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Chapter Thirty-Five: Tumult

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Thirty-Five: Tumult

 

I followed Nalithor through the forest and along the edge of a creek. We were close enough to the town that I could smell the smoke from their fires and make out the dim light shining from lit torches. A large timber wall curved around the perimeter of the town. Men with bows patrolled a walkway at the top of it. Notches were cut out every yew yards, likely to give the archers a place to shoot from.

‘The more I look at you in that form, the more I’d prefer we just slaughter and interrogate the townsfolk.’ I huffed, shifting my gaze between Nalithor’s short brown hair and loose clothing. ‘Honestly! Seeing you as not-you is so strange.’

‘Are you certain you aren’t just looking for an excuse to kill things?’ Nalithor countered dryly before looking upward at the darkening sky. ‘Tch, these storms… We must hurry. Do your best to not to look intimidating.’

‘Me? Humph, I’m about as intimidating as a mouse.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘This collar isn’t very comfortable, you know.’

‘Well, we are supposed to be pretending we’re from one of the tribes.’ Nalithor chuckled before shooting me a pleasant look over his shoulder. ‘A proper one would raise suspicion with these folk. However, if it is too tight, let me know—I will loosen it.’

The statement was simple, conversational even, and yet it surprised me. Nalithor could have told me to loosen it myself just as easily, or even to deal with it for the sake of our disguise. I failed for several long moments to think of a response. Perhaps my growing hunger was to blame, in part, but in some ways his simple offer flustered me more than his overt advances ever had.

‘Chafes a little, but it’s fine…’ I wrung my hands together and then dug the nails of one hand into the back of the other. ‘Besides, if it’s too loose—’

Nalithor stopped, turned, and closed the distance between us in several long strides. I looked up at him questioningly but he said nothing. He reached behind my neck and unfastened the crude buckle of the collar. For some reason, he seemed to take his sweet time readjusting the collar—not that I minded his closeness or his touch. But, for someone who seemed like he’d been in a hurry all day, Nalithor took forever.

I was so absorbed with trying to figure him out that I almost missed the small smile on his lips.

‘Such a deceptively delicate woman…’ Nalithor mused, tracing a finger down my throat before hooking it under the collar and tugging. ‘Better?’

‘Ah…much.’ I shifted awkwardly on my feet, the sound of my pulse roaring in my ears.

‘Mmm… We never did decide what you should call me in the event that you must speak. Nalithor tugged at the collar again, a mischievous glint in his eyes. ‘Devillian and Elven terms are out. Mmm… Sir? Mister? Daddy?

‘I’m not calling you any of those! I growled at him. ‘If we weren’t being watched I would slap you for even suggesting that last one!

‘Shall we keep it simple, then? Call me Master. Nalithor’s innocent tone clashed with his devious expression, which grew into a grin when I faltered. ‘Oh? So that is the one that flusters you? None of the others do?

‘I-I’m not…’ I trailed off, feeling my face grow hotter in response to a sharp tug on the collar. ‘I am going to kick your ass for this later.’

‘And I will win.’ Nalithor smirked, pulled at the collar once more, and then turned to begin walking once more. ‘Ah… I should have conjured a leash as well. Too late now, I suppose.

‘Let’s see just how well you can pull off the “slave” act, hmmm?’

‘Slave… I’d rather be a—’ My face ignited as I cut my thoughts off. The knowing smirk Nalithor shot me did not help matters.

“State yer business!” A tired male voice shouted when we neared the town gates.

A good dozen men tracked our movements with bows from the top of the wall, providing cover for the older Human man that approached us from the gate. Like the archers, the man’s attire was made of leather—actual leather, not the strung-together animal hides that the other tribes wore.

In many ways, their clothing reminded me of X’shmiran fashions. They weren’t quite as sophisticated, but they looked only a decade or two behind.

“My bodyguard and I seek shelter for the night,” Nalithor stated. The sudden disappearance of his accent made the corner of my eye twitch. “I was sent by my father to establish trade between our tribe and the one in the valley, but…”

“But what, boy?” The old man rumbled, his grey-green eyes scrutinizing the pained expression on Nalithor’s face.

“There’s nothing left of them but ash!” Nalithor’s distraught tone was quite convincing, earning wide-eyed gasps from the town guards.

‘Aren’t you a little too well-spoken for a tribesman?’ I asked dryly. ‘Too late to fix it now I guess.’

“And the woman?” The man pointed at me, his eyes narrowed. “What is she? ‘ow’re you keepin’ ‘er subdued wit just a collar?”

“My half-sister and my bodyguard.” Nalithor put an arm around my shoulders, pulled me to his side, and then motioned at me with his free hand. “It is by her strength that I’ve made it this far through the wilds. Being half-demon, she has their brute strength but none of their more…‘problematic’ powers.”

‘Now I really am going to skin you.’ I swallowed an angry growl. ‘Really? Half-sister?! That’s the best you could think of? You could have at least gone with something less skin-crawlingly creepy!’

“‘alf sister?” The old man gawped. “Yer tribe din’t see fit to kill ‘er off?”

‘I didn’t think you would want to be nude around the townsfolk,’ Nalithor replied conversationally. “Our tribe chose to gamble. We are short on capable men, so having a half-demon slave like her protecting the village was something we couldn’t pass on.”

“‘ow do ye keep ‘er loyal?” The old man leaned toward me and stroked his beard, frowning.

“Our tribe is all she’s ever known. As long as she does her job, she gets shelter and food.” Nalithor adopted a prideful tone, while I made a show of being skittish and ducked behind him to hide from the old man. “We—”

Nalithor’s sentence was drowned out by a close crack of thunder. The Human patrols along the top of the wall ducked instinctively and dropped their bows in their haste to cower. I took two fistfuls of Nalithor’s shirt and remained behind him, peering around his torso at the older man in front of us. The man seemed unfazed by the thunderclap and instead kept his gaze on Nalithor and me. A few times, he flicked his attention to Alala but, unfortunately, I was the more interesting target.

‘Don’t you think they’re being a little too…nice?’ I tightened my grip on Nalithor’s shirt.

‘As are we,’ Nalithor mused. ‘Going for the timid, fearful slave act, my dear?’

‘It goes better with your ridiculous story,I retorted.

“The tavern has a few rooms left.” The older man nodded to Nalithor and then turned to look at me with a seedy expression. “If you like, you can use the girl as payment. I certainly wouldn’t mind going a few rounds with that—”

‘Suddenly he talks like an educated, albeit sleazy, person?’ I shrunk back behind Nalithor in full. ‘Was he pretending to talk like that?’

“That’s still my sister you are talking about.” Nalithor’s back tensed and, his voice trembled with rising anger. “We can come to some other agreement for payment. I will not risk my tribe’s guardian. If she were to become pregnant—”

‘Great job, you made yourself angrier.’ I bit back a smirk and placed my hands flat on Nalithor’s lower back.

“Fine, fine. Point taken.” The man raised his hands in surrender. “Les git inside and git ya some mead. Storm’s gonna be a long’un.”

‘Back to talking like that?’ I wondered, biting back a frown.

Nalithor tugged me out from behind him and to his side, making me tense. I didn’t want to go into the town. It felt so terribly wrong, yet we had few choices left to us.

‘You’re not to leave my side for even a moment.’ Nalithor’s tone sent a shiver down my spine. ‘These men…are not giving up on you so easily. It’s too late for us to find somewhere else to wait out the storms, but—’

‘It’s fine, Nalithor,’ I interjected, glancing to our sides with unease as we followed the old man through town. ‘On the surface, this place is on par with X’shmir in terms of their advancement. Quite the contrast with the tribes outside of this forest.

‘Ah… you know, he never introduced himself. Neither did you.’

“Does the girl not talk?” The old man jabbed his thumb in my direction.

“Arianna can handle beasts just fine, but people…” Nalithor chuckled and ruffled my curls. “We’ve always treated her reasonably well as she’s necessary for our survival. However, her origins…I’m sure you can imagine there are those who hold resentment.”

“Aye, demon spawn. Bad ‘nough when it ‘appens itself.” The man snorted. “Worse when a chief’s wife is the bearer. ‘ow’d that ‘appen?”

“When my father and his men were out hunting, from what I understand,” Nalithor offered. “I was too young at the time to remember it.”

“Or blocked it outta yer head.” The man tapped his own temple. “Righ’en. Name’s Bhaltair. This town ‘ere is called Dragon’s Watch. Slave’s names dun matter—fergot it already.

“Gon’ need yer name though if yer gonna hole up ‘ere.”

“Hrothulf,” Nalithor offered.

“Righ’. Thas a mouthful. I’ll call ye Hroth.” Bhaltair snorted, shaking his head. “If ye need proper company, Eadburga at the tavern’ll find ye a slave righ’ up yer ally. Got plenty ta choose from. Ye be needin’ sep’rate rooms, righ’?”

‘Can I kill him yet?’

‘You’re actually asking for permission?

‘Yes, Master.

‘Mmm… I could certainly get used to being called that.’ Nalithor purred. “One room is fine—two defeats the purpose of having her as my bodyguard, after all.”

“A woman as a bodyguard…” Bhaltair shook his head. “I s’pose it makes sense, bein’ a demon an’ all. Don’t it hurt yer pride though?”

‘If all of them talk like this “Dragon’s Watch” will be in flames by morning.’ I quipped.

“When I was younger, it might have.” Nalithor shrugged. “However, there is little time to worry about pride when a beast is bearing down on you.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” Bhaltair cackled. “Ma boys could learn a thing or two from ye. Always blowin’ smoke ‘bout how shameful it is ta have demons and Elves protectin’ Dragon’s Watch. They dun understand the nasties beyond tha wall. Not properly yet, at any rate.

“‘ere we are. The Gilded Arrow—best an’ only tavern in town! Mead and girls galore, take yer pick.”

‘Patience, my pet.’ Nalithor teased when I bristled again. ‘I’m sure you’ll get your chance to kill them soon enough. Until then, be a good girl and continue playing along.’

‘Did you really just call me…’ I trailed off, unsure what to think of the smirk Nalithor shot my way. ‘Tch, I can’t tell if you’re serious anymore—or if you’re just really hungry.

“We dun’ have any single rooms with two beds.” Bhaltair frowned and stroked his beard while leading us into the smoky tavern. “Though I s’pose a slave doesn’t need a bed. Unless ye and she are… Well, she’s only yer ‘alf sister and a good lookin’ one ta boot. Wouldn’t blame ye if ye fool around with ‘er, bahahaha!”

‘Ugh, this filthy piece of shit,’ I grumbled, steadying myself against Nalithor’s side when a few tendrils of his power curled around me. ‘That isn’t necessary, Nalithor. I can behave myself. Besides, I’m too tired to deal with all of them right now…’

“As I mentioned, keeping her in working order is imperative to my tribe’s survival.” A touch of condescension entered Nalithor’s voice. “Anyone that tries to bed her is—”

“Oi, Eadburga, guest!” Bhaltair shouted in the direction of the bar. “Some booze an’ dinner fast, woman!”

I followed Nalithor and Bhaltair to a table, noting that there were only two chairs pulled up to it. Men, women, and slaves gawked at me as I followed the disguised Adinvyr. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if they were gawking at the difference in our heights or at my in-between appearance.

‘If you’re not comfortable with—’ Nalithor fell silent and glanced down at me when I knelt beside his chair. ‘Arianna…’

‘Don’t pretend like you don’t approve.’ I shot him a sideways glance. ‘Besides, we’re supposed to be convincing, aren’t we? I appreciate your concern, but it would raise suspicion if I didn’t—’

‘I think I am beginning to understand why you are so perturbed by my altered appearance,’ Nalithor commented dryly. ‘You desire the real me. I would prefer your submission to be genuine and not…a tool, or forced. It seems we are even in a sense.’

“Now, far as payment goes,” Bhaltair raised his voice as if he’d been trying to get Nalithor’s attention, “what ye got ta offer? Ye said somethin’ ‘bout tryin’ to trade wit da valley tribes, but ye aren’t cartin’ nothing.”

‘Dehsul! Can he at least choose between “ta” and “two”—and stick with one?!’ I folded my hands in my lap and kept my eyes focused on the floor while listening to the meager noise in the tavern.

‘You’re cute when you curse in Draemiran.’ Nalithor reached down and disheveled my hair. “I have coins from demon lands, gold, silver, and some intriguing crystals we found in the valley…and of course, information. I’m sure we can come to some manner of agreement.

‘Should I be concerned by how well you play your role, Arianna?’

‘We haven’t even been here for five minutes yet. Isn’t it a little early to claim that I—’ I bit the inside of my cheek to keep myself from turning to glare at Nalithor when he began stroking my hair. ‘Really? Petting me?’

‘I don’t want you to feel neglected,’ Nalithor replied innocently. ‘Besides, I have to show my affection for my ayraziis somehow. We are rather limited in that regard, at the given moment.’

‘Humph. I doubt you find it “concerning” that I can play the role.’ I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes at him. ‘I’m sure if you want to earn “genuine” submission from me, you can think of some way to do so later when we’re away from this damned place.’

“Demon coins, ye say?” Bhaltair murmured. “Dems good fer makin’ some of our ‘quipment. Melt em down an’ they still retain their power. Depending on ‘ow many ye ‘ave, ye can pay fer yer stay and some ‘quipment fer yer journey back ta yer tribe too.”

“A visitor from outside Dragon’s Watch? With a slave of ‘is own? A blonde woman that I could only assume was Eadburga commented. “That’s a new one. ‘ow’d that ‘appen, then?”

‘And for a moment there I thought she might actually be able to speak without sounding like a fool. I bit back a sigh and then glanced to the side when Nalithor’s fingers slipped down to tug at my collar. ‘What do you want, my oh-so-benevolent Master?

‘We’ll do something about that sass of yours later.’ Nalithor pulled on the collar again. ‘I want you to keep a watchful eye on our surroundings. Something seems…off. Aside from the obvious, that is. I’m not quite sure what I sense but…I don’t like it.’

“Ye sure ye want the animal in ‘ere?” Bhaltair pointed down at me. “Fox can stay o’course, seems tame ‘nough. The half-demon though—”

“They’re both quite tame, I assure you.” Nalithor slid his fingers under my chin and lifted, making me look up at him. “Isn’t that right, Arianna?”

“Yes, Master.” I felt heat rise to my face when I said it, but I didn’t struggle with the phrase as much as I thought I would. No…it came quite naturally, to my surprise. It wasn’t embarrassment or a feeling of discomfort that made me flush, even if I thought that’s what it should have been.

Nalithor’s pleased, triumphant smirk was to blame. That…and the small twinge of arousal that accompanied those two little words.

‘Ugh… Just the hunger, right?’ I clenched my hands in my lap.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Bhaltair coughed. “Let’s see what ye got ta trade then, Hroth.”

“Will the animals be needing food and drink too?” Eadburga frowned down at us.

‘Nnngh… These people…’ Nalithor released my chin and returned to stroking my hair. “Cooked meat for this one, and raw for the furry one if possible. Water for both.”

“Comin’ righ up.” Eadburga shrugged. “Guess bein’ ‘alf demon insteada full ‘as its perks.”

‘Maybe keeping watch will keep me from ripping them apart,’ I commented, glancing to the side at the nearby tables. ‘How long did you say storms in Falrrsald can last?’

‘A week if we are unlucky,’ Nalithor muttered. ‘I…do not have the patience for an extended stay. We leave in the morning regardless of the weather.’

By the time dinner was done and Nalithor had finished bartering with the man known as Bhaltair, I thought that my nylziis was going to explode. Even without his tail present to give away his mood I could see Nalithor growing more distressed and angered with each passing minute. The Humans paraded slave after slave before him, offering to sell their services to Nalithor for the night. Some were even offered as “permanent” sales—apparently “demon coins” were worth many times their value to the people of Dragon’s Watch.

At first, my jealousy threatened to overwhelm my senses. However, I managed to rein myself in when I realized just how much the parade of Devillians and Elves bothered Nalithor. He had grown silent and withdrawn over the passing hours. Perhaps he had underestimated just how much the enslavement of his people would bother him. Or, perhaps it wasn’t the matter of slavery itself—I wasn’t sure, but I knew better than to ask.

“‘ere ye go.” Eadburga made a sweeping motion with one arm when she led us into a room. “Our best room fer our best customer. Ye sure ye don’t need anything else?”

“Quite certain,” Nalithor replied tonelessly. “I am tired after our journey.”

“Suit yerself. ‘ollar if ye change yer mind.” Eadburga shrugged one shoulder, handed Nalithor the room key, and then made her way out.

Nalithor shut and locked the door behind the sashaying blonde and then slumped back against it, releasing a heavy sigh. Alala and I both ducked for cover when power burst out from the sulking Adinvyr. We peered at him over the edge of the bed and then exchanged a look with each other. Power coated everything as Nalithor’s form shifted back to his Devillian one.

I let out a small sigh of relief upon seeing his familiar, albeit distracting, features.

“Arianna,” Nalithor raised a hand and beckoned me with one finger, “come here.”

“Come— Hey!” I caught myself on the edge of the bed when he summoned darkness as a leash and tugged me. “I can walk you know, you don’t need to—”

“Did you finally hit your limit on cooperation for the day?” Nalithor arched an eyebrow at me.

“You didn’t even give me a chance to cooperate.” I rolled over the top of the bed and then strode toward him. “What do you—”

“Let’s get this collar off you,” Nalithor murmured, bringing his hands up to my throat. “I saw you fidgeting with it during dinner. You could have told me that it had grown uncomfor…”

Nalithor trailed off into silence when he pulled the collar away from my throat, his eyes widening slightly at whatever he saw. Before I could question him, he dipped down to lift me up and nuzzled into my neck.

“H-hey, that stings!” I protested as he carried me across the room.

“I’ll have to conjure a proper collar in the morning…” Nalithor murmured, his lips traveling down to my collarbone once he’d set me down on top of a table. “I won’t have anything marring your skin, but especially not a collar.”

The sound of someone knocking on the door to our room drew my away from Nalithor. Had they sensed his power? Was it more whores trying to garner his attention? Nalithor growled savagely into my skin, his tail switching back and forth behind him. He gripped my hips and pulled me towards him, his lips traversing up my throat again. I shivered, biting my lower lip to suppress a whimper. The knocking on the door grew more persistent, eliciting another snarl from Nalithor. His claws dug into my skin as he glanced over his shoulder.

‘Pretend you’re asleep.’ Nalithor kissed me on the lips and then nudged me toward a chair next to the bed. ‘I’ll see to our unwanted guest. After…’ He paused and traced a finger over my tender throat. ‘I will heal you.’

‘If you say so.’ I curled up on the chair and tugged a blanket up over my shoulders, then sighed when I saw Nalithor had already shifted back to his Human disguise. ‘I’m never going to get used to that.

‘Hopefully you won’t have to get used to it. Nalithor shook his head and then reached for the doorknob.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Master Hroth… Master Bhaltair thought perhaps you would like some wine,” spoke a young female voice from the doorway, her voice quavering. “If you need anything—”

‘Did she just call him Master? I gritted my teeth to suppress a snarl. ‘I should rip her lungs from her chest!’

‘Stay put,’ Nalithor warned as I cracked an eye open to examine the young Elven girl. “I require rest. Please see to it that no one else comes to disturb me. Pray give my regards to Bhaltair for the wine.”

“A-as you wish…” The Elven girl scurried away, and Nalithor closed the door behind her with one hand, balancing the tray of wine and glasses in his other.

“She seemed surprisingly obedient,” I pointed out, watching Nalithor’s Human guise melt away.

“Especially so for a deliverer of poison.” Nalithor huffed. He incinerated the platter, glasses, and wine before turning to look at me. “Here, let me see your neck.”

Nalithor sat on the edge of the bed and motioned for me to join him. Begrudgingly, I pulled myself off the chair and walked over to the Adinvyr. Something about his concerned expression kept me from arguing. He brought his hands up to and traced a section of my wounded throat with his fingertips. It seemed like he was trying to hide it but I still spotted the pained expression on his face.

“Did you notice anything strange or helpful during dinner?” I reached up and tugged at Nalithor’s sleeve. “The old one and fat ones just wouldn’t stop talking. I tuned everything out after a while.”

“Nothing interesting, no.” Nalithor shook his head and then sighed. “You should have told me the collar still wasn’t loose enough.”

“Tightness wasn’t the problem.” I pouted, fidgeting when Nalithor’s power encircled my throat. “The leather itself was just a bit rough, but swapping out collars in that situation didn’t seem feasible—so I dealt with it.

“Anyway, you’re sure you want to move on in the morning? Nothing to investigate here? Perhaps we could learn more about the Zehylor from him. Those soldiers must have passed near here. Or maybe they’ll know something about the elixir, or Drataemir, or—”

“Arianna,” Nalithor interjected, meeting my eyes with his own tired gaze, “I would rather not focus on business or our mission right now. We are both exhausted, hungry…” He sighed again and cupped my face in one hand. “I wish you had said something. Hurting you was not my inten—”

I cut Nalithor off with a kiss and wrapped my arms behind his neck, pressing my torso against his. He didn’t hesitate for even a moment to return the kiss, crushing me to his chest in the process. After a moment, Nalithor pulled away and gripped my chin, studying me with an unreadable expression.

“What prompted the skittish vixen into making such a bold move, hmmm?” Nalithor flicked his tongue across my lower lip. “Mmm… Not that I’m complaining.”

“You…looked like you could use some affection,” I grumbled awkwardly, feeling heat rise to my face. ‘Ugh, did I really just say that?’

Nalithor lifted me onto his lap and pulled my legs down on either side of him. A mischievous smirk settled on his face as he slid hands along my things before nuzzling into my throat.

“Ahhh, there’s the bashfulness.” Nalithor chuckled into my skin. “Mmm… Where do you want me to bite you this time?”

“Are you actually giving me a choice?” I arched an eyebrow. “You were trying to avoid taking power from me, weren’t you?”

“We can’t avoid it now, I used too much…” Nalithor paused to nibble at my throat, a small purr rumbling in his throat. “You…will be without access to your power after I have fed from you. Even if you permit me to feed on your sexual energy alongside, you—”

“I’m aware of the risks, Nalithor.” I sighed at him. “My question is how we are going to handle it.”

“The only way for us to ‘handle’ it is for me to take extra care in protecting you.” Nalithor’s hands danced up to my hips and tugged at the waistband of my trousers. “I know that it’s probably asking too much, but I…

“Nnngh…Arianna? Are you listening?”

“Wha—” I grew still when I realized that Nalithor was sprawled on the bed beneath me and my lips were pressed against his throat. That wasn’t even the surprising part to me at that point. It took me longer than it should have to realize why my pulse was racing, racing at such a pace that it made my head spin—his tail had woven its way down my pants and between my legs. One of his hands had firm grip on my ass.

The Adinvyr looked delicious beneath me.

“So, you still can’t feed yet…” Nalithor murmured, tracing the fingertips of his free hand down the side of my throat and to my shoulder. “Breaking you is out of the question, of course.”

“What do you mean I can’t feed—” I bit down on my lower lip, hard, to stifle myself when Nalithor’s tail smoothed over my groin. “Ahhnn, s-stop that!”

“That wasn’t very convincing.” Nalithor chuckled, gripped my chin, and pulled my face close to his. “Be a good girl and let me up.”

I let out a startled squeak when Nalithor lifted me and pinned me to the bed. He grinned down at me, his hands dancing along my legs and pulling them around his torso. My pulse refused to calm. The glint in his eyes wasn’t helping—or perhaps it was helping a lot. It was impossible for me to think straight and that look was helping me not think straight.

“Just what are you planning—” I cut myself off, shivering beneath the caress of his tail.

“I may not be able to claim you properly—yet—but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.” Nalithor purred, leaning down to nuzzle my throat once more. “Mmm… Since you took so long, I get to choose where to bite you.”

Before Nalithor could shift and sink his fangs into me, Alala made what I could only describe as a harsh, chastising noise. Nalithor growled and shot the fox a murderous glare, causing her to yelp and scamper under the blanket I had discarded earlier. Whether or not she came back out from beneath it was something I couldn’t be sure of.

My senses blurred the moment I realized how close Nalithor’s throat was to me. ‘Just a little more and I can…’

“So impatient.” Nalithor wrapped his hand around my throat and gently pushed me back down against the mattress. “Do I need to put you to sleep after I drink from you, Arianna?”

“Sleep? But I want—”

“If you could feed you would have drawn energy from me by now.”

“It’s not just about feeding, you know!”

“Be that as it may, I doubt you want our…ecstasy…to draw the attention of the Humans,” Nalithor mused. He studied me and traced a claw down the side of my neck before motioning loosely in Alala’s direction. “Furthermore, Alala isn’t going to leave us to our own devices in a place like this. She doesn’t think either of us can control ourselves properly anymore.”

Alala warbled from her hiding spot—presumably her agreement.

“But…” I sighed and then shot Nalithor a look. “You want to use your power in order to put me to sleep after you feed?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘want to’. Rather, it would be best.” Nalithor smiled.

“At least let me take a bath first!” I huffed. “Those Human’s foul smell is still clinging to the both of us.”

“I’ll take care of you once you’re asleep,” Nalithor replied dismissively. “See? You are tracking my movements like a hunter—again. If you can barely focus on our conversation now, how can I expect you to…”

“You’re the one that’s keeping this between my legs,” I retorted, gripping his tail hard and watching a shudder run through him. “How is either of us supposed to focus—”

Nalithor silenced me with a kiss. His power wound around my senses and drowned all else out.. With my own magic so weakened, my hunger spiraling out of control, and my desire for Nalithor to take me… I was oblivious to anything beyond him and his power. I could only assume that he bit me at some point because, the next thing I knew, everything had grown dark and my mind drifted into sleep despite the overpowering desire to feed.

The roar of near-continuous thunder, high winds, and heavy rain woke me sometime in the morning. Under other circumstances I would have enjoyed the storm, but I wanted more sleep. I grumbled something unintelligible and nuzzled into Nalithor’s chest. Our room’s windows rattled beneath the raging storm outside. A constant rumble of thunder was something I could sleep through, but the resounding crack that followed a close strike of lightning saw to it that I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

Or at least, it woke me enough to realize my hand was wrapped around something hot, firm, yet strangely soft.

‘That…isn’t his tail…’ I peeked under the sheets. My face felt like it was on fire. ‘J-just what was I dreaming about? I’m not that handsy!

I withdrew my hand and then inched away from Nalithor. Once I was on the edge of the bed, a small sigh of relief escaped me. It seemed as though I had been able to get out of bed without waking the Adinvyr, so I pulled myself to my feet and padded across the room barefoot. Alala was still asleep in a chair nearby. Both her and Nalithor were out cold.

‘Right… I shouldn’t wander off.’ I gnawed on my lower lip, stared at the door, and then glanced over my shoulder at the bed. ‘M-maybe I’ll just take a bath and hope he’s uh…woken up and taken care of that by the time I’m done.’

Quiet as I could, I retreated into the bathroom and lit a few of the lamps within. After a moment, I stopped mid-strip and just stared at the nearest lamp. I had grown so used to the Magitech lights in Vorpmasia that it hadn’t even occurred to me that the lights in Dragon’s Watch may have required actual flame. And yet…they didn’t.

I tossed my short nightgown aside and then prodded the base of the lamp that hung beside the sink. Sure enough, the blue-white light turned off the moment I touched the pewter base. Magitech, working Magitech, in a place like Falrrsald.

‘Did they get this from the people they enslaved?’ I frowned and then hopped up on the sink so that I could peer out the high windows. ‘No…the whole town is lit with them. I doubt the Elves and Devillians would have been carrying that much Magitech with them.’

Everything about Dragon’s Watch was just so…strange. It didn’t make my skin crawl quite as much as the tribe Nalithor had executed, but it was still “wrong”. Sure, I hated that the non-Human citizens were enslaved. I hated that they were paraded around the town nude or close to it. The Humans here were at least a few decades behind X’shmir in terms of development, as well—women weren’t treated quite this poorly in X’shmir.

However, it was the Human’s access to Magitech, building tools, and weaponry that struck me as odd. How had they gotten their hands on so many “convenient” things? In X’shmir, our craftsmen and inventors had to work very hard to come up with solutions to the failing remnants of Magitech around the city. We had to struggle to find or mine materials. Our farms and livestock had to be moved within city walls in an attempt to keep them from being devastated by beasts.

Falrrsald seemed far more dangerous than X’shmir and yet the little ramshackle town known as “Dragon’s Watch” didn’t look like it had sustained so much as a scratch from beasts or monsters. None of the slaves struck me as powerful enough to protect the city, either.

‘Speaking of the slaves…’ I slipped into the warm bath and then sighed. ‘Didn’t Nalithor say that the wine that Elf brought was poisoned? Yet no one came to check if we’re still alive…’

I swirled my finger around in the bubbles absentmindedly as my thoughts drifted back to the strange things around Falrrsald. Much of it piqued my curiosity, and yet…“fixing” it wasn’t all that high on my list of priorities. Of all the things we had encountered since our arrival, it was the Humans and their “elixir” that bothered me most.

Even the Vulei River’s darkness paled in comparison. ‘Well, perhaps a close second in priority, that one.’

With the stormy weather darkening the sky outside the windows it was impossible for me to determine how long I had spent in the bath thinking. After patting myself dry, I nudged the door open and strode into the main room nude. I had been so absorbed in my thoughts that I had forgotten about the Adinvyr on the other side. ‘Well, at least he’s wearing pants now…’

“Well now, isn’t this a treat?” Nalithor smirked, tracking my movements as I walked around the foot of the bed. “You didn’t have to take another bath, you know.”

“I think better in the bath.” I shrugged and then prodded Alala’s nose. “‘lala, underwear, please.”

“Not feeling up to using your shrizar?” Nalithor set aside the book he’d been reading and then beckoned to me. “Here, let me see how you’re healing. I may have to expedite the process if we can’t hide it under your new collar.”

“At least let me get dressed first.” I shot him a look when I caught his gaze traveling down to my ass, then turned to nudge Alala once more. “Come on, Alala. It’s not like my shrizar is going to eat you or anything.”

Alala huffed at me and then disappeared into the shrizar. She reappeared with an entire trunk in tow, causing me to scramble backwards before she could drop it on my feet. Nalithor took the opportunity to catch me around the waist and pull me backwards onto his lap. He nuzzled my shoulder and purred, arms squeezing tight around my waist.

“Hmmm, you’re healing slower than before.” Nalithor flicked his tongue over my wounded throat and then chuckled when I tried to squirm away. “I’ll heal you first, then you can get dressed.”

“I’m cold you know!” I fidgeted on his lap, attempting to shy away from his power when it coiled around my throat. “I know you said you wanted to leave town this morning, but—”

A crack of thunder drowned out my words, so I simply pointed upward at the ceiling.

‘Also, no one came to check if we consumed the poison that Elf brought.’ I added.

‘I get the feeling it wasn’t her masters who sent the poison,’ Nalithor offered, shifting his magic to my soaked hair so that he could dry it for me. ‘We do need to get out of this town, but this storm….

‘Well, first things first, let’s see if we can find some convincing clothing to pour you into. I won’t permit anyone else to enjoy this sight.’

Nalithor plucked me off his lap and set me down on the bed before rising to his feet. I watched him with faint irritation as he strode over to the trunk Alala had summoned. Something didn’t feel right in the air anymore. Aside from the storms and the static they brought to the air, everything had seemed normal when I first awoke.

Now, however, there was something…off.

“Arianna?” Nalithor’s hand came to rest on my shoulder, making me jump and squeak. “Are you alright? For you to space out in a place like this—”

“I wasn’t spacing out, I was thinking.” I shook my head and then sighed. “You did startle me, though.”

“And what has you so distracted?” Nalithor dangled a bra and panties in front of my face. “While I do enjoy the view, you did say something about being cold.”

“Right…” I grumbled, snatching the undergarments from him so that I could tug them on. “There’s something weird about the air. It doesn’t feel like any magic or aether I’m used to, but I don’t know what else to call it. It doesn’t feel like something generated by the storm, either.”

“Arianna,” Nalithor caught my face in both of his hands and made me look up at him, “I know it is difficult for you to find your ‘off’ switch when it comes to these matters. However, stress isn’t doing you any favors. Worrying yourself about everything wrong in Falrrsald will not hasten our ability to fix it. You’re just going to exhaust yourself before we’re even halfway through with our mission.

“For both our sakes… At least try to give yourself a break?”

“Easier said than done!” I pouted. “I’ll try, but— Hey! ‘m twying to talk here. Stawp smooshing mah cheeks!”

Nalithor laughed and then released my face so that he could defend himself from me batting at his hands. After a moment, I gave up and went to grab my bra so that I could pull it on. The mischievous Adinvyr snatched it up before I could reach it and dangled it over my head. I rose onto my tiptoes in an attempt to reach it, but he was more than capable of holding it out of reach.

“How about you wear a robe instead?” Nalithor suggested in a conversational manner. “We’re not venturing out quite yet, so you don’t need to dress fully.”

“A bra isn’t about warmth you know!” I snapped, pointing at my breasts. “These are heavy. A robe isn’t anywhere near enough to support them, and I refuse to hold them up with my hands all day either!”

“Ah, now there’s an idea.” Nalithor purred. He disappeared in a burst of shadows and then gripped both of my breasts from behind. “Quite the handful, aren’t you? These doubly so.”

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” I rolled my eyes and then gripped his wrists, digging my claws into his skin. “Let me get dressed! How long do you really think it will be before someone comes looking for us?”

“Is that your only complaint?” Nalithor smoothed his hands down my torso, gripped my hips, and then nibbled my earlobe. “Mmm… We could always go back to bed for the morning since you enjoy my attention so much.”

Focus.” I growled at him. “This isn’t the time or the place. We need to get out of here. Right?”

“I suppose so.” Nalithor tilted his head and examined me with an unreadable expression before offering me my bra. “What to have you wear that is both enticing and convincing? Hmmm…”

Nalithor returned to the trunk and crouched beside it, leaving me to put my bra on in peace. I glanced over my shoulder at him and watched his swishing tail for a moment. The urge to pounce on it was surprisingly strong. I shifted my attention away from him and busied myself with adjusting my bra instead.

It had been days since he took me over in Draemir, yet little nuances remained.

‘I thought it was just a side effect of him taking me over, but…’ I glanced at his tail again. “You’re doing that on purpose, aren’t you?”

His tail jerked hard to the side, smacking into the bedpost had enough to make him curse.

“Thought so,” I commended dryly, turning to cross my arms at him. “You’re taking your sweet time in that trunk too. Am I going to have make the decision for you, ‘Master’?”

“Hardly.” Nalithor reached into the trunk and pulled out a pair of leather trousers and a loose blouse, then turned to me. “Just for that quip, I think you will have to put up with me dressing you.”

“I’m not a doll, and I’m not a child.” I prodded his chest when he stopped in front of me. “I can dress myself just fine, thank you very much!”

“Perhaps I just want to enjoy this sight while I can.” Nalithor smirked, motioning at my satin undergarments.

“Nope!” I snatched the clothes away from him. “If you want to ‘enjoy’ this sight, or more for that matter, then you can earn it. Once we’re far away from this blasted place.”

“I think I’ve more than earned it at this point.” Nalithor trailed his fingers down my spine while I yanked my leather trousers on. “How about we have breakfast and then take a look around the town?”

“What happened to leaving?” I straightened and buttoned up my trousers while looking up at him. “I thought you were in a rush to leave after last night. Did you change your mind?”

Nalithor motioned out the window when another crack of thunder shook the panes. Trees beyond it bent and twisted in the wind while large orbs of hail shattered against a shaky barrier of magic. I frowned and strode over to the window, leaning against the sill so that I could crane my head to look up at the sky. A web of blue electricity surged, warped, and twisted through the black clouds. Even when the next strike of lightning came, the deep blue energy remained.

“Not a normal storm?” I murmured as Nalithor tugged the blouse from my hands and held it up for me.

“Normal for Falrrsald, but still stronger than what I’m used to witnessing here,” Nalithor offered as I relented and allowed him to help me with the blouse. “Here, hold still for a moment.”

I obliged him and kept still while his power encircle my throat. When it dissipated, I felt something soft left behind. “Fur?”

“You did say the other was too rough.” Nalithor hooked his fingers under the collar and tugged a few times. “I think we can get away with a fur-lined collar amongst these people. Any rough edges? Is it more comfortable?”

“A lot better.” I reached up to grip his wrist. “Not so much when you’re tugging it.”

“I’ll admit that I may be enjoying our ruse a little too much.” Nalithor released me with a smile.

Calling him out on understating his enjoyment was tempting, but I decided against it. Regardless of how much he enjoyed it, his concern over something so trivial was endearing in its own odd way. I stopped fidgeting with my clothing for a moment, a small frown on my face. “Trivial.” That wasn’t the right word, not for a collar, and not when he was so very clearly a dominant.

“Come on, Alala.” I nudged the pouting fox’s nose. “WE can’t very well leave you here. They might try to cook you.”

“Did you attune to Eoraso yet?” Nalithor asked while fastening a sword belt around his waist.

“In the bath? When I can’t access my shrizar without giving myself a pounding headache?” I snorted.

“Point taken.” Nalithor shook his head. “It will have to wait. You are right about something new being ‘off’ in town… We’re leaving. Now. Peacefully if we can but, if they threaten us… Go wild.”

“Wild as I can without magic.” I rolled my eyes.

Alala leapt onto my shoulder and stayed there as I followed Nalithor out of our room. I glanced down at my hands and watched my Brands disappear. It was a little upsetting, but not as much as the now-Human form of Nalithor before me. That alone made me want to slaughter the entire village.

‘It isn’t their fault. Nalithor pointed out as we descended the creaky tavern stairs.

‘May as well be!’ I retorted.

“Ah, morn there, Hroth!” Bhaltair looked up from his tankard and grinned at Nalithor. “Ye sure ye don’ want ta sell us the girl? Yer whole tribe could move ta Dragon’s Watch for the price she’d fetch.”

“I’m quite certain, Bhaltair,” Nalithor stated. “Half demon or no, she is still family. I can’t bring myself to sell family.”

‘That was quite convincing,’ I mused.

‘Well, you are family. Just…not in the way he thinks of it, Nalithor replied rather seriously, stunning me into silence.

“Yer not ‘eading into the storm are ye, boy? Yer mad!” Bhaltair scrambled to his feet when we moved for the inn’s door. “It’ll rip ye apart!”

I glanced from side to side a few times as burly Human men with axes rose from their seats and squared off with us. Murderous intent and undisguised lust radiated from them. Keeping us safe from the storm was the last thing on their minds—they intended to kill Nalithor and take me as another slave.

“Not going to let us leave?” Nalithor chuckled and shot Bhaltair a condescending smirk. “What makes you think you can stop us?”

One of the men grew impatient and rushed us without waiting for a signal from his superiors. I darted forward and pulled a dagger from my sleeve. The man was average height for a Human male, but still half a foot taller than me. I leapt into a kick and deflected his axe to the side. His stance with the weapon was poor, so he stumbled. Once I landed on my feet, I lunged forward and tore the blade of my dagger through his throat. Blood sprayed into the air and coated my clothes, skin, and hair.

The man gurgled, wide-eyed, as he clutched his throat in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding. I turned away from him and brandished my dagger at the remaining Humans, well aware of the crimson dripping from my weapon and attire alike. Most of the men were ashen, incapable of processing the death of their comrade. However, Bhaltair and another of the older males had turned red in their anger.

At least two of them knew what it was to lose a comrade.

Kill them both!” Bhaltair roared.

Nalithor’s Human disguise vanished in the bat of an eye, along with the magic he’d used to conceal my Brands of Divinity. I moved to slaughter the rest of the Humans in the room, but Nalithor pulled me to his side instead. The men were white with terror. By the smell, at least one had soiled himself.

“Do you intend to impede the God of Balance?” Nalithor looked down his nose at Bhaltair and tightened his grip on my hip.

“G-g-g-god?!” One of the younger men dropped to his knees and hugged himself in a growing pool of piss. “W-what have we done to…”

Alala geckered at one of the men who tried to inch toward us. I arched an eyebrow when the man dropped to his knees and started shaking. When I looked back to Alala, I found she looked far too proud of herself. I sighed. ‘Great, my Guardian fox is a sadist.’

“A-at least let me boys go!” Bhaltair pleaded. “They’re youngun’s and dun—”

“We simply wish to leave,” Nalithor interrupted the fearful Human swine. “We have somewhere to be, and you are in the way. I would rather not spill more blood but, if you intend to keep us from doing our duty…”

‘Oh, so now it’s our duty, is it? I teased, watching a slight flush rise to Nalithor’s face.

“I-in that storm?” Bhaltair glanced at the inn’s windows and gulped. “I-I knew ye’r a gold an’ all, but that storm…”

“Since our prey is braving the storm, so too must we,” Nalithor stated dismissively. “What will it be? Shall I let my ayraziis slaughter you like pigs?”

“L-let them pass!” Bhaltair motioned his men away. “We can’t hope ta stop a god, let ‘lone two of em!”

Nalithor’s claws dug into my hip as he steered me toward the door. I shot a menacing glare at one of the men when he reached for the axe he’d dropped. The Human let out a rather feminine squeal and scrambled away from the axe, leaving a damp trail on the floor behind him. Whether it was Nalithor’s power or my bloody appearance that frightened them so much, I couldn’t be certain.

Objectively speaking, both were likely quite terrifying to them.

‘Tch, these winds…’ Nalithor murmured mostly to himself. ‘We will travel through the shadows. I’ll find us another cave to hide in while we wait for the storms to pass.’

‘If you say so.’ I wrapped my arms around his torso and nuzzled his chest. ‘Let’s go then, before I decide to kill all of them without you.’

Behave. Nalithor smacked my ass.

I laughed as we tumbled into the shadows together and sped out of Dragon’s Watch. To say that the storm was severe would have been a gross understatement. Some trees were burning or otherwise charred from where lightning had struck them. Others still were bent at a near right-angle in the wind. Branches and leaves rained down from above as the heavy rains and fist-sized chunks of hail assaulted the trees.

As much as I enjoyed Nalithor’s proximity and the sensation of his power smoothing around mine, none of that mattered when I caught a familiar, unpleasant scent in the air. That foul scent that was marred by the blood of beasts and light aether.

A scent I hadn’t smelled since my time in Limbo.

‘Watch out!’ I pulled Nalithor out of the darkness and went skidding across the ground.

The blade of a longsword dug deep into the shadow we had been about to move through. Light streamed down the edges of the blade and traveled through the ground, splitting it open. Luminescent white robes billowed in the wind, seeming impervious to the harsh downpour of rain and hail. The bastard Elder had a crazed look on his face, his eyes widened until they looked abnormal. A trickle of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth.

“Both of you at once!” The Elder cackled. “To be so lucky! I must truly be blessed!

‘An Elder drunk on beast blood? Just what we needed.’ I scowled, rising to my feet.

‘I hope you realize that I can’t ignore your claims about them being fakes after this, Nalithor muttered, summoning his spear. “You would slay—”

The Elder didn’t give Nalithor a chance to finish. I clamped my hands over my ears and winced when the clashed. Ear shattering sound reverberated from the Elder’s Godslayer—terrible, unnatural sound. At least, I thought it was a Godslayer. It looked identical to mine, save for the color of the stone set into the cross guard. His was an opaque white gem of some kind.

“Both of you! Both of you! Balance is unneeded, Balance must be eradicated!” The Elder seemed oblivious to the long strands of slobber hanging out of his mouth. “Failed before. Won’t fail again. Others were fools to promote you. Kill you both, then there will be no stupid God of Balance!”

Nalithor’s murderous rage and unbridled power made it difficult to breathe. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Human bastards all the way back at Dragon’s Watch felt the deity’s anger. His fury was missed by the crazed Elder or was otherwise ineffective. I gripped my dagger and tensed my jaw, tracking their movements.

A blood-crazed Elder and a wronged Adinvyr filled with righteous anger—it was a strange sight, no doubt.

‘He’s what we sensed that was “wrong” in Dragon’s—’ I scrambled backward and raised my dagger to deflect a strike from the Elder. Pain lanced through my left shoulder as the Godslayer tore through flesh and muscle, grating across my clavicle, ‘—Watch…. Fuck.’

My back hit a tree and I brought my hand up to my left shoulder, wincing as blood poured down both my chest and back. The Elder lifted his sword with both hands above me, the tip aimed at the top of my chest. I hissed in pain as my vision swam. Light. Light magic burned through my veins. The light hurt far more than the actual wound did.

Everything seemed to stop for a moment. Nalithor’s feral roar of rage made the Elder falter and sent Alala running somewhere in fear. I knew that sound. He may have been much older now, but I had heard that sound enough in my dreams. I would have recognized that roar anywhere.

Nalithor collided with the Elder, darkness and flames raging around his body and divine armor alike. The Elder slammed into a tree, breaking the trunk with his back. I caught sight of the Godslayer in Nalithor’s hands before my vision blurred and my head spun. Before I knew what had happened, I found myself staring up at the treetops and at the rain pouring down around us.

‘More blood…than I thought…’ I attempted to move the fingers of my left hand and soon realized I couldn’t feel my left arm at all. ‘Nali… Nali! Stop your roaring! Kill that fucking bastard fast so you can heal me. Losing too…much…’

My eyelids fluttered shut and everything spun to a point where I couldn’t tell what was up and what was down. Darkness closed in on my senses as sounds and smells grew faint. The last thing I heard was the Elder’s terrified screaming come to a stop, followed by rushed steps trampling branches underfoot.

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