Joris returned to the Circle, and felt his exhaustion lifted when he saw a black-haired figure kneeling before the altar. Though her back was to him, Joris was sure it was her, even before she said “Hello, Joris,” tinged with that untraceable accent.
“Raven,” he said, not sure what should come next.
Raven stood and turned to face him, the ghost of a smile on her lips. Gods above, thought Joris, but it aches to behold her.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
The urge to ask why arose, but he pushed it aside. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, “but I’ve just returned from Plague-Mort.”
How could she know that? What do I say next? “Anyway, I’m here now.” The words fell from his lips like lead, but she didn’t seem bothered.
“I’m glad,” said Raven. “I have much to tell you.”
“I see,” he replied. “Um, have you seen Numeledes?”
“He’s upstairs, sleeping. Close the doors, Joris. Please.” He tried to keep an eye on her as he did. “I’m sorry I had to leave the Masque so soon.”
Joris walked back down the aisle toward her. “I wasn’t angry or anything. I just wanted to get a chance to… to get to know you.”
“That’s why I’ve come,” she said as he approached, though he stopped when that strangely familiar scent crept into his nostrils. “There’s something you have to know, before it’s too late. Whatever happens… please understand that I didn’t come here to hurt you.”
“I don’t understand,” Joris said, apprehension bleeding around the edges of his words.
“I hope you will,” she replied… and in the span of six seconds, her great bat-like wings shimmered into view, and an eerie red glow appeared in the depths of her eyes. In all other respects, she looked exactly the same.
“You’re a fiend,” Joris whispered, feeling icy needles in his extremities.
“My name is not Raven. My name is Kalisa, and I am tanar’ri.”
Not just tanar’ri, but a succubus. Joris became aware of anger growing in his heart, somewhere under the numbness. “That was you? What were you doing in Plague-Mort?”
“As I told you then, I was investigating the Illuminated, same as you.”
“And that – that face that you wore?”
“I must disguise myself when I risk running into other tanar’ri. You’ve seen why.”
That he had. “What happened with you and… Latana, was it?”
“I sent her back to the Abyss. That’s why I carry a cold iron weapon… to them, I’m a traitor.”
Joris’s head was reeling. What had she said about the Illuminated? “Is that why you were at the Masque in the first place? Looking for Baltazo?”
“Yes. At least, that was my reason for going. But now I know that fate brought me there, to find you.”
Joris glared at her, and said “You’re a succubus. No wonder I fell for you so hard.” How could I have been so blind?
Raven’s – Kalisa’s – hands were out, palms up, her head tilted slightly, her voice calm, even as rage found its way into Joris’s. “I’m sure the word of a demon means nothing to you, but I swear, I didn’t charm you.”
“You didn’t have to, did you? It can’t be hard to find the most gullible and desperate man in a crowded room, even if everyone’s wearing a mask.”
“It’s not like that, Joris. You have something… you can offer me something that I need.”
With a mirthless laugh, Joris said “I’m sure you could have found someone more qualified to give you that, as well.”
“No,” she said. “It’s not that, either.”
“Well, what is it, then? What could I possibly offer you?”
The room fell silent.
“Redemption,” Joris repeated, disbelief flushing his anger away. “For a fiend? I thought such things were impossible.”
“Anything is possible. Already I have stepped from the shadows. I only need a hand to guide me into the light. Can you do that for me, Joris? Will you?”
Joris took a seat on a pew and held his head in his hands; almost at once, Kalisa was on her knees before him. He could not avoid her gaze, so he plunged into it, searching her for any sign of deception. It took all of his will to look beyond her beauty, but he could find no reason to doubt her words.
“I believe you,” he said, “but I don’t know that I can trust you.”
At once, she said “My truename is Kalisatreanugori.” Seeing his surprise, she continued: “As a student of the arcane, you must know what mortals can do to me with that knowledge… what you could do… and what it means for me to entrust you with it.”
It was her truename; the word’s power vibrated on his tongue, daring him to speak it. Fiends kept them secret all their lives; spellcasters could use truenames to summon them, punish them, or bind them into service. If she were willing to trust him with it, couldn’t he trust her?
“All right, then,” was all he had time to say before Kalisa’s lips brushed against his, setting off fireworks in his mind. You’re kissing a succubus, you stupid sod! Was that Haden’s voice? Sheen’s? That’s how they steal your sodding soul! Get her off you! But he found himself quite unable – quite unwilling.
His wits returned as she pulled away, and he raised his fingertips to his mouth, not sure what he expected to feel there. He didn’t feel diminished – not in the slightest. The kiss of a succubus was supposed to have a suggestive power which made you want more; the urge he felt, though powerful, seemed perfectly natural.
“What’s wrong?” Kalisa asked, searching his eyes, sounding a little rejected. She drew her wings around her body. “I’ve repulsed you, haven’t I?”
Joris brushed her wing aside like a curtain. “No, Kalisa.”
“Please, don’t look at me. I’m marked by the gods of darkness. I’m hideous!”
“You’re wrong,” said Joris, wiping a tear from her eye. “You are, by far, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in all my life.”
She smiled with a sniff. “That can’t be true.”
“I promise you that it is.”
“Thank you, Joris. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have kissed you like that.”
“How should you have kissed me?” Joris asked before he could stop himself.
“Like this, I think,” taking his hand and kissing the tips of his fingers until he was sure he’d pass out. They don’t have to kiss you on the mouth to steal your soul, came the voice again. Was it his father, maybe? His own voice?
Go away, thought Joris. It’s my soul, and I think it’s worth the risk.
It’s your funeral, berk.
He returned his hand to the side of her face, caressing her cheek. No mortal had skin this exquisite.
I’ve presided over enough funerals. Maybe I deserve one of my own.
“Do you wish me to pay for your help?” asked Kalisa.
“Of course not!”
“But you desire me.”
“Of course I do.”
“Then I will honor you with my love,” said Kalisa, “if you will let me.” Her hair waved over his hand like a midnight sea, and at once, he realized, this was the most important decision he would ever make.
This is your last chance, came a voice he knew to be his own. You could turn her away. Let her be someone else’s problem. Whether you trust her or not, she’s a fiend. She has powerful enemies – and she’ll never be more than one sin away from damnation. What if she drags you down with her? Are you willing to risk perdition?
She’s doomed to fail without my help, he thought, looking into her eyes once more.
Then why lie with her? How does that do anything but complicate the situation?
Because I have never wanted anything more. Besides, I have to know her if I am to save her, and what better way could there be?
That’s specious reasoning, Crownsilver.
Look, I can’t work with her and not yield to the temptation. What man could?
The voice was quiet now. Joris said “I could never ask for a greater honor… but I doubt that I’m worthy of it.”
“By the time I’m through with you,” she said, moving to kiss his mouth again, “you will doubt no more.”
- – - – -
That night, Joris Crownsilver, who considered himself a scholar of all things divine, beheld divinity in a manner he never had before.
- – - – -
They talked for hours, their bodies pressed together beneath the blanket, as much for reassurance as to ward off the cold.
“Why me, Kalisa? Dark as this Cage may be, there must be others more virtuous than I.”
The tanar’ri rolled out from under his arm, flashing him a disarming grin. “Do you know which virtue vexes the virtuous the most, Joris? Humility.”
“Not everyone has this much to be humble about,” he said, wishing he could laugh at it.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. You’re a good man, Joris Crownsilver, and that’s a damned rare thing. Anyone who can’t see that in you is blind, and anyone who tells you differently is a liar.”
Lord Cerellis’s question drifted through Joris’s head: Are you a brave man, and true? How had he answered? Oh, yes: I try to be. Maybe that was enough.
“You’re very kind to say so,” Joris said, wishing he could come up with something better.
“That’s my point, though. You follow that path because you feel that it’s right, not because you seek honor, or glory, or some reward. I want to do the same.”
Her fingertips traced fiery circles on his stomach, but his fatigue was quickly catching up with him.
“How did you… step out of the darkness in the first place?” he asked.
“It’s a long story, better left for another time.”
“And your crusade against the Illuminated?”
“Part of the same story.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder, and he decided to let it go, for now. When Sheen’s inevitable reaction crossed his mind, he asked, “What do I tell my friends?”
“Why not the truth? Don’t they trust you?”
“They always have, but I’ve never come to them with something like this before.”
“If you don’t tell them now, they’ll find out sooner or later. Then they’ll want to know why you didn’t tell them…”
Joris sketched a sudden yawn. “Should warn you,” he drawled, “I snore.”
As he drifted off to sleep, he heard Kalisa say, “I know.”
- – - – -
Joris dreamed, but not of Lenora.
- – - – -
Joris woke up alone, much later than he’d intended. He dressed in a hurry and dashed down the stairs; Numeledes, sanctifying the altar, watched him as he headed for the door.
“Succubus found you, did she?” called the old man.
Joris stopped. “You knew?”
“Of course. Why, didn’t you?”
“Must have been quite a shock, then.”
Joris started toward him. “You could have told me.”
“Sure, but then you might not have given her a chance. That’s the thing about life on the Planes; nothing’s what it looks like, and you’ve gotta figure out what’s what on your own.”
Joris thought this over for a moment, then said “I think I know where Firil is.”
“Yes, someone I’m looking for is looking for her.”
The old man smiled. “Send her my love, won’t you?”
Joris nodded and left the Circle.