Uncertain Hearts

 

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This story is part of my original MGE setting, Darkness Prevails. (Click its tag for the others.) It is the fifth entry of the series, but can safely be read out of sequence of the others.

#Darkness Prevails

This story was also written as a contest entry:
Kikimora and Satyros Writing/Art Competition!

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“The Grand Duchy of Istandrine. Chilly, dark, dreary, filled with treacherous, barely-maintained cobblestone paths and dangerous creatures. So, why are we here again?”

A short, slender Danuki girl bounced in her seat as the carriage ran afoul of a rather sizeable pothole in the aforementioned cobblestone path. “Your Grace,” she whined. “Are you listening? What are we doing in this dreadful place?”

Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn peeked over the silver compact in her hand. The Danuki’s destressed, golden eyes pleaded with her. “The Allafore Barony has operated within the Duchy with relative autonomy for generations,” she replied, her emerald eyes returning to the mirror set within her compact to appraise her appearance. “Put simply, this is a land the war has forgotten. The Order has no jurisdiction here, which means…” she trailed off pointedly.

“No taxes, tariffs, fees, or surprise inspections,” murmured the petite raccoon girl. “That’s great. If there’s anything here worth buying.”

Vanisa snapped the compact closed with a coquettish smirk. “Exactly, Megumi. We don’t know. Nobody knows, except those already doing business with Baron Allafore, and for some reason, they aren’t talking. It’s a mystery!”

“Sounds pretty shady to me,” murmured Megumi, apparently unconvinced. “You’ve made it a point to steer clear of shady dealings in your career so far. The Ruby Countess’ reputation practically sparkles. This place could sully it. Are you sure about this, Your Grace?”

The carriage hit a rather large rut, knocking Megumi onto her side. She quickly recovered, cradling her striped, ginger tail protectively as she pounded on the headboard behind her.  “Tanith! Watch where you’re going!” she cried, settling down in her seat. “This is what happens when you let Dullahans drive.”

Vanisa chuckled, straightening her overcoat. “Would you rather?”

“Hells no,” snapped the Danuki. “Did you forget the ‘chilly, dark, dreary, and filled with dangerous creatures’ bit?”

“Ah, there’s the manor,” the countess observed, sliding the carriage window open. Megumi promptly blocked the countess’ view, poking her round face through the opening.

“Huh,” pondered Megumi, “Sixth century, stereotypically dark, sharp, and angular, with a gothic flourish. Rather ostentatious if you ask me.”

“I’d prefer to see it for myself, if you don’t mind,” sighed Vanisa, tugging the Danuki girl back in by the hem of her pine-green kimono. Megumi grunted with indignation as she retook her seat. Vanisa returned her ire with a coy smile, gazing outside to verify the girl’s appraisal. To her credit, Megumi’s analysis wasn’t far off. The carriage came to a stop in front of a large manor that had, at one time, likely been quite picturesque. Now overgrown and practically overtaken in ivy, cobweb-infested trees, Vanisa briefly wondered if the lights flickering within its halls still belonged to the living.

The carriage door opened by itself. Vanisa smiled to Megumi, gesturing for her to exit first. Still glowering from her rough treatment a moment ago, Megumi glared back at the Satyros, sliding from the satin-lined black carriage and onto the misty street. She stumbled briefly upon the uneven cobblestones, her puffy, striped tail waving about to assist in regaining balance.

Vanisa, on the other hand, landed soundly, her hooves clopping with satisfaction against the stones. Smoothing her hands against her overcoat, she offered Megumi a compassionate smile, reaching to ruffle her fur. This only earned the countess a startled yip, and a growl from the Danuki. Chuckling briefly, Vanisa turned her attention to the butler making his way towards them from the courtyard entrance.

“Your Grace,” the butler called as he approached. “Welcome to the Allafore Estate. I shall be pleased to escort you…” he trailed off, casting his gaze over the countess’ right shoulder.

Vanisa stifled a smirk, sensing Tanith’s soundless descent from her perch atop the carriage. Her chevalier calmly took position behind her. Of the three of them, the Dullahan was probably the only one who felt at home in a place like this.

The butler cleared his throat, reaching up to straighten his bowtie. “I shall be pleased to escort you inside. Follow me, Your Grace.”

As the three companions fell in step with the butler, Vanisa detected a faint giggle coming from Megumi’s direction. The countess’ rambunctious Danuki loved nothing more than a person’s composure crumbling before the imposing presence of the Dullahan.

“Presenting Her Grace, Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn,” the butler announced in a crisp baritone. The heels of his polished shoes snapped together as he turned and waved the trio inside. Megumi smirked, a dubious eyebrow raised in Vanisa’s direction.

“Be good,” Vanisa chided. Megumi shrugged and occupied herself studying the tapestries and artwork lining the entrance hall. A trio of maids approached, their heads lowering as they curtsied.

“May we take your coats?” one of them offered. Megumi absently handed one of the human maids her overcoat and continued appraising the ambience. Vanisa shrugged off her coat, feeling much relieved at the inviting warmth after enduring the bracing, dank chill of the outdoors.

The third maid, a demure Kikimora, reached timidly towards Tanith, who merely stared coldly back at her. The Kiki swallowed nervously and backed away. Vanisa bit into her lower lip to stifle a grin. Tanith sure had a way with people.

“This way, Your Grace,” the butler offered, indicating with a welcoming gesture. Vanisa followed with Tanith locked in step beside her. Megumi lagged behind, her lips faintly moving with silent phrases as her eyes drank in her surroundings unabashedly.

As the butler led the trio down the hall, Vanisa chanced a peek at her chevalier. “Relax, Tanith,” she whispered to her. “You’re making me nervous.”

The Dullahan complied, but only marginally. At least she released her grip on that terrifying sword of hers. Poor Tanith. Would she ever get used to the boisterous lifestyle thrust upon her?

“Your Grace,” the butler announced, heralding Vanisa and her companions into a large study. “May I present, Baron Kieran Allafore, of the Allafore Estate. My lord, Lady Vanisa de Gwynn.”

“Charmed,” the baron replied, stepping lightly around his Cherrywood desk to greet her. Crisp, black and red justacorps with matched black and gold-trimmed pants. Dark brown, slicked-back hair. Stylish, but a bit too stiff for Vanisa’s taste. Ah, well. She’d form a more professional opinion soon enough.

“Likewise, my lord,” Vanisa answered. “This is Megumi Kotoshima, my accountant,” she added, indicating the Gyoubu Danuki nearby, who only perked up at the mention of her name. “And Tanith, of Royal Makai, my chevalier.” Vanisa indicated the unblinking Dullahan beside her.

“Welcome,” the baron offered, indicating three chairs nearby for them. “I trust you had a pleasant journey?”

“As much as could be expected in this dreadful weather,” Vanisa sighed, her furred legs daintily crossing as she settled into the plush velvet cushion. Megumi followed suit, hopping into the chair beside Vanisa as she flashed a smug, wicked grin. Was it entirely right for one to enjoy her job this much? Vanisa glanced over at Tanith, who chose to remain standing at stiff attention, unbreathing, and still as a statue. Her eyes glowed an eerie red-orange in the dim candlelight.

“A pity,” Baron Allafore sighed, turning to the table. “Perhaps I could offer some respite with a drink?”

Vanisa broke out with a wide smile. “That sounds rather appealing, thank you.”

The baron paused, his right hand balling into a fist. “Boris,” he grumbled. “Would you find out what is keeping Emilia?”

“As you wish, my lord,” the butler replied and stepped out.

“I’m afraid the drinks will have to wait until they return,” Baron Allafore said, turning. Vanisa detected a flash of anger in his eyes before retreating beneath a practiced smile. “In the meantime, what brings the Ruby Countess to my estate?”

“Lust,” Megumi blurted out before Vanisa could stop her. The countess blushed, glaring at her.

“Megumi!” she quailed with indignation.

“For exquisite wines and textiles, of course,” giggled Megumi, casting Vanisa a sly wink. “And perhaps a viewing of your selections of artwork? I see you have quite a collection.”

“The works of art I inherited from my late sister,” the baron remarked, somewhat bemused. “If I dared even think of selling them off, she’d stumble from her grave and have my guts for garters.” He paused to chuckle. “However, if textiles and fine wine are what you seek, I believe you may be in luck. I have a modest selection of tapestries and fabrics dating all the way back to the Amaunet Dynasty in the Southlands. Or if furs are more your style, the rugged Northerlies recently traded me a consignment of sturdy pelts.”

Megumi practically salivated at the man’s words. Vanisa stifled a grin, noting that the baron neglected to mention the Zipangunese clothing she knew he possessed. The man knew Megumi’s species well, and that she likely would not be impressed by anything less than the most stunning of designs from her own country.

A soft knock sounded at the door, opening a moment later to admit the Kikimora maid, carrying a wide tray of bottles and crystal mistware. She shuffled hastily to the side of the baron’s desk and set down her burden with trembling hands. Her gaze remained on the floor, her presence withering before the palpable anger emanating from the baron.

“Emilia,” he practically growled, the muscles of his fingers working tension as he pressed his fingertips against one another. “Where have you been? Did you forget we have guests?”

“Forgive me, Master,” the Kiki replied meekly. “I had some difficulty locating your selection. Those men, from before, they blocked off the—”

“Emila!” snapped Allafore, cutting her off. “That’ll be quite enough. I ask only for prompt service, not excuses.”

Emilia’s gloved hands flattened against her mortified expression. “Sorry, Master! I’m sorry!”

The baron sighed wearily. “Just… leave us.”

“Yes, Master,” Emilia replied softly as she turned to leave. Vanisa mentally traced the Kiki’s steps without glancing back, noting she moved quite soundlessly despite the hard, scaled nature of her feet.

“My apologies.” The baron groaned theatrically as he reached for the decanter. “Good help can be so difficult to find these days.”

“Think nothing of it,” Vanisa said dismissively, brushing the matter aside with a calm gesture.

That seemed to put the baron at ease. “In any case, would any of you ladies care for a drink?”

“That sounds lovely,” replied Vanisa. “I’ll have a glass. Megumi would probably prefer to get right down to business, isn’t that right?”

“Wha?” Megumi cast Vanisa an irritated glance, only to be served a smirk in return. Due recompense for her “lust” comment a moment ago. “Ohhh!” she huffed, crossing her arms against her petite chest. “Yes, her ladyship’s correct,” she said dangerously sweetly. “I’ll pass, for now.”

Vanisa grinned slyly as she accepted a glass of white wine. Gently swirling it as she brought it up to her face, Vanisa inhaled deeply and allowed her eyes to fall closed. The barest touch of the tip of her glass to her lips permitted just a trickle for sampling. The countess held there, breathing in through barely parted lips before slowly swallowing.

“Mmm,” she cooed. “Chateau de Plaisir, 845?” she asked, taking another sip. “Yes. It must be.”

“Remarkable,” the baron noted with a nod and a smile. “Your reputation is not undeserving.”

Vanisa giggled softly. “Oh, come now, milord. 845 was a very industrious year.”

“Not everyone appreciates the finer vintages,” Allafore countered, offering to refill Vanisa’s glass.

“If I am to understand your meaning, you have been thus far unable to find buyers for a rather overstocked cellar?” the countess inquired hopefully.

“An astute observation,” Allafore said with a nod. “I’d be willing to part with a few bottles, as long as they pass into the hands of a proper connoisseur.”

Megumi yawned pointedly. “If you two are quite finished,” she drawled.

“Yes, of course,” Vanisa apologized. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

The rest of the evening passed by rather uneventfully. And predictably. Megumi thrived in her element, proposing trades and samples with wisdom far beyond her years, and Vanisa enjoyed the various samples of Istandrine’s wine the baron offered her, even being permitted to take a few back to the inn with her.

“That went rather well, don’t you think?” Vanisa inquired of Megumi on their way out. The butler, Boris, escorted the three of them back to their carriage with a sampling of fabric and wine to take back to the inn.

Eager to escape the bracing, dank chill of the misty air, Megumi and Vanisa quickly set foot inside the carriage and waited for Tanith to set them upon the road. The moment hoofbeats that weren’t hers clapped against the cobblestones, Vanisa visibly relaxed, setting her packages beside her.

“So, tell me,” she sighed. “What’s your impression?”

“The man’s got an eye for business, I’ll give him that,” observed Megumi, “But it sure isn’t textiles.”

Vanisa’s eyes widened at the revelation. “Truly?” she leaned back, flicking a lock of red-gold hair out of her eyes. “I noticed other oddities as well, but do elaborate?”

“Well, first of all, his prices aren’t terrible,” Megumi pointed out. “What’s odd is the range of prices he’s asking for on certain items. Some of them, he’s asking for much more than they’re worth, but others, such as those Northerlies furs? He’s sure to be taking a loss. He didn’t even try to negotiate with my offer.”

“Maybe he stole them?” Vanisa scoffed derisively.

Megumi’s eyebrow curled with curiosity. “I take it you don’t like him?”

“You know me, Meg,” the countess reminded her, “I pride myself on being an excellent judge of character and would rather not deal with someone of ill repute. There’s few better ways of identifying the truest scruples of a man than by observing how he treats his inferiors.”

“Ah,” nodded Megumi as comprehension settled her features. “He was rather rough with that maid. But men of stature tend to look down upon servants as a rule. He’s no exception.”

“You’d think so, and most would dismiss it out of hand,” Vanisa countered, “But Emilia is a Kikimora. Members of her race link with their masters on a subconscious level, often anticipating their masters’ wishes before they themselves do.”

“So, Baron Allafore should feel privileged to have her?” the Danuki reiterated with a tilt of her head.

Vanisa shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. The baron chided her on being tardy, did he not?”

“Yes?” Megumi replied, apparently still not following.

“As a Kikimora, Emilia should have known exactly what her master wanted before he even asked.”

Megumi’s gaze remained vacant.

Sighing, Vanisa got to the point. “Why, Meg? Why did Emilia have to be told what to do? Why did she not sense her master’s wishes?”

At last, Megumi brightened. “Ohhh. You’re right! That doesn’t make sense at all. It should come naturally to her. Maybe he doesn’t like mamono as company?”

“And he just decided to entertain us on the merits of my reputation?” Vanisa prompted, raising a dubious eyebrow. “Three mamono, one of which is generally not trusted in civilized human society.”

“Hey,” grumbled Megumi, pouting as she crossed her arms over the gentle swell of her chest. “No need to insult me.”

“I was referring to Tanith, actually,” smirked Vanisa. Megumi blushed briefly at the misunderstanding.

“There was one other oddity I observed,” Megumi mentioned, quickly deflecting. “The tapestries and artwork.”

“A gothic, baroque style,” Vanisa added. “Dark and brooding. It fits the setting, though I’d personally prefer something lighter to offset the dreary landscape.”

“I was referring less to the style chosen and more to the, um, well, monetary value.”

“Of course,” chuckled Vanisa.

Megumi blew her off playfully. “You might be an excellent judge of character, but I can spot the value of an inanimate object at fifty paces. In my sleep.”

Vanisa rolled her eyes. “I know,” she relented. “It’s why I keep you around.”

Glowering for a moment, Megumi brushed it off. “My point is, while Baron Allafore owns several high-priced pieces, quite a few of them are reproductions.”

“That’s not too surprising, is it?” Vanisa said.

“Normally not,” agreed Megumi. “But, for instance, the rendition of Azazel’s Fall mounted as a centerpiece in the entrance hall? What did you think of it?”

Vanisa’s cheeks colored slightly. She hated when Megumi asked her things like this. The only inanimate objects the countess knew enough to appraise were vintage wines. Or, perhaps, a wind instrument.

“It… works as a centerpiece, I suppose?” she tried to explain. “The paintings of Succubi and Valkyries on either side work to define both sides of the conflict.”

Megumi smiled and shook her head. “Again, my point wasn’t to touch on the ascetic value, but its monetary worth. That particular Azazel’s Fall is the original painting.”

A chill shot up Vanisa’s spine and her eyes shot wide. “Wait, what!?” she gasped. “That’s the original? It’s got to be worth millions!”

Megumi nodded. “Fifty-seven million, to be exact. At least, that was what it last sold for, eighty-three years ago. It’s likely worth much more, now.”

“And I thought it was a reproduction,” the countess said breathlessly. “No one’s seen the original for decades! Are you sure?

“Absolutely,” Megumi assured her. “In all the renditions, Maou is depicted standing tall over the body of Azazel, the previous Demon Lord. Only in the original can her tears be seen. Something about the magic that went into the paint. The original painter understood the emotion of the piece couldn’t properly be depicted any other way. No one else has ever been able to reproduce it properly.”

Vanisa remained silent, cursing herself for not having paused to take a closer look at it. A sin she would remedy on her next visit.

“But, even more shocking,” continued Megumi, “Is the choice of its two sister paintings. The piece depicting the Valkyries recoiling from battle is also an original. The other piece, Passion Victorious, is an obvious fake.”

“Surely something the Baron will rectify with a future purchase,” Vanisa protested.

Megumi shook her head. “Somehow, I doubt it. Based on the thin layer of dust having collected within the filigree, I estimate the paintings have been in that position for several years. It simply does not make sense. Why showcase such a priceless article, and then mount a cheap, bargain reproduction next to it? The clash of visual dissonance is nothing short of criminal. And, what’s more—”

“More?” echoed Vanisa.

Nodding sadly, Megumi continued. “It’s not the only case. Shoddy fakes are mixed in everywhere with stunning originals, with no effort made to distinguish them.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t know?” Vanisa said lamely. Gods. Even she didn’t believe that.

“Possibly, but I doubt it,” Megumi said with a shake of her head. “Remember, he professed that his late sister previously owned the collection and would have his guts for garters if he parted with it. Someone that adamant about her pieces would never permit such an atrocious pairing.”

“Do you have any theories?” Vanisa asked her.

“Only one,” the Danuki replied, returning the countess a dark look. “You’re not going to like it.”

“Tell me,” Vanisa said, mentally bracing herself. Her right hoof tapped nervously against the carriage floorboard.

“He truly does not care,” Megumi announced. “Sister or no sister, that man doesn’t give a damn about the artwork.”

“That…” Vanisa began, trailing off.

“I feel like I’m missing a piece of a puzzle here,” Megumi admitted, but shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Based on what I’ve seen, and what you observed of his behavior, I recommend moving on.”

Tension tightened the atmosphere in the carriage. Megumi kept her deep, golden eyes trained on the countess, gauging her reaction. Vanisa held her breath as her mind worked the problem. The next few seconds would be the determining factor.

Vanisa sighed. Nothing for it. Second only to her love of wine and music was her curiosity. There was just something about their meeting with the baron that she couldn’t reconcile, and, for some reason, she felt if she didn’t pursue it, she would regret it.

“I want to go deeper,” she announced.

“Gods damn it, I knew it,” hissed Megumi. “What the hell for?” she snapped. “The man’s obviously hiding something and has only a mediocre selection of items he’s willing to part with. There’s no benefit for us to continue with this any longer. And didn’t you just say you’d rather not deal with someone of ill repute?”

Vanisa glared back at her accountant but knew the Danuki never erupted with such outbursts without reason. As much as the countess hated to admit it, her friend was correct. This was a bad idea. “The Kiki,” Vanisa said softly.

“Eh?” Megumi’s anger shifted, and a puzzled expression took its place. “What about the Kiki?”

“Of everything we discussed, she puzzles me the most,” the countess observed. “I suppose it has something to do with my appraisal of the baron’s character. Their interaction felt off to me. I don’t know, but a thread of mystery runs through that house, and I want to get to the bottom of it.”

“We’re not detectives, Your Grace,” Megumi reminded her. Did she hope to startle Vanisa back to her senses with such a formal reply? “This is bad for business, and you know it.”

Vanisa’s fur rankled at the truth of Meg’s words. But then, an idea came to her. “We’re going to go deeper,” she said firmly. “And if there is some heart of darkness within that estate, we expose it, and perchance liberate that painting from the baron’s grasp.”

Megumi’s fuzzy ears twitched at the prospect of acquiring the rendition, but she sighed anyway. “You didn’t earn your reputation for shady dealings,” she reminded the countess. “That’s my specialty.”

“Precisely why I’m entrusting this to you,” Vanisa said with a smile, shifting in her seat as the carriage came to a stop. Tanith opened the door for her, and the countess stepped lightly out, her hooves clapping firmly on the smooth stones. “Dig in, my friend. Call in favors. I want to know everything about this man. Who his suppliers are, his shipping contracts, bank holdings… All of it.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” Megumi answered, remaining inside. “Let’s go, Tanith. We’ve got work to do.”

Tanith turned her gaze to the countess, seeking a command. Vanisa nodded. “Go on. Get her situated and keep her safe. I’m retiring for the night.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” murmured Tanith in a dark monotone. She mounted the carriage and rode off with Megumi.

Turning to the inn, Vanisa strode inside, welcomed by one of the poster girls. Was she truly making the right decision? She’d delved into the lives of her business associates before, but never like this. Something—it was something about—why did he yell at that Kiki? And why did it bother her so much?

Gods. What was the matter with her? Vanisa retired to her room to think. Was she being selfish? She pondered the implication as she removed her jacket and doublet, setting them carefully upon hooks near a mahogany vanity. Bright, emerald eyes peered back at her from the mirror set within the vanity.

“You think I’m selfish?” Vanisa asked of her reflection. Sighing, she examined her appearance. Her layered, red-gold hair and ruby-tinged fur covering her lower half, along with her tawny, exotic complexion, had earned her the nickname, “The Ruby Countess.” Well, that, and her love of red wine. She kept a bottle corked nearby at all times. For times of need. Like now.

Snatching the bottle off the vanity, Vanisa popped the cork and took a swig without bothering with a glass, or to enjoy the flavor. As the wine burned down her throat, it spread comfortable warmth throughout her body. Her reflection blushed back at her.

“How can I be selfish,” she demanded, “If I don’t even know what I want?” Her eyes tipped lower, resting upon pleasing, tanned skin and full breasts held within silk and lace. “What the hells do I want?” she asked the mirror, taking another swig. Gods above, not even the wine helped tonight.

Setting the bottle back down and corking it, Vanisa reached behind her and unclasped her bra, setting it aside. A sheer, lacy nightrobe settled around her body, fresh from the wardrobe, providing only a hint of protection from lustful eyes. The countess smiled, but her expression soured at the realization no one would be watching her. Who would she prefer to see her in this vulnerable state? Many desired her companionship, but none felt right enough to return to with love.

Maybe some music would help, Vanisa asked herself. Plucking a pink flute from her discarded doublet, she eased open the balcony doors and stepped outside onto a private terrace. Chill night air bit into her sensitive skin, effortlessly skirting her lacy shift, but the wine buffered her against it with gentle warmth. Vanisa tipped the flute to her lips and began to play.

A soft, lilting tune, one of longing and lamentation filtered through the air…

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Back at the manor, Emilia sat upon a plush cushion, her apron spreading out around her, as she carefully plucked at a set of needlework. Her slim fingers trembled with the needle as she bit her lower lip to stifle sobs. How could she have been so foolish!? Why did she not sense her master’s command? He’d had to send Boris to fetch her! Why did she never sense his commands?

And then, on top of it all, tonight she’d muttered an excuse more pitiful than a delinquent schoolchild’s. In front of distinguished guests, no less! Tears stung her eyes. Tears of haunting emptiness. Bitter words of self-loathing drifted through her mind. Disgraceful. Worthless. Oblivious.

“Emilia?” a girl’s voice interrupted the Kiki’s thoughts.

“Oww!” hissed Emilia, finding the needle stuck in her finger. She yanked it out a little too quickly, spreading scarlet droplets over her needlework. “Oh, nooo!” she moaned, tearing her hand away, but the damage was done.

“I’m sorry!” the other girl wailed, rushing to Emilia’s side. Alicia, a brown-haired human girl, one of the other estate maids, threw her arms around Emilia’s shoulders. “Maybe we can get it out with lemon juice?” she offered, gazing down at the stained needlepoint.

“No,” mused Emilia, casting it aside haphazardly. “It’s useless. Just like me!” she wailed, tearing herself from Alicia’s embrace and lying flat on her chest against the bedsheets. Her tail flattened in-between her legs, pressing down against the folds of her apron gown.

“That isn’t true,” soothed Alicia, settling down on the mattress beside her. She tugged Emilia’s hands out of her hair. “Stop that,” she implored. “You’ll pull your pretty feathers out.”

“It’s no less than I deserve,” cried Emilia, her voice muffled against the sheet. “I can’t do it, Alicia! I can’t anticipate Master’s wishes! What kind of Kikimora am I!?”

“You do twice as much work as any of us,” Alicia protested. “Sometimes I wonder if you even sleep!”

“I do it for Master,” Emilia said softly, lifting her head to gaze at Alicia with tearstained eyes. “But, no matter how hard I work, he just pushes me away! I feel nothing from him except disdain…”

Alicia sighed, gently brushing hair and feathers out of Emilia’s icy blue eyes. “I can’t begin to understand how you feel,” she admitted. “I’m no Kikimora. We’re well compensated, though, with ample food and wages. That should be some comfort, at least?”

“What use do I have for money?” Emilia asked mournfully. “Can it buy attention? Appreciation?” Her lower lip trembled. “Master’s troubled! He never laughs! I’d be happy if he’d just smile, even if it’s not at me.”

Averting her gaze, Alicia nodded. “That dreadful business in the east wing has cast a shadow over him for far too long. It was not always this way.”

Sniffling, Emilia asked, “It wasn’t?”

“No,” said Alicia bitterly. “This was long before you came to us. Lady Larissa’s songs brightened the halls, easing the baron’s pain. The man’s been tormented for years, and when milady left us, none of us could soothe him. Please don’t hate him for it.”

“I don’t!” gasped Emilia. “I should be the one to bear his burdens! Yet, I cannot! What use am I, if I cannot enrich his life?”

“Can you sing?” Alicia asked.

“For Master, I will,” the Kikimora replied with determination, sitting up and wiping her tears against her feathered wrists. The plumes absorbed her tears and gleamed in the dim moonlight.

Alicia tilted her head with curiosity at her, peering at her with soft brown eyes. “Mmm, maybe you should let me hear you try, first?”

“Um,” gulped Emilia. “All right.”

Emilia’s friend nodded at her to proceed, so she took a deep breath and…

Alicia cringed as Emilia’s normally soft and gentle voice screeched out in a horrific display of harmonic dissonance. “No, no!” cried the maid. “Stop.”

“Waaahhh!” sobbed Emilia, falling back onto her face against the pillows. “Useless! I’m so useless!” she muffled into the feather pillow, beating a few of them out with a balled fist.

“Stop saying that,” Alice said firmly. “If you really want to do this, I suggest practice. Maybe, find a tutor in town? There. I found you a use for that money. See?”

The Kikimora settled down somewhat at the soothing words. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Emilia told her between sniffles as she sat back up. “Thank you…”

“Some fresh air might do you some good,” Alicia offered, sliding off of the bed, crossing the servant’s quarters, and opening the large door leading to the second-floor balcony. “Just for a minute, though,” she added. “It’s so cold tonight.”

A chill breeze parted the curtains as Alicia opened the door. Emilia sucked in a breath to brace against it, but something else raised goosebumps on her skin instead.

“You all right?” asked Alicia.

“Shhhh!” Emilia gestured frantically for quiet.

“What is it?” the other maid whispered.

“I hear music,” Emilia said softly, allowing her eyes to flutter closed. A haunting, achingly beautiful melody reached her sensitive ears, which flicked and turned beneath the feathers in her hair.

“I don’t hear it,” Alicia complained, ducking out of the way as Emilia brushed past her and stepped out onto the balcony.

“Listen!” stressed Emilia, leaning out over the railing. Tears streamed down her face as the melody crossed through the dusky trees and enveloped her soul with a mournful caress.

A pure and perfect manifestation of longing and loneliness, the music spoke of another soul who wandered through life from one exotic land to another, meeting thousands of people, yet knowing so few. A soul who felt lost and alone, even surrounded by crowds of people.

That soul was running out of hope.

Emilia covered her lips with her hand as tears flowed freely and began to hum along to the melody. Her other hand rested upon her bust in attempt to soothe her breaking heart. Oh, Goddess, let this never end. Emilia’s wordless voice danced against the melody, weaving in and around the notes, matching its plaintive desire with her own.

All too soon, the melody died down, fading from the breeze. Without it, Emilia’s song withered, an apt metaphor for the sorrow and emptiness of her heart. Emilia collapsed against the railing, her face in her hands. Her body shook with the force of her cries. Alicia’s slim hand rested upon her shoulder; the other maid’s sniffling added to the lamented symphony in the night.

“Emilia…” she sniffed. “What was that? I—I take it back. Your voice is beautiful, but, um, melancholy. I’m afraid if you sang that to the baron, he might drown in a pool of sorrow.”

Emilia did not try to speak, for she knew she would fail in the attempt. The fresh memory of that haunting music carrying on the wind replayed over and over in her mind, peeling away the layers of callous bitterness from her soul. Exposing her raw need. Without even a whisper-thin buffer against her emotions, Emilia sobbed uncontrollably, guided carefully back to the bed by Alicia’s kind hand.

Emilia knew that the goal of every Kikimora was to please her master, above and beyond her own wishes, even unto death. For her, it seemed death might greet her far sooner than she originally believed. The pain in Emilia’s heart only granted her reprieve when she slipped into dreamless sleep, cold, neglected, and alone.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Nnn,” grunted Vanisa in irritation at a sunbeam that somehow crossed over her right eye from a slit in the nearby window’s shutters. Gods. Millions of miles away, the sun somehow managed to send a ray of light through the canopy of this dreary woodland realm, through the shutters, and hit her squarely in the eye.

Sitting up, the countess gazed down, between her breasts. The lacy nightgown she wore clung to her body’s perspiring skin, rendering it completely transparent. She slid out of bed, pinching her fingers against the fabric to peel it away from her skin. Good thing no one was watch—

“Your Grace!” exclaimed Megumi as she burst into the room. “I wanted to…”

The Danuki fell silent as she gazed upon the Ruby Countess and her licentious wardrobe malfunction. Vanisa glared back at her. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat.

“Sweet Maou, you’re—”

“Megumi, do you mind?” Vanisa tapped her hoof, crossing her arms over her sizeable breasts.

Megumi’s face caught up with her mind and colored richly. “Ack!” she squeaked, just like a mouse. “Sorry!!”

The door slammed behind her.

“Good gods,” groaned Vanisa, “Where’s Tanith when I need her?”

The door burst open again. “Your Grace,” the Dullahan announced, darting in, and glancing around at full attention.

Be careful what you wish for, Vanisa chided herself, forgetting that if the Dullahan were anywhere nearby, merely speaking her name would summon her. “Close that door!” she snapped.

Tanith kicked the door shut without looking back. Peering around, she held her sword, drawn at the ready. It’s dull magenta edge glowed dimly in the shuttered light, a thin peppering of ash occluding its energy.

“And put that away,” the countess sighed. “Sorry, Tanith. I didn’t mean to summon you without cause.”

Tanith sheathed the terrifying weapon, flicked inky black hair off her shoulder, and faced the countess. “Your Grace, how do you fare?”

“I’ve felt better,” Vanisa admitted. In perfect contrast to Megumi, Tanith gazed at the Ruby Countess’ licentious choice of clothing with perfect impartiality. Curious, Vanisa cast her chevalier an appraising gaze. “Tell me, Tanith, do you merely suppress your emotions, or—?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” the Dullahan answered flatly.

“Mind if I ask how?”

Tanith paused, perhaps stymied by the question. “It is my duty to serve Your Grace until the day I fall, or my task is rescinded.”

“Yes, yes,” Vanisa brushed aside the dry answer with a wave of her hand. “My question is, how?

“Your Grace, are you certain you are well?” the Dullahan pressed, as flat and emotionless as ever.

“No, Tanith, I’m not,” the countess relented. “Rough night. My heart aches. I wish you’d tell me how you suppress those emotions of yours. I could certainly use some clarity right about now.”

“My heart does not beat, Your Grace,” Tanith reminded her. “It has not done so for quite some time.”

“So, I guess I should just ask you to run me through with that sword of yours?” Vanisa asked with a smirk.

“Please, do not.” A hint of anxiety tinged the Dullahan’s voice.

“That was a joke, Tanith.” Vanisa peered at her, searching for a crack in her chevalier’s demeanor. Nothing. Not even the barest hint of a smile. Why was she disappointed? She shook her head, sighing. “Since you’re here, tell me what you think of the baron and his estate while I get dressed.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” replied Tanith. “I sense that while the business venture he has detailed for you and Megumi seems sound, I detected a trickle of darkness from somewhere within the manor.”

Vanisa paused, halfway in the process of lacing up a black, silken corset. “Were you listening in to our conversation in the carriage?”

“No, Your Grace,” the Dullahan answered.

“I mentioned a thread of mystery running through that house to Megumi,” Vanisa said. “Is that what you sensed as well?”

“Not mystery, Your Grace. Evil.”

A shiver of fear shot up Vanisa’s spine. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt truly afraid. “Evil? As in?”

“Malevolence. A seed of corrosive hatred.”

“Have you ever felt anything like it before?” Vanisa prompted as she slipped into a dark red doublet that incorporated her seductive corset into its design.

The Dullahan took a moment to think before answering. “Not since before the days of Maou’s rise to power.”

“You think there’s a mamono who is dissatisfied with Her rule?” Vanisa asked, slipping on her gloves and hoof anklets.

“No, Your Grace,” Tanith disagreed. “The vast majority of such evil lingers only in the hearts of humans.”

Humans are the cause of the darkness?” Vanisa echoed. A knock sounded at the door before Tanith could answer. Vanisa nodded to Tanith, who opened the door. Megumi peeked one eye in.

“You decent, now?” the Danuki asked sheepishly.

Vanisa sighed theatrically. “Yes, Megumi. Come in.”

Vanisa’s accountant came in… carrying a huge tray of food that smelled absolutely scrumptious. And even a bottle of sweet wine, bless her. The Danuki glanced up at Vanisa’s pale companion.

“Tanith, make yourself useful and get me a table,” Megumi mumbled, straining to hold up the tray nearly her own size. Tanith plucked up a large table—an impressive feat of strength—and set it down gently in front of Megumi.

“Whoo,” the Danuki wheezed, relieving herself of her burden. She plucked a sausage from a tray and chomped at it. “For such a cold, dreary place, the citizens sure do know how to cook.”

Vanisa popped the cork on the wine and poured herself a glass. Ahh. Sweetness and gentle flames. Just what she needed. So, why was Megumi staring at her?

“Is it just me, or do you look like you crawled through the seven layers of Hell overnight?” Megumi blurted out.

“Did I stain my doublet?” Vanisa moaned, checking herself.

“Your hair,” Megumi corrected.

Oh. The one part of her appearance Vanisa had yet to address. She glanced over at the mirror. “Gods!” she cried, finding a mess of a goddess braid having given out halfway through the night. Some of it had gotten tangled within her curved horns, so she just pulled the whole thing apart and let it down.

“Tanith, do you mind, since you don’t eat?” Vanisa held up a few locks of hair.

A clatter of dishware startled the countess as Megumi dropped her fork. “Wait, Hells no,” she protested loudly. “You want someone who can barely keep her head attached to do your hair? Are you crazy? Just let me. After we eat. No offense, Tanith, by the way.”

“I have no feelings for you to offend,” the Dullahan replied eerily.

“Well, that’s just untrue,” mumbled Megumi with a face full of food. “Whut?” she giggled, swallowing noisily. “Everyone has feelings. Even scary headless girls.”

The Dullahan did not dignify that with a response.

“Megumi,” chided Vanisa, “You don’t look so good yourself. Did you sleep?”

“Of course not,” grumbled Megumi, swatting her frizzy hair and fur to try and calm it down. “I spent all night pumping the Ratatoskr network for information on this baron of yours. After I eat and hand this off to you, I’m taking a nap.”

“That’s fine,” Vanisa assured her. “What did you learn?”

“You want the good, the bad, or the weird first?”

Vanisa thought about it, and chose, “The bad.”

“Other than a few mamono on staff or retainer,” Megumi explained, “Baron Allafore is strictly anti-monster. He uses three shipping routes to keep his textiles, grain, and distillery industries supplied, and for exports. One uses Deadwind Pass. Another, a ferry along the Coilswept River. The third is a sea route not often used as the roads leading to it are fraught with bandits and marauders. Biggest problem the Ratas noted was how the baron shoehorns other shippers and suppliers out of the market. A local Arachne can’t get much of her textiles out due to Baron Allafore monopolizing the Deadwind Pass route. And I’m told he does this on purpose.”

“Sounds like simple, generic racism to me,” sighed Vanisa. “We’ve come to expect it.”

“Not the brothels, we haven’t,” said Megumi darkly.

“What about brothels?” prompted Vanisa.

“Ready for the weird? Houses of pleasure abound in dreary, cold, or dark climates,” noted Megumi. “And this gloomy duchy qualifies for all three. Baron Allafore owns no less than two dozen brothels in the surrounding cities and villages, and at least a third of them require payment in blood.

“Hmm, yes, that’s unusual.” Vanisa tapped her chin in thought.

“What’s more,” added Megumi, “Many of the workers live in the brothels, and not by choice. They’re slaves.”

“What!?” gasped Vanisa. “That is something I cannot abide,” she growled, grating her teeth. “Are the slaves human or mamono?”

“Both,” shrugged Megumi. “Mostly human girls. A few Kejourou. Some are slaves to the lifestyle, but others, even the humans, are slaves in the literal sense. The chains holding them to beds are not just for play.”

“Gods,” the countess cursed. “Why do the stronger mamono condone it? I heard there were Vampires in this region.”

“Why do you think so many brothels require blood payment?” remarked Megumi. “He’s buying them off. A good way to keep a predator at bay is to keep it fed. This is a well-oiled machine of empty money, but that’s not the worst of it.”

“There’s more?” Vanisa set down her utensils, finding herself no longer hungry.

Megumi nodded, a dark expression clouding her face as she leaned in for a whisper. “I’ve seen this kind of behavior before. The Ratas suspect something, but me? I’m sure of it. It’s a front. All of it. Something else is going on. Something very, very bad.”

“So, what’s the good news?” Vanisa asked, anxious for some respite.

Megumi stood up and stretched, her tail vibrating as the muscles within uncoiled. “Good news is, neither I, nor the Ratas, noticed any back-alley assassinations, or sudden disappearances.” Megumi paused for a moment, taking her place behind Vanisa to attend to the countess’ hair.

“That being said, ready for more of the weird?” The Danuki asked. Vanisa nodded. “So, the Ratatoskr network keeps a close eye on this guy, right?” Megumi reminded. “Get this. Some of the Ratas have spotted him traveling abroad. Sometimes in the Northerlies. Sometimes in Order territory. Other times, far away in Zipangu or Mist.”

“What’s strange about that?”

“He never leaves the manor.”

Even Tanith seemed surprised. “That is not possible,” she said suddenly.

“It’s not just possible,” Megumi told her, “It’s frequent. Nobody knows how he gets around so quickly. The Ratatoskr network does not like not knowing and will apparently pay handsomely if we figure it out for them.”

“The answers are in that manor,” said Vanisa.

“A darkness festers in that place,” Tanith warned. “I advise against any form of incursion until we have more information.”

“Tanith, did you miss the part where all the answers are in the manor?” the countess objected. “The Ratatoskr network is exceptionally thorough, but even they can’t get an informant in there. Trust me. I have an idea.”

“Out with it,” Megumi groaned, gazing down at the seated countess.

“I concur,” Tanith added.

“Outnumbered and surrounded, I see,” sighed Vanisa. “We need an informant? I’ll speak to that maid. Emilia. No one has ears to the ground better than household staff, and maids gossip better than even Ratatoskr.”

“Not… going to argue those points,” Megumi interjected, “But pick another maid. A Kikimora would never betray her master. Never. She’d rather die.”

Damn. Megumi had a point. “You’re right. Emilia was my first choice based on my observation of her treatment.”

“I’ll check with the Ratas to find us a suitable choice,” Megumi offered. “Though I’m certain you won’t heed my advice, I suggest you lie low for a while. Pretend our business deals are still on. Give me a day or so to work the network, and I’ll get back with you.”

“All right, don’t take too long.”

Megumi glanced back at the countess on the way out. “Disrupting this man’s business will take time. He’s been entrenched here for years. Possibly decades. Running in recklessly would be foolish.”

“I get it, I get it,” sighed Vanisa. “Go. I’ll be here or around town gathering information the old-fashioned way.”

Megumi cast one more distrustful glance at the countess before slipping out. Setting down her drink, Vanisa glanced over at the mirror, noting the Danuki braided her hair into a fishtail that now rested against her shoulder. Sturdy, but flexible. Not bad.

“Tanith,” said Vanisa suddenly. The Dullahan turned her way. “Would you mind fetching one of those Ratatoskr for me? I have a few more questions.”

“Will you remain here while I complete my task?” Tanith asked pointedly.

“I can handle myself if things go downhill, you know,” the countess grumbled. Tanith simply stared at her. Vanisa’s arms went skyward in exasperation. “Fine! Yes! I’ll be here. Twiddling my thumbs. Getting drunk. I don’t know. Just go!”

The Dullahan departed without another word. Gods above! Why were her associates suddenly being so protective? Was this darkness actually worse than they were letting on? Vanisa stepped out onto the terrace for some fresh air, only to be greeted by a thick fog.

“Ugh, does it ever clear up in these lands?” she complained, plucking her flute from the pocket of her doublet. Tipping it to her lips, she began with a soft, gentle melody, closing her eyes as the notes danced around her. This irritation she felt was irrational. She disliked losing her temper and snapping at her associates. They’d done nothing wrong.

Gods!

What did she want? Could she even put it into words? The music seemed to answer her question for her.

Hope.

Yes.

That was what the Ruby Countess craved. Hope to strive towards another day. Hope in the desolation. She poured this craving into the notes of her melody, making it up as she went along, unlike the previous one she’d composed ages ago.

Mmm…

Yes, perfect. The music carried her heart aloft, far above the fog and the clouds, and allowed her imagination to soar into the sunny skies. A perfect start to a dreary day…

 

~ Emilia ~

 

“Emilia…”

Emilia’s sluggish body refused to move. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she barely turned her head, blowing feathers out of her face so that Alicia’s light-brown eyes came into view.

“Gods, Emilia, you look terrible,” Alicia consoled. “You slept in your apron?”

“Mn…”

“Come on, you’re going to be late.” Alicia grabbed one feathered wrist and pulled, flopping the Kikimora over onto her back. She then grabbed the other feathered wrist and heaved, forcing Emilia to slide off the bed and stand upon unsteady legs.

“Alicia,” mumbled Emilia. “Don’t feel so good…”

“You’ll feel better after you’ve had something to eat,” offered Alicia. “Here, take this wrinkled thing off. I’ll give you one of mine to wear for the day.”

“Tail,” Emilia reminded her as she scratched the side of her head. A feather tumbled from the spot, landing nearby.

“I’ll just rip a hole in the back and stitch it back together, later,” Alicia said hastily as she helped Emilia from her dusty gown. Her eyes lingered on the Kiki’s barely-clothed figure within her thin shift. “Ugh, you monsters and your perfect bodies make me so jealous,” she grumbled as she stepped out of the room to a nearby linen closet.

Emilia blinked vapidly, not truly understanding the implications of that remark. She peered down into her shift and verified that her bust was, in fact, quite sizeable in comparison to the other girls, especially when viewed next to her slim waist, shapely hips, and other, slender features. But what, if any, did that matter if Master wouldn’t even look at her? She moaned glumly, just in time for Alicia to come back.

“You’re going to fill this out much more than I do,” complained the other girl. “Here, just try it. Lift up your arms?”

Emilia obeyed and allowed Alicia to dress her. The bustline did indeed constrict her rather snugly, but, if anything, it showed off her curves even better than one of her own gowns. A hint of a smile curled her lips at the thought that maybe this was what she needed.

“Did you just smile?” Alicia asked with a wink. “That’s the spirit! Wiggle your tail a little. I can’t reach it.”

Emilia obeyed again and felt a slender hand grasp the base of her tail firmly. She blushed, nibbling on her lip.

“Gotcha,” giggled Alicia. “This might feel a little strange!”

She yanked her prize through a small hole she’d just torn in the back of the gown.

“Ow!” yelped Emilia. “Be careful! You’ll yank my feathers out.”

Alicia plucked the feather the Kiki shed a minute ago. “You’re well on your way towards accomplishing that yourself,” she chided, waving the feather under Emilia’s nose, and making her sneeze.

“Mmph,” grunted Emilia, rubbing under her nose with a finger. “Sorry.”

“Right in my face,” sputtered Alicia. “I suppose I deserved that. So, which duties would you like today? Shopping or gardening?”

“Maybe I can impress Master today by tending the herbs?” Emilia suggested.

Alicia deflated slightly, shaking her head. “Oh, I’m sorry, Master’s not here today. He’s off on business. Said he needed to gather a few things for that countess that’s in town.”

“Aww…” moaned Emilia, partly at missing her chance to see him, and partly for not knowing he would be away. What in the world was wrong with her? She ought to know such things!

“If you want to garden, you’d better get started right away,” Alicia told her. “The horticulturist will be waiting by now.”

Emilia didn’t answer. Her attention drifted to the open doors leading out onto the balcony. Was that music she heard? Her heart skipped a beat.

“Emilia?” Alicia poked her in the shoulder.

“Oh, um…” Emilia glanced back outside. “Hang on a second?” she implored, darting outside. Her ears flicked against the wind, straining for the sound. Yes! A different melody, this time, but unmistakably the same lutenist.

“Emilia, we can’t keep the horticulturist waiting any longer!” Alicia called from inside.

The music! So hopeful and clear. Quite different from last night, but where was it coming from? Town, perhaps? She turned back to Alicia. “Go, I’ll shop today.”

Alicia nodded and flew from the room. Emilia hated to force her friend to bear the responsibility of her being tardy, but she found herself desperate to hear more of this mysterious music. The tune carried a sense of urgency, like an adventurer on a quest. But not to find treasure. Emilia couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she had to hear more! Darting back inside, she ran through the manor as quickly as protocol would allow and burst outside. Her steps carried her lightly down the street and onto the road.

Hope.

Yes.

Hope lent speed to Emilia’s scaled feet. She barely felt the stones beneath them. The lovely melody increased in volume as she made her way towards town. Maybe she’d finally meet the person whose heart’s desires she shared.

She was halfway to town before she realized she’d forgotten to bring the shopping list.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

Lost in the music she herself wove, the countess almost didn’t hear Tanith calling out to her from the ground floor below. The melody came to a close as Vanisa gazed down at the Dullahan. A short Ratatoskr girl peered up from beside her. The countess waved down at them and made her way there from inside.

“Presenting Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn,” Tanith said in her eerie monotone as Vanisa approached.

“I’m Gia,” the short squirrel-girl replied curtly. “And I know who she is.”

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me on such short notice,” Vanisa said warmly. She couldn’t help but smile at her. So cute! The stripes on her tail ran all the way into her head of furry hair. And that tail… gods! Bigger than the girl herself!

“Walk with me,” Gia quipped, turning abruptly. “And tell her to stay out of my sight. She creeps me out.”

Tanith glared daggers at the girl’s fluffy tail, but Vanisa rested a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Just… do as she says. I need to know what she knows.”

Gia started off on her own, so Vanisa had to jog to catch up with her. The Ratatoskr cast her a sidelong glance once she did. “So, whatcha wanna know?”

“You said you don’t know how Baron Allafore leaves the manor, right?”

Huffing with irritation, Gia replied, “Yeah. It’s really irritating, ya know? And it ain’t just that. He can poof anywhere he wants to with impossible speed. Like he can teleport directly where he wants to go. If you can figure out how he does it, we’ll pay ya.”

“Lifetime access to the Ratatoskr network,” Vanisa said without hesitation.

The squirrel-girl peered up at her with sharp, olive-green eyes. “For that, you’d better teach us the spell itself.”

“I might not be able to,” Vanisa cautioned her. “My associates and I believe it may be something evil. I wouldn’t want you or your sisters getting hurt.”

Gia grumbled, but nodded. “Makes sense. The strongest of Maou’s spells can take you to a spirit realm, but there is no magic that simply allows a person to zap herself anywhere in the world she wants. It would tear you apart.”

“Right, but that’s not why I asked you here this morning,” Vanisa said, shifting the conversation back. “How much do you know about the maids on staff at Allafore’s manor?”

“Huh,” shrugged Gia. “That’s it? That’s all you wanna know? Well, all right. Uhh. All of ‘em are human except for one Kikimora. Klutziest Kiki I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something!” she giggled, a cute chattering that vibrated all up and down her fluffy tail. “The Klutzy Kiki! Ha! Gotta tell my sisters that one.”

“Why is she so klutzy?” Vanisa inquired, her curiosity getting the better of her.

“I dunno,” Gia shrugged. “Maybe she wasn’t meant to be a Kiki.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I said I dunno!” wailed Gia. “We don’t know everything, alright?”

Clearly not knowing distressed these girls. Interesting. Vanisa took mental note of that in case it was needed later. “That’s fine. What about the other girls? In order for me to get to the bottom of this for you and your sisters, I’m going to need an informant. Do you think any of the maids are good candidates for the role?”

“Now that’s a good question,” Gia chirped. “Maybe Alicia.”

“Which one’s Alicia?”

“The Klutzy Kiki’s best friend,” giggled Gia. “Petite little human thing. Well, not as petite as me, but you get the idea. She’d do anything to protect Emilia from punishment. Poor Kiki. Takes the brunt of you-know-who’s frustration for being so klutzy.”

“We’ll use Alicia, then,” noted Vanisa. “Thank you, Gia.”

“That everything?” prompted the girl. Vanisa nodded. “Alright! That’ll be six hundred.”

“Wait, what?”

“You asked me six questions,” Gia tallied for her. “One hundred each is the going rate!”

Vanisa gaped at the grinning girl, holding her palms out and everything. “First of all,” Vanisa huffed with indignation, “The first question was just a conversation starter. You already answered it with Megumi. Two of my other questions you didn’t answer at all!”

“Detail clarification counts,” Gia replied with a smirk. “Humm… Fine, I didn’t answer two questions, but you still pulled me from a snooping session at the spur of the moment, so I clap on an extra two hundred for that! That brings the total up to… six hundred!

“Sweet Maou,” groaned Vanisa.

“Pocket change for the Ruby Countess,” giggled Gia. “Pay up!”

“Megumi is my accountant, you know that,” snapped Vanisa. “Get it from her.”

“Pleasure doin business with ya!” Gia chirped and disappeared into the trees somewhere.

Vanisa covered her face with her hand to conceal her utter embarrassment, even though she was certain no one else was watching. “This is precisely why I let Megumi handle this kind of thing.” She groaned, patting herself down. “Feels like I just got mugged.” She turned and headed back towards town, only to nearly collide with someone running in the same direction at full tilt.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

“My apologies!” cried Emilia as she dashed by, nearly bowling over a pretty Satyros on her way into town.

Wait a second.

Pretty Satyros?

Gods! That was the Ruby Countess!

Emilia skidded to a halt, the scales of her stiff feet digging into the cracks and curves of the cobblestones. It worked until her toe got caught between two of them, sending her tumbling onto the street. Pain lanced up her arm as she landed roughly upon it. She struggled to rise and found she could not. An overwhelming rush of agony tore through the Kikimora’s shoulder, and she blacked out.

 

Voices mumbled against the darkness, but a gentle softness and warmth cradled Emilia against the pain throbbing in her right arm. She strained to make out the words, but consciousness taunted her, slipping in and out of her reach.

“Highway robbery,” one of the voices muttered.

“Straight to me,” said another.

“We weren’t.”

“Trouble.”

“What was I supposed to do?”

The words were becoming clearer.

“Her eyes are open,” an eerie voice announced. Oh gods. Who could that have been? Emilia scrunched her eyes closed as tightly as she could.

“She’s in a lot of pain,” someone noted.

“Surely the estate has a physician on retainer?”

That sounded like the Ruby Countess.

“Well?” pressed the countess.

“I should hope so,” replied one of her companions.

“So, go fetch him!” the countess commanded.

The eerie voice spoke again. “You need not fear, Your Grace,” she said darkly. “She is not near death.”

“Tanith,” sighed the countess. “Do you even remember what pain feels like?”

“No,” she confessed.

“Wait outside, then,” the countess urged. “You frighten her.”

“As you wish.”

Resolute footsteps. A door opened, then closed. Silence descended.

“She’s gone. You can open your eyes, now.”

Emilia sensed the smile in the countess’ voice before she obeyed. What sort of smile would it be? A nervous, anxious one? Gentle and motherly? Tight and aristocratic? Emilia opened her eyes slowly, carefully.

“There, was that so hard?” the countess soothed. Deep emerald eyes narrowed slightly in a smile of genuine compassion and concern. Emilia hadn’t expected that. Not the kind of attitude nobility often displayed towards a servant, especially a servant that did not belong to her.

“Y—Your Grace,” stammered Emilia, her throat dry and raw.

“Emilia, correct?” she asked as she attended Emilia’s bound upper arm. Emilia traced the woman’s gaze to the bandages, stained a deep red throughout. She gasped in horror.

“My—my arm!” cried the Kiki. “I’ve ruined it,” she wailed. “Gods, I’m so useless…”

A jolt of pain bit into one of her fingers as the countess pinched it. Hard.

“Oww!” yelped Emilia. “Wh-why?”

“You felt that?” checked the Satyros. “Good. It’s not ruined, then.” She paused, then chuckled at the Kiki’s mortified expression. “Forgive me,” she implored between giggles. “I mustn’t tease you, so. Your arm is hardly ruined. That isn’t blood, you see.”

“It’s not?” Emilia asked timidly. She reached over her chest with her other hand and poked the bandaged wound. A dull ache crept up her right arm, but no mortal pain. “What is it?”

“It’s wine,” explained the countess. “I carried you back here and hoped to find someone with medical knowledge, but no one here knows how to stitch or mend worth a damn. Fortunately, basic healing was amongst my many studies growing up.”

“But, why wine?” asked Emilia softly.

“Oh?” The countess pursed her plush, glossy lips before smiling again. “You’d be surprised how well alcohol keeps infection at bay. The stronger the proof, the better, and my personal blend is the strongest in the land.”

“I’m sorry you had to waste it on me,” Emilia murmured. “You should have just left me there.”

“What nonsense is this?” snapped the countess, her eyes flashing with irritation. “Do you presume to dictate to me what I should do with my own possessions or time?”

Sucking in a breath, Emilia shook her head vigorously, causing the world to spin around her. Luckily, she still rested in bed, or she’d have fallen down again. “No, Your Grace!” she sputtered.

Much to Emilia’s relief, the countess’ brief flash of anger faded, and her smile returned, shifting to something more coquettish. Had her anger been a ruse? “There’s nothing for it, now,” the countess said. “The bottle’s been opened. We may as well drink the rest, or it’ll spoil.”

Emilia slid back carefully in bed so that the pillows propped her up against her lower back. Grunting, she tugged her feathery tail out from under her, where she’d been sitting on it. Her eyes widened at the countess pouring a second glass of deep red wine, which she handed to her.

“Um…” gulped Emilia, unsure of what to do.

An eyebrow arched above the countess’ emerald eyes. “You do not honestly expect me to drink the rest of this by myself, do you?”

“No, Your Grace,” stammered Emilia. Color spread into her cheeks; she shifted uncomfortably in bed. Her arm ached, throbbing with irritation at being disturbed. “It’s just that, to offer such a fine vintage to a servant…”

The woman’s eyes narrowed in irritation again. “I seem to recall chiding you but a moment ago. Something about the audacity of a maid dictating what a countess should do with her own possessions, yes?”

“F-forgive me, Your Grace,” Emilia moaned softly, and accepted the glass. The impossibly smooth crystal felt practically frictionless against her slim fingers.

The Satyros chuckled, again begging the question as to whether or not her irritation was genuine or not. “Drink,” implored the countess. “It’ll do away with whatever pain remains. At least, for a little while.” She winked and sipped from her glass.

This was wrong. So wrong. But, the countess watched her, eyes as sharp as an apex predator. No getting out of this. Emilia carefully tipped the scarlet liquid up to her lips and allowed a few droplets onto her tongue.

Goddess!!!

Emilia’s trembling hand nearly dropped the glass. Never in any stretch of her imagination nor wildest dreams had the Kikimora partaken of anything so powerful, so scandalously delightful. She dared another sip. Dozens of sensations danced within her mouth. Joy, freedom, relief, longing, warmth, strength! Words cascaded through her mind in desperate attempts to process how she felt. A deep-rooted hunger stirred the very blood within her, and before Emilia knew it, she’d emptied the glass.

The countess chuckled at her. “My, my,” she giggled. “You act as though you’ve never tasted wine before.”

“I haven’t,” admitted Emilia, a gentle blush remaining in her cheeks.

“Have you not?” the countess sounded properly thunderstruck. “I have the honor of being your first?” She winked, reaching to refill Emilia’s glass.

What was this devilish countess insinuating? Emilia felt a strange sensation tickling her heart, like one of her feathers brushing her nose. She drew a breath to protest at being offered more wine, but her thirst for it overpowered her trepidation, and she imbibed deeply.

“Do you like it?” the Satyros inquired with a cute tilt of her head.

“Yes, Your Grace!” Emilia squealed, then hiccupped. Good gods! What was in this stuff? She suddenly wanted nothing more than to leap out of bed and dance like no one was watching. Her icy blue eyes fixed upon the countess refilling her glass.

“This time,” she suggested, “Try drinking it a little more slowly. Let it rest in your mouth. Bathe your tongue in it. Breathe in through your lips if you can.”

Emilia nodded as she tipped the glass to her lips. She sipped a little, just enough to do as instructed. Her tongue trembled at the sheer delight of the heady taste. It wasn’t just delicious. There was something else. Something Emilia could not quite put her finger upon. She carefully breathed in through a tiny part in her lips, allowing fresh air to dance upon the wine.

“Mmmm!” moaned the Kiki, her eyes rolling back as they fluttered closed. The fresh air somehow activated deeper flavors within the wine, nearly overpowering the poor girl. She swallowed, took another sip, and repeated the process.

The countess laughed gently at her, clasping her hands daintily in front of her. “You’re a natural! Why, you’ll grow into a master sommelier in no time!”

Emilia giggled and hiccupped, a pleasant warmth having spread through her whole body. She sighed, settling into the pillows. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she said contentedly.

“Mm, call me Vanisa,” offered the countess.

Emilia opened her mouth to protest the unfathomable breach of conduct at doing so, but the wine would not permit it. “Oh-kay,” she giggled instead.

“It’ll be our little secret,” Vanisa suggested with a wink. “So, how’s the arm?”

Emilia rolled her shoulder, and her mouth widened in surprise. “The pain’s gone!” she exclaimed, flexing her arm. The barest ache served as a reminder of her fall, but that was it.

Vanisa smiled warmly. “Marvelous. So, tell me? Where were you going in such a hurry?”

Emilia paused, wondering if she should speak of the music to the mysterious countess. No, no, better safe than sorry. This noblewoman asked her to call her by her first name! Emilia never dreamed to meet such a person, much less to hope to call her a friend. Best to keep mysterious music out of conversation for now, lest she scare her off.

“Shopping,” Emilia replied. Not a lie! She never was good at telling lies anyway. Best stick to the truth as best as possible. “I slept in by mistake, and I was running behind on my chores.” Ugh. The awful truth of it began to sink in and rob her of the pleasant feeling the wine imparted. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, now,” she said sadly.

“You’re going to do your duty,” Vanisa told her, turning to rummage within an expensive case, “And you will explain that the Ruby Countess accosted you. As recompense, the Countess offers this sampling for detaining his maid.”

She held a bottle of wine. It appeared, at least to Emilia, to be of the same vintage they’d just shared. Her tummy tightened with covetous desire. It was all she could do not to rip the bottle from Vanisa’s hands and down it all at once. Oh, gods! What was happening to her?

“That—might do,” Emilia nodded, peering at the bottle. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she replied, sliding out of bed to offer her a curtsy.

“Vanisa,” the countess corrected her.

A knock sounded at the door.

“About time,” murmured Vanisa as she moved to open it. A flustered Megumi stumbled inside.

“Your Grace,” she panted. “Damned doctor’s disappeared to wherever it is the baron himself goes when…” she trailed off, withering before Vanisa’s fiery gaze.

As before, the anger died in Vanisa’s eyes after only a moment. “It’s all right. She’s feeling much better now.”

Emilia peered quizzically at the shorter Danuki girl. The doctor disappeared? Did these two suspect something? Swallowing nervously, she nudged between them. “I have to go!” she squeaked. “I’m already late!”

Whew. That was close. Just had to… ACKKK!

Tanith stood directly in front of Emilia, barring her way. Dispassionate, glowing eyes peered down at her, the few inches lending her an even greater imposing figure. The crisp violet of her coat contrasted sharply with the bright silver lines and embroidery, reflections dancing in the candlelight of the hall. Emilia squealed, nearly falling back and landing on her tail. Twisting herself in ways she didn’t even know she could, she slipped by the Dullahan and darted out of the inn as quickly as possible.

Goddess! Oh, sweet, kind Goddess! Please don’t let that terrifying girl be following! She looked just as scary as that first evening! Emilia chanced a glance over her shoulder as she ran towards town. Nothing. So, why was her heart still pounding within her chest?

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Ahem,” Megumi cleared her throat impatiently at the giggling countess.

“What?” chuckled Vanisa. “Did you see the look on her face when she snuck by Tanith? She’s adorable!”

And she’s the wrong maid,” groaned Megumi. “You paid six hundred for one of those rats to tell you that, and you ignored her!”

“Oh, come now, Meg,” Vanisa chided. “It wasn’t exactly my choice.”

Megumi waved off her excuses. “I know, you already told me. She tripped and nearly broke her arm. Or maybe you tripped her?” She peered suspiciously at the countess, standing up on her toes for effect.

“I wouldn’t!” Vanisa cried with affront. A glint shone in her eyes as an idea came to her.

“Uh oh,” groaned Megumi. “I know that look.”

“Yep,” grinned Vanisa. “Going to put those little squirrels to work today.”

Megumi sighed, pulling out a roll of parchment. “Great, how much is this gonna cost us?”

“Did you forget that I’m rich?” smirked Vanisa.

“Not if we keep this up,” Megumi countered. “Alright, let’s hear it.”

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Idiot!

Useless, bumbling idiot!

Emilia cursed at herself as best she could as she jogged back to the manor. She’d made it all the way to town before forgetting, again, that she’d forgotten her list. The warmth and gentle cheer of the wine she’d sampled drifted away with the chill and the mist as she jogged, head hanging, back home. The manor eased into view at last, and Emilia picked up the pace, sliding to a stop—more carefully this time—at the front door.

Unlocked. Gods! She’d forgotten that too. It was a wonder Master didn’t have her flayed. Oh, Master, Emilia pined, her empty heart aching, dry and cracked against the bitter wind of loneliness. At least she found the list easily, rolled up and set aside near the front door, spotted easily as Emilia set foot inside. Snatching it up, she turned to leave, almost missing something strange. An eerie quiet settled in on the manor. Normally the estate bustled with activity this time of day. Where was everyone? Stuffing the parchment roll into one of her apron pockets, Emilia closed the large doors behind her and tiptoed into the manor entrance hall.

Why am I tiptoeing, the Kikimora asked herself. She peered uneasily down the hall, a swell of anxiety tightening her throat. Even the candles burned dimly, as if unseen lampshades veiled their flames. Murmuring voices reached the Kikimora’s keen ears from around a corner. Pressing herself against the wall, she strained to listen.

“Yes, sir, it’s been a success so far,” said a man. Sounded young. Younger than Emilia.

“And the bridge through the in-between?” prompted a stern voice, male, perhaps in his forties?

“Stable, sir,” assured the first man. “Baron’s been using it with relative success for over a year, now.”

“Hm, he has enjoyed the power he’s been given, hasn’t he?” the second man noted.

A shiver traced its way up Emilia’s spine. What in the Goddess’ name were they talking about?

“As you say, sir,” the first man replied noncommittedly.

“Monitor the situation,” ordered the second. “We are nearing completion. I trust you and your men can manage the final release? The Master was most displeased by the setback in Zipangu.”

“No chance of that here, sir,” boasted the first.

“There is always a chance,” warned the second, “Do not allow your overconfidence to deceive you. Darkness prevails.”

“Darkness prevails,” repeated the first.

Silence.

Then, footsteps. Heading Emilia’s way!

Not even daring to breathe, Emilia dashed down the hall, for once not tripping or disturbing anything. She dared not draw breath until reaching the entrance hall, where she nearly plowed right into Alicia.

“Yahhh!” cried Alicia, dropping a load of gardening equipment. Dust and dirt scattered across the rug as soiled spades, hoes, gloves, and all manner of other equipment tumbled every which way.

“Oh, my goddess!” wailed Emilia. “Alicia! I’m sorry!”

“Oww,” groaned Alicia, rubbing her bottom as she accepted Emilia’s hand and stood up. “Emilia, what are you doing back so soon?” She cast the Kikimora a strange look, bending over to begin cleaning up the mess. “You can’t have finished the shopping that quickly.”

Emilia just sort of stood there, appalled at what she’d done, unable to form words.

“Uh, Emilia,” Alicia prompted, waving a hand in front of her. “Hello? We have a mess here. Little help?”

“Huh?” Emilia blinked vapidly. “OH! Sorry!” she moaned, kneeling to help Alicia pick up the items.

Alicia sighed helplessly. “No, Emilia. I can carry these. I was carrying them before. Go get a broom and dustpan so we can sweep up the dirt.”

“Right, right,” nodded the girl, as she dropped everything, earning another groan from Alicia, and running off. Gods! What was the matter with her today? Sweltering waves of embarrassment throbbed from her face, and she decided upon the brilliant idea of fanning herself with the dustpan once she retrieved it. This earned her a puff of ash in the face, fresh from the fireplace it had apparently come from earlier. Berating herself yet again, Emilia snatched the broom angrily and trudged back where Alicia knelt before the mess.

Emilia’s friend giggled at her ash-covered face and apron. “Wha? What happened? I swear, you are the most scatterbrained Kikimora I’ve ever met.”

Emilia frowned; her lower lip protruded as she glared back at Alicia. “I’m the only Kikimora you’ve ever met.”

Alicia cracked a coy smile and shrugged. “Guess you’re right. Here, let me help you out.” She brushed ash off the Kikimora’s apron and collected it carefully in a folded linen rag. “See?” she demonstrated. “It’s not that hard.”

Emilia nodded ruefully and set to work gathering up the soil from the rug. In the middle of her task, a uniformed individual dressed in crisp whites and golds strode down the hall. He did not bother to side-step the mess, choosing instead to step through it. And into it. His sturdy boots crushed the black soil deep into the fibers of the plush rug. The man paused briefly as he moved past the pair of maids.

“Hmph,” he grunted dismissively, going on his way.

“The nerve!” hissed Alicia softly once the man was out of earshot.

Emilia shook her head as she dug into the rug with her slim fingers to work out the dirt. “I deserved that.”

“The Hell you did,” snapped Alicia. “I’ve got a right mind to give that man a stern talking-to.”

“Please, don’t,” urged Emilia meekly. “I overheard him talking a few minutes ago. I don’t want his ire directed at you.” She glanced up at Alice with pleading eyes.

“What was he saying?” Alicia asked. The red flush of anger in her cheeks began to soften.

Emilia briefly described the earlier exchange to her friend. Alicia’s eyes widened at Emilia’s use of the words, “Darkness prevails.”

“I’ve heard that phrase before,” Alicia revealed, “But never from someone in the Order. They follow the Chief God, a Goddess of light and life. Why would anyone like that say something like, ‘darkness prevails?’”

“You’ve heard it before?” Emilia asked. “Here, in the manor?”

Alicia nodded, her eyes darting left and right to check for eavesdroppers. She leaned in to whisper. “It has something to do with the east wing. I always thought it was a password to get past the guards.”

“I’m worried,” admitted Emilia. She tugged on one of the feathers on her right wrist, twisting it gently between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s not my place to question Master, but what if he’s in danger?”

“I don’t know,” sighed Alicia. “Even if he is, I doubt we can do anything about it on our own.”

The two maids thought about it silently for several minutes as they finished cleaning up the mess. A knock at the front door nearly startled Emilia into dropping everything again, but this time, she carefully tucked the dirty linens into a sack Alicia carried.

Opening the door, Emilia gasped to find Gia and a small group of other Ratatoskr crowding the entranceway, all carrying packages and parcels. “Hi!” chirped Gia. “I’m Gia! I have your delivery here. Would you be so kind as to sign on behalf of Baron Allafore?”

Alicia whistled from behind Emilia. “Wow!! And here I thought you forgot the shopping list! You had our supplies delivered via Ratatoskr? Didn’t that cost a fortune?”

“I, um, well,” Emilia stammered, rather flummoxed.

Gia giggled at the other two girls. “You say that like you think our prices are anything but fair! Anyhow, don’t worry, that’s all taken care of. Signature?” She held up a scroll of parchment and a quill pen.

“Who sent us all this?” Emilia asked as she penned her signature.

“A gift, courtesy of the Ruby Countess, for her friend, Emilia,” winked Gia. “You’re Emilia, huh? Must be nice to have friends in such high places. I’m so jealous!”

A sizeable amount of Emilia’s anxiety washed away, brushed aside by a blush of embarrassment. Alicia’s giggling wasn’t helping matters, either. “Stoppit!” she squealed, glancing back at her friend. Gia’s giggles mixed in as she and her sisters squirmed past the pair to drop off their parcels.

The Ratatoskr girl handed Emilia the last item, the bottle Emilia had forgotten to bring. “Have a prosperous day!” Gia bade farewell, and the lot of them all scurried off in different directions as fast as the eye could see.

Alicia’s hands clapped down amicably upon Emilia’s shoulders. “The Ruby Countess’ friend!?” she laughed. “How long have you two known each other?”

“I swear we just met yesterday!” Emilia squealed, spinning around, still caught in Alicia’s grasp. She expected a sloppy grin on her friend’s face, but a serious expression replaced it. It wasn’t like her to bounce from one emotion to the other like this.

“Maybe she can help us?” Alicia wondered aloud.

“Um, the Ruby Countess?” gulped Emilia. Memories of the drinks they shared added another shade of cherry red to her cheeks. She hadn’t mentioned the exchange to Alicia. “Possibly? She’s Master’s business partner. I’m sure she was only nice to me because she thinks I’m close to Master.”

“There’s being nice, and then there’s going overboard,” Alicia noted. “Those were Ratatoskr! Do you know how many I’ve ever seen in my life? Eight. Exactly how many that just showed up here. They’re everywhere, but you never see them. Hiring them out to do your shopping for you must have cost the countess thousands.

“First impressions are important?” Emilia said lamely.

“Pff.” Alicia waived her off. “Gimme that,” she quipped, snatching the bottle from the Kikimora’s hands. “Wow!! Désir Écarlate!? This is the Ruby Countess’ private vintage! I’m almost surprised those squirrels didn’t run off with it. She just gave you this? Gods!”

“She wanted to ensure I didn’t get in trouble,” Emilia tried to explain through her embarrassment. “It’s a gift for Master.”

Alicia nibbled on her lip as she cradled the wine gently. “I don’t know,” she admitted, swaying side to side as she pondered the situation. “It’s all just too much. I’m sure she’s only interested in getting close to the baron through you. The Ruby Countess is well known for honest business dealings, but that doesn’t mean she won’t try to accrue information she might need for said dealings.”

“But can I trust her?” Emilia stressed.

“At this point, I don’t think we have any other choice.” Alicia sighed, gripping the bottle tightly. “She has access to wealth and power, both of which could help us.”

Emilia barely heard her. She kept thinking back on the exchange between that Order man and the other person she hadn’t seen. Their tone sent chills through her body. That, and resentment. Just who did they think they were, speaking about Master like that?

“Hey,” Alicia muttered, poking the Kikimora in the shoulder. “You listening to me?”

“Sorry.” Emilia shook her head.

“The baron will be gone the rest of the day,” Alicia told her. “You may as well head back into town and visit with the countess. Try to gauge her trustworthiness and do what you feel is right.”

“All right,” nodded Emilia, forcing herself to smile for her friend.

Alicia smiled back, looking somewhat relieved. “You’re putting on such a brave face, Emilia.”

Emilia swallowed hard at the memory, her smile faltering. “Be careful,” she managed to say.

“I will,” her friend promised, stepping back inside. Emilia turned towards the open road and set out for town, mired with feelings of uncertainty.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Your Grace,” an eerie voice murmured, stirring the Ruby Countess from her thoughts. She swiveled in her seat, glancing up from the booth. She’d chosen a secluded corner in the inn’s public dining area, hoping to eavesdrop on overlapping conversations, but the ever-shifting din served little more than to grate upon her nerves.

Vanisa glanced up at her chevalier. Plucking her flute from her sleeve, the countess rested it upon the edge of the table and stroked its glyphed filigree in a rhythmic pattern. A gentle aura pulsed from the instrument; ambient sounds faded away, muffled into obscurity. The countess nodded.

“Speak freely,” she instructed.

“Megumi should have an in-depth report for you shortly,” the Dullahan announced. “There is another matter I wish to bring to your attention.”

Vanisa’s emerald eyes locked on Tanith’s. “Tell me.”

“Gia returned, bearing receipt of your instructions,” Tanith explained, “And advised, in passing, that the Order’s presence has been detected at the manor.”

Vanisa stiffened at the news. The Order, while not as confrontational with her species as most, loved nothing more than sticking their noses into her business and making quite a nuisance of themselves.

“Terrific,” she spat. “What the Hell do they want? This region is outside of their purview.”

“Their motives are unclear,” admitted Tanith. “However, based on the description Gia gave me, I believe the representative on site is an Operative.”

“What!?” gasped Vanisa. Her heart pounded beneath her breast. An Operative. One of the Order’s elite inquisitors. While Heroes fought on the front lines to further the Chief God’s objectives, Operatives worked in the shadows, rooting out traitors and informants, sometimes acting outside the normal limits of both local and centralized law. Vanisa briefly wondered if she should have listened to Megumi in the first place.

“Did Gia say what the Operative was doing?” Vanisa asked, flexing her fingers anxiously.

“She did not,” her chevalier replied.

Vanisa paused to consider the implications of such a revelation. On the one hand, Baron Allafore’s holdings could be under investigation. But, wait—no, why send an Operative? Megumi had uncovered a veritable viper’s nest of corruption within a span of merely a few hours. The discovery of a slave trade within a host of brothels could easily bring down the Order’s iron fist upon just about anyone. And the blood exchange? Good gods! Allafore might consider himself fortunate not to find himself rechristened as a human torch.

Yes, it was possible, Vanisa supposed. She’d just have to sit back and wait. Perhaps she would not need to dig any deeper. She could let Megumi relax a little, and…

“Tanith, is that—?” Vanisa gently nudged the Dullahan out of the way of her line of sight. A maid skulked about in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to sneak upstairs without an escort. At this distance, she couldn’t make the girl’s features, but there could be no mistaking that feathered tail.

Tanith peered in that direction. “Emilia.”

The countess’ sharp, green eyes narrowed as she peered at the girl. “What in Maou’s name is she doing?” murmured Vanisa, observing as the maid slipped up the stairs. “Go,” she instructed Tanith, “Follow her. Do not be seen. I’ll be up shortly.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” Tanith acquiesced in her dark monotone. Stepping backwards, her imposing figure blended into shadow and faded from sight. Vanisa waited a few moments, then slid from the booth and approached the stairs.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Ugh, is this really a good idea?

Emilia crept soundlessly up the stairs until reaching the second level. Only then, did she relax somewhat. Maids and other service staff strode the halls, so her presence would not feel singularly out of place. That might change upon reaching the third level, reserved for high-paying customers. Ash and dirt still marred her apron. She briefly considered sneaking into the custodians’ rooms to, umm, “borrow” one.

Gods! What was the matter with her? Stealing clothing to sneak a clandestine meeting with a noblewoman? Emilia chastised herself under her breath. Why did she feel so self-conscious? The Ruby Countess offered her hand in friendship first, after all. Emilia’s breath hitched in her throat. The second staircase awaited. She knew the inn kept a specially-trained set of staff for the nobility. Any of them would recognize her and ask questions if they spotted her.

For some reason, that bothered Emilia less than the prospect of approaching the Ruby Countess on her own. Friendship? With a countess? She’d even asked Emilia to call her, “Vanisa.” Her first name! The Kikimora’s cheeks flushed, and not out of embarrassment for once. It felt—kind of nice, actually.

Emilia glanced around. She’d ascended the stairs without any further mental debate on the matter. Just down the hall, Vanisa’s suite awaited. Gah! Surely the countess merely meant it as a courtesy. Emilia should not allow herself to become accustomed to such informality, even within her own thoughts.

Heart thrumming, Emilia approached the doors and knocked softly. She waited.

“What are you doing here?” a stern male voice demanded.

Gulping, Emilia turned slowly and offered a quick curtsy to the butler who stood crisply before her. “I’ve come to see Her Grace, Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn,” she said calmly, despite her trembles.

“The Ruby Countess is not available,” the butler told her, peering down his sloped nose at her. “Something you should have known, having presumed to interrupt her without an appointment.”

“I’ll just wait for her here,” Emilia said meekly.

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” the butler said sharply. “Emilia Feathermoon. By gods. Look at yourself. You shouldn’t even be up here, much less loitering around, filthing up the halls in those rags. Remove yourself at once.”

A dull, monotonous voice pierced the tension like a blade singing through the air.

“Is there a problem?”

Emilia cringed, using all of her remaining wits to restrain her screams of fright. She turned to her right. The butler did likewise. Tanith stood there, right in the middle of the hall, having coalesced from seemingly nowhere. Her glowing, unblinking gaze settled upon the butler as her arms crossed under her considerable bosom.

“Lady Tanith,” replied the butler, standing at attention. “I was just about to escort this… maid, from the premises.”

“You will not,” Tanith objected calmly.

“My lady? The Ruby Countess has business with—with Emilia?” A hint of disbelief tinted the butler’s tone.

“Is there a problem?” Tanith echoed, still without any trace of emotion.

“No, my lady,” the butler replied. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

He turned and headed off in the opposite direction. Emilia felt tempted to follow him.

“Emilia.”

The Kikimora swallowed her fear and turned to face the Dullahan. “Lady Tanith,” she offered, speaking as best she could through an ashen-dry mouth. “I apologize for the intrusion. I hoped to speak with, um…” she trailed off. Gods! Those eyes! Livid orange within pools of black ink. Willowy hair just as black framing her face. Emilia half-wondered if the woman could see right through her.

“Explanations are not necessary,” the Dullahan said emotionlessly. “Enter. Her Grace shall be with you in a moment.”

Tanith pointed at the door, which opened by itself.

Gods!! Open the door like a normal person! Emilia tiptoed to the door and slipped inside, completely forgetting to curtsy or even thank the woman. Ugh. Were the stories about her kind true? Could she actually remove her head from her shoulders? Rumor had it, the Dullahan knights could fight even with a body mangled and disfigured beyond recognition, so long as their heads remained secluded somewhere safe. Emilia’s hands cupped her face, wanting nothing more than to keep her head where it belonged.

Glancing around to steady her nerves, Emilia inspected the suite. The mahogany, four-poster bed caught her eye straight away. She’d rested within its confines only hours ago, but never took the time to admire it. Lacy frills comprised sheer curtains that could be let down to veil the rest of the world away from the sleepers within. How romantic! Emilia briefly wondered if the countess had any lovers.

It sure wouldn’t be difficult for someone with her standing. Someone like Vanisa—ah! Like Her Grace, could have the pick of dozens of suitors. Or more!

A soft chuckle startled the Kikimora. She whirled around. There, leaning against the closed doors and smiling conspiratorially, stood the Ruby Countess herself. She wore a rather homely brown overcoat with a thick hood that appeared to have recently covered her head. Though her beauty still showed through from the parts of her Emilia could still see, the Kikimora couldn’t fathom why the countess chose such a drab garment.

“Good afternoon, Emilia,” the countess said gently, her voice as elegant and velvety smooth as the sheets the Kikimora had laid upon earlier.

“Your Grace,” Emilia said with a curtsy. “I’m sorry to barge in like…” she paused at a gesture from the countess.

“You needn’t stand on ceremony here,” the countess assured her as she slipped off her overcoat and set it aside within a nearby wardrobe. “Please, call me Vanisa.”

Emilia swallowed nervously, observing the countess shedding the robe with fascination, almost as if she’d never watched anyone undress before. Of course she had! She’d even seen others naked before. Both men and women. The grace and fluidity of the countess’ movements entranced Emilia for a reason she couldn’t grasp.

Vanisa turned with a coy smile, brushing her hand across her puffy doublet, having produced a bottle of her private vintage from somewhere nearby. Emilia’s mouth watered at the sight of it. As before, the countess poured two glasses and offered one to her guest.

“Why are you standing all the way over there?” asked Vanisa with a touch of amusement in her voice. “Come, have a drink with me? You look like you could use one.”

While Emilia could possibly have resisted the countess’ beckoning, she couldn’t think of a way to do so politely. That, and she very much desired that wine. Was it sinful to covet such a powerful and delightful vintage? Emilia found she didn’t care. She slid into a seat near the countess and picked up her glass. Swishing the liquid around a little under her nose, she inhaled, and finally imbibed.

“Mmm,” cooed Emilia before she could stop herself. A rush of humiliation caused her to swallow prematurely, sending a trickle of fire down her throat. She hid her blush behind her glass as she took another sip.

“There, now, isn’t that better?” soothed the countess. Emilia nodded. “So, tell me what’s troubling you?”

Bashfulness stemmed Emilia’s voice, so she took another sip. A large one, this time. The sinful flames that curled down her throat and pooled into her waist worked wonderfully at stifling such inhibiting emotions, but she needed more. Thankfully, the countess refilled her glass. Emilia sipped more, and more.

“Not too fast, now,” cautioned Vanisa.

“I’m sorry,” sighed Emilia. “May I ask you a question first?”

The countess nodded, tucking a curly strand of hair behind her ear. “Of course.”

“Why me?”

Vanisa smiled coyly. “I admit to feeling somewhat responsible for your misfortune, what with your awful tumble and all. Speaking of, I’d better have a look at you.”

“No, that’s all right,” Emilia protested gently, but that didn’t stop the countess from sliding out of her seat and approaching. She slipped around behind Emilia and gently took her bandaged arm in hand.

“Nonsense,” Vanisa said, brushing aside Emilia’s protest. Carefully, gently, Vanisa rolled Emilia’s torn sleeve up and, with the grace of a surgeon, unwrapped the girl’s arm, casting the linens into a nearby bin. Appraising the site with keen eyes, Vanisa feathered her fingertips up and down the Kikimora’s exposed arm.

Emilia braced for pain, but a trembling pleasure tingled through her arm instead. Chancing a peek, she gasped at the state of her skin. A purple bruise remained of the injury, but even that appeared to be fading fast. Vanisa’s touches lingered, tracing both the bruise and unblemished skin alike.

“Do you normally heal this rapidly, Emilia?” Vanisa asked. Her warm breath puffed gently against Emilia’s nearby ear.

The warmth of the wine and close proximity of the countess’ sultry body lulled the girl into a sense of gentle vulnerability. “N-not usually,” she admitted, her heart fluttering within her bosom. Vanisa carefully unfolded Emilia’s sleeve, winding it back down her arm, being careful not to cover any of the feathers on her wrist.

“Sapphires,” mentioned Vanisa, one fingertip tracing the jewel on Emilia’s feathered wrist. “How unusual. The deep, brooding color is breathtaking.”

“My family comes from the lands far to the north of here,” Emilia explained as best she could. The countess’ gentle touches and kind praise threatened her resolve. “Most of us stayed there, preferring the colder climate.”

“So, what brought you here?” Vanisa asked, releasing her and returning to her seat.

Emilia’s hand and arm still tingled where the countess had touched her. “Um, I confess to have inherited a touch of wanderlust, Your Gr—err, V-Vanisa.”

Vanisa chuckled softly. For a moment, Emilia wondered if the countess was mocking her.

“I know how you feel,” admitted Vanisa. “My holdings border on two demon realms, one dark, the other bright green. The sunsets alone make for quite the spectacle, yet I’ve never felt content just residing there. I need to move, Emilia. To see the world. Experience its cultures, customs, and people. To sample their wines, taste their food, and listen to their stories.”

Emilia’s heart ached to hear those words. She briefly wondered what that kind of life might be like. No! That kind of life wasn’t for her! Not unless Master wished it.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s troubling you?” prompted Vanisa.

Now or never. “Your—um, Vanisa, do, err, have you ever heard the phrase, ‘darkness prevails?’”

Vanisa’s eyes flashed in alarm. Her grip tightened on the stem of her glass, nearly breaking it. “Emilia, this is very important,” she said sternly, “Tell me where you heard those words.”

Emilia shook her head. “First, tell me what they mean. Please.”

Vanisa stared deeply at the Kikimora, boring holes into the other girl’s soul. At last, she spoke. “They are words spoken by men with evil intent. Damn…” she hissed. “I had a feeling.”

“What do you mean?” Emilia asked timidly.

“Where did you hear those words?” pressed Vanisa. “It’s important.”

“Some men in the manor,” Emilia confessed. “I think one of them is from the Order.”

“Bacchus preserve us,” cursed Vanisa. “I think I know of whom you speak.” The countess groaned, covering her pretty face with her gloved hand. In that instant, a great weariness seemed to fall upon her, weighting her down and etching lines in her otherwise-youthful face.

“I don’t understand,” Emilia said, urgency tightening her voice. “What’s going on?”

“How long has the Order had access to the manor?” Vanisa asked suddenly.

“I see them every once and awhile,” Emilia noted, anxious as to why the countess wouldn’t answer her questions. “It’s uncommon, but not unusual.”

“And those words, ‘darkness prevails,’ how often have you heard them?”

Emilia began to feel like she was being interrogated. “Just the once, but Alicia has heard them before.” She stood, backing away, with her arms crossed over her chest. “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“Because I’m not entirely sure,” the countess told her. “It may not be proper for me to ask this of you, but would you do me a favor? Keep your ear to the ground in the estate? Tell me if you hear that phrase again? Or if any other strange things happen?”

Emilia’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’re right, it’s not entirely proper, Your Grace.” She deliberately used the countess’ formal address, and the effect was not lost on the Satyros. “I hardly know you, and not only are you holding back, you’re asking me to betray Master’s trust.”

Vanisa muttered something Emilia couldn’t make out. It sure sounded derisive, though, and probably was, based on the level of frustration apparent in her expression. Emilia glared back, her fists firmly pressed against her hips.

“Say that again?” snapped the Kikimora.

Vanisa threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. “I said, that bastard isn’t your master!”

Emilia gasped.

“Wh-what!?” she screeched, livid anger roiling within her. “How dare you!? I don’t care who or what you are! Nothing gives you the right to question my devotion to Master! NOTHING!!”

Goddess!! Emilia couldn’t even remember when’s the last time she felt so angry! It didn’t help that, for the briefest of moments, sheer terror gripped her soul with the possibility that the countess could be correct. NO! It wasn’t true.

It couldn’t be true!!

Emilia glared spitefully back at the countess through hot tears. Unable to speak, she dashed to the door, yanked it open, and fled from the inn as fast as her feet would carry her, nearly knocking over Megumi, who barely jumped out of the way.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Gods DAMN IT!” screamed Vanisa. Her hoof connected with the chair Emilia had abandoned, sending it hurtling towards the door.

“Woah!” Megumi cried, ducking just in time as she walked in. The chair connected with the far wall and shattered into a dozen pieces. The Danuki gingerly crept back inside and closed the doors. “I take it that didn’t go so well.”

“Another sly remark out of you, and you’re next,” hissed Vanisa.

“All right, all right,” Megumi relented, holding up her petite hands. “So, um, what happened? You’ve pissed off people before and never let it bother you.”

“I…” Vanisa choked on the words. Megumi probably hadn’t meant to utter so profound a question, or hadn’t thought it profound, but she was right. Vanisa prided herself on having a solid constitution and a stiff upper lip. She glanced down at the bottle of wine nearby and found herself undesiring of it.

A first.

“I just,” sighed the countess, “I suppose I care too much.”

“You care?” echoed Megumi. “Like, in what way?”

“I care about Emilia,” admitted Vanisa. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”

“Really?” Megumi’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Why?”

The audacity of the question nearly made—wait. Why was that an audacious question? It was just a question. Bacchus preserve her! Vanisa cringed. Was she losing it? She struggled, trying to come to terms with Megumi’s question.

“I don’t know,” the countess sighed, slumping into her seat. “I don’t know what brought this on. I feel—ugh, that’s the problem. I don’t know what I feel, and I don’t know what I want. I never have.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Megumi.

“What do you mean, you ‘know?’” snorted Vanisa.

“I mean I know you have no idea what you want,” Megumi told her. “In order to assist you best, you’ve given me access to every aspect of your life. So that I might perform my duties to the fullest, I needed to get to know you as well as you know yourself. In some ways, better. It’s pretty obvious to me that you have no idea what you want. But that’s all right. You’ve done pretty well for yourself so far.”

“How many suitors have asked for my hand?” the countess asked abruptly.

Megumi grinned. “Fifty-three. Well, fifty-four if you count that stable boy from a couple years ago.”

Vanisa cracked a half-smile at the memory.

“How many of them did you consider for marriage?” Megumi asked back.

“None,” replied the countess. “None of them interested me. Some had wealth. Others, influence. A few had both. None of them shared my passion, though.”

“And Emilia does?”

The Ruby Countess smiled in spite of herself. She wiped a tear from her right eye as she nodded. “I gave her a crash course on wine tasting, and she took to it like a natural. She was born in the Northerlies, but shares a passion for wanderlust, and that’s what brought her here.”

“Northerlies, huh? Guess that explains why her eyes are as blue as a Yuki-Onna’s,” giggled Megumi. “So, lemme guess. You asked her to spy on her master for you?”

Vanisa rankled at the terminology used. “That rat bastard is not her master,” she snapped, forcing the words through her teeth.

Megumi cocked her head, realization dawning upon her. “Ah. And I suppose you told her as much? No wonder. Gods. I can scarcely imagine what she must be thinking right now. You really don’t know anything about love, do you?”

“Remember what I said would happen to you for another sly remark?” growled the countess.

“Did it ever occur to you that she might like you, too?” Megumi gently mentioned.

Vanisa’s irritation vanished; her heart jumped up and lodged in her throat. But then, it dropped like a stone into the pit of her stomach. “At least until I uttered probably the most atrocious insult a person ever could to a Kikimora.”

Megumi said nothing. Probably a wise choice.

“Megumi, what do I do?” Vanisa moaned, no longer a Ruby Countess. Merely a woman with a quailing heart.

“Find a quick fix for problems like these, and you’ll be richer than Maou,” Megumi said with a wry smile. “That’s just it. There is no quick fix for something like this. You just have to give her time.”

Vanisa sighed. Her face came to rest against her folded arms upon the table. “I’ve never felt this awful before,” she moaned. “She’s in danger, and that scares me, Megumi. It frightens me what could happen to her.”

“Hang on,” Megumi said suddenly. “She’s in danger? What kind of danger?”

Vanisa glanced up through frizzy bangs and tearstained eyes. “Emilia stumbled upon the answer we were looking for. I think Tenebrae Vincunt has agents in the manor.”

Every hair in Megumi’s petite body stood on end. “Wh-what!?” she sputtered, stumbling backwards a few steps. “Gods above and below!! I hate those guys!” She groaned. “Ugh! It makes sense, though. They must have some kind of portal in the manor that allows them to move back and forth so quickly. Still, don’t see how. I mean,” the Danuki rambled on.

“Megumi,” snapped Vanisa. “Come back.”

“Right, sorry.” Megumi tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I have more information for you, if you want it.”

“Go ahead,” sighed Vanisa.

“Baron Allafore barely breaks even on his export industry,” the Danuki reported. “His agents are slothful, his methods sloppy, and his restrictions boorish. He’s edged everyone else out of the market but doesn’t bother to raise prices or do anything else a man with a monopoly on his hands would jump at the chance to.”

“Go on,” Vanisa said.

“Based on my findings,” continued Megumi, “Allafore’s biggest gains come from the brothels. They’re in exceedingly high demand, much higher than should be natural. That, and the blood trade really didn’t make much sense to me. So, I did some more digging. Turns out, he’s got this drug called Lustre. All of his whores are hooked on it, and, apparently, when you have sex with a girl that’s on it, you get a high that’s equivalent to a potent opioid, but without the physiological side-effects when it wears off. And on top of that, you can’t overdose on it, since you’re getting it through sexual intercourse.”

Vanisa blanched at the news. “Gods,” she cursed. “What does it do to the girls?”

Megumi shrugged. “It basically makes them horny all the time. Plus, it saturates their blood with spirit energy. Instead of metabolizing what they receive from the men, it just dissolves in their blood, waiting to be extracted. I think you can guess what happens next.”

“Vampires come to suck their blood,” Vanisa guessed.

“Spot on,” nodded Megumi. “Some prefer the saturated girls’ blood. Others want the blood of the men high on Lustre. Everyone gets what they want, and Allafore gets rich off the whole damn thing.”

“Gods damnit,” hissed Vanisa. “Do you have enough information now to sabotage his operations?”

“I can mess with his export business,” said Megumi, “But I’ll need a little more time to figure out where he’s getting Lustre.”

“Do it,” the countess commanded. “Work your way into every aspect of this man’s business. I want him bleeding assets like a stuck pig. Spare no expense. Have the Ratatoskr network investigate Lustre if necessary. Regardless of what happens with Emilia, I want this to stop.”

“Um, I did say we weren’t heroes,” Megumi reminded her countess gently.

“Heroes would be kinder. Gentler.” Vanisa snarled with revulsion. “I want this man on his knees begging me for help. And once he is, I’ll break him.”

“I’ll do my best, or worst, as the case may be,” Megumi promised. “Anything else?”

“I didn’t tell Emilia about Tenebrae Vincunt,” Vanisa noted. “I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to scare her. Let’s keep that from her for now. However, this other awful business with the brothels?”

“Leave that to me for now,” Megumi offered, winking. “As for Emilia, give her some time before reaching out to her. If your hunch about her is true, it’s going to turn her entire world upside down.”

Vanisa nodded and Megumi excused herself, leaving the countess alone with her thoughts. Not the best idea at the moment. She considered calling for Tanith, but the Dullahan wasn’t the best conversationalist.

“It’s going to turn her entire world upside down.”

Gods damn it! Vanisa brushed tears from her eyes. How could she have been so thoughtless? Poor Emilia…

Sighing, the countess plucked her flute from her doublet and headed out onto the terrace to play. Maybe something cheerful, this time? Ha. As if. Her flute had other ideas. Vanisa swore the instrument had a mind of its own sometimes.

Mournful notes of regret tumbled from the flute, carried along on the winds…

 

~ Emilia ~

 

“It can’t be true!” wailed Emilia, brushing an endless stream of tears from her face with the feathers of her right wrist. “I chose Master! Didn’t I!? How could she say such a thing??”

Curled up against the crook of an ancient oak tree, Emilia sobbed and cried, loudly enough for the whole world to hear, and yet no one came to her. In her moment of grief, she felt truly alone.

No one else understood.

No one else could possibly.

Not even Alicia, her best friend, her only friend.

Gradually, Emilia’s sobs withered into dry heaves as the overwhelming sadness festered within her. Though the countess could never understand a Kikimora’s desire for her master, the woman struck one chord of truth at least. Emilia craved his attention, his admiration, and eventually, his affection. All things she could not get. No matter how hard she tried to serve him. Emilia briefly wondered if she ever should have left her homeland. The world felt so empty.

A part of Emilia shriveled inside of her, leaving only profound weakness in its wake. As if to herald the deathly hollowness within her, a mournful melody began to drift through the air.

“The gods are taunting me,” moaned Emilia softly, covering her ears to stifle the sounds. “Are you enjoying this?” she snapped, turning her bleary gaze to the skies. “Does my misery entertain you?”

The melody persisted, gently working its way through Emilia’s trembling hands, into her ears, where it stirred what remained of her soul. Fresh tears welled up; a relapse of sorrow overtook her after all other tears were spent. Try as she might, she could not deny the heartfelt pain within the melody. If music itself could weep, the Kikimora was fairly sure this was what it would sound like.

“STOP!!” cried Emilia. “Please, stop!! Leave me alone!!”

The music continued, unceasing. Uncaring. Perhaps ignorant of her plight. Maybe whoever breathed such notes into the air hoped to comfort her?

No.

Emilia shook her head, sadly, mentally berating herself for her selfishness. As she listened, she felt wrong to deny what was painfully obvious. Whoever played this melody suffered as well. Perhaps as much as Emilia. Perhaps more. She sighed and uncovered her ears to listen.

Hope.

The melody conveyed a sense of hope, briefly found, then dashed away. Of one person, standing like a rock in the middle of a raging river of darkness and despair. The soul bearing such music had run out of hope at last. Despair, like the raging water, eroded upon it, crushing it, shaping it into its own image for the audacity to stand against the torrent of darkness.

No truer emotion matched what Emilia felt. Her heart still beat, but it echoed with hollow notes in her chest, like a voice lost within a canyon. Resting her forehead against her knees, Emilia cried silently as listened. The music seemed to go on forever, ushering the sun back behind the mountains. Darkness fell upon the land, and with it, a deathly chill.

Wearily, Emilia rose to her feet and continued down the road towards Master’s manor. Shouldn’t be far, she reasoned at least. She chose her steps carefully. Mist and cloying darkness choked out the moon and the stars. The mournful lamentation followed her, fading only slightly in its intensity as she drew near the manor. The notes finally faded when Emilia set eyes upon the entrance.

Approaching slowly, she listlessly reached for the lock, nearly jumping back as it began to open on its own. Someone was coming out? Emilia ducked behind a shrubbery to watch.

The doors opened widely. Two men emerged. One of them, Emilia recognized as a guard who often warded the entrance to the east wing. The other was Baron Allafore, her master. As they set foot out into the courtyard, a small, double-filed line of young women followed. Most of them were human, dressed in plain white shifts, their feet wrapped in cheap hempen cloth in place of shoes. One girl, though, possessed far too much hair to be natural. The silken strands stretched far past her ankles and pooled around her feet. The ends floated by themselves, avoiding the dirt and grime of the stones.

Every one of the girls stood straight, gazing unblinkingly ahead of them.

“You know the drill,” Master said to the guard. “Take them to Sendra. All except this one,” he noted, indicating the long-haired girl. “She goes to Sir Rosenberg.”

“Yes, milord,” the guard acknowledged. He turned and headed off down the path. The girls followed stiffly, as if dragged upon a leash Emilia could not see.

Not bothering to watch them leave, Master headed back inside, locking the door behind him, and leaving Emilia with a host of questions. Questions which begged to be answered yet failed to stir Emilia’s hollow heart. She waited for quite some time before approaching the door, unlocking it, and slipping inside.

The manor felt strangely deserted as Emilia walked softly down the halls, but that was understandable. She normally went to bed early. Oh, goddess, sleep? How was she supposed to sleep? She did manage to sneak all the way to the servant’s quarters without disturbing anyone, and even reached her bed in the dark.

Peeling off her apron, or, well, she supposed it had been Alicia’s, Emilia just tossed it into a bin and crawled under the covers. Wasn’t worth trying to repair it after her fall earlier. At least her arm didn’t hurt anymore.

Emilia closed her eyes and allowed unconsciousness to overtake her.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

What a dark place. Torches barely illuminated the entrance hall. What happened to the light?

“Come,” ordered Master. Emilia tried to speak, to acquiesce. She found she could not. Neither did any of the other girls standing in double file around her. Her feet moved on their own. Her eyes remained fixed upon the girl in front of her, another girl with extremely long hair. She looked a couple of inches shorter, with a slender, petite frame.

Master led Emilia and the other girls outside.

“You know the drill,” he murmured. “To Sendra. The Kejourou and Kikimora go to Sir Rosenberg.”

“Wasn’t the Kikimora your personal servant?” the guard asked.

“She was. She’s served her purpose. Now, she’ll serve another.”

Emilia’s heart stopped.

Master! His words; so cold, so heartless!

Please! Just tell me what I did wrong!

“Yes, milord. Move,” instructed the guard. The girls all began to walk forward, Emilia along with them. She had no control over her body.

“Emilia,” one of the girls whispered. “Are we going to die?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Emilia found herself able to say. “I don’t care…”

“Emilia?” another girl called.

“Just, shut up, and accept it,” spat Emilia, crying bitter tears.

“Emilia!”

“Shut up!”

“Emilia, wake up!”

“I deserve this,” moaned Emilia.

A sharp pain crossed her right cheek. Streaks of white light tore through Emilia’s vision. She gasped and sat up.

 

“OWW!” hissed the Kikimora, nursing her cheek. She blinked to find Alicia sitting beside her in bed, dressed only in her shift.

“Goddess, finally!” she cried. “I couldn’t wake you!” She hopped off of the bed, darting over to the wardrobe. “Do you have any idea how late it is!?” Alicia squealed, snatching a fresh shift out of the wardrobe. “I wanted to ask you how it went with the countess, but you were gone all day. Did you spend the night with her or something?”

Emilia barely recalled last night. Pain, emptiness, and fear pervaded her dark thoughts, and she wasn’t sure which of them were real and which were a dream. She stretched in bed, sitting up as Alicia pulled off her shift to change. The girl stood with her back to Emilia, appraising her nude appearance in a mirror before lifting the fresh shift up over her head.

“Alicia?” Emilia called, stopping her. “What is that?” she asked, pointing at a strange circular mark upon the girl’s back.

“Huh?” Alicia glanced down her side, into the curve of her waist, and poked herself above her hip. “Where?”

“Up an inch, can’t you see it?”

“No?” Alicia traced her finger right across the mark. “What, do I have a bruise or something?”

Emilia gaped at her and slipped out of bed. Her scaled feet tapped against the solid wood floor as she approached the other girl. “You don’t see this?” she said pointedly as she pressed her finger right into Alicia’s side, in the center of the mark.

“Th-that tickles,” Alicia said, squirming. “What’s it look like?”

“A black circle with another circle inside it, and little symbols in-between the two circles.”

Alicia peered down at herself, turning to angle her back towards the mirror. Her modest breasts dangled as she bent over. “Emilia,” she sighed. “We don’t have time for this.” She turned and slipped into her new shift, reaching for an apron. “You need to get dressed. The baron is already going to be furious with you!”

Emilia averted her eyes as her heart sank. For some reason, the thought of Master yelling at her failed to elicit the mortified emotion that it should, which forced Emilia’s heart to sink further. She listlessly reached in the wardrobe and pulled out an apron and attempted to wiggle her way into it without even bothering to change her shift.

Hands settled upon her body and helped Emilia with the change. Her tail squirmed beneath the clothing, and she realized she’d chosen one of Alicia’s gowns again by mistake. Ugh. Whatever.

“Hey,” called Alicia, arresting the Kikimora’s glum retreat. “All right, tell me what’s wrong. You’re going to sour everyone’s attitude at this rate.”

“But, we’re late,” Emilia protested.

“I’ll just lie and say we had a huge mess up here to clean up,” the other girl said with a shrug. “It’ll blow over. Now, tell me what’s going on?”

“I don’t even know what parts of it were a nightmare and which were real,” admitted Emilia. “I went to see the countess,” she explained, detailing their meeting, and subsequent argument.

“She said what?” Alicia blinked in surprise. “What a poignant observation…”

Emilia balked at her friend’s reply. Some of that anger began to resurface. “You mean, you believe her?” she growled.

Alicia shifted her weight nervously. “Well, um, your interactions with Baron Allafore aren’t, um, typical of a, well, typical Kiki and master.”

“I’m a klutz!” cried Emilia, thrusting her arms to her sides. “I’m always late and never get Master’s orders right. I have to earn his respect.”

“For a human, I’d say yeah,” Alicia said with a gentle tilt of her head. “Not a Kikimora. This stuff should come naturally to you. Yes, you work harder than the rest of us, but you struggle much, much harder than you should. It should come easily, but it always looks like you’re forcing it.”

Emilia glared at her. “So, what are you saying?”

“Let’s look at it from a different perspective,” offered Alicia. “And we’ve got to hurry, all right? Um. Think back to the day you met the baron and pledged yourself to him. What was it like?”

Emilia opened her mouth to reply, but no words sounded. Her voice still functioned, but her mind, she searched for the memory within a haze of forgetfulness. “It’s all hazy,” she admitted. “Just add that to the list of the joys of being me.”

Alicia shook her head, apparently unconvinced. “No, Emilia,” she said sadly. “Now, I’m certain. The countess was right.”

Narrowing her eyes in fury, Emilia trembled before Alicia, barely restraining herself. “If you were any other girl, I would slap you senseless!” she hissed, balling her hands into fists.

“Emilia, don’t you see?” Alicia replied softly, unfazed. “For a Kikimora, choosing a master is the most important decision you could ever make. You shouldn’t even have to try to remember that day. It should be burned into your mind forever!”

Oh…

Alicia’s words cut straight through to Emilia’s empty heart. Oh, gods…

Oh, sweet gods above…

Emilia squeezed her eyes shut, desperate to recall the memory. Why couldn’t she remember!? WHY!? Her knees buckled, and she fell to the floor, her gown pooling around her.

“I don’t believe it…” sobbed Emilia, her face in her hands. “It’s true! But, how!? How can it be true!?” she demanded, gazing desperately at Alicia.

Alicia’s cute features were knotted in anger. Emilia simply stared. She’d never seen the girl so angry before. Alicia gripped the front of her apron tight enough to begin ripping the seams.

“Gods… damn it…” she hissed. “What the Hell is going on in this place!? The east wing is off limits. Bloody guards posted to keep us out. Strange movement at night. Weird Order officers running around, having free reign of the place, while the baron’s not even here! And the way he treats you…” Her anger softened somewhat as she gazed down at Emilia.

Emilia smiled faintly at her friend before a flash of inspiration struck. “Wait, Alicia, you said strange movement at night?”

Her friend nodded, a dark expression crossing her face. “Groups of people coming and going in the wee hours of the night.”

Emilia’s voice caught in her throat. She’d seen one of those groups! She opened her mouth to tell her friend, but her voice squeaked instead. Alicia knelt beside her, snuggling against her. An arm wound around the Kikimora’s shoulders.

“Emilia,” she said softly. “Listen. Like I said before, I can’t begin to imagine what you must be going through, but remember, we could be in danger. Try to think through the pain and ask yourself, can the Ruby Countess help us?”

“She was right,” moaned Emilia. “She was right all along…”

“It’s rare to find someone so keenly observant,” noted Alicia. “We could use someone like her to get to the bottom of all this.”

A knock sounded at the door. Both girls gasped. They were the only two maids left in the room. Alicia rose first and opened the door.

Boris peered into the room, his eyes settling upon Alicia. “Alicia. Your presence is requested in the kitchen.”

Alicia nodded. “Right away!” she chirped, darting down the hall.

“Emilia,” Boris said sternly. “His Grace requests you attend him in the viewing room. Without delay,” he added.

“I’m coming,” Emilia promised, straightening her gown as quickly as she could, and headed out. Boris followed for a few steps before diverting down another hall. Emilia swallowed nervously.

How long had he been standing there, outside the door?

Emilia pushed the thought out of her mind and proceeded to face the man she once thought was her master.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Your proposal is acceptable,” Baron Allafore said with a nod, handing a roll of parchment to Vanisa, who sat opposite him, separated by a small table.

“Very good,” replied Vanisa, handing the parchment scroll to Megumi, who stood behind her, off to the side. “When can I expect delivery?”

“The wines are being packed as we speak,” noted Allafore. “The grains, however, are tied up in an unfortunate production mishap that I should have straightened out by the end of the week.”

“And the textiles?” prompted the countess, her eyebrow raising slightly.

“Tied up in bloody customs, I’m afraid,” Allafore sighed. “Someone on the Zipangu end must be holding things up.”

“Megumi, would you see if you could assist His Grace with the problem at customs?”

Megumi nodded, scribbling down notes on a small scroll. “I’ve a few favors I can call in.”

A soft knock sounded nearby, and Emilia stepped in, carrying a tray of wine and cheese. She cast Vanisa an odd glance before setting the tray down.

“Bloody hell, Emilia, where have you been?” groused Allafore. He snatched the Kiki’s wrist by her feathers, pulling her nearer so that he could box her ear. “We’ve been waiting for almost half an hour!”

“Ahg!” yelped Emilia. “I’m sorry, M-Master,” she whimpered.

“Your Grace,” said Vanisa flatly, “There’s no need for that. I had a hearty brunch.”

“Apologize to the Comtesse!” hissed Allafore, shoving Emilia aside.

Emilia stepped softly around the table and curtsied before Vanisa. “My sincerest apologies, Your Grace,” she offered. Vanisa’s eyes narrowed slightly in concern.

“Apology accepted,” replied Vanisa, offering the girl a sincere smile in addition to soothing words. She turned to the baron after Emilia left the room. “She seems like quite a handful.”

“Gods,” groaned Allafore. “For a Kikimora, she’s a right nuisance. In any event, help yourself.”

Vanisa shrugged, a foul taste lingering in her mouth. “That’s all right, I believe we’re done for now, and I couldn’t eat another bite. The inn’s hospitality leaves nothing to be desired.”

Allafore didn’t miss the jab. Yes, perfect. His beady eyes constricted as he struggled to come up with a polite reply. Vanisa did not envy him his position. Not in the slightest. Megumi’s resources were already beginning to tighten their grip, and it was only the first day!

“I await your shipments, but in the meantime,” suggested Vanisa, “Would you mind if I toured your estate? Megumi here has highlighted some of the artwork you possess that I’d enjoy seeing for myself.”

“Certainly,” nodded Allafore. “I’ll have Boris escort you.”

“Actually,” Vanisa wavered on that point. “I would prefer to peruse them at my own pace, if you don’t mind? Your collection is quite inspiring, and I yearn to immerse myself in the experience.” She batted her eyelashes in a somewhat coquettish display, topping it off with a coy smile.

“Very—very well,” Allafore agreed after some deliberation. “Bear in mind, the east wing is closed for remodeling, but please avail yourself to the rest of the grounds as you see fit. Ring for Boris if you need anything.”

“My thanks, Your Grace,” Vanisa said, rising. “Farewell for now.”

She and Megumi winked at each other as they made their way out.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Emilia rested her weight against a wall as she forced herself to draw steady breaths. Damn these trembles! Just meeting the countess’ gaze threatened her composure, far more than the baron’s typical beratements. Coming to grips with her situation felt rather liberating, and granted her some measure of breathing room, but she knew it wouldn’t last.

A masterless Kikimora. Emilia shuddered. She couldn’t stay here. Not for long.

The viewing room doors opened, and Vanisa stepped out with Megumi. The two of them spotted Emilia at once. No… no, no! She wasn’t ready for her yet. Emilia turned and headed in the opposite direction as quickly as protocol allowed.

Ugh, what am I doing? Emilia asked herself. Seeing Vanisa like that, all noble and professional, pretending that Emilia barely existed, she was used to that. But after the countess’ outburst? The indifference of their interaction minutes ago rattled the Kikimora.

She decided to simply go about her duties while considering her options. Would the baron permit her to simply leave? Even if she weren’t a Kikimora, simply leaving a place of employment and abandoning her duties wasn’t entirely proper.

Leaving…

Such a thought generally never crossed a Kikimora’s mind. Emilia groaned. She had no idea what to do! Smacking herself in the forehead with the handle of her feather duster seemed appropriate enough for the moment.

Whack!

“Ow.”

“There’s a shortage of perfect eyes in this world,” a familiar voice spoke from nearby. “It’d be a pity to damage yours.”

Emilia gasped; the Ruby Countess stood a few paces away, arms crossed under her captivating bosom, wearing a compassionate smile.

Megumi turned the corner, took one look at the pair of them, and shrugged, turning around. “Uh, I’ll be in the garden if you need me,” she called on her way out.

Vanisa did not avert her gaze nor reply to her accountant. She merely kept her smile trained on Emilia. After a moment, the countess broke the silence.

“Have you a moment, miss?” she beckoned, indicating a small study nearby.

Emilia’s heart quivered within her chest. What could the countess possibly want now? Was she toying with her? “Yes, Your Grace?” she replied demurely, clasping her hands in front of her. “How may I be of assistance?”

“I require a moment of your time,” the countess said, breaking eye contact and heading towards the study. Emilia followed, slightly apprehensive. As the two of them stepped inside, Vanisa turned, closed the door, and bolted it. Her back remained turned for several seconds. What in the world was she doing?

When Vanisa turned to face Emilia, the Kikimora beheld a remarkable change in demeanor. Vanisa’s smile had vanished, replaced with a pained expression. Her fingers interlaced together, pressing against her chin in a gesture of penance.

“Emilia,” she spoke, emotion choking her voice. “I am so terribly sorry. At our last meeting, I spoke out of turn, and made manifest my frustration whilst attempting to place an undue burden upon your shoulders. Could you ever find it in your heart to forgive me?”

Emilia’s jaw slackened as her lips parted in disbelief. “I—I don’t…” she stammered, nearly bursting into tears as she witnessed Vanisa’s crestfallen expression. The countess averted her eyes.

“You cannot,” the countess replied sadly. “I understand. To question a Kikimora’s loyalty could never be forgiven. I—I will trouble you no more.”

“Wait!” cried Emilia, halting the countess’ departure. “That’s not what I meant!” she insisted, encouraged by a flicker of hope she detected in the woman’s eyes as the Satyros turned back to face her. “You were right,” she admitted, covering her face with her hands. Veiling her misery and her shame. “You were absolutely right, he’s not my master…”

Emilia could say no more. The dam within her threatened to burst. Her body trembled, teetering on the edge.

“Oh Emilia,” soothed Vanisa as tentative steps drew her closer. “I’m so terribly sorry…” she echoed gently.

Emilia glanced up from her unsteady hands and peered at her through tearful eyes. “How did you know?” she managed to ask.

“Bacchus, the goddess I serve, blessed my entire family with keen discernment,” explained Vanisa, drawing near, close enough for Emilia to detect her perfume. A gentle scent, like that of morning glories. “It took some time to reconcile what I knew to be the truth from the moment I first saw you in the room with him.”

“What truth?” Emilia asked, her sorrowful voice barely above a whisper.

Vanisa met her gaze with fire and passion. “He doesn’t deserve you,” she said firmly.

Emilia felt color creep into her cheeks. She turned away, shielding her face with her hand. “No one has ever spoken to me in such a manner,” she confessed.

“Like him?” inquired Vanisa. “With derision and contempt unbecoming such a—”

“Like an equal,” interrupted Emilia. “By someone better than me.”

The countess shook her head, her silken hair bouncing around her gently. Streamers of red-gold framing the face of an angel. “Better than you? Why would you say that?”

“You are a countess, a noblewoman. I am just a servant,” said Emilia. “That is simply the way it is.”

Vanisa’s gaze hardened. “It is the way society believes. It is not the way it is. There are none ‘better’ than you, nor any beneath you. We are all equal in the sights of the gods.”

A muffled murmuring originating from just outside interrupted the two women. Emilia held her breath, and based on how the countess stiffened, she was holding hers as well. They waited several tense seconds, until the voices passed.

“I should have done this from the start,” Vanisa whispered, withdrawing a gorgeous flute constructed of rose gold and inlayed with golden and silver glyphs. Emilia’s fingers flew to her lips as a gasp slipped past them.

That instrument!!

With rapt fascination, Emilia observed the countess carefully lay the flute upon a desk and stroke the glyphs gently, activating magic within it. The room pulsed, suffusing with a pleasing feeling, and all other sounds from outside the room fell away.

Vanisa turned to her with a smile. “Now, we may speak freely. No one will hear…” She trailed off, tilting her head inquisitively as her eyes met the Kikimora’s. “Emilia, is something the matter?”

“That—that flute…”

The countess plucked her flute up from the table and held it out for Emilia to see. Candlelight painted mesmerizing patterns upon the partially-reflective surface, and the light patterns lingered for split seconds after having passed, leaving ghostly trails as they moved.

A torrent of words clustered within Emilia’s throat. Questions which begged to be asked. Questions surrounding the feelings and emotions which inspired her music. The pain that followed her, haunting her.

The same pain that haunted Emilia.

It was simply too much. The only words that managed to emerge from her were, “It was you?

“I beg your pardon?”

Emilia closed her eyes and willed the music to rise up within her. She began to hum, gently transitioning to a wordless song of lilting voice and bereaved soul. Tears fell freely from her face as she vocalized the notes of aching loneliness made manifest.

“Emilia!” gasped Vanisa. Emilia’s song faded away, though the notes lingered in the magicked air around the two of them. The countess dabbed at her eyes with a silk handkerchief. “You heard? You heard that?” she asked in awe.

Emilia nodded. “Cried myself to sleep after that first night.” She stepped forward, gazing up at the scant inches of height difference between them. “But not simply out of sadness. At last, at long last, I knew that somewhere—I might never know where, but somewhere—another person felt as I did. Unwanted and alone.”

If the countess wished to speak, she failed in the attempt.

“What I don’t understand is, why?” Emilia asked softly. “You are a countess, wealthy and powerful. Surely you could have anyone you wanted?”

“Would that anyone else could comfort me,” Vanisa said, choking on the bitterness of her words. “Those that sought me only desired the wealth and power you spoke of. It is the curse of nobility, for the truest love can neither be bought nor bartered for.”

Emilia found herself unsure of her reply. Both of them shared the same pain, but from different ends of the spectrum. She sniffled. Were they doomed to walk this path forever? As a Kikimora who failed to find a master, Emilia faced a difficult fate. She would wander the world alone, gradually weakening until she collapsed from exhaustion and malnourishment. But what of Vanisa?

Surrounded by friends, wealth, and influence, and yet so alone, bereft of anyone who truly understood her. A sailor becalmed at sea, surrounded by water, yet dying of thirst. There would be no solace for either of them. Emilia shook her head sadly.

“I can’t go on like this,” she confessed. “It hurts too much. I—I have nothing; I’m all alone in the dark. It…” Emilia paused as grief choked her words. “It would be better if I had never been born.”

Sudden warmth closed in around her. The Kikimora gasped, shuddering in-between shallow breaths. An arm wound around her shoulders, and she felt herself drawn into Vanisa’s embrace. The countess’ head rested against Emilia’s ruffled bonnet.

“I know precisely how you feel,” sniffed Vanisa, gently nuzzling against her. “I take comfort in drink and pleasurable company, but it is only my music which truly keeps me going.”

Emilia turned within the gentle embrace to gaze up at her. The emerald green of Vanisa’s eyes glittered beneath a cloister of tears. The Kikimora had never beheld anyone so beautiful. “I’m not sure I could go on without hearing it again myself,” she told her.

Vanisa’s scarlet lips curved in a rueful smile as her eyes remained fixed upon Emilia’s. What happened next came as a sudden shock. Nothing could have prepared her. Nothing.

Vanisa kissed her.

All of the sudden, the countess’ cheeks brushed Emilia’s, and soft lips pressed upon her mouth. Emilia’s eyes widened with awestruck wonder. Vanisa’s eyes, on the other hand, fluttered closed. Her cheeks flushed a rosy gold, the same color as her flute, and streaked with a downpour of tears.

Time slowed to a crawl.

Emilia’s heart burst in her chest, overflowing with a cornucopia of emotions. Shock. Wonder. Bewilderment. Incredulity. Amazement.

And a few more she’d never truly felt before: Affection. Joy! Relief.

Plus, a couple familiar ones: Doubt. Concern.

Emilia gently grasped the countess’ shoulders and pushed to break contact. Their lips parted with a smooch. Vanisa’s wounded expression nearly broke the Kikimora’s heart, but the doubt within her compelled her to ask.

“Is—is this not forbidden?” Emilia questioned. Her lips remained parted, for her breath came in ragged pants. Vanisa too, panted softly, her wounded expression fading before a conspiratorial smile.

“I don’t care,” the countess murmured breathlessly.

A second, more desperate kiss descended upon Emilia. This time, her eyes refused to stay open. Vanisa’s arms wound around her shoulders, and she returned the gesture wholeheartedly, pulling the countess closer. She rose on her scaled toes to deepen the kiss, tilting her head and allowing Vanisa to part her lips.

Emilia and the countess began to exchange breaths. Vanisa’s tongue eased its way into Emilia’s mouth, spurred on by urgency and craving, and further fueled with guilty pleasure. Emilia smiled against the onslaught, welcoming the countess’ advance with her tongue, and the two curled around each other.

“Mmm,” moaned Vanisa, drawing a deep breath.

Goddess, oh sweet goddess, Emilia needed this. Her whole life—her entire being felt made—practically sculpted and forged—simply for this moment to exist. Vanisa tasted of sweet berries and heady wine, and each breath they shared filled Emilia with warm thoughts and gentle pleasure.

She didn’t care! The countess, she did not care if their union was forbidden! The more Emilia thought about it, the warmer she felt, until she squirmed against Vanisa, perspiring within her stuffy maid’s gown. She giggled against the countess, rubbing her chest against the pillowed breasts flattening against her body.

Finally!!

Someone who understood her. Who’s heart beat with new hope purely for the joy of embracing her.

“Emilia,” gasped Vanisa, transitioning kisses to the Kikimora’s cheek and jaw before trailing down to her neck.

“M-Mistress, yes…” moaned Emilia. “Oh!” she yelped, clapping her hand over her mouth.

Vanisa released Emilia, stumbling backwards, casting her a wide-eyed expression. “Wh-what did you just call me?” she asked in a trembling voice.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” cried Emilia.

Noooo!

She’d ruined it! How could she have been so foolish!?

But, instead of the angry glare Emilia expected, the countess’ expression mirrored her own. Vanisa clapped a hand over her mouth and nearly burst into tears. “D-did you mean it?” she asked meekly.

Emilia tried to answer but could not. She found herself utterly petrified.

“You would choose me as your master?” cried Vanisa softly.

“If…” stammered Emilia, “You’ll accept me?”

“Sweet Bacchus, finally you answer my prayers,” sobbed Vanisa. “I’ve not known what I truly wanted my entire life, up until this moment. Now I know.” She smiled tearfully back at Emilia, her arms outstretched with an invitation. “I want you. I need you. I accept you…”

Crying tears of joy, Emilia launched herself into Vanisa’s waiting embrace. “Mistress! I’m yours! Your every need is what I’ll fulfill…”

Vanisa’s arms wrapped tightly around the girl. She spoke softly through the feathers in Emilia’s hair. “And I’ll never let you know hunger again, neither for food, nor for love…”

Mmm. At last, Emilia understood what Alicia meant. She would never forget this moment. Never. Her heart danced for joy as aspects of her new mistress’ character filtered into her mind. The countess’ habits, quirks, even odd cravings made themselves known to her through a subtle mental link that pulsed between the two of them.

Gods…

Gods above! Was this the true nature of a Kikimora? Emilia could scarcely believe it! She’d lived her entire life without ever truly knowing herself! Power and hunger swirled within her, along with a fierce compulsion to offer herself up to Vanisa. No, to Mistress. Her mind, body, and soul belonged to Mistress, and she wanted nothing more than to offer them all at once!

“Emilia,” cooed Vanisa, trailing a finger down the side of the Kikimora’s face.

“Mmm, yes, Mistress?” she sighed with pleasure. It felt so good to call her that. “I’m yours now, Mistress. Yours to do with as you please.”

“My darling Emilia,” Vanisa giggled, kissing her briefly. Emilia trembled as a jolt of pleasure entered her body, weaving its way deep inside her. Mistress smiled languidly at the maid in her arms. “As tempting as that sounds, I’d rather we share our first touch of intimacy somewhere… else. Someplace special.”

Emilia glanced around, finally remembering where they were. A sudden fit of giggling overtook her. Mistress’ firm grasp upon her shoulders saved her from falling to the floor in a heap.

“I nearly forgot where we were, Mistress,” Emilia said between chuckles. Her laughter faded away at the sight of Mistress’ serious expression, however.

“Listen carefully,” the countess said firmly. “As joyous as this bonding may be, we must keep up the illusion, for the time being, of your being Baron Allafore’s servant.”

Emilia’s gaze fell. “But why, Mistress? I want to be with you…”

Mistress smiled with a touch of blush. So adorable! “I know you do, but dark forces are at work in this place. I need you to help me investigate them, as I’m certain a lot of innocent people are in danger here.”

“You’re right,” Emilia nodded, her expression darkening. “I’ve seen the baron escorting girls out of the manor in the middle of the night.”

Mistress’ eyes narrowed in anger. “What!?” she hissed. “What in Maou’s name is he up to? Do you think you can get closer?”

Emilia paused to think about it but shook her head. “Not safely, Mistress. I’m still willing to do it, if that is what you wish.”

“No, don’t risk yourself,” the countess said firmly. “I just found you, my darling. I can’t lose you, now.”

Mistress called her darling! That was twice, now! Emilia swooned, practically melting into a feathery puddle. She nodded. “I’ll be careful, Mistress.”

“Don’t call me that again outside of this room, unless we are safely alone,” Vanisa cautioned. She plucked her flute from the table and slipped it back into her sleeve, dispelling the magic. “Wait here for a little while,” she whispered. “We can’t be seen together.”

The door opened, and Emilia’s new mistress slipped out. Emilia’s heart danced for joy within her breast. This was the happiest day of her life! Yet, nagging fear threatened to cloud the moment. Both the light of the Order and the darkness of the manor would have their heads if their union was discovered.

Whatever. Best not be discovered, then! Emilia grinned and snuck out of the room, attacking her chores with newfound vigor.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Yipe!” yelped Megumi as Vanisa ruffled her hair, having snuck up on her from behind. “Your Grace!” she complained, protecting her head. “You know I hate when you do that!”

“If you’d stop yipping like a puppy every time, maybe I’d stop?” Vanisa winked as she strode by.

“Uhhh.” Megumi darted up to her and poked the countess in her furry leg. “All right, what’d I miss?”

“Not here,” whispered the countess. Raising her voice to a conversational level, she added, “I’ll be returning to town for a while to meet with a contact. Carry on.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” Megumi replied.

Gods! I feel as giddy as a lovestruck Succubus! Vanisa giggled to herself as she departed the manor. It just wasn’t safe to remain there with her emotions running so high. The baron and his staff would surely notice. Once out of earshot, the countess withdrew her flute and began to pipe herself a lively tune. Her heart swelled as she skipped lightly to the music. Surely she could enjoy this respite from her tasks?

If only there were some way to signal Emilia…

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Humming softly, Emilia worked at polishing an ornamental suit of armor, a task she’d performed numerous times before. What seemed dull and onerous in the past now evoked feelings of pride and satisfaction, provided Emilia pretended she performed the chore for Mistress.

Mmm. Emilia giggled softly. She’d never felt so alive! The odd happenings and strange, dark dreams scarcely bothered her, overpowered as they were by gushing emotion and heartfelt affection. The suit of armor gleamed, polished to such a degree that she could make out her own reflection against the silvery finish.

Gathering up her things, Emilia headed for the lavatories next. None of the custodial staff enjoyed cleaning there. This would be the ultimate test for the Kikimora’s new bond. As Emilia made her way there, she noticed a strange, unfamiliar sensation. Something under her gown?

Emilia crossed her legs, forcing her thighs to rub together. Her inner thighs felt slick. What was this? Hurrying to the lavatories, Emilia locked herself inside one and pulled up her skirt. Sure enough, a dampness coated the inside of her thighs, dripping down onto her stockings. The moisture felt silky smooth and warm. Emilia traced it to its source, gasping as her fingers brushed her sex. So much! There was so much of it!

That wasn’t all. A throbbing heat pooled within Emilia’s waist, robbing her of proper senses and wit. She giggled, teetering on the spot like an inebriated wench. Goddess! What was happening to her!? An ache? A hungry craving gnawed at her; a maddening itch ignored for years finally demanding to be attended to. Emilia’s fingers skimmed the length of her slit, lending her fiery sparks of pleasure.

Mmm!

She reached down to repeat the action when her ears suddenly perked. A lovely, spirited melody tickled Emilia’s senses, distracting her from her action and bringing her back to her senses. Sort of. Thrusting open the door, Emilia poked her head out and searched for the sound.

There! Towards town!

An overwhelming desire to follow the music pervaded Emilia’s entire being. She dropped everything and ran towards it, seeing nothing but the object of her desire. Hearing nothing but the music Mistress played. Craving to feel nothing but Mistress’ touch. The warmth of her voice. The taste of her lips.

The town slowly came into view as Emilia’s feet practically flew against the cobblestones. Mistress! I’m coming to you, Mistress!

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“Ugh,” groaned Vanisa as she flopped down onto her mattress. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” She reached back, grabbed a fluffy pillow, and covered her face with it. At least whilst still in the manor, duty and protocol could serve to distract her from her newfound bond with Emilia, but here? By herself? Nothing stood in its way. Her body ached to embrace the girl, to run her fingers through her poofy hair and tickle her feathers. Maybe play with that fluffy, feathery tail a bit. Play her a tune and smile as the girl danced to it.

Gods! This was agony! Vanisa tossed the pillow aside and clamored up onto her own two hooves. Nothing for it. She’d just have to go back and chance it. Or, perhaps do something in town to take her mind off her darling little maid? Aggh!

A knock sounded softly at the door. Vanisa nearly leaped out of her own skin. Steadying herself with a deep breath, she approached the door and opened it.

Vanisa’s chevalier stood framing the doorway. “Your Grace,” said Tanith in her dark monotone. “Someone wishes to speak with you.”

The countess already sensed who it was but decided to play along. “Yes, Tanith?”

Tanith stood aside to permit a contrite-looking Kikimora into view. Head bowed, and hands clasped demurely in front of her, Emilia glanced Tanith’s way with upturned eyes before turning to Vanisa to await her command.

“See her in,” Vanisa said, twirling her finger above her as she turned around and headed to a table nearby. “And that’ll be all, Tanith. Let no one disturb us.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” the Dullahan murmured, leaving the two of them alone. The doors clicked shut behind her.

“Emilia?” Vanisa smiled as she cast the girl a sidelong glance.

“M-Mistress,” stammered Emilia.

“What brings you here so soon?” the countess inquired as she poured some wine for the two of them. “Did you learn anything new at the manor?”

Emilia shook her head contritely. “Um, no, Mistress,” she admitted. “I heard your music on the wind and felt your need of me.”

Vanisa winced slightly. “That obvious, huh?”

The Kikimora giggled in spite of herself, and her mistress. “Yes. I—I mean!” she gulped,  as if trying to swallow her impropriety.

“No, it’s fine. You were absolutely right,” Vanisa said, quelling her misgivings. “Come, have a drink?”

Emilia wasted no time, skipping up to her like an excited child. Vanisa chuckled softly as she handed the Kikimora a crystal glass filled with something special. Clinking her glass to Emilia’s, she took a sip, and nodded for the maid to do likewise.

Emilia took a long sip from her glass and attempted to taste it the way Vanisa taught her. She barely lasted a few seconds before her eyes widened and she swallowed noisily. Cupping the glass in both hands, she imbibed deeply, greedily slurping the contents with wild abandon. Droplets trickled down her cheeks and fell upon her apron, luckily landing upon the dark fabric and not the white ruffles.

Gasping, Emilia set the glass down and collapsed, panting, into the chair behind her. “Oh, my goddess!” she exclaimed breathlessly. “What is that!?” she demanded, gesturing frantically at the unmarked bottle in Vanisa’s hand.

The countess smiled, pursing her lips in amusement. “Well, you see,” she explained coyly, “I’ve not shared passions with anyone for a terribly long stretch of time, and we are mamono. We need spirit energy, just as surely as humans require food and drink. What many do not know, however, is that spirit energy resides in normal food. Fruits, vegetables, and other produce of the field.”

“In very small quantities,” Emilia reminded her.

“Unfortunately, yes, but do you remember when I told you my holdings border on two demon realms?” Vanisa asked. Emilia nodded, so the countess continued. “The unique mix of dark demon atmosphere caressing the bright green realm’s borders makes for an intriguing side-effect. The bountiful crops harvested there contain plethora of spirit energy, and, when fermented into wine, the mixture of this energy, combined with the mana of the two realms, comes together to form the perfect blend of wine. And this particular vintage contains a special concentration of spirit energy. Powerful enough to tempt even Maou herself.”

Emilia gaped at her, icy blue eyes wide as saucers. “Really!?”

“Mm, yes,” chuckled Vanisa. “Druella herself attempted to annex it some time back. “I gave her a stern talking-to. Which, sadly, involved my affording her a positively treasonous discount on the vintage. Such is compromise,” she added, sighing theatrically.

The maid nodded in rapt attention. She giggled at the mention of Druella. “What about me?” she asked, hiccupping. “How much will Mistress charge me?”

“Oh, you’re going to have to pay a fortune,” Vanisa warned her. “That one glass was worth a third of the town we’re staying in.”

“Oh nooo,” moaned Emilia. “I don’t have that much money!”

“Then, I suppose you’ll have to pay me back with favors. Very personal favors.”

The Kikimora’s eyes brightened, and for the first time, Vanisa witnessed a predatorial smile curl the girl’s lips. “What does Mistress desire?” she cooed, rising up out of her chair with her gaze locked upon Vanisa’s eyes.

“First, I’d like my shoulders rubbed,” said Vanisa haughtily, sitting up and squaring her shoulders.

“Yes, Mistress,” nodded Emilia, slipping around behind her. Slender fingers rested upon the countess’ shoulders, but before she could begin, Vanisa tugged off her doublet and cast it aside carelessly. All that remained upon her was a strapless black corset, tied together with numerous tempting laces, cupping the countess’ scandalous breasts within its silken grip.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” demanded Vanisa, not bothering to glance back at her. The countess practically squirmed in her seat in anticipation of Emilia touching her.

Oh my!

Vanisa gasped. A single, powerful jolt of pleasure shot into her body with each finger the maid brushed against her skin. Ten separate jolts. The Kikimora began applying pressure, working her slim fingers into Vanisa’s pressure points.

“Nnn, mmm,” sighed the countess.

“Does this please you, Mistress?” Emilia asked, doubt evident in her tone.

Vanisa rolled her neck side to side, her eyes falling closed. “Yes,” she sighed. “Just like that. Go deeper.”

“As you desire, Mistress,” cooed Emilia as her touches spread down the countess’ arms and down her back. On the girl’s way back up, Vanisa rolled her shoulders, encouraging Emilia’s hands inward. They drifted down onto her upper chest instead.

Even better!

Feathers from Emilia’s wrists tickled Vanisa’s face. Taking gentle hold of Emilia’s right hand, she inhaled deeply of the delicate pheromones within. A crisp, clean scent, like that of freshly fallen snow, mixed with a subtle hint of pine. Its intoxicating power briefly swept Vanisa off her hooves, forcing her to recline back into the plush velvet of the chair.

“Mistress?” prompted her maid gently. Emilia’s other hand kept stroking the countess’ left shoulder, but her touch wavered, like she’d rather be touching somewhere else.

“Come around in front of me,” beckoned Vanisa.

Emilia obeyed, but hesitated after easing in between the countess’ furry legs. Vanisa raised an eyebrow at her.

“Well? Don’t stop now,” the countess said.

“Do you—wish me to go lower?” Emilia asked shyly.

“What do your instincts say?”

Emilia nodded, licking her dry lips. “I believe you want me to do this,” she whispered, reaching for Vanisa with timid fingers. As her hands reached the swell of Vanisa’s breasts, the countess reached in between and plucked at the tie holding the corset together. The sturdy, lacy fabric parted, easing its tempting grip. Vanisa’s large breasts swelled further upon being released as the corset slipped to her waist, forgotten.

This time, Emilia did not have to be told. Her hands slipped lower, cupping Vanisa’s breasts, and gently held them. “Mistress!” she gasped as she began to gently squeeze. “Which god did you seduce for such a blessing?”

Vanisa held her lower lip firmly between her teeth. Nnn… Emilia’s fingers each kneaded and fondled independently of one another, injecting pure and potent lustful pleasure with every deliberate movement. When a pair of thumbs streaked over her nipples, the countess gasped, arching her back and thrusting her breasts forward into those perfect hands.

“What matters is who they belong to now,” Vanisa said, eying her maid with a sultry gaze. Emilia’s wide icy-blues made it all worthwhile. Vanisa smiled. “Take off that dress,” she commanded. “We’re about to make a mess.”

“Will you permit me to clean it up, Mistress?” asked Emilia hopefully as she began pulling her gown up over her head.

“Mm, we’ll see,” Vanisa answered mysteriously. Her attention was elsewhere.

A thin shift remained upon the Kikimora’s body, but the fabric did little to shield her slender, demure features from the countess’ ravenous gaze. Vanisa reclined comfortably, tilting her head towards the corner of the room, indicating to the maid to just chuck the garment aside. Emilia shook her head abruptly, insisting she fold her apron neatly and set it upon the opposite end of the table.

Kikimoras…

Vanisa reached for her unmarked bottle and tucked it into the crease of the chair. Crooking her finger at Emilia, she beckoned the maid closer.

“Shall I continue your massage, Mistress?” she asked softly.

“You are holding back,” noted Vanisa. “Stop that.”

Emilia tilted her head inquisitively. “You desire a—um, firmer touch, Mistress?”

“Touch me the way I know you wish to,” instructed Vanisa.

Emilia nodded and reached for the sagging corset. She carefully untied each little loop until she could strip her mistress of it and folded it beside the apron. Returning to Vanisa, Emilia leaned in, grasping the countess’ breasts firmly, and touched a kiss upon her lips.

“Yes!” gasped Vanisa, squirming beneath the newfound insistence of her maid. “That’s more like it.” She smiled against Emilia’s lips, welcoming the advance of the maid’s tongue. Her breath tasted of power and desire. Inhaling Emilia’s wine-scented breath lent Vanisa a heady, relaxing feeling of intoxication, weighting her arms and legs down, and limiting her ability to interact with Emilia’s touches.

More…

Vanisa craved more. Her breasts thrilled within the other girl’s grasp, but Vanisa craved to feel every inch of Emilia upon her. She began untying the girl’s shift, plucking absently at the little knots that held it together. Emilia must not have noticed. Her kissing turned desperate; she began to bite upon Vanisa’s lip, pulling back with each smooch, stretching out her mistress’ plush lip each time.

“Oh!” yelped Emilia as Vanisa pulled the loose shift off of her. She reached for it, perhaps to fold it up, but Vanisa would have none of that.

“No, leave it,” the countess said huskily. “Let me look at you.”

“M-Mistress, you’re embarrassing me,” moaned Emilia as she stood back slightly and allowed Vanisa’s raking gaze to ravish her nudity. Feathered wrists crossed over her chest, but failed to hide the plump, firm breasts Vanisa suddenly craved. Those little pink nipples looked rather delicious. Gods! The countess swallowed carefully, lest a trickle of drool escape her mouth.

Oh my! Speaking of trickles! Vanisa’s predatory gaze continued lower, past Emilia’s slender waist and curved hips. There, between her legs, the Kikimora’s unabashed sex leaked freely, painting glistening trails down the smooth flesh of her inner thighs, past the part where skin became hard scale, all the way to her ankles!

“Mistress!” cried Emilia. “Why must you torture me so?” One hand splayed across her blushing face.

Vanisa’s lips curved into a smug smile, reclined as she was against her chair. “Come to me,” she beckoned. “Do you know what I want, my little darling servant?”

Emilia stepped closer, kneeling before her mistress. “Um, I believe so,” she said, nibbling her lower lip. Her hands curled around Vanisa’s waist, fingers clenching into the soft skin. Emilia peeked between the countess’ furry thighs, discovering a similar situation she herself faced. Moisture and arousal dampened the ruby-tinged fur, polishing it to a glistening sheen.

The Kikimora’s hands slipped lower, mixing into fur when they reached Vanisa’s hips. The countess closed her eyes briefly, bracing herself against an onslaught of pleasure. Every individual strand of fur upon her lower body tingled and shivered at the presence of the maid’s fingers. Emilia’s hands worked inward, gently nudging Vanisa’s thighs apart as she eased in between.

“You have lain with other women previously, Mistress?” Emilia asked meekly, touching her lips to Vanisa’s flat stomach.

“Nn—yes,” admitted the countess, her skin quivering beneath the maid’s silky tongue. “My—mm—wine and music—ahhn—seduce men and women alike…”

“Is there any hope for me?” Emilia asked softly, gazing up as she touched her lips to Vanisa’s navel.

“Mmmnn!” moaned Vanisa. Lips encircled her navel, and a slim tongue dipped inside, bending and curling like a corkscrew. Emilia’s eyes remained upon hers the whole time. “None,” Vanisa hissed in pleasure. “It’ll be especially—ahhh—intense for you…”

“I can’t wait, Mistress,” cooed Emilia, trailing kisses lower. She giggled as her nose brushed soft fur. “It tickles!” she laughed lightly.

Closer…

Gods!

“Emilia,” gasped Vanisa, “You scandalous tease! Mmn! You’ve done this before!”

Emilia shook her head with a coy smile. “No, Mistress, you are my first to kiss and to love.”

Apprehensive shock walled off Vanisa’s sense of pleasure for a moment. “What!?” she gasped with a ragged breath.

“This is all for you, Mistress,” cooed Emilia, dipping her head down.

“Emilia…” Vanisa gasped. “Em—ahh!!”

A gentle kiss feathered Vanisa’s sex, pressing down and inward insistently. The countess knew what her servant would find, but that knowledge did little to prepare her. The dim colors of the room suddenly brightened, swirling and dancing with the pressure building up inside her. Emilia’s hands crept around the countess’ furry bottom, grasping each side firmly, locking herself in position.

No escape for the Ruby Countess.

Emilia’s tongue slipped past the protective fur and burrowed deep inside the silky slick warmth she discovered. Her nose nuzzled against Vanisa’s clitoris; she wiggled and rubbed against it with the skill of someone having years of practice in the sensual arts. Little puffs of heat beat down upon Vanisa’s bud with every breath Emilia took. Lightning flashes of pleasure streaked across the countess’ body, Emilia’s tongue the focal point of each one. Vanisa shook and jerked against the Kikimora’s surprisingly powerful grip.

“Gods! Emilia!” cried Vanisa. “You know exactly how—ahhhnnn!”

Emilia smiled against the moist fur and dripping sex, lapping up everything she could. Her hands began a devilish massage, kneading and squeezing her mistress’ derriere with the same lustful precision she’d used to attend the countess’ breasts.

Vanisa gasped, panting heavily. Her heart danced within her chest, threatening to burst free. Her body curved and curled in the chair, thrusting herself towards Emilia to offer her the best possible angle.

“Emilia!” she panted, gripping the armrest with one hand, and Emilia’s feathery hair with the other. Her tail frantically wrapped around Emilia’s feathery wrist, trembling and twitching. “I’m—I’m going to—to…”

Emilia smiled, training her upturned icy-blues upon her mistress. She bore down, kissing as deeply as she could, offering suction. Vanisa screamed, uttering words of adoration and love, but as her maid deprived her of adequate senses, the words came out mixed up and confused. Emilia giggled, adding bouncing vibration to the countess’ orgasm, strengthening it and extending it, until the room filled with the heady scent of sex and a gentle throbbing of mamono energy.

“Haa… haahh—mmm…” panted Vanisa as she wiped tears from her eyes. “Sweet Bacchus, Emilia…”

The Kikimora giggled, licking her lips as she sat up. “Mmm. Mistress,” she said sultrily, “You taste rather sinful. We should bottle you next. Wonder what sort of price you would fetch?”

“Only you would be able to afford it,” said Vanisa with a wink. “Ready for your reward?”

Emilia nodded eagerly. “Yes, Mistress!”

Vanisa pointed between her legs. “Kiss.”

Her maid nodded and dove right back in. As much as Vanisa would have loved to be licked, kissed, and tantalized into another mind-shattering orgasm, she had a wicked idea to pursue. Snatching the bottle next to her, now warmed from her body heat, she tipped it down between her breasts. A trickle released, dripping down between her breasts, travelling the valley, making its way towards Emilia.

Emilia’s icy blue eyes met Vanisa’s emerald ones.

“Drink,” the countess commanded.

The maid nodded slowly, tilting her head back, drawing the liquid into her seductive kiss as she continued to lick and tantalize her mistress. Vanisa gasped softly for breath. Goddess! Watching Emilia obey reignited lustful flames within her body that had only just begun to taper down. With every suckle and smooch, Emilia’s pure, innocent aura darkened into something more ravenous and seductive. Her icy-blue eyes practically shone in the relative darkness of the room.

“Ahhh—yes! Emilia!” cried Vanisa. “Drink! Kiss me!”

More and more wine trickled down the countess’ body. Emilia captured every drop, determination narrowing her eyes. Vanisa wondered who, between the two of them, was truly in control. She found she could not look away from her maid, no matter how badly she needed to simply fall apart and lay limply in the chair. Every time she nearly slipped away, Emilia clutched her bottom a little tighter. Licked a little more deeply. Stared a little more intently.

A powerful jolt of release snapped within Vanisa. Another! And another! Emilia played her body like an instrument, and the music Vanisa produced was her reward. The countess screamed, falling back against the chair, arching and trembling.

Such pleasure! Such relief at finally finding someone to share such pleasure with. The world felt fuzzy. Warm. Bouncy. Pink. Mmm.

Something hot, moist, and velvety stroked the countess’ skin. Limply, Vanisa sat up a little to inspect it. Oh…

Emilia hovered over top of her, licking her way up the countess’ body, cleaning every droplet with her lithe tongue. “Mistress,” she purred, “I delight in the songs you sing for me…”

Vanisa moaned softly but failed to summon enough strength to resist. Emilia set herself upon her mistress, licking, caressing, and massaging her way up until her lips brushed the tender skin of the countess’ neck. She angled up and around, ending at Vanisa’s lips, upon which she deposited a slow, languid kiss.

“Did I please you, Mistress?” Emilia asked, her gaze heavy-lidded as she reached up to tuck a lock of hair out of Vanisa’s eyes.

“Better than the most tempting rakes the world has ever offered me,” the countess answered breathlessly. “Make no mistake. I’ve lived. I’ve laughed. I’ve screamed. But never, never like that.” She languidly reached for her Kikimora to stroke the side of her head. Just a gentle touch, a feathering of fingertips, one that earned her a contented smile.

“You are the most precious gift the gods have ever afforded me.”

Tears welled up within Emilia’s icy-blue eyes. The fingers of her right hand gently pressed against trembling lips. “I—I’ve never…” she stammered.

“Could’ve fooled me,” winked Vanisa.

“No,” protested Emilia gently. “I mean, I’ve never felt so, umm, so wanted before. So, needed. I never knew it could be like this.”

“You thought your relationship with that man, the baron, was normal?” Vanisa asked, incredulous. Emilia nodded, her mournful expression breaking Vanisa’s heart. The countess reached up, drawing Emilia down with her into a tender embrace. Reclining together with her in the plush velvet of the chair, Vanisa stroked her maid’s face, tracing the gentle lines and raised cheekbones. A gentle blush spread through the girl’s face as the countess’ feathered touch caressed her.

“I always wondered if there should be something more,” Emilia whispered. “But I am just a servant. It is not my place to make demands.”

“You’ll never have to, my darling,” Vanisa cooed gently, cupping the girl’s face in the palm of her hand. “In fact, I shall very much enjoy teaching you what you have been missing.”

“There is more?” Emilia questioned, hope lending fresh light to her eyes. “Ooh!” she yelped, likely in response to her mistress’ wandering hand, which had made its way to her hip.

Vanisa presented the maid with a ravenous smile. “You have never experienced the pleasure you afforded me, have you? Not even in the privacy of your own company?”

Emilia’s blush deepened several shades, and she averted her gaze. “N-no. A taste, perhaps, in my dreams. B-but what you experienced? Never. I would not expect it of you t-to—ah! M-Mistress!” she stammered. Vanisa’s worked her meandering hand between the girl’s thighs, where she met frictionless, silky, lubricated skin. The Kikimora’s thighs trembled against her touch.

“While you claim innocence, your body cries out for me to touch you,” Vanisa observed, her voice deep and sultry.

“Mistress!” Emilia squealed. “I would never presume to make such a demand from ah-ahh! From you!”

Giggling, Vanisa worked her hand upwards, towards the center of Emilia’s desire. “I, however, hunger for you. Is it your place to refuse me?”

“N-No,” gulped Emilia. “My body belongs to you.”

“Indeed,” murmured Vanisa, resting her forehead against the Kikimora’s as she bored her gaze deep into the other girl’s soul. “Then, I shall take you. I will not stop until you have received as much pleasure as you gave me. And then, maybe a little more.”

“M-Mistr—mmmm…” Emilia tried to protest, silenced with a kiss. Vanisa’s other hand firmly gripped the back of her head, holding her tight against the seductive lip-lock. The countess’ tongue traced the circumference of Emilia’s mouth, poking gently to be let in. Emilia lay frozen in her mistress’ grasp, unable to move or respond until Vanisa’s hand came in contact with her sex.

“Mmmnnn!!” gasped Emilia. At last her lips parted. Vanisa smiled into the kiss, inserting her tongue as she simultaneously inserted a finger into the source of her maid’s desire. Even though Emilia’s sexual muscles bore down upon the slender invader, Vanisa met almost no resistance. She herself had never been this wet. It almost drew a stroke of jealousy. What could it possibly feel like to be this aroused?

“Nnn… mmmph!” the maid moaned, unable to disengage from the kiss that held her prisoner. Vanisa drew the girl’s lower lip into her mouth and bit down gently, mirroring Emilia’s earlier action. At the same time, she inserted another finger deep inside. The girl’s purity and innocence remained with her everywhere, including within. An untouched virgin, reserved exclusively for Vanisa to have and to love. The realization of her blessed fortune wrought fresh tears from her eyes.

However pure the girl might have been, she was a mamono. Her body responded to sexual contact like fire to kindling. Emilia’s arms wrapped around Vanisa, pulling her closer. A slick thigh crossed over Vanisa’s furry leg. Comparatively demure breasts pressed against Vanisa’s swollen globes.

The kiss finally broke as Emilia’s face tilted skyward. A trail of saliva bridged the two girls briefly, before Vanisa pulled her closer attacked her neck with lips and tongue.

“M-Mistress!” gasped Emilia. “What are you doing to me!?”

“Taking pleasure in my new maid, of course,” Vanisa quipped, trailing the front of Emilia’s neck with the tip of her tongue, then down between her collarbone. And back. She repeated the feathery lick. Up and down. Up and down, and then straight down between her breasts.

“Ack!” Emilia cried. “Mistress, that tick—ahh!”

“Shouldn’t have told me,” Vanisa growled predatorially. She worked the tip of her tongue in little circles in and around Emilia’s breasts, laughing softly at the girl’s trembles. Once she’d had enough of teasing her, Vanisa curled her lips around the girl’s nipple.

Emilia yelped in shock. “What!?”

“Wishing you’d thought of this, mmm?” Vanisa purred, allowing her hot breath to tantalize the moisture she’d left behind. Emilia’s nipple stiffened, and little bumps rose all around it, beckoning further touches. Vanisa poked the very tip of it with the tip of her tongue, nudging it this way and that, before smothering it with another suckling kiss.

“Ahhh!” squealed Emilia. “Mistress, so wicked, ahh!”

Vanisa chuckled on her way over to the maid’s other breast. “While you act like one with years of practice, you’re about to be ravished by someone who actually has years of practice.” She gazed sultrily up at Emilia, wearing her most seductive smile. “Are you prepared?”

“N-no, Mistress,” the girl admitted.

“I warned you this would be especially intense for you,” Vanisa cautioned before gently capturing Emilia’s other nipple between her teeth. Her tongue came down to streak across the tip of the plump nipple, adding a feathery velvet sensation to the sharpness of her teeth.

“Nnnn…” Emilia moaned, writhing in the chair. Her sex leaked freely around Vanisa’s hand, encouraging the countess to use it against her, smearing it into her clitoris and swirling it back inside her.

“Sweet Bacchus, you taste divine,” breathed Vanisa against Emilia’s pale skin. “Like snow and spice. I could do this all day.” Her tongue streaked between the girl’s breasts, lapping up the perspiration she encountered there.

“All day, M-Mistress?” cried Emilia. “I—I can’t! I’m—I’m! What’s ha—aa—aah—aaahh!”

Vanisa’s eyes widened in shock. Already? Sure enough, Emilia’s sex clenched firmly upon her hand. The maid sat up briefly, meeting Vanisa’s gaze with a frantic expression of shock and bewilderment before she fell back against the chair, screaming and trembling.

The countess kept her hand in its sinful position, two fingers wedged deep inside, but she found herself unable to stem the flow that Emilia released. Holding the girl firmly with her free hand, Vanisa cradled Emilia as she rode out her orgasm. The Kikimora laid limply within the chair for quite some time after her cries died down, but her body twitched and trembled with aftershocks.

“I’m impressed,” cooed Vanisa as she released the girl and stood up. Emilia gazed weakly at her. “You scream like a Succubus. So fetching!” she cooed, licking her sullied, glistening fingers of Emilia’s honey.

“Was—was that?” mumbled Emilia, “What was that?”

Vanisa giggled. “That, my darling, was an orgasm.”

Emilia blushed with embarrassment. “I’m aware of that, Mistress,” she protested gently as her eyes observed Vanisa licking her sullied fingers. “W-What I mean is…”

“Would you like another?” the countess asked coquettishly.

Emilia gasped, her mouth widening to a large “O.”

“I thought so,” Vanisa chuckled, reaching for her bottle of “special” wine. Sometime during Emilia’s antics, the bottle had become wedged in the cushions. Vanisa grunted as she yanked it free, and several droplets spattered across Emilia’s chest.

“Oops,” Vanisa sighed.  “I made a mess.”

Emilia gulped. “M-m-mess! I’ll clean it,” she offered.

“Don’t move,” commanded Vanisa. “This is perfect.”

“Mistress!” gasped Emilia, but Vanisa leaned down and began to lick up the droplets. “Ahhn! I’m—that tickles, Mistress!”

“So delightful, my darling,” cooed Vanisa. Her tongue danced from droplet to droplet, moving down the girl’s smooth skin. A bit of the liquid pooled within Emilia’s navel, so the countess attended that next. It seemed only appropriate to mimic what Emilia herself had done earlier, working her tongue like a corkscrew. The maid trembled and squirmed but dared not protest. Good. She was learning.

Emilia bit her lip as Vanisa kissed and licked lower, and lower, and lower…

“Sweet Bacchus, I’m positively ravenous,” hissed the countess, licking her lips at the close proximity of Emilia’s glistening sex. Perfect, smooth, virginal; merely a puckered slit with no hair or blemishes to distract from its beauty. Carefully, gently, she spread the folds apart to reveal the breathtaking pink rose within.

“M-Mistress… nnn…”

“Emilia, I want you to do something for me,” Vanisa instructed, holding out the bottle for her. “Take.”

“Y-yes?”

“Remember what we did before?” the countess asked, her breath puffing against the girl’s sensitive flesh. Emilia nodded nervously. “Pour a little between your breasts.”

Emilia held the bottle unsteadily, but obeyed, releasing a trickle that trailed down her body, swirling into her navel. She poured a little more, until the small pond in her navel overflowed. Just as the deep red trickle reached the very top of the girl’s sex, Vanisa graced the lowest part of Emilia’s slit with the tip of her tongue, trailing up to catch the wine in the middle. She paused there, deepening the contact into a kiss, as her tongue dove within to gather up the rest.

“Hnnn!” cried Emilia. “Mistress!” she cried, arching her back, which released the rest hiding within her navel. Vanisa repeated her action, deepening the kiss and the stroke of her tongue.

“Emilia,” the countess spoke with a firm tone, forcing the maid’s attention back onto her as she peered hungrily from between a pair of luscious thighs. “Listen carefully. I am going to take you, now.” Emilia gulped and nodded. “You will guide me. Take the wine. Pour. If you want me to go faster or deeper, give me more to drink.”

“Yes, Mistress,” replied Emilia softly. Her breathing quickened; Vanisa resumed her sensual kiss. Nudging the petals of Emilia’s sex apart with her lips, Vanisa began supping upon the girl’s nectar, using the trembling and clenching of the muscles within to guide her. Soon enough, a trickle of wine joined the mix, blending into a sinfully sublime concoction that suffused through the countess’ body with every lick.

Good gods!

Never before had the Ruby Countess partaken of something so utterly transcendent. As much as she enjoyed amicably teasing Emilia for her lack of knowledge on the subject, she herself found these new feelings overwhelming and intoxicating.

This was it.

This was what she’d been searching for, for so long! To find love–for that was what these feelings had to be–in so innocent a girl, the countess could never have imagined. She giggled with glee, grasping the delightful girl’s slender thighs to steady her. Closing her eyes, Vanisa focused on Emilia’s breathing, and on the steady trickle of wine cascading down the maid’s body. Along the way, it gathered and acquired some of her taste, and that sampling practically defined the feelings racing within the countess’ chest.

“M-Mistress! Nn… Ah!”

The girl’s cries rang like the sweetest of melodies, melting Vanisa’s heart as she craved for more. Telltale trembling wracked the Kikimora’s body. Her tail fluttered beneath her, presenting a tempting target. Releasing one thigh, Vanisa snatched at the tail and grasped it firmly.

“Ack!” yelped Emilia. “Mistress! Ahhh! Ahh! Mmm! Yes!”

She liked this? Perfect! Mmm. So fluffy. So feathery. Vanisa’s eyes rolled with pleasure as her fingers burrowed into the warmth and softness of the Kikimora’s tail. It suddenly jerked, nearly wrenching free. Vanisa refocused back on Emilia’s face, finding her twisted in rapt ecstasy.

“AHH! Ohh! Oh! Ohhh! Nnnn! I’m—I’m… AHHH!!”

Vanisa’s eyes widened as Emilia released the rest of the bottle’s contents all at once, having lost the mental fortitude to monitor it. The countess drank as quickly as she could, but, oh gods… It was getting everywhere! On top of that, Emilia was releasing her own wine directly into the countess’ mouth.

So—much—power!

Vanisa’s world spun around her, and only Emilia kept her anchored to reality. She released the girl’s tail and slipped two fingers inside herself. It only took a few seconds, and then she joined Emilia in a rush of passionate bliss.

Closing her eyes, Vanisa rode the waves of pleasure with her lover beside her, only returning to reality when Emilia’s cries fell away sharply. The countess rose from her perch between the girl’s legs and peered at her in alarm, only to chuckle merrily at the sight.

Emilia laid completely limp upon the chair. Eyes closed. Tongue lolling out of her mouth in the most contented, slovenly expression the countess had ever borne witness to. The intensity of the blush coloring the Kikimora’s cheeks shamed the red velvet of the chair she laid within.

Gently, lovingly, Vanisa gathered the spent girl in her arms and carried her to the bed. She withdrew a handkerchief from her fallen doublet to sponge Emilia down a little but staggered as a wave of contented fatigue guided her sluggish body onto the mattress beside her lover.

Tugging the covers up over the both of them, Vanisa gathered Emilia’s peaceful, sleeping form into her embrace. The last image her eyes beheld as she closed them was of Emilia’s smiling face.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

“Nnn,” murmured Emilia, peeking out of one eye. She rested within the countess’ bed, and the curtains were drawn, veiling her from the rest of the world. She felt a gentle warmth beside her. Turning, she found herself face-to-face with the Ruby Countess, under the covers, with her.

“Welcome back,” cooed Vanisa, trailing a finger across Emilia’s brow, gently stroking, and nudging wayward hairs out of the maid’s eyes.

Emilia smiled, blushing anew, entranced by the heavy-lidded lustful gaze of the countess. “Back?” she inquired. “Mistress? Did I go somewhere?” she asked with a giggle.

“I’m afraid I may have been a touch too rough with you,” Vanisa lamented, snuggling in close to peck the maid’s nose with a tiny kiss.

“I fainted, didn’t I?” sighed Emilia. “I can’t do anything right, I supp—”

The Ruby Countess silenced her with a sudden kiss, capturing her lips in a forceful seduction. Tawny arms wound around the girl, holding her tightly. When the countess finally released her, Emilia gasped, panting breathlessly.

“Emilia.”

Emilia swallowed her stubborn anxiety. “Y-yes, Mistress?”

“I don’t want to ever hear those words from you again.”

The Kikimora drew a ragged breath to ask her mistress to clarify but found she did not need to. She instinctively knew. Mistress grew agitated whenever Emilia berated herself. She nodded in acquiescence.

“Very well, Mistress,” she replied.

Vanisa’s stern gaze withered, a calm smile replacing it. “Whatever lies the baron told you about being incompetent, my darling, I want you to forget them. You’ve been mine for less than a day, and already, you’ve given me more than I could ever have hoped for.”

Emilia’s eyes widened in shock. The Ruby Countess laid next to her, entwined around her, naked and vulnerable with her under the sheets. “To think that I could captivate someone as magnificent as you, Mistress, fills me with delight. This is—is…” she paused, her voice cracking as emotion threatened to stifle her words. “This is all I ever wanted,” she managed to say.

The countess offered Emilia another kiss, this one tender and gentle. “I never truly knew what I wanted. Only now, after knowing you, have my desires made themselves known. I shall be pleased to have you by my side in my travels to come.”

Emilia’s heart leaped and bounced with glee in her chest. She swallowed, hoping to calm it down. “And I shall be pleased to serve you as your maid for the rest of my days.”

“Not just my maid, Emilia,” the countess said, shaking her head gently as she continued to stroke Emilia’s face. “As my soul’s mate; for I shall be equally pleased to stand by your side throughout your life’s journeys.”

Emilia gasped. “Wh—r-really?” she stammered.

“I cannot fathom sharing myself with anyone else,” admitted Vanisa. “Although we have only known each other a few scant days, I know, from the bottom of my stubborn, uncertain heart, you, my darling, are the one Bacchus chose for me. She has quite the sense of irony, I’ve found. Hiding someone so precious as you within so dark and dreary a countryside.”

Emilia held back the dam of tears within behind a wall of shock and disbelief. “M-Mistress?” she asked tentatively, “You mean…”

“I love you, Emilia. I know that now. My heart reached out to you from the moment we met.”

The dam broke.

Emilia choked, covering her cheeks with her hands. Vanisa held her gently, cradling her against the tumult of emotions. The tenderness with which the countess embraced her only fueled the tears.

“Soul—Mate?” was all Emilia could say.

Vanisa nodded. “Kikimora often marry their masters, yes? I did not pray to Bacchus for a maid. Or a servant. I prayed for a companion. A partner to walk with through life. Someone to have and to hold, through times of peace and of adversity.” She paused to consider what she’d just said. “Oddly enough, I did not realize what I was praying for at the time,” she added with a wry smile. “I never knew I wanted this. Needed this so desperately. Bacchus, in her infinite wisdom, knew. She knew what I needed. She sent me you.”

Emilia’s lip trembled as tears trickled down her face.

Vanisa smiled, brushing the Kikimora’s tears away with tender strokes. “Does your heart desire this as well? I am willing to be that soulmate for you, if you will have me.”

Emilia gazed at the Ruby Countess in awe, through blurry, teary vision. All she could do was nod and mouth the words, “Yes, I will! I love you!” before the sheets tumbled around her and the Ruby Countess, her soulmate, clutched her tightly and rolled around the bed with her, laughing for joy. Emilia giggled madly, her tension and anxiety melting away with each peal of laughter.

Together, the two lovers became so thoroughly entangled within the sheets, Emilia could no longer determine which way was up, nor where the countess’ hands were. She herself was squeezing a breast she was pretty sure wasn’t hers, but before she could explore more, they both fell off the bed.

“Oww!” grunted Emilia.

“Bacchus preserve!” mumbled Vanisa.

“My tail…” Emilia moaned.

Vanisa squirmed in the silken mess. “I cannot even feel mine. Emilia, where are you?”

“I can’t see anything!” cried the maid. A sudden wave of terror swept over her. So dark! Why was the room suddenly so dark!? “Mistress! Mistreeeeess!!”

A chill wind whipped between Emilia’s bare legs, taking Mistress from her. Emilia suddenly found herself somewhere else.

No…

Oh no…

Had the love they shared just been a dream? Stifling darkness and dank chill closed in around Emilia. Was she losing her mind? A girl with long, silky black hair stood in front of her, and several others beside her.

Oh, gods… Emilia glanced down at her bare chest. They hadn’t even bothered to dress her this time. She’d fought them for far too long. Now, she would walk the darkness naked, with a handful of girls walking with her in double-file as her only companions. The Kejourou in front of her murmured terrified prayers in another language, while the human girls sniffled and cried quietly.

“Emilia,” one of them asked.

“Mistress,” moaned Emilia. “Please save me…”

“Emilia, are we going to die?”

“I don’t know,” the maid confessed. Not even the stars shone tonight. Above her, only blackness curtained the sky. “I don’t think this is real…” she murmured.

“Maybe not for you,” a familiar voice spoke. Emilia gasped. She knew that voice. Her gaze snapped to her left.

Alicia.

The girl continued walking, eyes forward. Her lips did not move, and yet she spoke. “Help me, Emilia. I don’t want to go.”

“Emilia,” said another. Her lips did not move either.

“Emilia…” Nor did hers.

“Aggghh!!” cried Emilia.

“Emilia!”

“Please STOP!” she screamed.

“Emilia!! Please, wake up!! Don’t leave me all alone again!”

What? Was that the Ruby Countess? She sounded heartbroken. Emilia squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as she could, holding them that way until spots of light danced in her vision.

I will never leave Mistress! Never!

Emilia forced her eyes to open. Bracing against the dream with all her mental might.

I choose Mistress. I choose love.

Light streaked across the sky, ripping it wide open. Darkness fled from the maid’s vision, replaced by the terrified face of Vanisa, her mistress, clutching bedsheets around her body. Tanith stood, hovering over her shoulder.

“Her eyes are open,” the Dullahan noted in her eerie monotone. “The darkness is ebbing.”

“Mistress?” Emilia asked timidly.

“Oh, my goddess!” cried the countess, gathering Emilia up in a trembling embrace. “You came back!!”

“Mistress, I’m so weak,” said Emilia as malaise threatened to steal away her consciousness again.

“Tanith, fetch me the bottle,” commanded Vanisa. “Quickly!”

Tanith stepped away, returning a moment later with an unmarked bottle of wine. Vanisa snatched it, bit into the cork, and popped the seal. Spitting the cork aside, she tipped the bottle towards Emilia.

“Drink, it’ll give you strength,” she offered, gently curling an arm underneath Emilia to prop her up.

Emilia sat up unsteadily, leaning heavily upon Vanisa’s arm, and began to sip the wine. A gentle flame unfurled down her throat, pooling into her waist and suffusing through her body.  Under other circumstances, she’d have found the feeling highly arousing. For the moment, the liquor served only to subvert the darkness threatening to take her from her beloved.

Nodding, Emilia nudged the bottle aside, having downed over half of it. Vanisa handed it off to Tanith and gathered the maid into her arms.

“Emilia?” she asked, tenderly brushing the girl’s cheek with the back of her hand. “What happened?”

“I was there,” said Emilia darkly. “The men led girls double file through the night. I was among them.”

“It wasn’t real, Emilia,” Vanisa assured her. “You’re safe. You’re here. With me.”

Emilia shook her head. “It isn’t the first time I’ve had that vision, either.”

Vanisa paled visibly, failing to hide her fear behind professionalism. The price of the bond, Emilia supposed. “When was the first?” Vanisa asked her.

“The night after I saw the girls in person, being led away,” explained Emilia. “That night, I dreamed I was in another grouping of girls. They were talking about me, about how I was to go to Sir Rosenburg with the Kejourou.”

“Tanith,” snapped Vanisa. “That name. It sounds familiar. Where have we heard it before?” she asked, cocking her head in the Dullahan’s direction.

“I believe it is a code name,” noted Tanith. “There are no individuals named Sir Rosenburg reported living anywhere in Instandrine.”

Vanisa muttered a curse under her breath, lowering her gaze. She glanced back up at Emilia, brow knotted with concern. “Did you hear any other names?”

Emilia nodded. “Sendra. She’s the one who gets all the human girls.”

“That name is not familiar to me,” reported Tanith. “It could be code for something else.”

“Lustre?”

“Perhaps.”

“What’s Lustre?” asked Emilia.

Vanisa sighed wearily. “Oh Emilia, my darling,” she moaned. “I did not want to involve you in this, but it seems that choice has already been made for us. Lustre is a drug administered to the prostitutes of the brothels Baron Allafore has possession of. It prevents the girls from metabolizing spirit energy, while providing an intense euphoric effect to anyone who lies with one of them.”

Emilia retched, nearly losing her hold upon the wine she’d just imbibed. “Ugh, but why? Why would anyone want to prevent human girls from receiving spirit energy?”

“Human girls cannot process an overflow of spirit energy,” Tanith explained. “It simply dissipates within their bodies. Lustre prevents that dissipation from occurring, ensuring spirit energy accumulates in their blood in dangerous quantities.”

“Dangerous?” Emilia echoed.

“Yes,” said Vanisa. “Like with any nutritious substance, in excess, the energy becomes dangerous if it isn’t properly metabolized. This isn’t a problem for mamono, like us. Excess energy gets processed into mamono energy, which we just expel. The rest, we internalize and feed upon. But for humans? That kind of excess could cause serious complications, such as psychosis.”

“Nooo!” cried Emilia. “They’re going to do that to Alicia!”

“What?” gasped Vanisa.

“Are you certain?” Tanith asked at the same time.

“She was in my vision too,” Emilia explained, trembling in the countess’ arms. “Just now. I was walking in the darkness. The Kejourou in front of me kept saying something in her language, while the other girls sniffled and sobbed. At one point, I realized none of it was real. None of the girls spoke when I saw them from my hiding place last night.”

“Go on,” urged Vanisa.

Emilia nodded weakly. “While walking amongst them, I could see their lips weren’t moving, but I heard them speaking. When I said it wasn’t real, that’s when I heard Alicia. She said, ‘Maybe not for you.’” Emilia paused, trembling. “She begged me, Mistress! She begged me for help!”

Wailing, Emilia flung herself into her mistress’ arms.

“Gods damn that man,” cursed Vanisa, clutching the maid tightly. “I’m so sorry, Emilia. I can’t let you go back there.”

Emilia squirmed in her mistress’ embrace and gazed pleadingly up at her. “I have to save Alicia!” she protested, blood running cold in her vein. Gods, please! She prayed her courage would not desert her.

“There may be a way to do so without endangering Emilia,” Tanith noted.

“Elaborate?” urged Vanisa.

“I believe I now have enough information to form a reasonable hypothesis,” the Dullahan explained. “Emilia has caught a glimpse of the baron’s next course of action.”

“How?” sniffled Emilia.

“Whether by your will or not, though you were unable to bond with him as wife to master, you did manage to forge a subconscious dark link with Allafore.”

Vanisa stared back at the Dullahan as she measured her words. “Are you certain?”

“It is the only explanation. These are not random visions or nightmares.” Tanith cast a dark look back at the countess in a rare display of emotion. “While I have never before encountered such evil as this, the premonitions are not unfamiliar.”

Emilia did not dare ask the pale woman what she meant by that. “But how are we going to save Alicia?” she asked.

“If your vision is correct, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise,” Tanith said, “She will be sent away tonight. We shall intercept the procession and liberate the women.”

“Hmm, if possible, I’d like to avoid signaling the baron that we’re on to him,” Vanisa countered. “These hills are full of bandits and outlaws. Why don’t we hire some of them to act in our stead?”

“But, won’t they just take Alicia and the others for themselves?” Emilia asked, anxiety creeping into her voice. The thought of a scoundrel’s hands on poor Alicia…

Vanisa smirked. “Not if I pay them copious amounts of money. Allafore’s brothels will be his undoing this time. Those vagabonds won’t pass up the chance to partake in Lustre. Tanith. Go. Find Megumi. Make the arrangements.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” replied Tanith, departing the room without a sound.

“Mistress,” moaned Emilia softly.

“It’ll be all right,” the countess assured her, helping her stand. “Come, let’s get dressed.”

Emilia wobbled on her own two feet, so her beloved helped her lean against one of the bed’s four posts. Casting her a compassionate smile, she turned and approached the wardrobe, returning with a set of maid’s attire.

Wait…

That wasn’t just any old apron! Vanisa spread out a maid’s gown made of, um, was that silk? “Mistress?” she asked the countess.

“Come, now,” chided Vanisa gently as she helped Emilia into a sexy, lacy shift. “If you are to still to be my maid, I would still have you dressed in such pleasurable comfort befitting my wife.”

Emilia’s heart did a somersault inside her chest at the mention of being the countess’ wife. Such was her surprise that she did not protest when Vanisa tied a pair of sinful lingerie panties around her hips. Such decadence! The naughty thing barely covered anything!

“Is it uncomfortable?” Vanisa asked, perhaps picking up on Emilia’s distress.

“No, Mistress,” assured Emilia with a smile. Color flooded her cheeks, nudging aside the terror she felt only minutes ago. “It feels positively sinful…”

“Mm, good,” cooed Vanisa, stepping behind Emilia and reaching around in front of her to tighten the ties of the lacy ensemble, right between her breasts.

Emilia sighed, her head tilting a little as feathery kisses graced her tender neck. “This is so unlike anything I have ever owned,” she admitted.

“It’s called a babydoll,” Vanisa explained, her voice soft and sultry. “The black lace contrasts so well with your alabaster skin. Mmm.”

“B-but,” stammered Emilia as her mistress’ tongue crept around her ear. “Y-you can see right through it!” she protested gently as she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the nearby vanity’s mirror.

“That’s the idea, my love,” giggled Vanisa, testing the straps and ties to ensure they were snug. “Mm. You’ve filled out a little since we first met.” Her hands came up to cradle Emilia’s breasts over the lace. “See what happens when you finally receive that which you’ve been denied so long?”

Emilia’s hands joined her lover’s, and they tested the firmness of her breasts together. Glancing at the mirror across the room, she sucked in a ragged breath. “I’m—I’m beautiful…”

Vanisa laughed gently, nuzzling her face into the side of Emilia’s neck. “Ohh, my darling! Are you just now discovering this? It seems I still have much to teach you. I look forward to every minute.”

“Nnn,” sighed Emilia leaning into her wife’s embrace. If they kept this up, these lovely clothes would soon be on the floor.

“Lift up your arms?” suggested Vanisa, kneading her shoulders.

Emilia complied, and a heavenly set of fabric settled down upon her body. Cool, clean, refreshing. The gown Vanisa chose for her hugged her curves and showcased the beauty of her body while still remaining functional and modest. Her tail waved about excitedly behind her. She checked her reflection again and smiled.

She now appeared as someone who belonged on the third floor.

Something still nagged her about her appearance, though.

“Um, Mistress, now we can’t see the, um, the babydoll at all.”

Giggling again, Vanisa grasped the maid’s breasts once, before tracing her fingers down Emilia’s waist, settling on her hips. “Gods, I love you. Only two people in the world know that you are wearing that sexy thing underneath this gown. You, and me. Let your imagination do the work…”

“You mean, when you look at me, you only see me in…” Emilia gasped, finally realizing. “Ohhh!”

“And now you get it,” squealed Vanisa excitedly. “What do you think?” she asked, skimming her hands up and down the maid’s apron gown. “It’s made of special Arachne thread silk that won’t stain or come apart easily.”

“Oh, Mistress!” squealed Emilia. “I love it! I love you! Thank you!” She spun around and embraced her beloved, heart swelling in her chest at the waves of love rushing over her. “I just wish Alicia were here to see it…”

Vanisa squeezed her tightly before holding her out at arm’s length. “We’ll find her, Emilia. I promise.”

“There was—um, something else,” added Emilia. “After my first vision, Alicia woke me up like you did a little while ago. After that, she got changed, and I noticed something on her body that worried me.”

Vanisa’s smile faded. “What did it look like?”

“A circle,” explained Emilia, “Inside another circle. Black, with little symbols drawn inside them. It looked like a tattoo, but Alicia couldn’t see it!”

The countess’ gaze faltered. She let go of Emilia and turned away, shivering in her thin shift. “Have you seen that mark before, anywhere else?”

Emilia shook her head without realizing the countess wasn’t looking at her. “No,” she answered. “What does it mean?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” admitted the countess. “Tanith might know. Do you feel confident in your ability to draw a reproduction of it?”

“I’ll do my best,” promised Emilia. Vanisa nodded and tugged open a set of drawers in a nearby desk. Withdrawing a roll of parchment and a quill pen, she beckoned the maid closer.

“Try this?” offered Vanisa. She held the seat for Emilia, who smiled bashfully, feeling like royalty as she took her place and her beloved scooted her in.

“Somehow I feel our roles switched places.” Emilia giggled.

“On that note, how about I fetch us something to eat?” the countess suggested, shedding her shift and slipping on a seductive top with ruffled sleeves that left her waist and much of her bosom bare.

“Nn, I should—mm, be doing that,” Emilia stammered, her cheeks flushing as she found herself unable to take her gaze off her beloved. Golden armlets held the sleeves snugly against the countess’ arms, while matching bangles dangled from her waist.

“Draw, my love,” implored Vanisa. “I’ll return shortly.”

Emilia nodded, forcing her attention upon the blank parchment, but only for a moment. She glanced up to smile at the countess as she left, waving.

“All right,” Emilia murmured to herself. “I think it looked something like this,” she noted as she began to scrawl.

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

All her life, Vanisa enjoyed her friends and servants doting upon her, complying with her every need and request. For once in her life, she found no greater joy than by serving Emilia. Beaming, she approached the staircase, turned the corner, and descended.

The moment she descended to the second floor, Vanisa sensed something was wrong. Her footsteps slowed, mired in some invisible snare. Darkness occluded her vision, and the setting shifted to something entirely different. Instead of the inn, Vanisa stood within the grand hall of a noble, gothic castle, illuminated with hundreds of candles flickering small, eerie flames.

“Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn,” a sultry voice spoke from the darkness.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Vanisa called back.

Out of the shadows, a figure coalesced, draped in extravagant silks and leathers, and bejeweled in topaz and garnet. Red eyes glowed from beneath metallic silver bangs. As the woman strode forward, the very atmosphere around her shimmered with power, like heat from a freshly hammered blade.

“Mirela von Kilgrave, Grand Duchess of Istandrine,” the woman announced, flicking her long silver hair off of her shoulder dispassionately. Her hair tumbled back behind a long, flowing cape that trailed behind her as she walked.

“Ah,” smiled Vanisa. “I was wondering when the local Vampire representatives would make themselves known. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m afraid the feeling is not mutual, Comtesse,” quipped Mirela. “It’s been brought to my attention that you are the cause of my supply line interruptions. Why, I must ask, is the Ruby Countess interfering with my chattel?”

Vanisa rankled at the implication. “Your ‘chattel,’ as you put it, have been forced into an addiction to a drug called Lustre, which is altering the way spirit energy is being consumed in the entire region.”

Mirela yawned, displaying a terrifying set of diamond-edged fangs. “And?” she drawled.

“It doesn’t bother you that the girls you’re feeding upon are contaminated?”

The vampiress smiled, trailing her tongue over her glossed lips. “Have you any idea what their blood tastes like? I scarcely imagine Maou herself tastes as delightful.” Mirela paused, tilting her head as she considered what she’d just said. “No, I don’t suppose you do. Pity…”

“Fine,” hissed Vanisa. “I suppose I’ll get right to my point, then. I have reason to believe Baron Allafore is dabbling in dark magic. Evil magic.”

“You mean, like mine?” Mirela asked, indicating the magic swirling around her as she smiled darkly.

“No, Your Grace,” countered Vanisa. “Like this.

Vanisa held up her hand and spun an illusion into the air, of two circles, one within another, with random symbols within them. While she did not yet know the exact makeup of the design, she hoped it might get the vampire’s attention.

“Just what is that supposed to be?” Mirela demanded, her smile fading.

“I apologize for the crude likeness,” sighed Vanisa. “My Kikimora was the one who witnessed it, and she is busy inscribing a copy as we speak. It was a mark she saw tattooed upon a human woman. Have you seen anything like it before?”

“Ask me if I care what Allafore does to his humans,” Mirela replied, her tone dripping with ire.

“There is evil at work here, Your Grace,” the countess advised. “Evil not seen since before Maou’s time. Believe me, or not. It is your choice. However, I implore you to perform your own investigation. If there is a chance I am correct, then Allafore, a human, has been playing you and your sisters for years.”

“No human could ever deceive me,” came Mirela’s haughty reply.

“Tell me, then,” suggested Vanisa, “If you had to go back to drinking blood not laced with Lustre, could you do it? Or does the very thought of it repulse you?”

The duchess peered carefully at Vanisa, sizing her up. A flicker of hope danced within the countess. Had she gotten through to this woman? Vampires were the most stubborn, stuck up, self-absorbed bitches she’d ever known. This was probably a waste of time, to be honest.

“Where is the source of this so-called evil?” Mirela asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Most likely the Allafore Manor itself,” said Vanisa. “Take care if you send one of your girls to investigate. There is evil there, the likes of which not even my chevalier has seen before.”

“Are you concerned for our well-being?” Mirela asked with a chuckle. “That’s so adorable. Very well, you’ve managed to amuse me for the time being, so I suppose I won’t whisk you away and consign you to be my court jester.” She pouted briefly. “And I was so looking forward to it. Oh well. Go on. Play your little games. I will be monitoring your progress closely.”

The duchess took a couple steps back, fading into shadows. The illusion melted along with her. As the vampire’s magic faded from the hall, Vanisa found herself standing in the middle of the inn’s second floor.

“Do try not to die, Ruby Countess,” Mirela’s wispy voice faded through the hall as the last of her magic dissipated.

“Vampires,” mumbled Vanisa as she set about her previous task.

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Emilia breathed a sigh of relief as her beloved returned, carrying a tray of food. A delectable scent filled the room from whatever freshly-cooked meal the countess set down next to her.

“Is that the mark?” Vanisa asked, looking down over Emilia’s shoulder.

“As close as I can remember, Mistress,” said Emilia with a nod. A dark, angry set of runes made up the twin circles upon the parchment. It made her queasy just to peer at it.

“Hmm, not as far off as I thought,” mused Vanisa.

“Mistress?” prompted Emilia. “What do you mean?”

Vanisa’s emerald eyes met Emilia’s. “Were you aware Vampires live in these hills?”

Emilia nodded, swallowing uneasily. “I suspected as much, but I have never seen one.”

“I just did,” the countess told her.

“Wha?” gasped Emilia. “Are you all right? Wh-what did she say?”

“She merely voiced concerns about our interference with her food supply,” Vanisa assured her. “I cautioned her about the evil within Allafore’s estate, but I’m not entirely sure I got through to her.”

“She would be a helpful ally,” Emilia noted.

Vanisa beamed at her. “You’re starting to get the hang of this, aren’t you?” she asked, offering Emilia a peck on the cheek. “Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Vampires are among the oldest and most powerful mamono in the world. They do not concede their allegiance to just anyone.”

“Just anyone!?” protested Emilia, her cheeks flushing hotly as she squirmed in her seat. “You are the Ruby Countess!”

Vanisa embraced her from behind, leaning against the chair. “Oh, my sweet, darling Emilia. She proclaimed herself the Grand Duchess of Istandrine. To her, I’m afraid I’m little more than a wealthy courtier, trespassing on her holdings.”

“But, um, that’s, uh,” Emilia waffled. Vanisa’s close proximity in that sexy outfit wasn’t helping!

“Now you understand my general distain of vampires,” Vanisa said, patting the girl on her head and taking a seat beside her. “She could just be saving face, however,” she noted, plucking a succulent strip of cooked meat out of a generous pile. “In which case, the baron is going to have his hands full dealing with her, once she finds our claims to be true.”

Emilia’s mind danced with questions. As she drew breath to ask one, a knock sounded at the door.

“Enter,” called Vanisa.

The door opened to admit a tired-looking Megumi, accompanied by, in contrast, an excited Gia. “Your Grace,” said Megumi wearily.

“Gia!” Emilia called, waving at the petite squirrel girl. “I never got to thank you for helping me out, earlier.”

“Sure thing, kiddo,” replied Gia, flashing a bright smile. “For what your honey paid us, we’d be happy to repeat the favor anytime.”

“My…” Emilia trailed off, clapping her hand over her mouth. “How did you know!?”

Gia chittered with laughter. “Remember who you’re talkin’ to! As if we’d miss your drooling on your way to town, moaning, ‘Ohh Vanisa…’”

“That’s quite enough,” grumbled the countess, attempting to cover a scarlet blush with her gloved hands. “How did the raid go?”

“I got good news and bad news,” sighed Megumi. “Good news is, the raid was successful. Our mercenaries captured eight girls. Seven humans and one Kejourou. Bad news is, Alicia was not among them.”

“What!?” cried Emilia. Her blood chilled to ice. “But I was so sure! Oh gods… We have to get her back!!”

Emilia felt Vanisa’s hand resting on her shoulder. It did little to comfort the sickening feeling weighing down in her gut. Gods, no! This can’t be happening!

“Bring the Kejourou to me,” Vanisa ordered. “Keep the other girls safely hidden. Do we trust these men?”

Gia shrugged. “As long as the money keeps flowing, yeah. If your resources are starting to get a bit thin, I’d say leave them with us.”

“Won’t that cost us?”

A small tic twitched in the squirrel’s face, but she sighed and shook her head. “We realize you’re trying to do something rather noble here, and umm… We kinda have a soft spot for humans.” The girl lowered her gaze, poking at the floor with the tip of her furry paw.

“Thank you, Gia,” Vanisa said warmly.

“Don’t expect us to make a habit of it!” the Ratatoskr said, squirming. A healthy blush spread over her chubby little cheeks. “Anyways! I’ll go get the Kejourou for you. See ya!”

With a twirl and a dash, Gia zipped out of the room.

“Your Grace?” asked Megumi. “Do you mind if I…” she trailed off, indicating the tray of food nearby.

“Of course, Meg,” replied Vanisa with a smile. “You’ve earned it.”

Megumi gratefully dove in, glancing Emilia’s way as she munched. “Em-ee-eea ooks ood,” the Danuki mumbled with her mouth crammed full.

Emilia could not find a smile to return. Her thoughts remained with Alicia. She trembled, covering her face in her hands, and wiping tears with her feathered wrist.

“We’ll get through this, my love,” Vanisa soothed.

Megumi coughed, her eyes bugging out as she tried to swallow. Reaching frantically for a glass, she poured herself some juice and guzzled it. “Wh-aaa?” she gasped. “Your love? Seriously, what did I miss!? You gotta tell me this time!”

Smiling proudly, Vanisa stood, turned around behind Emilia, and rested her hands on the maid’s shoulders. “Megumi, may I present Comtesse Emilia Feathermoon de Gwynn, my wife.”

Megumi proceeded to spit out what remained in her mouth all over Emilia.

“WHAATT??” Megumi cried out with naught a smidgen of dignity.

“Megumi!” huffed Vanisa. “Look at this mess!”

“Mess!” squealed Emilia. “Please let me?” At last, something to distract her from Alicia’s plight.

Vanisa paused, and Emilia jumped at the opportunity. The first opportunity to clean for Mistress as her wife! In a flash, she produced a fresh set of rags and cleaned up the front of Megumi’s blouse, attending to the table next. As each droplet and crumb disappeared, Emilia felt a swell of pride, and did not stop to clean herself until everything else was spotless. Turning the rags down on herself, she marveled at how easily the stains came out. She wouldn’t even need to take it off and wash it! This Arachne thread silk was amazing!

“I can’t believe it, your wife?” gawked Megumi. “Is that even allowed?”

“Do you have a problem with that?” Vanisa asked, hands on her hips as she glared at the Danuki.

“Oh, no, not at all,” giggled Megumi. “It’s just a little surprising. Well, that, and I’ve been waiting years for you to settle down already. It’s about damn time you found yourself some happiness.”

“Who said anything about settling down?” winked Vanisa. She shared a conspiratorial smile with Emilia.

“Oh gods, why me?” groaned Megumi.

Another knock at the door. Megumi opened it, admitting Gia with a young Kejourou girl, wearing a tattered linen shift. Tanith strode in behind them. Gia turned, apparently not expecting her, and nearly shrieked at the sight of the Dullahan.

“Gahh!” she wailed, fur spiking every which way. “I told you to keep her away from me! I’m… I’m outta here. Bye!”

The Ratatoskr darted out.

Emilia gasped. Vanisa, Megumi, and Tanith both turned to her. “It’s—it’s her…” she said breathlessly, clapping her hands over her lips to stifle her horror.

“She’s the one in your vision?” Vanisa prompted.

Emilia nodded. “I only saw her back, but the way she parted her hair, it’s the same.” She approached, centering herself in the girl’s vision. “Hello,” she called softly. “I’m Emilia. You’re safe, now. Can you tell me your name?”

The girl said nothing. Her dark brown eyes remained out of focus. Emilia turned to her companions. “What’s wrong with her?” she demanded, tears stinging her eyes.

“A shroud of darkness sullies her aura,” Tanith noted. “That, and…” she trailed off, inspecting the girl carefully. “Sabbath magic.”

“Sabbath magic?” echoed Vanisa.

Megumi perked up. “Ooh, I’ve heard of things like this. Some of the brothel patrons prefer um, well, underage girls.” She fidgeted, tapping her two index fingers together. “She looks fourteen or fifteen, I suppose, but I have a hunch, if Sabbath magic is involved, she’s probably a good deal older than that.”

“An ideal combination,” murmured Tanith. “Her body is mature enough to harvest large quantities of spirit energy but enchanted to appeal to the fetishes of twisted minds.”

“Gods damn it,” hissed Vanisa, trembling with the force of her rage. “Damn that man, damn him to the seventh hell!”

“Mistress,” moaned Emilia, curling her arms around Vanisa from behind. She rested her head against her beloved’s shoulder and caressed her with words. “We’ll stop him. We’ll end this. But please, calm down.”

Vanisa sighed, clutching Emilia’s hands tightly. “Bless you, my love,” she sighed, patting the girl’s head. “Why can we not speak with her?” she asked, indicating the Kejourou.

“The mark!” gasped Emilia suddenly. “She has one, I’m sure of it!”

“Of what do you speak?” Tanith prompted her.

Being directly addressed by Tanith used to terrify Emilia. Wonder when that stopped bothering her? She picked up her parchment and held it out to the pale woman. “This is what I saw on Alicia. It was tattooed into her side.”

Tanith peered at it for a moment. “I have not encountered a device such as this, but the markings upon it are familiar to me.”

“What does it mean?” Megumi asked.

“One moment,” said the Dullahan as she studied the drawing. “Restrain. Establish. Prohibit. Occlude. Obfuscate. These are similar effects designed to combine into one effect.”

“And what is that?” asked Vanisa.

“Control.”

Emilia shivered. “Wh-what does that do to have it on your body?”

“What color was it?” the Dullahan asked her. “Be specific. It is very important.”

“Solid black,” said Emilia. “Just like I drew it.”

“Then, it was inactive,” replied Tanith. “We must inspect this woman for an active rune. Be wary not to touch it.”

“It was on Alicia’s waist, above her hip, a little to the back,” Emilia said as Tanith and Megumi carefully disrobed the girl.

The linen fell to the ground, pooling around the Kejourou’s ankles. Her hair instinctively shifted out of the way. Emilia quickly scanned her front, finding nothing but the pale, flawless body of a budding young girl.

“I don’t see it,” Megumi noted. “Nothing on her waist.”

“The marque may rest in a different place for optimal efficiency,” Tanith advised. “Keep looking.”

“She’s only got so much skin, Tanith,” sighed Megumi. “Wait a second…” She pointed behind the Kejourou’s head. “There. Base of her neck.”

Tanith carefully gathered up the girl’s curtain of hair and tugged it aside, revealing a glowing, red control marque etched dead center upon the back of her neck. “Crimson,” noted Tanith. “Controlling the conscious mind. Her body and subconscious are still reactive and will respond if stimulated.”

Vanisa hissed, her anger once again getting the better of her. Emilia sensed it welling up within her beloved, and she offered the woman a tender caress. “Please, Mistress,” she cooed.

“Forgive me, Emilia,” sighed the countess. “Don’t stop anchoring me to reality. Not ever.”

Emilia smiled and nodded. She glanced over at the Kejourou. “Can we get it off of her?”

“My blade may be able to disrupt the enchantment,” Tanith noted. “Do you bid me make an attempt?”

Emilia gulped. Tanith hadn’t asked Vanisa the question. She’d asked her. Emilia nodded apprehensively. “We have to try. She’s suffering.”

“Lay her on the bed, face down,” instructed Tanith. “Your Graces, one of you hold her down. The other, gather her hair and hold tightly. She cannot be permitted to move, or I may damage her.”

“I’ll hold her,” offered Vanisa, guiding the girl to lie down upon the bed. “Emilia, take her hair?”

“I’ll grab her legs,” Megumi suggested as Emilia crawled up upon the bed and carefully gathered every strand. Gods! It felt absolutely divine to hold it, like liquid silk. A pang of jealousy taunted her briefly, but she pushed it aside. Everyone had their talents.

“Is your hold secure?” pressed Tanith. “Ensure that it is. I begin.”

Drawing her terrifying sword, Tanith crossed it over her face, bringing the magenta blade close to her lips. Drawing a breath, she blew upon the blade, scattering the dusty ash that had collected upon it, and revealing pulsing red veins that ran throughout the metal.

Carefully, ever so carefully, Tanith tipped the edge of the sword down into the Kejourou’s neck and began to cut a diagonal line through the marque. It sizzled and crackled angrily at being defiled, filling the air with acrid smoke.

“Gods above, that’s rank!” wailed Megumi.

Emilia sniffed, wishing instantly that she hadn’t. The stench brought to mind an image of rotten meat, roasting on a fire, beside a corpse left to rot in the sun, and seasoned with a dash of sulfur. While it horrified her, she seemed far more easily able to endure it than Megumi or Vanisa, both of which appeared seconds from vomiting.

“Sweet Bacchus, hurry up,” cried Vanisa, turning her head away as she held the girl’s shoulders firmly. “Potpourri from the sphincter of Hell!”

Suddenly, the Kejourou’s hair thrashed and undulated wildly in Emilia’s hands. “Ack!” she cried. “It moves by itself!

“Hold tightly!” urged Tanith. “I am nearly finished.”

“Khh…” grunted the girl beneath.

“She’s coming around!” gasped Megumi. “Ugh, I’m going to throw up.”

“The expunging is complete,” said Tanith, sheathing her sword. The marque sizzled, shriveling up and crumbling into dust, which the Dullahan brushed off, leaving only a pink line where she’d cut the girl.

“AHHHHGGH!!” the Kejourou suddenly screamed, wrenching her hair out of Emilia’s grip. Sitting up, she cried a string of foreign words Emilia couldn’t make out, and then threw herself into the maid’s embrace.

“I’m sorry?” Emilia said, patting the back of the girl’s head. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

The Kejourou kept repeating one short phrase over and over, in between wracking sobs.

“She’s saying,” sniffled Megumi, “‘Thank you, kind miss, thank you, thank you.’”

Tears welled up in Emilia’s eyes as emotion gripped her heart. This went on for several minutes, leaving Emilia feeling rather helpless. All she could do was pat the girl gently, stroke her silky hair, and hum something gentle and soothing in her ear.

Megumi began speaking the girl’s native tongue, Zipangunese, which seemed to calm her down. The Kejourou sat up, turning to Megumi. Her hair moved to cover her intimate areas by itself, and they began conversing rapidly. Several times, the Kejourou gestured wildly at Emilia.

“She says she remembers you,” Megumi said in the midland tongue. “She tried to communicate with you, but you did not understand. She thought all hope was lost, and that she was going to die, never seeing her sisters again. She says there is nothing she could do in this life to ever repay you.”

Emilia covered her face and cried. Too much. It was just too much. “H-how are we supposed t-to fight such evil?

Megumi translated.

The Kejourou turned to Emilia and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. Softly, she spoke, and as she spoke, Megumi translated.

“A dark place,” Megumi repeated. “We were in a dark place. Do you remember? A place where darkness is not only the absence of light. A place where darkness consumed the light. The only lights that remained were bits that were left over, like crumbs having fallen from the tables.”

“H-how long? How long were you there?” Emilia asked between sniffles.

The Kejourou waited patiently for Megumi to translate for her. She shook her head. “No,” Megumi repeated for her, “Not me. We were both there. You and I.”

“Wh-what?” Vanisa gasped. “Emilia was, there? In that dark place?”

“Yes,” Megumi translated. “For so long that I wondered if we would be fed to the spirit light.”

Tanith stiffened. “No, it cannot be?” she said tightly. “That evil was vanquished over a thousand years ago.”

“She wants to know what you mean,” Megumi said. “So do I, actually.”

“We knew them as Spirit Light Weapons,” Tanith explained, “Except they were not weapons. They were creatures, but the name stuck amongst the ranks of monsters, due to the soulless nature of their existence. They are spectral creatures that know only hunger, and feed upon the life force of all living things. Their energy is malleable and can be infused within weapons to increase the power of the blades. This is how the first cursed swords were created.”

Tanith paused to allow the information to sink in. “However, over the passage of time, their hunger only grew, to a point where it could no longer be controlled. Shortly after the rise of Maou, she led a precision strike force into the breach left over from the original Demon Lord’s reign with orders to seal it. In order to do so, we were required to fight off the Spirit Light Weapons from inside the breach, only retreating when the task was nearly complete. Many Dullahans perished in that conflict.”

As Megumi finished translating, the Kejourou’s clenched fists pressed tightly against her lips as she trembled in terror.

“How did you survive in their realm?” Tanith asked.

“The spirit lights devoured some of us,” Megumi translated, “But they obeyed the men holding us prisoner. Some of them have spirit lights inside them. These men produced a silvery powder that they made us consume.”

“Lustre,” hissed Vanisa.

“It made us stronger,” Megumi repeated. “Well, some of us. Not all of us survived. Those that fell ill were fed to the spirit lights. The rest received a rune that took our minds away from us.” The Kejourou paused, touching her fingers to the back of her neck. “Did you remove mine?”

Emilia nodded. “We cut it off of you.”

The girl hurled herself into Emilia’s arms again, and this time, what she said did not need any translation. Emilia gently held her by her shoulders and gazed sadly at her.

“You said I was there, too?” she prompted. The Kejourou glanced at Megumi for her translation, then nodded.

“Powder made you sick,” Megumi translated, “But the men did not feed you to the spirit lights. They stopped giving you the powder, but the spirit lights did something to you. To your mind. I thought you were going to die…” Megumi trailed off, emotion closing her throat. “Give me a second,” she implored, blowing her nose on a handkerchief.

Nodding at the Kejourou, she continued. “Eventually, you began calling one of them Master. They took you from the dark place, and I never saw you again.”

“Em-ilia…” sobbed Vanisa, beckoning to her. Emilia sniffled, crawled over to her, and collapsed in her embrace. The Kejourou edged closer, and embraced Emilia as well, covering her with her arms and every strand of hair.

“This is grave news,” murmured Tanith. “I must leave at once and report this incident to Royal Makai. We will need to muster the Makai Knights in order to put a stop to this.”

The Kejourou turned and spoke. “No,” Megumi answered for her, “There is no time for that. The spirit lights hunger. They desire to enter into this world. If they do, they will feed upon the life they find all around them, and then no force in this world will be able to stop them. They suspect someone is interfering with their efforts, and will act soon.”

“How can you possibly know that?” Vanisa asked breathlessly.

“Because they said so,” said Megumi on the Kejourou’s behalf, “They are not subtle. Their desire is plainly known. It is their wish to devour this realm and return it to a state of utter darkness.”

“Darkness prevails,” murmured Emilia.

The Kejourou nodded, not needing a translation.

“Sweet seven hells,” gasped Vanisa. “So that is Tenebrae Vincunt’s objective? Are they completely insane!?”

“Their will is seduced,” the Kejourou spoke through Megumi. “They are no longer men. They have become the agents of darkness.”

Suddenly, Emilia remembered something. “Who is their master?” she asked. “I remember overhearing one of them saying the Master was not pleased with the setback in Zipangu.”

The Kejourou shook her head. “She does not know,” Megumi replied. “However,” she continued translating, “There was someone else. A woman. Powerful. Seductive. The spirit lights scattered before her voice, but I never caught a glimpse of her. No one else could command the lights with such authority.”

“Doesn’t sound like she’s their master,” Emilia noted. “More like, someone they fear.”

“I cannot imagine the wealth of power required to strike fear within the Spirit Light Weapons,” Tanith murmured. “It is a shame there is no way for us to contact her. We are outmatched as we are.”

“Is there no chance you can seal that breach, Tanith?” Vanisa asked.

“If it is your wish, I will proceed in the attempt, but it is likely the last order you will ever give me.”

“That’s no good,” protested Emilia. “We won’t let you sacrifice yourself. There has to be another way.”

“What about Ash Heart?” Vanisa suggested.

“Huh?” Emilia interrupted. “What the heck is Ash Heart?”

“Possibly,” Tanith admitted. “However, against such prolific evil she has not yet been tested.”

“I have an idea,” remarked Megumi. “Let’s look at it from a business perspective. Think about it. Why are these spirit light things giving Lustre to the brothels?” She paused to translate her words to the Kejourou.

“It’s a booming business for Allafore,” Vanisa replied.

“I seriously doubt those spirit light things give a damn about money,” sighed Megumi. “They’re fattening us up. Sweetening everyone’s blood with spirit energy.”

“Oh, my goddess,” gasped Emilia.

“A sound theory,” agreed Tanith.

“So, then,” continued Megumi, “We cut them off. Break the spell. Free all those girls from the brothels.”

“How do we do that?” Emilia asked. “It took almost fifteen minutes to get the mark off of her,” she indicated the Kejourou. “There’s got to be hundreds of girls pent up in those awful places.

“Vanisa knows how,” Megumi said with a smug smile.

“Indeed,” Vanisa confirmed. “We shouldn’t waste any time. Tanith, prepare everything we need. We’re going to disrupt those spirit energy supply lines. Tonight.

“As you wish, Your Grace,” said Tanith. Turning to leave, she faded into shadow before leaving the room and disappeared.

The Kejourou asked a question softly, her dark brown eyes on Emilia.

“She wishes to know your name,” Megumi said. “She was never told before.”

Emilia smiled and nodded. “Emilia Feathermoon de Gwynn.” Her smile deepened. Just saying the whole thing did wonders for soothing her fears.

“Em—ee—ree—aah?” the Kejourou said, attempting to sound it out through her thick accent.

Emilia nodded, grinning widely. “Close enough! What is yours?”

Megumi translated the question. The Kejourou slid off the bed slowly, turned to face Emilia, and bowed. “Hamamoto Mitsuki.”

She added something else that Emilia didn’t catch. “She requests that you call her Mitsuki, which is an honor. In Zipangu, it is traditional to use the family name except amongst very close friends.”

Emilia blushed, covering her smile with her fingers. “Mitsuki? Did I say it right?”

The Kejourou nodded enthusiastically, crossing her arms over her chest with a shiver.

“Megumi, would you fetch her something to wear?” Vanisa asked of her.

“Certainly, Your Grace,” said Megumi with a smile. “I should be able to convince one of the stores to open back up.” She bowed to Mitsuki briefly and departed.

“Do you really think we can stop him?” Emilia asked, fear starting to rise up like bile in her throat again.

“Look at her,” Vanisa said, indicating Mitsuki, who had begun exploring the room. The girl found herself a hair brush and began brushing her mass of hair. “I can’t bear to see her, or any other women suffer even one more night against this evil. We’re going to stop them, Emilia. And we’re going to stop them with love.”

“With—with love?” echoed Emilia. “How are we going to do that?”

“Wait and see,” giggled Vanisa. “Just wait, and see.”

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

So, there they stood, in front of the largest brothel in Istandrine. Vanisa, Emilia, Megumi, Tanith, and the Kejourou, Mitsuki. Five women against an entire small country, entrenched in evil for decades, perhaps centuries. Was she insane? Vanisa smirked. Perhaps. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her.

“Go,” she commanded.

Together, they approached the entrance of the brothel. Patrons cast the five women wary glances, but did nothing to stop them as they strode into the lobby. Once inside, Emilia spoke, raising her voice for all to hear.

“By order of the Ruby Countess, this establishment is now closed!!” shouted the maid. “Release the women at once!”

The men waiting to be escorted to a room turned and burst into laughter.

“Oi, are ye serious!?” one of them barked.

“You and what army, Countess!?”

A smug smile spread across Vanisa’s lips. “This army…”

Slipping her flute from her sleeve, she tipped it to her lips and begun to play.

At once, the atmosphere of the brothel filled with an entrancing melody, one that froze the arrogant men in their tracks. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Emilia began to sing alongside the melody, adding a lilting, dulcet voice to the haunting melody.

Mesmerized, the men parted for the two countesses, wearing glassy, slovenly expressions as they gazed at her. Emilia snapped her fingers at the brothel attendants as she sang, spurring them to action. She and Vanisa produced their music in perfect harmony, acting as one as they filled the entire building, including the outlying businesses and homes, with their love.

Within minutes, girls began pouring out of the various rooms, rubbing their wrists and ankles around raw skin where the shackles held them in place for days, weeks, or even months. Mitsuki squealed with glee as more than one Kejourou emerged, heading into her embrace in a daze.

“Gods above,” whispered Megumi. “It’s working! The power of that instrument never ceases to amaze me.”

Turning to leave, Vanisa and Emilia led the way out of the brothel and out into the street. Everyone else filed out behind her. Once the last person stepped out, Vanisa nodded to Tanith, who tossed a torch into the open door. The Dullahan waved her hand, casting a spell which intensified its heat, and within moments, purifying flames engulfed the building.

Mitsuki cheered!

Soon, the other Kejourou girls joined her cry. Then, the human slaves, for as the building burned, the spells upon them began to break. Love and excitement filled their bodies, fueled by the song and music from the two countesses and the love they shared for each other.

“I scarcely believe it!” cried Megumi. “It’s overpowering the marques!”

“We should not linger,” cautioned Tanith.

At last, Vanisa drew her melody to a close. As she and Emilia finished, the men shook their heads of the dark magic that had gripped them as well. Cries of joy became mixed with wails of grief as many of the men, some with families, came to realize what they’d been doing.

“We must press on,” urged the Dullahan. Vanisa nodded and turned to the crowd.

“Citizens of Istandrine!” she called loudly. The cheering and wailing died down, and every ear turned to her. “Keep the song my beloved and I just sang for you in your hearts! Go, travel throughout the land! Sing the song for any who comes your way! A song of love. Of freedom!!”

The crowd cheered and dispersed. Vanisa wore her smug smile as Emilia gazed at her in wonder. “Mistress,” she said breathlessly. “Will they be able to break the spell without you?”

“The power of the flute’s magic fades over time,” said Vanisa, “And without us,” she stressed, “The effectiveness will not be as potent, but the effects will surely be felt across the land. These lands have been dry and bereft of love for so very long… We’ve struck a match, my darling. The fire of love will sweep across this land and deny evil its stronghold.”

“Amazing,” said Emilia. “I wondered how you were going to affect every brothel in the country in one night. To the manor, then?”

“To the manor,” affirmed Vanisa. She turned and found that Mitsuki and all of the Kejourou remained with them. There were six, in total.

“They do not wish to leave your side, Your Graces,” Megumi said. “This is an unfamiliar land to them.”

“They may stay, but they are placing themselves in grave danger,” Vanisa cautioned.

“They are aware, Your Grace.”

“We go, then,” announced Vanisa. “Evil hides within the darkness, waiting to strike. It fears the light of love, and we will shine it upon the denizens of this darkness until they flee or fall.”

 

~ Emilia ~

 

Every nerve in Emilia’s body tingled with excitement and apprehension. Ten women against the might of the evil festering within the manor’s east wing. Emilia’s heart swelled in her chest, her emotions fanning out the feathers in her wrists and tail. She practically felt like she could fly.

Nothing could stop them. Nothing could stand in the way of this love.

Except…

“GET DOWN!” shouted Tanith all of the sudden.

The girls all ducked, just as a massive ghostly blue-white arc streaked over them like a gigantic scythe.

“Oh, my goddess!!” cried Megumi.

It only took Emilia a couple seconds to determine why. She glanced around, finding every living thing from about four feet and higher just—just gone. Whatever that thing was, it consumed everything, leaving behind only dust.

“Spirit Light Weapon!” warned Tanith.

“Bacchus preserve us!” cursed Vanisa. “That was a Spirit Light Weapon!?”

Tanith held up her fist to signal for quiet. And quiet she received. Utter silence. No one dared even breathe. Nocturnal creatures made no sound. Or, perhaps they were all dead. Consumed by that horrifying manifestation of unholy hunger.

Except…

A sigh. A breath on the wind. A whisper. Strange glowing lights in the distance.

“They’ve come through the rift!” cried Tanith, drawing her sword. Terrifying, twisted creatures of sickly ghostly light advanced on their position. Tanith knelt in a defensive stance, swinging her blade at the first creature to charge. Her sword sailed right through the entity, snuffing out its light, scattering ash upon the women crouched behind the Dullahan.

“We must fall back!” Tanith urged, spinning around to cut down two more of the creatures. “I am but one! I alone cannot stem their advance out in the open!”

“You are not alone,” a wispy, sensual voice replied.

Next to Tanith, the air shimmered, twisting and warping into the figure of a young woman, cloaked in shadow and clad in darksteel armor. Wavy, fuchsia-colored hair. Glowing, red eyes.

The girl spun on her heels, her cloak extending into a pair of massive wings as she wove a powerful spell that pushed back several of the creatures. They retreated, for the moment.

“Is that the vampire that you…” Emilia started to ask her beloved.

The girl turned, flashing a coy smile. “I’m Auri von Kilgrave, and I’m here to help you.”

“Auri?” Vanisa posited. “Any relation to…”

“To Mirela?” The girl winked. “She’s my mother. We investigated, just like you suggested. Turns out, these miserable humans have been poisoning us.”

“They are not human,” said Tanith in her eerie monotone. “Not any longer.”

“Hm?” Auri turned to face the Dullahan. Her wings fluttered and folded into a cape behind her.

“I was a fool not to notice it sooner,” Tanith growled, a thread of anger edging into her expression as the muscles in her jaw tightened. “The thread of darkness, the evil I sensed within the manor? Their inhabitants have given themselves over to the spirit light.”

“So, the Spirit Light Weapons are already here,” Vanisa murmured, her voice tightening. Emilia rested a gentle hand on her shoulder, willing comfort into her beloved.

“Indeed,” sighed Tanith. “They have likely been so for years. I must… regretfully advise, this is a battle we cannot win. We face an evil thousands of years in the making, one which predates even Maou herself.”

“Yeah, like hell they’re taking Istandrine from us,” hissed Auri.

“You do not understand,” countered Tanith. “They already have.”

“No, not completely,” Vanisa shot back. “Had they already, my music would have had no effect on the men and women in town. It works by nurturing the love and lust that lives within the hearts of all living things. Somehow, I doubt the spirit lights have that, even in its smallest measurement.”

“That is correct, Your Grace,” said Tanith. “I misspoke. There may yet be a chance.”

“That’s more like it,” muttered Auri.

Emilia scanned the countryside, feeling rather naked and exposed. The Spirit Light Weapon’s attack cut down every tree at its knees as far as her eyes could see. But, something still bothered her about it.

“Tanith,” she asked, attracting everyone’s attention. “Why did the Spirit Light Weapon attack only once? The big one, that killed all the trees?”

“Did they underestimate us?” Vanisa theorized.

“The rift must be unstable on this side,” said Tanith. “Closing it will isolate the Spirit Light Weapons within their realm, and cutting off any manifestations in ours.”

“So, all we have to do is blow up the damned thing?” growled Auri. “Why the hell didn’t you say so in the first place! Leave this to us.”

“Wait!” shouted Tanith as the girl took wing and shot into the dark skies. “Such a rift can only be closed from the other side!” The Dullahan sighed. “Foolish girl. She will only exacerbate the problem!”

“Um,” gulped Emilia. “L-lights…” She trembled, pointing in the direction of the manor. With Auri gone, the spirit lights began edging closer.

Tanith drew her sword. “Whatever happens, do not let them touch you.”

Megumi translated Tanith’s instructions to the Kejourou girls, but they seemed to have their own idea about what to do. A curtain of hair, interwoven between all six of them, entwined around the entire group. Each girl interlaced her hands with the girl beside her as they began to chant something in Zipangunese.

“What are they doing?” Emilia asked, reaching out to poke the interwoven hair in front of her. She gasped. “It’s solid!” The smooth surface had hardened and thickened into a kind of barrier.

“A seal,” Megumi replied. “They’re forming a talisman against evil. Zipangunese seals are generally written in physical form and placed upon entryways or in homes, but they’re using each other to protect us!”

“Mistress!” cried Emilia, tittering with a sudden burst of inspiration. “Play your music! It might not stop them, but it might slow them down!”

“It’s worth a try,” nodded Vanisa, but before she could begin to play, an explosion rocked the countryside, its close proximity forcing everyone to their knees. The spirit lights retreated back towards the manor.

“The Vampires? Damned fools,” hissed Tanith. “We must advance!”

Emilia gripped her mistress’ shoulders tightly and helped her rise. “Mistress? Are you hurt?” she asked, gently stroking her arms.

“I’ll be fine,” grunted Vanisa. “Thank you, my love.” Emilia blushed briefly, nodding with a smile.

“The Kejourou are eager to put an end to this,” Megumi told them, dusting herself off as she attended to the midnight-haired girls. “As am I.”

Tanith stiffened as she rose. “Something is happening. I sense a great evil entering this realm. The rift is widening.”

“Gods,” whispered Megumi as they resumed their march to the manor. “The stars are going out!”

Emilia gazed up in terror, verifying Megumi’s observation. One by one, the twinkling stars flickered and faded away.

“Then, perhaps I should relight them?” offered Vanisa, tipping her flute to her lips. Piping a tune, she gently spread a lovely melody through the ravaged thicket, lifting the gloom as well as everyone’s spirits.

They would need it.

Ascending the hill, the women at last came within visual range of the manor. A flutter of gasps escaped their collective lips at the sight. Its entire east wing laid in ruins. Hovering where the second story would have been, a writhing swirl of spirit light spun in a concentric spiral with a core of utter darkness at its heart. Thick ropes of spectral, wispy energy twisted and curled into the air like groping hands, seeking anything they might devour.

Not even Emilia’s darkest nightmares and visions truly served to prepare her. She clung timidly to her mistress’ arm, unable to vocalize the song she longed to sing alongside the music. Much to her amazement, her mistress managed to keep playing right through the terrible sight looming before her. A gentle swell of pride warmed Emilia’s heart. Mistress was so brave!

A scream filled the air. From the sky. The Kejourou girls tightened their barrier, but what landed nearby was not an enemy.

“Auri!” cried Emilia.

The vampiress moaned, coughing up precious blood as she struggled to get up. Her wings trembled uselessly beside her, and her armor sizzled, chipped and cracked in several places.

“Gods… damn it,” she hissed. “That power! Punches right through darksteel. Might as well have gone in naked…”

“Megumi,” implored Emilia, “Tell the girls to draw her in with us. Mistress, keep playing. I think it’s holding them back.”

Vanisa nodded and continued the melody.  The Kejourou girls followed Megumi’s instructions, not only drawing the vampire through the barrier, but binding her wounds with their hair as well.

“Nnn,” moaned Aura. “Gods, that feels good,” she sighed as dozens of separate tendrils of hair curled into the cracks of her armor and attended her wounds. “You were right all along,” she lamented, gazing up at Emilia before narrowing her eyes at the rift. “Help me up. Don’t worry about me. I should still be able to keep pace with you.”

The Kejourou’s hair pooled underneath Aura and lifted her to her feet. She gripped several of the strands and attempted to pull them out of her armor, but winced, hissing in pain. Deciding to leave them in, she nodded in thanks to the girls.

“We press on,” Tanith announced, leading the procession. The ravening light withered from Vanisa’s music, curling away from her as they drew close to the manor’s front entrance.

“That’s close enough,” a man’s voice called out.

“Allafore!” cried Emilia.

Baron Allafore stood framed in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, glaring at the women. His dark brown hair contained streaks of ashen grey, and a layer of dust and ash peppered his clothes. “The Ruby Countess. I should have known. Not only have you lost me my servant, but you’ve broken the spells we placed upon the brothels, interrupting decades of careful preparation.”

Vanisa smirked, pausing in her playing. “Happy to be of service, Your Grace.”

“We knew almost everything necessary about your little scheme,” sighed the man. “However, none of us could have guessed you possess the Flute of Hamelin. How did you come to be in possession of such an artifact?”

“It is an heirloom, passed down through generations,” Vanisa replied. “Shall I pipe you another tune?”

“Perhaps another time,” the baron said, stepping closer. Tanith stepped out of the hair-barrier, sword in hand, to block his way, forcing him to come to a stop about halfway down the courtyard path.

“Emilia,” he called.

“Your Grace,” Emilia replied, an empty, hollow feeling settling in her chest. “Why? Why have you done this to us?”

“Life is a privilege, Emilia,” said the baron. “To be enjoyed by the gracious permission of the gods, solely for their pleasure and entertainment. That was the singular reason by which we were created. What most do not recall, however, is that our deaths are also designed for the pleasure and entertainment of said deities. For this reason only, were monsters created. To kill. And be killed.”

“That’s…” Emilia started to say.

“Silence,” snapped the baron. “You will speak when spoken to, like a servant should. As I was saying,” he drawled, “Your kind has been shirking its duties for the better part of a thousand years. As a result, this entire world has become tainted and utterly corrupted into a twisted, perverted representation of lechery and debauchery. It no longer serves any purpose.”

“So, you would bring pure evil into this world?” Emilia demanded.

“Evil?” pondered Allafore. “I shall invite upon the infinite pleasure of darkness. This world will be consumed and then remade, forged by the fires of death and the purifying dark light of the Remnant.”

“The Remnant?” Vanisa asked, speaking over Megumi, who softly translated the baron’s words for the trembling Kejourou girls.

“The Remnant,” echoed Allafore reverently. “Preceded only by He Who Came Before.”

The spirit lights writhing around the rift spun and swirled at the mention of Allafore’s words. The man chuckled, filling the very atmosphere with dark intent. Emilia clung to Mistress’ arm, trembling.

“Damn you, Allafore,” hissed Vanisa. “Stop this madness!”

“Oh?” perked the man. “Very well, as you wish.”

Allafore pointed at Vanisa.

“NO!” screamed Tanith, diving towards her. She spun in midair, holding out her blade to deflect whatever Allafore planned to send at her master.

She never had a chance.

The Spirit Light Weapon within the rift lashed out, arcing towards the Ruby Countess, hitting Tanith instead, square in the chest. The contact deflected Allafore’s attack, but it still grazed the barrier of hair the Kejourou girls erected, burning through it like a torch through parchment. The girls cried out, crumpling atop each other.

“NOOO!!” bellowed Vanisa. “Tanith!!”

Having missed its target, the Weapon withdrew, shrinking back into the rift. Its companion lights also dimmed, their power having been expended temporarily. Tanith fell to the ground, dropping her sword as her body came to rest lifelessly nearby. Her head detached, morbidly rolling some distance away.

“What a waste,” sighed Allafore, stepping over the corpse as he drew near to Emilia and Vanisa.

“Mistress!” Emilia cried, blinking tears out of her eyes. “Play something, quickly!”

“I—I cannot…” the Ruby Countess admitted. Emilia could sense her hope faltering. Her heart was returning to that dark place, the void Emilia barely pulled her back from before.

“I should have done this from the beginning,” groused Allafore, holding up his hand. A spectral image of the mind-controlling marque spun in front of his hand, aimed at Emilia. “They assured me your mind was broken.”

“Mistress,” Emilia said sadly, stroking Vanisa’s arm. “Whatever happens, remember this. I love you. I truly love you… Please don’t forget…”

“Touching,” sighed Allafore. “Not to worry. You won’t remember a th—urrrk!”

“Wha?” gasped Emilia.

A large blade pierced Allafore’s torso from behind, protruding from his breastbone. Bones and vertebrae crunched sickeningly against its force and angle of penetration.

“Tanith!!” squealed Emilia.

“No,” whispered Vanisa with a ragged voice. “Ash Heart.”

As whoever impaled the baron lifted his body up high, Emilia caught her first glance of the one known as Ash Heart, Tanith’s sword remade, having reverting back to her previous incarnation. A twisted amalgamation of metal and dark red energy pulsed and gleamed in a massive blade, fused to the right arm of a terrifyingly beautiful woman, clothed only in the sharp, jagged metal and obsidian covering her body. Her ashen-grey hair fell to her ankles, nearly as long as a Kejourou’s. She gazed heartlessly up at the man she held above her with one silver eye, and one red.

Gobs of red spirit energy oozed from Allafore’s wound, trickling down the horrifying blade, and into Ash Heart’s waiting hand. Cupping it to her lips, she sipped from it, her features twisting in distaste. With a swing of her blade, she cast the man aside.

“Disgusting,” she spat. As she gazed up at the rift, she cursed, barely audible. “Again? For this, I am awakened? Some mortals never learn.” Ash Heart knelt by the headless body of Tanith, resting her hand against the woman’s punctured chest. “How many times, now?” Raising up her sword, she swung it down, point first, forcefully impaling the Dullahan’s body.

“No! What are—” cried Emilia.

“She is not our enemy,” Vanisa said softly, arresting Emilia’s outburst with a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

Ash Heart yanked her weapon free and glanced Vanisa’s way. “Protect the head,” she commanded. Emilia gulped, nodded, and retrieved Tanith’s lifeless head from the underbrush nearby. She brought it back within the circle of fallen Kejourou.

Suddenly, Ash Heart stiffened, turning to the manor. Someone new stood framed within the doorway.

“Alicia!!” cried Emilia. She rushed forward to embrace her friend, only to nearly bisect herself upon Ash Heart’s outstretched blade. The living weapon glared over her shoulder at the maid, nearly stopping Emilia’s heart.

Ash Heart’s words gripped Emilia’s very soul, crushing it within a vise of grief. “Whoever that was, she is no longer.”

Emilia peered at Alicia with a tearful gaze. Her friend’s eyes swam with spirit light. She smiled eerily. “So, this is what the world has become?” she spoke, and though the voice was hers, it was not. Someone else spoke from her. Through her. Using her.

“Who are you?” Ash Heart demanded.

“I have many names,” Alicia replied eerily. “Trace the dread in your ashen heart and hazard a guess.”

“You’re the one leading the Remnant?” Emilia asked.

“Quiet!” hissed Ash Heart.

Alicia chuckled darkly. “I am what was. What came before. And what shall be.”

Emilia glanced at Ash Heart. The cursed weapon-woman was trembling. Was it even possible for a weapon to feel fear?

“Leave this place,” Ash Heart said. To Emilia. “This one is beyond any of you.”

“What is this?” Alicia asked flagrantly. “Have you become attached to these mortals?” She giggled. “Whatever for? Surely that puppet explained the situation to them.”

Did “she” mean Allafore? Unbelievable fury burned in Emilia’s eyes. She gazed with hatred back at the thing possessing her friend. “We are not some playthings for your amusement. We live. We laugh. We love.

“Quiet!!” snapped Ash Heart.

Too late.

“And, you leave,” cooed Alicia.

Spirit light burst up out of the ground, coiling around Emilia’s ankles, wrist, and throat.

“Urrkkk! AGGHH!” cried Emilia. Gods! The sensation of flames burning her skin flayed her body. She felt whatever it was lifting her into the air, and life leaving her through the contact points.

“Noooo!!” screamed Vanisa, struggling against Megumi’s grip.

Megumi held fast, speaking in rapid Zipangunese. One of the Kejourou weakly lifted her hand and entwined Vanisa’s wrist in hair.

“Let me go!” cried the countess.

“There is nothing you can do!” Megumi wailed.

“Mmmm,” moaned Alicia, licking her lips in delight. “Yesss. I’ve missed this. Denied such passionate wailing for so long. To love, and to lose. There is no better sampling of suffering this pathetic world could better offer me.”

“Wh-why?” moaned Emilia weakly. Her strength bled from the bindings that held her aloft as her heart fluttered, straining against the tightening grip around her throat.

“Why?” echoed Alicia. “Is that what you said? I can barely hear you.” She giggled. “Hmm. Such an odd question for you to ask. The puppet explained this to you, I thought? It is why you were made. Would such a frail creation look upon her maker and ask why? Why were you made? Perhaps you should ask their god?” Alicia indicated Allafore’s body. “After all, it was His idea.”

Emilia stiffened, gritting her teeth, fighting to hold on. Her words failed to emerge from her mouth. She no longer possessed strength enough to form them. She had to hold on! For Mistress.

“What do you want from us!?” demanded Vanisa.

“I would think that answer is obvious,” Alicia replied flatly. “I want you to suffer. To cry bitter tears of agony, regret, and despair. Afterward, I want you to beg me to kill you, and then to willingly embrace the Remnant that you shall become.”

Emilia heard Mistress’ voice choke off helplessly. There was simply no negotiating with this pitiless evil. It had made its intent known, and now, nothing could stop it. Would Emilia become one of those—those things? Worse yet, would she beg to become one? If she died like this, that is exactly what would happen to her.

No.

Never.

Emilia squeezed her tearful eyes closed and focused upon the love she shared with Mistress. The bindings upon her body hissed and tightened, but new strength rose up within her. She opened her eyes, glaring defiantly down at what was once her friend.

“Mmm, yesss,” gasped Alicia in pleasure. “Fight it! Resist! Summon every ounce of your foolish mortal love and draw this out…”

“Nnn…” growled Emilia.

“Yes?” Alicia giggled, tilting her head. “What did you say? Speak up, now.”

“Not…”

“Not what?” pressed Alicia.

“Not… Mortal…”

A measure of confusion crossed Alicia’s face. “Not mortal?” she laughed, but this time, it sounded a bit more forced. “Of course you are mortal. Shall I demonstrate?”

But she never got the chance.

Emilia dropped to the ground, the spirit light energy having been cut away by a blurred slash of Ash Heart’s blade. Gasping, Emilia clutched her raw throat, fighting to catch her breath.

“What are you doing?” Alicia asked of Ash Heart, her brow knotted in apprehension.

“Enough,” murmured Ash Heart.

Alicia glared back at her. “I have not yet had my fill of her suffering. Patience, my daughter. Patience…”

“D-daughter!?” gasped Emilia, still trembling on her hands and knees. She glanced back frantically at Mistress, only to find an identical expression of bewilderment upon her beloved’s face.

“No,” said Ash Heart firmly, planting herself in between Alicia and Emilia. “This has gone far enough.”

“Wait…” trailed Alicia. “This cannot be. Are you actually siding with them?

“I am,” affirmed the living blade. “My time spent alongside the Ruby Countess has taught me the true definition of pleasure and satisfaction. It simply cannot be found in suffering.”

“Of course, it can.” Alicia sighed, waiving off the blade’s words. “I perfected its fundamental application, and even taught it to a select few chosen mortals. I created you to take part in it. To bathe yourself in the blood and life of your victims.”

“And when every single one of them is dead, from whom shall we find pleasure?” Ash Heart asked dispassionately.

“We shall simply make more,” Alicia answered sweetly, as if speaking to a child.

Ash Heart shook her head. “The power of the Pantheon has shifted, while yours has only grown. Your power would overtake theirs in an instant, and then, we would have nothing.”

Alicia paused to consider that.

“In recognition of this fact, I sought pleasure and satisfaction through other means,” explained Ash Heart. “While their methods take time and effort to develop, their satisfaction is self-sustaining.”

“I hunger…” growled Alicia. “I have waited long enough for what I am owed. If we must devour every last mortal on this wretched globe to satisfy me, so be it. I will simply make more. Pantheon be damned.”

“That is not within your power,” Ash Heart told her.

Alicia giggled. “Are you suuuure?”

Emilia searched Ash Heart’s face for an answer, but the maid’s sinking feeling told her what she needed to know. Something felt off, though. Out of place. The Remnant Lord, or whoever this entity was, usually spoke imperiously, but just then, she’d sounded just like Alicia. Maybe her friend was still in there, somewhere!

“Come,” beckoned Alicia. “Take your place by my side. Guard the rift while I stabilize it. Do this, and I will even save these mortals for last, since you seem to enjoy their company so much.”

Ash Heart looked down at Emilia, who gazed up at her with pleading, upturned eyes. “Don’t listen,” pleaded the maid. “Close the rift. Don’t worry about us…”

“She cares more about the well being of others than herself,” remarked Alicia. “How interesting.”

“Indeed,” Ash Heart agreed, holding her sword in front of Emilia, between the maid and Alicia. “This is a behavior I wish to study further. I will not allow you to interfere.”

Alicia burst into laughter. “What!?” she giggled. “You wish to cross your blade against me? Well, now.” She settled down to a simple, smug smile. “This shall be more entertaining than I anticipated. Excellent. Come, then. Try and stop me?”

Ash Heart stalked towards the girl, raising her blade. As she approached, magic pulsed around her, blurring her form as she slashed faster towards Alicia’s neck than the eye could see. Alicia caught the blade in her bare hand, her fingers coated and shimmering with spirit light, just inches before becoming a Dullahan herself. She held Ash Heart’s blade effortlessly, sighing.

“Is that all?” she mused, kicking out into the blade-woman’s chest. A rush of spirit light energy sent Ash Heart flying off into the darkness of the night. Emilia cringed, bowing her head in defeat.

“Look!” cried Megumi.

Emilia glanced up just in time to see Ash Heart, spinning like a drill, careen into Alicia, who held her off with a barrier of spirit light. Barely. Deflecting the blade, Alicia sent a rush of spirit light towards Ash Heart, who curled her body out of the way at the last second. Dancing in the air, Ash Heart slashed and spun, assailing Alicia with a relentless assault that lit up the night.

Vanisa crept towards Emilia and curled her arms around her beloved’s waist. “Come, let’s back up?” she suggested. “I am not certain Ash Heart can defeat what has taken Alicia, my love. I have never even imagined anything as powerful as that entity.”

“What is he?” Emilia gasped in awe at the escalating battle. “For that matter, what is Ash Heart?”

“While Tanith remained reluctant to speak on the matter,” Vanisa replied, “I believe Ash Heart is a Queen’s Blade. The term given to the original cursed swords that existed long before Maou’s reign, that she subsequently sealed away upon taking power. As Ash Heart was in the service of a Dullahan at the time, Maou likely permitted the blade to remain so.”

Megumi whistled. “Wow. I always wondered if she was made by Maou herself or something, but that’s—” 

“As for what’s possessing Alicia,” Vanisa interrupted, “Based on their conversation, I believe he is a servant of a dark god.”

“If not a god himself,” Megumi mused. “Wait a second, look at the rift!”

All eyes turned to gaze up at it. The stress of the battle, and the power the Remnant Lord kept drawing from it was beginning to destabilize it further. The emanations of spirit light energy flickered erratically, shrinking and growing as they fought to maintain their presence.

“Your Graces, play! Sing!” cried Megumi.

“She’s right,” groaned Auri, nursing her wounds. “The music seems to interfere with their magic somehow.”

Vanisa tipped her flute to her lips and began to play. An animated, boisterous tune filled the air, one which Emilia added her sweet voice to. She smiled, weaving words of love and adoration for Mistress within the notes. The rift further destabilized, flickering and crackling angrily.

Ash Heart screamed, pressing her advantage, pummeling Alicia’s barrier. The manor shook with the force of their melee, reducing entire sections of it to ash, as per the blade’s namesake.

Laughing merrily, Alicia redoubled her efforts, forming a terrifying Spirit Light Weapon in her hands: a segmented blade that separated links, winding around Ash Heart’s weapon and digging into her shoulder.

If this injured the living weapon, she made no acknowledgement of it. In an instant, she morphed her sword into a gauntlet, gripping the links of Alicia’s weapon tightly. Swinging the woman around like a Morningstar, Ash Heart slammed her down into the ground, shifting her gauntlet back into a sword as she dove down towards her opponent.

A sudden chill threatened Emilia’s song briefly, but she pushed through it. It took her a moment to realize a second voice had joined her lilting lyrics. She closed her eyes, unwilling to allow it to distract her.

“Who is that?” Megumi asked in awe.

Alicia gasped. “What? She—” 

That one moment of distraction was all Ash Heart required.

“Aggh! Khhh…” Alicia gurgled as the blade pierced her heart, impaling her chest to crunch into the ground beneath her. She narrowed her eyes in a smile of adoration, reaching up to stroke Ash Heart’s cheek.

“Well… Done…”

She closed her eyes, relaxing as whatever possessed her exited her body and rushed back into the rift. Ash Heart pulled her blade from Alicia’s body, gazing up at the rift as it flickered and flashed.

“ALICIA!!” screamed Emilia, breaking the song and dashing up to where her friend laid limply.

“Em—Em…” she tried to say, her eyes barely opening.

“Somebody help me!!” wailed Emilia.

Vanisa and Auri crept up to her position to find Alicia’s head in Emilia’s lap. Emilia stroked her face tenderly, biting back tears.

“Em—ee…” moaned Alicia. “You—you learned to sing…” she grunted, coughing. “So pretty…”

“Please!” cried Emilia, gazing frantically at Mistress and the Vampire. “Help her!”

“Her heart is turning to ash,” sighed Vanisa sadly. “Not normally what happens to those cut by that blade, but after fighting off—” she paused, her voice cracking.

“It’s all right,” soothed Auri. “I can help her.”

Emilia turned her hopeful gaze upon the bright-haired vampire. “H-how?”

“I’ll give her some of my blood,” Auri replied. “Make her like me.”

“She won’t be human anymore,” moaned Emilia.

“Nnhh…” grunted Alicia. “Nothing—can—stop that, now.”

“Shhh,” Auri soothed, “Don’t talk, just relax.”

Alicia nodded, gazing weakly up at the Vampire. Auri tugged off her gauntlet, setting it aside. Tilting her head back, the vampire parted her lips, exposing her fangs, and bit down into her lower lip. Blood trickled down the side of her chin. She then raised her wrist up to her lips and bit into it, allowing blood to fill her mouth.

Leaning down, Auri gathered Alicia gently into her arms, supporting the girl’s back and shoulders as she tilted her head back. Bridging the distance, Auri pressed a gentle kiss to the maid’s lips, spreading them and offering the girl a taste of her blood. Alicia tensed, but swallowed once, twice, thrice.

Suddenly, she threw her arms around Auri and embraced her tightly, deepening the kiss. Auri giggled, having offered everything in her mouth, and bit down into Alicia’s lip, further mixing their blood.

Vanisa sighed with relief, glancing skyward. “Ash Heart,” she called. The blade woman turned to her. “Close that damned thing,” she growled, pointing at the rift.

Wordlessly, Ash Heart leaped into the air and soared into the rift. The portal throbbed angrily several times, expelling the blade-woman as it collapsed and disappeared, taking the spirit light energy along with it.

Emilia crawled weakly towards her beloved, slipped into her lap, and closed her eyes, only opening them at the sound of a grunt.

Auri snapped her fingers, remaining lip-locked with Alicia, and pointed in the direction of the sound.

Baron Allafore wheezed, sitting up uneasily, and rubbing his chest. “What in blazes? Where? What am I doing out here?” He took one glance at the women nearby, especially Ash Heart, and gasped. “Good gods! I prayed all that was a dream. Oh, no… What have I done?”

“You nearly opened an eighth hell inside your manor, Your Grace,” the Ruby Countess replied, her tone thick with reproach as she stroked Emilia’s hair.

The baron rose weakly, clutching a wet spot in his groin. “Good heavens,” he muttered. “I do believe copious amounts of apologies are in order.”

“You mean to tell me,” growled Vanisa, “You were not in control of any of your actions throughout the duration of, mmm, however long this devilry has been festering within Istandrine?”

“I never meant you or yours any ill will, you must believe me,” the baron stammered.

Emilia rose, straightening out her stiff back and rubbing her aching throat. Mistress cast her a concerned gaze as she rose alongside her, but Emilia shook her head with a smile.

“Emilia?” called the baron.

“Yes, Your Grace?” Emilia replied stiffly.

“I apologize for the onerous treatment you’ve had to endure these past several months,” he said ruefully. “And would be most grateful for your return to my service.”

Mistress scoffed, but Emilia held up her hand to stave off any witty retort. She wanted to do this herself. “I should advise you, Your Grace, not to speak to me so informally.”

“I—I beg your pardon?”

Emilia cleared her throat. “My name is Comtesse Emilia Feathermoon de Gwynn, wife of Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn, and you shall address me as befitting my title.”

Oh gods, the baron’s reaction was priceless. His eyes widened, and he swallowed nervously, nodding and wiping his brow with a handkerchief.

“My apologies again, Your Grace,” he murmured.

“That’s better,” replied Emilia, biting her lip to stifle a giggle. Mistress’ beaming expression wasn’t helping! “As per your offer, I must decline,” she said haughtily, stepping into Mistress’ embrace and resting her back against Vanisa’s chest. A pair of arms gently wound around her shoulders. The warmth of her beloved’s body did wonders to steel her against the horrors she’d just endured.

“I never was in your ‘service,’ as you put it,” Emilia retorted. “I was your slave. A mind-broken doll. I have since found myself someone who appreciates my talents. And me.”

Emilia gazed fondly back at Mistress. The Ruby Countess’ lower lip trembled slightly, and she tipped Emilia’s chin up for a warm, gentle kiss. One that Emilia deepened, turning in the gentle embrace and curling her arms around Mistress’ shoulders, tugging her closer.

Breaking the kiss with an audible smooch, Emilia turned back to Allafore. “I don’t believe we have anything else left to discuss.”

Baron Allafore hung his head sadly.

“You and I, however,” remarked Vanisa, “Have one last item on the agenda.”

“Yes, Your Grace?” Allafore asked, meeting her gaze.

“I do believe the Order would be very interested in knowing about the slave trade you’ve perpetuated, as well as your dealings with the dark realm.”

“Oh, gods, please,” implored Allafore. “I’m begging you. Please! I’ll do anything. Just don’t… they’ll take everything! My title, my holdings, all of it!”

Vanisa smiled broadly, sighing with satisfaction.

“You do know,” called Megumi from a small ways away, still tending to the Kejourou girls, “Begging is music to the Ruby Countess’ ears? Right?”

Vanisa shrugged. “I suppose I could report your actions to Royal Makai instead.”

“Noooo!” cried Allafore. “Maou would personally feed me to the tentacle forest!”

“Would she really?” Emilia asked, eyebrow raised.

“Probably,” smirked Vanisa. “Well, which is it going to be, the Order, or Royal Makai?”

“Just have that living weapon of yours behead me and be done with it,” sighed Allafore.

Ash Heart strode towards him, raising her blade.

“No, Ash Heart,” Vanisa countered, arresting her advance. “You’ve had enough fun for one night.”

“The new day has begun,” noted the blade-woman, pointing east. Dawn’s early light had begun to creep up over the hilltops.

“I said no.

Ash Heart lowered her blade and took her place back behind the countesses. If she was angry, she made no mention of it.

“I’ll turn myself in to the Order,” sighed Allafore. “Are you satisfied? You’ve ruined me.”

“No,” Emilia interjected. “You did that yourself, a long time ago.” She smiled as Mistress caressed her cheek with admiration. She allowed herself a sigh of relief.

The rift was closed. No trace of Spirit Light Weapons or Remnant or whatever they were called.

The slaves had been freed.

Alicia was pulling through, drinking Auri dry. Tanith looked to be recovering also, as Megumi was trying to reattach her head.

It was over.

It was finally over…

 

~ Vanisa ~

 

“M-Mistress!” squealed Emilia.

“I don’t trust you,” chided Vanisa, tightening the blindfold around her darling’s eyes. “You’ll peek!” She winked back at Megumi, who sat upon Vanisa’s bed, safely back in the inn, holding hands with Mitsuki. Both girls giggled.

“I’d never defy your express wishes, Mistress,” cooed Emilia. Her soft words tightened the need stirring up within Vanisa. She leaned in, touching a searing kiss to her beloved’s tender neck, eliciting a squeak from her.

“Mmm,” cooed the Ruby Countess. “I love how you taste when you’re excited.”

Emilia gulped. “Um, Mistress, did you by chance get some of Auri’s blood?”

“Maaaaybe,” giggled Vanisa as she bit gently into the side of Emilia’s neck.

“Eeep!” cried the maid. “My wife’s a Vampire!”

The Ruby Countess laughed heartily, embracing her beloved from behind. “Ohh, my sweet, lovely Emilia. I confess that I am not, but I do have a surprise for you.”

“Can I look yet?” Emilia whined.

“Just a moment,” Vanisa replied, squaring Emilia’s shoulders before reaching to open the door. “All right. Now.”

Emilia tugged off her blindfold and gasped.

There, directly in front of her, stood Alicia von Kilgrave, sister of Auri von Kilgrave, now one of the heirs to the Duchy of Istandrine. She wore an absolutely ravishing metallic silver gown with straps thinner than the eye could see, giving the illusion that the slinky garment remained upright by way of magic alone. The plunging, bundled neckline left little to the imagination up top, and neither did the waist-length slits in both sides of the hip-hugging dress. A flowing train—which was probably actually her wings—further exemplified the girl’s seductive features. Alicia’s wavy, brown hair practically shone and glistened in the soft candlelight, outmatched only by her dazzling, red eyes.

“Oh—my—goddess!” cried Emilia, covering her wide-mouthed gape with her fingers.

“Yes, my child?” asked Alicia haughtily.

Someone snorted with laughter from behind the silver beauty. Alicia glared back at the source. “Hey! You ruined it…”

“Oh,” moaned the voice. “Sorry, sis.” Auri stepped around her entrancing sister, winking a red eye at Emilia. She smoothed a hand over her gown, a rose-gold garment that otherwise matched Alicia’s, and played against the gaudy color differences in her bright hair.

“You’re so beautiful!” squealed the maid, darting forward and wrapping Alicia in a firm embrace. She turned her gaze to Auri, smiling with joyful tears as she peered over Alicia’s shoulder. “Thank you…”

Auri shrugged, blushing despite herself. “Wasn’t just me, you know. I’ve never seen anyone fight off a possession like that before. She’s probably the strongest human I’ve ever seen. Err. Was. Kind of not human anymore.”

“Did your mother put up any objections?” Vanisa asked.

“We suffered a handy humiliation back there,” sighed Auri. “Not only were humans to blame for poisoning us for years, those Spirit Light Weapons nearly killed several of my family. Needless to say, Mother had no objections, so long as we never speak of this again…”

“I’m in agreement,” the Ruby Countess assured her. “Now that’s out of the way, Megumi, what’s the status of the inquisition?”

“Well, I’ve got good news, and bad news,” replied the Danuki.

“Why am I not surprised?” groaned Vanisa.

“Good news is,” reported Megumi, “The Order is not going to pursue any of us, citing this region as independent of their jurisdiction. They took Allafore into custody for crimes related to slavery and human trafficking. Several of the girls he abducted were from Order territories, so they will prosecute him for that.”

“What about the bad news?” Emilia prompted.

“They confiscated his entire estate, including Azazel’s Fall.

“Gods damn it!” cried Vanisa. “I want that damn painting. We should have liberated it before turning over Allafore!”

“I don’t suppose they’d be willing to hand it over as recompense for saving the world?” asked Emilia, slipping out of Alicia’s embrace to pat her beloved gently on her shoulder.

Megumi shrugged, shaking her head. “They don’t believe any of that ever actually happened.”

“What about the witnesses?” demanded Emilia. “The devastation of the battle!?”

“None of them remember anything about it,” said Megumi. “Even the Kejourou girls are starting to forget.” She glanced at Mitsuki, who tilted her head inquiringly, having not understood a word of what they just said. She calmly twirled a thick bundle of hair in her hands.

Vanisa pursed her lips, lost in thought. “They’re forgetting? That’s very strange…”

“And frustrating,” added Megumi. “We never did figure out who or what Sendra or Sir Rosenburg are. None of the townsfolk remember anything.”

“Why do we still remember?” asked Alicia.

“Of anyone,” theorized Megumi, “It’s burned deeper into your memory than anyone else’s. It’s probably for the best that the local populace forgets about this awful chapter in the Duchy’s history anyway.”

“Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” cautioned Auri. “We certainly won’t ever forget.”

All of them were quiet for a minute.

“By the way,” Megumi broke the silence. “There was one other thing. One of the Inquisitors asked me about Boris, the butler. Nobody can find him anywhere. It looks like he escaped somehow.”

“Damn it,” hissed Alicia. “He’s the one who turned me in to Allafore. He overheard me talking to Emilia and figured I knew too much. He escaped? Well that settles it. I’m sorry Auri. I’m definitely going with them.”

Auri’s face fell. “I was afraid of that. Mother won’t take too kindly to—”

“I want that bastard rotting in prison,” snapped Alicia. “He’s going to pay for what he did to me.”

“You don’t want him dead?” Her sister asked.

“Death is too good for him,” Alicia growled, baring her new fangs.

Megumi gulped, interjecting herself. “I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but when I asked the Inquisitors about the Operative they’d stationed there, they looked at me like I had three heads. They had no idea what I was talking about.”

“That means…” Vanisa started to say. This worried her, more than the butler having gone missing. That a man could so easily impersonate an elite member of the Order and go unnoticed spelled grave implications.

A measure of foreboding silence settled over every one of them for a moment.

“Was there anything else?” Emilia asked softly.

“I bumped into Gia earlier.”

Vanisa groaned. “Am I still going to have any holdings left over after settling debts with her?”

Megumi giggled, shaking her head. “You don’t have to worry. I gave them everything we found out about the rift, just as requested. They learned so much, and were so impressed at how we handled it, that they decided to call it even.”

A tick twitched in Vanisa’s cheek. “What about my unlimited access to their network?”

“For that, they wanted access to the rift,” said Megumi with a sigh. “They aren’t happy that we closed a means of instant international travel.”

“But, the Spirit Light Weapons!” cried Emilia. “They would have killed her and her sisters!”

Megumi winced, gathering her striped tail in her hands to fiddle with. “I know. I tried to explain that to them.”

“Curiosity killed the squirrel,” said Alicia darkly.

“They disagree,” Megumi replied.

Vanisa groaned, covering her face in her gloved hand. “Right, so if they find another one, they’re probably not going to tell us about it.”

“Probably not.”

“Those squirrels are going to be the death of this world!”

“I could always shake them up for you,” Auri offered, winking at Vanisa.

“No, no,” sighed the countess. “I do still require their services from time to time.”

“Em-ee-ree-a?” Mitsuki asked bashfully, still playing with the bundle of hair in her hands.

Emilia approached the Kejourou girl and knelt before her. “What is it, sweetie?”

Megumi turned to translate the girl’s soft Zipangunese. “She wants to ask you about the other woman we heard singing. Who is she?”

“I’d sure like to know that as well,” Auri admitted. “If it weren’t for her, we’d all be dead. Or worse…”

“The being that took my body,” Alicia replied, “Recognized the voice. The two of them have some kind of connection, but I can’t be certain what kind. Hearing her voice definitely threw off his concentration, though.”

“She’s powerful, that I am sure of,” noted Auri. “Exceptionally powerful. Emilia, your voice sounded pure of love. Uplifting and inspiring. Hers, though… Dark. Dark and intense. Black as night. But, not evil.”

Vanisa shivered, the fur on her legs standing on end. Megumi translated dutifully for the Kejourou, and she nodded, asking another question. “Oh,” Megumi replied. “She wants to come with us.”

“Would she rather not go back home?” Emilia asked gently.

Megumi translated. Mitsuki shook her head. “I am not as young as I appear,” the Danuki spoke for her, verifying what they’d suspected earlier. “In Zipangu, I worked in a house of pleasure. It was not unfulfilling, but I have found a greater calling now.”

“Mistress?” Emilia asked, gazing up at her.

Vanisa smiled, shaking her head. “I have no objections.”

Emilia nodded, smiling brightly at the girl. “You can come with us!”

Her words required no translation. The girl leaped into Emilia’s arms, wrapping her arms and hair around her. Emilia picked her up and gleefully spun her around. Beaming at the tender sight, Vanisa withdrew her flute and began to play for them, encouraging their dance. Emilia set the girl down with a smile. Plucking at her gown as she spun around, Emilia began dancing to the upbeat melody. The Kejourou followed suit, spinning around in a dazzling display of floating hair and fluttering fabric.

Soon enough, Auri and Alicia began swaying to the music, content to just listen, rather than twirl around like a dervish. Vanisa smiled at the sight, reveling in the joyful spirits of her companions. She even noticed a shadow in the corner, somewhat darker than it should have been. Did Tanith enjoy music? The Ruby Countess mentally chided herself for never having asked; but brushed aside the thought as her eyes feasted upon her dancing wife, lost in the music.

Vanisa couldn’t imagine a time when she’d been happier. She would cherish this moment for the rest of her days. Although she was not entirely certain the evil they’d defeated would not resurface within their lifetime, for now, she was happy and content.

 

~ End ~

 


The Gloom Lifts – by ehrrr

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