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The Demon Chain, Part Four

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Chapter Five: Demon Dreams


Jalissa tossed fitfully that night in her room. The demon was awake. If her dreams the night before had been disturbing, barely remembered visions, tonight they were more than dreams.

Whatever power Succubi had taken from her latest kill, it had strengthened it. Now, it showed her things, and it spoke to her. The visions were hazy, dreamlike themselves, but clear enough that she felt them with her own body. The sensations, whether they were from the demon’s own memories or foreshadowing its evil desires, were as potent as if they were happening to her now.

They were visions of seduction. Men and women fell on their knees before her, enthralled, devoted, worshipful. Some she rewarded with her body or with her praise, others with gifts and treasures that were grander than anything Jalissa had plundered in the ruins. Still others, she consumed, and the terrible pleasure she eked out of their deaths was more potent than anything she’d felt thus far.

There’s no need to fight. We can be one. We will be as a goddess among them.

The words came in that whisper, calming, alluring, bewitching. The whisper promised devotion and captivated her imagination with the visions.

We will be their queen. This world and those beyond it belong to us. Succumb.

Jalissa wept as she touched herself, the pleasure of those visions so real. One hand worked between her spread legs, while the other rested on the warded coin. Her fingers itched with the compulsion to tear it away, discard it.

Build your own world with me. Take all that you care to. Let them worship at your feet. Tear it away, Jalissa.

That beguiling whisper tempted her with everything that she’d ever wanted. Almost everything. There was one temptation, one desire, that it could not promise, though. It was the only thing that she clung to, the sole reason that her hand continued to clench around the coin, rather than ripping it off and giving herself to the demon.

Succubi, for all of its power, with all its wiles, intrigues, and seductions, could not give Jalissa the one silly thing that all her life she’d wanted. Succubi would never love her. No thrall, no slave, no conquest could ever truly love her.

The torture went on for hours, Jalissa stroking and pleasuring herself to the visions. Despite those pleasures, though, she did not give in. By the time the demon withdrew with a mental snarl, Jalissa’s tears had soaked the thin, straw-filled pillow of her room. As weary as she felt, however, she couldn’t bring herself to sleep more than a few minutes at a time.

*** Chapter Six: The Road


Jalissa splurged on the luxury of a second bath, eager to clean her pussy out more than anything else. The thought of the dead Reacher’s cock dust inside her made her ill. As she cleaned herself, she blushingly thought of Bandric and realized that she, also, didn’t want him to think that she smelled bad.

Handsome.

The whisper made her pause in her cleaning. The demon had been silent since tempting her the night before. It had been so quiet that its lack of presence was nearly as disturbing as its actual presence.

Go away.

The demon did not reply. She could feel it there, spider-like again, watching. She had hoped that, somehow, exerting enough power to show her all those visions had weakened it in some way. She felt a flash of anger at the thought and gave the thing a mental fuck you in response. That earned her a quick, harsh loss of control that forced her to rise out of the bath, despite the ward.

No!

She felt the demon throw its will against the ward, felt its pain at the effort, its anger at her. It wanted to show her that her paltry magic coin was no true barrier against its wrath if it chose to exert itself. Even as the thing forced her, naked, to open the door of the bathing room, she could also feel its power draining away. It was making a point, but it was doing it at a cost.

She pushed back against it with her own will, but the thing was strong, stronger than her if it chose to be. It did. She pulled open the door and stepped out into the open waiting area, dripping wet and nude. Outside, there were other patrons waiting for their turn in one of the hot, private baths. They turned to look at her, expressions ranging from shock to revulsion, to lust. The demon drew back with a hiss and she had control once more. She flushed and almost stammered an apology, but instead, she rushed back into the room and slammed the door.

After drying herself and dressing in lighter traveling clothes, she shouldered her pack. Embarrassed, she opened the door once more and trudged past the other patrons. They leered and giggled at her as she hurried out, her cheeks red. The sun was just lighting the sky as she walked toward the northeast end.

Gaining entry into one of the upper-class areas required another frisking and inspection of her goods, as well as checking her weapons and paying a tax. Finding the will-o-wisp and wand proved easy enough, too. Alenthia’s climate was only slightly cooler than the jungle heat of Canilia, thus Jalissa’s lighter, more revealing blouse of white linen drew appreciatory glances from the few patrons who were already awake. Bandric was not among those already gathered, and so she took an empty seat to wait, ordering a watered-down wine from a serving girl.

She waited the better part of an hour, while the demon seethed quietly in the back of her mind. When Bandric did appear from the inn’s upper floor, he seemed surprised and pleased to see her waiting. He quickly made his way over, clasped wrists with her, and then took a seat, shaking out the sleeves of his robe. Four silver coins fell from the sleeves, spinning across the tabletop. He mumbled a feigned apology, and clumsily snatched at the coins.

Jalissa watched, delighted and amused, as the coins continued to elude him, popping out of his fist after he’d gathered them. Then, he was juggling the things, swaying in his seat with a look of embarrassment and saying, “I’m so sorry. They just… keep getting away from me!”

She laughed and then blushed as one by one, the coins flipped from his hands and dropped down the front of her blouse, four in all.

“So sorry,” he said again, and then reached behind her ear and plucked one, flipped it away, the second, flipped it away, then the final two. As each one flipped away into the air, it turned from a coin into a red rose petal, which drifted lazily downward. After the fourth one changed, Bandric snatched them each out of the air and clenched them tightly in his fist. With a flourish and puff of flame, he opened his hand and handed her a complete rose, red, fresh, and real.

“May our journey be filled with magic and merriment,” he said, holding the rose.

Jalissa took it, smiling, and sniffed it.

“You see,” she said. “Your talents are just as necessary as any war mage. Thank you. I don’t believe anyone has ever given me a flower.”

“Neesa’s living breath,” he cursed, “What a travesty!”

He snatched the rose from her hand, making her flinch. She squeaked as he smashed it, grinding it between his palms, but when he opened them, an entire bouquet bloomed before her eyes. He handed it back.

“May you always have flowers as lovely as yourself,” he said.

Jalissa took them and felt tears brim in her eyes. She was not soft, not given to bouts of feeling, much less overcome by emotion. The way he said the words, though, with genuine want for her happiness, made her sad in a way that she didn’t know she was capable of.

This near stranger, on such short acquaintance, had made her feel more deeply with this one, silly gesture, than every other person she’d met in her travels. He couldn’t have known it, but with that same gesture, he’d utterly destroyed her. There would be few days ahead for her, and fewer with flowers. The demon whispered its poison.

Give in. I will make him yours.

She ignored the whisper, inhaled the scent of the flowers, and dabbed at her eyes. Bandric’s hand touched hers.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to entertain you a bit.”

“It was lovely,” she admitted. “Lovelier than you can know. Thank you,” then she set the flowers down and composed herself, saying, “Should we eat before we set out?”

Bandric leaned back and agreed.

***

Jalissa did not often travel by wagon. Most of her wanderings were done on foot. She’d had the pleasure of owning a horse once, given to her in trade. The willow viper that had bitten it had nearly gotten her, as well. Losing the horse was still a painful memory.

Bandric’s rented cart was laden with two large chests, which he’d sent ahead to the mage’s guild in Elenthia for safekeeping. The wagon was a small thing, more of a cart in reality, pulled by a single horse and with a bench seat just wide enough for two. A tarpaulin covered the chests in the back, the precious books safely wrapped and stowed inside.

The weather today was fair and clear, and the road was theirs alone this early in the day. As the primary port city in the region, and with its proximity to the valuable mines, the roads surrounding Elenthia were well-maintained. In theory, they were also patrolled. The vast empty space between Elenthia and the nearest town, Bainbridge, would take them the bulk of the day to traverse, even with the aid of a wagon.

Jalissa, despite her hurry, did not mind the time spent with her new companion. Bandric was, perhaps, more entertaining now than he’d been on the ferry. They traded stories of their travels, each of them providing the other with a different sort of excitement. Bandric was rapt at her reminiscences of the many ruins and ancient battlegrounds she’d scavenged. He seemed to know them all from his books and was delighted at her descriptions of them.

In turn, Jalissa soaked in his knowledge of the places, their stories, and their history. Some of those things she was able to pair with her own experiences of them, but Bandric’s depth of knowledge gave those memories further depth and meaning. She described to him the pattern of red gems on the entrance to the secret room, where she’d obtained the chain that was now destroying her. The chain itself, she left out of the story.

“In the texts,” he explained, “the symbol is tied to the endless cycle. That which always is and yet can never be. It’s linked to the demons.”

Jalissa felt the demon stir, gazing through her eyes, listening.

He continued, “Without form, they could never truly assert their power, yet they could never be destroyed. Thus, like the gods, they were a symbol for those things that would always exist, but could never truly exist as we do. Unless you believe in the old stories of demons inhabiting human bodies.”

This last he said with a chuckle. Jalissa masked her feelings behind curiosity and probed further.

“For the sake of… academic argument, let’s say that I believe such a thing. Does the College have any texts that would hint at how to drive one out?”

Bandric was thoughtful, sorting through his mental library of the many books he’d studied.

“I can’t recall anything specific about them,” he said, shaking his head. “What’s left from that time is more like On Demons and Dragons. That is to say fairytales and fanciful imaginings. Places like Dar’Kasha, or the other ancient cities, fell quickly during the pestilence. Actual writings from the time are rare, so most of what’s written down about them passed by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next. It’s changed over the centuries, lost much of the truth, I’m sure.”

They shared a companionable silence for several minutes as the wagon creaked along, then Bandric spoke again.

“If demon magic works the same as that which we work with, I suppose that it could be countered by its opposite,” he shrugged. “Just as sympathetic magics, those that are most alike, work to strengthen one another, those that are antithetic will oppose each other. Sometimes spectacularly.”

“Like oil and water,” Jalissa suggested.

“Just like, yes. A shadow ward might be broken or dispelled by light, given that one is stronger than the other. A fireball meeting an ice barrier or a water prison could fizzle into smoke. If demon magic existed, I suppose it could be countered by its opposite.”

“So, a demon like, say, Lucifel the Black might be countered by the light of The Herald,” Jalissa said.

Bandric nodded, saying, “Yes, though now you’re talking about demon magic versus that of one of the gods. They’re in the same realm, but unequal sorts of power.”

Jalissa could feel the demon spit in her head.

Gods. Filth! Usurpers!

She ignored the whisper and probed further.

“What about something like Succubi?” she asked, giving Bandric a teasing grin and batting her eyes.

The look made him blush, as she’d hoped, and made the question seem like more of a playful game, a flirtation, than any serious consideration. The demon laughed at her.

“Yes, well, in the stories, Succubi is a temptress. She feeds off life and devotion, much like the dark goddess, Neesa, and her need for worship. Again, though, we’re talking about a lesser being than a god. Still, temptation and seduction, by their nature, appeal to base instincts. They’re like the momentary pleasures of… of sex. My best guess would be that something true and real could oppose that. Like, love. Real love.”

Jalissa felt despair and the demon laughed at her again.

There is no love.

She was tempted to shove back against the thing but didn’t want to provoke it. Not here, with Bandric. It would probably kill him just to torment her.

No. I would make him yours. He could be chief among your slaves.

Jalissa shivered at the whispered poison.

“Looks like a patrol,” Bandric said suddenly and nodded ahead.

Jalissa focused on the tiny dots in the distance, approaching along the road from the opposite direction. She dug in the pack and removed her spyglass, put it up to her eye, and observed. She saw a group of six men, all of them mounted. They were lightly armored in what looked like leather, and each man wore the symbol of the crown.

At first glance, Jalissa believed it was a patrol, as well. Then, she saw that two of the men’s leather armor didn’t quite fit right. Another carried a sword that was out of place. As she looked at the others, each of them had small things that seemed wrong. She’d traveled this road a half-dozen times. She’d even once camped with a patrol in a cave to shelter from a storm. These men looked like a patrol, but she had the suspicion that they were anything but.

“How’s your battle magic?” she asked, tucking the spyglass away in her pack.

“What?”

She shook her head and said, “I think they’re bandits. It looks to me like they gutted a patrol and stole their gear.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have much,” Bandric admitted, his pale skin going even whiter. “Perhaps they’ll let us be, seeing as we have nothing of value.”

“You don’t,” she said, giving a derisive snort. Then she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant…” she flicked her eyes down to her breasts.

Bandric’s pale skin flushed as he took her meaning. Six armed men of violence would find her to be a good time, whether she liked it or not. They’d end up enjoying it far less when they were being turned into clouds of gray dust as they took their pleasure from her. She could feel the demon doing something akin to salivating, and it whispered in her head.

Free me. Feed. I will protect you. I will protect him.

The company of bandits was approaching fast. As entertaining as Bandric’s magic was, she didn’t think flowers and fireworks were going to get them out of this alive.

“When they stop us,” she said, fixing him with her most commanding glare, “Let me talk. If I go with them, I want you to ride on. Don’t come back. Don’t look back. Just go.”

“You can’t be serious,” he balked, returning her glare.

“They won’t care about books, Bandric. They’ll steal what little money we have, kill you for sport, and rape me a dozen times on top of your corpse. If I go with them, they might let you just pass by.”

“I won’t let you do it,” he stated. “It’s not right.”

She guessed they had only a minute before the bandits intercepted. She could already see them quickening their pace, fanning out to surround the wagon.

“What’s right is that you live. Now, shut the fuck up and do what I tell you.”

Before he could argue, she kissed him for half the time they had left. When she pulled away, he was speechless.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not the first time. I’ll probably live.”

She did not add that they would be less fortunate.

“Jalissa—“

“Quiet!”

The big man at the head of the company pulled his horse up short and slowly clopped toward them, while his compatriots surrounded the cart. He looked down on them from behind a leather helmet that was not a good fit, his broad face unkind. A long scar ran from his chin and up into the helm.

“G’day travelers,” he said. “The road’s a dangerous place for a pair of women.”

The other bandits chuckled and Bandric grimaced with rage at the insult.

“How fortunate that you’re patrolling it to keep us safe,” Jalissa said.

“Aye,” the man agreed, “Good fortune it is. It’s a tough business, though. We’ll need to collect a tax.”

“I don’t recall the king imposing a tax on travelers,” Jalissa said back. “But then, I’m just a woman. What do I know of these things?”

“A fine one, too,” he said, looking her over. “What are we carrying in the chests?” he asked, then added with a lusty grin, “The ones in the cart. I can see what you’re carrying.”

“Just books,” Jalissa said. “My companion is a mage from the College. We’re hauling books for the library.”

She could see the other men step their horses back apace as they eyed Bandric warily.

“Open them,” the leader commanded, nodding to the chests.

Jalissa nodded to Bandric, who reluctantly threw back the tarp and opened the two chests. The leader peered inside from atop his horse. Before he could speak, Jalissa preempted him.

“If you’ll let my friend go, I’ll come with you,” she said.

“An observant one, are you?” the man shot back, narrowing his eyes.

Behind them, Jalissa heard the click of two crossbows sliding bolts back. Beside her, she saw Bandric’s hands glowing green.

“Stay that shit, mage,” the man barked.

“I can melt you where you sit, sir,” Bandric said through gritted teeth.

“Aye, you might get that spell off before those bolts go through your skull. Do you want to try?” his hand came to rest on his sword.

“Just let him go,” Jalissa said again. “Take me. You can do whatever you like.”

The big man looked at Bandric’s glowing hands, and then Jalissa’s tits. Then, he decided that raping her would be preferable to murdering a mage or being melted by magical fire.

“Alright,” he said. “Stand down mage. We’ll have the woman.”

Bandric’s hand glowed brighter. Jalissa put her hand on his arm.

“Do this. For me. Go and live. Don’t worry about me. We have more stories to tell one another,” she said.

He lowered his hands and the glow dimmed, then faded.

“Gods go with you,” he said and took her hand.

She felt him press something into her palm. She clutched it. It felt silky, like a rose petal. He gave her a quick grin and added, “The petals of the Canilian rose burn as brightly as your beauty, lady. Until we meet again.”

Jalissa hopped down from the wagon. The leader waved his hand, dismissing the mage, and the men blocking the cart’s path moved aside. Jalissa turned to the mounted man, who offered her his hand. She took it and he swung her up into the saddle with him, his arm encircling her waist.

“Fine choice you’ve made,” he growled into her ear. “Promise I won’t let ’em damage that pretty face.”

Jalissa didn’t reply. She watched the cart trundle down the road as the other bandits closed back in around them. The demon only offered her exultation. It hungered.

***

Jalissa was not surprised that they didn’t take her right then. There were likely other patrols on the road. At some point, the missing patrol would be noticed. It wouldn’t do to be found gangraping a woman on the side of the road while wearing the crown’s livery. Instead, they rode for nearly two hours while the bandit leader fondled her, molested her, and described in detail the things they’d do with her. She stayed silent and clutched the rose petal in her hand.

Finally, they dismounted in front of an old farmhouse behind a fallow field. The place looked like it had been deserted for a long time. The field had gone to weeds and even a few saplings had begun to spring up from the soil. The bandits tied up their horses behind the place, while the leader ushered Jalissa into the house.

The inside had the marks of a hideout. All the necessities of uncomfortable living were here, including bedrolls and dented cookware. The place seemed quite disused, and she guessed they hadn’t been here long. Likely they’d be moving on just as quickly, considering they’d murdered at least six men today.

The leader wasted no time in pulling off her light blouse and groping her breasts. The other five men entered the house and arrayed themselves around the room, chuckling, grinning, rubbing their crotches, and pulling off their clothes.

Free me! Feed! I will make these insects suffer for you.

Jalissa made no reply.

“Compliant bitch, aren’t you?” the leader said. “Thought you’d be a bit of a fight.”

“I told you I’d do whatever you wanted,” she said, grimacing as he put his mouth around her nipple and sucked it.

“I say we keep her for good,” another of the men spoke up.

“Damn fine cunt, she is,” yet another added.

Jalissa trembled as she unlaced her trousers and slid them down. The coin, on its chain, swung back and forth as the leader’s rough mauling and sucking jostled it. His rough hand dipped between her legs and he made an appreciative grunt when he found her wet. He pulled his mouth off her boob and pinched the nipple between his fingers.

“Wet little slut, aren’t you?” he said.

Jalissa didn’t reply. The man laid her on her back on his bedroll and pulled her legs apart, staring at her sex as he undid his pants and slid them down just enough to get his cock out. Jalissa didn’t feel impressed, but then she didn’t want to be. She shuddered, anticipating more the horror that they were about to experience than the rape that she was. How would they react when their leader became a cloud of dust? Perhaps they’d kill her and put an end to the demon’s plans. Of course, they might just steal the demon chain off her corpse and start the cycle all over again.

No. You and I are one. They will die for what they do.

Jalissa shuddered again at the whispered words in her head as the man pushed his cock into her with a groan. This time, she had the power to shut her eyes, but he didn’t like that. He slapped her.

“Look at me, slut,” he growled.

Jalissa opened her eyes again and impassively looked into his face as he buried his dick in her. His hand went around her throat, and he squeezed it hard enough to make her cough, then held it there as he fucked her in hard, short thrusts. His eyes flicked from her face to her jiggling breasts, then back and he growled in his throat. She whimpered through his hold on her as he continued to jam his cock into her.

“That’s some good cunt,” he hissed. “Yeah, I think we’ll keep you a long time. Might even whore you out a bit and make some coin.”

His thrusts became harder, faster. Jalissa’s heart quickened as she anticipated the moment of his death. This time, she did not feel sorry. His kind was vile. She could feel the demon’s hunger in her mind as it turned and turned, like a caged rat looking for an exit. It hit the ward on the coin, hissed, and continued to turn.

Then, in the span of a second, the entire world around her descended into total chaos. The bandit leader growled, grunted, and ejaculated into her. The first pent-up cumshot filled her insides. Even as he came in her, the other bandits laughed or whistled. The rear door of the place burst open in a sharp crack of splintering wood. A chunk of it rocketed outward and struck the bandit leader in the head. In his moment of pained confusion, Jalissa slapped the rose petal in her fist against his cheek.

He cried out in pain and surprise as he reeled back from the dual assault, then screamed as the petal seared his flesh. His abrupt withdrawal also removed his hand from her neck, but it caught in the chain and ripped the necklace from her with a snap. The other bandits had barely turned to face the door before a ball of green fire engulfed the one closest to the splintered portal. The demon, freed, surged forward like the coiled snake that it was, and took control.

Jalissa’s fist punched through the astonished bandit leader’s chest, and she stood, holding his body aloft, her arm straight through him, gripping his still-beating heart in her hand. The burning bandit by the door screeched in agony as he fell to his knees and the green fire set the place alight. Jalissa, now a prisoner in her mind, stared through her eyes at her rapist’s dying face. Another bandit screamed as a second ball of mage fire engulfed him.

Bandric rushed through the doorway as the remaining three bandits drew steel, waving a hand that quelled the green fire in less time than it took to breathe. The smoldering corpses filled the room with the scent of cooked meat. The dying man, impaled on Jalissa’s arm, gave a howl of pain that stopped everyone else in their tracks. In horror, they watched their leader’s body, held aloft by this stick of a woman, crumple in on itself like a sheet of dry paper and burst into ash.

“Jalissa!” Bandric cried, but his voice was far away.

The power of the stolen life flowed through her body, bringing with it that orgasmic rush, but this time the demon didn’t take it in fully. It did something with it, channeling that power away from itself and outward. Bandric took a step back through the door, his eyes wide with disbelief. The remaining bandits made a dash toward the doors, but the demon was faster. From her prison, Jalissa watched the angle of the room change, the press of her feet against the floor disappearing.

She hovered, a foot off of the ground as her arms reached out toward the remaining men. The demon drew her lips up into a smile of pure, unadulterated glee at their fear. Red tentacles of light lashed out from her hands, struck them where they stood, coiled about them, and drained them of all that they were. Bandric’s gasp of terror was barely a whisper to her, it seemed so far away. The demon’s ethereal appendages sucked the life from the men, and she could feel that life flowing like a river into her. Then, it turned toward Bandric.

No! Not him!

Jalissa beat at the monster with everything she had. She flung a lifetime of rage against it, pulling from every indignity she’d ever suffered, every injustice she’d witnessed, every moment she’d stood by and watched a cruel world destroy innocence and beauty. It wasn’t enough to stop the thing. The demon looked through her eyes at him for an instant, and it relented.

The entirety of the existence of those three remaining men flashed in front of her as the demon consumed them, fed on them, and destroyed them where they stood. They dissolved into ash on the wood floor. She felt her feet touch the floor again and then she pitched forward. Her body twitched, convulsed, and then she shrieked, an inhuman cry of otherworldly pleasure as the demon drank in all that life at once. Together, they shared in it. Her pleasure and Succubi’s were one, as they were at each feeding. She felt the full weight of that pleasure, but even that word couldn’t describe it accurately.

This was the touch of something divine, like drinking a well of stars from the heavens. Her body rolled and shook with that pleasure, her mouth open in a silent scream of ecstasy that seemed like it would never end. However, the life had been tainted this time. This time, they had died in terror.

The rush of pleasure gave way to an immense, soul-crushing fear. Jalissa clawed at the wooden floor and screamed as the last moments of those lives assaulted her. In their dying moments, she saw the horror that she’d become. She was the demon, powerful and beautiful beyond their comprehension. She was a naked thing, awash in blood, with eyes black as pitch and mouth turned up in the smile of a child who had been given a new toy.

She wept for that horror and that pain. Evil as they were, they didn’t deserve this. Their sins hadn’t warranted the annihilation of all that they’d been in order to fuel the blood-soaked monster that she’d become. Was this the reason that the demon had made her fuck the previous kills? Was it somehow sparing her this feeling, giving her only the pleasure?

Through her screams and her convulsions, she felt hands on her, real hands, human. They pulled her close, held her through the fit, through the grief, even as she spat and cursed. There was a voice behind them, calm, saying her name. Jalissa. That was who she was. She was not the monster. She was the monster. It all came so fast, the press of memory and the storm of emotion. She tried to hold onto the voice, but it slipped away just like all those moments of stolen life. And then the world went black.

***

When she was able to stitch her mind back together, she realized that she was in control. The demon rested, consolidating its power. Bandric hovered over her with tears in his eyes and the most genuine look of concern she’d ever seen. She felt cloth against her naked skin and, as she forced herself to look down, she saw that he’d covered her with one of the bandit’s cloaks.

Clarity returned. Her movements were leaden as she sat up, heedless of her nudity.

“The coin,” she blurted. “Where is it?”

She cast about wildly, falling over on her side and then pushing herself onto her arms. Gods, her body felt so heavy. She spotted the coin on its broken chain a foot away, lying in a heap of gray ash. She scrabbled for it and held it tight, breathing with relief as she collapsed. Bandric was by her again, pulling the cloak around her, holding her to him. The blood from the dead man soaked into the cloak as she huddled beneath it.

“Are you alright?” Bandric asked and then the two of them chuckled nervously.

“I told you to go,” Jalissa whispered.

“And miss my chance to be the clumsy mage who rescues the princess? What sort of ending would, ‘he rode away like a coward and left her to her fate’ be for a story?”

His hand found hers and held it as they sat in silence. The smell of blood and death, the reek of melted flesh hung in the air around them.

“Jalissa,” he said after a time. “What are you?”

“Tired,” she said. “So tired.”

“Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

Bandric let her go and found her clothes. He set them aside and helped her to her feet, and then to a barrel that contained rainwater. He averted his eyes as she dropped the cloak and splashed the cold water on herself, washing away the blood. When she finished, she dressed again.

“Bandric,” she said, and he turned around. “Thank you.”

He bowed humbly, his wispy, white hair falling over his face.

“I left the cart nearby. We should retrieve it,” he said.

“You’re not going to go on your own?” she said, incredulous. “After… this?”

She looked around at the chaos, taking in the charred bodies, the burnt floor, and the piles of gray ash that had once been men.

“My lady,” he said, “The seven demons themselves couldn’t keep my curiosity at bay.”

If she’d had the strength, she might have laughed.



 

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