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Loose Threads

Eighty Two

 

            “Good morning, it’s me again.” The door to Nightraven’s tower swung open and Iain smiled. “Thank you.” He slipped through and stopped at the sight of the man standing in the hallway as the door shut behind him. The newcomer was around the same height as Iain, and older looking, with a neatly trimmed gray beard and hair surrounding a craggy face. He was wearing comfortable looking cotton homespun tunic and pants with well worn looking leather boots, but while the materials might change, the outfit itself wouldn’t be out of place almost anywhere on this world. Neither would the sword that hung from his belt. “Good morning.”

            “Good morning,” the man said pleasantly. “May I inquire as to who you are?”

            “I am Iain,” Iain replied. “May I inquire as to who you are, sir?”

            The man smiled. “I am Eladar.”

            Iain nodded. “Master Eladar, would you like some tea while you are waiting for the Lady to return?” He gestured towards a small table near the end of the hall where a pair of chairs sat. Guests, seldom though they were, usually waited there with refreshments if Nightraven had to leave for some reason.

            “How do you know I am waiting for Nightraven to return?”

            “Master Eladar, if you are inside then she is aware of your presence. As she has not summoned me to dispose of your corpse, you have her permission to be here. She does not keep guests waiting inside, so she has already spoken with you and as you are still here but she is not, she must be retrieving something for you.”

            “She could be putting away something that I brought her.”

            “Master Eladar, if that were the case, she would see you out before doing so.”

            Eladar smiled broadly. “Well reasoned, young sir. May I ask who you are to her since she has not appeared to greet you?”

            “I am her student. Would you like the tea I offered to brew?”

            “It does not matter if he would like tea or not as he will not have time to drink it, Iain,” Nightraven appeared from a doorway leading down into the depths of the tower. She was carrying a large tome with heavily carved and begemmed stone covers and fastened with a golden lock that glowed with a soft purple light. “Do you know who our visitor is?”

            “I do, Lady. I recognized his name.”

            Eladar smiled again. People who smiled this much tended to make Iain uneasy and Eladar was no exception. “And who am I, young sir, and how do you know my name?”

            “Eladar is the name you used while you were a burglar in your earlier years. Now you are known as Master Elminster.”

            Elminster’s smile widened. “I am impressed, young sir. However, I am not surprised since your mistress would have appraised you of who I am.”

            Iain nodded without showing the slightest bit of amusement. Nightraven had never mentioned Elminster, much less given him any briefing about the Wizard of Shadowdale. He could do nothing for her and had nothing that she desired, so unless Elminster became an issue that needed addressed, she would ignore his existence as best she could. “Lady, would you like some tea?”

            “You will attend to me instead.” She turned to Elminster as Iain moved to stand beside and slightly behind her. “As agreed, here is the Dissertations of the Seventh Shadow. The magic I have placed on the lock will keep it from fastening and draining your life. Do not attempt to remove that warding.” She held it out. “How did you come to learn that I possessed it?”

            Elminster smiled as he took the book. “Lady Nightraven, I did not know that you had it, but I hoped you did so I came and asked.”

            “Clever. As we agreed, you may take possession of it for a year and a day from tomorrow, for a price that is to be stipulated in the future. Is there any other business that we need to conduct this day?”

            “There is not. I wasn’t aware that you had taken an apprentice.”

            “I have not taken an apprentice. As he told you, Iain is my student.” She looked at Iain. “See Elminster out and then join me in the library.” She turned and left.

            Iain smiled. “Master Eladar, is there anything else?”

            “You know my name is Elminster, why not use that?”

            “If you tell me your name is Eladar, sir, then that is what I shall call you until you tell me your name is something else. To do otherwise could be considered to be rude and I detest rudeness.”

            “I didn’t know she took students.”

            “That would be, sir, because she has not taken one since long before you were born.” He turned to the door. “Please open.” It swung open as he turned back to Elminster. “Sir, the Lady is waiting for me, and so I must ask that you let me attend to her.”

            “Do you get any time off?”

            “I get a day here or there, sir. Why do you ask?”

            “Come visit me in Shadowdale if you can. I would like to get to know you better.”

            “I will, sir, as long as you understand that I will not reveal what few of the Lady’s secrets that she has allowed me to learn.”

            Elminster chuckled. “I do not want to know her secrets. I know enough to know that I would not survive gaining that knowledge. But I would like to know what kind of man she would take as a student.”

            “I will visit if the Lady will allow it,” Iain replied. “And if she will allow it, I will correspond with you beforehand so that we might see if we can be friends.”

            “I would like that.” Elminster stepped through the doorway. “I bid you a good day.”

            “And I bid you a good day, sir.” The door shut. “Thank you.” He jogged through the doorway and down the stairs to the library. “It’s odd,” he said as he entered, “that Elminster would show up during the few minutes I was gone.”

            “It is interesting, but not odd,” Nightraven corrected him. “And one should remember that there are few coincidences involving the Chosen of Mystra. I doubt this was one of them. As he has expressed interest in you, you will correspond with him and visit from time to time. He is one of the powers of this world and you will get to know him as much as he will let you.” She gave him an amused look. “Even if he is not someone that you would wish to have sex with, he will know women that you will.”

            “And after he told them I was your student, they would all most likely want something from me, so I think I’ll just steer clear of any entanglements with them.”

            Nightraven nodded. “Cunning. I am glad that you remembered your lessons with him.”

            “You are the Lady Nightraven to everyone,” Iain replied. “What our relationship is has nothing to do with that.”

            “Yes.” She held out her hand. “Caintigern is waiting for us in Ragnarok.”

            Iain took her hand. “I was only gone for a few minutes, right?”

            “Yes. Caintigern had contacted me a few days ago and I wished to let you return home before taking you to hear her request.”

            Iain’s eyebrows rose. “I suddenly have a whole sack full of questions.”

            “Take me there and most of them will be answered without you having to ask them.”

            Iain wrapped them in his power. “Step.” They exited on a beach of white sand that glowed beneath the sun blazing in the cloudless sky. The air staggered around them as loud explosions sounded to their right. Iain could see a large British sailed warship had unloaded a broadside into a smaller Spanish warship of some kind, shattering the Spanish ship’s hull along the waterline and ripping away a sail filled mast. Iain waited for an instant of silence. “Step.” They stepped forward as the Spanish ship desperately returned fire.

            The silence of the cave in the Highlands of Ragnarok was startling after the battle. Iain let Nightraven’s hand go as he swept the area with his perception. The iron gate and walls he’d put up at the mouth of the cave were undisturbed and the gate was safely shut. More importantly, the cave was empty except for them. “I don’t see Caintigern.”

            The scene around them flickered and they were standing in an open courtyard that Iain recognized as belonging to the Desert Temple. It overlooked a river and an island in the middle of it was seething with activity that resolved into Caintigern attacking the creatures that had been spawned on it. “I did not know where she was or I would have told you to take us straight here,” Nightraven said. “I had to locate her before we could move to where she is.

            Iain was looking around for threats with his eyes as well as his perception. “I’m only concerned because I haven’t built any defenses here yet and I don’t like getting surprised by scorpions or raptors.”

            “Anything foolish enough to attack us will die,” Nightraven said confidently. “Caintigern is returning.”

            Iain watched as the dragoness slid into the river and swam quickly across to emerge near the Temple. She shifted to her human form and teleported to where he and Nightraven stood. “Morning, Caintigern. I hope you enjoyed your hunt.”

            She smiled at him. “I did.” She looked at Nightraven. “Has he returned from his visit home?”

            “He has.”

            “My niece is your instructor in the magic of the People,” Caintigern said.

            “Is that really true?” Iain glanced from one woman to the other. “I mean she’s taught other students who were not of the People and she also taught them what she is teaching me. Because of that, I doubt it’s the magic of the People for she wouldn’t teach it to those who are not of the People.”

            Nightraven smiled slightly. “You are correct. I have been teaching you magic, but not the magic of the People. I have been teaching you magic with which to win in battle, how to be creative enough to survive those fights and little else. Caintigern will join me as your instructor and she and I together will teach you the magic of the People, for as a Queen she knows more of it than I do. At those times you will be her student.”

            “But that is not why you are here,” Caintigern said. “I have a request of you.”

            Iain felt like he’d been handed a box that probably had an angry wolverine in it and been told to shake the box before opening it. “And what is your request?”

            “While I will be working with my niece to teach you the magic of the People, I would like you to let me teach you other things as well.” She smiled slowly. “But not more history. Your history lessons will continue as they do on,” she paused, “One.” Her smile widened at his obvious surprise. “Yes, we have learned how you number the worlds you have visited. What number is this world?”

            It wasn’t really a world and Iain actually numbered the universes he’d visited, but he wasn’t going to argue either point with these women. “This is Seventeen.”

            Caintigern nodded. “Here on Seventeen, I would like to ask you to let me teach you how to survive. You will learn the techniques during the training that my niece and I will be giving you, but you have many enemies and a focused course on surviving will aid you in battling them.”

            “Is this about what Kerrik said when you asked him how he’d survived?”

            She nodded happily. “Yes. I will teach you how to avoid dying, even when you cannot avoid fighting.”

            “Is this like Monty Python’s how to not be seen?”

            “I do not know of which you speak, but if you can avoid being seen, it will aid you in avoiding being killed. I will teach you that and how to avoid dying even when mortally injured.”

            “Does that mean you will have to mortally injure me?” He frowned. “A lot?”

            “I told you he would immediately realize what it meant,” Nightraven said.

            “I assure you that since you are to be our mate, I will not allow you to die.” Caintigern’s smile was probably meant to be reassuring, but, to Iain, it looked more like she was looking forward to killing him more than it reassured him as she continued. “But, yes, in order to learn how to continue fighting while being mortally injured, you will have to be mortally injured. And when I feel you have learned sufficiently for testing, you will do battle with creatures here on Ragnarok as the predators are unnatural and do not grow tired or react to anything other than being killed or completely crippled before refusing to fight.”

            “That’s not completely true,” Iain replied. “If they are what I understand them to be, if you try to put them to sleep with drugs, at a certain point they will flee. They’re not that bright about it and will often flee from whoever is drugging or hurting them into another situation where they’ll be slaughtered, but they will flee. They will also sometimes flee when badly injured, but for us, when reaching that point they will usually die before they can try to escape.”

            “I would like you to procure some of these drugs and we will test this,” Caintigern said. “If they can be induced to flee, then they can be herded as you showed with the trikes when we injure one to draw others to us.”

            “I guess I’ll be spoiling meat and gathering narcoberries,” Iain muttered.

            “This knowledge of how to survive will aid you and my niece both when we return to claim the throne and it will also help you in your goal of protecting your family,” Caintigern pointed out.

            “I see that Nightraven has been teaching you how to manipulate me.”

            “She has. Is it working?”

            “It is. I presume you two ladies have put together a schedule for me?”

            “We have,” Nightraven said. “And Caintigern will be joining us in gravity training, which we will continue.”

            “Do you agree to my request,” Caintigern asked. “I ask this not only because I am trying to do what you want and issue fewer demands, but also because if you do not agree to this, you may die when you refuse to trust me during your training. It must be agreed that you will and you must or I cannot teach you.”

            “It must be tough to get a drake to trust you that much.”

            “This is not taught to drakes, ever,” Caintigern said. “Some few do manage to learn something of survival on their own, but formal training such as this is something that only Queens and Princesses learn.”

            “If my mother had known this,” Nightraven said, “she would not have died so easily.”

            Iain looked from one dragoness to the other. “What is my role in this going to be once the war is over and your bloodline is restored to the throne? You won’t need me anymore once that happens.”

            Nightraven and Caintigern exchanged a look. “My grandaunt and I are the only two living members of the Royal bloodline and you are our mate,” Nightraven said. “We will need to proliferate the bloodline enough that disaster cannot strike it again.”

            “I know of the oath that Nightraven swore to you that you will be her only mate,” Caintigern added. “If you die, her line ends. I will not allow this. We will be having children for many years after Blacktooth’s spawn are nothing more than a memory and you will be needed, both for that and to help us protect what we will have won from them in our victory.”

            “If I permanently die during all of this, I want your oath to explain to my family what happened and why I won’t be coming back to them,” Iain said quietly. “I’d ask you to protect them in my place, but I can’t. You aren’t family and they aren’t of the People.”

            “If you perish while we regain the throne for our bloodline,” Nightraven said, “I swear that once peace has been reestablished and we are victorious, I will explain to your family about how you died and what it meant to me. I will not leave the battle to do so, and if that means I fall as well, I will not be able to carry out that oath. With that condition, do you accept my oath on this?”

            “I accept your oath and Caintigern’s request,” Iain said. “I will do anything to protect my family.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll even volunteer to be your punching bag.”

            “If you and my niece die,” Caintigern said, “I swear if I survive I will tell your family what happened.” She smiled when he looked surprised. “I understand loving and wanting to protect your blood. Did I not cause the catastrophe that made all of this necessary out of my desire to protect my daughter, the Princess, and to ensure her future as Queen?”

            “Maybe you do understand,” Iain said quietly. “So when are you going to start killing me?”

            Caintigern laughed. “You will spend the next year with your teacher and me, learning magic.” Her face stilled, becoming inhumanly flat. “Then we will come here and your lessons in how to survive will begin, but I will not ever kill you, Iain. I will repeatedly bring you to the line that separates death from life, but the goal is to teach you to recognize it and to refuse to ever cross over it.”

            Iain shook his head slowly. “Then let’s begin.”

***

            Theodora appeared as Iain and Kasumi were getting ready to head through the door back to the Sabine Ranch. “I must warn you that we have visitors at the ranch.”

            Kasumi gave him a curious look before turning back to Theodora. “Why must we be warned?”

            “It’s some of Shikarou’s family,” Theodora replied. “Helen, Elizabeth and Dorothea are visiting. Helen is visiting Joyce, Elizabeth is with Sophia and Dorothea is with Pandora.”

            “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Iain muttered.

            “I must admit I too am curious,” Kasumi said with a smile. “Theodora, was a reason given for this visit?”

            Theodora shook her head. “From what I can report of the conversation April had with them when they first arrived, I believe they said they were just dropping by.”

            “They have never done this before,” Kasumi frowned and didn’t seem reassured that Iain looked as mystified as she felt. “Care to speculate, my husband?”

            Iain flashed a quick grin. “Nope. We’ll have to investigate. How about you talk to Ninhursag and since I was going to see Joyce later today, I’ll move that up and go there now. Maybe Helen will be more forthcoming with me. She’s the smartest of our three visitors and she and I haven’t had any problems.”

            “Have you had any with Elizabeth or Dorothea?”

            “I have not, but I need to start somewhere.”

            Theodora nodded. “Until we know what is going on, Ninhursag has the goblins and some of the Elves on standby alert, so you’ll be seeing them with their combat gear as they go about their day. You will also see more drones on routine patrols.” She smiled. “Many more drones than usual.”

            “Any signs of anything hinky going on in Haven?”

            “I haven’t detected anything, but they know what satellite surveillance is, Iain. They would keep any preparations under cover as much as possible. I have given control of the O&I satellites to Daya and told her to use her own discretion regarding their deployment. Should I rescind those instructions?”

            Iain shook his head. “Daya.”

            She appeared. “Yes, Iain?”

            “If at all possible, warn us before using the satellites. Otherwise, you are weapons free.”

            Kasumi’s gasp was audible as Daya nodded. “I verify weapons free. I want war with Haven and Kerrik no more than anyone else does, so I will exercise all possible caution before deployment, but I will not let us be attacked unawares.”

            “Good. This would be a terrible day to die.” He turned to Kasumi. “If you can, please politely see if Kozakura or Nejiko know anything about what might be going on, as long as it doesn’t violate any oaths either one of them might have given.”

            “I will,” Kasumi took a deep breath and centered herself. “Shikarou does love her and is unlikely to strike while she is a potential hostage or collateral damage. And I do not believe that he would send Dorothea as an advance scout. She is likely to refuse such a mission if it involves treachery against people who are not obviously evil, which we are not.”

            “And I hope you’re right and we’re all overreacting about nothing,” Iain rubbed his eyes. “Once more into the breach.”

***

            “Hello the brewery,” Iain called softly as he opened the door to let Joyce and Helen knew he was there before heading into the brewery.

            Joyce was sitting with Helen at the table in the entry room. She looked surprised and then pleased. “Iain! You’re early.”

            He shrugged. “My schedule opened up and I thought I’d just get here as soon as I could. If you’re busy or having too much fun visiting with Helen, I could go away until it’s time for our appointment.”

            The Milktit got up. “Don’t you dare. I have some samples for you to taste, and your being early will actually help with two of them.” Her ears flicked. “Otherwise I’d have decided to keep going with them as is since you couldn’t give an opinion.”

            “I trust your taste buds better than mine,” Iain said with an easy smile. “But since I’m here, fetch, woman.”

            She grinned. “Sit down, I’ll be right back.” She looked at Helen. “Excuse me.”

Iain watched her hurry off before turning to their guest. “Helen,” he said politely.

            Helen gave an odd chuckle. “I have been fighting for decades and I am confident that I will always give at least as good as I get. I don’t fear anyone and yet for some reason you make me nervous. Am I in trouble?”

            “You aren’t,” Iain said quietly as he sat down. “I must, however, wonder about the unexpected visit, especially after Shikarou’s visit to have his daughter degrade herself in front of me and then your cancellation of coming to the barbecue.”

            Helen sighed. “You know I had nothing to do with that. He and Kozakura have a very strange relationship and I tried to change his mind about his plans about the barbecue, but he was adamant.” Her ears came up to point at him. “What happened during that visit?”

            Iain frowned. “He won’t tell you?”

            “All I know is that he, Poppet and Kozakura came here so he could punish Kozakura for some misbehavior and to get your forgiveness for what she did. Shikarou and Poppet returned, while Kozakura stayed here and was joined by her servant, Nejiko. About a week after he returned, Shikarou announced that we were no longer going to abide by his original policy of ignoring your existence and actively seek to become friends with your clan. He encouraged we start visiting and cementing ties with your family, which is why the three of us are here today.”

            “Weird,” Iain said thoughtfully. “I guess I’ll have to send Faelan a message about Kasserine and Ava.”

            Helen’s eyes narrowed slightly and her ears flattened halfway. “I could convey a message if you’ll tell me what’s going on. Who are these women?”

            “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t trying to keep secrets about this. Kasserine is Kerrik’s mother and Ava is his sister and they live here with us now. They met Shikarou and Poppet during his visit, but I am not sure why he’d keep it from you. If you want to tell Faelan that his paternal grandmother is here, I’d appreciate it.”

            Helen cocked her head confusedly. “Why is my grandmother in law and her daughter living here?”

            “Apparently I get to keep apologizing to you, so sorry about that. Kerrik arranged for us to meet in the hopes I would hit it off with Ava. I ended up engaged to both women, and we’ll be married in less than a year.”

            Helen’s mouth dropped for several seconds. “You’re going to be my grandfather in law?”

            “Step grandfather in law, technically, and I’m still Iain.” Iain was still looking thoughtful. “But unless he’s really embarrassed about his grandmother, aunt and me, why keep it from you?”

            “You’re wrong,” Joyce said as she returned with a tray holding a number of small sample bottles. “It’s obvious why he didn’t want to talk about what happened.”

            Iain raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

            “Oh, come on, Iain. Marguerite told us about the confrontation.” She put the tray down and settled down next to Helen. “She even showed us the video.”

            Iain looked at Helen and shrugged. “I have no idea what she’s talking about. I don’t remember a confrontation.” He looked at Joyce. “What confrontation?”

            Joyce grinned at Helen. “When Iain told Shikarou and Poppet that he was going to marry Ava and Kasserine, Poppet asked if he loved them. That’s when the confrontation happened.”

            Iain shook his head. “Poppet was being a bitch, I got tired of it and told her so. There was no confrontation.”

            Joyce looked at Helen. “He is usually faster than this.” She turned back to Iain. “You snarled at Poppet and Shikarou lunged to get between you because he was worried you were going to lose control and murder his wife.”

            Iain blinked and then shook his head. “That’s not what happened at all. I was never going to kill Poppet.”

            “I know that,” Joyce said cheerfully. “If you’d intended to kill Poppet, she’d be dead.”

            “Not helping,” Iain grumbled.

            Helen looked thoughtfully at him. “Can I see the recording of the event?”

            “I have it,” Joyce said. She popped to her feet. “Let me get my phone.”

            “Joyce, why do you have a recording of what happened?”

            She smiled at Iain. “Marguerite made it and shared with us after checking with Theodora to make sure there weren’t any privacy restrictions. Be right back.” She vanished and returned a few seconds later with her phone. “Let me queue it up.”

            Iain waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever. I was there, remember, and that’s not what happened.” He watched as Joyce huddled with her guest so they could share the phone’s display. He smiled slightly as they put their heads together. Helen was a few centimeters taller than Joyce and her bovine head was very different, but otherwise they were remarkably alike. It was also interesting to note that while Helen was a formidable fighter in her prime, that prime was obviously not now since Joyce looked much fitter than the older Milktit.

            “Oh my god,” Helen muttered. “Joyce, please pause the video.”

            Joyce shrugged. “Paused.”

            Helen looked at Iain. “I never knew that he was going to humiliate Kozakura like that. If I had, I would have fought him harder over it.”

            “You couldn’t have won that fight,” Joyce said. “You love him and he’s your male. I did some research and it’s a Nipponese warrior honor thing. He could have insisted that Kozakura commit ritual suicide to make amends if Iain had demanded it.”

            Helen frowned. “If you’re right, and you may well be, then nothing I could have done would have changed his mind.” She rubbed a horn. “How is she?”

            “She’s fine,” Joyce said.

            “I’m not sure fine is the right word,” Iain said. “This was a severe culture shock for both her and Nejiko. She’s never not been a princess before and some of the adjustments were difficult. It was harder for Nejiko than Kozakura.”

            Helen smiled. “I’m not surprised to hear that. Kozakura was raised to be Shikarou’s daughter and possible heir. Nejiko wasn’t given to her until Kozakura requested a retainer, and she was already an adult at that point. Being a princess’ personal retainer fit well with the arrogance Nejiko already had as a Phoenix and she loved having all of the power that being Kozakura’s retainer gave her.”

            “Why isn’t she a Fireburst,” Joyce asked.

            “She has an everstone like I do,” Helen said. “She’s never wanted to evolve. You have one too, don’t you?”

            “No,” Joyce replied. “I don’t want to evolve and therefore I won’t because I don’t want to. And if something happens and I do accidentally evolve, Iain will put that right.” Her ears flicked as she smirked at Helen. “You need an everstone because you know that evolving will make you a better fighter, which you really want, so the stone keeps that day from ever coming so you don’t have to face temptation and have to make a decision about what you really want. I am getting better at fighting, but I want to remain a Milktit more than I want to kick ass, so I’m not tempted. If I’d wanted, I could have evolved over a year ago, but I’d rather make beer and feed what I make, both with my hands and my body, to Iain.”

            “And Iain really appreciates that,” Iain said with a smile.

            “You’re very perceptive,” Helen noted. “Now can I see the rest of the video?”

            Joyce grinned. “Or course.” Her eyes flicked to Iain. “Please don’t try any of the samples until I’m free so we can discuss what’s going on with each batch.”

            “Should I stick my hands in my pockets so you know I can’t touch anything?” Joyce winked and Iain sat quietly as they put their heads back together.

            The two women were quiet until the video ended and then Helen gave Iain a curious look. “If, during this meeting, you had decided that you did want Poppet dead, would Shikarou’s presence have stopped you from trying to kill her?”

            “I don’t want Poppet dead.”

            Helen nodded. “But Joyce is right, isn’t she? If you had wanted her dead, it’s true that nothing would have stood in your way, isn’t it? Shikarou sensed that too, which is why he was cautious about engaging you. He was worried that if he tried, he couldn’t have protected her at the same time. Joyce is wrong when she says you and Shikarou had a confrontation. It’s actually much worse than that. I know how he thinks. The problem is that Shikarou saw that you didn’t care whether he was there or not and you didn’t bother to concern yourself with his power and abilities while deciding that you weren’t going to kill Poppet for her behavior. You attitude was that he didn’t factor into that decision at all.” She smiled sympathetically. “He’s going to want to pit himself against you to show you that you shouldn’t have done that.”

            Iain snorted as Joyce began lining up the sample bottles. “Shikarou would kick my ass all over the place in a fight. Pass.”

            Helen nodded. “That is the conventional wisdom and that is what most of us believe, but some part of you isn’t so sure about that. What Shikarou saw was Poppet was a bitch to you and you decided what you were going to do about her without any concern, whatsoever, for his presence. You confirmed his opinion when you didn’t back down when he interceded. To him, you have proven you believe you are a power and he respects that behavior since that is his behavior too. That’s why he’s encouraging us to visit. He thinks he understands you better. The problem is that he will want to prove that your dismissal of him was wrong and he will challenge you because of it.”

            “I don’t want to fight your husband.”

            “You know as well as I do that won’t matter,” Helen said simply. “In fact, it will probably make him want to fight you even more.”

            “Iain is not going to fight Shikarou to the death,” Joyce’s voice was firm. “So if that’s what he wants, he can go fuck himself.”

            “Iain is not our enemy,” Helen replied. “Shikarou will not challenge him to a death battle. Still, he will want to fight Iain so he can prove to Iain that he should be taken seriously.”

            “He’s the ruler of the second most powerful faction on the planet,” Iain said quietly, “and a powerful combatant in his own right. He’s almost fucking indestructible, for blood’s sake. I take him very seriously.”

            “Is the Grey Clan the most powerful faction,” Helen asked curiously.

            “Kerrik is the most powerful thing on this world,” Iain replied. “Haven is second and Shanghai is third. Next is Blood or maybe Indigo. We think that we’re somewhere in the top ten, but that’s probably being generous about our abilities.” He was so not going to bring up Caintigern. Besides she wasn’t clan.

            “You have Evangelion at your beck and call, Iain.”

            “She is not my puppet,” Iain said evenly. “And she is not invulnerable.” His smile was as cold as the heart of winter. “I could think of a few places around the world where a copy of the Louisiana Canal would make me sleep easier at night and if she were my puppet those canals would exist. We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”

            Helen shrugged. “And in the end, none of that matters. Shikarou feels you slighted him, and he is going to want to prove to you that you shouldn’t have done that, so it is inevitable that he will challenge you to a fight. Eventually he will become tired of you refusing and insist. And because he will have something to prove, it won’t be a very friendly fight either.”

            “I hope he enjoys chasing people, because I can be very fast when properly motivated, like when a kami wants to cut pieces out of my hide and, since I can’t beat him, running away sounds like a really good plan,” Iain said.

            “What will it take to satisfy Shikarou,” Ninhursag asked from the doorway. She glanced at Iain as she pulled out a chair and sat down between him and Helen. “Joyce called and filled me in. How much blood will Iain have to spill?”

            “You don’t have to reveal any secrets,” Iain said quietly to Helen. “And if you are too uncomfortable having this discussion we can end it and move on to Joyce foisting off her potions on me to see if she can find the one that turns me purple.”

            Helen shook her head. “No, we need to discuss this. You and Joyce shared what happened to put him the mood he’s in right now and I don’t want to watch him slice people up any more than you want to the person he’s slicing up.”

            “I think I don’t want to be sliced up a lot more than you don’t want to watch it,” Iain said with a smile.

            “I’ll give you that one,” Helen said. She sighed. “No, I need to talk to Branwyn and Bellona before this goes any further, though. As far as I know, he hasn’t told them what happened during that meeting either. They need to have input in what I can and can’t tell you or, even better, they need to tell you what they want told.” She gave a wan smile. “Otherwise I’ll get to see me getting sliced up by them and I really don’t want to watch that happening.” Her ears flicked. “If Poppet defies them, that’s one thing, but if I do it I’ll get in a lot of trouble that I won’t want.”

            “Then we’re done with this discussion,” Iain said firmly. He looked at Joyce. “Please don’t try to quiz her about it after I leave, too.”

            “I won’t,” Joyce gave him a quick grin. “That would be rude.”

            “Exactly,” Iain said. “Now, line up those samples and tell me about the poisons in them.” He looked at Ninhursag as Joyce eagerly started moving the bottles around. “Sorry you came here for nothing.”

            “I didn’t,” she said quietly. “I now know that nobody has a clue about what happened during Shikarou’s visit except us, and that’s a critical fact. I think I’ll forward Branwyn a copy of this meeting as well as that video and suggest we have a face to face so we can keep both of our men as healthy as possible.” She glanced at Helen, who had one ear pointing in their direction. “And that will help to get you off of any hook you might have just stuck yourself with.”

            “I appreciate that,” Helen murmured. “I like my skin attached to the rest of me and Branwyn can have a vicious temper if provoked.”

            “Any maharani worth anything will,” Ninhursag said with a slight smile. She leaned over and stole a kiss from Iain before getting to her feet. “Are you invoking privacy for this meeting,” she asked Iain.

            “If you can use any of this to keep Shikarou from fileting my bones, please, by all means do so. Theodora could most likely keep me alive to recover but that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to experience.”

            “It doesn’t, does it,” Ninhursag agreed. “Hopefully Branwyn can help me keep it from happening.” She flashed a grin at Helen. “After I let Iain take in Kasumi and Ygerna, she owes me a lot of favors.”

            Helen blinked and then gave a low laugh. “Considering how happy she was to see their backsides, I’d say you’re right, but she won’t see it that way.”

            “You’re probably right.” Ninhursag turned and headed for the door. “Still, I’ll take care of sending her that message before you leave so you’re off the hook as much as I can get you.”

            Helen smiled at her back. “Thank you.”

            Joyce held out a bottle. “Now that that’s settled, this is some wine I’ve been working on using the Mustang grapes with Great Grape juice to provide the sugar instead of using corn syrup or honey. I also used the skins and I want you to tell me if it’s picked up too many tannins from the skin.”

            “Fine,” Iain reached for the bottle without hesitation.

***

            April sighed and rested her forehead against his. “I love you,” she murmured as she shifted slightly to get more comfortable in his lap.

            “I love you too.”

            She reached behind him and ran her fingers through his hair. It now hung halfway down his back. “I like the length now, but I wish it didn’t come with the price you have to pay so I have it to play with.”

            “I need what she’s teaching me,” Iain said. “It means I will be able to protect myself and all of you better.”

            “I know,” she replied softly. “If you didn’t have to go and it didn’t make us all stronger, you wouldn’t. Sometimes, though, I wish you hadn’t brought Ava and Kasserine to us. I like them, and they are welcome in our family, but their presence means you can’t go to Kerrik for lessons anymore. You have to go to her because of them and I don’t like them because of that.”

            “I was going to have to go back to her eventually. I made her a promise. And this way I’m not being kept there and away from you for a century at a time.”

            April gave him a sad smile. “Would I be able to tell if you were?”

            “I don’t lie to you about that kind of thing.”

            “You can be frustratingly evasive about it though, remember?”

            “If you want, I’ll promise you to answer that question accurately without hedging, if you ask it.”

            “You offer me something special and don’t expect me to snatch it up?” She smiled. “I want that, Iain.”

            “Then you have my promise.”

            “How long were you gone last time?”

            “Five years.”

            She sighed. “She only kept you a single year the time before.”

            “There was something that she insisted I learn before I could leave again.” He kissed her lower lip. “It will be useful. It makes me harder to kill.”

            April smiled slowly. “I like you being harder to kill. I work to make that true too. Did you learn whatever it is?”

            “I learned the basics. I’ll learn more when I return tomorrow.” He smiled at the question in her eyes. “No, I don’t know how long she’ll keep me this time. It doesn’t matter. A day apart from my family is just as long and painful as a decade away from you. I wake up missing you and go to sleep missing you. That ache never really goes away.”

            “I know I’m selfish, but I like hearing that,” April whispered. She curled up in his lap so she could rest her head against his chest. “Your heartbeat soothes me so much.” She glanced up at him. “What’s it like with the elf and other women you’re with while you’re there?”

            “It’s sex,” Iain replied. “Most of them seem surprised at how well my ladies have taught me to give pleasure to various personalities. I seem to be able to ferret out what they really want and how to give it to them in a way that doesn’t make them unhappy.”

            April giggled. “I’ll bet.” She sighed. “Do you get attached to any of them?”

            “They’re not here, so no.” He looked down at her. “Do I ask you about the men and women you might have known before we met or the ones you might have been with between that first night we slept together and when I wised up and returned to claim you?”

            She went very still in his arms. “No,” she whispered.

            “That’s because you love me and so they’re not important. You are not a sociopath like I am. That means the women I’m with that I don’t love are even less important to me than the ones you were with that you don’t love are to you.” He kissed her gently. “And they’re not important to you at all because you talk about the things that are important to you. The only thing I know about your sexual past is that you were in a Spark orgy and that only came up when I asked you to face Spark again. I have you and we are going to be together until we die.” He smiled. “And that is critically important.”

            April grinned up at him. “Yes, it is.”

***

            Iain fastened the cloak around his neck and pulled his hair back so he could use the dark blue silk ribbon to tie it up in a ponytail.

            “Are you going to learn to braid it like Kerrik does,” Theodora asked him from where she stood.

            “I don’t think I’ll let it get much longer than it is now,” he replied as he belted on his pistol. “As for braiding it, maybe. I just want it out of the way right now and a ponytail works just fine for that.”

            “I like it,” Daya volunteered. “I can’t wait until I have hands and can run my fingers through it like April does.”

            Theodora smirked. “I can’t either.”

            “I’ll be seeing you both,” Iain said.  He ran his hands over his belt to double check his weapons and other gear with an amused smile. “I hang one more thing from this and I may end up calling it my utility belt.”

            Daya chuckled. “At least it isn’t your Bat Utility Belt.”

            “That’s a rather curious reference that I haven’t heard in a while,” he said. “Where did you hear that one?”

            “Somebody bought the video tapes of the 1960s Batman series while you were on Kasumi’s world,” Daya replied. “We digitized everything from that trip so it’s in the video library. I liked it.”

            “At least I am not so old as to have been able to watch that originally.” He dropped his cloak into position. “Now, ladies, I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

            “Be careful,” Daya called.

            “I will. Ladies.” He stepped into a shadow and it swallowed him up. He emerged on the plane where the shades of all of the people he’d killed waited for a day that would never come and they could revenge themselves on him.

            “I need your help.”

            Iain’s cloak ballooned out as he whirled, drew and aimed his pistol in one motion. He blinked at the face hovering over the holographic sight and lowered the weapon in surprise. “How can you be here? While I do blame myself for your death, Scheherazade, I didn’t directly kill you.”

            “It’s taking too much power to stay here long,” she said. “Meet me at Jane’s.” She faded to translucency. “Please?”

            “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said. She faded from sight and he sighed. “Fuck.” He stepped into the shadow of a man wearing most of a Sunshine uniform who was missing the upper two thirds of his head and vanished.

            It was so bright that the glare was blinding and the air was so dry that he could feel it sucking at the moisture of his nose, eyes and mouth. The plants around him were various shades of lavender but, lost in the whirl of activity in his mind, he only noted there were no threats before moving on.

            Theodora looked surprised when he appeared. “You’ve been gone for less than a half a second, Iain.”

            “Privacy,” Iain said.”

            “Understood,” both Theodora and Daya said at the same instant.

            “There’s been a change of plans,” he said as he stripped of the cloak and dropped it on the bed. “I have to go to the Lands of the Dead.”

            Theodora scowled. “Is it her? What does she want now?”

            “Yes, it’s Scheherazade and she says she needs my help.”

            “Ignore her like she did you,” Theodora snapped.

            “What is going on,” Daya asked.

            Theodora looked at him. “Iain?”

            “You have permission to read her in since she’s our security expert.”

            “As you know, Scheherazade was part of Iain’s family and was killed during Mhodvitnar’s attack.” Theodora was watching Iain closely. “A year after Pandora joined us, Iain went to the Lands of the Dead after invoking privacy so I couldn’t tell anyone else. Since he could bring Pandora back to life and it was easy to do, he wanted to get his women back. He couldn’t locate Sable, Irena, Montsho and Hathor, but he did find Scheherazade. She flatly refused to return.”

            “She said she was in the middle of a project that she couldn’t put down,” Iain said calmly, refusing to feel again the pain her words had caused him. “So we started meeting twice a year where I’d ask her to come back and she would refuse. On one trip she didn’t show for our appointment. I waited six months until the next scheduled day and tried again and she wasn’t there. I haven’t been back since.”

            “You shouldn’t do this,” Theodora’s voice was angry and frightened. “She’s using your love for her to manipulate you.”

            Iain gave her an amused look. “Don’t all people who love each other do that?”

            “They’re not usually dead when they do.”

            “There’s not really that much difference between the dead and the living unless there are unusual circumstances,” Iain said. “Otherwise we’d be neck deep in undead and spirits, and the last time I checked, this is not Sunnydale and we’re not in California.” He ran his hands over his belt. “Besides, for people like me there’s even less of a difference between them than there is for most of the living.” His eyes met hers. “And this discussion is over.”

            Theodora’s eyes narrowed. “And what if I want to continue it?”

            “In a minute you can to your heart’s content, as long as it’s in this room. I’m going to the park.” True to his word, Iain headed for the shuttle and the park.

            I am deploying security to repel boarders as protocol for when you go to the Lands of the Dead, Theodora said through his twee. And I am filling in Daya so she is aware of protocol for the future.

            “Good,” Iain said as he walked. “Just remember not to open fire until you’ve identified your targets since you’ve never met Scheherazade. That and I’d like to avoid accidently being shot with plasma bolts. I’ve managed not to experience that so far and I’d like to keep it that way.”

            I assure you that I will use proper fire discipline and if I shot you it will not be an accident.

            Iain laughed as Daya’s presence joined Theodora’s in his mind. You need to use a dedicated purpose-built security facility for these travels to the Lands of the Dead if it is as hazardous as you and Theodora believe it could be.

            “Fine. Build one and I’ll use it. I’m not waiting for it, however, since I told Scheherazade I’d be there as soon as I could.”

            Construction started five seconds ago, Daya told him. When it is ready for use, I will inform you.

             The park was as pretty as usual, but the area around Zareen’s rock was filled with security drones operated by Theodora. There were some of the standard flying combat drones and several ground units that carried much more firepower with heavier armor and shielding stood in silent ranks nearby.

            He held out his arms. “Everybody off. I don’t want to take a chance you won’t be able to come back with me.”

            Smoke poured off his body and Eirian nodded as the others raced into the woods. “We will remain here and await your return, my lord.” She smiled. “Do not be too long, for even as you miss our presence, we miss yours.”

            “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Iain touched the fabric of the universe with his magic and opened the doorway to the Land of the Dead. “I’ll open the return portal in this place too.” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped through, pausing while the doorway closed behind him.

            He stood in a street, looking at the storefront for Jane’s Eatery. He steeled himself and pushed the door open, listening to the bell attached to it ring as he did. The woman behind the counter gave him an amused smile around her cigarette. “Necromancer, why don’t you just die? Then you can spend as much time here as you want.”

            “It’s good to see you too, Matilda.” Iain looked around the restaurant. No Scheherazade. There was an audible grating noise as he ground his teeth together for a second. “If she stands me up again,” he muttered irritably. He gave Matilda a rueful smile. “Apparently I’ll be waiting for someone.”

            Matilda’s jowls jiggled as she chuckled. “Whether it’s for someone or something, waiting is all we dead do, necromancer, so you’re in good company. As you can see, you’re the only one here beside me right now. Pick any seat.” Nicotine stained teeth gleamed for an instant in her smile. “Maybe you could try the chili this time.”

            Iain headed for the table at the back of the room. “Honestly, I did intend to do that the next time I was here, but this was unexpected and I’ve just eaten.”

            She shrugged. “Suit yourself, necromancer.” She pulled a fresh cigarette from a pack and lit up, inhaling deeply.

            Iain settled down with his back to the wall so he could see the doorway. He touched the black spot on the tabletop and flashed a quick smile. He could remove it now, but for some reason it seemed appropriate that it remain.

            The door opened and Iain looked up to see Scheherazade standing in the doorway. “Come with me,” she said and left.

            Iain rose as his eyes narrowed and the muscles in his jaw bunched, but his voice was cheerful as he headed for the door. “I’ll try to schedule my next visit so I can try the chili, Matilda.”

            She blew a cloud of gray smoke from her nostrils. “I’ll believe that, necromancer, when you actually eat here.”

            “Fair enough.” He stepped outside. Scheherazade was standing in the mouth of an alley and gestured for him to follow.

            Once they were hidden from sight in the alley, Scheherazade gave him a quick hug. “You’ve lost weight.”

            Iain was determined to keep a grip on his temper. “No, I haven’t, but I have lost fat. How do you need my help?”

            Her ears flicked. “You’re angry with me.”

            “You stood me up. Twice. Now all I get is ‘I need your help’. I am way beyond angry, but I control it, not it me. What is it that you need my help with? We’ll deal with that and then we’ll fight.”

            She eyed him. “You’ve learned to focus. I like that. I get some free time periodically and I’ve been using it looking for my sisters. I found Irena. She’s in a very bad place and the prisoner of some very bad people. I need your help to rescue her.”

            “What do I do?”

            “You’ll need an empty pokeball.” Her ears flicked. “You carry those, right?”

            “I may get into a fight with a feral at any time. Of course I carry them. What’s the situation?”

            “There is a race called the Drakh who tend to stay in their own area, but sometimes they raid into the human areas to hunt slaves. Irena was picked up in one of their sweeps.”

            Iain frowned. “Are they reptilian, dark green or gray and roughly human sized hive mentality telepaths?”

            “Your knowledge of the arcane is impressive. Yes, that describes them.”

            “They’re actually a technologically advanced race, not arcane, but that’s not important. What do you need me to do?”

            “I cannot enter their prisons, for they are warded with magic that can keep me out of them. Irena is in a cell that is on an outside wall and there is a window. Your dragon form is small enough to get to this window without triggering their security systems and you can capture her in the pokeball and bring her to me. Once I have her, I can make sure she moves on the next stage of her journey.”

            “As you knew I’d be, I’m in.”

            “Thank you, Iain. No one deserves to be a prisoner of the Drakh.” She held out her hand. “I’ll take you to the closest point I can go.”

            Iain took it and the scene changed around them. They were standing in a field on top of a hill. Around them were the squares of homesteads and their associated fields while in the distance a brooding castle loomed over them all from a mountainside. “Let me guess where the Drakh live.”

            “I have missed your humor almost more than your scent,” Scheherazade said as she snuffled the top of his head with her nose. “And yes, it’s the farmhouse to the right.” She glanced at him when he smiled slightly. “The prison is at the base of the castle where it merges into the mountain. While they can and do keep teleporting and phasing from happening inside their castles as well as shooting down incoming people with their laser turrets, they can’t keep me from scrying inside and finding my sister.”

            “Did you find the others,” Iain asked quietly.

            “I never located any sign of Sable, but I found that Montsho and Hathor had already moved on when I went looking for them.” Her ears flicked. “Sable was evil and so I didn’t look very hard for her. Did she even have a soul?”

            “She does.” Iain focused his vision. “So the squares along the bottom are the windows of the prison? There aren’t very many of them.”

            “They don’t care if the prisoners have a good view, Iain. Irena hasn’t been a prisoner for very long so she hasn’t been sold or moved deeper into the castle, at least not as of this morning.”

            “Is she alone?”

            “She’s proven difficult to control because of her powers, both those she retained from being a Night Nurse and those she has as a Sanctuary Goth, so she’s been segregated from the general population.” Her ears flicked “Would that really matter?”

            “No, but it changes my options. I don’t have to try to control or incapacitate a bunch of other prisoners while rescuing Irena. It makes some things easier and others harder.”

            “Harder?”

            “Assuring a bunch of prospective slaves that if they riot I’ll back it with my impressive powers would prove a good distraction to keep the Drakh busy suppressing the riot while I escaped with Irena.”

            Scheherazade chuckled. “Isn’t this where Eve says your name in a shrill yet angry voice.”

            “Sometimes. She’s gotten better about it or worse, depending on your viewpoint.”

            “I haven’t had the time to spy on my family recently,” Scheherazade said regretfully. “The last time I looked, you’d turned into a little dragon and been spirited away by Nightraven so she could help you.” Her ears canted sideways. “Did that help involve your dick in her pussy?”

            “No.”

            “Shame. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.” She cocked her head and gave him a glance. “I certainly miss it.”

            “So come home.”

            She sighed. “I still have things to do here.”

            “Will that list ever end?”

            She grunted softly. “I’m not sure anymore.”

            “Then someone who outranks you needs to cut you loose.”

            She grunted again. “If only it were that simple.”

            Iain shifted to his small dragon form and activated his chameleon spell. He spread his wings as they began to take on the color of his surroundings. “Maybe I can make it that simple.”

            “I would like that, but it’s not going to be possible. They won’t listen to you.”

            “We’ll see.” Iain vaulted into the air and headed for the castle, staying within a few meters of the ground to follow the terrain as he flew. When he hit some trees, he flew just below the crowns for additional cover while on approach.

            The castle was much larger than he thought, which meant it was farther away than he’d estimated, but eventually he hovered just outside one of the barred windows to the prisons. Inside he could see that Scheherazade hadn’t given him all of the details he needed, for the isolation area was a cluster of free standing cells, many of which were occupied by individuals. It meant that if Irena were here, she was not alone even if she was removed from the regular prisoner holding area.

            The bars were spaced closely enough that a human couldn’t get its head through them, but Iain didn’t have any difficulty sliding between them. The windows were set several meters above the tops of the isolation cells, giving a good view of the interior. Iain gripped the bars with his hind feet and let his body drape down the inside wall as he surveyed the room.

            Security wise it wasn’t a bad setup. There were a dozen cells and they were clustered in the center of the room such that none of them touched a wall and patrolling guards could walk all the way around the exterior of the cellblock. Their walls were three meters high and the tops of the cells were barred too.

            He didn’t see any cameras but considering that the Drakh were from the Babylon 5 series of universes and the scions of the Shadows, cameras and other surveillance devices could easily be present but be concealed where he couldn’t easily find them.

            On the other hand, this was the Land of the Dead and the Drakh would have to create all of the advanced technology that they used here. Scheherazade had mentioned laser turrets, so they had some technology and manufacturing available, but the fact that they wanted slaves might mean they didn’t have a lot of it. Besides, a small laser weapon wasn’t that hard to build if the maker was familiar with the required technology and turrets could be operated manually instead of being precision targeted automatic systems. And they might not have many of them. Finally, in an area with so much magic, technology wasn’t always reliable unless you knew exactly what you were doing, something Iain doubted was true for the Drakh.

            He picked up a familiar scent and suddenly it didn’t matter. Irena was here and Iain was going to rescue her and no bunch of slavers was going to prevent that. The only question was how he was going to get her out, once he found her.

            She was in her adult form, wearing a dirty cloth t-tunic that hung to her thighs and her hair had been chopped short, but he knew Irena the instant he saw her. She had been hobbled with leg irons and manacles graced her wrists. The leg irons and manacles were connected by a third length of chain, this one short enough that she couldn’t straighten up and so she was hunched over as she shuffled slowly towards a sleeping pallet. Her movements were slow and tentative as she shuffled, and Iain growled softly when her head lifted once when someone else groaned and he could see the lines of stitching which showed that her eyes had been crudely sewn shut. She was thinner than he liked and he could see the white lines of whip marks on her legs and her neck above her singlet.

            Iain released the bars and glided across the room to land on top of a cell that didn’t contain Irena. He paused there while his twee counted off two minutes before climbing to Irena’s cell and dropping through the roof bars to land silently near the pallet where she’d lain down. “Don’t react,” he said softly, “but you are not alone, Irena, and the guards are not aware that I’m here so please don’t give me away.”

            Her head jerked once in his direction but she didn’t otherwise move. “Who are you?” She kept her voice just above a whisper.

            “It’s Iain and I’m here to get you out of this place,” he replied. “Ask me anything that I would know that your captors wouldn’t and I’ll prove it.”

            She turned her sightless eyes in his direction. “How did I meet you?”

            “You were participating in a Sadie Pokens event and heard about some crazy guy on a picnic table. You were curious and used your chibi form to make me think you were a child and forced me to take charge and care of you for a good part of the day until your mother showed up to retrieve you. You swiped my ID picture when you left and then ended up as my only acquisition in my box at the end of the day. I didn’t believe you were the kid I’d met until you explained about being a chibi and wanting to avoid the sickos who would want you only for that ability.”

            Irena swallowed hard. “Is it really you, Iain?”

            “Yes.”

            Her face turned determined. “You can’t rescue me. You should just leave.”

            “I have a pokeball that I can put you in, if you don’t fight it too hard. And don’t bother arguing with me. You know it’s useless once my mind is made up. So far I’ve managed to stay hidden and since I can fly, once you’re safely put away I can escape with you.”

            “You can fly?”

            “I flew in here to get you and I can camouflage myself so I’m hard to see, which is how I sneaked in here and it’s how I will sneak out with you.”

            She sighed. “I’m sorry you’re dead.”

            “I’m not. I’ve accepted that I’m a necromancer, which allows me to come to the Land of the Dead without having to die to do so. Now we need to get out of here. Once we’re someplace safer I’ll let you out and cut those stitches so you can see me and then we can talk. All you have to do is trust me a little. Will you do that?”

            She smiled slightly. “I’d trust you with my life, Iain, if I weren’t already dead, and I certainly don’t want to stay here. Get me out of here and I’ll be yours again.”

            “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t fight the pokeball. Capturing you will most likely get someone’s attention and I’ll have to move quickly at that point.”

            “I’ll try hard not to fight it,” she assured him.

            “Good.” Iain changed to his human form, pulled a pokeball from his pocket and pressed it against her head. She vanished into it and Iain tucked it away instantly, trusting her not to escape, returned to his dragon form and launched himself at the window even as a guard came at a run, drawing some kind of weapon. There was the sound of a gunshot, but Iain was already dodging and the bullet missed, hitting the wall ahead of him and whining away as he sped through the window’s bars and immediately turned down to head for the surface and the closest bushes.

            If there was pursuit, Iain never saw it, but he stayed below the treetops as much as he could as he flew a winding path in the direction Scheherazade was supposed to be waiting. All of his time working with Caintigern and Nightraven had honed his dead reckoning skills and he emerged almost on top of where she was standing and staring at the castle.

            He landed and shifted to his human form as he opened the portal back to the Theodora and the world of the living. “Got her.”

            Scheherazade glanced at it and held out her hand. “Good, give her to me and you can flee where they can’t chase you.”

            Iain held out the pokeball and, when she reached for it, grabbed her wrist and drove his knee into her crotch with all of his strength. She shrieked and went down, clutching at her groin. Iain dropped the pokeball, shifted to his full sized dragon form, grabbed Scheherazade and thrust her through the portal. Then he returned to human and picked up the pokeball, checked it over quickly and activated it to release Irena. “We’re safe for the moment. If you want, I can cut the stitches here, but I’d rather wait until we’re back with the living and I can run you through a healing cycle to clean up everything at once.”

            She turned her face towards him. “I’m dead, Iain. I remember it happening and you can’t take me out of here unless I go into one of the gates to other realms.”

            Iain created his energy knife and carefully sliced the chains on her manacles at the wrists and ankles. “Remember the part I said about accepting that I’m a necromancer? It means I can take you with me and, when we cross over, you’ll be alive again, our bond will reform and you’ll be back in my family where you belong. I started to take you through in your ball, but I’m not sure if releasing a dead girl from a pokeball there will be safe for you and I’d rather not test the concept with someone I care for.”

            She held out her hands. “Hold my hands so I can feel you.” He took her hands and she smiled. “How long have I been dead?”

            “Several years. My harem has grown and I’ve married some of my family as well as some non pokegirls. There have been a lot of changes and you’ll be busy for a while adjusting to them.”

            “You would subject me to all of that just because you miss me?”

            “Yes. I would and I am going to.”

            “Is Eve still a bitch?”

            Iain chuckled. “She can be, but she’s not in charge anymore. I fired her and made an Elfqueen named Ninhursag my maharani. April is still the beta.”

            “Who else died when I did?”

            “Hathor and Montsho. Scheherazade did too and so did one of my dead harem, Sable. However, Scheherazade will be waiting for us on the other side. Granted, I suspect she’s going to be yelling at me a lot as soon as she sees me.”

            “Why?”

            “I found out about where you were today. I’ve known where she has been for a few years and I’ve been trying to get her to come back with me for a while. She’s been telling me no and that she has some job to do here. I don’t really care, and when she gave me an opportunity a few minutes ago, I shoved her furry butt through the gate so she’s alive again and where she belongs.”

            Irena chuckled. “You would do that, wouldn’t you? I’m dead and you can’t hurt me, so I want you to cut the stitches on my eyes before we go through. I want to see Scheherazade yelling at you.”

            “Hold still and don’t try to open your eyes until I tell you that you can,” Iain said. “While you say I can’t hurt you, what I just did to Scheherazade suggests I can and so I want to do this carefully.”

            “What did you do?”

            “I have a Nurse Joy in my harem now and, while she’s not you and she can’t replace you, she’s been teaching me a martial art she knows. Part of the training she’s been giving is about how to strike without warning. I used that to knee Scheherazade in the groin hard enough to put her on the ground screaming. It’s how I could immobilize her long enough to shove her through the portal.”

            “I definitely want to see her pissed off at you then. I used to dream of doing something like that to her.”

            Iain summoned his knife and took her by the cheek with his right hand. “Don’t move or try to open your eyes until I’m finished. If you haven’t seen for a while, trying to use them is likely to make you shake your head or something and then who knows what I might slice off.”

            “You do remember that I know more about medicine than you do, right?”

            He began picking at the stitches with the point of his razor sharp knife, carefully slicing them one at a time. “And I’m cutting across your eyes right now with a knife since I don’t have any scissors with which to do this right, so you might want to save the bitching until I’m done.”

            “Did you miss me while I was gone,” she asked quietly.

            “When you come back to life your bond with me should reform and then you’ll see just how miserable I made myself over your death. Not only did I miss you, I blamed myself for your death, especially since I felt that bastard’s glee when he killed you.”

            “How do you do that?”

            “He almost killed all of us. I defeated him by cheating and later I found out I’d eaten his soul, which gave me all of his memories up to the point I killed him.” Iain picked at the last stitch. “Including the ones where he killed my women.”

            “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

            “No, you’re sorry I went through it without you there.”

            Irena giggled softly. “Yes.”

            “All done.” He stepped back, returning his knife to the tattoo on his arm. “You’re the medical specialist so you know this is going to hurt.”

            Irena opened her eyes and shut them again, pressing her hands against them. “Fuck, that hurts.” She rubbed her palms against her eyes for a moment before slowly lowering her hands and squinting at him. “You’ve got long hair. I like it.” She frowned and sniffed her hands. “Ick. I can get a cleaning cycle with that healing cycle, right?”

            “Of course.”

            “Good, because I stink.”

            Iain gestured at the gate. “After you.”

            She hesitated. “I’m scared.”

            “That makes sense. I’d be scared too. Are you as scared as you were when you put yourself into my box?”

            She looked thoughtful. “You won’t let them kill me?”

            “No.”

            “You won’t let them get rid of me?”

            “We’re delta bonded. The only way you can leave me is if you decide you want to and after I fail to convince you to change your mind and stay.”

            Irena gave him a smile. “As long as I know those things are true, they can hurt me all they want. I’m not scared anymore.” Iain held out his hand. “I just warned you I stink.”

            “I know and I don’t care. It’s time to take you home.” Irena took his hand and they stepped through the portal.

            Scheherazade was struggling fruitlessly against the grips of several of his undead harem. She snarled when she saw him and Irena. “Tell them to let me go!”

            Iain staggered when the two delta bonds sprang into existence. It was disorientating and he steadied himself against Irena for a second. “When they let you go, if you hit me I am going to shoot you and you will not enjoy it.”

            “I have never struck you in anger,” Scheherazade growled. “I will never strike you in anger, even after you did this.”

            Iain nodded as the portal closed behind him. “Accepted. Release her and return to riding me.”

            Scheherazade straightened when his undead bolted from her to him and vanished onto his body. Her teeth were bared, her ears were flat and her tail bushy with fury. “How dare you do what you did!”

            “I am your general,” Iain said coldly. “I decide where you go and where you belong. I don’t give a shit about whether you are dead or alive when I make those decisions either and your place is here with me. It always has been and it always will be.”

            Theodora appeared. “I have called a meeting of the command staff, Iain, in thirty minutes. It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Irena and Scheherazade. Iain has told me good things about you. I am Theodora.”

            Scheherazade glared angrily at him. “The powers that I was working for before you dragged me back here are going to be pissed at you. They’ll be waiting for you and they will not be nice.”

            “If you’ve been watching then you are aware that I have become pretty much immortal,” Iain said calmly. “When I die, unless I figure out how to stop it, I will probably become a free willed lich. Both of those things together mean that anybody in the Lands of the Dead is going to have to wait a very long time before they can do anything to me.” He smiled a shark’s smile. “And since I’m working very hard to become as powerful as I can as quickly as I can, by the time I do end up where they might be able to do something to me, it may not be as easy as they think. And even if I’m wrong, having you and Irena back where you belong means I will pay their price if I must. I accepted that when I decided to act. But until I have to pay that price, fuck them. And when they can do something to me, I’ll look them right in the eye and tell them to go fuck themselves.”

            Scheherazade shook her head, her ears slowly coming up. “You have no idea how much trouble you’ve caused.”

            Iain held up his fist and extended his thumb. “Let’s see, I’m a greedy drake and so I want what I want and don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.” He extended his index finger. “I’m a sociopath and so I don’t care about anyone or anything that isn’t important to me.” His middle finger joined the other two. “I’ve never met these powers.” He put his hand down. “All of that means I don’t give a shit. I want you and Irena here and here you will be.” He folded his arms. “And I can feel across our bond that you want to be here too.”

            Scheherazade stalked forward and looked down at him. Suddenly she grabbed him, pulled him to the ground and wrapped herself around him. “You shouldn’t have done that and yes, I belong here. Thank you.” Irena yelped when Scheherazade reached out, snagged her leg and dragged her into the pile.

            A few minutes later Scheherazade sat up. “God, girl, you stink.”

            “I was in a prison and not a spa,” Irena said as she rolled away from Iain. “Now who is this Theodora who tried to politely introduce herself to us while you were yelling?” She suddenly became chibi and grinned. “I haven’t been able to do this since I died. That feels so fucking good.” She quickly climbed into Iain’s lap.

            “After your death,” Theodora said, “Iain and his family purchased me and a space ship from Magdalene Wolf. I am the inorganic intelligence who runs that ship for my family, which now includes you. I am also the maharani of a harem of two, which includes me and Daya, another inorganic intelligence that Iain rescued from being a prisoner much like you were.”

            Irena looked at Iain. “Space ship?”

            “You’re inside it. This is a park she made for us.”

            Irena started to speak and stopped herself. “Ok, before I say that’s fucked up, and you tell me something else that’s fucked up, what’s the most fucked up thing you can think of that’s happened since my death?”

            Iain frowned. “That’s going to be hard to answer. First, it’s too subjective for an unbiased answer and, secondly, there are lot of fucked up things floating around me right now.” He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m a dragon now and only look like a human because I want to. I’m a Texas Ranger, which is a kind of law enforcement officer. Kerrik Wolf is real and we’re friends and he’s gotten me engaged to his mother and sister.”

            “Shit,” Irena said, “you weren’t kidding about things being fucked up.” Her eyes widened. “Did you just say that you’re a cop?”

            “See? I don’t think that’s too messed up, but it’s what you focused on. And that just proves me right about how what’s fucked up is incredibly subjective. How about in a month, I ask you what you think is the most fucked up thing here?”

            She laughed and slipped out of his lap. “I already know the answer to that one, Iain. It’s you. What’s this meeting that,” she paused, “um.”

            “Theodora,” Iain prompted.

            “Thanks. What’s this command staff meeting that Theodora set up?”

            “I’m the leader of our group, which is called the Grey clan. My command staff, which is Ninhursag, April, Allison, Lucifer and Silver, are my immediate subordinates and the next in line for succession in the clan if something permanent happens to me. The meeting is so they can meet you and learn you’re alive again.”

            She shook her head. “You may have to wait at least three months before you ask me that question about what’s the most screwed up thing here.”

            Iain chuckled and stood, holding down a hand for Scheherazade. She took it and used it to pull herself to her feet as he braced. “Let’s get you two cleaned up and healed. Theodora, lay out an assortment of clothing in medical for them to choose from.”

            “Do I have to wear clothes,” Scheherazade asked.

            “No, but I’ll put out some so you have them,” he glanced at her with a smirk. “They’ll be new. My old boots will be in my closet when you want a chew toy.”

            Her ears flicked and she grinned. “Good. I’ll get one later.”

            “Let’s get you taken care of. This meeting is going to be awkward enough.” He sighed. “And I still have to go to Nightraven’s after that.”

 

Iain Grey

 

Inner Harem

Ninhursag Grey - Elfqueen & Maharani

Allison – Umbrea & Maharani Executive Officer

Eve Grey - Megami Sama

April Grey - Duelist & Beta

Silver – Pegaslut & Beta Executive Officer

Dominique Grey - Blessed Archmage

Pandora - Fiendish Archangel

Canaan - G Splice (Hunter Amachamp & Alaka-Wham)

Zareen - Nightmare

Raquel - Fiendish Rapitaur

Sofia - Ria

Vanessa – Evangelion

Lucifer – Megami Sama

Ganieda – Snugglebunny Splice

Heather - Elfqueen

Dianthus Barbatus – Elfqueen

Marguerite - Unicorn

Daphne - Whorizard

Lynn – Dire Wolf

Chuck – Doggirl

Ryan – Unicorn

Winifred - Rack (German)

Rosemary - Mistoffeles (Uruguayan)

Joyce – Milktit

Irena – Sanctuary Goth

Scheherazade – Dread Wolf

 

Outer Clan

Melanie – Iron Chef

Siobhan – Nurse Joy (Glasgow)

Golden Cloud – equine unicorn

Arianrhod -Fey Goblin Female

 

Satellite Clan

            74 male Goblins

            89 female Goblins

 

Queendom / Outer Harem

73 Elves

Dionne - Elfqueen

Adrianna - Elfqueen

Heltu - Wet Queen

14 Wet Elves

 

Dead Harem

Dead Harem (22)

Eirian - Silver Dragoness

Aurum - Gold Dragoness

Skye - Blue Dragoness

Emerald - Green Dragoness

Beryl - Red Dragoness

Julia - human

Ling - Cheetit

Matilda - White Tigress

Liadan - Twau

Sorrel - Armsmistress

Natalie - Blazicunt

Maria – Slutton

Rhea Silvia – Chimera

Geraldine – Human analog of Iain

Alabaster – Dragoness (white)

Onyx – Dragoness (black)

Lapis – Dragoness (blue)

Garnet – Dragoness (red)

Iolite – Dragoness (purple)

Malachite – Dragoness (green with white swirls)

Dabria – Dark Queen

Omisha – Demoness

 

Mother            s & Children

 

Vanessa

     Myrna

     Saoirse

April

     Dorothy: Duelist

     Meara: Duelist

     Regan: Duelist

Canaan

     Hannah: Huntress

     Rebecca: Huntress

Joyce

     Lisa: Milktit

     Sherrie:  Milktit

     Harriet: Milktit

Lucifer           

     Olivia: Megami-Sama

     Seraphina: Megami-Sama

     Miriam: Angel

     Haley: Angel

Zareen            

     Caltha: Nightmare

     Kim:  Nightmare

     Xanthe: Nightmare

     Epona: Nightmare

     Philippa: Nightmare

     Nott: Nightmare

     Nyx: Nightmare