For the first time in two days, I was up and walking again. My vision had cleared up yesterday, but my legs had taken a little longer. I probably could have moved if I had to, but Titania had insisted I take my time.
The Seelie Queen popped in every once in a while to see how I was doing, but I never got a chance to talk to her at length. Like to figure out why the fey reformatted into a culture, or took names, or started wearing clothes or any of that. I mean, I guess it had something to do with the Composer, but you could never be sure with the fey.
Yolanda said the fey had always been involved with the succubi, from the very beginning, which wasn’t very surprising. The fey liked putting their hands in everything, and they represented exactly the kind of non-restrictive, chaotic existence that demons in general, and succubi in particular, loved.
Now, I was wandering around with Yolanda, holding her hand tightly as though she would disappear at any moment.
I still wasn’t sure what to make of this place. It was under the ruins of Shendilavri, built in the cracked and destroyed sewer system, scarred by both Necessarian bombs and the rubble from the massive building itself. They had done a lot in five years, digging down so that the ceiling was fifty or sixty feet above our heads.
The new buildings, scattered around the cavern like mushrooms, were primitive and small, mostly made of mud-packed rubble or dug into the cave walls. There were still signs of technology and advancement, though. Wires strung haphazardly, televisions in windows and speakers on every street corner…that sort of thing.
Yolanda squeezed my hand—causing by scars to ache again—and smiled at me. “What are you thinking about?”
I smiled back. “Just…this place.” I indicated the bustling underground settlement, only half-lit from a scattering of cheap light bulbs on sticks acting as pseudo-streetlights, with a wave of my free arm. “How did you manage to hide all this for so long?”
She chuckled. “You make it sound like we’ve been discovered! You’re hardly the first to find your way here.” Then she shrugged. “Part of it is solidarity. You don’t become a succubus these days if you’re willing to sell out your friends.”
“Yeah,” I mused. “Racism does strengthen the bonds of the oppressed.”
“But that’s only a small part of it,” she admitted. “Mostly, it’s due to Naamah and her Daybringers.”
“I haven’t heard of—wait.” I frowned. “Actually…actually, I have heard of Naamah. She was an angel, right? Under Pistis Sophia, if I’m not mistaken.”
“The first fallen angel. She caused quite a stir when she left them. And this was in the early days, when Malcanthet was still running around free.”
I nodded. “Definitely remember her now. I guess she didn’t escape with the Queen, then?”
Yolanda winced. “Please…don’t call Malcanthet that. No one likes her. Anyone who did, left with her five years ago.”
I patted her head lightly. “Sorry, sorry. Just…what was that about Daybringers?”
She sighed. “They’re spies. That’s really all there is to it.”
“Oh, I get it. Spread rumors about how unstable this place is, how there’s nothing good to loot, and keep an eye out for the ones who ignore the warnings and get too close.”
“Yeah, pretty much. Bribe the guys in the ruins up top, that kind of thing.”
“And…what happens to the people who get too close?”
“Look at that, we’re here,” she said, running forward the last dozen feet to our destination. “Come on, hurry up!”
I sighed. I could guess why she didn’t want to talk about it. “Yeah, one sec.” I limped forward faster, wincing as each and every scar on my legs started protesting at me.
‘Here,’ it turned out, was just a small cluster of white tents with a single black rune stitched on the side, looking sort of like a ‘v’ with a tail. Although I couldn’t read it, I recognized it from angelic script. That would make it…Yiddish? No, angels used Hebrew.
“What is this place?”
I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. “A hospital. Sit down.”
I was guided to a cot inside one of the tents, where Yolanda was already waiting. When I sat down, I was able to get a good look at the woman who had led me here.
The first thing I noticed was that she was naked.
I shielded my eyes. “Um, is there any chance you can put some clothes on?”
The woman cursed. “Velvet hell, you’ve been in Shendilavri for two days, and you still care about nudity?” She had a tough, no-nonsense voice, and I winced as though she was about to smack me.
But she just sighed.
“Fine, whatever.” I heard the sound of clothes rustling. “There, I put on a lab coat. Happy now?”
I cracked my eyes open to see that she had done as she had said, and was buttoning up the white coat even now.
She was a beautiful demon with dark skin mimicking an ethnicity I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as well as long and delicate horns maybe six inches long sprouting from her forehead. While her face was as beautiful as that of any other succubus, my trained eye noted that it was a little too beautiful. Whoever had shaped it had made the mistake of making it literally flawless, which would have landed her square in the Uncanny Valley. Ironically, it was her persistent frown that saved her, placing unexpected wrinkles and creases on that perfect face, serving to humanize her a bit.
As she finished buttoning up the lab coat, she pulled a small plastic spike from somewhere and put her long black hair into a bun to keep it out of the way.
“Let’s have a look at those legs,” she declared. “Off with the pants.”
I blinked. “Uh, what?”
Without saying another word, she reached for my belt, causing me to yelp and scramble back. She sighed.
“Look boy, I really don’t care what you’ve got under the hood. I just need to see how your legs are healing. Now take them off, or I’ll do it for you. I’m not afraid to hit you with a sedative strong enough to knock out a gargant.”
Knowing I didn’t really have a choice, I removed my pants, wincing as the jeans slid over my scars. I left my boxers on, which the succubus didn’t seem to mind. She just started poking at my legs with a long fingernail.
I hissed. “That hurts.”
“You’re just a big baby.” She stretched out my leg a bit and eyed it critically. “Hm, seems to be healing all right. But still, there’s only so much we can do without tossing you back in the box.”
My heart skipped a beat. “You’re putting me back in the toy box?”
“No,” she said instantly, and my heart fell again. “It’s Titania’s box, and she’s made it clear she’s not letting you within a hundred feet of the thing.”
“…oh,” I muttered. “Yeah, she mentioned that, but I thought she might have…changed her mind or something, I don’t know.”
“She’s not known for changing her mind.”
I looked down at the succubus curiously. “She’s a fey.”
She raised an eyebrow at me briefly before turning back to poking at my legs. “Clearly, you haven’t been paying attention recently. Now that they’re a culture, the fey have done a complete one-eighty. They’re not all flirty and inconsistent any more.”
“Well, on the surface, no one has seen them in…” I thought about it. “I don’t know how long. A few days, since the Winter Princess or whatever you call her blew up a homunculus at some guys. I don’t know, I’ve been out of contact.”
“Unseelie. Or Princess of Wind and Frost, if you prefer.”
“I’ll go with ‘Unseelie.’”
“Yeah, I thought you might.” She dusted off her hands and stood. “Well, no surprises here. Everything seems to be going all right, but those scars aren’t going away any time soon.”
I felt my shoulders slump. “I…see.”
Yolanda placed her hand on my head, and I looked up to see her smiling at me. “You’re alive, and you’re walking. That’s all that matters.”
I found myself smiling back, even though I still felt cold and empty. The ugliness was part of it, but only a small part. The fact that it wasn’t an appearance I had chosen, but one that had been forced upon me, was a bigger part, but that still wasn’t the extent of it.
I could feel them. Every time my clothes shifted, every time the wind rushed over my skin…I could feel my scars, little tight knots of flesh tugging at me, gnawing at the back of my mind.
Maybe I’d get used to it. It had only been two days, after all.
But I could always feel them. If I was going to get used to it, wouldn’t it have gotten at least a little bit better already?
The succubus doctor didn’t seem to care. “Anyway, come back tomorrow and I’ll be able to get a better idea of your progress.”
“Knight Zenunim?” A young incubus poked his head into the tent, then blushed when he saw us. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were with a patient.”
“It’s all right, I’m done here. What’s wrong?”
“That ghoul with the shivers is back.”
“Velvet hell…I told him he needs to fix his buff…” she sighed. “I’ll be right there.” The incubus nodded and left.
“Wait,” I said as I pulled on my pants—slowly, as to try not to strain my scars. “’Knight?’ You’re a Power?”
She gave me a sideways look. “Hm? Yes, didn’t I mention that?”
“Uh…no. Definitely not.”
“Well, I’m Knight Eisheth Zenunim, Power of the Zen succubus House. Any other questions?”
“Ask your girlfriend. I’m busy.” She left without so much as a goodbye.
I turned to Yolanda helplessly.
She shrugged. “We have subcultures too.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Okay, give me the five minute summary.”
“There are basically four succubus Houses.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “The Daybringers, the Mahathallah, the Riven, and the Zens. They follow Naamah of the Dawn, Agrat Bat Mahlat, Malcanthet, and Eisheth Zenunim the Healer, respectively.”
“Wait, people still follow—”
“Let me finish. The Daybringers are spies, as I mentioned. The Mahathallah are the bulk of the culture; that’s the House I’m a member of, for the record. Agrat Bat Mahlat broke off before Malcanthet got really crazy. The Riven are supposed to be the ones who follow Malcanthet willingly, but, you know…” she shrugged. “With her, free will gets a little bit hard to pin down.”
“But people still follow her.”
“Not out in the open, but there are still a few sects here and there. Anyway, the Zens are healers, as you might have guessed.” She waved her hand, indicating the tent we were in. “They’re in charge of the hospitals and so on.”
“Okay.” I was sure there was lots more she could tell me, but this was enough for now. Every culture had their own history of civil wars, peace treaties, and betrayals, and if I was going to be living here for any length of time, I’d have to know it, but this was a start.
Speaking of living here, I still wasn’t sure how long I’d be doing that. My vanity wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t returned to the surface. If Nhang found out I was still alive, that wouldn’t last long.
Of course, I wouldn’t be in too much danger, probably. Unlike most subcultures, the sibriex had very little loyalty towards our warlord. He wasn’t even a warlord, really, just the guy who owned the ‘scraper we lived in. Once I assured him I wouldn’t try and seek retribution, he’d probably just ignore me.
But still…I wasn’t ready to return. Not quite yet.
“C’mon,” Yolanda said with a smile, as she grabbed my hand again. “There’s a sandwich shop nearby you’ll love.”
I smiled back.
Why did I want to return to the surface, again? It seemed like all I wanted was right here.
Behind the Scenes (scene 173)
Haven’t quite decided if the other succubus warlords are going to become directly involved in the plot. Eisheth is a bit of a special case, because Simon is a bit of a special patient. Anyway, we’ll see.