I plunged further into the mess. “It’s a geas to meet with a specific person within a set amount of hours. One of the druid lieutenants placed it on me.”
She blanched. “One of the seven?”
She moaned pitifully, and her voice was suddenly higher in pitch. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “That will be tricky. The time constraint is particularly troublesome, but I should still be able to do it. My price is non-negotiable, though. I need a pound of flesh and a favor, blood-oathed.”
I schooled my features into passivity. “What is the favor? And what exactly do you mean by a pound of flesh?” I asked, absolutely certain that I wouldn’t like the answer.
Her eyes twinkled at me, as though we were sharing some funny joke. It made me want to reach for a weapon. “A pound of flesh is exactly how it sounds, my dear. I answer to a master, as everyone does, and he will take a bite of your flesh and blood to seal our bargain. Think of it as a down payment. The favor, on the other hand, is more complicated. You will have to owe me for that. I will call on you, at my convenience, to do me a service.”
I gave her my hardest, coldest stare, letting her see the resolve in my eyes. “There have to be conditions to that favor. I won’t kill for you, or do anything that helps you take a life.”
Her eyes hardened, as well. “I don’t need help for that. Not from you.”
I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t need to trust her. I just had to make her agree to a blood-oath, and make the conditions of it airtight, so I plunged on. “And I need to know what your master is. And who. I need a name and specifics, before I agree to anything.”
She stiffened, her entire body going rigid suddenly. I began to bolt the instant I saw her eyes go red, but I was already too late. Who knew how long old Ethel had been rogue? It could have happened yesterday, or she may have been fooling everyone for years. Gods only knew. But I had no excuse for falling into such an obvious trap. It was a fact that I was old enough to know better.
Invisible ropes seemed to pull my arms above my head, even as some force pushed me flat onto my back. They held me easily, in my weakened state. I cursed. Ethel was keening like a madwoman. I didn’t know if she was casting a spell or calling for backup, but I wanted badly to shut her up permanently.
As she keened, a dark shadow began to materialize beside her. The hair on my body stood on end, and then my skin began to creep. It had been awhile, but I knew the awful feeling. Something demonic this way came. I couldn’t believe that I’d never made the connection between witch-hags and demons before it was literally in front of my face. It all made perfect sense. Making deals and sacrifices for power. The pieces were all there but I’d never bothered to connect them. I struggled and cursed futilely as the dark shape turned into a glossy black nightmare before my eyes. The tall, horrifying thing seemed to grin at me through pointed teeth. That could very well just have been it’s face, though.
It sniffed the air, clicking slick black claws reflexively. It’s teeth snapped, and something rustled like wet cloth behind it. Wings. Of course. It shuddered, which made me shudder with fear. I beat it back. If something was going to take me down, my fear was not going to help it.
It spoke, and I was shocked when it was English that came out of it’s horrible mouth. “This one is good, slave. You will gain much from this offering. I feel that she is powerful, but still, we must know what she is. It will determine whether we should keep her, or drain her now. Bring me the cypher!”
I cursed louder. A cypher was bad. They weren’t much of a threat, as far as magical powers went. They were basically just humans who could tell the Other races apart from each other. No one worried about them much, except to find them useful. Except, of course, a fugitive dragon in a witch-hags hands, who’d just watched a demon being summoned to drink their blood. Then they were bad, bad, bad. My only hope was that the cypher had never seen a dragon, which was a good possibility, and that they were just baffled by my abilities in general. I avoided cypher’s like I did hag’s, because it was the sane thing to do, so I wasn’t sure that my hopes were real feasible, but hey, a girl had to hold onto something.
Ethel hobbled from the room rather swiftly to obey her nightmarish master.
The demon continued to sniff at the air and shudder, as though in pleasure. It was disconcerting and worrisome, to put it lightly. I tried not to shake with fear. “A feast,” it’s dark voice rasped. “You are a feast to all of my senses.”
It approached me very slowly, claws and jaws snapping with every step. Ethel burst back through the door, a middle-aged, terrified looking man on her heels, long graying brown hair covering nearly his entire face as he bowed low. He was shorter than the hag, and skeletal thin.
“Here he is, master. Yours to command, master,” Ethel screeched, sounding terrified herself.
The demon turned it’s terrible regard to the man, and he instantly fell to his knees before it. I saw that the cypher also had a prosthetic leg from the thigh down. It was no coincidence that they were both missing limbs, I now knew. I wondered if there was any way that the man’s leg had been a voluntary sacrifice.
“Tell me what she is, slave,” the demon said, in that insidiously terrifying voice.
The cypher stumbled to me, awkward with fear. I blinked as he came closer and I got a good look at his face. His nose was missing, along with all of his teeth. His face was a gruesome sight. He pushed his hair out of his face, an instinctive gesture, as though to hook it back behind his ears, but those were missing as well.
Looking into his panic-stricken eyes, I didn’t think that any of those offerings had been willing, as the hag’s must have been. He must have been her prisoner for quite some time, since the wounds over all of his missing parts were healed over. The pitiful man placed a quivering hand over my heart, closing his eyes. I watched his hand warily. Even his nails were missing. He placed a second hand on my chest, right over my heart, avoiding my br**sts as much as possible. He wasn’t trying to cop a feel, which was something, I supposed.
He took a few deep breaths before gasping and falling back with a low, pitiful moan. “She’s fire.”
Ethel screeched at him. “Master needs a real answer. What does that mean, she’s fire?”
The cypher just began to shake his head, over and over. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like her. She burns, deep inside, like fire incarnate.”