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Chapter Twenty-Seven: Business as Usual

Posted in Book Two, and Of Astral and Umbral

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Business as Usual

 

‘Why did I let Nalithor talk me into more medical exams?!’ I fidgeted with my bangles and growled as I stalked through the streets of Dauthrmir. ‘I should skin them and tan their hides if I ever see them again!’

A shiver ran down my spine when I considered it, causing me to bite my lower lip. I mulled the idea over for a moment, wondering if perhaps I should return to the Sapphire Quarter to make good on it. The jolt of arousal was enough to make my nipples stiffen and my pulse quicken. I desperately needed something to kill, yet there wasn’t anything inside the city I could shred without getting into massive trouble. ‘I’m really losing it, aren’t I? I should have calmed down a little after last night…but just thinking about killing something.

I dug my fingers into one arm, hoping the sudden pressure would snap me to my senses. Thinking, let alone acting, like a bitch in heat would only go to prove those women correct in their wild assumptions about me. ‘Really. Did they have to act like I’m some sort of sex-crazed creature? Tch, how could they even begin to claim that Humans are worse than Adinvyr? They’re a race that has everything to do with sex!

After calming myself I continued my way to the Merchant’s Plaza and wandered through the labyrinth of shop-streets. The city bustled with more activity than usual this morning, making everything a tight squeeze. Most of the Devillians appeared to be in good spirits, both smiling and speaking in elated tones. Many of the women wore hair ornaments with flowers woven into, or dangling from, them. They wore elegant attire made of brightly colored silk, brocade, and sometimes a translucent material I didn’t recognize.

Even the female warriors were wearing more decorative armor and accessories.

The men, in comparison, looked more rugged and were showing more skin than normal. They wore varying styles of armor adorned with arcane trinkets and jewelry. None of them carried visible weapons, but their poise made it clear they were genuine warriors. Their eyes were alert, even though their stances and conversations seemed relaxed.

It still struck me as strange that female warriors were so common in Vorpmasia. Most branches of the military seemed to have women in their ranks, and I had yet to hear anyone speak ill of such practices. It was so far removed from what I was accustomed to in X’shmir that I had no idea what to make of it.

What truly had me curious was the number of younger Devillians and their elegant attire. The majority of them appeared to be Adinvyr, but many other Devillian races wore similar attire, arcane accessories, and flowers. I felt a little out of place in comparison, and certainly underdressed.

‘Ugh, they’re giving me a headache already.’ I bit back a grimace and strengthened my barriers as I passed a group of arguing Sizoul women. Buy food, retreat to my house in the Sapphire Quarter; that was my plan, but it was starting to feel like it wasn’t going fast enough. ‘Are the Adinvyr really to blame for the knocking on my barriers? They barely even give me a second glance.’

Thankfully, the store I chose was much less crowded than the streets outside it. I released a relieved sigh and strode through the dim store in search of things to buy, adopting a slow pace. The longer I could delay returning to the streets, the better.

Being without my mask made me so nervous, yet I received fewer stares without it. The number of people skulking around my barriers hadn’t changed much, but I was content with the disappearance of the myriad of displeased, distrusting, and concerned looks the masks and hoods had earned me.

‘Maybe I was lucky and kept my…uh…“frustration” to myself last night.’ I pulled a few bags of herbs and spices down from a shelf, then shook my head. ‘Though, the books implied that it’s impossible to hide such things from Adinvyr. Hmmm. I hope the books are wrong.’

“Arianna-jiss, this is an awful lot of food!” The Human storeowner exclaimed, pointing to the veritable mountain of items I’d selected. “Just how much do you and that boy eat?!”

“We’re completely out of everything, and Darius didn’t restock while I was gone.” I sighed, running a hand through my curls. “Somehow he managed to devour all the leftovers he brought home too.”

“Your brother is taking classes with a partner at the academy now, isn’t he?” The woman inquired while helping me pack all the food into boxes. “What about you? I heard you went to hunt with Generals Il’thar and Vraelimir. Have you partnered with one of them? Feisty lads, those two. Could use a feisty lass to keep them in line.”

“My results aren’t back yet, so I haven’t been paired with anyone.” I shook my head, feeling an odd strike of pain through my chest. “They…they just needed an extra pair of blades for the hunt. I was asked to come along since I’m familiar with the type of beasts they were hunting.”

“We didn’t ‘just’ need an extra pair of blades,” Nalithor spoke from behind me. I flushed, stiffening, as the storeowner giggled at me. “I was wondering where you went, Arianna, when I discovered you weren’t at the house. We have work to do.”

‘He came to find me?’ I glanced over my shoulder at him before returning to packing up my purchases. ‘Just how in the hells does he manage to find me in a city this large? And so easily? The spies have been absent today, so they’re not to blame… Hmmm.’

“Oh? Did you hire her to work at The Little Orchid Nalithor-zir?” The woman asked slyly. “I’m sure that pretty face of hers would draw in many new customers.”

“That’s actually a good idea…” Nalithor murmured, tacking me as I moved the boxes into a shrizar. “What do you think, Arianna? As much as these kimonos suit you, I’m sure a maid uniform would be just as fetching.”

“I refuse to call anyone ‘master’ or ‘mistress’ if they aren’t my—” I started to protest, then trailed off with a hot face when I realized what I was implying. Nalithor’s smirk didn’t help matters in the slightest.

“Comments such as that lead me to believe you’ve spent as little time studying as Darius has.” Nalithor smirked and placed a hand on top of my head. “Do I need to make sure your books are on the appropriate subjects and not erotic novels, Arianna?

“Ah…but, pleasurable matters aside, we have the matter of beasts to discuss.”

I paid the giggling storeowner before moving out of the shop and onto the busy street with Nalithor. A handful of citizens shot us curious looks, but the majority seemed oblivious to our presence. It made me feel as if I’d grown more paranoid since leaving X’shmir. ‘When did I start caring about whether or not people looked?’

“What kind of beasts?” I glanced up at Nalithor only to find he was examining my kimono with intense interest.

“Where did you get this?” Nalithor slipped an arm around my corseted waist and pulled my right arm up by the sleeve with his free hand. “It has faint energy clinging to it like—”

“The Guardians of Sihix made it for me,” I replied, glancing between him and the soft fabric for a moment. “Is something wrong with—? H-hey! What are you doing?”

“You look delicious.” Nalithor purred, dipping down to nuzzle my throat briefly. Once he released me, he smiled and continued, “If you keep dressing in such an alluring way, I’m going to start thinking that you’re trying to draw my interest, Arianna.”

‘Draw his interest?’ I started at him as he beckoned for me to follow him through the city streets. While walking alongside him, I glanced at him, studying his pleased expression for a moment, before reaching out to him telepathically. ‘Because you like this style of clothing, or…?’

‘You could have easily chosen to revert to your X’shmiran attire, or even your armor, upon returning.’ Nalithor shot me another smile and then focused forward once more.

‘Still struggling to figure out what I think of you?’ I arched an eyebrow at him.

‘You can be quite confusing at times.’ Nalithor chuckled. ‘Let’s have a race, shall we?’

‘A race?’ I tilted my head. ‘What kind of race?’

‘To see who can flow through the shadows faster. That would be a much more entertaining way to return to the Sapphire Quarter, don’t you think?’ Nalithor grinned and grabbed me around the waist with both arms, pulling me into the shadow of a building with him.

‘Hey, I didn’t agree—’ I cut myself off with a shiver as his darkness wrapped around my senses and drowned the city itself out.

‘Race me.’ Nalithor chuckled, his voice sending waves through the darkness as if it were a sea. ‘Is the vixen less confident in her affinity than I thought?’

‘Fine, I’ll—’ I sighed as Nalithor shot off ahead, his laughter echoing all around me. Resigned, I propelled myself through the darkness after him. ‘I guess even deities are childish sometimes too.’

Nalithor’s behavior reminded me of children that wanted to have a swimming race, except the myriad of shadows cast by Magelights were our lake. We were melded with the shadows, indiscernible to most people. The darkness fought itself over whose power to emulate more. We were raw power, bouncing into each other and spiraling ever-upwards to the Sapphire District above. Occasionally leaping out of one shadow and into another if we ran into the end of our current vessel.

After the first few hundred feet my competitive streak kicked in and I twisted through the shadows with a new burst of speed. Nalithor’s darkness snapped out to impede me, but I just laughed and slipped out of his reach. Once I reached our destination I leapt out of the shadows and slid several feet across the grass. I laughed, feeling Nalithor’s power rapidly catching up behind me.

Before I could turn and flaunt my victory, Nalithor lifted me up by my waist with a cheerful laugh, spinning me around once before setting me down. When I turned, I found that Nalithor looked delighted, not defeated. The huge, boyish grin stretched across his features was incredibly endearing.

“And here I thought you were going to just let me win!” Nalithor laughed, ruffling my curls.

“Of course I wasn’t going to just let you win!” I huffed, pawing displaced hair from my eyes. “You challenged me too—!”

“Next time we should have a prize for the winder.” Nalithor put his arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the house. “Pity I didn’t consider that sooner.”

“I still would’ve won.” I nudged his ribs with my elbow.

“That depends on what the prize was,” Nalithor replied in a devious tone, running his hand down the side of my torso. “I could always make you the prize.”

“I’d make a terrible prize.” I rolled my eyes. “There must be—”

“No, I think you would make an exquisite prize,” Nalithor interjected. He slowed his pace and lowered his tone when we caught sight of my twin on the porch outside the house. “What a pity… Looks like I have to share you already.”

‘Well, at least Darius is reading a textbook.’ I kept the thought to myself, examining my twin’s furrowed brow and then the book itself. ‘Ah…advanced material. Is he ever going to focus on the basics first?

Nalithor gave me a small squeeze before releasing me and allowing me to ascend the porch steps unaided. Darius finally glanced up from his book and looked between us a few times before dropping his gaze back to his book and sighing.

“Ari, I’m starving,” Darius whined. “Hi, Nali…”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” I frowned at him and then nudged the front doors open, glancing over my shoulder at Nalithor. “You can come in, we don’t bite.”

“Much,” Darius corrected, motioning at me before rising to his feet. “My classes were all canceled today, and Vivus is busy. So I’m bored and hungry.”

“He thinks he’s being subtle about wanting me to cook breakfast.” I jammed my thumb in Darius’ direction and then continued down the hallway.

“You do owe me breakfast as well.” Nalithor chuckled from somewhere behind me. “We can discuss the beasts over breakfast, if you like.”

“Beasts?” Darius piped up. “You guys killed a ton of them in Abrantia, right?”

I walked into the kitchen and made my way to the pantry so I could store my purchases, then carried what I’d need for breakfast over to one of the kitchen counters. I felt Nalithor’s eyes wandering down my back as he tracked my movements, making me feel a little more nervous than usual. Something about his gaze seemed rather piercing compared to usual…or perhaps I was overthinking it. ‘Hopefully overthinking it…’

“We did,” Nalithor finally replied to my brother as he perched on a chair at the kitchen table. “There were a few strange things about the beasts we found—and the creatures they were with. I took samples from the ones we killed on our first day out so that we can study them.”

“Did you start analyzing them already, Nalithor?” I asked while arranging the ingredients on the counter. “Or did you want to ask me about X’shmiran beasts?”

“Before that, can I ask a serious question?” Darius interrupted before Nalithor even had a chance to respond. “Why do you believe that we aren’t Human, Nali?”

‘Why can’t he just go away?’ I grimaced, tensing as I looked down at the bowls in front of me. ‘I shouldn’t be thinking like that. Maybe. Fuck.’

“Pointed ears, fangs, slit pupils…” Nalithor murmured as if he was reading a list. “Neither of you carry the same unpleasant stench that Humans do. Then of course there’s Arianna’s black blood. That’s a telltale sign that—”

“Ari? Your blood is black?!” Darius yelped, earning a brief glance from me.

“We’ll know soon enough if I’m ‘Human’ or not.” I shrugged. “The exceptionally rude healers who examined me this morning took all manner of tests, including blood samples.”

“But you hate needles,” Darius pointed out, making me twitch.

“I cut myself with a dagger instead,” I snapped. “Fuck needles!”

“So the vixen does have a weakness.” Nalithor teased.

“I have plenty of weaknesses; you’re just not privy to them!” I huffed, earning laughter from them both.

“Darius, you truly believe that you and Arianna are Human?” Nalithor inquired. He paused to shoot me a knowing smile when I plated a pot of tea and three cups on the table in front of him. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I returned to making our food.

“I don’t know how we could be anything else.” Darius snorted. “We’re twenty-five. We were five when the X’shmiran Royal Family adopted us. For us to be something else, even Elven, we would be children still.”

“Unless something or someone bound us in Human form,” I pointed out, shaking my head.

“Bah! As if anything is strong enough to do that to me!” Darius blustered.

I could probably do that to you since your grasp on your magic is so weak,” I countered, rolling my eyes.

“Still, Arianna’s strength is anything but Human,” Nalithor interjected, chuckling. “I’ve checked time and time again; Djialkan isn’t using his power to enhance or supplement Arianna’s abilities at all.”

“There’s also the matter of Humans—including their deities—being stripped of magic,” I commented while piling food onto platters. “No mortal can be born with power that their patron deities don’t possess. The deities ‘evolve’ before their people do…so, if we really are Human, all Nalithor would have to do is seek out the Human god and goddess to determine it.”

“You aren’t.” Nalithor smiled as he watched me approach. “None of us have been able to determine what the two of you are, aside from ‘anomalies’. That said, if you are sealed into Human forms as I believe, it’s possible that those seals would interfere with determining your species. Magic capable of that is…powerful.”

“I’m honestly not that concerned about what Darius and I are,” I stated while placing a large platter of lemon-raspberry pancakes on the table, followed by platters of meats and of fruits. “Regardless of the outcome, we’re still mages and we’re still ‘us’. It might be a little strange if we suddenly sprout new limbs of acquire a taste for blood, or something like that, but I’m sure we’ll adapt.”

“As if you don’t already have a taste for blood!” Darius pointed his fork at me.

“I’m talking about a different type of bloodlust.” I pouted, catching the smirk Nalithor shot me. “What’s that look for, Nalithor?”

“Well, you did mention that the young ones seem fascinated by the idea of you drinking from them,” Nalithor replied sweetly, his tail swishing. “There must be a reason for that, seeing as they should be thinking of drinking you.

“Are both of you still being bothered by ‘interested’ parties?”

“It’s not really a bother. Makes it easier to get laid.” Darius shrugged, ignoring the sour look I shot him.

“I’ve been tuning it out.” I motioned at my temples. “I don’t like the idea that anyone can hear whatever lewd thoughts might cross my mind, regardless of what barriers I put up.”

“It’s probably because of your lewd thoughts that they won’t leave you alone!” Darius snorted, causing my face to grow hot. “Please! You had a whole wing of the palace all to yourself. I’m sure you’ve at least—Ow!”

“Good girl, ‘lala.” I grinned as the fox ran off with part of Darius’ pant leg in her mouth.

“Trying to avoid unwanted attention by not thinking at all?” Nalithor inquired with a playful smirk, watching Alala run circles around the kitchen table for a moment before shifting his gaze to me. “How is that working for you, I wonder?”

‘D-did he…’ I felt my face growing even hotter as I tried to read the Adinvyr’s expression. ‘I swear, if he caught any of my thoughts last night I may just throw myself off the city’s edge.’

“It doesn’t seem like it’s working well,” I muttered, bristling at his sultry expression. “I’m surprised by how many of them can’t seem to take the hint that I’m uninterested.”

“They’re too young to understand that you’re genuinely resistant.” Nalithor grinned. “Still, it is considered terribly rude for them to clamor for the attention of someone who doesn’t want them or their advances. They should have challenged you by now.

“You’d be well within your rights to put them in their place, if you so desire.”

“Bah! That would require hunting down so many people.” I sighed, shaking my head. “They aren’t even worth a fraction of the time that would take. If they were beasts, then maybe. At least then they would be fun.”

“In that case, they won’t leave you alone until someone stronger than them makes it clear they intend to pursue you.” Nalithor frowned, settling back in his seat. “It frustrates me that they’re behaving this way. They’re piss-poor examples of Adinvyr.”

“Well, it’s probably a good thing we don’t use the public baths then,” Darius remarked, staring down at his plate for a moment. “None of them know if she’s a dominant, submissive, or ‘other’…but they all know she doesn’t have a partner yet. So, seeing her nude would just get everything chasing her tail, right?”

“While I would like to say no… You may be right in this case.” Nalithor shifted to examine me for a moment. “You do seem quite proficient in attracting unwanted attention, Arianna.”

“Enough about me and the gaggle of ill-mannered cretins who want a taste!” I released an exasperated sigh. “Beasts are much more pleasant to talk about, and that’s what you came to find me for isn’t it?”

‘I hope my attentions don’t fall into the same category,’ Nalithor commented, shooting me an amused smile. “We’ve discovered that the X’shmiran beasts are capable of passing through the barriers we’ve erected around the individual Vorpmasian territories. We captured footage of one such beast passing from the Suthsul Desert and into Draemir.

“Something about the beasts must be inherently different from their Rilzaan brethren. We need to determine what that is so we can reinforce the barriers accordingly. The one that stumbled into Draemir was ‘drunk’, as the ones we slew were, so our men were able to take it out without issue. However, we can’t risk this becoming a common occurrence.”

‘Footage? Some type of Magitech or something? Does it have something to do with feet? Hmmm…’ I bit back my questions for the moment and tapped my nails against the table. “Hmmm, I haven’t encountered a Rilzaan Dux yet. It will be difficult for me to determine any differences. I assume you want to take the direct approach and poke around inside my head for information instead?”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Darius protested, looking between Nalithor and me with unease. “Surely there’s a better option?”

“Actually, I had a different idea.” Nalithor grinned broadly. “If I take you to a ‘specimen’ we’ve captured, would you be able to determine the differences without killing it?”

“You would have to restrain me,” I responded flatly, earning a strange look from them both. “That I haven’t already wandered off to kill it just means you have it hidden behind powerful barriers. If I’m to examine it, then—”

“Then I’ll need to keep you from entering a killing frenzy and destroying everything that so much as smells like a beast?” Nalithor finished with a warm smile, nodding. “What if I have to bite you in order to calm you down?”

‘I still don’t understand why he’s so approving of my desire to kill!’ I bit back a frustrated sigh. ‘I’ve seen enough of Vorpmasian culture to know it’s not just a cultural thing. Does it have something to do with his role?

“How does biting her come anywhere close to calming her down?!” Darius snapped, scowling.

“Your venom, I’m guessing?” I rolled my eyes and then turned to look at Nalithor.

“Yes—unless you happen to be immune to that as well.” Nalithor chuckled. “While it is technically an aphrodisiac… A few drops is enough to keep someone tame and pliable for a few days, up to a week if your mental or magical fortitude is lacking.”

“Just a few drops does that?” Darius exclaimed, shaking his head hard. “There’s gotta be a better option!”

“In this case, I’m not allowed to use my power as a deity to stop her. This isn’t a matter regarding the balance, so I’m expected to act with restraint.” Nalithor shook his head. “Arianna—”

“You have my permission to do what’s necessary to stop me, if it comes to that.” I shrugged. “I’m not certain how a Rilzaan Dux will affect me in comparison to X’shmiran ones, so it would be best for us to act with caution.”

“Very well. After breakfast we will get to work.” Nalithor nodded at me, then turned to Darius. “As for you, Darius, you should be studying the books your various professors assigned you.

“A tome on healing techniques employed by Archmagi is of no use to you in your current state.”

I fell silent while consuming breakfast and a few cups of tea, listening as Nalithor and Darius conversed about study materials. Perhaps, if the reprimand came from his crush, Darius would finally listen. After all, it was clear that he didn’t plan to listen to Djialkan, Fraelfnir, or me. I doubted that Nalithor would tolerate Darius’ ignorance for much longer—especially when it came to the matter of his species.

☽ ✷ ☾

A short while later I found myself somewhere deep within academy grounds, examining the massive Dux-class beast that the Vorpmasians kept trapped behind layers of barriers. The creature was covered in charcoal-colored fur, its build was like a fusion between a wolf and an ape. The scent wasn’t even close to the same as a X’shmiran Dux, but it was still objectionable. I wasn’t sure why, but the researchers and mages present were all giving Nalithor and I a wide berth.

“You look confused,” Nalithor remarked, watching as I prodded the barrier with tendrils of my darkness.

“Its strange scent gave me a thought,” I murmured distractedly, examining the bony spines that ran along the beast’s arms. ‘These barriers are very weak… Who erected them?’

‘The Dauthrmiran and Beshulthien Archmagi both designed and constructed the barriers,’ Nalithor replied dryly, tracking me with an amused smile. ‘I don’t even need to tell them to lower the barriers for you, do I?’

I crossed my arms and stared up at the dozens of layers of magical runes, unable to determine the language they were written in. That the runes weren’t Angelic came as a relief, but that didn’t change the fact there was a severe problem with the magics. An oily-brown substance had fused itself to the floating runes, and was a clear, alarming, sign that the barriers wouldn’t hold for much longer.

‘One of them has been drinking from the beast. Their magic reeks and is weakening the barrier,’ I grumbled, sensing Nalithor stiffen beside me. ‘Still, such unpleasant things aside, I get the feeling that you’ll find similarities if you compare this creature’s blood and venom to the samples we took in Abrantia. The scents are too similar to ignore. I’m sure you noticed.’

‘What are you thinking, hmmm?’ Nalithor inquired, sliding an arm around my waist. He gripped my hip tightly, digging his claws into me. ‘I can sense your bloodlust spinning out of control already, Arianna.’

‘I want to kill the bastard that’s been drinking the beast.’ I shivered motioning at the beast. ‘That idiot’s magic needs to be stripped from the barriers, then the trustworthy ones need to reconstruct them.’

‘That’s right…you can see magic, can’t you?’ Nalithor murmured, causing me to shoot him a questioning look. ‘Let me see what you’re seeing.’

‘You can’t see…?’ I trailed off as Nalithor shook his head, a small smile on his face. ‘Hmmm… Alright, here.’

I wanted to question why a god of all people couldn’t see magic, but I chose to focus on his request for now. I offered him my right hand and, once he accepted it, I closed my eyes. For a few moments I concentrated, opening a single door in my mind for Nalithor to pass through. Once I opened my eyes, he could see through me. His grip flinched when I focused my gaze on the barrier in front of us. He let out a rather displeased growl upon spotting the putrid, oily magic that had intertwined with the otherwise pure power that formed the barriers.

‘How did you learn to see magic?’ Nalithor asked after a moment.

‘Well, it is rather hard to see from behind those masks, I pointed out a grin as Nalithor withdrew his hand and stalked toward the nearby scholars. ‘Do you think the corrupted barrier is why they’re keeping their distance?’

‘They’re keeping their distance because word of your ferocity is spreading.’ Nalithor purred, glancing over his shoulder to shoot me a chilling smile. ‘Am I going to have to fight you for the pleasure of killing this one, my dear?’

‘I’ll let you have him; you can make it up to me later,’ I replied, placing my palms on the railing that sat between me and the beast.

The sound of a shriek and the scent of blood soon caught my attention, making me glance over my shoulder again. Nalithor had already torn the offending individual in half. The former Elf’s blood stained the floor the same oily brown color that a beast’s would. ‘Mmm… It’s a shame they can’t die twice.’

“Take a sample of that.” I pointed down at the growing pool of blood. “It doesn’t smell right.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t smell like an Elf’s blood or a beast’s.” Nalithor nodded, striding toward me in a way that made it look like he was hunting prey. However, his predatory demeanor wasn’t what had my attention anymore.

“You let him cut you?” I asked, reaching up to Nalithor’s face with a huff of disapproval. “Were you so excited to have something to kill that you got careless?”

“You’re not going to leap off to kill that?” Nalithor inquired with a smile, motioning at the beast. I ignored it and healed the slice across his face instead. “If you keep looking at me like that, Arianna, I’m going to think that you want to take a taste of me instead of heal me.”

‘A taste…maybe.’ The thought came unbidden, making my fingers twitch and my pulse quicken. ‘Tch, I need to focus on healing him. Something like that can wait. Maybe I can redirect his attention?

“Do I really seem like I have that type of bloodlust?” I tilted my head slightly and withdrew my hands, but he caught my bloodied hand and brought it to his lips instead, lapping his blood off my fingers slowly. “Y-you’re…”

“Now if you want a taste, your options are more limited.” Nalithor teased, slipping his tail around my waist and pulling me to him with it. “As much as I enjoy teasing you… Have you examined the beast sufficiently?”

“You’re certain I can’t kill it?” I inquired after a moment of consideration, glancing at the creature again. ‘I want to tear it apart. Why bother keeping something like this here? It needs to die.

“If you would like me to take a bite out of you…you don’t have to look for an excuse.” Nalithor purred quietly, nuzzling into the left side of my throat. He released a shaky sigh, squeezing me closer. “Especially not when you smell this good… Mmm, you really are difficult to deal with.”

I’m difficult?” I huffed as Nalithor tightened his grip and lifted me off the floor. “But…yes, I think I’ve examined it enough.”

My pulse raced at an uncontrollable pace, and I had no doubts that Nalithor could feel it beneath his cheek. Keeping the tremble out of my voice was almost impossible. Nalithor’s power had already wrapped so tightly around me that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I could look down and see it with normal vision.

As much as Nalithor claimed that I was ‘resistant’ or ‘immune’ to him… I was beginning to feel quite the opposite.

“Perhaps I should taste you anyway…” Nalithor adjusted his grip on me, his voice husky as he kissed the side of my throat. “Or…am I still earning it?”

“You’re…still earning it,” I managed to reply, feeling him smirk into my skin; clearly, he’d noticed my hesitation. “Are you really so hungry that you’re—”

Nalithor cut me off with a firm kiss and pinned me back against the wall. My mind threatened to go blank as he pressed himself between my legs and pulled them up around his waist. The idea of resisting didn’t even cross my mind when I felt his tongue flick across my lips; I was all-too willing to give in to him at this point.

His taste was irresistible, and the blood on his tongue made it even more mesmerizing.

I lost myself to his passion, his taste, and his power. Despite the fact we weren’t alone, I seriously considered pulling Nalithor’s clothes off then and there. His desire was palpable, even when he drew back slightly moments later, his lips still hovering over mine. I was surprised I could even hear his devious chuckle over the roar of my pulse.

“Ahhh… Sometimes you make it so difficult to focus, Arianna,” Nalithor remarked with a small smirk, running his thumb down the front of my throat. “I suppose we should get to work compiling your findings, however…”

Nalithor chuckled when I failed to think of a response. He drew one of his hands along my thigh and nipped down my throat. When his mouth roamed over a certain spot, I twitched and barely held back a whimper, digging my heels into his back. At least I thought I had held it back.

Oh? Did I find one of those “weaknesses” you claimed I wasn’t privy to?’ Nalithor questioned, running his tongue over the spot again. ‘You shouldn’t hold back on my account, if it feels good… In fact, I encourage you not to.’

“N-Nalithor-zir, such a display with a foreign princess in a place of work is—” One of the older researchers exclaimed, causing Nalithor to pause with his lips parted and fangs against my throat.

Nalithor tensed and released a feral snarl, turning away from my throat so that he could glare at the researchers. Darkness snapped out from his shadow and lashed toward them, making several shriek and stagger backwards.

“I’d be lying if I said I minded…” I grumbled, feeling my face flush darker. “You know, I’m pretty sure Nalithor-zir can decide for himself what is or isn’t appropriate.”

Much to my dismay, Nalithor pulled me away from the wall and slung me over his shoulder. Without so much as another word to the researchers, he carried me out of the room and through the sterile network of tunnels that had led us to the beast in the first place. He didn’t seem to have any qualms about keeping his hand on my ass.

“People do tend to question whether or not we’re ‘appropriate’ with each other, don’t they?” Nalithor chuckled, squeezing my butt for emphasis. “I do hope you don’t mind too terribly much. You’re just so irresistible, you know.”

“You sound smug,” I mumbled, watching his tail sway. ‘Poison is carried in…all of their bodily fluids, right? Is that why I feel so… Ugh, that has to be it, right? More…I want more…’

“Mmm, victorious,” Nalithor corrected me, drawing the fingertips of his free hand along my inner thigh, making me twitch. “If you want another taste… I think I will have you beg me next time.”

“If you insist on carrying me like this, I’m going to fall out of my top!” I growled at him, attempting to clutch my kimono closed over my chest. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to flash the entire campus with my—”

Before I could even finish, Nalithor pulled me over his shoulder and settled me in his arms instead. His smirk made it clear that he was even more pleased with himself than I first thought. The swishing of his tail was a mere fraction of just how self-satisfied the Adinvyr was feeling.

“You really are incredibly easy to manhandle, you know.” Nalithor grinned at me. “Now then… Let’s see what we can learn of the beasts, preferably before I decide that a more thorough taste of you is in order—and before you decide to take a bite out of me.”

‘A more thorough…?’ The corner of my eye twitched, heat rising in my body again. “L-let me down. I can walk, Nalithor.”

“I will. When it suits me,” Nalithor countered, smirking.

The “victorious” Adinvyr chuckled at my frustrated sigh and continued through the labyrinth of underground passages. It amazed me that there was so much space carved out beneath the academy, especially when taking into account that Dauthrmir hovered in the air above a lake. A few scholars we passed offered respectful greetings to Nalithor, and all of them seemed perplexed by his decision to carry me. Even so, Nalithor maintained his firm grip as we passed dozens of hidden laboratories and other rooms I could only guess the purpose of.

‘I don’t know what I want more; to kill that beast, or to have another taste of Nalithor…’ I suppressed a grimace, considering both options. ‘Fuck. I need to distract myself with something else.’

“Where are we going?” I shot Nalithor a frown as he carried me out of the tunnels and into the Sapphire Quarter. “I’m not going to run off and kill that—”

“Yes, you are.” Nalithor cut me off, his tone dry. “Your desire to kill it is making me…”

Nalithor sighed and shook his head, his grip tensing. Instead of finishing his sentence, he hastened his pace and carried me in the direction of the palace district. He didn’t stop to utter a single word to anyone we passed, and instead made his way straight for his wing of the palace. A few guards and servants shot him questioning looks, but none spoke up to inquire.

Upon reaching his laboratory-library combination, Nalithor set me down and waved the double doors shut. I caught a brief shimmer of magic around the room as he turned and made his way toward a nearby desk, pulling off his overrobe as he went. ‘He erected a barrier? Is he trying to keep us in or others out?’

“You should get comfortable, we’re going to be here a while,” Nalithor called, shooting me a glance over his shoulder. “As much as I would like to quiz you about X’shmir, it will have to wait. Strengthening our defenses against the beasts is much more important.”

“Yes… It wouldn’t be good to have the beasts attacking Vorpmasian cities directly,” I murmured, crossing my arms as I tried not to stare at his muscular torso. “How can I help?”

“Have you calmed enough to focus?” Nalithor asked, striding toward me with a book and pen in hand.

“Do I look like I’m going to run off and eviscerate something?” I countered.

“Well, you are a rather dangerous woman.” Nalithor grinned crookedly. “I would like to spar with you so that we can both work out our frustration, but it will have to wait as well.

“Would you be willing to compile your observations for me? While you do that, I can begin prepping my share of the samples for analysis.”

“Sure.” I nodded, accepting the book and pen from him. ‘“Our” frustration, huh?’

Nalithor smiled and ruffled my curls before retreating to the second level of the laboratory. With a small sigh, I turned and moved to a nearby sofa. Before sitting, I dismissed my kimono and corset in favor of black breeches and a loose blouse. I could always summon an overrobe if I needed to keep up appearances as an Umbral Mage, after all.

‘Let’s see… Differences between X’shmiran and Rilzaan Dux-class Chaos Beasts…’ I pondered, pulling on a pair of headphones, turning the volume down a few notches so that I could hear Nalithor of he returned. ‘Should I include physical differences as well?’

Pursing my lips, I spun the pen a few times and stared at the blank page before me. I wasn’t sure what to write, let alone what would be helpful. After a few minutes of consideration I decided it would be best if I was as detailed as possible. Even if the information on the X’shmiran beasts was old news to me, it wasn’t common knowledge to the Vorpmasians. My hope was that Nalithor could glean something that I overlooked.

I nudged off my sandals and then pulled my legs up on the sofa, using my thighs to brace the book. Nalithor’s presence nearby made it difficult for me to focus, but I did my best. Gnawing my lip, I pushed the Adinvyr from my thoughts to the best of my ability and began writing in Draemiran.

‘Was it…was it really necessary to kiss me like that? I wondered, frustrated upon realizing that I could still taste the Adinvyr. ‘I want more…’

Shutting my eyes, I took several calming breaths to help me focus on my task. I wanted to tell myself that the problem was the brief exposure to his venom, but I knew better than that. At dinner the previous night I hadn’t been exposed to his venom, yet I had considered inviting him to my bed. I tensed my jaw and curled my free hand into a fist.

‘This isn’t the time to be worrying about things like that!’ I began writing again, this time faster in hopes of distracting myself from Nalithor. ‘X’shmiran beasts appear to be made of dead and decaying things, whilst Rilzaan beasts appear to be animalistic…’

I wasn’t sure how much time had passed before I caught the scent of food and tea, rousing me from my writing. Apparently I had become so absorbed that I didn’t even notice Nalithor return to the first floor, let alone the fluctuation in his barrier.

‘When did I become comfortable enough to let my guard down around him?’ I wondered, glancing between Nalithor and the meek servant. ‘Maybe if I eat real food I’ll stop craving him. Well, his blood anywayDehsul!

Nalithor pivoted to look at me when I snapped my book shut, “Finished?”

“Probably. I can’t think of anything else to add.” I swung my legs off the sofa and set my headphones aside before padding over to the cart of food, barefoot. The servant fidgeted and flushed darker the closer I got. “Hmmm, smells good…”

“P-p-please help yourself, A-Arianna-jiss.” The servant bowed so low that her torso was parallel to the floor. “I-if you need anything, d-don’t hesitate to call!”

Before I could thank her, she fled from the room with a startled squeak. I tilted my head, watching for a moment as the panicky Devillian disappeared from view. I shifted my gaze up to the chuckling Adinvyr beside me, utterly confused.

“Am I scary or something?” I asked.

“My dear, I could argue that you would frighten anyone who isn’t a deity.” Nalithor laughed, tugging at my curls. “Do you mind conversing while we eat?”

“Sure,” I mumbled while piling food onto my plate. “What would you like to—? Hey!”

“Mmm, I wish you had stayed in your kimono.” Nalithor purred, slipping an arm around my waist as he kissed me where my blouse had slipped off my shoulder. “Although…this is cute too.”

I’m not for lunch, you know!” I grumbled as his arm slipped from my waist, his hand trailing down to my hip.

Yet.” Nalithor smiled, straightening. He pulled my blouse back up onto my shoulder for me then continued, “Let’s take a look at what you’ve compiled for me.”

“Aside from their obvious physical differences, and the differences in their scents, I honestly didn’t notice anything that different.” I shook my head, carrying my plate and a cup of tea back to the sofa. “However, I’m almost positive that the ‘drunken’ beasts were altered by something related to your ‘captive’. The scent was—”

“You’re getting carried away, again,” Nalithor commented when I cut myself off to take a deep breath. An amused smile played on his lips as he joined me on the sofa. “Am I going to have to stop you, Arianna?”

“No… I just want to get back to hunting and training already.” I sighed, setting my tea on the coffee table before settling onto the sofa once more. “I wrote down everything I know about the X’shmiran beasts, along with the few differences that I did notice. You’ve hunted Rilzaan beasts for a long time, right? So you’ll probably—”

Nalithor pulled me closer with one arm, wrapping his tail around my hips. He shot me a smile when I gave him a questioning look. “This seems like a good way to keep you from running off to hunt without me.”

“Now the concern is whether or not I’ll bring you to hunt the beast with me?” I arched an eyebrow.

“Hunting with you is a vast improvement over hunting alone.” Nalithor grinned. “Let’s eat. After, I will take a look at what you wrote. We need to determine if the X’shmiran beasts are truly capable of passing through the barriers, or if…”

“Or if there’s a meddler to kill?” I finished with a little too much excitement, shifting to look up at him. “That could be more fun than beasts! They all seem so weak, after all. Maybe—”

Calm down.” Nalithor purred, squeezing me again while wrapping his dark aura around me like a snug blanket, threatening to overwhelm all else. “One thing at a time, my dear. Perhaps, if you’re a good girl, I will consider bringing you to hunt with me later.”

“Fine.” I pouted, returning my attention to the plate I was holding. ‘He better mean that…’

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