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Iolanthe despised fae towns. They were always crowded with disgusting creatures and smelled of vile things. She curled her lip at a male approaching her. He was hideous, the rolls of his stomach spilling out from beneath a brown leather vest three sizes too small for him. The repugnant bald-headed thing should have been lurking in the shadows of a damp cave rather than parading himself in public. Huge pustules dotted his meaty and hairy bare shoulders.
She grimaced as she quickly pinned her back against a wall to avoid brushing him. The last thing she needed was one of those blisters of pus bursting all over her. She would vomit and her mood would turn blacker than it already was.
The thing passed her without any contact and she moved on, using a series of side alleys to swiftly cover half of the town. She came out at the edge of the witches’ district and checked her crudely drawn map. The demon had done it in a hurry, and with only one hand.
The one she had left him.
The corner of the parchment was smeared with his black blood and it spotted the map in places. She hoped those splotches didn’t conceal anything vital. She would hate to have to go back and ask him to draw another one. She had a feeling he wouldn’t be happy to see her either.
She moved swiftly through the crowd, gracefully arching around a woman who wasn’t looking where she was going, and then diving down a shadowy alley when she spotted a dangerous male ahead of her. Her heart rushed against her chest and she edged towards the end of the wall, her back pressed against it.
She peeked around the corner and ducked back when she saw she had been right about the dark-haired male’s identity.
Lord Van der Garde of the Preux Chevaliers.
She slunk back into the shadows, hoping he wouldn’t spot her. She didn’t need a mercenary seeing her. Especially one as ruthless as this vampire. They had crossed paths, and swords, before over a mission and she had barely come away with her life. She had no doubts that he would want to know why she was in the fae town.
Just as she wanted to know what had brought him out of Hell.
Normally, he had an entourage of vampires with him. The male never travelled without companions who could do any menial work for him, such as dispatching a foe that the vampire felt was beneath him. Not today though. He was alone.
She risked another glance.
And he was as wary as she was.
He moved through the crowd, eyeing everyone, allowing none to go unscrutinised. Was he looking for someone? Or did he feel someone was looking for him? Either way, he was angry about something judging by his crimson irises and how thin the elliptical pupils were in their centres. Most vampires kept low profiles when travelling to fae towns. The witches despised them. Was he looking to stir trouble?
Iolanthe wasn’t in the mood to have him stirring trouble with her. She turned away from the main street, intending to use the alleys to reach her destination, and collided with a solid wall of muscle.
The male caught her arms before she could stumble backwards, righting her. “Sorry.”
“It is my fault for not looking where I am going.” Iolanthe lifted her gaze to his face.
His dark grey eyes held hers and spots of cerulean and gold broke through. She jerked her arms free of his grip and distanced herself. An incubus. She had hoped not to run into one of his kind.
He flashed her a winsome smile.
She tilted her chin up and swept her hand down in an arc between them. “I am not interested in whatever you are attempting to peddle my way.”
His smile faded and his eyes turned stormy, his handsome face becoming as cold and hard as ice. “I was being nice. I wasn’t trying to peddle you shit.”
He shoved his fingers through his short sandy hair, pushing the soft spikes back, and she caught sight of his fae markings that tracked up the underside of his arm to disappear beyond the rolled up sleeves of his dark striped shirt. They shimmered in hues of crimson and ash black, betraying his feelings to her. She had angered the male.
He advanced on her and she stood her ground, refusing to indulge her sudden desire to back off a step. He didn’t stop until he was so close she could feel his strength radiating from him, a dark power that warned her that he was a dangerous male and one she didn’t want as an enemy.
A hint of magic clung to his earthy scent. Had he come from the witches’ district? The smell seemed to run deeper than one he had picked up by passing through the area, almost as if it was branded on his skin, together with something that surprised her and definitely ran as deep as his blood.
The scent of a vampire.
She lifted her eyes to meet his grey ones, filled with a need to know why he smelled of both vampire and incubus.
He waved his left hand in her face and she couldn’t miss the brushed platinum band around his ring finger.
“I have a mate,” he snapped.
She hadn’t realised that incubi could mate or that they would want to devote themselves to a single female when they fed off sex. It wasn’t often she learned something new. She wanted to ask about it but she didn’t think he would give her the information she desired to assuage her curiosity. She appeared to have deeply offended him.
He pushed past her, muttering to himself. “Do all elves have bad attitudes?”
Iolanthe stared after him, unable to get her apology out before he disappeared into the crowd. She slowly raised her hands to her ears. They weren’t pointed, but he had recognised her as an elf. How? And what did he mean—did all elves have bad attitudes? How many had the male met?
There weren’t many elves in this world. Only ones who passed through. Had the incubus been to Hell?
She shook herself and pushed him and the vampire to the back of her mind. She was wasting time. A shiver went down her spine and she looked back over her shoulder, sure she had felt someone watching her. She shook that off too. People hadn’t stopped looking at her since she had entered the town. It was another of the reasons she hated these places. She preferred mountains and forests, and deserts. Places without people.
She preferred to be alone.
She checked her map and walked down the alleys, following them towards the demons’ district. When she reached the street marked on the map, she paused and studied the crowd, the medieval-looking buildings with their black oak beams intersecting white plaster panels, and all the other alleyways that branched off from the wider thoroughfare.
Her senses warned of several strong creatures in the vicinity but she ignored them. It was to be expected after all. Many of the fae towns harboured powerful demons. Unfortunately, none she had visited had been home to the one related to the artefact she needed to locate.
Apparently, he preferred to remain in the Devil’s domain in Hell, in service to his dark master.
He had a nasty reputation. Most of the demons she had asked about him had refused to tell her anything and had kicked her out. They feared him. That had set Iolanthe more on edge than she had already been.
What did her client want with Barafnir?
She refused to believe the tale that Fernandez had spun when she had met him. He had sat behind an enormous obsidian desk in his opulent yet grim office of his mansion in Hell, surrounded by mirrored walls intersected with black marble columns, a marked sign of his vanity together with his expensive tailored black suit.
And the two females who had sat on a black chaise longue in the corner, scantily dressed in sheer red baby-dolls and eyeing him as an addict would eye their next fix, occasionally breaking their silence to beg for his attention.
Fernandez had slid them a smug smile whenever they had, one that had promised he would allow them to pleasure him later, and then returned his focus to Iolanthe.
When she had questioned why he wanted the key, he had pinned her with cold blue eyes that had held a flicker of red around his pupils, his hands resting on the arms of his throne-like chair, and had told her that he wanted the artefact used to summon the demon for his mantelpiece.
That black stone mantelpiece had stood off to her left, a huge fire burning in the grate beneath, throwing heat across her side and providing the only light in the room. Several rare artefacts had already been on display across it, but there had been a space in the centre that had appeared as if it had been waiting for the one he desired her to find.
Iolanthe still didn’t believe he merely wanted the key for his collection.
She was no fool.
He wanted dominion over Barafnir.
Normally, Iolanthe would have refused such a quest, but Fernandez had been very persuasive, making her an offer she couldn’t turn down.
Satisfied that the coast was clear, she slipped from the alleyway and followed the flow of people down the road to her right, towards a small white-panelled building with a haphazard crooked dark tiled roof. She exited the crowd outside the green painted door framed by black oak beams and rapped her knuckles against the wood.
It swung open.
Iolanthe ducked into the dark room, having to remain hunched over to avoid banging her head on the low ceiling. Her eyes swiftly adjusted to the muted light to reveal a cramped space with a fireplace and two small threadbare green armchairs to her left, and a rickety wooden staircase that led up into the roof on her right. Her gaze sought the demon she had come here to speak with and widened when he stepped around her.
He was nothing like she had expected.
All of the demons she had met in her lifetime had been strong males, taller than she was and broadly built, wearing an almost human appearance with the exception of their horns and the occasional pair of cloven feet.
This one was barely half her height and blue all over. Black horns flared forwards from above his pointed ears, reminding her of a bull, and eerie yellow eyes ran over her from her boots upwards. She raised an eyebrow when his gaze lingered on her breasts.
He glanced up at her face and then down at his shoes, and shuffled off towards the armchairs. His height explained why he lived in a building with such a low ceiling and why the chairs were far smaller than the ones demons normally had in their places of business. They were smaller than the ones mortals used in their homes. She wasn’t sure how anyone other than a child or the demon could fit on them.
She would say one thing about the tiny demon though. He dressed far more impeccably than the other demons she had met, wearing a fine pair of black tailored trousers with his waistcoat and shirt.
“Your reputation precedes you.” He pulled himself up onto one of the armchairs and eyed the other one.
Iolanthe was certain she wouldn’t fit in it but she did her best, unwilling to appear rude to her kind host. She mentally commanded the sword on her back to disappear, using her teleportation abilities to send it back to her bolthole. She didn’t like being without the comforting weight of it, but she would be safe now that she was off the streets.
She squatted on the seat and had to tense her thighs to stop herself from sinking into it completely. They flexed hard beneath her black trousers, pulling the material tight. If the chair had possessed springs once, it didn’t have them anymore.
The demon’s yellow gaze darkened and narrowed. “I am certain that my friend would have been kind enough to tell you my location without you resorting to ambushing him and chopping his hand off.”
She wasn’t so certain.
“I do not trust demons in the Devil’s service. It was easier to convince him to talk rather than ask him nicely and wait to see whether he would help or would attempt to cut my heart out of my chest and feast on it.”
The latter had happened too many times to count. She had learned to maim first, ask questions later with demons. They had a strange thing about eating hearts.
“You do not like demons in the Devil’s service, and yet you are looking for an artefact belonging to one?”
She nodded. “It is not for me. I am just the middle-woman. There is a party interested in the artefact and I agreed to find it for them.”
“And who would your client be?” The small blue demon leaned back in his armchair and eyed her with a shrewd gaze, one that she didn’t like.
He could attempt to wheedle information out of her all he liked. He wasn’t going to get any. She didn’t talk about her business with anyone and she definitely wasn’t going to discuss it this time.
Iolanthe smiled sweetly. “I am afraid I cannot discuss such things. Now, if you would not mind. I require the location of an artefact and was told you could help me. Can you help me or not?”
“And what artefact might that be?” He smiled right back at her and she had the feeling it would fall right off his face when he discovered who the artefact belonged to and would refuse to help her, just as all the other demons had.
“I must find the key to Barafnir. My client desires it.”
His smile faded. “Barafnir?”
She nodded. He shifted on his seat and eyed the door. He was going to kick her out. At least it wouldn’t be as humiliating as all the other times it had happened. She didn’t think he was strong enough to pick her up and physically throw her out of his door.
The demon shook his head.
Her heart sank.
“I only have information about it,” he said and she blinked. He was going to help her? He shuffled to the edge of his seat and leaned towards her, and she mirrored him, getting as close to him as she could bear considering the foul odour of his breath. “I should warn you to let this particular job go. Barafnir doesn’t like people meddling in his affairs and has taken great pains to ensure the method of summoning him remains hidden.”
She had come to understand that after she had asked the first forty demons for information and had been told to get out, had been thrown out, or had been told to give up her quest.
“I cannot,” she whispered and searched his yellow eyes, seeking a sliver of compassion in them. “You must tell me what you know. I must have that artefact. I have promised delivery of it in eleven days.”
His expression turned grave and he had the audacity to touch her knee. Iolanthe barely stopped herself from curling her lip. He patted her, as one would a child, and she regretted desiring compassion from a demon. It felt more like patronisation.
“You must make haste then.” He thankfully took his hand back just as she began to consider chopping it off, sparing her bloodying her blade.
He stared deep into her eyes and if she had thought they were past all the riddles and games demons loved so dearly, she had been mistaken.
“Look for knowledge in the shadow of a volcano.”
Iolanthe smiled, much to the demon’s obvious irritation as he huffed.
That was an easy one for her.
She stood, narrowly avoiding banging her head on the low wooden ceiling by quickly stooping, and teleported her blade back to her. She also transported a small pouch of gold coins and held it out to the demon.
“Thank you.” Iolanthe bowed.
The demon nodded and took the coins.
She let herself out, shutting the painted wooden door behind her, and hesitated as a shiver went down her spine again and the sensation that she was being watched returned. She looked around her at the street. No one was looking her way. She frowned, sure she hadn’t been mistaken this time. Someone was stalking her and it wasn’t her usual escort.
She scanned the crowd one last time before she slipped into the flow.
Knowledge in the shadow of a volcano.
Green-purple light flashed over her body and she disappeared.
Teleporting to a familiar location in what was now known as Italy.