[Betharan and Tebah are mine, mine, mine; Caliah and the Lust-Seneschal are definitely Maya's, and we shared the rest, pretty much (well, she did the misc Baal-Servitors, too). If you think there are in-references... you're right.]
See Maya's "Caliah and Betharan: Hunt" for Caliah's side of things.]
Caliah: Habbalite of the War; busted down to a messenger-girl, is working her way back up. Short dark hair with enough of a curl to it to frame the face, medium height and thin build, pale skin, dark grey eyes in a fragile-boned face. Jeans were worn enough to have the right amount of stretch to them, and the dull green leotard top that half the young women in the area might wear.
Betharan: Lilim of the Game, once Bright; don't ask, she might tell you, with visual aids. Loose dark hair, shoulder-length or a little shorter, curling inwards slightly round her face, cool greenish eyes and flawless skin, set over an elegant face and body that suggests design by Lust, though lean and (Bal)Seraphic. A worn leather jacket, casual shirt, jeans, and boots.
Tebah: Djinn of the Game, Betharan's partner; he's attuned to her, of course. Sort of a combo wolf/bear/bat/giant rat/dragon. Cuddly, for a Djinn. A burly fellow as a human, pale eyes, pale short-cut hair, worn clothes like the woman, bland and anonymous.
Hepzibah: Lilim Renegade from the War. A young man's face, dark hair slicked back in brisk spikes, elegant cheekbones and snub nose and pale brown eyes that verged on amber.
Ashoth: Renegade Calabite; red-headed, brutish-looking; other vessel, short, dark male with sleaze-appeal.
Avinicis: Calabite of Lust, Seneschal; holds a grudge against Caliah for some stuff before she got busted down. (See Maya's "Caliah: Lily Blues," and note that a Malakite of Creation was introduced to Avinicis' place of business in that story.)
A Triad of Judgment: Ofanite, Seraph, and Cherub; they are not happy.
An Impudite of Technology: He is not happy for long.
An Impudite of Lust: With a guilty conscience, he is even less happy, for a while.
"My partner and I were trailing the Suspect (currently in male vessel, rather than standard female) to see who he would meet up with, and to try to get Tebah attuned to him. We followed him to a mall, and watched while he indulged in corporeal pleasures in the food court area. While there, he encountered a Lilim in a male vessel, known to be Renegade from the War. Mildly dissonant. Shadowing the Lilim was a Habbalite, no dissonance. We withdrew from the crowded theater of operations and went to seek information on local celestials from the Seneschal of the local Baal-Tether. (See File #1,493, section C.) Upon being informed that the Habbalite was likely Caliah, a Servitor of the War (see attached report), we sought her out so that our operations would not conflict; the Seneschal was pleased to facilitate the meeting."
Betharan checked the address on the scrap of paper that the Seneschal had given them. This was the hotel-room, atop the mall-complex. "Looks like we're here," she muttered, shoving the paper into her jeans-pocket. A Habbalite of the War. Betharan grinned, wondering if this Punisher would be able to cope with her Discordant bloodlust for very long.
Tebah stepped forward and knocked. After a moment, Betharan could hear the faint creak, as of someone leaning against the door to peer out the peephole. Teb evidently heard it too, knocking again and growling, "We're the Game."
Thin and muffled, the person on the other side muttered, "Pull the other one. You're smiling."
Betharan's mildly sadistic cheer vanished into a snarl. Someone wanted Helltongue in the hallways? "What, you expect we're going to carry round a Judgment badge? Open up or I'll open you--"
"We're supposed to hunt the Renegade, not the Habbalite," Tebah reminded her.
"If she's not cooperating with us..." Betharan pointed out reasonably to her partner, gesturing at the still-closed door with both hands.
Through the indicated door, the voice (definitely female) stated, "If you're angels, that's the best disguise I've ever seen. Okay, I'm opening up. Names and Princes, please."
"Betharan and Tebah," Betharan rapped out. "Game and Game. And whose Habbalite are you?"
The Punisher opened the door, cautiously, staying out of easy reach. It was the woman from the mall food court -- gray eyes, thin and pale, shorter than Betharan. Dressed in a camo-green leotard and worn jeans. Dark hair curled down just barely at her jawline. "The War. To what do I owe this... honor?"
"You're going after a Renegade? So are we." Betharan made eye contact as she entered the bland, impersonal hotel room. The image of a graceful Balseraphic Prince, darkfire eyes sweeping past with mild approval in them. The approval of Baal was not something Betharan thought she'd be able to ensure. She continued, "Our instructions say to cooperate with the Servitor on the ground. Congratulations, you get to play."
The Habbalite edged backwards without letting it be a retreat, perching on a chair-arm. It was a tactically advantageous spot, if she were rushed; even Betharan could see that. Wargames were Games, too -- and once she'd watched the Michaelites from above... Caliah said, "I hope this cooperation extends to information-sharing."
Betharan glanced to her partner. "Sharing? I dunno... Teb, what did the file say about sharing?"
"Cooperate as necessary." Tebah was his usual bored self.
Betharan shrugged. "Well, I suppose we can share some information. You first."
Caliah's description of the Lilim Renegade was precise, succinct, and a bit terse. It matched the general information that they'd scanned, and there wasn't too much new that they needed to know about. Betharan took notes, and occasionally exchanged a glance with her partner. Cool for a Habbie. Very cool. If I couldn't recognize her for one, I'd almost wonder...
The Punisher finished up by recounting how she'd trailed the Renegade Lilim to the food court area. She didn't mention spotting either Betharan or Tebah. Good. We did our fast fade in time. Out loud, she said, "Okay, so, at the coffee shop, you saw the red-head he was talking to?"
Caliah nodded faintly, trimming her nails with a small dagger she'd produced out of nowhere.
Betharan was hardly going to be jumpy with such a little push. There wasn't time or need for extended side-games. She continued, "That's our pet project. They're cooperating, so we have to cooperate. You have any special orders I need to take into account?"
"Get the job done with minimal disturbance," Caliah replied, folding one leg over the other. A more subtle challenge, saying she was complacent in their presence, and didn't need to be combat-ready. "Which means that you tell me about the red-head, before I make a mistake and have to blame somebody for inadequate briefing."
Mistake?" Betharan blinked innocently. "What's to mistake? It's a Heart-shattered Renegade. Line him up for me to drop a noose around his neck, and I'll take care of everything."
The Habbalite waited for the rest, eerily patient.
Betharan sighed. "Oh, all right. He's also a nasty Calabite."
Resting her chin in her hands, dagger danging idly from her fingers, the War-Servitor asked, "From your knowledge, is there a chance of getting them attacking each other, and then taking them while they're distracted? Or isn't that likely to be feasible?"
Betharan mentally reviewed the information on Ashoth that they'd been given. It hadn't mentioned that the Calabite had teamed up with Hepzibah, the Lilim, or that he was overly touchy -- or overly loyal. She admitted, "Beats me. Good idea, though. You got any suggestions for playing Factions at them?"
The Habbalite faked a smile, baring her teeth. "You know the sort of thing we do. It works best if there's some sort of reason to build on, though. Fan the flame. Don't suppose we could convince one of them that the other had betrayed them to the Game?"
Oh, great, just what we need. A clever Habbie. It was a good plot, though. Exactly the sort of thing that Betharan enjoyed. She smirked and tapped her fingertips together, steepled in front of her face. "For an angel, you've got a devious mind. I like that. Then we can take them while they rant at each other. Sure you can push them without getting backlash?"
Caliah's leg swung back and forth, like a metronome. Betharan wondered if it was to the beat of her personal symphony, and how a Habbalite could maintain something so... ordered. The Punisher replied, "One, probably, depending on if they know I'm there and how strong they are. Two, don't know. The Lilim I spotted is supposed to be fairly strong-willed, but overconfident. Anything relevant on your Calabite in that line?"
"He's a Calabite, what do you expect? He's not incredibly precise in destroying things, though -- likely enough to miss the first time or two. He wouldn't eat dissonance otherwise. Give it a little juice, and he'll probably cave." Betharan hoped that she'd get a chance to take Ashoth in the Game's arena. With his resonance further foxed by dissonance... It would be a sweet kill.
"Hnnh." Caliah considered the information. "Sounds easier to trigger him into attacking her if he believes she's betrayed him, then. Could you pull some sort of routine that would make it look as if you'd set things up with her to take him in? The 'hello, thanks, don't worry, we'll take it from here' idea?"
Oh, clever Habbie. Betharan almost couldn't decide if she were pleased by the unexpected competence in non-Game, or annoyed. No matter, she knew who'd be writing the report to her Master. She tapped one of canines with a fingernail. "If I can't pull a 'Good work, sister!' scam... She had to do it, of course. Geasa, don't you know." She clasped her hands and batted her eyelashes twice, just short of farce.
Caliah tilted her head to regard her. "Absolutely. Though I wouldn't know. So I push him towards attacking her, then we move in as is convenient. Are your orders kill or capture?"
"Capture is preferred. We have tools for that. Kill if necessary. And your orders along those lines?" Betharan tried to look only curious, and harmless. The image of the Renegade, broken, punished, floated behind her eyes. Who would have thought I'd meet a Habbie I might respect?
"Capture if possible. He's got relevant information which the War requires." Absently, Caliah tapped a heel, then shifted position to clasp her hands around a knee -- knife still absently dripping from her fingers. Betharan decided that the Punisher was reacting to the near-constant aura of bloodlust that Betharan's Discord generated. Why else would she fidget so?
"Got the gear to do it, or are we going to have to divide and conquer?" Betharan smiled again. "I can loan you our equipment, if you... need it." A Servitor of the War in her debt; that would be interesting. Though the War wanted the Renegade Lilim, it would be nice to haul Hepzibah back to Hades first, or instead.
The Habbalite mused upon that for a few moments, probably trying to figure out if there was anything useful she could get out of a deal and figuring there wasn't. "Oh, I'm sure we can manage something. After all, we can get them to that nearby Tether -- you did know about it, didn't you? -- the one in the Mall. I'm sure that taking your pet in alive would be to your advantage."
"Since he's gone shatter-Heart, yes." Tether? Which Tether is this? The Baal-Tether's too far away to be useful for a quick snatch. I'm going to skin someone for not mentioning other Tethers around here -- we're the Game, we're supposed to know everything! Smoothly, she continued, "We knew the Tether was there, of course. But having it friendly, well, that's certainly useful, yes."
Caliah chuckled. "Of course," she agreed, voice desert-dry. "Are they likely to recognize your Vessels, or can you safely play incognito a while?"
"Me, certainly. They might have noticed Tebah trying to get close enough." Well, the Calabite might have.
The Habbalite considered again. "Okay. Suppose Tebah lets himself get noticed stalking them, and you get ahead: then when they're about to bolt you step out and pull your act, and I push the Calabite into doing some heavy pounding. Then we jump on the pair of them, subdue them, and haul?"
I'm either going to kill her for being too clever by half, or I'm going to recommend that the Game try to get her transferred. "It has a certain brash elegance," Betharan admitted. "It's certainly likely to cut to the chase. We should try for a location where we can pound them without being noticed too quickly, of course. And pass-signs we should know for the Tether?"
The Habbalite closed her eyes, restraining some show of emotion behind them. Very uncharacteristic of the breed. "It's the tattoo and fetishwear store: you tell them that Mistress Dominique sent you. We might be able to panic them to the intersection by the ice-cream stands down there, the ones that are half run down."
"Mistress Dominique?" She felt her own eyes going big as she bit back hysterical laughter. If you only knew, Punisher, if you only knew what I once was, before... She wondered briefly if they'd get a similar effect in Lust-Tethers from saying that "Master Asmodeus" was their patron. Except, of course, that that would be far too true. She dragged herself away from the tangled emotions, hoping the Habbalite hadn't sensed them. "Oh, my. Ahem. Yes, the ice-cream stands. We can do that. I assume you'll be staking the area out, while we spook them?"
"Surely, surely." Caliah frowned slightly. "I'm not sure whether to warn the Seneschal that we'll be coming in, or just bulldoze past him. You know how it is with nervous Seneschals."
"Bulldoze," Betharan assured her. "We bulldoze very well, don't we, Teb?" She grinned at her Djinn partner.
Tebah grunted something mildly affirmative, and continued to prop up the wall with his back.
The War-Servitor finally noticed she was still holding her little knife, and tucked it back into the mysterious place from whence it came. "Primary objective is to locate them, again. Do we stay together to search the mall, or split up and rendezvous later?"
Betharan looked at her partner, who looked back. He was her partner and keeper, jailer and perhaps someday bedmate, when he Needed it enough -- but it would probably be a better idea to keep one of them with the Habbalite, and make sure that they didn't wind up losing both prizes. Tebah finally shrugged, obviously coming to the same conclusion. He was attuned to Betharan; she couldn't run, even if she'd been stupid enough to think of it. Renegade-ness wasn't that contagious.
She nodded to her partner, then looked back to Caliah. "I'll go with you. Teb can find us later, that way."
Caliah smiled amiably; an odd expression, for one of the faux-angels without prey in grasp. "Want to talk privately before we head off? I promise not to listen."
Betharan raised an eyebrow. "What is there to say? We know our orders, we know the current plan, we know where the Tether is. Ready?"
"Naturally," the other replied, swinging off the chair to stroll to the door. Politely, she held it open for them.
Betharan sauntered through, trusting Tebah at her back. She glanced over her shoulder and watched as her Djinn and the Habbalite exchanged looks to see who was confident enough to be second.
Caliah smiled faintly and turned her back on Tebah to exit, leaving the Djinn to follow. The only sign that he was miffed by the other demon's complacent attitude was his display of grace -- and silence, as he closed the door behind.
"We split up to search the mall, hoping our quarry was still there. It seemed likely enough, since the best place for a Renegade to hide is among humans who must be dealt with discreetly. Tebah set off on his own, and Caliah and I did the 'two women shopping' act. Eventually, Caliah and I went back to the coffee shop. They had met there in the past, and might do so again; the Target's Band-Discord was a Need for caffeine, after all."
The Punisher had a cup of black coffee, of course. Bitter and strong, from the scents that Betharan was picking up. Betharan had never been enthused by coffee. Chocolate was more to her taste, though the corporeal stuff was a pale shadow of what a Creationer could make...
She drowned that thought in a cup of her own -- milk-and-sugar'ed to almost cut the taste, and barely cooled enough not to scald her tongue. A simple glazed donut did for the rest of the coffee-taste, and devouring it with her sharp teeth eased certain frustrations.
Caliah nursed her own cup more frugally, extending their excuse to be there. "And the briefing said that she had a cappucino fixation?"
" 'Corrupted by the pleasures of the corporeal realm,' or something like that," Betharan replied, scanning the crowd idly, as someone might do while waiting for a slower companion. "This usually means they prefer coffee to pasta, though once it meant we found a Target infatuated with a Taco Bell clerk."
Caliah's gaze flickered about as well, assessing with cool precision. "Does he/she tend towards multiple Vessels, or can we be fairly sure that she's stuck with her current one?"
A fair enough question, though it didn't really matter. "I haven't heard any vessel-swapping noise recently. And I'll probably spot our little Target anyway. I'm Game. We know who the players are, Punisher," she smirked.
"Just checking, Tempter, just checking. Constant state of readiness and all that." She swirled her coffee in the cup. "And stop wiggling at me, you really aren't my type."
A spurious accusation. Betharan snorted and sipped at the dregs of her own drink -- it wasn't quite coffee anymore, with so much milk. "Oh, don't fear, Punisher. My lusts run towards other things than wiggling at your kind. And I'm quite ready for our Target to show up, never fear." Never, ever fear that I would not be ready for the chase, the kill...
"Constant state of readiness -- ah, yes. Out of curiosity, which of my Choir was it who so annoyed you in the past? It's quite obvious that somebody did." Caliah's eyes drifted past Betharan, back to scanning the crowd.
Choir. Yes, you would say that. Have you any idea what you are? Were you Hellborn or Fallen? She forced down the pain and resentment for a moment, along with the memories of the Game-Habbalite who had caught her, chained her with Geasa, chained her with metal, used her... Died under her claws, keening and struggling to escape; the second time, it had been his soul she rent, for her Master's pleasure. She forced her lips to stay closed over her teeth, though the resulting smile was more a feral grimace. "What's that information worth to you, scarred angel?"
The emotions or the words brought Caliah's full attention back to her. "Not that much. Not if it'll jeopardize the mission. Still, you wear your pain the way I wear my tattoos -- it is rather obvious."
"Enjoy it while you can," she smiled, bringing the expression back under control with bitter amusement, knowing her resemblance to the false angels was more than the other demon guessed. And thank whatever twisted God your delusion allows that you are not my target. "If you're really curious... An hour of your time in the future, perhaps?"
The Habbalite across from her sipped her coffee, watching Betharan with the cool composure of an Elohite judging the strike-range of a cobra. "No. In the politest way, you understand. Though it is a very kind offer."
She shrugged casually, trying to damp down the kill-hunger before it really did interfere with her ability to focus on the true objective. "As you wish. If you ever decide that curiosity is getting the better of you, feel free to ask. Or if you can think of some other bargain."
The War-Servitor's eyes went unfocused, just a little. Without changing from a polite, gossip tone, she said, "Brawl over past that corner to the right by the jewellry shop, coming our way. There's something offbeat about it. Can you feel anything?"
There was definitely some noise from that area, and enough change to the shift and murmur of the rest of the crowds of humans that even a "human" such as herself might notice. She turned and peered curiously in that direction. One short, dark-haired man with tanned "sleaze-appeal" stood out. "You mean the Calabite over there? It's changed vessels, but it's got the same dissonance..."
Still conversational, and holding herself militarily straight, Caliah said, For pity's sake don't stare at him yet unless you can fake a reason to do it. All right, there's that one. Where's your Sister?"
"I can look at a starting brawl without looking suspicious," Betharan muttered out the side of her mouth, annoyed that the faux angel hadn't realized the entire crowd patterns had changed. "Sis, sis, come to sister..." Nothing. "Can't spot her, not unless I do start looking like what I am."
Caliah blinked at her coffee cup, looking ever so slightly surprised to find it empty. "If she were here, and he began to act up, would she be likely to try and stop him? I could prod a little."
It was definitely useful to have a Habbalite around, especially a fairly tame one, like Caliah seemed. Tame ones were the most dangerous, of course. "That could work. At the least, if he gets a little freaky, somebody can sneak up and snare the little Renegade... Oh, right. He's the short, dark guy now." Wouldn't want her pushing the wrong one.
The cup was gradually immensely fascinating to Betharan's partner-of-the-moment. The Calabite started to swagger, showing the constant pushing aggression of his Band, stomping over towards the brawl with machismo oozing from his pores.
"Wonder where Teb got himself off to, though," Betharan murmured, finishing her own coffee. "Ahhhhhh, there's my partner. And from where he's watching -- drat. Sister-mine must be just out of my range here."
The Habbalite's eyes were still a little unfocused, intent on building up the anger and shoving it into the Calabite. "Go fetch a cake from the counter, and do some strolling around?"
"Suits. Give it a minute, though. She may come into range."
Mall security came onto the scene first, dodging through the tables at a fast walk. Wouldn't want to upset the customers by running, after all.
Still, they provided a good excuse to look in that direction. "Just about now..." Betharan got up, heading for the counter.
The Habbalite furrowed her brows together -- probably the resonance equivalent of talking to herself -- and the scuffle turned into an outright vicious fight, from the outraged yell. Security decided it was time to do the running, and started shoving aside the slower patrons to get at the brawl and quell it. Betharan drifted in their wake, curiosity writ plain across her face.
A young man made a beeline for the brawling Calabite, grabbing at his arm with a practiced swerve. Something about him... Lilim, definitely, yes. A gap in the crowd let her confirm the eye-color, and the hair. Hepzibah.
Prey, sister-mine, prey. Betharan slipped her coiled gold-wire noose out of her pocket and cupped it in her hand, curling just enough of the end around her thumb that she could cast it if necessary...
The Habbalite was standing and waving her pocketbook-wallet in Betharan's direction, the motion catching Betharan's eye. Oh, right, this is her Renegade, too. I have to share. She paused so that the War-Servitor could catch up. "What took you?"
Through her teeth, Caliah retorted, "That last cup of coffee." Obviously she had a possessive streak towards that Renegade. "Is your friend nearby to do his obvious bit?"
"Hope so. Need to be where I can catch somebody if it blows up." The crowds, the angles of the stores and walls, that would put her partner just about... There. "Never trust Calabim to stick to plans," she added, stretching her neck just enough to let Teb know she'd seen him.
"Okay. Can you signal him to show himself and stampede them over down towards the intersection that way, or do we need something else?" She shoved her wallet into her pocket.
"No problem." Betharan glanced in Teb's direction, met his eyes, and gave the faintest of nods. She saw the measured blink, and then her partner shoved himself away from the wall and wandered for the pair of Renegades with a heavy, measured tread. He kept his head down, but looked at them from the corner of his pale eyes -- a sidewinding stalk, and more obvious than an eighteen-wheeler truck.
Hepzibah noticed, of course -- the War apparently taught alertness -- and adjusted her grip on Ashoth's arm, muttering to him. Then she steered him towards the exit, a little too fast, expressions a little too fixed.
Betharan almost twitched herself, like a cat with a mouse in view. Caliah jerked her chin to the left, her own pace properly casual for the time and place. Out, round, second right then left by the shoeshop, and if we run we should be there in time. Their passage should be more crowded."
"I'm with you." The pull of the chase, of the Game, like the clawed hand of a lover around her heart... Her smile was thin, carefully controlled lest it turn into a lion's fanged gape. That sort of expression would have drawn far too much attention from the humans.
The side corridor was almost empty -- probably thanks to the draw of the abortive brawl. People either wanted to be further away, or closer in to see what was up. Caliah pushed herself into a power-walk, though a more graceful, looser one that most Betharan had seen.
She skipped to catch up, then matched it, glancing to see if it had been a deliberate test of weakness. The Punisher's eyes were a little distracted, focused on something. "Hear them?" Betharan asked, keeping her voice to a soft murmur, below what a human would notice.
"Fight's dying down," came the equally quiet reply. The Habbalite was fit, of course, her breathing untroubled by the pace. "I'm assuming that they've left. Don't have any other way of tracking, but if they've any sense they'll be trying for some space to lose your Djinn, and that intersection is the first real possibility."
"Reasonable to me. Teb'll find me if there's a problem."
The Punisher didn't slow, of course. You would not cater to any weaknesses of mine, indeed not. But if you test me, I think you'll find me less weak than many. It wasn't terribly difficult for Betharan to keep up -- despite her long-legged vessel, she wasn't a greyhound or cheetah, to waste all her energy at once.
At the intersection, Caliah slowed and halted just before entering it, then glanced around the corner carefully. After a quick moment, the War-Servitor drew back, shaking her head, and gestured to invite Betharan to look for herself.
More breathed than spoken, Caliah asked, "Pick a spot to wait?"
Betharan crouched and peeked around at waist height, muttering, "Sunglasses, forgot the blessed sunglasses." No Renegades in sight yet. She withdrew and stood, replying softly, "Sure. Here good? Or down a little?"
Like a good tactician, Caliah thought about it, then pointed at a spot just a little back of the very edge of the intersection. "Here's out of sight, and we can move fast enough. We'll probably hear them coming."
One could almost, almost forget she is insane. Not that I'm one to talk of sanity... "Lead on, soldier. Should we be hanging together or apart?"
Another considering pause. "You go out first, circle a bit before you address them and see if you can draw their attention off here. Then I hit the Calabite with my resonance, and I have the physical drop on them too. Take care to hold your distance in case the Lilim tries to take you down to prove herself."
"No problem." Judging where the right distance would be to make the right impression -- that was a head-game of sorts, and encompassed by the Word that claimed her. She shook out her shoulders, loosening them so she wouldn't be too tense when she heard the quarry.
There. Footsteps, coming fast. Quick, light steps, heavier ones dragging behind.
In the hallway, just a hair too loud to be missed by keen demon ears, someone muttered, "Look, nobody can be attuned to us yet, so the faster we get out of here the faster we can lose them and get somewhere else..."
Betharan let the shark-grin split her face and glanced over her shoulder to see if there were any last minute suggestions. Just a flick of a hand like waving away a speck of dust. Nobody here but us shoppers. She forced the grin to simple mildness and strolled out like any other woman might.
Her sister/brother glanced at her, and then away, tugging her fellow Renegade towards the exit.
Time for Plan A. Betharan sprinted towards them, grabbing her sibling by the arm. "Sister, quick, get out of range so the others can move in!" she gasped, making sure that the Renegade Lilim was between her and the Calabite. She tugged at Hepzibah, heading away from where Caliah lurked and drawing the pair's eyes, going slowly enough to keep them in range of each other. "Come on, we've got to get to cover!"
Obviously stunned by the unexpected family welcome,, Hepzibah staggered along for a few moments before digging in his heels, jaw dropping as he started to figure out something was very wrong. "Hey, what's the game? What's this? Sister?"
Couldn't have used better wording if I'd handed you a script! Betharan marveled. "Come on, he's trapped now, don't waste time!" she cried, pleading like a damned soul begging in Shal-Mari.
The Calabite was figuring out something was up as well, eyes going wide while his face headed towards the scarlet. "Wait. The Game? You had this arranged? You little bastard..."
Betharan ducked behind her Renegade sib, getting out of visual range of the Calabite, and kept tugging the other Lilim off balance. "I said come on! Oh, curses, where are the others?" A heartbeat longer trying to "rescue" the Lilim -- which kept him from running on his own -- and then she bolted for the dubious cover of a public trash-can.
Caliah was barely visible across the way, her face intent and hands clenching and moving as if she were tugging on puppet strings. Ashoth bellowed as he jumped for Hepzibah, hands going for his throat. "Treacherous Shedite-licker!"
Oh, hardly. It takes weeks to get rid of Shedite-breath; I'd have noticed just now. Maybe later, though, Betharan thought crazily while the floor rippled like a miniature earthquake, glazing-cracks spreading from where the two demons rolled. Writhing and trying to get an angle on his attacker, Hepzibah started Singing something.
The Symphony was wailing like a siren. Betharan glanced to the Habbalite and gave her a thumbs-up.
Caliah stepped around the corner, concentrating. She mouthed, "Tebah?"
The center of the corridor turned into an impromptu fountain of acid; Hepzibah's aim was evidently being thrown off by having a Calabite trying to kneel on his chest. For his part, Ashoth seemed to be having trouble focusing his resonance with a Lilim trying to throttle him.
Betharan drew back a little and peered down the hall. Tebah was slouching a ways away, barely visible.
Figures. She rolled her eyes and cleared her throat meaningfully. Amazingly, she didn't have to cough to get his attention through the noise of battle; Teb ambled towards the entertainment while the Renegades scrambled to their feet.
Caliah pointed out the Calabite, then indicated Betharan and her partner, quickly circling into position behind Hepzibah.
Betharan moved in, fast enough to attract Ashoth's attention, feinting at him and dodging away so that he turned to keep her in sight. He's pathetic, she thought to herself, and closed in. The bloodlust sang in her muscles and rippled across her skin.
It seemed she blinked, and then the Renegade was lying on the ground unconscious while she struggled in someone's grasp, snapping and trying to get her arms free. In her ear, Tebah grumbled, "Alive. Want him alive."
Caliah was kneeling on Hepzibah, hands locked around the Lilim's neck, and waiting for the captive's struggles to cease. As the thrashing subsided to twitching, the War-Servitor looked up. "Okay. Now we run for the Tether, and hope no locals have heard all this ruckus?"
"T-tether." She wasn't in the arenas, she hadn't been given the Renegade yet. She got her feet under herself and relaxed. Tebah let go of her, and she looked at her hands, with the foot-long claws tipping each thin finger. Bemused, she muttered, "When'd I do that? Right... Let's get this pair out of here."
She helped Tebah drape the Calabite over his neck, looking like one good old boy helping his friend.
Caliah simply tucked Hepzibah over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. "You scout, we follow? Once we get to the Tether, remember the safeword." Her voice was calm, professional...
For a moment, Betharan's shoulderblades itched; all the dispassion of an Elohite, and yet she knew a Habbalite stood there. She vanished her claws. "Safeword? Who needs safewords?" Oh, right, password, whatever.
She headed out, Caliah and Tebah behind her.
"We collected the two Renegades, with a certain amount of Symphonic disturbance that seemed unavoidable at the time, and headed for the nearest Hell-Tether that Caliah knew of. We had nearly reached it, with minimal notice from bystanders, when angelic interference occurred."
Betharan paused to help her partner steady the Calabite again -- the dead weight was an unwieldy burden -- while Caliah peered down the stairs suspiciously. The sex-shop Tether was just down the corridor a little ways.
Betharan's head twitched up. From the scene of the Renegades' little disagreement, the feel of a Song, definitely the Celestial Song of Motion. Not like you hang around with the Wind and don't pick up what those Songs feel like! She shot her claws long for an instant. "Trouble. Let's go fast."
The Habbalite nodded and bounded down the stairs three at a time, with Hepzibah bouncing on her shoulder awkwardly. Tebah and Betharan followed, though only two steps at a time. Caliah ducked as a shot rang out behind them.
The Symphony chimed as the bullet took out a chunk of wall just behind Tebah, spraying tiny debris. Betharan glanced behind her, to see a square-shouldered woman yelling, "There! They've got them!"
Tebah ducked and went for three-at-a-time steps, pulling the Renegade up as a shield for his back. Betharan's lips pulled back from her teeth, and she Sang herself to shadowform, turning to cover her partner's retreat. Don't kill, don't kill, they may not be prey... She snarled, "Back off!" in Helltongue, to see if they reacted, and dodged again.
A high voice raised itself in song, pidgin-celestial with an angelic twist, in some kind of code that Betharan couldn't decipher. But it was familiar. Judgment triad! She grimaced and made a useless grab for the slender young man who blurred past her, heading for her partner.
From the first landing, Caliah yelled, "Fall back!" She pulled something from inside her coat, letting the Renegade Lilim fall at her feet.
Betharan dove down the stairs, trying to get herself in front of the Ofanite -- and out of the way of the Baal-Servitor's gun. The angel stumbled over her, grabbing at the stair-rail for an instant before tumbling; Betharan was headed down anyway and knew how to fall well enough -- they both passed Teb on the way down.
Still in Helltongue, she told Caliah, "All yours, Warrior!"
Caliah's shots rang out above her head, and there wasn't any return fire. Betharan grabbed for the Renegade, hoping the overconfident Ofanite had managed to knock himself silly on the steps.
Somebody started Singing behind them, again with that angelic accent. Betharan scrambled to her feet with the Renegade over her shoulder, and glanced back. Seraph, definitely, hands raised to point at the ceiling. "Oh preserve us from triads!" she spat, running down the next set of stairs, leaving Caliah to take care of things. That's what the War is for; they're the combat-specialists. I'm just doing my job... fast.
The Habbalite, evidently deciding to add to the confusion (and annoy the Seraph), screamed, "Rape! Help! Rape!" There was a horrible crashing noise, intertwined with Symphonic howling, and Betharan looked back to see Caliah backing downstairs quickly while the ceiling started to give way. Amusingly, the Seraph was on one side of the destruction, and the Ofanite on the other. Unfortunately, the Ofanite was on their side...
Tebah was getting momentum, bulldozing past Caliah with the Ofanite in pursuit. Her partner tried to jump over the Ofanite's dive for his legs. He almost made it. Almost. The Calabite went flying along the floor while Betharan's partner did a bellyflop, kicking to dislodge the angel.
Tebah! Betharan froze, trying to decide whether to dump her burden and go to her partner's aid, or get at least this one to custody.
Caliah got to the ground as the ceiling collapsed behind her, with only a few feet to spare. Her pistol went somewhere as she wrenched a yard-long piece of railing from the stairway wreckage, bringing it around in a beautiful arc that connected with the Ofanite's head.
Who needs a flaming sword? Betharan thought as she turned and ran for the pornography store, visible just down the hall. Hepzibah bounced on her shoulder. Behind her, behind the wreckage, came shouts, screams, and yet another Song jangling at the Symphony. Bright Lords, but Dominic is going to be miffed! And I thought that Lightning and the Wind were supposed to be the noisy ones!
She heard Caliah cry, "Come on, just round the corner!" but didn't have time to glance back. With the ripping shrill of a Song of Motion, the triad-Seraph appeared out of a brief sci-fi-style lightshow -- right in front of her.
Lean, grinning almost as viciously as Betharan, he reached out, plainly expecting her to run into his grasp.
She didn't bother trying to stop; it would have made her tumble at his feet. Instead, she put her foot down on one stride and sent some hundred-thirty pounds of unconscious Renegade Lilim hurtling over her shoulder into his chest. She followed her unexpected missile and made sure to trample the arrogant angel to teach him a lesson about dignity and pride while she grabbed Hepzibah by the collar and continued on past. She did call out (still in Helltongue), "CAL! Blessed nuisance here!" in case the Warrior had been distracted elsewhere. Worked last time, after all. Convenient people, Baal-Servitors!
Ahead, a young man with a mild case of acne peered nervously around the sex-shop's door, undoubtedly drawn by all the noise. The ceiling trick had not been subtle. The Symphony was howling fit to alert everyone within blocks. At least the locals seemed to be more interested in staying someplace where they were confident of their ceilings...
Betharan hoisted her burden over her shoulder again in a fireman's carry and stopped in front of the young man. Hip cocked at just the precise angle, she patted her shoulder-length hair back into place and smiled at him as sweetly as any Lust-Servitor. "Excuse me, we need to enter here. Would you mind stepping aside?" Nothing to see here, move along, move along, showtime's over...
The youth gawped at her, appropriately enough; her vessel had initially been designed by Lust, after all. He moved out of the way with a mutter of, "Normally it's the men carrying the bloody women..."
Details, details, Betharan thought, keeping the cheerful smile on her face as she moved in quickly, Caliah and Tebah coming up behind her. Caliah was still absently clutching the railing. "Thank you," Betharan cooed. "You might want to keep those mugger-types out of here, though. Close the door behind us."
Behind them, there was more of that pidgen-angeltongue, no longer in code, and poetically vulgar. Betharan would have liked to take notes. No time. In low Helltongue, she asked Caliah, "Okay, which way?"
The young man managed to parse the simple instruction, "Close the door," and did so, throwing several bolts and locks on the chain-link screened door, then closing an inner door just as the Seraph, face bloody, threw himself against the handle. Obviously he'd lost his temper as well as his dignity. Betharan glanced back and smirked insultingly at him, knowing he'd have to report the whole nasty mess to his Archangel sometime in the next week or so. Pity she'd not be able to hear it.
From the back of the shop came a leather-corsetted woman in thigh-high black boots; her impractical heels clicked softly. She was a scowling, raw-boned redhead, hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, black leather gloves on her hands and a coiled whip at her side. Typical, for the cruder sort of Lust-Servitor.
Crisply, Caliah stated, "Immediate passage required, in the name of Mistress Dominique." Over her shoulder, she said, "Get those two Renegades tied while we're arranging a way down?"
Betharan nodded and wandered over to a display of restraints, selecting some black nylon rope and securing the Lilim's hands behind him with it. She made sure there was no slack, and that the knots were out of reach -- she'd gotten out of bonds herself enough times in the past...
Tebah contemplated his twitching prisoner and calmly smacked his head with one fist a few times, until the twitching stopped. Then he got out his Game-cuffs and clipped them onto the Target's wrists; Ashoth wouldn't be getting free of those, not even celestially.
Betharan finished her task and looked up, glancing back to make sure that the furious pounding from the triad wasn't endangering the door. It didn't seem to be, though the Seraph looked about ready to self-combust. Betharan stuck her tongue out at him in a brief snake-flick, to encourage him.
The redhead -- probably a Calabite guard, or the Seneschal herself -- posed insolently, fingering her whip with one hand, waving the teenager out of the room with the other. The very image of a demon-Queen. In Helltongue, she asked, "And who am I allowing to pass?"
The square-shouldered Cherub, bleeding but still mobile, joined her partners outside the shop. She seemed to be talking sense into the Seraph, while the Ofanite jittered beside them, holding his left arm as if it had been broken or dislocated. The Seraph made an angry gesture towards the shop, glaring through the glass, and Betharan thumbed her nose at them smugly.
In the harsh demonic language, Caliah replied, "Punisher of the War, and two of the Game, and two people you don't want to know any more about."
Betharan turned her attention back to the Lust-Calabite. "And can we get a move on here? They'll leave when they figure out that they're facing a Seneschal. It's out of their jurisdiction."
Outside, the Cherub Sang healing for the battered Ofanite. It was noticeable, especially carried by the echoes of the fallen stairwell ceiling. Dominic's gonna bust you people to chasing Windys.
The redhead -- almost definitely a Seneschal from the attitude -- dangled a leg on the edge of the counter, over a display of rubberwear. "You've just blown me to Judgment. I'll need some sort of donation towards the Tether's upkeep. Say, how about your spare Essence?"
Betharan snorted, standing up from where she'd crouched over her Renegade sibling. "As if they couldn't spot a Tether on their own. And as if they care -- unless you have angels in here often?" she added, perking up. Now that would be interesting. Consorting with the Host, oh, yes, that would be a delicious thing... Would your whip help you, stripped of your rank and chained in the arena? We might arrange to find out, if you're going to hinder the Game...
The woman chuckled throatily, a strange sound with a nastily pleased gurgle to it. She had obviously dismissed Caliah from her notice. "Ah, I've only ever had one in chains... but that's a different story. Now, let's make a deal. I know how you Daughters work. You hand over the Essence, and I not only give you free passage, I do it nicely. Come on, sweetheart, even I can see what you need right at the moment."
"Sweetheart"? Oh, this is going to be a fun report to make, Lust-whore. Your dominatrix leathers don't impress me, demon-slut. I have been my Master's plaything... She pasted a smile -- as sincere as any of Lust's -- onto her face while Caliah stepped over.
In a controlled hiss, Caliah said quietly, "No way she can tell how much we've left. Throw her a little to keep the bitch happy and report it later?"
Probably more efficient than trying to intimidate a Seneschal, yeah. She pursed her lips and glanced to her partner. He brooded and shifted stance minutely; she half-blinked in acknowledgement.
She turned back to the leather-clad demon and nodded. "All right. Your cooperation in this matter will be noted." In the most explicit possible terms, possibly borrowing a few from that sweet Ofanite outside. "You pledge that we shall have free passage, nicely?" she said, holding her hand out and letting a bit over half her remaining Essence puddle into it.
The redhead pushed herself off the counter and swayed over like her spine was made of rubber. In a place like this, who knew? "Oh, sure. Free passage, nicely," she purred, taking Betharan's hand. Her lips were parted and her eyes had gone slightly soft.
Are you trying to look available to a Gamester, or is getting Essence just a rush for you? Betharan wondered, keeping her disgust off her face and out of her pose.
"Your pledge is your bond," Betharan murmured, exerting her will to craft the Geas. "We have free passage through this Tether -- nicely." She felt it lock into place, and gazed into the Seneschal's eyes, resonating...
Image of Caliah, writhing and bound, chokingly gagged against screams while the whip rose and fell, leaving bright blood streaked against the Habbalite's pale skin; punishing the Punisher. The Lustie wanted to get Caliah in deep trouble. Wonderful. Well, so long as it didn't endanger Betharan and Tebah's mission, the other demons could have their petty vendettas to their hearts' content.
The instant it spilled over, of course...
I should insist that we take the Renegades back to our Hearts, she thought. But the Baal-Servitor won't agree to that. Too dutiful. I don't want to break up the pair just yet, while there's still some chance I can detour that Renegade sister to a Game-post. Besides, Lust should remember that the Game can go where it wills.
Tebah cleared his throat. "We've traded. Time to go."
"Mmmmmm." The Seneschal purred, trying to stroke Betharan's palm distractingly as she withdrew her hand. "Oh, yes. Definitely. Just follow me." She stalked around the counter to the door behind it and held it open, with a Song of Tongues humming around her.
Curling her hand so that her fingernails would bite into the annoying itch the Lustie had left behind, Betharan glanced back to see Caliah heft the Lilim Renegade to her shoulder. She decided that meant she should take point, and be alert for the treachery that the Seneschal's desires for Caliah urged. She sauntered after the red-haired Calabite, into a part of the shop that reeked of rubber and latex, leather and sweat, with the faintest tinge of blood to Betharan's sensitive nose. The light was dim.
Lust-Servitors. Lax, posturing dilettantes, concerned more for their own pleasure than anything else. The security on this place is likely abysmal. If the triad had any courage to match their lack of subtlty, they'd invade. You're just lucky they think you're a real Tether, with real defenses and a real Seneschal. She looked around as she stalked quietly, making mental notes for her report and waiting for some kind of betrayal.
The demon wench led the way down another flight of stairs, towards a basement level. The tacky plastic steps gave way to ostentatious stone ones, the better for the Seneschal's heels to click on. Betharan was careful to watch her step.
At the bottom, there was a room hung with red and black silk, with red lights in the recessed ceiling fixtures. The hangings rippled slightly, as if in a bloody seascape. Some musky odor added itself to the atmosphere.
The Seneschal waved her hand dramatically to indicate the disappointingly dry room. "Walk in, and will yourselves down. You know the routine. I'll tell the police that you made a run for it out the back, and see if I can get that Triad in trouble for you."
Betharan smiled graciously, nodding her acceptance, then looked to her partner. He flicked his gaze briefly to Caliah and back again. She tossed him her gold-wire noose and stepped into the middle of the Tether-room.
Her flesh fell away, and she saw her form reflected in the others' gaze. The Discord showed clearly -- needle-sharp horns, the tiny fangs, narrow assassin's eyes, edged claws even without Singing them... The decade and more of swinging Geas-bracelets and thick Geas-bands, like armor on her limbs. And the scars, of course. From neck to knees, the scars traced and patterned and cut along her back, though her front was pristine. The two wide ones, parallel to her spine between her shoulderblades, could hardly be missed. Did the Baal-Servitor's eyes widen just a little, recognize the significance? Yes, I was Bright. Look your fill, look and see the prize of the Game, the loyal little Hellhound.
She hovered in the Lust-Tether, waiting as her partner handed the Warrior one noose and explained it, then noosed his own captive.
Caliah looped the golden wire around the Renegade Lilim's throat and shed her own vessel, tugging the unconscious Hepzibah with her.
Betharan had nearly forgotten... Caliah was Habbalite; white skin with faint battle-scars and razor-cut dark hair. Her eyes were almost as clear as an Elohite's, gray as blizzard-clouds, but flat rather than the liquid depths of the true Choir. The scars, the paleness -- Betharan flashed on beautiful memory: the Punisher in the arena, fanged jaws greeting her rush, her Master's approval feeding the mad bloodlust...
It was the black scrawls upon the Habbalite before her that let Betharan calm herself, drag herself back from the sweet memory of tearing her enemy apart. Demonic symbols etched themselves over Caliah's whippet-thin form, starkly proclaiming that this was a Servitor of the War, that this was Baal's Messenger, his hound, his Habbalite, his and his alone.
Favor and punishment, to wear such markings. They could not be there merely by Caliah's will; she was the property of a Balseraph Prince, to do with as he pleased -- just as Betharan herself bore scars by her Master's whim, just as the Geasa she wore were owed to him and him alone.
The markings were familiar -- Betharan thought she had seen Caliah once before, though she couldn't remember where. Perhaps on the streets of Hades, or somewhere in Shal-Mari.
With yet another Symphonic crash, Tebah cast aside his human form, batwings unfurling from his bearlike body, dragon-tail lashing as he held firmly to the Renegade Calabite with delicate ratty paws.
Caliah glanced over, then asked, "Down on the count of three?"
Betharan nodded, quelling the urge to see those scrawls edged in red blood. "On three. One. Two. Three."
Then the twist, the turn, and the sensation of dropping in the pit of a nonexistent celestial stomach...
Her wing-scars ached.
"After dealing with a most unsubtle and probably young triad (Ofanite, Cherub, and Seraph) who caused a great deal more destruction that we had contemplated, we were held up unreasonably by the Seneschal, one Avinicis, Calabite of Lust (see File #1,512, section B). Upon paying a bribe in Essence, we took our captives and descended.to a Shal-Mari brothel. Avinicis, due to certain grudges against Caliah, had sent ahead word that we were to be hampered -- no distinction was apparently made between the Servitor of the War she wanted revenge upon, and we Servitors of the Game. See attached report on the state of the Lust-Tether."
The Shal-Mari side of the Tether emptied out onto a dais of pale, scarlet-veined marble, like flayed flesh. At regular intervals along the walls, rings were embedded, some with shackles hanging from them. The ceiling domed high above. The room was strewn with cushions, all soft and seductive, velvets of deep crimson and black. The sort of thing one could sink into. Betharan coveted one for a moment; the apartment in Hades that she shared with Tebah -- for those few times when they were not on Earth-side assignment -- was woefully spartan.
A pair of Balseraphs coiled idly around each other, one pale to match the marble, the other a dark gold with streaks of copper painted on. The pale one chimed -- silver rings pierced its membranous wings decoratively. The pair were practicing self-macrame together as they watched the arrival, backed up by a trio of Djinn and a pair of Calabim, lounging behind them.
Beyond was a hallway, masked by gauzy, opaque curtains; sounds of music and motion whispered from it in tawdry decadence.
The gold Balseraph uncurled itself, streaks of copper flashing in flame-like patterns beneath a metallic harness. Its pale partner stroked its tail, and the copperflame one shifted its wings in pleasure at the touch. Sweetly, it murmured, "Just put down the stock, please, then put your hands behind you while we get you shackled up."
The atmosphere was stifling, and the request outrageous. Betharan raised her eyebrows, shifting defensively; she felt Tebah moving to guard her back as she said politely, "Sorry, we're not the delivery demons. We're just passing through." The exit was beyond the Lust-Djinn, and it would be a blessed pain to have to start something violent...
Caliah added, in a voice cold enough to put ice on Belial's palace, "And we are expected." To Betharan, she continued, "I don't know what your Prince does to people who hinder you, Game-Servant, but mine..." She stepped forward to catch the dim light better, drawing attention to the tattoos that writhed over her like Balseraphs themselves. "Mine notices."
Betharan smiled, knowing she was unable to cover the bleakness of it entirely. She was Asmodeus' toy; he would not long allow her to be a plaything of Lust. The irony of knowing she would be "rescued" in such a way... "Oh, yes, definitely. My Master would come looking for me, did I not report in promptly."
The Balseraphs traded looks -- impressive, with three-pair eyes -- and their poses softened, yielding as Lust always did. The paler one ducked its head and quickly said, "Oh, well, if this is an official mission and you're really the people you claim to be, you'll be able to prove it, won't you?" Its rings chimed, betraying nervousness.
As if the Game doesn't have IDs for those who sometimes need them. Betharan flipped through the Geas-bracelets that covered one wrist, and pulled out the token: a charm on one bangle among many. "Passport. And if you think anyone forges passports from the Game and lives to brag about it..." She tried to keep her smile from showing fangs. "Well, they might live to tell. Under interrogation."
The copperflame Bal inspected it, the metal cuffs dangling from its harness ringing softly in a counterpoint to its silver-ringed Bandmate. The Liar's eyes narrowed, and Betharan could hear it hissing to itself.
Soft and sharp, like an assassin's knife, Caliah suggested, "Possibly our arrival was misreported. It would be a shame if your Tether above were to fail to be assigned War-support, because of a misunderstanding." Absently, she squeezed the carotids of the Renegade on her shoulder, stilling Hepzibah's unconscious twitching.
Betharan drew her wrist out of the Bal's grasp and smoothed the Geas-bands back over the passport, adjusting them and radiating professionalism. We are the Game -- and the War. We are not demons to mess with, Servitors of a weak and irresponsible Prince.
Tebah set his Renegade down and checked to make sure the noose was still tight around Ashoth's neck. As he hoisted the Calabite back up, his own Game-passport gleamed faintly in the fur and scales on his chest.
The two Balseraphs eyed each other again for a moment. Silver-rings covered with, "What a good thing that we are offering you our cooperation, then. I take it you want to go straight out? Or do you want to hire that pair out first to make some quick Essence to take with you?"
The thought was nauseating. Wait around for a repellant Rite of Lust? Risk having their Renegades stolen? Crisply, she informed them, "We're on duty. We can be replenished at the first Game-stop. Now, if you will kindly indicate the exit, we'll let ourselves out, and you can get on with waiting for the delivery demons." Or telling someone that a Seneschal sent you a more vicious target than you could take.
With a last appraisal of the odds -- and political ramifications -- the Balseraphs slithered back, making little tail-flicks to urge their minions back as well. Copperflame pointed towards the curtain-hung hallway. "Out that way, stay in a straight line, about five rooms and you should hit an exit onto the avenue: then third left, first right, and you're on the Strip."
Betharan inclined her head graciously. "Your cooperation will be noted in my report."
With a look and tiny nod to collect her partner, she strode towards the exit as if she'd never considered they might not let her go -- or that they'd have a demon's prayer of stopping her. The tension made it hard not to flash her claws. Behind her, she could vaguely hear Caliah's quiet, precise footfalls, made heavier by the weight of the other Lilim. She didn't mind having the War bring up the rear this time, not one bit. She trusted the Habbalite more than the Lusties.
Past the curtains, the hallway stretched out with doors to either side. Dark mosaic tile covered the floor, while the ceiling was an unimaginative rendition of "Lust Conquers All." Little moans and sighs came from behind the doors, along with the occasional creak of a bedframe or an outright cry of pleasure.
There was a door at the far end of the hall, too.
Betharan muttered, "Bordellos. Feh." She paced to the far door, wishing she didn't have to be so restrained, and listened a moment. Thick silence. She whispered over her shoulder, "Hst, Cal -- you sense anything beyond here?"
The Habbalite's eyes narrowed with her frown, tugging the black scrawls around on her face. "No outright fighting. Can't tell more than that. Hear anything?"
She shook her head. Drat. I'd hoped she'd have some range on her sense-the-emotions trick. If she's got it, of course; some Habbies don't do it well. She picked up on my bloodlust, but that's easy enough. Carefully, she opened the door a crack and peered through, with Caliah looking over her shoulder.
The room beyond the heavy door was filled with leather -- black, gray, brown, red... The walls were hung with leather sheets, leather cushions padding the walls, leather restraints hanging from the ceiling or attached to the floor, more leather pillows strewn about the floor... Even a few piles of leather clothing in the rounded corners. It reminded her of a Malakite-plucking-scene setting for a bad angleporn movie.
The air was almost leathern itself with the scent of the stuff, though there was a sour tinge underneath it. Betharan could almost identify it, but not quite.
The one thing she didn't see was a leather door anywhere in the opposite wall. The place seemed a dead end, and she didn't care to wander inside and poke around. She let the door open further and drummed her fingers on the doorframe. "I think our instructions were a little... vague. This doesn't look like an exit."
Caliah edged around the door, examining the room warily. "Perhaps it's a trapdoor or something, or behind one of those leather sheets."
"They did say this door, didn't they? Of course, they were Balseraphs. Perhaps we could go and beat the truth out of them," she sighed wistfully. That was a sweet thought, tearing Silver-rings' decorations out one by one...
Tebah grumbled deep in his throat, and she abandoned the time-wasting fantasy.
"It's either a deathtrap or a hopeless prison, if they're lying. They didn't look stupid." Caliah frowned, gaze flicking across the room. "Other option is to go back and try some of those doors in the corridor."
Betharan sighed and pulled the door closed, glancing backwards. The curtains from where they'd come in looked to be covering a blank wall. She turned back to the door and cracked it open again. Leather-from-Hell, still. "Oh, well, worth a try. Yeah, let's see if any of the other doors are quiet. You sure you can't pick up something through a door?"
The corner of Caliah's mouth almost twitched upwards. "Only a fight. I don't think we're going to be getting much of that here."
"Pity." While her partner sulked in the middle of the corridor, she went to listen at doors. Two were silent beyond -- and the curtains were definitely covering a hard stone wall. "Oh, I am going to report their cooperation," Betharan muttered darkly. "Out. I want a door out. I yearn for a door out."
No luck that way -- the place obviously only responded to the wishes of Lust-Servitors. She bent down to peer under one quiet door, and got a nose-full of bitter reek, familiar as a nightmare. She stood, trying not to gag, and backed away while Caliah knelt to check the door herself.
"Shedim pit," Betharan choked out. I am not a Corruptor-toy, not anymore, not...
The Habbalite's mouth tightened as she rose, balancing Hepzibah on her shoulder easily. "Hopefully not there."
Betharan went to the other door, which was sealed tightly -- no keyhole, no gap beneath. "You want to open this one, or shall I?" she asked the Baal-Servitor.
When Caliah paused, Tebah pushed past with a resigned expression to his dirty-copper eyes. The door opened to his rat-paw, and steam rolled out to fog Geas-bands and legs with moisture. Tebah immediately started smelling like a wet dog.
The sauna beyond held braziers of glowing coals, dark marble benches, urns full of water, and a few birch switches in convenient places. Only a pace or two inside, the walls and ceiling were hidden by the steam, making the furnishings loom out like artifacts from Limbo.
None of them made a move to enter and explore. Betharan exchanged a look with the Habbalite, who didn't seem inclined to be adventurous. Betharan didn't care to try and talk her into leaving Hepzibah and going exploring, either -- the War was halfway friendly to the Game, and in the middle of Lust, she wanted all the allies she could get.
Betharan considered tossing a Renegade in and seeing what happened, but didn't want to lose either prisoner. She grumbled, "That's it, we're lost. Okay, time to figure out which of these doors has little happy noises that aren't attached to a powerful Word-bound, or somebody with a title." She paused thoughtfully. "I wonder if we could do a traitor-sweep? 'This is the Game. Where's Chaltizar?' "
That brought a brief almost-smile to the Punisher's face. "Shall we see how many ardent passions we can shatter? I'll mind the Renegades if Tebah wants to pin them against the wall." Her voice held a new lightness, as if the thought actually amused her. It probably did; a chance to get in a little disciplining of weak Lusties, after all.
It was strange to be presented with a Habbalite who shared Betharan's own hobbies. "Mmmmm.... I was thinking of leaving Teb to sit on the Renegades and loom in the doorway. You want to pin people against walls, or shall I?"
"Take it in turns? Or I can pin them while you eye them hungrily, if you like."
"Turns sounds good. I'll let you do the pinning first -- they'll be more scared of your resonance. Now, let's see... Which door sounds least like it's got somebody distincted?" She rubbed her hands together, grinning. Sometimes it was good to be the Game.
They split up, heading down each side of the corridor to listen. Caliah paused on her fifth. "Sounds far too cheerful on both sides for somebody with a really severe taste for power."
Betharan listened for a moment herself. The little noises beyond were quiet and giggly enough; distincted Lusties were usually far more serious about their sex. "Good one. Let's go for it. Hand off the Lil to Teb, and I'll kick the door in."
While Caliah dumped Hepzibah on the ground for the Djinn to drape over his shoulder, Betharan tried the door, and found it unlocked. Another good sign; nobody powerful enough to be paranoid about door locks. With a quick thumbs-up to the others, she cracked it open, paused a heartbeat to listen to the happy and unaware demons beyond, then kicked the door open with a wonderful crash, putting her foot in front of its rebound. Hands on her hips arrogantly, she snapped out, "All right, this is the Game. Where's the Renegade?!"
The reaction was beautiful. The pair of Impudites on the bed cried out in shock and scrabbled in opposite directions. One managed to get off the bed without being tangled in the sheets, while the other failed miserably, winding up wrapped in satin like a mummy from the chest down. They both had the slightly unformed look of demons without vessels, probably barely more powerful than fledglings.
Caliah breezed past like a greyhound, wrapping her lean, scarred hand around the free Impudite's throat and slamming him against the wall. Her other hand was at the ready, near his groin. With an unruffled voice, the Habbalite murmured, "Are you the Renegade? Renegades don't get to ... enjoy this sort of thing."
Betharan smiled, though she was disappointed that they were Impudites -- she hadn't yet bought the ability to determine if that Band were dissonant or not. Ah, well. She walked into the room, standing straight and proud, wearing her scars like badges of rank. "All right, which of you was working with the Habbalite trying to make the Tether?" she asked crisply, looking around the room for hiding places.
Under the bed was about all that was there -- the wardrobe was open and mostly full of sextoys. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tebah looming appropriately, with Hepzibah's shapely leg showing beside him.
The sheet-wrapped Impudite shrieked, "It wasn't me! He seduced me! I'll go back to the electroshock testing! I'm sorry! I wasn't there!" Its panic was almost enough to make Betharan burst out laughing at its guilty conscience.
Caliah's captive hung quietly, trying not to stare at where her other hand was threatening and obviously wondering if she was about to manifest claws. "Yug. Er. No Habbalite. Just us two. I'm on vacation. Got a pass. Really." His eyes bulged as Caliah's hand tightened, scars stretching.
Betharan smiled, savoring the Impudites' terror, letting her amusement mingle with the ever-present bloodlust. "I see. Not either of you, eh? Okay, prettyboy, let's see your 'pass,' shall we?"
She stepped closer to the pair, wrapped in Geasa like armor, pose as domineering as any dominatrix's -- and even less likely to honor a safeword. She kept an eye on the sheet-wrapped one, in case he got free and tried to run.
The pinned demon indicated his clothing by rolling his eyes in that direction. "It's over there, madam. It's all signed. Really. I got permission. Ick!" Apparently the Warrior had tightened her grip again.
Betharan went to check the tattered scraps while Caliah murmured something about "worst excuse for a soldier" to him, voice as soft as a lover's.
The pass was obvious -- a Vapulan-make ID-card, adorned with signatures from various people, containing several validation chips to let him pass by the various devices of Tartarus. "Ah, a Techie, are you? Interesting." She held the pass up to the light. Curses. This might even be mostly legit. "Very good forgery, but I think some of the scan chips are a little crispy, even for one of you lot."
She flowed over to the bed gracefully and seized the other Impudite by the wing, pegging him as the native Lustie. "And you, pretty thing? Entertaining an AWOL Techie?" she cooed, meeting his eyes and putting on an expression she'd seen on some dissonant Djinn from time to time: obsession.
She resonated him. Another Impudite, female, in a black leather lab-coat, hanging limp and fried in something that looked like Vapula and Andrealphus had gotten drunk together to build.
Her victim clutched at the sheets like a security blanket, despite the uselessness of satin as a shield. "He swore it was legal! I'll go back to the rods this minute, I'll say anything you want, just please don't report me!" Either a guilty conscience, or something to run from -- probably the lab-coat Impudite from his Need.
Her Habbalite comrade-of-the-moment frowned. "Perhaps the Renegade's making for the exit. Perhaps this pair helped it."
"That seems likely," Betharan agreed, enjoying the bad-cop, worse-cop banter. "They do seem to protest too much, oh, yes. Perhaps they'd like to show us the way their compatriot might have fled? That might earn..." she studied the pass thoughtfully, "...a little lost paperwork. I'm sure he can't have gotten far, even in Shal-Mari."
Caliah leaned back, the markings on her hands showing she'd relaxed her grip a little. "Did you know that it's possible to eat a pass? I've seen it done. You'd never know it existed."
Betharan wasn't sure that was reassuring -- her first thought was feeding it to one of the Impudites by force -- but the pair evidently took it as a better sign than before. They whimpered, quite incoherently, about wanting to help in any way possible, as soon as possible, please-oh-please let us aid and don't report us.
Sometimes it was even delightful to be the Game.
"Soooo," Betharan cooed, caressing her victim's wing and staring at it like a hungry Calabite. She allowed her fangs to show, and bit her lower lip for just an instant. "You'll be happy to show us the way the Renegade probably left the building?"
He trembled like a flag in a hurricane, trying to wrap his wings around his body despite the satin entangling him. Quite idiotic, to cringe so in front of a Habbalite, but likely he considered Betharan the more immediate threat. "S-s-sure. Anything to, um, help our noble police. It's out the door and through the leather room at the end and push on the panel two right of the door and go through there and..." He retreated into a mass of directions, obviously in the forlorn hope he might not be dragged along to show the way.
Still keeping her grip on his wing, she fingered the other's pass. "The Techie would just slow us down, I think. I have his forged pass, I can pick him up later. Let's take this one and go."
The Baal-Servitor nodded, plucking her victim away from the wall to shake him roughly once and then drop him to hands and knees. Dizzy, he stayed put (and quiet, after a single whimper) while Caliah asked, "You want to have the Djinn attune to him, first? So we can track him later if things go... wrong?"
Wasn't like there'd be any shortage of people to do the actual hurting, if their other Impudite finked out on them. "Perfect. Drag him over, would you?"
She did, hauling him by the scruff of the neck, grip tight enough that little crescents of blood showed around her fingernails. Her pose showed her utter contempt for the little Taker, and a certain amount of self-depreciation -- a Servitor of the War, reduced to bullying low-Force Vapulans.
Betharan caught herself almost sympathizing for a heartbeat, though any demon to terrorize was better than none.
Tebah blew air through his wolfling nose in a sigh, putting a paw on the Techie. "Done," he grunted, obviously annoyed at the waste of time. "Let's get after the other one."
Betharan pulled on the wing of her captive Lustie, dragging it from the sheets roughly and letting it try to unwind itself as best it could while being hauled to the door. It was almost too pathetic to be worth bothering with, hardly any fun whatsoever to tear apart. Her Discord simmered quietly. Besides, we don't want it scared enough to call for Andrealphus, oh, no. She'd bought her first vessel from the Prince of Lust, long and long ago, when she was a Free, before Brightness, before Falling. She did not want to think what might happen if Lord Andre ever recognized his handiwork beneath the scars.
Most of the satin was either left behind, or torn. The sniffling Impudite clutched an arm-length swatch of it to himself -- a remnant of modesty, or just something to hold onto. Betharan fixed him with her gaze and instructed, "All right, let's get on to this 'leather room,' shall we?"
Tebah withdrew from the doorway as they passed, the Lustie almost crying as it shuffled along, Betharan holding its wing. Caliah let the Techie drop at her feet again, and followed, bringing up the rear alertly while Tebah slung both Renegades over his back.
With a few shoves to motivate her captive, Betharan got the Lustie in front of the door to the leather room. "This the one?"
At his nod, she shoved the door open -- holding his wing firmly so that he couldn't try to run.
It was still quiet, still leather that begged to be touched. The odd tang to the scent was also still there, but leather did absorb just about any odor. Nothing moved, nothing made noise.
Her trembling Impudite freed one hand from its scrap of sheet and pointed at a leather-covered panel in the far wall. "Er... that one. Let me go and I'll go prod it for you?"
"Teb?" Betharan asked over her shoulder.
Her partner sighed and shuffled forward to bap the Impudite lightly on the wing. "Done."
She released her grasp, purring, "Mind you, those who run are usually guilty of something. Resisting arrest, at the least"
He flinched and retreated, sidling, keeping his eyes on them as they followed him into the room. "Sure. Definitely." He prodded the indicated panel with a finger, making it swing slightly. "Look. It's just out there, you can go right through..."
She noticed the Baal-Servitor's pose shift from wariness to outright defensiveness, turning and looking around the room. Trouble? Betharan wondered. I don't hear anything... The leather smothered everything, though -- sound, vibration... The scent was like drowning in the stuff.
If there was trouble, it was time to get out. She walked over to push the panel open further, taking hold of the Impudite's wing again and making sure he'd be in the way of anything unpleasant popping out.
Tebah brooded in the middle of the room, Hepzibah slung over his back, dragging Ashoth by the leg.
Looks clear enough, I guess. Betharan started to wave for the others to come over.
From behind leather hangings, leather veils falling from it, the huge Shedite boiled out -- far, far too close to Betharan. It loomed over her, full of eyes and guts and tentacles, the reek of it mixing into the leather smell. Somebody called out -- probably Caliah.
Betharan froze, staring up at it. A whimper strangled in her throat. No, not one of them, not again... No, Master, please, please don't give me to them, please, I'll be good I won't disobey you please my Master please-don't-give-me...
The Impudite ripped his wing from her hand and dashed out the panel, reminding her that this was the halls of Lust, not her Master's domain. She staggered back a pace, raising her claws, but too late to avoid the dripping tentacle that lashed out and sent her tumbling.
She looked up, seeing it raise another tendril, knowing she was in no condition to dodge.
A pair of unconscious Renegades were flung into it, bouncing it against the wall in a drippy mess. She scurried backwards as it rounded on her partner. Not allowed, no right, Game, I'm the Game, it's Lust, it has no right... She wanted to rend it with her claws, but the touch of it, the slime burning on her skin...
Tebah stood upright in the middle of the room, wings flaring out and fanning to keep his balance, fangs and forked tongue showing in his gaping jaw.
Caliah was behind the Corruptor, wrapping her hand in one of the leather hangings against the wall. The black patterns on her hand and arm shifted as she exerted force, and the sheet began to loosen from the ceiling.
In a gurgling, purring hiss, the Shedite crooned, "I'm not going to hurt her, Djinn." Another mouth opened. "She'll enjoy it." In ragged chorus, it continued, "Or just throw me the little Punisher, or the other one you've got. I won't take long. I don't want to hurt you."
Its eyes focused on Teb, and organs pulsed as it began to boil upwards again, taking the high ground.
Betharan thought her partner might have glanced at her, but she could hardly move. Her teeth chattered together as she crouched, putting holes in a leather cushion with one hand.
She heard him saying, "No deal. She's MY partner. And those are MY Renegades." He yawned, curling his forked tongue. "And the Punisher's not mine to give."
The Fleshless demon lowered itself again, extending slimy tendrils towards Betharan. She raised her claws, trying to push away flashbacks.
Then there was a chime of Essence as Caliah launched herself up and over the Shedite from behind, trailing the wall-hanging like a huge cape. Her legs and belly brushed against the surprised Corruptor, but the entangling folds of leather settled over it.
Tebah blurred into motion, swifter than he looked, snapping the trailing edge of the hanging down by putting a hindpaw on it. He hurled the Renegade Lilim at Betharan, sending them into a Geas-clattering green tumble. "Get moving, partner!" he barked while Betharan sorted herself out, shaking her head to clear it of the memories.
He grabbed up the faintly-moaning Calabite while she got Hepzibah under her arm, and they bolted for the exit. She got there first, probably because Tebah was making sure to trample the leather-wrapped Shedite on his way out.
She heard the door slammed behind them as she pelted down the corridor, Tebah ahead of her in a shuffling bound that looked slower than it was. From the way he had his head down, he probably had attuned to the Lustie Impudite, and was tracking.
That was good. Betharan was in no condition to remember the instructions the Impudite had given, though the disorientation was fading.
Caliah caught up, and Betharan glanced at her, muttering, "Thanks."
The Habbalite nodded, but didn't say anything. Surprising. No gloating.
There was a cracking noise from the door panel behind them and they sped up by unspoken agreement.
The next room was a wood-panelled gymnasium, and after that, the rest was generic -- brothel halls, stone dungeons, surprised squeaks as someone dodged out of Tebah's way... Admittedly, the high-tech place was mildly interesting, but Betharan didn't care to stop and take any notes on the decadence of Lust, not with an annoyed and powerful Shedite behind them somewhere.
Still, the laboratory did seem to have that Technology-Lust crossbreed machine that the Impudite's Need had included.
Tebah suddenly flared his wings, braking himself in front of a large, open door. The room beyond could have been the entry room at any fancy hotel, save for the lounging spider-woman Djinn behind the front desk who perused some probably-trashy novel. But beyond that -- the streets of Shal-Mari!
Betharan tried to keep her sigh of relief quiet and arranged Hepzibah so that they looked as if they were walking together. The Renegade Lilim was slightly awake, though groggy enough to be tractable. Betharan hung onto the noose around her sibling's neck. Tebah just tucked his wings up to mask the Calabite flung across his back, and they followed Caliah out. The Habbalite called, "We're checking out, inspection satisfied. You'll be getting the reports later." Casually, she strode to the door, only a faint distortion in the markings on her back showing any tension at all.
Betharan blinked, focusing on one of the symbols running in a thin line down the Habbalite's spine. No, it doesn't say "postage due," she thought, relieved. I wonder if I should tell her it does? "If found in Trauma, return to Gehenna postage due." No, no, that wouldn't fly...
Especially not while the Baal-Servitor was holding the door open for them.
Caliah draped an arm over the Renegade Lilim as Betharan passed, and smiled faintly as they stepped out, into the crowds, the noise, the trash and bustle... The safety of the Shal-Mari streets.
"After finding our way out -- and dealing with a Shedite of Lust who sought to detain us unnecessarily -- we attempted to make our way to a Game-station to report in and hand over the Renegades. However, Caliah insisted that she had specific orders..."
I never want to see another brothel as long as I live," Betharan muttered, keeping a firm grip on the noose. "Come on, let's get to a Game-station." Teb was already headed left at the intersection.
Caliah hung onto the Renegade, dragging them to a halt. Impressively calmly, she said, "War-post is that way, and I'm under direct orders. Your Prince doesn't want to annoy my Prince directly, does he?" The expression on her face was as blandly stubborn as any Elohite's, despite the tattoos on her cheeks and forehead.
Stalemate. I have no intention of just giving this Renegade over... But neither do I want to be brawling with the War in the streets of Shal-Mari. She gnawed at her lower lip, making a show of thinking the matter over and stalling for time. "Direct orders, eh? Mmmmm... But she's also a Renegade, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Game..."
Tebah sighed, drifting over to the side of the road to wait. Occasionally, the Calabite twitched, and her partner idly thumped the prisoner's head against the wall or ground to quiet it. The crowds of Shal-Mari passed by, ignoring them. Who wanted to mess with a Djinn who so casually sat on a Calabite? Who wanted to fight with a scarred Tempter and a tattooed Punisher who were obviously having a dispute?
The Habbalite continued the stare-down. Feh. She can't back down, both 'cause she's the War, and because it would be showing a weakness. They'd sooner die than expose themselves to the fangs of their sharkling "Choirmates." It wasn't worth the hassle, nor the politicking, and the Renegade might well get shipped over anyway. Betharan rolled her eyes. "Teb, take yours to the Game-station. I'll go along with this one and collect her after the Prince of the War is finished." To Caliah, she added, "If that's all right with you? After all, we do want to make both our Masters happy, no?"
A part of her hoped that the Habbalite would be unreasonable, but she smiled, bland as an Elohite again, and relaxed just a little. Contagious relaxation, Betharan suspected.
"I'll arrange the passes. I can apply for you to attend the interrogation, too, if you want?"
Not likely that she's got the authority, though you never can tell what a Prince might do to a favorite. Still, let us be civilized about this, cooperating and strengthening our Princes by it.
"Yes, I think that would be best, if I could attend." She nodded and gave a little bow of her head, deferring to Caliah's leadership politely.
Tebah fixed her with a bland stare for a moment, dirty-copper eyes intent upon her, then slouched off with Ashoth on his back. Big, bored, unquestionable. His dragon-tail dragged behind him.
Hepzibah twitched and groaned. "Whuuu....?"
Caliah put another choke-lock on the Renegade's carotids until he/she slumped again, then nodded to the right. "War-base is about two blocks that way. We can get an escort and some quick transport the rest of the way."
"Sounds interesting. Any protocols?" She followed, keeping a grip on her sib lest the Habbalite want all the glory. If you'd been alone... Would the angels have gotten you? Would the Renegades have finished you off? Or would that Lust-Seneschal just have gotten her Need filled? Ironic; safety in cooperative numbers, in Hell.
Caliah didn't seem too likely to run off with Hepzibah, though. She just balanced her half of the Renegade. "Probably the same sort of thing as an outsider in a Game-base: I identify myself, tell them who you and the Renegade are, they watch us like dung-beetles on a really tasty ball of dung while they check things, then we get trotted off with by a fast squad who'll walk us through the gates to Gehenna and see us through the battlefield to my Prince's Citadel."
"Sounds fine by me. Sure you don't want me to toss our prize over my shoulder?" She smiled faintly, thinking, My Renegade, mine, mine, mine...
"Only if you want to come in there looking like my convenient body-toter." The calm smile never reached Caliah's eyes. "I'm assuming you'd prefer to come in looking like a colleague. It'll make things a bit easier with the brute squad on the door."
Other Words, other ways. "Point taken. Halvsies."
"Charging Tebah to report our capture of Hepzibah when he reached the Game-station with Ashoth, I accompanied Caliah to the station for the War, guarding the main path between Shal-Mari and Gehenna. She had promised to put my request -- to monitor the questioning and to collect Hepzibah afterwards -- through the proper channels, and I believed her professional enough to do so if someone were keeping a eye on her."
The guard-station of the War was a heavy, blocky thing made of some deep gray rock, with forged metal doors. Caliah stepped up to the door, knocked thrice, and a small panel slid open at eye-level. Six gleaming black eyes peered out.
The faux angel murmured something that Betharan couldn't catch -- probably a passcode -- and the door creaked open.
Betharan arranged her half of the slippery-unconscious Renegade again and tried standing to attention. They'd just better not make any remarks about green Habbies, she thought. And I'd better be careful if they do, since Teb's not here to sit on me or guard my back.
They went in, Caliah providing an excellent example of professional, military poise for Betharan to copy. The door slammed immediately on their heels, and the camo-scaled Balseraph slid the bolts back to lock it.
The room was as spartan as some of the Game-stations -- bare walls, some uncomfortable chairs and benches in corners, a chessboard with a couple of Impudites, a clawed sealion Djinn behind a desk... A door in simple dark wood was at the other side of the room.
The Djinn grumbled, "All right. Report, Punisher."
Betharan glanced around, taking care to have a simple, bland expression on her face, while Caliah saluted and reported, "Renegade captured, sir, as per the Prince's orders. He requested that she be brought to Gehenna." She gave a nod towards Betharan -- or possibly the Renegade draped from her shoulder -- "The Tempter is an agent of the Game, one Betharan, assigned by her Prince's orders, to report to Gehenna also and take back any appropriate remains."
Betharan smiled, keeping her fangs covered, and nodded shortly in acknowledgement. The Djinn wasn't terribly important -- it glanced at her and then began flicking through papers on its desk -- and her eyes flickered around the room, not resting in any one place too long. The Impudites in the corner, both sporting ammo belts across their chests, were arguing over a move; black was losing, and apparently trying to move through check. The rest of the place showed no signs of laxness; it was very clean, very orderly, everything seemed to be stowed in what Betharan was starting to think of as military precision. Perhaps the Djinn was one of the meticulous breed. Perhaps it was merely typical for those of the War.
The Djinn said, "I can give you a couple of Calabim for runners: that be enough? Sign here, here, and here." He dumped forms on the desk.
Caliah's pose changed very little, but that "messenger" symbol at her shoulderblade distorted just a little as she moved forward to sign the papers. Betharan craned her neck to peek at what was being signed, curiously, and thought, Give me a few days of study, and I might be able to read her as well as she could read me. I wonder if they think of that, the ones who see themselves painted and patterned?
Hepzibah twitched and rolled her head. Betharan absently tugged the noose tight again; not as precise as the Baal-Servitor's chokehold, but it should do. A thought crossed her mind as the Renegade began turning an interesting shade of aqua. "Hey, Caliah," Betharan murmured. "How intact does Prince Baal want this Renegade, anyway?"
The Habbalite didn't even look up from the intricate signature she was painting onto the forms. "Able to talk, so leave the vocal cords alone, and it'll probably be easier if she can walk rather than having to get the Calabim to carry her. You know what their natural fields are like."
"Oh, right." Betharan let the Renegade slump to the floor, loosened the noose and lightly slapped her sister's cheeks. "Wakey, wakey," she crooned, trying to keep the violence under control. You're not going to like this. You're not going to like this at all. Your worst nightmare, come true... Well, not entirely, not yet. You haven't had to face a Prince yet. Fool to Bind. Bound-Daughter, as she was Bound; traitor Lilim, as she had been...
Hepzibah jerked again, and Betharan backhanded her across the face, hard. The Renegade cried out and tried to curl up protectively.
Caliah passed the papers back to the Djinn, who pressed something behind the desk, as the other Lilim opened her eyes -- very suddenly, she was wide awake. Nothing like a little terror to clear the head, Betharan thought, looking deeply.
An image of an apartment, the mall coffee-shop, a street, a lobby... A montage of places flashed by, each having two things in common: the presence of Hepzibah, and the absence of Betharan, Caliah, and anyone else. She obviously Needed to be Elsewhere, very badly.
Betharan didn't blame her -- waking up to someone with mad killer's eyes and stiletto-tipped horns was, perhaps, even worse than Betharan's own capture had been. She smiled, allowing the fangs to show a little. "Hi. You're going to cooperate, right?"
Hepzibah glanced right and left, her pupils dilated, giving her an almost Elohite appearance for a moment. She relaxed, rather deliberately, and whispered, "Sister, you've got to get me out of this: can we make a deal?"
Poor thing. She doesn't know how hopeless her situation is. Betharan stroked her sister's cheek with the back of her fingers. "So sorry, but no, not really. I don't think that my Master would reward me for antagonizing one of his associates unnecessarily. Don't worry -- I've requested that you be left alive for me to retrieve." Perhaps you could even do as I did, and bind to him...
Hepzibah wasn't stupid. She screamed and pulled away, somehow dredging up enough strength to pull Betharan towards the bolted metal doors. Betharan hung onto the end of the noose, teeth bared in what might have been a smile if she hadn't been containing the urge to haul in and start tearing her sib apart then and there.
"I don't think this is necessarily more useful, Caliah," she sang out as the two Impudites sprang up (the losing one "accidentally" kicking their chessboard table over), sprinting over to tackle the wailing Renegade.
"Thank you," she added to the pair of demons as they knocked Hepzibah down and pinned her down. Oh, well, I suppose I'll have to save my fun for later... She grappled the other Lilim around the neck and waved her foot-long talons in her face. Sweetly, she purred, "Struggling will just get me more annoyed with you."
The Renegade went limp. Tears leaked from her eyes as she whimpered, "What can they do to me that they aren't already going to?"
"Oh, you don't want to know," Betharan whispered, trying to repress the memories. "Or, rather, you don't want to know what I can do to you. Cooperate, maybe you'll survive. Or did you do too much for that?"
Caliah showed up with cuffs for the demon's legs and arms. "Okay, we carry her, then." Her voice was emotionless, her expression withdrawn and aloof. "Or the Calabim do and we fix her up later." Her eyes were filmed mirrors.
"I'm willing to tote her -- don't want the escort to have their hands full, after all," Betharan said. She'd heard that Gehenna wasn't even safe for the inhabitants. Besides, her sister might want to try bargaining again, and spill something useful. She added, to the Impudite kneeling on Hepzibah's back, "Here, shift over a little so she can put the cuffs on."
The Taker nodded professionally -- a far cry from the pair they'd bullied in the den of Lust -- and helped Caliah force the Renegade's wrists together for the shackles.
Hepzibah twisted her head around franticly, perhaps hoping for rescue. "Where's Ashoth? What happened to him?"
"My partner has him," Betharan said casually, looping the noose-end around her fingers securely "Want to say anything about the blessed Triad that showed? Were they looking for you?"
Hepzibah didn't even pause. "They were chasing us! We were trying to sucker them into believing we were Redeemable, see, it was one of those deep cover jobs..."
Caliah's mouth twisted as she snapped the leg-irons closed, dark iron against the green of the Renegade's skin. Obviously she was unimpressed with the tale.
"Oh, you're lucky I'm not a Seraph," Betharan grinned, thinking of the battered member of that Choir snarling uselessly outside the Tether. "I'd bap you one. You didn't even know about them, did you?"
Desperately, with unconscious jerks against the bonds, Hepzibah protested, "Oh-yes-we-did! We thought if we let them take down that Lust-Tether, we might be able to convince them we wanted..." Her voice trailed off. Either she'd run out of imagination, or run too close to truth.
"Oh, keep talking!" Betharan encouraged her. "I'm making little mental notes here. Wanted what?"
With amazing backbone, the Renegade shut her mouth and set her jaw.
Caliah shrugged. "They'll get it out of her later. I've heard that the Prince himself might take a personal interest." Her eyes went tight again, around the edges. It was an expression Betharan knew well, from the inside. So. You weren't unconscious when he carved his signs upon your flesh, were you, false angel?
The Habbalite banished the memory. "So you're carrying her while the Calabim run escort?"
"Sure. She can whisper things in my ear. I'll take notes." She stroked her sister's hair gently. "Really now, if you provide the information, maybe you'll even survive." It is the only way, the only hope. Cooperate. Bind to the right Prince and pay the cost of your betrayal... As I paid.
The inner door opened, letting in a trio of Calabim. Betharan stood, hoisting her sib to her shoulders like a lumpy carpet. She told her cargo, "Now, don't be obnoxious, or you won't be happy at all."
Hepzibah seemed to have run out of will to be obnoxious, and merely sniffled as the Calabim formed up around them and Caliah in a rough triangle. Caliah saluted the Djinn, then gestured to the camo-scaled Balseraph, who slithered to open the door.
"It's the standard route, direct line," the Habbalite told Betharan.
"Never been. I'll keep my eyes on you." She resettled her burden, muttering, "Stop squirming, or I'll drop you and let a Calabite carry you."
The door rang open, and Caliah set the pace out -- a fast trot, of course. It slammed behind them, loud even on the fringes of Shal-Mari, and they made their way to the border-tunnel...
The scenery was different from what Betharan was used to -- not the streets of Hades, or the unfocused chaos of Shal-Mari, or the twisty mazes of Stygia where she had once visited. The ground was squishy, packed mud formed from the dirt and blood that had never dried out. Occasionally they passed a corpse -- usually some damned soul with barely enough Forces left to exist, once a Djinn like a dead, faceless lion. Guns echoed in the distance, and metallic clashings, and, of course, screams.
Baal's Fortress made itself known on the horizon.
Betharan eased Hepzibah into a better position and concentrated on keeping up. She was the Game, and Servitors of the War would not find her lacking, even if she were burdened and they weren't.
Nevertheless, she was working to keep her breathing steady when they finally arrived.
While Caliah did the pass-code thing with the Djinn guards at the door, Betharan turned her head to survey the wasteland behind them, already wondering if it might not be a good idea to ascend -- even to that Lust Tether -- and return to her Heart instead of having to run that mess again. "How scenic," she deadpanned to her cargo. "So, this is the place you chose to spend your life, allegedly?"
Hepzibah whimpered, "I got Earthside assignments, inside duty. I was valuable."
Betharan rolled her eyes and snorted. Bound-Daughters. Fools.
The Djinn guards finally decided that Caliah -- and company -- weren't some kind of sneak attack, and opened the doors. The Habbalite dismissed the Calabim, and gestured inside.
Betharan looked around as casually as she could, walking through the Fortress' halls, and made mental notes; the allies had to be watched the most closely, lest corruption steal in there.
The place was immaculate, the corridors of stone and metal and tile well-lit and open, allowing easy travel. Occasional surveillance points dotted the ceiling and walls, and a few switch-back halls allowed for defensible positions without sacrificing room for daily business. The Servitors were all at least as precise and business-like as Caliah, passing by without slouching or dawdling. The three sets of obvious sentries were nicely alert, carefully watching as Betharan and her companion (and cargo) moved past.
It wasn't easy maintaining a graceful walk while lugging a Renegade across her shoulders, but Betharan made the effort. She wouldn't need to be as militarily precise as the locals, of course. She was the Game, the not-so-secret police. It would suffice to be professional, chin high.
She noticed Caliah sneaking a peek at her from time to time, probably to see if she were suitably impressed, finding something to report, or trying to assess the security too overtly.
As if I'd shame my Master like that. Unthinkable. She murmured occasional questions to her sister as they walked. "So, been here often? What's it like, hm?" They got to some stairs. "Don't suppose you'd like to walk now? Oh, never mind -- carried you this far..."
The Renegade had her eyes screwed shut, every muscle in her body tense and difficult to balance well. Betharan wondered if she thought she could ascend to Heaven with a Game-noose around her neck, or if she were merely trying for Earth.
The "holding area" was at the top of the metal stairs; a short hallway, and then a selection of cells. She could see cameras both overt and covert in the ceilings, and amusing devices hanging on the walls, presumably to encourage debriefings. They weren't nearly as varied as those in the catacombs beneath the Hall of Loyalty, but they were sturdy and well-kept.
The warden was another Djinn, something like a scarred, badger-headed toad. It was examining some manacles dangling from a hook on the wall, rubbing at tiny stains with one flipper.
Betharan glanced around. Three of the cells were already occupied: a battered Balseraph, two of its eyes swollen shut and blood drying on its scales; a Calabite trying to break his cell's lock by staring at it fixedly, and not having much luck; an Impudite nonchalantly curled up in a corner with his wings wrapped around him like sheets, somehow managing the difficult feat of drifting to the beat of his personal symphony and sleeping.
The warden deigned to notice them, turning with grumpy surprise. "Good. Punisher, you're back to assignments, there's something to be sorted out. Tempter, we've had the clearance in from the Prince for you to wait on this one's questioning. Need anything? We've got orders to extend equal-rank courtesy."
And what does that involve? Equal-rank? Equal to what? She smiled politely. The Game was never off-balance. "Thank you. Perhaps a transcription device so I can take notes, should my pooooor misguided sib wish to unburden her soul to me? And, of course, some way to make a copy," she added, "to leave here, if such would be available?"
The Djinn grunted again, forced to answer when she was sure it would rather be staring at the prisoners quietly. "Sure. Pencil, paper, you got it, we've got cameras running anyway. No problem."
Betharan was mildly tempted to look for his desire to return to his Band-hobby of brooding, but Prince Baal would probably know which Lilim to look for if he saw a hook. She smiled, "That's perfect. Thank you."
She strode to one of the open cells and dumped Hepzibah inside, rolling her over to get the gold-wire noose off, then leaving the warden to deal with the other bonds.
Her Renegade sister lay there, blank-faced. Betharan knew that she was listening to her own symphony, trying to blot out everything else, dissolve herself in it. It wouldn't work. Betharan had become very good at that trick, and suicide had eluded her. Hepzibah hadn't figured out how to go limp and stop fighting the pain-to-come yet, anyway.
Caliah had hung around. Betharan turned to meet her gaze, wondering if the truce was off and the Punisher were about to point out all of Betharan's weaknesses. As if I can't map them myself; there's a scar for each.
Instead, the Habbalite's gaze was as flat and even as ever, and her voice politely neutral. "My thanks for your cooperation. I'll see you when I next get assigned your way, I imagine."
"Likely enough. Your help will not be forgotten." Betharan kept her puzzlement out of her pose, pushing it down with the usual urges towards mayhem -- and the memories of huge brown eyes set in pure Elohite paleness, so long and long ago in the trees of the Groves. She looked deeply for a moment, again.
Emotion, more than an image, this time. The sense of strength, like the heat of a forge; an iron bar that would never bend, never break. Perfection. Worthiness.
She blinked as Caliah's mouth twitched briefly. "You were extremely professional. My compliments." She saluted formally, fist to shoulder, and turned to the exit before Betharan could recover her wits.
Was that really a Habbie? she wondered as she watched Caliah leave. Most yearn to punish, not find someone they need not destroy... We must watch her. She is far too professional herself, far too objective. She might begin to find strength, rather than finding weakness.
She turned back to her blank-eyed sister, manacled to the wall by one wrist now while the Djinn warden continued to work. Betharan crouched down in front of Hepzibah's face. "Sure you don't want to start talking now? If you decided to cooperate, I might put in a good word for you with my Master. It's not really a bad job, you know. Get to go interesting places, meet interesting people, drag them back to the arenas..."
There was no response -- save the slow slide of a tear down the Renegade's cheek. It puddled on the metal floor, until the Djinn fastidiously wiped it away.
"The assistance of Caliah, Habbalite of the War, was valuable. She is a quick thinker, and very professional, especially for one of the Punishers. I recommend that she be checked periodically to ensure that she does not control her emotions overly much, however, as it would be a shame to lose her to the other side. See attached the attached report for a detailed analysis of her behavior and Needs. This report is concluded."
--Betharan, Lilim of the Game.
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