"She's not coming back, is she?" Ruby whispered as Carrow held her, rocking her in the bottom bunk. She'd awakened just a couple of hours ago, immediately bursting into tears.
"Amanda's gone to Hekate, sweetheart."
"Can we bring her back?"
"No. You know that's forbidden." At times, Carrow forgot the magics stored in Ruby's trembling little form. The girl had exceeded even Mariketa's abilities until Mari had recently come into her powers.
Apparently, the last time Ruby had cast a spell, she'd tortured and killed twenty men.
"Don't go tomorrow, Crow."
Carrow had explained that she was setting out to hunt a demon. In exchange, these mortals would free Carrow and Ruby. "I don't want to leave, but I don't really have a choice. Hey, in a way, this is just a mercenary mission. I go out and do some magic, and I get something in return." The girl would understand an arrangement like this. The witches were mercenaries, taught at an early age to sell their magic. "And the sorceress will take good care of you."
From the top bunk, Lanthe gave a feigned pissy exhalation.
Earlier, with a clipped "Oh, very well," she'd agreed to look out for Ruby. Carrow suspected Lanthe might actually like kids but kept that fact secret, protecting her street cred as a wicked sorceress.
After all, she was the notorious "ueen of Persuasion, a sorceress who could compel others to do whatever she bade them. To be deemed a ""ueen" meant that she was the best at her talent in all the Lore.
Though Sorceri and witches shared a common ancestry, many of the Sorceri class belonged to the Pravus, an alliance of evil factions that warred with the Vertas, the relatively good alliance that Carrow affiliated with.
Before allying, loosely, with the Vertas, Lanthe and her sister had fought on the Pravus front line.
Still, Carrow felt a level of trust toward Lanthe. She usually had a good sense about people, and the week she and Lanthe had spent confined together in this cell felt like a lifetime.
They'd played tic-tac-toe in the condensation on the steel walls, gabbed about the hotness known as King Rydstrom, Lanthe's new demon brother-in-law, and commiserated about the man drought they were both presently gasping through.
Carrow had had lovers - more than a couple, less than a handful - and a single night on Bourbon Street could score her another one. But she had her reasons for her current coitus hiatus....
"What will happen when you get us free?" Ruby asked.
How much confidence the girl had in her. "I'm going to take care of you myself. You'll live with me." Mental checklist, item eighty: find us some new digs.
Witches with kids didn't get to live at Andoain. Carrow had felt a pang at the thought of giving up her sorority-style life there - and her coveted suite with a private bath - but when she'd looked at Ruby's tearstained little face, she'd easily decided that it didn't matter.
"We'll get a pad near Andoain so you can still go to spell school there. I'll pack lunch" - bag leftover pizza - "for you every morning."
Lanthe made a sound of disbelief from overhead.
"I will. And when you get old enough, I'm going to teach you all about the Street that is Bourbon."
Ruby yawned, her puffy lids drooping. "I heard some witches talking about you a couple of weeks ago. They said you were rutterless."
Now a chuckle from the top bunk.
"Rudderless?" So true. "Maybe so. But I'm not going to be anymore." How's it feel to be a rudder, kiddo?
"Will you hold my hand until I fall asleep? And stay here till I wake up?"
"You got it." Maybe the reason she'd never done well with responsibilities in her personal life was that she'd never had any practice? Carrow had led armies - but she'd never had another depend solely on her.
In minutes, Ruby was out, her countenance relaxing, her brow smoothing. Carrow waited a little while, then eased from the bed to recheck her pack and begin studying the dossier.
When Lanthe slunk down from her bunk, Carrow noted yet again that the sorceress looked flawless, displaying no signs of a week's worth of stress, discomposure, or even wrinkles. But then Lanthe wore typical Sorceri garb: a metal bustier and a mesh skirt, held together with bits of leather.
Her dark hair was a mass of braids in the wild Sorceri style. The only things missing were her metal gloves - with built-in claws - and the half mask that would normally adorn her face.
Carrow found it interesting that the mortals left their prisoners in their own street wear for the most part. She herself still wore her jewelry and club duds.
"They're going to double-cross you," Lanthe said.
Did Carrow suspect Chase would go back on his word? Of course. But she also knew she had to operate under the assumption that he would release her and Ruby. What were two witches to them? And more importantly, what other choice did Carrow have? "I don't know that for certain," she said as she began rooting through the pack Dixon had offered her earlier.
At once, Carrow had demanded to go to the facility's PX store for her own supplies. While the Order might have a dandy assault pack for soldiers to make an incursion, they didn't have an all-purpose Carrow pack for witches bent on seduction.
So after a few hygienic tweaks to her gear - and her first shower in a week while her clothes were dry-cleaned - she was ready.
"In any event, witch, I think you waste your time."
"Look, I might not trust that they'll keep their word about releasing us," Carrow said. "But I trust one hundred percent that they'll keep it about killing her."
Lanthe sighed, gazing over at Ruby. "Well, then, let's see this dossier."
They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall. Fitting. Carrow opened the folder to the first page, a summary of her destination and its peoples.
"I still can't believe they're sending you to Oblivion." Lanthe shivered.
"Come on, it's the only place you can get fresh vemons this time of year."
Oblivion was one of the hell planes, a place of such limited resources that only the harshest demons could survive. In this case, water was scarce. No rain fell, and the few collections of water were underground.
According to the dossier, the Trothan culture was a chaotic mix of slavery, violence, and cruelty - its members brutal. Yet they had a deeply entrenched class system in their society.
Carrow's lips thinned. She wasn't a big fan of classes in any form - educational or social. She herself hailed from a "noble" family, but had buried that little tidbit about herself. And it's not like my folks will out me.
When Carrow turned the page to the summary of Malkom Slaine, her "target," Lanthe said, "A vemon, the most dangerous of all Lore creatures, was created out of a Trothan, one of the most barbaric species of immortal?"
Though Carrow knew demons who were civil, engaging, and hot, she'd never met a Trothan.
"And you're going into hell to get him? This is like Escape from New York, except you're bringing out the baddie."
"Snake Plissken, at your service," Carrow said as she began perusing Slaine's information, organized in handy bullet points.
Description: Light blue eyes. Defined musculature. Over six and a half feet tall. Black horns, curving back from just above his ears. Identifying marks: A large, winding tattoo on his right flank, typical demon piercings.
Background: Born more than four hundred years ago to a prostitute demon mother. Father unknown.
Carrow felt a flare of pity for him. Living in Oblivion was bad enough, and he hadn't exactly gotten a great start.
Led rebellion against vampire invaders until his capture. Transformed into a Scarba - a vampiric demon. Before escaping the vampire stronghold, he beheaded Kallen the Just, the Trothans' demon prince, as well as the Viceroy, the vampires' emissary.
Carrow frowned. "Why would Slaine have assassinated the two potential leaders, then not taken control of the demonarchy?"
Lanthe said, "Sounds to me like a failure to capitalize."
Fugitive from Trothans for over three centuries. No known associates. Unwed. Most current activities: Defending his territories, the water mines of Oblivion. Special skills: Battle-trained, survival, military command experience.
"Unwed?" Carrow said. "Their kind marries?" Many demon breeds didn't, especially if their species had one fated mate.
"At least you won't have to worry about competition."
"Unless he's got a demon harem in those mines. A little honey or two holed up underground?" Carrow said, raising a brow at the next bullet point.
Language: Demonish, some Latin. There had been an isolated report of his speaking English, but it couldn't be confirmed.
"How am I supposed to communicate with him?" Carrow's Demonish was sparse. She knew mostly curses and how to order li"uor.
"The language of love?" Lanthe suggested.
"Check out his psych profile." Easily enraged, reacts with a marked ferocity. Violent and territorial...
"Psych profile? Isn't that what they do with serial killers?"
Carrow nodded. "Dixon said he was the Trothan version of the bogeyman."
"Well, then. Tell me they'll deactivate your tor"ue for this mission."
"They will." A lot of good it'll do me if the folks in hell aren't happy. Whereas Mariketa's magic was based on adrenaline, Carrow's own was fueled by emotions, specifically happiness. The raucous revelry of a crowd was like an ex"uisite feast for her powers.
"Then you can just do a love spell on him," Lanthe said.
"It doesn't work for me." Many people knew Carrow sold love spells for a living - they just didn't know she sold them for folks to use on themselves. Like when a guy knew he had a good woman but was tempted to stray, he'd order a Carrow Graie special. "I probably won't have much power to do magic anyway."
"Cruising Oblivion with no magic, witch? I suppose you'll just use your brute strength to defend yourself?"
Wiccae and Sorceri were among the physically weakest in the Lore.
"And what about the vemon?" Lanthe continued. "If you can't lure him to the portal, he could just keep you in hell as his little witch pet."
"I've had worse relationships," Carrow deadpanned.
They snickered. Gallows humor.
After they'd flipped through all the pages, Lanthe summed up Malkom Slaine: "A dangerous, devious, demon non grata." Gazing at Carrow with curiosity, she asked, "You're really going through with this?"
"I've got this down cold," she answered confidently. Carrow had always followed her instincts and landed on her feet. Sometimes she landed on her feet in County, but it always worked out in the end. "But if for some reason, I don't" - she glanced over at Ruby - "will you make sure she gets back to the House of Witches?"
Lanthe said, "I will. Just try not to let it come to that - "
A sudden bellow echoed down the ward.
"I guess he don't like the corn bread, either," Carrow "uipped.
When a fight ensued and they heard loud whooshing sounds, Lanthe shot to her feet. "A Vrekener."
Vrekeners were fierce, demonic "angels," with wings, horns, and fangs.
Shortly after, the guards dragged a limping, winged male past their cell. He stared at Lanthe, his eyes haunted, his lips drawn back from his fangs. His scarred wings had been bound. He said only one word as they passed: "Soon ..."
"I take it you two know each other?" Carrow asked.
"Would you believe that Thronos and I were childhood friends?"
Carrow raised her brows. "I'd hate to see your childhood enemies."
"The bastard probably let himself get caught, just to get closer to me."
"You want to tell me what for?"
"Maybe one day. For now, let's focus on your own menacing male."
Carrow sighed, growing serious. "I might not make it back from this."
Instead of assuring her that she would, Lanthe said, "It isn't likely. ..."
Year 601, Trothan Restoration
They'll come to kill me soon, Malkom thought as he adjusted the tension on one of his spring traps.
After concealing the contraption, he climbed to a blustery vantage on his mountain, gazing out over the Forest of Bone and the vast desert beyond - the sun-scorched desert he could never cross again. His vampire nature made it impossible.
Far in the distance, in the city of Ash, sacrificial pyres burned bright. The dwellers there were making yet more offerings to their dark gods for an end to Malkom. He'd been judged a twisted murderer, a fugitive from justice, an abomination.
They would like nothing more than to sacrifice Malkom himself on a pyre. More so now than ever since they were desperate for water. And he controlled every drop.
Soon they'd come for him; their stores were nearly gone. They'd have no choice but to cross the desert that had protected them from Malkom.
Though he could travel over his dust-shrouded mountain in the hazy light of day, the desert and city were void of wind and shade. He couldn't cross that expanse and return within a single night. The sole time he'd successfully traversed it - fleeing a mob of Trothans more than three hundred years ago - he'd nearly died.
All his attempts over the centuries had failed. Each time, he'd been so weakened by the midpoint that he couldn't continue, much less contend with his powerful foes.
So he'd cut off the dwellers' water supply to draw them near, knowing they would be led by Ronath the Armorer - the demon who'd taken over after the leaderless vampires fled from this plane.
The traitor who now lived in the Viceroy's opulent fortress.
I removed all of his obstacles. Kallen and eventually the Viceroy both fell because of me.
Malkom had despised the vampires, but at least they had acted according to their nature. The armorer and his men? Malkom remembered their feigned greetings to him just before they'd attacked, just before they'd doomed their prince.
Kallen, my sole friend.
At the memory of his death, bitter-tinged grief swept over Malkom. As fresh as the day I killed him.
When the winds increased, heralding dusk, Malkom gave a low curse. They would never come in the dark.
Now a long, solitary night stretched before him. He'd endured lifetimes of them.
He turned away, heading toward his lair down in the mines - where he would wait, alone, in silence, staring at the damp walls. Time passed slowly deep in the mountain, and the isolation weighed on him.
Malkom consoled himself with the knowledge that one way or another, his miserable existence was about to end.