, naked save for a pair of long, lace, fingerless gloves, had at the time been crouched between Livia’s thighs, her tongue darting in and out of the human woman as if it were a living thing separate from its owner. Livia, her short blonde hair plastered to her face with sweat and Narisha’s own juices, was lying back, fingering her own nipples as the demoness pleasured her.

Having been brought to the brink at least two dozen times, and pushed over a dozen more, Livia’s mind had pretty much wandered from mundane matters, concentrating exclusively upon the demon-woman’s tongue, hands, thighs and breasts. As yet another shattering climax rolled from her sore but still quite functional sex (these demons seemed to have an aura about them, Livia thought, that both enhanced and prolonged arousal — she would have to study it later), the sorceress was therefore taken off guard by Narisha’s next actions.

The demoness’ prominent lips embraced Livia’s own, lower set, and her tongue darted inside, as persistent as a man’s organ, but smaller and far more flexible. She felt ripples spread through her body once more and almost cried out, begging Narisha to stop. This she did not do, since such an entreaty would only spur the crimson-skinned creature on. And so, Livia hung suspended between desire and satiation, letting Narisha continue her gentle yet persistent exploration.

Then, she said it.

“Darling,” Narisha spoke, raising her head from her labors, her skin moist with Livia’s juices, her hair slick with sweat. “I have a job that needs doing. Can you recommend anyone?”

Ripples still raced back and forth through Livia’s body, lacing it with hot and cold flashes, and she barely had time to think on the question. It just so happened that at that moment Livia’s mind went back to a day nearly two years ago when she had crouched on hands and knees beneath a cascading waterfall, feeling the icy water sheet down upon her as a man thrust into her from behind. She could barely feel his hands spreading her buttocks apart for the numbing pound of the water, and barely hear for the roar. The only sensation she could feel was the hot hardness of the man as he thrust in, withdrew, and thrust again, alternating hot and cold deep inside her. And the man...

“Wulf,” she gasped, grabbing Narisha’s head and thrusting it down between her thighs again. “Oh, Wulf.”

Narisha’s tongue did its work, while her sharp-nailed fingers crawled up Livia’s sides to stroke and tease her erect, pink nipples. Livia rolled pliantly over the brink once, twice, thrice more before she finally fell back, gasping for breath, feeling secondary shocks tremble through her loins.

Narisha raised herself up on an elbow, none the worse for her exertions. “You will have to repay this favor soon, you know,” she said in her lyrical if slightly horrific voice. “All my little pupils must show their appreciation to their teacher.”

“Oh, I’ll show it, never fear,” Livia grinned. “I’ll have you begging for mercy once I’ve recovered somewhat.”

The demoness toyed with Livia’s nipple. “You should decorate these,” she suggested idly, indicating the gleaming gem which hung from her own breast. “The pain is exquisite, and once the wound heals, the pleasure of having them touched is redoubled.”

“It’s very pretty,” Livia said.

“So who is this Wulf?” Narisha asked. “What sort of work is he good for?”

Livia had to stop short for a moment to even recall what Narisha was talking about. Damn these demons, she thought. Hot and wet one moment, and all business the next.

“Not all business, sweetest little peach,” Narisha smiled, stretching like a cat. “But I do have a bit of business which needs doing.”

“You know, most people do not take kindly to having their minds read,” Livia said with all the gravity she could muster.

“I know. Do I care? And besides, what harm is there in reading your mind, filled as it is with love and devotion to your sweet lover, Narisha?”

“Love and devotion...” Livia snorted. “Lust and envy, more like. In any event, Wulf is a friend of mine. He’s got a wide variety of skills...”

“So I saw. I’ve never made love under a waterfall myself. Would you like to try it some time?”

“There you go again... It can be very annoying, you know.”

Narisha shrugged. “I was along for the ride. I felt that hard stallion of his as well. Are you too sensitive to share your memories?”

“No, not really. Anyway, Wulf’s a jack of all trades. He has skills far in excess of his years and he can be a complete son of a bitch sometimes. He’s been in love with me ever since Kenth.”

“And how do you feel about him?”

“Ah, so you can’t read everything. That’s encouraging. The truth, Narisha, is that I am enormously fond of Wulf, but I respect him too much to get involved. I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”

“And I know you, my dearest little kitten.” Narisha’s eyes glinted lustfully. “You only make love to those you know you can easily get rid of. The soul exception, of course, being my good self.”

Livia glared. “Wulf is my friend. I don’t want to mess up his life further by fucking him.”

A chuckle. “All the same, he was a fine gallop, right?”

Livia sighed, rolling her eyes. “Yes, he was. But I often wonder whether he’s worth the trouble.”

“Am I worth the trouble, my little pet?” Narisha said, rolling onto her back. She raised her knees up into the air and spread them apart, her black-tipped hands reaching down to stroke between them. “Frankly, I don’t care whether you think I am or not, because I’m going to feel your tongue here in a moment regardless. Aren’t I, darling?”

“Aren’t I, darling?” Livia made a face. “Why do I love you so much, tell me please?”

“Because you can’t live without the thought of being able to nuzzle my beautiful breasts and suckle at my nipples like the child you are,” Narisha replied. “Because you dream of my thighs and what lies between them every night. Because you love the taste of my juices and the feel of my tongue. Because I’m the only woman you’ll ever really love. Am I right?”

“Hmph. You’re not even a woman, really.”

“Oh, but I am. More of a woman than any human can imagine.” She reached out and drew a nail across Livia’s nipple, leaving a tiny bead of blood. “Now come and taste me, my sweet, or I’ll have you punished.”

“Promise?” Livia asked, sarcastically. All the same, her pulse raced as she positioned herself between Narisha’s thighs and gently stroked at her distended, slick black lips, and she had to admit that at least some of what the demoness said was true. Love, faugh... But was it love she felt, or something else?

“I think I’ll get in touch with this Wulf, then,” Narisha said. Then she sighed. “Enough business. Come, young lover. Worship at the gates of my temple...”

Livia’s tongue and fingers explored the moist interior of Narisha’s cunt, tentative at first, but then with increasing force and authority. Soon, her face was slick and burning slightly from the rich juices which flowed there in abundance.

It was not at all unpleasant. In fact, the demonic juices were somewhat intoxicating, sliding effortlessly past Livia’s tongue, and down her throat to burn like fine liquor deep inside her. A mad sense of abandon seized Livia, and she spread Narisha’s black cunt-lips apart, allowing the juices to flow down the demoness’ crimson thighs. She cupped her hands beneath them, feeling the hot liquid dripping down, then slathered it over her arms, shoulders and breasts. It burned so, but brought such pleasure as well, tingling through her nipples, warming her skin, racing through her veins.

“I love you,” Livia whispered, thrusting her face once more between Narisha’s muscular thighs, feeling the soft cunt-flesh against her mouth, drinking in the hot juices, licking and licking. “I love you so.”

“Of course you do,” Narisha purred, her voice rising to a fevered, husky pitch. Her fingers toyed with the jeweled ring at her nipple, pulling hard, digging deeply into the soft flesh of her own breasts. “Drink deep from me. Taste me, my love.”

It was as if Narisha had control even of the flow of her own secretions, for a new flood of cunt-juice washed over Livia, more than she could have imagined possible; certainly more than possible for an ordinary mortal woman. Livia drank, but more flowed than she could take, and it dripped down her shoulders and back, soaking the coverlet beneath them. It was hot and sweet, and grew more so with each passing moment.

Narisha sighed and moaned. It seemed that the demon-woman was at last losing control herself. “You love me. You serve me. You’re mine, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” Livia’s voice rose to a strangled moan, muffled against Narisha’s soft, red-black lips. “I belong to you... Only you...”

Narisha splayed her thighs wider still, and Livia’s questing tongue thrust deeper. She was drunk on this woman, she realized, and saying things which normally came very hard for her. Yet now, as Narisha’s innermost depths opened up before her, her tongue clove dark, burning flesh, and the hot juices fermented inside her, a part of Livia really did love the beautiful demoness, if only for the moment.

It did not occur to her that some moments last longer than others.

Wulf

I groaned. “You told her about the waterfall?”

“Told her, hell. She saw it. Lived it. You know what she’s capable of.”

Indeed I did. I still had one question. “You really love her?” Once more, I knew the answer, and was doing nothing more than tormenting myself. Of course, she loved Narisha. And of course, she’d never love me.

I guess the tone of my voice was a bit overly petulant. Livia did not respond well in any event. She stood up and approached me, eyes wild.

“I said I did, didn’t I? Is there something wrong with that? Because she’s a woman? Because you couldn’t love anyone or anything to save your own life, you arrogant little cutpurse?”

My jaw dropped. I stammered. “I... I didn’t mean... I’m sorry...” Livia was about the only friend I could count on right now, and I wasn’t about to alienate her. “I only meant...”

With amazing swiftness, the fire went out, and Livia drooped like a rag doll. What the hell?

“Damn,” she muttered, to herself more than to me. “Damn it to hell...”

“What’s wrong?” Now it was my turn to be worried. I knelt and cradled her head in my hands. I wanted to say no, no, I love you. I love you more than anyone else in the entire fucking, shattered world, but I couldn’t. I knew it would only make matters worse. Hell, maybe I’m a kinder person than I like to admit. Nah... not possible...

I helped her back to her seat, and she looked at me, her eyes wide again, this time with something that looked like fear.

“It’s not right,” she said. “It feels all wrong. She’s done something to me, Wulf. Made me feel things that I don’t want to feel. Saw my thoughts. Demons can’t do that. Not without magic. Gods. Has she done it to you, too?”

With a chill I realized that she probably had. My feelings for Narisha were remarkably strong for someone I’d only spent a single evening with, but I finally had to admit that buried deep in my heart there was a hollow, aching longing for the demon woman. Damn.

Suddenly, Livia closed her eyes and exhaled, as if finally discovering the answer to a childishly simple question.

“Of course,” she muttered. “I’m an idiot.”

“Well if you are, I’m a bigger one,” I said as solicitously as I could. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about body fluids, Wulf,” she said. It would have sounded ridiculous if she hadn’t been so deadly serious. “Blood, sweat, saliva... other things...”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said quickly, thinking back to the previous night. “You don’t have to draw me any pictures.”

“They’re major components in sympathetic magic, aren’t they?”

I nodded, still thick-skulled enough not to know where she was going with all this.

“Exactly what have we both shared with that red-skinned bitch?”

Realization dawned with all the force of an ogre’s club. “You mean we’re ensorcelled?”

“Mm. Maybe more than that. Mind-reading, that’s conventional magic. I do it all the time myself. Demons are different from us though. I would imagine that demonic bodily fluids have a hell of a lot more potency than ours, and if we’ve managed to mix them...”

“She might have a hell of a hold over both of us?”

“She might. And the worst part of it is that I don’t mind so much.”

I didn’t either. Intellectually, I knew that it was all part of the spell. If I was magically compelled to love someone, then naturally I wouldn’t see anything wrong with being magically compelled to love someone. The image of the demoness appeared in my mind, naked red flesh flickering with blue, fanged teeth bared in a sensuous grin. I felt my heart begin to beat faster...

QUIT IT!

I pulled myself back down to earth. My rational corner was still there, heavily besieged by external enemies, but functional nonetheless.

“So,” I said quietly, “exactly what do you think she did to us?”

Livia started to reply, but a familiar voice interrupted her.

“Nothing you didn’t want, I assure you.”

I looked up. She was there, of course, as tall and statuesque as ever. She was dressed more simply (obviously not out to make an impression this time, damn her eyes) in a long red satin robe, embroidered with silver, blue and gold dragons and birds. Her face was as radiantly wicked as ever, her pouty, blue-black lips curled back in what could only be described as an impish grin.

“Where the hell did you come from?” I asked, anger and desire fighting each other to a standstill. Beside me, Livia made incoherent noises, probably wondering how Narisha had managed to blithely walk through all her pattern-wards.

Someone once said that all demon laughter is mocking laughter. Narisha’s response to this certainly qualified.

“I come and go as I choose. You should both know that.” She swayed across the room like a large, long-haired cat and sat backwards in one of Livia’s chairs, leaning forward against the backrest, her long legs splayed out on either side. Blue shapes crawled and flickered along her thighs. Dammit, I couldn’t tell if she was wearing anything under her blasted robe.

“What do you think?” she asked, and snickered.

“If you can read our minds then what the hell is the point of talking?” I asked, disgusted. “Or haven’t you cast any mind-reading spells this time? Now, sweetheart, I think it’s time you provided us with a few answers.”

“Answers to what, my darling swordsman?” she leaned back, holding the chairback with her hands.

“Who set the hunting beasts on me, for one?”

She snapped forward, all seriousness now. Her coy, teasing manner vanished in an instant. “What hunting beasts?”

“The two drooling mutants who tried to turn me into sausages this morning at the Red Shark. If I didn’t have my holy knife I would be residing in a demon gullet at this very moment.”

A moment of silence. Her intense, yellow eyes drilled into me, and I felt her enter my mind and absorb my memories of the incident.

“Damn.” She muttered. She actually looked distraught.

“Hm,” I said. “Two incidents of a demon showing real emotion in less than a day. Will wonders never cease?”

“It’s not funny,” she shot back. “Duke Janus knows I’m here. His spies must have told him that I talked to you. Damn.”

“Well if nothing else, Duke Janus is short a pair of hunting beasts,” I said, “and my friends at the Shark are spreading stories of my lurid death.”

Narisha smiled. It was a surprisingly friendly smile. “Good work, Freelance. Did anyone see you come here?”

“Not as far as I know. To the great city of Stoneburg, Wulf the Freelance is now history.”

“Pity.” Some of the old insouciance returned. “I was growing fond of him.”

Livia piped up. “Well, if Janus is thrown off the trail for the moment, maybe you could clue us in to exactly what kind of trebly-damned enchantment you’ve cast on us?”

Now my demoness was really back in form. She smiled sweetly. “You pretty much pegged it with your first guess, my pretty little kitten. Seeing your thoughts was easy. As for the rest... Well, I’ve found that I get much better service out of those who adore me.” Another giggle and toss of her head, and the transformation was complete.

I was not thrilled by her revelation. “I should be thoroughly pissed by this time,” I said, “but I’m not because you’ve ensorcelled me.” I took a deep breath. “And that really pisses me off!”

Livia seemed to be experiencing the same conflict of emotion that I was. She spoke angrily, but I could tell there were hurt feelings underlying.

“How could you do this to me, Narisha?” she demanded. “Did it every occur to you that I might have fallen in love with you without being compelled to?”

A wry chuckle. “With all due respect darling, you’ve spent much of your life not falling in love with anyone,” Narisha replied. “Besides, we Only People consider love to be a transient emotion at best. At worst, it’s an emotion you can manipulate and use to get what you want.”

“Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing to us?” Livia asked.

To my astonishment, Narisha’s expression softened again and she spoke in earnest tones. “I’ve never been like that, Livia. I’m what you call a demon, and my emotions are different from yours.” Pause. Almost as if tears were fighting their way up. “But I can still feel emotions like yours. They never seem as transitory as they do for other demons. I do feel something for you, Livia. I suppose I used binding magic because I wanted you to feel the same.”

I rolled my eyes. “Would you two like me to leave?” I asked. “Remember, I’m the guy with the claw-marks all over him. I’m ashamed to admit to some affection for both of you. Do I enter into this equation, or am I just a handy poke?”

They both looked at me — Livia with sympathy, Narisha with amusement.

Smoothly, in a single, graceful motion, Narisha stood up.

“I reset your wards, Livia,” she said. “And I threw a few of my own. I paid particular attention to anti-demon spells.”

“You’ll have to teach me one sometime,” Livia suggested. All business sometimes, that woman...

“Not to worry. Just don’t use it against me.” Narisha’s yellow eyes narrowed. “I wanted to make sure we weren’t disturbed.”

That aura of hers (I can’t think of anything better to call it) seemed to expand somewhat, and I felt a sudden urgent pressure somewhere below my beltline. Oh, hell.

Livia felt it too. I saw her uncross her legs rather too slowly, then swallow hard.

Narisha smiled what was by far the wickedest smile I’d seen from her yet.

“Watch me, Wulf,” she purred. “Watch me and see if you can contain yourself.”

Gracefully, like a Red Temple nautch dancer, she tugged at the belt of her robe, and it slid smoothly open, revealing what seemed like acres of supple, red flesh. She shrugged it off, and it slid to the floor, and Narisha was standing before us, naked and proud, abstract blue images flickering up and down her body.

I glanced at Livia. She was staring, mouth open, her expression that of a starving prisoner presented with a freshly roasted boar. Hell, I probably looked the same way.

Narisha spoke. “Livia. Come here.” It was the voice of authority. Although she did not speak to me, I almost obeyed nonetheless.

Livia certainly snapped to, standing up and approaching our mutual crimson-skinned mistress. As she did so, she stepped out of her shift, leaving herself dressed only in a short undertunic, which left off about mid-waist. I watched, slack-jawed, almost physically unable to move without Narisha’s say-so.

Gods, but Livia is an attractive woman. Her hips were substantial, but not overly so, curving gently from a slightly rounded stomach, leading into a pair of muscular legs. If I hadn’t been thoroughly aroused by this time, I would have been when Livia silently kneeled down at Narisha’s feet and reached out her hands to stroke the demon-woman’s sides.

“What a good girl you are,” Narisha whispered. “Now, show him how much you love me.”

Livia

Narisha’s skin was warm beneath Livia’s hands — warmer than human skin. The flickering tattoos twitched across the demoness’ thighs as Livia moved close, sliding her hands around to cup Narisha’s buttocks.

“See her, swordsman?” The warm purr of Narisha’s voice slipped through the air like falling rose petals. “See how she adores me?” She looked straight at Wulf. “I think she loves you, too, Wulf, though she’d never admit it. Perverted little minx, she only makes love to those she can get rid of easily. That’s why she hasn’t fucked you... Because she really is fond of you. I’ve told her that opening that sweet pink box of hers to those she truly loves and desires might make her a happier woman, but does she listen to me? Disobedient little whore... mmmm... Lick me, little whore...”

Inside Livia, anger at Narisha’s fought with love, was defeated, and finally swept away by sheer, heart-pounding desire. Livia’s tongue sought out the softness of Narisha’s belly, then quested lower, grazing the tops of her thighs, and finally the silky hair between them. Heat seemed to roll off the demoness’ sex as if it was a furnace, but she resisted the urge to bury her face in it, instead grazing it lightly with tongue and lips, reveling in the shudders of anticipatory pleasure which shook Narisha’s body.

“She’s a cunning little one,” Narisha whispered, the hissing sound filling the silent room. “She likes to make her lover wait... ah... the agony of pleasure delayed, my little love...”

Livia ran her hands up and down the demoness’ thighs, scoring the red flesh lightly with her nails. She glanced up to see Narisha’s face contorted as if in deep concentration, her black-taloned hands massaging the overflowing mounds of her own breasts, tugging at the gold ring that pierced her nipple.

“Ah... I can’t wait...” Narisha’s voice was cut with an edge of what might almost be called agony. “Love me, Livia... Worship me...”

A strange sensation filled Livia, as it so often did at moments such as these. It was as if she, a mere human, held an unearthly being — a demoness — in thrall, balancing on the edge of ecstasy, forcing her to beg and plead for pleasure. It was not a moment to be wasted, Livia knew.

“On the couch, demon,” she whispered. “Sit there and wait for me.”

Amazingly, Narisha obeyed, stepping backwards with feverish haste and sitting down on Livia’s leather sofa, leaning back luxuriantly, her eyes feral and narrow, her black lips slightly parted, large breasts rising and falling, the gem at her nipple glittering in the light as they moved. Slowly she opened her legs, hands planted upon her thighs, exposing the blue-black of her cunt lips.

“Please put your lips there, little kitten...” Narisha pleaded now, in near-human tones. “Show me your love...”

Again, Livia kneeled, and began to stroke at the crimson skin of Narisha’s thighs. Her tongue flicked out, stroking the now-wet softness of the demoness’ sex.

“You want it now?” she asked, softly.

“Yes...” Narisha moaned. “Please.”

“How much do you want it?”

“More than...” Narisha’s words faded into an incoherent groan. She writhed on the couch like a sinner in torment. Her hands moved frantically along her thighs, as if urging Livia to devour her, and end her agonized anticipation.

“More than what?” Livia asked. She kissed the moist black lips lightly, just enough that her lover could feel it.

“More than...” Rather than give a coherent reply, Narisha simply placed her hands behind Livia’s head and thrust her sex against the blonde woman’s face.

“Show me. Love me, little kitten. Love me.” Demonic joy laced the words, joy and fulfillment.

“I’m your kitten now?” Livia whispered. “Aren’t I still your whore?”

“Mmmm. Yes, dearest. You’re my favorite little whore. You’re my sweetest little kitten. You’re whatever I want you to be.”

Caged by the hot smoothness of Narisha’s thighs, Livia at last allowed her tongue to slip between the swollen black lips, cleaving to the hot sweetness inside. Again, the demonic juices filled her mouth, filling her with a terrible intoxication. Like a long-denied drunkard with a bottle of liquor, she drank deeply.

“Drink from me, little one...” Urged Narisha. “Take all you want from me...”

Livia obeyed, tongue working at the slick prominence of Narisha’s clitoris, feeling her lover’s cunt-juices flow into her mouth, down her chin, across her shoulders, soaking her shift.

“Say you love me.” It was both a command and a plea. “Say you love me now.”

“I love you,” Livia murmured, mouth against soft, secret flesh. She felt light-headed and disoriented, but the truth of her emotion was like a shining beacon. As she continued to lick and bite at the tender skin, her thoughts took wing and flew rapidly with heart-felt intensity.

Did she speak, or did the words flow freely from heart to mind? Whatever it was, she knew Narisha could hear them, and the demoness’ pleasure was redoubled. I love you. I want to belong to you. I want to dance naked with you under the moon. I want to suckle at your breasts like a child. I want to embrace you in the waves of a warm ocean. I want to lie with you in the rain and watch it moisten your skin. I want to taste your sweetness beneath the boughs of a dark forest. I want to hold your body against mine on a wind-swept mountain top. I want to feel your tongue inside me as I lie under the desert sun. I want to kneel at your feet and wear your collar and be your slave. I want to rule over you and make you obey. I want you to call me filthy names. I want to scream at you and make you feel my rage. I want to worship you, make you my goddess. I want you to worship me.

“I love you,” she repeated, out loud this time. Narisha stiffened, moaning deeply, and Livia felt contractions raced through her body. The blue tattoos flickered in time with her as waves of orgasm wracked her.

“Oh, dearest...” Narisha’s climax lasted for a full minute, then another. Her back arched, her belly straining upward, her breasts straining, hands curled into claws.

“Dearest... Livia... Oh, fuck... Oh, fuck... Oh, my darling. Oh, my filthy little slut. Oh, my angel...” Her words were choked, forced from a constricted throat, finally merging into incoherent animal sounds, until she lay limp, sweat glistening on her breasts and belly as they rose and fell.

“My love,” she sighed, stroking Livia’s face with a long- nailed hand. “My best beloved. You move me like no one else.”

“Mpph,” came a muffled grunt from Wulf. Livia turned, ashamed that she had forgotten him.

The mercenary looked somewhat nonplused at Narisha’s comment. He also looked extremely uncomfortable.

“You aren’t finished yet, my dearest little pet.” Narisha lazed back on the couch and languidly motioned Livia to rise. “Show him, too. Show him what you showed me.”

Wulf

To say I was aroused would have been like calling the Third Siege of Xath a minor disagreement. As before with Narisha (damnably predictable, that woman), my breeches had grown incredibly tight, and I had an erection you could attach a pulley to and lift an obelisk with. I was still mildly annoyed that much of my mixed love and desire for both the women so amply displayed before me was a result of magical intervention, but took comfort in the fact that any man not exclusively attracted to his own gender would be as uncomfortable now as I was.

Livia’s declarations of love for Narisha still echoed in my ears. The analytical corner of my mind wondered, even as the object of my speculation swayed gracefully toward me, slipping off her soaked shift, whether Livia really meant it or whether these words were also the result of ensorcelment.

Clothed, Livia could corrupt even the most dedicated Idrianic Cenobite. Naked, she was nothing short of divine. Or — if the sensual Narisha, now reclining like a vast, shapely mountain range on Livia’s couch, could be discounted — diabolical. Smooth, white shoulders and slender arms; breasts pleasantly large and shapely, but not excessively so; and a belly and legs which have already been adequately described.

Even considering this preternaturally exquisite body, Livia’s face is really her best asset — softly curved, pale-skinned, with a delicately upturned nose and a light spatter of freckles. Her eyes were a transparent blue, and as she licked her full lips, I saw a pearly flash of teeth. I suppressed an anticipatory shudder. I had dreamed of this moment for endless seasons, finally convincing myself that it would never happen. Now, here it was, offered up to me like a holy sacrifice in temple.

“Take the pleasure she gives you, swordsman,” Narisha said, with husky excitement. “It’s our gift to you.”

Livia’s lips caressed my cock, and her tongue moved to lick it up and down. From the couch, Narisha watched, eyes rapt, her breaths growing quicker. She tugged at her nipple ring, and her long, flexible tongue flicked out to moisten her lips.

“Tell him you love him,” Narisha ordered. “Like you told me.”

Livia kissed my cock once more, then looked up at me, blue eyes wide and sincere. When the words came, they were at once painful and exquisite. Joy and sorrow combined in me as Livia spoke.

“I love you,” she whispered. Her words were stark with clarity, and I knew that she meant them. “I love you, Wulf. I love you both.”

“Oh, gods, Livia,” I whispered. “I’ve always loved you.”

On the couch, Narisha tossed her head back and groaned briefly. It was as if the emotions of others were as intense as their caresses for her. A tiny spark raced through my mind, and I felt a small portion of the demoness’ climax. Gods, what had she done?

“I’ve made us all one, Wulf-cub,” Narisha said, softly, as Livia’s lips again encircled my shaft, sliding it inside her beautiful mouth, filling me with renewed sensation. “We’re joined, now. Joined in love and pleasure.”

Livia enveloped me again, and I realized that I still didn’t mind what Narisha had said. If I was joined with these two, so be it. I could think of worse fates.

“Ride him now,” Narisha said. She was sitting up now, watching us with (if possible) even greater fascination. “Ride his stallion.” There was that damned overblown metaphorical sense of hers again...

I reclined on the floor, a thick rug insulating me from the cold marble. Livia crouched above me, slipping my organ between her legs, stroking it against her sex. Dammit, it really did seem to buck and caper like a wild stallion. At least, so I thought at the time.

“Put it in,” I said, feeling the same intense desire as Narisha had. “Please, let me feel you all around me.”

Livia smiled, opened her mouth wide, pink tongue touching ivory teeth, and slid down my shaft, my cock penetrating her wet cunt, deeper and deeper... Her soft cunt-flesh surrounded me, pulling me in, and then she rose up on her knees again, slipping me out, then down. Again and again... Gods... For the second time in as many days, I felt transported to paradise.

Then, black-tipped red hands slid to surround Livia’s pale white breasts, and Narisha appeared behind her.

“You make my lover happy,” Narisha said. “Can you make us both happy?”

Two faces, one pale and angelic, the other devilish and crimson, gazed at me as Narisha kneeled behind Livia and matched her movements, as if they were both the same being. Her hot demon- flesh was smooth against my sides, complimenting and contrasting Livia’s pale skin. They moved up and down together, my cock straining inside Livia, her pleasure translated directly into Narisha’s brain. Their expressions melted into open-lipped looks of intense pleasure.

“Now me,” Narisha gasped. “Put your shaft inside me.”

As one, they moved forward, and without a break, my cock moved between Narisha’s thighs and inside her inhumanly hot and moist cunt. I’d never have been able to accomplish such acrobatics if I’d practiced for a month, and now I was performing like a Xeshite pleasure slave. Gods...

Livia

It was an indescribably sensation Livia had felt, the hardness of Wulf’s cock inside her, and the hot supple flesh of Narisha behind, hands stroking as the demoness’ vast breasts pillowed against her back. The tiny ring and gem in Narisha’s nipple bit against Livia’s tender flesh, further enhancing sensation.

Then they moved, and Wulf was inside Narisha. She felt no jealousy that the hot shaft had moved away from her, only joy that she and Narisha could share this man, whom she finally realized she loved. Narisha’s moans joined Wulf’s in a chorus of sensual agony.

“I love you,” Livia whispered, to both of them. “I love you.”

Wulf

I didn’t know where all the energy came from. It was probably more of Narisha’s sex magic, but I can’t be certain. The upshot was that all three of us ended up in Livia’s bedroom, sprawled in an exhausted tangle on a bed large enough to comprise a small country estate (upon which, might I add, many a young male student or knockabout had learned the true meaning of the word “ecstasy” only to be tossed out on his ear the next morning).

Livia lay near the head of the bed, her legs drawn up and splayed, stroking Narisha’s head as the demon woman’s tongue delved up and down her thighs and flicked in and out of her exposed cunt. As for myself, I was on my knees behind Narisha, entering the demoness from behind, gripping her soft, shapely buttocks and watching the blue patterns flicker and change as my cock slid in, then emerged, slick and tingling with her inner sweetness.

Everyone seemed extremely happy.

Sensation spread from my Narisha’s center to my shaft... That burning, tingling feeling which I had felt when I tasted her rolled through me now, entering the taunt flesh of my organ and extending out through my body. It was as if every sense was sharpened, heightened to an unnatural degree. Every sight and sound was magnified, every touch and scent redoubled. For a few moments, I perceived the world as a demon did.

I felt that I could thrust in and out of Narisha’s moistness indefinitely... I never wanted to stop, but only to remain this way, suspended on the edge for all time, forever joined to my two lovers, forever both master and slave. Again and again my cock slid into the demoness’ beautiful cunt, gaining energy and desire with each stroke in an ever-growing cycle of fleshy pleasure.

Livia

The demon-woman’s tongue moved freely through Livia, seeming to reach beyond the mere physical reaches of her cunt, and slip like a thin, vastly long snake deep inside her to touch her heart, her mind, and — if there was such a thing — her soul. A thin wailing slipped from her throat, growing louder, involuntarily rising to a heady cry of increasing desire.

Narisha’s hands encircled her buttocks, pulling Livia’s hot moistness closer, thrusting the endless tongue deeper and deeper. Livia laced her fingers behind the luxuriant black hair, thrusting with increasing urgency. How the demoness could breath, Livia did not know, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Behind Narisha, Wulf stroked her with his cock, thrusting between the firm red expanse of her buttocks, entering her again and again, seemingly tirelessly. Livia had experienced it before... it was Narisha’s doing, and afterwards she knew that they would all sleep for a day or more.

Narisha’s tongue seemed to coil and writhe inside her, touching her more deeply than Livia had ever thought possible. Heat and desire swelled in her loins, her belly, her chest, growing hotter and hotter until she couldn’t contain it. Orgasm rose slowly like a silvery bubble through a tropical ocean, gaining strength and intensity as it did so. She knew it was coming, she could feel it, but it still shimmered and glistened in the distance, growing closer by the second.

Wulf

Narisha absorbed me, and, as if echoing the sentiment of her words, I felt that we were one. All three of us had joined to become a single entity, dedicated only to pleasure. Emotions roiled inside me, ones which I had only recently denied even existed.

“Narisha,” I gasped, only barely able to form words as I pushed inside her again. “Narisha, I love you.”

Then, I think the most astonishing event of the past days occurred. Narisha continued to lavish attention upon Livia, but she replied with the same intense sincerity I had heard from the blonde sorceress.

“I love you, Wulf,” she said. Gods, I thought, there’s a lot of love in this room right now. “I love you both.”

That was enough for me. Words are the greatest aphrodisiac, and these seemed to push both Livia and me over the cliff we’d spent all afternoon climbing. Her cries rose to a wordless wail in which every desire seemed embodied. She tensed, released, tensed again, and I could see uncontrolled orgasm crashing endlessly through her.

It was enough for me, too. I finally came, feeling the hotness of my cock gushing into Narisha. I had been loosed like an arrow, plunging on without regard for myself or anything else. My seed flooded into the sweet demon-cunt, mixing with her flowing juices, dripping down the carven columns of her thighs...

I felt Narisha’s climax as well, and her cries joined those of me and Livia. All three of us seemed instantly united in a single orgasm, which rocked through our bodies, bounced back and returned again and again, like a massive bolt of lightning over a storm-tossed sea. Yes, we were one now, and I knew it was what I wanted.

We slept then, twined together like the branches of an ancient oak, and dreamed of each other.

* * *

We didn’t stir until late afternoon of the following day. My dreams wandered from Narisha to Livia and back again, inspecting every inch of their bodies and minds, running endlessly through lush fields of flesh, feeling again and again the hot softness of their touch.

Once we had finally roused ourselves from that damned bedstead (not that I wanted to leave, mind you), we ate in Livia’s dining room, served by a number of sprites who seemed to serve our sorceress out of heartfelt devotion, rather than magical compulsion. I ate (again) ravenously, but Livia (damn her) seemed to have retained the appetite of a bird. Narisha took her meat rare, and ate noisily with her fingers. Well, I guess they weren’t ahead of us in all the social graces.

After that, we retired to Livia’s sitting room, which provided a lovely view of the Thieves’ Quarter, with the noble realms misty pink and green in the distance. The glass was enchanted, of course, providing outside viewers with a boring, empty, mundane room no matter what orgiastic rites were actually going on inside. The room was pleasantly paneled in red flamewood, lined with leather-bound books, and furnished with deeply upholstered chairs and a desk large enough to raise cattle.

We’d all dressed properly at last, Livia in the pale blue robes she favored, myself in clothes she’d provided, and Narisha in one of her lace, leather and chain mail numbers (gods only knew where she kept them all). It was with physical effort that I pushed all sensual considerations aside and concentrated on what Narisha was saying.

“The crown is an important artifact,” she said with calm authority. “Among other things, it symbolizes my family’s primacy and our position as defenders against the Outer Darks.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I interrupted. “I’ve never heard of that. What are the Outer Darks?”

Narisha looked thoughtful. “I suppose you could say that they’re the realms we were driven out of.”

“You mean hell?”

She laughed, but there was little cruelty in the sound. “No. You listen to your own legends too much. The Only People are from another place, yes. But it’s not a fire-and-brimstone realm where sinners are punished. Well, perhaps it is now. We haven’t been back in quite a time. In any event, our enemies still live there, and it’s important that we keep them there.”

Now Livia spoke up. “That’s your family’s duty, then?”

“Among others. Also among other families’. It’s a very influential position. Unfortunately, you need the crown to symbolize it. Duke Janus apparently feels that my father’s been falling down on the job, and has stolen the crown. I’m sorry to say that it happened on my watch, while my father was in the White Empire, so I’m responsible for getting it back.”

“Okay,” I said. “Now we know what we’re going after, perhaps you could tell me how to get it.”

“You’re the freelance, you tell me.”

I growled. “A little more information about Janus and his palace would be in order, I think.”

Narisha rummaged around behind the desk, and pulled out a bundle of rolled parchments. She selected one and unrolled it on the desktop, weighting it down with an inkwell and paperweight (another Xeshite erotic, I noticed).

The parchment was a nautical chart, scribed in bright colors with fanciful notations in some angular script I didn’t recognize.

“This is one of our charts,” she said. “It shows the way to Arak Island and Hellgate keep.”

My eyes widened. “There’s not an admiral in the realms who wouldn’t trade a roomful of gold for this chart,” I said.

“Don’t I know it. I’m lending it to you in the hope that you won’t betray my trust and sell it.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m unscrupulous, yes. But I don’t betray my friends.”

“Or lovers?”

“Or lovers. Get on with it.”

She then showed us, in quick succession, a number of other diagrams, depicting the island itself (a tangled jungle, apparently), the interior layout of Janus’ Keep (whose architecture would only be logical to another demon), and finally, a crude rendition of a number of secret escape tunnels which Janus had had constructed.

“Two of our best lost their lives making this diagram. You can use the tunnels to get into the keep. After that, it’s up to you.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’ve got it pretty well figured out, love. Why didn’t you just send a regiment or so of your own warriors?”

She shook her head emphatically. “The place is crawling with anti-demon wards. Some of them would melt the flesh of anyone from our household if he so much as glanced at them. Janus doubled the guard after our spies got this information.”

“What assurances do you have that the layout hasn’t changed?” Livia asked. “The tunnels may be gone, they may be rigged with traps, or they may be in another location altogether.”

“It’s a risk,” Narisha agreed. “The tunnels are sure to be trapped, but it’s unlikely they’ve changed the layout. Janus wouldn’t want to waste all that slave labor.”

“Slave labor?” I asked, alarmed.

“Human slave labor. Hundreds died making those tunnels.” Narisha looked away. “Please believe me when I tell you that not all the Only People are like Janus.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I’ve known dozens of humans who can be as cruel as a demon.”

Livia still seemed concerned about the practical. “Once they’re inside the palace, what then? A band of humans will stick out like a whore at a Rexxaran feast.”

“I’m counting on stealth,” Narisha said. “But I brought some items which might be useful.”

More rummaging, and the demoness withdrew a number of small, silver amulets. I looked at one. It was a cunningly crafted image of a mouse.

“Stealth enhancement, I take it?” I asked, fascinated. “More sympathetic magic?”

Narisha nodded. “It won’t make you invisible or anything so useful, but it will help keep you hidden, especially from demons. They work better if you keep still.”

“Thanks.” I’d used such things in the past, and knew better than to depend on them, but they were a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Then Narisha held up a brass amulet, which dangled from a chain, dancing and sparkling in the light of the setting sun.

“There’s probably something guarding the crown,” she told me. “You’ll have to deal with it alone, or else this won’t work. Hold the amulet up and say...” Her lips, tongue and throat contorted in a string of words in some obscure demon dialect. “Got that?”

I shook my head. “No, but we can go over it later. What else have you got there?”

Narisha looked straight at me, yellow eyes locked with mine, deadly serious.

“I have one more present for you, swordsman,” she said. “I am taking a terrible risk in giving it to you. I must have your assurance that you will use it properly.”

“I’ll know better when I see what it is,” I said, “but I give you my assurance anyway.”

Without another word, Narisha bent down, reaching behind the desk again, and stood up holding a long, narrow bundle covered in gray rags. She handled it gingerly, and when she set it on the desk, atop the unrolled charts, she seemed relieved to have it out of her possession.

“Open it,” she said.

Sensing the fatal seriousness of her words, I hastened to comply, tugging at the leather thongs which bound the package, and unwrapping the rags. When the contents were revealed, I stepped back with an involuntary cry.

It was a sword. But no ordinary sword. It most closely resembled a Litharnan two-hander, but seemed much older. The pommel bore a large red gemstone, its grip was wound with weathered black leather, its crossguards in the form of intertwined dragon’s heads. The blade was the strangest of all, however. It was a glossy black color, and bore gleaming silver runes. They were very old, but I could read them.

“Pierce the demon heart,” I read. “Strike in the name of justice.” I looked up at Narisha. “It’s a holy sword! I’ve never seen one so large.”

She nodded, face shot through with apprehension. “Yes. It was carried by the warrior Sir Goltha of Litharna, over a thousand years ago.”

“From the demon wars,” Livia declared. “That must be Lawgiver, the sword of justice. Everyone thought it was destroyed when Goltha was killed.”

“His ship was sunk and he drowned,” Narisha said. “Our swimmers brought it back, and we’ve kept it ever since. We can’t destroy it; it’s magic is too powerful. But we could keep it out of human hands — prevent it from ever being used against us.”

My heart lurched. “You’re giving it to me?”

“Loaning it, my beloved,” she said. “But you must swear never to use it against me or any member of my household.”

I’ve never put much stock in oaths, faith or religion. But now I did, and I fortunately knew the right words to say. I kneeled before the desk, bowed my head, placed both hands on the great, black blade, and spoke softly.

“By all the gods, by all my ancestors, and by all that I hold sacred, I swear I will never use this blade against you and your household, nor against any who bear your arms, wear your colors, or swear fealty to you. This I swear, from this day until the end of the world, or until you release me from this oath. May my soul lie in torment should I violate this oath, and may my name be cursed to the seventh generation.”

I raised my head. Narisha was staring at me in flat-out disbelief. Black tears ran down her cheeks. Her dark lips trembled.

“You do love me,” she said.

I nodded. I’ve been known to lie, but never about that.

Evening lengthened shadows over the eternal city, from the squalid huts of the Barrens to the jagged, evil towers of the Forbidden Enclave and the graceful curving structures of the Noble Quarter. I gazed out the windows of Livia’s sitting room, wondering if my death lay out there, and if it was anywhere near as savage as what these two women had put me through.

I picked at my food, my mind racing over plans for the coming endeavor. Livia ate as delicately as ever, while our demoness slavered and tore at her rare beast. I could have sworn her fangs had grown longer, but I couldn’t be certain.

“I have the most delicious plans for after dinner,” Narisha said, delicately wiping her blood-stained face with a white napkin. “There’s a Xeshite sex ritual which requires three participants. First, one of the women lies on her back with her legs--”

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, “and I hate the thought that I’ll be missing the evening orgy even more, but in all honesty I’m going to have work to do tonight.”

Livia nodded. “You need to get ready to go.”

“I do. I also want to get my team together; I’ve got a few people in mind, and the sooner I contact them, the sooner I can leave. I don’t want the news that I’m really alive to spread too fast.”

Narisha pouted prettily. “You make me sad, beloved.”

“Sorry. Hold the thought, though. It’ll keep me going through the journey.”

The demoness sighed, and her vast, soft bosom heaved and quivered alluringly. “Well, at least my Livia will be here.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “You two do as you please. Think of me once in a while, though.”

“Always,” Livia said, and took a sip of wine. “Always.”

They were already together on the bed when I left, moving in a luscious tangle of red and white flesh. I gritted my teeth, counted backwards from a hundred, and walked out into the night, Lawgiver securely scabbarded on my back.

* * *

Stef is normally an extremely companionable fellow, even of temperament and jolly of disposition. He is a handsome, chisel- jawed man with deep blue eyes and curly blonde hair. He is usually smiling and almost never has a cross word for anyone. Unfortunately, these delightful character traits vanished the minute he caught sight of me.

“You!” he thundered, taking up a ceramic pot from a nearby table and brandishing it threateningly. “I hate you! Get the hell out!”

“Stef,” I began in my most diplomatic tone, “I just want to--”

He let fly with the pot. It smashed against the lintel over my head, showering me with water and broken crockery.

“I warned you!” he continued, face contorted with a strange mixture of anger and fear. “I told you to get out and you didn’t! If I killed you right now, no judge in the city would convict me!”

I was getting a little tired of this. “Dammit, Stef,” I barked, “I didn’t know the dragon wasn’t really dead! I want to make it up to you!”

A silver tray splanged into the wall beside me.

“Make it up to me? You are a walking, talking omen of pure catastrophe! Despair and failure follow in your wake! What can you possibly do to make it up to me?”

“I’ve got a job--”

A pair of candlesticks this time. I dodged, but one of them caught me upside the head.

“Go to hell, Wulf! Every time you offer me a job, disaster strikes within the hour! It took a month to get my arms back after that last fiasco! Get the hell out of my life! NOW!”

I stopped and glared at him. “Phaedra’s flaming tits, Stef, enough is enough!” I barked. “You throw one more household object and me, so help me I will pull out your pancreas and tie it around your neck! I’ve got a job for you!”

By the grace of all the gods, Stef finally stopped heaving things at me, and only stood, glowering and panting.

“What limbs do you want me to sacrifice this time, Wulf? I’ve got two legs left relatively unscathed.”

I took a deep breath. Maybe we could talk now. “None if we’re lucky. How are the new arms working out, by the way?”

His scowl deepened. “Considering the fact that one was taken off a wrestling eunuch and the other was from some effeminate White Empire sorcerer, not badly. They should be the same size in a year or so.”

I mustered all the sympathy I could spare. “I’m sorry. I really could have sworn that dragon was dead...”

“Never mind.” He waved one beefy arm at me, then gestured with the other (noticeably thinner, I could see) to sit down. “I can see I won’t get rid or you until you give your pitch. So sit down and tell me so I can tell you to go fuck a hunting beast.”

“Thanks, I just did,” I mumbled, sitting down.

“Huh?”

“Nothing. Anyway, here’s the buzz.”

* * *

I found Udo the dwarf, not surprisingly, sleeping off a drunk. Vurrg, innkeeper at the Goblin’s Eye, had hung Udo from one of the torch brackets in order to get him out of the way while he dirtied up a little. I retrieved Udo from this humiliating position and dragged him home. He growled and mumbled a little, but did not wake, preferring — apparently — to remain in his dream world where he was ravishing some chesty human temptress named Ula.

I’m surprised that the little runt doesn’t constantly have a swarm of flies around, given the fact that he rarely bathes and never combs out his beard. Despite his odious hygienic habits, however, Udo is the meanest little son-of-a-bitch who ever swung a battleaxe, and takes a perverse pleasure in killing such traditional foes as elves, goblins, other dwarves and — especially — demons. I figured that we’d be well underway by the time he recovered from his drunk, so there wouldn’t be much he could do to prevent being dragooned into our little band.

* * *

The reams and reams of cheap fiction which the Litharnan printing presses crank out each year seem always to feature the same rag-tag band of adventurers — the beautiful sorceress, the brawny swordsman, the crafty thief, the plucky dwarf, the mysterious elf, and so on. As usual, reality doesn’t jibe.

I was, at best, an indifferent swordsman, our thief was reluctant at best and had only just recovered from having his arms pulled off by a sadistic dragon, the dwarf was a drunk, and the elf was on the police force trying to bust our ass. The beautiful sorceress seemed content to stay at home and be repeatedly ravished by a demoness, and our best warrior wasn’t even brawny.

Not that she had to be. Xitaa (pronounced “Zee-tah”) was a priestess-sister from the Temple of Rexxara. For those of you who don’t know, Rexxara, the Mother of All Battles, is a southern import who has managed to gather a considerable following here in the heart of decadent civilization. Dedicated only to the joy of righteous battle, Rexxarans must, among other things, shave off all their body hair (yes, ALL their body hair) save a small scalplock or strip in the middle of the head, practice a regimen of strenuous daily exercises, contribute all battlefield booty to the temple, and forsake all worldly pleasures. As might be expected, this means no booze, no sex, and only the most simple, nourishing food. (This, mind you, is just what I believed to be true at the time; the facts of the matter were considerably more interesting.)

All this meant that Xitaa was one of the best warriors around, unlikely to be swayed by the pleasures of the flesh, and possibly able to persuade Rexxara to grant us a miracle or two if things looked really bleak. I had met her on several occasions in the past, and she had made it clear that she was available for any righteous sword-cleaving which needed to be done. That night, I contacted her at the Rexxaran monast, where she and her fellow righteous warriors were preparing to retire and dream of killing cringing orcs and savage trolls.

Besides (and here we have Wulf being an obnoxious male who thinks with his gonads again), she was damned easy to look at. Clad in her traditional Rexxaran plate armor (gleaming silver and brass), she cut a magnificent figure. She was muscular and well- proportioned, and kept her kinky black hair in the single strip favored by most Rexxaran women, with a single one of the goddess’ runes tattooed on her bare pate.

She had enough vanity to paint her well-shaped lips blood red, and line her cool, almond-shaped eyes with black kohl, with a single spiral painted at the outer corner of each. Her eyes, which could drill you as surely as a crossbow bolt, were vivid violet and rarely if ever blinked. If I hadn’t known that she was as unreachable as Phaedra Herself, I’d have been lust-smitten the moment I saw her. As it was, I ignored my baser instincts and told myself that she was just a fellow warrior.

“You say there is killing to be done?” she asked. Delightful woman, really...

I nodded. “Probably a lot. Demons in particular. We’re heading for the heart of demon country and trying to steal a valuable artifact. I suspect your sword will get a lot of use.”

She eyed me up and down, as if I was a horse she was thinking of buying.

“Do you have the courage to stand beside one of the Faithful?” she asked.

“If I do not, let me die honorably,” I replied. I know that Rexxarans dig that kind of talk.

She smiled. It was a grim smile. “We shall see how worthy you are to bare your sword and be blessed by Rexxara. How much will you donate to the temple for my assistance?”

I named a figure. It was large, but only a portion of what I would get for one of the ghost gems.

She bowed her shapely, smooth head. “It is good. May the Mother of All Battles bless our endeavor.”

I stood up. “I hope to leave at first light, if I can secure a ship.”

“Let it be done. Let many souls be shriven and face Rexxara’s mercy.”

I repressed a shudder and left. Xitaa made me think of a sleek, jungle cat — all sensuous movement and beauty, but with an underlying current of sheer, unrestrained violence. I hoped that it would never be directed at me.

* * *

There still remained small matter of a ship. As the fog rolled in, shrouding the moon Little Sister with a silvery veil, I thought quickly of the captains I knew who could be had at short notice.

I was still thinking when I arrived at the docks. They’re a forbidding place, even during the day. A vast wilderness of dark warehouses, rotting piers, seedy inns and mysterious vessels with cloaked lanterns and unknown cargoes. The quiet sound of lapping waves and creaking ropes constantly fills the air, along with the scent of rotting fish and seaweed. Rumor has it that the Cult of Slaerth controls much of the activity on the docks, but no one has ever proved it.

Tonight, with the moon riding at full sail through an unsettled sky, the docks were even less welcoming than normal. A few cracks of smoky yellow light showed through closed doors and shuttered windows, but for the most part, the region was bathed in lambent silvery-blue, and the shadows were deep indeed.

In my mind, the search had narrowed down to two candidates. Captain Fish (it was a nickname, of course — I didn’t remember his real name) had brought in his sloop, Bluefin, two days ago, and was still in port for lack of cargo. Unfortunately, he had let his entire crew go, and it would take at least one more day to attract another. Even then, the crewmen who could be recruited on such short notice would not be ones I would trust to sail us into the heart of the demon isles. They would, however, be cheap.

Skate was a mercenary cutter, small and fast, with a sharp crew and professional captain, one Kamaz, a serious woman with gray-streaked hair who swings a mean cutlass. The problem with Skate was that all this professionalism didn’t come cheap. With the amount Kamaz charged, I could practically buy my own ship and sail it north alone.

I walked along the misty docks, more or less lost in thought. That was my mistake — the docks are the last place in the realms where one should wander, lost in thought. Then again, after the last couple days’ events, including as they did bouts of mindless violence interrupted by orgiastic debauchery, my alertness wasn’t what it should have been even in the best of times.

In any event, I was taken by surprise. The hatefully familiar silhouette which appeared from behind a pile of crates caused me to jump a good foot, and stagger backwards, only to find myself held by a pair of powerful — and equally familiar — arms.

“Wulf!” Niall’s contemptuous words lashed out like a whip. “You bastard! I knew you weren’t dead!”

He approached, moving out of the shadows and into the full moonlight. “Two days on sewer patrol because of you, you piece of troll vomit! I’m going to make you sorry your father ever porked your mother!”

“Well, well, if it isn’t the littlest elf,” I grunted, trying to remain flippant while my mind frantically tried to come up with an escape plan and failed miserably. “What’s the matter, lose your pointy-toed shoes?”

The ogre behind me tightened his grip. I suspected it was Grud, since Skab was probably recuperating from his wounds with the aid of a quart of Old Dragon’s Breath.

A shudder passed through Niall, then the affected air of a calm, detached city scrutator returned.

“Mind you, Wulf, I don’t really care what you did at Tev’s. For all I know, a demon really did go down on you in his solarium.” He paused, and drew a deep breath, idly scratching one of his pointy elf-ears. “What really bothers me, Wulf...”

“Is the fact that you have no penis?” I asked. “That would certainly bother me.” Yes, it was crude and not all that funny, but it was the best I could do at the moment.

It didn’t faze him. Gods, I was in trouble.

“No, Wulf,” Niall continued. “I am not bothered by your petty trivialities. What I am bothered by...”

Without a second thought, punched me in the stomach as hard as he could. Pain and cold shock exploded through me, and I tried to double over, but the ogre held on tight.

“Heh, heh,” said Grud. Damn, but ogres are easily amused.

“...is your absolute contempt and lack of respect,” Niall continued with a straight face, “for the law.”

I looked up, mustering up what defiance I could. I coughed heavily and said, “The law, Niall? What the hell did you ever know about the law?”

Niall chuckled. “I’ve forgotten more about the law than you’ll ever know, you insignificant little footpad.” He moved close and shoved his face directly into mine. “But that’s not really the point is it? What’s really important is what the law represents. What it accomplishes. Am I right?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, scrutator.” Niall was apparently even crazier than I’d thought.

“You don’t? Ha!” A single syllable of laughter exploded from Niall’s throat. “That’s very funny. Isn’t that funny, Grud?”

“Duh, yah boss,” Grud rumbled, clearly so far lost in our conversation that he couldn’t have found his way home with a map.

“It doesn’t surprise me that you don’t know what I’m talking about.” Niall’s voice was icy-cold and logical now. I began to wonder whether my quest was about to end before it started. “You may think that I’ve come a long way from my ancestors, who lived in white towers and fought noble wars and rode dragons. You may think that I’ve turned my back on everything that an elf is, and become just as grimy and unpleasant as you humans. But you’re wrong, Wulf. I remember. I remember that my people wrote the first laws, and made the law what it is today.”

“You’ve lost it, Scrutator,” I rasped. “Whatever you might have had once upon a time, you’ve lost it completely. Why don’t you just admit that you’ve got a height complex and let it go at that?”

It was as if I hadn’t even spoken. “You see,” Niall continued, “the real point of the law is its end result. The route it takes to that result is irrelevant. That’s what my ancestors believed, and it’s still true. Oh, I’m sure that there are those repulsive little wizardly philosopher types who whine about how the end never justifies the means, but what do they know, really? They spend their lives cloistered away in academies and towers and dusty libraries — they have no knowledge of what it’s really like on the streets, in the gutters, in the...” He drew a breath. “...Sewers.”

Niall turned and walked toward the gleaming water, but his ratty little voice continued to echo across the docks.

“No, the real point of the law, the real intent... That’s what was important to the old Dragon Kings, and that’s what is important to me. Through all the voluminous, labyrinthine laws which are necessary to run a cesspool like Stoneburg, through all of them there is a common thread. And that, my friend...”

He whirled and advanced rapidly, shaking a finger at me, until his face was once more inches from mine.

“...is to keep lowlife pieces of filth like you down on your knees and out of the way of the important people! Now you and your disgusting kind may scoff at us — the people in charge of enforcing the laws. But you scoff simply because you fear the law, you hate the law. You know in your heart and soul that the law was conceived and designed specifically with you in mind. You and the legions of scum and perverts you associate with.”

Nearing the end of his rant, Niall relaxed, contemplating my fate with near orgasmic satisfaction, eyes closed, face beatific.

“But I shouldn’t blame you for being what you are. You are unavoidable, Wulf. You’re an occupational hazard. My only joy in life comes from making the laws work, which is something I am about to do.” Another deep breath, slowly and luxuriantly exhaled. He smiled, a razor thin little smile. “Grud, pull this bastard’s head off.”

“Duh, yah boss,” Grud replied, predictably.

Good-bye, Narisha, I thought to myself. Good-bye, Livia. I really did love you...

Fortunately for me, my final declaration of love was premature. Not only did Grud’s grip not tighten, his entire warty, stinking body began to relax and slide to the ground. Again not questioning good fortune, I dodged away, disentangling myself from the collapsing ogre and tugging Lawgiver free from its scabbard.

I needn’t have bothered. Grud’s collapse did not stop when his body reached the ground. The ugly beast continued to collapse, deflating like a punctured bladder, exuding a pool of disgusting, ogre-colored slime. My ears tingled, feeling the faint crackle of magical energy.

Magical?

Livia stood nearby, a short rod clasped in her hand, her grim gaze fixed directly on the disintegrating ogre.

A shriek from Niall riveted my attention. I stared in mixed horror and amazement.

Niall writhed and struggled in the grip of a horrific creature. Outwardly humanoid, it was a muscular, clawed thing with black-striped red fur. Its snarling, tigerish head bristled with white, dagger-sharp teeth. As I watched, the long black claws scored deep slashes across Niall’s belly, sending entrails gushing, while its maw took a huge chunk out of his neck, chewed, and swallowed a mass of torn flesh and jagged bone.

I shuddered. Not that I ever liked Niall, but no one deserved that kind of death. I wasn’t too terribly alarmed — I suspected the thing was one of Livia’s servitors and under her control.

“Are you all right?” she asked, looking me up and down.

I nodded. “Who’s your friend?”

Livia looked uncomfortable. I followed her gaze to where the thing was still rending Niall’s remains, which by now resembled the beef stew served every Friday at the Goblin’s Eye. As I watched, I let out an involuntary cry of shock and horror.

It was Narisha.

She had returned to her voluptuous womanish shape, but still retained her red and black stripes, and crouched on hands and knees like an animal, ripping and tearing at what was left of poor Niall and stuffing bloody gobbets into her mouth. The fact that she was naked only added to her animalistic appearance. She looked somewhat like a Kaitian tiger-woman, but far more heavy-bodied, muscular and savage.

Narisha saw that I had noticed, and stopped short, sitting back, and leaning against a crate, panting. Blood ran freely down her face, slightly darker than her crimson flesh, soaking her shoulders and dripping from the heavy curves of her breasts. The jewel at her nipple glittered faintly. Slowly, the stripes faded, and in a moment she was her old self.

“W-Wulf,” she said, weakly. “I’m sorry you had to...” Her words trailed off and her head fell forward.

I could only stare at the mess she’d left. I had heard of demonic shapechangers, but I’d never actually seen it. Now, I had proof.

Narisha composed herself and looked up, head high.

“I try not to show that side of my nature, Swordsman,” she said at last. “But he was going to kill you. You, Wulf. I realized that I couldn’t let that happen.”

I finally found my voice. “I... I don’t begrudge that.” I swallowed. “I’ve seen worse. Thanks.”

All the same, I was troubled. Niall had been about to have me murdered horribly, true. But had the situation been reversed, I would never have done the same to him. Damn, I thought. Have I got a hidden streak of decency or something?

“You said to think of you,” Livia said. “We did. We checked in on you in one of my scrying crystals. When we saw what was happening I cast a transit spell, got us here instantly.”

“Gods,” I muttered. “You probably set off every proximity ward for a league around. Someone’ll know what’s up.”

Narisha joined us. Niall’s blood had begun to dry, scaling up around her mouth and neck. Damme, but she was still beautiful.

“Not too terribly unhappy with me, are you, lover?” she asked, tracing a bloody pattern on one breast. “I’ll never do that to you.”

“I should hope not,” I replied. “No, I think I’ve accepted you as you are, regardless of what you turn into. You don’t accidentally change while making love do you?”

She looked at me, smiling. “As a matter of fact I do,” she said, “Wouldn’t you enjoy making love to a snarling panther?”

“I usually leave such things to dark elves,” I said dubiously, “but I’ll take it under advisement. Not that I’m ungrateful, but you two had better get back before this place is swarming with scrutators. Naked demons tend to arouse suspicions.”

“Among other things,” Livia muttered.

I stayed long enough to make sure that they ‘ported back home safely, then rapidly left the vicinity. Skate was at the other end of the dock, well away from any official attention.

I found Kamaz asleep, but woke her up anyway, barging past the officer on deck, and cut a quick deal with her, agreeing to have Skate ready and under full sail at dawn. With that, I headed back toward Livia’s, taking a much more circuitous route than normal, and staying close to the shadows.

* * *

Skate glided through the water like her graceful namesake. Kamaz’s little cutter was a truly fine ship. She managed well with a minimal crew of less than a dozen semi-cutthroats, her fine white sails bellying into the wind like the wings of an albatross. Our quarters were quite luxurious (at least for shipboard) — roomy, with genuine feather-beds, writing desks and ample storage.

Our vessel was quite capable of defending herself, as well. A pair of ballistae forward and aft could easily be mounted behind armored mantlets, while there was a small catapult stored disassembled below decks for heavier combat. Skate’s main strength was her speed, however, and given the swift pace which we were setting, I was grateful.

As I said at the beginning of my narrative, I’m not much skilled with two-handed weapons, so I spent the days at sea practicing with a Litharnan greatsword I had collected from Livia’s arms store. Lawbringer remained locked away and hidden in my cabin, for use only when we reached our destination.

My companions did likewise — Stef practiced lockpicking, stealth, and other thievery skills; Udo (once he sobered up and realized where he was) prayed to his gods, chanted, sharpened his axe, and fantasized about chopping demons into small pieces; and Xitaa, bless her violent little heart, actually deigned to spar with me. We used wooden swords and pulled our punches, but I bore bruises after each bout nonetheless. No, I don’t think I’ll ever be what you would call a great swordsman.

Xitaa also burned a lot of incense, and spent a lot of time meditating and reading. Fine pursuit for such a healthy and active young woman, I thought.

I stayed in contact with my two beloveds through a scrying crystal Livia had given me. All was going well back home — as far as everyone knew I was still dead, and Niall’s disappearance was blamed on angry guildsmen who felt their protection payments were too high. Livia said that she missed me, and kept me up on current events.

Narisha rehearsed me in the demon-incantation that went with the amulet, and insisted on giving me a blow-by-blow description of her and Livia’s mutual encounter with the young poet and student. She had nearly scared him to death, appearing unexpectedly as he and Livia were delicately conjoined, then the two of them had almost killed him in a much more constructive fashion. I made a face, but listened anyway. Was it magic, or was it me, I wondered? They could do anything, with anyone, and for some bizarre reason I seemed to care about them all the more. Maybe I just wasn’t the jealous type. Damn.

With a good south wind behind us, we sailed at full reach, putting ourselves days ahead of schedule. I’d sailed these waters before, though in a much smaller boat. The Elven Isles, hidden by magic and recently free of orcish invasion, passed by to the east, then the lush jungles of Xesh appeared on the western horizon. I thought briefly of Countess Xylara and her slave girl, but the Kamaz seemed more inclined to stay as far away from Xeshite shores as possible — the jarreks had a tendency to swarm out in their war canoes if you looked at them cross-eyed. We passed through sea nomad territory and never saw a single bloody city-raft, and passed the Black Cliffs unnoticed by any lurking Slaerthists. Within days, we were well within demon waters.

Skate remained at full alert for those days, with double patrols walking the deck and all eyes constantly scanning the horizon. Kamaz, a stern-faced, powerfully built woman, brooked no slacking and had us all help out.

Thick sea-fogs tended to envelop the deck at night, rising like living things out of the black water beneath us. A sailor claimed to have seen a vast, black ray-like creature glide beneath us, cast a single malevolent red eye our way, and then continue on its way, trailing a vast, rudder-like tail behind it. Once, while I was on watch, I’d swear I saw a writhing mass of black tentacles on the horizon, glinting wetly, but then they disappeared and, luckily for us, did not return.

Strange things happen in demon waters. Most magical theorists believe that the temporal rift which delivered the demons here also dragged along some of their own magical energy with it, or altered our own magical energies in such a way that normal spells don’t work, or work strangely. I didn’t dare try it out — there was no sense attracting attention to ourselves so close to our goal. My communication with Narisha and Livia ceased for the time being, and I left them to their sybaritic rituals without having to hear about them.

And we were close, no doubt of it. Kamaz discovered that our charts were out of date, and that many of the shoals and shallows listed on it had changed, growing shallower and muddier, or dropping down to unknown depths. Despite this, we proceeded smoothly, sailing through the black waters without encountering any demons or their bizarre, self-propelled ships. A little over a week after leaving Stoneburg, Arak Island swelled ahead of us, shimmering in the noonday sun.

It looked like something in a painting — a vast, shaggy green island, tangled jungle rising to a towering prominence near the center, where Hellgate Keep, stronghold of Duke Janus and his household, crouched like a moldy vulture. Of course, we were approaching from the Keep’s blindside, and would be anchoring in a sheltered inlet along the island’s eastern edge. I could only hope that our approach had gone undetected, and that Skate would be safe at anchor while my team hacked through the jungle and stole the treasure from under demonic noses.

Kamaz saw us off with her usual aplomb, gazing sternly at us as we made for the shore in a ship’s boat. On the entire journey, I hadn’t seen the woman show emotion even once, and she didn’t show it now.

My companions reflected their various personalities, either looking apprehensively toward the towering green lushness ahead like Stef, lost in thoughts of battle, sex and booze, preferably in combination, like Udo, or sitting calmly with a look of deep serenity like Xitaa. As for myself, I’m not entirely sure what I looked like — I only know it wasn’t terribly happy.

“Less than a day in and out,” I said. “I want this to go smoothly.”

“Yeah, but it never does,” said Stef, his brows knitting, his handsome blonde face contorting into an expression which said “Gods and demons, Wulf, you’ve gotten me into it again...”

“Hrm,” grumbled Udo, fingering the blade on his battleaxe. He was in what might be called standard dwarf gear — chain shirt, steel cap, heavy gauntlets and a bad attitude. “I’d hate to go through all this trouble and not meet at least one demon.”

“Goddess provide,” Xitaa muttered, her protruding lips barely moving. She had gone through some rather involved rituals the night before, involving anointing herself with sacred oils and inhaling various burning herbs, and this morning had made herself up with heavy kohl and black, shiny pigment on her lips, contrasting with her naturally pale skin. In armor she looked like death’s younger sister.

We beached the boat and concealed it in the underbrush, all muttering prayers that the demon patrols weren’t too heavy on this part of the island. Without further fanfare, we struck off into the jungle.

I breathed deeply. The air was humid and lush as the thick green all around us. Birds shrieked overhead, and insects thrummed ceaselessly, like the constant rhythm of a fever dream. I led the way, hacking through vegetation with a sickle; Lawgiver was strapped uncomfortably to my back — projecting sufficiently on both sides to make the going unpleasant.

The other three followed along behind, all professional enough to keep their mouths shut. Each warily scanned the jungle around us for any signs of the enemy. Udo and Xitaa each carried a spanned crossbow (which I trusted would not accidentally go off at a bad moment), and Stef carried a brace of throwing daggers. Narisha and Livia had pronounced a few cantrips over our weapons, giving them added potency against demons, although none of the normal arms had even a tenth the power of my own weapon. All things considered, I thought, we were quite a capable bunch.

Our capabilities were tested only once when a pair of six-legged reptilian monstrosities charged us, bellowing and hissing. They were hunting beasts — crested and horned, with the bizarre, cone-shaped eyes of chameleons. They gave us a worried moment or two, until Lawgiver’s anti-demonic enchantments helped me slice them into sections. Udo even got in a hack or two, but he seemed disappointed not to have been awarded the deathblow. Breathing heavily, and hoping that the jungle contained no further horrors, we continued.

We reached the entrance to Hellgate with no more encounters. The tunnel entrance was unguarded, overgrown with vines, and to all appearances, quite forgotten. I hoped that appearances were, for once, correct. Stef assured us that it was indeed abandoned and contained no hidden pitfalls which he could see. With all due caution, we entered.

About a hundred yards in, when the greenish light of the jungle had faded to a tiny pinhole behind us, and the drips of water, scuffling of vermin, and flutter of bats (or something) was amplified to alarming levels, I began to wonder whether the mouse-amulets we were wearing were nothing more than window-dressing with no real magical abilities simply intended to make us feel better.

I could just see my wicked Narisha explaining herself — “Well, if you thought they worked, it was as good as if they really did, wasn’t it?” — then a sweet giggle and an invitation to play.

And Wulf — the idiot — rushing to play without regard for the consequences.

The tunnel turned out to be a nightmare, but fortunately one of the more mundane kinds. We scrambled over piles of rubble, crawled through filthy muck, squeezed through passages barely two handspans wide (Udo only got stuck once), and contended with cascades of water pouring from the roof (which had the positive effect of washing most of the muck away) before finally reaching the end and the rusty, encrusted interior of an iron door. There were no more hunting beasts, no shambling legions of undead, no strange demonic magical wards — we had made it without any unnatural confrontations. I knew, however, it was too early to heave a sigh of relief.

The door was the next obstacle. I was reluctant to open it magically for fear that it might set off wards or alarms inside. If that happened, we’d be on Janus’ table that night, sautéed in lemon butter and stuffed with chestnuts. I turned to Stef.

“Okay, tapper,” I said, gesturing. “Do your stuff.”

Stef cracked his knuckles and approached the door. We watched in tense silence as he rapped quietly on the rusty surface, tested rivet heads, and searched for hinges. After a few minutes of intense concentration, he turned to me with the final verdict.

“Can’t be done,” he said.

I glared at him. “I’m so glad I brought a professional along.”

He shrugged. “The rivets are solid, it’s heavily barred from the inside, and I can’t reach the hinges. Got any ideas, boss?”

I sighed. “Sorry. I’m just on edge. I guess I’d better start casting. Just hope that this demon-magic doesn’t screw me up.”

“I’ll close my eyes.”

While Stef stood back, Udo fidgeted, and Xitaa looked solemn and beautiful, I laid out my components, wrote runes on the door, and gestured appropriately. I’m not one for shouting my invocations; I prefer to keep them reasonably secret — besides, shouted spells might attract attention. I mumbled the words as softly as I dared and held my breath as the runes glowed white- hot, and a circular hole slowly burned itself into the middle of the door. Sparks flew and an acrid smell assailed my nostrils, and in a few moments it was finished. A clean, circular plug of metal two inches thick slowly toppled from the door.

I jumped. “Catch it!” I whispered urgently. I didn’t need a loud clanging noise to complete the racket I’d created by casting. Udo trundled forward, arms extended to intercept the falling metal, but succeeded only in breaking the thing’s fall as it crashed down on him with a muffled thud.

Stef and I heaved the circle off, revealing Udo embedded in the muddy floor. He growled, climbed out (leaving an interesting negative image of himself behind), and dusted himself off without a word.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“Mrrph,” Udo grunted. “Let’s go kill something.”

* * *

We had entered an unused section of the fortress, raising my hopes that there were no wards set. As we crept through the dusty, darkened corridors, no hellish legions or demonic sorcerers assailed us, and I began to consider the possibility that we might have slipped in undetected.

In the dim light from a vine-covered grating overhead, I inspected the map of the fortress which Narisha had given me. We didn’t know exactly where the crown might be kept, but she had marked some of the more prominent possibilities. Unless I had the map completely backwards, the nearest possible hiding place was only a hundred yards or so away. With as much haste as we could manage while staying relatively quiet (Xitaa’s armor clanked a bit, but you can’t have everything).

The room we sought was in the abandoned area, and was also dusty and deserted. Resignedly, we moved on.

The fortress corridors seemed almost comfortingly familiar. The demons seemed to use similar patterns to our own human architecture, although their exteriors were baroque and complicated. Lintel stones and corridor walls were often fancifully carved with monstrous visages and abstract designs, but even these had a relatively mundane look to them. I was feeling much more optimistic as we approached a more well-traveled and -lit section of Hellgate. Here, torches burned and mageglobes shone, making one feel for all the world like a small bug on a very large plate.

Another possibility proved a washout — this room was full of crates and jars of various sizes and designs. Udo’s eyes sparked and he made a grab for one jar (whether he thought it contained wine or gold I’m not certain) before we dragged him off.

Blue shadows wavering around a bend in the corridor alerted me to approaching hazard, and I waved everyone back into the shadows, hoping desperately that Narisha’s amulets really did work.

A pair of male demon sentries stalked down the hallway as we cowered. They wore male versions of Narisha’s leather-and-mail number and looked grim. The lead bore a long, possibly decorative, scar down one cheek, while the other carried what looked like a black longbow. As I watched, the bow seemed to waver slightly, and I heard a mumbling sound, as if the bow was whispering softly to its owner.

I tensed, my hand straying to Lawbringer’s hilt, but the demons continued on. The second one backhanded his bow, growling something along the lines of, “whiny bitch...”

I let out the breath I’d been holding. Either Narisha’s mouse-amulets really worked, or we hid better than I would have thought possible.

We continued. On the third candidate room, we got lucky. Peeking around a corner, I saw a pair of demon guards standing watch outside a barred iron door with a large brass padlock, leading me to believe that something important lay beyond.

“Jackpot,” I whispered to Udo and Xitaa. “Ready to kill something?”

That was about all they needed. While Stef held back, the three of us burst out onto the surprised demon guards. Lawbringer literally leapt in my hands, lashing out to cleave the first demon even as he drew his sword, while Udo and Xitaa’s ensorcelled weapons hacked down the second. They took about a dozen blows to accomplish what I did in one (demon flesh being what it is), and their victim was a little less tidy than mine, but I wasn’t about to complain.

“Stef!” I hissed, gesturing at the lock. “Open this bastard and get me inside. The shit’s gonna hit the windmill now.”

Without a word, he went at the lock with his picks and needles, and in a moment, it popped open and Stef grinned.

“Good job,” I said. I thought about Narisha’s admonition and fingered the amulet in my pouch. “You three get rid of the bodies. I’m going to have to go in alone. I’ll let you know when I’m finished.”

Udo looked crestfallen (all this time and only one dead demon, and that a joint effort), Xitaa nodded briefly and began to drag one of the bodies away, and Stef cast me a quizzical look, then began to tug on the other. I drew a deep breath, held the amulet close, opened the door and entered.

Numbing cold assailed me the instant I opened the door. I closed it behind me, not wishing whatever was inside to get out, or to have my companions see me casting a demonic spell. I pulled out the amulet and gazed at my surroundings.

Frost rimed every surface. Beneath my feet lay a sheet of gleaming ice. Icicles like crystalline daggers as tall as me hung from the ceiling. My breath came in vast clouds of steam, and it hurt to inhale. The cold air pinched at my face, and soon my skin was aching.

Ahead lay a blank wall, as icy and cold as the rest of the room. I took a step toward it, sliding my boots across the ice- sheet to maintain friction, and the wall seemed to suddenly slide backwards, growing smaller, running away from me. The room stretched into an icicle-lined hallway, thirty, forty, fifty feet.

Clutching the amulet tightly, making sure that Lawbringer was free in its sheath, I hurried down the steadily-lengthening corridor, slipping now and then, but retaining my feet.

The lengthening of the corridor slowed (or was I catching up with it?), and the end began to approach. I strained through the fog of my own exhalations to see what was there. My heart leaped — in the center of the wall was a recessed niche. And in the niche lay a black-and-silver, jeweled crown. Gods, had I actually managed to —

No, of course not.

A billow of cold wind stopped me, kicking up a storm of ice chips, and I stumbled backward, slipping and almost falling. A thin, warbling shriek split the air, and as I tugged my sword free I saw a tall, dark form rising up from the clouds of cold air.

It came at me, long, skeletal arms outreached. It might have been human once — I wasn’t certain. A frost-covered skull-like visage leered and shrieked, blue eyes glowing from sunken sockets. Scraps of long, snarled black hair trailed from its skull and it wore some kind of tattered gray garment.

It floated a foot off the floor, speeding toward me as if blown on the cold wind, and I realized I only had an instant to cast Narisha’s spell. I held the amulet before me like a shield and rasped the impossible syllables which Narisha had taught me.

The thing kept coming, bony arms reaching, claws clutching...

I continued to growl and gargle the demon-spell. Dammit! Those demons had a different word for everything...

The amulet glowed, emitting a flash of coruscating colors, lancing out in a beam to strike the thing. It hissed, and the cold suddenly increased...

Then it was gone.

Not entirely. The room was still bone-numbingly chill, but the dry, painful quality of the cold had moderated somewhat. The walls were still hung with stalactites, and the floor was still covered in a jacket of ice, but —

I realized that the room had returned to its original dimensions; the niche was still there, crown and all, but for the moment I was fixated on what the ice-ghoul thing had evidently transformed into.

An exquisite creature, seemingly made of pale blue ice sat on a low couch, regarding me with wide, purple eyes. Her face was small, softly curved, with round cheeks, well-defined, dark- blue lips and long, straight blue-black hair. She was dressed in a white shift that exposed a considerable expanse of her legs, which were drawn up beneath her protectively. But most remarkable of all, a pair of delicate, butterfly-like wings, all frosty and colored in (surprise!) shades of blue. They had an unhealthy look to them, drooping sadly as if overburdened by the weight of ice and imprisonment.

She was faerie, by the gods. I’d been around the isles for years, and I’d never even seen one, even going so far as to nurse doubts whether they actually existed. Rumor had it that their beauty was sufficient to strike mortals dead. Fortunately, while the icy blue creature before me was a being of near-unearthly beauty, I was still very much alive. So much for that particular legend, I thought.

“You spoke the words,” she said, in a tiny, uncertain voice as if unused to verbal communications.

“Yes,” I said. “Was that just an illusion?”

“Not real, no. Not like me. You come to free me?”

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “You’re fr--” I stopped short. Around the faerie woman’s slender neck was a collar, connected to the wall by a chain. Both were seemingly made of ice.

“Wait,” I said. I approached. Cold still rolled off her; I wondered idly if it was part of the spell which had imprisoned her. I set my feet as best I could against the ice, then swung Lawbringer heavily against the ice-chain.

To my surprise, nothing happened. Lawbringer struck the chain full-force, but did not even chip the crystalline surface.

“Damn,” I muttered.

She gazed at me sadly. “Can’t break the chain that way. Chain is faerie-magic. Sword kills demon-magic.”

I sighed and sheathed the blade. “How do I break the chain, then?”

The wide eyes met mine and locked. “Demon curse,” she whispered in a voice as cold and hopeless as the cubicle she occupied. “Mortal love frees me. Makes me warm. Nothing else. No mortals here, so faerie can never be free.”

Fucking demons. I looked apologetic. “I’m afraid mortal love takes time. I... I can’t feel love for you if I just--”

She interrupted me with a scornful snort. “Not ‘love’ love, man,” she said, sounding almost amused. She ran her hands up and down her body as her shift grew tantalizingly tight, and gestured rather explicitly. “Lo-o-o-ve!”

Wulf is slow sometimes, but for once his mind was a trap of finest spring-steel. I realized exactly what she meant after only thirty seconds or so of intense thought.

“You want me to...” I began.

She hugged herself passionately and again her shift grew taunt across her firm breasts. Her expression had grown at once hopeful, joyous and mischievous. “Love me!” she said. “Love me, man. Love me and melt my chains.”

I shrugged mentally, hoping that my companions in the hall could spare me for a few more minutes. I approached, loosening my jerkin and breaches. Gods, how would I be able to perform in this cold, I wondered?

“You love me now?” she asked.

“If the cold allows,” I replied. Hell, the consequences of dysfunction here meant keeping an innocent being in chains indefinitely. I’d encountered disappointed women before (one of whom still persisted in referring to me as “Mister Flopsey”), but this would be more than I could stand. Performance anxiety began to rear its ugly head. “I don’t know if I can...”

“Hm,” the faerie said. “You can. Start here.” With a wriggle, she slid out of her shift. Her blue flesh was tight, her body slender but firm. Her small breasts were perfectly matched to her delicately flared hips and her nipples, like her lips, were a dark bluish-black. She stroked at the dark blue hair between her legs. “Start here, man. Warm first. Then love. Lots of love.”

“My pleasure,” I said, kneeling down. “My name is Wulf, by the way.”

“Wulf-man. Yes. Love me. Love Orchid.”

I placed my hands on Orchid’s thighs (I briefly feared that my hands would stick, like a tongue to a cold piece of metal, but fortunately this did not happen). Her flesh was cold and smooth as ice. Beneath my hands, however, I felt her skin grow warmer and softer. The mere touch of a human had begun to thaw her icy prison.

“Oh, yes, man.” Her voice was excited and high as my fingers massaged the dark blue lips of her sex. They, too, were icy at first, but began to warm and grow soft at my touch. Taking a deep breath, and hoping to avoid frostbite, I moistened my tongue and delicately placed it against Orchid’s nether lips.

She quivered, hands clenching and unclenching. Her thighs and cunt were streaked with blue-white now, and although the softness of her sex was still cold, it was warming and moistening rapidly. I breathed the growing moisture deeply; she was as rich as a fine wine, and I consumed her with building enthusiasm.

Orchid’s body tensed now, she leaned back, belly tightening, hands held in fists. She moaned, and the sound vibrated through my mind and into my soul. Her color paled, growing lighter and lighter blue and, looking up, I saw flashes of bright, butterfly color pulsing through her wings.

“Ohhh, man. Wulf-man... You love me. Yes.”

I stroked her thighs and held her buttocks as she lifted herself up from the couch. Beneath my tongue, more juices flowed, and the soft, succulent flesh grew almost warm. The room was still cold, but I was working on an erection of epic proportions.

The pulsating blue-white colors came faster and faster. I sucked and licked, nibbling at her lips (now flashing pink and blue as the temperature soared), tasting her deeply. I wanted to make use of the hot hardness that was growing below my belt, but I was still concerned about wilting in the cold.

I decided to chance it. I stepped back, divesting myself of clothing as quickly as I could manage. The boots caused problems, and I had to pause to pull them off, feeling the cold creep through my body, softening my epic erection. (I suppose I could have kept some of my gear on while I plunged away, but I’d always felt this was rather tacky.)

“Come to me, man,” Orchid whined, urgently, stroking herself up and down. “Fill me with yourself...”

I positioned myself between her blue-white thighs, placing my cock against her pouting, still-moist cunt-lips. Her frenetic urgings continued, and I slid smoothly inside, feeling ice-cold suddenly transform to eager warmth, then moist hotness. My erection returned in all its glory as I began to thrust in and out.

As Orchid writhed, moaning wordlessly now, I moved atop her, holding myself up on the narrow couch, watching her face contort and listening to her sighs and groans. I crushed my mouth against hers. Yes, not surprisingly, her lips were as cold here as they’d been elsewhere, but they warmed swiftly. I tasted her tongue as it slipped eagerly into my mouth, and felt a continuous flow of magical heat and excitement flowing from the faerie-woman’s head, heart and cunt.

“Mmm,” I mumbled. “I want to warm you. Set you free.”

“Set Orchid free,” she replied. “Love me. Fill me with your love.”

I continued to “love” sweet Orchid for some time. My cock slid in and out as I kissed her, stroked her and played with the delicate flesh of her breasts and nipples. She seemed to particularly like this last, and when I moved my hands elsewhere, she continued to stroke and pinch with her own fingers.

Still, after all this effort, her color never improved beyond a pale blue, and her chains remained as strong as ever. True, the rest of the room seemed to be thawing — the floor was now slushy, the icicles dripping a steady tattoo to accompany our lovemaking — but Orchid herself seemed to reach a certain point and go no further.

“I want more,” she groaned. “Give me more love now, man.”

My head started to loll and my eyes crossed. “I can’t give you any more than this, Orchid,” I gasped. “I’m doing the best I can.”

“No,” she said impatiently, even as my erect organ continued to caress the inside of her now-hot sex. “More love. Need more love. Need more man, now.”

The brief urge to tell her, “Sorry, toots. So long,” crossed my mind and was swiftly crushed by my innate sense of gallantry. My own frantic plunging was clearly not enough to break the ice- chain spell. What was the alternative? Another person to “love” Orchid?

Bingo. But who? Udo was too lost in battle-lust and would probably scare the hell out of Orchid (and besides, I had no real desire to see the greasy little freak naked), and Xitaa’s religious restrictions were a bit too strict. The only alternative was...

Gods.

I discreetly poked my head out the door, hoping to conceal enough of myself that no one would notice that I was mostly naked and still pretty excited.

They were still there, thank the fates. They looked rather bored, and no more corpses decorated the polished floor. I hissed urgently.

“Uh, Stef?” I asked. “Could you step in here for a moment? I need some help.”

Stef was quicker on the uptake than I was. He looked at the scene inside the now-dripping ice-room, glancing quizzically from me to Orchid, who lay, eyes slitted, coyly playing with herself as she waited for action to resume.

“She’s a faerie?” he asked.

“Yeah, and she needs...” I faltered. “She needs help to... to...”

“Gods damn it all, Wulf,” Stef complained, taking note of my unclothed and still relatively aroused state. “We’re out there waiting for gods know what horror to come lumbering down the hall, and you’re in here porking some female? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t--”

“Hello, beautiful man,” said Orchid in a happy, sing-song voice. “Come to help set me free?”

I shrugged helplessly. “I know what it looks like, Stef. She needs what she calls ‘mortal love’ to break her chains. It’s a curse. I can’t seem to provide enough ‘mortal love’ to do the job, so--”

“You like Orchid?” she asked again, sitting, holding her ripe, firm, and now almost white breasts up for inspection. “You love Orchid, beautiful man?”

Realization finally dawned on Stef’s chiseled features. “You mean, she wants us to...”

“You win a cookie,” I replied. “Think of it as my way of making up for you getting your arms ripped off. Now, strip for action and help me, for gods’ sake.”

Stef grinned.

My semi-friend Stef ended up displaying several talents which I hadn’t suspected. First of all, he was hung like a plow-horse, a situation which might have disturbed another female, but seemed to suit Orchid just fine.

“Big man,” she whispered, in what I hoped was mock-awe. “Let Orchid kiss your staff, big man.”

As I resumed my former place between Orchid’s thighs, I watched as Orchid tilted her head over the edge of the couch, her lips (now a pinkish violet, pulsating with color) embracing Stef’s thick organ, making muffled sounds of delight. I slipped my own cock inside her and resumed my former activities, feeling her grow still warmer inside. The dripping and melting in the room increased; I felt water dribbling down my naked back and cold water splash against my neck. Rather than discomfort, I felt all the more stimulated.

Orchid sucked at Stef with an eagerness I’d rarely seen before. His own face was contorted with an expression almost like intense concentration, and he made a rusty sound deep in his throat as the faerie-woman devoured his slick organ.

I felt her hands grab my buttocks and pull me in, faster and faster. My shaft was hot now with her juices, and her groans, muffled by the thickness of Stef’s cock, grew louder and louder. Her sweet cunt around my cock tightened and the heat increased. Water poured down from every corner of the room, (reminding me of Livia and the waterfall, not surprisingly) beading up and running down our bodies. Cold water splashed down on Orchid’s heaving belly and breasts; her nipples grew hard and swollen in response. I pumped faster and faster, and I could see Stef doing the same.

She groaned still louder, echoing from the slick walls, shaking my heart and vibrating my spirit. Orchid made incoherent sounds, clawing now at Stef, pulling him into her mouth with fervent intensity. I had never thought that a woman could come simply from sucking a man off, but Orchid seemed to be an exception — besides, she wasn’t strictly human anyway.

The room was almost warm now; the melting ice had left the air heavy with humidity. Orchid was almost normally-colored now, her skin alabaster white, her lips and nipples rich coral-color, her hair was lustrous blue-green. But the most vivid and beautiful thing about her now was her wings — they glittered and shone with a dozen colors, all rimmed in black, like stained-glass windows. Being pinned beneath her as she furiously sucked both of us into her didn’t seem to do them any harm, either.

Orchid released Stef, spittle trailing from his thick, slick shaft. She looked at me.

“You now. You here,” she said. “You there,” she said to Stef, pointing at me.

I took advantage of the break to catch my breath. I was gasping pretty heavily now. “Trade off?” I said to Stef.

Also looking rather ragged, he nodded wordlessly, and we moved to opposite positions. Orchid took my cock into her mouth, as Stef slid his own shaft into her. She stiffened as he entered her, and pulled harder on my cock. I wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer, I realized and, by the look of him, Stef wouldn’t be able to either.

Her lips moved faster and faster, purple eyes fixed on mine, hot tongue flicking up and down the length of my organ. The ice- chain looked thinner now, and meltoff ran freely down her neck and shoulders. The misty rain continued to pound down; all the ice was gone now, but the room was now awash in gallons of water.

As the heat of her mouth grew and grew, I realized that faeries must have a much higher body temperature than humans — Gods, the cold must have been hellish for this poor creature...

She let me go now, and spoke in a husky whisper.

“I want more,” she said. “More love. More men. Give me more.”

I looked at Stef. He seemed oblivious, pounding his heavy cock in and out of her saturated cunt. I was not surprised when I saw steam rising from her sex as Stef continued to thrust and thrust.

“No more,” I said, again rejecting Udo for personal reasons. “We’re all there is, Orchid.”

She looked distraught for a moment, then her face brightened. “I can make more now,” she said, excitedly. “Faerie magic works now. I can make more.”

She seized my cock again and stuffed it into her mouth. There was a shimmer in the air beside us, and a crackle of magical energy. Then, at either side of our voracious little fairy stood a naked, erect male form.

I looked at our new companions, and almost jumped out of my skin. One was me — hairy, grizzled and bewildered-looking as ever — and the other was handsome, blonde Stef, complete down to every ripple of his washboard stomach. Simulacra? Illusions? Shapeshifting elementals? I could not be sure.

What was certain was the single-minded determination with which they stepped forward, each placing his erect cock in one of Orchid’s hands. She wrapped her pale fingers around the engorged flesh and began tugging with the same fervor that her mouth sucked and nibbled at my cock. The sight was almost too much. I could feel orgasm sneaking up on me like a dark elf assassin.

The next thing I knew, the chain shattered, flinging ice shards all across the room. We tumbled to the floor in a slippery tangle of limbs, splashing down into half a foot of warm water. I was on my back, my legs wrapped around Orchid’s shoulders, as her mouth practically raped my defenseless organ, teeth delicately scoring my taunt skin. Stef was beneath us (hopefully not drowning); her buttocks worked furiously, pulling him in and out. She retained her grip on the two simulacra, who emitted moans which seemed echoes of Stef’s and my own.

Another multicolored shimmer gleamed behind her, and yet a fifth figure appeared, this one a seeming amalgam of the two of us — my face on most of Stef’s body (although a few of my scars and tattoos seem to have been duplicated as well). Also moving stiffly and apparently without much will of its own, the man-thing manipulated its own engorged cock (it resembled Stef’s more than mine, I noted briefly), placing it between pale globes of the faerie-woman’s buttocks, then thrust into her.

It’s never been one of my favored modes of lovemaking (although Narisha’s requested it often enough), and it never struck me as the most exciting thing in the world, but the fifth cock to nestle in one of Orchid’s intimate places set her off like a blazing inferno. She pumped Stef in and out with almost blinding speed. Her mouth had transformed into a fiery tunnel which I could barely tolerate. With both hands she embraced the two simulacra’s cocks, tugging and stroking, while the final player in our little ménage thrust a duplicate of Stef’s organ into the faerie’s final available orifice. Her wings, free now, flapped and fluttered gracefully, colors coruscating and shining, almost glowing with a rainbow of shades.

I couldn’t restrain myself any more. Orgasm flooded fiery sensation through my veins and I felt my cum gush into Orchid’s eager mouth. Her own muffled wails rose to a deafening level, and Stef’s shorter and shorter grunts indicated he was on the edge as well. With a heaving grunt, he came as well.

Simultaneously, our simulacra thundered over into orgasm, hot white fluid splashing all over Orchid’s hands and arms, while behind her the last one exploded all over her heaving ass.

“Ahhhh,” Orchid gasped, letting my collapsing organ go, letting cum run from her mouth. Our five-fold contractions seemed to rocked through her body, and she twitched and heaved, as if her own climax fired off all her muscles at once. “Ohhh, man... I am free...”

The three duplicates vanished in flashes of multicolored light, and she rose gently to the surface, disengaging the also- spent Stef, who lay, like me, gasping in the now-warm water. The room was downright hot now, the ice transformed to steam, and the demon crown was still safely in its niche.

Orchid was now bathed in flickering, coruscating lights, seemingly shining from her slowly flapping wings, illuminating her sweet, naked body with an unearthly glow. She hovered near the ceiling, beaming down on us with a smile that could shatter glass.

“Orchid loves you,” she said, and her voice echoed through us, as if it came from beyond the confines of the room. “Orchid loves you very much. I want more. I want more men for me. Ten. A hundred. I will have many men where I go, but you come see Orchid. Orchid will love you special. Feel love in Orchid’s land — feel her special love.”

I waved weakly. “Bye, love,” I said with all the energy I could muster. “Have a good trip.”

Stef waved as well, but could only manage a rusty squeak.

She waved as well, then faded away, her lights growing dimmer and dimmer.

“Orchid loves you,” she said, as if receding down a long tunnel. “Remember. Orchid loves you both.”

Then she was gone.

I looked at Stef, barely retaining enough strength to swivel my head.

“So, how ‘bout getting that crown and getting the hell out of here?” I said.

Stef nodded. “Argle bargle,” he replied.

* * *

“What took ya so long?” Udo demanded as we hurried from the room. The crown was safe in my backpack for now. “And why ya so wet?”

“Guardian water elemental,” I said briefly. “Spewed all over us before we could kill it.”

“Hmph,” the dwarf grunted. “Shoulda called me.”

Stef shook his head wordlessly while I ignored the little psychopath and motioned everyone to follow me down the corridor.

“Come on,” I said. “We got what we came for, now let’s get the hell out.”

Stef chuckled. “Almost too easy, huh?”

I was about to reply when I realized that the blonde idiot had probably jinxed us with that remark. Footsteps echoed down the corridor. Lots of footsteps.

“Double time!” I hissed. “We’re leaving!”

We all sprinted for the exit, away from the footsteps. Unfortunately, myriad footfalls also sounded down that route, as well.

“Crap,” I muttered. “You had to go and say it, didn’t you, Stef?”

“Sorry,” he said contritely, drawing a throwing dagger.

“Hah!” Udo barked, swinging his axe. “We’ll make mince-pies of ‘em. Come and get me, ya red skinned motherfuckers!”

Dwarves, I reflected, were not long on subtlety.

In front of us a squad of demons appeared, led by the pair we’d seen in the hallway. The bowman had his weapon out and strung, a heavy black arrow aimed straight at me. The bow continued to groan and mumble, while the other ten (or was it fifty?) or so demons held weapons in various shapes and colors, all crackling with so many enchantments I felt my hair start to stand on end.

I turned around. Xitaa was whispering some battle chant under her breath, slim longsword held on guard. Behind us it was worse. A similar crowd of demon-warriors, both male and female (and, gods help me, I’d probably have been willing to jump in the sack with any one of them, regardless of gender — such is the demons’ attraction to us, I guess) stood watching us with expressions ranging from wariness to amusement and outright hate.

In the middle of the crowd, however, stood the biggest, most muscle-bound demon male I’d ever seen. A set of heavy goat horns curled from his temples, fangs overhung his thin lips, and in each hand he held a blade that made Lawbringer look like a toothpick. He wore little in the way of clothing, revealing a chest the size of a White Empire trireme and arms like high elven guardian trees. On either side of him was a snarling hunting beast resembling a cross between a bull mastiff and a sabre-toothed tiger, each wearing a spiked collar, their eyes glaring with red- yellow animosity. I had a sneaking hunch that the demonic muscle- boy was Duke Janus himself.

“Surrender yourselves, humans,” Janus growled in a voice like mountains colliding. “This is your only warning.”

I considered this, then spoke. “Couldn’t we just talk like civilized--”

“Kill them,” Janus rumbled.

So much for diplomacy.

The demons hastened forward. I remembered the bowman behind me and dodged. The black missile whizzed through the air and struck a wall, coalescing into a sizzling, black blob which oozed up the stonework like a living thing.

Lawbringer rang from its scabbard, runes flashing blue-white, lightning crackling up and down its length. The demons in front of me hesitated, their eyes reflecting what might have been fear, at the sight of the legendary weapon.

“Time to kill!” Udo bellowed from behind me, and I heard his blade swishing through the air, contacting something with a meaty chunk. That was about all the time I had to think about Udo as the demons overcame their fear and charged in a body.

“For the Mother of All Battles!” Xitaa shouted, swinging her sword. The enhanced metal sliced a demon’s arm (it would have split an ordinary human in two, however), sending him staggering back.

As I’ve said repeatedly throughout this narrative, I’m not the best swordsman in the world, but with Lawbringer and doing most of the fighting, I certainly felt like it. The sacred blade slashed effortlessly through air and demon-flesh alike, its runes flashing brightly, leaving long silvery trails.

No demon blade could touch me. Neither claw nor tooth nor arrow could harm me. The demons before me fell back, crying out in panic. “He holds an enchanted blade!” they cried. “Ware! Heartcutter!”

I felt no mercy now — it was Lawbringer taking control, turning me into the living embodiment of Goltha of Litharna, the Demon-Slayer. Male and female demons fell before the blade’s onslaught. One female fell to her knees, black hair cascading, her eyes gazing up at me almost beseechingly. She looked like Narisha, and I saw a tattoo much like my lover’s on one breast, peeking out of her studded corset. Sorrow raged deep inside me as the blade slashed through her, sending her head spinning, and I knew that later I’d feel horrible.

Beside me, Xitaa also strove against the red-fleshed horde, albeit with somewhat less success. I glanced over to see her trading blows with a slim male demon dressed in a purely decorative chain mail vest. She beat back a blow from the demon’s axe then lunged with her thin blade (a move popular with the Xeshite blademasters, but not well known in my neck of the woods), plunging the point though her opponent’s unarmored chest. Yes, even though the demon’s body could shrug off incredible damage, two feet of steel though the midsection still finished them off admirably.

I swung again, sending an armless demon shrieking down the corridor. I realized that I now faced Duke Janus alone.

“Hello, demon,” I hissed through clenched teeth. “I bring pain.” (Not my own words, I don’t think. Maybe it was something Sir Goltha said once.)

Janus seemed unconcerned. He nodded briefly, and the nightmare-dog hunting beasts leaped at me, fangs bared, spittle strings trailing like streamers, their red eyes glowing brighter and hotter. I slashed, Lawbringer drew a glittering arc that cut through both beasts midsections, slicing them in two. Blood and other, less savory, substances splashed against the stone walls.

Janus was still unmoved, and leisurely moved toward me, brandishing his twin swords.

“You bring me pain, human,” he rumbled. “I bring you much, much more.”

Our weapons clanged together and to my surprise, Lawbringer’s swath of destruction finally crashed to a stone cold stop. Something in the demon’s weapons had made the blade’s magic flee, and I was once more just a second-rate swordsman trying to fight with a sword I could barely hold up.

Janus chuckled. “We demons have our own heartcutters,” he growled, like a Veldt Land saber-cat ready to pounce. “And you will know pain, human, not me.”

I parried clumsily, but he knocked Lawbringer from my hands. Panic seized me in a rough grip, and I turned to flee. Calmly, without hurry, he stabbed me in the back.

I fell. I screamed. I did, indeed know pain. The substance of the demon-blade coursed through my veins like acid. I rolled over, looking up at Janus. He stood above me, smiling evilly.

“I’ll not grant you the mercy of a quick death, human,” he said. “You’ve cost me many fine warriors today, with your pathetic little toy sword.” The wickedly fanged point of one of the blades moved inexorably toward my face. Gods. Narisha...

“Mother of All Battles! Deliver your servant!”

Xitaa’s entreaty echoed down the corridor, riveting the few surviving combatants. Janus looked up, annoyed.

“Purge the demon! Goddess save us!”

Xitaa stood proudly, legs planted widely apart, arms upraised, sword pointing skyward. She looked for all the world like one of Rexxara’s own battle-maidens, her armor splashed with blood, her face and voice defiant.

A deep rumbling filled the hall. Gods... No, I thought — Goddess...

Light flashed down Xitaa’s blade, and then lanced out to strike Janus in the chest.

It wasn’t enough to kill. But it was enough to send the duke tumbling backwards, his twin blades clanging to the floor.

My pain seemed to vanish, and the clean peace of pure battle filled my soul. I stood.

“Lawbringer!” I shouted, and the great sword flew through the air to plant itself in my hands. I advanced upon the stunned Janus.

He struggled to his feet. His swords were gone. He looked at me fearfully.

“No pain, demon,” I said quietly. “I’ll cause you no pain.”

I killed him quickly and watched his lifeless body crumple to the floor. Wearily, I sheathed Lawbringer and turned to go.

Xitaa joined me. As we stepped over piles of sundered demon bodies, I looked frantically around for Udo and Stef.

Udo was easy. He had been slammed against a wall and lay, insensible but alive, cradling his precious axe. Stef, on the other hand...

His head was about ten feet away from his body. A demon sword had sliced cleanly through his neck. He probably never knew what hit him.

I kneeled down, frantically mumbling charms to determine if his body still retained its vital spark. Deep inside him, I thought I detected a faint pulse. Gods, maybe...

Xitaa kneeled beside me, placing Stef’s head on his chest. She knew what I was doing, and joined me in hastily muttering a binding spell, hopefully enough to keep his spirit alive for the duration of the trip back. If we were very lucky, a high priest of Phaedra might be able to put him back together.

Grimly, we packed up our companions, and hurried from the dreadful fortress, now little more than a slaughterhouse.

Now, with all the fighting over, I could finally feel sick.

* * *

Weariness pretty much oozed from every pore of my body. We had succeeded, but in my estimation, the price had been almost too high.

I saw to Stef’s sundered remains and made sure that the binding enchantment was still active — all the while steeling myself for the beating which Stef was sure to deliver once he recovered. I made a mental note to offer him a bonus as soon as he was capable of communication.

Udo was still out cold, and I hoped that his dwarven constitution would pull him through. For the moment, I thought, crossing the deck with the Demon Crown secure in my bag, there was nothing I could offer save prayer.

In retrospect, I should have realized that my travails weren’t over, but what happened next exceeded anything I could have foreseen.

I knew something was wrong the instant I opened my cabin door. The interior was lit with the rich, yellow glow of a dozen oil lamps, scattered throughout the small chamber, and the exotic scents of spicy incense filled the air.

The incense burned in four small braziers, one placed at each corner of the bed. The intruder who had placed them there, however, was the most astonishing thing of all.

Xitaa the Rexxaran sat cross-legged on my bed, hands placed together before her. Rich, violet eyes stared into space, as if focused on something distant, and only barely visible. Her breathing was slow and measured, and her white skin gleamed in the lamplight. I saw an open bottle of oil on the floor, centered at the foot of the bed.

Oh, yes — did I forget to say that she was completely naked as well? Doubly so for her near-total lack of hair, save for her long, now-braided scalp-strip. Her skin was quite fair, decorated here and there with small (but strangely tasteful) scars. Her wound from the battle at the keep had healed completely (probably with the help of prayer), and was now indistinguishable from her other scars. My own nasty wound, I noted, had also been healed by Rexxara’s timely intervention.

“Welcome, Sword Brother,” she said. Her voice had a strange timbre — a subtle shift of tone which made it sound even deeper and more serious than it had before. “Come, partake of Rexxara’s blessing and absolution.”

With that, she moved her hands apart, extending her arms, elbows slightly bent, palms facing me, presenting a small, rounded pair of breasts, with exquisite pink nipples, to my view.

That was about all the encouragement I needed. I entered with more haste than was strictly seemly, shutting and bolting the door behind me. I made to approach the bed, but she stopped me with an abrupt gesture, her shapely violet eyes fixing me with an intense gaze.

“Come no nearer until you have prepared yourself, brother,” she said. “For I am no longer entirely the woman you knew as Sister Xitaa. I have shed blood and taken life as the Mother of All Battles has decreed. But now, having performed the rituals for the taking of life, we must perform the act which symbolizes the giving of life.”

I had surmised as much, and was quickly coming to the realization that these Rexxarans weren’t anywhere near as stiff- necked and repressed as everyone thought.

“I am Xitaa,” she continued in a voice which was at once imperious and softly inviting, “but I am also now vessel to Mother Rexxara, Goddess of Just Battle. Join with us, brother, wash clean the blood of our enemies with the perfect love of the Goddess.”

Gods — I guess you learn something new every day, eh? I was about to take Rexxara/Xitaa up on her offer (making love to a goddess not being something anyone would turn down readily), when she stopped me again.

“Prepare,” she whispered, all seductive grace now. Her hands moved in intricate patterns, palms weaving in and out, breasts and belly moving rhythmically. Shadows lay between her thighs and I was suddenly seized by the intense desire to see what was hidden there.

“Prepare,” she repeated. “Unclothe your body that the Goddess may see you. Anoint yourself with her sacred oils that you may be purified.”

I didn’t hurry; haste struck me as unseemly right now. I took a deep breath, filling nostrils and lungs with spicy fragrance, then loosened my shirt and breeches. In a few moments, I stood before Xitaa, naked as the day I entered the world.

The Goddess seemed to approve — a smile crossed Xitaa’s face for the first time. It was assisted, I imagine, by the actions of my organ, which rapidly rose from half-mast status to full — and rather uncomfortable — attention.

“It is good,” she said, and her seductive tone increased, dripping from her words like honey. “Rexxara desires you. Anoint your body now, and receive her favor.”

The oil was a fragrant concoction, and I’m sure it cost a fortune (assuming non-Rexxarans could even purchase it, of course). I slathered it on my neck, chest, stomach and thighs, rubbing fiercely.

It tingled and burned much like the fluids of my beloved Narisha. I thought of her briefly (my erection jumping a bit further at the notion), but I realized that she wasn’t here. This was one experience I wanted to keep to myself.

“Approach, warrior,” Xitaa murmured. She lay back on the bed, now, torso elevated on a pile of pillows arranged with ritualistic precision, and uncrossed her legs, while carefully lacing her fingers behind her naked head.

“Let me gaze on a goddess for a moment,” I said, running my eyes up and down the warrioress’ body.

She was a muscular woman — each individual sinew firmly outlined and distinct (I suspected strongly that she could beat me arm wrestling). Solid, angular shoulders gave way to arms which looked strong but in no way grotesque. Small, shapely breasts rose above the sharpness of her ribs and the taunt smoothness of her belly. Pale and powerful thighs framed her sex, smooth and hairless as the rest of her, clean-shaven and delicate, creating a gentle, soft center amid the harsh rigidity of her fighter’s physique.

Yes, I believed a goddess lived in those corded arms and powerful thighs, but She also dwelt in the fragile pink flower of her cunt.

“Let me worship Rexxara,” I said simply, and joined her on the bed.

Goddess she may have been (or at least an avatar), but her tastes were strictly earthly. We flowed together like water, our slick skin sliding without friction, the pressure of fingers and mouths running freely along each other’s bodies.

I kissed her deeply, tasting wine and other, more exotic things on her tongue. She returned my kisses with passion, roaming inside my mouth as our bodies combined and recombined.

My hand sought her breast, gliding along her oil-slick, hairless belly to enclose the sweet little globe and tickle its rapidly-hardening center of desire. She moaned against my mouth, sending delicate vibrations through me.

“Worship me,” she whispered, fiercely. “Worship me!”

Her own fingers ranged over my chest, fingering my own nipples as I toyed with hers. I moved lower to embrace her breasts with my lips, rolling swollen nipples between my teeth.

Her mouth free, Xitaa provided a running commentary, part ritual, part passion.

“Nurse at the breasts of the mother of passion, mortal,” she gasped, words barely coherent. “Stroke my flesh and feel my blessings radiate outward... we join together in penance and faith, you and I... worship me and worship the Goddess...”

My mind grew strangely divided. In one half, I gave in to passion, and explored the eager body of this goddess-woman, taking back pleasure from her lips and fingers to equal what I gave.

The other half of my awareness writhed in something resembling religious ecstasy. That this act — so thoroughly pleasurable and essential to our natures — could be considered a form of worship aroused a deep-seated longing in me, and now both halves fed off of each other. I truly believed, now, that Xitaa was an earthly incarnation of a terrible goddess of violence and passion, of creation and destruction.

“Take my body,” I rasped with the same pent-up desire as Xitaa had spoken. “I surrender to the Goddess...”

Then Xitaa was kissing and fondling my engorged cock, tracing its outlines with finger and tongue, all the while continuing to chant in a near-trance of religious and sexual fervor.

“Oh, the Goddess is good, she is kind... Let her lips embrace your manhood, be one with her... Pay homage with your lips and tongue... Pay her homage and she returns your pleasure tenfold... Now, man, belong to the Goddess, accept her love... Love her, lie with her, find joy in her sweet recesses, find pleasure in her soft breasts and loving cunt...”

Her lips encircled my cock and, without further preliminaries, she swallowed its entire length, eyes closed, body trembling. Soft, wet warmth enveloped me, as if she were sucking my entire body inside her.

I was damned if I’d be the only one accepting Rexxara’s blessing. With a heave, I pulled Xitaa’s hard body atop mine, placed my hands on her thighs, spread them apart and thrust my face into the depths of her pink, hairless sex.

She stiffened, and a high-pitched sound escaped from her throat, vibrating through my manhood, then her trembling increased. She periodically released my cock to utter another invocation, then enveloped it again, groaning deeply, stroking with lips and tongue, as a feverish heat rose deep inside me.

“Feel the Goddess’ passion... mmm... against your burning flesh... mmm... Her blessing in each caress... mmm... of her gentle tongue.”

All of this made me even wilder, of course, and as sexual and religious passion grew closer and closer together in my mind, I wanted her more and more.

I told her so. I asked quite nicely, in fact.

She complied instantly, lying back on her pile of pillows, opening up her beautiful cunt for me, now slick with my own spittle and her sweet honey.

“Fill the cunt of the Goddess,” she said in excited, yet strangely measured and ritualistic tones. “Fill her cunt with your manhood and accept her blessing.”

Pure, wild lust had pretty much taken over, and without further preliminaries, I slipped my cock between the moist pink lips and thrust deeply into the warm wetness inside.

After all the build-up, Xitaa’s climax was instantaneous, clamping down on my cock like a fist. Through clenched teeth she groaned, gasping out a further litany.

“Fill your goddess’ womb, man... Ohhh... Spill your seed inside her blessed cunt... Ohhh... Fill her... Love her...”

I let her climax progress before I finally abandoned control.

“Share with the Goddess, blessed, beautiful mortal. She loves you, loves your cock, loves your seed... Ohhh... Fill her mortal... Ohhh... Fill her now...”

On cue, I crashed noisily and unstoppably into orgasm, hot semen geysering from my cock, spewing into the moist goddess-cunt.

I groaned — it was not over... A second wave crashed over me, and blinding orgasm flashed through my veins again.

I think I went somewhere else for an instant. Perhaps it was only Xitaa’s religious trance, or perhaps I really did move briefly to the land beyond, where the gods all dwell.

In the last instant of my second orgasm, I saw her — a beautiful, red-haired woman clad for battle, naked sword in her hand, cold fire in her eyes.

I met those eyes without fear. As our gazes locked, the beautiful woman smiled a secret smile, and nodded approvingly...

Then, she was naked, lush and fleshy, breasts like small planets, hips wide and inviting, hands held out seductively, still smiling a secret smile...

Then I was back, lying on the bed, my last scintilla of strength drained, and Xitaa was beside me, collapsed into sated unconsciousness.

Rexxara? I don’t know. Perhaps. At that point, I knew better than to speculate. I was pretty useless for the remainder of the trip back. Xitaa immediately returned to her steely warrioress’ persona, and Udo eventually recovered, assaulting one crewman and demanding rum. We kept Stef’s soul-binding renewed, and I hoped desperately that we’d gotten it cast in time.

Skate’s crew remained friendly in a distant, professional way. They had some idea what we’d been through, and didn’t begrudge me my exhaustion. The last bit of exertion with Xitaa I didn’t share, but it certainly added to my total collapse. I didn’t even have the strength to communicate with Livia and Narisha — I figured to surprise them, anyway.

We escaped demon waters without further danger, and skirted hazardous areas on the way back. I was grateful that I wasn’t called out to fight off pirates or fish-people or even a cloud of fierce mosquitoes, and the sight of the teeming open sore that was Stoneburg was one that I never thought I would be happy to see.

The place simply wasn’t the same. The buildings seemed even more run-down, the streets even more filthy, the inns even less appealing. Even the women looked tawdry. Slowly, in a fog, I walked down Skate’s gangway and, accompanied by one of Kamaz’s larger and more threatening crewmen, hocked a soul-gem to a wide-eyed nobleman for about half what it was worth.

Even so, I received enough chinking, gleaming coins to pay off Kamaz, her crew and Udo with a substantial bonus, make a large contribution to Xitaa’s temple, and drop another bundle to a Phaedran priest to rejoin Stef’s sundered remains and nurse him back to health. I chewed my nails to the elbow for several hours waiting to see if the spells took, and finally the priest returned with a beatific smile to inform me that my friend “would be fine.”

“Is he awake?” I asked, worriedly eyeing the door to the infirmary.

“Oh no,” the priest said sadly, no doubt figuring in his head how many women my gold would entice to the temple that evening, and whether he’d have to settle for sloppy seconds after the grand patriarch. “An injury of this magnitude... He’ll sleep for days. Shall I send him to you when he awakens?”

“No!” I said hastily, almost leaping to my feet, then calmed myself forcibly. “I mean, don’t say anything about me.” I held out a pouch full of gold and very pretty gems. “But do give him this, please.”

The priest grabbed the pouch a hair too fast for my tastes.

“And,” I added, ominously, “if he tells me that he received one copper groat less than what’s in there, I’m coming back with an army of Jarreks and burn this festering boil of a temple to the ground.”

I heard the priest begin to respond indignantly, “My good man — how dare you...”

But by then I was gone.

The final phase of my mission had arrived. With puppyish eagerness (for which I thoroughly despised myself) I hurried to Livia’s, the crown still safe in my pack.

Thankfully, her sprites recognized me and let me in. I walked through her long, marble entry hall, feeling the satisfaction of a job accomplished, and the fevered anticipation of pleasures to come.

Livia was busy shelving books in her library as I entered. She was dressed in a white gown, her pale hair gleaming in the sunlight. To my own senses, narrowed down only to the thought of at last seeing her again, the library seemed a bit brighter and warmer than the tarnished city outside.

“Hello, Livia,” I said.

When she turned, her pale blue eyes met mine. She caught her breath, then flung herself at me.

“Wulf!” She cried, embracing me with sufficient strength to crack my ribs. “Why didn’t you contact us?” she demanded, fixing me with a stern gaze, the pale blue growing slightly clouded. “I was afraid you’d been...”

“No,” I replied. “But what did happen is a long story. From what I’m given to understand, however, Stef will survive, but he’ll have a scar all the way around his neck.”

“Ah.” She looked contrite. “Any other casualties?”

“Well, almost me, but for the intervention of the Mother of All Battles. But I’ll tell you later. Where’s Narisha?”

Livia’s eyes narrowed. “In the bedroom. Care to see her?”

I grinned. “Love to. Lead on.”

She didn’t lead me to the bedroom, however. We ended up in her scrying room and uncovered one of her crystals. (Damme, she could watch any corner of her house! I hadn’t realized.) The sight revealed was both maddening and sweetly familiar.

Narisha was on her hands and knees, naked save for a slender chain around her waist, and various anklets and bracelets. A slender, boyishly handsome young man was positioned behind her, pushing a similarly slender, but quite long, cock into her, while she kept her tongue busy between the legs of a black-skinned, silver haired woman with pert breasts and long legs.

“Your poet?” I asked.

Livia nodded.

“The woman?”

“A dark elf noblewoman,” Livia replied. “A friend of mine who happened to drop by. Very entertaining woman.”

“I imagine. Hope she’s less homicidal than the other dark elves I’ve met.”

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’d never had a demon before, and--

“Looks as if the demon’s having her.” I frowned. “If we’re going to be voyeurs, can we get sound on this thing as well?”

Livia made a gesture, and I heard Narisha’s voice, harmonizing with the moans of her two companions.

“Sweet little elf,” she whispered, then dipped her head to lap at the wet black flesh. “My sweet little princess.”

The poet moaned deeply.

“My boy want to come?” she asked alluringly. “Come for your lover.”

On cue, the young one contorted in orgasmic ecstasy, clutching Narisha’s fleshy buttocks and wailing incoherently.

“Yes, yes,” whispered Narisha. “You come so well for your lover...” Then she was back to work on the elf.

“Damn,” I muttered.

“What?”

“The stupid red-skinned tart still has me,” I growled. My breeches were tight as a drumhead. Again. “You feel the same?”

Livia nodded, looking vaguely embarrassed. “I think the spell wore off a long time ago, though,” she said. “This appears to be real, now.”

“Grrr,” I said. “Well, shall we go inform her of my triumphant return when she’s finished?”

Livia considered this. “That could be hours yet,” she replied, “and in all honesty I’d rather have you to myself for a while.”

I didn’t argue. She glided to her knees and loosened my belt, pulling out my now-tumescent organ with experienced fingers.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered, planting kisses along the hot flesh.

I gave myself up to her touches, and we were soon fully interwoven, the sounds of Narisha and her other lovers’ passions filling our ears.

Narisha’s companions had retired when we sought her out, the dark elf (whose name, I learned, was Daedora, and was related to the deadly Lady Thae’lynn only very distantly) to her chambers, and the poet to wherever poets go. Narisha lay in all her naked glory, inadequately covered by black silk sheets, dozing and breathing shallowly.

I kissed her gently, and her yellow eyes flickered open.

“Wulf!” she cried, in a tone reminiscent of Livia’s. I was gratified.

I held out the crown. “Yours, I believe?”

She snatched it up and inspected it.

“Darling man!” she declared, throwing her head back and howling with joy. Her breasts heaved disconcertingly. I noticed that she’d changed her nipple gem to a gleaming black stone.

“And you’ll be happy to learn that Duke Janus is history,” I said, “thanks to your generous offer of the sword.”

She grinned broadly. “Kneel down, freelance,” she said. “I want to see it all.”

I complied, as Livia sat on the bed nearby. Narisha placed her hands on my temples, muttered an incantation, and I felt the past weeks’ experiences flickering from my mind into hers.

Narisha’s face underwent a variety of interesting contortions, all of them pleasant. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Yes! Oh!”

When we reached the interlude with Orchid, she closed her eyes and sighed.

“A faerie woman! I should have known.”

She took her hands away and savored the sensations I’d sent her.

“You both did well,” she said. “Or should I say, all five of you?”

I shrugged. “She seemed to take energy from all of us and give it back. I’m not entirely sure what really happened.”

“Faeries are empathic,” said Livia. “They absorb the emotions and sensations of those around them. The more partners they have, the more sensation and pleasure they gain.”

“They’re very fond of orgies,” Narisha said, wistfully.

“You and Stef apparently pumped in enough sensation to recharge her magical abilities,” Livia said with all the aplomb of a sorcery instructor at the academy.

Narisha continued to review my adventures. When she reached the battle with Janus’ warriors, the bloodlust I’d seen in her wild eyes as she killed Niall returned, and when she witnessed Janus’ death, her face transformed somewhat, taking on the bewhiskered appearance of the black and red striped tiger-like creature. A snarl escaped her throat.

Then she was back to normal, and followed the story up to that magical encounter with Xitaa.

“Ohhh,” she muttered softly as her hips began to gyrate, jouncing the bed up and down somewhat. “Oh, so beautiful...”

I’m not sure if she came or not at the end of the scene, but she certainly seemed to enjoy it.

“Such a lovely creature, your priestess,” she said. “Perhaps she can join us someday.”

“Well, in the first place, she only does it after she’s killed someone,” I replied. “And in the second place, I think she prefers men.”

“I can show her the error of her ways,” Narisha purred.

We finished my mental narration, and I looked up to see her smiling prettily, gazing down at me with unconcealed affection.

“My darling, darling,” she whispered, stroking my cheek. “I’m yours forever.”

I smiled back. “I’ll believe it when I see it, love.”

* * *

We ate an early supper by candlelight, joined by Daedora, who took her food quietly and delicately, speaking little, but occasionally fixing me with the smoldering gaze of her pale, white eyes. Narisha excused herself to clean up and prepare for our official reunion in her bedchamber, and Daedora said she needed some rest (given the force and volume of the orgasm I’d heard from her, I well believed it), leaving Livia and me alone in the dining room.

“Well,” I said at last. “What now?”

“What do you mean?” Livia’s blue eyes sought me out; her blonde hair reflected dimly in the candlelight.

“I mean, this isn’t the most orthodox of arrangements — you, me, her. I need a little guidance, or at least some idea of what the hell I’m doing. Have you got any idea where we should go from here?”

She shrugged. “I’ve done well over the past few years living day to day,” she replied. “I see no reason to stop now.”

“I’m afraid that I don’t really have that option,” I said. “The fact is that Stoneburg believes I’m dead. If I show my face anywhere and prove that I am, in fact, alive, the authorities might start asking me some tough questions about Scrutator Niall’s mysterious disappearance, among other things. I can’t stay in this city.”

Livia looked stricken. “Are you saying you’re leaving?”

I touched her hand. “I’m saying that we should all leave, for a while at least. A sea cruise will do us some good, and let us get this twisted, bizarre relationship straightened out. The Empire is beautiful this time of year, and there are beaches in Xesh where no one ever goes besides jarrek beachcombers.”

She considered this. “How long?”

“As long as you want,” I said. “I’ve made an offer to Kamaz for Skate, and I suspect she’s willing to take it.”

“We’ll need a crew.”

“Always the practical one, my love.” I leaned back and stretched. “I just want you to think about it and tell me.”

She nodded, then smiled. “Tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll worry about it tomorrow.”

* * *

Memories of that night are rather fuzzy to me. Narisha and Livia had obviously planned it for some time. The bedroom was softly lit by blue stargems. Incense glowed redly, filling the room with fragrance. The three of us lay on the bed in an indiscriminate tangle, touching, kissing, licking and sucking without regard for who was who.

Was that Narisha’s tongue, or was it Livia’s, which hotly stroked my cheek? Whose hand gently brushed my chest? Did I gently suck at Livia’s nipple or Narisha’s? (Oops — my teeth bit solidly on polished stone — must be Narisha.) As I kissed one tender mouth and felt another caress my cock, I realized that I didn’t care.

The bedchamber was like another world, separate from the city and the sea and the shores beyond. There, we came together in limitless combinations, finding new truths in the simple geometries of passion. In the dark, incense-perfumed depths of that small room we journeyed to different realms, each finding universes within the confines of the others’ bodies.

The passion didn’t stop after Livia came to a moist, heart- stopping climax, or when Narisha cried out like a soul in torment, her succulent cunt grasping my cock like a fist, or even when I splashed hot come across Livia’s breasts and belly, and Narisha slowly and luxuriantly licked them clean.

As I said, the women had prepared for this moment. Livia shared a thick green concoction with us, which restored our vitality in a moment, and sent us into the throes of new passions.

Livia and I took turns lapping at Narisha’s wet, black cunt lips, holding her between us, forcing her to climax after climax, drenching us in her intoxicating demonic fluids.

Then, it was Livia’s turn. Narisha held her wrists and whispered hotly in her ear as I thrust my organ deeply inside her, feeling her come around me, moaning and begging for more.

Gods, that potion must have added a bit of enthusiasm, I realized as I took my place between the two women, watching them share my cock between their two sets of pouting lips and flickering tongues, breaking off now and then to kiss each other deeply and stroke each other’s bodies. I couldn’t hold out long with this kind of treatment, and poured forth once more, my body tensing and convulsing. They shared my seed as well, licking from each other’s faces.

They left me alone for a time as they pleasured each other and I watched the two supple bodies, scarlet and white, sliding together, kissing, sucking, licking...

I felt something of what Orchid must have felt as my own brain and heart echoed with my two lovers’ orgasms, and I sighed deeply, happy for myself and for them.

This went on for the rest of the night. I suspect that potion was rather valuable, and we must have consumed over half of it.

My exertions didn’t get any easier, either. Claiming to have been kept awake by our moaning, groaning and sighing, Daedora slid in to bed with us, sleekly naked, her black skin blending into the fragrant shadows.

I had forgotten the sweet delicacy of elven flesh and its enticing qualities. This particular dark elf was somewhat less wicked than the last one I’d been with, so I was able to make love to her without fearing for my life. The four of us were at it until dawn, when Daedora left us to lie in exhaustion.

As I drifted off to sleep, I remember speculating about what an impressive orgy we would have with me, Stef, and the still- nameless poet on one side, and my two lovers, Orchid and Daedora on the other. Perhaps if she had killed an orc or two, Rexxara might be persuaded to join in.

We dragged ourselves out of bed around noon and took some sustenance. I explained my plans for Skate and a pleasant sea journey to Narisha, and to Livia, who seemed to have forgotten all about them, for some reason.

“The money from those damned ghost-gems will keep us in luxury for years,” I said, “and we can sail that ship anywhere. Livia, you can let your poet manage your place in your absence, or something.”

Narisha looked sad and wistful. “It sounds wonderful, my dearest lover,” she said, her once-fearful voice tinged with tenderness and sorrow, “but I can’t stay here.”

If she’d shoved a dagger into my heart I wouldn’t have been more surprised. Livia looked the same way, staring speechlessly.

Our demoness bowed her head. “I have to go back. I have to return the crown. I doubt that my father will allow me to return.”

I was about to start babbling questions, suggestions, and ways out of the dilemma when a booming voice echoed from behind us.

“Perhaps not.”

A tall, powerful and devastatingly handsome male demon stood in the doorway to the dining room. He was clad in a simple leather jacket and breeches, and many of his living blue tattoos matched Narisha’s. I was just noting that his taste in clothing was far more tolerable than Narisha’s or Janus’, when Narisha squealed.

“Daddy!”

Of course.

“Lord Cammon the Flayer?” I asked, rising to my feet.

“The same,” he rumbled. “I prefer Lord Cammon the Just, however, and don’t believe those stories about my burning Mie and killing those Vendayan Adepts, either. Pure propaganda.”

“Come sit,” Livia said, hastily, offering a chair. “Care for some breakfast? Uh, or is it lunchtime?”

He shook his magnificent horned head. “I’m just passing through to collect some property.”

“A certain crown?” I asked.

“You guessed it. Not bad for a human.”

“How did you get here?” Livia demanded. “This house is warded to hell and back.”

He shrugged, approaching the table. “I’m a better sorcerer than you are. Now, about that crown?”

I retrieved it from the bedroom and handed it to him. He took it with a grateful nod. Narisha had been uncharacteristically silent through all of this, staring with mounting concern, first at me, then at Cammon.

“I’m so sorry, daddy,” she babbled at last, looking more troubled and uncertain than I’d ever seen her. “I know I was supposed to look after it, and it was a lot of responsibility, and you said you’d be really upset if I lost it, but...”

He waved a hand. “But you dropped the runestick. Yes, I know. You almost lost us everything, daughter. But in the end it had a positive effect. Your frail little human friend here sliced my greatest enemy into lunchmeat, and we’re all the more powerful for it. I forgive you.”

She stared without immediate comprehension. “You do?”

He nodded. “Of course, I can’t let your transgressions go unpunished.”

Narisha closed her eyes and made a face, steeling herself for the worst.

“Go ahead, daddy,” she said. “I’m ready.”

Instead of addressing her directly, he turned to me.

“Human, you’ve done me a great service,” he said, placing a massive paw on my shoulder. “You consider my daughter a friend.”

I swallowed. “More than that, my lord. I... I love her very much. Both she and you have helped me to understand your kind, and I know now that you’re intelligent, rational and sensitive beings like us. For that, I’m grateful.”

“If you consider us sensitive, you’re dead wrong, human. We’re a pretty gamey lot, actually. In fact, we’re just as bad as you are. In any event, you’re a fit companion for my daughter.”

He turned to Livia. “And you? Do you feel the same way?”

Livia seemed reluctant to respond.

Cammon made an impatient gesture. If he’d had an axe in his hand, he’d have decapitated me. “Don’t worry, I don’t share the prejudices of your narrow-minded priestly types. Are you lovers?”

Livia colored. “Y-yes, my lord. I love her, too.”

“Good.” Cammon looked at Narisha. “Daughter, as your punishment, I decree that you roam the world for a period of not less than five years. You may retain all your powers, ranks and privileges, but you may not return to our estates during that time. I give you into the care of these two humans, and hope that you can learn from each other.”

Narisha’s eyes sprang open, and she smiled, throwing her arms around her father’s shoulders. “Daddy! I love you!” she declared.

Actually, Cammon did stay for lunch, eating roast boar and greens with manners completely unlike his daughter. By the end of the meal, I was actually developing quite a fondness for the old bastard. He was practically my father-in-law, after all.

Cammon bid us a warm farewell, kissed his daughter and embraced Livia and me, then mumbled a spell and was gone.

“Well,” I said. “That’s that.”

Just then, Daedora wandered gracefully into the room, clad in one of the lacy, revealing numbers of which dark elves seem so fond. After Thae’lynn, I was glad Daedora had no fondness for body piercings. Narisha’s nipple ring was quite enough for me.

“Good morning,” she said, sweetly. “Have we all recovered?”

“Hello, my sweet little elf,” Narisha said, pressing a finger to her chin and looking thoughtful. “By the way, have you ever sailed a ship?”

* * *

Skate set sail four days later, riding the warm trade winds south, toward the vast and decadent expanses of the White Empire, and the pale, sandy beaches of Xesh.

Livia was our nominal captain, owing to extensive sailing experience while roaming the outer sea as a teenager, and the fact that she could command her sprites to do much of the shipboard work. The rest of the crew included myself, Narisha, Daedora (no, she’d never sailed a ship, but she was willing to learn — besides, she told us, the sex was the best she’d ever had), Stef (I talked him into it, but I had to let him thrash me a little bit first), Udo (he had all the nautical skill of a small piece of lint, but he was a hell of a fighter), and a number of Skate’s old crew, who couldn’t bear to leave the old gal.

The gleaming blue water of the southern seas spread out before us, and the sails bellied before a stiff breeze. I stood with Livia at the bow, watching a pair of dolphins swim and cavort, gleaming blue in our bow-wave. I wondered if we’d see any merrow on the trip. The possibilities seem endless.

“How’s your eye?” Livia asked. She was dressed in shipboard style — breeches and boots and a loose, roomy shirt. Looking at her, I reflected that she was shaping up into a fairly decent captain.

“Not bad,” I replied. “At least I can open it now.” The black eye — actually, it was a variety of exciting colors by now — was a gift from Stef, who had managed to track me down despite my best efforts to the avoid detection. Another sack of gold had mollified him somewhat, or had at least prevented him from killing me. At length, he’d agreed to help sail Skate, especially when I told him that we might go pay Orchid a visit. That morning, I had heard the crew making bets as to which part of his body he’d lose next.

“I’m glad,” Livia replied. “Your eyes are precious.”

I chuckled. “So are yours,” I said. “So is all of you. So is Narisha. So are Stef, and Daedora, and Udo, and the rest of the crew. Hell, we’re in pretty good shape, aren’t we?”

She nodded, smiling. “I’ve been reading your memoirs.”

“Oh, really?” I asked, somewhat incensed. “They’re not really finished yet. What did you think?”

“You use too many similes, you need to understand the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ but the basic style is competent. You do tend to portray yourself as a female-magnet, however. I find the lurid details of your sex life less than believable. And you really like comparing women to statues, don’t you?”

“Gee, thanks,” I replied sourly. “I bet I got the stuff with you right, though.”

For once, she didn’t respond. We watched the dolphins in silence for a time. I squinted toward the horizon. “So where to first, captain? The fleshpots of the Empire? The deserted beaches of Xesh where two or more broad- minded individuals could make love in the sun for hours on end? The Green Archipelago in Vendaya where you can rent a jungle villa for a mere pittance and wander around naked all day? The Cold Isles where you can cavort wildly in the snow? The Lastlands? The Border Kingdoms? The Wilds? Murvane? The Veldt Lands? Anywhere else your heart desires?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t care. Anywhere, as long as you’re there.”

“And Narisha?”

“And Narisha. She’s pretty much chained to us for the foreseeable future.”

I sighed. “I really don’t mind all that much, actually.”

“Neither do I,” Livia admitted. “She’s off with Daedora, I think. By the way, I have a present for you.”

I looked at her and raised my eyebrows expectantly. “Yes?”

She reached into a pocket and proffered a small stone carving that glimmered in rainbow hues.

I took it. Eish, Xeshite, erotic...

“The one I stole from Tev,” I said.

She nodded, smiling. “I thought it might have sentimental value,” she said. “Now, would you like to retire to your cabin, just the two of us for once?”

Oh, hell, I thought. I must have attracted all the bizarre fortune that other people missed. I sighed, pocketing the figure, figuring that it was about time that I just accepted things. After all, I was alive, relatively wealthy, and in love. With two women. I felt a sudden urge to go laugh in the face of the Grand Patriarch.

Gods, Narisha had done a job on us. But I still loved her, even if she was back in her cabin even now, making violent love to a dark elf woman. I squeezed Livia gently and kissed her briefly on the lips, then followed her gently swaying form back amidships. I loved them all, and if they loved each other, so much the better.

Damn, but love is strange.

— END —